Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quebec Brew #3 - A Roasty Brunette!

Hello all, hope the holidays were good to everyone!   Here's a quick little review to finish off my Les Trois Mousquetaires brews for a little while.  I've still got the Doppelbock sitting in the cellar, but I think I'll leave it there a while longer, see if it'll sit pretty for a few months.   Might not, we'll see.  It's really hard for me to cellar stuff that I don't have a double of - which I don't - so the temptation might get to me pretty soon.  Good rule to live by: if you're going to buy a beer with the purposes of cellaring, get two.  One for now, one for later.   Since I've only got one of the Doppelbock, I might just have to have it soon.  Ah, screw it, I'll crack it open this week. 

Wow.  Did you see what I just did there?  I just managed to convince myself to deliberately change my drinking stratagem solely through the powers of my blog ramblings.   Absolutely no self-discipline.  None.  Oy...  

Fortunately, this is a review of a brew I actually meant to review, so at least there's that.    Onwards and upwards!

Beer: Les Trois Mousquetaires Rauchbier
Brewery: Les Trois Mousquetaires (Brossard, PQ)
Type: Rauchbier (smoked beer)
ABV: 5%
Trois Mousquetaires "Sword Rating" - Four Swords

I savoured this one for a long period of time, longer than usual.  Not necessarily because it was something sublime that demanded slow contemplation - I just happened to be incredibly full from Boxing Day turkey dinner, and I couldn't manage more than a sip or two every five minutes.  I got a good feel for the brew at different temperature gradients, but I must admit I probably should have went for a brew in a smaller-volume bottle, because this one almost bested me.  I think it will take me about a week until my stomach fully recovers from the holidays...so much food...

Poured into a nonic glass.  A dark chestnut brew, with bright ruby patches gracing the edges.  Great billowing tan head, survived quite well as a thick ring with islands of foam.  Sticky icicles of lacing.   The quality of the head/lacing improved tremendously upon subsequent pours, so clearly temperature was a factor here.   Definitely a fine-looking brew.

Nose is malts and smoke, with the latter reminding me of a smoked Gouda or German sausage, but it was by no means overpowering.  If you want a real example of a beer that smells (and tastes) like smoked cheese, give Aecht Schlenkerla a try.  It will knock your socks off.   In addition to the delightful mild smoke profile, there's a bit of caramel, bread and dark fruit as well.   Not bad at all.

LTM's Rauchbier is a flavorful lager, rich and malty, with the smoked component arriving near the finish.  Smoke, peat and barbecued sausage (again, only whiffs of this, nothing oppressive), with a bit of chocolate and dark fruit to boot.  Finish is dry, smoky, and towards the end of the bottle surprisingly sour and puckery.  Several moments after each sip, I get a nice hit of dark chocolate and cocoa.

Medium bodied, smooth, mild carbonation, slightly creamy.

The "rauch" character is certainly present, though nowhere near as powerful as the aforementioned Aecht Schlenkerla or the other German examples.  After an initial hit, I became acclimatized to the smoked flavors, and thus I felt the brew could have handled a bit more umph.  Still, this was a tasty brown lager with a nice little smoked character. 

Another fine brew from Les Trois Mousquetaires.  Probably not worthy of the so-called "four sword" rating, as I didn't feel that the smoked character was too much for less-seasoned palates to handle.  It's actually a great introduction to the style, and a fun little beer to drink.  The smoke flavor isn't overbearing, but the other dark lager flavors are more than enough to keep things interesting.   (Grade: B+)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Review! - Quebec Beer #2: A Sultry Black

A wonderful Christmas Eve to you all!  It's cold and clear and shaping up to be a lovely white Christmas in Waterloo.  I hope all of you managed to get wherever you wanted to be for the holidays, and that the day is filled with family, happiness - and hopefully an ale or two!

Thought I'd do a quick review before the festivities truly begin, this being another gem from my Quebec Beer Haul!  Enjoy! 

Beer: Porter Baltique Grande Cuvee
Brewery: Les Trois Mousquetaires (Brossard, PQ)
Type: Baltic Porter
ABV: 10%

Baltic Porters are similar to Russian Imperial Stouts, in that their high ABV's and big malt profile meant for better shipping to colder climes - in this case, the Baltic ports of Russia.  Rich, hearty, full of boozy goodness - a great winter brew as well!

Les Trois Mousquetaire's version is one black hole of a brew from which light cannot escape. Seriously, this stuff is dark.  As the brew warmed up in the tall bottle, I was more successful in producing a bit of mocha head, but not much.  There's little lacing as well, with just a thin ring surviving. Looks like this is what other folks have got from this batch as well, so I'm not worried.   Great colour, though.

Nose is lovely - dark and milk chocolate, coffee, cream, cherry, grape, figs and raisins. A wonderful roasty smoke taste as well.

