Monday, December 18, 2017

A Visual Feast, and More - The Last Jedi, Reviewed

It's extremely likely that you have already made your mind up as to if (probably yes) and when (sooner the better, but who needs those crowds?) you are going to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi (episode VIII if you are keeping track that way). Let me give you two (spoiler-free) reasons as to why you definitely should see it, and sooner rather than later.

The first is that director Rian Johnson has nailed the tone of Star Wars in a way unequalled since the first film in 1977. All the antecedents are there: the fairy tale, the family drama, the western, the war movie, and the samurai epic. He adds nuance to the tragedy of Kylo Ren and brings Luke Skywalker back into the fold, but in a very counter-intuitive way, a way that Mark Hamill took exception to, but to which he has committed in a visible and fulfilling way.

After the weight and predeterminism of all the prequels (including the excellent Rogue One), and the way that The Force Awakens evoked so much of the original film, I cannot fully express just how delightful it felt to be exploring new ground in The Last Jedi. There are new worlds to visit, new creatures to marvel at, and a couple of well-thought-out twists that bring a much needed sense of unpredictability and awe to the franchise. 

And humour! After far too long an absence, someone has finally remembered that humour was a key reason for the success of the original trilogy, and emulated it here without undermining the gravitas of a rebellion fighting for its very existence. My advice on this basis is to avoid spoilers and revealed jokes alike, and see it as soon as you are able.

The second reason is that The Last Jedi is the most visually striking Star Wars movie to date. Ever. And, yes: that includes the original.

You might think this is due to the ever-increasing abilities of visual effects artists, but it doesn't; it is the manner in which those effects are used. From a squadron of battered landspeeders kicking up red plumes as they traverse salt flats, to the iridescence of ice foxes retreating from an  advancing army, Rian has reinstilled the sense of childlike wonder that every fan of this universe longs to experience. He even manages to include the best destruction of a capital ship in a space battle ever, and you will recognize it when you see it.

I went into The Force Awakens with a sense of apprehension, having avoided seeing the third prequel for almost a decade. I left The Last Jedi with an ever-building sense of hope; a hope that  we could perhaps end up with a second trilogy to approach the resonance and impact of the original. 

As it happens, Johnson is not available to helm the final chapter of this latest trilogy, but he has been given the keys to the kingdom in that he will be the boss of a brand new trilogy after J.J. Abrams wraps up this one in 2019. I'm looking forward to that in a way I could not have anticipated even a few days ago. For the time being, I am hoping Abrams can meet the bar which has been set very high now by Johnson, and then stick the landing as well.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 17: Big Sky Brewing Co.'s Power Wagon Wheat Wine

A lot of brewers are making big ABV beers today, but not all doublestrength brews are created equal, by any measure. There is a wide range of styles for the lovers of big beer to choose from, from crisp and bitter double IPAs to rich malty Imperial stouts, but one of the oldest in the infamous barleywine, which gets name dropped by no less a worthy than Xenophon himself in his tale Anabasis. (Why, yes - the same work that inspired Walter Hill's street gang classic, The Warriors - go to the front of the class!)

Power Wagon is different though, making up more than half its grain bill through three different varieties of wheat. Wheat ales make for some of the smoothest drinking, but sometimes at the expense of a robust flavour, which is why you so often see them augmented with citrus flavour or spices like coriander. I imagine there is a risk of having a high-test wheat beer turn out to have a mediciney flavour. Can Power Wagon dodge this bullet? We'll see...

It pours a pale, cloudy golden yellow with a hint of orange in there, and fruit and pine in the nose. 

The first sip brings the anticipated wheaty smoothness, and the grainy taste of wheat prevalent. There is a following sweetness, not unlike honey, and tinges of fruit. Even the fruit leans towards the sweet side - think oranges and maybe...mangoes? as opposed to grapefruit or lemon. But then the hops arrive to calm things down, reducing the sweetness and introducing a mildly piney bitterness that doesn't make your face want to cave in. Smoother and a bit sweeter than most barleywines. Some of the complexity undoubtedly comes from this special edition being barrel aged.

As the beer warms, both the sweetness and hoppiness appear to intensify, but perhaps that is just the 9.7% ABV talking.

All in all, Power Wagon is a wonderful departure from many other winter warmers, adopting a sweeter, breadier stance than many of its fellows. If this was an experiment, I would certainly consider it a success, and also a bit of a privilege - normally Power Wagon is only available as draft. I'm pretty sure I will be keeping a weather eye open for this one on tap at my local growler bars.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 Advent Beer:16: Wold Top's Ditto Doppelbock

Christmas is a frantic time, which is why tonight's beer was paired with a hastily consumed bag of Mary Brown's chicken instead of being savoured afterwards and reflected upon in an appropriate manner. As a result, there is not a lot for me to share with you about this beer from Yorkshire.

