St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Review and Food Pairing: Black Oak Epiphany No. 2

The Background

Black Oak started in the last days of 1999, initially launching with a Pale Ale, a Nut Brown Ale and a Premium Lager. I know that sounds weird. By all accounts the Lager nearly killed them. It was the least well received of the beers and it was retired in 2003. It is not as though Black Oak has not made a lager since then. They make their Oaktoberfest Lager every year.

Having worked the very occasional shift on their bottling line over the years, I can tell you that making a lager would have been a difficult proposition. While the amount of fermentation volume has increased over the last five years, the amount of conditioning that you’re looking at in order to make a proper lager might cause backlogs with the main products, which is probably why it’s not done all that frequently.

A word about Black Oak’s staffing: It’s hard to think of a character more beloved than Ken Woods in beer in Ontario. Everyone has a story about the time he let them borrow some equipment or helped them out of a jam. That said, I believe him to be the only member of staff that has been around since the beginning. The rest of the roster has changed around over the years.

The current group is a great fit and with John Hodd brewing and Erica Campbell manning the hashtags and interwebs, we’re really seeing Black Oak live up to its potential. They’ve switched out to 650ml bottles for the LCBO, which means that the seasonals get shelf space. They’re also being sold at a price point that’s impossible to argue with. That’s key to an Ontario business model at this point.

When you’ve got talented people around and product is moving, you can branch out and do more interesting things. The Epiphany Series has resulted so far in two beers, the first of which, a Cherry Wood Aged Belgian Strong Ale (I’m not saying Quad. You can’t make me say Quad.) was a real shock coming out of Black Oak. Releases like Love Fuzz and Nox Aeterna are a far cry from the days when we’d get a cask of Saison with Marmalade (not that there was anything wrong with that).

Black Oak is currently the best it has ever been and any missteps, most of which would be small issues with balance, may be put down to growing pains.

The BeerBeer Photography 048

Black Oak Epiphany No. 2 is billing itself as an Imperial Pilsner. In the 650ml bottle, it’ll set you back $8.95 at a nearby LCBO location. You’ll want to use Drinkvine to find it since the ‘BO website is currently borked.

As a style choice, it’s a little odd. We haven’t had much in the way of Imperial Pilsner in Ontario. I suppose this is the influence of Jack’s Abby out of Framingham, Mass. I like the idea of mixing Pilsner styles with some of the newer hop varieties that are out there. There’s the potential for finding combinations that work really well and we’re beginning to see some experimentation in the province.

The most important thing with a strong lager is conditioning and this has apparently been given 45 days in total. Six weeks is significant, and it helps ensure there aren’t any technical flaws like DMS or Diacetyl. Epiphany No. 2 has good head retention, although I feel like the dry hopping may have slightly foxed the clarity. In the case of Epiphany No. 2, the dry hopping incorporates Comet, Wakatu and Saaz.Beer Photography 054

The result is a fairly complex beer. There’s a slight pear ester from the lager yeast and aromas are pepper, peach, apricot, and sourdough bread with a sense of very slightly hot alcohol smack dab in the middle. The breadiness continues on the palate, but the interesting thing is that it manages the same progression of flavours on each sip. Sourdough up front with a bloom of pepper on the swallow. As it warms up you get a dankness from the hops and a sort of lime cordial character that continues to work with the other flavours in the mid palate.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

It’s probably too good to give it a silly rating. Instead:

Food Pairing

How do you approach pairing something like this? Well, there aren’t a lot of places in the world where they serve Strong Lager. You probably need to take Germany and Scandinavian food culture into account. That said, you’ve also got Comet and Wakatu hops. Comet is apparently where the dimebag dankness is coming from, being an American landrace blend. Wakatu is a Hallertau Mittelfruh cross from New Zealand and exaggerates the lime character of the mother variety.

What this means is that you’re free to play around because these are flavour profiles that don’t really exist in Germany. Although the accent is different, let’s attempt to keep the bones of a pairing from that Swabian/Bavarian food culture. Let’s make it pork.

I’d like to see this with Pork Tonkatsu or Katsudon. The claim is that this was invented in Japan in 1899, but I’d bet you that just as the German beer styles influenced Japan in its early years, so did the cuisine. Tonkatsu is basically schnitzel, but the sweet, fruity sauce would pull at the beer in interesting ways and the salt and crunch just make for good beer food. In a Katsudon, I feel like the Mirin would tug at the slight alcohol heat and while the slightly creamy egginess seems odd, it’s not very different from a Jagerschnitzel sauce. Actually, I’d like to see what an Izakaya like Guu would make of this beer.

My first choice, googling while I polished off the bottle, would have actually been this Pork Tenderloin with Tomato-Peach compote. Tomato is always referred to as difficult to pair with beer, but I feel like the peach would create a complimentary bridge and that the curry dry rub and thyme might bring some of the myrcene heavy Hallertau parentage out of the Wakatu and reinforce the Saaz.

Review: Innis & Gunn White Oak Wheat Beer

The Background

I have a pretty good working relationship with Innis & Gunn, which is odd because I only like their beer about 50% of the time and I’m honest about that publicly. I think that oak treatments work well with some styles of beer and not with others. The results are therefore going to depend as much on the concept of the beer being attempted as they are on anything else. Of course you can barrel age a Porter or Stout; so many people are doing that that the price of used barrels has increased steadily from a point in the not too distant past where they would probably have paid you to haul them away.

I think that one of the best things Innis & Gunn has done in the last few years is to switch out from aging their beer in barrels to doing it with an “Oakerator” which is sort of like a dry hopping torpedo, but with oak chips. The main thing that you’ve got to realize is that Innis & Gunn are quite large at this point. They’re larger than any Ontario brewer other than Brick. That gives you some picture of their success, especially when you realize that it’s not a beer anyone is looking to drink a case of. When you make that much beer, you need the ability to ensure uniform quality and the Oakerator is a step up from blending different casks together. The Original has improved vastly as a result and the cans and brown bottles are also helping.P1030968

The Beer

Innis & Gunn White Oak Wheat Beer is not actually available in Ontario until July. Alberta has got it this summer and it seems to be selling quite well out there. Personally, I think it’s a bit of an odd duck.

When you think about barrel aging beer, it’s usually dark. In the case that you’re making a kind of barrel aged farmhouse beer like a Saison or a Wild Ale, you’re probably using a wine barrel for that. You’ll note that those styles are both Belgian influenced. This beer purports to be a KristallWeizen, a sort of filtered German Wheat Beer. Normally, that kind of beer comes out to 5.0% or so, but in this case it’s 6.4%. It has apparently been fermented at a warmer temperature than usual to bring out the phenolic character, which I suppose is detectable here as a spicy character in the background. They have then added dried bergamot and blood orange to make it reminiscent of Earl Grey Tea. Then it hits the Oakerator.P1030972

On opening the aroma is a little bit like a barrel aged version of Mill Street’s Lemon Tea Beer. The bergamot is immediately noticeable, but that recedes as it warms in the glass. It seems to pull tannin from the oak, but the mnemonic association with Earl Grey Tea may actually be the thing doing that for my palate. I would want a second opinion. As it warms the blood orange comes through practically as a curacao peel giving the sweet body just a hint of that candied Cointreau feel, which is redeemed by a short sharp bitterness. The Oak lingers around the edges.

