St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: September 2010

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The 2010 Canadian Brewing Awards – Results and Analysis

Well, now.

The results for the 2010 Canadian Brewing Awards have been announced and that means one thing: I can talk about the results without the threat of hired goons coming around to dangle me off a seventh story balcony. I tabulated the scores and have therefore known the results for a couple of weeks, so I’ve had a little time to think about the process and I have come to some interesting conclusions.

Firstly, I’d like to talk about how the results for the major awards were reached: Beer of the year and Brewery of the year. Each brewery was allowed to submit to as many categories as they felt necessary, leading in some cases to nearly a dozen representative brews. In order to be considered for the top awards, though, each brewery was asked to choose four beers from amongst those submitted to represent them in the standings.

This, as you may have surmised, leads to a certain amount of gamesmanship. For instance, a brewery could submit any number of beers, but if they won awards for any of the ones that had not been in the four representative brands they had initially selected, they wouldn’t count towards the final standings. This means that in order for a brewery to have a chance of winning they had to accurately assess their abilities. Your pale ale might be your flagship brand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be your representative in the Canadian Brewing Awards if you know your porter is going to score higher on points.

It also tended to mean that a win in any category is just as good as a win in any other category, meaning that if you can go obscure and win, it’s not a bad strategy to put into play. Many breweries seemed to have the same idea and the fruit and vegetable beers category ended up being the most highly contested one.

That said, I can tell you that Central City, who won both beer of the year and brewery of the year were just streets ahead of everyone else. They seemed to eschew strategizing and only submitted four beers for consideration, meaning that every single one of them was in contention for the final standings. They won gold medals on their Thor’s Hammer Barley Wine, Red Racer IPA and Red Racer Imperial IPA.  By the end of the evening, their representative had made so many trips to the stage that he may as well have been Sir John Gielgud. This year, no matter what the criteria had been for the awards, Central City would have won. They are that good.

That the Red Racer products should have one is not particularly surprising, but I think that Central City’s real edge in the competition was the fact that their Barley Wine is a good deal closer to an American style than many of the other entries in that category. Many of the other products in that category are closer to English style Old Ales and are less aggressively hopped than Thor’s Hammer (Mjolnir has a bite like Fenrir and would leave you feeling like you’d been through Ragnarok if you imbibed too much of it) and I think that Central City won for the simple reason that they catered to the recent North American trend towards hoppier flavour profiles across all ale styles.

Here are some other conclusions that I have come to during the previous couple of weeks:

1)Public perception is essentially unchangeable because of the prevailing trends amongst craft beer drinkers. There are a number of categories for lagers, but people aren’t going to talk about the fact that Laker won a silver medal. It’s not an unimpressive accomplishment, but in and of itself it won’t make people drink it who weren’t already drinking it. It could win a medal at the world beer cup. The Pope could pronounce that Laker is the one true beer, but it wouldn’t matter to craft beer drinkers. It might be objectively good for its category, but the issue is one of image because craft beer means ales.

If you look at the lager categories, they tend to be won pretty handily by large brewers. Molson took a couple of categories. It prompts me to ask the theoretical question “Does this mean that Craft Brewers can’t make quality mass market lagers?” I don’t believe that that’s the case. It’s simply counterproductive for craft brewers to attempt to compete in the lager market. What if one of them creates an excellent product and it skews public perception making light, fizzy beers cool? Molson would proceed to advertise them out of existence or buy them out wholesale. Competing directly and competently against Molson and Labatt could actually assist them.

It’s worth remembering that Molson wins those categories for a reason: They’re very good at what they do. It may not currently be popular to enjoy their products, but you can’t fault them for consistency or quality control. The BJCPs know this already. There’s a significant difference between personally disliking a product and that product being objectively bad.

2) Amsterdam makes products that I’ve never heard of and they’ve won a trunkload of medals for them. I spent a little time last night talking to some of their employees. They’re a young bunch who seem to know what they’re doing and it wouldn’t surprise me if Amsterdam goes through a significant directional change in the next couple of years. Did you know they made a stout? Me neither. Did you know they make the best English Style Pale Ale in Canada? Neither did I. Amsterdam needs an image revamp (personally I think their billboards look amateurish), but it looks like they’re poised to do something interesting.

3) The real winners of the CBAs in Ontario are HMH Negotiants who are the sole importers to the province of Central City, Trois Mousquetaires, and Microbrasserie Charlevoix. They’d be delighted to take your orders. Heck, go on down to Volo tomorrow for the Trois Mousquetaires brewday and meet the Quebecois contingent.

4) Unibroue are excellent, but because the majority of their beers are entered in the same category (Belgian Strong Ale) they are unlikely ever to win brewery of the year. Next time you feel like complaining about the lack of decent beers in the LCBO or Beer Store, remember that you have the luxury of Unibroue being an ever present fallback choice.

5) I’m not going to talk about the actual math behind it, but the scores in the IPA categories are high enough to put it into my head that we have reached the point in Ontario (and indeed across Canada) where there actually ARE high quality IPAs. At this point it’s just a matter of bottling them and making them available. Canuck Pale Ale from Great Lakes won gold, My Bitter Wife won bronze. Get them canned and get them shipped. Let’s move on to the next thing. ATTENTION BREWERS: There are a number of categories where Ontario doesn’t figure. Those would be exploitable avenues for product development or at least one-off experimentation.

6) BC has a lot of really interesting beers. I may have to conduct some independent research (ie: drinking).

Toronto Beer Week – LADIES NIGHT

There are, of course, certain topics that it’s difficult to touch on if you’re a white male upper-middle class beer blogger between the ages of 18-35. That’s a demographic that has historically dictated taste (Nuts and Gum; Together at last), but which is almost unilateral in its consumption of fizzy lagers. The advertising campaign did not call it the Carlsberg years for nothing.

One of the issues which I’ve wanted to address for a while is women and beer. It seems like dangerous territory if only for the reason that there are actual female bloggers out there whose entire mission statement is to talk about the issue and they seem a good deal more qualified than I am to do so. Please understand, I’m not attempting to be overtly misogynistic; if anything, I’m slightly misanthropic by nature. I have a healthy distrust of people of any gender amassed in large groups. In a large enough group, people will eventually start dancing.

