First Taste: Goose Island Comes to Canada

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

 Dan Grant reviews Sofie and Matilda, two Belgian-style ales
In an ideal world beer drinkers would choose to support the independent craftsperson – the brewer that mashes in his or her own space, with attention to detail and a flair for the creative. But things aren’t ideal. Big guys brew less expensive beer and drinkers often can’t be bothered to seek out new things, no matter how much self-styled artisans try to re-frame the discussion.

That having been said, craft brewers have made great strides in recent years to boost their profile and increase their shelf space.  LCBO figures point to nearly 30% growth in craft beer sales last year, and an even more remarkable 35% the year before.

American numbers show 12% growth last year, and 13% in 2011 – figures significant enough to catch the attention of the larger brewers who saw a drop in production of five million barrels in 2012, according to Brewers Association.

“Brewers Association?” you say. “Who’s that?” According to its website, it’s a group of about 40,000 industry types whose purpose is to “promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”

Last year it launched a campaign to draw the public’s attention to the difference between the little guys and the fake little guys (small production breweries operated by much larger ones). “Craft vs. Crafty” is a public relations exercise in calling out the corporate giants that claim indie cred… and it’s working. Brand Channel, Monday, revealed how the New York Yankees were shamed into re-flagging their “Craft Beer Destination” beer stand to something called “Beer Mixology Desitination” (whatever that means). The reason for the new signage: craft beer fans noted all the draught being dispensed at this particular beer stand was produced by breweries owned by MillerCoors, and therefore not craft beer at all.

To be clear, there’s no law on the books that sets out what can and cannot be called a craft beer – this is simply a (successful) Brewers Association branding scheme to convince the beer drinking public to reconsider the origins of what’s in their mug.

Technically, by Brewers Association standards, Goose Island is not a craft brewery, because more than 25% of its shares are owned by a non-craft brewer (Anheuser-Busch InBev). Even if the Chicago-based brewery’s annual production falls short of the six million barrel mark (the maximum threshold established by Brewers Association), and even if they use quality ingredients, and even if they’re creating delicious and inventive beers… Brewers Association doesn’t want you calling them “craft brewers.”

First Taste: Goose Island Comes to Canada

This week marks the first foray into Canada for Goose Island, now shipping two very fine beers – Sofie and Matilda – north of the border.  At the ceremonial launch last Thursday, Goose Island’s Education Director spoke candidly about how the craft beer community reacted to the brewery’s sale to AB InBev. “People wanted to burn us down,” Suzanne Wolcott told the lunch-time assembly at Nota Bene. Customers pledged to cut ties and staff started looking for new career opportunities.

What actually changed? According to Wolcott, AB InBev stepped up Goose Island’s production, expanded their distribution and “now they’re drug testing our brewers…” and that’s about it. (If you’re wondering, Wolcott says the HR department has been very helpful in finding ways to make sure the brewers pass their drug tests).

It would be easy to dismiss Goose Island based on its familial ties to Bud Light Lime, but I can’t do it.  I really enjoyed both beers. If your community-focused, independent-minded, locavore self can’t stomach that, that’s up to you.

Sofie (named for the founder’s granddaughter) is a Belgian-style farmhouse ale (a saison) that has a champagne like effervescence, with orange and vanilla flavours.  Made in two stages, the beer is aged in oak barrels for complexity, then mixed with new, un-aged Sofie, to give it a softer texture.

Matilda (named for Matilda of Tuscany, who according to legend, funded the establishment of the Orval Monastery; one of only eight Trappist breweries currently in existence) is Goose Island’s best selling Belgian-style ale, and has a more earthy taste than Sofie, with some fruitiness and spicy flavours like cloves.

How you do your shopping, really, is entirely up to you. My beer money mostly stays in this province, but I wouldn’t feel the least bit embarrassed to uncork a bottle of Goose Island. Good beer deserves to be appreciated for what it is.

