Category Archives: "extreme" beer

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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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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Books, Books, Books: What to Buy for Whom, Pt. I

This has been a banner year for books on beer and booze, folks, with more and better new releases than I’ve yet witnessed in 23 years of this beverage writing gig. In fact, there are simply too many to review each one, even with my oh-so-clever “Three Bottles and a Book” idea from back in the early summer, or my not-nearly-as-clever “A Big Batch of Beer Books” concept from October.

My newest idea, then? A two part – the second will arrive later on this week – post on which book you should get for different sorts of people on your holiday gift list, beginning with:

The Craft Beer Novice: Joshua Bernstein’s Complete Beer Course is subtitled ”Boot Camp for Beer Geeks,” and an accurate subtitle it is! The style is like sitting down with Josh for a beer or five and having him relate to you all his thoughts and dreams about beer, mixed in with numerous beer reviews, festival recommendations and the occasional interview. It’s nicely illustrated – although there are too many pictures of wheat beers with fruit in them for my taste – and will be appreciated by the aspiring beer aficionado. (Sterling Publishing; $24.95 US/$26.95 Canada) 

The Calagione Acolyte: If you know one of those people who chases ever-more adventurous, outrageous and extreme beers, Adem Tepedelen’s Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers is the one for them. In 208 pages, Tepedelen surveys a wide swath of the high-hops, high-alcohol and high-flavour beer landscape, interspersed with regular “Brewtal” brewery and musician profiles and suggested heavy metal music pairings. (Hey, it is presented by Decibel magazine.) (Lyons Press; $19.95 US/$21.95 Canada)

The Whisky Curious: No, this isn’t a beer book, but Davin De Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky: the Portable Expert is a wonderful stroll through the generally unsung and underappreciated world of its title subject. I became a Canadian whisky convert several years back, following many more years of boredom and frustration when it came to the category, and am pleased to note that De Kergommeaux has done a stand-out job of covering its evolution form “brown flavoured vodka” to something so much more. A terrific study of a now-fast changing subject. (McLelland & Stewart; $22.00 US/$24.99 Canada)

The World Traveller: This is self-serving and self-promotional, but I can’t list the new releases without including one of my own, The Pocket Beer GuidePocket Beer Book 2014 in the U.K. – which I co-authored with Tim Webb and a small army of some of the most talented and savvy beer people in the world. Simply put, this tightly written guide is an expertly curated listing and rating of most of the best beers in the world today. A must for the suitcase of any frequent flier, I would most immodestly suggest. (Sterling Publishing; $14.95 US/$15.95 Canada/£12.99 UK) 

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Bigger, Stronger, Hoppier…Just Stop It!

In case you missed it, a Scottish brewery called Brewmeister announced yesterday that they had topped their own record for the world’s strongest “beer” – reason for the quotation marks to follow – with a 67.5% alcohol liquid called Snake Venom. The bottle, The Scotsman reports, comes with a warning that no more than the contents of a single, 275 ml bottle should be consumed per sitting.

There is so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. But I’ll try.

First up, unless Brewmeister has somehow come up with a way for yeast to survive in a ridiculously high alcohol environment, this is not a beer and neither is it the product of brewing per se. It is something that was once a beer before it was freeze distilled into a spirit, as are the slew of other “world’s strongest beers” that have come to market in recent years. (I’m looking at you BrewDog and Schorschbräu.) When you brew a beer, you ferment out sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. When you concentrate that alcohol by eliminating a large amount of the water content, that’s distilling. Period.

Secondly, who cares?! Producing the world’s strongest “beer” is right up there with producing the world’s most caloric hamburger and the world’s most tannic wine. It’s an empty, useless gesture than has nothing to do with the item intended to be consumed and everything to do with laying claim to a pointless title.

Thirdly, this is irresponsible to a massive degree. The one bottle per sitting that the brewery recommends you not exceed contains an enormous amount of alcohol, 185.625 millilitres by my calculations. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent in pure alcohol of drinking just under 62% of a 750 ml bottle of 40% alcohol spirits, or in other words, enough booze to potentially make a person very, very sick.

