When I came back to Ontario from university out east, there were basically two Ontario beers at the LCBO that I could be sure were going to be quality. This was before “Craft Beer,” a term which emerged around 2007, so it was just beer. Those beers were Black Oak Pale Ale and King Pilsner. Truth be told, it’s something of a miracle that both of those brands survived unscathed to the present day. 15 years is a long time for a small brewery. Black Oak has ventured out into new and experimental stuff that seems to be doing pretty well for them. King has… well, it’s complicated.
King is part of the company Provincial Beverages of Canada, which I’m relatively sure has been rebranded from Beer Barons. They distribute Weihenstephan and represent Oud Beersel. In Ontario, they own King and Thornbury Cider and the Barn Door Brewing Company. At festivals, you’ll see all of these products poured at the same booth.
I guess the problem is that if you’re King, you’ve got branding that people have seen since 2002 and they’re used to a certain kind of product. King has their Pilsner, which has been admirably consistent (and a real treat unfiltered), and their Dark Lager, which continues to win awards. Their Vienna Lager came out in 2010, and has something in common with the other two products. They’re all 4.8%, they’re all quaffable and they’re all very good examples of the styles of lager they represent. There aren’t a lot of Ontario breweries where I can say I like everything they make.
If you’re the owner, you want to branch out with the rest of the current brewery explosion in Ontario. You’ve got the funding to make it happen and a team of people who know what they’re doing. What you don’t have is an audience ready to accept you. King is a lager brewery and it’s set up for decoction mashing. You can’t just turn around and release a pumpkin beer under the King branding. Hell, because they depend so heavily on the Beer Store model for distribution, you can’t even really do a seasonal.
This is where the Barn Door Brewing Company comes into play. Over the last year they’ve released a number of interesting beers including Tombstone (an Imperial Pilsner veering toward IPA), Summer Storm (a Zwickel or Kellerbier) and Monster Mash (which is apparently a Pumpkin Dopplebock). Perhaps you’ve noticed a commonality here. That’s right. They’re all lagers. To a man with a hammer the world is a nail. To a brewer with an authentic German decoction brewhouse even an IPA is a lager.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but they’ve got to learn how to promote it properly. The Barn Door Brewing Company has been open for 11 months, but their website is still not up and running. Sure, there’s a facebook presence and a twitter account, but you need a static site where people can find information about your product. Call me old fashioned, but I’m going to insist on the bare minimum, web 1.0 styles.
I tried Barn Door’s Winter Porter for the first time at the Speaker’s Tasting at Queen’s Park last month and I’m pleased to say they didn’t fool me for a second. “That’s a Baltic Porter,” I said to their rep, John Butkovich, who pours samples at events for them. I went around the room saying to people, “You should try Barn Door’s Baltic Porter.” I was a little surprised when I found that they are thinking of it as a Classic Porter.
Here’s the thing: The tasting notes the brewery supplied read like this:
A full malt flavour dominates, with mild hop bitterness to balance the alcohol and roasty characters. The coffee, toast, and roast are met with a subtle caramel malt sweetness to soften any bitterness usually found in this style. This Porter has a soothing warmness to it without being overpowering and overly alcoholic.
The problem is that it’s a far more complex product than that. Yes there’s coffee and roast, but there’s also this toasted pumpernickel note and a lot of jammy plum and a hint of raisin that actively work with the relatively gentle booziness. You get a maybe a small hint of aniseed on the aroma and an earthy grassy note when it’s properly aerated in the glass. There’s a waft of dark chocolate over the hard palate at the swallow. There’s a slight lingering grassy bitterness despite the viscosity. The fruitiness and booze from the lager yeast take it right out of the box the notes put it in.
This is a high quality product that’s getting dumbed down to suit a marketing format. I’m not saying that it competes with Trois Mousquetaires. It’s not quite in the same league in terms of strength and frankly that beer is a bona fide World Beater. Most of the Baltic Porters you encounter are going to be 8-9%, while this comes in at 7%. In doing so it’s actually a great beer to try if you’re learning about beer styles because it’s the same range of flavours with a leaner body and a bock-y tinge to it.
I’m frustrated. There are… 200? 150? Let’s call it 150 breweries in Ontario making ales. All ales all the time. If you specialize in lagers and you’re making good ones, you should probably lean into it. You’ve got a whole different thing going. Don’t blend in with the crowd. Point out the difference. Lager’s coming back, so embrace that now and beat the rush. Three years from now, they’re going to want to be you.
Today we’re going to be using the Briggs-Keaton Identification Chart for Anthropomorphic Weather as our guide to rating this beer because of the snowman on the label. The guide naturally ranges from least snowmanish creature to most snowmanish creature. The Abominable Snowman (not a snowman at all, but rather a Yeti) rates a one on this scale and it proceeds all the way through cartoon snowmen to the classic three ball model with the stovepipe hat.
In a shocking twist, this beer has been awarded a score that lies outside the chart:
This beer rates: Jerry Reed’s character Snowman from Smokey and the Bandit. It’s not a snowman at all. It’s something else entirely. It’s a trucker whose CB sobriquet is Snowman and who has a dog named Fred. A real snowman would not keep a dog around.