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Alley Kat turns 20 and wins big

// Curtis Hauser
// Curtis Hauser

It’s been a good month for Alley Kat, Edmonton’s flagship craft brewery. A couple of weeks ago it celebrated its 20th anniversary—no small feat in craft-beer-sluggish Alberta. Just before that, Alley Kat won Beer of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Brewing Awards (CBA) for its Scona Gold, beating out 1300 other entries for the title—also no small feat.

I’ll return to Scona Gold a little later, because right now you’ll rightly be wondering what the hell the Canadian Brewing Awards are.

In short, the awards are Canada’s only national beer competition. The wine world has hundreds of competitions that spread vinous love—and medals—so far and wide you begin to wonder whether each award is even worth its weight in metal. This phenomenon doesn’t hold true in the beer world, which has far fewer competitions that tend to be regional in focus.

This isn’t to say there aren’t outlandish beer competitions: the biggest American competition (Great American Beer Festival) awards medals in 92 different categories. This is, quite frankly, outrageous—there are simply not that many beer styles.

But the CBA has not yet succumbed to medal creep. In 2015 it judged brews in 41 categories, which is quite reasonable given the range of beer produced by craft breweries these days. The CBA also exclusively uses Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges. The BJCP is the most respected organization for beer evaluation, and it is a pre-requisite for any credible competition. Full disclosure: I have been a BJCP-certified judge since 2003.

In its early years, the CBA struggled with reputation. It had an Ontario bias, and many breweries grumbled about the process; many boycotted the event entirely. However, the CBA has done a good job of listening to this feedback and has improved the process immensely, which can be quantified by the buy-in from breweries: this year over 200 breweries—representing the majority of breweries in Canada—entered almost 1300 beers for evaluation. It was the largest CBA ever.

Circling back to Scona Gold: it bested all of those other entries to capture Beer of the Year, ostensibly Best in Show. This is amazing for numerous reasons. First, Scona Gold is a Kolsch, a light-bodied style with a soft graininess accented by a delicate fruitiness. It is intended to be a summer quaffer that is more about drinkability than competition medals.

Second, and far more intriguing, is that the Scona Gold is the newest addition to Alley Kat’s lineup—and it’s the company’s gluten-reduced beer. While its gluten levels are low enough to be considered gluten-free, under Canadian rules it can’t label itself that because it started its life with barley: an enzyme that is used to break down the gluten in the brewing process. Yet, Alley Kat hasn’t jumped on the gluten-free marketing bandwagon and doesn’t really market the beer that way, instead allowing it to stand on its own feet. Most drinkers are completely unaware that it is gluten-reduced.

I think it is a testament to the CBA judges that they selected a light-bodied, delicate hybrid beer over the big double IPAs, barrel-aged beers and barley wines; this speaks volumes about their ability to detect quality.

Alley Kat was also not the only Alberta victor on CBA awards night. Calgary’s Wild Rose picked up two medals, both bronze, for its Electric Avenue Lager and its Natural Born Keller. Again, these are two lighter styles given recognition.

My favourite story, however, is Ribstone Creek’s. Ribstone opened up a couple of years ago in Edgerton, a town of about 400 souls just east of Wainwright. The brewery claimed the silver medal in the porter category for its seasonal brew, Old Man Winter. The beer is most certainly medal-worthy, but it is Ribstone’s backstory that makes its win intriguing.

Ribstone was started by four Edgerton-area ranchers who wanted to do something different for the community and thought a brewery would be an interesting addition. However, they knew nothing about beer, so they brought in one of the fathers of Canada’s craft beer industry, David Beardsell, as a partner to anchor the beer side of the business. They launched with an innocuous pale lager aimed at the rural market and didn’t seem to be heading down the craft path. However, Ribstone has surprised many by releasing an IPA year-round and producing some interesting seasonals, including the aforementioned Old Man Winter.

However, no competition can be completely free of controversy. The 2015 CBA also awarded a bronze medal to Calgary-based Minhas Micro Brewery in the North American Wheat category. Minhas is a controversial player in the beer world. Many call it a faux-craft brewery, meaning that it market itself as craft but the beer doesn’t qualify. Minhas is the 14th-largest brewer in the US, and most of its beer is made in a large industrial facility in Wisconsin; the bulk of its production is discount segment beer (Mountain Crest and Boxer are two of its big labels).

Minhas’ bronze medal made many in the industry unhappy, as they feel it gives the brewery undeserved credibility. Of course, Molson also won medals and would hardly be considered craft, so it is difficult to see why Minhas should be the only one excluded due to lack of craft-ness.

The bigger question regarding Minhas’ medal is whether the beer was even eligible for the competition. While Minhas does have a small brewery in Calgary, the vast majority of its production is located south of the border. We really have no real way of knowing where its beer was brewed.

The big takeaway lesson for Alberta brewers is just how far behind our province is in terms of craft beer. BC breweries walked away with the lion’s share of medals, including Brewery of the Year, which was awarded to small Delta brewery Four Winds. Alberta simply doesn’t have the critical mass of breweries yet to create a truly dynamic scene like our western neighbour. Hopefully that will change, and the sooner the better.

In the meantime, pick up a six-pack of Scona Gold and know that you are drinking a champion.


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