Sunday, May 23, 2010

Summer Drinkin'!

Beer: Samuel Adams Summer Ale
Brewery: Boston Brewing Company
Type: wheat ale
ABV: 5.5%

Well, it's the May long weekend, and thankfully, it's brilliant outside. After a morning of picking up new summer plants and vegetables for the garden, I decided to take a break and drink something seasonally appropriate. My seasonal drinking approach has been going well so far - when I'm outside, I tend stick with summer fare like wheat ales, pale ales, pilsners and kolsch - and it's definitely the day to keep this system rolling! I managed to snag a few left over bottles of Sam Adams Summer Ale from the LCBO (some thoughtful individual had taken exactly half of the six pack), and I figured today is as good a day as any to give it a go. According to the bottle, this is a wheat ale, seasoned with lemon zest and "Grains of Paradise", which sounds impressive, but is really just a glorified peppercorn.

For those who aren't familiar with this American brewing institution, Samuel Adams (aka, the Boston Brewing Company) is one of the largest brewers in the United States. Founded in 1984 by Jim Koch (himself a 5th generation brewer), the company was named for American revolutionary Samuel Adams, who was one of the chief architects of the American republican tradition. He also was a brewer, or at the very least, liked malting stuff. Whatever he actually did, his face is nevertheless featured prominently on each bottle, holding aloft a stein of ale from beyond the grave... Sam Adams has a pretty large selection of brews, including porters, hefeweizens, Oktoberfest maerzen, and perhaps the most delightfully-named winter brew of all time - "Old Fezziwig Ale." I happen to be a pretty big fan of Sam Adams Boston Lager, their flagship brand - it's a tasty little brew that's easy to drink, yet colourful and flavorful. Definitely something I like to pick up every once in a while. Hopefully their credentials will contribute to a tasty summer brew.

Poured into a lager glass. Pure golden, slightly opaque. A splendid 1/2 inch head with solid retention and lacing. Visible tornadoes of carbonation. Not a bad looking brew at all.

Unfortunately, the nose isn't really doing it for me. The lemon dominates to the point where I can't detect anything else. There's probably wheat malt and a bit of hops in there, but I can't find it. Moreover, the lemon scent isn't that good: it's artificial, coming across more like lemon Pledge or Sunlight than anything else.
The taste is a bit more nuanced, and actually is pretty decent. The lemon is a little less overpowering, and doesn't taste quite so fake. Dry, puckery finish, with a bit of hop character. Refreshing. Slick, fine, mild carbonation. Slightly creamy.
If I could get over the smell, I'd enjoy this brew a lot more. It certainly is refreshing, but I'm not really digging 'lemon beer' - I rarely add citrus to my brews anyhow, but I'd rather squeeze in a fresh slice than taste anything fake. Kind of my attitude towards all these 'added lime' brews - get yourself a fresh lime: they aren't that expensive, and they taste much better. Not a bad beer, certainly worth a try, and refreshing as holy hell. It just...smells like soap... To get over the nose, I'll probably drink the rest of the six-pack straight from the bottle. Not Sam Adam's best, but it could be worse.
(Grade C+ in the glass, B- straight out of the bottle)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Know Your Beer, Volume Three: What the hell is Kölsch?

Beer: Lug Tread
Brewery: Beau's All Natural Brewing Co. (Vankleek Hill, Ontario)
Type: Kölsch (lagered ale)
ABV: 5.2%

Part of the fun in reviewing beers comes from investigating the history and unique characteristics of particular brewing styles because - lets face it - there's a lot of them. Some are a bit more straight-forward (English pale ale = an ale, pale in colour, brewed in the English style), while others aren't quite so obvious, kölsch being one of them. Truth be told, I didn't really know much about this unique German brew before I received a sample of an Ontario craft brewer's attempt at the style, so I was naturally very eager to figure things out.

Here's what I've got so far:

Kölsch is a unique style of beer that was developed in the Cologne (Köln), a city which so happens to boast the largest number of breweries in the Germany. Germans like to brew - a lot - so this is really saying something. Like cheddar cheese and champagne, kölsch is part of the EU's Protected Geographic Origin club, which means that unless you happen to be brewing within twenty clicks of Cologne proper, you can't call your brew kölsch. It's not legally binding in North America, but Canada at least has made arrangements with the EU not to be dicks about the whole thing, so most Canadian brewers tend to use names that either refer to the region (Champagne-style) or they come up with a new, less-sexy name (i.e. sparkling wine). For Lug Tread, Beau's doesn't call their beer kölsch, but trust me: it's a kölsch.

