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Beer Slowly Wakes Up

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From about the early 1930s until the mid 1990s beer was quite boring. It was produced much like any other commercial industrialized product: on a large scale, for the least overhead as possible, and with little concern for the quality of the final product.

This was the Age of the Macro Lagers. Before this age beer production was too small and decentralized to be industrialized, and after this time consumers finally snapped out of the spell of slick marketing.

This age was a period of beer production focused on a product so lifeless, so completely devoid of flavour that eventually all the other lagers out there got upset, had a meeting, and kicked the macros into a oft-ignored sub-category: Pale Lager.

Actual Pale Lagers then said “The fuck?!” and promptedly re-kicked macros into the newly minted American-style Pale Lager category and there they’ve been stuck ever since.

But all that’s over, right? Starting in the mid-80s, and really getting steam in the mid-90s, Craft Beer has emerged and we’re done with macros! The 60-odd years of Macro Dominance will be remembered as a curiosity, as a short period when humanity didn’t like good beer for whatever reason.


Much like how since 1973 we don’t seem to like awesome hats.

No, not really. Good beer is only just starting the process of waking up. The problem is that we just don’t grasp how huge the macros were, and how huge they remain today. They didn’t just reshape beer and the population’s attitude towards beer, but they reshaped the entire process of brewing beer itself.

When craft brewers had finally had enough, and wanted to produce something different, they had a problem. The only products available on the market to make beer with were focused on making huge vats of pale, insipid lager. I’m not just talking equipment, either.

Barley and Hops had also become a manufactured product focused on lager production. If you were a barley producer in 1960s you had a choice: grow beautiful barley that maybe the bakery down the might buy, but no one else, or plant a specific version of crappy barley you could sell to the brewery all in one go. Coincidentally bakeries started sucking around this time too.

In fact, because they bought so much product, the macros controled barley and hops production to such a large degree that even today many commericially available blends of both bear the name “Coors” or “Anheuser Busch.” Yes, they had so much buying power that farmers bred out the flavour to impress the macros (or more specifically, bred out certain enzymes so the macros could use more corn… seriously. How messed is that?).

Thus enters our inteprid craft brewer in the summer of 1984. He opens a brewing catelogue to order product for his amazing beer and it quickly becomes apparant that all he can make on a commercial scale is maybe a decent pale ale. Or perhaps a bitter, which is basically a pale ale with more hops.


Or an IPA, which is basically a bitter with… oh you get the picture.

And that’s what we got: better made, and definitely hoppier, beer but even this slight difference changed things. Hops suppliers noticed this minor increase in demand for their product (which was not exactly ordered by the tonne by macros), and they started playing around. They started planting older varieties that the macros wouldn’t buy. They started importing new varieties that had never been grown here. They even started cross breeding new varieties that had never existed before.

This caused the hops explosion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and we’re still reaping the benefits today (mostly because it’s still the early 2000s). New and fantastic hop strains are streaming into the market, and today’s newer hoppy beers bear very little ressemblence to the “same thing, just bitter-er” ales of even just ten years ago.

Barley growers have alse taken notice of this trend (but also of the steadily increasing price of high grade barley), and now we’re starting to see the emergence of barley farms growing malting barley specifically for the craft brewing industry, and on a large scale.

This is only a recent development, and I suspect it will be some time before we start seeing the high-quality malt-forward ales that will be the natural result of such a trend, but trust me, they’re coming. This might take a while, though, because high-proof malty ales are exactly the sort of thing you want to stick in a barrel for a few years before releasing in your fancy cork & wiretop bottles, but when they show up I’ll be the first in line to buy ’em.

As I tell anyone who will listen: this is an exciting time to be a craft beer fan. The industry is changing rapidly, and thanks to the exponential growth of the craft beer-drinking consumer base, the rate of change will only accelerate.

The craft beer we have today has little resemblence to the craft beer we had ten years ago–it’s much better and more varied. I can only believe this will continue.

Written by chuck

October 22nd, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Beer and You

A Word on the BC Beer Awards

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This Saturday past saw my shadow grace the insides of Chapel Arts for the third annual BC Beer Awards and CAMRA’s Harvest Cask Festival. Being a two-for-one show in a new venue, I figured I should complain about the various bits of all this individually, so they can each get the attention deserved.

