Sunday, 29 July 2012

Two Fine Limited Offerings from Pit Caribou and Brasserie Dunham

Having just picked up an enjoyed a seasonal offering from Dunham and a one-off from Pit Caribou, I thought I'd share some thoughts while they may still remain on some store shelves.

First, Dunham's seasonal Stout Impériale Russe a l'Érable (8.5% ABV) pours a jet black with a small mocha head of fair retention and negligible lace.  The nose is mostly of chocolate and smoke, with just a faint trace of the maple, while the taste has a hint of the maple up front but has a quite dry smoky, dark chocolate, piney finish keeping the maple from being overly sweet or dessert-y.  It is fairly thick, creamy and chewy and, hence, would show well on nitro.

Usually I am not one to buy into seasonal beer styles, generally feeling that if a beer is good it is good anytime.  However, I have found myself lately realizing that I prefer an IPA on a hot Summer day to an imperial stout even though I generally prefer imperial stouts.  There is something to the feeling of warmth in the winter.  Yes, a good beer is still good in any season, but I am wondering why this is a summer seasonal?  I get that maple sugar is harvested in late winter/early Spring, but it keeps, and at the very least this beer might show better in Spring or Autumn, if not Winter.  That said, however, it is a fine beer at anytime, but I might buy more of them if I could in another season - though maybe I'll grab a few and sit on them a while!  Grade: B+/A-

Next, I come to Pit Caribou's one-off 5 Bière Anniversaire (7% ABV), a sour in the style of a Flander's Red.  Excellent foamy three-finger off-white head of good retention and thick, clingy lace sits atop a quite brown body.  Aromas of tart cherries and currants greet the nose, with sour acids being unmistakably obvious as well.  The taste is nicely tart with currant notes and an acidic, tannic, wine-like drying finish with no discernible hops presence.  Medium bodied with low-medium carbonation, and a lightly tingly feel, it is slightly astringent, but pleasingly so.  Having had about a handful of Flander's Reds (and liking them all), I'd have to say this one is quite good.  It is no Rodenbach Grand Cru, but it is worth the $5.59 pint-bottle price and is a rare treat indeed!  Grade: A-/A

Get'em while they're hot er cold or available, even!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Vices & Versa and Then Some: A Day of Delicious Treats

Having just had one of the best beer days of my life (yesterday), I thought I'd share the charms with you all!

I began writing this while sitting on the terrasse of one of Montreal's premier beer pubs, Vices & Versa, savouring what was easily the best flight I have ever had and then had another with some overlap due to the overwhelming success of the first!

Individual beer reviews follow, but first the establishment: this place is gorgeous, with a clean wooden, homey interior and a fine, secluded back patio/terrasse that is mostly empty this fine afternoon.  32 draft offerings fill a unique Quebec-only craft menu that is remarkable in selection and worthy of the trip alone.  This place is certainly deserved of its accrued praise and is perhaps more hospitable than many a beloved beer bar (at least on a pleasant summer afternoon!).  The flights offer 6 five-ounce samples for $14.  For essentially two pints of such quality rare draught beer, this is not bad in the least.  The staff is courteous and friendly, despite my insufficient French, and welcomes me along with that extra bit of suggestion that is always most appreciated.

For my first flight, I sampled the following:

Broadway Pub Célébration Ambrée (6% ABV) is simply marvellous, pouring a thin white head of fair retention and lacing atop an amber body.  Aromas of yeast are slightly present alongside a predominant biscuity/nutty malt with traces of caramel.  The biscuits remain present on the tongue alongside a (still malty imbalanced) drying finish that is slightly herbaceous.  It is very smooth and light up front before the sweetness kicks in and dries out just enough to invite the second sip.  It is but lightly carbonated, yet somewhat crisp.  As my first offering from the Shawinigan brewpub, I am most intrigued!  Grade: A

Brasserie Dunham Brown Ale (5% ABV) continues my rate of chosen successes at this Mile End pub!  Pouring an excellent creamy white head of noteworthy retention and smooth lacing atop a dark brown body, this fine brew offers strong aromas of coffee alongside some chocolate, biscuit, and caramel notes.  Just a phenomenal nose!  Despite no hops on the nose, this beer offers a decently drying finish to similar up-front sweetness in a US style.  It is quite creamy with moderate carbonation and body and is remarkably drinkable!  Grade: A+

