Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toast of Christmas Past

This Christmas I was blessed with an unexpected beery gift, courtesy of my 19-year-old self. How? As I mentioned, I visited my family in England recently. While browsing through my dad's wine cellar (i.e. garage) I found two dusty boxed beers that I remembered buying for him many years ago. For some beautiful reason, he'd neglected to drink them for thirteen years. Being a red-wine and scotch fanatic, he didn't mind too much when I packed them into my suitcase.

One of the beers is a bit special: a 1997 Fullers Vintage Ale. Fullers Vintage Ale is brewed in fairly small lots each year, and is recommended for aging. The beer is an "old ale" (malt heavy, brandy-like, dark, and very strong), and the recipe changes a little each year. 1997 was the first year of production for this beer, which makes this quite a rare find. My bottle was numbered #669 of only 85,000 produced — subsequent years have seen bigger batches, but never more than the 165,000 produced in 2010.

The other beer is a Shepherd Neames 1997 Christmas Ale. This beer is only 6.7% ABV compared with the Fullers' 8.5%. It is a darkish, spiced beer — reminiscent of a lighter scotch ale. Although Shepherd Neames is credited with being Britain's oldest active brewery (dating back to the 1700s), its Christmas Ale is slightly less prestigious than Fullers. Dave — who I invited over for the tasting — and I held out little hope for this one, but we were still excited to have two thirteen-year-old beers to compare.

We decided to taste both beers before Christmas dinner, fearing the palate-deadening effects of turkey, champagne and Christmas pudding. In early afternoon, over a cheese plate, we cracked the 'Neame first after leaving it outside the backdoor for an hour to bring it down to cellar temp.

We half expected it to have spoiled, noting the 1998 best-before date on the label. But apart from a sourish whiff upon opening, and a dirty-looking ring of sediment around the neck, the beer seemed perfectly fine. It had retained a fair bit of carbonation — exhibiting only slightly less than you'd expect from a fresh bottle of a similar style. The beer was sweetish, with orange-juice malt, and a very dull spiciness. It ended with a burned bitterness that was not particularly lovely, and both Dave and I noted that the spice had fared poorly (presuming it was pronounced when originally brewed). Not bad, but not a remarkable beer. Went well with stilton. Aside from some marked oxidation, there was little sign of thirteen years of aging effects —either positive or negative.

For the Fullers, we decided to run a 1997 vs 2010 comparison. Even though the recipe has changed, Fullers have kept it reasonably consistent so we thought it was a valid exercise. Again, both beers sat outside for an hour or so to take the edge off. The '97 poured a lot darker and murkier, and it was less carbonated, but like the 'Neames, it still had a fair bit of fizz. The aroma was markedly more powerful from the older beer: a sourish note and a slug of dark fruit, whereas the '10 was more akin to ginger ale in appearance and smell.

Taste-wise, the '97 blew the '10 away, in my opinion. To be fair, the beer is meant to be aged (3–4 years for peak results, according to Fullers). It was surprisingly hoppy, with a rich sherry tang. The malts were brutish slugs of brandy and near-burned toffee. There was a mysterious flavour that I described as "marzipan", but I failed to put my finger on what it was. It reminded me of a blackcurrant coughsweet at times too, but that sounds crap. The main impression was warmth and depth. The alcohol was prominent, but it was a such a flavourful beer that you welcomed the kick. The 2010, on the other hand, was thinner, with a ginger-ale tartness and a strong suggestion of pumpkin spices. It had a briney quality that worked with the relative sweetness. I liked the 2010 very much, but I think this beer really would do better with a bit of aging, and it was massively unfair to pit it against the '97, which was great. Whether the '97 had improved or not I cannot say without an account of earlier tastings of the '97, but this was an exceptional drink to my taste, and Dave loved it too.

This was my first tasting of a seriously old beer.  I really enjoyed the anticipation of the experience, especially as the '97 lived up to my giddy hype. It set us up for a pretty solid Christmas dinner, and as you can see, a fair few other beer treats capped off a great day (along with a Southern Tier Iniquity — not pictured here).
Two thank-yous:
First, Dave, for bringing beers and fine company.
Second, my Dad, who is not too well at the moment, for being a good mate, drinking partner, and unwitting steward of one of my happiest beer experiences to date. Cheers Dad.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Projects/Malt Shovel Tavern

Small Beer has been a little busy with five new projects:

1. www.beerontherock.com <-- our Vancouver Island Beer Blog has finally been designed, launched, and stuffed with meagre content. BeerOnTheRock will be a news resource for the Vancouver Island beer scene. It will be written and maintained by myself, the beer-genius Dave from beerinbc.com, and the sultry Ian of left4beer.com. Bookmark it!

2. Monday Magazine beer column <-- I have been writing a beer column for local newspaper, the Monday Magazine. Here is the latest article.

3. Epic England Trip <-- I returned to the land of my conception and corruption for a two week stay. A brutal amount of cask ale was consumed, to make up for my churlish adherence to Guinness all the time I actually lived there (GRR!). See below.

4. Being Sick <-- so sick was I, that even with a free ticket to the Spinnakers Firkin Festival, and a potentially unlimited supply of 4oz taster tokens, I managed five before driving home to scoff manflu pills.

5. Impregnation <-- smallbeer #3
None of these are adequate excuses for a lapse in writing, but there you have it.

I wish to mark my return by paying brief homage to my favourite Northamptonshire pub, behold the Malt Shovel Tavern:
Mock-Tudor stylings aside, it looks pretty grim with its shopping trolley, battered warehouse annex, and vaguely wee-wee-smelling side alleyway. Also, directly across the road from this pub is the behemoth Northampton Carlsberg Brewery, which emits unsavory smells at various times of the day, like a flatulent aunt. But it's what's on the inside that counts.

The Malt Shovel is a cozy pub dedicated to cask ales and a great selection of continental bottles (all of which are served in the correct glassware), as well as several lambics on tap. I took my brother Ben here on the second night of my visit. Ben — once a Carling devotee who scaled down his drinking a few years back — was a reluctant convert, but by the end of the night the two of us had supped our way through fifteen local beers and a handful of Belgians, and, well, the three sequential pictures below tell you almost all you need to know about Ben's emotions...

Carling: 'Nuff Said

Chimay: Tastes a bit weird. Not bad tho'


All of the beers were incredible. The Bacchus Kriek on tap was an unexpected treat, the Hoggley's Solstice Stout was also beautiful. But easily the standout was Oakham's Citra — a melon fresh hoppy golden ale, syrupy out of the cask, peppery and smooth and oh so right. It weighs in at something like 3.8% and you could drink it all day and sing soliloquies to its beauty all night. If you get the chance, drink a flagon of Citra at the nearest opportunity.

Unfortunately, by the time Ben's girlfriend picked us up from the pub in order to meet me for the first time, and then take us to meet my parents for a pleasant, family curry together — Ben was dangerously drunk. He lost his lunch, passed out, and curry was served in his absence. Me and his missus got on like a house on fire, however.

Smallbeer is back and regular service will resume over the Christmas holiday. England threw up one or two more beer-related surprises that I need to tell you about. Soon. 

Happy Holidays.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My 10 IPAs of the year

I wish I were special, but I'm not: IPA is, all in all, probably my favourite beer style.  This love is relatively new. The first IPA that really turned me on was Anderson Valley's Hop 'Ottin — which I drank in October of 2009. Immediately afterwards Driftwood released their first batch of Sartori Harvest IPA, BC Liquor stores started selling Dogfish 60 minute, and I was hooked. Up until then I'd take a stout or a tripel over an IPA any day.

I've had countless IPAs since, including doubles, triples, imperials, wet-hopped, belgian, etc etc. The downside is I'm not really sure what an IPA is any more, but I know when I've got a good one. Here are some of the highlights of my year of IPA lust. I've no doubt omitted some I liked more than these, but these ones stand out as I type this post.

