St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

In Which My Local LCBO Closes Down

Sunday, about the time that the Blue Jays were demonstrating how not to score any runs, I went to the fridge to get a beer. It seemed to me that there was very little point in yelling at Juan Rivera for being a goldbricking layabout while completely sober. It’s sort of inexplicable behavior. If someone were to walk in and see you making insulting gestures towards a baseball game on the screen, the only way that could be acceptable is if you had had a beer.

The only problem was that there wasn’t any beer. Not even any reviewing beer. I’m not much of a multitasker, but I can definitely make notes on a beer while shaking my fist at Juan “The Human Brick” Rivera. They don’t even get conflated.

For instance: Golden/straw colour. Light body. Should get on base by stepping in front of pitches. No noticeable hop finish.

I thought to myself, “I’ll just pop down to the LCBO and…”

I knew that there was something important that I was forgetting. When I stood up and looked out my window, I saw that the parking lot at the Yonge and Davisville LCBO was empty. The store actually shut down on the 16th.

I knew that already. Of course I did. I had been in there to see if they had gotten anything new a week before and the only beer that they had in the place were those very expensive bottles that were brought in as specialty items. Little Korkny. Infinium. Ola Dubh 30. (I can’t figure out why the 40 should have sold out when the 30 was the better value.) They sat at the back in a shelving unit that had once been refrigerated, but which at this point had been turned off and now looked shabby in an unlit way; like the bottles had been relegated to the island of misfit beers.

It turns out that there’s a force more powerful than the LCBO: Condo developers.

For a number of years, I was lucky enough to live close enough to an LCBO to be able to pop out and get a beer if I felt like one. People coming over? Off you pop. I can literally look out the window and see the sign on the store without getting out of the chair I’m currently sitting in.

Of course, a new LCBO has opened up on Yonge street at Manor road. This can’t be considered any great distance. It’s something of a neighbourhood beautification project, replacing as it does the Mystique Lounge. I had never been inside the Mystique Lounge, but having walked by it late at night on the way back from a friend’s house, I can tell you its sidewalk was the place you were most likely to see a fistfight in midtown Toronto.

Maybe it’s because they just opened, but the beer selection is nothing to write home about. The most upscale thing on offer was Innis and Gunn original. The standees were full of cases of Old Milwaukee. It was encouraging to see that they had already sold out of Mill Street Tankhouse, but overall, it was unimpressive. The store is slightly less than half the size of the old Davisville location.

This means that for the first time in a very long time, I’m going to have to think ahead. The next closest location is Summerhill, which is within walking distance (downhill) but probably not within walking back distance (uphill carrying enough beer to last a couple of weeks). This is not a bad thing. The ambiance is nicer there, and there’ll be some exercise. I may be forced to actually keep a small cellar. The record for cellaring in my apartment is four months for a bottle of Dark Lord 2010.

I finally see what people are talking about when they claim that they’d like to see beer sold in convenience and grocery stores. The problem, I guess, is that it wouldn’t necessarily solve anything, since the selection would probably be a series of macro and value brands in most locations. Anything that results in the likelihood of purchasing beer of lower quality because of convenience is almost certainly counterproductive for craft beer enthusiasts.

Plus, think about the lead time on something like that. You’d have to train all of the employees. You’d have to find the space to open a store like that. There would be renovations. Independent stores would be unable to operate using economies of scale like the government employs. Plus, think of the successful depanneurs in Montreal like Rahman. So much inventory that you feel like you’re going to knock a case over if you sneeze. It would be a giant, expensive mess for a while at opening.

I’m not saying it’s not worth doing, but the number of obstacles is daunting. Also, the societal impact is unlikely to be as pronounced as people claim.

In the meantime, I have produced a list of beverages that it will be acceptable to drink while saying increasingly negative things about Juan Rivera should his batting average fall below .100 this evening:

Coffee, Tea, Water, Lemonade, Horchata, Cognac (only if your criticisms are particularly highbrow: “Oh, I rather say, Reginald. Perhaps he would be better suited to Whist.”) Milk and, of course, Diet Mr. Pibb.

It’s important to have a contingency plan.

Niagara College Grand Opening – Brewmaster Meals

One of the main things that I hadn’t considered about Niagara College was the existing programs. It will probably not come as a surprise to regular readers that I have done quite a bit of research into the Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program, what with being a prospective student. The truth is that I hadn’t given any thought to the other programs that they offer. There’s the winery, of course, but there’s also a pretty prestigious culinary program down there.

