The Perils of Points

Through all my years of reviewing and occasionally rating beers and whiskies and other spirits, I have steadfastly refused to involve myself in point-based ratings. Wildly popular with many of my drinks-writing peers – or perhaps endured as an unavoidable reality – I have long viewed them as problematic in the extreme.

I’ve explained why I feel this way several times, but every once in a while an example comes along that illustrates my misgivings so well it deserves reiteration. Late last week was one of those whiles.

It arrived in the form of a promotional email from a wine importer I follow. (Yes, The Beer Guy both buys and drinks and thoroughly enjoys wine, too. Get over it.) The email was hyping the arrival of several wines from the same producer, including the two following:

****** **** Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $45.95/btl


92 Points, Wine Advocate


****** Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Mendoza, Argentina

PRICE: $19.95/btl


92 Points, Wine Advocate

I’ve omitted the names because they’re beside the point, which is that these two wines, made from the same varietal and from the same region and the same producer, merit the exact same score. Yet Wine 1 is more than twice the price of Wine 2, which, absent of actual tasting notes – as many of these scores are presented on shelf-talkers – is enough to make one wonder why in heaven’s name anyone would pay $46 when they can get equal quality for $20.

(The same offering, by the way, also included a Cabernet-Malbec blend from the same producer for $109.95 with a Wine Advocate score of 98. That’s a six point difference over the $20 wine, or $15 per point.)

Now, granted any rating system is going to run into the same problems, but it is my view that: a) Words are always better than points; b) If you offer people a scoring shorthand, they will almost always use it; and c) If score you must, four or five stars provide a similar indication of quality with a broader margin for inclusion. For instance, Hugh Johnson’s rating system from his Pocket Wine Book:

*                      plain, everyday quality

**                    above average

***                  well known, highly reputed

****                grand, prestigious, expensive

Not necessarily the scale I would use personally, but certainly something more descriptive than an arbitrary 92 or 89, I think.

A Matter of Taste, or Rather, Tasting

For some odd reason, views of my long ago response the the sad fellow known in Seattle as “The Pour Fool” — no link provided because, frankly, he doesn’t deserve the hits — have been spiking of late. Rereading my missive and his response — “I don’t drink wine with food;” “I value food too much to simply use it – or wine – as ‘conversational lubricant;’” “those pre-game beers before Seahawks games – the only time I ever drink before 3 p.m.” — made me think a bit about beer and the nature of taste.

I’m off tonight to Belgium, where I will judge in the Brussels Beer Challenge, and thence to Rome, where I will sample as many Italian craft beers as possible during my short stay. (Thanks in large part to Manuele Colonna, co-owner of Bir&Fud, Ma Che Siete Venuit A Fa, and other Rome beer destinations, inlcuding the Domus Birrae beer shop.) I will do my level best to assess each brew impartially and to the very best of my ability, but even before I board the plane I know that what I will taste is not likely to be what you will.

Why? Because I will be tasting without context.

It is, after all, what we reviewers are supposed to do: detach ourselves from the moment and assess on a blank canvas of aroma and taste. But let’s face it, that’s not how beer or wine or spirits or cocktails are normally supped, and neither should it be. Unlike how Mr. Brody would have us drink, alcohol is meant to be a social pleasure, whether shared between keyboardists furthering a tweet-up tasting or enjoyed among friends at the pub or family at the dinner table. Taste can and should factor into the equation — otherwise, why not just drink water? — but the social side is of at least equal and perhaps greater importance.

That’s why I drink wine and beer and sometimes spirits with food (and friends) and value food too much NOT to use it or wine or beer as a ‘conversational lubricant’ and will certainly from time to time drink before 3:00 pm, occasionally well before, say, with lunch or at a morning beer judging in Brussels.

And as for the last, given that I will be with fellow judges who are also friends — including Lisa Morrison, Tim Webb and Lorenzo Dabove — I’m kind of hoping there will be at least a bit of a social aspect to that, as well.

