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Oakes Weekly - August 11th, 2005
Real Ale in Vancouver
August 11, 2005
Written by Oakes
The second annual Caskival, a cask ale festival, broke up the monotony of my slow summer. The background is this – Tony Dewald, the brewer at Dix Barbeque & Brewery in downtown Vancouver has been working hard to promote cask ale. There isn’t much of it in this town, as nobody brews it regularly and nobody sells it. Dix carries cask ale every Thursday evening and that is it.
In addition to the Thursday tappings, Tony and Dix host a small series of cask ale festivals at their pubs. Last summer was the first Caskival, then they did the Winter Extreme Beer Festival and the spring IPA Festival. At the crack of noon, the doors opened and in I went.
The first thing stop was a no-brainer. Storm has finally released to the public their Cassis lambic. It’s about 8 or 9 years old now, and was apparently krausened, though obviously not with fresh lambic as to my knowledge they haven’t made any. It would be nice if they did, but I don’t think that’s the case. At any rate, I hadn’t had the Cassis yet and so it was first up. Not as complex as the gueuze or as deep as the Kriek was when I had some at the brewery in January, the Cassis is still a pretty strong effort. Storm’s have become, after this many years, the best non-Belgian examples I’ve tasted. The Cassis showed some traits perhaps not so desirable, including a distinct acetic note, and is overall a bit rough around the edges, but was very tart with reasonable complexity. I went back for more later, and will likely do the same. It will be available at the Great Canadian Beer Festival next month as well, but don’t expect it on tap anywhere in Vancouver.
Some of the beers are corny-conditioned, which means there’s a lot less of them than the others, so I headed for those next. I gave the Central City Empire IPA a whirl. The first batch of this beer rocked. That wasn’t a surprise, though, as brewer Gary Lohin made some very good IPAs when he was at Sailor Hägar’s. This batch, however, was really unbalanced. With an artificial-tasting sweetness and bludgeoning hops, it lacked any sense of tact. Big time hopheads might think that this is a good thing, but remember who’s talking here. I love big hoppy unbalanced IPAs. This was unbalanced in a good way, it was just a poorly structured beer. Hopefully it was an aberration. This beer is available on tap at the brewpub.
A new beer followed – R&B’s Fallen Angel, a wit. These guys were going to run with a Bohemian pilsner as their summer beer, but I only saw it once as a sneak preview at a Dix cask night. It wasn’t very good and I don’t know if anybody’s seen it since. So maybe they just moved on. The Fallen Angel is afflicted with that ugly dark tan hue and combined with cask flatness it looked pretty bad. The aroma was decent, though, if a little common for the style. Flavourwise, this one suffered from being served cask-conditioned.
I found the same thing with the next beer, the Saison from Big Ridge Brewing in Surrey. I actually like the Big Ridge seasonal beers. Brewer Dave Varga’s regular stuff at both his breweries doesn’t do much for me, though the lagers are typically clean and flavoursome. But his seasonal stuff shows a unique blend of restraint and creativity. For example, he did a steam beer for the springtime at Big Ridge. His Blueberry Ale at Taylor’s Crossing is another example of trying something different, making it work, while staying within the fairly narrow flavour range that his chickenshit suburban clientele demands. So his cardamom and coriander jacked Saison was decent, though I may have asked for a more estery yeast myself. I hope this is on at the brewery right now because I plan to visit soon and want to try this with more carbonation and a cooler serving temperature, which will suit the beer more.
Steamworks Brewing is another brewpub with solid seasonal products. Big Surprise was their offering. Now, Steamworks a number of months ago opened a branch in West Vancouver. Now that it’s summer and their original Gastown location is perpetually mobbed with tourists, they’ve gone beyond capacity. As noted last week, I drank an R&B Raven Ale there, as they’ve been forced to serve outside beer for the first time in their 10-year history just to meet demand. So a new beer from them can’t be a full batch of anything, but one of their regulars with something added. That something was the “big surprise”.
My suspicion is that the beer was Empress IPA and brewer Conrad Gmoser added some wormwood. The dosage would have had to be infintessimal relative to what James Walton of Storm did with his Wormwood IPA at the IPA fest last April. That tasted like about 800 IBUs – I mean it was totally undrinkable. But if you get the amount right, you can use wormwood in the beer. Why do I suspect this? Well, I didn’t smell anything unusual, which was also the case with Storm’s beer, and the bitterness was higher than any of the regular Steamworks brews.
Speakings of Storm, James built a device that ran hops through supercritical CO2 and then dissolved this into the beer. I really don’t understand it at all but the net effect was supposed to result in the CO2 leaving behind hop resins as it percolated through the liquid. The beer came out very green-smelling and was not met with a huge amount of praise by those who tasted it. I’ll say this though – Storm does some very whacky experiments. One day they’ll do something insane that takes beer to a next level. It might not, however, be his “bubble beer” that will be on at the Great Canadian Beer Festival next month. You know what bubble tea is? Same idea, but with Scottish Ale. I sense a trainwreck in the making, but if this insanity ever hits on something monumental, I’ll be sure and let everyone know.
