St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Brew Masters – Sam Runs The Voodoo Down

There’s been quite a bit of enthusiasm recently for a new program that has been airing on the Discovery Channel in the states. Brew Masters is hosted by Sam Calagione, who is the man behind Dogfish Head in Delaware. It begins broadcasting on the 17th on Discovery Canada and will probably be bookended by Kari Byron blowing things up and Mike Rowe cleaning out a stable. (While it would be disingenuous to suggest that you absolutely have to wait until next Monday to watch it on Discovery Canada, it would be irresponsible and morally suspect to mention that you can probably just punch “free tv brew masters” into Google and watch it whenever you feel like it. I suspect many of you will have done this already and I am therefore forced to denounce you as filthy internet pirates just in case any regulatory boards are paying attention.)

The show essentially revolves around two arcs in every episode. The main arc usually has to do with Sam Calagione and his thoroughly capable brewmasters being tasked with creating a beer with a specific theme. The secondary and significantly less featured arc has to do with the day to day running of the brewery. Usually these have to do with mishaps that have taken place during production.

Glue spills all over the floor, or a batch doesn’t ferment properly, or a piece of the bottling machine is found to be missing. It turns out that it’s relatively difficult to create a dramatic situation in a properly run brewery, so these problems get a lot of focus in order to create tension in the B story. The choice to focus less on these issues is essentially a tacit admission that even the loss of a half million dollars worth of product is not really interesting visually. There’s a shot of a hose pouring beer into a drain; No one is tearing their hair or committing seppuku.

The main arc may as well be titled “The Continuing Adventures of Sam Calagione.” I feel like I should talk about Sam a little. He’s thoroughly likeable, personable, enthusiastic and, I suspect, has a gift for promotion that rivals P.T. Barnum. I don’t mean that derogatorily; it’s just that Sam is everywhere. If you’ve seen a documentary on beer in the last three or four years, you have seen Sam. The glimpses of the backstory of Dogfish Head that we’re given show him to be a sort of Horatio Alger myth for the craft beer set. He’s managed to grow Dogfish Head into the 16th largest craft brewery in the US in just under 14 years, has written a number of books and has been featured in the New Yorker and on The Huffington Post. For all that, he drives around in a beat up pickup and somewhat inexplicably speaks in the manner of Keanu Reeves in Point Break. I think that it’s a carefully cultivated media persona adopted by a very savvy man, but the anachronism is delightful whether or not it is achieved by design.

The purpose of the main arc of the show is designing a beer. Whether they’re going on an ingredient run to Egypt or searching the Andes for authentic brewing methods, there’s going to be an extreme beer at the end of it. Whether that beer is period authentic or an expression of the influences observed is up for debate. One of the benefits of brewing a theoretical ancient style of beer is that there’s nothing available for comparison. It does result in a unique product that promotes the idea of Dogfish Head being a leader in experimentation.

The episode that stuck out for me is the one in which Sam is tasked with creating a beer commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. He decides on a blend of an Imperial Stout and an Ethiopian inspired honey beer bittered with gesho root. The reason I find that compelling is that the Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Dogfish Head’s extreme beers work so closely conceptually.

With Bitches Brew, Miles Davis basically galvanized Jazz Fusion as a concept. The album was recorded over the period of three days and much of what you hear listening to it is the result of the self-indulgence of the musicians involved. It’s improvisational to the extent that Davis actually issued cues to the other musicians instead of scores and it stands as a landmark album for the reason that it is unrepeatable and influential in terms of the soundscape that it creates. If you listen to a jazz radio station, you’re not going to hear a lot of covers of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down or Pharoah’s Dance.

With Bitches Brew, or really any of the extreme beers that Dogfish Head produces, you end up with similar genre defiance and stylistic melding. Peruvian Chicha? Egyptian… something? Does that fall into a category or is it a new and experimental thing? Can it be replicated? Would anyone want to?

There are a couple of issues that both Miles Davis and Dogfish Head engender:

First of all, they are both very high profile. If you become interested in jazz, you’re going to end up with a copy of Bitches Brew within a few months. Similarly, if you become interested in craft beer you’re going to try Dogfish Head fairly early on. In the same way that it might be difficult to have much interest in the Glenn Miller Orchestra after hearing Bitches Brew, it can be difficult to be interested in a Pale Ale after drinking a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. They may neither of them be the first point of contact for a budding enthusiast, but their iconic statuses ensure that there will be exposure and the amount of hype that exists around them can inform an opinion.

It requires context. Are they both interesting? Definitely. Are they both important? Certainly. Could you listen to or drink Bitches Brew all the time? No. Definitely not. Both the Miles Davis album and the Dogfish Head beer exist because of an underlying conceptual framework which is being expanded upon. Look at how many jazz musicians cover How High The Moon or Mack The Knife. Look how many breweries make a standard English Pale Ale.

Secondly, they both spawn imitators. Once you create Jazz Fusion, you have the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Once you create Extreme Brewing, you have people aging 15% beers on spruce shavings and creating Galactic Imperial IPAs with theoretical IBUs of over a thousand, incorporating a heretofore unrecognized variety of turnip.

Eventually, because of the imitators, the popularity of the thing dies off somewhat. Once the initial work has been done to show what is possible, the importance of subsequent attempts within the genre tends to lessen. On the other hand, Tony Bennett and a hoppy Pilsner never go out of style.

Tortured analogies aside, Brew Masters is an interesting show that we can all learn a lot from. If you’re an Ontario brewer, it’s a good chance to see what Sam can do with a gift for self promotion and a willingness to experiment. If you’re an Ontario beer drinker, it’s a good chance to make a wish list for a trip to Buffalo.

The Kingston Brewing Company

Typically, one of the best things about Christmas in Kingston is that I get to revisit, if briefly, an old haunt. The Kingston Brewing Company is the oldest brewpub in Ontario and Canada’s oldest wine producing pub.

Back when I lived in Kingston for a short period of time after university, it was a place that my brother and I would hang out. We were both working in a call centre and as relative newcomers we had been put on the night shift. It was a call centre for an American cell phone company’s activations line and we were dropped into the queue at a time when it suddenly became possible to port a number from other service providers.

