St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

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And in Every Town

A little under a month ago I was sitting in Chaucer’s in London, Ontario with a group of beer writers and Matt Brown. Matt is the mayor of London and I’m afraid I made a bad impression by referring to him as “your worshipfulness.” It was the third stop on a pub crawl and I had tried small samples of everything that Toboggan Brewing makes, which is just enough beer to make me feel playful. It’s always a good policy to point out that you’re drinking with the Mayor on Untappd.

Our guide for the afternoon, Andrew Sercombe, had been regaling us with tales of London. About the Covent Garden market and of department store bowling alley disasters where customers had been tossed like skittles. He talked about the mall on Dundas Street that had had to be turned into a public library due to its emptiness. He talked about a beleaguered downtown that needed new life blown into it; the possibility of making some of the streets pedestrian walkways during part of the day to encourage foot traffic. He talked about the Walmart out by the highway and how no one comes downtown anymore.     

London is hurting. It is hurting badly enough that they think beer writers can help fix the problem. They want me to tell you about Toboggan Brewing which has started up in the space that was occupied by Jim Bob Ray’s on Richmond Street. They want me to tell you about Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium across from Budweiser Gardens and how the Beer Lab nanobrewery that services the pub makes the best Berliner Weisse I’ve seen in the province. They want you to know that the Forest City Beer Festival attracted 5000 people and was a giant success by anyone’s lights. Part of their plan for revitalization is beer.

Hell, Ontario is hurting. We’ve got more debt than any other geographical region in the world that isn’t a country. We’re not exactly the dust bowl or the rust belt. It’s not Tom Joad time just yet. Take a moment and read this excellent piece by Jordan Foisy for Vice about Sault Ste. Marie. Recognize that this has happened across the province. The manufacturing base is long gone from a large number of towns in the province. You just go ahead an ask anyone from Leamington or Chatham or Oshawa what they think about it. At the FCBF someone was telling me how you used to be able to tell what the Kellogg’s plant was making by the aroma wafting over the city. Maybe never again.

I had gone to London mostly to deliver a talk about beer and the economic development of Ontario. A lot of Ontario was built by brewers. In the 19th century it was an integral part of the province’s economy. I was talking about John Carling and his contributions to the waterworks and fire department and schools of London, Ontario. There were brewers doing similar things across the province. They had an obligation, not entirely motivated by selflessness, to build the society into which they were selling beer.

People talk about Craft Beer in pointlessly arbitrary terms. We’re lucky enough at the moment to have about 180-200 small breweries in Ontario ranging from a handful of hectolitres to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 350,000. I don’t buy that Craft Beer is uniformly artisanal; I think that brewing as art is bumf in all but a handful of cases. I do not buy that Craft Beer is traditional; They didn’t have Mango Saison much before three years ago. What I think is demonstrable is that Craft Beer has been a battleground for the soul of commerce in North America. I upset a very nice lady who works for Labatt as a tour guide at my talk in London by suggesting that this is the case (I tried to calm the situation by thanking Labatt very kindly for buying us a couple of World Series Championships.) I think that there are two economic models at play in the beer market.

First of all there’s the macro model. It’s a late 20th century model based on global corporate hegemony. Giant conglomerates arrived at through merger and acquisition over the course of the 20th century who are answerable only to their shareholders and who are obligated to continue turning a profit even as their mature market volumes shrink. AB In-Bev and MolsonCoors and SABMiller fall into this category. They may have plants near you, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll remain there if it becomes unprofitable. They are concerned about your welfare in the way that a wolf is concerned about the herd of elk.

Second, there’s the craft model. It’s not specific to craft beer. It’s a 19th century manufacturing model. It’s generational, driven possibly by the lifespan of the founder and the interest of his partners or progeny and it’s on a vastly more human scale. The smaller production level means that the owner is answerable to a community. The wealth that it generates will end up flowing back through the community in which it operates. Like John Carling or Eugene O’Keefe or the other 19th Century brewing magnates in Ontario, the brewers do not operate entirely selflessly. However, the benefit to the community is tangible. The wealth generated doesn’t go overseas into the pockets of shareholders you will never meet.

The best illustration of this is from, believe it or not, the 1938 Labatt Employee Handbook.

It sounds fanciful, but imagine having 200 plants where this is the case.

It sounds fanciful, but imagine having 200 plants where this is the case.

We have towns where it seems like nothing can grow and we’ve got debts that no honest man can pay, but in the middle of this we’ve got operations like the MacKinnon Brothers out in Bath, Ontario growing fields of wheat and barley and raising hops on loam their family has owned for 225 years. We’ve got farmers raising barley and hops and we’re vertically integrating agriculture into a brewing process in a way that no one has done in Ontario for decades.

Possibly it is only because they recognize a good thing when they see one, but politicians of all stripes and at all levels are actively supporting craft beer at the moment. The day before I went to London, I was in Kitchener-Waterloo to see Brick’s new plant. It finished two months under estimate and of the 9.3 million that went into the build 5 million ended up in the pockets of local contractors. This is legitimate economic stimulus that helps a community. For a couple hours I drank beer with the Mayor of Kitchener, the Mayor of Waterloo and Diane Freeman from the NDP Party who volunteered to step out for an afternoon touring breweries in her constituency. In Toronto, councillors Layton and Perks have displayed significant interest in improving the city’s craft beer scene. Kathleen Wynne’s twitter has taken to promoting beer weeks across the province. 

All of this activity comes at a time when the messaging around the federal election seems to be “We Cannot.” The Conservatives act as though Canada hit some high water mark long ago and that there is nothing that can be done except to further reduce taxes on the wealthy and on large corporations. The growth in the craft beer sector belies that. It may look like an antiquated economic model, but it has been working and it will continue to work. It has grown at a factor of 1.3 for the last six years. The message that small breweries in Ontario need to embrace is “We Can and We Are.”

Every town might as well be London. Every town has shuttered windows in its downtown core and Every town has a Walmart by the highway and Every town is hurt and bleeding because they’ve lost manufacturing industry. The small breweries of Ontario need to send a clear message: When you support us, you support manufacturing jobs above minimum wage. You support a product that cannot be outsourced or digitized, simplified or pirated. You support activity in the downtown core and tourism dollars from visitors to that core. You support municipal services through tax base and in doing so you support yourself and your neighbour. To achieve this all you have to do is drink better beer.

I see cynicism about short delays in reforms to grocery store beer sales and cynicism about growler fills at the LCBO, but it is a mistake to think of brewing as a battle of months. The 19th century industrial model progress is riding deals in lifetimes. Only the 20th century global model has blamed the weather in the summer months for its failings. A bad quarter might oust a high powered CEO, but the 19th century model is a larger risk of personal stake on a much longer term.

I recognize that small brewing in Ontario can’t save the world. It is a piece of a much larger puzzle, but it is a growing one. When you’re in as much debt as Ontario is, a little optimism can’t hurt. In this case, I’m optimistic that people will see a model that can succeed in every riding in Ontario. One that creates local vertically integrated economic growth, jobs, and tourism dollars. One that allows the possibility of expansion and of export to other markets. Maybe its success will cause people to think that there is room for growth and industry in Ontario that is not based in the knowledge economy. Maybe if we believe in it, it will help us all.

