Sunday, 2 July 2017

Godspeed! You Mad Brewmaster!

I just happened to be in Toronto when the first can-release preceded the anxiously awaited opening of Godspeed brewpub in Toronto's East End (slated to officially open as a brewpub sometime this week!) When the brewmaster and genius behind the project is Luc "Bim" LaFontaine (originally of Dieu du Ciel fame followed by Japanese brewing experience), the hype is real and the lineup of 100+ people when I arrived about 20 minutes into a 12-hour first-launch can-release foretold the thirst of the city's residents.

With the release announcement neglecting to mention the beers on offer, speculation ran amok, while early Untappd check-ins of cans of Stout and Dortmunder gave away two initial offerings, while the third (discovered only on site) was an IPA.

Though I expected a lineup, I wasn't sure a 4.7% ABV Stout and a Dortmunder would draw the crowds, but while I wasn't alone in this assessment (as many in line described the styles as "boring"), Bim's reputation brought the Canada Day crowds nonetheless. That said, I too came for his past resume, even if relatively uninspired by the styles but optimistic due to brewmaster pedigree. Though I expect them to be on-point, this may have been the only beer geek lineup for Dortmunder in history and may well be the last! But, such is Bim's legend! Yet, we nonetheless anxiously await Godspeed's step into the trendier styles of sour beers, wild ales, barrel-aged delights, NEIPAs, saisons, and more.

Cans were offered at about the moderately high end of the going rate at $3.75 (tax included) per 355 ml.

Even with construction remaining, the visit prompted excitement for open with a gorgeous interior layout (if a touch less seating than space may demand) and the promise of stellar on-site Japanese food created by a team specially selected and brought over by Bim to join in the project. He promises us that "The food will be amazing! You cannot go wrong when you put so much passion and love in what you do."

I can hardly wait, for either food or beer, so let's turn to them!

India Pale Ale (6.0% ABV from the "Pitch & Pray Series") wafts a fairly mild nose with a honey-ish malt base coupled with a blend between earthy hops and mild citrus and cantaloupe. It smells as it looks, fairly malt forward, slightly English and less American.The taste is similar with an earthyness coupled with a grainy slight nuttiness up front before a moderately bitter finish, but one once again more reminiscent of a blend between an English and a West Coast style than of the East Coast claimed in the brewery description.  The body has a decent heft alongside low-side carbonation (for the style), with a pleasant oilyness to its mouthfeel. This is a type of IPA somewhat neglected in these parts, and it may impress for some, but for the trendy beer geek posse, it will likely underwhelm. Though the description above proclaims it an Eastern IPA, it is much more English in tradition, with but mild hints of the New World character. It is fine, and I respect it for what it is, but I look forward to more thoroughly American takes on the style when Godspeed gets around to them.

Dortmunder (4.8% ABV from the "Pitch & Pray Series") presents a gorgeous copper colour with a soapy white head, of minimal retention. Aromas are of sweet, malt-dominant pilsner grains, with a faint grassy noble hops character. The taste is quite sweet up front, but quite clean with a fairly dry finish and a substantial, mildly bitter linger. This beer is very well balanced, and likewise offers a moderate body with moderately low carbonation and mouthfeel. It may not be my preferred style, but it is highly quenching, and almost entirely on point to style parameters. One could argue that releasing such a stylistically sound beer as an initial offering is the safe route, though another perspective holds it as a bold one to offer it in such a lager-loathing craft beer market. Yet, despite the reservations of the geeks, brew-pubs need the locals alongside the dedicated beer-traveller, and styles such as this are the virtual basis for local orders at my local craft brew pub (in an area not unlike Godspeed's). Though I may not buy many such beers, I am happy to note the stylistic expertise I'd expect from a brewer of Bim's pedigree.

Stout (4.7% ABV from the "Pitch & Pray Series") may be the hidden gem of the bunch. Pouring out a deep dark brown to opaque black with a thick, foamy beige head of stellar retention and thick lacing, this beer presents a bold roasty coffee dominant and very mildly ashy bouquet. Though there is some cacao underneath, it is coffee that is highlighted by these malts. There's a mild biscuity quality up front in the mouth before a quite sharp, dry, and lingering coffee roast dominant finish. In the end, there is a trace of earthy hops alongside the intense roast that almost expresses in the linger as a slight ashyness, but not beyond acceptable levels. This seems to fall somewhere between what would be defined as Dry Irish Stout and American Stout by style, and it holds a medium body with the low carbonation I appreciate in the style lending a heftier feel on the tongue than the 4.7% ABV likely supports in reality (but aren't mouthfeels all about perceptions anyway?). This is a solid, solid base stout and I regret not having purchased more!

