Saturday, December 26, 2009

Matt's Christmas Beer #1: Affligem Blond

Beer: Affligem Blond (Belgium)
Type: belgian pale ale
Brewery: Affligem Brouwerij
ABV: 6.8%

The toughest part about going to the liquor store around Christmas is when your lovely fiancee tells you that you can't buy any of the wonderful beer-and-glass gift sets because 'people' might be getting you them for Christmas. The payoff is when you finally get them for Christmas.

Beer at Christmas: It's what Jesus would do, were he not underage at the time.

Today's offering is the first from my Affligem gift set, a blonde ale. Affligem is the name of an abbey in Opwijk, Belgium, and if there's anything you need to know about beer, it's this: Belgian abbey beers are friggin' amazing. The monks there operate under the principle that if there's not much going on other than prayer and self-reflection, you might as well brew beer for your fellow man. And, if you're going to be brewing beer in the service of God, you might as well make some of the finest beer on the planet.

Case. In. Point.

(Got to pour this one into my new spiffy glass - it's always fun drinking a few in its appropriate, branded glassware!)

The appearance of this brew is just spectacular. The body is a dark golden hue, slightly opaque, with a little bit of visible carbonation. The head is foamy white, about 3cm, and I gotta say, it just wouldn't go away. There was at least 1cm of head for the entire tasting, right up to the finish. Suffice to say, this made for some fantastic lacing.

(To give you some idea, this picture was taken about 10 minutes after I first poured it!)

Affligem Blond is slightly hoppy, with lemon and pepper being the dominant flavours. Dry and crisp to the finish, almost like a pilsner. The nose is slightly hoppy, with a bit of a bready, yeast smell to it, which is very common for Belgian brews (Unibroue from Quebec also demonstrates this phenomenon). I also detect a bit of wine grapes and apple, with only a slight alcoholic odor at the very back, which doesn't appear in the taste.

The brew is well carbonated, but it doesn't leave a stinging sensation on the tongue, which is big points. With the head lasting until the last sip, there was definitely a creamy texture to the brew.

Affligem blond was simply a terrific brew, one of the better Belgian pale ale's I've tried thus far. Unfortunately, the gift set is thus far the only place I've managed to find the blonde ale in Ontario, so it's pretty rare.

If you do come across it in your wanderings, I urge you to check it out. Them monks be brewing up goodness.

(Grade: A)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Beers That Make You Go "Wow."

Beer: Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock
Brewery: G. Schneider and Sohn (Germany)
Type: eisbock
ABV: 12%

Well, it's Christmas Eve-eve, and what better time of year than to sit around and get loaded! And by that, I mean review some more holiday brews. Next on the agenda is the eisbock, a rather unique style that isn't a Christmas beer per se, but traditionally eisbocks were consumed in the Lenten season, and that's good enough for me. This was a rather random pick up for me: I was at the old LCBO, and was a bit disappointed with their Christmas selection, so I decided to pick up a few old favorites for the holiday season. Aventinus' hefeweizen is a pretty great brew, so I snagged this one up, only to discover that this bottle instead contained their eisbock, a beer I've never had the privilege to sample before. I guess their bottles look fairly similar.

A happier Christmas miracle I could not ask for.

So, you're probably wondering, what the hell is an eisbock? Don't you fret now; ol' Matty will set you straight. To begin, a bock is simply a strong lager, darker in colour than their pale lager and pilsner counterparts, and usually with an ABV of at least 6.5%. The style is believed to have originated around the town of Einbeck, Germany, thus giving a possible explanation for the name. (Fun Fact: another possible origin is the fact that 'bock' is similar to the German word for 'goat'. Thus, on many bock labels you will often see images of goats with beer strapped to their backs. Google it!)

As you can see, goats are good people.

These brews are given a little bit of extra malting to allow for heartier flavours, and are stored (lager-ed) for a longer periods of time to smooth and clean things out. Therefore, bocks are almost always darker in colour, and can possess flavours that are more reminiscent of ales, like caramels, dark fruits and spices. Due to their high ABV and thicker bodies, bocks were traditionally consumed in the winter months, both as a means of sustenance and to combat the chill (I'm well aware that alcohol is an ineffective way to "keep warm", but it's a hell of a lot more fun than "bundling up" and "respecting nature.").

There are many variations of the bock style: maibocks are lighter and crisper bocks that are stored over the winter and consumed in the spring (May = Mai auf Deutsch); doppelbocks are the strongest variations of the bock, with notoriously high ABVs. And then there are eisbocks. The eisbock style is one that purportedly came about entirely by accident, a result of laziness and ineptitude: the twin pillars of human innovation. As the story goes, a hapless brewery employee neglected to store some of the kegs properly, exposing them to the frigid elements. When the kegs were eventually tapped, it was discovered that the beer had frozen somewhat. Like the smart lads they were, rather than dump the beer out, they gave it a try, only to discover that this new brew was both stronger and sweeter than it was originally supposed to be. A new style was born! Eisbocks, therefore, are similar to ice wines in their production. Modern brewers will allow their brews to ferment in extra-cold temperatures. The water freezes, but the sugars (and thus the alcohol) remain, albeit in a more concentrated form.

Aventinus is one of the standards of the eisbock style, and damn is it good.

First of all, consider the ABV, a whopping 12%. This makes Aventinus a good three times stronger than your average bottle of beer. This means that lining up several in a row is probably not a good idea (unless it's your intention) and even having one puts you well at risk of being over the alcohol limit, so it's definitely not one for the crowd. Best drink this one safely.

The crazy thing is, 12% isn't anywhere near the high point for eisbocks: 15%, 18% and even 20% are surprisingly common. An excellent way to enjoy a quiet night avoiding wintry weather.

