St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

On The Likelihood Of Success OR Consider The Finches

One of the things that we don’t talk about very much in the Ontario beer scene is the initial outbreak of craft brewing in the province. I have the feeling that the reason for this is that it was pretty depressing for a very large number of people.

Over the Christmas break, I glommed on to a copy of Jamie MacKinnon’s book, The Ontario Beer Guide, published in 1993. It is subtitled “An Opinionated Guide to the Beers of Ontario,” which gives you some idea of the slant he took on the beer scene. It is not, it has to be said, a great deal different than the views that current commentators find themselves espousing. We like the underdogs. It’s a very interesting book for a number of reasons, one of which I will almost certainly talk about in a subsequent blog post. Also, MacKinnon is an entertaining author.

The thing that caught my immediate attention while I was leafing through it on Boxing Day was that he claimed on page 171 that Ontario would have more than 50 brewpubs by 1995. Initially I thought that this was a wildly optimistic prediction, but I’ve spoken to some other beer writers who recall that there was a period when it looked like it would go that way.

Apparently, there was a brief period in the early 90’s when there were four brewpubs on Eglinton between Yonge and Mount Pleasant. The Granite is still there, of course, but The Spruce Goose is now Philthy McNasty’s. I remember the Spruce Goose mostly as a result of the fact that they had Pinball. At 13, I was too young for beer, but I was intrigued by the multiball feature on the Jurassic Park table. Incidentally, in retrospect, the hubris of naming your business after an insane billionaire’s failed attempt at aviation was probably a poor choice. It would also probably be best not to name your hang-glider company after Icarus.

Mackinnon’s book systematically sets out to rate all of the beers in Ontario (except for Great Lakes’ Golden Horseshoe, which was too new at the time). Let’s consider the list. There’s Brick, who only continue to offer one of the beers that was rated. Conner’s is gone. Creemore is owned by Molson. Hart is gone. Lakeport is owned by Labatt and their original facility was scrapped. Niagara Falls Brewing Company is now The Syndicate. Northern Algonquin Brewery is gone, although some of their Formosa brands persist. Northern Breweries are gone. Pacific Brewing Company only exists in BC. Sleeman is owned by Sapporo. Upper Canada is owned by Sapporo (and the dark ale is a shell of its former self).

Arguably, the only brewery who has survived in a recognizable form is Wellington. The success rate for the small independent breweries listed in The Ontario Beer Guide in 1993 is about 3/13. About 23%.

In terms of brewpubs, of the 31 listed in the appendix to the book, the total number of survivors is 5. The Granite, Kingston Brew Pub, Tracks, Charley’s, The Lion. That’s not a completely accurate figure, as Denison’s and Amsterdam evolved into other things. Call it 7/31. About 23%.

If you started an independent beer related venture in Ontario prior to 1993, the aggregate chance of your having succeeded to the present day without having sold your business or having gone bankrupt is therefore about 23%. I didn’t even have to do any additional math.

That’s a 77% failure rate. Not as bad as Goldman Sachs, but not great.

Failure and collapse are parts of any ecology, even ones that appear to be thriving. Consider Darwin’s Finches. The Galapagos Islands are a relatively isolated environment and Darwin’s finches are part of the ongoing scientific study in evolution. Over time, something like fifteen species of finches have managed to evolve into individual roles in the Galapagos.

For the purposes of this analogy the one on the top left likes IPA.

They have all developed different beaks so that they can take advantage of different food sources. There are finches that eat the seed of a certain type of cactus. There are finches that eat the flesh of the same cactus, having evolved beaks that can get between the needles. The Woodpecker Finch uses various tools to get at the food source it’s after. There’s even the Vampire Finch, which has been known to sustain itself by drinking the blood of boobies.

Man, this blog post is really finch heavy. Next time I'm going to write about something awesome like Monster Trucks. Did you know that Truckasaurus doesn't have a 77% failure rate? Truckasaurus never fails.

The point is that while this is a miracle of diversity from some points of view, these are only the species that made it. At some point along the way, there must have been more finches. From an environmental perspective, the Galapagos are relatively untouched. There must have been intervening species that did not evolve sufficiently to take advantage of the food sources available. Some fall by the wayside.

In point of fact, most of the species of finches that have ever existed in the Galapagos are long since dead or significantly altered. Evolution continues anyway: a 2006 study says that evolution in terms of beak shape is possible in less than 20 years.

For the purposes of this analogy, it’s helpful to think of small independent breweries and brew pubs in Ontario as finches.

They are small, adaptive organisms, all about the same size, who have developed different beaks in order to take advantage of the different food sources available to them. If they are located close to other species, they will have to evolve in an entirely different way so as not to deplete the same food sources. Some environments will simply not support them. Before the ecology reaches a state of equilibrium, some of these finches will become extinct.

Now, Ontario isn’t like the Galapagos. For one thing, the food source is expanding. There are more craft beer drinkers than there have ever been before. The thing that has me worried is that the number of craft breweries and brew pubs seems to me to be expanding at a rate that is equal to or greater than the speed at which the number of craft beer drinkers is expanding. There is probably an equilibrium point, but I don’t pretend to know what it is.

There are a lot of new Ontario craft breweries starting up. Many of them are making some very tasty beers. Lots of them are outside Toronto. One of them is entirely fictional.

Now, we may not be anywhere near the equilibrium point for the ecology in terms of beer in Ontario. I hope we’re not, as many of the people who work for these breweries are friends of mine. Further, there will be more start-ups over the next five years as Niagara College students decide they want to brew their own beer and the craft beer market in Ontario catches up with other markets.

The failure rate might not be 77% anymore for independent breweries and brewpubs in Ontario over a 20 year period. It certainly seems as though it has gotten lower. The important thing to remember is that we’re in the middle of a boom, and it probably will not last indefinitely. There will be equilibrium.

All Hail Truckasaurus!

Molson M – Their New Commercial

I was sitting on the couch, watching Guy Fieri tell Lou Diamond Phillips that his ribs were the “bomb diggity” or “winner winner, chicken dinner” or some other vaguely positive California white guy thing. He may have used the adjective “hella.” I’m not really sure. I was paying the sort of half attention that a celebrity cook off merits. I remember that Cheech Marin can cook, if that counts for anything.

The thing that shocked me was that during the commercial break, I saw the new Molson M commercial. I believe in giving credit where it’s due, so I figure that I should probably talk a little bit about the commercial, if only for the reason that I think it’s a marked improvement on previous Molson ad campaigns.

If you haven’t seen it, I’ll provide a link to it so you can go away and watch it and then come back.

The problem that I’ve had with previous campaigns run by Molson is that, in the case of Canadian at least, the commercials didn’t ring true. In addition to the fact that very few of the people who live in Toronto have ever seen a swaying field of barley, the Canadian commercials raise a difficult logical fallacy: The No True Scotsman argument.

The No True Scotsman argument can be applied in a number of different ways, but essentially it runs like this: No True Scotsman wears underwear with a kilt. You are wearing a kilt, and while you may put salt in your porridge or have an affinity for single malt or speak fluent gaelic or hail from Aberdeen or own the complete works of Rod Stewart or have a long, proven ancestral line harkening back to Robert the Bruce, you are wearing boxer briefs under that kilt and I don’t care that it is a rental, you are wearing boxer briefs and you are therefore not a Scotsman.

Since not X then not Y, even if the tautology is demonstrably false based on extenuating factual evidence.

The thing about the Molson Canadian ads is that historically, they have asserted things about you, the consumer. You like mountains and lakes and rivers and you’re out there on God’s green earth communing with a herd of elk whenever possible.

