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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.

Beau’s B-Side – Gigantic La Formidable American-Belgo IPA

The Background

Beau’s are early adopters of bits and pieces of craft beer culture, so it’s not a huge surprise that they were the first brewery in Canada to formalize the idea of ongoing collaboration. The B-Side Brewing Label reflects the history of many members of the Beau’s family as punk rockers. Steve Beauchesne is such a fan of the Dead Milkmen that I’m frankly surprised there isn’t a beer called Sour Jane. I like Steve. He’s a great dude who has made his brewery part of the communities of VanKleek Hill and Ottawa in a really positive way.

That's a pretty big snifter. I guess.

That’s a pretty big snifter. I guess.

Anyway, the B-Side brewing label is an attempt to provide exposure to brewers from other parts of the world who either don’t have the ability to get their beer into Ontario or (quite reasonably) can’t be bothered to deal with the LCBO. B-Side kicked off in 2013 with the signing of Anders Kissmeyer who produced a Nordic Pale Ale with the brewery that is still available at the LCBO for a very reasonable price. It’s a nice beer, but not the only one in Ontario from Kissmeyer who had also designed a beer for Bush Pilot, thereby slightly undercutting the premise. The Nordic Saison that emerged as a follow up was a limited time affair whose yeast profile had, at least on the two bottles I sampled, a somewhat unfortunate whiff of burning hair.

The launch of Beau’s second B-Side brewer, Portland, Oregon’s Gigantic, may not in practice be helped by the fact that it comes at the culmination of FeBREWary. Beau’s has released a new beer every week for a month and while one of them is the resurgent favourite Strong Patrick, I can’t help but feel that there’s a little audience fatigue happening. Even though the Le Coeur Noir Black IPA was quite good, I’ve not heard a lot of scuttlebutt about it. I guess this is the price you pay when everyone gets all amped up for International Gruit Day where our motto is: “Gruit: Do it to it.”

The Beer

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

La Formidable is an American-Belgo IPA, which just means that it’s an American IPA with a Belgian yeast strain. This is fairly familiar territory for Beau’s with previous examples like the Rudolphus IV and Farm Table Belgian Pale Ale having cut a swath through the vast undergrowth of experimentation. Gigantic themselves have a Belgo IPA called Intensify. Put the breweries together and what have you got? Bippity boppity booze, probably. This should be a cakewalk.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the standard Welles-Nelson scale of Transformer Awesomeness to gauge the quality of this product. This is only applicable to the 1986 film and is not pertinent to the rebooted Michael Bay franchise which operates on the LaBeouf “Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go” Quotient.

Scores can range anywhere from the least cool Transformer, the Quintesson judge who relies on his legions of Sharkticons to destroy prisoners all the way up to the most cool Transformer, Rodimus Prime. You think he’s not cool? He has his own theme music and is voiced by John Bender. In 1986 that’s as cool as is possible.

La Formidable weighs in a 6.9% alcohol and pours a vibrant orange colour with a voluminous off white head. The aroma is a sweet orange peel for the most part with some prodigious phenols from that Belgian yeast strain contributing some mild clove spice and light bubblegum. The body is cloudy but quite substantial and the sweetness tend to balance the bitterness right up until the swallow. There is a pronounced hop burn in that takes place on the finish and it lingers, leaving the impression of disharmony.

I rate this beer: Wreck Gar.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

Notice that I didn’t say it’s a Wreck. Wreck Gar is the leader of the Junk planet in the Transformers movie. Voiced by Eric Idle, Wreck Gar’s dialogue is mostly made up of marketing slogans and pop cultural ephemera. The theme song during his first appearance is Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare To Be Stupid which mirrors that popcultural panglossolalia. Wreck Gar’s body is made up of disparate parts from various places and there’s the sense that he’s not quite all there. He’s cool, but in an iconoclastic way that is certainly not for everyone. I mean, hell, some people like Wheelie.