#10 Black Oak - Ten Bitter Years
The enjoyment I got from this one might be due to a convergence of factors, including stumbling across Chancey Smith's in London, meeting barman extraordinaire Milos Kral, and finally getting a drink after a brutal flight schedule. Ten Bitter Years is Black Oak's 10th anniversary beer, brewed to the discerning tastes of BO president Ken Woods. The one I tried had been aged a few months, and was bursting with mellow apricots and lavender. There is a really complicated hop character to this beer: rich but not overpowering. This is a sipper and should be nurtured until warm in the hand.

#9 Phillips - Hop Circle IPA
Legend has it that Matt Phillips dumped a case of Central City's Red Racer on the boardroom table and informed his skilled staff that "this is the one we have to beat." Sooo close, but not quite. This is an excellent IPA nonetheless, and probably my favourite Phillips beer along with the Skookum. I was lucky enough to try it fresh at the brewery as it was released, and the powerful melony-hops and an intoxicating blast of marijuana this beer delivers left a lasting impression on me.

#8 Avery - Maharaja Imperial IPA
Avery brews "big artful beers" and this 10% brute is as big as they come. A dirty, almost filthy, orange colour, with a slug of tangerine hops and an estery smell that really works. This isn't a zingy, fresh IPA — but one of those sweetish, heavy ones that really wallows in the mouth. Intensely aromatic and excoriating, very recommended.

#7 Anderson Valley - 20th Anniversary Imperial IPA
After their Hop 'Ottin, I knew this would be a good one, and it really delivered. As powerful as the Maharaja, but in a completely different direction. This one bursts with citrus fruit, vanilla and grape juice. Very lightly carbonated but thick — the way imperial IPAs should be. The hops do not dominate the flavour, making this less of a hop bomb and more of a comforter.

#6 Driftwood - Sartori Harvest IPA 2009
This beer really sold me on wet-hopped IPAs, and I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate this experience ever since. The balance of pine and orange was exceptional in this release, but what really got me was a near-medicinal camphor zing that made it the most mysterious IPA I've ever had.

#5 Paddock Wood - Loki
I was in two minds whether to put this or Dogfish Head's 90 minute IPA in this spot, as for me, they both represent the same kind of strong IPA. Neither is a slave to its hops, but brings huge complexities in malt flavours — something many IPAs overlook. The Loki tasted like raisins, rice pudding and pepper, but cut through with just the right amount of grapefruit hops to satisfy the IPA lust. A very underrated beer, this one, and a label to die for.

#4 Central City - Red Racer
Enough has been said about this beer already. It is currently BC's finest IPA, and it is deservedly hyped-to-all-hell on beer review sites. At the Great Canadian Beer Festival I tried a casked imperial version which was also sublime, but nothing really beats the tropical gorgeousness of regular Red Racer. A great beer.

#3 Moylans - Hopsickle
First time I had this I thought "ok, enough is enough." This is one of those relentlessly hoppy IPAs that prompted Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery to quip: “It’s a fairly idiotic pursuit, like a chef saying, ‘This is the saltiest dish.’ Anyone can toss hops in a pot, but can you make it beautiful?” Well, after 4-5 bottles of this stuff, I truly believe it IS beautiful. The "hop-bomb" dismissal slung around by the IPA-backlash brigade is a reverse snobbery that detracts from how damn good some of these hop-heavy beers really are. Hopsickle is a distillation of hops, which, curiously, shares an almost identical flavour profile to Brew Dog's oneupmanship vessel Sink the Bismark (the 41% IPA to end all IPAs). Drink this beer last. (I used FrothyHead's image because, well,  it's way cooler than my picture)

#2 Southern Tier - Unearthly Imperial IPA
This beer leaves me giddy. At 11%, that's hardly surprising. Unearthly is a devastatingly hoppy beer, but in that deep, stewed grapefruit kind of way that makes a beer truly sexy. Pretty sweet, thick, and soupy. Loads of herbal, peppery stuff is going on in this beer. I recently tried the Oak-Aged and it's a distraction — the original is much better. This beer should be served after an hour out of the fridge and allowed to warm fully before you finish it. A lesson in hops.

#1 Pelican Brewpub - India Pelican Ale
It isn't imperial, particularly hoppy, rare, or distinguished in any way other than being the most perfectly balanced IPA I have enjoyed to date. This beer is like listening to a well recorded band on some expensive hi-fi equipment: every element of it is clearly discernable and accessible to the taste. The beer has an intensely bready aroma, with equal measures of pine and citrus hops. The taste has an almost soap-like mineral backbone to it that I think is what allows all the other flavours to express themselves so clearly. There is mildly warm sweetness, a very substantial bitterness, and a little spice — all three of which fade at the same rate through the aftertaste, leaving a tiny trace of salt that has you reaching immediately for another sip, another glass, another bottle, and another trip to the bank to get the $9 you need to buy one here in Victoria. Dammit.

Honourable Mentions
Ballast Point - Big Eye IPA
Green Flash - Imperial IPA
Driftwood - Big Tug IPA
New Belgium - Ranger IPA
Anderson Valley - Hop 'Ottin IPA
Duggan - #9 IPA
Dogfish Head - 90min IPA
Stone - Ruination IPA
Moylans - Moylander Double IPA
Edit: Phillips - Nine Donkeys of the Hopocalypse

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Southern Tier Heavy Weizen and Lighthouse Shipwrecked Triple IPA

These two beers have nothing in common, but Dave from beerinbc.com and I independently tried them both this week and chatted about them a bit — so they get a dual post. 

Southern Tier Heavy Weizen
Ever since Unearthly Imperial IPA I get pretty excited about each Southern Tier beer I get to try. The Unearthly is one of my IPA benchmarks — such a rich and chewy beer. Their Oat imperial oat stout, Hoppe, and Iniquity (a cascadian dark grandaddy) are all sublime too. Great NY brewery.

Naturally I was excited about this beer. The only other "imperial" hefeweizen I can get regularly is Howe Sound's sublime King Heffy (7% to Heavy's 8%). I like it so much that if I am ever in a BC liquor store and I see someone who cannot make up their mind what to buy, I force them to buy this beer. It's a high bar.

This is probably the fastest I have ever drunk a bomber of imperial anything. The Heavy Weizen's (maybe that's supposed to be one word...) strongest point is its smoothness. It goes down like a vanilla and banana milkshake, and finishes with such a perfect balance it's as if it was never there. Problem is, the King Heffy is very spicy and effervescent and heady and alive. That's a much better kind of hefeweizen. The Southern Tier one is remarkably drinkable, but pretty tame and forgettable. Dave really didn't like it. 

Me: Worth a drink just for the scarcity of this style, but I won't be buying another when the Heffy is available. 
Dave: "I wish I had king heffy instead of this shit"

Lighthouse Shipwrecked Triple IPA
When is a beer a double? That's a tricky question. I know that it is an imperial when one bottle makes me want to fight. But a triple? I don't get it. Let's see if their website helps: "Shipwrecked Triple IPA is a strong beer brewed in small batches using twice the regular kettle time, double the Pale Malt and triple the hops of a regular IPA." So mostly it has double ingredients, but triple the hops of whatever a "regular" IPA is (their Beacon IPA, I presume, which is reasonably hopped but not as much as many other west-coast style IPAs). 

This beer looks like Lucozade — the British energy drink that, I've just found out on wikipedia to my astonishment, is actually 0.1% ethanol. Shipwrecked weighs in at a more substantial 10%, so I would expect it to give me lots of energy indeed. 

