Monday, February 28, 2011

Sam Adam's Infinium Ale - My Take on a Polarizing Brew

Over the past couple of years, Boston Brew Company (Sam Adams) founder Jim Koch has been working with brewmasters at Germany's Weihenstephaner, the world's oldest brewery, to produce a new beer that was hoped would turn the craft beer world on its head.  This he most certainly did, but not necessarily for the reasons Koch had anticipated.  To put it briefly, beer geeks have been beside themselves trying to figure this strange little brew out.

Infinium Ale, the product of this cooperation - or, as the adverts proclaim, "a two year collaboration 1,000 years in the making," is a type of beer rarely attempted before, or at least certainly not at this scale from such a large, reputable stateside brewery.  The new style has been called "Bière Brut" or "Bière de Champagne" - Champagne beer, and it's only really been done by a few obscure Belgian brewhouses thus far.  The idea is a melding of champagne wine, which is 'effevescent' and dry, with the yeasty and malty Belgian pale ale style.   On paper, the idea sounds fantastic.  I like beer, I like champagne, therefore a champagne brew - designed under the supervision of two world-renowned brewery houses - should be a hit.  But then again, I like french toast, and I like pickled hot peppers, yet I sincerely doubt a marriage of the two forces would be greater than their individual parts.  Room for amazing, room for disaster.  

But I was not to fear, as I knew that the early reviews from more geographically-fortunate beer lovers would give some indication of whether the hype was worth it, or whether the collaboration would be 1000 years too many.  What ended up happening was the most polarized series of online reviews, blogs and articles I've ever seen about one particular beer.   Seriously, people are all over the map with this one.  Love it, hate it, be indecisive about it - all have been done in spades.  The BA reviews have been a hilarious see-saw of B+, F, C-, B, A, D that looks more like a musical scale than a series of observations about the same damned thing.  Two seasoned BA reviewers whose opinions I've generally held in high esteem drew exactly opposite conclusions on Infinium, with one likening it to Orval, one of the most beloved Trappist ales, while the other compared it to a glass of strawberry shortcake mixed with yeast and disaster.  Bloggers are railing about how Infinium has been a commerical failure, with bottles apparently languishing in the shelves - a sad result, perhaps, of Jim Koch's ego and ambitions.  Others say the beer tastes just fine, thank you very much. 

Seriously, how could one beer generate such diverse opinion?  It's the beer equivalent of Juno.

Anywars, the LCBO decided to release Infinium this February (which is a good portend if the LCBO is willing to bring such one-off risky brews as this!), and naturally I snapped up a bottle without glancing at the price tag.  Turns out Infinium runs at about 14 bucks a pop, which is about what I'd pay for a bottle of Henkell Trocken dry champagne-style wine, but still pretty steep for a bottle of beer, even one as handsome as this one is.  Clearly, the Sam Adams folks are really gunning for that champagne image, with the foil and cork top and sleek design.  After a few weeks of keeping this in the cellar, I couldn't wait any longer.

Beer: Infinium Ale
Brewery: Boston Beer Company (Boston, MA)
Type: "Bière Brut" or "Bière de Champagne"
ABV: 10.3%

Poured vigorously into a mini Stella glass, the glass Michelle and I reserve for those 'big glass of wine' nights.  The pour left an incredible amount of foam - three or four inches - that took a great deal of time to settle to sippable levels.  Naturally, there was tons of lacing and solid retention on the head here.  The brew is a hazy pale orange, not entirely unlike sparkling grapefruit juice.  No sediment that I can detect, however.

The nose is, well, complex.  It took us several whiffs to figure things out.   I get sparkling white wine, yeast, bread crumbs, hints of apricot, peach, sugar and light spices.  Smells a great deal like a fruity Belgian tripel, except with a little funky musk that fits in more with a lambic style brew. 

The brew is certainly effervescent, but thicker and less aggressively-carbonated than a champagne - as can be expected for something that claims to be a champagne beer.  The taste is musky and yeasty, but with a dry fruit character of tart apple, white wine, apricot and cherry.  While not as malty as I'd thought, there is a nice bready character to it as well.  Finishes tart, no hops to speak of, but sweeter than I was expecting. There's something a bit strange about this brew that I can't quite put my finger on, though.  I think like it...I I?   I'm certainly not getting anything hefeweizen out of this brew (the brews Weihenstephaner are world-famous for), so I'm not sure where their contribution lay.

After many sips, and humphs, and hrrms, I guess I have to side with the folks who like the beer, as I usually tend do.  Infinium landed somewhere in the middle of champagne and beer, but didn't really do anything to make me want to abandon either one.  Too sweet for a champagne, too mixed-bag for a beer, but then again, it didn't taste bad either.  Hmmm.... 

Um...sorry folks, I'm not sure where that leaves you.  If you're looking for me to give a definitive answer on this I'm not going to be much help.  Try it yourself and see what you think.  If anything this might encourage the LCBO to keep bringing this random brews our way.  Considering how many reviewers both love and hate it, I think this brew might have struck a chord with beer-lovers who might be getting a bit complacent of late, comfortable in their world of Imperial IPAs and American Barleywines with nothing offering a real challenge.  Yet Sam Koch has offered a real challenge with Infinium.  Now whether it's a good beer is down to personal preferencees, but there can be no doubt that Koch has made a beer that has made me, and other reviewers, think.  And that is certainly saying something.  (Grade: a very hesitant B)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grand River Brewing Winter Seasonals!

Grand River brewing generally offers a seasonal brew or two every quarter-turn-round-the-sun, and like with most of their other releases, are usually pretty damned good.  But, as with the case with many a microbrewery, availability of ingredients and demands outside one's control (or the brewer's/owners personal preferences) can affect what seasonals a brewery chooses to release, if at all.  Good rule of thumb: if it's a seasonal, there's a good possibility it will be a one-off brew, so get it while you can!  Example: about two years ago, Bob n' Rob released a fantastic brew - Jubilation Spiced Ale - that was my first true Winter Warmer, and I absolutely loved it.  We had it on tap at the Grad House (the bar at which I work), and I slung back many a pint over the course of the winter.  Last winter, I eagerly awaited the brew's return, only to find that Grand River had switched gears and released Curmudgeon IPA in its stead.  Though I was admittedly a bit disappointed that Jubilation was not available that year, Curmudgeon was quite enjoyable as well.   This year, Grand River chose to release their Jubilation winter brew in the form of a doppelbock - a hearty, high ABV lager - which on-tap has proved to be terrific.   Three different brews for three different years, I guess I can't complain about that!

