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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.

 

 

 

I ACTUALLY BOUGHT BEER: SAWDUST CITY LONG DARK VOYAGE TO URANUS

The Background:

Listen: Sam Corbeil has come unstuck in time.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

He’s living backwards. At some point in the next few months he’ll have a brewery in a refurbished Canadian Tire in Gravenhurst. In April, he hired staff in the form of Aaron Spinney. At about the same time, he got Lone Pine IPA into the LCBO. As we go further back in time, we find him making more and more ambitious one off beers for special events. If we go all the way back to the 1970’s, his moustache was in style.

Any sane person would have done this the other way around. Start with a brewery. Get staff and an LCBO listing. Maybe make a Niambic beer. Come out swinging at Cask Days with a Chai spiced brown ale. Sam Corbeil didn’t let little things like convention stop him.

Out of all the beers I’ve tried from Sawdust City, I’ve never had a bad one. There are few breweries I can say that about. There have been Sawdust City beers that were not to my taste, but none of them have been objectively poor. The Red Rocket Stout with Cayenne burnt the hell out of my uvula.

I am massively appreciative of the fact that Sam cares about the quality of his beer. Sawdust City just yanked a batch of Lone Pine IPA from the LCBO warehouse. I think they were trying an unfiltered version of it out, going by the social media record. It didn’t work and they pulled it and destroyed it. All that beer down the drain.

So it goes.

P1020962

Peculiar Travel Suggestions are Dancing Lessons From God

Long Dark Voyage to Uranus is a little special to me for a couple of reasons. One of these is that I’ve gotten to try every iteration of it. The first time it was brewed, it was for the 2011 edition of the Master Brewer’s Iron Brewer awards. I don’t believe it won, but it was highly regarded. I’ve tried every version of this beer since then.

I mostly like it for the detail on the label that is borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I reproduce it here from my copy of the book.P1020977

I like it when people engage with the audience. It does not take much to assume that your audience is literate. To be a beer nerd, you have to memorize details from a huge number of beer styles. It stands to reason that people who can do that are inquisitive. That can be dangerous. They might even have read a book. Then again, they might just enjoy a dirty joke about the human posterior.

They were good enough for Chaucer.

The Beer:P1020969

The beer is strong. At 9% alcohol, it’s the kind of thing you’re best taking your time with. I like that the ingredients are listed on the label right down to the yeast strain. There are apparently 10 kinds of barley and some Demerara. Demerara is a fancy name for brown sugar. The hops are Magnum and Centennial, and you can pick out the Centennial’s pine barren waft on the aroma. The new version is hoppier than it has been in the past.

I don’t have written data to back that up. I am a man who drinks for a living and relies on his memory. Isn’t that silly?

The malt variety lends a nice breadth of flavours that expand continually as Uranus warms up. There’s the obligatory 70% or better dark cocoa. There’s the deeply roasted, frankly burnt espresso. The Centennial pine plays up the rye spice into a robust pumpernickel. There is some deeply scorched rum barrel in there as well. It is dry and it is a little astringent. I appreciate that. Last night I had the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and it was as good as it is touted to be, but stickier than I like. I enjoy the brittle snap this provides.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria:

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That's how come we like them so much.

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That’s how come we like them so much.

On a scale from “Goodbye Blue Monday” to “Ting-A-Ling, You Son Of A Bitch,” I’m going to give this a rating of “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Sometimes it’s important to stop and look around and appreciate a nice moment and this is a beer that caters to that reflection. I liked it enough that I bought it.

THEY SEND ME BEER: LAKE OF BAYS 10 POINT IPA

The Background:

I don’t really have a working relationship with Lake of Bays. I think this is partially because they’re tucked away up in Baysville in Lake Of Bays Township. It’s an apt if not particularly creative name for the brewery when you base it on that criteria. In honour of their northern heritage, I have chosen Neil Young’s Decade as the soundtrack for tasting this beer.

Sometimes you buy a record when you're 16 and discover that you own it when you're 33.

Sometimes you buy a record when you’re 16 and discover that you own it when you’re 33.

I’ve met their brewmaster, Dan, a couple of times. He has a moustache that makes him look like Scruffy from Futurama. He is certainly in charge of the boilers at the brewery. I don’t know if he’s in charge of the toilets. He’s a personable fellow.

