R.I.P. Ed McNally 1925 – 2014

1306679703384_ORIGINALCanadian beer drinkers should bow their heads and raise their glasses to the memory of Edward McNally, who founded Calgary, Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery in 1984. Ed passed away last night, as reported just a few minutes ago on the brewery’s Twitter feed.

Ed was a lawyer by profession and a westerner to his core. He came to the brewing industry by way of his position as director of the Western Barley Growers Association, which in the 1980s was experiencing legal difficulties associated with the sale and marketing of brewer’s barley. Researching the issue, Ed came across the story of Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and decided that the best way to get a market for Alberta barley was to use it in an Alberta brewery.

I met Ed in 1983 as I was researching my first book, the Great Canadian Beer Guide. Although by then the head of a sizable business, he had no problem sitting down with, and indeed devoting most of his morning to, a young writer who thought he knew a lot about beer. I remember him still as a magnanimous,  forthright and highly entertaining man. We were to meet again several times in the passing years and never did I have occasion to alter that original impression.

As Big Rock grew bigger and bigger, the inevitable rumours would surface on a regular basis, suggesting that Big Brewery X or Y was about to purchase the company. I knew, however, that so long as there was breath in Ed McNally’s body, Big Rock would forever remain proudly and fiercely independent.

I’d lost touch with Ed through the years and, in truth, didn’t even know if he was still connected to the brewery at the end. But there is one thing I’m certain of, and that is that he remained a devoted Big Rock man to the very end. Rest in peace, Ed. Your legacy will not soon be forgotten.



A Look Back: Visiting Achouffe in 2002

 The following column was written in November of 2002 for the Celebrator, following a visit to the Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Since then, of course, many changes have occurred, including the brewery’s purchase by Duvel Moortgat and the rise of the hoppy Houblon Chouffe as a major brand. Despite or perhaps because of this, however, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane so much that I wanted to share it with you all.  

In 1987, I took a job at a now-defunct Toronto pub managed by a couple who had just arrived fresh from Belgium. Nobody in the city knew much about Belgian beers back then, and of all the experiences I had working at that pub, by far the most positive was my introduction to Belgian ales like Duvel, Chimay and Hoegaarden, the last hand-carried back for me from the brewery itself.

Prior to this experience, my range of experience in beer had been pretty much confined to a few trips to the west coast of the U.S. and the limited offerings of the Ontario marketplace: early craft brews, a handful of German and British imports, and of course, the all-too-homogeneous offerings of what were then the Big Three breweries of Canada — Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe. (Molson and Carling eventually merged to make the Big Three into the Big Two.) The exposure to the first trickles of Belgian beer arriving on these shores opened my eyes to the full flavour potential beer had to offer.

Our productsAbout a year later, already entranced by these new tastes, I discovered another Belgian ale. This one came from a tiny, five-year-old brewery in the Ardennes, Belgium’s densely forested southeast, and sported an easily identifiable label featuring a curious gnome. It was called La Chouffe.

Legend now has it that both the gnome on the bottle of La Chouffe and his ‘Scottish cousin’ who graces the brewery’s other primary brand, McChouffe, are ‘chouffes,’ a type of local forest elf. The truth, however, is that the chouffe idea sprang from the fertile imagination of Christian Bauweraerts, co-founder of the brewery and the affable face of the Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Both the brewery and the beer are actually named after the town of Achouffe, a tiny village near the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, as I learned during a recent visit, the name truly means, well, nothing.

Like several other Belgian breweries, including its Wallonian neighbour Fantôme and the well-known Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers, Achouffe got its start as a hobby of Chris and his brother-in-law, Pierre Gobron. The direction the owners took their hobby, however, was unique and remains today a model for other artisanal breweries in Belgium, especially those plagued by the difficulties of distribution in a market increasingly dominated by the big players. Rather than focus their marketing efforts on domestic sales, the partners elected to look instead internationally. By the time I made acquaintance with the brewery, they were selling between one-quarter and one-third of their entire production in my home province of Québec, where to this day they sell almost double the amount of beer than they do in all of the United States combined.

Of course, those amounts — roughly 600 hectolitres in the U.S. and 1,000 in Quebec, plus another 1,000 brewed under licence in la belle province —  are relatively small compared to the large volumes that Achouffe sells to the Netherlands, where it is far easier to find a draught La Chouffe than it is anywhere else in the world, including Belgium. In fact, Chris told me that those Dutch sales are largely responsible for the brewery selling just over one half of its production in draught form.

