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2016 Year in Review

Happy New Year, everyone! The passing of 2016 marks fifteen months since we decided to leave our pampered, Silicon Valley lives and return to Alberta to start a brewery, and this past year has been a huge one for all of us, full of highs and lows. In the first part of this article, I will talk about the people and places we’ve visited throughout 2016, and then I’ll give some updates about the recipes we’ve been working on, as well as status updates for our location search.

While still in California in early 2016, we spent a lot of time developing and expanding our vision for the brewery, created financial projections and cost estimates (which have since doubled twice over), and researched the rapidly changing Alberta market as much as possible from a remote position, but we knew we needed boots on the ground before we would really get a sense of what was happening and understand the community here.

Laura and I arrived in Calgary in April of 2016 and set to work visiting other local breweries and familiarizing ourselves with the local beer scene. It was amazing to see how much things had evolved in the four years since we left; in early 2012, Calgary only had a few well known breweries – Big Rock, Wild Rose, and Brewsters, and only one of them was significantly packaging beer at the time (now all three have large packaging operations). When we returned, Village and Tool Shed had only been open a short time but had already become pillars of the brewing community, and newer breweries like Dandy were gaining notoriety for their fearless creativity and use of unusual ingredients. Last Best also opened while we were away; we were so happy to finally be able to visit the brewpub and have an opportunity to chat with Phil Bryan about the operation in the early Summer.

Congratulations on being slammed! Love the sound of people enjoying Calgary's newest brewery! #drinklocal #yycbeer #busytaproom

A photo posted by Prairie Dog Brewing (@prairiedogbeer) on

First visit to Common Crown Brewing Co here in Calgary. Right out of the gate, they are already making very tasty, high-quality beer.

Since we arrived, we have attended the openings of several breweries around town. One of those was the Trolley no. 5 brewpub on 17th Avenue, where we were lucky enough to bump into owner/operator Ernie Tsu, who provided us with a lot of good information and helpful industry contacts. Late in the year we also observed the opening of the Mill St. Brewpub on 17th Ave, giving Trolley 5 and Last Best some healthy competition. We also attended the openings of Banded Peak, High Line, Common Crown, and Half Hitch in Cochrane (pre-opening), and have enjoyed beers from Boiling Oar and Cold Garden, two new Calgary breweries that are currently not open to the public but have beer on tap at other fine craft beer establishments. We were also lucky enough to try some of Patrick Schnarr’s beer as he was preparing to launch Outcast Brewing, which is now available on draught at select locations, and to visit Canmore Brewing Company as their equipment was being installed. We also spent a great morning out in Bragg Creek with Baruch Laskin, a founder of the upcoming Bragg Creek Brewing and one of the friendliest guys you could ever meet. Finally, we attended the launch of Andrew Bullied’s Annex Ales Project craft soda line, which currently consists of a delicious non-alcoholic root beer.

#prairiedogbrewing and @iamjeuro hanging out enjoying @annexales rootbeer launch @bandedpeak_brewing

A photo posted by Prairie Dog Brewing (@prairiedogbeer) on

Speaking of Annex Ales Project, we look forward to seeing their production brewery opening very soon (follow them on social media to stay in the know about their opening date). 2017 is going to be a year full of brewery openings, and we also look forward to Caravel, Civil Beer Co, Goat Locker, Inner City, The Well, Zero Issue and several other rumoured breweries opening their doors around Calgary and Alberta this year.

Late in 2016, we joined the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers, Calgary’s only notable home-brew club, which was founded by former Wild Rose brewer David Neilly, who is still engaged in the club and working closely to help other local breweries get off the ground. We also met Andrew Ironmonger and spoke with his wife Erica Francis, who are both editors and publishers of the new and excellent Alberta Craft Beer Guide, and managed to get an entry into the “Sooneries and Rumories” section. Make sure to pick one of these up at your nearest craft brewery or beer establishment, as it is really well put together and has all the info you need to find the breweries in your area.

Prairie Dog Brewing is now featured in the Alberta Craft Beer Guide.

In 2016 we also met Matt and Joe Hamill, founders of Red Shed Malting, a craft micro-malting operation near Red Deer, and Chris and Jessica Fasoli, who have founded the Hobo Malt craft malting business and an ethically-produced pork operation near Irricana, and are planning on opening a full-blown brewing operation in Beiseker.

All along the way we’ve met some of the most friendly, down to earth people imaginable; people who are willing to help out and share information in any way they can. That is what the craft beer industry is all about — good people working together to make good beer, and that was what attracted us to start a brewery more than anything else. To summarize, the Alberta craft beer scene is healthy, vital, and positive, and we are excited to be a part of this brewing community and the overall business community here. The events of the year and the people we met along the way have solidified our belief that leaving California was the right thing to do.

Now for some updates from the past couple of months.

