Friday, August 3, 2012

Granville Island Brewing - You Never Forget Your First

Olympic time is here again, which means that my TV has been stubbornly locked on one of the five major broadcasting channels for the past five days.  Those who know me are quite familiar with my love of all things Olympics, and are probably sick of me spouting random Olympic facts and citing the medal tallies from Innsbruck 1976 (Did you know?: Denver originally won the rights to host the 1976 Winter Games, but due to crippling costs the State held a referendum that vetoed the games, so the IOC granted them to Innsbruck?  See - I'm at it again....).   As a child, I was obsessed with maps, flags and knowing national capitals, so something like the Olympics is undoubtedly going to appeal.  Oddly enough, I think I'm more of a fan of the idea and set-up of the Olympics than I am of the sports themselves, which is probably a result of the Canadian team never doing that well, at least in the Summer Games - it's just not our bag.   Thus this week I've been thinking back to those glorious days in 2010, when the world came to Canada to watch us win all the gold medals.  It also got me thinking about the city of Vancouver, which is truly one of the world's most beautiful urban areas.   The fact that I'm not currently in Vancouver is of great distress to me: fortunately, some brews from that lovely city have made their way out east for me to enjoy!

Granville Island Brewing opened its doors in 1984, fulfilling the dream of brewmaster Mitch Taylor to bring English-style ales to pale-lager inundated city.  People (like me) tend to bitch a great deal about the availability of quality brews on tap in Canadian alehouses, but I have to admit we are light-years ahead of the situation that existed in the early 1980s, which was Labatt or Molson - take your pick.  For many, this was sufficient, but for whose tastes in beer went beyond what Frank Appleton termed "corporate beer" (there were many thirsty British ex-pats in Vancouver), they wanted something more.  By opening its doors as a brewpub, Granville Island became Canada's first microbrewery, and paved the way for other breweries across Canada.    Located in the heart of Granville Island, a lovely tourist island just south of Stanley Park that is filled with trendy shops, markets, buskers and artists, the brewery is a great place to visit for the brew-thirsty traveler.  I visited the Island and brewery about five years ago, which now that I think of it, was probably my first experience with craft brewing.  It's not that I was drinking horrible stuff before - at the time, I was particularly fond of Guinness, Smithwicks and Steamwhistle - but I hadn't really branched out beyond that.
Five years of beer drinking can do a lot to a man. 
My girlfriend (now wife) and I wandered into the brewery and were blown away by the variety of brews available.  English Pale Ale?  India Pale Ale? Maple Ale?  Hefe-something Germanic?  Like a good craft brewery should always do, Granville offered a sampler flight of their wares to give the curious as varied a tasting as possible.   I don't really remember what I drank that day - the important thing for me was that it was different.  The pale ale had something called "hops", a tangy bitterness that I wasn't really familiar sure if I liked, but was sure that I hadn't drank anything like it before.   The maple ale was utterly unlike any ale I had encountered.  The other two were probably pilsners or lagers, but each had something I was not used to: flavour.

It was an eye-opening experience to say the least, which helped begin my journey into the wonderful and fascinating world of craft beer.  A few months later, we moved to the Waterloo region, which boasted an impressive array of craft breweries to allow me to continue to whet my whistle.  Really, Granville Island was the brewery that got me started down this journey, and I certainly want to thank them for it.

Five years since I had my last Granville brew, and what should appear but a sample mixed pack featuring three of the Granville lineup, along side the three stalwart brews from Creemore.  Both Creemore and Granville have since been purchased by Molson, and how this has impacted their brewing is unclear.  It seems that Creemore has more or less been left alone to its own devices, with more distribution (how many bars in Ontario don't have Creemore?) and a few extra varieties.  I'm not sure what Granville's change has been, but the fact that their brews are now available in Ontario - their English Bay Pale Ale has been on tap and in liquor stores for a few months now - certainly shows one positive side of acquisition.

How will these brews taste five years later?   Let's have a look!

Beer: Robson St. Hefeweizen
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%

Poured this one into a small nonic glass.  Looks like your classic hefeweizen, sporting a hefty crown of foam under a hazy golden-tawny body.  Dark for a hefeweizen. Good retention, a bit of lacing.  Nothing wrong with that!

