St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Review: Rickard’s Radler

Background

For reasons that I don’t completely understand, the people at Molson keep sending me things to review. I think this is due to the fact that I try to be fairly objective when I review a product. This always strikes me as somewhat odd because an objective review of some of their products is not really in their best interest. Had I been at Sun Media a week longer, I would have reviewed Coors Altitude in an extremely negative and possibly violent manner. They dodged a bullet on that one. (ed note: The ratebeerians have done that for me. My favourite review: “What is the point of this I mean really do they just brew one kind of beer and just put it different packaging wow”)

Rickard’s, on the other hand, has been of surprisingly high quality over the last five years. Discounting Oakhouse and Cardigan (which were sort of flavoured lagers), they’ve had a fairly high quality Pilsener in Rickard’s Blonde, a creditable Shandy and the Oktoberfestbier, Lederhosen, was possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. They’ve got a talented brewing team including Steve Straddioto. He’s a guy who knows his way around beer styles and who I’ve underrated in the past because he’s frequently used as a stunt brewmaster for marketing purposes. Every organization has got to have a face.

Sometimes they send me a mystery bottle. It has no label, but it does contain liquid. No one has ever encountered problems drinking an unlabeled liquid, right?

Sometimes they send me a mystery bottle. It has no label, but it does contain liquid. No one has ever encountered problems drinking an unlabeled liquid, right?

Rickard’s exists in an interesting position at the moment. They’ve got a competent staff and the potential to do a lot of good things, but they’re the middle tier in the MolsonCoors sandwich. MolsonCoors isn’t in the risk taking business at the moment. They’ve got to contend with a shifting Ontario market and the likely advent of grocery store sales. They shut down their Beer Academy and will turn it over to Creemore in the near future. I’m given to understand that the other craft property in the stable, Granville Island, has recently lost brewmaster Vern Lambourne and has gone through some core property rebranding. Brockton IPA is now Infamous IPA. Kitsilano Maple Cream Ale is now Maple Shack Cream Ale. This suggests they’re being positioned for a wider market at the expense of geographical sense of place.

The Beer

The question here is what do you do if you’re Rickard’s? For the first time in a long time, they are not really in competition with their opposite number at Labatt’s. The Alexander Keith’s property is now making single hop varieties and instead of direct equivalency to the competition, Rickard’s has some room to develop independently. It would seem that they’re going after the import market.

As you can see, Rickard's Radler pours fairly cloudy. At first I wondered whether there was wheat in there, but it seems like the kind of thing you'd mention on marketing material.

As you can see, Rickard’s Radler pours fairly cloudy. At first I wondered whether there was wheat in there, but it seems like the kind of thing you’d mention on marketing material.

There are a number of Radlers currently available around the country and a lot of this is based on Stiegl’s success in the market. Stiegl Radler is (and believe me I hate this term) crushable. I am fully aware that it would cost less to buy quality lager and quality grapefruit juice and just mix them than it would to buy Stiegl Radler. That said, the Stiegl is somehow more than the sum of its parts. People are right to be emulating it. It’s delicious.

Rickard’s version, then is being positioned as a flavoured light beer. It is apparently a combination of the Blonde and lemon and grapefruit juices. It contains an approximate total of 5 IBUs, so you know they’ve dipped a hop in it at some point. In terms of food pairing suggestions, they recommend chicken, lobster and broiled fish, all of which are sensible. Potentially it’s the sample bottles, but the carbonation dissipates fairly quickly. It basically tastes like candied grapefruit.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria

"Hello, uh, Bellerophon? He's out? Could we schedule him for next week? It's a kind of a goat/lion thing. Well, if he can fit us in before then... ow! Oh, it's nothing. The tail bit me."

“Hello, uh, Bellerophon? He’s out? Could we schedule him for next week? It’s a kind of a goat/lion thing. Well, if he can fit us in before then… ow! Oh, it’s nothing. The tail bit me.”

Radler is neither one thing nor another so this week we’ll be using the Gygax Chimaerical Composite Index in order to ascertain what mythical creature best represents this beer. What is a chimaera, I hear you ask? It is specifically a mythological creature from Greek mythology with the head of a lion and the tail of a snake and another head sort of grafted on in the middle as if to ask “what are the titans wearing this season?” Notable other examples of Chimaeric creatures include the centaur, the jackalope and my cat Sweet William who is part violent hooligan and part total bastard.

Don't let his innocent looks deceive you. He'll cut you soon as look at you.

Don’t let his innocent looks deceive you. He’ll cut you soon as look at you.

Flipping through the index of various Chimaeric entities I’m forced to award Rickard’s Radler a score of LABRADOODLE.100_0206_Salisbury_boy_puppy

Part Labrador Retriever, part Poodle and part dust mop, the Labradoodle is very like the Radler. Made popular in another country earlier in the 20th century, it has become popular with middle class families looking to enjoy their backyards. It is not very far out of the realm of possibility that you will encounter both at the same North Toronto barbeque at some point before June. The Radler is not unlovable, but you do wonder, looking at it, about its constituent parts. I wonder whether using the Rickard’s White rather than the Blonde might have helped with head retention and eliminated the need for orange slices.

A Word of Advice To The People Of Ontario…

The question, as always, is “do you believe they’ll do it?”

The idea of beer in grocery stores is presently transitory. It exists only in an article in Martin Regg Cohn’s column in the Toronto Star. His word, although convincing and no doubt backed by leaks from the provincial government, is impermanent. At this point, beer in grocery stores exists only as an idea.

It is a good idea.

When Brewer’s Warehousing was started after prohibition, the main idea was to take the onus off the provinicial government. They wanted control, but could not afford the warehousing that went with storage and transportation of beer. Originally, Brewer’s Warehousing was a co-op between the brewers of the province. They worked together to have their products spread out as far as the individual breweries deigned fit.

