Of the Rise in Craft Brewing

A long time ago, I did an article for this site addressing what I saw as a criminal trend in the brewing industry. Not just any crime mind you, but a crime against nature itself, as far as I was concerned! I was referring to the expansion of major brand names and how it seemed to be leading to an overall dip in quality.

To illustrate, I referred to how some of my favorite craft brewers from over the years had been altering their recipes, mainly so they could achieve mass appeal and expand their sales. Others, also personal favorites of mine, had closed down instead, unable to compete in a mass market dominated by major names and low standards. Not a happy article. But if I’ve realized anything in the past two years, it is that this trend has swung sharply in the other direction.

Yes, craft brewing is becoming more and more popular, and may I say that it’s about bloody time! Whether its an upsurge in the number of micro-breweries or the adoption of a craft beer line by major breweries, the trend seems consistent. Granted this is all based on my own anecdotal experience, but when you notice it happening everywhere, you have to assume you’re onto something!

First, as I said, is the expansion in craft brewing. Of all the micro breweries that I’ve discovered since moving to BC, few seem to have opened their doors before the year 2000. For those that did, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s been in operation since before the late 90’s. This is true of the Driftwood Brewery, the Cannery Brewery, Moon Under Water, Phillips, Old Yale, Hoyne, Dead Frog, Surgenor, Longwood, Swan’s, Spinnakers, and a host of others that I’ve sampled over the years. Back in Ontario, this is similarly true. It was only in the late 90’s and early millennium that the spectacular operations of McAuslan’s, Creemore, Scotch-Irish, Mill St., Heritage, Cameron’s, Muskoka, and a slew of others were established. And their ongoing success is a testament to fact that the popularity of craft brewing is on the rise.

As for the adoption of special, small-batch product lines adopted by larger operations, I am satisfied to say that this trend seems to be catching on, particularly with breweries that I noticed were watering down the wares. In recent years, the Vancouver Island Brewery, Granville Island Brewery, the Lighthouse Brewery have all began releasing signature or limited release beers that are not part of their regular lineups, and take advantage of the small batch production methods that ensure better quality.

This is also true of such giants as Keith’s, which has expanded its lineup by incorporating a white, an amber and a dark ale. This began in recent years, and represents a complete 180 from what they’ve been doing for the generations now – producing a single, watery ale that bears no resemblance to a real IPA. And Sleeman’s, a major operation in its own right, has even expanded its repertoire by introducing an IPA and a Porter to their lineup.

Granted, brewery ownership is still concentrated in the hands of a few major multinationals, and the vast majority of beer consumed today consists of mass produced, flat and flavorless numbers. Still, the trend towards authenticity and flavor seems to be clear. Consumers are demanding beer that is made locally, in small batches, and in accordance with traditional standards. And for beer snobs, who insist on authenticity over accessibility, this can only be seen as great news. Great news indeed!

So when you’re out next weekend, find yourself a local microbrew, a brewpub, and drink up! And be sure to tip your barmaid. Cheers!

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Of Crappy Beers and Other Crimes Against Nature!

Here is a final post for the month of December, 2010. In it, I pretty much summarized my feelings as a beer snob and some of the experiences that brought me to that place. My apologies if I offend, but really, low standards make me ANGRY, as anyone who read the title line is no doubt aware.

After reviewing Alexander Keith’s IPA, and precisely what is wrong with that title (not an IPA, dammit!), I began to feel that special attention needed to be given to a subject that I have long felt strongly about. For years I have noticed a trend in brewing that runs contrary to the reemergence of craft brewing and is an insult to the tradition of microbrewing. I am, of course, referring to the “dumbing down” of beers, the reducing of hop content and the elimination of flavour in the hopes of making them more “accessible” to the mass market. Like so many other things, the beer industry, which many years ago began to see a resurgence thanks to the rise of new, local, and traditionally-oriented beer-making, has since seen a decline in quality because it seems to believe that higher standards means less in the way of sales. This may very well be true, but it is nonetheless upsetting, especially to people like myself who thrive on genuine beer! Some examples…

Granville Island Brewery: One of the first to spearhead micro-brewing here on the West Coast, this brewery once offered good, hoppy pale ales and crisp, clean lagers. Then, something happened… I’m not entirely sure when the transition occurred, but I can tell you as someone who regularly traveled to BC in the old days and sampled the beers when I got here, that the flavour began to change. The English Bay Pale Ale ceased to be hoppy and became strangely sweet and even a bit skunky. The same could be said of their Lager, their Gastown Amber and their Cypress Honey. They all ceased tasting like they once did, namely like they were made with clean BC mountain water and rich hops, and became odd tasting, what I can only describe as malty with an unpleasant aftertaste.