Similar claims have been made recently by a series of Tide commercials that suggest that no true Canadian would ever consider putting off doing something because it’s cold out. This is, of course, a load of bollocks. If it’s -60 with the wind chill, I can practically guarantee you that you’re better off with a snuggie and a hot cocoa and a selection of hibernatory naps. Consider the words of Alden Nowlan:

this is a country

where a man can die

simply from being

caught outside

You’re not less sensible than a poet, are you? No, I didn’t think so. Clearly, it’s a false statement on the part of the cold water Tide campaign. They then go on to make an unrelated statement about how since you can go outside in the cold, your clothes should be washed in cold water. This makes me unremittingly angry, and I have to turn off the TV and go lie down for a while.

Bit of a digression there.

Anyway, Molson M’s campaign is a change in strategy for Molson in that it does not assert anything about you, the consumer. That’s a big step forward because the ad is suddenly about the product.

I think that it’s successful because it’s clearly meant to be inclusive of an urban market, which is, let’s face it, what Canada is predominantly comprised of. It displays people who are masters of their crafts doing what they do. There’s a ballet dancer doing what I assume is some kind of grand jete. There’s Mark McEwan, flambéing something with a taciturn look on his face. There’s a graffiti artist composing a mural. A drummer, banging away at a snare. A tattoo artist, applying ink.

Finally, it cuts away to a Molson brewmaster, Jonathan Lowes doing some stuff in a brewery. He’s crushing hops in his hands and smelling them. He’s pulling a sample from a tank. To be fair, it’s hard to represent brewing to a mainstream audience because the process is probably not something they’re really familiar with. It’s visually difficult. The important thing is that the continuity carries through to allow the tagline to assert that “every medium has its master.”

It also manages not to be explicitly exclusive of rural markets. Doing something well is universal. A subsequent commercial could easily focus on rural artisans.

Not only is it clever because of the assertion that brewing is art, which is being drilled into the public consciousness, it manages to rebrand the product. I don’t see the word “Microcarbonated” in there anywhere, do you? I’ll tell you why that is. The general public cares less about microcarbonation than the honey badger, who, as we all know, is preternaturally unconcerned. If you didn’t know about this brand, you would think, based on this commercial that M stands for “Master” because of the fading text at the end.

Is brewing art? Yes, it is. Is Jonathan Lowes a master of that art? I don’t know. I’ve never heard of him before. You don’t get to be a head brewer at Molson by being a chump. Let’s assume that anyone who can perform that job has a lot of training and is significantly talented. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. He almost certainly is. The question will always remain whether the product is art. Craft beer drinkers will certainly not think so. I do not think so, but I admire the mechanics behind it.

I don’t know if a mass produced thing can be considered art. Hotel room paintings are not a Manet original, but they fulfill the criteria of being cheerful and lending color to the room. Is the dichotomy that nags at me one of production? Is it the difference between an impressionist’s single canvas offering and a silk screened Warhol reproduction?

The important thing is that the commercial has forced me to ask questions and think about the product. It is assertive, but about the product, rather than the consumer. That is an improvement, and whoever came up with that campaign should probably be given a large bonus.

Can Beer Bars Survive North Of Bloor?

One of the things that I find irksome about living at Yonge and Davisville (aside from the inevitable late night taxi fares, which are one of the apparent hazards of being a beer writer) is the fact that otherwise intelligent people who live south of Bloor seem to think of it as being somewhere near Moosonee, geographically speaking. This is not only untrue, it’s simply hurtful. I’ve been chased off of campsites on the Moose River by black bears, whereas I might actually be the largest predator at Yonge and Davisville. If you’re in Moose Factory and something is banging on your wannigan trying to get at a loaf of bread or a jar of honey, that’s a bear. If you’re lying in bed in an urban setting and you hear someone stealing  beer from your fridge, that’s probably me. I guess there’s some overlap if you’re carrying beer on a portage, but probably only if it’s any good.

The point I’m getting at here is that life doesn’t end at Bloor Street. I didn’t realize that there are people who don’t think of Yonge as the main dividing line in Toronto. Some misguided urbanites believe that Bloor is the actual cutoff line, and they always seem a little amazed when they’re required to board a train going north.

“Hills!” they think. “My God, there are hills! This cannot be Toronto. My fixie bicycle will not ride on this terrain.”

It’s amazing because they’re somehow not being intentionally disingenuous about this. These are the fortunate people for whom the suburbs simply don’t exist. They will never shop at a centre owned by RioCan unless they do it ironically. The last time they went to Ikea, they bought enough Billy bookshelves to last a lifetime, cognizant of the fact that a constant supply of hex keys means that they’ll never have to see the 401 again.

All of this goes some way to explaining things about the way craft beer is laid out in Toronto.
Go ahead and name me five beer bars in the 905 part of the GTA. There’s The Feathers, (ed. note: People on twitter, especially @davidsunlee, have been quick to point out that Scarborough is not the 905 and that my portrayal of Scarborough as being part of the 905 is divisive and cruel and unusual and that I am a big ol’ poopyhead with no geographical understanding of the city and that probably my mom brought me up wrong and that my father very possibly has a wooden leg with a kickstand. I apologize, my family apologizes and the termites in my father’s wooden leg apologize.) although when I hear about them, mostly I hear about the selection of whiskies. They do have some very nice Cask selections. There’s West 50 in Mississauga, and from what I’ve seen of them, they have interesting events. The problem is “how do you get to it if you don’t drive?” Well, you just don’t.
It seems to me like there is not a lot of conviction that craft beer pubs can exist past the 401. The good news is that I think we’re heading in that direction. Over the Christmas break, I went to a couple of places that are trying to use beer as a draw outside of the downtown core.

First of all, there’s the newest offering from the people at the Bier Markt, who have decided to open a location at Don Mills and Lawrence. This sort of makes sense because some of the clientele that would frequent the Bier Markt’s other locations probably live somewhere near the Bridle Path. It’s a well laid out location and it offers the same variety of beers and the same quality fare that are available at the other Bier Markt locations. It’s a case of transplanting a successful model to a new location, and the location itself bears some talking about.

I hadn’t been to the mall at Don Mills and Lawrence since I was in high school. At the time, it was a down at heels mall without a lot of interesting features. I think the highlight might have been an A&W in the food court. In a stunning act of capitalist reclamation, it is now more or less an extremely upscale drive thru buytopia that features box stores for chains that I didn’t know we had in Canada. I mean, I suppose I knew that Tommy Hilfiger had their own stores, but I didn’t realize that could happen here.

The selection of beers reflects the setting. It is wide and varied and upscale and proper. All of the brands are established brands. This is clearly a corporate setting, and it shows. The correct glassware is used for everything and it seems to me like the model developed in the other locations has left nothing to chance. That may sound negative, but my feeling is that it’s right for the neighbourhood. These are professionals doing this thing. Let’s face it, if you’ve spent a long day manipulating the world of high finance or sitting comfortably as VP of a division that’s way over budget, and drive up to the Banana Republic to buy some dress chinos for the cottage and you decide to whet your whistle, you don’t want some schmuck recommending something you’re not going to like.

I kind of liked the place, since there’s a part of me that appreciates intricate attention to detail and efficiency and wants to make the trains run on time.

For a more organic feeling, there’s Coco Rogue, which is a relatively recently established place near Yonge and Eglinton. It’s not exactly a pub, since it was initially envisioned as a place specializing in Belgian chocolate. While there’s no shortage of people who are interested in chocolate, they have decided to revamp their menu in order to incorporate heavier belgian fare and European beer. Not only do they have the typical Moules Frites, but some truly interesting dishes that incorporate chocolate. I look forward to trying the vegetable mole on my next visit. Clearly, mole sauce isn’t Belgian, but I figure that it’s worth trying if only because they’re going to incorporate some of that Belgian Chocolate into it. Similarly, the chocolate fondue must be of an exceedingly high quality, although I didn’t try it.

