St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Beer Fairy Thursday: Keith’s Tartan Ale, Innis and Gunn Rum Cask

Hands down, the most interesting development of the last couple of weeks is that beer now gets delivered to my doorstep. Not a huge amount of beer. It’s not like I won a contest or anything. Usually single bottles in bubble wrap. The beer fairy brings other things as well: Tasting Notes. Invitations to press galas in Saskatchewan. Carefully crafted messages from brewmasters.

Today, as I stood idly staring out the window and popping bubble wrap, I realized that they probably intend for me to talk about the things that they’re sending me. The beer fairy has an ulterior motive. My general operating procedure here is to amass information and let it develop into content organically, so simply talking about beer that people send over is an odd concept for me. Baffling that this should be the case for a beer blog.

What I’ve decided to do is talk not only about the beer, but the entire process. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the public relations elements involved in the equation are unimportant: Simply put, the breweries that are large enough to be able to afford a competent PR firm are not really interested in your input. They’ve made the decision to go ahead with whatever they’ve sent you and they’re promoting it to you to the best of their ability. It’s the nature of the beast.

So what do you do with that? You could just pass along the information in their press kit, but that would be pretty dull. You could ignore the press material and attempt to evaluate the beer in a vacuum, but there are a huge number of people who already do that.

Fortunately, making things up as I go along seems to be working out pretty well, so I’ve decided just to be honest without being intentionally mean spirited or nit-picky.

Without further ado:

Keith’s Tartan Ale

Well, the picture ain't cropping. Mental Note: Clean lightswitches.

(Beer delivered surrounded in bubble wrap in a brown packaging envelope of the variety that makes “recycled material” explode all over the front hall when you get impatient and try to rip it open. While this cannot actually be held against the brewery, it was mildly enervating.)

You have to admire the packaging that went into this. Sort of a burlap wrapper and tartan swath, which is likely meant to evoke opening a packing crate. It gives it a touch of class and shows that some thought was put into the reception of the product. Definite style points here.

This came with a form letter from Graham Kendall, Brewmaster Emeritus, which is selectively worded to leave the impression that it’s a recreation of a specific beer. “It’s brewed according to the original scotch ale process,” which I assume pretty much means that it’s brewed the same way as all the other ales. It has a “lower hop aroma, due to the fact that hops were scarce in Scotland at that time,” which probably means the early part of the 19th century. Wikipedia disagrees, citing IPAs being brewed in Edinburgh in 1821. Regardless, the letter is cheerful and well written and sets expectations nicely: Scotch Ale was “noted for its hints of smokiness, mild bitterness and fuller body.”

The beer itself poured with almost no carbonation into the pint glass. At 6.1% alcohol it’s relatively robust for a larger brewer like Keith’s. I find myself wondering about the grain bill because it doesn’t really seem malty enough when cold. There is some caramel sweetness and you do actually get more than a hint of peat smokiness when it warms up. Despite the fact that they claim a lower hop aroma, I suspect that this still contains more hops than the IPA. Probably an English variety, going by the vaguely minerally taste on the finish. It does, in a fairly basic way, what it says it’s supposed to.

Conclusion: I guess it’s Keith’s attempt to appeal to the craft market, but I don’t think it’s quite interesting enough to accomplish that. The smokiness only comes out when it has had some time to warm up and at that point it overwhelms everything else. It needs balance and malt depth in order to work and it doesn’t quite make it. Points for effort, though, since it’s better than the IPA.

Innis and Gunn Rum Cask

(Disclaimer: I don’t like Innis and Gunn products and I never have. I even explained this to the nice people at the PR firm before they sent over samples. “I don’t know that whatever personal views on it that I express will be laudatory,” I said. I warned them, and they sent them anyway. Audentis fortuna iuvat, or something.)

I don’t understand why you would package a beer in a clear bottle, especially a premium oak aged beer. It skunks pretty quickly and really hurts the flavour. I found the Innis and Gunn Rum Cask to be incredibly buttery. It’s almost certainly laden with diacetyl and I suspect that the notes from the oak are making it seem even more buttery than the diacetyl would have done by itself. It’s a perfect butter storm. It was like drinking a buttered plum soaked in booze. I barely made it through a quarter of the bottle before pouring the rest out.

Maybe it was a bad bottle, but I suspect from what people have told me in conversation, that this is what people like about Innis and Gunn. For a lot of people it seems to be a gateway beer, possibly because it’s so different in flavour. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume it was supposed to taste buttery. Makes for a completely different mouthfeel, anyway.

What the exercise did explain for me was how Innis and Gunn manages to remain so popular. The answer is that their PR firm is professional and extremely competent. While I still can’t say that enjoy the beer, I am impressed by the packaging. The four pages of information are very comprehensive and answer just about anything you might want to know. Their media rep even followed up by email. I don’t know that people across the country are actually clamouring for the beer, but I now understand why it continues to remain in prominent view of the public.

Conclusion: I can’t really recommend it based on my personal preference, but I feel like people will probably buy it anyway, somewhat defeating the point of the review.

Whiny, Petulant Man-Children

An article in the Globe and Mail was recently brought to my attention, titled “If you really loved Ontario families, Mr. McGuinty, you’d kill the LCBO.

It’s essentially an example of how not to be taken seriously and a petulant tantrum on the part of the columnist.

