Monday, May 28, 2012

Halifax, NS Beer Scene Roundup

I am in Halifax for work. Rather than process my notes, it is probably just as instructive to post them in their entirety:-

Halifax beer notes: Day One.

Place: Henry House (3oz samplers followed by a pint of the red)

Best Bitter
Decent, malty, casked with usual character. Bit thin. Not bitter.

Best Bitter Special
As above but dry-hopped with fuggles. Not overly detectable in this small sampler. A larger glass might have opened the aromas, but otherwise identical.

Modeled on Theakston's. Award-winning, but award not specified. Is indeed rather malty. Scotch whisky coloured, moderately thick head. As drinkable as OP but without the leathery notes of the original.

Keefe's Irish Stout
Very light for a stout. Closer to a dark mild in colour. Redder than a porter. Nitro-tapped. Decent body. Roasted bitterness is too light, but probably within range for an irish style? Have to check. Smells mainly of dust, to be honest.

Despite a little vegetal character, probably the best of the lot so far. Light colour: toward pale honey. It's a pale blond ale (whatever that means) hopped with Oregon fuggles. Gently hoppy. Dry and mildly apple-ish in the finish. What might constitute a collection of small flaws actually combines in a very drinkable beer.

Propeller IPA
Bitter. Light side of orange. No detectable head. Presumably also casked as it's flattish. Bittering hops dominate, very little aroma or flavour. Wouldn't order another.

Haddock and chips. Batter is underdone and mealy. Fish seems decent quality. Fairly well priced at $14 for two medium sized fish. The chips are the best bit. Darkish, double-fryed, and curly, with occasional scabs of skin. Coleslaw (poor) and tartare (decent) in prepared plastic containers — one of the worst customs of pub food. Smacks of no attention, regardless of ingredient quality.

McAuslan Oatmeal Stout
Bit of a write-off. Nitro tap, but to its detriment. Guinness works due to the slight sourness. This is just bland. Nitro should be used carefully. THis beer is calling out for some zing, and if the ingredients don't have it, the CO2 better had.

Garrison Irish Red Ale
*first one in a pint pot.
CO2, red as you could expect. Slight odor of straw and subtle hops. Very light body, which is good, as the hop profile couldn't carry much weight. Perfect carbonation. Mild blackberry smell coming off this one. Mildly uriney smell. That said, it's still drinkable.

Service: very good. Amiable, not over-indulgent, spotted two samplers in response to my queries.  

Place: Rogue's Roost

Decent. Citrusy, mid bitterness. Red colour. Thought it was the red ale initially. Slightly sryupy, without the bitterness to carry it off. Decent pint. Better than the Propeller.

Place: Hart and Thistle

Double Citra SMASH IPA
Murky mid orange colour. 2mm head, but lacing apparent immediately on pour. Looks like a 355 pour in a pub that's half mall, half mock-tudor "english" pub. Very good. Bitter as fuck. Probably not the 100IBUs but close to (chalkboard says "100+IBUs 7.5%") Mildest hint of feta cheese on the nose. More piney than I'd expect from a pure citra hop brew. A hint of chamomile nose comes through the rest. Very clean and dry. Despite some syrup on the mouthfeel, I'd put this as well attenuated, perhaps down to 1.010 or less. Lacing is gloopy, sticky, but sparse.

From the Hart and Thistle Brewer's blog*: (by the way, check out the "Messie" series on this blog. Accoriding to one of the H&T chefs, #3 is landing in August rather than in two weeks as the blog suggests)
Vital Stats:
Gravity - 17.3 P/1.071
IBU's - 100+ (324 Calculated)
Hop Rate - 8.2 lbs/bbl
ABV - 7.5 %
Colour ~ 7.0 SRM
Malt - Pale Ale
Hops - Citra

Notes on the above:

7.5 abv is not quite apparent, which I credit the hops for (rather than a lack of actual abv). It is very bitter. Colour is misreported from my sample. Looking at the SRM chart, I'd put this at 13, possibly 14.

Rock Bottom
They may well have a selection of local brews (brewed by Nash who also brews at Hart and Thistle), but they also have Peche Mortel in bottles. Either way, they did not have the Coffee IPA reported on the brewer's blog (the fact that it was tapped on Saturday and is absent come Monday illustrates Halifax's craft beer fanboys are good and keen at least). Peche it is then. Goodnight.

*"Nash" brews — from what I can ascertain from his wonderfully scattered blogposts — a massively impressive range of weird and edgy beers. Please do visit H&T and RockBottom if you get the chance. Plus, he swooped for the email address, so it's chutzpahx10.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

LDB Privatization: Gift Horse or Trojan Horse?

