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Review and Market Recon: Moosehead Radler

The Background

I go back and forth on Moosehead. Here’s the thing. Since the BA in the States changed the definition of “Craft Beer” to include Yuengling, it stands to reason that Moosehead is now a “Craft Brewer.” At the very least, they’re an independent company that has existed for a very long time. They are, I believe, the only wholly Canadian owned brewery from the 19th Century that’s left standing and that should count for something in a world where anyone can find an Angel Investor and bang out a 100 gallon batch of mediocre tonsil oil.

They brew something like 1,200,000 HL. That means that Moosehead is now actually two thirds the size of Sierra Nevada or one fifth the size of Sam Adams. The problem is that they’re always that little bit late to the party. Moosehead doesn’t really innovate so much as follow the big players. Look at the lineup of beers that are available on their website. They have all of the big hits of the last twenty years, a situation which would be ideal if they were a large market FM station. There’s Light Lime and Low Carb and Dry and Dry Ice. They also make James Ready’s lineup of discount beers, a fact which is somewhat obscured by their web presence although it probably needn’t be. As the discount category goes, they actually fared pretty well when I did Discount Beer February.

The best thing Moosehead did in recent memory was launch Boundary Ale. It was really pretty good. Is it mentioned on the Moosehead website? Nope! Is it still in stores? Sure! Fellas, when you get something right, take the credit, ok? Hell, throw some more resources at your craft beer division over at Hop City. Between that and Boundary Ale, you’ve got the potential to take advantage of both the standard beer market and the growing craft segment in the Maritimes. Either way, you win.

The BeerP1030992

If I were going to put it diplomatically, I’d tell you that Moosehead Radler is an interesting twist on a standard Radler. Since I am not writing this for a newspaper, I don’t have to be diplomatic. Forget all that (probably legitimate) historical humbug about Bavaria and cyclists. Radler is meant to be a combination of beer and one other liquid. The most popular choices are grapefruit juice or lemonade. This is a really simple idea.

Moosehead Radler certainly has the correct aromas, all sharp grapefruit and zest, but the body is sticky sweet. When I find my lips smacking between sips when a product’s PR sheet is claiming that it’s refreshing, a twinge of doubt crosses my mind. Let’s look at the ingredients.P1030997

Apparently, Moosehead Radler contains Moosehead Lager, Grape Juice Concentrate, Grapefruit Juice Concentrate, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Gum Arabic (probably a foam stabilizer), Citric Acid (probably for additional lemon flavour), Natural Flavour (probably better than unnatural flavour), and Sugar.

The Harsh Realities of the Market

Let’s look at the rest of the Radler segment.

Stiegl Radler Beer and Grapefruit Juice 50/50 2.5%
Schofferhofer Radler Hefeweizen and Grapefruit Soda 50/50 2.5%
Wernesgruner Radler Pilsner and Lemonade 50/50 2.5%
Rickard’s Radler Beer, Juice from Concentrate, Natural Flavour 66/33 3.2
Amsterdam Sweetwater Squeeze Beer and Blood Orange Soda ~80/20 3.8%

 

You’ll notice that all of these beers on the Ontario market play by the rule that you’re basically allowed two ingredients. Beer and something. Compared to the rest of the market, Moosehead Radler is significantly overthought. Grapefruit juice from concentrate makes complete sense, but where on earth is Grape Juice from concentrate coming from? If you have three juices from concentrate, do you really need to add extra sugar? I really want to see the caloric information on Moosehead Radler.

I understand that Radler is supposed to be a light, spritzy kind of a thing, but the most successful in the market by far are the Europeans, which are tart and lightly bitter and have two ingredients. Why would you not emulate that instead of making something more reminiscent of Mountain Dew?

Another thing: All of the other Radlers are available in a single can format. Stiegl, the best of them, is $2.70 a can. Moosehead Radler is $26.95 for 12x355ml cans. You can get 10x500ml cans of Stiegl for the same money or 11x500ml cans of Wernesgruner or Schofferhofer. All three of those are better options.

What we’ve got, then, is a product that has completely misunderstood the mission statement, is higher in alcohol, caloric content, sugar and price than all of its major competitors and is a late addition to the Ontario market with other brands having established themselves. It’s a miracle it’s not already listed as discontinued.

Bru-V: Science and Sam Adams

Lab Report #1

By

Jordan St. John – Grade 7 (held back)

 

Question:

Given the tendency of beer brewed with a significant quantity of hops to undergo changes to its chemical nature in direct sunlight, there has recently been introduced to the market a line of glassware that claims to prevent this transformation.

The chemical change is the result of ultra violet rays affecting the iso-alpha-acids in beer and converting them to a compound called 3-methyl-but-2-ene-1-thiol (and commonly referred to as prenythiol). This results in a detectable aromatic compound which is frequently referred to in polite circles as “Light Struck.” In impolite circles, people are likely to refer to you as a “pie-r square” and make unflattering comments about your radius.

Bru-V glassware is fashioned of hand-blown brown glass which boasts natural properties preventing this occurrence. It is an established fact that brown glass bottles have become the industry standard in North America partially because of their ability to render light struck character a non-issue.

The question, as it pertains to brown glassware being able to prevent lightstruck reaction may be cogently condensed as follows:

Is this a whole bunch of bullshit or what?

Hypothesis:

If Bru-V’s claim to prevent skunking is correct, then we should be able to prove it in a formal testing setting. This will require the rental of a cummerbund.

