Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Georgia Straight Reader's Choices Awards: Motivation to Push Harder in Our Fight to Promote Craft Beer

Those who are the shakers and movers in the local craft beer scene have much to be proud of with the major gains that have been made over the past few years in regards to educating the general public about craft beer and expanding the craft beer community to include a wider cross-section of British Columbians, but one has to only look to the Georgia Straight's 2011 Golden Plate Reader's Choices Awards to see how much work there is still to be done. The knowledgeable Vancouver craft beer community is still very small in comparison to those who prefer mass-produced macrobrews, churned out by the larger breweries and I think those of us who consider themselves members of the local craft beer community sometimes forget just how small a minority they are among Vancouver and British Columbian beer drinkers because they are constantly surrounded and supported by like-minded people. At CAMRA meetings and events we are preaching to the converted and when close to 100% of the room shares your beliefs and feelings it is easy to lose track of the fact that the rest of the big, old world out there does not share the same.
I am one of those people who sometimes forget just how small a market share craft beers actually have here in BC. The last statistics released by the BC Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB), in their December 2010 Quarterly Report, show that beer sales from breweries producing under 150,000 hectalitres is on the rise, increasing by 7.65% for draft and by a whopping 40.12% for packaged products while the bigger breweries, producing more than 150,000 hl saw sales shrink by 7.71% for draft and 8.6% for packaged products. You would think that with those numbers that the smaller, craft beer breweries would be gobbling up a large portion of the BC beer sales market share but they don't, still only selling approximately 13% of beers sold here in the province.
What do all these numbers have to do with the Georgia Straight's annual readership awards you ask? For me, it hammers home just how much more work there is to be done in educating the beer-drinking public about what constitutes a quality, craft beer, how beers should be served and well, quite frankly, everything there is to do with drinking good beer. I sometimes think we in the craft beer community are too busy patting each other on the back to notice that for every craft beer sold, there is still almost a six-pack of mainstream beers being rung up at BC cash registers. Yes, we get it and we are enjoying the fruits of our epiphanies with every sip of craft beer, but we will not see the realization of our dreams of being able to purchase and drink craft beer, served in the manner that we want it, on an equal footing with those larger, macrobreweries who put $$$ signs ahead of quality and taste, until we start to effect real change into how the general public perceives craft beer and microbreweries.
It just takes one look at the Georgia Straight awards to see where the general public locally is with beer. Alexander Keith's was voted the best beer brewed outside of British Columbia! Alexander Keith's is not even the best beer brewed in Nova Scotia. And how the Hell does Kokanee tie for first place for the best BC beer brewed outside of Vancouver? It was tied for first with Phillips Brewery's Blue Buck Ale, but, with all due respect to Phillips, Blue Buck does not have any business being on top of any list to do with the best BC beer brewed outside of Vancouver. When I last checked a map, Surrey (Central City Brewing), Sorrento (Crannog), Squamish (Howe Sound Brewery) where all located outside of the city limits of Vancouver yet none of their award-winning beers made the top three. Driftwood Brewery, which is located in Victoria along with Phillips, also did not make the grade with their great beer line-up. Best BC brewery located outside of Vancouver...Okanagan Springs! Yes, Phillips and Driftwood were voted second and third but where is Central City, voted Brewery of the Year in 2010's at the Canadian Brewing Awards. There are several other peculiar, odd and downright ridiculous winners in this ballot, but I will let your peruse the list for yourself.
I know, I know, these reader's choices-type awards are all dependent of the audience of the publication, who votes, block voting, etc, but the Georgia Straight should be a good sounding board for what the general public thinks and believes here in Vancouver. From what I see, by the choice made by the Straight's readers, CAMRA BC, CAMRA Vancouver and the rest of us campaigning on behalf craft beer consumers have much work to do which is a perfect segue into the announcement of CAMRA Vancouver's next Policy and Advocacy Meeting, scheduled to take place April 5, 2011 at the Railway Club. Meeting starts at 1800 hours sharp. If you want to be apart of the growing craft beer movement here in this city and help effect change, show up, get involved. If you are not a member of CAMRA, join up and help the numbers grow. If you are a member of CAMRA recruit your beer drinking friends. I know I say it over and over again, but getting more involved and pulling in the same direction will provide strength  to the craft beer movement. Even a simple act of getting all CAMRA BC members to vote in next year's Georgia Straight Reader's Choice Awards may help to shed more light on and expose more people to the great craft beers that are being produced out there in this great land of ours.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Last Hurrah for Dix BBQ and Brew Pub? - CAMRA YVR's Spring Expedition

