St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

OCB Week: The Jester On Yonge and Thoughts on Opening a Pub

On Sunday, I got out to the Jester on Yonge for a sampling event for the Bobcaygeon Brewery. It’s been at Yonge and St. Clair for about as long as I can remember, but currently they’re going through something of a resurgence. The owners have had the place for 15 years, and I can attest to how much that block has changed since I was a child.

Bobcaygeon Bitter Warrior APA would have fit in to the IPA rush of 2012 or so. It's unbalanced in the direction of bitterness, but there is a nice grapefruit character. They're brewed in Ottawa, based in Kingston and sold in Toronto. It seems like a lot of 401 travel to me.

Bobcaygeon Bitter Warrior APA would have fit in to the IPA rush of 2012 or so. It’s unbalanced in the direction of bitterness, but there is a nice grapefruit character. They’re brewed in Ottawa, based in Kingston and sold in Toronto. It seems like a lot of 401 travel to me.

At one point there were two movie theatres and Bregman’s bakery. Before the Fox and Fiddle, I’m pretty sure that corner at Heath was a McDonald’s (a high point of Friday afternoons when you’re let out of BSS early at seven years old. Yes, I went to an Anglican girls’ school until grade two. The running joke is that my parents wanted me to be an Anglican girl.) I’ve got fond memories of The Book Cellar, smelling simultaneously of new paperbacks and slightly moldering basement. One of my earliest food memories was seeing Caesar salad prepared tableside at Oliver’s on that block.

In 2000, the Jester on Yonge would have been one of the high points of the strip at Yonge and St. Clair. J.J. Muggs was a block south (and probably closed) and I’m pretty sure the same fate had befallen Toby’s Good Eats.  In 2015, it faces stiff competition. There’s the Union Social Eatery and John and Sons Oyster House for upscale dining. There’s Holy Chuck and Easy Catch for upscale casual. The rest of the dynamic is odd because the pubs in the neighbourhood are pretty niche affairs. The Midtown Gastrohub was a Fox and Fiddle and now seems to be largely Molson taps in a bare minimum-effort bid for resurgence. They did have Detour when I stopped in the other night. Scallywags is always popular with the sports crowd, but I recall their most interesting offering being Tankhouse.

There's something I love about the Toronto high street pub. It's almost always a long rectangular box and if the space hasn't been renovated since mid century, you can practically predict where the bathroom will be.

There’s something I love about the Toronto high street pub. It’s almost always a long rectangular box and if the space hasn’t been renovated since mid century, you can practically predict where the bathroom will be.

Until recently, The Jester was almost all Labatt taps. That might as well be suicide when faced with the demographic changes in the neighbourhood. They’re up to twenty-nine craft taps at the moment with a couple of mainstream offerings remaining. Typically when a bar makes that change, they’ll close down and renovate and re-launch with a new image, so it’s interesting to see the Jester making incremental progress towards their goal. They’re going to introduce a new food menu at some point in the very near future. They’re installing a stage for live music or comedy, which should add a feature to the neighbourhood that it doesn’t really have. They want to tread the line between being a local pub for the apartment and condo dwellers in the area and being a destination pub. It’s easier said than done, but I like their chances. They seem to be in good hands.

I was sitting there on Sunday talking to their consultant and thinking about one of the problems that we face: There aren’t enough taps in Ontario to support all the breweries that exist now. As we continue to add breweries, this is going to be a pretty serious problem. For that reason, I’m going to share some of the advice I gave them because I think it’s universally applicable and maybe it’ll help other people too.

Selection is important, but not in the way you think.

Quality is far more important than quantity. You probably don’t need more than twenty taps in order to make a go of craft beer. The important thing is to choose the selection so that you’ve got a good example of a number of different styles. Rotating taps will help with seasonal interest, but quality will move all year round. Beyond a certain point more is less and the kegs get old.

The condition of the taps is as least as important as the beer coming out of it.

Clean your lines every two to three weeks. Consider using plugs for your draught system. Flush the first 5-6 ounces of beer out of each line at the beginning of service every day. That sounds like a lot of spillage, but you’re better off taking a low margin hit on spillage than losing customers permanently. If you’re aiming to be a destination, you will lose customers to off flavours sure as the TTC shuts down for signal problems. If you own the pub, save some money in the long term by learning to clean and troubleshoot your own draught system. It’s also important, since you’ve gone to that trouble, to make sure the balance of detergent in the dishwasher is right. Don’t pour pristine beer and ruin it with chlorination.

Treating the glassware properly is more important than logos.

Every brewery worth their gypsum has branded glassware, but if you’ve got a lot of taps, that amounts to a lot of shelf space, glasses of different sizes and fragility, and inevitably uncertainty when someone gets served the right beer in the wrong glass during a rush. You’re better off investing in standard glassware in two sizes: 20 ounce nonic pint and 14 ounce tulip glass. 5 ounce glasses for samples and flights are a good idea if you want to go that way and have room. As a bonus, place the size of the glassware somewhere prominent. People like to know what they’re getting for their money.

Your menu is cheap to reprint.

If you’re a pub finding your niche, the temptation is to lean heavily on pub food classics. If you’ve hired good kitchen staff, they should be able to knock that stuff out blindfolded. It’s not the best use of those guys. Maybe you’ve got cooks from Sri Lanka or Guatemala or Mexico. Maybe they’re culinary school graduates. Maybe they’ve got hidden talents. If you let them cook things they’re interested in you’ll wind up with a menu no one else has and talented employees cooking to their strengths. If it doesn’t work out, you can go back to fish and chips and the “name of the pub” burger that inevitably has bacon and cheese.

Events are not a once a year affair.

I’m looking at the list of events for OCB week and I’ve got to say it: A special on a burger and a pint is not the kind of thing that’s going to draw people to your banner during a beer week. If you want the neighbourhood’s attention make that the Wednesday night special on a weekly basis. Kill the Cask? Make that happen once a month. You want to do a beer dinner? What the hell is the percentage in waiting for a beer week to do that. With a little promotion, you ought to be able to sell out a modestly sized beer dinner quarterly.

Get the word out.

I really can’t overstate the importance of social media. It’s important that people know what’s happening at your pub. It’s one thing to have a notice board on site with events: you should still have that. It’s quite another to be able to get peoples’ attention on an ongoing basis. If you can, documenting the changes you’re making is a good idea. “This is new on tap” or “We’re trying this dish out this week” are great ways to make people pay attention. This requires maintenance. Sending identical content out weekly will get you put on mute.

A brightly lit marquee probably helps as well.

A brightly lit marquee probably helps get the word out as well.

Finally, it needs to be said: success in running a pub is an ongoing process. All of the above items have to work together all the time in order for the place to succeed.