The brew pours a nice, chocolaty brown, very cloudy. Almost like chocolate milk. Leaves about an inch of head, that recedes into a little ring around the glass.

The smell is terrific: dark fruit, spices, nuts, malts, and a bit of alcohol. This is going to be good. The taste is also superb. Similar flavours as detected on the nose, with a bit of banana and cloves to boot (this is, after all, a weizen eisbock, so there is a bit of wheat beer character to it). Very rich and flavourful. The alcohol is certainly present, but it's masked fairly well. Rather than being a stingy, gaggy taste (as some high alcoholic brews can be), Aventinus has just that right bit of strength to give you a warming sensation in your belly. This is what a winter warmer should be like. Nevertheless, this beer is very high in alcohol, so I'll try to finish the review before I get compromised by all the yummyness.

Mouthfeel is thick and chewy, with the carbonation providing just a bit of sting.


This was one incredible beer experience. Flavourful, complex, refreshingly unique. This is a beer I will be drinking a lot of this winter. If you're just coming in from the cold, whether it be shoveling or scraping the steps, sit down with this one and all will be well again. On Beer Advocate, this is the first brew I've given an A+, and that's saying quite a bit (I'm not harsh, but I don't give many brews above an A minus; gotta save the perfect 10's for the perfect beer!). Highly recommend this one! Just promise me you won't drive anywhere afterwards, capisce? (Grade: A+)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hooray for IPA's!

Beer: India Pale Ale

Brewery: Southern Tier (Lakewood, NY)
Type: India pale ale (IPA)
ABV: 6.5%

IPA's are one of my favorite styles of beer: they're robust, flavorful, spicy and memorable. Stored for long periods of time, IPA's are typically stronger and hoppier than other pale ales, which led to their immense popularity among the British Raj, as their strength and bitterness made the beer more palatable after its months-long sea journey to the Indian subcontinent. The style is continued today by a few British breweries, but the real giants of the IPA name are the Americans, particularly those on the West Coast, who have taken to the well-hopped brew with gusto. Due to their reliance on rigorous hopping, IPA's usually have a citrussy, or fruity quality to them that coincides with a potent bitterness. British IPA's are usually less bitter than American ones, while West Coast IPA's are usually more citrussy than East Coast ones, but these are just generalizations. There's a great deal of variety in the IPA world, and that makes them exciting. However, there is one important thing to remember about IPAs, and that is as follows:
Alexander Keith's is not an IPA. Period. It is a bland, uninspired macro-lager brew that bears little to no resemblance to the IPA style. Calling Alexander Keith's an IPA is like calling Leighton Meester a singer.

Moving on...

Southern Tier IPA pours a lighter amber colour, leaving about a half inch head. It dissipates quickly, but leaves a thin layer that just won't go away. Lots of lacing too. Looking good so far!

The smell certainly classes this one in with the eastern IPA family. Aside from astringent hops, I also get a bit of maltiness coupled with fruit - either peach or apricot. Pretty inviting aroma.

The taste is excellent: the hops aren't too powerful (some American IPA's are ridiculously hoppy to the point of insanity: Dog Fish Head's 120 Minute IPA is like drinking pure, unadulterated bitterness), and so the bitterness is offset by a lovely taste of peaches. Actually, the flavour I get, strange as it sounds, is a peach variety of those little 5 for a dollar candy cane sticks you can pick up in souvenir shops. Bizarre, I know, but taste and smell are linked to memory, and that's the one that stands out. A nice spiciness to the finish; the beer leaves on a bitter note, but it doesn't linger unnecessarily.

Mouthfeel is a bit thin, which is something I've noticed with Southern Tier in general. Must be their thing; I'm not sure. Carbonation is about right for an IPA of this variety.

A nice little brew from Southern Tier, and a good introduction to the American IPA style. I've seen this one in the LCBO a few times, so if you happen across a bottle, I encourage you to pick one out. It's not nearly as hoppy or bitter as some of the other American IPAs out there, but this brew is flavorful enough to carry its weight. (Grade: A)

Finally, scientists are doing something useful (for a change)!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Raspberry Porter

Beer: Raspberry Porter
Brewery: Southern Tier (Lakewood, NY)
Type: fruit beer (porter)
ABV: 5%

It's tough getting American micro brews around these parts, and that's a real shame. Some of the best and most unique stuff in the brewing world is coming out of United States craft brewers, and while the ol' LCBO has a few kicking around, the selection is certainly thin. I've had a couple Southern Tiers before - their regular porter is excellent, as is their IPA - but it took the efforts of two super awesome people to bring a sampler bottle of this back to Waterloo.

(Thanks, Jill and Dave!)

So, to business.

The very notion of a raspberry porter intrigues. Porters generally have a chocolatey, coffee taste to them, which I imagine would go well with the addition of fresh raspberries. Then again, fruit beers always have the tendency to miss the mark, usually a consequence of the fruit flavours dominating, rather than enhancing the base brew. This one starts off pretty well, pouring a dark mahogany and leaving about a half-inch of head, which is about the best one can expect from a bottle. The head quickly disappears into a thin ring around the glass which sticks around until the finish. Couple of flecks of lacing.

The smell certainly delivers what the label promises: raspberry, raspberry, raspberry. Nice ones too, I have to say; certainly not artificial. Lingering in the back is a bit of dark chocolate and coffee, again coming from the porter base. Pretty inviting.

The taste isn't bad, and better than I'd expected. Although the raspberry takes the reins initially, it quickly gives way to a coffee bitterness that provides the finish. The coffee flavour feels a bit burnt, but it's not off-putting. Not very complex, but tasty.

