Monday, November 29, 2010

More from the Angry Rabble: Cigar City Brewing Close to Losing its Tasting Room

I know I'm supposed to be finishing off my teacher's college applications, but this was too important to pass up.

Remember that cool brewery I visited last summer?  You know, the one I drove 80 miles outside of town in a tropical depression (read: Category 5 SUPER Hurricane) specifically to get to?  The one who had a brilliant tasting room filled with food, fun and fantastic brews celebrating Tampa Bay's Cuban heritage?

Well the "Well, I never!" Association is up in arms over Cigar City Brewing's operations, specifically the aforementioned tasting room.   The problem, they claim, is that the tasting room violates zoning laws regarding the proximity of wet bars near residential neighborhoods.   In other words, they hate fun and small-business success stories that promote the local area and stimulate its economy.  Naturally, I'm horribly biassed, but frankly, I'm not still getting it.  Yes, the brewery is fairly close to a residential neighborhood, but so are a lot of other undesirable things, like a factory district, a massive shopping center (there's a huge Home Depot just down the road) and the Interstate.  This isn't in the middle of Upper Crust McMansion Estates - it's in a factory/industrial district of town.  Also, CCB isn't the only liquor establishment in violation of the proximity bylaw; as brewery owner Joey Redner argues, there is "literally no wet zoning in Tampa that meets the 1,000-foot requirement."

Residents also claim that the adjacent brewery is bringing increased crime to the area - public urination, vandalism, fun - yet Tampa Police maintain they have not been called to the scene any more so than before, and Redner maintains that if he or his staff witness crime in the area, they report it every time.  Local folks and one particularly bitter councilwoman are using the specious reasoning that 'the crimes are just not being reported because residents don't trust that the police will come,' noting that there was a homicide on someone's front lawn in the area, and the police didn't get involved for a few days because they weren't called.  That's right, in this neighborhood, casual homicide is okay - small craft breweries equals Satan + Anti-Christ + the Liberal Agenda.   Sadly, this story also has racial overtones to it as well; most of the neighborhood and the dissenting councillors are black, while the brewery staff and the majority of its clientele is white.  I'd really hate for this to be the reason - great beer is something everyone can and should be able to enjoy. 

Despite the grim news, I'm actually fairly excited about my involvement in this story.  A Tampa Bay blogger/columnist contacted me two weeks ago because he had read my blog post about my visit to CCB last summer.  We set up a quick phone interview in which he brought this sad story to my attention and asked me a few questions about why I visited CCB, what I thought about it, etc.  

I'm genuinely honoured and thrilled that my blog is garnering attention, but I really wish it weren't for this reason.  Stuff like this can really hurt craft breweries, especially breweries such as CCB who are new, exciting, and demand to be visited by beer-aficionados and tourists alike.   Because of a few noise complaints, a much-hyped new Tampa tourist attraction might be forced to shut its tasting room down, reducing the number of folks who might want to try CCB's wares.  Think of all the tasting rooms that you may have visited (Brick, Wellington, Mill Street, Steam Whistle) and how much fun they can be.  Live music, beer launching events, beer-and-food pairings, company party nights - the list goes on.  Moreover, for many of these places, their tasting rooms are literally the only places to show off brews that haven't garnered enough attention to make it into liquor stores.  Despite having a tasting lineup of at least a dozen brews, I only saw their flagship Jai Alai IPA in any of the city liquor stores, including the one across the street. 

Shutting down the tasting room - or forcing owner Joey Redner to initiate an expensive move to a less-offending area - could wreak havoc on the CCB team's ability to continue developing quality craft brews that celebrate the heritage of the Tampa Bay area, and that makes me a very sad panda.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another Mighty Quebec Beer Haul!

