Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lists: RateBeer's Bests of the Year and Pending LCBO Arrivals

I am a few days behind on both of these, but wanted to comment slightly upon each and had to find a moment.

RateBeer has published their annual 'best-of' lists based on public ratings made by an often well-informed crowd-source.  Looking over these lists makes me reflect on a few things:

1) We are extremely fortunate to have barVolo in Toronto.  There are a few others here that I, personally, think should make the list too (more when I, eventually, get to beer bar reviews), but Volo truly is in a class by itself.  World class and deserved of the praise.

2) On the note of praiseworthy: Dieu du Ciel also deserves its ranking as 18th best brewery in the world (and on the Brewpub list), as do Microbrasserie Charlevoix and Unibroue, though I think there are a few other Canadian breweries that are about as good as Unibroue, but that don't make as many Belgian style beers and get a bit less credit (McAuslan for one!).

3) Readers of Malty Tasker are extremely fortunate I am extremely fortunate to have rated three of the top 50 overall beers on this list for you in my short two months here (numbers 5, 43, & 45), yet we are extremely hindered by the LCBO regulations (love them or hate them) insofar as the only other one on the list I have ever even seen for sale here is #40 (though I admit to possibly having missed seasonal releases of some when not looking).  To see what those numbers are, check the lists or the links!

4) I fare a little bit better on the Canadian list having either had/rated or have awaiting a taste in the cellar 22 of the top 50, including 9 of the top 11, though there are some distant (Quebec) seasonals and limited/brewery only beers there that I will have to put in the effort to procure sooner or later!

Tell me in the comments, which you think are the excellent and neglected choices by the ratebeer community...

And in the one other (delayed) news link, the LCBO's Spring 2012 Seasonal Release List looks quite promising, with at least a handful of excellent beers I anxiously await tasting/reviewing and others I will probably enjoy too despite my current ignorance of them!


Friday, 27 January 2012

The Latest Batch of New Brew Reviews: Fürstenberg Pilsner, Raftman, La Chouffe, and Winter Beard

I've had four new (new to me, anyway) beers recently: Fürstenberg Premium Pilsener, Unibroue's Raftman, Brasserie d'Achouffe's La Chouffe, and Muskoka Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout.  Here come some brief thoughts on each.

I am not a huge lager fan, generally, but I do sometimes love a good, dry, pilsener, though not often on a January evening, so maybe I would provide a different review come summer, but Fürstenberg Premium Pilsener (4.8% ABV) pours a very light straw colour with a thick, porous, rocky head with fair retention and slight lacing.  Aromas are of grain and grass and not great, though are certainly style-appropriate, though it admittedly tastes a bit better than the aromas and is sufficiently drying, but a touch watery and 'light-lagerish' on the tongue.  Better than American lagers, but not the best pilsener ever.  In general, I think the Czechs tend to make these better!  Grade: C+

Unibroue's Raftman (5.5% ABV) is quite unique in that it is brewed with whiskey malt and is somewhat in a style of its own.  Style-wise, it is described by the brewer as "Peat-smoked whisky malt ale," though beeradvocate considers it a Belgian Pale Ale, and I'd consider that assessment fair considering its style elements.  Upon pouring, I immediately notice the noisy, bubbling, fizzy head that diminishes as quickly as it comes.  Though this head is inviting, there is no real retention or lacing to speak of.  The body is a deep, hazy copper in colour with a thinly particulate, bottle-conditioned cloudiness - that lends credence to the Belgian style categorization.  Aromawise, this Belgian influence continues as it is remarkably yeasty, mostly of bread, but with hints of spices, sweet malty fruits, and just a faint semblance of smoked peat.  It tastes sweet up front, but not cloying, with a smoky sort of drying that apparently comes from the whiskey malt.  It is fairly full-bodied with thin, but substantive carbonation that makes for a tingly mouthfeel.  It is very pleasantly drying, almost like a perrier (though tasting much different obviously) in its finish and is quite well balanced and thirst quenching, but it isn't as remarkable as I expected, even if there is nothing wrong with it at all!  I suppose, for me, I'd find the uniqueness of the whiskey malt characteristics to go better with a Scotch Ale rather than a Belgian influenced one.  Part of what makes Unibroue (somewhat) unique is their tendency to mix things up, and though this does so - and does so well - it simply didn't feel like 'what it could have been' or perhaps was in my anticipation.  Worth drinking, but for me, not by the case!  Grade: B

La Chouffe is a highly respected Belgian Strong Pale Ale, yet the green glass bottle set me off initially (since it is less effective than brown, if better than clear, at preventing light infiltration).  Coming in at 8% ABV and from a 750ml bottle, this packs a punch and I'm glad I had company to share it with!  It pours a nice frothy white head with good retention and solid lacing.  The body is an almost luminescent amber with quite visible, highly particulate cloudiness.  Aromas are of bananas, cloves, and nutmeg, with yeasty primacy, while the taste is somewhat similar if a touch less malty than expected.  Though good, the aroma tops the flavor, which is a bit muted, though appropriately dry (and perhaps slightly drier than some other examples of its style).  As mentioned, it lacks any strong malt presence, though the yeasty spiciness is readily apparent to eye, nose, and tongue.  Feel-wise, it is very light bodied and a bit crisp - perhaps a touch outside of style norms   A decent example of the style, but not one to write home about if you ask me.  I much prefer Delerium Tremens, and slightly so Duvel, though I think this is better than Affligem Blond, so it's somewhere around average for a very well-respected style - which is to say, it's pleasurable and, for me, its balancing dryness was its finest quality if not its characteristic primacy.  Grade: B