Duggan’s Brewery Parkdale

IMAG0816[1]When last I considered Duggan’s Brewery in Toronto, it was in a different area and the context was markedly different. It was something of a valediction. That post, entitled, “So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s” was written nearly four years ago. In the interim period, Duggan’s #9 IPA and #5 Sorachi Lager have continued to be brewed at Cool in Etobicoke. Along with Brad Clifford, Mike Duggan has founded the Ontario Beer Company, which focuses on creating beer with ingredients from within Ontario. If the “100 Mile” brand isn’t completely factually accurate, it can be forgiven because it works towards that goal.

The 75 Victoria Street property is a barn. It had been Growlers before it was Duggan’s. Most recently it had been MolsonCoors Six Pints Beer Academy, which is currently under renovation to become a Creemore Brewpub. It’s a gigantic space and the majority of the problems that have cropped up stem from that fact. Even MolsonCoors, with all their capital didn’t get it right the first time.

At its nadir, Duggan’s Brewery had significant problems. They had trouble keeping up with demand on their most popular beers (sometimes the lagers didn’t have an optimal amount of conditioning time) and while the place was fairly busy, the cavernous space made it look less full. The walls were bare, and I once joked that it was like a sensory deprivation chamber. Events held in the downstairs area felt a little like a grade seven dance; to add verisimilitude all that would have been needed was crepe paper and REM’s Everybody Hurts. The complete lack of social media presence hurt them during a period that should have seen them boom.

That’s not to say that the place didn’t have its strong points. The beers on tap were of a consistently high quality.

Flash forward to February 2015, and it’s clear that Duggan’s new location at the corner of Queen and Brock has managed to fix the majority of the problems from the old location. For one thing, the size is a great deal more reasonable than the old location. It might seat 100 when full up. The menu, rather than including oysters and pizza in addition to a number of other options, has been pared down to a handful of more interesting apps and entrees. The ambiance is probably more Liberty Village than Parkdale, but the soft industrial feel of exposed girders and bulbs is cushioned texturally by wood plank treatments and broad tiles behind the bar.IMAG0807[1]

The operation makes more sense here than it did at the other location. Much of downtown is closed for business after 7:00 PM and a brewpub was hard to fill. At Queen and Brock, the audience is captive. “People will come in around 7:00 and camp out all night.” While I sat making notes on the beers, a number of young couples took up residence at booths and tables opting for the full tasting flight of beers. Duggan himself isn’t sure of the demographic. “We’ll get maybe a third hipsters. We’ll get three generations of a family with babies.”IMAG0812[1]

The lineup speaks to the amount of time Mike Duggan has spent brewing both in Toronto and internationally. There’s a disparate thought process at work that bespeaks a larger experience of the world and an understanding of a larger audience; that maybe people just want a refreshing drink. He may be the only brewer in Canada who can ask himself, “would this work in Cuba?” As we talk, it’s revealed that the basement is jammed with fermenters full of ideas he’s looking forward to playing with. There’s a nitrogenated Cream Ale in the works and that least trendy of animals, a Maibock. It’s something for everyone from a journeyman who’s not done by a long shot. By the time the new location is fully operation, he intends for there to be 12 taps at any given time.IMAG0815[1]

The beers that are available to taste when I’m there make up the basic lineup. The 100 Mile Lager has a distinct soapiness to its aroma, but the citrus from the Ontario grown Hallertau hops shines through in the middle of the palate. The 100 Mile Ale is much as I remember it from the week it launched. Pine and orange. Toasted grain with a nutty character. Revisiting the #9 IPA for what might be the first time in two years, I’m pleased by the substantial crystal malt, brown bread and straightforward Cascade pine. I’m pleasantly surprised by the #46 Parkdale Bomber and we joke that if you’re going to sell a Malt Liquor it’s practically worth selling paper bags out of the brewery store. The #13 Hefeweizen leans towards Kristallweizen clarity and banana character, making it reminiscent of Erdinger’s Hefe. The #7 Stout is possibly the best beer on offer from an objective standpoint. It’s a full bodied number and the roast comes through without acridity. There’s a chocolate-y tootsie roll tone playing in the distance.

