Wednesday, 28 November 2012

My Journey to Craft Beer: A Provocative Review

I literally remember that day like it was yesterday.  It was nearly six years ago at a family gathering for Christmas 2006 when my brother gave me an Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer and inadvertently created a monster.

I had somewhat drifted away from beer over the years before this as I had just started to get bored with what I thought beer inevitably was; which as far as I knew consisted mainly of Macro-brewed American Pale/Light/Adjunct lagers for the most part.  Sure, I had tried La Fin du Monde (which I enjoyed but simply considered a way to drink 9% beer that didn't taste like those 9% beers guzzled by high-schoolers seeking a buzz), Maudite, Guinness, and a smattering of other beers, but too few and without any systematic insight into what I was drinking nor a fair ground of assessment or an evolved palate to appreciate the difference.

Innis & Gunn changed all of that.  It was sweet, chewy, dessert-like, with excellent vanilla and caramel notes present both to nose and mouth.  It was a revelation!  A sign from the beer gods that beer need not be bland, served at taste-numbingly-cold temperatures to mask its flaws!  A sign that beer could be more than a tolerable vehicle for the dissemination of alcohol!  It was delicious!  Not good, or sufficient, or merely nominally different from any other beer... it. was. delicious!

It made regular beer undrinkable for me as I grew accustomed to it and then, through exploration with friends (notably Riley who blogs here and here though not about beer), I learned more and began to discover the diversity of amazing flavours beer offers.

Riley had been rating beer and on our get-togethers we'd drink new things and share them two ways thereby diversifying our options.  Eventually, I took up ratings too and started to watch the list grow, to notice my tastes and experiences expanding, and before I knew it I was reading, writing, and thinking about beer more than I'd ever imagined I would (and still far less than many a beer-rater, if far more than most folks I know).  (And, btw, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I actually don't drink too much of it at once very often and have even grown to lament the alcohol, wishing rather to enjoy the beer over the buzz.)

Though I would often call Innis & Gunn my favourite beer (and adored its 2007 Limited Edition IPA - for reasons unlinked to style as it represents that style poorly), and though I would turn many onto the beer and repetitively be called an ambassador for the brand (at one point keeping a count of those I had turned onto the brew - a count I lost in the dozens), I would even move away from this, but not without a lasting reverence for both the taste and historical role this beer served in my "Brewed Awakening."  It is, and even to my ever-evolving palate remains, a delicious beer.

That said, I have since discovered many I enjoy far more and, though I rarely drink an Innis & Gunn these days, I still periodically enjoy one and I fondly taste each of their unique special offerings, seasonals, and one-offs.

Innis & Gunn does one thing remarkably well: allow their beer to acquire excellent, sweet, caramel/vanilla/butterscotch notes from the oak barrels it is aged in - aromas and tastes that suit their beer to a tee.  They have inspired many an oak-aging brewer; many to success and some to failure.  However, I am not quite certain they are excellent brewers - in fact, they admit that Innis & Gunn was discovered accidentally by a beer they intended to discard which they had hoped would impart characteristics into the wood to bring back to a whiskey.  One can only presume the level of brewery masterdom applied to a beer intended for disposal would imply that the beer had not been optimally and carefully crafted.

The beer itself is quite unique - in its sweet flavour and in terms of style labelling - though is dominated by oak notes from the maturation process rather than specific beer characteristics of traditional beer styles.  Often called a Scottish Ale, but less because it shares many characteristics with such beers than because it doesn't really fit into other style categories and is simply brewed in Scotland.  Many of their other beers are similarly unique (Rum-Cask, Spiced Rum Finish, Canada Day) and presumably come from a similar base.  Though that style non-conformity is not a bad thing, and could arguably be a good thing portending ingenuity, it is when they apparently misappropriate styles that they get themselves into trouble with beer geeks and where their brewing shortcomings most expose themselves.

It was about a year after my first discovery of Innis & Gunn that I had their aforementioned 2007 Limited Edition India Pale Ale - and I was even more wowed.  This was like an Innis & Gunn on steroids: even more caramel and vanilla, and loads of creamy butterscotch.  It was then that I began discovering more about beer and for the first time found myself on beer advocate where I accordingly found myself appalled that many were upset this was called an IPA.  Having tasted two so-called "IPAs" at the time - this and Alexander Keith's - I really had no idea what offended people so, though someone said they admired the strong hops character of this beer.  It turns out this comment was made by someone who knew as little as I knew about beer at the time, for this made me presume I liked "hoppy" beers, a term I had learned but knew nothing of.  (Which led to my pending request for "something extremely hoppy," while in San Francisco - could it have been a Pliny at the wrong time in my beer journey? I will never know - that got me a shock I would now love to recreate now that I have learned to appreciate what was then appallingly offside to my taste buds!)