Tastes as good as it smells: a luscious blend of flavors from the imperial stout palette, but it distinguishes itself with a creamy, milk-stout character and a fruity profile more reminiscent of an English brown or plain porter.  Lots going on here.  Molasses, espresso, hazelnut also make an appearance.  Finishes slightly dry and bitter.

The body is thick and creamy, with slightly higher than expected carbonation, but this was definitely a good thing to keep the thickness and ABV in check. Not chalky or anything - a good silky feel.

Not the best looking brew on the block, but this brew scored big points where it counts - the flavor department. Lots of tasting notes to keep even the most discerning beer geek busy. I've been very happy with LTM so far, and their Baltic Porter, while not the blow-you-away brew beer I was expecting, was certainly a quality, flavorful brew. Well worth a pick up if you can find it!  (Grade: A-)

Merry Christmas, everyone!  I'll see you after the holiday!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Beer (or two) to Fit the Wintry Season!

Well, in but a few moments the worst will officially be over.  The winter solstice will occur, which is both the absolute low point of the year's daylight as well as the time of year I give serious consideration to my plan to move to San Bernardino and panhandle for boozin' money.  At least it's warm there and I can work in my shorts (or out of my shorts, depending on my clientele's wishes).   Despite the sad advent of the winter season, there is a cause for some rejoicing, for from this point forward, each day will be a little bit longer than the one before it, soon ushering in a season of warmth and beauty, where 'twill be evergreen!

Bull.  Shit.

Does it look like it's getting any warmer out there?  Does spring appear to be just around the corner?  No!  This is a picture taken about three weeks ago from outside my drinking window, three weeks ago of course being technically autumn:

Pictured: A crisp autumn morning.

Does this crapshoot look like autumn to you?  Fuck that - it's been winter in this country for like four weeks now, and let me tell you now brother, it ain't getting any better.  I've always hated the idea that winter somehow 'begins' on December 21st; perhaps this has something to do with my Canuck heritage (that, and a penchant for oppressive politeness and a Tourette's-like tendency to burst out into fits of unnecessary bilingualism).   Winter is defined as the period of the year when the sun is the lowest in the sky and snowball-related homicides are at an all time high.   But the sun has abandoned us for at least a month now, so it hardly makes sense to say that the season just begun when, technically, things are on the upswing.  We've already slogged through half of the shortest days of the year, and it won't be winter for another hour.  What up with that?

I've been bitching about winter as early as November 20th, and I've got to say, it's really working well for me.  Thus, winter should, in my book, officially start at around November 21st, thus incorporating into the season the belated American Thanksgiving festival (to show them how unnecessarily late it really is) as well as any freak "early" snow storms (i.e., the ones that happen every fucking year.)  The entire month of December now becomes officially part of the winter season.  Technically, as things stand, we only really have the 21st till the 25th of December to go "walking in a winter wonderland" - doing so before hand is technically a "fall wonderland," a foul concept that offends Jesus and brings comfort to our enemies abroad.  

Sorry, enough bitching.  Time to focus on beer, which in this case are two frighteningly appropriately-named brews in honor of the changing of the seasonal guard.

Rarely does an opportunity come about in which a brew so is perfectly timed for consumption.  Some brews really set themselves up - demand, really - to be drank at certain times of the year - Oktoberfest lagers, Christmas Winter Warmers, Lenten Bocks, etc.  Dieu du Ciel has taken this a step further and actually made a series of brews in celebration of the four seasons.

L-R: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall

Thus, if you really wanted to (and I intend to), you could drink an "Equinoxe du Printemps" Scotch Ale on March 21st, a "Solstice D'été" Berliner Weisse on June 21st, and an "Equinoxe d'Automne" Rauchbier on the 21st of September.   So lets get things rolling!  On this, winter solstice, let's drink a pint of....winter solstice!

Beer: Solstice d'hiver
Brewery: Dieu du Ciel! (Montreal)
Type: Barleywine
ABV: 9.8%

Barleywines are a great brew to drink in the winter, if you can get past the lower carbonation and the almost cloying levels of sweetness.  I can, so I do.  It's an older style of beer, and among the strongest out there in terms of flavor and alcohol.  They are also great for cellaring, so I plan on holding on to a bottle or so of this.    But since I just got in from another insane day of last-minute Christmas shopping, I really can go for one right now.  So I will.

As usual, a wonderful bottle design from the DDC artists. Haunting winter imagery, perfect for this brew.  Poured into a nonic glass.  Rich amber-chestnut, with a very thin head that quickly recedes into a little ring.  Looks thick and rich, like a slug of good malty scotch.  About right for the style.

Nose is rich caramel, molasses, sherry, wood, cherry, good whiff of booze as well. This should be great!

