Changes A-Coming

Yes, this blog is miserably out-of-date, which is why I am preparing to scrap the whole thing and replace it with something more user-friendly. Please bear with me.

Repeat After Me…

A beer style is an informal agreement between a brewer and a drinker, expressed via a label, by which the former tells the latter roughly what sort of beer they are about to buy.

–  From The World Atlas of Beer, second edition, 2016

Muskoka and Howe Sound Team Up on a Surprisingly Restrained Effort

I have on my desk a bottle of a beer called Heffy Anniversary, brewed in collaboration by Howe Sound Brewing of Squamish, British Columbia, and Muskoka Brewing of Bracebridge, Ontario. It was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary milestone of both breweries, which were born a month apart two decades ago. And given that, you’d expect it to be some monster beer with massive alcohol and hops, probably aged for a good while in some sort of barrel.

Heffy AnniversaryBut it’s not. Instead, Heffy Anniversary is an “American hefeweizen” – I hate that term, since the the German term usually has me expecting banana and clove, but at least the presence of the “American” modifier in the small print on the label warns drinkers not to expect anything in the Bavarian tradition – that is bottled at 5% alcohol for maximum quaffability. And from that perspective, I have to say that it’s quite nice.

(Note that this is the Howe Sound version. I am led to believe that the beer was brewed in both provinces, so Ontario drinkers will no doubt be discovering something somewhat different, if only subtly so.)

Hazy gold with a tropical fruity aroma that complements pineapple and sweet lemon notes with almost lilac-like florals, the start of this ale is sweetish and perfumey, carrying soft suggestions of pineapple and mandarin orange. The mid-palate does begin to show its hoppiness, but only mild to moderately so, staying more fruity than not, with a light leafiness and the really hoppy bitterness staying in reserve until the drying, bittering finish.

It’s a bit too sharply bitter on the end for its relatively light body, I think, but otherwise this is a sensible, refreshing quaffer – and a good thing, too, since it’s packaged in a one litre bottle! A bottle, I might add, that I have every intention of finishing.

Cynical and Opportunistic? You Don’t Know the Half of It!

Budweiser_Renames_Its_Beer__America____Co_Design___business___designSo the Internet exploded yesterday with news that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgo-Brazilian monster brewing company that owns the Budweiser brand, wants to replace “Budweiser” on the labels of its U.S. flagship beer with “America.” Early reports that the application had merely been made to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau were replaced later in the day by news that approval has apparently been granted and the change will be allowed to go ahead.

A lot of commentators, particularly from within the ranks of the craft beer world, were vocal about how pandering and cynical they found this move to be, many citing the fact that, in terms of ownership, at least, Budweiser isn’t even a truly American brand of beer. Others noted that the move seems to be a clearly opportunistic way in which to capitalize on the same sort of jingoistic sentiments that have been propelling the Drumpf campaign since its start.

Me, I think it’s even more insidious than that.

You may not have noticed, but over the last few years AB InBev has been gradually fomenting an “us vs. them” relationship between mainstream lager drinkers and craft beer fans. It started even before the famous Super Bowl ad – you remember, the one about the pumpkin peach beer that aired shortly after the company had bought a brewery that once produced a pumpkin peach beer – but that was perhaps where it swung into full gear. It continued this year, of course, with another ad which directly, though perhaps less combatively, disparaged craft beer.

During this whole period, a “craft vs. mainstream” dialogue has not coincidentally arisen in the media, with anti-major brewery sentiment positioned as “snobbery,” mainstream lagers redefined as “real beers,” and craft beer appreciation derided as pinky-in-the-air elitism. Some of the craft beer press has itself been complicit in this, sometimes standing up for “well-made” mainstream lagers like Budweiser and defending brewery owners who choose to sell to larger companies like AB InBev.

If approved, the “America” branding of Bud may well be the next step in this oppositional positioning of mainstream beer. By literally wrapping the beer in the flag, Budweiser marketers are, I believe, attempting to make any criticism of the brand or the company behind it synonymous with criticism of America itself, which is just a short step from questioning the patriotism of anyone who might prefer to drink a different brand of beer. Thus, craft beer drinkers become anti-Americans and Bud drinkers are cast as the true patriots.

(For those who would hold AB InBev’s craft brewery ownership as a reason for questioning the above thesis, remember that all of the company’s craft possessions combined still represent but a fraction of the sales and profits generated by the Budweiser line. It is my contention that AB InBev would shelve its craft properties in a minute if doing so would staunch the bleeding that has beset the Budweiser family for the last decade or more.)

