Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2015 (2144 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BRANDON -- Cody Lobreau, Manitoba's only dedicated beer critic and one of a handful of new beer columnists in Canada, came out swinging in the interview, especially at Big Beer's attempt to break into specialty craft beers.
Of Budweiser's new Strawberita beer, he says, "It looks like something from Chornobyl. It glows."
Bud Light Lime Mojito: "It tastes like they took one of those plastic bottles that looks like a lime and dripped it into the beer."
Molson 67 (low-calorie beer): "It tastes like pure corn water (the water you dump out after boiling corn on the cob). My mom's the entire reason that beer still exists. She loves it."
Of course, when you dish it out, as the writer behind the First Draught column, which runs weekly in the Winnipeg Free Press sister paper, the Brandon Sun, you have to be pretty thick-skinned, right?
"Actually, I'm very thin-skinned. I don't like criticism," said Lobreau, 29, over a couple of Vanilla Porter Draughts at the Dock on Princess, in downtown Brandon. He used to let 'er rip when he started with a beer blog eight years ago, which morphed into his Brandon Sun column a year ago. "Now I'm more like 'it's not my cup of tea.' "
Have you stepped inside a Manitoba Liquor Mart lately? You need a beer critic just to choose a brew. The shelf space dedicated to beer is starting to compete with that of wine, particularly craft beer. Craft beer is made by small breweries that typically brew beer longer and more naturally. Even Free Press wine columnist Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson has veered into craft beer with some reviews.
Today, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries has listings for no less than 392 varieties of craft beer from 30 countries. MLL's flagship store, the Grant Park Liquor Mart, carries 242 different kinds of craft beer alone. MLL is stocking craft beer for a reason: Sales have zoomed. From 2011-13, craft beer sales in Manitoba springboarded 32 per cent. That's while total beer sales in the province fell five per cent. The market is frothing at the mouth.
The big brewers are smarting. They're trying to make their own specialty beer, which hasn't worked out very well, said Lobreau, or buying up craft breweries, the way Molson Coors bought out popular Granville Island Brewing in British Columbia.
Next up, Lobreau hopes, is his dream: private craft beer stores, the way there are some private wine stores today. There are already craft beer bars, like two Barley Brothers locations in Winnipeg serving 69 different craft beer. The Dock on Princess bar has nine craft beers on tap.
"Now every time you go to the Liquor Mart you see people trying different beer," said Lobreau. "People go, 'I know exactly how Budweiser tastes. I want to taste something with a different flavour.' "
Lobreau started out a typical hoser who wouldn't touch anything except Kokanee beer until he spent a year in Quebec. There he was introduced to La Fin du Monde, made by Unibroue. Delerium set in over the choice of different craft beer in that province. A decade later, La Fin du Monde remains his favourite beer.
Lobreau is not so much a beer snob, like the stereotype of the sniffy wine taster, as a reverse snob, dressed for the interview in a clean, unrumpled black T-shirt with Fort Garry Dark Ale plastered on the front. He's a university political science graduate currently selling cellphones but whose dream job is to be a policy wonk for the craft-brewery industry to help it cut through government red tape.
Yet he can get downright flowery in his descriptions. In a recent review, he described new beer, 100th Meridian Organic Amber Lager, out of Ontario, as "a sweet lager, with a taste of orange peel, a bit of a caramel maltiness showing up, notes of lightly toasted organic Canadian Prairie barley, a light sprinkling of Cascade hops to give a bit of a grassy alfalfa aftertaste to it."
Huh? Are you talking about beer, or cattle feed?
He described our Vanilla Porters ('porter' meaning a dark beer with plenty of hops, allegedly the beer of choice among London transportation workers in the 18th century), made by Mill St. Brewing, as "vanilla-y, sweet, notes of coffee, creamy, very rich, but lighter than other porters."
Unfortunately, beer makers aren't required to list their ingredients but some of the flavours being brewed into craft beer include caramel, ginger, coffee, maple syrup, and even chocolate for darker beer, and various citruses in lighter beer.
Darker, sweeter, heavier beer are for imbibing in fall and winter, Lobreau maintains, whereas a lighter India pale ale hits the spot in summer. India pale ales were supposedly developed when Britain was colonizing India and the home country would send beer to the troops. The beer would go skunky in transport, so breweries boosted the hops content skyward to mask the gone-bad taste. Hops in beer taste tart, sort of like apple without the sweetness.
He's a big fan of Manitoba's three local beer companies: Fort Garry, Half Pints and Farmery. He maintains many Manitobans are missing out on a truly remarkable beer in Half Pints Little Scrapper IPA (it looks like an acronym used in accounting but IPA is beer lingo for India pale ale). Half Pints product regularly hits Top 20 lists in Canada, right after about a dozen beer varieties from Quebec.
His favourite Fort Garry beer is a limited edition, Evil Goat Doppelbock. A favourite Half Pints limited edition is Saison de la Ceinture Fléchée, that came out in February as a tribute to the Festival du Voyageur. Another Half Pints limited edition was Grand Slam, an oatmeal stout that Lobreau calls "breakfast in a can." (Warning: Lobreau is not a licensed nutritionist.)
But Saskatchewan has triple the number of breweries as Manitoba, and it's because of more government regulation here, he said. By comparison, there are about 25 craft breweries in British Columbia, 20 in Ontario, and a dozen in Quebec.
He's excited about a new product in Manitoba liquor stores called Garrison Spruce Beer from Nova Scotia, made with spruce tips the way early settlers made their beer, because hops weren't available. But the beer loves of his life are Belgian beer. Manitoba Liquor Marts seem to agree, with a sizeable section devoted to Belgian beer.
The name of his column, First Draught, is an appropriate double entendre, Lobreau said. "For me, it's all about the first draft. I write my first draft, and that's good enough." No word on what his editor thinks.
Additional reviews are available on his blog, beercrank.ca.