The 20th century, both here and in America saw consolidation in breweries. The part unique to Canada was that the organization was government sanctioned. It ended up eventually with a small number of foreign owned corporations in control of a system that was meant to benefit small, local business. Currently, The Beer Store does not do the thing it was designed for. That enough is reason to seek reform.

It is inequitable. It is perverse: It perverts the intent of fair dealing that was established by the government in 1927.

It is unlikely that you will see the small brewers of this province come out in their own support in the coming days. They are terrified of the punishment that may be exacted against them. They deal with a system in The Beer Store that will gladly cut them down at any sign of trouble. They depend on the goodwill of their competitors at the moment for their existence. In what world is that a fair deal?

The Ontario Brewers, whether they be members of the Ontario Craft Brewers or not, are subject to poor circumstances. They may sell their product at their own brewery, of course, but further afield they run into difficulty. The LCBO is not obligated to take their product, and frankly, were they obligated so to do, they do not possess the shelf space to accommodate. The Beer Store requires that small brewers pay an organization owned by their largest competitors for the privilege of wholly inadequate representation. Even if everyone foolishly wished to do business with their largest competitors there would not be shelf space. It is an anachronistic model, outdated now by decades.

The difficulty is simply this: There must be change.

At last count, there are 233 breweries extant and in planning in Ontario and no room for them. In every county, maybe in every town, there will soon be a craft brewery. Mind you that the quality of the beer may vary from county to county, but I am not speaking to you as a critic. I speak only of the pride in geographical place that brewery may offer you. It is an additional institution in your community of which to be proud. It will provide business and tourism, employment and philanthropy to your community. It has been so in the United States for decades and in Europe for centuries.

I see legitimate complaint about the idea of beer sales through grocery stores. At most recent hearing, the information is that there will be 300 licenses auctioned off to large grocery stores. Naysayers are of the opinion such action will favour the large brewers. Personally, I believe them shortsighted. Were you to find yourself in America today in a grocery store in even the smallest town you would find craft beer. In Chattauqua County, New York, the Southern Tier Brewing Company brewed a beer that came second only to Busch on local shelves. In Anniston, Alabama, on the shelves of the Piggly Wiggly, you’ll find craft beer. In Utah, though it be only 4% alcohol, you will find small, local breweries on grocery store shelves.

The addition of grocery stores to the market will create hundreds of thousands of feet of shelf space in which craft brewers are adequately represented. For perhaps the first time in a hundred years in a non-governmentally sanctioned space, consumers will be able to view the product they are buying with their own eyes.

It is not an action without its problems: Larger craft brewers will dominate. Mill Street and Steam Whistle, Muskoka and Nickel Brook (once its expansion is complete) will take the majority of the craft beer space. This is simply a question of scale. Smaller brewers may not have the ability to compete immediately. This is an opportunity for the strong. If ever there were a tailfeather with which to attract investment, this is it. The craft sector will see expansion if the rumoured legislation is tabled and approved.

I worry about the smallest brewers: Those only now starting up. After all, had things gone only slightly differently, I could have been one of them.

Currently before the Ontario legislature (having passed its second reading) is Bill 67. Raised by Todd Smith, MPP for Belleville, it would see Ontario breweries enjoy cross sales. That is to say that the smallest breweries would be able to help each other along by offering the sales of each other’s products in their own stores. It costs taxpayers nothing and allows for growth and expansion in the parts of the market that are most helped by incremental improvement. It will serve the consumer with additional selection at little or no additional cost. It will help the small brewers immensely in the short term. To fail to lend them your support will simply strangle industry in its cradle and rob your community of employment and tax revenue.

As citizens of Ontario, it is in your interest to forget the question of whether grocery store sales are the best step forward in terms of consumer consumption. At this point ANY step forward is positive and the status quo will kill jobs. 233 businesses hang in the balance and in that number exist thousands of jobs that cannot be challenged by automation or outsourcing. Each of these breweries houses an entrepreneur who is doing his or her damnedest to provide you with a quality product. In a province where businesses like Blackberry and Heinz lay off employees to the detriment of the towns they exist in, it is ridiculous not to to support your local brewery. Your local brewery will provide a partner in your community for the long term in a way that the large brewers that own The Beer Store simply cannot.

I will ask you only this: to bet on the future of Ontario. Support beer in grocery stores and support Bill 67. Do not wait to see whether the government will do it. You employ them. Make them do it.

Smuttynose Imperial Stout

The Background

Smuttynose is represented in Canada by Claude Lefebvre and the boys over at North American Craft. Now, for the most part, North American Craft is focused on their own core listings in the Double Trouble lineup featuring cans covered in the kind of stripe wearing burglars you might see in a Goddard directed escape film. There’s also the French Press Vanilla Stout which bears the bearded visage of the owner. The French Press cheerfully does what it says it’s going to.

It’s hard to get a sense of who North American Craft actually represents because those sons of guns aren’t keeping their website up to date. This is probably because they seem to be living out of the delivery van and sweet talking LCBO managers on a day to day basis. In the battle between “telling people what there is” and “making sure people can buy the thing” they have chosen the latter.

I think we should work "pretty as a brewhouse" into common parlance.

I think we should work “pretty as a brewhouse” into common parlance.

The fact is that Smuttynose was ripe for representation further afield. Back when the Robust Porter came out, I spoke to JT (their “minister of propaganda”) about the decision to start sending beer to Ontario. This is all the result of their expansion to the Towle Farm facility in Hampton, New Hampshire. The brewery opened in 2014 and their on-site restaurant, Hayseed, opened a couple of weeks ago.  They’re expanding their distribution west to Cleveland and southwest to Tennessee. What you’re looking at in terms of expansion is about 22,500 BBL of immediate growth to near 65,000 BBL. The good thing is that Smuttynose’s reputation is such that the market will soak that up without much difficulty.

