Monday, May 31, 2010

LOL Sudbury

Smallbeer is currently in Sudbury, Ontario, locked up in a police station 14 hours a day in the name of research. I didn't anticipate too much in the way of blogging — not just because I'm busy — but because I've been warned that craft beer in Ontario is rare as rocking-horse shit. My brother-in-law is in Toronto, and with the exception of Bar Volo he's struggling for a decent pint.

What hope for Sudbury then?

Well, it's actually been pretty good. Mostly thanks to the Laughing Buddha. This unassuming pub/restaurant, overlooking the less-than-lovely CP Rail line, has one of the more diverse bottled-beer selections I've come across in Canada. Along with Samuel Smith's, Chimay (premiere at $12 a bomber can't be beaten) and other international big-name crafts, there's a deep selection of east-of-SK stuff.

-Grand River Brewing Curmudgeon IPA is a somewhat soapy, but sweet IPA, with middling hops and a lasting mineral bitterness. 
-Half Pints Little Scrapper delivers a more malty IPA. It's got a lingering aftertaste that retains a rich and bitter balance right through,
-Great Lakes Devils Pale Ale 666 is my favourite of the bunch. It might be a gimmicky concept, but this is a great dark ale with substantial hops — more so than many good IPAs. It's the Ontario equivalent of a Cascadian Dark, just a little less assertive. I'd have another.

Well, I'd better get back to work. I have a potential date with my first BA member tonight, so I better finish off and tart myself up a bit.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Driven to Session

fail owned pwned pictures

New BC drink driving legislation (the "toughest in the country") is coming. Drink-driving is the least popular recreational activity since Vlad the Impaler's dinner parties, so you probably won't find much objection to the new measures:
1. Increasing fines and penalties for .08ml/L blood-alcohol content, and
2. Introducing "warning" fines and penalties for .05ml/L blood-alcohol content
That's one way to put pressure on merry-motorists. Another would be the UK's approach of freaking the shit out of people (this one is for drug driving but MAN is it freaky). Whatever works is OK by me I suppose.

Now, smallbeer supports effective anti-drink-driving measures. But there are one or two unintended consequences of these new rules that craft-beer drinkers may find interesting and/or concerning.

I was talking to a local brewmaster today about one of his more powerful beers, and casually asked if there were plans for more products at the imperial end of the ABV spectrum. "The opposite," he replied, "with these new alcohol laws coming out, our strategy will probably shift into more sessionable beers."

The brewmaster in question works at a popular brewpub, which is off the beaten track. Many of the regulars probably have to drive there. A single pint of strong ale is likely to put you into "warning" territory under the new legislation. And when the profit margin on a stronger beer is only slightly higher than a ~5% lager — you can sympathise with the focus on beers that patrons can drink without losing their license.  

I expect that these rules will have a minimal effect, but brewpubs in particular will certainly take them into consideration. This could mean a thinning out of local choices when it comes to bigger beers. It might also tempt brewers to tone down existing brews to keep them street-legal.

On the flipside, if driving to pubs becomes less possible — which declining suburbia would also hasten — we might see a growth in smaller, local neighborhood pubs. These pubs will be nestled in communities, they will respond to local needs, and produce and serve quality beers using local ingredients for a discerning clientele who can walk in at anytime to enjoy comradeship and togetherness with their fellow man!

Or possibly we'll all end up drinking at home on our own. In the dark. On the internet.

At least there's no Keno machine in your living room...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beer Identity

When buying a beer in Canada — so long as you're less than 50% grey and in possession of some of your own teeth — you stand a good chance of being asked for ID. Anyone who's worked at an alcohol retailer will have seen enough "8"s artfully manipulated into "3"s ("7"s into "1"s, etc) on the driver's licenses of the suspiciously-young-looking to know that it is often a good idea to establish the ID of the buyer.

But have you ever asked for the ID of the beer?

I'm not talking about knock-offs. The profit margin on fake ale is hardly Gucci handbag-worthy. Wine fraud might get its own wikipedia page, but beer drinkers are too smart (or cheap) to be tricked into paying out for counterfeit Kolsch.  What I mean is, have you ever asked yourself what it is that makes this beer this beer?

