Category Archives: social commentary

Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

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Filed under beer & the web, beer blogs, beer style, beer terminology, brewing history, drinking quality, session beer, social commentary

Your Assignment This Weekend – Drink Something Different!

Last night, while chatting with a couple who run a beer and spirits importing business and a whisky sales rep, we found ourselves discussing the curious matter of prejudiced drinkers. No, I don’t mean drunken bigots, but rather that odd breed of individual who swears by one sort of alcoholic beverage to the exclusion of all others.

You know the type, I’m sure. You may even be the type, if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself. They are the people who scorn beer as a plebeian offering, espousing instead the greater glories of fermented grape juice, or complain bitterly about the taste of the big brewery lager they were “forced” to order because the bar had only a slender beer selection on offer.

(This sort of behaviour is rare among spirits aficionados, primarily, I believe, because it’s tough to stick to whisky or gin in all circumstances, although there are those who will dismiss most or even all other spirits in deference to their chosen tipple.)

The oddest part of this behaviour, to me, is the fact that these folk are usually the first to chastise their opposites to their attitudes. “Why can’t restaurants offer me a decent beer?” the self-professed beer lover bemoans, oblivious to the bottles of plonk their wine aficionado friends must endure at their favourite beer bar. Or: “What’s with the fancy beer?” from an oenophile with a cabinet full of $80 a stem wine glasses at home.

In truth, almost all of us are guilty of this attitude to a certain degree, whether it’s dismissing out-of-hand an entire category of drinks – all spirits, perhaps, or lambics or maybe beer cocktails – or swearing that we can’t stomach a certain drink due to an unfortunate teen-years experience. (I have proven several times that the latter is all in the mind, often starting with a cocktail for the individual and then leading them to different flavours in what is usually a spirit category, but always with their full knowledge.) In some cases, it’s simply due to lack of opportunity or access.

In the end, however, drinking is, or should be, all about taste experiences, and so I present you with your challenge for the weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pause at some point to try something new. Not a beer previously unknown to you if you’re a beer aficionado or a new single malt if you’re a whisky geek, but something from an entirely new category. Seek guidance, if you wish, through a specialty bar or a friend with knowledge in a field previously off-limits to you, but approach whatever you pick with an open mind and an unjaded palate, and take your time.

You might just find yourself opening up entirely new and decidedly flavourful horizons.

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Filed under beer diplomacy, drinking quality, lambic, learning about beer, social commentary

Things REALLY Unsuitable for St. Patrick’s Day

I thought I had hit on the high points of St. Patrick’s Day unsuitability with this post. Turns out I wasn’t even close! Here are a few highlights from the current issue of Las Vegas magazine, all being promoted for St. Paddy’s:

– A place called Nine Fine Irishmen is offering free admission to their event to anyone wearing a kilt.

– The Rockhouse at the Imperial palace is featuring green frozen piña coladas!

– $5 Jäger bombs at the PBR Rock bar. Yep, nothing quite so Irish as Jägermeister.

– The Red Shamrock — yes, Red Shamrock — at Tabú Ultra Lounge, which is Jameson, amaretto, simply syrup and cranberry juice.

– But the best of the lot is a St. Patrick’s Day feature at Rice & Company in the Luxor, which will offer a green sushi roll called the Lucky roll. Green…Irish…sushi. Yum.

 

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Filed under alcohol hysteria, social commentary

Things Unsuitable for St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is a week Saturday. I know this because as in years past, but with a ferociousness never before seen, drinks companies from all over are filling my inbox with press releases explaining why their beer/booze/cocktail is what everyone should drink on St. Patrick’s Day. (Thus far, at least, I’ve not received any such missive from a winery, but there’s still a week to go, I guess. Anything is possible.)

Now, I’m not a big St. Patrick’s Day fan, being someone who: a) fails to see the fun inherent in getting falling down drunk; and b) drinks because I like it and/or am enjoying myself with friends, rather than it being an arbitrary day on which a massive marketing machine tells me I must find some place Irish-looking and drink stout and Irish whiskey — or worse, lager adulterated with green food dye! — until I’m legless. Call me a killjoy in you must.

But I’m really not out to ruin anyone else’s fun, just to suggest that at very least the spirit of the day should as much as possible be observed. And that does not mean imbibing the following:

1) Heineken tapped from a home-dispense system. Yes, it’s true, I have actually received a press release explaining that THE thing to drink on St. Patrick’s Day is the famous Dutch beer poured from the ridiculous Krupps home mini-keg tapping device that works only with Heineken mini-kegs. Why someone would buy one of these things in the first place remains a mystery to me, but why someone would do so for an Irish celebration in beyond understanding.

