Category Archives: beer reviews

Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

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Is it Last Call for Muskoka’s Legendary Oddity?

On Friday night, I opened a special “vintage” edition bottling of the Muskoka Brewery’s Legendary Muskoka Oddity beer. I wasn’t expecting much from the one year old ale, frankly, because to my experience spiced beers generally don’t age that well. Some conditioning is usually required to keep the ‘pop’ of the herbs and spices in check, true enough, but over the course of a full year, I’ve found that the tendency is for the flavourings to become overly muted and, well, just dull.

Legendary Muskoka OddityNot so the Oddity, for some reason. The juniper and orange peel notes were present and identifiable, and the floral aspect of the heather tips was still in harmony with the rest of the flavour and aroma notes. An experiment that might have been ill-advised – or so I thought – turned out to be a wholly remarkable success.

Pity, then, it may never be allowed to happen again.

On the phone this morning with Gary McMullen, co-founder and head of the brewery, I learned that the future of the Oddity is very much in doubt. There are no plans to make any this year and, he suggested, scant interest in doing it again next year. Seems there is a problem fitting it into the production schedule, and although McMullen didn’t say this, presumably also an issue with finding a place to sell it, since the LCBO tends to allocate only a specific number of product places to individual breweries. With the brewery’s new Detour and early arriving Summer Weiss, the squeeze is on the Oddity.

Which I think is simply a damn shame. Ontario breweries don’t do Belgian-inspired beers much, and when they do they seldom if ever do them this well. When it first appeared three years ago, I declared the Oddity to be the best Belgian-influenced ale yet brewed in this province, and I stand by that evaluation. Last year’s wasn’t quite a good out the gate, but as evidenced on Friday has aged quite well. (Curiously, a year-old version of that first edition did not mature as gracefully.) Down the road, this beer has the potential to becomes as legendary as it claims to be now.

Let us hope that the planning meetings McMullen noted are upcoming over the next few months will result in a stay of execution for this strong and compelling brew. For as much as Ontario now boasts a plethora of hoppy pale ales and IPAs and double IPAs, I do sometimes bemoan our relative lack of complex and non-bitter beers, like the Legendary Muskoka Oddity.

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Looking for the El Bulli of Spanish Beer

There are a multitude of excuses one can use to justify a trip to Spain: tapas, incredible landscapes, Spanish cider (sidra), the Costa de Sol, Gaudí, jamón in all its many forms, flamenco.

What you don’t use as the basis for an Iberian excursion is beer. Which, I suppose, is precisely why I did so.

In the years since Tim Webb and I signed a contract to produce The World Atlas of Beer, and especially since we decided to follow that with The Pocket Beer Guide, I have become borderline obsessed with countries boasting nascent and developing craft beer cultures. First for me was Italy, an interest which I must admit predated the Atlas by a few years, but was kicked into overdrive by my research for the book. Then arrived Brazil, a nation known by few North American beer aficionados, but which is making astonishingly rapid improvements in both quantity and quality of craft beer. Then Argentina, Singapore, France, Poland.

And Spain. So when we decided to make The Pocket Beer Guide into an annual publication and our intrepid Anglo-Spanish-Czech correspondent Max Bahnson wasn’t available to get the inside scoop on Iberia, as he did for the first edition, I volunteered to do the research myself. After all, I was going to be in Belgium anyway, and since Madrid is but a mere 1,000 or so miles from Brussels, by the deeply twisted logic of the chronic beer obsessive, it really did make a lot of sense.

My research started with the good folk at Iberian Beer United, importers of numerous Spanish breweries, and the operator of the Twitter account for the Barcelona Beer Festival, who later revealed himself to be Mikel Rius, one of the young fest’s founders. As often happens in beer circles, they led me to others, who in turn led me to still others, and before long my week divided between Madrid and Barcelona was promising to be a whirlwind of tasting and discovery.

My only hopeFabrica Maravillas was that at least some of the beers I’d be sampling would stand up to serious critique.

Arriving in the Spanish capital on a Sunday evening, I was faced with both great hunger and the realization that most of Madrid’s beer joints are closed on Sundays. Except, that is, for a brewpub called Fábrica Maravillas, shoehorned into a modest storefront in a district just north of the city center. And so off I went. (Continue reading at The Celebrator online…)

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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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