A highly flavorful and enjoyable barleywine. Rich notes of caramel, brandy, grape, cherry, oak, toffee and cream.  A nutty character to it as well, maybe cashew or almond.  Sweet and rich, but that's what I'm always hoping for. Barleywines are fast becoming my go-to winter brew, and this one delivers big time. Alcohol is certainly present, but in a delightfully warming fashion. I may still be reeling from a snow-shovelling stupor, but this brew is really hitting the spot. The right brew at the right time, that's what I say!

Thick and chewy, slick, but with a delightfully higher-than-average carbonation level. This one is going down well.

Another winner from Dieu du Ciel - great on a cold, snowy first night. I may be biased towards barleywines, but if I likes it, I scores it high. And this one I likes. A few of these kicking around the house will certainly help get me through the cold, cold season ahead.

Next up is a brew that isn't as perfectly timed for today, but still fits the bill as a winter brew.
(Grade: A)

Beer: Christoffel Bok
Brewery: Bierbrouwerij Sint Christoffel (Roermond, Netherlands)
Type: Bock
ABV: 7.8%

I've had a few of this brewers' wares before in these stubby little hinged-top bottles, and so far I've enjoyed them.  Their "Nobel" hopped pilsner was quite nice, as I recall.  The brewery is located in Roermond, a town in the extreme southeast of the Netherlands, almost pushing into Belgium.  

Poured into a chalice. A dark sludgy brown-amber, leaving behind just the slightest amount of head. Doesn't last long, however. I can't really call this an attractive-looking brew by any stretch.

The nose is much better: rich malty goodness, a light touch of grassy hops, candied plums and grapes, sugar, and a bit of alcohol. 

Not a bad tasting bock by any means, but it certainly isn't anything special. A fine study in malts, I will admit that, with strong notes of bread, caramel, grain and toffee.  Like most bocks, Christoffel is dark and fruity, boasting flavors of sherry, figs, plum and grape. Very sweet, but finishes with a slight hoppy dryness that helps things along.
Mouthfeel is thick, but definitely under-carbonated. I know bocks shouldn't be overly crisp, but this one just drank too much like a barleywine to really feel right.

A decent bock, but not nearly as good as others I've sampled this year, nor is it the best from this brewer (I enjoyed their Nobel a great deal). There wasn't anything offensive about it, it drank pretty well, but it wasn't fantastic.  (Grade: B)


Looking outside, it's now completely dark, which means that we are now entering the longest night of the year.  If you can swing it, snuggle up with a loved one and a nice glass of strong winter ale, and start praying for spring.  I know I will be...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Matt's Beer Den at the Movies: A Review of "Beer Wars"

“Frankly, over here we find your American beer is a little like making love in a canoe.  It’s fucking close to water.” - Eric Idle

If the beer industry landscape as portrayed by Anat Baron in her 2009 documentary film "Beer Wars" is to be believed, then it is most certainly a very bleak one indeed.   In the increasingly-aggressive competition to win the patronage of the American beer-drinking consumer, flavor is out and sameness is in, at least for the major breweries that dominate the market.  As the film explains, there really are only three major American brewery players in the game, and they want things to stay that way.  At the time of the film's release, Anheuser-Busch held a nearly 50% market share of the nation's beer, and with its total output combined with the two next-highest sellers, Miller and Coors, respectively, the Big Three (referred to derisively in the beer geek lingo as 'BMC') hold more than three quarters of the entire market.  A serious, possibly insurmountable challenge for the nation's micro or "craft" breweries to overcome.  To be fair, the status quo of brewing world can hardly be said to differ from that of most other industries, with a few winners soaking in the sun and hundreds of smaller  pretenders finding a niche and surviving as best they can.  But the trees that occupy the canopy are not satisfied with simply being at the top.   The big breweries utilize whatever tools they can to maintain and to increase their market share, be it through brewery acquisitions or buyouts, aggressive marketing campaigns and lucrative sponsorship, glutting the market, and even outright imitation and duplication of rivals' practices - just as other large companies in other fields have done in order to secure their primacy.  It's a tough world down at the bottom, but there are some interesting characters to be found there.

What follows in "Beer Wars" is Baron's exploration of the recent successes of the 'craft beer movement' and the counter-revolution initiated by the Big Three brewers.  "Beer Wars" is above all else a film, and it is a highly enjoyable one at that.  Baron uses some classic documentary film tricks (animated segments and backstory, adorable 1950s commercials, apropos clips from Monty Python, Cheers, etc.) to keep the entertainment level high.  Not that I needed additional sources of entertainment - learning about beer is all the excitement I need for one afternoon - but I appreciated the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock feel.   Anat Baron is also an interesting character herself: a former executive with Mike's Hard Lemonade who, lamentably, cannot drink herself!  Because of this allergy to alcohol, at the very least we can say that Baron is not swayed one way or another by personal tastes.   Baron, like many documentary filmmakers, frames her story around several important figures to give the beer industry story a human face.   Unsurprisingly, the human face is represented by the craft brewers and brewing entrepreneurs, which include Jim Koch of Samuel Adams, Brooklyn Brewery's brewmaster and beer chef Garrett Oliver, and even a quick word from the founders of Beer Advocate, the Allstrom Brothers.  The two figures that receive the most of Baron's attention are interesting characters to say the least, although I am not sure I completely agree with one of her choices. 

