Is it Last Call for Muskoka’s Legendary Oddity?

On Friday night, I opened a special “vintage” edition bottling of the Muskoka Brewery’s Legendary Muskoka Oddity beer. I wasn’t expecting much from the one year old ale, frankly, because to my experience spiced beers generally don’t age that well. Some conditioning is usually required to keep the ‘pop’ of the herbs and spices in check, true enough, but over the course of a full year, I’ve found that the tendency is for the flavourings to become overly muted and, well, just dull.

Legendary Muskoka OddityNot so the Oddity, for some reason. The juniper and orange peel notes were present and identifiable, and the floral aspect of the heather tips was still in harmony with the rest of the flavour and aroma notes. An experiment that might have been ill-advised – or so I thought – turned out to be a wholly remarkable success.

Pity, then, it may never be allowed to happen again.

On the phone this morning with Gary McMullen, co-founder and head of the brewery, I learned that the future of the Oddity is very much in doubt. There are no plans to make any this year and, he suggested, scant interest in doing it again next year. Seems there is a problem fitting it into the production schedule, and although McMullen didn’t say this, presumably also an issue with finding a place to sell it, since the LCBO tends to allocate only a specific number of product places to individual breweries. With the brewery’s new Detour and early arriving Summer Weiss, the squeeze is on the Oddity.

Which I think is simply a damn shame. Ontario breweries don’t do Belgian-inspired beers much, and when they do they seldom if ever do them this well. When it first appeared three years ago, I declared the Oddity to be the best Belgian-influenced ale yet brewed in this province, and I stand by that evaluation. Last year’s wasn’t quite a good out the gate, but as evidenced on Friday has aged quite well. (Curiously, a year-old version of that first edition did not mature as gracefully.) Down the road, this beer has the potential to becomes as legendary as it claims to be now.

Let us hope that the planning meetings McMullen noted are upcoming over the next few months will result in a stay of execution for this strong and compelling brew. For as much as Ontario now boasts a plethora of hoppy pale ales and IPAs and double IPAs, I do sometimes bemoan our relative lack of complex and non-bitter beers, like the Legendary Muskoka Oddity.

A Bit of a Beer Tasting

I hosted a small beer tasting with some drinks writing colleagues last night. These were the stand-outs:

Allagash Coolship Resurgam: A product of the brewery’s spontaneous fermentation program, this beer, bottled in June of last year, shows a maturity of character that was lacking from the early Coolship brews. The body was a bit too oaky – which we chalked up to the youth of the barrels, at least relative to the decades-old ones used in lambic breweries like Cantillon – but the aroma was superb, with notable fruitiness lingering beneath the top layer of horseblanket and a fascinating herbal depth that recalled sage and lavender. Simply, a wonderful beer.

New Glarus Berliner Weiss and 20th Anniversary Strong Ale: Two remarkable brews from my U.S. Brewery of the year for 2012. Although the Berliner was curiously restrained on the nose, the body delighted with a mix of tangy, lemony sharpness and soft, soothing papaya, with a bit of sour milk thrown in for good measure. Not as aggressive as some in the style, and I think all the better for it.

The 20th Anniversary Strong Ale was simply excellent, not style identified by the brewery, but to my mind sort of a midpoint between abbey-style dubbel and sticke altbier. Sweet and raisiny at the front, it opened up in the body while remaining paradoxically restrained and dried fruity, with a backdrop of earthiness and burnt walnut. This, we agreed, is something we could drink in abundance over time.

Deschutes Black Butte XXV: Having waxed rhapsodic over last year’s anniversary Black Butte, both on tap and in the bottle, I fully expected this to delight and it did not disappoint. In fact, although 0.3% alcohol stronger, it was very much reminiscent of last year’s, albeit a bit more berry fruit-ish and currant-y. In particular, I liked the added resiny, rosemary-like herbals in the background of the body, which I did not note last year, and the cherry/currant influence on the boozy, warming finish. It was the final beer of the night, and an excellent note on which to end.

Tasted!: Molson Canadian Wheat

Molson has jumped into the wheat beer racket! Okay everyone, simmer down, I know that you’re all excited by this momentous development, but we need to evaluate this beer first. So let’s get started.

It must be said that this looks like a wheat beer, although more the Belgian variety – its light colour evokes the unmalted wheat typically used in that style – as opposed to the generally more robust Bavarian version. On the nose, however, something is lacking. Okay, everything is lacking. There is no banana-clove of a Bavarian weissbier and neither is there the fruitiness of peppery spiciness of an orange peel- and coriander-flavoured Belgian bière blanche.

