Thursday, April 29, 2010

More Hobbiton Brews

Now for the second and third in my Historic Ales of Scotland pack!

Beer: Alba Scots Pine Ale
Brewery: Williams Brothers (Alloa)
Type: strong gruit
ABV: 7.5%

According to the very helpful brochure, pine ales were popular in Scotland until the mid-19th century, around the time when Britain standardized the ingredients for brewing. Dating back to the time of the Vikings (about 1000 years before Brett Favre), brewers added pine and other evergreen boughs to their vats for flavouring purposes, as well as to "stimulate animal instincts." I guess this means the brew acted an aphrodisiac, because the blurb goes on to say that spruce ales were believed to increase your ability to produce twins. Yikes.

In terms of real health benefits, for those who haven't totally blocked early Canadian history from their memories, you might recall how early French settlers were given spruce tea from the natives as a means to combat scurvy. Apparently, evergreen ales worked in much the same way; explorers, like James Cook, often brought kegs of spruce ale along on their sea voyages to combat the crippling disease and prevent disgusting death. The connection between pine needles and scurvy prevention may not have been evident to 18th and 19th century minds; it may simply have been a case of circumstance that Cook and his cohorts just happened to really like pine-flavored beer. (He would have been better off, however, if he'd brought along some 'Don't Get Killed By Native Hawaiians Stout' as well, but hindsight is 20/20...)

This particular brew utilizes the boughs of the Scots Pine, which as you can see, is a fine looking tree. These sprigs of pine are added to the boiled malted grain for a few hours to flavour the brew. Of course, when I first read this, I assumed that Alba Scots Pine Ale would probably taste a great deal like pine needles and tree sap. Surprisingly, this was not at all the case!

Poured into a chalice glass, as per the website's instructions. I let the bottle sit out for a few minutes to warm up a few degrees to really let the flavours escape. A reddy-amber hue, slightly opaque, and with a thin, patchy head and flecks of lacing. The colour is quite brilliant when held to the light, making for a handsome little brew.

The nose is surprisingly sweet and malty. Again, I was fully expecting the smell of Algonquin Provincial Park to come out of the glass, but thankfully it was not to be. Malt, caramel and berries are the primary odors here. Only lingering in the back are the more earthy, spruce elements. I certainly would have detected "spruce" if I was given a blind test, but it's considerably more subtle than I'd anticipated.

Taste is quite similar to the nose, although the spruce character is a little less timid here. Finishes with an earthy, rich flavour, but it's still under the management of the malt and berry conglomerate. Perhaps a touch of seaweed or resin as well. For a 7.5% ABV, it's pretty difficult to detect the alcohol here, which is a great plus.

The mouthfeel is truly splendid: medium-bodied, with a slightly sticky, creamy finish. A beer you can really gnash your teeth on.

Not what I'd expected, but if I could predict what a new beer would taste like before opening it, what would be the point? A balanced, enjoyable brew, probably not ideal for session drinking but great for a sipper. I confess I'm a little disappointed with the fact that Alba didn't really taste like a "pine beer", but then again, if it did taste like sap, would I really want it? (Grade: B)

Beer: Fraoch Heather Ale
Type: gruit
ABV: 5%

"And we'll all go together,
To pull wild mountain thyme,
All around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?"

First of all, I've got to say, these are some very attractive labels. Apparently, the brewers employed the efforts of local design students to produce these unique labels, and the result is quite impressive. In the case of Fraoch, if you were ever to imagine what an ancient Scottish beer bottle would look like, it would probably be something like this.

This brew is apparently the oldest recipe of the bunch, as heather ale dates back to approximately 2000 years ago. An archaeological site in Western Scotland holds evidence of heather ale from the time of Julius Caesar, which proves that there ain't no party like Scottish gruit party.

Heather can be found in abundance in Scotland; it's low to the ground and light pink to purple when it blooms. Fraoch (FRU-uch) is Scots Gaelic for heather, and has quickly become one of my new favorite words to say. Fruuu-uck. Fru-och. Try it: it's a peck of fun.

Poured into a tall lager glass. The picture doesn't accurately depict the colour, which is actually more of a medium golden hue. The slight opaque character to the brew makes the whole thing look a great deal like liquid honey.

