Monday, December 30, 2013

On the Ninth (and Tenth)Day of Beermas...Great Lakes Christmas Ale and Block Three Sinterklaas!

Want to get the Beermas Countdown done by New Year's Day, which has been difficult with an intense work schedule this past couple of weeks.  But I've got a day off before the absolute shitshow that will be New Years Eve, so here's a couple more.

Quick note: another one of the initial brews I set out to review, Captain Lawrence Winter Ale, went a bit south before we got a chance to try it.  Crazy how that works sometimes; I had a bottle of Grand River Jubilation Winter Ale saved in the cellar from last year and it held up well, while this brew was picked up in August and didn't last.  Might not have stored it well.  Fortunately, a winter brew from just around the corner in St. Jacobs was able to step up to the plate.

Beer: Sinterklaas Winter Ale
Brewery: Block Three (St. Jacobs, ON)
Type: Belgian Dark Ale
ABV: 5.4%

First winter seasonal from the region's newest brewery.  Nice to see Block Three get on the ball with some cool seasonal releases - makes for an exciting lineup, and gives geeks like me something to look forward to every month or so.  After the bold German bock stylings of Samichlaus, Sinterklaas is a milder Belgian Ale also named after old St. Nick - Dutch style, in this case.

Poured into my Block Three snifter.  Amber caramel in colour, with about a half inch of head that recedes into a thick ring with some swirls and islands floating about.

Nose is very fruitcake like, or so I'm told, since I never eat that shit.  Cinnamon, caramel, nutmeg, raisins, candied cherry.  Very nice nose to it.

Tasty Belgian ale, considerably drier and more tart than the nose had led on.  Still, a tasty blend of tart cherry, spice, malt, Belgian yeast, and dry puckery hops.  Medium bodied, slightly sticky, and with moderate carbonation; not too boozy, which gives it some great drinkability.

Not quite as 'fruitcake' as I'd expected, but it nevertheless is a solid Belgian-style ale with good tartness and various Christmassy flavours.   Another fine brew from Block Three!

Beer: Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewing Co. (Cleveland, OH)
Type: Winter Warmer
ABV: 7.5%

Next up is the annual Christmas brew from Great Lakes...the American one.  Another pickup from Premier Gourmet in Buffalo.

Poured into a small whisky glass.  Amber-ruby in colour, with a generous dollop of cappuccino foam that produced lots of lacing and had some remarkable retention.  Great looking brew.

Nose is more from the gingerbread family of Christmas beer: malty, cinnamon, nutmeg, and bold ginger.  Like a ginger cookie.

Tastes much the same - lots of spices and ginger, with some additional apple, cherry (or perhaps cranberry, since it was somewhat tart).  Highly enjoyable brew, and with a moderate body, gentle carbonation, and only a mild booziness, quite drinkable too.

Finishing off the countdown tomorrow/Wednesday with Southern Tier 2XMAS and Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

On the Eighth Day of Beermas...Anchor Our Special Ale!

Beer: Anchor Our Special Ale
Brewery: Anchor Brewing Company (San Francisco, CA)
Type: Winter Warmer
ABV: 5.5%

Hope everyone out there had a wonderful, safe, and beer-filled Christmas!  I played host this year, as we usually do, and despite the craziness of the month before, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were relatively relaxing, giving us lots of time to try out some new board games and sample some Christmas brews.  Because of a lot of last minute bartending shifts, and the general business of Christmastime, I didn't quite get the Beermas Countdown finished by Christmas Eve as I had foolishly anticipated, but we're going to carry on nevertheless.  After all, the season is hardly over! Technically, the Twelve Days of Christmas actually begins on December the 25th (lasting until the 6th of January, when it in some places it is traditionally the time of taking down the tree), and Yule is still in full swing for a bit.  Moreover, I've never been a fan of 'ending' Christmas on Christmas Day; all that hard work and preparation gone by in a mighty rush.  I've always enjoyed the calm of Boxing Day and the week following Christmas; there's leftovers in the fridge, presents to play around with, and more time to enjoy all the goodies you've spent so much time preparing.  So Happy Boxing Day everyone, and let's get started!

Another classic holiday ale today that, like the Redhook Winterhook, is a changing recipe and so the year in which you purchase and enjoy Anchor Our Special Ale makes a difference.  Not only does the beer's composition change from year to year, but so does the tree on the label; although the tree will always be of the Christmas variety, this year's batch features a lovely California White Fir. Unfortunately, the website declares that the recipe remains top secret from the public, and so there's little to go on except ones own sense of taste and smell.  Let's get to it.

I cracked this brew open on the 24th just before a large ham and potatoes dinner.  Pours a deep caramel brown colour into a short tasting glass.  Half an inch of mocha head that recedes into a thick ring with lots of lace.

Nose is most certainly Christmassy - big malt, toffee, chocolate, and loads of spices, including ginger, allspice and cinnamon.  I'm also getting a decent hit of evergreen boughs as well.

Very tasty Christmas ale that tends to emphasize spices over the malt.  So far this season we've seen a pretty good mix of the two, with the British style going for the richness of the malt, and with this one resembling mulled wine in its spice composition.  Spruce and cinnamon are the heaviest hitters for me, with nutmeg and toffee coming in the background.

Certainly an enjoyable beer to be had around this time of year.  Spices get a great chance to show off, and the brew has a sufficient malty base to provide some nice heft.  Definitely will pick up a few more of these in the coming years to see how the recipe changes!

Friday, December 20, 2013

On the Seventh Day of Beermas...Wychwood Bah Humbug!

Beer: Wychwood Bah Humbug Christmas Cheer
Brewery: Wychwood Brewery (Witney, UK)
Type: Winter Warmer
ABV: 5%

"Marley was dead, to begin with..."

Bit of a rough week so far.  Tons of Christmas stuff to do, and with a series of shitty driving days, getting around to get things taken care of has been a pain.  On top of all this, I had a miserable drive through Toronto to get to a job interview, and I didn't end up getting the job.  With still a lot of errands left to do, a rapidly increasing Visa bill, lots of work shifts still to go, and with more rough weather headed this way, I'm starting to feel a bit like Scrooge, which is typical for this time of year.  Christmas is just far enough away, and that initial feeling of excitement at the beginning of December has worn off quite a bit.

But, like with the story of Scrooge, there's a happy ending in store: most of the Christmas tasks are done, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone over the holidays.  Despite the shitty drive on the 401 (two hours from Mississauga to Highway 400) and the bad news from the interview, I was able to spend some quality time with the folks and decorate the family Christmas tree, which was a nice treat.  And, let's not forget - there's still lots of Christmas beer still to come!  So let's keep Christmas well and enjoy the finer parts of the season still to come!

Poured into a nonic pint glass.  Amber caramel colour, clear, and with a nice sturdy cap of foam that recedes away after awhile.

Nose is quite malty, with a bit of tea hops and a lovely maraschino cherry and cinnamon component that I'm quite digging.

Tasty Christmas ale that is one I keep going back to every year - the name and label itself is enough to warrant picking up at least one.  Similar malty notes, that same cherry and spices, orange, clove, and a dry tea hop finish to clear things up.

Mild bodied, medium-to-light carbonation, a bit oily.

Hard to stay grumpy with the Christmas tree lit, the Rat Pack singing Christmas carols through the stereo, and with a tasty English Christmas ale in my hand.  Less than a week to go - cheers to all of you (and stay safe out there on the roads!)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On the Sixth Day of Beermas...Goose Island Sixth Day!

Beer: Goose Island Sixth Day
Brewery: Goose Island (Chicago, IL)
Type: Strong Brown Ale
ABV: 8.3%

Moving our way through our Christmas Brew list and we come across another big seasonal offering from another big American craft brewer - Goose Island of Chicago.  Well, I guess 'craft' is a tricky word to use here.  You see, Goose Island was more or less purchased by Anheuser Busch in 2011, meaning it is now owned by one of the biggest breweries in the world, the same folks who brew Budweiser and Bud Light.  So what does this mean?  Truth be told, I don't know; I'm still more or less ambivalent towards the actual business of brewing - it's the results I really care about.  And since I haven't really had a consistent and thorough look at Goose Island's lineup - and certainly not with regards to their quality over time - I can't truly say I know whether their brews are better or worse than before (though if their Bourbon County Stout is any indicator, I'd say they're still doing just fine).   At the very least, it looks like distribution should be on the up and up, so maybe it might mean more Goose Island brews our way maybe?