Maybe inviting beer writers to London wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.

Beer and Food: Estrella Damm Tapas Journey

There’s always something a little dispiriting about a delivery you’re not expecting showing up at the apartment when you’re out of town. All you can really do is buzz the guy into the building with instructions to leave it in front of your door and hope that the neighbours don’t have a larcenous streak. My neighbours have been uniformly excellent for the last decade. The only time a delivery has ever gone missing, I got a knock on the door and an apologetic “I think they delivered this to the wrong apartment.” We don’t even jaywalk in midtown.

I had forgotten about the phone call entirely until Sunday evening, but there sat the unmolested package, its contents unknown. It turned out to be part of a promotion for Estrella Damm focusing on Tapas and containing gift certificates to go and eat food. I like delicious, punchy food and there is apparently a contest on to go and see Ferran Adria.  I have read the El Bulli cookbook, so I can get behind that. The problem that I have is with Estrella Damm itself.

The Spanish have not traditionally been thought of as much of a beer culture. Marvelous wines. Tart, refreshing sidra. I’m given to understand from flashes of social media that there is craft beer in Spain (just like everywhere else) and that the scene is expanding with some rapidity. Long before that, Spain got what everyone else got: expatriate German brewers.

It happened in the USA and Canada and Thailand and Japan and Mexico. It happened everywhere. Around the period of German unification under Bismarck and the wars and general strife such a political consolidation yields, Germans left border regions like Alsace, Swabia and the Palatinate. I have talked about this before and about the eventual ramifications on what we think of as beer food in North American which is basically a modified Oktoberfest diet.

In places where you got brewers independent of a large population of settlers, you got more or less the beer that was popular in Germany at the time. The trend had been lightening lager styles edging towards the Helles: Less hopping, less body, lighter colour. If you ever wondered why mass produced lager was so popular worldwide, that’s the reason.

Estrella Damm is from about 1876 and was the result of August Damm moving from Alsace to Barcelona. It’s even lighter than the styles in Germany from that era and included barley and rice at its inception. It now contains barley, rice and corn. If you pay close attention to the aroma, you can pick out both the steamed rice and corn grits far more quickly than you can detect any specific hop character. To a modern craft beer audience, Estrella Damm is more or less anathema.

David Chang wrote a piece a while back championing beers like this. Garrett Oliver wrote a follow up piece which amounted to a disbelieving “Really?” and we all had a couple of days of angsty navel gazing while wondering whether Mr. Lucky Peach might have been right. I’m suspicious when a cook tells you he prefers a thin watery gruel of barley, rice and corn over something a touch more piquant. You’re told frequently if you follow beer media that there are three kinds of beer and food pairing: Cut, Contrast and Compliment. There’s a fourth and it comes largely under the heading of “get the hell out of the way.”

When it comes to cuisines from countries that didn’t grow up alongside beer, it’s no wonder they prefer something that gets out of the way. The important thing is not really that the beer matches the food. The important thing is that the beer is cold and washes the food down.

Take a look at this plate of tapas from Cava in Toronto. Cava is at Yonge and St. Clair and they’ve been doing high quality Spanish and Andorran tapas since 2006, long before the current wave of Bourdain inspired interest.

Gratuitous product shot. Hooray!

Gratuitous product shot. Hooray!

On the left you have a skewer with a creamy room temperature manchego, a ribbon of jamon trevelez and a quail egg pickled in a rice wine vinegar escabeche. In the centre, you have fried chickpeas with a zatar comprised of sesame seeds, salt, sumac, oregano and marjoram. On the right, a crostini with smoked mackerel, grilled asparagus and small segments of pink grapefruit.

These things are designed as bites and they are more or less self-contained. The slight acidity from the pickled egg contrasts the creaminess from the manchego and is brightened up by the salt and light smoke from the jamon. A more assertive lager like a pilsner might be on more equal footing than Estrella Damm, but if the idea is to showcase the food you want something that won’t leave any impression at all. “Vaya!” says the jamon. “Get out of the way.”

I wondered whether it might not be a good idea to try one of the other locations on the tour that was not cadging from the Spanish pantry. Valdez looked like a good option with its Latin American inspired street food, but it wasn’t really far enough away.

Funny Fish. The fish probably don't find it as funny as I do.

Funny Fish. The fish probably don’t find it as funny as I do.

I settled on Kanpai Snack Bar in Cabbagetown at Carlton and Parliament, since I really don’t know about Taiwanese food and I figured it’d be a good test of the theory. I’m also pleased to report that Kanpai is quite good value for money and that the hip hop naming conventions of the menu are a lot of fun. As I understand it, Taiwan’s food exists as a sort of crossroads of various Asian influences. Will a Spanish beer work?

MC Hammer Chicken so called because of its untouchability. It is almost too legit.

MC Hammer Chicken so called because of its untouchability. It is almost too legit.

The Kanpai tapas menu consists of MC Hammer, a sort of spicy popcorn chicken in a karaage style differentiated by what I think was Szechuan peppercorn in the breading. There’s Taiwanese Antipasto consisting of pickled carrot, lotus root and seaweed given a sort of japchae treatment. Finally, Funny Fish, a bar snack of fried mini fish and tofu with peanuts and chilis.

I really enjoyed the lotus root, which seemed to have taken on a little numbing heat from some szechuan peppercorns. I should have asked, I suppose.

I really enjoyed the lotus root, which seemed to have taken on a little numbing heat from some szechuan peppercorns. I should have asked, I suppose.

This is an excellent metric for the “Get out of the way” school of thought. Everything goes with delicious fried chicken and the stinging zazz of the breading really only demands cold and wet. The salt and acidity of the antipasto enforce similar criteria. The Funny Fish are vaguely reminiscent in flavour profile of Lao Gan Ma because of the peanut and chili oil and between the funk of the tiny fried fish and the friability of their little skulls between your teeth, it’s hard to know what could possibly stand up to that in a conventional sense.

I wouldn’t choose to drink Estrella Damm by itself. While it’s well made, I find it pretty boring. I doubt that I could pick it out of a lineup in a blind taste test with other breweries founded in similar circumstances. That said, I can certainly see why it would be popular in Spain with small punchy dishes that demand of it only that it be cold and wet and contain alcohol.

LCBO 12 Packs and Grocery Store Sales

(ed. note: This is longer than usual. It is hard to have a discussion about nuanced topics in short form. If that’s what you’d like, Buzzfeed is looking for 12 Readers Who Can’t Believe What Happened Next.)

You may have noticed that when they announced the changes to Ontario’s beer retailing system back in April, I didn’t actually write much of anything about it. You may additionally have noticed that the frequency of Ontario beer writing in general dropped off a cliff at about the same time as the announcement. A victory against The Beer Store, however small, was more or less the end of a narrative arc. I think everyone who had been covering it was more or less exhausted on the topic.