When Lake of Bays launched in 2010, they launched with beer styles as the names of their products. They had a Pale Ale. They had a Red Ale. I don’t want to be a jerk about this, but I should point out that I forgot Lake of Bays existed between about May 2011 and whenever they rebranded the products in their core lineup. This is a good object lesson for you if you are launching a brewery: Find a memorable way to brand your product. “Crosswind Pale Ale” is a better choice than “Pale Ale.”

The Pitch:

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That's not enough anymore.

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That’s not enough anymore.

Lake of Bays 10 Point IPA is ostensibly their fall seasonal beer and in this instance the reason that it has been sent to me is that the Ontario Craft Brewers would like me to review it as part of their Brewmaster’s Choice Discovery Pack. Let’s talk branding again for a second: OCB Discover Pack wasn’t doing them any favours as a name. Brewmaster’s Choice conveys a greater sense of authority to some average tippler scratching their elbow in the LCBO and staring at an interminable wall of product. It’s a good change. I’ll probably talk about a couple of beers from the series over the next little while because the other really positive change is that there is a wider range of flavours in there than usual.

A caveat: 10 point is usually in 750ml bottles and this is a smaller 341ml bottle with a twist off cap.

The Beer:P1020953

10 point pours an amber brown colour that just about matches the Industry Standard Bottle with a small and rapidly diminishing head that is probably the result of the unusual packaging. The carbonation is not particularly assertive. The beer is 6% alcohol although it feels like it might be slightly higher. If pressed I would claim that this is in the range of Ontario Pale Ale rather than IPA. Ontario Pale Ale was bandied around as a style a few years ago when people were making malt heavy hopped beers that didn’t comfortably fit into any other category. You’ve had Mill Street Tankhouse? Then you know what I mean.

In the case of 10 Point, it’s an amped up version of that evolutionary offshoot. 10 Point’s aroma is deep down in the Ontario vault with MacKintosh Toffee and mouldering hay. The hop character comes through as candied grapefruit on the palate and a slight note of chocolate from the roasted malt. The finish is quite dry and the lingering bitterness waddles slowly away. They don’t list the IBUs, but I’d be tempted to say it’s as high as 65.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria:

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it's got that going for it.

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it’s got that going for it.

On a scale from Out On The Weekend to Cortez The Killer, I’m going to give this a rating of Helpless. It’s ultimately representative of the artist, but might not make sense unless you’ve been to Ontario.

They Send Me Beer: Big Rock Anthea Wet Hop Ale 2013

 

It should probably be obvious by now that people send me beer. I made up a fictional character to explain the phenomenon for God’s sake. The concept of The Beer Fairy has even caught on to some extent. I see people using it online periodically.

What probably isn’t obvious is that a lot of the time I just don’t have anything to do with these beers. The purview of the column is national, which means that of London, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, I need the beer to exist in at least three of those markets to write about it. This creates some pretty serious problems in terms of audience reach. I don’t always, for instance, want to promote imports. I’d rather put the spotlight on Canadian breweries when possible. Fact is that imports are more widespread and therefore more accessible to all the nice people out there who have either paid for a newspaper subscription or clicked some kind of link. Relevance is not optional.

This means that I end up with a lot of beer that I can’t really use in the national column. I know people from around Toronto send beer thinking I’ll be able to help them out with a newspaper article. I’d like to, but I can’t and since that’s the deadline and the blog posts tend to deal with larger issues than beer reviews I eventually drink the beer but tend not to do much of anything with it except throw it into Untappd which might as well be Minecraft for beer nerds. Big whoop. So it makes it to twitter. That’s not a great use of everyone’s time.

Now I know deep down that people are basically sending beer because they expect some kind of utility out of the action. I don’t know exactly what the return on reviewing beer is but there’s probably some kind of indirect monetary recompense that happens as a result of promotion on blogs and whatnot. Otherwise, why would people send beer? Cause I’m the prettiest princess?

At any rate, there’s an implied contract here. They send beer and they think I should write about their beer. I basically never ask for beer, so sometimes I don’t feel bad about not doing a review. I realize though that I probably should.

The problem is that they send a lot of beer and that my blog posts are legendarily long and convoluted. There’s a minotaur at the centre of some of them is how labyrinthine they get. For this reason, I’m going to be trying out a new feature on the ol’ bliggity blog in which I actually review a beer instead of talking about the industry.