The mouthfeel was a bit disappointing. Way too thin for a porter, even one marketed under the 'fruit beer' category. I'm guessing this was done to increase its appeal to those who were probably drawn to the raspberry in the title, but I think it was a poor decision. Porters need more body to them than this.

Not a bad little beer. Certainly well worth trying, but I doubt it's one I'll aggressively seek out again. I think that with a bit more effort, this brew could be a real winner, but for now, I'll stick with the regular porters. (Grade: B-)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Great (and Terrible) Moments in Beer History!

4000 BCE (approx) – Some anthropologists have argued that barley was first cultivated in Mesopotamia not for eating, but rather for brewing; in the case of Sumeria, about half their grain went towards getting tanked. The literature from the period often suggests that brewing was one of the necessary skills needed to be considered a “civilization” by Sumerian peoples. Evidence of brewing beer is discovered on Sumerian tablets dating from around the third millennium BCE. In one such stone tablet, lines such as “you are the one who spreads roasted malt on a large mat to cool” refer to the production of one the earliest forms of beer, now known as ‘Ninkasi Beer’ as it was consumed in honour of the goddess Ninkasi. After centuries of being conquered by various tribes (Babylonians, Assyrians), brewing traditions survived, partly in thanks to Nebuchadnezzar, whom posterity should record as one of the biggest fans of beer.

Pictured: One Beer Lovin' Mo-fo.
In more recent times, American craft brewers, like Dog Fish Head (Delaware) and Anchor Steam (California) have attempted to recreate the ancient Sumerian style. which I'm sure totally doesn't taste like cow manure.

2200 BCE (approx) – Ancient Egyptians were also prolific brewers, which coincided with their impressive abilities to produce bread. Indeed, according to legend, brewing beer is credited with saving the Egyptian people from the wrath of the goddess Sekhmet; by giving her vats of red beer, the goddess ceased her violent attacks and stumbled home, much like was done for George Wendt on the set of Cheers. Beer was an integral part of Egyptian society: one inscription from 2200 BCE proclaims that “the mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” True dat. According to anthropological and archaeological studies, the ancient Egyptians were able to produce at least seven different varieties of beer, which is at least six more than Steam Whistle.

800 BCE – The first evidence of brewing in Central Europe, an earthenware pot that contains remnants of wheat ale, dates back to approximately the 9th century BCE. The pot was discovered in southern Germany in 1935.

1040 – The monastery of Weihenstephan in Freising, Germany, is granted an official licence to produce beer, making Weihenstephan the first officially recognized (and oldest continually-operating) brewery in modern Europe.

23 April 1516 – In order to ensure that there was enough wheat available for bread making, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria enacts the Reinheitsgebot, or “Beer Purity Law”, which restricted the ingredients for lager brewing to barley, hops and water. The law essentially prohibits using any other cereal grain than barley in your beer, while also preventing brewers from adding preservatives, spices and other filler ingredients. Ale was given an exception, hence why wheat beers like Erdinger can rightfully claim that they follow the 1516 regulations. The Reinheitsgebot had a profound effect on German, and other European nations’ brewing practices by standardizing ingredients and discouraging the use of additives. While it is not enforceable today (the EU has its own complex brewing laws), many brewers continue to uphold the law, and advertise as such.

1620 – Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, which was not their intended destination. Why? They ran out of beer. Really! Look it up!

31 December 1759 – Arthur Guinness (who I believe was a toucan of some sort) leases the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin to be used as the main production site for his world famous dry stout.

Pictured: Arthur Guinness

5 October 1842 – At his brewery in Plzen, Bohemia, Josef Groll produces the world’s first batch of “pilsner”, a cleaner, crisper variation of the lager style that has evolved to become the world’s most popular style of beer.

28 October 1919 – On one of the darkest days in brewing history, the Volstead Act, which clarified the definition of “intoxicating liquors” (anything over 0.5%) in the Eighteenth Amendment, is passed by the United States Congress, thus overriding a veto from President Wilson. The Act prohibited the production, selling, and transportation of these alcoholic beverages in the United States, and allowed local authorities to enforce the law and punish offenders. Alcohol was now outlawed within the United States, thus beginning the era now known as “Prohibition.” Just like the lawmakers predicted, Americans never drank again. I mean, come on – it was against the law...right?

1927 – Ontario passes the Liquor Control Act, thus effectively repealing a decade-old prohibition in the province. Prohibition in Ontario was nowhere near as strict as in the United States; wine was exempt from the law, and breweries could still produce beer for export. As a compromise with temperance folks, the government established the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, to provide a more regulated means to sell alcoholic beverages.

5 December 1933 – After witnessing a decade of rampant crime and bootlegging (thus paving the way for a terrific film starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery), lawmakers in the United States realized that Prohibition was not working. In Utah (of all places), the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified on this date, thus providing enough state consensus to pass the Amendment. Alcoholic beverages could now be freely produced, shipped and consumed in the United States, but individual states could choose to continue prohibition as they saw fit. As President FDR famously declared: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Amen, brother.

1973 – In an unprovoked attack on the good forces of “flavour”, Miller Lite becomes the first brand of light beer to be rigorously promoted across the United States. By the early 1990s, light beer becomes the best-selling beer style in the United States (but not Canada!).

14 October 1978 – Thus solidifying his reputation as the greatest and most illustrious of all United States Presidents, Jimmy Carter ratified H.R. 1337 (not 'leet', you Xbox Online idiots), which legalized home brewing and exempted it from taxation. Thanks to a mistake in the

Pictured: Jimmy Carter.

Twenty-First Amendment, only wine could be produced at home or in small batches (they actually forgot to write the words “...and beer”). Once the law came into effect in February of 1979, Americans could begin experimenting with brewing techniques in their own home, thus initiating the craft- and micro-brewing revolution. There are now over 1300 recognized craft brewers in the United States, which are producing world-class brews in a variety of unique styles. Canadians were allowed to produce beer in their homes (without asking permission from the government – how Canadian is that?) in 1985, and a similar revolution followed suit.

