St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

On writing about History

Philip St.John lived in Uxbridge, Ontario. He settled there in 1817, if I’m remembering the details correctly. He had emigrated from Cork in Ireland to Upper Canada, but he wasn’t properly Irish. The St.Johns were from the German Palatinate, which is near Heidelberg, and went to Ireland around 1710. Before that, we don’t really know. I’d put money on there being some Huguenot in there. The borders weren’t terribly well defined at that time, and there was a lot of migration out of that part of the world. People had the knack of fighting over it.

What I know for sure is that Philip was known to the local residents of Uxbridge by two nicknames. One was the slightly sarcastic “King Philip” which referenced the fact that he owned the largest wagon in the county. The other was “hypocrite” and it had to do with the fact that he enjoyed the occasional tipple despite claiming to be a teetotaler. I think it’s fairly likely he kept a jug on the wagon.

By the end of his lifetime, Philip did the calculation and figured that he had personally cleared 99 acres of forest from lands that he owned. There was a time in the not too distant past when it would have been possible to walk across all of Uxbridge Township on family land.

It’s not like the family disappeared. The other week I was out having dinner at Morgan’s on the Danforth with Dad and got to meet some relatives. Chances are if you live in Southern Ontario and your last name is St. John, you’re a distant cousin.

One of the things I’ve thought about periodically since starting to write history is what Philip would have made of what I do for a living. I don’t believe they had beer critics in the 1820’s. They barely had advertising. In all probability, he would have handed me a splitting axe and a team of oxen and told me to put up this frivolous pursuit and go clear the stumps out of the back forty. Then again, I know more about brewing beer than he would have, so it wouldn’t have been a total waste.

Writing about history is an odd process in that most of the creativity involved is referential. Many of the writers that I know will have loose ideas bouncing around in their heads that defy capture. They know they want to write something, but they don’t quite know how the pieces fit together. If the information they’ve ingested is left long enough, something will eventually trigger it. Some idle Tuesday afternoon, while they’re staring out the window and dunking a teabag, it will suddenly coalesce into a wholly formed idea.

Writing history isn’t like that. Most of it already happened and you have to wait a long time for a sequel.

One of the advantages my Co-Author Alan MacLeod and I had was the vast digitization of resources that’s happened in the last decade. There’s a book by Ian Bowering called The Art and Mystery of Brewing in Ontario which he published in the early 1990’s. He had to collect all of the data by hand, sifting through archives and newspaper microfiche. As a result, the book is not really a book so much as it is a list of facts. I can see why. How do you contextualize that information without the ability to create a huge index of material? For God’s sake, that was five years before google. He probably had a table covered in index cards.

Google books, incidentally, is a powerful force for good and a massive deterrent for authors. It is now the largest collection of digitally archived information on the planet and it will preserve everything it can get its hands on forever. If you’re an author, you’ll live forever in the cloud. Congratulations! You’re part of the singularity. It is more impressive than Alexandria. It makes the Colossus of Rhodes look like an action figure.

As an author, it’s a worry because it scoops up everything without worrying too much about copyright. Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s Pocket Guide is up on there. Most of it is blocked out, and it’s not a useful way to view the data, but it is on there. For reference, I think I recommended that as a Christmas stocking stuffer four months ago. You begin to wonder whether people are going to buy your book or just google it. It’s discouraging because authors periodically like to buy luxury items like soap and bread.

The digitization of material can be pretty overwhelming. I have detailed maps of Ontario at 1846 and 1869 that show all of the data I was able to mine from Gazetteers and Directories. I can see them from the top down, different colours representing different industries, brewing and distilling. In some cases town names have changed and I’m left with a best guess. In other cases, marriage and death records long stripped of their emotional import; of their heft.

The factual information is there in immense and robust detail. It represents lifetimes of work and struggle from people not unlike Philip St.John. The basic experience for all of these people was similar. They were in a new land. They were trying. The best you can do is represent the shapes of those lives as they surround your topic.

There is too much information to be useful. If you were writing fiction, you would expect the scraps eventually to form a larger whole. You might have a beautiful moment of epiphanic glory where it suddenly all made sense. Writing history doesn’t work that way. The argument already exists. You’re merely figuring out how to support it.

My dreams have become oddly literal with this information cluttering up the mental landscape. Rural route concession crossroads with red tail hawks gyring on an updraft. Stinking wharves in Muddy York and winter sleighing on the lake. Canoeing the Missinaibi down to Moose Factory. Long draughts of lost ales from breweries no one alive has seen.

At a time like this, you’d practically be glad of stumping the back forty. Unearthing the roots is difficult work.

Understanding The Beer Store

Since it is December, we are in that phase of the year when people talk idly about abolishing The Beer Store. You’ve got Martin Regg Cohn over at The Star doing a reprise of last year’s column. It’s a good party piece, but it’s unlikely to accomplish anything. Even Anindya Sen who released a number of studies and who is probably a very good economist seems not to have made an impact, although this might be due to the ease of dismissing a commissioned study.

I’ve taken a slightly different tack on the issue this year: I’ve actually talked to The Beer Store in an attempt to understand the problem. If you want to effect change, you’ve got to understand the motivations of all of the parties involved. It does you no good to vilify The Beer Store out of hand. It is not run by Darth Vader. If it were, the stores would feature more unsafe catwalks over giant pits.

Let’s put aside for a moment the shopping experience which has been famously awful. Let’s put aside the rhetoric that it is an outmoded eastern bloc style of organization.

Let’s instead have a look at the functions it actually performs.

The shopping experience tends to blind people to the fact that The Beer Store is actually a retail and distribution organization. Despite the insistence of studies to the contrary, it operates at a cost recovery basis. That is to say that it does not turn a profit. It makes enough money to pay for itself.

Please understand this: It does not make a profit. Intentionally. Anyone who is telling you different is flat out wrong.

This is not to say that the ideas of those people who are telling you it makes a profit are wrong. They’re absolutely right. If it were a retailer in a purely capitalist system, The Beer Store would be raking it in hand over fist. Anindya Sen claims that there are approximately 700 million dollars worth of incremental profits unaccounted for in The Beer Store’s operation. Let us account for them.