This beer is working against itself. It’s meant to be a summer seasonal. The timing of the release and the summer seasonal program dictate that. The character really only reveals itself as it warms, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based On Various Criteria

Today, in keeping with the deeply Scottish nature of the brewery, we’ll be using as a judging implement the operations manual of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It is a scale which operates very simply on a binary scale from Innis to Gunn. Notably, it runs from “Oi, Lads, shall we get a couple pints of this in us or shall we fire it from a gun?”

The beer survives by a narrow margin.

I think that this is probably best suited to being an after dinner digestif if you’re barbequing on a cool summer evening. I feel like it’s probably too strong and too complex to be drunk as a refresher in hot weather, but it’s pleasant in its way. I wonder if it might have been a better beer without the barrel, but then it wouldn’t be an Innis & Gunn product. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Innis & Gunn gotta throw a barrel at it.

Bru-V: Science and Sam Adams

Lab Report #1

By

Jordan St. John – Grade 7 (held back)

 

Question:

Given the tendency of beer brewed with a significant quantity of hops to undergo changes to its chemical nature in direct sunlight, there has recently been introduced to the market a line of glassware that claims to prevent this transformation.

The chemical change is the result of ultra violet rays affecting the iso-alpha-acids in beer and converting them to a compound called 3-methyl-but-2-ene-1-thiol (and commonly referred to as prenythiol). This results in a detectable aromatic compound which is frequently referred to in polite circles as “Light Struck.” In impolite circles, people are likely to refer to you as a “pie-r square” and make unflattering comments about your radius.

Bru-V glassware is fashioned of hand-blown brown glass which boasts natural properties preventing this occurrence. It is an established fact that brown glass bottles have become the industry standard in North America partially because of their ability to render light struck character a non-issue.

The question, as it pertains to brown glassware being able to prevent lightstruck reaction may be cogently condensed as follows:

Is this a whole bunch of bullshit or what?

Hypothesis:

If Bru-V’s claim to prevent skunking is correct, then we should be able to prove it in a formal testing setting. This will require the rental of a cummerbund.

Independent Variable:

Given that the lightstruck reaction occurs primarily with clear and green glass, it makes sense that the independent variable for this experiment should be the glassware that beer is poured into. As a control for the experiment the same beer will be poured into each glass. Today, that beer has been supplied by Sam Adams: Rebel IPA. It is important that the beer, as a control variable contain real hops and not hop oils which are impervious to lightstruck character.

Dependent Variable:  

The lightstruck effect observable in beer should depend wholly upon the character of the glassware utilized in our experiment.

Materials:

-One Sam Adams Branded Speed Opening Church-KeyP1030960

-Two Bottles Sam Adams Rebel IPA: Date Coded December 2014. A 6.5% 45 IBU West Coast IPA.P1030955

-One Branded Sam Adams Glass (Clear) Subsequently Referred To As Sample AP1030956

-One Bru-V Branded Glass (Brown) Subsequently Referred To As Sample BP1030957

-One Certified Cicerone (Scruffy)

-One HTC Android based Stop Watch

-One Conveniently Located Fusion Reactor Emitting Ultra Violet LightP1030962

Procedures:

Both glasses will be set in the sun at approximately 1:05 PM on a patio with no significant light obstruction. Over a period of 30 minutes, beer in each of the glasses will be evaluated using olfactory sensation at set intervals. This period of duration has been suggested by Dr. Chris Schryer of the Castro Institute For Cask Ale Consumption and his attitude is recorded as follows (sic): “If it takes you more than half an hour to drink a beer, you’ve got more problems than lightstruck beer.” Conditions note a Moderate UV index on a spring day at approximately 21 degrees Celsius. It is, colloquially speaking, T-Shirt weather.

Observations:

At the instance of pouring, both Samples display good head retention. The Sam Adams Rebel IPA is clearly a well-made product. This is irrelevant to the scientific method in this instance.P1030958

At five minutes into the process Sample A has noticeably developed an off flavour. There is no reason that such a change should not develop instantaneously. Sample B experiences no such transformation. The malt character seems to overbalance the hops in Sample B.

At fifteen minutes, Sample A’s lightstruck nature has receded somewhat in terms of aroma. Sample B has issues with hop balance, but experiences no negative effects.P1030959

At thirty minutes, Sample A is an undrinkable trainwreck and is poured unceremoniously into the garden as a thirsty contractor installing cable on the side of the building nearby looks on angrily. Sample B is humanely disposed of by a Certified Cicerone. He observes that Sam Adams Rebel IPA is trying really hard to be too many things and that the Latitude 48 was a more distinctive product. He fruitlessly cautions a billionaire who he refers to primarily as “Jimbo” that trying to emulate things other people do isn’t going to win you the hearts and minds of the audience. He is summarily ignored, but he feels better for venting.

Results:

While Sample A did nothing to prevent the control beer from skunking, Sample B managed to prevent the reaction for a period of half an hour.

Analysis:

Interestingly, the criticism most frequently levelled at the Bru-V glassware has to do with the fact that the top is wide open and that light will still effect the beer on a patio because some degree of surface area is exposed. When you compare the cylindrical volume of Glassware Sample A to the Bru-V Glassware, it’s clear that a wholly transparent vessel of clear or green glass has exponentially more surface area than the few square inches at the top of the Sample B which are directly exposed. I suspect that a well made beer with adequate head retention would obviate even that fractionally vulnerable surface.P1030963

The only other difficulty worth mentioning is that the brown glassware tends to take away from the visual excitement of a well poured beer. That is a qualitative observation relating to personal preference and we here in Grade 7 deal only with the quantitative. In practice, it’s a matter of personal choice: pretty and skunky or obscure and correct.

Conclusion:

Call me Susan and slap my daddy, the damned thing works.

Sierra Nevada Mills River

IMAG1080“Wait’ll you see this bridge. They spent a million dollars on it.”

The van is passing through the North Carolina landscape just west of Mills River. It’s some of the greenest country I’ve ever seen, and for good reason. The rainfall in this part of the Appalachians is enough to have turned the landscape into verdant forest as far as the eye can see. In Toronto, we’re just starting to get buds on trees and the change is welcome. I’ve been flown in by Sierra Nevada’s Ontario importer, Von Terra, to have a look at their east coast operation.