I know that’s a novel concept, but damn it, I hear it works for other bloggers.IMAG0199[1]

THEY SEND ME BEER: BIG ROCK ANTHEA WET HOP ALE 2013

The Background:

Big Rock basically sends me one of everything at this point. They know that I will gladly write about their stuff because it’s relevant to the newspaper audience. I try to keep the limited releases to a minimum because if there are only 4000 bottles of something in the world, people will be disappointed that they couldn’t find it. Still, though, I like Big Rock. Their new series of beers under Paul Gautreau are pretty good for the most part. Some of them I can sense that Paul is finding his feet creatively after a long time brewing the core range of products. I’d like to see him edge toward the upper limits of styles instead of brewing to the centre of them. I’d like to see more hops. I’d like to see the Paradox Dark Ale again.

The Pitch:

The Wet Hop ale was the first thing that Paul brewed as part of the Big Rock Alchemist series in 2012. It was pretty exciting because it involves flying hops in from the Yakima Valley and brewing with them within 24 hours of picking them. That’s a neat concept, although I question why they don’t just grow some hops outside of Calgary. I imagine Big Rock has the budget for that, but hasn’t cottoned on to the possibility yet.

Anywho, these are fresh Cascade hop cones in the beer.IMAG0200[1]

The Beer:

When you consider the beer it’s a little difficult to classify. I suppose that it’s probably some variety of American Pale Ale given the Cascade Hop and the rest of the specs. It comes in at 6% and 39 IBU and while you’d think that that is a decent size for a harvest beer, it’s not huge. It has all of the things that you’d associate with cascade hops down to the spicy pine at the back of the palate and the Seville orange pith on the nose. As something of a departure from previous beers in the experimental range that Gautreau has brewed, this is using caramel malt in the American style which is a welcome departure when you consider that Alberta is a good deal closer to British Columbia than British Citizens. The giveaway on that is the colour and the way it blends with the hops into marmalade. It showcases a single hop variety in the way that the Keith’s beers do. I mean that in the best way because this is not a hop bomb. It is a dignified, restrained beer that is easy to drink. I’d love to see it on cask. In fact, if it were not reliant on the harvest, it would be a good beer to tweak slightly and keep in the repertoire. Any brewery would be pleased to have made this.

I keep saying that one day real soon Paul Gautreau is going to break through and make a really fine series of beers. It seems like each of these releases edges closer to that. This is the best yet. He has narrative strength going for him in much the same way that Mike Lackey did in Ontario.IMAG0202[1]

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria: I’m going to give this seven and a half hop cones out of ten. Solid. Completely worth drinking. Someone buy the man a hopback and tell him to tweak this into a permanent fixture replacing the Big Rock IPA. If you’re going to give the man enough faith to let him develop things, you’ve gotta use what he develops. In the words of Joe Strummer, “it’s wrong to cheat a trying man.”

 

Additional Craft Beer Cookbooks and Delicious Nuts For Your Mouth

When I said that the best of the current crop of Craft Beer Cookbooks was the Canadian one, I should point out that it’s not out of bias. I mean, for one thing, I’m Canadian and it’s always nice when we win something. I also know the author, David Ort, so you might be inclined to see me as favouring the book for that reason. I can assure you that this is not the case, nice man though he may be.

The other two books are The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries and The Craft Beer Cookbook: From IPAs and Bocks to Pilsners and Porters, 100 Artisanal Recipes for Cooking with Beer by John Holl and Jacquelyn Dodd respectively. Both of these books have their strengths as well.

In the case of John Holl’s book, he’s curating recipes from other sources and picking the best ones for you. I did notice that there are a number of recipes where the beers might be quite hard to find locally depending on what part of the country you’re in. This is, of course, something that provides some of the attraction for the set of recipes he has chosen. You would likely be able to make the food with a different beer and still have it feel like it was from a brewpub in San Diego or Kenosha or Butte. I don’t know that there is a cuisine specific to Butte, but it seems like ranching country.