Location Search

We are pleased to announce that we are now assembling an offer for another South Calgary location, this time in the Chinook Centre area. This location has a ton of potential as a retail establishment with a prominent corner location, lots of parking, and close proximity to the C-Train. We have also engaged Korr Design to help us vet properties and create a compelling offer to a potential landlord. Later, Korr will also help us build detailed plans for our space and layout. We have been thrilled by Korr’s level of knowledge, professionalism, and techniques so far.

Wish us luck in the offer process! Also, if you know of any spaces that you think would be an excellent brewery location in South Calgary, let us know.

Pilot Batch Brewing Updates

Porter and Variants

Of all the beer recipes we’ve developed, our porter is probably the one we are most proud of. We designed this beer to sit on the English side of the spectrum, malty and easy to drink, finishing on the dryer side with plenty of dark chocolate and toasty flavour and aroma, as well as notes of caramel and yeast-derived stone-fruit esters. The beer tastes three dimensional, finishing with a different set of flavours than it starts with, taking the taster through a variety of taste sensations that beg for another sip. The beer clocks in at a respectable 5.5% ABV, making it possible to partake in a couple of these guilt-free.

Over the past few months we have brewed this recipe several times, and it is always a crowd-pleaser. To switch things up a bit, we decided to try splitting a batch of the porter into three, turning one of them into an bourbon-oaked blackberry porter, another into a peanut-butter chocolate porter, and keeping the third part unadulterated (see more about this in our previous status post). So, how did these beers turn out?

The oaked blackberry came out wildly different than the original porter. The oak and blackberry tartness changed the perception of the beer to being very dry, almost tannic like a red wine. The blackberry is not very noticeable in the flavour but there are hints of it in the aroma, which adds to the red-wine like quality of the beer, which still has plenty of chocolate and dark toasty flavour, as well. Several tasters enjoyed this beer, but we think it could use some development before we would consider putting it on tap at the brewpub.

The peanut butter chocolate porter was more complicated to make, requiring the addition of lactose, bourbon-soaked cocoa nibs, and PB2 peanut butter powder for a small secondary fermentation, as well as a couple weeks of additional aging for the flavours of bourbon and peanut to blend into the beer and the peanut butter powder to settle out completely. Between all the flavour additions and racking the beer off the peanut butter sludge, we lost about 1/5th of the volume of finished beer, limiting the quantity by quite a bit and making the beer even more expensive to produce (per litre). However, all that was worth it as the beer is quite fun to drink and has no shortage of nutty peanut flavour and a smooth, milky mouthfeel (like a milk stout). The goal for the beer was “peanut buster parfait”, and I think it really nails it. Some tasters felt like the peanut flavour was a little too intense, while others thought it was right on, and the chocolate flavour from the nibs was not very noticeable compared to the malt-derived flavours. We will likely brew this beer again in the future in a full-batch quantity, testing different amounts of peanut-butter powder in secondary fermentation and using malt entirely for the chocolate flavour rather than cocoa nibs.

One thing is for sure, it is very hard to believe that either of these variations started as the base porter, demonstrating the flexibility we brewers have to radically alter our beers post-fermentation. One important exception to that is the removal of undesirable off-flavours; a bad beer is a bad beer, no matter how you try to cover it up.

Berliner Weisse

Berliner Weisse is a light, refreshing wheat beer style originating in Germany and notable for its strong lactic acidity. In its home country, the beer is often served with sweet fruit or herbal syrups that complement its tartness. At around 3% ABV, these beers are very easy to drink and thirst-quenching because the acidity avoids some of the palate fatigue associated with sweet maltiness (the same reason Coke is loaded with phosphoric and carbonic acids). Few breweries outside Germany have focused on making authentic-tasting Berliner Weisse, and we want to be one of them. To that end, we’ve been working on many iterations of our Berliner, experimenting with techniques for souring the beer with wild lactic acid, as well as playing with the malt components.

Our most recent batch was an improvement over prior ones in terms of the level of acidity resulting from our sour mash, but after the yeast fermented the beer, the pH levels came up significantly, and the beer was not anywhere close to as tart as we had hoped. However, the base malt flavours were quite enjoyable so we will probably not do a lot of tweaking to the malt-side of the recipe at this point. We already have another Berliner Weisse batch in our brewing schedule and will be taking another crack at this in February.

IPA

A hoppy West-Coast IPA is something we absolutely need to open with. Our brewing background started on the West Coast and we want to bring a little piece of that to Calgary in the form of our IPA. As such, this is a recipe that we’ve put a lot of work into over the past couple years. However, scaling a home-brew recipe up to commercial production has some complications, particularly with respect to access to ingredients. As a new brewery with no long-standing relationship with hop producers, and being a very small fish with little to no clout, we are going to be pretty much last in line for hops, which means that some of our favourites may not be available to us at a cost we can afford or in the quantities/freshness we desire for a mainstay beer. That has forced us to take a second look at our recipes and try a few different things with the hops to come up with alternate versions of our IPA. Fortunately, we were recently contacted by a Canadian hop supplier, who looks promising in terms of accessibility to some of the more exotic hops as well as their own Canadian-grown varieties, so wish us luck that we are able to do as hoped with our hops.