My perceptions of Smuttynose are twofold. They have more or less flown under the radar. They don’t have the cachet of a Brooklyn or a Dogfish Head. The flip side of that coin is the fact that they have had a lot of time to refine what they do before taking it to a larger audience. Smuttynose doesn’t make clunkers. The entirety of the lineup is rock solid. Currently there’s a lot of buzz about their Bouncy House Session IPA, but I’d be just as happy to try the two they started with: Shoals Pale Ale and Old Brown Dog. That’s the good thing about taking 20 years to get to 65,000 BBL. You build a repertoire.

The Beer

Smuttynose Imperial Stout comes in a 650 ml bomber and clocks in at 10% alcohol. Like the Robust Porter before it, it seems to have been shifted later in its seasonal release. At the LCBO, it’s a flat $9.00.IMAG0897[1]

Nosing this beer is a little like peering over the edge of a well. It’s not only deep, but wide. There’s the slightly burnt character that you get from roasted barley at bottom, but the middle gives the aroma a sense of proportion with its toffee and chocolate raisin and light espresso. If you look at the website, you’ll see that the malt bill actually allows for that with different levels of caramel malts playing in the middle starting with Munich and bottoming out at Crystal 120. The result is prodigious sweetness, but it’s balanced by 107 BU of Warrior, Cascade, Sterling and Columbus, the mixture of which comes through as pine sap and herbs. There is also coriander, and I suspect that’s in the aroma as an earthy twang. There is no more room for anything else in here. There’s something in every possible space and despite that heavy load it manages balance.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria

It’s pointless for me to rate this beer. It’s objectively excellent. It has a 100 on Ratebeer and Imperial Stout is a hard fought category. Instead I’m going to bring back the sometime feature:

What Did We Learn?IMAG0899[1]

Experts will tell you that you should serve Imperial Stout fairly warm, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 55-60 degrees. They are certainly right that that is the optimal temperature for an Imperial Stout to present its aromas.

What I’d like you to try is to open this bottle directly out of the fridge and make notes on it starting from that point. It’s a big beer and it’ll probably take you an hour to drink. During that time, it’ll warm up. I think that you can learn more about a beer by trying it in different formats than through the purely libertine act of consumption. As it warmed up to the appropriate serving temperature, even a foot and a half away from the snifter there was a sudden suffusive aroma of Haribo gummy cola bottles. The sweetness expanded by that note and I suspect the coriander is responsible.

Don’t cheat yourself out of sensory data by strictly adhering to the rules.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

People complain about St. Patrick’s Day vehemently. Over the next week or so, you’ll see people correct the spelling of abbreviations and talk about amateur drinkers being on a night out or the fact that it’s unlikely there ever were any snakes at all, at all. People cringe (and rightly so) at the notion of dyed rivers and rivers of dyed lager and puffy Guinness branded top hats and a world of shamrock studded dollar store craic.

You need only look at the sheer number of places that St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated to understand a key facet of the Romanticism that surrounds it: The Irish ended up everywhere. Historically, Ireland has not been a great place to live and mass migration away from it was necessary.

By the time my family left Cork in the second decade of the 19th century there was a nightly curfew in place and those who did not observe it were likely to be transported to another continent. Still, that was preferable in a number of ways to overcrowding and typhoid. This was the basic state of affairs due in part to the fact that families were larger in those days and Ireland is small and resources are scarce. You add in religious turmoil, famine, rioting and negligent English governance and you begin to get the whole picture.

All the Tura-Lura, Danny-Boy, Come-Back-To-Erin stuff that people of Irish descent glom on to once a year is patently absurd. The reason they are Canadian or Australian or whatever is that life was going to be a lot better for their ancestors when they got the hell out of Ireland. You could have a house in Cork or you could own an entire county in Ontario. For nearly a decade in the middle of the 19th century, it was the kind of place where the only thing preventing you from getting stabbed for a potato was a severe lashing of Catholic guilt.

In a lot of the media surrounding Ireland that influences my impression there’s this notion that there’s a better world somewhere. Whether it’s Victor McLagen turning snitch on his compatriot to get to America or Malachy McCourt trying to raise enough money to get to California, the motivating factor is that it must be better elsewhere. I quite like the passage in Angela’s Ashes:

“The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” 

I suppose that it’s in that third option where the association of the Irish holiday with drink comes from. Flann O’Brien wrote his poem The Workman’s Friend, which sums it up handily:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt -
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare -
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life -
A pint of plain is your only man.

No matter how bad things get, there’s still beer. In a country where things were very bad for a very long time, that truth can take on a sinister aspect. Drink doesn’t solve problems, although it might take your mind off them temporarily. In situations with insoluble problems (like flushing out non-existent snakes), it may be all you’ve got.

If you’re going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you should drink to the following: Solvable problems, a fine turn of phrase, and your good fortune that your ancestors got out when they did. There’s no reason to guzzle The Bheag or Black Bush. Maybe just a pint of O’Hara’s or Murphy’s Stout. Maybe two. After all, a bird can’t fly on one wing.

Beau’s B-Side – Gigantic La Formidable American-Belgo IPA

The Background

Beau’s are early adopters of bits and pieces of craft beer culture, so it’s not a huge surprise that they were the first brewery in Canada to formalize the idea of ongoing collaboration. The B-Side Brewing Label reflects the history of many members of the Beau’s family as punk rockers. Steve Beauchesne is such a fan of the Dead Milkmen that I’m frankly surprised there isn’t a beer called Sour Jane. I like Steve. He’s a great dude who has made his brewery part of the communities of VanKleek Hill and Ottawa in a really positive way.