Finally, I come to Muskoka's Winter Beard, a Chocolate and Cranberry-infused Stout (or borderline Imperial Stout at 8% ABV).  I had heard very good things about this beer and love the brewery, so I really wanted to love it (especially with my public imperial stout addiction) and though I did like it, it didn't quite meet the hype for me.  To grant some fairness to this excellent Ontario brewery, I owe it another tasting when I haven't had a St. Ambroise Russian Imperial Stout earlier in the same night, since everything ranks lower after tasting heaven (and since my rating coherence diminishes after an evening of strong beers!).  Anyway, the Winter Beard pours a very dark brown with a thin mocha head with moderate retention and negligible lace.  On the nose, I get coffee and bittersweet cranberries alongside dark fruit, raisins, and figs.  Flavourwise, it is very sweet up front with the infused chocolate being rather obvious, though the hops provides a fairly drying finish - but not enough to call it balanced.  That is, it is sweet and, as a kind of dessert beer so it should be, but it doesn't seem sweet enough to be so unbalanced to me as it is sweet in the (so-infused) bittersweet chocolate kind of way.  That is, I think I'd have enjoyed it more if it was either more balanced (in standard stout terms) or if it had embraced this imbalance with excess sweetness (for dessert) or excessive bitterness as an imperial stout would, but it seemed insufficiently imbalanced if that makes sense?  On the tongue it is fairly full-bodied and sticky, yet simultaneously prickly.  I found it to ultimately be good, but not great, as an imperial stout, and also good, but not great, as a dessert stout.  Certainly something I'd try again, and probably once every Christmas... who knows, it might have been over-hyped for me.  Grade: B-

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Beer Geeks, Macro-Lagers, and Local Alternatives to Corporate Mono(Beer)Culture

I have been wondering the difference between a so-called "beer geek," and a "beer snob," and it strikes me that a key difference relies on imposing one's judgments on others versus offering information that others may find useful - though how to do that and not be perceived as a 'snob' is a tough balancing act, especially since the difference between geekery and snobbery may be solely based on perceptions beyond one's (entire) control.

Sure, some may note, you need not always offer a suggestion, but many a beer geek has found themselves at a beer bar with a pal who wanted a [insert major brewery, preservative-laden, quality-compromised-for-price-reduction-purposes, American pale lager here] only to discover, to their horror and dismay, that none of the entire repertoire of beers they know of are even offered here - so-called 'premiums' like Stella and Heineken included *gasp*!  Yet, you know a similar craft beer that could fit those tastes well, but making such a suggestion is frowned upon.  Thus, my post: to those beer drinkers who enjoy a pale lager (as is certainly your right to do and as I too do on the right occasion with the right beer) I offer the following as thoughts and as segue to the insightful links of the day I wish to share (that partially inspired this post).

The highly respected beer website,, lists 104 different beer styles, yet many beer drinkers have only ever tried around 1 to 3 of them (typically American pale lagers, the virtually indistinguishable American light lagers, and perhaps one dry stout, Guinness).  I know, Alexander Keith's claims to be an India Pale Ale, and Molson Export also purports to be an ale, but both are (entirely or effectively) pale American lagers with no real resemblance to the beer styles they purport to be (but more on that and marketing later).  Moreover, many beer drinkers I know have never tried a single beer not brewed by a Major/Macro/Multinational Brewery.  In Southern Ontario, if you are seeking a pale lager, why not try that Neustadt Springs Lager or Nickel Brook Organic or Steamwhistle Pilsner, or perhaps even another style entirely?

I have a few points in noting this.  The first is that you can't possibly be certain you wouldn't far prefer another style (whether similar/closely related or radically different) without trying one/some example(s) of another style.  The difference between Guinness and Budweiser is arguably less substantial than the difference between a bourbon-aged, smoked imperial stout in comparison to, say, a witbier and both are vastly different from the standard lagers of North America.  If you truly like beer, there is almost assuredly another style, if not many other styles, that will inspire you to broaden your beer horizons.  Maybe you'll return to your pale lagers often or periodically, and maybe you'll simply find other options to occasionally go along with them, but what have you to lose?

I often hear, "I don't like dark beer," and wonder, "would I be perceived as a snob for informing this individual that colour has no, and I mean NO, reflection on the flavour of a beer at all?"  [Thus, I typically censor myself.]  Yes, certain malts, roasted and kilned in specific ways result in specific colours and flavours and, yes, the malt profile of a beer has an effect on beer colour and flavour, but the colour itself does not dictate the flavour any more than it does the process with which that colour was arrived at.  That is, the type of malt and roasting/kilning have an effect on flavour, but two vastly different tasting malts (and processes) can, and often do, produce remarkably different-tasting beers with identical colours.  Many dark lagers taste more like those widespread American standards than an English Brown Ale tastes like a Belgian Dubbel despite much more similar colour characteristics.  In fact, many major brewery 'lagers' are pale coloured only due to added colouring agents that make them appear straw or golden!

On the note of additives, many such Macro-lagers claim "no preservatives," despite using a heavily-chemically-modified hops that is full of countless added preservatives and often include 'colouring agents' that have a preservative effect but need not be labelled as such since they are not added (exclusively, anyway) for that explicit purpose.  In contrast, many craft beers (regardless of style) actually list their ingredients, and take pride in them, rather than hiding them under mass-marketed claims of quality unsupported by evidence!

But, you may ask, just what are the ingredients of beer?  Typically only hops, malted barley, water, and yeast.  Anything else added during the malting stage is called an adjunct, and adjuncts can add to the quality of a beer and are, in fact, requirements of certain styles.  That noted, however, almost every Macro-brewed American Lager uses corn (and sometimes simply the cheaper and more unhealthy alternative, corn syrup) instead of (only very occasionally in addition to) barley.  Perhaps you like that corn taste, and I am being sincere when I say you are welcome to, but did you know that the rationale behind such a change was not to make a better product?  In fact, it is added, self-consciously, to manufacture a cheaper product for higher price points - yet this product often then produces off-flavours and aromas and diminished head, such that flavour/aroma/head-producing additives are again added to mask the off-flavours of this initial product.

It is for the same reason, to mask these bad flavours and aromas, that we are encouraged (and basically required) to drink these beers at an ice cold  temperature since tastes and aromas are highly muted in frigid beers, such that the product no longer tastes or smells like beer.  For me, I am not even sure that anything so made can actually be called a beer, but I won't impose that judgment on you though I will state my opinion.

While a beer snob might tell you that you then can't like these products, I think a well-intentioned beer geek would say, as I intend here, "Did you know you have (often locally-made) alternatives made from whole ingredients by small businesses/brewers that you may never have even heard of because of the marketing power of these multinational behemoths (let alone alternative types of beers to expand the joys of your beer consumption)?"