That said, I’m going to talk about the TORONTO BEER WEEK LADIES NIGHT PUB CRAWL.

Now it has to be said that such an event has a lot of potential for humour, but it would be untoward to cheapen the occasion by belittling it with crass comedic nonsense. For that reason, I will not be using the following jokes:

–          I like my women like I like my Imperial Stout: Russian, and ordered off the internet

–          I like my women like I like my Double IPAs: Bitter, floral and full of alcohol

I will also suggest that the following modified traditional pick-up line will never work, even on an all female pub crawl:

–          Damn, girl. Your feet must be tired because you’ve been standing around drinking for several hours.

Let’s talk seriously about this issue. A caveat, first. Much of the information I’m basing this on is anecdotal.

Women make up more than half of the population, but for the most part they’re not beer drinkers.  All you have to do is look at the culture that exists around beer to see why that might be the case. Just look at the Coors Mansion and Bikini Teams as advertising platforms. It’s exclusionary marketing. Large brewers have traditionally attempted to appeal to some very stereotypical  male urges in order to sell mass produced lagers. It’s not just in the states, either. Look at any large beer festival. There will be women promoting beers dressed in 18th century Bavarian beer wench costumes: sort of low cut, pushed up numbers with flowing skirts. Keith’s is guilty of using this marketing concept, as was Unibroue at Mondial this year.

It’s not even a question of advertising. The entire culture is skewed towards men. Even at beerbistro, which is a pretty high end beer bar, the waitstaff is almost exclusively made up of attractive young women. At least it was during the Brew Dog dinner. There’s a significant portion of my thought process that can’t legitimately complain about the fact, either.  I’m not made of stone.

But, it has to be said that there are traditional gender roles within pub culture: Men drinking beer, women serving it. Even a cursory look at Orwell’s essay The Moon Under Water spells out that the servers in an ideal pub will be female. That may have been 1946, but even at that point Orwell seems to have recognized the divide in clientele:

“And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children —and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.”

It seems to me to be the case that if the children are only allowed in the garden, then it follows that women would also be likely to have to remain in the garden especially given the contemporary mores. Initially, it looks like Orwell is being inclusionary, but there is a distinct physical barrier between men and women in this scenario: The exterior wall of the building.

I do see a number of women at Bar Volo, but I would say that a large percentage of them are sort of along on a night out that someone else has planned. Sometimes I’ll observe a particularly long suffering person order a Fruli on the recommendation of the server, and I suspect that more than half the time it’s because the word STRAWBERRY is prominently figured in the sales pitch. I always find it a little embarrassing that there’s an unspoken understanding between server and customer there that since the customer is female, they should probably want something light and fruity.

I’ve also noticed a not insubstantial amount of condescension on the part of male beer nerds when proffering samples to women at the bar. The idea that someone’s opinion should be less valuable because of their sex is ridiculous.

The thing is this: any attempt to market a beer exclusively to women is going to come off as either condescending or completely misjudged. The question “How can we increase the number of women drinking beer?” is the kind of question that I can see causing advertising executives to call in sick.

Go ahead and try to think of a way to do it. I’ll wait.

There isn’t one; at least not one that doesn’t have the potential to backfire.  This is one of the reasons that I suspect craft beer marketing in Ontario of being especially clever in this regard: They don’t attempt to exploit traditional gender roles specifically. Take a look at the Ontario Craft Brewers video, or at any of their marketing. They are pushing the idea that craft beer is flavourful and local. 100 mile diet. Drink Local. Artisanal beer. It’s about the product and not about a presumed audience. They have a mission statement rather than a flashy sales pitch. I think that’s doing a lot of good for increasing interest in beer amongst women, and although I have no data to back the assertion up I think you’ll agree with me that it’s an elegant solution to a long term marketing problem and indeed a method that’s a great deal more respectful to the intelligence of everyone involved.

LADIES NIGHT was kind of an interesting thing to observe, if only because it took the traditional concept and subverted it nicely. A traditional ladies night is really for the benefit of men. Pubs throw them in order to attract a female client base which in turn ensures that men will turn up and drink. The Toronto Beer Week Ladies Night Pub Crawl was mostly attended by women in the beer industry and their friends. If anything, it seemed to be more about networking amongst these industry professionals than anything else.

I talked with a couple of the ladies to see what they thought about the event and the impression was overwhelmingly positive. It succeeded in helping to establish a sense of the presence of women involved in the beer community, surely a good thing in a male dominated industry. And everyone looked like they were having fun, which is a truly important part of the equation.

Getting women to drink more beer is a thing that you can’t rush. You can’t force it. There are people working on it. Melissa Cole is doing some interesting work in the UK. Mirella Amato is working towards the same thing right here in Ontario. I’m sure it’s a phenomenon that is going to expand in coming years. With the Niagara College program, we may even end up with female brewers, which is no bad thing.

I’m all for beer drinking women. Everyone should be able to derive an equal amount of pleasure from a nice pint without feeling pressured to fulfill some kind of stereotype. Also, I’m honest enough to admit that there is some purely selfish motivation: Toronto Beer Week contains not only literal sausagefests, but also figurative ones. It’s always nice to meet intelligent women with good taste with whom you share an interest.

Toronto Beer Week – Tuesday

DAY 2

Brew Dog Dinner @ beerbistro

I get the feeling that there’s going to be a lot written about the Brew Dog Dinner, and that there are going to be a lot of pictures of identical plates and glasses and explanations of what was eaten and drunk. In point of fact, Chris Schryer has a nice piece on his blog about it. I can certainly attest that his pictures are likely to be better than mine as his camera has a flash which would not be out of place on a Nevada testing range. Hours later my retinas were still imprinted.

I should like to take the opportunity to talk about my impressions of Brew Dog’s output now that I’ve actually gotten to sample the majority of their core brands and some of their more gimmicky offerings. Our host for the evening was James Watt, and he gives the impression of being a hands on kind of guy. He’s clearly knowledgeable and is very entertaining. He has a passion for the industry which is nice to see.

