Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Great Mediocre Beer Experiment, Volume I: "Enter the Hipster"

It's a point of contention for some people (read: the most important thing ever) whether Canadian beer is better than American beer. It's a stupid argument, really; just part of the Great White North's pissing contest with its louder, wackier, older brother.

Pictured: America.

We have such a hilarious inferiority complex it's almost cute. We have to be better than Americans at some things, and when any of those some things are called into question, we get pissy and make loud, mindless commercials about it. After men's hockey, women's hockey, and junior hockey, beer is our number-one source of Canadian pride. (Also, we're bigger. And way better in bed. Seriously, ask Sweden.) It's truly amazing; ask almost any Canadian about American beer, and you'll usually get a response peppered with phrases like "hot dog water", "toilet water" or "those yankee pussies." It's so unbelievably stupid how entrenched Canadians are about the quality of American beer, which completely explains why the number one selling beer in Canada last year was Budweiser.
Wait, what?

That's right: fucking Budweiser is the top selling beer in the Great White North; Molson is number two. Coors and Bud Light aren't too far off the map. As we go around bragging about the quality of Canadian beer, we're not-so-secretly drinking our mortal enemy's swill by the bucket load. Molson and Labatts have got patriotism so intrinsically linked with beer sales that we automatically respond to the beer question with "duh...Canadian Beer, Eh?", but our tastes (or lack thereof) are different. The fact of the matter is this: we drink macro lagers based on what the hot, big-boobed commercials tell us to do, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. We drink Budweiser because the hot cheerleaders and the NFL want us to. We drink Blue Lite because some guy in a blue pantsuit guarantees us sexy action after he solves some stupid dilemma in a mildly amusing fashion. We drink Molson because if we don't, the ghost of Don Cherry and the covert operatives of the CBC demand that we do.

"You know who drinks good beer? Bobby Orr."

Of course I know full well that the beers we use to decide the Cold War of Beer are pretty much all the same. In fact, they're all the same style of beer (pale lager, or American adjunct lager), and are owned my multinational corporations, often with increasingly diminishing connections to their country of origin. In other words, these are the name brands, or as they are sometimes derisively referred to in the beer community, "macro lagers." Same shit, different bucket. Sometimes you'll see the term "adjunct lager" to describe them. "Adjunct", in this case, means that the beer is light, fizzy, crisp, and probably made with rice or corn, rather than barley or wheat, in order to cut costs. (Fun fact!: Budweiser, not Uncle Ben's, is the largest consumer of rice in the United States. Eww.) Cheap, bland lager for the masses, and a truly a terrible way of determining brewing pride. Seriously, Belgians and Germans piss this stuff out.

I personally feel that if American and Canadian crafts and micros could bring their products to the table, Canadians would realize full-well that Americans do not suck at brewing. They are in fact quite good at it, and they have significant advantages: there's more people to sell to, and there's more people to brew it. If you check out, one of the web's largest beer review websites, you'll find under their "Best of BA" section that there are a lot of American brews in the site's top 100. Granted, a great deal of the website's users are Americans, but you'll still find incredibly high reviews from folks in Europe, Australia and Canada, all in praise of these American brews. (Don't worry, there's quite a few Canadian brews on the list too). We're completely basing our "American Beer Sucks" mentality on their big name brews, which isn't really fair, considering how much a lot of us despise the Canadian big name stuff. It's like comparing their kick to the gut with our kick to the head. Nobody's winning here.

But craft brews are going to have to go by the wayside for a moment, because the battle truly comes down to the forces of General Labatt and Field Marshall von Pabst. In the red trunks, Freddie Molson; in the silver trunks, Charlie "The Kid" Coors. The heavy hitters. El beeros grandes. And so, it is with great pleasure that I announce the beginning of Matt's Great Mediocre Beer Experiment, a month-long project in which I pit the continent's finest (read: highest selling) brews against one another in a no-holds barred competition!! The rules will be like the Westminister Dog Show: I'll get an initial look at each entry, check out its coat and muscle structure, make sure it doesn't poop on the stage, and then try them all at once to determine which brew reigns...average! Just like the dog show, only with more drinking. Actually, the way I drink, it's about the same. No light beers though; my tastebuds can only handle so much mediocrity. I'll only be drinking from cans, if I can manage it, just to keep things level.
Here are the heavy hitters!