There are a few recipes, though, where (I seem to remember) they talk about using a very specific product in the recipe that’s available at the brewpub or brewery’s website (it might have been a root beer bbq sauce.) I read it a couple of months ago, so I hope that I’m not misrepresenting it. I feel that if you can’t replicate the entire recipe given a couple hours of shopping, it’s probably not cricket. There’s no need to involve Fedex in a delicious meal.

Still, the ideas are good and the book is attractively presented and my quibbles as listed are relatively minor. It’s a good job of work.

In the case of Jacquelyn Dodd’s book, there are some quite good recipes. I quite like the look of the Porter, Goat Cheese and Portobello Mushroom Stuffed Pork Loin and I confess I’ll be trying the White Bean and Beer Chicken Chili just as soon as it gets to be slow cooker weather. IPA watermelon ceviche seems like a winner. Dodd has sidestepped the regionality issue in a craft beer cookbook by not suggesting specific brands of beer for each recipe, deciding rather to chip in periodically with “try this with a woody IPA” or “a malty stout with notes of chocolate and espresso.” That’s fine, although it can be hard to picture what a recipe would taste like without substituting in a beer of your choice mentally while reading. It’s preferable to the alternative where it specifies a beer you’ve never tasted and can’t lay hands on.

The only real problem I have is that a number of the recipes seem to involve straight volume substitutions of beer for another liquid. There’s a scratch made Cavatelli pasta that more or less substitutes beer for water or egg yolk. There are Corn Tortillas with regular Masa Harina, but instead of another liquid: beer. That’s fine as far as it goes, but why it’s happening isn’t really sufficiently explained. I feel like a number of the recipes would have benefitted from a little more conversation with the reader. I’d have gladly given up 20 of the 100 recipes for a better sense of purpose.

If you're like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

If you’re like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

Besides, I don’t really like straight volume replacement as a tool. I like it when there’s a flavourful beer getting used as a balanced ingredient in the equation. For that reason, I got the nice people over at Whitecap books to send over a .doc file that contains the recipe for the Smoky Maple Beer Nuts from the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook. Google Chrome should let you open it in a separate tab. Let’s have a look at this and see how it works.

Although, it's only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

Although, it’s only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

This is about a two hour cooking process, but it’s probably only 15 minutes of actual work. A word on assembling ingredients for the recipe. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making your own beer nuts, you’re probably in for a pound. You can buy beer nuts for basically the price of whatever nut you purchase for this recipe. They probably won’t be as good and they certainly will not give you a sense of pride or the ability to make silly double entendre jokes. I chose to go with almonds because I like almonds, although there was a period where I stared questioningly at a bag of walnuts.

I'm relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

I’m relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

If you’re going to make this, you need real maple syrup. Don’t throw maple flavoured syrup on there. You might fool your guests, but deep down you’ll know. You’ll know and it will haunt you.

You've got to love the label.

You’ve got to love the label.

Actually, considering the size of the containers that maple syrup, cayenne pepper and Church Key Holy Smoke come in and the small amounts used in the recipe, the best thing to do is triple the recipe and buy about three pounds of almonds and spend an afternoon making a snack that you can put out when you’re entertaining throughout the holiday season.

It's not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

It’s not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

The reason I like this recipe is because Church Key Holy Smoke really does contain enough peat character to add to the final flavour of the beer nuts, but not quite enough to be recognizable as itself. You could probably bolster the smoke by adding a little paprika to the cayenne in the blended dry ingredients. As it stands, there’s just a hint of smoke and maple in the mixture. It’s clever because for he’s actually using the 20ml of beer as an additional spice that blends in with the cayenne.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchement paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchment paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

A lot of the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook recipes use beer in that fashion, and since that’s very much the way I think about beer and food, I’m excited about trying more of the recipes out. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about getting a cookbook since I got Rick Bayless’ comprehensive Mexican one.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don't go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don't go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don’t go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don’t go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

In Which We Visit Ommegang

It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend and we were barrelling down on Cooperstown, New York through the rolling hills of the Leatherstocking region. When I say “we”, I mean Dad and my younger brother Andy. We were there mostly to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, knowing that Cooperstown was just down the highway from Ommegang, we thought that it would make sense to pay that a visit as well.

The car provides an indication of scale that would not be immediately obvious otherwise.

The car provides an indication of scale that would not be immediately obvious otherwise.

