Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's La Fin of Du Monde as we know it, and I feel fine.

Beer: La Fin du Monde
Brewery: Unibroue (Chambly, PQ)

War...war never changes.

If you are reading this post, then congratulations - we have survived the Scourge of the Mayans.  The battle was bloody, but in the end, the victory went to the humans, and with it goes the spoils - a world bereft of resources and habitable ecosystems.   Radiation stalks the Earth like a plague, forcing the rest of the 'survivors' to live a bitter, psychologically demanding life in a series of poorly-designed vaults that litter the badlands.  The future is bleak; the possibility of a return to our former lives is negligible.  But it was not all in vain, for the wisest of the surviving humans saw fit to bring with them into the vaults the finest ales and lagers of the once great civilized world, so that those who would carry on the struggle at least have something worth fighting for.

It is the end times.

It is humanity's greatest challenge.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a privilege drinking with you.

We have seen....La Fin du Monde.

If tonight is truly humanity's last night, one could not have picked a more appropriate ale, nor a finer one.  Fin du Monde is one of those brews that stands the test of time, consistently impressing with every repeat tasting.   It's one of Canada's best known and most beloved craft brews, and for good reason.  Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a better Belgian-style Tripel around - and that includes Belgium itself.

Nice thing about La Fin du Monde, and indeed all Unibroue offerings, is that its label shows you exactly what kind of glass to serve it in and what temperature is ideal for tasting.  This bright coloured ale is best served in a tall goblet to really let that billowing head hit some serious elevation.  The colour is light honey-golden, with a bit of haziness.   Sheets of lacing grace the sides of the glass, while the head - initially about three inches of it, settles into a thick pillow.

Nose is dry, fresh, and citrussy.  Lemon peel, clove, mild yeast, and lightly medicinal hops.  For a 9 percenter, this one is impeccably dry, which is how I'm finding I enjoy my Belgian ales best.

La Fin du Monde starts off sweet, with some wheat malt and cracker, before transitioning to a citrus and spice finish.  Lemon, coriander, light pepper, clove, peach, and only the faintest hint of traditional Belgian yeast.  Finishes dry and slightly medicinal.  Superb stuff, very thirst-quenching, and without the any of that high alcohol content hitting your tongue, save for a pleasant warming feeling.   FDM has some lovely, vigorous carbonation that does not overpower the brew and set off a chain reaction of Eudora Welty-esque belches, but rather it enhances the light citrus notes and makes for a damned good thirst-quencher.  Slightly creamy, medium bodied.

If this is my last beer review ever, I'm honoured to have La Fin Du Monde beside me at the bitter end.  It is a stalwart companion and a true champion of Canadian ales.  (Grade: A)

Oh, and Happy First Day of Winter, and First Day of Yule too.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ø Christmas Beer, Ø Christmas Beer...

(Wordy one today, so cozy up with a glass of something tasty and indulge me for a little while longer than usual!)

Scandinavia is an area of the world that continues to fascinate me, mostly because I really know very little about it.  First of all, I'm not even really sure if Scandinavia is the right term or not.  Nordic Countries?  Europe's hat?  Anyways, wherever it is I don't know a great deal about Scandinordicia. I mean, I know where it is and everything, I know all their flags are roughly the same, and that their climate, social mores and way of life are more in line with us in Canada than most other countries in the world.   Their GDP/GNP, press freedom index, and development are all among the world's highest, and they usually kick some serious ass in the Winter Olympics.  Our languages are somewhat on the same team, even though it doesn't really sound this way; the English language is in the same Germanic language family as all the Scandinavian countries save for Finland, and with the Norse influence on England's development more than 1000 years ago, many of our words have Norse ancestry.  

And yet, for an area of the world so similar in many respects to Canada, there are such striking differences from our own country as well, and I'm ashamed to say I don't really know what's going on up there.  There is indeed a whole history of Northern Europe that is an utter mystery to me, with the Swedish Empire of the 18th century and the union of Denmark and Norway, and later between Norway and Sweden, and all sorts of developments along the way.  Other than the names of the capital cities and a few other places, I couldn't name more than five cities in any of the Scandinavian countries, let alone the provinces or regions.  Apparently, Sweden and Denmark have been on opposing sides in warfare more times than England and France.   And then there is the language, or languages I should say, that while similar to ours in some respects sound unlike anything I have ever heard, with their secret letters and dots and umlauts and strikethroughs.  I'm reminded of something Bill Bryson mentioned in In a Sunburned Country, his travel journal through Australia.   He muses that Australia is a mystery to North Americans, not necessarily because of its isolation, but instead because they just don't come up in the news very often.  He observes that Australia is mentioned less in the New York Times over the course of a year than some celebrities are; we really don't know what's going on their either.  Because Scandinavia, like Australia, seems to have its act together and is politically stable, it means that we don't hear about them very much on a day to day basis (save, of course, the tragic attack in Norway last year).   It's like the "no news is good news" policy; we don't need to call them every week to make sure they're okay.  We see them every few years at the Olympics or a hockey competition, and that's about it.  We really should invite them over more often, cause they seem like good people.

I have to say, however, that this year has been a real Scandinavia awakening for me, as more and more pop culture and history from the region has come to my attention, and the rise of Scandinavian craft breweries has certainly had something to do with this.  It started off with the Nørrebro brewery release last winter, which first exposed me to the Danish craft brewery scene; shortly after this, a friend of mine visited Iceland and had some amazing pictures of parks, villages and weird dishes he was subjected to.  Then there is the highly entertaining and educational webcomic Scandinavia and the World, in which the nations of the world are personified as adorable little cartoon characters with flags for shirts (Canada is the well-meaning, but rarely-listened to buddy of the USA, a beefed up loudmouth who confuses and frightens the Scandinavians with his overt religiosity).  True to the title, much of the humour is derived from the relationships between the nations of Scandinavia.  Norway seems to be the straight man, next to fastidious and dignified Sweden (whom everyone always makes fun of), frat boy Denmark, silent Viking metal music-listening Finland, and Iceland, who apparently is just insane.  What really makes this strip work for me is the fact that the creator explains the situation at the bottom of the strip, which really does teach you a great deal about what goes on in the area.  One such comic, this one, directed me to a Youtube video from Kollektivet (a sort of Norwegian "Lonely Island", I guess), in which the duo boast about how, despite Americans' achievements, they can suck it, because Norway has the bigger alphabet.  It's pretty funny, I have to say, and it had the dual function of getting me interested in the Norwegian language.  Just a few days ago, I started browsing the interweb for videos about how to speak Norwegian (settling on this one, mostly because it shows the text, and gives some tips, but it doesn't hurt that the girl hosting is pretty cute).  It's a strange language, but logical at the same time.

The big thing to remember about Norwegian is that, thanks to the Danes, they do indeed have three extra vowels that make no goddamned sense, but are essential to learning the language, and damned if one of them doesn't show up twice in the name of the latest LCBO brewery release.  The brewery is called Nøgne Ø, which apparently means "Naked Island," with the Ø for island being a rare instance of a single-lettered noun.  The name refers to all those lonely little bare islands that grace Norway's southern coast, not too far from the brewery's hometown of Grimstad at the south-eastern tip of the peninsula.  According to the brewmaster (and also by our lovely Norwegian tutor girl), Ø is pronounced sort of like a cross between "eugh" and the first two vowels in the world "early" (or something like the umlauted 'o' in German), giving us something like "Nuhgneh Uh." Or something like that.  Scratch that: here's brewmaster/part-time Viking Kjetil Jikuin saying it properly.  The brewery was founded in 2002, and has quickly become one of Norway's leading craft breweries, and - oddly enough - also happens to produce its own like of sake as well.  Go figure.  Their imperial stout made it this way all by its lonesome last year, acting as a sort of scout mission, and was pretty damned tasty. With a favorable report back to home base, we now have for this Christmas a whole flight of Nøgne Ø brews to check out, all with that distinctive, minimalist 'Ø' label.   Let's get at it!

