Friday, February 22, 2013

Storm's er-ah brewing!

Finishing off the last sips of Dogfish Head's Theobroma.
It's been a few months since my last Buffalo brew haul - not since September, I think - so I was eager to get across the border and pick up some brews, which this year became sort of a birthday day trip.  After a snow-squall interrupted drive to the Niagara region, we crossed over without too much trouble, and had some lunch at Cole's Restaurant in northern Buffalo.  Nice little spot, with a damned fine draught lineup, which included lots of Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada, Victory, Founders and local favorites Southern Tier and Flying Bison.  Then we headed over to Premier Gourmet, which alongside Consumer Beverages is our go-to stop for new brews.  A bit pricey, but you really can't beat that selection - a massive section of the store just brimming with beer from all over the country, Belgium, Norway, Japan, New Zealand, and even some Canadian stuff - but really, I should just say Quebec, because it's all Unibroue, Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix and Trois Mousquetaires.

With a hefty haul stowed safely in our trunk, we were away back to Canada, but not without a stop at the border in which we had to explain our purchases; since they are craft brews, they are considerably more expensive than your standard case of beer, but it was all good.  As a rant-like sidenote: obviously, I understand the need for duties on certain products in order to protect Canadian businesses, and I get that products like beer should be limited - especially considering how unbelievably cheap some beer is in the States - but I really think the limits on alcohol are overly high, especially when compared to other goods.  Although in recent months the limits on other purchased goods, like clothes and souvenirs, has been bumped up tremendously, alcoholic beverages remain at their low limit levels.  Wine in particular is held at what I think are pretty unreasonable limits, whereby even an extended stay doesn't exempt you from more than a couple of bottles (1.5L, so about two bottles, whether you stay for two days or two weeks).  Beer remains at around a case per person per vehicle, which is still pretty low.  I appreciate the need to protect Ontario's breweries/wineries, and I definitely do my fair share to support them when I can, but it still seems excessive.  No matter: for day trippers like me, however, the limits are held at zero for most products, so if the customs officer wants me to pay duty, it will be on all of it.  To ensure a shift and positive experience, always be honest about what you purchase and keep your receipts handy.  The worst that could happen is that you have to pay some extra duties and taxes. I always go across the border fully expecting to pay duty - or, as I like to call it, "Good Beer Tax" - though I have been fortunate to not get instructed to do so thus far, which I appreciate.

With my new goodies safely at home, it's time to crack some open.  As part of the leadup to last weekend's Super Bowl, I decided to try a little something different this year.  In honour of this year's teams - the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers - I decided to have a little beer-off featuring brews from each competing city.  So in my wanderings in Premier Gourmet, I made a concerted effort to snap a few of these up.  At the end of the day, I settled on a sampling from Heavy Seas (Clipper City) and Flying Dog from Maryland, and a couple from Anchor Brewing in 'Frisco.  I could have a look at all of these interesting brews, but the post is getting long enough as it is, so let's focus on a brewery from the winning city - Heavy Seas of Baltimore!  And yes, they have a theme:
It's common historical knowledge that Blackbeard's piracy can be traced back to a
dispute with a barkeep over a spoiled bottle of imperial stout.  Look it up.

Beer: Peg Leg Imperial Stout
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 8%

Poured into a nonic glass, which I happened to have handy.  Pours a dark chestnut black, with about a half inch of off-white head that settles into a thin ring.  The consistency of the pour makes this brew look more like a porter than a thick imperial.

Nose is sweet and chocolatey, which to me smells heavily of milk - almost as if there was lactose involved at some point.  Or it could just smell like milk chocolate.  A bit of coffee, roasted malts, cream and sugar here.

A sweet stout, lacking in much depth or robustness, though certainly tasty and easily drinkable.  Sweet milk chocolate remains dominant, which transitions to a mild bitter coffee finish.  It feels and drinks a great deal like a porter, rather than an imperial stout, which is a bit of a shame.  Call this brew a porter and I'm right on board with it, but with an imperial stout I'm expecting a great deal more umph.  Still, quite drinkable and the alcohol is well masked.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Loose Cannon Hop3 IPA
Type: American IPA
ABV: 7.5%

Why "Hop3" you ask?  Well, apparently, this brew is hopped at three different occasions during the brewing process: in the kettle during the boil, during what is known as the "hop back" (before the recently boiled wort is sent into the fermenter, it must first cool down so as to not kill the yeast - some breweries choose to have this done in the hop back, a sealed container that can also contain hops that soak in the wort while it cools), and then again when the beer is fermenting, a process known as "dry hopping," which makes the beer smell more of hops.  Also, apparently three pounds of hops are added to each barrel of beer over the course of the brewing.  Hence "Hop3", or "Hop Cubed."

