Tag Archives: Toronto Standard

Your Advance Guide to Toronto’s Festival of Beer

Originally published in the Toronto Standard
Toronto's Festival of Beer
Toronto’s Festival of Beer

Five years ago I made my first trek to Toronto’s Festival of Beer, full of hope for a day full of hops. Not-so-inexpensive ticket purchased, I wandered down to Fort York and started the sampling.

First impression: Too many frat boy types

Second impression: Too little shelter from the sun

Third impression: Way too many frat boy types

The next year, I didn’t go back.

By 2011 however, I was contributing beer related articles to a magazine, so my tickets were comp’d. The venue had moved to the Exhibition Grounds, and several new breweries had popped up around the province. Things had improved considerably and by the following year – last year, from whence these photos originated – my biggest complaint was drunkenly losing my lens cap.

Yeah, jackasses still show up and it’s not a cheap way to pass an afternoon, but without a doubt this is a quality day out. The site is open, much easier to navigate, and offers a range of other beer-related experiences that enhance the sampling.

Big Wreck
Big Wreck on the big stage (Photo: Dan Grant)
Big Wreck
Loving Steam Whistle, loving Big Wreck (photo: Dan Grant)

TFOB used to hand out an “Enjoyment Guide” to enhance the guest experience, but this year’s edition opted for an app instead (it goes live July 17th). This year’s fest is July 26 – 28, but to help you pre-plan and really get the most of your big day out, I offer this:

  1. Don’t wait to get your tickets. Saturday is already sold out.
  2. I wore a Vitamin B1 patch, which is widely thought to prevent hangovers, to the 2012 event. Whether or not its effectiveness was all in my head didn’t really matter because my head was fine the next day.  It worked for me the same way milk thistle does wonders for others. If you want to minimize the next day’s suffering, purchase your hangover preventative ahead of time (surprisingly, last year, nothing of the sort was sold on-site).
  3. I’m also a big fan of bringing travel-size hand sanitizers to events like this. There’s a whole village of portable toilets and no way to police who else is using the handwash stations. Drinking lowers your defences. This is an easy barrier to apply.
  4. Sunscreen… trust me, the novelty Steam Whistle hats are a special kind of greatness, but they aren’t magic.
  5. Bring a bag. There’s plenty of swag to be had. Have it!
  6. This has been an especially wet spring / summer.  If your Vitamin B1 patch isn’t repelling the mosquitoes you should probably have something else that will.
  7. Plan your route.  The 2012 guide boasted more than 200 brands of beer to choose from, and they were very spread out.  It’s worth noting that money buys position, so it’s going to be easier to find beef jerky than a Berliner Wiesse.
  8. Be prepared for the smell.  It’s right near Lake Ontario, so that’s one thing. Portable Toilet Village is another experience altogether.  Then there are unexpected treasures the younger set tend to leave behind when they become light struck.
  9. Work within your limits.  Your ticket gets you in the gate and a taster size cup that goes with you from booth to booth (don’t lose it… replacements are not free). From there it’s up to you how much you will drink, and it’s your wallet that decides.  Tokens are $1.00 each (non-refundable), and drinks are either one or two discs each.
  10. Get it into your head that when it’s done, it’s done.  Toronto’s Festival of Beer is under a special licensing agreement which allows the event to be held in a public space.  Respect last call and don’t shout at the staff who have no control over the matter. Vendors can’t keep serving when the licence runs out.

If you’re really planning ahead, hang on to the tokens you don’t use. Last year I collected  a bunch that other people threw away at the end of Sunday, and added them to the few left in my pocket.  According to TFOB’s website, the same tokens get used year after year.

Great Lakes
Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale Hearse (photo: Dan Grant)

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Last week I wrote about the barrel-aged trend that is becoming increasingly popular.  In addition to Sawdust City’s, also be on the lookout for barrels from Nickel BrookFlying MonkeysGreat Lakes and Beau’s Fellow beer specialist Sam Gould (@TheBarleyBabe) and I took the initiative to try a couple of them. Here’s a small taste of what you will be tasting.