I think this is actually a pretty good representation of the concept of "festooned."

Of course, the technology wasn’t perfect when it was introduced. People were promised that their numbers would be ported within 48 hours and in some cases it took several months. More often than not the port would fail, the number would drop back into circulation and people would be entirely without phone service.

What I’m getting at here is that there was a lot of yelling which we had to sit good naturedly by and accept as per the provisions of the script. If you can picture yourself being paid to sit quietly at a half cubicle desk getting yelled at by Foghorn Leghorn, it was sort of like that: a dunk tank, but instead of water there was verbal abuse.

Typically, by the end of the week, you’d need a trip to the pub. There was a pleasing alignment in that our paycheques were usually deposited by midnight on the last day of our weekly shifts and that the KBC was close to our house and took interac. We would sit and drink Dragon’s Breath and mercilessly take the piss out of people from Alabama who wanted their cell phones “cut back on.”

I have a lot of good memories of the place, but until this year I was never a beer blogger and never thought about it from a professional standpoint, so it was interesting to visit this year and see how my perception of it changed based on the amount of context I have.

If you’re used to brewpubs in Toronto, there are a certain number of expectations that have cropped up in the last few years. First of all, the place is going to look corporate. Think about Mill Street or Three Brewers or The Granite. They all have relatively clean looks to them and they all have pretty elaborate layouts capable of seating a hundred people simultaneously. Duggan’s sort of resembled a sensory deprivation tank for the first months of its existence; I don’t know whether plain white walls can be classified as “decor.”

That polar bear has been looking at those towels for the better part of a decade.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand has been amassing memorabilia from all over the world since 1986 and has a collection of bartowels that I have never seen matched. During the regular course of business, the sheer number of framed towels is pretty daunting. During the Christmas season, they really go to town. Lights and garlands everywhere. Camels festooned with ornaments. A Santa hat on the papier mache polar bear that lives over the entranceway. It’s enough to throw an interior designer into an apoplectic rage. That said, it does give the place character and a certain joie de vivre.

Another marked difference is the fact that Toronto brewpubs are likely to have several of their beers on at any one time and that they will have only their own beers on offer. Additionally, they’re caught up in the current atmosphere of development and brewer’s whimsey. Mill Street and Duggan’s keep coming up with new beers in order to stay at the cutting edge of the Ontario Craft Beer scene. Even The Granite will periodically come up with a new release, the most recent being their smoked porter.

The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand, is one of the only venues for Ontario Craft Beer between Toronto and Ottawa and it seems like they’re completely willing to share the stage with any number of Ontario Brewers. It’s not something that you can really fault them for when you see the size of their brewing setup. I think that the brewing facility (located just behind the bar) would be hard pressed to accommodate more than two people at a time and I’m sure that given the customer volume I’ve observed over the years there’s no way that they could possibly keep up with demand. Brewing of their two most popular beers is outsourced. Their Whitetail Cream Ale is brewed by Brick and the Dragon’s Breath Pale Ale is brewed out of province by McAuslan.

So I guess the question is “What do they brew?”

Well, they still brew their Real Ale on site and they also brewed a winter seasonal called Figgy Puddin’.

Figgy Puddin', just hanging out in its natural habitat.

I tried both of those and I don’t really know what to think. The seasonal brew actually contains Rum as an ingredient, so I have no idea what to make of that. I’m not advanced enough as a brewer to know how that would even work. I suspect it’s dark rum added after fermentation to create depth, but I don’t know for sure. The Real Ale is just sort of alright, which is about fair when you consider that they’re trying to do cask conditioned real ale on an extract brewing system.

Truth be told I think I’m judging the Kingston Brewing Company harshly based on the fact that I want it to be better. I certainly seem to remember it being better. For a period in the late 90’s Dragon’s Breath was contract brewed by Hart and was fairly widely available. At the time it was one of the hoppiest beers in Ontario and was certainly different than just about everything else on the market. I don’t know how it would stand up today, since it was an English style IPA and those have fallen out of favour.

I think that the issue is probably complicated by the fact that it’s a very popular brewpub in a town dominated by tourists during the summer and university students during the rest of the year. I suspect that since much of their business is based on volume of sales, they probably don’t have to try very hard to make a great deal of money. That’s the sort of thing that might engender a certain amount of complacency.

I tell you what: The place doesn’t lack for character. They once reprinted their menus in order to fit in “decriminalized pot-pie.”

Anyone who’s willing to stretch that far for a joke is OK in my book. I just wish they had a little more pride and experimentation in their brewing. It occurs to me that in the wake of the first crop of Niagara College graduates, they’d do well to pick up an apprentice brewer and switch to an all grain system.

When there's no more room on the walls, the memorabilia will walk the earth.

It’s one thing to rest on your laurels as the first brewpub in Ontario. It’s quite another to remain relevant. My hope for the Kingston Brewing Company is that they can manufacture some type of resurgence in the next few years and not only reclaim some of their former glory but surpass peoples’ expectations.

Sam Adams Utopias: A Public Service Announcement

As you’re all aware by now, Sam Adams Utopias is on its way to Toronto. It’s going to be $115 per bottle. In order to get a bottle, you have to enter a lottery held by the vintages section of the LCBO! That’s some fancy stuff. There are only 70 bottles, and you’re probably not going to get one.The truth is that I’m probably not going to get one either, but I’m ok with that since I’ve tried it before. At Mondial this year in Montreal, it was something like seven dollars an ounce.

It’s a little like bungee jumping: preposterous, expensive and the kind of thing you need to try once in order to be able to say that you did.

That said, you’re probably not going to get try it. I have come up with a way to help you feel better about that. I present to you the St.John’s Wort Expensive Liquids Equivalence Chart. The SJWELEC is the absolute cutting edge in liquid value comparison and will present you with interesting alternatives to investing $115 in a bottle Sam Adams Utopia.

Kind of Liquid Cost /ml Difficulty to Procure
Green Tea Free with sushi Sometimes difficult to get a refill if the restaurant is busy.
Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverages n/a Only available in Springfield. 

Suggested Pairing: Krusty Burger with cheese.

