Barley Mowat 

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Of Brands and Men

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A strange thing happened this weekend: I realized I might just be a pompous ignoramus screaming unwarranted obscenities from the local craft beer sidelines. Oh wait, no. I realize that every weekend. Aside: The trick to really perfecting your ignoramus-ness, by the way, is to simultaneously realize it and simply not care.

No, the strange thing that happened is that I tried the much maligned (by me) “Best Scottish/Irish Ale in BC”: Lighthouse Race Rocks. I was up at the Harrison Beer Fest (stayed tuned for my review of that affair) and I availed myself of a no doubt fresh-as-possible glass of The Dread RR.

Why would I do this; what could I hope to be different? Well, before tasting it I read up on BJCP Style 9C, which is what Brewmaster Dean Mcleod entered RR as in this competition. So, instead of bracing myself for a beer I had prejudged as awful, I tried my best to clear my head and dive into this looking for the promised mild malt with kettle caramelization, earth tones and balanced bitterness.

Fuck me, it’s there. Race Rocks is a well balanced mild Scottish, and I just didn’t realize it before now. Is it Gold-good? I said it wasn’t on Untappd but, you know what, how the hell would I know? I didn’t try the other entrants in that category. I don’t even know who they were (aside from the other two medal winners). I simply don’t have enough info to make that call. In short, I was talking out of my ass (upon reflection, the “out of my ass” should really be considered implied whenever I am observed to be talking).

This revelation got me thinking, as beer often does, about how we all like to think of ourselves as reasonable, rational beings who are capable of making perfectly consistent judgement calls on a regular basis. The reality, though, is that we’re squishy meat bags of imperfection who are trained every day to like certain things and to hate others. Some of this training is very deliberate and blunt while much of the rest is just us being us.


Lightning? Fire? Dry Ice? Wailing electric guitar? An all-leather-clad, long-haired Michael Ironside using words like “power”? All those things are awesome! This beer must therefore ALSO BE AWESOME! Q.E.D.

The mere fact that Race Rocks came out of a Race Rocks can likely doomed it to a lower opinion from me because of my experiences with this beer in the distant past, when arguably it was the syrupy malt-water I remember it to be. Who knows what caused that initial impression? Maybe the beers I had were sitting on the shelf too long (malt-forward light ales do not do well in the liquor store)? Maybe the brewing wasn’t as tight before Dean showed up? Any one of a million variables could have changed it in the interim.

Maybe it was the biggest variable in the equation: me. It’s very possible that once I discovered more aggressive styles I reflexively labelled my previously favoured styles as bad. It’s very human thing to do, and that impression can be a very strong one to shake.

Here I am just 18 months ago doing a blind taste test on four beers, including Race Rocks. Note how words like “well balanced” show up in my notes. Sounds kinda like the beer I had above, right? (although, notably I did not get even a slight puff of DMS off it this time).

I know what some of you are thinking now: “But Chuck! It’s an Amber Ale! Calling a beer labelled ‘Amber Ale’ good because it tastes like a 80 Shilling Scottish is like calling a beer labelled ‘IPA’ good because it tastes like a light lager.” Fun trick: pick up a pack or can of Race Rocks and really take a good look at it. Find me the “Amber Ale.” I’ll wait.

It’s not there. It might have been there in the past, and it certainly is still there in the “Story Behind Lighthouse” section of their homepage (in 1998 the beer no doubt was marketed as a generic Amber Ale to a beer consuming public that considered beers to be one of lager, amber, pale and Guinness), but the only style label* on Race Rocks today is the one we put there in our minds.

Lastly, does this mean I’m a convert? Am I a Race Rocks Man now? Does such a thing exist? Hardly. Race Rocks is a well made beer, for its style. Ultimately, thought, this particular style won’t be one that I spend my limited beer money on. There are too many excellent examples of more aggressive, interesting, or just plain weird styles out there for me to do that. However, that’s the first thing you learn in Beer Judging 101: Just because you’re not a fan of a style doesn’t mean beers of that style are bad beers.


Except this one. Beers of this style are bad beers.

* — Side note: I don’t like un-styled beers. I want some indication of what’s in the bottle I’m buying, and unlabeled beer just screams of “generic beer” to me. As a fun experiment, I think Lighthouse should release Race Rocks in a 650ml bomber as a new beer: “Dean’s 80 Shilling Ale” complete with craft packaging and branding. I would absolutely love to watch the differences in review scores between that and RR in cans.