1984 – Most major Canadian brewers abandon the “stubby” bottle in favour of the American, long-necked style. Despite a national outcry, Canadians soon got over it and drank their damned beer. Every once in a while, individual breweries (at their own expense) produce a nostalgic brew in the stubby bottle (Brick’s Red Cap being a good local example), but the adoption of the long-necked bottle is nearly total across Canada.

18 December 1984 – Brick Brewing Company of Waterloo produces its first kegs of beer, making it Ontario’s first craft brewery. The brewery has struggled of late, ever since they sued their own founder and later got sued (twice) by Labatt over their Red Baron and Red Baron with Lime branding. That, and most of their beers are mediocre at best. Just sayin'.

June 1995 – Labatt, Canada’s largest brewery, is bought by Interbrew, now InBev, the world’s largest brewing megacompany. In addition to Labatt, InBev also produces Stella Artois, Keith’s, Becks, Budweiser, Hoegaarden, Michelob, and over 200 others. Labatt's taste is not affected.

November 2009 – Matt’s Beer Den is launched. And there was much rejoicing.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Wherein Matt Waxes Poetic About British Ales for a Page or Two.

Beer: Broadside Strong Original
Brewery: Adnams (Suffolk)
Type: Strong Pale Ale
ABV: 6.3%

On, my beer-reviewing website of choice, the web designers ask you under your 'profile' settings identify your favourite style of beer. This, to a beer geek, is tantamount to asking a person point blank what their favorite movie or song is. You might get an immediate answer, but if you allow them to think about it for too long, they'll second-guess themselves after dozens of other potential 'favorite' candidates glide through their cerebellum. It's damned frustrating really, and the same goes with beer. I can safely say that I can drink pretty much any style of beer, and although I enjoy certain variations a little more than others, picking a favorite is a tough job. On the website, I went with my gut reaction, which was English porter, but depending on the situation, I might specifically crave a Belgian Wit, an American IPA or a Russian Stout.

It's tough to settle on a favorite, but I certainly must say, English ales are awesome. Not only are they rich in malty, fruity goodness, they also make feel like I'm having a "proper" pint in my "local." In other words, they taste like beer should taste like, and that suits me just fine.

"They say that John Bull is a bad mother-..."

Here is another fine example of England's fine ale-y output.
First of all, look at the bottle. I mean, really look at it. It looks like a friggin shell casing from the First World War!

It also has a frigate on the front.

It also is named after a naval cannon-firing tactic.

The brewery is also named in honour of a massive naval battle against the Dutch Empire that happened just outside the brewery in 1672!

This beer could only get more manly if it had a picture of Tom Selleck on the front.

But, as is the message from every children's film ever produced, it's what's on the inside that counts - even if the outside is shaped like a fucking bullet.

Broadside (great name...) pours a rich, dark ruby colour, leaving about an inch of white head. It stuck around for a while in a thin layer, and as you can almost see in the image there, it leaves a nice, spidery lacing effect. Very nice.

The smell is not potent; in fact it only comes about after the brew is allowed to warm up a trifle, but it's pretty standard fare for a British ale: lightly roasted malts, nuts, bread and biscuits, and with a mild fruit flavour cutting through (apple). There's a bit of yeast in there as well.

The taste is simply terrific. Much like the nose, only more complex and satisfying. In addition to roasted malt and bread, I also get a great combination of spices and herbs, which give the beer a certain fruit characteristic. Plums, cherries and apples combine with a puckery bitterness to produce a satisfying finish. I can detect a bit of alcohol (after all, the beer is over 6%), but it doesn't interfere with the brew's balance. Very smooth.

The mouthfeel is a little bit syrupy, but still terrific. The carbonation is about right for the style.

All in all, a terrific English ale. Wonderfully complex, great for sipping or for drinking in a session - although the alcohol content will creep up on you. Definitely worth picking up if you're into English ales, and certainly not a bad introduction either. Great stuff! (Grade: A)

You Can't Spell Czechoslovakia without Slovakia!

Beer: Zlaty Bazant (Golden Pheasant)
Brewery: Pivovar Zlaty Bazant (Slovakia)
Type: Pilsner
ABV: 5%

The first in my series of "difficult to pronounce" beers!

It's been 16 years since Slovakia left the supergroup Czechoslovakia to pursue a solo career, and so far, they've been doing pretty okay!

Er, that is to say, I guess so.

Truth be told, I don't really know a whole lot about Slovakia. I know they have a decent hockey team, their football team is in the World Cup, and that their name sounds suspiciously like Slovenia, thus giving American geography students all the more reason to stress out. I also know that they probably have a love-hate relationship with the Czechs. Like Oates, Slovakia continues to play second-fiddle to the Hall that is the Czech Republic. (I always kind of liked Oates...) Czech beer continues to be rated as among the world's best (they are, of course, home of the "pilsner", first brewed in the city of Pils by Josef Groll in 1842), but whither Slovakian beer?

Let's find out with the first of many Slovakian beers on Matt's Slovakian Beer Tour 2009!

Actually, the LCBO only carries one.

Actually, it's not that great.

Golden Pheasant is a typical Czech-style pilsner, which is characterized by being clear, golden, and well-hopped. You can probably find it with ease at your nearest LCBO - it's

usually found near some other reasonably-priced Eastern European lagers, except this one is pronounceable.

It pours a nice, clear golden, without much sign of visible carbonation. A fair-sized head results, which hangs around for a few minutes. Pretty good, I'd say. A bit of lacing, but not much.

