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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.

The Ghost Tour

“Such is the uncertainty of Human Life we know not the moment we may be called off – the hand that guides this pen may ear another day be stiff and cold” – William Helliwell. April 7, 1837

These were the words of William Helliwell on finding that a maltster that he previously employed, Thomas Woodly, was burned to death in a barroom fire. William Helliwell was the brewer at Todmorden in the Don Valley and he was typically a very brave man. In 1837 in Toronto, people were acquainted with death in a way that is removed from us now. He had lost members of his family on several occasions and in 1832 lost several acquaintances to contagious disease that gripped the city. It wasn’t until the death of Thomas Woodly that he began to realize that he might not live forever; this despite surviving a truly gruesome brewing accident in 1834.

Writing history is difficult, especially if you’ve got source material like the Helliwell Diaries. It’s a biographer’s dream. There’s no need to ascribe any characteristics or intention to the man’s actions because he’s written everything down. He even copied his correspondence by hand. The level of detail is not worthy of Samuel Pepys, but William fared pretty well for a provincial lad from Upper Canada.

The difficulty, then, is in writing the other 16 chapters of your book. It’s hard not to think of William Helliwell as a character; a kind of archetypal pioneer figure slogging through knee deep mud to get to Yonge Street. But he isn’t a character. He was a man. It would be like, to take a modern example, thinking of Jim Koch as the protagonist of a Don Delillo novel. It would exploit some marvelous Jungian memetic structures and create a wonderful base for thematic exploration, but Jim’s just this guy, you know?

In writing Lost Breweries of Toronto, I harnessed two of my greatest skills: monomaniacal drive to research effusively and sitting motionless for hours at a time. No one could have written this book before now. I don’t mean to say that I’m singularly brilliant: I mean to say that the technological resources didn’t exist. The Globe is all archived online from 1844 to the present day. To get correct details of Toronto’s 19th century breweries, I’ve have to comb through half a dozen search strings for each chapter to turn up information: Literally hundreds of disparate articles of dross to find an additional detail; to create another avenue of inquiry. I once spent three hours researching a bear for this book. It amounts to a sentence in the finished version.

If you’ve read Ian Bowering’s book The Art and Mystery of Brewing in Ontario, you will appreciate how long that research must have taken. I believe that he wrote that in 1988, which means that he did it all manually. I can’t even imagine. If you’ve read that book you know that most of it reads as a list or chronology more than anything else. Alan Winn Sneath’s book Brewed in Canada also has a chronology.

Those were more or less the starting point. Mining those two chronologies for data I created a spreadsheet. Using the spreadsheet I created profiles of each brewery. I intentionally avoided using secondary sources where possible because I don’t trust anyone to get the details right. Many of the secondary historical sources conflicted with each other. I used contemporary accounts and guides to Toronto, obscure legal records and first hand accounts, newspaper advertisements. I was able to source quotes from some of the late Victorian brewers. In one incredibly lucky instance I discovered an entire manuscript that was written by William Copland. I discovered the existence and location of three breweries no one seems to have known about. One of them was on the block I live on at Davisville in midtown Toronto. One of them was basically on the site of Bar Volo.

William Helliwell created a difficulty. We know everything about him. That sentence above is a young man realizing that he’s not going to live forever. He’s not a research subject: he’s a man with hopes and dreams and fears. He was clever and observant and detail oriented. He was desperately in love with his young wife. The poetry he wrote her was, from a critical standpoint, awful, but it was enough to win her heart.

The realization that you come to writing history is that you have to stick to provable information. The dozens of other brewers that feature in the book cannot possibly allow for the same level of detail. In culling information from every possible source, you begin to build up pictures of these people in your head. Some of them spring to life more readily than others.  The difficulty is knowing where to draw the line. The respect I’ve tried to accord them is not to assume motivations where they are not obvious; not to ascribe characteristics. It is the respect they are due.

Lost Breweries of Toronto has all the information that you’d expect of such a book: “This brewery was here and the brewers where such and so and it existed from then until then and they made X. X was 6.7% alcohol in 1897. Phew, that’s a strong beer.” Don’t worry. There’s plenty of that.

Mostly though, I ended up writing a book about Toronto. I wrote about the larger social context the breweries existed in. I figured out how all of the brewing families were intermarried. I tried to uncover how the capital from brewing built our city and how that history was more or less whitewashed in the name of Toronto the Good.

I stared for what must be days at fire insurance maps from the 1880’s and 1890’s; At this city’s growth and expansion through maps of acreages and geological surveys and maps of sprawling Victorian redbrick and maps of annexed towns. As I walk around Toronto now, I catch myself thinking of streets that no longer exist and buildings long since gone and taverns that no one has thought of in generations. The geography has changed, but the soul of the place is one that we continue to grow into.

All I’ve done is use beer to explain that.


Win Free Tickets To Mill Street Oktoberfest!

Howdy, St.John’s Wort Junior Rangers!