Even with some congestion, I can tell there’s something wrong with the #5 Sorachi Lager. It’s got a more than a hint of brackish standing water. What Duggan does is revealing. Rather than getting the bartender or another member of staff to deal with the problem, he walks over to the bar to scope out the situation. Five or ten minutes pass and I busy myself making tasting notes while he hooks up a new keg and pours pitcher after pitcher of foam to get the beer to where it is supposed to be. Tipping the pitcher into the drip tray, he has the air of a man who would be fine if everyone would just leave him alone to get on with it. It’s the kind of precision I like in a brewer. I’m rewarded for the wait by a quaffable lager with that earthy sorachi dill-herb character at its core. IMAG0811[1]

Duggan’s new brewery fixes nearly all of the problems that were hallmarks of the previous location. Walking out, I’m struck by how well it fits into a rapidly gentrifying Parkdale. There’s a lot of promise here and there’s the potential for the brewery to grow into the bones of its new home in way that it never would have been able to on Victoria street. I find myself cheering the possibilities.

The Hobbit Beers OR Beer and Back Again

In a box in the sky there lived a blogger. Not a nasty, dirty, sexist blogger, concerned with ethics in games journalism, emitting an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, literary blogger with nothing to say but positive things about can-con: he was a beer blogger, and that meant reviewing beverages.

The Background

To celebrate the nearly interminable series of Hobbit films, Warner Brothers has licensed a series of beers to be marketed in Canada and in the United States. In the United States, the beers are brewed by Fish Brewing, while in Canada they are produced by the estimable Central City Brewers + Distillers in Surrey, BC. Central City produces some consistently high quality beer in their Red Racer series and fit happily into that rare category of dependable, affordable beer you actually want to drink.

In some ways, it’s an interesting problem. Clearly Fish Brewing has had these beers out since September and Central City was granted the rights to the property later on. This means that they must be adapting another brewer’s ideas as their own. If the filmic version of The Hobbit has taught us anything at all, it’s that adaptation is a rascally business and fraught with peril. Things people might love in one version don’t end up in the other. Sometimes things get added that people disagree with. Central City without real fault or credit here since they produce consistently high quality beer and are adapting someone else’s ideas.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon at play in terms of selection bias. If you look at the ratebeer ratings for the American versions, they’re consistently higher because they come from all over the country and from people who are into a Hobbit beer in the first place. If you look at the ones from Canada, we’re a hell of a lot harder on Central City. Limited market means more critics, I would guess.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the internationally respected Bombadil Protocol as an evaluation tool. Scores reflect the amount the evaluator is annoyed by the character of an item. Naturally, this is an inverse value scale. A 10 on the Bombadil scale might cause one to put down a series of books and never pick them up again. Behaviour that might cause such an action would include singing about yourself.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!” would, for example, rate a 10.

The Beers

BOLG BELGIAN TRIPEL – 7 Bombadils.

Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn't this have been better as a Dubbel?

Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn’t this have been better as a Dubbel?

Bolg is a truly interesting choice to turn into a beer. In the book, Bolg is killed off by Beorn. Peter Jackson spends several hours building up Azog as the ultimate Badass to challenge Thorin Oakenshield, whilst Bolg is relegated to getting the crap knocked out of him by Orlando Bloom. In the book Azog doesn’t even merit despatch at the hand of Thorin. Dain Ironfoot does for him in what we can only assume is a Glaswegian dockworker’s accent.

The beer is kind of confusing. If you’re given the entire Hobbit mythos to play with to come up with a beer, I’m not sure you’d choose Bolg. Beorn Braggot. Fili & Kili Double IPA. Gandalf’s Hempen Gruit. Thorin’s Dwarven Ale (Oak Shield Aged). Bard Black Arrow Schwarzbier. Knocking Thrush Steinbier. You can probably knock a couple out in the comments.

Bolg's head looks better in the glass than on the label.

Bolg’s head looks better in the glass than on the label.

