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One IPA To Rule Them All

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As many of you are aware, I recently tasted a Dead Frog Fearless IPA, declared it great, and then loudly wondered if Fearless might count itself amongst the higher echelons of the hop madness that is the BC IPA Market. Thus, I decided to do another one of my blind tastings, only this time with the ranks stacked with good beer (no more crappy lager for me).

As step one, I went out and picked five BC-produced IPAs to stack up in a blind taste test. These five beers were:

  1. Dead Frog Fearless: The reason for this test. Omitting it would be one of the odder moves I could make here.
  2. Driftwood Fat Tug: By popular consensus, this is the reigning king of BC IPAs (what you can buy in a bottle).
  3. Central City Red Racer: The one, the original, the IPA that ruled BC from the Dawn of Hoppy Awesomeness until The Day Fat Tug Was Released.
  4. Lighthouse Switchback: The new kid on the block with some serious chops, and a delightful New Zealand take on this whole “hops” business.
  5. Coal Harbour Powell: Okay, so it’s not really fair to pit an English IPA up against all these Cascadian hop monsters, but I’ve been hard on Coal Harbour in the past, and this seemed like a great chance to do a blind taste test of their award winning beer.

The only images I could find mentioning Beer Statistics are just incredibly depressing, so enjoy this C&H comic instead.

Seven tasters were randomly selected from the group of seven people who showed up to my tasting event. Tasting sheets with five computer-randomized letter codes were printed and distributed (eg “ADBEC” or “CBEAD”). A non-particpant poured columns of each beer out of sight from the tasters, who were then summoned to grab one of each sample. All glasses were uniform. Participants were instructed on the basic IPA features to pay attention to, and were instructed to rank beers in order of preference 1 to 5, with no ties.

Now, why did I do each of these things:

  • Computer randomized letters: Computers are unbiased, and randomizing letters instead of breweries (indeed, before I had even chosen the breweries) removed the possibility of bias being introduced by me at this stage. Since people tend to drink left to right, a single set order could introduce bias to the first hop beast.
  • Pouring out of sight: This is a classic single blind, preventing the tasters from knowing what beer is in each glass. We did consider a double blind (having another person pour from the labeled bottles into a pitcher, then into glasses) but our potential second blind wanted to drink beer, too.
  • Uniform Glassware: Glass shapes affect aroma and flavour; this is why you don’t drink beer from the bottle, or I WILL CUT YOU. Previous experiments of mine showed a much stronger correlation between perceived beverage quality and glass shape than to actual brewery. Having uniform glassware removes this problem.
  • Ordinal Ranking: As I’ve mentioned before, people suck at absolute ranks. Asking folk to give each beer an absolute score would introduce all sorts of personal bias (eg what is a 5/5?).

But enough about that, what are the results? Well, here are the raw data:

Taster 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Central City (“A”) 2 1 3 5 2 2 5
Dead Frog (“B”) 3 5 1 4 5 4 4
Driftwood (“C”) 1 3 4 2 1 1 3
Lighthouse (“D”) 4 2 5 1 3 3 1
Coal Harbour (“E”) 5 4 2 3 4 5 2

Which translates into these scores. Solely because a table with two columns would look lonely, I’m giving you mean, median and olympic averages (throw out highest and lowest, then mean).

Score Median Mean Olympic
Central City (“A”) 2 2.86 3.2
Dead Frog (“B”) 4 3.71 4.4
Driftwood (“C”) 2 2.14 2.4
Lighthouse (“D”) 3 2.71 3.0
Coal Harbour (“E”) 4 3.57 4.4

So there you have, Fat Tug retains it’s crown, and Fearless comes dead last (at least where n=7). Here are some interesting takeaways:

  • No one voted Fat Tug as the worst, and no one voted Coal Harbour as the best. Every other beer had at least one first place and last place vote.
  • Switchback has pulled ahead of Central City for second best IPA in the province, assuming the province is accurately summarized by me and my six friends. Well played, Dean.
  • Fat Tug is statistically out front with a big lead, and then Switchback and CC are effectively tied. Bringing up the (way back) rear is Dead Frog and Coal Harbour, also effectively tied.
  • I’m taster #5, by the way.
  • I was surprised by how much better Fat Tug is compared to the competition. I’ve been on a BC IPA vacation recently, and Fat Tug, CC and Switchback have all clumped together in my brain. In blind tasting, though, I clearly preferred the Fat Tug by a wide margin (so did most everyone).
  • In attempting to ID the beers blind, I nailed Driftwood, but exchanged Switchback and CC, and also swapped Dead Frog and Coal Harbour.
  • Last place here is still a decent IPA. I followed up with a dedicated tasting of Coal Harbour’s Powell IPA to confirm. While it’s not an amazing IPA by any stretch, it is competently executed. A gold star for Most Improved Brewery is deserved.

Written by chuck

December 27th, 2012 at 12:14 pm

A Nightmare on Triumph Street

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Alright. I can do this. I’m a big boy. Deep breath.