2) Vodka. Multiple companies have sent me missives explaining why their vodka cocktail is THE one to drink this St. Patrick’s Day, but my favourite is the one which suggests making something called the Irish Gold Cocktail, which involves flavouring a sugar syrup with bay leaves and then blending it with vodka and sparkling wine. I suppose the pale green sheen is what’s supposed to make it “Irish.”

3) A Grasshopper. Dale DeGroff calls the Grasshopper a suitable after-dinner drink, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. But for sipping daintily while others around you are quaffing pints of stout? Not so much.

4) A Mojito. I’ve read the release three times now and I still don’t understand how they can possibly make the connection between St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns and a Mojito, but they do.

 

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Farewell 2011, Welcome 2012

Yesterday sort of got away from me and today will largely be spent assembling tonight’s gala dinner ingredients, so my “Looking Back”  series of posts will continue next week.

Am I sorry to see the back of 2011? No, not at all. Although in many parts it was a great year, it also presented some definite challenges, both personal and professional. Besides, why look back when the future remains unwritten?! I am confident that 2012 will be both challenging and rewarding, and my wife tells me that the Year of the Dragon, which begins auspiciously enough on her birthday, is set to be stellar!

So take care of yourselves and your loved ones, all. Spend tonight with just the right mixture of abandon and restraint, and welcome tomorrow with anticipation of what is to come!

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Review: America Walks into a Bar, by Christine Sismondo

Disclosure 1: I am very late with this review. Reason being not the appeal of this read, but rather the odd way my life sometimes rolls. Basically what it boils down to is that I read AWIAB in two parts, then procrastinated dreadfully until now.

Disclosure 2: I know and like Christine Sismondo. She is a lovely lady with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. I have tried, however, not to let that influence my review, although of course it has.

Now, the review…

I have read more than one or two books about the history of bars and taverns in America, including the terrific but heavily academic Taverns and Drinking in Early America, by Sharon V. Salinger, which Sismondo cites in her extensive bibliography. My conclusion from this experience is that it is very difficult to be both illuminating and entertaining in such a tome.

Somehow, with the exception of the first chunk of Part I, Sismondo manages to do this, and it is to her enormous credit that this is a remarkably info-packed book that seems like a light read.

What AWIAB does is guide readers through the development of American society, cultural and political, via the barroom, and in this lies Sismondo’s greatest deception. For although this book is billed “A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” it is actually more a history of revolution and emancipation, suffrage and gay rights, all viewed through the prism of the nation’s watering holes.

So while we are learning about such barroom “innovations” as the trough in front of the bar that allowed men to – ahem! – relieve themselves without needing to abandon their drink, or the glass-free bar that charged only for as much booze as you could slurp through a hose in one breath, we are also getting the inside story on how America came to be what it is today. And also the inside scoop on the many, many interesting characters who got it there.

What may surprise readers is how closely American bar history and assorted other histories intertwine and, indeed, are to a large extent dependent upon one another. But despite the lengthy history of Puritanism, temperance and prohibition in the United States, the nation has never been able to divorce its development from the seductive allure of the demon drink, and as Sismondo teaches us in America Walks into a Bar, stands today as a better country for it.

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Drinking (and Everything Else) May Cause Cancer

Here’s a line from a just-released study on alcohol and cancer risk assessment, led by Paule Latino-Martel, a cancer researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research:

“It can be concluded that there is no level of alcohol consumption for which the cancer risk is null. Thus, for cancer prevention, the consumption of alcoholic beverages should not be recommended.”

Fair enough. I live in a city and am exposed to carbon monoxide fumes every time I leave my condo, so I guess we can also say that, for cancer prevention, leaving my home is not recommended. Neither, I would suppose, is staying put, since who knows what sort of possible carcinogens are pumping through the air vents in my building, or seeping in from other condos where people might be smoking, or worse!

So I’ll move to the country and become a teetotaler, except that the methane from my neighbour’s cows could be carcinogenic, I suppose, and the exhaust from his tractor certainly is. Plus, what about the pesticides the fellow down the road is spraying on his canola crop? Surely carcinogenic.  Best move again, perhaps to the north.

Oh crap! The ozone layer is depleting most rapidly in northern climes, which means that I’ll be an almost sure candidate for skin cancer at some point. Or it might be the diesel exhaust from my snowmobile that will get me.

Final word? For cancer prevention, living should not be recommended.