I’m brought back to thinking about the problem by last week’s announcement that the pilot project for 12 packs in LCBO’s had started.

Now, I agree with the skeptics on that one. The LCBO has limited shelf space and 12 packs don’t make a lot of sense in that context. The problem is that the LCBO has to perform the pilot project due to the optics of the situation. The lynchpin of reform was their not terribly secret agreement to allow The Beer Store to handle 12 and 24 packs exclusively. Somehow that made the public very angry and allowed for other concessions to be made.

I don’t care about whether I can buy a 12 pack at the LCBO (you could already buy two sixes), but some people in more rural areas might view it as a win. I do like the idea that this might open up the possibility of beer advent calendars getting stocked in the Christmas lineup further down the line, but I think you’ll agree that’s a minor point. The success or failure of the pilot project is immaterial; all it does is fulfill an obligation to be seen to invalidate the agreement with The Beer Store.

That said, I think that the sale of beer in grocery stores is going to prove to be a really significant victory and I’d like to tell you why.

First off, it’s really important to remember the chronological scale that we’re working on. When you consider that The Beer Store’s roots come from Brewer’s Warehousing in 1927 and a co-operative distribution system with individually owned stores, it’s easy to forget that there were eleven years of prohibition before that. That means that with a projected date of about Christmas, it has literally been a hundred years since anyone was allowed to handle beer outside a monopolistic system.

I can already hear your argument: “Because of the fact that they still have to use the LCBO as their supplier, this is still a monopoly.”

You’ve been paying more attention than usual, fictive strawman reader.

Yes. You’re absolutely right: this is more or less an extension of the existing system. The condition that people seem to overlook is that it’s a necessary extension because of the way the shape of the market has changed.

Secondly, there’s the caveat that change is coming slowly. There are projected to be 450 grocery stores selling beer eventually, but something like 150 by May 1, 2017. I’ve seen otherwise rational people complain that nothing had yet happened something like 70 days after the announcement. Even with permission to start immediately, it would have taken that long to renovate the retail space. It has taken decades of arguing and lobbying just to get to the point where beer in grocery stores was on the table. In this situation, any change is good change because it is likely to lead to more change later.

Thirdly, and this is the one I find pretty baffling, there’s the argument that “this is only going to help the big guys.”

This kind of crab bucketing mentality is one of the reasons I haven’t written about this yet. It’s massively depressing because beer nerds are most often the ones making this argument. They argue, despite having seen grocery stores in the USA, that the international conglomerates will buy all of the shelf space. That’s not the case there and it won’t be here. They also argue that the only companies that will benefit are “big craft” like Steam Whistle and Mill Street.

Neither of those are big breweries. 100,000HL is chump change in perspective. Sam Adams does 35 times that annually. I think that somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the actual economic scope of things. I’ll break down Ontario’s production over the last six years in order to help you understand what I’m talking about. These numbers are from Beer Canada’s 2015 statistical report. They are derived, as I understand it, from Revenue Canada.

HL 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
<2000 23000 28000 28000 26000 45000 48000
<5000 24000 15000 23000 31000 22000 92000
<15000 43000 56000 55000 61000 38000 48000
<50000 107000 17000 33000 122000 292000 260000
<100000 110000 209000 252000 221000 254000 388000
>100000 9077000 8095000 9323000 8000000 7815000 6731000


In the case of this table, which I’ve borrowed from the report, we’re talking only about beer that’s produced in Ontario over the last six years. This doesn’t take imports into account, but it gives us a pretty real idea of the size and shape of the industry up to the end of 2014. What these numbers display fairly clearly is that the international conglomerates Molson Coors and AB InBev are bleeding incredibly badly. Between 2009 and 2014, they have lost 2,346,000 HL of production in Ontario. They are producing 26% less beer than they were in 2009. You may feel like laughing at them, but remember that the entire industry lost 19.3% even taking small brewers into account.

The volume produced by small brewers grew by a factor of 2.7 over the six year period. They now account for something like 12.4% of the beer produced in Ontario. I suspect that if you include Brick, which is over 100,000 HL, it’s actually more like 15%. When you think about what this means in terms of the percentage of brewers represented in The Beer Store, they were actually doing a worse job than you thought of being inclusive. It also means that the three brewers that own the beer store somehow managed to lose production to the tune of a quarter of their business while holding a defacto retail monopoly. That deserves a sarcastic slow clap.

Beer Canada’s statistical report says that there were 140 breweries in Ontario at the end of 2014. It is actually significantly higher than that now, and growing fairly rapidly to the chagrin of chroniclers. Almost no one can keep up. Numerically, the growth has been most prodigious in categories less than 5000 HL. Those breweries increased 75,000 HL in production between 2013-2014. That’s impressive as it goes, but that entire increase is still smaller than Steam Whistle. On the other end of the small brewing spectrum, between 15,000 and 100,000 HL, you’ve got an increase of 431,000 HL in six years. That segment tripled. In 2015, we’ll pass 1,000,000 HL in production fairly easily.

It’s hard to argue that really large breweries will benefit very much from Grocery Store sales. At the moment Molson Coors and AB InBev are floundering about trying to sell you apple flavoured Lager. I know that you think they will, despite the fact I just showed you they lost a quarter of their production with a monopoly. They’re already at more or less peak advertising. They’re actually going to have to spend more promotional budget on Grocery Store sales. I suspect it will be significantly worse for them than the current system. Remember: the limit on package size is going to be a six pack and the large brewers thrive on volume. Their entire model in Ontario has been predicated on selling 24’s of beer. Here are 450 new locations where they can’t do that and where everyone else can grow their overall volume selling 473ml cans.

There’s also the grocery store shopping experience to be taken into account. People are acting as though we’re going to get a purely No Frills experience. I wonder where people are shopping when I see some of the online arguments about this. You’re going to get huge chains attempting to replicate the relatively pleasant experience of the LCBO in their largest locations because they’re competing against it for traffic. They’re not just going to stock the ten most popular products because this isn’t a loss leader. This is a guarantor of foot traffic through their grocery store. I predict a significant bump in impulse bought gourmet snack foods.

Yes, this is going to take time. I don’t know that we have an end date on the 450 store model that has been suggested. I don’t believe that the changes will end there. I think that any change is going to lead to more change. My colleague Josh Rubin pointed out to me the other week that the arbitrariness of licensing based on square footage will probably lead to significant lawsuits from a competition standpoint. I rather suspect that the Convenience Stores have not given up either.

No, the system we’re getting is not ideal. It looks to me, based on the statistical evidence, as though it is intended to be economically protectionist of Ontario producers and to steward further growth in a calm and measured way. It favours increasing excise tax rather than focusing on consumer convenience.

