Monday, 9 December 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

Not me exactly, as in Derek, the guy behind the blog, but rather as in, Happy Birthday to the blog!  That's right.  Malty Tasker is two today.

Two years ago I began with an introductory post that accumulated - on its own not counting general page views - a grand total of twelve, yes, twelve page loads.  From those humble origins I have evolved to getting around and beyond 500 page views for many a post (which is nothing compared to some, but something I am nonetheless thankful for!)

And, as thankful as I am for your readership and support, I remain committed to the goals stated way back then, and repeated now, in humble desires.  My goal isn't the largest blog readership in the beer community, but rather to be a part of that community, to share as I review, to learn as I share, to evolve as it does.  In that vein, it has been a success beyond the 40-times-increase in readership; as I have had an immense evolution of my palate, my knowledge, my engagement in the community.  My early posts belie how little I knew then as I am sure a few years from now the posts contemporaneous to this will seem amateur-ish as well.  That is fine with me... it is my goal, indeed, to share through growth and grow through sharing thoughts as much as beers.

Over these past two years, I moved from Toronto to Montreal and, though I have maintained the community of old, I have procured a new community in the vicinity of my new home.

For those in Toronto, Montreal, or beyond, thank you for welcoming my two-year old Malty Tasker incarnation into the scene and for the craft beer evolution that is ongoing through my time within it!

So, on this happiest of birthdays, I turn the table and say, cheers to you!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Now For Something Barrel-Aged: Hopfenstark's 7th Anniversary

Yesterday I managed to get to Station Ho.St for the first couple hours of Hopfenstark's 7th Anniversary party.

By the time they opened (around 2:20 pm), the lineup had grown enough to fill all of the seating in the establishment with a happy mood of delighted beer geeks, and by the time I departed (around 4:20 pm) most of the standing room was taken as well.  A nice turnout, but nowhere near the insanity of some other anniversary parties.

I was hoping for sample flights, while 8oz glasses were the minimum.  That, coupled with tap rotation and the need to remain functional for the evening meant I got through five delicious beers (and tasted another from a friend) and some thoughts follow.  If the kegs aren't all emptied, I encourage you to swing by and clear them out!

While I have often called Dieu du Ciel Canada's top brewery (and placed Hopfenstark close behind), brewmaster Fred and company at Hopfenstark truly are the barrel-agers extraordinaire of the bunch and the reviews below should make that clear.

I began with the Saison Station 16 variant that had been aged in white wine barrels (8% ABV).  This rye-brewed saison, from Quebec's master saison brewery, is a regular favourite, and the added complexity from this aging process is marvellous.  It expresses a delectably enticing tart fruity vinous nose with substantial wood notes. There is no head to speak of as the carbonation is slight, while the flavour is of grape-like wine with some of the rye evident on the finish that lingers with some profound woody complexity and some dusty funk.  The peppery and bubble-gum notes of the original remain, but are muted by the woody complexity.  This is a VERY fine beer, while my only real, and very slight, beef is with the dearth of carbonation though the body is nice if a touch oily without any noteworthy effervescence.  Grade: A

Next, I turned to the rarely brewed and highly hyped saison/lambic blend they call White Chalk (5% ABV).  A chalky and lace-like white carpety soft film of head capped a cloudy dark yellow base.  The nose was nicely tart but tempered with substantial citrus notes of lemon and zest, alongside some barnyard dust.  Similarly, it presented flavour notes that were fairly if not excessively sour with some decent chewy leather funk.  It began  fairly tart as the carbonation spread the notes throughout the mouth, but dries more funky with some wheaty citrus qualities leaving a nicely dry lingering finish.  It was very good, if slightly less complex than I'd imagined (though it was assuredly still fairly complex nonetheless). This had the moderate and stronger carbonation I'd have hoped for in the former, and both were highly drinkable to fans of the funk!  To characterize it with a bit of an oversimplification, it had more lambic on the nose and up front, and more wild saison in finish.  Grade: A-

My third delight was a 6-year old, oak-aged, soured variant of their Baltic Porter de l'Ancrier (8% ABV).  I love me some soured stouts/porters!  This one presented that ever-so-slightly reddish-tinged slight head reminiscent of barrel aged stouts and porters.  It wafted a brilliant nose that was mostly tart and lightly acidic with some sour cherries and hints of dark roasted chocolate. Taste-wise, it showed some toasty sweetness up front that dried out with a uniform tart and lingering finish, but one that lacked the depth of expression that the complexity of the nose had portended.  On the mouth, it remained fairly creamy with sufficient, if light carbonation.  Quite good and drinkable, if not as fantastic as I had been hoping after the early delights. Grade: B+

I then enjoyed a sip of the Bourbon-Barrel Aged Variant of Ma Chaumière (10% Strong Ale).  This oddity smelled strongly of a bourbon-aged imperial stout with some raisins and vanilla-forward bourbon alongside the chocolate roasty notes of enticement!  The taste, however, is entirely different resembling something like a cross between a barleywine and an imperial dark saison that has been barrel-aged!  It begins with some raisins, vanilla and bourbon but ends with a solid herbal hops finish of substantial bitterness, depth, and linger.  A nice full body and more carbonation (if slight, prickly, and fine) than the others tasted thus far, this is a unique and well-brewed oddity.  Grade: A-

My final review herein will consider the white-wine barrel-aged variant of 7 Sisters / La Pleïade: Maïa (9% ABV Belgian Strong Pale Ale).  This cloudy orange-ish, almost reddish-tinged brew expresses a magnificent nose of sour grapes and sweet wood.  It is slightly funky, but in a complex and thorough manner something like slightly fermenting fruit with just enough remaining sweetness to invite a sip.  This easily has one of the best noses I have ever experienced, and the taste... wait for it... was just as good, with similar 'lightly-off' (in a good way) faintly sweet fruity flavours but a perfectly dry floral and herbal hops finish alongside some complex grape must.  It was not sweet in a sweet-tooth way, but just had sweet enough fruit complexity to bring in the finish in a perfect balance.  The mouth was a touch oily with moderate carbonation allowing the expression of its many strengths.  This beer was simply fantastic!  Unlike the non-barrel aged versions, it offered no distinct yeast presence but remained amazing on its own terms!  Easily one of the top 5 beers I have ever tasted and, depending on my mood, perhaps the best!  Grade: A+

Though I also had a 14-month Bourbon Barrel Aged Kamarad Friedrich Imperial Stout, I have reviewed this delight before, and though I wish I could have stayed to try the Red Wine Maia variant (after the success of the white wine one) and perhaps Framboise Forte, I - alas - had to depart.

But, if you needed any reminder of the strengths of this brewery and of the need to watch for their Monday Rare Beer Night kegs or their Tuesday Barrel-Aged Beer events, consider yourself forewarned.  I may call off work if/whenever Maia White Wine appears and drink it all.  I'll fight you!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Imperial Stout Tasting 1.0: The First of the Newly Cold(er) Season

I greet Winter with a mix of dread at the thoughts of bitter temperatures alongside icy/snowy commutes and joy at the promise of imperial stout season.  Bold, warming, strong, dark, full-bodied, high gravity brews cut the edge off of Winter and, I believe, have become my source of life through the otherwise lifelessness of the inhospitable climate of this most painful season here in Montreal.

Yet a great sense of guilt overcomes me as we had our first zero degree celsius days this past week following our first (mostly) imperial stout tasting of the season; perhaps the cold resulting from us perversely welcoming and inviting the season in this bizarre ritual!  To the degree we are culpable, let me take this opportunity to apologize, but also to say you're welcome for us unofficially kicking off the season thereby granting official malty tasker permission to crack your cellared delights that have been awaiting these cooler times!

As always, when the gents from and I crack brews, we don't fuck around.  So, without further ado, here is the lineup (the St. Ambroise's are 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages respectively, btw):

Hill Farmstead's Twilight of the Idols (a 7.2% ABV "Winter Porter" brewed with coffee and cinnamon and aged on vanilla beans), while not an imperial stout, suited the theme well enough and began as a warm up.  Unfortunately, this unfiltered, live beer had its remaining yeast keep working and exploded upon opening in the most intense way I have ever seen - volcanically frothing forth and losing at least half of the bottle to the table, the floor, and the coasters (not to mention my hands and, with massive foaming pools forming on the table, to my mouth in my first ever table-sip as it would have been a waste to let such pools drain elsewhere!)