Goose Island's more well-known seasonal is their particularly tasty Christmas Ale, a nicely balanced and flavorful brown ale.  I wasn't able to p
ick up a bottle of that, but they had much boozier version of the Christmas Ale that is Sixth Day Festive Brown Ale.  Sixth Day is certainly well-suited for being slotted into the Countdown, and just for kicks, let's put it in at number six, shall we?

Poured into a small nonic glass.  There was some big visible sediment in the bottle, so after swirling that in the result was a hazy brown-chestnut hue with a quarter inch of foam that recedes into a thick ring.

Nose is nicely boozy and malty, with an American Barleywine quality to it.  Toffee, brown sugar, chocolate, tea hops, caramel.

Landing somewhere between a barleywine and a brown ale, this one is hard to spot.  Big and many like a barleywine, but slightly held back; nutty and tea-like like a brown ale, but amped up too high. Despite this strange placement, however, the result is very tasty.  Spices, cinnamon, boozy malt, chocolate, floral/herbal hops, apple cider, toffee.   Bit of dry bitterness to the finish.  Very nice indeed.

Thicker bodied, medium carbonation.

Although I still lean towards the Christmas Ale, this is a great boozy substitute.  Quite enjoyable Christmas brew indeed!

On the Fifth Day of Beermas...Here comes Samichlaus, Here comes Samichlaus, right down Samichlaus Lane!

Beer: Samichlaus
Brewery: Schloss Eggenberg (Eggenberg, Austria)
Type: Doppelbock
ABV: 14%

Bit of a change of plans for this post - I was all geared up to do Thiriez' Biere de Noel, but after drinking it I decided that the beer had gone off, so rather than do it a disservice by a review, I just left it off the list entirely.  A shame, but it does sometimes happen.   Fortunately we have an excellent substitute for today, a doppelbock from Austria that is by a wide margin our the strongest beer in the countdown.  This year marks the second anniversary of Samichlaus's arrival in Ontario, and although he certainly seems more than welcome up on the province's rooftops (click click click), the LCBO and AGCO were initially not so welcoming of old St. Nick.

Seems that a few years back, the folks who sought to distribute Samichlaus in Ontario were met with resistance from both the LCBO and AGCO (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario).  Not for the strength of the beer, mind you, which at 14% is certainly among the very strongest beers to be available on liquor store shelves.   No, the reason for the initial refusal for having the brew in the province was the name 'Samichlaus' (Santa Claus in Swiss-German), which they argued didn't fit in with the LCBO's stance on 'don't promote beer based on Santa Claus', I guess.  Thus, when the brew was introduced into Ontario in 2008, a big sticker was plastered over the name to protect our precious little snowflakes from knowing the truth about the man in red's endorsement for seasonal boozy German-style ales.  In 2010, the AGCO chimed in and had the beer refused again - this time, because of the image of Santa on the cover.  Of course, the whole situation smacked of an awful stupidity that demonstrates the very worst of these provincial institutions.  To ban a beer based on a label that is potentially 'appealing to children' is ludicrous.  Children shouldn't be wandering around the LCBO shelves without supervision anyway, and if they do, they aren't going to be going for an obscure bottle of Austrian beer (though maybe that brightly coloured Santa-supported bottle of eggnog might be more intriguing, hmm?)  What were they thinking would happen - that some eight-year old with a bottle opener is going to crack one of these open and chug it down all because Santa is on the bottle?  Oh, but what if the little tykes find a bottle of Samichlaus in Mom and Dad's beer fridge?  Surely the image of Santa will prove to be utterly irresistible for youngsters, who will drop their toys at the mere sight of a bottle of "Santa Claus juice"?
Might be a good time for the parents to take some responsibility here, and you know...stop their kids from drinking...

Fortunately, clearer heads prevailed for one reason or another, and Samichlaus is now a regular beer for the Christmas season.  And what a beer it is...

Poured into my Duvel tulip glass.  Dark caramel ruby in colour, with a half inch of head that boils off to a thick ring - not uncommon for beers this strong.

Smells very sweet at boozy - rich caramel, plum, vanilla, tart cherry, lightly burned sugar.  Fan-freaking-tastic.

Lovely and sweet, very rich, a real pleasure to sip.
Big sweet caramel entry, vanilla, plums and grapes, before a boozy spicy finish.  Light puckery aftertaste.  Tastes very much like a sweet barleywine, rather than a doppelbock (maybe a tripelbock or quadbock?).  Either way, it's a potent and inviting brew that has a moderate body and strong enough carbonation to keep things moving.

Terrific brew, one I will keep coming back to again and again, so long as the forces that be decide that I am capable of handling it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On the Fourth Day of Beermas...St. Peter's Winter Ale

Beer: St. Peter's Winter Ale
Type: Winter Warmer
Brewery: St. Peter's (Suffolk, UK)
ABV: 6.5%

(Sorry for the delay between beer days - it's been a crazy week with work and the job front and getting Christmas things going...)

Another holiday standby that often rears its head in the LCBO around this time of year.  I tend to get it simply because I enjoy English Christmas ales this time of year, and St. Peter's is a pretty solid brewery whose products come in these unusual bottles that definitely appeal.

Poured into my St Peter's glass that I received last year and which has spent most of this past year on the shelf - clearly it is due for some use!  Dark brown brew, much darker than I'd remembered and certainly more so than the Sam Smiths. Almost getting into porter territory here.  Ruby highlights, good head of foam that recedes into a bubbly ring.
Nose is a nice malty bomb - toffee, bit of chocolate, dark fruits, spices, caramel.  A bit like Christmas pudding.

Tastes quite nice as well - malty, spicy, a good Christmas brew that would also play well at other times throughout the winter (so I guess "winter ale" is appropriate here!)  Dry tea hop finish, typical for the style.

Thicker mouthfeel, low carbonation.

For maltier tastes, this is a solid Christmas brew to go with.  Nice caramel and toffee, bit of nuttiness, and some extra spices to boot.  Goes well on a cold, snowy night such as this.

Monday, December 9, 2013

On the 3.5th Day of Beermas - Sigtuna Midvinterblot Russian Stout!

Beer: Sigtuna Midvinterblot
Brewery: Sigtuna Brygghus (Sigtuna, Sweden)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 8%

Remember how I said that if I came across any new Christmas beers on top of what I already purchased, they'd somehow be included in the Beermas Countdown?  Cause that's what happening.  Only three days into the Countdown and already a bunch of new Christmas brews have hit the LCBO shelves - amazingly, there are a bunch of new faces to the mix, so I'm pretty excited!

Scandinavia and Germania were woefully lacking in the preliminary list of Christmas brews, so fortunately we've got them somewhat covered, starting with a brew from Sweden - which is not a brewing nation I get to encounter all that often!   I'm not sure what Midvinterblot means, but it certainly sounds like the kind of brew that would be most welcome as the temperature drops and the sun is blotted from the sky before 5pm.  Indeed, it may not be Midvinter just yet, but it sure feels like it around the city.  We've just got our first legitimate snowfall of the season, and so with the house fully decorated and the lights all aglow, it looks considerably more like Christmas (or Yule, for that matter) than it did just a few days ago.

Sigtuna Brygghus is a craft brewery from Sigtuna, which is the oldest "city" in Sweden, despite being smaller in population than what can legally be termed a city in Sweden.  Oh well, when you're founded five years before the birth of Cnut the Great (980 CE), I guess you get a pass on certain things.   First brew of theirs that I've seen before, and with a website entirely in Swedish, there's not much I can say about Sigtuna (based on the number of reviews there are on Beer Advocate, it doesn't look like it's received much play outside of its native Sverige), so I guess we'll just let the brew speak for itself!

Poured into a goblet.  Chestnut-black in colour, 1/4 inch of head that receded into a thick ring that lasted throughout what has ended up being a slow sipping session.

Nose is quite rich and pleasant - roasted malt, sweet molasses, chocolate, cherry, orange peel, chocolate loaf.  Bit of coffee in there as well.

