Category Archives: beer reviews

Last Week in Las Vegas – 4 New Belgium Beers

In addition to having the great pleasure of hosting a terrific beer dinner at Fleur by Hubert Keller in the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort and presenting a seminar on cider to a rapt audience at the VIBE Conference, last week’s Vegas jaunt afforded me the opportunity to sample a bunch of new New Belgium Brewing releases. Impressed? Damn right I was!

The tasting got off to a great start with the Lips of Faith Gruit, a golden and herbaceous brew with a nose of wet grass, jasmine, oily florals and elderflower cordial. Being someone not normally enamoured by gruits – I’ve had a few of these unhopped, herb-and-spice brews that were vaguely appealing, but can’t recall one I’d be inclined to reorder – I wasn’t expecting a lot from this beer, but boy, was I in for a surprise.

The start of NBB’s Gruit is soft and floral-accented, but leads to a wonderfully constructed mid-palate of spicy, earthy-minerally notes and gentle sweetness, accented by a hint of licorice emerging in the second half and a surprisingly dry finish which was, to me, faintly and surprisingly reminiscent of a good gin. Simply, this is the best gruit I’ve yet come across and sufficiently impressive that I held the remainder of the bottle in reserve and chose it as the beer I’d finish at the conclusion of my tasting.

Next up was the new year-rounder, Snapshot Wheat Beer, a sandy-gold ale with a dry, citrus-accented aroma and a light and lemony body with a slight herbal character emerging in the middle. The surprise here is what I later learned is a lactobacillus tarting up of part of the mash, which results in a quite dry and tangy, refreshing finish, something which made me note that Snapshot “tastes like what might happen if a Belgian decided to riff on the Berliner weisse style.”

Third in my tasting was a reinvention of the 2003 experiment, Transatlantique Kriek, which sees a New Belgium ale blended with cherry lambic from Frank Transatlantique KriekBoon. Vibrant red  and nutty with cherry pit and dry cocoa aromas, this most attractive brew segues from lightly sweet and cherry-ish to more a tart cherry and herbal body, finishing with a slight booziness – although nowhere close to its 8% alcohol strength – and a lingering bitter cherry taste. But for its formidable strength and the fact this was a mid-afternoon tasting, I would have hung around to finish this one, too.

The final beer was the latest in the brewery’s Hop Kitchen series – and honestly, is there another brewery around with this many beer divisions? The new RyePA is piney and resinous on the nose, as you might expect, but with a spicy kick of black pepper mixed with something bready and umami-ish. The body is full of hops, for certain, but restrained as well, in the tradition of NBB’s Ranger IPA – spicy orange with hints of tropical fruit giving way to a more profoundly fruity body, dry and spicy but with notes of kiwi and starfruit. With a finish that is both palate-cleansing and bitter, I was left with the impression that, despite its not inconsequential 7.5% alcohol strength, this would be an ideal brew for sipping alongside a medium-heat curry.

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A Bit of a Beer Tasting

I hosted a small beer tasting with some drinks writing colleagues last night. These were the stand-outs:

Allagash Coolship Resurgam: A product of the brewery’s spontaneous fermentation program, this beer, bottled in June of last year, shows a maturity of character that was lacking from the early Coolship brews. The body was a bit too oaky – which we chalked up to the youth of the barrels, at least relative to the decades-old ones used in lambic breweries like Cantillon – but the aroma was superb, with notable fruitiness lingering beneath the top layer of horseblanket and a fascinating herbal depth that recalled sage and lavender. Simply, a wonderful beer.

New Glarus Berliner Weiss and 20th Anniversary Strong Ale: Two remarkable brews from my U.S. Brewery of the year for 2012. Although the Berliner was curiously restrained on the nose, the body delighted with a mix of tangy, lemony sharpness and soft, soothing papaya, with a bit of sour milk thrown in for good measure. Not as aggressive as some in the style, and I think all the better for it.

The 20th Anniversary Strong Ale was simply excellent, not style identified by the brewery, but to my mind sort of a midpoint between abbey-style dubbel and sticke altbier. Sweet and raisiny at the front, it opened up in the body while remaining paradoxically restrained and dried fruity, with a backdrop of earthiness and burnt walnut. This, we agreed, is something we could drink in abundance over time.