The aroma off this beer is a briney-piney hop blast. Got a weird seaweedy smell to it, but I might be being influenced by the label. Really solid slug of orangey hops too. Good and interesting so far. Lighthouse are a local outfit and most of their beers are, to put it blunt, pretty run-of-the-mill, so it's exciting and out of character to see them bringing out a massive IPA. 

I didn't dig the initial taste too much at all. It has a coppery, rust flavour to it. The carbonation is quite high and it accentuates the metallic edge. Tons of booze too. But the aftertaste is pretty good. It tastes somewhere between clotted cream and butterscotch. After a good half of the bottle, sipped slowly, the beer warmed up and I stopped wincing at the initial flavour. By the end I was pretty pleased with it. 

Me: A flawed but ultimately quite enjoyable imperial IPA. Too many other strong contenders available to make it a regular buy for me.
Dave: "must be drank cold" <- completely contrary to my impression. 

Right, I promised myself a bottle of Driftwood's new Fat Tug IPA after I wrote this. It is time. Bye. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chancey Smith's: Ontario Beer Mecca #1: plus Aphrodisiaque

I have just returned from an exhausting work trip to a land governed by the world's most hostile opponent of beer: the LCBO. For those who are not familiar with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, their achievements include declaring half of a guy's wine store "dry" and insisting that the checkouts and all alcoholic merchandise be moved to the "wet" side, and failing to allow private beer stores to open — enslaving thousands of Ontario beer drinkers to their cruddy LCBO store selection or the dreaded "Beer Store".

Imagine my surprise when my trip turned into a revelatory pilgrimage to my new beer mecca of Canada: Chancey Smith's in London Ontario.

I had never heard of this place. Sitting glumly in Sudbury Airport, waiting for a transfer to Toronto and then London, I was googling "half decent pubs in London" — not getting my hopes up. I found a few kind remarks about Chancey Smith's, and became intrigued. The website suggests it is an average-looking steak pub, albeit with a pretty bar, but nothing special.

Then I found a link to their beer list, and promptly soiled my underwear in excitement. This place stocks the deepest, broadest selection of European, American and Ontarian craft beer I have ever seen under one roof (the beer list doesn't cover half of what they actually have, hidden away). They have a stunning range. By the time I'd finished reading it, I was in real danger of missing my flight.

Needless to say, the first thing I did upon landing was dump my stuff in the hotel and head down to Chancey's. I sat at the bar and engaged the bar manager — an imposing guy with closely cropped grey hair and beard, mischievous eyes, and the demeanour of a somewhat-tame pitbull. This is Milos Kral, a fine, fine bar manager, who for the next four days befriended me and attempted to destroy my liver in the process.

We began with a Flying Monkeys "Netherworld" — only my second Cascadian Dark (after Phillips Skookum). Milos later informs me that that was a test. Although I introduced myself as a beer blogger and we had struck up a pretty good conversation, Milos is very discerning over who he will share Chancey's secrets with. I must have done something right, as once I've finished my pint (delicious by the way — Flying Monkeys are an outfit to watch for sure), he motioned to another member of bar staff, whispered in their ear, and sent them into the cellar to retrieve something. A full five minutes later, the staff member returns and hands Milos a bottle. Milos theatrically glances up and down the bar, as if to see if anyone is watching. "Black Oak's 'Ten Bitter Years'," he says, "we've been sitting on a handful of these for six months. We tell no-one that we have them. You should try it."

It was brilliant. A very accomplished imperial IPA with the biggest, most portly body you'll find in an IPA. A truly world class IIPA. IMO. ETC.

As I mentioned, over the following four days I was treated to some fantastic beers, and was also very hospitably adopted by Milos and his fellow bar worker and chemist/home-brewer Adil. I will be blogging some of the excellent experiences I had there over the coming posts.

But, returning to my LCBO-ribbing opening, here's a picture of a bottle of Dieu du Ciel's "Aphrodisiaque" — one of the many rarities I managed to find at Chancey's. Some of you may know that outside of Quebec, Dieu du Ciel was forced to rebrand this beer "Aphrodite" because "Aphrodisaque" was felt by the geniuses at LCBO (and also US importers who similarly objected) to suggest some indecent qualities that the beer might not be able to guarantee... With this batch, however, the LCBO agreed to let it on the market in Ontario, but only after hiring a LCBO employee (at a cost of $700) to take a black sharpie and erase the offending part of the beer's name from every, single, individual, bloody, bottle.

Nice one LCBO! And cheers to Milos and Adil for a great stay in London.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: Muskoka Harvest Ale

Fresh off a flight to Sudbury I headed for my favourite (read: the only) place to get a good beer in town: the Laughing Buddha. It's got a weird patio, the paving stones are on a ludicrous 30 degree slope and my table is threatening to fall over. I have sat my 750ml ("standard bottle" they call this size) of Muskoka Harvest on the heater (off) next to me, as it is the only stable structure in this place.

The beer pours a pretty rich orange gold with a dense, almost luminous yellow head that quickly settled to a half inch of scum. It smells somewhere between an IPA and a pilsner: decent amount of orange-rind hops but also a clean lageresque tang. The immediate taste is very promising, with a lot of rich yeasty bread. Orange juice is there too. Sweetness subsides to a baking-soda fresh bitterness. This doesn't linger, but it begs for another sip. Very drinkable and decent. 

This beer was not on the menu. It's worth asking these guys for off-the-menu stuff as they make an effort to get a lot of things in. Great little beer oasis, this place, and dang fine pizza-pie to boot. I'd be surprised if I didn't sup another few of these before the week is out. Hell, I might have another tonight. Gotta find some comfort as a depressing two weeks away from my family stretches out in front of me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cask Away

Our latest article for the Monday Magazine is in print. We talked about the local cask ale culture, which is vibrant. The article was written before the Great Canadian Beer Festival, otherwise we would have been able to wax lyrical about some of the other great casks on offer.

Spinnakers responded to the article to point out that they have been offering cask events for years. This is true, and Spinnakers efforts should not be ignored. We chose to focus on Vancouver Island Brewery (VIB) because, well, I think that their regular lineup is a little bit tame. Good quality — but conservative. I was hoping that getting some discussion going about the totally non-tame casks VIB are producing might help put pressure on the powers-that-be at VIB to let their creative talents spread to the bottle fridge.

Speaking of casks, there will be a unique casking event this Friday at the Beagle Pub in Cook St. Village. For non-Victorians or those who don't know, Driftwood's Sartori Harvest IPA was a sensational release last year. So much so that they are brewing twice as much this year.

Sartori will still only be available in limited quantities, so get down the Beagle if you have the chance,  or camp outside a decent liquor store as bottling is underway and it will hit the stores soon. Because it is a fresh hop IPA it is probably best drunk as soon as possible before the volatile and short-lived flavours imparted by the fresh hops fade away.

Fresh hopping (shown left, courtesy of the Double Mountain Brewery) is a seasonal practice. Hop harvests come in at this time of the year and are usually pressed into pellets or processed in other ways to maintain their shelf-life or enhance their usability for brewers. Hop pellets maintain the flavour of the hop very well, but some brewers swear that only fresh hopped beers are capable of imparting the full range of sensations that these little herbs have to offer.

At the Great Canadian Beer Festival I found parts of a hop in  my Central City imperial IPA. I'd been warned against chowing down on one of these for fear of ruining my palate for the night. But, let's be honest, after several hours at a beer fest your palate is pretty much beat in any case.

Chomped down I did. Not great. Definitely better in the beer itself. Head to the Beagle tomorrow night to find out what I mean.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Great Canadian Beer Festival Roundup

The Great Canadian Beer Festival came and went. I won't argue with any of the four words in its title. My biggest disappointment was enjoying it so immensely that I almost completely neglected to take notes and pictures. Que sera. Above is a shot I did manage to get of one of the festival beer tokens that you handed over in exchange for a 4oz taster (unless you wanted to drink Merridale's cider, in which case the cheeky swines demanded two tokens per scrumpy!)