Beer in Canada

I’ve been a bit busy running around, flying about and writing for money of late, so I’ve missed out on posting about some upcoming events and news items pertaining to beer in Canada. Here, then, is a quick round-up of interest to Canucks and those planning to visit my home and native land in the near future:

1) The big news of the summer is that Westvleteren is coming to town! Now, Westvleteren 12 might be the most over-hyped beer in history, but the monastery brewery is nonetheless exceptional at what they do, so this opportunity is nothing to sneeze at. Alberta-based Horizon Beers is the agency bringing it in, in the form of 6 bottle, 2 glass six-packs. The last I heard, allocations are going to Ontario and points west – sorry Maritimes & Quebec – and it should be arriving sometime in the very near future. Keep your eyes peeled!

2) For Torontonians, on the eve of Toronto’s Festival of Beer, comes word (via Canadian Beer News) that a new beer festival is headed your way. The Roundhouse Craft Beer Festival will take place August 11 and 12 in the area fronting Steam Whistle Brewing. Check here for details.

3) I won’t be around for the Roundhouse fest because I’ll be busy at the Halifax Seaport Beer Festival that weekend, hosting a beer dinner at Brussels Restaurant on Thursday and hanging at the fest Friday and Saturday. If you’re in or nearby to Nova Scotia, come on over and say hi!

4) The weekend following the Seaport fest, I’ll be in Ottawa for the National Capital Craft Beer Festival, speaking both Friday and Saturday. My buddy Jordan St. John will be there, too, so get yourself down to Marion Dewar Plaza on August 17 and 18 and harass him, will ya?

5) Finally, I’ve been sampling a bunch of Canadian beers of late, both established brands and new arrivals. Here are some thoughts in brief –

  • Waterloo Authentic Amber, from Brick Brewing, sold singly or as part of their sampler pack, shows caramelly malt and some vanilla notes from the oak chips used in its lagering. Not bad, but a bit too sweet and cloying for my tastes.
  • Brasseurs Sans Gluten’s Blonde Ale is a gluten-free winner, spicy and citrusy with a bone dry finish. A triumph for Celiac and gluten-sensitive beer drinkers.
  • Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company’s latest collaboration, Venskab, made with Anders Kissmeyer, is a fascinating creature, with bog myrtle, yuzu fruit and ice wine-soaked wood chips all figuring in its recipe. The result is a sweet-ish and somewhat winey tripel, reminiscent of a citrusy dry vermouth, with bitterness creeping around on the outskirts. We’ll be serving this at my beer dinner in Halifax.
  • Lastly, Moosehead sent me over some of their Cracked Canoe, a 3.5% alcohol light lager with a thin sweetness, not quite grainy, but far from caramel or toffee maltiness. All in all, a very light tasting lager with a sweetish edge to it.


Thoughts on the Mondial, 2012

It’s on now, the Mondial, that is. At Place Bonaventure in downtown Montréal. Here’s why you should be thinking about attending:

1) It’s true what they say that the Mondial is not a cheap place to drink, especially if you’re intent on sampling some of the more unusual beers. But there’s no admission and if you want to bring your own sampling glass, you’re free to do so. Plus…

2) The Mondial is an original. Can you name another beer festival, hell, another place in North America where you can try beer from four Argentinian breweries, a dozen Brazilian ones, nine Italian brewers and a couple from Switzerland? Neither can I!

3) Yes, the concrete hall at Bonaventure has not the charms of the Gare Windsor, where the Mondial took place until two years ago, but at least it handles the crowds better.

4) Schneider Mein Eisbock Barrique. Antares Barley Wine. Bodebrown Imperial Stout. Brasseurs Sans Gluten (seriously!). Benelux Cigogne. Hopfenstark Boson de Higgs. And so much more…

5) What? You’ve never had kangaroo with your beer?

6) And where else but in Montréal are there so many attractive post-fest alternatives? (Okay, several other places, granted, but in two languages?)

They judge at the Mondial, as well. Check out the winners of this year’s Concours MBière Greg Noonan here, and get more fest info over here. The tasting continues to Sunday.

What You’ve Been Waiting For: A Review of Coors Light Iced T

I received a six-pack of this new MolsonCoors product while I was away in Las Vegas and stored it away in the beer fridge with some trepidation. Coors Light, it will likely not surprise you to read, is hardly my favourite brand of lager, and my experience with flavoured big name beers has not been good. Still, the beer is cold and my office is a hotbox right now, so I figured the time was right to give it a try.

