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Ontario Craft Beer Week 2011 – Day 5

Eventually, if you write for a paper, you get to the point where you’re a z-class celebrity. You’d have a long way to go to reach the dizzying heights of an Abe Vigoda or Don Knotts, but people invite you to do things. I was invited to be the special guest at the Beermen vs. Food event at BQM Ossington.

Now, I’m something of a food network junkie, so I’ve seen a huge number of episodes of Man vs. Food. I think it’s a terrifying glimpse into the gluttony that’s only possible in North America. On the other hand, I can’t stop watching the thing because the host is pretty entertaining and the challenge sections are on par with a trainwreck. You can’t look away. Will Adam Richman finish the 7 pound burrito from hell? Will he be able to finish a pound of wings slathered in “STUPID SAUCE” within 15 minutes? The spicy tuna roll challenge? A steak the size of Montana? Will Adam Richman pass away from a cardiac arrest before the end of the fourth season? The answers are no, yes, no, yes and only time will tell.

Rob “Stuntman” Morra (ask him to do a stuntman for old time’s sake next time you see him at a bar) asked me whether I’d be interested in coming down and taking part in the challenge. After all, it was the main attraction for a charity event. Cameron’s and Beau’s pints were 5 dollars all night long and a dollar from each pint was going to Second Harvest. It’s a charity that delivers fresh surplus food to people who need it. I won’t comment on the irony of a burger eating contest to represent that charity. I probably don’t need to.

So, I trekked down to BQM, Survivor blasting “Eye of the Tiger” through my headphones. The prize for this one was basically bragging rights, which as we all know, are more important than trophies and continued existence (at least in parts of the south).

Let me introduce you to the competition:

Rob "Stuntman" Morra, displaying his silverback-like facial appendage.

Rob Morra is with Beau’s. You may know him from various beer events in the Toronto area, or from his victory at the 2009 All-Toronto Beard competition.

Jason Ellsmere suspiciously eyes the camera, sideburns swaying in the breeze.

Jason Ellsmere is from Cameron’s. His sideburns are truly majestic. Not as majestic as, say, a bald eagle swooping through a rainbow, but they’re on par with those of many alt-country rockers.

Jason Rees. Porkmeister General.

Jason Rees is a professional BBQ guy. His website is here. He’s a bottomless pit of hunger, potentially driven by Skynet.

Saeed. Smiling because he knows what the kitchen is about to unleash.

Saeed is the owner of BQM, and an all around nice guy.

Glenn. Because every eating contest should have a skinny underdog.

And then there was Glenn.

So, we sat there, gathered around the long table, but none of us really knew what the challenge entailed. Even Rob, who was instrumental in organizing the thing didn’t really know. The first sign that there was obviously something amiss was when the server brought out shots of Campari. “To open your esophagus. It’s an aperitif,” he said.

Campari. Great. Thanks for that early warning sign.

That’s a bad sign, incidentally, when you need liquor to prepare to eat something.

We sat there, determining exactly how it was going to work. Fortunately, there was a Cameron’s side of the table and a Beau’s side of the table and the decision was made that we would go three at a time. We had just about settled this when the burgers came out of the kitchen.

Oh dear god why??!?!

What you’re looking at there is a Double Riverside burger. The Riverside burger has Bacon, mozzarella, BQM BBQ sauce, onion ring & garlic aioli. That sounds good, actually, except for the fact that in this case, you get two of all those things on one bun. And you can put your stereopticon away, because that’s two of them. No one wants to speculate exactly what the calorie content of that behemoth is, let alone what it might be for two of them. I certainly don’t want to know.

And so, after some searching for a cell phone with a stopwatch, the Cameron’s team started in on their burgers.

Jason Ellsmere decided on compacting the burger down as far as possible. Saeed decided to pace himself and picked away at a level of one burger, working his way through to the second one. Jason Rees, cybernetic porksmith that he is, decided simply to try and get bacon into every bite.

Can you believe the showboating going on here?

We all sort of knew that we were in trouble when Rees decided to pause to take a phone call. Probably someone calling to tell him the location of Sarah Connor. He finished at 7:58 after taking the time to tell them he’d call back when he finished the second burger. Jason Ellsmere finished somewhere in the 14 minute range, while Saeed tapped out upon nearing the completion of the second burger.

Now, I’ve never eaten competitively. But, like I said, I’d seen Adam Richman do it a lot. He usually plans out a strategy in order to beat the clock. The Beau’s side of the table went with this concept. Rob Morra decided to tackle both burgers at once from the top down, leaving the last patty and the buns until the end. It’s a good idea, but unsound since you’re leaving all the carbs for the end. That can be a slog. Glenn, uh, well Glenn just sorta decided to brute force the thing, but eventually tapped out citing the protein bar he had had just hours before. I opted for the same top down approach as Saeed.

Now, two double Riverside burgers is something like two and a quarter pounds of food, with about 24 ounces of that being protein. I was going along pretty good. I had the first burger down in four minutes and I looked like I was on pace to beat Rees. And then, about halfway through the second onion ring on the second burger, I started to hit the wall. Rob Morra also looked to be doing pretty well up until the six minute mark. He hit a much larger wall. I finished at 11:23 and Rob finished somewhere around the 28:00 mark.

Now, I have learned two things from this challenge:

1)      All of the contestants have what Gorilla Monsoon would have called intestinal fortitude. Except for Jason Rees, who is actually some kind of burger eating cyborg from the future that comes fully equipped with Call Waiting.