Upon pouring the remainder, we had limited sips - probably about 3-4 ounces each, rather than the 6-8 anticipated.  Moreover we lost much of the carbonation, which for this style is fine for me but led to a unique tasting experience that may not be representative.  Thus, my brief notes will say the following very tentatively:

This Nietzsche inspired porter was quite dark and viscous with no remaining head after exploding half of its contents in the opening geyser, though the nose wafted a some coffee and roast malt notes with a hint of something metallic.  The taste was of dry, with just a trace of vanilla.  It had a decent roasty linger, alongside a creamy feel without much effervescence (though who knows if that's to be expected!).  It was a bit boozy on the palate - in fact the booziest beer of the night despite being the lowest ABV - which I found odd and it may also be due to the explosion.  I won't rate this beer in this context as doing so would be unfair, but as with all things Hill Farmstead, it certainly intrigued enough to inspire a future second take if I get the opportunity!

Turning to the true style of the night, Imperial Stouts, we then enjoyed the Alesmith Speedway Stout (12% ABV Coffee Imperial Stout), pictured below.  This was brought to me from California by a colleague this summer (a thousand thank-yous, again, Alberto!) and looked as magnificent as imagined, building the anticipation:

See?  A nice black body capped by a thick tan head with decent staying power, despite its high gravity. Though the nose is quite nice, it's a bit milder than in many of my favourite imperial stouts.  It presents muted-but-pleasant dark chocolate bitter-sweetness with just a faint hint of alcohol and slight notes of cherry.  The taste is predominantly of bitter-sweet dark chocolate/cocoa without much coffee that is rather muted but presents mostly in a dry, well-roasted finish.  This beer is not sweet, but it has sweet elements tempered by its roasty-dry finish.  In ways, it's more balanced than I'd like in an imperial stout though I greatly admire its balanced complexity and enjoy drinking it immensely!  It was just slightly warm to the tongue, but nicely warming in the chest (as one would expect of a 12% beer) but there is no way you'd estimate its well-hidden alcohol content.  It's rich on the palate, while moderately creamy with only light carbonation in a medium body.  Though in ways this hits neither the nose, the taste imbalance, the coffee content, nor quite the body I generally seek in this style, it starts tasty and grows in pleasure with each subsequent sip!  It differs from my expectations, but is nonetheless a well-brewed marvel, a true pleasure to imbibe and a reminder of all that beer can be!  Grade: A

I have no qualms about professing my profound love of McAuslan's annual St. Ambroise Bourbon-Barrel Aged Stout Impériale Russe (9.2% ABV).  For my own tastes this, in many ways, defines the style for me personally and stands up to many of the more highly praised American competitors.  And it ages magnificently.

Thus, we pulled forth a cellared 2011, 2012, and the brand new 2013 release.  We had three glasses in front of us at once so as to be able to go back and forth between them.

Having previously had two vintages of this gem in juxtaposition, I knew that despite its fresh delights, its aged wonders simply improved the near perfection, thus I began with the 2013.  This thick, black, full-bodied, viscous delight shows a reddish-tinged mocha head of beauty and expression.  As recalled, that expressed nose is just lightly bourbon-esque with traces of vanilla and wood, but also a deeply roasted malt with some fresh earthy and piney hops that fades over time.  Don't get me wrong, it is malt-forward and yet not sweetly aromatic in more than a slight way, tempered by the hops and the roasty bitterness evoked and anticipated.  Tastewise, this beer is of dry unsweetened cocoa up front with an espresso-like dry finish of moderate length, but maximal substance.  The older (both years) versions offer increased wood and vanilla bourbon notes making me wonder if they were aged longer/in fresher barrels or if these notes express more over time.  Regardless, as great as this beer is fresh, it just gets better!  Thus, I never open too many fresh!

The feel is creamy and though I love the Speedway (which isn't sweet) it contrasts more sweetly in juxtaposition to this delight.  The 2012 wafts the most vanilla-forward nose and rounds out/smooths out the flavour from its sharp dryness, while the 2011 has the woodiest notes and the smoothest/most rounded out subtlety and complexity of the three.  In reverse chronological order, this is a tasting that starts amazingly and just gets better!  2013 Grade: A; 2012 Grade: A+; 2011 Grade: A+

Unlike the first two beers that are much more difficult to procure (at least in Eastern Canada), this last treat can be more easily procured.  Costly, at $6 per bottle, this beer is available wherever better beers are sold in Quebec and at the LCBO in Ontario.  Buy a few, store them upright in a cool, dark place, and crack them next year or the year after to experience a true delight!  Or better yet, do it each year and start your own vertical tasting tradition!  Stay tuned for next years' 4-year vertical update!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Celebrating Sour Beer Day in Style

Those who follow me regularly know that I spent this year’s Sour Beer Day/Zwanze Day at the 15th Anniversary Party of Dieu du Ciel, but like many more traditional holidays, the friendly gatherings stretched on and the festivities continued!  Thus, a few days later, a visiting sour beer-loving pal, Rob, and Noah, the mastermind behind, joined me for an epic tasting following the festivities.
The Lineup (Note the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines in the background, brought to the table when my less than two-year old ran in with it excitedly shouting, "Daddio, Daddio" before he went to bed and we cracked the first bottle!)

The night began with Quebec marvel Brasserie Dunham’s excellent Saison Réserve (a 6.5% ABV blend of their Saison Rustique [82% of the blend] and their Leo’s Early Breakfast IPA [the remaining 18%] which was then bottle re-fermented with wild yeast).  The result is something to behold regardless.

My comment that this had such a mountainous rocky head that ants would deem the peaks akin to Everest brought my wife to chuckles (as it should - #shitbeergeekssay), but my first impression was true wonder at this marvel of heady peaks that are unparallelled in my beer drinking experience.  The nose offered some excellent earthy hops notes alongside some barnyard funk, while the taste was lightly sour with a more prevalent barnyard funk, merely negligible traces of the guava and tea, with a more substantial dry lingering earthy hops that blended well with the funkiness.  The carbonation was bold, but not overpowering and I was thrilled to drink this delightful brew.  Grade: A/A+

We then turned to Jolly Pumpkin’s Oro de Calabaza (8% ABV American version of a Biere de Garde). Presenting a moderately cloudy yellow with a fair fizzy white head, this beer didn't immediately appear as noteworthy as the Réserve and, though the least sour of the night, was still a wonderful treat. Moderate barnyard funk notes complemented some floral hops in the aroma, while the taste had some oak noes and a bit of faintly fruity funk, but with an easy drinkability. There was a substantial amount of funk here, but not so much in the way of acidic tart sourness, which showed well with decent prickly carbonation. Sourness isn't the criteria for excellence, however, and this (like all beers that night) was excellent! Grade: A-/A

The Bruery's Sour in the Rye (7.8% ABV American Wild Ale) came next, pouring a decent, if-quickly dwindling head atop an orangish-reddish body. The nose was nicely tart with some woody notes present underlining the balsamic sort of vinegar aroma. It was quite tart with sour candy-ish notes without any of the sweetness. Just a hint of the rye spiciness propped up the tartness adding a decent complexity (to what was already quite nicely complex). This was supported by a fair body and a decent carbonation. Grade: A

Finally, we side-by-sided Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label and Tilquin Oude Gueuze a l’Ancienne.

Separately, these high quality Belgian gueuzes would seem quite similar, but together we could go back and forth highlighting the differences in contrast.

The Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label (5% ABV) poured a lightly cloudy yellow without much head. The nose smelled like a "dusty barnyard" according to Noah, and I couldn't agree more wafting hugely funky aromas from cobwebs, dust, and horse blanket - the whole gamut. Tastewise, it was equally funky and though the Tilquin was too, its funk paled in direct comparison, even if it was probably slightly more acidic. The Girardin, however, offered a very tingly feel with an expressively barnyard-y and leathery lingering finish of noteworthy complexity, with a light-ish body. Grade: A/A+

In juxtaposition Tilquin Oude Gueuze a l’Ancienne (6% ABV) poured an ever-so-slightly darker light amber than the Black Label Girardin and had a slightly more sour nose with just mild fermenting fruity notes discernible. It was very tart and fairly funky, perhaps a touch more tart and a touch less funky than the girardin, with just slight hints of wood and fruit underneath. Medium bodied, with a full tingly carbonation, this was a delicious delight for fans of the funk! Grade: A/A+

All in all, the single best tasting I have ever sat down for in terms of high standard all along! You know when you rank Oro de Calabaza as the lowest of the night, you are in for a real treat!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Confessions of a Hop-Head

I confess.  I am a hop-head.

I have been a malt-monster and a sour-puss for quite some time, and I have enjoyed many a hoppier product too, but this summer it truly happened.

You see, this summer I had some amazing, high IBU APAs, IPAs, and DIPAs regularly (Hill Farmstead Edward, Abner, and Ephraim, Dieu du Ciel Morality, Heady Topper, Central City Red Racer, Amsterdam Boneshaker, Left Field 6-4-3 Double IPA, Great Lakes Robohop, Stone Ruination, Firestone Walker Union Jack, etc, etc).  Yeah, I also bought and got deliveries of many an imperial stout and sour too, but they are just getting better with time while those hop-centric brews deteriorate by the day.

Thus, I spent my summer drinking these while they were best, while they were fresh.

And this is how it hit me: I have both a cupboard and a cellar full of beer (plus a few in the fridge) - seriously I have lots of beer - but I am out of IPAs and I look around and think, "Shit, I have nothing to drink!"

Sure, I could pick up Le Castor Yakima IPA easily enough (a solid enough beer) or Dieu du Ciel's Penombre (Black IPA) as what I'd deem the best of my current, not seasonal, options here, but that high end.  Oh man, that high end.  There is much in Ontario to the West of me, much in Vermont to the South, but right here, right now, it sure feels dry.

Again, I realize the extent of it with my anticipation for the pending seasonal bottle release of Dieu du Ciel's Morality.  And I realize, that though I have beers I would say I prefer overall - numerous sours and imperial stouts, and a few others - those are specialty beers.  For me, though I remain a malt-monster and a sour-puss, even the best of these beer styles need the right day, the right mood, the right temperature, but even if I'd rank some (not too many) beers higher, I could drink Morality or Edward or Union Jack or Ruination any day, any time.

These have become, for me, everyday beers.  Beers I wish I could always have on hand - fresh - for that beer on a Saturday night at home... for any Saturday night at home.

DDC: make Morality a regular product, or even, Dunham make your hoppy Pils a regular product.  Either of these could eternally tide a fella over in these hard times!  I mean, I may still love my maltiness and acidity, but truly, I am a confessed hop-head in withdrawal.  Donations gladly accepted! ;)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Beer Bloggers, Bullshit and Belittlement

I have been pondering writing this for a while; in fact I have pondered writing it many times in response to many different posts.

Recently, someone from the UK wrote a piece broadly calling Americans uninformed, unjustly snobby beer drinkers with no sense of history, no idea of a good beer, and no palate.

(Conversely, I have twice overheard at bars this exact same line: "They don't make any good beer in England.")

Bloggers jumped at the chance to fight back - many attacking this writers' criticism of American love for Cantillon in the process - and mud was slung in all directions.  Some old friends felt insulted, others just carried on, aggrieved by the offense so perceived.

I had a response I could have written; one perhaps unlike the others that could both acknowledge the realities in this guy's critique while denouncing its extremes, but then it occurred to me: why should I?

Why had anyone engaged?  The answer, quite neatly is because it drove their hits.  On blogs I regularly read, I found stories of this beer-blog-mimicry-of-classic-hip-hop-beef on three, while on two I found link amalgamation threads pointing to pieces in the debate.  Readers (myself included) flocked to these sites like morons flock to Fox News, while the effect is the same: it starts with bashing someone else (as if to acquire and express some sort of masculine superiority) while it continues with chest thrusting, finger wagging, know-it-all, and (worst of all) retaliatory attacks which abound.

It's all fun and games, it stokes our passions, ("How could he insult _____, that beer is always in my cellar!"), but it resembles Fox News in making conflict where there need not be any and bears more than a passing similarity to how true beer snobs (in contrast to geeks) berate the macro lager drinkers among us.  It drives up our readership...

But, it doesn't accomplish anything.  As when one tells their macro beer drinking friends that they drink shit doesn't bring them around, but showing them might, discussion and sharing of beers might actually bring people around or *gasp* show us that even their opinion might have some ideas that can inform our own.  They, our berated nemeses, might actually be able to teach us something new.

In reality, bashing, bullshitting, bragging, and chest-pounding makes us sound like the knuckle-dragging neanderthals the non-beer world thinks we are.

I, for one, refuse to participate.  So go get your hits for selling the news of the spectacular and I'll just keep writing about beer, rather than why "you're" wrong.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Singles Night Fundraiser: Craft Beer and Crafts Night

I often like the kitchen sink additions to my beer, and, heck, I always love craft beer, crafts (especially if craft beer related or done while drinking craft beer), charitable endeavours, great events, and knowing people are getting to hook up (over craft beer especially).

Yes, all of these come together in this Toronto event worthy of promotion.  Sunday September 29 at 7:15 pm sees an event at Betty's on King that brings all of these things together.  The event is a singles event with craft beer consumption alongside craft-making, while all serving as a fun fundraiser for Art City in St. James Town

If interested, note the details below and be sure to RSVP of your planned attendance!  Feel free to spread the good word... to singles!  It is a good way to spread craft beer, crafts, and charity under the motivating factors of meeting someone new, drinking great beer, and doing your part to alleviate the ails of our damaged world (while drowning your sorrows!)

EVENT:  Craft Beer + Crafts Night (Open to all singles!)

WHY:  Fundraiser for Art City in St. James Town (Charity providing free and accessible art programs to the children and youth of St. James Town) 

WHAT:  Schmooze and drink a wide variety of craft beers (or other drinks of your choice) with other awesome singles while working on fun craft projects to the beat of the right music to get your creative juices flowing!

WHEN:  Sunday, September 29, 2013, 7:15 p.m.

WHERE:   Betty’s (Upstairs Party Room) at 240 King Street East

COST:  $20 covers admission and crafts ($15 of which goes directly to the charity, $5 towards craft supplies, all extra supplies at the end of the night will be donated to the charity).  Beer not included in price.
Cost for students/seniors/under-employed:  $15


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Zwanze Day/Dieu du Ciel 15th Anniversary Party: The Insanity of Beers, Lines, Palate-Killers and ABVs!

Sometimes I wonder whether I should spend more time writing about everyday beers but, like many a beer geek and many, if not all, of my readers I get moved most by the extremes encountered.

This past Saturday (September 14th) marked not only Sour Beer Day, but also Cantillon's annual Zwanze Day and, Montreal host-bar Dieu du Ciel's 15th Anniversary, and fantastic extremes were everywhere to be found!

The lineups (literal, draught list, and bottle list) were beyond impressive!  Knowing how fast the Zwanze would sell meant me and my crew arrived at 11:30 am, well in advance of the 3pm open, and found ourselves with merely two people ahead of us in line.  Our wait was worthwhile though, since the 3-photo stitched panorama below shows the line just before open; a line that would see Zwanze AND the second Cantillon keg (Iris) sell out before the last person in this line ordered their first beer at nearly 6 pm:
At least there was a 3rd Cantillon keg (Kriek), for I didn't fully realize we'd return to the back of a 2+ hour line for our second round, exposing our folly for not having ordered more than 2 drinks each in the first place.  Thus, while we were blessed to get Zwanze, by the time of our return for a second round, not only was the Zwanze finished (as expected), but the Iris had been both tapped and tapped out, and the Kriek was just being tapped giving us two out of three Cantillon's but no chance for the Iris - while I realize that many there likewise had no chance at the Zwanze (or perhaps the Kriek).  Just insane!  With approximately 5oz samples and 30L kegs, this means that somewhere over 400 Cantillon orders were filled before I got my second round - this should give some idea of the madness (which coupled with any understanding of just how small DDC is, should explain well the nature of the day!)