Are you like me? Do you wake up to Jazz 91.1 on your clock radio? Is one of the first things you hear in the morning, aside from the contemplative cool jazz guitaristry of Pat Metheny the dulcet tones of brewmaster Joel Manning explaining why the Cascade hops somehow make Mill Street Tankhouse different than another style of beer which also uses Cascade hops? Has it affected your subconscious mind to the point where you periodically wonder what Joel Manning is doing during the idle moments of your day?


Well, fine. Do you like free stuff?

There we go. That’s better.

St. John’s Wort is giving away two tickets for Mill Street’s Oktoberfest party on Thursday October 17th! It is taking place at the Mill Street Beer Hall, which is a really appropriate place to have such a party! There will be dancing! There will be souvenir beer steins for you to take home! You will drink bierschnaps, which is, to be honest, something of an acquired taste due to the hoppy bitterness in some versions of it! You will eat a Schnitzel Teaser! I don’t know what a Schnitzel Teaser is or what part of the schnitzel it comes from, but man oh man is it good eating!

This is a great opportunity to go and see the Mill Street Beer Hall if you haven’t already! Not only will there be Mill Street Beer, there will be beer from nine other Ontario Craft Breweries! You and a friend (or heck even an enemy) can attend this year’s Mill Street Oktoberfest for free and all you have to do is take part in the following contest!

Tweet to me @saints_gambit your favourite thing about Mill Street using the hashtag #MillStreetOktoberfest! It could be about their Organic Lager! It could be about their ESB and be followed up by a bitter nine tweet screed about how that’s only available at the pub and should be available on a wider distribution! It could be about Joel Manning! I bet he’s checking a hydrometer at the moment!

Entries will be judged by a panel of me! A winner will be announced on Tuesday, October 15th at high noon! The winner will be initially overjoyed and then subsequently stuffed full of beer and sausages!

So You Want To Be A Brewer: Lazarus Breakfast Stout

The nice thing about planning an event like the Feast Of St.John for Toronto Beer Week is that I’ve managed to create a certain amount of context for myself over three years or so that I’ve been writing about beer. I’ve collaborated on beers with a number of breweries, frequently with pretty good results. I have never really understood whether that is because I have some idea of what I’m doing or possibly just because I pick really talented people to work with.

If you don't make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

If you don’t make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

It’s hard to believe that the first of these collaborations was almost three years ago now. The original batch of Lazarus Breakfast Stout was brewed in Mid-November 2010. It was before I was working for Sun Media, if that gives you any indication of the time span. In that time period Project X at Great Lakes for which the beer was originally brewed has ceased to happen on a routine basis. The experimental brews that developed out of it have become the “Tank Ten” series. The fruits of Project X resulted in Great Lakes becoming the best brewery in Canada this year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. Mike Lackey has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace through Zymurgy, but I’m sure that as soon as they found one, he’ll be considered.

A few facts, gentle reader, about Mike Lackey:

Mike Lackey’s brewing prowess is not actually attributable to his beard, as I may previously have indicated. The truth is that Mike Lackey was actually barrel aged for the first six years of his life, receiving his meals through a specially drilled bunghole. His first language was not English, but rather the nearly imperceptible hum of cerevesiae. It is the great tragedy of his life that he has never been able to reproduce by mitosis. The beard is only window dressing.

It’s no wonder he’s done so well.

This time around, it seriously occurred to me as we stood there talking about his various projects (He’s creating a beer concept called SMASHASS) and my various theories (food and beer pairing should be derived from scientific first principles) that we’re getting old. We talked about some of the new breweries that are popping up and what we thought their chances were.  We talked about how much more stuff there is now. In November 2010, when we first worked together, there were about 50 Ontario breweries, many of whom were doing very little. According to Mom and Hops today? 137 active and in planning.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

This batch of Lazarus sort of reflects the changes. Originally, I brought the idea with me because I really liked Founder’s Breakfast Stout and I really liked Oaxacan Mole sauce. I continue to like both of those things, so the ingredients have not changed. It’s still an oatmeal breakfast stout with a really significant amount of roast and dark malt. It still has cinnamon, chocolate, and ancho chili. It still gets a half pound of coffee in the whirlpool (you avoid the leeching tannins that way.) The main difference this time around is that the alcohol content is a little lower. Originally, we think Lazarus was supposed to be 7.0% alcohol and near 50 BU’s. We lost the sheet after the first batch, so we were going from the second version, which we had already tweaked.

Here’s an important tip to all you well meaning lugs out there starting your own brewery: Don’t lose the freakin’ sheet. It’s black box crash test time. Without the sheet, if people criticize you for inconsistency, you deserve the rich, velvety, lambasting you get. Don’t be a chump: keep the sheet. Laminate it. Put it in a safety deposit box.

We decided that we’d rather have more beer at slightly lower alcohol. The flavour isn’t really dependent on the alcohol in this beer, but rather on the vast number of elements that contribute flavour. I don’t really think anyone is going to feel cheated if the beer drops to 5.5% alcohol. The novelty is the Oaxacan Mole thing.