Molson Canadian
Labatt Blue

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Old Milwaukee

First on the agenda, because it went on sale, we start with the Hipster's Choice (later renamed PBR)!

Beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon
Brewery: Pabst (Chicago, IL)
Type: pale lager
ABV: 4.8%

As you can see, this one pours like a "beer". It's golden, it's clear, it's fizzy. I'm amazed I was able to catch any of the head on camera, because it dissolved fairly quickly to a thin rink. Pretty much no lacing, which I can't say I didn't expect.
The nose is corn meal, a bit of light hoppage, and perhaps maltiness, but it's hard to tell. You can see where I'm going here.

The taste is surprisingly (read: not surprisingly) inoffensive. It's extremely light, crisp, certainly refreshing. Corn meal, hops and water. Boring though it might be, there's a light, airy character to this brew that makes it quite drinkable. You know how some people claim they drink light beer because they want something crisp and refreshing, whether it be after practice or on the beach? This one does a pretty good job in that respect, and it doesn't have the "light" attached to it that so often leads to vicious taunting and abuse from your fellow drinkers.

Mouthfeel is, of course, thin and watery. The brew is very well carbonated. Like a beer-spritzer, I guess you could say.

Like I said earlier, this beer isn't that bad. I'm very eager to see how it'll stand up to Canadian and other brews of that kind, but as far as I'm concerned, I could drink this one if need be. It's cheap, it's boring, it's a beer-like product. And it isn't skunky. I'll delay giving this one a proper grade score until I'm done the bunch, but generally PBR passes the test.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avoid the Noid. Also this beer.

Beer: Wells IPA
Brewery: Wells and Young's (Bedford, England)
Type: "IPA"
ABV: 5%

Maybe my palate is getting more refined, or perhaps I'm just getting more snooty in my years, but I distinctly remember liking this beer last time I had it. It certainly fit the bill of my typical drinking fare in my late undergrad/early master's years - English, IPA, badass logo. In either case, on a recent trip to the LCBO I needed one more can to fill my 8 pack and thought I'd give it another go. Wells and Young's also happens to produce one of my favorite brews of all time - Young's Double Chocolate Stout - so I figured their other stuff should be reasonably good.

I guess memory didn't serve too well.

Wells IPA started off on good footing: it poured a dark amber hue, almost dark ale-ish, but certainly not outside the boundaries of the IPA style. Left a generous head, which had remarkable staying power and left a good amount of lacing.

And that's about all the positives for this beer that I can muster. The nose is unpleasant and off-putting. Very tinny and metallic. I'm very aware that this brew came from a can, is how I'd describe it. Like saplings in the rainforest, the hop character of this brew is overshadowed by the unpleasant tinny canopy of awfulness. Not only is this brew not smelling right, it's not demonstrating any of the usual characteristics of IPAs.

The taste isn't much better. The malts come through very strongly at first, and then it's all tin. Another BeerAdvocate review described the flavor as bloodlike, and I very much agree; you can almost taste the hemoglobin. The finish is metallic and bitter. Very little to speak of in terms of hop character (no usual suspects of tart citrus or spicy resin), and for an IPA, that's a bad thing. Unpleasant, and hard to finish.

A very disappointing brew, and one I certainly will avoid in the future and will caution you to do the same. There are much better IPA's out there, mostly from the States but a few solid Canadian ones, that taste a great deal better (i.e., not like you're drinking a beer after having badly cut your gums). Don't bother on this one, folks. (Grade: D)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ah, the Luftwaffe. The Washington Generals of the History Channel.

Beer: Spitfire Kentish Ale
Brewery: Shepherd Neame (Faversham, Kent)
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 4.5%

It doesn't take much to get me excited about a good English pale ale (see my previous laudatory review on Adnam's Broadside), so I usually have a few kicking around the fridge at any given moment. However, some are on hand more often than not, and sometimes it takes a reminder to bring an old favorite back to the fold. Like hilarious advertizing, for example.

