Barley Mowat 

The Albertans Are Coming!

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Twitter’s been a-buzz about a new mega-taphouse franchise from Calgary moving into the Salt Building in the Olympic Village. While the public consensus has been generally positive, the local beererati have been somewhat less taken with our new Albertan friends.

While “new taphouse” is a phrase to get any real beergeek’s attention, there are some warning flags that we also pay attention to, and boy-howdy is this place full of them. There are so many warning signs that I’ll do my usual thing and talk about each separately.

The Number Of Taps

They’re making all sorts of promises about bringing in lots of beer. 150 taps of beer, in fact. When a taphouse wants to talk about numbers before breweries, you know that the thing they care about isn’t the quality of the beer on a given tap, just that it’s a bit different from the tap next to it. Truth be told, Vancouver isn’t Portland, and keeping 150 taps full of high quality beer will be very difficult.

Now, both the Alibi Room and St Augustine’s boast large numbers of taps (50ish and 40ish respectively), but they didn’t pick a number and fill them, they looked at the beers available, figured out how many they could serve without compromising quality, and set that number. In the case of the Alibi, the opening number was less than 20, and it has slowly grown as Nigel decided he wasn’t offering all the possibilities his clients wanted. That’s a lot different from picking a nice round (and huge) number out of thin air, cracking open the catalogue, and ordering at random until you’re full.

Length of Draft Lines

3km is an impressive number, isn’t it? Sure sounds like they’ve got a high-tech operation there to be able to handle that. Of course, this reaction misses the point that long draft lines are bad, and that any decent taphouse will attempt to make them as short as possible, usually by running them under the floor to a taproom immediately below the bar.


Look at this picture. See how their tap lines are proudly displayed on the roof? That’s a very bad sign. And see how they’re not clustered together for cooling efficiency? Another worry.

While it does sound like a lot, 3k works out to only 20m per line. That means about 2/3 of a pint will be sitting in the line at any given time, slowly going bad. Still, not horrible if someone’s clearing the line by frequently ordering the beer. At 150 taps, you have to wonder when the last time someone ordered your particular beer was.

The Little Things

Go and seriously look at their beer menu. While they do have a few very interesting beers on tap, there are lots of little things that caught my eye. Specifically:

  • There is a category named “Anomalies”. “One-offs” I could see, even “Uncategorized” but “Anomalies”?
  • In that category is a saison. A SAISON. A craft beer focused taphouse with 100 freaking beers considers A SAISON weird? What’s going on here?
  • Every sub-category has a single page listing a few beers. Except Pale Lagers. Two Pages. Twelve beers.
  • Light Beer. That is all.
  • They spelt “trappist” wrong.
  • Several beers are improperly spelt or listed. Look at Russell/Blood Alley for instance
  • Just in case you were sidetracked by the beer, go look at the food menu and read about “Fast Food Sushi.” I won’t spoil the surprise for you.

I watch Epic Meal Time, too. That doesn’t mean I think they’re good chefs.

Mathematical Analysis

Okay, maybe this one is just me, I’m a bit weird about beer, but I figure the best way to predict what they’ll do here is to go see what they’ve done in Calgary. Their Calgary location only has 100 taps, but I think that’s a pretty good indication of their approach. Given the large number of beers, I decided to analyse this situation with math! Here’s a breakdown of some key stats from CBM’s CGY location versus our very own St Augustine’s.

Much of my math was done via RateBeer. While RateBeer is not perfect, it does provide a decent overall gauge of how good a beer is. Every 90+ point beer is not guaranteed to be great, but most of them are pretty damned awesome. As well, the warning level is around the 30 point level, as below that we’re looking at misfired craft beer and macro lager.

CBM St Augustine’s
1 Beer Taps 100 38
2 Pale/Light Lager (%) 18% 3% (1)
3 IPA (%) 7% 24% (9)
4 >90 pts (%) 21 21% (8)
5 <30 pts (%) 31% 5% (2)
6 Macro (%) 30% 3% (1)
7 Local 17% 45% (17)
8 Best Beer(s) Diel de Ciel Aphrodisiaque (100pts)
St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout (100pts)
Ayinger Celebrator (100pts)
North Coast Old Rasputin (100pts)
9 Worst Beer(s) Budweiser (0pts)
Bud Light (0pts)
Phillips Raspberry Wheat (19pts)
10 Mean Score 53pts 79pts
11 Median Score 45 79
12 Unranked Beers (%) 3% 24% (9)

(No counts given for CBM because they have ONE HUNDRED taps. How dumb are you?)

