Barley Mowat 

Big Rock Comes Out West

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Craft Beer in BC is booming. Sure, Craft Beer is up pretty much everywhere in Canada, but BC takes the cake. No matter how you do the math (number of breweries, beer produced, beer imported, beer exported, beer sold locally, etc), it all boils down to one core fact: us BC-ites just can’t get enough of that amber nectar.

Thus it comes as no surprise that a largish brewery in Alberta might cast envious glances over the Rockies and lament their lousy geographical location (to be fair, Alberta is also on the uptick CB-wise, but think of it more along the lines of BC in 1998… with less people… and more cowboy hats… same number of actual cowboys, though).

Such is the position that Calgary’s own Big Rock Brewing finds themselves in. Big Rock has exported product into BC for years, but have recently developed ambitions of brewing a more local BC product. In the pioneer days of craft beer, back in the early 90s, Big Rock was right up there with more local offerings from still-independent locals like Ok Spring, Granville Island, Shaftebury, and Bowen Island.

(Aside: Yes, all those were indie craft breweries at one point, and they produced some decent beers. Heck, Bowen Island was downright great.)

In fact, it could be said that I cut my craft beer teeth on massive quantities of Big Rock Traditional Ale in Elwood’s on Broadway. Also that, as a result, I don’t recall very much of my university years, which seriously brings into question the quality of my degree in… something science-y, I think, but I digress.


I’m feeling like there was a lab. Am I chemist?

So, what happened? Well, all those independents stopped being so… independent. Except Big Rock, that is. They held out solo and are basically the same brewery, brewing the same beers that my younger self tried so hard to kill my current self with so many years ago. And that, in quick summary, is the problem: one does not make a mint in 2014 selling a lineup of beers invented in 1985.

Thus, when rumours started swirling of Big Rock bringing their iconic big cock out west in the form of a new brewery up-valley, I was skeptical at best. I mean, this is the same brewery whose product offerings vacillate between “meh” and “gack! p-tew!” on Rate Beer.

The rumours, though, they are true. This was confirmed personally to me by Big Rock’s Digital Communications Director, Bryce Bowman. A rockin’ big brewery is indeed slated for BC, with plans to produce both their current lineup, and a whole new lineup of beers focused on the more sophisticated BC beer palate (okay, fine, they didn’t say “more sophisticated” but c’mon, that’s what they meant).

To show just how far they’d come, Bryce even offered to send me a few of their more recent beers for sampling. Since I’ve never understood the phrase “quit while you’re ahead,” I accepted. In return, I received a samples of: their Lumberjack Pack (a six-pack with 2 samples each of three “Strong Ales”), Anthea Wet Hop Ale (in a reassuring bomber), and more recently bottle #13 of Cuvée Bru, a very limited-run corked 750ml bottle of a white wine/beer hybrid. The relative increase in complexity from sample to sample means that I now expect a tiny oak cask with a straw next.

Where to start? How about at the beginning: the Lumberjack Pack. The three samples included are Spruce Goose (Strong Ale brewed with spruce tips), Hibernation (Strong Ale brewed with wild berries) and Twisted Antler (Strong Dark Ale brewed with… um… barley malt, I guess). There’s a lot of material to address here, so let’s pace ourselves.


With correct pacing and a little luck, you won’t just ruin your night, you’ll ruin your whole life.

First, the marketing copy. Attention Big Rock: Please do NOT let your second year English Composition Intern write your marketing copy, because that is clearly what you have done here. I receive a lot of press material on new beers, and these universally fulfill their roles with quiet competence: acting as a reference for me when I need to look up ingredients, brewing procedure, ABV, etc. Yours were, on the other hand, the very first that I read out loud to everyone nearby to rancorous laughter.

The Lumberjack PRs are the most overwritten pieces of awful copy that I have ever encountered. I will include the full, unedited versions below, but here are some choice bits: “encapsulate the vibrant quintessence of our splendorous wilderness”, “knuckle-cracking shadows of chiaroscuro lighting”, and my personal favourite: “treating your mouth to the most marvellously motley mixture of mayhem.” Why do I picture a be-speckled, skinny jeans-wearing hipster writing that, standing up, yelling “Yeeeeah! That’s alliteration, bitch!” before holding their pencil out at chest level, letting it go, and strutting out the door?


Remember: just because you excel at something specific doesn’t mean you’re good at things generally.

