Microbrews surf the beer wave in times of good cheer
by Kate Zimmerman for Vancouver Sun: In Good Spirits column

Beer consumption goes in waves, according to Barry Benson of R & B Brewing, with summer the absolute apex. And while you might expect that Grey Cup weekend would be fall’s Big Kahuna for Canadian breweries, big and small, it ain’t necessarily so.

Benson, who shares the reins at R & B with Rick Dellow, described the Grey Cup Championship as “a corporate event.” It’s strongly supported by the big beer companies -- whose wares account for 90 per cent of beer sales in B.C., he said -- and by the sports bars that pull a lot of big-name draught. So the folks selling Labatt and Molson may well be run off their feet before and during the Grey Cup contest, but microbreweries like R & B don’t find themselves drained by the pressure of meeting the public thirst for kegs.

No matter. Christmas is coming -- that’s a wave that favours the microbreweries. Walter Cosman, director of sales and marketing for Granville Island Brewery, says that’s because “people tend to trade up to more premium products during the Christmas season.”

They’re aided and abetted by Granville Island Breweries. It puts out a 12-pack called The Mingler, which delivers three bottles each of four different beers; Granville also offers a couple of winter-time beers, Lions Winter Ale and Doppelbock. Meanwhile, R & B obliges with a winter brew, cannily called Auld Nick and brewed in the style of a Scottish “Wee Heavy.”

There are 16 microbreweries in B.C. R & B is one of two based in Vancouver, the other being Storm Brewing. (90 percent of Granville Island Breweries’ products are made in Kelowna.) To qualify as a microbrewery, you have to produce under 75,000 hectoliters per year. R & B produces 2,000 hectoliters. Granville Island makes 50,000 hectoliters. Storm Brewing provides 1,500 hectoliters in kegs and in draught; it’s on tap at places like Vij’s, The Foundation and The Main.

Micro-brewers are like the makers of other artisanal products, from jams to breads to cheeses. The success of their business depends not so much on massive productivity, but on achieving depth of flavour and turning out what they believe is a high-quality product. They know they aren’t the be-all and end-all for everyone -- if that were the case, an awful lot of people would go thirsty.

That being said, for micro-brew enthusiasts, there’s still plenty of beer to go around.

If Benson were hosting a Grey Cup party this year, he’d go for a keg and large glasses or mugs.

“It’s the Grey Cup,” he explained. “You don’t want everyone to sit around drinking dainty little cups of imported beer.”

R & B’s kegs cost $164 for the 50-litre size, which will serve 144 12-ounce glasses of beer. A $76 keg provides 60 glasses.

Storm’s kegs are $125 for a 40-litre keg, serving about 100 12-ounce glasses of beer.

Granville Island charges $108 for 30-l. kegs that pour the equivalent of 90 bottles of beer, and $160-$175, depending on the brew within, for 50-l. kegs that pour 146 bottles.

But if Benson wanted to provide his guests with greater variety -- for a holiday party, perhaps -- he’d choose a few imports, like Beck’s and Stella Artois. “That would give you some class.”

In addition, he said, “You might want, say, another local product like a six-pack of Granville Island, like Cypress Honey Ale. I always have a couple of Red Devils (R & B Pale Ale) and Hop Goblin I.P.A. (R & B’s India Pale Ale) for the hopheads in the crowd.

“At the very end I’d have to have a six-pack of Canadian,” said Benson.

Spoken like a true former employee of Molson.

Ale vs. Lager

The chief difference between ale and lager is that ale is made with top-fermenting yeast, and takes less time to age. Lager uses bottom-fermenting yeast, which ferments at a lower temperature and is aged longer.

Generally lagers are served a little colder, ales a little warmer. In either case, as beer’s chill comes off, its flavour and aroma become more apparent.

R & B’s Barry Benson recommends cooling his micro-brewery’s winter beer, Auld Nick, then pouring it into two brandy snifters and letting it warm up for 10 minutes. First give it a good swirl and the carbon dioxide will come out of it, he said. Then “Take a big whiff of it.”

You’re allowed to drink it now.

Clear out the beer

Beer has a limited shelf life.

Light and heat are its enemies -- that’s why beer bottles are usually brown.

Larger breweries pasteurize their beer, which allows it to last for about 90 days, said Benson. Microbrewery products should be kept refrigerated and are best consumed within 30 days.

If you have leftover beer in your keg, you can pump it out into soda water bottles, seal them and keep them in the fridge for a week. If your hangover hasn’t dissipated by then and the idea of drinking it is unthinkable, Benson recommended it as a marinade, a steaming liquid, or an ingredient in either bread or batter for fish. For those kinds of recipes, you can also use up the bottles that are going stale in the fridge.

The Food Network’s booze-loving Thirsty Traveler, Kevin Brauch, included a few recipes that use beer in his cookbook, Thirsty Traveler ‑ Road Recipes. The following example might even be suitable for your Grey Cup bash. It has not been tested by the Sun.

RECIPE: The Thirsty Traveler’s Cheesy Beer Soup

Three-quarters cup butter
One-half cup celery, diced
One-half cup carrots, diced
One-half cup onion, diced
Three-quarters up flour, all-purpose
One-half tsp. dry mustard, ground
14 oz. chicken broth
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
One-half cup Parmesan cheese, grated
12 oz. Amber Ale

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Cook celery, carrots and onion in butter until onion is translucent. Stir in flour and mustard to coat vegetables. Pour in broth and simmer until slightly thickened. Pour mixture into a blender. Puree mixture and then return it to the saucepan. When pureed mixture is hot, begin to stir in the cheddar, Monterey Jack and Parmesan, a little at a time, alternately with the beer, until all the cheese is fully incorporated and melted. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and serve hot.

Serves 8.

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