Calgary’s biggest brewery Big Rock has been attempting to reclaim its roots as the vanguard of Alberta craft beer over the past few years. For a long time Big Rock has settled into a position of making the same 6 or 7 beers and never breaking stride. Then this movement of craft beer hit Calgary about 4 years ago and Big Rock started to take the time and energy to create more unique and craft centric brews. As someone who has been a craft beer nerd in Calgary since turning 18 in 2006 when the choice of good beers were slim pickings Big Rock was many of my first beers as non-minor. Birch Bark is a part of Big Rock’s Alchemist Series of beers that have been crafted with the intention of trying to regain former glory. Birch Bark is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with Birch syrup, Fuggles and Challenger hops to a weighty 8.5% ABV.
Birch Bark pours out a thick syrupy sludge of purely opaque black with a nice fizzy body that settles into a dense tan head perched atop creamy with a marshmallow esque top. The aroma is quite impressive and has a nice rich and robust malt with heavy roasted notes and notes of light vanilla and earth. A thick body on the first sip with noted sweetness akin to syrup with a slick full bodied mouthfeel. The roasted malts are heavy and present with nice woody and roasted notes. Overly sweet in the middle with a light roasted bitterness on the finish. Lighter notes of coffee, dark chocolate and a pinch of spice also present themselves. The finish although firmly rooted in roasty bitterness has a light fruity component that accompanys a balancing floral and citrus hop. This is hands down the best beer Big Rock has ever made despite being oriented for the most discerning of palates. I appreciated the attempt of an Imperial Stout which is bold in its own right but to use Birch syrup to enhance the flavour with a woody flavour was impressive. The only downfall being the overly intense sweetness throughout the profile.
© Laurie P Smith
Clown Shoes Brewing has rapidly become one of my favourite American craft brewers to hit the shelves in Alberta stores. The beer is contract brewed out of Mercury Brewing Co. in Ipswich, Massachusetts and has recently been named one of the Top 100 Brewers in the World by RateBeer. Most of all Clown Shoes has taken risks in making unique and obsure styles steeped in humour. Chocolate Sombrero is a Mexican Style Chocolate Stout brewed with ancho chiles and cinnamon to an ABV of 9%. The concoction of spice and heat with roasted malts and robust espresso and chocolate notes is a pairing used often in beers nowadays to acclaim.
Cracking open the Chocolate Sombrero the pour is a deeply opaque brown nearing black with a thin layer of dark tan head tightly coiled on top. At first the aroma is heavily laden with smoky roasted malts, espresso and vanilla beans and dark chocolate. As the beer opens up a subtle spice aroma presents it self with the chiles and spices coming through the barrier of roasted malts. A bit sweet in the mid palate with a dessert like flavour of chocolate malts and frosting. The spice remains well hidden and reserved until the finish. Rich and smooth mouthfeel with a thick oily body the finish is heavy with roasted malt bitterness. In the aftertaste the chile makes another appearance adding heat to the bitterness akin to fighting fire with fire. Overall, a very smooth and rich stout with a robust profile and spice blend. I enjoy this beer alot as it adds another dimension to the sometimes overworked Imperial Stout. Clown Shoes seems to have a knack for taking styles popular in the US and tweaking them in their own unique way.
Located in Longmont, Colorado Oskar Blues Brewery is one of Colorado’s foremost craft brewers. Unlike most other brewers Oskar Blue’s sells their beer only in 12 Oz cans. Oskar Blue’s is also known for Dales APA and Old Chub Scotch Ten Fidy is an American style Imperial Stout with 10.5% ABV and a heavy 98 IBU’s. I have had Ten Fidy several times before and consider it to be one of my all time favourite brews.
Pouring out a entirely black and opaque viscous mess with a thin tan head on top. The aroma is heavily roasted with robust notes with aromas of chocolate, espresso and licorice root. A light vanilla aroma also blends with the heavy roasted notes. The first sip has a small amount of sweetness from the dark chocolate and vanilla notes with a heavy espresso bean flavour. Delicious licorice notes are more subtle but add another layer of complexity. A bit of a smoky flavour comes through after the vanilla, licorice and espresso with a heavy oily mouthfeel. The finish has a heavy body with a creamy mouthfeel. The finish is quite bitter with a moderate astringency and a lingering roasted bitterness. A nice warm and alcohol heavy finish that fits well stylistically. Every time I have this beer I find new reasons why I love it so much. Ten Fidy is such a great complex and heavy Imperial Stout that is perfect for a cold winter day or really anytime.