I've previously expressed my wish that DDC would eliminate the brewing room in these cramped quarters (since they brew most things in St. Jerome now) in order to expand the seating area or would buy out a neighbour or expand upstairs, but in the absence of that, perhaps they could use an alternate venue for this great event.  Waiting 2+ hours in line for another round is just insane and in that time, those two Cantillon kegs tapped and dried, while MANY of the bottles on the special list sold out.  

Accordingly, on our next round(s), we over-stocked with greater forethought!

The crowding seemed even more extreme when it came to even getting to the bathroom, which resulted in something like doing the lambada with way too many strangers for someone not in bondage gear at an overbooked fetish night.

But the beer... oh my, the beer! Without further ado, let's turn to the reviews in three categories.  Beware: though I reviewed simply the top 16 beers I had (which I had a hard time narrowing down to even that due to the quality), this means 16 reviews of insane and insanely awesome beers follow the picture below of our table's first round.

1) Those beers that absolutely rocked my world:

  1. Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic (5% ABV): this was, hands down, the best fruit lambic I have ever had - quoted just before the taste and on many occasions I have said, "Fruit lambics that I have had tend to just downplay the sourness in favour of sweetened fruit notes. So don't fuck with my lambic and just leave it tart... but, of course, I have yet to have had a Cantillon fruit lambic, so that may change my mind," and indeed it has!  Wow!  Vinegary tart nose with some decent fresh cherry notes and just a hint of hay.  The taste starts just faintly wheaty-sweet for just the briefest of moments before one is blasted by an intensely acidic cherry tartness that puckers all who touch it to tongue, and the long-lasting, intense linger only allows this sourness to grow for a lengthy moment afterwards.  There is sufficient carbonation to spread this feel, but it isn't the most intensely carbonated lambic ever.  Just another marvel of Cantillon brewing!  Cantillon has shown me that when well-done, one is free to 'fuck with my lambic!'  Grade: A+
  2. Dieu du Ciel/The Alchemist Moralité (6.9% ABV Simcoe Dry-Hopped Cask IPA): I have waxed poetic of my deep and fond affection for this citrusy marvel many a time and I won't repeat myself here except to say, as good as this is to begin with, that creamy cask feel takes it from perfect to differently perfect!  Grade: A+

2) What would have rocked my world had it been any other day against lesser competition:

  1. Dieu du Ciel/New Belgium Lips of Faith - Heavenly Feijoa Tripel (9% ABV Tripel with Hibiscus Flowers and Feijoa): This excellent collaboration expressed a fairly sweaty nose with just hints of the hibiscus and a nicely dry, faintly apply-tart flavour with some dry fruitiness (is this the feijoa?).  Quite solidly carbonated and a touch sticky, this is a fine brew.  If not your standard tripel, it is more of a standard tripel than the Zwanze of the year (see below), though it is better - in my humble opinion - than many tripels that lack the depth of character this beer provides (though there are many style-norm standard tripels that still excel as well).  Grade: A
  2. Dieu du Ciel Pionnière (9.5% Double Black IPA): This rarely brewed marvel and highly sought after gem deserves its praise, wafting a solid citrus nose supported by mild toast notes.  Very piney flavours fill the mouth quickly, virtually bypassing the present malt-base that just briefly expresses some roasted coffee notes, as they assault the palate with a lingering and intensely dry finish.  The body is moderate, with a fair carbonation, while the warmth is entirely hidden from the senses, until the senses find themselves effectively hidden by this discernibly absent but effectively intoxicating intensity!  Grade: A
  3. Dieu du Ciel Solstice d'Hiver Réserve Spéciale (10.8% Bourbon Barrel-Aged American Barleywine): This rare marvel wafted a quite boldly oaked and bourbony vanilla nose, with just faint hints of the fruit and caramel underneath.  The aroma prepared me for a beer I expected to be quite hot, but flavourwise the booze was quite well-hidden as woodyness and fruity sweet raisin and plum notes came through sweetly.  The sweetness, however, was tempered as a decently dry earthy hops finish lingered bringing a desire to return to this full-bodied creamy delight!  Grade: A
  4. Dieu du Ciel Equinoxe du Printemps 2002 (11-year aged Scotch Ale with Maple at 9.5% ABV): This is a great beer on its own terms, but in a style I can never imbibe much of as the excessive sweetness assaults my senses.  Similarly, this 11-year old oddity evokes the same uncertainty in my apparaisal as the original as it is fantasic if not quite my cup of tea, as odd as that sounds to vocalize.  The maple on the nose here seems to only increase with time as it wafts maple syrup candy through-and-through.  While I find many beers in this style, and the un-aged version no less, a bit too hot, this has no noticeable amount of alcohol in the mouth or on the way down, feeling and tasting like a faintly peaty, cloyingly sweet maple sugar marvel.  It may not be my thing, but it sure was sweetly delicious, a unique evolution of a solidly-brewed beer, and something to try that can easily be replicated - if you cellar your bottles long enough!  Grade: A
  5. Dieu du Ciel Quintessence XV (10.5% Barrel-Aged English Strong Ale): This was only the third time this beer has been brewed as DDC brews it every fifth anniversary only and slightly differently each time.  This XV version presents a pretty hot bourbon nose with some caramel malts and hints of milk chocolate.  The flavour, howeverm is dominated by smoked malts and some peaty-ness.  Both sweetly warm and richly smoky alongside just traces of the wood, this full-bodied brew finishes with a decent lingering resiny hops, but of fainter remains than the smoke, and a light-moderate carbonation.  Very good and of diverse hybridity.  Grade: A
  6. Dieu du Ciel Peché Mortel Réserve Spéciale (9.5% Bourbon barrel-Aged Coffee Imperial Stout): Though the bourbon did shine through nicely on the nose with some woody vanilla notes, I found it smelled much warmer, while the taste began differently than the non-barreled standard DDC treat with a warm oakiness that evolves into the similar coffee finish this beers fans all love.  This is a bit less bitter than the staple, with the oaky-sweetness and all, but also more discernibly boozy even with an identical ABV.  It would be hard to choose the better beer, but they are clearly different animals of high esteem.  Grade: A
  7. Dieu du Ciel 2009 Grande Noirceur (9% Russian Imperial Stout): One of two bottles we purchased.  We had hoped to get the Le Purgatoire Archeoporter from Trou du Diable, but didn't attempt it until our second order - and the person two spots ahead of me bought the last one so we settled on this.  It isn't much different from the original, that I reviewed here, but is a little smoother and bit more creamy and chocolatey, with the warmth tempered slightly.  A fantastic beer improved upon at least slightly, though without a side-by-side comparison, it can be hard to recall how subtle these differences may be.  Regardless, Grade: A
  8. Dieu du Ciel 2009 Isseki Nicho (9.5% Imperial Dark Saison): The other of the two bottles we purchased.  We had planned to buy the Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged version, but the person in front of me bought the last one and this was our backup.  To be honest, I won't say more here other than that without the side-by-side comparison, I didn't notice the differences (or maybe because - as you can tell - I'd had quite a few, admittedly small, tastes of many a strong beer by this point)! Grade: Just as damn good as the original?  Better probably, but your guess is as good as mine!
  9. Dieu du Ciel/Le Trou du Diable Purgatoire Pils (5.6% Pils): I shouldn't have been surprised that just because I don't seek out pils, doesn't mean a DDC/TDD pils collab wouldn't be remarkable and, indeed, it was.  This beer had a stellar hoppy nose wafting mango and citrus with the best of the IPAs, while it tasted a bit sweeter up front with some honey characteristics leading the charge before a nice hoppy assault of tangerine and rind.  The linger wasn't as substantial as this might lead one to expect and it had the lighter body of a pils, with decent carbonation, while otherwise bearing much in common with the IPAs of hop-head affections.  Grade: A-/A
  10. Kissmeyer Smoked Baltic Porter (7.3% ABV): Kissmeyer strikes again with another solid beer!      Though I found this beer to be only slightly smoky on both nose and tongue, it had some other solid characteristics with some roasty notes alongside cocoa and woodyness in the aroma, the taste was of sweeter chocolate with a toasty, lightly smoky finish without a substantial linger.  Slightly oily with a medium body that makes it easier drinking than a 7.3% smoked baltic porter has any right to be!  Grade: A-/A