And fourthly, this kind of “bigger, stronger, hoppier” bullshit is precisely what craft beer is NOT about! Beer should be about flavour, not strength or massive, unbridled bitterness, and headline-grovelling attempts like this simply undermine everything that skilled and dedicated artisanal craft brewers around the world are trying to achieve. As Garrett Oliver once famously stated, no chef goes bragging about how they make the saltiest soup, and neither should anyone proud of their brewing skills be wading into the “bigger, stronger, hoppier” realm.

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Beer Pricing: A Little Less Hyperbole, Please

In my morning edition of The Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday, wine critic Beppi Crosariol wrote about the Sam Adams Utopias, Boston Beer’s high-end, high-alcohol, outrageously complex beer, the tenth anniversary edition of which has just come up for sale in Ontario at a price of $114.95 for the 710 ml bottle.

While he does a pretty good job at describing Utopias and placing it within the current state of beer and brewing culture, Crosariol does get a little hung up on the beer’s cost, variously employing such phrases as “nosebleed prices,” “exorbitant prices” and “stratospheric prices,” and comparing it to “Rolex watches and Prada purses.”

Really?

A Rolex goes for tens of thousands of dollars, and although I know nothing about the cost of Pradas, I’ve got to assume by dint of their reputation that they hit the same sort of price points. So how, pray, does that equate to a $115 bottle of beer, one which is intended to be consumed in small potions over days or weeks, rather than minutes or hours. Or, in other words, more like a single malt whisky or cognac than a Coors Light or Bud?

To answer that question, or at least further the debate, let’s take a look at what it all means. The last time Crosariol wrote about something to be sipped and savoured over a lengthy period of weeks or months, the Balvenie 17 Year Old Double Wood, he described the $167.95 bottle as “expensive.” Not stratospheric or exorbitant, just expensive. Before that we had the 15 year old Nikka Miyagikyo with nary a mention of the cost, despite the Japanese whisky’s $189.20 price. So, double standard?

Now, how about breaking down the cost of Utopias on a per drink basis? There are 24 ounces in a bottle and, at 29% alcohol, a generous pour would be about 2 of those ounces, making for a dozen total servings. Do the math and that comes out to less than $10 a serving, or about what one might pay for a glass of ho-hum wine in a restaurant. Still stratospheric? I think not.

By coincidence, on the same day that Crosariol was simultaneously adulating and excoriating Utopias, Clay Risen was over at the New York Times bemoaning the rise of big bottle beers, suggesting that, counter to every indicator imaginable – store sales, restaurant sales, brewery sell-throughs – there is some sort of backlash brewing against “expensive” 750 ml bottles of beer.

Jay Brooks does a thorough job of dismembering Risen’s story here, so I won’t go much into it myself, but in keeping with the tone of this post, I would like to take a moment to address the supposed price-based revolt.

At a high of $30 in stores, these beers are in the same price class as many wines, including a good number that lack complexity equivalent to the best of such brews. (And to be fare, many that provide equal or better value.) Yet it would be a brave writer indeed who took issue with $20 – $30 wines as a group, implying that drinkers are sick of such high prices and long for a return to jug wine. Which is not to say that I in any way agree with Risen’s characterization of the emergence of 750 ml bottlings of beer as being part of “what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer” – really? By whom, exactly? – but rather that I see no reason to discriminate against beer simply because you can still buy a twelve-pack of Bud Light for ten bucks.

And as for those individuals interviewed by Risen who suggest that they recoil at the notion of sharing their big bottle of beer with anyone else, I have but one piece of advice: Grow up!

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Canadian Brewery of the Year: MicroBrasserie Charlevoix

During 2012, I probably sampled more Canadian beer from a broader selection of breweries than I have at any time since researching my second edition of the Great Canadian Beer Guide in 2000. This, of course, makes the challenge of selecting a brewery of the year all the more difficult.

Nonetheless, a decision must be made, and in reviewing my notes and local writings, two operations repeatedly came to the fore, one from Québec and the other from British Columbia.* Although it was a difficult choice to make, I ultimately decided to look east rather than west and proclaim MicroBrasserie Charlevoix my Canadian Brewery of 2012.

