Saturday, 12 September 2015

Brasserie Auval: Tasty Treats from the Gaspé's Hot New Brewery

In the current era of craft growth, new breweries open all the time.  Most of these, sadly, are mediocre at best (and at times far worse).  If you are at all like me, you await solid word before you spend your hard-earned dollars on something that is unlikely to impress, with the unfortunate ratio of crap-to-quality craft cluttering our shelves (as everyone seems to think brewing a good - or at least sellable - beer is like building a 90's era webpage on dreamweaver).

Yet, brewmaster Ben Couillard, who started Pit Caribou in 2007 comes with pedigree and praise even before his long awaited brews hit shelves, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the first three bottles from his new brewery, Brasserie Auval.  Auval is a very small scale, farmhouse brewery with a surrounding organic small fruit orchard and honey farm.

Now, I knew in advance that I was the target market for such a brewery.  You know a brewery is targeting a special breed of beer geek when their introductory three offerings are an IPA, a wine barrel-aged saison, and a sour/wild raspberry ale.  With such an introductory spread, coupled with equal parts pedigree and praise, I knew I had to seek these out and I am certainly glad I did!  It is worth noting that all of these beers are bottle conditioned and only the IPA is capped (and says it has a three month life), while the others are caged and corked with a two-year estimated shelf-life.

My initiation began with Arcane17 IPA.  This 5.2% ABV India Pale Ale is labelled as a "Hoppy Beer," which I find far preferable to something irrelevant like "Epic Beer" even if hops presents in diverse ways and 'hoppy' is a limited descriptor.  The ingredients back this up by telling us that it contains "tons of hops" though their facebook page clarifies that these hops are of the Simcoe and Amarillo varieties.  

It presents a lightly hazy body with a light amber colour, capped by a decently thick, creamy white head of some retention and lacing.  Aromatically, this is a fruit bomb with dominant citrus notes expressing as sweet tangerines, coupled with peaches, mango, pineapple, melon, strawberries, and passion fruit all discernible.  There is a trace of piney resin, but it is masked by this super-fruit-presentation.  Though not quite as explosive, this is like that wide open, multi-layered Heady Topper type aromatic hop-showcase complexity.  Nose-wise, I think this would be my favourite Quebec IPA, though other components need consideration before such a premature assessment would be even possible.

Tastewise, it begins with an initial and slight graininess, before a rapid switch to a fairly floral, mildly resinous, and predominantly lemon-rind driven hop presentation.  A moderately bitter and fairly lengthy linger completes the taste, which is likewise supported by a fairly light body and fairly light carbonation.  As it is live, I wonder if it needed just a few more days out of the fridge to carbonate further - though the hops may then have suffered instead.

I suspect there are two or perhaps three Quebec IPAs I enjoy a bit more in their entirety (Moralité, Yakima, maybe Pit Caribou IPA Americaine), but to have an initial offering come into this range is a noteworthy achievement!  Additionally, the low ABV is, for me, an extra selling feature, making for an easy work-night pint.  Moreover, brewmaster/owner Ben tells me that this recipe is in evolution and may be tweaked before future incarnations.  With such a strong start, I cannot wait to see what it becomes!

 Next, I cracked Saison Espinay (6% ABV).  It is pretty brazen - and a show of confidence - to begin one's first release with a 3-month Chardonnay barrel-aged saison.  The mass market rarely buys such styles, and those who tend to drink them have discerning palates and numerous good options nearby (from Dunham to Hill Farmstead).

Yet, this bold move pays off!  It pours a strongly cloudy, orange-tinged amber.  The body is topped by a lightly audible fizzy white head of some retention, with some sticky lace clinging to the glass throughout.

It wafts a bouquet of spicy yeast phenols, but not overwhelmingly so, in presenting some pepper and coriander notes that are tempered by a mild floral hops quality.  As it warms, initially a mild fermenting peach character presents, before more wine notes come to the fore in the form of grape skin and must.

The flavour kicks off with a mild dough quality, before drying out substantially with a spicy phenolic and floral hops finish.  The must/grape skin quality is also present in the finish from the get-go, though it increases as it warms, but the oak (though present) is less discernible than the vinous qualities.  It finishes in a very dry fashion while cold, though is substantially sweeter and more wine forward upon warming.  A medium body with ample sharp carbonation complements the dry and spicy characteristics.

In the final assessment, it presents like a fairly typical, traditional saison, with just enough from the barrel to add complexity to its character.  The barrel-aged geek in me wants to see the 12 month (Brett?) version to be overwhelmed, but its subtlety is its strength as floral/spicy/vinous/barrel qualities are all tempered enough to bring a delightfully complex, if not palate-exhausting classic style with a mild twist.  Once again, well done and, like the IPA, this is a brew-in-process subject to change and (semi-)regular production, so keep your eyes peeled!

Finally, I turn to Framboëse (a 5% ABV raspberry wild ale aged 8-months in oak barrels).  It is a gorgeous, relatively clear,deep red in colour, nearly reminiscent of red wine but with a brighter hue.  The head is off-white (reddish-tinged) and quite boldly effervescent, with an audibility that hints at its rapid dissipation.

The nose is quite possibly the boldest, straight-up, fresh-crushed raspberry character in Quebec - yes, even counting Solstice d'été!  Once again, the wood is negligible, though it could be as it would be dominated by the tons, yes I presume tons, of raspberries seemingly present in my bottle.

On the tongue, there is a mild raspberry sweetness, before a smooth transition to a mild raspberry tartness with a hint of oak.  Though delightful, and easy drinking, I would say this lacks the complexity of some fruited sours, but maximizes the raspberry quality in the way fruited sour geeks adore.  It isn't sour - or much at all - but there is the tartness of a not overly sweetened raspberry pie.  With multiple brett strains in the blended barrels, and some lacto, there is also a slight raspberry yogurt flavour present.

The body is medium, and the carbonation is sufficient, though it may benefit from an even bolder sharpness to spread the notes on the palate, but it is still a nice treat that promises to be an annual offering.

In conclusion, this is one heck of a launch.  None of these top the styles even in the province for me personally, but they all invite comparisons to the world-class Quebec offerings, and portend a strong future for this new bright - if small - shining star in the growing Quebec beer scene.