Saturday, April 16, 2011

Matt Brewing Company Sampler Pack: Or, My Future Brewery Name Now Needs Some Revision

My Pa, on his way back from a trip to Florida, brought me back this sampler pack from something called The Matt Brewing Company in upstate (Utica) New York, which not only is among the worst brewery names I've ever seen (all their brews are called Saranac something-or-other, so why isn't the brewery called Saranac?), but also has the effect of ruining my future plans of starting a brewery named after yours truly.   After I got over my initial annoyance at the name, I have to say I instantly fell in love with the brewery's company image.  As an Ontarian who spent many a summer in cottage country, I have a soft spot for any brewery that appeals to the quiet solitude of the northern wilderness and the pleasures of a fine brew that is meant to be enjoyed on the dock.  My dad spend many hours at our family cottage sitting on the deck overlooking Georgian Bay reading a book and drinking a beer.  As a child, I wondered why on earth he would ever want to do something so boring; as an adult, there's few things in life I would rather do more.  This sampler pack of Adirondack-themed brews certainly does a marvelous job of capturing this lovely image; each beer label features a lovely painted wilderness scene that urges you to find a deck chair, sit down and enjoy the view.   As the days keep getting warmer and the promise of summer seems ever closer to reality, I can think of no better place for my mind to be - especially when I'm about to try a new beer!

The Saranac brews themselves are quite diverse, ranging from your traditional lager and now-standard American IPA to an English brown ale and German schwartzbier.  A good mix for a sampler pack, I have to say.  A quick check at the brewery website reveals that while these six are among their standard offerings, they are still but a tip of the iceberg.   The other brews in the mix - Adirondack Lager, Saranac IPA and Saranac Brown Ale - were decent brews, particularly the latter, but didn't really impress. 
Thus, rather than burden you with a huge sixpack review, I thought I'd whittle it down to the gems of the bunch, starting with their Black Forest brew!

Beer: Saranac Black Forest
Type: Schwartzbier
ABV: 5.5%

Schwartzbier ("black beer" auf Deutsch) is really more of a winter style of beer, but it can certainly be enjoyed into the spring - if one were to follow the so-called 'beer-calendar' to the letter.  Unlike the heavier bocks, doppelbocks and other black ales designed for cold-weather consumption, Schwartzbiers are noticeably lighter in body and alcohol content, making them far easier to drink in quantity, yet still have robust, malty flavors. 

Poured into a dimpled pint jug, and enjoyed on the first warm patio day of the spring!  A nice dark chestnut brew with a little ruby hints around the edges. Leaves a thin off-white head which survives as a thin ring.

The nose is quite delectable - caramel, cream, chocolate, a bit of brown bread. Sweet, but very pleasant.

A tasty brew, sweet and malty with notes of caramel and cream, but finishes with a slight grassy hop bitterness and pumpernickel character. Tastes dark enough, but is also sweet enough to work well together.  I'm quite enjoying this, actually.

Thin-bodied, reminds me in colour and texture of a bottle of rootbeer that was opened about 20 minutes ago. A bit syrupy - this was my only real complaint with the brew.

A nice brew - I was initially unimpressed with their IPA, so this was a nice pick-me-up for the second bottle of the pack.  Sweet, bready, but not oppressively so, meaning this would be a nice session brew for the evening (low ABV, good flavor).  Quite nice.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Saranac Black & Tan
Type: Black and Tan (in this case, Matt Brewing blended their stout and Adirondack lager recipe)
ABV: 5.4%

Black and Tan is a mixture of a heavy Irish stout and a pale ale, or in this case a red lager.  One of the tricks of the bartender trade is to be able to float the stout on top of the pale ale, creating two distinct layers of beer in the glass.  Guinness seems to be the standard stout used in a black and tan; not only is it the most popular Irish stout in the world, it also seems to have just the perfect density to float at the top of the glass without blending into the pale ale below.  The idea of the drink seems to be to reduce the heavy nature of the stout with a lighter brew; I was first introduced to Guinness stout when my dad made me a half and half with Bass Pale Ale.  The 'floating' effect is just for show, as well as to provide the illusion of drinking two pints at once (an illusion that can also be achieved by drinking two pints at once).  Obviously, bottled or canned "black and tans" won't have the same visual effect as the real thing, but nevertheless should display distinct characteristics of both stout and pale ale/lager. 

