Monday, January 24, 2011

Beer in the News: Old, Old, Old, Old Ale...

Couple of neat mentionings of beer and beer-related topics in the news I thought I'd pass along:

In addition to a lovely collection of bottles of this and that, my Christmas beer haul included some great books on beer and brewing that I've slowly begun poring over.   One tome that I got a good start on before loaning it to an archaeologically-minded friend was Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, which I'm sure will prove to be a fascinating look at the history of humanity's obsession with booze.   McGovern is a world-renowned expert on both the history ancient beverages and the science behind discovering them (according to his website, he has been called the "Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages," a glorious title that immediately grabbed my attentions).   His 2009 volume explores the myriad ways in which humanity began to discover the art of brewing, beginning with the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, China and Egypt.  No sooner did I began reading his book that a new discovery regarding the history of alcoholic beverages made headlines in newspapers around the world.   Fancy that.  I know it's not about beer, but at Matt's Beer Den, we support the history of all alcoholic beverages.

Apparently the Areni-1 4952 BCE Oak-Aged Pinot Noir
goes great with tilapia and spinach.

While humanity has been tinkering with the idea of making fermented beverages for millennia, just this month archaeologists have discovered the first organized wine-making production site in the world.  In other worlds, this particular finding - a series of earthen pots and vessels in an Armenian cave complex (Areni-1) - represents the world's oldest winery, dating back to approximately 5000 BCE.  As McGovern himself observed, "the evidence argues convincingly for a wine-making facility," which indicates that the complete domestication of the grape likely occurred many years earlier than previously estimated.  The wine was most likely used in a religious or other ceremonial activity, given the proximity of the wine barrels to gravesites within the cave.    

The rest of the article can be found here:

Eberdingen-Hochdorf's Celtic Stag IPA exhibited
subtle notes of citrus, pine bark, sourdough bread
 and animistic polytheism. 

On a more beer-related topic, archaeologists working in a Celtic site in western Bavaria have recently uncovered evidence of sophisticated malting and brewing activities from around the time of the founding of the Roman Republic, approximately 2500 years ago.  Although the history of beer in general goes back nearly twice as far as that, this is nevertheless an excellent find: archaeological evidence of ancient beer brewing is difficult to come by, so whenever they are found, the academic community becomes slightly giddy.  The malted grain found within these brewing vessels is so well preserved that scientists believe the flavors of the end product could potentially be extrapolated.  As archaeobiologist Peter Stika notes, the ancient brews probably utilized "gruit" - a mixture of local herbs and spices (but not hops) - to give flavor the end product, which was likely "cloudy, contained yeasty sediment and...imbibed at room temperature."  I'm sure Sam Calagione and the rest of the Dogfish Head team are already salivating at the opportunity to recreate this ancient Celtic ale.

Cool, huh?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

St. Bernardus Abt 12 - Happy Monk Ale

"Not drinking beer is a sin.  Trust me: I'm a monk!"
Beer: St. Bernardus Abt 12
Brewery: Brouwerij St. Bernardus (Watou, Belgium)
Type: Quad
ABV: 10.5%

Just look at that happy monk over there.  I mean really look at him.  Have you ever seen such a joyous and hearty cherub of a man?  This is the face of a man whose devotion to brewing and drinking fine ales is second only to his devotion to God.  Clearly, this man must be drinking St. Bernardus Abt 12, because this is exactly the kind of brew that would make a man so incredibly jolly.  A man like me, for example.

St. Bernardus is a bit of an anomaly in the Belgian brewing world, because although it has all the "trappings" of a Belgian Trappist ale, it actually isn't technically Trappist.   According to the poorly-translated brewery website (sadly, my Dutch isn't that great), St. Bernardus is the result of complicated negotiations between the nearby Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus and Belgian brewmaster Evarist Deconinck (not related to De Konick Brewery).  In 1946, the monks allowed Deconinck to brew their ales at his own facility of St. Bernardus, and permitted him to include the name "St. Sixtus" on the bottles.  Nearly fifty years later, however, this licence was allowed to expire as the seven Trappist monasteries declared that only brews produced within the walls of a Trappist monastery could be labeled as such, a move to protect both their product and the name.  Thus St. Bernardus could continue to brew variations of the St. Sixtus ales, but had to do so under a new name.  

Meanwhile, the monks at St. Sixtus maintained their own abbey brewing facilities - known as the Westvleteren Brewery - and still release limited batches of Trappist brews.  For those of you who truly are into beer, your eyebrows should have perked up at my mentioning of "Westvleteren."  The trappist ales of Westvleteren - colloquially known as Westy 8 and 12 - are considered to be among the very best beers in the world, if not the best.  The 12 currently holds a Tiger Woods-like streak of being at the top of the Best Beers lists at both RateBeer and BeerAdvocate - it's the #1 beer of all time, according to reviewers.  Chances are, you haven't had one.  Neither have I.  Westvleteren brews are notoriously difficult to acquire because of the monks' reluctance to export their brews overseas and their firm limits on sales to individual buyers.  If one wants to buy a flat of Westvleteren, one must first call a "beer number" at the brewery and arrange an appointment for a pickup if, of course, there is any beer available, and there often isn't.   Beer tours are rarely offered, as the monastary does not want the popularity of their beers to interfere with their monastic activities.  Seems fair, I suppose.