As per the style itself: basically, most of the world's beers can be organized into two camps: ales and lagers, ales being the (considerably) older of the two. Ales utilize top fermenting yeast strains (meaning they do most of their munching near the top of the vat), and are brewed at higher temperatures, which releases a wide spectrum of flavours. Lagers, meanwhile, are brewed and stored at cooler temperatures (lager means 'to store' in German), with yeasts that do their business near the bottom of the vat. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, lagers were stored in caves or incredibly cool cellars; modern brewing processes can do the job relatively cave-free. Generally, lagers are cleaner, crisper, and in my opinion, a little more boring (except for bocks and dunkels), but are certainly excellent thirst quenchers, especially the pale lager and pilsner styles. Kölsch is just a happy marriage of the two brewing styles; first, the beer is brewed in the ale tradition at warmer temperatures with top-fermenting yeast, then then it's cooled (lagered) for a while to produce a clean, pilsner-like product. Hence, many North American brewers, like Beau's, call their kölsch "lagered ale" - which keeps the Europeans happy while confusing the rest of us.

Kölsch's are very similar to pilsners; they have a generous hop content, and are clear, light golden in colour. However, the ale brewing process gives the brew a bit more of a fruity, bready taste, cutting down on the bitterness considerably. It's a fine little brew for sitting outside on the patio, which makes it immensely popular in the city of its founding as a thirst quenching social brew.

Let's try one!

Lug Tread is a fairly good example of the kölsch style, and a real pleasure to drink. Even though it's technically an ale, I poured this one into a tall lager glass in keeping with the traditional serving methods for kölsch. The back of the bottle declares that this batch was brewed on May 10th - not bad at all. Beau's is Certified Organic, which is also big plus.

A nice, medium golden brew, about a 1/2 inch of foamy head that receded into a ring. Not much lacing or retention, but I've also had this on tap, and I know it does the job much better in that form.

The nose is similar to a pilsner with its strong hop character, but I also detect bread/biscuits, dry white wine , apple, and pale malts.

The taste is ridiculously smooth - very easy to drink. It's a bit on the dry side, and generates a long, bitter finish. Bready and malty up front, with just a touch of apple, grassy hops and pepper. A real earthy character to it. Medium-bodied, and with a decent level of spritzy carbonation.

Beau's has done an admirable job in replicating this style, making this a tasty summer beer, albeit with a somewhat less-than-appetizing name. Lug Tread was very smooth and easy to drink, while being distinguishable from the pale lager and pilsner bunch. Beau's is a new brewer on the Ontario scene, but so far, I like what I've seen. I strongly urge everyone to give it a try - not only would you be supporting a new, local, environmentally responsible brewer, you'd also have yourself a tasty brew. Can't beat that. (Grade: B+)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Aventinus Weizenbock

Beer: Aventinus Weizenbock
Brewery: G. Schneider and Sohn (Munich)
Type: Weizenbock
ABV: 8.2%

I review beers not just because I enjoy them, but because I'm always seeking to experience that moment of perfect beer clarity that occurs when you try something truly spectacular, when you know you've been privileged to discover the very best the world has to offer. Only once in a great while does this happen. There are so many beers out there that can be classified as first-rate, superb examples of their craft and true pleasures to drink. But then there are the elite; the beers that captivate your senses so completely that the world appears to pause for a few moments, allowing you to give the brew your undivided attention. Each sip elicits a simple, quiet utterance of both satisfaction and contentment. And when the glass is held aloft to gather those final resisting drops, you feel invigorated and awestruck by what's just happened: you've just had one of the best beers in the world.

This beer is, quite simply, a work of art. It's everything a beer should strive to be: unique, inspiring, complex, smooth, exciting. The absolute pinnacle of its style. I struggled to find flaws with Aveninus, but they were hard to come by; to change any aspect of this beer would be to destroy its very essence.

Aventinus Weizenbock is an opaque light-brown brew, sepia when held to the light, and with patches of orange round the edges of the glass. The pour left about an inch of head, which has diligently survived as a thin but noticeable layer lasting throughout the session. Sheets of lacing after sipping.

The nose is a splendid blend of typical hefe notes of banana, cloves, and coriander, but perfectly infused with dark fruit, chocolate, and caramel, which are flavors normally associated with Belgian tripels and German bocks. Only a slight alcohol burn to the nostrils. Lovely.

The taste is simply phenomenal. Chocolate and banana, hazelnut, wheat, malt, a touch of hops and slight warming alcohol to the finish. Tastes like the holy offspring of a dunkelweizen and a tripel. Banana and nuts linger longer as the brew warms up a touch. Just love it. The still-substantial head gives the brew a creamy texture.Carbonation is high, but surprisingly it works. It kept me from absolutely destroying the brew, which - trust me - I was tempted to do.