2)      I’m never, ever, nerver, eneveler doing that again. Even now I can feel the meat coma setting in, but before the meat coma come the meat sweats. This is actually a thing. Go ahead. Google it. Ugh. Unpleasant, yes?

Congratulations to all involved, except for Jason Rees who is, as I mentioned, from the future and therefore knew that he would win and therefore does not need our pathetic hu-man congratulations. Hopefully, we will have helped people who need food to eat. Hopefully, Jason Rees will not show up at their door in a leather jacket and force feed them a double Riverside burger.

Ontario Craft Beer Week – Day Three

Let me tug on your coat about something.

A lot of the time, the craft beer movement is defined not so much by the drinkers as it is by the brewers and the people who write about beer. You’ve got a lot of different beer bloggers and columnists and legitimate experts talking about what makes a good beer, or whether a brewery is going downhill. Sometimes, the discussion can get pretty heated. It has done in the states recently. There’s an ongoing flamewar about Session beers (beers under 5% alcohol which can be consumed in quantity over several hours). While that might set the course for trends in the immediate future and bring to light some previously underappreciated offerings of very high quality, it’s an extremely localized form of beer appreciation.

I’m not here to talk to you about that. I’m not even here to talk to you about beer nerds who are looking for the rarest of beers. I’m here to talk to you today about people who actually go out and drink whatever high quality beer is available and enjoy each others’ company.

It’s only over the course of the last four or five months that I’ve become aware of a group called the Toronto Beer Lovers. It’s an interesting group for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that these aren’t folks who are involved in the craft beer industry. These are just people who like good beer and aren’t nerdy enough to spend a whole lot of time arguing about it online. It’s a sizeable group and currently they weigh in at 889 members.

Think about this for a second. If one of the primary ways that people are convinced of the benefits of craft beer is word of mouth, then the Toronto scene has nearly a thousand loosely organized people who are spreading the word. They’re not doing it because it benefits them directly. They’re doing it because they enjoy going out to the pub and trying new things. If they like something, they’re probably going to spread the word. They might even bring their friends along. That’s a bigger deal than you might imagine.

Maybe the most interesting part is that they’re doing it from a consumer perspective; looking for value for money and events where their members are most likely to have fun. Reethi Jagannathan is sort of their de facto leader along with a couple of other people (Craig and Michael) who organize events and gatherings. Because they’re aware of the size of the group and they don’t want to overwhelm a pub on a busy night, they post that there are a certain number of spots open for the event and then people RSVP.

Reethi beat me pretty soundly and advances to face Nick Pashley in the semi-finals.

It works out surprisingly well. Apparently there are about 100 hardcore members and the rest of them sort of rotate through. This not only means that there are always people willing to attend events, but also that there are always going to be new people to talk to. If you go to the same pub all the time, eventually you’ll hear everyone’s stories. In this case, the rotating cast keeps things fresh.

I caught up with them at The Rhino on Tuesday night and hung out for a while. By the time I got there, there were about 20 members of the group. At one end of the line of tables they had grabbed, they were doing a sort of unofficial beer tasting to determine what they thought of the beers that were available on tap. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the things they were tasting. Black Oak’s Marmalade Saison was in the same lineup as a number of the Great Lakes beers that are being featured there throughout the week.

Usually, if you go to a beer tasting, people group certain styles of beer together. That’s not what this was about. This was early in the evening and they had purchased a number of things that just looked interesting and got everyone to try them. It makes a lot of sense. If there are a lot of new beers on tap and you’ve never tried them before, it’s a pretty good way to figure out what you should order. Plus, it creates a lot of discussion, not about the technical facets of brewing or about the IBU content of the IPA, but simply about what people would like to have next.

Tasting a whole bunch of different beers just for fun? Weirdos.

It’s a good reminder that for the most part people just want to have a good time. Beer is many things, but it excels as a social lubricant. Most of the time beer isn’t about art. I write about some high flown concepts sometimes, but I’m going to be pretty quick to concede that a lot of the time, you just want to unwind and have fun. This is beer appreciation as an excuse to bring people with common interests together. And that’s pretty much the whole point of the brewing industry. It’s awesome.

If you go out to any number of the Ontario Craft Beer Week events, you’ll probably meet people from the Toronto Beer Lovers group. You might want to consider joining them. Not only will you drink good beer, meet interesting people and visit pubs you’ve never heard of, you’ll have fun. I did.

Also, it should be pointed out that Robohop from Great Lakes is an absolute hop monster. It’s pretty much the reason that I decided to take Wednesday off from Ontario Craft Beer Week. If you want to wake up feeling like you’ve got a hop vine growing out of your cerebral cortex, then Robohop is the beer for you. Sweet Christmas, is that a hoppy beer. I mean, just take all of the hops in the world and throw them in the kettle why don’t you? Holy jumping cats. Son of a motherless goat and so forth.

Ontario Craft Beer Week 2011 – Day Two

This year, I’m trying to get to as many Ontario Craft Beer Week events as is humanly possible, so you’ll probably see me out and about knocking around the GTA in some capacity or other. Maybe I’ll be complaining violently about having been to so many events. Maybe I’ll be quietly taking notes in a corner. Maybe I’ll be drinking a Pina Colada at Trader Vic’s. Maybe I’ll be drinking a beer at noon on a Tuesday. Only time will tell.

As my editor keeps telling me, “research is important,” and I am one of the happy few who can literally cite drinking beer and carousing with ne’er do wells as research. That said, let’s see what I got up to on Monday.