Naturally, I can't wait to get my hands on a bottle of Westy (which, fingers-crossed might be a possibility this summer).  For now, however, I'm willing to be satisfied with sampling the wares of a brewhouse whose history is so intertwined with that of St. Sixtus.  Clearly, as we will see, the Trappist monks' wonderful brewing style has clearly influenced the brews of St. Bernardus.   I managed to obtain a large bottle of Abt ("Abbot", in this case referring to the brewery's "top" beer) 12 when I was in Florida last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it - so much so that it currently sits in 3rd place in my all-time beer ratings list.  A long six months later and the LCBO decided to bring in smaller 330 mL bottles of this delightful ale, which made me a very happy guy.  This review is from the second, more recent format. 

I poured the smaller bottle of this into my Chimay chalice, a bit of a nod to the brewery's Trappist origins.  This was clearly a splendid-looking brew, murky chestnut in colour with a sturdy 1/2 inch head that would not quit, made all the more appealing as the brew warmed up.  Superb lacing and retention. Looks bloody brilliant, better than from the taller bottle, which I think is a result of the glassware.

The nose has all the best things I look for in a Belgian ale: cherry, plums, figs, white wine, yeast, spices, all overlain with a foundation of classic Belgian ale malts.  Inviting, to say the least.

The tasting notes are similar to those found the nose, all of which work brilliantly together.  In addition to the yeasty fruity goodness, there is a nice toasted brown sugar and caramel flavor as well, a result of the residual sugars involved in the brewing process. Finishes dry and crisp.  A wonderfully balanced brew; hard to believe it's a quad, considering the absolute lack of an alcohol taste. The brew only gets better as it warms, which opens up all the richness within.  Superb stuff.

Carbonation was initially high, but became less of an impediment as it warmed, making it easy to quaff. Definitely a brew to be served after being given a chance to breathe.

St. Bernardus Abt 12 is a real joy to drink, a first-rate Belgian strong ale.  A high ABV means less drinkability, but I'd gladly spend an evening with a tall bottle of this.  Though it may have lost it's claim to being an official Trappist ale, this is a brew that can certainly compete alongside its Belgian brethren.  I will certainly be back to the LCBO for more of this wonderful concoction, because this beer is truly fantastic.  Still dreaming about that Westy though...              (Grade: A+)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Turkey Beer!

"You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer."  - Frank Zappa

Looks like the LCBO has released another pilsner in from a country that one doesn't normally associate with beer brewing, in this case that nation is Turkey.  I'm not sure what to think about this, but I'll give everything a go, especially if it means I get to knock another country off my all-time beer drinking list (still waiting on Swaziland, though...) 

I shouldn't be surprised that Turkey produces an internationally-distributed pilsner: though it is predominantly a Muslim country, among Middle Eastern nations Turkey is certainly among the more secular and thus has fairly permissive alcohol consumption laws.  Efes is by far the most popular brewery in the nation, and its flagship pilsner is as synonymous with the notion of "Turkish Beer" as Imperial is for Costa Rican beer, or Kingfisher is with Indian beer.   A quick hunt online doesn't reveal the existence of many other Turkish breweries, and those few can hardly compete with Efes in terms of output and commercial presence (the brewery sponsors Efes Pilsen S.K., a top-flight Euroleague and Turkish league basketball team).  Thus, it looks to me that if I'm ever going to sample a Turkish beer without having to make the trip to Istanbul, this is going to be the one.   Let's have at it.

Beer: Efes Pilsner
Brewery: Adadolu Efes Brewery (Istanbul, Turkey)
Type: Pilsner
ABV: 5%

Poured into a tall lager glass.  Keeping the expectations of style in mind, the brew is a fairly nice golden colour, if not a little washed out, and leaves a generous inch of foamy head.  Flecks of lacing grace the top layer of the glass, while the head itself dissipates into a thin little ring.  Constant carbonation throughout.

The nose is pretty mild, with only the faintest notes of bready malt, lemon and grassy hops.  

