Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A closer look at Highlander Brewing Co.

Did you know Highlander Brewing Co has "gots its
own band"? I did. I saw these bad boys parading and
playing down the main stretch at the Burlington
Beer Festival on Sunday, July 19. 'Twas very grand!
The private message to me on Twitter came as something of a surprise. It came from whomever mans the Highlander Twitter account (I would find out soon enough) and it basically told me I had missed something very special at the Burlington Beer Festival. It was a short video of the Grand Celtic Pipe Band out of Fergus, Ontario that is sponsored by Highlander Brewing Company from South River, a tiny cottage town just 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of North Bay.

"Oh, what you missed!" the message said jokingly. "We gots our own band!" Well, actually, not only did I not miss the pipe band  (as you can see from the picture), Beer Fest co-organizer Wayne Brown sought me out very specifically just before they began their march through Spencer Smith Park so that I wouldn't miss it. Despite a plethora of outstanding musical talent playing the stage over the three-day fest, Wayne was particularly pumped for these laddies and lassies in kilts. And man, did this pipe band add a strong (though brief) note of distinction and class to a weekend of reckless and unfettered beer sampling. (Very unfettered in my case... and 57% more reckless than the average Beer Fest attendee. Hey, we all have our skills. Doesn't necessarily mean they're good or noble skills. "Skills" are a very fluid concept to the human condition. In my case, completely fluid-related.)
Brewmaster and founder of Highlander Brew Company
Brian Wilson, left, and co-owner Dwayne Wanner hold up
some of their fine products in this 2013 photo. This brewery
has seen slow but constantly upward growth since the start.

Okay, back to this Twitter private messaging with Highlander. Before long, I learned that it was Brian Wilson on the other end. Not The Beach Boys' founder, of course, but rather the co-founder (with his wife Jennifer) of Highlander Brew Co. when they began it back in 2010. As it turns out, Brian was one of thousands to get laid off from major financial firm in 2009 and he decided to use his sweet severance package to move his family up north and start his own craft brewery. You know that old sawhorse - financier becomes craft brewer. We've all heard it a million times. Or at least once. Now.  But thank Dionysus (Roman God of booze) it happened because this brewery cranks out some of the best malt-driven (if you ever hear me say either the phrases 'malt-forward' or 'hop-forward', run me over with your car) specialty beers in the entire province.
These Highlander guys don't mess around. Here's
some hardware from the 2014 Ontario Brewing
Awards - a silver for their outstanding Smoked
Porter and a bronze for their solid Scottish Ale.

Well now, those who know me well know I tend to lean towards the hoppy stuff but to be frank, that's not the entirety of what I enjoy. Hops, malts, it's honestly doesn't matter. If it's good, just bring it. And I have a Beer Bro who might just be able to illustrate how good Highlander is with the malts.

My old college buddy Stevil St Evil popped into Donny's Bar and Grill in early June from his home in Wellington, New Zealand. If Stevil could bathe in hops, he would... just like Scrooge McDuck used to dive into and swim through his big vault of cash. Good old cartoons. Scrooge used to dive into all that coin like it was water, instead of the more realistic, "I just broke my neck and possibly my back doing a 35-foot dive onto this pile of currency actually made of hard metals. Please call an ambulance!" Cartoon characters believe if a bomb explodes in their hands, they'll be fine 10 seconds later. Wile E Coyote has lead many a cartoon astray. Back to the point, though. Because Stevil is such a renowned Hop Hound, I made sure I was stocked hard with some of the best IPAs Canada (mostly Ontario) had available. And yeah, he enjoyed the hell out of them. But only one beer stopped him in his tracks - Highlander's Smoked Porter. Upon having it, he instantly added them to his Twitter for the singular purpose of praising them directly, something he most decidedly did not do with any other brewery and their many tasty, top-notch IPAs. Like me, Stevil appreciates all styles of beer and happily says so when he comes across something extraordinary.
Okay, just to clear the record. THIS Brian Wilson
fronted The Beach Boys before becoming a total
recluse in the 1970-80s, hooked on cocaine, alcohol,
binge-eating, exhibiting behaviour best described
as paranoia and becoming the guy who lived in
his bath-robe. As far as we know, the only thing
applicable here to Highlander's Brian Wilson
is his unusual penchant for wearing bath-robes.
Fortunately, South River does not have a Walmart
In fact, after Twitter, he went onto beer rating site Uptappd, gave it a perfect score out of five, saying simply, "Top flight smoked porter! World class!" (He had similar praise for their Scottish Ale but more on that... oh pretty much instantly.)