I can tell you that at 7% ABV, Ditto is a fairly big bock, and like the song says, I like big bocks and I cannot lie. It is a crisp, malty and strong beer with a sweet finish that belies its strength. Dark, with a lot of character.

And it pairs well with fried chicken.

Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 15: Crazy Mountain's 2017 Bridge Street Holiday Ale

Crazy Mountain Brewing Company of Denver Colorado brings us the calendar's prettiest label thus far; a rustic painting of a covered bridge in Vail, draped with snow and festooned with Christmas lights. Elsewhere on the label they describe the bottle's contents as an ale brewed with maple syrup and spices.

The spices are in evidence shortly after pouring: hints of clove and ginger waft up from the glass, which in itself is quite pleasant to look at, filled as it is with a deep amber.

Clove and ginger sort of break down the front door on this one, leaving very little space for the maple sweetness to assert itself. There is an almost floral quality to the beer; not unpleasant, but certainly unexpected.

All in all, a neat experiment, but not a strong contender compared to other winter ales that have arrived via this calendar.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 14: White Pony Brewing's Dark Signs

Apologies for the rushed post, but I have company arriving in 20 minutes and don't want to do the blog at 11:00 again. Hardly ideal conditions, but we press on regardless!

Another unusually multinational brew, Dark Signs is a dark winter ale brewed in Belgium for White Pony Brewing, based in Italy. Since this self-described 'extra-strong ale' rocks out at a whopping 11.9%, I have to wonder if there is perhaps an Italian law to prevent beers and wines becoming mixed up?  (The Untappd beer app has it reading as 13.1% for some reason.

Dark Signs certainly smells like a Belgian beer, at any rate: the sweet tang of the heavy alcohol presence is joined by notes of toffee and caramel, and a hint of apple, at least to me. There is a bit of yeasty mustiness as well, and the bottle states that champagne yeasts are in play here as well.

Remarkably smooth for such a high-test beer, the tastes present as sweet first, then malty, then the other characteristics come sifting through. The toffee and caramel notes are pronounced, the apple less so. It is a most festive taste, an ideal tipple to share by a fire with a visitor from afar. And it truly extra strong - I can't dispute the possibility it is actually 13.1%. This is definitely a beer I will keep an eye out for after Xmas!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 13: The Duck Rabbit's Wee Heavy Scotch-Style Ale

We now enter the second half of the Craft Beer Advent Calendar with high hopes tinged with apprehension after last night's unfortunately yeasty encounter. Today's beer comes all the way from Farmville, North Carolina, and a brewery which takes its appellation from a classic optical illusion, not just a classic exchange between Daffy and Bugs. The addition of a tam o'shanter to the label conveys both a sense of whimsy and cultural appreciation for this Scotch ale.

A lovely dark coppery-red in my mug, the sweet, malty aroma presages what is to come: a rich, malty beer, with lively carbonation, and a sweetness brought on by the 8% ABV. There is a hint of caramel in there as well, and the big alcohol taste is neither sharp nor hot, although there is definitely a discernible warming effect!

A great midwinter's beer, for certain!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 12: Nickel Brook's Half Bastard Stout

It was only after photographing the label and noticing the pseudo-cyrillic lettering that I finally twigged to the fact that this is a sequel of sorts to 2013's brilliant Bolshevik Bastard. BB was one of my favourite beers from that calendar and I came across it afterwards a couple of times as well.

Half Bastard is an attempt to keep the characteristics of a Russian Imperial Stout but with a much lower ABV, 4.5%. As RISs are one of my favourite styles, this strikes me as a potentially worthwhile effort. I say 'potentially' because in some ways that high ABV is a feature of Imperial Stouts, not a detriment. But regardless, like the man in this criminally underwatched video (made here in Alberta!) says: I like stouts; that's what I'm about.

On to the beer though; another foamy bugger, this one, that takes a while to pour. Some coffee and a bit of chocolate come through on the nose, along with a hint of something tangy...hops maybe? Only a sip will tell!

First impression is not good, sad to say - the coffee bitterness is followed by a sour flavour I was not expecting. Further sips and a bit of online research leads me to believe this beer is 'infected'. Sigh. This is not to say the beer is undrinkable, lambics and other sour beers are intentionally infected by wild yeast all the time. But in my case at least, it this one unfinishable Half Bastard.

Still, should I come across this one again, (preferably in a can, as apparently bottling can be the cause of infection), my faith in Nickel Brook, and my deep and abiding love for stouts, are sufficient enough to justify another attempt.