Microbrasserie du Lievre's Cervoise (5% ABV) is an apparently undefinable border-style Belgian beer somewhere between a saison and a Flanders red that pours a cloudy light amber with a fair white head of moderate lace and retention. Or at least that was my guess on style until I asked my server. It is apparently an otherwise extinct unstyled herbed beer without hops (hence my uncertainty) though the herbs and yeast provide the pleasant dryness.  Slightly sweaty yeast and a very attractive sweet-and-sour pear greet the nose.  It tastes marvellous, offering a pleasing sweetly sour cherry note with a drying, yeasty-herby finish.  Very, very nice indeed!  Grade: A+

Next came Brasserie Dunham's Pale Ale Américaine (6.5% ABV) which I had had before, but in a tiny sample.  This fine beer presents a gorgeous white head of excellent retention and lacing atop a lightly amber body.  Aromas of grapefruit and orange citrus with some floral notes greet the nose alongside a slight grainy/cereal-like malt.  Very dry grapefruit notes finish an only slightly-malty sweet beginning, while the body is fair and lightly carbonated resulting in a very creamy and drinkable dry beer that is much like an amped-up Black Oak Pale Ale.  Grade: A-

Continuing my pleasant Dunham tastings, I then had their IPA Anglaise (5% ABV) which showed a nice smooth white head of fair retention and lace with an amber body.  It had a very mild nose of only faint malt sweetness and light piney hops, though tasted malty sweet up front with a nuanced, fairly drying, yet indescribably mildly-bitter and herbaceous finish.  Fairly thin in carbonation and medium bodied, this is a highly drinkable IPA, but as good as it is, it simply pales beside the others in this superb flight!  Grade: B+

 Finally, I come to Dunham's Black IPA (5.7% ABV), another tasted previously in just a tiny sample, which rests an excellent creamy beige head of phenomenal retention and simply unparalleled creamy lace atop a dark brown body.  This is the best looking head I have ever seen!  Moderate aromas of sweet chocolate, caramel and cereal grains come first before the more substantial and complex grapefruit, herbs, and spice of the hops characteristics that follow and develop as it is consumed.  On the nose and appearance, this is - hands down - the best black IPA I have yet encountered and the taste is still great if a bit less so than these first qualities though still deliciously complex.  Here it is briefly 'caramelly' up front before an even more bittering, spicy, herby and piney drying finish with a touch of citrus.  This is an excellent beer I would give an A+ if I could drink more than one, but the dryness (bordering on astringency) is a touch too much for me if style appropriate (though intense).  Hop-heads are sure to love it, and even moderate hop-fans will praise their one pint limit!  Grade: A/A+

My next flight included an additional Cervoise and Dunham Brown since they were so good, but also included the following:

Bilboquet Métaver Rousse (5% ABV) started it off with a nice white head with some lace and fair retention alongside a deep amber body.  The nose was met with a slightly nutty caranel malt that was almost peaty in its richness.  Tastewise, it was fairly dry and piney with little of the sweet notes though wasn't strongly bitter and it offered a medium carbonation with a lighter body than anticipated.  It was fine and enjoyable, but not remarkable.  Grade: B

Next came another from the Broadway Pub: La Sein d'Esprit Dunkelweizen (5% ABV) which was quite yeasty and sweaty to the nose with some pepper and coriander notes faintly hidden beneath.  It appeared with a darkly cloudy amber body that was lighter in colour than anticipated.  It was peppery and spicy in the mough with an almost candy-apple like sweetness preceding that but which was all overshadowed by a spicy/nearly salty dry finish that was a bit excessive for me (not IPA dry, but too much for a dunkel for me).  It was quite carbonated, as expected, and medium bodied.  Though enjoyable on its own terms it missed the boat a bit for my personal tastes since it was more weizen and less dunkel - the opposite of my tastes in a dunkelweizen!  Grade: B-/B

Broadway Pub made the cut again with their La Tchucke Tripel (7% ABV) which was surprisingly clear and golden while topped by a nice white head of solid retention and quickly-receding lace.  Spicy yeast aromas of fermenting pear dominated, while the tongue was met with sweet fermenting pears up front and a spicy-dry finish.  The carbonation was well-hidden and under-discernible alongside a lighter-than-anticipated body which made for a quite drinkable, if unremarkable, tripel.  Grade: B+

Finally, I came to Bilboquet's MacKroken Scotch Ale (10.8% ABV) that showed a fine off-white head of fair retention and silky-smooth lacing capping a light brown body.  Boozy scotch-like peaty aromas were dominant alongside remnants of some sweet cereal malt.  It was very sweet and honey/mead-like up front with a strongly warming and boozy finish that almost dried the sweetness.  It tasted very licquer-like and very nearly like a complex scotch, yet was worryingly warm to the tongue, throat, chest and brain! More like scotch, and more like mead, than any beer I have ever consumed!  Grade: A

I realize this is getting long, but so was my marvellous beer day!  After taking a break for dinner and hanging out with an old friend I returned to turn my day into a night with a few more.  Cam, being a superstar and all, bought me a long-neglected, but much needed Unibroue saison and it is there that things continue...