It might have the same name, look basically similar, and can be reliably gotten for $5 a pint at your local pub — but a certain amount of variability is expected, and often accepted. Smaller-volume craft breweries struggle to ensure absolute consistency without the benefits of measured blending afforded to larger beermakers. A lot of craft drinkers take pleasure in observing the variations in seasonal brews. A brewer may also "improve" or otherwise adjust his recipe over time — considering the changes too minor to warrant a rebranding. Or possibly something about the storage, quality control, age, or handling of the beer, or any number of other variables, could make a beer vary from one pint to the next. It is truly a drink as fickle as its drinker.

But pinning down a philosophical definition of the "essence" of a beer is pretty tricky. You'd sensibly suppose it has something to do with
1. How you make it
2. What you make it with
3. What you call it
But I can think of three beers in BC alone that challenge each one of these definitions
1. Phillips Hop Circle is a modified, unfiltered version of their IPA — yet until recently when someone pointed this out, Beer Advocate had it listed as the same beer
2. Driftwood Ale is now produced with substantially more hops than it used to be
3. Phillips Skookum has undergone a name change and at least two bottle-design changes that I'm aware of — but is still brewed to the Black Toque recipe.

OK, beer changes, so what? It doesn't matter really, you know from experience what you can rely on and what you can't, and people are mostly cool with this. That's all true. But it sort of makes you think, when you observe reviewers arguing and pontificating about the merits of certain beers, or internet critics debating the finer points of the flavour of beers that cannot possibly be tasted identically, given the massive geographical, temporal and experiential variability of the universe of beer-sipping!

This philosophical noodling is of course a way for me to extend a (fairly trivial) complaint about Spinnakers' Blue Bridge Double India Pale Ale, which I am currently sipping with utter suspicion. With the help of Eskimodave I figured out that the bottle label has quietly been altered from "double IPA" to "double pale ale" very recently. I even emailed them about it, but no-one has got back to me so far.

Now, this may or may not explain the poor pint of BB I had the other day. The recipe could have changed along with the name. Or perhaps they just changed the name because, as Dave puts it, "they realized it wasn't cutting it as a DIPA".

Either way, "double pale ale" is a much better description of what I'm drinking right now. And perhaps the fit of the title to the taste is what's letting me enjoy this one so much more than the last time. Minimal hops are fine without the Indian expectations, and it's not a bad pint tonight at all. Perfect comfort for an otherwise troubling think about the true loneliness of experience..

Still, I'd love to know where they put the 8.2%. Two bombers in and I do not expect to be able to type straight...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wrong pint

"This isn't the double IPA"
"It's got nothing to it. This one's usually sweetish, admittedly not too hoppy, but richer than this. The carbonation's wrong too. And where's the body? This is meant to be 8.5%. There's no way...."
Just then I noticed my wife was giving me a bit of a look. Her parents had taken us and her sister to lunch. It isn't good form to complain in these circumstances, I suppose. So I shut up moaning. Still. If this is Spinnaker's double IPA, then I'm a burlesque dancer.

There's a number of ways to deal with being served the wrong drink. The most popular is to not really notice. On some subliminal level your psyche might register that something is amiss, as the Old Speckled Hen slides down your throat in place of the Bombardier. Perhaps a sense of unease will follow you around for the rest of the day. You may even have unsettling dreams. But you won't actually know.

Another option — if you do notice the error — is to drink it anyway. Especially if you're too timid/lazy/drunk/happy-go-lucky to try for a replacement. And who knows, you might have scored something better than you'd ordered.

Finally, you can complain. I'm sure for some ale-aficionados this is the highlight of their week — being presented with an excuse to demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge and get one over the help.

Usually I'll sit and sup my mystery pint, enjoying the instability of the universe and the new flavours it has endowed me. But as I sat in Spinnakers on Saturday, with what resembled a over-fizzy and skunked pilsner in my hand, I had to at least get some recognition.

"Excuse me," I said, as my wife's eyes rolled out of her head, "are you sure this is the Blue Bridge IPA? It tastes like something else."
The waitress was very helpful, to be fair. She brought over the bar-tender who gave me a half glass of verified Blue Bridge to compare with. Nice, I thought, it'll be right this time and they'll pour me another.