Many BC drinkers will have read the extraordinary news that parts of our province's antiquated Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) are likely to be privatized by 2014. As someone who is already involved in a campaign to change the LDB, you might expect me to cheer. If this turns out well, it will save me a lot of time organizing and circulating E-petitions. But this is a very dangerous time! Be vigilant.

First of all it is important to understand what's being proposed. The LDB consists of liquor stores, warehouses, and administration. The 197 retail stores are not being touched at this time, but under the new system will presumably pay the same wholesale price as private liquor stores (BC LDB currently buys direct and marks up wholesale for private stores).

It is the warehouses that are to be sold. They currently serve 1400 retailers and 8000 bars and restaurants. BC Liberals are selling these assets off to balance the books, but also because the current system is a "dog's breakfast", in the words of BC Energy Minister Rich Coleman who is currently tasked with overseeing the LDB.

Whoever controls the warehouses controls the beer supply: what gets bought from brewers, what gets sold, where, and for how much.

What makes the LDB such a hound's brunch is that it is set up to penalize producers by depriving them of operating costs (currently, the LDB takes breweries' beer, sells it, and THEN pays them, after weeks if not months of wandering around with brewers' cash in their pockets). BC Liquor Stores are also run in a horrendous manner, with 12–foot sections of floorspace devoted to 6 packs, 12 packs, 18 packs, 24 packs etc of shitty US big-brand import beers, while local craft beer producers have to grovel to all-powerful portfolio managers just to get a single shelf spot for an entire line of products.

Beer Store: 247 Flavours of Not Good

So any reform is good, right? Well, not necessarily. Have you ever heard of Ontario's The Beer Store? It is a privately-owned retail/distribution operation that works alongside the LCBO and is afforded bizarre rights to control much of the beer sales in the whole province. What's worse is that The Beer Store's owners are — you guessed it — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson and (with a tiny share) Sleeman (Sapporo). So you have big corporate beer deciding how much craft beer gets sold. Unsurprisingly, a visit to one of the hellish Beer Stores reveals a dismal dearth of decent drink. Ask any Ontario craft beer drinker or producer and they will tell you that their system is brutal and certainly oppressive.

But that doesn't mean that BC's warehouses will end up in similar hands, does it? Maybe not, and what's being proposed currently is nothing like as significant as the Beer Store reforms — at least not yet… In the interests of some worst-case-scenario conjecture, let's do some quick sleuthing eh?
Can you see where I'm going with this?

Anyone who cares about beer, wine, music, love, or life itself, should pay careful attention to LDB privatization developments, and get ready to support a consumer-based campaign to make sure that any reforms are truly in the best interests of BC drinkers and producers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Lighthouse Belgian Black

Lighthouse gave me a bottle of Belgian Black to review this week. This doesn't happen to me very often. I have long harboured a fantasy of utterly panning a freebie just to prove I have integrity. Maybe that's why I don't get too many. On this occasion, I'm happy to risk looking like a sell-out, because I really like this beer.

A belgian black called Belgian Black. Not much to go on here. I anticipate something like Trois Pistoles as it's the blackest belgian-style beer I regularly drink. That or a dark dark dubbel that's not actually that black once you get it out of the (attractive) matte black frosted bottle.

The beer is brewed with a Belgian Ardennes yeast strain: more evidence that Lighthouse is taking things seriously (they have a reputation for being yeast sticklers). I enjoy Keepers Stout, and I'll drink a Beacon IPA from time to time, but Lighthouse hadn't tempted me too much until they ramped up the quality and invention with the Big Flavour series. Deckhand was a lovely saison and Uncharted is practically the only "Belgian IPA" worth drinking.

So the Black comes with some pedigree, yet still puts the bar into near orbit. It has the charcoal, roasted qualities of an imperial stout — with seared walnuts and some dry cocoa. But where you'd expect a battering ram body to follow, BB is lighter, almost dainty, with a fresh plummy flavour. There's a fair bit of booziness, but it is sweet enough to carry it off. Although not of the same flavour, the mixture reminds me of blackcurrant-liquorice candies I ate as a child — a confectionary contradiction greater than the sum of its parts.