Mike and I discussed briefly whether the nice folks at Aztec in Vista, California borrowed the idea for the beer for their Noche De Los Muertos. We figure that they probably arrived at theirs independently and that it doesn’t matter since the label is so cool. I actually got to try their version at the San Diego Zoo while holding a python. I like ours better, but I’m biased.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

In terms of the Feast Of St. John, one of the great things is that Lester Garcia at the Wallace Gastropub has actually inserted mole sauce into the menu. I’m not sure exactly what the food pairing is going to be for the Lazarus Breakfast Stout, but I do know that I’m finally going to get to put it together with the thing that inspired it. Actually, the awesome part is that Lester’s version of the mole sauce is lighter in colour than a Mole Negro, so we’re going to get a fantastic range of flavours. His version incorporates a lot of fennel seeds, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that interacts.

I’m told that Lazarus will also be available as part of the tap takeover at Bar Hop on the 19th of September. That’s going to be a fun day. See the Michael Jackson movie and then go try your own beer on tap at a takeover hosted by Great Lakes and Bellwoods. Sometimes you’re given a reminder that you really don’t have the right to complain about your job.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

London Craft Beer

Here’s an interesting thought:

Craft beer in North America went through a lot of growing pains on the way to being where they are at the moment. There were years of struggling to make English styles of beer as authentically as possible (hard to do in San Francisco) and the advent and proliferation of C-Hops. By the time you get to about 2010, the fruits of those labours have more or less paid off as the craft beer trend went global. Suddenly there are hops from New Zealand and the C-Hops have blossomed into widespread Double IPAs. You’ve got hop varieties that are great at not just citrus and pine, but all manner of tropical fruit and mineral elements.

The thing is that this kind of innovation, if perpetuated on a long enough timeline, brings old ideas with it as well as new tools and equipment. If you introduced your flagship pale ale in 1994 and it was considered to be pretty hoppy at that point, you’re unlikely to be able to change the recipe without compromising your market share or really pissing off your earliest customers. There’s such a thing as 90’s beer. It still exists in Toronto. If you have The Beer Academy’s IPA, it’s more or less exactly what I’m talking about. It’s quite good, mind you, but it is so old school that it wears a striped tie.

Nice glassware is key to a decent beer festival. Subtle branding is best.

Nice glassware is key to a decent beer festival. Subtle branding is best.

In London, there was no craft beer scene until about 2007. I’m not choosing that date arbitrarily. That was the year that The Rake in Borough Market opened for business. Before 2007 there were a couple of what might be considered small breweries dotted around the country. Dark Star is a good example of this. They opened in 1994 and you really get that sense from their Hophead on cask. Again, really a very good beer, but the Cascade hops are unmistakeable. It’s of an era.

See? There's a DJ booth.It's a proper modern beer festival. Apparently Craig Charles was going to be DJing at some point. It's just as well I didn't meet him because I would have been forced to offer a hearty "boys from the dwarf" in greeting.

See? There’s a DJ booth.It’s a proper modern beer festival. Apparently Craig Charles was going to be DJing at some point. It’s just as well I didn’t meet him because I would have been forced to offer a hearty “boys from the dwarf” in greeting.

The number that I heard bandied about at the inaugural London Craft Beer Festival at the Oval Space in Hackney on Friday was 50. Over the last five years or so, there have been 50 brewery startups in London. They’ve all come into existence during the height of the international craft beer trend, many of them within the last six months. This means two things:

1)      They don’t have as much of the conceptual baggage that you might have in an older scene.

2)       Because of point one, they’re now doing really interesting cutting edge stuff.

A really neat thing about starting a brewery from scratch is that you get to come up with all new branding and a cohesive concept upon which to base your products. You have a template from which to work which seems completely contemporary. You also don’t have the baggage of existing brands that you have to continue making. Because of that, you can introduce a flagship brand or choose not to. Rather than being beholden to older hop varieties, you can choose to use the new stuff whenever possible. Beer styles? Out the window. Screw ‘em.

I’m at least putatively on vacation, so I’m going to hit the highlights of what I saw on Friday at the London Craft Beer Festival. Incidentally, I’m extraordinarily lucky to have been able to fit all of this into one week. You have to imagine that scheduling the London Craft Beer Festival during the Great British Beer Festival is not so much happenstance as a direct assault. This is a vastly different crowd and I think it can be summed up by the t-shirts from the Weird Beard Brewing Co. This is more representative of a younger demographic in London, brewing in rail arches and warehouses.

A very nice contrast to the GBBF policy of mandatory sandals.

A very nice contrast to the GBBF policy of mandatory sandals.

One of the points that cropped up repeatedly is that you can’t have a scene emerge this quickly out of thin air. I had never really understood, prior to Friday, the sort of influence that Gypsy brewers were having. For one thing, they’ve only made it to Toronto in the last couple of years. We’ve got Anders Kissmeyer working with Beau’s and Evil Twin popping up at Bellwoods periodically. In the case of the London scene I feel like the gypsy brewers have been instrumental in making progress happen this quickly. Mikkeller had a booth as did To Ol.

