Saturday, July 30, 2011

Westvleteren 12

Beer: Trappist Westvleteren 12
Brewery: Abbey of St. Sixtus, Westvleteren (Belgium)
Type: Quadrupel
ABV: 10.2%

The 8 led things off with all the flair and pizazz of a young Rickey Henderson, and quickly stole my heart.  But all I've heard is that while the 8 is terrific, the 12 is a godlike brew, suitable to be served at the finest keggers on Mt. Olympus.  The hype and anticipation for this brew concerned me a great deal; just before opening the bottle, I had to keep everything in check.  Forget where this brew came from and what it represents, and just focus on the taste.  A difficult challenge indeed.

Poured into a Duvel goblet. A nice, murky chestnut brown colour, with a slight reddish tinge. A billowing pile of off-white head sat upon the brew and refused to leave. By the end of the bottle, there was still a thick ring and scads of lacing. A terrific looking brew.

Great nose to it as well: raisins, booze, candied fruit, chocolate, all sorts of goodies. Not quite as potent and rich as 8 (which I will inevitably be comparing this to, despite being different styles), but still terrific.

A great quad, rich and spicy, with those same fruit notes (raisin, dry white wine, raspberry), spices, a bit of chocolate, warming alcohol and a drying finish. Exceptional stuff, really enjoying this.

Tart carbonation, but coats the tongue well and leaves a nice slick feel. The booze stings ever so slightly.

Gotta put the 8 a hair above this brew, but damn is it close. I think it comes down to personal preference - I prefer dubbels to quads or tripels (I'd make a lousy figure skater) as a general rule. However, I do enjoy a fine quadrupel, and this is most certainly among the top of its class. 

Westvleteren 8

Beer: Trappist Westvleteren 8
Brewery: Abbey of St. Sixtus, Westvleteren (Belgium)
Type: Dubbel
ABV: 8%

Every beer reviewing site, online discussion, beer book and beer-loving acquaintance has raved about these two brews, but almost every source has given the edge to the 12 over the 8.  Maybe its the fact that the 12 is higher in alcohol, and is of the quadrupel style, which is one of the most popular beer styles out there.   Or maybe it's just personal preferences, or the fact that 12 is a bigger number than 8.  Whatever the reason, the 12 seems to hold all the cards, so I decided to save it for last, and open things off with the 8.

Clearly, the 12 has its work cut out for it, because the 8 was absolutely sensational.

Poured into a Chimay goblet to show some Trappist solidarity, shared with my wife as part of our anniversary celebrations. A tawny, cherry-juice coloured brew, which admittedly is not that much to look at. Big frothy head though, with some lovely visible bubbles along the side. Thin ring survives.

And then you smell it...

I don't want to exaggerate, but the nose on this kind of a big deal.  In fact, it's delicious to the point where I would probably pay someone to sniff their recently-used glass.  The list of wonderful things I can detect is pretty impressive: lightly browned sugar, port, brandy, raisin, grape, a bit of earth and spices, Belgian yeast all combine to make something truly special.

To no surprise, the taste is every bit as wonderful as the nose suggested it would be.  Port and dark fruit, a lovely sugary sweetness, but with a firm malt background and enough hops to provide a light finishing bitterness. Coffee or chocolate make appearances somewhere near the finish. The finest dubbel I have as yet come across.

After a quick carbonation burnoff, the brew takes on a terrific mouthfeel, with lovely easy carbonation and a moderate body which coats the tongue well. A lasting bitter finish.

In a word: sublime.  I'm not going to make any bold statements about this beer's status as the "best ever" (I haven't opened the 12 yet!), but rest assured this brew is certainly worthy of the hype and is certainly amongst the very best brews the world can offer. Worth navigating the tricky ordering process (or better yet, a fortuitous trade!) Truly fantastic stuff, and I really wish I had more of this.  By the end of the beer, when I realized it might be years before I try one of these brews again, I felt just like Zoidberg when he found out there were no more sardines in the universe: consumed with a primal, insatiable rage...

More. MORE!!!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Trappist Westvleteren - The Best Beer in the World?