Venue: Chapel Arts is a great location with lots of character. It’s a former Chapel (duh) with lots of spacious rooms, and the kind of nooks and crannies you just don’t see in modern housing. They even opened up the garage to push in a food cart for dispensing non-barley based nutrition. Of course, this was somewhat disappointing as the invite rather explicitly promised us two food carts. Oh well, my Re-Up sammich was tasty.

How’d it stack up for a cask fest? I’d give it a solid pass. The space was attractive, interesting and it contributed to a cosy, intimate feel, but it also conversely made movement between the three main cask rooms and food area sometimes difficult. Overall, though, I liked it.

CaskFest Organization: CAMRA Vancouver did a good job with organizing this one. Tickets were available from a non-crashy website at a decidedly non-midnight time (cough, cough, VCBW), and entry into the event was not hampered by long lineups (cough). As well, given the size of the space involved, I didn’t feel it was oversold. There’s always a risk that the promoter will get a bit greedy and just keep on selling tickets, but even though this was sold out there was rarely a lineup at cask stations, and you never felt rushed while chatting with whomever was manning the brew, something I in particular look for at these events.

In fact, about the only complaint I have on the organizing side of things is the missing food cart. I love Re-Up, but the other garage door weeped gently with the lost food possibilities the promised second food cart would provide. Sure, there was a bar upstairs with a quality cheese platter on offer, but I didn’t see any wheels on that sucker.

Brewery Participation: 24 beers from 21 brewers. I should be happy, right? Nope. I’m disappointed. The reason is that there was a surprising lack of casks for a CASK festival. Call me crazy, but I think putting the word CASK right in the title sets a certain expectation. Of there being CASKS. CASKS!

I was expecting more casks, is what I’m saying. CAAAAASKS!

Of those 24 beers, only 15 were casks. And of those 15 casks, only 9 were not simply cask conditioned versions of the brewery’s normal beers, and that makes a sad Chuck. Try harder, people.

Cask Highlights:
1/ Red Truck Kellerbier — While technically not a cask, this was definitely a unique one-off, and nearly perfectly executed. My vote for best in show. Smooth yet full of flavour. Chuck likey.
2/ Spinnakers Fresh-hopped Saison — I wouldn’t have guessed that fresh hops and a saison would work together, but the result was like summer in a glass: fresh, fruity, and a joy to drink.
3/ Lighthouse Belgian Quince IPA — The beauty of a cask is the ability to fiddle around and try new things. This beer is exactly that. The quince and NZ hops created a massive fruity body which I was not a huge fan of, but it did garner People’s Choice for Best in Show. While I didn’t love the beer, I loved the idea behind the beer.
4/ Storm Imperial Sour Cherry Stout — A well balanced sour from Storm. Wha? I had no idea they could do something subtle.

Cask Lowlights:
1/ Coal Harbour Sour Roggenweizen — I cannot stress this enough: finish fermenting your beer before you serve it. I tried the on-tap version at the Alibi immediately afterwards and, while still not a great (or good) beer by any stretch, I didn’t immediately pour it out, like I witnessed many many other people do with the cask version.

CMON! (breweries without casks):
1/ Big Ridge (Tariq’s ESB)
2/ Hoyne (Wolf Vine)
3/ Old Yale (Sasquatch Stout)
4/ Steamworks (Pilser and Espresso Stout)
5/ Townsite (Porter)
6/ Tree (Jumpin Jack Pumpkin)
7/ Yaletown Brewing (Oud Bruin)

Try Harder (breweries that only cask conditioned a regular beer):
1/ Coal Harbour (Sour Roggenweizen — although I guess making it gord awful counts as a one-off?)
2/ Driftwood (Sartori — Although this gets a pass for being rare)
3/ Granville Island (Pumpkin AND Fresh Hopped ESB)
4/ Parallel 49 (Lost Souls Choco Pumpkin Porter)
5/ Phillips (Accusation)
6/ Vancouver Island (Iron Plow Marzen)

I dunno, guys, pee in it or something. Maybe stop off at Dan’s Homebrewing on the way to Chapel Arts and buy some coriander? How about ANYTHING!