Tasty stout, though a bit thinner than I'd expected for a Russian Stout.  Felt more like a porter, to be honest, but at the very least it's a damned tasty one.  Rich boozy malt, cinnamon, coffee, chocolate, and a long finish that reminds me of chocolate cookies (to be honest, the exact taste I get is Rice Krispies with nutella, which I don't know if the brewer was exactly going for, but if he did - kudos to him!).   Nice enjoyable sipper on a cold December evening.

Thinner bodied, sticky, initially with a strong carbonation, but a few minutes of warmth and air cleared that out a bit.

Great first brew from Sigtuna - hope to see them back at the LCBO with something new in the near future.  I'm sure I'll snap up a few more of these to get me through the rest of the Vinter!

On the Third Day of Beermas...Troegs Mad Elf!

Beer: Troegs Mad Elf
Brewery: Troegs Brewing Co. (Hershey, PA)
Type: Belgian Strong Dark Ale
ABV: 11%

Despite our best intentions to try to streamline the Christmas Decorating Day process, it always turns into a hectic and stressful afternoon.  It begins well before the tree is brought upstairs from the basement storage. The layout of our house is kind of stupid (the result of having one large square room that counts as office, library, den, bar, and dining room), and so every year there is the debate as to where the tree should go, because no matter where it goes, it always ends up blocking something.  Once placement is finally settled, assembling the tree is the next challenge.  We have an artificial tree, which tend to come with their own Christmas lights pre-attached, but we always like to add a few more strings to throw some colour and sparkle into the mix.  Sounds great on paper, but the procedure always turns into a Griswaldian nightmare of tangled lines and burned out bulbs.   Last year, we found a way to make things easier by simply leaving the extra lights attached to the tree, meaning all we have to do is assemble the three pieces. Or so we thought.  Turns out one of the strands was essentially damaged beyond all hope, and so we had to start all over.   Don't get me wrong, the net result is always spectacular, but it nevertheless Christmas Tree Day is a mad occasion in our household - one that definitely calls for a mad beer.

(Oh yes, in case people are wondering - yes, those are lobsters under our Christmas tree.  Family tradition, don't ask me why.)

Mad Elf is Troegs' winter seasonal offering, and it is a brew that has featured on many a "Christmas Beers You Should Try" list online, so I knew it was something well worth seeking out. The name itself is quite appealing right off the get-go: one can certainly envision an elf going batshit insane after years and years of incessant Christmas music, unpaid hard labor, people doubting your very existence - all the while knowing that one day you might be selected by the powers that be to live out the rest your life spying on small children and making nightly Orwellian reports to Miniluv (North Pole Div) regarding their devotion to Big Claus and any incidents of counter-revolutionary playcrime.

Yes, I have a bit of an issue with "Elf on the Shelf."  We'll just leave it there.

Mad Elf is an interesting looking brew in terms of style - instead of the big English ales, winter warmers and stouts one usually sees this time of year, what we have here is a Belgian Strong Dark Ale that packs quite the boozy punch at 11%.  The bottle states that Elf is brewed with both honey and tart cherries, which begs the question: will we have a festive, fruity Christmas cake of a beer, or will Mad Elf be more kriek-like in its complexion?  

Let's find out:

Poured into a goblet.  Nice bright cherry red and caramel, with a a thin crown of head that yields just a bit of lace.  It's a boozier beer, that's for sure.

Nose is cinnamon, spices, a bit of cherry, Belgian yeast, raw honey, sugar, and booze.

I didn't actually know this was a Belgian ale going in, but you can certainly taste the influence of the yeast in this one.  There's a mild tartness from the cherries, some mild malt, good mix of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), honey, a bit of chocolate, and a boozy Barleywine quality to it.  The cherries remind me a great deal of a mead that is made just outside of Niagara, in which some sour cherries are added to the mix.  The interplay of honey and cherry is quite enjoyable - different enough that I'm appreciating every sip for what it is.

Good heft to the brew, certainly has that "Belgian barleywine" feel to it.  Well-carbonated, just a bit syrupy.

Unique Christmas brew experience, that's for sure.  I enjoyed it a great deal (my wife not so much, but she's not a fan of sour cherries).  The 11% certainly helped me enter into that blissful sleepy state I love to be in when I stare vacantly at my Christmas tree, savoring the colours, the lights and the decorations that I have no desire to put away for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Second Day of Beermas...Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale

Beer: Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale
Brewery: Samuel Smith's (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire UK)
Type: Winter Warmer
ABV: 6%

Starting to get into more of the Christmas spirit, despite the lack of wintry weather.  This is a job made easier here in Kitchener-Waterloo with the help of the Christkindl Market, a traditional German-style market that takes place at Kitchener's City Hall in the first week of December.  I always make a special point of going each year to sample some of the lebkuchen and stollen, knock back a cup of gluhwein, listen to some German Christmas carols, and check out the Weihnacht toys and decorations from the vendors.  Perhaps not quite on the same scale as some of the huge Christkindl Markets in Germany, I'll admit, but it's still a great little dose of traditional German Christmas to get things rolling early in December.

Usually around this time of the season I tend to also snap up a couple bottles of today's Christmas beer, Sam Smith's Winter Welcome.  A good quality English festive ale to be sure, but the real appeal here is the beer label, which features a delightful winter scene that is redesigned for every year.  This year's edition has more of a James Herriott doing his rounds in Yorkshire feel, with a lovely white horse somewhat longingly eyeing a pint of Sam Smith's, but instead being fed an apple.  Truly, there is no justice for our equine friends.

Pours a light amber-caramel colour, good sturdy head of a half inch that settles into a thick ring with lots of icicle lace.  Certainly looks the part.

Nose is faint, but pleasant.  Caramel malt, green apple, cinnamon, a bit of orange peel.

Nice and malty, tea and green apple hops, a bit of cinnamon and spice.  Very easy to drink.  Finishes slightly dry and tart, bit of hop or spice bitterness there.

Reminded me more of a classic English pale than a winter warmer.  Might be more of my palate changing, or this year's batch was a little milder on the spices than other times.  Still, a pleasant English ale with a festive label is certainly welcome this time of year.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On the First Day of Beermas...Redhook Winterhook Winter Ale

Beer: Winterhook
Brewery: Redhook Ale Brewery (Seattle, WA; Portsmouth, NH)
Style: Winter Warmer
ABV: 6%

First beer on our Christmas 2013 list!  We've just crossed into December, and so our Christmas planning is in full swing; the tree is ready to be decorated tomorrow, preliminary Christmas wish lists are being made, and there is the ever-so-slight chance that we might actually get Christmas cards out on time maybe perhaps.  Even though there's a nip in the air and more than enough Christmas carol radio penetration to feel like it's late December, it's still early in the season - it doesn't quite feel like we're quite there yet, so to get us in the mood I figure it's time to get this Christmas Beer countdown off and running!

I more or less picked up this brew solely due to its unique bottle design.  Something about the old time soda pop/Canadian stubby look was instantly appealing.  The label design is also quite sharp, as it looks like a Christmas sweater stitched lovingly by Scandinavians living in Minnesota.

This brew is from Redhook Ale Brewery, which was one of the first craft breweries to get off the ground, pumping out brews in the Seattle area since 1981, and from a second facility in Portsmouth New Hampshire in 1996.  They have a decent selection of ales and lagers,with  a lot of the usual sort of suspects (an ESB, an IPA, Witbier) as well as a couple seasonals, including a very intriguing Pumpkin Porter.  Each Christmas, their winter warmer - Winterhook - is released, though it always tastes a little different from each year to the next.  This is because the brew has undergone a slight revision for every yearly incarnation since it was first released in 1985 (hence the #29 on the bottle).   This year, there has been some extra dry hopping in the brewing process, which should give the brew a nice hoppy aroma.  Let's dig in.

Poured into a nonic glass.  Dark chestnut ruby in colour, with a quarter inch of light foam that recedes into a thick ring.  Some icicles of lacing.

Despite the promise of a bit of extra hop aroma due to the added dry hopping of this year's batch, the nose is fairly malt-forward, but there is a nice earthy/grassy hop presence coming through as well.

Tastes like a solid winter warmer that is malty enough to fall within that heavier brewing category, but has enough pale ale elements to be quite drinkable.  Malty, bit of chocolate, earthy hops, light taste of pine, bit of fruit and spice, grassiness. Mild booziness to it.

Not a bad start to the season, although not the Christmassy blast I might have expected - just a highly drinkable hopped red ale.   Nothing wrong with that.