The bits I do remember will be written up in the next few blog posts. Today I wanted to talk about the beer. I find that tasting notes are useless unless you can actually summon the memory of the drinking itself. These are memories that go stale fairly quickly. Best to write 'em while you got 'em.

My list of beers I was looking forward to didn't all turn out to be the ones I loved the most. Let's tackle them first:

1. Vancouver Island - Chipotle Rauchbier
Now this had potential and was appropriate for a beer fest but I wouldn't drink it again unless the recipe was altered a little. Brutally spicy, droolingly citric, and not too strong on the smoke front. It was a real eye-waterer. I spoke with the brewer Chris Graham and I was impressed. I also got the idea that he knew this one was a bit OTT. His upcoming casks will no doubt be great and I can't wait to get hold of some.

2. Driftwood - Old Cellar Dweller
Wonderful. I knew I'd love this. I already had the 2009 in a bottle, but this cask-aged version was sumptuous. Thickly bitter with rich sherry-flavour. The hops really shine in this old beer. Tastes like a good tonic for a winter morning.

3. Central City - Red Racer Imperial IPA
Probably the best imperial IPA I had at the festival, although I prefer their regular IPA. This is one of those really chewy impIPAs with a bit of sweetness and some spice too. The aftertaste went mildy sour for me, but the front end was just great.

4. Howe Sound - Total Eclipse of the Hop
I didn't drink this one. I can't remember if it was only offered on Saturday or if it was one of the breweries whose line-ups were so long I kept thinking I'd get to it later. I was scarcely conscious of the passing time once I'd been there six hours, so a few beers sadly passed me by.

5. Swan's - Brewcifer IPA with Jalapeno, Pepper and Lime
Just bad. Didn't taste much like an IPA to me. Similar to the VIB effort, the spice was well overdone. This might be a subjective thing, but remember I love curries and enthusiastically munch on habaneros, so I'm inclined to think I wasn't alone in being put off by the power of this one. Not much room left for the beer.

6. Moon Under Water - Pale Ale
I really liked it, as I suspected I would. Richer than the low ABV would suggest, and like their bitter it was not scared of the hops. A real quencher with a lingering hazelnuttiness, and not quite as dry as the bitter.

7. Three Skulls - Blood Orange Wit
There was one beer that tasted and smelled like hydrogen peroxide (as our friend Adam astutely pointed out). I am fairly sure it was this one. Just dreadful. You can't think about the flavour with a face full of hair-dye.

Next blog post, I'll deal with the other beers that left an impression on me. I'll leave you with this picture taken while Dave, Adam and I took an early break to sip the Driftwood barley wine. It is my last truly cogent memory of the day, but what a great beer to say goodbye to reality with. Cheers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Great Canadian Beer Festival - Brewery Map

The 17th Great Canadian Beer Festival hits Victoria this Friday and Saturday. To celebrate, I geeked out and made a googlemap of every brewery that will be attending. I also ignored my family for an additional hour in order to add info on EVERY DAMN BEER they will be bringing too (ctrl-c; ctrl-v courtesy of gcbf.com). If this doesn't up my readership I'm just going to snap.

Here's a bunch of list nonsense to keep you distracted while you wait for the weekend.

Top 5 distances traveled by breweries to get to GCBF"
1. Brooklyn Brewery (NY, USA) - 4802km
2. Unibroue (QB, CA) - 4571km
3. Les Trois Mosquetaires (QB, CA) - 4558km
4. Beau's Brewery (QB, CA) - 4551
5. Mill St. Brewery (ON, CA) - 4191km

Top 5 beer styles (by no. of examples) at this year's GCBF
1. Bitter (40)
2. IPA (31)
3. Fruit beer (20)
4. Lager (19)
5. Pale ale (13)

Top 7 beers I am personally looking forward to
1. Vancouver Island - Black Rock Chipotle Rauchbier with lapsang souchong tea (wtf)
2. Driftwood - Old Cellar Dweller 2009 Barley Wine (cask)
3. Central City - Red Racer Imperial IPA (cask)
4. Howe Sound - Total Eclipse of the Hop (cask)
5. Swans - Brewcifer IPA with Jalapeno, pepper and lime (cask)
6. Moon Under Water - Pale Ale (I already had a sneak preview of their "Blue Moon Bitter", which was just beautiful)
7. Three Skulls - Blood Orange Wit

Top 3 random beer stats
1. 57 breweries will attend
2. 184 different beers will be swigged from 4oz tasting cups
3. 20,000 litres of beer will need drinking/spilling

View GCBF Breweries in a larger map

Monday, August 30, 2010

Victoria: the craft beer zone

If you follow the blog, you'll know that Victoria is eagerly expecting its fourth brewpub — a traditional English-style pub called The Moon Under Water — once its rezoning hearing goes through. Well, I was one of a hundred or so people who turned up at Victoria City Hall for the hearing last week. The first bit of good news is that council voted unanimously to let the pub open. The even better news is that this city fricking loves craft beer.

As I wandered in with other-beer-blogger Eskimo Dave, I wasn't sure what to expect. The rezoning hearing was to decide whether it was OK for a brewpub to open in an area marked for "industrial production." As one astute councillor pointed out, craft brewing is a light industry. But the fact that the business planned to operate under a "liquor primary licence" (meaning its main purpose was to sell alcohol on premises) meant that the Moon Under Water's owners had to sweat it out for several months with a half-built pub, not knowing if they'd ever be able to open.

I expected a fairly quick "yay" or "nay" from a city official, but it turns out that rezoning hearings are conducted as part of council business — meaning the mayor and council are all present and the public are given forum to express their views. Bonnie Bradley (one of the owners) was called to put forward the case for the pub. Apparently Victoria has an abnormally high number of liquor primaries, meaning you really have to justify a new pub. Bonnie did a fine job convincing everyone that the Moon' is going to be a respectable watering hole.

Next, the public were invited to speech. I was impressed as CAMRA representatives, local industry-types, and several other members of the public put some well-prepared arguments in support of the pub. The highlight (I'm sure everyone who was there will agree) was the speech by Jason Meyer from Driftwood Brewery. Here's someone for whom the Moon' is technically a competitor — yet he put forward about the most  eloquent case for the social and artisanal benefits of a pub that you'll ever hear. I only wish I'd recorded it.

I was so giddy from all the craft beer love, that I even went up and spoke in front of council myself. I hadn't  expected to speak at all, so I just blathered on about how proud the city should be of its beer industry. I needn't have bothered. I was preaching to the converted. Several councilors — including one who admitted to opposing pretty much every new licence application going — gave warm approval to the plan. Councillor Phillipe Lucas — Green Party member, medicinal cannabis advocate, buddy of mine, and all-round class-act — closed things up by welcoming the Moon' to the city, and everyone left happy that craft beer has a deep support throughout pretty much the entire community.

Proud to be a Victorian. Cheers.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fruit? Nuts.

Assuming it's been missed, I apologize for the lack of posts in the last three weeks. I have been writing a major paper and I can't burn the typing candle at both ends, so sadly the beer blog's flame has dwindled, temporarily. 

Of course I've still been drinking like a fish. And I'm posting today because I can't not let this out:
Fruit beers: what's the point??

OK that's a bit harsh, but I seriously believe that 95% of fruit beers are a waste of time and that the beer would have been far better without them. It's not that they are inherently bad, but they tell the same lie told by fruit tea: The packaging looks delicious (hmmm, blueberries, yum), the aroma is room-fillingly fantastic, but when you raise the glass to your lips…..nothing.