Ironic how many people identify with a multinational beer brand who otherwise buy local and support small businesses.  However, insofar as many are unaware of the differences - an intentionally disseminated ignorance that supports the interests of large corporate breweries - I think a beer geek typically feels compelled to offer this information to support their local craft industry and to combat manufactured consent, not out of judgment or snobbery.

The (virtual) penning of these thoughts was (perhaps oddly, since only vaguely related) inspired by the debate over the definition of "Craft" beer and some excellent writing on the subject by Jason Foster.  As Foster insightfully notes here, after defining adjuncts as the defining characteristic differentiating craft from non-craft beer, "the difference between craft and non-craft is the INTENT behind the use of the adjunct. Is it a cost-saving, palate-lightening practice? In other words, is it trying to take away from the beer? Or is it an exercise in adding a character to a beer (which, admittedly can include a lighter body)?"  In considering this difference - and the ways a Macro brewery can make craft beer, while a Micro can make fraudulent 'craft' products, as Foster exposes in an absolutely excellent piece here - I got to wondering about my own feelings of support for craft breweries (now) owned by major corporations, such as Granville Island (now owned by Molson-Coors) and Unibroue (now owned by Sapporo).

Perhaps, despite my intentions to avoid beer snobbery, I do embody hypocrisy in embracing a different kind of snobbery, an anti-corporate snobbery that, despite 'knowing better,' gets waylaid when I consider the enjoyment I get from an excellent Unibroue beer (though I only discovered this corporate ownership today, hence my reflections!)  Personally, I don't impose my corporate suspicions on others - as if I could - though I do try to spread awareness of their monopolizing practices, marketing misinformation, union-busting, rights violations, environmental degradation, chemical additives, and more.  I guess in many ways, I feel the same about beer.

I may not entirely boycott Granville or Unibroue, but I will pause at the store and perhaps buy them less often.  Though I agree in still valuing their high quality craft products and their legacy since they procured that esteem by making an excellent product brewed since their days as both a "Craft" brewery and a "Micro" brewery, such purchases ultimately fuel the corporate consolidation machine that has historically stifled smaller business, diminished consumer choice, and hindered product innovation - in beer no less than with other products.  Yet, many excellent, local, craft, microbreweries will never get the chance since they are disadvantaged in competing with the mega-marketing-machines of the Macros, and to that end I will continue to espouse their merits.

On that note, I offer for both your entertainment and the exposure of the marketing myths so widespread in beer production, a link to a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek assessment of the claims of Alexander Keith's 'India Pale Ale.'

Soon, I promise to offer all of the links I can find to Ontario breweries, to their Facebook pages, and to their Twitter feeds since a world without support for the small, local business - no less than support for the beer alternative - is a world I'd rather avoid.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Tasting Dieu du Ciel's Route des Épices, while Garrison Arrives at the LCBO

So, in the desire to have something different, I cracked open my Route des Épices from Quebec's excellent Dieu du Ciel.  This is one unique beer - as if you couldn't tell from the style listing on the label!  This is a red rye ale brewed with peppercorns and is, as far as I'd imagine, alone in this category!  That said, however, we could call this a Rye Beer or even a Spiced Beer with no problems.

The beer itself is a gorgeous deep copper red with a thick, white head.  I'll even note the beautiful, smooth, seamless transition from body to head as the fineness of the bubbles and flowing thickness of the initial carbonation seem so noteworthy.  Head retention is fair and the lacing is fine, though not incredibly long-lasting in lacing.  On the nose this beer has a malty primacy, exemplified by brown sugar, alongside fainter hints of bread, nuts, oak, smoke, and a trace of toffee.  I detect no pepper on the nose, but I devour pepper and may well be immune!  Flavourwise, though, this beer begins like a sweet nut brown with toffee, nut and bread flavours most discernible, yet finishes with a bold, spicy, peppery kick that has a lingering finish and gets stronger with every sip!  This is complimented by a sufficiently balancing hoppy dryness.  On the tongue, it is primarily crisp, tingly, lively and medium bodied, while warming from the sharp spices (but not the moderate 5.3% ABV).  This is a very nice beer, but is assuredly not for everyone.  If you like spices and love pepper, as well as beers with a kick, grab one when you can!  Grade: A-

And, in Ontario beer news, those Garrison brews (mentioned by me here) are about to arrive on LCBO shelves and will last until the end of March or until we devour them!  Apparently, according to The Bar Towel, these beers will only be available at 25 select LCBOs and the list of which can be found in that link.  Let me know if you try any - though I hope to get my hands on all five and write about them shortly thereafter!

But, for now... Cheers!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Beer News Roundup

Today, I mention and link to three interesting news items.

The first... well, it's kind of my duty to mention even if I am a bit reserved about it.  Beer Smith 2, software for home brewers, has been released as an open beta .deb for users of Debian Linux variants (Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, etc) (and is already available for users of the two big-name OSes).  It is always excellent news when niche software comes to GNU/Linux, and I am thrilled to hear it, so why am I reserved?  It isn't exactly standard practice to release shareware for Linux (since it isn't exactly philosophically akin to the FOSS movement), nor to release open beta tests as shareware.  I don't oppose charging (or paying) for the final version (or for its creator to profit from his labour) and, when I get around to home brewing - which I will assuredly eventually do, and you will assuredly hear about - I will try this software before making any such decisions, but I am not sure that its features are that much more substantial than those offered by the entirely free (in both senses, as in beer and speech) Brewtarget and a few web searches. I will, one day, however try both and report back, but unless Beer Smith truly wows me, I can't see paying money for closed-source software if it is only marginally better than a free and open source alternative (that is more in line with my vision of software) that should suffice to fulfill necessary tasks (though I also can't see not trying it out to see since it is free to try!)  But, admittedly, my gut impression might be wrong, and Beer Smith could be the software of my dreams when I turn my learning about home brewing into practice and, if so, I will eat my words, but in the meantime, don't take my skepticism to mean that I don't appreciate this Linux offering, nor that I don't wish to hear from Beer Smith users generally - and Linux ones specifically - about the reasons it is indispensable.  Let me know!  I realize this sounds more negative than I intend it and, to the makers of Beer Smith, it is greatly appreciated that such niche software is available for Linux and, even if I prefer FOSS, I truly do value the availability of wider user choice in software for Linux.  I encourage any brewers out there to try both - and others - and to use that or those which fulfill your needs.

