I know. It’s March. I chose a short month. Deal with it.
PABST BLUE RIBBON
What can you say about Pabst Blue Ribbon that Dennis Hopper hasn’t screamed in the middle of an ether binge?
Well, there’s the big important thing, which is that PBR more or less defines the concept of American Adjunct Lager. It keeps winning medals in that category at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. So does its parent company, Pabst. This means that it has probably won significant awards in three different centuries, which is not bad.
It’s a light flavoured beer, and at first there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on. Interestingly, there’s a progression of flavours through it from sweetness to increasing (if mild) bitterness. It’s an interesting study in subtlety and is objectively well made. It’s significantly different from most of the stuff in the category, likely because of its heritage. If there’s a difference between American Adjunct Lager and Canadian Adjunct Lager, this would be the beer you’d use to make the case.
VERDICT: I can see why you wouldn’t like PBR if you were a craft beer drinker. It’s light and might not taste like anything if you weren’t looking very carefully at it. Also, hipsters drink it and I think we’re all just about done with hipsters.
If PBR is balanced, Old Milwaukee is cloying. It’s overbalanced in terms of sweetness. I’m not even doing a historical profile on this thing because I can’t bring myself to drink enough of it to work up tasting notes. Maybe it wasn’t cold enough, but the fridge only has so many settings.
VERDICT: With so many options available, I can’t see why you’d drink this. Since I’m trying to say something nice about each beer, I’ll point out that there’s a Betty Page lookalike on the can and that it’s a pleasing callback to WWII nose cone art.
Maclay’s is a little odd, since Sleeman brews Maclay’s Traditional Pale Ale in Canada and it doesn’t seem to exist in the U.K., at least if ratebeer ratings are to be believed. By all accounts, some of the things that Maclay’s produce in Scotland are pretty interesting. There’s an Oat Malt Stout and for a while there was a pretty highly regarded IPA.
I’m confused by the Traditional Pale Ale because I wouldn’t have chosen to license it. Maclay’s is not exactly a huge brand in the UK, so you have to wonder if it stems from the 1990’s when there was a burst of interest in bringing stuff from Europe into Canada. It’s also quite a bit lighter than I would have expected from a Scottish Pale Ale. It’s more of a Golden Ale.
It would have possibly been a good idea to bring it in to compete on price point with Keith’s in the Maritimes. It has approximately the same level of hopping and some of the same notes through the body. If you were competing solely on price point against Keith’s with this, you might actually gain traction. It might have been a good strategy at one point, but there’s so much other stuff now that it seems like a lot of work.
VERDICT: Sort of a poor man’s Keith’s IPA. Given the paucity of ales in the discount section of The Beer Store, its continued existence makes some sense.
Sleeman, as the result of injudicious IPO’s, plans for expansion and a kerfuffle in the mid 1990’s involving the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, owns the Upper Canada brand. If there’s a lesson that can be taken away from that period in Ontario brewing it’s “whatever you do, don’t go public.” You leave yourself open to all manner of variables. Upper Canada Brewing was a huge deal. Looking at Jamie MacKinnon’s 1993 guide to Ontario beer, they made really good stuff. A nice bitter. A malt liquor that sounds a little like a Maibock.
It’s hard to write about Upper Canada as it currently stands because so many people active in Ontario craft breweries used to work there. Clearly, if I write something that is overly laudatory of something that has doubtless changed significantly since 1998 and which brewers feel is a shell of its former self, that could cause some friction. There’s an emotional investment and pride even now in what Upper Canada accomplished before the buyout, so it must chafe mightily to see the brand in the discount section.
I’ll add the caveat: I’m too young to remember with clarity what these beers tasted like. I know I must have had the dark ale before the buyout, because it was popular with a friend’s dad. I would have been about seventeen. I’m looking at this purely from the point of view of what’s in the bottle.
UPPER CANADA LAGER
For something in the discount beer category, this is surprisingly good. There’s a toasty grain note here that suggests that they aren’t using adjunct. Damon Difruscia from Sleeman has confirmed this for me. There is some hop bitterness in the tail and even some mild floral noble hop aroma. It retains its carbonation nicely and overall, it’s pretty balanced. I mean, you have to assume that at the price point it may not be getting the absolute highest quality ingredients, but even given that, it’s a solid offering.
VERDICT: You could do a lot worse than this in the category and also in general. I’m sure that it’s not what it was, but it’s enough like it was that people buy it. Possibly it’s the nostalgia factor, but when I asked the staff at the Summerhill Beer Store, they suggested that it was one of the best selling beers in the section.
UPPER CANADA DARK
This is an interesting beer, mostly because it doesn’t quite manage to hang together. There’s some roast character that comes through and a little grainy sweetness, but there’s a sort of vegetal tang to the hopping that strikes me as odd. I wondered whether the first bottle was somehow off, but it turns out that it’s probably just that way, since, as I mentioned, they move a lot of it at the Summerhill Beer Store. I recall having it on tap at some point in the last year, and it seems to be standard. If this was originally inspired by an English dark ale, I can see that being a desirable flavour, especially given that it was designed in the 80’s. With the tang it strikes me as having been inspired by historical porters, which is a really strange fit for where it has ended up.
VERDICT: This is an odd fit for the category, but it’s probably the best ale you’re going to find there. As I say, I don’t recall exactly how it was, but if this version from fifteen years on hints at it, then I can certainly see what the fuss was about.