I love the name of the "Pitch & Pray Series", since as the adage goes, brewer's only make wort and yeast make beer, such that even Mad Geniuses like Bim, still must "Pitch & Pray." Bim tells me this is the series name for the early release beers, only some of which will be brewed later after others arrive. Thus, different lines will become evident once the product starts flowing regularly. In the meantime, however, this launch plays it fairly safe but demonstrates base mastery (as if there was any doubt) with nailed styles and reliable staples.

Now, time for the madness!  Bring it, Bim!  We're ready!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Reviewing the World of Beer: Mondial 2017 in a Province of Booming Craft

For the sixth straight year, I put in a full day at Mondial de la Biere, arriving at noon and departing around 10 pm.  Yes, I had a long time to drink, but I tried to pace myself, to drink water, and to get to some fairly reliable assessments.

My first assessment concerns the lack of GlobeTrotter food (and the insects they usually bring).  I even mentioned them in the preview as they are always present it had seemed - even another year when they weren't mentioned in the program.  But alas, I had to eat "normal" food with my beers and I, sadly, cannot tell you which would pair best with crickets.

I arrived early to try Three Floyds' infamous Dark Lord 2016 (having previously had a 2014 and wanting to see if it was any better), but alas it smelled identically of soy sauce and tasted of sweetened, high quality, soy sauce once again.  I'd love to try the BA versions, but I just cannot get behind this beer.  While there, and with limited offerings, I also hit all of the Three Floyds IPAs and DIPAs, but they were all too oxidized from the lengthy importation process for optimal assessment (as expected).

However, another extremely limited bottle on my must-try-list was available at open and this one did not disappoint: Central City's Sour No. II (Sour Kriek) was boldly assertive with a bright oaky nose not unlike the Flanders style sours, and drank delightfully with a decent body and complex interactions between the balsamic qualities alongside the oak, the funk, and the fruit.  This was a standout beer, for sure and I would gladly seek it, or any other sours in that line, out again.

On the international front, I found a few more deserved of mention.  Of limited Lost Abbey products available, there was oddly the widest availability for what I felt was the best beer: Carnevale, a funky American saison of stellar depth and quality, of which I returned for a second pour.  Also, the Brazilian beers served onsite by OverHop were noteworthy (in particular, I enjoyed their HopGoddess IPA the most, with honourable mentions to OverLab Nelson Sauvin and Hazy).

On return to the Quebec front, like others, I was disappointed by the absence of some of Quebec's strongest breweries (*cough* Dunham *cough*, not to mention Benelux, Hopfenstark, Pit Caribou) and smaller strong newcomers like Maltstrom and Auval, but there were some solid local delights.

Though I was surprised by the strengths of Les Trois Brasseurs' Milkshake IPA, I was excited to try the newly praised Shelton NEIPA brewed at Oshlag.  Though the Shelton wafted a great nose, I found it a bit thin and not quite of the complexity early reviews had me hoping for, if nonetheless solid.

Yet, in closing, I was wowed by the evolution of the beers at Brasserie Harricana.  New(ish) brewmaster Francis Richer has been killing it!  Though their Saison des Allergies is still fantastic and not of his original making, several strong new offerings (17 Brune Celeste, 14 Double Gose, and 720 Strong Ale) were all noteworthy, unique, and delightful.  Yet, the highlight there, and perhaps of the festival for me was the creamy, smooth, nitro-served bourbon-barrel aged B52 imperial porter with coffee, vanilla, and lactose. Man, is that beer a remarkable treat.  Sweet, but complex, coffee-forward, yet not one-dimensional.  I'll line up for bottles of this!

With another year down, I am reminded again of the need to revise the SAQ system, at least for American IPAs.  I mean, they are all tested and approved within the USA - they are not going to kill us!  We buy them anyway on every vacation down South!

I am also reminded of the many varied and growing strengths of our local beer scene.  With each passing year of Mondial, it seems Quebec stands up taller against the trends and imports on offer and this year managed to do so with a diminished number of the high end of Quebec craft breweries.  This only bodes well for our local consumption down the road - now for Mondial to entice the newer brewers and the old ones back!