So, what’s left?

Honestly, not much. Most of the aroma notes I get are reminiscent of fresh grain or maybe a breakfast cereal. It’s lightly sweet, vaguely perfumey and, well, just grainy. The flavour isn’t much different, either. There are some light lemony notes from the wheat, but mostly it’s just an off-dry, Wheaties-crossed-with-Saltine-crackers sort of taste, with a drying in the second half to an off-dry, slightly cloying finish. For some reason, Molson apparently elected to ferment this with a lager yeast rather than take the more traditional ale yeast approach, which I suppose contributes to this beer’s generally lean and straight-forward flavour profile.

Conclusion? If you’re expecting a typical wheat beer of almost any sort, Belgian or German or even basic North American wheat ale, expect to be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for an innocuous summer quaffer meant to be consumed ice-cold and in a fairly expeditious manner, this might be just what you’re after.

Live-to-Blog Review: Great Lakes My Bitter Wife IPA

I’ve been overly negligent in my blogging lately, and am running behind in my beer reviews, so I thought I’d review this beer straight to the blog, just for something a bit different.

Billed as a no doubt tongue-in-cheek “tribute” to Carrie Nation, the mad woman of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, this limited edition beer from Ontario’s Great Lakes Brewing is a big IPA,  with 7% alcohol by volume and, judging by my first sniff, a boatload of hops.

Amber-hued and just on the hazy side, the nose straight out of the fridge is ruby red grapefruit and a hint of pineapple, growing a shade oniony and more piney mango as it warms. It certainly hits the palate with a nice hoppy glow, and then grows steadily hoppier from there, segueing from peach and pineapple to grapefruit juice and lemon zest, with slight malty underpinnings of canned peaches and apricots. The finish is where the hops really assert themselves, however, with a strong and rather intense citrusy bite.

This is one of those IPAs that is not for the faint-of-heart. I enjoy it right through to the swallow, but am somewhat put off by the concentration of bitterness on the finish, and if I feel that way then I’m guessing all but the committed hophead might be at least a bit overwhelmed by its hoppy aggression.

Belgh Brasse Roars Back

If you lived in or visited Québec a little over a decade ago, you may remember Belgh Brasse. Based in Amos, near the Ontario border in the Québec northwest, the brewery opened with significant fanfare, much of it playing upon the purity of brewing water available from the Abitibi esker, and a purportedly Belgian-influenced ale called 8.

8 was, ultimately, a dud. I tasted it a couple of times and was left unimpressed, while others complained of the beer’s inconsistency. It died. A resuscitation of the brewery followed, with an even less inspiring pale lager called Taïga. It also died.

Now Belgh Brasse is back for a third kick at the can, and in this case it appears that the third time is indeed the charm. I have sampled two beers from the new Mons line of “Belgian-Inspired” beers, the Abbey Witte and the Abbey Blonde, and was impressed by both.

Sandy gold in colour with a slight haze, the Mons Abbey Witte has a sweetish, perfumey and lightly peppery lemon aroma, accented by candied orange peel and perhaps a hint of cinnamon, and a rounded and citrusy, light-bodied middle and a drying and faintly spicy-peppery finish. Belgian-inspired, for certain, it has a decided lemony note to it that makes me think just a bit about Berliner weisse, as well. It might lean a bit too hard on the sweet and fruity side of things, but is still nicely refreshing and quaffable. Mons Abbey Blonde is certainly a fruity ale, with dried apricot and canned peaches in the nose and a malty, dry caramel and lightly spicy body with some tropical and peachy fruitiness. I sampled it at cellar temperature first and refrigerator temp second and found it more expressive and robust when colder, although not so cold as to suppress the fruit and spice.

I’m told now that the brewery has a dubbel out and a stout on the way, and is for sale in the U.S. as well as in Québec. Based on these first two tastings, I’d say that this time Belgh Brasse might be sticking around for some time to come.


Tasted!: (The Surprising) Abita Lemon Wheat

As a serious beer person, what would you expect of a beer called Lemon Wheat? And what if, like me, you have been universally disappointed with every beer I have yet tasted with the word ‘lemon’ in its name? (I’m looking at you, Lemon Lagers…!) And don’t get me started on the “marriage of lemon and wheat,” which has beget that curious practice of serving wheats with a lemon wedge! That stuff belongs to beers with no taste, not ones that already have a refreshing and lemony crispness, not to mention a bunch of other spicy and fruity flavours.

And so, Abita Lemon Wheat. I open the bottle with trepidation. I expect little. I anticipate sweet and sickly lemon-ness.

