Friday, May 24, 2013

Oi, lookit! Hurr's a froot ale ferra Summer's day, Burr-aye!

A great beer can take you places you never expected to go, or it can take you to a place that feels so familiar and comforting that the very act of drinking it becomes a sort of communion with the wonderful world of memory.  With the smell and first sip, our minds race back to a treasured moment in our lives: a great hefeweizen can transport the drinker to a German biergarten or summer cottage party; a rich barleywine can place you in your most comfortable chair while the tinsel and lights of the Christmas tree twinkle in front of you; while a metallic sip from a slightly warm can of pilsner feels like sharing that first taste of beer with your dad.  Beer has that kind of power, and the sheer number of varieties of beer available to us means for even greater possibilities for our imagination.

I have spoken before of the kinds of experiences that I have had with beer, as well as some that have become a sort of Platonic Ideal for an experience that hasn't happened yet, be it the perfect pint of pub ale in a dank, cozy English tavern, or raw earthy glass of farmhouse ale in the French countryside, or perhaps a nip of something straight out of a hobbit's cellar, to be enjoyed on a warm spring's day in the Shire.  But another such image that I have in my mind, which so far has not yet come to pass, comes from the world of wolves, stoats, rabbits and squirrels, badgers, mice and shrews.  A world of great feasting, with soups, stews, biscuits, and Turnip n' Tater n' Beetroot Pie.  The world of Brian Jacques and his fantastic creation, Redwall.

A couple of the less dog-eared Jacques books...
and my foot.
I started reading the late Brian Jacques' books in around third grade, and instantly fell in love with his amazing world filled with its wide variety of woodland creatures, each with their own accents, traits and histories.  I started with Martin the Warrior and was immediately hooked.  In this pseudo-Medieval English landscape of dales, thickets, forests and cliffs, the good animals of the world (the mice, badgers and hares, to name a few) were under threat from the villainous ambitions of Badrang the Tyrant, Cluny the Scourge,  Tramun Clogg, Slagar the Cruel, and their forces of stoats, weasels, rats and pine martens.  But the one place of refuge in this brutish and short life is the thick walls and generous hospitality of Redwall Abbey, deep in the heart of Mossflower Wood.  Founded by the legendary Martin the Warrior himself, the Abbey is a sort of monastic fantasy world, guarded by the gentle and benevolent Abbots and their brethren of cooks, scholars, fishermen and hunters who help to make Redwall thrive against the seas of chaos.  It is a place of peace, whose doors are open for all who require them.

But there is one thing that truly set Redwall, and indeed Jacques' novels, apart from the rest, and that is the food.

No description of Jacques' work can ever be complete without a consideration of the wonderful feasts he describes, because the animals who dwell in Redwall Abbey have some of the most delectable, enticing meals ever put to paper.  Whether it be in honour of Midsummers Eve or the beginning of the harvest, or indeed just another Tuesday, these animals put together the most magnificent spreads imaginable, such as this one from Taggerung:  "It was a feast to remember, happiness and friendship enhanced by the best of Redwall fare.  Puddings, pies, pasties and cakes were arranged between fruit, berries and nuts, both fresh and preserved in honey from last autumn's harvest. Salads, breads and soups of every variety jostled for position with trifles and flans...We made a new yellow cheese and spiked it with nuts, celery and herbs, then we soaked it for three days in boiling carrot and dandelion juice mixed with pale cider."   You get the idea.  No wonder this stuff has inspired whole websites that are devoted to replicating these magical recipes.

Of course, as I read them today (and I still occasionally do) what interests adult me much more so than adolescent me are the wines, cordials and summer ales with which the animals wash down their feasts.  Elderberry cordial and dandelion ale and strawberry fizzes galore, all of which sound incredibly delicious.  I think this is why, despite my oft-proclaimed love of roasted stouts and bitter India pales, I still have deep-down a love for a well-made fruit beer, even the ridiculously sweet ones.   So when I see a brew such as the one today, my heart leaps with anticipation.  Even the label looks like something straight out of Mossflower.

Beer: Forest Fruits
Brewery: Wychwood Brewery (Oxfordshire, UK)
Type: Fruit Beer
ABV: 4.2%

Wychwood - of Hobgoblin, Fiddlers' Elbow and Goliath fame - is one of those breweries that seems to aim for that traditional, fantastical England motif with every label design, and this one is of course no different.    It looks like the sort of berry patch Brother Alf would gather fruit to accompany his candied chestnuts.  Will the product within live up to such lofty standards as his?

Poured into a nonic glass.  Bright golden with a slight strawberry haze to it, with a great deal of carbonation and minimal head.

Nose is certainly fruity, that much is sure, but it smells more artificial, like strawberry syrup or something to that effect.  Strawberry and blackberry are the dominant fruits here.

More like a cider, this brew is extremely sweet and fruity - overpoweringly so.  I don't mind it so much, probably for the reasons I described above, but I can't say that this brew would find itself among the pantheon of great fruit beers that are out there.  There is an artificialness to the flavour that I'm not really digging, and the finish is essentially pure sugar.  The carbonation is, unfortunately, lower than a brew like this needs to be to avoid becoming cloyingly sweet.   I wish I could say that this brew tasted more beer-like than a glass of sweet strawberry juice, but that's just what I'm seeing here.  Pity.

Unfortunately, I can't say the brew quite lives up to the lofty expectations I had generated for myself in the (long) lead up to the review.  But these are the sorts of thoughts which keep me questing through heath and heather, valley and dale to find ever more marvelous ales and lagers.  Somewhere out there is a wonderful fruit ale that will immediately take me to a front row seat at the heavily-laden tables of Redwall Abbey, among good friends and great company, with a glass of sweet lemon cordial and some mushrooms with dill butter sauce, candied chestnuts, blackcurrant tarts - and, of course, a generous helping of Turnip n' Tater n' Beetroot Pie.  Someday, I am sure to find it.

