Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Fuller's Flight of Ale (and the Joys of Recreationist Brewing!)

This little rascal is nearly always in my fridge.
There are two there right now.  But not for long.
It's been a good couple of weeks of beer sampling (in-between schoolwork and all that), and so I thought I'd check in with the blog to keep all you informed.  My big milestone recently was the fact that I managed to reach the 500-review plateau at BA this past month by indulging in a surprisingly delicious can of Central City Red Racer IPA - which is now available in a few LCBOs, so make sure you seek it out before it's gone!  Then, just last week, I managed to have my first beer from New Zealand - well, my first beer from New Zealand that didn't taste like cardboard and meat (I'm looking at you, NZ Pure Lager...).  Renaissance Brewing's Stonecutter Ale was a delightful scotch ale/wee heavy, with a bold peat flavor and mild smokiness.  Good enough brew to keep the metric system down and rob cavefish of their sight.  Very solid brew indeed.  To cap things off, the LCBO has brought out a great lineup of ales from one of my very favorite breweries, Fuller's of London - just the ticket as the weather starts to turn foul.

Fuller's is one of those rare 'large' English brewies whose reputation has not been killed by their high growth and ubiquitous presence.  Unlike many a large-scale brewery (Greene-King and Shephard Neame being two examples), Fuller's has maintained good standing with the ale-drinking community despite its large production numbers and popularity at home (London, specifically) and abroad.  I have long since been a huge fan of Fuller's canned ales, especially their Extra Special Bitter and London Porter, but have also been fortunate to be able to sample many of their brews on cask-draught around Waterloo.  Fuller's brews consistently rate highly as being among the best of their craft - their London Porter in particular has been cited as being one of the most authentic and delicious porters to be had.  And the great thing is, I can invariably find their Porter, ESB, and London Pride Pale Ale at pretty much every LCBO in the province, and they rarely cost more than a couple of bucks a can.  Iwas speaking to an English acquaintance of mine, who observed that Fuller's is really a London brewery, and you're often hard pressed to find it elsewhere in the UK, so count yourselves lucky, Ontario! Although I'm more than satisfied to have these great English ales available year-round, I've always on the lookout for more of the Fuller's lineup, and boy did they deliver:

A handsome lineup indeed, with some truly excellent brews in time for the season.   The emphasis this time around is upon tradition, with a classic English-style IPA, a strong barleywine ale (Golden Pride), and a festive winter ale all representing the old English method of brewing that has made Fuller's famous.  This year, however, Fuller's has gone one further with their "Past Masters" series of ales, whose recipes are taken straight from the annals of history, and has got me all a tizzy.

According to head brewer John Keeling: "Our brew books are very old, very thick and there are lots of them. We found fascinating insights into the work of my brewing predecessors. For instance, there were brews that used no English malt at all - in the 19th century. There are brewers doing that today and calling it innovation. I call it a rediscovering of the past."  In an interview with the Toronto Star this week, Keeling admits that while he lacks the "nimble" nature of a small craft brewery, his brewery boasts a truly impressive history worth delving into.  Many of the ales in Fuller's history have changed or been forgotten, but their brewing notes remain kept within the company - just waiting to be retested.  Should be amazing, and hell, if they screw up, they can always blame Past Brewington and his lackeys - win win!

The first such brew, Past Masters XX Strong ale, is based upon a long-forgotten 1891 recipe for a 7.5% ABV hearty ale, which according to the recipe utilizes a malting barley called Plumage Archer that probably hasn't been used since!  In addition to using bygone ingredients, part of the problem with these old recipes is that Past Brewington didn't bother or wasn't able to write down certain key details - in this case, the variety of hops used - for this ale, so Keeling and his team had to make some "educated guesses."  How will things turn out?  Let's drink...historically!

Beer: Past Masters XX Strong Ale
Type: English Strong Ale
ABV: 7.5%

Poured into a nonic. Light copper-tawny, with a slight haziness to it. Big bubbled inch of head, some lacing, a thin ring survives.

Nose is boozy and sweet, with notes of fruit, caramel and bread.  Indeed, this one has a bit of a barleywine feel to it due to its strength

Tastes pretty nice actually, though certainly quite sweet. Nice and fruity - I get peach and plum - caramel, and a fine bready character. The hops are tart and pure Goldings. Body is like a thin barleywine, slightly oily, and lower carbonation.

Not as robust as I would have hoped, but I prefer my ales a bit sweeter than most, so I quite enjoyed this. Perfect for a gross cold rainy day in Ontario. Great start to this nifty winter release! (Grade: B+)

The second feature in Fuller's Past Masters is a stronger, heartier version of their classic London Porter, a Double Stout based on a recipe from 1893.  Porters and stouts were the official beer of London town, at least until the classier pale ale or the exotic India pale began to subplant dark beer's hegemony.  Porters are called porters because they were consumed by, well, porters - guys who had to spend most of their day lifting and carrying other people's crap and probably needed a stiff drink or eight at the end of the day.  These early porters were thus usually strong as holy hell, pushing as high as 9.5%, although changing social attitudes and a war or two managed to sneak the ABV down to more respectable levels.  A stout is virtually identical to a porter, except they tend to be richer and heartier than regular porters (a "stouter" porter, if you will); modern tastes have tended to favor the drier stouts that are often associated with Ireland.  This brew thus hearkens back to a simpler, cholera-ier time where porters and stouts were strong and sweet as fuck.  I applaud this.

Beer: Past Masters Double Stout
Type: Export Stout (meaning suitable for export because of the high ABV)
ABV: 7.4%
Poured into a nonic. Dark coffee in colour, with a tan head about an inch high with decent retention and patchy lacing.  Looks as close to the London Porter as you're gonna get.