Vancouver Island Brewery: One of my favorite breweries of all time! I can’t tell you how many Piper’s Pale Ales or Hermann’s Dark’s I enjoyed back in my day! At one time, it was even a huge treat for myself and friends of mine to bring these babies back from the West Coast for parties since we couldn’t get any in Ontario. However, it wasn’t long before the Pipers ceased to be crisp and hoppy and became rather bland with a touch of sweet aftertaste. The Hermann’s was much the same, ceasing to combine in a perfect balance a tawny, hoppy flavour with a lingering aftertaste. Now the best I can say about it is that it remains pleasantly tawny, but has lost the bite and substituted it with – you guessed it! – a sweet aftertaste. Their lager’s are much the same, being still refreshing and crisp, but not as tasty as they used to be. Their Islander Lager, while I have been known to appreciate its clean taste after a hot workout, is one of the most flavourless beers I have ever had!

Hart Brewery: The little brewery that couldn’t! Located in Carleton Place, just outside of Ottawa, this little brewery was once my all-time favorite purveyor of beers! It was during a Nortel co-op tour, where I had the honour of taking part with a bunch of engineering friends, that I came to be introduced to their beers. I learned a great deal about beer and beer making from the brew master before sampling their extensive line of products. A moment to review them…

First, there was their Hart Amber Ale which won the gold medal at 1992 Food, Wine and Beer Show’s beer competition in Toronto. It was a delicious, hoppy and complex ale, not what you’d expect from a amber which are usually light, smooth, and tawny, with very little bitterness or complexity to them. Then there was their Festive Brown Ale, which was similarly hoppy, deep, rich and tawny with a lingering hop finish. The Dragons Breath’s Ale is none too bad either, combining a strong hop profile with a clean, crisp taste. It was my first real IPA, though I didn’t know it at the time! How painfully fitting, that this beer, like the brewery, never got the credit it deserved! (sniff, sniff) Then there was the Pumpkin Ale, the very first of its kind for me! Much like all the Pumpkin Ales that have followed Hart’s lead (Again, could be wrong in saying that they were the first) it was unique, like pumpkin pie in a glass, only with suds and nice hop bite! They had many others, most of which I cannot do justice too since it was such a long time ago, but remember as being really good!

So where are they now? GONE! The brewery closed shop, was bought out, and now puts out only two beers, the Amber and a Lager, both of which suck since the retirement of the brew master and the hiring of some hacks who went as far as to bring in a priest to bless the equipment because they couldn’t get it to work right (no joke!) Sad, sad, sad! A true great that received plenty of critical acclaim but not nearly enough commercial success. I salute you, Mr. Lorne Hart! What little honour I can bestow through my meager blog cannot hope to do you or your beer justice! But I will try!

To be fair, I cannot say the same for Sleeman’s Brewery. While their rise to national prominence did coincide with the rise of micro-turned-national breweries like Granville and Vancouver Island, their beers still taste pretty much the same as they always did. However, this is probably because their beers were never particularly challenging. Their Silver Creek, Honey Brown, Dark Lager and the like have always been accessible. While I do enjoy them here in BC, it largely because of their drinkability, which is due in no small part to the fact that BC water makes for great beer! In Ontario, where operations are centered in Guelph, the end result can only be described as skunky! Why anyone would want to use Guelph water to make anything is beyond me! I can only guess that the many breweries in the region get it piped in from somewhere clean!

In short, the beers I once knew and loved changed and I was obviously disappointed. The sudden change was something I was at a loss to explain until two things became clear to me. One, these breweries had exploded in popularity, and two, most people don’t appreciate beers that are hoppy. It therefore seemed likely that the brew-masters had decided to make changes in order to broaden their appeal and make them more accessible to the general public. And in a country where Coors Light is the number one seller (don’t even mention the C word to me!), and major establishments can be counted on to have zero micro-brews on tap (the closest they can manage seems to be Sleeman’s), dumming down the beer must seem like the only option.

Tragic! I say this for two reasons. First of all, the rise in craft brewing was supposed to be a reversal of this growing trend of crappy beer making. While popular, Coors, Labatts’, Molson, Keiths, Budweiser and the like make beers that are of low quality, have little flavour, and generally suck when compared to craft brews that are made in small batches with attention to detail. Whereas the 20th century seemed dominated by the monopolization of the beer industry, all by a few giants who made beers that all pretty much tasted alike, the late 80’s and early 90’s saw the move away from this trend. It would suck to see this end before it even had a chance!

