St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: July 2010

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The Hart House Craft Beer Festival

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Craft Beer Festival at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I don’t get down to Hart House very much. In fact, I think the last time I was there was to see a production of Guys and Dolls and Clinton may have still been president. It’s always slightly off putting, then, to realize that there’s a very large and stolid gothic revival structure placed just outside of downtown Toronto. From a distance it tends to look as though you’re likely to be attending a beer festival at stately Wayne Manor, but when you close in on the place you realize very quickly that instead of a millionaire playboy and his butler, you’re actually surrounded by penniless grad students and their professors.

Hart House, described by one local beer enthusiast as being "classier than all get out."

Going in to the Hart House Craft Beer Festival, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had a page of questions that I wanted answers to and I’ll list some of them here: What was the history of Hart House? What information can I get about the previous years at the festival? Is there anything new at the festival? Is it worth the $35.00 entrance fee? What exactly is the point of having a beer festival at a university when the majority of the students are gone for the summer?

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and I decided to enjoy myself instead of trying to answer damn fool questions about the provenance of the building and the history of the festival. You can probably find out about the building from Wikipedia if you’re really into that kind of thing, and the history of the festival doesn’t really signify since it’s only three years old. There’s not any point in asking hard hitting questions about this festival, because it’s working on its own agenda.

This festival isn’t really about promoting new, innovative products or judging beers on their relative merits or creating awareness of the Ontario beer scene. This is a festival that doesn’t really care about any of that, having decided that it would be a good idea to provide people with a very pleasant place to stand around with some good food and a refreshing glass of something cold to drink. Instead of concentrating on promotion, they concentrated on fun. Remember fun? Back when you didn’t really care very much about IBUs or whether the Wellington Silver Wheat Beer was any good? Back when the point of going to a beer festival wasn’t really about finding new beers to try, but rather having a good time and maybe flirting with girls in summer dresses?

This, more than anything, is the attraction of the Hart House Craft Beer Festival, and the demographic that it draws certainly reflects that. My understanding was that the venue was limited to 650 attendees, and out of that number, there were only a dozen or so hardcore beer nerds hanging about the place. The remainder of the attendees tended to be between 20 and 35 although there were certainly a handful of middle aged men as there are at all beer festivals everywhere. This is exactly the demographic that everyone wants to attract to a festival like this for the reason that if you can convert people to craft beer early enough, they’re very unlikely to go back to drinking whatever was available during their undergraduate lives.

The food was surprisingly good. I realize that universities tend to have on site catering staff, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. There were very tasty pulled pork sandwiches (which is essentially the sandwich of the now. You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without accidentally ingesting one of these at this point) and a table of crudités with cheese and pate and whole pieces of fruit. I liked the jerked tofu so much that it has thrown my entire carnivoristic world view out of whack. You may read elsewhere about some of the organizational problems that existed regarding the lineups for the entrees. You may hear that people might as well have been lining up for a copy of Pravda in Omsk circa 1987 for all the speed with which the line moved. You may hear that people organized platoons of diners to stand in line so that they could trade off on going to refill their glasses. These probably aren’t exaggerations, but it’s a relatively minor quibble.

For all that there was nothing brewed specifically for the festival, there were a number of things that I hadn’t tried before. Grand River brought their Ploughman’s Anniversary Ale (American Pale Ale, 70 IBU according to Zach Tremaine from the brewery) which I had been wanting to try for a while. It’s very much like the rest of their lineup: It’s a solid offering with a lot of malt although it differs slightly in that it’s about 6.5%. It’s a well balanced beer which I’m of two minds about. On the one hand it’s a seasonal  offering, celebrating the brewery’s anniversary and therefore not constantly available. On the other, it’s something to look forward to.

HMH Negotiants had what was pretty clearly the most popular booth of the evening, given that they managed to sell out of nearly everything that they brought to the festival. They were very much showcasing their line of Quebec beers, with products from Dieu Du Ciel, Charlevoix and Trois Mousquetaires. I’m relatively sure that I hadn’t seen the Equinox du Printemps from Dieu Du Ciel before (It’s a 9.1% Scotch Ale with maple syrup and potentially too heavy for a warm summer afternoon) I also tried the Trois Mousquetaires Doppelbock, which I found overwhelmingly malty, but in a pleasant way.

Towards the end of the night, with the sound system turned up and, thanks to the high walls of the quad, nothing visible overhead but the stars, people actually managed to enjoy themselves. They drank beer, sure, but more importantly they sat in circles on the grass and talked and laughed and some of them even danced!

All of the criticism that I have heard of the festival has to do with the fact that there was nothing new on offer. Anyone who makes that criticism has completely missed the point of the thing. The Hart House Craft Beer Festival is not about finding you something new to put on ratebeer. It’s about opening up a new audience for the stuff that already exists. One of the problems that periodically effects the discourse on beer drinking seems to be that enthusiasts take for granted that everyone ought to have already tried whatever new beer debuted the previous month. That’s a nonsensical position. The majority of the public probably couldn’t name six craft breweries, let alone those breweries brands. It simply cannot be taken for granted that people WANT to drink craft beer. It’s why festivals like Hart House are so important: They introduce people to the concept and hopefully as a result of having fun drinking and dancing and carrying on, they acquire a taste for craft beer.  It’s a small crowd and it’s a nice venue and it reaches 650 people at a time, some of whom are still in line for sandwiches.