The Abbey of St. Sixtus lies in the tiny village of Westvleteren, which itself can be found in the very westernmost part of Flanders, Belgium. Within its ancient walls are housed a small contingent of Catholic monks who belong to a strict Benedictine monastic order known as the Cistercians, small communities of which can be found all over the world - including five abbeys in Canada. The monks' day-to-day life comprises of a regimen of prayer, scriptural reading, and silent reflection, all of which is done to bring about a state of peace and closeness to God. But another path to godliness, which was highly praised by St. Benedict in his teachings, distinguishes Cistercians from other Catholic orders, and that is the concept of manual labour. Rather than exclusively relying upon external funding like tithes or donations, Cistercian monks will keep their abbeys afloat through the fruits of their labour ("the work of their hands"), which usually involves some sort of craft or food production to be sold to the general community. Since each abbey is essentially autonomous, it is up to the local monastic community and the abbot to decide what sort of labour project the monastery will undertake, and how it will be undertaken. And it is a very good thing for brew lovers around the world, that at some point in its history, the Westvleteren Abbey of St. Sixtus decided to begin brewing beer.

Consistently rated among the world's greatest beers are two of the three varieties produced by Westvleteren: their #12 Quadrupel Ale, and their #8 Dubbel Ale.  Westvleteren 12 currently occupies the very top spot at both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, whose ratings are gathered from average joes like yours truly, while respected published beer critics the world over - like the late British author Michael Jackson – also consider these two brews to be among the world's finest.  Perhaps the monastic lifestyle does something to the Westvleteren brewmasters.  Perhaps it inspires them to create great works in the glory of God and all creation. Or maybe it’s the patience and inner peace that comes from men who are governed by no sales budget, no focus group, no one but their brothers and God himself, allowing them to approach the true 'zen' of beermaking. Whatever the key is, the brothers at Westvleteren have found it, for theirs is often referred to as the best beer ever made. 

The magnificient seven...
Westvleteren brews are part of a small, but extremely influential family of beers known as "Trappist beer," which is a very specific descriptor of an abbey beer's origin; the name is 'trademarked', just as one would do so for Champagne wine and Parmesan cheese. For a beer to be called Trappist, it must be made exclusively on abbey property by Cistercian monks (who, in honour of their original La Trappe Abbey in France, are often known as "trappists"), and all of the proceeds from beer sales must only go towards keeping the monastery afloat, as well as to support charitable endeavours. At present, there are seven Trappist breweries in the world, with Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren found in Belgium, and the lone holdout “La Trappe” Koningshoeven rounding things off in the Netherlands.  Though each brewery’s output differs in volume, style and complexity, all are extremely regarded amongst the beer-loving community.  Indeed, many of Europe’s great breweries are indebted to the Trappist line, having been inspired by the monks’ unique approach to brewing.  Leffe, De Koninck, Maresdous, and Affligem are just some of the more mainstream, high-production breweries from Belgium whose beers are brewed along the same lines as the Trappists.   But while all Trappist beers seem to be rated very highly, the brews from Westvleteren consistently top the charts.  So if this beer is so good, why haven’t we all tried it before? 

The brewery of the abbey of Westvleteren operates on a simple principle: “We are no brewers.  We are monks.  We brew so we can afford to be monks.”  For that reason, production numbers are extremely low at Westvleteren, despite the growing clamour from those who just can’t enough of their beer.  But that isn’t the entire problem; Achel’s brewery output is even lower than Westvleteren’s, yet their beers are occasionally available overseas in specialty beer stores.  What sets Westvleteren apart is the fact that there is only one way to get their beer.  Forget driving out to the abbey and hoping to pick up a few bottles.  It’s not going to happen.  Nope, first you have to call a beer ‘hot-line’ to see if there is any beer available.  If there is, you place your order over the phone; your number, name and licence plate are recorded.  Then, at the appointed time, you drive to the brewery, provide your information and receive your beer allotment, which may be as little as one or two cases per month.  

Or, you find someone whose gone through all that and is willing to trade with you for a couple of bottles.  Airfare to Belgium being what it is, I opted for the latter, and managed to acquire a bottle of both the 8 and the 12.    So, I wondered to myself as I brought these two treasures inside: was I truly in the possession of the world’s greatest beer?  Only one way to find out...

In the next posts, we'll have a look at both the 8 and the 12 to see what all the rhubarb is all about!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When in Doubt, Try Two (Or Eight!)

Beer: Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout
Brewery: Samuel Smith's (Tadcaster, UK)
Type: Oatmeal Stout
ABV: 5%

It's the middle of an oppressive Ontario heatwave, so what better time than to review a hearty English stout!