I'm sure the fact that the ABV was over 8% contributed to my outpouring of love for Aventinus, but why shouldn't it? Beer is by its very nature alcoholic, and thus the alcohol character of a brew should contribute positively to the overall experience. I loved this brew from the first sip onwards, and I'm not alone in this regard. rates this beer among the world's best, and certainly the finest of the weizenbock style, while the members of place Aventinus in the 100th percentile. Truly a magnificent brew, and one I strongly encourage you to try for yourself. (Grade: A+)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quebec Beer Haul!

I've gotta admit it: for someone who lived less than two hours from Quebec for most of his life, I know amazingly little about la belle province. (Google isn't much better; type 'Quebec' and for images, the first 15 are either a map of Quebec or a lovely vista with the Chateau Frontenac in the foreground, which is pretty much all I know about Quebec.) I guess it's the language thing; like the rest of Ontario, my public school did an incredibly piss-poor job of trying to teach us French, which probably explains my current disdain for our nation's laughable attempts to be bilingual. For a great example of how bad the French language is taught in English public schools: in the fifth grade, our French teacher had us do a month-long "unit" on Barbados, a country that a quick internet search will show DOESN'T FUCKING SPEAK FRENCH. It's one of the most Anglo countries in the entire Caribbean, and I spent a good three months studying its cultural heritage in a language it doesn't use. Why? Because our teacher went on vacation there and she liked it, that's why! Two years later, I had a unit on pizza. I shit you not. I didn't even know what 'conjugation' and 'tenses' were until Grade 9, long past the optimal age for picking up a language's syntax and rhythm. No wonder every Ontarian that didn't go to immersion ends up sounding like Preston Manning when they try to speak French.

Pictured: Typical Quebec citizen, as far as I know.

Therefore, in my entire education about the province of Quebec, I can recall maybe a half dozen facts of questionable veracity. I know that in New France, they liked their land strips to have access to the St. Lawrence, and thus every passing generation got a narrower and narrower land parcel, with sexy results. I know that Rene Levesque liked cigarettes and comb-overs. Quebec makes a boat-load of maple syrup and is a bit irked with Newfoundland. I know that Carnival is kind of a big deal, and that the Plains of Abraham is still a touchy subject nearly three-hundred years after the fact. (Fun fact: after the war, France was given the option to either keep Quebec or the tiny island of Guadaloupe. Guess which one they went for?) I know that the Quebec Nordiques had one of the greatest logos in professional sports (after Hartford). And I know that Quebeckers, despite having one of the highest standards of living in the world and received decades of accommodation from the Canadian government, still aren't fucking happy yet. That's about all I know.

But, despite my monumental ignorance about all things Quebecois, I can say this: they can brew some damned fine beer. As anyone who's ever had a bottle of Maudite or a snifter of Peche Mortel can attest, Quebeckers are among the finest brewers in the world. On beeradvocate's list of the 100 best beers in the world, only two are from Canada and both of them are from Quebec (#26 Dieu du Ciel's "Peche Mortel" and #90 Unibroue's "La Fin du Monde"). On its Canadian best-of list, nine of the top ten spots are Quebec brews. The combination of innovation, quality, and respect for the brewing traditions of Alcase and Belgium have paid remarkable dividends for the Quebec brewing industry, which is gaining respect among brewing circles around the world.

Thus, when I found out a friend of mine (Thanks, Lori!) was heading Montreal-way, I had my beer shopping list at the ready! Two sample 12 packs and a couple extras later, I have an even better grasp of the great stuff Quebec is producing, which encouraged me all the more to make the trip to check it out in person. That is, if I can figure out the language....

"Fuck - get the dictionary..."

First up is a twelve pack from Les Trois Mousquetaires, a microbrewery from Brossard, just outside of Montreal. LTM has a pretty diverse selection of brews available, including such esoteric offerings as a rauchbier, a maibock and an Oktoberfest Maerzen. Their baltic porter has received numerous accolades, and currently is sitting pretty at #12 on the Canada's best brews list. Though this particular pack lacked some of these unique brews, it was still chock-full of goodies, with three each of their blonde ale, hefeweizen, dunkel lager and amber lager. A good selection indeed. A cute little gimmick is their beer-rating system: on a scale of four swords (can't forget about D'Artagnan!), each brew is rated based on how complex it will be. While their blonde ale only registers one sword out of four, for example, their "noire" dunkel lager rates a three.