Blonde de Chambly (5% ABV) pours a nice gold cloudy body with a tremendous frothy white head of fair retention, but no lace to speak of.  Aromas are of earthy yeast with a bit of citrus rind and slight pear.  Flavorwise, it is much the same but milder with a touch of spice and a bit of a sweet pear beginning before a lightly drying yeasty/earthy finish.  Well-carbonated and lightly bodied, this beer is quite drinkable and more moderate than anticipated considering Unibroue yeast strains and saison funk.  Grade: B+/A-

Then, on my way home, two things came to mind: first, that I had now rated 649 beers and, second, that I would pass Dieu du Ciel on the way home so I stopped in for number 650 (and 651!) and what a 650 it was!!!

Rated beer number 650 was the single best cask beer, let alone cask IPA, I have ever tasted and it was a one-off collaboration beer by DDC and Hill Farmstead called Friendship and Farewell (6% ABV).  It offered an excellent frothy white head of solid retention and some lacing over a very pale body of deep golden colour that was cloudier than expected.  Aromas were of citrus and citrus rind predominantly with a trace of herbaceous notes, while the flavour was likewise very pleasant with a mild sweetness up front followed by a finely drying citrus finished tempered by mango notes.  It was creamy-smooth as expected on cask and just showed so very well in this offering!  Grade: A/A+

I figured, since I had yet to try it, a half-pint of DDC's Mild End (at a mere 3.9% ABV) couldn't hurt to finish things off!  Thus, I observed a observed a light brown body with fair off-white head and retention alongside some clingy sporadic lace.  Aromas of caramel and biscuits were enticing, though flavourwise it was less sweet with just hints of biscuits up front ahead of a more bittersweet finish.  It was fairly creamy and chewy with light, crisp carbonation and was quite drinkable/sessionable if not eniriely memorable.  Grade: B+

'Til next time... Santé!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Considering a Beer: Seeing, Sniffing, Tasting, Rating

This will wrap up my series of posts in response to popular demand by some readers for a basic grasp of some core beer concepts.  Read the first post (on balance) here and the second (on serving) here.

You don't have to actually provide elaborate thoughts to rate a beer, nor do you have to actually fully review one, but it doesn't hurt to know what to consider when discerning whether or not you like a beer and how it compares to its peers.  It helps you actually think about what it is you like about something so that you can both better express what you like and, accordingly, find other such beers more easily when either desiring or needing to (if your favourites are not available).

Despite some technical language at times, most words used to describe beer are words we already know; it simply sounds trickier than it is.  Are not most pale lagers somewhat grainy and grassy to the nose and palate?  Do they not have a crisp, refreshing finish with a fairly light body?  It isn't so much learning how to describe our beers, but rather thinking about them in ways that relate them back to our more common vocabulary - a descriptive vocabulary and capacity we already have!

It doesn't take beer 'expertise' to consider a beer, it just takes a few moments to consider it.  It is simple but basic, for instance, to describe the smell or taste of an IPA as hoppy, but that actually takes more beer knowledge than the simpler, yet even more precise and proper assessment of how that hops presents.  Does it come across as citrusy (most commonly like grapefruit) or pine or floral or something else entirely?  This too is simple, but requires considering what that bitterness tastes like rather than simply noting that it is bitter.  We all have this ability and it shouldn't frighten us!

While one could rate beers across styles, it is usually important to consider style norms since you may prefer given styles.  Rosee d'Hibiscus from Dieu du Ciel is a great example for me here, since I am not much of a fan of witbiers and would almost never order one, but it doesn't take a witbier fan to taste this and acknowledge its expertise in the style.  We may not always be aware of style norms (nor even of what style of beer our given choice is since they don't always say and since some exist on boundaries of ill-defined categories anyway), but this is where a search on Beer Advocate or RateBeer to discern the general style of a beer and a check of style norms at BA or the BJCP comes in handy.