The Awards:

I know what you’re thinking: we’re about to get ourselves some good old-fashioned Chuck beer nerd ranting. I mean, Townsite and Coal Harbour win first place in their categories? Steamworks Pilsner gets Best in Show?

Sadly, though, I know enough about how the awards process and how judging was done to know there’s not foul play afoot here at all. That doesn’t mean that Coal Harbour is suddenly brewing amazing beer, just that the process favoured them. How so?

First, let’s do our background homework and go look at the winners, courtesy of Urban Diner.

Now, let’s learn a bit about how beer judging works. Beer judges (especially BCJP cerftified judges) aren’t judging beers based upon how much they like them. They’re judging them based on how closely they’re brewed to the ideal beer in that particular style. It’s kind of like judging art based on how much it looks like the Mona Lisa. It makes sense in a certain way, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to reward innovation.

Let’s take IPAs, for instance, which is BCJP Style 14. These are broken into three sub categories: English IPA, American IPA and Imperial IPA. Go read those descriptions. You know what does not fit that description? Most of the great BC IPAs, like Driftwood Fat Tug, Tofino Hop Cretin, and Lighthouse Switchback. Those guys differ in at least a few key ways, usually in terms of body or hop style.

For instance, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise, this is not going to win Most Practical Transport.

You know what fits that style? The beers that won. Central City Red Racer is about as fine an American IPA as I can imagine. CC Imperial IPA likewise for imperials. And while it caused some commotion on the floor, Derrick Franche up at the Whistler Brewpub puts together a mean American IPA. I think CC’s IPA is better, but each batch is different and I have no problem imagining Derrick’s was better than Gary’s on the day of judging (although it could be said that the CC IPA is too aromatic for the style).

Then there’s the problem of the blinding. The tastings were double blinded, so that both the tasters and the person serving the beers had no idea which beer was in which glass. The idea here is to prevent brand bias. If you took a CC IPA and poured 1/2 into a glass marked “Central City” and 1/2 into a glass marked “Bowen Island” you can guess what would happen. Blinding prevents that… in theory.

The problem comes we look at the numbers of beers in those categories. Some have 20, 30 or even 40 entrants, but some have only a handful. When this happens, the awards organizers group similar styles together for judging, but in order to judge the beers fairly you have to tell them what the style is (remember our style guidelines from before). Now let’s look at the Sour/Brett category.

First, there were only four entrants, which means any beer had a 75% chance of winning right off the bat, but there’s another issue: each of these beers is a different style. Picture this: you’re judging a sour beer in BC, and I put three glasses in front of you, all unlabelled, but I tell you what style each is. One is a “Oud Bruin” (yes, that’s actually a style), one is a “Flanders Red”, one is an “Imperial Flanders Red” and the last is “Some awful crap made over on Triumph Street.” See where I’m going with this? There’s no way a judge from BC wouldn’t immediately know who made which beer. Sure, not all judges were from BC, but many of them were, and as a result the accuracy of the rankings is heavily diluted.

Combine all those things together and the awards are pretty much what I’d expect: random. More narrowly defined categories with lots of entrants are going to be more accurate while everything else is a coin toss. The takeaway? Steamworks makes a pilsner which is pretty much a picture-perfect pilsner, and perhaps Coal Harbour’s Smoked Ale is worth another look…. nah….

Written by chuck

October 15th, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Low Hanging Fruit

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Alright, so now that I have some amateurish Seal of Approvals to slap on things, I guess I’d better start using them, eh? Before we get into the more interesting reviews, let’s spend a few moments today and get the easy and obvious ones out of the way.

Before we get going, please do remember that I have no interest in ranking these businesses objectively. I am solely interested in sharing my incredbily beer-skewed version of reality with anyone who will listen. The criteria for making this list is quite straight forward: do I want to go there, or would I rather go somewhere else?

