Sunday, 23 December 2012

In the Spirit of the Season: Samichlaus as Rated Beer #800

I use the word 'spirit' somewhat loosely since this beer is allegedly the world's strongest lager, coming in at a whopping 14% ABV (or higher at times than listed, allegedly up to 15%).  Samichlaus Classic, an Austrian-brewed doppelbock currently crafted by Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, warms the chest as if drinking a spirit, and in this sense is truly more of a winter warmer than most of the ales that are actually made in that style... but I am jumping the gun a bit here if framing the discussion.

I picked this up at the SAQ for $4.60 a bottle, but the LCBO is allegedly stocking it this season (despite rejecting it in years past for allegedly marketing to children with the image of Saint Nick on the label seen below.)

This "world's most extraordinary beverage" (as the label claims) is brewed but once a year, on Saint Nicholas Day - December 6th - and is then aged and then likely re-fermented several times to get the alcoholic strength up over a period of 10 months before bottling.  Each bottle is dated with the year it was bottled, and my purchases were labelled 2011.  Thus, this beer was brewed December 6th, 2010, aged 10 months, bottled and has found it into my belly to warm my cockles for Festivus 2012.

Even from cellar temperature to room temperature, one can see the evolution of this beer and it is clearly better warm (and warming!).

It pours a reddish-light brown with a thin white-to-ever-so-faintly-off-white head of poor retention and lace, with any semblance of head gone within a minute.  On the nose it smells strongly of its high ABV alongside characteristic malty doppelbock notes of plums, dates, and brown sugar.  Tastewise, it is very sweet up front and dominated by caramel and baking bread notes, while it finishes with an-alcohol-laden dryness and the characteristic chest-warmth resembling a licqueur.  Typical of a lager, it offers a clean, crisp flavour that almost seems counter-intuitive to its rather substantial body.  It is quickly bereft of carbonation and remains sticky and like a cross between a sticky liqueur and a doppelbock for the remainder of its sipping life.  In this sense, its sweetness and alcoholic warmth make it almost a boozy dessert on its own.

Is it worth the hype?  Yes and no.  It is an experience - and a great one at that - warming and bridging divides between beer and liquor for a winter's eve over the holidays.  Is it my favourite doppelbock?  Probably not at (two years) fresh, but this allegedly ages well and mellows as it does so, so I will have to stick a few away and make a new holiday tradition of testing the aging evolution.

Grade (as a beer): A-
Grade (as a doppelbock): A-
Grade (as a warming winter drink): A
Grade (as a new holiday tradition with its legend, like those of its namesake, framing the discussion): A+

'Til next time, ta-ta and cheers!

The Call to Darkness: Two Divergent Strong, Dark Ales

Besides being on the darker side of things with high alcohol content, the two beers under review here share little in terms of characteristics.  The other things they have in common are being damn good and getting rated (as numbers 798 and 799) on the same day.

The first was Het Anker's Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw (Grand Cru of the Emperor) at 11% ABV.  This was purchased from the LCBO for around $7 for a 750 ml bottle and provides great value for the money, such that I should have purchased several more including a few for the cellar!

It pours a nicely coloured deep ruby-reddish brown with a tan head of decent retention with some lacing remaining on the glass.  The aromas are of dark fruits, mainly plums and raisins, while the taste is very sweet, almost cloyingly so, and dominated by candied brown sugar with a hint of raisins.  The alcohol is basically undetectable (by mouth, but not by head), masked by a slight creaminess and a moderate carbonation.  It is darn good, and very enjoyable, if a bit explicitly sweeter than ideally desirable.  I wonder if a year in the cellar would mellow it out?  Still, a dangerous easy-drinker!  Grade: A

The second had been sitting here for quite some time as occasionally happens.  At $2.59 for a 341 ml bottle (in Quebec), this is an affordable imperial stout, and I was hoping it would impress (as my last affordable imperial stout did not, though Peche Mortel always does!)