She first makes the journey out to Delaware to meet with Sam Calaglione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and one of these so-called "lunatic-fringe" brewers who, fed up with the lack of selection and flavor available in mainstream beer, began brewing the kind of beer he wanted to drink at home in the early 1990s.  Consumers have responded favorably to his wares, and sales have been steadily rising (his 60 Minute IPA is occasionally available at the LCBO), allowing Dogfish Head to grow to be one of the largest independent craft brewers in the Eastern United States.  Though Sam and the Dogfish team have achieved what can be declared a 'success-story' in the craft brewing world, theirs is a business fraught with challenges.   As Baron demonstrates, perhaps the greatest obstacle facing new brewers is the act of physically getting their products on the store shelves and in the bars.   Brewers like Dogfish are limited in their ability to ship their brews over long distances because of the so-called "three-tier system" of beer delivery.  Simply put: in order to keep breweries far away from the retailers (a throwback to the Prohibition repeal process), brewers must work through intermediaries - wholesalers - to deliver their products to the nation's supermarkets,  liquor stores and retail outlets.   This works well, if of course you happen to be one of the larger brewers that owns shares or contracts with the wholesalers; smaller brewers must either hire their own wholesalers (too expensive), piggyback on bigger brewers' trucks (unlikely, expensive, no guarantee space will be made), or become affiliated with the larger brewers through ownership (loss of control).  This system, the one the political beer lobby and the major brewers wholeheartedly favour, effectively restricts smaller breweries from expanding their output past a certain range, or forces them to ship privately to other markets, raising their costs - and thus the price - significantly.

But the problems don't end there.  When the beer finally makes it to the stores, there is still no guarantee that craft brews will receive favorable positioning and shelf space because the bigger breweries have already set up arrangements with retailers to  put their products in the 'plum' spots (at eye level, just inside the fridge door).  In one liquor store visited by Baron, Bud Light alone controls an entire section of fridge space, the shelves packed with endless (and probably unnecessary) permutations of its product: 24 pack, 12 packs, 6 packs, 6 packs of cans, individual cans, etc.  By flooding the shelves with product, Bud Light achieves what is known as a "billboard effect", whereby the sheer volume of beer on display acts as a sort of advertisement in and of itself, while also effectively shutting out the competition from a critical section of the beer aisle.  A similar effect occurs in Ontario's 'The Beer Store', which is majority-owned by the largest breweries in the province: Labatt, Molson-Coors, and Sleeman.  While their products are displayed in large piles on the floor for easy impulse access,  those of smaller breweries are relegated to "somewhere inconvenient in the back."  On top of all of this, craft breweries often find themselves on the receiving end of lawsuits from major brewers; in the film, Dogfish receives one such suit from Anheuser ordering them to cease marketing certain brews because of 'name infringement' (this case was eventually dismissed).  Few of these lawsuits have much merit, and appear to be designed to intimidate or pressure smaller brewers, rather than as a means to correct wrongs.   Indeed, a constant theme of "Beer Wars" is of Anheuser-Busch's increasingly aggressive tactics to prevent craft breweries from growing into a position where they can pose a legitimate threat.   The question remains: what exactly is Budweiser, with its 50% marketing share, afraid of?   Is it the fact that Americans are increasingly becoming drawn to beers that differ from the standard industrial pale lager fare?  It can sometimes be difficult to tell.