Last week a buddy of mine made a sojourn down to the brewery and managed to pick up a bottle of both the Jubilation Winter Warmer and Curmudgeon IPA.   Neither of these brews (as far as I know) are available on LCBO shelves, so in order to sample them you'll probably have to make a brewery stop yourself. 

Beer: Jubilation Winter Warmer 2010
Type: Doppelbock
ABV: 7%

Bottled on December 13th - a bit older than most of the stuff I normally pick up at Grand River, so I guess they bottled everything all at once.  (Their regular fare is brewed, well, regularly, so it can be bottled closer to purchase) Poured into a becker-style pint glass.  I just discovered I actually don't have any Grand River glasses at home - this is something I must rectify! A lovely ruby-amber hue, very nice, with the pour producing a generous layer of head with scads of lacing to boot.  Great retention as well; after ten minutes, the brew still possesses a creamy layer of head and loads of lacing.  Looks terrific!

Nose is more on the winter warmer end of the spectrum than the bock/doppelbock, but nevertheless its still delicious!  Good malt profile, along with notes of apple, grape, cinnamon, nutmeg, a bit of caramel and bread.  Possibly a touch of clove as well.  This would have done well right before Christmas!

The taste is sweet and rich, at times reminding me of a sweet red ale, other times of more hearty fare. Cherry, grape, caramel, sherry, spice and finishes dry and with that slight mineral character Grand River is known for.  I'm not sure I would have identified this as a doppelbock if handed to me, but whatever this is, I'm enjoying it.  The alcohol is masked particularly well, which for a brewery known for low ABV brews, is saying something.

On tap, the brew has crisp, crackling carbonation, thinner bodied than other doppelbocks I've had recently, but creamy and satisfying enough. Very easy to drink.  The bottled version is predictably a bit thinner carbonation-wise, nice and thick and very creamy.

The name of the brew is very appropriate, as it had characteristics of both a winter warmer and a doppelbock, waxing in and out throughout the sampling.  Not nearly as dark or full-bodied as a  traditional doppelbock, but with flavors not often found in winter warmers, it doesn't fit that category either.  It's somewhere in the middle, but who cares!  This is a great winter brew and a must try from Grand River.

Now, for last year's seasonal offering!
Beer: Curmudgeon IPA
Type: English IPA
ABV: 6.5%

For a beer that boasts a bitter hop profile, "Curmudgeon" is a very appropriate name.  Their old bottles sported the face of a grumpy, angry old man, which I thought was hilarious.  Recently, Grand River has rebranded their bottles and done away with the images, so the hilarity is somewhat lost this time around. 

Poured into a Wellington nonic glass.  A deep russet hue, a long-lingering head, loads of sheeted lacing.

Nose is malty, with bittering and aromatic hops of the English variety, which produces notes of earth, tea, citrus, toffee, caramel and bread.
Taste is very good, one of the better English IPAs in the province.  This reminds me a great deal of a well-hopped variation of their Plowman's Ale.  Rich and bitter - pine and earth hop flavors - with nuts and spices to round off the palate.  Bitterness lingers for quite some time.  Not overly carbonated, about the right mouthfeel for the style.

IPA's are not this province's strong-suit, although there have been steps taken to rectify this fact.  Grand River's English IPA is malty and rich, and with a nice earthy and pine character reminiscent of English and East Coast IPAs.  Very drinkable over the course of an evening; certainly worth a pickup!

Two great seasonals from Grand River - get 'em while you can!

Friday, February 25, 2011

MBD Presents Beer in the News: Good News for Craft Brews!

Craft Brew Sales look up.  Wayyyyyyyyyyy up!

A vision of the future in Ontario?  Only time will tell!

An LCBO spokesman, speaking to TAPS magazine, announced that Ontario craft brewery sales are up a whopping fifty percent from 2009 to 2010.  That's a monumental achievement, and something the OCB and the brewers can be very proud of.  While beer in general has seen sluggish sales over the past decade or so, craft brews have been the only market to see genuine growth.  Hopefully this means more craft brews on the shelves in the coming year!

Ontario Takes Steps to Stop Being So Lame, "Grow Up."

For many foreign or out-of-province tourists, Ontario's draconian liquor laws might come across as...well, draconian.  (It could be worse, I know) Fortunately, change seems to be horizon, as the governing Liberals have stated their intentions to relax liquor laws at our province's festivals and major events.   Instead of forcing beer lovers to consume their drinks in cramped, isolated, stigmatizing "beer tents" and "alcohol zones", the proposed change would allow patrons at licenced festivals to take their booze with them freely around the grounds.  Control would still be an issue, and the details of enforcement still need to be worked out, but I think it's a step in the right direction.  Maybe if the Bills move to Toronto we might actually be allowed to tailgate like everyone else.

Whither Canned Beer?