The Wreck of the Okanagan Springs Brewery

This morning, when I logged into Bar Towel, I read a very distressing piece of news which had been linked from the Globe and Mail. A tragedy has occurred at the Okanagan Springs Brewery in Vernon, BC. Apparently, a gas buildup in a fermenting vat resulted in an explosion, causing the loss of 32,000 litres of beer. Now some people who have tried the Okanagan Springs product may think that this is an improvement over actually making a shipment, but I admonish you! Think of all the poor unfortunate beer drinkers in British Columbia who will be forced to wait for their beer. They may even have to buy a different product while they wait for the next batch from the brewery. This is a tragedy of epic proportion, and alcohol abuse of the worst possible kind.

That said, we’re Canadians and we should rally around and show support for the poor men and women who are now forced to sweep up shards of broken glass and fermentor. I mean, how would you feel if you got in to work in the morning and sat down at your desk and the computer suddenly caught fire? You’d probably get to take the rest of the day off while the IT department fixed it, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact remains that this is a tragedy and given our national character, the loss of this much beer is an affront nearly on par with the G20 riots, mining disasters and people making fun of our accent!

I began to think to myself, what can I do to raise the spirits of the poor souls involved in the clean up? They have literally days of work ahead of them and the brewery will smell even more like a brewery than usual. Then I realized that my course of action was clear: WWGLD? What Would Gordon Lightfoot Do? He’d record a song commemorating the sacrifice of the people involved in the disaster and probably wear a snazzy leather jacket while doing it!

Since I had no idea of how to go about contacting Gordon Lightfoot, I’ve had to make do with an ugly approximation of my own design. It’s a shame because my leather jacket is nowhere near snazzy enough to do Gord’s song the justice it deserves.

Without further ado, I give you The Wreck of the Okanagan Springs Brewery. I have even included lyrics so you can sing along at home

The legend lives on throughout Vernon’s downtown

Of the day the fermenter exploded

The beer, it is said, never gave up its head

And by nighttime the city was coated

As craft breweries go it was bigger than most

Each fermenter held thousands of liters

But there wasn’t a vent and it finally went:

Broken bottles for dozens of meters.

The newspapers claimed that the problem was blamed

On a buildup of carbon dioxide

The force of the squall tore the door from the wall

With the violence and strength of a rock slide

This was the tale of a batch of cream ale

from the brewery called Okanagan

The lumberjacks cried and they broke down inside;

There’d be nothing to drink after logging.

The beer it was spilled and though no one was killed

It was tragic enough to the brewers

Instead of being filtered through beer loving men

It flowed directly into the sewers.

While it may not be the rallying cry that the folks at Okanagan Springs need during this, their darkest hour, I feel as though I’m at least attempting to provide some moral support and with that untenable sense of self righteousness under my belt, I’m going to go and enjoy the rest of my Saturday afternoon.

On Palate and Limitations

Regular readers will have noticed by now that I tend not to review individual beers for my blog. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are down to mechanics and some of which are down to personal taste.

In mechanical terms, I find that I don’t necessarily trust myself to make notes accurately. I’m hampered by a certain amount of red-green and blue-purple colourblindness. While this is the kind of thing that can be a huge genetic advantage in aerial cartography, it can be sort of a nuisance when faced with traffic lights, modern art or action movie bomb defusing. God help us all if I’m ever called upon to cut the dark green wire.

Typically the response that people have when they find out about this minor condition is to hold things up or point at various objects scattered around the room and ask “what colour is that?” as though they are encountering someone with this issue for the very first time. Usually they’ll point at a tree, or the grass first in order to attempt to establish a baseline. It’s fun to blow their minds by pointing out that the grass is, in fact, green. All that they have really established is that I once read a first grade primer. In fact, no one knew I was colourblind until I was six. I developed the very simple coping mechanism of knowing what colours things were supposed to be and then finding a crayon with the name of the colour written on the wrapper.

One of the problems with evaluating beer, though, is that colour is determined through SRM which is a relatively dull abbreviation for Standard Reference Method. It refers to the colour of the beer, ranging from water (0) to complete and total darkness (40+). I have no problem with crystal clear or black as midnight on a moonless night. I have a significant amount of trouble reliably determining colours between about 7 SRM and 25 SRM. I might be able to guess within about three or four points, but I’m not absolutely sure that such an estimation is of use to anyone. And I tend to be thrown off by opacity! An unfiltered beer will look darker to me even if it isn’t actually any darker in colour.

Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple workaround: recruiting people who don’t have this problem. “Hey, uh, Tim? Yeah, man. What colour is this? Right. Riiiight…”

On Saturday, though, I came to an additional realization: I was drinking a sample of Charlevoix’s excellent Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus and I was unable to describe exactly what I was tasting. It’s not a matter of cognitive dissonance. I simply didn’t have the vocabulary. Here’s what I wrote:

This is a Belgian Strong Ale, and when I was attempting to determine which beers to try this afternoon, I was warned that this was very spicy. It is extremely spicy, but it also contained a number of fruit notes. I sat for a couple of minutes attempting to come up with a list of things that I was tasting (many of the things on the list had question marks beside them), but ended up completely sidetracked when I realized what food I would pair it with. The best explanation that I can give you about this beer is that it needs to go with Tortiere. It absolutely has to. In a perfect world everyone would come back from Christmas Eve mass, and have a large, warming glass of this with a slice of homemade Tortiere. Looking at the trade description I realized I wasn’t far off even without the adequate tasting vocabulary:  “A salutary elixir that will comfort you from the wintry season’s frigid grasp. It will indeed warm and enliven your soul even when our glacial winter doesn’t want to let up.”

Clearly, I understand what’s going on and I can associate the flavours with places where I have tried them before, but I can’t list the individual contributing flavours. Look at this review of the same beer from

“Pours a beautiful walnut colored pour with a nice off-white, frothy head. Aroma holds some really nice nectarine and peach notes, along with rosemary, tarragon (props). These two two concepts meld beautifully into a mulled cider profile, that has clove and pear in the background– very spicy on the nose overall. Flavor takes a while to develop, then explodes with heavy heavy spice. Definitely a winter beer- reminds me of those gimmicky Christmas ales, but to be fair, it has a little more going on. Some molasses and caramel malt, but that beautiful nectarine profile from the aroma has been overpowered by the mulled spice. Bittersweet chocolate creeps in as well.”

While no one tastes the same things in any particular beer, I have to concede that I wish I could pick out all of these things. I have realized that I’m working with a shockingly limited vocabulary in terms of flavour.

Just looking at this note, I can tell you with complete certainty that I haven’t had a nectarine in an extraordinarily long time, if ever. I think I may have had a glass of mulled cider a few years ago at a Christmas function, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s being mulled. I’m not even really sure what Tarragon is. This is probably a function of living as a single twenty something male person in a one bedroom apartment: The kind of lifestyle where food preparation involves periodically grilling some chicken and tweaking your recipe for chili con carne; washing dishes only when absolutely necessary. It’s probably also the result of being the whiny kid who wanted everything plain. According to mom, I didn’t like gingerbread and would run from the room when the Christmas cake was laid out.

While there’s nothing that I can do about colourblindness short of recruiting a seeing eye drinker, I know with some degree of certainty that I’ll be able to improve my vocabulary in terms of palate. As I see it, this is the kind of information that can be acquired. I have decided to attempt this over the course of the next month or so, and it seems to me that the best thing to do is to split the project into three sections: Spices (Everything from Aniseed to Za’atar), Fruit (Everything short of Durian) and Other (which will include chocolate and caramel and things of that nature).

I’m not entirely sure whether this is going to prove to be beneficial. I don’t know for certain that it will make me a better observer. I don’t even know exactly how I’m going to go about it. However, if you’re at the St. Lawrence Market over the next couple of weeks and you see a large, confused looking man wandering around the spice vendor’s stall with a copy of the Complete Idiot’s Field Guide to Marjoram, it will probably be me.

If It’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Charlevoix @ Bar Volo

This weekend at Bar Volo, they’re having a series of tastings and events based around the launch of a number of Products from MicroBrasserie Charlevoix. This is the second such launch from Bar Volo, who are also the brains behind HMH Negotiants, which is dedicated to importing quality beers from other provinces which are typically unavailable through the LCBO. I don’t claim to understand the byzantine process of importing beers from other provinces, but it seems as though the relatively draconian strictures of the LCBO make it unlikely that beers from outside of Ontario would be likely to find a place in Ontario without the work of startups like HMH or Cecktor. Tasting the beers from Charlevoix, it’s difficult to understand why anyone wouldn’t jump at the chance to open up the Ontario market to them.

The media tasting which I attended this afternoon was a showcase of a brewery that is doing a great number of things the right way. MicroBrasserie Charlevoix was started in 1998 and the range of beers offered as examples of their output is extremely impressive. The nine beers that are on offer all possess distinct character, and this is a result of the constant process of refinement that the brewers have undertaken over the last thirteen years. In 2009, they acquired a state of the art production facility.

I spoke at some length with Caroline Bandulet about one of the Charlevoix products that I had tried at Mondiale in June: Charlevoix Brut. I essentially wanted to know what possesses a brewer to attempt and create a beer with Champagne yeast. Experiencing it for the first time in Montreal, it seemed like a new concept to me and one which seemed slightly baffling. Apparently, they have been working on the Brut since 1999 and over the course of the interim period it has gone through a number of changes including choice of packaging (the style of bottle has changed since the inception of the product) and choice of yeast strain.

I realized while she was talking about the difficulty of creating a high quality, dependably consistent product that the Brut is not a departure for Charlevoix. They simply think it’s worth doing and for that reason they have spent twelve years working on making it happen. This is an important characteristic of their process: They are working daily to make their products better. They are making small, but important, changes. Constantly. Because they believe it’s worth doing.