Deschutes Black Butte XXV: Having waxed rhapsodic over last year’s anniversary Black Butte, both on tap and in the bottle, I fully expected this to delight and it did not disappoint. In fact, although 0.3% alcohol stronger, it was very much reminiscent of last year’s, albeit a bit more berry fruit-ish and currant-y. In particular, I liked the added resiny, rosemary-like herbals in the background of the body, which I did not note last year, and the cherry/currant influence on the boozy, warming finish. It was the final beer of the night, and an excellent note on which to end.

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A Word About Gluten

Some people, still a relatively small but by all accounts growing percentage of the population, have sensitivities to gluten. I know and have known several such people and have seen the effects on their health first hand. Of this there is no doubt.

Others have jumped on the “Wheat Belly” bandwagon and decided for reasons of their own to eliminate gluten-containing grains from their diets. Which is, of course, purely their personal choice and fine and dandy by me.

Although it is the first group that has much more to lose by ingesting gluten, it is the latter group that, to my experience, is more active in questioning issues of gluten in alcohol, and in some instances, perpetuating mythologies. So for the record, here are a few points about glutinous booze:

1) Beer contains gluten. Major brewery beers contain gluten and craft beers contain gluten. Wheat beers and rye beers and stouts and light beers and pretty much any other kind of beer you can name contains gluten. Period.

2) Gluten-free beers are, of course, the exceptions to the above rule. Unfortunately, very few of them taste much like actual beer. (Although not all, as per point 6 below.)

3) Distilled spirits, of whatever sort, do not contain gluten. This is because the process of distillation specifically involves the separation of alcohol from everything else, including the gluten in glutenous grains. But don’t believe me, believe celiac.com!

4) Flavoured spirits may or may not be gluten-free, since said flavours are generally added post-distillation and few offer any details as to what is used in their flavouring. The same applies to liqueurs.

5) Wines are gluten-free, including Champagnes. Since they are made purely from grapes, I don’t understand why some people insist on challenging this fact.

6) Although I have not personally tasted all the gluten-free beers on the market today — as a class, it’s growing almost exponentially — the best I have sampled are those of Quebec’s Les Brasseurs Sans Gluten, marketed under the Glutenberg label. In particular, their seasonal Belge de Saison, a 7% alcohol ale brewed with Meyer lemon, is far and away the finest, more a “good beer than happens to not contain gluten” than any other I’ve yet tried. It deserves to be a widely-sold, year-round brand.

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Live-to-Blog Review: Great Lakes My Bitter Wife IPA

I’ve been overly negligent in my blogging lately, and am running behind in my beer reviews, so I thought I’d review this beer straight to the blog, just for something a bit different.

Billed as a no doubt tongue-in-cheek “tribute” to Carrie Nation, the mad woman of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, this limited edition beer from Ontario’s Great Lakes Brewing is a big IPA,  with 7% alcohol by volume and, judging by my first sniff, a boatload of hops.

Amber-hued and just on the hazy side, the nose straight out of the fridge is ruby red grapefruit and a hint of pineapple, growing a shade oniony and more piney mango as it warms. It certainly hits the palate with a nice hoppy glow, and then grows steadily hoppier from there, segueing from peach and pineapple to grapefruit juice and lemon zest, with slight malty underpinnings of canned peaches and apricots. The finish is where the hops really assert themselves, however, with a strong and rather intense citrusy bite.

This is one of those IPAs that is not for the faint-of-heart. I enjoy it right through to the swallow, but am somewhat put off by the concentration of bitterness on the finish, and if I feel that way then I’m guessing all but the committed hophead might be at least a bit overwhelmed by its hoppy aggression.

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Belgh Brasse Roars Back

If you lived in or visited Québec a little over a decade ago, you may remember Belgh Brasse. Based in Amos, near the Ontario border in the Québec northwest, the brewery opened with significant fanfare, much of it playing upon the purity of brewing water available from the Abitibi esker, and a purportedly Belgian-influenced ale called 8.

8 was, ultimately, a dud. I tasted it a couple of times and was left unimpressed, while others complained of the beer’s inconsistency. It died. A resuscitation of the brewery followed, with an even less inspiring pale lager called Taïga. It also died.

Now Belgh Brasse is back for a third kick at the can, and in this case it appears that the third time is indeed the charm. I have sampled two beers from the new Mons line of “Belgian-Inspired” beers, the Abbey Witte and the Abbey Blonde, and was impressed by both.