For what I tend to categorize as a "Euro lager" (a European mass-market lager that can be sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another), Efes Pilsner wasn't bad.  In fact, it was pretty drinkable.  Sweet and malty up front, and finishing slightly dry with a mild hop taste.  A touch of lemon in there as well.  Bready, and with a flavor that leads me to assume that there is some rice involved in the brewing process.  The hop presence is muted to the point that it's hard to really identify this brew as being a 'pilsner'.  (This is not uncommon for mass-market brews; Labatt likes to stylize itself as a pilsner, despite the fact that it has almost no hop flavor and tastes nothing like an actual German pilsner)

The carbonation is never overbearing, but towards the end of the pint becomes fairly weak, too weak to keep the malty sweetness in check.  Then again, if it were too carbonated, I'd be complaining about drinking seltzer water, so really what I think this brew needed was a bolder hop profile, which is something very few big breweries are wont to do.  The body, I have to say, is fine for the style, in the medium-light range.

Pilsners are a tricky brew for me to review, especially mass-market ones, because they really seem to taste identical to one another.  Hard to praise, oh so easy to slam.  In this case, however, I found Efes Pilsner to be a very drinkable little brew, something I would gladly have several of in a single session.  While it may be a bit sweet and lacking in a bold hop presence, there still isn't much wrong with it, which for a cheaper import brew I have to give credit.   If you just want a good-tasting brew from country you wouldn't normally associate with beer, Turkey's Efes is certainly a good way to go.  (Grade: B-)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Microbrasserie Charlevoix Four Pack Mega Review Extraordinaire!

I know what you're thinking.  Here I go with another review of a Quebec microbrewery that specializes in Belgian ales.  You're also probably thinking that I'm going to spend the rest of the review praising the efforts of Quebec brewers in making quality versions of Belgian beers, like I did here, here and here

Guilty on both counts. 

As I've sometimes vented about before, I'm very much at the mercy of either what the LCBO brings in or what my friends and well-wishers bring back for me, which in the case of the latter has been mostly from Quebec or Nova Scotia.  Not that I'm complaining in the slightest, it's just that I'd absolutely love to expand my beer sampling and reviewing capacities to include more American and Western Canadian brews.  Yet, here we are.   In the coming months, I'm hoping to make a sojourn to Buffalo to hit up a few beer stores there, and I've still got that trip to Australia in April to look forward to, so hopefully there will be lots of variety in my posts this year.  Until such time, I'm going to continue lauding whatever great brews that I can find in what can sometimes be a challenging environment for beer hunting.   Deal?

 This four pack from Microbrasserie Charlevoix represents the final offering from my fantastic November beer haul, generously brought back to me from Quebec by a buddy and fellow ale-enthusiast of mine.   The name of the brewery is in reference to the Charlevoix region of Quebec, a lovely rolling and picturesque region of the St. Lawrence Valley.  Charlevoix is somewhat of a newcomer to the Quebec scene, having been founded in 1998 in the small town of Baie St. Jean (located on the north side of the St. Lawrence between Quebec City and Chicoutimi) , but it has quickly became known among discerning beer drinkers as being a great brewer of Belgian and English style ales.   This particular series, Dominus Vobiscum (Lat. "God/Lord be with you") is their Belgian slate of offerings, and has received some mighty impressive accolades thus far.  In addition to these standard brews, the Dominus line includes a terrific winter spiced ale (which is phenomenal), and a beer designed to resemble champagne (which sounds phenomenal).  As seems to be the way of things, Charlevoix has utilized a simple, yet effective bottling design with some lovely artwork that reflects the hauntingly beautiful landscape of northern Quebec.  A $2.5 million expansion of their facility and brewing equipment has allowed their brews to be distributed all across southern Quebec and sometimes as far as Ottawa-Gatineau.    I'm hoping that eventually their distribution network makes it further into Ontario, because if it did, I can assure you their brews would be in my fridge at all times.  

Let me explain:

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Blanche
Type: Witbier or Biere Blanche, depending on which half of Belgium you happen to be in.
ABV: 5%

Witbiers are similar to German weizenbiers, except that they often include spices and other ingredients (usually orange peel) that weren't permitted under the four-ingredient-only German Beer Purity Law.  Like most wheat beers, witbiers are unfiltered, opaque, and because of the pale malts utilized in brewing are a bright yellow golden colour that sometimes approaches white, hence the name 'wit'.   You've probably had Hoegaarden before - it's a witbier as well.

Poured into a weizen glass.  Pale golden and opaque, with lots of bubbles on the sides of the glass, a sturdy two inches of head that left behind some nice lace, and survived as a thin layer throughout the pint.   I could have poured this even more aggressively to produce a much more billowing head, but I wanted to leave a little of the bottom dregs of the bottle behind to swirl around and then top off the glass when there was room.  Good retention on this brew, as the head remained present throughout the pint.

The nose is banana, bubblegum, citrus and fresh grain.  A bit of yeast and spice as well, coriander and clove or cinnamon.

