St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: January 2013

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DISCOUNT BEER FEBRUARY

I have currently been writing professionally about beer for two and a half years. Next week will be the beginning of my third year with Sun Media. I’ve discovered that if you write about beer all the time, you run into a few small problems that nag at you.

The first is that you end up with fatigue. It’s not exactly palate fatigue. It’s not like hops have a cumulative effect and the alpha-acids aggregate in your cerebrospinal fluid. At least, not as far as I’m aware. It’s more like novelty fatigue. There are truly great and interesting things happening in Ontario as far as the development of new flavours go. Lackey’s doing good things. McOustra’s doing good things. Volo, Nickel Brook, Bellwoods, Indie Alehouse, Beaus… The envelope push is a constant in the craft beer scene at the moment. That’s a good thing, but familiarity with that breeds contempt for it.

At its purest, this kind of brewing is about innovation and it’s incredibly personal. This, when you strip away the marketability of the thing, is about a man and a conceptual vision of a product. The first batch might not make it. The third batch might not make it. It’s about honing a beer to make it adhere to a vision. This is part of what gives craft beer its wonderful appeal. The finished beer is the result of hours and hours of thought and inspiration and effort.

But it’s still, what, like, 60 litres of pilot batch? That’s like… 110 pints when you count spillage. If it’s 4oz glasses, it’s still not that many of them and probably less than the number you’d come up with because of more spillage in service. I have a national audience at Sun Media. I can’t write about a beer which, if it is any good and people come back for another sample, will get tried by maybe 80 people. By the time I write about it, it’s gone and it may never come back.

Because it’s not utile, I am thence forced to look at something that should be intellectually thrilling because it’s out there in bleeding edge, Chuck Yeager Stick Of Beeman’s territory with some amount of detachment.

It’s the detachment that’s fatiguing. I feel like I should be just tickled as all hell that I get invited to try this wild, wacky stuff, but instead it’s like “Uh… What can I write about this?” I can’t write about everything: Microsoft Word has a file size limit. I don’t want to offend people by not writing about them, especially if their only sin is being middle of the road. The end result is that I sit here in a deep blue funk, drinking too much coffee, afraid to go to events that I would probably enjoy.

Potentially the worst part of this is that when you’re talking about the entirety of craft and import sales in Ontario, and this is the bread and butter of every single one of us writing about beer, these market segments make up 20% of the beer market in Canada. There are just a huge number of people who are not drinking this stuff, and whose interest in reading about it is therefore pretty minimal.

This is why, for the month of February, St.John’s Wort will be hovering gently in the DISCOUNT BEER Category of The Beer Store.

You may consider it something of a busman’s holiday. The great thing about discount beers is that, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever bothered to cover them. These are brands which do not necessarily merit a PR representative. Let me tell you how I know: I have written to all of the producers (or will in the coming days) in order to request the standard two bottles of beer for review (In case one breaks in transit or there are off flavours or it’s any good and I’d kind of like a second one). There are 60 beers in the discount section. It is not worth the time of the producers of these beers to open a case and pick out two beers. They seem hell-bent on sending the minimum size of packaged beers.

They care enough to get some free publicity, but not so much that honest evaluation of the product will lead to tears in some delicate soul’s mash-tun. They know that it’s the discount section. Believe me. They know.

A friend of mine, Andrew Walsh (who judging by the photographic evidence in TAPS magazine is no stranger to the aftereffects of cheap beer) once claimed that his favorite beer was Brava. “What do you want for 30 bucks,” I am paraphrasing him as saying. In some sense, he’s right. These are utility beers, not really designed for maximum flavour. They aren’t hip. They aren’t trendy. The only way they’re getting near a barrel is if Donkey Kong throws one at the display. They are more or less likely to be consumed in great volume by people who think that a 24 is worth $29.95 and who are primarily concerned with the mood altering effect.

I’m not one of those people. I haven’t bought a 24 since student life in New Brunswick. I’m a prospective beer judge. I’m Cicerone Certified Beer Server and with any luck a Certified Cicerone by the end of the month. I went to brewing school (for a while). I’ve designed (in collaboration) some pretty well regarded stuff and I read voraciously on the subject of beer.  I’m decided to take this seriously.