The season is young, and there are many holiday themed brews still yet to come!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Twelve(ish) Beers of Christmas!

Hey gang,

Getting close to that time of year, and so my wife and I decided to take a little road trip to Buffalo town to get that last big haul of the season.  Just before we left, I had an idea - an awful idea.  A wonderful, awful idea!  Why not, instead of an Advent calendar, do a Beervent Calendar, with a different Christmas beer for each day up to Christmas?  A great idea indeed, though probably not too feasible as it stands - I do have to work a lot this month, and finding 25 different Christmas brews is a bit of a stretch, certainly very much so in this province.  Indeed, the LCBO's Christmas beer list is pretty disappointing this year, as the brews are more or less exactly the same as they were last year, so in order to pad the list to a workwithable number, a trip to the States was in order.  That, and there have been so many Top Ten or Top Twenty Best Xmas Beer lists on the internet that recommend so many brews I have yet to have tried before, so that sealed the deal.

And so, in honour of Christmas 2013, MattsBeerDen presents: The Twelve(ish) Beers of Christmas!

Why "ish"?  Well, I wanted to leave open the possibility of finding more Christmas brews, because you never know what the month will bring.  So if some other brew comes into the mix, I ain't gonna turn it down! But for now, we've got ourselves a pretty dandy list to celebrate this festive time of year:

1st Day) Red Hook Winterhook (Seattle, WA)
2nd Day) Samuel Smiths Winter Welcome (Tadcaster, UK)
3rd Day) Troegs Mad Elf (Hershey, PA)
4th Day) St. Peters Winter Ale (Suffolk, UK)
5th Day) Thiriez Biere de Noel (Esquelbecq, France)
6th Day) Goose Island Sixth Day Festive Brown Ale (Chicago, IL)
7th Day) Wychwood Bah Humbug (Witney, UK)
8th Day) Anchor "Our Special Ale" 2013 (San Francisco, CA)
9th Day) Great Lakes Christmas Ale (Cleveland, OH)
10th Day) Captain Lawrence Winter Ale (Elmsford, NY)
11th Day) Southern Tier 2XMAS (Lakewood, NY)
12th Day) Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine (Escondito, CA)

Will I follow a particular drinking schedule?  I mean after all, as those sage gentlemen Bob and Doug McKenzie wisely observed, what the hell are the Twelve Days of Christmas?  There are of course, Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Years, New Years Eve, and "there are two Saturdays and Sundays in there, and three other days, which I believe are the 'mystery days'."  Technically, according to our good friend wikipedia, the Twelve Days start on Christmas and cover the twelve days following the 25th.  Nuts to that, I says; I'm not waiting that long.   I'll just work my way through the month with the goal of finishing the list with the Old Guardian on Christmas Eve (I have a tradition of drinking Barleywine and copious amounts of brandy on Christmas Eve).  

We'll kick things off next week!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Hallowe'en from MattsBeerDen!


Sunday, October 20, 2013

New Brewery on the Block!

Ontario really seems to be going through a bit of a craft beer renaissance over the past two years, and I couldn't be happier.  The number of microbreweries in the province is increasing every few months, with such new arrivals as Spearhead and Sawdust City getting regular play on liquor store shelves, and a good dozen others getting things off the ground in their immediate community.  To run a successful brewery one needs to also have friendly bars and restaurants willing to serve your products, and in more and more communities across Ontario, these establishments have been turning towards craft brewery offerings, whether it be simply a tap or two or as a total craft brew lineup.  Craft beer has quickly become big business in the province; microbrewery sales saw a 45% increase over the past year, and account for nearly 30% of total Ontario brewing output. Simply put, it's a good time to be drinking in Ontario, a real sea-change from the state of the industry a mere four or five years ago.   Now, in terms of craft beer, I happen to be pretty fortunate in my location.  A large community of breweries within about an hour's drive of my front door (Wellington, F&M, Grand River, Nickel Brook, Great Lakes, Black Oak), and a number of craft beer establishments nearby at which to whet my whistle (including such new additions as Kitchener's Imbibe and the Bent Elbow), offering the latest Ontario craft beer selections.  This isn't exactly the norm across the province; not all LCBOs are stocked equally with craft beer, and not all communities have these sorts of craft beer friendly establishments available.  As a general trend, however, things are looking on the up.

There's a lot of beer out there.
But how long can this renaissance last?  One of the worries with the craft beer 'revolution', particularly in the United States where industry growth has been explosive (and a few years 'ahead' of where we are in Ontario, at least in certain states), is whether we will reach a point where the market can no longer sustain the number of new breweries.  There have been a good number of recent news and blog reports that suggest that fear of an industry slowdown, or even collapse, are justified, and that we've nearly reached the point of market over-saturation (though many, like this one, seem to be merely speculative - Betteridge's Law of Headlines states that any newspaper headline that ends in a question can always be answered with a 'no.').  Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however, and nor do I.  CNBC explored this phenomenon just the other day, and concluded that while the market is getting crowded, sales are up, much more breweries are opening than closing, and volume demands remain high.  Big breweries will pick up the volume demands as best they can, while smaller breweries will pick up the local markets.  At worst, the number of new players into the game will begin to slow down to more reasonable levels, but the enthusiasm for great tasting craft beer will remain high.  As long as there are people out there who love craft beer, and their local establishments keep purchasing craft brews to keep on their tap lines, I think there will be room for even more growth, especially in this province.  Rosy view?  Possibly, but I'm calling it like I see it - and beer tends to put me in a damned positive mood.

At least around this neck of the woods, beer drinkers remain thirsty for more.  Just this past month, the KW region saw the opening of a new brewery to add to our already sizable collection, and so far (at least from this humble and not entirely-sober blogger has seen), the response has been terrific.

Block Three Brewing opened its doors on the last day of August right in the heart of downtown St. Jacob's, and so far the response has been terrific.  Tucked away just behind Benjamin's restaurant in the north end of the downtown core, Block Three hasn't eluded the attentions of either local beer geeks (like yours truly) or curious passers-by.  Just down the stairs you'll find a large room filled with local artwork and the smell of freshly sawed wood, with a fridge full of growlers and bottles, and a good-sized bar where someone is waiting to offer a free sample or two, or perhaps a full pint ($5), or a growler fill.  After a massive opening weekend in which most of the beer was sold out, (which is about the best kind of problem you can have as a new brewery, I suppose!), folks have been coming back for more. The village, a major local tourism destination known for its farmer's market and charming downtown full of art galleries, quilt shops, antiques and restaurants, was enthusiastic about the idea of opening a brewery, and so the township helped Phil Hipkiss, Derek Lebert, Graham Spence and Bryan Maher find a suitable location in which to get their brewing started.  The town's restaurants have embraced their new neighbor; as you walk down King Street, signs on the sidewalk proudly proclaim that either the King Street Saison or Sugar Bush Maple are available on tap.  Elsewhere in the region, craft beer bars have also chosen to give this new brewery some love by having their latest offerings on tap.  It's been wonderful to see.

What I particularly like about Block Three - besides the prospect of having a brewery that does growlers a mere ten minute drive from my house, and one that is generous with their free samples - is that their opening lineup of beers are not your standard lineup of brews, and instead represent a more eclectic range of styles that feature local ingredients.  Instead of a light lager, or amber ale, or even the dreaded American IPA (which every brewery seems obligated to produce), the first brews from Block Three have been a Belgian-inspired saison, King Street Saison, which weighs in at a lighter-than-usual 4.6%, and Sugar Bush Brown, which despite using local maple syrup (which this area has in spades), isn't overly sweet, and more resembles a dry English brown.

New additions to the Block Three lineup
Just this past weekend, two new brews joined the list: Blocktoberfest, a maerzen that uses kolsch yeast to produce a grainy, malty Oktoberfest concoction in honour of the region's massive Bavarian festival that just finishes up this weekend, and New Rise Pale Ale - an English-style pale ale that uses a blend of English and American hops.  In the coming months, it looks like a festive brew of some variety is in the works, which hopefully heralds a regular lineup of seasonal offerings.

It looks like it has been a great start for the region's newest craft brewery, and I wish them all the best!

Monday, July 22, 2013

An Account of our Expedition to Southern Tier Brewing - First and Second Attempts

August 15th, 2012 - 12pm, Base Camp: Allegany State Park, New York.