The winding country roads that follow the contours of the hills and lakes to the brewery at Ommegang lend the place a sense of isolation. Truth be told, Cooperstown is not a very large town and is fairly remote itself. The countryside is idyllic in early October and the sheer number of leafers up from the cities was obvious by the crowding in the parking lot and the Nikon branded camera straps hanging around L.L. Bean collars. The red and gold leaves on the hill in back of the brewery frame the brewery, which looks as though it was airlifted in from another century.

The brewery at Ommegang is deceptive. It was built in the mid 1990’s after a clearly Belgian inspired design. This means that it is really two wings of a building separated by what amounts to a gatehouse. The mirrored chevron pattern on the roof may hold some meaning that I’m unaware of, but it mostly presents a pleasing symmetry. It is a great deal larger than you would assume, looking at the outside and the brewhouse is laid out in a way that makes perfect sense.

The brewhouse, if you can picture it, is a the far end of one of the wings of the brewery in a large, circular room.

The brewhouse, if you can picture it, is a the far end of one of the wings of the brewery in a large, circular room.

I had sent an email to the brewery, asking what would be the best time to show up on a Sunday and when the tours ran. They very kindly offered to fit us in on a private tour before they started doing the official ones for the day.

Pete, who was good enough to shepherd us around the brewery (and to make sure we had adequate ocular protection) told us some very interesting things that I hadn’t realized. Ommegang is owned by Duvel Moortgat, but I didn’t realize that they had been purchased by them in 2003. This ends up being massively beneficial for Ommegang in a lot of ways. First of all, Duvel possesses a range of properties. There’s Achouffe and Liefman’s, both of which produce some stellar beers. I hadn’t realized that Ommegang’s Three Philosophers actually uses Liefman’s Kriek in order to add the cherry flavour to the beer. When you think about the logistics of that, it’s fairly daunting. That Kriek would be barrel aged and then kegged and shipped across the Atlantic before you could blend it with the Belgian Quad. (It’s much to Pete’s credit, incidentally, that he referred to Belgian Quadruple as “that made up style.”) They also have the benefit of using equipment that other breweries in the family have outgrown. They had a state of the art centrifugal filter on loan from Achouffe.

Liefman's ready to be blended into a batch of Three Philosophers.

Liefman’s ready to be blended into a batch of Three Philosophers.

The other thing that I didn’t realize is how much in demand their product is. I believe I’m quoting the tour correctly when I say that last year they brewed 40,000 BBL of beer and this year they’re aiming for 56,000 BBL. They may not make it to that level, but in order to even attempt it, they now have nine brewers working around the clock five days a week. We can only hope the Leatherstocking aquifer can support that.

It's hard to imagine getting 56,000 BBL through this brewery, but the fact that the beers are bottle conditioned would help with ferment time.

It’s hard to imagine getting 56,000 BBL through this brewery, but the fact that the beers are bottle conditioned would help with ferment time.

I found myself wondering about the difficulties of expanding production while keeping to the traditional methods currently in use. Ommegang uses open fermenters for the initial period of fermentation, taking krausen from the top of the previous batch and inserting it into the next one. The yeast is the dominant aroma in the brewery; the result of the Belgian strain that they’re using for all of their beers.

My visit was just a week before the announcement that Duvel Moortgat had taken over Boulevard in Kansas City, so I have some perspective on that takeover given what I’ve seen. I cannot imagine that this news is anything but positive. The strength of having a number of high quality brands under the same roof is clear in terms of resources available. If anything, Boulevard will probably improve slightly because they’ll have access to more materials. It’s not going to result in a dumbed down product. The thing that impressed me most is that a brewery like Ommegang should have a pilot system. Apparently those nine brewers I mentioned schedule time on the weekend to come in and brew pilot batches. If anything, the number of talented people working on the core lineup will result in research and development for interesting projects later on.

It’s the kind of thing that makes Stone Brewery’s pathetic barbs on twitter about the buyout make them look like angst ridden tweens.

It was a perfect day for a tour, with the temperature sitting somewhere around August.

It was a perfect day for a tour, with the temperature sitting somewhere around August.