Not only is Belgian Black the best of the "Big Flavour" series (which has had high highs and middling lows), but the style strikes me as the most promising and necessary of all the North American/Belgian crossovers we are mercilessly subjected to. Lighthouse should be doubly commended for underlining that fact with some authority. Nice one.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review Roundup

Homebrewing is a form of mental illness, of that there is no doubt. My free time is currently being devoured by researching hop filters, attending yeast lectures, and watching time-lapse youtubes of fermentation. An anthropologist from Alpha Centuri would freak out trying to make sense of it all.

In order to restore some normalcy, let's drink some palatable commercial beers and write a blog post, just like the old days.

First up, fresh off of Phillips' increasingly frenetic production line, is the Michael Lewis Pilsner. Phillips' output is of such prolific mediocrity that — I must admit — I do not even get too excited to sample them anymore (do I really need to drink an India Pale Lager to know a. it's gonna make me mad and b. it's not going to be as good as Brooklyn Lager?).

But the MLPilsner is an exception. This beer is based on a recipe designed by the winner of the 2011 CAMRA Amateur Brewing Competition—Michael Lewis—who is a fellow member of Island home brewers club BrewVIC, an all-round nice guy, and a dinner guest at my house tonight. The pilsner has "that Phillips taste" to it, I'm guessing due to their house yeast. It's a decent pilsner with a somewhat green-tea bitterness and the odour of a well-leafed paperback. Pleasant, and all the more so because a mate had a hand in it.

Second is a beer I was very excited to try: La Roja from Jolly Pumpkin. JP are my favourite 'wild' beer specialists if only because of Oro de Calabaza (the "Bam" series are also fantastic). La Roja is an amber ale given the spontaneous fermentation treatment, and it is a success. The beer is a radiant reddish hue, perhaps unexpectedly so given that it is an amber. It tastes characteristically tart and vinegary, but a lot cleaner and less horsey than the Oro. A glimmer of hops manage to shine through the champagne dryness, making this a beautifully refreshing, not-so-challenging sour. Great stuff.

Third is a triptych of newer Driftwood beers. All fantastic, which rids me of the dirty feeling I've had ever since I panned their double IPA. You might argue that Fat Tug is two years old now, but not to my mind. Fat Tug was pretty stellar when it first came out, but there was always something slightly brutish and heavy-in-the-mouth about it that makes the prospect of a bomber seem quite an ordeal.  I often hovered my hand over the 'Tug in the liquor store before choosing something more straightforward — like if someone offers you crazy whips'n'chains sex when all you really feel like is a quickie.

But the last 5–6 bottles of Fat Tug have been different. More refined, richer in aromatic hops, less syrup and orange peel, a dash of melon. It could all come down to perception or fluctuation of ingredient qualities, but I find myself unbuckling at the site of it these days, which can only be good.

Sartori has always been the best fresh-hop IPA we can get. First year was incredible; consensus is that last years' was pretty good; this year's is once again awesome. For the first time, this year's Sartori is brewed solely from local maltster Mike Doehnel's (read this) malt, which is a nice way to round off the local vibe imparted by Christian Sartori's Chilliwack(ish)-born hops. Forthright, smooth and exploding with hop aroma. Wonderful.

Finally, the much-anticipated Bird of Prey series (it's a f***king SERIES!) Flanders Red Ale. I knew this was in the works a year ago. Every time I asked Jason about it he'd make mystical sounds about it being sort of ready but not quite ready. Patience has clearly paid off because this is a lovely, lovely sour ale. Not as sweet as I have come to expect from a Flanders Red (blame Duchesse), the Bird of Prey is actually not a million miles away from La Roja. It is an assertive sour, but not a mouth-gusher. The strength (7.5% apparently) is completely disguised by a beguiling palate of sour cherry, lychee and dry cider. Others have attributed "complex" and "oaky" to it, but I identify with neither description (I am curious as to what it would have tasted like were it not aged in barrels for a year). The biggest charm of this beer is its straightforward refreshment and addictiveness. No palate fatigue whatsoever, which is incredible for the style. My advice: find a falconer and invest in a decent sized aviary. Fast.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moving over to the Dark Side

One of the reasons I haven't written much here recently is my new hobby of homebrewing. No, I am not so absorbed in improving brewhouse efficiency and mastering recipe-crafting that I have no time to write (although these are very absorbing subjects).

The main problem is that brewing makes you look at beer differently, disturbing your once-sturdy perspective as a purely "demand-side" blogger. It takes a while to acclimatize and rediscover that comfortable, blinkered self-righteousness that allowed you to inflict your views on others in the first place. I'm nearly there…

Here are a few observations gleaned from my young homebrewing career that have changed my perspective on beer.