Spitfire is a classic English pale, and one of the biggest sellers of the style in Britain. The brewery has been around for just over 400 years - now, whether that actually means the same brewery has been operational that entire stretch is usually a different matter - so the name is quite well-known, especially since the brewery owns nearly 400 pubs across the south-east of England, and brews a great deal of the nation's imported brands, like Germany's Holsten and Japan's Asahi. So yeah, the name comes up a lot.

For those who aren't geographically inclined, Kent is located in the extreme southeast of England, and is home to the Channel Tunnel (aka, that thing people got stuck in a few weeks back). It's the closest point in England to the continent, and during the Second World War, the county bore the brunt of Germany's aerial attacks during the Blitz. So, in 1990, Shepherd Neame released this brew in honor of the Spitfire fighter jet and their pilots who prevented the German invasion in 1940. As their advertizing campaign indicates, they're damned proud of it, and thoroughly enjoy rubbing it in:

Or this one, which is a little bit more saucy:
Sold, sold, sold.

There's a bunch of other great adverts, definitely worth a google search (Churchill and Goering make the occasional appearance!). A great indicator of the character of the brewery and the county it represents. It also happens to be a pretty fine brew (don't worry, I'm getting to it!)

Spitfire pours a medium amber hue, leaving a thin head that maintains itself as a thin ring throughout the pint. A few flecks of lacing - looks like a pale ale should.

The nose on this brew is fantastic: at first, it's pale malts and caramel, then you detect rye bread, dark fruit and tea leaves. Just terrific. Unfortunately the taste isn't quite as complex and inviting as the nose, but it's still a good brew. The malt and caramel are significantly muted, leaving a strong hoppy bitterness with a herbal, tea-like character. I'd almost classify this as a bitter if the ABV were a bit higher. Fairly well-carbonated, just a touch thinner than I'd like, but it would be great for session drinking - a slightly lower ABV would make this a good one for watching the game, too.

A pretty solid English pale, and one that I'll keep coming back to if I'm in the mood for a more bitter ale. Could have used a bit more complexity, as the bitterness tends to dominate after a while. However, if you feel like sticking it to the Luftwaffe, there's no brew better. (Grade: B+)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In search of summer brews...

Beer: Georgian Bay Dipper
Brewery: Hockley Valley (Orangeville, ON), but also under the "Midland Beer Works" name.
Type: adjunct lager
ABV: 5%

Yes, you read the title right. It's the middle of January, and I'm thinking about summer; then again, what Canadian isn't? Fortunately for us, it's been a fairly mild winter in Waterloo -not excessively cold, and maybe two days of difficult shoveling so far. Two months of winter gone and I'm relatively un-pissed about the whole thing....strange. That, and it's unseasonably warm today (i.e., slightly above freezing), conducive to thoughts of nicer weather, patios and steaks on the barbecue.

Beer is truly a seasonal beverage, a fact I really began to appreciate last summer. Some of my absolute favorite brews are ales, porters and stouts, which are "in season" right about now. There's something about colder temperatures and scarves that bring out the ale love; folks generally crave a rich, full, spicy and strong brew to provide warmth and comfort. My brewing habits have changed accordingly; I drink darker brews almost exclusively now. In the summer, however, the hot temperature puts the emphasis on light, crisp and refreshing brews, which leads to increased demand for pale lagers, pilsners, wheat beers and...*shudder*...light beer. Last summer, I decided to stick with my usual ale favorites - lagers be damned! - and found myself to be quite disappointed. On warmer days, sitting outside on my patio, ales (even lighter ones) just didn't taste right. I found myself actually disinterested in my favorite brews and instead migrated to the pilsner end of the spectrum. Normally, I find pilsners and pale lagers to be rather boring, but in the summer heat, they truly hit the spot.