Interestingly, out back of the building by the treeline, there’s a hop garden that is apparently part of an ongoing study by Cornell University to acquire information about hop growing in New York State. We all know that at one point it was a significant industry. Until the blight. I would imagine that the study will help determine whether hop yards should be moved back into the North East on a volume basis. If the number of breweries continues to expand, you’re going to need more hops. They’ve got 25 varieties planted, so it will be interesting to see what thrives. The research Alan and I have been doing on Ontario suggests that the varieties planted in the early 19th century were likely indigenous humulus lupulus varieties and not bred to resist blight. I shall have to get on the phone to Cornell and see what they can point me to in terms of resources.

Though the cones had long since been harvested, they kept the ends out for the bines that twined.

Though the cones had long since been harvested, they kept the ends out for the bines that twined.

Dad was skeptical, pointing out that it may not have been necessary to have the hops right next to a brewery and that the decision to have the site at all may have had something to do with the students’ desire to drink beer. I do not doubt it informed their decision.

I was impressed by the tasting portion of the tour and the café. Apparently the Ommegang Witte makes a fantastic mimosa, something that was mentioned by no fewer than three staff members (one of whom mentioned it while attempting to pour some from a draught tap into a half full Tropicana bottle with results that can only be described as risible.) I was most impressed by the Harvest beer, Scythe and Sickle. Rather than attempt to use wet hops or pumpkin spice, the brewers went with four varieties of grain: Barley, Oats, Rye and Wheat. The result with the Ommegang yeast is a beer with lively carbonation and a full body and rye spice in the mid palate that dries out nearly completely on the finish. I found myself wishing that more people would make beer that tastes like grain. It paired nicely with a croque madame from their café.

The Croque Madame is really about the bechamel sauce and the mustard. The Scythe and Sickle really cut through the creamy sauce.

The Croque Madame is really about the bechamel sauce and the mustard. The Scythe and Sickle really cut through the creamy sauce.

Andy had the frites (I think they’re triple cooked) and a pizza crepe. I am told it was good. It disappeared quickly enough. It’s interesting to have lunch with a very morally proper fifteen year old at the end of a brewery tour. Indeed, justifying the beer writing career to a fifteen year old who believes that even trying a sip of beer might warp his spine, corrupt his soul and lose the country the war is a struggle. Especially if the fifteen year old in question is 6’5″. Then again, he took pictures on the tour and updated facebook with a giant bottle of Duvel, so he may be coming around. He’s a good kid.

The impression that I came away with is that Ommegang is going to do some really interesting things in the next couple of years. They have talented people working on new ideas. The beer that they make is extremely consistent. In a number of ways they’re pretty far removed from the average North American craft brewery in terms of their attitude. They’re not about extremity. They’re not wild and crazy. The sense I get is that they will never turn out a bad beer. The R&D that the brewers are doing on the pilot system might help them turn out something really special in the near future, especially given the existing situation at the brewery of cautious optimism.

Beer and Food: Linda Modern Thai

As a beer writer, I only get invited to events at restaurants infrequently. When I get an email suggesting that I should go to a dinner hosted by Thailand’s ambassador to Canada, it’s something of a rarity. This is an important governmental figure from another country. It would be downright gauche to refuse.

Brewed by appointment. It's nice to know there's a schedule.

Brewed by appointment. It’s nice to know there’s a schedule.

The reason for the event is due to a new program called Thai Select. The idea here is that the program certifies the authenticity of the food being served and allows the customer a degree of certainty when choosing a restaurant. Essentially, better than 60 percent of the items on the menu are meant to be authentic Thai dishes using cooking methods like you’d find in Thailand. There are two groups: Select and Select Premium. This is more or less delineated upon the quality of the food, décor and experience.

Linda Modern Thai in The Shops at Don Mills was the first restaurant in Canada to receive the Select Premium designation, so it’s fitting that the dinner expanding awareness of the program should be held there.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

That said, I’m not really a restaurant critic. I’m a beer writer. Fortunately, a representative from Singha was on hand to provide me some explanation of the brand and, y’know, a method of appearing legitimately involved in the proceedings. I’m all for turning up and eating a lot of really high quality Thai food and not contributing anything, but I always feel like I should pull my weight.

It turns out that Singha is more interesting than I would have originally thought. We’re spoilt in North America by the beer cultures that we’ve inherited from Europe. In other parts of the world, one of the things that tended to happen was that European colonial powers in the 19th century would plant a flag and set up services to their benefit. Sometimes, these were breweries. Look at Mexico and Dos Equis. Why in the world, you should probably ask, is a Vienna Lager a widespread quantity? The brief Hapsburg experiment. That’s why. Look at Japan, whose brewing industry is more or less directly influenced by Dutch sailors setting up a beer hall in the 17th century.