Poured this one into my Duvel tulip.  Nice honey caramel colour, good half inch of head, which ends up settling into a fairly thick ring with swirls and eddies on the top of the liquid.  Some lacing.  Looks like a double IPA or barleywine.

Nose is certainly aromatically hoppy.  Nice tropical fruit - orange, mango, grapefruit - from the hops, with sweet caramel, a bit of pine as well.   Smells great.

Sweet, fruity IPA, easy to drink, not overly hoppy, but the finish has a bit of hop bite to it.  What I get more strongly is that sweet tropical fruit hop flavor, which is quite nice.  Thicker bodied, mild carbonation.  Almost pushing into 2xIPA territory, but still easy to drink.

Solid IPA - this would probably be a winner for folks who aren't always going for the bitter, cone hop taste. The tropical smoothness to the brew was quite nice, and while not as hoppy as I would have expected, I still enjoyed it a great deal.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Black Cannon Black IPA
Style: "Cascadian" Dark Ale, or Black IPA, or India Dark Ale, or American Black Ale...yeah.
ABV: 7.25%

This is one of the most recent additions to the pantheon of Beer Gods - the so-called Black IPA.  It is tempting to classify this style as being part of the growing trend which runs as follows:
               BEER + AMERICAN WEST COAST HOPS + ????? = PROFIT!
There's a lot of this going on recently, with old established styles getting a swift resiny, citrussy kick in the ass with some big-C hops like Cascade, Citra, Centennial, or Columbus being added to English Pales, Belgian Pales, Weizenbier - you name it.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  These Black IPAs are a fairly reasonable application of the American Hop Formula, and it usually works pretty well.  People like their hop fixes, but it's nice to play around with whatever the base happens to be.  The combination of dry, roasted grain in the malt with tart, citric hops gives the brews an almost sour bitterness, which is quite nice if you want a break from the sweeter pale ale fare.  My Ontarians out there will recognize the style in Flying Monkey's Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale.  It may not compare to a generously hopped IPA, but it's a nice change of pace.

This brew pours a dark chestnut black, with a small head that survives for quite a while and leaves behind some nice streaks of lace.

The nose is certainly dry, citric, roasty and potent, hitting on all the major elements of the style it seems.  Citrus hops, smoke, brown bread and molasses as well.

Initially, despite all the brew's positives thus far, I wasn't a fan of Black Cannon.  It started off less like an IPA and more like an overly-thin, incredibly bitter stout, which wasn't doing it for me at the time.  Basically bitter hops and smoky toasted bread.  After about five minutes of warming, however, I got a few other goodies that gave the brew a bit more balance, including some chocolate and sweeter malt.  Must be the tastebuds acclimatizing to the bitterness, which is unfortunate, because after this point I couldn't get much of the hops again.  Strange.  Creamy, thin bodied, carbonation is within reasonable levels so it wasn't difficult to get down.

This was probably my least favorite of the three, but it was still an interesting brew.  It's such a new style that I haven't really experienced enough of them to get a good beat on what a Black IPA can be, so I'm lacking that frame of reference - without it, I tend to compare it to other styles (porters, classic IPAs, schwartzbier), which isn't exactly a fair thing to do.  I'll hold off on a grade rating until I get another chance at it.  Still, it's an interesting, complicated brew that is worth trying.

An intriguing mini-lineup from Clipper City - good quality, everyday brews that represent the classic American craft styles with some experimentation of their own!

Keeping our beer haul brewery roundup going, this week we take a look at one of the premier breweries from our neighbour at the end of the 401, Founders Brewing from Grand Rapids, Michigan!  Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

I Need About Ten Fidy! (and other Colorado brews)

If I were asked to compile a shortlist of the five best States in terms of microbreweries, it would certainly be a challenging task.  What criteria could one use to come to that decision?   I suppose off the top of my head I could think of a few ideas, namely:

1) Number of craft breweries per capita
2) Number of high quality craft breweries
3) Top quality beers - really, this should be most important!
4) Diversity; unique styles; sense of pride in their offerings
5) Supportive population of craft beer drinkers, as well as encouragement from the state government.
6) Brewing festivals and celebrations

Actually, that's not a bad little list there for a late evening's musing.
But again, whittling it down is no easy task, though a few jump to mind - California, Pennsylvania, New York, Oregon, Michigan, and if I could group most of New England together, that would be a good start.   When generating this short list, however, I would have to consider adding the great Rocky Mountain state of Colorado to their great company.   How does Colorado stack up?  Lets go down the list:

1) Craft breweries per capita?  Check - according to the Brewers Association, Colorado (along with most o the Northwest) has one of the highest number of craft brewers per capita - sitting in at number four overall, and with Beer Advocate listing a whopping 156 in the State.