One crucial point for assessment when rating is balance.  How balanced are the hops and malt (read: dryness and sweetness)?  How balanced should they be according to style norms?  Scotch ales and Imperial IPAs are imbalanced intentionally in opposing directions, for example, yet should be, though achieving a notable balance (within the parameters of balance or imbalance so prescribed by style) is greatly desirable in a beer.  For more on balance, see my post here.  Some even note the complexity of beers that offer nuance and differing appearances of aroma and flavour as they evolve (both aged and within the single serving).

Aside from standing out within the style, another characteristic that many value a beer for is quintessence.  That is, perhaps this beer literally or figuratively creates or defines the style for you or many.  A quintessential beer may not be your favourite, but it is one that many are measured against for their defining nature.  Westmalle Tripel and Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout are this, in much the same way that Guinness (for many) defines dry Irish stouts.

Finally, an important - and perhaps the most important - criterion for assessment concerns just how enjoyable or drinkable this beer is, which is assuredly and entirely personal.  There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, but sharing tastes and assessments with others is one great way of finding delicious new brews to enjoy!

Just below, I will share some brief, simple thoughts on considering appearance, aroma, flavour, mouthfeel, and an overall assessment (in turn), but will first note that ratebeer offers an excellent pdf scoresheet that provides reminders of these elements, offers a detailed-yet-highly-usable version with the 'beer flavor wheel,' while the Beer Judge Certification Program offers a more elaborate, yet personalized version here.  Finding one that works for you is always helpful, though the ratebeer and chiff sheets, in particular, offer key terms on aroma and flavour that may help you put your finger on what exactly you are smelling or tasting.

Note that I rate my beers on brewgene, because I often rate by phone and this offers a better, free app than many of the others.  I'd pay for the beer advocate or ratebeer apps if they were any good, but alas they are deemed terrible (or non-existent) and I don't know if I could transfer all of my ratings.  Though I currently enjoy brewgene (despite some reservations), I encourage them to allow exporting of ratings to spreadsheet format and (or) sorting by style, but more on that in correspondence with them!

The initial assessment of a beer is crucial, not only because of first impressions, but because one should both consider the initial head and the initial aroma.  Both head and aroma (can) dissipate quickly, while other aspects can be considered afterwards.  I, personally, like to glance at the head, then take several deep sniffs before returning to an assessment of the appearance.

Appearance: Yes, the way a beer looks is important, both to our aesthetic senses and our desire to consume it, but also to those (often overrated, but nonetheless useful and pertinent) style descriptors.  The appearance considers two parts of the beer: its head and its body.  On the head, you should consider its colour (white, off-white, beige, brown), its quality (is it smooth, rocky, frothy, creamy, etc), its thickness (often measured by finger: one-finger thick or two, for example), its retention (how long does it last), and whether it leaves any trail of lace around the glass as you drink it and what it looks like.  On the body, one should consider the colour, the clarity, any apparent gassiness, and the appearance of any particulate matter from active/bottle-conditioned yeast.  Colourwise, beer is geekily assessed by SRM (Standard Reference Method) which goes from 1 to well above 40, with one representing the pale straw of a light lager and 40+ being the dark black of an imperial stout.  Though there is less agreement on 'proper naming' (meaning there is none!) for each of these numbers, the more important criterion is some shared understanding.  Typical wording of colour (and matched SRM) number can be found here (which can work alongside such printable charts showing different SRM interpretations as seen here and here) and here is an SRM by style guide that I find handiest indeed!

Aroma: Smelling a beer can be done in two ways, but should always be done promptly!  One method is to get your nose close to the beer and to inhale deeply through the nose.  Another (and generally preferred) is to take short, quick sniffs in rapid succession.  However, since our sense of smell diminishes quickly (or 'acclimatizes' for lack of a better word though I am sure there is a more accurate scientific one I am unaware of), two good hints to refresh things are to smell the back of your hand (or something more neutral to you) while swirling the glass like you would a wine (to release more aroma) and then smelling again.  Discerning what exactly you are smelling can be much more difficult since our olfactory reception is so tied to memory and since there are thousands of identified smells and only a handful of tastes.  Aromas are so very personal and it can be difficult to pinpoint something unless reflecting back on what that scent reminds you of individually.  This is one reason the common phrasings for aromas listed in the rating sheets linked to above can be so helpful.  Keep in mind that, despite dissipation, some aromas remain and evolve as the beer diminishes and I always try to keep sniffing my aromatic beer throughout my consumption enjoying this part nearly as much as the tasting.