This is a beer I have been waiting for a long time to try, but for some ridiculous reason - perhaps a missed shipment or special order gone awry - the LCBO decided to release this thick, hearty stout in the dead of summer.  But since the LCBO's motto seems to be "drink what you're given and quit yer bitchin," I'll take it when I can get it.  But seriously, this thing had late spring or early autumn written all over it.

Samuel Smith's is among my favorite English breweries; at the very least it's in the top five.  And it's no small wonder - their Oatmeal Stout, Brown Ale and Imperial Stout are top class, and their summer and winter seasonals (Raspberry Ale and Winter Warmer, respectively) are first rate brews.  So, whenever I come across one of these handsome bottles featuring a variation of the White Rose of York (Tadcaster is in northern Yorkshire), I will snap it up gladly.

Now, the biggest issue with drinking certain brews in the summer is of course the difficulty in storing and serving them a proper temperature.  Brews like light ales, pale lagers, pilsners, wheat beers and fruit-infused beers are truly the best fit for the summer - not only are they generally lighter and more refreshing in the oppressive heat, but they also seem to like being kept in cold refrigerators for longer without going funky, and taste best when they are quite cold.   With stouts, porters, barleywines, Scottish Wee Heavies, schwartzbiers and other heavier brews, the summer is not really ideal.  Keeping heartier brews in the fridge for too long tends to wreak havoc on their balance (I've had many a neglected dark brew go flat and become undrinkable  from prolonged cold exposure).  But underchill them, or consume them on the patio in the blazing heat, and they become...well, gross.  Imagine drinking a warm pint of sludgy Guinness when it's 40 degrees outside and you'll get the idea.

A week ago, I came across a dozen of these Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stouts at the LCBO, and wisely decided to pick up at least two of them.   If I can impart any rule of drinking beer - and this shouldn't be too hard a rule to follow - it is this: when in doubt, buy more than one.  Not only will you have more beer, you'll have greater opportunity to ensure that the beer you're trying wasn't just a fluke.  I was at a beer tasting last week, and our host had picked up six bottles of "The Abyss", an imperial stout from Deschutes Brewery of Oregon.     Five of them were infected, which means that unwanted bacteria were involved at some point in the process and will through off - positively or negatively - the overall taste of the beer.   (For more info on infected beers, check out this great summary at RateBeer).  Not that I'm suggesting that you buy this many brews at one time - for expensive craft brews, this can really add up - but at least a second bottle will be well worth your trouble.  Some brews might take a second or third sampling before you finally "get" them, so its always a great idea to give them a second look.

My issue with the first bottle was that I didn't let the brew chill long enough, because I was worried about cold shocking the brew.  Big mistake on my part, because if you've ever drank a pop out of the fridge that wasn't chilled enough, you'll know what happens next.  Instead of the silky mouthfeel of an oatmeal stout, I got an aggressively carbonated mess that, while still drinkable, was an unmitigated disaster.  But re-chilling it in the fridge would serve to completely eliminate all carbonation, and lets face it - re-chilled beer in the fridge is disgusting.   I was pretty let down, but with my trusty second bottle in hand, I decided to give it another go the next evening, and I have to say: what a difference the extra fridge time made!  This was a complete turnaround from the first bottle, and probably tasted much closer to the brewer's initial intentions.  I would be doing him or her a disservice to rate a beer that only tasted bad because of my own damned fault, so if I feel something was wrong on my end, I make sure to give the beer a second chance.  This of course is the review from that second bottle:

Poured into my trusty Duvel chalice. Dark, nearly black, with some sharp caramel hues around the rim. Leaves a frothy inch-high off-white head that survives fairly well, and leaves some flecks of lacing and a solid ring towards the end of the pint.

Nose is lovely coffee, chocolate, caramel, roasted marshmallow, toasty malts and other fantastic examples of deliciousness.  All great things to find in an oatmeal stout.

Rich, hearty, full of flavor, its no wonder Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout has developed such a great reputation. (it's mentioned prominently among legendary beer-writer Michael Jackson's list of "500 Beers To Try Before You Die.") No chance of any flavor retreating here - the coffee, chocolate, toasted malts and caramel notes are amped up as high has they deserve to be, making each sip a joy.

Mouthfeel is surprisingly light, silky, and coats the palate wonderfully.  A night in the cold, then just a few minutes to warm a little made all the difference for this beer.