Sandy gold in colour with a slight haze, the Mons Abbey Witte has a sweetish, perfumey and lightly peppery lemon aroma, accented by candied orange peel and perhaps a hint of cinnamon, and a rounded and citrusy, light-bodied middle and a drying and faintly spicy-peppery finish. Belgian-inspired, for certain, it has a decided lemony note to it that makes me think just a bit about Berliner weisse, as well. It might lean a bit too hard on the sweet and fruity side of things, but is still nicely refreshing and quaffable.

http://www.monsbeer.com/images/MonsAbbeyBlondePour.439x335.jpgThe Mons Abbey Blonde is certainly a fruity ale, with dried apricot and canned peaches in the nose and a malty, dry caramel and lightly spicy body with some tropical and peachy fruitiness. I sampled it at cellar temperature first and refrigerator temp second and found it more expressive and robust when colder, although not so cold as to suppress the fruit and spice.

I’m told now that the brewery has a dubbel out and a stout on the way, and is for sale in the U.S. as well as in Québec. Based on these first two tastings, I’d say that this time Belgh Brasse might be sticking around for some time to come.

 

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Tasted!: Alexander Keith’s Hop Series

Earlier today, I put up a post about bricks-and-mortar breweries, beer commissioners and so-called “gypsy” brewers, and why what matters most, to my mind, at least, is what ends up in the glass. Which seems to me to be a good set-up for a chat about a couple of new beers from the largest brewing company in the world.

The brewing company in question is, of course, Anheuser-Busch InBev, or more specifically their Canadian subsidiary Labatt, and its Maritime sub-label, Alexander Keith’s.

Now, many of you might know Keith’s by its namesake “India pale ale,” printed in quotations because it is quite unlike any other IPA I have ever encountered and has far more in common with a mainstream lager than it does, say, Meantime India Pale Ale. And thanks to that knowledge, you’re probably going to be quite sceptical when I tell you of two new Keith’s brews, both part of the Alexander Keith’s Hop Series: Hallertauer Hop Ale and Cascade Hop Ale.

As the names imply, each is a single hop beer, and were in fact delivered to me with two little jars of hop flowers, one filled with Cascade hops and the other with Hallertauer, ‘natch.

(I’m assuming the Hallertauer is Hallertauer Mittelfruh, and it smells as such, but Labatt isn’t saying.)

Tasting them simultaneously, I found little difference in their appearance, but rather more in their aromas. The Hallertauer, as befits the hop’s characteristics, is herbaceous and a little sweet, with notes of fresh grass, alfalfa and just a bit of rosemary. The Cascade, on the other hand, is predictably citrusy and quite nicely balanced with a bit of caramelly maltiness.

On the palate, the Hallertauer offers no hop flavours jumping out, but rather a mix of dryish maltiness and some dryly herbal notes, ending lightly bitter and very dry, but with an odd sticky sensation lingering on the tongue. The Cascade, I found, works much better, with the citrusy hop shooting forward from the outset and just outshining the orange, peach and caramel malt. On the finish, there is a moderate bitterness and lingering dryness, which makes it much more refreshing and appetizing, and ultimately more successful ale.

So both beers are quite competently brewed, as you’d expect, with the Hallertauer recommended for more timid palates and the Cascade for those just entering pale ale and IPA territory. In other words, I’d say this is not a bad effort at all. But is their creation and marketing a wise move for Labatt?

I wonder. If they’re trying to prove their mettle to craft beer aficionados, such timid attempts are unlikely to sway many people. If they’re offering hoppier alternatives to Alexander Keith’s fans, I’d say they run the risk of turning them on to pale ales and IPAs brewed by smaller, competing brewers. And if they’re simply throwing something out to counter the Molson Six Pints division, I’d say it looks like they’re trying to use a beagle to corral a stallion in full gallop.

 

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People Bring Me Beer, I Drink It

Or, at least, that is sometimes the way it works. On other occasions, I run around the world trying to find the best of the best, and occasionally breweries are good enough to ship me samples of something I’ve specifically requested from them, usually beers I can’t manage to get otherwise.

And then there are those beers that just randomly wind up on my doorstep. These are a few of them.