Clever conceptual branding here from Siren, working the mythology to advantage. I'd eventually like to see a beer called Odyssey.

Clever conceptual branding here from Siren, working the mythology to advantage. I’d eventually like to see a beer called Odyssey, or possibly Screaming Argonaut.

One of the most impressive breweries on site was Siren Craft Brew. I’m given to understand that their head brewer, Ryan, did a lot of brewing for Evil Twin and Mikkeller prior to his current gig at Siren. This shows through in a number of ways. First of all, there’s the willingness to experiment. Broken Dream is a 6.5% Breakfast Stout with coffee and lactose and I’d have been happy to get that anywhere in the world. Second of all, there’s the obvious potential for collaborative effort with contacts you’d make as a gypsy brewer. Not only was there a very interesting beer called Limoncello (lemon zest, lemon juice, sour mash, lactose) that was brewed in collaboration with Hill Farmstead and Mikkeller, but apparently there’s a version of Broken Dream out there aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels. You don’t get your hands on those if you’re just some guy.

So, now I understand what gypsy brewers do: They are conceptual cross-pollinators. They have a top down view and manage to get bits of information (and sometimes rare bourbon barrels) from over here to over there. Groovy.

No Hops. No Herbs. Just a lactic sourness that'll make you beg for mercy.

No Hops. No Herbs. Just a lactic sourness that’ll make you beg for mercy.

Another significant strength of the craft beer scene here is that they don’t seem overmuch worried by stylistic definitions. Buxton, for instance, had come up with something that I haven’t seen before for the festival. Called Wolfescoate, it’s a 3.3% beer, black as night with a whole lot of lactic sourness. I believe the rep told me that it had been soured in copper for four days. In order to highlight the sourness, they’ve decided to omit any hops. “So it’s a gruit?” I can hear you say. No. They haven’t replaced the hops with herbs. Instead of using bitterness to balance their beer, they’ve chosen to balance it with the roast from the malt. The result is pretty amazing.

Thornbridge employees alternately mugging for and ignoring the camera.

Thornbridge employees alternately mugging for and ignoring the camera.

Additionally, there seems to be a trend toward something like a very small version of an India Pale Ale. Magic Rock (from Huddersfield in Yorkshire) and The Kernel (from near Bermondsey Tube Station) have both gone in the direction of brewing very small beer indeed. Magic Rock’s is called Simpleton and sat at around 2.5% alcohol. The significant Citra hop nose is something you wouldn’t see at that strength very frequently. Somehow it retains a full body. There’s not much room for error here and Magic Rock manages it very nicely. The Kernel has a Table Beer (which, to be fair, I had at The Rake) which claimed 2.7% alcohol and was packed full of Nelson Sauvin.

Some of the London brewers have really done extraordinarily well in terms of branding. Partizan is at the forefront with their whimsical lettering.

Some of the London brewers have really done extraordinarily well in terms of branding. Partizan is at the forefront with their whimsical lettering.

This is a really pleasant range. You get all the hop character without malt or alcohol getting in the way. The bitterness is quite mild because it has to be. It would overwhelm very quickly beyond a certain point. It is pronounced in terms of balance within the beer, but not in terms of comparison to a 5% Pale Ale. I suspect you could spend the entire afternoon drinking beer of this style, appreciate them as a connoisseur and walk away from the experience stone cold sober. I like the idea so much I’m going to thieve it.

Among the other highlights here were Redemption’s Rock The Kazbek (lemon, lime, slight hint of drying paint), Weird Beard’s Mariana Trench (it’s a solid, tropical fruity pale ale), Partizan’s Saison (Quite dry, very refreshing) and Brodie’s Hoxton. Thornbridge’s Kolsch TZARA is pretty excellent, especially since my context for that brewery is Kipling and Jaipur.  Also worth mentioning is Crate, who have produced a stout that inexplicably uses a hefeweizen yeast. Neat idea. It results in Chocolate/Banana. The brewer was quite forthright about having come to it by accident, but I’m still going to give him credit for sticking with the thing.

Redemption were one of the few booths offering cask. Nice to see tradition alongside innovation.

Redemption were one of the few booths offering cask. Nice to see tradition alongside innovation.

The only difficulty I foresee for the London scene is that because so many of them are using the same hop varieties in the same types of beers (there are a lot of galaxy/citra/nelson sauvin pale ale type beers) that there will eventually be a lot of overlap between different breweries on some styles. If I were them I’d be planning accordingly to differentiate myself a little.

As with any relaxed craft beer festival, you get the opportunity to talk to the brewers at some length.

As with any relaxed craft beer festival, you get the opportunity to talk to the brewers at some length.

The good news is that London’s scene is going to be coming to Canada in relatively short order. This year Cask Days is having a number of English brewers over for a special part of the annual Cask Days event. I suppose it had been announced, but it was interesting to talk to Andy from Redemption and hear that he was sending cask to Canada. The brewers who mentioned it all seemed a little confused that their beer should be in such demand, especially from Toronto. If what I saw this week is any indication, Ralph and the boys should probably double the order.