That's a pretty big snifter. I guess.

That’s a pretty big snifter. I guess.

Anyway, the B-Side brewing label is an attempt to provide exposure to brewers from other parts of the world who either don’t have the ability to get their beer into Ontario or (quite reasonably) can’t be bothered to deal with the LCBO. B-Side kicked off in 2013 with the signing of Anders Kissmeyer who produced a Nordic Pale Ale with the brewery that is still available at the LCBO for a very reasonable price. It’s a nice beer, but not the only one in Ontario from Kissmeyer who had also designed a beer for Bush Pilot, thereby slightly undercutting the premise. The Nordic Saison that emerged as a follow up was a limited time affair whose yeast profile had, at least on the two bottles I sampled, a somewhat unfortunate whiff of burning hair.

The launch of Beau’s second B-Side brewer, Portland, Oregon’s Gigantic, may not in practice be helped by the fact that it comes at the culmination of FeBREWary. Beau’s has released a new beer every week for a month and while one of them is the resurgent favourite Strong Patrick, I can’t help but feel that there’s a little audience fatigue happening. Even though the Le Coeur Noir Black IPA was quite good, I’ve not heard a lot of scuttlebutt about it. I guess this is the price you pay when everyone gets all amped up for International Gruit Day where our motto is: “Gruit: Do it to it.”

The Beer

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

La Formidable is an American-Belgo IPA, which just means that it’s an American IPA with a Belgian yeast strain. This is fairly familiar territory for Beau’s with previous examples like the Rudolphus IV and Farm Table Belgian Pale Ale having cut a swath through the vast undergrowth of experimentation. Gigantic themselves have a Belgo IPA called Intensify. Put the breweries together and what have you got? Bippity boppity booze, probably. This should be a cakewalk.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the standard Welles-Nelson scale of Transformer Awesomeness to gauge the quality of this product. This is only applicable to the 1986 film and is not pertinent to the rebooted Michael Bay franchise which operates on the LaBeouf “Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go” Quotient.

Scores can range anywhere from the least cool Transformer, the Quintesson judge who relies on his legions of Sharkticons to destroy prisoners all the way up to the most cool Transformer, Rodimus Prime. You think he’s not cool? He has his own theme music and is voiced by John Bender. In 1986 that’s as cool as is possible.

La Formidable weighs in a 6.9% alcohol and pours a vibrant orange colour with a voluminous off white head. The aroma is a sweet orange peel for the most part with some prodigious phenols from that Belgian yeast strain contributing some mild clove spice and light bubblegum. The body is cloudy but quite substantial and the sweetness tend to balance the bitterness right up until the swallow. There is a pronounced hop burn in that takes place on the finish and it lingers, leaving the impression of disharmony.

I rate this beer: Wreck Gar.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

Notice that I didn’t say it’s a Wreck. Wreck Gar is the leader of the Junk planet in the Transformers movie. Voiced by Eric Idle, Wreck Gar’s dialogue is mostly made up of marketing slogans and pop cultural ephemera. The theme song during his first appearance is Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare To Be Stupid which mirrors that popcultural panglossolalia. Wreck Gar’s body is made up of disparate parts from various places and there’s the sense that he’s not quite all there. He’s cool, but in an iconoclastic way that is certainly not for everyone. I mean, hell, some people like Wheelie.

Duggan’s Brewery Parkdale

IMAG0816[1]When last I considered Duggan’s Brewery in Toronto, it was in a different area and the context was markedly different. It was something of a valediction. That post, entitled, “So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s” was written nearly four years ago. In the interim period, Duggan’s #9 IPA and #5 Sorachi Lager have continued to be brewed at Cool in Etobicoke. Along with Brad Clifford, Mike Duggan has founded the Ontario Beer Company, which focuses on creating beer with ingredients from within Ontario. If the “100 Mile” brand isn’t completely factually accurate, it can be forgiven because it works towards that goal.

The 75 Victoria Street property is a barn. It had been Growlers before it was Duggan’s. Most recently it had been MolsonCoors Six Pints Beer Academy, which is currently under renovation to become a Creemore Brewpub. It’s a gigantic space and the majority of the problems that have cropped up stem from that fact. Even MolsonCoors, with all their capital didn’t get it right the first time.

At its nadir, Duggan’s Brewery had significant problems. They had trouble keeping up with demand on their most popular beers (sometimes the lagers didn’t have an optimal amount of conditioning time) and while the place was fairly busy, the cavernous space made it look less full. The walls were bare, and I once joked that it was like a sensory deprivation chamber. Events held in the downstairs area felt a little like a grade seven dance; to add verisimilitude all that would have been needed was crepe paper and REM’s Everybody Hurts. The complete lack of social media presence hurt them during a period that should have seen them boom.

That’s not to say that the place didn’t have its strong points. The beers on tap were of a consistently high quality.

Flash forward to February 2015, and it’s clear that Duggan’s new location at the corner of Queen and Brock has managed to fix the majority of the problems from the old location. For one thing, the size is a great deal more reasonable than the old location. It might seat 100 when full up. The menu, rather than including oysters and pizza in addition to a number of other options, has been pared down to a handful of more interesting apps and entrees. The ambiance is probably more Liberty Village than Parkdale, but the soft industrial feel of exposed girders and bulbs is cushioned texturally by wood plank treatments and broad tiles behind the bar.IMAG0807[1]

The operation makes more sense here than it did at the other location. Much of downtown is closed for business after 7:00 PM and a brewpub was hard to fill. At Queen and Brock, the audience is captive. “People will come in around 7:00 and camp out all night.” While I sat making notes on the beers, a number of young couples took up residence at booths and tables opting for the full tasting flight of beers. Duggan himself isn’t sure of the demographic. “We’ll get maybe a third hipsters. We’ll get three generations of a family with babies.”IMAG0812[1]