A great witbier, full of flavor and ridiculously easy to drink. Lemon, spice, mild bubblegum and yeast towards the finish. Slightly sweet and spicy - a great blend of flavors. I also picked up a clear presence of cinnamon and lime as well, which may have been added along with the hops later in the brewing process.  Or, it might have been a unique character of the Belgian yeast; either way, it tastes fantastic.
Mild pinprick carbonation, almost creamy mouthfeel, medium-bodied.  I really had to hold myself back from utterly blasting through this.  A lineup of nine or ten of these would make for one terrific summer's afternoon, I guarantee that.

Dominus Vobiscum Blanche is fun to drink, flavorful from start to finish, a few nice tweaks (cinnamon, lime, bubblegum) to distinguish this from other witbiers.  I'd certainly place this among my top Canadian wheat beers for sure; were it more readily available, I'd prefer this to the ubiquitous Hoegaarden.  A terrific start! (Grade: A)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Blonde
Type: Belgian Pale Ale*
ABV: 5.5%

*Belgian pale ale is a pretty broad style term that can include brews of all different colours and flavor profiles.  But really, the idea here is to distinguish these lower ABV brews from the higher, extra-fermented Dubbels, Tripels and Quadrupels.   Generally speaking, these brews are sweet, spicy, yeasty and awesome.

Poured into a tall tulip glass.  Simply put, this brew looks magnificent.  A lovely peach-golden hue, slightly opaque, with lovely streaks of carbonation rising to the surface to compliment the billowing meringue head.  Remarkable retention and lacing - several minutes after the first pour, it still has a 3/4 inch head.  Clearly, the head has securely put the parking brake on, because it's not going anywhere.
The nose is yeast, soft peach and apricot, a slight boozy character, mild floral hops.  Like their other brews, the nose pleasant, but a bit mild.  This is where some of the Belgian and American versions tend to be a bit stronger. 

The brew is sweet, but is nicely challenged with a nice dry finish.  Notes of peach, yeast, apple, wine, maybe a bit of cinnamon and other spices as well.  A slight mineral tang to the finish.  Tastes like a Belgian pale should, but despite catching a few notes here and there, this beer is a bit simplistic for the style.  Then again, it still tastes terrific and would be a pleasant evening sipper.  I'm not knocking it, I'm just saying there's room for improvement.

Zippy, potent carbonation. A few other online reviewers have likened this to champagne - I certainly got that impression early on, but as the brew sat for a few minutes things settled down.  Might be a reflection of the quality of the head.  Thicker bodied, coats the tongue nicely.  Slightly creamy.
This is one dandy of a Belgian pale, not as flavorful and well-crafted as other variations of the style, but still a terrific brew.  I would happily drink more of this, were it more readily available.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Double
Type: Belgian Dubbel
ABV: 9%

As you can probably surmise, subbels are about double the alcohol content of your standard Belgian pales, ranging around 8-10%  They tend to be darker in colour, and have a bit of extra sugar in the mix to give them a nice rummy, fruity, caramel character.  Dubbels are among my favorite beer styles, if not my very favorite style, because they drink a great deal like a happy marriage between a sweet sherry and a Belgian pale.  Chimay Red is an example of a dubbel you might see in the LCBO.

Poured into an Affligem goblet. An interesting colour: a sludgy russet brown hue, unless it is held to the light, at which point it becomes a lovely dark cherry. First pour of the bottle crackled with carbonation and the head quickly burned off; upon second pouring the head gained some strength from the sediment and has survived as a thin layer and leaves some lacing as well.
The nose is mild, with faint whiffs of yeast, dark fruit, a bit of green apple. Again, while pleasant, it's barely there.

The taste is certainly spicy and rich, but not nearly as malty as other Dubbel offerings I've had over the years.  Still, some great flavors are here: cinnamon, clove/nutmeg, licorice (anise?), raisins, apple tart grape, and a bit of sweetness from the caramel.  The 9% is tucked away nicely, which meant for a powerful burst of drunkticity towards the finish.  This brew is undoubtedly very flavorful, but it lacks that bready malt character to hold everything together. The finish is surprisingly tart and is quite long.

Pinprick carbonation.  The alcohol presence is warm and provides a nice burn.  A creamy mouthfeel as the brew warms.

A fine dubbel with a nice spicy sweet taste, certainly worthy of recommendation. Not the greatest dubbel I've had, but certainly an enjoyable one.  I could certainly drink a lot of this over the course of the evening, though the ABV is probably going to prevent that.  Although this is probably my least-favorite of the bunch, it's still great.  That's the kind of quality we're dealing with here.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Triple
Type: Belgian Tripel
ABV: 9%

Even though this is considered a "tripel", you'll notice that the ABV is roughly the same as in the dubbel, which may seem surprising.  Tripels tend to be stronger in alcohol content than dubbels, but aren't necessarily so; the difference in styles reflects the brewing process rather than how strong they are.  Unlike the dark malty, sweet and fruity dubbels, tripels are brighter, drier and often are more bitter.   Unibroue's La Fin du Monde is a good example of a Canadian tripel.

