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.
3 Replies to “More on Barking Squirrel”
While I understand Kevin’s frustration at seeing his product critiqued by one of the more prominent beer writes, I can’t help but feel that this is a similar issue to when brewers lament their ratings on ratings sites such as Ratebeer and Beer Advocate. My usual response to that is this – Either those people are your target market and you should listen to them, or they are not your target market and their opinion of your beer will not hurt your business at all. Frequently, those brewers point to their sales as evidence that they must be doing something right, which I think generally puts them firmly in the latter category.
The second response, is that the things you are reading on the internet about your product are the same as what people are saying about it in person, but now you have a chance to read it, and address it as you see fit. It may not be complimentary or flattering, but its free feedback that many companies spend thousands of dollars to get.
Methinks the Squirrel barks too much. I presume Mr. Gray is a well-trained, experienced and talented brewer. Hopefully his “assistant grain-shoveler” is a terrific #2. The Squirrel has access to A-class brewing resources (courtesy of the parent company), and ingredients. This brand should be top-tier throughout, and live or die on its ability to produce a product that will be demanded over and over again. Whether or not it’s a “craft beer” per se is less relevant than whether craft beer drinkers enjoy it or pour it down the drain. Grow a more solid backbone, Mr. Gray, and be a real champion of your brand.
Yup – I got yelled at by a local brewer for the low ratings of his flagship on Ratebeer.com. My response was simply that he had two choices – make better beer or ignore the ratings. I understand why he’d be upset, but the sites just deliver the message, we don’t actually craft it. I agree about the notion of what is “sellable” as well – there are a million adjuncty/watery lagers out there, the way to sell is to make a distinctive and tasty product and have people try it. That last step isn’t always easy, but the growth of craft beer suggests that it’s not nearly as tough as it once was – there’s still far too much timidity in the old-school Ontario brewers.