Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trending Upwards

If you can read and you like beer you will have noticed that three things are trending in beer right now:

1. Collaborations
I read today that local outfit Phillips are brewing a Belgian IPA with Halifax's Garrison. There are special circumstances behind this particular collaboration, but it proves even our Island outfits have joined the throngs of brewers eager to mash each others' tuns. Brooklyn and Schneider did it, twice. Dogfish head will do it with literally anyone. Even hirstute beer bloggers are getting in on the act. (humble old us did it too recently, but we don't like to shout about it)

2. Beer cocktails
When the Beer Wench is mixin' IPA-a-rita in the same week that Alan McLeod is eying up saucy suds, you know it's beer cocktail silly season for the twitterati.

3. Belgian IPA
It's hoppy, it's yeasty, it possesses the unqualifiable characteristics of Belgian beer whilst simultaneously usually not being brewed in Belgium nor being in any way shape or form an IPA. It is, inexplicably, the Belgian IPA. It makes no sense, but it sounds delicious and people are in love with the concept of it anyway. More power to them.

The small beer blog likes to trend hard; it has been known to go on a three-day-trender. So naturally I felt compelled to make all three trends meet (within a tight budget) with my passive-collaborative-beer-cocktail-Belgian IPA: I dumped a can of Red Racer IPA and a bottle of Unibroue Fin du Monde into a right big glass and glugged it.

Blending beers has always been a core component of the production of many beer styles (ok ok I know it's not exactly a 'cocktail'). Depending on which sources you believe, porters were often produced with up to three separate brews. The Duchesse du Bourgogne Flanders Red I drank last week is a combination of an aged batch with a newer one — something that Guinness used to do (possibly still does?) with the addition of some sourish beer to produce a desirable twang.

Blending is not the same as brewing a beer with the combined ingredients of the blend, of course, as different yeasts and fermentation processes obviously nurture different flavours from each batch. I tend to mix two ales together from time to time on a whim — just to see if it'll work. But this was my first intentional blend and it worked out beautifully.

Fin Du Monde is a dry and pungent tripel — oozing peppery yeast in the classic Belgian mode, and Red Racer IPA is probably the most aggressively hopped, well-made IPA brewed within Canada. In combination they did not disappoint. I was very surprised that even in a 50/50 mix the Fin Du Monde engulfed what I presumed would be the more dominant hop-ridden bedfellow. The result was a very mellow, thick and resplendent drink. The bite of the yeast played well with the subdued, complex hops. The flavour was perhaps muddled after a too-cold first pour. But when it warmed up a bit it was really very lovely.

Give it a go with your favourite local Tripels and IPAs, or perhaps saisons too if you have them. But never, ever, EVER a Dubbel. It would only encourage someone to coin "Belgian Dark IPA": not worth the risk.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tasting Notes

After one sip of my first ever Duchesse Borgogne last night my face spasmed — fluctuating between an involuntary sour grimace and a beam of sheer delight. I try to resist the temptation to read descriptions (and worse: reviews) of new beers before I try them. As any movie-goer will attest, expectations and predispositions can be the arch-enemies of enjoyment. I hadn't even realized the Duchesse was a sour Flemish Red until it curdled my consciousness and tattooed a smile across my cheeks that lasted all evening. The shock of the sour with the luscious mead-like body really pleased me.

Our physical reactions to tasting beer are an oddly personal thing. Mood, fatigue and above all company can be more significant than mere flavour in determining whether we roll our eyes, adopt a stony snarl, or launch into a full-on "o" face. As animals our reactions to flavour are essentially carnal, yet as social creatures we have learned to become aware of and control how those reactions bubble up to the surface.

Personally, my tasting reactions mirror my reactions to good comedy. If I am watching The Daily Show or listening to The Bugle alone, even the most uproarious gags might solicit an appreciative nod — a monosyllabic chuckle at most. But put me in a crowded cinema and I will bellow through a full ninety minutes of a mediocre Will Ferrell flick. Similarly, a great beer enjoyed in solitude might fire up my synapses, but put me in a beer-tasting and the same beer could reduce me to giggling jelly.