The important thing is to remember that nothing was ever going to happen overnight. This is better than things have been in a hundred years. The complexity of the market has increased dramatically due to the number of players involved in retailing. While past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future growth, the production of small brewers has been growing at an average factor of 1.3 annually. That was in an unfavourable environment with distribution controlled by very large competitors. We just added 450 stores over the next half decade in retail environments that will likely be tonally similar to the LCBO, but specializing in beer. Even without those additional stores, small brewers were managing production growth at 30% a year. It’s fairly likely based on the statistical evidence that they’ll make up something like 30% of the volume of beer produced in Ontario by 2020.

Grocery store sales are going to function as a tool that allows small brewers in Ontario to increase their market share to the point where they have an increased ability to influence legislation. I think that’s a good thing, but it does call into question what happens after that. Will the largest players ever legislate against themselves? Probably not. We may never get a free market in Ontario, but the best way to get anywhere near such a thing is to reduce the power of MolsonCoors and AB InBev in the sector. This will help do that. Any other outcome is unknowable.

Fun With Numbers: Sums and Sommeliers Edition

The Cicerone Certification Program announced today that it will be introducing a level of certification between Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone. The press release was worded in a rather interesting way of whose nature I am dubious. It reads:

Previously, the only way for a Certified Cicerone to advance in the program was to take the Master Cicerone exam. Many who took the Master exam told us that there should be another way. They wanted something that required clear improvement in knowledge and skill without having to achieve the “ultimate” expertise required to pass the Master exam.

This is truly interesting. I hold the rank of Certified Cicerone (although I suspect that might be rescinded after writing this article) and I am curious about this logic. I do not believe that I’ve ever met another Certified Cicerone who has requested an intermediate level of testing between Certifed and Master. It seems to me like an imposition. You’re still going to have to study the same amount in order to eventually complete the Master Cicerone exam, but you’re going to have to take two tests to do it. It does not necessarily follow that this is desirable.

Let’s run the numbers.

As of this date, the Cicerone Certification Program has awarded 54,386 Certified Beer Server certificates, 1878 Certified Cicerone certificates and 10 Master Cicerone certificates. This is according to the Cicerone directory.

The program is designed to be fairly difficult. There is no point in a certification if just anyone can get one. Indeed part of the prestige of the Master Cicerone certificate, presumably, is that there are only 10 of them. According to the website the Master Cicerone exam is administered “one or two” times a year and it is capped at 24 registrations per exam. Given that the certification has been around for some time and there are only 10 of them, we may take it as read that it is very difficult indeed. That’s a good thing. It keeps the riff raff out.

However, if you’re a Certified Cicerone, you have 1877 equivalents world wide. There’s a lot of prestige in being one of ten people who have done a legitimately difficult thing. If 1878 people can do something, the shine sort of wears off. That’s a lot of Certified Cicerones and you’ve got to imagine that there are more coming because the Certified Beer Servers outnumber them by 52,958. They’re like some manner of Mongol Horde, the Certified Beer Servers, just sweeping down through the beer halls and devouring all the Lambic in sight.

If you’re a Certified Cicerone, you probably want to take the Master Cicerone level exam just to breathe that rarefied air and get away from the beer peasants. Problem is that because the failure rate is so abysmal and because there are so many applicants, you’re put in a lottery against people who have already failed and are allowed to retake the exam. You’re not guaranteed to be able to take the exam at all because of the lottery approach to candidacy and by the time they have the next one there’ll be an intermediate level that’s a prerequisite.

This means that even if all 24 of the next sitting of the Master Cicerone level exam are Certified Cicerones that have not yet taken the Master Cicerone level exam, there are 1854 Certified Cicerones that would be forced to take the Advanced Cicerone exam in order to take a subsequent Master Cicerone exam.

I have to ask you whether that sounds like something that you would request if you were a Certified Cicerone? I’d like to see a show of hands on that one.

Let’s get financial.

Further, the Master Cicerone exam costs $895 to write. You’ve got to go to Chicago to do it and it takes a couple of days. With “one or two” sittings a year that means that you can accommodate a total of 48 exam takers for a total of $42,960 in revenue for the Cicerone Program.

With 1878 Certified Cicerones on the books all clamouring for an additional level of testing before Master Cicerone, the proposed Advanced Cicerone level of certification will come to a town near you! That’ll save you some travel money (actually, it won’t because if you still want the Master Cicerone certification later, you’ll probably still have to go to Chicago).

Let us assume for the purposes of argument that the Advanced Cicerone level of certification will be a more difficult test than the Certified Cicerone test. It will take longer. That almost certainly means that it will be more expensive. The initial test for Certified Cicerone costs $395 to write. Let’s split the difference between that and the Master Cicerone cost and estimate that Advanced Cicerone will cost you $595 to write.

On an individual level, that means that to have a shot at attaining Master Cicerone status you’re going to pay not $895, but $1490.

What this means is that if every one of those 1878 Certified Cicerones want to climb on up the ladder, they’ll have to take that test and pass. That’s $1,117,410 dollars in examination fees that didn’t exist yesterday. That doesn’t include the fees for retaking either the written or tasted portions of the exam should you fail the first time around. That’ll bring in more annual revenue for the Cicerone Program because they’ll be able to invigilate many more exams in many more locations per year. 48 seatings for an exam per year no longer limits their revenue stream.

Remember: that’s just to reclaim the ability to take the Master Cicerone exam eventually. That’s a million dollar obstacle in front of an option you had yesterday for free. I feel like maybe people should demand exemptions.

Now, you may be worried about keeping up with the Joneses, but it seems to me that the prestige of Advanced Cicerone is not much of an improvement. Ask any Cicerone how many times they’ve had to explain what that term means. I’ll let you in on a secret: the ones who succeed are the ones who had enough hustle to do it without a credential they had to explain.

As for me, I think I’m going to hang my hat on Certified Cicerone. After all, they might add more levels, and I don’t really want to end up standing on street corners asking people to hold two Pilsner Schooners so that I can measure their beer related stress.

If you’re one of the Certified Cicerones who demanded an additional level of certification, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

That Old Belgian Moon – Why You Should Register Your Trademarks

I tweeted the following yesterday:

Dear Brewers: Remember to register your trademarks internationally. It doesn’t cost much and prevents you looking stupid later.

With the amount of coverage that’s been going on about Blue Moon coming to Canada under the sobriquet Belgian Moon, you’re probably wondering why that happened. It should be obvious that the strength of selling a brand internationally has to do with the merit of the brand itself. The difference here ought to be apparent: Blue Moon is one of the bestselling beers to come out of the United States in the last 30 years. Belgian Moon is nothing but whole cloth invention.

For a brewer, any brewer, branding is part of the total package and in a world where there are now something like 4200 breweries in North America that means that you’re eventually going to run out of trademarks to register. I know that some of you have bought the alpha acid okey doke; that the “brotherhood” of craft brewing with its hop scented hackey sack and backslapping good times doesn’t get litigious. I don’t quite know how to impress upon you that we’re not all in this together.

You may not have wealth creation in mind as your goal. Maybe you just want to have a little nanobrewery and be on tap at your local pub. What you need to understand is that not everyone feels that way about brewing. Not everyone is a dilettante. The next time you see a lawsuit over a brand name in craft beer, you’ve got to remember that it is not a moral problem. You should cheer for whoever had the foresight to trademark their product name.

