1. “Smooth drinkability”
2. “Pairs with foods of all sorts”
3. “Fresh, crisp flavor”
4. “Uniquely refreshing”
1. “Smooth drinkability”
2. “Pairs with foods of all sorts”
3. “Fresh, crisp flavor”
4. “Uniquely refreshing”
1. Take a knowledge of one beverage and assume it automatically makes you qualified to write about another. Being an authority on wine doesn’t qualify you to offer “expert” opinions on single malt whisky, UNLESS you’ve done one hell of a lot of research and tasting.
2. Judge a release negatively on the basis of one or two sips. Everyone and everything deserves a second chance, so try it again before you lambaste it, or say nothing.
3. Get all attitudinal when someone calls you on a mistake or error of judgement. We all screw up from time to time. Take your lashes and move along.
4. Write your blog as if you are a ten year old because it makes it more “real.” You’re supposed to be a professional writer, even when doing something you’re not paid for. Typos are one thing, but frequent errors in grammar, punctuation and structure just reflect badly on you and your craft.
5. Use descriptive words no one is likely to understand. Noting underlying hints of some obscure Amazonian fruit doesn’t help North Americans to understand the flavours you’re describing; it just makes you look like an ass.
(I hope I’m not guilty of any of the above, but let’s face it, I probably am.)
A while back, I wrote this commentary about the Hop City brew, Barking Squirrel Lager. Honestly, it was meant more as a commentary on what may or may not be defined as “craft beer” than it was a review of the brew, but as it also included a couple of not-so-complimentary notes about the beer itself, it understandably raised the ire of Hop City head brewer, Kevin Gray.
In addition to offering a rather uncomplimentary view of my own abilities — a position he seemed to modify, or at least soften, as our email discussion continued — Kevin made a pair of emphatic points. First, he assured me that Barking Squirrel contains no adjuncts, contrary to what I had guessed on the basis of the beer’s aroma. And secondly, he asserted that since Hop City has exactly two employees, its craft brewing bonefides were well in place.
Further along our email conversation, Kevin expressed his frustration with having to defend his brands simply because of the brewery’s owner, that being eastern Canada’s Moosehead Breweries, a fact he says they “have never tried to hide.” While understanding this irritation — in my long-standing view, beer should be judged by how it tastes, not who owns the brewery — I would counter that neither has Hop City made any attempt to disclose that fact, since the packaging of the beer is very much in the style of a local craft brewery, with nary a mention of the ultimate owner.
(Whether or not that even matters was part of the content of my previous post and an issue I intentionally left unresolved.)
So, what I wound up telling Kevin is that, when I next had a couple of days strung together at my office, I would reassess Barking Squirrel and see if I draw any other conclusion. Which is how I now find myself at noon on a Friday afternoon with a can of the beer in front of me.
In my previous tasting, I noted that the circumstances were ideal for a crisp, refreshing lager to show well. This time out, on the other hand, I’m in a less thirsty, more analytical frame of mind. So let’s see how it goes.
So far as colour and aroma go, my opinion remains unchanged. Despite Kevin’s assurances that there are no adjuncts used in the brewing of this beer — which I have no reason to doubt — I find the aroma to be thin and grainy, and not that far removed from what I would expect of a mainstream lager. The caramel notes seem tacked on, rather than integrated into the rest of the aromatics, and aside from what might be soft floral-citrus notes, the “hop aroma” noted on the can seems suspiciously AWOL.
With perhaps a fresher palate, however, I do find that the body offers more than I originally found. It’s still sweet, no doubt, and the “roasty” malt flavours mentioned on the can are quite absent, but I do find more in the way of well-constructed malt appeal and even a bit of drying, slightly lemony, nutty hoppiness appearing in the second half. The finish, as observed in my earlier essay, is less sweet and faintly bitter.
Kevin mentioned in his last email to me that “Barking Squirrel…is actually our least distinctive product” and that “We were trying to walk the line between over the top and saleable, which as you realize does need to happen to stay in operation.” I appreciate that it is the brewery’s least distinctive brand — I’ve sampled others which I’ve enjoyed much more — but in the second decade of the 21st century, I question the notion that a lack of distinction is any longer necessary in a flagship brand. When last I checked, Sierra Nevada was selling well in excess of 600,000 barrels a year of distinctive products, and Stone Brewing has as its flagship a 7.2% alcohol monster. Even in Ontario, where Barking Squirrel is sold, some of the fastest growing breweries make no apologies for the assertiveness of their main brands. The “entry level beer” is, I think, very much a 1990’s concept, and one to which I believe the wise craft brewery owner and manager need no longer subscribe.