Fox News, that bastion of logic and not-yelling-at-your-guests, also got into the discussion, giving American craft brews a rare moment in the spotlight, zeroing in on the recent trend for craft brewers to put their products in cans, rather than bottles.  Although Ontarian craft beers have come in cans for many years (Neustadt, Mill Street, Steam Whistle, and recently Wellington), there still remains a stigma against the aluminum packaging method, with most craft breweries and reviewers preferring the stuff to come out of the bottle.  But canned beer is making a comeback and seems to be gradually winning over fans, especially in the United States.  Canned beer is cheaper, lighter to ship, takes up less space on the shelf and in the fridge, is immune to light pollution, and easily recyclable - pour it into a rinsed beer glass and there really isn't a difference in taste.  Not that there should really be a tinny taste to the beer, as modern canning methods utilize non-reactive materials to keep the metallic flavor out and the goodness in.  One brewery in particular has made a name for itself by virtue of this canning method.  Oskar Blues Brewery of Colorado has pioneered the concept of releasing exceptional craft brews in cans with tremendous success.  Oskar Blues brews have taken the nation by storm; their Dale's Pale Ale and Ten Fidy Imperial Stout are consistently rated among the U.S.'s best craft beers - and both come almost exclusively in cans.   Other breweries, like 21st Amendment and Maui Brewing have also adopted the canned route.  Clearly, this article is geared towards the less discerning drinking fan, but still, it's nice to see great craft breweries make the major news networks now and then.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cameron's Mixed Four Pack

Thanks to Hank for this four pack sampler!

Cameron's Brewing of Oakville was one of my first introductions to the world of Ontario craft brewing.  Some years ago, when my beer-drinking was still done somewhat clandestinely and my choices limited to whatever I could get, my dad picked up a mixed four pack quite similar to the one I just received, and offered me a few sips.  After a few months of Labatt's and Coors or whatever else I could come across, the flavors I detected in Cameron's lagers and ales were strikingly different - much bolder, stronger, abd more diverse than anything I had tried before.  I wasn't totally certain that I liked them, but I did appreciate them, as I also did the old-tyme farmer's brew bottling design in which they were presented.   Something intrigued me, but I didn't get around to revisiting their brews - or any craft brews at all, for that matter - for some time. 

My next experience with Cameron's would not be until my moving to Waterloo, where I visited the KW Craft Beer and Rib Festival (which is now an annual treat for me that not even my wedding day could stop!) and approached the Cameron's booth.  I remember really digging the Auburn Ale and the Dark 266 ale and being taken with the beer rep's passion for his beers (not to mention the cute girls who were serving them).  I signed up for regular email updates that informed me cask night events and one-off tastings at the brewery that sounded entertaining but were a bit out of my travelling range.  Since then I really can't say I've given Cameron's a fair go, so I'm glad to have found myself in possession of a nice sampler pack containing four of their regular rotation brews!

Beer: Cameron's Lager
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 5%

The last time I had this was at last years KW Craft beer festival, and I remember I had it immediately following a rich, hoppy dark ale (Flying Monkey's Netherworld Porter), so the transition to such a light brew wasn't that great.  It wasn't really a fair assessment, so let's see how it does on its own with more time for reflection / less festival noise!

Poured into a Creemore becker glass.  A solid golden hue, some carbonation bubbles, with an inch of head that recedes into a substantial ring.  Some lacing sheets here and there.  Not too bad looking indeed!

Nothing artificial here in the nose, which is actually quite pleasant: just a strong cereal grain scent with a slight hoppy kick to it.

Cameron's Lager is very drinkable to be sure - light, and with a nice grainy flavor.  Natural ingredients goes a long way towards distinguishing this brew from the mass-produced, adjunct-heavy fare.  Nothing really exciting, but nothing offensive whatsoever.  Creamy, a bit thicker than most pale lagers.  Potent carbonation.  This does exactly what it sets out to do, which is fine by me.  Of course, it's still exceptionally boring, but it tastes authentic and goes down very smoothly.  I could drink buckets of this.
A pale lager is tough for me to rate to scale because there's so little separating members of the same style.  However, Cameron's tastes like it was made with real ingredients, so I'm marking accordingly. Is it bland and run of the mill?  Sure is. Is it good for what it is and easy to drink? You bet. (Grade: B-)

Beer: Cameron's Auburn Ale
Type: Red Ale
ABV: 5%

Poured into a that same Creemore glass - a good curved pint glass is a great piece of glassware for almost any occasion.  Pours a light amber hue - a little too light to fall under the 'auburn' colour spectrum, but it's still very nice.  Leaves behind about a half inch of white head, which dissolves into a thin ring. A few flecks of lacing.

The nose is malty, nutty and buttery, some apple and herbal hops in the back.

I'm actually quite pleased with the taste, which is dominated by the malts early on, but the herbal hops give it a lasting bitter finish.  Nutty, bready and crisp, very satisfying.  Good carbonation, but a touch too thin. Very quaffable, however. Good stuff!

This one was my favorite of the bunch - easy to drink, flavorful, nothing funky or out of place. Not very complex, but something one could session with incredible ease.  A solid Ontario offering - I'll definitely pick this one up again if it's offered in six-packs.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Cameron's Cream Ale
Type: Cream Ale
ABV: 5%

We'll stick with that nice Creemore glass, because it seems to be bringing us good luck so far!  On to the cream ale!

The cream ale is a much-maligned style in the beer geek world, although for many of us, the style was our foray into beer drinking beyond the pale lager fare our fathers/uncles left unguarded on the porch.  A step above the bland fizzy stuff, cream ales usually ale-malt based, although sometimes lagering yeast is used and other stuff is added into the mix (i.e., adjuncts).  What you get is a very sweet, low-hopped brew that should go down pretty smoothly.  However, for the more discerning drinker - especially one used to a good hop profile and roasted character in our ales, they can be pretty bland.  Still, they serve their purpose.

Cameron's Cream Ale is extremely light for an ale - a fine golden hue - with a thick creamy head and sheets of lacing rings.  A good looking brew.

The nose is bready malts, a bit of hops, nothing unusual, except for a strange adjunct smell that reminds me of cardboard or something akin to tomato soup.  I'm not alone in this regard, as other reviewers seem to get the same thing.  It's not altogether pleasant, I have to say.  There's maybe a bit of apple in there, like a really sweet cider.   

The taste is sweet, grainy, but with that same strangeness from from the nose that's quite offputting. Again, like other reviewers, I get tomato or something that really shouldn't be found in a beer. That particular flavor is not overpowering though, and so the rest of the brew is mild and easy to drink. A bit of apple, and the finish is nice and smooth, but it's not something I'm enjoying much, nor is it something I'm liable to return to.  Creamy, thick, a bit flat after a strong carbonation burnoff after pouring.

