St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

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.


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.

Let’s Kill The Cat And See What Happens

Mostly, brewing school tends to deal with biology and chemistry, but one of the major things that I’ve discovered is that there’s a significant amount of quantum physics involved. At least, for me that’s the case.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of Schrodinger’s cat. Essentially, it’s a thought experiment. The idea is that you’ve got this closed box which has a cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison in it. Because of the half life of the decaying radioactive element, the element has a 50-50 chance of having decayed during the process of the experiment, which causes the vial of poison to open and the cat to be sacrificed on the altar of science.

It’s called a quantum superposition. Essentially, because what happens in the box is unobservable until you open the box and either feed a slightly annoyed cat or dig a tiny grave, it’s impossible to know which reality exists. The answer must be that both realities exist, layered on top of one another. It’s important to stress that no animals were harmed in the process of the experiment. It’s not like Erich Schrodinger was sitting there in the lab with a plate of tuna trying to coax little fluffy into a box. I mean, if I were him, I would probably have used someone else’s cat for a start.

Let me put it another way:  A cat, a decaying radioactive element and a vial of poison walk into a bar. The bartender does or does not ask whether this is some kind of joke, the waveform of probability collapses and reality continues more or less as normal.

Because of the idea that observation is the crux of the experiment, simply the fact that the experiment is observed changes the outcome.

The same thing happens with journalism. I think the earliest example of this conceit in action is in Don Quixote. Essentially, the book has two sections which were published independently. The conceit is that Don Quixote is an actual person inhabiting the real world and that Cervantes is simply recording his exploits based on stories he’s heard. By the time Cervantes writes the second half, he has to take into account that people have read the first half of it, and since Don Quixote really definitely exists in the real world, the second half has to take into account that all of the people who have read the first half of the book are therefore screwing with him for their own entertainment.

Essentially, what I’m getting at here is that observation alters reality.

So, let’s say that you’ve got a closed system, like a brewing school. It has students, teachers, administrators and things more or less go on as normal. Beer gets made, people go to their math classes, people go to the merchant alehouse on a Thursday night and get loopy on oatmeal stout. It’s a fine existence.

But if you airlift a journalist into the situation, it changes the situation. I’ll give you a for instance. Crystal Luxmore from The Grid popped in to write an article on the school and sat in during part of a lecture Gord Slater was giving on flocculation in yeast. Suddenly, everyone in the class sat up a little straighter and tried to look as though they were paying a considerable amount of attention, despite the fact that there had been oatmeal stout the night before and it’s a 9:30 class.

Same thing happened the next week when The Grid sent their photographers to get some action shots of brewing students taking notes. Everyone was on their best behavior.

That’s fine. It’s good press for the brewing school. Gets the message out there, might drum up enrollment for next year and it’s more or less over in a couple of hours. Useful for all concerned parties; Minimal alteration of reality. On the other hand, if you throw a journalist into the mix on a full time basis, the possibility of that person really screwing with the status quo is rendered increasingly likely, even if he doesn’t do anything.

I’ve become relatively concerned about this and I’m growing a little self conscious about it.

I’ve got profs that I interact with on a professional basis. I’ve known Kevin Somerville, who’s teaching us about brewing ingredients since before there was a brewing program. I may have consulted with him on buying no-iron oxford cloth shirts as professorial wear. Our sensory evaluation prof, Roger Mittag, has a beer tasting certification program called Prud’homme, which I reviewed positively in the Sun before he got the gig at the college.

Here’s the issue: Niagara College, in addition to being a teaching brewery, is also a going concern, selling growlers and cases of beer out of their brewery store. What happens if I review their products, raise awareness of them and increse sales? What happens if I review on negatively and make it harder for one of my profs to sell the product?  Kevin Somerville is heavily involved with the Indie Alehouse in Toronto, which will be opening in the coming months. Sam Corbeil is with Sawdust City brewing.

Eventually, there’s going to come a point where I need to write about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City. They’re new, and one of the hallmarks of beer blogging is novelty. It would limit my scope as a beer writer not to write about new things that are happening in the Toronto scene.  There are a number of possibilities here:

1)      Not writing about Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City at all. Which is, let’s face it, a cop-out.

2)      Writing a piece about the Indie Alehouse or Sawdust City on an informational basis only. Boring.

3)      Writing opinion pieces on these breweries, which, while honest , might end up being positive or negative depending on what they do.

All three of the actions have consequences. This is one of the reasons that there haven’t been many blog posts about the educational experience. Reporting on it would alter the experience in ways that are potentially unforeseeable.