All, or at least most of these aggressive business practices could be excused somewhat if the company in question manages to produce a quality product that deserves to be found in shops across the country.  That is, after all, the supposed benefit of a capitalist market for the consumer - that the better product will win out.  An early South Park episode ('Gnomes') hammered this point home with its spoof of the success of Starbucks ('Harbucks' in the show). When Harbucks begins plans to open a new store in South Park, the company is immediately perceived to be a a villainous, greedy, soulless megacorporation - much to the satisfaction of threatened 'small-town' coffee shop owner Mr. Tweak. Yet when the townspeople eventually finally overcome their initial aversions and agree to try Harbucks coffee, they find that they actually enjoy it - far more so, in fact, than the local coffee produced by Mr. Tweak.  The real Starbucks achieved its success in part by producing good coffee, perhaps not enough to justify a place at nearly every street corner in North America, but certainly enough for some degree of ubiquity.  This isn't to say that small coffee shops can't make a great cup of joe; indeed, some of my very favorite caffeine sessions have been in little shops in small towns across the counry.  But the point is made that small shops aren't necessarily, by virtue of their being small, better.  Returning to the beer, while BMC might maintain a massive percentage of the market, did they get there by producing the a better beverage or appealing to what the public wants?  A filmed taste-test conducted for the documentary seems to demonstrate otherwise. Volunteers, many selected specifically because of their avowed devotion to either Miller, Coors or Budweiser, were unable to identify their favorite brew from amongst their competitors despite years of practice. All three brewers are producing beer that is virtually indistinguishable from one another - it's golden, thin, easy to drink and tastes more or less the same as its major competitors (though BMC representatives will vigorously refute this assertion).  As Canadian beer-writer and instigator of the Canadian craft beer movement Frank Appleton declared: "Corporate beer is not too heavy, not too bitter, not too alcoholic, not too malty.  In other words, corporate beer reduces every characteristic that makes beer beer." Thus, Boston Brewery founder Jim Koch's statement in the film that "most Americans have never had a real beer" rings particularly true.  As more and more Americans become aware that there is more to beer than the industrial pale lager, wallets are more frequently lightened with craft beer purchases than ever before.  Although their overall market share is still at a mere 10%, American independent brewery sales are growing annually; in some regions, like the microbrewing mecca of Portland, Oregon, that number hovers closer to twenty percent. 
Step One: Brew Beer.  Step Two...  Step Three: Profit!!

So clearly, smaller breweries are better - right?  Does craft beer in general thus deserve to be so universally lauded while the standard bigmarket output is so universally maligned?  This crucial question is given little attention in the film, and some consideration of the issue would have done wonders to help "Beer Wars" rise above the simple 'David vs. Goliath' theme that is featured in countless other 'anti-corporation' documentaries.   In my opinion, most craft brews out there are indeed a great deal better than the 'corporate' BMC fare, but I also feel that simply being a small brewer doesn't guarantee that the beer will be any good.  Indeed, I've had many brews from small, craft breweries that failed to impress to the point where a Keiths or Moosehead would have been the far-preferable option.  Being the little guy isn't enough.  Baron attempts to demonstrate the challenges of new breweries to break into the scene, but does so with a lousy example, the film's second major character. 

New brewery owner Rhonda Kallman is a young, attractive mother of two and a former second-in-command with Samuel Adams, one of America's largest craft breweries.  After determining that she had learned all she could learn at Sam Adams, Kallman decided to enter the brewing world for herself, eventually founding the New Century Brewing Company in Massachusetts.   Her flagship brew, "Moonshot", is a unique one: a light lager infused with caffeine to provide an extra jolt to help consumers 'keep the party going.'   Though a few bars, restaurants and stores in the Northeast have picked up Moonshot, the overall company outlook has not been good.  Shots of Kallman pitching her brew to various players in the industry (including, perhaps out of desperation, some BMC reps) indicate that she has achieved minimal results.  With Kallman working long hours to get her company off the ground, her family-life clearly has suffered somewhat with Mommy being away from home for so long and the family finances so tied into the success of Moonshot.  It's a sad situation that will be all too familiar to struggling entrepreneurs and business owners everywhere.  Despite all one's hard work - and the comforting presence of countless motivational posters -success isn't a guarantee, especially in such a competitive environment as the brewing industry.  One is undoubtedly supposed to feel sorry for Kallman and draw parallels between her situation and that of the craft brewing movement as a whole. But Baron's study of Kallman's situation fails to address that most critical aspect of any story about brewing: does the beer taste any good?  In all the discussions of how much trouble Kallman was having because of external forces and natural industry challenges, there wasn't a whole lot to be said about the beer itself.  In Kallman's case, her Moonshot brew came across to me as nothing more than a niche-filling novelty brew, something designed to attract the attention of the heavy-drinking, party-till-the-early-morning crowd who rely upon additional stimulants like Red Bull to keep rolling.  But those who want that extra buzz already have Red Bull; those who want to drink a beer aren't likely to be looking for a caffeinated beer.  They just want a good-tasting beer, which doesn't seem to be the case for Moonshot.  Reviewers at Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate have almost unanimously given Moonshot very poor reviews in terms of flavor and quality.  Without a great product or a market niche to tap in to, it doesn't look like Moonshot has a great shot at success, nor does it really seem like it deserves to be there.  Not all breweries fail because of aggressive competition and unfavorable situations; sometimes, the beer just isn't that great.  A bit more discussion into the risks of experimentation and the challenges of establishing a customer base that actually likes the beer would have taken this film so much further, and would have made for a more representative picture of the craft beer industry.