And... L'Alchimiste Impérial Stout (7.9% ABV) doesn't disappoint as it pours a black body capped by a fizzy, audible brown head of decent retention and thick, if rapidly diminishing, lace.  Boldly aromatic and reminiscent mostly of a dark chocolate, with lightly smoky hints, while tasting similarly.  It begins a bit malty-sweet with roasted biscuity notes but quickly evolves to a finely drying and lingering bitter cocoa.  It is medium to full bodied, if a touch lighter than I'd like in the style, with a creaniness that wasn't expected alongside the audible carbonation/head.  Grade: A-

All in all, these made for an excellent beer day and I only hope that beer number 800 impresses just as well!

More on that soon, and as I have it!  Til then, Happy holidays Festivus!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

By Way of Multi-Tasked Aside: Idle No More!

I have promised not simply beer on here and have given mostly beer, but for a brief aside, I'd like to call attention to the many issues facing Canada's First Nations peoples and the #idlenomore campaign, alongside those in hunger strike to address these serious issues and legitimate grievances.

With 7000 outstanding land claims in Canada being 'resolved' at a rate of one every seven years, it would be 49,000 years until these are addressed - if the genocide and assimilation are not complete by then (and if the corporate colonial model has not assured our climactic destruction long before then).  In the meantime, the federal Harper government is trying to circumvent the treaties already signed.

We are living in an advanced colonial settler state and should support the very real, very legitimate claims and actions of the people whose land and lives we continue to steal and deny.

For information from the movement itself, check out:

Saturday, 15 December 2012

On ONs Great Westy Debacle of 12/12/12

Here are some semi-disjointed observations on the Westvleteren insanity of the past week and I will finish with some tips for those who missed out, or at least would like to know what they were missing:

  • Obviously, the LCBO underestimated demand and the hype machine, but I find this somewhat incomprehensible since I predicted months ago it wouldn't last a day in stores, reducing my own estimate to hours after Josh Rubin's first Toronto Star article.  Why this wasn't distributed by lottery, I do not know - yes, that would still be random, but equalized random.
  • The subsequent explosion of inquiries at the LCBO main contact line must have tipped them off, yet several things happened:
    1. They seemed to have no-or-little information, and grew increasingly annoyed at the calls, such that they changed their FAQ page to list this as the #2 concern (after store hours and locations for the last few weeks).
    2. That FAQ page changed and said call the stores (as of Monday).
    3. Upon beginning my own calls to stores Monday evening, the first two told me I was "without exaggeration" over their thousandth and seven-hundredth call that day and none had legitimate information, but told me to call back each day despite growing increasingly annoyed each day at my calls!
  • At this point the LCBO had another opportunity to coordinate release dates and times, but again they randomized it.
  • Though the vast majority of staff I dealt with were friendly and cordial, and helpful beyond the call of duty, some deserve mention for the pros and cons:
    • 2 stores (one Wednesday, one Thursday) lied to me at 8:30 in the morning claiming it wasn't available when they had (small) lines outside and plenty of chance to still procure it
    • Many were friendly yet lamented the download of call to individual stores themselves, though one person I spoke with (twice) was extremely angry and rude.  I get being upset with your employer over the mishandling of this release, but that doesn't necessitate extreme rudeness to customers (once rudely saying no and hanging up before hearing my follow-up question).
    • That said, most staff ran a tight ship, came to work early, were super-friendly, and did an admirable job of dealing with a difficult situation imposed on staff and consumers alike
    • One amazing manager, at a tiny LCBO in small-town Ontario (closest to my home), not only spent many hours on calls for me, provided me more information than others, and tried her hardest to make me a special order (that the head office and the importer both told me they could/would do).  When this didn't happen, she even offered to have her son stand in line for me to procure me a pack!  Having never met this woman, I will be bringing her a beer sometime!  I called her to tell her I'd gotten a pack and she was genuinely thrilled for me and my sincere thanks made her day.  That was truly heart-warming.
  • Allegedly, the discrepancy between the 1404 packs for public sale and the 2000 the LCBO purchased is for licensees.  However, as far as I know, these monks have insisted none be provided for markup and wanted signed agreements from places as they do with individual buyers.  There may have been an exception here, but with this demand I am pretty disappointed that nearly 1/3 of the entire LCBO purchase goes to bars who will be charging anywhere from $30-$60 a bottle for this and profiting immensely from the hype for quite some time.
  • However, this does open up options for people who never got a case and wish to try it, but can I recommend that those who caught into the hype, but don't know the beer style, try the following first:
    • Wait until the new year, when the LCBO will allegedly begin regularly stocking Trappistes Rochefort 10 (for probably less than $4/bottle).  Try it and see roughly what you'd be getting.  Otherwise, come into Quebec or the United States, or go to one of Toronto's better beer bars (Volo, Sin & Redemption, BeerBistro, Bellwoods, Burger Bar, The Only Cafe, etc) and buy a Rochefort 10 or a St. Bernardus Abt 12 first
    • If you like those, you'll probably like Westy 12, and if you don't you probably won't.
    • If you do, then go shell out the bucks to a bar for Westy but let's drive their prices down by buying it only from the cheaper folks - which so far looks like Bellwoods at a promised $30/bottle (maybe share one!)
In conclusion, I am glad the LCBO got this and that I got one, but reports of thousands more purchased for Nove Scotia and Alberta, both with a far lower population means I can't help but wonder how and why the LCBO let this situation unfold as it did.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