My dear friend,

Our preparations are well underway to reach the summit of the Southern Tier on the morrow.  The weather looks promising for an early afternoon ascent, and spirits remain quite high among the members of the expedition.  They feel optimistic, I think, though they seem a tad confused about the nature of the trip, which is certainly understandable under the circumstances.  We left WIFI range six hours ago, and so I'm certain that our inability to consult our maps and travel information sites are also playing with the team's emotions.  Tonight, myself and my fellow team leader enjoyed several stiff drinks around the campfire, and regaled each other with tales of days gone by.  It was, I hope, a fine beginning to what I hope will prove to be a successful mission.

I hope this letter finds its way back to you, and finds you well.  

Your servant, 

August 16th, 2012 - 10am, Base Camp


I feel our celebrations the night prior were perhaps more exuberant than prudence would have suggested.  My head is abuzz, my muscles ache and twinge, as my body flushes out the last of the spirituous beverages.  My vision appears to be slightly compromised, though this may be a result of altitude sickness. The taste of food no longer appeals to me, but I consumed my rations all the same to keep up my strength for the final push.  Despite our condition, the team was quick to disassemble the camp, and our trusty pack mule - lovingly named "Corolla" by the men, no doubt a name picked up from some unsavory tavern of ill-repute - was laden with equipment and ready to move.   The weather remains fair, and we are well.  

The expedition presses on.  

Your dear friend,

August 16th, 2012 - 2pm, Interstate 86.

The road before us is bumpy and full of potholes.  The locals insist that they are working tirelessly to improve the road, but this does us little good, and so he journey westward is taking longer than we had anticipated.  One of the crew-members mentioned that she required "a sub, or something" - a curious remark indeed.  A submarine on a brewery expedition - have you ever heard such a thing?  The altitude must be befuddling her senses, so I will keep my eyes on her.   
Morale is hanging by a thread.  We persevere.


August 16th, 2012 - 2:26pm, Lakewood NY


My dear, dear friend: all is hopelessly lost.  

As one with many years of brewery-teering behind me, I have of course mentally steadied myself  against any possible hiccoughs in our journey, but nothing could have prepared me for such as what befell us as when we approached the summit.   Rather than finding a clean, bright view of the surrounds as expected, the brewery itself lay in disrepair.  Trucks and other vehicles surrounded the entrance, and the sounds of hammering and nail- gunnery sent us into a panic.  Yet we pressed on, as we always do, and dismounted from Corolla as close to the entrance as we dared.  We tentatively approached what was unanimously decided to be the front of the brewery, our palms wet with the sweat of anticipation, our tongues parched from thirst.  We were so very close.  Before us stood two great doors, which we attempted to pry open, but even with all of our combined strengths we could not make the door budge in the slightest.  As we stood there in utter confusion and disarray, the queerest sight befell our eyes: a woman from within the depths of the great malty beast emerged from the darkness like a spectre or some work of phantasmagoria, and opened the doors with superhuman ease.  The two parties stood transfixed for a moment or two, and then she spoke:

"You two looking to visit the brewery?"
I was filled with a sudden flurry of optimism, but maintained my composure.  "Indeed we are: we require ales and any other provisions you can spare as proof our our reaching the summit."
"I'm sorry, but the brewery and retail store doesn't open until 4.  We're also working on improving the tasting room, so it's a bit noisy today."
"But surely we could-"
"Sorry folks, we'll see you a bit later."

And with that the doors sealed shut.  

I found myself utterly despondent - to be this close to success, only to have the cruel vicissitudes of fate utterly thwart our valiant efforts, was almost too much to bear.  My co-leader steadied herself, and declared that "we aren't waiting for two hours, we need to get back home." Of course she was right, though this did nothing to ease my aching heart.  We have no choice: for the good of the crew, we must turn back.  We will make the attempt next year, if I can find the strength in me to do so.

Yours, faithfully,

July 16th, 2013 - Waterloo Towne Square

My dear George,

We are off again to make another strike for the summit, mad though we may be!  We have consulted the weather charts and the stars to ensure a favorable journey.  Yesterday, I contacted the brewery, and they assured us that they are "totally open this week" and that "The Empty Pint is open Wednesdays from 4pm onwards." All the signs are in our favour, and so glory demands that we make another attempt as soon as possible.  Our faithful Corolla is raring to begin, once again laden with camping provisions.  

This time, we cannot fail.  We must not fail.

Your servant,

July 17th, 2013 - Interstate 86, 3:45pm

Despite the locals' assurances that the roadways would be well-cleared by the time of our next expedition, clearly very little had improved.  The route was bumpy and uncomfortable, with detours and something called 'lane closures', a confusing event which required steely nerves and quick reflexes from our navigator to successfully traverse.  But we made do.  Our stalwart co-leader informed us that Corolla required feeding at the earliest convenience, and so we shall make one final stop before our last push to the summit.   

I can feel it, George.  I know we will do this.  

Keep us in your prayers,

July 17th, 2013 - The Summit

George, we have done it!!  We knocked the bastard off at 4:45pm, local time, and celebrations are currently in full swing.

We arrived within sight of the summit at half past four, and our eyes were met with a glorious sight: the construction vehicles and chaos of the previous summer had long since departed the area, leaving behind no evidence of having ever been there in the first place.  The route to the apex was clear - there was nothing standing in our way - except, of course, those awful, dreadful doors which barred our way before.  I gathered all of my strength, summoned from within me all those unhappy passions from the first attempt, and pulled at the broad doors.  Success!  The doors flew open with incredible ease, and we were inside. 

To our great dismay, we quickly discovered that we were far from the first expedition to reach the summit, but such glories are best awarded to better men and women who have the good sense to consult the website prior to making their ascent.  No matter - the only victories in life which truly matter are the victories against oneself, do you not agree?  

The summit camp was gloriously refurbished, with a delightful patio facing the gardens, a full view of the brewing kettles, and - best of all - a long bar sporting taps of the finest ales and lagers to be had.  My companion and I quickly oriented ourselves to our surroundings, and summoned the bartender to order our first round of ale.   I myself was intrigued by their recent addition, a delightful summer Saison - "Sonnet", I believe they called it, - which proved to be a fresh and citrussy brew with notes of lemon zest, herbal hops and a mild earthy funkiness.  I savored this brew, as did my comrade, who chose to sample their Live Pale Ale, a generously hopped ale which proved most refreshing.  

Flush with thoughts of our victory, we ordered another round: this time a pint of nitro-poured 2xStout, a bold, roasty dark ale with rich malty sweetness, toasted bread, coffee and dark chocolate.  A delectable concoction, if I say so myself.   My companion opted for a seasonal offering, known only as Compass, which to my surprise was uniquely brewed with rosehips.  The Compass proved to be a favorite of hers, as she enjoyed the tropical fruit from the hops and mild perfume quality to the brew.  The beers had slaked our thirst most expertly, however our stomachs continued to unleash their noisy cacophony, and so we availed ourselves to a couple of pulled pork sandwiches - these proved to be most enjoyable.  

Having deemed our celebrations to be complete, we set about the happy business of acquiring souvenirs to commemorate our great expedition.   My comrade inquired about the availability of a certain pumpkin ale - the so-called Pumking.  To our great fortune, the bartender informed us that a batch of the autumnal drink had been bottled that very day, though through some mechanical error of some sort, several bottles had been filled incompletely, and were available for sale at heavy discount - what luck!   We happily purchased a handful of these underfilled brews, as well as a couple of souvenir glasses - not to mention some bottles of other intriguing brews, bid our farewells, and carefully stowed our new purchases in the ever-faithful Corolla.   

Having taken one last glance at the summit, we departed into the gleaming summer sunset.  Our spirits were high, and so we spent the majority of our descent discussing the particulars our next great adventure.  

After all, George, one must always have another summit to climb, another brewery to visit, another expedition upon which to embark.  

As always, we press on.

Your very faithful servant, 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit Bock City: A Visit to Comerica Park!

Sad news from Detroit, as the City's Emergency Manager officially filed for bankruptcy, an incredible low point after so many decades of decline.  It's a move that might serve to stop the city's financial bleeding, but it is also one that could prove to be a serious threat to city employees, both past and present, whose pensions could potentially be at serious risk.  It surely is a bitter pill for the people of Detroit, and Michigan as a whole, to swallow.

