by Mike Verdone
Published September 2008 in Beat Route magazine, Calgary
Lagers, ales, stouts, and lambics. The world of craft beers and microbrews seems a complex place. A bottle could hold anything from molasses-y mud to bitter brown bubbly. But don't give up and reach for that bottle of Kokanee. With a help of an experienced guide you too can enter that world of cachet beers with flavours you've never imagined.
One such guide is Brian Westcott. With a masters in brewing and distilling (an enviable degree, for sure) and an upcoming position as head brewer at Edmonton's Alley Kat brewery, he's just the person to give you the skinny on beer.
To start with, why become a craft beer snob and drink Alley Kat, Big Rock, Unibroue, etc. when it's much easier to find cans of Canadian at every liquor store? The long and the short of it: taste and quality.
"'Macro' breweries (the big guys) tend to have big marketing departments that want to sell as much beer as possible in order to get their year end bonus," says Brian, "They need to appeal to the lowest common denominator most of the time, as the flavours that can occur in beer are very subjective from person to person. A lack of significant flavour means that there is less chance that a particular person will dislike the beer." And that's why all those mass market brands from Molson to Labbatts, Carling to Bud taste pretty much the same: like slightly bittered bubbly water.
"Microbreweries aren't bound to sell to this lowest common denominator. Micros can make beer what it ought to be: something with flavour, something you can have with a meal, something that is far from just something cheap to get drunk on."
And what about quality? Beer is traditionally made from malted barley or wheat but big breweries can save money by using cheaper "adjuncts" such as corn and rice. With years of research the big guys have learned how to downplay the taste of these additives but if you work on it you can detect undesirable flavours from these cheap grains.
Luckily you have a lot of choices to get away from big bad beer. The craft beer market is thriving in Canada with good-beer fans staying loyal to the cause. "The big guys can't seem to effectively penetrate it since the segment is defined by the fact that the consumers don't want to buy from the big guys," says Brian.
Another reason the megabrewers aren't buying up craft beer breweries is that they barely appear on their radar. Alley Kat can produce 600,000 litres of beer in a year, a staggering amount for you and I to contemplate, but a company like Molson can make that much in a week or less at a single brewery.
But how to get started with serious beer? If in doubt, Brian recommends an all-malt lager style beer (for example Alley Kat's Charlie Flint lager). From there, "try as many different beers as possible. When you go to the store buy something different each time. This will give you an appreciation for what you like and what you don't. Everybody's tastes are different. Brown ales, blonde ales, and strong Belgian ales are excellent to give to a newbie."
And for the experienced drinker serving the beer-virgin? "Introducing somebody to new and interesting beers may take some patience. I have friends who still refuse to admit that beer can be good."