He starts out with concrete assertions of Dalton McGuinty’s lack of manliness, asking whether he had purchased a set of testicles. This is, of course, the best way of getting people to take you seriously. If only someone had asked William Lyon MacKenzie King whether he was on crack, I’m sure that the political discourse of the day would have advanced significantly and that he would have stopped holding seances. Start with a personal attack. Yeah, that’ll definitely ensure that you’re not simply dismissed as a whiny crackpot.

The most embarrassing part of this article is the almost complete lack of self awareness involved. Mark Schatzker (see smug file photo) is framing his desire to be able to purchase alcohol in a corner store in an argument which largely seems to blame his children for making him drink.

And I quote:

For example: When an Ontario toddler melts down at dinner because his parents insist he at least try the homemade meatballs that his Ontario father slaved over, it would be nice if it were possible to procure some beer (which, studies show, can prevent heart disease when consumed in moderation) within, say, a streetcar stop of said meltdown.”

Which translates roughly to: “Waaaah. My kids don’t like my cooking. I need a drink, but I don’t have any beer on hand and the liquor store is too far away.” This behaviour seemingly justified by the idea that he’s somehow combating a mild setback in his personal life with drinking on the basis that it may have some long term health benefit.


Similarly, when a four-year-old informs her Ontario family there’s going to be a clown performing at the birthday party they’re on their way to, and it suddenly dawns on her Ontario parents that maybe they should have brought a bottle of wine, it would be nice if it were possible to stop on the way to get such a bottle of wine without making a 15-minute detour.”

Which translates roughly to: “My kids are going to a birthday party. I can’t deal with clowns without being slightly inebriated. Oh God, why is there no wine? This is going to be the worst hour and a half of my life!”

He seems to have had a traumatic experience with someone in a red shock wig and rubber nose as a child and feels the need to self medicate or he seems to consider bringing wine to a party solely for his own benefit.

The real problem with the article is that he has managed to frame a reasonably sane request (Allow sales of beer and wine outside of officially approved LCBO outlets) in the most childish, selfish, petulant manner possible. Completely ignoring the idea that there might be long term consequences to getting rid of a very profitable government venture (the proceeds from which almost certainly benefit actual families in a real and measurable way) he seems to feel that provincial law should be changed due to his slight inconvenience

In the words of Charlie Sheen: Plan Better.

It’s not as though he hasn’t lived his entire life under these rules. Buy some stuff in advance, you whiny schmuck!

The most glaring part is the infantile attitude of the article, and the way in which he is mirroring the behaviour of the child who refuses to eat meatballs. That child will almost certainly be given something else to eat. Mark Schatzker has declared that he is not about to eat the LCBO’s meatballs and is now waiting for Dalton McGuinty, who he refers to as “Premier Dad” in a manner that suggests some worrying freudian issues, to make him something else.

Public discourse does not work for the benefit of any one person, no matter how badly they may want a drink after putting training wheels on a bicycle. Schatzker has declined to point out how something like this would come about and has declined to think about the long term consequences of that action. He just wants a cookie. And he wants it now. He feels he deserves that cookie because he had a bad day at school.

If I were the Globe, I would have been bloody embarrassed to print that.


Icelandic Beer Day and Olvisholt Brugghus

We complain a lot about beer in Ontario.  We complain that the LCBO’s monopoly means that we can’t get anything interesting. We complain that The Beer Store is run by huge multinational companies primarily interested in maintaining their control. I am now literally complaining about the fact that we complain, which is probably the kind of thing that can get you pulled over by the irony police (who have recently been saddled with a shipment of ten thousand plastic spoons despite the fact that their requisition form clearly stated that they needed exactly one knife.)

The truth is that it’s simply not that bad. At least we’ve got beer. Iceland didn’t until 1989.

In 1915, Iceland enforced a total prohibition of alcoholic beverages. This is not, in and of itself, all that surprising. We had prohibition in North America. The difference was that Iceland is so geographically remote that there was no easy way around it. If you look at the history of bootlegging in Ontario, it’s clear to see that we were not really all that impressed with prohibition. The town of Picton, Ontario, owes a huge amount to Rum Running. Apparently, they would smuggle whiskey that was intended for the US market back into the province and it was such common practice that people would do it on an amateur basis.

Iceland didn’t have that luxury. They were eventually forced to allow the import of Spanish wine as part of a trade agreement in 1935. At that point, a total prohibition remained on “Strong Beer.” In Iceland, “Strong Beer” is anything over 2.25% alcohol. I can’t picture a two percent beer and neither could Icelanders, who would attempt to get around the prohibition by adding spirits to their beer in order to create something that resembled a proper drink.

Then, on March 1st, 1989, beer was legalized, ending a 74 year prohibition.

As you can imagine, people were pleased with this decision; So much so that from that day forward March 1st was known as Beer Day (Originally titled “Let’s get Wreckedjavik”). It’s celebrated with pub crawls during which the bars stay open until 4am. That seems like overkill to me, but they enjoy it.

The thing that baffles me is that in Canadian provinces a much shorter period of prohibition had pretty serious long term effects on brewing culture. Breweries outright failed. It can be argued that prohibition led to the situation in which E.P. Taylor was able to consolidate brands, leading to the huge corporate breweries of today, leaving us with relatively standard pale lagers. In Iceland, which had an extraordinarily limited brewing culture for 74 years, they ended up with Olvisholt Brugghus.