Review: The Collingwood Brewery

The second floor of Tequila Bookworm on Queen Street West is a good location for a tap takeover. For one thing, in order to be able to attend such an event, you have to know about its existence. You’d be forgiven for bypassing it completely on the way into the main bar area on the first floor. I was invited by Mick McNamara, until recently a blogger under Hopgobblin’ to come on out and try beer made by his new employer, The Collingwood Brewery. If you read last Friday’s post as he had done, you probably appreciate that that’s a brave move.

Seriously. Whoever came up with that slogan gets this laurel and hearty handshake.

Seriously. Whoever came up with that slogan gets this laurel and hearty handshake.

In the past, I’ve tried Collingwood’s Downhill Pale Ale from cans in the LCBO. If you don’t get up to the Collingwood area, it’s likely that is the extent of your experience with them as well. While it’s nice that there are breweries opening all over Ontario, it does make a top down view of everything happening quite difficult to maintain.

The brewer at Collingwood is Chris Freeman, a graduate of the Niagara College program. As yet, it’s a small operation. They seem to be on tap at something like 70 locations in Ontario (including the schnitzelicious Alphorn in Collingwood) and selling Downhill cans out of 76 LCBO stores. That’s quite an impressive territory for a brewery this young.

Perched on the barstool, looking around the room, it became apparent that the development of the brewery has acquired a noticeably schizophrenic tendency. On the one half of the room, there’s the Collingwood lifestyle brand which has replaced the wooden floor temporarily with a nearly vibrant lawn of astroturf. On the other half is a blackboard listing a Black Saison and a Barrel Aged Saison.

1-3) Sensible Options 4-5) Wha?

I should point out that one of Tequila Bookworm’s great strengths is their blackboard script. If you glance it on social media you never wonder which bar it is.

I like Collingwood’s branding. The advantage being taken of the connotation of Collingwood’s activities and the skiing and outdoor lifestyle. Frankly, “It’s all Downhill from here” is the kind of slogan of which a proper ad agency would be proud. In a market where your immediate competition is Side Launch (High quality core brands without much room for experimentation) and Northwinds (Lots of experimentation, but no canned or bottled core brands) it makes sense to play to the cottagers and the moguls on the moguls. During the winter the brewery hosted a Helly Hansen clothing sale. That’s the audience.

The beers that are consistent with the branding are Downhill Pale Ale and Fireside ESB. Downhill Pale Ale successfully walks a line at 5.4% between accessibility for new beer drinkers that might be trying out the local product and a surprising amount of character. The only difficulty is that the hopping is relatively subtle so the beer needs to warm significantly before it develops substantial aroma (perhaps the taps at Tequila Bookworm are being kept slightly too cold). I know that in the canned version, the hops (Amarillo leading others according to Freeman) are more pronounced.

The Fireside ESB does many of the things an ESB should including a certain amount of caramel through the body and enough roast to reinforce it without becoming assertive. I suspect that it would be a very versatile beer for food pairing. I think it an Americanized ESB and it lacks a certain amount of the earthy, funky English yeast character if we’re judging to style. I’d bet the folks in Collingwood drinking it apres-ski prefer it this way, making it the right choice for a growing brewery.

A third year round brand recently introduced is the Rockwell Pilsner. At 4.6% and touting itself as a Czech Style Pilsner, this is the least accomplished of the core offerings. The hopping is relatively minimal at 28 IBU and in discussion Freeman denoted the use of Saaz. The Saaz, typically floral and peppery in a Pilsner is subdued here. The Collingwood water is, according to municipal websites, relatively hard. It seems to me compensatory late hop additions would help here. Perhaps because of the lessened hop character, the yeast esters emerge more fully and for that reason I wonder whether the fermentation was toward the upper temperature range for a lager. The fruitiness here is so like a Cream Ale that the beer doesn’t really read as a Pilsner. Rockwell needs tweaking which I’m sure it will get in future.

The two Saisons on offer are the black Saison du Nuit and the 1854 Anniversary Saison. These beers are conceptually misaligned with the larger brand of the brewery and, independent of that quibble, were the least successful of the five offerings. The Saison du Nuit came across aromatically as extremely phenolic and retronasally created a lingering impression of Sunlight Soap Bubbles. There is also clove from the yeast and roast from the grist, but overwhelmingly the impression is of disharmony. According to Freeman the batch was a single brew from back in January and the malt flavours are only now coming to the fore. What must it have been like in January? The 1854 Anniversary Saison was aged in Pinot Noir barrels from the Tawse Winery and began successfully with oaky notes and vanilla but contained a distracting frisson of uncooked pumpkin or gourd around the edges that was inescapable once experienced. Neither of these beers inspire much confidence. To be fair, both Saison and Barrel Aging have steep learning curves so it may be unrealistic to expect greatness a year out of the gate.

I think if I were Collingwood, I would stick to the core mission statement. Continue to expand Downhill Pale Ale, push to get Fireside into the LCBO (bolstered by last week’s CBA), refine all three core brands so that they become more themselves. If your target market is the weekend warrior it doesn’t do to show anything but strength.

The Magna Carta and Beer

This is how big the craft beer movement has grown internationally: The 800th anniversary of the issuance of the Magna Carta, which takes place later this month, is being commemorated by a beer.

It’s hard to imagine a brewery more suited to produce it than the Windsor & Eton Brewery. They’ve got scads of history kicking about the place. They’re situated about half a kilometer from Windsor Castle and five kilometers from the location where the document was actually signed 800 years ago. The brewery has a line in historical names, including Kohinoor (obviously an India Pale Ale), Conqueror 1075 (somewhat less obviously a Black IPA), and Parklife (dating all the way back to Damon Albarn).Mgana-Carta-Clip

The Magna Carta Barley Wine is based on a recipe from London Amateur Brewers member Manmohan Birdi and it is a sort of amalgam of various parts of brewing history. Barley Wine as it’s typically thought of is a later invention than the kinds of Gruit that would probably have been around at the time of the document’s issue. That said, this beer contains Root Licorice, Yarrow and Ground Ivy in addition to Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. At 7.2% it packs a wallop, but there’s apparently a 4% alcohol cask version if you can make it to England. It’s fair to say that there’s not a lot of beer like this out there in the market.

When the Magna Carta gets here at some point in the next couple of days, so will some of this beer. I’m told by the people at Magna Carta Canada that it will be available at some special events, so that should be some impetus to go and look at a piece of vellum.

What’s that? You need additional incentive to go and look at a piece of vellum? You don’t think the Magna Carta is relevant to Canada?

Did you know that the 35th article of the Magna Carta stipulates standard measures for Wine, Ale, Grain and Cloth? That’s pretty important. That’s why measurements are what they are. Except of course when they’re not and people routinely switch out 14, 16, 18 and 20 ounce pint glasses to achieve greater margin.

I see your problem. Let me see if I can explain the historical background. It’s a parable for our time.

What you basically know about King John is that he is a usurper and that he is not a good man and that Errol Flynn or possibly Cary Elwes is going to turn up and pop him one. The problem is that King John exists both as the villain in the Robin Hood stories and also as something of an ineffectual king. He signs the Magna Carta at the behest of a group of rebel barons and because he has the reigns at the time, we all know he must be the villain. History doesn’t really work that way.

