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 Look Back: Visiting Achouffe in 2002

 The following column was written in November of 2002 for the Celebrator, following a visit to the Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Since then, of course, many changes have occurred, including the brewery’s purchase by Duvel Moortgat and the rise of the hoppy Houblon Chouffe as a major brand. Despite or perhaps because of this, however, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane so much that I wanted to share it with you all.  

In 1987, I took a job at a now-defunct Toronto pub managed by a couple who had just arrived fresh from Belgium. Nobody in the city knew much about Belgian beers back then, and of all the experiences I had working at that pub, by far the most positive was my introduction to Belgian ales like Duvel, Chimay and Hoegaarden, the last hand-carried back for me from the brewery itself.

Prior to this experience, my range of experience in beer had been pretty much confined to a few trips to the west coast of the U.S. and the limited offerings of the Ontario marketplace: early craft brews, a handful of German and British imports, and of course, the all-too-homogeneous offerings of what were then the Big Three breweries of Canada — Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe. (Molson and Carling eventually merged to make the Big Three into the Big Two.) The exposure to the first trickles of Belgian beer arriving on these shores opened my eyes to the full flavour potential beer had to offer.

Our productsAbout a year later, already entranced by these new tastes, I discovered another Belgian ale. This one came from a tiny, five-year-old brewery in the Ardennes, Belgium’s densely forested southeast, and sported an easily identifiable label featuring a curious gnome. It was called La Chouffe.

Legend now has it that both the gnome on the bottle of La Chouffe and his ‘Scottish cousin’ who graces the brewery’s other primary brand, McChouffe, are ‘chouffes,’ a type of local forest elf. The truth, however, is that the chouffe idea sprang from the fertile imagination of Christian Bauweraerts, co-founder of the brewery and the affable face of the Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Both the brewery and the beer are actually named after the town of Achouffe, a tiny village near the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, as I learned during a recent visit, the name truly means, well, nothing.

Like several other Belgian breweries, including its Wallonian neighbour Fantôme and the well-known Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers, Achouffe got its start as a hobby of Chris and his brother-in-law, Pierre Gobron. The direction the owners took their hobby, however, was unique and remains today a model for other artisanal breweries in Belgium, especially those plagued by the difficulties of distribution in a market increasingly dominated by the big players. Rather than focus their marketing efforts on domestic sales, the partners elected to look instead internationally. By the time I made acquaintance with the brewery, they were selling between one-quarter and one-third of their entire production in my home province of Québec, where to this day they sell almost double the amount of beer than they do in all of the United States combined.

Of course, those amounts — roughly 600 hectolitres in the U.S. and 1,000 in Quebec, plus another 1,000 brewed under licence in la belle province —  are relatively small compared to the large volumes that Achouffe sells to the Netherlands, where it is far easier to find a draught La Chouffe than it is anywhere else in the world, including Belgium. In fact, Chris told me that those Dutch sales are largely responsible for the brewery selling just over one half of its production in draught form.

In all, Achouffe expects to sell about 18,500 hectolitres of ale this year, roughly three-quarters of which will be the blonde, 8% alcohol, coriander-spiced and curiously refreshing La Chouffe. The stronger (8.5%), darker — made so through the addition of dark sugars rather than dark malts — and rounder McChouffe will make up most of the remainder, with the brewery’s sole seasonal, the concentrated, 10% alcohol and thinnish but intense N’ice Chouffe, accounting for only about 2.5%.

For a regional brewery still unrecognized in many parts of Belgium, and one located in a town so small as to hardly rate a mention on the map, Achouffe’s brewery is large and modern, the result of careful years of controlled expansion. Bottling, kegging and the warm-conditioning vital to bottle-fermented ales are done off-site about six kilometres away, while the pair of on-site brewery buildings are divided into brewing and fermenting facilities. For the visitor, however, the real draw of the brewing side of the operation is the small café built into the back.