Our most recent batch of IPA was brewed in mid-November and disappeared very quickly (we have a few reference bottles of the beer, but the kegs ran out weeks ago). One could surmise from the pace of the beer disappearing that we are happy with this beer, but no, it has a way to go. We dry-hopped with a large hop bag, but we found out after we opened the fermenter to clean it (post-packaging) that the bag got caught up on the cooling coil and didn’t make adequate contact between the hops and the beer, explaining why the hop aroma came out quite weak on this beer. We had also tweaked the recipe to try to get some additional malt complexity and a darker copper colour, but the beer turned out darker than hoped, so further iterations are required (also an excuse to drink more IPA).

Session IPA, or ISA, or Hoppy Pale Ale, or er, Whatever

The Session Beer Project defines a Session Beer as being 4.5% ABV or lower in alcohol, flavourful, balanced such that multiple pints may be consumed without becoming either cloying or wrecking your palate, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced. I like that definition because it gets at the point of the word “session”, which really comes from the English tradition of a bunch of fellows going out after work and each buying a round of beer for a “drinking session”. It is common for English beer to be below 4% ABV, making it possible to have four or five pints without getting oneself into trouble later in the evening. Applying this logic to IPA, which typically starts around 6% ABV but often weighs in at more like 7 or 8% ABV, one imagines a beer that has assertive bitterness but is much more about the hop flavour and aroma. Scaling a regular IPA recipe down in terms of the simple quantity of the malts would result in a very dry, perhaps even watery session beer, so work has to be done to add body/mouthfeel to the beer. Further, the bitterness added by the hops in a 7% beer would be incredibly unpleasant in a 4.5% one, so those also need adjusting. You get the idea.

Session IPAs are known by a lot of names, but all names are debatable and it would be a separate blog post to try to go over them, so let’s just stick with Session IPA here. Ours has gone through a lot of revisions, and we’ve really enjoyed almost all of them along the way. If you read the section on IPAs above, you probably could put two and two together and see that we might have the same issue with hops in our Session IPA as we do in the IPA, so many revisions are likely to continue to occur in the future as we play with different hops. We are also still experimenting with different methods for improving the body and head retention in the beer (e.g. flaked oats, flaked barley, mash temps, special malts, etc.). Over time we will likely use this recipe for showcasing new and unusual hop varieties, as well.

Purple Hefeweizen

A Hefeweizen, or German Weissbier, is a wheat-based beer dominated by aromas and flavours of banana and clove, which are byproducts of the unique yeast used to ferment the beer. Our version started as Tyler’s first home-brew recipe. Living in California at the time, Ty wanted to put something in the beer that made him think of Canada, and blueberries were his top choice. After the first batch we realized that the blueberries give the beer a deep purple colour, but not much flavour compared to the yeast-derived esters and phenols (blueberries don’t actually impart much flavour to beer, extracts or artificial flavours are often used). Though it could be seen as a bit of a gimmick, a lot of people liked the purple colour and the beer has always tasted good, so it has stuck around in our rotation. We are still playing with the recipe to make it finish a little dryer, add more notes of bread, etc., as well as experimenting with non-purple versions and additions of fruit at different times in the process (boil vs. secondary fermentation), and purees vs. flash-frozen fruits. Our next iteration of the beer is going to be fruitless, literally, because we want to be able to evaluate the base beer on its own, and try adding various flavours in the glass rather than in an entire batch of beer.

English Brown

An English Brown style can vary greatly from something like a thin, light Newcastle Brown all the way to something coming closer to a porter in intensity and colour. Our version was designed to be an easy-drinking 5% ABV, with plenty of malt backbone and flavours of biscuit and chocolate, as well as some caramel and sweeter impressions, but still finish on the dry side (again, a dryer beer is easier to drink more than one of).

We originally developed the brown recipe to showcase Red Shed malts, and the first batch was a huge crowd pleaser, requiring little to no iteration. However, we have a lot of creative ideas that revolve around brown ale base beers, so we are using the base recipe and making minor tweaks for each variation.

