A Year in Beer

Watching Julia Roberts pretend to enjoy eating with gusto in the film Eat Pray Love, I imagined a beer guy remake of the film.

Rome, Mumbai and Bali are out. Beer towns Portland, Brussels and Munich are in. Julia out; George Clooney in. Bring on the pints…

There’s little personal wisdom to be found in immersing oneself in beer for a year in beervanas like Portland, but it sure would be fun. The beer quest might not rank up there with pilgrimages like walking the Camino de Santiago, but it could fit with the recent rash of quests where one spends a year doing something odd: living biblically, cooking like Julia, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, not having sex, or — oddest of all — having sex with one’s spouse every single day
of the year.

And what of the last year in beer? 2010 was a good one for beer in Edmonton and Alberta. Calgary’s mega-micro Big Rock celebrated its 25th anniversary, while Edmonton’s Alley Kat celebrated its 15th. Kudos to Alley Kat for continuing to innovate, brewing special anniversary beers all year including a Ginger Beer, a Belgian Triple, a Smoked Porter and an Apple Wit.

Alley Kat proprietor Neil Herbst is a perennial friend of beer, along with Sherbrooke Liquor Store’s Jim Pettinger, but, for me, this year’s Beer Hero is Jason Foster. A homebrewer, beer writer and all-round beer guy, this year, Jason kicked it up a notch, starting a popular beer blog, OnBeer.org, organizing Edmonton’s first cask ale night, as well as tasting nights including one on the rare Belgian Cantillon lambic beers.

The Cantillons were the most exotic — and expensive — beers to reach Edmonton this year, but new craft beers from Japan and Denmark had even beer geeks scratching their heads. Kiuchi Hitachino Nest Beer XH? Raasted Bryghus Grillol? Don’t worry, just drink ’em! A few classic beers finally made it to Alberta, including Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier and Anchor Porter. Weihenstephanser is the ur-wheat beer, first brewed in Germany in 1040, and Anchor Porter is the San Francisco beer that brought porter back from the dead. Welcome to Alberta — we’re glad you’re here!

Porter laid claim for beer style of the year, but the award goes to Imperial IPA, or Double IPA (India Pale Ale). Not a style for the faint of tongue; this is IPA on steroids amped up with extra hops, extra malt and extra alcohol. Hopheads rejoiced as every craft brewer worth his hops brought out a D-IPA, from Saskatoon’s Paddock Wood Loki (a malty English version) to Winnipeg’s Half Pints Humulus Ludicrous (a hop bomb with 100 IBUs). Are they drinkable for regular humans? Yes, but proceed with caution.

Beer fans had more places to enjoy good beer, including a carefully-chosen new beer menu at High Street’s Urban Diner. Jasper Brewing replicated itself down the Icefields Parkway with Banff Ave Brewing. Try their flagship beer, Head Smashed IPA. Back in Edmonton, newcomer Red Star Pub has a deep beer menu full of Belgians and the Original Joe’s chain continues to support Alberta brewers with their taps of Alley Kat and Wild Rose. But the best bar for a beer this year was the Sugar Bowl for the extensive beer selection and their support of local beer, particularly in hosting cask ale nights. It’s too cold for the Sugar Bowl patio now, so raise a glass of Hoegaarden, remember those elusive warm Edmonton summer nights. Until then, have a Beery Christmas and a Hoppy New Year.

New Kid in Town:  Yellowhead Lager

With spring came Yellowhead, a new Edmonton brewery rising from the ashes of the Maverick Brewery. They have started with a single beer, a German-style lager. It is a pleasant, mild brew with a bit of bread and grass on the nose, clean and gently malty to taste, gently hopped and very easy to drink.

A Beer and Food Epiphany: Cannery Brewing Naramata Nut Brown Ale

During dinner at the Hardware Grill, I was pleased to learn they had a beer available on draught: Naramata Nut Brown Ale from Penticton, BC. The dark brown of the beer matched the earth tones of the decor, and its slightly sweet, nutty maltiness was the perfect partner to the hearty cuisine that followed.

Favourite New Summer Beer: Central City Red Racer IPA

Vancouver friends say with a sneer that nothing good comes from Surrey, BC. Sorry friends; you’re wrong. This exciting beer is the antithesis of suburban dull. Beer purists may knock a beer in a can, but it’s what’s inside that counts: a powerfully hoppy, fruity, snappy IPA. My summer love.

Most Welcome Return: Granville Island Brockton IPA

All is forgiven. Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing left Alberta for a while, but returned this summer, bearing a gift — a great new IPA brewed to celebrate Granville’s 25th anniversary in 2009. Older Granville beers can be too muted, but this IPA has a great, bitter hop punch paired with big malt. Welcome back.

Favourite Autumn Seasonal: Alley Kat Apple Wit

Think globally; drink locally. For the fourth in their 15th anniversary series, Edmonton’s Alley Kat combined a Belgian beer style with Canadian apples as a celebration of fall and the harvest. They replaced the orange peel and spices in a standard witbier with Granny Smith apples — think Hoegaarden + apple cider! Fall in a bottle.

Favourite Winter Seasonal: Wild Rose Cherry Porter

Desert in a glass from Calgary’s Wild Rose — a bit like drinking Black Forest cake. Brewed at holiday time with real BC cherries, this spectacular seasonal pours as black as the darkest winter night. The taste is dark roast with coffee and chocolate notes and just a nice bit of cherry sweetness. Leave some out for Santa.

Peter Bailey is an Edmonton-area librarian who vows to drink a beer a day for 365 days in 2011. Not that it is something new, of course.