In the meantime, perhaps tonight I will curl up in bed with another Redwall adventure - and perhaps a morsel of something tasty to keep me going while I read about yet another magnificent feast...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hot Town, Summer Drinkin' in the City!

It's technically not summer yet, but it might as well be.

Like a slumbering bear that finally emerges from its winter den, we Canadians - who have been trapped indoors after an exceptionally long winter - have collectively stepped out into the bright sunshine and have started bringing out all the summer trimmings, and in the process bypassing the season of spring entirely.  Lawn mowers are roaring, patios are opening across the city, every conceivable bicycle-skateboard-scooter-like contraption has been taken out of storage and ridden by the neighborhood children.  And, due to this country's well-placed May holiday, the firecrackers are a-crackling, and probably will be a-crackling nightly from now until Labour Day.  It's a cold country, and we don't get out much, but when we do, we do it right.

That is, of course until it gets so bloody hot that we have to stay indoors again.

So for now, while it's that wonderful zone of hot where it is not overbearing and still a bit of a novelty, it's time to get outdoors and enjoy it.   Or, in my case, sit inside and work on a beer blog entry.  The things I (eventually) do for your people.

Given the fact that the "May 2-4" weekend is, for all intents and purposes the official first days of summer, it's particularly hot and sunny, and the fact that the mighty Arsenal has completed a miraculous second half of the season to perch proudly and arrogantly over Tottenham in the standings (Happy St. Totteringham's Day, you Gunners!), I'm in a festive mood.   Fortunately, my fridge is well-stocked with wheat ales that, coincidentally, happen to have the word "Summer" contained within (I'm not just aiming for those tantalizing Untappd badges, though that is a factor).

So let's have at them!

Beer: Samuel Adams Summer Ale
Brewery: Sam Adams/Boston Brewing Company
Type: American Pale Wheat Ale
ABV: 5.3%

I'm fairly certain that this brew now completes my Sam Adams Seasonally-Named collection, alongside the Spring Lager, Winter Lager and their Harvest Pumpkin.  Like collecting all the Elemental Legendary Bird Pokemon, if you will.  I'll call this one Zapdos.  

In Ontario, we seem to be in the midst of a Samuel Adams invasion, as this brew joins the ranks of the classic Boston Lager, Latitude 48 IPA, the remaining Spring Lager, and a small release of the $115 Utopias Strong Ale, which apparently sold out almost immediately.   Far, far too rich for my tastes.  But this comes alongside a sort of LCBO glasnost, in which we have seen more and more American craft brews are made available in the province, such as Founders and Goose Island.  Ontario's a massive market, let's be honest. Sam Adams has been around here the longest, and though many of these beers have been here before - including the Summer Ale, which I had back in 2010 - this is by far the most Sam Adams beers at one time I've seen in this province.  So how does the summer edition stack up?

Poured into my Founders nonic, in honor of the recent American Beer Invasion.  Light golden straw, mildly hazy, and with some vigorous carbonation that might be the result of a less-than-standard glass washing on my part.  Head is thin and frothy, doesn't last for too long.

Nose is classic pale wheat, with some lemon and orangepeel.  Seems to be about it, but it's not too shabby on this hot 'summer's' day.

A bit more body to it than a lot of pale wheat ales that I've had recently, but still pretty one dimensional.  A mild wheat ale body with some lemon and orange, and a bit of malty sweetness.  Maybe a bit of vanilla and herbal hops.  Thinner bodied, moderate-to-zippy carbonation.

Well, it's citrussy and it goes down remarkably quickly, so chock this one up as a decent summer thirst quencher, though in typical Ontario fashion its quite pricey (over $13 for the sixpack).   Still, it'll work for the weekend ahead.  (Grade: B-)

Now to something a bit closer to home!

Beer: Muskoka Summer Weiss
Brewery: Muskoka (Gravenhurst, ON)
Type: Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%

Before you long-time readers (if any) get all up in arms over the fact that I've reviewed this brew before way back in 2011, there is a reason for checking in on this brew.  When it first was released in the LCBO, the brew came in a lovely 750mL corked bottle; the brew inside was a lovely unfiltered hefeweizen.   Now, however, Muskoka has had a pretty good couple of years - with the popularity of its Mad Tom IPA helping quite a bit in that regard - which has allowed the brewery to change some of their brews from limited seasonal offerings to regularly available, six-pack fare.  So now, the Summer Weiss is back in a bright new label redesign and is housed in a six pack, and so I'm curious as to whether the brew has changed at all since its original release.

First think I notice right of the bat is the colour - sure looks like the brew has been filtered, much more so than before.  Normally I much prefer the unfiltered hefeweizens, but I'm certainly open to interpretations of the style.   Very clear orange golden colour, with a thin crown of foam that quickly settles into some islands of lace.

Nose is similar to the Summer Ale, except with a pronounced breadiness.  Citrus is here as well in the form of lemon zest and orange peel.

Tasty brew that has more of a malt profile than others of the style, giving it a bit of heft.  Refreshing and citrussy, though not nearly as complex and fulfilling as the previous incantation, though this could also be the difference in two years of drinking.   It's not a bad summer brew at any rate, and goes down extremely well on a toasty Sunday evening such as this.  (Grade: B)

Summer is certainly wheat beer season, and there's lots to choose from.  When it's hot and sticky out, there's really no alternative for a thirst-quencher; I tend to drink them almost exclusively in the summer months - at least when I'm getting some serious beer drinking done - and so variety is certainly a good thing.  Whatever you choose to drink this Long Weekend, I wish you happy drinking!

Cheers to summer beers!