Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Year in Beer: Quebec, Ontario & Beyond

Craft beer continued its maturation throughout 2014, with the number of North American breweries topping 3000 while taste trends continue to evolve.  Amongst these trends are the continued normalcy of IPAs and DIPAs (and corresponding apathy towards this style that is now a base offering), increased sour emphases (especially in blends, saisons, Brettanomyces fermented brews, and other American Wild Ales), and an increasing shift away from bourbon in favour of wine barrel-aging for that musty, tannic, vinous funk of great complexity - when done right.

Further trends include both the increased 'geekification' of the scene and a related, after-market marketization of traded products as hoarding, value-inflating, and muling are on the rise.  Though I myself mule a few beers for close friends from time to time, I can't help but feel that practices like buying entire store stocks at 20% over cost before products hit the shelves for all to access and massive markups (such as those in advance of Bourbon County's Black Friday release south of the border) will only hurt the industry, not to mention the average craft beer consumer.

However, it isn't all bleak and many bright spots remain.

Perhaps my favourite news in beer this year is the newly increased availability and canning of Lawson's stellar Sip of Sunshine IPA, but without trekking to Vermont or Connecticut, it will remain somewhat of a commitment to acquire.

I am thrilled to declare that, for me, this was the year of the Session Beer (in Quebec).  Low alcohol session beers often lack the body to support their hops content and despite popular praise for some excellent American products, two Quebec products stood up to shine in the spotlight for me this year: Le Castor's Session Houblon and Pit Caribou's Session Brett IPA.  Ontario's Great Lakes Brewery also got in on the action with the once-again solid Citraddiction (whose label embodies the spirit of beer geekery)!

Though Session Houblon may be a bit like Yakima lite, I love the 4.3% 22-ounce bombers that allow for a substantial beer with lower calories and alcoholic effect that combine with a fuller body than many session IPAs and a citrus-forward hops that stands up in flavour as in nose - a frequent limitation in many session IPAs.  The year-round availability of this beer is an additional perk, as are its organic qualities if one finds that to be important.

Session Brett, on the other hand, combines the mild dust of Brett fermentation with substantial hops creating a super drinkable blend of American hops and wild yeast, coupled again with the lower ABV that I so desire when done well.  And this IS done well.  Bravo, Pit Caribou, now please make it regular, or at least more regular!

Now, the requisite best of lists and brewery of the year awards for Ontario and Quebec.  I have, to my knowledge, included only beers released for the first time in 2014, though the breweries aren't new.



Honourable Mentions: Special shout-outs to Dieu du Ciel! for Aphrodisiaque Rhum, to Pit Caribou/Le Castor for their 30 Cents Black IPA collaboration, and to Les Trois Mousquetaires for their Dixième (Black Kriek) and their Brett Saison that would have made the list if bottles had been created!

10. Dieu du Ciel! 6e Soir Pinot Noir DDC always hits hard and this treat, though without many of the imperial pils qualities of the original, presented one of the most musty, vinous brews I have ever imbibed.  Grade: A-

9. Le Purgatoire (Dieu du Ciel! and Le Trou du Diable) La Divine Comèdie This delightful, boldly hopped American pilsner helped me learn to once again appreciate the style most (non-craft) beer drinkers consider exemplary of beer.  I hope this gets annual circulation every summer as it perfectly embodies the barbecue brew par excellence.  Grade: A-

8. Le Castor Session Houblon As noted above, this is my new favourite, regular list, session IPA and its regular availability deserves praise as does the product itself.  Grade: A-

7. Dunham Jake Brett This dusty, dry brett saison brings Dunham's first entry to the list.  You have to love Brett dust, but I could drink this all day and hope it becomes a staple product.  Grade: A-

6. Dieu du Ciel! Isseki Nicho Pinot Noir BA In the vein of the wine-barrel rise, this treat shows the best of both Isseki Nicho's roasty malt and saison yeast alongside a pinot noir barrel complexity.  For this beer, it is probably fortunate that this avoids the vinous funkyness, yet it transforms this thick brew into a different, and still delectable, animal. Grade: A-

5. Dunham Stout Impériale Russe Bourbon Barrel-Aged So dry, and though the barrel is present, it didn't overwhelm.  It drank well upon release and continues to do so today!  I WANT MORE!  Grade: A-/A

4. Dunham Stout Impériale Russe w/ Vanilla and Coffee Bourbon Barrel-Aged Perhaps the only thing better than the original is the infusion of vanilla and coffee that, together, minimize the vanilla sweetness by balancing it out to keep the dryness and the well-blended barrel.  Another gem.  Grade: A-/A

3. Dunham Assemblage Numero 2  This hopped up and brett refermented, barrel-aged blend hits all the right notes combining mild tartness, barrel-brett funk, and a nice hopped nose.  A delight and my favourite Assemblage (though Numero 1 is nearly as good).  Grade: A-/A

2. Dunham Saison du Pinacle Réserve This wine barrel-aged, brett re-fermented saison is dry, vinous, musty, and complex.  Another BA/Brett saison marvel from Dunham. Grade: A-/A

1. Pit Caribou Session Brett IPA What more can I say about this beer?  I love it. Period.  Grade: A


The Contenders:

Les Trois Mousquetaires built a strong case with a re-released Double IPA, another delightful batch of Porter Baltique Reserve, their tenth Anniversary Dixieme (dark kriek), and casks and kegs of the delightful Saison Brett.  However, the limited availability (sellout within hours on the release day each year) of the DIPA and the limited availability of Saison Brett limit the success here.  Their regular beers remain a touch sweet and, though I am thrilled to have this brewery and these delightful offerings, they won't be the Quebec Brewery of the Year for me, personally.

Pit Caribou often fails to impress immensely with their regular lineup - outside of the fantastic IPA - but with their 30 Cents Le Castor collab and Session Brett, not to mention IIPA de la Sorcière, they have shown brewing prowess, awareness of trends, AND the crucial ability to nail them.  Thus, they seem to be a rising force in the Quebec beer scene.  Well done, Pit Caribou!

Le Castor continued to brew the delightful Yakima, while adding Session Houblon to its regular offerings, and the aforementioned 30 Cents was a nice touch too.  Their announcement of increased barrel and brett options for 2015 shows their conscientiousness and portends the potential for a rise as well, but this relative newbie from Rigaud assuredly holds much promise beyond their smatterings of hits thus far.

Le Trou du Diable is always a perennial favourite in the province.  Divine Comedie, Dulcis Succubus and Buteuse Brassin Speciale topped my personal favourites list, while the blended l'Ours and sour-brew le Coq are also nicely increasing in availability.  Their case is boosted for me by the increased availability of their barrel-aged beers and the strengths of Dulcis and Buteuse BS, but though le Coq and l'Ours are fine, the retirement of Bretteuse and virtual non-availability of l'Imperatrice in favour of these others is the wrong choice in my opinion.  Still, one can't really go wrong with beers of this quality and I continue to enjoy my growing TDD cellar!

Dieu du Ciel! enters this discussion regularly, and with staples and rarities such as Moralité, Péché Mortel, Isseki Nicho, La Divine Comedie, Solstice d'Été, Solstice d'Hiver, Aphrodisiaque, Grande Noirceur, and many barrel-aged variants and more, their case is always strong.  I am, in fact, of the opinion that this is perhaps the country's best brewery.  They bolstered their case with the new Aphro Rhum, Isseki Pinot, (bottled) Solstice d'Été aux Cerises, and more, but despite being perhaps "the best" all around, for the year, I have to give props to the big winner:

Quebec Brewery of the Year:

Brasserie Dunham Dunham not only increased barrel-aged availability, but released (not all for the first time) such treats as 3 Assemblages, Saison Reserve (my favourite of their beers), Jake Brett, Big Tom Pale Ale, Saison du Pinacle (dry-hopped), Saison du Pinacle Reserve, Stout Imperiale Russe (and BA variants), wine-BA Leo's Early Breakfast, Vladimir Sour Beaver Riot (and BA), and more, all the while hosting the best organized, well affordable, and pleasant bottle releases.  Their ticket system and advance order process makes for a smooth release and, coupled with the quality of the beers, they have set a new standard for how such releases should be professionally handled.  Keep up the amazing work, Dunham!



Having missed many releases from Ontario this year, my list is a bit limited and isn't meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative of the keys gems released this past year that found their way down my throat.

