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!