The Belgian Moon fiasco is a great cautionary example.

Blue Moon was developed in Colorado in 1995. Now, regardless of whatever Keith Villa says in interviews, Blue Moon was a Coors property. It was originally brewed at Coors Field in the Sandlot Brewery. It has always been owned by Coors and has never been independent.

I’m not saying that to disparage the beer, incidentally. The beer is fine. I’m saying that because I want to impress upon you that a very large brewing company did not do due diligence. As a wholly owned subsidiary, the Blue Moon trademark should have been registered throughout North America at that point. Who knows why they didn’t? In 1995 the market wasn’t so crowded and maybe they never dreamed that they’d sell that much beer. After all, it was only a ballpark brewery. Maybe they were distracted by a Larry Walker dinger.

The problem is that you can’t see the future and you don’t know what’ll happen.

According to records over at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO, hereafter), no one registered Blue Moon until 2006. Unfortunately for Blue Moon, it wasn’t Molson Coors. Molson and Coors only entered into partnership in 2005 and apparently it didn’t occur to them at that time to register their trademarks in both countries. This is incredibly poor oversight because it allowed the following to happen.

A company called Ontario 2008474 registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada. That company is also known as Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing. It’s not just that they registered Blue Moon. They registered Firestone and Fat Tire. Subsequently, Ontario 2008474 would stymie Goose Island’s initial marketing foray into Canada by registering and using several three digit area codes to prevent a rebrand of 312 Urban Wheat for Canadian Markets. 416 Urban Wheat didn’t exist for no reason. Neither does Sweetwater Squeeze Radler.

It’s a very clever tactic. If you own the Canadian trademark for a large competitor in another country you’ve bought yourself time and reduced your local competition. You might claim it’s unsporting, but so is buying up shelf space.

Molson Coors expanded production of Blue Moon in 2007, but couldn’t sell it as Blue Moon in Canada. The current marketing spin claims that Blue Moon and Rickard’s White are different products, but that wasn’t the case in 2007 according to the Montreal Gazette. Maybe it is now, but the only difference I can see, even on the Blue Moon and Rickard’s websites are the variety of hops.

But that doesn’t explain why it’s Belgian Moon in Canada, does it?

In October 2007, SAB Miller and Molson Coors entered into a partnership in the United States under the name MillerCoors. In 2011 MillerCoors finally got around to registering the American trademark in Canada. By 2013, they had managed to secure the registration of the trademark in Canada from Ontario 2008474. You would assume that would mean they’d be able to call it Blue Moon, right?

Not so fast. The Blue Moon trademark is registered to MillerCoors. Not Coors, who should have registered it in 1995 or MolsonCoors who should have registered it in 2005. MillerCoors. The problem is that MillerCoors registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada in October. The previous January, Miller sued Molson to be allowed to distribute their own brands in Canada.

This has had some upsides and downsides: Pilsner Urquell is getting additional play in Canada, but so is Miller Lite. Most importantly though, it means that Miller owns a portion of the Blue Moon trademark in Canada and due to their infighting with Molson, we get Belgian Moon.

Because Coors didn’t register their trademark in Canada in 1995 and because large brewery partnerships come and go we’re now in the situation where MolsonCoors has basically the same beer in the market twice as Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White and the original brand (the one that has all the cachet) is nowhere to be found.

It’s an incredibly dumb situation. It is the kind of situation that leaves you wondering how they get their socks on in the morning without cutting their own heads off.

I know that your temptation here is to laugh at MolsonCoors and Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White. That’s not what you should be taking away from this. The lesson here is that not registering your trademark is 1995 thinking. You might have been able to get away with it at that point, but there are 4200 breweries in North America and many of them are trying to increase in size. Few of them are all that creative when it comes to naming conventions. Register your trademarks early and often and you won’t run into this situation where you have to dilute a successful brand in order to have something to sell.

(Ed. Note: Thanks to alert readers for pointing out it was 416 Urban Wheat and has now been rebranded Local Lager.)

Irish Beer at the Toronto Festival of Beer

One of the things that I’m always fascinated by is the development of beer culture in non-North American markets. If you look at the United States and Canada, the narrative is all too familiar because it’s something like 30 years old. There have been problems with regulation and with monopolies, and there have been periods where the envelope was pushed to the extremes of taste. There’s a villain or two for small brewers to kick at in their marketing on their way to becoming larger brewers.

Photography n.: A practice by which beer gets skunked in the sun to give the audience something to look at.

Photography n.: A practice by which beer gets skunked in the sun to give the audience something to look at.

Probably the most interesting book on beer I read last year was a guide to the breweries of South Africa. This is because the development of their brewing renaissance hinges on a whole different set of factors than the North American version. For one thing, they had apartheid to deal with and economic resurgence. The climate is different and the presence of different colonial powers meant a different set of inherited tastes. They also didn’t have the Yakima and Willamette valleys with their hop production to provide inspiration.

When it was announced that the Toronto Festival of Beer was going to feature brewers from Ireland, it was the first time I’d been excited about the event in years.

Ireland is, first and foremost, a very small market. Consider for a moment that the entire population of the Greater Toronto Area is something like six million people. The GTA (or The Six, I guess, if you’re Drake) is more populous than Ireland by about a third. If the number of offensive advertisements running in the city is any indication, there’s a steady stream of emigrants from Ireland.

It's important to crowd around and take pictures of the obligatory photo-op. It makes the nice people from the tourism board feel good.

It’s important to crowd around and take pictures of the obligatory photo-op. It makes the nice people from the tourism board feel good.

Of course there are the iconic Irish brands like Guinness and Murphy’s, but like a number of other countries, Ireland has been subject to the ministrations of massive brewing companies over the years. Diageo aside, there’s Heineken which has bought up both Murphy’s and Beamish and closed the Beamish brewery in Cork. It’s one of the places where Ontario’s Carling brand has remained relevant. A contract brewed version of Budweiser made a large push into the market some twenty years ago and Diageo managed to cannibalize their own Harp Lager brand with that move. Left unchecked, the suggestion is that even the brands we’re familiar with in Canada (Harp, Kilkenny, Smithwicks) would have eventually disappeared in the name of moving additional volume in the Irish market.

Diageo and Heineken are the two largest breweries in Ireland producing millions of hectolitres each. This is, incidentally, the way it has been since the late 19th century. The St. James Gate and Lady’s Well breweries have occupied those market positions seemingly indefinitely. The only difference is that some of the competition has shut down in the interim period.

Seamus O'Hara, pouring the ceremonial pint of stout. O'Hara's makes a number of other beers which I'm now very curious about.

Seamus O’Hara, pouring the ceremonial pint of stout. O’Hara’s makes a number of other beers which I’m now very curious about.