The Beer Store has more than 440 locations operating all over Ontario. Sure, there are a whole bunch in Toronto, but there’s one in Espanola and Wawa and Azilda and Coboconk. They’re everywhere. This is the retail component, which is customer facing.

Consider all of the stuff involved that does not face the customer.

There are the licensee sales. When you see the Brewer’s Retail truck out and about delivering kegs, that’s also The Beer Store. They have an online ordering system for licensees and people to staff it. They’ve got people driving those trucks. They’ve got administrative staff supervising those sets of employees.

There are the logistics of distribution to contend with. You can’t sell beer in Wawa and Coboconk unless you get the beer there in the first place. The Beer Store has six separate distribution centres which service the province. This means that beer intended for stores or licensees need only be shipped as far as the nearest distribution centre and The Beer Store will take care of the rest. Think of the logistical support needed for this.

There’s the bottle recycling program. I recall reading somewhere that your typical ISB bottle can be re-used between 18 and 20 times. The Beer Store controls the recycling of these bottles within Ontario. I forget exactly what the current consensus is on recycling beer bottles. It seems to change depending on the cost of cartage or freight. Anyway, it employs a number of people and The Beer Store has a really significant hand in it.

There’s also the Draught Services division which handles installations for licensees and line cleaning equipment.

What The Beer Store actually does is outsource services for the three extremely large companies that own it. I suspect that the only reason Sapporo is allowed 4% ownership is to keep it from becoming a subsidiary company of either Molson Coors or AB InBev based on shifts in market share.

Because these companies have contrived over several decades to own The Beer Store, they are able to outsource all of the following: Customer facing sales, licensee facing sales, draught equipment sales, distribution of their product to all corners of the province of Ontario, the ownership and maintenance of the physical buildings, the ownership and maintenance of the fleet of trucks required, the recycling of beer bottles for re-use predominantly by the owners of The Beer Store, the staffing and administration of the entire concern, insurance liability for the entire concern and the pensions of the entire concern.

Jeff Newton, a spokesperson for The Beer Store (and a dashed accommodating fellow), pointed out to me that smaller breweries could also take advantage of these benefits. The scale of the thing is prohibitive if we’re all going to be honest. There’s an initial investment involved that requires a lot of capital.

To be fair, I should point out the other thing that I learned. The LCBO has a markup which makes them a profit. Selling beer in The Beer Store seems to (once you recoup the initial investment) provide a greater profit margin for breweries. Sure, it’s a long term strategy, but it might work out eventually.

What all of this means is that all of the service fees that go into selling beer at The Beer Store essentially go into a pool which funds all of the above listed activities. There is a sliding scale of fees to have your products listed if you’re a smaller brewer, which is something of a concession. However, you’re still paying into a system which disproportionately benefits the large brewers in a substantial way.

The Beer Store doesn’t need to make a profit, which is why it doesn’t. Making a profit would be gilding the lily. The real benefit here is that the large brewers don’t have to perform many of the tasks I listed above. The Beer Store handles those for them. It also brings a certain amount of stability to the cold war like détente between AB InBev and Molson Coors in Ontario since they both benefit massively from their ownership and the status quo seems to be working.

This is what you’re contending with when you talk about privatization, incidentally. You’ve got a massively organized logistics and distribution company whose parent companies have some incredibly deep pockets and have contrived to create an oligopoly out of something intended to be a public service over the course of several decades. If you want privatization, you need a governmental figure willing to think further ahead than the next election.

Whether you like it or not the current structure of The Beer Store is absolutely brilliant. It’s actually genius. Just because it tends not benefit the consumer doesn’t change that.

Barrel Aged Double Tempest and Vintage Winter Beard

Since it’s now much colder outside my window than it is in my freezer, it’s probably a good time to talk about Imperial Stouts. There’s something seasonally dualistic about the combination of snow and Imperial Stout, if only in terms of greyscale. There’s a warming character to them and a percentage of alcohol that is perfect for long snowbound days when you weren’t really going to make it further than the corner without a 4×4.

The first example here is Muskoka’s Winter Beard, which is a double chocolate cranberry stout. There are two varieties out there at the moment. There’s a 2012 vintage, which seems to be on shelves at the LCBO and a 2013 fresh vintage, which is available across several provinces. Apparently you can get it in Newfoundland, which tells you something about Muskoka’s intent regarding the rest of the country. I like the fact that the larger regional breweries are spreading out a little.

I find myself wondering whether the Winter Beard 2012 vintage was produced in excess last year against the possibility of scheduling problems with the brewery move this year. It’s possible they’re simply trying to introduce the concept of vertical tastings into Ontario in a way that’s slightly more formalized than it is now. Either way, you’ve got to admire the vision. I think it’s the latter because when I spoke with the brewery last year, they said I should put a bottle away for a year. I intended to, certainly, but you know how it is when you find yourself shorthanded for host gifts during the Christmas season.

The packaging is a little ostentatious, with a silver embossed visage on a black background. I assume this is Mad Tom’s cousin, Hirsute Nicholas. It makes proud mention of its standing on Ratebeer. It is apparently a 94 and was voted Best New December Beer Release. I assume that must have been 2011, which I think would have been the first year it was brewed.

Interestingly, when it’s quite fresh Winter Beard is a little bit confused. There is chocolate and there are cranberries, but you get other elements as well. There’s the roast and slight bitterness that comes with the territory. It is very pleasant, but it doesn’t really gel. After a year of age, all of the elements come together and Winter Beard presents exactly as I imagine it was meant to in the mind of the brewer. The general impression that I came away with was a dark chocolate truffle with a tartly sour cranberry gelee in the center. It does exactly what it says it ought to do, and in a sense is a really fine example of prescriptivist design. The only issue is that if you’re not interested in that description, you’re going to hate it.

On a scale from Don Johnson’s immaculate stubble to Greg Koch in his millionaire hobo period, I give it two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren.

Sometimes you’re better off not aiming for something quite so specific.

Case in point: the latest member of the Amsterdam Adventure Brews series is Barrel Aged Double Tempest.

It's essentially the reverse star wars shot.

It’s essentially the reverse star wars shot.