While not actually operated by the brewery — they lease the space out to independent operators — the café is without doubt an integral part of the Achouffe experience. To begin with, it may be the only place in Belgium where you can find both La Chouffe and McChouffe on tap. Then there is the beer cuisine offered on the menu, such as the tender though meaty brook trout poached in La Chouffe — only in Belgium would such a dish be offered as an appetizer rather than a main course! — and the wonderfully rich sauce maison which topped my entrecôte de boeuf, made from cream, La Chouffe and a local blue cheese. And finally, it is a place where an air of community dominates, where children run and play and the occasional argument between pet dogs scarcely raises an eyebrow.

After spending but a single evening at the brewery tap, eating my fill and discovering how surprisingly easy to drink an 8% alcohol draught can be, I was left wondering how the inhabitants of a country as impassioned about beer as is Belgium could possibly ignore such a delight within its borders. It must be that they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

Belgian-Based Head-Shaking

This article in the Washington Post is a week old now, so some of you may have already seen it, particularly since it is not without its controversial aspects. But Joe just brought it to my attention, and so I’m bringing it to yours.

Or, rather, I’m bringing one line of it to your attention, from paragraph two and with emphasis added by yours truly:

The syrupy liquid was 10 percent alcohol and combined the dried-fruit flavors of a quadrupel, a traditional Belgian abbey ale, with the roasted-coffee notes common in American stouts.

No! No! No! There is nothing traditional about a so-called quadrupel, unless your definition of tradition stretches all the way back to 1991. And for that matter, there’s little “Belgian” about a beer invented in the Netherlands, which is where Koningshoeven/La Trappe created said beer in the aforementioned year of 1991.

This, as I have noted before, really gets on my wick. Because while it’s one thing to debate the vagaries of styles such as double IPAs and Imperial pilsners, it’s quite another to take a beer name coined two decades ago, invent a style out of it and then apply that style retroactively to beers that have been around for decades prior.

So stop it, please. Just…stop…it.


(Re)Considering Duvel

I am no apologist for the now-number two Belgian brewer, Duvel Moortgaat.  (Number one is, of course, Anheuser-Busch InBev, also the world’s largest brewing company.) The brewery has grown considerably over the past several years and is now publicly traded, which for some growing breweries has proved detrimental. Not all of this growth has been kind to the beers they oversee — my last experience with Liefmans was truly lamentable — but some of it has been overwhelmingly positive, as with the improvements in the Chouffe line and the purchase of De Koninck, which almost certainly saved the Antwerp brewery from eventual closure.

(I should mention that while one-quarter of Duvel Moortgat is indeed in play on the market, three-quarters of the company ownership still rests with the Moortgat family, who insist they have no interest in selling.)

What I am and remain, however, is a fan of the beer, Duvel. While I have experienced some issues with it over the past few years — its bottle-fermentation seemed notably less aggressive for a while, to cite one example — the last several bottles I have enjoyed have all been, well, thoroughly enjopyable.

Which is why I had to laugh at the following lines from this Wall Street Journal story:

At the Delirium, Brussels’s biggest and best-known beer bar, barmen say that on most nights, Duvel is among its 10 top selling beers. And pricing power is apparent. A glass costs €3.35, compared with €2 for a draft lager. “They’re very good at marketing, and tourists recognize it from all the signs they have up around Brussels,” says Thibault Cordonnier, a bartender at the Delirium. “Also, people like the name, Devil. We have another beer, called Lucifer, that sells very well.”

To be sure, the enthusiasm is not totally unanimous. “If somebody asks us for a recommendation, we’ll suggest something from a smaller, more artisanal brewer,” says Mr. Cordonnier. “The barmen here, who are all experts, don’t really drink Duvel anymore. We think it’s only slightly better than a Stella Artois.” Stella Artois is one of Anheuser’s top-selling beers in the world.

Forget the extraordinary cheek of comparing Duvel to Stella, of all things, a beer about which I made my feelings known over here. How about the hypocrisy of a bartender at a bar named for one of Duvel’s many imitators slagging a brand that is unquestionably superior to the bar’s namesake pretender? And I say this as an admirer of Delirium Tremens, which I have always maintained is better than its kitschy bottle and glass would have you expect.

