It’s All the Same Thing, Really

A couple of important things have occurred recently in the English-speaking beer world.* First off, the U.K. beer consumers group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), have launched a “Revitalisation Project” centered around what the group should really represent in the future. Then the Brewers Association in the U.S. released their annual list of the country’s top 50 breweries and top 50 craft breweries by volume.

To say that each has elicited a bit of commentary would be a massive understatement. Just scroll through Facebook to find an ample number of posts on each topic, or start here and here for the CAMRA side and here and here for the BA list.

The way I see things, however, they are really two sides of the exact same coin, that being the changing nature of beer in the 21st century. CAMRA was formed out of an interest to preserve traditional British ales – it centered on cask-conditioning and dispense, but at the heart was the character of the beer – while the BA was founded as a voice for small scale breweries in the United States and, to a much lesser degree, Canada. The vastly different dynamics of beer today, however, render both of these mandates significantly less relevant.

Cask-conditioned ale is indeed alive and well in the U.K., as any recent beer-drinking visitor will attest, something CAMRA can certainly count as a major victory. What’s more, traditional ales have been joined by any number of great cask and non-cask beers, from crisp lagers to American-hopped IPAs to recreations of historic stout and porter recipes. As CAMRA tries to figure out whether to mock or embrace these new brews, beer drinkers across the country are rushing to sup greedily from the new diversity of British beer.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, while the big breweries still control in excess of 70% of the domestic beer market, the tail that wags the brewing industry dog is undeniably what we popularly term craft beer. The BA can likewise count this as a success, even as asterisks on their top 50 list threaten to derail those numbers by excluding the likes of Lagunitas and Ballast Point and top operations like Boston Beer grow fat on sales outside of the craft beer realm, like ciders (Angry Orchard) and boozy seltzers.

None of which is to say that the need for CAMRA and the BA is past; it is not. The big breweries are still massively larger than even the greatest of the small operations, and there is no doubt in my mind that, craft beer forays and brewery purchases aside, they would be delighted by a return to simpler times and easier sales of bland, mainstream beers. Vigilance is key, and in the absence of anyone different – a less strident CAMRA, for instance, or a consumer-focused organization in the States – it’s best to keep these two entrenched in their respective, albeit necessarily changing roles.

So, too, does the word ‘craft’ still have a role to play, since it still has meaning for massive swaths of beer consumers, who see it as a point of differentiation between boring mass-market brews and more flavourful and interesting niche beers. That meaning will continue its slow erosion over time, sped through its co-option by companies like Mahou San Miguel, and eventually we will move on to new definitions, just as we evolved from ‘microbrew’ to ‘craft beer’ around the turn of the century.


*This is an important distinction. Although many in the US and UK appear to see their beer markets as closed, craft beer by whatever name you choose to call it is an international phenomenon, which is getting bigger and more pervasive all the time. What seems important in the US and/or UK, therefore, may not matter a whit in Spain or Brazil. 

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spirit Hound Distillers

Here’s a feel-good booze story I wrote for the Whisky Advocate blog. I also write a regular column for the print magazine entitled ‘The Thinking Drinker’ and it’s where I believe I do some of my best work. To subscribe or just test-drive a free trial offer, visit the Whisky Advocate website.

Craig Engelhorn will readily admit that it takes a special kind of crazy to open a whisky distillery, given that the act is committed with the certain knowledge that it will be years before your product is ready to sell. Even so, Engelhorn and his four partners had no idea what kind of chaos awaited Spirit Hound Distillers a mere nine months after they finally got their whisky distillery up and running. Like, over two feet of water sort of chaos.

Lyons, Colorado’s first distillery, Spirit Hound was first conceived by Engelhorn back in 1999, when he was working at the local Oskar Blues Brewery and imagining what might result were the company’s Old Chubb Scotch Ale to be run through a still. Over a decade later, while still toiling at Oskar Blues, he and his co-worker Wayne Anderson hatched a plan to open a business of their own together. Anderson favored a brewery; Engelhorn wanted to make whisky.