Saranac's version is deep chocolate in colour, but when held to the light it catches some ruby hues as well.  Thin, white head survives as a thin layer.  Some lacing.

Nose is roasted coffee, malt, cream, a bit of nut and milk chocolate.  Quite nice actually.

I think this was my favorite brew of the bunch, (although the Black Forest was certainly nice as well). The stout was of the dry Irish variety, nice and roasty, but with a soft sweetness as well. The lager character features in the mellowing finish, which also features some mild English hopped citric tang to it.  This is all overlain with a creamy, milk flavor, softening the different hues.   The beer is medium bodied, crisp, yet creamy as well.

This is certainly a flavorful brew, and good melding of two other brews in the Saranac lineup. Bottled or canned Black and Tans are a tough sell for me - the best kinds are the ones your pour yourself.  This, however, was not a bad stab at it.  However, I would have preferred to have tried their Irish Stout by itself... (Grade: B)

Beer: Saranac Pale Ale
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 5.5%

This brew's been available in the LCBO on occasion for the last several months, but I didn't get around to it for some reason.  No matter, here it is now!  Contrary to my expectations, this brew is an English style pale ale, rather than an American.  I suspected the difference when taking my first sips and later confirmed this by visiting the brewery website. 

Poured into a nonic. A slightly murky copper brew, the pour leaving a thick-bubbled head that seemed to survive quite well for itself. Some lacing streaks here and there.

Nose is pale malts, caramel, a bit of bread, citrus hop (cascade?), honey.

Tastes like an English pale ale - I was expecting an APA, so this was certainly a surprise. Starts with toffee, caramel, usual English suspects, then finishes with a mild citric hoppy bitterness.

Slightly creamy, drinks like a nitro-can of English ale.

Not a bad rendition of the English style. Tastes a lot like a toned town version of their IPA (or, more likely, vice versa), which is a good thing. The mild use of cascade hops actually pairs rather well with the English pale malts. Decent brew indeed. (Grade: B).

That's all for a little while from the Den!  I'm heading Down Under for a few weeks - looking forward to checking out the Australian craft brewing scene!  Expect mucho posting on Aussie beers when I return.

 See you in three weeks!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Yingling" - America's Oldest Brewery

Beer: Yuengling Traditional Lager
This bottle couldn't be more American if Teddy Roosevelt
personally spit in every bottle after eating apple pie at a
Boston Beaneaters match.
Brewery: Yuengling (Pottsville, PA)
Type: Red Lager
ABV: 4.4%

It's hard to have a conversation about American beer without bringing up the name Yuengling. 

Wait a minute, what am I saying?  It's very easy! Well, it's easy to forget about Yuengling if you happen to reside somewhere other than the American northeast, a place I currently happen to be.  Up until a few years ago, I had not even heard of this legendary Pennsylvania brewery, and I still cannot find its products in Ontario shelves anywhere.  Such is the advertising power of the big breweries in the US of A - other smaller, but no less important, players in the evolution of American beer culture are pushed outside of the public consciousness, replaced instead by Clydesdales, the Milwaukee Brewers, and buxom brunettes in thin Coors t-shirts. 

Yuengling (pron: "Ying-ling") is, as the bottle boldly proclaims, is America's oldest continuously operating brewery, first putting water and grain to the boil in 1829.   The brewery was founded by German immigrant David Juengling, who brought with him (along with other brewers of Germanic origin) the tradition of lager brewing.  For decade after decade, Yuengling was - and still is - the official beer of Pennsylvania, and has attracted a following outside of its homestate as well.   Like other large breweries of the time, Yuengling managed to survive the Prohibition years by selling low-alcohol near-beers and sodas, before returning to its former status of pre-eminence for a time.  Yuengling celebrated the end of Prohibition by sending President Roosevelt a case of freshly brewed "Winner Beer", thus beating the Charlie Sheen fad by nearly eighty years.  The postwar years were not kind to Yuengling, however;  the process of brewery consolidation and the growth of mass-advertizing campaigns pushed smaller, local breweries like Yuengling out of the public consciousness outside of their region.  Yuengling's extremely dedicated following kept the brewery afloat, however, and a culture more kind to local breweries has allowed the Pride of Pennsylvania to return to a strong national position (currently sitting as the second largest American-owned brewery, after Sam Adams).  Indeed, according to the brewery website demand for their products in the late 1990s exceeded their production capabilities to the point where Yuengling had to withdraw its out-of-state distribution somewhat.

