Friday, August 26, 2011

The Best of Matt's Buffalo Beer Haul!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Other Great Lakes Brewery

It's amazing that things like this are allowed to happen. 

I've talked many times before about Great Lakes Brewing of Toronto, with its seasonal flavored ales like their Orange Peel Ale and Green Tea Ale.  Yet just a short hop away in Cleveland, Ohio there is another brewery with essentially the same name, with only the finishing word "Company" to distinguish the two from one another.  What gives?

Both cities can lay a rightful claim to the moniker, given their location on two of the massive freshwater lakes, as well as their unique history in relation to the Great Lakes region.  A little bit of internet hunting seems to confirm that the Cleveland brewery was founded first, and that Toronto may have been blissfully unaware of its brewing neighbour to the southwest, and went ahead with its own naming scheme.  Considering the fact that, for much of either brewery's history their respective markets were isolated from one another, there was unlikely any reason for a naming switch.  But with more and more American and Canadian craft brews being exported across the border, the possibility of having two breweries with almost the same name being sold in the same beer store seems very unlikely, especially at the LCBO.  So it looks like if you want to try Great Lakes Cleveland brews, you'll have to make a trip to the States to do so, as I did. 

And man, do I wish our situations were reversed.  Although I try my very best to support Ontario breweries whenever I can, when it comes to the two "Great Lakes" breweries, there really is no comparison between the two.  Based on the offerings found in this great sampler pack (along with a couple I managed to try on draught, I can definitely say that Great Lakes Cleveland is one amazing brewery.  I mean seriously: these brews were fantastic.  Nothing gimmicky or half-assed about it - every brew was flavorful, exciting, well-crafted and among the top of its class.  Let's dive right in.

Beer: Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold
Type: Dortmunder Lager
ABV: 5.8%

Dortmunder Lagers are essentially export lagers, which were originally very popular around the German city of Dortmund.  They are a little stronger, and tend to have a nice biscuity profile with a good deal of complexity.  Great Lakes takes a lot of pride in this brew, considering the label sports their gold medal from the American Beer Festival.  Not too many breweries would do that on the bottle - overly boastful, or a portend of great things to come?

Poured into a Czechvar fluted pilsner glass. A lovely, rich amber golden hue, with a couple inches of fluffy head. Great retention on this, with scads of sticky lacing. Top notch.

The nose is quite malty, with notes of fresh grain, honey, biscuit/bread, and some light citrus/tea hops. 

Wow - this is a fantastic brew. Rich and malty, with a lovely taste of crispy bread and cracker, lemon, honey, and a slight hop bitterness to the finish. Perhaps the fullest flavor of any pale/golden lager I've ever encountered. Balanced enough for every day quaffing or slow, contemplated sipping. Medium bodied for a lager, good carbonation. Having trouble slowing myself down. I dare anyone who likes beer not to enjoy this. Dare them, I say!  You win this round, Great Lakes. Your gold medal label is fully justified. Just a stellar lager, loads of fun to drink, that is complex enough to satisfy the most discerning beer geek, but accessible enough that it could be used to bring those who normally avoid craft beer to the fold. (Grade: A)

Beer: Great Lakes Eliot Ness
Type: Red Lager
ABV: 6.2%

Gotta love a little jab at Prohibition, especially when your beer is named after the man responsible for cleaning up Chicago's speakeasies with his "Untouchables".  In all seriousness, it seems like this brew is more named in respect of Eliot Ness than in jest of his anti-liquor operations; according to the bottle, Ness was originally a Safety Director for the City of Cleveland who "frequented the original bar that is now the Great Lakes Brewpub."  Here was a man who certainly did his duty, even though he probably would rather have drank the stuff than combat its production.  I'll drink to that.

Poured into a tall pilsner tulip.  A brilliant ruby-amber colour, clear, nice frothy head, a bit of lacing.  A fantastic looking brew. 