You know how I tend to be the blogger that “calls it like I sees it”? Well, that apparently comes with a bit of a responsibility in this industry. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: everyone in the beer industry is nice. Very nice. Almost cloyingly nice. They’ll never say ill about someone else in craft beer, ever… in public.

They will, however, pull aside the loudmouthed angry blogger known for calling out people and confess, in hushed tones, their concern about a recent brewery startup. They will do that, a lot, in the quiet hope that someone (aka me) says something.

And such is the situation I find myself in right now. Everyone wants to talk to me about Coal Harbour Brewing, and everyone has serious concerns about what’s going on down on Triumph Street. Guys, you have a problem, and we’re here to help.

Should… should someone say something?

Note that I said “concerns” not “criticism.” You see, these fine folks want nothing but the best for everyone else in the industry, and when a new brewery starts behaving in ways that frankly make no sense, they’re concerned. They want CHB to succeed, but don’t know how to tell them what’s wrong.

So, where to start? Well, what with them being a brewery and me being a beer snob, it seems natural to start with the beers.

The Beers: They aren’t very good. Their lagers range from distressingly awful (Three-11) to brutally insipid (Vancouver), and their rye ale (Triumph), while arguably the best thing they make, is still a solid meh.

Is that enough to issue a Chuck-standard warning? Nope. Breweries have bad batches, and it takes time to work out the kinks in a new system. I had thought it perfectly likely that the beer as I’d tasted it was not the beer they’d wanted to brew. However, as more pieces clicked into place that became less likely. Like this one: their brewmaster is an import from Surgenor, known for pale insipid lagers meant to appeal to island folk who grew up on Lucky. Sorry folk, these are their beers as they are meant to be produced.

Naming: This is a minor point, and really I only mention it as part of the whole picture for a sense of completeness. Breweries tend to have boring names; they’re founded by brewmasters who maybe don’t have the best imagination around, so they are typically named after either the person making the beer (Hoyne, Russell, etc) or, much more commonly, the place where the beer is made (GIB, VIB, Howe Sound, etc). Occasionally someone gets all creative and we wind up with a Crannog or a Driftwood, but those are the exceptions to the Tofinos, Central Citys and Craig Streets of the world.

Sadly, once in a while, you get a brewery that attempts to make their slightly-depressing location in an industrial district more exciting by just up-and-pretending they’re somewhere else. Take Stanley Park or Hell’s Gate, for instance (both shadow brands under Turning Point). This is the case with Coal Harbour. The brewery is nowhere near Coal Harbour. It’s on Triumph Street, in East Van, in one of a row of anonymous warehouses. However, unlike Stanley Park, they make no effort to hide the true location of their brewery. They even have a map on the website.

Being creative with the name is fine so long as you don’t outright lie. It gives them a chance to invent a slick, cool logo (which is awesome, btw), and maybe do something less UK Warship name-ish than “Triumph Brewing”. Again, no biggie unless taken as part of the whole. Trust me, though, I’m going somewhere with this.

Equipment: Now we’re into the meat of things. When one starts a brewery, one orders some brewing kit. Usually, before one does this, one measures the space into which one hopes to install said kit. This step seems to have been skipped, as CHB discovered that their shiny new fermenters were too tall to fit in their existing space. Again, no biggie. They’re brewers and brewers don’t always think things through.

So they altered them. By cutting off the yeast cones and slapping on domed bottoms. Now that’s an interesting take on the matter. Given the choice, most folk would have shortened the tank (at the expense of volume) rather than cut off the cones and basically have to reinvent how to brew beer at industrial volumes. This might not be a bad thing, as flat bottom fermenters means the yeast is all happy and free, and your beers come out very cloudy and yeast-tastic. This is part of what gives home-brewed beer that distinctive flavour. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless, say, 2 of your three beers are lagers, which are known for their clarity. Now you basically have to filter the ever-loving fuck out of your beers, and as anyone will tell you: filtering also strains out character and flavour. There’s a reason other micro-breweries proudly state “unfiltered” on the sides of their bottles.

The other problem with their brewing equipment is that there’s a lot of it. A giant fucktonne, in fact. It takes a lot of beer to fill all those snub-nosed fermenters and conditioning tanks. And it takes an awful lot of sales to keep the flow going and your beer at it’s freshest and bestest. When the sales are down, and you have a giant bank loan to pay off, are you going to pour out that past-its-prime 20hl CT like you should, or just look the other way and keg it? Exactly.

Product Pricing: Three-11 is a economy product competing on price. Translation from marketing speak: It’s cheap. Say what you like about the flavour, style and quality, but boy it sure is cheap. That is attractive for bars that also serve marcos, as somewhat shockingly, macros are not cheap, but their clientele sure as hell are. This is a perfectly fine approach to selling bad beer, but then CHB had to go out and create a not-quite-as-bad lager that is nowhere-near-as-cheap. Their Vancouver Lager is much more expensive for a bar to bring in compared to Three-11. This sounds like no problem to bar owners until a meathead who’s been drinking “CHB Lager” all night for $4 a glass down the street walks in, sees “CHB Lager” on tap for $7 a glass, and proclaims the bar to be a rip-off. This image hurts any bar that sells the better beer, making keeping it on tap a hard proposition. Yes, they’re both likely properly labeled, but do you think lager louts can read?