Independent Variable:

Given that the lightstruck reaction occurs primarily with clear and green glass, it makes sense that the independent variable for this experiment should be the glassware that beer is poured into. As a control for the experiment the same beer will be poured into each glass. Today, that beer has been supplied by Sam Adams: Rebel IPA. It is important that the beer, as a control variable contain real hops and not hop oils which are impervious to lightstruck character.

Dependent Variable:  

The lightstruck effect observable in beer should depend wholly upon the character of the glassware utilized in our experiment.

Materials:

-One Sam Adams Branded Speed Opening Church-KeyP1030960

-Two Bottles Sam Adams Rebel IPA: Date Coded December 2014. A 6.5% 45 IBU West Coast IPA.P1030955

-One Branded Sam Adams Glass (Clear) Subsequently Referred To As Sample AP1030956

-One Bru-V Branded Glass (Brown) Subsequently Referred To As Sample BP1030957

-One Certified Cicerone (Scruffy)

-One HTC Android based Stop Watch

-One Conveniently Located Fusion Reactor Emitting Ultra Violet LightP1030962

Procedures:

Both glasses will be set in the sun at approximately 1:05 PM on a patio with no significant light obstruction. Over a period of 30 minutes, beer in each of the glasses will be evaluated using olfactory sensation at set intervals. This period of duration has been suggested by Dr. Chris Schryer of the Castro Institute For Cask Ale Consumption and his attitude is recorded as follows (sic): “If it takes you more than half an hour to drink a beer, you’ve got more problems than lightstruck beer.” Conditions note a Moderate UV index on a spring day at approximately 21 degrees Celsius. It is, colloquially speaking, T-Shirt weather.

Observations:

At the instance of pouring, both Samples display good head retention. The Sam Adams Rebel IPA is clearly a well-made product. This is irrelevant to the scientific method in this instance.P1030958

At five minutes into the process Sample A has noticeably developed an off flavour. There is no reason that such a change should not develop instantaneously. Sample B experiences no such transformation. The malt character seems to overbalance the hops in Sample B.

At fifteen minutes, Sample A’s lightstruck nature has receded somewhat in terms of aroma. Sample B has issues with hop balance, but experiences no negative effects.P1030959

At thirty minutes, Sample A is an undrinkable trainwreck and is poured unceremoniously into the garden as a thirsty contractor installing cable on the side of the building nearby looks on angrily. Sample B is humanely disposed of by a Certified Cicerone. He observes that Sam Adams Rebel IPA is trying really hard to be too many things and that the Latitude 48 was a more distinctive product. He fruitlessly cautions a billionaire who he refers to primarily as “Jimbo” that trying to emulate things other people do isn’t going to win you the hearts and minds of the audience. He is summarily ignored, but he feels better for venting.

Results:

While Sample A did nothing to prevent the control beer from skunking, Sample B managed to prevent the reaction for a period of half an hour.

Analysis:

Interestingly, the criticism most frequently levelled at the Bru-V glassware has to do with the fact that the top is wide open and that light will still effect the beer on a patio because some degree of surface area is exposed. When you compare the cylindrical volume of Glassware Sample A to the Bru-V Glassware, it’s clear that a wholly transparent vessel of clear or green glass has exponentially more surface area than the few square inches at the top of the Sample B which are directly exposed. I suspect that a well made beer with adequate head retention would obviate even that fractionally vulnerable surface.P1030963

The only other difficulty worth mentioning is that the brown glassware tends to take away from the visual excitement of a well poured beer. That is a qualitative observation relating to personal preference and we here in Grade 7 deal only with the quantitative. In practice, it’s a matter of personal choice: pretty and skunky or obscure and correct.

Conclusion:

Call me Susan and slap my daddy, the damned thing works.

Review and Food Pairing: St.Ambroise Erable

The Background

St.Ambroise sold a couple of years back to Brasseurs RJ and the quality has kept up. Originally helmed by Peter McAuslan and Ellen Bounsall, the beers have been and continue to be largely English in their influence. While we tend to see a lot of Belgian influence in some of the newer breweries in Quebec, there was a period fairly early on in the craft beer renaissance when a lot of the styles were English. They seem to be one of the first Quebec craft breweries to have realized that they can put their beer in cans in that market and it’s a real strength for them. In Ontario, where the can is rapidly becoming king, it just means that they can compete on an even playing field.

P1030947

You can tell it’s Maple because of the Maple Leaf. This is also how we know that Canada is Maple flavoured.

St.Ambroise continues to expand their product list. They’ve come out with an IPA and a double IPA and most recently a Session IPA (because if you don’t do that, the beer police will come in the night.) Their fruit beers are complex and interesting and their Russian Imperial Stout and Vintage Ales continue to do them proud. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for consistency. While some of their beers are probably not to everyone’s taste, they’re very representative of the brewery’s character over the long term.

The Beer

St.Ambroise, despite their well-deserved reputation for quality, were apparently apprehensive about releasing this beer to market. This is odd as the person who wanted them to brew it was larger than life bon vivant Martin Picard of Au Pied du Cochon and Cabane Sucre fame. When you think about it, a maple beer is ideal for his winter Sugar Shack. Also, I figure it’d be hard to say no to a guy that large and friendly.

I’ll be honest. There aren’t a lot of maple beers that I like. I’m not sure that I’d drink more than a couple of the St-Ambroise Maple in a year, although I’ll gladly recommend it and I’ll tell you why: Subtlety.