Actually, before I get going I should say this: I purposely left out one of the five brews of the release - Tiger Tripel - from the list for two reasons. First, I haven't heard terrific things about it so far, so I thought I'd spend my money elsewhere.  The second reason is something I've been noticing lately, and will take a minute to address.   As I talk to folks about the beer they like to drink, I've found that the Belgium Question has led to a pretty sharp divide, with a large number of people saying they can't get enough of the taste of Belgian-style brews, and an equally significant proportion claiming that they can't stand the stuff and won't go near it.  My wife is that way when it comes to wheat beers - she just can't get over what she tastes as rotten wheat (she's right, of course, cause that's what it is), so all wheat beers are off the table for her.  Another friend of mine can't stand the taste of grapefruit, so American hops are rarely his thing.  Others are the same way about Belgian beers, and it probably comes down to the unique yeast and associated esters that are featured in most Belgian brews; ergo, if you don't like that yeast and what it does to the beer, you won't like most Belgian beers.  For the longest time, I've been sitting in first-class on the Belgian Love Train, and have happily snapped up any beer remotely related to that great brewing nation that I can.  However, in recent months, I've found my tastebuds have shifted somewhat, or at least become more confident in what they like and what they don't.  Because of this, I find that more often than not Belgian ales just aren't doing it for me.  I'm not sure if it's the yeast or the higher carbonation levels or some of the esters there, but I've been on a bit of a Belgian funk recently, no pun intended.  Don't get me wrong, I still love many Belgian brews and haven't written off the styles whatsoever; I just find that I'm pickier about them than I used to, so I'll save my reviews for those that I really like and won't deter the rest of you from trying something that I didn't like simply because the style no longer appeals to me.  Tastes change, and yours might as well.  I just look at it like I'm fine-tuning my beer radio dial to the style stations I like the best.  

Back to it!

Beer: Nøgne Ø Porter
Type: English Porter
ABV: 7%

First off the mark is the porter, which is done in the English style with a bit of American hops (Centennial).  It's a dark, cold day, so I figure a hearty porter is just the trick.

Poured into a nonic glass.  Dark and thick as it should be, with a thick, sturdy head of off white foam.  Great lacing.  Stellar-looking porter.

Nose is rich and roasty, with some vanilla sweetness and some dark fruit (currant or blackberry).  Some dry chocolate as well.

If well-roasted, slightly dry porters are your thing, you are in for a treat here.  The bitterness of the roasted malt really dominates the brew, but it has company in the form of that dark fruit and lingering sweet vanilla.  Long bitter finish, dry, and with a touch of hops.  Very nice, hearty brew.  Somewhat thick, not so much so that it enters into stout territory, but it's close.  Feels like a porter - creamy, medium bodied, light carbonation.

Picks right up where the imperial stout left off last year.  Very dependable porter.  (Grade: A-)

Beer: #100
Type:  American Barleywine
ABV: 10%

With a name like #100, you'd expect this to be their 100th beer.  It totally is.  No secret links to Norwegian history here, at least as far as I can tell, though somewhere I did read that this is supposed to be a reference to the 100th anniversary of Norway's independence from its union with Sweden in 1905, the website simply states that this brew was their 100th batch.  But it could very well mean both things.  Get used to this from Nøgne Ø.  Apparently, this was just supposed to be a one-off celebration beer, but demand was high enough for it that they made it a regular offering.

Poured into a Belgian ale goblet.  Dark chestnut in colour, with a bit of amber highlighting.  I've been running into more of the darker barleywines recently, so the colour shouldn't be that much of a surprise, and yet I still find it strikes me as being a bit off.  Their ingredients online list chocolate malt as being part of the mash, so there you go.  No matter, it still looks fine.  Pour yields a good half inch of froth that holds up well and brings up a great deal of lace.

Nice combination of smells here that are certainly quite pleasant, though difficult to pin down.  There's the sweet malty blast of a typical barleywine, chocolate malt, some smoke, raisins,   resin and citrus hops, and bubblegum or some other sweet candy.

A little on the boozy side, but that's to be expected.  Quite enjoyable, lots going on here.  I think this is a brew that is totally up to personal interpretation; well, all beer is up to interpretation, but some brews are easier to unpack than others, and this one is complex enough that some people will smell certain notes, and others will get something else entirely.  I for one happened to get two R's - raisin and resin - above all other subtler flavors, swimming in a sweet and boozy malty base.  There's also some spice - cinnamon, maybe ginger?  Complex and tasty, no doubt about that.  Good crisp carbonation, warmth from the booze, medium bodied, somewhat creamy.

A solid barleywine, with lots going on to keep the tastebuds and nasal cavities well occupied.  Glad they kept this one on regular lineup. (Grade: A-)

Beer: Two Captains
Type: Double IPA
ABV: 8.5%

Again with the double-meaning behind the beer's name.  Two Captains could refer to the Mustang plane on the label, which is an F-82 Twin Mustang - two planes fused together.  Since there are two cockpits, there are also, in effect, two captains. The idea behind this plane was to allow for longer-ranged flights during the early years of the Cold War; with two pilots behind two engines, the planes could be flown for longer (one could fly while the other could rest).  However, this also could refer to the fact that the brew came about because of the efforts of a Norwegian homebrewer, who came up with the recipe, and the Nøgne Ø brewmaster, who brewed it.  Both of these men were once captains piloting for Scandinavian Airlines.  It works either way - double plane/double pilot for double IPA.

Back to the goblet for this brew.  I have to say, in terms of appearances like the double Mustang on the front label, this brew just...didn't look right.  A murky peach-caramel colour, with a decent half inch of foam that rests stubbornly on the surface, creating some nice lacing.  The real problem here was some ugly chunks of sediment floating around the bottom of the glass like those gross bubble sodas from the 1990s.  Orbitz, I think they were called.  I know that sediment is a common feature of many a strong brew, and I know that it's there to give the brew a possibility of some extra bottle conditioning, but this one just looked unappealing, so I ended up filtering it out.

No matter, the brew smelled and tasted just fine.  All double IPA to the nose: fruity, nice pine and resin hop base, with mango, orange peel, and malty caramel sweetness.   Tasted quite similar with nice fleshy fruits (mango, peach, orange) and bitter, citrus/resin hops.  Pine hops to the finish.  Could be a bit hoppier, but there you go.  As I've said many times before, double IPAs are tricky characters that could just as easily be classified as American barleywines.  This one leans more towards the latter, which is fine with me, though I'd just as easily take a stronger hop bomb.  Either way, appearance aside this is also a fine brew.  (Grade B+)

What is this, a beer for giants?
Beer: Underlig Jul
Type: Christmas Beer?  I guess?
ABV: 6.5%

Sorry again for the crap photos - my cameras (good one and cell phone one) still can't take great evening pictures with low light.  Either it doesn't focus with no flash on, or the flash obliterates everything in sight.  If anyone has any good suggestions for how to fix this, I'd love to hear it, because we've got about four months of cold and dark ahead of us.

Underlig is Norwegian for "Peculiar", and since this is a winter brew, I'll leave you all to figure out what "Jul" means.  Unlike other winter brews that more or less take the standard pale ale or IPA and add some spices to it (not that there's any problem there!), Underlig is a brew that, of our list, is perhaps the most uniquely Norwegian.  The idea here was to brew something that tasted like a glass of Gløgg, a Nordic drink that we in Canada call "mulled wine."  So there will be lots of spices, but with a particular focus on those herbs and spices that normally would go in a glass of Gløgg.

Another goblet for this one.  Dark brown with a hint of ruby around the edges, and with a fluffy head of foam that recedes into a thick ring with some lacing.

Once you open the bottle, a blast of herbs greets you - really opens up your sinuses, actually.  The bottle lists cinnamon, ginger, cloves, coriander and - perhaps most strangely - cardamom as being added spices to the mix, and I'll certainly say that the ginger gets top billing here.  Peppermint, herbal medicine (cough drops?), orange peel are also in the mix.  A spicy conglomeration, this.  Really gets you in your sinuses, but in a good way.

This is actually the second bottle I've had of this, and the first one was not a success (the general consensus was "too much like medicine").  I think the problem with this was that we had prefaced that beer with two hearty imperial chocolate stouts, so the change was pretty damned drastic.  Consumed on its own and with the whole bottle to myself, I can certainly see the medicinal quality to the brew, but I have to say there's a lot more to it than that.  The first few sips are quite strong in the ginger, peppermint and herb department, but as your tastebuds acclimatize, things become far more balanced.  The Christmas flavors of cinnamon, oranges with clove, and sweet malt start to get some time to shine.  As you go further along, the hops (American, again) start to become more assertive, giving the brew a nice pine woodsy feel and also cleansing the palate of the rich heaping of spice.  Really interesting beer this, and the more I sip it, the more I'm enjoying it.  Medium bodied, generously carbonated.  (Grade: B+)

Good showing from the largest craft brewery in Norway.   Most of the brews are of a style that is easily found in the US, but I always give immense credit when good styles are done well, and these are certainly up there, with bonus marks for the porter, a style that is often overshadowed by its stouter brother.  For sheer originality and sense of Norwegian-ness, I have to give the credit to the Christmas Underlig Jul ale, but all the brews had their own charm.  I was able to find these in Kitchener without too much trouble, and at around $6.50 per bottle, they aren't beyond the realm of the reasonable in terms of price.   Might be a nice Christmas pickup.