In all, Achouffe expects to sell about 18,500 hectolitres of ale this year, roughly three-quarters of which will be the blonde, 8% alcohol, coriander-spiced and curiously refreshing La Chouffe. The stronger (8.5%), darker — made so through the addition of dark sugars rather than dark malts — and rounder McChouffe will make up most of the remainder, with the brewery’s sole seasonal, the concentrated, 10% alcohol and thinnish but intense N’ice Chouffe, accounting for only about 2.5%.

For a regional brewery still unrecognized in many parts of Belgium, and one located in a town so small as to hardly rate a mention on the map, Achouffe’s brewery is large and modern, the result of careful years of controlled expansion. Bottling, kegging and the warm-conditioning vital to bottle-fermented ales are done off-site about six kilometres away, while the pair of on-site brewery buildings are divided into brewing and fermenting facilities. For the visitor, however, the real draw of the brewing side of the operation is the small café built into the back.

While not actually operated by the brewery — they lease the space out to independent operators — the café is without doubt an integral part of the Achouffe experience. To begin with, it may be the only place in Belgium where you can find both La Chouffe and McChouffe on tap. Then there is the beer cuisine offered on the menu, such as the tender though meaty brook trout poached in La Chouffe — only in Belgium would such a dish be offered as an appetizer rather than a main course! — and the wonderfully rich sauce maison which topped my entrecôte de boeuf, made from cream, La Chouffe and a local blue cheese. And finally, it is a place where an air of community dominates, where children run and play and the occasional argument between pet dogs scarcely raises an eyebrow.

After spending but a single evening at the brewery tap, eating my fill and discovering how surprisingly easy to drink an 8% alcohol draught can be, I was left wondering how the inhabitants of a country as impassioned about beer as is Belgium could possibly ignore such a delight within its borders. It must be that they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

Bourbon Basics from Beam

I was just flipping through an old press kit I received from the folks at Jim Beam and came across something I think might be the best delivery yet of the essentials of bourbon.

If you know your bourbon, then the following list will be old hat. But since there is so much misunderstanding about what makes a bourbon legit — Can it be distilled outside of Kentucky? Is Jack Daniels a Bourbon? What about those barrels? — I thought it might be worth reproducing here.

Again, this comes from the folks at Jim Beam, and the only reason I’m typing rather than linking to it is because I can’t seem to find it on their website. (Comments in parentheses are my own.)

American – It must be made in the United States (Outside of Kentucky is okay, though.)

Barrels – It must be aged in new, charred oak containers. (Note: Not American oak, just oak, meaning that Mongolian oak is allowable.)

Corn – It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn.

Distilled – It must be distilled at no more than 80% alc./vol. (Or, in other words, 160 proof.)

Entered – It must be entered into the barrel at no more than 62.5% alc./vol. (125 proof.)

Filled – It must be bottled at no less than 40% alc./vol. (80 proof.)

Genuine – It must have nothing added to it but water. (Hence why Jack is not a bourbon, since it is charcoal filtered.)

About the only basic Beam neglected to mention is that it must be aged for a minimum of two years, but I can’t figure out a key word for that beginning with H!

Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

Gift Idea #3: Hops and Glory

Pete Brown’s story of transporting a keg of IPA from Burton-upon-Trent to India is not new. It’s coming up on three years old, in fact, which in the book publishing world makes it rather ancient. But I’m still going to tell you that if you know a beer aficionado who is even remotely literate, and they haven’t already read this book, then you should buy it for them, and they will love you for it.

Why? Simply because it is one of the most entertaining books ever written about beer, possibly THE most entertaining. And, as I noted in this review two and a half years ago, it’s not even really a “beer book” per se.

I won’t rehash my embarrassingly glowing review here, since I’m sure you’re capable of clicking the link if you so desire. And I’m not going to repeat my caveat about Pete (and his lovely wife Liz) being friends. I’ll just tell you again that it’s a damn fine read, and so you should buy it for someone close to you, and then get a second copy for yourself.

Mistakes in an Authoritative Volume About Beer

No, I’m not talking about The Oxford Companion to Beer. Not this time. Rather, the appearance of this story (thanks to Mixellany Limited for the referral), reminded me of that seminal series of food and drink books from the 1960’s, Time-Life’s Foods of the World. Or more specifically, the Wines and Spirits edition.

Written by Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, and consulted on by Sam Aaron, Alexis Bespaloff and André Gros-Daillon, the book totalled 208 pages, including Glossary, Index and Credits, and featured all of two and one-quarter pages devoted to beer. Not much room in which to make howling mistakes, you might think, but then you would be wrong.