At a recent drinking-and-merriment event, myself and a few of the lads got into a deep conversation about craft beer.   Go figure.   Oddly enough, however, I was not the one to initiate said conversation, nor was I even drinking what could be called a 'craft beer' at the time.   Truth be told, I rarely drink the good stuff at parties, not because I'm cheap or afraid it might get taken by other drunken patrons.  It's mostly because I like to have most of my mental acuities in somewhat working order when drinking something new and exciting.  It's like a good scotch, not something you want to power through - you want to savor the experience.   So my beverage of choice on the evening was more of the Euro pilsner variety - Wernesgruener and Pilsner Urquell, to be specific - with a couple of cans of hard cider for later.   Still more than acceptable, just nothing special.  It wasn't until a sporting gentleman with a finely coiffed mustache arrived with a bottle of something that sounded a great deal like it should be fighting Russel Crowe in the Colisseum - "Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus" from Microbrasserie Charlevoix.   Now I've heard this brewery mentioned in awed tones before, but I'd never seen one before in Ontario, much less tasted one.   It's a small brewery with a small output, but Charlevoix has developed quite a reputation as being among Canada's finest brewhouses.  Fortunately, our good friend was the sharing type, and offered those interested a sampling or two of the Hibernus, a winter-themed Belgian pale ale, rich and hearty, with notes of caramel, cherry, clove and spices.  A delectable treat.

A few days later, he messaged that he would be visiting in La Belle Province, and wondered if we wanted anything brought back.  Naturally, I leaped at the chance.   With the exception of Charlevoix, these are all from breweries whose wares I've sampled before; these are their more esoteric, smaller-release offerings rarely available outside of Quebec.

Here they are, in all their majesty!  Thanks Phil!  

They are, from L-R: Brasseurs RJ - Canon Doppelbock (since retired); Fin du Monde Trois Pistoles; Les Trois Mousquetaires Kellerbier, Rauchbier (smoked beer), 2010 Grand Cuvee Doppelbock, and their multi-award winning Baltic Porter.

All from Charlevoix. Unfortunately, none of the Dominus Vibiscum seasonal series was available yet, but am more than satisfied with what I managed to get.  The first four are part of a sample pack, which includes their Blonde, Tripel, Dubbel and Witbier.  "La Vache Folle" ('Mad Cow') is Charlevoix' other line that features brews more English in nature; I went with their Imperial Milk Stout.  Unfortunately the camera cut off the latter image, but rest assured, the cow is wearing a lamp for a hat.

A fantastic lineup.  But the question remains - when to consume it?  Some of these brews simply beg to be aged, the Doppelbock and the Baltic Porter in particular, while others can be consumed immediately.   It's very difficult not to drink them all right now....very difficult...but I think I can sate my curiosity by having one or two in the near future.     Don't worry - when I get around to each, you will be the first to know!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Belhaven Scottish Stout - Drink it up fast, lads.

Beer: Belhaven Scottish Stout
Brewery: Belhaven Brewery (Dunbar, Scotland)
Type: English Stout

At the end of what has been an unusually warm November week, things have finally cooled down somewhat.  By this I mean it's getting fucking cold and I don't much care for it.   As usual, the remedy for cold is booze and plenty of it (scientific evidence pending).   The LCBO fall release has been far from uniform thus far, with different centres receiving different product at different times, if at all - fortunately, Waterloo seems to be among Big Liquor's favoured towns, so I've been blessed with the entire fall lineup in a somewhat staggered fashion.  Yesterday was the first day I came across this hearty cherub of a brew from the good folks at Belhaven in East Lothian, Scotland.   I've had fantastic luck with Scottish brews - lots of unique pale ales, ales brewed in scotch barrels, and that delightful set of Historic Ales of Scotland I raved about this summer.   I've also had a successful first run from Belhaven; their St. Andrew's ale (a salute to the Old Course of the British Open golf championship fame) was a delightful little pale ale. 

A quick visit to the Belhaven website alerted me to the fact that their 'Scottish Stout' is only available for export (i.e., us and the U.S.), and has also received some high accolades from the brewing community.   That, and it happens to be cold out and the brew in question happens to be sitting pretty at 7% alcohol, so let's start drinking already!

English stouts are typically less bitter and tart than their American counterparts (certainly more so than the dreaded Russian Imperial), so I'm expecting a creamy, sweet overtone to counteract the roasted grain and coffee flavours.

Poured into a nonic glass.  Nearly-black, with only the faintest hints of chocolate brown when held to the light.  Solid mocha head, recedes into a sturdy ring.  Packets of lacing grace the glass throughout the tasting session.  Looks about right.