The nose is light, floral and refreshing. In addition to what I surmise are heather flowers, I also detect a bit of honey sweetness, berries and light malts. Initially tastes sweet with notes of heather and honey, but finishes with a malty, peaty bite. Very satisfying. A touch of grassiness and apple to the finish as well. I've got to say it's quite interesting to taste a brew without any hop character. The peat and earthy notes are, like the Grozet, essential to keep the brew grounded. Any sweeter and you'd be pushing into mead territory.

Like a barleywine, Fraoch has a medium-thick body and somewhat low carbonation. Dry and refreshing.

A great brew; unique and enjoyable, worth savoring slowly. I can certainly detect a uniquely Scottish character to Fraoch. Perhaps its the use of peat or bog to give the brew a truly ancient feel. Although it will likely be a while, I'm looking forward to having it again! (Grade: B+) I'm only grading the Fraoch a little higher because I think it met my expectations a little more than the Alba, although both were fine brews.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In Search of The Perfect Hobbiton Beer

Beer: Grozet Gooseberry and Wheat Ale
Brewery: Williams Bros. (Alloa, Scotland)
Type: Gruit
ABV: 5%

One of the few regrets in my life was that I wasn't born a hobbit. Whenever I watch Lord of the Rings (i.e., often), every time Gandalf crests the hill and enters the shire, I'm thinking: I want to live there! First of all, it's filmed in the 'nicest' part of New Zealand, which is kind of like saying the 'nicest' shower scene with Scarlett Johansson. It's absolutely breathtaking; the rolling fields, the rivers, the majestic trees. Once the happy fiddle music kicks in, I'm done for. There's this wonderful, old-English-without-the-plague niceness to the whole scene, and everyone is pretty much having a fantastic time keeping to themselves.

Here's a typical day for a hobbit, which should give you some idea why I'm thinking of joining the hairy-foot team:

- Wake up at a good hour, eat pasties, tarts, treacle and tea.
- breakfast of omelet, raspberry tart, more tea
- nap
- sit outside of your hobbit den, overlooking a verdant countryside and smoke a pipe
- tell the wizard to kindly go fuck himself and his "quest"
- nap
- a lunch of pie, mushrooms, fresh greens, a jug of mead or something with elderberry.
- tend to the garden, which once again happens to be in verdant New Zealand countryside.
- another smoke and a tankard of ale or barley wine. You know, something good from the 'cellar.'
- frolic, perhaps find some Kingsfoil in the woods
- suppertime with sausages and nice crispy bacon
- evening at the pub drinking heartily with all your friends, whilst eyeing that cute hobbit bartender in the low-cut dress.
- smoke a well-earned pipe under the stars
- turn in for the night, comfortable in the fact that you still have eleventy-something more years of this

Also, every once in a while, there's a party, where there's considerably more food, more delightful sounding ale, and all the leaf you can stand. A finer lifestyle I could not ask for.

There's something about the language of old English/Scottish brewing that reminds me of this wonderful image. I mean, who wouldn't want to sit in the shade of a tree with a jug of elderberry or barley wine, a tankard of mead or a snifter of winter wassail? That's why I have a real soft spot for traditional ales and archaic drinking customs. They hearken to an idyllic time where folks kept traditions like lighting yule logs and having summer bonfires and midsummer feasts. It may never have existed, but it's still a lovely place for your mind to wander.

Last weekend, I picked up a four pack of the "Historic Ales From Scotland" series, which just judging from the packaging looked fantastic. These ales, brewed by the Williams Bros. of Alloa, are part of their "crusade to revive the Scottish tradition of brewing ale from malt and heather flowers." Some of these recipes and ingredients date back nearly 2000 years, which is pretty okay with me.

Beers from this era are often referred to as 'gruit', which basically means the brew is flavoured with things other than hops. Hops are a relatively new additive to the brewing process; before their advent, people flavoured their ale with anything they could find - berries, flowers, honey, kelp and so on. Often times, these additives were mildly narcotic or hallucinogenic; this, coupled with the British government's desire to give hop farmers a greater market share, spelled the eventual end of the gruit style. Britain enacted it's own variation of the German Purity Law and clearly delineated the acceptable ingredients for brewing, greatly limiting the variety of flavors available. Fortunately, thanks to brewers like Williams Bros, we can experience the drinking culture of the early Middle Ages once again.
First on the list is Grozet Gooseberry and Wheat Ale.