The last cask standing?
CAMRA YVR partakes in the
end of an era 
The final chapter for the much-love and dearly-missed Dix BBQ and Brew Pub may finally have been written when CAMRA Vancouver's Spring Expedition tour bus rolled into Whistler Village this past Saturday afternoon.
Dix, which served its last beer on premises, May 24, 2010, became a mecca for craft beer lovers here in Vancouver and its closing left a huge hole this city's craft beer community. Brewers Tony Dewalt and Derrick Franche became brewing legends in Vancouver as a result of their delicious and innovative brews, which were served at ridiculously cheap prices, another facet of Dix that is sorely missed in this city.  Dix was instrumental in kick-starting the cask beer movement in this city developing what I believe was the first cask night, held each Thursday and by holding their now-legendary Caskiville events which have been the inspiration for recent cask-dominated festivals held by CAMRA. Franche, the head brewer at Dix when the Mark James Group closed it down, is now brewing at The Whistler Brewhouse and as a tribute to his formerly loyal clientele at Dix and to CAMRA for supporting and promoting the art of brewing craft beer, invited CAMRA members to come up to enjoy the last surviving cask of Dix IPA.
CAMRA members celebrating
finishing off the last DIX IPA
cask - preview to a Stanley Cup
victory for the Canucks?
I have been to about as many "last Dix IPA" cask events as The Eagles have had farewell tours, but Franche assured me this is it for Dix IPA casks. I truly hope that Nigel or Anthony have something squirreled away in the keg rooms of The Alibi Room and St Augustine's because this cask was superb! Anyone who tells you that IPA cannot be aged really should rethink this as Franche's IPA definitely stood the test of time. It may not be has hoppy as it once was, but the balance and smoothness kept me going back to the cask until it was drained, even though there were several other tasty offerings available. The cask was paraded around the upper floor of The Whistler Brewhouse, like the Stanley Cup (don't get used to that sight Canuck's fans, my Red Wings still stand between you and Stanley Cup glory!!) after being consumed in a little over 90 minutes by the 40 or so well-lubricated and appreciative CAMRA members who made the trip. Franche was also celebrated by his many friends and fans who used to frequent Dix on a regular basis. It really was a great atmosphere and fun to watch many rehash and recapture what was once a vibrant craft beer scene at Dix. I was a small part of it early, back when Dewalt was head brewer, in the early days of the cask events, and I can recall many a great evening bellied up to the bar at Dix, munching on peanuts passing the time BSing with the cast of characters that made Dix their local watering hole. I have never really understood why The Mark James Groups shut it down, but I am looking at it from a beer-lovers point of view and not a financial one.
Beers aplenty were shared among the CAMRA
Spring Expedition revellers
Although, for many on the trip, Whistler may have been the highlight, the whole day was non-stop fun for myself. The bus was a-rocking shortly after taking off from St Augustine's, shortly before 1130 and I will take credit for cracking the first growler, filled with Storm's Black Plague Stout, before we hit the Iron Worker's Memorial (Second Narrows) Bridge. By the time we passed by the Lonsdale exit of the Upper Levels Highway, a bottle of 2009 Abyss, Yeti Imperial Stout and several others had been shared about. What I liked about the beers shared on the bus is that many brought along their home brew creations, including one mason jar of "apple brandy" which was a belly warmer, to say the least. For me, the time on the bus getting to and from the destinations is becoming my favourite parts of these beer tour day trips.
Howe Sound Brewery is worth the trip up to
Squamish all on its own.
 The bus was loud and our driver powered up to Squamish, despite the raucous crowd and a misbehaving bus, which had to be replaced when we reached the Howe Sound Brewery. Howe Sound has slowly worked its way into my heart and I consider many of their special and seasonal releases to be among the best beers in BC. I see Howe Sound as one of the breweries that is pushing the envelope in the local craft beer scene and have said to anyone who will listen that I believe this year's Pothole Filler will hold up against any imperial stout in a blind taste test, including Old Rasputin (I hear the gasps of disbelief, but it is something I will put to the test soon). I couldn't resist ordering a pint of the Megadestroyer and I was not disappointed. This latest batch had been "toned down" in the liquorice department, according to head brewer Franco Corno, and has mellowed with a few months of aging, but it was still a very formidable beer and I would not be honest if I said the trip from Squamish to Whistler was not a little fuzzy.
I am not sure how many really took in the amazing scenery on the way home as the bus worked its way down the Sea to Sky Highway. The views of the snow-capped mountains illuminated by the day's last rays of sunlight were spectacular. Unfortunately, I do not have any photos as I was incapable of focusing my eyes, never mind a camera, by that time of the day. And in an apparent defiance of nature, the energy on the bus actually seemed to increase on the way home, which is usually not the case on a ten-hour beer tour! I was clever enough to head straight home, avoiding an even heavier toll Sunday and the wrath of my wife but I did see several merry-makers heading off in the direction of the nightlife of Commercial Drive when we arrive back at St Augustine's.
Cudos to those who organized the trip as they must have felt they were herding cats at certain times of the day. It is a difficult task to keep 40something folks on the rails when their sole purpose of the day is to sample and consume beers, many of them of the very strong variety. I know as I, along with a few friends, have organized a few tours under the name BeerTourist and it is much harder than it seems. But in the end, all the smiling faces getting off the bus around 9 PM must have made all the hard work worth it for the CAMRA organizers. If you have never been on one of these bus tours, whether it be with CAMRA, BeerTourist or any other group, I highly recommend going. They are a lot of fun. Just remember to bring a few tasty brews to share on the bus,  get a good night's sleep the night before and eat a hearty beakfast before boarding the bus...and don't plan too much for the next day as you may find yourself moving a little more slowly than usual.
Also, please try to avoid foods that may result in backfiring of any kind, as one or more members of this trip did not. There were a few moments on the trip that nearly resulted in mass vomiting and it had nothing to do with the beers being consumed. Silent-but-deadlies are not fun in a confined space!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