The smell is typical for the pilsner style. Hops, straw and bread. Some people find the straw (or hay or barley, whatever your poison) nose a bit off-putting, but that's what pilsners tend to smell like. Nothing spectacular.

The taste is also decent. Fairly hoppy up front, some malts and spiciness near the back. To its credit, Golden Pheasant is surprisingly smooth, and certainly goes down easy. I can see myself drinking a few of these on a hot day.

So why did I initially say "not that great"? Cause it ain't. It does what most pilsners set out to do: it's hoppy, crisp, and refreshing. But holy crap, is it boring! Golden Pheasant is not a beer I particularly enjoyed sipping; it's meant to be consumed when you need a beer, dammit! I'm sure if the weather is hot, this beer will go down well, because that's what it's designed for.

But there are many other pilsners out there that do the job better, whether it be Czech classics like Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, or more local fare like Prima Pils and Steam Whistle. So is it a bad beer? No. Is it worth your time? Probably not. (Grade: C+)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Know Your Beer, Volume One: A Paean to Lacing, or Rinse Your Damn Glass!

Some of you have probably noticed a particular term I use in my reviews - 'lacing'. It's always mentioned as part of my 'appearance' section of the review. So what is lacing anyway?

This. This is lacing.
Lacing is simply the residual effects of having good quality head. You heard me. Get your funnies out now, because I'm going to be saying 'head' in increasingly double-entendry ways from now on. Or don't get your funnies out; I don't care.

When a beer is well made, having a full body and a good balance of the proper ingredients (hops and yeast in particular), it can retain its head for most of the time it takes to drink the pint. Think of an Irish stout, like Guinness. If you've ever had Guinness on tap (and even sometimes in a can), there is almost always a thick, creamy head that sits respendently on top of the body and remains throughout the pint. Even as you're finishing, there's usually a thin layer of foam hanging around to the bitter end. Whenever you take a sip, some of the head sticks to the side of the glass in a reaction scientists refer to as "science". As you work your way through the beer, more and more head sticks to the glass, sometimes cascading in sheets, other times patchy like sea foam. The criss-crossy effect on a glass is known as lacing, and for beer geeks like me, it's very important.

Like I said before, a thick head is a good sign (*but not an essential sign!*) of a well-made beer. Longer lasting heads mean more lacing. Having lacing on your glass can also have the effect of giving your beer a creamier quality, guaranteeing that each sip will include a little bit of head. Poorer quality brews, like your standard macro lagery fare (Canadian and Budweiser) are usually thinner, and not up to snuff. Their heads having disappeared within about 30 seconds, they just sort of sit there in the glass, looking quite a bit like pee. Alcoholic pee, but pee nonetheless. In some ways, lacing is really just an aesthetic thing: it's a thing of beauty to drink a pint that produces sheets of lacing up and down the glass.

However, not all brews produce good lacing, whether it be their style (pilsners are tough to get good lacing going) or their internal chemistry, and that's okay too. Hence my asterisked disclaimer above. Indeed, just because your beer doesn't have head doesn't mean its a poorly made beer. For example, Coopers Sparkling Ale, a pale ale from Australia, didn't produce a lot of head, which might be a result of the beer having (deliberate) residual yeast sediment in the bottle. It was a tasty beer, but it had nearly no head to speak of.

There is another reason why a particular beer doesn't produce head/lacing, and that's entirely yours or the bartender's fault. A poorly washed or rinsed glass impedes the ability for head to stick to the side of the glass, again the result of "science". You're not getting any lacing because there's too much crap on the glass (usually dishsoap or dust), and thus you're missing out on the lacing experience needlessly. (FUN FACT: ever poured a beer and noticed a lot of carbonated bubbles leaving from one particular area of the glass? This means that your glass isn't completely washed, and whatever is stuck to the glass is reacting with the beer to produce excess carbonation at that point. Neat!) Therefore, whenever I work at the bar, I always try to ensure that every glass is well-rinsed with our nifty glass-rinsing device before pouring, and I always do the same at home. It really makes a difference.

So, to recap: Lacing is always a good thing, but not having lacing isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some beers just won't produce the lacing effect. But lacing comes from two sources, so keep up your end of the bargain by keeping your glassware clean and rinsed. Like I always say, you can never rinse your glass too much!

Limited Time Offer!

Beer: Margriet
Type: Belgian Pale Ale
Brewery: Brouwerij Het Anker

One of the great joys of being a craft-brew enthusiast is when, every so often, brewers experiment by producing a limited release beer, whether it be a seasonal ale or just a new variation of a particular style. Not only do these limited releases often result in some exciting or intriguing tasting sessions, they also add a certain quality of 'rareness' that makes beer hunting similar in a way to comic book- or action figure- collecting. Of course, the obvious drawback is that most of these one-off brews will not be brewed again; if you particularly enjoyed the brew, the separation can be traumatic. Only rarely do these brews make their way into regular rotation; the demand has to be justified. So drink 'em while they got 'em folks, cause supplies are limited.

Margriet is one of those beers. You've probably seen it in the liquor store recently; it's very recognisable, it's label sporting what looks to be a Vermeer portrait. How European...

It runs for about two bucks a bottle, and I have to say, it is damned worth it. It's essentially a variation of their own blonde ale (which is not usually available at any liquor or beer store in Ontario), but with some different flavours in the mix.

I poured this one into a chalice glass. Easily one of the best-looking bottle pours I've had in a while. The colour is a opaque light golden, and it leaves a thick, foamy head that simply won't go away. Terrific lacing right up the glass. Reminded very much of Duvel.