With Brew Dog, it’s easy to talk about how good they are at manipulating the UK media. Between having beers banned for their names (Speedball), a 0.5% beer called Nanny State, packaging bottles in preserved stoats and generally bouncing between hero worship and vilification, it’s easy to buy into the hype that they manage to produce. I don’t say that the hype is unnecessary, as it has certainly launched them into international beer consciousness.

What I’ll say is this: Having tried their core brands, I think that they might be doing themselves a disservice by promoting their extreme offerings so consistently. 5AM Saint is an excellent beer, but not one that I had heard very much about. The same can be said of Trashy Blonde and Hardcore IPA. It’s just that you don’t hear much about them because of the TACTICAL NUCLEAR PENGUIN.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin

Speaking of, it’s probably worth mentioning that TNP was better than I would have assumed. I had thought that they were only attempting to make a high alcohol (32%) beer for publicity, but I hadn’t given any thought to the flavour profile. Since they used a high quality cask aged imperial stout to begin with, it worked surprisingly well: A digestif not entirely unlike Islay whiskey.

On the other hand, Sink The Bismarck which is made in approximately the same way, started out as an IPA and ended up at 41%. If you concentrate IPA, the hop content elevates as the water content is extracted. To suggest it was resinous would be charitable; It was downright coniferous, like an alcoholic Pine-Sol.

I hope that at some point the focus shifts from their extreme beers to their core offerings, which are exceedingly solid and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Beer Writers` Roundtable @ C’est What

Now I want you to understand that in university I once spent a very cold winter poring over literary criticism and post-marxist neo-feminist deconstructionalism, so it`s worth pointing out that I have a very high threshold for tedium.  The beer writers` roundtable left Adorno, Horkheimer and F.R. Leavis standing.

I`ve spoken with all of these men individually, and I can attest to you that all of them are capable of being not only interesting, but downright captivating when left to their own devices. The thing is this: They`re beer WRITERS. They are neither stand up comedians nor beer public speakers. They are, with the notable exception of Nick Pashley, better in a written format. (Nick Pashley is entertaining in any setting and is a guy worth getting to know if only because of his wry humour and gentle bonhomie.)

I think that I have to blame the format. If you’re going to put people in a circle and have them pass the mic around, it’s unlikely to be entertaining unless those people are the Wu-Tang Clan. They answered the questions that were put to them one at a time, meaning that a question like “What’s the best beer you’ve ever had?” can only reasonably be answered with “Well, there’s no such thing as an objective BEST beer, but…” once and then everyone else in the circle has to scramble to also look reasonable and erudite, shunting the discussion off onto “Well, I don’t know about BEST, but I did try this very weird beer one time. The year was 1976 and…”

Points should be awarded to Greg Clow, incidentally, for his completely accurate indictment of Wellington Silver Wheat for not only being disappointing as an anniversary beer, but also legitimately and objectively awful.

I think that next time something like this is attempted, there are a couple of tweaks that need to be made. First of all, it has to be a discussion format. If there was a certain amount of cross talk, the panellists would have been able to generate discussion on a few questions, entering into a dialogue as opposed to giving answers in what might as well have been a single interview format. Secondly, the questions should be a little more open ended: “What do you think is the next thing for beer in Canada?” or “What did you think of Steve Beauchesne’s Beer Revolution concept?” or “What do you think the highlight of the last year was for beer in Ontario?”

Here are some other suggestions for improvement to the format:

-Nick Pashley should be promoted to moderator of the roundtable. He should also be given a shotgun and instructions to kneecap anyone who fails at an attempt to pander to the audience or takes too long to come up with a compelling answer to a simple question.

-Panellists should have the good grace to answer the question “What is your most embarrassing beer moment?” interestingly. Make something up! Tell them about the time you had way too much beer and woke up in Guadalajara next to a burro named Juanita, missing your wallet and six teeth. “One time, I accidently set fire to Chicago while cow-tipping after a sixer of Milwaukee’s Best tallboys.” Now THAT’s embarrassing!

Toronto Beer Week – Sunday & Monday

DAY ZERO

Like I mentioned earlier, I came home from the Canadian Brewing Awards with a large number of relatively interesting beers. I’ve noticed that some people have the ability to keep rare and interesting beers in their cellar for long periods of time. I marvel sometimes when people mention that they’re drinking a four year old bottle of something. While I’m sure that I could probably stow away some Thomas Hardy in the closet and leave it untouched, I’m not particularly suited to cellaring things. It’s a small apartment and my curiousity inevitably outweighs my ability to ignore quality beers. If you open the hall closet to get the ironing board out and are suddenly confronted by a bottle of Three Floyds Dark Lord, it’s a sure bet that the Dark Lord is going to win out over removing creases in a Brooks Brothers button down.

As such, I decided to kick off Toronto Beer Week on Sunday night, hosting my own event for a handful of industry professionals and dudes I know from Volo. The St.John’s Wort Toronto Beer Week Humourless Trudge Towards Inebriation was a rousing success; Mostly in the sense that it cleared out my cellar so that I can finally iron in peace.

I had a number of interesting beers on offer, but they were predominantly high alcohol Barleywines, IPAs and Stouts. People will tell you that the hallmark of a successful tasting is a small number of quality beverages served at the proper temperatures with food that pairs nicely and proper lighting.  In the case of the SJWTBWHTTI, we had issues with the small number of beverages part. Midway through the evening we had to call in more people to help out.

The Aftermath of the SJWTBWHTTI

The highlights of the evening were some of the rare beers that Troy Burtch managed to slip me after the judging was over. Hart and Thistle’s Hop Rock Candy Mountain is a good example of the kind of thing that you’d be hard pressed to find a bottle of in Ontario if you weren’t a quasi-legitimate beer journalist. Unfortunately, it was one of the beers that was in a smaller bottle and it went early in the proceedings. When people talk about appreciating beer, there’s talk of hop bitterness and this had Citra in such quantities (65 IBU in this case) that it created a noticeable pong as soon as the bottle was opened. For all that you can swirl a sample of beer in your mouth or make copious notes, I think that the true sign of beer appreciation is when a silence falls over the room in the wake of the first sip. In the case of Greg Nash’s Hop Rock Candy Mountain, this silence lasted nearly ten seconds until people started laughing.