On the nose, this pale gold brew is immediately off-putting, with a slightly sickly, sweet lemon-lime aroma mixing with soft graininess. But let’s face it, the target audience for this brew is unlikely to spend a lot of time nosing it, so the aroma is hardly going to receive much attention.

On the palate, it tastes like…well, lemon-flavoured iced tea. I get lemon, I get some vaguely tea-ish tannins, especially on the finish, and while it doesn’t say that Coors Light Iced T is flavoured with lime, I find some lime notes on the finish. What I don’t get is any sense that this in any way, shape or form a beer.

Which may be the point, I suppose. As an experiment, I poured a second bottle over ice and found it to be a refreshing beverage that was even less a beer — although how you can get from not tasting like beer to tasting even less like beer is a mystery to me — which I imagine might appeal to the “I want to drink beer, not taste it” crowd. Me, I prefer the taste of a nice pilsner for quenching my thirst.



Looking Back Post #8: European Brewery of the Year

(This is the sixth and final post detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. You can find my pick of the Brewery of the Year for Ontario here, Brewery of the Year for Canada here, U.S. Brewery of the Year here,  Latin American Brewery of the Year here and Australasian Brewery of the Year here.)

I had some tough decisions to make before arriving at my choice of European Brewery of the Year for 2011. First was, should I separate out the U.K. for its own Brewery of the Year award, as I did Ontario from Canada and Canada and the U.S. from North America? In my head, I made a good argument for so doing, since my experiences in Britain last year left me quite impressed and very optimistic about the future of brewing there. But then I stared down the prospect of also separating out the Benelux, Scandinavia and Germany-Austria, just for starters, and the whole thing grew rather daunting. So Europe alone it remains.

Next up, I had to decide whether to make my focus experimentation and innovation, of the type at which the Italians and the Danes, in particular, excel, or stick to the kind of solid, ultra-reliable brewing seen across Germany and amongst the old school breweries of Belgium. And should I reward persistence within undeveloped beer nations, taking me back to Italy and parts of Scandinavia, even a bit in France, or reliability and character within developed nations?

Ultimately, I swept all those questions aside and asked myself this: “What European brewery has had the most focused, forceful and practical presence both within their home market and beyond?”

My answer, and my choice of European Brewery of the Year, is Brouwerij de Molen of the Netherlands.

Yes, their beers are multitudinous, often fleeting and frequently next to impossible to find, but my experience has been that there are enough of them that something is usually available at the better beer shops in the Netherlands, and sometimes elsewhere, and even if it’s not precisely what you’re looking for, it’s usually pretty damn good anyway. And besides, how many European breweries have the tenacity and sheer brewing prowess to list on their website the beers they produce by national inspiration, ie: “Belgian-Style,” German-Style,” etc.?

But as good as the above reasons are, they are not why de Molen is receiving this particular nod. No, the reasoning behind this pick is rather the way in which De Molen has brought forward Dutch brewing, encouraging other breweries to shed their conservative ways and embrace the diversity of beer, and then introducing that emerging face of Dutch beer to the world via tireless travels to beer fests all over Europe. For that leadership, De Molen, I salute you, and recognize you as my choice for European Brewery of the Year.

Looking Back Post #7: Australasian Brewery of the Year

(This is the fifth of several posts detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. You can find my pick of the Brewery of the Year for Ontario here, Brewery of the Year for Canada here, U.S. Brewery of the Year here and Latin American Brewery of the Year here.)

I’ll be the first to admit that my exposure to breweries in Asia, Australia and New Zealand is limited, and something I intend to remedy this and next year. But since I did make the acquaintance of a previously unheard of (to me) number of such operations in 2011, I thought I should in fairness include Australasia in my Brewery of the Year picks, even if the selection process is a little more unfair than it is for the rest of my year-end awards.

So my Brewery of the Year for Australasia is Renaissance Brewing.