There’s been a bit of a buzz around Toronto today about the St. Ambroise Érable, presumably because the same sales rep who put a pair of bottles of the stuff into my hands did likewise for others, like Jordan and Chris. So I might as well chime in, and before I read what either has said about it, I might add.

Unlike other maple beers I’ve tried, there’s no doubting the maple-ness of this brew, even cold out of the fridge and from a foot away, it smells like maple candy crossed with the caramel fudge I used to make in my mom’s double-boiler when I was a kid. It hits the palate sweet and more caramelly than mapley, but turns progressively maple-accented as it warms in the mouth, eventually becoming almost spicy with a drying hop that lasts through the bittersweet and ever-so-slightly cloying finish.

McAuslan has been known to play with post-fermentation flavourings – their Apricot Wheat is, or at least was the last time I checked, flavoured with apricot after it’s pretty much otherwise finished – and I suspect that is the case here, as well. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. I have no problem imagining enjoying this with ham or a bowl of vanilla ice cream, maybe even glazing the former and topping the latter with it, too.

(The bigger McAuslan development, in my opinion, is that they are now canning their workhorse St. Ambroise Pale Ale. This is good news, indeed.)

I also had dropped off a bottle of Great Lakes Brewing’s 25th Anniversary Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, and I’m quite happy for it. The best of the Ontario brewery’s quartet of anniversary releases, this is an engaging, if slightly simple, sipper that offers barrel notes in just the right balance with the prune, licorice and chocolate brownie flavours of the stout. It finishes a bit on the boozy side, but you should expect that of an 11% beer, and besides, the rest of it drinks far closer to single digit strength.

Oregon’s Deschutes Brewing sometimes sends me beer, bless their hearts, and one recent arrival was Hop Henge IPA. The polar opposite of the Red Chair NWPA I sampled from this brewery late last year, this 10.6% alcohol hop monster has a huge, herbal and resinous aroma – what those weed-smoking west coasters would call “dank” – and a big, hoppy, piney, grapefruit peel-ish flavour that marches over the palate, surprisingly without ripping it to shreds. That it feels more hoppy than bitter in the mouth you can attribute to a whole lot of fruity malt, but still, the hops rule every aspect of this beer.

I also have a bottle of Ontario beer importer Roland & Russell’s first foray into brewing, Stormy Monday, an 11% barley wine aged in calvados barrels and bottled under the imprint of the Bush Pilot Brewing Company. Brewed separately in two different breweries and then blended and barrel-aged, this ale has the aroma of a beery potpourri, with a huge perfume of clove and dried apple, some spicy florals and something curiously resembling Indian curry. (A check of the label reveals that to be cardamom, along with, I suspect, the figs and raisins. There are 25 ingredients in this beer, including seven malts, five hops, dried quince and juniper, for heaven’s sake!)

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t quite hold up to the complexity of the aroma. (Or maybe that should be “fortunately,” since that curry thing probably wouldn’t work too well in a barley wine.) First on the palate is a fairly simple caramel-fruity chocolate combination, and then the spices and mocha notes kick in – coffee and cocoa are two more ingredients – along with a decent hit of calvados and some spicy hoppiness. It doesn’t quite all come together for me, but it’s definitely going in the right direction.

The finish is my favourite part of this beer, not because it’s over but because it finally finds a cohesive flavour profile – brandy, raw cocoa, some sort of exotic, apple-accented coffee and lingering clove and alcohol.

Brewed in collaboration with Danish brewer Anders Kissmeyer, this is a beer to be faulted only for reaching too high, dreaming too big, and possibly having the contents of somebody’s spice cabinet accidentally tip into the brew kettle. Over time, I expect the spices will calm down a bit and create a more balanced whole, but that’s something for a future post.

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The Perils of Points

Through all my years of reviewing and occasionally rating beers and whiskies and other spirits, I have steadfastly refused to involve myself in point-based ratings. Wildly popular with many of my drinks-writing peers – or perhaps endured as an unavoidable reality – I have long viewed them as problematic in the extreme.

I’ve explained why I feel this way several times, but every once in a while an example comes along that illustrates my misgivings so well it deserves reiteration. Late last week was one of those whiles.

