Monday, July 2, 2012

LCBO Summer Release

The summer is here at last!

I am now done with school for the summer, and the local kids are out raising all kinds of hell around the neighborhood.  The dominance of the Spanish national football team continues unabated, and the woeful display of the English team in the quarterfinal amused us all.  The garden is progressing nicely, and the air conditioning in my room continues to function as promised.  The weather has been so hot and sunny recently, I decided to celebrate with some new brews, and fortunately my timing was excellent, as the LCBO has recently shipped out the first round of their Summer Release lineup (the full list of the lineup can be found here).  Not a bad looking release, but I have to say I think the number of weizen beers is awfully high, and it seems as though ginger is the flavour of the season - if you don't happen to be fond of either, you're pretty shit outta luck.  Fortunately for me, I happen to be fond of both, so I'll do alright.  A few repeats from other seasons - including, yet again, Great Lakes Orange Peel Ale for some reason - but there are some interesting brews to be had, and we at the Den are privileged to give you an overview!

L-R: Weihenstephaner Kristallweissbier, Phillips Ginger Beer
Schneider Nelson Sauvin Weizenbock, Thornbridge Kipling Pale Ale,
and Birrificio del Ducato's New Morning Farmhouse Ale.
Normally, it would make sense to start things off with the wheat ales, both of which come from the great brewing and footballing nation of Germany.   However, there's a reason that I'm going to switch the order, and I'll get to that in a minute.  I will give Germany the right to first review, considering that this brew comes from the "oldest brewery in the world", Weihenstephaner of Bavaria.  Weihenstephaner brews are regularly available at the LCBO, and this is a very good thing, as their hefeweissbier and dunkelweizen are both fantastic brews and great to have on hand if you've got the hankering for a superbly crafted wheat ale.  If you're lucky, as I was, you might find yourself in view of a wonderful boxed set of Weihenstephaner brews along with a branded hefeweizen glass.  I strongly suggest you do so.

The brew that is part of the summer release is called a kristalweizen, which as you might be able to deduce from the name is a wheat beer that is kristal clear, unlike its unfiltered and thus hazy brother the hefeweizen.   Kristalweizens are designed as they are to reduce the yeast character of the brew for folks who would prefer it removed, as well as for simple aesthetics.  Since the development of the pilsner lager in 1842 and the development of inexpensive, mass produced clear glassware that occurred in the mid 19th-century, people have become more and more accustomed to seeing clear, unfiltered golden brews, rather than the murky ale concoctions that once graced the earthenware mugs and steins of old.  It's been an uphill battle for craft and traditional brewers of unfiltered beer to explain to contemporary customers that the beer is supposed to be hazy and murky, rather than it being a sign that something is wrong.  I actually had a customer at my former bar of employment attempt to return a pint of Mill Street Belgian Wit because she claimed it was murky and smelled like yeast.  I tried explaining that the brew was designed that way, but realized it was a losing battle and quickly gave her a pilsner.  Sometimes it just isn't worth it.

Beer: Weihenstephaner Kristallweissbier
Type: Kristalweizen
ABV: 5.4%

Bright golden in colour, clear as kristal, and with a fluffy billowing head that somewhat quickly dissolved into a fine ring.  Some lacing, a bit more is produced when the glass is agitated somewhat.  Clearly, those big billowing weizenbier heads are not going to be the defining characteristic of this particular kristalweizen.

The nose is more in line with what we are used to: banana, clove, wheat malt, herbal and spicy hops, but of course very little of that yeast flavor one often sees in other wheat beers.   Very pleasant.

Taste is quite similar to the nose.  Weihenstephaner's hefeweizen is among the top of its class, and the kristal is very much a milder, easier drinking (if that were possible) version of that classic brew.  An enjoyable brew: light and refreshing, softer and crisper than its cloudy cousin.  Banana and clove are present here, hops  are more herbal than bittering.  Soft feel, mild carbonation, thinner bodied than the hefe.  Ludicrously easy to drink.

I still prefer the classic hefeweizen, but this is still one enjoyable brew.  I've never understood the reason behind kristallweizens, but after drinking this one I can certainly understand the appeal.  I'll certainly be back for more of these as the summer moves along.  (Grade: A-)

Now we move things along to Italy of all places.   I was shocked to see this brew in the LCBO's list, considering how Italy, despite being a nation with a rich gastronomic and viticultural heritage, is really not a nation known for its brewing.  Other than Dolomiti and Moretti, I can't really think of too many Italian brews out there.  This is hardly surprising, if one only considers the history and geography of Italy.  The Greeks and the Romans, taking their cue from their Mesopotamian predecessors, viewed wine as being the drink of civilization and culture; beer, on the other hand was a drink for the "barbarians" (and, to some extent, the lower classes).   Plus, they had the excellent soil and climate to produce the wine themselves, with the main wine producing regions being in Italy, southern France, southwest Germany and Spain.  Thus the history of brewing has generally been the domain of Northern European nations - the Low Countries, northern Germany, the British Isles and Scandinavia - who could not grow wine grapes in enough quantity for the drink to be produced locally.  Beer was thus the family drink because it was cheap, easy to make and the ingredients were readily available (but don't get me wrong, I'm sure most Northern Europeans of the Middle Ages would have jumped on the wine bandwagon in a heartbeat if they could have done so!).   But the point remains - one can safely say that the history of beer will involve few mentions of Italy in its annals.

