Beer of the year

“Beer for a long time in Alberta was blonde and fizzy. This year there seemed to be definite change in attitude toward craft beer.” – Neil Herbst, Alley Kat Brewing

Most of the beer sold in Alberta is still blonde and fizzy, but Neil is right to be happy. His brewery expanded, adding capacity and a more consistent brewing process. He says “you’d be hard pressed to find a better group of people making beer anywhere.” Shane Groendahl, the indefatigable organizer of Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous, agrees, noting “the Edmonton beer scene has grown exponentially.” Shane points to the success of the EBGA and their successful cask ale festival, an Alberta first.

In fact, we beer geeks hide it well, but inside we’re as giddy as school kids about the Edmonton beer scene. Sure, we’re no Portland or Victoria or even Calgary, yet. Alberta has fewer craft breweries per capita than almost every other province in Canada, but with Wild Rose and Alley Kat we have two of the best in Canada. Yellowhead sold so well this year that they ran out of bottles in April. Amber’s Brewing lost their home to rising rents, but they quickly found a new place in St. Albert co-habiting with a brand-new brewery. Hog’s Head Brewing launched late in the year. No blonde and fizzy for these beer geeks — their flagship beer is feisty Hop Slayer IPA, with 100 IBUs. Head Brewer Bruce Sample began as a homebrewer, and was named the Edmonton Homebrewers’ Guild’s Brewer of the Year in 2009.

More mainstream bars and restaurants are showing interest in craft beer, albeit painfully slowly. IPA doesn’t bite! Craft beer champs like the Sugarbowl, Wunderbar and the Pourhouse continued to carry the flag. Exciting new foodie entries like Three Boars and Canteen gave beer a respectable place at the table. The big box beer bar concept arrived with the opening of MKT in the old train station off Whyte, followed by The Underground downtown. In 2013, Calgary’s Craft Beer Market opens on Rice Howard Way.

Big box beer retailing began too, with the opening of two Wine & Beyond stores in October. With over 1,800 different beers, the Windermere location is beer heaven but I fear for those delightful beers sitting on open shelves under bright lights. Something fun and new at Wine & Beyond and at Keg n Cork is a growler bar. Fill a 32 or 64 oz growler bottle with craft beer at the tap, take it home and you have beer for a week (or, ahem, a shorter time in some homes). Still, Sherbrooke Liquor continued to lead the way for retail, hitting 1,000 beers, brewing intriguing beer with craft brewers and engaging with the community. Sadly, after eight years at Sherbrooke’s helm, manager Jim Pettinger moved on in October.

Stores like Sherbrooke meant Edmontonians were able to try local beers from all over the world, whether a lager from Iceland (Ölvisholt Brugghús Skjálfti) or a Belgian golden ale from Michigan (Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza). My fellow hop heads enjoyed seeing IPA’s continued rise as the beer du jour, while other trends included hybrids like witbier IPA and the shandy concoctions like Stiegel Radler Grapefruit.

My beer highlight this year was an eye-opening trip to San Diego. With over 50 breweries around town, it is truly one of the great beer cities. Coming back to Edmonton from another trip, I drove in from the airport with that bittersweet feeling when you arrive home. Soon enough, I was at the Sugarbowl with a Blanche de Chambly in hand. The sun shone in from the open patio and hit the brass of the bar taps and suffused the bar with a golden light. I looked around at the glowing faces in the room, and thought: “There’s no place I’d rather be right now.” A friend, a good beer and the late afternoon sun: the best of Edmonton in 2012.

Year of Beer Six-Pack

Nøgne Ø India Pale Ale, Norway

Part of the wave of Scandinavian craft beer, Nøgne Ø (“naked island”) overcame many obstacles to brew the kind of beer they wanted in a country fond of blonde and fizzy beer. Brewed with Pacific Northwest hops, this is a big, brash American IPA — from the land of the fjords. Match with a Nordic noir novel by a fire on a cold Alberta night.

Westvleteren 12, Belgium

The best beer in the world? Perhaps. Brewed by a small Belgian monastery that refuses to accommodate modernity by increasing production or distributing widely, the mystique makes it the most sought-after beer in the world. This year Albertans got to try it as the monks needed funds for an abbey renovation. A classic quadrupel dark, rich Belgian ale.

Big Rock Saaz Republic Pilz, Calgary

Big Rock has tried to brew a hit lager for years without much success (see XO or Gopher), but with Saaz Republic they may have created a winner. Brewmaster Paul Gautreau told me Big Rock’s new CEO has set him off leash. Gautreau promises this Czech pilsener with a gentle Saaz hop bite is the start of more good brews to come.

Alley Kat Darn Tartan, Edmonton

Alley Kat is having fun these days. The year-round beers like Full Moon are found more and more around town, while the seasonal brews and the single-hopped Dragon IPA series are snapped up quickly too. Darn Tartan is their final Big Bottle of 2012, a revised version of their Scotch ale, this time with a bit of heavily peated malt.

Phillips Longboat Chocolate Porter, Victoria

An odd thing about Canada is sometimes it’s easier to get beer from half a world away than from a neighbouring province. BC’s Phillips Brewing conquered the mountain barrier and got their beers into Alberta in 2011. Their Hop Circle IPA was my go-to summer beer, but this delicious, very-chocolaty porter will get me through the winter nights.

Green Flash West Coast IPA, San Diego

This classic American IPA hop monster is San Diego in a bottle: brash but smooth, like the surf off Mission Beach. During brewing, Green Flash layers in a fruit bowl of assertive, citrusy American hops, including Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial and Cascade, making for a multi-dimensional hop experience.

— Peter Bailey

Peter Bailey realizes now that learning to surf might have been easier before drinking the IPA.