Until next year, cheers!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Another Year of Mondial de la Biere! (Another Year It Must Cope With Paternalistic Prohibition-Inspired Legal Limitations!)

As another year has passed, we once again find ourselves on the verge of the forthcoming Mondial de la Bière which runs from this Wednesday, June 14 through Sunday June 18 at Montreal's Palais des Congrès.

In year's past, I have given advice on arriving early if you wish to try rarities or to avoid the weekend party atmosphere (or late if you seek the party atmosphere!), on which specific beers to seek out, and on strategies for finding your specific beers of interest.

This year, I will be briefer, but will - in a somewhat different vein - push a bit of a political agenda (or two).

For example, one of the most sought-after beers on the list: Three Floyds nearly-IPA level APA "Zombie Dust" is on offer, but once again promises to be far too old for optimal enjoyment.  Oh, us geeks will still buy samples, "tap it," and lament the stale aged hops, but why don't we instead (or in addition) contact our local MNA and demand a change to regulations, or engage in a discussion over these sub-optimal beers as to how best to lobby for progressively amending outdated alcohol laws?  It isn't Mondial's fault that these beers must spend many months being 'tested' by the SAQ (despite the fact that no known pathogens can exist in a fermented beer below 4.5% ph or above 2% ABV), and I applaud Mondial for bringing in these diverse offerings  These regressive laws don't only baby us, they cost taxpayers needlessly and ensure that we are shielded from many great products in the global market.

Sure, some beer styles withstand this trip (and for those, I encourage you to check out Belgium's Brasserie de Bastogne, Brasserie de la Senne, Brussels Beer Project, Vliegende Paard Brouwers, Brazil's Cervejaria Colorado, America's The Lost Abbey, Three Floyds, and Weyerbacher, Norway's Haandbryggeriet and Nøgne Ø), but many are either not at their best or hindered by this delay.  (Typically IPA, APA, and other well-hopped styles are most adversely affected, while Scotch Ales, Imperial Stouts, Barleywines, sour beers, and saisons - mostly saved by higher ABVs - are better respresented after the wait).  Alternatively, stick to the many excellent local brewers (at least for the IPA/APA style).

I, alone, will not boycott the international booth, but perhaps this is a strategy discussion the beer community may want to have for future years, or at least to plan for as it may bring Mondial around to join us in pushing for change.  Their lobbying weight cannot be underestimated and it is surely in their interests to provide the best and freshest beer as well as the diversity for which we applaud them.

In an unrelated, but likewise politically motivated suggestion, consider that as starvation both threatens the stability of many and as climate change alongside a growing population means diminished access to food in the future, many have argued that insects should provide a more sustainable and healthy alternative to other protein sources.  Thus, my penultimate Mondial tip is to seek out Globe Trotter and to begin adjusting your palates to this delicious and nutritious food oddity.

Finally, remember the most important things: step outside of your comfort zone, try new beers and styles that you may never get to otherwise, but don't bud in line, don't be a jerk, and do not, under any circumstances drive drunk.  Having fun in such a way ensures that we all can.  Cheers and see you at Mondial!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Brasserie Dunham: Previewing their Latest Innovative Concoctions

Every once in a while, I get sucked into these debates about the best brewery in the province, or the country, or the world, but really, it comes down to individual products and personal tastes. It's tough to put a brewery above all others when so many make delicious beers, but I can easily compare two IPAs or two dry-hopped kettle sours, or two business models.

I've heard Brasserie Dunham ranked in the tops of the province or the country many times, but that all depends on the criteria we use to assess them. They, deservedly and once again, made ratebeer's list of the world's top 100 breweries for 2016. But where they rank specifically is so subjective. Regardless, that success is certainly merited!

One thing is for certain to me though: Dunham leads the (Canadian) charge in thoughtful experimentation driving forward the beer scene for all of us, bringing up those influenced by them rather than simply competing against them. The innovations brought by founder Sébastien Gagnon, brewmaster Eloi Deit, and sommelier Simon Gaudreault don't always result in success (though they usually do), but they always inspire, advance, and propel the ideas of what beer is and can be!

How you may ask? Well, it starts with their forward-thinking blogger/beer media scene invite to taste their products ahead of their pending May 13 Bottle Release Party (details here and here), and it continues with their ticketed, lineup-reduced, well planned release events, but it carries forward mostly into their beers, often weaving mixed fermentations, barrel-aging, fruit, blends, and funk. What's not to like?