It arrived in the form of a promotional email from a wine importer I follow. (Yes, The Beer Guy both buys and drinks and thoroughly enjoys wine, too. Get over it.) The email was hyping the arrival of several wines from the same producer, including the two following:

****** **** Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $45.95/btl

PRESS:

92 Points, Wine Advocate

 

****** Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $19.95/btl

PRESS:

92 Points, Wine Advocate

I’ve omitted the names because they’re beside the point, which is that these two wines, made from the same varietal and from the same region and the same producer, merit the exact same score. Yet Wine 1 is more than twice the price of Wine 2, which, absent of actual tasting notes – as many of these scores are presented on shelf-talkers – is enough to make one wonder why in heaven’s name anyone would pay $46 when they can get equal quality for $20.

(The same offering, by the way, also included a Cabernet-Malbec blend from the same producer for $109.95 with a Wine Advocate score of 98. That’s a six point difference over the $20 wine, or $15 per point.)

Now, granted any rating system is going to run into the same problems, but it is my view that: a) Words are always better than points; b) If you offer people a scoring shorthand, they will almost always use it; and c) If score you must, four or five stars provide a similar indication of quality with a broader margin for inclusion. For instance, Hugh Johnson’s rating system from his Pocket Wine Book:

*                      plain, everyday quality

**                    above average

***                  well known, highly reputed

****                grand, prestigious, expensive

Not necessarily the scale I would use personally, but certainly something more descriptive than an arbitrary 92 or 89, I think.

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The Craft BeerAdvent Calendar

Okay, it’s November still and too early to start writing about – shhhhhh! – Christmas, but December 1 is just around the corner and that’s when you’ll need to have your advent calendar in place if you want to have (almost) a month of fun.

Fun? Opening tiny doors to see a cute picture or sample an industrial chocolate? Are you kidding me?

No, not at all. Because the BeerAdvent Calendar I have in mind is big and heavy and filled with an assortment of European beers never or seldom before seen in Canada. And believe me when I tell you that some of them are actually very good.

Of course, I can’t tell you what all the beers are, because that would ruin the surprise, but I can say that they make for an interesting selection. (Yes, I went ahead and opened all the little doors so that I could better report on it.) A dozen of the beers are from Austria, and in truth they are among the least interesting overall, though some are still quite good and others are, um, not what you’d expect.

(That “not what you’d expect” part applies also to a beer from Germany — *cough*day 18*cough* — but I shouldn’t say more lest I give the game away.)

The remainder of the brews are mixed between Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Some are better than others, a few are truly spectacular – (sing it!) on the 23rd day of Christmas my calendar gave to me, a pretty friggin’ awesome beer – and fittingly for December, ten of them are 7% alcohol or stronger.

The Calendar is a product of Craft Beer Importers of Alberta, although I’m told that it’s sold out in its home province. Some are apparently still available in parts of British Columbia, so check the Facebook page for availability and get yours soon.

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Tasted!: Great Lakes (Canada) 25th Anniversary Belgian Saison

This is, I believe, the second is what I expect will be a series of special edition beers celebrating the Toronto-based Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s silver anniversary.

My first impression of this medium golden brew is that I wish they had chosen a different name for it. I have nothing against spices in a saison — although they are not at all necessary, are they Brasserie Dupont? — but neither do I think that the use of a yeast classified as a “classic Belgian Saison yeast” necessarily means that you’re making a beer of that style. There needs to be more, in my opinion, like dryness. Like hops.

The GLB Belgian Saison — and just to add a quibble, it’s not really Belgian, is it? I mean, they didn’t go to Belgium to brew it, right? — is a perfectly enjoyable beer, spritely and spicy and, even at 6.5% alcohol, quite quaffable. In fact, it reminds me more of the unspiced, unsaison Brugse Zot than it does any other saison I’ve tasted in Belgium, and I’ve been known to enjoy a few glasses of that beer at a session. But is it a saison? No, I don’t really think so.

First off, there’s the sweet character of the grains of paradise used to spice the beer. It’s in the nose and in the body, and while it’s offset a bit by the coriander and pepper also used, it still serves to keep things on the sweeter side of spicy. Then there is the dryness, or rather the lack thereof. Maybe it will dry out more in a year or so, but let’s face it, most people will be drinking this in the summer of 2012, not 2013. And while there is some hoppiness on the finish, it isn’t quite sufficient to erase the thin, cloying, honey-ish sweetness that lingers on the back of the tongue.

All that said, this is a beer I enjoy and would pair happily with some soft and stinky cheese. It just isn’t a saison.

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