Nose is cream, roasted grain, coffee, chocolate, figs, cherry, spice. Very delectable, smells about right for the style.

A fairly tasty stout, lots going on here. Coffee and roasted grain at the forefront, overlain with a creamy, dark fruit palate.  Finishes with a slightly sour bite, but this is challenged with a long chocolate-caramel finish.  Unfortunately, the flavor gets somewhat weaker as the beer is allowed to sit and ponder its own diminishing existence. This is a bit surprising, as many brews benefit from a period of air and warm temperature exposure, but Belhaven seemingly does so.  Nevertheless, this is a sweet, flavorful stout.

Mouthfeel is thin for a stout, with decent carbonation at first, but things flatten considerably over time. Somewhat gritty near the finish.

Despite any detractions I might have said about the mouthfeel and such, I'm very much enjoying Belhaven Scottish Stout. There's so much flavor here that, even after things weaken after a while, there's still enough going on to satisfy the discerning beer palate.  To avoid this problem in the future, I might have to drink this one faster next time. Fine by me.

Worth a pickup. Good addition by the LCBO. (Grade: B)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Addendum: One More Pumpkin Brew!

Sorry folks, couldn't resist one more quick review of a pumpkin brew.   This sneaky bastard managed to elude my attention at the LCBO, but considering the pedigree of the brewery, I figured a review was in order. 

Beer: Post Road Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Brooklyn Brewery (NY, NY)
Type: Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 5%

Brooklyn is one of the bigger craft brewers in the American northeast (according to its website, it is the nation's 40th-largest brewer), and has developed quite a following for its flagship brands: Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Pennant Ale '55, Brooklyn Brown Ale, and perhaps its greatest success, Brooklyn's Black Chocolate Stout, a flavorful Russian Imperial that sits pretty at 10% ABV.   I fell in love with their Black Chocolate Stout last year, picking up the last 6 bottles I could find, and successfully managed to age two bottles for almost a year.   With all this in mind, I assumed that their seasonal offering, Post Road Pumpkin Ale, would be just the ticket to cap off another busy fall drinking season.

 Ehhhh, not so much.
Poured into a nonic ale glass.  Amber-golden, my deft pour left behind a thin, frothy head with excellent retention. Some lacing left on the glass.

Nose is ginger, nutmeg, allspice, caramel, hops, a touch of pumpkin.  Pleasant.
After a few sips, I came to the conclusion that this was not my favorite pumpkin brew of the season.  But it wasn't bad, all the basic pumpkin pie notes were all there.  The problem was that the spiced notes of the brew were altogether overpowering - the taste was very rich in ginger, molasses, nutmeg and allspice - but the bread-malt and pumpkin notes weren't given much of a spotlight.  Tasted a great deal like a spicy red ale than a pumpkin brew.  Becomes almost oppressively bitter by the end.  

Medium-light bodied, perhaps a touch on the light side. The spicy bitterness left a somewhat unpleasant feeling in the mouth.

Not my worst pumpkin brew of the year, but certainly not among the better ones either.  Too imbalanced and spice-heavy to really get going.  The flavors themselves weren't bad, but judging within the pumpkin ale style, this one was far too spiced to really work.   A bit surprising considering Brooklyn's brewing pedigree; I had high hopes for this one.   I guess it wasn't to my tastes.  If you like spicier beer, this might be the ticket - as for me, it didn't really do the trick.  (Grade: C+)

That's it!  No more pumpkin beer for me this season; I've reached my yearly quota.  As things get colder and the percentage of Christmas commercials achieves near totality, it will soon be time to start cracking open holiday brews like doppelbocks, winter warmers and strong dark ales! 

'Till next Hallowe'en....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Crafty Belgian Marketing: La Chouffe Strong Pale Ale

Beer: La Chouffe
Brewery: Brasserie d'Achouffe (Achouffe, Belgium)
Type: Belgian Strong Pale Ale / Tripel
ABV: 8%

Normally, if the LCBO comes out with a new Belgian ale, I pick it up without even blinking and rarely need any additional convincing.  Then of course there are beers like La Chouffe, beers that absolutely demand to be purchased.   Why, do you ask? 


