By HAYDON DEWES
For the longest time, Edmonton’s Yellowhead Brewing Co. has been known for one thing – or more to the point, one beer – its flagship lager.
That brewery is no longer. The lager remains, but Yellowhead is reinventing itself, with more beer and more selection. Over the past three weeks, Brewmaster Bruce Sample has been making a Honey Porter, which is being released to the public this week. Normally a new beer release wouldn’t be that much of a big deal – but this is brewery’s first ale after six years of operation, and signals the start of many more. That’s huge.
But why did it take so long to begin brewing an ale? I caught up with Sample last week to find out why, and what Edmonton beer lovers can expect in the next few years. As he explains it, history played a large hand in what the brewery has been able to do until now and has made expanding or diversifying difficult.
Rewind a decade, to 2005. Yellowhead now occupies the site that was established by Maverick Brewing, which began making beer in mid-2005 in the historic Shaw Building in downtown Edmonton at 105th Street and 102nd Avenue. The brewery wasn’t to be – Maverick closed down in 2006, and then the building sat empty for years. When Yellowhead took over in 2010, the brewery was set up to make lager – an easy drinking beer that would sell well in the local community. Remember, this was 2010, before Alberta experienced a real upswing in demand for beer styles such as IPAs, sours and dark beers we see today.
As Sample explains it, that became a problem. Lagers take longer to make than ales, which means they tie up the tanks for longer. The brewery also only had one brite tank (used to condition and carbonate beers) that was half the size of the fermenters, which meant every batch of beer had to be split into two to condition (which meant more time added to each brew). Yellowhead was struggling to keep up with demand and as such has only been distributing beer in Edmonton and a handful of surrounding communities. It wasn’t just a case of brewing more beer – the brewery was maxed out. Trying to make new beers was out of the question.
That changed last year when the brewery invested in three new tanks – two new fermenters and a large brite tank that is double the size of the existing tank. That extra capacity – installed in November and then commissioned on December 23 – has allowed Sample to begin making more beer, and different beer.
First up is the Honey Porter. The brewery discussed making a honey brown ale – they wanted to branch out without making too radical of a beer that might ostracize its lager-drinking customer base – but Sample convinced them that a porter would be the way to go. He has ample experience making dark beers in his pervious gigs as a brewer in Texas (his first job was in the 90s at a brewpub called The Village Brewery, no connection to the Calgary brewery), California (where he went to beer school in 1997), and then at Alley Kat in Edmonton and the now defunct Hog’s Head Brewing in St Albert. He prides himself in making dark beers that people love. “My motto always when I brew is that I want you to taste my beer and for your mouth to go ‘wow’. I like subtle. I like malt. I like hops too, but I want it nicely balanced.”
Sample describes the Honey Porter. “You get a bit of sweetness in the beginning, a nice hop aroma and you’ll get a little bit of hops at the back end with a slight dry finish and a little bit of spice. That’s the way I like to brew – I like to take the style and bend the rules a little. I’m not brewing to style – I’m brewing to taste.” It’s a very approachable 5.5% ABV and 40 IBU. The honey is sourced locally from Gramma Bee’s in nearby Sturgeon County.
As for the next steps, Sample has been making a bunch of test batches on a pilot system. A mainstream ale is in the works. He also hopes to put out four seasonal beers a year, geared for the right season; new brews being considered now include an IPA (although hops supply is hampering what can be made), a German Bock, something “light and refreshing” for summer and then possibly a version of his famous 11% KGB Russian Imperial Stout (which he is well known for and has made at previous breweries) in time for next winter.
In the meantime Sample has tweaked their standard Yellowhead Lager to make a Black Lager and a Mango Tango Lager (which has real mango and orange juice added), both of which are available on tap at the brewery’s taproom. Sample also introduced cask beer to the brewery and has a bunch of Honey Porter casks currently conditioning; he added oak chips and hazelnut coffee to three casks, oak chips and vanilla hazelnut coffee to a fourth, and liquid oak, oak chips and hazelnut coffee to a special cask made for the Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous’s Freeze Your Cask Off! event.
Expect more exciting beers from Yellowhead under Sample’s brewing leadership. “I want people to try something new that they don’t expect from Yellowhead and really enjoy it. I don’t want someone to say ‘this is an okay beer’, I want them to go ‘holy shit, I like that!’.”