The lineup speaks to the amount of time Mike Duggan has spent brewing both in Toronto and internationally. There’s a disparate thought process at work that bespeaks a larger experience of the world and an understanding of a larger audience; that maybe people just want a refreshing drink. He may be the only brewer in Canada who can ask himself, “would this work in Cuba?” As we talk, it’s revealed that the basement is jammed with fermenters full of ideas he’s looking forward to playing with. There’s a nitrogenated Cream Ale in the works and that least trendy of animals, a Maibock. It’s something for everyone from a journeyman who’s not done by a long shot. By the time the new location is fully operation, he intends for there to be 12 taps at any given time.IMAG0815[1]

The beers that are available to taste when I’m there make up the basic lineup. The 100 Mile Lager has a distinct soapiness to its aroma, but the citrus from the Ontario grown Hallertau hops shines through in the middle of the palate. The 100 Mile Ale is much as I remember it from the week it launched. Pine and orange. Toasted grain with a nutty character. Revisiting the #9 IPA for what might be the first time in two years, I’m pleased by the substantial crystal malt, brown bread and straightforward Cascade pine. I’m pleasantly surprised by the #46 Parkdale Bomber and we joke that if you’re going to sell a Malt Liquor it’s practically worth selling paper bags out of the brewery store. The #13 Hefeweizen leans towards Kristallweizen clarity and banana character, making it reminiscent of Erdinger’s Hefe. The #7 Stout is possibly the best beer on offer from an objective standpoint. It’s a full bodied number and the roast comes through without acridity. There’s a chocolate-y tootsie roll tone playing in the distance.

Even with some congestion, I can tell there’s something wrong with the #5 Sorachi Lager. It’s got a more than a hint of brackish standing water. What Duggan does is revealing. Rather than getting the bartender or another member of staff to deal with the problem, he walks over to the bar to scope out the situation. Five or ten minutes pass and I busy myself making tasting notes while he hooks up a new keg and pours pitcher after pitcher of foam to get the beer to where it is supposed to be. Tipping the pitcher into the drip tray, he has the air of a man who would be fine if everyone would just leave him alone to get on with it. It’s the kind of precision I like in a brewer. I’m rewarded for the wait by a quaffable lager with that earthy sorachi dill-herb character at its core. IMAG0811[1]

Duggan’s new brewery fixes nearly all of the problems that were hallmarks of the previous location. Walking out, I’m struck by how well it fits into a rapidly gentrifying Parkdale. There’s a lot of promise here and there’s the potential for the brewery to grow into the bones of its new home in way that it never would have been able to on Victoria street. I find myself cheering the possibilities.

The Hobbit Beers OR Beer and Back Again

In a box in the sky there lived a blogger. Not a nasty, dirty, sexist blogger, concerned with ethics in games journalism, emitting an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, literary blogger with nothing to say but positive things about can-con: he was a beer blogger, and that meant reviewing beverages.

The Background

To celebrate the nearly interminable series of Hobbit films, Warner Brothers has licensed a series of beers to be marketed in Canada and in the United States. In the United States, the beers are brewed by Fish Brewing, while in Canada they are produced by the estimable Central City Brewers + Distillers in Surrey, BC. Central City produces some consistently high quality beer in their Red Racer series and fit happily into that rare category of dependable, affordable beer you actually want to drink.

In some ways, it’s an interesting problem. Clearly Fish Brewing has had these beers out since September and Central City was granted the rights to the property later on. This means that they must be adapting another brewer’s ideas as their own. If the filmic version of The Hobbit has taught us anything at all, it’s that adaptation is a rascally business and fraught with peril. Things people might love in one version don’t end up in the other. Sometimes things get added that people disagree with. Central City without real fault or credit here since they produce consistently high quality beer and are adapting someone else’s ideas.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon at play in terms of selection bias. If you look at the ratebeer ratings for the American versions, they’re consistently higher because they come from all over the country and from people who are into a Hobbit beer in the first place. If you look at the ones from Canada, we’re a hell of a lot harder on Central City. Limited market means more critics, I would guess.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the internationally respected Bombadil Protocol as an evaluation tool. Scores reflect the amount the evaluator is annoyed by the character of an item. Naturally, this is an inverse value scale. A 10 on the Bombadil scale might cause one to put down a series of books and never pick them up again. Behaviour that might cause such an action would include singing about yourself.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!” would, for example, rate a 10.

The Beers

BOLG BELGIAN TRIPEL – 7 Bombadils.

Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn't this have been better as a Dubbel?

Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn’t this have been better as a Dubbel?

Bolg is a truly interesting choice to turn into a beer. In the book, Bolg is killed off by Beorn. Peter Jackson spends several hours building up Azog as the ultimate Badass to challenge Thorin Oakenshield, whilst Bolg is relegated to getting the crap knocked out of him by Orlando Bloom. In the book Azog doesn’t even merit despatch at the hand of Thorin. Dain Ironfoot does for him in what we can only assume is a Glaswegian dockworker’s accent.

The beer is kind of confusing. If you’re given the entire Hobbit mythos to play with to come up with a beer, I’m not sure you’d choose Bolg. Beorn Braggot. Fili & Kili Double IPA. Gandalf’s Hempen Gruit. Thorin’s Dwarven Ale (Oak Shield Aged). Bard Black Arrow Schwarzbier. Knocking Thrush Steinbier. You can probably knock a couple out in the comments.

Bolg's head looks better in the glass than on the label.

Bolg’s head looks better in the glass than on the label.