The La Vache Folle RangeThis is the kind of operational philosophy that explains why a thirteen year old brewery is able to boast such a range of high quality beers which are so completely distinct from each other. They essentially have two categories of beer: La Vache Folle, which is fermented using an English yeast strain and Dominus Vobiscum, which is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. I jotted down some of my impressions:

La Vache Folle ESB – 6.0%: My initial thought is that this wasn’t an ESB. I’m primarily used to English style ESBs and this is slightly different. It’s lighter in colour than I would have assumed an ESB to be, but the fruit character is there. And there’s slightly more hop character than you’d usually get in an English style. It’s interesting in that it’s a different approach to a traditional style which manages to meet many of the expectations of that style while coming at the problem from a non-traditional direction.

La Vache Folle Amarillo Double IPA – 9.0%: This is a Double IPA highlighting a single variety of hops: Amarillo. It certainly doesn’t taste like it’s 9.0% alcohol, mostly because the hop character disguises it on the palate. Amarillo is a very citrusy hop and I was reminded of Rose’s Lime Cordial and slightly overripe pink grapefruit. I have had Double IPA’s that are aggressively bitter, but this was practically candy-like and made for very easy drinking

The Dominus Vobiscum RangeDominus Vobiscum Grand Reserva Hibernus ’09 – 10%: This is a Belgian Strong Ale, and when I was attempting to determine which beers to try this afternoon, I was warned that this was very spicy. It is extremely spicy, but it also contained a number of fruit notes. I sat for a couple of minutes attempting to come up with a list of things that I was tasting (many of the things on the list had question marks beside them), but ended up completely sidetracked when I realized what food I would pair it with. The best explanation that I can give you about this beer is that it needs to go with Tortiere. It absolutely has to. In a perfect world everyone would come back from Christmas Eve mass, and have a large, warming glass of this with a slice of homemade Tortiere. Looking at the trade description I realized I wasn’t far off even without the adequate tasting vocabulary:  “A salutary elixir that will comfort you from the wintry season’s frigid grasp. It will indeed warm and enliven your soul even when our glacial winter doesn’t want to let up.”

Dominus Vobiscum Grand Reserva Lupulus ’09 – 10%: This is a hoppy Belgian Tripel, and it’s a good one. I saved this for last, and I have to say that it’s an interesting departure from the standard Tripel. I found myself comparing it to other hoppy Belgian Tripels favourably for the simple reason that the alcohol is not aggressive. The hops (Amarillo, Simcoe and Saaz) are present, but they’re not overpowering. It’s subtle and balanced, where other beers that I have tried in this style are brash. I like it for its sophistication.

Mass quantities of Chocolate!The tasting didn’t consist only of beer. There were a selection of cheeses from the Charlevoix region, a selection of chocolates from Chocosol and some very nice pulled pork sliders. One of the most interesting developments of the tasting was that people were encouraged to try the La Vache Folle Imperial Milk Stout mixed with a cold chocolate beverage from Chocosol.

Think about this for a moment. Frederick and Caroline have come to promote their products all the way from Baie St. Paul. They know that their Imperial Milk Stout is of very high quality and that it can stand on its own. It doesn’t need the gimmick of added chocolate. But they’re actively encouraging people to play with it; they want you to have fun. Caroline even mentioned that the Dominus Vobiscum Blanche is good mixed with orange juice.

Assorted Cheeses!The Charlevoix range of beers come from one of the greatest food regions in Canada, famed for its artisanal cheeses and the operational philosophy of the brewery is clearly also of an artisanal bent, given the attention to detail and constant refinement of their products over the last decade. The message is clear, though. These are not products intended to be revered. These are beers meant to be enjoyed. The brewers are so confident in their beers that they don’t require you to sit there in serious contemplation.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to get in on the action. The Bar Volo launch party will run until midnight tonight and tomorrow you can go and watch the folks from Charlevoix, Biergotter and Bar Volo collaborate on a special brew. I have the feeling it’ll be a corker.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin and the Hop Mess Monster

One of the main problems in brewing extreme beers is that it goes completely over the head of your primary market. The two examples that I touched on last time are Brew Dog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin and the Hart & Thistle breweries Hop Mess Monster. Tactical Nuclear Penguin weighs in at 32% alcohol. The Hop Mess Monster is a comparatively reasonable 11% alcohol, but it’s one of the hoppiest beers in the world when you take into account the 533 theoretical IBUs.

The brewers clearly have goals that make sense to them. But to the public, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I suspect that for most people anything over 7% alcohol is probably a new experience, and even seasoned beer drinkers may never have tried a Triple IPA. These are obviously not products for the mass market. For many people the point of drinking a beer is to allow oneself to unwind at the end of the day, possibly in the company of people at down at the pub. Neither of these beers are designed for that. One of my acquaintances from Halifax managed to get through two pints of the Hop Mess Monster at the brew pub. According to him, driving home was not an option; walking to the bathroom was difficult.