The draft selection is going to be relatively minimal, and I heard Tilburg Dutch Brown Ale being

floated as the staple beer. There will also be a wide selection of products from Roland and Russell on hand for the bottle list.

The most interesting thing is that because it was initially a chocolate lounge, the layout is not necessarily what you would expect. The second floor contains some very comfortable group seating with low leather couches and mood lighting. While it was designed for groups to share fondue, it would be a good place to relax and enjoy some very high quality bottles with friends. The first floor has a baby grand piano and old movies projected on the wall. Not everyone is down for Bogart hovering over the room in a white dinner jacket, but I like a surreal touch, me.

The menu is solid, the beer list is solid and the decor is eclectic and slightly funky. I think it will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve. The main concept I came away with is that chocolate has its own terroir, as do wine and beer. I think that there’s a lot of room to play with that idea.

I hope that both of these places do well. As high quality imports and craft beers continue to grow in the market, it’s this kind of experimentation with new neighbourhoods that will go a long way to creating converts.

The Death March of the Poinsettia

For the last few years, the company that owns the building I live in has decided to have activities to celebrate their tenants. This works out pretty well. Once a year in the summer, a truck with some pretty impressive built in grills shows up and everyone gets to have burgers. It’s nice. I still don’t know anyone in the building, so there’s a lot of polite smiling and nodding. No one pretends to know anyone’s name and we all get along fine on the basis that there is nothing involved in the situation other than happily eating a meal we didn’t cook ourselves.

It’s the building management company that’s responsible for my sole annual Christmas tradition:  The Death March of the Poinsettia.

Because Christmases are a year apart, I always forget that at some point in early December one of the building’s superintendents is going to be tasked with going door to door with a cart and dropping off what is essentially a festive Mexican shrub. In years past, they would post a notice saying that you could have one if you wanted one. Recently the Poinsettia has become more or less mandatory, like a dysfunctional office holiday get-together.

Phase one is upbeat. It’s nice to come home to any kind of present. Usually, if there’s something sitting outside my door, it’s a beer delivery, but a cheerful red plant is nice too. It’s joyous and it’s attractive and it’s pleasantly wrapped in festive ephemera. It’s kind of fun, and a reminder that the Christmas season is coming down the pipe. There will be candy canes and dinner with family and evenings with friends. Everything will be pleasant, except for the fruitcake, which will be consumed out of a grim sense of obligation.

Phase one, if you’re a bachelor type person who is in the middle of commuting four hours a day to brewing school at an improbable distance, ends with setting the Poinsettia down on the kitchen counter and then proceeding to ignore it intensely for the immediate future. The form that this ignoring might take differs greatly from year to year, depending upon your obligations and interests. Maybe you’ll be playing a video game instead of enjoying the Poinsettia; maybe you’ll be learning how to use a financial calculator. All that matters is that the Poinsettia will sit untended for a good solid week. Extra points are awarded for completely failing to take it out of the protective sleeve that it came in.

Phase two might come at any point after the first week or so. Maybe you have a moment free and begin to think to yourself, “Now, I know there was something I was supposed to do.”  Typically, this happens early in the morning because the Poinsettia occupies a space next to the coffee maker. Sufficiently caffeinated to face the responsibility of owning a plant, you are finally ready to come to grips with the Poinsettia.

Because you’re caffeinated, rather than just watering the plant and putting it next to the window so it can get some sunlight, you become an expert on Poinsettias by dialing up Wikipedia. You learn that it has a latin name(Euphorbia Pulcherrima), and the reason that it’s associated with Christmas (apparently, it bloomed as a Christmas miracle for an impoverished Mexican girl), and that it was named after the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. You also learn about the care and handling of the Poinsettia. That watering it too much will lead it to wilt; that not watering it enough will lead it to wilt; that putting it in anything other than direct sunlight will lead it to wilt. You become concerned about the fact that putting it next to the window means that it will be directly above the radiator and that it will be too hot.

Finally, having carefully removed the protective sleeve and having watered the plant, you elect to place it next to the window on top of the bookshelf, where, by your estimation, it will get the light it needs, but not be too hot. Unfortunately, this is out of your eyeline on a day to day basis, and you will therefore immediately go back to ignoring the Poinsettia.

Somewhere in the week before Christmas, I hit phase three. Phase three is a good reminder of why it would be a very bad idea for me to own a pet. I get emotional about the Poinsettia, you see. I look up from playing, oh I don’t know… Skyrim, and see that the petals and bracts on the Poinsettia are starting to get tired. Maybe a leaf has wilted so completely as to fall off and the white sap that courses through the plant has dribbled out. It’s a sad looking plant at this point, not unlike that last ratty Christmas tree left on the lot at the end of the day.

I take pity on it and water it far too heavily, thinking to myself, “Well, this is no way to treat a living thing,” and I chastise myself for not taking better care of it. There’s some guilt, but also a certain amount of anger about the fact that I never asked for the Poinsettia. It just showed up outside the door one day. The death of this plant is not on me. It is not my fault that some well meaning person has completely misread my ability to care for an exceptionally hardy shrub.

And eventually, I think back to childhood. I think back to sitting on the sill of the picture window in the library at our house, next to the Poinsettia which would inevitably arrive before the Christmas tree did as a result of whichever worthy charitable appeal was hawking them that year. I remember the sense of satisfaction of knowing that some things would always be a constant. Christmas would always be magical. The presents would always be what you wanted. The turkey might be dry, but no one would care. Someone else would take care of the Poinsettia and water the Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, by this point in phase three, a level of existential doubt has crept into the proceedings. You wonder what your worth can possibly be if you can’t even water a plant. You also wonder whether man is doomed eternally to participate in endeavors that he does not choose.

Phase four is solemn. It involves the disposal of the now dead Poinsettia into the dumpster out back of the building. This calls for a gentle touch, but the walls of the dumpster are too high to deposit it lightly within. While hurling it over the side of the bin, it’s hard not to note that everyone else’s Poinsettia has survived. Depression sets in briefly, until you realize that you’re free.

You have escaped the trappings of Christmas that have been foisted on you by an extremely caring and generous corporate entity. You’ve managed to avoid a tradition that you don’t really understand. You promise yourself that in future, you’re only going to participate in the traditions that you want to participate in at Christmas: Only the things that make people happy. That’s what’s important. Good food, good conversation, time spent with loved ones. You’ll feel good about yourself, and you’ll buy people just the right presents and everything will be beautiful.

It’s a promise you make to yourself that will last until next December, when all of the above events will recur.

Shiny Happy Vegans OR We Got Beets!

I don’t really understand vegans. This should come as no real surprise to anyone who knows me, especially if they’ve seen me anywhere near a platter of appetizers at a beer event. If the beer blogger was a species and we were doing a hinterland who’s who episode, it would be something like: “The northern reticulated beer blogger is an opportunistic omnivore and we’re going to need more hot wings on the buffet table, stat.”

I mean, I appreciate many of the arguments for vegetarianism. I understand it from an intellectual position. There’s the issue of food chain biomass. You can probably feed ten people with the resources needed to feed one animal. In addition to that, cows produce methane in vast quantities and it’s ruining the environment. Also, you’ve probably seen videos of the factory farmed chickens and had terrible nightmares afterwards. Also, no one wants to eat the cute animals. Otter kebabs are out.

Clearly, vegetarianism and veganism are defensible positions taken by responsible people. It’s a reasonable choice. It’s not my choice, but I understand it.

