I’m always interested when something I’m not expecting happens. For instance, I didn’t expect the brewers at Black Oak to start up their own label. They’ve been a bit cagey about it as the thing has developed and I don’t think that anyone knew quite what to expect. It was probably last winter I was talking to Simon Da Costa about this development. It must have been, because the pub next to Volo was still Local 4 and we were in there discussing it.
He said he was going to brew a Scotch Ale, that he was going to barrel age it. I looked at him and said something to the effect of “And that’s going to be your only beer? Are you crazy?” He looked at me and shrugged. When he did so, the sleeves of his well loved motorcycle jacket looked like they would probably fall off. He explained that he had worked in Scotland and he thought it would work.
Months later, dozens and dozens of Scotch barrels arrived at Black Oak. Mostly mainland, speyside barrels, if I’m remembering correctly. You’d have been forgiven, based on the number, for putting on your best welsh regimental accent and muttering to yourself “There’s thousands of them.” One week I walked into the brewery and the entire back wall was taken up with barrels.
At one point, I told Simon and Jon Hodd, who worked with him on this, that I thought they were maniacs. Who the hell imports scotch barrels in order to launch a beer? Were all the beers out of their label going to be barrel aged? Were they crazy?
Now, understand that I like both of these people. Simon is talented and funny and unassuming and gets on with the difficult job of brewing. Jon, who I tend to refer to as “Jon Boy” after the Waltons, since he’s so wholesome, is a good brewer in his own right, having come up through Volo. I really wanted to get a sense of what they were doing. I wanted to try their beer.
It was tantalizing. It was a secret project. As far as I know, no one had really tried the thing. At some point in the last couple of months, I wrote an article on Scotch Ales for The Sun and I called around to see if they’d let me try some. It wasn’t ready. Rather than attempt to get national promotion, they wanted the product to be as they envisioned it before anyone got to try it.
Today, I finally got my hands on a bottle. Now, my understanding is that they’ve spent most of the morning packaging the bottles. When you see the following photos, I have no doubt that you’ll understand why.
There’s the brewery label.
And the beer label.
And the tissue wrapping.
And the actual cork and cage bottle.
I suppose if you’re going to make a splash on shelves in Ontario LCBOs, this is not such a bad way to do it. It’s eye catching. It’s a bit like Rod Stewart’s hair. It’s hypnotic, and then, once you realize that he’s got your attention, it’s too late to stop singing along to Young Turks.
Knowing what I know about Simon and Jon, I’m a little surprised by the beer. Canny Man is 9.1% and comes in what is essentially a champagne bottle. It has apparently been matured for 71 days in the barrels. I don’t know how you decide when enough is enough. I guess you have a sacrificial guinea pig barrel with a draw pipe.
It pours a sort of chestnut brown, relatively aggressively carbonated for the style. The interesting thing to me is that usually when North American brewers do Scotch Ales or Wee Heavies, they build the smoke in. I’ve confirmed with Jon that they used a tiny amount of smoked malt here, so most of the smoke comes from the barrels. The reason that’s interesting to me is that this is sort of what I remember McEwan’s being like. There’s that malt caramel/toffee/fruity middle. That’s what the beer would probably have been like without the barrel aging. It’s a proper wee heavy, which has been subsequently introduced to the barrel.
You can tell that’s what happened because the smoky notes from the barrel linger on the roof of the palate. It sort of separates into a toffee dark fruit middle while smoke wisps over top. It’s odd because it means that it is simultaneously as close to being a real wee heavy as anything I’ve tried in the last year while playing into the North American predilection for adding smoke to Scotch Ales. The effort that must have gone into getting the beer exactly right and locating the right barrels to make it happen is a little staggering, especially for two maniacs in Etobicoke.
I should have listened to Simon when he said that he knew it would work. There are only two criticisms that I can see being leveled at this beer. One is that the packaging is… well, it’s ostentatious. I understand that there is a sweatshop over at Black Oak working into the night on tissue paper wrapping. That’s easily fixed after the first edition makes a splash. It would do just fine with only the bottle. The labeling is pretty enough to sell the thing.
The other criticism I can see is that the molasses seems to have fermented out quite a bit and that it may not be sweet enough for some palates. It’s not like an Innis & Gunn barrel aged beer. It’s drier than that, but not so dry that you don’t get the body.
The impressive thing to me is that all of this activity has closed around Robbie Burns day. Theoretically, it’ll be available in the LCBO sometime this week and it should make an appearance at some Robbie Burns dinners this year.
Canny men, more like.