Evaluations will be completed on all 60 beers listed in The Beer Store’s discount category. The samples will consist of 4-6 ounces. The notes will be honest, but will reflect the fact that these are not products intended to stand up to significant overthinking. Marks will not be deducted for the fact that the brewery has sent me 48 times the amount of beer I require and therefore forced me to find creative ways to get rid of it.

Look: Lager makes up something like 90% of the total beer market. Discount lager probably makes up something like 30% of that, which makes it larger than the entirety of craft beer. Intellectual honesty therefore demands that someone actually look at the Gorgon. If nothing else, by the end of the month, we will be able to crown a champion and we may have ushered in the era of the discount category beer snob. Even a trailer park beauty pageant has a winner.

I have the feeling that by March, I’m really going to be looking forward to a barrel aged something or other with six kinds of hops and 78 well chosen IBUs and a grain bill the size of Venezuela.

Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm. They’re a new brewery in Norfolk County. Part of the issue here is that there really aren’t all that many farm breweries kicking around and there’s not really a concrete definition of what that might entail, at least in Ontario. Is it “we grow some of our own ingredients” or “we produce farmhouse style beers” or “this brewery is actually, physically located on a farm” or some or none of the above.

This image came from Canadian Beer News, partially because I made notes on the Pilsner so long ago that I don't even remember if I took pictures.

This image came from Canadian Beer News, partially because I made notes on the Pilsner so long ago that I don’t even remember if I took pictures.

The concept is a little sketchy. To give you an idea, there was a law passed in New York State in 2012 that suggests that it has less to do with whether the brewery grows its own ingredients and more to do with whether they come from that agricultural area. The percentage of material grown in New York State that must be included in a “farm brewery” beer will increase from 20% (currently) to 90% by 2024. The actual beer that is produced seems of comparatively little consequence in terms of designation. In Ontario, there’s no such guideline.

There is, I think, a mental association that people have developed with a few farm producers in the states that created a certain amount of excitement before the products coming out of Ramblin’ Road were announced. I know that I initially thought, “Oh, so what? Like Hill Farmstead? That’ll be great.”

Ramblin’ Road has sidestepped rusticity in their beers, preferring to start with some easily accessible beer styles. There’s a Pale Lager, a Cream Ale and a Pilsner. Of these, I’ve only tried the Pilsner. It’s not quite saazy enough to be a Czech jobbie and it doesn’t quite have the cracker grain character of a northern German Pilsner. By process of elimination, it’s sort of an American Pilsner and therefore a touch less exciting than I was hoping for, although still pleasingly floral in a mild way.

It is certainly well made. I can’t fault the brewers there. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at having it again in the future. I sat there staring at the glass for a while trying to figure out why you would start out with that range of beers if you were in Ontario of all places where there are now similarly named breweries launching with a shot across the bow like Canny Man.

Then I remembered two things:

1)      Ramblin’ Road is in La Salette and not Toronto.

2)      I’ve seen this work just across the lake in Chautauqua County, NY

I don’t know that if they had started with more interesting beers, people would have gone out of their way to visit Ramblin’ Road. In terms of drawing power, it’s probably better to brew solid popular mainstays and get people to visit from nearby than to bet the brewery farm that people will drive in for barrel aged thingummies. That works in Toronto, but we’ve got semi functioning public transit and something like five million people. La Salette has a post office and a general store and I would bet you that they are both closed on Sunday.

It’s actually a pretty clever idea. Unlike, say, Toronto, where you’ve got a number of craft brewery lagers competing for space on tap with every new thing that comes out, Southwestern Ontario is more or less Lager country and comparatively unchanging. This is kind of clever. If you draw a 150 km radius from the brewery (about two hours of country driving), you’re equidistant to Toronto and the Huron coast. You have the ability to sell all over the place (although making inroads within Labatt heavy London might be a bit of a bear.)

Combine this with the fact that the owner of the brewery, John Picard, has been distributing his fresh roasted, salty nuts all over the province for 30 years, and you probably take a lot of the guesswork out of sales and distribution. I would imagine that also highlights for the brewery the importance of food safety and sanitation, so you don’t get rookie mistakes. Also, consider the overhead on a brewery outside of Delhi. Peanuts.

Now, that’s a wide catchment area; a huge radius. You probably don’t have to go that far afield to sell a lot of well made accessible beer. Southern Tier in Lakewood, NY, makes a beer called Chautauqua Brew that does more or less the same thing: Provides a locally made accessible alternative to macro beers. If I remember the conversation with the brewers correctly, the only thing that outsells it locally is Busch Light.