Is Barking Squirrel craft? I still don’t know. Does it straddle unnecessarily the line between craft beer consumer and big brewery acolyte? On that front, I would answer yes.
One of the hot topics of beer blogger and beer blog commentator conversation of late has been the origin of the term “craft beer.” On more than one occasion it has been suggested that this is purely a North American term — which will come as a complete surprise to all the Italian, Danish, Japanese, etc. breweries which employ it regularly — and it has also been described as a marketing term invented by Americans.
Thus, it was with great interest that this morning I came across the following lines from Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, first edition, circa 1977:
A weighty heritage…in the Region du Nord [of France] craft-brewing survives, and there are one or two superb top-fermented specialty beers.
There you have it, craft used in direct association with brewing by a British writer referring to a European country, in the book that served as introduction to the world’s greatest beers for an entire generation of consumers, yours truly included.
I hope that settles that.
Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a tongue-in-cheek link noting the new “black kölsch” just released from the St. Arnold Brewing Company of Texas, and saying that somewhere Ron “Shut Up About Barclay Perkins” Pattinson was popping a blood vessel. (Just joking, Ron. I sincerely hope you weren’t.)
Turn out, it wasn’t Ron who threw a wobbler, but Velky Al. And I’ve got to add, with good reason. Al does note that there is a convention governing what may be called a kölsch, and that even though the U.S. is not bound by said convention, it is, like those governing Champagne and Bordeaux, a matter of respect to do so. More broadly, he duly observes that there is nothing in the convention about a beer being black.
Without getting bent out of shape about it — it is Friday, after all — I must agree wholeheartedly with not just Al’s words, but also what I infer is the sentiment behind them, specifically this obsession with defining new styles and “innovations,” even is such things involve only the addition of a bit of black malt. As Jon Stewart might say, “Brewers, come over and meet me at camera three.”
Listen, I understand that you want to make your beers stand out and that, in the wake of the “black IPA” juggernaut that is sweeping the land, using the word “black” in front of pretty much any traditionally blonde or amber style is one way to do it. But in so doing you are forgetting that the vast majority of the beer drinking populace doesn’t yet know all of the basic beer styles, much less the 100+ offshoots recognized by the Association of Brewers today. Thus, creating more styles, especially faux styles like “black kölsch,” makes matters more confusing for the beer buying public. In short, you’re not clarifying, you’re confounding!
I like new beers. I like weird beers. I like challenging beers. What I don’t like is the seemingly irrepressible need of some, perhaps most craft brewers to create a new beer “style” with every release.
I am sitting at my desk with a can of Barking Squirrel Lager in front of me. It was sent over by the brewer, an organization known as Hop City Brewing, which is a craft-esque brewery set up in Ontario by Moosehead Brewing. The label calls it “Craft with Attitude,” and then goes on to speak of the “subtle hop aroma and flavour of our freshly brewed amber nectar.”
The beer pours orange-ish amber with a light collar of white foam. On the nose, rather than “subtle hop,” I get the aroma of Moosehead Lager, or something similar to Moosehead Lager, accented by a hint of caramel. The body begins sweetly, moving to a still sweet and somewhat cereally middle before a slightly less sweet and faintly bitter finish. Again according to the label, there should be “roasty toasty caramel malts.” Caramel, I get, maybe even toasty, but roasty? Not so much. Complexity? ‘Fraid not.
When I opened this beer, I was seriously thirsty after a long and difficult day. If there were any time that a chilled can of good lager should shine, this was it. It didn’t.
But I’m less concerned about the lack of character of this beer than I am about the branding. Nowhere on this package is there any indication that this is a Moosehead subsidiary, and I suppose that since it is a stand alone brewery, one which to my knowledge is not making Moosehead brands, neither need there be. But it is positioned as a craft beer, and leaving aside for the moment the on-going debate about what “craft” actually means, for most people, I think, a “craft” beer that boasts the name “Hop City” and speaks on its label of “hop aroma” should have some significant, or at least discernable, hop character. And in my opinion, this ber does not.
Even more to the point, and referencing my earlier comment about it smelling like something Moosehead Lager-like, I would guess from its aroma alone that this is not an all-malt beer, but rather one which makes use of the exploitation of adjuncts for commercial purposes. And that is certainly not something people reasonably expect of craft beer. So is it craft, stealth craft, or something else? At this point, I’m not so sure.
Just look at what Young Dredge found adorning the shelves of Tesco, Britain’s largest retailer. (Not beer retailer, mind you, but retailer, period.) “Fuller Flavoured Lagers” like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Innis & Gunn.
Imagine if they were promoting the arrival of “Big Bodied Red Wines” like Cakebread Cellars Reserve Chardonnay and Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc! Someone would be fired, I would think, or at least severely reprimanded.