Nose is roasty malt, nuts, chocolate, coffee, caramel and a mild booziness.  There's an extra booziness in the back of this, which immediately makes me thing of Christmas and its associated drinking. Can't wait.

Well this is all kinds of awesome. Coffee, chocolate, cream, roasted malt grain, and a touch of oak make for one damned tasty stout. Roasted coffee provides a lingering finish. The extra booze is well contained, giving this brew a hearty, winter stout feel.  Creamy, moderate carbonation, mild bodied. Very drinkable.

Happy with this one as well - felt like an amped up London Porter, which is a very, very nice thing to say.  Clearly, those 1890s folks knew their porters and stouts - I could drink this stuff all winter, and just might do so. (Grade: A)

Beer: Fuller's Old Winter Ale
Type: Winter Warmer/English Pale Ale
ABV: 5.3%

I just put up the Christmas lights and got the decorations out of storage out of storage. There's snow on the ground and it's time for a winter ale, and I taught myself how to play Christmas Time is Here on the saxophone.  I need a winter haste.  Hey! Here's one now!

Poured into a nonic glass. Light amber-copper in colour, with a nice fluffy head. Good bit of lacing and some nice retention on this.
Nose is delightfully wintery. Caramel, chocolate, a bit of toffee, plum, currant and spice, with a mild leafy hops backing.

Rather than being the in-your-face style of winter ale that you see around the liquor store that try a bit too hard to seem 'Christmassy', this ale just naturally comes across as being seasonal and didn't have to smack me in the face to do it. All the hearty ale flavors are there in the foreground, which are dominated by a lovely sweet fruity spiciness.  It's all swept then clean with leafy, bittering hops that leave a lingering finish. Nice carbonation, pale ale body.

While not so overtly Christmassy as some other brews out there, this one is - first and foremost - a terrific pale ale, full of flavor and texture.  If it doesn't feel Christmassy enough for you, drink five in front of the tree and you'll see what I mean.  You heard me - drink seven.  (Grade: B+)

Though I could certainly keep going, I will stop it there - the post is getting a bit too verbose, even for my standards.  The other two brews you'll just have to try yourselves!  But I will leave you by saying that both the Fuller's IPA and Golden Pride are excellent ales for this winter season, the former being a classically brewed English India Pale, and the latter being a strong barleywine of a beer, perfect for cold evenings when only liquor will take away the pain of winter.  

This was an exceptional release that truly validates my love of Fuller's.  Not only do they regularly pump out quality English pale ales and porters for my enjoyment, they also have shown their skills at experimentation by channeling in to their brewery's robust history.  I've been to the LCBO recently enough to say that there aren't a whole lot of these brews left; there's not a dud in the bunch, so enjoy whichever one you can find!   Cheers!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beau's Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde

After months of nothing but the enjoyable Lug Tread Lagered Ale to satisfy my Beau's cravings, I made a simple prayer to the divine gods and goddesses of ales to send some more Beau's brews my way.  Sure enough, in October I was blessed to see Dunkel Buck in the LCBO, and damn was it enjoyable.  To my great fortune, however, the Beer Gods were well pleased with my humble, pious request, and granted me another great boon - and this one got me all giddy in a real hurry.

Beau's of Vankleek Hill, Ontario has been pumping out limited release, experimental brews as part of their "Wild Oats" beer series, which so far has included a Scottish gruit-style ale, a classic German Altbier, a rare Belgian Imperial Stout, and the aforementioned Dunkel Buck - to name a few.  To mark these brews as being part of the Wild Oats family, each experimental brew is given a number - Dunkel was Wild Oats #13, for example.  Number 14, as we shall see, is....a little bit different.  (Much thanks to Jerry Coburn of Beau's for sending these brews my way - many cheers to you!)

May I present to you: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

Yes, for batch #14, Beau's has gone the split-personality route, and offered two brews for the price of one.  These brews are, of course, named in honor of the titular character(s) from the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson - a tragic examination of the dual nature of humankind, as well as being a cheap metaphor for any time anyone expresses more than the slightest degree of a temper.  Like the gentle doctor and his madman creation, these two brews represent completely differing styles: the gentlemanly Dr. Jekyll being a respectable Marzen beer, and the empathy-lacking Mr. Hyde a robust and well-hopped rye beer.  The fantastic artwork of these bottles - which at once call to mind the frantic and outrageously coloured album covers of many an 80s metal band - are the work of Ottawa artist 'Dirty Donny,' and are pretty high on the Kick Ass scale.  These should be a real treat.  Oh, and for those interested (i.e., all of you), Beau's hinted on their website that Jekyll and Hyde represent the "first installment in our self-described 'Split 7 Inch' series" - hopefully this means more double-brew packs in the very near future!
"Egad!  Two brews at once!  AGGGH - My Victorian sensibilities!!!"
Keeping in tone with the story, let us begin with the brew of the good doctor Jekyll...

Beer: Dr. Jekyll
Type: Maerzen/Koelsch Blend
ABV: 5.4%

Dr. Jekyll is, appropriately, an experimental brew that is the result of blending two of Beau's favorite brews - their flagship koelsch "Lug Tread Lagered Ale," and their limited release Oktoberfest maerzen "Nightmaerzen."  The light, citrussy and well-hopped koelsch should pair well with the bready, sweet flavors of an Oktoberfest brew - should be a real treat!

Poured into a nonic Beau's glass. Rich honey golden in colour, slight haze, a good frothy head that survives as a thin ring with some lacing flecks here and there. Looks like a deeper version of Beau's.

