Changes A-Coming

Yes, this blog is miserably out-of-date, which is why I am preparing to scrap the whole thing and replace it with something more user-friendly.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

Muskoka and Howe Sound Team Up on a Surprisingly Restrained Effort

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Enjoy by 05.04.16 Black IPA

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

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

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

Tasted: Ommegang Game of Thrones Seven Kingdoms

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

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

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

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

Tasted: Ottakringer Wiener Original

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

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

Two New Ontario Beers – Molson & Muskoka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasted: Smuttynose Rocky Road

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

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

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

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

Tasted: Anniversary No. 3 by Left Field Brewing

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

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

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

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


TASTED: Central City Sour Brown 1

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

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

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

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

TASTED – Molson Canadian 67 Session IPA

20160210_135855So Molson Coors hops aboard the session IPA bandwagon with this 3% alcohol beer said to be seasoned with Mosaic and Sorachi Ace hops. And honestly, from the aroma of this copper-hued ale, those hops appear to have been put to good use, with a full and fragrant aroma of dried leaf, fresh lemon and grapefruit, accented by a bit of spicy earthiness.

After a sip, however, I’m left wondering what happened to the hops. After two sips, I’m thinking about putting out an a.p.b. on the missing hops. By sip three, I want to just go back to sniffing rather than sipping this beer.

The start of what might be termed the flavour of Molson’s Session IPA is light, very light, with a watery entry and notes of sour citrus. The mid-palate doesn’t get much better, with a character best described as weak lemon tea and a pallid, quick finish. The Mosaic and Sorachi Ace hops were obviously well employed for aroma, but where the actual taste of the beer is concerned, they do little positive and impart almost no bitterness. What this beer needs is malt, plenty of malt, and some hops added to the first half of the boil.

Sorry, Molson Coors, but if you want to start using the IPA moniker on your brands, you’re going to need to do better than a weaker, more fragrant and less flavourful Alexander Keith’s.

Two From the Back of the Fridge

Sometimes beers that breweries have sent me get lost in the shuffle, migrating slowly to the back of the beer fridge where they are unfortunately but consistently overlooked. (Hey, I drink for a living! These things happen.)

I have just tasted two such beers, and interestingly enough they speak as much about each other as they do themselves.

First up is Innis & Gunn Bourbon Pale Ale. Now, I&G do not, in my opinion, get anywhere near the respect they deserve in prime beer circles. Sure, the back story is a bit too cutesy and the barrel thing is a tad overdone, but the company has still managed to turn out some damn impressive ales, including the Highland Ale they debuted this past fall. Unfortunately, the Bourbon Pale Ale shall not number among these desirable beers.

Coppery light gold in colour with a decidedly woody aroma, supported by ample vanilla, soft mandarin orange and other citrus notes, this beer immediately screams its barrel lineage. Which is also what happens on the palate, unfortunately, with way too much bourbon barrel trampling over the gentle hoppiness and what could well be nice and round fruity notes, finishing harsh and barrel-ish. In my view, this is a great example of what not to do with a bourbon barrel, or rather, as it says on the label, “American oak infused with bourbon.”

Contrasting the I&G beer is St. Arnold Brewing’s Bishop’s Barrel No. 9, an “Imperial pumpkin stout aged in bourbon barrels” that is, quite plainly, delightful. Pitch black and intensely aromatic, this high-strength ale offers an aroma of roasted and slightly burnt malt, chocolate, vanilla and pumpkin spices, especially nutmeg and allspice. The body has a sweet, vanilla-ish and spicy chocolate chip beginning, leading to a big and full body dominated by spice – peppery allspice, loads of nutmeg – but not to the exclusion of robust dark chocolate notes and a fading though still present bourbony vanilla. The finish is dry, peppery, boozy as heck and really quite enjoyable.

Where the bourbon barrel simply shines in the St. Arnold Stout, the bourbon-infused oak serves as a detrimental flavour in the Innis & Gunn beer, taking what could be a nice if mild-mannered pale ale and turning it into a jumbled mix of bourbon and woody flavours. A telling example of when too much of a good thing can turn very bad.

On Drinking Alpine Pure Hoppiness

So it’s been a bit of a long day. I didn’t sleep well last night — or the night before that or the night before that or, well, you get the idea — and had a group holiday luncheon today that promised a lot more than it delivered. So here it is, 6:30 pm, I’m still at my desk still trying to get done what I wanted to accomplish before I left for lunch.

And I want a beer.

Off to the beer fridge I go, thinking of something hoppy. The fridge’s contents ebb and flow depending on what projects I’m working on, if anyone has sent me samples to taste, and often just because something has caught my eye while beer shopping. Right now it has a bunch of IPAs and double IPAs in it, plus many other assorted odds and ends, but I am, as noted, hankering for something hoppy, so it’s the hoppy side that has my attention. I’d also like something with a decent bit of alcohol warmth to set the evening straight, but not too much, since the actual, full-fledged end of my workday likely won’t arrive for several hours still.

tumblr_inline_npp9v9bxej1tovnkl_400I search. I scan. I spy the Alpine Beer Company’s Pure Hoppiness.

Popping the cap, I realize that this will be the first Alpine beer I have tasted since the brewery was bought by Green Flash a little over a year ago. I don’t expect it will make much difference, since both breweries were pretty well established at the time of the deal and, to my knowledge, Green Flash has done little or nothing to change operations at Alpine, but I still find the fact intriguing. I grab a glass and pour.

Light gold and somewhat hazy, it has a fruity nose that mixes fresh and canned peach aromas with lemon zest and lemon and grapefruit juice. It’s appealing, but not extraordinary and, perhaps because of the age of this bottle — there is no date code on it, but I got the press release back in October, so it’s got to be about two months old, at least — has only a modicum of that fresh, leafy, hoppy nose one usually gets from a beer that has been dry-hopped with an “incredible amount” of hops, according to the label copy.

The selling point of this beer is its “hop bite,” again as per the label, and it certainly has some of that. But what doesn’t get the headline play is that peach and apricot fruitiness that underpins all of that hoppiness, providing a solid backdrop for resinous, piney and herbal hop notes in front and more grapefruity, citrus bitterness in the back. The lingering effect is hop bitterness, no doubt, but there is definite balance in the body of this beer. Conclusion: It has a flavour profile that strays a bit on the muddy side, not as clear and sharp as I would hope, but generally speaking I like this quite a bit, and more importantly it is serving the exact purpose I wished of it. It’s also one hell of a lot better than the Pure Hoppiness I sampled back in 2010, so well done, Alpine. Cheers!