2) Number of high quality craft breweries?  Check again, with such giants in the industry as Odell, Great Divide, Oskar Blues, New Belgium, Breckenridge, and Avery, and more on the way.

3) Top quality beers - lots of classics here, a few of which we'll see today.

4) Diversity; unique styles; sense of pride in their offerings - a great mix of Belgian, American, German and fusion styles are common.

5) Supportive population of craft beer drinkers, as well as encouragement from the state government? - Again, consumption is quite high, among the highest in the country (Oregon is tops in this regard) both by volume and percentage of craft.

6) Brewing festivals and celebrations?  Absolutely, with the biggest being the Great American Beer Festival held annually in Denver.  

Clearly, Colorado is one of the giants of the craft beer world, and its products have received some excellent distribution recently.  Indeed, despite being a true Western state, Colorado is well-represented in the liquor shelves of the East, especially in the Buffalo area, so I am fortunate to have the opportunity to snap up a few Colorado brews with each beer haul, including this most recent adventure.  Let's have a look at a small sampling of brews from the Centennial State!

Beer: Titan IPA
Brewery: Great Divide Brewing Company (Denver)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 7.1%

Another IPA? Yes, yes, I realize that IPAs are pretty common around the Den. The ubiquitous nature of the IPA has become a common criticism of the American - and in some degree, Canadian - craft beer industry.  It just is expected now that if you have a new craft brewery, the way you show yourself as being "new craft" is that you have a well-hopped American IPA as one of your major year-round brews.  Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find an American craft brewery without at least one IPA, and most have at least several different styles, though many of them taste quite similar to one another.  Why all the IPAs?

First of all, if you like hops as I and so many other craft brew enthusiasts do, you're always looking out for that next fix, and breweries are all too happy to oblige if the market wants it.  To paraphrase the great Mugatu, IPAs are so hot right now.  IPAs have become my standard style for everyday drinking, and so I never mind so much.  Second, and this is just my opinion, is that IPAs have become a symbol of modern craft brewing, and the hoppier the better.  IPAs have become the antithesis of the over-marketed, tasteless macro lager, and so people now seem to associate the IPA style with craft brewing - it is bold, flavorful and not for the faint-hearted; to go without a hoppy monster in your lineup seems to be quite against the norm.  But if you don't like hops, or if you're sick of the everyday IPAs that line the shelves, it can seem like overkill, which is probably a fair point.  But to offer a counter-point: craft brewing is, among other things, a local industry. Breweries are becoming representatives of their regions and usually attempt to show some connection to their community, its geography and its history.  So if I want an IPA, why not have a local one? (though I seem to be bucking the local idea with this post about Colorado brews, I do regularly drink local IPAs, such as Smashbomb and Mad Tom, when I can).  If IPAs aren't your thing, show support for your craft brewery's other efforts as well - vote with your dollar!

Back to the Titan!  Great Divide is a brewery that has yet to do me wrong, and more often than not is leaps and bounds above my expectations.  Some of you might remember a few months ago my rave review of their Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti, a variation of their standard Yeti Stout.  They have an entire flight of Yeti variations, and the three I've sampled so far have been tremendous.  So naturally I've been eager to give their other offerings a go.

Poured into a nonic glass.  Light honey-caramel in colour, with a terrific head of sturdy foam that leaves some fantastic snowy lace down the sides of the glass.  Spectacular.

Nose is very nice, though not at all what I expected - resin, citrus and floral hops, a musky grain and mild caramel.  The musk gives this brew a raw, natural smell that reminds me of fresh bread.

Tastes at first of resin, pine hops, before that musky grain creeps in, which is accompanied with honey, caramel, cracker, bread and citrus.  Finish is short and not overly bitter - at 7.1%, this brew is remarkably smooth and damn-near chuggable with a mild body and easy carbonation. Fantastic stuff.