I don't know why — as I rarely touch them usually — but I have had five fruit beers this month and only two of them have been any good. One of those you already  know about: I find Driftwood's Belle Royale to be delightful. But it is both powerful and local (my weaknesses), so am just kidding myself? No.

Exhibit A: Phillips Twenty-four Mile Blueberry Pail Ale

This is a local beer by one of my favourite breweries brewed using ingredients sourced from within twenty-four miles. A wannabe-lefty-beardstroker like me should be gushing over this, but I found it very bland. It poured utterly headless: like Tizer. It smelled like fizzy blueberry tea, and I know this sounds harsh, but it tasted a little bit like pickled beet juice. I have to stress that this is an exception from the usually-reliable Phillips stable. But I did not like it.

Exhibit B: Dogfish Head Black and Blue
A massively 10% "Golden ale fermented with blackberries and blueberries". I might be uncultured, but this tasted like very boozy diet fruit soda to me. It has a thin tannin mouthfeel. I get some odd spices and yeast that makes it worthwhile, but I wouldn't track it down again. I don't even want to think about what I paid for it.

The one thing they have going in their favour is they make pretty pictures. And they do say pictures paint a thousand words…

…which is a lie. My prof won't accept doodles. I gotta get these papers written. Speak soon. SB

Guests pretending to like the
weird beer I served them.
It's not even blue…

Not bad, this one. But I'd not buy  it again. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: Pretty Things Fluffy White Rabbits

The gypsy brewery Pretty Things continues to put out lovely beers with lovelier labels. Gypsies like to wander which might explain why PT beers are in such rich supply out here on Vancouver Island. If they all made beer like this I'd make my backyard available as a caravan site.

"Fluffy White Rabbits" is a hoppy tripel. Taking established styles and giving them the North American hop treatment is big at the moment. I scowl at trends but I'm yet to drink an unusually-hoppy beer that hasn't been good.

FWR pours a typical golden-orange colour. The head's not too fluffy. It quickly shears down to a thin but resilient crewcut.

The smell is a bit reserved, with only a mild yeasty aroma and little hop pungency.  I get mown grass, pear, and pencil shavings. The first hit of flavour is very satisfying, with loads of peppery yeast, floral hops, and crackling spice. It's a drier tripel, which I guess is to embrace the hop bitterness rather than counteract with a richer body. I really appreciate the play of the floral hops with the chili profile in the yeast.

The aftertaste doesn't sit entirely well with me. Whether it's hops in the boil or some other source of bitterness, I get a minerally jasmine-like flavour that lingers unflatteringly. At 8.5% it should be a slow drinker, but my lust for the glass-to-lips zing — definitely the strongest aspect of this beer — means I've practically chugged it.

With hoppier tripels in short supply, you should probably get one of these if you can. It's a good indicator of the impact this style has to offer and a good beer in its own right, but it doesn't quite scale the peaks some of the other PT beers have.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Moon Under Water: Victoria's latest brewpub

Victoria will have its 4th brewpub soon, with a bit of luck. How do I know? Because I interviewed the good people who are preparing to open The Moon Under Water and wrote it up for local free paper Monday Magazine.

Here's a link to the article. They used my photo, but I took a few others. I see no reason to repeat the article here, so I'll just post the images. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Homebrew Tips from the Masters#3: Sanitation

The third installment of homebrewing tips, which I bugged some Canadian brewers to dish out, covers sanitation. Brewing is basically the art of selective neglect. Your wort is a rich environment for any number of cultures to feed upon. But tasty beer can only be made by allowing a fairly narrow spectrum of yeast strains — or a handful of bacteria, in the case of some wild or sour beers — to ferment your wort. If you're not careful, undesirable cultures will infiltrate and utterly corrupt what you are trying to achieve. In a nutshell: your wort is Iran, and if you allow a single mullet to gain entry, the whole place will explode into a decadent cesspool of repulsive culture.

Sanitation refers not only to keeping your brewing equipment a. clean (as in, free of dirt) and b. sterile (free from bacteria or unwanted yeasts), but also to controlling the whole environment in which you brew. You might think you're a clean-freak, but your dwelling place harbours countless organisms that are easily transferred to your homebrew if you don't handle everything carefully. Prior to boiling, your wort may also contain unwelcome bugs, so you're up against it from the start. Here are a few tips from Canadian brewmasters for keeping on top of things.

Protect yourself from unwanted cultures
All of the brewers advocate stringent cleaning procedures. Your kit must be rigorously scrubbed and free of any dirt of particles before you can even start thinking about sanitizing it. This means that you must be vigilant about the condition of your equipment. If any cracks, fissures, nooks, or other recessed areas develop in your carboys, tubes, airlocks, etc etc, they must be replaced immediately. Bacteria is remarkably resistant when it has a place to hide.

Jason Meyer (Driftwood):
Keep it clean, or you’re wasting your time. Iodophore is a pretty good sanitizer, but you need to ensure the equipment is scrupulously clean before you can sanitize it.
Sanitation itself usually involves the use of certain chemicals that eradicate bugs without leaving tough-to-remove residues that can also make your beer taste like crap. All forms of home-fermenting (including wine and cider making) will need a sanitizing agent for best products, but some chemicals are better suited to beer-making than others:

Steve Cavan (Paddock Wood):
sanitize!!!  Do not use metabisulphate. It is fine for wine, but disaster waiting for  beer. Iodophor is a start, but really Star San is the only one that I would consider.  We have stuff mixed in the brewery which we give away to homebrewers.
Choice of containers is important too. Second-hand carboys are cheap, but make sure you know that they were only used for brewing beer, and not wine-making or penny collections, prior to purchase.

Terry Schoffer (Cannery):
If you have a love for wine that’s great, but remember, your beer doesn’t! Beer should never be brewed in the same containers as wine has been made in. Small cracks can harbor Lactobacillus, which will totally destroy all your hard work making that perfect brew. 
Again, if you are unsure how to properly sanitize your kit, call your local brewer. They will tell you what to use, where to get it, and if they are as saintly as this lot claim to be — they might even hand you some for free. Remember, cleanliness is next to hopliness.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Scottish Devils and Ruination

I didn't want this to turn into a food and beer blog so I've been holding back on writing about the pairings I've been experimenting with. But I accidentally invented the best beer snack known to man and I have to share.

Recently I was invited to a beer and food pairing event held at the Liquor Plus branch on Douglas Street. It was the first pairing event I'd been to and I'm excited to attend and perhaps even host some more. Left4Beer designed a menu and attendees had to bring a specific snack or beer. By the time I got my act together, there were only a few options left. I chose to bring devilled eggs.

Having never made them before, I did a bit of research on egg recipes and discovered that scotch eggs — a childhood favourite of mine — are not that hard to make. I really wanted to make scotch eggs, but the brief was for devilled, so I decided to combine the recipes and called it "Scottish Devils".

The eggs were partnered with Howe Sound's King Heffy, which is a total triumph of an imperial hefeweizen from one of BC's best craft brewers. They went down well with the beer guys.  I neglected to take my camera and felt like I could improve on them a little, so I recreated them at home later in the week. Here they are, partnered with a Stone Ruination IPA. I gave the recipe a good kick of heat and garlic which is ideal with a powerful IPA like the Stone beer.