So, if these beers aren’t targeted at the majority of the market, what is the point? This is a question which floats around over on the Hart & Thistle blog from time to time. I’m actually going to quote the owner of Hart & Thistle, who makes a very eloquent point and then sort of loses the thread and compares the brewer to a renaissance artist:

Brewing beer is an ART form, whether it is practiced at the basement/kitchen level, the mini garage level, the micro, macro or where ever, it’s an ART form practiced by people dedicated to making amazing liquid out of water malt yeast and yes hops….glorious hops. At the Hart we serve excellent beer from amazing breweries….this affords us the luxury of having fun with our production. So Anon, when you ask ” what is the point?” you are making it…. produce beer that is thought provoking, interesting extreme…..tasty…not to everyone’s taste but that’s not the point….everyone else is making beer for the masses – we dont need to. When you say “seems like a waste of good hops to me.”…. I wonder if you would think Michaelangelo used too much paint?….. Greg has my full support to continue to challenge tastes and play at his ART….we all win in the end.


It’s a completely reasonable argument. If chefs can be artists, then it makes sense to assume that brewers can also be artists. It’s even a point of discussion that I’m relatively comfortable with given my previous arguments on experiential sense memory. If the brewer thinks it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth doing. The strangest part is that since everyone’s palate is different, the brewer is probably not going to be asked about specific ingredients if he or she creates something on the scale of Guernica. Let’s just cede the point that they’re doing it because they feel that it’s necessary to do it: It’s like climbing Everest, or listening to Insane Clown Posse. This is an instance where the “Because it’s there” argument works (like magnets).

But there’s an ulterior motive as well: Hype. The news that your brewery is creating something on this scale is instant publicity. Hop Mess Monster is whispered about in bars and commented on in beer circles. I know more people who are looking forward to Tactical Nuclear Penguin than the next Michael Bay movie premiere.

Incidentally, here’s what Michael Bay’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin would sound like.

It’s one of those rare occasions where the brewers are actually able to satisfy the demand amongst their most stalwart supporters for something new and different. I’ll prove it to you: Consider whether there’s any way at all to get through a 330ml bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin without nearly catastrophic personal damage. You can’t really drink it all by yourself. It’s certainly not summer picnic fare. It’s not something you can bring out when a guest casually mentions that they’d like a beer. It’s the kind of thing that has to be enjoyed amongst people who can appreciate it. A 32% beer is not going to change anybody’s mind if they’re not already into the concept. They’re going to ask something like “why would you do this” and then there’s a 30 minute conversation that you didn’t want to have.

No, these are fringe beers; the kind of thing that you’re practically obliged to share. No one is going to like you if you tell them you tried it on the weekend and they realize that they weren’t invited. It’s an experiential touchstone. These are the kind of beers that bring people together and then make them go home in taxis. And maybe that’s a kind of art. Maybe the publicity is deserved. It’s hard to say.

One thing is for certain. The fact that there is now a market, regardless of its size, that appreciates the fact that brewers have license to attempt these wild departures from the norm is definitely something that will benefit all beer drinkers in the long term.

The Ontario IPA Challenge

One of the best things about craft brewing is that it tends to reward innovation. New developments are typically welcomed by the consumer and indeed talked about online ad nausea. This is as it should be. While there was certainly a period in Ontario during the last twenty years where brewing dark ale at your brewery was grounds for public incredulity, we are now at a point where the far reaching influence of the US craft market has created room for seemingly endless expansion.

One of the best things about this development is the fact that it periodically happens to be the case that there is something missing from the Ontario market. For a long time one of the things that was missing was a reliable, hoppy, west coast style IPA. The west coast IPA is clearly one of the most popular styles in the world and imitators have now sprung up on every continent, whether they’re merely using the traditional ingredients or attempting wholesale recipe cloning. It’s no surprise that there isn’t really an approximation of this style in Ontario; our brewers have only really been at this for a short space of time and the English influence on the brewing history of the province tends to mean that the brewers favour English style Pale Ales. Until very recently if you talked to just about any brewer in the province, they would have claimed that there’s no demand for that style of beer in Ontario.

Which is complete and utter codswallop of the most obfuscatory kind.

It’s the single most popular craft beer style in the world. If you walk into a craft brewery in the US, you’d be unable to swing a sack of barley without hitting a forklift pallet full of west coast style IPA. The beer nerds and local hop enthusiasts cleared out Black Oak’s last bottling run of Ten Bitter Years within six days, some of them picking up as many as six cases. The thread on the beer review section of Bar Towel for Flying Monkeys new Smashbomb Atomic IPA is about a hundred posts longer than every other thread (partly due to their brewer’s clever realization that he can drum up interest in the product by actually being willing to talk to the public.)

Clearly there’s no market. Just as there’s no market for water in Death Valley; Just as there’s no market for martially trained amphibians amongst seven year old boys; Just as there’s no market for cheetah repellent amongst fat guys facing a death march across the African veldt.

The truth of the matter is that the market will reward whoever manages to create the first reliably available IPA that has some actual hop character and malt balance. For some people though, the financial reward is simply not enough to provoke them into action. For those people, we have the Bar Volo IPA Challenge, the winner of which receives bragging rights for the next year. Now in the middle of its second year of competition, the IPA challenge started as an event designed to give brewers the opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and try to create something brand new. After all, if you’re in charge of brewing thousands of hectoliters of relatively bland lager day in, day out, forever, the concept of getting out there and trying to do something different has to be refreshing.