Just beyond a field occupied by a tarnished copper kettle, the bridge seems to hie out from nowhere. It curves gently left and straddles a rill whose stream is barely a hand’s breadth across. The explanation given is that Ken Grossman didn’t want to disturb the landscape any more than was necessary, but I suspect that it goes further than that. The bridge continues the copper accents from the disused kettle and seems to encapsulate two thematic elements that the tour drives home: sustainability and mastery of design.

It was extraordinarily difficult not to make more than two Wonka references.

It was extraordinarily difficult not to make more than two Wonka references.

The brewery is enormous. Sierra Nevada’s North Carolina venture is operating at 500,000 BBL when we arrive in late April and despite being barely a year old, they’re ready to nearly double that production already. The campus is 218 acres, although only 100 of them are currently in use.

It’s not often you’ll hear me talk about a brewery parking lot, but in this case it’s worthwhile. The land occupied by the brewery and infrastructure was only recently part of the forest surrounding it. The trees were hand felled and dried in order to provide the wood for the building and is displayed prominently as slats or joists or cabinetry. They’ve been replaced by solar panelled metal trees which provide a significant amount of energy for the running of day to day operations. The wastewater from brewing is treated and the methane produced in treatment is converted to power onsite through micro-turbines. Much of the water for use in a non-brewing capacity is sourced from rainwater collected through filtration beds under the paving stones in the parking lot.

For the majority of us, even in the face of reports of climate change, sustainable living remains one of those issues of which we’re broadly in support without much possible daily action. For Sierra Nevada, sustainability must weigh heavily. The Chico plant is said to produce between 800,000 and 1.2 million barrels of beer annually, but it’s hard to say what will happen to that volume in the near future. California is currently going through the worst drought since Mulholland built the L.A. Aqueduct. The water in Chico is the result of snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas and the snowpack is sparse at the moment. California is said to have a year of water left, and while that may be exaggerated somewhat by media sensationalism, it would be terrifying as a brewer to know that your most crucial ingredient has flashed off into the atmosphere and that every sunrise brings you closer to ruin.

The North Carolina plant is in many ways the product of a lifetime of lessons learned from production bottlenecks and broken glycol chillers. It seems, walking through it, as if each process flaw or malfunctioning piece of equipment that Sierra Nevada’s brewing team has encountered during their careers was noted and done away with. When you build your first brewery, you’re almost certainly going to be operating out of a building that you didn’t design. You will have had to make changes based on the space that’s available because your budget simply won’t allow you to re-engineer a wall or a roof. You make do and that means you make mistakes.

The linearity of design is reinforced by the length of the hallway. The other end is more than a football field away.

The linearity of design is reinforced by the length of the hallway. The other end is more than a football field away.

At brewing school we were assigned an exercise to design a brewery from scratch. Even on paper, it’s a difficult operation, but the key issue is linearity: The brewing processes should be designed to move from start to finish with a minimum amount of effort expended. In a small brewery that’ll save you hours of backbreaking labour. In a brewery of this scale, design will make or break the business.

I'm sure that there is a technical diagram that explains all of this. Looking at it would also require advil.

I’m sure that there is a technical diagram that explains all of this. Looking at it would also require advil.

I can’t begin to explain the complexities of the water treatment plant, except to suggest that steps are taken wherever possible to prevent waste. The room is reminiscent of an Escher drawing and looking up through the pipes causes a mild sense of vertigo. What I can tell you is that malt delivery is handled by rail car. The rig that’s currently hooked up to the pneumatic storage system is capable of carrying 55,000 pounds of malt and that’s only a quarter of the volume that a rail car carries. The storage silos outside the brewery hold 80,000 pounds each or about 8-10 standard brews. The specialty malt room comes with your standard pallets of 55 pound bags, but also 1000 pound super sacs that require special equipment to lift.IMAG1093

Sierra Nevada is currently the largest purchaser of whole cone hops in the world and the aroma from the hop room manages to waft down the hall even through a sealed, temperature controlled door. It’s an odd sensation standing in front of a bale of lemon pithy Azzaca and realizing that I don’t know why you’d use whole cones rather than pelletized hops. Is there some subtlety in the bract that doesn’t transfer through the pelletizing process? I suspect that it simply worked in the early days of the brewery and no one wants to mess with a good thing. I leave the room dusting lupulin from my palms.

There's something about an entire bale of hops that elicits a giddy thrill.

There’s something about an entire bale of hops that elicits a giddy thrill.

The malt mill will process 20,000 pounds of grain an hour (it takes about 25 minutes a brew) and is one of a handful of such devices in North America that will hydrate the grain as it mills, cutting down on dust and jumpstarting the mashing process. The Brewhouse is laid out counterclockwise: Mash Tun, Holding Tank, Lauter Tun, Kettle, Whirlpool. The equipment is largely repurposed Huppman and the room is designed for maximum effect. The kettles gleam in the sunlight and despite the fact that it’s a working brewery there’s a tremendous sense of equanimity. It’s the kind of calm you get knowing that everything is, and will continue to, go to plan. The floors are non-porous basalt which prevent yeast and bacteria from getting in. The ceilings are wooden joists bound by copper that will expand and contract with them over the coming years.IMAG1105

It’s at the point when we enter the cellar that my brain ceases to grasp the scale of the operation. There are 800 and 1600 barrel fermenters and we’re beneath them. The conical bottoms look approximately like the nose cone of a rocket. I’m told that the floor under the cellar is 68 inches of reinforced concrete, although the tanks themselves sit on a floating concrete foundation that will prevent catastrophe in the event of an earthquake. Despite an intrinsic trust in the engineering capability of all involved, there’s a niggling horror that claws at the back of your mind if you begin to think about how much a full tank must weigh and you find yourself standing directly under it.IMAG1113

The sense of scale returns when I see the octopus. Named for the number of arms it possesses, the dry hopping station runs from a tank of Torpedo Extra IPA to four identical torpedoes. The torpedo is a cylindrical vessel about the size of a grown man. The brewers noticed that dry hopping beer by inserting a sachet of hops resulted in an imperfect utilization of the hops. The ones at the center of the sachet would emerge at the end of the process completely dry. The Torpedo solves this problem by inserting a spear at the center of the cylinder which diffuses beer throughout all of the hops being used. It reduces waste and results in a better product with more predictable results. The rate of flow is 40 gallons a minute through four torpedoes or 75 barrels an hour. The beer is fairly singing down the lines through the octopus with an almost imperceptible thrum.IMAG1108

At lunch, there’s a comfortable give and take at the table. Our visit coincides with the arrival of a number of members of Sierra Nevada’s east coast sales force. There’s David Strickland and John Flavin from New England and Tommy Gannon from Philadelphia. Steve Margetts, in charge of Sales Development has flown in from California as has Steve Grossman, Ken’s elder brother and defacto Beer Ambassador for the company. It doesn’t feel much like a conference. It’s a little more like a table at a high school cafeteria and the guys are busting chops like rowdy teenagers.IMAG1125

Gannon has ordered The Glutton off the menu for the table and it’s the kind of thing that can only exist in a brewery taproom. Deep fried chicken thigh, bacon, cheese and malt salt and maple porter sauce on a maple donut: sheer heart attack. Strickland’s telling stories about the time he ditched on his moped and the Boston accent comes through on “but I was smaht. I got my ahms up and protected my head.” Steve Grossman’s effortlessly cool and taking it all in. The guys call him “Scoop” and it’s easy to see why. He asks small but important questions throughout the time we spend with him. “What size are the glasses?” he has asked several times, seemingly not out of preference for a desired answer but just for the information.