The nose is very pleasant - sweet white bread, honey (big honey, actually), cracker, mild lemon, German Hallertau style hops from the Lug Tread.

Less sweet than the nose led on (how appropriate for Dr. Jekyll...), this brew boasts a nice breadiness, citrus, honey and finishes with a strong hop presence. Lug Tread with a bit more heft - quite enjoyable. Moderate body (more so than Lug Tread), a bit oily, mild late-arriving carbonation.

An enjoyable blending of two popular Beau's offerings, Dr. Jekyll is certainly a brew I could see myself enjoying on many an occasion. Mild-mannered, but with a bit of character and flair for experimentation - this brew fits the Dr. Jekyll name well. (Grade: B+)

Having consumed the contents of Dr. Jekyll's miraculous potion, let us transform ourselves into the monstrosity of Mr. Hyde!

Beer: Beau's Mr. Hyde
Type: Rye Beer
ABV: 6.7%

Poured into a dimpled stein glass. Dark caramel, though not as dark as other rye/roggenbiers I've encountered thus far.  Big billowing head, lots of lace, great retention.  A stellar looking brew!

Nose is rye bread, a bit of caramel, mild citric hops.  Admittedly I've had a bit of a cold recently, so my nasal passages are not at their tip top shape. 

Now this is an interesting take on the rye style, as it seems to have a lot in common with an American style IPA.  Sure enough, according to the online description, Mr. Hyde has indeed been "hopped aggressively" with American style citrussy hops.  The brew is nice and bready at first, with a hint of dark German loaf or pumpkernickel, and is also woodsy, spicy, and sweet with a touch of caramel.   In a flash there is a transition to a robust hoppy finish with a bit of citrus thrown in to the mix.  This finish is long and refreshing. Moderate-high carbonation, slight creaminess.

The name of this brew could not be any more appropriate. It starts off as a mild mannered and a little bit quirky German-style rye brew, before the potion kicks and the brew lurches and convulses into a woody, citrussy American IPA. The finish, however, is a little bit from of both worlds, tricking the tastebuds into thinking that somehow two brews - two personalities, if you will - have occupied the same glass.  A real autumn treat. (Grade: B+)

A great twin set that really served me well over the course of a cool, November weekend.  Now, there is a chance that one might have expected - indeed, may really have been hoping for - a more aggressive, extreme style of brewing to be associated with something from a "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" set.  The extreme artwork very much hints at this possibility.   Yet the brews do not really fall in to this camp.  And this is by no means a bad thing!  I applaud Beau's for sticking with their guns, which tend to be of the more classic Germanic style of brewing, in this latest offort.  Sure, they could have gone with something truly insane for Mr. Hyde - a massively hopped IPA, barleywine or Russian stout, for example - but instead, they went for something far more approachable and familiar, yet by no means any less exciting.  Just because the craft brewing tides seem to be pointing towards these extreme methods of brewing, this doesn't mean that one has to go in that direction, nor should they!

In this experimental series, Beau's has taken some standard recipes of their own, and tweaked them into something totally different.  What's more, the naming of the set is very appropriate: while the two brews are vastly different from one another, as Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jeykll were, they were nevertheless cut from a similar cloth.

Hopefully these brews are able to find themselves out of the "limited" selection and into the "seasonal" release - because I think they've got something here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Autumnal Ales and Fall Festiveness

October is quickly becoming my favorite month of the year, having recently ousted the once stable monthly dictatorships of May and December with unprecedented revolutionary fervor.  December of course was all about Xmas and Xmas cheer; for a kid, there's no finer month to be had.  Until, of course I had to start paying for it.  Don't get me wrong, I dearly enjoy a well-decorated house, presents under the tree, sitting before a roaring fire with a mug of Christmas cheer and baking.  But there's so much work and irritation that goes in to all those things that one wonders whether it's truly worth it sometimes.  Plus, my wife works in a shopping mall, which in December is a special kind of hell Dante Aligheri could not have foreseen even in his darkest moments.  May is fine, I guess: the weather is lovely and the awful five months of winter awfulness has been reduced to an awful memory.  But there aren't really any major holidays to enjoy, so the whole thing has a sort of dress-rehearsal-for-actual-summer feel to it. 

No, there can be no denying it; October truly is the greatest month.  The oppressive heat of summer has finally diminished to a lovely crispness, the leaves are showcasing their secret shame, and three of the best holidays are right around the corner.  Thanksgiving has all the food-related fun of Christmas without all the commericalism and carols - really, it's just a pumpkin pie and turkey delivery system, and that suits me fine.  Oktoberfest is really a KW thing, but when done properly it can be a peck of fun - especially when one considers the possibility of drunk girls in low-cut dirndls.  Then it all ends with a drunken, spooky, slutty blast that is Hallowe'en - a holiday that, in one's overall life bell-curve, goes from Awesome to Awkward to Awesome, and I'm right in the midst of the second Awesome bell curve.  Throw in the return of the Winnipeg Jets and an undefeated Green Bay Packers squadron and you've got yourself one hell of a good month.

With the arrival of fall, for those who enjoy their beverages well-liquored, it's also another great time for brewing.  The light refreshing lagers and witbiers of the summer replaced with hearty ales, bocks and ciders, each more delectable than the last.  I myself have been doing a bit of brewing; a well-spiced pumpkin pale ale is nigh ready to be transferred to secondary fermentation, in hopes of being ready for Hallowe'en.  For those not of the mind or patience to brew their own concoctions, there's lots of great autumnal offerings this month, and so far they have all proven to be tasty brews.  In the spirit of the season, let's dive right in!