God Jul to the folks at Nøgne Ø! 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Morning Brew Coffee Cream Stout

Beer: Morning Brew Coffee Cream Stout
Brewery: Wellington Brewery (Guelph, ON)
Type: Milk Stout
ABV: 6.7%

Christmas is a mere two weeks away, and for once in my adult life I am actually ahead of the game when it comes to present shopping.  Amazing, I know.  A few cards in the mail, and some cookie making to do, and I'll be free and clear to spend the yuletide season in a pleasant, carefree drunken stupor.  Actually, that's not quite true; I still have some Christmas shopping to do, but for a very important person indeed - me.  Got me some Christmas money and I gots to spend it.  Fortunately, there's lots of brews out and about that I've been meaning to try - including a Norwegian brewery release that will be the feature of a future entry - so I know that money will be well spent.   As it happened, however, I was out in the Guelph area today and passed by the Wellington Brewery.  It's been a while since I've stuck my head in there, and I've been craving some of their Imperial Russian Stout to have on hand, so I made a quick stop.   Good timing, because it so happens that another one of their "One-Off" series is now available in cans, and only at the brewery.  So I spent a bit of Christmas money and picked up a few.  Actually, I would have spent the money anyway, but 'tis the season for justifying excessive spending in the name of good cheer, and I can think of no greater cheer than a fresh brewed craft beer.

Holy shit, that's an amazing slogan.  Better copyright that shit right now. "I can think of no greater cheer, than a fresh brewed craft beer."   Much better.

Now then.  Anyways, the beer that Welly has put out is in line with the holiday season, a chocolate cream stout that features "peruvian cocoa powder, lactose, and a touch of  flaked oats."  A bit of confusion with the name, as befits a new brew: on the website, the brew is listed as "Chocolate Milk Stout", but the can I picked up had the wonderful name of "Morning Brew: Coffee Cream Stout."  My default is to go with what's on the can, rather than the website, and after drinking this brew, having coffee in the name is absolutely essential.  So, with that in mind, let's dive right in to Wellington's Morning Brew: Coffee Cream Stout!

Poured into a nonic glass.  I should have brought out the good Welly 25th anniversary glass, but it's already in the basement and it involves several stairs I'm not interested in committing to.  Coffee black, with a hint of chestnut around the edges.  Good half inch of off-mocha head, nice retention, lots of sticky lace.

Nose is unmistakably sweet cold coffee, very bold, and with a bit of that lactose creeping through.  I'm also getting hazelnut, and yet more espresso coffee.  Very nice.

Tastes similar to what was in the nose.  Quite tasty, actually, if you don't mind the sweetness.  But then again, if you're looking for a beer that isn't too sweet, and you go for the one with "cream" in the name that contains lactose, you're gonna have a bad time.

Coffee, cream, espresso, chocolate, lots of other goodies.  About the only thing I can say this beer needs is more depth.  Crank this puppy up with some extra thickness, and maybe something to work with the sweetness, and you've got yourself one ridiculously good stout.  But as it stands, the beer really is quite good, and I really hope Welly keeps playing around with this.  Hell, they could probably just keep it as it is and I'd be happy with it.  The coffee is rich and it really does taste like a breakfast brew.  I might try to swing back for a few more - doesn't sound like this one will be in the LCBO or elsewhere anytime soon.   (Grade: B+)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I'm the kind of guy who likes his stouts imperial. Can't understand what I mean? Well, you soon will!

Beer: BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout
Brewery: Flying Monkeys (Barrie)
Type: Imperial Stout
ABV: 10%

Ah, Flying Monkeys.  Definitely one of the big names in the Ontario craft beer scene.  They really have been one of the first out of the gate to apply American brewing practices and techniques (and American hops) to their brews, giving us one of the province's first - and, in my opinion, best - American IPAs, Smashbomb Atomic, as well as Netherworld, a Black IPA (or "Cascadian Dark Ale").   But if you were to go back in time a few years, take a look at the brewery that sits by Lake Simcoe and consider its image and output, you would be hard-pressed to have convinced anyone that this brewery was a few years away from being one of the zanier, wildest craft breweries in the province.  First of all, the name was much simpler and less exciting back then - Robert Simpson Brewing Company, a tribute to the first mayor of Barrie (who himself was a brewmaster, much like a certain mayor of Halifax I could mention).   When I first started working at the campus bar in Waterloo, we always had Robert Simpson Confederation Ale on tap, and it was...okay.  Actually, that's being generous - it was a pretty bland amber ale, and that's about it.  Their light ale was pretty good for a light beer, I will say, but their standard lager was pretty forgettable.  Basically, Robert Simpson suffered from a problem plaguing many an Ontario craft brewery - they weren't really brewing anything interesting.  The labels were traditional, and frankly, pretty boring, and the brews were similar to many being brewed across the province.  Nothing to really get excited about.

But a few years ago, you could start to see some changes, starting with a redesign of the brewery's beer labels to reflect a more quirky, modern art style.  The zen, Snapple-like slogans that are now featured in all Monkeys brews began to appear on Robert Simpson packaging and coasters. Then, in 2009, came the drastic change, as owner Peter Chiobo announced that the brewery was completely changing its name and image to the more psychedelic and seemingly Ken Casey-inspired Flying Monkeys.  Admittedly, my first reaction was one of incredulity.  Really?  You have a chance to change your name, and it's Flying Monkeys?  Like many, I was unconvinced at first, but with the release of their first Monkey brew, Hoptical Illusion, I started to see more of where the brewery was heading.  As Peter explained: "it'll be weird for a while, but the new name opens up so many more possibilities for us to express ourselves."  And this was totally true - Robert Simpson Smashbomb Atomic IPA just doesn't really work, does it?  This Hoptical brew was no American IPA to be sure, but it was hoppy and flavorful.  It became one of my go-to brews on tap.  When it was announced that Smashbomb Atomic IPA was coming on draught, excitement hit fever pitch, and it became my recommended IPA for folks who wanted a hop bomb.

Now, I'm completely hooked and will readily purchase any Monkeys brew I can get my hands on.  Like the bigger American craft brews, Monkeys has been experimenting with its brewing potential while appealing to the beer geeks out there with brews like Supercollider, their double IPA (which admittedly wasn't my favorite), and the newsmaking Alpha-Fornication, a self-proclaimed "world's hoppiest beer," which I unfortunately cannot claim to have tried, but heard it tasted more or less like drinking hop cones.  Not all of their one-offs have worked, but the desire to experiment is strong, and I salute them for it.  Their latest offering represents a big divergence from their normal trend of brewing, eschewing the usual hop-dominated brews and opting for something from the imperial stout spectrum.  And it's inspired by one of the giants of the Canadian music scene, the Barenaked Ladies.

Apparently, the guys from Barenaked Ladies hung out with the Flying Monkeys folks in September, and together they worked to make this new brew, which instead of being hoppy and citrussy would be a rich chocolate stout.  While Peter admits that the stout recipe was his own recipe, the BNL guys were excited about the chocolate stout idea, and helped in the brewing process by adding ingredients to the tuns, including the Ecuadorian cocoa nibs.  So yeah, I guess you can safely say that the "BNL" is essentially a marketing thing, but who the hell cares?  If it gets people excited about craft beer, I'm all for it.

Released a couple of weeks ago at the LCBO, BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout comes in a quirkily-decorated box, and a higher than usual price tag: around thirteen bucks.  But take it from me - it's totally worth it, because I can safely proclaim that this brew is one of the best to come out of Ontario this year.  Period.

Let's dive in, shall we?

Normally, I like to start things off in my reviews by considering the appearance of the brew, but for BNL stout I have to make an exception and start with the nose, because the second that we removed the bottlecap to this brew, the entire room was filled with the sweet smell of rich milk chocolate.  I've never encountered anything like this before.  Sweet chocolate, roasted marshmallow, a touch of toasted malt, dark cocoa, and a hint of grape or currant. Absolutely stunning, and this great smell greeted me with every sip of the beer.