Enough on the press materials. What about the actual beer inside the bottles? Um, yeah, it’s awful. These are sugar bombs with a bit of miscellaneous flavouring thrown in for dreck-amplification purposes. There is no balance to be found here: no hops or high ABV to cut the sweetness, no yeast complexity to add interest, no anything-but-boring-sugar. In fact, they taste just like Traditional… without the hops… and added sugar.

Check ins: Spruce Tip: Twisted Antler: Hibernation:

Well, that’s a bad start then. What about Anthea, their wet hopped IPA? Again, we have to start with the press release, although this time it’s because of the content and not the writing. Wet Hopped ales are, on the surface, about freshness of ingredients. However, if you look even a tiny bit below that surface at the subtext, they’re about more than that. They’re about locality: about supporting local hop farms, about sustainability, and about using local ingredients, which as an added bonus are the freshest ingredients you can get.

Remember the first Driftwood Sartori? We loved that beer, but a good chunk of that love was because they were going out of their way to support a local hop farm (Sartori Cedar Ranch), and used a beer to draw attention to the reemergence of BC’s hops industry. Kind of gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?


There’s a pill for that, btw

Now replace that ground-level understanding of the industry and the currents within it with a boardroom-level decision to “get on that whole fresh hops thing” and you wind up with Anthea. Anthea is about freshness to the exclusion of all else. And by “freshness” we mean “minimizing the time between picking of the hops and their use in beer via all means possible, even at the expense of the environment and flavour.”

Get this: hops were picked straight from the bine in Washington, frozen on dry ice, and then LOADED ON A JET to be flown to Calgary. They started brewing the beer while the hops were in the air, but since the cones were already frozen this is entirely a marketing move. Heck, so’s the jet. If you’re freezing the hops anyways, why not spare the environment and ship them via truck? Oh right, speed is key. Speed is sexy.


Although, curiously, Googling “speed” results in lots of people who are most definitely not sexy.

Why dry ice? Why not pack them in water to preserve the freshness a la Driftwood, then? Water’s heavy, which would rule out a sexy jet and require a boring truck, which is also slow. Slow, as we have learned, is not sexy. Sure, the product would almost certainly be better, but this isn’t about brewing a beer that tastes good; it’s about marketing a beer that sounds good.

Curiously, the beer inside the bottle was a solid “okay” as far as fresh-hopped IPAs go, but it didn’t quite crack into “I would drink this again” territory, especially in the face of so many other, better examples of the style.

Check in: Anthea

Okay. Go big or go home. Maybe one Hail Mary of an aggressive beer style can save them, and maybe that beer is Cuvée Br–aw, who am I kidding, you already know it’s not.


Also, a Hail Mary generally only works when the score is close. Otherwise it’s a bit of an ass play.

Cuvée Bru is a white wine/beer hybrid, made with grapes from BC’s Therapy Vineyards. This is not an entirely new style to North America: think Dogfish Head Noble Rot or Evil Twin Disco. In fact, stop thinking and just drink those two beers. They’re both great.

Cuvée Bru is not great. In fact, it tastes like a mild english ale with white grape juice dumped in it. You get some of the aspects of each ingredient, but when you think about what a beer like this could be, nay should be, you can’t help but be disappointed.

Check in: Cuvée Bru

Where does all this leave me? To be honest, I’m not sure. All these beers sound great on paper, but frankly suck in execution. Are they being crafted by someone vaguely familiar with the craft beer scene but produced by an incompetent production team? Is the Big Rock brewing department so locked into their Traditional and Grasshopper ways that they have forgotten how to brew real beer? Maybe.

Maybe Big Rock Marketing has decided that all beer, even craft beer, is all about image and that actual quality simply doesn’t matter. I can’t say for sure, although I’d bet it’s a combination of all of the above.

What I can say, though, is that–on the surface–they are at least attempting to produce interesting beer. Sure, they’re failing horribly, but trying has to be better than not trying; practise makes perfect, after all, the trick is to not give up when you can’t sell out even your modest limited runs.


However, like most things in life, you only get a few chances to practise before you horribly maim yourself in a tragic chainsaw accident.

Marketing Materials in Full

~ Hibernation Strong Ale ~

Presser: Hibernation Strong Ale contains a unique blend of juniper berries, elderberries and fresh wild strawberries to produce a nectarous blend which is punctuated with the woodsy swoon of birch bark and the contemplative essence of dandelion root. While you forage through the flavours you may also detect hints of maple sugar, rose petals and the comforting warmth of honey.