I'll still review them just in case I find one I like, but I'm still not a fan of cream ales, and this one is a perfect example of why this is so.  Bland, sweet, and with a strange adjunct flavor that really throws the whole off.  Won't get again.  (Grade: C)

Well, I guess the Creemore glass has run out of luck - time to give the conical Mill Street glass a try for the last brew of the bunch.  Not that it will make a smatter of difference, I just like mixing things up.

Beer: Cameron's Dark 266
Type: Dark Lager
ABV: 4.5%

I'm not sure what the "266" is supposed to signify; as their website is strangely silent on this point.  When poured, it is very dark indeed, but when held to the light a soft chestnut hue overtakes the brew.  The pour leaves an off-white head that displays good retention and some sticky lacing.  Not bad at all.

The nose is grain (a increasingly distinct scent that I always now am coming to associate specifically with Cameron's), along with notes of caramel, fruit, dark chocolate and a bit of roasted coffee.

This is a decent dark lager that's easy to drink. That same grainy flavor, coupled with a mild roasted character and breadiness. The whole thing feels thin, however; not a robust brew by any stretch.  Pushing into English mild brown ake territory. Same goes with the mouthfeel - thin carbonation, thin bodied.

Certainly worth a try, as this is by no means a bad effort (you might have noticed that "not bad" is a descriptor keeps coming up in my reviews of this) - it just needs some work to stand out among the other efforts featured in this dark ale heavy province.  (B-)


Breweries like Camerons that produce decent - if not a little average - brews are often overshadowed by the bolder, hoppier, extreme-named fare of other craft breweries, and I think that's a bit unfair.  Compared to brews like Smashbomb Atomic IPA or Russian Gun Imperial Stout, the standard offerings of Cameron's can seem a bit more humble.  There's a lot to be said for beers that don't rely upon gimmicks or their brewer's desire to push the envelope - sometimes an 'auburn ale' or a locally made 'lager' sounds rather nice and would really do the trick.  If you can brew them well - and use all natural ingredients without adjuncts - I say go for it.  Also, drinking local fare is one of the major objectives of the craft beer movement, and Cameron's is just around the corner, so you can feel good about doing it.

This was a nice little sampler pack full of some decent brews that, with the exception of the Cream Ale, I would certainly recommend and purchase again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Matt's Beer Den Book Review! - "Brew North" by Ian Coutts

Ian Coutts. Brew North: How Canadians made Beer and Beer made Canada. Toronto: Greystone Books, 2010.

In many Ontario bookstore shelves, one can see what amounts to a microcosm of the public’s perception of beer as it compares to its classier and more socially respectable brother, wine. Somewhere between “Barbecuing” and “Cocktails”, one will invariably find the alcoholic beverages section, which amounts to a few shelves at best. Aside from highly technical home-brewing manuals and silly one-off volumes of “Top 100 Beers to Try Before You Leave this Mortal Coil”, there really aren’t that many books on beer to be found, unless one knows where to look. By contrast, there are literally dozens of wine companions, wine guides, wine histories and so forth, which provide that extra bit of class that so fits in with the Chapters/Indigo middle-class barista and home decor ethos. Now, I will check myself at this point and resist the temptation to enter ‘rant mode’ regarding our (changing) cultural bias that favours wine over beer (one theory, proposed by Garrett Oliver, suggests that wine has become the drink of respectable society in part because, linguistically, the word ‘wine’ is originally from the divine language of Latin; the more proletarian ‘ale’, however, is a product of the lowly and less-refined Old English/Germanic tongue). I mention this only to make a point that, if one wants to explore the rich and fascinating history of beer, one must do some serious hunting, whether it is on Amazon, beer websites, university collections, or from bookstores that sell more esoteric fare. Public perceptions of beer have really only changed for the better in the last thirty years or so, so there hasn’t really been much time for the literature to come along for the ride. But books on beer are out there, and if you happen across one, they can truly be fascinating reads. Like this one, by Canadian author (and fellow Kingstonian) Ian Coutts. Coutts is a bit of a journeyman in the literary world, having written or co-written volumes on the Titanic (with Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck in 1985), on North American birds (with wildlife painter Robert Bateman), as well as books on science, food and nature geared at younger audiences.

However, when first picking up Brew North, I was both concerned and intrigued by the cover design, to the point where I questioned picking the book up at all. I wasn’t too impressed with the toque-sporting beer-swilling beaver on the front, which I felt was yet another hokey appeal to the kind of ‘Canadiana’ one finds at cheesy gift shops. I half expected this book to be packaged alongside little bottles of maple syrup and “Moose Droppings” candy. My eyebrows also rose slightly at the phrase “...and how beer made Canada.” Now, as I’ve ranted about before, Canadians like to spend an great deal of time boasting about our nation’s affinity for beer (compared to the Belgians, Germans, Czechs and even the Americans, though, we are lightweights), and thus I was worried that Coutts would fall into the trap of overstating Canada’s brewing achievements and its relationship to our history, and would merely play into the Don Cherry/”My Name is Joe”/Canadian, Eh? monomyth. Fortunately, this was not the case. Brew North does an excellent job of linking this wonderful beverage to the development of Canada as a nation, thus validating the wording of the book’s rather bold title. Brew North proved to be a great little read and a wonderful introduction to the history of brewing in Canada and its role in shaping the culture of our country.

Coutts’ history begins, like so many other histories of Canada do, with the indigenous First Nations peoples; however, this particular side of the story is surprisingly brief. Unlike the peoples of Mesoamerica, the original inhabitants of Canada did not independently develop their own alcoholic...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nørrebro Bryghus Roundup - Denmark FTW!