Beer Cocktails at Burger Bar. 5:00-7:00 PM

This is kind of an interesting event for me, because I’m researching for an article on Beer Cocktails for early next month. I can honestly say that I haven’t been exposed to the idea enough to speak emphatically about it, but it seems to me that it’s one of those things that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know that the world is clamoring for the beer cocktail.

If you had asked me about them a month ago, I probably would have politely but firmly asked you to go away. At this point, I’m not so sure. I tend to think of craft beer as a finished artisanal product, but it occurs to me that it’s probably not a lot different in principle than adding a syrup to a Berliner Weiss or grapefruit juice to a Radler. I’m starting to understand that when it’s done properly, it’s about adding to the flavours already present in order to enhance the experience. That’s no bad thing.

Mirella Amato and Christine Sismondo were hosting this event and they’d come up with a selection of beer cocktails to show off the rapidly growing phenomenon. My feeling is that if anyone was going to be able to convince me, it was going to be these two women, since between them they have a huge amount of knowledge to draw from.

I didn’t manage to try all of the beer cocktails, since I was pacing myself, but let me tell you a little about what worked and what didn’t.

The Rusty Knot.

The Rusty Knot worked pretty well. It was a cocktail of Lake of Bays Pale Ale with Tawny Port, grapefruit juice and homemade grenadine. I’m not sure that I was able to detect a lot of the Pale Ale within it, but the grapefruit juice offered a pleasing bitterness to combat the sweetness of the 10 year old Taylor Fladgate they had chosen. The Blackberry garnish was visually pleasing, and while I’m moderately colourblind, I think it’s attractive in the glassware.

Sweet Dreams. Not just a clever name, since it hits like a brickbat.

The Sweet Dreams didn’t really work for me. It was Beau’s Matt’s Sleepy Time Stout with Chambord, Crème de Menthe and muddled mint. Christine claimed rightly that the problem in working with an 8.0% percent beer in the summer is that it’s difficult to make it into a light refreshing beverage. I’m not sure that it would have worked with raspberry and mint even in the winter. It’s a little too sweet and the combination of the alcohol and the sugar was overpowering. That might be a beer that is more or less uncocktailable.

The winner, in my estimation:

I think the best example that they came up with was the “Lotus Green” which is made with Great Lakes Green Tea Ale, honey and elderflower. This is an example of a beer cocktail where the ingredients work together to the strengths of the key ingredient. The honey brings out the grassiness of the green tea and the elderflower adds a layer of flavour that plays on top of it. Well done, Cocktailers. (Cocktailsters? Cocktailinistas?)

Great Lakes Beer Dinner at Harbord House 7:00-9:00 PM

My host for this event was David Bieman, who had worked on the menu with the owner of the Harbord House, John, and his chef Jake. The food was quite as good as it was for the beer dinner during last year’s Ontario Craft Beer Week.

Tuna Tartare with various salsas.

The first course was a Tuna Tartare served on Potato Crisps with a variety of salsas. In terms of pairing beer with the course, they went with the Great Lakes Green Tea Ale. It’s a valid choice since most of the time I’m eating raw tuna, it’s either going to be with beer or green tea. I don’t think that any of the salsas overpowered the beer, but the poblano pepper and tomatillo one came close. Interestingly, the one that worked best was the salsa of cucumber and mint, which seemed more inspired by Mediterranean cuisine than Southwestern.

Duck Three ways. Croquettes! Duck and Blueberry Sausage! Smoked Breast!

The Entrée was a trio of duck preparations. The smoked duck breast and duck sausage were very good, but for me the standout were the croquettes. I have to compliment their chef on his seasoning. It’s very easy to oversalt a smoked duck breast, and similarly easy to undersalt a croquette (I suspect the reasoning would be “well, it’s fried and there’s cranberry compote to go with it. Better back off.”)  He got it exactly right for my taste.

The trio were paired with Great Lakes’ Faith No More Saison. I was talking to Lackey yesterday and apparently it’s the summer of Saison at the brewery. They’re going to be producing a bunch of Saisons over the course of the summer and I have to tell you that they’ve come a long way since the first one I tried. This was actually a reimagining of David’s Saison from last year, which was pleasantly funky, but maybe overly honeyed. You could tell from the nose of this Saison exactly how dry the finish was going to be. It was lemon, spice and pepper with a hint of melon of all things in the mid palate. It’s a lot more restrained than the last one. If they move it to production they’ll make a mint.

For dessert, David went all Richard Blais on us.

See, this is when I figured out what was going to happen. Check out the maniacal grin on Bieman.

You should really experience being in a room when one corner suddenly fills up with wafting liquid nitrogen.

Brewer drops science. Worried pub owner looks on.

I don’t know if the sorbet that he made a la carte was all that good, but I can pretty much guarantee you that no one will ever forget the evening if only for the whisking clinic that David put on in the corner.

Eventually, they called in a professional pinch-whisker

Stout Irish Pub Brewing Under The Stars 9:30-10:30 PM

I’ve done a bit of brewing. I’ve even done it on the system that they used at Stout, but I have to commend the idea behind the event. Most people haven’t brewed a beer, or even considered the possibility. How do you reach people who don’t want to go on a brewery tour and see how it’s done? You bring the fight to them during boardgame night on a local patio. It’s a good opportunity for people who are curious to go over and check it out. There was no shortage of brewers to answer their questions. George Eagleson was there, and he was a good choice. No one is too intimidated by George to ask a question. He will probably even give you a hug if you ask a good question. Or for any reason at all.

The Great Lakes pilot system is apparently transportable.

Jason Britton from Cameron’s seemed to be doing most of the explaining, but people circulated and chatted and seemed to be finding out what they wanted to know.

