Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vertical Beer Tasting (sort of) - North Coast Old Stock Ale, 2011 and 2012 Vintages

The lineup at a recent tasting of ours.  Informal setting,
"bring what you want" and with an added component:
an awful beer tasteoff between some of the big brands:
Bud, Blue, Stella, Canadian and Rolling Rock.  
Attending a beer tasting can be one of the most rewarding experiences in all of beerdom.  A gathering of friends, acquaintances or similar-minded fellow brew travelers to celebrate the diversity and quality of the brewing industry is one of life's great pleasures, and is something I look forward to whenever the opportunity arises.   Beer, after all, is a social beverage - it is best enjoyed in good company (that, and some of the brews out there are so bold-flavored or boozy that sharing becomes not just enjoyable, but a necessity!).   When you find a great brew, you want to share it with the world - or, failing that, good company from those around you.  This blog is really just a one-sided beer tasting; I would much rather be sharing these brews with all of you!  Truly, a gathering of different styles of brews, to be shared by people with different opinions and tastebuds, is very much an enlightening event.

There are many different ways to hold a beer tasting; by changing the expectations of the event, the experience can be tailored to suit your personal tastes.  Above all things, a tasting should be fun, friendly, and open.  The intent is not to pronounce formal officious judgement upon the beers of the world, but rather to crack open some brews and see how we feel about them.  Keep it low key, but interesting and with respect for what the brewers have put forward for you to enjoy.  People are going to have different opinions of every brew, and will experience them differently based upon their personal tastes and their prior experiences with beer.  Thus, when hosting one of these shin-digs, be open to other people's perspectives.  If there's one rule I can impart to you about beer, it is simply this: Beer is one of life's great pleasures; Respect the brew, Respect those who made it, and Respect those who like it.

North Coast Old Stock Ale, the subject of today's tasting. 
As a specific recommendation, I suggest accompanying foods that compliment the brews, with chocolate, cheese, bread, fruit and meats being the standards.  Not only will this help stave off the inevitable drunkenness (after all, at a tasting, it is nice to remember the beer that you've sampled), but pairing these foods with the brews can bring out some of the better flavours of each.  Recently I was privileged to try a bottle of Uinta Labyrinth Stout, a heavy hitting brew made with anise.  The host provided some dark chocolate that also contained anise; taking a bite of chocolate and washing it down with the stout provided me with an opportunity to detect unique qualities in the brew I might otherwise have missed.

So, if you are hosting, be sure to have a good slate of brews and snacks available from your own cellar (outsource to your guests if possible), and graciously accept the brews that others have contributed, regardless of what they might be.  Had it before?  Others might not have.  Had it before and hate it?  Others might love it.  Don't be a dick about this - again, "Beer is fun."  Discussing our thoughts about each brew can be really entertaining, especially if fisticuffs are involved.   If you are hosting or attending a tasting, I highly recommend bringing larger bottles (750mL), to allow as many of your guests as possible to have a large enough sample to enjoy.  Finally, and this is absolutely essential, under no circumstances do you spit out the beer.  PERIOD.  

There are a few different ideas for how to hold your tasting, and I'll go over them quickly.  As a general rule, the more informal, the more people can probably attend comfortably:

1) The informal, "bring what you want" tasting, which is the most popular, for obvious reasons. No real rules, other than that everyone should contribute something, either a brew they've been meaning to try, an old favorite, a "flavor of the month" brew, or a real rare edition.  Again, respect the sampling you have to work with: some people will bring crazy rare aged expensive brews, others just what they can find (in Ontario, this can be a real challenge). I've been to some where there was just a massive table full of open beers (about 30 attendees) where it was a sampling free-for-all with no one necessarily drinking the same brew at the same time as anyone else, and others where only a small group contributed some random brews of their choice, and we decided the tasting order as a group and drank as a group.  Both were fun events, so it depends on what you are looking for!  One of the benefits of this setup is that it can be really exciting to see what other people think to bring to the table, and it allows you to taste brews you might otherwise not have actively sought out.  It also can really broaden your horizons when it comes to what is available.  Another advantage of this arrangement is that it allows people of different interests in beer to participate without placing too much demand upon your guests.   As host, something to keep in mind is the order.  Obviously, check with your guests to see if there's anything they want cracked open right away while all of our constitutions are still with us.  As the evening progresses, change your style accordingly, but stick with a general consensus.