Beer: St. Ambroise Citrouille
Brewery: McAuslan Brewing (Montreal)
Type: Pumpkin Ale

Though I truly enjoy a fine-crafted pumpkin ale, my tolerance for this seasonal favorite tends to be limited to the first few weeks of fall-ish weather.  I love the stuff, but I can't drink too much of it.  So when I do try to sate my pumpkin ale fix, I try to go for the newer releases, just to see if they offer anything different as well as to extend my pumpkin ale stamina.  Lo and behold, we have this little gem from McAuslan of Montreal, home of one of my favorite Oatmeal Stouts.  Plus it has the word pumpkin in french ("citrouille"), which for any Ontarian forced to learn awkward french in public school, has to be one of the funnest words to say (along with grenouille and pamplemousse, of course). 

From a four pack from the LCBO, poured into a nonic.  Amber-ruby, very clear, about a solid half inch of frothy head, some lacing.

Nose is pure autumny goodness - pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, molasses and mild clove.  Pleasant and enjoyable - this is what I've been waiting for all summer.
Tastes pretty fair, though I feel the brew is thin malt wise. It has the body and character of a red lager, than of a pale ale, which comes as a bit of surprise.  The spices are spot on, though - the usual suspects are there, and it finishes with an extra bit of pepper and clove.   Certainly no mistaking this for anything but a pumpkin ale.

Thin bodied like a red lager, a bit oily, but the carbonation is about where it should be.

Above average pumpkin brew, but I still feel like this could have been fuller.  I guess I'm a bit biased, considering how flavorful and hearty brews like Southern Tier's Pumking can be.  Felt a bit thin, but the flavors are all there, and what this brew does have going for it is drinkability - it's not so sweet and spicy that I couldn't drink more than a bottle in a sitting.  A beer drinker's pumpkin ale.  Worth a try, at any rate.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Cannery Maple Stout
Brewery: Cannery Brewing (Penticton, BC)
Type: English Stout

Last summer, Penticton's Cannery Brewing sent their Blackberry Porter Ontario-way , and I thought it was absolutely terrific.  Flavored stouts and ales always sound amazing on paper, but rarely do they work out in reality.  Any number of things can possibly go wrong: the fruit flavors can be overly sweet or artificial, dominating a weak malt base, or it could be the other way round, whereby the fruit flavor is barely perceptible at all.  Cannery's Blackberry Porter indeed sounded amazing, and mercifully it actually was - the blackberries were fresh and added great character, but did not overshadow the excellent porter base, making for a unique drinking experience.  Now they're trying their hands at a maple stout, which is a brew that could either be incredible or awful, depending on which way things go.  Let's find out!

Poured in to a Duvel chalice. Dark, nearly black, with a half-inch of light brown head that dissolves into a thick ring.

Nose is sweet and roasty, with marshmallow, caramel, and yes, maple syrup. Smells exactly like how I've always thought a maple stout should smell, which is a big plus.

The taste is quite nice, and on par with the nose. Roasted mild coffee, caramel, vanilla, and maple syrup, a bit of toasted grain. Sweet, and with enough of a maple flavor to identify it as a 'maple stout', without being cloyingly sweet.  Now, the grain and hop flavour could have been more robust - it's a little mild, like many an English stout I've had of late, and the sweetness pushes in to cola territory.  I wonder if this would have worked better as a Russian imperial stout?  No matter; it's still pretty damned tasty.  Thinner bodied for a stout, and the carbonation is a bit strong, but it coats the tongue well enough.

In my years of drinking ales, this is certainly the first maple beer that I've actually enjoyed, which I find strange. I mean, it sounds like such a natural idea, especially for a Canadian brewery: I love beer, I love maple syrup - but somehow every edition of the style seems to fall flat.  Now, this brew still could use some work - the body isn't quite right and lacks the depth of a good American stout or RIS - but nevertheless, it's an enjoyable brew that fits the season well (and provides a welcome change from all those pumpkin ales!)   I think Cannery has done an admirable job here and should be commended for it.  Would be an excellent breakfast brew.  Keep sending em this way! (Grade: B)

Beer: Dunkel Buck
Brewery: Beau's All Natural Brewing (Vankleek Hill, Ontario)
Type: Dunkelbock
ABV: 6.8%

Speaking of breweries I've had limited experience with, we have this offering from Beau's of eastern Ontario.  Sadly, this will only be my second brew from Beau's - I really wish that more of them would come out this side of Ontario.  Now, I should count my blessings, as their flagship brew, Beau's Lugtread is a terrific little koelsch that goes down well pretty much any time of the year, and is available in many pubs this side of the province.  But I'm always looking for more, so I was very excited to find this one on the shelves.  This brew is a delightful play on the 1989 John Candy film Uncle Buck; the bottle features Candy's trademark fedora and the plot-critical power drill.  It's a great film (look for a young Macaulay Culkin before he was cast in 1990's Home Alone) and plays so very well on the rich and flavorful dunkelbock style, one that is very appropriate for the season.

Poured into a hefeweizen glass. A murky light chocolate brew, with the pour producing about a half inch of sturdy head that sticks to the sides of the glass. Looks like a dunkel, alright.

Nose is quite pleasant: chocolate, caramel coffee, a bit of banana and clove.