When Anderson Valley was first imported into the bustling craft beer scene in Alberta sometime last year I never had any idea that a WIld Turkey barrel aged beer would be later making its way up north. One of the first Anderson Valley brews to hit Albertan shelves was the Barney Flats Oatmeal stout which is a very solid sessionable stout that could be perceived as the base for this barrel aged version. The 6.9% ABV barrel aged version was aged for 3 months in Wild Turkey casks to lend rich and woody flavours to the aroma and flavour.
The bomber of barrel aged stout a syrupy and velvety ebony black into a tulip glass with a thick foamy beige head expanding quickly on top. This head slowly dies to a thin cap which is evident of the barrel aging process. The appearance overall has a gorgeous mahogany and ebony glow throughout. Taking the first sniff of the glass I note an outstanding emphasis of bourbon and wooden barrel aromas as well as pinches of less than subtle vanilla. A minor more subtle aroma of licorice root and coffee blend well with the robust and intense roasted malt aroma. Overall the Wild Turkey has had a major and emphatic effect of the nose of this beer lending rich woody and earthy notes of vanilla and bourbon. Incredibly stoked for the first taste of this beer I dig in with a major rich yet robust flavour profile of wooden and earthen malts. Bursting roasted malts and notes of espresso and chocolate lend an intense and rich profile. The vanilla becomes more present and lingers on as I sip more of this silky, syrupy beer. Although the flavour alternates between a boisterous and robust malt and a smooth earthen vanilla essence the balance is awesome. Overall this beer is a sipper that doesnt last quite long enough.
During a visit to Palm Springs in January of 2013 I was able to experience my first brew from San Diego’s Mission Brewery. The Shipwrecked Double IPA is a colassal blend of hops with big booze brewed in the traditional San Diego style. My blog article on Shipwrecked can be found here. The Dark Seas from Mission Brewery is a 9.8% stout brewed in the Russian Imperial Stout style.
Pouring out a completely dark, opaque black thick as motor oil with a thin tightly held tan head Dark Seas looks like it sounds. The nose has a sweet blend of freshly ground French roast, dark, bitter chocolate with a hint of licorice and vanilla. Big boisterous roasted malts fall evenly with the subtle notes to give a rich and robust aroma complete with a warm whiff of alcohol. Big roasted malt flavour profile with much more subtle chocolate but nice espresso and licorice flavours. Sweet and syrupy mouthfeel lends an almost dessert like appeal. The finish has a satisfying roasted bitterness with a subtle oak or bourbon barrel flavour as well as a alcohol warmth. Dark Seas is a complex and well brewed Imperial Stout with all the best parts working together. Although I which this had a bit more oomph, Dark Seas is a great example of a Californian Imperial Stout.
Grimstad, Norway’s Nøgne Ø is Norway’s golden child in their growing craft brewery scene. Luckily Albertan’s have been privy to many imported bottles of Nøgne Ø beers over the last year. In May of this year I made an adventuresome trip to Scandinavia to climb mountains and see the fjords. Starting in the beautiful harbour city of Bergen I found myself to arrive on May 17th or Norwegian Constitution Day. Little did I know at the time that this would be the most eyeopening and interesting day of my entire European vacation. After watching the parade along Bryggen the strip of old Hanseatic buildings along the harbourfront I made my way to Hakon’s Hall and Rosenkrantz tower atop a hill overlooking the entire harbourfront. From there I could see the true amount of Norwegians who were out to party the town in traditional dress. I made my way up towards the hills and mountains surrounding Bergen to take the Mt. Fløyen funicular up to see the best view of the city. Due to an overflow of locals trying to take the funicular I thought maybe I would go back later close to sunset. So I made my way back to my hotel to meet my hiking group for the next week and passed by a bar called the Garage a block from my hotel. I noticed the Garage had a few signs up for Nøgne Ø and Haandbryggeriet so I thould I should probably take a look.