Well, I’ve done that for a month and I’ve got to tell you that it’s dull. It’s deadly, deadly dull. It’s mentally constipating as well, because you can’t do anything with the ideas you get from the program. For that reason I’m going to do something interesting and choose option three, confining myself to honest, if comical, reporting on the entire situation.

In other words, let’s kill the cat and see if the waveform collapses.

The Social Ramble Ain’t Restful

When you receive an email from an organization called The Society, inviting you to a private dinner, there are a number of possible responses. They range from bafflement (which I experienced fairly significantly) to a sense of impending dread that you might be on the radar of the illuminati or freemasons. I don’t think I’m cut out for massive planetary economic conspiracy, so that was just a fleeting thought.

It turns out that The Society are a group of likeminded culture vultures, fashionistas and social commentators. They have branches in Toronto, New York and Miami; they seem to be expanding as well into Los Angeles. In the cursory research that I did on them before accepting the invitation to dinner, I noted that they tended towards being thin, fashionable, mannered people with pronounced bone structure. They are the sort of people that would generally not look out of place in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue; Size twos in an increasingly XL world.

Communal place setting. Pretty swank.

Mostly I wondered how in the world they had settled on inviting me. It’s a common anxiety that I face in situations like this. I have a movie star physique, but unfortunately that movie star is Ernest Borgnine. I need not have worried. They’re a pleasant bunch of well spoken, erudite people, and since it was putatively a beer dinner, I was very much on my home turf. There are few situations in which being barrel shaped is a blessing; at a beer dinner, it’s practically de rigeur.

The dinner was held at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café, and the element that had not quite sunk in when I received the invitation was that it involved an interactive seminar on canning and pickling. In the past, if you had asked my opinion on canning and pickling, I would probably have fled the room. This is owed to the fact that somewhere in the basement of my Mom’s house in Kingston is a relatively large number of jars of damson plum jam which date from the 1980’s. The debate rages periodically about whether or not they are fit for human consumption. They are likely just fine. They may possibly be delicious. It is my hope to retain a sense of mystery on the subject.

The North American Jamie Kennedy in his natural habitat senses that he has been spotted by bloggers. Soon, he will appease them with their dietary staple: beignets

Jamie Kennedy views the subject rather differently. He would, having been recently awarded the Order of Canada for advancing the cause of local food. After announcing to the room that he was trying an experiment in socializing while working, he made a fairly compelling argument:

A hundred years ago, prior to refrigeration, people needed to know how to preserve food. Without the long supply chains which we take for granted in the 21st century, this was a common practice. Moreover, one of the things that determines a sense of place in cuisine is the ability to live off of what is locally available. In a place like Toronto, which has some of the most fertile farmland on the planet just outside its borders, it’s practically inexcusable not to take advantage of the bounty of the farms that toil during our hot summers. In short, the preservation of fruits and vegetables would have been a culinary staple 100 years ago and is one that we currently overlook.

I suspect that you’re not going to find a Caesar salad on his winter menu, and with good reason. The clapboard shingles that make up the décor of the bar area suggest a sort of uber-rusticity that belie the gentle nature of the chef himself. The opposite wall is adorned with jars of pickled vegetables and preserved fruits that are seemingly intended to be used by the kitchen during the coming winter season. In terms of commitment to the practice of locavorism, Jamie Kennedy wears his heart on the wall of his dining room.

Sure, it's beautiful, but what happens when Shemp or Curly come to dinner?

After a few Heinekens (Did I mention this was an event sponsored by Heineken? Well done, Heineken. Dennis Hopper may not have liked you, but you’re ok by me. I begin to wonder how many times I will mention Heineken. That was four. That oughta do.) and a beer battered cheddar beignet topped with mustard pickles from Kennedy’s great aunt’s recipe, we milled into the kitchen to our workstations.

Shortly before the great pickling imbroglio

I was given an apron, two jars and the explanation that I would be pickling peppers. Like a latter day Peter Piper, I was ready to pick a peck. My tablemates were similarly enthusiastic, although they seemed somewhat astounded by the minimalism of a working kitchen. I was pleased to note that they had hidden all of the knives before letting slightly inebriated members of the general public in. After all, there’s only so much damage you can do with a spatula.

We pickled to the utmost, but we eventually ran short of peppers and team members were recruited to stand outside over a grill in a supervisory capacity as additional peppers were charred. As happens in these situations we looked for something to do, ending up in a discussion over how many peppercorns to put in a pint of pickled peppers. All of this while standing more or less directly in the way of the exceedingly patient kitchen staff. After a suitable amount of standing around awkwardly, we found our way to the dining room.