Here I am going on about American IPAs and their similarity to one another, and I have here an example of the style that displays its one unique character, which sets it apart from its brothers.  Very nice, easy drinking IPA that still packs a punch.  (Grade: A)

Beer: Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout
Brewery: Breckenridge (Denver)
Type: Oatmeal Stout
ABV: 5%

Staying within the Denver area, we move now to Breckenridge Brewery, which is one of Colorado's first craft breweries, opening its doors in 1990.   While it doesn't possess in its lineup one of those "it beers" that cause beer geeks to froth at the mouth and trade handsomely to get (such as Pliny the Elder, Abyss, Ruination or Bourbon County Stout), it does have a handsome list of brews from a variety of styles, and is a brewery I've been meaning to try for some time.

We'll start things off with their Oatmeal Stout, which has a label that reminds me at once of an Art Deco movie poster from the 1920s or something from Maurice Sendak.  Appealing and creepy at the same time.  As we've seen before, oatmeal stouts are stouts that have oatmeal added (go figure) in order to give the brew an extra sweetness and added smoothness to the mouthfeel.

Poured into that same glass as before - I'm a lazy, lazy man, and the glass does well for most styles.  Chestnut-black in colour, pours a bit thin.  The head on this was quite impressive - thick and bubbly, with lots of sticky lace.  Survives as a thick ring throughout the drink.

Nose is coffee, a bit of cola, nuts, sweet malt - maybe a bit of lactose - and a mild roasted character.

Tastes just fine: not quite at the calibre of, say, Sam Smiths or St. Ambroise's take on the style, but still quite tasty.  Incredibly easy to drink, very smooth.  Initially quite sweet and malty, before a smoky, bitter finish takes over.

About the only downside to this brew is the mouthfeel, which is water-thin.  It feels much more like a porter with extremely mild carbonation than that creamy, rich feel of St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout.  Still, an enjoyable brew.  I can certainly see me knocking back a whole mess of these before the evening is done, but alas, I only have one.  (Grade: B, B+)

Sticking with the Breckenridge, let's try another!

Beer: Vanilla Porter
Type: Porter
ABV: 4.7%

Vanilla is a flavor that is such a tricky one to work with, because there's always that risk of overdoing it, which might yield something more like Vanilla Coke than a beer.  But it's a flavor I tend to like a great deal, so I was happy to give this one a go.  I'm on a good streak so far, let's keep going with that nonic glass!

Dark chestnut in colour, though not as dark as the Oatmeal Stout.  About a half inch of cream-coloured head that recedes into a thick ring.  Again, some pretty nice lacing here.

Nose is certainly vanilla, but it smells just slightly more pronounced than usual.  It's unmistakably vanilla, but it wasn't overdone, which is a huge plus.  Sweet malt, caramel, a touch of dry roasted grain.

I think this one was a fine effort, and the vanilla tastes just fine - it's not as if a shot of vanilla extract was dumped in my glass of dark ale.  However, that is about all I can say about the Vanilla Porter.  Is it tasty? Absolutely, and I'm sure it would be quite a popular brew, especially around dessert time.  But other than vanilla, there isn't much here.  Quite one-dimensional.

Carbonation is a bit high, but the brew is smooth and slightly creamy.

I give the edge to the Oatmeal Stout between the two Breckenridges, though I wouldn't be disappointed with this one in the fridge.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Ten FIDY
Brewery: Oskar Blues (Longmont, north of Denver)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 10.5% (get it?)

Ten FIDY is one of those beers that has generated a lot of excitement, not just because it is a damned tasty stout (as we'll see in a minute), but that it is found exclusively in cans!  Oskar Blues out of Longmont is a brewery whose meteoric rise in popularity has been attributed both to the quality of their brews and the fact that for financial and environmental reasons, their brews are found only in cans (or at least, if there are bottles of Oskar Blues out there, I have no idea where to find them!).

There has been a mini-revolution in can usage by microbreweries recently, with usage by breweries increasing dramatically - I say dramatically because it seems to go against everything we thought we knew about craft beer.  For the longest time, canned beer was synonymous with macro lagers, like Bud or Blue.  People always claimed that "you can taste the metal" and thus any brew of quality would be signing its own death warrant by being contained in such a vessel.  But breweries like Oskar Blues and Alchemist (whose canned double IPA "Heady Topper" is currently in the top five at Beer Advocate as being one of the best beers in the world) have seen the cost and environmental benefit in making the switch, with other breweries like Surly, Cigar City and our own Wellington, Mill Street and Central City offering some, if not all of their regular brews in cans.

This ended up being my 700th review on Beer Advocate, which couldn't have been a better choice because this brew was bloody phenomenal.  So good, in fact, that the brew was able to convince me that it deserved to be served in a classy tulip glass.  I, under its trance, was only too happy to oblige.