I’m seriously impressed when they remember to breathe.

Marketing: Their marketing strategy thus far appears to be “find out where Driftwood is, and go there.” Not a bad strategy… at first glance. They’re a small brewery and don’t have a lot of money to invest in finding the best spots, so why not ride the coattails of BC’s best microbrewery to find all the markets where people like good beer? Well, that’s the problem. CHB isn’t good beer; it’s not meant to be good beer. It’s brewed to compete against Stanley Park Amber and Pilsner, whether the folk at CHB believe that or not. Sure, putting a tap handle next to Driftwood Fat Tug means you’re front and centre in an establishment that likes to try new things. And yes, that bearded beer geek blogger who just saddled up to the bar and who has never heard of CHB sure as hell will order one. Then I’ll drink 1/2 of it, send the other half back, tell the bar manager to never order that shite again, and move down the menu to see what those whacky US breweries are up to.

Here’s a hint to the CHB sales department: get a tap next to Stanley Park Pilsner. That is a beer positioned in a bar mostly dominated by macros. And a good chunk of those patrons will find even the moderate flavour of Stanley Park Pilsner a bit much of a leap from the watered-down goat piss that is Canadian. That’s where you come in. You’re better than Canadian, but not as “weird” as Stanley Park (I mean, there’s *hops* in that! Who likes hops?!). There’s a niche there. Fill it.

So there’s our advice: Streamline your beer lineup, go after Stanley Park, make money, and then (hopefully), use those profits to brew actual good beer. Sure, this isn’t a great strategy, but it’s a lot better than what you’re currently doing. You can’t compete with the craft breweries on quality (or at least you don’t seem to want to), and you sure as hell can’t compete with the macros on brand recognition. What’s left is the quasi-craft market, where you will be up against Stanley Park (aka Mark Anthony), Granville Island (aka Molson) and Okanagan Springs (aka Sapporo). That’s a hard market to work in, but at least it’s a strategy that makes sense.

Or, you know, brew good beer. Switch to the classic 1-2-3 of craft beer start-ups: an IPA, a hoppy Pale, and a punchy Pilsner. Or branch out a bit and do a funky Saison–your cone-less fermenters could be perfect for this. We’ll drink them, I promise, and it’s an easier market to work in.

Written by chuck

March 10th, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Breweries

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Casks and Hops

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There are two upcoming beer events of note. The first is Central City’s Summer Cask Festival. There are 26 confirmed breweries so far, including an intriguing entry from Coal Harbour Brewing. So far, we’ve only seen a very young saison from Daniel’s new endeavour, so I’m curious to see if this time around the beer will be, you know, finished.

Things kick off this Saturday at 11am, yet there are still tickets available. I rather suspect the reason that this festival has not been subject to the near instantaneous sellout status of other lower mainland festivals is largely due to Central City’s rather unfortunate placement in Surrey. Sure, it’s right across from the Central City Skytrain stop, making for a nice easy commute to and stumble from the event, but no amount of transit convenience can hide the… Surrey-ness… of it all. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.

Alas, I will also be skipping this one, but because of prior commitments rather than any particular olfactory concerns (hell, you should smell my bathroom). All joking aside, tough it up, city folk, and get your asses to Surrey.

Second up is yet another CAMRA-initiated event, Fest of Ale: Too Hop to Handle. Hosted at St Augustine’s, this iteration of the Fest of Ale will focus on, well, hops. And lots of them. Personally, I just love the pendulum swing from the last event, which focused on light alcohol beers with subtle flavour. It’s as if the CAMRA exec said “fuck that shit, bring on the hops and boooooooze!” Unlike the last event, which had a 3.5% ABV max, there is no ABV minimum this time around, but I’d expect the average will easily top 6 or 7%.

Expect to see IPAs, IPAs and, just for something a bit different, perhaps an IPA or two. Lots of the participating breweries already produce IPAs, so I’m hoping they’ll create something a bit special for this fest (and don’t just dry-hopped your regular brews, please). In fact, I’ll pull out an oldie-but-a-goodie and promise to call out breweries that get lazy and just pour their production beers. I know I’ve threatened vehicular damage for such transgressions in the past, but that’s suddenly out of vogue these days.

Perhaps more interestingly some of the contributors are not known for their hoppy ales, so I’m very interested to see what they bring along. Specifically, Saltspring and Crannog, both of whom grow their own hops, incidentally. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on you guys, so bring your A-game.

I will be at this one, assuming I can snag a ticket before they sell out.

All in all, summer is off to a good start. I rather suspect the CC event will be the better of the two, but who knows, I’ve been wrong many, many times before.

Written by chuck

June 22nd, 2011 at 2:56 pm