R.I.P. Ed McNally 1925 – 2014

1306679703384_ORIGINALCanadian beer drinkers should bow their heads and raise their glasses to the memory of Edward McNally, who founded Calgary, Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery in 1984. Ed passed away last night, as reported just a few minutes ago on the brewery’s Twitter feed.

Ed was a lawyer by profession and a westerner to his core. He came to the brewing industry by way of his position as director of the Western Barley Growers Association, which in the 1980s was experiencing legal difficulties associated with the sale and marketing of brewer’s barley. Researching the issue, Ed came across the story of Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and decided that the best way to get a market for Alberta barley was to use it in an Alberta brewery.

I met Ed in 1983 as I was researching my first book, the Great Canadian Beer Guide. Although by then the head of a sizable business, he had no problem sitting down with, and indeed devoting most of his morning to, a young writer who thought he knew a lot about beer. I remember him still as a magnanimous,  forthright and highly entertaining man. We were to meet again several times in the passing years and never did I have occasion to alter that original impression.

As Big Rock grew bigger and bigger, the inevitable rumours would surface on a regular basis, suggesting that Big Brewery X or Y was about to purchase the company. I knew, however, that so long as there was breath in Ed McNally’s body, Big Rock would forever remain proudly and fiercely independent.

I’d lost touch with Ed through the years and, in truth, didn’t even know if he was still connected to the brewery at the end. But there is one thing I’m certain of, and that is that he remained a devoted Big Rock man to the very end. Rest in peace, Ed. Your legacy will not soon be forgotten.

 

 

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It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

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No, There Aren’t Too Many Breweries in the United States

Not yet, at least. But for some odd reason, the subject keeps climbing back into the mainstream, most recently in a story by Joshua Bernstein in Bon Appétit online, which when shared on Facebook emerges with the headline “The U.S. Craft Beer Market Is Way Overcrowded – Bon Appétit.”

That sentiment is not actually reflected directly in the story, the online version of which boasts the more equivocal title of “America Now Has Over 3,000 Craft Breweries—and That’s Not Necessarily Great for Beer Drinkers,” but the sentiment has launched a flurry of discussion around the web.

So let’s get this straight: 3,000 breweries are NOT too many for the United States and increased selection is NOT bad for beer drinkers.

Got it? Good! Now, here’s why.

At 3,000 breweries, the United States is now beginning to approach the breweries per population ratio we have in Canada, and in fact, depending on the brewery count for Canada you use – an accurate count in the country is almost impossible to ascertain – could already have reached the same level. But we’re not exactly awash in breweries north of the border, and I have yet to witness the “bloodbath” predicted by Sam Calagione in Bernstein’s story.

That brewery to population ratio, by the way, is about one per every 105,000 people. Which in a global context is actually pretty laughable.

How so? Look at the United Kingdom, for starters, where they boast a brewery for roughly every 55,500 citizens. Or Germany, with one for every 61,500 people. Or little Belgium, where every 70,000 individuals could claim a brewery of their own, should they be so inclined.

And that’s counting only traditional brewing powers. Wade into the numbers of nations that are experiencing their own craft beer renaissances, as is the U.S., and some of the numbers drop even further, like Switzerland, Denmark and New Zealand.

But wait, I hear American brewers arguing, we have the three tier system, which means that distributors are going to fill up and not want to carry any more brands. Which is why, I counter, microdistributors are beginning to appear all around the USA, and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as the demand for their services persists. Besides, more and more states are allowing self-distribution, which is surely sufficient for smaller operations.

But even so, I hear in the distance, it’s not necessarily about the distributors, but the proliferation of SKUs (the acronym for “store keeping units,” the short form for a distinct item in retail sale, such as a bomber of beer, a six-pack or a case, which represent three SKUs even if they are of the same brand). Except that most of these little start-ups are selling not from variety stores or supermarkets, where SKU quantity is an issue, but from their own stores or pubs or one or two of a handful of specialty retailers. And as for bars, well, more taps are coming on-stream daily in the United States, both from new bars and restaurants and existing ones which are changing from regular brews to crafts. (Even Pete Coors sees that happening, although he hasn’t yet quite figured out why.)

Regardless of all the above, however, I’ve still the most compelling reason why a beer bloodbath is not forthcoming in my hip pocket. Now pay attention, because here it comes.

Roughly 92% of the overall American beer market is NOT craft.

That’s about 180 million barrels of beer, folks, which is a whole frigging lot! So long as craft brewers continue to eat away at that part of the market, as they have been doing for decades now, there will remain plenty of room in the marketplace for 3,000 or even 4,000 breweries. And for brewers who don’t think they can chip away at that massive core of the marketplace, well, you might as well hang up your wellies now.

 

 

 

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Toronto’s Festival of Beer

I think I’ve got Toronto’s Festival of Beer sussed, and I can best illustrate my theory by juxtaposing the event, taking place this weekend, with the inaugural edition of the Buffalo Brewers Festival I attended on July 19, to wit:

The Buffalo Brewers Festival is an event people attend to sample new and exciting beers. Some will get drunk.

Toronto’s Festival of Beer is an event people attend to get drunk. Some will sample new and exciting beers.

That said, there are new and exciting beers available for the tasting at the TFOB, notably the following:

  • Barn Door Brewing – Avoid the diacetyl-ish Long Weekend Lager, but try the Summer Storm Lager and tasty but oddly out-of-season Spring Bock.
  • Liberty Village Brewing – A not-salty-enough Gose. (I know, “not-salty-enough” is an odd criticism of a beer, but it makes sense in this case. Trust me.)
  • Kilannan Brewing – Imagine! A new brewery launching with a kölsch and an altbier. And not an IPA in sight.
  • Brimstone Brewing – Hail Mary Ale.
  • Sidelaunch Brewing – Now firing on all cylinders, it would appear. Try ‘em all.

and…

  • Bud Light Platinum! (Just kidding, but it does come with a full “Brand Experience”!)

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Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

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EVERY Beer is Now an IPA

That’s it! Give up, people, because beer style no longer matters. In the wake of white IPAs, black IPAs, Belgian IPAs and session IPAs, we might as well accept it: All beers are now IPAs!

When you think about it, it works wonderfully. No more fussing with ales vs. lagers; now we just have warm-fermented and cold-fermented IPAs. Thirsty for a pilsner? Have this cold-fermented session IPA instead. Trappist ale? Nope, that’s a non-secular, high malt IPA. Kölsch Try cold-conditioned, low hop IPA.

Even Bud Light is now an IPA, except it’s a cold-fermented, low-flavour profile, ultra-session IPA.

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The Food Babe Thought She Could Spread Paranoia Among Beer Drinkers. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

There’s this pile of bullshit being spread around the Internet today courtesy of a presumed charlatan called the Food Babe. It involves ingredients in beer. Please don’t read her demented ramblings. Instead, read this and this.

That is all.

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