Advice for St. Patrick’s Day

Okay, so evidently St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day this year; it’s a whole friggin’ weekend. Which means that the madness and mayhem will commence tomorrow.

While I’ll personally be laying low this year, as I do around March 17 every year, many others will be running riot over the next four days, drinking beer and whiskey that they seldom if ever otherwise drink, calling anything that’s green “Irish,” including bog-standard lager dyed with food colouring, and generally using the feast day of an Irish saint as an excuse to get plastered. Which is fine.

But if you’re going to “do” St. Patrick’s Day, at least do it right! Which means paying at least a bit of attention to the following:

1) If you must shorten the name, repeat after me, St. Paddy’s Day. Not St. Patty’s Day or plain Patty’s Day. “St. Paddy’s Day.”

2) There are many more Irish whiskeys out there than just Jameson. Try one or two. You might just find yourself drinking Irish whiskey more than just once a year.

3) What I said above about whiskey? It applies equally to Irish stout.

4) If you must do shots — and on a day that is sure to be filled with drinking, I would counsel strongly against them —  limit yourself to just one or two. Five or six or more whiskey shots is a sure-fire route to drunkenness and eventual spewing.

5) Wear green, wear funny badges, wear silly hats if you wish, but accept that you are not, in fact, Irish. Not for a day or for a minute. (Unless, of course, you really are Irish.)

6) A cocktail made with crème de menthe is not by definition Irish. Neither is one made with Midori.

7) Imperial stout is not a beer built for all-day drinking.

8) The green-dye-in-lager thing? It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Just. Don’t.

9) Lining up to get into a bar is stupid. If there is a line-up, go somewhere else for a drink or two and return later to see if the line-up has dissipated. If it has not, just accept that it was never meant to be.. (The sole exception to this rule is when the line-up is covered, heated and licensed.)

10) That “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt? Leave it at home.

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Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Beer City”

Oy!

Just two days — TWO DAYS! — after I responded to a Facebook post about yet another list of supposed “Best Beer Cities,” and sagely decide not to follow further the fruitless path of argument, I come across still another such list. It’s orchestrated in a different, although by no means unique, fashion, but is as flawed as the other and all the rest for one simple reason.

There is no such thing as a frigging “Best Beer City!” Or Cities! Period. End of story.

Look, I enjoy a good list as much as the next guy, and I’m not exactly the kind of person who back down happily from a robust debate, but there are simply too many factors at play to ever resolve the issue of best beer city. In the mind of the drinks guy over at the Seattle P-I, whom I will neither name nor link to for reasons related to past conversations, brewery count would seem to be the defining factor. For Magnolia’s Dave McLean, it’s history, longevity and food and drink culture. For Jeff Alworth, the deciding factor is craft beer in dive bars. And for me, well, I like a great beer bar over a great brewery and think that the ability to get a diversity of local, regional, national and international beers is key, as is the opportunity to enjoy a really good meal with a glass of really good beer.

But that doesn’t mean I know what city is best any more than it means Jeff or Dave or P-I guy does, mainly because, like the beer I drink, where I like to drink it changes with the circumstance! Put me on the west coast and I might be happy as Larry in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and in awe of the beer scenes in each city. Pick me up and plant me in Denver or New York City or Philadelphia and I’ll be equally delighted there. Teleport me to Montreal and you’ll soon find me at Dieu du Ciel or Cheval Blanc or Au Pied du Cochon, most likely with a wide grin on my face.

Let me put it another way. The northern German city of Köln, or Cologne, is known for a single style of beer, one which most people find rather unremarkable. It has not — to my experience, at least — fine dining restaurants where you can sample excellent beer with your meal, and neither has it a plethora of good beer bars. Yet thanks to its general pedestrian friendliness, fabulous old city district, exceptional culture and, dammit, the superb quality of some of those kölsches that others sweep aside as ordinary “lawnmower beers,” it is one of my favourite places in Germany, Europe and the world in which to drink beer.

And please note, that was “favourite,” not “best.”

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European Brewery of the Year: Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar

After a small and unavoidable interruption, we return now to the final of my Brewery of the Year honours, this for the European brewery that most caught my attention. And it is a small and to me previously unknown brewery on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar.