The brewery is only four years old, but their beers are already available for purchase in Ontario. The amazing thing is how good they are. As part of the LCBO’s spring release, you can purchase Skjalfti. It’s described on the Olvisholt website as a premium lager, although beeradvocate has it listed as a steam beer. It’s a good deal maltier than the majority of lagers and it’s actually a treat to drink. It’s a great deal more complex than you would expect from the style. While I typically don’t drink a whole lot of lager these days, I was really pleased to see it returning this year. (The LCBO website suggests that you pair it with “Saucy pulled-pork sammies.” Someone over there has been watching a little too much Rachael Ray.)

They also had a Smoked Imperial Stout in the fall lineup that people went pretty crazy over. That’s not a style which is all that prevalent, but they made it work.

Here’s a thing that I didn’t know until I started reading their website: Olvisholt Brugghus is located on a farm. The farm is located over the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Their Smoked Imperial Stout is named Lava, because periodically the volcano that’s visible from the brewery’s door erupts. Their lager is named “earthquake” because the brewery is subjected to them with some regularity. There’s the daily possibility that the brewery will be completely totaled by nature, or possibly Grendel. Their insurance premiums must be devastating.

They’ve still managed to get into the LCBO within four years of their founding.

Even in a country where beer was banned for 74 years because people were worried that beer would lead to depravity (and potentially longboats and pillaging), there’s now a national beer day.

Someone should talk to Stephen Harper about making that happen here. In the meantime, feel free to see if you can get your hands on a bottle of Skjalfti for tomorrow and toast your Nordic brethren.

A Brief Interlude from Writing About Beer

Ed. Note: Sometimes, just sometimes, you realize that there are topics other than beer available to you to write about. Periodically, they may show up here. We will almost certainly return you to your  regularly scheduled beer blogging in the next couple of days.

From my balcony. Yesterday. Lunchtime.

A couple of years ago, one afternoon when I was sitting on a downtown patio enjoying a pint and waiting for a friend to show up, I looked up into the sky and saw a very large bird. It seemed odd at the time, mostly because I’m used to seeing starlings and pigeons at Yonge and Bloor. I still sometimes tell the story of a man whose lunchtime activity was apparently to feed pigeons with breadcrumbs and then have at them with a nine-iron when they got close enough. For an animal murdering psychopath, he had a nice backswing.

This bird, on the other hand, was very much larger than a pigeon and it described a lazy gyre over midtown. It barely flapped its wings and seemed to hover in the sky. At the time, it was all I could do not to hop over the patio railing in order to get a better look, since it kept disappearing behind the edge of the building. I didn’t, for the reason that I was the only one looking up and everyone else on the patio would have thought I was unbalanced; that, and the fact that I didn’t want to give up the table.

The bird was a Peregrine Falcon.

There are a number of them in Toronto at this point, which frequently amazes me. Aside from Douglas Adams’ Last Chance To See, I haven’t really paid a great deal of attention to conservation efforts. I’m relatively sure that as a child some aged relative may have sponsored a zoo animal or a parcel of Amazon rainforest in my name as an alternative to giving me more lego for Christmas. It never really caught my imagination. Even a couple of years ago when a girlfriend lent me a copy of Carl Hiassen’s Hoot, a children’s novel about burrowing owls being ousted from their natural habitat by a crooked real estate developer, it never really dawned on me why people got worked up about conservation.

That was before these birds made the apartment towers at Yonge and Davisville part of their hunting territory. If you can look out the window and see bloody great birds of prey going about their business, it’s the kind of thing that’s at the very least worth a google.

Peregrine Falcons were endangered until 1999. The amount of DDT in the environment had a Silent Spring sort of effect on them. They were at the top of the food chain and everything below them in the chain was full of detrimental man-made chemicals. Organochlorines would build up in their body fat and their eggs would become brittle because of the lack of calcium in the eggshell that that caused.

Despite all that, here they are, adapting to the landscape. I don’t know where they nest, exactly, but I see them perch on the roof of the building across the way.

It makes sense that they should hunt in the area. There’s a steady supply of nearly inert feral pigeons. The primary indicator that the falcons are out and hunting is when the pigeons begin to panic in mid-air and run into each other. No matter what you may read about biological swarming, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t seem to happen outside my window. The pigeons just bolt in whatever direction is available. You would too, if you were a pigeon.

The average pigeon weighs a little over a half pound and has a wingspan of just over two feet. The Peregrine Falcon, on the other hand, might weigh three times that much and have a wingspan of over a meter. It’s a raptor and has evolved to the point where its entire job is to kill and eat small birds. If you’re an urban pigeon, your primary defense mechanism is pooping on statues and walking along the sidewalk bobbing your head. You don’t stand a chance.

The Peregrine Falcon has been recorded at just under 252 miles per hour in a high altitude dive. That’s nearly 400 kilometers an hour, making it the fastest animal on the planet. And it is aiming for your wing, since its hunting strategy is to cripple you as quickly as possible without any collateral damage and then feast on your entrails. This drama plays out daily, as evidenced by the bloodstained pigeon tracks on my windowsill.

It’s no wonder the flocks of pigeons start to behave like Abbot and Costello confronted by the mummy.