Grozet is a corruption of the Gaelic "Groseid", which means gooseberry. According to the brochure included in the four-pack, this brew also utilizes bog myrtle and meadowsweet. I have no idea what either of these things are, but they sound amazing.
Grozet pours a lovely golden hue, slightly opaque, and with a thin white head that remains as a thin ring.
The nose is quite an interesting combination of sweet and peat. On the one hand, there's a slight honey and sugar scent, which I probably only could identify as gooseberry because the bottle told me so. I can't really say what gooseberry smells like, but apparently this is it. Contrasting this is a rich peaty or tea-like character that grounds the beer somewhat. It may not sound great, but it actually works quite well, giving the brew a real hearty, days-of-yore feel.

The taste is similar to the nose; it gently begins with honey, malts, sugar and gooseberry, before giving way to that earthy tea finish. No trace of hops, of course, so the bitterness in the peat is greatly appreciated. The gooseberry is, again, not dominant, but arrives in whispers with each sip. The carbonation is low, which I guess can be expected. Medium body, slightly slick.

Very similar to a modern pale ale (on the lightest end of the spectrum), but with enough character unique to the Scottish brewing tradition to warrant attention. Perhaps not the perfect brew for the Shire, but certainly a great brew to knock back on a warm spring day. Since I've only ever seen it in this four-pack, it might be a while before I try it again. Bit of a shame, but all the more reason to pick up a ticket to Scotland.

Looking forward to the rest of the four pack! (Grade: B)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Ring Came Off My Pudding Can!

Beer: Ochakovo - Lager Premium
Brewery: Ochakovo (Moscow)
Type: pale lager
ABV: 4.5%

Despite seeming to be a bit of a beer snob, I actually ask very little of the beers I drink.  Namely:
-I expect them to be somewhat drinkable.
-I expect them to have a bit of alcohol in them.
-I also expect to be able to open the damned thing.

Apparently, the latter novel drinking concept didn't go over well at any of the Ochakovo brewery meetings:

Beer Executive #1: So, we've got to send out premium lager for export to North America. Any thoughts on how we should bottle it?

Beer Executive #2: How about if we put it in an unnecessarily-tall bottle...

BE#1: Right, right. Go on...

BE#2: And then we put our brewery logo on a twist off cap for easy drinking!

BE#3, awakening from stupor: Easy drinking? Fuck that! (takes another long swig from his vodka bottle) We've got to make the West pay for what they've done to Mother Russia. Dosvedanya! Vladimir Putin! (hurls on floor)

BE#2: But our sales will decline!

BE#3: Never! Those stupid bastards will buy our beer because it's foreign; they don't care what's in it! If we really want to clamp some balls, we'll put a ring on the top that's difficult to open! Then they will feel Mother Russia's sting!

BE#2: But we'll piss off the Canadians!

BE#3: Two words: Sidney Crosby.

BE#2: Fuck 'em.

BE#1: Da.

Clearly, this bottle opening design is some sort of cruel, Russian joke. I couldn't make heads or tails of it: do I pull the key up and rip it off, or turn it sidewards and twist it around? There was, of course, a helpful picture diagram to help me figure it out, drawn with all the care and attention to detail of an Ikea instruction manual. So basically, I was fucked.  I ripped the damn ring off and threw it away in disgust, cursing Boris Spassky while I did it. I almost gave up all hope, until I channelled my inner Lyle Lanley and stabbed the bottle with my penknife. The beer was successfully opened; the penknife was immediately promoted to Field Marshall.

Phil Hartman continues to enrich our lives with each passing day...

So, I finally got the damn beer open. Turns out, the ring wasn't sent there to annoy me. It was sent there to warn me.

What a boring brew this was.

After opening, Ochakovo lager poured an aggressively boring light golden, with about a 1/2 inch of head that died almost on impact. Poor retention, no lacing. Hardly any visible carbonation. As visually appealing as a Stalin-era apartment complex. Somewhere, Vladimir Putin is laughing at me while doing lines off of a hooker's stomach while hunting that most dangerous game.....Man.

The nose isn't bad for a Euro-style lager: malty and hoppy, with notes of lemon, biscuits and spice.

The taste was also hoppy and biscuity, with that lemon zing kicking around near the back, but the whole experience was overlaid with a skunky, watery taste. Kind of like eating a great sandwich on stale bread, the skunkiness ruined any positive assets this beer brought forward. To no one's surprise, the mouthfeel was watery and the carbonation lacking. (Grade: D)

Unlike Frodo, I should have listened to the whisperings of this ring: "Don't drink me....don't drink me...." It would have saved me a great deal of hardship and a lengthy paddle down the River Anduin. The whole experience has left me fairly bummed, and a little pissed at Russia, which isn't fair, because I know Russian beers can be better than this. These guys were the reason, after all, for the growth in popularity of one of my favorite beer styles: Russian Imperial Stout. 

