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Steamworks Imperial Red Ale

with 4 comments

We’ve all been there: you have a blog on which you talk about beer, and you feel like featuring the odd interesting and noteworthy brew once a month because, well, you want to. Then “once a month” becomes “once in a whenever” then lots of heady talk happens around doing better and being more consistent. Fast forward a couple of months, and your Beer of the Month dates from December and is pretty much sold out everywhere.

Well, screw that. I’m ditching the Beer of the Month and just full-on embracing my sporadic updates as a purposeful feature. Henceforth the BOTM shall be known as the Barley Mowat Feature Beer. I figure if I remove any reference to a timeframe I’m safe to leave that bastard up there until my site’s finally taken down for non-payment of hosting fees.


Actually, who am I kidding, it’ll be shuttered by court order.

So, to kick off this new feature I thought that I’d do something unexpected. What beer is out there right now that is interesting, good, and deserving of more attention? Hint: it’s not from Driftwood (although Bird of Prey is great).

Nope, this beer is from Steamworks. Steamworks gets a bad rap from the local beererati, and there is some reason for the ill will. Ever since busting out of their Water Street on-premises brewing facility like some sort of brew pub Hulk, the produced product has wavered in quality.

The finger of blame can be squarely aimed at Dead Frog, who was not only responsible for both brewing a sub-standard batch of Steamworks’ award-winning Pilsner under contract, but for also releasing that same batch. Even though Dead Frog has since brought their production quality and consistency back up to craft standards (or perhaps higher), the damage was done. Steamworks’ brand was affected.

Throw on to that fire their focus on the mid-scale market, where the more boring, old-school styles of Pilsner, Pale Ale, and Stout dominate, and you wind up with quite a few people who’ve only had either bad or boring beers from SW. Not encouraging.


The frenetic, busy graphics on the bottles don’t help. Hint: if you could throw “Much Beer. So Hop. Wow.” randomly on your bottle and it wouldn’t look worse, you’re doing it wrong.

Then there was that whole ruckus last year wherein a local nuisance blogger pointed out Steamworks’ myriad trademark battles and you were left with a brewery that puts a bad taste in your mouth before you even took that first sip of (likely questionable quality) beer.

Well, it might be time to revisit the (IMHO) ugliest beer bottles in BC. SW has come to the Imperial Red party started by Lighthouse Siren, and shit just got real. Steamwork’s blogger-infuriatingly unnamed Imperial Red is about 10x better than you’d fear, after finally resigning yourself to trying some because talking about beer in BC is your job. You know, as one does.

In fact, it’s even better than Siren which, despite never quite recovering its ambrosia-like pinnacle evident on first release, is still no slouch by any measure. SW Impy Red is no contender against Parallel 49’s recently released Robo Ruby, but it’ll also likely be around a bit longer as well. That’s because this isn’t being brewed on that tiny copper system on Water Street. Nope, it hails from Steamworks’ gleaming new Burnaby brewery, headed by an equally gleaming new Caolan Vaughan. The Burnaby facility will have no problems keeping the thirsty hoards satiated.

APPEARANCE Deep hazy red/brown. Long lasting, thick head.
NOSE Big tropical hops, with a hint of the caramel sugar bomb body in back.
TASTE Balance, with an appropriately tin-y high-malt finish. Booze definitely present, but accentuates malt.
STATS 8.5% ABV / 75 IBU / Imperial Red Ale
SHOULD I BUY IT? Absolutely. You’re hard pressed to get more beer for your $6.25
CHECK IN

Brewery Steamworks
From Burnaby
Name Imperial Red
Style Red IPA/IIRA
SOA Now Bronze
SOA Potential n/a
Drink Now
Better Steamworks Beers None.
Availability LDB
Cost $6.25 per bomber (LDB)
Similar Beers Parallel 49 Robo Ruby (slightly better), Lighthouse Siren (slightly worse)

 


A Bronze medal for a metallic tasting Bronze beer. Writing these is hard. Does anyone even read this?

Written by chuck

February 11th, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Posted in Beers

Tagged with

Big Rock Comes Out West

with 7 comments

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

Tagged with

2013 Beerdies

with 10 comments

What a night, eh? Wow, that was epic. I have to admit, if you asked me at the start of the evening if I thought I’d be able to get up at 8am to work on the blog I’d have carefully expressed my respectful skepticism. My answer would have morphed from “Unlikely” to “Feeesk yoush… yoush don’t know meee!” right about the time we were saddling that pack of stray dogs, and hanging a cat from a string on a stick.

Okay, fine. I’ll be honest. I wrote this over the weekend and it’s been auto-posted and Twitter-pimped by clever software. I am asleep, or in a ditch, or maybe even asleep in a ditch. You most likely are, too, and might even be beside me, but that’s what cellular data is for.