There were also a number of beers available from the brewers who were collaborating.

"What? You want one of these beers? I don't know, man."

There was even a Potato Malt Liquor available from Biergotter. Eric Ecclestone, local badass was heard to remark, “I don’t care if you don’t like it, St. John. Put this up on yer blag and publish it.” I did like it, but I must have made a face when I took a sniff and didn’t recognize the Rosemary used as an aromatic. I spent the next several minutes awkwardly groping for a pop culture reference to defuse the situation.

Eric Ecclestone: Local Badass is a dangerous man with a dangerous beer.

I’m still alive, so I must have done something right.

Ontario Craft Beer Week 2011 – Day One

Do you know how far the perception of beer has come in the last ten years? A very long way indeed, and a lot of that is down to craft brewers getting involved with locations outside of the places that you’d traditionally find them. As I look at the lineup for Craft Beer Week, I’m noticing that there are a lot of events that go outside of the traditional “Here is a pint of beer. It’s better than the beer that you’re used to drinking. Why don’t you give it a shot?”

It’s for that reason that this year I’m determined to seek out some of the more esoteric Craft Beer Week events. There are some that are listed on the website. For instance, Cameron’s is involved with a Polo tournament featuring the Royal Jaipur team. No one saw that coming. There are at least three festivals just within Toronto alone this week: C’est What, Session and the Beach BBQ and Brews Festival. Not to mention the Wine and Spirit Festival. Consider how unlikely that would have been five years ago.

I decided to kick the week off with a fanfare. Literally.

Atmospheric lighting! Mellow, yet reminiscent of a planetarium!

It turns out that the popularity of craft beer has gotten to the point where it is popping up as a draw in places that you’d never expect it. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra had an event last night that was meant to appeal to a younger demographic: a 10:30 PM performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony in C sharp minor. Before that, though, they had a BBQ tailgate party in their parking lot. With beer provided by Steam Whistle.

It’s apparently part of a program called Tsoundcheck, which is designed to make the symphony more approachable. The astounding thing to me is that it works. While the tailgate party was full up, I did sort of hang around the barriers to have a look at the crowd. The TSO’s PR representative had told me that they were aiming for a demographic of 25-40 with their promotion, and I think that it may have actually skewed younger than that.

It turns out that if you combine things that people like (music, beer and food) they will show up in droves. The parking lot was jammed with fashionable young people who had paid 75 bucks to eat barbeque, drink craft beer and then go listen to a symphony.

Not only that, but they licensed the auditiorium at Roy Thompson Hall. You could take a beer in with you! Now, I didn’t think much of that until I walked in the door, but I was early and struck up a conversation with a bartender. It’s not something that they do often, but it seems to me to be the kind of thing they could pull out at will. And it was mostly craft beer! I had a Tankhouse. As the bartender said “It’s quite civilized, if you ask me.”

This is your beer.

Do you know what happens if you let people take drinks into the auditorium to listen to serious classical music? Well, the first thing is that the audience is slightly looser. I sometimes dislike performances of classical music because I feel like I ought to be sitting immobile, which results in an uneasiness. I feel like a slight rustle from the audience will be perceived by the woodwinds, even though I know from having played in wind ensembles that this is not true. In this case, the place was packed to the rafters and the crowd had less inhibition than usual. Everyone behaved themselves. Civilization did not collapse. Peter Oundjian even suggested that we applaud during the breaks if the mood struck us.

The other thing that happens is that since people have drinks to sip, there’s less of the stifled coughing that you usually get in an air conditioned concert hall. You know the kind. The violins descend to a pianissimo pizzicato counterpoint and that’s the moment that you inevitably find that you have a tickle in your throat. Well, not if you’ve got a beverage. You can just take a sip and avoid the annoyed glances from the wealthy dowager in seat 6B.

This is your beer on music.

The other thing that’s worth noting is that Mahler’s fifth is a bloody challenging piece of music. It’s seventy minutes long and has five movements. It was completed in 1902 and was so challenging that it wasn’t premiered in England until the 1930’s. The fourth movement, an Adagietto, was the most accessible part and was usually played as an excerpt before then. It’s technically difficult. The amount of lung capacity needed by the French Horns is such that you had better have an oxygen tent waiting backstage if you’re going to perform it.

The other thing is that it’s not programmatic. That is to say that there’s no story that goes along with it. That might have been alright for Debussy and Berlioz, but Mahler wasn’t having any of that “Prelude To The Afternoon of a Whatsit” stuff. It’s just music. You can ascribe whatever influences from Mahler’s personal life you want, but it’s not designed that way. You can say that it switches from C sharp minor to D major for the final movement and that that’s because he found the love of his life and was recovering from a near death experience while writing it and it’s for that reason that it’s a porthole into the transformative journey of the human soul, but that’s a load of historically revisionist nonsense. It just IS, if that makes any sense.

And it’s beautiful. Not having heard it, you can tell where the musical line is going to go. His melodic lines reach that point and then continue on as if defying expectation. They’ll crescendo to the point where you think that the timpanist is going to wreck his equipment and then back completely off. The finale is so big and brash and joyful and is possessed of so many false endings that it actually made me giggle because it becomes practically a caricature of itself.

The symphony got the longest standing ovation I’ve ever seen at Roy Thompson Hall. Longer than the premiere of Eric idle’s Not The Messiah, anyway. It might have been because of the comparative youth of the audience. It might have been because of the slight inhibition loosening qualities of the drinks they were allowed to bring in. I think, though, that it was because they were expressly informed by the nature of the event that they were allowed to have fun.