They are actually growing a wide variety of hops at Ramblin’ Road. According to their representative in a thread on Bartowel, the farm that it’s located on has been growing them for five years. This suggests to me that by the time August rolls around you might start seeing some more esoteric products. Apparently, Norfolk County produces Ginger, Hazelnuts and Lavender. If it were me, I’d take advantage of that in addition to the hops. Plus, by that point, they’ll have had a brisk summer of sales.

The sales will come partly because the beer is solid and accessible, but mostly because they’ve invested wisely in social media and online presence. The logo and design are solid and that, combined with concept that this is a rural Ontario kind of farm thing makes for just a dynamite brand. Plus, whoever is manning their twitter account is doing a bang up job.

I don’t know that their beer will ever catch on with the craft beer wonks in Toronto, but the branding is strong enough that it might actually get on tap in more mainstream environments where tastes aren’t as rarified.  I think that they will probably do exceptionally well in smaller Ontario markets because there’s not a brewery that’s more conceptually representative of rural route, concession road Ontario.

Chances are, if you’re reading my blog, it’s probably not going to knock your socks off. That said, if you want a textbook brewery opening strategy, these guys are good. Hopefully, someday they’ll get around to using the hops they’ve been growing.

Amsterdam Tap Takeover @ Bar Volo

I want to point something out to you, and it will seem obvious in retrospect: Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery is running a tap takeover at Bar Volo on February 2nd. It sold out completely in about 4 hours. The first rating on Boneshaker IPA on Ratebeer.com is May 2010. That was the first beer they produced that you could point to and say “Oh hey. That’s not Amsterdam Blonde at all.”

This means that in the span of about 33 months, Amsterdam brewery has gotten to the point where they feel comfortable releasing 32 beers to the public at the same time. That’s about a beer a month. Many of these beers are aged in wine or bourbon barrels and will have been sitting there for quite a while. This all happened at the same time that they were moving their brewery across the city.

It’s not exactly like the organization has done a 180. They still produce a whole lot of Amsterdam Blonde, which is… y’know… wet. That’s ok. People like liquids.

The Amsterdam retail store, viewed from the Brewhouse.

The Amsterdam retail store, viewed from the Brewhouse.

Possibly, it’s because of the changes that have been taking place over there that I tend to criticize one man more frequently than anyone else in the Ontario brewing scene. His name is Iain McOustra. He works for Amsterdam as Head Brewer and he has been experimenting with varying beer styles for a while now. One time, I suggested that he danced on the head of a pin, trying to satisfy the tastes of Toronto beer drinkers. I may have suggested that he did it in a tutu. I am still sorry for putting that image in your head, because even two years on, no one needs that.

I digress.

His methods are a little odd. If you look at the way that pilot brews and the development of differing styles works in Ontario, it’s easy to see some examples of systematic progress. I mean, we didn’t get Great Lakes Karma Citra without Mike Lackey brewing literally dozens of batches of different IPAs in a sort of research capacity. I think that Iain’s approach is a little more scattershot, but this is probably because he gets excited about so many different ideas. I’m not saying there’s not progression, but it doesn’t always end up being in a consistent direction.

Most of your Amsterdam one-off beers are coming out of this system these days. It's an improvement over the Keggles they started out with.

Most of your Amsterdam one-off beers are coming out of this system these days. It’s an improvement over the Keggles they started out with.

I haven’t ever really publicly criticized the stuff he’s done. I’ll mostly just give him feedback to his face. Now, to be fair, I’ve never intentionally downrated anything that he has done just to annoy him. When he has done well, I’ve told him so. When he has not done as well as he hoped, I have periodically embellished slightly after his first burst of profanity, because he’s just so easy to rile up.

It’ll sometimes go like this, as it did in 2011:

J: I really don’t like this Hulk Hogan thing. Is it a Kolsch? It’s a little catty.

IM: What? MotherF***er? That S**t is the bomb.

J: No, man. It tastes like an ocelot peed next to it and the pee seeped in there.

The point is this: I have, for the last… let’s say year or so, given Iain a batting average for his beers at any single event.  At the 2011 Movember Bash, he hit about .400. This is not bad if you’re Ted Williams. It meant that about 2 of 5 brews that he made for the occasion were good. Good is maybe underselling it. The thing is that if you’re going to have your own event, if you know you’re going to be serving beer to people, you want to do the best you can. Experimental brews have the potential to bring your average down. Nature of the beast. You aren’t going to come out a hero the first time all the time.