Pours a viscous, inky black into my trusty Duvel tulip, and produces a dark tan head of about an inch that settles into a fine ring.

Amazing nose for a canned stout.  Hell, this is an amazing nose for any stout, period.  Sweet and mildly boozy, with caramel, toasted malt, coffee, chocolate syrup, and a hint of smoke.  Just smelling this brew is a treat.

Ten FIDY is an intense, delicious stout that displays remarkable balance between its sweet and bitter elements, yielding an immensely satisfying flavor.  It begins sweet, with caramel, chocolate liqueur and coffee, before transitioning to a drier, roastier finish with smoke, mild citrus hops, toasted bread and sugar.  First rate stuff.  Smooth and silky, light but sufficient carbonation.

If I could have this brew available in my fridge at all time, I would be a very happy man indeed.  Balanced, flavorful, and incredibly flavorful.   I seriously regret only buying one of these...(Grade: A)

A small sampling of Colorado brews for your consideration, and given the number of breweries from the state, there's loads more to try, including my wife's favorite brew (or at least, one of her favorites), Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale, or perhaps something more demonic from Avery - Mephistopheles Imperial Stout.  There's many a Yeti variety out there, as well as some more Belgian fare from the aptly named New Belgium.  Lots of good brews from out west to be had!

Now, if at any point the good brewers of Colorado feel that my treatment of Colorado brews has warranted some free beer my way, please do not hesitate to do so!  There's always room in my cellar!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Belgians by the Barrelful!

The world of beer is one fraught with mystery, intrigue, delightful surprises and horrible missteps.  Like any good epic journey, there are hardships to overcome (living in Ontario is certainly one), quests to be won, and uncharted seas to sail.   Perhaps the most important thing about a quest is that the characters should develop somewhat, positively or negatively, as a result of their experiences.  Plot is important, but any good narrative worth its salt needs character development.  I say negatives, because as is the case with any hobby or interest, more knowledge can bring about snobbery and douchebaggery, something I have tried my hardest to avoid.  Sure, I've had some absolutely amazing barrel-aged, high octane, special reserve rare and wonderful brews that have utterly blown my mind, but a good pilsner is always fine by me, especially if enjoyed with good friends.  I do have my weaknesses, of course - I'm sorry, but if you drink Bud Light or Coors, you deserve a verbal asskicking, or at least a derisive laugh - but I try to keep my prejudices in check.   I'm trying, dammit - where's my parade?

But in terms of character development, I have to say that one positive/negative of now four (!) years of serious beer hunting has been my changing tastes in brews.  What fascinated and intrigued me before might still continue to do so, or it might not.  Truth be told, I'm settling into a familiar rut, where everything has to be big n' bold - well-hopped monster IPAs, rich and hearty imperial stouts, roasted and creamy porters and sweet and hearty barleywines and old ales.  Don't get me wrong; I will always love a well-made craft brew and am damned happy for the privilege of doing so, it's just that some styles are more appealing than others.   What is striking to me is noticing which styles are less interesting to me than before.  When I first really started getting into beer - in the summer of 2009 - I thought that anything Belgian was instantly a hit.  It all was so new and exciting to me, so different from the sort of beer I used to drink, so in the case of the latter, anything with "Brasserie" or "Brouwerij" or "Abbaye" was instantly going to get high accolades from me.   This remained the standard for a few years now, as I continued to seek out and explore new breweries and styles with reckless abandon.  In the past few months, however, my love for Belgian brews has been waning a bit.  I really am not sure what to pin this on; it's not a case of oversaturation, as despite having probably a hundred different versions of the American IPA or Russian Imperial Stout, I've hardly met a brew of those styles I haven't liked and I am not bored with them whatsoever.  So it must be something specific to Belgian brewing that is disagreeing with me.  Maybe it is the particular esters that come from the fermentation process, or if it is the yeast itself I don't like.  It could be that due to their carbonation I find they give me a headache.  But hold on a minute - there are still tons of Belgian brews that I like out there.  Westvleteren 8 and 12 remain brews I would happily drink monogamously for the rest of my life, and I've developed a real passion for Flemish reds and lambic sours, which is in tune with my overall trend towards the bigger and the bolder brews of the world.  St. Bernardus 12, Maudite, Fin du Monde - these are all brews that I adore and wish I had in my fridge right now.