Despite this criticism, I must say I was still generally very pleased with "Beer Wars."  It was well-made, funny, mostly fair, and told an important story - at least an important story for those who love beer.  For those whose idea of the perfect beer is a bottle of cold Budweiser, the film alerted them to the existence of a craft beer alternative that might just be worth a try.  Many baby-boom Americans, like their Canadian counterparts, grew up in an era where there were very few drinking options to choose from, and so their devotion to a particular bland is fully understandabel.   With liquor stores filled with more beer options, many seasoned beer quaffers (like my father and many of my family friends) have whole-heartedly embraced the unique flavors and diverse styles available in craft beer.  The same goes for those eager to support the 'locally grown' movement; as a bartender myself, my heart leaps just a little every time a customer, searching for their nightly beer selection, asks me "What's local?"  Hopefully, the film might encourage even just a few folks to do the same.   For those those who already have developed a passion for craft brewing, "Beer Wars" serves as a reminder that the revolution for flavor and variety still faces serious obstacles and resistance from various political and industrial players.  If you love your craft beer, keep supporting it, because BMC and the big brewery players will keep pushing for your beer dollars. 

Although the film didn't really tell me anything I didn't know or suspect before, it was nevertheless an important film that I whole-heartedly believe will further the cause of craft brewing in the United States (and hopefully Canada). And that's something worth celebrating.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Something, something 'dark beer'....Something, something complete!"

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like booze, booze and more booze.  In fact, counting off the top of my head no less than seven presents wrapped under my Christmas tree are alcohol-related, and sadly, none of which are as yet for me.   Fortunately, the LCBO had itself a nice little winter release this year, so I decided to pick myself up a few early Christmas presents cause, you know - fuck waiting.   I'm not really worried about picking up new brews this close to the arrival of St. Nick; the great thing about giving or receiving beer as a present is that you never worry about accidentally receiving the present twice - in fact, I welcome it!   So I managed to spend a good chunk of change on beer, most of which probably could have been spent on others.  But, you know.  I didn't.  Instead, my gift to all of you is for me to try some of these brews out and tell you how much I enjoyed them.  And, in the end, isn't that the real meaning behind the season? According to the good book, "Yes, yes it is." (Judges 6:18-36...ish)

Thus, on this dark, cold, damp day, here are a couple of the darker brews available on limited release!

Beer: Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout 
Brewery: Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery (Bracebridge)
Type: Imperial Stout
ABV: 8%

I've been happy with Muskoka's other seasonals, especially their Harvest Ale, so this should be a treat. Muskoka's been doing a fine job as a newer brewer to the Ontario scene, producing decent-to-great brews marketed using a delightful cottage-country aesthetic.  I'd even go so far as to say that the brewery tends to get overlooked in any discussion of quality Ontario craft beer.  No longer, thanks to this terrific brew.

750 mL bottle with a pleasant label design.  The hinged opener was a bit tricky.  And by 'tricky' I mean I somehow managed to rip the whole thing off and hit the cat, but fortunately the contents were still intact.  Apparently, hinged bottles are my archenemy.

Poured into a Chimay goblet.  The house was pretty dark when Michelle and I shared this brew, so apologies for the picture quality.  A rich, dark brew, with only the faintest chocolate hue around the upper echelons.  Left behind about a half inch of dark mocha head that receded into a thin, sturdy ring. A few flakes of lacing.

Nose was a lovely blast of salted milk chocolate, cream, mild coffee and toasted malts. No berries here, but all goodness thus far.  Very rich and inviting.

Somehow I was able to allow this to warm up to around 11 degrees before consuming.  Definitely worth the wait.  Creamy, with lovely notes of milk chocolate and caramel. Slightly sour and dry to the finish.  Not anything I would have initially identified as 'cranberry', but certainly a finish that was berry-like in tartness.  Fortunately, a bit of air and further warmth did wonders for this brew, as towards the end of the bottle the cranberry-raspberry flavor finally snuck in, providing just a touch of puckery holiday goodness. The cranberry flavor is certainly very slight, and certainly isn't the brew's defining feature, but it's enjoyable nevertheless. 

The body is a bit thinner than I'd like, but it coats the tongue nicely enough and has decent mild carbonation.

A very enjoyable brew on a blustery winter's night, especially when putting up the last of the Christmas decorations! I'm liking Muskoka's tall-bottle approach, and even though the price point is quite high (9 bucks a pop), the taste is certainly well worth it. A fuller body and a bit more depth would have really sent this brew into the stratosphere. Great stuff!  Might make for a great Christmas present as well.  See? I'm always thinking.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Marston's Oyster Stout
Brewery: Marston, Thompson and Evershed (Burton, UK)
Type: English Milk Stout
ABV: 4.5%

Marston's is located in one of the many brewing meccas around the world, Burton-on-Trent, a region that can rightly claim to be the birthplace of both the English Pale and English India Pale Ale styles.  For much of the 19th century, the vast majority of British ales were produced around Burton, and were shipped to Empire locations across the globe, with the main target market being the British Raj in India.  Burton itself is situated in the Midlands on the river Trent, whose waters were particularly well-suited for brewing.  Something about the local waters made the beer very accepting of hops and extra malting, allowing for the production of beer that could be shipped across vast distances without spoiling.   This higher ABV, extra-hopped variety was particularly popular amongst company men and officers working in the hot climate in India, so much so that when they returned home to England, they craved for brews of the "Indian" variety - thus, the India Pale Ale was born. 