At a recent tasting I had a sip of a Maple beer from Flying Monkeys called Acadian Groove that was all that was maple. They might end up chugging it in Super Troopers 2. It replicated perfectly the effect of syrup and if you had poured it on your pancakes I am not convinced that you would have been able to tell the difference. Maple requires a deft hand because it can so easily overpower the beer or get fermented almost entirely out of the beer if added at the wrong point in the brew. If you want to go extreme on it, you can easily do so, but I’ll ask that you time it for Shrove Tuesday.P1030953

Erable manages to balance the sweetness of the maple syrup by bridging it to the crystal malt in the beer and then letting the Willamette hops scrub the palate a little. It’s a good choice because they’re earthy and peppery. You can’t use a hop that resembles coniferous flavours in a deciduous beer. It makes no sense. There’s still a lingering cloud of retronasal maple at the finish, but it’s quite reasonable compared to shotgunning a can of Canada no. 1 Extra Light.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Not today. Instead we’re doing:

Food Pairing

Barry Pletch, McAuslan’s Ontario representative, asked me what I would pair with the Maple Beer. I’m a Cicerone, so I ought to know what to do with it, but it sort of sat at the back of my mind taunting me for a couple of days.

The obvious choice here is to stare at Martin Picard’s menu and steal something beautiful. Let’s do that for a second by clicking here. I think that the sweetness needs something to offset it. A lot of the stuff on the menu is going to be rich and fatty Quebecois fare of the type that sticks to your ribs. I’d be tempted to go with the Blue Cheese, Apple and Endive salad if only because the salt and funk of the blue cheese would treat the maple like a dessert flavour while the bitter Endive freshens between bites. Otherwise, there’s the Duck Magret in mushroom sauce which would be rich enough to stand up to the beer if not stop it in its tracks. Rich, earthy, but you’re probably working to the hop profile at the expense of the maple.

Then I had a less obvious thought.

You know when you’re walking along the street and suddenly you smell maple? That used to happen in another life when I worked over at Don Mills and Eglinton near a spice processing factory. It turns out that’s because when they processed fenugreek, you’d get this odd maple aroma floating through the air. If you eat enough fenugreek leaves, you’ll actually begin to smell like maple. This is down to a chemical called Sotolon.

Fenugreek is pretty exotic and tends to be used in Armenia, Iran and bits and pieces of North Africa and India. That’s why I’m switching from Martin Picard to a different Canadian chef, Vikram Vij. This recipe for Marinated Lamb Chops with Fenugreek Cream Curry looks to me like it would bridge the gap nicely by making the maple the communal flavour element between the beer and the dish. Both food and drink should have enough other stuff going to be able to pull in separate directions without breaking apart.

Warning: your coworkers might refer to you as Pancake Jimmy for a few days.

Review: Local Leaside

“You know, Andy, when I was your age…” was the way that I’d started the sentence, and I immediately wished that I hadn’t. There’s nothing to make you feel old like having to explain your context to your younger brother. Before Andy was born, I was given my first cellphone just in case everyone had to head to North York General on short notice. It was a Motorola flip phone that would not only ruin the line of your jacket but rip right through the fabric.

We’re sitting in Local Leaside which has inhabited, after vast and obviously costly renovation, the bones of a CIBC branch two blocks from the house I lived in as a teenager. On the longer arc of Leaside history, I can tell you that my maternal Grandparents, Sid and Evelyn, used to bank in that branch. To give you some idea of how long ago that was, I can tell you that their account number was 123. Identity theft is, sadly, unlikely at this point.

At some point, the lounge on the second floor would have been a Manager's office. I can't help but wonder what Sid and Ev would have made of it.

At some point, the lounge on the second floor would have been a Manager’s office. I can’t help but wonder what Sid and Ev would have made of it.

Local Leaside is the most recent development in an area that has rapidly changed over the years. When I was 16 the buildings that mostly dotted the landscape were disused industrial plants like Canada Wire. Leaside was one of the first planned communities in Canada, existing from a period before we developed tract housing like Don Mills. The first and second generations of residents are almost all gone now and young families lucky enough to be able to afford the mortgages are settling in.

Leaside has begun to play to their strengths. It currently boasts a showpiece of a Longo’s in a repurposed rail depot that has its own Corks beer and wine bar. It has one of the best LCBOs in the province and a new Beer Store. The Amsterdam Brewery is just down the street. Big Box stores dot the landscape with an amount of parking that once seemed optimistic to say the least. When I was 16, all we had was a Great Canadian Bagel.

Andy and Emma. Dad (not pictured) sits to the left and ensures that shenanigans are kept to a minimum.

Andy and Emma. Dad (not pictured) sits to the left and ensures that shenanigans are kept to a minimum.

I’d brought Andy and Emma along with Dad to see Local Leaside. They’ve been watching the renovations take place for months, so it seemed like a fun idea to get them in during the soft launch to get a sense of the place. I had been to Local Liberty Village when it opened and it seemed like a family friendly establishment. I also had the suspicion that the kids wouldn’t pull any punches. Andy already writes a coming attractions column for his school paper and Emma is whip smart to begin with.

Pausing briefly to chat with my third grade teacher, who I recognize at a two top near the bar (if I wasn’t already feeling old, that would have clinched it) we choose a padded banquette set up opposite the bar. By the time I catch up with the kids they’re sipping on ice tea and coke respectively. Andy’s observation “this is like a more rustic Urban Tavern” immediately raises one of the neighbourhood questions. How will Local, a transplant from Vancouver, compete against the local chain? Both have craft beer on tap and aim for an upscale pub experience. Emma, the more musically inclined of the two seems to give us the answer moments later: It’s the vibe the place provides. She happily sings along to Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” coming over the stereo.

Local has set up a station for Caesars, replete with pickled green beans. The amount of retrofit that went into the building must have cost millions.

Local has set up a station for Caesars, replete with pickled green beans. The amount of retrofit that went into the building must have cost millions.

