Archive for October, 2011

BORDER BEERS: PALES AND PILS IN BELLINGHAM

NOTE: This is the second of a series about U.S. microbreweries relatively close to the Alberta or British Columbia borders.

Bellingham, Washington has long been a favourite day-trip destination for shoppers from B.C.’s lower mainland. It is now becoming a destination for people who enjoy really good craft beers. The Whatcom County city has two world-class, award-winning microbreweries: Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro and Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen. Between the two of them, they have won 23 medals in the Great American Beer Festival, one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.

Chuckanut is the new kid in town, having opened in July 2008. It’s guided by Will Kemper, who brings over a quarter of a century of experience to the brewing craft. He’s worked in Washington State, Colorado, California, and Massachusetts — centers of the microbrewing renaissance — as well as in Mexico and Istanbul.

When he and his partners opened Thomas Kemper Brewery on Bainbridge Island in 1984, the Pacific Northwest was in the early stage of its love affair with hoppy India Pale Ales. Now, they types of beer are everywhere. So, when Will decided to start a brewery in Bellingham, he chose to be different. He would create mainly lagers — not the indistinguishable, pale fizzy stuff churned out by the mega brewers — but a variety of subtle German lagers: dunkel,  helles, Vienna, schwarzbier, and pilsner.

“Good lagers are fragile and perishable,” Kemper expalined. So localness is the key. “We wanted to create beers that weren’t freshly available here. There were lots of good ales, so why not be unique.” This meant formulating an intent and then selecting ingredients and following a process that would get the finished beers as close to the intent as possible. “We play on the relationships between the hops and malts and we make sure we use the ingredients that will best achieve our goals for eacy style.”

Just how close Chuckanut brews have come to realizing what might be called Kemper’s platonic ideal are revealled, in part, by the awards they have garnered at the Great American Beer Festival. In 2009, his Vienna lager earned a gold, as did his dunkel, and his Schwarzbier. His German Pil took a silver. The next year, his Vienna again took a gold and the Pilsner bronze.

But this year, only the third in Chuckanut had entered the GABF competition, was the capper: two golds (for the helles and the kolsch), a silver for the dunkel, and a bronze for the alt  — all of them traditional German styles. And best of all — Chuckanut was named the small brewing company of the year and Kemper the small brewing company brewer of the year.

Chuckanut beers are available in Washington State from Lynden to Tacoma. But the best place to try them is at the brewery’s tap room and kitchen at 601 West Holly Street in Bellingham. And be sure to sample some of the kitchen’s wonderful food, all made from scratch and from as many local ingredients as possible.

If Chuckanut is noted for its German lagers, Boundary Bay, located just a few blocks to the east, is recognized for its ales, hoppy West Coast style pales and hearty, robust English beers. The difference between the two places becomes apparent in looking over the list of Great American Beer Festival medals — 13 in all — Boundary Bay has won since 1998. There are two lagers on the list: a boch and a pilsner. But the others include an Imperial oatmeal stout, a scotch ale, a barley wine, a winter warmer, and an ESB.

Aaron Jacob Smith, who has been head brewer since 1998, the year the GABF medals started arriving, was a home brewer who remembers drinking Black Label, then Labatts and Molsen before he discovered Rogue, Pyramid, and Grants ales. “I really appreciated all the different kinds of hops used in the beers.”

“When I first started work at Boundary Bay, our Scotch Ale was the flagship beer. And then we started to produce big and hoppy West Coast IPAs — 7 per cent ABV and 70 International Bitterness units and more. We were hoppy before the paradigm shift of a decade ago. We push what I like to call the lupulin threshhold. But we strive to make intelligent use of hops.”

The seven year-around beers include “Bellingham Blonde”, designed as a crossover or entry level beer; Best Bitter, which is hoppier and more carbonated than its English counterpart; Inside Passage Ale , an IPA that uses three hops; Amber Ale, which Smith notes is hoppier than most; a Dry Irish Stout and an Imperial Oaktmeal stout. The Scotch ale, which is sweet and strong (6 per cent ABV), is a favourite with students at near-by Western Washington University.