It’s just that this is not food that I’m familiar with. I don’t know what the standard is for vegan food, so when Greg Clow from Canadian Beer News emailed me a couple of weeks ago to invite me along to a vegan beer dinner at the uber-swanky Windsor Arms, I hemmed and hawed for a bit because I knew that I would eventually be doing this write up and that there would be bits of it that I almost certainly would’t like. It’s the first in a series of beer dinners for Greg, so I didn’t really think that coming down on the dinner like a ton of bricks would help anyone.

The vegetarian food that I’m used to raises my hackles slightly because it reminds me slightly of Baudrillard’s treatise on Simulacrum. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In the past, I have purchased Yves’ Vegan Hot Dogs. Now, the entire concept should throw you because a hot dog is a meat slurry that is formed into a tube by intestinal casing; this is if you get the really good ones. The vegan ones are a soy slurry that are simply formed into a tube. I don’t understand why you would attempt to replicate the form if you were vegan. Just the concept that you are eating something that is a reproduction of what is essentially viscera should be offensive. The form speaks to an ugly truth; that being a subversion of an existing construct which is nonetheless a reminder of the thing which is being avoided. It exists alongside the item it’s mimicking.

It seems like that’s a legitimate criticism, and I’m sure I’m not the first to point it out.

I figure that if I’m really honest about it the best I’ll be able to do is to not offend anyone personally while criticizing things I don’t know about.

Doug McNish: Vegan Ubermensch

Our chef for the evening was Doug McNish, who’s a remarkably upbeat man and clearly very talented and passionate. He’s got a compelling backstory as well, having lost 100 pounds after switching to a plant based diet. This made him decide to become a professional vegan chef. He’s something of a media personality in his own right, with a cookbook due out in march and numerous TV appearances under his belt.

The beers were provided by Beau’s and the ambience was provided by the dazzlingly metropolitan Windsor Arms. I like the idea of eating at the Windsor Arms. I’m told that A-list celebrities stay there. I figure that if it’s good enough for Mick and Keith, It’s good enough for me.

This is the obligatory menu and cutlery shot.

The Hors D’oeuvres were threefold. Tempeh Crab cake with spicy chipotle aioli and baby seedlings. Crisp Polenta with a  slow cooked barbecued burdock root. Nori rolls with creamy sunflower seed lemon ginger pate, red pepper, avocado and cucumber and a sweet lemon, ginger and tamari reduction. These were paired with Lug Tread.

The polenta was an early flash of genius and paired really well with the Lug Tread. None of the flavours overpowered each other and it was a lovely mouthful with some decent depth of flavour. The Tempeh crab cake was my first experience with Tempeh (as far as I know) and it emulated the texture very nicely. I didn’t care for the Nori Rolls, mostly because the closest thing I’ve had to that is a maki roll and I found that I missed the texture of the sushi rice. It seems like an important textural element that was missing, allowing for a vaguely mushy bite. I would suggest that I was alone in this assessment, but I noticed that no one else was jumping at those trays when the servers came by.

The first course was Crispy Fries smothered in black bean chili, a vegan cheese sauce, cashew sour cream, tempeh bacon bits and green onion. It was paired with Beau’s Dr. Jekyll, which is a blend of their Marzen and Lug Tread. This worked extremely well, but I notice that the components are just different enough that it is really its own dish, rather than a simulated chili cheese fries. The cashew sour cream was, if anything, slightly tangier than a regular sour cream. The tempeh bacon bits did have a smoky flavour you’d associate with pork, but kind of more of a pork belly sort of thing. It worked well with the beer.

Chili Cheese Fries. Better than those at T.G.I.McGrizzlebee's Family Jamboree.

The second course was a Red Beet Ravioli stuffed with a creamy red pepper dill cashew ricotta cheese and served with a red pepper marinara sauce. Doug was quick to point out, after getting out attention by wailing on a skillet with a wooden spoon, that this was raw food. The assumption is that by avoiding heating anything past 105 degrees farenheit, you retain nutrients that would otherwise be cooked away.  This means, I guess, that instead of a pasta, the casing for the ravioli is raw beet. It was paired with Mr. Hyde, which is Beau’s Roggenbier/RyePA cross.

We got beets!

This was, incidentally, where I realized that I was more than slightly out of my depth. I’m not really used to the texture of raw beet. My mental map includes al dente pasta, but not the crunchy  texture evident here. It’s odd. The filling was extremely rich, which I supposed stands to reason when you consider that it was mostly cashew. I was also not familiar with a raw red pepper marinara sauce, which sort of replaces the depth of flavour you might get out of a traditional simmered marinara with a freshness. I understand the form, but I don’t understand the simulacra. This is not a criticism of the dish, really, but an explanation. If I had a criticism, I would suggest that it could have been a touch spicier in order to take advantage of the rye character of the beer.

The third course was grilled chermoula rubbed tofu with braised collard greens, sweet potato quinoa croquettes and a spiced almond butter beurre blanc. Chermoula is apparently a north African seafood seasoning. It’s an interesting dish because it incorporates a lot of disparate elements. Chermoula is distinctly old world, while the croquettes are mostly new world ingredients. It’s distinctly comfort food, though and puts me in mind of a fish fry somehow. Sort of greens and hush puppies, you know? The collard greens were excellent, by the way. Braised in vinegar with jalapenos, they had just enough heat that the beer pairing of Beau’s Bog Water (Bog Myrtle Gruit) couldn’t quite catch up with them and you ended up wanting more of both.

It was at this point that I tweeted "Wooo look at me, I'm a vegan"

The dessert was raw food as well: Warm Apple Crumble with sticky toffee caramel sauce and coconut banana puree. The beer pairing was Beau’s Dunkel Buck, which has pretty significant notes of chocolate and banana. I don’t know whether the pairing worked. I had trouble with the dessert, but mostly because of my frame of reference. The only time I encounter raw apple is when I eat an apple. It doesn’t really make sense to me in other contexts, except maybe on a cheese plate.

Dessert!

It was an interesting experience, and a bold choice for the first in a series of beer dinners. Everyone had fun, which I think was the important thing. If the remainder of the events in Greg Clow’s series are as well thought out and as well presented as this one, we’re in for a treat.

I’m finding myself conflicted by the dinner. I would not have missed it. I like the idea of vegan beer pairings intellectually. I find that beer pairings are typically pork heavy. This is the result of generations of happy Bavarians roaming the landscape with a bellyful of Weisswurst and of Britons mirthlessly choking down a Sunday pub lunch. The problem is that while I have a lifetime of pub grub under my belt, I have no basis for comparison for this food. I suspect that it was extremely good as vegan fare goes, but I don’t really know. I do know that the pairings worked about as well as they do at any beer dinner. Three out of five ain’t bad.

The Great Beau’s Kerfuffle of 2011

Let me explain something about the way the news cycle works in the beer world. It’s a lot like the way the news cycle works on major cable networks. Stories tend to come out early in the week. Mondays and Tuesday s tend to be flush with press releases, and this is a good thing for beer writers because you usually end up having a column that’s published later in the week for the reason that people just don’t seem to want to think about beer on a Monday.

Well, some people do, but most of those cats are a little weird.

I tend to file columns for Sun Media on Wednesday or Thursday, which means that if something interesting happens after my filing deadline, it’s probably not going to make it into the paper at all. Usually, people like Josh Rubin at the Star will have covered it on the day. Since Josh is pretty thorough, this means that whatever that topic is tends to get relegated to my blog because it would seem like an irrelevance by the time it made into the next week’s paper.