Great stuff, easily in my top five oatmeal stouts. As flavorful as an imperial stout, but light bodied and low enough in alcohol to allow for several pints worth in an evening. Will be back for more, hopefully to enjoy them in much more suitable weather...  (Grade: A)

Friday, July 8, 2011

LCBO Summer Release

Well, it's officially summer, and already I'm seeing the glistening summer weekends start to fill up with this and that.  Though it's only early July, I'm already thinking ahead to the end of August, and then right around the corner I go back to school in September.  It's scary when the best time of the year starts to slip away from you.  My solution?  Never let a summer moment get by you, and make sure you take the time to sit and enjoy the weather with some nice brews.  Says the man currently typing on his computer with the AC on and the blinds keeping out all traces of sunlight.  Don't worry, I'll get to drinking outside soon enough.

The mish-mash of domestic and imported brews that comprise the LCBO's summer release are just now starting to trickle in to stores in my area.  This release sees the return of some old friends (Skjalfti, Fuller's Honey Dew, Schneider Organic Edel-Weisse), a baffling repeat (Trafalgar Cherry Ale), and some exciting new stuff from breweries that have yet to break in to Ontario.  A few these newbies I've reviewed on the blog before and won't re-review here, but I still urge all of you to try them if you can get your hands on some, especially Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Blanche if you happen to be a fan of hefeweizens.  But praise be to Ninkasi, as there are lots of new goodies for me to try, as well as one brew that I've had years ago and really need to re-evaluate, so I'll be keeping busy this July!

Here are some of the highlights:

Beer: Dark Star Sunburst Bitter
Brewery: Dark Star Brewing (West Sussex, UK)
Type: English Bitter or Pale Ale
ABV: 4.8%

My second brew from Dark Star, with their coffee flavored Espresso Stout gracing the liquor store shelves last fall.  While not my favorite coffee stout, I certainly looked forward to more things from this south England brewer.  And here it is, and not a moment too soon as the name could not be more appropriate for such a bright summer's day.  Poured into a nonic glass and enjoyed on the patio with pork chops and sweet potato.  A nice bright copper-golden colour, good frothy head, lacing and solid retention.

Nose is mild biscuit and citrus, a bit of caramel as well. Nothing too potent.

A solid pale ale, quite tasty on the patio (but then again, what isn't?). Malt, biscuit, caramel, then nice citrus and tea hop finish. Slightly oily, thin bodied, nice carbonation.

I could easily drink a lot of this stuff, as I'm really digging this English Pale with Citrus Hop trend recently, and this one is a prime example.  While nothing too special, it's a well-made, highly sessionable pale ale. Should be a fine summer brew, although it's a bit pricey.  Worth a try at any rate.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Schoefferhofer Hefeweizen
Brewery: Binding Brauerei (Frankfurt, Germany)
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%

Hot summer's day, patio and sun - the perfect mix for a hefeweizen, especially one with perhaps the most Germanic name one could possibly find.  Schoefferhofer Hefeweizen.  A beer name that demands to be accompanied by an ompah tuba band and ladies in dirndls.  Actually, come to think of it, all beer should be accompanied with ladies in dirndls.  Also, bacon. 

Poured into a hefe glass. A brilliant looking hefe - cloudy, amber-golden, a two inch head that displays outstanding retention, scads of sticky lacing. First rate.

Nose is classic hefe: wheat malt, yeast, a bit of bubblegum, floral hops, citrus.  Pleasant and fresh.

For all I had seen from the pour and detected in the nose, I was taken aback by how dry this brew was.  There's good notes of wheat and flowers, a bit of malted nuttiness, and the finish is slightly citrussy and bitter.   But the banana and bubblegum sweetness one comes to expect from hearty German hefes is surprisingly difficult to detect.  Indeed, this is one of the driest hefe's I've encountered in a long time, somewhat lacking in the flavor department in this beerman's honest opinion. Creamy mouthfeel, sticky, thick-bodied, mild carbonation.

Maybe you like your wheat beer a bit drier than I do; if so, Schoefferhofer will be right up your alley.  However, based on my personal preferences, this brew was too subdued and not among my favorites, considering how many steller hefe's are available year-round at the LCBO.  Let's not get carried away here; this was a tasty brew to be sure, and certainly pleasant to drink.   But there are better hefeweizens to be had at better prices.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Green Tea Ale
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewery (Toronto)
Type: Herb Flavored Ale
ABV: 4.2%

A beer combination that probably wasn't necessary, but still kudos to Great Lakes for experimenting.  I'm not a big fan of green tea in general, so bear this in mind - feel free to ignore this review.