The Glutton: Making The Whopper look like a sensible alternative since 2014.

The Glutton: Making The Whopper look like a sensible alternative since 2014.

I think I’m right in saying that Flavin and Gannon were the sixth and seventh hires to the Sierra Nevada sales force. It’s clear that sustainability extends beyond the physical structure.

A brewery is the people who man it and maybe that’s the defining factor here. The North Carolina plant reflects the culminative institutional knowledge and capability of Sierra Nevada from its outset in 1980 to the present day. Every lesson learned and every misstep has clearly gone into the plant and as a result, it’s a masterwork.IMAG1107

It’s difficult from up in Canada to make sense of the Craft Beer scene in the U.S. because so much of it is tied up in pointless nomenclature about what is and what is not “craft”. I’m going to put that debate by for a moment. What’s being achieved is so much more than that frivolous debate. This is a bi-coastal manufacturing concern making a world class product which is being exported to other countries. This is the result of ingenuity and of design. They have scaled up without compromising on quality and they’ve done it in the form of an almost entirely sustainable brewery that will act as a model to an entire industry. It’s a beacon of hope for the future of American manufacturing at a time when hope is necessary.

It’s getting towards flight time and we’re standing in the terminal at the Asheville Airport, getting in that one last and wholly unnecessary beer before the flight is ready to board. We’re talking about malt balance while heads begin to swivel towards the news report on the television. The drought in California continues. There are some variables you just can’t design around.

Review and Food Pairing: St.Ambroise Erable

The Background

St.Ambroise sold a couple of years back to Brasseurs RJ and the quality has kept up. Originally helmed by Peter McAuslan and Ellen Bounsall, the beers have been and continue to be largely English in their influence. While we tend to see a lot of Belgian influence in some of the newer breweries in Quebec, there was a period fairly early on in the craft beer renaissance when a lot of the styles were English. They seem to be one of the first Quebec craft breweries to have realized that they can put their beer in cans in that market and it’s a real strength for them. In Ontario, where the can is rapidly becoming king, it just means that they can compete on an even playing field.

P1030947

You can tell it’s Maple because of the Maple Leaf. This is also how we know that Canada is Maple flavoured.

St.Ambroise continues to expand their product list. They’ve come out with an IPA and a double IPA and most recently a Session IPA (because if you don’t do that, the beer police will come in the night.) Their fruit beers are complex and interesting and their Russian Imperial Stout and Vintage Ales continue to do them proud. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for consistency. While some of their beers are probably not to everyone’s taste, they’re very representative of the brewery’s character over the long term.

The Beer

St.Ambroise, despite their well-deserved reputation for quality, were apparently apprehensive about releasing this beer to market. This is odd as the person who wanted them to brew it was larger than life bon vivant Martin Picard of Au Pied du Cochon and Cabane Sucre fame. When you think about it, a maple beer is ideal for his winter Sugar Shack. Also, I figure it’d be hard to say no to a guy that large and friendly.

I’ll be honest. There aren’t a lot of maple beers that I like. I’m not sure that I’d drink more than a couple of the St-Ambroise Maple in a year, although I’ll gladly recommend it and I’ll tell you why: Subtlety.

At a recent tasting I had a sip of a Maple beer from Flying Monkeys called Acadian Groove that was all that was maple. They might end up chugging it in Super Troopers 2. It replicated perfectly the effect of syrup and if you had poured it on your pancakes I am not convinced that you would have been able to tell the difference. Maple requires a deft hand because it can so easily overpower the beer or get fermented almost entirely out of the beer if added at the wrong point in the brew. If you want to go extreme on it, you can easily do so, but I’ll ask that you time it for Shrove Tuesday.P1030953

Erable manages to balance the sweetness of the maple syrup by bridging it to the crystal malt in the beer and then letting the Willamette hops scrub the palate a little. It’s a good choice because they’re earthy and peppery. You can’t use a hop that resembles coniferous flavours in a deciduous beer. It makes no sense. There’s still a lingering cloud of retronasal maple at the finish, but it’s quite reasonable compared to shotgunning a can of Canada no. 1 Extra Light.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Not today. Instead we’re doing:

Food Pairing

Barry Pletch, McAuslan’s Ontario representative, asked me what I would pair with the Maple Beer. I’m a Cicerone, so I ought to know what to do with it, but it sort of sat at the back of my mind taunting me for a couple of days.

The obvious choice here is to stare at Martin Picard’s menu and steal something beautiful. Let’s do that for a second by clicking here. I think that the sweetness needs something to offset it. A lot of the stuff on the menu is going to be rich and fatty Quebecois fare of the type that sticks to your ribs. I’d be tempted to go with the Blue Cheese, Apple and Endive salad if only because the salt and funk of the blue cheese would treat the maple like a dessert flavour while the bitter Endive freshens between bites. Otherwise, there’s the Duck Magret in mushroom sauce which would be rich enough to stand up to the beer if not stop it in its tracks. Rich, earthy, but you’re probably working to the hop profile at the expense of the maple.

Then I had a less obvious thought.

You know when you’re walking along the street and suddenly you smell maple? That used to happen in another life when I worked over at Don Mills and Eglinton near a spice processing factory. It turns out that’s because when they processed fenugreek, you’d get this odd maple aroma floating through the air. If you eat enough fenugreek leaves, you’ll actually begin to smell like maple. This is down to a chemical called Sotolon.

Fenugreek is pretty exotic and tends to be used in Armenia, Iran and bits and pieces of North Africa and India. That’s why I’m switching from Martin Picard to a different Canadian chef, Vikram Vij. This recipe for Marinated Lamb Chops with Fenugreek Cream Curry looks to me like it would bridge the gap nicely by making the maple the communal flavour element between the beer and the dish. Both food and drink should have enough other stuff going to be able to pull in separate directions without breaking apart.

Warning: your coworkers might refer to you as Pancake Jimmy for a few days.

Review: Local Leaside

“You know, Andy, when I was your age…” was the way that I’d started the sentence, and I immediately wished that I hadn’t. There’s nothing to make you feel old like having to explain your context to your younger brother. Before Andy was born, I was given my first cellphone just in case everyone had to head to North York General on short notice. It was a Motorola flip phone that would not only ruin the line of your jacket but rip right through the fabric.