In any other summer, this move might elicit little more than a chuckle and a sigh – if, indeed, the company even bothered with it at all. But in the highly charged political atmosphere of 2016, make no mistake, I see this as a very large and heavy gauntlet being thrown directly in the face of the craft brewing industry. It will be most interesting to see how it all plays out.

Stone Enjoy by 05.04.16 Black IPA

Stone enjoy bySo, fearful of Greg Koch showing up at my door tomorrow morning and screaming “I TOLD YOU TO ENJOY IT BY YESTERDAY!” at me, I open this bottle of quite strong, very black ale and give it a sniff. The first thing I get on the nose is blackberry, then some flamed citrus oils, cooked raisins and a hint of road tar, although the last not at all in a bad way. So far, so good.

That blackberry is back at the front of the palate, which is actually fairly sweet considering that this is a Stone-brewed IPA. The mid-palate is where all the action takes place, though, with the fruity sweetness giving way to a steadily growing citrus hop bitterness that brings with it spicy and herbal notes, suggestions of black currant and a malt flavor that is not quite roasty and neither burnt, but still somehow tastes of very well kilned grain. For a beer so big – 9.4% alcohol, big hoppiness, an admonition of the label to “ENJOY NOW! — the finish is actually fairly restrained, with lingering burnt citrus oil bitterness and raisiny notes.

Overall, this is a beer that offers much more on reflection than it does on the first swallow or two. There is complexity where one might expect only burnt grain and bitterness, aromatic depth where most hop-heads would be happy with sharp citrus, and a soothing quality attributable to its well-disguised strength. I find the bitter edge of the finish lingers too long, but then again, I’m tasting rather than drinking. In a bar with friends, I doubt you’d even notice.

Tasted: Ommegang Game of Thrones Seven Kingdoms

So I missed reviewing this for the premier of the new season of Game of Thrones, partly because I was in Pittsburgh celebrating my birthday, but principally because I don’t watch the show and thus was only vaguely aware of its return. But now that it’s back, and legions of non-Raptors and non-Pacers fans will be thinking of little else tonight — Go Raps! — let’s get to the beer.

Seven KingdomsOmmegang’s GoT beers have had a fair amount of variation within them thus far, ranging from good but ordinary – Iron Throne – to excellent – Three-Eyed Raven. This bottle-conditioned and surprisingly strong ‘hoppy wheat ale’ definitely leans towards the latter, if not quite to the level of excellence of the Raven. It is light gold and hazy, despite days of sitting undisturbed in the refrigerator — which compels me to assume a fairly high proportion of wheat is involved, resulting in the protein haze — and the highly fragrant nose is sweet and perfumey, with carnation and cotton candy notes and hints of baked pear.

The body continues in the pear theme at the front, with a caramelly sweetness making me think of candied pear in the style of a caramel apple, but the ‘hoppy’ aspect arrives in the mid-palate to dry things and lead to a moderate bitterness, adding walnut and lemon zest notes before finally ending with a dry and crisp finish.

If I were better schooled in the series, I’m sure I could make some sort of clever GoT reference here, but given that I cannot, I’ll instead note that this rates highly in the amorphous category known as Belgian style strong golden ales. And that it would be a fine accompaniment to a Sunday evening of watching pitched battles and gratuitous nakedness, or playoff basketball.

Tasted: Ottakringer Wiener Original

ottakringerIt’s been a number of years since I last had an Ottakringer and this is much more as I would define a Vienna lager than was what I recall, beginning with its bright copper colour and well-defined collar of just off-white foam. (In hindsight, and with the brewery website to guide me, it occurs to me that the last Ottakringer I drank was probably their Helles.) The nose has just a hint of caramelly sweetness hiding under a dry, almost austere and steely aroma.

The start of the body emulates the aroma, with hints of caramel amid a slightly minerally malt-and-hop mix. In the mid-palate, however, the beer grows sweeter and fuller, with juicier malt and a prevailing minerality to the hop character, before finally finishing dryly and with lingering caramelized grain notes. Not at all a bad beer, but I would suggest more a simple quaffer than a lager of great elegance or sophistication.

It’s All the Same Thing, Really

A couple of important things have occurred recently in the English-speaking beer world.* First off, the U.K. beer consumers group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), have launched a “Revitalisation Project” centered around what the group should really represent in the future. Then the Brewers Association in the U.S. released their annual list of the country’s top 50 breweries and top 50 craft breweries by volume.

To say that each has elicited a bit of commentary would be a massive understatement. Just scroll through Facebook to find an ample number of posts on each topic, or start here and here for the CAMRA side and here and here for the BA list.

The way I see things, however, they are really two sides of the exact same coin, that being the changing nature of beer in the 21st century. CAMRA was formed out of an interest to preserve traditional British ales – it centered on cask-conditioning and dispense, but at the heart was the character of the beer – while the BA was founded as a voice for small scale breweries in the United States and, to a much lesser degree, Canada. The vastly different dynamics of beer today, however, render both of these mandates significantly less relevant.