More fool me!

What Louisiana’s Abita has done here is take pilsner malt and wheat mash, hop it with Centennial hops, ferment it with a bière de garde yeast, and finish the whole thing with lemon peel. The net effect being that this little 4.4% alcohol brew is a crisp, flavourful, utterly refreshing delight!

Light and hazy gold in the glass, it starts with an aroma that somehow manages to hit the nose sweet, but almost immediately turn more dry and perfumey, reminding me in the end of what I think limoncello should smell like, as opposed to what it usually does smell like.

On the palate, a just off-dry maltiness hits first, followed by lemon zest and a bit of lemon juice, then back to a biscuity maltiness alongside a rising spicy-citrus hop, and finally a dryish, mild to moderately bitter finish. Lemony, yes, but first and, I think, foremost a flavourful, well-structured quaffer.

Congratulations, Abita, on not only a great summer beer, but also proving that, like a book, it’s best not to judge a beer by its cover!

Tasted!: New Belgium/Dieu du Ciel Heavenly Feijoa Tripel

When the brilliance of these two Belgian-inspired breweries collides, you might well expect the results to be astounding. I certainly did.

And then I tasted the beers, and I felt…let down.

There is more on that to come, but first let’s get some of the details out of the way. New Belgium is a leading Colorado brewery, now famously building an eastern US facility in North Carolina. (Where there was recently a suspicious fire, I’m told. Thankfully, no one was hurt and an investigation is proceeding.) Dieu du Ciel is likely the best known Quebec brewery after Unibroue, an honour very well deserved.

The beer is, obviously, in the tripel style, with 9% alcohol by volume. It is flavoured with hibiscus flowers – a favourite Dieu du Ciel ingredient, as per their Roseé d’Hibiscus – and feijoa, a fruit sometimes known as a pineapple guava, native to South America but perhaps most commercially cultivated in New Zealand. Where they found sufficient quantities to brew with in Colorado I do not know.

Now, back to the beer. My first few tastes left me wanting, as I noted above, but that was just the first few. I got the hibiscus, on the nose and in the body, and certainly noted something fruity and somewhat guava-esque, an assessment I made before I looked up “feijoa.” But other than being rather tangy and slightly acidic, there wasn’t a lot else to pull me in. I was, frankly, disappointed.

And then I kept sipping.

The more I tasted this beer, the more I found myself drawn to it – and not because of the effect of the alcohol! It warmed a bit and more distinctly floral notes began to emerge, not just hibiscus, but tropical flowers and key lime. I began to taste past the tang and fruit in the body and found an almost minty herbal quality, plus overripe peach and some spicy hop, particularly in the second half. There arose an almost tobacco-y dried leaf note on the finish.

In the end, I still wasn’t entranced by this beer, but it emerged as something much better than my first three or five sips would have led me to believe. A reminder, I’d suggest, that the old and purportedly Czech axiom, “A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure,” is actually advice well heeded.

Tasted!: Alexander Keith’s Hop Series

Earlier today, I put up a post about bricks-and-mortar breweries, beer commissioners and so-called “gypsy” brewers, and why what matters most, to my mind, at least, is what ends up in the glass. Which seems to me to be a good set-up for a chat about a couple of new beers from the largest brewing company in the world.

The brewing company in question is, of course, Anheuser-Busch InBev, or more specifically their Canadian subsidiary Labatt, and its Maritime sub-label, Alexander Keith’s.

Now, many of you might know Keith’s by its namesake “India pale ale,” printed in quotations because it is quite unlike any other IPA I have ever encountered and has far more in common with a mainstream lager than it does, say, Meantime India Pale Ale. And thanks to that knowledge, you’re probably going to be quite sceptical when I tell you of two new Keith’s brews, both part of the Alexander Keith’s Hop Series: Hallertauer Hop Ale and Cascade Hop Ale.

As the names imply, each is a single hop beer, and were in fact delivered to me with two little jars of hop flowers, one filled with Cascade hops and the other with Hallertauer, ‘natch.

(I’m assuming the Hallertauer is Hallertauer Mittelfruh, and it smells as such, but Labatt isn’t saying.)

Tasting them simultaneously, I found little difference in their appearance, but rather more in their aromas. The Hallertauer, as befits the hop’s characteristics, is herbaceous and a little sweet, with notes of fresh grass, alfalfa and just a bit of rosemary. The Cascade, on the other hand, is predictably citrusy and quite nicely balanced with a bit of caramelly maltiness.