I'll leave you to read through the specifics of the beers on the order page, aside from what I add below, but we were able to grab a sneak peak of 7 beers (6 from the release and one other) and I offer some preview thoughts below. Note that despite the invite, I will critique where I feel criticism is needed and, indeed, Simon asks me to do so as he insists their invite is partially for such reflection and not simply to demand unwarranted praise.

What I loved:

Most of them! I also enjoyed the latest incarnation of Cyclope Dzeta (pictured above) and Ask For Paul (brewed for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival), but these beers are not a part of the release and so won't be thoroughly reviewed here.

Viti Vini Vici: Cuvée of Coussergues

This 5.6% ABV Saison is the first in a series of local (semi-)collaborations in which Brasserie Dunham will showcase local wine grapes, through a process of cold fermentation with the must before a lengthy (in this case 5.5 month) barrel-aging process before brett re-fermentation (in this case with four different brett strains plus whatever existed on the grape skins to begin with). Though the plan is to showcase grapes and barrels from the same wineries, it was impossible this time, though the grapes here are of the Vidal variety (often used for ice wines) from L'Orpailleur (one of Quebec's earliest wineries).

The base beer here is Dunham's classic Saison Rustique, but that won't be obvious to any but the most seasoned imbiber as this beer has transformed majestically. The nose is boldly aromatic wafting an exhilarating complement of vinous notes, wood, and that funky bretted white wine character that is unique and difficult to describe but which simply shines when wild yeast, barrels, and white wine are allowed to coalesce in a funky beer. There is a fermenting fruit quality to it, though it also has more than a passing resemblance to the nose of Assemblage 1: Sauternes. Perhaps there is something about these sweeter grapes providing a specific sugar for the brett, but whatever it is, it smells seductively enticing! Perhaps, to be even more precise, it presents what I am starting to understand to be Dunham's classic signature funk, and the development of such a complex signature is a sign of maturity from this relatively young brewery.

Up front the taste brings a moderately tannic but quite musty and fruity white wine character. Though inviting up front, I find it gets fairly muted and non-descript with a lightly watery finish that is a slight let-down after the nose. There is a faint linger. It is supported by a medium body, but feels lighter due to fairly low carbonation and the mild flavour-finish. Don't get me wrong, this isn't problematically low carbonated or entirely bland, however, Simon assures me it should both funk up and continue to carbonate as our bottles were extremely fresh.

Minor critiques aside, this beer is unique, innovative, aromatic, and tasty, while delicate and nuanced, not to mention that it embodies a spirit of collaboration in showcasing local wineries. It is precisely the model of Dunham innovation that I adore, even if I think the execution here is merely good and not yet perfected. I remain as excited for the evolution of this specific beer, as I do to the evolution of this line.

Grisettonosaure à l'argousier


Despite being called a grisette, with a saison base and at nearly 6% (5.8) ABV, this might better be called a saison. It does, however, drink easily as if lighter. Based on a grisette/saison brewed in collaboration with Le Cheval Blanc for their 30th Anniversary, this beer evolves with weizen yeast pitched after two days of primary fermentation, with the addition of Sea Buckthorn, and with aging in white wine barrels.

And, WOW, is it wonderfully aromatic! The nose presents an enticing bouquet that dominates the first flight (Ask For Paul, Viti Vini Vici, and this were presented first). It expresses notes of funky wet wood, with some floral esters, and a tannin-forward vinousness. Oddly, though the nose here is the boldest of the three at the pour, it becomes the most muted after 15 minutes on the table as the aromatics express rapidly, but seem to diminish just as quickly. It, likewise, brings a characteristic Dunham funk quality that I find both appealing and evidence of a brewing maturity.

In the mouth, I get a slightly tannic quality with a low level of spicy phenols complemented by what I imagine are the fruity elements of sea buckthorn - not that I have ever tasted it outside of a beer - before a nicely dry finish with a moderate (and I'd say perfect) level of tartness. Oddly, though I wouldn't call the tannins high, they stand out despite this beer following my tasting of VVV above. Carbonation is moderate, but should still be picking up a bit, and though it smells bolder than it tastes, it is delectably dry, tart, and crushable now with the promise of increasing funk over time.

Oro Zuur - Batch 3 (Mosaic)


 This batch of Dunham's barrel-aged dry-hopped sour is a treat once again! Unlike the original Oro Zuur (with Mosaic), this is less sour overall, but perhaps more funky on the nose. The nose here has a deep level of the noted characteristic funk complemented minimally by some berry and tropical fruit-forward hops. Unlike some dry-hopped sours that are full of (clean) fruit without funk, this is more funk with a hint of fruit. There is a trace of wood underneath, but it is aromatically dominated by something like musty sour fruity candies.