I first tried this a couple of years ago and wasn't impressed with the result (which pretty much sums up my opinion of Great Lakes, but there you go).   As my friend Ned described it, the beer tasted "exactly how you'd think a mediocre pale ale infused with green tea would taste."  Hardly inspiring, but with Great Lakes I've seen some definite improvement between the years in their major releases as they continue to churn out neat stuff at the brewery itself, and I've heard impressive accolades for their IPA "Crazy Canuck", so I figured this unique brew was worth another look.

Poured into a conical pint glass. Light hazy golden, nice frothy head, good retention and lacing.

Nose is tea, cracker, rice, a bit of lemon.

Cracker, rice, lemon, a bit of green tea (though not oppressively so), and a basic pale lager taste to the finish. A slight fruit or berry makes an appearance towards the end of the pint. It doesn't taste a great deal like green tea, it's still pretty drinkable.

Light, good carbonation, creamy.

While I still await Great Lakes to finally hit the mark with a quality brew, I have to say this one was among their better 'regular' offerings.  Although it doesn't taste that much like green tea, the end result is a fairly decent lager (even though they call it an ale) with a few hints of tea, which overall is not bad. So while the brew didn't really achieve what I thought it was going to do, it's not bad for what it is (Grade: B-).

Beer: Golden Crafted Ale
Brewery: The Celt Experience Brewery (Cairphilly, Wales, UK)
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 4.2%

Pictured: Every Welsh Girl Ever, I Hope...
Lastly, we have a firstly - my first brew from Wales, that is!  Now I don't know a great deal about Wales, other than the fact that their flag is a bad ass dragon, their language is incomprehensible and spelled weird, and they film Torchwood there.  And any country that's this close to Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is okay in my book.  But brewing is a very ancient tradition for the Welsh people, whose language and culture originates from pre-Roman Hallstatt and La Tene Celts.  Long story short, the Welsh know how to brew.  Though the history of Welsh brewing is still barely understood, two key words in brewing process - malted barley (bracis) and beer (kurmi) - began to appear in regular Welsh parlance around the time of Julius Caesar.  As was the case in the British Isles, ales were the only game in town, which would have been brewed at home and flavored with whatever flowers, spices, plants and herbs that were available in the region; hops only came into the scene around 1500CE, so preservation would have been an issue.

The Celt Experience Brewery is fairly new on the scene - they only have about five brews according to their website, but apparently the Celtish line is only half of the brewery's output, the other half being the original Newmans Brewery, founded in 2001, which brews more traditional British ales.  You can find this brewery at the adorably Tolkein-style address of Pontygwindy Road, in the town of Caerphilly, in Mid Glamorgan.  (I picture Gwen Cooper saying this and it sounds way hotter).  Based on the descriptions of the various beers, it doesn't look as if Celt Experience is really trying to replicate the ancient styles of Welsh brewing, but rather to celebrate the heritage of the Welsh people in the beer's names, while still giving the brews a distinct Welsh flavor.   Not going to lie, I was certainly hoping for a Welsh version of the Williams Brothers "Historic Ales of Scotland", but I guess simply having a beer from Wales will suffice.

Poured into a nonic pint glass.  Golden Ale has all the appearance of a standard English pale ale: light copper-golden in colour, little if any visible carbonation, a slight murkiness, all topped off with thin head with a thinner ring. Not that visually striking, but about right for the style.

Caramel, mild earthy hops, cracker, a bit of peat or bogmyrtle to the nose.  I certainly had expected some peaty earthy notes in a brew from Wales, so I was glad to find them.

Not a bad little English pale ale, pretty flavorful - all the usual notes of caramel, earthy hops, tea, as well as a bit of peat and pine.  Unique, but I have to admit its not something I'd want to drink too much of.   Again, I had to get over my initial disappointment that Golden Ale was not going to attempt to taste like an ancient Welsh kurmi, but I suppose the end result was still pretty good.  Thin, watery and with surprisingly strong carbonation.

Worth trying, certainly enjoyable, but not quite as exciting as I'd hoped.  It certainly is an above-average English pale ale, and the lower alcohol content and high flavor would make for good session drinking.  (Grade: B)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Canada Day Drinkin! or: Whither Ontario Beer?

Happy Canada Day weekend everyone!