Taste: Aroma, of course, is part of our tasting process, but sometimes it can be interesting to see the correlation or difference between these two aspects of a beer.  Moreover, flavour often comes in three parts: an upfront reception to sweetness, a middle transition, and a (to what degree) drying finish.  The question of how sweet and bitter a beer can be should consider the duration of the finish as well as its dryness.  Note that many distinguish between bitter dryness (leaving your palate cleansed for a new sip) and astringency (that puckering-face inducing lemony sort of tartness).  Some prefer to taste a beer with their mouth slightly open as they swallow (which I sometimes do to further ponder the flavour), though drink it how you enjoy it is probably the best advice here!

Mouthfeel: Mouthfeel considers the body (light, medium, full), carbonation level, finish/aftertaste (which somewhat overlaps with the third assessment of taste), and literally how it feels in your mouth (crisp, sharp, gritty, oily, creamy, smooth, prickly, chewy, etc).  For proof that mouthfeel matters, compare the difference between two identical stouts (for example, the common claim that "Guinness tastes better on tap"); one served from a bottle, the other from a nitrogen tap.  The nitrogen tap gives the beer a creamier feel with absolutely zero effect on the flavour, yet we are fooled by our senses into thinking that the latter tastes creamier simply because it feels so.  This is crucial to our enjoyment of many styles and we expect this creaminess from our stouts, our reds, our porters, etc.

Overall: Finally, what did you think overall?  How does it fit within the style?  If outside of the expected, did it work well anyway?  Why?  Would you long to drink another or many more?

Obviously some of these categories are more pertinent than others, with the most weight going to taste and aroma, though an overall individual thought alongside assessments of appearance and mouthfeel are also crucial to one's enjoyment of a beer.

Don't feel like you need to make your drinking a science, but thinking about these things even briefly may enhance your enjoyment of beer and your ability to find and order a new beer according to your new beer vocabulary with deeper recognition of your personal preferences!

On off-flavours and aromas that indicate something bad, see this, but mainly just enjoy your beer!  Cheers!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

How to Serve a Beer: Temperature, Glassware, and Pouring

One of the great myths perpetuated by the macro behemoths of the beer world is that beer should be served ice cold.  When beer is served at frigid temperatures, it actually mutes our taste buds blocking off-flavours.  Hence, these macro light lagers taste terrible warm because the ever-present off-flavours of their sub-par ingredients become more discernible showing that... surprise... they also taste terrible cold but we have become accustomed to the apparent 'refreshingness' of this cold temperature as if that were a flavour while we are 'blinded' to these notes and enjoying simply a relative absence of taste.  Yet, with such a prevalence of off and undesirable flavours, these beers must be drank ice cold (insofar as they must be drank at all), but this isn't so for all beer.

Another popular misconception is that 'the British drink warm (or room temperature) beer,' but they most certainly do not: they drink cellar temperature beer at 8 to 14 degrees Celsius, not the 19 to 21 degrees of room temperature nor the 2 to 5 degrees of most refrigerators.

Beers of different styles are best suited to specific temperatures.  Before you get too upset by this, consider whether your idea of disgusting warm beer is informed by a flat, stale, warm (as in room temperature), macro-brewed pale lager or by a just poured, fresh, cellar-temperature oatmeal stout.  Remember: there is more diversity in beer than in all other alcoholic beverages put together and you wouldn't presume to chill a red wine simply because you do with your vodka!

The unique, subtle, and pleasant notes of many, many beers styles are best observed - and enjoyed - at temperatures above the arctic extremes.  Ratebeer keeps a list of appropriate serving temperatures as a guide, and it isn't difficult to turn a fridge-stored beer to the appropriate temperature.  For their 'cold' beers so listed, take them out 5 minutes early; 10-15 minutes for cool; 15-30 minutes for cellar (depending upon bottle-size since some of these come in 750ml bottles!); and a touch longer for warm - presuming you do not have both a cellar and a fridge which always makes things easier!

As far as pouring the beer goes, another popular misconception abounds: that the beer should be poured down the side of the glass so as to minimize the head.  However, most beer drinkers actually find a beer more appealing with a nice head, while brewers work hard to ensure their beer presents an attractive, thick head of solid retention as per style norms, and (perhaps most importantly) the head most substantially allows the dissemination of aromas that are so very crucial to the tasting experience.