I henceforth decided to devote myself to a seasonal approach to beer drinkery. Like the no-white after Labour Day rule (I'm still not sure what that's all about), I'm going to keep my fridge stocked with lighter fare in the summer, with only a few exceptions for cooler days and evenings, and embrace the Dark Side in the cooler months. Not as an absolute rule, mind you, but as a general principle. In order to do that, I need to decide which brews to keep on hand in the summer, because on hot days, sometimes I just want a damned beer. No lambics, no trappist ales, no tulip glasses - just an honest beer, drank straight from the bottle, or even from the can.
Therefore, I begin my quest to find pale lagers and pilsners I actually like to prepare for sunny days ahead. After all, I can't drink only Steam Whistle all summer. Variety is the spice of something or other.

I picked up this first entry because of the name. My family cottage is on Georgian Bay, and the Dipper part refers to skinny-dipping. Intrigued, I am. Also, the beer is produced by Hockley, which makes a tremendous dark ale (but a surprisingly dull stout). Might as well go for local.

Pours a surprisingly dark amber, with a thin layer of head, that didn't last too long (not much longer than it took to find the camera, actually). Still, it's a lager, and it's too be expected.

The nose wasn't offensive at all (high praise, I know...). Light malts, a bit of hops, caramel and a slight hint of apples and grape. Better than skunk and urine (read: Molson).

The taste is also inoffensive, and for an adjunct lager, it's surprisingly drinkable (adjunct lager = fizzy, bland lagers for the masses - Pabst, Bud, Schlitz, Blue and Canadian are all considered 'adjuncts'. It's a bit derogatory, but it's honest). Other than a bit of tinniness to the finish, I get most of the flavours I detected in the nose. It's perhaps a bit too sweet for my taste, but otherwise it's certainly a decent brew.

Mouthfeel is thin, with average carbonation. Feels like a typical beer.

Not a bad little brew. It's hard switching abruptly from a steady diet of porters and stouts to a light, sweet lager, but it's going down fairly well. I'll probably want something a bit more bitter and hoppy in the summer, but this one isn't bad to keep on hand. I'll certainly try it again on the patio - everything tastes at least 20% better when you're sitting in the sun and within 15 feet of a barbecue. Except dark beers, of course. (Grade: B-)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A-Number One, Top of the Heap

Beer: Duvel
Brewery: Brouwerij Duvel (Belgium)
Type: Blonde Strong Ale or Belgian Pale Ale
ABV: 8.5%

When people find out that I'm big on beer in a geeky sort of way, I often get asked which beer is my favorite. If picking a favorite style is difficult (see my previous post for more ranting), choosing a favorite beer of all time is absolutely impossible. Not only have I not tried the vast majority of the world's beer (have faith; I'm working on it), but even from the ones I have sampled, it's still an impossible project. As soon as I mention one brew, I think of four others that might qualify. At the very best, I can rattle off a few of my highest-rated brews and hope to appease them; thus, the ones that consistently make this list of immediate recall can, I suppose, be named as one of the 'favorites.' I can safely say that this brew, Duvel, is among them.

Indeed, this review can be pretty much summed up in three words: Drink. This. Beer.

I'm serious. You can make fun of Belgium all you want, but by the very virtue of producing this beer, it can be safely said that Belgians have contributed more than their fair share to the progress of humanity. (Kind of like South Africa has with Charlize Theron, or the United States and barbecued pulled pork). I've had Duvel a few times before, but only in a little stubby bottle. Nevertheless, it was one of those few beers out there that elicited a genuine "wow" from every sip. (Aventinus Eisbock was the same way for me) With some Christmas money, I managed to score one of the last Duvel glass-and-bottle gift sets at the LCBO, and thus I can safely say that 2010 has been a good year so far. I LOVE beer gift sets.

The glass itself is called a 'tulip', which, like a wine or brandy snifter, encourages the nose. It also has the effect of producing some of the most incredible head action. I mean, just look at the picture (sorry, it's really dark in the house and I had to adjust the light settings). The head seen there lasted throughout the entire bottle, including two half-glass refills, which of course meant for some of the finest lacing I've ever seen. Thick, sticky and foamy = awesome. The beer is a slightly opaque golden, with continuous visual carbonation. Spectacular appearance.