Renaissance came to my attention early in 2010 and continued to impress through 2011. Their Stonecutter Scotch Ale has been a treat from the get-go, and their Elemental Porter is reminiscent of one of the finest porters I’ve ever tasted, that of London’s Meantime Brewing. In 2011, reports out of New Zealand and Australia indicate that the brewery has continued its winning ways with American-inspired ales and what I understand is a re-imagining of their Craftsman Oatmeal Chocolate Stout. They may not be as RateBeer and BeerAdvocate lauded as other New Zealand breweries, but they are richly deserving of much praise.

In a broader sense, I see this as an award for New Zealand craft brewing in general, about which I expect the world will be hearing much, much more in the very near future.

Looking Back Post #6: Latin American Brewery of the Year

(This is the fourth of several posts detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. You can find my pick of the Brewery of the Year for Ontario here, Brewery of the Year for Canada here and U.S. Brewery of the Year here.)

The year past was one in which I had the privilege of acquainting myself with many breweries from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, which makes deciding on this honouree all the more difficult. No doubt there are several worthy candidates brewing up great things in difficult market conditions, such as Cervejaria Colorado, Cervejaria Bamberg and Bodebrown Cervejaria & Escola in Brazil; Cerveza Jerome, Cerveza Zeppelin and Cerveza Artesanal Antares in Argentina; Cerveceria Kross, Szot Microbrewery and Tübinger Microbrews in Chile; Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company in, well, Costa Rica; and Cerveceria Minerva and Cerveceria Primus in Mexico. But as I looked back on my notes and impressions, one brewery stood out.

My choice for Latin American Brewery of the Year for 2011 is Falke Bier.

Brewer and owner Marco Falcone’s beers caught my attention the moment I first tasted his Estrada Real IPA, which I thought more akin to an ESB, but nonetheless enjoyed tremendously. Then I  had a chance to linger over lunch with Falcone and sample many of his other brews, including the Ouro Preto, a schwarzbier for which he toasts the grain himself in a coffee-style roaster, the stylish Falke Bier Pilsen and Falcone’s attempt at a tripel, the somewhat variable Monasterium, which is spicy-fruity treat that in my opinion falls short of the stylistic mark, but remains a most appealing tipple.

What sealed the deal, however, was sampling his Vivre pour Vivre in Buenos Aires a number of months later. Lightly tart and quenching, this fruit ale undergoes lengthy barrel aging, exposure to lactobacillus culture and a final fermentation with native jabuticaba fruit, resulting in a beer of appetizing and spicy fruitiness and great character. I have read that it was the original product of a mistake in the brewhouse, which I have yet to confirm with Falcone, but even it it was, it remains a marvelous correction, and ample reason to push Falke over the top as my Brewery of the Year pick for Latin America..

Looking Back Post #5: U.S. Brewery of the Year

(This is the third of several posts detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. The first post, highlighting my Brewery of the Year for Ontario, is available here, while the Brewery of the Year for Canada is introduced here.)

I sampled a lot of beers from a lot of American breweries this past year, much of it in preparation for the writing of my and Tim Webb’s forthcoming World Atlas of Beer, and as such have numerous contenders in mind for this crown. Sun King Brewing of Indianapolis impressed the hell out of me, for instance, as did St. Louis’ new Urban Chestnut Brewing and the ever popular Boulevard Brewing of Kansas City. Out west, Green Flash made a very strong impression, as did The Bruery and Utah’s Squatters, and in the middle, more or less, New Belgium continued to turn out strong seasonals and special editions. And that’s not even scratching the surface of my notable reviews of 2011.

In the end, though, one brewery did stand out as my pick for the U.S. Brewery of the Year for 2011: Stone Brewing.

I suspect some will consider this a suspect pick, since Stone’s apologetically in-your-face ways with hops and marketing can be a bit too much for some people, and understandably so. But if there is a brewery that more consistently releases hop-forward beers with balance, I don’t know of it, and besides, as illustrated by several of their releases in 2011, notably the Elysian-Stone-Bruery collaboration pumpkin beer, La Citrueille Celeste de Citracado, this is also a brewery that can quite comfortable handle subtlety.

Add in the consistently convivial atmosphere of their World Bistro and Gardens,  their remarkably frequent, and frequently remarkable, collaboration beers, and their aggressive attitude towards growth, and you have what I consider a worthy winner of the 2011 title.

