Getting Crafty

    From water chemistry to hop-roasting methods, craft brews can be as intricately flavoured as fine cheese

    By Greg Zeschuk on May 20, 2015

    Beer Glass

    Welcome to my inaugural craft beer column for New Trail. While some of you may recognize me as one of the founders of the Edmonton-based video game company BioWare, I can promise you that I take my beer market research very seriously. Not only have I earned my beer-judging certification, I also write about beer, lobby for craft brewers and shortly plan to do a little craft brewing myself.

    Most of my future columns will discuss and review specific beers, but since I’m writing this column in the middle of winter for a spring publication, I’d rather not be telling you about the latest and greatest winter beers as you’re drinking delightful spring offerings on the patio. Instead, I’ll provide an overview of craft beer and its origins.

    One of the best questions I’ve fielded on the desirability of craft beer is, “Why craft beer? Isn’t there enough mass-produced beer out there already?” To my mind, craft beer is analogous to fancy cheese. While one could exclusively eat Kraft Singles cheese slices, many people also want to explore other flavours.

    Historically, different flavours of cheese reflected geography. Craft beer is no different. The variety of barley, the type of hops and even the chemical composition of the local water dictated the style of beer a region produced. The globally dominant Pilsner, a type of pale lager, wouldn’t exist without the Moravian barley, Saaz hops and extremely soft water around Pilsen, Czech Republic, which created a clear, clean, golden and lightly bitter beer that became the world standard. Similarly, the high-sulfate water of Burton-upon-Trent, England, was instrumental in the creation of today’s hottest beer, the India Pale Ale, due to the way it enhances the beer’s bitter character. Likewise, the high-carbonate water of London improved the roasted character of famed London porters, which are well-hopped, brown malt beers.

    Innovations in technology also had a role to play in craft brewing. The rotary kiln allowed for even roasting of malt and quickly replaced direct-fire kilns that left malt smoky and unevenly colored. Pale beers wouldn’t exist without this technology. And I bet you didn’t know that 1913 Nobel Prize in Physics nominee Carl von Linde’s first industrial refrigerator was made for German brewery Spaten in 1874, as an alternative to storing aging beer in underground caves filled with ice. Clearly, beyond simple revelry, the desire for good beer pushed the scientific and engineering envelope on many fronts.

    Today, having travelled broadly and sampled beer in many locations, I can say that Alberta is blessed with one of the best craft beer selections anywhere in the world. Our open-border, privatized system allows certified agents to bring in beer from anywhere in the world. At last count there were more than 4,500 varieties available in Alberta, and most of those are craft. We also have a burgeoning local craft scene. Next time we meet, I’ll go into detail on what’s happening here in Alberta.