The beer itself is jet black with a hint of dark chestnut around the edges.  It poured a bit hot, so there was considerable foam to work through, but once it settled, a sturdy cap of mocha foam had set up a permanent camp atop the brew, and yielded some impressive lacing.

The imperial character of BNL comes out a bit more to the taste than in the nose, but it is still overshadowed by the impressive array of chocolate flavours, both sweet and dark-dry.  It's pretty safe to call this brew a "chocolate bomb."  Good mix of milk chocolate, and dark, dry chocolate.  Really, the best way for me to describe this beer is that it tastes like having assorted chocolates in your mouth, and then washing the whole thing down with a decent, roasty imperial stout.  It's pretty damned tasty, I have to say.   Decent carbonation, nice carbonation does the trick.  Quite creamy.

Just a damned terrific brew, and certainly well worth the pricetag, at least once - or as a Christmas present (hint hint).  Loads of chocolate, but enough imperial qualities to give your tastebuds something to work with.   This brew is an excellent addition to the Ontario beer pantheon, and hopefully a sign of greater things to come.  These are the sorts of brews you can find in many a great beer store in the States - I'm happy that this one comes from our neck of the woods!  (Grade: A)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

High Octane Brueing!

One of the more newsworthy aspects of the craft brewing-industry in recent years has been the battle to achieve the title of "World's Strongest Beer." This quest for high alcohol content has also had the effect of rethinking what we consider "beer" to be, and how far we can go in that direction.  Two of the heaviest hitters in the War for Potency has been Scotland and Germany; oddly enough, the Americans, despite their massive craft brew industry and penchant for competitiveness and experimentation, have more or less adopted a policy of isolationism here, with only Sam Adam's "Utopia" being anywhere near the top ten, as seen on RateBeer here.  With the opponents ready to brew, what followed was more or less a retelling of the shipbuilding wars of the Second World War - just replace battleships with beer. The first to really get things rolling were the folks at BrewDog, a Scottish brewery that I've taken issue with before, but in recent months have developed more of an appreciation for what they do, with the exception of the gimmicky crap that they've done in association with the Strongest Beer War.  Known for their experimentation and mild insanity, the folks at BrewDog already had a respectable 18%er, "Tokyo" in 2009, before opening the floodgates with a mammoth brew later that year, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, which sat at a mammoth 32% ABV.   Within just a few months, a German brewery with the Sean Connery's German brother-sounding name of Schorschbrau released a 40% doppelbock called Schorschbock which overtook the Penguin.   Naturally, the BrewDog folks countered with a historical fuck-you to the German brewery with Sink the Bismarck (41%) in February 2010.  Controversy revolved around BrewDog's follow-up brew, The End of History, the twelve bottles of which came housed in the bodies of dead squirrels, much to the ire of animal rights activists and reasonable human beings.  The title was appropriate for BrewDog, because they seem to have bowed out of the Strongest Beer race for good, which allowed another Scottish brewery to hold the current title - a unthinkable sixty-five percent ABV bock aptly named Brewmeister Armageddon, which is much stronger than your average sipping whisky.  About the only thing that we can say about the Strongest Beer title is that it doesn't really mean much, save for serving as a bit of a pissing contest I suppose, considering how little of these brews get produced, and how expensive they run for. I guess that's not really fair, because there is a great deal of science and brewing expertise needed to distill these brews down to such a potent end product.  It's just important, in my humble opinion, to remember these brews are novelties, and are (thankfully) not on the liquour-store shelves (the End of History retailed for $750 - each!), so there's no risk of beers ever getting that strong in the forseeable future.

There's a typo here: it should read
"Contains a Metric Fuckton of Alcohol."
What is happening is that craft brewers are consistently pushing the envelope with their one-off, or special edition brews, which tend to almost exclusively range between 10 and 20% ABV, more than sufficient alcohol to knock you firmly on your ass.  These, are sipping brews that really have to be shared with others, lest you awaken in a drunken stupor with a blistering headache and no memory of the previous nights' events.  And one craft brewery that has really found a niche with these high octane brews is the feature of today's entry - The Bruery.

Started in 2008 in California by Patrick Rue (get it?), The Bruery has quickly become one of the big names in experimental craft brews.  While most of the Bruery's lineup sits in more reasonable levels of alcohol content (mostly Belgian style ales with a healthy number of American-style brews), there is a disproportionate number of brews in their lineup that push well into the 10+ range.  These limited brews have proven so popular that The Bruery has set up a sort of pay-in "Reserve Society" where you pay a big price up front and get a whole smack of the "big" brews guaranteed, plus some other perks.  The closest thing to a country club membership I've seen in the craft brewing world, but there you go.  Demand is high, and beer geeks are getting more and more assertive in their drive to acquire the hottest brews around, with some bottles of other rare beers going for over 100 dollars online, much in the same way that folks purchased PS3s after waiting in line, and then turning them around on eBay.  I was lucky in this case, and thus I've had the pleasure of enjoying three of their biggest brews over the past couple of months, and - having pieced together what little memories exist from those evenings,  I'll try to take you through them all.  In honour of our World's Strongest Beer theme, we'll start with the lowest and work our way up.  It's crazy when you have to say that the lowest strength beer of the list is approximately fifteen percent booze.  That's the kind of shit we're dealing with today, folks, so hold on tight.   A huge thanks to my friend and fellow member of the Beer Society of Odd Fellows for sharing these brews with me over the past few months.  Cheers Brad!

Beer: Fruet
Type: Old Ale
ABV: 15.5%

An anniversary brew (for their fourth in 2012), this brew is of a style known as Old Ale, which really means what it sounds - a strong ale that has been aged until it is old and smoothed out a bit.  In more technical parlance, the brew will be big and malty and extra dextriny (whatever that means) with lots of fruit (usually grape, raisin, a few other goodies).   This one does precisely that, except the alcohol content is well above the charts!

Poured into a sampler goblet.  Hazy caramel-chocolate brown, murky, and with a small but sturdy head of foam that survives as a thin ring.  The sheer viscosity of this brew is remarkably evident with the pour - this brew has some legs to it.

Nose is bloody spectacular: a rich caramel sweetness, cocoa, vanilla, bourbon, figs, dates, wine grapes, raisins, toffee and a rich warming booziness.

Tastes just as good as it smells, if not better.  If you're wondering how a beer this strong tastes, think of drinking a good port or fortified wine and you get the idea.  Fortunately, this one is so tasty that you don't even notice the booze, at least not until you attempt to stand up. It tastes like it might be only about 9 or 10 percent, which is damned fine with me. A terrific blend of sweet sugar, fruit, caramel and vanilla.  Rich and well worth each slow sip.   Thick, a bit syrupy (no surprise there), but with enough carbonation to be easy to drink - dangerously so.

God freaking damn, this was good. (Grade: A)

Beer: Black Tuesday
Type: Double Imperial Stout
ABV: 18%

First of all, I have to apologize for the shit picture.  Apparently, my last digital camera was on its last legs when I took this, and I thought that the picture was merely set on a high exposure setting, but actually it was about twenty minutes from death. Really, I'm just glad that I got any shot of it at all.  But in case you weren't sure, the beer is black.  Pitch black.  That's about all you need to know.  Black Tuesday has a dual meaning: the first refers to Tuesday October 29th, 1929, the day of the stock market collapse that officially marks the beginning of the Great Depression; the second refers to the colour of the brew combined with the fact that the Bruery was founded on a Tuesday.

Had this a couple of months ago at a big beer tasting, and it really capped off the evening nicely.  Like looking into a black hole this one was.  Thick as molasses it seemed - well, maybe not quite, but again the heft of this brew is apparent just by pouring it.  A thin off white ring is all that survives.

Nose is sweet and sugary, with notes of roasted malt, chocolate, coffee, molasses, bourbon, vanilla, and a slight peat or leathery note in the mix.  And yes, I can detect the booze - it's almost five times stronger than your typical bottle of beer.  But again, I've had 10%ers that smelled boozier than this.

Well this is all kinds of wonderful.  Rich, sweet stout flavours, just amped up considerably.  Assertive notes of bourbon, vanilla, chocolate, sugar and vanilla.  A strong alcohol burn is there, but because I'm sipping it so slowly, it's not much of a chore to deal with.   Thick, mild carbonation, creamy and oily on the palate.