The house made Guacamole disappears almost as soon as it hits the table, but it takes a little prodding to get the kids to try the Tuna Poke. It’s light and refreshing and reflects the west coast menu that Local has transplanted to Toronto. The citrus brightens the Avocado and the sesame adds texture. Dad and I get through small glasses of Beau’s Tom Green Milk Stout and Left Field’s Maris*. No fewer than five servers have been to the table in the 15 minutes since we sat down and Calamari has appeared from nowhere. The breading, if I remember from the Liberty Village Launch, contains Szechuan peppercorns and there’s a small, fiery zip to them.

Emma remarks on the service: “Jordan, why are they being so nice to you?” Dad laughs. It’s a good question, and it forces me to explain what I do for a living; that this is a soft launch and the restaurant has more staff than usual and that everyone is on their best behaviour. “So they invite you to come and eat and drink for free?” I nod. “And they expect you to write about it?”

The tap selection leans towards craft, both gateway and trending. As a side note, I should point out that it's hard to take proper advantage of an open bar when your third grade teacher is downstairs.

The tap selection leans towards craft, both gateway and trending. As a side note, I should point out that it’s hard to take proper advantage of an open bar when your third grade teacher is downstairs.

Sometimes I don’t write about it. I didn’t do much other than tweet about the Liberty Village location (I hate going to Liberty Village. It’s labyrinthine and constantly shifting as though the buildings conspire to keep you within it.) Emma has already figured out that for any blogger there’s the potential to acquire swag and pay for nothing. You know your parents have raised a good kid when they twig to the moral component of a problem immediately.

There’s a period where people disappear from the table. Dad is enticed by a Margarita at the upstairs bar and we seem to take it in turns visiting the Taco Station. The two varieties, fish and chicken, come with soft tortillas, cabbage slaw and a cilantro heavy Baja salsa. The silence from Andy on the subject of the tacos is due to the fact that he makes his way through two plates of them. He’s 6’5” and has the metabolism of a small neutron star. He even tries and then adds the hot sauce, which is something I’ve never seen him do before.

Here are the men who stare at tacos. A note on the ceiling above them. It is a retractable skylight that slides open to create a patio in clement weather. I haven't seen that before, but I love the idea.

Here are the men who stare at tacos. A note on the ceiling above them. It is a retractable skylight that slides open to create a patio in clement weather. I haven’t seen that before, but I love the idea.

Emma raises another interesting point. The servers make her a little self-conscious (even though she has no reason to be). There’s no doubt that the staff are a good looking group and I wonder briefly whether they’ve come out of central casting. It’s a valuable insight and not something that I would have considered. I recall that another of the Vancouver chains, Earl’s had caused controversy when it opened on King Street in 2011. I suppose image is intractably a part of the service industry, but sometimes it takes a 15 year old girl to point out the obvious. I pride myself on having some sensitivity to these issues, but the knowledge that it makes my little sister uncomfortable means that I’ll be more vigilant in future.

Overall, Local Leaside is a good addition to the neighbourhood. The tap list includes a number of selections from larger and up and coming craft brewers in contrast with a small number of macro taps to keep everyone happy. It also raises an important demographic point. As young couples have children and move away from downtown to established suburbs, they are still going to want some nightlife. This is the first generation for whom craft beer always existed and the possibility is going to exist more and more frequently to expand sales and distribution to areas outside of the downtown core.

Review: Grand River Olde Defiant

The Background

Grand River started brewing in Ontario in 2007, but the site that they’re on in Galt has actually been producing alcohol for something like 200 years. Absalom Shade had mills there and eventually managed to vertically integrate the whole community. He sold seed and milled grain and made whiskey. He had to issue credit because there wasn’t any currency.

Grand River’s mission statement was different: Originally the idea was to make beer that was under 5% alcohol because people are worried about overindulgence. This is a good idea which has only really caught on subsequently. There was a five year period there where people were drinking 7% everything and there weren’t lighter options. Personally, I like a beer that I can have two pints of and then go do something afterwards.

It’s a hard place to brew beer in a literal sense. The water is very hard in Cambridge, Ontario. 25-35 grains of hardness apparently. Toronto’s is something like 6-7 grains. Cambridge’s water is so hard that Bob Hoskins plays it in films. This is good for some kinds of beer and bad for other kinds of beer. It does mean that Grand River makes stuff that tastes different than anything else in the province.

Like any eight year old brewery, Grand River is going through some changes. Change is inevitable in a brewery. Rob Creighton, who was their head brewer, recently left the company. Left Field, who had been contract brewing their Eephus out of Grand River’s facility, has finally opened their own plant. Given these changes, I was glad to see the owner, Bob Hannenberg, at the Queen’s Park tasting. I like Bob. He doesn’t ever seem to say any more than he has to, which is refreshing in a world where constantly checking twitter is a thing. Bob is a farrier, which you can tell if you ever shake his hands; it’s like shaking hands with a concrete statue.

The Beer(s)IMAG1031[1]

I’m always interested when Grand River comes out with a new beer, because I don’t quite understand the thought process behind development over there. In recent years we’ve seen a Ginger flavoured beer called Tailset and I’m told that there’s a Blackberry Ale to be launched for the summer. I guess that those are safe bets for summer drinking, but it’s not the highest and best use of Grand River’s terroir.

The water does interesting things to the lagers they make. The carbonate punches up malt character to an extent that almost destroys hop aromatics. They’re there, don’t get me wrong, but it must take a lot more hops than it would in other places. Take, for instance, the Dogstalker Bock. At 6.0% the main notes are the rich fruity malts that are thrown into the foreground on the aroma and on the palate. There’s a practically strawberry preserve on toast character, but the hops come through spicy on the finish and burn that out with bitterness. I don’t know how true to style it is, but I suspect the conditions make it hard.