The real driver of the story of the Magna Carta is Richard the Lionheart, as far as I can tell. He was a brave and clever soldier who didn’t care even a little about administering his Kingdom. He was a terrible king. Over the course of his reign, he spent something like six months in England. His father, Henry II was “in his own time… hated by almost everyone,” but he did manage to create some of the basis for English Common Law. Richard mostly spent money.

"I have not yet bankrupted the peashantry."

“I have not yet bankrupted the peashantry.”

It’s not like he spent it on anything sensible either. The Saladin Tithe of 1188 raised something like 100,000 marks from the population of England (the handy online calculator tells me that’s 38 billion quid in today’s money). Gold and Silver was confiscated from churches and everyone was expected to give up 10% of their goods or be exempted from the tithe by joining the Third Crusade. Saladin had captured Jerusalem in 1187 and apparently, if you’re King Richard, it’s more important to bankrupt your citizenry and trudge 3000 miles to go and sort out an unwinnable proposition with incredibly poor supply lines at great expense than it is to pay any attention to your kingdom. He was quoted as saying “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.”

Probably, the English people still have some money, those of them that aren’t lying dead on a field outside Jaffa or at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Presumably they had seen this coming and had hidden some rainy day money under the floorboards. On the way back to England, Richard gets captured and ransomed, essentially bleeding funds from his country as a result of a prolonged and ill-judged war in the middle east. His ransom was 150,000 marks (57 billion English sponduliks. Same calculator.)

The ransom was something like three times England’s GDP at the time. By the end of Richard’s ten year reign, England is something like a hundred billion pounds in debt. Debt’s not even a good way of explaining it because it’s not owed to anyone. They’ve essentially extracted the potential for the country to produce wealth. This is how bad Richard is with money: He dies after being shot in the neck with a crossbow and having the wound go gangrenous. He not only pardons the orphaned child who shot him, but he gives him a hundred shillings.

"King John was not a good man. He had his little ways and sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days."

“King John was not a good man. He had his little ways and sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.”

John comes to power in 1199 and England is more or less bankrupt. In order to raise money for the crown he has to get creative. At the time, as a result of William the Conqueror a century earlier, there’s a concept called the Royal Forest. A Royal Forest doesn’t necessarily have trees. It’s just a parcel of land. It could be heath or swamp or hills or forest. You’re not allowed to cause any damage to the animals or greenery of the Royal Forest unless you pay for the privilege.

That’s a nice little moneymaker, so what do you do if you’re John? That’s right. You expand the Royal Forest. By the time of the Magna Carta the Royal Forest is up to something like 20% of the land in England. What this means, essentially, is that if you own land that has been afforested by the crown, you now have to pay for the privilege to use your own land. If you own a bit of fenland that’s no good for anything but pigs, you have to pay pannage even though there’s no other use for it. If you want to heat your hovel in the winter, you’re paying estover for firewood and turbary for turf. If you want to keep a cow and that cow is going to eat grass, that’s agistment. That’s on land you theoretically own, mind.

This is King John riding o'er the sward. I've never been exactly sure what a sward is, but you can bet that if you owned one you were bloody well going to be paying swardage on it.

This is King John riding o’er the sward. I’ve never been exactly sure what a sward is, but you can bet that if you owned one you were bloody well going to be paying swardage on it.

There are instances of entire villages being burned out in advance of afforestation amounting essentially to seizure of land. The law of the forest was enforced somewhat arbitrarily and without due process. You could be blinded or mutilated or killed for poaching a deer. You could be severely fined for just about anything.

The Magna Carta and the companion document the Charter of the Forest are a rare example of what happens when you push Monarchic rights too far. The Magna Carta disafforests all of the land taken by the crown during John’s reign and basically ensures that it can never happen again. The Charter of the Forest basically establishes personal property law. In one fell swoop the Magna Carta gets rid of unreasonable taxation, unreasonable seizure, establishes due process of law and ensures a properly sized pint.

You may be able to think of an example of a country who has, on an approximately 25 year long time frame, gotten themselves involved in an ill-judged and prolonged war in the middle east on ideological bases and who have accrued massive debt to do so and are now bleeding their citizenry dry while the misapplication of law frequently results in protest and riots. History tends to repeat in pattern.

The Magna Carta is a good reminder that there’s only so far you can push people. The fact that you can drink a beer while looking at it is just a bonus of which you should take advantage.

A Word For Ontario Breweries

(Editor’s Note: In the last week, I’ve evaluated Trafalgar in a positive manner based on their recent triumphs, succeeded in getting Sleeman investigated by the AGCO, Blown up Triple Bogey on Twitter for astroturfing ratings and done more research into Ginger than the breweries using it as in an ingredient. I believe I can only be considered fair minded. AB In-Bev wanted me to write about Goose Island. I don’t think they expected this.)

I just came back from the pub. I’ve had three pints of Goose Island IPA. I have written notes on beers I’ve drunk while tipsy in the last five years. You’d be amazed how infrequently I’ve written the content you read with a buzz. You’ve got to taste in order to make notes, but for the most part I write completely sober. Sometimes painfully hungover, but sober.

On Wednesday, I went to Zoomer Media down in Liberty Village to record a podcast for the Ontario Craft Brewers. I spent a pleasant couple of hours with Ben Johnson and Mirella Amato talking about beer and playing the game the podcast has devised this season: name the beer. I had one beer that was laden with diacetyl and one that was so far from its original mandate as to be incomprehensible.

After that I went to the Craft Brasserie. I had two flights. I tried eight beers I hadn’t had from Ontario. They have 120 taps there. It rapidly became clear that the new class doesn’t have it. Even brewers I’d had vouched for produced vinegary off notes. I had phenols, soap and people telling me they were brewing in styles they just weren’t.

I have been doing this for five years. I have not broken even and despite that, I have not sold out. I will not sell out. I’ve made sacrifices not to. Let me put this in personal terms you can understand: I last got new glasses four years ago. I have not been to the dentist since 2009. I have written the history of this province and I have written the history of the brewing industry of the city of Toronto. As National Beer Columnist for Sun Media I kept track of all of the beer releases for four years across this country. I trained as a brewer. I wrote a book about homebrewing. I believe in Ontario’s future and I believe in the future of its brewers.

It’s for that reason I’m not going to mollycoddle you anymore.

Let me tell you what’s over the hill. Goose Island? That property that you talk about going downhill? They’re producing, even through the Labatt plant in Montreal, a better IPA than most of the brewers in Ontario are capable of making. “Oh,” I hear you say, “It’s so 90’s.” Well, listen up, sunshine: You’re making a fifth rate 2015 nothing. It’s a marvellously balanced 1991 IPA. The Honkers ESB? That’s at every Prime Pub in the province. You may say “Oh, it’s not as good as it was.” It’s still better than your beer. “Oh, it’s brewed by Labatt.” Well, that’s a barrel of production they haven’t put towards Bud Light. Net positive as anyone with a brain sees it.