Thanks to a recent flurry of Canadian themed brews that made it to the LCBO's shelves in time for Canada Day (aka, The Day Canada Moved Out of Britain's Basement), I feel a little bit better about the Ontarian beer scene, which as it stood was moderate to low at best.  It's really tough to slam my home province, and I know that it's not that bad.  Sure we're stuck with a provincial liquor retailer with limited hours and beer selections that together fail to meet my late night drinking needs, and sure many of our breweries are less than stellar, but there is certainly some good to be found here.  Though the grass is certainly greener on the other side of the fence (Happy Fourth of July, everyone!), there are some fine Ontario breweries that are doing some wonderful things to further the cause of great beer in my home province.  Beau's, Flying Monkeys, Wellington, Black Oak, F&M and Grand River (my personal favorites) have had some excellent releases of late, pushing the boundaries of Ontario craft brewing and offering selections that in this humble beerman's opinion are rivalling the great brews of the US, Quebec and Europe. 

Flying Monkeys, despite the frustrations they encountered with the LCBO's initial refusal to release their quality American IPA "Smashbomb Atomic" - which mercifully has since been resolved - recently unleashed Alpha Fornication, labelled as the "hoppiest beer in the world."  Is it pleasant?  At over 2500 IBUs (compare with less than 100 for most IPAs), I sincerely doubt it; my friend who recently sampled the brew thought it was almost undrinkable.   But it was certainly important in the beer world, because for the first time in, well, ever, an Ontario brewery was the one who pushed the craft to the extreme.   Reviewers have long since raved about the high octane barleywines and imperial stouts of the United States, whose breweries have so strengthened and alcoholized their brews have essentially added new categories of style to the beer pantheon (the so-called "imperials"), bigger and stronger than their mainstream counterparts.  Dogfish Head of Delaware consistently makes the news with its extreme brews made from bizarre ingredients or from ancient recipes.  Across the pond, German brewery Schorschbrau has engaged in a protracted war with Scottish darlings BrewDog to produce the "world's strongest beer," which at latest count favors the Scots with their unimaginably potent 53% "End of History."  Up until now, no Ontario brew ever commanded such media attention, but the release of Alpha certainly raised some eyebrows abroad and helped put us in a little bit bolder font on the world's beer map. 

But lets not take this point too far.  Breweries that choose to avoid these international pissing contests should not feel that they need to do so - making quality brews that respect the art of brewmaking is what craft beer is all about.   But what is exciting about these recent developments is that they show that Ontario brewers are capable of making brews that go beyond the standard fare, and that they are willing to flaunt their stuff a little bit in the process, something Ontario has never really been known for up to this point.  With the aforementioned breweries stepping up their game, it has forced other less innovative breweries to do the same.  Recently I've been impressed with the seasonal offerings of Amsterdam, Muskoka, Nickel Brook and even Great Lakes, four breweries that I had initially pigeonholed as run-of-the-mill, but now I see as being capable of producing great things.  Things are on the up for Ontario breweries, and hopefully the sea-change will manifest itself in the form of greater selection at the liquor store to come!

In celebration of Canada's 144th birthday, here are some Canada themed brews - including two of those lovely new hoppy ales from Ontario.  Let's dig in!

Beer: Crazy Canuck
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewery (Toronto)
Type: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5.2%

Those who have followed the blog in the past (if any) will probably be surprised at my decision to lead in with a brew from Great Lakes.  And you'd be right to feel that way, considering my relatively low opinion of the brewery as a whole and the choices that they've made for their regular releases (Orange Peel Ale, Green Tea Ale, Pumpkin Ale, etc.)   Normally a brew like this would have had all the hallmarks of a beer I would typically avoid: it's loud, it's trying to hard to be "Canadian", and it's from a brewery I'm less than impressed with.  In keeping with my previous point about improvement, I have to say Great Lakes has improved their output considerably, with a marked change from year to year, and thus I find that its worth checking back in.  Moreover, there has been some pretty good online hype surrounding this year's batch of Crazy Canuck, which - unlike previous editions - is being released in cans rather than tall bottles.  So I figures, what the hell?  And you know what?  This brew weren't too bad!

A light amber-copper brew, nice n' clear, a half inch of frothy head that survives quite well and leaves a bit of lacing.

Nose is all hops: pine, citrus (grapefruit, mango), a good whiff of resin as well. Right on the mark.

