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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Ontario Brewery of the Year: Black Oak Brewing

In 2013, a brewery I have long admired for its great potential seemed to finally find its mojo, something it only took it about fourteen or so years to do. West Toronto’s Black Oak Brewing has made some tentative moves forward through its years of existence – moving from the suburban then-craft beer wasteland of Oakville into Toronto, celebrating its 10th anniversary with the brewing of a terrific ale, getting its seasonal releases out on time – but last year was when things really started to come together for the company.

I say, thank goodness!

I’ve spoken of Black Oak as a brewery with almost limitless potential for years now. The brewery’s Nut Brown Ale is a terrific beer, better now than any time previous, and its Pale Ale is a solid refresher and also a bit of a gateway craft beer, while seasonals from the Christmas Nutcracker spiced porter to the Summer Saison – not really a saison at all, but a light, spiced wheat ale – have always been solid, and the anniversary 10 Bitter Years was a bit of a landmark brew when it appeared as Ontario’s first truly, unapologetically hoppy and strong and still well-balanced ale. But something was always missing.

That something seems to have finally appeared in 2013, with a major rebranding effort, a tightening up of all the beers and a renewed emphasis on the necessity of sales and marketing, the last of which being something with which Black Oak always seemed to struggle. Basically, Black Oak is back, defiantly and resolutely so. And if you question this as anything more than strictly a cosmetic change, I invite you to grab a bottle of the brewery’s Nut Brown Ale, always a solid two-and-a-half star beer (in Pocket Beer Guide terms), now a borderline-better-than-three star.

For its great step forward, and its wise use of space in hosting a select number of beer commissioners, I salute Black Oak Brewing as my Ontario Brewery of the Year for 2013.

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Best Beer Place of 2013: CASK Pub & Kitchen, London

As is now tradition, I will start off my “Best of the Year” awards with the most interesting, significant, compelling, and most of all, beer-glorifying bar or restaurant I visited in 2013. And unusually for me, it was this year past a place I enjoyed for far too short a period.

CASK Pub & Kitchen on Charlwood Street in London’s Pimlico district was one of those places I recognized immediately upon entry as something special. When I arrived for a lunch meeting with my World Atlas of Beer and Pocket Beer Guide co-author, Tim Webb, last June, the room was nearly empty and the scent of the cleaners hung still in the air. Despite these handicaps, however, the environs seemed welcoming and hospitable, an impression that was confirmed almost immediately by the staff, who rather than plunging their noses more deeply into their newspaper or social media obligations, noted my presence with a quick and friendly “hello” and kindly endured my lengthy examination of the bar’s 10 casks and multitude of taps.

Oh yes, the beer. When they opened in 2009, CASK was one of the first places in the U.K. to embrace equally traditional British cask-conditioned ale and new craft beers from the island and abroad, and they continue to be one of the best. Combined with numerous fridges filled with various imported and domestic bottles, this results in an abundance that may prove daunting to even the most spirited of beer adventurers. And unlike any number of beer places, they do this not at the expense of, but in addition to a more than respectable selection of wines and spirits.

While Tim and I did enjoy our lunches – not the best burger I’ve had in England, but certainly up there amongst the best – it was the hospitality, comfort, service with a smile and, of course, the marvellous (if sometimes pricey) selection of beer that won me over to CASK, and rated it as my Best Beer Place of 2013. I only wish that further obligations that day had allowed me to tarry longer, rather than needing to rush off after only a few hours.

CASK Pub and Kitchen, 6 Charlwood Street, Pimlico, London; caskpubandkitchen.com  

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Best of 2013 Coming Up — Finally!

Okay, so I haven’t blogged and have barely social media-ed at all for the last month. I have reasons, personal ones that I won’t air out here, but which have left me rather preoccupied since before Christmas. Family stuff. It’s getting better, though, so I’ve been able to mull over my annual Best of the Year list. 