I would be terrified out of my tiny little lizard brain too. It’s worth noting that they have the same effect on people. I saw a woman drop her bags outside the Sobey’s the other day when one of the Falcons cried. It’s a legitimately terrifying sound even if you’re not in any real danger.

I don’t know why other people are interested in conservation. Some are probably interested because the animals are cute. In the case of something like the Western Lowland Gorilla, there’s the potential for psychological and behavioural research and the fact that they’re one of the species that most similar to us and therefore there’s a sense of obligation from a neighbourly perspective. For the most part, I suspect it’s because biodiversity makes things more interesting and that homogeneity is dull.

All I know is that the efforts of past conservationists mean that I get to see a life and death drama play out on a daily basis from my balcony. I get to enjoy whatever cunning the pigeons are able to muster when the falcon stoops. I get to stand gazing in awe at the majesty of this incredible predatory bird that is causing people to hide their very small dogs. I get to see the double takes people do when they realize that the silhouette they’re seeing in the sky isn’t a very large crow. It’s the kind of thing you look forward to on a day to day basis, and it has me seriously considering donating to further conservation efforts.

Next time you’re out walking in the downtown core, keep an eye out for them. You’re almost certainly not hitting your majesty quota.



Barley’s Angels: The Drinking Habits of the North American Human Female

Sometimes, I’ll just flat out over think things.

Like, with the Barley’s Angels launch, I ended up over thinking a lot of the questions that I was going to ask in order to put together an article. Initially, my thought process involved questions like “Is the appropriation of the idea of Charlie’s Angels, a TV show which was labeled jiggle-TV by critics, appropriate for a beer education group for women? Aren’t there some lingering issues of image, even if the execution is a post-modernist deconstruction of the memes associated with that show?”and “If the idea that beer hasn’t been marketed to women because of the possibly erroneous notion of a beer belly is valid, doesn’t that mean that the absence of marketing to that demographic falls under the larger societal issue of a patriarchally inflicted male-gaze style construct?”

See? Over thinking. Plus, since I’m not exactly up to date on my Naomi Wolfe, Germaine Greer and Laura Mulvey readings, I decided not to ask those questions for fear of looking like a bit of a jerk.

What I decided to do instead was to actually attend the inaugural meeting of the group’s Toronto Chapter. This wasn’t the kind of thing that I would have had the sway to pull off a month ago, so this is just one way in which writing a nationally syndicated column is helpful.

So there I was, sitting at a small table in the upstairs portion of the Twisted Kilt, feeling not a little bit like David Attenborough. Sort of: “Here, for the first time, we are witness to the drinking habits of the North American human female.” It was interesting. Mostly, I kept my head down and listened since I was sitting at a table by myself in a different part of the room, periodically fidgeting with my blackberry in order to attempt to look nonchalant (and probably failing). I didn’t take any pictures because I thought it might make people uncomfortable.

It was an interesting cross section of experience. There were some female beer nerds, but for the most part it seemed like the crowd was made up of novices.

One of the immediate differences that I noted was the fact that women ask questions. Sometimes, they asked pretty involved questions, but also some very basic ones. One person in particular pretty clearly didn’t know what was involved in the process of making beer, but was comfortable enough to ask about the day to day activities of a brewery. It was as free an exchange of ideas as I’ve ever seen at a beer tasting.

This was different than what I’ve experienced at regular beer tastings with men. Men, I have noticed, are not afraid to bluff their way through. I have had, for instance, the following conversation with men at a beer tasting:

“Hey, this is a pretty good beer.”

“Yup, that’s an oak aged saison with some wild yeast in it. Probably a little brett.”

“Ah. That’s what that is. I thought that’s what that was. Reminds me of X.”

“X doesn’t have wild yeast, and is in fact a Belgian Tripel.”

“Yup. Sure does remind me of X. How ‘bout that local sports team.”

At Barley’s Angels, people were actually learning. You could see looks of recognition playing around on their faces as they picked up some terminology and started to understand what they were tasting. It’s always nice to see people getting the concept. It’s nice to see enthusiasm rewarded with knowledge.

I think that this is going to be a success. The guided tasting format is certainly useful in imparting information, and my understanding is that there are more chapters of the organization getting ready to launch that weren’t quite ready in time for the big kickoff. It’ll be interesting to see what impact it has in the long term.

The other fun thing was that the beers that were highlighted were from the Magnotta brewery. I hadn’t tried any of their beers before and I feel like they’re pretty badly underrated, despite the fact that they have a production brewery in Vaughan. Their English IPA is pretty darn solid and their Wunder Weisse would be a nice summer beverage. It’s a relatively rare case of an Ontario Microbrewery producing beers exactly to style and doing it consistently. Does what it says on the tin. Also, the IPA is 12/$19.95. Nearly four dollars cheaper than an equivalent amount of Keith’s, which only purports to be an IPA.

You could do a hell of a lot worse than make Magnotta a staple beer in your fridge. It’s inexpensive and flavorful. According to Jennifer Robitaille, their focus is on consistency. I suppose the reason that I hadn’t heard about them before is because I tend not to go to the Beer Store much.

So, I learned two things yesterday:

1)      It’s pretty much impossible to look like you belong at a beer tasting for women with a six day growth of beard.

2)      Even if you consider that you know a little bit about everything that goes on in the Ontario beer scene, you can still be pleasantly surprised from time to time. Which is nice.