Scotch part
4 large eggs
4 good quality sausages
1tsp cumin
1tsp garlic powder
1tsp cayenne
1tsp thyme
1tsp pepper
1beaten egg
panko breadcrumbs (or other)

Devilled part
half cup mayonnaise
2 minced garlic cloves
1tbsp dijon mustard
1tsp curry spice (curry powder is good, but use imagination)
2 green onions (chopped)
2 tsp vinegar

Hard boil and peel the eggs (5 minutes is enough). Split sausages open and mix well in a bowl with the cumin, garlic powder, cayenne, thyme and pepper. Divide mixture into four, wet hands to prevent sticking, and mold each portion around a peeled egg. One sausage per egg provides perfect cover. Dip each egg into flour, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. Bake in a buttered oven dish at 350f for 30 minutes. Remove when done and leave to rest for ten mins. Halve each egg (be careful, the coating can split, so use a very sharp knife). Gently ease out each yolk with a teaspoon and put in a bowl. Add all the devilled ingredients apart from the mayonnaise and smoked paprika. Then add the mayonnaise and stir well until the texture is creamy and easy to spoon. Spoon a blob into each egg cavity, sprinkle paprika over the top, and serve. The version below was a second batch. I followed the same recipe, but drizzled tabasco, chinese pepper/garlic sauce and some more chili powder over the top.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Homebrew Tips from the Masters#2: Yeast

In the second in a series of posts containing homebrew advice I solicited from Canadian brewmasters, we look at yeast. Yeast is the fermenting agent that turns sugars into alcohol and sculpts the flavour of the beer.  It is also a living organism that must be stored, fed and used correctly. Brewmasters tend to get obsessive about it.

Yeast is available in dry or liquid forms. Most professional brewers will use liquid yeast, and usually cultivate and store the same strains for use over and over again. The yeast that falls to the bottom of the fermenter once its work is done (flocculation) is not "spent", but merely dormant, awaiting a fresh meal of wort sugars that will restart the fermentation process.

To keep yeast viable for future use, brewers can store it under beer or water (which is becoming more common), although its potency will drop off over time unless the brewer is skilled and resourceful. Because it is such a picky creature to keep happy and potent, Jason Meyer of Driftwood Brewery advises "use pure culture liquid yeast only, and pitch lots of it!" Dry strains of yeast may be stored for much longer, but the results are not held in as high regard:

Steve Cavan (Paddock Wood): 
Liquid yeast. Yeast can account for 40% of the flavour compounds. Pick the right yeast for the style. (in the last 15 years, dry yeast has come a long way, although there is still limited variety)

Terry Schoffer (Cannery Brewing):
For increased flavor and body always use liquid yeast. Most micro brewery’s will welcome home brewers and give them yeast and sometimes tips for free. Show your appreciation and bring them a sample of your home brew or buy something from their gift shop.
For those who must or want to use dry yeast, Terry Schoffer flags the importance of rehydrating the yeast properly before use, "make sure you re-hydrate it by heating 1 cup of water to 40C, adding your dry yeast and letting it stand for fifteen minutes before pitching. This will promote healthy yeast growth and keep the nasty bacteria count down. Never use wort to hydrate your yeast."

Dry yeast can produce decent results. However, BA member Homebrew42 warns us about homebrew kits that come with packets of "generic 'ale yeast' that is typically of low quality. You're never going to brew a fantastic English bitter with an old, stale packet of characterless 'ale yeast'."

Overall, the message seems to be if you take the time to understand what yeast is and how it works, and get in touch with local beer makers who are experienced in handling yeast, your beer will turn out better. And you might even score some free yeast in the process.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Final Breakfast

Some breakfasts are so good that even the crappiest world cup final in history cannot ruin them.
Brooklyn's "Brooklyner-Schneider" Hopfen-Weisse is a wonderful beer. It is a "concept" beer that actually works. Story goes like this: Brewmasters Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn) and Hans Peter Drexler (Schneider, a.k.a. Private Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn GmbH) are friends. Oliver loves Schneider's Weisse beer, and Drexler loves Brooklyn's East India IPA. They decided to combine the recipes, with each brewer creating a version of the concoction in the other brewer's brewery. Sounds to me like a sordid plan to write off a drunken holiday as a tax-refundable business expense. Kudos. 

The resulting brew (Brooklyn version — I doubt I could get  hold of the Schneider version) is a 8.8% wheat beer with the hop profile of a double IPA. It smells like a banana milkshake laced with pine sap. The taste is incredible. The zingy edge of the wheat beer style is utterly corrupted by the hops and also by the black-spice flavours resulting from the beer's imperial treatment. As you expect from imperial wheat beers, there is a dry fruitiness and some soured-pear sweetness, which give the beer a big and complicated body. And that's before you factor in the thick and sticky soup of hops which — outrageously — sits in the balance just right.

Surely one of the only beers that could compete with a HP sauce-laden English breakfast without falling apart.

Get some if you can. It is one cup that won't let you down.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Homebrew Tips from the Masters#1: Malt

I recently sent out twenty emails to Canadian breweries, asking for some homebrew advice for beginners. I anticipated a few responses, hopefully enough to fill a blog post. The response was unbelievable. I'm very thankful to several brewers who took the time out of their busy schedules to provide extensive, thoughtful advice. I also want to thank "Homebrew42" — a BeerAdvocate member who responded to my forum post about extract-versus-grain boils with a veritable essay's worth of great tips.

I will therefore be publishing their words of wisdom in a series of blog posts dedicated to giving newb-brewers a headstart. Today I'll cover Malt; over the coming weeks I'll address the topics of yeast, sanitation, method, water and the social side of homebrewing.

Malted barley is one of the core components of beer (along with water, yeast and hops). Malt is partly germinated barley, rich in maltose and other goodies that turn into alcohol and flavour during brewing. Homebrewers face the choice of whether to use full grain or malt extract to create the wort that will become the backbone of the beer. Extract is said to be easier to handle, whereas grain should produce the best results. That's as far as my knowledge goes. What do the pros say?

Whichever way you go, Steve Cavan (Paddock Wood, SK) advises against supplementing malt with other sources of sugars, "All malt. That 1kg of corn sugar and a can of extract doesn't work." Overwhelmingly, the brewers who replied to me frown on adjuncts like corn syrup, and strongly favour full grain boils. As Jason Meyer (Driftwood Brewing, BC) sums it up, "All-grain only, screw that extract stuff".

That's not to say good beers cannot be made with extract. If you're nervous about mashing and boiling grain, or simply don't have the extra equipment you'd need to do this, Homebrew42 has some advice:
If you're doing concentrated boils, you're never going to produce flawless beers. If you're brewing 5 gallons of beer, you MUST start with at least 6-6.5 gallons of wort, and this is ESPECIALLY true for very pale colored or very hoppy beers.
2) Use only high quality, extra light, light, or pilsen extracts, and I much prefer dry extracts over liquid, as they tend to be fresher and lighter in color.
Every extract beer that I brew is based on either extra light DME, or pilsen DME. When an all grain brewer builds a recipe, they start with a pale base malt and work from there, even for the darkest beers, and a great extract brewer should do the same. Extra light extract is nothing but basic good quality 2-ro, and a touch of carapils, while pilsen extract is 100% pilsner malt, and either of these are a fantastic slate on which to build any amazing beer.
3) Use only FRESH extract!
Don't buy extract kits that have been sitting on a store shelf for who knows how man millennia. This is especially true with liquid extract, which has a much shorter shelf life than dry and tends to darken and taste stale over time. This alone is a good reason to completely avoid liquid as far as I'm concerned. And try to find a retailer that moves their product and always has fresh inventory. For example a larger online homebrew supply may be better at providing fresh products than your stagnant local shop.
Finally, if all-grain is the way for you, make sure you handle the grains correctly. Terry Schoffer (Cannery Brewing, BC) says:
If you are an all grain brewer beware of HSA (Hot Side Aeration). HSA takes place in the mash tun from over splashing when mashing in as well as from vigorous stirring. HSA will bring out off flavors when maturing in the bottle.
Homebrew42 adds:
Do NOT scorch your extract! This is yet another reason why I prefer DME over LME, as DME floats while LME sinks to the bottom of the kettle. If you decide to use LME however, remove the kettle from the burner and FULLY dissolve your extract before putting it back on the heat.
Thanks to all the brewers for their advice. Next time we'll look into yeast — acquiring, handling and pitching

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: Tree Brewing Serendipity no. 2

Serendipity no.2 is the sixth whiskey barrel-aged beer I've had to date. A few of those beers were great. Serendipity joins Innis & Gunn in being merely OK, but mildly baffling as a product.