Ordinarily, I would have by now posted my regular slate of winners: Best Beer Place and Brewery of the Year for Ontario (my home province), Canada, the United States, Latin America, Australasia and Europe. But like I say, I’ve been busy with other stuff of late.

That all changes next week, though! Beginning Monday with the Best Beer Place of 2013, I will commence with the accolades, hopefully and barring any unforeseen developments finishing before the end of the month. 

So as they say on the television news: Stay tuned!

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Hungry? Three Beer Cookbooks for Your Kitchen

I had hoped to get this post up before I left for Belgium last week, but unfortunately ran out of time before I was able. Hopefully there are still some of you out there who have yet to complete your beer-associated shopping this year and can still use this info. (After you pick up last year’s World  Atlas of Beer and the new Pocket Beer Guide, of course!)

Following a bit of a lull, there has been a relative explosion in craft beer cookbooks this year, including the three that I found arriving upon my desk this fall. Each has something quite different to offer.

Begin with the Basics: David Ort’s Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook is the sort of book any aspiring cook will appreciate, although I could understand it being seen as a little too simple by those who already know their way around the kitchen quite well. Recipes are mostly pretty rudimentary – from soft pretzels and Welsh rabbit in the “Snacks” section to mains like sausages and lamb shank and desserts such as ice cream and brownies – but are also well organized, prettily photographed and come (mostly) with a suggested beer pairing, to boot. I might have liked to see a bit more about beer included – it is a large part of the title, after all – but in general this is a good pick for beer aficionados with an interest in cooking.

More Advanced: the south-of-the-border yang to Ort’s yin is John Holl’s American Craft Beer Cookbook, and it is a beauty. Here, the recipes all come from beer places, much as they did in my 1997 Stephen Beaumont’s Brewpub Cookbook – take that all you reviewers writing that Holl’s book is the first of its kind! – and there is plenty here to set your mouth to watering, like pan-roasted sweetbreads in a sherry-bacon vinaigrette, cocoa-crusted pork tenderloin and Asian-grilled salmon salad. In fact, leafing through the book for the umpteenth time since I received it, I still cannot find a dish I don’t feel like cooking, which is impressive considering that the thick paperback contains 155 recipes! Like its Canadian counterpart, some dishes contain beer while others don’t, but here only some have beer pairing recommendations, and frankly there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why that is the case or why those specific beers are suggested. But all that said and done, I still find this to be a most appetizing cookbook.

And for a Relaxing Read: Fred Bueltmann’s Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a cookbook, yes, but it is also so much more. The New Holland Brewing owner and advocate includes in his self-published work much of what I bemoan as absent in the two above books, including 15 pages on “The Art of Pairing,” multiple sections on beer styles and the seasonal suitablility thereof and even a couple of pages on building your own beer cellar. On the downside, the layout can seem a bit muddled and confused at times, the quality of the photos could have been improved and a tighter edit would have been to the book’s benefit. Still, it’s an entertaining read and Bueltmann’s passion for bringing beer to both the kitchen and the table shines through on every page.

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A Look Back: Visiting Achouffe in 2002

 The following column was written in November of 2002 for the Celebrator, following a visit to the Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Since then, of course, many changes have occurred, including the brewery’s purchase by Duvel Moortgat and the rise of the hoppy Houblon Chouffe as a major brand. Despite or perhaps because of this, however, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane so much that I wanted to share it with you all.  

In 1987, I took a job at a now-defunct Toronto pub managed by a couple who had just arrived fresh from Belgium. Nobody in the city knew much about Belgian beers back then, and of all the experiences I had working at that pub, by far the most positive was my introduction to Belgian ales like Duvel, Chimay and Hoegaarden, the last hand-carried back for me from the brewery itself.