2) What I call an "Elevating" tasting, where you start with a particular alcohol content or style of beer, and work your way up from the lowest alcohol or the least strong-flavored beer to the strongest.  Really, just a way of arranging the tasting.  To organize this, each guest should bring a style and sign up.  I just find it easier to arrange whatever people bring into a logical progression, which admittedly ends up being similar to this.  

3) The "Horizontal" tasting.  A bit more formal, but not too difficult to arrange if you give folks some time.  A horizontal tasting means that all the beers at the event should follow along a particular theme, whether it be a region (brews of Ontario, brews from Bavaria), a particular style, a specific brewer(y), ingredient, or perhaps a seasonal theme (i.e., Hallowe'en brews, Christmas ales, etc.).  For something a bit more formal, try to keep all of these brews from around the same year. For example, if the night's theme is the Belgian Tripel, it can be fun to compare different brews from various regions from the same year, to see how they differ.

4) The "Vertical" tasting.  Far more specific, and probably something that you will have to arrange yourself, and/or with the help of a great local beer store or some collector friends.  While a horizontal takes a specific theme, but maintains the year, a vertical takes the same beer, but examines it over different years (or for the wine folks out there, vintages).   The goal here is to see how a particular brew changes or ages over time.  In one of my beer bibles Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, he takes us through a vertical tasting of one of the legendary barleywines, J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, which involves every edition of that beer for a dozen years or so.  Another popular vertical, for those who enjoy this brew, is Three Floyd's "Dark Lord" imperial stout, which lends itself to the collector by virtue of its wax cap that is coloured based upon the specific year (this year's is red, last year was yellow).  Obviously something that takes a great deal of effort and patience to acquire, although some of the better beer stores in the states will often carry a few vintages of the same brew for you to purchase.

Today, we'll try a mini vertical of a brew that is quite popular for vertical tastings: North Coast's Old Stock Ale!

North Coast is one of California's premier craft brewers (for a state that craft beer rich, that's saying something), with its big brews being the Old Stock and Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout - the latter being a brew that is particularly dear to my heart.  The Old Stock Ale is of a style known as - surprise surprise - "Old Ale", meaning a strong dextrin-rich ale that has been aged in order to mature it.  I recently acquired the 2011 and 2012 editions of this brew (coincidentally in order to help a fellow beer lover complete a six year vertical for the years 2007-2012), and so I thought I'd do a little tasting of my own to see how the two compare!

We'll start with the 2012, just so we have a benchmark of where the brew starts, and from where it could potentially go.

Beer: North Coast Old Stock Ale
Brewery: North Coast Brewing Co. (Fort Bragg, CA)
Type: Old Ale
ABV: 11.9%

Poured both of these into wine glasses (shared it with my wife), with a little bit set aside of each for direct comparison.

Dark caramel-chestnut in colour, clear and with a fine wisp of white head that survives for only a few moments.  Not the world's greatest looking brew, but about right for the style.  Something about barleywines or high octane ales chemically that seems to reduce their ability to produce a head.

Nose is quite pleasant, with strong notes of caramel-toffee malt, red grapes, a touch of smoke and leather, booze, grain and wood.  Alcohol is certainly present on the nose (after all, we're looking at almost 12 percent here), but still quite pleasant.

A tasty brew indeed, with similar tasting notes as in the nose.  Big malt blast, with subtle notes of grape, smoke, wood and grain.  Not overly sweet, and with a long boozy finish.

Mouthfeel has some zippy carbonation that gives the brew a strong bite, and there is a lingering alcohol burn with every sip.  I would use the word "hot" to describe this brew - it could use a bit of aging.  If only we had a brew like this that had aged for, say, a year?


Hey, this could work!  Let's see what a year of aging does for this brew.  Like Huey Lewis and the News, we "gotta be back in time!"

Similar colour as the 2012, maybe a bit lighter.  First difference between the two: the '11 had absolutely no head to speak off, instead sitting stubbornly in its glass with nary a hint of life.  A year in the bottle has certainly reduced the brew's ability to create that bubbly cap.

Nose is quite potent, with that same malt blast with hints of smoke.  The difference?  A stronger red wine blast - almost port like - than the '12, and with considerably more sweetness to the nose.

The taste exhibits similar qualities.  The malt is that much sweeter, the palate that much smoother, the accompanying notes that much more pronounced.  Add to all this a mouthfeel that is far less crisp and carbonated than its younger brother.  Slick and easy to drink.  Age has clearly mellowed out the temper of this brew, and produced a patient, wise Old Ale worthy of respect.