Also, my column’s mandate is, theoretically, to have a national focus, which means that sometimes stories that effect a very small geographic area, even within my bailiwick, just don’t make it. It’s for this reason that I didn’t write about Beau’s delivery program this week. I researched it and found that even though the story contained the kind of general feel-goodery that you get from charitable donations and beer, it was too small an area. The delivery zone is parts of Ottawa, and while that’s neat, it’s hard to justify when you’re looking at a short list of “K1” postal codes.

Of course, the story got a buttload bigger because this is Ontario and nothing is ever simple. It will probably continue to spiral over the next week. Mom called earlier and I was going to explain the thing to her, but she had already heard about it on the CBC on the drive home. Some people have the AP wire; I have a beer nerd mom.

Beau’s works periodically with a charitable organization called Operation Come Home, which works with underprivileged youth. They’ve been around for 41 years, so this is not some fly by night charity. Until now, Operation Come Home has operated a service whereby they collected empty bottles from people. The Buy Your Beau’s Online website is currently redirected, so I’m going from memory here. I believe the idea was that you were donating the deposit from the bottles to Operation Come Home and you got a tax receipt for charitable donation. This is much better than slogging boxes of empties to the beer store yourself, since you get a nice tax write off and underprivileged youth get services they wouldn’t get otherwise.

At some point Beau’s and Operation Come Home decided that it would probably be a good idea for Operation Come Home to operate a delivery service for Beau’s within Ottawa. Again, a neat idea, given that you get a nice beer and maybe eventually a tax write off when you return the bottles and underprivileged youth get to perform a function within society and Operation Come Home gets to keep somewhere upwards of half of the delivery fee. I think it was something like $8.25 per delivery, but like I say, the website is down.

That press release reached my email November 23rd at 4:43 PM.

Apparently, everything was set up properly. Beau’s ran the legality of the thing by the AGCO according to Troy Burtch over at Great Canadian Beer Blog, and everything came up aces. They were all set to go until another brewery complained. The Buy Your Beau’s Online program has been suspended indefinitely. The AGCO has not divulged which brewery complained as yet, but will have to if Beau’s decides to appeal the decision.

This press release reached my email November 24th at 5:37 PM.

All told, the program existed for 25 hours, which is not bad if you’re a mayfly.

I don’t know why, but I’m finding it somewhat difficult to register the proper amount of outrage. Possibly it’s because of the amount of relief. If I had filed the Sun Media column on this topic, I would currently be frantically rewriting it in order to update the story and get it to my interim editor, Glenn. I’m relatively familiar with the 3AM deadline; I’m in an undergrad program, after all.

Mostly what I’m doing is trying to figure out what happened. Apparently the problem is not that the delivery service employs at risk youth (which I would have some qualms about, were they not adequately supervised. There’s a significant amount of oversight, so I’m not all that concerned) but rather that the beer would have come from the brewery and not through The Beer Store. Since Beau’s is not in The Beer Store, this is impossible.

In order to get a listing in The Beer Store, there is a listing fee. In this particular circumstance, this seems extortionate. In order to go ahead with the program, they would be forced to pay the initial listing fee and per store listing fees.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that another craft brewery is the complainant in this case. First of all, there aren’t whole big bunches of them in Ottawa. Secondly, another craft brewery would probably suffer from jealousy over not having thought of the idea first. Thirdly, if the owner of another craft brewery complained, they would have to know that their name would come out eventually and that the backlash would ruin their profile within the community.

So, that leaves large breweries: The ones who own The Beer Store. I don’t know which one, but I’m betting it’s not Sapporo.

The justification must be adherence to regulations. I can understand that. It’s petty, certainly, but understandable. The problem is that it’s a PR nightmare once the name of the large brewery comes out, and it will eventually. Whoever complained shut down a program that was probably going to provide thousands of dollars in revenue monthly to a worthy charitable organization.

I mean, what spin do you put on that? Beau’s are lawbreakers? That’s a terrible idea. It makes them Robin Hood, plus they had obtained permission from the AGCO. I don’t think anyone is bold enough to try the obviously evil “exploitative of at risk youth” gambit, but there’s a possibility we’ll see that spin down the line if there’s desperation.

This is a stopgap legal measure on somebody’s part, and it exists for a great reason: If Beau’s is allowed to do this, everyone will be. It cuts out The Beer Store in a relatively ingenious way and gets beer to consumers. Breweries would be able to put their flagship brands and seasonals up online and sell them directly to the consumer. Increased awareness and viability for small brewers; the large breweries can’t afford the legal precedent, especially with their volumes dropping.

Nice Try, Steve Beauchesne. Lawyer up and keep at ’em, because a blog post, no matter how much it appeals to emotion, isn’t going to do it this time.

Bud Light Platinum OR Consider the Elephant

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about evolutionary biology. My understanding of the subject is not perfect, since it’s informed mostly by Stephen Jay Gould’s book Bully for Brontosaurus, the film Jurassic Park and Grade 12 biology. It’s probably because of this loose understanding of the subject that I feel comfortable applying a model for evolutionary biology to large breweries.

Who's a cute little Elephant antecedent? You'm is!

Consider, for a moment, the Elephant. The Elephant didn’t start out as a huge plains dwelling mammal. In fact, it’s closely related to the hyrax. The theory is that Elephants were at one time quite small mammals, about the size of pigs. They were called Moeritheres. I don’t have a picture of the Moerithere, because it’s long since extinct. It’s probable that there are a number of evolutionary dead ends between the Moerithere and the Paleomastodon, but all you need to know in order to understand the transition from Moerithere and Paleomastodon is that at some point it must have been advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint for these antecendents of the Elephant to become quite large.

Not pictured: Snuffleupagus

It probably had to do with the environment in which they lived. Maybe there was a lack of predators. Maybe a number of other creatures of similar size in their environment became extinct, creating a larger amount of resources for the growth of the Paleomastodon. It doesn’t really matter. What we know is that they thrived and got larger and eventually, the amount of biodiversity within the Proboscidea line grew smaller.

In the last million years or so, there became fewer actual species. The American Mastodon is now extinct, as is the Stegodon. The Mammoth was probably killed off by human hunters about 5000 years ago.

We’re left with two Elephants: African and Indian. They’re extraordinarily large land dwelling mammals. They require a huge number of resources to be able to sustain themselves. It takes a lot of land to feed an Elephant. They’re the size they are because it was, at some point, evolutionarily advantageous to be that size.

Evolution takes a long time, so any threat to the environment of the Elephant like other species encroaching on their territory or a lack of food source won’t have any immediate visible effect, other than maybe causing some unfortunate safari member to get trampled while taking a nice close up shot with a DSLR. If the Elephant adapts, it will not stop being an Elephant. It will just become a different type of Elephant in order to try and take advantage of its surroundings.

At least, such is my understanding.

In this analogy, it helps to envision large brewers as organisms.

Initially, in North America at least, there were a number of very small breweries. There wasn’t a huge transport network, so small breweries existed by supplying beer to local areas. Small breweries thrived. They did really well for a long time, getting sustenance from sales.

Then, there was an extinction level event in the form of prohibition. Some of the breweries adapted to their environment by selling malt extract or making other products. A number of them closed their doors forever; evolutionary dead ends due to a lack of adaptability.

Following the repeal of prohibition, the breweries that survived grew immensely due to the fact that there was less competition from an evolutionary perspective. They became large regional breweries in many cases, and the amount of biodiversity in the beer world shrank.

In the last fifty years or so, due in part to magnates like E.P. Taylor, the number of different breweries shrank as the larger ones purchased the smaller ones. It was evolutionarily advantageous for the larger brewery-organisms to grow. Mass production meant that profits soared. We reached the point where there are only three species of large brewery roaming the plains, trumpeting their victory and sharpening their tusks: AB In-Bev, Molson Coors and SAB Miller. They are, like the African and Indian Elephants, quite similar to each other genetically.