There were other highlights as well: Phillips Deadhead Barleywine was a nice surprise, with slightly more aroma than body. Bilboquet’s Corriveau Oatmeal Stout was a lovely companion to the chocolate cake brought to the party by my Super Junior Custom Correspondent Deluxe, Catherine Strotmann. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was what I assume was one of possibly three bottles of Central City Red Racer Imperial India Pale Ale that made it to Ontario.

We opened the bottle and we sat there discussing it with our designated BJCP and we came to some conclusions. It’s a little vegetal and they’ve maybe scaled up the alcohol more than they scaled up the hop bitterness. We wondered exactly how alcoholic it was and attempted to look it up on the internet. There are no reviews on ratebeer. Beer Advocate claims that it`s about 9%; It certainly doesn’t taste like it. It’s a lot like a scaled up version of the Red Racer IPA and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s brightly, tropically fruity, yet substantial in a way that the regular version can’t be. It’s an exciting beer and it’s a shame that I can’t think of a way to make the comparison more compellingly visceral. Normally for a comparison of two such high octane properties, you’d want a Jeremy Clarkson voiceover and a white suited racing driver.

For me, the highlight of the evening was being able to unveil the St. John’s Wort Shameless Publicity Grab IPA, which everyone seemed to like, or at least managed to choke down without outwardly visible distress. It’s a beer that I’m relatively proud of if only for the reason that it`s about my fifth attempt at brewing, and it is actually drinkable in a way that most previous attempts haven`t been.

DAY ONE

Possibly as a result of the previous night’s tasting, I missed the opening cask tapping for Toronto Beer Week. I forgot to set the alarm and as a result, had to watch the video of Bill White and Steve Peters on Youtube and then subsequently on Global TV’s nightly news. Judging by the amount of coverage that resulted from it I think that it was actually a safe bet not to have to report on it. The fact that Ten Bitter Years was featured on the nightly news probably means that the next batch will sell out in slightly less than a day once it’s announced, so you’re going to want to be on the lookout for that. Maybe you can bribe Ken and Adrian to hold on to a case.

For me, the highlight of Monday was the fact that my homebrew actually managed to come in third in the American IPA category of the homebrew competition for Toronto Beer Week. It was a hotly contested category of thirteen and I managed to acquit myself rather well. The truth is that I would have been content not coming in last, but being near the top of the category is a proud moment. The winner of the category was Biergotter, with their Hopocalypse. In amateur brewing terms, entering a category with Biergotter is a little like challenging Brock Lesnar to step into a steel cage. Even if there are only two of you in there, you`ll be lucky to finish in seventh place. They’ve been brewing in collaboration with Charlevoix and Dieu Du Ciel and they consult Volo on their Cask beers. Not only is there no shame in losing to them, just the fact that my beer was apparently competitive is reassuring in that I might have some idea what I`m doing.

Canadian Brewing Awards – Behind the Scenes

The judging for the Canadian Brewing Awards was held on September 11th and 12th, and I somehow managed to smuggle myself into the proceedings.  I think I managed this mostly by being relatively large and stolid and being willing to carry heavy boxes around during the setup on the 10th. As heavy boxes go, those filled with beer are only slightly lighter than those filled with books. If you’ve ever moved your library into a third story walk up, you know what I mean.  Books take on moisture and mildew and dust and will only get heavier. The advantage with slugging boxes of beer around is that you know from the outset that the bottles will be lighter on the way out of the building.

You may have seen pictures on Troy’s blog of the bottles as they were set up. Basically, we transported  a couple of pallets of beer from an undisclosed location where they were being kept at an appropriate temperature to the Cool Brewery and then unpacked them in order to sort them into categories. Honestly, it would have been worth volunteering if only to see this part of the process. When was the last time you saw nearly four hundred high quality beers from all across Canada laid out on one table in the centre of a brewery? It’s a heartening sight and a decent reminder that the world doesn’t stop when you get to Hull. There’s a lot of good stuff out on the coasts, not to mention next door in Quebec.  It’s always good to have a larger context to think about. It certainly makes you feel like an idiot for droning on and on about problems with the LCBO.

I must have done something right on the Friday, because I got asked back to help out with the judging portions of the event on the weekend. At some point I let slip that in a previous career I had been a database administrator and my role for the weekend was essentially dictated by this fact. I got to enter all of the judging information from the judges’ tables into a spreadsheet and became de facto returning officer for the Canadian Brewing Awards.

Now some of you may question the judgment, the value, even the sanity of putting a blogger in charge of such sensitive information. After all, I got to see all of the comments written by the judges and all of the marks that were given to beers in all of the categories. I knew the overall scores before anyone else did. For about half an hour, I was the only person who knew the results. Perhaps a less reputable blogger would have gone all wikileaks on the thing. The fact is that I’m a quasi-legitimate beer journalist and as such I feel as though it wouldn’t be sporting to talk about it. Plus, Kristina from TAPS threatened to break my knees and her tone of voice suggested that she knew a guy.  Mobility is probably more important than column inches. Plus, they bought my silence with a lot of leftover beer.

So, I’m not allowed to talk about the results; at least not until after they’re announced. I have come to some interesting conclusions, but I imagine I’ll address those after Toronto Beer Week if Rocco doesn’t show up with a baseball bat.

The North American Reticulated Beer Judge in his natural habitat

In the meantime, I’d like to talk about the process of an event of this size. You might think that it would be fun to have access to the best beers in the country and to sit there drinking them all day. I’m afraid that it turns out not to be the case. First of all you have to be certified. You have to take the Beer Judge Certification Program, and the exam is noted for its rigour. People come staggering out saying “My God, what a rigourous exam.”