The third largest brewery in Ireland is the Carlow Brewing Company, who make O’Hara’s. Founded in 1996, the entire idea behind their flagship stout was to attempt to recreate beers of the kind that had been popular up until the 1950’s and 1960’s. It should not be surprising that Irish stout became simplified as Guinness, focused largely on export, played to foreign tastes. O’Hara’s makes 28,000 HL of beer annually. The entirety of the Irish craft brewing scene is only 80,000 HL. If you’re keeping track, that’s about the size of Toronto’s Steam Whistle.

O’Hara’s hits a number of notes you’d be happy to see in any stout. The official sell sheet is telling me that I should be looking for dry espresso in the aroma, but that’s not what makes the beer work. There’s a complexity of flavour here ranging from dark chocolate and tobacco to licorice and a pronounced malt chewiness to the mid palate. It improves on the typical Dry Irish Stout in that it supplements the mild roast malt astringency with additional flavours and, unlike Murphy’s and Guinness, has a more substantial body.

Perhaps the most important thing is that O’Hara’s Stout is 4.3% alcohol: a measure that reflects the nature of Irish drinking culture. Beer in Ireland has been somewhat lower in alcohol due to the fact it’s consumed largely in pubs in session format. Walking around the Irish Pavilion at TFOB, you get the sense that there’s a struggle between this utilitarian drinking tradition and the ideas that are coming across the Atlantic. There seems to be a sort of battle at work in the development of small brewers in Ireland between the traditional place and purpose of beer and the adoption of stronger, more flavourful ingredients and styles.

Nothing looks impressive on a paper plate, but take my word for it: excellent.

Nothing looks impressive on a paper plate, but take my word for it: excellent.

It’s an interesting practical contrast with the food featured by the lads from Dublin Pop Up at a beer dinner the previous evening, featuring modern treatments of more or less indigenously Irish ingredients. At TFOB a smaller version of that dish was available: Rapini (Asparagus when they’re in Ireland) with hazelnut butter, charred Leeks, kombu baby potatoes, soured goats cheese, rye and dill snow. It’s an inventive treatment of traditional ingredients. Even more traditional was Tim McCarthy’s Black Pudding; so traditional, in fact that the course’s introduction was highlighted by the butcher downing a shot of Pig’s Blood (which one suspects might have been jagermeister)

If the culinary scene focuses on celebrating the strong points of tradition in imaginative ways, the youthful brewing scene seems more conflicted about their heritage in the face of prevalent international influence. McGargle’s branding suggests that the Irish Red Ale is appropriate only to grandmothers at this point while the visual look of the other labels in the lineup is suggestive of self-parody in the vein of Moone Boy.P1040094

Bru Rua takes the Red Ale far more seriously, but I found myself wondering whether it was any the better for the sleek branding and lack of whimsy. That’s how young the brewing scene is in Ireland: There are still brewers attempting to fill a single niche. Tom Crean’s Lager, for instance, is the kind of property that every brewing scene needs: a locally made lager that’s a gateway improvement on the mainstream. The amazing thing is that the Dingle Brewing Company that makes it is only four years old.

Stephen Clinch from Trouble Brewing, enjoying a leisurely pint before the hordes bear down

Stephen Clinch from Trouble Brewing, enjoying a leisurely pint before the hordes bear down

Amongst the newest members of the brewing scene, there were beers that could have been brewed anywhere at all. One problem with international brewing scenes interacting is that you end up with things like Trouble Brewing’s Equinox SMASH. Our own Nickel Brook in Burlington, Ontario did one of those about two months ago. For all that craft brewing suggests permutational possibility, you sometimes end up with monoculture. According to Brewer Stephen Clinch the influence in ingredients comes largely from North America, but frequently filtered through the English craft beer market. It’s an influence visible in his Hop Priority Triple IPA (a style whose time seems to have passed in our market.)

Trouble Brewing also presented what might be the best expression of Ireland’s brewing in a modern context in their Graffiti Session IPA. Session IPA tends to play as watery and without much in the way of malt character. Graffiti manages to pack a great deal of flavour into its 3.6% alcohol. The hops are Citra, Amarillo and Magnum. Instead of front loaded fruit salad impact, it’s balanced by Munich, Cara, Crystal and Carapils malts. The result is a beer that’s light in alcohol, balanced and just that touch too interesting to swill thoughtlessly down. It felt perfectly suited to discussion in a pub. It seemed to me like a fulcrum point between old and new, which is an admirable thing to achieve in an emergent scene that doesn’t quite seem to know how seriously to take itself.

If you're going to host an Irish Pavilion in Toronto in July, you'd do well to leave complimentary sunscreen about the pavilion. Someone at Tourism Ireland thought ahead.

If you’re going to host an Irish Pavilion in Toronto in July, you’d do well to leave complimentary sunscreen about the pavilion. Someone at Tourism Ireland thought ahead.

Review: The Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi

The Background

When you get right down to it, the job of a critic is to tell you whether something is good or bad.

Most of the time, I’m able to convey that information in prose. I don’t often use numeric ratings because that has always struck me as inutile. Unless you’re going to catalogue everything, that universality of context is not necessarily helpful. Whether it’s out of five points or a hundred points, unless you can create justification in context against everything else, a single point of data doesn’t really matter.

Besides: It’s essentially thumbs up or thumbs down. The variable is the size of the thumb.

Sometimes I can’t even manage that.

The way the media tasting at the LCBO works is this: On a given day at a given time, most of the people who write about beer in Toronto show up during a two hour window and try a small sample of most of the things that are going to be in the release. Sometimes they don’t have everything. The cast of attendees rotates somewhat, but it’s full of familiar faces. Sometimes there are a lot of beers and it takes a very long time. In some release lineups there’s no good point of entry.

If you’re tasting beers you usually want to work your way from least hoppy and/or assertive to most hoppy and/or assertive. It reduces palate fatigue and prevents burnout from bitterness or sourness or tartness. It’s one of the first things you learn.

Sometimes though, you get a weird one at about beer eight and it’s so different from everything else that everyone in the room sort of looks at each other to see whether there’s a consensus to be reached. Is the beer incredibly clever and our palates are shot? Is the beer terribly, freakishly weird? Beyond the objective scope, can you even figure out whether you like it?

That’s what happened with Wild Beer’s Ninkasi. In a tasting with not a few Saisons, it was something of an anomaly. I promised myself I would revisit it if only for my own edification.

The BeerP1040061

The Wild Beer Company is based in Somerset and they’ve used a number of ingredients in this beer. It’s something of a kitchen sink. They’ve used locally sourced apple juice (and I wish they had listed the varieties), wild yeast (probably both from the apple skins and directly inoculated), New Zealand Hops and a Champagne style refermentation. The beer is 9% alcohol and is suggested as a “Celebration Beer,” probably in the style of Deus or Charlevoix Brut.