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A Starter Lesson In All Things Beer

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

You’re a dedicated beer drinker. You raise a pint while your friends sip Pinot.  Their noses are sunk deep inside Burgundy glasses as the neck of a bottle reaches for your lips. Conversation turns to “terroir,” “tannins,” and “legs” while you’re cracking open your second. They’re detecting notes of “mocha” and “white pepper” and… wait… so are you?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a brewski for what makes it uncomplicated.  If there’s one huge advantage beer has over its viney cousin, it’s accessibility.  You can buy dozens of really good and widely ranging styles without missing the rent.  If one is your favourite just because it is, good on ya.   Bottoms up, my friend!

I’m not scribbling down a bunch of notes for the Standard because I want to create malt snobs.  In fact I worry the current paradigm shift to craft beer is going to create hordes of unbearable, hipster alumni, drinking Imperial fish taco ales with their little fingers in the air, sneering at me while I’m enjoying a Big Rock Traditional (the very drink that first turned me on to craft beer many, many hangovers ago).

I’ve been a beer habitué through three NHL work stoppages, but until recently I never gave much thought to what makes it my beverage of choice.  The writer in me feels a strong romantic attachment (in fact there’s an Amsterdam Spring Bock currently disappearing next to my laptop, at about 40 wpm). As a Prairie boy-moved-to-the-big-city there’s plenty of nostalgia associated with hoisting a bottle in questionable social situations. As an Hibernophile, of course, there’s novels of imagery I don’t need to describe for you – though it might not hurt to tell you a Hibernophile is a lover of all things Irish.  As a sports fan, well, beer’s just awesome.

Late last year, my wife (an angel, whose wings have brushed many a bar top) suggested I formalize my beer appreciation and enrol in the Prud’homme Beer Certification program. Merry Christmas to me!  Yup, I’m Rodney Dangerfield in “Back To School,” loving every intoxicating drop of course material and doing a Triple Lindy into each lesson’s homework.

Beer, my friend, is beautiful.  It’s history is as rich and far ranging as the many styles currently coming to market, and I can think of many worse ways to spend an afternoon than being Cliff Claven at the end of the bar, mouthing off about this beer and that.

To whet your own beer palette, five starter points to becoming a know-it-all (without becoming a dick):

1. You should always drink from a glass. Although I realizeI look far cooler swinging back a longneck while unleashing The Humpty Dance on an unsuspecting karaoke lounge, taking it straight from the bottle also forces carbonation into my gullet. That not only makes rapping more difficult, but also makes me bloated… which sucks when I’m “shakin’ and twitchin’ kinda like I was smokin’.”

Most breweries offer branded glasses, so grab one at the end of your next brewery tour (if you’re doing Steam Whistle’s be the hero that throws your hand up when they ask for volunteers… can’t tell you why, but trust me), and practice working it into your act during Rock Band.

2. Depending on the beer you’re drinking, look for “notes” the same way the wine folk do.  Mocha is more common than white pepper, especially in porters and stouts, but there are usually some easy associations like “citrus” that go with American-style Pale Ales (if citrus gets too easy, smell specifically for grapefruit or tangerine – this almost definitely comes from the hops). Drinking a German bock?  Look for banana, which comes from the yeast.

3. Speaking of Germanic things, the Reinheitsgebot is that which you likely know better as the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516.  Your friends might know that it allows for only four ingredients (barley, hops, yeast and water), but they probably have no idea that in the 16th century, yeast was an unknown, naturally-occuring ingredient. The act originally allowed for just the other three contributants.

Here’s a choice barstool nugget: In 1986, a Munich brewer was charged with using chemicals in his beer in direct contravention to the purity law.  So disgraced was Helmut Keininger, he killed himself in jail. Although the German Purity Law has since been replealed, many breweries right around the world – including Toronto’s Junction Craft Brewery – continue to adhere to the core four.