There are 400 beers, but a lot of them are submitted by large breweries and since there are 31 categories to judge, you’re looking at a sampling range that diverges wildly in quality and reputation. You’re looking at about 13 beers per category. If you’re a judge at an event like this, that means that you end up sampling beers from six or seven categories, for a total of nearly eighty beers over the course of two days. That’s eighty 2-3oz samples of beer that you’re making notes on and judging based on how well they fit into the category that they’ve been submitted to. Points are awarded for aroma, appearance, flavour, mouthfeel and overall impression. And, of course, the beers being judged aren’t identified by name. There’s only a numerically indecipherable sticker on the base of the glass to identify the contents to the organizers of the event.

From where I sat, it seemed like a lot of hard work. Troy and Kristina who organized the event never really got a break from putting stickers on glasses and carrying trays of drinks out to the judging tables. The judges themselves had a hard time of it as well. The deliberation process is difficult and I was frequently met with the relatively confusing image of grown men and women frowning thoughtfully at a snifter containing a small amount of liquid as though staring at it would force the liquid to divulge its secrets. They would then scribble something like “butterscotch notes” or “underwhelming hop aroma” or merely “spicy!” on the judging sheet and attempt to mark the beer out of fifty. Consider how many times you have used the word “Butterscotch” in your adult life. For beer judges, it’s entirely normal to use it as frequently as a Werther’s employee.

I think he overheard me saying we were sending that table light beers.

They would then hand in their judging sheets and a period of a few minutes would elapse before they were presented with another tray of beers, possibly from another category. It speaks to the professionalism of the judges that few of them were visibly crestfallen upon being presented with a flight of Calorie Reduced or Amber Lagers. They mostly accepted the trays with the air of an overworked passport office employee who has caught a glimpse of the length of the lineup.

One thing that I believe I can talk about is the fact that the judges are human and therefore not completely impartial, which is probably the reason that they need so many of them for an event of this size. They have biases which are apparent if you look at the marks that they give to certain categories. Some of them are particularly sensitive to aromas that result from flaws in the brewing process. Some of them vastly prefer Fruit and Spiced beers to other styles. Some of them prefer Baltic Porters or Belgian Wit. They all have their own mental models and sliding scales of what it takes to fulfill certain criteria. Some might mark all of the beers four or five points higher than others, but the important thing to realize is that the marks average out because of the duplication of judging that beer.

The aftermath of a round of judging

The size of the event is impressive. Essentially, it takes 25 people 16 hours to make the event feasible. 400 hours of actual effort, not to mention the time spent in the run up to the event by the organizers and all of the brewers who have gone to great lengths to ensure that their beers have managed to get to the judging. You’re looking at over a thousand hours of actual effort from start to finish in order to ensure that some objective measurement of quality can be reached. And it’s all done for the benefit of beer drinkers Canada wide. When they announce the winners on the 24th, everyone will know exactly where they stand and you’ll know exactly what beer to buy at the LCBO or when you go out to the bar.

The amount of effort put forward is easily enough to prevent me from talking about the results ahead of time, as I have a great deal of respect for all of the people involved in the process who gave up a weekend to determine the topography of the landscape of brewing in Canada. Besides, I have the feeling that Kristina has Rocco on speed dial.

Toronto Beer Week – Beer Culture Events

One of the best things about the events listing for Toronto Beer Week is the fact that there are a lot of events that are taking place that otherwise wouldn’t. Just the fact that there is likely to be an influx of interest in the subject tends to mean that there’s a lot of leeway for trying out new things to gauge the level of public interest; While it’s not particularly difficult to get people to drink beer, it’s more difficult to get them to attend an event that’s tangentially related to beer:  Beer and history, beer and music, beer and writing. There are also events that challenge the presumed knowledge of beer nerds.

These are, after all, events that have to do with the ephemera of beer culture. Because they’re all so different, it’s as well to just dive in to the previews.

MONDAY SEPT 20

Highway 61 Southern BBQ

1620 Bayview Ave

First Annual Lager Taste Challenge-  $25/ TICKET

Come out and join us for our first annual Craft Beer Lager Taste Challenge! Where we put your beer palate to the test with 5 different brews. The Top 5 connoisseurs will each be rewarded with great prizes – not to mention that every participant gets a bite and a pint to start! So give us a

shout if you’re feeling lucky at 416-489-RIBS (7427)

Now this looks like it might be fun. I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to go about it, but I suspect that you’ll be given five sample sized glasses of beer and a list of what they MIGHT be. The best part is that because they’re lagers, which beer nerds tend famously to eschew, anybody might have a shot at winning this. Maybe they’ll cover the tap handles with paper bags to give it more of an air of mystery. All I know is that you should try a side order of their baked beans since they’re superbly molasses-y, (which may not be a word).

Accessibility:  4/5

Price: 4/5

TUESDAY SEPT 21

C’est What

67 Front Street East

10:00 – 11:30 pm

Not Always In Good Taste – a beer writers-in-the-round, Free admission.

Writers include: Stephen Beaumont, Greg Clow, Nick Pashley, Ian Coutts, Steve Cameron, Troy Burtch, Robert Hughey, Aonghus Kealy, Josh Rubin

This should be interesting if only for the amount of personality present in the room. You’ve got Stephen Beaumont, who’s about as legitimate as beer writers get. You’ve got Aonghus and Josh from newspapers. Ian and Nick have published books this year. Troy and Greg are bloggers in the process of making good. (I don’t actually know Robert Hughey or Steve Cameron, so I’m loathe to try and sum them up in slightly less than a sentence. Seems dismissive.)  You’ve got people representing all levels of beer journalism. I have no idea what they’ll talk about, but I get the feeling that whatever it is, it’ll be amusing. I hope they field questions. Maybe I should prepare a list. “This question is for the panel: If you were a beer, what kind of beer would you be?”

Accessibility:  2/5 It covers a lot of different readerships, but you’d need to want to know about it.

Price:  5/5 You can’t beat free.

SUNDAY, SEPT 26

Toronto Beer Quest

brought to you by Beerology and Camaraderie

Toronto Beer Quest is an urban adventure where teams of two solve clues about beer, photograph themselves together at the clue location, and reach the finish line to qualify for prizes. The event has one goal: provide a fun way for Torontonians to experience beer through fun, history, and strategy. Prizes, sponsors, and other event developments will be announced on the Toronto Beer Quest Facebook page at http://bit.ly/TorontoBeerQuest.