It pours a golden colour with a big white fluffy head that recedes fairly quickly in my snifter, leaving trickles of carbonation but no significant lacing.P1040070

The aroma is complex. At first there’s the vanilla and mild clove that you might expect from a Saison yeast. Lemon and an indefinable tropical fruit note dance around the apple core. The apple aroma is that combination of slightly musty apple skin and the malic explosion of the first rending of the torus of an unripe windfall. There’s something earthy on the sip and at the LCBO tasting I recall comparing it to the nitrogen rich potting soil character of an altbier. Call it dead leaves and the dirty ground. The apple character does not carry through on to the palate in the way you might expect and much of the character is spent in the aroma. The scrubbing carbonation and acid rather than refreshing, actually seems to deaden the tongue. The alcohol is massively warming and the heat in the throat and dryness of the beer are practically arid. The retronasal sting continues that autumnal aroma of a copse of leaves turning and dying. The staying power of the finish is massive and (what I’m guessing is) the wild yeast character that plays around the finish reminds me of the agglomeration of leaves and stems that would sit at the bottom of the bushel of Empire Apples in the wine cellar of my childhood home; that apple not meant to be overwintered which nonetheless hangs on until February and continues to make appearances in the lunchbox.

Thus equipped, I am now ready to speak for this beer both in the objective and subjective cases.

Is It Any Good?

It’s Brilliant. It manages to evoke the entire autumnal life of an apple from the orchard itself to the wrinkled old maiden in the bottom of March’s storeroom. I don’t think it’s a summer beer, so you should probably hang on to it until the first cold night of fall.

Do I Like It?

No. Sometimes I don’t want to have to work that hard to enjoy a beer. For me, it doesn’t meet the criteria I want in a “celebration beer.” While this is life affirming in its way, it’s not exactly Kool and the Gang, you dig?

Stift Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier

One of the best things that Michael Jackson ever did was give the world Belgian Beer.

Not the Belgians, of course. They already had Belgian Beer. I’m pretty sure that the Dutch and the French were aware of it as well. What Michael Jackson managed to do was invest Trappist beer with a level of Romance that persists in marketing and in the subconscious minds of beer drinkers to this day. I get the feeling that you’re going to be skeptical about this claim I’m making, so I’ll link to the episode of The Beer Hunter where he waxes rhapsodic about Chimay. (I also think, probably disrespectfully, that David Mitchell could play him in a biopic based on this sketch.)

We owe Michael Jackson a lot as beer drinkers. He more or less singlehandedly created a systemic organization of knowledge for dealing with beer, categorizing styles based on historical provenance and ingredients. That’s important as far as it goes, but his real gift was imbuing the topic with a sense of Romance. I believe that we would not ascribe nearly as much importance to Trappist beers without his six editions of Great Beers of Belgium. What he managed to do in his lifetime was promote an iterative narrative. Each edition would improve on the last and the legends that he promoted would grow. Chimay, Westmalle, and Achel may not exactly be household names, but would we know them at all without his constant tending of their stories?

I wondered about this as I looked at the number of bottles of Stift Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier sitting on the shelves at Summerhill: 336. This was part of the Spring release and we’re now well into July. You would think that it would fly off the shelves, but no one seems all that interested. I wonder whether this is due to the lack of an authoritative figure to tell their story. It seems to lack the cachet of its Belgian brothers.

I realized that I knew very little about the beer except for the fact that it was Austrian. Having done some research, I’m shocked that it’s still there.

Maybe you’re familiar with the story of Orval. A widow named Matilde, who just happened to be Countess of Tuscany, carelessly dropped her wedding ring into a fountain. She prayed for its return and lo and behold a trout came to the surface with the lost ring. She was so thankful that she built a monastery on the site. It is a good story in an Aesop/Ovid kind of way.

The Engelszell story beats it standing.

I stole this image from the monastery's website. I hope they don't send internet Jesus after me.

I stole this image from the monastery’s website. I hope they don’t send internet Jesus after me.


Picture it! The d’Oelenberg Abbey in Alsace at the turn of the 20th century. The 200 monks live a relatively happy existence, but dark clouds loom on the horizon! During the first World War, all of the expansions made during the 19th century were bombed to rubble. The monks, without a home, were forced to relocate to Engelszell on the Danube in Upper Austria. Gregorius Eisvogel is their leader and he becomes the prior and subsequent abbot of the rococo church and monastery in 1925. In 1939 the Gestapo confiscate the abbey and evict the brothers. Several are sent to Dachau and more are dragooned into the Wehrmacht. Of the 73 brothers who had been part of the community only a third were left in 1945. In 2012 only 7 remained. They have turned to brewing in order to afford to maintain their property.

The beer tells their story in a glass in a way no other Trappist beer does. There’s the issue of the name: Gregorius is named after their first abbot at the new location. There is, one supposes, a theological issue of pridefulness in celebrating their own history. There are no other Trappist beers named after a single man. Their history is represented by the use not of a Belgian Ale yeast but by an Alsatian wine yeast more apropos to their earlier lives. They use honey from near their own monastery in place of candi sugar and would have used honey from their own apiary in test batches; monastic cells possibly mirroring those of mellifera.IMAG1286[1]

The beer is 10.5% and pours a reddish brown with auburn highlights. The aroma at fridge temperature pronounces the sourness deriving from the yeast strain in use with fruit character from plum, prune and currant. As it warms there’s slightly burnt rum raisin on the finish, a note of cocoa on the soft palate and as it reaches the proper temperature for consumption there’s black licorice, eucalyptus and a powdery cherry candy dot at the front of the tongue. Reaching room temperature there is a dusty bazooka joe character and a warming kirsch note in the throat before a souring finish.IMAG1289[1]

Here we have a unique product with a great story retailing for $4.45. Somehow no one seems to have written about the release in Ontario. I think that part of the problem is that there is no authoritative figure like Jackson to give it the nod. He’s not around to push the narrative of Trappist brewing and invest it with Romance and as a result the feeling I get is that no one knows what to make of an Austrian Trappist Beer. I don’t believe Gregorius is quite world class, but it’s very good and there’s nothing else like it. After all, they’ve only been making it for three years. You should pick up a bottle.

There’s a larger lesson to be learned here, though. With the democratization of the internet we are without authoritative figures. It is easy to write about properties like Chimay that have existed for 150 years because there are reference materials to spoon feed you. It is difficult to do what Michael Jackson did, which is approach a thing from first principles and understand both how to analyze and promote it all at once. It is necessary even in a world with Untappd where objectivity and subjectivity are frequently confused.

Visit: Muddy York Brewing Company

If you approach on foot from Dohme Ave, the aroma outside the Muddy York Brewing Company is actually that of baking cookies. Located in the same neighbourhood as O’Connor Bowl and the Peek Freans factory (and perhaps more importantly the factory outlet store for those of you interested in attaining peak levels of Freen), Muddy York is tucked away amongst low rise industrial buildings and transport trailers on Cranfield Road.IMAG1258[1]

The single floor building housing Jeff Manol’s brewery is not purpose built. It’s actually in the back of a Tool and Die shop from that period of East York’s postwar boom, a detail visible in the shape of the cabinetry and the hanging of the doors throughout the building. That sage parental advice that you should have something to fall back on has been taken seriously and the brewery, if we’re to take the square footage it occupies as an indicator, seems to be a subset of the other business. In several places, hard worn sets of calipers line the wall in ascending order of size.IMAG1259[1]

There is a cobbled together sense about the place. The retail area could easily double as the cover of a late 1960’s folk album. The press back chair and battered steel refrigerator might as well be from the Basement Tapes.IMAG1266[1]

To name a brewery after the early portion of Toronto’s history is not a choice to be taken lightly. For one thing, you’ve got people like me roaming around to point out inauthenticity. The flagship beer for Muddy York is their Porter, a style which did not really exist here until Muddy York was Toronto (William Helliwell toured the Barclay Perkins brewery in Southwark in 1832 but didn’t start brewing Porter until much later.) It’s silly to take them to task for that because any historical beer is a pastiche at best. You can’t step in the same river twice.

