Beer Break

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A good friend’s recent visit prompted me to set up a little beer dinner with a wide selection of brews (he’s a beer geek). I brought the majority of these beers back from the United States on various beer collecting voyages, but a few are available in the province. The five beers represent a large range of styles and are all superb examples of what they are trying to achieve. It strikes me that I don’t talk about beer enough on the blog – though I suppose that given the regularity with which I partake in wine drinking over beer justifies this. I am, however, very excited with the ever increasing craft beer movement here in Vancouver and within the last 3-4 years the market has exploded – something that the more mature wine market might learn from. Wine needs to start engendering more excitement and enthusiasm in the average drinkers and start bringing them into the fold of passion. As it stands, I know far more people who feel less intimidated by beer and accordingly more comfortable with expressing their enthusiasm for it. Wine just doesn’t get down to this basic level quite often enough.

So for any wine lovers out their who foreswear off beer, you would be surprised to learn how well beer pairs with food – often, with certain foods, far outshining its grape-based counterpart. The problem in the past has been a real lack of very high quality craft beers in the province and a true diversity of styles. This is now changing, and will continue to improve over the next couple of years. The momentum we are now seeing in craft beer has moved from the province offering a very basic range of styles from basic stouts, brown ales and lagers to a scene now where we have wheat beers, bocks, imperial stouts, a full range of Belgian beer styles, barley wines, and, now, the hottest beer style right now: sour ales. The upcoming Vancouver Craft Beer Week is the perfect opportunity for wine lovers to delve into this world.

For this tasting I chose to begin with a legend from Belgium making “lambic” style wines that are extremely dry. I discovered this producer – Cantillon – and this beer – Rose de Gambrinus – when down in California and I was struck by its intense and pure expression of natural tasting fruit without any hint of sweetness. Luckily for us BC beer drinkers these beers are being brought into the province now by Raincity brands, and will be available at your favourite craft beer store (Viti, Firefly, Brewery Creek, etc.) sometime in May. This particular beer was fermented with raspberry and tasted like a pure expression of the aroma and character of the fruit. We paired this with a wonderful St. Andre cheese and the coupling was out of this world – sort of like a complex and more sophisticated version of brie and cranberries. A truly outstanding marriage of flavours.

The next wine on the list is from one of the most sought after series in the craft beer world: the De Proef Brewmaster’s Collection. The concept here is for top brewers in the United States to collaborate with brewmaster Dirk Naudis of De Proef to make a beer brewed only once. Each year the guest brewer changes. The Van Twee Belgian Ale is the third in the series and is made with the brewer from Bells Brewing. Each year the style also changes to reflect the brewer’s tastes and so that each beer can contain an ingredient from the guest brewer’s home state. The Van Twee is a Belgian dark ale brewed with cherries and it was absolutely fantastic, maintaining the consistent quality this collaboration series has brought to the table. Supremely well balanced, full in flavour and nuance and yet not heavy on the palate and with good freshness and a long finish. The cherries provide a nice fruit lift and the dark ale underbelly actually has some stout-like characteristics and roasted malt flavours. Unfortunately this is only available in the United States right now, but if you are ever down in Seattle, Portland, or SF seek out the Brewmaster’s Collaboration series and you will not be disappointed.

The third beer, moving on to the first of two dessert courses, is Brooklyn’s Monster Ale, a beer made in the barley wine style, which tends to have a particular style of heavy malt flavours like caramel and butter, high alcohol and a lot of richness. However, this particular Monster Ale is vintage 2007, which is about as young as I’d like to drink most barley wines, as the age tames the aggressiveness of both the alcohol and the hops. The real revelation here, though, was how stunningly perfect it is to pair barley wine with crème brulée. Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. I’m not sure any wine pairing could exceed this. The Brooklyn is available in most of the fine beer stores in the province, on a seasonal basis.

The first of two stouts is also available in the province and is fairly easy to acquire – the North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. This was one of the first RIS’s I got into many years ago and while I think it is good now, I also believe that it becomes far more interesting with a little age. This particular bottle was about a year old, which again helped the alcohol integrate with the rest of the flavours and brought out more richness in flavour and a more velvety mouthfeel.

The last stout is one of Michigan based Founders Brewing famous beers – the Breakfast Stout – a beer made in the style of an oatmeal stout, but with coffee and chocolate brewed in. This was also about a year old. The beer stood up to the hype and presented a full range of flavour and nuance balanced together with pure textural pleasure and a wonderful aromatic profile. This stout has it all and it is far more balanced than most ‘big’ stouts out there (I think it is around 8% ABV). Unfortunately, this beer is only available in the American Midwest. As with the previous beer, this was designed for drinking with a piece of dark bitter chocolate.

So I hope that this journey through a range of beers and styles offered enough intrigue to get you out to one of next week’s Vancouver Craft Beer Week events. I’m attending at least three, and if I didn’t have to work I’d be at many more. I highly recommend you check it out, even if you think you only like wine. Beer is the wine lover’s great missed opportunity.

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