Gasoline $0.001124 More difficult for cliched movie teenagers.
2% Milk $0.002595 Are you kidding? It’s freakin’ milk!
Nitrogen $0.003000 You’ll also have to buy a Thermos.
Fiji Natural Water $0.003000 Harder than just turning on the faucet, Mr. fancypants.
Starbucks Christmas Blend $0.004000 Only available November through January
Briess Malt Extract $0.009000 Aside from finding a brewer`s supply store, not so bad.
Brass Monkey (That Funky Monkey) $0.010000 Only available in Connecticut, apparently.
MacAllan Cask Strength $0.133000 Not hard to get. Just expensive.
Sam Adams Utopias $0.153330 1.Wait until January 6th 

2. Enter a lottery officiated by LCBO employees,

3. Win golden ticket like Charlie Bucket

4. Pay $115.00 for a bottle.

Love Potion No.9 $0.510000 Only available down at 34th and Vine.
Chanel No. 5 $0.890000 Pretty easy to find, but you’re going to smell 

like you should be wearing a pantsuit.

Chateau Lafitte 1787 $213.330000 Extraordinarily difficult. Don’t even bother.

According to my calculations, for the price of a Sam Adams Utopia you can:

1. Buy 44 litres of milk and just enough liquid nitrogen to make an attempt at the Guinness record for world’s largest, blandest popsicle.

2. Buy a single half milliliter of Chateau Lafitte 1787 and party with Madame Guillotine.

3. Afford enough gas to be able to drive a 2010 Toyota Camry to Cooperstown, New York (533 km, approx ~$46), Tour the Baseball Hall of Fame ($19.50), Visit the Ommegang brewery for some free samples of beers that are probably better than the Sam Adams Utopias at no charge and then drive back to Toronto (another 46 bucks.)

4. Buy a bunch of bottles of Fiji water for people who like that stuff and then sit around lecturing them on how they are suckers for not just buying a Brita filter while getting progressively more incoherent because you are swigging from a bottle of excellent MacAllan single malt.

5. Get your mom a bottle of her favorite perfume for Christmas and use the rest of the money to buy some sushi so that you can drink a lot of green tea.

6. Pay Matt Groening to sketch you enjoying a Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverage.

7. Buy 49 Venti Starbucks Christmas Blend Coffees, use the approximate 20000mg of caffeine to vibrate through the walls of the LCBO warehouse and just steal a bottle of Utopias.

8. Buy 21.5 litres of Aunt Jemima’s Butter Flavoured Syrup and have a very, very strange bath.

Feel free to comment with any suggestions that you may come up with to help the SJWELEC educate the population at large about opportunity cost.

Beer Launches and The Christmas Ramble

While there’s some question about whether this is the most wonderful time of the year (much as there is debate about April being the cruelest month; I’ll have you know August once stole my bike) it is certainly one of the busiest socially and it is for this reason that I haven’t been doing a great deal of blogging lately. Ix-nay on the og-blay. It’s like Satchel Paige says: The social ramble ain’t restful. I’ve been all over the place the last couple of weeks, attending beer events and launches and I think there may have been a jamboree in there somewhere. It could have been a hootenanny. My memory of it is slightly hazy.

It’s for this reason that I’m going to update on a whole bunch of topics at once, to try and get them out of the way so that we can all get off the internet and have a holly jolly Christmas and a great deal of Turkey. Unless you’re opening presents via skype, I’m told that taking your netbook with you to the tree is bad form exemplified. You might start a flamewar if you get socks from Great Aunt Gladys.

Let’s do this thing.


This got launched at Project Xmas down at Great Lakes on December 10th. The cask version did extremely well and it ran out in what I think was just slightly over two hours. I have got to tell you that all of the whacking stuff with a mallet that my junior sergeant-general correspondent royale did really paid off. We were all worried about having used so much Ancho Chili in the recipe, but it just sort of lingers a little at the back of the palate. The coffee flavour really came through up front and in the bottled version there’s a nice cocoa note right in the middle.

There were some bottles for sale, but there weren’t many of them, so they were gone within 48 hours. Mike Lackey, Great Lakes beer guru and guy who’s crazy enough to let me try brewing stuff, says we’re going to take another run at it, so you can expect to see that back on the shelves in the next couple of months. It may even make it out of the brewery in cask form. Look out, beer nerds!

It used to be that when I’d see Mike out at the pub, he would be standing in the corner with a pint of whatever it was that he brewed and he wouldn’t be saying a whole lot. I used to think he was just taciturn, but now I realize that he was thinking about what had gone into the recipe and made that beer what it was. I experienced the same thing at the Great Lakes launch. There was about 20 minutes of relative silence and instropective blinking and stammering and pride. My recipe did better than it had any right to, and I’m going to credit that mostly to Mike Lackey. Thanks, man!


I finally got to try this beer on December 17th and we’re currently in the process of getting it to all of the people who helped brew it. As you may recall, Chris Schryer, Matt Caldwell and Andrew Bartle helped to actually brew the thing, although I came up with the recipe. While we were all extraordinarily manly and competent and not at all confused or worried looking, Andrew Bartle was pretty much the lynchpin that prevented us from scalding ourselves with boiling wort. Credit where it’s due: Because of Bartle none of us have third degree burns in unpleasant areas.

As you’ll recall, it’s sort of a Winter Warmer/IPA. Promash is telling me that it’s supposed to weigh in at about 77 IBU, but that bitterness really only comes through on the tail of the thing. Up front it’s mostly cinnamon and there’s a touch of molasses, which is just the sort of thing that you want at this time of year. I stopped in briefly at the Amsterdam brewery where it has been fermenting and we opened a couple of bottles for sampling purposes. Again, better than it has any right to be and you’ll be pleased to know that even after fermentation is seems to have retained its aroma and ability to waft female people along like a cartoon pie on a windowsill.


My last three beers have done great! The IPA was third best in the Toronto Beer Week Competition. The Christmas Ale is better than it has any right to be. The Lazarus Breakfast Stout is apparently not just going to be a one off; it’s actually going to be produced again with a few small tweaks.

Where do I go from here, you may ask? I’m still convinced of the worth of gambling big. Maybe the next one will be a hoppy American Style Old Ale. Maybe it’ll be a Biere de Garde or Saison with indigenous North American fruit. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll attempt to answer the question “Why the heck aren’t people doing any really big lagers with American style hops?” Only time will tell.