Grand River always seems to be at their best when making ales. Perhaps it’s the way the yeast interacts with the water or the fact that they tend to stick to traditional English styles, but that seems to be the wheelhouse. Consider that their Mill Race Mild is one of the best examples of the style in the world, and you begin to get the picture. The Pugnacious Pale Ale, which I hadn’t tried in some time is reminiscent of a turbocharged Fuller’s London Pride or Darkstar HopHead and worth your attention. This year’s Russian Gun lacks some of the roasty astringency and body from previous years, but manages to satisfy. This year’s Curmudgeon is possibly a step backwards and the hop character comes through muddled with bitterness edging out flavour.

What I really want to talk to you about is Olde Defiant. Apparently, it was first brewed in 2011, but I missed out the first time around. Old Ale is a traditional English style where beer was brewed at a high mash temperature so as to produce unfermentable sugars that lend body to the finished product. Typically what brewers do is keep them around and age them to develop character like a Stock Ale. They might go a little sour or oxidized or leathery. It’s designed to age and change.

Olde Defiant is 7.0% alcohol and it shows a ruby tinged edge in the pint glass with lacing that persists throughout. The aroma is naturally that grain loft toastiness that comes through from Grand River’s water, but there’s raisin and toffee. The hops come through spicy with a slight tobacco and cut herb greenness that is just pronounced enough to play around the edges. There’s a hint of smoke off in the distance and a practically unqualifiable funk that comes across as an impression more than as a distinct sourness. There’s a bit of chocolate on warming and a tawny whiskeyish presence.

It’s old school. It’s Absalom Shade old school. It comes close to the quality of a Fuller’s Vintage Ale. It is desperately uncool and fantastically unhip. It is one of the best Ontario beers I’ve had in a long time. If you can get out to their store, you should buy some.

There are Grand River beers I like and Grand River beers I don’t care for. I think they’ve got to standardize their branding and labels at some point, if only for the sanity of the beer critics across the province. What I will say is this: We’ve got enough IPA and APA and EPA and BIPA and DIPA. In a lot of ways trying to brew a world class mild or old ale is a hell of a lot more impressive than lobbing another half developed galaxy dry hopped pale ale into the market and just walking away. Olde Defiant’s just about the right name for this beer.

Barn Door Brewing Company Winter Porter

The Background

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.

The BeerIMAG1027[1]

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.IMAG1025[1]

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.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteriaabomidable-snow-rabbit-560x373

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.

Habits Gastropub House Saison

“You’re number two” says the greying Asian man to the bartender as he’s walking in the door of Habits Gastropub. I’m confused temporarily and take it as either a set up for a punchline or a low normal motivational chant. It’s quickly explained to me by co-owner Michelle Genttner that Habits has the second best whiskey selection in Toronto. A glance at the wall confirms this, but it’s anathema to me because I’m at Habits to drink their House Saison. All I can manage is to make a note of the presence of the Rip Van Winkle bourbon in case I ever feel spendy.

The nanobrewery looked for a brief period to be the next big thing in Toronto. When Bar Volo started theirs in 2010, Ontario was still a 50 brewery province. Nano brewing never really caught on to the extent that it was expected. For one thing, the amount of effort expended into the process tends to vastly outweigh profit. Similarly, if the brand succeeds there’s not really anywhere to go with your production levels. I believe that House Ales now contracts out at least one of their brands. The second adopter, Brad Clifford’s nano system at Get Well at Dundas and Ossington, has since been removed to Innocente as I understand it. This is probably just as well. I always got the impression that the main draw at Get Well was pinball and that the crowd would have been happy drinking most anything. Clifford’s Porter is a step up over the assorted styles he’d produced down there.

Habits is a different part of the market than Volo or Get Well. For one thing, there’s a more pronounced focus on food thanks to chef Luis Martins. The menu of bar snacks clearly demonstrates some Portugese and Spanish influence which carries over into a far more interesting set of entrees than you’d typically expect from a Toronto gastropub. The charcuterie is very impressive, with a Duck Prosciutto that melts away delicately into a suffusion of hazelnutty fat.

Who doesn't love cured duck? Or, to put it another way, who loves duck that's still ill?

Who doesn’t love cured duck? Or, to put it another way, who loves duck that’s still ill?

The brewing staff at Habits is made up of three people. Chris Conway, Christina Coady and Doug Allen. All three are talented homebrewers, a fact which does not always suggest that there is success in the offing. The collaborative effort at Habits, however, is clearly working out. The brewery has taken just over a year to put together at this point. The brewhouse itself takes a place of pride in the kitchen and its newness is still obvious. The Blichmann kettles gleam, untarnished yet by scorch and boil over.

The fermenters are in the back and I’m led through the curtained off stage area, dark and cool on an off night, to an area that doubles as storage and cellar. Chris Conway jokes about the microclimate they’ve created for their repurposed milk cans under the stairs next to the walk in. They’re making 250 litres of beer a throw at Habits and on their third batch they’re already subject to that mad brewer’s drive to acquire improved equipment. Small fans are positioned point blank to maintain temperature, providing what I assume is all the efficacy that they can muster.

Conway got into homebrewing out of necessity. It was only two years ago that Newfoundland got its first packaged IPA in stores: Muskoka’s Mad Tom. It’s easy to forget that there are parts of Canada where the current craft brewing boom has been late to catch on. Newfoundland’s Yellowbelly is more likely to produce a parsnip beer than a series of IPAs. Call it a cultural pocket where bitterness never really caught on. Conway’s entry into homebrewing was a way of providing significantly hopped beers for his own consumption and it becomes obvious in conversation that there is a small part of him that will always consider taking the beer he loves back to the rock.