From Pious & Blue to Pissed & Green - Evolution of St Paddy's Day

From Pious to Pissed - How the Hell Did We Go from Religious Celebration to Green Beer & Plastic Hats?

I have never understood why bars have this strange compulsion to put green food colouring in their beer or why their patrons have the uncontrollable urge to buy this beer and consume it on St Patrick’s Day.
Friends don't let friends
drink green beer!
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that most of the time the green dye is added to such beers as Molson and Labatt Blue, which may, in fact, improve upon their taste. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that those who drink such beers are not all too concerned about what actually goes into their mass-produced brews, hence a little green food dye, on top of the rice, corn and other fillers and additives does not faze them.

If that is your thing, go for it and enjoy. Who am I to tell others what to drink.

I do know that the only green beer I have ever consumed in my life was one that I accidentally spilled my absinthe into while drinking in a bar in Prague and I was not about to waste that. In fact, I may have “accidentally” spilled another glass or two of the green fairy into my Budvars that may have resulted in me having a wee chat with a leprechaun or two on my way home that fine summer eve. 

While on the topic of green and St Patrick’s Day, I am pretty sure that wearing a plastic green hat, or funny green badge that states “On St Patrick’s Day I’m Irish” does not qualify one for an Irish passport, even of the temporary variety. I’d also like to point out if you are legitimately Irish and wearing a, “Kiss Me I’M Irish” t-shirt, no matter how attractive you are, I will not be kissing you, St Patrick’s Day or not, due to a phobia of kissing strangers and an aversion to being belted upside the head by my darling, loving, petite-yet-fierce wife, who, quite frankly, scares me a lot more than a pint of Molson Canadian with green food dye in it.