Up until this point, my experiences with Danish beer have been minimal at best, ranging from painfully average, but pro-footballish (Carlberg), to the Devil's Urine Tract Infection (Faxe).  But, like always, I defer to the logic that we in North America are only going to see the lamest and most corporate brews from most of the world's brewing nations, which is a poor method indeed.  Judging the entire Australian beer scene from Fosters or VB alone is simply unfair; for Canadians, this would be akin to basing one's opinion on our entire three hundred year brewing heritage on Molson Canadian.  Carlsberg and Faxe are just the biggest and best-distributed brews Denmark has been able to send over the pond.  Well, at least in Ontario, the wait is over, but at a bit of a price.  Last month, the LCBO announced that five brews from Nørrebro Bryghus, a Danish microbrewery, would hit Ontario shelves in early February.  These five brews, sporting logos reminiscent of something from an Ikea store based in Pennsylvania Dutch country, would represent the first real Danish craft brews to be sold in Ontario, and the result has been spectacular.

One of the benefits of the LCBO is that because its shelves are literally the only game in town for a market of some 8 million drinkers (one of the five largest markets in North America), liquor and beer distributors are forced to play ball.  Because of this, our import prices are remarkably low: what usually markets for 7 bucks and up for a single bottle in other jurisdictions only sells for 3 dollars or less here.  While our 24s may be ludicrously pricey, our single bottles of foreign favorites are dirt cheap.  Thus Ontarians are able to get a better experience with the world's brews at a lower price.  Recently, the LCBO has been testing the limits of this low-price threshold by offering rare, limited edition brews at higher prices than ever before.  You may have noticed some singles that looked like mini-Scotch bottles - these are Scotland's Harviestoun's Ola Dubh barrel-aged series, which sold at prices that are head and shoulders above the rest, pushing 18 bucks for their 40 year-old edition (MBD review coming soon!).  And they sold out.  Southern Tier's Choklat marketed at around 9 bucks, as did their Pumking Pumpkin Ale; both were big hits.  These bottles have been flying off the shelves, especially the Nørrebro series, which also ranges from seven to twenty dollars apiece.   Does this bode well for bringing in more expensive local Canadian and American craft brews at slightly higher prices?  I certainly hope so! 

Nørrebro Bryghus is one of Denmark's newer microbrewers, but has quickly made a reputation for itself among beer-drinking circles.  Founded in 2001 by former Carlsberg man Anders Kissmeyer, Nørrebro has dedicated itself to "broadening the Danish beer culture" beyond the usual Carlsberg-Faxe-macro brewing fare.  Nørrebro is named after a central borough of Copenhagen, which is the home of the company's flagship brewpub/restaurant, which opened in 2003.  Kissmeyer's brewing vision demands both variety and experimentation - his brews could not afford to be the pedestrian fare Danes had grown accustomed two over the years.  Thus, Nørrebro's lineup is certainly diverse; the Ontario release alone includes a Belgian Tripel, a Barleywine, an English Pale Ale, a Winter Warmer and a Coffee Stout.  Kissmeyer is also passionate about pairing his brews with food, a growing trend in the craft beer movement.  Basically, Nørrebro is everything I like about an up and coming craft brewery, and thus I was thrilled to hear of their impending LCBO arrival.  So far, I've picked up three brews - the Winter Warmer, the English Pale Ale and the Milk Stout, the latter being a collaboration between Nørrebro and Ontario maple syrup producers, whose wares have been incorporated into the standard espresso stout recipe to produce a truly unique experience for Ontarians.  Clearly, Nørrebro is privileged to be here, and naturally, I'm excited too!  

Starting with the Winter Warmer (Julebryg), here's the Nørrebro lineup!

Beer: Nørrebros Julebryg
Type: Winter Warmer:
ABV: 7.0%

Poured into a nonic glass.  A hazy, russet-chestnut brew, murky and intriguing.  Leaves a thin layer of sticky foam, a few flakes of lacing, but generally the whole thing collapses after about ten minutes.

Nose is pleasant and winter warmery. Clove, ginger, cranberry, fresh brown sugar, caramel, malt, assorted other spices.

Malty, and with a tasty spicy finish that hearkens back to the Juletide season. The spices do an admirable job of making the brew interesting, but aren't potent enough to completely run away with things. That's pretty much what I'm looking for in every winter warmer.

Slightly thick, easy to drink, and with a body that reminds me of a bock or thin barleywine. Mild carbonation.

At 7 bucks a pop, not something I would get a whole lot of (I picked up two), but certainly worth trying once. Definitely among the better winter brews I've sampled thus far this season, spicy but not oppressively so. Like many a winter warmer, one is enough for an evening. (Grade: B)

Beer: Nørrebro Bombay Pale Ale
Type: English Pale Ale or English India Pale Ale (I lean towards the former)
ABV: 6.5%

Poured into a nonic Wellington glass.  Light amber, certainly on the pale end of the pale ale spectrum. Leaves a decent amount of frothy head that settles into a thin layer, and leaves behind loads of lacing sheets. Looks quite nice.

Nose is pale malts, light citrus hops, orange and tangerine (marmalade?), a touch of caramel.  Really digging it.

This brew reminds me a great deal of Fullers (which is a good thing in my books), with a lovely orange-marmalade fruit character that I really enjoy in my pale ales. Mild earthy bitterness to the finish - some nice flavors working here. I agree with the general consensus online that this brew has much more in common with an English pale than an English IPA, other than the high ABV.  Nothing wrong with this beer, however - soft, fruity and very easy to drink.  Medium bodied for a pale, creamy, easy carbonation. A great sipper.

This a great little beer; their Bombay Pale is different enough to distinguish itself from other pale ales of the type with its big fruit flavors and mild earthy hops. While I understand the reasons (somewhat) behind high import prices, at 7ish bucks a pop in Ontario, I might only be back for one more, if not more.  (Grade: B+)
Beer: Nørrebro La Granja Espresso Stout (Ontario Maple Syrup Edition)
Type: Coffee Stout
ABV: 7.5%

This is the last of my Nørrebro Bryghus roundup, saved for a slightly warm February day - perfect maple syrup production weather!

Poured into a Duvel tulip. Inky black, only the faintest chestnut hues around the edges. Leaves a thin head that quickly recedes into nothingness, leaving neither a ring nor more than a few flecks of lacing.

