There seems to exist amongst beer writers a sort of unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to excessively disparage the efforts of a craft brewery. It results in a certain amount of imbalance in reporting. Craft good; Macro bad. Small good; Large bad. There’s also a fairly heavy bias against value brands, because of the socioeconomic realities and stereotypes of their consumer base. It’s always easy to score a few cheap points off of, for instance, Lakeport:
- Yo Mama so poor she drinks Lakeport. We are becoming concerned about her welfare. Maybe if she had chosen a more skilled financial planner, things would not have come to this sad state of affairs.
See? Easy! Plus, if you don’t have a “Yo Mama” joke ready to go, you can google one without much effort. The thing is that while we can easily disparage something like Lakeport for not living up to our discerning palates, they do exactly what they set out to do: They create an affordable product for people who are interested in beer as a commodity. There’s an incredibly small amount of variation from batch to batch. They do the same thing over and over and over again but they do it very well, comparatively speaking.
It’s a facet of the industry that I don’t completely understand.
For instance: Why do reviewers seem to give Craft Brewers a pass if their product is substandard? There’s a Western Ontario brewery whose beer sometimes end up laden with a diacetyl-y butterscotch flavour which is almost certainly unintentional, given that the style claims to be an IPA. Last year, I saw fill lines vary by nearly an inch on one Ottawa brewery’s Imperial Stout; this is a worrying sight when the bottles are all lined up on the same shelf. I’m willing to shrug these examples off and assume that they’re one-time problems which have since been fixed. I’m also not going to name them since I like to restrict the potential for getting sued for libel to one brewery per post.
There is one brewery in particular which doesn’t really get talked about very much by writers and reviewers, but which has managed to develop an almost entirely negative set of criticism online. You guessed it: Trafalgar.
Now it’s not really in my nature to kick people when they’re down, but the negative criticism is so overwhelming that I began to wonder about Trafalgar. I’m a statistics wonk, so I looked at Ratebeer; it paints a woeful picture. There are nearly fifty entries under their brewery. There are three that have done passably well: Hop Nouveau (58 overall, 82 on style), Winter Warmer (65 overall, 52 on style) and Dark Wheat (38 overall, 71 on style). I’m giving the Elora Grand Lager a pass since Ratebeer is notoriously hard on lagers and it scored in the 83rd percentile on style.
Of the remaining entries, none have done what you’d call well on either individual or stylistic bases. Some of the less well received examples of Trafalgar’s wares (and I am hereby restricting myself to those beers which were widely available through the LCBO) are the Maple Bock (4 overall, 1 on style) the Smoked Oatmeal Stout (19 overall, 3 on style) and Critical Mass (25 overall, 0 on style). Critical Mass was part of their VERY STRONG BEERS series. It’s a Double/Imperial IPA. There’s a lot of competition in that style, but to have done so poorly as to be rendered statistically negligible takes a certain amount of doing.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to let a lot of internet nerds tell me what to think. I went to the LCBO and got me some Trafalgar products. Both of the ones that were available: The Bock and the Smoked Oatmeal Stout. I wanted to give them a fair shake, because the LCBO deems their products worthy of continued inclusion in seasonal releases and I think we can all agree that the government knows what they’re doing. The Smoked Oatmeal Stout has been out for a while, so I made sure to check the best before date (good for another month). I made notes on each of them, which I share with you here.
Bock: Has some of the malt richness and caramel flavour that I expect from the style. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between the nose which makes sense given the style and the body, which reminds me of one of my earliest batches of homebrew. Impression possibly clouded because the last Bock I tried was the Troegenator Double Bock, which I think might highlight the disparity. I think if it were really very cold indeed, it might have been better.
Smoked Oatmeal Stout: Nose is reminiscent not so much of a stout as an American Porter. There’s a sweet, honeyed quality to the nose but nothing much in the way of smoke. Body is thin. To me, the idea of an Oatmeal Stout means that there’s some thickness to the body; practically chewy. The smoke is on the tail of the palate after the swallow. It leaves an unpleasant film on the entire palate. I not only poured out the sample after four sips, but brushed my teeth immediately after.
Now, I’ve tried other beers that they make. I tried the Bert Well Pale Ale at Volo’s Cask Days this year. It had a leafy green sourness to it that I didn’t find appealing. I think that may be a result of the fresh hops that were apparently used, or possibly because they don’t do cask very frequently. I have also tried all of the beers in the VERY STRONG BEER series (When they were fresh). My recollection of them is that they were incredibly boozy and that I was glad they came in small bottles. I tried some of the Elora Special Bitter last Thursday as part of OCB Discovery Pack 7. I’m trying to convey to you that I have some context here.
It has been pointed out to me by a qualified BJCP that Trafalgar beers are actually very tasty when consumed straight from the tap; when they are quite fresh. That’s certainly worth noting, but the problem is that I don’t recall seeing a Trafalgar product on tap in Toronto in the last three years. Maybe I’m hanging out at the wrong places, but it seems to me that their business model is based nearly entirely around bottles. The bottled beers don’t seem to be taking the world by storm. In point of fact, they have garnered what borders on infamy in online circles.
It worries me. Legitimately. I don’t know the brewers and I have nothing against them personally. I don’t mean to be hurtful. But you see, this is a business that people base their livelihoods on. I can’t imagine that they produce much in the way of volume, but the brewers and staff have their lives tied up in this thing. If the reviews are this overwhelmingly negative, maybe they don’t get into a seasonal LCBO lineup. Maybe they don’t get into a couple. For a small brewery, that’s potentially the difference between viability and bankruptcy.
At what point do you have to start listening to your critics and attempt to improve your standing? What steps can they take? Bring in a new brewer? Change their recipes? Improve their processes?
Is it possible that they are unaware of their reputation? Maybe the lack of accurate reviews from legitimate sources is the problem. Maybe they’ve been given a pass for so long that they don’t know where they stand. I don’t know.
I do know that if I were them, I’d be worried.