But it was the same wrong pint again. At this point, I lost my bottle and just nodded and said thanks. They couldn't have switched the taps, could they? Could a batch of IPA really differ so much from another? Could it lose 3 points of ABV, gain a double measure of CO2, and shed all resemblance to the pint I drank in this exact pub but a month ago?

I debated another run at the barman. But I figured the sight of their son-in-law attempting to force a barman to taste his drink, mumbling about "hops", and getting upset about "malt character", might have freaked the in-laws out a bit. So I sat and drank it, feeling slightly forlorn, and worried that my mouth might be broken, and that every lovely ale would from that moment on taste like fermented tomatoes.

But I think I'm OK. This Moylans double tastes as good as ever tonight. And now I've got an excuse to get down Spinnakers again soon for a follow-up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Octavius Tinsworth Federidge Ace

 F-f-ff-fff-f-ff-for some people — me included — this is a supremely satisfying beer image: Eight cans of Federation Ace lager.

I have never tasted Ace. Until this week, I had never even seen an actual photograph of it. I half suspected it didn't exist. But it does. Or at least it did. I believe that Federation Brewery (owned by Dunston) abandoned it in the 90s, but RateBeer contributors reviewed some cans as recently as 2006, and it isn't the kind of beer you'd intentionally age.

In fact, if you are anything like 8-Ace — an alcoholic comic-strip character from legendary juvenile British magazine "Viz" — all eight cans are to be drunk on the way home from the corner shop where you bought them.

Viz requires no introduction to the initiated, yet its charm is difficult to explain to the newcomer. Wikipedia does a thorough job, but briefly: Viz is a toilet-humour comic, aimed mostly at teenagers and men who think making up imaginative names for vaginas is high art ("Wizard's sleeve" and "sausage wallet" spring keenly to mind). It's crass, irreverent, but often sharply satirical, and occasionally brilliant.

8-Ace is my favourite character. He's a truly hopeless alco, living in a run-down house with a battleaxe of a wife and several feral children, whom he threatens to "bray" with regularity. The gist of every episode is that 8-Ace comes to realize he is a disastrous boozer, seeks redemption and sobriety of some kind, but is always cruelly trusted with £1.49 ("one-forteh-nine") — which is precisely the cost of eight cans of Ace lager. The final frame always depicts 8-Ace's inevitable wagon dismount: hammered, surrounded by empty cans of Ace, screaming at the world ("f-ff-ff-ffucking, y-y-yer f-f-fuck!") and inexplicably urinating on his own nicotine-stained fingers.

£1.49 seems impossibly cheap for eight cans of any beer, but it seems to be factual. I worked at Safeway in the 90s, where we stocked 4-packs of "Eiger" lager for £1.25, so I can believe a lager was that cheap in the eighties. But it must have been pretty rank, two Ratebeer guys give it 0.5/5 (the lowest possible score), the third and final reviewer goes as far as 1.8/5, with a touchingly earnest review: "Golden coloured and slightly sweet. Wheat flavour. Some dryness in a malt finish."

8-Ace seems like a depressing business all around. But despite his affliction, temper and appalling physical appearance, 8-Ace possesses the dregs of a sweet soul. Every time he sobers up he genuinely seems to want to make a go of it. He addresses an imaginary god "Why did ah 'ave ta luv the ace so?", and makes heartfelt promises to his awful wife that he'll do the right thing and "neva eva eva" touch the Ace again. And he means it too. It's just the world conspires to put lovely, lovely Ace at his fingertips. And Octavius Tinsworth Federidge Ace just cannot resist.

However, if Pliny the Elder, Dark Lord, or Orval were £1.49 (about $2.50) for an eight pack, I warrant there'd be one or two more of us shaking our fists at imaginary deities and weeing on our fingers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Moved to Thirst

I'd apologise, but I can't be sure it wasn't a welcome break... It's been two weeks since the last post owing to the smallbeer family up and moving to a new house. The upheaval robbed me of work hours, so I've been too busy scrambling for school deadlines and simmering in bitter resentment at missing out on the Vancouver Craft Beer Week to post to the blog.

This is all a big shame, because the perfect combination of long hours of lifting and acute stress mean it has been a particularly productive week in terms of drinking beer. Physical labor has a special effect on my beer drinking habits. Not only does it generate genuine thirst — which is all too rare a sensation for today's pampered beer-drinker, but it also makes substandard-to-average beers taste completely beautiful.