The term "whiskey barrel" returns 825 beers on Beer Advocate. Spelling it "whisky" gives another 798. So I'd be a curmudgeon to call it a gimmick, but that's how I feel when I put my nose into this nice murky-looking brown ale and get a toasty blast of damp bourbon-cask in my face.

I like whisk(e)y. Uncapping a Laphroaig brings me to a state of physical arousal. I bet there's plenty of beer drinkers who really appreciate the depth of infusion you can achieve by aging beers in various casks. But a generic whiskey-whiff rising off the head of a beer doesn't move me. Maybe I'm damaged in some way.

Port casks are also involved in the aging of this beer, and word has it their next releases in this series may well be exclusively port-casked. I'd be interested to try one, if only to see which barrel is responsible for completely overwhelming the taste of the beer.

The nose is almost pure whiskey, with just a faint apple-ish odour coming through. It tastes like an old brown ale, but with whiskey supplanting the toffee. The aftertaste is dry, a little treacly, and suggestive of the bottom third of a good cigar. Five sips in and the head becomes a memory: flat cola-looking.

Halfway through the bomber I got hungry and exhumed a forgotten piece of brie from the back of the fridge which had grown a luxurious fur-coat. It completely resurrected this beer and I strongly recommend getting some powerful cheese if you find yourself with a whiskey-aged beer you can't quite bring yourself to love. The fat and sweetness meet the whiskey head-on. It stops being a beery experience, but I'm finishing the bottle with a grin and what else do you really want?

For the record, Old Rasputin XII is the best whiskey-aged beer I've had. Don't buy it, it's $30 or something stupid. But take my word for it, it's lovely.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Homebrew Diversions: U-Brew

Like many beerthusiasts, I have romantic ideas about brewing my own beer. I am deluded enough to consider myself a brewmaster of unique genius, trapped in the body of a man with no talent.

SO, as well as the usual guff, this blog will now also report on my forays into homebrewing. In the coming weeks I will publish: some reports on my attempts to brew; homebrewing advice I've gathered from Canadian brewmasters; information about the Victoria homebrew scene, and anything else I can find to stuff the column inches.

I'm not brewing yet. I intend to start in a few weeks. So far I have managed to gather some of the essential equipment:
i. A free 20l carboy that looks in decent condition
ii. A small room with a drain where I can hide things from my family
iii. Unwarranted optimism

Until then, my homebrew life is lived vicariously through the achievements of others. With perfect timing, my friend Jacqueline unexpectedly gave me three bottles of her own homebrew for my birthday last week — an IPA, a marzen and a brown ale (left).

Jacqueline brewed them at a "U-Brew" place. Purists might argue this is not strictly homebrew. U-Brews are places that house all the equipment and ingredients you need to brew beer. You turn up, choose one of their recommended recipes (or invent your own), and pay depending on how much you intend to make. You do the labour, with some supervision if you're a newbie, then you come back and collect your bottles when they're ready. I've heard it works out to about $2-3 a bomber (650ml) depending on the recipe. It sounds like a great way to become accustomed to the brewing process without having to do all the difficult stuff like cultivating yeast and sanitizing.

Jacqueline brewed hers at Bedford Brewing in Victoria. They have twenty or so recipes to choose from, and all three of the beers she kindly gave me were delicious. The IPA (right) was accidentally brewed with double the hops in the boil (I think that's what Jacqueline said). This gave what would have otherwise been a very restrained, light IPA an extra kick of mineral bitterness. It ended a tad astringent, but I'd love to drink some more of it. The marzen was very clean tasting, with only a hint of the coppery caramel flavour you expect. But again, very refreshing. My favourite was the brown. Once more, a simple version, and light, but massively drinkable and lively.

All three beers looked and smelled fantastic. A U-Brew might be a good place for a newb brewer to find their feet, and the results seem massively encouraging. Of course, I firmly believe that brewing is in my blood. Supervision and safeguards are completely unnecessary for someone as attuned to the natural rhythms of grains, herbs, and fermentation as I am. Just you wait and see...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tapped Out/Flat Beer Eats 2

I was recently approached by Victoria's free weekly newspaper Monday Magazine to write a short article about the range of craft beer available in Victoria pubs, liquor stores and restaurants. I asked Dave to help me, as his knowledge of Victoria's scene is deeper than mine. I wrote our findings up, and Monday published our article as part of their "Crafty Brewing" edition dedicated to all things beer (available on stands around Victoria for the rest of this week only!)

It's nice to do a bit of grown-up journalism. For free, admittedly. It's a shame that there isn't too much print media coverage of our beer scene, but as the Editor of Monday Magazine — John Threlfall — explained with sadness, the budget for freelance work has been brutally slashed as part of the struggles all print media producers are suffering.

Regarding the article, our brief was to be, well, brief. So we highlighted 3 pubs and 3 standout liquor stores. There are plenty of other good places we would have liked to have included, many I discovered writing the article. Flavius at Left4Beer kindly pointed me to a galaxy of places I'd overlooked. But our choices are very strong and I stand by them.
Update on that keg of flat Phoenix beer: I made two more dishes with it. First, a beer-boiled prawn curry. I fried garlic and tomatoes, added a good pint of beer, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and fennel, then boiled it down. Marinated the prawns in yogurt, cinnamon and lemon juice, then threw them into the reduction when it was sticky. I added cream, green onions and salt. The rice is boiled in beer too.

Then I worked on the bread recipe. This one is the same as the last, except I used only a 1/3 cup brown sugar this time, two handfuls of cheese, and some rosemary and thyme. This one came out even better than the last one. A bit denser, as expected, but the flavour is more balanced with less sugar. The Phoenix doesn't lend as much flavour as the Buck — so I'd ideally use a darker ale in future, but it still beats water. In the background are two glasses of the British classic Shandy (half-sprite-half-beer). The only way to drink a dead lager.

If anyone wants more precise recipes, ask in the comments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beer Bread Solves Everything

I woke up on the couch at 6 a.m. this morning and immediately had to deal with three sources of anxiety:
1. post-surprise-party hangover
2. England v. Slovenia world cup match
3. two warm, half-full kegs of beer

After a good 5 minutes of misery, I got up and decided to make beer bread for breakfast. Coffee brewed while I made the dough. Then I settled down to watch the match while the sweet smells of baking and coffee calmed my nerves.

I've only ever made beer bread twice before. I googled a few recipes, one of which suggested no raising agent is needed, but my first loaf was a sludgy slab of crap. Second time I used baking powder and a half bottle of stout and I was hooked.

If you haven't made beer bread, you should know that it is one of the best ways to cook with beer. It is simple to make and, unlike a lot of beer cookery, really does showcase the beer itself. Beer bread is usually pretty dense, richly sweet, and has the most powerful yeasty funk. I've never actually used yeast to make it, I'm not sure how that would turn out. Maybe next time. For now, here's the recipe I invented this morning:

3 cups white flour
5 tsp baking powder
12oz warm beer (I used Blue Buck)
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
handful shredded cheddar
pinch chili powder
2 tbsp melted butter

Throw all ingredients except butter into a big-enough bowl and mix roughly with a wooden spoon (it's too sticky for hands). Let sit for a bit while you coat a bread tin with butter. Bake at 375 for 50 mins then check it. Best check is to turn it out of the pan and knock on the bottom of the loaf with your hand. If it sounds hollow, you're good to go. If not, give it another 5-10 mins, but no longer. It doesn't rise like ordinary bread, so you might not get a hollow sound every time.