The problem, then, for the large breweries is two-fold:

1)      There are only a finite number of resources (customers) to supply them with sustenance, which means that continued growth is no longer desirable or even possible from an evolutionary standpoint even though it is demanded by shareholders.

2)      The environment is changing and microbreweries are competing for those resources. It is helpful here to think of microbreweries as an entirely different species encroaching on the territory of the large breweries. Perhaps something in a Neanderthal.

I told you that so I could tell you this:

Bud Light Platinum is the newest release from AB In-Bev.

It is, according to the L.A. Times, going to be 6% alcohol and contain 137 calories.

It’s an offshoot of Bud Light, which is problematic when you consider that it contains more alcohol than regular Budweiser. It’s not a light beer at 6% alcohol. In Ontario, it would be classified as a strong beer. At 137 calories, it contains slightly fewer calories than regular Budweiser. It will apparently be slightly sweeter, though. I imagine that they are using the descriptor “platinum” because some bright spark in the marketing department said “Hey! That’s one better than gold. My Amex card is platinum.” All of this makes my head hurt.

For some reason, this is being touted as the magic bullet that will stop the decline of the Budweiser brand and gain acceptance with the craft beer people. It won’t.

Let me explain: It’s the same Elephant, but with a racing stripe. It’s an attempt at evolutionary diversity. The problem is that the new brand is going to be fighting for the same resources as the existing brand. The only people who are going to drink Bud Light Platinum are the people who already drink Bud or Bud Light. What is going to happen here is that there will be a sudden surge of interest in the product during its launch, which, given that the schedule calls for January 30th, will be heavily promoted during the week before the Superbowl on February 5th.

Sales will be brisk initially due to the novelty factor and the timing. Following the launch, it will simply compete against Budweiser, Bud Light and Bud Light Lime. In short, instead of reviving the brand, it will actively decrease the customer base of the other brands in the family as it competes for the same customers. To me, it seems like a bid for a brief influx of cash in the face of declining North American shipping; Especially when you look at the Q3 report.

You might ask yourself why, if they want to crack the craft beer market, are they doing this? The people who already drink craft beer are not going to respond well to it. They will probably scoff derisively. Why don’t they just sink some of the talent and resources that they clearly possess into creating and marketing a new brand of craft lager or pale ale?

I’ll tell you why: like the Elephant needs a huge amount of food, large breweries need a certain amount of profit growth to continue existing in the form into which they have evolved.  The behavior being exhibited in launching something like Bud Light Platinum recurs across a number of markets. It’s an attempt at diversification of the existing species in an ongoing evolutionary sense, but it’s all based on the same DNA. The Elephant can’t simply stop being an Elephant and be something else.

In the meantime, the Neanderthals are learning how to make spears.

In Which I Attempt To Be Polite To Bureaucrats

I was walking through the LCBO at Summerhill last night on the way back from Niagara College looking for something to drink. Not review, but drink. Sometimes you just want a beer with dinner. If I wanted to review something, I would have picked up a bottle of Trafalgar’s new India Ink Black Pale Ale, or maybe Muskoka’s Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout, or even Unibroue’s 17. Any of those would have been interesting beers to review; not all of them in a positive way, necessarily.

I just wanted a beer to drink with dinner, so I got a Crazy Canuck.

Here’s the thing: Looking around the LCBO Summerhill these days, you would never know that we had a lack of beer selection in the province. I understand completely that this is a flagship store and that it’s not like this everywhere. There are stores that don’t get the really interesting stuff. In fact, this accounts for the majority of stores. I just want to point something out to you.

This is a list of the beers that have made it into the LCBO between September and December. It is an incomplete list because they are now bringing in so many beers as part of the general list that they do not always get my attention. I have grabbed the lists from bartowel, which explains the formatting.

263988 / Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout / 500 / 7.5 / $3.75
263954 / Fuller’s Golden Pride / 500 / 8.5 / $3.75
263962 / Fuller’s India Pale Ale / 500 / 5.3 / $3.75
266841 / Fuller’s Old Winter Ale / 500 / 5.3 / $3.75
263970 / Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale / 500 / 7.5 / $3.75

237693 / Cannery Maple Stout / 5.5 / 650 / $5.80
254656 / Ayinger Celebrator / 7.2 / 330 / $3.45
173658 / Garrison Imperial I.P.A. / 7 / 500 / $4.25
234047 / Bacchus Flemish Old Brown / 4.5 / 375 / $4.50
236091 / Celt Bronze Crafted Ale / 4.5 / 500 / $3.65
233486 / Marston’s Pedgree V.S.O.P. / 6.7 / 500 / $3.50
233494 / Wychwood Goliath / 4.2 / 500 / $3.50
236992 / Renaissance Stonecutter Scotch Ale / 7 / 500 / $4.60
173534 / Southern Tier Choklat / 11 / 650 / $9.85
504670 / Fuller’s 1845 Bottle Conditioned Ale / 6.3 / 500 / $3.50
125153 / Affligem Dubbel / 6.8 / 330 / $2.75
239475 / Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Triple / 9 / 500 / $5.95
244376 / Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique 2011 / 10 / 750 / $9.95
237875 / Box Steam Funnel Blower / 4.5 / 500 / $3.55

254896 / Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin Ale / 9.0 / 650 / $8.95
248179 / Brasseurs de Montreal La Stout Ghosttown / 6.6 / 341 / $2.85
247635 / Wychwood King Goblin / 6.6 / 500 / $3.50
67710 / Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale / 5.5 / 650 / $4.95
90738 / St Ambroise Pumpkin Ale / 5.0 / 4×341 / $9.95
182287 / Southern Tier Pumking / 9.0 / 650 / $9.00
132761 / Dieu du Ciel! Corne du Diable IPA / 6.5 / 4×341 / $11.60

LCBO 187005 LAVA, Smoked Imperial Stout – 500 ml – Iceland
LCBO 171413 St Ambroise Russian Imperial Stout – 341 ml – Quebec
LCBO 264341 Nogne 0 Imperial Stout – 500 ml – Norway
LCBO 188870 Box Steam Dark & Handsome (Old Ale) – England
LCBO 090845 Great Lakes Winter Ale – 750 ml – Ontario
LCBO 186999 Traquair Jacobite Ale – 330 ml – Scotland
LCBO 135194 Southern Tier Creme Brulee Stout – 650 ml – New York
LCBO 250944 Brooklyn Monster Ale – 355 ml – New York
LCBO 264358 Dominus Vobiscum Double – 500 ml – Quebec
LCBO 250472 Affligem Tripel – 330 ml – Belgium
LCBO 270405 Solstice D’Hiver – 4 x 341 – Quebec
LCBO 222236 Lake of Bays Mocha Porter – 750 ml – Ontario
LCBO 054106 Trafalgar Smoked Oatmeal Stout – 650 ml – Ontario

Fullers Vintage Ale
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale
Christoffel Winter Bier Jug
Jenlain Or Biere Blonde
La Chouffe
Bah Humbug Christmas Cheer Ale
Unibroue 17 Grand Reserve
Samuel Adams New World Triple
Mill St. Barley Wine
St.Peters Winter Ale

Sam Adams Utopias 2011

Note that this list doesn’t include things like the Grand River Highballer Pumpkin, which was released without being on a list. It doesn’t include a bunch of small batch Ontario releases. It doesn’t include the upcoming Garrison brewery feature. Not including the gift packs that come out at Christmas, the specialty releases include something like 50 beers in four months. Granted, they’re not all winners, but the effort counts for something.