Smell is slightly yeasty with a bit of fruit and a faint note of alcohol esters. The taste is a lively blend of yeast, citrus (lemon), pear, nectarine and coriander with a slight bubble gum kick. There's loads going on here. The finish is dry and satisfying. Mouthfeel is very carbonated, yet creamy thanks to the (still thick!) head. Dry, but doesn't stick to the palate.

One of the best BPA's I've had in recent year. It's truly a shame that Margriet will only be available for a little while longer before it's done. (Hence the tissues in the pic...) I certainly will be out to snap up a few more bottles, because at the price, it's one of the best brews available at the LCBO right now! Hope you get a chance to try it.  (Grade: A)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Beers that make you go 'huh?'

"Overall, I would rate it a C+. OK, not great." - Lrrr, from Futurama
Beer: Heritage Premium Lager
Brewery: Heritage Brewing Ltd. (Ottawa)
Type: pale lager
Served in: stubby bottle

Sometimes, when you drink a beer that you know you'll never drink again, you can identify exactly what it is about it that rubbed you the wrong way. Other times, you can drink an entire beer, know you'll never purchase it again, and still not know why. From this point, reviewing the beer is like investigating a crime scene; you analyze the hell out of the situation, approaching the case from all possible angles, hoping to identify the culprit.

This is one of those cases.

(*Loud, scene-breaking noise from Law and Order)

One of my favourite sections in the LCBO is what I call the 'Island of Misfit Beers', that area near the back devoted to single bottles or cans that have been left behind. I always hate when people take one bottle from a 6 pack, claim they 'found it' all by its lonesome, and leave behind a 6pack with a missing beer. However, once the crime has been committed, like a vulture, I have no qualms with picking at the remaining carcass. This is great when you want to try a bottled beer, but don't want to commit to the whole 6 pack, should you not like it. The LCBO has been getting better at identifying these beers so it doesn't piss off the clerk, which is a big plus. This section is where I've picked up many a mediocre brew, including this one from Ottawa. Let's begin!

Hehe. Stubby.

Moving right along, Heritage pours a deep golden colour, and leaves one hell of a lot of head. Seriously, just look at it. This picture was taken a full 6 minutes after I poured it out, and it was still there. It finally collapsed after a few more minutes, but still left a thin layer and a bit of lacing. Big points for appearance.

The smell is where my relationship with this beer first goes off the rails. The dominant smell here, for me, is lemon, which is common for certain varieties of hops. However, lingering in the back is this weird skunkiness that I couldn't quite figure out. The bottle is dark, so it's not light pollution. Finally I identified it: maltiness that is either burnt or past its prime - not a good sign. Still, it's not altogether repulsive, but all is not well with this beer.

The taste is similar to the smell: a bit of maltiness up front that, again, tastes a bit off, followed by an overpowering, puckery lemon-pepper flavour that sticks with you for a while. Again, it's not unpleasant, but it's just not doing it for me. Something feels wrong with this beer, whether it's past its prime or what, I can't tell. I think there's a metallic taste to the finish, which is probably a result of unclean lines/vats at the brewery.

The mouthfeel is very carbonated. Holy crap, I've never burped this much in my life after having a beer. Even near the end, I'm still letting 'em rip. Leaves kind of chalky and dry taste in my mouth.

With so much potential after pouring this beer, the result was disappointing, which is surprising given the number of positive aspects of the brew. What Heritage Lager feels like is a beer that's just not quite there; it has some of the better characteristics of a flavourful lager, but they're not working together harmoniously. I might try this one again - maybe if I visit the brewery itself and try a fresh draught of it, I might like it - but at the end of the day, it's not something I'd pick up again, nor would I recommend it to others. Hopefully, Heritage can pull up its socks and figure out what's going on, because I hate to see an Ontario micro struggle for reasons that might be completely fixable. (Grade: C+)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas Time is Here...

Beer: Bah Humbug! Christmas Cheer.
Brewery: Wychwood
Type: Winter Warmer (pale ale)
ABV: 5%

Well, it's a month until Christmas. I'm now officially done bitching about how early the Christmas season comes around, and can now finally begin embracing the spirit of the season. And by embracing, I mean drinking. And by spirit of the season, I mean beer. So, to tip off the beginning of the yuletide merriment, it's time to crack open my first Winter Warmer of the season!

Winter Warmers (aka, Christmas Brews) are, like the fall seasonals, only brewed for consumption in the winter months. Usually warmers are pale ales or bitters, and are a little stronger alcohol-wise. I guess brewers figure that, whether it be the cold temperature or the stresses associated with Christmas, more liquor is better. I applaud their sound, scientific reasoning. Not always, but more often than not, brewers will add spices to their brews, usually cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, to give the beer a Christmassy feel. Like all seasonals, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The tradition of adding spices to beer hearkens back to the old traditional holiday beverage of 'wassail' - a spicy, fruity alcoholic punch (cider) served at Christmas or yule gatherings, and given out to revelers going door to door, who wish well to those who laboured for a good harvest. Hence the term 'wassailing' for carollers, as in "Here we come a-wassailing / among the leaves so green!"

My first winter warmer of the year is an old favorite, Bah Humbug! by Wychwood. Like other Wychwood brews (see my previous post on Black Wych stout), Bah Humbug utilizes wonderful labelling to entice the consumer. The bottle could practically be a Christmas decoration in and of itself, with its image of a frightened Ebenezer Scrooge defiantly searching his home for the ghost of Jacob Marley, and with holly leaves garnishing the neck. Bah Humbug! is about average for the ABV, sitting pretty at 5%. It pours a copper-ruby hue, and leaves about an inch of head that dissolves into a ring around the glass (which, in my case, is a Wychwood branded ale glass).

The smell is not very potent at first, but like many spiced brews, allowing the beer to warm up releases all sorts of wonderful scents, which in this case include: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, chocolate, ginger and biscuits. Really puts you into a Christmas mood.