Beer and History: Mesopotamia at the ROM OR Sumer Lovin’

A couple of weekends ago, I signed a contract to write a new book with m’colleague Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog. The book will be called Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay. We’re just kids in a candy store over the possibility of leafing through dusty archives and creating indexes and bibliographical footnotes. What can I say? We’re nerds.

As I was on my way to the subway, I noticed that we’re not the only ones working on beer from a historical perspective. The Royal Ontario Museum currently has a Mesopotamian exhibit that highlights some of the innovations that sprung from the fertile crescent. As an early agrarian society, Mesopotamia certainly had beer; a fact which is highlighted on the large advertisements for the exhibit encased in bus shelters around the city.

Since I was already in a vaguely historical frame of mind, I decided to get in touch with the ROM and see whether they could offer some guidance towards the exhibit. They actually provided an expert in the form of Dr. Clemens Reichel, an Associate Curator at the ROM, who took some time out of his schedule to show us around.

I say “us” because I was joined by Robin LeBlanc who writes about beer over here, and who was featured in a nice article today.

I suspect it’s fair to say that there’s not a great deal of planning that you can do for an exhibit like this if your intention is to write about it from a beer writer’s perspective. I have read beer books from the period between about 1880 and 2013 and the ancient world really only ever gets a couple of fundamentally similar paragraphs.

Sort of “development into Agrarian society… blah blah… Hymn to Ninkasi… blah blah… Does civilization exist because people wanted a drink?… and in conclusion, we owe a lot to these proto brewers whom we have included because we’re pretty sure we might have seen an article about it at some point, maybe in the Atlantic Monthly.”

The base of knowledge may well have expanded in the last 133 years or so, but since additional information would require vast amounts of research and records are typically fairly sketchy, these are the highlights that crop up. I mean, take the amount of research someone like Martyn Cornell does on a regular basis and understand how difficult it is to put together brewing history on London before tabloids. That’s nothing compared to 6500 years ago.

As a thought experiment, consider this: You want to know everything there is to know about a now closed Ontario brewery. Let’s use Conners as an example. We have the ability to track down and interview people who worked for them, which would take some research but is not impossible.  We also have the ability to read contemporary articles or books about brewing in Ontario and infer from those sources about Conners as it existed. The most accurate source of information, however, is going to be financial. I can guarantee you the tax information is kicking around in a government archive somewhere.

Oddly enough, the same goes for Mesopotamia. Of course no one who made beer in Mesopotamia is still alive and they didn’t have print journalism. The financial records, though, are more or less intact.

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can't copy and paste with hotkeys

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can’t copy and paste with hotkeys

As it turns out, the development of writing was largely due to accountancy. Part of the development of civilization has to do with accountability to each other. Without some manner of allaying mutual suspicion, we’re pretty hopeless as a species. If you were to deposit a number of bushels of grain at your local granary, you’d want there to be a record of how many bushels you had deposited. In part, Cuneiform was developed in order to do just that.

This tablet, from some period between 3300 and 3000 B.C.E., displays cuneiform symbols for various types of grain including Emmer Wheat and Barley. As you can see, there’s a heading and a column with a representative number of marks meant to represent quantity. It’s your basic inventory spreadsheet. The clay tablet technology has preserved this information. Clay had a number of comparative strengths, as Dr. Reichel pointed out. The papyrus based Great Library at Alexandria simply burnt down one day. If you expose clay to fire, it just gets harder. In some ways, clay is preferable to modern spreadsheet technology. Clay doesn’t upgrade its menu options every few years forcing you to learn how to use a styles menu or suddenly crash in the middle of an export.

This likely means that writing developed as a tool to allow us to feed ourselves. I can only imagine that in a culture where they had already developed irrigation and had likely managed to discover fermentation by dint of the fact that there was a lot of damp grain around, this means that writing probably developed in part due to beer. In a very small part. It’s practically not even worth mentioning when you consider all the other things you’d want to use grain for as well. Let’s call it about 10%.

The other illustrative artifact from the exhibit is a golden drinking cup discovered in the tomb of Puabi at the royal cemetery in Ur, dated to approximately 2500 B.C.E.

From this angle, you might think "Alright, I can drink out of that."

From this angle, you might think “Alright, I can drink out of that.”

The cup presents some interesting problems. First of all, as Dr. Reichel was good enough to point out, Southern Iraq is hot. Tomorrow (July 12th) the forecast for Baghdad is 46 degrees Celsius. To convert to farenheit, that’s about 113. What kind of idiot drinks out of a golden cup when it’s 46 degrees in the shade? Think about the heat transfer. No one is actually drinking out of a cup like that. Probably you want something that is thick and made of pottery so that your beverage remains at least nominally refreshing.

The other difficulties with the cup have to do with the dimensions. First of all, it’s not really round. It is shaped a little bit like half of a pita. When you view it from the front, it’s completely normal. When you view it from a slightly elevated angle, it’s obvious that no one looking to actually drink something would have used it. There’s even a completely non-functional straw built into the side that would make it dribble on your shirt.

