Join Me in Mexico City for Cerveza Mexico

For me, one of the great results of co-authoring The World Atlas of Beer in 2012 with Tim Webb was the development of a much greater awareness of what is happening in craft brewing beyond Canada, the United States and western Europe. Further, a truly eye-opening experience I had while compiling the first Pocket Beer Guide one year later was tasting my way through many of the craft beers of Mexico.

In the few years since, Mexico has continued to grow its craft beer scene, even despite the oligopoly of the big two brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Modelo and Heineken-owned FEMSA Cerveza. Cerveza Mexico is a conference, competition and beer festival that celebrates this growth and is now in its fifth year!

I’m proud to be both judging at the competition and speaking during the conference, where I will hold forth on the topic of “Craft Beer Around the World and the Rise of National Styles,” or in Spanish, “Cerveza Artesanal Alrededor del Mundo y el Crecimiento de los Estilos Nacionales.” No, I won’t be speaking Spanish, but I understand that there will be simultaneous translation made available.

If you’ll be in Mexico City from September 3 – 5, please consider coming by the conference or at least checking out the beer festival, Beer Mexico 2015. And if you see me on the festival floor, do come on over and say hello.

Full details are available in English or Spanish here. (

Innismouth Olde Ale (Narragansett Brewing, Rhode Island office, contract brewed in New York, USA; 7%):

I know nothing of H. P. Lovecraft, to whom this beer is dedicated, but the idea of an “olde ale” in a can is, to say the least, rather odd. Nonetheless, the bright amber colour is attractive, as is the very winey nose, rich with plum, raisin and stewed fruit aromas alongside hints of sherryish oxidization. The body starts sweet, raw sugary sweet, before breaking into more plummy body with still sugary notes, some molasses and hints of licorice candy, finishing sweet and even a bit cloying, like a children’s purple candy. This is a beer that could stand some aging; it may turn out rubbish afterwards, but right now it is entirely too sweet and candy-ish. Hence my original incredulity regarding the can.

Miller Lite (SABMiller, USA; 4%):

Some p.r. person sent over a few cans of this beer following its introduction to the Canadian market, so I figure I’ll give it a try. Very light gold in colour, you can’t fault its generous fluffy head…except when it starts to collapse almost as quickly as it formed. The nose is very soft, with some hints of grainy sweetness and very light floral notes, perhaps even a whiff of tropical fruit. The body doesn’t taste like much of anything, really, with a little cereal sweetness up front and a slightly creamy, faintly caramelly flavour backed by corn-on-the-cob notes. At least the finish is dry, and very, very quick. People forgive beers like this as ‘lawnmower beers’ or ‘ballpark beers,’ but frankly I’d much rather a Pilsner Urquell – from the same brewer’s portfolio – in either of those situations.

Pengo Pally (Bush Pilot Brewing, Ontario, Canada; 6.5%):

Bright gold with a floral (sunflower and a whiff of lavender), off-dry and spicy (white pepper, chamomile) aroma holding a hint of yeastiness. The body begins sweet but not too much so, more along the lines of a light cordial, with spicy and floral orange notes leading to a more peppery, drier and eventually slightly boozy body. It stays perhaps a bit too sweet, but some of that might be due to the Arctic herbs used, since the finish dries out quite nicely, leaving a lingering spiciness, hints of tannin and a soft residue of alcoholic strength. Overall a nice effort on a beer that is genuinely saison-esque.

Santo (St. Arnold Brewing, Texas, USA; 4.7%):

Describing this beer as a “black kölsch” doesn’t work on many levels, not the least of which being that, as the brewery freely admits, the style doesn’t exist. Hell, it’s not even black beer, more like dark brown, with an aroma that is vaguely kölsch-like in that it bears little to no fruitiness, with earthy, potting soil qualities paired with a soft roastiness. The body is a bit more ale-like, rounded with chocolate-cocoa quality laced with nuttiness and a drying thinness, finishing dry with a bit of allspice and cocoa lingering. Not big enough to be a brown ale, or a rather anemic brown ale if it were, yet somehow too full and rounded for a kölsch or altbier. I’m not sure what it really is, but I feel pretty confident that it would, as the brewery suggests, “pair perfectly with a plate of enchiladas.”

Vintage 2014 (New Glarus Brewing, Wisconsin, USA; 6%):

A brewery special release, this is New Glarus’ take on a gueuze, complete with spontaneous fermentation and the blending of one, two and three year old beers aged on oak. Carefully poured, it has a lightly hazy, light gold colour and a citrus – mostly floral lemon – and yellow plum aroma, along with ample wet hay and horseblanket. The body is fuller than you’d expect of a true Belgian gueuze, with sweet, tangy and tart flavours right up front, then a drier, still tart and quite lemony middle with firm acidity and background notes of green grapes, and finally a bone-dry finish with hints of lemon zest and lemon thyme. In the style of a gueuze, for certain, but wonderfully different, too.

Yes, Anheuser-Busch InBev Hates Your Beer.

Since its emergence on the North American beer scene in the 1980s and, in force, in the 1990s, what is commonly called ‘craft beer’ has cost the big breweries millions upon millions of dollars in revenue from lost sales. They do not like this.

