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Sour beer, Chardonnay and a little bit of science class

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Other than sherry, sour beer has been the toughest category for me to truly embrace/"get into" in all my years tasting grown-up beverages. (Well, schnapps might be up there too but that has more to do with a bad experience in Germany on a high-school band trip.) It took a while but I've come to embrace Spanish fortified wines as better-quality options became available in our market.

Thankfully, I can now say with some certainty that I'm a sour beer convert as well. It just so happens that Half Pints Brewing Co. is releasing the Old Red Barn this Saturday — the brewery opens at 9 a.m., and if you want to grab some of this stuff for yourself you'll have to move quickly.

It's the brewery's first foray into the world of sour beers, a style that's popular among the hardcore beer geeks but not so much on a wider scale. With nasty-sounding bacterial cultures in the brew like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus, it sounds more like high-school science class than it does beer.

Well, these cultures are what create the sour notes as well as complex, earthy/barnyard characteristics in the brew. Brettanomyces (or Brett as it's often called in the drinks world) pops up in certain wines as well, delivering a slightly funky, gamey component sometimes found in reds, particularly from South Africa, Portugal, Spain and occasionally Italy.

Anyway, the Old Red Barn has was fermented in both stainless steel tanks and oak barrels over the course of the last couple of years. Only 500 bottles (650ml format) were produced, and they're sure to sell out at the brewery this Saturday — likely by lunch time. There's a three-bottle limit per customer, and with a devoted legion of fans (read: beer geeks), Half Pints surely won't have leftovers. Get there early.

Half Pints Old Red Barn Strong Ale (Winnipeg, MB - $13.30 [plus tax and deposit], brewery only this Saturday)
I got a sneak peek at this brew last week, and really liked what I tasted. Cloudy in colour and looking a bit like a glass of iced tea, the Old Red Barn has a remarkably complex nose of sour cherry, earth, barnyard, raisin and some resinous notes. There's certainly some bitterness on the palate, but in a way that accentuates the sour cherry flavours and raisin notes positively. There are hints of figs and dates in there too, and just a touch of sweetness — but light acidity and 6.4 per cent alcohol keep things vibrant and lively on the palate.

More on local beer to come, including Half Pints' Queer Beer (a fantastic seasonal brew for warmer weather) and the latest incarnation of Fort Garry's Angry Fish Pilsner (one of my favourite beers in a can). With the Winnipeg Goldeyes having won the American Association championship last season, here's hoping their beer delivers a home run as well.


There's a continuing trend to honour certain grapes/wines on a particular day of the year in the social media/marketing world, and it just so happens today (Thursday, May 23) is Chardonnay Day. With the #ChardDay hashtag being used by wine lovers everywhere on Facebook and Twitter, it's a chance to pop open a bottle of the much-maligned stuff and enjoy while contributing to a global conversation about the stuff.

I've always loved Chardonnay — the trouble is navigating the ones on our shelves to avoid examples of the wine that are over-oaked and overripe. When made in this style they get sweet, creamy and flabby, showing bruised apple and tropical fruit notes. California was a major culprit in this style's popularity some 15ish years ago, although the Aussies did their bit to further the problem.

Thankfully, producers worldwide have dialled back the oak and malolactic fermentation — the conversion of malic acid to the softer lactic acid, which imparts the creamier texture — and as a result more and more Chardonnay in our market brings balance as well as vibrant fruit... sometimes with no oak at all. Some of the most delicate, balanced Chardonnay I've ever tasted was when I was in Australia, where cooler regions like the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania work their magic. 

The balance of cool-climate Chardonnay means Canadian producers are well-positioned to take the lead globally when it comes to making these whites with finesse and elegance. Judging by the response to a recent tasting of Canadian wines in London, it seems as though people are starting to take notice beyond our borders. 

It's Thursday — why not crack open a nice Chardonnay?

Jackson-Triggs 2011 Black Label Reserve Chardonnay (Okanagan Valley, BC - $13.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
This Chardonnay sees eight months in oak - a 50/50 combination of French and American barrels, only 10 per cent of which are new (used barrels offer more subtle wood, while new oak is more intense). Red apple, peach, and lemon candy on the nose are bright, while there's an underlying vanilla/butterscotch component that reflects the time in barrels. It's a medium-plus bodied Chardonnay that has flavours of red apple skin (the whole thing - skin, fruit and seeds), mango, pear, peach, lemon candy, and some modest vanilla on the finish. The oak and malolactic fermentation provide a slightly viscous texture, yet the crisp acidity of the fruit means it ain't flabby. Great value. 88/100

Twitter: @bensigurdson

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.


Blogs that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson follows:

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