Whisky won and over the next two years the duo assembled their partners, secured a location and began building their still. It was ready at the end of 2012, and even though they then had to have their wash produced under contract at a Colorado craft brewery, by the start of 2013 the distillery was up and running.

(Continue reading at Whisky Advocate.)

The Wide World of Beer with Stephen Beaumont: Drinking in Thoroughly Modern London

During the latter part of his enormously successful career, the late Michael Jackson, beer writer extraordinaire, employed an assistant named Owen Barstow.Like Michael, Owen was London based and beer fixated, which on one memorable occasion led to he and I enjoying a rollicking discussion about drinking on each of our respective sides of the Atlantic.

Ever the aspirating colonial, I would maintain that Owen lived in a relative beer nirvana, with a wealth of pubs and, providing you chose carefully, terrific cask-conditioned best bitters, ESBs, porters, and stronger beers at his doorstep. Conversely, he would envy the variety we had available in North America, from American-style pale ales to Belgian lambics, German and German-inspired lagers, and the best of British bottled beers.

While I still envied London’s pub scene, I could see Owen’s point. I mean, cask ales are great and all, but sometimes you crave a bit of variety. And in London around the turn of the millennium, that wasn’t something generally on offer at the local pub.

(Read more at The Growler.)



Prepping for Robbie Burns Day

This year, January 25 falls on the approaching Friday. Which means, of course, that scores of Robbie Burns celebrations will be held…on Wednesday, Thursday or Sunday! (It remains a mystery to my why so many bars and Scottish heraldry societies and whisky groups refuse to hold Burns Day events on the actual Burns Day, especially when it means holding them on a night when people might actually want to go out and have a good time, like, oh, I don’t know, A FRIDAY!)

In case you’re inclined to celebrate the great Scottish bard with haggis and whisky and general merriment, here are a few tips to follow:

1) You should drink whisky, even if you don’t normally like it. It doesn’t have to be an expensive single malt – Famous Grouse is my go-to blend, and Black Grouse is more assertive still at a similarly reasonable cost, and frankly Té Bheag is a steal at the price – but there should be Scottish whisky in your glass at some point during the night.

2) It is NOT acceptable to try to peak under someone’s kilt “just to see what you’ve got on under there.” Imagine someone doing that to a woman wearing a skirt. Exactly.

3) If you have a Utilikilt, that’s lovely and good for you. But don’t kid yourself into believing that you’re wearing a kilt. It’s a skirt, period. Own it.

4) Scottish beer can be quite good, but not if it’s called Tennent’s. Get yourself a proper ale, like something from Traquair House or an Ola Dubh or a BrewDog.

5) Haggis is not gross or dangerous or something to be feared. It’s basically just an overgown sausage, and a quite delicious one, at that. If you’re worried about the whole internal organs thing, stop to ponder what was likely in that hotdog you had last week.

6) That put-on Scottish accent? It’s nowhere near as good as you think it is. Just don’t.

7) Whisky can reasonably be consumed at any point during the Burns night activities. Before the Address to a Haggis? Have a dram! After? Sure, why not! During? Absolutely! With dessert? Naturally! Before dinner? Yep! After dinner? Aye! When the waiter…well, I’m sure you get the point.

8) In the absence of Scottish beer, feel free to drink something Scottish-ish from a brewery closer to home, or almost anything big and malty and delicious. I finished an Arcadia Ales Loch Down (from Michigan) while typing this and have no problem endorsing it for Friday.

9) A Rob Roy would be a nice way to start the night.

10) You are not allowed to giggle when the cock-a-leekie soup is served.

The Northern California Craft Beer Guide by Ken Weaver

There are two kinds of beer guide in this world. The first is beer guide as information provider and tour guide. These types of books, which I would say include not just my two editions of The Great Canadian Beer Guide, but also the successful Stackpole Books series of eastern states breweries guides, are generally more utilitarian than they are captivating, meant to be pulled from the shelf and referenced occasionally, or stuck in the suitcase or glove compartment for an extended road trip.