Cask-conditioned ale is indeed alive and well in the U.K., as any recent beer-drinking visitor will attest, something CAMRA can certainly count as a major victory. What’s more, traditional ales have been joined by any number of great cask and non-cask beers, from crisp lagers to American-hopped IPAs to recreations of historic stout and porter recipes. As CAMRA tries to figure out whether to mock or embrace these new brews, beer drinkers across the country are rushing to sup greedily from the new diversity of British beer.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, while the big breweries still control in excess of 70% of the domestic beer market, the tail that wags the brewing industry dog is undeniably what we popularly term craft beer. The BA can likewise count this as a success, even as asterisks on their top 50 list threaten to derail those numbers by excluding the likes of Lagunitas and Ballast Point and top operations like Boston Beer grow fat on sales outside of the craft beer realm, like ciders (Angry Orchard) and boozy seltzers.

None of which is to say that the need for CAMRA and the BA is past; it is not. The big breweries are still massively larger than even the greatest of the small operations, and there is no doubt in my mind that, craft beer forays and brewery purchases aside, they would be delighted by a return to simpler times and easier sales of bland, mainstream beers. Vigilance is key, and in the absence of anyone different – a less strident CAMRA, for instance, or a consumer-focused organization in the States – it’s best to keep these two entrenched in their respective, albeit necessarily changing roles.

So, too, does the word ‘craft’ still have a role to play, since it still has meaning for massive swaths of beer consumers, who see it as a point of differentiation between boring mass-market brews and more flavourful and interesting niche beers. That meaning will continue its slow erosion over time, sped through its co-option by companies like Mahou San Miguel, and eventually we will move on to new definitions, just as we evolved from ‘microbrew’ to ‘craft beer’ around the turn of the century.


*This is an important distinction. Although many in the US and UK appear to see their beer markets as closed, craft beer by whatever name you choose to call it is an international phenomenon, which is getting bigger and more pervasive all the time. What seems important in the US and/or UK, therefore, may not matter a whit in Spain or Brazil. 

Two New Ontario Beers – Molson & Muskoka

So, it’s late on a Sunday afternoon and my work for the day is done. Time to dig in to a pair of new releases from my sampling fridge.

beer-spring-lgMuskoka Brewery Legendary Oddity – This 7.1% abv spring seasonal was shelved by the brewery a couple of years back, but makes a return this spring unfiltered, flavoured with “heather tips, juniper berries (and) sweet orange peel shavings” – shavings? – and packaged in a can rather than its former 750 ml bottle presentation. It is only slightly hazy and a rather lovely medium gold in colour, with an aroma redolent of its seasonings, sweet orange foremost among them with a slight piney, juniper spiciness and very soft florals – but mostly sweet orange. The start is likewise sweet and fruity, and although some juniper and a bit of hop arises in the mid-palate, the beer remains pretty much that way – sweet almost to the point of cloying. I expect a 7% alcohol beer to be on the sweet side and I expect a spiced beer to taste spicy, but this goes a bit overboard on both fronts, before blessedly adding some nice bittering hop character to dry out the finish.

In the Pocket Beer Guide 2015, I related my old notes on the Oddity, calling it “judiciously spiced” and “Belgian-esque.” I would say that its canned, 2016 interpretation veers towards injudicious spicing and, frankly, lets the ‘Belgian school’ side down a bit. It certainly warrants a trial can or three – those more accepting of sugar and spice will no doubt be thrilled – but it doesn’t quite measure up to the beer I recall from releases past.

John R. Molson & Bros. 1908 Historic Pale Ale – If you thought the name of the Oddity was a mouthful, welcome to Molson 20160225_C4081_PHOTO_EN_629472Coors’ latest attempt to crack the craft market and re-establish their historic brewing credentials. This is a beer that has received much attention since the sample bottles were sent out, with the Advocates apparently liking it, Jordan appreciating it for its historic integrity and Beppi choosing to write more about the Molson-provided backstory than about what it actually tastes like.

As for me, well, my notes go something like this. It is unfiltered, but significantly cloudier than the Oddity, with a hue that edges a bit more towards the copper than the medium gold. The nose is muddy and a bit musty, which may be a function of the supposed ‘heirloom hops’ used – which hops we aren’t allowed to know – with a very soft spiciness that suggests the “more familiar hop from the U.K.’ that was used for aroma hopping might have been a Fuggle. The start has a nuttiness to it, but also a spicy, slightly dirty caramel maltiness which leads to a nuttier, tannic and very faintly citrusy mid-palate that hides well its 6.8% alcohol strength and controls well the malty, caramelly sweetness that lurks in the background. The finish dries nicely and leaves a vague impression of mixed nuts mixed with a handful of toasted barley malt.