Maybe we should look for other ways to get craft beer into cultural venues like this one. It’s not an audience craft beer usually gets, and it seemed to improve peoples’ enjoyment of what is, let’s be honest, a long and challenging symphony. That’s got to be a win for everyone involved.

Spearhead Brewing OR Breweries that now actually exist (and good for them)

Now, you may not credit it, but I like being proved wrong. In most capacities and professions, this is not necessarily a thing that people hanker for, but as a beer writer, it’s an infrequent surprise.

You may remember that at the end of the last year, I wrote about Breweries That Don’t Exist Yet. While the brewery that I spent most of the article talking about continues not to exist, the secondary example that I gave, Spearhead Brewing has come out swinging.

Now that they're on the board, the slate of their existence is no longer blank. Somewhere John Locke is spinning in his grave.

Let’s see what I wrote about them:

“In the case of the Spearhead Brewing Company, I can honestly say that while their online presence has only recently cropped up, I’ve been aware of them for about six months. They may not have produced beer commercially yet, but they’ve got a brewmaster and I have seen their logo on a hat. I feel like they’re somehow closer to launching than Parkdale. Currently all the information I have about them is from their mission statement, which is slightly longer than this article. I also think that they’re more likely to do something interesting than Parkdale, if only because I’ve heard good things about their entries for Toronto Beer Week’s homebrew contest. Also, Stephen Rich is involved and you can’t fault the guy’s enthusiasm.

Well, not only does the brewery now exist, they’re existing in style. They are hosting a number of launch events this week in various locations and they’re making their presence felt throughout Ontario Craft Beer Week. They have branded standees and coasters, taps, hats, t-shirts, glasses, and even a couple of pretty nicely designed delivery vans. Congratulations to all involved. Specifically Stephen Rich, Dmitri Van Kampen and Tom Schmidt. Not only have you successfully launched a brewery, you’ve set something of a standard for making a splash in the market at launch time. It’s an all out assault on local media including interviews on blogs and plenty of reviews. The media coordination is impressive and I suspect that much of the thanks for that goes to Karen Van Kampen.

Their first offering is a Hawaiian Style Pale Ale.

Not exactly a hard ticket to Hawaii.

I guess the question is “what do you make of that?” Well, it’s a little difficult to pin it down. At 6.5% alcohol and 60 IBU, I’m pretty sure that no one would be able to call it a Pale Ale according to any guideline I’ve ever heard of. It falls pretty squarely into an American IPA definition in terms of style. Or it would, except for the Hawaiian part. It includes Pineapple. I’m told that the juice is added towards the end of the boil. I’m not entirely sure what that accomplishes in terms of innovation. I haven’t seen it very frequently. I think Black Oak did a Pineapple addition for one of their one-off casks.

I think that it probably adds slightly to the aroma of the beer, which has some fairly significant tropical fruit notes, but that can be accomplished with the right kind of hopping. The hops certainly take over as soon as you sip it. The only place that the pineapple is noticeable other than the aroma is on the finish, which I found to be mildly more acidic than it would have been without the Pineapple.

I don’t know that it’s a great beer in terms of international competition. It’s probably a good beer that differentiates itself for the sake of novelty. It’s an attention getter, certainly, which is probably what you want if you’re starting up a brewery.

Look at it this way. Had they left out the Pineapple and labelled it an IPA, it would easily compete with Muskoka’s Mad Tom and Great Lakes Crazy Canuck. I know that I prefer it to Flying Monkeys’ Smashbomb, but I find the Citra hops slightly overwhelming in some of their recent batches. That may seem as though I’m damning Spearhead with faint praise, but you have to remember that this is their first time out of the gate. They’ve managed to do by design what it took other breweries years of trial and error to accomplish. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.

And the quibbles that I’ve noted above? The Pineapple? Labelling it a Pale Ale? Well, those are pretty clever ways of getting people to try out a new beer. It’s different enough that people will want to try it and a strong enough offering that people will remember it. Maybe you don’t like IPA, but you’d order a Pale Ale. It’s probably an appeal to a broader audience with a product that is targeted to a specific audience of craft beer wonks.

Well done. Mea Culpa. I am forced to concede and even praise your existence.

Congratulations, Spearheaders.

And so, as my liver sinks in the west, we bid you a fond Aloha.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get on with Ontario Craft Beer Week.

The Beer Boutique

Yesterday, I went to the launch of The Beer Store’s new venture: The Beer Boutique.

See? It's pretty ok. Plus, later, I ate some of that cheese.

One of the criticisms that I keep hearing about The Beer Store is that it is something of a monolithic entity. As one of two corporate entities that is allowed to sell beer in Ontario (I am excluding brewpubs here for the simple reason that comparatively speaking their output is Lilliputian) it operates under a privileged position. For a very long time, there was no competition to speak of for The Beer Store. The difference between the LCBO and The Beer Store in terms of mandate is that the profits from the LCBO go to the provincial government and the profits from The Beer Store go to the owners of The Beer Store: Molson, Labatt, and to a far lesser extent, Sapporo.

If you’re the LCBO, it therefore makes sense to appeal to consumers. If remodeling the stores, as they did during the 1990’s, can increase profitability, it makes sense to do so. It increases the revenue for the province; People like to shop in places that cater to their tastes. If you have stands with samples and a wide selection of products and a pleasant atmosphere, consumers will spend more. Never mind for the moment that consumers don’t have a choice but to shop with them. They’re the only game in town for Liquor. Aside from The Wine Rack, they hold a monopoly on wine. The point that I’m making is that people will spend more if they like the store that they’re in. More sales equal increased provincial revenue. A remodel is a good long term investment, since the mandate is to create profit for government.