It is for these very reasons - head and aroma - that many beer glasses are designed as they are and beer should, ideally, be served in style-appropriate glassware, though when all else fails a stemmed wine glass will usually suffice.  In brief, on glassware, an outward taper allows for extra head expression (especially when the taper is uniform), an inward taper tempers the head at a specific point, and tapers in both directions (as in a tulip glass) often offer the most widely appropriate glassware for diverse styles.  Moreover, the standard nonic pint glass (with the bump) serves to warm beers in the hand while the bulb prevents dropping the glass and for many styles, this is not ideal glassware despite the common usage.  Finally, certain glass shapes allow for better aroma dispersal (or maintenance) and if wondering what best to serve a specific style in, help is available around the internet, specifically here and here.

One final note on glassware: please, DO NOT chill your glass!  A frozen glass can shock the beer damaging the aromas, while also leaving ice particles that can damage the head and hinder the flavour.  If you hate a beer and drink it frigid, you can chill your glass, but if you want to enjoy it, this is not really conducive to that!

So you want head (on your beer, pervert!), but how should you pour it to do so optimally?  There are numerous ways, but perhaps the simplest and most effective is to pour down the middle of your glass with a steady, but moderate pour from a bottle (or can) tilted horizontally above the perfectly vertical glass.  If the head is too substantial to finish in one pour, wait for 10-60 seconds for the head to diminish and then pour some more.  Such a double-poured beer will develop a finer, thicker, fuller head offering you aromas that will entice you and enhance your drinking experience.

Stay tuned for some thoughts on how to rate a beer - whether literally or just to think more clearly about something we all do when we drink something which is make an appraisal.  Until then... cheers!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Understanding the Bitter-Sweet Balance of Beer

As I have never brewed beer (and as I am still in the early stages of my beer journey), I don't purport to be an expert on the ideas in this post, but I offer these rudimentary thoughts to help clarify some things for those readers who like beer but asked me what IBU is and some other such questions.  Some enjoy my blog and beer yet do not understand the difference between beer styles, but understanding what differentiates styles can help you anticipate what you might get so as to help you order something new you might enjoy!

For beginners: try to stick with me until the end and I think you will find this most enlightening and useful!  Coming soon in follow-up posts: how to pour a beer and how to assess a beer!

Note that if you are very well-versed in these concepts I am sometimes both insufficiently versed (feel free to comment) and sometimes trying to intentionally keep things simple enough for others to follow along.  I am also not citing things here, but rather going from 'as I understand it' though there is certainly more available for those who wish to seek out more in more elaborate and precise detail.

I will begin by considering International Bittering Units (IBU) which I have been asked about, before briefly explaining gravity for the purpose of concluding with an assessment of how this allows us to consider a beer's (im)balance and likely flavour elements (without consideration of the specific malt, hops, and yeast used that differentiate flavours more precisely).

I have been asked explicitly about International Bitterness Units (and which I comment on from time-to-time).  IBU is actually a replicable, precise scientific measurement of the bittering acids from hops that remain in a beer (usually measured precisely but sometimes estimated for cost reasons).  IBU is represented by a number from 0 to well over 100 and some brewers have even taken to putting these numbers on their labels or their websites.  An excellent chart showing typical IBUs by beer style is available here and others abound on the web.  Generally, the higher the number, the more bitter the beer will taste, but with the following caveats:

1) Since beer is characterized by some balance between the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops, a higher number matched by a substantial amount of malted barley means that the beer will not taste as bitter as an actually less bitter (in IBU terms) beer that also has substantially less (and less sweet) malt.  That is, IBU tells us something but not everything: it tells us precisely how much 'hoppy' acid remains in the final product, but not how balanced that beer will taste - and I have tasted fairly well balanced beers of around 100 IBU and quite imbalanced, bitter beers of around 40 IBU.

2) The threshold for human discernment of IBU is 6, which means that even expert palates cannot discern between a 40 and 45 IBU with all other factors being equal; it takes a 6 or greater difference for us to even be able to note the difference.

One crucial point coming from these two disclaimers above is that while this number is precise (when measured and not estimated) it does not tell us anything precisely but rather provides a guide for what we might expect in a given beer (or beer style).

HOWEVER, a newer and perhaps more precise way of considering the bitter-sweet balance examines the relative amount of bitterness compared to the malt that provides sweetness.  How does this work?