Nose is quite malty, with notes of grain, caramel, sugar and earthy hops.

A malty extravaganza, this brew is full of flavor and a real pleasure to drink. Caramel, earth, a hearty grain taste, and a clean hopped finish.  Reminded me of a Scottish Wee Heavy somewhat in terms of its flavor and robustness. Very tasty brew. Carbonation is a bit high for my liking, but it has a nice crisp feel.

Another solid brew from Great Lakes. As hearty as a non-bock lager as you're ever going to find! (Grade: B+)

Beer: Great Lakes Burning River
Type: American Pale Ale
ABV: 6%

One thing (of many) that Great Lakes does particularly well is its commitment to enviromental causes.  The brewery is a huge promoter of efforts to maintain local water quality and to reduce pollution into Lake Erie and the nearby Cuyahoga River.  Great Lakes also regularly contributes to the Burning River Fest, a beer n' music festival held to promote sustainable resource usage and clean water initiatives.  The name Burning River refers to a horrifying incident in 1969 when the  Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire because of industrial pollution.  This bizarre event acted as a catalyst for many of the United States' environmental protection acts, including the Clean Water Act of 1972.  Feeling good inside about purchasing this brew, it's time to jump right in!

Poured into a nonic. Nice, bright amber-golden in colour, leaves about a 3/4 inch head, nice lacing, good retention. Solid ring remains long after the pour.

Nose is sweet caramel malt coupled with crisp, piney-citrus hops.  Classic American pale.

A solid pale ale, full of flavor, nicely balanced.  Caramel malts, mild citrus hops to cleanse the palate. A bit of earth, resin and chocolate kicking around.  Not overly complex, just a great tasting brew. 

Medium bodied, slightly creamy. 

Though not as mind-explodingly good as the Dortmunder, this is nevertheless a great tasting pale, that is light and crisp enough to quench a thirst on a humid afternoon, yet tasty enough to sit and ponder over.  (B+)

Beer: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Type: Porter
ABV: 5.8%

Now its time to close things off with the big gun, the crown jewel of the Great Lakes beer lineup, the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.  Easily one of the most reviewed and most beloved beers on Rate Beer and BeerAdvocate, and certainly one I've been looking forward to trying for quite some time.  Brewed in honour of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank with all hands lost in 1975 while caught in a Lake Superior winter's storm.  The ship, one of the largest ever to traverse the Great Lakes, made regular stops in Cleveland, and was due to spend the rest of the winter docked in Cleveland's harbor.

 Poured in to a Duvel chalice. Lovely pitch black brew, slight chestnut when held to the light. My aggressive little pour created about an inch and a half of coffee foam-coloured head, which descended slowly into a thick ring with some patches of lace. Brilliant looking porter.

Nose is rich coffee, chocolate, marshmallow, toasted bread, biscuit. Very pleasant. 

After a string of various brews whose nose proved far more complex than their taste, Great Lakes is completely the opposite.  Dark, roasty, and complex - everything I like in a porter. Subtle notes of peat and leather occasionally break through. Dry coffee finish.

Mild, but zippy carbonation, slick mouthfeel coats the tongue well, thin bodied and creamy.

Textbook porter - rich, hearty, flavorful, yet thin and smooth enough for easy drinking. Totally worth seeking out.  Now if I could only get that damned Gordon Lightfoot song out of my head... (Grade: A)

Great Lakes is a brewery that is committed to the three tenets of craft brewing: they make fantastic, diverse and interesting brews; they are committed to the local community; and they make the local environment and history of the region a part of their brewmaking processs by paying tribute to Cleveland's maritime history.   Though it seems unlikely that we will ever see these brews make their way across the Canadian border, I strongly urge anyone who makes the journey to the northern United States to seek these brews out. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

There He Gueuze Again...