Huge roasted coffee aroma, just like my espresso machine smells in the morning when I get my daily caffeine jolt.  And yes, I do detect the sweetness of maple syrup lingering in the back, along with caramel and cream. A great nose indeed.

The first few sips were a bit abrasive, but once my tastebuds acclimatized, I was hooked. This is a rich, luxurious coffee stout - packed with coffee flavor and lightly accompanied by maple syrup sweetness. The alcohol content is catching up with me, but dammit, I don't care.  This beer is great!

Thick mouthfeel, zippy carbonation that lasts throughout the bottle.

Great stuff from Nørrebro, and certainly worth the investment. The collaboration with Ontario maple syrup folks has been worthwhile, providing a nice sweet counterbalance to the bold coffee flavors. Glad I picked up a bottle, might snag one more to hold onto for later! (Grade: B+)


All in all, a terrific lineup from Nørrebro Bryghus.  Though they may seem pricey, most of their bottles are approximately the same as a cheap bottle of wine or a pint from a local pub, so splurge a little and support a fine Danish craft brewery.  Though it might cost a little more, bringing in foreign craft breweries is a fantastic way to introduce yourself to the world's brewing traditions that otherwise might get neglected in favor of corporate fare.  If the reception of Nørrebro by LCBO consumers is any indication, the Ontario market is ripe for the introduction of more craft breweries from around the globe.  Keep em coming!


Saturday, February 12, 2011

St. Peter's Gift Pack

This review comes from a lovely two pack gift set I received for Christmas (thanks Mike), that came with a lovely tall St. Peter's glass.  I've had, and enjoyed, two other brews from St. Peter's - namely, their Winter Ale and Cream Stout - so based on that I can safely assume that this should be a treat.

St. Peter's is a lovely little brewery in Suffolk that does something a lot more microbreweries used to be able to do in the past, but are not always able to afford to do so, and that's serve their product in unique and exciting bottles.  When microbrewing was in its infancy, a different bottle served as another form of advertisement, a way to distinguish themselves from the bigger fish in the pond.  Naturally, producing one's own bottles (and, if possible, retrieving them) is an expensive process, and thus a lot of breweries over the years have opted to eschew this method and go with the standard brown bottles we all know and love.  Because of this, I don't hold it against a microbrewery that its bottles are the same sort that I see everyday, but whenever a brewery is able to set themselves apart with an interesting design (Wychwood, Beau's, etc.), much kudos is in order.   St. Peter's utilizes an adorable little stubby bottle for their brews that seems to hearken back to times of yore, like something one would have seen in the satchel of an 18th century yeoman.  Sure enough, a quick visit to the brewery website reveals that the bottle design is in fact a direct copy of one used in American Revolutionary-era Philadelphia, which was "produced for Thomas Gerrard, an innkeeper with a tidewater inn on the Delaware River."    While Gerrard's bottles were originally intended to house gin - that most inherently "British" of all the world's distilled spirits - it works equally well for beer.  Early Canadian brewers saw the advantages of such smaller, squatter bottles as a means to cut shipping costs - hence the ubiquitous "stubby" bottle - so it comes to no surprise that a British brewer would come to the same conclusions. 

But enough about the bottles - lets see what's inside!

Beer: St. Peter's Golden Ale
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 4.7

Poured into that lovely St. Peter's glass that came with the set.  True to its name, the Golden Ale has wonderful colour for a pale ale, a tawny-golden hue that glistens in the glass.  I consumed this in the late evening, so the photo might not do it justice.  But take my word for it: this brew looked terrific!  The pour produced about a half-inch of foamy head that receded nicely into a thick ring, leaving behind some lovely icicles of lacing up and down the glass.  Looks great!

Nose is soft malts, butter, tea, caramel and a bit of fruit, perhaps apple or pear.  Certainly opens up after warming.  Inviting.

A sturdy, slightly sweet, but damned drinkable English pale. Malty and bready, with a nice sweet, buttery palate.  Notes of caramel and fruit.  Finishes with a hopped bitterness and a touch of smoke.  Very flavorful, easy to quaff.  Smoky bitterness lingers long after the finish.

Like many an English pale ale, the carbonation is predictably low, with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and a medium body.

The English pale ale is a style of beer with which I'm sort of going through a bit of a rough spell; this little brew will certainly go far towards rekindling our once powerful romance.  An easy-drinking pub ale, full of flavor and brilliant-looking in the accompanying glass.  Great stuff.  Wish this was available more often in single bottles, as the seasonal gift pack has thus far been the only time I've ever encountered it in Ontario.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: St. Peter's Ruby Red Ale
Type: English Bitter
ABV: 4.3%

Now, after praising the Golden ale for possessing such a beautiful hue, would their Ruby Ale be able to achieve the same result?  When poured into the glass and held into the light, I would certainly say so:

But when the brew was moved away from the window, the result was far from spectacular, as it took on more of a murky chestnut hue, with only a few streaks of red when the light hits it.  Considering the fact that English bitters are traditionally consumed in darker pub / home environments, the name becomes somewhat inapt.  The pour left behind a thin layer of off-white foam, which receded into a thin ring.  Some flecks of lacing near the top of the glass.

The nose is quite pleasant and full: malt, caramel, chocolate, earthy notes and cream. Not bad at all.

A bitter, almost astringent mineral taste pervades the beer, which is fine I suppose, but tends to hurt the soft, but tasty malt and hop profile lurking underneath.  Still, this isn't a bad-tasting ale at any stretch, its just a bit tart - and not because of the hop content, as one might expect.

Thick mouthfeel, a bit bready, with mild carbonation.