We’re sitting in Local Leaside which has inhabited, after vast and obviously costly renovation, the bones of a CIBC branch two blocks from the house I lived in as a teenager. On the longer arc of Leaside history, I can tell you that my maternal Grandparents, Sid and Evelyn, used to bank in that branch. To give you some idea of how long ago that was, I can tell you that their account number was 123. Identity theft is, sadly, unlikely at this point.

At some point, the lounge on the second floor would have been a Manager's office. I can't help but wonder what Sid and Ev would have made of it.

At some point, the lounge on the second floor would have been a Manager’s office. I can’t help but wonder what Sid and Ev would have made of it.

Local Leaside is the most recent development in an area that has rapidly changed over the years. When I was 16 the buildings that mostly dotted the landscape were disused industrial plants like Canada Wire. Leaside was one of the first planned communities in Canada, existing from a period before we developed tract housing like Don Mills. The first and second generations of residents are almost all gone now and young families lucky enough to be able to afford the mortgages are settling in.

Leaside has begun to play to their strengths. It currently boasts a showpiece of a Longo’s in a repurposed rail depot that has its own Corks beer and wine bar. It has one of the best LCBOs in the province and a new Beer Store. The Amsterdam Brewery is just down the street. Big Box stores dot the landscape with an amount of parking that once seemed optimistic to say the least. When I was 16, all we had was a Great Canadian Bagel.

Andy and Emma. Dad (not pictured) sits to the left and ensures that shenanigans are kept to a minimum.

Andy and Emma. Dad (not pictured) sits to the left and ensures that shenanigans are kept to a minimum.

I’d brought Andy and Emma along with Dad to see Local Leaside. They’ve been watching the renovations take place for months, so it seemed like a fun idea to get them in during the soft launch to get a sense of the place. I had been to Local Liberty Village when it opened and it seemed like a family friendly establishment. I also had the suspicion that the kids wouldn’t pull any punches. Andy already writes a coming attractions column for his school paper and Emma is whip smart to begin with.

Pausing briefly to chat with my third grade teacher, who I recognize at a two top near the bar (if I wasn’t already feeling old, that would have clinched it) we choose a padded banquette set up opposite the bar. By the time I catch up with the kids they’re sipping on ice tea and coke respectively. Andy’s observation “this is like a more rustic Urban Tavern” immediately raises one of the neighbourhood questions. How will Local, a transplant from Vancouver, compete against the local chain? Both have craft beer on tap and aim for an upscale pub experience. Emma, the more musically inclined of the two seems to give us the answer moments later: It’s the vibe the place provides. She happily sings along to Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” coming over the stereo.

Local has set up a station for Caesars, replete with pickled green beans. The amount of retrofit that went into the building must have cost millions.

Local has set up a station for Caesars, replete with pickled green beans. The amount of retrofit that went into the building must have cost millions.

The house made Guacamole disappears almost as soon as it hits the table, but it takes a little prodding to get the kids to try the Tuna Poke. It’s light and refreshing and reflects the west coast menu that Local has transplanted to Toronto. The citrus brightens the Avocado and the sesame adds texture. Dad and I get through small glasses of Beau’s Tom Green Milk Stout and Left Field’s Maris*. No fewer than five servers have been to the table in the 15 minutes since we sat down and Calamari has appeared from nowhere. The breading, if I remember from the Liberty Village Launch, contains Szechuan peppercorns and there’s a small, fiery zip to them.

Emma remarks on the service: “Jordan, why are they being so nice to you?” Dad laughs. It’s a good question, and it forces me to explain what I do for a living; that this is a soft launch and the restaurant has more staff than usual and that everyone is on their best behaviour. “So they invite you to come and eat and drink for free?” I nod. “And they expect you to write about it?”

The tap selection leans towards craft, both gateway and trending. As a side note, I should point out that it's hard to take proper advantage of an open bar when your third grade teacher is downstairs.

The tap selection leans towards craft, both gateway and trending. As a side note, I should point out that it’s hard to take proper advantage of an open bar when your third grade teacher is downstairs.

Sometimes I don’t write about it. I didn’t do much other than tweet about the Liberty Village location (I hate going to Liberty Village. It’s labyrinthine and constantly shifting as though the buildings conspire to keep you within it.) Emma has already figured out that for any blogger there’s the potential to acquire swag and pay for nothing. You know your parents have raised a good kid when they twig to the moral component of a problem immediately.

There’s a period where people disappear from the table. Dad is enticed by a Margarita at the upstairs bar and we seem to take it in turns visiting the Taco Station. The two varieties, fish and chicken, come with soft tortillas, cabbage slaw and a cilantro heavy Baja salsa. The silence from Andy on the subject of the tacos is due to the fact that he makes his way through two plates of them. He’s 6’5” and has the metabolism of a small neutron star. He even tries and then adds the hot sauce, which is something I’ve never seen him do before.

Here are the men who stare at tacos. A note on the ceiling above them. It is a retractable skylight that slides open to create a patio in clement weather. I haven't seen that before, but I love the idea.

Here are the men who stare at tacos. A note on the ceiling above them. It is a retractable skylight that slides open to create a patio in clement weather. I haven’t seen that before, but I love the idea.

Emma raises another interesting point. The servers make her a little self-conscious (even though she has no reason to be). There’s no doubt that the staff are a good looking group and I wonder briefly whether they’ve come out of central casting. It’s a valuable insight and not something that I would have considered. I recall that another of the Vancouver chains, Earl’s had caused controversy when it opened on King Street in 2011. I suppose image is intractably a part of the service industry, but sometimes it takes a 15 year old girl to point out the obvious. I pride myself on having some sensitivity to these issues, but the knowledge that it makes my little sister uncomfortable means that I’ll be more vigilant in future.

Overall, Local Leaside is a good addition to the neighbourhood. The tap list includes a number of selections from larger and up and coming craft brewers in contrast with a small number of macro taps to keep everyone happy. It also raises an important demographic point. As young couples have children and move away from downtown to established suburbs, they are still going to want some nightlife. This is the first generation for whom craft beer always existed and the possibility is going to exist more and more frequently to expand sales and distribution to areas outside of the downtown core.

Review: Grand River Olde Defiant

The Background

Grand River started brewing in Ontario in 2007, but the site that they’re on in Galt has actually been producing alcohol for something like 200 years. Absalom Shade had mills there and eventually managed to vertically integrate the whole community. He sold seed and milled grain and made whiskey. He had to issue credit because there wasn’t any currency.

Grand River’s mission statement was different: Originally the idea was to make beer that was under 5% alcohol because people are worried about overindulgence. This is a good idea which has only really caught on subsequently. There was a five year period there where people were drinking 7% everything and there weren’t lighter options. Personally, I like a beer that I can have two pints of and then go do something afterwards.

It’s a hard place to brew beer in a literal sense. The water is very hard in Cambridge, Ontario. 25-35 grains of hardness apparently. Toronto’s is something like 6-7 grains. Cambridge’s water is so hard that Bob Hoskins plays it in films. This is good for some kinds of beer and bad for other kinds of beer. It does mean that Grand River makes stuff that tastes different than anything else in the province.

