Day 486: My Golden Ticket To Big Rock’s Wonka-esque House of Magic

originally published April 30, 2013

Today, rather than order off my tired Wikipedian menu of kooky trivia, anecdotes from history or 990-word setups for a single joke about bacon, I’m going to cook up something special. I spent today (well, yesterday by the time my finger-tappings dance their way to my readers’ eyes) walking the sacred halls of that magic temple known as the Big Rock Brewery.

To be fair, I do have a business relationship with Big Rock, and for that reason I suppose any air of journalistic impartiality had best be taken with a grain – nay, a shaker-ful of salt. But the Calgary-based company’s enlistment of my services only came about because of a truly genuine word-spew of my affection for their product. Big Rock spared my young, thirsty palette from a dubious devotion to the blandness and banality of the big-name bores like Molson, Bud and Coors. When I turned 18 (yes, my American friends, there is a three-year advantage to living here in the tundra), the local beer landscape was rather morose.

But there was Big Rock. And today I visited the heart of the wonderful, fuzzy beast.

My tour was conducted by the lovely and talented Brenda, my liaison in the marketing office, and Paul Gautreau, the flavor-Jedi behind the suds and science of the company’s delicious beverages. We trekked through the usual touristy corridors, craning our necks at the massive fermentation tanks and observing the speedy treadmill of bottles, where I yearned to drop a glove atop an amber vessel, Laverne & Shirley style.

But I was also taken behind the velvet ropes, into the quality-control lab which was percolating with activity, and more importantly into Paul’s mind and the inner workings of the Big Rock Philosophy.

I learned about grain and grist, the geology and geography of the beer game, and the fortuitous placement of the Canadian barley belt so snugly fitted around our province’s midsection. I sipped on a sugary wort and craned my neck at 120,000 bottles-worth of future inebriation, earning its wings inside a towering steel edifice.

To be fair, I could devote my remaining 650 words to a meandering condemnation of the lackadaisical lagers that permeate the shelves in our local beer-marts, but that would reek of my desire to exploit my post-tasting-session buzz-glow, and would most likely re-kindle my thirst for another tasty Scottish Style Heavy Ale. I’ve got to work in the morning; I can’t afford to roll the bones of a snarly Tuesday hangover.

I would rather devote my dwindling word-space to the tongue-flipping flavors that were ping-ponging between my teeth this afternoon – the starting lineup of challenging beers that should be making an appearance on every Albertan’s menu over the next few months.

The beer-o-sphere’s options for concoctions have grown so far beyond the Reinheitsgebot laws for German beer purity (Four ingredients! Water! Hops! Barley! Yeast! Anything else and it’s OFF TO THE FOLTERKAMMER!!!), it seems wholly unnecessary to limit one’s palette to the same bubbly lager you drank last week..

Nothing against the straight-forward lager, mind you. A crisp, golden splash of a well-nurtured soft-water blend of ingredients can tickle one’s uvula to a shuddering taste-gasm if the brewer’s heart was truly poured into their work. But there is a global population of hop and malt varieties out there – more than any pair of hands could shake a tree’s worth of sticks at. Why compromise with a re-tread slop-heap of tired predictability? There’s simply no reason to settle for dull.

In the first decade of this century, Big Rock introduced three or four new beers, each designed to be a long-term investment, a regular cast member, a permanent strip in the swatch-book. Last year they welcomed Bob Sartor as their new CEO. Bob has a sparkling history in the Canadian business scene, elevating the Forzani sporting goods company to a boast-worthy plateau during his eight years running their show. But Bob loves beer. When Bob talks about beer, his eyes ignite with the fires of a thousand sated thirsts. Among his first acts as the man with his hands on the Big Rock wheel, Bob decided to steer the company into the adventure business.

Big Rock released a handful of daring new drinkables in 2012. More than a dozen original delicacies are meandering into beer coolers this year, with at least as many on deck for ’14. Brewmaster Paul has been handed the keys to the world of possibilities, and instructed to go forth and plunder. Some of his curious journeys will see a small-batch limited run. Others will be featured in a multi-month arc, the feature player of the moment in the company’s spotlight. The lucky few will earn a spot on the roster as a full-time starter.

Erratic Stone-Fired Ale appeared this past month in a limited engagement of only 3300 bottles. Paul employed a long-forgotten medieval method of heating up the brew using super-heated granite stones, which caramelized the malt sugars and yielded a cozy swirl of smoke and savory toffee. This is the kind of beverage that will inspire the second-hand on your watch to pause for an extended hiccup, simply to allow the rest of your body to catch up with your awe-struck tongue.

Rosmarinus, which sounds like the moniker of a proud, conquering galleon, is a pale ale with its pockets stuffed with rosemary instead of hops. One trickle of this flavorful nectar across a fresh row of taste buds will inspire cravings for spanakopita, meatballs drizzled with fresh tzatziki, and a full-on clatter of Mediterranean delights.

The new tasty Chai Ale is the liquid equivalent of a 1960’s rock super-group. Nine bold spices intertwine their personalities in a refreshing but complex frenzy, like listening to Clapton’s guitar swirl around Winwood’s soulful vocals atop Baker’s frolicking drumsticks. This brew asks not for your Blind Faith, however. Its flavors won’t hammer your tongue with self-insistent pedagogy; they’ll merely complement the beer’s overwhelming thirst-smashing refreshment.

“But I like plain ol’ Miller Lite!” you might say. And that’s fine. But you have to understand, you’re asking one of your five senses to settle for a compromise. You’re also allowing ingredients like amyloglucosidase, propylene glycol alginate and potassium metabisulfite to taint what should be a pure and invigorating drinking experience.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have suddenly found myself much less concerned over the consequences of a Tuesday morning hangover.

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