Bergen Fish Market on May 17th
View of Bergen from Mt. Fløyen at night
Before I continue I should note that Norway is the most expensive country on earth where a Big Mac costs 95 NOK or $19 CAD. Walking up to the bar a very friendly bartender asked me where I was from and why I was in Bergen. I told him I was going hiking on the fjords and glaciers for 10 days and this was the starting place and that I was from Calgary, Alberta. He asked me if Calgary was like Stavanger in Norway which are both oil cities. After questioning him about the Norwegian craft beers he had he offered me a pint of Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout on cask for 110 NOK ($22 CAD) which was truly delicious despite its price tag (but a pint of crappy lager was around 80 NOK). I sat down in the corner and used the wifi to check some news back home until a young Norwegian guy named Jos approached me and asked why I was in the corner and not celebrating with the rest of the locals. Jos was in Bergen to celebrate with his friends who were late to the party after travelling all the way from somewhere near Trondheim. The next few hours were an interesting insight into Norwegian solcialist life and the high cost of living. Jos was a factory working who welding compression parts for off shore oil rigs. After several more expensive beers Jos and I were discussing the differences between Norwegian and Canadian life. We finally talked about the etreme right wing people in Norway like Varg Vikernes and Anders Behring Breivik discussing the church burnings and murders in Bergen in the 1990’s. Later that night after thinking of all we had talked about I could not of asked for a more interesting experience than meeting Jos in Bergen and seeing Constitution Day celebrations. But now maybe I should talk about the beer…
Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout aged in cognac barrels is a 9% ABV beer laid down in previously used cognac barrels for an entire year. Pouring out of the 8oz bottle a gloopy viscous entirely opaque black with a thin light tan head. The glass has a few noted alcohol leggings with sizable lacing splotches. The appearance is definately that of an aged Imperial Stout. The aroma is outrageous with huge roasted and slightly smoky malts leading to earthen barrel notes and vanilla bean shavings. After a few more whiffs of the aroma an overall sublime aroma of vanilla and woody booze is left. Sweet, syrupy mid palate with vanilla nuances and a light cocoa dusting are well combined. Sweet finish with roasted robustness and a rather mild bitterness caps off the aged flavour. Earthy and woody barrel flavours persist into the finish with a noted barrel emphasis throughout. This beer is incredibly complex and well rounded for a barrel aged Imperial Stout. Although I am a bit biased because Imperial Stout and in particular barrel aged Imperial Stout are my favorite, this is one hell of brew. Expertly and exquistely crafted and aged I think I would like to try more of Nøgne Ø Imperial Stouts.
Price: $7.99/8 oz
For many years Fort Garry was the big boy in the Manitoba Craft beer scene. Until Half Pints opened its doors they were the only one. Recently several big bottle seasonal brews from Fort Garry have been sent to Alberta. Several months ago I did a blog entrty on Portage & Main IPA from Fort Garry Brewery. Fort Garry was started in 1930 but was merged with Molson later on. It was not until the mid 1990s that a craft brewery of the same name was opened.
Kona Imperial Stout is a 6.5% abv stout brewed with coffee from the big island of Hawaii. At 6.5% I fear this may lack the buzzing warmth and thick richness of a true Russian Imperial stout. Most Imperial Stouts are upwards of 8% ABV with most falling around 9 or 10%. Kona coffee is arabica bean grown on the slopes of Hualalai or Mauna Koa and as such is rather expensive. Due to rarity and cost most coffee roasters or brewers whole sell Kona coffee often use a blend of Kona arabica and other coffees grown from elsewhere.
Pouring a dark as night black with a thick foamy beige mess on top this looks more like an Oatmeal stout to me The head srays rather bulging and thick for a while before settling down to a few small bubbles. The nose has a moderate roast with big coffee and espresso aromas floating peacfully together. Earthen and smoky notes although subtle are also duly noted. Mild sweet coffee and chocolate flsvours up front with mild roasted malts coming in soon. The finish is roasted and mildly bittered but lacks the big smack in the face of roasted malts I love. This is a solid brew but has neither the finishing warmth nor the full roasted malt I love. I think this could be a great Imperial Stout if brewed in the traditional Russian Imperial Stout style with more roasted malts and a higher alcohol content.