5. Sawdust City 11/05  This triple IPA remains hop forward enough to not lose out to the malty sweetness, with a solid body and complexity of citrus, piney, and floral qualities.  Grade: A-

4. Great Lakes Thrust! An IPA This treat was, as far as I know, new for 2014 and cans sold out rapidly at the brewery upon each release, yet I find it second only to DDC's Moralité as far as Canadian IPAs go.  Mike Lackey and Great Lakes truly are the masters of IPAs in Canada all-around however, as they offer so many treats!  My two cents: Apocalypse Later or Thrust! should replace Devil's Pale in the regular lineup as two PAs are always around and their marvellous IPAs are brewery-only rarities.  Grade: A

3.  Bellwoods Bring Out Your Dead I find this year's BOYD to top even last year's with an even greater Cognac presence from the barrels and a complexity rivalled by few imperial stouts.  Grade: A

2. Amsterdam Saison Reserve A delicious blend of brett and tart vinous notes made for a rich complexity and super drinkability in this brewery-only treat.  Grade: A

1. Bellwoods Motley Cru 2014 This brett barrel-aged IPA wafted delightful floral hops underneath a rich aroma of dust and funk.  Together, they seem to have mastered what so many examples above trendily offered, but few perfected despite their strengths.  I can't wait for the next release of their anniversary series!  Grade: A+

Ontario Brewery of the Year:

I will list but two contenders, Great Lakes Brewery, whose IPAs (and more) continue to wow, alongside Sawdust City whose growth and rise offer increased availability (and the now LCBO release of the Red Rocket Spiced Coffee Stout - though the draught version seemed a little tighter).  Nonetheless, I continue to look for treats from these great brewers (Mike Lackey and Sam Corbeil respectively).

But the winner has to be Bellwoods.  In their third year of operation, Bellwoods stepped up its game.  This trendy, Ossington strip, Toronto brewpub continues to impress with barrel aged treats (Grandma's Boy, Bring Out Your Dead, Motley Cru, Skeleton Key, and more) alongside regular offerings such as Roman Candle, Witchshark, Farmageddon, and the masterful baltic porter, Lost River (and many, many more).  A must-drink, and by that I mean essentially anything brewed by this Toronto beacon should be imbibed whenever it can be (responsibly)!

With that I bid adieu for the year.  Happy New Year to all of you - may the evening itself provide for some excellent, responsible tastings, and may 2015 bring us all the best in beer and beyond!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Empress Wields a Wooden Stick: Reviewing Le Trou du Diable's Barrel-Aged l'Impératrice

One of the true delights about beer in its ongoing boom is the innovation that obliterates style descriptors, often resulting in new categories altogether or simply standing alone.  For me, Le Trou du Diable's l'Impératrice Brassin Spècial stands alone in this in many ways.  That doesn't make it the best beer I have ever had, nor even in its 'styles' or their fringes, but rather in blending marvelously that which I adore from their specifications.

As I disclaimer, I have never had the regular, non-barrel-aged release of this 9% ABV Russian Imperial Stout, that is presumably named in honour of Catherine the Great, whose stout appreciation helped brewers develop the style.  Nor have I had this barrel-aged variant fresh, as its rarity meant I have only once had the chance to purchase it - with a bottle per person limit that had eroded before I could return.

This bottle is dated 07/2013 and is being consumed as I type this, from a bulbous Bellwoods pint tulip, in November 2014.

It pours a deep, dark brown with a fine, yet audible mocha head of poor retention.  Scant remnants encircle the surface rim, but most recedes rapidly as the carbonation seems to depart slightly in the dissipation of this fizzy cap.

Upon initial pour, the nose wafts vanilla, some fruit, and no slight amount of must or wood qualities.  The barrel is initially ever-present and the vinous nearly infected (in a good way!) microflora presence is inviting to those who like such a thing.  The woodiness is quite intense with wet oak, and moderate to heavy bourbon vanilla notes.  As the head rapidly dissipates and (or?) the glass warms, the seeming infection and wood presence give way somewhat allowing the vanilla bourbon notes to come forward more while supported by a faint cacao roast character.  As a slight critique, the warmth comes through a touch more than desired at this point too, but it remains delightfully enticing either initially or afterwards, though it almost shifts so distinctly as to front a different beer.

Taste-wise this excites me most after an inviting aroma of fair complexity and substance.  It starts with a cofee-esque roastiness with a hint of nuts, but it quickly gets acidic and tannic before a moderately hot, yet still acidic lengthy linger.  It isn't acidic in a sour way, but rather in a vinous, oaky, and intensified export-stout-sour-kinda-way, but holy shit is it present and re-inviting.

The body is a touch thin for the style, especially for a BA variant,  while the carbonation is also a touch mild (though I enjoy this in a common IS, it limits the funky spread this brew demands).  It isn't watery as the aggressiveness of the flavours spread and compensate, but neither is it thick and chewy as are the standard BA imperial stouts I dream of.

This is not even close to style representative.  If I rank by (non-BA) imperial stouts, it rates poorly, as the roast and body are so mild as to be unrepresentative.  While many barrel-aged imperial stouts seem rather to exemplify and highlight the strengths of the style, or at least bring the vanilla and bourbon front-and-centre rather than the wood and microflora, this is another beast entirely.  Thus, if I rate as BA imperial stouts, it fares better, though nonetheless oddly - as if mismatched once again.

Moreover, it isn't exactly in the realm of other sour imperial stouts (such as The Bruery's Tart of Darkness, Bellwoods' No Rest for the Wicked, or Dunham's Vladimir Sour Pussy Riot) which present much more acidity and tartness.  In this again, even if a better fit, it falters some, and yet...



If I rate it alone, as it's own beast, it's own marvel, a delight it is.  I can overlook the body, the audibly-receding head (if not for the funk it removes with it in its departure).  These knock it slightly, but I want more.  Please Lord, or Devil in your hole, please... give me more!  Grade: A

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Over-Hyped Craft Beers and the Limits of Experimental Innovation

The beer world is often driven by hype, by praise, by scarcity, by barrel-aged beers that benefit little from barrel-aging, by bottle prices, by Untappd, Ratebeer, and Beeradvocate reviews, by the quest for the next great unknown. To procure high praise, beers in demand are usually quite solid, aside from considerations of limited supply and rampant demand, such that geeks follow geeks (who, in turn, follow geeks) in rewarding the respective breweries with praise and ratings that drive up trade values, quests, and further reviews, while pushing people to broader distances, longer lines, and higher prices in their relentless pursuits.

Yes - as you may have noticed - I am partially claiming that ratings stem from previous ratings. Praise from praise, hype from hype, dollars from sheep. Crowd-sourcing is not without the perils of groupthink. As evidence of this, I have seen early reviews of newly released oddities assign merely moderate ratings on the first few days after release before someone dares proclaim the beer a marvel or a bust. Then, and only then, do most newly hyped beers (not brewed by Shaun Hill) soar to the heights of amplified trade demand and inspire must-have quests (or plummet from the charts).
I am not immune to the must-have quest, but I grow ever more skeptical as my familiarity with styles, breweries, tastes, and beers evolve.

The beers making the cut for my claim here are all solid beers, it should be noted. I would gladly drink any of them, but I find them to exemplify the overrated in the craft beer world.

This post is partially inspired by Will Gordon's Concourse piece on 18 Overrated Beers. While I appreciate his piece, most of those beers aren't hyped by the craft community - though Heady Topper is. And it is here I am inspired to write as he says Heady is "only marginally better than Dogfish Head 90 Minute." Yes, Heady is super-hyped, yet meets the demand at an affordable price, while scarcity and praise are driven by capacity and quality not marketing and manipulation, but Dogfish 90... nearly as good? I appreciate Dogfish Head. They innovate, they experiment, they push the bounds of what beer is, what it can be. They make some solid beers, and even those I am noting here are fine, but...

Dogfish Head 60 and 90 Minute IPAs are perfectly fine and their staple IPA and Double IPA respectively seem to rock many worlds while rating out at 98/99 (ratebeer) or 91/92 (ba) and 100/99 (ratebeer) or 95/97 (ba). Even if they aren't overly hyped or priced due to regular availability (in many States) they can be difficult to procure in Canada. Both strike an ill-balance (in an admittedly imbalanced style) between bitter hops that lack the sorts of citrus, fruity, floral, piney, earthy, or resinous notes that drive hop heads crazy while (90-Minute particularly) coming off more like malt-bombs (label claims to the contrary notwithstanding). I enjoy both of these beers from time to time and always will. It isn't that they aren't solid, but we live in the post-Pliny age where super IPAs and DIPAs abound all around. I need walk no further than around the corner to procure better examples of each style, and have found the same nearly anywhere I visit. They just aren't the be-all-and-end-all of IPAs. I realize these aren't super hard to procure and aren't exemplary of the rarity factor noted below, but people seem to rank Dogfish with Mikkeller, Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Hill Farmstead, Russian River, The Bruery, etc. Those, it is not.