Bronze is a place I’ll happily pop in for a pint if I’m in the neighbourhood (eg Yeah, sure, why not?). Silver is a place that I will go out of my way to pop into (eg Sweet! Let’s go!). And Gold is, well, to be honest, Gold is reserved for The Alibi and St Augustines (eg Fuck yeah!).

For those wondering why your favourite pub is missing from this list, it’s likely either because it’s not in Vancouver (I’m a Vancouver snob, sorry), or that I’ve simply not heard of it (or plum forgot, I drink a lot).

For those wondering why your favourite pub has been considered but tossed aside, please remember what I just said above, but also consider that even Bronze is a pretty freaking good rating for a pub. This is a tough list to make, and just because I didn’t feel the need to put my good name (and anthropomorphic seal caricature) on your beloved establishment doesn’t mean it’s no good. It just means I’m likely not going back.

So, without further adieu, here are the businesses that have earned the coveted(?) Barley Mowat Seal of Approval (for pubs).


Bronze

The Whip
Once one of the stalwards of the craft beer movement, The Whip has been eclipsed by newer establishments. Brewery Creek’s resurgence in the craft beer scene leaves it posed to reclaim its former greatness, though.

Steamworks
Probably the best local brewpub, but the nearness and awesomeness of Rogue’s taplist begs the question: why bother?

Railway Club
I love the Rail, but they need more great beer, and they need to change it up once in a while.

Dockside
Food: decent but pricey. Beer: interesting but not great. Patio? Top three in town.

The Bimini
A great oasis in the beer desert of the Kits strip. Too bad it turns into a nightclub around nine.

Bitter
An interesting twist to the beer-focused restaurant scene, and a fantastic bottle list. Shame it’s five minutes from the Alibi.

Second Door (Malone’s)
I used to absolutely fear coming here, now I’m only kinda scared. It remains to be seen how long the Second Door will stick to its craft beer guns.

Brick & Barley (Incendio Pizza)
A tight tap list and decent pizza make this a decent backup for when the Alibi is full.

New Oxford (aka Hooker’s Green)
Great Yaletown patio, but the beer list definitely needs some work.

Biercraft Commercial
A little too focused on the more popular Belgians, and a little too close to St Augustine’s to seriously tempt me.

London Pub
While effectively a Russell tied-house, that isn’t always a bad thing. Throw in casks on Fridays and good proximity to the best Italian cheese shop in town, and I’m down.

Library Square
Great patio, decent food, and okay tap list. Just be sure to leave before the douchbag avalanche shows up in the evenings.

Lamplighter
Exact same comment as Library Square. You’d think the Donnelly Group had a formula or something?


Silver

Portland Craft
Truly a special place, with a rapidly rotating list of unusual PNW beers. Almost gold, guys. Keep it up.

Tap & Barrel
PATIO. PATIO PATIO PATIO. (stupid glassware, slow service, blah food, okay tap list) PATIO PATIO!

Darby’s Pub
I know, I almost don’t believe myself, but look at that tap list, and look at that patio. The attached beerstore only makes it even better.

Biercraft Cambie
See what getting away from St Augustines does for you? I just like this location better.

Rogue Waterfront
Combine the great food with the good patio and awesome beer list, and it’s almost enough to dissuade me from walking all the way to Main St. Almost.


Gold

St. Augustines
Top flight beer list, but mostly ordered from a catalogue. I love the online beer menu, though.

Alibi Room
I cannot count the number of one-off or unique beers that have been produced just for the Alibi. That should tell you something.

Notable Absentees (not yet reviewed, but I’ll get to them):
Rogue Broadway
Parallel 49 Tasting Room
Smiley’s
Cascade Room
Sunset Grill

Reviewed but not approved:
The Manchester — I get the feeling that the one good beer on tap isn’t ordered very often
Cinema — Proof that the Donelly Forumla is not universally applied
Irish Heather — Just not quite good enough to make the cut
Yaletown Brewing Company — Drink Boring Beer. Sorry guys, but change it up will ya?
Granville Island Taproom — Sure, Vern’s nice one offs are featured here, but it’s also crammed pack with tourists and has a 12oz serving limit. Go to the Alibi instead.

Written by chuck

October 9th, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Bars,Beer and You