Barrel Aged Double Tempest is a courageous venture on the part of the brewery into the superheavyweight category of Imperial Stouts. I’m going to go ahead and call that anything over 10% alcohol. They’re the ones that make up the vast majority of top rated beers in the world. It’s your Bourbon County, Dark Lord, Hunahpu, Speedway, Expedition, Abyss kinda stuff. The stuff that requires you to stand in line and make your obeisance. You need a certain amount of brass to even attempt the category because these are the beers that people are going to compare your stuff with.

Running down the list of important details, I can tell you that it’s 14% alcohol and that it is apparently 115 IBUs (which would be about the most possible, but ought frankly to disappear into 14%.) It is aged in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels and has been for nine months. I don’t know Bourbon, but I can tell you that Four Roses won American Whiskey of the Year yesterday from Whiskey Advocate. Also, Philip Marlowe drinks it in The High Window. I assume Marlowe knows what he’s doing. Point is, this is exactly ten months along.

I’ve noticed that really good beer does one of two things and it depends a little on the style. It will either convey the same sensory information on every sip, following the same progression of flavour and experience every time, or it will change every time you taste it revealing permutations of the various elements involved.

In the case of Barrel Aged Double Tempest, it’s the latter category. It pours black as a charred stave and has a mocha head that recedes quickly but not completely. You get the alcohol on the aroma, but at 14% that’s practically an inevitability. It’s a good thing given the contribution of the bourbon. There’s a suffusion of molasses and concentrated dark chocolate syrup. Oddly enough, the roast character of the malt emerges about a foot from the glass, which is a neat trick.

The snifter is non-optional for Imperial Stout. How else would you swirl all ostentatious-like?

The snifter is non-optional for Imperial Stout. How else would you swirl all ostentatious-like?

I got different permutations as it warmed. On one sip the rye came through in a burst at the back of the palate and then faded into the bourbon; a nice conceptual contrast between Canadian whiskey and Bourbon. On another sip, it was the small ash of barrel char wrapped in crystalline vanilla sugar. There was one where it the mouth coating effect resulted in something akin to the cakey flour of a dark chocolate brownie. As you drink it, if you inhale deeply enough, you can actually feel the alcohol on the exhale. Amazingly, the carbonation hadn’t disappeared even after an hour and a half.

Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to try a number of the superheavyweight Imperial Stouts; some of them fairly recently. I think that this could hang with them. I don’t think it’s as polished as some of them, but I’m not sure that polish is what I’m looking for. There are just enough rough edges here that it forces you to engage. It will be interesting to see if it retains its complexity with another year of age on it.

Bloody well done.

 

The OCSA vs. The Status Quo

The second of the studies that the Ontario Convenience Store Association released in August is a good deal more broad in scope than the first. It is entitled An Economic Analysis of Increasing Competition In Retail Liquor Sales in Ontario. It is also written by Dr. Anindya Sen from the University of Waterloo. If you really like reading economic papers, you can download it by clicking the title.

I am going to attempt to explain the gist of the paper as best I can given my limited understanding of the economic model employed between pages 18 and 24. I think I get most of it, but if there are any economists out there, you might want to lean in on this one.

This paper is intended as a study to provide information on the possible effects of partial privatization of alcohol sales within the province of Ontario. It is an attempt to provide substantive academic research into the problem. This is something of which I am generally in favour. Too often we argue on internet forums about the likely effects of privatization without any real research to point to.

The initial findings which guide the study are as follows:

1)      The vast majority of the money the LCBO makes is on markup, which is generated in their capacity as a wholesaler. (This is usually true with specific amounts based on product type. Here is a link to the current pricing structure.)

2)      Comparatively speaking, federal excise and federal and provincial ad valorem taxes typically make up a smaller percentage than the markup,

3)      Based on empirical evidence, increased market competition is significantly correlated with an increase in per capita gross income, net income and government revenue generated by the provincial liquor authority.

The arguments that follow are largely based on the concept of consumer and producer surpluses and it basically goes like this:

Say you’re standing in the LCBO at Summerhill, checking out all the groovy new craft beers and thinking about what to drink this weekend. For the purposes of this argument, you’re all about buying a bottle of Panil Enhanced because it looks interesting and you liked the Bariquee that came in last year. You check the price tag and it is $15.00. The absolute most that you’re willing to pay for a single bottle of beer at retail is $16.50. That measure of $1.50 difference counts as your welfare based on consumer surplus.

Now, on the other end of the scale, Panil is trying to sell their beer for as much money as they reasonably can. It’s good beer and they feel they deserve to be paid a premium for it. I don’t know exactly what price the LCBO is buying Panil Enhanced from the importer at, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s about $6.50 a bottle. That’s more than the $5.00 the importer would have taken at a minimum. Their producer surplus is $1.50.

All this means is that the system works tolerably well towards an equilibrium between consumer surplus and producer surplus at $15.00. Also, you go home with a bottle of Panil Enhanced and everyone’s happy.

If you could remove some of the markup that the LCBO adds as a wholesaler from the equation and keep the producer surplus the same, your consumer might suddenly be paying $13.50 for that bottle of Panil, creating additional consumer surplus.

Without competition, there’s no compelling reason for the LCBO to change the equilibrium point in the model. They would make less money in markup, and, because the product is cheaper, the province would take less PST. “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it,” said Publilius Syrus. You’ll pay $15.00 for Panil Enhanced because it’s worth that to you.

There is also a concept here that you should understand that is called Deadweight Loss that’s associated with a monopoly on various products. Since a monopoly allows the retailer to charge the most beneficial price for themselves, some consumers are not able to afford Panil Enhanced at all, resulting in a loss of market utility. They have frowny faces.

Dr. Sen is essentially arguing that the LCBO voluntarily enter into a position in which they are creating their own retail competition.

Theorize that some kinds of alcoholic beverages are available for sale at convenience stores. The study assumes that convenience stores would be allowed to accept a lower markup, resulting in decreased cost to the consumer. For this the convenience store would pay some of the markup as licensing fees. As a result of that move, the majority of rational consumers would shop at the convenience store. This would in turn result in lower sales at the LCBO, which would force them to lower their prices.