Then there was a night at Volo when he had a few beers on. Night Train, I think the specialty was called. That was an .800 night. 4/5. The man did good. People liked this. It was a funkifized brown ale on a wine barrel tip. I liked it. Hell, I told him so.

At the Hart House festival, there was Sleeping Giant Barley Wine, which made really solid use of the barrel character. At Cask Days this year, everything the man touched turned to gold. Full City Tempest? A proper coffee Imperial Stout as good as anything in that style that has been brewed in this province?

The special event space is packed full of barrels. I guess if you own that many barrels, you gotta stash 'em somewhere. Green Flash does the same thing.

The special event space is packed full of barrels. I guess if you own that many barrels, you gotta stash ‘em somewhere. Green Flash does the same thing.

Between all of this stuff, I was down at Amsterdam periodically, to fill up a ridiculous wooden keg or on a beer tour of Toronto when Iain was dodging the host and I didn’t really want to pretend I didn’t know about how lager was made. He showed me something in a Golden Ale in a Pinot barrel. I might have been the first to taste that one. It was, at that point, mellow and a skooch mango-y. I still gave him a going over for “what market is there for this and who’s going to drink it?”

So when the Amsterdam night at Volo sold completely out in about four hours, I wasn’t all that surprised that there was a market. The only problem is that there are 32 taps. That’s a lot of taps. There will be misses. No one bats a thousand. It just doesn’t happen. Name a brewery that does everything perfectly. Go on. Do it. You can’t. I’d say a .500 performance would be a good deal on 32 taps.

Here is Iain McOustra looking respectable. He does not like having his photo taken, even when he is wearing a jacket.

Here is Iain McOustra looking respectable. He does not like having his photo taken, even when he is wearing a jacket.

Either way, this is something of a landmark in terms of Amsterdam’s development, in the dichotomy between the easily approachable, slightly pedestrian fare in their core lineup and the new, exciting, more sophisticated stuff of the last three years. Will Iain McOustra be able to bring the recent standard of quality one-offs to bare on the new brewpub? Will they finally scrap the KLB zombie brands? Will Jamie Mistry show up wearing his Lederhosen?

The answer to all these questions is “probably.”

Edit: Some readers seem to be of the opinion that I am somehow anti-McOustra. This is not the case. I am very much pro-McOustra, even if I needle him periodically. He gives as good as he gets. The point of the article here is to showcase the fact that his development as a brewer has been interesting to watch and is more and more frequently resulting in excellent one-off beers. While I have made it clear that 16/32 really good beers would be a respectable outing for a tap takeover of this magnitude, I have little doubt that he’ll surpass that mark, especially when you take the collaborations into account. That said, I don’t think anyone is going to completely dominate on 32 taps. To ascribe that likelihood to any brewer would be to engender potential disappointment. If you try to do a difficult thing well, you will sometimes fail.

They Send Me Beer: Grand River Brewing

I’m always happy to receive beer from Grand River Brewing. I got to know Bob Hannenberg a little bit during a stopover in Philadelphia on the way to the craft brewing conference in San Diego last year. I like Bob, and generally speaking, I like much of the beer that he produces. I like the grainy heft of Galt Knife Lager and I think that if I could only choose one Ontario beer to drink in perpetuity, it would probably be the Mill Race Mild. Part of the attraction there is that it is a beer that you can have two of and then go do something afterwards. Welsh style Dark Mild. Gotta love it.

This time around, they have sent me two beers, which are sort of outside the brewery’s mission statement of lower alcohol beers. They have sent the Jubilation Winter Warmer and the Russian Gun Imperial Stout.

While the beer itself is very tasty indeed, you can't actually read the entire label without turning the bottle. I had not noticed that before.

While the beer itself is very tasty indeed, you can’t actually read the entire label without turning the bottle. I had not noticed that before.

Jay Burnett, who dropped the beers off for me, has thoughtfully provided a fact sheet. I would like to share with you the story of Russian Gun.

The Russian gun, (or Gun as we call it) is named after the Queens square cannon that sits in downtown Galt, Cambridge. The cannon was awarded to the town of Galt for its support of the English troops during the Crimean war which ended in 1856.