(Then there’s the notion that the bartenders at the Delirium Cafe would recommend anything, which to my several experiences has certainly never been the case. On my last visit, I watched as three bartenders ignored a middle aged couple desperately trying to decipher the beer menu, even though the gentleman had all but pleaded for some direction. Less helpful or “expert” bartenders I have rarely witnessed.)

To me, this is just another case of a brewery being deemed “bad” simply because it had the audacity to grow. It’s one of the more troublesome paradoxes of craft beer today.

Reflections on Beer at the Ballpark

I went to see the series opener at Toronto’s Skydome – it’ll be a cold day in hell before I call it the Rogers Centre – on Friday night, courtesy of my loving wife. The seats were good, the game exciting and the usually staid Toronto crowd a little more into it that usual. Plus, Bautista came within a single of hitting for the cycle.

Then there was the beer.

I had heard in advance that there were apparently two stands selling Steam Whistle Pilsner, brewed within spitting distance of the dome, somewhere on the 100 level, where our seats were located. There were not, or at least not so far as I could find in a complete circuit of the concessions. (Anyone from Steam Whistle, if I missed where your beer is sold, please let us all know before the next home series.)

Finally, in desperation and significant thirst, and unwilling to buy a bottle of freakin’ filtered Dasani water for almost five bucks, I dropped over twice that amount on a can of Stella Artois, what I thought was a disappointing but still passable alternative. I paid for my beer and went to grab a plastic cup to pour it into, but was stopped by the beer server, who told me that the cups are counted and that she could get into trouble if there was one missing.

So, $10.25 for a can of Stella, more than 4 times retail price, and I am denied even a plastic cup from which to drink! Great customer service there, Dome.

Now, onto the beer, which was terrible! Like Pete Brown, I have memories of Stella which now seem terribly divorced from reality. I used to defend it as a decent thirst-quencher, if you drank one and only one glass. (The follow up was always a disappointment.) For whatever other faults it might boast, it had a generally dry character and sufficient hop appeal to counteract that sickly, cloying cereally character that I find pervades the majority of globally marketed beers.

No longer.

The can I had was a complete mess in terms of its flavour profile, and that I could tell even by drinking directly from from said can. (God knows what it would have tasted like in the cup. Maybe that’s why the Dome refused me one.) The hop flavours, where present, were severely disjointed and the malt profile suggested an extended lagering time of, oh, ten or twelve hours. Morbid curiosity propelled me to continue drinking and, as the beer warmed, the faults grew progressively and predictably worse. By two-thirds gone – and I was hardly nursing it – it was pretty revolting.

So, my reflections on beer at the Skydome are as follows: expensive, poorly served, lousy selection, and awful tasting.

“The Most Famous and Most Popular Beer in Belgium…”

The above is how began a press release I received yesterday. Actually, I suppose it really began with the headline, one which read: “Calling All Beer Connoisseurs…”

It was about the imminent arrival to a local pair of beer-themed restaurants of a new and limited-availability Belgian draught beer, the aforementioned “most famous and most popular” in all of Belgium.

Its name? Jupiler.

For those unfamiliar with Jupiler, it is indeed the best-selling beer in Belgium, but that doesn’t mean it has anything going for it. Hell, the best-selling beer in the US is Bud Light, and I don’t see “beer connoisseurs” clamoring for that one as if it were some special release of Dark Lord or Pliny the freaking Younger. Best-selling beer in Britain? Carling! (It is still Carling, isn’t it? Confirmation, please, my British friends.) Best-selling weissbier in Germany? The utterly underwhelming Erdinger. Etc.

I’ve never made notes on Jupiler, but I have tried it. It’s as dull and boring as any mass-produced lager, aiming to not enchant with flavour, but flow quickly down the throat as coldly and inoffensively as possible. You want a review? Check out Non-Snob Beer Reviews.

Even so, there are hundreds of thousands of people living or working in the downtown core of Toronto who know only that Belgium is a country associated with beer. For them, the promise that Jupiler is big in Belgium will be read as a glowing endorsement. And as familiar as they are with bud and Coors Light and Molson Canadian — now  available in a low-cal “Sublime” lemon and lime flavoured version! — they will probably gulp it back at $7.52 a glass and think they’re drinking something special.