Last year on New Year’s Day I introduced the “Annual Barley Mowat Excellence in Beer Awards” aka The Beerdies, and I figure there’s no sense in introducing an annual something if you don’t plan on at least doing it every year or so, like clockwork. That’s me: when I make a commitment to give out an award repeatedly, on a set schedule, I come through each and every time. Why are you laughing?

Enough intro, time for the awards! Unlike most Year In Review columns, I’ve waited until the year is actually done, so even newly opened Green Leaf had a chance to be considered. Sure, they didn’t win anything, but they were considered and that’s enough for me.

Brewery What Took Most Of My Money: Driftwood (brewmaster Jason Meyer)

A repeat from 2012, but Driftwood isn’t as far out front here as they have been. This whole “brewery lounge” thing has given a distinct advantage to the newer breweries right by my office, and while Driftwood still won out due to a few great seasonals bought by the caselot, and Fat Tug being my go-to beer in non-beer pubs, Brassneck was not too far behind… and they’ve only been open a few months… I drink a lot after work, is what I’m saying here.


Also before work, but that’s just part of a balanced breakfast.
Hottest Brewery Accessory: Lounges

Tasting rooms were swell, but the ridiculous legal restrictions made them kinda sucky. Lounges, though, turn brewery tasting rooms into de facto bars, but bars that just happen to have direct access to the freshest, tastiest beers around. Chuck likey.

Best Seasonal Lineup: Parallel 49 (brewmaster Graham With)

This was a hard decision to make (see Most Improved for the runner-up), but in the end the sheer number of interesting beers coming out of Triumph Street gave the nod to P49. Sure, they dumped L’il Red on the market like you’d dump an old mattress in an alleyway, but they also released Hopnotist, and about a dozen other great beers.

Best New Trend: Food Trucks at Breweries

Tuesdays have become known as “Pie and Beer Day.” A constantly rotating food truck out front lets the brewery focus on beer, and lets people inside said brewery have an ever-changing rotation of cuisine to choose from. The mix and matching for beer pairings is endless.

Best Nigel Springthorpe: Nigel Springthorpe

Even though Nigel did the unspeakable and shaved away all his beer geek cred in one foolish, marriage-saving move, he still takes home the candy. Nigel’s day-in, day-out commitment to supporting, making, and serving top notch beer has transformed this city into the premier craft beer destination it is today and I, for one, will never stop being grateful.


I can still lament the horrible beard decision, though, right?
Photo credit: Vancouver Sun
Most Improved Brewery: Granville Island (brewmaster Vern Lambourne)

No, I’m not talking about their regular lineup. That’s still dreck. I’m talking about the one-off and seasonal releases that are still brewed on the namesake island/bloated peninsula. Vern’s beers have always been decent, but this year he doubled the special sauce in the ingredient list. They’re better both inside and outside the bottle.

First, I’ve been a champion of differentiating the branding between the Molson-ized 12oz products and Vern’s carefully crafted line of bombers for quite a while, and they finally heeded me (let’s just pretend it was me, okay? It makes me feel important). The bombers don’t lie about where they were made, but neither do they scream Granville Island at you. This increases the chance of their selling on merit, to craft beer types–not the market their mainstream beers are targeted at.

Second, the beers are just plain better than last year. Pucker Meister, Burly Goat, Thirsty Farmer, Mad Dash, Uncle Monty’s–all great. Plus, somehow they made a collaboration IPA with Joey Restaurants that is outstanding (it’s white labeled as “Urban Legend” and getting rare). All round, more good beer, showcasing more of Vern’s talents.

Best New Brewery: Four Winds (brewmaster Brent Mills)

Nothing like an upset, eh? Brassneck doesn’t win Best New Brewery? What gives? Brassneck is producing some mighty fine beer, but Four Winds started off good and has been dialling in their regular line up over the past six months to near perfection. Their IPA is challenging the reigning trifeca of Central City, Driftwood and Lighthouse, and that takes some doing. Then, this fall they went out and released two great barrel-aged beers, and confided in me that a sour release was coming. However, nothing speaks to their potential more than the beer they didn’t release.

Remember that jaw-dropingly awesome Saison Brett? Well, there were two batches of it. Yup, two. Only the first one was released, though, because Brent didn’t feel that batch number two lived up to his quality expectations. That’s a move that takes balls, and shows an unrelenting commitment to great beer, and that’s why they got my nod in this category.

And now, the grand prize of the 2013 Beerdies (aka the Golden Beerdie):

Best Beard in BC Beer: Josh Michnik (33 Acres)

I almost gave this prize to the no-doubt sizeable heap of Conrad’s ex-beard, but I had forgotten that a great BC Beer Beard existed just four blocks to the west. Congrats, Josh!


If you think he looks trepidatious, keep in mind that I just pulled out a camera and asked if I could take his picture “for the internet.”

Written by chuck

January 1st, 2014 at 11:51 am