You may be thinking at this point that I am the Scrooge of St Paddy’s Day, but I can assure you this is not the case. Like many on March 17th, I claim to have Irish heritage, but in my case it is true. I am decidedly Canadian, but only a few generations removed, on my mother’s side, from Dublin, where my great grandfather hailed from. I was born Sean Hogan and renamed Patrick, by the family that adopted me, but have been known as Paddy for some time. I have always celebrated St Patrick’s Day, from wearing green as a youngster to going out and tipping a few jars back with friends as I got old enough to do so.

But as much as green beer and plastic green hats are synonymous with St Paddy's Day here in N America , today’s March 17th celebrations have about as much to do with St Patrick and Ireland as Alexander Keith’s IPA has to do with IPA. From what I have read, St Patrick was not known much as a drinking man at all and was not known to adorn himself head to toe in green.

Historians are a little fuzzy on what St Pat actually got up to when he wasn't chasing the snakes (read pagan religions), from the Emerald Isle during the 5th Century, but I will wager a barrel of Irish whiskey he was not tipping back tankards of green swill down at the local tavern after a hard day of converting the pagans to Christianity. As for all the green visible on St Patrick’s Day, that is something that evolved over time. Blue, not green, was originally associated with him. Green was adopted in the 1800’s to symbolize the shamrock, which legend has it St Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans he was converting.

St Patrick’s Day was originally a day of feasting and worship, held on March 17th, the anniversary of St Patrick’s death, thought to be some time in around 493 AD. History books tell us he is not even Irish, having been born in Northern England, or Southern Scotland, which may explain the blue as he may originally been a Man City, Everton, or God forbid if you are Catholic, a Rangers supporter.

He was an accidental tourist in Ireland at first, having been kidnapped from his home in Britain, when he was 15 or 16, by an Irish raiding party and brought to Ireland as a slave. He remained in Ireland for approximately six years, herding sheep, learning the Irish language and becoming familiar with the pagan way of life, before escaping and heading back to his family after being directed to a ship in the south of Ireland by the voice of God.

Now I don't know about the 5th C, but I do know that these days, telling others you hear the voice of God will net you a one-way ticket to the psychiatric unit, not a free boat ride to England. But despite the voices, after heading home, St Patrick entered the church, studying in France and later returning to Ireland as an ordained bishop and missionary and began his work converting the pagans to Christianity.
The St Patrick’s feast day has been celebrated since around the 10th Century by the Irish. In the 1600's, March 17th became an official religious holiday in Ireland for Catholics and was a day of worship. It was not until 1903 that St Patrick’s Day became an official holiday in Ireland and the first parade was held in Dublin in 1931.
St Paddy's Day Quebecois-Style
in Montreal
The first ever noted St Patrick’s Day celebrations in North America occurred in the 1700s Boston and New York where Irish immigrants and their descendants celebrated their home country. At this point, at least in North America, it became a day of celebrating Irish culture more than a religious holiday and took on more of a festive tone. Here in Canada, the first ever recorded St Patrick’s Day Parade was in Montreal, in 1824 and has been held every year since and in Newfoundland, St Patrick’s Day is recognized as a provincial holiday.

Over the years, the day has lost all religious meaning outside of Ireland to the point that for many it means throwing on something green, going to the pub and getting blind drunk. As with most things in North America, commercialism took over hence the plastic green hats, shamrock antennas, green beer and temporary leprechaun tattoos. Now it is a celebration of Irish stereotypes in many cases. There are some authentic cultural events, but they get lost in the Guinness promotions and faux Irish pub events.

For me, it is a day to avoid most bars. I find most of them are about as un-Irish as you can get in their efforts to capture the St Patrick’s Day spirit. Imagine walking into a bar in Ireland and ordering an Irish Car Bomb shooter. I guarantee you that you would be turfed unceremoniously out onto the street quicker than you can say pogue mahone! Irish whiskey is meant to be sipped, not pounded down with red bull. It is “rookie night” at the bar for the most part, full of loud, obnoxious drunks.