How to Drink a Westvleteren XII

I have been prompted to write by a line-waiter's observation that, "Only one person I met today had heard of the beer before this week. I heard more than one person ask if it was a dark beer. One person talked about the beer being from a monestery in Amsterdam. All very innocent, and the people were quite nice."

I appreciate if people discover the breadth of flavours beer allows, but if you were fortunate enough to score one of these packs and have no idea how to drink a bottle-conditioned Belgian strong dark ale, may I offer the following to ensure this beer gets the respect it deserves and a proper chance to enliven your experiences?

1) Please don't drink it right away.  The living yeast in these bottles needs to settle for at least 24 hours, if not a week or more.

2) This beer is not meant to be drank ice cold.  Drink it at cellar temperature - 14 or 15 degrees celsius.  This means, perhaps either about 20 minutes in the fridge or out of the fridge for 30 minutes or thereabouts.

3) Please, DO NOT drink it from the bottle!  Pour at a reasonably quick speed at first into a goblet, chalice or wine glass (or the glasses that came with it!) so as to allow a substantial head to develop (which allows expression of the aromas).

4) Slow down towards the end of the pour and watch carefully so as not to pour the yeast into the glass which changes the taste when mixed in.  It is not bad, per se, even if different and drinking the yeast can be a learning experience (you can perhaps add it to your last sip or two just to see).  Though the yeast is remarkably high in B vitamins, it also tends to give one extreme gas!  You have been warned!

5) Sniff it, enjoy it!  Realize this is a unique and special beer, but there are others that are very similar and are at/will be at the LCBO in the near future for a much lower price.  Check out my earlier posts on drinking a beer in a new way to many, and finally...

6) ... consider yourself extremely fortunate.  If you don't like it, sell it, trade it, or gift it to someone who might, but for Darwin's sake please DO NOT down this 10%er with your nose plugged for a good buzz!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Best Beer in the World at the LCBO? The Pending Arrival of Westvleteren 12

Just what makes Westvleteren 12 so special? Well, really there are two things both tied tightly to those ever-present economic 'laws' of supply and demand.

Part of the demand comes from the fact that this beer is delicious and often rated as the best in the world. See my original review here, though this is a living, bottle conditioned ale of evolving complexity and it will likely seem different the next time around as it matures.  It is, though, assuredly excellent and, if you get the chance to drink it, please do it at cellar temperature (or just above) with a pour into an ideal glass (chalice, goblet, tulip, or snifter ideally, wine glass otherwise) that allows the growth of a full head, and don't pour the yeast sediment from the bottom into the glass (at least at first unless you want to explore the changes the yeast creates afterwards!).

But, really, despite being a solid beer, it is certain that its scarce supply drives up its stature, though this doesn't take away from its delicious sweet complexity.  Normally, procuring a case of this beer - outside of the grey market - means purchasing it from the monastery itself or its associated cafe; it means having called in advance - and lucked into an answer; it means scheduling your pickup date; it means getting whichever of the three beers they are making available the date of your pre-scheduled pickup; it means signing a waiver promising not to resell it; and it means not being able to use the (recorded) license plate or phone number for a certain varied amount of time (2-6 months) for any other purchases at the monastery.  Yes, I am serious.