9.5% seems high for a Belgian Tripel, and at 35 BU Bolg is a little unbalanced. The sweetness really drives the flavour and aroma on this one. There’s the typical clove and bubblegum thing, but an almost lactose-y creamy thing around the edges. On the palate the hops are a little soapy with a wildflower hit and there’s some honeyed malt character. I will say this for it: It’s a good beer. It’s just conceptually dodgy.

GOLLUM’S PRECIOUS PILS – 3 Bombadils

This is a straightforward conceptual leap. What does Gollum want? The Precious. The Precious is made of gold, Pilsner is golden coloured, the lacing leaves a ring around the glass. Actually, I suppose you could have used any kind of golden coloured beer, but given Smeagol’s tragic past and the fact that he was once a common stoor hobbit, a common beer style sort of fits the bill.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Sirkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I'd have no idea.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Serkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I’d have no idea.

We likes it. Standard 5.0% Pilsner weight with about 30 BU puts this square in the middle of the style. Aroma is rising dough, light grain toast, peach and white grape. The bitterness on the palate is mostly herbaceous; sort of long grasses flowering. Straightforward finish. Maybe not worth losing a finger over, but I wouldn’t be too quick to throw it into Mount Doom, either.

SMAUG STOUT – 2 Bombadils  

Who's... some manner of winged cat? You... are, I guess.

Who’s… some manner of winged cat? You… are, I guess.

Smaug is probably the easiest beer from a conceptual standpoint. It has to be big. It has to be black. It has to burn. Dragons are somewhat limiting in terms of beer creation. I guess you can go the AD&D 2nd Edition route and choose different coloured ones with different breath weapons, but that’s a cheat. Dragons mean fire and fire means smoke and heat. Whether it’s a Tolkien beer or a Game of Thones beer, it’s going to involve chilies.

The Smaug Stout is actually surprisingly balanced. The aroma is not exactly a hurricane, although you can pick out both the peppers and the hop character amongst the sweet malt notes. This uses habaneros, but the shock of its tail is not exactly a thunderbolt. It’s biting, but not like swords. The heat amps up after about half a bottle, so we may consider the “my breath death” quota satisfied.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Actually, between this and the Fire and Blood beer from Ommegang, I’ve got a lot of respect for the restraint being used. Unlike Quest for Glory, you can safely order the Dragon’s Breath. This beer works nicely and is probably the best of the lot.

Beer Review: Spearhead Belgian Style Stout

(Ed Note: Would it shock you greatly to know that it has been over 14 months since I actually reviewed a beer on St. John’s Wort? It’s a beer blog, for God’s sake. I know actually reviewing things is out of fashion and simply posting stuff on pinstagrest is de rigeur, but let’s give it a shot.)

The Background

IMAG0781[1]

The medieval period: When monks had snifters and didn’t get the plague. Use appropriate glassware, junior rangers.

Spearhead came into being in 2011, rustling feathers as one of the first contract breweries in Ontario to maintain a command presence during events like Ontario Craft Beer Week. There had been contract breweries before, but Spearhead were the ones who went out and proved that the model could work. With their shiny orange vans and frequently visible merch, they have remained prominent in the Toronto beer scene and have succeeded in part because of the rightly popular Hawaiian Style Pale Ale and partly due to the fact that they’re a bunch of enthusiastic go-getters. I like all those guys. They’re nice guys. Especially Tomas Schmidt, the brewmaster, who is now so ex-Labatt that he’s frequently seen sampling IPAs.

The Beer

Spearhead’s third and fourth offerings came to the LCBO at approximately the same time and they are a Belgian Style Stout and the Sam Roberts Band Session Ale. I cannot objectively review the Sam Roberts Band ale because it beat my beer at the Session festival this year and I am a big sulky baby.

IMAG0785[1]

A lot of explanation for a short label

The Spearhead Belgian Stout, on the other hand, is a pretty interesting property. It’s more complex than you’d assume its 5.8% alcohol would admit. The aroma is high percentage dark chocolate and high test espresso ringed with vanilla, banana and clove. The flavour leans towards raw sugar sweetened espresso with Belgian yeast characteristics and it remains sticky sweet at the front of the palate while drying out at the swallow, eventually leaving a chalky sensation as though you’ve bitten into baker’s chocolate. There is more bitterness than the 35 IBU suggests, leading me to suspect that some of it is astringent bitterness from the 200 SRM of dark malt.

Let’s look at what’s happening here conceptually.

IMAG0788[1]

It really is quite a dark beer.

It’s a stout. That makes sense. There’s pleasant chocolate and espresso that would be appropriate in a big American Sweet or Dry Stout. But, they’ve decided to make it Belgian. Oh HO! I suspect that at some point in the design process they must have thought, “well, what makes a beer Belgian?” It’s a fine question. How can you encapsulate the complexity of Belgium’s styles in one beer? I think that the answer is that you probably can’t.

Spearhead seems to have borrowed from Trappist beers the use of Trappist yeast and added sugar as a boost in both flavour and in fermentables. They seem to have borrowed Curacao Orange Peel and Coriander from Belgian Witbier. All of these things are as Belgian as Toots Thielemans playing a Waffle Harmonica and make about as much sense.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

detectivepoirot2

Poirot is accompanied everywhere by a young heir, a lady’s maid, a butler, a retired major and a dowager just so that he can practice his accusation.

Today we’ll be using the International Suchet-Golightly beer evaluation scale, which naturally rates famous Belgians on a spectrum from Hercule Poirot to Audrey Hepburn.

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Idolized by millions, but still capable of burning the roast.

At one end, we have Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He is, rather than a Belgian-Style Stout, a Stout-Style Belgian. At the other end we have Belgian born Audrey Hepburn; the only lady in the world who can make Linus Larrabee give up plastics.

Coco Chanel said something Audrey Hepburn relevant: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” This is very good advice. Spearhead Belgian Style Stout is too busy. The earrings distract from the pendant and the feather boa is absolutely outré, to say nothing of the spats.