This would lead to a significant reduction in government revenue due to the loss of markup and ad valorem taxation. The good news is this: The lowered costs to the consumer mean that the people who counted as Deadweight Loss and could not afford Panil Enhanced at all can now do so and that the people who were experiencing mild consumer surplus on their $15.00 bottle are now paying $13.50 and those suckers are doing backflips of joy in the streets, let me tell you. “Whoopee hoo,” they yell “I’m gettin’ enhanced tonight.”

“The LCBO in the short run is worse off, because of lowered sales and profits generated by its own stores” says the study. “However, it is quite possible that overall LCBO net revenue and transfers to the province will actually increase. Recall that in this model, convenience stores must also transfer their markup revenue to the province. Since they charge a lower price (compared to the LCBO), the total amount of liquor sold is obviously more than the quantity sold by the LCBO as a monopoly retailer. Otherwise, the LCBO would have earned these higher profits as a monopoly retailer by setting a lower price.”

Got that? Convenience stores charge a lower price and the LCBO charges a lower price but ideally the increased volume of sales that results from the decreased prices bridging two sales channels might theoretically increase once you take the additional taxation revenue into account.

I agree completely with Dr. Sen’s finding. That’s exactly what would happen given those conditions.

Those conditions will be met on the day that hell freezes over.

The model depends on a simplified version of the system as it currently exists which thinks solely about the benefit in terms of consumer surplus. The issue is that since the LCBO’s profits and the general tax revenue from the LCBO and Beer Store make up approximately 1.5-2% of the annual provincial budget, the real world also has to take the consumer into account as a citizen who benefits from services derived from that revenue.

The ignored cost implications are staggering. The LCBO’s reduced profitability would probably result in a decreased operational budget and therefore a decrease in staffing. Think about the amount of work that would have to be done in order to figure out what the decreased price structure would look like.

Think about the fact that you as the OCSA are pitching this fanciful study whose empirical data analysis does not account for demographics or trends in the marketplace and a conclusion section which contains a woefully large number of conditional statements. If I’m the government, I’m shutting you down because the LCBO is a guaranteed cash cow in a time of economic uncertainty and you are offering a potential 5% – 9% theoretical increase at some point in the future if everything goes right and there are no unforeseen eventualities.

Peace, order and good government means that “if” and “maybe” and “should” don’t get a seat at the table.

On a final note, consider the main precept of the OCSA model: additional sales. Additional sales mean additional consumption. If the core tenet of your model hands your opponent a social responsibility argument to beat you about the head with, you can’t be surprised when you lose.

The OCSA vs. The Beer Store

One of the interesting things that happened in Ontario’s beer scene this year is that the market is becoming increasingly contentious. The increased interest in beer is making it so that the status quo is becoming somewhat untenable. There are 155 craft breweries open or in planning as of this writing. That means a very large number of brands for which the LCBO does not have shelf space and a number of craft breweries which are not large enough to afford The Beer Store’s listing fees.

When you add to this the increased interest in the craft and import segments, you get players in the market who are more serious about effecting change than they used to be. Take the Ontario Convenience Store Association, for instance. They hired economist Anindya Sen from the University of Waterloo to produce a two part study that makes the case for privatization of beer sales.

The first part of the study is about the difference in pricing between two-fours in Ontario and Quebec. You can download it here.

I do not have a Ph.D. in Economics, but I’m going to try and walk you through the basic arguments here.

The methodology here was to choose five brands sold over a 22 week period and record data based on pre-tax beer prices. The period in question was Dec 2012-May 2013. The brands in question were Molson Canadian, Molson Dry, Coors Light, Budweiser, and Bud Light. The format in question was 24 341ml bottles. In Ontario, data was culled from The Beer Store’s website. In Quebec, it was culled from online pricing for Metro and IGA supermarket chains.

Dr. Sen’s findings were (for those of you who don’t want to wade through the PDF)

Quebec IGA Quebec Metro The Beer Store % difference IGA % difference metro
$26.08 $25.95 $35.56 27% 27%

 

Essentially, in Ontario we pay 27% more for a 24 of beer than people do in Quebec. That is essentially the primary conclusion of the study and then there are subsequent conclusions based upon that data.

Can you spot the problem with this study? The Beer Store could. They released a comment paper on the study on November 18th through the Earnscliffe Strategy Group. It is available for download here.

To their credit (and lord knows I’m a fairly vocal critic of The Beer Store) The Beer Store only lists one format of pricing on their website or in store. It’s the total amount that you’re going to pay for a thing. It includes both tax and bottle deposit.

The claim here is that the IGA and Metro prices that are listed don’t include bottle deposit or sales tax (GST and QST in Quebec.) If you remove from the average price of $35.56 the bottle deposit and applicable sales taxes (GST and HST in Ontario) the price difference is not $9.50. It’s $3.33.

The Beer Store’s study goes on to mention commodity taxes. In Quebec, these total about 50 cents a litre while in Ontario they total 91.62 cents a litre. As it turns out, this is the main reason for the difference in beer prices between Quebec and Ontario. The provincial commodity tax we’re charged is about 1.8 times higher.

 

 

Table 3:

Re-Stated Net Price Removing All Relevant Taxes & Deposits

  QC Average Price ON Average Price
Price after Adjusting for HST

and refundable Deposit

 

$26.02

 

$29.35

Adjustment for Provincial

Commodity Taxes

 

-$ 4.09

 

-$ 7.43

QC and ON prices on Equal

Basis

 

$21.93

 

$21.92

Adjustment for Federal

Commodity Taxes

 

-$ 2.56

 

-$ 2.56

Net Price after removing all

Consumer Taxes and deposits

 

$19.37

 

$19.36

 

Of course, this means that the data collected for the OCSA study was at best improperly fact checked and that any conclusions drawn from subsequent steps of the study are bunkum. This is dumb. It does not matter if you employ an economist to release a study if the basic and easily verified facts are incorrect. You cannot use an appeal to authority to point to an expert opinion if that authority demonstrably does not understand the problem.

And you know what? The OCSA’s study was released in August. No one questioned the thing. It claimed that The Beer Store was making 700 million dollars in additional revenue based on faulty data. It may have been wrong, but it sure got a lot of re-tweets.