Moving house is to beer what the miracle fruit is to vinegar, although I'm not willing to test that last proposition. It is second only to removing a concrete patio in July with a sledge-hammer with a loose head, and two small chisels, in its midas-like ability. I drank 15-20 bottles of Becks that day and each was as sweet as a dewy morning. There's a climbing frame on my mate's lawn where that patio used to be. I leaned against it recently with a Phoenix Gold in my hand. Another kind of lovely.

Race Rocks Amber ale, brewed by the local Lighthouse Brewing Company, is a once-championed brew of Victoria. Nowadays the consensus seems to be that it has gotten worse over the years, although I admit to finding it the better option served at the University of Victoria's "Felicitas" campus bar. It pours a dim red, just like Dr. Pepper, I always thought. Pretty fizzy, indistinct on the mouth, but leaves a decent aftertaste of herbal malts and a dash of cough syrup. After 14 hours of lugging boxes around while my knee swelled with fluid and I almost knocked over a lamp post with the U-Haul truck — it tasted as good as anything I've had to date.

I'll be back with less emotional musings later on. Right now I have to find my remote control....

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another Boring Beer Recipe

This article puts "Cooking with beer" at  #3 on the "5 MOST BORING TOPICS IN BEER JOURNALISM" list. I was just typing up my experiments with beer-battered fish when that article arrived — courtesy of a tweet by AGoodBeerBlog's Alan McLeod. (Oh I'm on twitter, finally, just in time for it to become obsolete probably: dansmallbeer)

The list is tongue-in-cheek, more of a platform for Hedonist Beer Jibe's cheeky ranting skills. But it's true. Beer journalism is awash with some dull, routinized writing. It gets worse when your magazine has a "Cooking with Beer" column, which you then simply have to fill every week, with increasing desperation. Here's some examples* I didn't see recently:

Milk Stout Beerios!
1x small bowl of Cheerios breakfast cereal
1x 12oz serving of Three Floyd's "Moloko Plus" Milk Stout
Wake up, shake the foggy regret from your throbbing head, and dump a bottle of milk stout over your favourite cereal. Return to bed and spoon into mouth gratefully — avoiding the cereal, of course. Sleep, then repeat.

Dubbel Whopper
3x hamburger patties
2x buns
1x snifter of North Coast Brother Thelonius Dubbel
Gourmet burgers don't come much classier than this. Soak one split bun overnight in the snifter of dubbel. Cook and assemble burger, inserting dubbel-soaked bun halves between the three patties. Eat, within dashing distance of a latrine. Avoid clothing with sleeves.

Eggs Beernedict
2x eggs
2x English muffins
6oz cream
1x 600ml bottle of Tilburg's Dutch Brown Ale
True hollandaise sauce can be a real bingo-wings enhancer. This recipe keeps your netherlands in check with a healthy, slimming Dutch ale. Poach 2 eggs in half the ale. Whisk remaining ale with the cream. Slop the lot over your muffins and serve.

If you're still hungry, here's some pictures of my recent beer-battered fish and chips. I went with a white ale, as my wife sensibly suggested the citrus notes would work with the fish. The batter is just a cup or so of self raising flour (flour plus baking soda plus pinch of salt), with garlic powder, pepper and cayenne added. I dredge the cod through some cornstarch before battering, then sling into 2" of oil for 2-3mins a side. You don't need to deep fry, a few inches is enough.
I've been honing the recipe, and have used lager, stout, wheat beer and hoppy pale ales. To be frank, I can't say there's a lot of difference. Beer is better than water, but the type of beer adds little to the flavour in my experience. I got pretty great results with a tall-boy of Löwenbrau. I think the fizz is the important thing, as it does tend to produce very crispy batter, as you can see above. It is advisable to let your fish rest briefly on paper towels (or newspaper if you're old-school), in the open air. This provides maximum crunch and minimum lard. Oh, and a tall-boy is essential, as you'll only need half of it for the batter, and frying is thirsty work.

*These recipes are all wastes of good beer invented by smallbeer as a joke, and as such, should definitely be cooked by no-one. Except the fish. That one's yum.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Phillips Interview #3: The Beer Carries Itself

In this final part of the Phillips interview, we talk about the future of the brewery, and Matt Phillips comments on craft-brewery vs. craft-brewery legal issues.

