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The Big Dusty Book… of Beers Deserving More Love

The best thing to come out of the craft beer explosion of the past forty plus years is variety. After been stuck in a rut of bland lagers for almost a century and a half, these new brewers opened “The Big Dusty Book of Brewing Styles” and decided to look at page 2 and beyond.

Now this was mainly a phenomenon in Canada and the United States, but even over in Europe, Big Brewery lagers (somewhat more flavourful than their North American counterparts, but still, essentially predictable in their monotony) also dominated. What Europe had that the western side of the Atlantic didn’t, however, were thousands of smaller breweries, many centuries old, brewing unique beers that were coveted the world over. A few appeared as imports in North America, yet consistently only grabbed less than a 5 percent share of a market drowning in a sea of lagers.

Enter craft brewing c. 1980. Many of the first breweries were started by homebrewers, who felt the public was ready for some new flavour profiles, so they began simply enough, to avoid startling generations weaned on one style of beer. First, almost all were ales: pale ales, a stout or porter, the occasional wheat ale. This progressed into the Age of the IPA, and later, abbey style beers, smoked ales, sours, fruit beers, and historical styles that hadn’t been brewed commercially for decades. Pandora’s beer box had been opened, but in a good way.

Over the past four decades, certain styles have endured, some have gone boom then bust, but creativity has flourished. However, there are a few styles that have not captured either the brewer’s or the public’s fancy. Below are five styles that deserve more attention. Examples cited are available in Alberta, and represent one classic European beer and a locally brewed version of each style (where possible).

1. Strong Scotch Ale

Most native Scottish beer styles have been relegated to historical categories, but one that survives is the Strong Scotch Ale, also known as a “wee heavy.” Rich and somewhat sweet, it is a dark brown beer with a dominant malt backbone, very little hopping, and an ABV somewhere around 8%. It usually contains a small amount of dark roasted barley, and some versions also have a peaty character if smoked malt has been added.

A couple of traditional Scottish imports are still found on Alberta shelves, but most of the craft brewing versions are winter seasonals.

McEwan’s Scotch Ale (UK) CSPC 892703, 8% ABV, $22, 6 pk bottles

Common Crown Andy’s Wee Heavy Scottish Ale CSPC 789831, 7.5% ABV, $18, 4 pk cans

Manual Labour Call My Mom Wee Heavy Scotch Ale CSPC 101380, 10% ABV, $21, 4 pk cans,

2. English Barley Wine

An extra stong ale, usually the highest gravity beer released by a brewery. Many are vintage dated, and in some cases, barrel aged before release. It may be rated as a high IBU beer, but its darker, malty backbone produces dried fruit notes with sweet toffee/caramel flavours, and little perceived bitterness.

There are no true English versions imported into Alberta, and many craft brewing versions come and go through distributors, as most are not produced every year.

Alley Kat Olde Deuteronomy 2018 CSPC 809865, 10.3% ABV, $8, 330 mL bottle

3. Doppelbock

One of the highest ABV lagers, first brewed by monks in Munich, Germany over 200 years ago. Often dark amber in colour, it is rich, malty, and somewhat sweet, with fruity and even chocolate overtones. While full of body, it still has that clean lager finish. Often called “liquid bread”, the original beer made by the monks of St. Francis of Paula, Salvator, is sadly not currently available in the Alberta market. However, other German versions are imported, and a couple of craft breweries have also brewed the style, mostly as a seasonal.

In keeping with tradition, most doppelbocks have names ending in “-ator,” as a tribute to the classic original.

Ayinger Celebrator (Germany) CSPC 721429, $21, 4 pk bottles

Dandy Congratulator CSPC 897164, $18, 4 pk cans

4. Baltic Porter

Dark, roasty, malty, and full-bodied; this beer owes its existence to the Russian Imperial Stout. Born in the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, while similar to the stout, it is often brewed with lager yeast or ale yeast fermented at cooler temperatures. With ABVs hovering around 8-10%, it is usually lower in carbonation and often has hints of coffee, with more complexities and a fuller mouthfeel than regular porters.

There used to be a couple of original European versions available in Alberta, now there appears to be only one. Thankfully, craft breweries have contributed to the variety, but often only as special editions.

Põhjala Imperial (Estonia) CSPC 886022, 10.5% ABV, $11, 330 ml. bottle

Cabin Pomp and Circumstance CSPC 104603, 8.9% ABV, $18, 4 pk 355 mL cans

5. English IPA

A hoppier and higher alcohol version of the English Pale Ale, developed over two centuries ago to survive long sea voyages, especially to India. Brewed with pale ale malt and English hops, usually Goldings and Fuggles, the resulting beer is quite different to the ubiquitous American/Northwest/West Coast IPA. Its subtleties are expressed in a toffee/caramel flavour combined with a grassy/herbal hop finish that contrasts with the citrusy/piney character of the American style.

Authentic imported English versions have always been difficult to find in Alberta, and local and other North American craft breweries tend to stick to the American style when not making the new Hazy/Juicy/New England variation.

Samuel Smith India Ale (UK) CSPC 728835, 5% ABV. $8, 5500 ml. bottle

Search for these and others if you’d like to expand your beer palate.


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