Unfortunately, Marston's Old Empire IPA isn't available in Ontario, but I'll happily give their Oyster Stout a go.  Don't worry folks, it won't taste like oysters (I hope); rather, this is a style of stout designed to be paired with oysters, which were often consumed as a cheap pub snack in the days of yore (especially before Christmas!)

Handsome bottle design I have to say.  Lovely image of an English beachfront with a small oyster fishing boat in the sand and a tern flying overhead.

Poured into a nonic. Dark chestnut/black in colour, left a half-inch of frothy mocha head. Receded fairly quickly, leaving only a razor thin ring and a few flakes of lacing.

Nose is nice and roasty with notes of chocolate, and mocha. Mild. A touch of mineral and something very strange and almost unsettling that I can't quite name - almost cheesy. 

A decent-tasting stout, but certainly on the thin side. The typical milk stout tasting notes of chocolate, mocha, and light cream are certainly present, but are far too muted to really make a lasting impact, especially when challenged by a tinny, mineral character and an English tea-like hop flavor. An interesting leeky flavor as well. As I work my way through the pint, I'm finding I'm enjoying it less and less - far too mild to be calling itself a stout.  I'm sure if I were in a Burton pub with some classical Christmas music and a plateful of oysters in front of me I'd relish every sip, but since I'm at home on the couch, it's not really anything special.

Body is too thin, almost watery, with unnecessarily harsh carbonation. Really killing it for me.

Because the flavors are a bit washed out, this beer could have been great as an easy quaffer - something one could down with a plateful of oysters or scallops.  But with such a thin body, harsh carbonation and mixed bag of flavors, this one didn't really do it for me.  Felt more like an English mild brown ale than a stout.  I could certainly down a pint or two of this, but there are better stouts and browns to be had instead: ones that blast the flavors out loud, rather than muffle them.  (Grade: C+)

Beer: Lava Smoked Imperial Stout
Brewery: Ölvisholt Brugghús (Iceland)

Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.4%

Ahh, Iceland, you've done it again.  After raving so much about my first Icelandic brew, I was certain it would be many years - perhaps even a trip to Scandinavia - before I'd have the pleasure of sampling another.  Turns out it took about five months.  Turns out, this one is even better!

As 2010 comes to a close, I like to pause and reflect about the year that was, all the things that I've done and all the events that have demanded the globe's attention.  Like, oh, I don't know - the Icelandic volcano eruption?  The one that shut down air travel across Europe for days, stranding passengers all over the continent and leading many, like myself, to wonder if this was merely the first step in the path to Iceland's dominance of the world? ("All hail the mighty, omnipotent Althing!  Hot spring saunas and geothermal power and Lutheranism for ALL!")

Well shit, son, if that ain't a volcanic eruption right there on the bottle!   Nothing like constantly reminding the world about that geological stunt you pulled by pasting it all over your beer labels. God bless you, Iceland, and all that you do.

Poured into a nonic. Nearly pitch-black with only the finest hints of chestnut when held to the light. Dark mocha head, thick and bubbly but dissolved into a thin ring after a few minutes.

Nose is lovely and rich, with roasted malts, chocolate, smoke, caramel and nuts.

Great stuff, a truly memorable and enjoyable Russian Imperial Stout.  Begins with the usual RIS suspects of roasted grain, chocolate and dark coffee, before doing an about-face by blasting me with a lovely smoked wood and leather flavor explosion.  Reminds me of the peat character often found in Islay scotch whisky.  More than justifed use of the word "smoked", a great tasting brew.  I guess the only fault I can claim about this beer is an overlying sweetness that could have been reduced in favor of more smoky goodness.  Other than that, this brew is brilliant.

This brew is certainly easy to get down. Thick, coats the tongue well, carbonation is mild (could have been a touch zippier), alcohol burn is mild for something approaching 10% ABV.