4. Germany gets another slow, reverential nod for helping to standardize and protect the Trappist designation, despite not having an active Trappist brewery. Mariawald still operates as a Trappist monastery in North Rhine-Westphalia, but hasn’t concocted a batch of beer in more than half a century.  Still, in 1997, they got together with the seven other Trappist breweries of the day (six in Belgium, one in The Netherlands) to create the International Trappist Association; a group effort to protect the Trappist brand. Since than, Austria’s Engelszell has also earned the seal of approval, and another Dutch Trappist monastery is currently building an on-site brewery.

5. In nearby Ireland, meanwhile, you’ve likely heard blood donors and nursing moms are given iron-rich Guinness to boost their stores. As one that has given 65 pints of O-Negative myself, I’m not one to discourage a reward for the recently drained, but My Goodness, My Guinness actually contains less than 3% of an adult’s recommended daily intake!

New moms, on the other hand, still might want to reach for a bottle of their own.  Hops and malt are both galactagogues (substances that promote lactation), so nursing becomes easier and the incessant screaming a bit more tolerable.  Everything in moderation, of course, but I would suggest McAuslan’s St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, as it has a good amount of hops and the oatmeal is a better galactagogue than straight-up barley. Furthermore, it’s one of the most favourably reviewed stouts in the world.

Is Sour Beer the Next Big Brew?

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

Is Sour Beer the Next Big Brew?

 

Photo: Dan Grant (@BrewScout)

There are some trends that scream to be embraced.  Television on demand, following R.A. Dickey  on Twitter (@RADickey43), tomato paste in a tube… they just make sense.

But sour beer?

This area has exploded with malty goodness in recent years.  Trying to keep track of the local brew scene is a bigger head spin than an IIPA keg stand.  Craft beer guide Mom ‘n Hops just listed its 100th Ontario brewer in February (breweries, brewpubs, contract brewers, nanobreweries) and LCBO sales of this province’s craft beer increased by nearly 30% in the last annual reporting period.

The good news story doesn’t end with the brewers, either.  Consumers are seeing an influx of new styles and events aimed at getting beer on a more even footing with wine, in terms of prestige, without sacrificing its competitive price advantage.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, wine is a factor in one of the biggest beer trends in Ontario right now.  I spoke to four industry experts about what’s driving the current enchantment with small batch brewskis, and each raised their hand at the suggestion of barrel aging. “Right now, a lot of brewers in Ontario are experimenting with barrel-aged beers,” says Mirella Amato, Proprietor at Beerology.ca and Canada’s only Master Cicerone. “While there have been barrel-aged beers brewed in Ontario for a number of years, these were few and far between, usually brewed to mark a special occasion. Starting last year, a number of Ontario breweries have brought in barrel aging programs and these breweries are now releasing a range of barrel-aged beers, with rich vanilla, coconut and toasted notes.”

Chris Burek, managing editor at Moms ‘n Hops, adds to that, noting that Scotch, bourbon and wine barrels are all adding their characteristic flavours to different types of beer, and pointing out that Ontario is home to one of only two cooperages in Canada (The Carriage House, Prince Edward County).

Note: If you can get your hands on an Old Kentucky Bastard, from Burlington’s Nickel Brook, you won’t be disappointed.

Two styles that are peaking right now are porters and stouts, notes Roger Mittag, creator of thePrud’homme Beer Certification Program, and driving force behind the Ontario Brewing Awards.  Evidence of the their eminence was fully on display earlier this month at Dark WaterSeries – 2013, which featured 23 different porters or stouts of the 39 dark beers on tap.

Note: My favourite right now is Harry Porter & The Fair Grounds Coffee Bean, from Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery.