Event details:

Check-in at 11:00am, event starts at 12:00pm

Tickets are $30 (earlybird) or $40 for a team of two participants at http://torontobeerquest1.eventbrite.com/

I’ve got to say that originally, I didn’t quite get the concept for this one, but I was talking to Mirella Amato  from Beerology on Saturday and she makes an interesting case for it. We’ve all been on guided tours, and I think I’m right in saying that attention tends to wander after a certain amount of time. You might be on the Maid of the Mist, overcome by the majesty and power of Niagara Falls and then twenty minutes later, you just want to take off the poncho and go get a coffee and maybe check your email. In this instance, where there are prizes involved for guiding yourself through the tour, your attention can’t afford to wander. Plus, in order to get a photo at each checkpoint, you actually have to learn things about the brewing history of Toronto. She’s managed to make the guided tour interactive and competitive. Deuced clever and you get some exercise before hitting the bar at the finish line.

Accessibility :  3/5 You need some special equipment and an interest in history.

Price: 3/5

Finally, I’d like to talk about a number of events that are cropping up which fall under this category if only because they are of the “have a beer with…” variety. Meet the brewer. Meet the journalist. It makes it sound as though they should be standing on a pedestal in the corner surrounded by velvet ropes, guarded by large men in black suits.

Ken and Adrian from Black Oak are hitting The Only Cafe on Tuesday and Bar Volo on Thursday. Those events should be fun, not only because they’re approachable and interesting guys, but also because they make some really tasty beers. Please take very small sips in front of Ken; it will save him from thinking about the next inevitable wave of deliveries.

Michael Hancock is going to be at the Monk’s Table on Thursday talking about his favourite subject: Weissbier. He’s a truly interesting guy and one of the most dedicated and exacting brewers I’ve ever met. You could learn a thing or six from Michael Hancock.

Bar Volo has the founder of Trois Mousquetaires  on Saturday and they’ll be launching 8 beers from that brewery. If you’ve ever wanted to see whether your French holds up while drinking a 12% beer, this is your opportunity.

The Local on Roncesvalles has representatives from Great Lakes in on Tuesday to discuss their Pumpkin Beer. Every year the Halloween treats go on sale earlier. There will also be live music, so this will be a good night out even if you don’t want to talk to a brewer.

Next time, I’m going to talk about events that are about beer as a standalone entity.

Toronto Beer Week – Food Pairing Events Preview

Today I’m going to try and point you in the right direction when it comes to food pairing events. There are an ever increasing number of them being announced for Toronto Beer Week and they run the gamut from the relatively simple to the extremely complex, but there are only a couple of things that you need to know in terms of deciding which ones to try out.

The first and potentially most important thing is that some of these events are going to involve cooks at local venues showing off. Picture being in charge of a pub menu on a day to day basis. At most places, the total amount of creative input is whether or not to put a garlic aioli on the sandwich of the day or whether the lunch crowd is going to be willing to drop fifteen bucks on a rib special. Beer pairing dinners are usually a chance for the cooks to design a menu and throw their skills at something. The quality of the food is likely to be pretty high because they’ll be trying to match dishes to beverages, and for that reason this is a good opportunity to go out to a new place and see what they’re capable of accomplishing beyond the poutine of the day.

Fair warning though: No matter how good the beer is likely to be, if you’re not a fan of the style of cuisine being served, you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Fortunately, there’s quite a variety on offer.

Monday, September 20th

The Monk’s Table

1276 Yonge Street – (416) 920-9074

7:00pm

Belgium Beer Fest with the White Knight Please Reserve Seating Limited

Bill White Hosts a Five Course Extravaganza of Belgium Beer and Food Pairings

The Monk’s Table is doing beer and food pairing events all week long, but this is the one that I want to call your attention to, because it combines everything you could possibly want: Exceptionally high quality Belgian beers, with an imaginative menu and a guide to take you through the whole thing. Not just any guide, either. Bill White is a Knight of the Confederation of Belgian Brewers (the hazing process may have involved a mash paddle) and he’s able to tell you all about the things you’re drinking in a way that removes a lot of the mystery.

Newbie Accessibility: 3/5 (mostly because of the guidance)

Price: 2/5 (very good value for money, though)

Wednesday, September 22nd

Cowbell

1564 Queen Street West – (416) 849-1095

Muskoka Beer Dinner: A four course beer dinner featuring four beers from the Muskoka Cottage Brewery, including their new batch of Harvest Ale. Four courses, four beers, all paired for only $40. Call to make reservations.

I’ve got to say that I’ve never been to Cowbell, but if you hit up their website and take a look at their menu, it’s solid French bistro fare. They even do their own charcuterie, apparently.  Veal sweetbreads are on the menu, for those of you who have watched No Reservations and wondered what Anthony Bourdain is going on about.  Still, it’s a four course prix fixe with beverages included, and at forty bucks  it sounds good to me. I only wonder whether they’ll have to dial the menu back a little to pair with some of the lighter Muskoka beers.

Newbie Accessibility: 3/5 (I bumped it up one because the Muskoka beers are largely accessible)

Price:  3/5

Saturday, September 25th

Trevor Kitchen and Bar

38 Wellington Street East

6 Course Dinner with Beers from Duggan’s Brewery – 6pm

A beer pairing dinner with Michael Duggan of Duggan’s Brewery.  6 courses paired around various beers produced by Duggan. Tickets are $79 and can be purchased by calling (416) 941 9410.

I’ll be honest with you: This sort of snuck up on me. Not only is Trevor doing a week of featured sandwich pairings at the bar (Salt Cured Foie Gras Club Sandwich. Sure it’s the moral equivalent of punching a gander in the face while his helpless goslings look on, but that don’t mean it ain’t tasty) but they’re also doing this dinner. I suspect the price is mostly because of the quality of the food, which in turn makes you wonder why Michael Duggan isn’t doing it at his own place. Sources suggest that it’s because the chef at Trevor is a long time beer nerd. If only for that reason, this has the potential to be a bit of a show stealer.