You see, the monks of St. Sixtus (where Westvleteren 8, 12, and Blonde are brewed) brew beer one day a week.  When asked why they don't step up production, their reply amounted effectively to [paraphrasing here] 'we are in the beer business to sustain our devout life, not to make beer.'

This excellent Belgian strong dark ale normally sells for the very reasonable price of 39 Euros for 24 bottles at the monastery, but grey market cases in Canada (which must be sold by the case by law through private import in Ontario - when even available) sell for $400.

However, the foundational disrepair of the aging monastery is to the (potential) benefit of many a beer drinker!  You see, for a limited time, the monks brewed twice a week to make 163,000 extra 6-packs (plus two special edition glasses) of their beer for what is likely the only time for off-site legitimate sales.  93,000 of those gift packs sold out in hours upon their release in Belgium.  Of the other 70,000 - bound for various markets in North America - between 1400 and 2000 have found their way into a pending LCBO release.

At $75.40 per six-pack, the price isn't cheap, but these beers will age, make for an excellent gift, and are probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Most folks I know who are fans of good beer, but know little about it have probably come closest (and not immensely close) to tasting something similar when drinking a Chimay Grand Reserve ("Chimay Bleu").  If you like that, this bodes well for you!

However, as exciting as this opportunity is, the LCBO neglected to use a lottery system as they did with Sam Adams Utopias and I (and many others) will be remarkably shocked if stocks of this remain in any store through the end of a single day upon the unknown time of their arrival on the shelf.

The exact date of release is unknown - though it could/should be any time within the next two weeks.

Watch for it in their online inventory database if interested - and if you wind up finding a cache before sell-out, please let me know in case my odds fall through!  It'll be your ticket into my pending blind quad tasting that will be complete with Westy!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Burton Baton: Again for the First Time

Every once in a while something knocks your socks off.

I sampled Dogfish Head's Burton Baton at Mondial de la Biere this year, but had yet to truly have one fully, on its own, and away from the countless other taste samples of that event.

I recently got that chance, and I have yet to find my socks and that has nothing okay, little to do with its 10% ABV.

I poured this beer into a Maudite tulip glass and was truly impressed from the beginning as it presents a gorgeous reddish-amber with slightly wispy cloudiness in the body, while crowned by a thick white, creamy head of good retention and smooth, thick, creamy lace.  All of these characteristics were inviting and appealing, and certainly excellent if not the best-of-the-best I have seen.  The creaminess is evident in both photos below (please forgive the phone quality, though I think they suffice to show the visual characteristics nonetheless).

The aroma is faintly earthy and piney, but with a nice, dominant citrusy hops representing orange primarily and only lightly grapefruity, with a balanced aroma of baking-bread maltiness, with some pleasant woody notes.

The taste is likewise complex and well-balanced, if drier than some might prefer, with some oak hints with vanilla discernible up front, before a finish that is equal parts chewy bready malt and citrus/rind hops notes insofar as this strong malt backbone is clear alongside the finely drying finish.  The dry piney finish is thus superbly balanced by the bread-like qualities of the excellent complex maltiness.  Sure, at 70 IBU it is bitter to the casual, non-IPA, beer drinker, but it is also remarkably complex and balanced and I truly savoured every sip and remaining drop.

On the tongue, you observe none of this fine beer's 10% ABV, though it is slightly warming while built by a full body, with a slightly sticky and mildly oily yet smoothly crisp carbonation.

This is one unbelievably amazing beer and I adjust my original A-/A rating to give it the deserved Grade: A+

I have to choose favourites by style because picking between unlike things is difficult and unfair, but this is right there on the list with every favourite I currently have and tops my list of Old Ales and/or Imperial IPAs, and probably oak-aged beers as well.

Please SAQ and/or LCBO - can you start importing Dogfish Head???

Saturday, 1 December 2012

What a Weekend! Pannepot, Cantillon, and Then Some!