Up next, we have a Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus... Ummm, yes, that is actually the name of a new so-called "Uranal Imperial Stout" from Gravenhurst, Ontario's upstart Sawdust City Brewing.  At 85 IBU and 8.5% ABV this beer, like most imperial stouts, seems extreme for the casual beer drinker!  The brewery says so itself, saying the beer is "2.57 billion SRM... is loaded with rich, sinful flavors of chocolate and espresso... [and] has a big bitter kick... not for the faint of heart."  Yet, they are only brewing 500 litres and it will only be available while supplies last at select beer bars (such as Toronto's barVolo, Burger Bar, and Smokeless Joe's, amongst some venues elsewhere as noted in Sawdust's blog).  There is a hint in the announcement post that it may appear at The Only Cafe's Winter Beer Fest - let's hope since, if you have been reading along, you should be well aware that I love a good Imperial Stout!

Finally, the new Ottawa location of Mill Street's Brewpub (complete with unique beers not available at the Toronto brewpub *sniff, sniff*) has opened it's doors ahead of its official opening Friday.  If you live in Ottawa, you should check this place out for the beers and the view!

That's all for now folks!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Lava: An Icelandic Smoked Imperial Stout

I have had two smoked beers before this one and I was not much of a fan of either - not because I don't like smoked things, in fact I love them, but because they seem to me to have over-smoked the hell out of the beers so that you can taste nothing else.  I mean, they usually have way more smoke than an imperial IPA has hops.  They're like ghost peppers to someone who says, "I like my food to have a little kick every now and then."

Yet, of these two overpowering smoked beers I'd had before, neither was an imperial stout.  So of my cellared options, what made me reach for this extreme option tonight?  I wanted the imperial stout boldness, excessive smokiness be damned!

Thus, I grabbed a Lava, a smoked Russian Imperial Stout, brewed by Ölvisholt Brugghús - a craft brewery situated on an old dairy farm in Iceland within view of an active volcano for whom this beer is both inspired and named.  (As they say on their website, "The active volcano Hekla is visible from the brewhouse door and occasionally, eruptions are visible from the Ölvisholt farm. The bottle label resembles the view from the brewhouse door when an eruption occurs.")

Lava pours a fairly thick jet black with a fair mocha head, with moderate retention and good lace.  The aroma is primarily of deeply roasted chocolate malt, with hints of coffee and smoke alongside an ever-so-faint trace of earthy hops.  Flavourwise, it begins with a grainy mealtimes of remarkably dark, dark chocolate followed by a slight smokiness and moderate earthy hoppiness that keeps it quite dry.  It is fairly full bodied and warming on the tongue as the 9.4% alcohol (by volume) can truly be tasted!  Unlike most smoked beers that overwhelm you, however, the smoke here is much less overt, which is nice, though it is present for both the nose and tongue.  However, much as this appealed to me, I'd say this is an otherwise unremarkable - but good - imperial stout.  That is, it is good for its unique capacity to fill a niche by intentionally intensifying the natural smokiness of a RIS and good insofar as it does that in a smooth and balanced way, but isn't something I'd long for quite like the top RISs.  It is, thus, good but not remarkable, yet simultaneously worth trying for those into smokiness, extreme beers, Russian Imperial Stouts, or who just want something different.  For me, however, it grades well, but not extraordinarily at a Grade: B

Yes, by the way, this beer is available in pint bottles at the LCBO so, if interested, grab one/some while you can!

Okay, I posted this while on my first few sips and am now editing it as I get towards the end of the glass since the coffee notes, cereal hints, and chocolate tastes come more to the fore (in the way a chocolate with alcohol might on your second bite) and I am enjoying it more and more with each sip.  Hence this addition.  Let's call it a B+ for now - though I have one more in the cellar and may reevaluate down the road!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Another Imperial Stout and a Classic Spiced Witbier

Two beers to offer a few thoughts on: Grand River Brewing's Russian Gun Imperial Stout and Dieu du Ciel's highly praised spiced witbier Rosée d'Hibiscus.

First, Grand River's take on the imperial stout style.  As is to be expected, this beer pours a thick, deep, dark brown with a nice light brown head, though the body is perhaps slightly less thick than anticipated.  Its head is only moderately thick with fair retention at best, but excellent lace that rings the glass throughout.  Aromas of coffee, chocolate, and deep, smoky, roasted malts meet the nose.  Flavor-wise, it is similar, with a coffee bitterness that is extended by a long, dry, hoppy finish.  Medium-bodied (and here, perhaps lighter than anticipated) and slightly tingly on the tongue, but warming while slightly astringent.  A nice beer and, while not the best imperial stout on the planet, it is assuredly enjoyable enough. Grade: B+

Dieu du Ciel beers are often worth their high praise and it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I embarked on the consumption of their Rosée d'Hibiscus that had been waiting for me!

And why was I so ambivalent?  Well, it is from a great brewery, is highly praised, is considered to both exemplify the style and expand it by being bottle-conditioned, adding spices, and an aromatic flavouring of hibiscus flowers that make it unique... yet, I do not really enjoy witbiers.

So, from this place of ambivalence, I can offer the following:

This is one remarkable witbier!  The body is a very odd, almost glowing pink/orange in colour, while cloudy with thin particulate matter (unfiltered wheat and bottle-conditioned yeast).  It pours a fizzy, auditory white head with moderate retention and negligible lacing that allows for requisite aromas of bananas, spices, and just a hint of the hibiscus esters.  The flavor is balanced, mostly like a standard wit and not overpowered with hibiscus, spices, or the bottled yeast that makes this beer unique.  It is, appropriately, quite fizzy on the tongue and pleasurable enough to consume.  Nice for a witbier, but for me it is just that... A witbier.  That said, it is the best of the style (and the only of its unique variation on the style) that I have ever had, so if you like witbiers, this is clearly an A+, though for me, it is more like a B- not because it's bad but because, as good as it is, I'd probably prefer a mediocre ale of about 16 different styles before I'd order another witbier.  Glad I had one, now back to my usual tastes!