But from this angle, it's clear that you're better off just drinking out of the bottle.

But from this angle, it’s clear that you’re better off just drinking out of the bottle.

As a cup, it sucks. It’s a terrible cup.

As a simulacrum of a cup, it makes complete sense. It is a representational imagining of a cup. Many of the tombs in Ur had ornamental pieces like this made of gold and carnelian and lapis lazuli: Necklaces that would snap a vertebrae; earrings that would tear a lobe. The tombs were appointed with these things, as well as a number of apparently unwilling servants (as evinced by the skull trauma). You can take it with you, but eventually someone will dig it up.

These simulacra are great for pointing out how important feasting was to the culture of Sumer. To have developed to the point where you’re creating ornamental representations of tableware for an elaborate burial like that of Puabi, you can safely assume that the feasting culture was pervasive and established. It gives you a sense of what was thought of as important in terms of the details of everyday life.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I should point out that these two are the main beer related artifacts in the exhibit. I can’t help but feel that the ROM overstated their case a little on the promotional posters. That said, the rest of the exhibit contains some truly amazing pieces from the British Museum. Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance. A stele with the code of Hammurabi inscribed upon it. Perhaps most impressively, a bas relief lion from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon with much of its glaze still intact. You should go and see these things. It’s good for you. And you can pop across the street to the Museum Tavern afterwards for beer if you feel your appetite hasn’t been sated.

Book Review – The Audacity Of Hops

Recently, I was sent a copy of Tom Acitelli’s new book, The Audacity Of Hops, for review purposes. I finished it last week and I can tell you that it’s well worth reading. The prose is engaging and the story that it tells of craft beer’s rise to prominence is thoroughly well researched and entertaining. It’s not exactly a page turner, but for a book that has 40 pages of notes and bibliographical references, he’s done a great job of keeping it factually dense without having it become a slog.

It’s a book that has become necessary, especially since we’re now well into a third generation of people for whom craft beer is relatively normal. If you were born in Ontario in 1994, you can now drink. I see people in their early 20’s for whom locally made IPAs have always been around. That’s progress.

The problem is that without a proper chronicle of the good old days, like Acitelli’s book, it can be difficult to understand that this wasn’t always the case. It must seem inevitable if you are just now starting to drink beer that craft beer will continue to grow and expand in infinite ways. It has, in other words, become commonplace.

The Audacity Of Hops is really best compared to something like The Right Stuff. It wasn’t inevitable that Gordon Cooper was going to spend a whole day orbiting the earth. I don’t mean to suggest that craft beer is as important as manned space travel. What I mean to suggest is that the narrative structure is the same.

The analogy might not stand up indefinitely, so I won’t push it too far. Suffice it to say that when Chuck Yeager was flying test planes it was about pushing the envelope and seeing what was possible. It was the Wild West in terms of aeronautics. At the beginning of the exploration of space you had the Mercury Seven astronauts. You had a small number of people capable of doing a difficult and demanding thing. The public knew them and loved them. They were personalities as much as they were pilots and astronauts.

In any endeavor, there’s a brief period of time when it is associated with the personalities that excelled at the beginning. Whether they succeed or fail, there’s a tendency to impose upon their stories, if you’re reporting on them, a sense of dramatic struggle.

This is where Acitelli succeeds. He makes Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, Michael Jackson and Jim Koch look as though they were all taking on the world from the same angle, all intentionally cahooting. You’ve got independent brewers and people running semi-legal homebrewing shops and people writing about beer, and all of these folks are pushing the envelope of what’s possible. It may not have resulted in the International Space Station and the Mars Rover, but heck, we’ve gotten some pretty good beer out of it.

The book kind of slows down towards the modern day. This is interesting, since there’s more information about more breweries and more brands of beer and more writers than ever there were before. Is it informational glut? Is it simply that it’s hard to put together a comprehensive history of two years ago if you’re attempting to thread a narrative through to the future?

This is a problem that craft beer faces, and it’s similar to the issues NASA faced following the moon landing. The initial narrative has more or less run its course.

The main issue with having legendary exemplars of an industry like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe and the others is that they’re by nature iconoclastic figures. These are, by and large, highly intelligent people who didn’t like what they were doing and chose a new career. Jim Koch ran against Mitt Romney for the presidency of their Harvard Business School class, for God’s sake. He probably could have done anything, but he chose beer.

I’ve mentioned before, probably in the context of the sale of Goose Island to AB In-Bev, that this iconoclasm tends to be a mixed blessing for the craft brewing industry. Without a certain amount of gumption, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that people took risks on an unproven industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s is the only reason we’re experiencing this renaissance of locally produced beer. In some ways, it’s a good thing.

There are downsides, though. Because it’s one person’s dream, it’s not necessarily a generational, familial type of business. Eventually, the people who started the earlier breweries find themselves to be of a certain age and begin to think about retiring. Breweries are huge businesses with a lot of equity sunk into equipment and branding and it soon becomes evident that you have to sell the whole thing as a going concern. Depending on who you sell to, the public might get fickle. Goose Island got blowback on their sale. Someone like Peter McAuslan, who recently sold his St. Ambroise to Brasseurs RJ, was simply wished well.