Westvleteren XII was, for many years, called the best beer in the world. Rating out at 100/100 on rb and 100/94 on ba, this relatively rare Trappist Ale is, as I have argued elsewhere, a great product with a great hype machine driven by the need to set-up a phone order in advance, to procure a limited quantity of but one of their three beers (whichever these Belgian monks make available on that given day), with time-limited returns for re-purchase and a signed waiver against re-sale. That said, it can be bought in many places - at exhorbitant markup. In Canada, it goes for anywhere between $30 and $50 a bottle at finer beer establishments. Is it good? Hell yes! But in blind tastings the (equally rare, but less hoops-and-hype) Trappist Achel Extra Bruin, the far less rare and far cheaper Trappist Rochefort 10, and Saint Bernardus Abt 12 often win - at far lower cost. Spending time seeking this beer, only to dump a small fortune if you find it - or luck into it cheaply at the monastery after a trip to the Belgian countryside - when such other similar (and arguably better or at least as solid) products exist best exemplifies the value placed on scarcity in this scene. Ironically, the Saint Sixtus monks who brew Westvleteren beers seem to dislike the hype, yet create much of it inadvertently through policies that seem to inspire beer marketing madness, such as that characterized by the winner below.

Any given Three Floyds Dark Lord variant. As a disclaimer, I have yet to try DL or any of its variants, but I feel confident in asserting that this final entry demonstrates the hype machine par excellence. In order to procure this beer, one must purchase a pricey ticket and scratch card to Dark Lord Day; an event for which demand far outpaces ticket supply so you must luck into tickets to begin with. With tickets, one gets to line up for many hours to get in and then a new line to buy up to four bottles of this beer (which is not unreasonably priced), unless your scratch card allowed you the victory chance to buy a single, determined for you, $50 variant bottle. I have no idea of the odds of getting such a bottle, but know of a group of 12 who attended, with but one scratching this lucky, expensive victory. Now, like the others herein, I am sure Dark Lord is a fine beer, but is it better than, say, Genealogy of Morals? Bourbon County Brand Stout? Peché Mortel? The Abyss? Parabola? Ten Fidy? Breakfast Stout? KBS? Or, as I am trying to get at, any number of stellar imperial stouts (or barrel-aged variants) that are not only much easier to procure, but much cheaper - and virtually assured at the moment one sets out to buy them. Essentially, one buys a raffle ticket for Dark Lord while winning constitutes not only greater expense, but likely greater expense than value in contrast to the market. I get it: people want to buy an experience and I am not even saying I wouldn't do it, but this is marketing genius regardless of the strength of the beer and many fine imperial stouts find their way down my throat without a trip to Munster, IN, a ticket, a lottery, and a small loan.

The success of such beers seems to drive the trend towards marketing the next best rarity, and the growing trend towards one-offs, collaborations, seasonals. I acknowledge that one-offs, seasonals, and scarce trials result partially from the innovation process that has driven craft beer forward and for that I applaud them, but I often find such oddities over-rated, over-priced, over-hyped, and not so much better than that which sits on shelves. If they are accessible, affordable (compared to the value of the return), and either come from trusted brewers or respected praise they are probably worth one's while - even if over-hyped by scarcity - but lets not neglect our locally available gems and keep them regular. It can be costly to produce innovative small batches, but when successes continue in scarcity and derive value from ticket sales, lotteries, and crapshoots, I begrudge the marketing in symmetrical opposition to the scantily-clad women of the macro commercials, and seek the solid I know and love.

Thus, here in Montreal, I am not only able to procure local, masterful, affordable, regularly available beers like Dieu du Ciel's Peché Mortel and Moralité, Le Castor's Yakima, Le Trou du Diable's Saison du Tracteur, anything from Dunham, and more, but I can grab solid one-offs with relative ease comparatively to many that capitalize on the trend of rarity. When these brewers produce a delight - as DDC did with Moralité - they often move it into regular circulation rather than diminish its availability to create a guerilla-marketed sensation. Let's keep rewarding them for that.

Friday, 20 June 2014

What I Have Learned About (Mondial de la) Bière

When I moved to Quebec, I had but a fraction of the (still limited) beer knowledge I now have, and I knew even less of the Quebec scene.  Mondial de la Bière, however, expanded my knowledge immensely, introducing me to new (to me) American, Italian, Brazilian, Belgian, and English beers (predominantly) while also expanding my palate and style evolution.

And that is just part of the charm of Mondial!  In three years of attendance, I have gone from knowing few to many in the Montreal beer scene, evolving from extensive notes with minimal conversation to minimal notes with extensive conversation, but my appreciation continues to grow: for beer, for palate evolution, for new friends to enjoy a noteworthy obscurity with.

As in years past, Mondial 2014, the 21st annual edition, brought a breadth of brews, a lively atmosphere at a great venue, and a place to learn, to share, and to continue on the voyage of great beer appreciation.  And, moreso, it brought socialization centred around beer, discussions on beer, new beer friends with different outlooks and opinions, beer presentations, and a dialogue for those who love the fermented grain!  Isn't that what beer is all about?  The social aspect?  Insofar as I find that most appealing, Mondial tops the list of can't miss Quebec events for the initiate or the connoisseur alike, as it provides the people, the breadth of diverse beer and worldwide options, and a can't miss place to be.

Though in year's past I have offered elaborate reviews by location and style, this year I will nod simply to some delights to seek in your travels or imports, or to hope for a return to next year's 22nd Mondial dela Bière.

Best Bitter:

Central City Red Racer ESB wafts a fine floral nose with some bready malt and piney hops on the tongue.  Just a strong example of a North American twist on a classic!  Availability: Canadian West Coast and potential LCBO list sometime (as they bring in beers from this brewery regularly) Grade: A-/A

Best Pilsners:

Dogfish Head/Birra del Borgo My Antonia is an imperial pilsner that presents some spicy, zesty and boldly assertive noble hops to complement the grainyness of the style and enhance it to a flavourful level.  Availability: US or Italy for sure.  Grade: A-

Local Montreal and Shawinigan superstars Le Purgatoire (the name behind Dieu du Ciel and Le Trou du Diable collaborations) offered a sneak peek of their currently available Wit Pils, La Divine Comedie  which presents some cereal grain and bread notes, but a nice palate cleansing dry, lightly grassy finish.  Though I don't often go in for a pils (nor a wit), this is a true hot summer day delight. Availability: finer Quebec depanneurs right NOW for a limited time!  Grade: A-

Best Saisons:

Nøgne Ø India Saison is exemplary of the style with a fine citrus nose, and yeasty spicy lemon rind sort of sharp dry finish in the taste that quenches the thirst while inviting another sip... perpetually. Availability: periodic LCBO list brewery - watch for it down the road Grade: A-/A

Croce di Malto Temporis is another fine representative, with a nose of rind and pepper, complemented by a spritzy lemon flavour of wonderful warm-weather, easy-drinking!  Availability: Italy only?  Europe?  US?  Grade: A-/A

Best Sours:

Oud Beersel Bzart Lambiek blends the lambic beer style with a champagne yeast process that provides the very sort of rare delightful treat Mondial excels in.  Much as I loved having the opportunity to try this excellent oddity, and truly appreciate its availability, it seems odd that Mondial received merely three bottles which sold out within one hour on the first day.  More would have been great, but I shouldn't complain since I got to drink this rare gem that offers a lightly sour tart bouquet coupled with some fruitiness, which tastes funky and dry with the best qualities of bruts complemented by the funk of a lambic.  Availability: Belgium?  Europe?  Nowhere?  Hard to come by!  Grade: A

Schneider-Weisse Aventinus Barrique 2013 surprised me as the first ever sour eisbock I have tasted!  It offered an excellent tart, lightly fruity nose with some vinous notes, while the taste had wine barrel sourness with a lengthy linger.  If you try this, you better like sour and wine barrel must, for they stick with you!  Availability: Unknown, but this is a large brewery with wide distribution, so keep your eyes peeled! Grade: A

8Wired Grand Cru 2011 fits oddly here, blending a Belgian-styled quadrupel, with Brettanomyces (wild yeast) and pediococcus (souring bacteria) through a Pinot Noir barrel-aging process.  That said, the nose presents the dark fruity sweetness of a quad, coupled with the dusty barnyard funk of Brett.  Tastewise, this evolves from a sweetness to a cherry-like tartness with some musty grape notes and just hints of the barrel.  A delightful drink, but whose sweetness and 11% ABV will keep its consumption to the slight samples it best excels at presenting. Availability: in this part of the world, you are probably stuck to private import, but definitely grab one if you get to New Zealand!  Grade: A-/A

Best Stouts:

Central City makes the cut again with their Red Racer Imperial Porter that is vanilla bourbon through and through!  Some cocoa complements it, but I had no idea it was barrel-aged until this delightful bourbon-bomb shocked my senses to great delight!  Availability: Canadian West Coast and potential LCBO list sometime (as they bring in beers from this brewery regularly) Grade: A

Hornbeer Viking Chili Stout isn't the spiciest beer, nor the roastiest I have had, but it subtly blends both offering a nose not unlike a high cocoa percentage chili chocolate with a chocolate taste that grows in spicy intensity (to, at most, a moderatelevel) as you sip further.  A fine hybrid that is easily drinkable for its 10% ABV and chili ingredient.  Availability: Denmark, US?, import? Grade: A-

