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!