B.C. Beer Blog

The who, what, where, when, why, and how of B.C. craft beer

Posts Tagged ‘extreme beer

Spinnakers Boosts Victoria Real Ale

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Until recently, the hotbed of BC cask-conditioned ale — aka real ale — was Vancouver. As Real Ale has a distinctly British pedigree (as you might glean from having heard of the Campaign for Real Ale), this is somewhat surprising, given Victoria’s British heritage (royal this, that, and the other thing; high tea; double-decker buses, etc.). However, you could only find a cask served at Spinnakers every Friday. Whereas in Vancouver, aside from its three annual cask festivals, a cask is always on at the Irish Heather, is featured every week at Dix and The Whip, and is offered monthly at BigRidge and Taylor’s Crossing. Ironically, a greater number of Vancouver Island brewers were supplying Vancouver with cask ale than their own patrons.

To address this paradox, Spinnakers has aggressively ramped up their real ale production. Now, every weekday, they are tapping a different cask in the taproom at 4:00pm. These are not just cask versions of their regular beer. Brewer Rob Monk is taking advantage of the cask’s small size (40 L) to experiment with different, innovative recipes. For example, tomorrow will feature a Basil IPA, next Tuesday there will be a Maple Nut Brown Ale, and on January 22, it’s a French Oaked Belgian Blonde.

Although brewing real ale represents more work for the brewer, it offers them an enticing advantage. When creating esoteric or extreme beers, brewing, say, a 10 hectoliter batch exposes them to much greater financial risk. Most beer drinkers in BC are not that adventurous or even beer savvy, considering how much macro lager is sold here. It would be hard selling so much of an unconventional beer in such a small market (compared to the size of the US). Brewing 40 L, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition. Now the brewer can afford to be creative and may, cask by cask, gradually convert enough of the clientele to be able to brew a full batch of a beer they would not have previously accepted. This is what seems to be happening in Vancouver.

The vanguard of brewing in BC is mostly found in its brewpubs (except for Kelowna and Penticton). Typically, they will offer a range of beer styles from lager to stout, Hefeweizen to IPA. Real ale is the next frontier. Hopefully, Spinnakers will now do for Victoria what Dix and R&B have done for Vancouver. A regular supply of real ale is a good thing that every self-respecting pub should have. The further away we get from BC’s beer parlour tradition, the better.

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Reaching Beer’s Outer Limits

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As I mentioned in a previous post about the importance of imports, an outside stimulus to the derriere is sometimes necessary to motivate one to reach beyond the rut or comfort of stasis. That swift kick may come in the form of competition from imports. It can also come from the introduction of new domestic products.

A kind reader referred me to an excellent article by Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker on the search for “a better brew.” While also functioning as an interesting profile of Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, the article points out two schools of thought on what Boston Beer Company founder, Jim Koch, coined as “extreme” beer. To Koch, “When you’re making an extreme beer, it’s like pushing beyond the sound barrier.” Brooklyn Brewing brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, on the other hand, thinks:

The whole idea of extreme beer is bad for craft brewing. It doesn’t expand the tent—it shrinks it. If I want someone to taste a beer, and I make it sound outlandish and crazy, there is a certain kind of person who will say, ‘Oh, let me try it.’ But that is a small audience. It’s one that you can build a beer on, but not a movement.

I think Oliver is right—you won’t build a movement on extreme beer, one that will get the macrobrew drinkers to switch over to craft beer. However, I don’t think that’s the point of these beers, nor is that what Calagione, for one, is intending for them to do. Broadening the diversity of beer does expand a corner of the craft beer tent; we just need to find a way to bring more people under the tent.

Look at Europe for contrast. The competitive landscape there is shrinking as breweries consolidate or are forced to close, reducing the amount of choice to consumers. Brewing there is increasingly about the bottom line, not the beer. That means Edward Scissor Hands is in the driver’s seat. This is why consumer organizations like CAMRA, PINT, and Zythos have circled the wagons to protect their brewing traditions from being destroyed by corporatism, just like Slow Food has done for cuisine.

In North America, on the other hand, the craft beer market is growing. This provides the competitive impetus for innovation. How does a brewer distinguish themselves but by coming out with something completely different, even original. American brewers have covered the common European beer styles quite thoroughly, even adding their own stamp to the degree that it has warranted creating American sub-categories. Now they are venturing into more esoteric styles, ones that are nearing extinction in the Old World—Gose, Kellerbier, Sahti, Steinbier, Wassail, Zwickelbier—and ones from the really old world that, until recently, have been gone for centuries and only revived through archaeology. Even traditional lambic is finding a dwindling audience.

With the U.S. being such a large market, there is room for ballsy brewers willing to push beer’s outer limits to succeed. The small market of B.C. makes it a lot harder unless you have some good financial backing and top notch marketing. Unfortunately, our breweries comfortably in the black are largely run by people in it for the business opportunity, not the beer. Don’t expect them to be raising the bar on creativity, much less release seasonal beers. To find the cutting edge in B.C., you’ll have to dig deeper and keep your ears open. What could be considered extreme beer here is often found at the cask ale festivals at Dix BBQ and Brewery in August and December. If you want more of a good thing, then you should make a point of attending and encourage the brewers willing to take a chance.

A curry pale ale, anyone?