This is the problem with the debate about Ontario and The Beer Store. Every time the subject of The Beer Store comes up just about any self respecting beer drinker is going to have an opinion about it. The problem is that aside from The Beer Store, no one actually knows how much money The Beer Store makes on an annual basis. The information is not disclosed to the public. The ability of interested parties like the OCSA to release a study claiming a 700 million dollar windfall is enhanced by this. It renders substantive debate on the issue ludicrous.

The end result of this go around in the Ontario Privatization Hoedown is that The Beer Store has managed to basically discredit any further studies the OCSA might care to produce. They have done this by understanding their own pricing structure. Frankly, it was kind of a gimme, but I have to applaud their restraint in not smacking it down on the second day with a cry of “Boo-Ya.”

What this should do is highlight the fact that the Ontario beer market is large and profitable and that in the next few years, organizations are going to fight over it. It is not being fought over for the benefit of the consumer, no matter how much the consumer might feel that they should have a say in the matter. Frankly, what we want is immaterial.

As a side note, the average price of those five brands at the moment at The Beer Store is $34.55. That may have been an unintended consequence.

Beer and Food: Estrella Taqueria

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

This was the food pairing recommendation on a press release for a bottle of beer I got last year. I can’t remember which bottle exactly and it doesn’t matter very much. One of the things that many beer companies are guilty of when it comes to food pairing suggestions is inspecificity.

This is Mexico

It is the 14th largest country in the world at about 2 million square kilometers. It’s got about 120 million residents. It is big enough that the different regions all have their own cuisines. The cuisines are mostly derived from Aztec and Mayan traditions with a good deal of Spanish influence.

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

If you, as a brewer, are convinced that your beer is good enough that it will heighten the sensory experience of a meal, you owe it to the person buying your beer not to make them use a dartboard to narrow it down. Did you mean tamales or mole sauce or barbacoa or chalupas or what? Be specific. If you put “Try it with French Food” on your label, Escoffier’s spectre would come back to haunt you with a ghostly whisk. You can’t adopt the airs of gourmet sophistication and then just wave vaguely in the direction of Latin America.

For heaven’s sake, if you mean tacos, just write tacos. That narrows it down a little bit. More than likely, what you mean specifically is the Old El Paso taco kit with the luminescent neon ground beef seasoning packet. It’s the standardized ersatz version of the experience.

That’s fine if it’s Thursday and you’re in grade 11. This is Toronto and we’re adults, more or less.

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

You’ve got some options for tacos in Toronto at the moment and the newest one is Estrella Taqueria up at Yonge and Sheppard. That may sound like an odd place to open a Taqueria, but it makes sense when you consider that it’s at a junction of two subway lines and that the population at Yonge and Sheppard is young and multicultural. This is a good thing to remember if you’re a beer rep. The city does not end at Bloor.344

It makes more sense when you realize that the place is going to clean up as a bar. The feel is Dia de Muertos with vibrant colours scattered throughout. The owners are taking the thing seriously, having hired set designers and graffiti artists to instill a sense of occasion. They’ve got a rooftop patio that should be fantastic during the summer. They’ve got fifty varieties of Tequila and twenty five varieties of Bourbon. Most interestingly to me, they’ve got a pretty eclectic selection of beer available on draught and in bottles.343

Essentially, what this means is that there’s a place with punchy, flavourful tacos and a wide number of beers to choose from. If you’re interested in pairing beer with food, this is an excellent playground and a pretty good place to go with a group of people who want to try a bunch of different things.

When you break the taco down to its core components, it’s pretty clear that it’s simply a format. There are conventions for fillings, but it’s a good place to get a little creative. You could go authentic and use lingua as a cheap cut. You could go Baja and go with lightly battered fish. You could do just about anything with the filling. At Estrella, they’re running the gamut and it’s pretty clear that the menu is going to be in flux while the chef follows his inspiration and they develop some house favorites.

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said "I'm hungry, let's get a taco." he didn't have oysters in mind. Still...

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said “I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.” he didn’t have oysters in mind. Still…

Take the Oyster Taco, for instance. Cornmeal battered oysters with miso/celeriac remoulade and green tomato salsa. The miso complements the light briny flavour of the oyster and there’s a tartly sweet hit from the salsa that’s brightened up by a squeeze of lime and a sprig of cilantro. As near as I can tell, the celeriac is mostly there for texture, but there’s a slight starchiness in it that ties into a wheat beer. The Krombacher Weizen is a good choice for pairing here, but it seems a little too easy to just say “wheat beer and seafood.” The authentic choice would probably be a Vienna Lager here, since that’s mostly what there is other than Pale Lager in Mexico. King could do worse than try to get on tap at Estrella, since they’ve already got the Vienna Lager in bottles. It’s a contrasting pairing, given that the malty lager would provide a background for the highlights in those few bites to pop against.335

The Baja Fish Taco is heavier than I would have assumed, both in flavour and in terms of its sheer wet nap required physicality. The really interesting thing here is the combination of two kinds of heat. The chipotle aioli brings smoke while the pickled chilis are more directly assertive. For a single taco, you might want an IPA with some citrus character to let the acids battle it out. Oddly, despite the trend, the hoppiest beer on tap is Flying Monkey Hoptical Illusion. If you ordered a plate, you might need something a little lighter as the heat built. Let Hogtown and Beau’s respective Kolsches duke it out for your affection.339

Perhaps the most successful offering at Estrella is the Short Rib Taco, which is “braised with cola and cinnamon, served with chimichuri, caramelized onion, chipotle aioli with BBQ yucca chips.” The thing that I like most about this treatment is the braising method which seems to go incredibly well with the Krombacher Dunkel that they have on tap. The slight smoke from the chipotle and the peppery chimichurri really seem to work with the hefeweizen yeast. The yucca chips provide a much needed contrapuntal textural element. I am put in mind of the fact that the Germans do a type of shandy that is half hefeweizen and half cola. I don’t know why cola braise works so well here, but I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation lurking in the wings.337

There are many other items on the menu and given an afternoon and a group of people, you could make your way through a number of them at a leisurely pace, stopping periodically to play ping pong. I think they need an IPA on tap. In San Diego, one of the places I went for Tacos had Stone IPA. I think that the vibrant citrus character and acidity plays really well against some kinds of heat.