That said, I still recall the taste of that I&G IPA and still think I would love it - though I recall it as having about as much resemblance to an IPA as a gueuze probably does to a Miller lite (which is to say, just about none at all).  In fact, I believe the box may have simply said this was the same recipe with hops added during the oak maturation process.  To me (regardless of whether I am recollecting correctly) this doesn't make for an IPA - even if it makes for one of the most delicious beers I have ever tasted.  I think those expecting something resembling a Pliny may have been as off-put by this as by a Keith's when expecting an IPA that actually reflected common characteristic aroma and tasting notes, even if those two are still so vastly different.

Yet, the typical, light-amber Innis & Gunn beers are usually damn good - loved by many, hated by few - despite their stylistic uniqueness.

But then things get dicier... and I start to sound more like a beer geek as my appreciation of stouts and porters grows.

First, Innis & Gunn released their first stout - aged in Irish Whisky Casks.  I reviewed that beer here and therein note that "it wasn't a great stout, nor a great limited edition Innis & Gunn offering."  I even remarked to others that I had a difficult time even considering it a stout since its tastes were much more like a brown ale - cola like - and its body quite lighter than a stout's would/should be.  Regardless, it wasn't egregious, just not great as an I&G one-off nor as a stout.

Then, I picked up their newly released Winter Treacle Porter.  This beer pours a clear amber body - nothing like a porter - with overwhelming aromas of nothing but molasses (or treacle).  The taste has a tiny hint of oak and roasted malts, but is also vastly dominated by molasses.  The body I honestly don't recall as this became one of three beers I poured down the sink this year.

Maybe I just don't like treacle or molasses much - and I admittedly don't, but I don't mind hints of it in my beer - but that is all this beer is!  The treacle dominates even the oak and any underlying resemblance this beer may have had to a porter.  I certainly see no evidence that this beer is anything but a treacle-doused amber-coloured beverage that could just as easily be alcoholized, food-coloured water for all of the beer notes, let alone porter notes, that are evident.

However, perhaps I now sound like those bashing the IPA and I acknowledge this apparent hypocrisy - in fact, it is self-consciously part of the reason for this post!

In my beer journey, I have come to realize that despite my - personal, so very personal - taste for the I&G IPA, it is (as lamented) no IPA.  It is a butterscotch version of their original offering (or something close to that with allegedly more hops) and, if you like that, and don't expect otherwise, it is delicious.  Perhaps if you like treacle/molasses, this is the same, but if you want to try a porter, this will be immensely disappointing.  I realize that, at least, this time around I&G put Treacle in the name (unlike with the Butterscotch "IPA"), but I suppose my provocation here is to actually brew a solid stout, porter, and/or IPA or, in the absence of that, to at least avoid mis-labelling these experiments that play on my (now diminished) brand loyalty and style loves without meeting some resemblance to the product you claim to be selling.

I truly would love to taste a porter - a real porter - made and oak-aged by Innis & Gunn but, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems they have yet to make one.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Alike and Unlike Juxtaposition: Drinking a Grande Noirceur and a Peché Mortel Simultaneously

Tonight I set out on a two-beer-mission that led to three typos in this sentence already (as they are 9% and 9.5% ABV beers and I always drink rated beers quickly - faster than I'd like!)

Being a publicly professed lover of all things beers Dieu du Ciel, and no less an outed fan of imperial stouts, I couldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.  That is, a few days past, an as-yet-unseen Dieu du Ciel beer came to my attention at my local dealer's Metro: a Grande Noirceur Imperial Stout (the 9%er).  For obvious reasons, I picked up a few (a few to drink, a few to age and drink eventually), especially since bottled oddities of DDC brews seem to come and go while being much more frequently gone.

After doing my personal review of the Grande Noirceur (trans. The Great Darkness recalling the Duplessis era of Quebec history which is reflected in name and label image, seen below), in which I commented on parallels to Peché, I did a web search to learn the availability of this fantastic beer only to discover (unsurprisingly) that this is allegedly the base for Peché.  [Correction: alleged is the operative word here, as the brewer has tweeted to me that this isn't so and that they are distinct recipes!  I got this information from several comments on beeradvocate AND ratebeer, as well as a stand-alone web page - hopefully this correction will end the rumours I have inadvertently participated in - which was why I used allegedly just in case!]

