St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

BB Barfly Bottle Opener

Last week around this time I was down at the Amsterdam Brewery for a product launch. Now, I know from having been to a number of them that launching a beer is a pretty hard thing to attract people to in Toronto. Imagine how difficult it must be to get people to turn up to a product launch for a bottle opener! Brian Becker, the guy behind the launch managed to get a pretty good turnout considering the difficulty level involved.

Basic black.

It’s a pretty cool bottle opener, as you can see. If you ever wanted to look like you should be facing down Chow Yun Fat in a drinking contest in an alley while doves fly around, then this is the product for you! It comes in a range of attractive colours and is made in Canada, which is nice.

While I can’t openly endorse a product without compromising my journalistic integrity, I feel like Brian might need some help getting the word out. For that reason I’ve recorded a radio spot to help him. Of course we’ll need sound effects in post production, but this is not a bad dry run. Could use some shattering glass and a wilhelm scream or two.

Nothing's cooler than basic black.

All The Beer In The World

Dateline – Weehauken, New Jersey

According to his blog, All The Beer In The World, Steve Hackenbush of Weehauken, NJ has today completed his quest to sample and rate all of the beers produced by mankind.

This seemingly impossible achievement marks the end of a thirteen year project for Hackenbush, aged 37.

“Well, one day back in ’98, my boy Lumpy Mike said I should get a beer while we were out at T.G.I.Friday’s. I didn’t want a beer, you know? Mudslides were more my thing. But when I got back from the bathroom, there it was,”said Hackenbush when reached for comment.

“I guess he didn’t know what he was getting in to.”

Currently, Hackenbush has amassed over 165,000 ratings on Judgebeers.com, a prominent site frequented by beer enthusiasts. According to the website, he has given all of the beers ever brewed an underwhelming average rating of 4.73/10.

“Well, you know. Some of those mass produced beers from China just suck. I mean, have you ever tried that fermented Yak’s milk  beverage from Tibet? I have. Not pleasant.”

Upon the revelation of the completion of all of the beers available on the planet, Steve’s controversial blog post “I Win At Beer” was revealed to be little more than a tirade aimed at “Lumpy” Mike Colaggio, including phrases like “Well now who’s a pussy, Lumpy Mike? That’s right! I drank the beer. I drank ALL the beer.”

Judgebeers.com forum member P1NT_D4DDY69 immediately questioned the legitimacy of Hackenbush’s accomplishment: “That’s not even possible. He must have had 40 beers a day! And how did he get them all? I can’t even track down a 2003 vintage Thomas Hardy. It completely violates the laws of physics and causality. He even has a rating for one released exclusively on tap in Oregon yesterday! I’m calling bullshit.”

“Some of those beers are pretty high in alcohol. By all rights he should be dead,” opined visibly repulsed nutritionist Debbie Wilcox. “A Healthy diet is all about moderation, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Sure, some of those beers are served with orange wedges, but that hardly counts as a serving of fruit.”

“Haters gonna hate,” stated Hackenbush from his parents’ basement in Weehauken. “At least I finally showed that jerk who the real man is.”

Michael Colaggio, a successful office manager and father of two now residing in Salinas, California was shocked to discover that this grudge still existed after thirteen years. “I had forgotten all about that. I left him a voicemail the day after it happened to apologize. I had had a few too many drinks and I was trying to impress the waitress by getting Steve to drink a beer. Man, that guy hated the stuff.”

“I said I was sorry. At least I got her number.”

Judgebeers.com’s owner, Jay Stafford, has hired accounting firm Deloitte and Touche to conduct an audit of the 165,000 plus ratings, citing the fact that the work of verifying their authenticity was far too tedious for one man. At the time of writing, the outlook is promising, despite some repetitive language in the reviews. The adjective “hoppy” has been used 77,483 times with “fruity nose” running a close second at 42,896. Third place is occupied by the phrase “maybe this’ll show that douchebag.”