Newbie Accessibility: 2/5 (Some of the food pairings might get really elaborate.)

Price: 1/5 (Nearly as expensive as the dinner with a dude who came all the way from Scotland.)

ALL WEEK LONG

What’s that I hear you say? “But Jordan, I’m a total neophyte when it comes to beer and food pairing and I don’t want to risk spending a lot on something I might not like and besides I don’t want to punch a goose in the face.” Well, those are all valid concerns except for the last part. Here are a couple of events that are about as accessible as food pairing gets, and they cost less than twenty bucks.

Bier Markt

600 King Street Wes & 58 The Esplanade

Big Bier & Ze Big Brat – $19 plus HST

Oktoberfest comes a little bit earlier – Enjoy a 10 inch Thüringer bratwurst with all ze trimmings (Bavarian bread dumplings, Weissbier kraut) paired to your choice of (22 oz) Erdinger Weissbier or (22 oz)  Weihenstephan Hefeweissbier.

This is nicely accessible, unless you’re the type of guy who finds spaetzle challenging: A choice of two really nice wheat beers and a bratwurst with fixings for less than twenty bucks. Slip into your lederhosen and let your inner Bavarian out. Please refrain from annexing the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Burger Bar

319 Augusta Ave – Kensington Market

Oktoberfest Celebration! We will be serving a variety of sausages, Marzen styled beers, and some freshly hopped beers made with local hops.

In the words of Tobias Funke, there’s nothing like a banger in the mouth. It’s a basic pairing, given that you get the sweet malty flavour of a Marzen and the salty, porky, fatty goodness of sausage. It’s a combination that has worked for ze Germans since time immemorial. It’s a good start if you don’t have any knowledge going in.

Join me next time as I’ll be looking at some of the more gimmicky events going on during beer week. If you’ll excuse me the Beau’s Sticke Alt is calling my name and I’ve got a 30th birthday to celebrate.

Toronto Beer Week – A Rough Guide

As a teenager, I collected LPs. It was after the advent of the CD so people would look at me askance, because they claimed that digital quality was so much better. In truth, I was never much interested in the quality of the sound that was coming out of the stereo, but rather the content of the songs coming out of the stereo. Think about it like this: If you wanted to jump into Bob Dylan’s back catalogue, you could either afford to buy two greatest hits compilation volumes on CD or you could get everything he recorded up to Planet Waves on vinyl.

To me, there was nothing more infuriating than trying to jump into an artist’s back catalogue, especially since if you’re like me you don’t know what you like until you hear it. This leads periodically to purchasing things that you hate. By the time my record player wore down and I had to switch to a discman, I was still trying to amass huge amounts of knowledge about individual artists. It’s time consuming and eventually you end up with something like Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World on which the reissue liner notes start with the phrase “Congratulations! You just bought the worst album of my career.” which is just annoying enough to make you want to give up and listen to CBC Radio 2.

Fortunately, with the internet providing the services that it does now, It’s now possible to condense everything you need to know. For instance, if you liked “Gimme Shelter” on the radio, you can punch a half remembered lyric into Google, figure out that it’s on Let It Bleed and then download the album from iTunes (or, for you scofflaws, some disreputable torrent site) in the amount of time it would actually take to listen to the song. You might decide to just dip your toe in the Stones’ back catalogue by getting the Hot Rocks compilation.  iTunes even has the genius feature that tells you what you might like based on what you already have.

It’s never been easier to have your tastes catered to in what is essentially an entirely subjective medium. While there are dozens of top hundred album lists available, your personal tastes are being catered to as a matter of course. You don’t need to know anything more than you feel like knowing. I’m something of a completist myself, but who am I to tell you that you absolutely need to know the backstory of Peter Gabriel’s split with Genesis to enjoy Solsbury Hill? It’s catchy and toe tapping, and sometimes that’s enough.

With something like beer, though, which is equally subjective, you run into issues of accessibility pretty quickly. No one has figured out how to get beer radio play, and downloading pirated beer is equally difficult. You actually have to go out and find various beers to drink in order to discover what you like. It’s not as though you can hire a beer nerd to follow you around and point out things about various beverages that are on offer (and would you want to even if you could? You would probably end up staggering out of a pub in the early morning hours muttering about IBUs and dark malt.)

Even if you’ve tried a large number of beers and know what you like, something like Toronto Beer Week can be daunting. There are going to be special one-off brews and unreplicatable events taking place. The difficulty here is figuring out how not to miss the good bits while finding your level of comfort. There’s a huge range of activities and events on offer, so my intention over the next week is to provide some guidance for those of you who don’t know where to start.

I don’t pretend to know which events will be the most fun. There’s no way to judge that without going to them yourself. I do have a pretty good idea of how accessible each event is going to be on a scale of no experience necessary to die-hard beer nerd, though. I also know how expensive they’re likely to be and whether you’re likely to have to buy in for an entire evening or if you can just turn up. There will also be a certain amount of editorializing, just to keep myself amused.

As an example of the kind of range that exists, I’ll show you two food pairing events that are happening concurrently:

BQM

Ossington Diner on Queen West

Burger and Beer Promotion – For the entire week, at both BQM locations, you can enjoy a Bacon and Blue Cheese Burger with a Blanche de Chambly for $10.

This is nicely accessible. You get a solid beer from Unibroue and a burger. The charm of the thing is that it’s a very straightforward pairing with high quality components. Even if you end up not liking the beer, you’ve almost certainly paid more than that for a tasty burger before anyway.

Accessibility: 5/5 (no experience necessary) ; Price: 5/5 (ten bucks or less)

beerbistro

BrewDog Beer Dinner – 6 course dinner, paired with beers from Scotland’s most progressive brewery.  Hosted by James Watt from BrewDog. Tickets are $90, and on sale Wednesday Sept 8th: Call (416) 861-9872

This event exists essentially for the hardcore, even down to the likely inclusion of the brewery’s Hardcore IPA. In order to really get the most out of it you need to know who BrewDog are: That they are a sort of DIY punk rock brewery from Aberdeen who recently released a beer with its own cozy (a taxidermied stoat) and that you’re probably going to sample a beer that’s stronger than most liquors before the night is over. That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have fun if you don’t know the backstory. Tickets go on sale this morning. Operators are standing by.