Saison neither seasonal nor seasoned but standard. Lot of people putting spices in their Saisons these days. Those people are wrong and should feel bad.

Saison neither seasonal nor seasoned but standard. Lot of people putting spices in their Saisons these days. Those people are wrong and should feel bad.

The love they have for quality beer is obvious at Habits, with a tap list that includes a variety of small Ontario brewers. What I didn’t expect was to see other Saisons on the menu. The brewers are asking their third batch of Saison to stand up to Nickel Brook’s Paysan and Amsterdam’s Howl. Were I the owner, I would be tempted to present a single Saison, but in truth, the House Saison doesn’t need the handicap. I suspect that with recipe development in brewing the first three batches will get you 95% of the way to your goal and the next fifty will get you the remaining 5%. They could easily have tried three different beers out of the gate, but the decision to refine a single recipe is a good one. The difference between the other Saisons on tap and the House version is that, at the moment, they are more themselves.

It gets difficult for a moment. Chris Conway wants feedback; he’s clever enough not to want praise. He wants me to tell him what’s wrong with the beer and there’s little to pick at. The peppery dryness comes through and the citrus from the Amarillo dry hop comes through. If anything it might be just that little bit too subtle. Maybe higher peaks would make the desert of the Saison finish more pronounced. Drop back the Magnum at bittering and increase the Styrian Golding dry hop? These are issues of nuance; ideas to play with over the next year. The House Saison will improve over the next year.

More than the beer, I’m impressed with Habits. It’s not quite a neighbourhood pub, but that’s part of its DNA. It takes a lot of attention to maintain a menu of upscale comfort food, live music and a whiskey selection that large. You can see why the addition of a nanobrewery requires three people. It also displays a shrewd understanding of the clientele. They’re people willing to pay for niche quality. If Habits had simply wanted their own beer they could have contracted the job out, but I suspect they’re unwilling to give up that level of control. There are many signs of a well run pub, and this level of control over variables is one of the best.

Root For the Home Team

The first thing that I noticed walking into Left Field’s brewery on Monday was how much calmer and happier everyone seemed to be now that the place is finally opened. There has been rejoicing on social media about the fact that it is now possible to buy their beer in bottles; It has always been difficult to predict which bars would be carrying which of Left Field’s beers. The fact that people can take home their favourites seems like a significant victory, but I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as victory in brewing. I’m pretty sure that winning means you get to continue to make beer. IMAG0934

When I was thirteen, I got to sit on the third baseline at Skydome and watch Joe Carter hit a walk off home run to win the World Series. At thirteen, it makes perfect sense to you that all such moments should be defined by a beautiful arc of dramatic tension. The World Series is great for moments like that: There is a payoff. For a few moments the faith of the crowd at Skydome was rewarded and people leapt to their feet and Joe touched ‘em all.

That thing of which you’re absolutely certain as a child, that there will be a defining moment after which everything will be alright, is not the way anything really works. Life isn’t a called shot homer; it’s a series of fielders choice outs that advance the runner. It’s sabermetrics.IMAG0947

I’ve had the opportunity to follow Left Field from its advent and the main reason for its success is the level-headed, sensible approach that owners Mark and Mandie Murphy have taken from day one. I don’t know that every move that they’ve made has been planned out, but they’re so unflappable it’s hard to tell. I have never seen Mark look panicked, which is something that you want in both an Accountant and a Brewer. I don’t pretend to understand how marketing or branding works, but judging by the response, Mandie is some kind of wunderkind. These are people who understand that this is a long game.

A couple of years ago I wrote about Eephus on the blog. Since then, Left Field has been contract brewed at Grand River and Barley Days and they’ve rolled that success into their property on Wagstaff Drive. Their launch drew something like 1600 people; a number which made it hard to move in a cavernous warehouse space. The support they’ve seen from people in Toronto is certainly deserved but almost incredible. The renovations are now complete and with what seems like a victory their work now begins in earnest.IMAG0942

Currently, the brewery houses three fermenters each of which can take a double batch from the 20 BBL brewhouse. Trenches and piping are supplied for nine more fermenters which would theoretically take the capacity of the brewery up to 10,000 HL a year. Their Maris* Pale Ale is going to be on tap this season at the Renaissance Hotel at Rogers Centre. Their first run of canned beer will probably be in process by the time you read this. Mark is even thinking about repurposing his homebrew setup for specialty casks for the tap room. He points to places where rails will be installed for safety and where a canning line might go eventually.

I was told that this would probably be ok for me to post by Thursday. If it isn't, Mandie Murphy is going to have my legs broke.

I was told that this would probably be ok for me to post by Thursday. If it isn’t, Mandie Murphy is going to have my legs broke.

They have graduated from a contract brewing world in which they were dependent on external variables in the production of their beer to having their own facility where everything is a discrete, manageable task. If that’s not a calmative change, I don’t know what is.

By the time I get to the brewery, there are precisely six bottles left in the fridge. The Pop Up Shop has been devastating to the stock on offer, but the taps contain a wider variety of Left Field beers than I’ve ever seen in one place. It’s clear that over the summer months variety will suffer somewhat, but that’s unlikely to dampen the spirits of drinkers once the weather warms up. I’m told that they’ll be producing their Sunlight Park Saison in relatively short order.

People get down on corn in beer because large lager brewers use it. It's like any other ingredient. If you use it the right way the result can be great.

