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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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Beer of the… Quarter?

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It’s been a while since I’ve picked a beer of the… let’s just call it quarter. However, this holiday season there’s one very interesting brew out there that I figure everyone should buy and try.

Beers make it into my acclaimed Box What Is On The Right Of The Blog for a few reasons. Sometimes they’re stonking great, but often they’re just interesting or unique for any one of a dozen reasons. Maybe the brewery is stepping up their game, maybe the packing is interesting, or maybe the beer itself is excellent. This mon–er, quarter, all three are true.

The beer in question is Howe Sound’s Woolly Bugger 2013. In past years, this has been one of the few BC Brewed, English-style Barley Wines on the market and I’ve loved it for that. This year, though, they change things up a bit and went for more of a hybrid form: a strong malt base with a slightly bitter finish. The result is an outstanding step up from previous years, and a beer that is eminently drinkable now but will definitely cellar well for 2-3 years. Right now you’ll get subtle chocolate behind balanced hops, but over time the smooth malt tones will mingle and come forward.

But I said something about packaging, right? Sure did. Check this bad boy out.


Ooooooooo, yeah.

This is a dramatic departure from previous HS bottlings, but also from prior Woolly Buggers. Frankly, I love every little bit of this bottle. To generate this beauty, Howe Sound teamed up with Tom Pedriks from Resonance Branding and, gosh darn it, they did well. In addition to a flat out awesome 19th century pharmaceutical look and feel on a bottle that basically contains medicine, the format of the bottle should not be overlooked.

It’s a 375ml demi bottle. Most local Barley Wines come in 650ml bombers, which can make the commitment involved in cracking one open to drink somewhat daunting. For reference, here is the one I had last night, with the entirety of its contents poured into my glass.


“Drinkable” in beer doesn’t usually means “something you can physically drink in one sitting” but what the hell, I’ll call this one Drinkable.

So, go forth and buy a few bottles of this sweet boozy concoction, and enjoy yourself a cool snifter in front of a roaring fire. It’s what this beer was made for.

APPEARANCE Deep, opaque auburn with quickly dissipating thin head.
NOSE Caramel, chocolate and a hint of backing hops.
TASTE Sharp, but not overwhelming, hops followed by a smooth malt body. Subtle chocolate intertwines with strong caramel.
STATS 10.5% ABV / 75 IBU / 25 Degrees Plato
SHOULD I BUY IT? Absolutely. Buy at least two: one for now and one to drink alongside next year’s version.

Brewery Howe Sound
From Squamish
Name Woolly Bugger
Style Barley Wine (Hybrid American/English)
SOA Now Bronze
SOA Potential Silver
Drink Now-2016
Thing that could improve label Two gloved hands pointing at the name
Availability Most LRS’s have some
Cost ~$5-7 per 375ml demo
Similar Beers All the other Barley Wines out there right now


 


Time will make it better. Trust me.

Written by chuck

December 24th, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Beers

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Parallel 49 Braggot, Sahti Claws, Toques of Hazzard

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Another big ole dump of seasonals from Graham With and the brew crew at Parallel 49, and another triple review by me. P49’s massive brewing capacity fuels their penchant for mass-dumping beers on the market in triplicate. Where most breweries can only afford to dedicate brewing capacity to a single one-off at a time, P49 apparently has no such constraint.

The giant fermenters are apparently pumping out enough Old Boy, Hoparazzi and Gypsy Tears that the little vessels can be handed over to interesting one-offs. And by “little” I mean “25hl conical fermenters”–tanks large enough to be a regular micro-brewery’s main line. It sure is nice to live in a province where a single brewery can profitably produce literally hundreds of hecto litres of beer at a time.

But I digress, on to what I think of these latest releases.

Sahti Claws

Sahti is a traditional Finnish beer that relies upon Juniper berries for bittering instead of (or in addition to) hops. I know all this because I just read it on Wikipedia. The concept of Juniper-infused beer is an intriguing one; perhaps this beer will finally bridge the gap between gin and beer? One can only hope.

APPEARANCE Dark–almost brown–with a very tightly laced, off-tan head.
NOSE Piney, resiny hops dominates completely. Is this the Juniper or the Simcoe or the Juniper? No one knows.
TASTE Sweet, intense hops, but virtually absent malt/sugar body. Fairly one-dimensional.
STATS 7.7% ABV / 35 IBU / Juniper-infused
SHOULD I BUY IT? Meh. There are better beers out there, and this can be roughly simulated by throwing an ounce of gin in an okay IPA.

Toques of Hazzard

As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of White IPAs. I fully admit this is a personal flaw rather than anything inherently wrong with the style. I just don’t get all a-tingly over these beers as I find the melange of flavours to be almost haphazard (except the juicy, fragrant Powell Street Citra White IPA).

Does jacking up the typically already high ABV to extreme levels change that for me? Not really. However, some of the citrusy sweet awesomesauce that makes Powell Street’s White IPA so appealing can be found in Toques, and that does score it some points.

APPEARANCE Pours cloudy orange-amber with a persistent, tight white head. This is a pretty beer.
NOSE Orange peel with a yeasty punch in the back. Definitely intriguing.
TASTE Bright citrus tang over thin, almost wheaty malt. Strong candy-like sweetness almost completely masks the very high ABV. This is a dangerous beer.
STATS 9.2% ABV / 76 IBU
SHOULD I BUY IT? Ya know what? Definitely worth a try. If you buy two, though, it WILL sneak up on you.

Braggot

Another weird style? Why not? Braggot is a half-beer, half-mead concoction that seeks to combine the best of both worlds. Unlike the Sahti above, I didn’t have to go look up this definition since the beer world has been all abuzz over Parallel 49’s Braggot for about a year now. We’ve been gossiping about this beer so long because it has spent ten months slowly aging in barrels. That should be enough information to influence your purchase decision right there–assuming you can find any of the beeswax dipped bottles at your local LRS.

APPEARANCE Deep auburn, almost black. No carbonation. Thin, quickly dissipating head. High alcohol shows legs.
NOSE Rick oak/vanilla. Some sweetness lingers from the honey. Low hops. Some caramel.
TASTE Sweet and rich with a curious spiciness and high viscosity/luxurious mouthfeel. Hits most of the dark fruit checklist: plum, date, caramel.
STATS 10.2% ABV / 8.5 IBU / Braggot
SHOULD I BUY IT? Yes, yes, oh dear me, yes. Good luck with that, though.

Coles notes:

Brewery Parallel 49
From Vancouver
Name Sahti Claws Toques of Hazzard Braggot
Style Shati Imperial White IPA Braggot
SOA Now n/a Bronze Silver
SOA Potential n/a n/a Silver
Drink Now Now 2015-2018
Availability Most LRSs, some LDBs and at the brewery Uh… Darbys, maybe?
Cost ~$7 / 650ml ~$8 / 650ml ~$15 / 650ml
Similar Beers None Every other White IPA None


Nothing more silver than honey, sez I.

Written by chuck

December 9th, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Beers

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