The other kind is beer guide as beer porn. In this category, I would put most of Michael Jackson’s coffee table sized work, Ben McFarland’s World’s Best Beers, my and Tim Webb’s upcoming World Atlas of Beer, and Ken Weaver’s new Northern California Craft Beer Guide.

Beautifully photographed by Weaver’s wife, Anneliese Schmidt, this is the kind of book you can sit and read, as well as use to negotiate your way around the thriving northern California beer scene. I did the former, on my condo balcony with a beer at hand, and enjoyed the experience tremendously. I read of breweries, yes, but also of organic brewing and bottle cap jewelry, brewery tours and beer styles, the phenomenon of beer communities and the case for supplementing your beer touring with a stop or two for wine. (The last being accompanied by one of my favourite photos in the book, of the author looking sceptically at a sign directing him to a wine tasting.)

Along the way, of course, there are maps and brewery descriptions, as well as notes on local beer bars and bottle shops. Like Lew Bryson in his Stackpole guides, Weaver is not as concerned with rating the beers on offer as he is giving the reader an idea of what’s available and which he enjoyed the most. Where the bars and shops are concerned, he notes highlights and usually offers an observation or two on ambiance and menu offerings.

While it’s doubtful you’ll want to pick up a copy of this book if you’ve zero intention of finding yourself in the northern half of California in the foreseeable future, if you enjoy a good beer now and again and expect to visit once or twice over the coming three or four years, I highly recommend adding this to your traveller’s arsenal. It will whet your appetite for the trip to come, guide you while there and perhaps even prompt you to take a detour you might not otherwise have envisaged. And it will keep you entertained long after your return.

The Northern California Craft Beer Guide by Ken Weaver, Cameron & Company, Petaluma, CA, 2012. $21.95 list.

Late to the “Why Beer Matters” Party

A couple of months ago, Evan Rail, a Prague-based writer of considerable merit, self-published a long essay — or mini-book, whichever you prefer — entitled “Why Beer Matters.” Well, “published” might not be quite the correct word, as it was and remains available in only e-book form, purchasable through Amazon for a mere $1.99.

I read Mr. McL’s review of it and was suitably impressed, but not to the point that I was willing to go out and get an ereader in order to view the thing. (I hate reading lengthy missives on my computer screen. Something to do with spending too much time in front of it on a daily basis, I think.) Some weeks later, I had reason to email Evan, who I have never met but have in the past communicated with electronically, and mentioned in passing his work, after which he kindly sent me a review copy in PDF.

And then it sat on my hard drive. And sat. And sat.

Until, this morning, I decided to finally print it out and read the damn thing! I’m glad I did, and you should be, too.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, I am now here to tell you that procuring and reading Mr. Rail’s 22 page treatise is the best use you’ll make of two dollars this year! It will make you smile; it will make you think; unless you’re a stuck-in-the-mud bore, it will make you nod your head in agreement; it will make you want to jump on a plane to go somewhere for the express purpose of drinking beer; it will make you want to track down the author’s favourite Prague pub so you can raise a glass with him; it will make you happy to be a beer aficionado; it will make you dismayed that you have not sampled more of what the world of beer has to offer; and above all, it will make you thirsty.

What’s it about, you might ask? Well, the answer is in the title, but at the same time that is more the take-off point than the complete raison d’être. “Why Beer Matters” is about more than just why beer matters, it’s also about what makes beer important, how it relates to our modern world, why we are able to derive such pleasure from it, and pivotally, why we all probably take it all a wee bit too seriously. Add to all that Rail’s winning style and wit and you have a most engaging bit of prose.

For two bucks you can buy a bottle of water on a sunny day, a glass of beer during Happy Hour at a disreputable bar, or scratch-and-lose lottery card, none of which I’m betting will deliver the enjoyment of “Why Beer Matters.” So just buy it, okay?