So with a new job, it was inevitable: the night out for beers with some new colleagues.  Fortunately, they too like their beer and we had a "Craft Beer Pub Stroll" (rather than crawl, since somewhere along the way getting older meant being too respectful to crawl - a change I can accept, it's the harsher hangovers I rather dislike).

Shortly before the event, it came to my attention that Cantillon's Zwanze Day 2012 would be the very next afternoon at one location in Canada: Montreal's world-class brewpub Dieu du Ciel.  Being a family man, and mildly hungover, meant I didn't manage to stay for the tapping of Zwanze (at 3 pm) or Dieu du Ciel's special Peché Mortel offerings at 5pm (which included a Bourbon-Aged version... and yes, I regret missing this about as much as the Zwanze!)  But I did pop in for the Organic Gueuze and will say more on that shortly, but that is the end of the two-day crawl (with sleep in between!)

We kicked off at Le Cheval Blanc, a nice art-deco designed brewpub with some solid draught brews of their own, including a cask, and a fine selection of import bottles.  The service was great, but a bit busy as the place was packed from 5pm on (maybe even beforehand) and we had to colonize tables one at a time.

It being my first time there, I decided to check it out online first and discovered - to my pleasant surprise - that their import bottles list includes De Struise's quadrupel: Pannepot (Old Fisherman's Ale) a 10% ABV quadrupel brewed with spices.  As I am a big fan of Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus (another spiced quad), I was anxious to try this and had them warm one up for me upon arrival without disappointment!

The Pannepot I had was dated 2010 and had some smoothed out balance to it from that time.  It poured a dark body with a full head of negligible retention, but nice lace.  It smelled mostly of chocolate malt with a roasted hint alongside raisins and a bit of caramel.  The taste was excellent: sweet in a roasted malt-backbone kind of way with just a hint of candied fruits and anise.  Full bodied and fully carbonated, and just plain fantastic.  Perhaps my favorite quad - and at least of comparable quality to Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10, and Achel Extra Bruin!  Definitely an A+

Cheval Blanc impressed with their own beers as well.  Of particular note were the Double Porter and cask India Orange IPA, both of which were quite good, the India Orange even offering the best head retention and most delectable lace I have ever observed (not to mention a nicely dry-hopped citrus with a balanced maltiness of obvious quality).  I'd give the porter an A- and the India Orange an A-/A.

We then arrived at l'Amère a Boire, with a smaller and more modern, but gorgeous interior with some good looking grub (though I didn't taste any) where we would remain since Le Saint Bock was too full (though on my reconnaissance mission, my colleague and I did have a Hibernus to compare to the Pannepot - even if unscientifically separated by several drinks from evening's first quad!  For the record, I prefer the Pannepot and that is high praise indeed and takes nothing away from Charlevoix's marvel).

Though l'Amère a Boire impressed to a fair degree as well with a decent czech pilsner (Cerná Hora) that I'd give a B/B+, baltic porter (Odense Porter) I'd rate a B+, and a Boucanier American Porter that I'd likewise rate in the B+ range, their biggest hit for me was l'Amiral (an 8.5% ABV English Barleywine that they serve aged 1-year).  I had it late and would like to try it again on its own, though it offered very nice fruity and malty-sweet notes exemplifying the solid malt base, but with a fine dryness to match and balance it out to nice bold extremes of harmony, though the lingering finish was almost cloyingly sweet beyond the style norms.  That said, style norms are guides, not laws and it went down marvellously such that I look forward to a more thorough tasting and rating in the future.

Finally, I come to the sole beer of my Zwanze Day event - and unfortunately not the Zwanze, or any of their fruit lambics due to their limited quantity and my time (I was about the tenth person into the bar at open and their granted stock was so little that 2 of 5 bottles had sold out by the time I ordered).  Regardless, this beer was a marvel as my first Cantillon which lived up to the hype.  The bottle was their Gueuze 100% Lambic-Bio an organic gueuze - a blend of three (1 year old, 2 year old and 3 year old) wild fermented sour Belgian lambics without added sugar.  It, to me, was something like an unsweetened Duchesse de Bourgogne, but with obvious quality in every ingredient and a simply perfect blend.