So what's the deal?  There must be some particular characteristics about Belgian ales that, if present, lead me to be less satisfied with the overall product.  Maybe if I can nail those down, I can better seek out those brews I'm going to enjoy.  A noble quest, to say the least.  Fortunately, I've been able to get my hands on some Belgian/Belgian-style brews of late, so I have some subjects to experiment with.   Everyone put on their finest beer jackets and beer trousers, and be sure to be wearing your Beer Helmet (safety first, people!), as we dive in to some Belgian brews!

Beer: Gulden Draak ("Golden Dragon")
Brewery: Brouwerij van Steenberge (Ertvelde, Belgium)
Type: Belgian Strong Dark Ale
ABV: 10.5%

In the great debate over the title of "Best Beer in the World", there are the recent usual suspects, such as Westvleteren 8 or 12, Russian River's Pliny the Elder Double IPA, Rochefort 10, perhaps a coffee stout from Founders or Goose Island.  With a few exceptions, it seems to be the American craft brews leading the way, with a few Belgians hanging along for the ride.  Gulden Draak - the Golden Dragon - may not top the list at the moment, but it has been a perennial contender in that regard.  The beer is considered such a quality Belgian standard that the brewery, Van Steenberge, devotes an entire webpage to this brew alone, despite having dozens of other brews in its arsenal.  As the site explains, the brew's signature medieval dragon figure is inspired by a similar golden statue located atop the belfry in one of the main churches in nearby Ghent.  The dragon istelf is apparently in honour of a late Norwegian king's figurehead, which graced the bowsprit of the ship he sailed on crusade in the Holy Land.  This was the so-called Norwegian Crusade, perhaps the most successful minor crusade of the time, organized and carried out entirely by King Sigurd I.  Somehow, the dragon wound up in Flanders - if the legend is true.   Will the legend of this brew's quality prove to be true?

The bottle is specifically designed to be unique, though it does bear a striking similarity to Duvel's signature vessel.  With that in mind, I figured that the Duvel chalice would be just the ticket for this brew.

It's a bit tough to see - the winter light isn't helping matters - but this brew is is a dark caramel amber colour, almost ruby when held to the light.  Sturdy inch and a half of head that recedes slowly into a thick ring.  Great retention, lovely sticky lace.

This brew absolutely needs to be brought to almost room temperature, because the cold absolutely kills both nose and flavour.  When it does warm up a little, there's a pleasant fig/raisin smell that is both fruity and tart, which pairs nicely with a rich caramel sweetness.  Unfortunately what is holding this brew back from greatness, for me anyways, is the strong yeasty much that won't go away.  I'm fairly certain that yeast and overcarbonation are what I'm not digging about Belgian ales, so this doesn't bode well.

Ah, but all fears are quickly allayed - this is a terrific beer.  While it doesn't leave me utterly speechless like, say, the Westvleteren or even the St. Bernardus Abt, I was still very impressed with this.  The yeast is nowhere near as potent as in the nose, and the carbonation is right on the money: vigorous enough to prevent the brew from being heavy, but mild enough to not be overpowering or burpy.  Loving the puckery raisin and portlike quality to the brew, which has a slightly nutty chocolate finish.

Well shut my mouth, Belgian beer comes flying out of the gate and delivers a strong knockout punch.  One of the rare benefits of being a beer drinker in Ontario is that - usually - when we get imports like this, the price is downright reasonable, and this brew certainly fits that bill (under $5 at least).  It might not be one of those monster Belgian abbey brews, but it is tasty nonetheless!  (Grade A-)

That one went pretty well - was it a fluke? Let's try another of the style.

Beer: Nostradamus
Brewery: Brasserie Carcarole (Famignol, Belgium)
Type: Dark Ale (Strong)
ABV: 9%

For a brew named for that historical prognosticator extraordinaire, they picked quite an appropriate label, because - like with Nostradamus - I have no idea what is going on here, but it looks compelling.  You really have to unpack this label, because there is so much happening and none of it makes any sense. Something about a mantis shaped devil hat, the planet Saturn, a snail, and some freaky snail-hybrid standing on a book shoving a telescope up his  nose, which somehow means that the world will end in 2014.  The label of a crazy person.  Maybe there's some good beer inside.

For good luck, let's stick with the Duvel goblet.  Deep caramel chestnut in colour, and about a half inch of lively big-bubbled head that recedes into a thick ring.  Good retention on this.

After warming for a few minutes, the nose comes through, and it is quite nice.  Brown sugar, caramel, figs and raisins, a fruity tartness, and only a mild yeast.  Not too shabby.