9.5% seems high for a Belgian Tripel, and at 35 BU Bolg is a little unbalanced. The sweetness really drives the flavour and aroma on this one. There’s the typical clove and bubblegum thing, but an almost lactose-y creamy thing around the edges. On the palate the hops are a little soapy with a wildflower hit and there’s some honeyed malt character. I will say this for it: It’s a good beer. It’s just conceptually dodgy.

GOLLUM’S PRECIOUS PILS – 3 Bombadils

This is a straightforward conceptual leap. What does Gollum want? The Precious. The Precious is made of gold, Pilsner is golden coloured, the lacing leaves a ring around the glass. Actually, I suppose you could have used any kind of golden coloured beer, but given Smeagol’s tragic past and the fact that he was once a common stoor hobbit, a common beer style sort of fits the bill.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Sirkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I'd have no idea.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Serkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I’d have no idea.

We likes it. Standard 5.0% Pilsner weight with about 30 BU puts this square in the middle of the style. Aroma is rising dough, light grain toast, peach and white grape. The bitterness on the palate is mostly herbaceous; sort of long grasses flowering. Straightforward finish. Maybe not worth losing a finger over, but I wouldn’t be too quick to throw it into Mount Doom, either.

SMAUG STOUT – 2 Bombadils  

Who's... some manner of winged cat? You... are, I guess.

Who’s… some manner of winged cat? You… are, I guess.

Smaug is probably the easiest beer from a conceptual standpoint. It has to be big. It has to be black. It has to burn. Dragons are somewhat limiting in terms of beer creation. I guess you can go the AD&D 2nd Edition route and choose different coloured ones with different breath weapons, but that’s a cheat. Dragons mean fire and fire means smoke and heat. Whether it’s a Tolkien beer or a Game of Thones beer, it’s going to involve chilies.

The Smaug Stout is actually surprisingly balanced. The aroma is not exactly a hurricane, although you can pick out both the peppers and the hop character amongst the sweet malt notes. This uses habaneros, but the shock of its tail is not exactly a thunderbolt. It’s biting, but not like swords. The heat amps up after about half a bottle, so we may consider the “my breath death” quota satisfied.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Actually, between this and the Fire and Blood beer from Ommegang, I’ve got a lot of respect for the restraint being used. Unlike Quest for Glory, you can safely order the Dragon’s Breath. This beer works nicely and is probably the best of the lot.

Beer Review: Spearhead Belgian Style Stout

(Ed Note: Would it shock you greatly to know that it has been over 14 months since I actually reviewed a beer on St. John’s Wort? It’s a beer blog, for God’s sake. I know actually reviewing things is out of fashion and simply posting stuff on pinstagrest is de rigeur, but let’s give it a shot.)

The Background

IMAG0781[1]

The medieval period: When monks had snifters and didn’t get the plague. Use appropriate glassware, junior rangers.

Spearhead came into being in 2011, rustling feathers as one of the first contract breweries in Ontario to maintain a command presence during events like Ontario Craft Beer Week. There had been contract breweries before, but Spearhead were the ones who went out and proved that the model could work. With their shiny orange vans and frequently visible merch, they have remained prominent in the Toronto beer scene and have succeeded in part because of the rightly popular Hawaiian Style Pale Ale and partly due to the fact that they’re a bunch of enthusiastic go-getters. I like all those guys. They’re nice guys. Especially Tomas Schmidt, the brewmaster, who is now so ex-Labatt that he’s frequently seen sampling IPAs.

The Beer

Spearhead’s third and fourth offerings came to the LCBO at approximately the same time and they are a Belgian Style Stout and the Sam Roberts Band Session Ale. I cannot objectively review the Sam Roberts Band ale because it beat my beer at the Session festival this year and I am a big sulky baby.