Not a bad beer, went down pretty well, but the tartness is becoming a bit over-powering. Tone that down a touch (perhaps on cask or in a fresher bottle it would do better?) and this would be a great English bitter. As it stands, this is merely a good English bitter, which is fine by me. (Grade: B)

Two brews that seek to define themselves through their colour, yet only one truly does the job properly.  Still, despite the big deal I've made this post about appearances, both bottle and beer colour, I have to say both of these brews were pretty tasty.  In the end, despite all the marketing and packaging, the beer inside has to be good, and in this case I think St. Peter's is a brewery that consistently delivers on that front.  Thus I encourage all of you if ever you come across a delightful squat St. Peter's bottle to pick it up and give a try - chances are, the product inside will be pretty damned good!

Monday, February 7, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Identical! or: The Extra 'A' is for 'Awful.'

Beer: Saku Originaal
Brewery: Saku (Harjumaa, Estonia)
Type: Pale Lager
ABV: 4.6

After a successful tasting of a foreign, hard-to-pronounce lager from yet another country-that-isn't-known-for-its-beer (Turkey's Efes Pilsner), I decided to finally try some of those strange looking brews the LCBO has decided to carry on its shelves for some reason.   These are those cans that feature bizarre labels with names possibly written in Cyrillic that look like they come from a country that has experienced a flower-named revolution in the last ten years.  Lezask, Tyskie, Slavutich, Ochakovo - those fun characters.  So far, I've had moderate-to-dismal success with these brews - Poland's Warka Strong was a decent strong lager, while Bosnia's Nektar was an unholy mess.  But, with the decent flavors and average character of Efes Pilsner fresh in my memory, I figured I'd give another one a go, this one in particular adding a new country to my list of countries-I've-had-beer-from.

Like many of these former Soviet republics, I don't know a lot about Estonia - other than the fact that their flag looks like it was designed by Columbia Sportswear and that they seem to be pretty good at skiing and shooting, which probably means I shouldn't piss them off until I finish my top-secret desert base (target completion date: August, 2012 - you know why...).  Now, Estonia actually has a pretty lengthy history with brewing, having tinkered with the beverage for over a thousand years.

You wouldn't know it with this beer, I'll say that much.  This stuff was bloody awful.

Poured into a lager glass.  Like most of these imported lagers, the brew's appearance will be hit or miss, depending upon the quality of the brewing and the conditions of its travel.  In this case, Saku was a hit - light golden, visible carbonation, frothy head and decent lacing.  

Thus concludes the positive attributes I will bestow upon Saku Originaal.

The nose is sweet and corny, which is not something I look for in any product except for sweet corn.  If there was any hop extract or malted barley present in this beer, it has long since been washed out. 

Then there's the taste, which consists principally of two basic elements: corn, and nothing.  Actually, scratch that - there is, in fact, a third flavor that I'm getting now, and that's an astringent metallic tinnyess that has proceeded to assault my tastebuds with every sip.  At least Budweiser and Molson have done their customers the courtesy of attempting to mask their corn/rice adjunct flavors with some sort of hops or malted grain; Saku didn't have time for all that - there's biathlons to win.  This beer is like eating a stale cob of corn that was wrapped in tinfoil to keep it warm, except I accidentally bite into the tin foil which gets caught in my teeth, and then the cob of corn starts punching me because of some perceived slight.  And then it starts raining and I find that my car has been stolen.

Two thirds of the way through the can and I've had enough.  I could waste my time with the rest of this brew, but I have three cans of Creemore and a bottle of Aventinus Weizenbock in the fridge, which would be a far better use of my time / caloric intake.  Down the sink it goes...

I may have successfully added another beer country to the list, but it comes at the expense of my tastebuds who weren't prepared for such a brutal experience.  At two bucks a can, I might as well have spent it on Labatt's Blue or Molson Canadian, because at least I'd be supporting Canadian (kinda) industries.   PBR and Old Milwaukee are boring brews, but at least they aren't offensive.  Saku Origniaal starts with corn and ends with eww.  Avoid it like the plague.  (Grade: D-)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Random Fridge Beer - Mill Street Coffee Porter

Beer: Mill Street Coffee Porter
Brewery: Mill Street Brewery (Toronto)
Type: Porter
ABV: 5.5%

Had a birthday shindig last weekend - good beer, good laughs, and as usual, one hell of a cleanup the following day.  Actually, it took me the better part of the week to get the house somewhat back to normal, especially the fridge, which had been so jammed full of booze and leftovers that only just the other day did we get around to sorting out.  Whenever one has a party, one invariably will discover left-behinds the next morning - dishes, food, personal effects, and of course beer.  It seems to be a custom in this country to leave behind whatever beer you didn't get around to consuming as sort of a bonus for the hosts - something they can consume while cleaning up the mess you made.  In most cases, however, I believe that left behind beer is more a product of a chaotic party exit ("Cab's outside now! Grab your shit!") than any specific beer-related altruism.  In either case, the host tends to win out in the end - or at least is recompensed for the broken glasses or stains on the floor - by finding fun goodies the next day.  It's like Christmas, in a way.  This single bottle was one such MIA soldier, which I happily obliged to relieve of duty. 

I've had Mill Street Coffee Porter many times before, but it has been a while since my last go.  I think this bottle suffered a bit from over-refrigeration - extended periods in the cold can seriously harm certain beers - so I'll base some of this review on notes I made previously.

Poured into a Mill St. pint glass.  Very deep brown, light tan head, a bit of lacing.  I remember the brew looking better before - this time around, the head dissipated very quickly, resulting in an end product that looked a great deal like Coca Cola. Again, I really think this is the result of being neglected in the fridge for about a week.

The smell is most certainly a pronounced ground coffee, which is one of my favourite scents so I can't help but mark high here.  A bit of roasted maltiness in the back, with some cream and bold chocolate.

As we've seen before, most porters and stouts, by nature of the roasting process will naturally possess elements of coffee, chocolate and caramel in their flavor profiles, just like weizenbiers will naturally possess coriander, lemon and other citrus notes.  In order to really make the flavors pop, however, some brewers will add extra coffee or chocolate into the fermenting mix, a procedure that generally works well, but sometimes can fail disastrously if the end product feels 'forced'.  Fortunately, in this case, Mill Street is a case of the former.  Their porter possesses a good blend of coffee, dark chocolate, malt and caramel flavors that blend together nicely. The mouthfeel is about right for a porter: thick, creamy, and with a moderate carbonation.

