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.