IMAG0785[1]

A lot of explanation for a short label

The Spearhead Belgian Stout, on the other hand, is a pretty interesting property. It’s more complex than you’d assume its 5.8% alcohol would admit. The aroma is high percentage dark chocolate and high test espresso ringed with vanilla, banana and clove. The flavour leans towards raw sugar sweetened espresso with Belgian yeast characteristics and it remains sticky sweet at the front of the palate while drying out at the swallow, eventually leaving a chalky sensation as though you’ve bitten into baker’s chocolate. There is more bitterness than the 35 IBU suggests, leading me to suspect that some of it is astringent bitterness from the 200 SRM of dark malt.

Let’s look at what’s happening here conceptually.

IMAG0788[1]

It really is quite a dark beer.

It’s a stout. That makes sense. There’s pleasant chocolate and espresso that would be appropriate in a big American Sweet or Dry Stout. But, they’ve decided to make it Belgian. Oh HO! I suspect that at some point in the design process they must have thought, “well, what makes a beer Belgian?” It’s a fine question. How can you encapsulate the complexity of Belgium’s styles in one beer? I think that the answer is that you probably can’t.

Spearhead seems to have borrowed from Trappist beers the use of Trappist yeast and added sugar as a boost in both flavour and in fermentables. They seem to have borrowed Curacao Orange Peel and Coriander from Belgian Witbier. All of these things are as Belgian as Toots Thielemans playing a Waffle Harmonica and make about as much sense.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

detectivepoirot2

Poirot is accompanied everywhere by a young heir, a lady’s maid, a butler, a retired major and a dowager just so that he can practice his accusation.

Today we’ll be using the International Suchet-Golightly beer evaluation scale, which naturally rates famous Belgians on a spectrum from Hercule Poirot to Audrey Hepburn.

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Idolized by millions, but still capable of burning the roast.

At one end, we have Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He is, rather than a Belgian-Style Stout, a Stout-Style Belgian. At the other end we have Belgian born Audrey Hepburn; the only lady in the world who can make Linus Larrabee give up plastics.

Coco Chanel said something Audrey Hepburn relevant: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” This is very good advice. Spearhead Belgian Style Stout is too busy. The earrings distract from the pendant and the feather boa is absolutely outré, to say nothing of the spats.

I preferred him in Blackbeard's Ghost

I preferred him in Blackbeard’s Ghost

I rate Spearhead Belgian Style Stout a Peter Ustinov as Poirot. It’s a good performance if a little filigreed and would be helped somewhat by the restraint of David Niven.

December Book Reviews: The Handbook of Porters and Stouts

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This does not stop other people from delivering books for him to review even while he signs his own book at Christmas Markets. In order to continue to reduce the stack, he must review. Get some.)handbook-of-porters-stouts-9781604334777_lg

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts is a good sign for the resurgence of local brewing across the world. If we’re to take it that the medium is the message, the fact that there is enough variety in brewing to support such a book is a positive signpost for the future.

Written by Josh Christie and Chad Polenz, the Handbook makes good use of a number of expert contributors including short essays from Stephen Beaumont, Martyn Cornell, Greg Clow and (perhaps in a sign of the times) a Buzzfeed style listicle from Joshua Bernstein about Extreme Beers. While there is a great deal of information about the history of Stout and Porter and the nuanced differences between the styles and various subsets of each style, that’s not what this book is really intended for.

It’s an attractively bound hardcover volume with bright, colourful illustrations on every page. It’s vibrant and entertaining to look at and makes good use of the variety of plumage that each brand displays. Let’s face it, the special edition Imperial Stouts do tend to have some pretty entertaining labels and stories to go with them.

The ideal audience for this book is the drinker who realized just last weekend that they like dark beer. This is shock and awe for someone who didn’t realize beer could do that. It reminds me of leafing through the ads at the back of All About Beer when I was 20 or so and thinking “wait, there’s all that stuff out there?”

The draw for the intermediate beer drinker is the fact that beer writers from across North America have been enlisted to provide a larger context than would have been possible otherwise. Josh Rubin, Julia Burke, Darren Packman, Campbell Gibson and Zach Fowle have all contributed to the book in order to give it the depth of a proper ornithological birdspotter’s reference.

This book will highlight beers worthy of your attention that you might have missed otherwise.