I preferred him in Blackbeard's Ghost

I preferred him in Blackbeard’s Ghost

I rate Spearhead Belgian Style Stout a Peter Ustinov as Poirot. It’s a good performance if a little filigreed and would be helped somewhat by the restraint of David Niven.

Craft Beer, Elysian and Emmanuel Goldstein

Did you hear the one about the successful brewer? Of course you did. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a man who did not like the job that he was doing. He was an (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) and all day long, when he wasn’t (underwriting/deducting/flippin’ burgers) he thought that it would be neat to open a brewery. The man didn’t act on the idea of opening his brewery because he didn’t have a lot of faith in his ability. He brewed at home for a while but eventually (Grandpa’s Magic Recipe/Brewing School/Won an Award for Homebrew), which changed everything. He decided that he would take the steps needed to open a brewery.

He opens the brewery and he hires people to work with him. These are typically rather eccentric characters who also don’t particularly like the jobs that they are doing (Bearded Lumberjack/Bearded Mighty Pirate/Wookie). With these new employees, production at the brewery increases and all the while the brewer and his associates are faced with problems like (Quality Assurance/Dilapidated Equipment/Nefarious Competitor). At some point the brewer will run into really significant problems and sacrifice nearly everything (Health/Family Solidarity/Any Kind Of Personal Wealth) in order to make his dream work.

The gamble pays off and the brewery becomes so successful that it is considered a fierce competitor by all the other breweries around it, large and small. Other breweries lag behind and attempt to emulate and compete with the brewery. Shortly after this point in time the brewer realizes he has gotten old and does not have the drive he once had. Rather than being a young man starting out, he is an elder in the industry. The creation of the brewery has gained the (Adoration/Respect/Money) of the public and the brewer has been transformed by the acquisition of that thing from the callow young (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) he started out as. He has achieved mastery.

You have heard this story because it is the most popular story there is. It has been defined and categorized by Joseph Campbell as The Hero’s Journey. It’s the single most influential western narrative structure and it covers every story you’ve ever been told from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. You can switch out the gender. You can switch out the setting. You can switch out the profession. You can add episodes and details as you see fit, but the story is always the same when there is success.

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Every successful brewer tells this story. John Molson, John Labatt, Adolphus Busch, Adolph Coors, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman. Success follows a single narrative arc, while every failure is different. It’s particularly effective in the context of North American capitalism because there is that innate Horatio Alger quality to it: Rags to riches. Even better, it is rags to riches doing something you love doing.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

Brewing is a business that succeeds primarily during the first generation of ownership. Breweries are either handed off to the next generation (if there is one) or sold. Very few of them survive to a third generation of ownership. In writing about the history of brewing in Ontario this truth crops up again and again. It is the way brewing has worked since before industrialization.

This iconoclasm and independence is one of the reasons the Brewers Association is going to have to come up with a better brand than “Craft Beer.” The sooner this happens, the better off we will all be.

I don’t like talking about “Craft Beer” because it’s a nonsense. It’s a marketing phrase that means less and less with every year. It is mythmaking that will not survive the first generation of small brewers that it purports to represent. “Craft Beer” is a collectivist myth and in being such it must compete with the underlying myth of the individual that all successful breweries will eventually lay claim to.

Collectivist mythmaking starts with a very dicey proposition: That there is an ‘us’ and that we are all on the same side. The only way that works is if you embrace an arbitrary binary division. There must be a party or parties who make up ‘them’. They must be pretty bad if they oppose us. We’re the good guys, after all.

This proposition of binary division is a vast simplification of a complicated reality. The beer industry is, if anything, united by the fact that every manufacturer is producing the same product. It is all beer and everyone is in the same business. There are thousands of breweries and there are an astounding number of moving parts and motivations playing out constantly and concurrently.

It’s great for propaganda to have an enemy. It rallies the troops and gives you something to hate. This hate was on display the other day when Seattle based Elysian was purchased by AB In-Bev. Let’s look at these examples.Elysian Comment 1 Elysian Comment 7 Elysian Comment 6 Elysian Comment 5 Elysian Comment 4 Elysian Comment 3 Elysian Comment 2

That’s not a rational reaction. That’s hatred. “Craft Beer” has conditioned its adherents to launch into a predictable form of hatred when presented with a stimulus. I can certainly think of a collectivist myth in which that behaviour is a central feature. Unfortunately for “Craft Beer”, it’s George Orwell’s 1984.

Let’s look at “Us”. “Us” is a disparate group of approximately 3400 brewers who make up 16.1 million barrels of beer production. The thing that they have in common is that they all produce beer. Now, it stands to reason that the market competition that takes place for the kinds of beer they make is predominantly between themselves. The beer market is finite and shrinking. The total volume made by “us” grows while the total volume sold by “them” shrinks. Who exactly is “us” competing with for sales? Here’s a hint: AB In-Bev isn’t making 4000 different kinds of Saison and 15000 different IPAs. The smaller “us” are competing with the larger “us” and the hope is that no one will notice if we hate “them” enough.

ingsoc

As slogans go “War is Peace” isn’t exactly “Put a Tiger in Your Tank.”

In 1984, there is also a central bureaucracy that announces statistics we are meant to cheer unthinkingly. They are also about “our” progress, but they do not entertain the possibility of victory.

When Elysian sold to AB In-Bev, a number of “Craft Beer” people on social media rushed to pronounce them dead. In 1984, Elysian would have become an unperson. Because they are not deemed ideologically pure, they are erased from the landscape of “Craft Beer.” Realistically, it’s very difficult to claim that ideological purity is uniformly held by “us” because “us” are 3400 disparate companies operating in a capitalist system. They are not 3400 widgets. They are 3400 owners who have dreams and goals and motivations that are not consistent with the 3399 others.