And halfway through the second year of competition, they’re starting to get there, God bless them. There are missteps, but they mostly have to do with off flavors from overhopping and malt imbalance and also from the fact that the last week in Toronto was more like Rangoon and therefore unsuited to cask beers. You know there’s something wrong when the beer that you’re drinking reminds you of the liquid penicillin you had to take as a child, or when people around the bar compare a sample of beer to bong resin or a cat box. “Oh, but not in a bad way,” they say, as though Glade is currently working on a frisky feline plug-in. There are also beers that are exactly on target. It’s just that I don’t know what any of them are, since the event was a blind tasting, which sort of prevents me from praising any of them outright. I liked beers #4 and #6, and there were only a couple of drain pours out of the nine offerings. Incidentally, it is considered bad form to attempt to guess which beers are which at a blind tasting, but I suspect that it’s entertaining for the staff to laugh at how far off you are.

More than anything, what this event has taught me is that brewers are exceedingly strange people. The first reliable, hoppy west coast IPA to make it to the LCBO is going to clean up. Instead of taking advantage of this obvious market gap in order to make money, Ontario brewers have literally waited for the invitation to try. Let me be clear: “OK, if I have to, I guess” is not a rallying cry. It’s not going to stir hearts or win wars. The IPA challenge is not about creating a one-off. It’s a mechanism to develop a product line which comes with its own in built pedigree as a result of the bragging rights that the winner acquires. If the schlemiel who wins this event doesn’t end up bottling their beer, they’ll deserve whatever opprobrium they get.

In a world where people are now brewing beers simply for the purpose of acquiring bragging rights in order to promote their breweries, it’s hard to understand why Ontario is so far behind in creating one of the most popular styles in the world. It’s not as though we’re asking for an extreme beer. We don’t need a Hop Mess Monster (which has to be measured in theoretical IBUs because science hasn’t charted levels of bitterness between “extremely” and “tastes like burning”) or a Tactical Nuclear Penguin (registering at 32% alcohol, this is essentially the Scottish equivalent of Zoloft). We just need a west coast style IPA. It has been a couple of years since the extraordinarily slow race to create one started. At this point, industrial espionage and even wholesale thievery would not be frowned upon. Hack the servers over at Central City. Take the brewer from Lagunitas hostage. Annex Sierra Nevada.

Do whatever you have to, but get the damned thing into the LCBO. You’ll be rewarded for the innovation. Y’know. With money.

Now with Podcasting, apparently…

Molson Canadian – Made Up Canada

Today, I’d like to talk about marketing:  Specifically the most recent ad campaign for Molson Canadian. If you watch prime time TV, you’ve probably seen this one already, but the link to the commercial is here.

“We Canadians see things a little differently. We don’t see cliffs, we see diving boards. We don’t see untamed wilderness, we see freedom. We don’t see jagged rocks, we see front row seats. We don’t see the middle of nowhere, we see the best backyard in the world. We don’t see barley fields, we see a beer clean, crisp and fresh as the country it comes from. So here’s to everything this land gives us. Molson Canadian. Made from Canada.”

If you actually parse the script instead of just looking at the pretty pictures of mountains and waterfalls, there’s an interesting case to be made for the language that Molson is using here. The first thing that you’ve got to notice is the assumption made at the very beginning. They’re using the pronoun ‘We.’ It’s non-discriminatory in terms of gender. The pronoun takes care of that. From the start, they’re making the assumption that you’re already on board. They’re also making the assumption that as a Canadian, you espouse a preset belief system: You like mountains and lakes and waterfalls and that you’re out there on the weekend risking life and limb in order to stand on a glacier.

They’re trying to include everyone in their blanket statement of assumed values and attitudes. They then use a series of statements followed by contradictions. If you think back, they did the same thing with the “I Am Canadian” rant; this example, not this stereotype. Fortunately, you can only go to the well on “stereotypes Americans have about Canada,” so many times (a fact which seems to be lost on a number of well meaning CBC comedy programs.) Canadians are not Americans and that must mean we’re good. Zed. Not Zee. Ha-ha!

I’ve frequently seen the criticism about the rant that defining yourself in terms of the absence of specific qualities is just lame: I’m guessing none of you have ever gone on a month long methamphetamine bender. That’s a good thing. It’s just that it doesn’t belong on your resume. People probably aren’t talking about you in terms of the negative things that you’ve avoided. “There goes John. At least he’s never sacrificed a goat. And there’s Bob! He doesn’t play the bagpipes at four in the morning! What a swell guy.”

This time, Molson is ignoring that sort of defensive jingoism and is instead attempting to create a positive message about the way that real Canadians see our country: Rocks! Trees! Pristine wilderness! Unspoiled natural beauty! We are the descendents of the Coureurs De Bois and beavers quake in our presence! We are Canadians and we will get out there and we will canoe to a glacier and we will sit on top of it and survey this mighty land! And we will use a grizzly bear as an ottoman! And we will do it while drinking a beer!

There’s a slight problem here:  It doesn’t reflect anyone’s actual experience.

We’re a country of over 32 million people and 80% of us live in towns with populations over 10,000. Nearly a fifth of us live in the GTA. And even if you live in the GTA, you don’t necessarily live in Toronto proper. And even the people who live in Toronto don’t live in Toronto. They live in small neighbourhoods.