New Holland Dragon's Milk Stout offers sweet shaved cocoa to the nose, while just touches of the vanilla bourbon comes through on a taste dominated by a milk chocolate sweetness.  Nice, but on the sweet side of BA stouts.  Availability: US Grade: A-

Best Strong Ales:

Though I often find Dogfish Head unique if overrated, Palo Santo Marron, this big brown ale aged on Palo Santo wood from Paraguay offers a nice maple-ish sort of sweet nose complemented by tastes of roasty and piney black IPA-esque notes with a slight woody presence.  The full body is pleasurable, though I find the carbonation a touch strong for what it is, I would gladly grab some bottles of this to both drink and age!  Availability: US Grade: A-

Nøgne Ø Red Horizon #2 and #3 are sweet barleywine/old ale-esque strongs that offer that sweet UK barleywine plum pudding essence, with some lingering sugar notes.  Both are delightful, yet the #2 is a touch drier and for me slightly tops the later variant.  Availability: Denmark?  Import?  Grade: B+

Baladin Xyauyù Oro is an oak-aged barleywine of substantial complexity with minimal carbonation, not unlike Samuel Adams Utopias or Brasseurs Illimites' Maltus.  Smelling like caramel while tasting like sweet maple syrup, this beer is sweet like few I ever mention: not beer geek sweet... cake sweet!  Coupled with a thick and chewy body, this brew is dessert - in a good way!  If you seek a dry barleywine, this is not for you, but a complex and rare delight of the sort that an ounce suffices as would a brandy or cognac.  A treat, but my pour was too large for maximal enjoyment and I came to regret it, much as I adored it for what it is.  Availability: Italy, US?, import?  Grade: A-

With that, I bid adieu to Mondial for another year, but stick around!  If you missed it this year, or missed these offerings this year, many more delights are sure to present themselves when the 22nd edition of this truly global festival comes back to Montreal in 2015.


Photos courtesy of Jean-Sebastien Roussy (of Demi-Jean) and Remi Galipeau

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Montreal Beer Scene Welcomes the World: Malty Tasker's Unofficial Guide to Mondial de la Bière

Late Spring in Montreal means terrace season: summer clothes, shades on patios, and cold brews.  I, personally, think of it as the kick-off of beer festival season (not that there aren't some all year!)  Coming just a little later than usual this year, spanning the 11-15 of June, is this year's 21st Annual Mondial de la Bière.  What a way to kick into summer, with a selection of 514 beers (and 56 other products like mead and cider), this festival is truly global in scope and daunting for the under-prepared.  This event, while free to enter, can get costly at $2 to $6 per 4-ounce sample, but it is a unique experience with a palate-educating capacity and the chance to nurture your knowledge (and love) of beer.

One of the many exciting things about Mondial is that very global scope with beers from 107 breweries from such far-flung places as Brazil, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, Thailand, the United States, and the rest of Canada, as well as representation by 40 Quebec craft breweries.  Many of these imported beers aren't usually available here, so the American's, Brazilians, Norwegians, Danish, and Italians (in particular) offer us some rare delights (though Quebecers may also appreciate some Canadian 'imports' not often found here.

This year, the second at Palais des Congrès, the Brazilian and Italian brewers will be on hand with their own reps serving their beer which allows the chance to speak with them directly about their product (and hopefully to get them all at an ideal temperature, rather than the standard 'ice-cold' that most festivals default to without reason).

Moreover, live music events are scheduled, as are increased cooking-with-beer workshops beyond what we have seen before.  I am sure these are great, but they aren't my specialty... nor is this what you come here to read.  I'd love to offer jazz reviews too, but alas that'd be like me commenting on Scotch, which I know equally little about.  I could fling shit with the best of them, but it wouldn't stick for lack of substance.

Thus, I offer my unofficial guide to Mondial - with a (not unexpected) focus on the beer!

  1. Go with a plan: 570 alcoholic drinks, food options, off-site events, and more is daunting.  If you go prepared, you will maximize your chances of finding and trying things you like rather than tossing the dice with the chance of finding yourself flustered and in line for something you have had before (or worse, something terrible).  The Mondial web site offers information on available beers (and locations) and a schedule of events.  For tips on what to seek out, check beer lists in comparison to ratebeer or beeradvocate alongside similar styles that you enjoy, or see my suggestions below.
  2. Go early: Not only do some of the best, rarest, and most in-demand beers disappear within the first few days (or certainly before Saturday evening), but the atmopshere changes from one of excited beer geeks thrilled at tastings to one of a party free-for-all, where lines form to drink Alexander Keith's, for example, at inflated prices.  Though I am not sure why anyone wants to brave excess lines packed with the inebriated to drink things they can stock more cheaply at home or find at the local pub, the atmosphere does change between Wednesday/Thursday and Friday night through Sunday when it becomes less about the flavour and more about the alcohol percentage.  Don't get me wrong, people get drunk the other days, but often as side-effect not intended purpose.  If that's your thing, by all means, join the weekend crowd, but realize that there are nearly two festivals: the early and the late with different crowds and (often) different (remaining) beers.
  3. Bring a glass, or buy one: They sell tasting glasses on site, but those from the last two years weren't the most ideal for most styles (as tulips or snifters are).  You could opt to use the free disposable plastic cup option, however, beer best expresses its aromas and, thus, entices its tastes with glassware, and specific glassware to best effect (nevermind the environmental impact).  NOTE: they will NOT allow you to bring in any glass that holds more than 12 ounces, though, so plan ahead if bringing one, though their purchase option certainly beats the limitations of disposable plastic.
  4. Check out some off-site events: Numerous loosely-connected off-site events abound as well.  The list on the Mondial site advertises several, but I will note the following as of particular intrigue to me personally: Vices et Versa's Wednesday tap-takeover promises unique offerings from 5 of Quebec (indeed, Canada's) best breweries; Dieu du Ciel's overlapping Wednesday IPA event offers not only hops abundance for the hop-heads, but also a chance to taste the famous and rare Heady Topper (currently ranked as the top beer in the world on beeradvocate); Le Saint Bock offers a lengthy Randall (hops infuser) lineup for Thursday while Brouhaha hosts their Sixth Anniversary; Friday sees a sour beer focus at sour-masters Hopfenstark's pub Station Ho.St; and the week following Mondial Le Saint Bock promises numerous taps devoted to obscure and highly acclaimed Swiss brewery Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes.  Benelux (Sherbrooke) is also hosting a cask event on the Saturday night that isn't listed herein.
  5. Take notes: Whether on untappd, on ratebeer, on beeradvocate, on brewgene, in the booklet to be provided at Mondial, or just in your own phone or notepad, taking notes on beers enhances enjoyment and learning - and reminds you of what you've had, what you thought, and of your taste evolution over time.  If you already do this, I am sure you will, and if you don't, there is no better time to start than during Mondial!
  6. Drink water, and Rinse: Don't forget to be responsible.  Drinking is tough on the body, though drinking water helps not only to diminish its effect on the liver (and your possible hangover), but also to cleanse your palate between samples.  Water can rinse your glass too - and rinsing stations are common at Mondial - as it does your palate and organs!  And, on the topic of responsibility, remember to take transit or a cab and to drink responsibly!
Now, strategy in mind, on to the beers:

Breweries of Note:

There are a few "can't miss" breweries on hand: New Zealand's 8Wired Brewing and Norway's Nogne Ø really have no bad beers on offer, nor does Montreal's Dieu du Ciel, Shawinigan's Le Trou du Diable, nor Germany's Schneider Weisse (though their individual styles aren't my personal choice, they are excellent wheat brewers) or America's Stone, Allagash, or New Holland.  New Zealand's Renaissance Brewing is also quite solid (if offering nothing I, personally, haven't had before - but I can therefore attest that all are good examples of their respective styles!).

Others with mostly strong lists include Canada's Central City and Flying Monkeys, the American beasts Dogfish Head and Ommegang, Italians Birra del Borgo, Birrificio Baladin, Brazilians Bodebrown and Colorado, the Danish Hornbeer and English Thornbridge.  Unfortunately, with Cervejaria Wäls' absence, the Brazilian offerings are hindered a touch this year.

By Style:


At Le Petit Pub du Palais, with the European and New Zealand offerings, look for Thornbridge's Kill Your Darlings Vienna lager which tops my list here, as I enjoy the style, while Hornbeer's Dryhop looks inviting as well, though I have had neither before.  Nogne Ø's Peated (a smoked lager) seems unique too, if divisive: watch for notes of campfire which may (or may not) be your thing!  At Le Petit Pub Esplanade, outside, Muskoka's Craft Lager is also a decent standard, as are many that are more locally available regularly in Quebec - but aren't you here to expand your palate?

Birra del Borgo, from Italy, brings their Dogfish Head collaboration imperial pilsner My Antonia, which stands up remarkably as well.