That said, there are a few issues with balance that are understandable in a work of this size and shape. Each of the contributors has a different style and each listing might differ in length from a single paragraph to two pages. Some might give cursory description of what might be considered a classic in a style while others might tell the story of the brewery. Does that give it novelty and vary the pace or does it simply seem uneven?

There is also, despite the recruitment of far flung experts, a tendency to focus on beers from New England and the Great Lakes region. Polenz is based in Albany, New York so it’s easy to see why the context on those entries is somewhat deeper. (I do not know that this is an actual criticism. Some of those beers look pretty good and I’m sure that if I were in charge of a book like this it would probably be Ontario heavy. We all gotta be from somewhere.)

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts would be a good gift for a novice or intermediate craft beer drinker this holiday season. It succeeds admirably at its Pavlovian primary objective: Getting you excited to drink some Stouts and Porters. It made me want a Narragansett.

December Book Reviews: Pocket Beer Guide 2015

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The stack is nearly as high as the sense of obligation. Let’s crack on.) 71+bcJLxBaL

When you hear about Thomas Jefferson and beer, it’s usually about the fact that he had a brewery planned for his property at Monticello. More impressive than that is the library at Monticello. It represents (more or less) the sum total of the world’s practical knowledge ca. 1770. Thomas Jefferson was maybe the last man on the planet who had the ability to know everything. It has less to do with the idea that he was a genius (he was) and more to do with the fact that information tends to develop exponentially over time.

We’ve reached the point with beer where no one can hold the entire world’s variety in their mind. The scope of information increases daily. The best single overview of the development of independent brewing scenes across the world was 2012’s World Atlas of Beer by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. It was comprehensive and well thought out.

The severe difficulty is that time marches on and within five years the information in that book, although basically correct and fundamentally accurate, will miss nuances that have developed in the interim. As such, the companion works to that piece, The Pocket Beer Guide(s) 2014 and 2015 are attempts to provide a portable field version of the larger reference work.

The 2015 guide contains an additional 500 listings in addition to explanatory notes on ratings, beer styles and food pairing. It is an incremental improvement in scope over the 2014 version.

I will be honest. It’s a hard book to review because with the advent of the internet it is not as handy as it would have been a decade ago. The beer world is in an interesting place because we are none of us Thomas Jefferson. More beers will launch in North America this month than a single drinker could get through in a year and that will be the case indefinitely. No one will ever have total context again.

What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is not total world knowledge. That’s an impossible goal.51+lIaoxKWL

A book like this is only as good as the people who write it.  It is more or less the descendent of Michael Jackson’s Eyewitness Companions Beer from 2007. Even in 2007, such a book was not the best way to convey the information contained within. We weren’t paying for the specific beer reviews so much as Jackson’s referential context.

We are meant to trust that a brewery has made it into the book because it is worth our time. That the beers they make will not disappoint. We must be assured that, as readers, we are in the hands of people who know what they are talking about.

Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb have something like 60 years of professional experience with beer between them. Stephen has been writing about beer since the late 1980’s and Tim Webb was with CAMRA before I was born. What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is their breadth of experience. They have seen breweries come and go and trends pass. Between them, I cannot think of people who are more qualified to attempt to convey a relational system of criticism that covers inequal international beer scenes.

What you’re buying with the Pocket Beer Guide is 60 years of attention paid and for the recommendations of men who have earned the right to be unimpressed. That’s always going to be worth an annual update.

December Book Reviews: African Brew

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The backlog is high and the conscience is guilty. Let’s crack on. )41QwNbx4R+L

One of the more interesting books on beer I’ve seen this year is African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer by Lucy Corne and Ryno Reyneke. It’s easy to review a straightforward book on beer and food or a guide to the world’s beers. I have context for that kind of book and there have been a lot of them published in recent years.

African Brew is interesting because it performs the difficult function of explaining the past and present of brewing in a country that I cannot say I know very much about. The entirety of my context for South Africa is Bryce Courtenay, J. M. Coetzee, a handful of Tom Sharpe novels and a Matt Damon rugby movie. I don’t know the Transvaal from Transylvania. All I know is that you shouldn’t leave a coke bottle lying around.