The complex, which includes a beer garden, a deck, a bistro (which allows children until 10 pm), and a tap room, is reported to largest brewpub in the United States, with a capacity of over 600 during good weather. It’s located at 1107 Railroad Avenue. But if you can’t make it there, several of the beers are available in 650 millilitre bottles in area grocery stores.

We don’t advise you turn your day-trip to Bellingham into a pub crawl. But, you might enjoy a progressive pub-lunch, starting with soup or salad and a couple of small taster glasses at one place and then heading to the other for your main course and a couple more tasters. That way you’ll experience some really good food and definitely the some of best lagers and ales produced in the Pacific Northwest.

ISLAND HOPPING: A BEER QUEST WEST UPDATE

Since BEER QUEST WEST went to press nearly a year ago, the two biggest news items relating to Vancouver Island microbreweries north of Victoria have been the opening of a new brewery in Tofino (see our post of October 4) and the sale and rebranding of what had been Fat Cat Brewery of Nanaimo. Otherwise, brewers from Campbell River to Salt Spring Island have reported that business is proceeding pretty much as usual.

WOLF BREWING (Nanaimo): Although, when I asked them in May 2010, Bunny Goodman and Rob Haselow denied that Fat Cat was for sale, the brewery was sold over the winter of 2010-11. The new owners, Corinne and Travis Findlater and Jennifer and Dean Lewis, very quickly began a process of rebranding. “We felt that the Fat Cat brand was about the previous owners,” Corinne explained. “As new owners we wanted to be taken seriously and so we decided to move away from the cartoon style labelling and the rhyming name.”

The result was Wolf Brewing, with sleek clean new labels depicting the stylized head of a wolf. The names of the beers changed as well. The IPA became Red Brick; the Black and Tan, Woodcutter Dark Ale; the Porter, Black Tail Porter; and the Honey Beer, Golden Honey Ale.

“We’re still using Rob’s recipes as the basis of our brews,” Corrine explained, noting that Haseloh worked with the new owners and new brewer Glen Lamontagne, helping them get used to the equipment and the techniques of brewing the brewery’s specific interpretations of the various styles.

“But we’re tweeking things a little bit,” she continued. “We’ve made the IPA, which is our best seller, drier and more citrusy; we have added more aroma hops. We’re also using different hops for each of the beers we’re doing. And we’re listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting from old Fat Cat customers. Over all, we’re trying to combine west coast and English styles. Most important, we want our beers to be clean and crisp and fresh.”

“We like hops,” Lamontagne remarked. “But we don’t want to blow your head off. We can’t be too hoppy around here. This is Bud and Lucky territory.”

So far the new Wolf brand seems to be doing very well. Corinne reports that they are now brewing twice a week to meet demand. “And we’re getting into more and more bars and restaurants between Victoria and Campbell River.”

MERECROFT VILLAGE PUB (Campbell River): The only major change here is that Martin Eschbaumer of Surgenor Brewing has replaced Harley Davidson of Longwood as the brewer.

SURGENOR (Comox): In March 2011, Bob Surgenor announced that his brewery, which had been in operation for just over two years, was for sale at a price of $1,999,999. He reports that the asking price has been lowered to 1,700,000. Otherwise it’s business as usual.

LONGWOOD (Nanaimo): Harley Smith reports that there is no major news to report.

CRAIG STREET (Duncan): The planned expansion of the brewery, including the introduction of a canning line, has been postponed.

GULF ISLANDS: Murray Hunter is planning to make Whitetail Ale (an alt beer) and Heatherdale Ale available in the near future in 650 ml bottles.