When drinking this brew, I think I felt that calm, assured euphoria that folks in September of 1929 must have felt after trusted economist Irving Fisher assured the nation that stocks had reached a "permanently high plateau."  I was comfortable, complacent, and so I kept drinking.  And man did this brew give me a Depression-level headache a few hours later.  Granted, this was my several-th beer of the evening, but that much sugar and booze is going to have an effect.  So drink this brew with caution - take it slow, and enjoy it.   Cause it's damned good.  (Grade A)

Not pictured: Florida's electoral votes.
Beer: Chocolate Rain
Type: Double Imperial Stout
ABV: 19.5%

Enjoyed this one celebrating the victory of President Obama last month; sadly, none of us could find a "White and Privileged Bitter" to toast the Romney camp.  Oh well, such is life.  Again, several beers into the evening's drinking, so take this one with a grain of salt.

Wine glasses for this majestic brew.  Black as pitch, slightly chestnut when held to the light, and a thin, off-white head that recedes into a thin ring.  At almost 20%, I'm not sure if appearances really are going to play into this one.

Nose is incredibly sweet and sugary, with coffee, cream, booze, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, and lightly toasted sugar.  You can smell the weight and strength of this beer.

Very tasty indeed, but probably my least favorite of the three, simply because it is just that strong.  The nice thing is, far worse beers than this have had far less alcohol, and still tasted much more like someone had snuck a shot of vodka into the bottle, so as strange as this sounds, for being 20% the alcohol is well-hidden. But trust me: it's there.  The sweetness and booziness is more pronounced than in the Black Tuesday, though the notes of chocolate, sugar and vanilla still hold true.  Syrupy, velvety feel, and with enough carbonation to keep the sweetness somewhat at bay.   Kind of felt like drinking a glass of Kahlua.  Rest assured: you need to share this beer.

The Bruery's high octane stuff is well worth seeking out, though because of the market demands and such, this can be tricky, unless of course you know where to look.  If you do see them around, however, give them a try, but fair warning: they are sweet, they are delicious, and they pack a serious punch.  Have a glass or two of water handy - the blood vessels in your head will thank you for it in the morning.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Middle Earth Drinkin'!

Holy shit! United Video!
In just over a month, fantasy-film buffs around the world will have their eyes fixed on Wellington, New Zealand, for after years of labour issues, director changes and casting development, J.R.R. Tolkein's "The Hobbit" will finally have its premiere in the capital of the nation which has provided the labour and the landscape to bring Middle Earth to life.  So much has the Lord of the Rings, and now the Hobbit film series impacted the nation of New Zealand that the two have become inexorably linked, with the government and tourism agencies fully playing up the "New Zealand as Middle Earth" theme to bring in those essential tourism dollars.  Check out New Zealand's official tourism website, if you get the chance, to see what I mean.  As the islands' breathtaking natural scenery and images of its Maori heritage sweep across the screen, so too do images of the natural and constructed filming locations from Jackson's trilogy, including a shot of Bag-End.  At the bottom of the page, New Zealand's recent travel slogan has been amended to reflect this global desire to visit the world of Tolkien; not just "100% Pure New Zealand", but also "100% Middle Earth."  A simple googling of "New Zealand Lord of the Rings Tours" yields dozens of results of tour groups that will take you to Bag End, Lothlorien, the plains of Rohan and the roads of the Shire - for a reasonable price.

I know that there is so much to the country beyond the films to explore - the Maori culture, the natural beauty, the unique wildlife, a fucking scary rugby team - so I probably would have made a trip to the country anyways, but don't get me wrong: if I get the chance to visit New Zealand, I'm doing everything Lord of the Rings I can. After reading the books several times over (save for the impenetrable Silmarillion), and obsessing over the films (I watch the trilogy every couple of months, including all of the making-of documentaries), I am absolutely stoked for The Hobbit, and thus cannot wait until I can make a pilgrimage to New Zealand myself.  In the meantime, I can gear up for the film, re-read the books, and try this New Zealand craft beer that just arrived in Ontario!

Beer: Craftsman Chocolate Oatmeal Stout
Brewery: Renaissance Brewing (Blenheim, South Island)
Type: Oatmeal Stout
ABV: a hair under 5%

Renaissance Brewing is, to my knowledge, the first NZ craft brewery to hit the LCBO shelves, which it did about a year ago with their Scotch Ale, "Stonecutter."  It was a stellar brew, one of the best of the style I've encountered, so I've been very much looking forward to this arrival!

But here's the thing about craft beer from overseas: they can be a bit...temperamental.  Because of the long travel time and temperature changes and such, the beer that makes these long journeys can have an end result that might be a bit off from what the brewer intended, and so I try to keep in mind that at any stage in the beer's travels from brewery to pint glass, something can happen.  Fortunately, this particular brew turned out just fine, save for one minor issue: the carbonation.  When I opened the bottle, what spewed forth was a foamy mess, as if I had shaken the bottle vigorously before pouring (I hadn't - it's been sitting in my fridge for several hours).  After an emergency glass grab and a few minutes of slow pouring and waiting, I managed to pour the contents into a respectable-looking pint.  It took some extra time, but in the end, saving the beer is what matters the most!

After the brew settled, we were left with a truly All-Black brew, with only a few hints of caramel around the edges of the glass.  The foamy head survived for quite some time, forming a sturdy off-white cap.  Nice lacing as well.

Nice hearty stout nose to this: roasted malt, caramel, coffee, dark chocolate, a woody tartness, a bit of fruit.  It reminds me somewhat of a porter.

Nice chocolate character to this brew, though it is by no means sweet.  Roasted malt, a touch of caramel, oak, dry dark chocolate, oatmeal.  The body is creamy and mild, with the oatmeal character smoothing out the mouthfeel.  It's a bit thin, but this might be due to that carbonation burn-off so I'll have to try this again to be really sure.

Great stout that any Orc or Shirefolk could enjoy!  It's no trip to New Zealand, but I'll take it.  Solid brew, a bit pricey, but worth a try at any rate!  (Grade: B+)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Oktoberfestivus for the Rest of Us!

With summer completely out of the picture, we can now officially begin celebrating the awesomeness that is October, or as it is written on the calendars of folks from Kitchener-Waterloo, Oktober.  That's right, Oktoberfest is right around the corner. The first events of the year took place just the past couple of days, with the keg-rolling competition taking place on Saturday morning, and some opening festivities the day before with the ceremonial first keg tapping taking place in front of Kitchener's city hall.   On Thanksgiving Monday was the parade, and the start of when things really get rolling with the week of festhall drinking and carousery that follows.  As folks who have visited the blog before will notice, authentic Bavarian-style ales are hardly the theme of the events, with Molson Canadian holding exclusive beer rights for all the events, thus giving beer drinkers the choice of Canadian or Coors Light, with maybe some Creemore in there if you are lucky (and probably not on draught).  But crappy beer selection and overpriced food are part of the cost of Oktoberfest fun - if you get a good group of friends together, you can get your chicken dancing on with reckless abandon and have a wonderful time, so don't let the generic lager get you down.  After a few of them, you won't notice anyways.

But if you want to go for something a little closer to a German beer experience, here are some brews that might just do the trick, some locally available in Ontario, others a bit more off the beaten path.   I won't go into as much detail for each as I usually do, however, because I have to say that most of these beers are quite similar in taste.  The two styles featured here (Altbier, Marzen) are traditional German styles of brewing that are generally quite malty, grainy, toasty, and with a mild enough ABV to allow for Oktoberfest levels of drinking.   Altbier is from the central-western German city of Dusseldorf, and is a long-aged (lagered) ale designed for cooler months, while the Marzen is the Bavarian specialty, brewed in the spring (Marz = March) and stored over the summer to be consumed around Oktoberfest.  Both styles are crisp, smooth and easy to drink in quantity, which is precisely what the season is designed for.  There are of course differences between the styles and between the four examples I've provided, but in this case I'd rather you try them out yourself!


Beer: Creemore Springs Anniversary Altbier
Brewery: Creemore Springs
Type: Altbier
ABV: 5%

This brew was created in order to celebrate Creemore's 25th anniversary, and was a collaboration effort with Dusseldorf Altbier brewery Zum Schlussel.  Creemore's brewers traveled to Dusseldorf to learn the style in person, and were able to make an arrangement with Schlussel to use some of their specialty house brewing yeast.  Over the summer, Creemore put this brew together and made it available on limited release.  I picked this can up at the brewery, but it is also available at the LCBO until they sell out.   In case you were wondering, Schlussel is German for key, so the key on the label is a nod to their brewing friends in Dusseldorf!