People get down on corn in beer because large lager brewers use it. It’s like any other ingredient. If you use it the right way the result can be great.

Eephus is enhanced somewhat by the change in water from Cambridge to Toronto. The sweetness is more pronounced on the nose and through the body. The proportion of oats in the grist have been increased and, in point of fact, everything about Eephus is now slightly bigger although it remains balanced. L’il Slugger, a Kentucky Common made in collaboration with Collingwood’s Northwinds (Home of the Bartle), has turned out to be a sort of amber cream ale.  At first I’m confused by the lack of a sour mash character, but it turns out that may have been an invention of homebrewers who inserted it by geographic association. The use of corn lightens the body without cutting into the toasty grain and I can’t help but think it’d be a hit in the bleachers on a hot day. The Citra Prospect IPA is indicative of that series. It doesn’t overreach on the hop character, remaining balanced through its grapefruit and lime character. The body is sweet enough to prop up those flavours and present it properly.

For me the highlight is their Bricks & Mortar Porter. Brewed in celebration of the opening, it’s enhanced mightily by the presence of their next door neighbours, Pilot Coffee Roasters. They’ve used the Kenya Kii beans here, although I think anyone who wasn’t already familiar would have difficulty picking it out. The important thing seems to be that the coffee that they’ve used is incredibly fresh. It dominates all the other aspects of the beer, but it’s very difficult to fault such a vibrant expression of good coffee. It’s as good as any coffee beer I’ve had.

Bricks and Mortar at last!

Bricks and Mortar at last!

When I tell Mark this, he’s not surprised. It’s not braggadocio. It’s just part of the plan. This is small ball played well with each small, discrete task adding up to another step forward for Left Field. Standing in their tap room on a bright spring day with light streaming in through the new glass of the garage door,  with the scent of grain and the recently cut plywood that temporarily makes up the tap room bar, it’s hard not to feel that contagious magic of the grandstand. Like any team that has built momentum and finds itself on a winning streak, Left Field is easy to get behind and we can only hope they’ll continue to get better as they grow into their home.

Yeah, well what happens if you score 20 runs?

Yeah, well what happens if you score 20 runs?

Review: Rickard’s Radler

Background

For reasons that I don’t completely understand, the people at Molson keep sending me things to review. I think this is due to the fact that I try to be fairly objective when I review a product. This always strikes me as somewhat odd because an objective review of some of their products is not really in their best interest. Had I been at Sun Media a week longer, I would have reviewed Coors Altitude in an extremely negative and possibly violent manner. They dodged a bullet on that one. (ed note: The ratebeerians have done that for me. My favourite review: “What is the point of this I mean really do they just brew one kind of beer and just put it different packaging wow”)

Rickard’s, on the other hand, has been of surprisingly high quality over the last five years. Discounting Oakhouse and Cardigan (which were sort of flavoured lagers), they’ve had a fairly high quality Pilsener in Rickard’s Blonde, a creditable Shandy and the Oktoberfestbier, Lederhosen, was possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. They’ve got a talented brewing team including Steve Straddioto. He’s a guy who knows his way around beer styles and who I’ve underrated in the past because he’s frequently used as a stunt brewmaster for marketing purposes. Every organization has got to have a face.

Sometimes they send me a mystery bottle. It has no label, but it does contain liquid. No one has ever encountered problems drinking an unlabeled liquid, right?

Sometimes they send me a mystery bottle. It has no label, but it does contain liquid. No one has ever encountered problems drinking an unlabeled liquid, right?

Rickard’s exists in an interesting position at the moment. They’ve got a competent staff and the potential to do a lot of good things, but they’re the middle tier in the MolsonCoors sandwich. MolsonCoors isn’t in the risk taking business at the moment. They’ve got to contend with a shifting Ontario market and the likely advent of grocery store sales. They shut down their Beer Academy and will turn it over to Creemore in the near future. I’m given to understand that the other craft property in the stable, Granville Island, has recently lost brewmaster Vern Lambourne and has gone through some core property rebranding. Brockton IPA is now Infamous IPA. Kitsilano Maple Cream Ale is now Maple Shack Cream Ale. This suggests they’re being positioned for a wider market at the expense of geographical sense of place.

The Beer

The question here is what do you do if you’re Rickard’s? For the first time in a long time, they are not really in competition with their opposite number at Labatt’s. The Alexander Keith’s property is now making single hop varieties and instead of direct equivalency to the competition, Rickard’s has some room to develop independently. It would seem that they’re going after the import market.

As you can see, Rickard's Radler pours fairly cloudy. At first I wondered whether there was wheat in there, but it seems like the kind of thing you'd mention on marketing material.

As you can see, Rickard’s Radler pours fairly cloudy. At first I wondered whether there was wheat in there, but it seems like the kind of thing you’d mention on marketing material.

There are a number of Radlers currently available around the country and a lot of this is based on Stiegl’s success in the market. Stiegl Radler is (and believe me I hate this term) crushable. I am fully aware that it would cost less to buy quality lager and quality grapefruit juice and just mix them than it would to buy Stiegl Radler. That said, the Stiegl is somehow more than the sum of its parts. People are right to be emulating it. It’s delicious.

Rickard’s version, then is being positioned as a flavoured light beer. It is apparently a combination of the Blonde and lemon and grapefruit juices. It contains an approximate total of 5 IBUs, so you know they’ve dipped a hop in it at some point. In terms of food pairing suggestions, they recommend chicken, lobster and broiled fish, all of which are sensible. Potentially it’s the sample bottles, but the carbonation dissipates fairly quickly. It basically tastes like candied grapefruit.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria

"Hello, uh, Bellerophon? He's out? Could we schedule him for next week? It's a kind of a goat/lion thing. Well, if he can fit us in before then... ow! Oh, it's nothing. The tail bit me."