Second, it sucks because it seems to confirm the rule that small operations are destined to compromise on their high standards if they are to be successful, at least highly so. Their are countless breweries along the West Coast that have been around for some time and enjoyed moderate to great success without compromising on their quality, such as Rogue and Dogfish, but are they the exceptions? Or are they holdouts? Will they too sell out in order to expand, or will they live on to say “I told you so” when those who have sold out fade into the background along with the other brewing giants? When the general public once again demands something different, something with flavor? Something that isn’t bland and same as all the rest?

While it may sound snobbish or elitist of me to say so, I truly believe that when it comes to beer, accessibility is the enemy of quality. As I said before, If “inoffensive” is the nicest thing you can say about a beer, then you know something is wrong, and you can quote me on that. Please, PLEASE quote me on that!

The Month of IPA’s, 2010

Last November, I decided to dedicate the month to sampling IPA’s. There were two reasons for this: One, they’ve been making a big comeback in recent years, thanks in part to the rise in craft brewing and their reputation as both a historically relevant and venerable brew. And two: I really, REALLY like IPA! Here’s what I found:Ever since the Scotch-Irish Brewing Company released Sgt. Major’s IPA, a true IPA that was both strong, really hoppy and powerful, I’ve made it a point to try them whenever a new one comes out. To begin this month’s theme, I’ve chosen another obscure title that I had just the other day. Le Freak, by Green Flash Brewing Co. Well, obscure is a relative term. I mean to say that this number is hard to find here in Victoria. It’s brewed in San Diego, where apparently, they are also in the tradition of brewing IPA’s. Weighing in at 9.2% alcohol, it’s a triple fermented beer that combines Belgian-style trippel and IPA traditions.

And that’s exactly where they went wrong. While it is a good brew, I think combining these disparate traditions was a mistake. For one, IPA’s and trippels really don’t taste much alike, the former being very hoppy and bitter, the latter being more subtle, complex and semi-sweet. There is some potential for crossover given that both are often fruity and always complex, this beer ends up tasting very strong, bitter, tawny and dark, almost like a stout.

It’s strength also makes its a little hard to handle, but then again, with a name like Le Freak, that’s what you’d expect. Still, the heavy, tawny taste combined with its alcohol content makes it a tad unappetizing. I’d say going with a strong IPA or a strong trippel would solved these problems for them. All in all, I give it a 3 out of 5. Good potential and I’d like to try more of what Green Flash makes, but this one I might avoid in the future.

Here’s a link to the Green Flash Co’s website:
Green Flash Brewery

Honourable Mentions: I also want to take a minute to mention the two IPA’s that schooled me on what this beer is all about way back when. Back in the summer of 2002, in Ottawa during a rather hot day, some friends and I went to the Beer Festival which was being held just outside City Hall. This festival coincided with the Chicken and Ribs Festival being held just up the street, so my friends and I were awash in the smells of mesquite, bbq’d pork, chicken and ribs, and sweet, sweet beer! Wandering over to the Scotch-Irish Brewery’s tent, we came face to face with something we thought we knew but quickly we realized we hadn’t the faintest idea about:

An India Pale Ale! Not the Keith’s crap which I shall rant about later, but a genuine IPA made in the old, British and Maritimer tradition. The beer in question, a Scotch-Irish original, was named Sergeant Major’s IPA, and had a lovely logo of a British soldier on it with India in the background. The man tending to the taps, who I believe was Scotch-Irish’s brewmaster, explained the real history behind the beer to us and then let us sample the wares. We were blown away! As a big fan of hops, I couldn’t help but feel like this beer was made for me. Since that time, I’ve gone looking for it and made a home at any pub brave enough to serve it on tap. When they began bottling it, I was quite happy and would stock up whenever the chance arose. Whenever I go back to Ottawa, I make it a point to get my hands on it since it was only available in bottles for a short time before I moved. An original, and one of the first instance of IPA’s being made in the old tradition, something I see every micro-brewery on the face of the planet doing now, I’ve often credited this brewery for reintroducing the world to this venerable vintage! I could be wrong of course, and I now know that Hart did it before them (see above), but to me, they were the first! 5 out of 5!

Another great maker of the IPA was Magnotta Brewery, a company located in the Niagara area that is, interestingly enough, known for their wines. Back when I was a drinker of their wares, they had only two beers to speak of: their True North Altbier, and their True North IPA. The former is an interesting brew, being both smooth, clean and tawny. But it was their IPA which I was a particular fan of. While not as good as Sergeant Major, it was nonetheless a clean, crisp, hoppy and aromatic beer which I enjoyed quite thoroughly. It’s strong gold colour and nutty aroma were also very pleasant, and I wouldn’t shy away from pouring many bottles into a large stein and enjoying it throughout an evening. A nostalgic favorite for me, high in quality and rich on memories! 4 out of 5.