On the palate, the Hallertauer offers no hop flavours jumping out, but rather a mix of dryish maltiness and some dryly herbal notes, ending lightly bitter and very dry, but with an odd sticky sensation lingering on the tongue. The Cascade, I found, works much better, with the citrusy hop shooting forward from the outset and just outshining the orange, peach and caramel malt. On the finish, there is a moderate bitterness and lingering dryness, which makes it much more refreshing and appetizing, and ultimately more successful ale.

So both beers are quite competently brewed, as you’d expect, with the Hallertauer recommended for more timid palates and the Cascade for those just entering pale ale and IPA territory. In other words, I’d say this is not a bad effort at all. But is their creation and marketing a wise move for Labatt?

I wonder. If they’re trying to prove their mettle to craft beer aficionados, such timid attempts are unlikely to sway many people. If they’re offering hoppier alternatives to Alexander Keith’s fans, I’d say they run the risk of turning them on to pale ales and IPAs brewed by smaller, competing brewers. And if they’re simply throwing something out to counter the Molson Six Pints division, I’d say it looks like they’re trying to use a beagle to corral a stallion in full gallop.


Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey

Michter’s is a name steeped in whiskey lore. Go ahead and google it, or better yet, pick up and old whiskey book and check the index. You should find that it was once a Pennsylvania distillery, dating from the days when Monongahela whiskey meant something. The company hit hard times on more than one occasion, however, and finally went bankrupt in 1989.

Michter’s was resurrected in the 1990s and bottlings of the old whiskeys were popular rarities for the balance of the century, after which brokered whiskeys began being blended into signature products. Which brings us to the bottle in question, released late last year.

Monongahela whiskeys were generally rye whiskeys, but Kentucky, where the company is now based, is known more for bourbon, which brings rise to the question of what precisely this 86 proof spirit really is. And it’s a question for which I have no answer, unfortunately, since the company is being rather tight-lipped about the whiskey’s constituent parts. But perhaps that’s for the best, since it allows an unbiased approach to the glass.

On the nose, I certainly get more bourbony notes than rye, with plenty of vanilla and caramel and a fair hit of chocolate, besides, along with orange and perhaps canned peach notes. On the palate, it begins soft and filled with vanilla, almost like a candied essence, before blooming into a mix of stewed fruit and caramel and – now, there’s the rye! – peppery spice. The finish is just off-dry and tongue-tingling with a mix of brown spice and pepper.

The company suggests this as “an alternative to bourbon or rye,” and I’d have to agree with that sentiment, since it displays characteristics of both spirit families. I’m happy enough sipping it straight, but am anxious to soon try it in a Manhattan, as well, although I suspect with a pretty robust vermouth.


On Beer and Baseball

While Torontonians revel in being finally allowed to buy a single, solitary brand of craft beer from a single, solitary stand as they attend the Blue Jays home opener tonight, my mind is on the approaching Friday and the official launch of a brewery that for its name alone deserves to have its brands sold at the ballyard.

I was first told about the Left Field Brewery a while back, and honestly I don’t know much more today than I did then, most of which I’ve culled from their website. But they were kind enough to both drop off a bottle of their beer, presumably in the hopes that I might write about it, and invite me to their brewery launch party this Friday at a bar called 3030 on Dundas Street West in Toronto.

There is an obvious baseball theme to the brewery and it’s reflected in the name of the beer they handed me: Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale. (I’m a lifelong baseball fan, but I confess I didn’t know what an eephus was until I read on the label that it’s “a risky and unexpected high-arcing pitch that catches the batter off-guard.) In fact, it’s reflected in all the beer names thus far – 6-4-3 Double IPA and Maris* American Pale Ale – but since I only have the Eephus, that’s what I’ll address.

Deep brown with burgundy tones, the lightly sweet aroma of this ale has some cherry and roasty chocolate notes – vague memories of Cherry Blossom, anyone? The flavour stays sweetish and creamy up front before moving into a drier, fruity-roasty body with dried cherry, raisin and soft vanilla notes, finishing quite dry and mild to moderately bitter, but never quite losing its creaminess.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the flavour progression of this beer and look forward to retasting it and trying the others on Friday. In the meantime, Go! Jays! Go!


In Which I Sample Bud Light Platinum

(Scene: Beer Writer enters liquor store intent on purchasing wine. Pleasant young lady stands near the entrance offering small sample cups of Bud Light Platinum.)

Pleasant Young Lady: Would you like a sample of Bud Light Platinum?

Beer Writer: Why, yes. Yes, I would.

PYL: Here you go.