So what happened?  The fate of Detroit since the 1960s has brought about by myriad factors, but with one particular trend having the greatest impact: the decline of the Michigan motor industry.   With American car manufacturers - particularly GM - having to cut costs to compete with foreign markets, among other things, the working population was forced to move on, reducing the city's population by nearly 28%. Less population means less taxes from which to pay for essential services, and with workers and their high paying jobs moving out to the suburbs and beyond, the City of Detroit (which for some strange legal reason, couldn't just annex those suburbs to gain some tax dollars), the downtown core and its surrounds became a haven of unemployment and abandoned buildings.  The concept of White Flight - spurred on by race riots in 1967 - also contributed to the decline of the downtown, and those that were left behind were bequeathed a city centre in truly rough shape.  The decline in manufacturing continued unabated, and so by the 1980s, the city was in dire straits.  Massive areas of the city were abandoned and left to decay, and essential services - like traffic lights and emergency response - were drastically reduced.   This fate was not Detroit's to suffer through alone; around this time, the GM plant in nearby Flint was closed, utterly devastating the city and inspiring Flint native Michael Moore to make his first major documentary, Roger and Me in 1989, which showcased the effects of GM's decision on the once mighty motor town.   In recent years, there have been revamped efforts to try to revive the state of Michigan and its largest city through outside management of city finances, and efforts from Washington to try to bail out the auto industry, as well as a major tourism campaign - Pure Michigan - with advertisements narrated by Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, Tim Allen, extolling the natural beauty of the state.  But it's hard to see much in the way of improvement.  I truly hope that by keeping the city's creditors at bay, and by encouraging the government to step up its efforts to aid the city's recovery, this bankruptcy decision will mark the beginning of a period of civic improvement.  But suffice to say, things in MoTown are in pretty rough shape indeed.

Despite all this, I've always been interested in checking out Detroit, being the closest major American city to me - other than Buffalo - and yet so seemingly out of reach.  With things being the way they are, it seems to be the case that most people would just avoid Detroit entirely - usually with a Robocop related joke or to.   But others from the area are quick to point out that it's not all doom and gloom in Detroit.  There are, after all, nicer suburbs worth checking out, and the city centre has been the source of considerable improvement in order to drive up tourism.  I feel the same way about Buffalo, a 'Rust Belt' city that is often dismissed for similar reasons, but which I enjoy visiting a great deal.  You just have to know where to go.  But my main fascination with Detroit relates to that old American past-time - baseball.    The Detroit Tigers are one of those mysterious, legendary teams that has been around since the very beginning of baseball, being a charter founding member of the American League and with a history spanning three centuries.  They aren't a dominant team like the Yankees or the Cardinals, but they've always been around, and they manage win the World Series or compete for it every decade or so.  Its cap sports one of the classic logos in baseball lore, a simple black-letter D that speaks back to a time when Mr. Burns could use a nickel to catch a trolley to the Polo Grounds, buy a steak and kidney pie, and invest in that up-and-coming Boston Opera Hat Company.  A classic logo should never need redesigning, and I'm glad the Tigers continue to embrace it.  My grandfather was a Tigers fan for most of his life, as Toronto was without a Major League team until he was past retirement age in 1977, and so I've always had a soft spot for them.

And so, despite all the warning signs to the contrary, my baseball-loving friend and I made the trip down to Detroit to catch a Tigers game.   Thanks to some careful planning and a well charted route, we had a terrific time.  Of course, we had some damned tasty beer along the way.   Indeed, Detroit isn't all bad - in fact, some areas are quite nice indeed - especially around the major stadiums.  You just need to know where to look.

We got a hotel on the cheap - and a decent one at that - right downtown, just a short walk away from Comerica Park, but before checking in, we made the drive out to the wealthier suburb of Dearborn to hit up an excellent beer store, Merchant's Fine Wine, which has a terrific selection of Michigan crafts.  Lots of Founders and Bells, but also some new ones unfamiliar to me, such as Atwater and New Holland.  With a decent haul safely stowed in the trunk, we headed back to the downtown.  One thing I certainly did notice is that yes, the downtown - like that of many an American city - was relatively empty, both of cars and of people.  And yes, there were a fair share of rundown buildings, but nothing truly awful; then again, we did choose our route carefully.  After checking in to the hotel, we hit up a truly exceptional downtown pub - the Grand Trunk Pub - which sports a classic, long American bar area, vaulted ceilings (from its original days as a ticket centre for the Grand Trunk Railroad), and a waiter whose knowledge and interest in the English Premier League made for interesting dinner conversation.  The pub looks like something out of the Prohibition Era, somewhere where people have quaffed pints before Tigers or Red Wings games for generations.  And it also had a terrific, all Michigan craft beer lineup.   A pint of Bells Oberon, HopSlam and New Holland Saison later, and we were off to the game!

Michigan Beer Fact!  Did you know that it is against state law to serve beer in a branded glass in a drinking establishment?  That means no brewery or beer names can be on the glass, so all beer is served in plain, unadorned glassware.  Breweries like Bell's and Founders thus limit their production of branded glassware; even beer stores like Merchant's rarely have them available for sale.

Despite being a new stadium, Comerica Park is steeped in history, and has that wonderful, open feel to the older stadiums of the pre-Expansion era.  Despite the somewhat cheesy entry way, the interior sports a wall of ivy in centre field, statues of Tiger greats like Ty Cobb and Sparky Anderson, and tributes to over 100 years of Tiger history - a classic American baseball stadium.

Now, I'll be picking on the Skydome a great deal here for many reasons, and so I want to take this opportunity to affirm my undying loyalty to the Toronto Blue Jays.  Our stadium isn't the worst in baseball, not by a long shot, but it's far from the best.  Don't get me wrong: a day downtown with the Dome wide open in the sunshine is a truly exceptional experience, but after watching games in both old Yankee Stadiums and now Comerica, I feel that the Skydome really needs to make some improvements to increase fan enjoyment.  It can start by being far less stringent about where fans can be at a particular time.   In Comerica, rather than restrict you to a particular zone due to your seating location, once I had my ticket scanned, the rest of the park was mine to explore. Nobody bothered us, and so we were free to check out all the lounges and special areas before the game.   The food at Skydome is pretty lousy as well, though there have been a few additions recently to the otherwise pizza, hotdogs and "nachos" fare.

But of course my biggest beef with the Skydome is the overpriced, limited selection of beer, which is so bad right now that I usually make a special point to not have a beer at all out of protest.  It's not a hipster thing, it's a wallet thing - I simply cannot justify spending ten or eleven dollars on a beer that I don't really like. Granted, this season the Dome finally has its first craft beer available - Steamwhistle - which should be better news if it weren't for the fact that Steamwhistle is literally a stone's throw away from the Rogers Centre (and should have been available for years now), and were it for the fact that it remains the only craft beer option available.  It's something, I suppose.  But in every conceivable way, Comerica Park has Skydome beat in terms of beer - and it's something that could be done so very easily in Toronto.  So Rogers Centre, Matt's Beer Den is calling you out.  

This is how you should do beer:  

See this?  That's a cup of barrel-aged, locally-brewed, Russian Imperial Stout.  Which I bought on draught, at a baseball game, for NINE FREAKING DOLLARS.  Not ten, not twelve, nine.  To put that in perspective, the Labatt's Blue and Bud Light around the Stadium sold for around eight bucks, so it's about a buck difference.  This was an exceptional glass of beer, something I never in my wildest dreams would have assumed I could buy at a ballpark, but there it was, in all its glory.

Too hot out for stout, you say?  Comerica's got you covered, for on draught they have:

- Bell's Oberon     - Bell's Two Hearted IPA       - Motor City Ghettoblaster
- Founders' All Day IPA     - Arbor Brewing Strawberry Blonde     -  New Holland Belgian Blonde Ale
- Bell's Kalamazoo Stout    - Atwater Java Stout   -  New Holland Full Circle Koelsch.

And that doesn't even count their bottle selection.   All this was made possible by the recent opening of the Michigan Craft Beer stand in right field (by no small coincidence, located immediately behind our section).   An island of refuge in a sea of BMC offerings, the Craft Beer stand is a wonderful idea that gives the fans some variety in their beer purchases, as well as encouraging the Michigan Craft Beer industry, which is a very impressive industry indeed.  The staff there were friendly and knowledgeable about their product, and even suggested other brands (the cashier, seeing me about to pick up an IPA, mentioned that he had recently tapped the keg of the aforementioned Bell's Black Nose Imperial Stout, if I was interested.  Wonderful, wonderful man...).   And this place was busy too!  There was always a good lineup of fans ready to try their next craft beer, with many of them discussing how excited they were to see these brews available at the stadium.