Molson M

If you’re new to being a nationally syndicated beer writer, like myself, it’s easy to dramatize things unnecessarily inside your head. Deadlines tend to loom larger in your mind than they have any right to, possibly due to the ominousness of the term. The Sun column is 600 words, after all, and I’ve been churning out something like 3000 words a week for about six months. Taken objectively, it’s not really that big a deal and it’s surprising how quickly you get used to the concept of working on a schedule.

Another thing that I had sort of mentally over prepared for was a meeting I had Tuesday with some Molson representatives. Initially, I was fairly surprised that they were interested in talking to me. After all, I have been pretty scathing when it comes to their marketing strategies and I would think that my bias in favour of craft beer is pretty clear.

It’s easy to cast large breweries as the bad guys; The “evil empire,” if you will. It is, after all a period in history when large corporations are essentially able to lobby governments for whatever they want. Recently, there was a rumour of merger between AB InBev and SABMiller, which would have combined the largest and second largest brewers in the world into some kind of giant, bland beer-Voltron.

You see, the problem is that the narrative structure of the situation doesn’t really favour them. All I know for sure is that in the movies, the good guys tend not to start out with all of the resources and huge amounts of money and publicity and the ability to influence politics. The good guys are the underdogs and people are conditioned to think about anyone who’s an underdog as a good guy. It could be Luke Skywalker or Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles or pretty much any main character in a Pixar or Disney movie.

Of course, that’s not the reality of the situation. It’s just the way that it’s portrayed.

I went and sat down with the Molson guys and was not exactly shocked to learn that they don’t dress in black or have red lightsabers and that there was no immediate evidence that they were in the thrall of some unspeakable ancient evil that lies dreaming in R’lyeh.

They’re just some guys. Pretty nice guys as a matter of fact. Obviously driven by an agenda, but I suspect that’s more of a contextual thing than an intrinsic quality. These are people you could hang out with.

The thing that struck me most about the meeting was the brief lamentation that brand loyalty seemed to be a thing of the past. Gone, apparently, are the days when people would choose a beer and then drink it for the next fifty or so years. It’s all this darn choice that exists.

Which is a bit of a weird statement to espouse considering that the beer that they wanted me to try was Molson M, which adds another variety of pale lager to the Molson family of products

Molson M already exists outside of Ontario. I’m relatively sure that it launched in late 2009 in Quebec. I say this because I remember seeing a booth for it at Mondial in Montreal in June. I also remember that that booth was relatively sparsely populated. It’s not really their fault that that was the case in Montreal. If the choice is between a two dollar sample of a new Molson lager and a two dollar sample of something from overseas that you can’t get at any other time of year, I’d say the choice is pretty obvious.

The claim to fame is that M is microcarbonated. I don’t know what that means. The technique is patent pending, so they were unable to elucidate on the off chance that I was planning to distribute their secrets via twitter.

I can only speculate that their method is either:

a) using carbonating stones with smaller than usual openings that impart a very fine amount of CO2 over a longer period of time possibly ending with a higher than usual pressure? I dunno.


b) Tiny magical French-Canadian pixies with incredibly small straws blow continuously into the tank, creating exceptionally wee, elfin bubbles. (Not a union you want to anger.)

I’m not sure that it really matters, though. The problem is this: No one that they’re going to be marketing this beer to is really going to care a whole lot about the science behind its carbonation, and people who might have some interest are going to be skeptical since it’s still patent pending and it can’t be discussed publicly.

In truth, as mass produced pale lagers go, it’s just fine. There’s a little bit of spice and green apple in the aroma. I think I prefer it to Canadian. It’s certainly drinkable. It is, however, markedly similar to some of their other products. The packaging is supposed to set it apart as more urbane and sophisticated than its counterparts. I’m not sure it matters whether it is “premium” or not. I suspect the problem is that it’s another pale lager in a market dominated by pale lagers. In the same way that everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a pale lager to a man with a focus group.

I think that in a best case scenario it causes a slight uptick in sales and establishes itself as a brand. Probably what will happen is that it will slightly dilute sales of the other products offered by Molson resulting in a slight net loss in sales of their other brands resulting in the overall sales figures staying about where they are.

I guess we’ll find out when it launches next week.


Seasonal Releases and Brewery Features at the LCBO

One of the hardest things to deal with in life and in beer writing are those moments when you’re legitimately surprised. Surprise seems to be the LCBO’s stock in trade these days. Gone are the underwhelming release schedules of yesterday. For the last four months or so, they’ve been actually impressive in terms of the selection of beers that they’ve been bringing into the province. There was the Dieu Du Ciel feature, the winter release replete with the full Ola Dubh lineup, the Utopias lottery and now a brewery feature for Norrebro. Add to this the fact that you can now purchase the Sam Adams/Weihenstephan collaboration Infinium, and you end up with a pretty impressive portfolio of beverages.

Whoever it is that’s in charge over there is now seemingly trying to expand the selection of craft beer in Ontario. Good on you, nameless faceless government employees! We appreciate the effort!

I like to think about things from a logistical point of view whenever possible, so I’ve been thinking about this development. It’s almost like the idea that there’s no market for beer like this is being challenged from within the LCBO. It seems to me like it would be difficult to figure out exactly what the market will bear without actively pursuing that information. If you stand in the beer section at your LCBO, you can see that there’s a limited amount of shelf space to work with. That means that past a certain point, there’s not a lot of ability to stock a huge number of products. In order for the process to be profitable and for the beers being sold to remain fresh, a certain amount of volume has to move.