Written by chuck

October 28th, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Beers

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Giving Back to the Community

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Something happened recently which will either serve to validate my nascent megalomania or further separate actual reality from how I perceive it: Granville Island Brewing has requested that I do a collaboration beer with their Brewmaster Vern Lambourne. Usually, collab beers are the brainchilds of two (or more) breweries getting together and figuring “sure, why not? seems like fun.”

These beers are a chance for a brewery to perhaps brew outside their comfort zone or even perhaps distribute further afield than normal. As craft breweries grow both in size and number, we’ve seen more and more collaborations: Storm/Russell Big Smoke, Parallel 49/Gigantic From East Van With Love, Powell Street/Four Winds Dunkleweizen are just three that pop to mind, but there are many more (including the “brewed-by-committee” VCBW beers). Collabs are chances to experiment, share ideas and cross-market the resultant product.


The hangover cause and cure, together at last! Wham: instant best seller! Right, guys… guys?

But why, oh why, would a brewery want to do a collaboration brew with me? Last time I checked, I’m not a brewery. I’m not even a brewer… oh crap, I sure hop GIB and Vern aren’t expecting me to, you know, actually do anything here. I mean, aside from sagely overseeing the brewing process and then attempting to single-handedly consume as much of the resulting product as possible in some kind of self-destructive exhibitionist performance art–that, I’m up for.

The reasons, I suspect, go back to that whole “seems like fun” aspect. Sure, there won’t be lots of this beer made, and sure, it won’t be distributed anywhere but in the taproom on the (soon to be operational) growler station but, you know what? Making it will be fun. Certainly fun for me and–I hope–fun for Vern. And, ultimately, isn’t that what making beer is supposed to be?

With that in mind, I have begun soliciting crazy ideas as to what to brew. The conversation started on my Facebook page, but if you missed that or have a new idea (no Jenn, no cat beer) please let me know below. My hope is to read all these awesome ideas and be inspired to create something awesome-r. I will then take that inspiration and go strategize with Vern (it’s 50% his beer, too; this is a collaboration, not a contract).

Budget, timelines and batch size will likely all conspire to rein in some of the crazier ideas, but I’ve very confident we’ll arrive at a recipe with which we’ll both be happy. Ultimately, we might make something awesome or we might make something awful, but either way we’ll have fun doing it, and isn’t that the most important thing?


Of course, Homer also makes a very valid point

Written by chuck

October 18th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Beers

Tagged with ,

Fresh Hop Showdown

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Scott over at WFLBC stirred the pot a bit yesterday by doing a side-by-each comparison between Driftwood Sartori and Hoyne Wolf Vine. The comparison itself wasn’t the controversy, and neither was the result (he liked Wolf Vine slightly more) but rather his views on the detection of diacetyl and the nuances around that caused more than a few comments.

Now, I agree that Scott took a provocative, abrasive approach to this whole topic. Let’s just say that I’m a fan of this more in-your-face style. I also think a lot of people overreacted. Dude has his own blog. He can post his opinion, even if we don’t agree with it. Heck, he could be posting nothing but pictures of his ass all day and I’d still cheer him on.


Although, I bet if he shaved it he’d get more hits.

In any event, the core issue is three fold. First, is the hype around Sartori justified? Second, is Wolf Vine actually better than Sartori? And third, does Wolf Vine have diacetyl, a buttered-popcorn off-flavour? Let me give you my opinion about all three. If you’re good, my opinion might be more than just three pictures of my ass.

Hype

Driftwood Sartori is probably the most anticipated seasonal beer release in BC. No other beer causes the local craft beer fans to, en masse, walk out of their day jobs and sprint from store to store buying their fill the second Twitter has a hint of availability (or sending non-craft beer husbands/wives clutching an order sheet and the kids, as I’ve seen more than a few times). Is this hype good or bad for craft beer in general? I’m firmly on the “good” side.

Demand creates excitement which creates interest. An independent observer noticing a bearded blogger stabbing a house husband in the neck to get the last case of a particular beer can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. Someone is this excited by a BEER? How can that be? Even if Sartori is gone, the newly curious might ask around and find themselves going home with a similar beer to try out. That’s a good thing. Personally, I think we should build the hype further next year and alert the media. A couple segments on the news would be great for local craft beer.