Craft brews not your thing?  No worries - the Blues and the Coors Lights and the Bud were still available exclusively everywhere else, so that the big players - which of course, put up the big bucks - still maintain a near hegemony over the stadium.   But for those, like us, who want something different upon which to spend our beer dollar, the Michigan Craft Beer stand was a welcome sight.   I spent more on beer that evening than I think I have in the last four or five Jays games that I have attended.

So here is my challenge to you, Skydome.  Build one of these stands in your ballpark.  Just one, at least; I'm not advocating for a violent beer revolution here, but rather for a small concession to us beer geeks who yearn for something else.  Toss it in right field or somewhere accessible; I'll happily walk over to get one. But most importantly: make it all Ontario craft brews.  Throw on some Mill St. Organic, Tank House, Amsterdam Big Wheel Amber, Flying Monkeys or Spearhead, maybe a Welly or two - Toronto has a healthy, growing craft beer industry: tap into it!   Build something like this, and I assure you, they will come.  I realize that craft beer can be challenging to keep on tap, far more so than your standard fare.  I also realize that the vast majority of ball fans probably don't care, and are perfectly content with a Keith's or Blue Light or Budweiser.  That's fine, I don't care what they drink.   But a little extra effort will go a long way.  More of my money, and the money of those who love good beer, will go into your coffers by the end of the night, I assure you.

Okay, rant over.

The rest of the game was fine, a classic night out at the ballpark, made more special with glasses of All Day IPA and Ghettoblaster.  The Tigers played well at first, Miguel Cabrera hit a two-run shot, but in the end, the White Sox prevailed.   After an evening capping beer at the Grand Trunk again, we retired for the night, and headed home the next day.   We survived a weekend in Detroit unscathed, and I would happily do it again.   Detroit may be down right now, but with some smart planning and a bit of research beforehand, there are lots of opportunities to check out the city without worrying about a Peter Weller type situation.   Lots of great beer to be had, both from the city itself and from the state of Michigan.

Go Get 'Em, Tigers!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Viticultural Pursuits

I started a new job as a bartender last month, and I have to say it's great to be back behind the bar serving drinks and meeting new customers, though it's a very different sort of place from the pub I worked in for several years.  Rather than being a campus bar where craft beer, sarcasm, board games, Simpsons-inspired daily specials, and trivia nights fill up the weekly schedule, this is a full-fledged bar in a classy downtown restaurant, with a bar well-stocked with mysterious concoctions like Amaro and Campari, and where the martini and cocktails list is several pages long, and the wine list even longer.  While there's still some different beers to be had on tap to which I can provide some helpful knowledge and expertise, I'm still well outside of my element.  It can be challenging, but I've learned a great deal over the past few weeks, and that's the most important thing.

While beer will always be my passion, recently I find myself increasingly drawn to other Potent Potables in the greater world of booze, and want to learn more about them.  This is not to say that I've reached my peak with beer - far, far from it.  Fully exploring the world of beer is a project that would take several lifetimes to achieve, and I fully intend to make a serious go at it.  But the fact of the matter is I feel I have a pretty firm grounding in the many different styles of beer, how they are produced, and who are the big players in the craft beer scene, and so I think it's time to start exploring other realms of drinkery as well.   Expand my horizons, walk new paths, that sort of thing, especially when it affects my work.  But don't worry - the blog will still be here, and will still receive (haphazard) updates from me about new discoveries, beer news and other flights of beer fancy that I embark upon!

The one beverage that continues to confuse and fascinate me over the years has been wine.  I can safely say that, despite working at a restaurant that puts a high emphasis on wine and having consumed the stuff throughout my drinking career  - I still don't know shit about wine.  Well, I know a few things, I guess, but I couldn't tell a good wine from a terrible one, or a Merlot from a Cab Franc (Right? That's a type of grape, isn't it?).  There are reds I like ("that one is fruity, that one is smoky, that one is dry"), and reds I don't ("too red").  I just know that wine is something that I occasionally have with dinner, or at a wedding, and that it's something adults tend to start getting really interested in as they start settling down, resulting in a series of playful cocktail napkins and t-shirts extolling the benefits of good wine, but I haven't made much of a stab at all in figuring it all out.  Until now.

Fig 1: The Wine Making Process
I guess part of my reluctance towards exploring wine is related to my obsession with beer.  Since some Armenian or Iranian king declared that wine was the drink of royalty, civilization and culture, beer has been on the defensive.  From that point forward, cheap, barbarian beer had no chance against the awesome majesty of a goblet of wine; the Greeks simply ignored it, the Persians ditched it.  Because of this, wine has always been associated with high society, special occasions, and a higher standard of living; meanwhile beer is the drink of the working schmo, like Norm Petersen, Drew Carey or Homer Simpson.  I recently watched the entire series of Downton Abbey and there's a very telling scene where the aristocratic Lord Grantham and his family are reluctantly hosting a couple of uncouth Irishmen, who clearly have no interest in any pre-dinner wine or the other typical beverages of the elite, and so they ask the butler to bring them some beer.  The look of utter disdain and disapproval on Carson's face when he announces that he will have to check the cellar shows just how lowly-regarded beer is in that household.  

And so it seems that part of the whole new craft beer 'movement' has been to distinguish itself from wine or, conversely, show that beer is similar or even superior to wine, because it can be enjoyed in ways normally associated with wine (beer tastings, beer travelling, pairing with food, cellaring).  I admit myself a bit guilty of this, eschewing wine for beer almost as a matter of principle.  After all, how different are red wines from each other, really?  Certainly not as different as a glass of imperial stout is from a Czech Pilsner, an American IPA or a Belgian lambic.  But recently, I have been asking myself...why?  Why not do both?  There are similarities and crossover moments between the two beverages that showcase how both can, and should be appreciated.  As just one example, certain beers, like Belgian dark ales and certain IPAs have wine-like qualities, and recently there has been a trend to use decidedly 'wine-like' hops, such as New Zealand's Nelson Sauvin variety in big pale ales.  Really, though, the question I have to ask myself is: why should I cut out an entire world of drinking possibilities due to some pissing match whose origins are in Antiquity?  

Through a happy strike of providence, while perusing the shelves of a well-stocked Detroit beer store before attending a Tigers game (blog entry on that forthcoming!), I found an example of this possible unity between Team Beer and Team Wine.  A beer brewed alongside Syrah wine grapes! Of all the good fortune!  One that brewed by one of the giants of the craft beer world - Dogfish Head of Delaware, no less!  I took this as a sign from above to carry on my noble, Bacchanalian quest to learn more about wine.  But like the infant dipping his big toe into the water, afraid to jump all the way in, I'm perfectly content to dip my toes into the world of wine in this little way first, while still remaining comfortable on the safe shores of beerdom.

Beer: Dogfish Head Sixty One
Brewery: Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 6.5%

SUSPECT WINE KNOWLEDGE ALERT!  Again, to remind everyone, I really don't know shit about wine, so this section will probably be full of omissions, errors and downright lies.  You have been warned.

As the story goes, in recent months Dogfish founder Sam Calagione and the rest of his cohorts have taken to drinking their flagship beer, 60 Minute IPA with a little splash of red wine in the glass - just to give the beer a little something else.  They so enjoyed the combination that earlier this year, they experimented with a brew that did just that - combined the hoppy bitterness of the 60 Minute with the dry, spicy and fruity notes of must from Syrah wine grapes, grown in California  Syrah is the French term for what we call Shiraz (which I have learned recently is pronounced Shi-razz, not Shi-rah), and the world seems to be divided over what the grape is called, with France, the US, Argentina and Europe opting for Syrah, and with colonial buddies Canada, Australia and South Africa.  Syrah is a fuller bodied wine, which usually has a darker fruit taste to it (like currant or blackberry), and with an astringent, peppery finish.  Depends on where its grown, the year and such, but that's about all I know about Syrah.  The result of all this is Dogfish Head Sixty-One, which is the 60 Minute with that one extra ingredient.  This brew is Dogfish's first year-round release since 2007, which is quite surprising, considering how many seasonal brews are in their repertoire.