 

 

 

BEER AND FOOD: GREAT LAKES LAKE EFFECT IPA

When you talk about pairing beer and food, there are a number of things to take into account. First of all, it should be pointed out that there is no perfect pairing. Throw that nonsense out the window right now. Food pairing exists on a sliding scale from better pairings to worse pairings and much of that is subjective.

What I’m going to do today is walk you through my thought process on pairing from start to finish in what I hope will become a regular feature (as long as the grocery budget holds out.) I don’t claim to be right all the time and I don’t claim to have all the answers. I can honestly claim to have thought about it a lot more than the average beer drinker. While I’m not a great cook, I’ve got shelves of cookbooks for reference. I make bread frequently enough that I’ve got the recipe memorized. It’s like my Great Aunt Greta said: “If you can read, you can cook.”

THE BEER

 

Fabian's labels have really been coming along. At least I think this is one of his. It could be the other dude whose name I didn't catch.

Fabian’s labels have really been coming along. At least I think this is one of his. It could be the other dude whose name I didn’t catch.

Sometimes, when the beer fairy hustles gently past, you end up with a bottle. In this case, I got a bottle of Lake Effect IPA and I had no real inroads to determining how I would use it. I could review the beer, but I’m dog tired of reviewing IPAs. I have to use the word “citrusy” once more in a review this year and I’m taking hostages, you know? Thankfully, Troy Burtch (T-Bu if you’re nasty) gave me the press release to go along with the beer and it contains suggestions for pairings. It covers things that I want to know, especially since I cannot pick out a distinct memory of Lake Effect from the Great Lakes IPA cavalcade.

In terms of the beer, it says the aroma is grapefruit, mango and tangerine. It is medium bodied and the malt notes are described as “subtle.” The interesting thing here is that the tasting notes suggest grapefruit, wintergreen, dill and pine on the palate. The finish is dry. It is 7% alcohol and 80 IBUs. It’s going to be very bitter indeed.

The name of the beer is geographically relevant and gives you a sense of how the brewer developed it. It was developed by Mike Lackey in Buffalo, New York drinking IPA on a stoop in the Elmwood neighbourhood.

The food pairing suggestions are: Roast Lamb Shanks, Pad Thai and Spicy Fish Tacos.

THE THOUGHT PROCESS

It’s November. The temperature outside is just over 10 degrees at the moment. It will be colder tonight. Fish Tacos are out because you’re going to want something substantial. Pad Thai doesn’t feel right. If it were purely citrus and pine, then maybe you’d match it with lemongrass and Thai basil. The inclusion of dill and wintergreen in the tasting notes tell me it might not work as well. Roast Lamb Shanks seem to be the remaining option.

I don’t like roasting as a cooking method for lamb shanks. They tend to dry out pretty badly. I prefer a cooking method that will braise them. This is a good idea because the IPA malt character is described as “subtle” and that means that there isn’t going to be a lot of that maillard character from the kiln. You don’t need to develop much brown flavour in a dish to complement that element. Braising is a better idea.

Let’s think a little bit about seasoning. I can’t do much with wintergreen. Consulting Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking reveals that wintergreen’s primary characteristic is methyl salicylate. Mostly that’s in mouthwash and gum. That sounds like a dead end.

Dill comes in bunches the size of your head. I better get some salmon or something later this week.

Dill comes in bunches the size of your head. I better get some salmon or something later this week.

Let’s think about dill. What does wikipedia tell us? The section on culinary use tells us that it’s used mostly in Northern and Eastern Europe. It’s sometimes used in conjunction with Caraway. Buffalo has a significant German and Polish heritage, by the way. Beef on Weck. Dill Pickles. Ok. McGee says dill tastes the way it does because of pinene and limonene. Now you’re talking pacific northwest hop monoterpenes, baby.

You want to roughly chop the aromatic dill just before you add it to the pot.

You want to roughly chop the aromatic dill just before you add it to the pot.

We need to find a recipe that will incorporate lamb as a protein, the geographic influence that might have influenced the beer’s development, the suggested dill note and the suggested citrus in the aroma. It needs some sweetness or at least starch to stand up the bitterness. It also has to be substantial because it will be cold out later. I am going to need a cookbook that tells me how to cook everything.

That was a gimme.

That was a gimme.

That’s handy.

Looking up dill, we get: Lamb Stew with Root Vegetables and Dill. Let’s give it a shot.

THE RECIPE

This is a basic one pot meal. You are going to need about 2 pounds of lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cubed. If they’ve got stewing lamb, my advice would be to go with that if you’re uncomfortable cubing pieces of meat. You’ll need 3 cups of onions, one pound of potatoes, one pound of carrots, one pound of parsnips. You’re going to need three cups of stock. You will need a bunch of dill and a lemon.

You’ll notice that we’re not dredging the lamb in flour in this recipe. Like I said, the malt is meant to be subtle in the IPA, so we don’t need a lot of browned flavour to go with it. Add a small amount of oil to the bottom of your pot and add the onions and lamb. Let that cook a little bit while you get your root vegetables cut into pieces of approximately equal size. Once all of the root vegetables are cubed and in the pot, cover with stock. You could, I suppose, use beer. That seems like an expensive waste of alcohol.

When appropriate, use the brewery's glassware. I mean, were you born in a barn?

When appropriate, use the brewery’s glassware. I mean, were you born in a barn?

Remove the feathery bits from the dill and tie the stems into a bouquet garni. Throw the stems into the stew. In a really significant way, you’re actually mirroring the brewing process. If herbs like dill taste the way they do because of terpenes, you’re actually using the stems this early in the process to add a base flavour (not unlike bitterness) and you’re adding the fresh herbs at the end to add aroma. This is useful thing to remember.

When the stew has simmered gently for a couple of hours (either on the stove top or in a 350 degree oven), carefully extricate the stems from the pot. If you find, like I did, that your bouquet garni has come unravelled, feel free to curse loudly. Sample the stew. Salt and pepper to taste. Now, take the feathery bits from the dill and, having roughly chopped them, add them to the stew. Finish with the juice of half a lemon.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

It's a tasty stew, but then again, it's hard to screw up a stew.

It’s a tasty stew, but then again, it’s hard to screw up a stew.