As long as there’s no outlet that exists specifically for the sale of Ontario Craft Beer, the LCBO basically has to stock local craft beer year round. And it sells! According to this nifty press release I was sent earlier in the week, Ontario Craft Beer sales are up 52% at the LCBO in 2010. That’s not peanuts, and it means that there’s definitely demand for these beers. Their market share will almost certainly expand, and that means that the LCBO will probably attempt to expand their supply. I would, if I were them.

It does, I would think, create an interesting problem for craft beers from other countries. It suggests that with Ontario Craft Beer taking up more shelf space, the LCBO will be hard pressed to include products from elsewhere as general listings (viz. stuff that’s available year round.) The seasonal releases and brewery features are incredibly useful for this reason.

Not only does it mean that there’s only a set amount of beer to be sold, it creates its own interest and demand. If you know, for instance, that Panil Barriquee Sour is only going to be available for a couple of months as part of the spring release, a couple of interesting things will happen. Beer writers will write about it, probably pointing out the recent trend towards sour beers in North America (“Sour is the new Hop.” “Pucker up, Ontario.” That sort of thing.) and we’ll eventually get more lambics and brett fermented beers.

The fact that you can only get Panil for a couple of months creates a body of hype around it and it will sell out. Beer nerds will sock away a couple of bottles to be enjoyed at a later date and novice beer drinkers will probably give the beer a try because they heard about it somewhere or because it’s something they’ve never seen before. The LCBO will run through its stock relatively quickly and the cycle will begin again with some other beer.

Look at the Norrebro feature as an example. I’ve been tracking it on and it’s just flying off the shelves. It’s aided by a couple of things. The nice folks over at Roland and Russell sent Norrebro a consignment of Ontario Maple Syrup and the Ontario version of the La Granja Espresso Stout is brewed with it. It gives the release a good local interest story. (I, personally, think that the maple syrup may interfere slightly with the coffee aroma, but what do I know? It’s still pretty nice.) Even the Little Korkny Ale is moving pretty quickly and you would think that the price point ($21.95) would be prohibitive.

The Sam Adams/Weihenstephan Infinium ($14.95) arrived on shelves this week and there seems to be genuine interest despite some lackluster online reviews. It will be interesting to see what happens with this one, since beer nerds are wary of it. It’s certainly not the first beer to use the same techniques as Champagne. There’s Deus. Charlevoix also has quite a nice one. Ithaca in New York has a real humdinger in this style (albeit with some Brettanomyces). I suspect that this will sell primarily to beer novices who will be impressed by the bottle and the idea behind it. After all, it’s about the same price as a Freixenet or Henkell Trocken, so if you look at it that way, it’s not much of a risk. Potentially not a bad choice for Valentine’s Day, actually.

Essentially, what I think is happening is that the LCBO is testing the waters and trying to figure out exactly how much interest there is in releases like this and they’re slowly discovering that there’s a good deal more than they imagined. It’s a really good thing because it develops relationships with importers and means that there’s likely to be more of these releases in the future.

I suppose that what will happen is that releases like this will continue increasing in variety and frequency, until a point is reached where sales reach equilibrium with demand and there’s a backlog of inventory in storage or profitability is called into question. It’s a fine logistical problem and it’ll be interesting to see how the LCBO handles it. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of products people would be happy to see on the shelves. The question seems to be at what rate the public’s enthusiasm for craft beer both local and imported continues to grow.

Recent Developments

You may well have noticed that it has been a while since my last update here. That’s mostly due to the fact that last week I was writing sample pieces for Sun Media. You can imagine my surprise when I actually got the gig yesterday. That’s right: I’m now officially a quasi-legitimate beer writing guy.

I suspect that I should probably take this opportunity to explain why I ended up writing about beer, since there’ll probably be some increased traffic to the blog in the wake of the publication of the first couple of articles, and whenever possible I like to create context.

For a while there, I was a database administrator. I was not particularly good at it, but I had sort of ended up with the job after my supervisor became very ill. I didn’t have a lot of training, and I was basically holding things together with bailing wire, duct tape and the sweat of my brow. It made me incredibly miserable. When you wake up in the morning and your first thought as you’re making coffee is something like “Hey. I wonder if there are cheap flights to South America? Maybe I could disappear into the Andes and herd llamas.” you know that you’ve chosen the wrong career.

The office was down the street from Bar Volo, which is currently ridiculously highly rated in terms of excellent places to drink a beer. It’s certainly a really good place to go after working a job that you don’t particularly like.

I had heard that there was going to be a Brewmaster program available at Niagara College, so I looked very hard at the requirements for that and decided that it was probably a good idea to apply and see what happened. It looked like a career choice that I could really get in to. The only problem was that the program required more high school science courses than I had actually taken. For some reason, at 17, I had decided that physics was the way to go. While I was briefly able to mentally calculate the likely trajectory of Wile E. Coyote being fired out of an Acme catapult, it turned out that this was not a good long term choice.

There I was, last year about this time, sitting in an examination room holding forth on adaptive genetics in the populations of moths. Not having actually written anything with a pen in several years, I can only sympathize with whichever poor person ended up marking my paper. I did pretty well, but the marks didn’t come back in time to get me into the Niagara College program. It was a lack of planning on my part. I was waitlisted for the program.