A solid dunkel indeed - hearty, with a nice chocolate malty intro, dark bread, and banana, bubblegum and clove finish. Slight booziness as well, but come winter time I'll be demanding that of my brews. A bit thinner in flavor than I would have liked, but still quite nice. Lighter carbonation, medium bodied.

quality Ontario weizen, with enough character to place this brew among the better German examples of the style. Great stuff indeed, and another fine offering from the folks at Beau's!  Catch it if you can. (Grade: B+)
Hopefully these seasonal treats will find their way in to your glasses before the lovely autumn weather gives way to the horrible wintry blues that are surely headed in our direction.   Fall is, sadly, a very short season in Canada - we really should make the best of things, and a cold pint will certainly help in that regard.  
Cheers, everyone!  Good to be posting again! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Matt's Beer Den On Hiatus...Kinda

Hey gang,

Yeah, it's really been a while since my last post, and I feel terrible about it.  It's just not right to go more than a week or so without talking about something beer-related.   Even though I haven't really come across anything crazy or exciting beer-wise in the last couple of weeks to gab about, it still feels weird to not post anything.  

Here's what's going down:

Unfortunately, I have to take a bit of a hiatus from the blog, at least for a couple of months.  I'm starting teacher's college in Toronto, which is quite exciting; however, commuting to UofT takes an incredible toll mentally and physically.  In fact I've been so nervous about how getting to and from school was going to work that I've been pretty much off all beer and anxiety-inducing foods for about a week.   I'm enjoying a homebrewed tea ale as we speak, so fortunately I'm back to good on that front.  But the lack of hours in the day from both commute and workload doesn't really give me much time to produce coherent, interesting and researched blog entries, let alone to spend time with loved ones.   I definitely need to devote my full attentions to the task at hand.

So what this means is from now until mid-December, I probably won't post much at all.  It sucks, but those are the breaks.   (I might slip in the odd post if something really crazy or exciting comes around, but no promises!)

In the meantime, keep seeking out those great brews, keep messaging me about exciting brews or bar adventures that you've had, and keep clinking those glasses together.

Cheers to great beers!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Polishing Off Some Lagers from Poland!

Poland is yet another country that gets lost in the very crowded company of great European brewing nations, but it is certainly no slouch in that regard.  Though brewing has long since been an integral part of Polish culture, the domestic Polish brewing industry really took off around the same time as in neighboring Bohemia, and was an active participant in the mid-19th century eastern European brewing renaissance.  Most major Polish cities at the time had a local brewery, which were usually named after some variation of the city in which they called home (Warka, Zywiec being two contemporary examples).   Like its Baltic neighbors, Poland has long been associated with the Baltic Porter style, which sadly is not represented whatsoever in the LCBO's shelves; for the most part, the brews of Poland available outside of its borders tend to be more of the pale lager and pilsner variety.  Prior to the Nazi-Soviet invasion of 1939, Poland was home to nearly 140 different breweries; the war's utter social devastation and 45 years of communist rule decimated the industry, leaving but a few state-run breweries in operation until the country's democratization in the early 1990s.  Though it might seem in poor taste to be at all concerned with the decline Polish brewing in the face of such great atrocities and social injustices that also occurred in the country from 1939-1989; clearly, in the grand scheme of things, brewing seems rather trivial.  However, it is important to remember that brewing is at its most basic form an industry, an industry upon which thousands of Polish workers' livelihoods depended.  The fact that brewing's decline was yet another example of the suppression of Polish culture in general during this time is also something to bear in mind.  Therefore I feel we should celebrate the return of Polish brewing as an example of the revival of Poland itself.  

Oh, and if you have any lingering doubts about Poland's love for brews, I should tell you that they actually had a Beer-Lover's party (Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa) in the 1991 Parliamentary elections, but they were just a novelty party, merely a silly reaction to the politics of the day, and a reaction against the social decay caused by excessive consumption of vodka.   And by that I mean they won sixteen fucking seats and commanded 3.5% of the popular vote

While most current Polish brewhouses are large-scale lager breweries, there has been a recent interest in craft brewing.  Of course, it is unlikely that any of those new brews will find their way across the pond, but the fact remains that the industry does exist, so if you happen to be in Poland, check'em out if you can!  Because of the limited number of Polish brews available on liquor store shelves, this little roundup will be focused on the major brands, all of which being pale lagers unfortunately.   So while it may seem that the brews won't receive great fanfare, I just wanted to make the point that there are more diverse options available in Poland that are well-worth exploring.

Let's get rolling! (Where applicable there is a poorly-attempted pronunciation key that is probably wrong - though I asked Polish-speaking friends how to say them, I'll still probably screw it up.  To paraphrase Tom Clancy in his acknowledgements: where I get it right, credit them; where I get it wrong, blame me!)

Beer: Zywiec (Zhe-veech)
Brewery: Zywiec (owned by Heineken, hence its availability!)
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 5.7%

The beer of choice for many of my Polish friends.  Definitely gets top billing in the list from me, especially considering the name, which seems destined to occupy the coveted "last alphabetically" spot in my all-time beer list.  500ml bottle from the LCBO, sporting a temperature gauging "beermometer" on the back that I totally didn't notice until long after I poured it.   Digging the label; something about it really screams Poland for some reason.

Nice golden hue, clear and bright, with a reasonably tall head that descended into a fine ring.

Nose is sweet, sporting pale malts and just a touch of citrus/herbal hops. Not bad, but pretty faint.

Compared to most of the other Eastern European lagers I've had recently, this one wasn't bad. Fairly sweet, a bit of grain, and mild bitter herbal hop finish. Slight metallic twang which becomes more prevalent as it warms, so try not to let that happen. Thin, zippy carbonation.  Decent stuff, my favorite of the bunch.

Beer: Tatra
Brewery: Zywiec
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 6%

Not really sure what the deal is here with two pale lagers from the same brewery; my reasoning is that this was probably purchased by Zywiec and sold under its original name, just in case there were some folks out there that still hold true to the Tatra name.

Single can picked up a the LCBO. I'm in the midst of doing a write-up on Polish beers, and have just finished Zywiec, Okocim, Zubr and Tyskie. 