Thus, rather than simply post my review of the Grande Noirceur, I thought I may as well drink them alongside one another and add the comparison.  I will begin, however, with my original thoughts on le Grande Noirceur (which evolve in direct contrast):

This beer is about as black as promised and, like all good imperial stouts, is an experience in extremes.  The dark body is capped by a creamy and lacy mocha head of decent retention.  The aroma is dominated by bitter cocoa and coffee as expressed by a deeply roasted malt, with a faint hint of dry, nearly stale nuts.  The taste, however, loses everything except the cocoa, but gains in that immensely, before a finely drying, earthy and lightly piney hops finish.  To the mouth, this delicious beer offers a sticky feeling to a full body, with appropriate warmth alongside just a hint of its strength.  All in all, I loved this beer and drinking it made me question whether I liked it more than a (bottled) Peché Mortel.  Grade: A/A+

Here are my original thoughts from my first Peché, first posted here (with additional and even greater praise for the Nitrogen-tapped version here):

To begin, let me just say that this beer is bold in every way, but also deserving of the very high praise it has received!  Into the glass, this mortal sin pours a jet black that seems almost thick and creamy, resembling motor oil in more than color but, fear not, not in consumptive appreciation!  An excellent foamy, yet creamy brown/mocha head with superb retention and a good lace arises.  Indeed, this beer offers an excellent head that allows deep expression of the aromas, which are dominated by bold, deeply roasted coffee notes with hints of stout malts exemplified by oats, though these are very negligible in contrast to the overwhelming coffee aroma that would be near indistinguishable from a freshly brewed espresso.  On the tongue, this delicious, but bold, strong (9.5% ABV), and bitter beer begins with light oak and oat notes, though these are quickly eradicated by the bitter drying of extremely strong coffee flavours that entirely mask the alcohol.  Some chocolate alongside hoppy dryness is discernible if considered explicitly, but everything is muted by the force of the bittering coffee.  Everything one would expect from the style.  Quintessential.  Not for everyone, but near perfect for those who'd like it! Grade: A

Now, in direct juxtaposition, the differences are exposed while the similarities are simultaneously intensified.  As evidenced by the photo below, the Grande Noirceur offers a darker head - more befitting of the mocha description - whereas the Peché should perhaps be called tan in contrast.  Both are bold and extreme beers in their own right, but with back-and-forth sips (before finishing the Grande first then the Peché) it becomes obvious that the Peché is like an amped-up, more extreme version of this very dry, very bitter, yet very delicious masterpiece of brewing.  In this sense, the Peché offers a longer lasting dry finish with an earthier lingering boldness and obvious espresso bitterness (that is obviously more extreme to both nose and tongue), though it becomes less observable as it warms.  After a sip of the Peché, the Noirceur seems comparatively tame, though both mellow as the sips go on and as one grows accustomed to their extremes.

In a nutshell, both are truly wonderful marvels and choosing would be impossible, though the Grande Noirceur caters to the milder moods of extreme decisions and desires, while the Peché is a no-holds-barred assault on the senses.  If you almost like Peché, try a GN if/while you can find one.  If you truly love Peché, I am sure you too will like its base this other DDC imperial stout.

And, on that note, let me re-evaluate my original A rating for a Peché, and give it a borderline A/A+.  If I should somehow only have access to one beer for the rest of my days, neither of these would disappoint me.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Belgian Beer, Trappists, Abbeys, and Official Designations

Many speak of Belgian beers with reverence, many of Abbey beers, and many simply (or specifically) of Trappist beers.  Many others are simply confused (isn't beer beer?  Monks make beer?  How can Belgian beers be made outside of Belgium?)  Some others, like... ahem... myself, have a slightly faulty memory and err on public blogs.

Despite my correction, I hope to also make this post clarifying and enlightening by, first, considering what Trappists and Trappist  Beers are and, second, distinguishing them by style and from Belgian/Abbey beer designations.

Trappists themselves are Benedictine monks who, as prescribed by Saint Benedict, strive to sustain themselves through quality production and sale of goods rather than through tithes and community contributions/donations.  Though Trappists also make cheese, liquor, wine, bread, soups, cleaning products, religious products, artwork, and more, they are famous in the beer community for their remarkable (and remarkably) strong ales.

Trappist Beers are, technically, only those marked by the Authentic Trappist Product hexagonal logo (easily found by google search) according to criteria set out by the International Trappist Association to protect their brands (which are not only beers). Amongst other criteria that are less pertinent herein, this logo essentially means that the product was made within the walls of the monastery either by monks themselves or at least under their supervision, while much of the proceeds go towards charitable endeavours.