What you can do is borrow sensibly from the past; you can be aware of it. There’s a tendency to chase trends in new breweries that is ultimately self-defeating. There will always be a newer hop variety and there are always recently pioneered techniques to borrow. It’s important to view those elements as additions to an already existing set of equipment and knowledge than as replacements for old iron. With each additional element the permutative possibilities of creation increase. In the short term, the novel tends to exhaust itself.    IMAG1261[1]

Muddy York seems to have taken a top down view, preferring to select from the entire palette of options for their beer. It reaches the point where it’s difficult to tell what the influence might be for their Unearthed Amber Ale. Do the two varieties of Crystal malt suggest the bones of an English ESB and how do you reconcile that with the American C-hop character? While there is some of the fruitiness of an English style, there’s also the citric and coniferous zest of an American style. Despite that, the balance lets the grain character come through and the dry finish prevents the Crystal from cloying.IMAG1264[1]

Their Diving Horse Pale Ale is similarly an exercise in negotiation between old and new. There are any number of Pale Ales and IPAs brewed in Ontario with the hops that Muddy York is using here. Nelson Sauvin, Simcoe, Chinook and Cascade are all in fairly common use. The late hopping technique employed here is also making its way around. The clever part about Diving Horse is the decision to use only UK Pearl malt. It allows for a more substantial, bready background to illuminate the gentle citrus and tropical notes in the aroma without overbalancing. The contrast adds complexity to what could be a fairly dull experience.IMAG1265[1]

The Muddy York Porter does something that I’ve never seen before. Typically, when you think of a London Style Porter there’s chocolate and roast and a little bit of smoky acridity; it has that. In the historic versions Porter was aged significantly and soured somewhat, a nicety that modern versions don’t really attempt to emulate. Muddy York has cleverly included wheat and chocolate wheat in the grist for the beer which results in that slightly wheaty tang that gives it a touch of verisimilitude. The brown malt adds body but the entire issue is somehow less cthonic than you might expect from the name. It has ruby highlights in the sun.IMAG1268[1]

The brewery itself is relatively small. With three fermenting vessels, it seems unlikely to me that Muddy York is going to take the world by storm in the immediate future. I visited them on Canada Day during the first few hours their bottle shop had been open for business. At the beginning of the third hour they were out of everything but Porter. It may be a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. I admire the gumption it takes to establish a bricks and mortar property when the more usual solution is to hire a brewer and hire a brewery on the way to considering a property eventually. It’s a slower and more gradual process, but there’s something to be said for graft and for complexity.

Review: Underdog’s All or Nothing Hopfenweisse

The Background

Underdog’s Brewhouse is located in Oshawa and has been in business since some point last year. I know this because I’ve frequently seen them at festivals. They are unmistakeable with their bright yellow signage. Owned by Jeff and Eric Dornan, they seem to have taken the Steam Whistle tack on things at the beginning of their enterprise. They’re attempting to do one thing really well. That’s a solid idea for a start-up brewery and making a wheat beer is a fairly good choice. There aren’t a huge number of locally produced wheat beers on the Ontario market on a permanent basis. They have also recently hired on Matthew Gibson, creator of the Sounds Like Beer podcast. It is always a good idea to have an (ex)lawyer on staff.

I generally like Underdog’s chances. I think that the thematic element that they’ve decided on for branding is a good one. There are all manner of historical underdogs that you could use as inspiration for furtherproducts. I do wish that they would create a name for the boxer that they’re using on the tap handles. Also, I wish that the boxer on the tap handles wasn’t a nightmarish yellow figure without distinguishing features not unlike Charlie Kelly’s Green Man. These are minor quibbles.Tap_Handle1Greeman

The Beer

All or Nothing is a Hopfenweisse, a sort of hoppy wheat beer that has become fairly popular since Schneider-Weisse introduced their version, TAP5, which was a collaboration project with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn. Other Ontario examples include Beau’s Wag The Wolf and Creemore’s Mad and Noisy Hop & Weizen. The can that I’m drinking was packaged fairly recently, something like June 3rd according to the date code. It is apparently 25 IBU and 5.1% alcohol, making it somewhat lighter than the progenitor of the substyle. I don’t know whether it is an Ontario thing, but all of our examples are a little lighter than the original. At $2.95, it’s in line with the Creemore and cheaper than Beau’s by quite a bit.P1040032

All or Nothing pours a cloudy light orange and seems to be can conditioned, judging by the swirl of yeast that settles through the fluffy head and dissipates into the body. Although the yeast character on a Weisse is frequently said to be banana or bubblegum, that’s not what All or Nothing is doing. Sure, there’s barely ripe banana, but the majority of the yeast ester comes across in an explosion of rising bread dough when you open the can. The force of its sudden expansion is that of a tube of Pillsbury dough. While there is some tropical fruit in the aroma, the majority of what’s there is citric and in combination with that rising bread character, the overall impression is of fermenting orange juice or a spicy orange chutney.

On the palate, the texture is smooth and wheaty. However, there’s a significant and somewhat distracting pepper note at the tip of the tongue that I think is probably from the Magnum bittering hop. The aroma hops responsible for the fruity bouquet are a sort of rope a dope in that regard.

I can’t help but think that the disparate elements come together rather better on tap.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’re going to be using as our scoring reference guide the S.J. Beetlebaum Index of Heroic Unlikelihood. This is a standard scale which rates underdogs on their accomplishment from one to ten. John Cena, who is portrayed as an underdog but who has actually been champion something like 15 times, scores very low. Cartoon Superhero Underdog similarly rates fairly low on the scale due to the fact that he never loses. Biblical hero King David sits at the other end of the spectrum having gotten extremely lucky with a slingshot precisely once.

This beer rates a score of Rocky Balboa…rocky.2

…at the end of the first movie.

Ultimately, Rocky has all of the tools at his disposal to make victory happen and he has just managed to take Apollo Creed the distance. However, when it comes down to a split decision, he loses to the champ. Has Rocky really lost? Not in the larger sense. He gets a rematch and his world has expanded.

All or Nothing Hopfenweisse doesn’t quite manage to hang together. All of the things that will make this a solid flagship beer for Underdogs are present, but they’re a little jumbled and they need refinement. With a little work, I can see the Dornan boys running down the beach with Carl Weathers and eventually beating up Mr. T.