Sh*t Online Beer Raters Do (But Shouldn’t)

C’mon, admit it, you know it happens…

1. Split a 12 ounce bottle of beer with eight or nine other people and make a rating out of it. If there isn’t more than one bottle to go around, it’s great that you share and your mother would be proud, but beer is not meant to be assessed by the ounce. And speaking of which…

2. Emerge from the GABF or any other festival that limits you to tiny servings with a notebook full of ratings. That’s compounding the sin of the small pour rating with the added issue of making reasonable tasting notes while being jostled on all sides by crowds of merry drinkers.

3. Rate a barley wine at a beer fest on a July afternoon. Beer is contextual, as much or likely more so than any other food or drink, and a monster brew meant for cold nights in front of the fireplace just isn’t going to translate to a stinking hot summer’s day.

4. Expect local bars and breweries to treat you specially because you’re a top rater. Really, get over yourself.

5. Wax poetic over the latest barrel-aged and woefully out-of-balance limited edition alcoholic mess while trashing a beautifully executed take on a kölsch or pilsner simply because it’s golden and people might be able to drink more than one at a time.

Gift Idea #5: Whisky Advocate Subscription

Whisky Advocate is the successor to the old Malt Advocate magazine, to which I’ve contributed a column since I was a teenager. (Well, not really, but sometimes it seems like that long…in a good way, of course.) The mag is now part of the Shanken Publications stable of journals, which also includes Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado,   and that means it is bigger, better and more beautifully laid out than ever.

So what could possibly be better than an $18 gift subscription to such a magazine? How about two for the same price! Yes, that’s right, but one and get the second free, so the lucky recipients will have no idea you spent a mere $9 on each of them.

It’s a bargain rate for a fine publication. What’s not to like?

Tasted!: Innis & Gunn Highland Cask

I have a bit of an odd relationship with Innis & Gunn‘s barrel-aged beers. Starting with the Scottish company’s flagship Innis & Gunn Original, I’ve thought that many of their brands are quite enjoyable sippers, a sentiment illustrated well by their remarkable success in my home province of Ontario. Some of their special editions, on the other hand, I have found quite awful,  indeed almost unconscionably so considering the hefty price tag which came attached to them.

One of those latter brews was last year’s Highland Cask, which I recall reviewing somewhere — I’m honestly unsure exactly where, or even if it was in print or electronic media — and finding to be a wee bit too similar to a Werther’s Original caramel candy. So I imagine it was with some trepidation that their p.r. people offered to send me samples of this year’s edition of the same beer, although to their credit that is exactly what they did. Ever willing to give a beer a second chance, I accepted.

The casks are different for this beer, of course, although beyond “a famous distillery in the Highlands of Scotland,” we are told nothing of their origin. (And wouldn’t it impress the hell out of you if i could accurately say, based on the flavour of the ale, from which distillery they hail? Sadly, I cannot.) What we do know is that the whisky they held was aged for 18 years, and that that their effect is miles better than was that of last year’s barrels.

In place of last year’s butterscotch nose, we have something significantly more attractive and complex, mixing soft vanilla notes with stewed fruit, light herbaceous notes and I think just a hint of peatiness. The body is sweet and flavourful, although perhaps a little simpler than it need be at 7.1% alcohol, beginning with some caramelly and chocolaty notes, backed by candied apricot, and leading in to a drier but still sweet body of lightly spicy toffee with vanilla and cinnamon notes, some lingering fruitiness and a warming quality leading into and through the finish.

A bit of hoppy dryness eliminates the cloying factor that might otherwise appear at the end of such a beer and makes this, when enjoyed at slightly below cellar temperature, one of I&G’s success stories. To mark a Celtic connection, I might enjoy this with an Irish stew, but for a pure play beer and food pairing I’d probably opt more for a glazed ham or roasted game bird.


John’s Private Cask No. 1

You want to be careful when attaching your name to something. Like whisky, for instance. John’s Private Cask No. 1 is the latest special release from John Hall, distiller and blender at Niagara, Ontario’s Forty Creek Whisky, a part of the Kittling Ridge Distillery.