Sales of Budweiser in particular have fallen precipitously, declining from 50 million barrels in 1988 to only 18 million in 2013. Some of that volume has simply been transferred to Bud Light, for years now the best-selling beer in the United States, while large volumes have also been lost to Coors Light, but some has also gone over to craft beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev definitely does not like this.

Since almost the very start of the craft beer renaissance, brewers and beer marketers have been taking pot shots at the big breweries and their beers, often aided and abetted by the media. While initially it must have been easy for pre-InBev Anheuser-Busch to shrug these insults off, the volume of such criticism now, coupled with the recent boom in the growth of craft beer, must certainly be getting up their corporate nose.

In order to stay relevant, Anheuser-Busch InBev has been forced to spend tens of millions of dollars on brewery purchases, only to have every buy followed by loud and prolonged condemnations. Would they rather have spent this money on increasing sales of their existing brands? You bet your ass they would!

Anheuser-Busch InBev has also spent tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, on new product development and marketing in order to have what are, for them, fringe brands that can play in the specialty beer market (which did not even exist as such forty years ago). It’s not hard to imagine they would have rather spent this money on growing their existing portfolio of brands or perhaps developing more logical and demographically-focused line extensions.

So yes, if you drink craft beer, Anheuser-Busch InBev does indeed hate your beer. And if they could end the craft beer segment tomorrow by taking a loss on all the brewery purchases they have made and craft beer-style brands they have developed, I firmly believe they would do so in an instant.

Dates Announced for the Pocket Beer Guide 2015 October Tour!

Cover North AmericaThe new edition of my and Tim Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide, officially titled Pocket Beer Guide 2015, is out next month, and as per my recent habit, I’ll be taking to the road to do a bit of promotion. Here’s the schedule:

September 30, Seattle, WA: I’ll be signing books and sipping rare beers at the new Toronado Seattle, 1205 NE 65th Street (at the corner of 12th Ave), all night long. Drop by to say hi, share a beer and maybe even buy a book! (NOTE added 9/29: Unfortunately, books will not be available in time for this event. If you want to come out and chat beer for a while, though, I’ll still be drinking at the Toronado. Look for me or ask the bartender!)

October 1, Denver, CO: In my first ever appearance at a cabaret venue (!), I’ll be onstage with Charlie Papazian, Green Flash’s Chuck Silva, our host Marty Jones, plus several bands and burlesque dancers at Marty Jones Brew Night Show. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what will be happening, but I’ve known Marty for a number of years so I’m sure it’s going to be fun, and there will be great beer, too.

October 2 – 4, Denver, CO: I’ll be signing copies of the new book plus a few older ones in the Bookstore at the Great American Beer Festival. Check here for times.

October 5, Nashville, TN: I’ll be hosting a very special, 5-course beer dinner at the Nashville location of the Flying Saucer. At a mere $45, and with the beers and food we’ve got planned, it’s a bargain and a half!

October 6, Austin, TX: Another Flying Saucer appearance sees me in charge of what they’re calling a “Brewer’s Summit,” featuring Real Ale, Jester King, Austin Beerworks, Thirsty Planet and Karbauch. Taste beer, eat food, listen to me talk about the beers the brewers bring, and hear them tell me why I’m wrong. What’s not to like?

October 7, Garland, TX: The Flying Saucer again, and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Real Ale, Sierra Nevada and Founders Brewing. Worth it just for the opportunity to sample great beers in an idyllic setting on Lake Ray Hubbard.

October 8, Addison, TX: I admit to being a little nervous about hosting a beer dinner in what the Addison Flying Saucer people call the “Pub of Love,” but the menu and beers look great and I’m assured that the setting will be cozy and, dare I say it?, intimate.

October 9, Fort Worth, TX: This is going to be a fun one! Taking a break from the tour’s all-beer theme, I’ll be hosting a beer, wine and spirits dinner in the Bird Café, located where the original Fort Worth Saucer used to be, collaborating once again with ex-Meddlesome Moth chef David McMillan. The menu looks spectacular!

October 10, Fort Worth, TX: Another Flying Saucer and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Community Brewing, Lakewood Brewing, Revolver Brewing and Martin House Brewing. Keith Schlabs, the head beer wrangler for the Flying Saucer group, assures me that all the brewers have promised to bring their “crown jewels,” so this should be a tasting for the books!

October 11, Fort Worth, TX: I’ll be taking things a bit easy on the last day of my tour, if you can call attending the Flying Saucer’s 9th Annual BeerFeast “taking it easy.” I’ll have books available for signing and look forward to some casual chatting about beer.

Sometime in October: Once I’m back in Toronto and sufficiently recovered, I’ll be hosting a book launch event in the city’s downtown. Stay tuned for date and details.

Not ‘Locals Only’

Okay, so before everyone thinks I’ve taken direct aim at southern Ontario breweries with my series of recent tweets, let me assure one and all I have not. And for those of you not in Ontario, please bear with me, as I guarantee some more universal observations by the end of this post.

Before I explain, however, a pair of the pertinent tweets for those who missed them:

Seems to me that @TorontoBeerWeek is unintentionally highlighting the severe lack of imported draught beer in #Toronto.