More’s the pity!

Observation From Belgium, Part I

I’m just returned from Belgium and not one, but two beer festivals, plus a tasting at a great cafe in the countryside surrounding Brussels. My health lasted just long enough to get me through the lot, breaking down utterly moments before my flight yesterday. Now I have 24 hours to get healthy again so as to present a seminar on crafting a beer menu with my friedn and colleague Lew Bryson at the Nightclub and Bar Show in Las Vegas. Yep, this beer writing stuff is non-stop glamour.

In the meantime, however, I’ve something to get off my chest, and it’s about all this “Belgian style” stuff going on in the United States these days. Simply, it don’t exist! Period. “Belgian style,” or even “Belgo-American style” is a complete fallacy. I tasted a great number of Belgian beers over the past few days, from lambics to session ales to Trappists to over-spiced disasters, and you know what? They had pretty much nothing in common save for the word “Belgium” on the label.

Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing/Lost Abbey wrote a column in the latest Ale Street News about his refusal to say “Belgian style” and preference for “Belgian inspired,” which pretty much echoes my feelings of the past several years. He’s right. It’s time to consign “Belgian style” to the dustbin of misused and abused beer terms. The Belgian brewers who are producing gorgeous beers with massive amounts of character and unique appeal deserve as much.


Respect Huyghe

Since my arrival in Belgium, I’ve sampled several beers new to me, some good and others, well, less exciting. One of the standouts, however, was a draught Bersalis Tripel I enjoyed at the Delirium Café on my first night in town. Not a lambic, for which the venerable, thankfully resuscitated Oud Beersel brewery is known, but a strong golden ale, it struck me first with its remarkable subtlety – for an ale of 9.5% alcohol! – and then with its grace, balance and integral mix of flavours.

The surprise? I am reliably told that this beer is brewed for Oud Beersel by that much- and often unjustly-maligned brewery, Huyghe, makers of Guillotine and Delirium Tremens.

I’ve long maintained that Delirium Tremens in particular is a serious beer obscured by a kitschy name and bottle, and that Huyghe is a much better brewery than their reputation for gimmick and label beers would suggest. Bersalis Tripel is yet more evidence of this.

Unicorns and Faeries and Quadrupels

While I’m on the topic of strong beer, a recent tasting conducted by Young Dredge over at Pencil & Spoon has stirred up some controversy over the style term “quadrupel” (or “quadruple” or simply “quad”). I feel compelled to chime in.

Like Tripel, Quadrupel is a term invented by a Trappist brewery for one of their commercial beers, the former by Westmalle and the latter by Koningshoeven/La Trappe. Both follow logically from the classic abbey designations of enkel, or single, being an everyday beer of low strength, and dubble, or double, being a stronger, more nutritious beer reserved for visitors, feast days and periods of fasting.

So one’s as legit as the other, right? Maybe not.

Westmalle Tripel, by most people’s calculations, was the first tripel, it being specifically created for commercial purposes and marketed under that name. It was “likely created,” speculates Stan Hieronymus, author of Brew Like a Monk, to satisfy “drinkers in the 1930’s who wanted both stronger beer and one the color of trendy, light-colored Pilseners.”

La Trappe Quadrupel, on the other hand, was created in 1991 to be the strongest beer of the abbey’s line, originally intended as only a winter seasonal. As its popularity grew, however, it became a year-round brand and the “quad” tag began to be stuck to beers of all sorts, which is where problems arise.

The style Stan calls “not quite a style” is now said to include beers such as Westvleteren 12, St. Bernardus 12 and Rochefort 10, all strong and dark ales that were included in Young Dredge’s tasting and all beers which pre-existed the La Trappe Quadrupel. The question which arises, then, is can a new style name and definition be applied to beers that were well-established long before its creation?

New Books You Need to Own

I said I’d be back later today with more news, and true to my word, here I am. And while the news might not be the biggest ever, it is important if you enjoy drinking in the Benelux.