1. It is not easy to make good beer
Most of the homebrewing books I read return to the mantra over and over that brewing might seem challenging, but it is essentially simple. In the grand scale of creative industries, brewing may well be "simple" in that it involves a few basic processes and chemical reactions, but it is still bloody tough to get right. I now feel like a douchebag for reviewing beers as "pedestrian" or "unremarkable" when I'd now consider either term to be an accolade if applied to my own offerings.

2. Someone makes beer
Well, duh. Lots of beer bloggers (me included) know personally some of the brewers behind commercial beers. But when we buy their stuff in a pub or a liquor store, it has the nice label and it's all standardized and we feel the authoritative reassurance of the brewery when we confidently pop the cap and suck. When a fellow homebrewer hands me a beer, I furtively look him over. Is he basically trustworthy? Does he look hygienic? Is she someone whose judgment and ability to do stuff properly in her general life impresses me? My first sips of that person's beer are full of trepidation and concern. I sense myself preparing to reject the beer as unacceptable at the merest hint of an off flavour — far more so, bizarrely, than if they had just made me a sandwich.

3. Drinking sessions have become episodes of CSI
Two months ago I had but the vaguest idea of what DMS, acetaldehyde, or oxidation were. I now know that those charming, mysterious notes that wafted in and out of my palate as I supped a complex beer are faults that must be remedied and resisted. Likewise, even the most desirable of intended flavours must be explained by my inquisitive mind as some product of ingredient, process or equipment. This is so much better than being able to sit and merely enjoy a beer…

I am enjoying brewing very much. I'm into my third batch now and things have come a long way since I ineptly fumbled my way through brewing a stout (which was just bottled at a ridiculously undershot 2% ABV!). Brewing is something I will be doing for a long time, I am sure of that. But I will say this: I had no idea of what I was letting myself in for.

Our homebrew setup

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When beer gets in the way of writing about beer

Too often a blogger slips in from an absence with a credible excuse about being busy with real life. I have not written in close to two weeks for much better reasons, and all of them to do with beer.

1. Great Canadian Beer Festival
The GCBF took place the weekend before last. My saintlike wife encouraged me to attend both days. I obliged. It was blisteringly hot, but the quality of the beer was excellent. Unlike previous years, I was "working" for much of the festival this time round.

2. BrewVIC
I am one of the "founding members" of Victoria's new home brewers' association/guild "BrewVIC". The website is in advanced beta at the moment under the guidance of Dave S. I compiled a links page of my favourite homebrew resources, I'd welcome any additional suggestions from kind readers… You didn't know that I brewed? Well, I don't…

3. Building a homebrew setup
…Yet. For the last month I have been attacking four empty kegs with angle grinders, drills, spigots, hoses and dirty great propane burners. Dave (from beerontherock) and I have finally completed our brewing system and will give it a maiden brewage with a stout in the very near future. A future blog post is earmarked for a photo rundown of what we have done so far.

4. Campaign
Readers may remember that I recently began to look into the nature of CAMRA in Canada. This project — which began as journalistic curiosity — has morphed into something more. Part of my research involved asking local brewers and retailers "What is the biggest impediment to good beer in BC?" They gave a very consistent set of replies relating to certain regulations and practices of our dear, government Liquor Distribution Branch. This inspired me to learn more, get in touch with lots of other potential-activists, and begin a campaign to promote some changes. I collected lots of signatures for a petition at the GCBF, and there is a small Facebook group setup. If you're a BC good beer drinker, give it a look. I think we stand a chance of going somewhere with it.

Time for a beer in the last of the sun, then I'll think about writing a proper blog post.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Favourite Beer Glass

Ian is aroused by a variety of glassware; I am more monogamous. If I had to drink every beer from only one glass I would choose the O-Riedel Cabernet/Merlot "wine" glass. My usual drinking glass is a Unibroue standard, which falls somewhere between a tulip and a flute, and is elegant and suitable for many styles.  If I am drinking while going about some task, like assembling furniture or fussing over the barbecue, I like to use a no-nonsense contoured pint glass. I was recently gifted a nice fat Duvel tulip, which is grandiose but a little much for most occasions. Even ordinary wine glasses are perfect sometimes.

But the Riedel is easy to hold and the circumference of the rim feels natural to drink from. It is capable of holding a whole pint, but looks best half or two-thirds full, which is just right for home drinking. The thin and invisibly clear glass makes for vivid, honest photographs. Washing the fragile vessels can be nerve-jangling, but aren't most of our favourite things vulnerable and fleeting?