Nose is a bit more yeasty than I tend to like, but the usual hefe suspects are there: citrus (lemon), strong wheat malt, bread, floral hops.  Maybe a touch of banana and clove.  The yeast is a bit strong.

Certainly not a bad wheat beer by any stretch, as all the important elements are present.  Because of what I got out of the nose, I was expecting a yeastier brew, and that's what I taste as well.  I'm not a fan of this flavour, but the brew still tastes fine.  A bit of citrus, banana and bubblegum in the mix.  It doesn't stick the landing, but it gets a decent score!  Smooth, lightly carbonated.

I imagine that this brew would taste a lot better sitting on the patio overlooking Granville Island.  Then again, what wouldn't?  Still, a decent wheat beer indeed.

Beer: Brockton IPA
Style: American IPA
ABV: 6%

Nothing beats an American-style IPA, and lo-and-behold, today (August 2nd) is IPA Day around the globe, and certainly around the USA.  After years of bouncing between the various styles of brewing, I have to say that a well-hopped pale ale or IPA is probably the style I love the most on an everyday basis.   This brew claims to be "generously hopped", which should be a real treat.

Poured into a nonic.  Lighter amber in colour, with a thin white head that dissolves into a fine ring after a few moments.

Strangely sweet smelling.  I'm really not getting much in the way of hops here, just a mild bitterness and a touch of citrus.  Quite malt heavy indeed.

This sweetness translates into the taste, and I have to say, it's not doing it for me.  It tastes fine, I'll grant you, but it's a far cry indeed from its American IPA brethren.  Stack this brew against, say, Red Racer IPA from Surrey, Mad Tom from Muskoka and you'll see what I mean.  Tastes far more like an English Bitter or even an English Pale.  Thinner bodied, mild carbonation.

A miss for me.  Though the brew held great promise, it didn't stick the landing.  Maybe this brew has been affected by the journey east (unless it was brewed by an Ontario brewer, then there is no real excuse), because it just doesn't feel like an IPA.

Beer: English Bay Pale Ale
Type: American Pale Ale, but probably closer to an English Pale.
ABV: 5%

One of Granville's flagship brews, English Bay was the first to make the journey out to Ontario both on draught and in six-packs.  I had this on draught a little while ago, and thought it was fine, so I was looking forward to taking a closer look.

Poured into a nonic.  Deep amber copper, clear, with a sturdy head that produced some strong lacing.  Decent looking brew indeed.

Nose is pale malt, a touch of bitterness, some chemical business I'm not really digging.  Nothing fantastic here.

After a wobbly start, this brew pulled together a decent routine.  A relatively safe pale ale, malt heavy, with only the mildest presence of hops.  Mild chemical flavour, with tea-like hops, both of which strongly suggest that this brew is of the English style.  Certainly drinkable, and sessionable given the lower ABV, but nothing to get too worked up over.

Well, there's an old expression from Thomas Wolfe that comes to mind after drinking these brews: "You can't go home again."   Though it initially meant the inability for one to return (in spirit) to their hometown after leaving home and seeing the world, it has entered the lexicon to represent that feeling of not being able to repeat great memories once you've experienced them.   I loved Granville Island's brews when I first had them, on a glorious summer day in the heart of Vancouver.  Sitting on my patio is great and all, but it's just not the same, and the beer may have experienced a decline in quality due to increased brewing demands and the effects of shipping/brewing the recipe elsewhare.  That, and in the five years since, my tastes have changed immensely, which has meant time and time again that I often have different perspectives now on the brews I loved then.   So maybe this isn't totally fair to Granville Island.  These brews were just fine; they just weren't anything to get excited about.   Beer is most assuredly an experiential brew, that is improved immensely when the situation is just right.  An average hefeweizen probably tastes like Ambrosia on a crisp spring day in an German biergarten, an IPA at the campsite in the Pacific Northwest would be like nothing else.  In Granville's case, sitting on the brewery's patio, looking over the harbour and across to Stanley Park is going to heighten one's perceptions of things.  Rest assured, however, that should circumstances favour me, I would love to give these brews another shot on their own terms and in their home court.

Cheers to Canada's first craft brewery!

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