On some occasions company has the opposite effect. We've all been in situations where someone has split a rare or celebrity beer and the gathered tasters proceed to play flavour-poker, stifling their visceral reactions – whether delight, disgust or indifference — for fear of betraying unsophisticated tastes or a misunderstanding of the intended style. It takes a bold or blasé comrade to break the seal: "It's OK, but I have no idea why BeerAdvocate drinkers have it as the best of its style" before others will wear their frowns of disappointment with confidence.

My favourite tasters of all (my taste in tasters, if you like) are those awesome individuals with a winning combination of hyperactive tastebuds and a total lack of inhibitions. There is one such guy called John who comes to our semi-regular Epic Beer Dinner pairing events. I always search the RSVP list to see if John is attending, and if he is, I know we will be offered a veritable showcase of joie-de-vivre.

John reacts to a beer the way ordinary people might react to being publicly slapped, tickled by a platoon of Oompa-Loompas, or being told they have less than three minutes to live. Reactions explode out of him. I once saw him react to an imperial Hefeweizen as though it had just suggested that John and his wife join it in a three-way.

I've never seen someone perceive such audacity, outrageousness and utter seduction in the beers that John drinks. I salute him. Most of us cannot be like John, but all beer lovers have their own version of this reaction. We might simply sit, aware, in the serene moment, feel an immediate compulsion to write about what we just drank, or snap a pencil lead scribbling tasting notes.

And now, because my words do not have the power to replicate intense visceral reactions, for John and the Duchesse, a video of some small children eating lemons.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The 'Rock is Rolling

The BeerOnTheRock executive meeting took place last night. Dave, Ian and I managed to plan some changes to our Vancouver Island beer news resource before our sobriety clock ran down and we were reduced to watching a man inhaling his own boot on YouTube.

BOTR currently just does Island news and announcements, but we will start doing two other things:

1. Articles
BOTR is intended to be opinion-free (saving rants for our blogs), but our main aim is to promote our beer scene. We have decided therefore to start writing feature articles, e.g.:
  • profiles of local breweries/brewers
  • interviews with beer-related folk
  • historical bits about the beer industry here
2. Homebrewer's guild/community
Victoria does not currently have a homebrewers' organization. We have been in touch with some guys who have been planning to start one and it is likely that we will either host it or publicize it and certainly cover it. Dave and I are building our own brew operation; Ian already brews.

If any Island drinkers want to suggest another angle we could pursue on BOTR, feel free, we're here to serve. 

OK now to the important business of what we drank last night:

Howe Sound's latest beer "Brilliant Lager" (and first in a can) is a Dortmunder-style lager. DAB — an exemplar of the style — seemed a natural comparison point. Both beers are solid, relatively malt-forward with minerally-hops. But I preferred the DAB which was crispier and more tart.

Second up was my beer-revelation of 2011 Weltenburger Kloster's Asam Bock. It is a dark doppelbock named, as far as I can tell, after the Brothers Asam — a pair of 18th Century German artisans (architect and painter, respectively). Such a lovely beer — warm and soothing, not too sweet, hint of chickory, and a clean finish. I used to pass this one by because of the antiquated label and its low price — I assumed it was a throwaway import. Since then I have had four other varieties of Weltenburger and I cannot recommend them enough.

Next was a half bottle of Dogfish Head's World Wide uber-imperial stout. Ours was a muddy brown, not black, and frankly not lovely. It had a great oily texture and all the concentrated liquorice and treacle flavours you'd want to see —but it was also a bit astringent and bitter.

The Serendipity pair were interesting. I had the bright idea of doing them in reverse order to save the oldest for last. The No.2 was much as I remembered it — a fairly nice bourbon-infused hybrid ale that could have used a more robust backbone. The No.1 was utterly infected and tasted like mouldy lime peel.

