Ontario Brewery of the Year – Bellwoods Brewery

(With the co-Beer Places of 2012 out of the way – see yesterday’s post – I turn my attention now to the various breweries of 2012, beginning locally with my home province of Ontario. I’ll take the weekend off, returning on Monday with the Brewery of the Year for Canada, followed by my picks for the U.S., Latin America, Australasia and Europe.)

The last few years have seen craft brewing in Ontario improve by leaps and bounds, with new breweries, new beers and a refreshingly new attitude that eschews much of the conservatism that dominated the provincial beer scene during the 1990’s and for most of the new century thus far. This has (thankfully) made choosing a provincial brewery of the year an exercise of increasingly difficulty.

Looking back over 2012, however, I came to the realization that no brewery had made as significant an impact as did Toronto’s own Bellwoods Brewery.

From almost the first day this Ossington strip brewery and pub opened its doors, it attracted vast amounts of well-deserved attention. The local beer cognoscenti was abuzz; visiting brewers and owners from none other than the acclaimed Dieu du Ciel! sang its praises; and the line-up of would-be collaborators grew quickly. Here was a brewery the likes of which Toronto had not before seen.

Thanks to my rigorous travel schedule this year past, it took me a while to get myself to Bellwoods, but when I finally did, I was immediately impressed. Arriving sans notebook for a friend’s going away drinks, I sampled my way across the entire draught list, finding several very bright spots and, more importantly, encountering zero duds. A return visit was quickly planned.

On that return, some of the taps had changed – Bellwoods being nothing if not an operation keen on experimentation and innovation – but the Lost River Baltic Porter still inspired with its licoricey, boozy beauty, and the new to me Mash Pipe smoked Berliner weiss was a tart, refreshing and wonderfully balanced gem.

Since that second visit, a third and a fourth have been scheduled and executed, but I still don’t feel I make it to Bellwoods nearly enough – unquestionably a sign of a very good brewery. In fact, I have yet to visit its on-again, off-again bottle shop, although home to do so in the near future.

For all the above, and much more besides, Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery is my Ontario Brewery of 2012!

Monday: 2012′s Canadian Brewery of the Year!

Best Beer Place of 2012: A Tie!

I travelled a lot last year, covering around 70,000 miles by air and plenty more on the ground. Along the way, I visited a lot of beer places and enjoyed a lot of good times with good people.

Such plenitude makes choosing a favourite, or even five favourites, a difficult task, but in the end I arrived at two beery destinations that stood out for me. They are, in some ways, very similar enterprises, and in others quite different. But they share in their hearts a commitment to great food and excellent beer.

They are: The Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, United States, and Bir & Fud in Rome, Italy.

The Moth was the first I visited in 2012, so it shall be the first discussed here. Offspring of the beer bar chain, Flying Saucer, itself with 15 (about to be 16) locations mostly in the southern U.S., the Moth is a creature of a decidedly different sort, with a more formal but still casual aesthetic, a fine list of beer offerings on tap and in the bottle, and a creative menu that veers from basic sandwiches in the afternoon to steak frites and other brasserie favourites at night, each listed with a recommended beer pairing.

Other places do the same, of course, and some execute it with equal or even greater success. But the Moth does it in Dallas, not exactly a long-standing craft beer Mecca, and does it with grace, style – quirky though it may be – and taste. In three meals enjoyed thus far, I’ve yet to sample anything I would consider even mediocre, much less sub-par, and the beer list is always as carefully selected and stylistically diverse as its Texas location allows it to be. Kudos to Moth navigator Keith Schlabs, Chef David McMillan and the whole Dallas crew on a job very well done.

Bir & Food, although showing equal dedication to the victual side of its menu, is the pizzeria yin to the Moth’s Belgian-esque, gastropubby yang. Smaller in size but no less selective in its offerings, it sits on a back lane way in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, almost directly across the street from another great Italian beer destination, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, informally known as the “football pub.” It’s sometimes cheek-to-jowl crowded and jostlingly busy, but inviting even on a cool late autumn Roma night.

With fewer taps and a lot less space, management at Bir & Fud has to be circumspect in what they carry, but that doesn’t mean quality need be at all compromised. The eighteen taps pour all Italian craft beer and the international bottle list is judiciously chosen, all waiting to accompany quite excellent pizzas and other dishes. Judging by the crowds on what I was told would be a “slow day,” the people of Rome appreciate the effort.

So, for 2012, I salute two beer places that highlight the joys of great beer and fine cuisine: The Meddlesome Moth and Bir & Fud!

Tomorrow: 2012’s Ontario Brewery of the Year!

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!

Looking Back Post #2: My Favourite Beer Place of 2011

I did a fair bit of travelling in 2011, some 50,000+ air miles according to my mileage club statements, and I visited a good number of bars, brewpubs, breweries, distilleries, festivals and other sundry drinks destinations. But as I reflect on the year past, one spot stands out as the single most extraordinary beer locale of my 2011.

It is the Buena Birra Social Club in Buenos Aires.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a good many speakeasy-style cocktail bars over the past few years, but Buena Birra is the only speakeasy-style brewpub I’ve been to, or even heard of. The method of getting there is simple compared to the false walls and unusual entrances that mark such cocktail bars: You go on the website and make a booking, at which time they’ll tell you where it is. Then, if you’re like me and the Brazilians with whom I made a visit in May, you pile in a cab and wind up on what looks to be a residential street in front of a nondescript and very locked gate.