3) What was just run-of-the-mill, standard Dieu du Ciel-level sort-of-fantastic:

Quintessence XV and Zwanze 2013
  1. Cantillon Zwanze 2013 Abbaye de Cureghem (Spontaneously fermented tripel with 10% lambic blend) (7.2% ABV): The beer of the day - tapped in 46 pubs around the world at the same precise moment, never to be released again - is clearly not a standard tripel.  It bears resemblances, with aromas of lightly tart apple and some wet wood alongside some vinous grape qualities.  Taste-wise there is less sour and more funk than present on the nose, if neither extremely, with hints of vine and rind.  The body is a bit fuller than most lambics, while the carbonation was a touch lighter.  I get the hybridity and love the attempt, but only liked the beer.  My first Cantillon I didn't give an A+, if still a great experience!  Grade: A-
  2. Dieu du Ciel 15 Nord (8.4% ABV American Strong Ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels): This 15th anniversary surprise was quite good and offered what I wish the #4 below had: tempered vinous notes!  While quite dark in colour, the nose was faintly floral hopped with some discernible wine notes and just a faint peatyness and slight roasted cereal grainy notes.  The taste was sweetly vinous and lightly woody, with just enough drying earthy hops and roastiness to clean things off.  Quite enjoyable - though I do love my American Strongs to be hopped-to-high-heaven in a way this wasn't quite... but it was delicious if a different animal.  Grade: A-
  3. Dieu du Ciel/De La Senne Blanche Van de Plateau (4% ABV Witbier): Not usually a fan of the style, this beer hits some decent coriander and peppery spiced notes on both nose and tongue, while presenting just a light tartness that intrigues, dries, and lingers in a very re-enticing manner. I cannot wait to give this another go - when drinking less of such high gravity and bold flavour!  Grade: A-
  4. Dieu du Ciel Dernière Volonté Réserve Spéciale (Pinot-Noir Barrel-Aged Belgian IPA): All I will note here is that this offered an aroma with little transformation from the original, while the taste was strongly akin to a dry pinot noir, which is fine, but with the diminished carbonation and wine-dominance it isn't really what I'd personally love in a beer.  Rich and complex, and well-brewed, but a bit more of a barrel-aged for barrel-aging sake thing to me.  Maybe aged half as long would suffice (for me) as I'd rather hints than dominance of these notes, though a few at my table disagreed - which is why thoughts more than ratings are so crucial!  Grade: B+
Yep, and I tasted only a few beers that didn't make those super-highly-ranked category cuts.  With pretty affordable pricing too, it's safe to say this is a day not to miss, as long as you have a high tolerance for lines, crowds, general insanity, and high gravity and/or low ph beers!

It's probably a good thing for my liver - but bad for the soul - that it'll be another year 'til Zwanze 2014 and the DDC 16th Anniversary roll through.  But rest assured, you'll hear from me again aplenty before then!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Oktoberfest des Quebecois: Standouts and Observations

This past weekend, I attended the Oktoberfest des Quebecois in Repentigny.  (Everyone always says, "what is with the Oktoberfests in September?"  Well, not only does the original Oktoberfest happen mostly in September only ending in October, but Canada seems to have a climate more conducive to outdoor festivals occurring in September than October.)

As this event occurred a week after the Chambly Festival, Bières et Saveurs, and a week before Zwanze Day, I had to choose between the two festivals and I don't regret my choice!

Free buses from Montreal's metro stations Honoré-Beaugrand and Radisson helped get us safely to and from the site.  The festival grounds was the Parc de l'Île-Lebel which is a gorgeous peninsula jutting out into the St. Lawrence River.  Though warm enough the day was overcast, limiting our enjoyment of the sun, but helping prevent the bouts of sunstroke often seen when the sun aligns with copious booze consumption.

Though we missed the bands, a solid lineup of Tequila Gang Band, A Beatles Tribute, Seven Bags of Bricks (Flogging Molly tribute), Bernard Adamus,  and Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs assured good times for drinkers and non-drinkers alike.  Similarly, the festival tone was family-friendly complete with a family zone comprised of rides and games.

But, this time, the family stayed home freeing me from such obligations and allowing me to focus on my other love... good beer.

As always, I shared far too many samples to comment entirely, but I will simply point out that which amazed, inspired, or was otherwise noteworthy.

Top beers of the day (for me and my crew) follow, before my surprise discovery of note:

Boquébière's Rouge à l'Érable (8.5% Flanders Red Style Ale with Maple): this beer was a marvellous delight as a fantastic Quebec interpretation of the style offering a great acidic and woody nose, with a nice puckeringly tart flavour that is spread across the tongue by an ample carbonation allowing a fully sour, lingering experience!  There is but a trace of the maple sweetness, making this beer a surprising delight as I was worried the maple would overpower the tartness, and I am pleased to say that it doesn't!  Grade: A/A+

Les Trois Mousquetaires' Double IPA (Draught version at 8.3% ABV).  Yeah, yeah, I reviewed this here.  But I still had to note how great this draught version was, what with it being cloudier and a bit earthier, while still fucking fantastic!  Grade: A

Le Trou du Diable's l'Apocalypse (7.5% White IPA): I have heard a few folks say this isn't as good once it warms a little and some flaws become discernible, I didn't let mine get warm enough to speak with certainty, since I devoured its delectable citrus and passion-fruit flavours coupled with the like nose.  This beer is unfiltered and cloudy, and more amber-coloured than the name would suggest, with a nice bold effervescence.  I hope this gets bottled so I can devour it cold and also try it warmed a touch!  Grade: A-/A

Les Trois Mousquetaires' Randall-Infused American Barleywine (11% ABV).  This beer, originally, is a delight with an excellent dry-hopped nose adding piney-earthy complexity to the malty fruity aromas.  Though quite sweet throughout, bordering on Scotch Ale territory, it begins with a port-like sweetness evolving towards a dryness supplied by warmth.  Quite creamy, quite substantially-bodied, quite hoppy, and simultaneously quite sweet and, hence, quite unique and enjoyable!  The un-replicable Randall the Enamel Animal version tapped here, however, brings a freshness and even hoppier grassy aroma, while the taste becomes earthier and a bit drier, but simultaneously a bit wheat-grassy.  This was my first Randall experience and, though I can't say I liked the beer more (liking the taste less and the nose more), I appreciated the evolution and I look forward to imbibing more Randall infusions in the future!  Grade: A-/A (Though I'd give the original an A)

La Succursale's Angus IP<<AAA>> (7% ABV).  Yes, I have reviewed this before, but am reminded of how pleasurable it truly is to drink when consumed alongside other marvels once again and still holding its own!

Lagabière's brewing brothers, Francis and Sébastien Laganière
Finally, when our day was drawing to a close, we discovered Lagabière, a 6-month old brewpub in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.  Named as a play on words from the surname of the brewing brothers, Francis and Sébastien Laganière, this new brewery surprised!  I can't say I adored any of their beers, but all were very solid (B+/A- range mostly for me, with none below that)!  I tried seven of their products and cannot wait to get to their location to try more!  Of note, I most enjoyed their Bomb IPA (probably close to an A), their Evel Knievel American Pale Ale, and their Spout-Nic Russian Imperial Stout, while one of my company adored their l'Alegonquienne (Spruce Ale).