Like any eight year old brewery, Grand River is going through some changes. Change is inevitable in a brewery. Rob Creighton, who was their head brewer, recently left the company. Left Field, who had been contract brewing their Eephus out of Grand River’s facility, has finally opened their own plant. Given these changes, I was glad to see the owner, Bob Hannenberg, at the Queen’s Park tasting. I like Bob. He doesn’t ever seem to say any more than he has to, which is refreshing in a world where constantly checking twitter is a thing. Bob is a farrier, which you can tell if you ever shake his hands; it’s like shaking hands with a concrete statue.

The Beer(s)IMAG1031[1]

I’m always interested when Grand River comes out with a new beer, because I don’t quite understand the thought process behind development over there. In recent years we’ve seen a Ginger flavoured beer called Tailset and I’m told that there’s a Blackberry Ale to be launched for the summer. I guess that those are safe bets for summer drinking, but it’s not the highest and best use of Grand River’s terroir.

The water does interesting things to the lagers they make. The carbonate punches up malt character to an extent that almost destroys hop aromatics. They’re there, don’t get me wrong, but it must take a lot more hops than it would in other places. Take, for instance, the Dogstalker Bock. At 6.0% the main notes are the rich fruity malts that are thrown into the foreground on the aroma and on the palate. There’s a practically strawberry preserve on toast character, but the hops come through spicy on the finish and burn that out with bitterness. I don’t know how true to style it is, but I suspect the conditions make it hard.

Grand River always seems to be at their best when making ales. Perhaps it’s the way the yeast interacts with the water or the fact that they tend to stick to traditional English styles, but that seems to be the wheelhouse. Consider that their Mill Race Mild is one of the best examples of the style in the world, and you begin to get the picture. The Pugnacious Pale Ale, which I hadn’t tried in some time is reminiscent of a turbocharged Fuller’s London Pride or Darkstar HopHead and worth your attention. This year’s Russian Gun lacks some of the roasty astringency and body from previous years, but manages to satisfy. This year’s Curmudgeon is possibly a step backwards and the hop character comes through muddled with bitterness edging out flavour.

What I really want to talk to you about is Olde Defiant. Apparently, it was first brewed in 2011, but I missed out the first time around. Old Ale is a traditional English style where beer was brewed at a high mash temperature so as to produce unfermentable sugars that lend body to the finished product. Typically what brewers do is keep them around and age them to develop character like a Stock Ale. They might go a little sour or oxidized or leathery. It’s designed to age and change.

Olde Defiant is 7.0% alcohol and it shows a ruby tinged edge in the pint glass with lacing that persists throughout. The aroma is naturally that grain loft toastiness that comes through from Grand River’s water, but there’s raisin and toffee. The hops come through spicy with a slight tobacco and cut herb greenness that is just pronounced enough to play around the edges. There’s a hint of smoke off in the distance and a practically unqualifiable funk that comes across as an impression more than as a distinct sourness. There’s a bit of chocolate on warming and a tawny whiskeyish presence.

It’s old school. It’s Absalom Shade old school. It comes close to the quality of a Fuller’s Vintage Ale. It is desperately uncool and fantastically unhip. It is one of the best Ontario beers I’ve had in a long time. If you can get out to their store, you should buy some.

There are Grand River beers I like and Grand River beers I don’t care for. I think they’ve got to standardize their branding and labels at some point, if only for the sanity of the beer critics across the province. What I will say is this: We’ve got enough IPA and APA and EPA and BIPA and DIPA. In a lot of ways trying to brew a world class mild or old ale is a hell of a lot more impressive than lobbing another half developed galaxy dry hopped pale ale into the market and just walking away. Olde Defiant’s just about the right name for this beer.

Barn Door Brewing Company Winter Porter

The Background

When I came back to Ontario from university out east, there were basically two Ontario beers at the LCBO that I could be sure were going to be quality. This was before “Craft Beer,” a term which emerged around 2007, so it was just beer. Those beers were Black Oak Pale Ale and King Pilsner. Truth be told, it’s something of a miracle that both of those brands survived unscathed to the present day. 15 years is a long time for a small brewery. Black Oak has ventured out into new and experimental stuff that seems to be doing pretty well for them. King has… well, it’s complicated.

King is part of the company Provincial Beverages of Canada, which I’m relatively sure has been rebranded from Beer Barons. They distribute Weihenstephan and represent Oud Beersel. In Ontario, they own King and Thornbury Cider and the Barn Door Brewing Company. At festivals, you’ll see all of these products poured at the same booth.

I guess the problem is that if you’re King, you’ve got branding that people have seen since 2002 and they’re used to a certain kind of product. King has their Pilsner, which has been admirably consistent (and a real treat unfiltered), and their Dark Lager, which continues to win awards. Their Vienna Lager came out in 2010, and has something in common with the other two products. They’re all 4.8%, they’re all quaffable and they’re all very good examples of the styles of lager they represent. There aren’t a lot of Ontario breweries where I can say I like everything they make.

If you’re the owner, you want to branch out with the rest of the current brewery explosion in Ontario. You’ve got the funding to make it happen and a team of people who know what they’re doing. What you don’t have is an audience ready to accept you. King is a lager brewery and it’s set up for decoction mashing. You can’t just turn around and release a pumpkin beer under the King branding. Hell, because they depend so heavily on the Beer Store model for distribution, you can’t even really do a seasonal.

This is where the Barn Door Brewing Company comes into play. Over the last year they’ve released a number of interesting beers including Tombstone (an Imperial Pilsner veering toward IPA), Summer Storm (a Zwickel or Kellerbier) and Monster Mash (which is apparently a Pumpkin Dopplebock). Perhaps you’ve noticed a commonality here. That’s right. They’re all lagers. To a man with a hammer the world is a nail. To a brewer with an authentic German decoction brewhouse even an IPA is a lager.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but they’ve got to learn how to promote it properly. The Barn Door Brewing Company has been open for 11 months, but their website is still not up and running. Sure, there’s a facebook presence and a twitter account, but you need a static site where people can find information about your product. Call me old fashioned, but I’m going to insist on the bare minimum, web 1.0 styles.

The BeerIMAG1027[1]

I tried Barn Door’s Winter Porter for the first time at the Speaker’s Tasting at Queen’s Park last month and I’m pleased to say they didn’t fool me for a second. “That’s a Baltic Porter,” I said to their rep, John Butkovich, who pours samples at events for them. I went around the room saying to people, “You should try Barn Door’s Baltic Porter.” I was a little surprised when I found that they are thinking of it as a Classic Porter.