I mean...awww....what cute little guy.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again: gnomes are good people.  Especially this little fellow, with his little red hat and his handful of harvested herbs and vegetables.    If you think this label is cute, check out the brewery's website, and you'll discover new levels of GIF adorableness.   You can even buy little red gnome hats!   I must make a trek there someday, if not for their pro-gnome agenda, at the very least for the lovely scenery of the adjacent Ardennes forest. 

The adorable gnome character isn't just a sneaky marketing scheme to tug at the heartstrings of beer bloggers such as myself; it's a verbal play with the name of the brewery.   Achouffe is a small town in Wallonia, which is the southern French-speaking half of Belgium, and is part of the forests of the Ardennes.  "Achouffe" in Walloonspeak sounds a great deal like "la chouffe", Walloonspeak for 'gnome', which meant that the marketing department of the brewery didn't have to think for very long.  Which is probably a good thing.   The brewery was founded in 1982 by Chris Bauweraerts, and the delightful gnome motif (as well as the beer) was a huge hit with consumers in the glutted Belgian beer market.   Although Brasserie d'Achouffe was taken over by brewing giant Duvel-Moortgat in 2006, the new owners have wisely left the 'chouffe' line alone, exporting it first to the Netherlands, then other global beer markets.  Just in time for the Christmas season, the LCBO brought in some big bottles of this delightful stuff for our drinking pleasure.  The LCBO Christmas gift set release is a difficult time for me; with so many wonderful, wonderful beer and glassware combo sets, many of which featuring brews I've never encountered before, it's very difficult to all of them.   This one seemed like a good first choice; it didn't come with a glass, so Michelle can rest assured I'm not inundating our house with beer glasses, and if people want to buy more of them for me for Christmas, I'll welcome them gladly.

To beer!

As is often the case with Belgian ales, this one was poured into my trusty Duvel goblet.   (I'm not alone in my preference for this glass; a recent BA forum asked what our favorite glassware was, and Duvel's unique chalice was the overwhelming response).  La Chouffe pours a deep golden, with hints of orange when held out of the light.  Mildly opaque.  Left a magnificent two-inch foamy head, which receded into a nice half-inch patchy froth.  Sheets of lacing with every sip.  An extra-big bottle meant for extra sampling, which made for an enjoyable evening.

Nose is apple, pear, honey, peach, floral hops, pale Belgian malt, yeast.

This brew is making for an excellent evening sipper.  Almost too sweet, but it's too damned tasty for me to care.  Honey, apple, pear, candied fruit, floral notes, coriander and spice are the big players here.  Finishes dry, with a nice floral hop touch. Long finish.    This brew reminds me a great deal of Unibroue's La Fin du Monde, it's just a great deal sweeter and fruitier than it's Quebec counterpart.   I suspect gnomes are the reason behind this.

Medium bodied, with a champagne-like mouthfeel after the first pour but as I work my way through the 750ml bottle, this wanes quite a bit.  

A tasty Belgian strong ale, a great sipper for a quiet night in.  Tripels have a tendency to be either very sweet and candy-like, or very dry and peppery.  La Chouffe definitely leans towards the former; Duvel and Fin du Monde the latter.   My palate still leans towards the former, but I'm finding I'm preferring my Belgian ales drier and more robust as I go along, so for now, La Chouffe falls well within my threshold.   In either case, this was an enjoyable brew, and I will certainly be back for another before the season is done.   (Grade: A)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hallowe'en Drink'n: A Scarrrry Roundup of Pumpkin Brews!

Well, Hallowe'en is over, and the dreary month of November is upon us.  Unless you're one of those guys who sees November as a month to channel his inner Tom Selleck, or if you happen to live across the border and choose to celebrate Thanksgiving six weeks too late, for the rest of us November is a pretty lame month.  It's cold; it's dark; the leaves have long gone; it's fucking cold; retailers are busy convincing the lot of us that Christmas season began four weeks ago and that we're all chronically late on our shopping duties, (and as a subset, the odd Christmas carol will sneak in to a mall playlist, driving up the rate of brain aneurysms.) 

"Walking in a winter wonderland..."