All I know is that there’s a heck of a lot of actual research going on and not a great deal of writing, which is slightly worrying since I know just enough about the subjects I’m researching to screw up incredibly badly when it comes to execution.


My Lazarus Breakfast Stout wasn’t the only one that launched last week. Fuller’s Bengal Lancer hit town in a relatively spectacular way at the Monk’s Table and Chris Schryer and I spent rather a lot of time at the launch. The Bengal Lancer is very tasty if you like an English style beer. It’s somewhere between a Bitter and an IPA. It’s got some earthy and coppery notes and a smooth mouthfeel and reminds me very much of beers that purported to be IPAs in Ontario just over a decade ago. It really is rather good.

You should go to the Monk’s Table, but I’m not sure the Bengal Lancer is the reason you should do that. Let me tell you about Lester. Lester is the Guatemalan ubermensch behind the kitchen over there. Everything is made from scratch, all the time. The Artichoke dip actually has bits in it that are recognizable as Artichoke. The Buffalo Shrimp have actually been freshly breaded. The Baked Wings manage to retain their texture and have just the right amount of heat. The Apple Cobbler is maybe the best Apple Cobbler I’ve ever tasted and I usually hate dessert.

Adam Grant, the owner, is doing some really good things with beer. He’s bringing in rare bottles and interesting things on tap, but the thing that convinced me that the Monk’s Table is a destination is that they do exactly what people claim to want to do: quality food. You’ll notice I leave out “pub” there. I think that’s a qualifying adjective that causes people to lower their expectations. In this case the menu fits the concept and it works spectacularly without any qualifiers.


The Canadian Food Blog Awards are up and still running their nominations today and tomorrow. Now far be it from me to attempt to wheedle nominations out of my readership, but I’ll just remind you that it’s Christmas and you haven’t gotten me anything.

Wink-wink. Nudge-nudge. Say no more.

Trafalgar Ales And Meads

There seems to exist amongst beer writers a sort of unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to excessively disparage the efforts of a craft brewery. It results in a certain amount of imbalance in reporting. Craft good; Macro bad. Small good; Large bad. There’s also a fairly heavy bias against value brands, because of the socioeconomic realities and stereotypes of their consumer base. It’s always easy to score a few cheap points off of, for instance, Lakeport:

–          Yo Mama so poor she drinks Lakeport. We are becoming concerned about her welfare. Maybe if she had chosen a more skilled financial planner, things would not have come to this sad state of affairs.

See? Easy! Plus, if you don’t have a “Yo Mama” joke ready to go, you can google one without much effort. The thing is that while we can easily disparage something like Lakeport for not living up to our discerning palates, they do exactly what they set out to do: They create an affordable product for people who are interested in beer as a commodity. There’s an incredibly small amount of variation from batch to batch. They do the same thing over and over and over again but they do it very well, comparatively speaking.

It’s a facet of the industry that I don’t completely understand.

For instance: Why do reviewers seem to give Craft Brewers a pass if their product is substandard? There’s a Western Ontario brewery whose beer sometimes end up laden with a diacetyl-y butterscotch flavour which is almost certainly unintentional, given that the style claims to be an IPA. Last year, I saw fill lines vary by nearly an inch on one Ottawa brewery’s Imperial Stout; this is a worrying sight when the bottles are all lined up on the same shelf. I’m willing to shrug these examples off and assume that they’re one-time problems which have since been fixed. I’m also not going to name them since I like to restrict the potential for getting sued for libel to one brewery per post.

There is one brewery in particular which doesn’t really get talked about very much by writers and reviewers, but which has managed to develop an almost entirely negative set of criticism online. You guessed it: Trafalgar.

Now it’s not really in my nature to kick people when they’re down, but the negative criticism is so overwhelming that I began to wonder about Trafalgar. I’m a statistics wonk, so I looked at Ratebeer; it paints a woeful picture. There are nearly fifty entries under their brewery. There are three that have done passably well: Hop Nouveau (58 overall, 82 on style), Winter Warmer (65 overall, 52 on style) and Dark Wheat (38 overall, 71 on style). I’m giving the Elora Grand Lager a pass since Ratebeer is notoriously hard on lagers and it scored in the 83rd percentile on style.

Of the remaining entries, none have done what you’d call well on either individual or stylistic bases. Some of the less well received examples of Trafalgar’s wares (and I am hereby restricting myself to those beers which were widely available through the LCBO) are the Maple Bock (4 overall, 1 on style) the Smoked Oatmeal Stout (19 overall, 3 on style) and Critical Mass (25 overall, 0 on style). Critical Mass was part of their VERY STRONG BEERS series. It’s a Double/Imperial IPA. There’s a lot of competition in that style, but to have done so poorly as to be rendered statistically negligible takes a certain amount of doing.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to let a lot of internet nerds tell me what to think. I went to the LCBO and got me some Trafalgar products. Both of the ones that were available: The Bock and the Smoked Oatmeal Stout. I wanted to give them a fair shake, because the LCBO deems their products worthy of continued inclusion in seasonal releases and I think we can all agree that the government knows what they’re doing. The Smoked Oatmeal Stout has been out for a while, so I made sure to check the best before date (good for another month). I made notes on each of them, which I share with you here.

Bock: Has some of the malt richness and caramel flavour that I expect from the style. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between the nose which makes sense given the style and the body, which reminds me of one of my earliest batches of homebrew. Impression possibly clouded because the last Bock I tried was the Troegenator Double Bock, which I think might highlight the disparity. I think if it were really very cold indeed, it might have been better.

Smoked Oatmeal Stout: Nose is reminiscent not so much of a stout as an American Porter. There’s a sweet, honeyed quality to the nose but nothing much in the way of smoke. Body is thin. To me, the idea of an Oatmeal Stout means that there’s some thickness to the body; practically chewy. The smoke is on the tail of the palate after the swallow. It leaves an unpleasant film on the entire palate. I not only poured out the sample after four sips, but brushed my teeth immediately after.