Should beer writers/bloggers “support local”? IMO, no, they should support good! #localnotsameasgood

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, taken outside of the context in which I was trying to frame them, those could be seen to be voicing vocal support for ‘outside’ beer and foisting criticism on the local stuff. But really it’s all about drinking quality, opening the market to greater choice and, frankly, raising the bar for craft beer in general.

Let me explain.

In Ontario, a government policy restricting draught beer importing licenses to four companies severely limits the availability of imported beer – even from other Canadian provinces – and makes it more expensive when it does get in. This causes a resulting overabundance of local beers on the taps of our beer bars, to the point that many are unintentionally exclusive or near-exclusive Ontario-only bars.

In my view, this situation has multiple effects, at least one of which plays into my second tweet.

  • Lack of selection for Ontario beer drinkers;
  • Lack of context for products and styles brewed locally;
  • An unwitting ‘free pass,’ or at least less critical critique, given to certain local beers because, as per point 2, there is little or nothing of the same style/type/flavour profile available for purposes of comparison.

(I have personally witnessed point number 3 in action, both locally and elsewhere, many times.)

None of which to say there is no excellent beer brewed in Ontario – there is, and even more very good beer and still more good beer – but in my view it is not enough to say ‘buy local’ or ‘support your local brewer’ without excessive care being given by the brewer first to character, quality control and, to at least some degree, consistency.

Further, the presence of great beers from around the world gives local brewers access to breweries that can inspire them to even greater things. (This, too, I’ve seen in action.) For multiple examples, take the opening up of any formerly closed economy and the corresponding rise in quality products once competition arrived.

And finally, I object strenuously to the notion that beer writers should champion local products. We are not, or should not be, champions for breweries, but for consumers. A writer’s role, whether columnist or blogger or freelance scribe, is to serve the reader, in many cases by sorting through the morass of beer and saying “yes, this is great, but this one not so much.” Regardless of whether the beers in question are local or not.

This approach also works to the ultimate benefit of the brewery, too, since a body of critical reviews should be sufficient to convince the brewer that perhaps something about the beer is flawed or at least not as good as it could be. Resulting in better beer, better sales and happier customers, which is, in the end, the ultimate goal.

Yesterday I Binge Drank

It’s been a rough summer. Following a dreadful winter, the worst I can recall, I was hoping for a hot, beautiful summer this year, but it never arrived. Instead, we got rain, unseasonably cool temperatures and clouds, clouds, clouds.

And then came Labour Day. Nature being as perverse as it is, the weather since the unofficial start of fall has been more summery and beautiful than was any of the time in July and August. So yesterday, rather than working as I should have been, my wife and I decided to make a lazy Sunday out of a warm and sunny day, beginning around mid-afternoon.

I went out and bought some cheese, olives, crackers and other assorted victuals and then gathered together what we would need to enjoy our snacking repast on our condo building’s common outdoor area. We then repaired to the third floor with our food and some wine, all of which we enjoyed in the sun until a swarm of wasps eventually chased us back upstairs.

We continued our idyll on our balcony, switching from wine to gin and tonics, of which I had two over the course of an hour and a half or so. I then pulled together some more food, since hunger had once more reared its head following the sunset, and opened a beer as my final drink of the night.

Around 9:00 or so, I switched to carbonated water, having tallied a drink total of two and a bit glasses of wine, two G&Ts and one beer over the course of about six hours. Which meant that, according to most of the ‘expert’ definitions bandied about in the media these days, I had been binge drinking.

Oh, what an exceedingly pleasant “binge” it was…

R.I.P. Ed McNally 1925 – 2014

1306679703384_ORIGINALCanadian beer drinkers should bow their heads and raise their glasses to the memory of Edward McNally, who founded Calgary, Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery in 1984. Ed passed away last night, as reported just a few minutes ago on the brewery’s Twitter feed.

Ed was a lawyer by profession and a westerner to his core. He came to the brewing industry by way of his position as director of the Western Barley Growers Association, which in the 1980s was experiencing legal difficulties associated with the sale and marketing of brewer’s barley. Researching the issue, Ed came across the story of Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and decided that the best way to get a market for Alberta barley was to use it in an Alberta brewery.

I met Ed in 1983 as I was researching my first book, the Great Canadian Beer Guide. Although by then the head of a sizable business, he had no problem sitting down with, and indeed devoting most of his morning to, a young writer who thought he knew a lot about beer. I remember him still as a magnanimous,  forthright and highly entertaining man. We were to meet again several times in the passing years and never did I have occasion to alter that original impression.

As Big Rock grew bigger and bigger, the inevitable rumours would surface on a regular basis, suggesting that Big Brewery X or Y was about to purchase the company. I knew, however, that so long as there was breath in Ed McNally’s body, Big Rock would forever remain proudly and fiercely independent.

I’d lost touch with Ed through the years and, in truth, didn’t even know if he was still connected to the brewery at the end. But there is one thing I’m certain of, and that is that he remained a devoted Big Rock man to the very end. Rest in peace, Ed. Your legacy will not soon be forgotten.



It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.