The menu, as one might expect from the reputation of the chef was local and seasonal.

I really must remember not to disturb the soup. That's a sentence I've never heard anyone say.

It has to be said that I am not much of a fan of soup. I never have been, and as such I feel as though it’s unfair to comment on the Squash soup, except to say that it was a delightful autumnal colour. As happens in situations like this, I forgot to take a picture of it until I had thoughtlessly disturbed the presentation.

Galantine of delicious, delicious Chicken.

The main course was a galantine of chicken with what I suspect was a sage and rosemary stuffing served with a trio of onions and a Heineken onion sauce. The flavour of the sage and rosemary was just sharp enough to cut the sauce, creating a very pleasant combined mouthful with the caramelisation from the roasted onions. It put everyone in the Thanksgiving mood, and inspired me to commit the somewhat déclassé act of mopping up the sauce with bread. This is the kind of dish which you, had you been served it at a family dinner, would volunteer to wash dishes so that you could sneak into the kitchen and pick at the leftovers. The only minor quibble I had was that I think the green onions were included essentially as a plating element and didn’t really add anything. My enjoyment of the dish made it extremely hard to view critically.

Chocolate Mousse, Vanilla Cone, Raspberry Puree. They can't all have punchlines.

For Dessert there was chocolate mousse served with a vanilla cone and a raspberry puree. It was rich enough that my colleague from the Post was unable to finish his. The vanilla cone provided a nice textural counterpoint once crumbled over top of the mousse and the tartness of the puree provided some respite from the sweetness of the dish. It was a playful plating and interesting to see how people approached disassembling it. There’s a certain amount of joy in seeing people overcome the apprehension that they might be risking unsightly stains on their clothes in order to indulge in chocolate.

It was a beer dinner in the sense that it was sponsored by a beer. Heineken, being a lager, doesn’t really go with squash soup. For something that creamy, you’d want something in a pale ale with enough hop acidity to cut the texture and refresh the palate with carbonation. You might even run to an India Pale Ale. It had no chance of standing up to a chocolate dessert.

I spoke with Kennedy afterwards and it was clear that he knew that this was more or less the case. It’s for this reason that I find him all the more impressive. Rather than attempting to shoehorn the beer into dishes that would have blown it away, he used it where it would be effective: In the batter for the beignets, where it provided a textural advantage and in the sauce for the chicken, where it aided in creating sweetness and flavour. I’d like to see what he could do with a full menu of pairings.

After collecting a jar of Rhubarb jelly, I was off into the night. My brief flirtation with the lifestyle of the extremely well dressed intelligentsia of the city was over, and I was able to stagger home to collapse into a mousse induced coma.

Fun With Numbers – The BMO Nesbitt Burns Edition

As you may have noticed, if you read the blog frequently: I like to crunch numbers, me. Recently, because I’ve had a business math class at Niagara College, there has been less of this kind of thing, but I’m here to tell you that I was spurred into action whilst looking at a report on the North American beer industry that was released last week by BMO Nesbitt Burns. It suggests that there are two things that large brewers in the North American theatre can do to improve their situations:

  1. Try to enter the craft beer market by creating niche and premium products and also, “hey, women aren’t drinking enough beer.”
  2. Focus on emerging markets. 

Let us break this down, shall we?

1)The report suggests that North America is currently classified as a mature market. A mature market is a market that has entered into a state of equilibrium. You might remember a while back that I wrote about seeming detente between the large brewers. They each basically have a brand to compete with an equivalent brand that the other one has. The market shares held by AB InBev and MolsonCoors don’t actually fluctuate very much on a year over year basis. According to the Euromonitor International report that I’m looking at from 2010, AB InBev has about 42% of the Canadian market by volume and MolsonCoors has something like 37%. Between them, they account for about 80% of the total market. When you discount, Sapporo and imports, the craft beer segment might make up 10% of the total Canadian market, although I suspect that to be generous.

I feel like the large brewers could break into the craft market if they really wanted to. MolsonCoors has Creemore and Granville Island, but aside from wider distribution, those seem to be being pretty much left alone to do their thing. This is probably a good call. I have little doubt that each of AB InBev and MolsonCoors will pick up some additional craft labels at some point in the next couple of years. Personally, I’d go for ones that are already of sufficient volume to be distributed consistently on a national basis. There aren’t that many.

It’s not a good long term game. I suspect that the thing that keeps them out of the craft market is that the profit margins are not equal. It’s good to remember that these are huge multinational companies and that they’re beholden to their shareholders.