Accessibility: 1/5 (hardcore beer nerds) ; Price: 1/5 (most expensive ticket of the week)

Leading up to Toronto Beer Week itself, I’ll be breaking down the events like this in order to give you enough information to find one that will work for you. I hope to be able to do it without displaying too much personal bias, or at least by making it slightly less obvious than usual.

Next time I’ll be looking at food pairing events in earnest.

The Ontario Beer Revolution – Media Narrative

You know who people love? Rudy Reuttiger.

Maybe you know the story. This kid who stands maybe 5’6” and weighs a buck and a half dreams of playing for Notre Dame. He plays for a different school initally but manages to transfer over to Notre Dame after several failed attempts. He works really really hard and ends up on the scout team and eventually, just before he graduates Notre Dame he gets put in an actual game and sacks the Georgia Tech quarterback. He earns the respect of his fellow players and his father and he’s carried off the field as the crowd chants his name. RUDY! RUDY! RUDY!

Even the toughest tough guys tend to shed a single tear during that scene. If that’s ever happened to you,  you big galoot, you’re going to hate the next paragraph:

Sure, it’s a personal triumph for Rudy, but there’s no reason it should matter to you even a little. I am a Canadian non-football fan who doesn’t care about the Fighting Irish or a football game that happened before I was born or whether some little dude managed to make good by working real hard and taking his vitamins. I think that everyone has to admit that sporting events generally have no more importance than we lend to them. Think about the number of column inches that were printed about LeBron James going to the Heat. There’s no reason he should be paid that much. Hell, there’s no particularly compelling reason people should be paid anything to play a sport. Sport generally is a largely futile endeavor that we have invested societally with emotional significance based on our personal associations and preferences.

And yet, every time I flip past that movie on AMC it’s the same result: a single extremely manly tear.

Here’s the thing: We have been conditioned to care about situations exactly like that. There’s some kind of underlying Jungian archetypal structure that makes everyone want to root for the underdog: David and Goliath; Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant; Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader; Leonidas vs. Xerxes.

Think momentarily about Rocky IV. It’s an American made movie from 1985 in which the bad guy is a steroid taking Russian the size of Pripyat. Of course the American is going to win. You know that there’s no way that Stallone loses the fight right from the outset, if only because it’s an American movie and you can’t have a Communist beating an American in 1985. And yet, the storytelling and the narrative structure compels you to root for Rocky Balboa even though you know in the back of your mind that this is the fourth movie in the series and Rocky always eventually comes out on top. It’s helped quite a bit by Dolph Lundgren being particularly menacing as Ivan Drago.

Much of North American culture is based on this particular monomyth: Rags to Riches; Manifest Destiny; Horatio Alger. Plucky underdog overcomes the odds. Local boy makes good. It’s what happens in every summer blockbuster and most importantly it’s what we’re all conditioned to want to see happen.

Here, then, is my question:  In an industry like Craft Brewing in a market like Ontario, which is just filled with real life plucky underdogs and local boys attempting to make good, why isn’t anyone taking advantage of the ability to craft an image for the media which would make people root for them?

You’re talking about an entire industry that contains forty companies who make up five percent of the market. Their main source of product distribution is a huge government monopoly with no real impetus to change. There are at least three multinational companies controlling the other sectors of the market whose individual advertising budgets are larger than just about all of the independent companies gross annual revenues, possibly combined.

Nobody starts out in craft brewing realizing a return on their investment. These are people who are understaffed even after decades of work. They are not making a huge amount of money. These are people who have voluntarily entered an industry that they absolutely and concretely know is controlled by a handful of very large multinational companies. This is a decision that they have made based on love. They love brewing; they love beer; they want to share their passion for it with you.They want you to be able to drink better beer and they are essentially risking, if not their lives, then certainly their financial solvency in order to make that happen.

And this is the best part: It’s not a fiction. Craft Brewers are absolutely the underdogs. You can use the existing narrative structure to your advantage while telling the truth!  No fabrication is necessary.

Beau’s already knows this: They built their media image into the brewery from the outset. They’re constantly promoting the fact that they’re local, organic, and family run. They understand the value of promotion and marketing their image. I’m relatively sure that I’ve seen more newspaper articles about them this year than I have seen for all of the other craft breweries combined.  Beau’s Lug Tread won the Golden Tap Award this year for Best Regularly Produced Beer in Ontario. I don’t necessarily agree that it is the best regularly produced beer in Ontario (it’s not without its charm), but I have to concede that it is potentially the most heavily marketed craft beer in Ontario and that it has the most iconic packaging. In a contest with online voting, that’s probably functionally the same thing.

Think about the stories in the craft brewing industry. The guys at Black Oak, for instance, quit their jobs just over a decade ago to follow the dream and they work incredibly hard every day. They’re winning awards for their tenth anniversary beer. Paul Dickey has come out of semi-retirement to launch Cheshire Valley Brewing on a full time basis because it’s what he loves doing. Mike Lackey over at Great Lakes moved up to brewer after nearly 20 years with the organization and most of what he’s doing is very popular and well received. If that’s not local boy made good, I don’t know what is.

Just about every indepedent brewery in Ontario has a similar story. The truth is they’re all underdogs. If you control 0.025% of the market, it’s just a fact that you have to live with. The stories are all relatable, and I suspect that it can’t hurt to tell them since it gives the consumer something to associate the brewery with. As much as brewers want to think that it’s all about the product, it isn’t. It’s about the product and its perception and the appeal of that product to the consumer. Even the largest  Ontario based Craft Brewer has a legitimate claim to exploit this inculcate societal desire to root for the underdog and if you want to expand sales and awareness it’s a powerful tool. Potentially the OCB could pull it off.

All I know is that if this force is capable of getting people to like Sean Astin’s acting, it’s capable of anything.