Throwing up a few green streamers and shamrock decorations does not make a bar an Irish bar.

Having said all that, you will find me in a bar on St Paddy's Day, those who know me know where, and I will be doing something else very un-Irish, that being drinking a craft beer (there, I did sneak craft beer into this rant/history lesson). If you care to join me for a pint or two of Back Hand of God and an Irish whiskey, please do. You can join me in a toast or two in memory of my dear, departed mother who adopted me and raised me as her own and who happens to share a few things in common with St Patrick, that being she passed on March 17 and that she was a saint.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reports and Ramblings From Beer-Addled Mind #2

CAMRA YVR Engaging Members and Getting Busy

CAMRA YVR's new executive made good on their promise to become more active and get their members more involved, holding their first Policy and Advocacy Meeting at the Alibi Room Tuesday evening. Many of the usual suspects were in attendance and the downstairs room of the Alibi was full, with approximately 40 people showing up to take part. It was also encouraging to see some new faces in the crowd as well with a cross-section of people from all different segments of the beer community represented. CAMRA YVR president, Martin Williams, kept things on point by sticking to the agenda set out and moving the conversation forward, when necessary, to keep the meeting from stalling and losing shape.
From my point of view, I felt there was some good discussion and and it was interesting to hear the points of view from the different concerned parties. I know that personally I sometimes simplify issues and look at them purely from a consumer point of view, so it was very informative to hear from brewers, pub and brewery owners, distributors and retailers and understand a little more the issues they face in regards to the regulations, laws and restrictions that are in place in this province. It was also encouraging to see the meeting not digress into a simple bitch session and that those in the crowd were more than willing to get involved with many taking on the task of doing some research on specific issues in order to report back to CAMRA, in three weeks time, so that the issues can be revisited and action strategies formed, based on facts and not just emotion, at the next meeting April 5th.

There was some interesting comments and debate about the tied house issue and the proposed changes being considered by the provincial government to deregulate, or outright abolish, tied house laws. I have made my opinions about the tied houses quite well known, telling anyone who will listen that I am against the government relaxing the regulations in place to allow tied houses and inducements to exist. Some voiced similar concerns to mine, but there were some in favour of allowing tied houses, or at least allow for some relaxing of the regulations.
Mission Springs Brewing Company were represented and are directly effected by the current tied house rules which prohibits them from selling their Mission Springs beers in the Billy Miner Pub, which has ownership ties to the brewery. This is a prime example of how the laws in place are hobbling those they are meant to protect. It is also a prime example of how complicated some of the challenges are that those involved in the beer industry have to face. Another strong proponent of deregulating tied houses was Adam Henderson, owner-operator of Raincity Brands, a local importer of beer, who has laid out his arguements for allowing tied houses on his website. Other topics touched upon and discussed were liquor distribution problems, home brewing laws and the always anger-evoking liquor taxation.

From my point of view, there seemed to be some genuine interest by those in attendance to actually do more than talk but whether the meeting inspires them to follow through, do the research, organize and campaign is yet to been seen. If there is a failure to convert this talk into action, the blame certainly will not fall on CAMRA YVR and their executive, who are doing what they can to engage members and get them involved. Williams and his executive are pointing the horses in the direction of the water, now it is up to those horses to take action and drink. When talking to Martin, over countless pints, about the issues that concern us here in BC, related to the craft beer industry, he has always stated that CAMRA is merely a vehicle that needs to be fueled, guided and moved forward by the will of its membership and not just directed and lead by the executive. I am not sure what the other BC chapters of CAMRA are doing to campaign and effect change but if they are not holding similar meetings on a regular basis to organize, they may want to keep an eye on what CAMRA YVR are up to. It should the the goal of CAMRA BC to form cohesive, organized campaigns that are consistent province-wide, activating all members from all chapters together, to form one, unified voice that can speak intelligently and hopefully be heard by those who have the power to make the changes to our laws and regulations.
If you have an interest in trying to effect change in our antiquated and overbearing liquor laws, stay tuned to the CAMRA Vancouver website for confirmation of the location for the next meeting, which, if it is possible will be held at the Alibi Room once again. If you have specific issues you wish to address, or have particular skills and the motivation to get involved, this is your chance to be heard. And if you are not already CAMRA member, buck up your $25/year and get involved.

