Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Extra Special Bitter Rivalry: YADBB's Election

Bedad it's early. Tell the truth, I'm a bit fuzzy today after sampling a dozen beers last night with the lads and --c'mere 'til I tell you something funny-- I had this crazy dream where despite repeated abuses of power and enviro-trashing, we elected the Lego-haired robo-Steve to a thundering majority. Crazy, right?



Well, it's post-election hangover time (figuratively and literally) and as I sit wool-gathering with a cuppa of Bushell's, it's also time to dissect the beer pairing for last night's electoral frivolities: a sampling of every last Bitter in BC!

That I could find.

Last Wednesday.

A last minute delivery came by float-plane thanks to @GingerLiz, but other than that, the lineup of beers that faced off on Monday night are all readily available given a modicum of footwork. Notable absences include Big River Brewing's ESB (mentioned by @janteweats as being among the best) and Granville Island Brewing's Bitter, which is receiving high praise so far. Why're they missing? Well, both are only available at the brewery, and while that's not a disqualification (Blue Moon hem-hem) it just made it impossible to get our hands on them for an on-Island tasting. But first, let's set the bar.
As it turns out, we're setting the bar rather low. Fuller's ESB is a old favourite of mine, but when I did a little research to determine how it sat in the ESB lineup, I discovered that the judging guidelines contra-indicate for comparing other bitters against the Fuller's floral, malty profile. Wait, "judging guidelines?" Like I'm going to pay attention to those. It's time to stack the Supreme Court.

Opinion was mixed, but the Fuller's tastes like an old friend. Hum. that sounds unnecessarily dirty. It's true though: this is a very familiar, English-y beer, and will appeal to fans of Wychwood, Black Sheep and the like. Light fruit, bread and toffee tones: tastes like eating the world's blandest fruitcake.

Our first BC brew to take a bow is from Spinnaker's: Mitchell's ESB. Frankly, much like the election, I'm braced for faint disappointment. Nothing against Spinnaker's as an establishment, but their Blue Bridge Double IPA resembles other single IPAs in the same way that the structure from which it takes its name resembles the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm expecting it to be thin and vapid and, unfortunately, this isn't Canada's Next Top Model.

But the Mitchell's surprises by being... not bad! A bit too fizzy, but fairly true to the style, and I bet it'd be nice in-cask. Verdict: worth a try if you're at the pub itself.

Next up is Swan's ESB. I tend to forget about Swan's a bit. Sometimes you can get their bombers everywhere, sometimes you have to go right to the source. I'm curious to see whether the cask they're running at Tres Fantastico helps spread the word and gets them to step up their game a little, although their Coconut Porter is an excellent beer that nobody else does. Would you also seek out their ESB?

Well, maybe. It's nicer than the Mitchell's, that's for sure, but it's still very mild. Makes for a nice pint on a hot day, but I don't know whether I'd ride all the way into town to track it down. Verdict: best at the pub, or on-cask.

Russell's Blood Alley comes as a bit of a surprise. Frankly, my first whiff let me know that I'd buggered up the tasting order. Big hop aroma after the other three, more of a west-coast-style ESB. It's dry-hopped, natch, and there's some big pungencies from the Columbus here.

Overall, well-received, but the baby-IPA-style IBUs may have smashed our palate for the next contestant...

But it hasn't. Howe Sound Brewing's Baldwin and Cooper has some big shoes to fill, and I remember their Bailout as being quite light-drinking. This ESB isn't.

It's got the hops and the earthy, near-acrid finish you expect from West-Siiide stylings, but without the pungency, and with big malts adding a smooth brown bass line. Very drinkable in style. Nuttier than a certain political party. Front-runner for sure.

I thought I had taken a better picture. Oh well; if you aren't already familiar with Central City's unvarying artwork, then you must be living in a cave. In which case, ask a SEAL to describe it.

This beer got shafted. By that I mean that we should have had it about 3rd in rotation. Leaving it until after the Russell and the Baldwin just makes it look kind of half-hearted, when it's actually a very nice beer. Not really sure it's a true ESB, so much as the Red Racer IPA Training Wheels Edition, but it's certainly worth grabbing a six.

Recent champ at CAMRA's spring Fest-of-Ale, Moon Under Water's Blue Moon Bitter is a favourite after-work wind-down. Others, who'd been lucky enough to sample a few early editions preferred the old original, but I like the new tweaked brew.

Problem is, in bomber form, it loses a bit of that fresh hop tastiness. We were lucky enough to have a fresh-drawn growler for comparison, and you could tell the bottled beer had been blunted somewhat. Still very good.
Ah, Hildegard. Probably the best thing about this whole tasting was a better appreciation for what Driftwood has done with the Naughty Nun.

My initial impressions on Hildegard's initial release were, frankly, tinged with pining for the piney perfection of last year's model. That beer wasn't an ESB, but it was Extra Special.

Having gone through the lineup though, this year's Hildegard shows her strengths. It's a very nice west-coast ESB, and oh-so-bitter. Lip-smacking for sure.

But we weren't done yet. Ian showed up with an Elysian ESB (the Wise) which surprised and delighted all, especially Dan, who had some rather unpleasant things to say about their IPAs, and we also managed to cram in a couple of Propeller ESBs. East Coasters, how does Keith's survive with this stuff readily available? It's all about supply and command.

Lastly, I'm happy to report that Lighthouse's Overboard Imperial Pilsner isn't fubar. And I think we liked the Serendipity No. 3 that Dave brought.

But for the next four years of bitterness, there's only one beer for me. If you're at the brewpubs from whence they came, stick with the Spinnaker's, the Swan's and the MUW's. Try to at least sample the Blood Alley and the Hildegard before they disappear.

Baldwin and Cooper's though, that's the must-have.


  1. Nicely done.

    I'll be looking for the Howe Sound next time I'm at the beer store.

  2. Damn right. The Howe Sound was my favourite too. I did really like the Elysian; the virtue of low expectations perhaps, but it was very good.