It’s popular for Canadians to pay tribute to historical and cultural imagery through beer. The Unibroue Brewery’s entire lineup is inspired by Quebec legends and historical events. As well as the Sleemans owned Upper Canada Brewing Company. Moosehead Lager’s iconic moose symbol couldn’t be more Canadian unless it had a beaver impaled on its antlers with a maple leaf tattooed Mounty on its back. That’s why when I got the chance to try Ottawa’s Hogsback Vintage Lager, the young brewery’s story struck me as well on its way to becoming a symbolic stand-out lager.
The story begins in the early 1800’s when the United States and British Empire didn’t get along. Most of Canada at the time was under British rule as a collection of British colonies. Sharing a border, it became the perfect location to sort out problems and differences by shooting at each other with muskets and cannons. The British Navy used the St Lawrence River to move supplies but it was a dangerous waterway being too close to the New York State border.
There was also the chance of an American invasion across the St Lawrence River. The Brits feared this threat since it would ruin the valuable trading route between Montreal and Kingston. The British decided to build the Rideau Canal from Ottawa as a military strategy to keep supply lines open between both cities while avoiding any confrontation with the Americans on the St Lawrence.
Before construction began there was a series of rapids on the Rideau River called Three Rock Rapids. A civil engineer named John MacTaggart described a ridge of limestone sticking out of the rapids as looking like the backbone of a hog. The nickname Hogsback stuck when the ridge became a problem for raftsmen who regularly lodged themselves on these rocks. The construction of a dam was necessary in order to build the canal and contracted to a man named Philemon Wright. It was an engineering triumph and was critical to the success of the canal getting finished in six years by 1832. But what does this history lesson have to do with beer?
Philemon Wright was the first permanent settler to the brewery’s hometown. He also established the very first brewery in the Ottawa Valley. With that said, it’s pretty safe to assume that after a long day’s work building dams, you’d need a cold beer. “It is also reputed that he sold hops to a young John Molson back in the day,” explains the brewery.
Wright’s entrepreneurship and his ability to overcome challenges is exactly the kind of spirit Hogsback puts into their vintage lager. However, it isn’t age that makes this lager a vintage. “We call it a “vintage” lager because first we only use the four traditional ingredients of water, malted barley, hops and yeast and then second because we are aiming for a more traditional flavour profile than most North American light lagers,” explains brewery partner Paige Cutland. “So it is a little more European in flavour with the malt coming through and some hoppiness to the finish.”
Lead by Frank, Gerry, Mark and Paige, the brewery’s European-inspired lager has a perfect golden complexion that marries three premium malts perfectly. It starts with a 2-row malt. This moderate flavored base is common in other lagers but in my opinion, it’s the combination of Munich and Vienna malts that make this beer stand out over other lagers.
Munich malts are used in bock style beers as well as other styles of lager such as Marzens. It increases the lager’s body, gives the beer a malty bouquet and adds malt sweetness. Vienna malts are a bit milder than Munich and gives beer a darker color than standard factory produced lagers. A not too bitter Saaz hops rounds out the background.
“The result is a crisp, flavorful lager experience,” describes the brewery and that’s why this beer now has a home in my fridge. It’s an experience that when the rest of the world finds out, Hogsback should really spend their spare time getting the Rideau Canal ready as a supply line for the next invasion. I’m all for it as long as the line leads directly to my fridge.