Beer: Great Lakes Oktoberfest
Brewery: Great Lakes (Cleveland OH)
ABV: 6.5%

This was a recent pickup across the border, and because of the potential for confusion between this brewery and its counterpart in Toronto, it is unlikely that it will make it our way anytime soon, which is a real shame.  Fortunately, if you are stateside, Great Lakes is fairly easy to find (I found several packs of this in a Buffalo Walmart) so you won't have to look too hard for it!  Inexpensive as well.  

This is one of the better American Oktoberfest brews out there, with a nice malty backbone and a clean herbal-citrus hop finish.   Like many of the style, it is quite sweet and bready.

Beer: Les Trois Mousquetaires Serie Signature Oktoberfest
Brewery:  Trois Mousquetaires (Brossard, Quebec)
ABV: 4.1%

I was recently in the Ottawa region and couldn't resist a trip across the provincial border to pick up some Quebec microbrew goodies from Broue Ha Ha, since I so rarely get the opportunity to do so.  It also helps that I don't have to put up with the hassle of crossing an international border - with the lineups and potential duties - to get some brews that I haven't had before.  Well, apparently, you can consider me a hardened criminal, for up until the summer of this year, what I was doing was technically illegal!  That's right, until the passing of Bill C-311, transporting alcohol across provincial lines was actually against the law, but without any border crossing checkpoints and inspection areas, it is completely unenforceable - indeed, most people didn't even know about it!  Fortunately, clearer heads have prevailed and we now can continue buying spirits across provincial lines without fear of imaginary reprisal. 

I always make a special point of picking up Trois Mousquetaires stuff, especially their Serie Signature brews (their Baltic Porter is particularly sublime), so this was a no brainer.  I have to say, however, that this brew wasn't a knockout for me - especially given the price of the bottle.  However, it is still a decent Oktoberfest brew and the larger bottle is certainly useful for sharing or longer drinking sessions (or, if you happen to have a hefty Oktoberfest stein about).

Beer: Mill Street Oktoberfest Beer
Brewery: Mill Street (Toronto)
ABV: 5.8%

This one comes in a seasonal sixpack alongside their clevely-named pumpkin ale, "Nightmare on Mill Street", so you get both of your major Oktober festivals taken care of in one box (for those interested, the Nightmare is also quite tasty, and is on the spicy end of the pumpkin ale spectrum.  It's label emblazoned with the distinctive checker pattern of the Bavarian flag, this brew certainly has a classic Oktoberfest flavour: grainy, smooth, slightly fruity.

There are some other brews out there that also fall into the Oktoberfest category that shouldn't be too hard to dig up.  Again, the emphasis should be on an aged ale or lager that is malty and with just a touch of fruit (though they are present, hops are rarely the defining attribute to these brews), which can be easily consumed in quantity as befits the season.  I know that either Ayinger or Paulaner has an Oktoberfest seasonal out our way - if not, their hearty weizenbocks and doppelbocks would certainly not be out of place - and Sam Adams has a perennial Oktoberfest lager in the mix.   Whatever direction your Oktoberfest drinking takes you, I wish you all a happy Oktober filled with good cheer and gemuetlichkeit!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Can Superman Outrun the Green Flash?

Beer: Green Flash West Coast IPA
Brewery: Green Flash Brewing (San Diego)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 7.3%

Green Flash is an up-and-coming brewery from San Diego that has seen a huge increase in its output over the last year, meaning that the brewery is able to get more of its product out east.   This is due to a highly-necessary change in facilities, which has allowed its yearly output of beer to increase from 14,000 barrels in 2010 with their older brewery (Vista) to an expected 35,000 per year in the new facility (Mira Mesa).  While still not the largest brewery in the area - the legendary Stone Brewery holds that title with over 100,000 barrels yearly - it still represents a significant jump, positioning them to become the second-largest brewery in the San Diego area.

Due to the odd politics and wranglings that involve bringing new beers into the LCBO, we somehow still don't have any Stone brews among our shelves, but this month Ontarians - if they are lucky - might see the first (of hopefully many) Green Flash brews in our province.  My new policy with the LCBO is that I could get angry and frustrated about our lack of selection, but unless there is something really productive I can do about it (which are only so useful), there's no sense in getting really angry about it.  Every so often a few good, exciting brews sneak into the system, so I enjoy them when I can, and supplement my beer cravings with the occasional out of province beer hauls.   This brew is pretty damned exciting, and I'm glad to see it there, so I'm not going to piss and moan about our situation.   I also have to give a shoutout to a member of the UpTown staff who was able to help me track down a fourpack of this.  I checked out the LCBO store listings, and saw that UpTown had a few leftover (it's a limited release, so don't expect it to be there for long!), but this proved to be out of date.  The employee called around to the various stores - which involved several long periods of being on hold - until he finally tracked one down, and had the other store put some on hold.  Big thanks are in order!

The bottle label displays a Green Flash sunset over the Pacific Ocean, wreathed in barley and hops, and it comes with an appropriate warning: "Extravagantly Hopped."  I'll just warn everyone right now - they aren't fucking around.   This brew is hopped to holy hell, so if incredibly bitter and tangy hopbombs aren't your think, you might want to give this one a pass.  But if you are, like me, a hop-head, then read on - this one is terrific.

Poured into a nonic glass that is geared for single bottle use.  Slightly hazy caramel amber, with a terrific billowing head that just won't quit.  The retention on this is outstanding, as is the sticky lacing that covers the glass from top to bottom.  This is one exceptional-looking brew.

Nose is a powerful blend of citrus hops (grapefruit and lemon) and sweet caramel malt.  The two dominant scents play off each other nicely, as the brew simultaneously smells bitter and sweet, which is an excellent combination.

A real hopbomb, this.  Lip-smackingly puckery with citrus hop bitterness, which is soon countered with a sweet caramel-toffee blast.  Finishes long and bitter, with a great citric bitterness lingering on the tongue.  A few other spices play into things here - mint, herbal tea being the two I can identify.

Alcohol content is hard to detect, given the influx of sweet and bitter flavours one has to deal with.   Creamy, with a bitter puckery finish.

If this is the only Green Flash brew that makes it out this way, I will be severely disappointed, yet happy that I was able to at least give one a try.  This was one hoppy brew, and was well worth picking up, despite the higher price point (around $14 for a four pack).  With the limited nature of this release, and the cost, I won't necessarily be stocking my shelves with this brew - my wallet would kill me - but I will certainly hold on to a few, because this is one of the biggest hop bombs to hit this province in quite some time.  (Grade: A)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Most Joyous Autumnal Equinox to All!

To all you wonderful people out there, I wish you a happy autumnal equinox, a solemn and dignified Mabon for my Wiccan friends, and most importantly, a most splendid birthday to Frodo and Bilbo Baggins!  Happy Hobbit Day to all!  (Seriously, look it up: September 22nd is Frodo and Bilbo's birthday!)

In the past couple of years I have grown more and more fond of autumn.  It's cooler (and after this brutal summer, not a moment too soon), I can wear jackets, blazers, and dress shirts again without roasting alive, and all the best holidays are within the next three months, which means plenty of seasonal brews ahead.  Most of us have already embraced the changing of the season, whether it be by hitting up the local Starbucks to get your seventh Pumpkin Spiced Latte, prepping your Hallowe'en costume (either Captain Malcolm Reynolds or Jake Blues for me this year), or hitting up the grocery stores for more fall-ish ingredients.   For me, in addition to the preceding autumn activities, I am of course super-jazzed because it's the start of pumpkin beer season, and there's already several old favorites - and a few new ones - on the shelves.   Of course, the first new pumpkin brew I'll show you is not something one can pick up in Ontario.  Oh no, Big Brother would never allow that.   It really is unfortunate that I have to keep supplementing my cellar through the occasional US beer run, but until something changes in Ontario, I'm either going to have to continue doing so, or be satisfied with the LCBO's selection.  This year, it's not too shabby - there are a few good pumpkin ales on the horizon - so those who don't feel like making the trek cross the border won't be without their pumpkin fix for the season.  But if you so happen to be down America-way, check out this pumpkin ale from Smuttynose, appropriately named: "Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale."