Specifically, it appeared golden to light amber and slightly cloudy, with a moderate white head that dissipated quickly except for a rim that remains for quite some time and which finely laces the glass as swilled.   To the nose it is, as anticipated, sour and musty with a faint earthiness, but enticing with sour fermenting peach notes (and nothing I would call funk).  Tastewise, it is entirely sour in a pleasingly tart and nuanced manner while also slightly acidic but balanced and complex with a bit of sour apple.  Medium bodied and fully carbonated, it gives the sourness that tingly feeling that seems to fit it so very well.  This isn't a beer I could drink many of repetitively, but nor is it one I could turn down one of.  Best gueuze or lambic I have yet to taste!  Grade: A+

Experiments in Aging: Rochefort 8 and 10 One Year In

Around the time I started this blog, I also began cellaring beers (or, I suppose more precisely, I began systematically adding to the limited selection of 2007 and 2008 Thomas Hardy Ales I already had aging).

If you are unfamiliar with this process, yes, some beers can improve with age and aren't best drank fresh. Typically, Old Ales, Barley Wines, Imperial Stouts, and Belgian Strongs age well: note these are mostly 8+ % ABV beers. The exceptions to the strong rule are live/bottle-conditioned beers and gueuzes/lambics which can be aged even if lower in alcohol, while generally hoppier if-still-strong IIPAs (for example) which lose their hop profile fairly quickly should basically always be consumed fresh.  For more tips on the process, check out this excellent article.

Of course, like with most other things about beer, I am sharing my personal writing as I learn myself. Likewise, I am no expert at this. I have drank a few aged beers at establishments, but having just begun my own aging experiments, this is my first week of tasting the outcomes.

I am going to discuss two such 1-year attempts here. Trappistes Rochefort's 8 and 10, their dubbel and quad respectively. Neither was stored in a strictly climate controlled setting, but both were stored in predominant darkness in an actual cellar with temperatures ranging from 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit with slow seasonal variation.

The 8 was originally reviewed here, while in year-old form it remains extremely frothy, but with an even sweeter, less boozy fruity-sweet nose of plums but also sweet cherries. The taste is similar but with a drier earthier finish, and just a slight trace of chocolate towards the end. Simply marvelous! In my opinion this beer went from excellent to unearthly! I did not taste a fresh one beside it, but living in a Province where the local liqueur store makes this regularly available means I get to consume it frequently and this improvement is clear... And an improvement on a phenomenal beer is, indeed, noteworthy.  The fruity nose seems to exemplify the change, as it gets sweeter and bolder, while the taste and mouth likewise get even less boozy than beforehand - which was negligible for its high ABV.

The 10 seemed to change less, or at least less for the better, though not necessarily for the worse. Originally reviewed here, this offering again unsurprisingly retains its carbonated excess evidenced by a thick head.  The extra fruity nose, with plums, prunes, figs and faint wisp of chocolate is similar to the original, but also a honey/fermenting strawberries as it warms and a touch of leather and faint mustiness. Tastewise, however, this beer was far more boozy up front with a honey-ish sweetness (almost like a boozy/sticky mead, if far less cloying) with a hint of faint chocolate. The boozy notes temper somewhat after a few sips, though I am not sure if this is the beer's evolution, or my acclimatization to it.  It remains complex and smooth, though slightly sticky if finely carbonated.

The 10 was still good, but when fresh the 8 tastes far boozier than the 10 and this tasting brought the converse.  This is extremely odd since the 10 is remarkably non-boozy despite its hefty ABV normally.

Many online swear the following that could all be factors:

  • That the 10 could and perhaps should be aged for 5 to 10 years to see a substantial difference
  • That aging can be a crapshoot in that there are waves of good and bad times, ups and downs and it is virtually impossible to know when opening one how it will be at that point in time.
Things I have learned:

  • Next time, I won't be overly hasty and will drink them side-by-side with fresher examples (even if I am quite familiar with both)
  • With the success of the 8, I cannot wait to see what the 10 can - and hopefully will - become!