Southern Ontario Beer News & Upcoming Events Roundup

Apparently, the LCBO will soon be stocking a handful of beers from Halifax's Garrison Brewing, including their Black IPA, Grand Baltic Porter, Winter Warmer, Pilsner, and Spruce Beer.  Though I have had none of these seasonal releases of Garrison's, I have had a few of their fine beers and this is certainly a solid craft brewery and I intend to try each of these offerings while they are available in Ontario.  I shall report back!

On the events front, three have caught my attention, but others will no doubt arise:

The first is The Only Cafe's Beer Fest slated for February 3rd and 4th, which will include sampling booths for at least 14 Ontario craft breweries, plus guided tastings, live music, and a meet and greet with Taps Magazine folks.  Oh, and British Columbia's Central City Brewing, and Quebec's highly praised Dieu du Ciel (!!!), and Microbrasserie Charlevoix (brewers of the esteemed Dominus Vobiscum Abbay ales!!) will be represented as well by Keep6Imports!  I just might have to attend both days... and not leave!  Fortunately, The Only has a backpacker's inn so I won't have to leave!  I promise to report back, but don't expect detailed notes - especially if Peche Mortel (at 9.5%) shows up in nitro taps!

Second, is Great Lakes Brewery's Project X, a regular event held the second Thursday of every month (at 9pm I believe?) that always offers a one-off cask/real ale alongside samplings of numerous other beers and paired food.  Each event costs $10 and requires a $10 membership (that comes with a T-Shirt).

Finally, if you just can't wait to try the new Innis & Gunn Irish Whisky Cask Stout (or have an overwhelming desire to drink I&G paired with haggis), The Monk's Table is hosting a reservation-only Innis & Gunn/Haggis paired dinner tasting on January 24th.  I probably won't be making this one, but would love to hear your thoughts!

If you know of more interesting craft beer events in the Southern Ontario area, feel free to share them in the comments.  I will report back on any of these I get to...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sunday Afternoon Beers at the Brewery Market

Yesterday I attended my first Brewery Market event at Wychwood Barns (at St. Clair and Christie in Toronto's central-west-end) and I will provide my thoughts here on the space, the event, the atmosphere, the music, the food, and - of course - the beer!

The Brewery Market takes place at The Stop Community Food Centre (in their Green Barn) as a semi-regular Sunday afternoon event, offers only Ontario craft brewery beers (one or two breweries per event), allows tastings of new and/or one-off specially-brewed beers just for the event, and raises funds for the "The Stop’s many healthy food initiatives, which include community kitchens and gardens programs, community advocacy, urban agriculture projects, sustainable food systems education and peri-natal care programs."

The space itself is an excellent one - if admittedly better for summer weather than yesterday's pleasantly wind-free, but still minus 10 winter chill.  The indoor area is quite small with only two tables and a few benches.  Though sufficient for The Stop's food offerings and the beer serving bar, it got a bit tight since more people were crammed into the smaller indoor space than the larger outdoor one.  Outside, a fire served to keep attendees warm, while both indoors and out provided an excellent atmosphere, reminiscent of a visit to a sugar shack - with excellent beer - and felt like an excellent afternoon outing for the family.  Many kids, of all ages, were present too (including my 12-week-old) who enjoyed the atmosphere and food while their parents had a much needed drink alongside a pleasant weekend excursion.

The food/non-alcoholic drink on offer consisted of vegetarian chili, chili dogs, hot chocolate and marshmallows for the fire (or your hot chocolate).  The dogs themselves were excellent high quality all-beef and the chili was quite good, while both could be supplemented by a home-made chipotle sauce that fired things up a bit.  While the food was good, I had two slight complaints: the portions were rather small for the price and, since my breastfeeding wife cannot eat beans which make the baby too gassy, there should have been a cheaper rate for the dog-sans chili which cost us the full price.  All-in-all, though, these critiques are minor and this makes for an excellent afternoon snack.

Two solo musicians (guitarist/singers) entertained the indoor crowd, though with only acoustic guitars and unamplified vocals, they could really only be well heard before the crowd built throughout the afternoon.  The artists, Adale Dahli and Amy Nostbakken both brought excellent voices, songs, and spirit (in the singer-songwriter vein) that added to the event while advertising the Big Smoke Music Festival of which they are a part, and which seems like another great one to attend (does it have craft beer, though?).

Beer-wise, everything was good, if strong and I won't be offering elaborate reviews (both since they were all one-offs and since I was too busy socializing to take detailed notes).

Cheshire Valley Brewing offered an English Barleywine (at 9% ABV) and a Strong Scottish Pale Ale (at 8.5% ABV).  In brief, the Barleywine was a very good representative of the style that was remarkably balanced and was, to me, the better of their two offerings, though the Scottish Pale was nice too - smoky, and sweetly malty, though it was the lightest beer on offer at the event and the alcohol was most discernible which to me detracted slightly from the 'strengths' of this otherwise fine beer.

Great Lakes Brewery brought a wider variety of beers: Apocalypse Later (a black imperial IPA at 10.2% and 98 IBU), Dude Where's My Czar? (a vanilla-bean-infused Russian Imperial Stout with 11% ABV and 100 IBU), A Waste of Men (a 12% Old Ale), and an American-style Barleywine with a whopping 140 IBU.  The barleywine, for me, boasted far too much imbalance and indiscernible hoppy bitterness for my tastes, though the Apocalypse Later had a more nuanced bitterness with strong notes of grapefruit in the nose and tongue.  The Waste of Men old ale was quite good and reflective of the style, if way beyond in ABV, and the Dude Where's My Czar was clearly the winner of the day: a favourite of all 6 in my party and the first beer to sell out at the event on the whole.  It was very well balanced - extremely malty, and extremely hoppy, yet neither excessively egregious, both matched by the strengths of the other.  Smoky cereal and faint vanilla notes smoothed out the grassy hops and the alcohol was virtually undetectable.  An excellent beer - brew it again!