Gift Packs:
Biere Du Boucanier Mix Pack
Samuel Smith Selection
Erdinger Gift Pack
6 Exclusive Belgian Ales
Amsterdam Entertainer
Historic Ales Of Scotland
Rickard’s Taster Pack
Bavarian Alps 3 Collector Bottle Gift Pack
OCB Holiday Discovery Pack
St. Ambroise Gift Pack
Innis & Gunn Connoisseur Oak Collection
King Brewery 3 Kings
Taste Of Belgium
Alexander Keiths Barrel Gift Pack
Faxe Premium Gift Pack
Old Speckled Hen Bottle and Glass
Tiger Gift Pack
European Beer Mix Pack
Duvel Twinpack with Glass
Maredsous Chalice Gift Pack
De Koninck Belgian Gift Pack
Mill Street Organic Gift Pack
Mill Street Tankhouse Gift Pack
Mill Street Coffee Porter Gift Pack
Chimay Grand Reserve Canister
St. Bernardus Gift Pack
St. Peters Twinpack with Glass
Sapporo Holiday 2011 Gift Pack
Stella Artois Chalice Gift Pack
Steam Whistle Gift Pack

There are 30 gift packs. I concede that you may not like all of them. I don’t care, as long as there is a Samuel Smith’s gift pack somewhere with my name on it.

That’s 80 specialty products in four months. That doesn’t include Ontario seasonal and craft products that get listed without much fanfare. The total number is probably closer to 100. I just wanted you to see this all in one place, so that the amount of variety could sink in. When I was at Summerhill last night, I got a visual representation of this, and it’s impressive. They have maybe half of this stuff, since some of the earlier releases have sold out. It’s still enough beer to make you wander around the section for 15 minutes trying to figure out what to get.

In addition to this, they seem to have relaxed the “Won’t somebody think of the children” department to allow for the release of Smashbomb Atomic IPA during the summer. Dan Aykroyd’s vodka even made it into the store recently, despite the crystal skull bottle. We might even get Delirium Tremens back at some point.

There are still problems. The specialty releases are in a limited number of stores. The store to store transfer can be difficult to initiate, judging from all of the anecdotal information I’ve gathered. The release dates are sort of sporadic across the stores that do participate. The store by store inventory is not always reliable.

When talking about the LCBO, I have generally ceded the point that the LCBO is a huge bureaucratic endeavor and does not turn on a dime. If the above list suggests anything, it’s that the LCBO has been doing that over the course of the last year or so.

The selection may not be to your liking. You may think that the number of low alcohol British beers hurts the releases because they don’t travel all that well from England. You may want more of a certain style. IPAs, popular in the US, don’t seem to get the same play here, possibly due to the lack of warehouse refrigeration. Because of the sheer number of products showing up, some of them will not be in the quantity that allows for a certain beer to remain on shelves for more than a week. These are reasonable criticisms.

The LCBO has, though, shown that they are willing to expand the selection available. I don’t think it’s possible to argue that they haven’t. They’re clearly trying to provide quality beer. It would be disingenuous to suggest that they have not improved massively over the last year. I suggest that from this point on we should probably try positive reinforcement.

Next time you find yourself sitting down to blast them on an internet forum over not including something that you want, I want you to write them a polite email about your concern and send it off to them, while keeping in mind the following:

1)      These are actual people, so using phrases like “jerks who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes” or questioning the legitimacy of their parentage is probably counterproductive.

2)      They are actually trying.

3)      They have probably not received a whole big bunch of polite, congratulatory emails from the public on this subject before, so this may actually have an impact on future selection.

It’s never going to be perfect. They will never be able to satisfy everyone. You are not going to get incredibly rare beers from small brewers in the states because the lead time on acquisition for those is probably insurmountable and the quantity is very low. It is my suspicion, however, that since the LCBO is now demonstrably interested in providing a wide variety of high quality beer, they are probably now willing to listen to the people who actually drink the stuff.

It’s worth a shot, anyway.

Cask Days @ Hart House

In Ralph Morana’s ever expanding quest to take over the beer world, Cask Days 2011 has to be seen as a massive success. That being said, it wasn’t without gambles. Any time you move a beer festival to an outdoor location, you face a number of variables that are beyond your control. The truth is that it all came together perfectly this year.

One of the things I use to gauge the success of a cask festival is how the English ex-pats think of it. These are people, after all, who get back across the pond periodically to enjoy real ale festivals that are generally much larger than those we have in Canada. This year Cask Days actually managed to put blissful looks on their faces, and I talked to three or four ex-pats who lauded the thing as being a “proper festival.”

There were a number of things that helped to pull this off. The first is the setting. Hart House lends an air of sophistication to a beer festival. People tend to behave themselves when you put them in a massive university courtyard in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do in other places. Perhaps it was the imposing nature of the structure or the nearly surreal carillon ringing from the bell tower that had this calming effect. At least during the first session, no one got out of hand.

The bells! The bells!

One of the key ingredients in this success was the massive variety of beer on offer. There were 82 separate casks, which is amazing when you consider the genesis of the event. When I started going to Cask Days four years ago, there might have been something like 40, and they would all have been from Ontario. The fact that this event has expanded to include BC, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and England is no small feat. Think about the amount of organization that it must take to get that many brewers on the phone, let alone to get them to ship casks of their beer out to coincide with the last week in October. Astounding.

Should have sent a poet.

The other thing that worked to everyone’s benefit was the fact that it was cold. It was, for me anyway, just about the right temperature to be serving cask ale at. I know that some folks seem to like it at eight or nine degrees Celsius, but I prefer it at around six, chill haze be damned. It’s going to warm up in your hands anyway, so I feel like having the flavours open up in front of you is a good thing.

George Eagleson: Urban Cowboy

People dressed up for the weather, in windbreakers and parkas and a surprising number of cowboy hats. Many people fought to find a place on the north side of the quad so that they could stand in the sun and warm up. This is just enough adversity to create a shared experience. It’s not so much adversity that it becomes the focal point of the day. It would be hard, for example to properly enjoy cask ale in a lifeboat after listening to the band play Nearer My God To Thee while this ship goes down. It would, however, create a sense of community, at least until the cannibalism set in.

Local Hat Enthusiast Greg Earp

The branding on all of the material involved with the festival was excellent, and most of the credit for this goes to Tomas Morana, who has become something of a savant in terms of graphic design. At some point before the festival, he took the time to design tokens with the event logo on them. These are so vastly an improvement on having paper tickets in your pocket that I don’t know where to begin. In the old days, they used to issue strips of paper with little dotted lines on them so you knew where to tear the tickets. Try finding a single ticket in one of your many pockets after you’ve sampled 14 quarter pints of beer. The tokens are a stroke of genius.

I wasn't going to include this picture, but I did because of tokenism.

Perhaps most impressive was the fact that I didn’t end up drain pouring a single beer. In previous years there have always been one or two beers that I tried that I couldn’t get through despite the fact that the sample might have been five ounces. The leap in quality is tremendous. The brewers are now taking this seriously, and by trial and error over the course of the last seven years most of them have learned how to properly cask beers.

Somehow, both the Central City Red Racer Citra Pale Ale and the Storm Fresh Hop IPA survived the voyage from BC and were excellent. One would have thought that the Trois Mousquetaires Barrel Aged Baltic Porter would have stolen the show in the Quebec tent, but Dunham’s Oak Aged Cranberry Ale was magnificent; tart, with that hint of wood that aids the mouthfeel. I suspect that it may have been bolstered by a touch of wild yeast. All I know is that Dunham clearly bears watching.

Gordo thought he got out of frame. Gordo was wrong.