Robert Pingitore is the owner of Bar Hop, which hosted Dark Water. Since opening last spring, the King Street West venue has been one of the most supportive locales for furthering beer appreciation. “Pubs are doing their part by teaming up with craft brewers to hold specific events, showcasing a particular brewer’s beers,” he explains, describing what has come to be known as a Tap Takeover. “Within my own establishment it’s important that when patrons visit Bar Hop they get a unique beer experience. That usually revolves around patrons trying beers they’ve never had before and getting a bit more information on the background of the beer, who brews it, type of style and ingredients used, et cetera. I try to educate the staff the best I can so they can help the patron choose a beer that’s right for them, changing people to craft ales one beer at a time.”

A  movement he sees gaining traction is cask-conditioned ales. “Cask Days’ attendance tripled this year, and I can only see it getting bigger.” The annual event started by Bar Volo in 2005, was so popular in 2012 that many casks went dry during the third session and partial refunds had to be issued, according to Burek.

“More and more people are also seeking out beers that have a sour flavour profile, which would be created by some wild yeast they use to brew, or the aging process,” add Pingitore.

That’s right, sour beer, which as the name implies, has a tart profile that some people – like this writer – find refreshing (think of how lemonade cuts your thirst on a hot day) and others find entirely off-putting.  The style already boasts a cult following stateside, and is now not-so-surreptitiously taking its message to public houses here.

Note: Bier Markt on King Street recently hosted the first ever Canadian pour of Rodenbach (Flanders Red Ale), which is revered in Europe. This is completely unlike any other sour beer you’re going to find in Ontario, and is only available on draught. I highly recommend trying it.

Now try to picture Molson and Labatt collaborating on a recipe. No, right? In the craft beer scene however…  “A lot of our brewers are getting together and sharing ideas, which is fantastic,” says Amato.  Bellwoods Brewery is one of the leaders locally, having already teamed up with renowned Evil Twin Brewing (formerly of Denmark, now in Brooklyn, New York), then again with Luc Lafontaine, former head brewer at Dieu du Ciel!, in Quebec.

Note: Look for Bellwoods’ second collab with Evil Twin – a barrel-aged, sour stout – to be released before long.

If sour or winey beers seem a little unconventional, Moms ‘n Hops’ Burek figures you’re just seeing the start of it. “Great Lakes did an oyster stout, HogsBack (Ottawa) released a bacon-based stout, Beau’s (Vankleek Hill) released another edition of their gruit (an ancient style that uses herbs in place of hops). There’s no doubt in my mind that brewers will pushing and breaking past the limits of what ingredients can be used in brewing. With so many breweries in Ontario now, brewers will need to find a way to stand out. F&M Brewery (Guelph) did a smoked meat and Brussels sprouts-infused cask beer for Cask Days.”

So who is drinking this stuff?  Increasingly it’s women, and they’re also taking more of a leadership role in the industry.  When I mentioned Mirella Amato is a Master Cicerone, what I neglected to say is she one of only a half dozen on the planet, and another of the original six is Nicole Erny, from the Bay Area in California.  That’s pretty decent representation in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Mittag’s Prud’homme program currently features nearly equal gender enrolment. “I’m actually really excited about the fact that more women are getting into the industry, and more women are becoming interested in beer,” he says, noting “it opens up the perception of beer to a higher level as well as brings in a new approach to selling and serving.”

Says Burek, “Women are really starting to appreciate beer now more than ever. At many festivals or events they can account for 50 per cent or more of the attendees. Women are also delving into the world of homebrewing, and even taking brewmaster positions, like Mary Beth Keefe at The Granite (Toronto).”

As far as what to expect in the coming months, “I think you will see more small brewers focusing on paler lagers such as pilsners, helles or even Kölsch styles,” figures Mittag. “Cans continue to be pushed as well as large format bottles. High alcohol Trappist styles are also on the horizon. There’s a huge trend out West to go big on the draught offerings with 60 to 100 taps not uncommon.” More festivals? Mittag says yes, “but they will be small, one-day events.”

Amato, meanwhile, is also looking ahead to an increase in seasonal beers and special releases. “This is a very exciting time for craft beer in this province and, if the past two months are any indication, I think there will also be a dramatically increased interest in craft beer from the general public.”