That's all for now, but keep in mind that the next Brewery Market event will be held on March 18 with details to come.  Hope to see you then, for it promises to be a wonderful way to spend a Sunday once again!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

One Mighty Bold and Tasty Beer: St. Ambroise Stout Impérial Russe

My first experience with a Russian Imperial Stout was underwhelming.  Kinda like when one tastes a bad American IPA (or a poorly spiced chicken wing) and the only thing you can find to describe the taste is "Holy shit that's hoppy (or spicy)" as if hops (or spice) on its own were enough of a flavour/balance to be pleasurable.  That said, some of the best meals I have ever eaten were spicy as heck and some of the best beers boast hops in ridiculous quantities, yet they smooth those flavours out with others that make the harshness appealing in its balance.

St. Ambroise's Stout Impérial Russe, from McAuslan Brewery in Montreal, Quebec, is one of those beers and it is currently available at the LCBO for a limited time for $5.95 and I strongly suggest you try one!

For those who don't know, the history of Russian Imperial Stouts (an English beer style oddly enough) is similar to that of India Pale Ales - that is, both are heavily hopped and of higher alcohol content to withstand the ancient shipping methods to their places of consumption.  In this case, Russia's Catherine II allegedly adored the porters of trend that were in her day readily available in London and had some shipped back only to discover they had spoiled.  Thus, she got them to add the preserving hops and spike the alcohol so she and her peers could enjoy them in Moscow.

The St. Ambroise version (brewed annually in limited quantities and aged in Bourbon barrels) pours an oily black into a style-appropriate snifter glass I used for it.  It leaves a thick, but smooth and creamy brown head with a lot of clinging lace.  The head offers a nice platform for the predominant malty/oak aroma of vanilla alongside the lesser hints of coffee and chocolate, alongside a smooth smokiness and just a faint hint of grainy cereal.  The flavor is of smoky dark chocolate and deeply roasted espresso up front and is followed by a drying yet grainy finish.  On the tongue, it is creamy and warming, with a fairly full body and just a finely tingling carbonation.

This is a very, very fine beer!  It is, however, bitterly dry in the ways hinted at above: that is, like a spicy curry but one that is so tasty the spice is irrelevant, like a hoppy-as-hell IPA with such nice citrus notes you can't help but drink more.  This is one of those bold-yet-not-only-bold beers that must be tried, though I can't say all will enjoy.  Those who will enjoy it, though, will probably adore it.  If you like bitter espresso and American IPAs, you must try this beer!  I wish I could afford to buy many more... perhaps just one more this year as I await next year's vintage!  Buy one, try one, but make sure at least one more remains for me!  Grade: A

The Highs and Woes of the Ontario Craft Beer Industry: Beer News in Review

In a story from today's Toronto Star, thOntario Craft Brewers Opportunity Fund (which provided $8 million annually to Ontario's craft breweries in order to help them compete with the multinational macro-brewing behemoths) has been cut entirely as the government attempts to rein in its deficit.

Now, I understand fiscal responsibility, but $8 million is negligible compared to the Ontario coffers and we certainly don't need more of the very macro-lager-monopolizing that this move will help stimulate by diminishing interesting, local, craft competitors.

Sure, maybe in tough times our governments need not prioritize beer, but what about local small businesses?  Corporate tax cuts for the macro-multinationals presumably amount to far more than $8 million to begin with - though I admit to not having researched any figures.

What I know for sure is that ideas like this one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which would allow beer gardens to open in public parks in order to generate revenue for the government sounds like a great one to me, and one that would more than recoup this cost in order to not only support small businesses (and quality beer) but which would also provide more incentive to go to the park.

I am, of course, kidding slightly, but only slightly, though fears of rampant craft brewery closures in these hard economic times does depress me, as would the resulting unemployment of those who are currently employed by local Ontario businesses.  And to those who would respond that they should then get new jobs at, say, Molson-Coors, aren't you the very same people who have "Buy Canadian" bumper stickers?  What is more 'Canadian' than a locally-owned and sourced business?

I need a beer.

In other, more uplifting beer news, Railway City has released more of their Black Coal Stout, which sold out promptly after its first release and it should have!  I had the opportunity to taste it last night at The Only Cafe and, it is simply delicious!  Full of bitter coffee notes on the tongue alongside some dark chocolate and a chewy-creaminess that makes a beer fan want more!  That said, at 48 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) it is not for the faint of heart, nor those whose idea of coffee is a double-double or who think milk chocolate equals high quality.  It is bold, but damn is it good!  Grade: A-

Monday, 9 January 2012

Two Interesting Links: Mill Street Irish Red and Identifying & Returning Bad Beers

I might otherwise have written about these stories individually, especially since they are so disconnected, but they were so well written about by others that I thought I'd link to them individually.

First, as points out, Mill Street (an excellent Toronto and Ottawa brewery/brewpub) is now offering an Irish Red Ale (a favourite style of mine!) named Bob's Bearded Red Irish Style Ale on draught only at the brewpub and, perhaps, only one other location!  I gotta get there pronto!  I will let you know when I do.

In a completely disconnected story, since Mill Street never has and never would serve a bad beer, has a very useful article with a graphic chart that is well worth reading on common signifiers/identifiers for bad beer and etiquette for returning one at a bar.  The article is titled, "When Craft Beer Goes Bad: A Guide to Refusing a Beer."

Friday, 6 January 2012

Three Quebec-Brewed Belgian Reviews: La Terrible, Dominus Vobiscum Double & Chambly Noire

Since I seem to be drinking more beer than I find time to write about, three brief(-ish) reviews follow.  What binds these beers together for this review is both that they are all Quebec-brewed versions of popular Belgian (Trappist/Abbay) styles and that I have drank them all within the past few days!