Nickel Brook’s Old Kentucky Bastard (10.0%)

Started as: Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout

Pours: black, with a creamy, mocha head

Nose: Bourbon, dates, dark cherry

Look for: Ruby Port-like aroma

Palate: cold coffee, chocolate, booziness, Christmas cake, vanilla

Finish: long, smooth and slightly bitter

Flying Monkey’s The Matador Imperial India Pale Ale (10%)

Pours: hazy, burnt orange with an eggshell, foam head

Nose: wood, almost exclusively

Look for: grapefruit pith

Palate: pine, pineapple, toffee

Finish: Long and nicely bitter

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When Wood Meets Beer

Originally published in The Toronto Standard
Dan Grant explores the barrel-aged beer trend at Sawdust City brewery.

When Wood Meets Beer

Nestled in a dimly lit corner of an Etobicoke brewerySawdust City‘s head brewer pulls the bung from one of several stacked barrels. Aaron Spinney then inserts a plastic tube and — using his thumb to seal off the airflow — he lifts out some rarely disturbed liquid.  Releasing the uncarbonated brew into a nearby glass, Spinney drops the hose back in to the barrel, draws more beer and repeats the process until the glass is reasonably full. Then he fills another glass. Then another.

It’s not everyday that Toronto’s Festival of Beer sets you up on a blind date with barrels.  Neatly organized vessels, like something from the set of Donkey Kong, hold cargo very few people have been allowed to sample. For months this beer has seen less action than the Toronto chapter of the Yunel Escobar fan club. On this day, however, with Spinney and fellow beer specialist Sam Gould (@TheBarleyBabe), I’m getting a preview of what’s to come.

The area is meticulously maintained. It might be weakly lit, but it’s violently clean to ensure nothing prevents these brews from writing their intended conclusions. Each recipe needs a bit more time to mature before it will be allowed to enlighten beer drinkers around the GTA.

For an added twist, the good Sawdust folks also tossed 20 kilos of frozen cherries into a couple of these drums (one of which has been dubbed “Dawson’s Kriek,” and has all kinds of fruited goodness built into it).

Sawdust City is just one of many breweries going this route. To celebrate its 25th anniversary last year, Great Lakes Brewery released several barrel-aged bottles, including a very popular Audrey Hopburn (a Belgian IPA, aged in a Pinot Noir barrel) and Robust Porter (an American Porter, aged in a Bourbon barrel). From Mill Street‘s Barley Wine, which is aged in Jack Daniels barrels, to the Spanish cedar that flavours Flying Monkey‘s The Matador. Wood and beer are proving to be a popular combo.

Just how popular?  The 2012 edition of the Ontario Brewing Awards gave a bronze to Cameron’sAmerican Whiskey Barrel in the category of Flavoured Beer.  By the time this year’s edition of the OBAs rolled around, Barrel Aged was its own category.  Next year it’s expected to be split into three separate judging planks.

South of the border, the 2011 Great American Beer Festival (Denver, Colorado) boasted 40 barrel-aged entries in 2011.  So successful was that, 2012’s edition had four styles to differentiate. This year, two of those categories have been subdivided further for a total of six sets of awards to be handed out.

The beauty of the barrel is so much more than just its previous occupant. As Spinney – who’s spending an increasing amount of time geeking out on the subject – explained to us, the character of the wood is not just influenced by what it came in contact with, but also the type of tree, its age and even the time of year it’s harvested. To add to the calculation, each time a barrel is re-used, it loses about 25 per cent of its original character. Selecting a container isn’t as simple as picking a shirt for your kid to wear – this is choosing which boarding school will raise your wee tyke.

If you’re muttering to yourself, “This ain’t new, Budweiser has been beechwood-aged since horses pulled wagons of beer,” give yourself half marks.  Bud does come in contact with beechwood slats during the lagering (storage) stage, but that’s done to smooth out the texture – not, God forbid, to excite your palate.

If you’re able to get your hands on some of Sawdust City’s offerings, here’s a guide Sam and I put together to give you an idea of what to expect.

Scotch Barrel: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: honey / auburn colour

Nose: floral nose, peaches, scotch, wood, honey

Look for: a scent similar to corn flakes

Palate: slightly tart, smooth, wood, baked green apple,

Finish: smooth

Bourbon Barrel (the barrel started at Claremont Springs, Kentucky): 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: nutty, auburn colour

Nose: toffee, burnt sugar, wood, red licorice, caramel, apple, Bourbon, strawberries, plum

Look for: slight barnyard aroma

Palate: vanilla, wood, slight apple tartness, burnt orange, some smokiness

Finish: medium bitter

Dawson’s Kriek: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: cherry mahogany colour, slight haze