Spec Sheet: In centuries of brewing history, no Canadian brewery has found a way to truly encapsulate the vibrant quintessence of our splendorous wilderness. Until now. This delectable blend represents the foraging hunger of the savage bear–ingredients which have been elevated into an agrestal beverage to quell your savage thirst. Big Rock’s Hibernation Strong Ale is the True North, blended and bottled and brought to life as the beverage our country does best–an honest, uncompromising beer.

~ Twisted Antler Strong Dark Ale ~

Presser: Twisted Antler Strong Dark Ale was crafted by Big Rock’s Brewmaster, Paul Gautreau with the intention of treating your mouth to the most marvellously motley mixture of mayhem to find itself peering from the inside of a beer bottle. With four distinct malts and a tempestuous swirl of coffee and cool liquorice, Twisted Antler is a dark ale with a voice of its own.

Spec Sheet: The corridors of a true dark ale are smoky and mysterious, cut by the knuckle-cracking shadows of chiaroscuro lighting and atmospheric perplexity. This is a beer that inspires its own resplendent pause. Each sip will reveal another fragment of the mystery, another bubbly snippet of the puzzle. Like the velvety thorns of a moose’s Medusa-like rack, Big Rock’s Twisted Dark Ale will swirl its rich and elaborate flavors (sic) in surprising and inspiring directions.

~ Spruce Goose Strong Ale ~

Presser: Spruce Goose Strong Ale features the tips of Colorado and Engelmann spruce trees, plucked at their most citrusy and flavourful early-spring peak. This makes for a beer that is deliciously satisfying. Utilizing three malts and elevated by a hint of fresh honey this brew is beautifully balanced with its spruce counterpart.

Spec Sheet: For centuries, the fresh, citrusy smack of luxuriant spruce needles was prized as a substitute for hops in crafting a superlative beer. Jacques Cartier coaxed the vitamin-rich lifeblood of the Eastern White Cedar to fend off scurvy and other ailments. Two hundred years later, Captain Cook did the same with regional spruce, fermenting it into an ambrosial beer his men would eagerly shoot back. Brewmaster Paul Gautreau sought out the freshest tips of Colorado and Engelmann spruce trees. Spruce Goose Ale is the culmination of nature’s inherent invigoration and Big Rock’s penchant for innovation.

Written by chuck

January 14th, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Beers

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7 Responses to 'Big Rock Comes Out West'

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  1. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

    Scott

    14 Jan 14 at 17:03

  2. Those marketing blurbs make your balls shrivel, they really do. I’m surprised that they didn’t also contain the words synergy, wellness, “space”, or commonality as they’re clearly (as you mentioned) written by a 1st year marketing grad. Awful. I also agree on the reviews. I actually didn’t mind the Twisted Antler (comparatively speaking) and only bought the pack because I liked the labels (yeh, I know, I’m part of the problem but I collect bottles too!!!!!!). I’ve still never had a Big Rock beer that was above “mhe, it’s OK if there’s nothing else”.

    KB

    14 Jan 14 at 19:14

  3. I LOVE that marketing copy. That’s the best stuff I’ve read in a long time. It’s amazing how much effort was put into such meaningless phrases. And I learned a new word: agrestal. I should thank the first year marketing grad’s thesaurus for that one.

    I saw the Cuvee Bru in a liquor store in Alberta and nearly bought it out of morbid curiosity, but skipped it because of the price. Dodged that bullet.

    Ben Coli

    15 Jan 14 at 09:06

  4. @KB – The LJ pack bottles were just standard 12oz browns, with some black foil for… uh… I don’t know what for. Do you mean you collect labels? If so, little known fact: contact the brewery and ask nice, and odds are they’ll mail you some labels for free.

    @Ben – Most of that $14 probably went to packaging. The cork alone adds just over $1 to cost. The beer wasn’t awful, just boring, which I guess is the one thing that style can ill afford to be.

    chuck

    15 Jan 14 at 09:15

  5. +1 for evil twin disco beer, gold cap version, not red. One of the funnest little beers out there!

    Jonathan

    17 Jan 14 at 15:15

  6. I think the press material was probably run through Google translate into Korean and then back into English.

    Coniferous Gloom

    20 Jan 14 at 09:24

  7. Somehow I don’t see Big Rock sending you much more beer by mail…

    Can’t imagine they’re going to fly here, although perhaps they will fill that transition crowd. You know, the ones that pound their chest saying how much better Rickards is than Canadian…Drinking Trad is a status symbol for that crowd and maybe there’s enough of them to keep their operation afloat?

    In the end, they will likely lead to their own demise as those transitioners will inevitably soon discover what real beer tastes like…

    Ok, maybe that’s a little over the top…

    Alex B

    24 Mar 14 at 15:21

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