I showed up early to the grand opening on Wednesday, since I’m on a freelancing journalist’s budget and that meant cadging a ride off of whichever good natured commuters were willing to stump up. Fortunately, I know a couple of the Brewery Program students. Andrew Bartle (who blogs infrequently, but whose beer reviews are practically poetry) and Mark Murphy were nice enough to help me get down there.

As it turned out, I had some time to kill upon arriving and I stumbled around in order to get the lay of the land. The culinary building is impressive; Chef jacketed students crashing through the hallways, discussing the amount of time chicken wings need to spend in the fryer. Wafting aromas from the various classrooms meant that it was hard to nail down exactly what was being worked on in which classroom. I’m relatively sure that there were Cinnamon buns being baked somewhere, but it was hard to nail down. Perhaps most impressive was the gallery of chefs who had come down to help out with the program. Rick Moonen. Susur Lee. Ming Tsai. Hubert freakin’ Keller.

I had been invited on a media junket, meaning that I was around for lunch and dinner, both of which had been paired with beer. Possibly because of the comparative youth of the program, many of the beers being used were from outside breweries, which is what you want. Seamless integration into the existing market is a strong selling point for the brewing program. If you’re going to tout real world experience as a feature, you have to take into account your competitors.

Having been to the Brewer’s Plate the previous week, I suspected that the meals produced by Benchmark at Niagara College would be of a tasting portion size, since that was my only frame of reference. Michael Olson was on hand and had designed the menu. Everything about Michael is big. Big frame. Big personality. Big sense of humour. A welcoming host for the evening.

Michael Olson, explaining.

The portions, as you have probably intuited, were also quite large. Not that I’m complaining. It was interesting to see what he was able to do with the pairings, given that he had time to design the menu and play with the concepts.

Lunch

For lunch, you actually had choices for the appetizer and the entrée. Impressive, given that both dishes were to be paired with the same beers. This seems to have required a certain amount of lateral thinking on the part of the chef, and I found myself somewhat torn between the choice of entrees.

On the one hand, you had a classic pairing the likes of which you might find in Bavaria.

“Brewmaster’s Manifesto” – Hommer’s Ham, Smoked Sausage and Little Schnitzel with Beer Mustard, Spaetzle and Juniper Braised Cabbage

Or

Lager Steamed Fresh BC Salmon in Parchment with Sweet Peppers, Celeriac and Quinoa

Both of these served with Saint Andre Vienna Lager.

Heh. "Little" Schnitzel.

On the one hand, I’d never had fish served “En Papillote,” and I like Quinoa, so I was sorely tempted by the lighter option. I ask you, though: How can you turn down a dish with a title like “Brewmaster’s Manifesto?” It’s impossible. Add to this the fact that I’ve been hooked on spaetzle since Budapest, and it becomes a no brainer. The pairing worked well, but that’s not a surprise given that the style of beer is indigenous to the region that the food comes from. The nuttiness of the Quinoa would have been more difficult to pull off as a pairing, but I’m sure it would have highlighted the malt and body of the Vienna Lager.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

The dessert was Sticky Toffee Date Pudding with Milk Stout Caramel paired with Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. It was incredibly moist and rich, and it was approximately the size of your head. I can’t really do it justice in description. Easily the best Stick Toffee Pudding I’ve ever tried if only because of the light, spongy texture. One of those situations where the pairing doesn’t even matter because of the quality of the dish.

Dinner

Dinner came on the heels of a two hour cask tapping and beer sampling event, so good humour and red cheeks abounded on the way into the dining room.

Good to know that the cask decal budget is in place.

Terrine of Quebec Foie Gras (Duck) with Spent Grains Brioche and Bok Jelly paired with Niagara College Teaching Brewery Educator Dopple Bock.

Photograph. THEN eat. silly pseudojournalist.

This was an interesting pairing given that the Educator Dopple Bock was fairly subtle. It weighed in at about 7% alcohol, but I’m not sure that you would have been able to tell. Relatively light bodied, but with the malt sweetness you get in that range. If I had to pair something with Foie Gras, I would be tempted to go with a hoppier brew to try and cut the lingering fatty texture, but this ended up supporting that element. Interesting.

Erie Whitefish “Waterzui” with Hothouse Peppers, Yukon Gold Potatoes and Sweet Shallots – in aromatic coriander citrus beer broth paired with Muskoka Summer Weiss.