If you’re The Beer Store, on the other hand, and you control 85% of beer sales in the province, you don’t really need to do that. There are a number of protective systems in place. First of all, by its nature, beer is sort of unwieldy. The LCBO simply doesn’t have room to stock two-fours of beer. Or cases of twelve, for that matter. The Beer Store, for a very long time had the privileged position of being the only place you could buy beer in quantity. It still does, as a matter of fact. You had no choice but to shop with them, and if the store was dingy and grey or depressing and smelled like spilt beer because of the bottle return and you had to pick out which beer you wanted from a wall of empty bottles only to have them whisked out of the back room on a system of rollers, well… tough. In fact, the outsides of many locations are still dated from the last branding change.

Eventually, what I suspect must have happened was that the market changed sufficiently for the LCBO to take beer seriously. Since The Beer Store had a monopoly on volume sales due to space restrictions in the stores, the LCBO went after single bottles and high quality products. You can find some kind of craft beer in just about any LCBO south of Sudbury at this point. I’m told, for instance, that the Sharbot Lake selection is surprisingly robust.

The LCBO must have made enough of a dent in The Beer Store’s market to make them rethink their policy of having stores that sort of make you feel as though you’re waiting in the passport office (Passport to flavour country, amirite?!?!).

So you’ve got The Beer Boutique.

It’s a large box store with walls filled with cold beer. There are large concave shelves to show off a number of the products. There’s a large oak table as the room’s centerpiece, which is lit by hanging piping in which sections are replaced by fluorescent tubes. The floors are sort of a diagonal wooden parquet and the walls are brick faced. It comes in at 2700 square feet. They’ve chosen basic black for most of the accent pieces and those sections are periodically interspersed by monitors showing information about beer. It’s nice.

It reminded me of a Couche-Tard (Mac’s Milk) that I had been in in Outremont last week and I said as much during the event. I mean, it was a particularly nice Mac’s Milk. What I essentially mean by that is not that it’s low rent. The thing is that it’s obviously a scalable, reproducible design. You could work with the design in that store and send it just about anywhere. It would play equally well in Ottawa or London or Kingston.

The people I was talking to (some pretty high ranking Molson and Labatt guys and one Beer Store employee whose name I didn’t catch, but who reminded me of the Spiderman villain The Kingpin, mostly because of the baldness and pretty darn swanky suit and silk pocket square) seemed a little crestfallen that I thought that. But that’s surely the point of the thing, isn’t it? You want it to be repeatable. They seemed to be under the impression that they had created something unique and interesting, when in reality, that’s not what you want.

Look, if you’re in a Bed, Bath and Beyond, you know it. There’s branding everywhere. Usually, the layouts are similar to the point where you can find a terrycloth robe, a rattan hamper and a Shake Weight blindfolded. It’s a measure of corporate branding. It’s the bare minimum for a successful chain.

It’s just that these guys are new at this, so my comments may have seemed unnecessarily churlish, when in reality, I’m simply thinking ahead.

The thing that surprises me about it is the pervasive impression that I got that the store was an experiment. “We’ll see how it does,” said The Kingpin. I wondered if it would work with the Liberty Village demographic, being as how it’s a mix of young professionals and some people of artistic temperament. No one can really say. It seems like hip young people might be a hard market to sway. I wonder if they’ve done that on purpose to try it out in an area with a difficult population to project. That would be a good idea. They might surpass their expectations in other markets based on that data.

Understand, though, it is pretty much a window dressing. The products are the same. The policies are the same. The new design throws the size of the craft beer section into pretty sharp relief. It’s half the size (maybe two thirds the size) of the buck-a-beer wall. It showcases just about every brand they have. I had no idea until yesterday that we had Keystone Light in Canada. I could have lived without that knowledge.

This is the Craft Beer section. Nary a two-four in sight.

On balance, it’s a nice store, but I don’t understand the timidity. They shouldn’t call it The Beer Boutique. The concept is a fallacy, since the concept includes no additional boutique products. It’s just a nicer store. What they should do is invest in renovating all of The Beer Stores to make them like this. Sure, the initial outlay would be some gargantuan sum of money, but it might make people want to shop there. It worked for their competition.

Mondial 2011 – Il y a des oiseaux dans la fenetre

An example of the North American Rock Pigeon

Beer journalism is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, it can be a grueling, punishing vocation.

I’ve just now pulled in from Montreal on the train, and although the Mondial de la Biere is by no means over, I’m pleased to be well away from it. As beer festivals go, it’s the best in the country; probably one of the best in the world. I think, though, that three days of it is enough for anyone. Especially if you have a media pass and you’ve been given the ability to sample everything that you want. Three days will pretty much allow you to do that, especially if you took the time beforehand to figure out what was going to be there. If you spend three separate four or five hour days at the festival talking to people and covering events, you’ll get through quite a number of samples. Not enough to be problematic, but certainly enough to experience a pleasant rolling buzz caused by both the properties of the beverage and the overwhelming sense of camaraderie.

That doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, and for the most part the festival itself went pretty well. The difficulties that I ended up experiencing were mostly of my own making. It’s due to this increasingly bizarre concatenation of circumstances that I’m pleased to be home and looking forward to clean sheets and my own bed.