So were a lot of other people. Last year, in its inaugural year, nearly 200 people applied for the Niagara College Brewmaster program.

I thought to myself the program would probably become competitive since that’s an awfully large number of applicants. “What can I do,” I thought, “to set myself apart from these other applicants?” I decided to start a blog. I was going to the Mondial festival in Montreal anyway, and I had a camera. Why not give it a shot?

That was about eight months ago.

Things sort of, uh… snowballed.

I’ve met a lot of really exceptional people both in the media and in the brewing industry. I have written a couple of articles for TAPS magazine, which is always a pleasure. I was the returning officer for the Canadian Brewing Awards, which was sort of neat (For about an hour, I was the only person in the country who knew the results). I have written satirical songs about brewery explosions. I have helped to organize Toronto Beer Week. I have brewed a bunch of beer both at home and at Great Lakes Brewery as part of their Project X series (Seriously: Try the Lazarus Breakfast Stout next time it’s available.) I was recently nominated for four Canadian Food Blog Awards and I hosted a tasting of the Ola Dubh range of products as part of the Robbie Burns celebration at The Monk’s Table. Now I’m the beer columnist for Sun Media.

You may be thinking that this is a hell of a roundabout way of getting into what is essentially an undergrad program; and you’d be totally justified in holding that viewpoint, especially since the program may not actually end up being competitive after all.  But if the experience thus far has taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing like overkill. Also, that overkill will frequently result in a hangover.

At this point, I don’t really know whether I’ll get into Niagara College’s program this year. I applied. I somehow managed to pass high school biology (learning more about Eukaryotes than ever I wanted to know in the process). All I know is that if I don’t get in, it won’t be for lack of trying. And I’ll have somehow managed to get an actual job in print media as a result of the attempt.

The best part is that I don’t have to do database administration anymore unless I feel like it. Which is nice.

(I guess I should take the opportunity to plug some of the blogs over on the right side of the page. Without those guys, I would have a lot less context. Troy Burtch, for instance, runs what is maybe the best source for Canadian beer news. Andrew Bartle has been doing some really well thought out reviews of beers lately; I can’t quite explain why but they make more sense to me than most of the ones I’ve seen. Alan McLeod won Best Beer Blog in Canada last week, which is well deserved. The others are worth your attention as well.)

Great Lakes/St.John’s Wort Collaboration #2 – Adequacy Prevails!

If you’re an amateur brewer, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Relax! Have a homebrew.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this to be the comforting mantra that it is no doubt intended to be. In the back of my head when I’m brewing beer I’m mostly thinking, “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Is everything sanitized? Oh crap! I’ve got to sanitize the airlock. The stuff is already in the bucket! It’ll all end in tears. Probably already has. Where the hell did I put the Star San?”

Wall of infamy

Mike Lackey and Me on the Great Lakes Wall of Infamy

This is why it’s gratifying to work with Mike Lackey at Great Lakes. He’s the chillest of dudes; Even his goatee is laid back. Mike knows exactly what needs to happen at every step of the process. Instead of screwing around measuring star san into gallons of water, he’s just got a hose and what I have to assume is premeasured sanitizing solution.

At home, if I’m brewing a beer and I get to the step where I need to mash some specialty grains into it, there’s always that moment of trepidation when I look at the packages of malt and wonder whether the grain has been crushed yet. Several minutes of beating a towel full of malt with a 1.5 litre grolsch bottle or transferring grain in and out of the burr grinder ensue, and always with unsatisfactory results. Too big. Too small. I find myself either worrying about starch conversion or wondering why everything smells like the inside of Ideal Coffee.

Great Lakes has one of these, which gets everything the same size even if it does look like it would be more at home in a Saw film.

That's what she said

This thing gives your forearm a pretty good workout.

After the moderate success of the Breakfast Stout that I did with Great Lakes a couple of months ago, I was invited back to try again with a different recipe. Deciding what you’re going to brew in Ontario is easy; All you have to do is look at what there isn’t. We’ve sort of reached a point in Ontario where I don’t feel bad about taking US craft beers as inspiration since they’re so far ahead of us in so many different categories. This time around, I thought it would be fun to try an Old Ale. I know that’s a typically English style, but I figured that by throwing some American hops at it and keeping the malt slightly lighter than would usually be called for in terms of roast, we might be able to create something interesting. The inspiration for it was Great Divide Hibernation Ale.

BEHOLD! St.John’s Wort Old Drawing Board

Let me tell you, the name was more appropriate than I had initially anticipated. If you’re like me, you’ve got just enough knowledge about what is possible to end up with a recipe that pretty much ignores the probable. This is especially true when you’re working with the ingredients that are on hand at someone else’s brewery. (What? I’m going to complain about getting to use stuff for free when the alternative is buying everything myself and sanitizing bottles?) We didn’t have two varieties of Crystal, so we had to use American 70-80 Crystal Malt for both Crystal additions. We didn’t have Carastan, so we decided to use Melanoidin. We switched the Biscuit malt out for Cara. We did have all of the hop varieties that we needed. Nugget, Columbus and Styrian Goldings.