To return to my previous point, I have never seen Yuengling outside of the United States - it seems to be a very regional thing, though I'm sure it's availability has increased as more beer-specific shops open up across the country.  The first time I had any Yuengling product was in Florida a year ago, and I have to say, I really wasn't impressed it.   Turns out I had tried their "Premium Beer", a cheaper lager offering that didn't really do much for me and probably wasn't designed to do so.  Plus I had it at the Olive Garden, which isn't really the best venue to explore new craft brewing options.   I would not encounter their flagship Traditional Lager until this month, when my father brought me back a couple bottles to try. 

What a difference a brew makes.  Rather than a boring, run-of-the-mill pale lager as I had anticipated, Yuengling's Traditional Lager had some real meat to it.  It's no small wonder that - according to Wikipedia - most Pennsylvanians need only say "lager" to their beer salesman in order to receive a case of Yuengling.  It's that popular.

I poured Yuengling into a tall ale glass.  Like Creemore of Ontario, the Traditional Lager poured a nice, clear golden-copper hue that displayed lots of visible carbonation.   The pour left behind a thin white head, which dissolved into a fine ring.

Nose is mild, but pleasant.  Malt, grassy hops, a bit of citrus.  A nice bready character as well. Certainly nothing artificial or funky here.

Damn, this was one decent-tasting brew - certainly something I would enjoy in great quantities.  Slightly malty and bready, citrus and grassy hops.  Mild carbonation, thin-bodied.  I'm really digging this, and I'm not sure why!  This tastes like beer, an elusive concept I've attempted to identify over the past few years.  Though I truly relish beers of a myriad of styles, there's an unmistakable appeal in a beer that tastes like something your father would drink, something you happily crack open and drink straight from the bottle, rathern than pouring out and inspecting for lacing patterns and head retention (which of course, I just did - this is a beer-reviewing site after all...). 

Would that other big-name US lagers could taste as good as this; certainly several cuts above your standard BMC fare, that's for damned sure. What the beer lacks in definition, it makes up for in sheer drinkability.   Indeed, this was definitely a beer I would certainly be happy having around the fridge for casual patio and backyard drinking.  This is the kind of beer I like - it's got a masculine, Monday Night Football, Levi Jeans, Americana appeal - something you'd feel happy offering to friends and well-wishers on their way in the door - but unlike other brews that attempt to project this image, Yuengling doesn't taste like corny crap.  It actually has flavor, colour and texture.  I'm beginning to see why Pennsylvanians would panic if their supply were to run short because of thirsty out-of-staters.  This is good stuff indeed.  (Grade: B)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Brewery Roundup: Brasseurs de Nord (a.k.a., Boréale)

Brasseurs du Nord is a small brewery from the town of Blainville, Quebec, which sits northwest of Montreal near the Laurentian mountains.  Most Quebeckers would probably recognize the brewery more by its alternate name, Boréale.  Founded by the Morin brothers, along with Laura Urtnowski, Brasseurs has been a presence in the Quebec microbrewing scene since the very beginning, with their first brews rolling off the shelves in 1988.   Like other breweries in the province, Brasseurs du Nord offered beers with pure barley malts and hops, eschewing the use of adjuncts.  Despite being among the initiators of the Quebec craft brewing industry, their portfolio is decidedly more conservative, and less innovative than their Montreal counterparts.   Still, the brews are pretty tasty, and offer a good introduction to the varieties of beer to the inquisitive consumer.  Their main brews - Blonde, Rousse, Blanche and Doree - are often available in a Selections mixed pack; however their distribution is generally restricted to Quebec proper, so getting your hands on some would involve a trip or trade of some kind. 