Of late, this meant there were seven Official Trappist breweries, recalled by many via the memorable acronym WOW RACK:

Westvleteren (who sell a Blonde, a Dubbel [8], and a Quadrupel [12])
Orval (who sell a unique Belgian Pale Ale only)
Westmalle (who sell a Dubbel and a Tripel)
Rochefort (who sell two different strength Dubbels [6 and 8] and a Quadrupel [10])
Achel (who sell two Tripels [Blonde and Extra Blonde] a Dubbel [Bruin] and a Strong Dark/Quadrupel [Extra Bruin])
Chimay (who sell a Dubbel [Premiere/Red], a Tripel [White], and a Strong Dark [Grand Reserve/Blue])
Koningshoeven (or La Trappe, who sell nine different beers including the standard Blonde, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel, and an oak-aged version of their Quadrupel)

However, it was widely known that another would be coming soon, presumably from Mont des Cats, and surprisingly, it was officially beaten to official designation by Austrian monastery Stift-Engelszell.  Mont des Cats, however, despite being allowed to call itself a "Biere Trappistes" (and the first from France, with the others all being in Belgium, except for Koningshoeven from the Netherlands and the newest from Austria) does not and will not for the foreseeable future carry the Authentic Trappist Product label - despite being brewed within the halls of a Trappist monastery by the monks themselves, since it is being brewed and bottled at Chimay's monastery as Mont des Cats lacks its own brewery.  Stift-Engelszell, however, does carry the official designation, thus officially being the eighth Trappist brewery (and the ninth may not even be Mont des Cats since "The Trappist monks of the Abbey of ‘Maria Toevlucht’ in Zundert have plans to start a brewery between the walls of their Abbey."

I had inadvertently recalled Mont des Cats as being the eighth in my prior blog post, but it is not officially the eighth - though it is the unofficial ninth in many ways!

For me, personally, the new acronym to recall this next time is WOW RACKS (or perhaps, WOW RACKS 'eM, I guess!)

Belgian beer styles - and not only those of Trappist production - developed a unique history through their geographical exemption from the Reinheitsgebot, often called the German (or Bavarian) Beer Purity Law which allowed them to experiment with different adjuncts (as well as through the specific qualities of their divergent yeast strains and their bottle-conditioned processes unlinked to the Purity Law).

Throughout European history, when water was potentially contaminated and untrustworthy, beer supported human survival (insofar as boiling killed parasites and beer wort had been boiled, but this wasn't known to be the reason at the time!)  Monasteries, as most other religious locations, had become the centre of local life and even those that didn't sell their product also brewed beer for their own consumption (and literal survival).  These beers, called paters (or, occasionally in contrast, 'singels') are still frequently brewed, but solely for the consumption of the monks and they are typically much weaker than their stronger, publicly sold counterparts.

Westmalle seemed to invent both of the styles we now, following their lead, call Dubbels and Tripels.  Though these terms often simply imply colour and alcoholic strength, as well as specific taste and aroma characteristics, they have at times reflected the gravity difference on the old scale - with the original gravity quite literally being double and triple that of the specific monastery's standard pater.

A dubbel is a strong brown ale that is bottle-conditioned (that is, primed with sugar to feed the living and unfiltered yeast within the bottle that continues to ferment and develop past the point of bottling), while a tripel is a strong(er typically) pale ale that is also bottle conditioned.  For flavour, aroma, colour, and other typical style guidelines, I link here to their descriptors from the Beer Judge Certification Program: Dubbel, Tripel.  Chimay premiere (otherwise called Chimay Red) is probably the most widely known dubbel, though I personally adore the Rochefort 8 (and long to try the much rarer Westvleteren 8).  Westmalle Tripel - the first tripel - is the standard against which all others are judged, though I personally found it less enjoyable when consumed side-by-side with the Achel Extra Blonde (even if the Westmalle defines the style and is still a clearly great beer!)

There is considerable debate as to whether a quadrupel exists as a distinct style, whether it is simply a poor differentiation from the "Belgian Strong Dark Ale" style, or whether it is simply an amped-up dubbel.  (This debate centers around the fact that the term was applied anachronistically to pre-existing beers rather than given to beers created to fit the criteria of a pre-existing style).  Regardless, and without siding in the debate herein, this characterization tells you what to expect from a quadrupel or Belgian Strong Dark Ale, again with the BJCP descriptor here.  Westvleteren 12 - often dubbed the best beer in the world - is perhaps the best known quadrupel, though the style is highly praised (when done well as it is difficult to sustain the alcohol without booziness and the resulting complexity of the style) and many of the highest rated beers on BA and RateBeer are quads/strong darks.