Also, note that while technically not a lager at all, Renaissance's Paradox (a blonde ale) is a milder form of ale enjoyed by many lager drinkers and is a great example of the style.

Wheat Beers: 

This isn't my top style unless soured, so I will refrain from saying too much except that Bruton's Bianca (if available at the SAQ year-round) is solid in the Pavillon Italie, while German Wheat masters Schneider Weisse bring countless strong offerings (that I even enjoy) to Le Petit Pub du Palais.  Finally, if you aren't a Quebecer, and can't usually procure Dieu du Ciel's delightful Rosée d'hibiscus, you must drop by booth #616-#618 to try it (and buy some before you head home!)


So many to pick from here, so I am going to stick to those I can attest to, though I seek some others to try myself for something new (based on common high ratings or breweries of note as mentioned above).

At Le Petit Pub du Palais, check out Nogne Ø's #100 or #500 (both excellent Double IPAs), or their Mandarina IPA (brewed with a German non-commercial hops rarity bred to resemble American hops), and another delightful imperial variant is Renaissance's MPA.

At Le Petit Pub Esplanade (outside) there are several standouts: Central City's Red Racer IPA is one of Canada's best in the West Coast style, as is their Imperial IPA, while Muskoka's Mad Tom from Ontario's cottage country and Flying Monkey's Smashbomb loom large in the Central part of the country.  From our American neighbours, Dogfish Heads 90 Minute IPA rates well (if I find it a touch too malty) while their Burton Baton (a barrel aged blend of a double IPA and a barleywine that is not to be missed if at a potent 10% ABV) is a gem.  Finally, watch for Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, a black IPA of standout quality.

From Brazil, be sure to try Colorado's Vixnu, which I enjoyed last year despite mediocre ratings - so tell me if I was wrong!

From brewery booths be sure to try Dieu du Ciel's Moralité and Le Trou du Diable's Apocalypso, if you aren't able to get them regularly.


I can't stress enough that if you love sour beer you should get to Station Ho.St on Friday June 13th, but at the festival itself there are some great sours, if an underrepresentation.

Last year, I truly enjoyed Italian Brewer Birra del Borgo's l'Equilibrista (called both a brut and a wild) and look forward to it again, while also looking to try Croce di Malto's Vecchia Ramlin (a sour brown) for the first time.

Belgian lambic brewers Oud Beersel offer their Bzart Lambic at le Petit Pub du Palais, while Nogne Ø brings their Tindved (Wild Ale).

As for individual breweries, definitely try Le Trou du Diable's Dulcis Succubus and Le Coq if you haven't before as they can be hard to come by, even if relatively 'local'.


Many solid examples abound at Le Petit Pub du Palais, such as Hornbeer's Black Magic Woman, Viking Chili Stout, and the Fundamental Blackhorn, while Nogne Ø, Thornbridge, and 8Wired all bring strong examples as well.

Out of doors, I look forward to trying Central City's Red Racer Imperial Porter, but I can attest to the facts that New Holland's Dragon's Milk and Stone's Imperial Russian Stout are excellent indeed!  That smoked porter from Stone looks intriguing as well.

Finally, again, if not in Quebec, don't forget Dieu du Ciel's remarkable coffee imperial stout, Peché Mortel.

Barleywines and Strong Ales:

Though Nogne Ø and 8Wired again bring examples I look forward to trying, I know you will succeed (if this is your style) in enjoying Dogfish Head's unique Palo Santo Marron, Stone's Arrogant Bastard and Oaked Arrogant Bastard, let alone their Old Guardian Barleywine.

Italy's Baladin has a highly acclaimed 13.5% barrel aged barleywine (one variant of many), that I have never tried, but look into Xyauya Oro at Pavillon Italie.

In Conclusion:

By way of wrapping up, I'll say that I didn't even scratch the surface of solid offerings as so many abound, and I didn't find myself in pursuit of too many saisons here despite my affection for the nuanced style.  You can't go wrong with the options above - unless you have differing tastes as I am sure we all do.  Thus, what I hope I have made clear more than anything else is that this event has so much - beer, food, pairings, beer, workshops, lessons, beer, cider, mead, music, beer - that you can't go wrong as there is something for everyone, yet because there is so much you should spend a few minutes (at least) plotting your own interests lest you get bogged down as I may have here.

'Til we drink again - perhaps at Mondial - Santé!

Monday, 26 May 2014

Because... BRUTS!

Bière Bruts, or champagne beers (Bières de Champagne), are rare delights brewed with champagne yeast, while some are even cave-aged in France's Champagne region or subjected to the methode champenoise to remove the yeast from the bottle.

Beeradvocate includes merely 27 bruts by mention - some no longer brewed - and ranks only 14 as in production and having procured enough ratings to meet their most-popular-by-style list.  These beers are almost never available in stores in Canada and if/when one procures one the plan is to generally hold onto them for a special occasion as one would with a fine champagne.

Well, myself and a few pals managed to procure three official bruts (and a few Belgian Pales brewed with champagne yeast) and decided to enjoy them in a single sitting.  And, just what is the occasion, you may ask?  Good question!  The answer is, clearly, that we simply have three bruts!  In others words, because we can!  Because... BRUTS!  Maybe we'll be brutes by the end, but 11+ percentages be damned: this is gonna be epic!

Though the official "Brut" lineup was comprised of Malheur Bière Brut, Microbrasserie Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Brut, and Brouwerij Bosteels' DeuS Brut des Flandres, we threw in two similar and unique beers also brewed with champagne yeast (if not officially Bruts): Panil Enhanced Final and Brasseurs du Monde's Célébrante.

BdM's Célébrante (7% ABV Belgian Strong Pale Ale brewed with Champagne yeast) kicked off the evening.  Though this beer isn't quite to the standards set by these others, it is more widely available at many beer stores and better supermarkets throughout Quebec, at a reasonable price.  Don't let it dictate your ultimate assessment of these beers, but let it expand your horizons to its aromas of fermenting fruit and mild spices, alongside tastes of white-wine-esque vinous must and mild floral hops.  It is exemplary of the style for its clear, light, and delicate body and thick frothy white head.  While the carbonation isn't quite as fine as with these others, the beer is one to crossover between beer and wine to help convert those who think beer is but a single specific type.  Grade: B-

Having had Italy's Panil Enhanced Final before, we knew we were in for a gusher.  The carbonation on this beast explodes on every open as if made for a Stanley Cup victory party!  Though we opened by the sink, we probably lost half of this bottle to its explosive force and even our pours were virtually entirely head, as it poured a frothy white mound filling the majority of our flutes!  This delightful 8.2% Belgian Strong Pale Ale (likewise brewed with some hungry champagne yeast) was procured from the LCBO's winter seasonal release list this past December.  It wafts an enticing tart apple and lightly dusty nose, with some lemon notes not unlike a saison, while the taste is on the sweetish side of lightly sour, presenting some pears and a light barnyard linger.  With the carbonation, the taste seems to offer a bit of a spicy zesty quality before a dry finish in a champagne manner without any appearance of hops.  The body is light and fluffy with a soft delicateness enhanced by the intensely fine effervescence.  Grade: A-/A

And on to the official Bruts... which began with Malheur Bière Brut.  This 12% ABV behemoth was actually 1 month past expiry, but the trader (who had imported a case) assured us it was still drinking well.  Whether that affected it, I do not know. Though the head was rocky, dense, and white, it was perhaps the scantest headed of the three, which is to say it had one of the craziest heads you'll ever see on a beer if the mildest of the night!  It began with the presentation of a mild citrus and similarly lightly dusty nose, while the flavour oddly began with a honey sweetness and ended with what I can only describe as a honey dryness - that too-much-sweetness-to-almost-be-drying-in-the-throat note, if you catch my drift?  It wasn't cloying, per se, but rather expressed the sensation of a honey sweetness and like dryness without the excess of sugar.  On the palate, it offered a sharp, tingly and almost spicy effervescence that was coupled with more heat than anticipated.  By that I mean that one could both feel and taste the alcoholic strength as this went down.  Certainly a fine brew, but as ranked on BA below the following two, so too did all of the tasters agree.  Grade: B+

I had also had Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Brut before (brewery only, usually) as they had some at Mondial de la Bière 2012, but as this was nearly a year past expiry we were a touch worried.  Yet several people told us it should be fine, and at 11% ABV we figured it would hold up even if delicate.  And it did, even if perhaps a touch past its prime.  The nose was nearly Bretty with dusty funk as the forefront expression, with some lemon zest and fermenting plums and apricots in the background.  The taste was similar but the fruity expression was more reminiscent of cherries here and, while quite sweet, it was much dryer in conclusion than the Malheur while also less boozy to the tongue (if not the chest or head!)  Though still sharp, it seemed slightly less carbonated than the others (perhaps due to age?)  Nonetheless, a solid crossover beer!  Grade: A