As I'm sipping the last of Matt Phillips' prototype Steinbier, I notice an assistant gesticulating to get his attention. He has another appointment and the visitor is waiting. Damn, I think, probably someone more important than a beer blogger. Phillips tells me to relax, he's got time. I launch into a final round of questions, pissed off that I saved some of the big ones for last.
- SO, apart from the ones I've tried today, what beers are planned for the summer?
MP: There's going to be a Kölsch in the Showcase [Phillips' 12-pack mixer].

- Didn't you do a Kölsh last year?
MP: That's right, the Hudson Light. It was our charity beer. We do one every year. Our way of putting a bit back in.

- Speaking of funds, your brewery was famously started with a stack of credit cards. Are you finally out of debt yet?
MP: No WAY! I'm in way more debt [laughs]. Paying that off is never going to happen!

- Maybe you need to expand your business model. Your reception area looks like a good spot for a bar?
MP: I never really considered opening a bar. We got a good thing going, and good relationships with local places. I'm not into becoming their competitor. But that said, I'm getting more into food and beer pairings. A food-related venture is an inevitable destination. I don't want a brewpub, but I'm excited about putting on cheese-tastings and other pairing events. So far we haven't had a lot of interest from local chefs but I'm hoping that will change. Food is really a part of what beer is all about for me.
I spend a bit more time fishing for Phillips' favourite beers. He plays safe and goes weak at the knees about Pliny the Elder. Jason from Driftwood had the same reaction. Great. That finally shatters the "Pliny is over-hyped" conspiracy theory that I had invented for myself because I can't get hold of any.

So who are his influences? He credits the original Whistler Brewing Company (apparently a step above the mediocre brewing outfit that currently bears that name), and also Ben Schottle. So, a former employer and a current work colleague. Another safe play by Phillips. But I do finally trick him into admitting that he holds naked midnight brewing sessions during which beer demons are summoned. I swear.

Back to reality, and a serious side of it at that: I finally broach the topic of legal disputes between craft breweries. Back in 2007, Phillips was forced to change the name of his "Blue Truck Ale" to "Blue Buck Ale" — in order to avoid the threat of legal action brought by the Red Truck Beer Company of North Vancouver. Sadly, legal disputes between craft-breweries are not that rare. Central City Brewing are currently facing possible legal action by Bear Republic, who allege that Central City's "Red Racer IPA" infringes on their own "Racer 5 IPA" and "Red Rocket Ale" brews.

Now, like many people, my initial reaction was "assholes." As if the craft industry doesn't have enough to deal with competing with macros and getting their beers into new mouths, without petty squabbles amongst themselves. And exactly how many craft-brew drinkers (generally a discerning bunch) are going to mistake the BC beer for either of the California brews — especially when their crossover markets are small? But the more I think about it, the more I realize that both breweries are victims of a virulent litigious culture that punishes you for not attacking the vaguest infringements of copyright. Despite his personal anguish over the name-change, Matt Phillips is sensitive to the larger issues at play:
MP: With Red Racer, there was a lot of people thinking that there could be an issue there. I have empathy for them both. It's not a fun thing to go through. Bear Republic has a lot invested in their brand, and they have the trademark. But the reality is if they don't protect it, their trademark is gone. It's kind of tough. Craft brewers aren't the kind of people who are litigious...but quite often we're forced into real-world situations that don't reflect our personalities. I feel sorry for Gary over at Central City and he's dealing with a US brewery and they tend to litigate first, ask questions's one of those realities.
The problem is, if Bear Republic did not object to perceived similarities, then in the eyes of the law, they have failed to defend their trademark. This would permit a predatory company to aggressively rip off the Bear Republic brand, safe from legal action, because they would likely be able to successfully argue that BR's trademark was invalidated when they failed to object to Central City's similar designs. The whole situation leaves a far bitterer taste in the mouth than either of the excellent IPAs involved would do...

