Aug. 29, 2012 - Issue #880: LP
A close call
The beer guy (almost) meets Alexander KeithIt is no secret that I am a bit of a sourpuss when it comes to Alexander Keith's. It is the product of the world's largest beer corporation, AB-Inbev. However, that is not my main complaint. Mostly I get mad because it continues to sell itself as an India Pale Ale, which it most decidedly is not. In fact, the bloody thing isn't even an ale—it is a standard pale lager in the genre of Molson Canadian, Stella Artois and Budweiser. To beer aficionados, the term India Pale Ale means something quite particular and specific, which Keith's breaks on a dizzying number of levels.
However, I found myself in Halifax for an extended period this spring. Halifax, as many of you may know, is the home of the original Alexander Keith's brewery, first opened in 1820. Located in a historic stone building along the harbourfront, today it no longer produces beer, but it does serve as a tourist attraction with hourly tours. Despite my fears of getting caught in a kitschy trap, I decided, for whatever reason, to give the tour a try.
Now, I have been on many a brewery tour. I enjoy most of them, but usually they offer the standard fare of a trip through the brewhouse, explaining the process in a rudimentary way, and then a stop at a tap room to sample some of the wares. No reason to complain about this; I just mention it to juxtapose what they do at the Halifax Keith's Brewery Tour. For that is not what we received (the ticket price is $16.95 per adult).
Very quickly on you realize this is no ordinary tour. For the guide, the year is 1863 and she is determined to usher you into a meeting with Mr Keith himself. Questions about cell phones, the Internet or the Second World War are met with quizzical, flummoxed looks. However, she is proud to extol the virtues of the 19th century Keith. After leaving you with a video about the Halifax Mr Keith knew, and promising that Mr Keith will be along shortly, one of the brewers meets you, with further apologies that Mr Keith is delayed, to show you through the brewhouse.
Here, the tour resembles a standard one, with descriptions of the ingredients, an overview of the process, etc, except with a bit of a 19th century feel—no kegs and twist-off bottle caps here. They play up the IPA aspect of the beer—which is both authentic and infuriating. You see, back in 1863, Alexander Keith's really was an IPA (he also brewed porter and other ales), with the hop bitterness to prove it. The beer lost its authenticity during the dreaded 1950s when brands were going down left and right and the survivors turned their beer into the yellowy fizzy drink we have today.
He then gives you back to the original guide who leads you to the "Stag's Head," their 19th century tavern, full with long wooden tables, old country songs, card games of the period and buxom servers. They work hard to feel like a real old tavern, hiding the tap lines and kegs within wooden casks, and giving the place a dark feel that would match a winter evening on the Halifax harbour back then. Except, they make one crucial, inexplicable mistake. They served the beer in branded clear glass mugs. Hello? In 1863 beer was served in ceramic or fired clay steins. Glassware existed, but would have been far too expensive for the local tavern.
By far the biggest let down of the tour was the beer itself. I naturally avoided the regular Keith's and opted for two of the newest additions. The Keith's Tartan Ale was passable as a malty lager/ale (it was unclear which it was), but a bit oversold—we were told it was aged in Scotch barrels. If so, it was for about 20 minutes. The Keith's Dark on the other hand, was undrinkable. It was thin, watery, slightly acrid with only the tiniest roast undercurrent. Not sure what they were going for here, but it fails no matter what it was.
They give you about 20 minutes to have a glass or two of one of the various Keith's products before sending you on your merry way via a stone replica of the tunnel Mr Keith had dug between his house and the original brewery (which was next door) so that he could check it out at any time of day or night.
Mr Keith never does show up, with apologies all around from the tavern staff.
It seems appropriate somehow. All this build up and promise from Mr Keith, resulting, ultimately, in a letdown. Kind of like the beer.
Still, it was a fun hour. I don't regret doing it. And maybe not meeting Mr Keith was for the best—I might have told him off and that would have been rude. V
Vue respects your privacy. We will not forward your personal information to any other organization except as required by law, and will use your e-mail address only to respond to your comments. We reserve the right to edit and remove comments for length, clarity and/or if they are illegal or inappropriate. Your email address is never shown to visitors to vueweekly.com. Read the whole policy at: http://vueweekly.com/privacy