What I have learned, and what this book helped me realize, is that brewery scenes seem to be subject to convergent evolution. Starting from the early 1980’s beer scenes in various countries have developed in largely the same way.

That said, the book is not formatted as a history. It is a layman’s guide with the usual appointments that style of book requires. There is the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and a short history of the brewing industry in South Africa. There’s an admirably concise section on beer styles, the brevity of which has partially to do with the fact that South Africa’s craft brewers have not yet caught up with North America stylistic diversity. There is a brief introductory section on beer and food.

At first glance, these sections seem too brief. What Corne and Reyneke have managed to do is fold much of the material into the other sections of the book as pop out windows with information or, in the case of recipes, as full page affairs tied to the brewery or brewpub that has supplied them. It lends a good deal of character to each chapter. The book does an excellent job of making the stories of the brewers the focus of an understanding of the South African beer scene.

It seems as though their scene is going through much of the same process Ontario’s went through. There was the first generation of craft brewers in the 1980’s and they were a wild, windswept bunch of eccentrics, engineers and disgruntled professionals. They seem to have developed a number of newer school breweries over the last few years (probably the impetus for the book) that mirrors our own development. Some of them I desperately want to try (Triggerfish, Darling Brew, Bridge Street) and I sense that some of the breweries suffer from early adoption. It’s just like here.

It is also nothing like here. Ontario was a British Colony. South Africa had both Brits and Boers and Zulu and Xhosa and instead of being in a similar climate, it’s much more temperate. The Dutch and European brewing influences seem more widely accepted on a historical level than they were in Ontario. Perhaps most importantly, the location of South Africa as a trade route means that the food is influenced by neighbouring countries on the Indian Ocean.

While the storytelling in African Brew is very good, the included recipes are a real surprise and paint a picture of an increasingly multicultural society with a wide swath of inherited foodways. It’s not all biltong and boerewors. It’s Weissbier and Waterzooi from the Dutch. Pilsner with a Veal and Bacon Meatloaf shows some Bavarian influence. There are curries borrowed Thailand, Malaysia and Alleppey. Some of the cuisine displays a really deft touch with seafood.

African Brew succeeds as a basic guide to South African beer, but it exceeds expectations to the extent that it makes me want to know more about South Africa’s brewing scene. If I were writing about beer there, how would I talk about the flavours in a cuisine like that with new hop varieties and beer styles? With the stories of the individual brewers, how could I frame the effects of Apartheid on a manufacturing industry like brewing? It seems like the rich variety of influences on the culture seem to be winning out as the country becomes more progressive. It would be a fascinating beer scene to work with over the next five years.

African Brew is so good it made me envy the authors.

Beer and Food: Estrella Taqueria

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

This was the food pairing recommendation on a press release for a bottle of beer I got last year. I can’t remember which bottle exactly and it doesn’t matter very much. One of the things that many beer companies are guilty of when it comes to food pairing suggestions is inspecificity.

This is Mexico

It is the 14th largest country in the world at about 2 million square kilometers. It’s got about 120 million residents. It is big enough that the different regions all have their own cuisines. The cuisines are mostly derived from Aztec and Mayan traditions with a good deal of Spanish influence.

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

If you, as a brewer, are convinced that your beer is good enough that it will heighten the sensory experience of a meal, you owe it to the person buying your beer not to make them use a dartboard to narrow it down. Did you mean tamales or mole sauce or barbacoa or chalupas or what? Be specific. If you put “Try it with French Food” on your label, Escoffier’s spectre would come back to haunt you with a ghostly whisk. You can’t adopt the airs of gourmet sophistication and then just wave vaguely in the direction of Latin America.

For heaven’s sake, if you mean tacos, just write tacos. That narrows it down a little bit. More than likely, what you mean specifically is the Old El Paso taco kit with the luminescent neon ground beef seasoning packet. It’s the standardized ersatz version of the experience.