FRIDAYS WITH BARLEY: THE WHALES AND ALES OF TOFINO

It’s a long, slow drive to Tofino, the home of British Columbia’s newest and Canada’s most westerly brewery. The many curves on Highway 4 demand thatthe driver be alert and cautious. Fortunately, there are enough turn outs to allow veteran travellers of the highway to pass by a white-knuckled newcomer. And some of the rest areas provide spectacular views of old-growth cedar trees, crystal clear lakes, and towering mountains.

As the driver gets closer to Tofino, glimpses of Long Beach, with the Pacific Ocean’s surf pounding on the sand, are seen through the trees. Many shiny new SUVs and old, battered Volkswagen busses carry surf-boards or sleek ocean kayaks on their roofs. Entering town, you see more and more carvings of bald eagles and banners depicting breaching whales.

And, if you’re looking carefully, you’ll see a small sign pointing down Industrial Way to Tofino Brewing Company. The brewery, which occupies Unit C and D in an Industrial warehouse, opened this spring.

Owners Brian O’Malley and Chris Neufeld bring limited experience to their enterprise. Chris defined himself as someone who enjoyed drinking really good beer. Brian had been a bartender and his grandfather had started a brewery in Quebec in the 1950s. The two believed that opening a brewery in a very small isolated town seemed a good fit. “There are over a million tourists who come here every year — to kayak, surf, fish, and watch whales. But more important it’s a close knit community that believes in buying local.”

“Most of our business is local,” Brian remarked. “We have taps in four places in town; but a lot of the locals come to the brewery to buy growlers. In fact, we do half of our business right from here.” Two taps are fixed on the wall that’s beside the counter/desk. While we were talking, several people drove up and came into the building clutching a growler or two, which they filled themselves.

Both owners noted that if they were to succeed, they needed an experienced brewer. In Dave Woodward, they found just such a person. He’d trained at Sunderland University in England and most recently created a variety of acclaimed beers for the Brewpub at Whistler, a member of the Mark James group of gastro-pubs. He noted that, although Tofino’s 10 hectolitre brewery has only two fermenting tanks, meaning that only two brews are available at one time, the small scale along with close contact with customers (the brewing equipment is all part of the same space as the sales desk) spurred creativity.

Only one beer — Tuff Session Ale — is always on tap. A five per cent, copper-coloured beverage, it’s a west coast style pale ale. The malts provide a degree of sweetness which is balanced by the warrior and cascade hops. “I wanted something that was drier than the typical English session beer,” Woodward explained.

The second fermenting tank has been filled with several different beers. “We wanted to try as many different styles as we could,” Chris Neufeld explained. “Being as small as we are, we could do that. We didn’t have to tie up a tank for a long time with one type of beer.”

The current second tap was a “California Common”, which would be called “Steam Beer” if San Francisco’s Anchor hadn’t copyrighted the term. It went by the name “Pils-Knot.” It was gold, light to medium, smooth mild beer, with chewy malt flavours and very little hop presence.

Other “second beers” have been Fogust Wheat Ale (a German style hefe), a pilsner, and an IPA. Plans were to offer a pumpkin ale later in the spring. Chris offered me a “growlito” (a one litre growler) of the IPA which had been preserved with pressurized carbon dioxide. It was a dark amber beer, in which the hops dominated, but didn’t overwhelm.

I bought two growlitos of the two current brews and took them, along with the IPA back to the mini-fridge in my motel. Then, after a long walk along the shore, watching little children surfing expertly alongside of adults and a variety of dogs chasing sticks and the occasional seagull, I returned to my room, had a small taste of each of the beers. After that, I went out for a delicious meal, accompanied by a Tofino brew.

As I sat outside watching the sun set over the Pacific, I realized that everything had made the long, tiring drive to Tofino worthwhile. The air was clean, crisp and salty; the scenery was in the best-sense of the phrase, world class; and the beer was very good.

Back at the motel, I made sure that the caps of the growlitos were tightly screwed on. I wanted the beer to be as fresh as possible the next day when I offered my Victoria relatives some beer that they wouldn’t find around their town.