So when the brewery kicked off in their tiny South River outfit, Brian made but one beer for two straight years - the Scottish Ale. To those who wonder what a Scottish Ale is, as opposed to, say, a Scotch Ale, he had a pretty amusing answer for writer Brian J Papineau in an 2013 interview. "Scottish Ale? Beer geeks will argue it really isn't a style but I brew it and I can call it whatever the hell I want!"

A decision at the same time to join the Ontario Craft Brewers (association) gave him to ability to increase his availability from about 32 LCBO's to over 100, including the much-desired Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa region. Before long, the delicious Smoked Porter and then Lion Grass Ale and Twisted Spruce Ale (both Spice/Herb/Vegetable brews) were added to the brewery's arsenal and the rest, as they say, is rock and roll history... well, okay, it's only rock and roll history if you're that other Brian Wilson.

That Twisted Spruce? In essence, it's the same sort of recipe as the excellent beer I had last Summer made by Heather Ales Brewery in Clackmannanshire, Scotland called Alba Scots Pine Ale, which used shoots of spruce boiled with the malted barley early of the brewing process. The aroma is pine, the taste is all malts and woody. Outstanding style of beer, originally created by the Vikings way back when.
Well, isn't this a little skid of delicious? Highlander
beers get ready to get busy in some lucky Ontario bars!

And as you may have read here earlier this Summer, they added a seriously big gun (more of an atomic cannon, really) to the growing arsenal when they visited the Burlington Beer Festival in July - their Wee Heavy Scotch Ale. A big step up from their Scottish Ale, (5% vs 8%), this one doesn't pussy-foot - it's bold, it's brash - all caramel and Scotch on the nose, woody, malty and tasty on the tongue. Dynamite brew. And believe me, the Scottish Ale was already a solid beer before this... so you get the idea. Stevil's review of their Scottish Ale on Untappd - again, a perfect five with the notes, "Smooth and balanced, yet robust. Aces!" Methinks the Wee Heavy would slay him.

But here's the Question Of The Day. While all other craft brewers are going hop-crazy, why does Brian stick to these malt-driven beers? Is he simply being a stubborn Scotsman? Here's two answers: first the one he gave that intrepid interviewer in 2013 and the one I just got last week. "I really appreciate the complexity of malt and how it can impact the over-all flavour profile. Trends are showing hop-heavy beers. It can easily get out of control. I feel balance is so very important."
Okay, I can find NO connection between the musical
Brian Wilson and craft beer so let's look elsewhere.
Well, how about Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin? Yes.
Seems his son, Logan, owns the Beavertown Brewery
based in London, England. The only beer of theirs I
have tried is the Black Betty Black IPA. Really good!

So when I asked him what the next big beer wave after the India Pale Ale was (the question everyone who drinks craft beer asks these days), his answer kinda surprised me because, well, everyone in the know so far is saying sour beers. Brian went a different direction. "I think big hop beers are slimming out but I don't really do those. I think regardless of style, folks will be looking for those really well-balanced beers. Palates are becoming more sophisticated. I think you'll see a rise of the gruits and, God help me, fruit beers! Although my Summer seasonal next year uses prickly pear (and) lime rind infusion (as well as) Himalayan mountain salt, aged in a tequila barrel. (I would say) look for barrel-aging more. But hey, just my opinion..."

Well, as an amateur, I was thinking probably the goosing of lagers and pilsners but am I gonna argue with a brewer? Not today. Or tomorrow. And a beer aged in a tequila barrel? Brian, can I get that yesterday and relive my misspent college youth? As we all know, alcohol can preserve many things. Dignity is not one of them. Fortunately, I don't care. And Highlander? Hey, there can be only one! Bitch. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. More fun coming soon. Until next time, I remain...