That’s fine if it’s Thursday and you’re in grade 11. This is Toronto and we’re adults, more or less.

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

You’ve got some options for tacos in Toronto at the moment and the newest one is Estrella Taqueria up at Yonge and Sheppard. That may sound like an odd place to open a Taqueria, but it makes sense when you consider that it’s at a junction of two subway lines and that the population at Yonge and Sheppard is young and multicultural. This is a good thing to remember if you’re a beer rep. The city does not end at Bloor.344

It makes more sense when you realize that the place is going to clean up as a bar. The feel is Dia de Muertos with vibrant colours scattered throughout. The owners are taking the thing seriously, having hired set designers and graffiti artists to instill a sense of occasion. They’ve got a rooftop patio that should be fantastic during the summer. They’ve got fifty varieties of Tequila and twenty five varieties of Bourbon. Most interestingly to me, they’ve got a pretty eclectic selection of beer available on draught and in bottles.343

Essentially, what this means is that there’s a place with punchy, flavourful tacos and a wide number of beers to choose from. If you’re interested in pairing beer with food, this is an excellent playground and a pretty good place to go with a group of people who want to try a bunch of different things.

When you break the taco down to its core components, it’s pretty clear that it’s simply a format. There are conventions for fillings, but it’s a good place to get a little creative. You could go authentic and use lingua as a cheap cut. You could go Baja and go with lightly battered fish. You could do just about anything with the filling. At Estrella, they’re running the gamut and it’s pretty clear that the menu is going to be in flux while the chef follows his inspiration and they develop some house favorites.

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said "I'm hungry, let's get a taco." he didn't have oysters in mind. Still...

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said “I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.” he didn’t have oysters in mind. Still…

Take the Oyster Taco, for instance. Cornmeal battered oysters with miso/celeriac remoulade and green tomato salsa. The miso complements the light briny flavour of the oyster and there’s a tartly sweet hit from the salsa that’s brightened up by a squeeze of lime and a sprig of cilantro. As near as I can tell, the celeriac is mostly there for texture, but there’s a slight starchiness in it that ties into a wheat beer. The Krombacher Weizen is a good choice for pairing here, but it seems a little too easy to just say “wheat beer and seafood.” The authentic choice would probably be a Vienna Lager here, since that’s mostly what there is other than Pale Lager in Mexico. King could do worse than try to get on tap at Estrella, since they’ve already got the Vienna Lager in bottles. It’s a contrasting pairing, given that the malty lager would provide a background for the highlights in those few bites to pop against.335

The Baja Fish Taco is heavier than I would have assumed, both in flavour and in terms of its sheer wet nap required physicality. The really interesting thing here is the combination of two kinds of heat. The chipotle aioli brings smoke while the pickled chilis are more directly assertive. For a single taco, you might want an IPA with some citrus character to let the acids battle it out. Oddly, despite the trend, the hoppiest beer on tap is Flying Monkey Hoptical Illusion. If you ordered a plate, you might need something a little lighter as the heat built. Let Hogtown and Beau’s respective Kolsches duke it out for your affection.339

Perhaps the most successful offering at Estrella is the Short Rib Taco, which is “braised with cola and cinnamon, served with chimichuri, caramelized onion, chipotle aioli with BBQ yucca chips.” The thing that I like most about this treatment is the braising method which seems to go incredibly well with the Krombacher Dunkel that they have on tap. The slight smoke from the chipotle and the peppery chimichurri really seem to work with the hefeweizen yeast. The yucca chips provide a much needed contrapuntal textural element. I am put in mind of the fact that the Germans do a type of shandy that is half hefeweizen and half cola. I don’t know why cola braise works so well here, but I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation lurking in the wings.337

There are many other items on the menu and given an afternoon and a group of people, you could make your way through a number of them at a leisurely pace, stopping periodically to play ping pong. I think they need an IPA on tap. In San Diego, one of the places I went for Tacos had Stone IPA. I think that the vibrant citrus character and acidity plays really well against some kinds of heat.