“Hello, uh, Bellerophon? He’s out? Could we schedule him for next week? It’s a kind of a goat/lion thing. Well, if he can fit us in before then… ow! Oh, it’s nothing. The tail bit me.”

Radler is neither one thing nor another so this week we’ll be using the Gygax Chimaerical Composite Index in order to ascertain what mythical creature best represents this beer. What is a chimaera, I hear you ask? It is specifically a mythological creature from Greek mythology with the head of a lion and the tail of a snake and another head sort of grafted on in the middle as if to ask “what are the titans wearing this season?” Notable other examples of Chimaeric creatures include the centaur, the jackalope and my cat Sweet William who is part violent hooligan and part total bastard.

Don't let his innocent looks deceive you. He'll cut you soon as look at you.

Don’t let his innocent looks deceive you. He’ll cut you soon as look at you.

Flipping through the index of various Chimaeric entities I’m forced to award Rickard’s Radler a score of LABRADOODLE.100_0206_Salisbury_boy_puppy

Part Labrador Retriever, part Poodle and part dust mop, the Labradoodle is very like the Radler. Made popular in another country earlier in the 20th century, it has become popular with middle class families looking to enjoy their backyards. It is not very far out of the realm of possibility that you will encounter both at the same North Toronto barbeque at some point before June. The Radler is not unlovable, but you do wonder, looking at it, about its constituent parts. I wonder whether using the Rickard’s White rather than the Blonde might have helped with head retention and eliminated the need for orange slices.

Smuttynose Imperial Stout

The Background

Smuttynose is represented in Canada by Claude Lefebvre and the boys over at North American Craft. Now, for the most part, North American Craft is focused on their own core listings in the Double Trouble lineup featuring cans covered in the kind of stripe wearing burglars you might see in a Goddard directed escape film. There’s also the French Press Vanilla Stout which bears the bearded visage of the owner. The French Press cheerfully does what it says it’s going to.

It’s hard to get a sense of who North American Craft actually represents because those sons of guns aren’t keeping their website up to date. This is probably because they seem to be living out of the delivery van and sweet talking LCBO managers on a day to day basis. In the battle between “telling people what there is” and “making sure people can buy the thing” they have chosen the latter.

I think we should work "pretty as a brewhouse" into common parlance.

I think we should work “pretty as a brewhouse” into common parlance.

The fact is that Smuttynose was ripe for representation further afield. Back when the Robust Porter came out, I spoke to JT (their “minister of propaganda”) about the decision to start sending beer to Ontario. This is all the result of their expansion to the Towle Farm facility in Hampton, New Hampshire. The brewery opened in 2014 and their on-site restaurant, Hayseed, opened a couple of weeks ago.  They’re expanding their distribution west to Cleveland and southwest to Tennessee. What you’re looking at in terms of expansion is about 22,500 BBL of immediate growth to near 65,000 BBL. The good thing is that Smuttynose’s reputation is such that the market will soak that up without much difficulty.

My perceptions of Smuttynose are twofold. They have more or less flown under the radar. They don’t have the cachet of a Brooklyn or a Dogfish Head. The flip side of that coin is the fact that they have had a lot of time to refine what they do before taking it to a larger audience. Smuttynose doesn’t make clunkers. The entirety of the lineup is rock solid. Currently there’s a lot of buzz about their Bouncy House Session IPA, but I’d be just as happy to try the two they started with: Shoals Pale Ale and Old Brown Dog. That’s the good thing about taking 20 years to get to 65,000 BBL. You build a repertoire.

The Beer

Smuttynose Imperial Stout comes in a 650 ml bomber and clocks in at 10% alcohol. Like the Robust Porter before it, it seems to have been shifted later in its seasonal release. At the LCBO, it’s a flat $9.00.IMAG0897[1]

Nosing this beer is a little like peering over the edge of a well. It’s not only deep, but wide. There’s the slightly burnt character that you get from roasted barley at bottom, but the middle gives the aroma a sense of proportion with its toffee and chocolate raisin and light espresso. If you look at the website, you’ll see that the malt bill actually allows for that with different levels of caramel malts playing in the middle starting with Munich and bottoming out at Crystal 120. The result is prodigious sweetness, but it’s balanced by 107 BU of Warrior, Cascade, Sterling and Columbus, the mixture of which comes through as pine sap and herbs. There is also coriander, and I suspect that’s in the aroma as an earthy twang. There is no more room for anything else in here. There’s something in every possible space and despite that heavy load it manages balance.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria

It’s pointless for me to rate this beer. It’s objectively excellent. It has a 100 on Ratebeer and Imperial Stout is a hard fought category. Instead I’m going to bring back the sometime feature:

What Did We Learn?IMAG0899[1]

Experts will tell you that you should serve Imperial Stout fairly warm, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 55-60 degrees. They are certainly right that that is the optimal temperature for an Imperial Stout to present its aromas.

What I’d like you to try is to open this bottle directly out of the fridge and make notes on it starting from that point. It’s a big beer and it’ll probably take you an hour to drink. During that time, it’ll warm up. I think that you can learn more about a beer by trying it in different formats than through the purely libertine act of consumption. As it warmed up to the appropriate serving temperature, even a foot and a half away from the snifter there was a sudden suffusive aroma of Haribo gummy cola bottles. The sweetness expanded by that note and I suspect the coriander is responsible.

Don’t cheat yourself out of sensory data by strictly adhering to the rules.