Even from this mini vertical, we can see how one brew can display remarkable change after even a single year of careful aging.  A vertical tasting that involves even more examples of that brew from different years would certainly provide a fascinating glimpse into the aging process.  Now, this sort of vertical works best with certain styles - a pilsner, for example, is unlikely to display much change over the years (if it does, it will probably be because it has gone foul), and those styles tend to be somewhat expensive.  These bottles, in Buffalo, were about four dollars each.  So, to conduct a vertical tasting, you will certainly require the funds, the initiative and the patience to get a good list.  But if you get a chance, I highly recommend it!

Next up, we try a horizontal tasting with a specific style - Belgian raspberry lambic!  Stick around!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Granville Island Brewing - You Never Forget Your First

Olympic time is here again, which means that my TV has been stubbornly locked on one of the five major broadcasting channels for the past five days.  Those who know me are quite familiar with my love of all things Olympics, and are probably sick of me spouting random Olympic facts and citing the medal tallies from Innsbruck 1976 (Did you know?: Denver originally won the rights to host the 1976 Winter Games, but due to crippling costs the State held a referendum that vetoed the games, so the IOC granted them to Innsbruck?  See - I'm at it again....).   As a child, I was obsessed with maps, flags and knowing national capitals, so something like the Olympics is undoubtedly going to appeal.  Oddly enough, I think I'm more of a fan of the idea and set-up of the Olympics than I am of the sports themselves, which is probably a result of the Canadian team never doing that well, at least in the Summer Games - it's just not our bag.   Thus this week I've been thinking back to those glorious days in 2010, when the world came to Canada to watch us win all the gold medals.  It also got me thinking about the city of Vancouver, which is truly one of the world's most beautiful urban areas.   The fact that I'm not currently in Vancouver is of great distress to me: fortunately, some brews from that lovely city have made their way out east for me to enjoy!

Granville Island Brewing opened its doors in 1984, fulfilling the dream of brewmaster Mitch Taylor to bring English-style ales to pale-lager inundated city.  People (like me) tend to bitch a great deal about the availability of quality brews on tap in Canadian alehouses, but I have to admit we are light-years ahead of the situation that existed in the early 1980s, which was Labatt or Molson - take your pick.  For many, this was sufficient, but for whose tastes in beer went beyond what Frank Appleton termed "corporate beer" (there were many thirsty British ex-pats in Vancouver), they wanted something more.  By opening its doors as a brewpub, Granville Island became Canada's first microbrewery, and paved the way for other breweries across Canada.    Located in the heart of Granville Island, a lovely tourist island just south of Stanley Park that is filled with trendy shops, markets, buskers and artists, the brewery is a great place to visit for the brew-thirsty traveler.  I visited the Island and brewery about five years ago, which now that I think of it, was probably my first experience with craft brewing.  It's not that I was drinking horrible stuff before - at the time, I was particularly fond of Guinness, Smithwicks and Steamwhistle - but I hadn't really branched out beyond that.
Five years of beer drinking can do a lot to a man. 
My girlfriend (now wife) and I wandered into the brewery and were blown away by the variety of brews available.  English Pale Ale?  India Pale Ale? Maple Ale?  Hefe-something Germanic?  Like a good craft brewery should always do, Granville offered a sampler flight of their wares to give the curious as varied a tasting as possible.   I don't really remember what I drank that day - the important thing for me was that it was different.  The pale ale had something called "hops", a tangy bitterness that I wasn't really familiar sure if I liked, but was sure that I hadn't drank anything like it before.   The maple ale was utterly unlike any ale I had encountered.  The other two were probably pilsners or lagers, but each had something I was not used to: flavour.

It was an eye-opening experience to say the least, which helped begin my journey into the wonderful and fascinating world of craft beer.  A few months later, we moved to the Waterloo region, which boasted an impressive array of craft breweries to allow me to continue to whet my whistle.  Really, Granville Island was the brewery that got me started down this journey, and I certainly want to thank them for it.

Five years since I had my last Granville brew, and what should appear but a sample mixed pack featuring three of the Granville lineup, along side the three stalwart brews from Creemore.  Both Creemore and Granville have since been purchased by Molson, and how this has impacted their brewing is unclear.  It seems that Creemore has more or less been left alone to its own devices, with more distribution (how many bars in Ontario don't have Creemore?) and a few extra varieties.  I'm not sure what Granville's change has been, but the fact that their brews are now available in Ontario - their English Bay Pale Ale has been on tap and in liquor stores for a few months now - certainly shows one positive side of acquisition.