But in recent years there has been some exciting developments in the Italian craft brewing scene, with a few select brewers producing ales and stouts with real flavour and complexity. With brewing technology and equipment being so readily available, I'm not surprised that a few Italians wouldn't take up the craft.  And it looks like one of these brews made it overseas as part of this release.  This brew is called Nuova Mattinna, and has been helpfully translated on the bottle to "New Morning".  And it is a new dawn indeed for Italian brewing, and based on this brew alone, I think they are heading in the right direction!

Beer:  New Morning
Brewery: Birrificio Del Ducato (Roncole Verdi, Parma, Italy)
Type: Belgian Saison/Farmhouse Ale
ABV: 5.9%

This is a farmhouse/saison beer, a style that lends itself fairly well to summer drinking.  Light, funky, and usually with spice and light citrus hops and a bit of yeast as they tend to be unfiltered.

Poured into my trusty Duvel tulip.  A deep amber-orange brew, considerably darker than other saisons I've had recently.  A billowing head of foam is the result of the pour, and it lingers in the form of a substantial ring that some nice lacing patches.  The head looks very Belgian (if that makes any sense), as it sits in heaps and piles on top of the beer, giving the brew a wild, untamed character.  I've noticed this with Belgian yeast and I assume there's a scientific reason behind it.  Or I'm seeing things.

The nose is classic saison, but with a twist - a lemon twist, that is.  Soft wheat and barley malt, musk, a touch of yeast, clove, leafy hops.  Very pleasant.

Spicy and yeasty (although not overly so), with an assertive blast of lemon zest to open things off, while finishing with leafy hops and a touch of spice.  The carbonation is initially quite vigorous, but it tapers off - almost too much so.  Nice, refreshing brew, and certainly appropriate for the heat of the season.  It's quite exciting to find a brew from Italy that doesn't fit the pale lager mold, and it is also exciting to see that the brew was well worth the wait.  Hopefully this heralds a new morning for Italian craft brewing!  (Grade: B+)

Remember I promised that I'd get back to that other wheat beer?  Well, the reason for my delay is that two of the brews in this feature are unique because of one of their ingredients, and I wanted to explain a little bit.  As you probably already know, hops come in all different varieties, and thus the brewer has a choice as to which hops (and when, and how much) to use to to achieve different effects.  Some styles lend themselves to a particular family of hops. For example, State-side IPAs tend to use the bitter citrus hops of the Pacific Northwest, like Chinook, Centennial and Cascade, while English Pale Ales go with hops that give the brew a leafy, earthy tea-like quality - Fuggles and Goldings being two of the standards.  Some brewers enjoy experimenting with their hop usage by trying hops that normally are not associated with that style, in hopes of giving the brew a unique quality.  That is certainly the case with our next beer, Schneider's Mein Nelson Sauvin Weizenbock.  The odd name from what is normally a very traditional German brewery comes from the Nelson Sauvin hop, which hails from the lovely nation of Middle Earth New Zealand.  This hop is not normally associated with, well, anything because it is so new, being officially introduced in 2000.  It has big tropical fruit flavors like grapefruit, mango and tangerine, but its real appeal comes from its chemical similarity to the sauvignon wine grape, hence the name "sauvin."   It should be a great addition to a pale ale or hoppy lager, but a heavy wheat beer?  We shall see!

Beer: Mein Nelson Sauvin
Brewery: G. Schneider and Sohn (Kelheim, Germany)
Type: Weizenbock
ABV: 7.3%

Enjoyed this brew while watching the Germany-Netherlands match, which to no one's surprise was an absolute disaster for the Dutch.  Poured into my awesome Erdinger World Cup 2010 class with the football topper.  (I would have consumed it out of a Schneider Euro 2012 glass, but funny thing - doesn't exist!) Deep golden in colour, slightly murky, and with a big fluffy head that receded into a thin ring.  The yeast is nicely contained in the bottle, sticking firmly to the bottom, which hopefully will prevent the yeast from taking over the brew's taste.  Clearly, the kristallweizen is rubbing off on me.

The nose is quite pleasant, and I can certainly see the influence of the Sauvin hops immediately.  In addition to the traditional wheat notes of banana, bubblegum, subtle clove and other spices, there is also some white wine, orange, and tropical fruit as well.  Works pretty well, I have to say.

The traditional weizenbock flavors are all here, and there are certainly those subtle notes of tropical fruit and white wine, but unfortunately they aren't nearly as potent as I would have liked for a brew that really pushes the addition of these hops.  Perhaps a traditional hefe would have been better, or maybe a kristal, in order to showcase the new flavours, because the heft of the weizenbock tends to overpower.  The mouthfeel of the weizenbock is a bit much here, and the carbonation is milder than I would have liked.