Now, I’ve tried other beers that they make. I tried the Bert Well Pale Ale at Volo’s Cask Days this year. It had a leafy green sourness to it that I didn’t find appealing. I think that may be a result of the fresh hops that were apparently used, or possibly because they don’t do cask very frequently. I have also tried all of the beers in the VERY STRONG BEER series (When they were fresh). My recollection of them is that they were incredibly boozy and that I was glad they came in small bottles. I tried some of the Elora Special Bitter last Thursday as part of OCB Discovery Pack 7. I’m trying to convey to you that I have some context here.

It has been pointed out to me by a qualified BJCP that Trafalgar beers are actually very tasty when consumed straight from the tap; when they are quite fresh. That’s certainly worth noting, but the problem is that I don’t recall seeing a Trafalgar product on tap in Toronto in the last three years. Maybe I’m hanging out at the wrong places, but it seems to me that their business model is based nearly entirely around bottles. The bottled beers don’t seem to be taking the world by storm. In point of fact, they have garnered what borders on infamy in online circles.

It worries me. Legitimately. I don’t know the brewers and I have nothing against them personally. I don’t mean to be hurtful. But you see, this is a business that people base their livelihoods on. I can’t imagine that they produce much in the way of volume, but the brewers and staff have their lives tied up in this thing. If the reviews are this overwhelmingly negative, maybe they don’t get into a seasonal LCBO lineup. Maybe they don’t get into a couple. For a small brewery, that’s potentially the difference between viability and bankruptcy.

At what point do you have to start listening to your critics and attempt to improve your standing? What steps can they take? Bring in a new brewer? Change their recipes? Improve their processes?

Is it possible that they are unaware of their reputation? Maybe the lack of accurate reviews from legitimate sources is the problem. Maybe they’ve been given a pass for so long that they don’t know where they stand. I don’t know.

I do know that if I were them, I’d be worried.

Shameless Plug for CASK!

Hey!, You know what you should do today? You should use the CASK! Social as an excuse to get out of the house and away from your loved ones so that you can do some Christmas shopping. They’ll be thinking “Sure, he’s going to spend all day at the pub.” You, on the other hand, will only spend a few hours at the pub and the rest of the time shopping for Christmas presents. This month it’s at the Victory, and in Mirvish Village you can find something for everyone. Just picture the looks on the faces of your loved ones when they open that new book that you’re pretty sure they’ll let you read after they’re done with it and that you’ve only managed to spill a small amount of Oatmeal Stout on. They’ll be ecstatic that you remembered to wrap it.

Take a couple hours and get out there to shop and then go to the victory and have a pint. After all, it’s the last time you’ll get to see CASK! folks this year and shopping is thirsty work. Besides, pints are only $5.00.  You’re not going to break the bank, even if your misguided attempts at shopping saw you spend several hundred dollars at Sonic Boom purchasing new vinyl pressings of Buzzcocks albums.

It takes place this afternoon:  Saturday December 4th 2010 from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm at the Victory Cafe, 581 Markham St., Toronto.

It looks like it’s going to be F&M beers and one Cheshire Valley pin. George Eagleson will be there! You may confuse him with Santa, but try not to sit on his lap.

CASK! : Giving you an excuse to go Christmas shopping in peace and quiet.

Premiere Gourmet

A couple of weekends ago, I took a trip to Buffalo with some friends. Ostensibly, we piled into the car for the reason that we wanted to visit the Blue Monk, but given that we could have done that on the bus, the real reason for the trip had to be to pick up some American Beer. Not that the Blue Monk isn’t worth a trip to Buffalo; It is. All you have to do is look at the tap selection to realize that it’s something of a specialty. It blows all of the tap lists in Toronto completely out of the water.

The truth of the matter is that everyone wanted to make a trip to Premiere Gourmet.

In Buffalo, he's technically "Eric Ecclestone: Canadian Badass."

It’s worth mentioning that the LCBO has actually been doing a vastly more satisfactory job for the last three months or so. They have been bringing in a variety of interesting things. You can get all of the vintages of Harviestoun Ola Dubh. You might be lucky enough to purchase a Sam Adams Utopia (which is being doled out by a lottery system that I won’t pretend to understand.) One of the problems that the LCBO seems to have is that there’s only so much shelf space. You’ll almost never see them carrying entire product lines. I could be charitable and suggest that they’re observing expiry dates, but I think that part of the issue is balancing incoming products with existing stock: They can’t afford to have too much of their warehouse space tied up.

In Buffalo, however, this doesn’t seem to be a concern. In terms of the desires of Ontario beer nerds, Premiere Gourmet may as well be a magical wonderland where the best of the output of several countries is always available and the enchanted pixies offer you samples of exotic cheeses while you fill your cart with rare and sought after elixirs and stand in dumb amazement staring at the wall of hot sauce.

I’ve only been there twice, so I have little criticism of it. Some of my friends claim that some of the beers will have reached their expiry dates before they make it to the shelves or that some of the IPAs have lost that hoppy zing. It may well be accurate. I never get far in terms of worrying about it for a very simple reason: I don’t have the depth of experience that some of my friends do in terms of American beers. I’m like a kid in a candy store or, perhaps more accurately, like an adult version of myself in a candy store.

Some of the people who were with me on the trip will periodically go on jaunts to the states. They’ll hear about a brewpub in Vermont or maybe they’ll get tickets for Dark Lord Day in Indiana and they’ll go on a road trip. On a trip like that you get to try a large variety of beers that aren’t available in Ontario and probably won’t be for quite some time. I watched them approach the shelves tentatively, as though looking at the Stephen King section in the bookstore and trying to figure out which book they haven’t read. “Is this the one where the mentally handicapped manchild saves the day? I think I’ve read that one. I think this is the one where the girl sets fire to the overlook hotel with her mind. Nah. I’m wrong. It’s the one where they bury the car in the pet  cemetery and it’s suddenly able to drive itself to the prom to exact its revenge. Oh no, it’s the Dark Tower. Maybe if I read it 18 more times the outcome will change.”

You see, they want to try things that they haven’t tried before. And if that means getting a thirteen dollar bottle of Saison, then more power to them. Learning is, after all, important. It’s what separates us from the animals.