Looking Back Post #4: Canadian Brewery of the Year

(This is the second of several posts detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. The first post, highlighting my Brewery of the Year for Ontario, is available here.)

When searching for a Canadian Brewery of the Year, most beer aficionados would no doubt be tempted to look first to the province of Québec, where reside some of the most talented and innovative brewers plying their craft anywhere in North America. And indeed, that is precisely what I did at first.

But then I switched my gaze westward and arrived at what might be considered an unexpected champion: Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing.

I’ve been a fan of this largely unheralded operation ever since the company opened its doors with Full Moon Pale Ale, a subtly fragrant and tasty beer, back in 1995. (In truth, Alley Kat opened with a lager and a wheat beer, but Full Moon arrived so shortly thereafter, and the first two beers were so quickly jettisoned, that I think some poetic license may be allowed here.) In 2011, however, Neil Herbst, who co-owns Alley Kat with his wife Lavonne, took the brewery up several notches to something approaching greatness.

Full Moon is still around, of course, as are the tasty if somewhat simple Aprikat and Amber, but where Herbst has really excelled in recent years is in his seasonal and one-off releases, like the tasty Three Bears Oatmeal Stout, the highly hopped and laudable Blue Dragon IPA and the wonderfully sessionable Fireside Mild, which I saw fit to highlight in Ben McFarland’s World’s Best Beers. And this is not even to mention what might be Canada’s best barley wine, the occasionally brewed Old Deuteronomy.

Big or small beers, Herbst approaches each with skill and enthusiasm, as is most evident from the brews which result. And that’s why this little brewery from Edmonton is my pick as Canadian Brewery of the Year.

Looking Back Post #3: Ontario Brewery of the Year

(This is the first of several posts detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions, beginning with my home province of Ontario. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post.)

My home province of Ontario made great strides forward in 2011, with breweries embracing both new styles and a new found willingness to experiment. Some of those experiments were more successful than others, of course, but even the failures marked a change of approach for what has traditionally been a most conservative craft brewing culture.

To my mind, there was one brewery that stood out as embracing innovation, the tried and true and so-called entry level beers with equal enthusiasm, and corresponding success. It was the Muskoka Brewery of Bracebridge, Ontario.

Not since the brewery’s founding days has Muskoka so astutely read the lay of the beer land of Ontario and reacted accordingly, with flagship beers like their Cream Ale for neophytes, a dry-hopped beauty in the form of their new Mad Tom IPA for the hopheads amongst us — even more enticingly fragrant on tap than in the bottle — and a developing seasonal program of releases, including the highly impressive autumnal Harvest Ale, for people like me with short attention spans.

Add in a finely thought-out rebranding across the company — no, marketing is NOT a dirty word! — and some aesthetically pleasing packaging decisions, and you have a definite winner. Well done, Muskoka, and here’s looking forward to seeing how you top 2011 in 2012!

Have You Heard About Terrapin?

That’s Terrapin Brewing of Athens, Georgia. They’re been in the news of late because the craft division of MillerCoors, a company called Tenth and Blake, have converted part of a loan they made to the brewery’s founders into a stake in the company, estimated to be something under 25% of the entity as a whole.

Whatever your thoughts on this might be, it’s likely neither as bleak nor as dire as you expect it to be. And neither will it be the last time you’re going to hear about something like this.

As I noted when Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Goose Island earlier this year, these types of deals are an inevitability in an industry where the only domestic growth is being shown by the breweries populating the 5% market share that is craft brewing. Big breweries like ABIB and SABMiller have, for the most part, essentially conceded that their brands can at best hold their own in a dwindling market and are content to buoy revenues through price hikes, like the 3% to 5% boost ABIB is currently effecting in the States.

How they can grow their presence in the market, then, becomes a question of either creating their own brands that play in the craft sphere, such as SABM’s Blue Moon and ABIB’s Shock top, or buying up their smaller competitors. Terrapin may not eventually fall to full MillerCoors control, or in a few years we might be more money pumped into the mix and a controlling share obtained. But whatever does happen, you can bet it won’t be Terrapin alone making those decisions.

The good news is that for every brewery that may fall to the goliaths, there are likely a few dozen about to open.