There’s good news. Every time some hapless Blue or Canadian drinker tries one of those beers, he’s exposed to wider flavour. The bad news is that it’s in pubs you ignored. Maybe it’ll translate to sales at some point, but I wouldn’t bet on it helping you specifically.

Goose Island has spent millions of dollars on this venture into Ontario. They sent Sofie and Matilda a while back as bottled emissaries and those are wonderful beers. When they had me come and talk about Goose Island IPA, it was at Good Son on Queen West. They brought in Christina Perozzi. She’s every bit my equal. As part of the Beer Chicks, she was named Best Beer Sommelier in Los Angeles. She handed off to me a 12 month barrel aging vertical of Bourbon County Stout. That’s the level of thought they put in: Show ’em how the barrels work.

AB In-Bev has paid a magnificent amount of money for craft beer properties. They’ve spent millions to keep them running and they’re spending thousands to hire people to promote their brands. I found out at the podcast I was recording that Mirella Amato, Master Cicerone had become the educator for their Canadian distribution. She’s got a better palate than I do. Do you know what I say to that decision? FAIR PLAY! GO ON MIRELLA!

They are paying to educate people! The OCB has existed for what, a decade? Why aren’t they educating staff at craft beer bars? Is surviving as a lobbying organization enough? Clearly it’s not.

At the Goose Island Launch last week, I got to try Bourbon County Stout and Bourbon County Barleywine. I got to try a Belgian Tripel called Ogden that maybe two breweries in Ontario could have made and which I even got the Bud Light drinking boss of Labatt, Charlie Angelakos, to admit he liked. All of those beers were better than their Ontario counterparts.

I want to impress on you this thing: I love Ontario. I believe in our future. I sacrifice personally daily to promote Ontario beer.

Forget who owns Goose Island. They are not going away. They are your competition forever. Blue Point is coming. Elysian is coming. 10 Barrels is coming. Sierra Nevada is coming. Lagunitas is coming. Oskar Blues is coming. New Belgium is coming. Many, many others are coming.

Your existence is not enough, Ontario breweries. With a rare few exceptions, you should be pants-wetting terrified. Next time you don’t quite believe in the beer but send it out to make margin, you hurt yourself. Next time you don’t put in R&D time on a new brew and the customer pays in dissatisfaction, you hurt us all. Next time you don’t aim to be at least as good as your competitors, you retire a pauper. Next time you don’t up your game, you die slowly.

If you don’t think you can hack it, figure out what your equipment is worth and sell it off now.

No Quarter.

Reviews: Ontario Ginger Beers

Ginger beer seems to be having a moment in Ontario. Well, not “Ginger beer” so much as beer with ginger as an ingredient. If you’re from here you’ll find that odd. If you’re from South London you’ll find it ginger beer.

Ginger is a pervasive flavour. It’s the kind of thing you get in holiday baking for that very reason. It’s a bright flavour in the midwinter to ward off the dark of night. That said, if you were asked to tell me what ginger tastes like, you probably wouldn’t have any adjectives to use that didn’t reference its name. I wouldn’t have either. That’s why I’m researching the ingredient.

When faced with a culinary ingredient I don’t know about I go to Harold McGee’s extremely useful and comprehensive On Food and Cooking. On Ginger he has this to say:

It’s a pungent, aromatic rhizome of Zingiber officinale that is distantly related to the banana. It’s a member of a genera associated with galangal, grains of paradise, cardamom and turmeric. It was domesticated in southern Asia and had made the Mediterranean by the Classical Era. The root is about 60% starch although most of its use is now longer in a dried form for baking, but fresh in the manner of Asian Cuisines. Depending on the terroir the ginger is from it can be quite bright and lemony with floral, citrus, woody and eucalyptus notes – and mild pepper-like pungency that complements other flavours without dominating them.

Seriously. Go buy Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. There’s a marvelous chart on page 392 that tells you what aromatic compounds are in spices and herbs. With just the smallest bit of research you can find out how they complement the terpenoids in myrcene and humulene. If you want to brew a spiced beer, this is your bible.

The chart tells us that the fresh aromas are from phellandrene and cineole. The citrus is from citral. The floral component is linalool. The woody component is zingiberene. This is all massively useful if you have the ability to think about food on a purely scientific crossword puzzle level.

Here’s the important thing: Gingerol.

Gingerol is the compound that makes ginger gingery. It’s similar to capsaicin and piperine, which give chilies and peppercorns their flavours. If you cook ginger, gingerol becomes zingerone. Zingerone is less pungent and is sweeter. When you bake with ginger or stir fry ginger, that’s the flavour you get. When you dry ginger, you get shaogols, a compound about twice as pungent as fresh ginger. When you candy ginger, you get cavities.

What this means is that if you want to make a beer with ginger in it, you need to be mindful of the ingredient. If you put it in the boil or the whirlpool, you lose aroma to sweetness. If you use powdered ginger, you’ll get a lot of the aroma, but some of the delicate terpenoids will flash off if you add them to the boil. You’ll get shaogol ginger and nothing else. You’re unlikely to get the flavour of pickled ginger because the ginger they use for Gari is harvested earlier. You might get that sweetness if regular ginger is added to a hot liquid.

The Beers

Vikings didn't put up with this Ginger nonsense. They referred to themselves as "Erik The Red" and "Lars The Burnt Sienna" and "Magnus  VeryDarkOrangesson"

Vikings didn’t put up with this Ginger nonsense. They referred to themselves as “Erik The Red” and “Lars The Burnt Sienna” and “Magnus VeryDarkOrangesson”

 

First up, we’ve got Double Trouble Brewing Company’s Revenge Of The Ginger. It’s always an interesting choice when you name a beer after a pun. I feel like they could have made Revenge Of The Ginger just about anything conceptually as long as it had a reddish hue. In this instance, they’ve referenced the fact that the beer contains ginger and juxtaposed it with the fact that Nathan Dunsmoor will combust spontaneously if exposed to sunlight.

I have some problems with the beer’s construction. The aroma certainly contains ginger, the ingredient made unrefutable by the lingering burn, but the hops don’t really seem to complement it. I think that the northern brewer and saaz hops bridge to the ginger in a woody, humulene dense place and from a sensory perspective I found some distracting malt astringency (probably from whichever malt is imparting the red colour). The upshot is a beer that divides in the mid palate and results in the sensation of the hops fighting the ginger. It’s thematically consistent, but not terribly enjoyable.

Heathcliff, Heathcliff, no one should terrorize the... oh wait. Let's avoid the lawsuit and call it "Ginger Cat"

Heathcliff, Heathcliff, no one should terrorize the… oh wait. Let’s avoid the lawsuit and call it “Ginger Cat”

Second, we’ve got Mill Street’s Ginger Cat. It is a part of their Summer Mix Pack, although I feel like a wider release on patios as a one off would have been clever. The Mix Pack seems to be successful for Mill Street, so what do I know?