I think that the problems stem from the fact that I hadn’t budgeted adequately for the logistics of the thing. You need to get to Montreal. You need a place to stay. You’ve got to get around once you’re there and, since you’re going to be putting away a not insignificant number of four ounce samples, you’re going to have to eat. You can’t just stand there punishing the complimentary media foie gras. There are other food groups, after all.

I booked the train tickets about a month and half in advance when Via Rail had their summer seat sale. They were something like 50% off, but came with the stipulation that they could not be exchanged or refunded. It was only once the train had left Union station for Montreal that the attendant explained why that was. “Ah. You are taking ze long way round,” he said. It turned out that the return ticket took me through Ottawa, which is something like a three hour detour.

It was alright. I was filled with high spirits. After all, I was going to THE beer festival. No Problem. It was only three hours. Besides, it had been a cheap ticket.

And then I got to the hotel.

I had booked a room in a dorm at the Universite de Montreal. It had been all I could find when it came time to book a room. Now, I have to tell you that it reminded me significantly of my dorm room at Mount Allison. It was akin to a monastic cell furnished by IKEA. It had its points, in that it was clean and reasonably priced. It also had some relatively severe disadvantages. The mattress was foam rubber, encased in kind of pleather. The sheets were in no way large enough to remain on the mattress. If you shifted even slightly while lying bed, they would come away from the mattress, exposing the jagged cracks in the pleather surface, subjecting your legs to all manner of tiny scrapes. Because it was a dorm, there was no ensuite bathroom, but sharing a communal shower is little hardship during the summer when there’s no one at the university. Most importantly though, the window had no screening.

At first, that was a kind of blessing. You could lean out the window and see the neighbourhood to the north of the university; a sprawling metropolis of twinkling lights stretching off into the distance. It had also been 40 degrees in the shade the first day, and the cooling breeze was certainly welcome. It is, after all, a building without central air conditioning, and was built to retain warmth during the harsh Montreal winter. When I arrived, the room was heated to something like 30 degrees.

I don’t know if you know this, but populations of the same species of animal that live in different regions develop different accents. That is to say that while a pigeon is a pigeon anywhere, the noises that they make will be slightly different. You might be familiar with the sound of a Toronto pigeon, but the Montreal pigeon sounds slightly different; Almost as though they had adopted a jaunty French-Canadian joual accent.

I learned this to my chagrin on the first day, when I returned from the shower to hear a rustling of feathers and a throaty coo from the other side of the door. The pigeons had gotten in through the open window and had roosted on the small refrigerator. There were two of them. Now, I’m not nervous around animals, so I shooed them out of the room, closed the window and got some toilet paper from the bathroom to tidy up after them. No one wants to contract Psittacosis on their vacation.

The North American Rock Pigeon in its natural habitat: My luggage.

I unpacked and I slept fitfully with the window open, listening to aggressive cooing from sill. I tossed and turned because of the cooing, removing the sheets from the mattress. There was no choice, since the room would have been stifling with the window closed.

The next morning, I woke and headed off to get a cup of coffee from the vending machine in the lobby. Upon returning, I realized that I had forgotten to close the window. This time, the pigeons had nested between the fridge and the wall, directly on top of my bag. I shooed them away, as I had the previous day, but they seemed reluctant to leave. There was a very good reason for that. The pigeons had chosen my bag as their nesting site. I don’t know whether it was the bright yellow that attracted them or why they had chosen my bag, but it was obvious that the female was less afraid than it had the previous day.

Some hotels advertise a continental breakfast, but very few advertise free range pigeon eggs.

If this blog were written by Les Stroud or Bear Grylls, this blog post would have taken a very different turn at this point.

What would you do in that situation? How do you dispose of an egg? It was pretty much doomed from the get go. You couldn’t take it downstairs and lay it on the lawn. You could probably just throw it in the garbage, but who wants their hotel room to smell like a pigeon omelette, especially in 30 degree heat? My solution was to pick it up using the washcloth the hotel had provided and place it gingerly in a depression outside the window. It seemed the best option since there were now two very aggressive pigeons staring at me accusingly. Of course, I was greeted half an hour later with the sight of yolk on the pavement below.

Ok, so, looking back on it, this wasn't the best solution.

It was like something out of Hitchcock. After that, they would literally not leave the sill. For the last two days of my stay, there was constant cooing. I tried to explain the problem to the concierge, but with my broken French, all I could manage was “Il y a des oiseaux dans la fenetre.” I think they must have assumed that I had not gotten past the grade three french primer: “La plume de ma tante est sur la table.”

I tried a compromise, by shutting the drapes, but I was awakened at 3:30 in the morning by an extremely angry bird that had become entangled. I don’t know if you have ever woken up with an irate winged rat staring at you, but I have and I can tell you that it’s the stuff of nightmares, especially if you’ve been subsisting on a diet of beer festival food.

After three nights of sleep in a hot room, with a cracked pleather mattress that cut my legs after the sheets were inevitably pulled away, being constantly serenaded by squab, I was sleep deprived and groggy and not having much in the way of fun. It is possibly this sleep deprivation that was the reason that I didn’t notice my pocket being picked on Friday afternoon at the beer festival.

I cannot imagine what the people at the bank thought when I called them to cancel the card. I had become a slightly inebriated paranoid wreck who was muttering “The French took my wallet and the pigeons are trying to get me.” I sat up most of last night, after being awakened twice by the pigeons. They had made their way into the room. On one occasion, I thought one had perched on top of the wardrobe just in order to stare at me. It may or may not have been a dream, but it became clear to me that the incident with the egg had caused some kind of terrible ornithological karma.