Our most recent experiment was a Gingerbread Brown Ale, designed to replicate the flavours and aromas found in gingerbread, which revolve around molasses, ginger, and mulling spices like clove. We brewed a batch of the beer during the lead-up to Christmas, hoping that the beer would be ready for the festivities. Unfortunately, the beer came out spicier than hoped, and issues with our temperature control resulted in a stalled fermentation. So, we took the original recipe, made a few tweaks based on tastings of the first beer, and brewed it again, this time without adding the spices. After fermentation had been underway in the new beer for a couple of days, we used a deeply-cleaned and sanitized pump and hoses to thoroughly blend the two batches together, allowing the active yeast from the new beer to get access to the sugars in the original one, and cutting the spice levels in half. Sure enough, after another week and a half in the tanks, the beer was palatable and we kegged it off just in time for New Years celebrations. As I write this post, I’m sipping on this beer, which has mellowed out in the past couple weeks but still has plenty of aroma resembling an eggnog. The base beer finishes thicker and sweeter than the original because we brought the hop bitterness down a bit and mashed for more body. Molasses is less noticeable in the aroma now than it was at first. Definitely the beer is quite enjoyable and we would consider putting this on as a seasonal, but it will require a few more iterations before the next holiday season demands it.

Expect to see more variations on our brown ale in the future.

Wheat Beer

We feel like a fresh, bready beer with notes of cracker and grainy character is great for reminding customers that beer is an agricultural product, starting a dialogue about where the wheat and barley used in our beers primarily comes from — Alberta! We use flavourful late-addition hops, as well as dry hop to add tropical flavour and aroma; bitterness is kept fairly low — this is not a wheat pale ale.

Our last batch of this wheat beer went on tap back in August and received a lot of great initial feedback from friends and family; we just brewed it again a few days ago and are eagerly awaiting it to finish fermenting so that we can receive additional feedback and continue to iterate on the recipe.

Raspberry Wheat

Everybody makes a raspberry beer, so why do we need to make one? We like some of those other raspberry beers, but we feel like something is missing. Some raspberry beers taste too sweet, others don’t taste like real, fresh raspberries ever found their way into the beer. When one tastes a fresh raspberry fruit, they are greeted with a sweet, acidic aroma that is unmistakable for raspberries, and that is the first thing we focus on with our beer. Second, when you bite into a raspberry, you experience a thrilling sweet sensation that quickly fades into the tart finish of the berry. Our beer finishes drier to let the berry tartness shine through in a similar way. We used an American Wheat base beer recipe, as the style naturally lends itself to fruit additions with low hopping rates and background bready malt flavours, as well as a lack of yeast-derived flavours that can interfere with the berries.

We’ve been working on this recipe for quite a while now and have made minor changes to the malt and hops, but our focus has been on the yeast and raspberries. We’ve used several American and English yeast strains, and are now using our house strain, which is an English variety (English yeast in an American Wheat, go figure). On the raspberry side, we’ve tried flash-frozen organic and non-organic raspberries, as well as Vintner’s Harvest purees in various quantities. Puree resulted in the best results because it has been strained for seeds (anyone that has chewed on seeds knows that they can be quite tart and astringent). Finally, the puree was easier to handle as a liquid than solid berries were, and the process of creating a puree pasteurizes it, so the risk of infecting our beer with wild bacteria or yeast from the fruit is significantly diminished.

Kölsch-style Ale

Kölsch is an appellation for a low-alcohol (~4% ABV) ale brewed in Cologne, Germany, so we aren’t allowed to say that we brew a Kölsch. In many ways, this style resembles a pale, European lager, because Kölsch yeast ferment cooly and don’t produce as much fruity, estery flavours at these temperatures, much like lager yeast, and because European hops are typically used in the beer. Further, the beer is usually lagered (stored cold) for longer than your typical ale before it is served, allowing further clarification and smoothing out of flavours. However, Kölsch is an ale and as such, has a much shorter turnaround time than a typical lager. Kölsch beer is delightfully balanced in every way. Malt is prominent but not over the top, hops are there but only enough to balance out the malt, yeast is subtle, and the beer finishes medium dry with a refreshing level of carbonation. Alcohol is mild and not really noticeable. You could drink these all day.

We first brewed a light, 3% ABV Kölsch recipe as a base beer for off-flavour additions for our tasting events. Because the style is so light and balanced, it offers an excellent platform for tastings (at a recent CAMRA off-flavour tasting event, Last Best also used their Kölsch in the same way). However, we brewed an extra quantity of the beer and kept it on tap at home, and it became a favourite, so we will be hacking on this recipe a little more and bringing the intensity up to the typical range for the style. Note that the beer looks a lot darker in the picture above than it was in reality, the dark countertops and Instagram photo filter made it much more intense looking.

I hope that gives you a sense of what we’ve been working on. We appreciate you staying with us until now and all your support. We’re going to need all the support we can get in the coming months and are super happy to have people like you. We have a lot of other ideas on new beer in the pipeline, but please, if you think we should brew something, let us know at beer@prairiedogbrewing.ca or contact us on social media (see the links at the top or bottom right).

 

 

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