Initially quite dry, but this brew needs a good amount of time to open up, because when it does the sweetness comes through a great deal.  Sweet and sugary at first, with some of that tart figgy raisin taste coming through towards the finish alongside some chocolate and medicinal herbal hops.  Mercifully, no yeasty taste to it, which really does help me enjoy the brew more.   Strong carbonation at first, but this eases considerably.  The airiness helped make the brew quite easy to drink without feeling to heavy.

Quite nice, a good little Belgian ale this one is.  I'm really thinking it's the yeast, because I enjoyed this a great deal, though the zippy carbonation was a bit much. Still, this was an enjoyable brew that got better with each sip.  (Grade: B+)

The two darker brews were good; what about some lighter fare?  Or better yet, what about a Trappist ale?

Beer: Orval
Brewery: Brasserie D'Orval (Villers D'Orval, Belgium)
Type: Belgian Pale Ale
ABV: 6.2%

Very excited to see this back on the LCBO shelves. Having just returned from Buffalo this weekend and feeling depressed about the beer-selling situation in Ontario (as usual), this was a welcome treat.  As I mentioned before, thanks to Ontario's mass-purchasing racket, when we do eventually get Belgian ales like this one, the price is usually vastly different from what they pay in the States.  I'd still trade the price-difference for variety in a heartbeat, but staying positive is important, because otherwise I'd just weep about the state of things.

What's the deal with the Orval logo you may ask?  Is it a mutated narwhal?  Mutated ram-fish? Something mutated?  Took me a while too, until I used a handy website called 'Goggle.'  Turns out, there is a perfectly reasonable (read: mythical and fanciful) explanation.  The idea is that about 1000 years ago, a princess was travelling through this Belgian valley and stopped at a nearby pond for non-pointless reasons.  Somehow, she managed to drop her wedding ring into the water, thus setting about the conditions for the possible return of Sauron.  She was doubly upset because her husband had recently died, and so she prayed for the ring to be returned.  Miraculously, a trout surfaced, carrying in its mouth the lost ring.  In thanks, the princess dubbed the area the "golden valley" - or, in French, "or" "val".  Hence, Orval.  Neat.

As a Trappist brewery, the beer at Orval must satisfy the conditions of Trappist membership - the beer must be brewed on site (inside a Trappist, or Cistercian monastery), with the profits being used either for charity or maintaining the abbey.  Bonus points if you remember the names of all the Trappist breweries!  Though Orval releases two brews, this one is by far the most common, so much so that simply calling it "Orval" usually suffices.

Poured into a goblet.  A unique colour, this - a dark, hazy straw hue, with perhaps some tan in there as well.  (As per usual, the low light of the winter necessitates using the flash, so the brew looks a lot darker in the picture than it really is).  The head is absolutely brilliant on this: big and billowing, with remarkable staying power and generating some wonderful sticky lace. Perfect.

Orval is one of my favorite Trappist ales because it is so dry.  I find that so many Belgian ales are much too sweet; this coupled with the yeasty flavour tends to put me off the brew and give me a headache.  Orval is much more delicate and light, which really appeals.  The nose has a nice yeasty musk to it, with floral hops, grapefruit and a mixed back of fruit - banana, apple and perhaps some cherry.  Very pleasant.

This is a wonderful dry Belgian ale.  Tart, a bit musky, and with a cider-like dryness, Orval is always welcome in my cellar.  Apple, grain husks, dry grape, yeast and spices.  Lighter bodied, mild carbonation, this brew goes down extremely well.

Stock up on these brews if you can - they only get up to Ontario every so often, and when they do, jerkstores like me tend to buy them all up.  A different brew from the usual Trappist fare like Chimay Red and Westmalle Dubbel, and those who prefer drier Belgian ales like saisons and dry tripels will probably dig this one a great deal.  (Grade: A)

I realize now that in my post about how I don't really like Belgian ales that much any more, I have spent the entire time positively reviewing Belgian ales that I really did enjoy.  Stupid? Probably.  I think what happened was that when I started this post, I started thinking about the kind of Belgian brews that I don't like and zeroed in on those characteristics that bugged me, and then actively sought out brews that did not fit those categories.  This, coupled with a couple of fortunate finds in the Nostradamus and Gulden Draak made this job even easier.  So really, what ended up happening here was that through this post, I managed to convince myself to stick with the Belgian ales - seek out the ones that I love, and ignore or move past those that aren't to my liking.  I'll try to avoid sweeping generalizations in the future!

Belgium: always a pleasure.

Blizzard Drinking!