Waterzui

This was delicate. Mike was joking with us that his wife was joshing him about it being feminine. Interesting to see the dish served, given that the broth was poured at table. James from Muskoka pointed out that the Weiss was not meant to have any elements of orange peel or coriander. The pairing did contain both of those elements and the sweetness from the shallots created an interesting situation where the dish suggested notes that were not actually in the beer, meaning that the alternation between tasting the dish and the beer resulted in a single range of flavours that were not strictly present in either. Easily the most successful pairing I’ve ever seen.

Wort Sorbet

Wort Sorbet. Should see whether we can sell the idea to gelato stores.

Traditionally, a sorbet is used as a palate cleanser. This was a light sorbet flavoured with wort from the teaching brewery. I’m not sure that it actually worked as a palate cleanser since it imparted its own subtle flavours, but it didn’t need to because I think it was put there to do something more clever than that. The lingering malt sweetness from the sorbet led directly into the beer pairing for the next dish: Neustadt 10W30 Brown Ale. If that was the intention, great googily moogily is that an incredibly complex concept.

Roast Tenderloin of Black Angus Beef on Barley Root Vegetable Stew and roasted Garlic Lemon Hollandaise.

Even I think that was a lot of beef.

Protein well cooked. Medium rare on the outside, rare in the middle. The description of the Barley Root Vegetable Stew doesn’t really do it justice as it was more of a buttery pearl barley risotto with what seemed to be a large dice roast root vegetable. Delicious, but less adventurous as a pairing than the first two courses. Brown Ale and Beef is a staple pairing of English and faux English carveries the world over, and therefore well worthy of inclusion.

Dessert

Dark Prinz Espresso Torte with Laurel Cream paired with Grand River Russian Gun Imperial Stout

Dark Prinz Torte with Candied Dark Prinz Malt, Laurel Cream

Interesting. I’m not sure that I liked the pairing of the torte with the Imperial Stout. I know that the combination of flavours works in theory, but I feel like there’s an astringent note in the mid palate of the Imperial Stout that didn’t quite jibe with the torte. The Laurel Cream (flavoured with bay leaves. I didn’t know this was a thing.), on the other hand, combated that note, so it worked when the elements were composed. I would have been tempted to try a Laurel Cream Eton Mess with it, but I suspect that might not have stood up this well. The texture of the candied Dark Prinz malt really added to it.

To Sum Up

I think that the benefit I hadn’t seen previously of attending Niagara College is that you would have the opportunity both to try and to think about some fairly sophisticated food pairings. Imagine someone with that context starting their own brewpub. I don’t suppose that the students get into the dining room often, but just having a sense of what’s possible would be invaluable.

The Brewer’s Plate 2011 edition: Top Chef St.John’s Wort

Oh yeah. I guess it was a TTC barn.

This was my first year at the Brewer’s Plate dinner. I have to say that my experience of events like this is coloured somewhat by the fact that I watch a lot of Top Chef. Regular, Masters, All-Stars, I’ll probably even watch the Canadian one when it starts up on April 16th. I know some chefs, but it’s not like I’m talking shop with a lot of them. Mostly, I read. Bittman, Bourdain, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I own Nigella Lawson cookbooks, and I’m not ashamed of it. While the camera on her show may be in soft focus, her prose is sharp and entertaining. I once checked Fergus Henderson’s book out of the TPL. He writes like a particularly sinister Neil Gaiman character.

I like this stuff. I just don’t have the budget for it, what with being a quasi-legitimate journalist.

This year the Brewer’s Plate was at the Wychwood Artscape Barns, which aside from doing a pretty good Pink Floyd album cover imitation, is also a farmer’s market during the summer. I knew it was going to be a good night. If you’re being consoled about breaking a glass by a man on stilts who is dressed in a tuxedo before you even have a drink in your hand, you’re probably in good shape.

Could someone please photoshop a flying pig into the background?

First off, there’s no way to talk about an event like this one comprehensively. For instance, most of the breweries had more than one beer on offer, so there’s no point in trying to do a recap. My colleagues mock me gently periodically about the length of my blog posts, and if I tried to talk about the beers on offer, this would be somewhere in the vicinity of a Coelho novel (Veronika decides to drink?).

For this reason, this post is hereafter: TOP CHEF ST.JOHN’S WORT!

For a lot of people, the highlight of the evening was Chef Tawfik Shehata’s battered fish taco. It was served with a smoked tomato salsa and what was apparently a candycane beet slaw. Personally, I felt that the batter, which involved Steamwhistle, could have been a little crunchier as a textural element. I understand why people liked it. It stood out as one of the only light dishes in the building. It worked well with the beer pairing, mostly due to the fact that there was a little acidity to the tomato which contrasted the slight sweetness and crisp finish of a Pilsner.