But fear not!  As with most of my calendar-related tips, hope in the face of the 'November blahs' can be found in beer!   For another month and a half, it's still technically fall, and there's still time to enjoy the last of the fall seasonals before they start putting out the holiday gift packs at the LCBO (which they already did...)   If you happen to live in a neighborhood of some kind, you've probably noticed the mouldy, crusty, morbid remains of many a smashed pumpkin.  Such carnage on a global scale reminds us that pumpkins have, for many years, been a common ingredient in fall brewing.  Many a North American brewmaster has taken the normally useless innards of a pumpkin for more noble pursuits: pumpkin pie + beer = beer that tastes like pumpkin pie!  If done well, pumpkin beer can be a wonderful fall treat, a delicious way to combine one's love of autumn with love of drinking  (that, and Candy Corn Schnapps).  Done badly, and...we'll get to that in a moment.   Let us begin our roundup of pumpkin ales!


Beer: Grand River Highballer Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Grand River Brewing (Cambridge, ON)
ABV: 5.2%

For those who have been with the blog for a while, you may remember that I've already reviewed this before.  And you would be correct.  I'm including this brew in my roundup for two reasons.  First, small breweries (Grand River being a textbook example of this) are always growing and learning their craft, and over the course of a few years, greater experience and greater revenue can allow them to try different methods of producing the same beer.  Unlike the large brewers whose recipes are written on stone tables, craft brewers can see subtle differences in their brews from year to year, intentional or not.   Some years everything works together perfectly, other years not so much.   It can be remarkably touch-and-go, so I like to try to revisit batches, especially of holiday or one-off brews, to see if there has been a yearly change.   My other reason is because the Grad House put Highballer on tap, which gives me a much better approximation of what the brewer (Rob Creighton) was intending. 

Poured into a Grand River ale glass.  As can be seen in the pic, the brew is amber-copper, with about a 1/2 inch head, terrific retention right to the bitter end. Every sip yielded sheets of lacing, with patches scattered here and there. Looks terrific.

Nose is primarily that of spicy pumpkin pie, with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and molasses asserting themselves, and with pumpkin and malty sweetness providing the backing.

The taste is quite good for a pumpkin ale - really hit the spot on a cold, rainy October day. Pumpkin flavor was rich and hearty, a touch of molasses and piecrust, with nutmeg and cinnamon providing a sharp spicy tang. Finishes clean with a slight hop bitterness. Keeping the whole thing in check was a lovely red ale base, malty and crisp. Quite enjoyable, and not an artificial-tasting flavor in the lot.

Mouthfeel is creamy, with an assertive carbonation that peppers the tongue with spicy goodness.

I've had this ale three different years now, and I've got to say that Rob and Bob have nailed it with this year's edition, at least on tap anyhow. Rich, satisfying, but drinkable (as far as a pumpkin beer goes). All the great flavors of pumpkin pie, but with enough of a pale ale base to make it easier to down a pint or two in an evening.  A fine effort!  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewing (Toronto)
ABV: 5.5%

I picked up this brew with a remarkable feeling of apprehension, because I can't really say I'm a fan of most things Great Lakes has released.   For a brewer of some fairly outside-the-pale lagers and ales, some of their brews can be very one-dimensional and...well...strange.  Great Lakes are the guys who produce almost everything in tall bottles featuring seemingly bizarre ingredients.   You may have come across Orange Peel Ale,  Canuck Pale Ale, or last year, their Green Tea Ale in your travels.  Great Lakes for me is exactly hit-or-miss, I've yet to have a beer by them that I didn't either really like or detest.   In the case of the latter, like with their Green Tea Ale, I found that the beer tasted exactly like you'd expect a beer with Green Tea to taste like: pale ale + green tea.   Nothing special, but neither is it anything to be proud of.  By this logic I'm sure I could make a French Toast Lager that tastes somewhat like beer with French toast in it, to the detriment of both.  By contrast, I've found myself really enjoying their Devils Pale Ale #666, and last years' Winter Ale was on par with many other winter warmers I sampled last Christmas.   Some of their lesser known brews (i.e., the one's they choose not to release, save for events only the most dedicated beer-geeks can attend), have received some pretty fine accolades, many of which have some pretty awesome names.  Examples include: My Bitter Wife IPA, Miami Weisse, Neutron Bomb Double IPA, and my personal favorite, My Wife Went To the West Coast and All I Got Was This Lousy Pale Ale.  