At a mere 1,200 hl of production in 2013, 70% of which was sold locally, I suppose it’s not altogether surprising that this family business had escaped my notice. But after tasting my way through seven beers in the brewery tasting room – really just an extension of the family home – I was heartily glad to have been finally able to make its acquaintance.

Run by Ronald Mengerink and his family – even the kids help out – De Dochter impressed me across the board, with the dry-hopped and rather unBelgian Belle Fleur, a pale ale aptly named with some lovely floral notes; the rich and chocolaty Embrasse, a 9% alcohol brown ale that bridges the gap between strong porter and abbey ale; Ensemble, a limited run barley wine with great complexity and balance; and Bravour, a restrained smoked malt beauty.

The admittedly unwieldy name of the brewery means “The Daughter of the Ear of Corn” and is purportedly an old synonym for “beer,” although according the brewery’s own website the full phrase was “The Juice of the Daughter of the Ear of Corn.” Perhaps that was deemed too long, or maybe borderline rude. It matters not. What counts is that this is one of the most impressive northern European discoveries I have made in the past several years and, thanks to a planned move and expansion, should in the next few years have its beers a bit more widely available.

Keep an eye open, because this “Daughter” is one to watch, and a most worthy European Brewery of the Year.

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Asian-Australasian Brewery of the Year: Kiuchi Brewery

I didn’t get to Asia or Australasia in 2013, not even close. But I was fortunate enough on several occasions to have representatives from the region come to me, both individually and collectively, so that I had ample opportunity to taste a great number of Australian, Kiwi and Asian ales and lagers.

And of all those beers from all those breweries, one specific brand stands out in my memory: Hitachino Nest Nipponia from Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery.

It was presented to me at the New York bar Jimmy’s No. 43 by Toshiyuki Kiuchi, the head of the company who was at the time touring the U.S., just prior to a beer dinner we were co-hosting. I loved the bright flavours it presented, and the way it took what I’ve always viewed as a relatively simple and straight-forward hop, Sorchi Ace, and coaxed a greater complexity out of it. But most of all, I loved the story of how it was brewed from a nearly extinct variety of barley, brought back to existence from a few seeds through the efforts of the company, which even went so far as to ship the grains to the U.K. for malting, and then back to Japan for brewing.

Prior to that point, frankly, the Kiuchi beers had never made that strong an impression upon me. Thereafter, however, perhaps stimulated by a greater and growing interest in the company, I began to discover brews of interest far beyond their merely pleasant White Ale and Red Rice. Beers like Dai Dai IPA, which is hardly an IPA, but is still a most fascinating and enjoyable quaff, and XH, a strong, whisky-edged ale I’m embarrassed to say languished for months in my beer fridge before I was inspired to taste, and thoroughly enjoy, it.

Still, at the end of the day, my thoughts drift back to the glorious lack of logic that resulted in Nipponia, and that’s reason enough for me to make the Kiuchi Brewery my pick as Asian-Australasian Brewery of the Year.

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Latin American Brewery of the Year: Cervejas Bodebrown

Since I began this year-end awards, many people have asked about my criteria. To which I answer that I simply choose the breweries that have made the greatest impression on me during the year previous,  for one reason or another.

In the case of Latin America, that brewery is Curitiba, Brazil’s Cervejas Bodebrown.

Now, I could say that Bodebrown’s impression was fostered by beers like the Wee Heavy, long a Brazilian favourite, or the Black Rye IPA, sampled during last year’s Mondial de la Bière, or the always intense and intimidating Perigosa, Brazil’s original double IPA. And frankly, I would be entirely justified in so doing.

But oddly enough, the beer wasn’t really what brought Bodebrown to mind when I thought about which Latin American breweries had the most impact in 2013. Rather, that role was played by the gadabout head of the brewery, Samuel Cavalcanti Cabral.

Not only was Samuel seemingly everywhere last year, introducing the world to not just Bodebrown beer, but Brazilian craft beer in general, but he also seemed to be front and centre every time a visiting brewer or beer notable showed up in his home country. In such fashion, he has positioned himself as a sort of ambassador of Brazilian beer, and it’s a role he fills quite admirably, supporting the efforts of his company, his brewing school, his hometown of Curitiba – fast becoming the capital of Brazilian craft beer, thanks again largely to Samuel – and his fellow Brazilian brewers.

