Tasted!: Alexander Keith’s Hop Series

Earlier today, I put up a post about bricks-and-mortar breweries, beer commissioners and so-called “gypsy” brewers, and why what matters most, to my mind, at least, is what ends up in the glass. Which seems to me to be a good set-up for a chat about a couple of new beers from the largest brewing company in the world.

The brewing company in question is, of course, Anheuser-Busch InBev, or more specifically their Canadian subsidiary Labatt, and its Maritime sub-label, Alexander Keith’s.

Now, many of you might know Keith’s by its namesake “India pale ale,” printed in quotations because it is quite unlike any other IPA I have ever encountered and has far more in common with a mainstream lager than it does, say, Meantime India Pale Ale. And thanks to that knowledge, you’re probably going to be quite sceptical when I tell you of two new Keith’s brews, both part of the Alexander Keith’s Hop Series: Hallertauer Hop Ale and Cascade Hop Ale.

As the names imply, each is a single hop beer, and were in fact delivered to me with two little jars of hop flowers, one filled with Cascade hops and the other with Hallertauer, ‘natch.

(I’m assuming the Hallertauer is Hallertauer Mittelfruh, and it smells as such, but Labatt isn’t saying.)

Tasting them simultaneously, I found little difference in their appearance, but rather more in their aromas. The Hallertauer, as befits the hop’s characteristics, is herbaceous and a little sweet, with notes of fresh grass, alfalfa and just a bit of rosemary. The Cascade, on the other hand, is predictably citrusy and quite nicely balanced with a bit of caramelly maltiness.

On the palate, the Hallertauer offers no hop flavours jumping out, but rather a mix of dryish maltiness and some dryly herbal notes, ending lightly bitter and very dry, but with an odd sticky sensation lingering on the tongue. The Cascade, I found, works much better, with the citrusy hop shooting forward from the outset and just outshining the orange, peach and caramel malt. On the finish, there is a moderate bitterness and lingering dryness, which makes it much more refreshing and appetizing, and ultimately more successful ale.

So both beers are quite competently brewed, as you’d expect, with the Hallertauer recommended for more timid palates and the Cascade for those just entering pale ale and IPA territory. In other words, I’d say this is not a bad effort at all. But is their creation and marketing a wise move for Labatt?

I wonder. If they’re trying to prove their mettle to craft beer aficionados, such timid attempts are unlikely to sway many people. If they’re offering hoppier alternatives to Alexander Keith’s fans, I’d say they run the risk of turning them on to pale ales and IPAs brewed by smaller, competing brewers. And if they’re simply throwing something out to counter the Molson Six Pints division, I’d say it looks like they’re trying to use a beagle to corral a stallion in full gallop.


In Praise of Light Beer

No, silly, I don’t mean that kind of light beer, the “lite” sort of stuff. Rather, I come to sing the praises of simple 4% alcohol ale, what Lew Bryson has been championing as session beer and others have been alternately glorifying and vilifying.

Even more precisely, and at the same time more generally, I want to talk about the pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde I enjoyed at the Tennents Bar in Glasgow just a shade over a week ago.

Before I begin, however, I should mention a couple of things. First off, what I remember of that fine pint of cask-conditioned ale is precisely that, what I remember. I had just come from a rather large dinner at an Indian restaurant and as such my palate was in less than fine fettle, so no written notes were made. And secondly, although I believe that the Summer Blonde to indeed be a very lovely ale, in this instance I see it as more a composite of many such ales on cask in pubs across the United Kingdom.

Now, back to that pint. It was, as its name suggests, blonde of hue. It had a bracing and refreshing, even stomach-settling, twang of American hops in its aroma and flavour, hops I later discovered – thanks to Harviestoun’s annoyingly slow-moving website – to be Cascades, although I would have guessed as much. It had a lightness of character that suited it equally to the consumption of several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening and the slaking of a pepper-and-salt-induced after-dinner thirst.

It was, in summation, the ideal beer for the moment. And for me, it proved several pints points.

First and most obvious of these is that it is entirely possible to make great-tasting, characterful beer at 4% alcohol by volume. Hell, it’s possible to do so at even lower levels of strength, although it probably gets quite tricky below, say, 3.2% or so. This is not to say that such beers are the be-all and end-all, or that they are what I want to drink all the time, but I’m happier knowing that they do exist.

(I knew this before, of course, from many trips to the U.K. and more than a few pints and half-litres of lower strength ales and lagers, but it’s nice to have that moment of pure clarity from time to time.)

