Thursday, July 29, 2010

Florida Beer Haul!

Well, I'm back, and it's been a wonderful two weeks!

I couldn't have asked for a better wedding day (Team Matt was unstoppable!), and the trip to Florida was fun from beginning to end. Michelle and I really enjoyed our trip to Orlando; it was her first trip to Disney World (my first since the Jays won the World Series), and our first look at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, which was all kinds of awesome. On the days between park visits, we spent a lot of time relaxing around the hotel pools and exploring the area. And, naturally, I also spent a great deal of time beer hunting.

That's right; a significant portion of my honeymoon was devoted to tracking down new and exciting beers.

Fortunately, Michelle understands my passion and is actually quite supportive of it. If you think about it, being a beer geek isn't really a big deal: you never spend more than 20 bucks on any individual bottle so it's not a big strain on the ol' finances (compare this to prices for scotch, vintage wine or good-looking hookers - all expensive vices) ; it's educational and historical (beer of course being a cultural artifact); and it so happens that beer tastes good and is rich in our good friend, vitamin Alcohol. Also, like all things in a marriage, half of what I get is Michelle's too, so she got to try pretty much every beer I picked up - a win for her.

A relationship based on a mutual passion for drinking: what's not to love?

Now that I've entered into the brotherhood of beer geeks, I have a tendency to see vacations as new beer drinking opportunities. With the craft and import selection at the LCBO so stunted, I could otherwise potentially go many weeks without finding new brews to try, so I try to take full advantage of every trip outside the province.

And take advantage, I did.

For my first beer-venture, I managed to find several great brews at a little beer store just outside of the resort. You may have heard of it; it's called the fucking Wal-mart. That's right - I ticked off one of my all-time must-try's at the South Orlando 24-hr Wally World. Incredibly, they actually had a decent import and craft selection (Guinness Extra Stout, a fair sample from Sam Adams, Brooklyn, etc.) I ended up going with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is one of the premier American pale ales to be had, or so I'm told (and it was!).

All this was about an aisle down from the Hanna Montana and Team Edward merchandise.
I was off to a great start.
Before leaving for Florida, I posted a question on the BA forums about my impending visit to the Sunshine State, asking those in the know where the best beer hunting could be had. And the result was unanimous. "Knightly Spirits" was the place to go: a small liquor store chain located across the Orlando area, but with a legendary craft selection. With this knowledge and poorly written directions in hand, on our first full day in Orlando, I bee-lined down Orange Blossom Trail to find this little gem tucked away next to a Spanish grocery store in an outlet mall. Didn't look like much from the outside. But upon first seeing their import selection, my reaction (as seen below), was quite genuine:

"A whole new world (don't you dare close your eyes!). A dazzling place I never knew..."

An entire wall's worth of some of the best beers available: single bottles of American craft breweries from Oregon and California to Delaware and Georgia; rare vintage barleywines from the UK; the ENTIRE Trappist lineup from both Belgium and was simply overwhelming. I actually was almost saddened to see it, because I knew I wouldn't be down in Florida for long, and I wouldn't be able to try it all. Eventually, I would have to be separated from my beloved. As I continued muttering "Oh my God...oh...they even have-sweet Jesus!!", Michelle watched me with patient bemusement. I absentmindedly grabbed a dozen bottles or so, simply at a loss at where to begin.

"It's beautiful!!!"

After forking over about $98 USD, thus representing my all-time highest single-bottle beer haul, we headed back to the hotel room to put a few in the fridge. I managed to sample about two to three a night thereafter (with the lovely lady helping me along), writing notes for each. I was able to tick off some biggies on my list: Dogfish Head World Wide Stout; Ommegang Abbey Ale; Trappist Achel, Orval and Rochefort; Cantillon Lambic Kriek - to name a few.

But after a few days, I began to feel the itch again. Unlike herpes, there is a cure for this particular itch, and that's a trip to yet another beer store! This time I hit up ABC Liquors in Tampa. Actually, I hit up two of them... The first time, I was again blown away by their impressive selection of refrigerated craft 6-packs. I quickly struck up a conversation with the sales clerk - a fellow beer traveller - who told me that the "better" store was three blocks away, and that I should check it out. He also informed me that unlike the socialist, sternly disapproving province I hail from, Floridians were encouraged to remove single bottles from 6 packs if they didn't want to commit to a whole pack. At the LCBO, I get yelled at if I dare to bring up single bottles from the single AISLE, but here, they don't even blink. God-damned bless America...

I somehow managed to convince myself to by eight more bottles, including some localish fare from Red Brick and Terrapin (both Georgia). The last two days were a frantic race to properly sample the rest, but I managed to get things done.

And thus, here's the final lineup. Beer team, assemble!!

I also managed to snaggle a few on-site draught brews from Tampa's Cigar City Brewing (the source of the snifter glass in the foreground) as well as draught from a few spots across town, bringing my total for new beers to an impressive twenty-two. It was an excellent haul, and I managed to bring some of it back to Ontario to try later, so naturally I've been insufferably giddy for the past few days (on record, though, I should probably chalk that up to 'wedded bliss'...)

Coming soon: the best of the Florida haul, and a visit to Cigar City Brewing on Marshal Zhukov Imperial Stout release night!

Friday, July 2, 2010

"We Got The Mill Street Brews" (reviews)!