Prior to this experience, my range of experience in beer had been pretty much confined to a few trips to the west coast of the U.S. and the limited offerings of the Ontario marketplace: early craft brews, a handful of German and British imports, and of course, the all-too-homogeneous offerings of what were then the Big Three breweries of Canada — Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe. (Molson and Carling eventually merged to make the Big Three into the Big Two.) The exposure to the first trickles of Belgian beer arriving on these shores opened my eyes to the full flavour potential beer had to offer.

Our productsAbout a year later, already entranced by these new tastes, I discovered another Belgian ale. This one came from a tiny, five-year-old brewery in the Ardennes, Belgium’s densely forested southeast, and sported an easily identifiable label featuring a curious gnome. It was called La Chouffe.

Legend now has it that both the gnome on the bottle of La Chouffe and his ‘Scottish cousin’ who graces the brewery’s other primary brand, McChouffe, are ‘chouffes,’ a type of local forest elf. The truth, however, is that the chouffe idea sprang from the fertile imagination of Christian Bauweraerts, co-founder of the brewery and the affable face of the Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Both the brewery and the beer are actually named after the town of Achouffe, a tiny village near the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, as I learned during a recent visit, the name truly means, well, nothing.

Like several other Belgian breweries, including its Wallonian neighbour Fantôme and the well-known Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers, Achouffe got its start as a hobby of Chris and his brother-in-law, Pierre Gobron. The direction the owners took their hobby, however, was unique and remains today a model for other artisanal breweries in Belgium, especially those plagued by the difficulties of distribution in a market increasingly dominated by the big players. Rather than focus their marketing efforts on domestic sales, the partners elected to look instead internationally. By the time I made acquaintance with the brewery, they were selling between one-quarter and one-third of their entire production in my home province of Québec, where to this day they sell almost double the amount of beer than they do in all of the United States combined.

Of course, those amounts — roughly 600 hectolitres in the U.S. and 1,000 in Quebec, plus another 1,000 brewed under licence in la belle province –  are relatively small compared to the large volumes that Achouffe sells to the Netherlands, where it is far easier to find a draught La Chouffe than it is anywhere else in the world, including Belgium. In fact, Chris told me that those Dutch sales are largely responsible for the brewery selling just over one half of its production in draught form.

In all, Achouffe expects to sell about 18,500 hectolitres of ale this year, roughly three-quarters of which will be the blonde, 8% alcohol, coriander-spiced and curiously refreshing La Chouffe. The stronger (8.5%), darker — made so through the addition of dark sugars rather than dark malts — and rounder McChouffe will make up most of the remainder, with the brewery’s sole seasonal, the concentrated, 10% alcohol and thinnish but intense N’ice Chouffe, accounting for only about 2.5%.

For a regional brewery still unrecognized in many parts of Belgium, and one located in a town so small as to hardly rate a mention on the map, Achouffe’s brewery is large and modern, the result of careful years of controlled expansion. Bottling, kegging and the warm-conditioning vital to bottle-fermented ales are done off-site about six kilometres away, while the pair of on-site brewery buildings are divided into brewing and fermenting facilities. For the visitor, however, the real draw of the brewing side of the operation is the small café built into the back.

While not actually operated by the brewery — they lease the space out to independent operators — the café is without doubt an integral part of the Achouffe experience. To begin with, it may be the only place in Belgium where you can find both La Chouffe and McChouffe on tap. Then there is the beer cuisine offered on the menu, such as the tender though meaty brook trout poached in La Chouffe — only in Belgium would such a dish be offered as an appetizer rather than a main course! — and the wonderfully rich sauce maison which topped my entrecôte de boeuf, made from cream, La Chouffe and a local blue cheese. And finally, it is a place where an air of community dominates, where children run and play and the occasional argument between pet dogs scarcely raises an eyebrow.

After spending but a single evening at the brewery tap, eating my fill and discovering how surprisingly easy to drink an 8% alcohol draught can be, I was left wondering how the inhabitants of a country as impassioned about beer as is Belgium could possibly ignore such a delight within its borders. It must be that they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

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