Well, brewers can and do measure the Original Gravity (OG) of the wort (boiled water and malted barley that will ferment and become beer).  Original gravity compares the density of the wort to water, meaning it measures the amount of dissolved solids (read: sweet malt) in the wort (as a ratio of density in contrast to water).

Since it is these dissolved, sugared grains that get consumed by the yeast creating alcohol as a by-product, there is a direct relationship between a beer's gravity and its alcohol percentage.  The higher the gravity, the higher the alcohol.

Gravity is measured on a scale where 1 = water, or identical to water, while beer ranges from 1.020 to 1.100 and above.  A 1.100 OG will make for a much stronger (and typically much sweeter) beer than something with a lower gravity.

Though not always exact (and thrown greatly askew by beers with living yeast fed by sugar such as Trappist and Abbey ales) there is a rough estimation that is fairly accurate as a way to see the relationship between OG and ABV (alcohol by volume): if you drop the one and the decimal point and express it as a percentage, you are usually pretty close.  That is, barring other factors, a 1.080 gravity beer will usually be around 8% ABV.  A 1.100 will be around 10%, a 1.045 will be around 4.5% and so on.  Conversely, a (non bottle conditioned) 5% ABV beer probably had an original gravity of around 1.050.  Yes, this is rough and not always accurate, but the converse also holds for the next (and final) explanation in how to estimate a beer's flavour if you know the IBU and ABV.

The final factor of pertinence here is BU/GU ratio - that is, bitterness units to gravity units.  Since gravity measures dissolved malt that provides both alcohol and sweetness, it also provides a rough estimation of the amount of sweetness in a beer (to be balanced by the bitterness).

To calculate this, you must also drop the one and the decimal place from the gravity units and make the division.  That is, a beer with 30 IBU and an Original Gravity of 1.060 (perhaps estimated by a 6% ABV) would result in a 30/60 ratio resulting in 0.5 when divided.  A .5 BU/GU is considered perfectly balanced while anything higher is more bitter (and anything approaching or surpassing 1 is extremely bitter) while anything below is sweeter!  For another example, an IPA with 70 IBU and an OG of 1.060 will be quite bitter indeed (at 70/60 or 7/6 BU/GU) whereas a milk stout with just 20 IBU and an OG of 1.080 would be quite sweet indeed (at .25 BU/GU).

This doesn't tell you the specifics of the types of malt and hops used, nor the roasting of the malts, nor of any adjuncts and - hence - not the specifics of how the beer tastes, but it will give you a general idea of one of the primary things we all ask (consciously or subconsciously) when we drink a beer: how balanced or imbalanced (in which direction) is this beer (likely to be)?

When you can understand the specifics of beer characteristics, you can have a good idea of what to expect by just these numbers even if you aren't familiar with too many beer styles.

Some relevant links:

BU/GU Chart

BU/GU ratios of certain styles are discussed on this homebrewing blog

Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines (Industry standard and VERY detailed/precise)

Beer Advocate Style Guidelines (well-respected beer web resource, but less detailed and more general/colloquial style explanations which may be preferable for some)

Beer Advocate's Beer 101

Friday, 13 July 2012

Some Special Beers

Though I had planned to make rated beer number 600 something special, I was waiting for others to bar -hop and so Hops & Robbers became the beer (and quite a solid IPA in my assessment, though more at another time!).

But I started my trek to 700 with a very fine beer for number 601: Achel Extra Bruin (9.5% ABV).  Having heard that this often beats the famed Westvleteren (and other highly praised quadrupels) in blind tastings had me excited.  I wasn't disappointed!  This delicious and rare Trappist offering pours a light brown/deep red with a decent creamy head of great retention and fine lace.  Aromas are predominantly of plums and raisins, with some bread present.  The nose is simply phenomenal, lasting, complex and it transforms throughout, but doesn't diminish - getting more chocolatey as time goes on.  The taste is dominated by licorice, dried fruit and figs and is quite sweet, while on the mouth it offers a full body with fairly high carbonation that leads to a slightly tingly, yet full creamy feeling, with a fine earthy/drying finish (though it is imbalanced on the sweet side).  Grade: A+