Poured into a pilsner pint glass. Bright golden, thin head, some lacing specks, generally unimpressive even as far as pale lagers go.

The nose is certainly among the better I've encountered - grain, apple, a touch of lemon and mild hops.

The first few sips were quite nice: sweet, flavorful, refreshing. But the sweetness of the brew - coupled with the lack of anything else interesting about it - becomes tiresome after a few sips. Really nothing much to say, other than I suppose it's a touch better than most Euro lagers in that the tinny-metallic-herbal character is minimal at best. But there's nothing different here.

Okay, okay, things aren't going well.   Maybe....this?

Beer: Tyskie Gronie
Brewery:  Tyskie
Type: European Pale Lager
ABV: 5.6%

The label sports a crown that looks a great deal like the king from a newspaper chess puzzle, along with some accolades from the "Brewing Industry Int'l Awards." Then again, there's another brewery who likes calling their beer "the king" that I could mention, so these statements don't impress me much. 

Poured into a Czechvar fluted plisner glass. A bright golden brew, lots of visible carbonation, with a thin white head that recedes into a tiny ring rather quickly. Looks like a Euro lager, but pleasant in the glass nevertheless.

The nose doesn't have much going on at all. Mild grain, a bit of apple and funk. Smells like a pale lager. I'm stretching here...

Thin, easy to chug, a Euro lager in its simplest form. Opens sweet, but finishes with a dry aftertaste that reminds me a great deal of cardboard. 

Thin bodied, with aggressive carbonation, this beer is making me burp a lot more than usual, and with no one around to appreciate my facial flatulence, this is not a good thing. 

Drink one if you want a beer from Poland. Drink one if you want a beer that's more difficult to pronounce than it lets on. But don't expect much beyond the bare minimum.

Okay, okay, okay...I realize I'm not really going a good job here at promoting the virtues of the Polish brewing industry.  I really want to, because I know there's great stuff from Poland out there.
It's just that it's Poland.  I'm working with what they send us here, people.  I'll try to be kind to our last entry.  Deal?

Beer: Dojlidy Zubr (no ideas how to say this one folks...)
Brewery: Browar Dojlidy (Bialystok)
Type:  Take a guess.
ABV: 6.2%

Poured into my Czechvar fluted pilsner glass, enjoyed on a cool summer's afternoon on the patio. 

As to be expected, this brew is that classic apple juice golden colour, with the pour producing a tall, yet fleeting head. A few scattered bubbles are the only survivors.

The nose is all Euro lager - sweet corn, not much else. Unremarkable, but not unpleasant.

The taste is the feeling of "meh", liquified and bottled. A resoundingly "snuh" experience punctuated with the occasional outburst of "it's okay I guess." I also detect subtle notes of exactly the same taste as every other mass-markete eastern European lager. Sweet, a bit of corn, mild mild hops to the finish, which is slightly dry. As the beer warms (do not let this happen). a funky grainy taste starts to emerge which is entirely unpleasant. 

Carbonation is light, but sufficient. Thin bodied.

Sorry, Zubr bottle label, despite your high hopes, I do not "imagine a place of pristine undisturbed nature" when I taste your beer, nor do I "feel how, with every sip I take...go into the depths of the forest." What I do feel is that same feeling I get every time I pick up a hard-to-pronounce Eastern European lager, and that's 'deja bu' - the feeling that somehow, somewhere, I've drank this exact same beer before.

Wow. I feel like a total ass.

After spending about five paragraphs extolling the history and resurgence of the Polish brewing tradition, the brews that I ended up reviewing ranged in the beer spectrum anywhere between "meh" and "suck." But am I really to blame here? It's not like I had any other choice here - the only beers I could find of Polish origin were these same interchangeable mass market lagers. It's a story I keep telling and telling on this blog, and frankly it's starting to piss me off. And it's not just Poland who is getting shortchanged. The only available brews of Estonia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Bosnia and Italy are of the same type and quality, and do nothing to celebrate the diversity of the European brewing industry. The LCBO claims that it is attempting to showcase the "beers of the world", but really, the only thing distinguishing most of these brews from one another is the number of diacritical marks and backwards letters on the labels.

So my apologies to my Polish friends. I really wanted to do better, I really did. But if I ended up painting a poor picture of the Polish brewing industry and its offerings, it's because the distributors and purchasers only gave me one colour to paint with. And that makes me sad. If only I could find something about Poland on the internet to cheer me up. If only...

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Best of Matt's Buffalo Beer Haul!

As I mentioned before in the previous posts, at the end of July my wife and I took a trip to western New York, and while we were there we had ourselves some wonderful brews.  At downtown Buffalo's Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, we enjoyed an excellent lunch paired with some pretty tasty brewpub ales, including the very aptly-named Lake Effect Pale Ale and Sabre's Edge DIPA.  Even at Chili's, we managed to snag some local crafts on tap, including Flying Bison Aviator Red and Great Lakes Holy Moses Belgian Wit (the bar manager was so excited that we were drinking the new crafts he brought in that he gave us a free sample of Magic Hat #9).  And of course, since we were gone for long enough to satisfy Johnny Taxman, we were able to bring back a couple of cases of beer for later consumption.  In addition to the fantastic Great Lakes sampler pack and the amusingly-labeled Monty Python's Holy Ale, I also brought back several bombers of American craft ales from breweries I've been meaning for a long time to sample from.  These now are the big guns, the real heavy hitters.  I couldn't wait to work my way through all of these brews, but since beer trips to the States are few and far between, I needed to pace myself.  But, a month later, and I've finally managed to try them all, and I have to say: there wasn't a dud in the bunch.   Here are some of my favorites...