Poured into a taller tulip glass.  The appearance is lovely: its hazy golden sheen catches the light brilliantly, and its head is thick, fluffy and displays remarkable retention.  Loads of lacing patches grace the sides of the glass.  Light sediment flakes on the bottom, with faint carbonation bubbles sustaining the head nicely.  Spot on - looks a great deal like the Blonde.

Nose is soft and pleasant - wheat malt, yeast, banana, pears, lemon and spice.  As it warms, the banana becomes more prominent over the rest, a sweet, lightly-fried banana scent.

While not nearly as dry as their provincial counterpart and perennial favorite La Fin du Monde, Charlevoix is nevertheless a lovely, flavorful tripel, sweet and yeasty, with nice pear, banana and citrus notes. A nice mild bitterness to clean things up at the finish.  Remarkably smooth; the alcohol is present, but only provides a warming sensation rather than a burn.  Hard to believe that nearly a tenth of the glass is alcohol...

The only, and I mean ONLY fault I had with Charlevoix is the mouthfeel, which I thought was lacking in the carbonation department.  For tripels, I want to feel the citrus and yeast notes explode on the tongue; Charlevoix felt a bit flatter than it should be and thus this didn't happen as well as it could. Still, a nice body and slightly creamy feel.

Since I love tripels so much, it's hard for me to knock them down. Fortunately, this won't be a problem with Charlevoix' version.  Flavorful, attractive, insanely easy to drink, this is the kind of tripel I could drink all day long. I'd happily cite this brew as being among Canada's best.  (Grade A)

Another terrific roundup from a fantastic Quebec microbrewery.  Though they may still be newer to the brewing scene, and with a considerably smaller presence than Unibroue or even Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix has made a name for itself by brewing damned fine brews.  As their name gets more attention outside of Quebec, and as the their massive 2008 expansion begins to pay dividends for both volume and distribution, I think Charlevoix will eventually be a major player in the competitive Quebec craft brewing market.  Definitely a brewery to watch out for.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Belgium Without the Airfare!

Beer: Trois Pistoles
Brewery: Unibroue (Chambly, Quebec)
Type: Belgian Strong Ale
ABV: 9%

A professor and friend of mine has long maintained that in order to find quality Belgian-style ales, one need not actually go to Belgium, because Quebecois brewers are doing the job just as well.   A fairly bold statement indeed, considering the history of Belgian brewing, the skills and innovation of Belgian brewers, and the cultural obsession with all things beer that seems to be a defining attribute of the land of Hercule Poirot.  As Michael Jackson observes in Eyewitness Companions: Beer, "Belgians have more than 25 indigenous styles with countless regional variations, and choose their beer the way the French choose wine."  Making a trip to Belgium is like a right of passage, a pilgrimage for anyone who loves beer; with so many abbeys, small brewhouses and beer cafes, you can literally see the history of brewing unfold in front of you.  Belgium has long since surrendered its monopoly over the great styles of the Belgian Pale Ale, the Wit, the Dubbel and the Tripel, but there remain are a few styles and brewing methods that are truly native to Belgium, or at least are difficult to replicate overseas.  Authentic lambics, for example, rely upon local yeast cultures to spontaneously ferment the beer - anything of the kind attempted in North America wouldn't quite be the same.   The Trappist monestaries of Chimay, Achel, Rochefort and the legendary Westvleteren have developed unique abbey ales that have captivated the beer-drinking world - but have also vigorously defended their exclusive right to the 'trappist' insignia.   So it appears there are some things that will remain exclusively Belgian in origin.

This doesn't mean that craft brewers aren't trying.  American and Canadian brewers have been inspired by Belgian ales and have attempted to recreate their unique brewing styles on this side of the Atlantic, adding their own personal touch to each brew.   No style has been left untried; even the mysterious lambic has been successfully produced by a few American craft brewers like New Glarus of Wisconsin, although Belgians still produce the vast majority of the world's lambics.   But other unique Belgian creations have been given the North American treatment, from spicy tart Oud Bruins (Flemish 'Old Brown') to the dry yet potent Quadrupel, which usually boasts over 10% ABV.   And they're usually fantastic.  Displaying faithfulness and reverence for the original styles, yet boasting creativity and innovation of their own, North American brewers have truly done an admirable job in producing their own versions of Belgian beers.  Though the Belgian influence can be found in breweries across the continunet, some of the very best examples of this trend can be found in the province of Quebec.