At some point, the rest of the pioneers involved at the beginning of craft beer will also fade out of the narrative structure of craft beer. Fritz Maytag is retired. Michael Jackson (who I increasingly wish I had gotten to meet) passed away a few years ago and is already part of a new iconography. Jim Koch turned 64 the other day. Charlie Papazian is 67. These folks will eventually want to (or have to) retire.

The problem is this: You never get the power of the original narrative back. Yes, there are now more craft breweries than ever. Yes, it’s an increasingly global fascination. However, there are now more voices than ever and its becoming increasingly unlikely that they will all continue to sing from the same hymnal.

You can probably name all three of the astronauts involved in the first moon landing. It was a momentous event. If pressed, you might be able to name two astronauts from the 1980’s. You probably can’t tell me the names of the people on the ISS at the moment. Sometimes, NASA lucks out and gets personalities like Commander Hadfield and they manage to bring attention to space exploration. That’s about as good as they’re going to be able to do because you can’t be the first man on the moon twice.

Craft beer is going to be like that. Acitelli chronicles the deeds of Greg Koch, Tony Magee, Kim Jordan, Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver. The problem is that despite the fact that they’re excellent spokespeople for the industry, the industry is now so large that I’m not sure there can reliably be one spokesperson for any aspect of it.

The milestone Acitelli chooses to end the historical narrative on is the fact that there are now more breweries than there were a century ago, before prohibition. A very reasonable question to ask, and one that Craft Beer should be asking itself far more frequently is “now what?”

The Twisted Kilt

In this week’s column, I answered one of the most frequently asked questions that I get, which is “What do YOU drink.” I imagine that anyone with a beer blog or column gets that question quite a bit. Most people go with the tried and tested answer “a lot of different things, depending on…” and then there’s a brief period where they name variables like whether it’s the third Tuesday in the month or which direction the wind is blowing.

I’ve answered the question with the choice of the moment. That’s different than having a favorite beer, by the way. My suspicion has always been that everyone who writes about beer probably has a favorite beer, but that since it is massively impolitic to answer the question, we’re allowed to get away with proportional amounts of prevarication.

The other question that I get a lot is “Well, where do you drink?”

I get around. I’ve been to most of the beer bars in Toronto at one point or another, and I have to say that I’m generally happiest in my local pub. This was not always the case. One of the reasons that I became a beer writer was because my local pub inexplicably went downhill at some point in 2007. I ended up hanging out at Bar Volo instead, which is the kind of place that just drills beer information into you and convinces you to take pen in hand.

The Twisted Kilt is looks improbably like the faux tudor pubs in England look.

The Twisted Kilt looks improbably like the faux Tudor pubs in England look.

The Bow and Arrow, as it was then, had some serious problems. First of all, it’s a relatively large pub and it seats something like a hundred at a time, and probably more than that if it’s busy. By the time the Bow and Arrow was on its last legs, there might have been 20-30 people in at once on a Friday night. It was maudlin. The carpets hadn’t been replaced in living memory and the pub had acquired that stale beer smell that goes along with that condition. The food had gone downhill. It was caught in a miserable spiral of less income leading to less upkeep leading to less income.

It was Brutal. If you had wanted to write a textbook on running a place into the ground, you could have looked at the Bow and Arrow at its nadir and worked backwards for your narrative.

At some point about three years ago, it became The Twisted Kilt. People periodically misread that and think that I’m talking about the Tilted Kilt chain of breastaraunts that are creeping into the Ontario market. Just the other day David Ort asked me whether I worried what people thought when I updated Untappd from a place like that. I wasn’t really upset that he thought I would frequent a place where the waitresses excuse a certain amount of obscene leering for a 25% tip. I was upset that he was impugning my pub. (For the record, I don’t care how good people claim the wings at Hooters are. Being a server in a pub is hard enough without having to display your décolletage for douchebags.)

Just for contrast, that's the minto building at Yonge/Eglinton in the background, highlighting the improbability of a faux tudor frontage existing in the same neighbourhood.

Just for contrast, that’s the minto building at Yonge/Eglinton in the background, highlighting the improbability of a faux tudor frontage existing in the same neighbourhood.

The Twisted Kilt, while occupying the same space that the Bow and Arrow occupied, could provide a different textbook entirely. It has been building up relatively constantly for a few years now, and this is mostly due to having good management. The owner, John, is the kind of guy who looks at his enterprise on a nearly daily basis and attempts to decide what he can improve. This is a good quality in a pub owner.

Take the beer selection, for instance. When he started out the variety of stuff on tap was a bit samey. There were some standard Ontario offerings. There were some English Ales and some Euro Lagers. It wasn’t a very interesting lineup. At some point subtle changes started to be made. A crop of Paulaner lagers showed up one month along with a new beer tower.