Unibroue's La Terrible, a bottle conditioned Dark Belgian Strong Style Ale which checks in at 10.5%, is a very good representative of the style from outside the Abbays, but, in my opinion, falls a bit short of the original Belgian products it draws its inspiration from.  The beer itself is dark brown in color with a quickly receding off-white to beige head that leaves a very smooth lace.  Aromas of figs, plums, port, and alcohol meet the nose.  As with the aroma, the flavor is equally sweet and malty, but also includes hints of cherries, plums, and yeasty spices that are much less present on the nose.  Full bodied, yet simultaneously creamy and warming in a lingering/fairly drying finish a bit like a nice dry wine.  It is perhaps drier than typical of the style, which is again subject to personal preference.  Grade: B+

I have heard much of the greatness of the Dominus Vobiscum Belgian-style beers brewed by Microbrasserie Charlevoix, but had yet to try one.  Their Dominus Vobiscum Double is the first of their beers for me to taste (since my preference for Dubbels always makes me try them first) and, judging by this product, these beers are almost of Trappist quality such that I anxiously await trying more!  This beer pours a beautiful ruby red in colour, with a decent tan-colored head and a good amount of lace.  Aromas are primarily of dark fruits, plums, figs, raisins and anise, and the yeasts are much less prevalent than in some Belgian style beers masked by the extreme malty primacy - which could be seen as a detraction from the style accuracy, but to me is appealing since it maximizes the fruity aromas.  Tastewise, this beer continues this malty sweetness, but the alcoholic warmth and slight dryness prevents it from being cloying.  Hints of brown sugar go along with the dark fruit and licorice.  On the tongue, this fairly full-bodied beer is a bit syrupy, yet smooth and just warming enough so as to invite further sips/swigs.  A very, very good beer! The praise is well-deserved!  Grade: A-

Returning to Unibroue, I was slightly disappointed by their Chambly Noire, which has an ABV of 6.2%.  It offers a very slight off-white head with negligible lacing and a very dark brown body. Aromas are yeasty and malty, but not particularly sweet, more bitter, spicy, and alcoholic.  On the nose, this beer is also somewhat sour, with notes of sour plums.  For its purported style, the taste is not very complex.  In fact, I was quite disappointed.  It basically offers a yeasty spiciness with a slight hint of sour fruit, but little of complex excellence and much less malty fruitiness than one would expect of the style.  Moreover, the slight sourness (in both aroma and flavour) are not indicative of the style (making me slightly wonder if I'd received a bad bottle).  Low carbonation for the style as well as a thinner body than I was anticipating are further examples of this ill-fit, in my assessment.  Not bad, per se, but far less enjoyable than I'd imagined and not very representative of the style parameters.  Grade: C+

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Gawd in Heaven, What a Brewpub! The Dieu du Ciel Visit

As mentioned in my New Year's Eve Post, I recently got the opportunity to once again consume excellent beer at Montreal's Dieu du Ciel for the first time!  I say this since I have been there before, but not since many years ago, long before I knew anything about what I was drinking.

Though I will offer some brief comments on the beers I ordered (and those of my friend's, whose pints I sipped), the quantity of beers and quality of company limited my note-taking and so, I begin with my first Beer-Bar review.

For these reviews, I will consider the mood/atmosphere, the food, the service, the price, the beer selection/quality, and an overall assessment.

Mood/Atmosphere: I arrived at 7 pm for dinner and some beer only to find the joint perfectly packed, which is to say one single table remained and we quickly procured it for the evening.  A merry, lively crowd filled the pub which is met by black walls and a glassed off area of brewing containers.  It was pleasant in appearance and atmosphere, thereby prompting greater anticipation.  A slight mess in the washroom and the need for a bit more space are the only brief pitfalls here.  Grade: A-

Food: The beef sandwich I ate was decent, with a very nice toasted panini, while the accompanying homemade kettle chips it was served with were excellent, but considering it was my third choice out of 5 sandwiches on the limited menu and the other two were out of stock, I was a bit disappointed (especially at being effectively 'forced' to resort to beef which I rarely consume).  That said, I can't really say how good those would have been if they were there!  Grade: C+

Service: We had two servers over our time there.  The first was overworked and was initially, though understandably, a bit slow in getting us menus, but brought the food and drinks promptly, and was happy to find brief moments to discuss the beer options knowledgeably and to even briefly chat about beer more generally.  Our second server had a diminished workload, as more staff began shifts, yet somehow seemed less available, making us wait quite a while at payment time and seemed pushy without stated rationale for why we should order which beers (without really acknowledging my statement that, "I had that one earlier.")  Sad that, though the first would basically get an A and the second a C-, things have to average such that this area gets a Grade: B- to B

Price: Sure, it was a bit more expensive than that shitty place down the block with specials of [Insert Crappy Macro-Brewed Lager Name Here] each night, but it was quite affordable for world-class craft beer with pints (or 330ml glasses depending on the beer) for $6 to $7 each, and sandwiches for just a bit more. Grade: A-

Beer Selection (and Availability): As a brewpub, only Dieu du Ciel's own beers were, understandably, available and not all of them, but a solid spread of 17 rotating taps and one cask (alongside wine and liquor, though who goes to Dieu du Ciel, let alone Malty Tasker, for that?)  Still wish I could find a Rigor Mortis Abt there or in bottle, but I understand that their rotating selection and seasonal brewing makes this inevitable.  Many different options for different drinkers, and far superior in quantity and diversity of options to most brewpubs (not to mention quality).  Grade: A

Beer Quality: Though the difference between one standard craft beer bar and another in this category may be effectively negligible and, hence, almost irrelevant, at a brew pub this is crucial and Dieu du Ciel is world class.  Simply considering the ratings of their offerings at Beer Advocate and RateBeer demonstrate this, yet the beers speak for themselves.  I tasted Aphrodisiaque (Cocoa/Vanilla Stout 5% ABV), Rigor Mortis de Table (Belgian Strong Pale Ale 8% ABV), Première Neige (Aniseed/Nutmeg/Pepper Witbier 5% ABV), Voyageur des Brumes (ESB 5% ABV), Solstice D'été aux Mangues (Sour Wheat Beer with Mango 6.5% ABV), Isseki Nicho (Imperial Dark Saison 9% ABV), Cornemuse (Scotch Ale 8% ABV), and Péché Mortel (Imperial Coffee Stout 9.5% ABV).  I will make a few brief comments and give style-specific ratings for each after the pub review concludes.  Grade: A+

Overall: If not for the out-of-stock food and second server, I'd be giving this place an A+, but those could be anomalies.  Further, considering that beer is the primary factor for consideration, the hit is negligible and my first real impression must be a Grade: A

This brewpub is the best of Canadian brewpubs (at least that I have ever explored).  A must-visit for those (ever) in Montreal!