Usually what happens when you’ve got cultures that don’t have the depth of brewing tradition you find in Europe is that they set up beers based loosely on whatever beer the colonial power that landed on their shores was brewing. It’s sort of a question of cultural imperialism. These beers are transplants that don’t really have anything to do with the local food culture. They’re usually light and refreshing and people enjoy them. Folks like a cold beer no matter where you are.

In the case of Singha, there’s not really any such causation. In point of fact, Thailand didn’t have much in the way of beer until Singha opened in 1933. That’s a late entry to the game, incidentally. That’s the same year they repealed the Volstead Act in the States, for those of you trying to place it. The really interesting thing is that they chose to brew this style of beer. The founder of the brewery was a friend of the King and the brewery was endorsed by the monarch. The founder went to Germany and learned how to brew beer and came back and set up a brewery. That’s a fairly unique circumstance.

Say you had a country. You don’t have any breweries, but you’re starting to think “you know, I could go for a tall, cold… something.” You get to choose from any beer in the world, and at this point you might look to the United States for your model. You’d maybe make something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. There’s a lot of choice. In 1933, though, there weren’t breweries in the US. If you wanted to learn to brew, you went to Germany. As a result, Singha is an all barley German lager. As lagers that I’ve had from that part of the world go, it’s really pretty good. You’ve got some light grain on the nose and there’s a slightly sour finish. It’s a Euro-style Lager.

That said, as a beer for pairing with Thai food, it has one trick. People will tell you that you’ve got three options with food pairing: Complement, Cut and Contrast. What Singha manages to do is cut and it does it well. It resets the palate for the next mouthful.IMAG0037 IMAG0039

If you look at the first course, the dish that stood out for me was the Chicken and Shrimp Larb. It’s essentially a lettuce wrap with cashews, vermicelli, water chestnuts and nam prik pao. The point of the dish is that it’s customizable. You’ve got a tray of condiments with shallots, lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, toasted coconut and some pretty diabolical little chilies. Think for a moment about the amount of thought that you’d need to put in in order to complement or contrast those. It’s rendered more or less impossible by the number of ingredients and the fact that each mouthful is going to be rendered slightly different by the taste of each diner. Cutting those flavours for reset is really all you can hope for from any beer in this situation.

Lobster Bisque.

Lobster Bisque.

I’m going to step away from that train of thought for a moment for the next course, which in my case was the Thai Lobster Bisque. Now, I’m given to understand that this is something of a house speciality, and because of that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the depth of flavour here. The description says “made with lots and lots and lots of lobsters, a bit of butter and Thai herbs.” They are not kidding around about the lobsters. One of the aromas you get from the bisque is actually chitinous lobster shell, which you might think would be off-putting, but the depth of the flavour is marvelous; the mellow roundness of it. The elegant richness. The bisque is so densely packed with flavour that the cilantro garnish doesn’t make any impact until you get a mouthful. On a scale of one to ten, it put a David Gilmour song in my head.

The main course was served family style and comprised five dishes. It occurs to me that you could probably have paired a beer with any one of these single dishes. The Crispy Beef Panang could possibly do with an Ommegang Hennepin. The Stewed Duck with Chestnuts could possibly have done with a fruity Belgian Dubbel (Black Oak’s version of this would work well here). The issue, really, is that family style service makes that more or less impossible since you’re trying a small amount of each dish. Again, Singha works nicely here by simply reframing each new bite. To be fair, it’s probably more fun that way since everyone at the table is experiencing it in the same way.

Fantastically rich, really.

Fantastically rich, really.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

I like to think about cuisines that don’t have traditional beer cultures. I like to break down the ingredients and figure out which terpenes they’re like to contain and then cross reference that with hops varieties and theorize about which styles might work with the dish. I’m sure that I’ll continue to do that since it’s fascinating and I’m relatively sure that I’ll see some of the theory borne out as craft beer makes its way to different countries over the next dozen or so years. This experience with Singha is a solid reminder that like the Chicken and Shrimp Larb, it all depends on individual taste.