Nowadays, when I go in there, he’s always got something to show me. They’re starting to get beers on tap before the other pubs in Toronto. He’s got Ommegang Hennepin. He’s got Maredsous. He’s got Hofbrau Munchen and Black Oak Pale Ale; a one-two sessionability punch that I’m not sure you can beat. It’s one of the most balanced tap lineups I’ve seen in town. Not European for the sake of being European. Not Craft for the sake of being Craft. It’s more or less one of everything.

When you consider the small number of taps and the location of the pub, the variety of the selection is boggling.

When you consider the small number of taps and the location of the pub, the variety of the selection is boggling.

He’s working on getting a selection of bottles of Belgian beer in. I haven’t seen the list recently, but I remember that some of the bottles were things no one else has. Part of the draw is the value for money. Duvel’s on at $6.50 a bottle (the regulars are now apparently going through about two cases a week). Westvleteren 12 is priced at $20.00. I popped in on Thursday night and he asked me whether I thought Green Flash in bottles was a good idea. The week before that, he was showing me pictures of the new chairs the pub will get in a few weeks. I have rarely seen a grown man so excited by chairs.

Of course, it’s not just about the beer. He’s managed to hire good people and keep them on. All of the bartenders have been there since the day the pub opened, which is something I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere. Turnover amongst the servers is fairly low as well. The food continues to improve, having gotten to the point where it’s near becoming a gastropub. I’ve gotten to the point where I trust them enough that I just order the special if I’m staying for dinner.

If you ask people about the beer scene in Toronto fifteen years ago, they’d probably mention that the Bow and Arrow was one of the highlights and that its sister pub The Woolwich Arms in Guelph was great too. I was at the Bow and Arrow fifteen years ago, and I can tell you that the Twisted Kilt is better than the Bow and Arrow ever was. It hit that mark about three months ago and it’s climbing steadily. It bustles. Wednesday through Saturday, it hums the way a neighbourhood pub ought to. They’re going to have to open the second floor.

Sometimes, I have tried to get some writing done at the table in the upstairs window. It has never led to productivity.

Sometimes, I have tried to get some writing done at the table in the upstairs window. It has never led to productivity.

It took me a long time to write about The Twisted Kilt because there are really appealing qualities in having a neighbourhood pub that isn’t a destination. For one thing, it is just barely sparsely populated enough that I usually get the same stool. That’s not going to last forever. It keeps getting better in minutely perceptible ways on a weekly basis and eventually quality will out. As a beer nerd, it’s fun to watch the progression. For me, it’s practically like a spectator sport. I don’t know that it’s one of the best pubs in the city yet, but if it keeps ticking along as it has it will be soon.



In Which I Plug The Brewer’s Plate

I’m sitting here and I’m trying to come up with an interesting and insightful way to plug The Brewer’s Plate.

I mean, you could go with “It’s one of the premiere events of the Toronto beer scene!” or “It just keeps getting bigger and better!” or “I know $125.00 seems like a bit of a spend, but it’s a better value than last year since there’s even more stuff!” or “They support a marvelous charity called Not Far From The Tree that you should look at!” or “Jamie Kennedy’s going to be there, and he’s a pretty nice guy” or “Hey, wanna learn about beer and food?! This is the place to do it!”

Any or all of these things would be accurate things to say about it. I could plug previous editions that I’ve written about, like the one from two years ago at the Wychwood Artscape Barns. That was a nice day, except for the rather startling man on stilts trying to navigate through an increasingly compact throng.

But the truth is that just about everyone has already done it.  I was asked if I’d get the word out about the event, and unfortunately, I just couldn’t figure out a way to make it play nationally in the newspaper, because I suspect there’s nothing worse than reading about an event you really want to go to in another province that you can’t possibly get to. I mean, there’s some disgruntled foodie in Edmonton who’s looking at that if it’s an article and thinking “Curse your eyes, Jordan St. Whatsit, you slightly tipsy scribbler! This is not relevant to my interests in an immediate way although possibly we could steal the idea!”

I mean, I can’t even give it the Craft Beer Advent Calendar treatment with the bad doggerel. What am I going to do, rhyme it in Homeric couplets? It would be a challenge to try that with some of the chefs’ last names. Karen Vaz for instance could only merit Hudibrastic poetry given that she works at the Rebel House (and even then only if you’re a cockney). There was a brief appeal in that Barbara Frum and Atrium seem like a natural.

The brewer’s plate is going to be excellent. I don’t know exactly what the highlights are going to be. There are celebrity chefs in addition to the regular chefs this year.  There are more regular chefs than there were last year! One of them is Howard Dubrovsky, who cooked what was possibly the best beer and food pairing event I’ve ever been to! His seafood chowder was so good I considered offering him an involuntary unpaid internship at St.John’s Wort.

There’s so much stuff that you’ll never get through all of it. There’s just no chance. You could be three people and you’d still never manage it. There’s a silent auction! You might win stuff! It’s going to be exciting. There’s going to be music and people and entertainment and slightly drunken revelry and people are going to have a really, really good time.

So buy a ticket already and send a shirt to the dry cleaners. It’s going to be awesome!