Phillips is philosophical. Sure, it hurt to change the name. And he is very clear with me that it hurt the company too. But he also understands that art and adversity are the most familiar of bedfellows.
MP: We're passionate about our beer but we're proud of what we do. So many breweries have so much in common, we have similar stories, and the names end up sounding similar. Looking for new names is a challenge. We can be days and days and days thinking up great names, then we look it up and it's already there. There's 30 red-truck brands in various segments, but we didn't have the money to fight it. There is a loss, to be honest, but we're really happy with the Blue Buck. And in the end, the beer carries itself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Canada Craft-Brew Stats Follow-up

I recently remarked on the state of Canadian craft-beer industry stats. To recap: CBC reported drops in beer sales, but rises in wines and spirits sales = "sophisticated" shift in boozing habits. I whined at the lack of dedicated statistics on the craft-beer industry in Canada that might show that craft beer is doing better at the macros' expense. The US has stats to show that craft beer is doing very well. Where are ours?

Well, having read my post, Rick Green (formerly of the Craft Brew Association of BC) was kind enough to send me a detailed email about this issue. It basically backs up two suspicions:
1. collected stats on Canadian craft brewing are inadequate
2. however, some regional stats indicate that the craft beer industry is probably doing extremely well, and certainly out-performing the big boys.

Here's how Rick tells it:
Hi Dan,

Regarding your post on Craft Beer Stats, I wanted to comment...
...Canada is a patchwork of craft brewer organizations. There isn't a national body, like in the US. The Brewers Association of Canada consists of the large brewers. That makes it difficult analyzing the Canadian craft beer market overall. The BCLDB is the best source for provincial stats, as the membership of the Craft Brewers Association of BC does not include all craft (aka "cottage") breweries and brewpubs and, therefore, is not privy to the individual stats of the non-members. See the LDB's Quarterly Market Review for the most up-to-date figures.

As you've discovered, what StatsCan reports is actually quite off the mark as to what is really going on. In the latest issue of the Quarterly Market Review, you will notice that the volume increase of craft beer sales in BC over the same quarter last year, is the largest of all categories tracked. So what was StatsCan saying about declining beer sales?

This isn't the first time StatsCan has reported on the "decline of beer." The same story was told last year, about which I commented on my blog. Most of what I wrote is still relevant, perhaps even more so as I feel the embracing of craft beer is picking up here...

Thanks Rick!

It is worth looking at the stats Rick kindly points us to. The document is the BC Liquor Distribution Branch Quarterly Market Review (most recent of which is for December 2009). It gives a picture of alcohol sales in BC, with more detail than the StatsCan stuff. Now, the doc doesn't refer to "craft-beer" specifically, but does break down domestic beer sales into two important categories: sales by companies who produce more than 100,000 hectolitres per annum, and those that sell less.

I'm not so sure this can be taken as the threshold for "craft" status. In a recent interview with Jason from Driftwood, he said:
We have to keep reminding ourselves what a microbrewery is, it's supposed to be a reaction to massive, mass produced, mass-marketed beer. Is it a microbrewery when it's doing 20 thousand hectolitres (HL) a year?
A microbrewery must typically produce less than 18,000 HL per year. "Craft brewery", however, is a term that describes a certain philosophy of beer-making. Although there's a correlation between smaller-scale breweries and craft-beer producers, they are not directly equal. So it isn't straightforward to say that the "under 100,000 HL" category equates to craft breweries, but it gives you a pretty good idea.

That said, the stats are pleasing. Here's a graph showing year on year sales in thousands of litres in the domestic beer market in British Columbia:

It's a crap graph — I can't use excel properly. But it does show a downward trend in sales of the largest macro breweries, but an upward trend in sales by breweries who sell less than 100,000HL a year. Between 2005 and 2009, "macro" sales fell from 218,629,602 litres to 206,218,424 litres. In the same time, "micro" sales grew from 19,762,929 to 29,835,897.

That's an increase of 50%. If even a portion of that increase represents smaller, true craft-breweries (whatever that means to you) — then it looks like things are looking very rosy for the "sophisticated" beer drinkers in BC. Plus, by my estimate, at this rate, by 2035 craft-breweries will outsell macro breweries! (my B+ in stats was a sympathy grade...)

Note: Oh, and Dave — Rick says: "I have resigned from my position with the CBA. I don't have any current plans to move to Asia. However, my new venture is a travel company focused on Asia, so I expect I will be spending more time there."