Tastewise, it is much more muted up front than past versions but ends with a musty, mildly tart, quenching signature that is evident in many of these beers, and it is very, very enjoyable. The beginning here is a bit fruitier than in other elements, where mild strawberries and shades of lemon zest come to mind.

The carbonation and feel are both moderate, to moderately full, but somehow the dryness and finish (not to mention delightful flavours) still invite drinking over sipping!

I don't find the differences between batches of Oro Zuur to be too large, but I do believe I slightly prefer this more funky version to the more sour versions that preceded it. Regardless, I can't see anyone who enjoyed the others being turned off here as the strengths all remain, if in slightly different proportions.

Berliner Dragon Weisse

Dunham's Berliners just keep getting better and better! This latest incarnation presents a gorgeous pink hue, with a head that lingers and laces despite the bolder carbonation of the style.

Aromatically, it is milder than expected, but still offers a pleasing nose characterized by the dragon fruit. It doesn't smell very sour, as a kind of floral and fruity quality takes over. Though I am unfamiliar with dragon fruit, I would say it comes a bit close to kiwi in my assessment of the nose. Again, being unfamiliar with the base fruit, I'll also add that I get something on the nose that smells almost artificial, but not in a bad way. Though it doesn't smell at all like cherries, I mean artificial in the way that maraschino cherries smell a bit different than unaltered fruit. This isn't off-putting in the least, rather it is simply descriptive of something I lack the language precision to otherwise explain.

Tastewise, this offers a massive fruity character up front before evolving with a decent acidity and dryness that spreads across the palate. The carbonation is bold, as it should be, but somehow there is an oilyness to the feel that works excellently as it seems to stick the beer against my entire mouth forcing a linger of fruit and moderate acidity as I swallow. Somehow, this just works perfectly with this beer!

Oddly, despite an actual final pH of 2.86, this beer doesn't feel that sour in perceived acidity, and it remains super crushable and refreshing! This may have been my favourite sample of the evening!

Saison Cassis Reserve Brandy - Single Barrel

This gorgeous beer (pictured above beside its Tokai barrel counterpart) is super fruit-forward, with the nose offering that bitter-sweet currant aroma alongside a fair bit of alcoholic heat. As it warms, there is a very, very faint trace of what I identify as fusels, though I am told it is likely the fruit (but I am sceptical - see the Tokai review below).

Though it smells quite hot, you cannot taste the booze at all, as the currants dominate in the mouth. Less tart and less acidic than past versions, but the fruitiness complements this moderately low sourness with a full body that creates an excellent sipping treat. I would imagine this too shall still carb up some, but even if it doesn't, the body is truly juicy making for an excellent refreshment nonetheless!

What I hated:

Saison Cassis Reserve Tokai

Okay, hate is a strong word, but this had off-putting qualities to me. WARNING: do not read below if you don't want to have this and a few others beer ruined for you by the power of aroma suggestion!

This has a fairly bold chemical smell underneath the fruit. There is some of that in the Brandy version, but it falls deeply behind the fruit whereas here I get it immediately. It has two characteristics that are equally off-putting to me:

First, it has fusel components. Again, I am told it isn't fusels, but I taste them as well and I have come to be accustomed to these in a few failed homebrews that got too hot in primary. Representatives from the brewery insist it may have been a by-product of the fermented fruit, but I do not get this from any other version of this product and there were even more heavily fruited versions in the past.

Second, there is an expression - perhaps from the fruit as from the flowers in Cantillon's Mamouche - that comes across as insect repellent to me. Once, at a Cantillon tasting, someone pointed this out and everyone else present wound up able to smell nothing else after, and now I am unable to not notice it whenever I smell Mamouche. I am sorry if my description does this for you, but despite my general love of tokai barrels and of other variants of this beer I cannot help but be disappointed in whatever happened to this product. Do let me know if you agree once you smell and taste it.

That said, the yeast and bacteria in this beer could continue to transform it, and I'd be excited if they did so, but as it stands, this beer wasn't for me.

Regardless, as noted, Dunham continues to innovate and their experiments are almost entirely successful, this time no less than always! Despite my dislike of one beer, I remain enthralled by the others such that you know where to find me on May 13!