Ginger Cat is sort of scaredy on the ginger front. It’s not a big fresh ginger character. They’re using candied ginger and orange peel. It’s a wheat beer with some amber barley malt and a Belgian ale yeast. Stylistically, this is probably a better fit for the candied ginger: Essentially a modified Witbier. The end result is quite sweet at the top and a slight wheaty tang redeems it at the back end. It’s certainly a refreshing summer beverage, but there’s not a lot of head retention. It’s interesting, but if you’re a ginger fanatic, you might find the additions a bit gingerly.

Green Thumb. I have a black thumb. The nice people from Pommies delivered an apple tree last year. It's now only fit for kindling. :(

Green Thumb. I have a black thumb. The nice people from Pommies delivered an apple tree last year. It’s now only fit for kindling. :(

Finally, we’ve got Garden Brewers ostensibly out of Hamilton, but contract brewed at Black Oak here in Toronto. For my money, the Green Thumb IPA displays the best balance of the lot. The beer is essentially dry-gingered. Fresh Ginger is added to the beer after fermentation, which ensures that you get all of the delicate flavours that you’re meant to get in addition to the big spicy gingerol character. The choice of hop is also fairly inspired. They’re using the infrequently championed Bullion, which is an offspring of a wild Manitoban variety discovered something like a hundred years ago. For the most part people don’t use it because it’s a little vegetal and the flavour profile leans towards blackcurrant.

The aroma makes no bones about the concentration of ginger in the beer and the ginger dominates throughout. The hops manage to dance around the outside of that core flavour and pick out small detail. The palate does split on the finish between a dry character on the palate and a lingering retronasal ginger heat. It’s a clever use of the flavours and I find myself surprised by the fact that it’s 7.2% alcohol. It seems lighter than that, but maybe that’s just the freshness of the ginger. I think if I were going to pair it I might try this Venison with Ginger and Garlic or this Venison with Blackcurrant Jus and what looks like parsnip.

Not Exactly A Review: Sleeman Lift

Sleeman Lift launched this week. I’m not going to review it. I don’t care what it tastes like. Many of the lifestyle bloggers that you’ll see promoting it in the coming weeks don’t care what it tastes like either. They probably attended the launch because the invitation came with the offer of a Fitbit Flex.

Sleeman has brought in Ben Desbrow, an associate professor from Griffith University in Australia to talk to the media about the science of hydration. He is a very nice man and his studies have been peer reviewed and are generally well intentioned. I popped by the offices of Sleeman’s PR firm on this campaign, Cossette, to talk to him about the potential of hydrating beer. I had done a cursory amount of research, including actually reading the studies that he has co-authored on the hydration potential of various liquids.Print

The thing to realize is that Desbrow’s work on altering the hydration level of beer by the addition of sodium is that it deals with harm minimization. He works in sports nutrition and athletes, especially rugby players and cricketers, drink beer in great quantity. The idea behind the study is that it might be possible to make that less harmful. That’s why the conclusion in the first study on beer hydration states the following:

All beverage treatments failed to completely restore fluid balance across the 4h observation period suggesting that beer, irrespective of ingredient profile, is an undesirable post-exercise fluid.

You got that? Beer in any form is not a desirable beverage for hydration. In point of fact, drinking beer will not bring you back to a normal level of hydration even if you drink 150% of the volume of liquid you lost through exercise.

Water is a better option. Gatorade is a better option. Chocolate Milk is a better option. Fruit juice is a better option. Coconut water is a better option. Beer is worse at hydration than everything else other than higher alcohol liquids. The study on beer as a hydrating liquid basically states that very low alcohol beer with added sodium is better at hydrating than regular beer.

So there are two things that you need to take away from this study:

  • Beer is not good at providing hydration. If you want it to be better, you can add salt to it in small quantities.
  • In order for beer to achieve even comparable hydration, you need to drink 150% of the volume of liquid you just lost due to the body’s tendency to produce urine.

For strenuous exercise, participants in the study were pushed to a loss of 1.8% of their total mass. Let’s say you’ve got a big rugby player. He probably weighs a very solid 220 pounds or 100 kilos. 1.8% total mass lost means that he lost 1.8 kilos. In order for beer to be reasonably hydrating, he would need to drink 2.7 litres of beer. I’m told that the beer that was used in the study was Castlemaine XXXX Gold (we had it at the LCBO a few years ago.) In Australia, that’s a mid-range beer at 3.5% alcohol. Because this is attached to the Sleeman Lift campaign, we’ll go with the nutritional information on that. It is 4% alcohol and 150 calories/473 ml can. That means that in order to come close to a state of regular hydration, our rugby player (probably named Bruce) would have to drink nearly six 473 ml cans of beer at a toll of approximately 900 calories. Bruce can shrug that off. Bruce probably needs 4000 calories a day if he’s an active athlete.

You are probably not an active athlete. You are probably pretty average. You’re meant to consume something like 2000 calories a day.

This is why I absolutely hate Sleeman Lift. The average person will not have read professor Desbrow’s study. The average person’s scientific literacy is non-existent. We live in a world with Anti-Vaxxers and Dr. Oz and The Food Babe. There are people who are preying on society’s basic lack of understanding of science in order to make a buck. Between them, they have less than an ounce of moral fibre. They are, in my opinion, pond scum. Sleeman may now count themselves among that group.

The average person will look at the can and they will see that Sleeman Lift contains coconut water. “That’s healthy” they will think. They will see the words “For The Performance Focused” and they will assume that there are significant health benefits to drinking Sleeman Lift. They will not have read any studies on hydration. They have not had my privilege to be able to talk to the author of the studies who readily admits that beer with sodium added is better than regular beer but not as hydrating as other things. No, the average person will simply make the connection themselves and assume that they are being sold something that is good for them as opposed to something that contains empty calories and is both more expensive and less efficient than water.

That’s what Sleeman is banking on. That you will assume that beer, which has never before in human history been considered a health beverage, has suddenly been made healthy. It hasn’t. It has simply been made very slightly less detrimental. Hell, the media is jumping to those conclusions for you. Look at this report on CHCH Hamilton.

This makes me very, very angry. I don’t like to see the public exploited with implication and I don’t like seeing scientific illiteracy being taken advantage of. I cannot do anything about Anti-Vaxxers or Dr. Oz or The Food Babe. Beer, though? That’s where I’m a Viking. That’s why for the first time in my five years of writing about beer professionally, I am formally complaining to the AGCO in order to have this snake oil removed from shelves.

You see, the AGCO’s advertising guidelines state the following:

Except for public service advertising, the holder of a licence to sell liquor or a manufacturer of liquor may advertise or promote liquor or the availability of liquor only if the advertising: (3) does not imply that consumption of liquor is required in obtaining or enhancing: (a) social, professional or personal success, (b) athletic prowess, (c) sexual prowess, opportunity or appeal, (d) enjoyment of any activity, (e) fulfilment of any goal, or (f) resolution of social, physical or personal problems.

