A couple of weekends ago, I took a trip to Buffalo with some friends. Ostensibly, we piled into the car for the reason that we wanted to visit the Blue Monk, but given that we could have done that on the bus, the real reason for the trip had to be to pick up some American Beer. Not that the Blue Monk isn’t worth a trip to Buffalo; It is. All you have to do is look at the tap selection to realize that it’s something of a specialty. It blows all of the tap lists in Toronto completely out of the water.
The truth of the matter is that everyone wanted to make a trip to Premiere Gourmet.
It’s worth mentioning that the LCBO has actually been doing a vastly more satisfactory job for the last three months or so. They have been bringing in a variety of interesting things. You can get all of the vintages of Harviestoun Ola Dubh. You might be lucky enough to purchase a Sam Adams Utopia (which is being doled out by a lottery system that I won’t pretend to understand.) One of the problems that the LCBO seems to have is that there’s only so much shelf space. You’ll almost never see them carrying entire product lines. I could be charitable and suggest that they’re observing expiry dates, but I think that part of the issue is balancing incoming products with existing stock: They can’t afford to have too much of their warehouse space tied up.
In Buffalo, however, this doesn’t seem to be a concern. In terms of the desires of Ontario beer nerds, Premiere Gourmet may as well be a magical wonderland where the best of the output of several countries is always available and the enchanted pixies offer you samples of exotic cheeses while you fill your cart with rare and sought after elixirs and stand in dumb amazement staring at the wall of hot sauce.
I’ve only been there twice, so I have little criticism of it. Some of my friends claim that some of the beers will have reached their expiry dates before they make it to the shelves or that some of the IPAs have lost that hoppy zing. It may well be accurate. I never get far in terms of worrying about it for a very simple reason: I don’t have the depth of experience that some of my friends do in terms of American beers. I’m like a kid in a candy store or, perhaps more accurately, like an adult version of myself in a candy store.
Some of the people who were with me on the trip will periodically go on jaunts to the states. They’ll hear about a brewpub in Vermont or maybe they’ll get tickets for Dark Lord Day in Indiana and they’ll go on a road trip. On a trip like that you get to try a large variety of beers that aren’t available in Ontario and probably won’t be for quite some time. I watched them approach the shelves tentatively, as though looking at the Stephen King section in the bookstore and trying to figure out which book they haven’t read. “Is this the one where the mentally handicapped manchild saves the day? I think I’ve read that one. I think this is the one where the girl sets fire to the overlook hotel with her mind. Nah. I’m wrong. It’s the one where they bury the car in the pet cemetery and it’s suddenly able to drive itself to the prom to exact its revenge. Oh no, it’s the Dark Tower. Maybe if I read it 18 more times the outcome will change.”
You see, they want to try things that they haven’t tried before. And if that means getting a thirteen dollar bottle of Saison, then more power to them. Learning is, after all, important. It’s what separates us from the animals.
For myself, there’s so much that I haven’t tried that I decided on a very simple operating principle: Choose a brewery and get everything. This time around it was Troegs and Great Lakes. It’s a reasonable and fairly affordable way to go about learning. Since single bottles are only about two bucks a throw, there’s no great tragedy if you get something that you don’t like. Chances are, though, that if it was able to make it across state lines, you’re not going to be disappointed.
Buying single bottles has other benefits as well. First, these are 12oz bottles. There’s really only enough for one serving, so you don’t have to feel guilty about not sharing. You don’t have to have people over to justify cracking one open. You’re not going to age them, you’re going to drink them. It’s not as though you won’t be able to find these beers again. Secondly, If you get one of everything a brewery makes you can even try the different styles when the mood strikes you. Say it’s an idle Tuesday night and you’re doing your laundry and you feel like a Porter. You’ve got one stashed away. You’ve got thirty minutes to kill. Hey Presto! Learning!
Also, if you’ve got a basic understanding of beer styles, you can put together a pretty decent mental picture of a single brewery’s approach based on what they do with the requisite styles.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
Troegs seems more interested in innovation than accessibility. Everything they make seems to be fairly high in alcohol and they’ve gone for big flavors rather than screwing around worrying about making people like them. For that though, their beers are not at the point where you would have to beg for mercy after one of them:
Java Head Stout, for instance has a dominant coffee flavour in the middle of the palate, but I found that it really only intensified on swallowing. Nice body as well. It’s 7.5% alcohol, which is a touch deceptive considering the ease with which is goes down.
Dead Reckoning Porter is a little lighter at 5.8%, but I found it a good deal sweeter as well. I’m reading about it online now and apparently it’s got 53 IBUs. I would not have guessed that.
Troegenator Doublebock. It’s not a style that I tend to enjoy, but this sort of cuts through to what my perception of a Bock should be. It’s definitely malt heavy, but it’s not overwhelming and there’s a lot of caramel and a little bit toffee in there. At 8.2% there would have to be.
Their Sunshine Pils is accessible while managing to be interesting, and while a lot of people in Ontario tend to decry Pilsners, I’ve got to say that this might be one of the best I’ve ever had. It manages to retain body while being refreshing, which I have to assume is a hard balance to strike given that I don’t see it happen much.
I’ve got other Troegs stuff sitting in my fridge. I imagine I’ll get to them eventually. By the time I finish them, I will have spent around 15 bucks to try a number of their beers. I will have a decent mental picture of the brewery and how they approach the market. For the price of a rare bomber of something I would have had to share, I’ll have expanded my understanding of American craft beer by a tiny margin. After all, a brewery is only really as good as its core lineup.