By way of critique, I'd say they haven't stepped out of the bounds of the norm yet, but they have taken a strong route assuring that they can brew the standards which makes a strong base for any good brewpub.  Their beers are well-crafted, if a slight bit on the lighter-bodied side at times, while their (beer, and I guess personal) names are great and their promise is high!  Check them out!  Seriously!

In conclusion, this festival truly showcased much of what is great in the Quebec beer scene, and yet that was just the beginning of a wider festival celebrating culture and prolonging the end of a great summer festival season!  Though with limitations on my time, I chose Beau's Oktoberfest last year and Oktoberfest des Quebecois this year, next year I must plan for Chambly instead.  However, I mention this not to critique this wonderful event, which would be difficult indeed, but rather to note why I will try all that the region has to offer in beer and, so far, the more I discover, the more I admire!  If you haven't attended these events, you won't regret any of their delights and I strongly encourage you to support your local beer scene.

'Til next time... Santé!

PS: Thanks to Beerism for the pictures (as their phone/camera is MUCH better than mine).  Watch for their pending Oktoberfest review as well!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Opening a Can of Worms: Les Trois Mousquetaires Double IPA in Comparison to the Legendary Heady Topper

I am not even close to the first to make this comparison, and there is a reason for its appearance in beer circles on the web, but at risk of opening a can of beer pandora's box can of worms, I wish to chime in on the Heady Topper vs. Les Trois Mousquetaires Double IPA comparison.

Both are hard to come by, with Heady regularly selling out every week within hours of canning in the vicinity of the Alchemist's Waterbury, VT brewery, while LTM's DIPA was released only for one day at the brewery (so far) and sold out in two hours.  (Though, its limited availability is assured to be simply because of difficulties in hop sourcing for all 8 varieties in the product, and LTM assures that they will be making more at some point).

Both offer waves of hops goodness, with numerous hops varieties infusing each, while LTM is 8.3% and 130 IBU to Heady Topper's 8% and 120 IBU.

The similarities don't end there, though some differences exist as well.

My original review of Heady Topper is here, while I will focus on the Trois Mousquetaires beer herein, with reference back to the Alchemist's hot-cake.  (It is worth noting, btw, that I have had this beer three times - twice from the bottle thanks to beerism and ca brasse, and once on tap at Oktoberfest des Quebecois which will have its full review later this week.)

The LTM Hors Série Double IPA pours a hazy orange with but a slight white head of very little retention or lace.  The Heady Topper is similar in all regards, but with a more substantial head, less orange and more amber, with chunkier particulate that is somewhat hazier than the bottled LTM, but less hazy than its draught counterpart.

The aroma brings the strongest similarity with a bold fruitiness exemplified by citrus (especially tangerine, with some lemon and grapefruit), mango, and a hint of lychee.  The nose is actually very similar to HT, but doesn't quite fill the room upon bottle-crack the way it does when a can of Heady opens.

In the mouth, it begins sweetly with some lightly bready malt and the sweeter side of the tangerine hops goodness before drying up quickly with a more substantial and longer-lingering bitterness (characterized by grapefruit) than is present in Heady Topper.  The draught version of the LTM DIPA presents a spicier earthiness, alongside a touch of honeyed sweetness that I don't notice as much in the bottled version.  Either way, it tastes delightful and offers a solid flavour evolution, but doesn't quite get to the complex evolution of hops notes offered by Heady, though it is still very, very delicious.

On the tongue, it is medium-bodied with moderate carbonation, while simultaneously feeling a slight bit oily alongside some slight and decent prickliness despite not presenting an overwhelming effervescence.  It is a bit warm and the alcohol notes become increasingly present as the glass warms, while this is something HT better tempers.

In conclusion, there are many reasons for the comparison to Heady Topper.  Appearance, aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel all bear similarities, but the legendary Heady comes out on top overall.  That, however, is still high praise for LTM and takes nothing away from its success, since HT currently ranks as the world's top beer on ba and 29th on ratebeer.  This Quebec gem, however, is further proof (alongside Dieu du Ciel's Morality, especially) that the Quebec and Canadian IPA scenes are evolving - when the necessary American hops can be sourced - and that it truly and legitimately belongs in this discussion is an excellent sign even if it fairly falls behind the Alchemist's masterpiece.

Nonetheless, I can grade this beer an easy A and I welcome its eventual return, at which time I will line up for a case (but the rest you should stay away to keep the line down!!)

Monday, 5 August 2013

3 Beers You Probably Can't Get Alongside 3 You Probably Can & Should

Occasionally, I get my hands on a rare obscure brew and ponder whether to review.  I mean, 'nothing' (I say facetiously, in a First-World-Problems-kinda-way) pisses me off more than reading about someone's epic Dark Lord or Bourbon County Brand Stout vertical tasting when I can't even get a single bottle, let alone several years' worth of vintages!

But, I rationalized, some might wish to know of the obscure and to appease those wishing for something they can find, I figured I'd place them alongside some others that are more easily procured.  Ironically, many of these beers linked together for me in their consumption and, thus, they also offer a connected story weaving together the obscure with the available.

To begin with the more obscure, my recent indulgence began at Toronto's world-class Bar Volo, where a (reconnected old) friend and I split a bottle of Le Trou du Diable's fantastic barrel-aged La Bretteuse (7.3% ABV).  This one-off brew is an 18-month Shiraz-barrel aged IPA that is perhaps better called an American Wild Ale, since it is secondarily fermented with loads of Brettanomyces (wild yeast) and since IPAs lose their hoppy edge very rapidly.  Indeed, this brew is dominated by Brett but in more of a leathery, barnyard funk sense than a sour/acidic/tart sense.  It presents a murky orange body capped by a foamy white head that lingers and laces down the glass while exuding an evolving aroma beginning with leather before transforming towards more soured vinous notes.  There is a nicely vanilla/oaky woody taste up front that evolves into a linger that balances somewhere between the wine and the barnyard Brett.  This is a fine beer and one to convert wine drinkers, if neither the driest nor the tartest of the style it remains a stellar product exemplary of wild-brewing mastery.  Grade: A  Availability: Sold out in stores, but available in pricey bottles at higher end beer bars.

The very same long-lost friend (and fellow beer geek) who shared the delightful bottle of La Bretteuse then agreed to a trade: I give him a bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 12 (their Quad) in exchange for one of his Westvleteren 8s (8% ABV).  Thus, I finally got to try the famed Westy Dubbel, which impressed immensely with a caveat (at the end).  A creamy, thick, porous off-white head of good retention and thick, clingy, sticky lace wafted a complex aroma of plums, raisins, licorice, brown sugar, and a hint of boozy warmth.  To the tongue, it was similar with dark fruits and some chocolate more discernible here than in the nose, though with a touch of anise and a faint hint of tobacco.  There is a fair warmth and a smooth creaminess to the tongue despite its strong carbonation that smooths it out nicely.  Like the famed Westy 12, however, I think Rochefort offerings (8 and 6)  top this, as I feel the 10 trumps the 12.  This isn't to say this isn't a fine beer - it is indeed worthy of its praise - but rather for two reasons: 1) The Westys are both a bit boozier on the nose and tongue to me; and 2) The Westy's offer more anise notes - which is fine, but for my personal preference isn't as desirable as some of the other notes I love in a good dubbel.  Thus, I respect and I enjoy this beer, but personal taste preferences on this flavour limit my enjoyment here, though they may result in a switched preference for you... still great to even be in the same discussion!  Grade: A Availability: Get your ass to the monastery or be prepared to pay $30+ per bottle at higher end beer bars if you can even find it.