Last year, Russell Brewing of Surrey did a jalapeño version of their Lemon Ale for the fest. This year, they did a brown ale with jalapeño and blackberry jam, calling in Hot Jam. My first thought was “since when did Russell have a brown ale”? Nobody else I talked to had an answer and I didn’t see any of the Russell people there so this will require supplementary research. The beer was really unfocused, though, but I did like the purplish accented brown colour. The lightness of the chile tells me that if Russell really wanted to, they could probably make money selling a pleasingly restrained chile beer. But might I suggest an earthier variety than jalapeño? The flavours of guajillo or aji panca go so much better with beer – especially brown ale – than jalapeño. And a chipotle beer is pretty much impossible to botch. Well, for me at least.
The Russell beer is pretty indicative of something that kind of bugs me about these local cask fests. The brewers, well, they tend to do a lot of these totally whacked-out sorts of beers. Now, I like experiments. Some of the ones I’ve seen in this town have worked really well – I very much enjoyed the Lavender IPA that Yaletown made (though my opinion of that beer can hardly be considered the consensus viewpoint). But it seems to me that at a lot of other festivals I’ve attended, brewers make a concerted effort to bring something really great. They pull out all the stops. Here, they mostly just screw around. If it works, great, if not well it doesn’t matter because either way you won’t see that beer again. For me as a beer lover, I get a kick out of it but would say two things. First, please do a test batch. Whacky experiments that suck should never make it to the public. Test a keg on friends and wellwishers if need be but make sure you’re bringing something worth drinking to a beer festival.
The other suggestion would be to make more serious overtures as well. Every brewer in town has brands that are underperforming. So why don’t they put together a killer new recipe and test it out. I mean, do that Imperial IPA you’ve always wanted, and see what people think of it. They might like it. And then you could replace that underperforming beer you’ve got. In fact, if you look at Ontario, nobody thought you could sell hoppy beer there until the Winking Judge practically forced Scotch Irish to make Sgt. Major’s IPA. That beer took about a week to become the Scotch Irish flagship. The point is that there’s a lot of people who like beer but aren’t certified beer geeks. So you can actually use beer geeks to test market your bolder ideas. I suspect that’s what R&B is up to, but I’d like to see more of that.
The last two beers I was a little bit worried about. The host brewery Dix had a Strawberry Blonde on, which is pretty much a recipe for disaster. Except it wasn’t. When Crit said it was one of the best beers at the fest, I was pretty skeptical. But he was actually right. It was pretty good. First, no diacetyl. I cannot stress this enough. In fact, I didn’t taste any diacetyl all day, which was damn impressive for a Vancouver beer festival. The strawberry was nicely balanced, too, lending a pleasing fruity note to a refreshing, clean blonde ale. It was a solid summer beer, and I can now say that Vancouver boasts my favourite strawberry beer and my favourite blueberry beer. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bamberg.
The last new one was Dockside’s Pelican Bay Brown. Aside from wondering where on earth Pelican Bay is, I was at least happy that Dockside brought what appeared to be just a new, regular beer. No whacky silly stuff! Of course, the whacky silly stuff was better because, well, this is Dockside we’re talking about. While it lacks the “What the fuck?” qualities of Steelback and doesn’t quite live down to the “Oh my God” nature of Breughel, it’s still one of the lesser lights on the Canadian microbrew scene. This is mostly due to the yeast issues they seem to have, that result in lifeless, underfermented beers carrying overtones that remind me of walking past the front steps of the Carnegie Centre at Main & Hastings.
I also took the opportunity to crack some prime re-rates. Most of these were pretty solid. Mission Springs brought their Oatmeal Stout, which won the Golden Bung award (people’s choice) last year. That’s always a solid brew. High Mountain showed off Big Wolf Bitter, tasting very much like a Howe Sound product in its subtle, well-balanced way. Appleton Brown Ale from Swan’s pays homage to Frank Appleton, one of the microbrewing pioneers in BC. He must be a big brown ale fan, because the Mark James brewpubs (well, Yaletown and High Mountain at least) made Frank’s Nut Brown, which like the Swan’s one he designed. It’s a decent beer, but the brown ale concept, to my tastebuds, is better on paper than in the glass. I’m very tough on brown ales.
Overall, the fest was a solid small pub fest. The crowd didn’t look as big as it was for the IPA fest, but then it didn’t have as saleable a gimmick. The beers were better, though, as brewers were able to play to their strong points a little more. Aside from the Storm, though, nothing was outstanding. Which I suppose is the beef I have with the BC scene, Session beers are cool and all, and ultimately that’s what you want to drink, but every once in a while you need something truly special. A Storm lambic or a Fat Cat barley wine or a Phillips imperial IPA. Now that would take this fest to a higher plane.
‘Til next week…
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Storm has finally released to the public their Cassis lambic. It’s about 8 or 9 years old now, and was apparently krausened, though obviously not with fresh lambic
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