That year, to celebrate the victory during Victoria Day, the Cannon was fired at noon. The men firing the cannon successfully fired three shots. However, during the fourth, the powder prematurely exploded, killing both men, charring their upper bodies beyond human recognition and dismembering the arms and hands of both men; Two children were lightly scratched.

That right there, ladies and gentlemen, is the darkest backstory on any beer in Ontario. I mean, I considered calling a sumac beer Wendigo which refers to a psychosis in which people come to believe they’re possessed and turn to cannibalism.  I thought better of it, since no one is ordering Sweeny Todd’s Red Ale.

Still, Russian Gun is a good name conceptually for a Russian Imperial Stout. It’s got the Sevastopol connection from the Crimea and it represents a local history that helps define the brewery. That’s something. Plus, those two children got away comparatively unscathed.

The beer itself pours a completely opaque black with a resilient tan head that laces nicely. The aroma contains more smoke than I remember from previous years. One of the strengths of Grand River is that they can alter recipes from year to year on their seasonal beers without causing too much fuss. I think the 2010 version had more cocoa character to it. It’s a solid Imperial Stout with quite a bit of character.

The bottle I have here was packaged on the 19th of December and it’s my impression that this could do with a little bit of time to round out the rougher edges. I’m getting a lot of roast character off of it ranging from chocolate to coffee to a small amount of char, which is not entirely unappealing given the small amount of smoke in the aroma. There’s a note of drying fruit in the middle of the aroma; Like apples drying out in a root cellar. It’s in LCBOs at the moment. If you pick some up now, it will probably be in even better shape by the end of February. The fact sheet says it’s 9.0% alcohol, but the bottle says 8.0%. I’d be inclined to believe the fact sheet, based on the slight heat.

See? You've got to turn the bottle. Me, I would narrow the thing and put "Imperial Stout" in a smaller font, but what do I know? I'm shortsighted and partially colourblind.

See? You’ve got to turn the bottle. Me, I would narrow the thing and put “Imperial Stout” in a smaller font, but what do I know? I’m shortsighted and partially colourblind.

I know people who set aside bottles of Russian Gun for vertical tastings, which seems weird to me because the recipe seems to tweak annually, thus defeating the purpose somewhat, but it probably makes for a nice evening.

Jubilation Winter Warmer is available at the brewery this year, and you’re going to have to go down to Galt to get it. It’s 7.0% and it is, for my taste, cinnamon heavy. It contains too much cinnamon for its own good, becoming unbalanced. I think that the Highballer Pumpkin Ale did that this year as well. Like I mentioned earlier, since the recipe on the Jubilation Winter Warmer changes from year to year, this is not really a condemnation. Next year it will probably not contain so much cinnamon.

The thing that Jubilation represents is a switch in packaging. For the first time since I can remember, the bottle is not a 500ml bottle with the typical Grand River labeling. It’s a 650ml bomber with a much improved label that speaks to the fact that there are changes occurring at Grand River. I don’t doubt that just about every blogger or journalist that has talked to them over the last few years has mentioned that they needed new labels. That’s happening.

Of course I’ve thrown out the bottle, so I don’t have a picture of it. Trust me, it’s a marked improvement. It’s interesting to see how Grand River is evolving, and one of the things I like about them is that the change is comparatively unhurried. Some breweries, if told that their labels were sort of hokey looking, would panic and try to change things immediately. Grand River is content to change things slowly, and I suspect that’s partially because they know they have a good product and that their clientele are not going anywhere.

They Send Me Beer: Radical Road Brewing Canny Man

I’m always interested when something I’m not expecting happens. For instance, I didn’t expect the brewers at Black Oak to start up their own label. They’ve been a bit cagey about it as the thing has developed and I don’t think that anyone knew quite what to expect. It was probably last winter I was talking to Simon Da Costa about this development. It must have been, because the pub next to Volo was still Local 4 and we were in there discussing it.

He said he was going to brew a Scotch Ale, that he was going to barrel age it. I looked at him and said something to the effect of “And that’s going to be your only beer? Are you crazy?” He looked at me and shrugged. When he did so, the sleeves of his well loved motorcycle jacket looked like they would probably fall off. He explained that he had worked in Scotland and he thought it would work.

Months later, dozens and dozens of Scotch barrels arrived at Black Oak. Mostly mainland, speyside barrels, if I’m remembering correctly. You’d have been forgiven, based on the number, for putting on your best welsh regimental accent and muttering to yourself “There’s thousands of them.” One week I walked into the brewery and the entire back wall was taken up with barrels.