Finally, we get to DeuS Brut des Flandres, a legendary beer that actually goes through the methode champenoise, which makes a periodic (but rapidly departing) appearance at the LCBO every year or so of late (and one can only hope it returns this Winter once again).  The DeuS label tells us of the following 10-step process to its creation: 1) brewing in Belgium; 2) Primary fermentation; 3) Secondary fermentation/maturation; 4) Bottling in France; 5) Bottle refermentation with champagne yeast; 6) long maturation (in a cave in the Champagne region no less); 7) "Riddling" to separate the yeast sediment from the beer and have it slide to the bottle's neck; 8) Yeast removal through a freezing of the neck of the bottle and pressure-driven extraction from simply the gas buildup inside the bottle; 9) "Dosing" to compensate for the loss of yeast; and 10) re-corking and dressing of the bottle.  Following this, we get to enjoy it, as it pours a similar golden amber clear body capped by the now standard foamy white head.  To the nose it expresses spicy cloves and black pepper, as the most spiced of the bunch with just a hint of dust.  Cloves and rind dominate the flavour before a fine dry-wine-like finish of substantial character.  The body is light, with the finest carbonation of the bunch, while this is the least boozy to the tongue, if no less so to the chest with its 11.5% punch.  Grade: A

Thus, we wrapped things up.  It may have been my birthday when we did this tasting, but that was more of the reason that got me out of familial duties than the reason for the Brut tasting.  I encourage you to try these if and when you can for a changing take on what beer can be, and I promise that will be an event unto itself!  All are unique marvels, even if their individual qualities come out most in contrast when they are tasted together.  'Til next time... Santé.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Beers You Can Actually Buy: Lagers and Such

Every once in a while I drink something obscure with someone who, whether or not they enjoy it, says, "but it doesn't really taste like a beer!"

By this, they mean that it doesn't taste like that which has come to monopolize the market of what the general public knows of as beer: pale lagers, light lagers, and American pilsners.  This is like saying "White wine is good, but it doesn't really taste like wine," if the drinker has only ever imbibed fermented red grapes.

Beer, of course, is a fermented grain beverage in contrast to other alcoholic beverages (spirits that are distilled) and others that are comprised of fermented fruits.  And there are over 100 styles of beer, many vastly different from others, yet many people have limited their understanding to simply a few of these diverse profiles.

Typically beer is made of fermented malted barley (or occasionally wheat, though all too often corn or corn syrup in macro adjunct lagers), hops, water, and the yeast, who - in eating fermentable sugars and emitting by-products - give the beer much of its flavour, alcohol, and carbonation.

When that carbonation expresses a crispness, coupled with a light body and grainy and grassy notes in a beer best served at a cooler temperature, many are inspired to dream of summer and patios.*  Thus, as the weather warms and in the continuation of my Beers You Can Actually Buy Series, I turn to the world's top-consumed style of brew.  (With one final aside, to note that Saisons are also well-suited to - and meant for - summer consumption, as are IPAs, so I encourage you to check out my other Beers You Can Actually Buy notes on the widely available marvels of these styles here and here, respectively.)


Insofar as macro inroads into the craft sphere often result from takeovers of existing breweries and, insofar as macros dominate in the widely popular styles of adjunct lagers, pale lagers, amber lagers, and pilsners of all stripes (Czech, German, American), the macro path to craft entry seems to be this very route of procuring solid pre-existing craft lager options.  Thus, many are probably familiar with the highly drinkable, never flawed, Creemore Springs Premium Lager (5% ABV, 24 IBU).  Many of you, however, may be less familiar with Creemore's experimental line under the Mad & Noisy branding, such as their delightful and brazen Hops & Bolts "India Pale Lager" (5.3% ABV, 60 IBU).  This brew blends the best of the Czech pils tradition with the herbal tea-like hops qualities of an English IPA.  Not for strict IPA lovers or mild lager drinkers, but for a crossover segment of those who can appreciate nuance and hybridity in this unique fusion.

Another macro-owned, but craft produced product of note, and with less familiarity to most is Hop City's Barking Squirrel Lager (5% ABV, 24 IBU).  This amber/red lager is malt-forward with a nose of biscuits and caramel.  Though the taste is similar, it dries up nicely for a quenching and refreshing finish.

In the more traditional 'craft' vein, two staples of popular note are worth mentioning, even if your familiarity with them makes their mention less than crucial.  However, the strengths of Steamwhistle (5% ABV, Czech Pils) and Beau's Lug Tread (5.2% ABV Kölsch - technically a hybrid lagered ale) are praiseworthy, and their popularity is most deserved.  The delicacy of the Kölsch is exemplified by Beau's, while Steamwhistle offers a nice grainy dryness exemplary of the style, but necessitates freshness in the green bottles that encourage skunkyness rapidly.

However, I will reserve my highest prompting for you to grab some cans of the following for your next barbecue, not simply because they are likewise stellar representatives of this North American standard idea of beer, but because they also exemplify smaller scale and less well-known delights of brewing prowess.

I am speaking here of Nickel Brook Premium Organic Lager (5% ABV, 25 IBU) and Neustadt Lager (5% ABV).  Whereas the former offers some classic German grassy hops alongside some sweet honey, the latter hybridizes with some New Zealand hops and offers a delectable crispness as best advertised by macros and best delivered by the micros.


Unlike Ontario, Quebec tends to lag in the readily-available lager delights.  Don't get me wrong, its harder-to-procure examples are phenomenal, but staple offerings (outside of adjunct-laden, macro junk) are sparse at best.

Topping my list would be two delights from Brasserie Dunham.  The first, a collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer, Snowy Spring Royal Pilsner (6.7% ABV), screams INDIA PALE PILSNER as it offers some mineral notes coupled with a noble-hops/American hops hybrid assault.  The other is their standard Dunham Pils (5.4% ABV) which is closer to the norms of the style, while still assertively hopped alongside some pleasant cereal graininess.  The drawback here, however, is that Dunham's small scale business cannot even meet the demand of its small retailer list, and has no plans to expand distribution in the near future, while which product hits shelves at any given time seems to be determined by the gods of chance.  However, their product is so consistently solid that whatever Dunham you see should be picked up as it is always fresh and always delightful!

Though Hopfenstark's Ostalgia Blonde (5% ABV) is another gem in the Kölsch tradition, its relative bottled scarcity (with even less frequent availability and fewer retailers than Dunham) complicates its spot on this list, but I nonetheless figured it deserved mention before the true winner of the category in Quebec for myself personally.

The Quebec winner: Le Trou du Diable's La Pitoune (5.5% ABV).  This fine Kölsch is now regularly available in countless stores, at a solid price, in both 341 ml and 600ml formats.  It pulls off the subtle complexity of a finely fragile, yet complexly delightful brew offering a fair grassy hops bitterness that dries off the cereal grain presence of the beginning.  It's ready availability offers it few true challengers as the majority with such widespread reach lag far, far behind, but La Pitoune deserves this position not only for lack of competition, but for exemplifying the tastes of terrace season!

I hope you find yourself enjoying the warming invitations of the great outdoors, and that you responsibly enjoy new-found beer tastes regardless of what you imbibe this summer.  Hopefully this guide helps you move beyond the tasteless representatives of a delicate subset of beer styles!

* Note that even these beers need not be served ice cold AND, moreover, should show better as they warm in contrast to the imperfections seen in poorer examples of the style. Imperfections come out as a beer warms, such that your disgust at a warmer brew indicates disgust more with the beers you may be drinking as the cold simply numbs us to these off-flavours.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

When Home and Micro Collide: King of the RyePAs?

I've imagined brewing for quite some time, but have never gotten to it.  Part of the reason is because I'm pretty much at the point where anything short of all-grain probably wouldn't agree with my evolving palate, and this has greater expenses and time.  But, moreso, I'd be concerned that I'd have to drainpour a large batch if it didn't meet my standards.

The Atman Brothers (of la Décapsule des Frères Atman) and Microbrasserie Kruhnen may have a different problem - or caused us one.  You see, the Atman Brothers - colleagues in the Beerlinked project and pals from the beer scene - have been brewing for a while and, with Kruhnen's capacity, have collaboratively brewed (and commercially released) a really big batch of beer (by homebrew standards)...

... but it's far too small and too limited considering how good it is!

This delicious RyePA, King Cogne, sports a mighty fine label, but having received my bottle as a gift from the brewmasters left me without that for the short.  Elaborating on beerism's take (which definitely inspired the shot, credit where credit is due), I figured the monkey just had to mount the bottle with a damsel in hand (this one just happening to be the lady Shrek my kid got from a vending machine)!

It pours a clear golden colour with a bubbly effervescence that is quite visible.  The nose is a true marvel, wafting tropical fruits like mango and papaya, aside from the citrus typically of the style (and of the chinook, citra, and calypso hops used in the brewing).