And that's where we'll start!
Beer: Noire
Type: Schwarzbier ("black beer")
ABV: 5%
Swords: 3/4

A splendid looking brew, one of the best dark lagers I've seen in ages. Inky black, with a slight brown hue to the light. Thick, pillowy head that will not surrender. Lots of patchy lacing. Great stuff.

Nose is roasted malt, a touch of chocolate, coffee and cream. A bit of smokiness as well. Displays remarkable depth.

Upon sippage, I get coffee up front, smoke and walnuts to the finish. It's somewhat sour and puckery, probably the hop content. This is pretty typical for a schwarzbier or dunkel lager - try Warsteiner Dunkel and you'll see what I mean. Thankfully, the sourness is nicely complimented with the coffee and nuts, making for a balanced little brew. Quite enjoyable. Lower carbonation, a bit watery, but otherwise fine.

Great brew, and a great introduction to the style. If you're up for a bit of sourness to your brews, give this one a go! (Grade: B+)

Beer: Blanche
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%
Swords: 2/4

As always, I poured this one into my lovely hefe glass. Why such a tall glass, you ask? Two reasons (not counting snootiness): 1) If you pour the beer correctly, which is somewhat more aggressively than you would other brews, you should get a pretty decent sized head thanks to the high-carbonation of the beer, hence the need for a tall glass, and 2) when you get a good sip, the greater surface area exposed to the air encourages the development of the nose. I'm not sure if I buy the last one, but I certainly agree that hefe's look best in these tall glasses.

As is typical for wheat beers, the beer is light golden and nearly opaque. This is because the beer is unfiltered, which allows the sediment (usually) to suspend throughout the beer. This one didn't produce too generous a head, but then again, it's a 341mL bottle. Can't expect too much.

The nose is a bit off-putting. Aside from the usual wheat beer suspects of coriander, citrus, and banana, I get a strong whiff of wheat, which I'm not liking. Wait, you say, isn't this a wheat beer? Shouldn't I detect wheat in a wheat beer? Well, yes and no. Normally, the wheat character is less-pronounced, and the delightful aromas of citrus (peach, orange, banana), coriander, cloves and lavender are allowed to lead the way. Other times, the wheat malt dominates the nose, which to me smells absolutely bad. Like a wet wheat field, really. If you've ever been in a brewery, you'll know this smell right away - it's the smell of fermenting malted grain. Strangely enough, I hate that particular smell, even though I know it leads to something truly wonderful. You might like the nose on this one, but I don't.

The taste is about the same. Starts off like a standard hefe - banana, cloves, bubblegum and spice - but finishes with a strong wheat malt kick that I'm struggling to get into. Tends to overpower the lot, and throws off the brew's balance. Fortunately, the body is really crisp and neat, with light, but thorough carbonation. (Grade: C+)

Guess I'm not digging this one, but that's okay; sometimes a brew just doesn't do it for you. I just find the wheat malt flavor almost vegetable-like, which is making getting through Blanche a struggle. I guess this one doesn't really support my 'Quebec beer is awesome' argument, but I wouldn't be 'fair and balanced' by providing only positive reviews. I didn't like this one, and I'm honest about it. Moreover, just because a country produces wicked brews, doesn't mean it can't produce the odd dud, like this disaster from Belgium:

Finish on a high note, already!

Beer: Rousse
Type: Amber Lager
ABV: 5%
Swords: 3/4

My favorite of the bunch!

A brilliant ruby-copper hue, about a 1/2 of head with great staying power. Lots of flecky lacing.

Nose is malty with notes of hops and caramel. A bit of bread in there as well. Surprisingly complex for a red lager.

I must admit, it took me a good five sips to understand this brew, but I must say we got acquainted quite nicely. Starts off with a malty, caramel flavour and finishes earthy and slightly bitter. Very subtle notes of cherry or peach, with a bit of biscuit as well. The bitterness lingers on the tongue for a satisfying finish.

Mouthfeel is slightly watery, with light carbonation.

A surprisingly robust red, chock full of flavor. Just about the right complexity to make for a decent session drinker. (Grade: B+)

- A great little sample pack, certainly enjoyable. I'm a big fan of the red and the black lagers, as you can see. The wheat beer was interesting, but just not something I'd pick up too often in the future. (As you can probably tell, I didn't review the blonde - I'm leaving that for another segment.) I would have loved to have sampled some of their award-winning brews, but considering the difficulty in finding a mixed pack of something other than Heineken and Rickards in Montreal, I'll happily take this - definitely will have to go to the brewery myself in the near future!