For myself, there’s so much that I haven’t tried that I decided on a very simple operating principle: Choose a brewery and get everything. This time around it was Troegs and Great Lakes. It’s a reasonable and fairly affordable way to go about learning. Since single bottles are only about two bucks a throw, there’s no great tragedy if you get something that you don’t like. Chances are, though, that if it was able to make it across state lines, you’re not going to be disappointed.

Buying single bottles has other benefits as well. First, these are 12oz bottles. There’s really only enough for one serving, so you don’t have to feel guilty about not sharing. You don’t have to have people over to justify cracking one open. You’re not going to age them, you’re going to drink them. It’s not as though you won’t be able to find these beers again. Secondly, If you get one of everything a brewery makes you can even try the different styles when the mood strikes you. Say it’s an idle Tuesday night and you’re doing your laundry and you feel like a Porter. You’ve got one stashed away. You’ve got thirty minutes to kill. Hey Presto! Learning!

Also, if you’ve got a basic understanding of beer styles, you can put together a pretty decent mental picture of a single brewery’s approach based on what they do with the requisite styles.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

Troegs! It must be good: it has a halo.

Troegs seems more interested in innovation than accessibility. Everything they make seems to be fairly high in alcohol and they’ve gone for big flavors rather than screwing around worrying about making people like them. For that though, their beers are not at the point where you would have to beg for mercy after one of them:

Java Head Stout, for instance has a dominant coffee flavour in the middle of the palate, but I found that it really only intensified on swallowing. Nice body as well. It’s 7.5% alcohol, which is a touch deceptive considering the ease with which is goes down.

Dead Reckoning Porter is a little lighter at 5.8%, but I found it a good deal sweeter as well. I’m reading about it online now and apparently it’s got 53 IBUs. I would not have guessed that.

Troegenator Doublebock. It’s not a style that I tend to enjoy, but this sort of cuts through to what my perception of a Bock should be. It’s definitely malt heavy, but it’s not overwhelming and there’s a lot of caramel and a little bit toffee in there. At 8.2% there would have to be.

Their Sunshine Pils is accessible while managing to be interesting, and while a lot of people in Ontario tend to decry Pilsners, I’ve got to say that this might be one of the best I’ve ever had. It manages to retain body while being refreshing, which I have to assume is a hard balance to strike given that I don’t see it happen much.

I’ve got other Troegs stuff sitting in my fridge. I imagine I’ll get to them eventually. By the time I finish them, I will have spent around 15 bucks to try a number of their beers. I will have a decent mental picture of the brewery and how they approach the market. For the price of a rare bomber of something I would have had to share, I’ll have expanded my understanding of American craft beer by a tiny margin. After all, a brewery is only really as good as its core lineup.

Keith’s goes west

Much has been made recently of the decision to shift some of the production of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale to Ontario and Quebec. The problem with the coverage of the issue is that it fails to take into account the corporatization that has existed around the Keith’s brand since its rise to national prominence. The article in the star makes a great deal of the fact that Keith’s is now Labatt’s number one premium brand in Canada. That’s the issue: They’re owned by Labatt and have been since 1971. Labatt has been owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev since a series of mergers took place in the first decade of this century.

As far as I can tell, the entire structure of Keith’s success is predicated upon a series of quite successful marketing campaigns and slogans based on the concept of Nostalgia: The Pride of Nova Scotia; Those Who Like It, Like It A Lot; Hold True. These slogans are usually displayed below the Stag’s Head logo which incorporates the founding year of the brewery, 1820.

Let me tell you about the Halifax of yesteryear. It’s time to jump in the wayback machine and return to those heady days of nearly a decade ago.

It’s hard to believe the stranglehold that Keith’s (pronounced “Keats”) had on the imagination of the people that I went to university with. I suppose it was like brand loyalty in any market. At Mount Allison, you were either drank Moosehead products or Keith’s products. Sackville, New Brunswick is a border town, so the division was a geographical one. Oh sure, people would sometimes buy whatever was on sale, but the division was pretty clear. Once a year, there was the Keith’s birthday party at the campus pub. People would stagger back to residence with foam antlers and free t-shirts which may not have converted anyone to being a Keith’s drinker but did manage to stave off doing laundry for another day (a valid concern amongst male undergrads.)

Being within a two hour drive meant that I spent a bit of time in Halifax. The downtown core, it’s worth noting, had a bustling tourist trade based on nostalgia for a simpler time, almost as though there was an ongoing fight between a city trying to just get on with its business and a theme park based largely around pub crawls and Stan Rogers ballads. The Halifax Alehouse, for instance, had female waitresses who dressed in beer wench style costumes which may or may not have reflected any period in the province’s history.

I haven’t been to Halifax in a couple of years, but I feel like I may have been there during the high water mark of the nostalgia craze. There was one evening in particular that I remember for a very strange occurrence. I remember staggering along Granville Street and being followed by the song Barrett’s Privateers. My best guess is that a number of bands in separate pubs must have started the song at approximately the same time, because walking along, you could literally hear the next verse from the next pub. Revelers sang along happily on patios.

The point is that Keith’s was everywhere, and why shouldn’t it have been? The advertisements for it were helping to promote the sort of nostalgia that the tourism was based on. It was a happy synergy. Perhaps the ultimate example is the Stag’s Head pub, which was the last stop on the Keith’s brewery tour. During my only visit, I was shocked to find that I knew two of the people who were paid to stand around in period clothing, serving Keith’s and entertaining tourists with a rendition of Barrett’s Privateers once every hour and a half. There they stood, B.Mus. undergrads with worn smiles on their faces and only partially catastrophic damage to their self esteem, belting out lines about cooks “being the scuppers with the staggers and jags,” their enthusiasm obviously flagging.

Keith’s trades on this idealized image of early 19th century merriment. It has been staggeringly successful for them. The problem is that if you remove the product from that context and evaluate it on its own merits, it’s just not very interesting. It’s not really an India Pale Ale (as any beer nerd will tell you at great length). The decision to produce it in Ontario ignores the fundamental construct that the marketing has been attempting to sell for the last fifteen years: A product from an idealized version of Halifax which is closer to Fiddler’s Green than it is to Dartmouth.