Here are my favorites from the mixed pack:

Beer: Boréale Blanche
Type: Wit
ABV: 4.2%

Nicholas Paschley, in Cheers! An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada, observes that Quebec beer labels can sometimes be a remarkably deceptive lot.  While many of them feature some of the most brilliant artwork in the craft beer world, their names are maddeningly non-specific.  For example, a beer named "rousse" can mean pretty much any kind of red beer, be it scotch ale, English Pale, American Red Lager - you name it.  "Blonde" is even worse, as it covers nearly every beer style in the 'golden-colour' spectrum.  Fortunately, "Blanche" almost always refers to wheat beers of some kind - by 'white' they mean light-coloured and unfiltered - so chances are, the brew will be a hefeweizen or Belgian witbier, this brew being an example of the latter. 

Poured into a Hoegaarden tumbler.  A straw-golden coloured brew, murky, with the pour leaving about an inch of head that seems to retain pretty well. Good lacing patches.

Nose is mild spices, coriander, citrus, and strangely, some lemon-and-herb poultry seasoning.  It's a bit off, but it's not altogether unpleasant.

As far as witbiers go, Boréale is a bit thin.  There isn't not much to this, save for an intriguing little ginger kick that's quite potent.  Not nearly as strong as in Brasseurs de Montreal's Chi Orientale, but certainly more noticeable than I have seen in other witbiers of the kind.  Since it's a witbier, the addition of extra spices, ginger included, is quite acceptable.  I also get some coriander, citrus, and some other spices as well.  Finishes dry.  The beer has a creamy, thicker-mouthfeel, with soft carbonation. Easy to quaff.

While this is certainly not a bad wheat beer, it's not altogether very good either. A cut above the usual mass-market "white" beers, and the additional ginger component is quite nice, but the rest of the flavors don't quite pop.  Still, a few of these in the summer would be welcome.  (Grade: B-)

Beer: Boréale Dorée ("golden" is the approximate translation, although I'm not sure!)
Type: Pale Ale
ABV: 4.8%
This beer is advertised as being brewed with honey, possibly during secondary fermentation or it could be much later.   I imagine this will be very sweet-tasting brew - how well the honey will be integrated into the product remains to be seen.

Poured into a nonic pint glass.  Appropriate to the name, Dorée is bright golden in colour.  The pour left a nice fluffy head that receded into a fine ring.  Some lacing, but not much.

Nose is honey, and malt.  Very one dimensional, but certainly pleasant.

Dorée does precisely what it sets out to do - its a beer that tastes like a standard pale lager brewed with honey - no more, no less.  In this regard, it has done very well for itself, and I can certainly see folks enjoying this in the summertime, especially those who enjoy 'honey brown' ales. Still, there isn't much else to this.  Honey beer, plain and simple.
Thin bodied, mild carbonation. Sweetness sticks on the tongue.

Not something I'd seek out, but certainly not something I'd turn down either. A decent-tasting beer brewed with honey. I really can't say much more about it.  Again, a few of these would be quite nice on the patio in the summer.  (Grade: C+)

Beer: Boréale Rousse
Type: Red Ale
ABV: 5%

The Rousse was Boréale's first successful brew, effectively launching the company's efforts in 1988. 

Poured into a conical Mill Street glass. Nice amber-red colour, very clear.  The pour leaves an inch of head that survives as a thin, but sturdy ring.  Some nice lacing.

Nose is caramel, malt, bread, tart hops.

A decent-tasting red ale. Certainly nothing innovative or exciting here, but what's there is tasty and easy to drink. Caramel malt, bready, nice and sweet.  Cream and caramel flavors are quite nice.   Finishes with a mild hop tang.

Moderate carbonation, slightly creamy, good mouthfeel. 

Not a bad red ale, certainly very drinkable, and a cut above some of their other stuff.  My favorite of the bunch (Grade: B-)

Decent beers all around.  Nothing scarily innovative or otherworldly, but a good variety from which to choose.  A mixed pack of Boréale would certainly be a good sampler to bring to the cottage or summer barbecue, as it gives your guests (or just yourself) some options.    Still, it would be nice for Brasseurs du Nord to expand their lineup a little bit, and to branch out into some different styles, something to differentiate their brewery somewhat.