Beer: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Smuttynose (Portsmouth, NH)
ABV: 5.8

Simplicity is in the name as well as in the label; it's like the designer of the label decided "it's a pumpkin beer, so here's a stock photo of a pumpkin."  Oh well, stock photos are generally Smutty's way of doing things, and it usually works pretty well, and of course, it's what's inside that counts.  Still, I do like a crazy fall themed label, but since this was my first pumpkin beer of the season, I didn't really mind so much.  Let's crack one open!

Picked up a sixer of these guys at Consumer Beverages in Orchard Park, NY about three weeks ago.  It didn't feel right to open them just yet, but I knew I would eventually want one, so I've been waiting patiently until today!

Poured into a Bell's glass, because sadly, I do not as of yet have a Smuttynose glass.   Caramel-amber in colour, like the baked maple squash I'll be making in two weeks for Canuckian Thanksgiving.  Somewhat murky, and with a thin head of foam that displays terrific retention.  Lots of lacing as well.  Great looking brew.

Nose is pumpkin puree, a bit of sugar and cinnamon (though the overall sensation is far from sweet), clove and mild citrus hops.

Tasty autumn brew indeed, though I must say that the pumpkin flavour is a bit more subdued than in the nose.  No matter; the brew is unmistakably suitable for the season, with pumpkin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a nice hop bitterness to cleanse the palate.  Really wish I was sitting in a deckchair with a picturesque New England fall vista in front of me and a strong nip in the air, but on my couch watching Premier League highlights works equally well.  Medium bodied, slightly creamy, mild carbonation.

One of the issues I have with pumpkin beer - like I do with many holiday foods and beverages - is that I go crazy for them as soon as the season begins, only to find that as we get even closer to Hallowe'en and those cold, unforgiving late autumn nights, I tend to get a bit tired of pumpkin ales and will probably be craving something Christmas/winter related.  For this reason, Smuttynose will be a welcome addition to the pumpkin lineup, because although it certainly has pumpkin qualities to it, it is more of a "fall beer" for me, so it will be a welcome change from all the other pumpkin ales I'll be drinking.  Liiiiiiiike this one:

Beer: Black Creek Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Black Creek Historic Brewery (Toronto)
ABV: 5%

Black Creek is a brewery that is very near and dear to me, and so I might be accused of swaying my opinion a little too much their way.  But hey: beer is an intensely personal thing, at least for me, and I'll experience it precisely the way I want to.  The brewery is located at Black Creek Pioneer Village in northwestern Toronto, and is an awesome place to visit for a look at life in early-mid 19th century Ontario.  Reenactments, horse-drawn buggies, you name it.  It also happens to be the site of my parent's wedding way back when, on a cold January day.  They held their reception in the Halfway House, which is now a candle-lit restaurant, with the brewery located just down the stairs.  I've been to the brewery recently, and got to chat with the brewmaster about his current offerings.  Because the brewery is geared specifically towards the creation of historic ales - using the ingredients and methods available at the time of the original settlers - I tend to give special credit for the effort, considering the fact that the result is probably going to differ from what we are used to drinking today.  The stuff that gets sent out to the LCBO is, if memory serves, produced off-site, with the carbonation levels we are used to.   Their latest release is a pumpkin ale, pumpkins being a popular brewing ingredient for early European settlers in the Northeast.

Poured into a nonic glass.  Dark caramel-amber.  Quite dark for a pumpkin ale, almost hitting Southern Tier Pumking levels.  A thin head of foam that dissolves into a thin ring.

Nose is sweeter than the Smuttynose, with the pumpkin hitting you alongside some burnt brown sugar and caramel.  Cinnamon and nutmeg as well.  Not bad.

Good pumpkin flavour, not much depth here, but certainly drinkable.  The spice flavour is a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.  Maybe a bit of maple syrup as well.  Thinner bodied than I'd like, and the carbonation is quite low.

Not bad, actually, although I doubt it will become my go-to pumpkin ale for the season, I certainly wouldn't turn it down.   Nothing special, but it has all the standard elements of the pumpkin ale style so you should be satisfied.

Looking forward to some more fall-themed brews as we head into that most joyous of seasons: autumn!  Happy first day of fall everyone!

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Sorry Goose, but it's time to buzz a tower."

The battle between "mainstream" and "craft/micro" brewing has gone beyond the simple us vs. them dichotomy, and has recently moved into the tricky and controversial area of "make them become us."  When smaller breweries grow beyond the confines of their local markets and achieve a larger share of the industry, the bigger players in the game will begin to take notice.  As we have seen before, there are many strategies that the megabreweries can use in order to maintain their hegemonic dominance over the market, and they have the considerable resources to do this.  These can include the controlling of retail space to the exclusion of craft products (why, for example, does Bud Light need a whole facing to itself, while the craft beers are usually crammed into one smaller out of the way location?), smothering the market with pervasive advertizing and exclusive tap arrangements for bars/events, and the always unfortunate and expensive tactic of the lawsuit, which has been the particular bane of Sam Calaglione's Dogfish Head.  These tactics suggest an antagonistic relationship between the brewing players, which certainly exists to some degree; however, one would be mistaken to suggest that the goal of these tactics is the total elimination of exciting and flavorful beer from our society.  Despite my opinions of them, I must  say that the megabreweries are not stupid, nor are they oblivious to the prevailing trends in the beer world.  As we have seen in the recent election kerfuffles with Romney and Obama, both political parties know that there are some votes that they simply cannot win, and so their camps simply do not bother to court these unwinnable demographics.  The same is true with the world of beer: no matter how much the world tries to jam Bud Light and Stella Artois down our gullets, a sizable minority of us will always want something more.  Therefore, the more astute of the megabrewing companies have adopted a "if we can't beat 'em, join 'em" policy with regards to their more significant competitors.   Actually, "if they are a threat, buy them!" would be more appropriate, as over the past few years many a larger craft brewery has been purchased by a larger consortium - Creemore by Molson-Coors, Unibroue by Sapporo, etc. - so that the larger consortium can enjoy a piece of the market that they otherwise would never have been able to sway with their existing products (a few of the bigger breweries - Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada - have maintained their independence, however, and still maintain a massive distribution network).   There are of course positives and negatives for both parties with regards to these sales, and because the terms of each sale present different possible outcomes for each situation, I can't really say whether or not it is a good thing for the craft beer world.  It is simply a reality we have to work with.

Goose Island of Chicago is one such brewery whose status in the Midwest has been so strong that it has been able to distribute its products across the country, with only a few exceptions.  This process has been accelerated by the brewery's takeover by Anheuser-Busch in 2011.  Many more pubs with a craft beer selection will now sport more than a few of those iconic Goose Island goose head taps for their standard offerings than ever before - one hopes.  While this takeover will mean the departure of former brewmaster Greg Hall, it has not meant that the more esoteric and flavorful brews will necessarily see a decline in their production.  Over the years, their seasonal releases (Bourbon County Stout and their Christmas Ale) have achieved legendary status among craft beer circles, with releases of the former - lovingly abbreviated "BCS" - generating extremely high demand.   Hopefully their production will continue, and will not be affected by the takeover.
Coach K is not looking pleased. 

I've been to Goose Island's brewpub in Wrigleyville a few years back, but at the time I can't say I was really a big enough craft beer fan to have appreciated the significance of where I was, so I didn't really get much out of it.  The lager that we drank was good, as I recall.  But what I remember most vividly about the experience was not the beer itself, but rather the fact every single one of the pub's many televisions was turned to a different March Madness game (it was the weekend of the first round), and each TV had a good dozen people glued to the action.  I've never seen anything like it; Americans are truly obsessed with college basketball.  Hopefully I'll be able to revisit the pub someday armed with my current knowledge of the brewery and its offerings, and will generate new, beer-related memories.

Here's a quick look at two of Goose Island's brews I've had the pleasure of encountering recently - hopefully I will be able to add to this list in the near future!

Beer: Honker's Ale
Type: English Bitter
ABV: 4.3%

Poured into a nonic pint glass.  Classic bitter appearance for this brew: caramel-copper in colour, slight haze, thin but sturdy head, with some lacing.

Nose is caramel, malt, toffee, bread, earthy hops, a touch of grain and roasted bitterness, as well as some fruit (peach). 

Bready, with a touch of fruit, earthy hops and caramel sweetness.  Decent, highly drinkable bitter with enough flavor to keep me interested and a low enough ABV to guarantee some serious session drinking.    