I briefly considered a Thunderdome-style competition for Sartori, but “Two beer geeks enter, both realize the stupidity of their situation and agree to share the bottle!” doesn’t have a catchy ring to it.

Is the frantic demand for Sartori justified? In 2009, Driftwood unleashed the first wet-hopped ale BC had ever seen. It blew our minds with its fantastic awesomeness. Since then it hasn’t been quite as mind-fuckingly-astonishing, perhaps because there are now wet-hopped beers everywhere, or maybe because it just isn’t as good.

Does the 2013 version change this? Is this beer worth the three hours of scrubbing blood off my hands? Nope. It’s freaking good, and a rarity, but this beer alone doesn’t live up to the huge build-up. Of course, we didn’t know that last Monday. We dropped everything and raced to our local LRS for the beer that could have been, not the one we got.

Wolf Vine vs Sartori

Okay, problem two. If Sartori isn’t all it’s built up to be, and Wolf Vine is better than its sales suggest, is Wolf Vine better than Sartori? WFLBC felt that it edged Sartori just slightly, and a look at review sites indicate the crowd is mixed. What about me? What does Chuck think? I compared them last year and declared Sartori better and Wolf Vine a “decent wet-hopped beer that has the advantage of your actually being able to buy it.”

I did a side-by-each comparison of the 2013 versions of Sartori & Wolf Vine last night. This just reinforced the consensus that comparing these beers is difficult. They are very different. WV is a Pale Ale; Sartori is an IPA. There are those that consider IPAs to be superior to Pale Ales by default, so how could this be fair? In short, it can’t, but I did try:

Hoyne Wolf Vine Fresh-hopped Pale Ale
STATS 5.8% ABV
APPEARANCE Quickly dissipating loose head over a hazy copper body
NOSE Biscuit/caramel malt dominated by fresh hops (lemon, grass, slight resins)
TASTE Solid biscuit malt sweetness that’s matched well to the fresh hops. The final result is a sweeter beer than you might anticipate given the prevalence of the west coast pseudo IPA “pale ale”
SHOULD I BUY IT? Fuck yeah.

Driftwood Sartori Harvest IPA
STATS 7.0% ABV
APPEARANCE Light amber, almost yellow gold with tight long lasting white head
NOSE Fresh PNW hops dominate here. Flowery, fresh, slight bitter citrus (grapefruit)
TASTE Builds off the nose. Beautiful hop freshness with a weaker-than-I’d-like-but-not-bad body. Smile-inducing Hop freshness builds over the course of the bottle
SHOULD I BUY IT? If you see it, buy it.

Who wins? Sartori wins. Head to head I prefer Sartori by a fair bit. However, Wolf Vine is unquestionably great and again has the distinct advantage of being a beer you can walk out of an LRS with today (although, notably, there is less supply than at this time last year).


Don’t look at me like that. I was here first.

Diacetyl

Diacetyl is a dirty word to a lot of people, and one that has been associated with Sean Hoyne’s beers since day one. However, it’s not the cut and dry defect that a lot of people seem to think it is. Sure, too much can make your beer or wine taste like buttered movie popcorn, and while I’m fairly sure my buddy Craig might like that, most folk would prefer a slightly more beer-y flavour.

In limited quantities, though, dread diacetyl can actually improve certain styles of beer by imparting a round, full bodied mouthfeel to otherwise thin beers. This is why a low level of the chemical is even considered on-style for some Pilsners.

Enough dancing around the bushes. Does Wolf Vine have any detectable diacetyl? I’m going to say yes, it has a little. I detected small amounts of diacetyl on both the nose and the mouthfeel. It should be noted that Leo from BeerThirst points out that certain malts have diacetyl-like properties, and lacking a chemistry kit, I was unable to determine if I was picking up the real thing or a pretender. Also note that just because I detected it doesn’t mean you will. Other experienced tasters did not detect it, and there is a real chance there might be some inter-batch variability with one bottle having none and the next having a bit.

In the end, though, I don’t care. The levels are not unpleasant, and the effect is very much the positive one I described above. Sure it’s not on-style, but the style was developed to describe more traditional Pale Ales, so screw the style.

And that is all I have to say about that. Ah, who am I kidding? You know I’ll never shut up about anything.

Written by chuck

October 1st, 2013 at 12:22 pm