Finally, upon my return to Quebec, Dieu du Ciel announced on Facebook that this past Friday would mark the release of the Sun Never Sets IPA (7.25% ABV), a collaboration with Dogfish Head and Beavertown breweries from Delaware and London, England respectively.  This unique IPA blends Indian ingredients of special palm sugar, black pepper, tamarind, and cumin with the quintessential calypso and citra hops for a unique and pleasurable experience.  It pours a standard amber with a decent white head that emits a solid dry-hop citra nose with grapefruit and orange rind notes alongside an almost smoky-spicy pepper quality that takes over as the hops fades.  The taste begins with a tamarind sweetness before a combination pine and citrus finish that is emboldened by a substantial carbonation.  It is good, and unique, and can hold its own after Morality (possibly my favourite IPA which was on tap at DDC while I awaited the tapping of this unique keg), but probably got a lower review from me for following this other mostly-unavailable treat. Grade: A- Availability: one 20 litre keg killed in minutes at DDC, maybe Dogfish Head still has some if you get to Delaware?*

I was next going to review Morality, but having previously done so here, I decided to revert to my Ontario trip to begin mentioning the more-widely-available gems.  Two connected asides, however, still tie this is in.  First, as I have said I prefer Morality (collaboration between DDC and the Alchemist) to the Alchemist's famed Heady Topper some have noted the difference in styles (IPA and double IPA), while others have either agreed or disagreed so this next promises an alike comparison as I jump from IPA to DIPA.  Second, as this began as a partial baseball blog, it seems a shame that it took until now for me to try (and review) beer from Ontario's new(-ish) Left Field Brewery...

and... I have to say, their 6-4-3 Double IPA (8.4% ABV) is a hit and possibly Ontario's best double IPA so far.  Pouring an orangish-amber, it presents a fruity nose full of ripe, fresh citrus and mango alongside some hints of passion fruit and pineapple.  The taste begins with a substantial malt backbone of some bread, before a superbly dry and nearly astringent but complex and delectable grapefruit and lemon-rind finish, coupled with traces of resin and spruce.  On the fuller-side of medium-bodied with a moderate, yet tingly, carbonation, this is truly worth the quest of the hop-heads!  Grade: A (almost A+) Availability: Only on draught at Ontario locations noted on their website.

After my return home, some company prompted a re-visit to Les Trois Mousquetaires' Grande Cuvée Barleywine Américain (11% ABV), which I had had before (and which I have another cellaring bottle).  This remains a delight to me and all involved!  It pours a lightly cloudy reddish-amber, with a fair creamy white head of some retention and lace.  The nose is, of course, malty but coupled with nice citrus dry-hop notes that entice something like an American Strong Ale, before tastes that are predominantly sweet but at least lightly drying after a rich, almost-port-forward beginning and a dryness that is supplied mostly by the alcoholic warmth with only some semblance of the many American hops present.  It is creamy and full to the tongue, if a tad sticky.  Though a bit sweet, it is a barleywine and the dry-hopped nose adds a pretty enticing character.  If you get one, get two and stand one up in your cellar for a year or two noting the changes - I promise my own notes on that transition in, well, a year or two!  Grade: A (almost A+) Availability: Seasonal in Quebec at decent beer stores/deps.

Finally, Brouwerij Bockor's Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge (5.5% ABV) has been a mainstay of my vacation time as an available (for a short time summer seasonal) and affordable sour, in the Flander's Red Style.  This beer pours a reddish-brown with a slight foamy off-white head that diminishes quickly with strong carbonation.  The nose is moderately fruity, in a cherry sort of manner, with a fairly acidic balsamic aroma alongside hints of woody oak.  Flavour-wise, it is dominated by a strong fruitiness coupled with substantial tartness presenting as cherries and currants alongside some vanilla from the wood, while all through (from beginning to end) one gets a solid amount of acidity and clean sourness, without any semblance of funk.  This is a very solid example of the style and one I would love to try alongside a Rodenbach just to compare, though I think this is more tart, if a touch less complex (from memory).  Grade: A/A+ Availability: Summer seasonal at the LCBO - their stock page says discontinued but many stores retain stock at a mere $3.30 per bottle (which is very cheap for a several-years-oak-aged sour ale).

'Til next time, drink well (and responsibly)!  Cheers!

*Note: While waiting, the excellent barkeep at Dieu du Ciel, named Julie, answered questions, helped my French, ensured we got prompt service, kept the busy taps flowing, and generally served as an example of a wonderful human being.  I told her I'd write that she deserves a raise - which she does - and being a man of my word, I have now done so!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Amsterdam Brewhouse: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

During a summer visit to my home town, I always enjoy a Blue Jays game, some staple beer bars (The Only Cafe, BarVolo, Bellwoods, Barhop, and some others at times) and often a new place (whether new or new to me).  This year, post-game (and, alas, post-loss), the destination was Amsterdam's new Harbourfront, lakeside Brewhouse on Queen's Quay.  I don't generally like to post negative reviews, but I feel that I will herein mention the great with some suggestions for improvement as the goal of the critique insofar as the cons seem easily repairable.

The Good:

While Amsterdam began serving standard, fairly bland, fairly mild, if good but unremarkable beers, it has certainly evolved with aging sours, barrel-blends, a stellar unfiltered IPA I have been known to call Ontario's best (Boneshaker), and an Imperial Stout raved about by the beer geeks (Tempest).

Flights and pints allowed a refresher of Boneshaker and of their Tempest Imperial Stout (which seems to have corrected the light body flaw in an otherwise strong beer I have noted before) and new tastings of their Fracture (Imperial IPA which is excellent too, offering a great citrus nose and resiny citrus taste alongside a full body!), their Vicar's Vice (Traditional Strong Ale - complex and enjoyable in a style I often find too sweet with some peat and smoky tobacco notes), their Rye Baltic Porter (a simply stellar baltic porter with a malty caramel taste that I'd love to find 'creamed-out' on cask sometime), and the cask version of their Market Pale Ale (a solid PA, if not legendary).

These beers ranged from good to great and, were I not being budget conscious, sour bottled options abounded tempting a return visit - though I may not be so quick to do so, for the reasons yet to come.

The interior was gorgeous with wood trim, a sporadic balcony-esque layout with a trendy gastro-pub atmosphere while we longed for the exterior alongside the lakeshore in the fine afternoon sun.  The spot itself is worth its weight in beer - and with an 800 person capacity (500 interior, 300 exterior) it weighs a lot!

The Bad:

Though I didn't try much of the food, and though it would be unfair to call the 1-lb wings bad, they were certainly a touch pricey at $13 for 6 wings (in Boneshaker marmalade that tasted more like a mediocre mild barbecue sauce).  The food looked interesting and desirous indeed, but seemed their target was diners with beer as an afterthought.  This, I thought, is a restaurant for a nice date with some great looking wood-fired pizza options and a pretzel that looked unbelievably delicious, but less like the beer locale we'd sought.  This may not be bad, but simply didn't meet our expectations.

and The Ugly:

Upon our arrival - promptly and ahead of ANY coming from the Jays game as we planned for this - we encountered a substantial lineup.  This is fine and boded well, but before waiting we thought we'd check the cask and tap selection, so my friend held the spot and I checked with the friendly hostess at the front.  Despite her friendly assistance, she seemed to know little of the beer and said she'd find out, but didn't think there was any cask.  Before her return, two women came to the front, flirted a bit with the security guard and asked if they could wait at the bar getting a drink first - and were let through.  "Great," I though, "we will do the same."  Upon mentioning it to the same guard, we were told that wouldn't be allowed until it was verified that all in the line ahead of us had the opportunity - which is fine were the standard held uniformly.

Upon the return of the friendly hostess, I was informed of merely the four beers they didn't have and not of which they did, and that it could be up to an hour wait.  I said, again, that might be fine, but I'd greatly like to know what they do have - especially on cask - if we would wait that long for a table (or even the bar).  I was politely told that she'd happily get me that after seating the next customers and she returned with the beer menu and a statement that, "I am pretty sure there is no cask."

The menu was enticing enough, so we waited nearly 30 minutes and the line moved regularly though it grew immensely during our wait.

Upon entrance, we were frankly shocked.  No less than four hostesses took turns seating people, though less than 1/3 of the interior and 50% of the exterior was occupied, and we had been told there was only interior space available.  Minimal wait staff struggled to meet table orders while hostesses killed time and the place sat mostly empty and yet - though an exterior sign bragged of their monstrous space - there were people outside waiting for up to an hour to enter a nearly empty restaurant?!?  It seemed like a staffing issue, though with a few months under their belts, one would presume that could and should have already been resolved promptly!