Essentially, what the decision means is that at some level Anheuser-Busch InBev has decided to attempt to capitalize on the brand recognition of Keith’s as a premium product by positioning it as an alternative to craft beer in markets with larger populations. By moving production and forcing union employees out of work, they risk alienating their Nova Scotia market. Halifax is a union shop and people are already up in arms about this decision. I hear that some Haligonians are already switching to Propeller or Garrison.

I only wonder what expansion they believe will be made possible in Ontario and Quebec by this move. Keith’s is already the seventh most popular brand at The Beer Store. It seems like an increase in sales of the Keith’s line would probably cut into the sales of other Labatt product lines.

I think that this is a gamble which represents a lack of imagination on the part of an industry giant attempting to deal with a growing craft market share. Instead of creating and promoting a better product, they are, I suspect, attempting to hold the line. The nostalgia marketing concept only works if the product is actually from Nova Scotia and they’re sacrificing that; It will be to their detriment in the long run.

Which is a shame. I sort of like those beer wench costumes.

So You Want To Be a Brewer – Great Lakes/St. John’s Wort Lazarus Breakfast Stout

(Astute readers will have noticed that this blog has taken a heavy turn towards actually brewing beer recently. I promise you that I will return shortly to making fun of the other facets of the brewing industry and beer drinking generally. There will also be some input from a couple of correspondents in the next few weeks, so be sure to stay tuned for coverage of Houston and Vancouver.)

Mike demonstrates the top-secret fermenter draining process.

On the heels of the Amsterdam brew day, I was invited by Mike Lackey (ed. note: Laskey) to try my hand at brewing on the pilot system at Great Lakes. Clearly this was not an opportunity to be passed up, but it came with a couple of significant realizations. The Christmas Ale isn’t really for public consumption. If it doesn’t pass muster, I can just sweep it under the rug saying that everyone who helped brew got some of it and it was a just reward for a day spent hard at work.

The beer for Great Lakes was actually for December’s Project X (unless it is so bad that it’s unusable). This means public consumption: An actual stage to see whether people like it or not. And given that it’s a Project X brew, it might even show up on ratebeer; a fact I realized while idly stirring the wort. Add to that the fact that my brewing output tripled in two weeks. This is a trend which, if it continues unchecked, seems to suggest that by early 2016 I will be brewing all of the beer in the world.

So: some mild cause for alarm.

I have essentially adopted the following principle: Plan big. If you can’t manage to be a great success, you will have at least been a spectacular warning. Think of Guy Fawkes. He’s famous in song and story for not quite managing to blow up the houses of parliament, but he has a day named after him. Think of John Brown. Didn’t quite manage to take Harper’s Ferry, but he’s got the Battle Hymn of the Republic. History is littered with examples of splendid attempts that resulted in failure: The Titanic. The Ford Edsel. Betamax.

With this in mind, I designed a beer based around two things that I really like. Breakfast Stout and Oaxacan Mole sauce. Great Lakes, it has to be said, has produced John Bowden’s Morning Glory Breakfast Stout on several occasions and it’s always been something that I’ve enjoyed. Last week, I got to

The Great Lakes Pilot System

try Founders Breakfast Stout for the first time. I liked it so much, that I decided a modified Breakfast Stout was the thing to try, but with a couple of additions. Most Breakfast Stouts according to my research have chocolate and coffee flavour and some oats for body. To me, this sounded like it could be a Mole sauce if you added some chili and some spices. I decided on Ancho chili since it’s not particularly hot and lends an interesting sweetness and some cinnamon for a little kick. It sounds farfetched, but I’ve been putting cocoa powder in my chili at home for some months now, and I know it’s a flavour range that works.


Besides, with Mike Lackey guiding me through the process, how could it fail? (Disclaimer: if it fails, please do not blame Mike Lackey. I’m the maniac with the recipe.)

I rolled in to Great Lakes around 10:00 on Tuesday with my Senior Superlative Correspondent Deluxe, Catherine Strotmann and got down to business.  The Great Lakes pilot system is a lot more advanced than the equipment that I had previously used and also a great deal bigger, but I found it interesting to note that producing 15 gallons of beer is not actually any more time consuming than a 5 gallon batch. You just have to be prepared to lift buckets of water a great deal higher in order to get them into the mash/lauter tun. It was also gratifying to note that the milling system was identical to the one we borrowed during the Amsterdam brew day, except that it had the addition of a power drill for ease of use. You don’t want to mill 42 pounds of grain by hand unless you have no alternative. It would be time consuming and eventually give you brewer’s elbow.

Chili, cocoa, cinnamon and hops. Breakfast of Champions.

Unlike the Amsterdam brew day, we took notes. Perhaps most importantly, we had to note the substitutions that went into the recipe. Instead of all pale ale malt for the grain bill, we had to substitute in some Maris Otter. There wasn’t any Biscuit malt, so we eschewed that in favour of Coffee Malt since the Maris Otter would give it a small amount of biscuit flavour. There were no Willamette hops on hand, so we substituted Styrian Goldings. There wasn’t any Columbus on hand so we used Chinook. I couldn’t find any Star Anise, so we did without. Probably just as well.

We mashed in at a relatively low 151-2 degrees. It would have been higher, but the equalization of temperature between

Clarity is important

the 42 pounds of grain at room temperature and the water used brought it down a little bit. We adjusted temperature as we went and everything went along pretty well.  The nice thing about having proper brewing equipment is that the steps that didn’t make sense before suddenly did. For instance,  prior to sparging, there’s a clarifying step where you’re trying to get the grain bed to settle. Last time we did this with tinfoil and a pitcher which was, as the kids say, pretty ghetto. At Great Lakes, they have an attachment for the Mash/Lauter Tun that allows you to just hook up a hose to a pump stand back.

The boil went along nicely, and we had our hop additions premeasured on a side table. We somehow ended up using an extra ounce of bittering hops, but I think the IBU measurement will still be under 70 (which is slightly higher than Founder’s Breakfast Stout, but not by a whole lot.) The best part of the brew day for me was the first opportunity to mix the Ancho chili and Styrian Goldings together. They both have a slightly earthy flavour that I think should complement each other in the final product. It’s always nice to find out that you weren’t so very far off base with your assumptions.