I think that in terms of the “Historic” part of this beer’s name, Molson has fared quite well. As I continue to sip from the 625 ml bottle, however, I find myself unable to shake the feeling that I am drinking someone’s homebrewed pale ale, a quite good one, mind you, but also a beer that lacks the sharpness and clarity I would expect of a professionally brewed and packaged pale ale.

If you do decide to buy these two beers, I will add one note of caution and that is to try them in the order I have set out above. Because one thing about the Oddity is that it does not fare well on the palate after hoppy beer. I learned that one the hard way the other day.

Tasted: Smuttynose Rocky Road

Beer-Hero-BB-410x410-RockyRoadThe label of this 7.3%, alcohol beer says that it’s a “stout brewed with cacao nibs and marshmallow cream and aged on oak chips,” which if you’re like me has you fearing a sugary and s’mores-ish monstrosity.

But don’t worry, because Smuttynose has this one dialed in, more or less. Pitch black in colour, it has a sweet and creamy chocolate aroma that calls to mind mocha espresso with heavy cream. The start is sweet with dark and dried fruit — prune and date, mostly — and chocolate, and also somewhat marshmallow-y, but in an oddly inviting way, appealing rather than off-putting in its confectionery demeanor.

The mid-palate grows much more coffee-ish and dark chocolaty, subduing the sweetness beneath layers of bitter chocolate and roasted malt, with some hints of spicy, citrusy hoppiness poking through. Those hops only truly show themselves in the finish, though, with a drying of the body and a lingering spicy chocolate bitterness. The marshmallow cream never quite goes away, but I think that’s a good thing, since in a way it is the tie that binds the whole beer together.

All in all, this is a dessert beer that stands on its own. I could easily pair it with a chocolaty dish, say a chocolate cream pie, but I’d also be more than happy sitting back and sipping it on its own after a meal.

Tasted: Anniversary No. 3 by Left Field Brewing

Left FieldThe history of Toronto’s Left Field Brewing has been, if you’ll allow me to indulge in a little baseball lingo, one of hits and foul balls. Which is to say that when Mark and Mandie Murphy have a hit, it is a screaming line drive to the left field wall, resulting in not quite an inside the park home run, but a solid stand-up double. I refer here to beers like the Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale and, to a lesser degree — let’s say a solid single — the Maris Pale Ale. When they miss, as with the Sunlight Saison, it’s not that far from being a solidly hit fair ball.

Their new anniversary beer, however, suitably titled Anniversary No. 3, is a straight up home rum. Not quite an upper deck shot, perhaps, and certainly not in the Jose Bautista bat flip league, but a definite third row, centre field, never any doubt about it shot.

The Nelsons Sauvin hops used in the dry hopping are immediately evident in the nose of this cloudy, light gold beer, rich with gooseberry aromas and lighter notes of lime zest. There is some gently sweet tropical fruitiness at the front of of the palate, as well, but that quickly blends into a balanced body featuring grassy green grape, subdued gooseberry, white pepper and dry rather than tart or bitter lemony notes.

The best part of this beer, though, and the most demonstrably and classically saison aspect of it, is the bone dry and mild to moderately bitter finish, with lingering lemon and white pepper. This is simply a lovely riff on the saison style, made without bullshit oak barreling or the employment of any number of herbs and flavourings, and a beer I’d like other brewers to try before they slap the word “saison” on their latest not-very-saison-like creation.


TASTED: Central City Sour Brown 1

ccitybrewDeep burgundy in colour, this 9.2% alcohol ale was aged for two years in a combination of cabernet barrels and French oak foeders. Production was, to say the least, limited.

The nose is tantalizingly woody, with notes of sour cherry, tart orange and clove, along with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. A good start for a beer of the Flemish brown style, but the degree of woodiness showing does allow some room for worry.

In the body, those worries are made real, with quite woody and cherry pit-ish flavours on the front, growing more tart and spicy mixed berry-ish in the middle, raspberry and blackberry predominant, alongside orange and lime zest and hints of tannic red wine. The flavour is good, the complexity is excellent, but while this stops short of making me want to check my gums for splinters, there is a disconcerting degree of fresh oak to this beer.

The finish is very dry, bitter-sweet-tart and has a lingering fruit pit note. The woodiness issue I suspect has to do with the first or perhaps second use of Central City’s foeders and will no doubt be lessened by the time of the next brew and the ones after that. This and perhaps a slight lowering of strength could make Sour Brown 2 or 3 an excellent ale.