At one point, I told Simon and Jon Hodd, who worked with him on this, that I thought they were maniacs. Who the hell imports scotch barrels in order to launch a beer? Were all the beers out of their label going to be barrel aged? Were they crazy?

Now, understand that I like both of these people. Simon is talented and funny and unassuming and gets on with the difficult job of brewing. Jon, who I tend to refer to as “Jon Boy” after the Waltons, since he’s so wholesome, is a good brewer in his own right, having come up through Volo. I really wanted to get a sense of what they were doing. I wanted to try their beer.

It was tantalizing. It was a secret project. As far as I know, no one had really tried the thing. At some point in the last couple of months, I wrote an article on Scotch Ales for The Sun and I called around to see if they’d let me try some. It wasn’t ready. Rather than attempt to get national promotion, they wanted the product to be as they envisioned it before anyone got to try it.

Today, I finally got my hands on a bottle. Now, my understanding is that they’ve spent most of the morning packaging the bottles. When you see the following photos, I have no doubt that you’ll understand why.

There’s the brewery label.

It's a Rad enough label to save the President.

It’s a Rad enough label to save the President.

And the beer label.

It's a coaster! It's a promotional gimmick! It's a coaster and a promotional gimmick!

It’s a coaster! It’s a promotional gimmick! It’s a coaster and a promotional gimmick!

And the tissue wrapping.

I'm saving this for Christmas next year.

I’m saving this for Christmas next year.

And the actual cork and cage bottle.

The actual label is sort of austere and impressive. I have liked fancy labels a lot less than this.

The actual label is sort of austere and impressive. I have liked fancy labels a lot less than this.

I suppose if you’re going to make a splash on shelves in Ontario LCBOs, this is not such a bad way to do it. It’s eye catching. It’s a bit like Rod Stewart’s hair. It’s hypnotic, and then, once you realize that he’s got your attention, it’s too late to stop singing along to Young Turks.

Knowing what I know about Simon and Jon, I’m a little surprised by the beer.  Canny Man is 9.1% and comes in what is essentially a champagne bottle. It has apparently been matured for 71 days in the barrels. I don’t know how you decide when enough is enough. I guess you have a sacrificial guinea pig barrel with a draw pipe.

It pours a sort of chestnut brown, relatively aggressively carbonated for the style. The interesting thing to me is that usually when North American brewers do Scotch Ales or Wee Heavies, they build the smoke in. I’ve confirmed with Jon that they used a tiny amount of smoked malt here, so most of the smoke comes from the barrels. The reason that’s interesting to me is that this is sort of what I remember McEwan’s being like. There’s that malt caramel/toffee/fruity middle. That’s what the beer would probably have been like without the barrel aging. It’s a proper wee heavy, which has been subsequently introduced to the barrel.

You can tell that’s what happened because the smoky notes from the barrel linger on the roof of the palate. It sort of separates into a toffee dark fruit middle while smoke wisps over top. It’s odd because it means that it is simultaneously as close to being a real wee heavy as anything I’ve tried in the last year while playing into the North American predilection for adding smoke to Scotch Ales. The effort that must have gone into getting the beer exactly right and locating the right barrels to make it happen is a little staggering, especially for two maniacs in Etobicoke.

I should have listened to Simon when he said that he knew it would work. There are only two criticisms that I can see being leveled at this beer. One is that the packaging is… well, it’s ostentatious. I understand that there is a sweatshop over at Black Oak working into the night on tissue paper wrapping. That’s easily fixed after the first edition makes a splash. It would do just fine with only the bottle. The labeling is pretty enough to sell the thing.

The other criticism I can see is that the molasses seems to have fermented out quite a bit and that it may not be sweet enough for some palates. It’s not like an Innis & Gunn barrel aged beer. It’s drier than that, but not so dry that you don’t get the body.

The impressive thing to me is that all of this activity has closed around Robbie Burns day. Theoretically, it’ll be available in the LCBO sometime this week and it should make an appearance at some Robbie Burns dinners this year.

Canny men, more like.