More specifically, if you share my great affection for the city of Amsterdam and beers in the style known as lambic, Cogan & Mater and have two new titles you need to own. They are the second and greatly expanded edition of LambicLand and the latest in the …in 80 Beers series, Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers.

(Full disclosure: Tim Webb, who runs Cogan and Mater, is a friend of mine and a writer whose work I respect greatly. That said, I still think these books are terrific additions to any drinks library.)

The first book, LambicLand by Webb, Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, has not only been expanded to twice its original size, but also taken to unilingual English rather than the original English/Dutch edition. Simply, there is no resource that I know of which more comprehensively covers the eclectic world of these wonderful, spontaneously fermented beers.

Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers continues the series that has already covered 80 beers in Bruges, London and Brussels with a methodology that is as simple as it is effective: highlight 80 worthy bars and suggest a single beer to be consumed in each. While Amsterdam arguably doesn’t boast the wealth of notable places that the other cities do – the entry for Kilimanjaro, for instance, speaks more of the food and Ethiopian coffee than it does of the beer and ambiance – this Tim Skelton book is still a must for any visitor seeking libation while touring the back alleys and canals of Amsterdam.

As a bonus, the website is selling the other three …80 Beers books in a package for only £20, so go ahead and get them all, why don’t ya! You know you want them.

In Trappist Beer News Today…

The seven Trappist monastery brewery in Belgium and the Netherlands are, as you might expect, pretty conservative institutions, and so it’s seldom that we have game-changing news from the Trappist brewing world. Except for this week, however, when arose not one, but two tidbits of surprising Trappist-related info.

First, courtesy of the Flemish news website, interpreted for me by my Belgian friend Joris, comes word that the renown Trappist monastery brewery at Westvleteren is in negotiations to sell their beers through one of the largest supermarket chains in the country, Colruyt. According to the story, the deal has not yet been finalized but appears to concern gift packs of the monastery’s ales, presumably one each of the three brands the brothers make, including the much, much, MUCH lauded Westvleteren 12.

This deal, if consummated, will immediately vault what are now some of the rarest beers in Belgium to the status of some of the most ubiquitous. As for what it will do to the abbey’s near-legendary status among certain segments of “beer tickers,” well, we’ll wait and see on that front.

Meanwhile, over in Austria, the national news reports that the Trappist abbey Stift Engelszell is pursuing the creation of a brewery to raise money for the restoration of one of their buildings. (My thanks to Chuma on the Burgundian Babble Belt for the foreign language interpretation this time.) Evidently, the monks are waiting only on approval of their use of the Authentic Trappist designation.

A potential eight Trappist breweries in three, rather than two, countries, and the ready availability of one of the most prized Trappist ales, now that’s a big news week in monastery brewing circles!

A Worthy Stairway

A call to come to Tampa Bay to judge rums is not a call to be ignored, and so yesterday morning I boarded a southbound flight that brought me, after a lengthy wait at Budget Rent-a-Car and a 90 or so minute drive, to Sarasota. The rum could wait until the morrow; last night was for beer!

More specifically, it was for beer at the six week old Stairway to Belgium bar and restaurant in downtown Sarasota. Opened by Philadelphia lawyer turned Sarasota restaurateur Jim Keaveney, Stairway is an obvious labor of love with a mission of bringing quality beer to an area not necessarily known for it. (I was told that I missed the main thrust of Spring Break by a week, but its memory remains.) And here’s the good news: it’s a mission that largely works!

According to Jim, getting the region’s beer distributors on board has not been a uniformly easy task, but he’s been successful enough that the beer list will not disappoint any devotee. Neither will the menu, I might add, with its excellent waterzooi, delicious rabbit stew and flavourful but a bit too stew-like carbonade. (I had a sampler of the three, organized for me by Jim but I strongly suspect about to join the regular menu.) Washed down with a selection of beers ranging from St. Somewhere’s rather unconventional “saison,” Lectio Divina, to good old reliable St. Bernardus Abt 12, it was indeed aa very pleasant way to spend the night, an opinion obviously shared by the dozens of people who flooded the place round about 10:00.

Maybe not quite Belgium, but as close as you’re going to get to it on the Florida panhandle.