"Even a broken watch is right twice a day" - Official Weather Network motto

If you're anything like me, living in the Great Lakes corridor, your driveway looks something like this today:

This shitty shoveling half-job took me an hour.  An hour.  Fuck...
Unless you happen to have a snowblower.  In which case: fuck you for not helping with my driveway.  Seriously, I need you all to know that deep down, I hate the very thought of you, sitting at home, smug with the knowledge that your day's "labour" is complete while the rest of us are outside bitching and praying for death.  If we're ever to fix this broken country of ours, the first step will be to initiate a government program in which people with snowblowers receive tax-credits and exemptions from work on snow days in exchange for being neighborly and plowing the damned sidewalks.  It's an idea.

Alright, I guess I'm somewhat bitter.  Well, bitterer than usual.  Seems as though everyone got the day off today, which doesn't apply to me because I don't happen to work today.  I already had the damned day off and everyone else gets a snow day; in many cases, they got paid to sit around at home and play video games.   At least I know the solution to a bitter old snow day.  How about beer?  Better yet, how about a bitter? It's in the Bible - look it up.

Beer: Wellington Arkell Best Bitter
Brewery: Wellington Brewery (Guelph, Ontario)
Type: English Best Bitter
ABV: 4%

Haven't had this brew in a while, and I had a few kicking around.  Seems appropriate for the day.  Notice the low ABV, a paltry 4%.  Bitters are ideal session brews because they have some flavour and won't get you completely blasted for the rest of the day. We have this on tap at our regular and it is one of our standard pitcher purchases: it appeals to most, and allows us to keep drinking for hours on end.  The classic pub ale. An important thing to keep in mind: not every beer needs to be a high-octane overly hopped ale.  Sometimes something milder is what will really hit the spot.  I'll take this as my lawnmower/snow-shovelin' brew any day.

A word about "best" in the "best bitter" moniker.  Rarely will you ever find a brew that is classified as simply being a 'bitter'; almost always the brew will be either "ordinary" "best", "special" or "extra special bitter (ESB)."  So what does it all mean?  Simply put - it means how strong the beer is; oddly enough, it has nothing to do with quality.  While there isn't an absolute rule behind this, my man Randy Mosher explains the reasoning behind the terminology:

           "A brewery will usually produce a light bitter of about 3.5 percent, sometimes referred to as
            'ordinary.'  A somewhat more substantial 'best bitter' will usually display a bit more hop and
            weigh in at about 4 percent.  From here, a 'special bitter', often somewhat darker and slightly
            sweeter, will approach 5 percent, followed perhaps by an 'extra-special bitter,' snappy and
            full-bodied, at about 5.5 percent.  Anything stronger than this is generally considered to be
            something other than bitter, perhaps an old ale or strong ale." - Tasting Beer (pp. 108-109)

So there you go - Welly seems to have followed this rule perfectly, with its 4% strength.  It must be difficult for breweries to resist the temptation to go with the stronger name; after all, doesn't an "extra-special bitter" sound preferable to a "special", or - god forbid - an "ordinary" one?  For folks in the know, however, the name convention can help you decide on what the beer will be like, and whether it would be appropriate for the evening.  I like to think of this being similar to the Greek symposion - a gathering of drinking friends who would consume the evening's wine based on a particular ratio, depending on the host's preferences.  The stronger the wine, the sillier the evening, while a more diluted offering would be ideal for serious philosophical conversation.  If you want a silly evening, grab a pint of ESB; while a more contemplative individual might prefer a milder ordinary bitter.  This brew happens to be on the lower end of the spectrum, so that gives us some idea about what to expect.

Poured into a Welly 25 glass.  Dark caramel amber, about a half inch of sticky lace.  Recedes into a thick ring, with some lacing.  Looks like your standard English bitter; no complaints from me.

Nose is malt-forward, with notes of caramel, earth, toast and mild citrus hops - probably Fuggles or Goldings. Emphasis on the mild.

Tastes very sessionable.  Not much here, but it goes down incredibly well.  Malty, with hints of bread and caramel, before finishing with a mild earthy-citric hop.  Like many an English ale, I find the taste improves greatly with a bit of warmth.  It tastes exactly its weight, which is probably for the best.  Light bodied, mild carbonation.

A decent sessionable beer, that suited its purpose - recharging my humours after a lengthy shovelling session.  Is it the most flavorful brew? No, though that is not necessarily its goal, though I know for a fact that there are better best bitters (three times fast?) out there.  Still, it's nice to have this one around the area on a day such as this.

Might need to go through the whole six pack today - the snow is still coming down, erasing all my previous work.  Hawaii's starting to look pretty good right now...