It begins with slightly sweet citrus kick that rapidly dries out evolving into a spicy, peppery, tingly, sharp dryness that fades into a floral hoppy linger.  The body is medium-light, with a super-prickly carbonation that complements the rye and the flavours well; the bubbles almost seem to burst hops on your tongue in a love affair of all that is good in bitter brews.  That said, though, the peppery and lightly spicy notes of the rye are equally well shown by this level of carbonation and the beer well expresses the evolution of taste on the palate.

My wife loved it too saying it was "almost as good as Moralité," (a beer she truly loves as I do).  That is fine praise indeed, and this beer warrants some fine praise.  For a beer geek, or a hop-head, it is highly drinkable, and it pairs well with spicy Cajun sausages (I say from experience), which is the mark of both a good spicy sausage and a good IPA, in my opinion, in that they must both stand up to each other!  This stands up to all of the top RyePAs in the Province as well, though I'd like a chance to side by side before pronouncing a winner, but joining the conversation at this stage is quite a feat.

My one gripe?  This is a limited, perhaps one time only batch, so grab it while it's fresh and join me in telling the Atman bros to brew more beer!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Grand Cuvee to Warm the Winter Chills

What a way to spend a Friday night and end the work week!

Montreal's La Cuvée d'Hiver is underway this weekend and shouldn't be missed by beer geeks, beer fans, and fans of a good time alike!  So plan your Saturday night here and, since it's nuit blanche, the bars of Cuvee are open until 2am, whereupon you can roam the art happenings or take the Metro home safely as it runs all night long tonight only.

This Quebec-only beer tasting event takes place in the basement of Église St-Enfant-Jésus.  That's right: in an awesome, old dungeon-esque tunnel-entrance, basement to an architecturally inspiring Mile End church, seen here.  The space itself is gorgeous and inviting, with requisite impermanent bars and food kiosks serving the bustling crowd while bands rock the stage.  Whiskey options abound as well and this year, there is even an IPA bar (next year can we please have a sour bar, a saison bar, and a cask bar?)  In just its second year, this event may approach the top of my list for can't miss Montreal beer marvels.

Entry is merely $10 including a tasting glass, and tokens are $1 each (though many tastes cost 3 to 7 tokens, which can be pricey for a sample, but most servers offer generous pours).

I can't vouch for all of the food, but the pulled pork sandwiches available from opposite the entrance and the donuts nearby made with Le Trou du Diable's Le Sang d'Encre were both delightful.

On the beer front, company kept me from elaborate notes, but I'll offer up the following tips.

Dunham's Imperial IPA (listed at the taps as Imperiale du Vices while listed online as Imperial Galaxy) offers the fruity nose and finely bitter finish without too much excessive malt as I desire in a fine IIPA/DIPA.  Also, though I didn't have it again last night, Dunham's Saison du Pinnacle is a nicely hopped and dry hopped saison of strong character for fans of hops, saisons, and/or just Dunham (and, honestly, who isn't?).

Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean's Chardonnay Barrel Aged tripel, Tante Tricotante, is quite nice coupling the fruity tripel notes with a decent grape must and mild tartness that adds a complexity to a fine Belgian blond beer style.

 Pit Caribou's No. 13 Tennessee Porter was a nice delight for fans of roasty and whiskey-dry goodness in a strong porter.

Boquebiere's Rouge des Cantons always offers some decent funk and a fair Quebec take on the sour Flanders Red style of beer, especially for those unfamiliar with the legendary imports.

Le Castor's Barrel-Aged Catherine imperial stout, was a real treat!  A stellar chocolate nose, with hints of coffee was complemented by a lightly woody and roasty taste with more complexity than I'd have predicted.

The gem of the night for me, alas, was one cask only and devoured, but we can hope it gets brewed again, and that was Les Trois Mousquetaires' Saison Brett.  Don't be sad to have missed it though, because if you go today, Le Trou du Diable promises some l'Ours bottles and more, while Charlevoix's Zinfandel-Aged Porter sounds like something imbibed in heaven.  So get these and tell me what I missed for a change!

This leads to my primary critique, but such is the nature of the beast: the fact that some beers had already sold out, that some were super limited and only being cracked at given times on given days, and that I had already had most that interested me, but some delights shone brightly and as strongly as they burned the fuels of my night they now dampen the tone of my morn.  Alas, I am fine, but won't be returning tonight so please hoist my torch... err... glass in my absence.


Sunday, 2 February 2014

Beers You Can Actually Buy: Saisons

Continuing with the success of my Beers You Can Actually Buy Series, which considers regularly available and easier to find marvels of brewing mastery, I will here delve into the increasingly trendy Saison style.  In ways this is akin to the hipster beer of beer geekdom - not quite yet as trendy as IPAs (something to have been into before they were cool) but subtly a rising star in beer circles sought out by the underground crowd.

Saisons aren't the most well known of beer styles, or perhaps even the sexiest or most flamboyant, but they have a wide diversity of characteristics insofar as they remain a quintessential Belgian/French farmhouse style of beer that didn't have to conform to the Reinheitsgebot (The so-called German Beer Purity Law).  But the Americans drive the trends today much as some solid Belgian examples remain defining of the framework.

Saisons are a highly carbonated and lightly spicy form of Belgian/French pale ale that was brewed in the cooler months for storage and to be served to farm workers in the summer, with a traditionally low ABV (3-ish%), a finely dry quenching if mild bitterness, spicy yeasty phenols, and the crisp sort of sharp carbonation that helps quench one's thirst from a day in the fields.  There was great variance in the style and that variance remains today with an evolution towards higher ABVs (6-7%) generally (and even an Imperial Saison style), alongside some spicier representatives and some brewed with wild yeast (Brettanomyces) as they were historically or with barrel-aged variants.

By nature, these are seasonal ales, and some great examples are seasonally imported by the LCBO or brewed seasonally by finer brewers (such as Quebec's Brasserie Dunham who offers many seasonal Saison delights!).  Several strong examples, however, are thankfully available year-round in both Quebec and Ontario, and are exemplary ones to try for a solid first-take or pleasant re-visitation.


Ommegang's Hennepin Farmhouse Saison (7.7% ABV) comes in $12.95 4-packs on regular list at the LCBO.  For me, personally, this is the quintessential saison, doing nothing immensely uniquely, but everything well.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when your saison offers a lightly fruity nose with some earthy yeast present, and tastes of a lightly sour funk with some peppery spice and bold carbonation.  Just everything I want when I desire a saison!

I am torn mentioning Goose Island's Sofie insofar as Goose Island is now owned by AB-InBev (aka. Budweiser and then some), one of the big three macro brewers.  However, they have allowed this Chicago based brewery to continue doing what they do best and, by now qualifying as domestic under ridiculous import laws since the macro takeover, it is regular list at the LCBO for $9.95 for 765 ml of this delightful 6.5% ABV saison.  Sofie is a blend of 80% the base beer coupled with 20% of the same base beer aged in wine barrels with citrus rind and the result is a marvel!  I have been quoted many times as saying, "This is a beer to convert wine drinkers," and I have done so with it.  Its complexity is magnificent with some pepper, citrus, and vanilla qualities alongside just a teasing hint of sour grape mustiness that intrigues and entices.  One of my favourite beers on the planet and it will evolve in the bottle (upright in a cool dark place) for up to 5 years.  Buy it, try it, support its continued availability... and then support your local microbrewery to keep the experimental, local scene (from which beers like Sofie arose) alive.


Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Saison (6% ABV) is, like everything brewed by Charlevoix, a pleasant treat with a signature yeast profile.  This excellent Quebec brewery has a line (of their Quad, "Hibernus," Saison, and delightful Belgian IPA, "Lupulus") that comes in gorgeous, wine-like 750ml bottles, with the saison retailing at better Quebec beer stores for around $10 plus tax and deposit.  Lemon and rind notes are more prevalent than spice, with a nice yeasty earthiness and crisp effervescence.  A classic example - like much from this brewery - that does everything well in a standard way without any wheel reinvention.

Le Trou du Diable's Saison du Tracteur (7% ABV) is another fairly representative example, where the spicy yeast is complemented by a drier earthy hoppiness than in most of the widely available options.  Though perhaps my least favourite on this list, that says little as this is still a fantastic beer (since the list is so strong!) and is perhaps the most affordable (or comparable to the Hennepin) making for a regular treat to stock in the fridge.  This standard delight comes in 341ml or 750ml bottles at finer Quebec deps and beer stores for a reasonably low price point.

Goose Island's Sofie (see Ontario above) is now also available in Quebec - so far exclusively at IGAs - but comes with the same caveat: a must buy and a must move on.  Glad its here, but not as glad as I am for Quebec's local micro marvels (such as Dieu du Ciel, Hopfenstark, Dunham, Charlevoix, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Le Trou du Diable, Le Castor, Benelux, etc).

'Til next we drink again... cheers!