While (generally), Ontario brewers have tended to follow English and Scottish brewing methods, Quebec craft brewers have opted to follow the Belgian schools, and well they should.   It's almost an unwritten rule that some of the best Belgian-style brews come from Quebec, and indeed, many of these are rated amongst the best brews in the world.   Although smaller breweries have earned a reputation for quality Belgian ales - like Dieu du Ciel!, Charlevoix and Brasseurs RJ - the real giant in Quebec brewing is Unibroue of Chambly, which has a more generous distribution network, a result of its purchasing by Sleeman in 2004.  Fortunately, the quality of Unibroue's wares has not diminished because of this partnership; La Fin du Monde, a Belgian-style Tripel, remains among Ratebeer's and BeerAdvocate's top 100 beers in the world (#31), with Maudite and Trois Pistoles (the subject of today's review) not too far behind.   These are truly fantastic beers.   Let's dig in to one right now!

Though I've had Trois Pistoles many times before, this was one of the few opportunities I've had to enjoy this out of the corked bottle.  In fact, I had to get this bottle size from a friend of mine who visited Quebec over the holidays.  La Fin du Monde, Blanche du Chambly and Maudite are often available in the LCBO in these tall bottles, although rumor has it that these will be phased out and replaced with uncorked six packs.

As always, fantastic bottle artwork.  There's something about Quebec brewers and their devotion to great bottle design.  I support this!  Trois Pistoles is a Belgian strong ale, which are usually dark, moderately spiced, fruity and with a nice high alcohol content.   Poured into a Leffe chalice.  A deep chestnut brew, almost the colour of a beer bottle, and with a slight ruby-auburn tinge when held to the light.  A few chunks of yeasty sediment collect near the bottom of the class, which means that this kind of brew is excellent for cellaring.  The head isn't this brew's strong suit; after a few moments it dissolves into a thick ring, which creates some nice sheeted lacing; later attempts after warming didn't see much improvement.  Not uncommon for the style, apparently.

Nose is yeasty and bready, with additional whiffs of cherry, chocolate, grape and spices.

Sweet, yet dry; rich, yet easily drinkable, Trois Pistoles is a brew full of wonderful contrasts. Begins with a bready, yeasty punch, which is followed by notes of dry white wine, caramel, chocolate, grape, cherry and spice.  Finishes dry and tart, with a nice spicy fruit aftertaste.

Mouthfeel is creamy, slick, a touch watery, but still enjoyable. The carbonation crackles nicely on the tongue.

A bit thinner than Maudite, both in flavor and consistency, but nevertheless, this is another fantastic offering from one of Quebec's finest breweries. Perhaps the most drinkable Belgian Strong you're ever going to encounter. While not as rich and hearty as others of the style, Trois Pistoles more than makes up for this in terms of sheer drinking pleasure.   Belgian ales are often described as being as satisfying and complex to drink as a good red wine.  Of course, I'll always argue that beers are more complex and satisfying than wines, but the comparison is intended to be a compliment, as well as encouragement for non-beer drinkers to give Belgian pale ales a try.  In this regard, they are certainly correct.  This is a great brew to slowly sip at over the course of an evening, or to enjoy with some nice cheese and cold meats.

The more I sample Quebec craft beers, the more I tend to agree with my friend's assertion.  Stand one of these brews next to one of the same style from Belgium proper, and I doubt there would be much to separate the two in terms of quality.  Pit this brew against Chimay Red or Blue and I'm sure you'll be happy with both.  Don't agree with me? Try for yourself!  (Grade: A)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Winter Ale for a Winter's Day

Beer: Winter Ale
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewery (Toronto)
Type: Winter Warmer
ABV: 6.2%

"A broken watch is right twice a day."  

Good advice (I guess?), which also happens to perfectly encapsulate my feelings about Great Lakes Brewery.   For all their gimmicky beers with mediocre flavors (Green Tea Ale, anyone?) and cheesy packaging, every once in a while they manage a hit.  Shame that this only happens every so often, because I really bear no ill will towards any brewery, except perhaps for Faxe.  I truly want every brew to be a success story - it just sometimes doesn't work out that way, more often than not for Great Lakes.  Fortunately, this hearty, spicy brew can be counted as one of Great Lakes' better offerings, although that sentiment still comes with a bit of an asterisk.

I've had this before, so this is somewhat of a re-review for the 2010 edition, to see if there has been any difference between the years.  Once again, this bottle is courtesy of the lovely Michelle as a Christmas brew!

Poured into a nonic glass. Dark amber-ruby, a thick white head, with a bit of lacing. The head sticks around for most of the sample, leaving behind a thin, but sturdy ring.  An attractive little brew.

The smell for Winter Ale is quite strong: malt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel and caramel.  Not bad, certainly more noticeable than some of the winter brews I've had thus far.  There can be no denying that this brew was designed with Christmas in mind, as this smells like a kitchen full of holiday baking and mulled cider.