I believe that the implication of “For The Performance Focused” probably contravenes several of those lettered subsections. If I had my way, I’d have every single can recalled and destroyed.

P.S. Thank you for the Fitbit Flex.

Revisit: Trafalgar Ales & Meads

I don’t have a sense for how long people have been following the blog, but if you started reading back in 2010, you’ll know that I had pretty strong opinions about Trafalgar. At that point, we were living in a 40 brewery Ontario and Trafalgar was down amongst the bottom of the heap with things like Old Credit and Wolfgang’s. I wrote a post about them you can see by clicking here. It was fairly gentle, considering. I didn’t like the way their labels kept changing. At the time I didn’t have the context I do now. If I had been reviewing them then with the context I have now, it would have been worse.

Searching through the archive, I find I also wrote this paragraph:

Trafalgar Bert Well Pale Ale will be the absolute last chance I’m ever going to give Trafalgar and if it isn’t any good I am going to rain down fire and brimstone upon them with such intensity that it will raise the temperature of the blogosphere by several dozen degrees. They are already on double secret probation for Korruptor and I for one have very little difficulty seeing the benefit of hastening along Ontario beer Darwinism.

I’ve been keeping tabs on things coming out of the brewery over the years. Some of the Black Creek beers that they’ve been contracting have been very good. Some of their one offs have been questionable. The bottle of Saison I purchased by Brasserie des Quatres Lunes was brewed there and somehow managed to soak through the cork, which is something I’d never seen before. It was an unqualified drain pour. It was terrible.

Part of being a good critic is being honest and being open to the idea that things can and sometimes do change. Earlier this year, Trafalgar won a number of awards at the Ontario Brewing Awards. They also won “best newcomer.”

I’ve tallied votes for the Canadian Brewing Awards four times, so I feel comfortable telling you this even if it means that I never get to do it again: An award doesn’t really tell you very much on an ongoing basis except that the beer has achieved a certain level of quality. An award means that on that day in that room to those judges with their understanding of BJCP criteria, the beer was an exemplar of the style category it was submitted in. This doesn’t mean that awards are nonsense. If you see one brewery win a lot of them, it means they’re performing well according to a Michael Jackson/AHA/BJCP defined context. All of the awards judging I’ve ever been involved with has been conducted in good faith based on principles of fairness.

That means that when you win as many awards in one fell swoop as Trafalgar did this year, you’re probably due for a revisit.

The newcomer thing has to be addressed. Trafalgar isn’t a newcomer. Trafalgar started when I was 13. Giving a 22 year old brewery a newcomer award is the kind of asinine decision that makes people take you less seriously. It’s like awarding Justin Bieber “Cutest Toddler.” I know the justification was that they had not entered the Ontario Brewing Awards in five years. That doesn’t make them a newcomer. 60 breweries started in 2014. This is pretty cut and dry. I feel like running that decision by literally anyone would have been a good move. “Most Improved” would have been fine.

I sent Connor at Trafalgar my address and the following picture. 7e3

He sent me six beers from the Trafalgar Black Label series. What follows is the upshot:

Big Hefe: A 5% wheat beer, Big Hefe is really more of a Kristalweizen due to its clarity and carbonation. It’s more like an American Wheat Beer than anything else if only because of the filtration. The aroma is still clove and a little bit of banana with some chalky grain and a wheaty tang towards the back. It has quite a rocky head, and the iso-amyl acetate suggests it fermented fairly warm. It is a touch too sweet for me, but it’s objectively pretty good.IMAG1190[1]

Wee Beastie (second on the operating principle of low IBU to high): An 8.5% Scotch Ale, this is throwing aromas of toffee, grape, raisin and grape nuts with some booze in the background. There’s a touch of licorice peeking through at the back of the palate. There are other dark fruit characters at play here, but I feel like the body could be a little thicker. I think that some texture would take care of the bitterness which is a little on the high side. That’s a minor quibble. I have had worse Scotch Ales than this. Also, the name is clever (if already taken by Howe Sound.)

Schwartzy: A 5% alcohol Milk Stout, this might have been leaking carbonation. The aroma doesn’t present the lactose in a creamy way and to be honest it’s more of an American Stout than anything else. There’s smoke, chocolate and a small amount of roast. There’s a really lingering bitterness and astringency from the malt. Of the six this turns out to be maybe the poorest bottle.

However.IMAG1193[1]

Schwartzy Xpresso: Also at 5%, Schwartzy Xpresso pours with a big fluffy head and the coffee here seems to bring out the lactose in the milk stout, creating a creamy character. There’s a little vanilla and I’m actively reminded of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque. The difference is the texture. This is aggressively carbed and that spikiness takes away a little from what could be a really smooth texture. This could easily have won an award.

Stinger: An 8% Dry Hopped IPA, this is really leaning in the direction of Torpedo. I think that the dry hopping here might be citra because of the vibrant lemon and (maybe it’s because I broke 5kg of Marynka with my bare hands the other day) I’m getting raw whole cone vegetal notes. I think they really dry hopped the hell out of this. There is something in the malt bill I don’t quite like, but I’ve had many worse IPAs than this. From other OCB members. Recently. It is another example of a name that’s already taken (by Mill Street).

IMAG1194[1]

Eclipse: The Imperial Stout. It’s quite simple and is basically exactly to style. No flaws, but not much joy either.

I wanted to believe. I don’t know if I do. There are serious problems.

For one thing, the fill lines in the bottles that they sent were inconsistent. One near the cap and one near the bottom of the neck. This and the crimps on the bottle caps lead me to believe that they are probably manually bottling the beers in their black label series. I hope that they will listen to me when I suggest improving their processes to eliminate inconsistency in packaging. As I checked the beers in on untappd people got in touch via twitter and facebook and email to tell me about their experiences with bottles that had been undercarbed or had gone wrong in some way. The focus needs to be on consistency if Trafalgar is going to claw back some reputation. People talk now more than ever.

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that you don’t exist in a vacuum. Using names that other people are already using just signals a basic lack of market research. Yes, it’s hard to come up with a new name, but it’s not so hard that it’s worth eventually getting sued over.

The upshot is this: Three of the beers that Trafalgar sent over (Wee Beastie, Schwartzy Xpresso, Stinger) would absolutely have been worthy of award consideration. In the right room on the right day in front of the right judges, they’d win. That’s a hell of an improvement and at some point in the near future they might think seriously about switching out a couple of LCBO skus with their black label stock. Once they get their processes squeaky clean, of course.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: Innocente & Collaboration Nation

I don’t brew collaboratively as much as I used to. I’ve been blogging about beer for five years this week and originally I was only doing it to get into brewing school. The focus on brewing was a great deal heavier at that point because I was trying to build a resume. The focus is less on brewing at this point, but the background is immensely helpful. You’d be amazed how many people write about beer without knowing how it works.