Beer: Hennepin 
Brewery: Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, New York)
Type: Farmhouse/Saison
ABV: 7.7%

I've raved about Ommegang's excellent Belgian-inspired brews before; as part of my Florida beer haul, I had the great pleasure to savour a bottle of their Abbey Dubbel.  Since then, I've been eager to get my hands on another bottle of Ommegang's finest, particularly this farmhouse brew, which has since received very high accolades in the brewing world, including from the Beer Hunter himself, the late Michael Jackson.  Hennepin is named in honour of Louis Hennepin, a Belgian Catholic missionary and explorer of the North American interior of the late17th century.  Due to his charting of the Great Lakes region, the name Hennepin is a common geographic name in New York State and Minnesota.

Saisons are a wonderful style of beer that unfortunately are quite difficult to find in Ontario, but are becoming increasingly popular amongst the bigger craft breweries in the United States (one Ontario brewery that has a saison is Black Oak of Etobicoke, but it's rarely seen outside of the brewery).  Originating in France and Belgium, saison ales ("season") are refreshing summer brews, whose complex flavors and lower alcohol content were ideal for labouring farmhouse workers.  The word "Saison" in the past broadly referred to beers brewed in the fall and winter that would be cellared to be served as summer ales; there could be immense flavor and textural varieties among individual brews.  Today, saisons are light, airy, with notes of lemon, pepper and spice, and usually with a bolder alcohol content.  That spirit of summer refreshment has not been lost on modern saisons, however!

Enjoyed on the patio on perhaps the nicest summer day of the year - zero humidity, clear blue sky, and with a freshly mowed lawn to boot.  Perfect saison weather.

Poured into a Leffe goblet.  Pale golden, slight murk to it, and with a billowing head sustained with lively swirls of carbonation. 

Nose is lemon, pepper, grass, spice, a bit of funk, and with a surprisingly sweet malt character to it.  Textbook saison smell, very pleasant and summery.

Citrus, pepper, clove, earth, and oh so dry, Hennepin is a delightful brew on a summer's afternoon. The alcohol and funk comes in mildly towards the finish, and there's a mild medicine-y taste, but other than that it the brew is fresh, flavorful, dry and light - exactly what I was hoping for. Improves nicely with a bit of natural warmth.

Creamy, medium bodied, with assertive, lively carbonation. Very dry however, almost needs an accompanying glass of water. 

A great saison, sweeter than some, and without a strong musky-farmyard flavor, but still lively and bright, and with lovely citrus and peppery notes. A pleasure to drink. (Grade: A)
Beer:  Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest
Brewery: Sierra Nevada (Chico, California)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 6.7%

I've certainly had my fair share of 'hopbomb' American IPAs, so I have to say I've got a pretty good handle on the style.  I know what they taste like, and they taste just fine.  However, though I truly love these hoppy monsters, when faced with the difficult challenge of narrowing down brews at a beer store such as this one, I tend to go for the more unique styles of brews - your barleywines, your saisons, your "imperial hefeweizens" and your Russian Imperial Stouts, in order to broaden my palate and experience new brews.  But I absolutely had  to make an exception for this brew, because the bottle design is completely fantastic.  This beautiful label was fully worth the price of admission - a19th century-style map and clipper ship that all at once conjures up mental images of both the genuine naval exploits of Captain James Cook and Charles Darwin, alongside the fictional tales of Robinson Crusoe, Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.  This bottle positively screams adventure, and I happily added it to my cart.   Also, as I found out after bringing it home, this brew utilizes hops grown in far away New Zealand, which are shipped (probably not on vessels as majestic as this one) to California early in the year.  Should be an interesting brew.

Poured into a nonic. A lovely dark-amber brew with a billowing creamy head that leaves brilliant patches of lace. Excellent retention. First rate.

The first whiff is of the fresh cones of west coast-style hops (we'll call them "Pacific" hops since they are from NZ), which give a delightful tropical aroma. Sweet malt, caramel, mango, grapefruit, coconut. Very pleasant.

A nice IPA, sweet and malty at first, before the tropical hop flavors sink in. The finish is surprisingly dry and bitter, with the hops losing some of their complexity. Still, a solid brew.

Medium bodied, creamy, slightly more aggressive carbonation than I'd like. 

Hops aren't as potent to the taste as they were for the nose, but this is still an impressive brew, flavorful, good body to it and a great collectible bottle to boot.  A classic example of when a superior bottle design encourages a purchase, even if the brew is of a more common style and composition.  A fine brew indeed; the added hops and alcohol content would make this a fine companion on any sea voyage.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti
Brewery: Great Divide Brewing (Denver, Colorado)
Type: Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.5%

Great Divide has built an exemplary reputation as one of Colorado's finest craft breweries, and has been an interest of mine for quite some time.  Like many craft breweries in the States, Great Divide has a base recipe - Yeti Imperial Stout - with which they often experiment, whether by aging it in barrels or adding different seasonings, in order to get different variations.  This particular version involves added espresso coffee and oak wood chips to the brew. 

(On the side of the label is a food pairing suggestion, which is just awesome: creme brulee, chocolate cake and "breakfast burrito."  Beer for breakfast?  Damn right!)
Shared with friends at a recent beer tasting, I now regret only buying one bottle, as we shall see...

Poured into a small snifter glass.  Inky black with a lovely light brown foamy head, which meant that my taking of the above photo at night did not really influence how the beer looks on camera - it would have been near-black at any time of day!  Great head retention, with big patches of lacing. Fine looking brew indeed.