Here’s the thing: The tasting notes the brewery supplied read like this:

A full malt flavour dominates, with mild hop bitterness to balance the alcohol and roasty characters. The coffee, toast, and roast are met with a subtle caramel malt sweetness to soften any bitterness usually found in this style. This Porter has a soothing warmness to it without being overpowering and overly alcoholic.IMAG1025[1]

The problem is that it’s a far more complex product than that. Yes there’s coffee and roast, but there’s also this toasted pumpernickel note and a lot of jammy plum and a hint of raisin that actively work with the relatively gentle booziness. You get a maybe a small hint of aniseed on the aroma and an earthy grassy note when it’s properly aerated in the glass. There’s a waft of dark chocolate over the hard palate at the swallow. There’s a slight lingering grassy bitterness despite the viscosity. The fruitiness and booze from the lager yeast take it right out of the box the notes put it in.

This is a high quality product that’s getting dumbed down to suit a marketing format. I’m not saying that it competes with Trois Mousquetaires. It’s not quite in the same league in terms of strength and frankly that beer is a bona fide World Beater. Most of the Baltic Porters you encounter are going to be 8-9%, while this comes in at 7%. In doing so it’s actually a great beer to try if you’re learning about beer styles because it’s the same range of flavours with a leaner body and a bock-y tinge to it.

I’m frustrated. There are… 200? 150? Let’s call it 150 breweries in Ontario making ales. All ales all the time. If you specialize in lagers and you’re making good ones, you should probably lean into it. You’ve got a whole different thing going. Don’t blend in with the crowd. Point out the difference. Lager’s coming back, so embrace that now and beat the rush. Three years from now, they’re going to want to be you.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteriaabomidable-snow-rabbit-560x373

Today we’re going to be using the Briggs-Keaton Identification Chart for Anthropomorphic Weather as our guide to rating this beer because of the snowman on the label. The guide naturally ranges from least snowmanish creature to most snowmanish creature. The Abominable Snowman (not a snowman at all, but rather a Yeti) rates a one on this scale and it proceeds all the way through cartoon snowmen to the classic three ball model with the stovepipe hat.

In a shocking twist, this beer has been awarded a score that lies outside the chart:

This beer rates: Jerry Reed’s character Snowman from Smokey and the Bandit. It’s not a snowman at all. It’s something else entirely. It’s a trucker whose CB sobriquet is Snowman and who has a dog named Fred. A real snowman would not keep a dog around.

How You Win in Ontario

Let me tell you about how things change in Ontario.

In 1837, the rebels in Upper Canada met at breweries. They met at John Farr’s brewery and they met at John Doel’s brewery. John Doel was a Methodist. He wanted exactly the same thing that the rebels wanted: responsible government, democracy and a slightly smaller slice of the pie for the fat cats running the show.

If you know your history, you know that the rebels met at Montgomery’s Tavern and proceeded to march down Yonge Street. They probably met at Montgomery’s Tavern because they were marching against troops commanded by John Colborne. They were ill equipped to fight a man who beat Napoleon’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo. The fact that they bothered at all meant that they were very brave and possibly slightly drunk. They never had a chance.

Change came in Ontario through demographic shifts and through consensus building and it took a long time. A lot of that was done by Methodists who built schools and churches and temperance halls. Some of that was done with money they’d earned selling beer. They changed the mores of society and they changed opinions. In Ontario change doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun. It comes through waiting and working patiently. When William Lyon Mackenzie was finally allowed back into the province it was John Doel who sold him back his property and the Methodists had already changed Ontario.

It’s hard to say how much responsibility anyone has for the changes made by the province to Beer Sales on Thursday. Martin Regg Cohn did some sterling work, at first annually around Christmas and then more frequently over the last six months. Ben Johnson over at Blog T.O. has left nary a feather unruffled in bringing the public’s attention to matters beery. Just about every beer writer in the province has made some contribution, including but not limited to Stephen Beaumont, Crystal Luxmore, Dan Grant, Chris Schryer, Nick Pashley, Robin LeBlanc, Greg Clow and David Ort. There are others, too. If you’re left out, be sure it’s not intentional. We reached critical mass so quickly over the last year that it’s hard to keep track. (ed. note: I can’t believe I left out Josh Rubin. Dude’s great.)

I don’t know how much responsibility I can claim, but the answer is “some.”

I wrote nine blog posts about The Beer Store and, with Alan McLeod, one book that summarized its place in the history of Ontario. The link to the book is to the right.

The first three blog posts didn’t exactly fall on deaf ears, but they reeked desperately of policy wonk. The first post talked about the basic problem with reform (that the issue only cropped up every six months). The second post talked about the OCSA commissioned study written by Anindya Sen and the reason it had failed to persuade. The third post talked about the OCSA’s second study, which I had discussed with Dr. Sen and which talked about economic theory.

Eventually I realized that asking people to understand any economic theory more difficult than supply and demand was going to be fruitless. It doesn’t matter that you’re right if you can’t explain why you’re right.

The fourth blog post was simply called Understanding The Beer Store. By this point I was researching their history with Alan and I realized why people couldn’t get their heads around the business model. To this day I still hear people say “but they must make money.” All you have to do is explain that it doesn’t need to be profitable because it’s saving its owners money. The foreign owned Beer Store was actually preventing its owners from having to push capital into the economy.

The good part about creating easily understood talking points is that they filter out to other places. People started talking about that. The Convenience Store poll from November 2013 said 14% of the population polled were aware of the foreign ownership. By the time I got Lorne Bozinoff to run polling for me in April of 2014, we were up to 22%. I wanted pure data so we made the questions as neutral as possible. By this time, I think everyone realized that the key to the situation was raising public awareness on the issue. All we had to do was keep the flag flying so people would see it. Critical mass of coverage helped a LOT.

I wrote to my MPP, Eric Hoskins who was Ontario’s Economic Development Minister at the time highlighting the massive potential for economic growth. I encouraged others to do the same. I can’t tell you if anyone did, but I’d hope it’s a positive number. I wrote later about the Ontario Problem and the inequity of the situation and how the demographics had changed. When Ontario’s brewers were tempted by The Beer Store in January, I rallied ‘em by aiming for St. Crispin’s day and letting it rip. Eventually, I simply wrote about the necessity of change.

I got name dropped in the C.D. Howe Institute study on The Beer Store and on the Agenda with Steve Paikin. I somehow got a professional polling firm to work for me for free. I co-wrote the history of beer in the province of Ontario (which seems Machiavellian in retrospect, but I’m not that clever. I lucked into that.) which made me into the go-to media interview on The Beer Store’s history. I was interviewed on Global Morning and CBC Radio One (three times this month). I was interviewed by the Globe and Mail and Metro and wrote my own columns in the Sun. I helped Adrian Morrow at the Globe fact check his figures on the beer store’s cost offset after I was let go from the Sun.

I retweeted others and others retweeted me. It was a group effort. The important part was keeping the ball in the air; making sure that the narrative didn’t disappear from the airwaves and from the internet. We fought The Beer Store for the best part of two and a half years. It’s owned by companies with billions of dollars of assets and I fought them with no budget and facts and arguments and rhetoric. I didn’t lose my temper and I didn’t raise my voice and I didn’t give up.