Fish Taco!

Another reason that this dish worked particularly well was that it was served on a corn husk. I’m not sure whether you’ve ever attempted to navigate a room of 400 slightly inebriated jostling people with a full sized plate and cutlery, but it’s an unenviable and awkward task.

The majority of the dishes were late winter fare. One of the problems in using local seasonal ingredients in early April is that you end up seeing a lot of radish and watercress as garnish. It is what it is.

Perhaps the hardest dish to actually consume was Chef Brad Long’s stew. I believe I heard that the protein was Muskox. While it was served on a full size dinner plate, and I had to get my blogger friend Matt Caldwell to hold my beer, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Mildly gamey, and the root vegetables held their texture very well. It was also fairly heavily seasoned, which helped it stand up to the Beau’s cask Beaver River IPeh. As you can see, I neglected to take a picture until after starting in on it.

The stew of a neglectful photographer

I did not try Brook Cavanagh’s buffalo ricotta stuffed morel, although, I think it was probably the most intricately plated dish at the event. It seemed to have a large number of elements in play. Shaved radish, shallot confit and preserved Brussel sprouts all seem like they may have been extraneous to the core of the dish. It was paired with Wellington’s Russian Imperial Stout. Points to La Palette for attempted complexity.

A whole lotta garnish.

I think the dish that worked best with the beer pairing was Lora Kirk’s Black Oak Nut Brown Ale braised pork belly. The confession I have to make here is that I had never actually tried pork belly before despite cheering on Kevin “Pork Jesus” Gillespie for much of Top Chef season six. I think the sweetness of the brown ale worked nicely with the unctuous fattiness of the pork belly, and it complimented nicely the crispin apple slaw which she had somehow imparted with a smokiness that I didn’t expect. I went back for seconds on this one and that’s probably the reason that I’m going to slip into a coma as soon as I upload this post. Also, the cheddar biscuit was a nice touch. You can rarely go wrong with a cheddar biscuit.

Lora Kirk's Braised Pork Belly

The only dish that I didn’t think worked was Michael Steh’s cheddar and broccoli soup. It was a composed dish with a sort of barbecued or pulled pork on the bottom and pork crackling used as a garnish. I think that the intention was for the fattiness of the pork to work with the slight saltiness of the cream soup. I didn’t care for it, but I’m not a soup guy. Also, I’m not a food writer, so y’know, caveat emptor.

Michael Steh's Cheddar and Broccoli Soup

The more I think about it, the best dish of the evening was Jamie Kennedy’s. I don’t know from Jamie Kennedy. If you asked me opinion of Jamie Kennedy, I would say he was quite tall. But on this occasion, I think he probably created the best standalone dish. It was a Tortiere Strudel. I know. More pork. In this case, it was served on a base of thinly shaved pickled celeriac, carrot and ginger with a sort of mustard relish. Taken by itself, the tortiere was fine; it had all the spicing you’d expect from a standard French Canadian tortiere. As a composed mouthful, as a single bite, the other elements brought some brightness and acidity that elevated the dish.

Also, there was chocolate. And tiny cupcakes. And maple sugar. Did I mention the inevitable food coma? I think I did.

Chocolate! I didn't have any, but the layout is tasty.

I cut out of Brewer’s Plate early in order to go get an espresso. As soon as I saw someone in a papier mache replica of the Fox mask from the cover of Genesis’ seminal album Foxtrot, I knew it was time to call it a night. Surrealistic whimsy is a great thing, but not when you’re blissed out on pork belly.

Here’s the verdict.

Jamie Kennedy: Best Standalone Dish.

Lora Kirk: Best Pairing.

You: Buying a ticket next year.

Smashbomb and Social Responsibility

It’s a new season! The little lame balloon man whistles far and wee! Those little blue flowers whose name I always forget are only a couple of weeks away (a quick google tells me they’re probably Scylla). It’s supposed to hit 60 this afternoon, and if the price we have to pay for that is a pretty significant thunderstorm, then who really cares?

Not unsurprisingly, business is picking up in the craft beer world as well. Almost immediately on the heels of the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, interesting things started happening.

I didn’t get to the CBC this year, but I am given to understand that it is basically a collection of serious minded individuals coming together to forge relationships and share information. This is done by drinking enough Pliny the Elder to give a Rhinoceros cirrhosis. All throughout the week, pictures would get thrown up on facebook. Steve from Beau’s drinking everything that Russian River had on tap! Mike Lackey from Great Lakes standing idly outside various pubs and breweries! A whole contingent of Canadians singing the national anthem in some atrium or other!

