Category Archives: beer reviews

Not ‘Locals Only’

Okay, so before everyone thinks I’ve taken direct aim at southern Ontario breweries with my series of recent tweets, let me assure one and all I have not. And for those of you not in Ontario, please bear with me, as I guarantee some more universal observations by the end of this post.

Before I explain, however, a pair of the pertinent tweets for those who missed them:

Seems to me that @TorontoBeerWeek is unintentionally highlighting the severe lack of imported draught beer in #Toronto.

Should beer writers/bloggers “support local”? IMO, no, they should support good! #localnotsameasgood

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, taken outside of the context in which I was trying to frame them, those could be seen to be voicing vocal support for ‘outside’ beer and foisting criticism on the local stuff. But really it’s all about drinking quality, opening the market to greater choice and, frankly, raising the bar for craft beer in general.

Let me explain.

In Ontario, a government policy restricting draught beer importing licenses to four companies severely limits the availability of imported beer – even from other Canadian provinces – and makes it more expensive when it does get in. This causes a resulting overabundance of local beers on the taps of our beer bars, to the point that many are unintentionally exclusive or near-exclusive Ontario-only bars.

In my view, this situation has multiple effects, at least one of which plays into my second tweet.

  • Lack of selection for Ontario beer drinkers;
  • Lack of context for products and styles brewed locally;
  • An unwitting ‘free pass,’ or at least less critical critique, given to certain local beers because, as per point 2, there is little or nothing of the same style/type/flavour profile available for purposes of comparison.

(I have personally witnessed point number 3 in action, both locally and elsewhere, many times.)

None of which to say there is no excellent beer brewed in Ontario – there is, and even more very good beer and still more good beer – but in my view it is not enough to say ‘buy local’ or ‘support your local brewer’ without excessive care being given by the brewer first to character, quality control and, to at least some degree, consistency.

Further, the presence of great beers from around the world gives local brewers access to breweries that can inspire them to even greater things. (This, too, I’ve seen in action.) For multiple examples, take the opening up of any formerly closed economy and the corresponding rise in quality products once competition arrived.

And finally, I object strenuously to the notion that beer writers should champion local products. We are not, or should not be, champions for breweries, but for consumers. A writer’s role, whether columnist or blogger or freelance scribe, is to serve the reader, in many cases by sorting through the morass of beer and saying “yes, this is great, but this one not so much.” Regardless of whether the beers in question are local or not.

This approach also works to the ultimate benefit of the brewery, too, since a body of critical reviews should be sufficient to convince the brewer that perhaps something about the beer is flawed or at least not as good as it could be. Resulting in better beer, better sales and happier customers, which is, in the end, the ultimate goal.

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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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