When you think of contract brewers in Ontario, you typically think of those companies that are launching into the market with a single product in an attempt to become a saleable commodity before they acquire expertise, ability, judgment, equipment or any damned thing other than a bank loan. What you tend not to think of is fairly complex high end beer.
Bush Pilot is therefore something of an anomaly. Owned by Vlado and Liliana Pavicic who are behind import agency Roland and Russell, Bush Pilot is releasing their third aeronautically inspired beer this summer. Running an import company means that these are people who have evaluated beer internationally for the possibility of import into the country. They’ve spent something like a decade talking to brewers. They’ve brought us Dupont, Het Anker, Southern Tier, Kiuchi and Nogne. Unlike some other contract brewers in Ontario, they have judgment and expertise. This means their attempts are a great deal more ambitious than others in the market.
For their first beer, Stormy Monday, they brought in Anders Kissmeyer and partnered with Niagara College and Nickel Brook in order to produce a Barley Wine aged in Calvados barrels. Contrarian that I am, I did not care for it much. It was over full of good ideas with 26 ingredients. It was not a bad beer, but it was in need of editing. It was, at least, ambitious. There’s a lot to be said for your high flying risk takers and I suppose if you’ve named your company after bush pilots, you’re comfortable in that ozone.
Their third beer, Pengo Pally, is a far more conceptually stable venture. Apparently, “Pengo Pally” is Iniktitut for “I miss you.” This was the message stenciled on the plane of Inuit bush pilot Johnny May and intended for his wife. This ties in rather beautifully with the National Film Board’s documentary The Wings of Johnny May (which is affecting and worth a watch.)
I do not know that any style of beer is really suited to the north. The Inuit never produced much in the way of alcohol, one assumes due to the lack of fermentable material and the punishing ambient temperatures. That said, Pengo Pally attempts to use indigenous ingredients to their full effect and there are relatively few styles that would be effective in showing off delicate floral and herbal notes. By process of elimination, Pengo Pally is a Saison.
The specialty ingredients are crowberry leaves and Labrador tea. I have no context for these ingredients, so I’ve been researching them a little. Crowberry is fairly common in the tundra, and although the berries themselves are quite mild in flavour, they freeze well during the winter and are a traditional dietary staple of the Inuit and the juice seems to do well as a seasoning when mixed with fat. The leaves are frequently boiled into a tea as a medicine against stomach upset.
Labrador tea I am slightly more apprehensive about. A member of the rhododendron family it is both hardy and slightly narcotic in large enough quantities. It theoretically contains grayanotoxin, which in large enough quantities may act as a paralytic. Indeed, in the Caucasus mountains they harvest honey from bees who feed on rhododendron. The following from Xenophon’s Anabasis (you know the movie The Warriors? That, but in a phalanx and 2400 years ago.):
“The effect upon the soldiers who tasted the combs was, that they all went for the nonce quite off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, with a total inability to stand steady on their legs. A small dose produced a condition not unlike violent drunkenness, a large one an attack very like a fit of madness, and some dropped down, apparently at death’s door. So they lay, hundreds of them, as if there had been a great defeat, a prey to the cruellest despondency. But the next day, none had died.”
Ryan Morrow, from Nickel Brook, assures me that the use of Labrador Tea in this instance is quite mild and slighty floral. Having been added to the whirlpool, the active ingredient is not present due to the lower temperature and everything is quite safe. If you experience violent drunkenness, it’s for the usual reason.
Sadly, for neither of these ingredients have I found an indication of the flavours they might impart.
The beer shares some commonality with Nickel Brook’s La Paysan Saison. The carbonation level is quite high, with an excellent pillowy head that softly collapses in the glass. The body is slightly hazy to the eye. There is here a slightly sour bright lemon aroma with floral and vegetal notes that manage to offset the yeast character, playing subtly with the peppery whiff. The body has a light, wheaty smoothness to it and the vegetal and floral notes dance along the soft palate never quite succumbing to clove due to the spiky carbonation. The finish is quite dry and very mildly tannic with a note not entirely unlike dandelion milk.
This is what I like to see. An overarching thematic concept from the brand, executed well in a specific product through the use of interesting ingredients, a talented brewer, exquisite packaging and a good story. The retail price on the Bush Pilot website is $9.95, and at that price point you’d be a fool not to try this.
The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria
Today, we’ll be using the United States Army Airforce’s World War II era Arctic Survival Manual as our inspiration for providing this beer with a score. Specifically, it will be the section on edible plants and animals. It tells us, for instance, that the Caribou is the most sensible option if you find that your plane has gone down in the arctic and you require sustenance. The manual advises against eating the liver of the Polar Bear due to vitamin A toxicity. Amongst the smaller animals, rabbits are frowned upon due to their leanness and the possibility of developing malnutrition in the form of protein poisoning.
Birds are promising: puffins, eider, ducks, swans and geese all contain enough fat to help the human body survive. If you’re lucky enough to have crashed your plane in the summer, you might be able visit and pluck eggs from the nesting sites of migratory birds.
Pengo Pally is a summery beer and I think our score has to derive from that. Like any Bush Pilot in the great white north, Pengo Pally has decidedly taken an Arctic Tern.