With other Great Lakes brews, the flavors have been to thin, too boring, too washed out.  In this case, I felt that, if anything, there was too much flavor - I'll happily take that.   Indeed, this was quite the spicy beer.  Huge flavor punches of cinnamon, ginger, clove, pepper, orange peel, with bready malts only reaching the surface every so often.  Flavorful, but a bit difficult to finish.  The best way I can describe the brew is that it's like when you're making homemade apple cider or mulled wine, and you grab a cupful near the very end of the batch.  The liquid has spent more time with with cloves/cinnamon sticks/spice pouch than those before it, and thus the flavor is just a touch too strong.  You'll still drink it, but it's still damnably strong.  This brew in a nutshell.

The mouthfeel is decent, reasonably carbonated and slightly creamy.  The spices leave a definite burn on the tongue, making this a slow sipper.
This year's edition feels like an improvement upon the former, with bolder flavors and a better mouthfeel. However, I think the spices have been jacked up to a more-than-reasonable level, making this bit difficult to drink.  Still, I have to give credit where it's due. This is by far Great Lakes' best wide-release brew, and worthy of a pickup on a cold winter day.  Just be sure to share it; a tall bottle is a bit much.  (Grade: B-)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Year, New Beer Glass, Three New Reviews!

Hope you all had a delighfully splendiferous holiday break, and the most joyous of tidings for the New Year!   2011 is shaping up to be a fine year for beer, but then again, whenever you choose to devote yourself to the epicurean pursuit of malted goodness, every year is a fine year indeed.  I also hope that some of you were able to get your hands on some new brews over the holidays, because there were a lot of goodies to be had this season.   I'm not going to lie, I think I did pretty well for myself this year - four new beer and brewing books, two sample packs with accompanying glassware, a few rarer/limited individual bottles and a few old favorites.   A great little Christmas haul, if I do say so myself. 

First, a bit of housekeeping.  This year for 2011, I've decided to increase the frequency of my postings, in order to provide a greater sampling of the brews I've encountered in my travels.   What this will hopefully mean is that there will be more 'shorter' posts in the form of a quick review, with less-frequent 'big' posts about whatever beer-related topic on which I feel like going into exhaustive depth.  Previously, I've been saving up my postings to cover a lot of ground in one big post, which tended to be a bit too infrequent and, frankly, harder to write.   Hopefully with this new approach, there will be a greater chance that there will be a new post on the blog for you to check out, rather than only every week or so. 

So, now that I've set up a new blogging rule, allow me the pleasure to immediately break it!

Don't worry, I'll make a better start with this next time round.  First, however, here's a three pack review of my gift pack from HirschBrau that the lovely Michelle bought me for Christmas.  Since I've been nursing these brews over the course of the past week and a half, I can give them a go in one fell swoop.    Allons-y!

Der HirschBrau (Privatbrauerei Hoess) is located in the Alpine town of Sonthofen, Bavaria, which happens to be the most-southern town in all of Germany.   Seriously, you could huck a rock from their city hall and there's a good chance that it will land in Austria (citation needed).   Many of their brew names refer to the surrounding region of Allgäu, nestled right between Swabia and Bavaria.  This is seriously lovely alpine country, so much so that "Mad" King Ludwig II decided to build his crowning jewel, Neuschwanstein Castle, smack dab in the middle of it - and only a few miles away from the HirschBrau brewery.   Neuschwanstein is really the mother of all castles, renowed around the world for it's impressive design; its Romantic feel, featuring huge spires and towers inspired Walt Disney to build similar castles at his resorts.   Having a castle such as this in their backyard, coupled with the surrounding Alpine countryside means that HirschBrau is definitely a brewery one should make a visit to someday.   The gift pack included three brews - two weizen and a Munich lager - along with a tall, narrow glass emblazoned with the bottle design from the lager, Neuschwansteiner.  Naturally, there's a lovely image of the castle on the front.  ("Das Echte" is, as I'm told, German for 'the genuine/real')   As I tend to do with bottles from gift set, I used the same glass (a 'stange' glass, for those interested) for all three brews. 

Beer: Weisser Hirsch
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5.2%

First off is their hefeweizen, a brewing style I absolutely love coming back to.  Even though hefe's taste their best on a hot summer's day, I'll happily drink one every day of the year.  Though I should probably pour this into a weizen glass, I'm enjoying using my Neuschwansteiner stange too much.

Because of the size of the glass compared to the volume of the bottle, lots of top-up pours were necessary.  A pale, cloudy golden brew, left behind a sturdy, foamy head.  Surprisingly good retention, lots of lacing to boot.  Not too shabby at all.  Some reviewers have noticed very little head, if any at all; fortunately, mine turned out alright.  Hefes are definitely a style with which I like to see a big billowing pile of foam on the top of my glass.   The glass may not have done it justice, but at least it was there.

The nose is mild, but pleasant.  Notes of citrus, wheat malt, clove, a bit of coriander.  Some floral aromas and bubblegum as well, hiding in the back.

Weisser Hirsch proves to be a decent-tasting weissbier, citrussy and refreshing.  The malt character is surprisingly potent here; each sip yields a slightly nutty flavor to the finish.  Thinner in flavor towards the end.  There isn't as much substance to this brew as can be found in the great German wheat beers, but certainly enough to be pleasing to drink. 