I'm going to assume that for me to truly get to experience the Russian beer scene, a trip to Eurasia is probably in order, because between Ochakovo and Baltika (the only offerings at the LCBO), there's not much to go on.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Great Mediocre Beer Experiment, Volume IV: "Smooth as a Busch."

Beer: Busch Beer
Brewery: Anheiser-Busch (St. Louis, MO)
Type: Adjunct Lager
ABV: 4.7%

Before I get going with this one, I'd like to point out something utterly hilarious that's on the can. Underneath the massive BUSCH (heh heh) logo and the badass American Eagle emblem, the beer promotes itself with a fun little slogan. For some reason, a lot of mainstream brewers like to push the fact that their beer comes from mountain streams or springs or whatever, and this one is no exception. But someone, and I mean anyone in the marketing boardroom should have maybe spoken out about this particular slogan, because it's fucking stupid:
"Cold as a mountain stream, Smooth as its name."

Smooth as a Busch, you say? I can literally take this comment in so many directions, most of which will get this blog labelled as pornographic, but let's not even go there. So, this beer is "Smooth as its name", the name being "busch." What, exactly is smooth about that name? Have you ever encountered encountered a bush (I'm really struggling here...) that was smooth? Do people use "busch" as a synonym for smooth, like: "Dammit, I got a ticket for crashing into a cop car." "Real busch, dude." or, "How as the drive in?" "No problems whatsoever. Busch sailing the whole way." No, they don't. Not ever. In fact, there is nothing remotely smooth about the word 'busch' in any possible connotation. I have no idea what they're trying to convey here. At least they spelled 'its' properly.

And we're off to a grand, fantastic start...

Doing a little internet searchery, I discovered something horrible about Busch Beer. It's brewed by Anheiser-Busch, of course, but - get this - this is their discount beer. In other words, this is a step DOWN from Budweiser. And how again do brews become cheaper? Cheaper ingredients and packaging. Lovely. So, without further adieu, I'll dive right in.

Busch pours an incredibly pale straw colour, paler than most of the other competitors. Lots of visible carbonation. To Busch's credit, the retention isn't bad. The head has survived as a thin ring all the way through, which is better than some brews I've sampled thus far. Still, looks like an adjunct lager.

The nose is, well, non-existent. I suppose if I was blindfolded, I could identify the smell as 'beer', but other than that, I've got nuthin. Pale malts and tin, that's about it. The website claims that it has a "pleasant hop aroma," but trust me, she don't.

The taste isn't much better, but I'll say this: it is surprisingly smooth. I've blasted through 3/4 of the can so far and haven't really noticed it. The reason, of course, is that there isn't really any flavour to it. Pale malts, a bit of hops and some cereal, finishing with tinny hops. Pretty boring stuff, but I'm not retching, which is a plus.
The mouthfeel is pretty thin. Watery thin. Initially, the carbonation was spritzy and seltzerish, but now it's completely gone. After five minutes, the beer has gone flat. Oy...

I'm sure there are occasions when a Busch would be ideal (heh heh-STOP IT!! Get a hold of yourself!). I mean, as far as drinking goes, this has been about the easiest way to inject 4.7% of alcohol into my bloodstream, because I am pounding this sucker back and not even trying. I suppose that if you want a cheap way to get drunk, or you're at a St. Louis Cardinals game, this would be ideal. But man, is this sucker bland.

So far, PBR is leading the American brew charge, tune in next time for Labatt Blue, aka: Matt's First Beer!

*By the way, if any of you women folk have been upset by how many bush jokes I've tried not to make thus far, I direct your attention to the Store at

It's not just me.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Matt's Addiction

Beer: St. Ambroise Stout Imperiale Russe
Brewery: Brasserie McAuslan (Montreal)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.1%

After about a week-long hiatus due to being sick and not being able to drink, it's time to not be sick and to be able to drink. Um...yeah.... About the only good thing about taking time away from drinking is that, during your absence, the LCBO might have a few new brews waiting for you, tempting you with their flirty labelling and come-hither bottling. Fortunately, this was the case this weekend.