Yet, many praised versions of these - and other Belgian styles - are not made by Trappists (nor in Belgium) at all.  These are often called Abbey beers - a term literally without precise meaning as they could be made by non-Benedictine monks, outside of the Trappist Association's terms, or simply by a commercial brewery (occasionally masking their product as if to make it appear monastic).  St. Bernardus, Leffe, and Affligem are three famous Abbey brewers, though many others exist.

Personally, I care little for the Trappist (or Authentic Trappist) or Abbey designation and am much more concerned with the primary question of "is it a good beer?"  And, many Abbey beers certainly are, while many aren't, yet the Trappists are always of a high quality if still subject to the inevitable value of personal taste.

These - live, bottle-conditioned - beers tend to be very sweet with strong carbonation and often cater to both beer lovers and non-beer drinkers alike.  If you have the chance, I encourage you to taste them, and if you find any Stift-Engelszell or Wesvleteren, please let me know where I can procure some to advance my Trappist enjoyment!  (Note that expensive 6-packs of the famed Westvleteren 12 may be coming to Ontario soon - if briefly - though more on that when the news arrives and accordingly permits!)

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Four Phenomenal Beers: Royal Extra Stout, Acero, Chouffe Houblon Dobbel IPA Tripel and Duchesse de Bourgogne

Rated beers #749, 750, 751 and 752 all had their specific charm and this post is dedicated to them in review.

Number 749 was Carib Brewing's Royal Extra Stout (6.5% ABV).  This is one delicious stout, if a bit on the sweet side that I picked up at the SAQ (alongside the currently available St. Bernardus Abt 12 I had gone in for!)  The aroma is a bit like a dry stout, but with some semblance of caramel topped by a hint of sweet chocolate and vanilla and just a touch of alcohol.  Taste-wise, it is quite sweet a bit cola-esque but in a decent way, with vanilla and chocolate present and a slight, faint drying alcohol finish.  It is not very full bodied, and just a bit tingly.  Good, but a bit much even if not quite cloyingly sweet.  Grade: A-

Number 750 was Boquébière Microbrasserie de Sherbrooke's Acero (16.5% ABV), which I grabbed at Fromagerie Atwater at the Atwater Market.  This American strong ale (and, at 16.5%, the emphasis is on the 'strong') is unlike any beer I have ever tasted and is much more like a spirit than a beer, though made for a memorable 750!  This unique oddity is made with local maple syrup and is truly a one-of-a-kind.  It pours a reddish brown with no head and only the faintest carbonation discernible merely around the glass edge.  The aroma is slightly peaty-malty up front but also sugary-sweet and boozy like a licquere.  It smells a bit like a super-sweet and boozy version of a scotch ale or barley wine, while the taste is cloyingly sweet if good, like a mead made with maple instead of honey.  Full bodied.  Good but can't drink much and odd to call it a beer. Grade: A

Number 751 was Chouffe Houblon Dobbel IPA Tripel (9% ABV).  This beer is typically called a "Belgian IPA," but it could as easily be called a "Belgian Double IPA" yet is premised off of the Tripel style and is also in a class by itself (though with closer relatives more commonly found than those akin to Acero, above!).  It pours a golden-orange with chunky-thick particulate topped by a rocky mountainous white head something like what develops in a float: quickly receding but with chunks of head that remain.  The glass rimming lace is other-worldy!  On the nose, it is predominantly of citrus and rind but with an earthy-yeasty hops to complement it, while the mouth is met with a touch of spice, perhaps as hints of pepper and coriander, before a dry apricot and mango alongside a lemon/orange rind finish.  Despite the 9% ABV and high carbonation, it feels very smooth, silky, and oily.  A fine example of the style - if no Urthel Hop-It!  Grade: A

Finally, I come to Brouwerij Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne (6% ABV) (purchased at the SAQ) which is easily the best of a handful of Flander's Red Ales I have tasted.  It might be in the select company of my favourite beers ever and is my favourite of the style thus far - topping Rodenbach Grand Cru for me and that is high praise indeed!  The body is brown with a frothy tan head of fair retention and moderate lace.  It smells ever so faintly vinegary with cherry tartness and an earthy-musty funk,  The nose is good, if you like sours despite that description, while the taste is superb!  It starts off more tart with a biting sourness somewhat like an under-sweetened lemon dessert before a sweetly-sour candy like finish kicks in that lingers with a chewable deliciousness that is just remarkable.  On the tongue, it is quite carbonated, yet dry in a champagne sort of way with the chewiness I desire in this sort of beer.  I raved about this beer for several sips on end making my sour-hating wife try it and it even met with her approval!  Grade: A+