In a way, the commercial is right: We don’t see cliffs. We don’t see untamed wilderness. We don’t see jagged rocks. We don’t see the middle of nowhere. In point of fact, the most stirring example of natural splendor that I’ve seen today was when a pigeon flew head on into the netting on my balcony and then staggered around dazed for a while. I’m willing to bet that if you stood on the street and asked people whether they would jump off a cliff because they’re Canadian, you would be committed. When was the last time you were anywhere near the top of a mountain? Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and say that you’re a REAL Canadian and it was last weekend. It’s not a front row seat to anything, although I am in favour of telling Nickelback there’s a stage up there on the off chance that we can get rid of them for a while.

I don’t see it being a very successful campaign for Molson, if only for the reason that the kind of patriotism being sold doesn’t apply to anyone. It’s a hugely diverse country with a giant land mass which encompasses varieties of heritage and ethnicity. The argument of a unified national character is simply unbelievable: There has never been any such thing. We are a confederation of regions, and each of them has their own character. People are getting into locavorism and recognizing the strengths of their regions more than ever before. It’s one of the reasons why craft brewing is gaining in popularity; it reflects local experience.

Craft brewers are relatively malleable operations and can adjust their recipes to public taste; Molson has to rely on an ad campaign to tell you that you should like their product because you sat next to a lake once. Craft brewers are willing to talk about the contents of the bottle; Molson periodically redesigns their packaging. You’re essentially choosing between a product that can stand on its own merit and an unchanging product that requires an advertising campaign designed to play with your concept of patriotism in order to sell itself. If there must be patriotism, let us find a rhetorical strain that doesn’t involve a macrobrewed lager: Be proud of the fact you live in a country strong enough to support diversity. Display your confidence in that diversity by buying local.

“Made from Canada” is a ridiculous concept. “Made down the street?” I can get behind that.

Now With Podcasting

Lime Flavoured Beer – A Sociological Experiment

If you’ve been to the LCBO or beer store in the last year, you’ve probably seen large standees advertising Light Lime beers which have been designed to be tasty summer beverages. I thought about buying a number of them and sampling them and making elaborate tasting notes in order to see what all the fuss is about. I’m not sure that they actually qualify as beer, though. This is a beer blog after all, not a tasty summer beverage blog. If I reviewed them seriously I might have to include Lemonade and Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, and that diverges wildly from my mission statement.

Of course, it would be unfair to talk about Light Lime beers without a standard set of criteria, and that’s why I have taken a break from beer blogging today in order to engage in a sociological experiment with incredibly strict pseudo-scientific parameters that were approved by my junior researchers. I want to represent Light Lime beer with the journalistic integrity that befits its dignity. I tend to view the emergence of these product lines as a social phenomenon that I don’t get. For this reason I will be comparing Light Lime beers with other social phenomena I don’t completely understand, to wit: very small dogs and iPhones.

Lime Flavoured Beer Very Small Dogs iPhones
Varieties already in evidence Bud Light Lime The Shih-Poo, The Bich-Poo, The Chi-Poo, The Malti-Poo 3G, 3GS
New for 2010 Miller Chill, Red Baron Lime, Moosehead Light Lime The Shipooperke, the MaltiBichShiChi-Poo 4G
Mouthfeel Syrupy, vaguely unpleasant Depends on preparation method Tastes like voided warranty
Can be consumed Only if you’re really desperate Only if you’re really desperate Not even once desperation sets in
Transportable Comes with a handle for an easy stumble back to your fraternity Comes with a prada knockoff handbag for easy transport Fits in a pocket
Makes a mess on the sidewalk Yes, but only after you’ve had quite a few Just try and stop it! Only if dropped
Accessories Golf shirt with a popped collar, livestrong bracelet. Little tiny booties,  collar that says “princess” even on male dogs. Protective jacket, muted grumbling since the office insists on having your number.
Likely to meet its demise When poured down the drain by beer nerds; During a frat house beer luge. If it gets underfoot. Or when flung across the room in a fit of pique. If it gets underfoot. Or When flung across the room in a fit of pique.
Cost $12.25, brah. Around $600 Around $600
Recyclable Both the bottle and its contents In a “circle of life” kind of way, I guess Hopefully, since it’ll be obsolete in five months.
Potential for regret Nearly immediate Once the novelty wears off Once planned obsolescence kicks in

Let us think about what we’ve learned from this experiment:

1) Lime flavoured beers are probably tastier than very small dogs and may even make an excellent marinade for them in the event of complete societal breakdown.

2) While lime flavoured beers are cheaper than either a very small dog or an iPhone, you would feel silly calling a lime flavoured beer “Mr. Fluffikins” or attempting to access facebook by staring at an empty bottle.

3) If you absolutely have to buy in to one of these social phenomena, you should probably get the iPhone. It will direct you to places where you can acquire a mid-size sports utility dog and a decent pint of beer. There are apps for that.