Great Lakes is like a delinquent child who every once in a while does something charitable; although I can't completely write them off because they can brew, they frustrate me because they just choose to put out only their most boring, one-dimensional novelty fare in the LCBO, with only a couple exceptions.  Hopefully I can manage to sample some of their better stuff in the future, and can in some small way encourage its greater distribution.   So, with this in mind, here we go:

Light copper-golden, a thin, foamy head that recedes after a few moments. Some visible carbonation.

Nose is pretty dull - pale malts, light hops, only a faint nutmeg, pumpkin scent that I could barely detect - others with me could not.  Michelle claimed that she could only smell Coors Light.  Things not looking good.

The taste is a big let-down.  For a beer that markets itself as a pumpkin ale, where the fuck is the pumpkin???  Unlike the noble jack o lantern, which features prominently on your front step or in your window for all to see, the pumpkin here chooses instead to hide in the back, only making rare visits as the beer warms up. The spicy flavor is not all that enjoyable either - more tinny and artificial. If this were a well made pale ale with subtle pumpkin notes, this would be excusable; sadly, it is not. Truth be told, I had trouble finishing it.

Mouthfeel is thin, carbonation provides a light sting.

I had been warned about this brew by friends and family, but I just couldn't not try it.  Turns out I shouldn't have.  Comparing this brew to others of the style, and it's not even close.   A big pass on this one.  (Grade: C-)

Beer: Southern Tier Imperial Pumking
Brewery: Southern Tier (Lakewood, NY)
ABV: approx. 8%

I won't go too far into this brew, as my thoughts on Southern Tier have been made pretty clear so far: if they want to brew something that tastes exactly like something they can do it, for good or for ill.   I will say, however, that Pumking is one of the biggest American pumpkin ales in terms of hype and accolades; if your average beer geek were to rattle off the best pumpkin ales in the country, this number would definitely
feature on most lists.  Let's have at it.

Poured into a nonic. Light copper, leaves a foamy head that settles after a few minutes. Left some flakes of lacing that survive to the finish.

The nose is pure pumpkin pie goodness - smells like the crust of my Thanksgiving dessert treat.  Nutmeg, cinnamon, molasses and crackers as well.  Oh, and of course loads of fresh pumpkin.

The taste is also unmistakably that of pumpkin pie, an effect that caused many a quizzical look between Michelle and I as we wondered whether our leftover frozen pies from Thanksgiving hadn't thawed, liquified, spontaneously fermented and then poured themselves into our glasses of their own free will to the tune of Fantasia's "Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Nah, couldn't be... (*double-checks freezer to be absolutely sure*)  

Flavor notes are: pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon, crackers, crust, and to keep things from getting out of hand, a slightly hoppy finish to cleanse the palate. What really shocks me is how little of the alcohol I can detect - hard to believe there's 8 percents-worth lurking in here...

A touch watery, but with a reasonable carbonation to help work through what is turning out to be one heavy dose of overwhelming pumpkin flavour.

Sharing was a smart idea. The flavor is so potent, so hearty, that more than a pint or two a season would be simply too much. Southern Tier need not worry about this - pumpkin ales are a seasonal treat that many of us look forward to but only so few can drink in vast quantities; fortunately their Pumking can rightfully claim to be among the best of the patch, so when I want my pumpkin ale fix, theirs will be almost certainly be the one I call upon.  About the only thing working against Pumking, at least in Ontario, is the price-point.  At nearly 9 bucks a pop, it's pretty steep.  But if you happen across it and are feeling adventurous, I strongly recommend splitting a bottle with a friend or two, because Pumking is, thus far, the most authentic pumpkin-flavored brew I've come across.  Awesome stuff.  (Grade: A-)

Pumpkin ales are an acquired taste, and are certainly something that most people can only handle a pint or two of in a year, but hopefully my quick little roundup has helped differentiate between the available fare.  Make sure you get the chance to enjoy one while taking down your Halloween decorations or after raking up the last of the autumn leaves, cause they won't be there for long.  Christmas is right around the corner, after all...

Pictured: Tomorrow, according to the nation's malls.