Truly, I love the creative part of brewing. I like the recipe development part a lot. The part I don’t like is the endless squeegeeing and line flushing and scrubbing and raking out mash tuns. 90% of brewing is custodial work. Don’t confuse “custodial” with “janitorial.” It requires caretaking and watchfulness. It requires meticulous planning. Believe it or not, one of my favorite parts is the bottle filling and washing. I like the repetitive rhythmic element. That beta wave mental twilight that comes with constant occupation. It’s not entirely like sifting through historical archives.

This year for the Session Beer Festival’s Collaboration Nation I’m working with Innocente Brewing in Waterloo, Ontario to combine those two elements. Depending on what we choose to name it, we may be brewing the most recursive beer in the history of the world.

See if you can follow this:

For the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, we’re brewing a Belgian-Style farmhouse ale inspired by the farmhouse (La Haye Sainte) on the battlefield at Waterloo, the namesake of the town of Waterloo, Ontario where the Innocente Brewery is located.

A Belgian Farmhouse. Did they actually make their own ale? Would the Oxford Companion lie to me?

A Belgian Farmhouse. Did they actually make their own ale? Would the Oxford Companion lie to me?

Waterloo is one of those decisive historical moments that could have gone either way. Napoleon, having escaped from Elba, had managed to rally a significant number of the French population to his cause. The amazing thing is that it might have been the only time in history that war was declared on a man rather than a country. Napoleon’s Army of the North faced the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian forces led by Blucher.

*frightened horse whinnies*

*frightened horse whinnies*

The feeling is that had Napoleon won at Waterloo, he would probably have been stopped by the Russians (who sent a quarter of a million men) or the Austrians or maybe the Spanish. He had something like 46,000 troops compared to the half a million the nations allied against him would have sent. It’s hard to say. Napoleon was a compelling presence. Maybe if he had beaten Wellington and Blucher, a significant number of French citizens would have joined up. Maybe we’d all be pausing between bites of croissant to take a drag off a Gauloises.

The point of the alliance against Napoleon really was about the wholesale destruction of his army and the removal of his capability ever to return. It was more or less a killing field with 65,000 killed, wounded or missing. The ground at Waterloo was churned to mud by a torrential downpour and cannon shot and blood. La Haye Sainte featured prominently early in the battle, housing sharpshooters in the form of the Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion. Thousands of men died trying to occupy it.

Napoleon thought of Wellington as a "Sepoy General" because of his time in India. I always thought that would be a good name for a one off IPA.

Napoleon thought of Wellington as a “Sepoy General” because of his time in India. I always thought that would be a good name for a one off IPA.

The previous week, it was just a Belgian farm with a rye crop that was nearly ready for harvest.

I started thinking about what I would make with the ingredients lying around. Clearly, it’d be some manner of Belgian Farmhouse Ale. It would need to have some rye in it because they had rye on hand. It’d be relatively low in alcohol. When I talked to Steve and Dave from Innocente, we thought it would be a good idea to bring in ingredients representing the allied forces. The hops are therefore English (Goldings and Fuggles) and Prussian (Marynka). We’ve used some wheat, some dark wheat and some Melanoidin. My feeling was that it was probably important that the beer be blood red. If the liquid we tested for gravity was any indication, we should be spot on. The yeast we’re using is Lallemand Belle Saison and it should go banana-y since we’re fermenting hot. I don’t know that the citrus-y Marynka would work with clove character. We used about 5 kg of organic Marynka for the hopback and it should come through bright and shiny.

Steve Innocente surprised me a little bit by opting for a water profile that he’s used for Northern German Pilsner. As you may know if you’ve followed Innocente since their inception, they wanted to make big hoppy beers to the exclusion of other styles. What I found yesterday on visiting the brewery was that their best beers are the ones displaying restraint. The Glance Rye Pale Ale is subtle and delicate and really very good indeed. The winner, however, was the Pilsner. Sinner uses an identical water profile to the one we’re using for the collaboration beer. It uses Cluster and Waimea in place of traditional German landrace hops and it manages to duplicate the effect and mouthfeel of something like Jever, but with a different flavour profile. It’s absolutely worth trying if you see it on tap. It’s a combination I’ve never seen and it works beautifully.

Essentially, what we think we’re looking at is a 5.0% blood red Belgian Farmhouse ale that will start with a citrus and pepper note from the hops and a mildly phenolic fruitiness from the yeast, backed up with earthy tones from the goldings and fuggles (possibly going herbal towards thyme in the middle) with enough pepper and spice from the rye to be noticeable without throwing it out of balance. The mouthfeel will be soft because of the water profile, but the bitterness will cut through on the finish. It’ll be a low final gravity, so the finish will be dry and quenching. On a hot summer day, it should be just the thing.

There is, I think, a pleasant contrast between the normal reality of La Haye Sainte and the bloody day two hundred years ago this June 18th. In extremis, mankind can bring the combined wealth and force of nations down on one man and his followers in an attempt to finally wipe them off the face of the earth. In regular circumstances, we would mostly like to tend to our fields and drink a refreshing pint of ale in the sun.

Blucher. 

Review: KBC Hops & The Grain Merchant

(Editor’s Note: The Kensington Brewing Company is the only company from which I have ever accepted money as a beer writer. They bought a banner ad when they launched their crowdfunding initiative. I don’t think the banner ad did much good and I felt bad enough about that to leave it up for a lot longer than was agreed. If you’d like to throw great flipping wodges of cash at me to have your banner ad installed on my blog, please feel free to get in touch. The cat needs to eat. Hell, so does the blogger.)

The Background

The Kensington Brewing Company has been around for a while at this point. For the most part they’ve existed as a contract brewery over at Wellington in Guelph. Owner Brock Shepherd has been thinking about this for a while. I remember climbing around in the disused bakery out back of the sadly short lived Burger Bar and having him point out where brewing equipment might go while attempting not to contract tetanus.

When Augusta Ale came out, brewed by Paul Dickey, the excitement was palpable. That was 2011 and there weren’t a lot of Paul Dickey beers around. If you were now to choose a contract brewed beer at random from a shelf in Ontario, you’d have something like a two in five chance of drinking something he either designed or stewarded the design of. That’s not a criticism of the man, incidentally. If anything it’s a testament to his unique skillset that he is so much in demand.

The difficulty with being a contract brewer is that most of them are in it for a quick buck and are more interested in marketing than ever brewing a beer. “How do we cash in on the trend?” they ask me, having invited me out to talk about it over a few pints. “Ha, ha!” I laugh, sensing that there is no money in this situation and fob them off for an hour or so with vague generalities until they go away. I don’t like Carpetbaggers.

Kensington aren’t carpetbaggers. They became a contract brewery to help them become a real brewery. They’ve been constructing a brewery at 299 Augusta Avenue for what seems like eons to me and must seem even longer to them. The running joke with Michael Gurr, their factotum and general nice guy, is as follows:

“Hey Mike, when’s the brewery due to open?”

