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 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.