Food Liquids

Review: River Valley Session IPA

River Valley Session IPA
A can of River Valley Session IPA from Liquor Depot, in a sunny break between the lovely September snowstorms we’ve been enjoying in Edmonton this year. Yay.

There’s a special place in my heart for cheap and cheerful beers. The kinds of beers you keep in the back of the fridge, waiting for a hot day when you could really use a dose of instant cold, or for when a good friend comes over unexpectedly, the kind of friend who won’t mind at all if you give them something to drink that’s cheap and unpretentious, without a pedigree or a marketing budget.

When I lived in Calgary, my chef friend J.P. introduced me to Co-Op Gold, his own version of this serviceable everyman/woman beer. As a twentysomething in small-town Quebec, I was introduced to a Carling brew that was equally at home in my hand while watching a show on Radio-Canada in the basement or hanging around in the kitchen at a cabin down a logging road.

My lesson from all this: Sometimes you want an amazing, inventive, flavourful craft brew to wow you and remind you what beer can be. And sometimes you just want a good, honest brewski. Nothing wrong with that.

The River Valley line from Liquor Depot in Alberta aims to be that beer for a lot of people. There are four different beers in the line – a golden lager, a light lager, a red ale and a session IPA – all of which are contract brewed for the Liquor Depot chain by Big Rock in Calgary, and they tend to hover around the $16 mark for a 12-pack, though they come on sale for buck-a-beer prices if you’re patient.

The most recent addition to the River Valley family is the above mentioned Session IPA (a style more commonly known as an India Session Ale, or ISA if acronyms are your jam), which is an unexpectedly on-trend offering from a value brand. India session ales are a counterpunch to the silly level of excess born from the India pale ale arms race, where the trifecta of strong, hoppy and bitter have been so overdone as to scorch the palate of unsuspecting drinkers. The India session ale, then, is meant to be a toned down version of an IPA, which could, I suppose, make it a regular pale ale. Or not. It’s kind of complicated.

Yes, but how’s it taste?

The River Valley Session IPA pours a deep golden hue, with oodles of carbonation and a good thick head. There’s a light hint of toffee at first sip, leading to a punch of dry bitterness. There’s not a lot of hop aroma or flavour beyond the bitter. It’s unremarkable, really. With an ISA, I want and expect a more forward hop profile. The idea of the style is to celebrate hops without getting either too bitter or too wobbly-making. This strikes me as more of a standard, garden variety pale ale. For an ISA, it tastes off-style. But as a very basic pale ale that won’t show up flavourful food, and that isn’t cloyingly sweet (a common problem with many off-balance IPAs with a high ABV)? Entirely acceptable.

The Details

Price: $15.99 (plus deposit, etc.) for a twelve-pack of 355 mL cans at Liquor Depot in Edmonton.

Value for Money: Very good. These have been known to come on sale for a few bucks off from time to time, so keep an eye open.

Availability: Liquor Depot stores in Alberta.

Nutrition: It’s beer. No calories are listed, but always consume in moderation.

Strength: 5.5% abv

Verdict: Not as good as you’d hope for, though what could one legitimately hope for at this price point? It tastes less like a toned-down IPA and more like a gussied up variant of their golden lager with the bitterness amped up. It’s not particularly refreshing, but it’s inoffensive enough that you shouldn’t get sick of it after a couple of beers.



  1. Thanks Iain! River Valley has been my (and a good few others’ at our treeplanting camp) go to budget beer for a few years now. Lately I’ve been noticing a number of beers, including Bow Valley Lager and the Co-op brand, are brewed by Big Rock. The branding is really interesting to me. I understand that Co-Op would be a contract brew (as is River Valley, I learned today), but am curious about brands like Bow Valley- is this also a contract brew, or one of Big Rocks own brands? If it’s the latter, why not brand it as one of their own?

    • Think of them as a house brand for a supermarket, like Western Family or Our Compliments (in Western Canada, at least), and Trader Joe’s branded products in the US. Brewers typically work with a client to brew something to a client’s spec (taste profile, cost, etc.), and then produce a set amount for a specified price. The benefit with this arrangement is different for each party: the brewery doesn’t risk anything, in that they’re paid for the beer produced and don’t have to worry about selling it on their own (which means they can maybe cut the retailer a deal on the price), and the retailer gets a house brand that only they carry for a cost they’re comfortable with. Ideally, you grow to like their house brand product, and you know that the only place to get it is, say, the Liquor Depot or their associated stores.

    • Breweries that get big enough will often try to capture some extra market share by brewing their own additional brands (not contract brews for others) as a way to go after a different segment of the market that their main brand may not serve. It’s always a bit risky, since you can dilute your main brand’s value if people start to see the cheaper brands as being effectively the same thing as the premium brands made by the same brewer. The reverse is also true: With the rise of craft beer, the MBAs at the big breweries moved into making what beer geeks sometimes refer to “crafty” beers. It’s like how Molson brews a TON of different beers, each attempting to go after a different market segment, often targeting people who wouldn’t consider drinking a beer made by Molson because of their own image of the Molson brand. Sometimes this happens more naturally when a larger brewer buys a smaller craft brewer, and sometimes it’s a game giant brewers play where they pretend to be a craft brewer so they can be in both markets at once. There are tons of brands out there that people don’t readily associate with a big brewer (Rickard’s = Molson-Coors; Alexander Keith’s = Anheuser-Bush InBev). As smaller brewers grow larger (Big Rock, ahem), there’s a temptation to use some extra brewery capacity to reach a new market with either a private label beer (River Valley) or by entering a category that you don’t already compete in — like budget-friendly lagers made by Big Rock that don’t loudly proclaim they’re made by Big Rock.