While many breweries in my home and native land are crafting great beers these days, few are as across-the-board impressive as is Charlevoix, taking into consideration both their Belgian-influenced Dominus Vobiscum line and rather less heralded Vache Folle beers. In the former group, the new Saison stood out as a most impressive bit of beer-making, with a spicy-citrusy-grapey character and suitable-to-the-style hoppiness drying and bittering the finish. Added to the already outstanding Triple, Lupulus and Brut beers, it makes for a stunning profile, indeed.

(And more good news for the Dominus line-up: I’m told by brewery president Frédérick Tremblay that a brown bottle has finally be sourced for the beers, so the skunkiness that has occasionally affected the Lupulus should thankfully soon be a thing of the past.)

On the Vache Folle side of things, the addition of a RyePA was slightly less successful, but ameliorated by the existing presence of the chocolaty, raisiny, joyfully boozy Imperial Milk Stout. Not that the 6% rye pale ale was bad, mind you, just that among such a crowd of superbly constructed and flavourful brews, its faintly immature profile leaves it somewhat wanting.

For these wonderful brews and the promise of the future, MicroBrasserie Charlevoix is my choice as Canadian Brewery of the Year for 2012.

(*Runner-up, by the way, was southern mainland brewer Central City, who should almost be in a class of their own thanks to their outstanding Red Racer Pale Ale, perhaps the best of its style in Canada, and almost as impressive Red Racer IPA.)

Tuesday: 2012′s U.S. Brewery of the Year!

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The Futility of Either/Or Thinking

As he is wont to do, Andy Crouch set tongues a-wagging this week with a rant against both beer cocktails and collaboration beers. He received a quick rebuttal from the Wench – or rather a Facebook-driven revival of an older post in defense of beer cocktails – as well as kudos from the inestimable Mr. McL, and who knows how many other yeas and nays.

To explain my position, I must retreat first several years, about twenty or so, in fact.

As a neophyte beer writer, I regularly encountered people who would approach beer of any variety with the simple dismissal of “I don’t like beer.” (I still do hear this, though not nearly as often, but let us leave that matter aside for now.) To these people, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, “beer” was mainstream lager. They had tasted it; they didn’t like it; ipso facto they did not like beer.

My response to these self-depriving souls was the same then as it is today. “Beer is a multi-headed beast,” I say, although not necessarily in those exact words, “Just because you don’t like what you have tried thus far needn’t mean that none of it is to your taste.”

If you have read Mr. Crouch’s self-described “rant,” you may have some idea of where I’m going with this. Having partaken of both beer cocktails and collaboration brews – we know not what sort of quantity of each, since he offers no such information – he declares that he has found both lacking and thus declares “Death” to them.

I’ve made a few beer cocktails in my time, and have sampled the mixology of others, and several, indeed I’d go so far as to say many of the combinations I’ve tasted have been quite delicious. At their best, as I have stated time and again, they are neither better nor an attempted improvement on the original beer, just a flavourful attempt at something equal but different.

And let’s face it, beer cocktails are in their infancy, so there are bound to be any number of sad and ugly ones taking up beer menu space. That’s the way it goes, indeed the way it was in the early days of craft brewing. (Lord knows, at the GABFs and other beer fests of the early 1990’s, and in bars and restaurants and my own tasting cubicle during the same period, many an unbalanced or poorly designed or unintentionally sour or buttery beer crossed my lips.) But the industry improved with time and experience, as beer cocktails are bound to do should the “death to” hoards fail to get their way.

Mr. Crouch’s position on collaboration beers I find much harder to comprehend. For the sin of being the product of two or more brewers working together a beer should be condemned? Really? That makes as much sense to me as do those who scream “anything but chardonnay!” when, in fact, they really mean “I’m tired of over-oaked butter-bombs.”

Granted, Mr. Crouch goes on to proclaim his distaste for “confusing and disjointed…beers,” with which I heartily agree, but why tar all collaborations with a single brush? I have tasted many fine collaborative brews from producers both prodigious – I’m looking at you, Stone Brewing – and selective, and one of the finest beers I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing in my almost seven years on All About Beer Magazine’sBeer Talk” panel was Fritz & Ken’s Ale, an Anchor-Sierra Nevada collaboration. Others have been less successful, but so what? I could say the same about any number of single brewery beers.

So you’ll hear no dismissal or “death to” from this writer. I’ll take each beer or cocktail (or spirit or wine) as it comes and judge accordingly. In fact, the more the merrier!

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