As the name suggests, this is a whisky near and dear to Hall’s heart, a special release focused not on the cask in which the spirit was finished — as were the Double Barrel, Port Cask and Confederation Oak, the last of which I raved about in Malt Advocate and City Bites, and am about to again in the September issue of Sharp — but on, in Hall’s words, “the taste of the varietal graiuns…showcasing the complexity of the aromas and tastes.”

So first, a little background. John Hall doesn’t make whisky the way most people make whisky. Instead, he ferments and distills single grain whiskies, made from barley, rye and corn, and ages each separately before marrying them together for a short honeymoon in sherry oak prior to bottling and release. (At least, that’s how he handles the basic Forty Creek. Others have the same start but get different treatment on the finish, a full three years worth of blended aging in the case of Confederation Oak.) This bottling starts the same way, but is proprietarily blended by John to maximize the impact of the specific grains. At least, that’s what he says.

Nosing and tasting it, I am left with no doubt that Hall did exactly what he says he did, and feel I have gained keen insight into the man’s palate for the experience. This is a good whisky, perhaps a very good bordering on excellent whisky, but it’s not one that I find especially to my taste, at least not initially. Instead of vast complexities on the nose, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of peppery butterscotch, richer, even, than the just-released-in-Canada Collingwood Canadian Whisky, which I thought was rather intensely sweet on the nose, and much less complex than the Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon I’ve been swooning over of late.

On the palate, however, a funny thing happens. Sure, it’s sweet and almost unctuous up front, but as it crosses the tongue spices begin to dance, with evident pepper — white and black — hints of nutmeg and mace, and closer to the finish, a touch of cinnamon. Alongside all this is fruit both dried and muddled, emphasis on the citrus, and the expected vanilla, but also a dryly toasty oakiness at the finish. Here, then, is the complexity I was looking for in the nose.

(And, I might add, a strong case against those who would insist that you can gauge everything you need to know about a whisky by sniffing it. As if!)

There are only 1,500 cases of this whisky being released in September, and as the ad copy says, when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. My assessment would be that it is very much worth trying at very reasonable $69.95 a bottle, but if it came down to a choice between Private Cask and Confederation Oak, I’d opt for the latter.

Events Upcoming Over the Next Two Months

If you visit the “Beer Tastings, Dinners & Events” page on this site, you will notice that I suck at keeping it updated. So for those who may be interested, this post is about a few upcoming events I’ll be hosting and/or attending:

For the Whisky Enthusiast: On April 7 at the Monk’s Table in Toronto, I’ll be hosting a seminar entitled “Got Wood?” which will focus on the effects of barrels on single malt and other whiskies. We have some terrific spirits lined up for tasting and a surprise or two in store. ($50; 1276 Yonge Street, Toronto; call 416-920-7037 for info and tickets)

For the South American Beer Enthusiast: From May 10 to 14, I’ll be attending the first ever Great South Beer Cup in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We’ll be judging beers early on in the week and I’ll be presenting a talk on craft brewing around the world on, I believe, Friday, May 13. (Prices and events vary; see website for details.)

For the Brazilian Gourmand: I’m very excited to announce that immediately following my trip to Argentina, I’ll be hosting a pair of dinners in São Paulo, Brazil. The first will take place at Melograno, last year’s winner of the award for the best beer list in the city, and the second at Mocotó, the amazing restaurant and cachaçaria I wrote about here. I haven’t set either menu yet, but I can assure you both will be memorable (although the second may be open only to the press and restaurant industry). (May 16 and 17; contact the individual restaurants for details and bookings)

For the Restaurant Operator: On May 22 at the International Wine, Spirits & Beer portion of the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, I will be heading a panel talking about the importance of glassware in specialty beer programs. On stage with me will be Michael Roper, proprietor of the Windy City’s own Hopleaf, and John Lane, partner in the Winking Lizard Tavern chain. (Included with registration; see website for details)