Consider the following, which admittedly echoed (or instigated?) what was thought of in my youth as common knowledge:

In the United States there is also a sweet potation called bock beer. It is made by using the sediment collected from fermenting vats when they are cleaned in the spring of each year. Bock beer is available only at this time, for about six weeks, and it was a good moment in New York in April, 1934 after the repeal of Prohibition to see the newly reopened bars placarded with the slogan “Bock is back.”

Adding commentary here would be gilding the lily, surely, save to note that, by comparison, the misrepresentation of the Imperial pint bottle as a “popular size” in Britain would seem a trifle.

Perhaps the Most Interesting Beer I’ve Had a Chance to Sample This Year…

…And getting to taste it has been a fiasco of comic proportions. Allow me to explain.

Earlier this year, the heritage park destination in northern Toronto, Black Creek Pioneer Village, announced plans to brew a literal “one-mile beer,” which is to say an ale brewed entirely from ingredients grown within a mile of the brewing site. This was to be a true estate beer, with the barley grown, harvested and threshed on-site – although malted elsewhere – and the hops grown and kilned also on-site. Adding to the allure of the ale, the brewing methods used are ones which emulate those used in the 19th century.

And they did it, too! In late September, I received word that the oh-so-very-cool project was going ahead, and in early November, a press release arrive announcing that the beer would be soon available, although in very limited quantities of about 35 two-litre growlers.

Being brutally busy at the time, I asked if there might be some way to try the beer without having to make the trek north, and was informed that they would generously set aside one of the growlers for me. Thereafter began the comedy.

First, there was some miscommunication regarding whether or not I would be able to pick up the beer, which I was not. Then, right after the brewery’s p.r. people offered to drop it off at my office, I left the country for first Amsterdam, then San Diego and New Orleans. When finally I had it delivered, I was in the midst of a rather brutal cold that was debilitating my taste buds. More delays.

So now, after much ado, I finally get to sample this fascinating ale today. While I’m concerned about the lengthy time it has spent in a growler, I take heart in the fact that it has been held in near-constant refrigerated conditions.

First, the basics. The beer is fashioned as a simple brown ale, according to brewer Ed Koren (pictured above), the kind of ale that “pioneers would have drank to quench their thirst.” The alcohol content is 3.5% by volume.

There is little sound when I open the growler and almost no apparent carbonation, which does give me some cause for concern. Checking the brewer’s tasting notes, however, I see that it never did have much in the way of carbonation, so perhaps all is well.

It’s a muddy brown colour with a strong yeastiness on the nose, sort of like a light rye bread or mild-mannered pumpernickel. Red apple notes are also present, along with hints of over-cooked toffee.

The body is as light as its strength would have one expect, which is to say mild but not at all watery. Without carbonation to fill the mouth, the maltiness of the beer comes to the fore with more breadiness, some light toasted walnut notes, a slight fruitiness – which interestingly fades as the beer grows warmer – and roasted and burnt grain flavours. The hops show themselves only in the second half and finish, primarily as drying rather than bittering entities, although with a slightly piney-grassy bitterness on the finish, along with a lingering yeasty tang.

Is this a great beer? No, I’m afraid it is not. Is it a great and laudable project? Absolutely, and one which yielded an altogether quaffable ale, to boot. Congratulations to both Ed Koren and those with the foresight to back him in this endeavor! I look forward to your next one-miler.

A Brief Note on The Oxford Companion to Beer

First off, let me say that I have been far too busy of late, and too ill at present, to give The Oxford Companion to Beer the attention it deserves. So, in this post, I will not presume to offer a verdict as to whether it is good or bad, accurate or lacking. This is commentary on the commentary, pure and simple.

Latest to wade in is Roger Protz, a fine man and a pioneering and remarkably prolific beer writer. In The Publican’s Morning Advertiser, (UPDATE: The post has since been removed. See comment by Alan McLeod below.) he writes:

For beer lovers with a passion for style, this is more a treasure trove than an encyclopedia.


The Companion is hard to put down. Cross-referencing ensures a quick glance at one item will inexorably draw you into many other related sections. It’s a joy to read and has already widened my knowledge and appreciation of the subject.

Fair enough. As I said, I have not had the chance to indulge fully in the book and so have no opinion to counter Rogers. Or that of Pete Brown, at just-drinks.com, or Adrian Tierney-Jones, both of whom I number among the best beverage writers of my generation.

But then Roger continues:

In spite of this, the bloggerati have come piling in, damning the book and some saying it should be withdrawn. How they must wish they had been around in the 1930s when book-burning was in vogue.

(Martyn) Cornell expresses his thanks to a Canadian blogger, Alan McLeod, who has “started a repository for errors” in the Oxford Companion. What sad people. It’s an established fact in publishing that most encyclopedias and dictionaries contain errors that are corrected for subsequent editions. I’m told the Oxford Companion to Wine had around 1,000 errors in the first edition.