A solid porter all around.  Mill Street chose to add some pretty damned good coffee to the mix: a special blend from Balzac's, which is an excellent mini-chain of coffee houses found in southwestern Ontario and Toronto.  One just opened up in Kitchener recently, and I'm hoping to make a trip down that way very soon.    Because of this, the flavors found within their Coffee porter feel somewhat natural, instead of being the result of deliberate additions, which should always be the end result of making a "flavored" beer.  Mill Street Coffee Porter would pair well with any dessert - and would make a terrific breakfast beer.  (Grade: B+)

Friday, February 4, 2011

St. Ambroise Pale Ale - A Four Pack is Not Enough!

Beer: McAuslan St. Ambroise Pale Ale
Brewery: McAuslan Brewing (Montreal, Quebec)
Type: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5%

McAuslan is yet another fantastic brewery from Quebec, which has been operating successfully for over 20 years.  Founded in 1989 by amateur homebrewer Peter McAuslan, the brewery was able to find a niche with the Montreal beer drinking crowd who were particularly smitten with McAuslan's flagship brew, St. Ambroise Pale Ale (Rue St. Ambroise is the name of the street at which the brewery is located).  Beer Hunter Michael Jackon famously declared that McAuslan's Pale Ale was his favorite brew from the province.  Over the years other brews, like St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and Apricot Wheat Ale, have generated dedicated followings and have received dozens of awards.  Just your standard, run of the mill Quebec brewery.   I've had their flagship brew several times before, but rarely have I had the chance to really sit down with it, so this. four pack will most certainly do the trick!  Thanks to Jill and Dave for giving me this birthday four pack!  Cheers, guys!

Poured into a nonic glass. A stunning colour - really fantastic - copper golden, clear, and with a few bubbles of carbonation rising from the depths, it looks spot on for the style.  Terrific sticky lacing up and down the glass, good retention on the 1/2 inch head. Looks brilliant.

The nose is malty, with soft notes of peach, apple, caramel, toffee and grassy hops.

Man, this is one tasty little pale ale - sweet at first, with a crisp cracker malt flavor, fruit (apple) and caramel notes, which is then followed by a palate-cleansing bitter hop finish with a touch of tart apple flavor.  Woodsy and dry to the finish.  The sweetness is a bit off pace, but generally speaking St. Ambroise is a real pleasure to drink, full of flavor and character.  Crisp carbonation, slightly creamy, medium-thin bodied.

I can definitely see why this brew was responsible for jumpstarting McAuslan's brewing business.  This is a pale ale that is full of flavor, and is a fine example of how a pale ale can taste. This brew would make for a fine session beer over the course of an evening.  Another great brew from a great Quebec brewery!   (Grade: A-)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Groundhog Day Drinking!

Beer: Samuel Adams Winter Lager
Brewery: Samuel Adams (Boston Brewing Company, Boston MA)
Type: Bock
ABV: 5.5%

I went to bed last night safe with the knowledge that a winter storm was blasting its way across southern Ontario, which theoretically meant that most places - including the university where I work - would happily eschew opening the next day, rather than force their employees to make large, pointless treks across newly snow-covered tundra.  I was right, or at least I would have been if my university wasn't the only university in western Ontario to not close for the the day.  Goddamnit...

Like many of my comrades, I was right pissed, not because I had to venture across ice planet Hoth to get to work (it actually wasn't that bad out - the media folk greatly exaggerated this storm's capacity), but because we were the only ones who had to do it.   I felt like my parents were forcing me to stay inside on a warm May evening and practice violin while all the other kids got to play road hockey and beat each other up.  Except unlike the kid playing the violin, there was no tangible benefit for us in the long run - just cold, snowy aggravation.  At least it was kinda pretty outside...

After coming home from work and shoveling the driveway for about an hour, I really, really felt like drinking winter away for good.  So I did so - inside my warm living room, however, sporting a pair of khaki cargo shorts out of spite.   I usually make a habit of picking up anything Sam Adams puts out whenever it gets to Ontario - I'm a big fan of their Boston lager, and I've been fairly happy with most things I've tried from them thus far.  Thus I picked up a sixer of their Winter Lager at the LCBO while getting ready for my birthday shindig on the weekend, and this was my third brew into the pack.  If I can swing it, I like to sample a brew a few times before giving it an official review, as it gives me a chance to experience the brew at different times and with a clearer mind.  Greater sampling base, that sort of thing.  A sound policy with any beer.

Poured into a nonic glass.  This was a nice amber-copper brew, which left behind an inch of off white head that settled into a ring.  A few flecks of lacing here and there.  Looks like your basic English pale ale or winter warmer.

The nose is nice, but incredibly mild. Malt, caramel, cherry, nutmeg, a few other spices here and there.  Not as aggressively spiced as Great Lakes' Winter Ale, but subtlety is an under-appreciated virtue.
Tastes malty, rich, a decent spice profile, with smoke, caramel, clove/nutmeg and dark caramel.  Finishes spicy with a good blast of pepper.  Drinkable, not something I'd want on a regular basis, but certainly good for an evening hiding away from winter.

Nothing terribly exciting, but pretty good for a craft brewery with as big a presence as Sam Adams. Something I'm sure would go well with many different folks at the holidays / to ward off the chill. I've had better winter lagers to be sure, but this one weren't bad.  (Grade: B)

Truth be told, I'm starting to get a bit tired of all these winter brews - not that there's anything wrong with most of them, it's just that the whole winter drinking season is starting to get old.  Chock that up to the February blahs, I suppose - at least last year we had the Olympics to get ourselves through the second lamest month of the year.   I took the photo above while on my patio, and I have to say I'm really missing sitting outside and drinking in the sunshine.  Might have to bust out some wheat beers and summer-style brews in the next few days to keep my enthusiasm rolling.

Or better yet, I might have to make a Margarita if I could only find my shaker of salt...