Niagara College put forth a good effort, and our booth was manned by Gord Slater, who is pictured here in a very dapper hat which was provided by Don Cherry’s Burlington Glamour line of couture (there is the distinct possibility I will be expelled for this joke). The Bultersberg Barley Wine was very good and I feel as though the other beers benefitted from dry hopping. Niagara students Austin Roach and Andrew Bartle collaborated with Volo’s House Ales to create Gold Dust, which was a solid attempt at an American style Porter.

Ontario actually measured up to the other provinces. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes created a 100% Brett IPA which I imagine will take the best name prize: Fangboner. Yes, it’s a silly name. Try saying it aloud in a high pitched voice, or singing it to the tune of goldfinger. It also created an awkward situation when you were being served by one of the girls manning the booth. “Excuse me young lady, could I trouble you for a Fangboner? What’s that? No, just a quarter pint Fangboner. This is the Fangboner? Great. Here’s your token. Fangboner.”

"Hey, what can we call this beer? It needs to be wholesome enough to play in Peoria....I've got it. Fangboner."

Cameron’s continues to do interesting things. Apparently their There Is No Dana, Only Zuur Sour is the result of months of barrel aging. It was tasty. The only legitimate criticism I have for it is that the beer is that it didn’t really peak at any point on the palate; one flavour all the way through. Good beer, though and it gets high marks on the Venkman Quotient.

Don't open the tap all the way. Important safety tip, Egon.

Best of all though was Sawdust City’s I Swear, Sugarpants, It Was Your Idea. I didn’t think much of Sawdust City’s first offering. I think the ingredient from every province thing they did with Great Weiss North was gimmicky and a little busy on the palate. I don’t think anyone knew enough of the ingredients to be able to pick them out. This, on the other hand, was marvelous. It’s a brown ale with coffee malt and lactose brewed with a sort of garam masala chai steep that was added as a flavour addition at the end of the boil. It tasted like a chai latte. I don’t actually like chai, and this was excellent. More than that, it was exciting. I don’t know exactly how he pulled it off and made the flavours work together, but he did.

Looking at this picture, I'm seriously considering taking bets on whether Sam Corbeil owns a waterbed and attends key parties.

This was the best Cask Days event ever. Make no mistake, it will probably be even better next year. I have only two regrets:

1)      We trampled the Hart House quad’s lawn pretty badly. Some landscaper is going to be pissed.

2)      Instead of sampling more beers, at some point I decided to use four tokens to buy a pint of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque on cask.

Actually, that second one probably isn’t a regret.

 

The Stella Artois Draught Master Competition

On Friday, I was one of the judges for the Stella Artois Draught Masters National Championship at One King West in Toronto. Never having really taken part in an event of that scope before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In terms of writing about beer and, indeed, drinking beer, I’m more or less a craft guy, and I think that’s fairly common knowledge. It would be hard to come to any other conclusion reading the Sun Media column or for the blog. Stella Artois is, despite its relatively modest origins as a Christmas beer at the beginning of the 18th century, a huge international brand. Were I one of their representatives, I might have easily chosen someone who is more supportive generally of huge international brands to judge the thing.

Not that I’m complaining. It’s a nice activity to switch to after commuting back and forth all week to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It’s good to have variety.

Let me explain how the Draught Masters competition works. Basically, there’s an official nine step process for pouring Stella Artois that involves making sure the glass is clean, making sure the beer has the right amount of head in the glass and, finally, making sure that you serve the beer in the middle of the coaster with the logo facing out. These are all important things to consider and they contribute to the customer’s experience. You don’t want someone else’s lip crud on the rim of your glass. That’s just nasty. Also, you don’t want a poorly poured pint that’s half foam.

The logo thing… well, branding is important. You want people in the bar to see that someone has just ordered a Stella Artois, I guess. Probably they will then think to order one themselves. It also serves an ergonomic purpose in that there’s an indent on the same side of the stem of the chalice that the logo is on. No matter which hand you reach for the glass with, your thumb will find the indent. I’m sure that’s part of the reasoning, but it’s mostly branding.

I showed up about an hour early for the event to undergo training on the pouring ritual. Clearly, it has stuck sufficiently that I am able, two days later, to recount that there are certainly some steps involved. I may not recall the precise order. It seems like the kind of thing that you would eventually become really good at if you were behind a bar repeating them several dozen times a week.

The competition worked in eight head to head brackets, leading several confused people to attempt to place a large wager on Gonzaga.  There were competitors from all over the country, and those competitors had gone through the regional finals in order to get to that point. It’s not like the X Factor, exactly, although the production budget was certainly similar. I mean, you don’t get the competitor’s life stories. If you were a journalist covering the actual event, it would be hard to make head or tails of it.

That lighting rig cost six times more than my education

All you really have to go with is that these are obviously very talented bartenders who have spent a lot of time getting their timing down in order to pour a Stella Artois properly. I mean, you can’t really ask “why are you here?” They’re there because they can pour a pint of Stella better than everyone else who attempted to pour a pint of Stella. It’s not the world championships, so you can’t very well ask how it feels to be champion of the world and whether they’re going to go to Disneyland. I think I ended up one substantive question over the course of the evening and it was “So… why did you go with the Steampunk Top Hat as part of your ensemble?” The answer was, as you probably already suspect, that it looked cool.

Sometimes you wish in retrospect that you had time to change into a tux. Or that you owned a tux. Or that you had done some laundry.

In terms of the vibe of the evening, it was very interesting. They had gone with a 60’s Hollywood theme, which I was massively underdressed for.  There were attractive young women in costume as hostesses. At the bar, there was branded glassware as far as the eye could see. Shelves and shelves and shelves. There was a DJ booth set up in the center of the room and an elaborate system of projected images matched to the architecture behind the stage. The voting was done on touchscreen systems which were explained to us at great length by a very patient man in what looked to be a very uncomfortable earpiece and black suit.

When the main event actually started, it put me in mind of the beginning of Rocky IV; the match between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. There were flashing lights, there was a roaring crowd. I don’t know what capacity for the room was, but given the tightly run ship they were working with, I can pretty largely guarantee that they never went over. Instead of James Brown doing “Living in America” we had a very talented vocalist doing a note for note perfect Jackson 5 tribute. Instead of Apollo Creed wearing a comically oversized red, white and blue top hat, we had the Steampunk guy from Waterloo. In fairness, Carl Weathers could not have pulled off a hat with goggles.

Joke all you want. You know you want that hat.

The contestants, since they’re pretty skilled bartenders, move with some considerable speed. It’s hard to keep absolute track of everything they’re doing when they’re going at speed. I think the judges did a pretty good job, considering. The winner, passing on to the next round in Buenos Aires, was Clement Beauchesnes (one wonders whether he bears any relation to the Vankleek Hill mob).

I’ll be entirely honest with you: I think he took it because he didn’t incorporate any kind of flair into the act. He just poured a beer to the best of his ability. Also, despite the fact that all of the competitors had clearly been doing this for a while, it’s a different thing to get up in front of a room with a couple of thousand excitable people in it and pour a beer while the PA system blasts House of Pain. I think that in that setting, keeping it simple is a winning recipe. Just do the thing and forget about the fact that The Scorpions are now Rocking You Like A Hurricane while you’re trying to line up the logo and the bass is rattling your vertebrae. He had concentration. Well done, Clement.

Clement Beauchesnes: Canadian Draught Idol

As evenings go, I think it was a success. I know that a lot of people had a lot of fun. I know that a number of talented bartenders got a trip to Toronto and that one gets to go to Buenos Aires. I know that it’s predicated on beer being served properly, which I can get behind.

It is also, if I’m being honest, a little bit difficult not to feel silly judging people pouring beer when you’ve logged about six hours lifetime behind a bar.