Beer and Food: Belgium and Lancashire, Together At Last

Alright. Let’s say that you got up at O Dark Thirty on December 12th and you went out and stood in the line at the LCBO with a bunch of other poor bewildered sods who hadn’t ingested enough coffee to qualify as anything other than “shambling horde.” You stood in line in temperatures that would normally make you get a second pair of woolen socks and you managed to get a ticket for the Westvleteren XII at the liquor store only to find that you were probably going to have to wait another hour before the heavens parted and the manager saw fit to open the store so that you can get your monastic zymurgy on.

Good for you. You just purchased an excellent beer! Well done on remembering to bring your mittens.

If you were one of the happy go lucky folks balancing your eighty dollar purchase in one hand on the way to the car, I’m betting that you’re probably not suffering from any kind of apprehension about what to do with those beers now that you’ve got them. Maybe you were in line for someone who had to go in to work. Maybe you had a really expensive night in front of the TV. The point is that these are your beers and you can do whatever you want with them. Once you’ve actually purchased the thing, you can do the world’s most expensive beer bong for all I care.

For some of the beer nerds over in the Bartowel.com thread, there was actual panic involved in the situation. They didn’t know how they were possibly going to get their hands on the thing. There was a sense, I think, of unfairness that people who had been waiting for this beer to come to the LCBO since July might not be able to get any of it, being that the release really didn’t provide enough information to guarantee that you could show up at the right time at the right place. Sure, an afternoon of phone calls and pooled resources would help with that, but once that information is posted on a public board, you’re really no better off than any schmuck with a search engine.

I think that for some people who actually managed to get their hands on the Westvleteren XII, there will be a certain amount of agonizing over how best to enjoy it. You know: whether a situation is special enough to break out some of the secret stash. For some, just the fact that it is Tuesday will suffice. For others, the Leafs actually winning the Stanley Cup might not.

Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, the fact remains that opening a thirteen dollar bottle of a beer that you will probably never be able to buy legitimately at retail again constitutes AN EVENT. For that reason, I’m going to go so far as to suggest that you should probably have it with friends. And that you should probably have it with food. For that reason, I’ve come up with what I think is a pretty good pairing for Westvleteren XII, and having now tested it during one of Brock Shepherd’s last nights at Burger Bar (to a diminutive but captive audience), I’m ready to share it with you.

One of the really great things about the XII at the moment is the fact that it’s pretty aggressively carbonated because it’s still young. This means that it has the ability to scour fat right off the palate. It’s a little bit rustic at the moment since the flavours haven’t come together yet. You get dried fruit that changes with every sip. It’s raisin, it’s cherry, it’s date or fig depending on how that sip attacks you. Mostly it’s raisin, but there’s some variability in there. There’s also a certain amount of toffee and a significant Belgian yeast character.

For that reason, I decided to try it out with a fairly rustic raisin pastry originally from Lancashire called Eccles Cake. You might think it odd to pair an teatime specialty with a Trappist beer, but I think it makes sense, not merely because of the filling, but because of the butter and sugar content in the pastry. Michael Jackson suggested that the XII was all pale malt with the majority of the other flavour coming from candi sugars. This way, you match not only the dried fruit character with the raisins, but it matches the sweetness of the non fermentable stuff from the candi sugar. The carbonation is aggressive enough to lift the fat from the butter.

Of course, that’s not all that interesting by itself. It merely compliments the factors already in play. If you serve the Eccles cake with a small amount of Stilton, you end up with an additional element that provides two important things: salt content, which contrasts the sweetness in both the beer and the cake, and a small amount of that blue mold character. Now, the yeast in the Westvleteren XII isn’t cheesy or butyric, but the mold in the stilton serves to heighten very slightly the yeast character in the beer. It’s not something that you would necessarily think that you want, but it works very nicely.

My feeling, as per usual, is that if you’re going to borrow a recipe in order to do beer and food pairing, you may as well steal from the best. In this case, I’ve lifted the recipe from Heston Blumenthal in the attached link. He suggests a potted stilton, and I think that might be a better idea if you are saving the beer for a little while. Once it ages slightly and the rougher edges come off it, you might not want the full flavour of stilton by itself.

At any rate, this is the kind of thing that will help to make a couple of the bottles of your stash of Westvleteren XII special, if only because the recipe provides so many Eccles cakes that you’ll need to share.

I'm sure that this is not the proper glassware for this beer. However, it did make me feel a little like John Steed on The Avengers

I’m sure that this is not the proper glassware for this beer. However, it did make me feel a little like John Steed on The Avengers