The taste is about the same, but the flavours are a bit more subtle than in the nose. Most of them hit you near the finish, with cinnamon and chocolate leading the pack. The finish is dry, with a bit of a clove kick. There's a little bit of tinniness to the brew, but overall, the taste is good.

Mouthfeel is a bit thin; probably could have done with some meatier fare, but if I'm planning on drinking many of these in a session (which I plan to), it's less heavy on the stomach.

All in all, a solid winter beer, and a good example of the style. If you're looking for a brew to accompany your holiday plans, whether it be decorating the tree or sitting around the fire on Christmas Eve, Bah Humbug! will do the trick! (Grade: B+)

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Power of the Label

"I like my humping like I like my martinis. Dryyyyy...." (Gandhi, Clone High)

Beer: Black Wych Spell-Binding Stout
Brewery: Wychwood, Oxfordshire
Type: Dry English Stout
Animated TV references aside, it's time to dive once again into the wonderful world of season-oriented brews. Next on the agenda is Black Wych, an English stout from one of my favourite brewers, Wychwood of Oxfordshire. Not only does Wychwood produce some impressive, full-flavoured brews, they also make wonderful use of the power of bottle and label design to give their product a truly unique feel. Take Black Wych for example:

Wychwood bottles are certainly different from most available in Canada. In this case, Black Wych bottles have little raised images of witches around the bottle, just above the main label. Although making the bottle part of the marketing scheme can be very expensive to the brewer (when empties are sorted out at the beer store, a brewer is less likely to receive new bottles to be reused if they are this brewery-specific, so they'll have to make more), it demonstrates fidelity with their brand and to their consumers, who will appreciate the added effort to make their beer drinking a more complete experience. Label design is another way to set yourself apart from other brewers, although it can be a bit risky. While it's common for brewers to produce beer labels using local art, innovative graphic design and through appealing to the brew's heritage, the result can backfire dramatically, making the design look gimmicky or unpleasant (anyone remember Red Dog Ale?). In the case of Wychwood, I feel their design department is doing a great job; their brews always look attractive, exciting and different from other brewers in a positive way. For this brew, Black Wych, the design is that of a sultry young witch, who entices us to sample the brew while displaying a frog for what I believe to be nefarious purposes. I wasn't planning on picking this one up, but the bottle certainly drew me in. You win this round, Wychwood.

As for the beer itself, Black Wych pours a very deep brown (nearly black) and leaves a thin, tan head. The head dissolves into a thin ring around the glass, which lasts throughout the sampling. There's a little bit of lacing around the glass, too.

The smell is strong, but not terribly complex. Roasted nuts, a bit of caramel and coffee. Possibly a bit of (very) dark chocolate, but that's about it. Becomes stronger as the temperature of the beer warms up. The smell is typical for this type of stout.

The taste is certainly intriguing: starts off somewhat sweet, with the nuts and caramel taking over. But just as suddenly as the sweetness hits you, the dry, bitterness comes through in spades. The finish is very long and dry, with the dominant flavour mostly of bitter coffee. Good, but man is this stuff dry. The texture is not particularly creamy, like Guinness is, but a bit thinner, since this bottle doesn't rely on nitro technology (those little widgets in Guinness cans that release the gas).

I did enjoy this stout, but its dryness prevented me from having more than one or two in a session. I really feel like my palate needs a break with something sweeter or crisper after finishing my pint. However, if you like particularly dry stouts, as I do, give this one a go. Definitely a great addition to a Halloween drinking lineup. I mean really, who can resist the temptations of a sexy witch?

Don't lie. You can't either. (Grade: B)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It's the Great Pumpkin (Beer), Charlie Brown!

Well, fall is upon us. Well, actually, that's a lie; it's already snowed here, and most of the fall foliage has abandoned their posts, so we're really into the dregs of fall. Liquor is really the only cure the fall blahs (save, perhaps, for straightening up and flying right. Like hell that'll happen), so it's time to delve into the wonderful selection of seasonal beers our province has to offer!

Seasonal beers (i.e., brews only produced at a specific time of year, usually with a specific purpose in mind and to utilize seasonal ingredients) are awesome! The changing of the seasons provide a great opportunity for the brewer to really experiment with his craft, to try new ingredients and new methods to see what works and what doesn't. When you drink them, it's something special, because you know it's something you can only try a few times a year, like Christmas baking, and will appreciate it all the more when you do. The fall season usually provides a spate of harvest offerings, using typical Thanksgiving foods like apples and pumpkins, to produce hearty, spicy fare. When they get it right, the taste is best summed up "it tastes like fall"! The nose of the beer becomes like a fall kitchen, with a smorgasbord of spices and fruits. When it doesn't work, just get fermented pumpkin juice, which benefits no one.

So, fresh after a soul-crushingly long drive on the 401, I decided to get the season rolling with a truly local offering: Highballer Pumpkin Ale from Grand River Brewing in Cambridge. We used to have this on tap last year at the Grad House, and I seem to remember liking it. Like the scientific method demands, repeat experiments are key to success,

Poured this one into an ale glass (your typical, run of the mill short and squat beer glass). Colour is sort of an off orange. Only leaves a little bit of head, however, which doesn't bode well.

The smell is simply terrific. It's like pumpkin pie, I can detect fresh pumpkin, spices and the crust itself.

The taste is not too far off. In addition to fresh pumpkin (and not Jolly Rancher Pumpkin), I get cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and other spices. The finish is very smooth and bready like a pie crust. Yet somehow, the malty base of the ale is enough to ensure that the taste is that of beer, and not pumpkin pie drink. Everything just sort here.

