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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

Brewpub in a Bottle

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Not too long ago in BC (as recently as 10 years), the only way a bona fide barley-phile could get their fix on was to wander into a local brewpub and have some delicious, locally made, old-world style ale. Actual craft breweries were still few and far between (eg Storm or R&B), and most of their product was not bottled.

Sure, you could search out the good samaritan pub-owners that put those products on tap, but those places were also not great in number, and not guaranteed to have any actual beer because of the production issues inherent in small breweries. Even if they did have something on offer, it would very likely only be a single tap squeezed in between different sub-brands of Molson.

But the brewpubs were guaranteed to have the goods, and usually more than one kind, if only because it was the only beer they could sell. Thus the BC Brewpub became a sort of quasi-destination resort for what passed for the local craft beererati in those days.

Yup, that’s a beer resort. I’ll let that image really sink in for a few seconds. There we go.

We’d rent a van, book a ferry, and head off to have three meals at Spinnakers without getting up because, fuck me, they have six kinds of craft beer on tap. And you know what? They’re all pretty freaking good. Then you’d buy a few cases of off-sales (if they had any), pack up, and head home, sad for the fact that your next visit would be many months away at best.

The recent revolution in bottled brewpub beer changed all that, and I honestly haven’t pulled a shift at a brewpub in at least five years. You see, it wasn’t just the fact that I could get Spinnakers at home that stopped me from getting on the ferry. It was also the fact that I could get Driftwood in bottles, and Driftwood is better than Spinnakers.

When you remove the ambiance and food, all that’s left to stand is the beer by itself, and with that realization came an unpleasant fact that no one really wanted to talk about: traditional brewpub ale is boring. Yes, it’s brewed from the best ingredients by people who know what they’re doing, but c’mon, a straight Nut Brown? English IPA? Pale Ale? Pilsner? What is this, 2005?

I was going to insert a funny, dated movie reference here, but frankly all our movies have the same titles today, just with more roman numerals at the end. We kinda suck.

It’s not the beer; it’s us. BC’s craft beer market has matured rapidly in the past five years, and while a fantastic traditionally brewed English-style pub ale will always have it’s place in my brew lineup, it’s just not enough to seriously compete in the market any more.

That brings us to the present, and to Steamworks’ recent announcement that they’re going to market in bottles. Despite being invited, I was unable to make the fancy launch party, but I was able to taste some of the product myself. You know what? It’s fine. All that worry about it not being brewed by Steamworks’, but instead under contract up the valley using excess capacity at Dead Frog came to naught. The beer is just fine.

But the beer is also boring. It’s a Pilsner and a Pale Ale in six packs, and a Wheat, Frambozen and Pumpkin in bombers. I might buy the Pumpkin and maybe even the Frambozen, but the others are going to compete in a fairly crowded market, and honestly they’re far too pedestrian versions of those styles to stand out from the crowd enough to get worked up over.

So where does that leave us? Well, by my count we now have no less than seven brewpubs cramming their amber gold into bottles or cans in this province. Some have learnt their lesson while others just keep on keeping on. Here are my thoughts on each. I’ll be comparing them to Spinnakers a lot because, hey, they were first.

Steamworks; Bronze Seal of Approval

Despite the “fineness” of the Pilsner and Pale Ale, the seasonals hold some promise. Great Pumpkin has always been one of the better BC pumpkin ales, and the Steamworks seasonal stouts are probably the best thing they make. Bottle those, guys, and I’ll buy them by the caselot.

Spinnakers; Bronze Seal of Approval

Spinnakers will always have a soft spot in my heart because of that overly long story above. While their mainline ales are still the same as when I first walked into the pub all those many years ago, they’re trying a few (slightly) new things and yeah, I’ll buy em.

Swan’s; Sealless

So you’re just like Spinnakers but without the slight innovation? Aside from the occasional Coconut Porter at the Alibi, I just plain never buy this stuff if there’s any alternative.

Howe Sound; Silver Seal of Approval

Much like Spinnakers, HS’s main line of ales hasn’t really changed, and is quite boring. It’s made somewhat more tolerable by being better than Spinnakers, though. Add to that a fantastic seasonal release program that is constantly trying to innovate (usually through making imperials), and I find myself regularly going home with those wicked flip-tops.

Canoe; Sealless

Not only is it mediocre, it’s incredibly hard to find. If you stumble into an LRS that, for some reason, has this on the shelf, it’s a good sign that you’re in Victoria. That means the bottle right next to this one is almost certainly much, much better.

Moon Under Water; Bronze Seal of Approval

MUW has decided to focus on low ABV session ales. While this is absolutely an old-world style, it’s not boring because no one else does it. I’ve long gone on record saying that this is a far too ignored field, and I mean it. Only bottling a few varieties and being hard to find keeps my purchases down, though. As well, a recent ownership change has MUW’s future uncertain.

Central City; Silver Seal of Approval

You want to know why BC has lots of good beer? Blame Gary Lohin. Gary decided to make proper PNW-style (or Cascadian style, if you will) ales, and to can them all. CC IPA is still considered by many to be the best beer in BC (not by me… cough… Tofino… cough), and their Pale Ale is a great adaptation of a fairly boring style. Throw into that mix seasonal releases in bomber form (including the very rare Thor’s Hammer), and man oh man we’re cooking with gas.

Written by chuck

October 11th, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Beers,Breweries

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October Beer of the Month

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It’s a new month, and that means it’s time to shine my beery, Barley Mowat-y light on a deserving and interesting beer. But this isn’t just any month, it’s also BC Craft Beer Month! So you’d better believe October’s Barley Mowat BotM will be something special.

Now, I know what you’re all thinking: that I’m going to do what I usually do, and dance around the subject for a few paragraphs before slapping the gold star on whatever release Driftwood has out. And that thought did cross my mind. This time of year is Driftwood Sartori’s release, and damned that’s a fine ale. However, Sartori was released on Thursday the 27th of September and sold out, well, about 3 hours later. Been here and gone in September doesn’t qualify.

So here goes. October’s Beer of the Month is: Vancouver Island Iron Plow Harvest Marzen.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya?

Those of you that know me well just spat out whatever you were eating while reading this (side note, guys, don’t eat over your computer; it’s gross). VIB isn’t one of my go-to breweries, and honestly they generally produce large piles of insipid dreck.

However, even the staunchest dreck-factory cannot ignore this whole “craft beer” thing, and VIB definitely has taken notice. Flying Bomber White IPA was their first foray into good beer a few months back, and while a 66 over at Ratebeer isn’t Hair of the Dog territory, it is very promising for a brewery’s whose non-Hermannator beers average 27 points.

I personally think Iron Plow is an improvement on that high-mark of 66. Maybe not 80+, but definitely movement in the right direction, and that my friends, is an effort that deserves notice and acclaim, which is exactly what this column is for.

Iron Plow is available at both the LDB and your favourite LRS. Go forth and consume, my loyal legions!

Written by chuck

October 1st, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Beers,Breweries

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