A bit thin-bodied, but decent carbonation and some creaminess.

Would be really nice to have this on draught at some point.  This beer is downright decent, and though it lacks any memorable characteristics, it certainly is an easy drinker I'd revisit.

Beer: Pere Jacques
Type: Belgian Dubbel
ABV: 8%

I picked up this brew at Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, which is an amazing store worthy of a post of its own.  It's like a supermarket, where one half is wine and the other half is beer/spirits, and in between are a whole array of kitchen gadgets, cheeses and other products that could very nearly destroy my bank account if I were to indulge myself.  A little pricier than Consumer Beverages, but the selection is a little larger and you just feel that extra bit snooty walking through the aisles.  I picked this brew up because of the label before I even noticed that it was a Goose Island brew - it just looked so much like an unassuming red wine bottle that it caught my eye.  This brew is a Belgian dubbel, which means that it will have some elements of red wine to it.

This one went into my trusty handy-dandy Duvel glass, with the pour producing a lovely ruby-chestnut concoction, with about three-quarters of an inch of off-white foam, which survived throughout the tasting and left some flecks of lacing.

Nose was quite nice, with notes of plum, sherry, pear, medicinal/herbal hops, a touch of pepper and caramel malt.

This is a solid dubbel, though not without a few little quirks that keep the brew firmly in the "good", rather than "great" camp.  The same tasting notes are there - lots of fruit, herbs, sherry and Belgian yeast flavor - but are a bit overpowered by the medicinal character of the brew.  Still, there is a nice warming alcohol feel to it, which is delivered with tart, but mild carbonation.  Medium bodied.  A little bit hot, I'd have to say; had I thought ahead, I'd have picked up a second bottle to age for a year.

I enjoy dubbels a great deal; with some tweaking and perhaps a bit of aging, this brew would really be quite something.

With no recollection of how the brewery's current output compares to its pre-ownership state, I can't really say anything about the current quality of Goose Island's brews, other than the fact that the two I've had here were both solid takes on their respective styles.  Goose Island is a huge brewery, with approximately fifty or so beer listings indicated on Beer Advocate, so there remains a great deal more of the brewery to explore.   Perhaps a benefit of the recent takeover might be that with the resources of Anheuser-Busch, more Goose Island brews can find their way outside of their usual markets - and, dare I say it, in Ontario?  Here's hoping.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The One Pub Man

In the world of soccer, there's the one club man.  In the world of beer and pub culture, there's Arthur Reid.  Both are rarities in this ever-changing world, and both deserve their special respect.

In the case of the former, a one-club man is a player who spends his entire career with the same club, without ever being transferred or loaned out (although the conditions for inclusion into Wikipedia's list of these players are fairly unforgiving, I think it's fair to give some consideration for a player who puts in an immense swath of time with the same club, with only the odd years near the end of their career.  Bobby Charlton will forever be a Manchester United man, but did play a few years in Preston and Waterford right before his retirement, and the great Pele himself played exclusively for Brazil's Santos before a near-retirement turn with the fledgling NASL team the New York Cosmos).  In the years when football clubs were manned almost exclusively by local talent, this was still somewhat of a rarity; now, it is extremely uncommon.  In a world of multi-million dollar transfer fees, cutthroat promotion and relegation, and the international talent pool - which leads to teams whose makeup is more akin to a United Nations summit than a local football club -  having one player put in their entire career with the same career is a truly exceptional achievement.  This is the reason why I almost never wear a jersey with a player's name on the back as it so likely that this player...will...someday...break...your...heart.   It is truly something special where despite the chaos of the global soccer market, some players will always wear your colours. Some current one-club men of note include: Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes of Manchester United (since 1990 and 1994, respectively), Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi of A.S. Roma (1992, 2001), Jamie Carragher of Liverpool (1996), and my favorite former Gooner, Tony Adams (1983-2002).

But when it comes to steadfast loyalty and dedication to one's family, these guys have nothing on Arthur Reid.

Reid, a 90 year-old former labourer from just outside of Bristol, has sipped pints of bitter at his favorite local pub - and only this pub - nearly every day for the past 72 years.  Cliff and Norm - take notes.   Mr. Reid has lived in the little town of Warmley for his entire life; he has never married, never had children, and rarely goes on vacation.  As a labourer in the days of the full work week and minimal consideration for such novelties as "sick leave" and "vacation pay", Reid would put in between 80-100 hours a week, with Sunday being his only reprieve.  However, when the whistle blew for quitting time at 3pm, our dedicated ale man would invariably make his way to The Griffin for his afternoon pint.  This cycle continued for more than seven decades.  "I've always worked hard and enjoyed visiting the pub - I've never seen the need to go much farther," Reid explains.  Amazingly, his dedication goes even further; not only does Arthur frequent the same pub everyday, but he almost always has the same pint of draught each time: Courage Bitter from Wells and Youngs.  So regular is Arthur's appearance at the pub that the staff often worry that something has gone terribly wrong if he hasn't passed through the doors by 3:30.   His astounding patronage of the pub has not gone unnoticed by the staff and community of The Griffin; in honour of his 90th birthday, Arthur's favorite seat in the house has been given the royal treatment: a plaque celebrating his 72 years now adorns his chair.

When Mr. Reid eventually stops going to his favorite pub, will this signal the end of the "pub era"?  Perhaps so.  This sort of dedication to the local pub is something that probably is going to be a relic of a bygone era soon enough, at least that is what the statistics are telling us.  British ale enthusiasts have long lamented the demise of "the local" over the past few decades, with hundreds of pubs closing each year (as of 2011, this averages out to be about 25 closures a week), to be replaced by more modern establishments with macro lagers, dozens of TV screens, loud music, and a lack of a welcoming environment. No gemuetlichkeit, as the Bavarians would say.  It's such an alarming trend that it has become a common news/editorial topic in the newspapers across the political spectrum.  Simply put, the culture is changing: the pub is no longer necessarily the centre of people's lives, now that there are so many other options for entertainment and means to acquire alcohol on one's own terms.  Legislation has played its part as well, with the ban on smoking inside establishments (I still think this is a good thing) and stronger driving laws (ditto) leading many people to do their consumption at home, if at all.  With the growth of the suburb, people are less likely to live within walking distance of a pub such as this, and driving down to one isn't really an option, nor should it be, of course.  

Who wouldn't fancy a pint at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks?
I have never been to England before, but I have an image of what the "perfect pub" might be, with its low lighting, wooden exterior, a gleaming tapline and a sense of community and mirth.  You don't mind going to the pub alone, because you are sure to see someone you know there.  The barman knows your order, and wonders if you will have "the usual."  The pub has its own jokes and routines, cherished memories and wonderful stories.  In the world of Tolkien, I'm thinking of a Green Dragon for the big people.  I don't know how much this vision resembles reality, but I certainly know that whatever the reality might be, it is going into decline.  But some people out there - Reid included - still think that this idea is not dead, and is worth fighting for.  Robin Turner of the Daily Mail cites the example of Cardiff locals fiercely defending the impending closure of their beloved Vulcan Pub (to be replaced by a mall parking overflow lot), which they successfully did, as evidence that those who love the pub aren't ready to see it go quite yet.  With more people attuned to the emerging world of craft beer, some pubs are meeting that demand by producing their own house ales.  One pub is attempting to fully turn back the clock by banning TVs, "fruit machines" (slot machines), lagers and food.   No idea whether it will work, but I can see the appeal.

Turner explains that one of the biggest proponents of the English pub (and one who could forecast its eventual decline) was George Orwell, who spent some time musing over what the "perfect pub" would look like.  "Orwellian" in this sense is actually a good thing.  His recipe for a great pub included only four ingredients (much like the ale this pub would serve): authenticity, integrity, character and independence.  I too have my local establishments, and I can see these four ingredients resonating through the walls and shining from the taps.  I go to these pubs because they are familiar, friendly, and the source of so many fond memories.  I go because they know me there.  To return after a long absence is like a communion, where I reconnect with what was once lost.   I don't think these pubs will ever be the same for me like the Griffon is for Arthur Reid, but I can see the connection and understand a little bit his remarkable dedication.   If there's a pub out there that fits Orwell's criteria and is something you cherish, the best way you can vote for a better pub experience is with your beer-drinking dollar.  It's your pub - use it!

Cheers to Arthur Reid, and long live the "perfect pub"!