To the Pint

Something old, something new

Modern and traditional approaches can co-exist in the beer world

I have written a bit recently about my travel adventures this past summer. I travelled to Britain to experience some of its classic pub culture, but I also hit a few places in Canada, including British Columbia. One of the enduring impressions left on me after my wanderings was how the world of beer has changed.One of the most amazing things about being a beer fan these days is that you get to experience the best of both beer worlds. Traditional approaches doggedly continue alongside new upstarts trying to redefine beer. It is very fun to experience both side-by-side.It is a rare industry that can allow both the old and the new to co-exist. Usually the new muscles out the old, leaving it dusty and unused or the new gets too brash and is given a spanking by the long-timers. Not so much in beer, apparently. It may be one of the few places where the two happily exist side-by-side.

Let me give you two examples to demonstrate my point. In a recent column I briefly mentioned Caledonian Brewing, Edinburgh’s oldest surviving brewery. Its approach to beer harkens directly back to the 19th century utilizing old copper kettles of a design no brewer would use today. They were short, stout basins with lids designed as copper wings hovering over the wort. Shallow, open fermenters (called Yorkshire Squares) that leave the young beer exposed to the air are scattered across the fermentation room. Caledonian’s recipes remain mostly unchanged over the past 150 years. It brews classic British bitters and Scottish dark ales that give you a sense of being in a pub 100 years ago.

Despite being bought out by global corporate concern Heineken, Caledonian has steadfastly maintained its traditional approaches, including eschewing round-the-clock brewing, a practice adopted by most commercial breweries. Instead, brewing occurs Monday through Wednesday while packaging and cleaning happens on Thursday and Friday, and no one works on the weekend. This is a far cry from what we see in North America.

In stark contrast is Tofino Brewing, situated on the outskirts of Canada’s most hippie town on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This small brewery epitomizes the bold, carefree culture of new-world brewing. It is a brewery of surfer dudes, seriously. In 2011, three friends who were hanging out in Tofino, mostly to experience its impressive surfing waves, were chatting over a beer. One suggested they start their own brewery and within a couple of hours all three were in. None knew anything about beer but they didn’t let that stop them.

The trio cobbled together some cash, hired a professional brewer and built a very small brewery in an industrial park on the Pacific Rim Highway just outside Tofino. Not surprisingly, but certainly originally, they devoted a third of the brewery’s space to an indoor skateboard park for local skaters.

The brewery has a chaotic, do-it-yourself feel. The brewhouse itself is fully professional, but even it uses the unusual heating method of electric infusion (most brewhouses are gas or steam fired). The rest of the space has a casual, homey feel that reminds you this brewery remains three local guys at heart.

The brewery was an instant hit, despite its owners’ lack of experience and complete ignorance of how to sell beer. People took to the idea of drinking a beer made locally and soon they were selling beer to Victoria and Vancouver. The brewery remains small by most standards, expecting to sell 1900 hectolitres this year (which is less than a third of what our local Alley Kat brews, and it is a small brewery), but Tofino Brewing quickly established itself as a local mainstay.

The beer is not boundary-pushing, but reflects a new-world sentiment. Tofino’s anchor beer is a crispy blond ale called Reign In Blonde, but it also offers a fuller-bodied copper ale called Tuff Session Ale and a moderate IPA called Hoppin’ Cretin IPA. The brewery also put out a range of seasonals, including a coffee porter, hefeweizen and a spruce beer.

You would never find a Tofino beer in Caledonian, or vice versa. Each comes from very different traditions. What I appreciate is that within a couple weeks I was permitted to tour and visit with each of them, the two ends of the beer world.

These are just two simple examples in the great span of craft breweries found today. But both reflect something true about what beer is about these days. It isn’t a matter of Blackberry versus Apple or Android. We don’t have to choose the old versus the new. Both have a place and, thankfully, beer drinkers understand and support that.

As it works out, Edmontonians are not able to sample beer from either brewery, unless they travel to their respective regions. Neither are large enough to offer extensive distribution, but that also is part of what beer is about: providing a unique local beer experience. Both breweries do a fine job of that. 

Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond. 

 
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