Ursus Spelaeus from hence forth known as Ursus is one of three beers from Poulsbo, Washington’s Sound Brewery to recently arrive in Alberta. Ursus is an Imperial Stout brewed with a Belgian yeast strain at a modest 10% ABV with 68 IBUs. As Imperial Stouts are my favourite of all beers I find myself to rate them much differently than other styles with a probable bias.
Pouring a bleak, opaque black with a finger of foamy beige head and a few splotches of short lived lacing Ursus looks like most Imperial Stouts from a distant. Taking a closer look with a quick sniff from the glass a prominent licorice as well as a robust roasted malt float off. As a person of Dutch heritage who grew up with licorice pastels as candy I love licorice especially in Imperial Stouts. I swoon with the thought of a licorice flavoured stout. The first sip has a noted roasty bitterness with sultry espresso and vanilla flavours as well as light fruity yeast notes albeit rather subtle. I am at first disappointed at the lack of licorice flavouring in the taste but after a while of sipping on Ursus a moderate lingering licorice takes form in the aftertaste. Ursus has a beautiful monstrous roast with espresso and vanilla notes but regardless of this, the licorice remains my centrepiece.
Over the past month I have travelled across Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands. During a 3 day stop in the Danish capital Copenhagen for the Copenhagen Beer Festival or Ølfest I made a pilgrimage to Mikkeller bar on Viktoriagade. The world renowned bar set in an old cellar through a pair of black wooden doors is a mecca for beer nerds the world over. Taking a look at their 20 or so tap list I noticed the worlds most wantes beer Dark Lord from Munster, Indiana and had to have it. Despite the 100 Danish Kroner price tag I nervously ordered the famous elixir.
Dark Lord pours a completely oily black with a thin tight dark tan head that dies instantly to a purely black top. The glass has a solid amount of boozy and oily legs results of the 15% alcohol percentage. The first sniff I take from the glass has a heavy robust roast filled aroma full of espresso and vanilla notes. A small hint of booze on the aroma is rather subtle compared to the huge robust smoky and rosted malts. Dark Lord is a bit sweet and syrupy on my first sip with big French roast espresso and dark chocolate. A hint of smoky earthen malts with a subtle oaky vanilla bean. The mouthfeel is syrupy abd ultra full bodied with a dessert like flavour. The finish has a bit of alcohol warmth to cap of the unbelievable flavour. Dark Lord is one of the most incredibly complex and easy sipping big beers I’ve ever had the ability to taste.
Price: $18/ 10 oz
Like the infamous Mikkeller, Evil Twin is a brewery without a home. Brewing in the gypsy style of contracting recipes from their base in Copenhagen, Evil Twin have invented some truly unique and incredible beers. Perhaps the most well known concoction from Evil Twin is the Soft DK or Soft Dookie Imperial Stout. This Imperial Stout clocks in at 10.4% ABV and is brewed by Amager Bryghus in Kastrup, Denmark. I bought a few bottles when this was first released to Alberta shelves in the fall based upon the reputation in the craft beer community.
“This stout looks like soft dookie and some will say it smells and tastes like it too. If you like a thick, creamy and utterly vanillalicious stout you’ll like this one. If you don’t, get yourself something else instead.”
Soft DK pours with a beautiful silken and viscous body with a heavy syrup characteristic. The nose is rich, robust and utterly intense with big lightly burnt barley malts, espresso and dark cocoa aromas with a pronounceable vanilla bean note. Nice sweetness up front on the first sip with a mild bitterness and sublime malt notes. Subtle chocolate, smoked malts and a heavy dose of roasted espresso add nice character along with a fresh vanilla flavour. The finish is remarkably smooth with a silky mouthfeel, a light warmth of alcohol and a great silky finish. This is a great stout as it has the robust and intense flavour profile without an burdening bitter finish.
Grade: 91/100 Price: $10.99