  1. Ciders have been excluded. Lousy apple-lovers.
  2. These products are not craft beer. They are anti-craft beer. Including more than 1 or 2 on your menu is incredibly worrisome.
  3. IPA is representative of a beer-nerd preferred style, and should be one of your biggest categories of beer if you want to be taken seriously. On a menu with 100 entries, 7 is all but ignoring the style.
  4. >90: Both pull through equally here, but CBM offers greater variety due to more taps.
  5. <30: Uh oh. 31 beers scoring lower than 30 is again, a very bad sign.
  6. As is 30% of your beers coming from macros. While some macros do produce good product, in general it serves as a warning sign when InBev is making the thing you’re cramming down your beer hole. And yes, the St Augustine’s Macro is GIB Taphouse, and not technically a macro, but if I’m counting Ommegang at CBM I’m counting GIB Taphouse at St Augustine’s.
  7. Commitment to local breweries is key for a great taphouse, and you can really see St Augustine’s focus here. Yes, Alberta doesn’t have as many breweries as BC, but they have more than 17 local beers (or which 4 are Big Rock).
  8. CBM comes through here. When you have 150 beers on tap, you are going to get some good ones. If your day involves tasting three of the highest rated beers in the world, and on tap at that, then go to CBM.
  9. And if you want to sample the worst of the worst, CBM is where you go as well.
  10. This is the most worrying. The idea behind RateBeer is that the score is compared to all other beers, and that the mean score of all beers on the planet will be 50. Thus, if you were to grab 100 beers at random, with no thought as to quality of beer, their average score would be… 50. CBM isn’t far off that mark. St Augustines really shines here, indicating that their list was carefully and thoughtfully put together.
  11. The median score is what you would expect if you ordered a beer at random from each list. The closest matching beer in this case is: Newcastle Brown Ale (CBM) and Storm Imperial Flanders (SA).
  12. Beers only get ranked on RB if enough reviews have been submitted to be statistically significant. An unranked beer is generally a newer beer, or a one off. SA’s much higher performance here is a result of working with local producers to bring in new releases. CBM’s performance is a result of no one drinking their house lager.


It doesn’t look good folks, but I’m willing to be wrong. I want to be wrong. Stocking a 150 tap bar in Vancouver with good beer will be incredibly hard but you know what? It’s possible. Imagine having nearly the whole lineup from every BC brewery in one place, or the 150 best beers available for purchase in the BC, or a month where every IPA in Cascadia is on tap. With CBMs money and infrastructure, these things are all possible.

As well, the Salt Building is a fantastic venue, and it features a cool damp natural cellar that is just begging for a few barrels of beer. Custom aged one-off releases? Yes please! I want Craft Beer Market to come into that place and do amazing things.

Vancouver is a finicky market where well meaning, competition-winning chefs from the middle provinces go to lose their shirts. Our beer market is the most mature in Canada, and we’re willing to reward a quality product with giant heaping wheelbarrows full of cash. Piss off our fickle nature, though, and you will suffer a slow bleeding death.

To CBM: Do us proud. Before you plan out your menu, go to The Alibi Room and sit at the bar. Watch how the best beer bar in town is run, and realize that this is what you have to do. Not just match, mind you, but exceed. See how the bartenders QC every new keg? See the knowledgeable staff answer questions about the beer, the brewery and the way it was produced? See the custom brewed beer that can only be bought there? See the rare kegs driven 250 miles to the Alibi Room by the brewers themselves because they want their product presented in a respectful way to knowledgeable consumers? See the proper glassware? See how it fills up 10 minutes after opening?

This is what it takes to succeed in this market. I’ll be happy to sit with you and point all these things out and more, because you have a chance to make CBM-Vancouver the single best beer bar the country has ever known.

Don’t fuck up.

Written by chuck

October 18th, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Bars

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Driftwood Mad Bruin

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Yesterday, Driftwood put out their most recent one-off release: Mad Bruin. This sour/wild brown ale is the second in their Bird of Prey series, inspired because a Coopers Hawk flew into the brewery or some such. Hey, if you need a story behind your series of sour ales, you could do worse, I suppose.

And yesterday, Mad Bruin landed with a resounding thud. Unlike other Driftwood releases like Sartori, Singularity and Twenty Pounder, no one seems interested in picking this one up. So, what do I think? Well, it’s hard to gauge. This beer is clearly structured for aging, and that makes it hard to review, but I’ll try.

Right off the bat, this sucker hits you with a sweet astringency that settles in the back of your throat. That’s the lacto at work here, producing a bit of a puckerfest. After that, the malt lingers over a few sips, building a nice caramel tone.

A few sips later and you can tell where this bastard spent the past few months: in oak barrels. Used wine barrels, to be exact. Maybe something pinot-y. The oaking is very intense, and slowly grows to dominate the beer, so that by the end of your glass you’re pretty sure you just licked the hardwood floors.

So, right now it’s not much of a looker, but how will it age? Well, I think. It’s unfiltered, so the sourness should continue to develop while the extreme oakiness fades. The malty caramel will slowly come forward to play down the sour, but don’t be worried, this beer is definitely heading towards sour funk-town.

Overall, this will not be a top flight beer, but it will definitely be an interesting one, given enough time. Put a few in the back of your cellar and start pulling them out around April. If this plays out like similar beers I’ve had, look for a peak in July/August 2012, with a massive sour tone balancing out a slightly oaky sweet, but pronounced caramel.

Aside: What’s with the labels guys? You buy a $10 clip art CD and figure “Yeah, that’ll do”?

Coles notes:

Brewery Driftwood Brewing
From Victoria, BC
Name Mad Bruin
Style Sour/Wild Brown
SOA Now Bronze
SOA Potential Silver
Drink Spring 2013 to Late Summer 2013
Chance of this turning
to vinegar in 6 months
Availability Very good at LRS, zero at LDB
Cost $11-13 per 650ml bottle
Similar Beers Upright Late Harvest
Chuck says Buy 1 to drink now, 6-12 to cellar

Look at me! Reviewing beer like a pro!

Written by chuck

October 16th, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Posted in Beers

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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