First Taste: Alexander Keith’s Hop Series

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

Those folks at Keith’s just might be on to something.

In recent years consumers have shown more interest in beer appreciation, paying an extra buck or two to craft brewers that proudly crow about their small batch goodness.

Big breweries meanwhile, are spending their big brewery marketing budgets to try to maintain their sales, while the little guys eat away at the overall share of the market.  In fact, the LCBO reported a 29.4% increase in Ontario craft beer sales in the last annual reporting period – nearly as impressive as the 35.2% growth the preceding year.  Meanwhile overall beer and cider sales in Ontario dropped 2% in the same period (from $932.2 million to $914 million).

Picture a hundred Berserker Davids taking on a handful of Goliaths and you’re witness to the current climate.  They’re a feisty lot, those micro guys and gals, and their indignation towards the corporate giants is palpable.

Keith’s, as a brand, is subject to much of the craft beer purists’ scorn, especially here in hop-obsessed Ontario, with frequent shrieks that the flagship India Pale Ale is not a true IPA (too little alcohol, not enough hops).  Interestingly, in the U.S., which also loves it some hoppy pale ales, Keith’s markets a Nova Scotia Style Pale Ale in place of its IPA.

Now the Halifax-born brewery is putting Humulus Lupulus front-and-centre with the recent launch of Keith’s Hop Series.  Starting with a Cascade Hop Ale, which is now on tap, the Hallertauer Hop Ale joins it this week in canned format (473 ml singles, and a 12-pack mixer featuring both styles) across the nation.

Simply put, this is Beer 101, aimed at the regular suds drinker with an interest in furthering their experience.  Both Cascade and Hallertauer are easy drinking, moderate alcohol (5.4% and 5.5%, respectively) and mashed with 100% malt… so none of the adjunct that craft beer aficionados revile.  Each batch is also dry-hopped (adding hops during the maturation stage) to increase flavour and aroma.

And this whole highfalutin’ process is part of the marketing. “The mission is about championing beer and educating beer drinkers around the country,” says Keith’s Brand Manager, Mike Bascom. “The more we talk to beer drinkers, the more we realized people didn’t know much about it.”

But therein lies some risk. If you start telling people that Hop Series is brewed with 100% malt, do they begin to question what the hell is in the other stuff?  Bascom figures that won’t be the case. “No, I don’t think so.  It’s an opportunity to expose the drinkers to new styles,” he maintains, while pointing out the IPA is still the number one speciality beer in Canada “by a long shot.” Those who like it, like it a lot.

There’s a reason Keith’s (which has been a subsidiary of Labatt since 1971… which is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev… which is headquartered in Belgium) still packages its fermented wort in Halifax, under the name of its original Scottish founder.  People are doggedly loyal to the East Coast branding.  Understanding that, Keith’s is brewing all of Hop Series in Nova Scotia, for distribution across Canada.

The price point on the new Hop Series is at a “slight premium” to Keith’s other brands. Depending on the success of the first two, others could follow.  Bascom says they’re currently playing around with hops from as far off as Australia, and as close as Canada, but wouldn’t tip his hand when pressed for a hint on Hop #3.

Give Keith’s credit. They may not always be brewing the most interesting beers, but unlike most of their mass-brewed brethren they’re taking a risk here by promoting education instead of imagery. If the head-to-head experiment fails it will be forgotten faster than Labatt Copper (remember X vs. Y, circa 1995? … probably not).  If it works however, it could be a bold step into a whole new product segment; an actual learning experience that turns ignorant palettes into budding scholars.

It’s not the micro-brewers that will suffer if Hop Series does what it sets out to do, but rather the bloated giants who have relied for years on drinkers thinking about Clydesdales and pond hockey rather than what’s in their pint glass.

Frankly, these two new brews are worth trying. Would I buy them, myself? Well… let’s just say if someone put one in front of me, I wouldn’t push it away.

Beer as part of a healthy lifestyle