When asked what was next for him, Hackenbush replied “I should probably get into the office and start working on that Y2K thing.”

“Maybe I’ll take a nap first,” he added.

The Wreck of The Okanagan Springs Beer Review

The thing about writing a blog is that you have to keep churning out content, and this essentially means that you’re always on the lookout for something to write about. All beer bloggers are doing this all the time in order to stay relevant. By the same hugely generalized token, we’re all hoping to enjoy whatever it is we’re doing. There are beer dinners and beer launches and nights where a brewery will take over tap lineups. Great Lakes had a fantastic one of those the other day, and I imagine I’ll get around to writing about that one in the near future.

The problem is that with the constant need for content, a PR company can essentially flood an entire cycle of blog posts. Michael Warner over at A Year of Beer has already received Okanagan Springs Pale Ale. Chris Schryer over at Toronto Beer Blog will be writing about it soon if he hasn’t already. I couldn’t tell you how many other people have received samples.

Near as I can figure it, this is what happens: PR firm confirms my contact details, sends a small amount of beer with a courier or hand delivers it (sometimes a single bottle, in this case a six pack), and then I get to write about it a little bit. Depending on the blog that you’re writing, next time someone googles the product name, they end up reading your review. The quality and judgment of the review may not matter very much as long as it contains factual information and establishes the fact that the beer in question is a known quantity within whichever market you happen to be blogging about. It creates a number of google results for the product which will be around nearly indefinitely, since putting something on the internet is like peeing in a swimming pool. Once it’s in there, it’s not going to come out.

It is therefore possible to dominate an extraordinarily niche media cycle and create a lasting series of easily available reviews argued from a position of authority for the price of a six pack of beer and a courier delivery. I’m assuming for the purposes of this equation that the PR guy was going to be in the office that day anyway, possibly playing minesweeper or Farmville (which autocapitalizes in Word 2007. DAMN!)

Got that, internet denizen? Moving on:

Okanagan Springs Pale Ale

Here’s what it says on the tin:

“First brewed by Okanagan Spring Brewery in 1989, the Pale Ale is a clear and copper-coloured beer that is fruity on the palate and hearty in hops with a nice, round finish … The recipe hasn’t changed from the original using premium, two-row Canadian barley, Bavarian hops, a signature yeast strain and 100% pure Okanagan spring water.”

LCBO item number: 232645

MSRP: $12.95

It pours a nice coppery colour (a six on the Okanagan Spring proprietary colour wheel), with some off white head that quickly recedes. There’s more malt sweetness than I would have expected from the style and whatever hops are in it don’t really come through in the aroma, although there is a bitter twinge on the tail of a sip. It’s kind of fruity. Honestly, I think it might be closer to an ESB than a pale ale.

It’s disappointing and I know why. This is a recipe designed in 1989 and at the time this probably could have been construed as hoppy. Might even have been a provincial champion in 1989. The goalposts have shifted and this can only be considered hoppy for a macro craft beer. It’s drinkable, but it’s not very exciting. I think that might be the hop varietals at play. I don’t quite know why you’d use Bavarian hops in the pacific northwest.

Oh, I know what you’re saying. “Mr. Crankypants beer blogger doesn’t like the free beer that showed up at his door. He wants the moon on a stick.” Truly, though, what I think happened is this: Sleeman’s (Sapporo) now owns a bunch of brands and is trying to spread them throughout Canada in a bid for market share. This may be the best pale ale on their roster and they’re running with it. It’s not objectively bad, but it is objectively mediocre. I mean no offense to Stefan Tobler who designed it originally, since it was probably comparatively pretty good at the time he developed it.

My advice to you, if you’re looking for a pale ale in the LCBO is Black Oak. Not only is it eighty cents cheaper for a six pack, it’s more interesting. You could easily drink Okanagan Spring Pale Ale in a pub without being laughed at, if that’s any consolation.

Now to see whether the building super would like some of the leftover sample bottles.

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.

And:

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.

Or

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 drinkvine.com 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.