“Fall of 2014.”

We have fun, don’t we?

Things are looking up. The brewery construction seems to be clipping along at a decent rate (it no longer exists solely in AutoCAD) and they may actually have something open this year. The Watermelon Wheat beer, a passable summer patio choice is going to be in the LCBO this summer. They have also had a few legitimately impressive one offs of late. Their Home Grown Porter was the kind of core of the style exemplar of a Robust Porter that signalled some growth as a company. Hopefully they’ll revisit it when they get a roof installed.

The BeerP1040008

Hops & The Grain Merchant is billed as a Cascadian Rye Ale. I guess that that’s like being a Cascadian Dark Ale but with Rye. At 6% and 50 IBU, it sounds like it ought to be a fairly substantial beer, but the impression that it leaves is lighter than that. The Reddish-Brown body accents ruby in sunlight. The head recedes relatively quickly, but I’m willing to put that down to packaging. They’re using a standard 341ml bottle here with what looks like an Avery 6879 Envelope Label and an obviously hand bombed metal cap. Due to the length of the review queue, this beer has been sitting in my fridge for a while. Reviewing it probably doesn’t help them at all at this point. Some days the bear eats you.P1040009

In truth, this is actually pretty impressive. The aroma doesn’t seem to have faded at all and there’s a large splash of spritzy grapefruit at the beginning and that’s reinforced by the pepperiness of the rye. Most of the time, you’d assume that a beer like this would have more dark malt notes to capitalize on the “Cascadian” aspect, but this doesn’t do anything that simple. As it warms up, you get caramel, but it seems like whatever crystal malt and rye is here is doing the heavy lifting. After a malt peak in the mid-palate there’s a cedar shake with some peppermint and thyme reinforced by the rye spice. The finish somehow manages to be short but juicy, leaving a sort of mouth-watering salivary response. I don’t see that quality often.

This actually does one of the things I look for in a high quality beer: It has the same progression of flavours on every sip. It doesn’t dull or recede. A great beer can vary from sip to sip and moment to moment. A very good beer has to do the same thing all the time.

Hopefully Kensington will open soon and hopefully this will be on the tap list when it does.

Review: Muskoka Moonlight Kettle Summer Saison

The Background

Muskoka’s been going great guns of late. When you think about the amount of reach that their brewery now has, it’s impressive considering where they were just a few years ago. Here’s a picture of their branding from when I started writing about beer in May of 2010. In point of fact, the first beer event I ever got invited to was probably the launch for their Light Pilsner. They replaced that beer with other things, correctly sensing the mood of the market.CIMG0594

They’re on shelves across most of the country now, and Mad Tom and Detour seem to be the brands leading the charge. I’m given to understand that they projected brewing 15,000 HL of Detour last year, and I’d bet they surpassed that. That beer, by itself, accounts for more volume than the majority of craft breweries in the province of Ontario. This was made possible by a brewery expansion in 2013-2014.

When a brewery rebrands this quickly, there are growing pains. The universally lauded Spring Oddity has made its way to the Great Egress, but given its name I could see it returning. The Winter Beard may not have moved with the speed you’d assume, given the cellar aged versions we saw on shelves the subsequent year (although that could have been an attempt at educating the public.) The Dark Ale, a sort of throwback to 90’s era Ontario is gone now, and I confess to missing it a lot.

On the bright side, the Summer Weiss has gone through packaging variations and I’m pleased to see that it has settled in a standard 473ml can rather than a 750ml corked and caged bottle. That wasn’t a good format for that beer. Also, and this is baffling to me, I have talked to beer reps from America a lot recently and they all really like the Twice As Mad Tom. Three separate companies of various size. Same praise.

I like the fact that they are now delivering beer to people’s docks. That’s a fun idea, although in order for it to benefit me, they’re going to need to go all Fifth Element on it and bring it to my balcony.0HTRK

The Beer(s)

Moonlight Kettle Summer Saison is the first beer in a series of exploratory beers. I am in favour of Muskoka trying to vary their portfolio a little because while the core brands are moving, you’ve got to keep the brewers engaged. Oddly, this is not the first such attempt. They briefly had a “Rough Cut” series with beers that would switch out in the Survival 12 pack. Making people buy 9 established bottles to get 3 new bottles is a risky strategy. As long as you have time to run the product through R&D in order to make sure the quality is there, a monthly innovation is a great idea. You create engagement with the audience and if you play the social media aspect right, you get people excited about the core brands and grow everything.

I don’t know about the marketing pitch:

“A midnight visit to our brewery unearthed a secret – late at night our brewers rendezvous in the brewhouse to develop untamed brews that haven’t been shared, until now. Created under the mystery and intrigue of a full moon, our Moonlight Kettle Series showcases a select few of these top-secret brews. Each Moonlight Kettle beer has been hand crafted in unique ways, with our solemn promise to never brew the same beer twice.”

Seems to me the entire point is to develop additional product. Promising to create artificial scarcity is silly. Also, I know a bunch of brewers. If they are at the brewery at midnight, something has gone terribly wrong. Ah, well. Romance! Adventure! Marketing!Moonlight-Kettle-Bottle

The Summer Saison is the first of these products on offer and it’s a touch odd given the context in which it exists. For the most part in Ontario, the Saisons that we’ve gotten have been from Dupont. The Vieille Provision is frequently held up as the standard and for good reason. It has influenced a lot of local brewers and I believe Dupont’s yeast strain is kicking around in Ontario at the moment. It ferments hot and attenuates well. Muskoka’s Summer Saison doesn’t seem to be trying to emulate that, which is sort of an odd choice in a market where consumers have come to expect that dry, peppery character connoted by the name of the style.

As I’m nosing it, the first thing I get is a big iron world of blood and copper. As the foam recedes so too does that brazen metallic character and I’m left with overpowering phenolics in allspice and clove. There is honey and bready malt, but mostly there is sweetness. The label promises Tropical Fruit, but I am not getting much more than a small hint of what might be passion fruit and I am thinking to myself that the finish is too sweet. This should be 7.8% instead of 7.3%. It’s out of balance in the direction of the phenolics which are only exacerbated by the apparent addition of Grains of Paradise. For something that markets itself as a Summer Saison, it misses the implied connotation of refreshment completely.

It reminds me of the Belgian Tripels that Cedric Dauchot is brewing out at Townsite. They were also big and phenolic and sweet, but with a little more restraint. Dauchot trained at Silly, so I assume that’s an influence here. There are, naturally, Saisons other than Dupont and I don’t claim to have been exposed to many of them, but I do not think it is context that is letting me down. Two days before I tried this I tried the competition it will be facing in the form of Boulevard’s Tank 7 and Brooklyn’s Sorachi Ace.

There are the bones of something worthwhile here, but it’s not a summer project. This is a rare miss from Muskoka and I’m glad to see that. It means that they’re actually taking risks with their monthly development program. This should be about the R&D process and that means that sometimes it’s not going to work.