Beers To Remember

A few well-brewed thoughts on 2013

by Jason Foster

As I was switching my wall calendars the other day (before February — a new record!) I spent a bit of time thinking about last year, pondering it like an empty pint glass that offers up only a faint aroma to remind you of the good (and/or bad) times it once held.

I’d call 2013 a good one for beer in Saskatchewan and Canada, for the most part. The SLGA’s selection of quality beer continues to improve (too slowly, but still), and every month it seems easier to buy a pint of something decent at local watering holes. Bit by bit, consumers are getting more choices and better quality.

By far the biggest beer news of 2013 in Saskatchewan was the mini-boom of small craft breweries. After more than a decade with only Paddock Wood, Bushwakker and the stalwart but more mass market-focused Great Western Brewing building a name beyond the province’s borders, Saskatchewan finally has something new to talk about on the brewery front.

Three new breweries opened in 2013, with a fourth in advanced planning stages: Prairie Sun in Saskatoon, District Brewing in Regina and Bin Brewing in Swift Current all put beer out for sale this past year, with Black Bridge Brewing announcing its intentions for 2014.

Prairie Sun Brewing is of particular note, and hopefully a sign that Saskatchewan is finally catching a trend that other provinces such as B.C., Québec and Nova Scotia have been onto for a few years — “nano-brewing,” where ultra-small breweries produce batches of craft beer for local consumption only.

Prairie Sun doesn’t quite fit the official definition of nano — its brewhouse is a bit too big, and they have larger aspirations — but right now their production volumes are at the nano level. Even better, I’ve been hearing rumours of two or three more nano-breweries in the planning stages in the province, so here’s hoping there’s more of that in store for us in the coming year or so.

Add those to the many Regina pubs brewing their own beer — including O’Hanlon’s, the established Bonzzini’s and Brewsters and, as already mentioned, the legendary Bushwakker come to mind — and the province is clearly headed in the right direction.

It’s also great to see the revitalization of the craft beer scene right across Canada. More than 50 new microbreweries opened across the country in 2013, and lots of them (along with many of the 100 or so others that have opened over the past five years) are pushing boundaries and are clearly serious about brewing quality craft beer.

This new generation of brewers is also pushing the longstanding pioneers of craft brewing in Canada to be better. Alberta’s Big Rock announced an ambitious new seasonal beer schedule that sees them brew up to 20 special one-time beers each year. Granville Island, Creemore Springs, McAuslan and Fort Garry are also examples of longstanding craft brewers making efforts to expand and improve their line-up. Even good old Great Western is putting more emphasis on its Original 16 line, which is more craft-y than their regular offerings.

On the downside, the corporate brewers continue to play fast and loose with history, style and taste, possibly reaching new lows this year.

One of the biggest atrocities was AB-Inbev’s attempt to market Bud Light Platinum with the insanely illogical catchphrase, “Strong beer with a light, easy-drinking taste.” Selling a six per cent alcohol beer as Bud Light? I don’t think so. In a previous column I dubbed it “oxymoron in a bottle,” and I still like the sound of that. Enough said.

Not to be outdone, Molson-Coors released Coors Banquet in Canada. The decision to bring it here was supposedly the result of a Facebook campaign by fans of the beer, but I have to wonder why anyone would bother: it’s a boring, uninteresting adjunct lager. My real problem with it isn’t the lack of quality — Coors has brewed bland beers forever, so I’m used to it — but their attempt to link it to Coors’ history, claiming Banquet is the original Coors beer with a recipe dating back to 1873. Yeah right — the only way that could be remotely true is if Adolph Coors was brewing with corn syrup from day one and had an allergy to hops.

This beer is clearly a product of modern corporate brewing techniques and even more modern marketing spin. Blugh.

So that’s the bad of 2013, but there’s also one trend that feels downright ugly to me: breweries pretending to be craft. In Saskatchewan, at least two shops slapped the “craft” label on beer that fell far short of craft quality. The American brewery Minhas has been around for a while, producing the discount beer Boxer and others, but this past year they released a series of “craft” beers that don’t rate the label — they’re brewed by cutting corners and with insufficient attention to quality. (Those are marketed under a number of names, including Lazy Mutt, Chocolate Bunny, Corsairs and Mystical Jack, among others.)

The other is Stanley Park, which is actually a label of discount brewer Hell’s Gate (owned by B.C.-based liquor magnate Mark Anthony Group, owner of Mission Hill, Mike’s Hard and other products). Again, the beer is marketed as craft but the stuff in the bottle is anything but.

Other than false marketing on a few fronts, it was a pretty positive year for beer. And the best part? 2014 glistens like a freshly poured pint of unlimited possibilities, sitting right in front of us.

[hr]

A version of this column appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of Planet S.

2014-01-23