2 for 2 from Olvisholt, 2 for 2 from Iceland.  Great pickup by the LCBO - a superb Russian stout whose smoky character distinguishes it from the rest of the pack, giving this brew a uniquely Icelandic feel. Amazing that this brew came from a country with only twenty years of legal brewing experience.  If shutting down air travel is the price we pay for having quality Icelandic stouts delivered to my local liquor store, then I say fire up the volcano ovens - post haste!  (Grade: A-)


Still more to come from the LCBO winter release, including Sint Christoffel Bock, La Trappe Koenigshoeven Quad and a few other delightful seasonal goodies!  Till then, cheers to holiday beer drinking!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quebec Brew #1: A Sexy Blonde

Beer: Les Trois Mousquetaires Serie Signature Kellerbier
Brewery: Les Trois Mousquetaires (Brossard, PQ)
Type: Kellerbier or Zwickel
ABV: 5.5%
Three Musketeers "Sword Rating": 4

Sorry for the delay in posting folks: had a bit of a throat virus thing going on that more or less curtailed my drinking altogether.   Fortunately, after a bout of antibiotics and a stirring locker room pep talk from Coach Bombay, I'm back on the scene and ready to kick some Hawk ass!  And by that I mean drink heartily, for the Saturnial/Yule/Christmukkahkwaanzal season is upon us!   To honour my return to goodish health and to celebrate this delightful winter wonderland we have going on out there, I felt that the cracking open of one of my finer Quebec microbrew pickups was in order!  And, to truly make the season bright, I've decided to festoon all of my brew pics with Christmas cheer (i.e., frame them in front of my sensational Christmas tree)! 

After a bit of extra research, I whittled down which brews from my Quebec haul to cellar for a while, and which ones would get cracked open in the near future.  Just like with wines, each style of beer will respond differently to aging depending upon their composition.  Some, like pale lagers, pilsners porters and pale ales don't really improve with time and are best consumed in the near future to avoid spoilage / thieving beer gnomes.  Others, like barleywines, Belgian ales and Russian Imperial Stouts can last anywhere from a few months to several years depending upon their storage conditions.   I'm still getting the hang of "cellaring" - it's just something most beer geeks do and, from what I hear, the wait is worth it.  Some brews are designed specifically to be aged for a few months or years to round them out: i.e., to reduce the stinging potency of the alcohol and the carbonation, as well as to encourage the refermentation of natural sediments in the brew to achieve tasty, tasty perfection.   Indeed, a common complaint with drinking high alcohol or high sediment brews is that they taste too "hot", which in beer geek parlance means that either the carbonation is too harsh or the flavors just don't mesh properly.   Like a finely made red wine, a few months of relaxation will do them wonders.  Not that drinking them right away is a bad thing; cellaring just (hopefully) makes them taste even better.  Again, I'm still experimenting with proper beer cellarage (I had a couple of disasters and success stories last season), but the basic rule of thumb is to keep them slightly cooler than room temperature and in a dark place to avoid sunburn.   I'd have done it earlier, but dammit: temptation is a sexy, sexy lady.   To not drink a beer that's just sitting there, waiting for me, begging to me drank is one of life's greatest challenges.  Sometimes you just have to be patient, take a leap of faith and hope the Holy Grail of Beer Goodness awaits you across the Impossibly Deep Chasm of Temperance. 

"You must believe, boy..."

A quick check on Beer Advocate reveals that kellerbier is not one whom improves with aging, so we're good to go!   Therefore, first on the agenda is one of Les Trois Mousquetaires rarer offerings, their Signature Series Kellerbier!

For those who may not recall, kellerbiers are traditional German lagers that are unfiltered and thus full of sedimenty goodness.  (Because they are already 'lagered' for a long time, extra storage isn't necessary).  They should be malty, hoppy and full of flavor for the winter drinking season.

Kellers are traditionally consumed in large earthenware mugs, but since my only true beer "mug" is a massive Paulaner stein, I instead poured this into my curved Steam Whistle pilsner glass.  A deep tawny golden brew, opaque with sediment - looks a great deal like fresh-squeezed white grapefruit juice. A brilliant two-inch high head that has receded into a solid half-inch layer of foam.  Scads of patchy lacing.  Great retention.  Now kellers don't necessarily produce a great deal of lacing, but because this looks so bloody brilliant, I upped the markage here.

Nose is quite pleasant: apple, peanut, floral aromatic hops, grain, malt.

Finally: a Canadian kellerbier with some chesthair (not literally - that would be gross).  Creemore's version is certainly enjoyable, full of malty caramely goodness, but LTM's produced a massive flavor experience here.  Starts off with a big blast of nutty, grainy goodness with a sharp floral hop tang.  Citrus (grapefruit), apple and a nice moderate malty backing.  Took a few sips to get my tastebuds in tune, but I'm liking what I've encountered so far.  About as flavorful as a 'non-filtered pilsner' as you're going to get. 

Thicker-bodied for a lager, which is all kinds of good.  Slightly creamy, lovely mild carbonation. Reminds me of a real home-brew mouthfeel, which I dig greatly.

After receiving but a taste of what LTM had to offer last summer with their standard mixpack, I couldn't wait to sample more of their brews. I can safely say that their Kellerbier was more than worth the wait. A markedly bitterer and huskier kellerbier than I've experienced before, but this robust flavor was certainly welcome. Terrific work from LTM!  (Grade: A)