Beer: Lindemans Cuvée René
Brewery: Brouwerij Lindemans
Type: Gueuze
ABV: 5.5%

Certain beer styles can prove to be challenging for even the most dedicated of beer geeks, and this brew is certainly one of them.  While 80-90% of the world's beers fall into the pale ale/pale lager categories, which are designed to be easily consumed by the greatest number of people, other varieties of beer in the minority are far less approachable, and that's generally because of both their taste and their limited production.  Like extremely dark chocolate, sharp blue cheeses and spicy peppers, beers like these can take some getting used to before folks truly appreciate them, but are often so initially off-putting that few folks are willing to stick with them for that long haul.  And thus, we have lambic beers, a small, ancient subset of the ale category which has traditionally been brewed in Belgium and pretty much nowhere else.  Unlike most beers, lambics - like gueuze - rely upon yeasts which naturally occur in the local environment to 'come across' the wort and begin fermentation naturally, a process known as spontaneous fermentation.  These yeasts, given their due course, will produce beers with incredibly distinct flavors, many of which are downright bizarre.  A quick overview of some online reviews of gueuze lambic beer describe what's in their glasses as having the flavors of: hay, musk, a barnyard, the driest cider you've ever tasted, vinegar and even 'horse-blanket.' 

I realize I'm not doing the best job of selling this brew, but hear me out.

I've talked about gueuze before, when I reviewed van Honsebrouck's St. Louis Lambic, but what I was drinking then was a sweetened version of gueuze, which has added sugars and a different brewing process designed to make something far more palatable.  In fact, most lambics you will encounter in Belgium or in specialty beer shops Stateside are of the sweetened variety, and actually tend to test very sweet and fruity.  But the real, unadulterated gueuzes are something else entirely, and are definitely not for the faint of heart.  I certainly would have hated brews like this when I first started serious beer hunting, but after couple of years of practice and experimentation, I think I'm up for the challenge!  Since that initial gueuze sampling, I've tried a number of brews that approach the sourness and intensity of what I think real gueuze will be like, including two krieks - lambics brewed with cherries - from Cantillon (which I could not finish) and from Ontario's Nickel Brook (which I very much enjoyed).  Hopefully my palate is up for this...

Poured into my oft-neglected, seldom-used Lindemans fluted glass, which came with a souvenir pack I picked up in Florida last year.  It came with two examples of lambic beer which are definitely of the sweet and fruity variety, both of which (Pomme and Framboise) ended up tasting a great deal like green apple and raspberry juice, respectively.  Not so here.  Lindemans gueuze, Cuvée René, is among the world's highest rated lambic beers, and is usually the gueuze one first cuts their teeth on. 

'Champagne-like' is a common descriptor used when discussing gueuze; indeed, one of its many nicknames in Belgium is 'Brussels Champagne.'  When poured out, I can certainly see the resemblance, as the brew is incredibly light, airy, and generously carbonated; it took a few careful pours to ensure I could fill the glass without the foam overflowing.  But, like champagne, the head completely dissolved after a few moments, and what we're left with is a clear golden liquid livid with carbonation.  I expect a great deal of burping while drinking this...

The nose is classic gueuze, and thus is very perplexing: apple vinegar, hay, funk, for lack of a better word 'wild farmland' (how this is a "smell" is beyond me), lemon and dry apple cider. A year ago I would have hated this, but now my mouth is watering a little.  Strange what time can do to one's tastebuds.

The sourness is quite overpowering at first, but as my tongue acclimatizes, I'm getting some interesting notes of dry apple cider, hay, yeast, a bit of earthiness and champagne grapes. Very, very sour, but oddly enough, I'm quite enjoying it.   Light, airy, effervescent.

Though I've had a few brews that stylized themselves as gueuze, this was my first approach at something more authentic, and I have to say I'm digging it. That sour acidic taste is no longer something I'm avoiding, but rather something I'll actively seek out. Brews like this challenge one's perceptions of what a beer is, and the rewards are well worth the exploration.  But, I totally understand if a lot of people will hate this, because its very, very different.  (Grade: A-)