BW: (Holds transparent cup up to the light and eyes the almost water-pale liquid suspiciously. Sips once.)

PYL: So, what do you think?

BW: Well… (Sips beer again, noting faint grainy, vaguely grassy flavours in an otherwise astonishingly bland beer.)

PYL: Do you like it?

BW: No, I actually don’t at all.

PYL: That’s fine, everybody has their own taste.

BW: Yes, they do. Thank you.

(Beer Writer, sporting an amused grin, walks towards the French wine section and picks up a bottle of Chablis. Fade to black.)

People Bring Me Beer, I Drink It

Or, at least, that is sometimes the way it works. On other occasions, I run around the world trying to find the best of the best, and occasionally breweries are good enough to ship me samples of something I’ve specifically requested from them, usually beers I can’t manage to get otherwise.

And then there are those beers that just randomly wind up on my doorstep. These are a few of them.

There’s been a bit of a buzz around Toronto today about the St. Ambroise Érable, presumably because the same sales rep who put a pair of bottles of the stuff into my hands did likewise for others, like Jordan and Chris. So I might as well chime in, and before I read what either has said about it, I might add.

Unlike other maple beers I’ve tried, there’s no doubting the maple-ness of this brew, even cold out of the fridge and from a foot away, it smells like maple candy crossed with the caramel fudge I used to make in my mom’s double-boiler when I was a kid. It hits the palate sweet and more caramelly than mapley, but turns progressively maple-accented as it warms in the mouth, eventually becoming almost spicy with a drying hop that lasts through the bittersweet and ever-so-slightly cloying finish.

McAuslan has been known to play with post-fermentation flavourings – their Apricot Wheat is, or at least was the last time I checked, flavoured with apricot after it’s pretty much otherwise finished – and I suspect that is the case here, as well. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. I have no problem imagining enjoying this with ham or a bowl of vanilla ice cream, maybe even glazing the former and topping the latter with it, too.

(The bigger McAuslan development, in my opinion, is that they are now canning their workhorse St. Ambroise Pale Ale. This is good news, indeed.)

I also had dropped off a bottle of Great Lakes Brewing’s 25th Anniversary Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, and I’m quite happy for it. The best of the Ontario brewery’s quartet of anniversary releases, this is an engaging, if slightly simple, sipper that offers barrel notes in just the right balance with the prune, licorice and chocolate brownie flavours of the stout. It finishes a bit on the boozy side, but you should expect that of an 11% beer, and besides, the rest of it drinks far closer to single digit strength.

Oregon’s Deschutes Brewing sometimes sends me beer, bless their hearts, and one recent arrival was Hop Henge IPA. The polar opposite of the Red Chair NWPA I sampled from this brewery late last year, this 10.6% alcohol hop monster has a huge, herbal and resinous aroma – what those weed-smoking west coasters would call “dank” – and a big, hoppy, piney, grapefruit peel-ish flavour that marches over the palate, surprisingly without ripping it to shreds. That it feels more hoppy than bitter in the mouth you can attribute to a whole lot of fruity malt, but still, the hops rule every aspect of this beer.

I also have a bottle of Ontario beer importer Roland & Russell’s first foray into brewing, Stormy Monday, an 11% barley wine aged in calvados barrels and bottled under the imprint of the Bush Pilot Brewing Company. Brewed separately in two different breweries and then blended and barrel-aged, this ale has the aroma of a beery potpourri, with a huge perfume of clove and dried apple, some spicy florals and something curiously resembling Indian curry. (A check of the label reveals that to be cardamom, along with, I suspect, the figs and raisins. There are 25 ingredients in this beer, including seven malts, five hops, dried quince and juniper, for heaven’s sake!)

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t quite hold up to the complexity of the aroma. (Or maybe that should be “fortunately,” since that curry thing probably wouldn’t work too well in a barley wine.) First on the palate is a fairly simple caramel-fruity chocolate combination, and then the spices and mocha notes kick in – coffee and cocoa are two more ingredients – along with a decent hit of calvados and some spicy hoppiness. It doesn’t quite all come together for me, but it’s definitely going in the right direction.

The finish is my favourite part of this beer, not because it’s over but because it finally finds a cohesive flavour profile – brandy, raw cocoa, some sort of exotic, apple-accented coffee and lingering clove and alcohol.

Brewed in collaboration with Danish brewer Anders Kissmeyer, this is a beer to be faulted only for reaching too high, dreaming too big, and possibly having the contents of somebody’s spice cabinet accidentally tip into the brew kettle. Over time, I expect the spices will calm down a bit and create a more balanced whole, but that’s something for a future post.