Fortunately, as we stared at each other blankly, someone from within the house spied us and came out to let us in, where we found a house that has been converted to a main floor bar and what I assume to be an upper loft living area. And in the garden shed out back? You guessed it! A mini brewing system.

The beer was good, sometimes quite good, but it was the whole experience that ranks the Buena Birra Social Club so highly in my mind. Great place, great people, wonderful concept, and a definite destination for anyone in or near Buenos Aires, Argentina!


Looking Back Post #1

I’m not sure why I seem to be numbering all my posts of late, or how many posts this “series” might eventually include, but it’s the time of the year when so many people look back on the year just past and I just figured I might as we join the fun.

Sadly, though, this post is anything but fun to write. Because the first thing I think of when I reflect on 2011 is that it was the year when the world of American beer and hospitality lost three very special and influential men, each of them bar owners and publicans extraordinaire.

I didn’t know David Farnworth well, but on the occasions when I did have a chance to sit and chat with the Lucky Baldwins owner, I couldn’t help but be impressed with his commitment to and enthusiasm for quality beer. Even though his bar was styled as a “British Pub & Cafe,” David was nothing if not a great aficionado of Belgian beer, and his passion was infectious, leading  Lucky Baldwins to eventually expand to three locations, including the newest in East Pasadena for which the “British” in its name was swapped out and replaced by “Trappiste.” The greater L.A. beer scene will miss his presence greatly.

David Farnworth: 1952 – 2011

Anyone even remotely familiar with the craft beer juggernaut that is Portland, Oregon, will know well the name of Don Younger. The region abounded with tales of the reluctant publican’s life and exploits, not the least of which was the story of his getting drunk and waking the next morning to find that he had bought the pub which would become an icon of the Pacific northwest beer scene, the Horse Brass. My relationship with Don was one forged of mutual respect, he for my craft and I for his, and so it was that although we conversed only rarely, I vividly recall almost every word we spoke. The passing of Don in January was more than the death of a much-loved fixture in the American beer scene, it was the loss of a true craft ber pioneer and icon.

Don Younger: 1941 – 2011

The most untimely passing of Ray Deter was, for me personally, the hardest of these tragic deaths to take. For Ray was not only, with his business partner Dennis Zentek, the owner of one of the truly pioneering beer bars in the cut-throat market of Manhattan, he was also a good friend. I still can’t recall whether or not we met on the first occasion I visited d.b.a. not long after it opened in 1994, but I certainly spent ample time with the man thereafter, at his bar, of course, but also in Denver at the Great American Beer Festival, in Belgium for some cafe crawl or beer fest, or at some other unexpected spot on the planet where a good ale or lager might be had. Unfailingly animated and always good company, even when he was feeling cranky, Ray left the mark of his presence everywhere he went. I can scarcely believe that the next time I walk into the shadowy confines of d.b.a., he won’t be there to share a pint or two.

Raymond Deter: 1957 – 2011



Accolades for BC’s Central City

You know that Central City Brewing of Surrey, British Columbia, won three category gold medals, Beer of the Year honours and was named Canadian Brewery of the Year at the 2010 Canadian Brewing Awards. But did you know their praises were also being sung in reaches far from the lower mainland of BC?

Neither did I, until I had cause of late to peruse the website of the Chicago-area beer, wine and spirits merchant, Binny’s Beverage Depot.

On their splash page, Binny’s presents a number of rotating announcements, including the naming of their Top Ten Beers for 2010. “Might as well check it out,” I think, and so I wait for it to scroll around again and click in the appropriate space.

And there, in the numero uno position, is none other than Central City’s Red Racer IPA, ahead of such beer geek-lauded brews as Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, Stone Double Bastard and Troubador Magma. Not bad for a little, seven year old brewery out of the Canadian west. Congratulations again, Central City.

What I Learned About Beer in 2009, Part II

6. Craft Brewers Aren’t Generally Big Cocktail Drinkers: When I ordered a negroni at a Vail, Colorado, bar in January of last year, you might have thought from the reactions of the beer folk around me that I had just reeled off a 20 minute soliloquy in Greek. Yet most of the top cocktail people I know, like Jeffrey and Jim and Tony, all have a far above average grasp of beer. Time to catch up with the times, people!

7. Anheuser-Busch Can Make a Pretty Damn Decent Bavarian Style Weiss: Some of my colleagues discovered this at a GABF tasting a year or two earlier, but I wasn’t as impressed at the time. The sample of Michelob Bavarian Style Wheat I tasted towards the end of 2009, however, convinced me.

8. Big Hops Aren’t Going Anywhere Any Time Soon: Massively hopped beers, even ridiculously out of balance massively hopped beers, continued to prove insanely popular in 2009 and likely will again this year.

9. Beer & Cheese Is Even Bigger and More Beautiful Than I Ever Imagined: Notwithstanding No. 4, this is a relationship that can sing gorgeous arias and rockin’ screechers on the palate. And I fully intend to spend several pounds of weight and untold dollars further exploring it in the coming year.