This pairing, now that I am eating it, is not quite perfect, but I think the ideas behind it are good. If Lake Effect were 15 IBUs less hoppy, it would be a great pairing. The sweetness matches between the two and the salt level is just about right. The dill and lemon really bridge the dish and the beer. The carbonation scrubs the fatty lamb from the palate, but the bitterness means that it never quite resets between bites.  It is a complementary pairing in the sense that they seem to get more like each other as it goes on.

From a purely technical standpoint, I’ve learned that I’ve wasted a decade simmering stew on the stovetop. Oven is the way to go.

Go ahead, St. John’s Wort Junior Rangers. Try it at home.

I ACTUALLY BOUGHT BEER: SAWDUST CITY LONG DARK VOYAGE TO URANUS

The Background:

Listen: Sam Corbeil has come unstuck in time.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

Rugged typography. Basic black cap. Nothing is cooler than basic black.

He’s living backwards. At some point in the next few months he’ll have a brewery in a refurbished Canadian Tire in Gravenhurst. In April, he hired staff in the form of Aaron Spinney. At about the same time, he got Lone Pine IPA into the LCBO. As we go further back in time, we find him making more and more ambitious one off beers for special events. If we go all the way back to the 1970’s, his moustache was in style.

Any sane person would have done this the other way around. Start with a brewery. Get staff and an LCBO listing. Maybe make a Niambic beer. Come out swinging at Cask Days with a Chai spiced brown ale. Sam Corbeil didn’t let little things like convention stop him.

Out of all the beers I’ve tried from Sawdust City, I’ve never had a bad one. There are few breweries I can say that about. There have been Sawdust City beers that were not to my taste, but none of them have been objectively poor. The Red Rocket Stout with Cayenne burnt the hell out of my uvula.

I am massively appreciative of the fact that Sam cares about the quality of his beer. Sawdust City just yanked a batch of Lone Pine IPA from the LCBO warehouse. I think they were trying an unfiltered version of it out, going by the social media record. It didn’t work and they pulled it and destroyed it. All that beer down the drain.

So it goes.

P1020962

Peculiar Travel Suggestions are Dancing Lessons From God

Long Dark Voyage to Uranus is a little special to me for a couple of reasons. One of these is that I’ve gotten to try every iteration of it. The first time it was brewed, it was for the 2011 edition of the Master Brewer’s Iron Brewer awards. I don’t believe it won, but it was highly regarded. I’ve tried every version of this beer since then.

I mostly like it for the detail on the label that is borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I reproduce it here from my copy of the book.P1020977

I like it when people engage with the audience. It does not take much to assume that your audience is literate. To be a beer nerd, you have to memorize details from a huge number of beer styles. It stands to reason that people who can do that are inquisitive. That can be dangerous. They might even have read a book. Then again, they might just enjoy a dirty joke about the human posterior.

They were good enough for Chaucer.

The Beer:P1020969

The beer is strong. At 9% alcohol, it’s the kind of thing you’re best taking your time with. I like that the ingredients are listed on the label right down to the yeast strain. There are apparently 10 kinds of barley and some Demerara. Demerara is a fancy name for brown sugar. The hops are Magnum and Centennial, and you can pick out the Centennial’s pine barren waft on the aroma. The new version is hoppier than it has been in the past.

I don’t have written data to back that up. I am a man who drinks for a living and relies on his memory. Isn’t that silly?

The malt variety lends a nice breadth of flavours that expand continually as Uranus warms up. There’s the obligatory 70% or better dark cocoa. There’s the deeply roasted, frankly burnt espresso. The Centennial pine plays up the rye spice into a robust pumpernickel. There is some deeply scorched rum barrel in there as well. It is dry and it is a little astringent. I appreciate that. Last night I had the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and it was as good as it is touted to be, but stickier than I like. I enjoy the brittle snap this provides.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria:

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That's how come we like them so much.

The people at the LCBO would not let you use this Vonnegut reference. Alcohol labels are not supposed to claim that they will make you feel any particular way. They are depressants from a long line of depressants. That’s how come we like them so much.

On a scale from “Goodbye Blue Monday” to “Ting-A-Ling, You Son Of A Bitch,” I’m going to give this a rating of “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Sometimes it’s important to stop and look around and appreciate a nice moment and this is a beer that caters to that reflection. I liked it enough that I bought it.

THEY SEND ME BEER: LAKE OF BAYS 10 POINT IPA

The Background:

I don’t really have a working relationship with Lake of Bays. I think this is partially because they’re tucked away up in Baysville in Lake Of Bays Township. It’s an apt if not particularly creative name for the brewery when you base it on that criteria. In honour of their northern heritage, I have chosen Neil Young’s Decade as the soundtrack for tasting this beer.

Sometimes you buy a record when you're 16 and discover that you own it when you're 33.

Sometimes you buy a record when you’re 16 and discover that you own it when you’re 33.

I’ve met their brewmaster, Dan, a couple of times. He has a moustache that makes him look like Scruffy from Futurama. He is certainly in charge of the boilers at the brewery. I don’t know if he’s in charge of the toilets. He’s a personable fellow.

When Lake of Bays launched in 2010, they launched with beer styles as the names of their products. They had a Pale Ale. They had a Red Ale. I don’t want to be a jerk about this, but I should point out that I forgot Lake of Bays existed between about May 2011 and whenever they rebranded the products in their core lineup. This is a good object lesson for you if you are launching a brewery: Find a memorable way to brand your product. “Crosswind Pale Ale” is a better choice than “Pale Ale.”

The Pitch:

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That's not enough anymore.

The rebrand really helped Lake Of Bays a lot. When they started they were making solid, dependable beer. That’s not enough anymore.

Lake of Bays 10 Point IPA is ostensibly their fall seasonal beer and in this instance the reason that it has been sent to me is that the Ontario Craft Brewers would like me to review it as part of their Brewmaster’s Choice Discovery Pack. Let’s talk branding again for a second: OCB Discover Pack wasn’t doing them any favours as a name. Brewmaster’s Choice conveys a greater sense of authority to some average tippler scratching their elbow in the LCBO and staring at an interminable wall of product. It’s a good change. I’ll probably talk about a couple of beers from the series over the next little while because the other really positive change is that there is a wider range of flavours in there than usual.