Bitterness is this brew's defining attribute, but bitterness is what I look for in an APA, and so I must say I am well pleased. The malt profile is a bit overwhelmed with all the hoptacular activity, with the caramel and bread only inching in at the beginning. The finish is bitter and very pronounced - lingers for a great deal. 

Smooth, slightly creamy, good carbonation.

Canuck is right on the money. A tip of the cap to Great Lakes, they've got something good here and it's worth celebrating.  Worth a pickup for your next patio-adventure! (Grade: B, pushing into B+ territory)

Beer: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA
Brewery: Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery (Bracebridge, ON)
Type: American IPA

ABV: 6.4%

A bottled Ontario IPA - in six packs???  My cup runneth over!  Actually, come to think of it, I can't remember the last time there was a sixer of IPA in the LCBO, and that's just pathetic.  But the wait is now over, because Muskoka's put forward a dandy of an India Pale Ale, and there's enough to last you a good solid evening.  Although with this brew's drinkability, it might not last you that long...

Poured into a nonic. On the paler end of the India Pale Ale spectrum, a nice amber-golden with a decent fluffy head and some lacing patches.

Nose is a friendly citrus and earthy hop blast with a bit of orange peel, grapefruit, pine and caramel. 

Powered my way through this six pack with great pleasure - this is one fine IPA. A bit more English than I'd expected, but still a damned tasty brew. Good lingering earthy bitterness, with the citrus and caramel at the forefront.

Slightly creamy, a bit of oil, nice zippy carbonation.

Muskoka has really done itself proud recently with its Summer Weiss and Chocolate Stout, and this brew is another fine addition to the family.  This is exactly the kind of beer I was hoping an Ontario brewery would produce.  It's local, it's tasty, it's full of flavor, and it's got a memorable name and label with just the right amount of quirkiness.  Hopefully Mad Tom will keep lurking on the LCBO's shelves, because this could well become my default sixer for the summer. The kind of brew you can enjoy while wearing a red lumberjack shirt.  While not as juicy and potent as some of the big American brews, this is certainly on par with many an American IPA offering south of the border. Great stuff! (Grade: A-)

Beer: Innis and Gunn Canada Day 2011
Brewery: Innis and Gunn (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Type: English Strong Ale

To cap things off on such a wonderful Canada Day weekend, I simply had to go with this brew by Innis and Gunn, whose delightful oak and rum cask ales have brought many a smile to my face on so many occasions.  But a Scottish brewery that makes a "Canada Day" ale?  What up with that?  Turns out, this has been a sort of a thank-you tradition for the past few years; apparently Canadians are one of the largest consumers of Innis and Gunn's products worldwide.  And so, in gratitude of our collective dedication to beer drinkery, the brewery has put forward a special edition of it's oak aged brew just in time for Canada Day.  Score!

In past years, Innis and Gunn have incorporated something uniquely Canadian into this seasonal brew - last year, it was maple syrup as I recall.  This year, they chose the cultural route, employing the design of a Canadian artist Deborah Colvin to dress up the commemorative outer packaging, which I must admit looks pretty damned cool.

I poured  this one into a short snifter glass to really capture that classic Innis and Gunn oak-aged nose. A light amber hue, slightly golden when held to the light.  As the brewery claims, the intent of this years edition was to replicate the colour of maple leaves, and the result wasn't too far off. A thin, but relatively stable head, a bit of lacing sheets.

Nose is indeed classic Innis and Gunn - malt, a bit of peat, bourbon whiskey and a touch of vanilla.

I think I'll have to buy another bottle to stack this up against their regular oak-aged brew, because they seem pretty similar. Nice and malty, with that trademark bourbon and oak flavour.  This edition finishes with a bit of vanilla and fruit, and some slight earthiness from the Fuggles hops. A pleasure to drink, and the alcohol is well-masked.  Light carbonation, thick and slightly oily - coats the tongue well. Some heft to this. Drinks like a mild barleywine.

Though I'm not sure what - aside from the artwork - is Canadian about this, I know that Innis and Gunn made this brew in appreciation of Canadians' devotion to their brew, and the gesture is certainly a nice one. That slight earthy and vanilla character reminded me of Nova Scotia for some reason. Not sure why, but it was nice all the same. Certainly worth picking up, even though Canada Day has since past.  I myself might hold on to one for next year's celebrations!

Three great Canada-themed brews on a fantastic Canada Day weekend - what more could a guy ask for?  Hopefully this is a sign of better things on the shelves for the rest of the summer!