How will these brews taste five years later?   Let's have a look!

Beer: Robson St. Hefeweizen
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%

Poured this one into a small nonic glass.  Looks like your classic hefeweizen, sporting a hefty crown of foam under a hazy golden-tawny body.  Dark for a hefeweizen. Good retention, a bit of lacing.  Nothing wrong with that!

Nose is a bit more yeasty than I tend to like, but the usual hefe suspects are there: citrus (lemon), strong wheat malt, bread, floral hops.  Maybe a touch of banana and clove.  The yeast is a bit strong.

Certainly not a bad wheat beer by any stretch, as all the important elements are present.  Because of what I got out of the nose, I was expecting a yeastier brew, and that's what I taste as well.  I'm not a fan of this flavour, but the brew still tastes fine.  A bit of citrus, banana and bubblegum in the mix.  It doesn't stick the landing, but it gets a decent score!  Smooth, lightly carbonated.

I imagine that this brew would taste a lot better sitting on the patio overlooking Granville Island.  Then again, what wouldn't?  Still, a decent wheat beer indeed.

Beer: Brockton IPA
Style: American IPA
ABV: 6%

Nothing beats an American-style IPA, and lo-and-behold, today (August 2nd) is IPA Day around the globe, and certainly around the USA.  After years of bouncing between the various styles of brewing, I have to say that a well-hopped pale ale or IPA is probably the style I love the most on an everyday basis.   This brew claims to be "generously hopped", which should be a real treat.

Poured into a nonic.  Lighter amber in colour, with a thin white head that dissolves into a fine ring after a few moments.

Strangely sweet smelling.  I'm really not getting much in the way of hops here, just a mild bitterness and a touch of citrus.  Quite malt heavy indeed.

This sweetness translates into the taste, and I have to say, it's not doing it for me.  It tastes fine, I'll grant you, but it's a far cry indeed from its American IPA brethren.  Stack this brew against, say, Red Racer IPA from Surrey, Mad Tom from Muskoka and you'll see what I mean.  Tastes far more like an English Bitter or even an English Pale.  Thinner bodied, mild carbonation.

A miss for me.  Though the brew held great promise, it didn't stick the landing.  Maybe this brew has been affected by the journey east (unless it was brewed by an Ontario brewer, then there is no real excuse), because it just doesn't feel like an IPA.

Beer: English Bay Pale Ale
Type: American Pale Ale, but probably closer to an English Pale.
ABV: 5%

One of Granville's flagship brews, English Bay was the first to make the journey out to Ontario both on draught and in six-packs.  I had this on draught a little while ago, and thought it was fine, so I was looking forward to taking a closer look.

Poured into a nonic.  Deep amber copper, clear, with a sturdy head that produced some strong lacing.  Decent looking brew indeed.

Nose is pale malt, a touch of bitterness, some chemical business I'm not really digging.  Nothing fantastic here.

After a wobbly start, this brew pulled together a decent routine.  A relatively safe pale ale, malt heavy, with only the mildest presence of hops.  Mild chemical flavour, with tea-like hops, both of which strongly suggest that this brew is of the English style.  Certainly drinkable, and sessionable given the lower ABV, but nothing to get too worked up over.

Well, there's an old expression from Thomas Wolfe that comes to mind after drinking these brews: "You can't go home again."   Though it initially meant the inability for one to return (in spirit) to their hometown after leaving home and seeing the world, it has entered the lexicon to represent that feeling of not being able to repeat great memories once you've experienced them.   I loved Granville Island's brews when I first had them, on a glorious summer day in the heart of Vancouver.  Sitting on my patio is great and all, but it's just not the same, and the beer may have experienced a decline in quality due to increased brewing demands and the effects of shipping/brewing the recipe elsewhare.  That, and in the five years since, my tastes have changed immensely, which has meant time and time again that I often have different perspectives now on the brews I loved then.   So maybe this isn't totally fair to Granville Island.  These brews were just fine; they just weren't anything to get excited about.   Beer is most assuredly an experiential brew, that is improved immensely when the situation is just right.  An average hefeweizen probably tastes like Ambrosia on a crisp spring day in an German biergarten, an IPA at the campsite in the Pacific Northwest would be like nothing else.  In Granville's case, sitting on the brewery's patio, looking over the harbour and across to Stanley Park is going to heighten one's perceptions of things.  Rest assured, however, that should circumstances favour me, I would love to give these brews another shot on their own terms and in their home court.

Cheers to Canada's first craft brewery!