Beans and Beer: All Hail Brown Ale


Brew pubs and craft breweries need points of uniqueness. Sure, they offer local beer, however they define it. But what’s different about their lager, ale, stout or whatever, than that of their competitors?

Well, in the Year of the Pulses, a couple of Canadian brewers, one from the east and one from the west, are already off and running with some truly creative and distinct efforts.

For example, last week field editor Debra Murphy dished about Lentil Cream Ale, a decidedly western product from Rebellion Brewing in Regina.

And this week, here’s a story about Black Bean Brown Ale (BBBA). It’s a new product from Royal City Brewing Company, which for the past couple of years has operated a friendly pub in Guelph with some impressive brews.

The name of this ale pretty well sums up the distinct ingredient therein. No doubt about it, it’s all about black beans.

However, the name is not reflected in the taste, at least not to my palette. Like Lentil Cream Ale, BBBA swaps a pulse (black beans, obviously) for some of the barley used to make the beer — about 25 per cent, in BBBA’s case. So you might expect their inclusion in the brewing process might endow BBBA with at least some beany overtures, kind of like the way some soy products taste beany. But all I had was a hunch, based on flavoured beers, which this is not.

So last weekend I popped open a BBBA, and — skipping all the jokes about what usually happens when you combine beans and beer — here’s what I found.

BBBA is heavier bodied than many ales. But it’s far from syrupy. In fact, it’s a surprisingly easy-drinking dark ale, with a decidedly lighter body than a porter or a stout. That makes it an excellent choice for anyone wanting to experiment with dark beers, but not take a giant leap into thick blacks.

The alcohol content is a reasonable 4.8 per cent, so it won’t knock you on your butt.

My primary drinking buddy (my wife) thought it was sweet. But I didn’t, so I happily drank hers. My secondary drinking buddies polished off the rest during the NFL playoffs. Their overwhelming consensus: smooth, balanced and refreshing. Maybe the fact that black beans aren’t exceptionally flavourful resulted in an underwhelming beany presence. Whatever it was, it works.

Erin Morgan, general manager of the Ontario Bean Growers
Erin Morgan, general manager of the Ontario Bean Growers.

I like having local food and beverages options like this, especially ones with clear ties to agriculture. Royal City brewers didn’t dream up BBBA on their own; rather, the Ontario Bean Growers lit the flame. Erin Morgan, general manager of the bean growers, gives a nod to western Canadian lentil producers for the idea. ”They were first,” she acknowledges. That said, she wasn’t going to let the International Year of Pulses pass her organization by without offering up a beer of its own.

Related: Beyond the Bushel —Ep. 4: The Journey from Barley to Beer

It’s kind of ironic, though, that the black beans had to be imported for this Ontario craft beer. As Morgan explains it, plant breeders in Michigan excel at producing black bean varieties (Ontario breeders are expert in white bean varieties). So, ultimately, Royal City got its black beans from Michigan. It wanted a quality ingredient, and Michigan happened to have it.

The use of non-local ingredients in “local” beer development is the way of the world, for now. The craft brewing industry has skyrocketed and understandably, it’s taking the industry a while to catch up. Hops producers in Ontario can’t keep up with demand. A Guelph-based company, Harvest Hop and Malt, is working with growers to increase the number of plants in the ground and produce a predictable harvest. It’s expecting to see results in two- to three years, when the plants mature.

“Customers will be able to advertise their 100 mile (or less!) supply,” it says.

Michigan is less than 100 miles from many places in Ontario. I guess for now, that will have to do.

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