Then, despite her charms and patience, our server brought me the draught, rather than the cask version of the first beer I ordered (after not originally being sure of what the cask was).  She almost seemed to be shocked that I could tell the difference and checked with the barkeep before telling me - without apology - that she'd bring me the right drink.

I don't, however, actually fault her, but with 20+ beers (their own and others), I'd think a little beer education is necessary for what seemed a remarkably under-educated and under-prepared staff.  It worked out fine, but seemed more in line with what one would expect at a finer dining restaurant where beer is secondary to the wine of some note and not what we were craving after a macro-imposed self-denial through the game at the Rogers Centre Skydome.

Flights were nicely organized into types and the Leaside offered Boneshaker, Fracture, Tempest, and Vicar's Vice which pleased both myself and my friend, though a make-your-own-flight (even if a dollar more) would certainly add to the beer-worthiness of the establishment.

In Conclusion:

I enjoyed myself, though I felt as if I were a drinker in a dining room, burdening the wait staff by asking questions about beer they had no answers to.  The food seemed intriguing, and the location (interior and exterior) is remarkable, but I'd pay more for great beer and knowledgeable service than for ambience and an experience replicable in many a restaurant around the city.  The wait time, however, despite the emptiness was bizarre and almost seemed like an effort in hype-building and I have heard this is a regular practice.

I enjoyed the beer and the place enough to go again - but not for a few drinks without assurance things have changed.  Perhaps only for a meal.

However, the harshness of this review serves mainly to provoke these very changes.  Hiring and training staff seems a minimal requirement in any business and the strengths here are clear, but without nurturing them Amsterdam risks bringing in the pretentious and alienating the beer-geek.  Maybe that's their market though and if so, you've been alerted - whoever you may be!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Fire and Brimstone: A Promising if Premature Visit to Brimstone Brewing

When I first learned of a pending nano-brewery in Ridgeway, Ontario, I got excited at the prospects of my future visits to nearby family and friends to no longer require a trip across the border to procure good craft beer in Buffalo.  Sure, I'd garnered no guarantee the beer would actually be good, but after spending some time with brewmaster Rod Daigle, I am pleased to report that my faithful optimism seems reasonable indeed.

Daigle and partner Jason Pizzicarola have officially opened Brimstone Brewing Company (facebook page here) in the same building as the Sanctuary Centre for the Arts - both so named due to their location in a former church.

Upon my recent visit, I got a tour and chat, over a taste of a (not-quite-ready) IPA in progress.  While their website states their aim as to "bring high quality, small batch (minuscule, really) craft beers to thirsty residents and visitors of Ridgeway and Crystal Beach, Ontario," Daigle articulates a more nuanced, evolving vision.  For him, with much of his life spent imbibing the aggressive, hop-forward IPAs of the North American West Coast, his personal vision involves bringing these more aggressive tastes and aromas to an Ontario market inundated with good, if not great, IPAs and Imperial IPAs with a constantly evolving selection of draught for the local market and the Sanctuary.  While that may not seem such a different goal from many in the burdgeoning Ontario craft beer movement, Daigle further envisions a process building towards this through a targeting of the local (perhaps less craft savvy) market, harnessing their beer evolution alongside unique brewing processes, such as the revival of an ancient, medieval stone-fired brewing technique.

Unfortunately, the purpose for my visit to Ridgeway was timed by family vacation needs and Brimstone's early success meant a complete sell-out of their first beers, while their first IPA batch hadn't yet reached maturity.  As it was close, we talked over a glass that wafted a faint piney and grassy hops nose that presented a decent balance in the mouth with strong resin notes and only faintly apparent immaturity in its slight apple hints.  The full body, alongside unfiltered hops resins made for a promising brew, if an incomplete one at the moment.  Moreover, I am assured of a pending recipe tweak to enhance the nose, though it is currently hopped with Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, and a Williamette dry-hop and hopback infusion.  Though evolving (in batch and recipe), this beer already topped many an IPA I have had and though I am loathe to make a definitive pronouncement at such a limited juncture, my intrigue has assuredly been strengthened!

The private tour displayed the next batch - in fermentation - of a Medieval-style stone-fired ale in which heated rocks are added to the wort allowing for rapid caramelization and smoky notes to build into a base of two-row pils malt with ale yeast.  A shame this oddity was weeks away and will be gone before my next return, but perhaps this process will lead to a refinement and I can return for the legendary output of this plan (in porter form perhaps, please?).  Certainly, it is through such unique endeavours that brewers can find their niche and create those oddities that we geeks so crave and, for this, I wish them every success!

The scale in the photo is the entirety of the brewing capacity, though it is about to triple with further plans of a future increase beyond that.  Other ideas and the opening of an on-site bistro abound.  I am anxious to see the fruits of these labours and the evolution from this strong beginning.  As it stands, the Sanctuary is already scheduled to host the first ever Albino Rhino Beertuberoolapolooza festival celebrating Niagara craft beer on Saturday, April 19, 2014.

In end to this prayer for future success, I will echo the sentiments from their shirts and glasses, "freshly Brewed, Craft Ale... Amen."

Monday, 15 July 2013

Reflections on Hops and the Valuable Flaws of Rating Beer

Why do I rate beers?

I don't ask this as if some FAQ, but rather as a question I sometimes ask myself.  At 1144 rated beers, I sometimes find myself wondering what the heck I was previously thinking when I revisit a rated beer and, hence, if I should even bother rating them all any more.  Past aroma and flavour descriptors typically remain the same, yet an assessment of whether it works often evolves as does my palate, learning, and experience.  If my tastes change, I find myself wondering just what my ratings are good for anyway.  Am I wasting my time, let alone that of others?

Even with personal palate evolution and new exposures, I am sometimes amazed by my consistency.  For example, I recently had a fairly obscure Ontario IPA for the second time and, without referring back to my notes from a distant first taste about 600 rated beers past, I reproduced an eerily similar text and an identical rating.

Yet others, which my original review called "astringent" or "so bitter as to be undrinkable," I now find to be amongst my current favourites.  It isn't a claim to some newly acquired sophistication, but rather to a continuous personal transformation (through which I may later revert to once again finding these beers astringent, or perhaps even bland in some hyper-flavoured future).  What began as a quest for sweet, oaky, vanilla brews changed to a desire for some hops alongside a malt backbone or for bitter coffee/chocolate malty notes, but which has now gone full force in two directions: towards sourness in the extreme and for nuanced blasts of citrusy hops.

Yes, I have entered my so-called "hop-head" phase.  Some start their craft beer journey there, some grow to appreciate it, others never do, but I have now happily devoured many an IPA I would have once found undrinkable.

Throughout it all, however, despite a change in degrees of tolerance, I have maintained that hops are something like hot sauce.  Hotness/hoppiness without sophistication presents simply a useless barrage on the senses, while those even incredibly spicy dishes and hoppy brews teeming with flavour bring such nuanced pleasure with that barrage that one's appreciation grows.

What I didn't realize when I first enunciated this analogy, though, is that there is a further dimension of correlation: as one's consumption of tastier/spicier food evolves into greater tolerance, so too does the appreciation of imbibing yet-hoppier beers.

So what is my point?

My point is that my ratings - even when drastically different over time - are still personally useful insofar as the essence is descriptive.  I understand how my tastes have changed.  If the beer descriptor is "solvent-like," it probably remains unenjoyable for me, while I am similarly unlikely to enjoy a "piney" IPA than a citrusy one, but something I once called astringently citrusy may provoke a different adjective to modify the citrus appreciation today.

Though I 'tick' off numbers, ratings beers isn't simply a numbers game for me, rather it helps me understand my preferences, understand beer, and - primarily - to drink better beer more regularly even in newly discovered brews.  I've learned much about beer, about description, and about myself in the process.  Yes, my ratings are both subjective and mutable, but they are nonetheless an experience I find enjoyable and nonetheless valuable.  Flawed, subjective, mutable, and imperfect though it may be, I do refer back to the notes from toasts past, and even if I now disagree, ratings and reviews have become my framework for beer appreciation going forward.  You should try it, if you don't already!