I'm a big fan of Mill Street Brewing. It's got a great location and awesome brewery tour and restaurant, as well as a fairly diverse slate of brewing offerings ranging from the standard blond ale (Stock Ale) to the more challenging tripels and roggenbiers (I'll get to the latter in a moment!). Indeed, Mill St. is one of Ontario's better craft breweries, and it's received some mighty fine accolades, winning its third consecutive Canadian Brewing Awards - Brewery of the Year award. Three of my favorite Ontario brews are Mill St. offerings: Tankhouse Ale is, in my opinion one of the finest red ales available; Cobblestone Stout, which is only available on draught is a superb nitro-pour alternative to Guinness; and their Belgian Wit is an excellent summer thirst quencher, on par with Hoegaarden. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to check out their brewery for some time, and that's where most of their unique brews can only be found. Fortunately for me, a couple of flats of individual bottles became available at the LCBO, thus saving me a trip to T.O.!

Beer: Lemon Tea Beer
Type: flavoured ale
ABV: 4.9%

I think the first time I heard about Mill Street's latest summer brew, I may have inadvertantly offended a Mill Street rep. When he started telling me about how they've got this great new summer ale, a "lemon tea beer", my reaction was a less-than-enthusiastic: "....neat..." Look up 'crestfallen' in the dictionary, and you'd find this guy's face. Oops...I can forget about free samples in the future, I guess...

Now, I rarely make a point of dismissing a brew before I've tried it, unless of course it's a light beer or if it's brewed by Faxe, but in this case, I can't really say I was excited about "Lemon Tea Beer". Generally, I'm not a fan of beers that go out of their way to declare that there's fruit in the product, especially lemon. I've had some pretty bad luck with 'lemon' and 'tea' flavored brews, because usually the added flavor isn't so much subtle as it is punch-you-in-the-face-artificial. Think Coke Vanilla. The same goes for most fruit beers; it's a delicate balance, and the scales can be, and often are tipped disastrously to the disgusting side of things. (See: Nickle Brook Green Apple Pilsner, the unholy combination of weak lager and Jolly Rancher candy)

But I've got to say, Lemon Tea Beer wasn't bad at all. It's still probably not something I'll regularly seek out, but it does what it sets out to do fairly well.

Poured into a Mill St. lager glass. Looks like an iced tea beer: light copper, slightly opaque, about a 1/2 inch of head that recedes quickly into a ring.

Nose isn't too strong, which is a good thing. Iced tea, lemon, malts, maybe a touch of yeast. Another plus: the iced tea smells less like Nestea (or worse, Brisk...), and more like a proper iced tea.

This brew is actually pretty tasty: like a lemon iced-tea cooler, with just a touch of malt and yeast. I'm still having trouble calling this one a 'beer', but at the very least it tastes alright and their are some typical ale characteristics to be found.

Mouthfeel is slightly watery (again, like iced tea), with a tight zip of carbonation at the finish.

Not a bad seasonal from Mill St - certainly better than I had expected, but probably not something I'll pick up on a regular basis. I don't think I could drink too many of these in a night. Worth a try though! (Grade: B-)

Beer: Schleimhammer Roggenbier
Type: roggenbier
ABV: 5.3%
Schleimhammer Roggenbier - now there's a name with some chest hair! This beer was previously only available on draught, but thankfully they've produced a bottled version for us poor souls from outside the GTA. Now, I've got to admit, I've never heard of roggenbier before, and if there's one thing Matt loves, it's learning more about beer!

Alright, two things...

Roggenbiers are rye beers, in that the primary brewing grain is rye, rather than wheat or barley. As you can probably tell by the name, roggenbiers are of Germanic origin, being extremely popular in Bavaria during the Middle Ages. After a series of disastrous grain harvests in the 16th century, that lovable German Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1514 came into play, banning the use of essential baking grains for brewing purposes. Rye was out, barley was in. And for the longest time (actually, until the late 20th century), the style virtually disappeared, kept alive only by those who brewed at home or in small enough batches. The style has seen a bit of a resurgence in Bavaria recently, and a few craft brewers across the pond have attempted to replicate the old style, with varying successes. Mill Street, I must say, can count itself among the success stories.

According to head-brewer Joel Manning, his roggenbier employs the use of yeast traditionally used for hefeweizen, and as he describes it, the brew makes for "Good 15th century peasant fare!" Good enough for me!

Again, I poured this one into my fancy Mill St. glass. The picture is a bit hard to see (it was late), but the brew is a lovely chocolate brown and opaque , similar I suppose to iced coffee. A thin head, which didn't last for too long. Looks a great deal like a dunkelweizen.

Nose is indeed very hefe or even dunkel-like. Notes of cloves, malt, fruit (banana), yeast, chocolate and biscuit. A bit of smoke to it as well, perhaps some rye bread as well. Very rustic and intriguing.

The taste is also surprisingly similar to a dunkelweizen, but with a spicy, rye bread character to it. Pumpernickel, actually. (Seriously, how German can you get?) Finishes slightly dry and bitter. Very enjoyable; I can see what Manning means by "peasant" beer, because this brew really has an archaic, Middle Age quality to it that I'm really digging.

Mouthfeel is medium-bodied, with a very crisp, tangy carbonation to it. Sharp.

A fine brew indeed; I would love to have this on tap. Certainly a defined rye character to this brew; I suppose I could have gone for an even more robust spiciness (just to distinguish the beer further from a dunkelweizen), but it's still quite tasty. I don't really have a great deal to compare this to, seeing as how this is my first roggenbier, but as far as first impressions are concerned, Schleimhammer made a good one! Will pick up again! (Grade: B+)

Alright, three things....