One of the reasons that we’re in this situation is that the economic precept of the last half century has been the assumption of consistent and inevitable growth. Corporations are expected to grow annually in order to be seen as a good investment. What this means is essentially this: If your name is Bob Johnson and you own Johnson’s Wiener Factory and everybody eats your hot dogs already and you’re the only game in the town, you have the significant likelihood of being downgraded as an investment because you’ve got no ability to grow the market. Stability isn’t enough. You need to find a way to cram more Johnson’s Wieners into the overcrowded gullets of your consumers. Just, y’know, jam them in there. Or maybe come up with a line of mustards. Or a new marketing campaign: “Johnson’s Wieners: What a Mouthful!”

The model only works if guaranteed growth of the economy is possible. Unfortunately, North America is a mature market. Basically, everyone has the share of the pie that they’re going to get. The overall size of the market will grow slowly on its own, but essentially, barring a global financial apocalypse, the ability to manufacture further growth is not very cost effective on a large scale.

Canadians drink something like 2.384 billion litres of beer a year, or about 69.5 litres per capita. Launching a new craft brand would take R&D, marketing research, resources, labour, materials, and you’d be clawing for maybe 0.25% of the market if you were a total success at it. About 6 million litres. Not chump change, exactly, but potentially not worth it. It’s hard to predict reception to a product like that, as well. It might be worth it if you bought an established brand whose performance you could predict, but it’s not going to result in the year over year gains you need to keep shareholders happy. It’s neat for the portfolio and results in some pretty darn good beer being made in the case of something like Creemore Kellerbier.

2)Before I go on, I should point out that I’m culling data from the internet, which is always a little dicey. It should be basically accurate if not completely so. Also, I’m working from litres per capita figures that do not reflect the current year, as there’s no data for 2011 yet.

When you talk about emerging markets, that essentially means markets in which there is the possibility of establishing yourself and experiencing a lot of growth. I’ve seen Russia thrown around, but it’s a market about half the size of the states and shrinking demographically. Plus, they consume about 70 litres of beer per capita already. Not a huge amount of room for growth.

Make no mistake. The prize is China.

China currently has a population of about 1.34 billion people. As of 2010, they drink 32.1 liters of beer per capita. That means approximately 41,730,000,00 litres of beer annually. That is a market that is 17.5 times larger than Canada’s and about 1.75 times larger than the U.S.

Canada has a population growth of about 1% annually. It’s been that way since about 1995. At that rate, over the next 20 years, you’re looking at a growth from 34 million people to approximately 42.3 million people. The amount of beer that we drink per capita doesn’t change all that much, so let’s keep it at the figure I had of 69.5 litres per person. If that holds steady, you’re looking at growth at a factor of 1.246. We’ll be drinking nearly 3 billion litres of beer annually.

Interestingly, the U.S. Expands in that time by a factor of about 1.244, with an extrapolated population growth of 0.87% reported during the summer of 2011. Over the next twenty years, their market should expand to 31,171,200,000 litres from current consumption, assuming per capita consumption stays constant at 81.6 litres.

China is not like that. Beer consumption in China has increased every year for the last ten years. In 2000, it was 17.5 litres per capita. It is currently something like 32.1 litres per capita. They have a population growth of 0.47%, but because it’s a much larger population, you’re looking at something like 1.48 billion people by 2032. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that their consumption will eventually top out somewhere around 70 litres per capita, since that’s a respectable global average. 1.48 billion people drinking 70 litres of beer per capita is about 103 billion litres of beer a year. Growth factor: 2.468

At that time that would be just under half of the beer consumed in the world, and that’s without even considering beer for export.

AB InBev already has 11.1% of the market share and are brewing 5 billion litres annually in China. Just their stake in the Chinese beer market is more than twice the size of the entire Canadian market. MolsonCoors are expanding there as well, and although AB InBev has a big head start, Coors Light seems to be pretty popular.

Think of the possibilities. They don’t need to create brands. They can import ones that already exist. The demand will be such that marketing can be kept to a minimum. Imagine the position you’d be in as a large multinational company if you controlled 33% of this market by the time it reached maturity. You would have grown with it, dictating the direction of the market. It would be three times bigger than Canada and the U.S. combined by the year 2032.

I feel like maybe the BMO Nesbitt Burns report should have highlighted that more. In the long run,1% of the North American market is chump change, so a long, entrenched fight for the craft market doesn’t actually make any sense. This is especially true when you realize that a pint of Carlsberg sells for $12.50 Canadian in parts of Shanghai.