So how does this all look like when put together?

Poured into my stalwart drinking champion, the new Duvel goblet, which I feel really deserves to have some quality brews inside, after the mighty career of its predecessor.  The wine quality to this brew is evident immediately, as rather than the tawny, caramel colour of its 60 Minute IPA base, Sixty-One has a lovely light red wine hue - similar to the colour of a good Pinot Noir.   Pour produces a half inch of light pink foam, which recedes into a thick ring with some streaks of lacing.

Interesting nose of grape skins, muskiness, grapefruit, caramel, a bit of chocolate, currant.  Swirling this brew is an absolute must.  Certainly intriguing, to say the least.

Tasty brew - I'm enjoying this one a great deal.  Since it's been quite a long time since I've had a 60 Minute, I'm finding I'm able to enjoy the brew for what it is, rather than as a comparison, which helps a bit.  Dry red wine, grapefruit hops, mild black currant and cherry, a touch of yeast, and a dry bitter finish with a hint of pepper, though not as strong as in a bold glass of Syrah. Interesting beer.

This is a brew that I have spent a considerable amount of time sipping in an attempt to pull all the pieces together, and so far the result has been pretty good. There's a lot to pick out here, and so this brew would be both an excellent slow sipper or a fine summer afternoon quaffer.  Take your pick.  I'd really need to sit this one next to the 60 Minute to see what has been changed or improved between the two, but as it stands I count myself as a fan of the Sixty One.  (Grade: B+)

Looking forward to a summer of good beer and good wine, and I wish the same to all of you!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Canada's Birthday Beers!

In order to satisfy CRTC requirements for Canadian content on this blog, I submit to you an appraisal of two brews that are positively saturated in Canadianness, though one of them is actually not Canadian and thus will not be factored into our airplay totals.   But they are both explicitly 'Canadian' in their theme and design, so I guess it counts.   That, and it's Canada Day in five days, so there's that going on.  Both brews are available in Ontario at the present moment, so it's not like I'm teasing you with hard-to-get brews.  That's next week's blog entry.

Beer: La Shawinigan Handshake
Brewery: Le Trou du Diable (Shawinigan, PQ)
Type: Weizenbock, apparently (according to BA and RateBeer), though the brewery calls it a 'Shawinigan Weisse'
ABV: 6.5%

Ah, the 'Shawinigan Handshake'.  A moment in Canadian legend and lore  The very words bring me back to a time where Quebec was constantly on our minds, where the Conservative Party (PC's, then) were utterly decimated, when Sheila Copps and John Nunziata were important for some reason (at least, that's what the Royal Canadian Air Farce told me), and when the Loonie was worth about 68 cents US, meaning you had to think long and hard about whether or not you wanted to make a trip to Disney World.  

It was a simpler time.

For those who have no freaking idea what I am talking about, 'The Shawinigan Handshake' was one of many batshit insane/hilarious moments from the lengthy Prime Ministership of Shawinigan-born Jean Chretien.  Wikipedia can tell you the rest, but basically what happened was during a Flag Day celebration in the middle of nutshrivelingly-cold February 1996, an anti-poverty protester named Bill Clennett got a little too close to Chretien, and in decidedly un-Canadian fashion, instead of apologizing to Clennett in our Two Official Languages, Chretien grabbed him around the throat and tossed him out of the way, breaking one of Clennett's teeth in the process.  Here's a video of the incident, which soon after became known as the Shawinigan Handshake.  The Opposition, scant though it was back then, had a field day with this, calling Chretien the 'Shawinigan Strangler', but although charges were filed against Chretien they were ultimately dismissed.  Chretien survived the incident quite well, winning the next two elections handily.

In honour of this bizarre incident in Canadian politics, Shawinigan brewer Le Trou du Diable has released a strong wheat lager - a weizenbock - that has recently made its way into Ontario.   Le Trou du Diable, or "The Devil's Hole" (named after a large cave structure in Quebec) is known for having some interesting, and in true Quebec microbrewery fashion, devil-inspired brews.  Last year, a few Trou brews made their debut on draught in select Ontario bars, and shortly after that their first bottled release - La Buteuse - found its way onto LCBO shelves.   This next offering promises to be a tasty journey into a goofy moment in Canadian history.  (Apparently, Chretien himself approved the beer's label!)

Poured into my stalwart glassed champion, the Duvel tulip.  Always a good choice if I'm not exactly sure of what glassware to use for a particular beer.  A hazy, marmalade-grapefruit concoction flows forth, which yields an impressive head of a couple of inches that survives quite nicely as a thick ring with scads of lacing.  A terrific looking brew.

Nose is banana, grapefruit, clove, other citrussy things, and a malt that for some reason is unmistakably Quebecois.  I'm not sure what it is, but I detect this smell in a great deal of Quebec brews - it's not a bad thing, of course, but it is curious.

This beer offers a Chretien-sized dosage of bitter grapefruit, citrus hops, a bit of resin, alongside a mild foundation of banana, cloves, bread and honey - more typical suspects for a weizenbock.  Nicely spicy, with notes of pepper and clove.  Excellent body to this beer: nice and thick, creamy, and refreshing carbonation.

A very tasty brew indeed, almost like a wheat beer with a bit of American hops.  Though it seems like an odd combination, it somehow works quite well.   (Grade: A-)

Beer: Mikkeller Canadian Dream
Brewery: Mikkeller (Denmark, but really wherever he feels like brewing*)
Type: Czech Pilsner
ABV: 4.6%

*Yeah, so what the hell am I getting at here?   So brewing is an expensive business, and it can take a while to get the capital (and location) to set up a great brewery.  Some folks have recently eschewed this idea, and instead got themselves into the so-called 'gypsy brewing' game.  Basically, these brewers have no permanent home; instead, they avail themselves the use of the facilities of other breweries for a fee (and probably for a cut of the beer).  Rent-a-brewery, you might say.  One of my favorite breweries that does this is Pretty Things Beer Ale Project, who brew some lovely ales (I've reviewed Jack D'Or on the blog before) using the facilities at Buzzard Bay Brewery to get their job done.   On the plus side, this is certainly cheaper than setting up your own brewery; it also allows for some pretty cool brewing collaboration ideas to flourish.  However, it is not a permanent home, and if the home brewery needs to use up all the facilities for their purposes, you are a bit out of luck.

Or, you could do what Danish brewery Mikkel Borg Bjergso of Mikkeller does, and take your show on the road.  Over the past seven years, Mikkel has brewed his unique creations at over 200 different breweries, all over Europe and the United States.  Mikkeller is a much sought-after gypsy brewery, and their products have a surprisingly massive availability.

This brew here is called "Canadian Dream", and was recently released in the LCBO, though I am sad to say it is not an original brew for the Great White North, but rather a repackaged variation of Mikkeller's original Danish Dream, which gets a relabeling and renaming based on whatever country it is sold in (there's also an American Dream as well - same deal).  I'm fairly certain that the fellow on the label is a stylized version of the brewmaster himself, which appears regularly on the Mikkeller website and looks like something out of a textbook of Victorian who's who.

Poured into that same Duvel tulip - it just felt right for the beer at hand, even though a stein or fluted pilsner glass would have been just as good.

Darker than your typical pils, a sort of tawny copper brew with an inch of fluffy foam that dissolves into a substantial layer with lots of lacing.  Nice looking brew, though not your standard looking, crisp clear golden pilsner.

Nose is noble hop, good grainy component, with a malty sweetness.  Floral notes and honey as well.

Tasty variation on the pilsner theme with some nice sweet cracker and biscuit, honey and floral hops to start things off, then a long bitter hop finish.  Very nice, good assertive punch of hops to the finish which lingers long after each sip.

Thicker bodied, a bit sticky, nice creamy carbonation.  Nice sipping brew.

A highly enjoyable, unique take on the pilsner style.  Not the bright, crisp and clean brew that made Bohemia famous, however, but still a satisfactorily bitter, flavorful brew.  (Grade: B+)

Couple of nice brews to usher in the summer and enjoy over the long weekend.  Check 'em out if you see 'em.  Something a little different for your Canada Day drinking, but still well within the weekends' theme.

Happy Canada Day, everyone!