More on Tied Houses

One of the most interesting things I took away from the CAMRA YVR Policy and Advocacy Meeting was that there appears to be some changes coming soon in regards to the tied house regulations. According to the information shared, there is at least one liquor inspector out there who is reporting that there is room to interpret the tied house regulations that would allow, for instance, a microbrewery to sell their products at a pub or restaurant, off-site, that has ownership connections to the brewery. From what I understood, the word was that as long as there was equal representation of independent products, read beers from other breweries not "tied" to the establishment, offered at the same prices and promoted in the same manner as the "tied" beers, it would be okay to sell the "tied" beers.
I did not get into any in-depth conversation about this as there was a meeting in progress, but if I understood correctly, and this is the case, it may be that the government has made their decision as to which option will be chosen from the three proposed in the LCLB's Consultation Paper, dated January, 2011. I have not seen any official announcement in regards to any decisions, nor has anyone else I have spoken to, but the whole "consultation" process and the hushed nature of the proposed rule changes had a certain reek about it and it is my opinion that the government had already been lobbied and had made their decision, at least in part and was not basing their reasons for the proposed changes on "public safety" but more so on big business wants and needs. Whatever the case, it seems, as far as I am concerned, something wicked this way comes and we are about to see some very substantial changes made to the landscape of the local beer market. Some changes will benefit certain small breweries who do have a financial stake in other restaurants and bars, and I see that as a positive, but total deregulation, in regards to allowing tied houses and the allowance of inducements, may have a very negative impact on the local, craft beer industry here in BC, where it is just starting to flourish and make substantial inroads into the beer market.
One more note I find England, where tied houses have been allowed and where big, multi-national breweries, including Labatt, have been allowed to buy up chains of pubs and restrict the beers offered in those pubs to just their beers, one MP, Martin Horwood, has introduced to the Tied Public Houses (Code of Conduct) Bill to the legislature, for debate. The proposed changes to the laws that would require that publicans running tied houses be allowed to sell "guest" beers, instead of being restricted and dictated to by their big brewery owners. Click on the Tied Houses link to see the story reported by Jon Howard, March , 2011, on the CAMRA UK website. I wonder if the government here in BC has bothered to talk to their UK brethren to see what the allowing of tied houses has done to the beer industry in regards to fair competition and restriction of consumer choices, in the UK.

A Challenge to all Lower Mainland Beer Bloggers - How Well do You Know Your Beers?

Vancouver's Legacy Liquor Store, located at 1633 Manitoba St, in the infamous Olympic Village, has recently announced they will hold The Knockdown, Drag Out Beer Quiz and Blind Taste Test, to be held April 13, 2011, at Legacy. The contest, which will cost $25 to enter, is being organized by Legacy's Chris Bonnallie and will consist of 25 questions, related to beer, followed by blind taste tests involving eight beers. The blind testing will ask contestants to name the style of beer, country of origin and the actual brand name of the beer. The person accumulating the most points, one given for each correct response, will receive a $200 gift certificate for Legacy.
Now, I know I rattle on about craft beer as if I am some kind of expert, but in reality, I just love good beer, love to write and have no fear about offering my opinion. But here, I am ready to put my money where my mouth is, enter the contest and really see what I know about beer. I suspect I will make an ass out of myself, which some, including myself, will find amusing. But what I would like to do is put out a challenge to all beer bloggers to join me in the contest, perhaps making a small side wager with the winner taking all, which they are free to donate to charity or buy a round of beer for the gang. And of course they will have the bragging rights over the rest of us brave enough to show!
Tickets for the event, which can accommodate up to 40 people, go on sale Monday, March 14, at Legacy and is open to all. I really hope to see some familiar faces out there as this event sounds like it could be a lot of fun.