Since then we’ve had the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch. I’ve written about that a little bit in the sun.

It’s also shaping up to be an interesting week in Toronto. The Monk’s Table is putting on a series of events for Tartan day, and that should be interesting. Will it change my mind on Innis and Gunn? Probably not, but maybe the IPA will be different.

Wednesday is going to be the Brewer’s Plate, and this will be my first time attending that event. I’m looking forward to it. Good food prepared by local chefs, paired with beer. That’s enough reason for anyone to want to go there. Tickets are $125.00, which seems a little steep, but it’s for charity, so… I dunno. Probably value for money if you’re into local fruit picking.

That’s not what I want to talk about today, though.

Today I want to talk about Flying Monkeys.

One of the things that has impressed me about Flying Monkeys is the fact that their brewmaster displays a certain amount of savvy when it comes to product development and interacting with the community in general. He’s got an account on Bartowel.com and he’s not afraid to interact with the beer nerds. I suspect that a lot of people don’t want to do that for the reason that the beer nerds can be a contentious lot and they’re as likely to grumble about minutiae as they are to accept a beer out of hand. I think that a lot of this has to do with the way that a beer is sold to them.

Peter Chiodo, at some point, hit upon the very clever idea that they can be catered to. He used the Bartowelers as a product development panel for his Smashbomb IPA which went through several revisions over the course of the summer and fall of last year. It’s a beer that’s got a flavour profile well outside of mainstream acceptability.

I got my dad to try it the other week when we were at Highway 61 on Bayview. “Smells like cat pee,” he said. “Tastes like I’m sucking on a pine forest.” Those are both legitimate tasting notes for the beer, which I understand uses a lot of Citra hops (at least it did last summer.) I explained that it was an acquired taste, while he ordered a Muskoka Dark.

One of the interesting dynamics of an internet forum is that dissenting views are typically ridiculed. At this point, if you were to go on Bartowel and post a less than glowing review of Smashbomb, you’d start a flamewar the likes of which haven’t been seen since the allied bombing of Dresden. Savvy market development there. It allows the beer nerds a certain feeling of ownership for the product that they have helped to hone.

Speaking of offensive jokes about armament, Smashbomb failed to make it past the LCBO’s social responsibility panel. One can only guess what the exact reason might have been for this. Maybe it was the mushroom cloud on the packaging. Maybe the warlike nature of the name SMASHBOMB ATOMIC IPA is the kind of thing that needs to be censored lest it poison our water, privatize our health care and crash our planes in the Libyan No Fly Zone. Maybe they simply worried that the garish colour palette and design features would give people seizures.

Who knows?

The LCBO social responsibility panel is a law unto itself. It’s understandable. They’re a large provincial moneymaker and they don’t want to get sued. I can dig it.

So the Smashbomb IPA will be going into certain select beer stores, and in the meantime Flying Monkeys have been developing some other products. I hear there’s a Barley Wine that weighs in around 18% and might take your face clean off.

But I’ve been thinking.

If you were a brewer looking to make a point about the LCBO social responsibility panel, this would not be a bad way to go about it. Create an elite cadre of online forum members who feel as though it’s THEIR beer. They’ll almost certainly write letters and put some pressure on the LCBO to pass the thing. Of course, the LCBO isn’t going to backpedal on a decision like that.

The thing is that this was almost certain to be their decision, right from the outset. If Flying Monkeys just wanted to sell some beer, they probably would have named the beer something else at the beginning, or they could have run it up the flagpole with the LCBO at some point in the development process to see whether it could be sold there. There could have been caution. They could have tested the waters.

The controversy actually garnered a small amount of legitimate media coverage this morning on CFRB. That’s some free press for a brewery that doesn’t have a huge advertising budget. I’m wondering whether this is a continuation of the savvy that Peter Chiodo displayed with the product’s development. I wouldn’t put it past him. It would set Flying Monkeys up with a sort of outlaw brewing image, which is the kind of thing that could catch on in Ontario at this point.

If he’s picking a fight, it’s an obscure fight to pick, especially with what is probably a relatively niche product. Ultimately, the success or failure of Smashbomb IPA depends on how much people want their beer to smell like cat pee. I think that there’s a rabid inbuilt market for the beer in the beer nerd community. Maybe distributing through the beer store is not as big a gamble as it seems in this case.

We shall see.

Edit: and half an hour later he’s on CBC One talking about how the packaging is intentionally edgy.

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.