The nose on this is just delectable - espresso coffee bean, dark chocolate, oatmeal, bourbon, oak, and a nice graininess. Terrific stuff - even after finishing my share, I kept going back to my unwashed glass for another hit.

Ridiculously smooth, a lovely stout. Coffee, caramel, oak, brandy and smokiness somehow combine to make a very smooth, easy drinking brew. A great woodsy feel to this edition from the oak chips; this truly tastes like something a sasquatch would drink.  Silky with mild carbonation, a real pleasure to sip. 

Just an exemplary stout, rich and flavorful, yet smooth and highly drinkable. Both the beer connoisseurs and the seldom-drinkers of our group fell in love with this brew; indeed, many of the comments while sipping Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti involved the immediate planning of a trip to Colorado just to get more.  Buy it if you find it, you won't be disappointed! (Grade: A)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?

"It's only a bottle..." 
Beer: Monty Python's Holy Grail Ale
Brewery: Black Sheep Brewery (Ripon, UK)
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 4.7%

A few weeks ago my wife and I happened to find ourselves in Western New York, and of course we made it our business to find an excellent beer store from which to purchase brews the likes of which I have only heard about, but never seen in Ontario.  We brought back what I think counts as a truly excellent haul (a "best of" review is on the way!), with craft brews from New York State, Ohio, Vermont, Colorado, Maine and California.  This particular beer store (Consumer Beverages on Transit Road, Buffalo) was absolutely stuffed with brews I've been meaning to try - not quite as immense a selection as Knightly Spirits in Orlando, but still very impressive.  Indeed, it was a great challenge to decide which brews to bring back, restrained as I was by both my wallet and Canadian customs.  I decided the best way to go about it was to limit myself to a few of the more expensive bottles that I had to try, a diverse selection of mid-range bottles from top-notch breweries, and a few randoms.  Nothing imported, only American crafts - that was the rule.  And, like the Joker fortold in The Dark Knight, this was the one rule I was going to have to break, because I came across this.

Fortunately, a friend's birthday was upcoming and I happen to know that this fellow likes him some Monty Python and some beer, so I justified this as an expense.  Nah, who am I kidding: a beer, with Monty Python on the label? A beer that claims to be "tempered over burning witches"? How could I not purchase this?

I won't go in to great detail about my love of all things Python.  I mean, let's face it: I'm a history nerd who likes documenting everything I drink who peppers his writings with as many pop culture references as possible - of course I love Monty Python.  Suffice to say, I've pretty much got the whole Grail movie memorized, I have a deep distrust for the Judean People's Front, and I take great pleasure in reminding everyone that NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!!  The Holy Grail is particularly dear to me, not just because it's one of the funniest movies ever made, but also happens to be directly responsible for my marriage.  A long while back, when my now-wife and I were casual acquaintances, we were chatting on MSN (that should give you an idea how long ago we're talking about) and we started talking about Python.  I slyly mentioned to her that I hadn't seen it in a few years, and somehow, she mustered up the courage to ask me over to watch it.  We've been together ever since. 

As proof of our love of the film, here is the quotation from
our wedding program.
By marketing a brew named for the best film of the greatest comedy troupe of all time, Black Sheep is playing a dangerous game.  Though my love of Monty Python led me to purchase this beer, conversely my love of Monty Python demands that this beer be magnificent. Poured into a nonic ale glass (it's only a model...) Light amber, clear, a decent-sized head that recedes into a fine white ring.

The nose isn't fresh coconut carried in by an African swallow, nor is it freshly bashed dirt from a repressed peasant, but instead its that of your standard, textbook English pale ale: malty, a bit of fruit, English hops, a bit of funk.  And not a hint of elderberries either...

This brew is less like King Arthur and more like "Brave" Sir Robin - rather than being bold, impetuous and a little insane, this brew is clearly a bit too scared to accomplish much. Perhaps this is a bit unfair.  Yes, let's scratch that, and instead say that this beer is more like Arthur's servant Patsy: trustworthy, inoffensive, but wholly forgettable after the first scene or so.  In fact, I'm sure after a few days I'll probably be incapable of remembering what this beer tastes like, so it's certainly best if I write it down now: It tastes like a malty sweet pale ale with a touch of hops to the finish and a slight metallic twang - no more, no less.

Look, the beer has Monty Python on the front, so you know you're going to buy it. It says it's "tempered over burning witches", so you know you're going to buy it. But when Monty Python burst on to the British comedy scene in the 1960s, they were seen (for good or for ill) as zany, wacky and a little insane, but certainly memorable. And there's nothing zany, wacky, insane or memorable about this brew; clearly, it was designed to appeal to the greatest number of people.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing bad about this beer.  I enjoyed it, actually.  It tastes fine and doesn't disappoint as far as pale ales go.  But there's no escaping the disappointing realization that, as you drink it, you'll find there isn't really anything about this brew that seems remotely "Monty Python" whatsoever.   But it certainly could have been so, and that's the real tragedy.  For example, this brew could have been a robust English brown ale, gritty and earthy like the dirt harvested by the "anarchist-syndicalist commune."  Or it could have been a traditional Scottish ale flavored with fresh elderberries (like this one), or maybe even an American IPA with hints of coconut.  Anything!

Even if the beer ultimately lacked that universally-acceptable English pale ale quality, what does Black Sheep care?  People aren't buying cases of this beer every week to be their default, on-hand brew; they're buying it purely as a novely because it has Graham Chapman and John Cleese on the label.   Once they marvel over the bottle and reminisce about their favorite Python sketches, to be honest folks aren't really going to care what it tastes like.  You've got our money already, so why not make something more unique and exciting than the same old pale ale that we can get at the pub every week?