Friday, 31 January 2014

Best of 2013

Most professional writers always seem well-prepped for the requisite best of the year post, while us amateurs seem bogged down by family commitments.   However,  as I still see these popping up, I figure I remain ahead of some and will,  thus,  go ahead with my own best of 2013.  I mean, what the hell, it's still January and the year is still new, right?

While some of these get extra credit for making their first appearance this past year, the requirement here is to have simply been new to me in the past calendar year.   I will rank, on these very broad criteria my top 10 IPAs, Imperial Stouts, Sours, and Others, before my top ten overall and a bid to some stellar Breweries as well.   It must be said, however, that regardless of ranking,  these beers and breweries are all phenomenal! 

One final disclaimer in that my experience is limited by... well... my experience and the local is that I remain most aware of and must indebted to.  I am honored to have such great local beer!

Without further ado, and with but the briefest of thoughts at most:

Top 10 IPAs, DIPAs, Etc

10) Benelux Anniversaire 2013 starts us off with a delightful double IPA that reflects both my 2013 hop love affair and the year itself in which it appeared.

9) Hill Farmstead Edward, while technically an APA is about as much of an IPA as anything else listed here and reflects the unfiltered PA mastery of Shaun Hill's brewing expertise. 

8) Hill Farmstead Abner offered intense and yet intensely delightful citrus and pine reflective of the style. 

7) Firestone Walker Double Jack is an oft-noted treasure that likewise warrants the praise. 

6) Founders Doom. This one-off Barrel-aged IPA balanced out the sweetness of the wood with the bitterness of a well-crafted IPA and was truly a marvel in the mouth. 

5) Great Lakes 25th Anniversary Imperial Black IPA offered another one off with some slick malty balance to an intensely dry linger. 

4) Stone RuinTen showed the palate assault of their fantastic Ruination (so named for its effect on one's palate) with an amped up intensity and depth of character. 

3) Elysian Doom provided simply a noteworthy example of the standard sort of American IPA presenting the hops in all their glory! 

2) Dieu du Ciel's Moralité came next for me personally,  for not only showing off the ideal wonders of hops, but for becoming a regularly available and affordable staple for the hop-heads of Quebec.

1) Firestone Walker Union Jack - as far as I can recall - remains the lone-stander in the end, however,  with a complexity unmatched by even the other top IPAs.

Top 10 Imperial Stouts

10) Mikkeller Black in Black. Yes an 18% ABV imperial stout can temper its ethanol notes and charm in its complexity nonetheless!

9) de Molen Hel & Verdoemenis Barrel Aged.  After side-by-siding this with their other BA RIS Hemel & Aarde, this stood out.

8) De Struisse Black Albert managed to shine alongside flights of De Struisse, Mikkeller, and Brew Dog.

7) Bellwoods 3 Minutes to Midnight offered a delicious fruity take on the style with a complexity of character that reflects well upon this marvelous brewery.

6) Founders KBS almost met the hype.  It is fantastic, but not as much so as it's non-BA breakfast stout brother for me but remained a treasured treat.  I found the wood complex but the bourbon mild.

5) Wals Petroleum shone beyond its decent ratings, offering delightful roasted chocolate notes without excessive sweetness.

4) Bellwoods Hellwoods again exemplified the joys of Bellwoods brews and served as a fine classic example of the style.

3) Hopfenstark's Kamarad Friedrich Bourbon illustrates the brewing and Barrel-aging prowess here,  as it shines in chocolate and bourbon complexity despite its intensely high ABV of near 16%.

2) Founders Breakfast Stout deserves all of its praise and then some showing off the coffee, chocolate and oats remarkably.  I could drunk this forever!

1) Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout again meets the hype.   I sometimes find the drivers of the American hype machines don't truly top our Canadian counterparts.   This one, however, does.  Next Black Friday, go south and shop for this instead... and give me one!

Top 10 Sours and Such

10) Tilquin Oude Gueuze a l'Ancienne was side-by-sided with the Girardin below and both impressed though the Girardin stood out for its slightly increased funk but that takes nothing away from this delightful lambic blend.

9) Girardin Gueze 1882 Black Label was a similar, if more funky delight than the Tilquin above.

8) Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge shows off sour like few other Flanders Reds.  And, for an oak-aged sour, its low price appeals, so I bought many.

7) Hopfenstark's Berlin Alexanderplatz Epilogue is easily the most sour beer I have ever had with a sucking-on-a-lemon sort of puckering quality to this raspberry berliner weisse.

6) La Trou du Diable Dulcis Succubus is a complex marvel of sour and funk that I'd gladly devour any day.

5) Allagash Confluence is one of many delightful American sours I had this year that show the evolution of brewing south of the border.

4) The Bruery Tart of Darkness was so fantasticly tart, but as a sole complaint was only slightly roasty alongside its sour perfection.

3) Drie Fonteinen Zwet.be offered everything Tart of Darkness lacked.  While a touch less sour,  it was every bit as roasty and stout-like as it was tart.

2) Cantillon Kriek.  I had always thought krieks were overrated until I had this from Brussels' Premier lambic brewer.  Cantillon's kriek, unlike many tempered by the fruit, offers puckering tartness with classic Cantillon dust and depth of character as promised.

1) Russian River Supplication ranks as the best sour I have ever had topping the Belgian masters and bring the crown to the States.  A complex masterpiece and worth every penny of its $15 price tag (for a store bought 375 ml bottle).

Top 10 Other

10) Flying Dog Raging Bitch.  Okay it's an IPA,  but a Belgian one that shows off Belgian yeast
complexity alongside American hops to great effect. 

9) Ommegang Hennepin Saison is just your standard Saison,  but a quintessential example of the joys that can bring.   I am not a huge fan of this brewery but it's regular availability in Ontario now prompts a crucial regular purchase.

8) Dunham/Kissmeyer Snowy Spring Royal Pilsner.  This is the only pils to make my list,  though Dunham's regular Pils nearly did.  I am not sure regular pils fans would like this as it is so aggressively (and deliciously) hopped,  but it well complements the grassy crisp Pilsner qualities most seek with a solid drinkability.

7) Kuhnhenn 4th Dementia gets boozier as it warms - as 13.5% old ales tend to - but its nutty and fruity character shines nonetheless. 

6) Dunham Saison Réserve blends the marvels of a standard complex Saison with the barnyard dusty funk of Brett and admirably blends the best of both.

5) Great Lakes Audrey Hopburn Belgian IPA is another that blends American hops and Belgian yeast to great effect... in a great bottle! 

4) Renaissance Elemental Porter does nothing extraordinary,  but does everything ordinary in an extraordinary way.   This is simply a magnificent representative of the style. 

3) Hopfenstark's rare Saison du Repos offers a blend of barnyard and American hops breaking style norms but offering a shockingly delightful treat!

2) Goose Island Sofie offers another delight that breaks my heart insofar as I buy an AB/IN-Bev beer every time I grab one,  but that makes it a regular product in Ontario (and now in Quebec IGAs),  and one that blends the best of saison with wine barrel aging to true delight.  This is a beer to convert wine drinkers! 

1) Hopfenstark 7 Sisters/La Pléiade Maïa (Fût du Vin Blanc) (9% ABV) continues the trends of wine-Barrel Aged Belgian beers, but with all due respect to its red-wine-aged sibling, this masterpiece exemplifies all that beer can be showing funk,  must,  and complex character in every moment of every sip.

All-Around Top 10

10) Kamarad Friedrich Bourbon
9) Dieu du Ciel Moralité
8) Allagash Confluence
7) The Bruery Tart of Darkness
6) Founders Breakfast Stout
5) Firestone Walker Union Jack
4) Drie Fonteinen Zwet.be
3) Russian River Supplication
2) Hopfenstark 7 Sisters/La Pléiade Maïa (Fût du Vin Blanc) (9% ABV)
1) Bourbon County Brand Stout

Top 5 Breweries

5) Hopfenstark opened its own bar,  Station Ho.St, this year that offers a stellar (if small) import selection, coupled with the best of beers from other quebec breweries and, if that weren't enough it supplements with rare beer night, cask night, and barrel-aged beer night which exposes again their mastery of barrel-aging.

4) Dieu du Ciel stands out again for pairing Zwanze Day with their 15th anniversary,  while bottling Morality and sharing oddities in collaboration with New Belgium and Dogfish Head.

3) Dunham from Quebec's Eastern Townships continues to shine in its third year of existence,  with bottled and draught oddities showing a mastery of diverse styles and unique twists 

2) Great Lakes Brewing finished its LCBO run of their 25th Anniversary line to start the year and ended with increased availability of their Tank Ten experimental brews as well.  All to my immense delight.

1) Bellwoods.  This Toronto legend deserves that praise in but their 2nd year of operation for they have shown a style mastery from sours and Imperial Stouts to IPAs and session ales - all of which trump the bulk of the competition.  Keep it up!

I promise more posts soon!