And now I must call foul! Every person mentioned thus far in this post, with the exception of McLeod, contributed to the book, including its perhaps harshest critic, Martyn Cornell. And while I understand fully the desire to defend a book the making of which one was involved in, I have a great problem with referring to those who would wish to correct the record as “sad people.” “Fastidious people,” perhaps, or even “sufferers of OCD,” if one wishes to go impolitic, but hardly “sad.”

This is a much different world that it was when The Oxford Companion to Wine was first published, with information, accurate and otherwise, at a person’s fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some of the errors Martyn has pointed out are minutia, I will admit even if he may not, but pointing them out as present in a book of this scholastic heft is commendable, I would think. And McLeod’s interest in establishing a wiki to help rectify the errors and omissions is a nothing if not a laudable pursuit, particularly since it is an unpaid one.

I’ve written it before and now I shall write it again: The dialogue that has followed the publication of The Oxford Companion to Beer marks, as does the book itself, the maturing of the craft brewing industry and those who follow it. The accolades and the criticism and the controversy are all good, and signs that we, the global community of beer aficionados, are finally on the right path. As a veteran writer in this field, Roger should recognize this.

I Go on the Road for a Few Days and THIS Happens!

What’s “this”? Well, so far as I can tell, the tall foreheads behind the U.S. operations of the world’s biggest brewery have pretty much lost their minds. I know, that sounds harsh, but I can honestly think of no other way to explain it. Bear witness:

  • Into a market segment that has been defined since Day 1 as “tastes great, less filling,” Anheuser-Bush InBev has decided to introduce a 6% alcohol version of Bud Light, to be known as Bud Light Platinum. Yes, you read that right, a strong “light” beer! It will, according to an unnamed source quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “appeal to a key group of beer drinkers and expands consumer occasions.” Assuming, of course, that said “key group of beer drinkers” are a bunch of very, very confused individuals.
  • The production of what might be the most famous German beer in the world, Beck’s, is being moved to…St. Louis. Yep, you read that right, too. German beer brewed in the United States for American consumption, which kind of makes it American beer with a not-even-terribly-German-sounding name, doesn’t it? But hey, what can go wrong? After all, it worked for well for Lowenbrau…

So, can you blame me for thinking that something strange has gotten into the water supply at ABIB HQ?

CAMRA Dictionary of Beer Entry #2

More from Brian Glover’s CAMRA Dictionary of Beer, published in 1985:

Liefmans: Belgian brewery (surprisingly owned by Vaux of Sunderland)…

Of course, it wasn’t long after that Vaux ceased to be involved with brewing at all, becoming instead Swallow Inns and Restaurants, and Liefmans is today owned by Duvel. But I never new that the major regional British brewer once had holdings in Belgium.

Things I Didn’t Realize: The Size of New Belgium

I received an email this morning touting the upcoming 20th anniversary of Fort Collins, Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing. I remember this company starting up not long after I began covering the US beer market, so the two decades thing seems about right, but what shocked me is how big this wonderful brewery has become.

Hands up everyone whop would have guessed that NBB brewed 661,000 barrels last year! (All New Belgium employees put your hands back down, you don’t count.) That’s  pretty stunning increase from the 229,000 barrels they brewed at the start of the century, and enough to place them as the third largest craft brewer in the United States, behind Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada. And they’re only in 26 states, where those other two are national!

I know, most of that beer is their flagship Fat Tire, the ale so many of the presumed “beer cognoscenti” like to dismiss as boring, entry level stuff. But: a) Fat Tire is not so easily dismissed, and a fine quaff on a thirsty day; and b) The brewery has been really stepping it up with their other brands lately, notable their fine Ranger IPA and their barreled brews, for which they have just expanded — yet again — their wood-aging facility.

The official anniversary is June 28. Mark it on your calendar and raise a glass to co-founder and ceo Kim Jordan (seen above) and the whole crew at New Belgium.


CAMRA Dictionary of Beer Entry #1

I’ve been of late flipping through my 1985 edition of Brian Glover’s CAMRA Dictionary of Beer, occasionally with some amusement, but mostly with a fair dose of nostalgia. Witness, for example, the following (emphasis my own):

High Gravity Brewing: A modern development aimed at economising on brewery plant and material handling costs. Very strong beer is brewed and this is then watered down to the desired gravity when it is put into casks. Many brewers have experimented with this idea but have often been disappointed with the flavour of the resulting beer. Not at present in widespread use.

If only, eh? Check back in the days to come for more such entries.