Brewing this way reminds me of a criticism I once got from my university music theory professor, who claimed that I tended to view the process of theory exercises not so much as an aesthetic pursuit, but as a crossword puzzle. I have a tendency to take a top-down view in recipe creation, choosing a style that I want rather than a flavour profile in order to create a beer. For that reason it’s great to work with the materials that are on hand in order to create something. It forces me to think about what the likely outcome is going to be and it forces me to make real choices instead of using ideal ingredients. The other fun part is that since I’m partially colorblind, SRM measurements mean relatively little to me. I don’t know what colour something is going to be even when my software displays a little coloured box.

I'm not sure that colour exists outside of October

Going into the fermenter, to wreak havoc on yeast

In this case we ended up with a colour that I’m not sure I’ve seen before. As you can see, it’s sort of an opaque rust orange. Also, the Great Lakes pilot system has a conversion rate that’s slightly lower than the idealized 75% rate that my brewing software assumes.

What do you do when your dark brown, 8.7%, 93 IBU Old Ale ends up being rust orange, 8.0%, and about 107 IBU? Well, you realize pretty quickly that it’s not going to be an Old Ale. It’s not quite high enough in alcohol or dark enough in colour to be an American Barleywine. Imperial IPA? Maybe. All I can say is that I’m pretty sure it isn’t a Gruit or a Lambic. Add to this the fact that we might decide to age it in an Oak Barrel and the entire prospect becomes pretty frightening.  We’re probably also going to have to come up with a new name. Agent Orange might dissuade people. Mr. Orange might narc on us. Orange Julius would be nice because of the colour and the Imperial nature of the beer, but I think there’s some copyright infringement to consider.

Maybe the best news to come out of the brew day is that the collaboration Lazarus Breakfast Stout is going to show up again over the course of the next couple of months. If you’ve tried it before, I’m hoping this hits you as good news. If you didn’t get to try it last time, it should be making its way to an establishment chock full of beer nerds near you. I was pleased to see some positive feedback on ratebeer for the Breakfast Stout. It’s not every day you’re judged to be overwhelmingly adequate by a jury of your peers.

The Molsons, The Labatts and The St.Johns

Recently, I had an email from the nice folks over at Media Profile, who have sent me a release saying that public documents from the histories of the Molson and Labatt families are now available online as part of a promotion for This is no time to pause and consider whether what is clearly a PR grab for a typically non-beer related site is actually newsworthy, especially when I’ve been taken up by enthusiasm for researching my own family tree and comparing the historic arcs of the Molsons, Labatts and St.Johns.

While some of the documents released are not particularly interesting in and of themselves (John S. Labatt once managed to travel to Buffalo, which is a revelation on par with the fact that he once got a newspaper delivered) some of the documents are downright fascinating.

Just for reference, I should point out that the St.Johns have a long and storied past. You name a European country, and I can guarantee you that we were on our way out of it just steps ahead of the tax collectors. Over the years we were French (fled because we were Huguenots), Swiss (left after a particularly nasty confrontation with a clockmaker), German (persecuted because we never mastered the umlaut) and Irish. The earliest record of the St.Johns in Canada is from Uxbridge, Ontario before the Irish Potato Famine. It never even made the hit parade.

That early ancestor managed to personally clear 100 acres of virgin forest during his lifetime, stopping only to sharpen his axe, darn his socks and calculate his carbon footprint. It was a hard life. There were wolves everywhere; At the drop of a hat there were wolves in the hat. My great great great great Uncle “King” Philip St.John was called that because he had the largest wagon in the county (that’s what she said). During the rebellion in Upper Canada, he raised a troop of about a hundred militia to put down the rebels. I don’t know if they ever saw action, but you can bet that they got blisters walking from Uxbridge.

The Labatt family has similarly interesting history. Sophie Labatt perished tragically at the age of 55 from an accidental poisoning. This leaves us with a great deal of speculation as to the exact nature of the tragedy and a reminder not to confuse the sugar and arsenic canisters in your pantry.

John S. Labatt, grandson of the founder of the brewery was kidnapped in 1934 by an employee of his own brewery. It seems that the kidnapping was originally meant to be a hoax for a publicity stunt in order to call attention to the brewery. Unfortunately, the Labatt family wasn’t in on it and the kidnapper, Russell Knowles, subsequently received a fifteen year sentence for his troubles. Apparently it’s only a joke until you ask for five million dollars.

My great uncle Rufus T. St.John was kidnapped as a seven year old. They sent one of his fingers in the mail to prove that they were serious, but it was returned postage due. His father paid the kidnappers twenty dollars to keep him, but was disappointed when little Rufus showed up on his doorstep the next day without so much as a scratch.

Harry Markland Molson perished in the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. According to legend, he was last seen removing his shoes to swim towards a boat he saw off in the distance. I’m sure there’s a joke in here somewhere about Molson’s being cold and watery, but I don’t have a lawyer on retainer. Ironically, my great aunt Floe once had a summer internship as an iceberg (which is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard).

Lastly, the documents published by list Percival Talbot Molson’s attestation papers and military record. There are a number of things that we can learn from this, not the least of which is that if you have enough money on hand no one will laugh at you if your name is Percival. Seeing as he perished in the first world war, I’m not sure that I feel comfortable taking too many cheap shots at him. After all, anyone who’s willing to risk death and trench foot in order to fight the Kaiser is OK with me. We owe him one for that business with the umlaut.