You can eat it on its own after 10-20 minutes of cooling on a rack. My wife smeared some with cream cheese, which is a good choice as the fresh tartness complements the hearty flavour of the bread very well. I find this recipe to be a touch on the sweet side, and I'd be tempted to use only a 1/3 cup of sugar, but the sugar is needed for the rising so don't skimp too much.

By 9 a.m. I was full, we'd won 1-0, and I had completely forgotten about the hangover. I went to work with a smile, knowing another slab of beer bread was waiting for me at lunchtime. What a comeback.


Note#1 I changed the blog theme because I read that light-on-dark can be difficult and even painful to read. I hope the new look is pleasing. Feel free to comment or suggest improvements.

Note#2 Thanks so much to amazing-wife and friends for coming to the party and bringing some exceptional beers too!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Grassley's Gulf Ale

A unique new beer will be pouring soon in New Orleans and Florida, if Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has his way. He has suggested that beer ingredients may be used to tackle the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, “I think that there’s alternatives to soaking up oil that have not been used yet...There’s a process for making beer — I don’t know if it’s the yeast or what it is in making beer. You can put those microscopic things on oil and they die, and all you’ve got is some methane gas left.”

It's not good form to extract humour from the biggest environmental disaster North America has ever faced. But people like Grassley are hardly making it easy for us. His idea is completely ridiculous. Has noone told him that oils in suspension will completely ruin the head?

However, there is a kernel of brewing science logic in the suggestion. Micro-organisms such as yeast can break down oils in certain conditions, releasing gases such as carbon-dioxide. Oil is mainly hydrocarbon, which is an alternative arrangement of the same elements that form the fermentable sugars in wort.

Of course, putting brewers yeast into the Gulf of Mexico is unlikely to work, but I recommend pouring the entire US reserves of Coors Light, Miller Hi-Life, and Bud Light Lime into the ocean anyway. You know, just in case.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fallacy of "Craft" Status

One of the thousands of questions that Hoptopia tweets every day caught my attention recently. He asked whether Sam Adams should limit production to less than 2m barrels a year to keep their "craft" status. My answer was an off-the-cuff swipe at the label "craft", but I've had time to decide why I really think craft-credentials leave a sour taste.

Other bloggers have made the point that defining "craft" by volume of beer produced is meaningless. That's a dead horse I have no desire to interfere with.

The Brewers Association of America defines craft beer in a little more detail. It must be: a. small (<2m barrels/year), b. independent (at least 75%-owned by brewers themselves), and c. traditional (mostly malt and limited adjuncts). It's a decent set of criteria, made all the more critical because "craft" brewers get tax cuts as well as cache.

"Small" beers are big business in America (worth $7bn in 2009!), so defining the "craft" credential is heavily political. Result: a word that is supposed to distinguish caring producers of beer for whom profit is a secondary consideration, from bottom-line-obsessed factory-brewers, is now ironically a fiscal concept. A brief consideration of how the orange juice industry mangled the terms "pure" and "fresh" tells us that this ends badly.

So why the hell do we need these credentials in the first place?

As with any credential, "craft" is a proxy for trust in the absence of full disclosure. What that crap sentence means is that most of the beers we drink are brewed by people we don't know, who live far away, and for all we know might be evil, evil bastards. How do we know they are using fresh ingredients and sending us their "good stuff"? How do we know we're liking the right drinks?! How can we trust them to play fair?

These questions would keep us up all night if we hadn't come up with the ingenious plan of appointing referees and trusting them to set standards so we don't have to take the effort to do our own research.

Of course, none of this mattered back when beer was made either in your kitchen, by a neighbour, or worst-case scenario in the next village along. Nowadays, we're almost all guilty of an insatiable appetite for new experiences, and of hyping up hard-to-find and exotic beers to the point that locally-available fare can seem, well, a bit tame.

The best and only truly reliable way to know if you're drinking craft beer is to make it yourself, or buy it from a local brewer whose methods you can observe firsthand. Craft describes not only the production process, but also the relationship of the maker to the drinker. As with most relationships, it's a difficult one to maintain faithfully over long-distances...

Of course, your next best option is get in touch with a beer blogger who lives where the beer you want to drink is made. Beer bloggers are intelligent, honest, and absolutely never evil. Now all we need is a Beer Blogger's Association to certify that....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review: Driftwood Belle Royale

Now and again a beer comes along that sticks in your mind. I'm not talking about the great or the godawful: these are simple to file away. It's the weird ones that haunt you.

Startling new flavours, remarkable brews from crappy beermakers, or dreadful stuff from great ones: these beers can nag at you like an itch, as your once–coherent universe of expectations expands and distorts.

Driftwood's Belle Royale has had that effect on me, prompting me to write a rare review.

I admit Driftwood's new(-ish) Belgian cherry ale was always going to make an impression on me. I'm a bit of a Driftwood cheerleader and I was there as they prepared it for release. But six bottles of this impossibly-red nectar later and I still find myself going "damn" every time I drink (and smell) one.

The beer is a triple golden ale brewed with spicy belgian yeast and masses of sour cherries. As you'd expect, it has a pronounced (though not at all wild) sour tang that waters the mouth. The body is reminiscent of dry sherry or retsina, peppered with raunchy yeast and not as sweet as you'd think. The cherries are mostly about zing, but they also lend an underlying cloying richness, and pleasingly "off" blue notes that make the Belle a mysterious pleasure.

Normally a review starts with the smell, but I've saved it for last. The excoriating sour cherry whiff is spot-on, but beneath it comes a powerful corporeal aroma: to my nose carrion-esque and woody, like the open oak door of a crypt. It took me five bottles to identify this — and it's not a delightful comparison — but the precise odour it reminds me of is the meat-processing plant that hits you as your car emerges on the Liverpool side of the Mersey tunnel in England.

This sounds fatally bad, but I should say it in no way prevents me from loving the beer. There's something entirely appropriate about it (and if it's any consolation, others find it to be more akin to altogether-more-pleasant smoked-salmon). It's a massive beer and you should try one while you still can.

In fact, the vampiric pleasure it gives me ensures I'll be hoovering the Victoria stores for the last remaining Belles lurking darkly on the shelf, beckoning to me...

Oh, and as if it couldn't get more creepy, Belle Royale is also completely headless.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I take a lot of photos of Beer. Part of my motivation for blogging was to write some reviews, so I've been careful to document almost every brew with a pic. However, because Dave and Left4Beer already provide such great coverage of BC beers and others beside, I have settled into a different blog-niche:  mainly whingeing and hassling local beer-industry folk for a few word-bites.

Therefore, if digital photos could gather dust, my photo album would resemble the Gobi Desert. 

Taking photographs of beer is a lot harder than it seems. With a bit of practice, anyone can squeeze bottle and glass into the shot, keep things in focus, and whatnot. But there lies half the problem. If your aim is to document the beer (this site is the finest example of this that I know of), you need only master one shot. Getting the photo to look fresh or interesting after hundreds of mug-shots (heh) is much more challenging.

I'm no master. Here are a few of my luckiest beer photographs of recent months. I hope you enjoy them. They are, in order: Brooklyn IPA, Russell's IP'Eh, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Driftwood Belle Royale, Central City Winter Warmer, Phillips Hop Circle, and Phillips Amnesiac Double IPA.

Reader request:

If you live/drink in Victoria, and you would like to recommend a pub or liquor store that you feel has an as-good-as-or-better-selection of local and international beers than the following, please comment. It is for an upcoming article, and your help would be gratefully appreciated.
Pubs: Christie's Carriage House, Spinnaker's Brewpub, The Beagle
Liquor Stores: Hillside Liquor Store, Spinnakers James Bay store, Cook Street Village Liquor Store.
Thanks again kind readers.