Point number two is that British brewers tend to use American hops in cask-conditioned ales more effectively than do American brewers. This only makes sense, as they have more experience with creating cask-conditioned beers of all stripes, but it also reinforces the relative novelty of such ales on North American shores and their – again, relative – newness to brewers on this side of the proverbial pond. Nothing wrong with keg beers, says I, or the fact that it serves many North American ales much better than does cask.

Finally, and on a very much related note, the Natural Blonde reminded me that Cascade and other C-hop varieties work so well over here in part because of the quenching nature of their citrusy character. A well-Cascade-hopped ale can be a most a refreshing animal, whether poured from the keg or cask, and when the temperature soars well above normal Scottish or Yorkshire summer levels, or the three-pepper-symbol curry was the choice for dinner, that quality is very much appreciated.

More New Zealand Notes

As I flip through my notebook post-New Zealand, a few things stand out, such as:

Best Beer Name: Pernicious Weed by Garage Project

Best Beer Story: Red Zone Enigma by Twisted Hop — The Twisted Hop brewery was located within what is now the infamous “Red Zone” in Christchurch, which meant that a conditioning batch of their Enigma barley wine was necessarily left to mature from February, when the earthquake struck, to August, when the owners were finally allowed in to extract it and bottle it up! I didn’t have a chance to try it, but it is by all accounts very good indeed. (And I heard good news from Twisted Hop, too! Seems they’ll be reopening in not just one, but as many as three locations in Christchurch.)

Most Ridiculous Idea (That Actually Worked): The madmen behind Yeastie Boys thought it would be a wise idea to brew a beer with 100% peated malt, thus producing Rex Attitude, which strikes me as what Ardbeg might make if it were a brewery rather than a distillery. If that wasn’t foolishness enough, they then decided to up the alcohol content to 10% in an even bigger, peatier beer, Rex, which oddly enough seems more balanced and approachable than the 7% original.

Best Use of Non-Hop Local Ingredients: The Captain Cooker Manuka Beer from the Mussel Inn is flavoured with tips plucked from the manuka tree. The result is one of the most intriguing spice characters I have ever encountered in a beer.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Arrow Brewing’s Hop in a Bottle, which, yes, actually contains a whole hop cone. One which flakes apart when the bottle is even slightly agitated, leaving significant flotsam floating in your glass.

Best Marketing Slogan: Moa Brewing’s “Dark and acceptable to all palates. The Will Smith of beers.”

I Have Been to New Zealand, and It Is Good!

As I type these words, I sit in the Wellington airport awaiting the start of my lengthy journey to Auckland, Los Angeles and finally Toronto. It has been a long way to come to drink beer, but i think it was worth it. Here’s why.

1) One of the reasons i came here was to investigate New Zealand hops, which a number of U.S. and U.K. brewers have been taking a shine to lately. What i found is that they are exactly as interesting, characterful and flavoursome as you’ve been hearing. Not enough are being grown at present, but i expect that will change.

2) Kiwi brewers, by and large, have no idea what they are sitting on down here. Richard Emerson at Emerson Brewing has developed a wonderfully different sort of pilsner using New Zealand hops, and others have followed suit on both the lager and ale side of the ledger, but generally they seem unaware of the potential gold mine that resides in these styles. That, too, will undoubtedly change.

3) Don’t be surprised if sometime over the next couple of years you start hearing about New Zealand style beers. For me, the pilsner is the most glorious, but it will likely be the Kiwi pale ale/IPA that takes off, led by breweries like Tuartara and 8 Wired.

4) Captain Cooker Manuka Beer. Remember it.

5) The first big NZ beer presence you can expect in the U.S. will be Moa, which just hooked up with Whole foods. Watch for Five Hop and Méthode.

6) The largest craft brewery in New Zealand is miniscule by North American standards. This is a country desperately in need of both hop acreage and brewing capacity.

More later. Plane is boarding.



Will Work for Beer in Wisconsin?

This is, admittedly, a rather cheesy way to get together a free workforce, but in southern Ontario people voluntarily get out of bed in the wee hours to harvest frozen grapes destined for  icewine — all for the experience and a bottle of the nectar-like liquid — so why not bribe hop-pickers with beer, says I?

Simple Earth Hops in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, is hosting a hop harvest party on Saturday, August 20, from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Included in your hop picking adventure is hop education, hopyard tours and a sampling of local beers, followed by a community potluck at the end of it all.

Details and registration info is available over here. It might be a hot and sweaty way to spend a Saturday, but it will almost certainly also be a unique experience.