For those efforts, and also for his fine beers, I am delighted to pick Cervejas Bodebrown as my Latin American Brewery of the Year for 2013.

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U.S. Brewery of the Year: Allagash Brewing

I tasted a lot of craft beers from the United States in 2013, from the wares of new breweries in the south and Pacific northwest to old favourites from across the land, in Wisconsin, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and everywhere in between.

There was one brewing company, however, that consistently impressed me, to the point that by the late summer I had scheduled a visit to the recently and spectacularly expanded facility. That brewery was Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company.

Now, I’ve been fond of Allagash for some time – who wouldn’t like a brewery that makes such a damn fine tripel? But in 2013, almost every bottle I opened from the brewery had me sitting back and staring in amazement at my glass. A few examples:

-        Coolship Red, made in the fashion of a Belgian lambic fruit beer, but with Maine yeasts rather than Belgian ones effecting the fermentation, was simply spectacular when I tasted it in August, with a bewitching maturity that had lingering notes of sweet fruit blending seamlessly with the citrusy, horseblankety, hay and funk of the body, along with a very soft spiciness.

-        Curieux, the always illogically delightful product of Allagash Tripel having been aged in Jim Beam barrels, reached a new level of complexity in 2013, and scored a half-star higher in my revised rating for the next edition of The Pocket Beer Guide.

-        Confluence, described on the label as “ale fermented with Brett and dry-hopped,” achieved the seemingly impossible, with a funky, hoppy character that should please lambic lover and IPA aficionado alike.

-        Prince Tuesday, a beer made in collaboration with Rising Tide Brewing, offered one of the finest aromas I nosed all year, mixing carnations and passionfruit, lemon and key lime, or as my wife so astutely put it, “smelling like happiness.”

Of course, there were others besides, many of them, but these “Best of…” posts aren’t supposed to be about the qualities of individual beers. No, they are meant to highlight the brilliance of a single brewery over the course of a calendar year, and in that regard Allagash achieved in spades, making it my no-doubt pick as U.S. Brewery of the Year for 2013.

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Canadian Brewery of the Year: Le Trou du Diable

It’s safe to say that Canadian craft beer is not terribly well-known internationally. Ask the average British beer aficionado, for example, and it’s likely they’ll be able to tell you more about Italian or even north Yorkshire craft beer than they will about the Canadian stuff.

Where Canada has made a mark on the world stage, however, it has been largely through the efforts of Québécois brewers, first the folk at Unibroue – now Sapporo-owned, but still turning out fine ales – and more recently the talents behind Dieu du Ciel. And now I will add a third to the list of French Canadian beer names to watch: Le Trou du Diable.

Based in Shawinigan, mid-way between Montréal and Québec City, Trou du Diable has been slowly and surely upping their game for years, first with a pair of tasty barrel-influenced beers, La Buteuse and Dulcis Succubus, then with a series of other impressive brews, some stronger and others more sessionable, some conditioned in wood as part of an extensive and growing program and others simply brewed and bottled. Each year since my first encounter, the brewery has grown more noticeably confident and impressive.

It was a portfolio tasting in Toronto this past summer, however, that cemented in my mind just how far Trou du Diable had come. From their porter, cleverly named Le Porteur, to their political in-joke brew – don’t ask! – Shawinigan Handshake, at 7% alcohol, a frighteningly thirst-quenching “Shawiniganer Weisse,” the brewery just keeps cranking out tasty, unapologetic beers one after the other.

The brewery name literally translates to “Devil’s Hole,” but refers to a set of Shawinigan rapids and not what you were probably thinking. Like most of the brewery’s beer names, it’s very French and very local, and for Anglos likely very hard to pronounce. None of this will matter in the long run, though, because it’s the quality and character of what’s behind the difficult names that will have you hearing more about this brewery in the months and years to come, and makes Trou du Diable my pick as Canadian Brewery of the Year for 2013.

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