Beer hunting is like any other consumer addiction; it costs time and money and sometimes makes little practical sense to anyone else except the collector themselves and their like-minded cohorts. Think of someone with a shoe-shopping addiction; they go out of their way to buy the most expensive, rarest shoes, just because they can. It doesn't matter that they already have tons of shoes at home; they want the latest fashion, and they won't balk at dropping several hundred dollars to get the ones they want. (I actually have no idea how much womens' shoes cost (or do I?)). The same thing goes for beer. If there's a new brew out, no matter what the price, I have to have it. Fortunately, beer hunting has two advantages over the shoe-shoppers: 1) even the best, rarest, most unique brew is never going to be more than 20 bucks a bottle, and it's almost never over 10 bucks, and 2) shoes can't get you drunk.

I stand corrected. Confused, but corrected.

Thus, anytime the LCBO puts out a special, limited edition brew, I have to buy it. There isn't even really a question in my mind; if I see it, it's in the shopping cart. But considering how awesome limited edition brews are, how could I not? Take this sexy little number, for instance.

- It comes in its own keepsake tin.

- It's by McAuslan, a brewery whose awesome-ratio is ridiculously high. (Try their Oatmeal Stout; it's phenomenal)

- It has St. Basil's cathedral on the front, and kind of looks like it came from Khrushchev's personal stash.

- And finally, it's bourbon wood-aged. It's infused with more liquour.

If I ever pass up a reserve bottle such as this, I'm either dead or blind and my seeing-eye beer-hunting dog is out taking a whizz on the sidewalk to the chagrin of the bylaw officer.

Today, with my beer itches having gone unscratched for several days now, what better way to get back on the horse than with a special reserve Russian Imperial Stout? The answer is no, there isn't. A better way. To get back on the horse.

For this sampling, I chilled the bottle for the better part of the afternoon (thanks to the glorious weather, my basement is no longer cold enough to provide cellar temperatures). When it was time to indulge, I let the bottle sit out on the counter for a bit to warm up a few degrees. That's not just snobbery; that's good advice. This beer was a bit expensive, so it's important to serve it properly. Certain beers - dark ales especially - should be served a little warmer than lagers, pale ales and pilsners, which are normally served ice-cold. In order to unleash the complexities of the nose and body, a stout such as this needs to be served at a few degrees above refrigerator temperature (10 degrees C). If you drink it too cold, you'll miss out on a great deal; it's like over-chilling a red wine. They'll sometimes tell you the ideal temperature on the bottle, but if you want to be sure, check out sites like and, which will recommend proper serving methods.

After about seven minutes of warm-uppage, I poured it into a tulip glass. The colour was just about perfect for a RIS: near pitch-black with a touch of brown. Thanks to the curvature of the glassware, I got about an inch of tan head, which produced a terrific lacing pattern and retained itself well throughout the tasting. Off to a fantastic start.

The nose is potent and sweet, but very enjoyable. Dark chocolate, bourbon and brandy, marshmallow, caramel and roasted malt are the dominant flavours here. They weren't kidding about "bourbon wood-aged."

Wow; this is truly great stuff. The oak from the bourbon barrels does wonders for this brew, evening out the sweet caramel and chocolate and letting the hop bitterness provide a late kick. Similar flavours are found here as in the nose. Sweet, but not cloying. The alcohol is covered fairly well, but it is evident in the finish, coming in as a sharp whisky taste.

Mouthfeel is velvety and sticky, with the carbonation providing a good spritz on the back of the tongue. Had the carbonation been any lower, it might have created a sickly syrupy effect, but fortunately this was avoided.

After reviewing this brew online, I discovered that I had awarded it one of my top 5 scores, which for me is a pretty good argument to buy this beer. It's just under 6 bucks, but trust me, it's more than worth it. (And think about it, that's roughly what you'd pay for a draught pint anyways; why not get something unique?). If my review isn't enough to get you out to the LCBO to try this brew, keep this in mind: they only brewed it once. It might never be back again! Aaaaughhh!!! (Grade: A+)

By the way, for those keeping score, here are Matt's top 10 so far (as seen on
1. Maudite (Unibroue)
2. Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock (Schneider und Sohn)
3. Duvel (Duvel Moortgaat)
4. La Fin du Monde (Unibroue)
5. St. Ambroise RIS (McAuslan)
6. Fuller's London Porter (Fuller's)
7. Gouden Carolus Classic (Brouwerij Het Anker)
8. Affligem Blond (Brouwerij de Smedt)
9. Margriet (Brouwerij Het Anker)
10. Young's Double Chocolate Stout (Wells and Young's)