On Personal Preference and Favorite Beers

One of the things that makes sites like Ratebeer and Beer Advocate work is the fact that, by and large, human physiognomy is a bit same-y. We’ve all got approximately the same number of arms and legs and we’re fairly similar in terms of the amount of sensory data we can process. It’s why, given a large enough sample, consensus can develop based on beer ratings. It’s almost certainly why flavor and aroma account for 32/50 points on the BJCP rating sheet. I don’t pretend that there’s not a significant amount of knowledge involved. People using this rating system are highly trained and are judging the beers according to style and also based on the amount of knowledge they’ve gleaned over the years. At the core, however, there’s a significant argument to be made about the idea that olfaction is derived from long term evolutionary processes which affect our genetic makeup.

Researchers have discovered that Phenylthiocarbamide and Propylthiouracil, chemicals which are incredibly bitter, are sensed differently in humans based on the presence of common alleles. Periodically, there are articles released about the idea that this phenomenon may be related to sex. Supertasters are more likely to be women, after all. There’s potentially a biological explanation for why beer has developed to be the way it is in the modern era; why large companies are so successful marketing products that will offend the smallest percentage of the population.

I am totally, utterly, unequipped to make that argument, so I’m going to talk about my favourite beer and the development of personal preference.

Truth be told, I’m not a very good Canadian for the simple reason that Canadiana tends to bore me to tears. It’s probably because I grew up in an environment with a significant Anglophonic bent. My grandfather was from Manchester. From the age of about four, I had a nanny who was from Manchester. In fact, I remember listening to Ray Sonin’s shows on CFRB in Toronto long after I was meant to have gone to sleep. (He used to sign off with the line “This is your old china Ray Sonin saying TTFN…Ta Ta for now” and play music hall novelty songs like Yes, We Have No Bananas which is, at the very least, an improvement on Raffi’s Banana Phone).

I went to private schools whose structure was based on English public schools. Instead of grades, we had “forms.” Instead of detentions, we had “gatings.” One day during music class, we had to stand at attention while Prince Philip surveyed us. He managed not to say anything particularly inflammatory and then gave us the rest of the day off. If you can find anything more prone to instilling a spirit of Empire and Commonwealth in a thirteen year old boy than getting to miss a science class, you should bottle it.

I read Arthur Conan Doyle and Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. I listened to Goon Show bootlegs and watched Monty Python. To this day if I’m talking to an English person, I tend to unconsciously mimic their inflection and accent. It’s a miracle I haven’t been laid out by an annoyed Scouser or Geordie who thinks that I’m taking the piss.

Given all of that, it’s not particularly surprising that for the first vacation I ever took as an adult, I decided to spend a couple of weeks in England. I did quite a bit of research before going, deciding what I needed to see. Apsley House was high on the list; The National Gallery; The Tate Modern; The Victoria and Albert Museum. Then I started to think about how far away these places were from where I was staying in East Dulwich and how it might be a good idea to have a mental map of where to stop for refreshment along the way.

I’d learned a little bit about cask ale from hanging around Volo, but it hadn’t really made any sense to me at that point. It was certainly a departure from what I was used to, and I sort of liked it but I didn’t really know why. I eventually twigged to the idea because of two pubs and Hook Norton Old Hooky. I’d love to tell you exactly what Old Hooky tastes like, but it’s been nearly three years since I’ve had one. It’s somewhere between a brown ale and an ESB, with a lot of malt character. It’s reservedly fruity. According to the website, it’s about 4.6% alcohol. It’s not overpowering, but it is vaguely reassuring. It’s what you want in an English real ale.

The first time I had it was at The Gowlett in Peckham. It’s meant to be an area with a high crime rate, but there was none of that in evidence (possibly because it borders on East Dulwich). It’s a very nice pub with four casks on hand pumps. Everyone knew each other. Everyone talked competently about the things they were drinking, arguing politely about which cask was in better condition that day. There was a real sense of community.

The second time I had it was on the patio outside of The Eagle in Cambridge. I sat there on an unseasonably warm day in February, sipping a second pint of Old Hooky and reading Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; 30 feet from the RAF bar where World War II airmen burnt their squadron numbers into the ceiling; 25 feet from where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of the double helix over what must have been at least a three pint lunch. I was sitting on a spot where there had been a pub in some form or another for 600 years, with no plans for the evening other than attending evensong at St. John’s College. Tradition!

This is why Old Hooky is my favourite beer. It helped me to make sense of a lot of things, not the least of which was just how annoyingly, affectedly bloody British my tastes are due to a lifetime of media exposure and upbringing. It also helped me to understand that one of the reasons cask ale is so important is that it helps to build communities of people who know about beer and because it carries forward a sense of tradition.

We don’t have 600 year old pubs in Ontario. We don’t have breweries that have been around for centuries. Much of our brewing history is lost due to the success of corporations like Molson and Labatt. Brands like Arkell and Frontenac are long gone. But, we do have cask beer. And we’re starting to have communities of people who enjoy well crafted beers and each other’s company. And we’re building new traditions. Eventually, if craft brewers can educate the public, it may even become commonplace. It’s a matter of nurturing their interest and giving them more opportunity to try things. Clearly nurture is as important as anything else in terms of developing personal preference.

If it wasn’t, it would never occur to me to use a phrase like “I’m off down the rub-a-dub for a pig’s ear.”

Which I am.