Nose: huge cherry, barnyard, country time lemonade, cocoa bitterness

Look for: a bit of Pinot

Palate: Amarena cherries, dark cocoa palate, lemon zest

Finish: tart, but sweet

[Still to be named, brewed for WVRST] 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: hazier, slightly darker

Nose: less farmhouse, more tart cherry, lemon, wooden

Look for: vanilla bean (as it breathes)

Palate: sour cherry, slight cocoa, some smokiness

Finish: lingering

The Princess Wears Girl Pants meets ODB (a Tripel) 9.0%

Started as: Sawdust City’s The Princess Wears Girl Pants Belgian Golden Ale

Pours: golden apple / honey

Nose: peach, wood, chardonnay

Look for: grapeseed

Palate: sweet, white grape (big time), boozy

Finish: slightly bitter, with some cashew-like aftertaste

Dispatch from the Ontario Brewing Awards

(Originally published in The Toronto Standard)

Dan Grant reports on the winners, runners-up and the minor controvery at the 10th annual OBAs

Photo: Dan Grant
Photo: Dan Grant

If you passed by the Gladstone Hotel Tuesday evening, you might think beards – not beers – were being judged inside. They’re a furry lot, those brewers who occupied the Queen West landmark. Many resemble what I imagine the Gladstone’s original visitors looked like in 1889.

This mild, spring evening however, was indeed about handing out the Ontario Brewing Awards; a mostly celebratory affair (although one winner received a less-than-enthusiastic salute) that brought together many of the province’s better known and lesser known brewers for some good-natured networking and bragging rights.

Last year, just over 30 entrants submitted 160 beers for judging. This year, the 10th Anniversary of the OBAs, 46 breweries sent in close to 220 unique blends.

One of the chief architects of the annual event, Roger Mittag, says the OBAs have seen huge growth in the past three or four years, and 2014 should be even bigger, with about half a dozen new categories.

Best Barrel Aged beer, for one, will likely be split into more defined subdivisions.  This year’s winner was Amsterdam’s Order & Chaos; a Belgian wheat beer aged in Chardonnay barrels.  Runner-up honours went to Great Lakes’ 25th Anniversary Bourbon Ale, while Cameron’s VSPA (aged in Cognac barrels) took home bronze.  Next year, expect to see barrel enhanced brews split between those done with wine, brandy, and whiskey notes.

Most of this year’s prize takers can be seen on the Ontario Brewing Awards website, although two of the big victors aren’t listed; top overall beer was awarded to Amsterdam Brewery, for its Spring Bock (a doppelbock), and best new brewery went to Ottawa’s Big Rig.

The low point in the evening was the announcement, or the reaction to the announcement (depending who you speak with) of Labatt winning best Belgian Style Wheat Beer for Shock Top.  A low, protracted groan greeted the news, with several not-so-quiet mutterings of it not really being an Ontario beer.

Mittag begs to differ. “It’s made in Ontario.” Full stop.

At the mention of the Anheuser-Busch product primarily being brewed outside Canada, Mittag defends the judging, saying the rules are clear. “My point is, you could put Keith’s in, because Keith’s is made in Ontario.  When we made the criteria for brewers to enter we made the criteria quite simple: you have to brew the beer for commercial purposes in Ontario.”

Dispatch from the Ontario Brewing Awards

Photo: Dan Grant (@BrewScout)

“It bothers me when people make comments like that, because everything I do, I do to open up the industry, so that big brewers and small brewers can share in the opportunity. Labatt is a very good quality brewer, and they make good beer.  This is not a craft brewing award. This is a beer award,” stressed Mittag.

It’s worth noting all the beers were juried blindly, which makes it all that more interesting that the expert judging panel draped a gold medal not just around the neck of a bottle from Labatt, but also Niagara Teaching College (a school) and Magnotta (primarily a winery).

It’s also worth pointing out that the beers are being judged according to predefined criteria – how experts say a fruit beer should look, taste and feel – not on what your senses say. BlogTO’s Ben Johnson offers several more criticisms in his most recent blog post.

Generally though, as Johnson also acknowledges, this is a very well organized and positive event— and that’s testament to the goodwill the industry has cultivated.  “It’s going to continue to grow,” insists Mittag. “That’s a cool thing. It really is about celebrating Ontario brewers, and we’ve got some really great beers and I think everybody needs to know that.  It’s about celebrating beer as a whole.”