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Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto is at the forefront of the new trend of unconventionally flavoured beers. Here they infuse beer with whole apples.OWEN A ROTH

Toasted cocoa nibs, strawberry puree, vanilla beans and lactose. The ingredients read more like a pastry recipe than one for beer. But all of these items are found in Bellwoods Brewery’s Neapolitan Milkshark, the latest in a line of what the Toronto brewery calls milkshake-inspired beers.

Luke Pestl, co-owner and brewer at Bellwoods, says he was inspired by two other breweries that collaborated to invent the style. Swedish brewery Omnipollo and Tired Hands Brewing in Pennsylvania originally brewed their own milkshake beers as a response to critics of hazy IPAs.

“People were criticizing them and calling them milkshake-style IPAs, so they said ‘Let’s do a milkshake-style IPA and actually make it a milkshake,’” Pestl says. “That’s sort of where it came from and we just thought it was fun, so we started doing them as well and people immediately gravitated towards them.”

The beer is part of a trend in Canada’s craft-beer movement. As the industry continues to pick up momentum, unconventionally flavoured beers and so-called beer cocktails have become increasingly popular. Radler – beer and citrus soda mixed together – was one of the first to take off when Austrian brand Stiegl introduced its grapefruit version of the beverage to Canada in 2013. Educator and industry consultant Roger Mittag says the drink put the idea of mixing fruit and beer on brewers’ radars.

“When Stiegl came out with their radler, everybody sort of realized that they wanted something equally refreshing. That probably started the whole fruit-based beer revolution,” Mittag says.

Whole fruit, purees and extracts are quickly becoming brewers’ favourite experimental ingredients, in drinks from apricot wheat ales to guava-flavoured sours. Dessert beers made with coffee, chocolate and caramel are also starting to show up on taproom menus and liquor-store shelves. Mittag says the trend is allowing brewers to get more creative while providing consumers with occasions to consume new beers. But, he warns, brewing a good fruit beer isn’t easy; the beer has to be robust enough to stand up to the fruit flavour.

“That’s the secret behind doing beers with fruit in them, they have to be well balanced. If they get too sweet, then people aren’t going to drink very much of them,” Mittag says.

The recent explosion in the variety of flavoured beers is remarkable given that, prior to the emergence of the craft beer movement, North America’s brewing behemoths seemed intent on brewing the flavour out of beers. The drive for inoffensive, easy-drinking beers resulted in the boring, bland, but broadly tolerable beverages that dominated Canada’s beer market for decades. Among craft brewers at least, the pendulum has swung back with a vengeance.

Pestl admits that a beer made to resemble a milkshake isn’t for everyone, but adds that that’s not really the point.

“We’re not designing this beer for somebody to have as their daily drink with dinner,” Pestl says. “It’s supposed to be a fun beer that people can enjoy and really get excited about.”

Pestl says brewing the beer with lactose, vanilla and fruit adds heft and sweetness and results in a full-bodied beer. Since starting the line of milkshake-inspired beers in 2017, Bellwoods has made vanilla, pineapple, raspberry, strawberry, guava, mango, peach and passion-fruit versions. Brewed on a smaller scale at the brewery’s Ossington Avenue brewpub, a one-off batch typically fills about 3,000 bottles. According to Pestl, every single bottle is usually sold within a day or two.

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Since starting the line of milkshake-inspired beers in 2017, Bellwoods has made vanilla, pineapple, raspberry, strawberry, guava, mango, peach and passion-fruit versions.OWEN A ROTH

While Bellwoods still sells a lot more pale ale than fruit beers, Pestl says customers’ desire to constantly try new products is part of what is driving brewers to experiment. Beer drinkers are becoming more knowledgeable about flavours and styles and some want to try as many different varieties as possible. Popular apps such as Untappd help such craft beer devotees – known in the industry as “tickers” – keep track of and rate every beer they try. The appetite for uniquely flavoured beers allows breweries to try out new fruit beers, pastry stouts and milkshake IPAs without fear that bottles and kegs will linger on their shelves.

“To me, the heart of craft beer is experimentation and pushing the boundaries,” Pestl says. “You can’t develop any style if you’re not willing to push the limits of it. Craft beer has always been an experimental realm of the beer world and it should stay like that.”

The proliferation of craft breweries across the country may be another reason more unconventional ingredients are making it into bottles and kegs. A maturing industry means more and more breweries are competing for limited liquor-store shelf space and bar taps. The need to stand out is more important than ever.

It’s a conundrum many of Alberta’s established craft breweries are facing for the first time. The craft-beer movement was a long time coming in the province, but a recent change to provincial regulations has made it much easier for small brewers to set up shop, and Alberta is witnessing the biggest brewery boom in the country as a result. In 2014, there were fewer than 20 breweries in all of Alberta; today that number approaches 100.

Founded in 1995, Alley Kat brewing in Edmonton is the city’s oldest craft brewery. Marketing manager Lacey Cropley says the added competition means differentiating oneself has become simultaneously more important, and more difficult.

“To be competitive, you’re constantly having to come up with new beers,” Cropley says. “But I think that variety is part of what makes it exciting – there’s always something new for people to try and brag about.”

Alley Kat was an early adopter of fruit beers, releasing its Aprikat wheat ale soon after its founding. Brewed with apricot extract, it has a distinct but not overpowering apricot flavour that has made it Alley Kat’s bestselling beer. More recently the brewery added an ale made with crushed grapefruit to its line of five core beers.

Despite the added competition, Cropley enjoys seeing the growth of craft beer and says that the ultimate goal is to push big beer brands out of people’s hands and replace them with craft beer, be it milkshake-inspired or not.

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