An intriguing effort, and certainly enjoyable, though I really wonder if a different style of wheat beer would have been a better combination with the NZ hops.  It just felt too heavy, rather than light, tropical and refreshing as I had anticipated.  And, for the price tag (around nine bucks), I'll probably just get the one.  (Grade: B)

Well, this one didn't really give me the flavor blast I was looking for, but fortunately I have a back-up option that I feel will probably be better suited stylistically, and it comes from another of our great Euro footballing nations: England.  The English national football team reminds me a great deal of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and so I've always had a soft spot for them.  Immensely popular despite not having won anything since the late 1960s (1966 World Cup, 1967 Stanley Cup respectively), a huge and noisy fan base that includes a great deal of casual fans with little connection or knowledge of the sport, overhyped and overmarketed despite never really accomplishing anything, and both suffering frequent heartbreaking exits from major tournaments due to questionable calls, strange circumstances and their own stupidity.  That, and like the rule of ABE (Anyone But England), Toronto's list of haters is quite sizeable, meaning both teams generate a great deal of derision and ridicule.  Even though as an Irish fan and one who appreciates the precision and finesse of Germany and Spain, I quietly give my sympathies to the English whenever they play, because I know that feel...

But now on to the beer!

Beer: Thornbridge Kipling South Pacific Pale Ale
Brewery: Thornbridge (Derbyshire, England)
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 5.2%

Thornbridge is something I've been looking forward to for some time: a new English brewery that produces exciting, well-crafted beers.  Founded in 2005, Thornbridge has bucked English footballing tradition and has actually won a boatload of international awards for its craft ales, and has done so with an interesting connection to English history.  Their first brew I encountered, Jaipur IPA, is a nod to the British experience in India (random colonialism fact: the whole city of Jaipur was painted pink for some reason when the Prince of Wales visited in 1876), and was damned delicious.  This next brew is named in honour of the English poet Rudyard Kipling, author of Gunga Din, Kim, The Jungle Book, and the unfortunate paean of colonialism "The White Man's Burden."  For this reason, maybe Kipling is not the best choice of name for a brew.  Even if we take the controversial legacy of Kipling out of the picture, what does Kipling have to do with the British in New Zealand? (Cook or Darwin, perhaps?).  No matter, on to the brew, which also utilizes these Sauvin hops to give it that "South Pacific" feel.

Poured into a nonic.  Nice bright golden in colour, with a nice fluffy head that dissolves into a sticky ring.  Some flecks of lacing.

The nose is a delectable tropical fruit treat, with mango, grapefruit, tangerine, orange and white wine jumping out of the glass.  Some bittering hops and bread as well.

Ah, here we go!  Same tasting notes as in the nose, but with the potency that they deserve.  Loving the mango and grapefruit blast here - really digging these NZ hops!  Not to worry about the brew becoming overpowered with fresh fruit, as there is also a decent leafy bitterness keeping everything in balance.  Lighter bodied, moderate carbonation, slightly oily.

It was all I could do to drink this beer at the pace to grant it the consideration and contemplation it deserves, because it was so tasty it disappeared in just a few minutes.  Really impressive stuff, and a great showcase of the hops.  Though the name might not be the brew's best feature, it is certainly a brew worthy of repeat purchase.  Well done, Thornbridge! (Grade: A-)

As per the other brews on the release, here's a quick rundown.  I haven't had a chance to get to all of them yet, and it's doubtful I will, since they often don't get to every LCBO in equal numbers, and many of them are repeats from other years.

Phillips Ginger Beer - (Fruit/Spiced Ale, 5%) Phillips from British Colombia is one of my "gateway" beers into craft brewing.  I first had their IPA in 2007, and I was both mesmerized and confused by the overpowering hop bitterness in the beer, having never really had a true West Coast IPA before.  And I liked it.  Seeing them on the Ontario shelves was pretty damned cool, though the choice in beer wasn't necessarily a good one.  I've spoken many times of my trepidation with regards to flavoured beers, and am generally not a big fan, but the ginger and the Phillips name intrigued.  This one certainly packed a massive ginger punch, but it was so horrifically gingery that it gave me heartburn and was undrinkable for me.  Just too spicy for my tastes, but it might be one for you.

Shipyard Smashed Blueberry (Fruit/Spiced Ale. 9%) Shipyard is a Maine brewery that I've only encountered once before, in the form of a very dry Irish shout called "Blue Fin Stout".  Not my cuppa tea, but I'm always up for something new.  And this brew was really worth it, because in terms of flavored beers, this one was a real winner for me.  The stout base was thick, rich and loaded with chocolate, and the blueberries managed to compliment the brew nicely without overpowering or tasting artificial.  Potent stuff, might be worth simply sharing.

Punk IPA (American IPA, 6.2%) One of very few BrewDog products to make their way to Ontario, Punk IPA is back - in canned form this time (330mL).  Tropical fruit and West Coast hops are there, but the brew is drier and more peppery than I remember.  Still worth a go.

Happy Summer Drinking everyone!