Transforming Hop(e)

I’m still enjoying the new job, or at least the discovery process, and I want to write about all aspects of it – good and bad – but as I was reminded at an orientation session today, I should actually be careful what I put on the internet because I am now a “Parks Canada ambassador.” When you are employed by the federal government, you need to ensure your comments skew at least apolitical, and ideally sunshine and maple leafs.

https://cdn2.justwineapp.com/assets/article/2017/05/beercanada.jpgI can handle that, but while I wrap my head around it, I’m going to celebrate my Canadianness in another time-honoured fashion. I’m going to complain about beer. Maybe that’s not quite as Canadian as complaining about the weather, and it’s certainly never kept a Canadian (myself included) from drinking beer. But I have to complain about something, so I might as well complain about a subject I know well.

Remember that time I went to France? And drank all that really good Belgian beer? I even brought some back with me – not enough to get in trouble with customs, but just enough to affect the weight of our luggage. And I shared it with my friends, some of whom were skeptical about just how good beer could get. And then, after they tasted it, they apologized for ever doubting me.

Then it was gone. My first trip to the NSLC was a rude awakening. Things had changed a bit in the year I was away. Sydney’s beer coolers now bristled with East Coast craft beer; whereas in 2016, there had been maybe half a dozen established Maritime brews besides Alexander Keith’s – Garrison, Pumphouse, and Propeller from Halifax, Picaroon’s in Fredericton, Moosehead in St. John, Gahan in PEI – now one whole wall was devoted to Atlantic Canadian brews.

https://i.cbc.ca/1.3623074.1465418353!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_1180/breton-brewery-beers-in-a-can.jpgThis sea-change occurred in part because the two microbreweries in Cape Breton – Big Spruce and Breton Brewing Co. – both started canning their product, as opposed to selling on-tap directly to pubs and restaurants. Capers look after their own – and in this case, you can’t blame them, as both companies make pretty decent beers. In particular, Big Spruce’s punniest beers, the Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout and the Ready Yer Knot Regatta Red, are full-bodied and flavourful, as is Breton Brewing’s brown ale, which is called Sons of Hector for some Celtic-related reason that I can’t fathom.

My problem was not with the beers, but with the cans. I have always preferred bottled beer to canned, and after trying to fill the Belgian void with a few six-packs of oddly hoppy Oatmeal Stout, I left the island (libationally speaking) and began to peruse some of the region’s other offerings.

Because – not to have buried the lead here – Cape Breton hasn’t discovered Europe yet, apparently. The import shelf is limited to a few standards: Guinness, Kilkenny, Old Speckled Hen, Innis & Gunn, and a couple of German dunkels. I did find a bottle of Chimay blue, one of the elusive eleven Trappist beers, and I snatched it up, but I guess my liver was back on Canadian time, because it didn’t sit well and delivered a whopping hangover. It’s just as well; now that I’m working full time, I can’t afford to imbibe 10-to-12% beers every night.

Even the non-Atlantic Canadian options are sparse, unless you want to sink to drinking Coors or Kokanee. My B.C. fave, Granville Island, was nowhere to be found, although the clerks said that we were just “between seasons,” which meant I’d have to wait till July for their summer sampler packs to arrive. The only Canadian beer I knew I enjoyed was Unibroue, a brewery in Chambly, Quebec that makes some decent Belgian-style beers, but which is actually owned by Sapporo, a Japanese company. But the only reason I wanted to keep drinking at all was to discover new beers. Why stick to what you know you like?

So I returned to the Atlantic wall, and I started dropping lures. Hell Bay English Ale (“A tribute to the well-known bitters of English pubs across the pond”): too hoppy. Spindrift Coastal Lager (a “German-style festbier”): too hoppy. Boxing Rock Hunky Dory Pale Ale (“a favourite among discerning women and confident men”): Jesus Hops! What are these people thinking?!

https://scontent-amt2-1.cdninstagram.com/t51.2885-15/s640x640/sh0.08/e35/17438587_1882334108708193_1344154030108049408_n.jpgThe North Brewing Company from Halifax offered me something from the uncanny valley: Gus 65m Belgian Blonde. It had the words “Belgian Blonde” on the label, but apart from that nothing was recognizable, from the taste (flat and bitter) to the alcohol content (4.8%? I’m trying to avoid hangovers, but I’m not a corpse!). At least it wasn’t hoppy, which I was coming to realize was almost unavoidable, even if I steered clear of the IPAs, Double IPAs, APAs, and similar hybrid monstrosities.

If you don’t drink beer and have no idea what “hoppiness” entails, consider a world in which every glass of water may or may not contain a thin layer of tiny, invisible thumbtacks. You can sometimes smell the tacks, but they’re getting better at hiding them; in fact, you take a deep, refreshing gulp of water, swish it around in your mouth, and then only when you swallow do you get the full effect, as the invisible tacks carve their way down your tongue and throat. They are always the last thing you taste, and they often linger for long minutes after all the other flavours are gone.

Why do North American brewers believe that their products are merely elaborate delivery systems for thumbtacks? Why do we, in our vast and diverse land, not cherish variety, the way they do in the tiny, homogeneous country of Belgium? I suspect the answer has a lot to do with cost – hops are cheap, and it takes less time and experimentation to make a hoppy beer that drowns out all the other notes – but whatever the reasons, Canadian consumers have obviously taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

After several weeks of knocking back tacks, I gave up on Atlantic Canada and started drinking Kilkenny, which comes in cans and is sort of tasteless but at least goes down smooth and creamy. I either wanted to keep drinking my exotic import beers, or else I wanted to have embraced Canadian beers like a good patriot, but neither one worked out. My last little blip of hope vanished this week, when I finally spotted a Granville Island Summer Mingler. Turns out they switched to cans.

Maybe it’s time to clean up my act. Either that, or switch to rum.

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