Right after that, I tasted a properly aged 2007 Vintage Ale Millésimmée (10% ABV) from St. Ambroise (McAuslan). This barley wine didn't disappoint either and certainly ages well (though I have never had a ripe one, a year old at the earliest).    It shows its unfiltered cloudiness with a dark red colour, while the head is fair, off-white, frothy, and offers decent retention and lacing.  It smells quite boozy, yet also offers nice aromas of plums, brown sugar, and molasses.  To the tongue, the booziness remains present, but is tempered by sweet caramel maltiness that makes it highly drinkable with only a faintly drying finish (tempered by age perhaps?)  It is warming and fairly full bodied, but with a creamy low carbonation befitting the style.  I might have given this an A+ had I not drank it after the Achel quad!  Grade: A

Shortly thereafter, I got my hands on Innis & Gunn's Irish Whisky Cask Stout (7.4%).  Regular readers know a few things about me: I love stout, I love Innis & Gunn, and I love Innis & Gunn one-offs, but maybe this was over-hyped for me (by my own doing) for those very reasons.  Sure, it was a good beer, but it wasn't the legend I had it pegged for in advance.  It poured a dark brown with a decent, foamy beige head of poor retention.  Aromas were of chocolate and bread with a touch of oaked vanilla.  It also smelled a bit boozy.  Flavourwise, it is sweet with a hint of molasses, but tastes quite boozy with faintly discernible traces of caramel and cola as the palate evolves.  Lighter-bodied than anticipated with a balanced finish, and with a greater drying depth than most imbalanced Innis & Gunn beers, but with a very fizzy, tingly, overly carbonated mouthfeel.  It wasn't creamy at all and maybe needed a nitro tap, but it wasn't a great stout, nor a great limited edition Innis & Gunn offering.  It was fine, just not worth the hype and price.  Grade: B

Finally, for another LCBO limited-time offering, I enjoyed the saison called New Morning (5.8% ABV) from Italian brewery Birrificio del Ducato.  This saison poured a creamy, thick white head that was most attractive with excellent retention and creamy/milky lacing, while the body was a thickly cloudy golden with quite thick, chunky particulate matter.  On the nose, it offered slight yeastiness and ripe fruit and rind, alongside spicy hints of coriander and earthiness.  The nose was stronger than the taste which, though mild, offered a bit of black pepper spice alongside a crisp mouthfeel with its high carbonation.  I don't always enjoy saisons, but this was quite enjoyable and is easy drinking!  Grade: A-

That's all for now folks!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Toronto's Granite Brewery: A Great Place for a Party

Somehow, I had never gotten to Toronto's Granite Brewery, perhaps due to its non-downtown location, until two great friends decided to make it the location of their wedding.  Were they bribing me with beer?  They should have known I'd have attended even if it were dry, but I have to say this is a wonderful event location.

It offers a gorgeous urban courtyard with a fine patio, excellent service (special shout-out to Daniella who answered my beer questions and kept me well supplied all evening!), solid food, and an all-around excellent atmosphere for any event or, presumably, just any evening out.

Yet again however, this wasn't a pen-and-paper kinda night, but some overview thoughts are required and of some use, I am certain!

The Granite is known for its casks and they didn't disappoint.  The Best Bitter Special (4.5% ABV) was quite delicious with a finely hopped, drying finish that left me wanting more.  The cask IPA (5% ABV) was also fairly well-hopped (and dry-hopped) but was more balanced, akin to an excellent English IPA moreso than an American.  The Hopping Mad (6% ABV) was also good, but was extremely dry, bordering on astringency with a distinct grapefruit aroma and flavour that dominates the palate, though without an excessively long finish.  However, I often find a bit more carbonation is needed for this style of excessively dry, dry-hopped beer, but that is personal.  Still good, just not my favourite.

I tasted everything they had available, but would most recommend the following (aside from the casks, which are assuredly worth trying!):

Peculiar (5.6% ABV) a strong, dark English ale, apparently in a sort of ESB/Brown variation, that is less drying than the bitter, but with nice molasses notes.

Darkside Black IPA (6.75% ABV) was everything I like in a black IPA: malty(ish) sweet aroma with a bold lingering contrasting hoppy finish.  Someday, I will drink this pad in hand and offer greater detail!

Keefe's Irish Stout (4.5% ABV) was quite enjoyable, but having had this late in the evening, I can say little else except I anxiously await trying it first next time!

Though the Best Bitter is enjoyable, it is less so than it's cask alter-ego, so stick with that!

That's all for now folks, stay tuned for some thoughts on two excellent beers (numbers 600 and 601 on my list) that topped the previously blogged night: Achel Extra Bruin and St. Ambroise Vintage Ale 2007 Millesimee!