The nose is subtle, but wonderful. Apple, honey, light hops, and a bit of yeast. Not very strong, but it doesn't have to be. Gets a bit more noticeable as it warms up, but only slightly.

The taste, simply put, is spectacular. Crisp, slightly dry, with notes of apple, pepper, honey, grain and a bit of pear. Maybe a bit of walnut in the back. Very difficult to detect any alcohol, which is good considering it's nearly 9%. The finish is bitter and peppery, but not overly dry. Mouthfeel is slightly higher than average carbonation, and a bit creamy considering there's still about a half-inch of significant head, and this is after about 20 minutes (there's about 2 pints worth in this bottle).

As per drinkability, I can see myself drinking this every day if I had the means. Truly, this is what beer should look and taste like. I may someday discover that perfect beer, the one that will guide me through the tough times and will be buried with me to be consumed in the afterlife. For right now, Duvel will do splendidly. World-class. (Grade: A+)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Stout: A Style So Nice, I'll Review it Twice

Christmas may be over, but that doesn't mean the sales are! For a limited time only, you get two reviews for the price of one!

(Sorry it's been a while since the last posting: Christmas and a cold bug kind of derailed my reviewing for a couple weeks - hope the holidays were good to you!)

Review the First:

Beer: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
Brewery: Brooklyn Brewery (NY, NY)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 10%

This is my first beer from Brooklyn brewery, one of the very few brewers still operating in New York City proper. Very popular in the northeastern US, but hard to find up here. When I saw it at the LCBO, I snapped up the few bottles (shortly after which, my car battery died and I had to call for a tow, but that's another story). After a rough evening, this was a welcome brew.

Poured an inky black, with just under an inch of khaki-coloured head. Lots of lacing, and the thin layer of head managed to retain for much of the way through. Good stuff.

The smell was certainly 'black': black coffee, dark chocolate, dark roasted malts. Had a good nose to it, easy to identify the flavours, despite fighting the lingering effects of my traditional New Year's cold.

The dark flavours hit me initially, followed by a strong taste of warming alcohol. It's -15 outside, so the liquor is much appreciated. Almost too strong for the brew's own good, but it does the trick. Russian Imperials are a notoriously strong beer style, so they normally pack a whollop.

A thick, viscous, almost chewy mouthfeel, with slightly stingy carbonation.

Pretty happy with this pickup. I'll keep a few of the remaining bottles in the cellar to age for a few months, and we'll see what happens. All in all, a solid offering from Brooklyn (it's their most popular offering at beeradvocate as well); I'm certainly looking forward to sampling some more from this brewer. (Grade: A-)


Beer: St. Peter's Cream Stout
Brewery: St. Peter's (Suffolk)
Type: milk/cream stout
ABV: 6.5%

Milk stouts are typically a bit sweeter than regular dry stouts, and that's because the brewer will often add extra sugars (usually lactose) to the batch to smooth out the flavour. I've frequently passed by St. Peter's bottles in the LCBO, and I'm not sure why I did.

Pours, like most stouts, a nearly black colour, with a little bit of brown near the edges. A thin, tan head, that didn't stick around for very long, leaving only a thin ring. A bit of lacing.

The nose is of the same roasted malts, chocolate and coffee, but a bit more muted than the Brooklyn, probably a result of the added sugars. I get the faintest hint of butter in the nose as well.

The nose belies the somewhat bitter taste to this brew. The chocolate flavour is similar to a 70% or-higher-cocoa chocolate bar, and the coffee taste is quite bold. The creaminess isn't found until the end, but it does the trick; the milk/butter flavour was appreciated after such a bold entry.

The body is a bit thin, but the carbonation is at medium levels, which is about right for a stout of this variety.

All in all, a tasty little stout. Not my favorite of the style, mind you (that honor goes to Young's Double Chocolate Stout, which graces a position in my ultimate top 10 list), but still a very enjoyable drink. The cream flavour eased what could have been an oppressively bitter stout, and made for a satisfying finish. Well worth a pick up. (Grade: B+)