It has to be said that I love Mondial. And I love Montreal. I’m content to walk through Outremont or Westmount and look at the lovely houses, or to sit in the old city and watch people discover the traditions and heritage of a proud people.

However, I’m extraordinarily glad that for me, at least, Mondial de la Biere 2011 is over. After the seven hour train ride, Toronto has never looked sweeter, and I have never been more pleased to see the Peregrine Falcons that circle over my apartment building.

(editor’s note: Jordan will probably return to writing about beer in the next few days, whenever his tattered psyche repairs itself.)

Molson Canadian 67 Sublime – The Return of the Patio People

(The other day, St.John’s Wort acquired a new employee. Vanessa Scott has graciously volunteered to be my guest blogtographer and executive plus-one. As is sometimes the case with new employees, she’s a bit of a keener and took a rather larger number of pictures than I would have. We went to the Molson Canadian 67 Sublime launch and she took pictures of everything: The people, the venue, the beer, the bloggers. I think that she may have stopped short of getting a picture of the people across the street who shared a tender moment on their sixth floor balcony. The majority of attendees at the launch were content to smile and wave at them, although there was the occasional catcall thrown in.)

Let me talk to you about Molson Canadian 67 Sublime.

@molsonferg Said to try it with ice. So we did.

It would be extremely easy to dig my official Peter Cushing Van Helsing costume out of the closet and stand here brandishing a stake while shouting something like “Get thee gone from my sight, thou foul abomination! Thou crusty botch of nature!” It is expected of me, which would make that course of action even easier than usual. I have no great love for lime beers, as I demonstrated in a post from last summer. This review was never going to be smiles and sunshine and cuddly frolicking puppies.

I’m going to indulge in that in the next paragraph, and then I’m going to attempt maturity and objectivity.

Molson Canadian 67 Sublime seems to me to have more in common with a lime flavoured Italian soda than it does with beer. It has, like nearly all lime flavoured beers, a slight chemical aftertaste which is by no means entirely pleasant. At 3% alcohol, you would probably be more likely to hydrate than dehydrate by drinking it in quantity. I’m sure it’s a marvel of technical ability and brewing prowess, but it is vastly not to my taste.

There. I hope that I have been mean enough to maintain my credibility. Ha-Ha! (Please don’t sue me.)

Now for the maturity and objectivity:

I suspect that the reason that we’re seeing so many light lime beers is for the simple reason that patio culture is such a big thing. There are entire sections of The Grid (nee NOW) which are devoted to reporting which are the best patios in the city as we gear up for summer. Periodically, I hear people talk about which patio is their favorite and I can certainly understand how that would be a draw if you’re of a certain frame of mind. Some people go to a bar because there’s a new craft beer on tap; a significantly larger portion of the population goes to a bar’s patio to sit in the sun with their friends and socialize.

As craft beer drinkers, we’re Anoraks. Trainspotters. Nerds. The light lime beer demographic is entirely separate from us. To paraphrase Robert Frost, our apple trees will never get across and drink the beers under their patio awnings. Or something.

There are entire sections of the population to whom the concept of lifestyle is massively important. They play racquetball and run in the rain. They know where their chakras are located. They attempt to balance a rich family life with positive social networking and a fulfilling campaign up the corporate career ladder.

That all seems like a lot of work to me, but what do I know? I’m not a typical 30-something. Just the other day, I considered buying heavily discounted marshmallow Peeps in order to see what would happen if you put them in the microwave. That should give you some insight into the level that I’m operating on.

The interesting thing to me is that Molson is vigorously targeting this demographic, and they’re doing it by positioning Sublime as a health and wellness oriented beverage. The nutritional information is on the back label, just in case you doubt the veracity of its claim to have only 67 calories. It is designed for this demographic specifically. It is, I assume, for people who want to spend hours on a patio socializing without the pesky hangover and dehydration that can result from just that activity and significantly hamper your carefully composed lifestyle. Fair enough.

You can have like 5 Sublimes or a White Russian. What Would Jeffrey Lebowski Do?

The door prize for the launch was a gift card for The Running Room. If that doesn’t tell you how targeted the marketing is, nothing will. I have never tried a 5K jog after a pint of Imperial Stout (or at all, judging by the look of me), but I assume it would be messy.

It’s actually a pretty good marketing campaign. I saw a billboard on Church Street yesterday. It promises nothing that it can’t deliver. “Lemon and Lime Flavour. 67 Calories.”  It does what it says on the tin. Compare this with the slogan for Miller Chill that I saw on a patio yesterday: “How a light beer with a taste of lime should taste.” Not only is it sort of clunky on the basis of redundancy, but it’s a ridiculous claim that seems to assert that it is the prototypical light lime beer.

I’ll tell you what. Of the Light Lime Beers that I’ve tried, Molson 67 Sublime is probably the best in the sense that the lime flavour is not overly syrupy. I am also perfectly willing to admit that after the rather lengthy walk to the event it was a refreshing beverage. That’s sort of how you have to think of it. It’s a beverage. It’s a lifestyle accessory for a certain demographic having a long night on a patio discussing which Bikram yoga studio has the best instructors or whatever trendy, responsible people without beer blogs talk about. Possibly Jersey Shore.

In this instance, I’m going to come down on the side of Capitalism. If that’s what the patio people want, then more power to Molson. They have successfully identified and targeted a need and they are aggressively attempting to compete with other brands in order to fill it. Having seen the Molson marketing and PR teams in action, I’m impressed. There’s a reason they’re at the top.

I can’t recommend it as a beer, but chances are that if you’re reading this, you already knew that.