I see people complaining about the changes that have been instituted. That they’re not enough. That they’re a smokescreen. That the Liberal Party are only making changes because they’re in dire financial straits.

I’ll take it.

The thing is this: We’ve got the demographics. We’ve got 245 breweries extant and in planning. We’ve got grocery stores we can browbeat and campaign against. We’ve got MPPs we can write. We’ve got a rabid base of craft beer fans and we’ve got momentum. We just won a thirty year fight and people are worried about whether we can get craft beer on grocery store shelves.

We can. We just have to keep pressing forward politely and persistently.

Sawdust City’s Spring Seasonals

Sawdust City’s situation provides a revealing look at the current beer retailing situation in Ontario. Here we have a brewery riding the crest of the current wave of craft beer’s expansion and they’re handicapped somewhat by the market. I’ll explain what I mean.

At the moment, there is one product from Sawdust City available for retail according to the LCBO’s website. Lone Pine IPA is available at approximately 80 locations. Gateway Kolsch and Ol’ Woody Alt are at Beer Store locations primarily, but only a dozen or so dotting Toronto and cottage country. The difficulty is that there are five products in the core lineup and two of them aren’t on shelves.

That means that the normal system upon which a craft brewery operates doesn’t work in Ontario. Like it has been said before, the LCBO is hurting for shelf space and while they’ve been very good about getting some of the more interesting Sawdust beers on shelves they can only do so much. The Beer Store doesn’t promote product at all and it costs money to list there. It would cost a lot to list all five products and they would be stocked on a shelf towards the back, probably behind an electrified puddle with a yellow slippery when wet sign.

Owner Rob Engman and Brewer Sam Corbeil pictured here in what is ostensibly 1978.

Owner Rob Engman and Brewer Sam Corbeil pictured here in what is ostensibly 1978.

Ideally, what we want is a store where the people who run the store have the ability to decide independent of the pressures of ownership or market saturation what they would like to stock. Cross selling might do it, but so might grocery sales. Convenience store sales would probably mean higher turnover non-craft items, but it would still be a step in the right direction.

I almost never write about the Ontario problem from a critical standpoint and I notice that no one has been writing about it at all for a little while now. It’s all speculation, what might happen.

Look at it this way: Sawdust City has never made a bad beer as far as I’m aware. Some of the beers that they’ve made have been excellent. The Lone Pine IPA is a perpetual favourite of beer nerds around the province (Check out ratebeer! They got love from Kowloon!) and the one offs have been increasingly impressive. They’re doing interesting high quality seasonals and they’re growing. They’re at 3000HL now and they’ve grown 500% every year they’ve been in business. They could make 9000HL easy in the next five years and produce world class beer.

But this is Ontario and simply being excellent won’t cut it. Sawdust City, by the way, is not the only example like this I could name. It’s a widespread problem and the truth is excellence shouldn’t matter. There shouldn’t be the barrier to trade that currently exists even for acetaldehyde laden piss-swilling frat boy chug beer. We can ride the enthusiasm from the US only so long before it swallows up the market and drives local brewers out of business.

Look at what the future could be:

Sawdust sent over some samples of the beer they’ve released to bars this season and before I tell you about that I want to tell you something so you know I’m not blowing smoke up your ass: I walked eight and a half kilometers to the Only Café for a pint of Twin Pines Double IPA the other week. I am an out of shape beer writer with joints that pop with the frequency of a left turn indicator and a currently dormant allergy to cold weather. I actually believe the things I’m saying here.

Yeah, that's a Long Dark Voyage. See, the thing is that I liked the Twin Pines so much that I handed the can off to the owner of my local pub to try. It's a beer I like so much I actually made someone else try it.

Yeah, that’s a Long Dark Voyage. See, the thing is that I liked the Twin Pines so much that I handed the can off to the owner of my local pub to try. It’s a beer I like so much I actually made someone else try it.

The Twin Pines Double IPA is incredibly solid. It’s brilliantly citric with this bittersweet quinine-y Tonic Water zap through the middle that just dries out down the palate. That sounds odd, but the grapefruity bitterness comes through at that level and I think it would be difficult to fit more grapefruit in the can. There’s No Way of Knowing is something of a departure as a can conditioned Saison. It smells like a spring day down in Toronto’s ravines. That pervasive aroma that comes with shoots breaking through the earth comes from lemon verbena, the floral Australian Ella hops and the grassy, peppery yeast. That’s entirely apropos as it’s intended as a light, Springy frippery of a beer. One of the things that I appreciate here is the fact that Sawdust isn’t playing silly buggers about the process or ingredients. It’s all listed on the can.

I feel like this has gone in a vaguely Beaton-y direction.

I feel like this has gone in a vaguely Beaton-y direction.

A word about Can Conditioning. This is very much like bottle conditioning and the process will be entirely familiar to you if you’ve done homebrewing. Essentially, the beer is racked off the hop and yeast trub in the fermenter in to the packaging tank and a mixture of priming sugar and fresh yeast is added to it. It is identical to dosing a batch of homebrew for bottling except for the fact that you can’t afford a canning line. The cans sit for 21 days and carbonate and the brewers check periodically to ensure that they’re fermenting properly. This gives the brewers something to do and prevents them from loitering on street corners.

Also can conditioned is The Princess wears Girl Pants. It’s inspired by Belgian Golden Ales. If the Princess wears Girl Pants, she also pirouettes in combat boots because the flavours here will stomp on your tongue. The mixture of hops is interesting with New Zealand Motueka, Australian Galaxy and some Amarillo just to bridge the pacific. This is a good strategy because you get a lot of orchard and tropical fruit notes out of those hops and they’re healthily represented here. There’s passion fruit and citrus but the overwhelming impression because of the beer’s colour is ripe August peaches.

That's a pretty masculine princess. Nice bustier though.

That’s a pretty masculine princess. Nice bustier though.

Last year’s version Princess & Girl Pants meet the O.D.B. is both barrel aged and can conditioned. It’s the same basic beer but aged in Gamay and Chardonnay barrels. It gets that oaky, buttery mouthfeel but for my taste is overdone. No one has been bludgeoned by barrels this much since the Donkey Kong murders of 1983. I asked Sam via email whether he might consider taking it down by about twenty percent next time around and he said: “honestly, subtlety is not my best quality. I think I’ve demonstrated that, time and time again. I’m more blunt force trauma than well executed crime of the century.” Sam Corbeil, ladies and gentlemen; The brewer most likely to be blocking traffic on the 400 sans pants.

The important thing is this: With a single wave of reforms these beers will be available in more places. Maybe we get growler fills. Maybe we get cross-selling. Maybe we get the ability to compete with the US craft breweries before they sweep in and buy more shelves. Sawdust City would get the ability to sell their entire core lineup in one store! Mirable Dictu!