Next on my Quebec tour is the toast of Montreal, Dieu du Ciel!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fool Me Once, Shame on Me

Sometimes, breweries just...well, fuck up. Somewhere, in their slate of beer offerings, is a monumental failure, a project that simply did not work. Even brewers with exceptional skill and craftsmanship are going to make mistakes now and then. It's not a big deal: brewing should be about experimentation and diversity, and every brewer needs to know what doesn't work so he can discover what does work. It only becomes a problem when your dud becomes the first beer a potential customer samples, and he or she bases your entire offering on that one failed attempt and decides not to risk further nausea. That's why I try to sample at least two brews from every new brewery, just in case I picked up the Stephen in their Baldwin family.

And then, of course, there are terrible breweries. With this in mind, I give you....Faxe.

Faxe, from Denmark, has been around the LCBO since before most of you started drinking. It's always there, usually accompanied with about four or five of its siblings, staring at you from underneath his Dread Helmet of Ragnarok. He seems to know that you are a teenage boy, who is just starting drinking and wants something "bad-ass" and foreign to bring over to his friend's house whose parents happen to be out of town. "Fucking eh, Viking beer!" he'll say.

This, in a nutshell, is Faxe's target demographic. Why else would their brewery boldly proclaim the awesome pwnage their brew can inflict with their unnecessarily large 10% ALCOHOL, BITCHES!! label? No other brewer does this. Alcohol content is not a selling feature for most brews; given our culture's (unjustified) obsession with light beer and (justified) concern with impaired driving, few consumers are out there with the goal to pick up the strongest beer available. Except, of course, teenagers and douchebags.

Still, I naively thought to myself, maybe there's something more to Faxe. Maybe, behind their Berzerker marketing strategy are some drinkable brews.

I was wrong.

Beer: Faxe Extra Strong
Type: strong lager
ABV: it's difficult to make out...could they have made it bigger? possibly using sparkles and neon lights?

This beer is apparently very popular for teenagers in Europe whose goal is to get completely wasted as quickly as possible. "Ask, and ye shall receive," the beer gods did proclaim...

Surprisingly, the brew doesn't look half bad. A medium- golden hue, with a good, sturdy head and lots of lacing. A great deal of visible carbonation, however. The compliments end here....

The nose is truly awful. There are two things, and two things only to be detected here: alcohol and sugar. There might, might, be some pale malts in the background, but I'd be stretching. It's like smelling a beer-flavoured jello shooter.

The taste is terribly similar. A retch-inducing combination of sugar and alcohol that has completely brushed aside any and all attempts at balance and flavour. Somewhere in the back is a bit of maltiness and fruit, but generally, all I can taste is booze. I have had 12-15% brews with far less perceptible alcohol than this. It tastes like some kid dumped half a bottle of Bacardi into his beer; that's how disgusting it is. (Michelle could barely smell this stuff, and wisely didn't deign to sample it)

Over-carbonated all to hell, all part of the plan to get you drunk as quick as possible. The body is thick and syrupy.

This beer was so revolting, I couldn't finish it. That's right kids: for the first time on this Beer Blog, I poured the rest of the beer down the sink. In the beer-hunting community, this is called a "drain pour", and it is the absolute worst insult imaginable one could heave upon a beer. I could finish Schlitz and Busch light because, though they were awful, were generally flavourless and didn't upset my stomach. This brew, however, was absolutely undrinkable. (It also currently holds the second lowest score on my beeradvocate list, just above Berthold Keller Lager, a foul abomination in the eyes of God...) (Grade: D-)

Sadly, I still had another can of Faxe rotgut in the house. Here we go....

Beer: Faxe Amber
Type: amber-red lager
ABV: not so ridiculously advertised. It's 4.6%.

Poured into a lager glass. A fine amber hue with a thin white head that dissolved completely. No ring, no lacing. And it begins...

Nose is pretty forgettable: malts, a hint of sweetness, tin. Normally, there should be some caramel, hops, maybe some spices. Nothing of the sort here.

Despite this, truth be told, it actually doesn't taste that bad. It's boring, but I can drink it. Pale malts, a bit of sweetness and spice near the end. Generally, the finish is pretty weak and the whole thing is painfully dull. There are literally dozens of amber beers available in the LCBO that I would drink before Faxe Amber, but at the very least, I could finish this brew. (Grade: C-)

So, lesson learned. I gave Faxe two attempts to please me and they failed catastrophically on both. I'm sure some of their other brews will at least be drinkable, but I only have so much patience for mediocre beer. Why waste 2 bucks to find out? I hopefully will never have to drink a Faxe again, and I encourage the rest of you to do the same....