Catherine Strotmann: Destroyer of Coffee

In coffee that would be a "crema." I don't know what it is in beer.

Despite having some coffee malt in the wort, we decided that since we couldn’t add coffee directly to the secondary fermenter due to the likelihood of plugging the system up, that we would instead add it to the whirlpool. The whirlpool was a new step for me, and one that I was unaware of. It essentially helps to clarify the wort by separating the trub and hops from it. It also cools down the wort somewhat after the boil. By waiting until the wort was at a lower temperature and then adding the coffee as it cooled, it not only removed the likelihood of acidity, but also ensured a dark roast finish which should be really nice. Think of it like a giant French press that makes beer. Catherine was given the job of grinding the coffee. If you work for me, you better be able to swing a hammer.

I think that this is going to be good, at least I hope that it’s going to be good. I don’t think the chili will be overpowering (2oz in a 15 gallon boil should be gentle). I think that it will probably come out around 7%. The important thing to remember here is that I’m not insanely overconfident about this project. I never claimed to be some kind of zymurgical messiah. In fact, I’ll be content if I don’t look like a moron in front of the beer nerds and if the recipe turns out to be viable.

It’s sitting there at Great Lakes, bubbling away. Now we play the waiting game.

Amsterdam Brew Day

In the run up to the brew day at Amsterdam, I was pretty nervous. You never know exactly how something like your first all-grain brew day is going to go. There are a lot of considerations: Is my recipe any good? What goes on at an event like this? Does this ridiculous moustache make me look like a hobbyist or a walrus?

It was for this reason that I showed up early. I was told that the doors would open at Nine AM and I was shocked to discover that there were already people on the ground with their setups basically ready to go. I thought that I saw a couple of stations where people had already started their water heating when I got there. The rest of my team trickled in over the next hour or so.

We ran into a number of problems almost immediately. Not only did it take us the better part of a half hour to figure out how the equipment we had been provided fit together, our ingredients didn’t arrive. The guy from Homebrewers Retail had apparently had a number of late orders and had to load everything into his van, which was then promptly encased in traffic.

This was a good opportunity to avail ourselves of the donuts and coffee provided and walk around looking at the other homebrewers practicing their craft. You may not credit it, but it reminded more me of a grade seven science fair than anything else. All of the brewers have come up with slightly different techniques for what they’re doing. There were grain mills powered by electric drills, Coleman coolers that had been converted into mash tuns, and one station had come up with an ingenious method of mashing in the brewing kettle using a mesh bag to lift the spent grain out of the wort. It’s a very clever idea, but I feel like any system that requires the use of a pulley is more complicated than it needs to be. I may have been imagining it, but I swear that the same station had a grain mill powered by a foot pump a la a 1950’s Singer sewing machine.

This is one of the great things about homebrewing: no one does it in exactly the same manner. There’s no bog standard kit. It results in foil wrapped mash tuns and kettles and Rube Goldberg style apparatus. It appeals to the same part of the male brain that convinces a hapless newbie that he can rebuild a carburetor, or that it is patently necessary to replace the pickups on a Telecaster with gold plated Humbuckers and that it’s probably only an afternoon’s work.

We stood around patiently, waiting for the supplies to arrive, venturing upstairs to look at the memorabilia. The Amsterdam staff were clearly getting nervous about the fact our supplies hadn’t arrived. At one point they offered us the carte blanche use of whatever grains they had on hand in storage so that we could get started. I think this was only partially motivated by their desire to get home at a reasonable hour.

At about 12:30 our grains and hops arrived and we swung into action, borrowing milling equipment from a nearby station. We actually ended up borrowing equipment from just about everyone within 50 feet, since none of us had brought any useful tools. Here is a picture of Chris Schryer getting way, way too into grinding grains.

Way, way too into it.

One type of grain that we wanted, Carastan, was out of stock at the time of my order so in order to make up the difference, Andrew Bartle hit the Amsterdam loft and raided their supply of grains. It was very much a handful here and a handful there. I think there may have been some smoked malt in the mix that he came back with. It smelled great. Unfortunately, the quantities that he selected mean that if we accidentally come up with something really good it’s pretty much completely unrepeatable.

I won’t go particularly in depth on the brewing process here for the very simple reason that there are not a lot of interesting things that I can say about heating water to 158 degrees farenheit (dull!) or how to poke holes in tinfoil in order to ensure that clarification occurs during the sparging process (carefully!). I will tell you a couple of things that made me pretty proud of my team selection, though:

I had no idea that Matt Caldwell was this good a photographer. Look at this picture of grain falling out of the bucket we were using as a hopper. Clearly he has some skills that I didn’t know about.

Finally! Actual photography!

Another thing that impressed me was this: Clearly, as bloggers we talk a lot about things that we like and things that are available. In this setting I think we all started out at the beginning of the brewing session with a lot of apprehension. We have all read so much about beer over the years that it sort of came creeping back in during the brew day. Concepts that we’d only read about suddenly became a lot clearer. As soon as you start applying theoretical knowledge it starts to make sense in a way that it simply can’t otherwise. I mean, it’s all well and good to suggest that you know what sparging is and it’s great to understand the process of using a counterflow chiller for wort cooling, but until you actually muck in, it’s mostly jargon.

Since the beer we were brewing had a lot of cinnamon aroma, we got a lot of foot traffic over the course of the day. Much of the foot traffic, I suspect because of the aroma, was female. Cinnamon apparently has the same wafting effect as a cartoon pie on a windowsill. We posed periodically for photo ops or had to explain exactly what it was we were doing and the great thing is this: We were not just making stuff up in order to look like we knew what we were doing in front of girls. I was explaining starch conversion in a way that made me realize I have absorbed more about this subject than I thought. Chris Schryer actually had people tasting raw specialty grains so that they could understand what each grain was contributing to the flavour of the beer. What a good idea!

At the end, after we managed to get it into the carboy we had this Christmas Ale ready to go. Bartle pitched the yeast the next day and I understand that somewhere in the depths of the Amsterdam facility our experiment is bubbling away, forming a krausen and a colony of yeast is having a wonderful time. It only remains to be seen what we’ll do with it.

Hello, little beer. We are going to drink you.