Brief Beer Thoughts:
Aphrodisiaque: A fine stout with some fine sweet elements, though I took no notes as I have a bottle at home which merits a more full review soon!  Grade: A-

Rigor Mortis de Table: Quite yeasty and spicy, though with solid citrus aromas and drying hops.  Not my first choice of Belgian style, but excellent and more enjoyable for me than most in a style I typically only enjoy moderately.  Grade: A-

Première Neige: The pepper flavouring is quite unique, yet though I love pepper I actually think it slightly detracts here from what is otherwise an exemplary Witbier (though it is far from my preferred style).  Grade: B-

Voyageur des Brumes: Nice, decently drying.  Darker than imagined and hoppier than UK versions of the style, but unique and good on its own terms Grade: B

Solstice D'été aux Mangues: Only a mild hint of mangoes as this is more characterized by a fair lemon aroma and moderate sourness alongside a tart lemon finish.  Not my preferred style but very good for what it is and enjoyable Grade: B+

Isseki Nicho: Quite nice and spicy.  Darker and stronger than typical, though very well balanced and masking of its strength.  Having taken only mental notes and this being my first of many strong beers, well, I forgot more than that said above and loving this, thus I anxiously await the opportunity to try this again and comment more coherently! Grade: A

Cornemuse: Fantastic!  Very peaty, yet malty-sweet.  Poor head retention, but otherwise nearly perfect!  A bit maltier than usual and, hence, not quintessential or exemplary of the style exactly, but probably the best of a dozen or so Scotch Ales I have ever tasted!  Unique in that Dieu du Ciel way such that I had two!  Grade: A+

Péché Mortel: Yes, I have had this (and reviewed it on here) just a week or so ago, but I had to try it on a nitrogen tap for the enhanced creaminess.  This is, quite simply, the best coffee stout, imperial stout, or imperial coffee stout I can imagine (yes, there are many more to try, but this is nonetheless stellar even if others compare!)  Were it not for the calories, carbs, and alcohol, this would become my morning coffee.  Even better on tap, if you can imagine that.  53rd highest ranked beer in the world according to BA right now for obvious reasons!  Grade: A+

Sunday, 1 January 2012

On the Belgian Quad Front: St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Rochefort 10

For those who are unaware, Westvleteren 12 as brewed by the Trappist Monks at the Abbay of St. Sixtus, is often considered/ranked as the 'best beer in the world.'  Yet, this quadrupel (like the dubbel, Westvleteren 8, and their Blonde) are extremely rare and typically only sold either at the Abbay itself, or on the grey market.

However, after World War II, St. Sixtus contracted the commercial brewing of 'Westy 12' (and the 8 and blonde) to St. Bernardus in nearby Watou.  Though the official commercial brewing agreement has ended, St. Bernardus has continued brewing beer with what is presumed to be the identical recipe of Westvleteren 12 and which uses the original Westvleteren yeast (though Westvleteren has allegedly now moved to Westmalle's yeast) under the name St. Bernardus Abt 12.  Apparently, these beers are remarkably similar and, though I have yet to get my hands on a Westy, the SAQ has provided me with the opportunity to taste both the St. Bernardus Abt 12 and, another highly praised Trappist Quadrupel, Rochefort 10.

The St Bernardus Abt 12 (10.5% ABV) pours a thick white frothy head, but one that recedes fairly quickly.  However, a slight semblance of head remains atop throughout the beer's consumption and a quickly-receding but smooth-looking lace trails the glass edges.  The beer itself is cloudy brown, perhaps appearing darker than it is due to the free-floating yeasts inside the bottle and glass.

The aroma is dominated by malt (alongside the yeast) and resulting scents of fig and fruit, especially raisins and grapes.  Slight brown-sugar and caramel traces follow, though these are much less predominant than the fruitiness that stands out.  Yet, the aroma is complex and, especially with the aging capacities of such a beer, I presume different with each tasting (sniffing?).

Dark fruitiness and yeasty spiciness dominate the fore-flavours, though it closes with a faint semblance of bitter dark chocolate that isn't excessively drying due to the remaining thick malty fruitiness.  Much like the aromas, the complexity of the flavour and its 'age-ability' indicate the opportunity for different realizations with every sip and serving.

On the tongue, it is medium-bodied with only slight carbonation.  It is slightly creamy and warming.  Though the alcohol can be felt and tasted perhaps more than in a Rochefort 10 or La Trappe Quadrupel, it is still very drinkable and certainly doesn't overwhelm you with its alcohol the way a lesser strong beer might.

A very, very good and complex beer.  Grade: A

Why not an A+?  Because the Trappistes Rochefort 10 gets that!  On different days, at different times, I found the Rochefort 10 to be the better beer, though I intend to both age some (of each) and try a blind tasting at some point to confirm my initial suspicion.

The Rochefort 10 (11.3% ABV) pours a darker head than the Bernardus which displays a beige colour alongside better retention (though with negligible lacing).  Colour-wise, this beer is remarkable: a gorgeous deep red that seems partially browned by the floating yeasts, but the two colours seem to both remain present and complement each other rather than blending in a way I have never before seen.

The yeasty and malty aromas of quadrupels generally are present, with fruits, figs, and plums being primary, though the secondary notes of chocolate and coffee are more discernible than in the Bernardus and this is one slightly more desirable quality for me (in differentiating two fantastic beers!)

The taste again benefits from the secondary strengths, in my opinion.  While still fruity, this is accompanied by bready malt and a sweet chocolate finish alongside a sufficiently drying hoppy floral flavour.  The sweetness is probably greater, but so too is the balance.  The complexity here again means that I might reevaluate this ranking given a different day.

This beer is thicker, creamier, chewier, and more full-bodied than the Bernardus, yet even though it is stronger, it better disguises its warmth and alcohol (again, not that the Bernardus is bad at this, just less great!).  Grade: A+  That said, this grade is for the style.  A fantastic beer, but I slightly prefer the Rochefort 8 since, as said before, there is something about the dubbel style that I generally, slightly, prefer to the quad.

I promise to give another assessment of these complex, living beers as they age.  I will probably try them again both blind and over the next year or two and will link back here to further the discussion.

Which quads have you had?  Which do you prefer and why?  Let me know!