Look at what Elysian did. They started from nothing in 1995 with three partners near the tail of the first microbrewery washout. They were among the first to promote pumpkin beer, which makes up a vast percentage of yearly sales for the entire market segment. In twenty years, they grew production from nothing to 50,000 bbls and were slated to increase to 70,000 bbls before the takeover. They brewed 350 different beers during that time and influenced a large number of subsequent breweries and beer drinkers.

The reality is that Elysian was a massive success by just about any metric you want to use. It did a massive amount for craft brewing. Rather than focus on the positive effect it had or thanking them for the annual pumpkin beer windfall, they’re pronounced dead to “us” in a second because they’re now “them.” Craft Beer is a revolution that will not allow its heroes to succeed. We have always and must always be at war with AB In-Bev.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

“Craft Beer” has a problem with ideology. Not entirely unlike the party in 1984, the constituent parts of the ideology are up for grabs. Remember when the size limit was 2 Million barrels and they changed it to 6 Million to allow Sam Adams to stay in? You’re not meant to. That was meant to go down the memory hole. Remember when Yuengling was absolutely not “Craft Beer” and then suddenly it was? You’re not supposed to think about the bump in the statistics that caused in 2013. You’re just meant to look at the statistics and cheer. You’re meant to learn to love “Craft Beer” no matter how it changes from year to year. Sometimes I hear people say “Oh, but Craft Beer means something different to everyone.” That is how effective this propaganda has been: You’re engaging in doublethink.

The “Craft Beer” narrative doesn’t work because it conflicts with the capitalist Horatio Alger construct. “Craft Beer” demands of its heroes that they build and build and never sell or retire. “Craft Beer” is a state of perpetual war against an opponent which is at once omnipresent and omniscient and incapable of producing a half decent product.

Brewers are going to retire. Brewers are going to hand off their properties to underperforming relatives that do not have the drive to succeed. Brewers are going to sell to whoever will let them monetize their life’s work. Brewers are going to make deals that benefit them. This has always been the case, since the beginning of industrialization. They are human beings and they do not go on forever. The individual narrative is self-contained. Speaking historically, success in the first generation of a brewery is making it to the point where there’s something worth selling. They are incapable of fighting the perpetual war that “Craft Beer” requires of them. They are not betraying anything because they were only ever true to themselves. The irony is that as more brewers succeed and retire or sell, the less powerful the collectivist myth of “Craft Beer” becomes.

A Word of Advice for Ontario Breweries…

If you’re a brewer in Ontario you are probably weighing the changes that The Beer Store proposed yesterday. I’d like to review them for you.

First of all, there’s the concept of ownership. On The Beer Store’s conference call last night Ted Moroz made much of the idea that by offering ownership to Ontario Breweries, we would be going back to the way The Beer Store was intended to be; that we would be reclaiming its heritage.

The offer is a snare and a delusion. The Class E and Class F shares that are on offer do not buy you a stake in the company. You do not get a stake in the capital of the organization. They simply buy you the ability to vote for a representative on The Beer Store’s board. Now, it is worth pointing out that the three positions offered by The Beer Store on their board amount to 20% of the total board vote. There is no feasible situation in which Molson and Labatt will vote against their own interests in your favour. Your three board positions are therefore entirely meaningless. It is pointless busy work. Do not fall under the sway of the idea that your brewery’s President might gain status by being on the board. It’s an empty seat only a fool would covet.

Secondly, much was made of the idea that “owners” would be given five free store listings for two products. The initial product fee would be waved and also the listing fee for the five Beer Store locations nearest you. Let us do the math on this. The listing fee is something like $2650.00 and the per store fee is something like $230.00 per store. They are offering you a one time concession of something like $7600.00 in the hopes that you will stop pressing for reform.

Let me explain something about the changes they are proposing. They are founded in a deep arrogance. They believe that by giving you some crumbs that they will be able to keep the whole loaf. They think of you as dogs to be fobbed off with scraps.

The worst part of The Beer Store’s offer is that it is calculated to divide you. They believe that some one of you will want to claim the role of board member. They believe that you will turn on each other for $7600.00. That’s the amount of money The Beer Store believes will sway you. They want you to be so excited about their $7600.00 that you forget the following key detail.

You will still be in the thrall of a system that has disregarded you until this moment. The Beer Store offers you these scraps in order to prevent having to make any more concessions. They hope that it will be enough. They will not change. Your input will be disregarded. Your stock will not be displayed in the front of the store. You will not be treated equally. They have had thirty years to change the business model. They pretend to do so now only under duress.

We are at a crossroads. You have the opportunity to think of the future of your brewery. There is every possibility that you will have your own stores in the near future. That you will prosper in business and be a scion of your community. That you can build a system of your own and with it bolster the economy of a province that sorely needs the aid. That you can achieve your dream of building a business that might live on in your family.

The Beer Store would have you sell your dreams, would have you sell your future, for $7600.00

The Beer Store did not consult with the Ontario Craft Brewers about these changes. They did not consult with the Provincial Government. They believe that this will be enough compromise to bring you to heel. They believe it will stop you in your tracks.

Let me tell you something. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the sheer bloody number of dogs in the fight. They are worried enough to offer these concessions unprompted and it’s because they fear there is worse coming. They know that the number of brewers that have been maltreated by The Beer Store has increased to the point where their very existence is in jeopardy.

This would be a good time to take advantage of your numeric superiority. Stand together. Make some noise with your Members of Provincial Parliament. Let them know that the time for change has come. Let The Beer Store know that your dignity, your integrity and your future are worth more than the pittance they offer.

Do not ask what they will give you. Ask what you can take from them. It may very well be everything.