A caveat: 10 point is usually in 750ml bottles and this is a smaller 341ml bottle with a twist off cap.

The Beer:P1020953

10 point pours an amber brown colour that just about matches the Industry Standard Bottle with a small and rapidly diminishing head that is probably the result of the unusual packaging. The carbonation is not particularly assertive. The beer is 6% alcohol although it feels like it might be slightly higher. If pressed I would claim that this is in the range of Ontario Pale Ale rather than IPA. Ontario Pale Ale was bandied around as a style a few years ago when people were making malt heavy hopped beers that didn’t comfortably fit into any other category. You’ve had Mill Street Tankhouse? Then you know what I mean.

In the case of 10 Point, it’s an amped up version of that evolutionary offshoot. 10 Point’s aroma is deep down in the Ontario vault with MacKintosh Toffee and mouldering hay. The hop character comes through as candied grapefruit on the palate and a slight note of chocolate from the roasted malt. The finish is quite dry and the lingering bitterness waddles slowly away. They don’t list the IBUs, but I’d be tempted to say it’s as high as 65.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria:

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it's got that going for it.

To be fair, the Lake of Bays logo is massively aesthetically pleasing, so it’s got that going for it.

On a scale from Out On The Weekend to Cortez The Killer, I’m going to give this a rating of Helpless. It’s ultimately representative of the artist, but might not make sense unless you’ve been to Ontario.

They Send Me Beer: Big Rock Anthea Wet Hop Ale 2013

 

It should probably be obvious by now that people send me beer. I made up a fictional character to explain the phenomenon for God’s sake. The concept of The Beer Fairy has even caught on to some extent. I see people using it online periodically.

What probably isn’t obvious is that a lot of the time I just don’t have anything to do with these beers. The purview of the column is national, which means that of London, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, I need the beer to exist in at least three of those markets to write about it. This creates some pretty serious problems in terms of audience reach. I don’t always, for instance, want to promote imports. I’d rather put the spotlight on Canadian breweries when possible. Fact is that imports are more widespread and therefore more accessible to all the nice people out there who have either paid for a newspaper subscription or clicked some kind of link. Relevance is not optional.

This means that I end up with a lot of beer that I can’t really use in the national column. I know people from around Toronto send beer thinking I’ll be able to help them out with a newspaper article. I’d like to, but I can’t and since that’s the deadline and the blog posts tend to deal with larger issues than beer reviews I eventually drink the beer but tend not to do much of anything with it except throw it into Untappd which might as well be Minecraft for beer nerds. Big whoop. So it makes it to twitter. That’s not a great use of everyone’s time.

Now I know deep down that people are basically sending beer because they expect some kind of utility out of the action. I don’t know exactly what the return on reviewing beer is but there’s probably some kind of indirect monetary recompense that happens as a result of promotion on blogs and whatnot. Otherwise, why would people send beer? Cause I’m the prettiest princess?

At any rate, there’s an implied contract here. They send beer and they think I should write about their beer. I basically never ask for beer, so sometimes I don’t feel bad about not doing a review. I realize though that I probably should.

The problem is that they send a lot of beer and that my blog posts are legendarily long and convoluted. There’s a minotaur at the centre of some of them is how labyrinthine they get. For this reason, I’m going to be trying out a new feature on the ol’ bliggity blog in which I actually review a beer instead of talking about the industry.

I know that’s a novel concept, but damn it, I hear it works for other bloggers.IMAG0199[1]

THEY SEND ME BEER: BIG ROCK ANTHEA WET HOP ALE 2013

The Background:

Big Rock basically sends me one of everything at this point. They know that I will gladly write about their stuff because it’s relevant to the newspaper audience. I try to keep the limited releases to a minimum because if there are only 4000 bottles of something in the world, people will be disappointed that they couldn’t find it. Still, though, I like Big Rock. Their new series of beers under Paul Gautreau are pretty good for the most part. Some of them I can sense that Paul is finding his feet creatively after a long time brewing the core range of products. I’d like to see him edge toward the upper limits of styles instead of brewing to the centre of them. I’d like to see more hops. I’d like to see the Paradox Dark Ale again.

The Pitch:

The Wet Hop ale was the first thing that Paul brewed as part of the Big Rock Alchemist series in 2012. It was pretty exciting because it involves flying hops in from the Yakima Valley and brewing with them within 24 hours of picking them. That’s a neat concept, although I question why they don’t just grow some hops outside of Calgary. I imagine Big Rock has the budget for that, but hasn’t cottoned on to the possibility yet.

Anywho, these are fresh Cascade hop cones in the beer.IMAG0200[1]

The Beer:

When you consider the beer it’s a little difficult to classify. I suppose that it’s probably some variety of American Pale Ale given the Cascade Hop and the rest of the specs. It comes in at 6% and 39 IBU and while you’d think that that is a decent size for a harvest beer, it’s not huge. It has all of the things that you’d associate with cascade hops down to the spicy pine at the back of the palate and the Seville orange pith on the nose. As something of a departure from previous beers in the experimental range that Gautreau has brewed, this is using caramel malt in the American style which is a welcome departure when you consider that Alberta is a good deal closer to British Columbia than British Citizens. The giveaway on that is the colour and the way it blends with the hops into marmalade. It showcases a single hop variety in the way that the Keith’s beers do. I mean that in the best way because this is not a hop bomb. It is a dignified, restrained beer that is easy to drink. I’d love to see it on cask. In fact, if it were not reliant on the harvest, it would be a good beer to tweak slightly and keep in the repertoire. Any brewery would be pleased to have made this.

I keep saying that one day real soon Paul Gautreau is going to break through and make a really fine series of beers. It seems like each of these releases edges closer to that. This is the best yet. He has narrative strength going for him in much the same way that Mike Lackey did in Ontario.IMAG0202[1]

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria: I’m going to give this seven and a half hop cones out of ten. Solid. Completely worth drinking. Someone buy the man a hopback and tell him to tweak this into a permanent fixture replacing the Big Rock IPA. If you’re going to give the man enough faith to let him develop things, you’ve gotta use what he develops. In the words of Joe Strummer, “it’s wrong to cheat a trying man.”