Mouthfeel is a bit watery, but the carbonation is about right, maybe just a touch low. Because of the head's retention, there's a creamy texture to it as well.

No complaints here - refreshing and easy to quaff.  It won't earn a spot among my all-time top hefeweizen list, but it goes down well, has some good flavors and pretty much does what it sets out to do. Not going to argue with that!  (Grade: B)

Beer: Dunkler Hirsch
Type: Dunkelweizen
ABV: 5.2%

(Sorry for the poor photo, folks.  I sampled this one late at night and the lighting wouldn't cooperate...)

Dunkelweizens are very similar to their 'hefe' counterparts, but the particular yeast and malting process yields a darker, maltier, nuttier brew than the citric, light hefeweizen.   Many breweries that specialize in wheat beers will feature both styles in their lineup.

Mahogany chestnut in colour, with brilliant orange-golden around the edges.  Cloudy, nearly opaque.  Several attempts at swirling the bottle failed to produce much in the way of head, though - anything gained quickly dissolved into the thinnest of rings.  A bit surprising, not what I like to see in a dunkel, but at least the colour is nice.  (At this point, I began to wonder about whether the brews in the giftpacks sent to Ontario didn't hold up as well as they should have.  Sometimes exporting can be a bitch, I guess...)

Nose is hazelnut, malted wheat, chocolate, sweet lemon (lemon candy), spice. Not much in the way of yeast, but overall the usual dunkel notes are all there.
Like the Weisser, the Dunkler Hirsch is smooth, and easy to drink.  Surprisingly meaty to the finish. Malty, with milt notes of banana, spice and chocolate.  An occasional hit of bubblegum now and again. Sweet, but enjoyable; paired well with some sesame peanut chicken.

"The Dunkler!!"

Mouthfeel was a touch under-carbonated, but surprisingly silky. Pinpoint carbonation. Creamy.

The Dunkler proved to be my favorite of the three (the others being a hefe and Munich helles), flavorful and enjoyable to drink.  Not near the standards set by the giants of German weizen brewing, but still this one is worth a go.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Neuschwansteiner
Type: Munich Helles Lager
ABV: 4.7%

Munich Helles lagers are a bit of a 'reactionary' brew, as they were designed to represent a German challenge the massive popularity of the new Czech Pilsner.  Helles lagers are thus light, floral, malty, and with a nice little hop character as well.

This was the last of the gift set, and the inspiration behind the choice of glassware included in the pack.   Unfortunately, I can't really say this brew was worthy of sporting the world's most famous castle on it's chest...

Poured a deep golden, slightly opaque, leaves behind a thin head with some flecks of lacing.  I must say this is a rather limp looking brew, nothing zippy or exciting about it.   In order for any head to appear in the picture, I had to vigorously swirl the bottle, pour out enough to make the head, then hope the camera was ready in time - it left that quickly.  Little visible carbonation, pours a bit soupy.  Sadly, this already looks flat.  Another swirl to fill the glass a second time did little to spring some life into things. 

Nose is decidedly more pleasant, with lemon, herbal hops, Munich malts, a nice grainy, farmland feel to it.

Tastes like a sweet German pilsner, with the emphasis on a solid malt profile and lemon/herbal hops.  A bit too sweet for my tastes, but there is certainly nothing artificial to this brew.   However, the whole thing feels rather flat and watery, not really doing it for me.  A classic example of a flavorful brew that gets killed by a lacklustre mouthfeel.  The carbonation provides the occasional zip of flavor, but generally it feels flat and lifeless.  I'm actually wondering if the brew's gone a bit past its prime, but it's only been in the fridge for a day or two and the gift set was a recent purchase, with the hefeweizen and dunkelweizen tasting and feeling just fine the night before.  So I'm not really sure that's the problem. But, since I'm obligated to base my review on what I have in front of me, rather than what I think it should have been, I have to say this one missed the mark.

I really have to stress that this was not a poor-tasting brew. It's quite flavorful and has most of the things I'm looking for in a Munich helles.  However, the poor appearance and lifeless body reveal one of two things: that Neuschwansteiner doesn't ship well to Ontario (and hopefully tastes better in its native Southern Germany), or this beer is simply not among the brewery's best.  Since I so enjoyed their bock and hefeweizen imports, I'm going to lean towards the latter.  (Grade: C+)

To really give this brew justice, I might just have to make a trip to southern Germany to sample it fresh on tap.   With the lovely Bavarian countryside, the mighty Allgauer Alps, and one of the world's great castles all within sight, I'm sure making a trip to the brewery will not be an unpleasant experience whatsoever.  In the meantime, I'll keep using my HirschBrau glass, look at the image of Neuschwanstein, and dream...