About the only thing that does this beer in is the taste itself. To be honest, how often do I really want to drink pumpkin pie beer, as good as they can be? Probably only once or twice, tops. But that's the beauty about seasonals; they're brewed in small batches and are specifically designed to be consumed only during one time of year. Brewers stop selling them after the season is over, leaving us with (hopefully) fond memories and anticipation for next years' offering.

I certainly recommend you give this offering from one of Ontario's best truly craft brewers a try; it may not be what you're looking for, but it's well worth sampling just to experience how a good seasonal beer can taste. (Grade: A-)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

First Review!

Beer: Corne du Diable
Brewery: Dieu du Ciel (Montreal)
Type: India Pale Ale (IPA)
Serving Style: 341ml bottle

I've been excited to try out a beer from Dieu du Ciel for some time, especially after hearing rave reviews from friends in Montreal, so when the LCBO (finally) brought in a few bottles, I had to snap a few up. Dieu du Ciel (God in Heavens!) has won numerous awards for its line of brews, and have a superb reputation among the online community. Also, as a side note, their bottle design is very attractive, using art and design by local artist Yannich Brosseau.
Unfortunately, given the way craft brews tend to be priced at the LCBO, this one cost about $3 a bottle (only available in singles), so it's a bit expensive.

Appearance: Corne du Diable (Devil's Horn) pours a very nice dark amber, and leaves about a one cm thick white head. Lots of lacing up and down the glass, which is a good sign.
Smell: Very hoppy, with some notes of citrus and a bit of caramel sweetness near the end.

Taste: Like most real IPAs (I'm looking at you, Alexander Keith's!), this brew is incredibly hoppy and bitter. The idea behind the IPA style was that in order for the beer to survive the trip to colonial workers in India and elsewhere, the beer had to be extra flavourful and stronger in alcohol. The result is a sharper, stronger pale ale, which became increasingly popular after American and Canadian craft brewers picked up the style some years back. Corne du Diable is no exception, as it is very bitter and sharp, particularly near the finish. A bit of citrus (grapefruit for me) often is a result of a well-hopped ale. Tasty, but strong.

The Verdict: If you like IPAs and strong ales, as I do, Dieu du Ciel is a good pick up, and worth a try. But I certainly can't see myself drinking too many of these in one evening (which is probably a good thing), and at the price point, it's not something I'll purchase too often. However, if I'm in Quebec and the mood hits be, Corne du Diable is certainly a solid IPA and a fine effort. Can't wait to try more from Dieu du Ciel! (Grade = B+)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


As Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter; not the guy who's making videos with Mssr's Landis and Price in purgatory right now) once put it, "Like wine, beer is grown - it is an agricultural product. Perhaps the first known to civilization." Beer is an integral aspect of human culture, and has been so for millennia. In ancient Sumeria, for a people to be considered a 'civilization', one of the prerequisites was the ability for that society to produce beer, which of course requires a stratisfied system of labour in which some of the grains, fresh water and labour was able to be spared for brewing purposes. Our skill at producing beer developed alongside the evolution of complex human societies; Ancient Egyptians possessed the brewing technology to produce at least seven different varieties of beer (for a society so obsessed with the afterlife, that's pretty impressive!). The modern brewing industry goes back at least 1000 years to medieval Germany, with the monestary brewers of Weihenstephan given an imperial licence to produce beer in 1040 CE, which they continue to do so to this day. Many of today's world-renowned Trappist and Abbey brewers owe their heritage to hundreds of years of brewing tradition. Because of this age-old tradition, beer is produced on every continent (I'm sure Antarctica is working on it - what the hell else are they going to do there? Science?) and in most countries that permit it, there are several active brewers producing in an increasingly competitive market.

In short, beer is awesome!

I myself have become a beer nerd, and it feels so right! There are so many different styles and variations of beer to try, and even though the task is impossible, it is better to have loved and drank to have never drank at all. My weekly trips to the LCBO become adventures to discover new brews and new approaches to time-tested techniques. Like the explorers of old, there is a real desire in me to see new horizons; a trip to the beer store without coming home with a new brew is an (almost) wasted trip. There's something about the uniqueness of beer that, for those entranced by its beauty, there is a real need to document it: to describe it and share its quality with everyone around you. In the spring of 2009, I started writing "Matt's Beer Journal", a little record to myself of all the new brews I had sampled, what I liked and disliked about each beer, and whether it was worthwhile purchasing that beer again. Not only was this log a great way to keep track of the beers I had tried, it also became a sort of checklist; like my parents with their Peterson Bird Book, it was my goal to find, and try, every single beer I could find! After a few months of plying my skills at interpreting the ways of reviewing beer, I moved on to the internet; in September of 2009, I joined, which reviews pretty much every beer under the sun (to put it this way, if it's a beer, it's been reviewed on this site at least once!). It has been wonderful sharing my love of beer with others on the internet, comparing notes on different brews and discussing the greater world of beer production and sales.

Now, the time has come to blog.

Matt's Beer Den is a place where those who love beer (and those who as of yet only have a mild crush with beer) can talk about beer, learn about different styles of beer, and get lost in my witty and imaginitive ways of describing beer. It's a work in progress, and if you'll bear with me, hopefully I'll figure out a system for reviewing beer that makes sense to everyone and lets people join in the fun. The nice thing about sampling beer is, even if nobody is around to listen, at least you've had a chance to try something new, and maybe discover a new favourite (or something to avoid like the plague - it goes both ways...). 'Matt's Beer of the Week' will be a tribute to the hidden gems of the bar and liquor store scene, while 'Head to Head' will pit two different brews of the same type against each other in sweet, malty competition. There will be rants and cursing, guides and warnings. If I come up with any new ideas, I'll give em a go!

Here's to great beers and great times. Cheers, slainte, skol, here's to us and those like us!