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Enough With the Post Below

We have had our fun and expressed our incredulity with and regarding Steve “Pour Fool” Body, the “I don’t drink wine with food” bore exposed below. Now I leave the subject, and Mr. Body, with words from his own comment over at Joe Stange’s Thirsty Pilgrim blog:

That is what criticism is all about and everybody has the same remedy for someone they think is an idiot: Don’t Read Them. Problem solved.

I do, and I won’t. Farewell, Mr. Fool.

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An Open Letter to Steve Body, the “Pour Fool”

Dear Mr. Body;

Your blog has recently been twice brought to my attention, first by Rose Ann Finkel after you justly praised the beers of the Pike Brewing Company, and then by my friend Lew Bryson, who penned the defense of session beers you mistakenly attributed to some unnamed shop owner in Bellevue. I see that you have been writing about wine for some time, perhaps less so about beer, and I assume that you are eminently qualified to do so.

I would, however, like to correct a couple of what I see as erroneous positions you have chosen to take.

First, your “stated aversion” to “sessioning.” (I agree that “sessioning” is, at least, a flawed word, but until something better comes along it is, unfortunately, all we have. I deplore the use of nouns as verbs.) A session is, as Martyn Cornell observed in your comments section, a social rather than a drinking occasion, in which more than one beer might be consumed, perhaps as many as five over the course of an elongated session. It is not binge or over-drinking.

I assume that, as a wine writer, you have from time to time enjoyed a bottle of wine with another person over a meal. Perhaps you have partaken of two or three or more bottles with a group. This is the wine equivalent of a session and something I have enjoyed on numerous occasions with my wife, family and friends, even Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine (and one guy I know who is both). Occasionally this leads to overconsumption and great joviality, and a taxi or subway ride home.

I see nothing wrong with that, just as I see nothing wrong with a session infrequently lasting a bit too long. Alcohol is made for celebration, and as one of my writing heroes. M.F.K. Fisher, once suggested, it is important to approach such occasions “with the right mix of abandon and restraint.”

Next, I must comment on your approach to your work, “the same kind of repetitive labor as the guy who looks at the potato chips coming along on a conveyor belt and snatches out the burnt ones.” I am also a professional taster, have been for more than twenty years, except I come to the trade via beer and have thus, I suspect – and apologies if I’m mistaken on this front – sampled far more beers than you. Yet I still view my work with wonder and amazement, and get a thrill each time I find myself in front of something new awaiting discovery.

I have never seen a potato chip QC line, but I’m assuming it is as tiresome and repetitive to oversee as you suggest. My work is anything but that. Rather, tasting for me is akin to wandering through the finest and largest art gallery in the world. Sure, some works are flawed, others are badly hung and fatigue does sometimes set in, but the excitement of coming across a Monet or a Warhol or a Rembrandt makes every step prior well worthwhile, and its prospect keeps the frisson alive.

Finally, on a purely technical note, I would like to encourage you to cease your practice of spitting when you taste beer. Unlike wine, aftertaste is a vital component of beer and one which may only be appreciated by swallowing. It will mean limiting the number of beers you can assess at any given time – I suggest a maximum of ten – but I believe you will find your assessments to be far more accurate.

You may even find yourself moved to try some of the beers you rate again, and again. Perhaps even over the course of a session.

Cheers,

Stephen Beaumont

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Ontario: Beer Store Reveals the Beer Boutique

If you live and drink in southern Ontario, you may have heard that the Molson and Labatt controlled Beer Store (TBS, which is responsible for some 85% of the beer sold in the province) has decided to step into the last century and open an off-shoot called the Beer Boutique, the first outlet of which premiered in Toronto’s Liberty Village last night.

(I know, Sapporo also has a stake in TBS, since the ownership of the erstwhile co-operative is doled out by market share, but let’s face it, control still rests with the big boys.)

Curiosity drove me to attend the media launch, which was packed with print and electronic media, not to mention brewery execs and salespeople. Said I: “Only in Ontario could the opening of a nice beer store be a media event.”

And the Beer Boutique is a nice beer store, make no mistake. Ringed with coolers, atmospherically lit and evidently set up for the future hosting of tasting events and such, TBS has pulled a page from the LCBO’s playbook and created a pleasant environment in which to purchase beer. But that’s it! This is not revolutionary, it does not feature any brands unavailable elsewhere, it is not (as yet) expanding the range of beer choice in the province and it does not offer domestic and imported craft beers any competitive advantage. It is a nice store with beer, period.

The Beer Boutique may improve on some of these fronts over time as more outlets open — I had to leave before the speechifying — but for now it remains just a nice place at which to buy beer. And almost anywhere else in the beer drinking world, that ain’t news.

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