These out of the way we turned to Ian's gentle homebrew: a light, light bitter that eased the meeting to a close.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Keeping it Real: UK CAMRA vs. BrewDog

A dispute between Scottish brewing provocateurs BrewDog and CAMRA UK — who run the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) — has ended with BrewDog being denied a spot at this year's GBBF. Working from BrewDog's complaint (I am assuming they accurately portray the issue as I am not aware of a response from CAMRA) the issue boils down to this:

  • CAMRA rules state that all British attendees must supply cask beer; only non-Brits may bring kegs due to difficulties in transporting casks and the fact that many beer styles are not appropriately presented in casks.
  • BrewDog contend that they had achieved an agreement to bring kegs of beer (their preferred method) which was reneged on by CAMRA; BrewDog are now not allowed to attend with kegged beer as their arrangements did not fulfill the terms CAMRA would accept in their agreement. [EDIT: Steve Lamond points out that it was not a renege, BD just didn't meet certain requirements]

Putting aside the issue that CAMRA may or may not have had an agreement with BrewDog to allow an exception in their case [EDIT: and also the fact that the technical reasons BD were refused was their failure to meet contract in terms of payment date and vessel size], I think that this issue represents a fundamental flaw in CAMRA that will certainly undermine its long-term aim to advocate cask beer. Here's why:

My first response was echoed by Pete Brown's tweet: "if the defence is 'We're all about real ale, that's the name," kindly rename the Great British BEER festival". This is obviously correct. Defining "great British Beer" as that solely served in cask is as luddite and arrogant as it is inaccurate. Modern beer producers have refined so many approaches, elevated so many styles to greatness, that I wouldn't be surprised if we see even "craft" rice and corn beers before too long (all right, don't mark my words on that one).

CAMRA's stance on cask beer is clearly linked to their raison d'etre: namely their admirable defence of cask ale from the threat of extinction at the hands of large corporate interests whose production methods and aggressive marketing were rapidly making kegged beer the only viable commercial option.

If you define CAMRA as a defence of cask beer against kegs, then it is wholly understandable why they'd take this precious stance. This explains why so many CAMRA advocates are (possibly reluctantly) supporting the cask-only policy.

But that is not how CAMRA should be defined. What they did, in essence, was protect a form of production and enjoyment that enjoyed wide appeal from powerful organizations and a commercial movement that was attempting to redefine "good" beer, and to unfairly marginalize other forms of production.

Kind of like what CAMRA are doing now by excluding kegged beer from the GBBF.

CAMRA began as a reactionary organization with noble aims, many of which persist to this day. Unfortunately, CAMRA now resembles a protectionist organization clinging to an outmoded hierarchical dogma that is doing its utmost to live up to the out-of-touch dinosaur clichés it has been (mostly unfairly) tarnished with since the 70s. Its "not in our backyard" decision to allow Euro breweries to bring kegs, but deny Brits the same privilege — makes CAMRA look like a possessive husband, dragging his long-suffering wife to a strip-club while forcing her to wear dungarees and a raincoat.

Surely all they will achieve is to alienate drinkers who recognize the inherent quality of kegged beers such as BrewDog and who wonder why the resurgent "real ale" has become our sole revered product. This, in turn, risks a backlash against cask ale and CAMRA itself — potentially undoing much of the good will toward 'real ale' that has been achieved over the last three decades.

The obvious solution to this miserable state of affairs is to either rename the festival to the Great British Cask Beer (or 'real ale') Festival, or to allow kegged beers into the GBBF — perhaps on a system that allocates a certain amount of space to casks and a certain amount to kegs. There seems to me no good reason why a quality assessment board cannot allocate space based on the merits of beer regardless of whether it is kegged or casked.

I am glad that the Canadian branch of CAMRA of which I am a member is more of general beer appreciation club that works to promote good beer in all its forms.

commenter one points out key points I missed. I concede that I interpreted BD's complaint rather quickly. However, the overarching point of the post is that favouring cask ale in context of Great British "Beer" Festival is the main problem. It is inaccurate and prejudicial and particularly difficult for newer drinkers to understand.

Friday, July 15, 2011

On Scandals of Red Bricks and Red Tops

British Sunday "newspaper" The News of the World — famed for tawdry celebrity exposés and populist moral crusades such as the "name and shame" campaign that outed known pedophiles — folded this week amidst a truly repugnant phone hacking scandal. As Rupert Murdoch flies in to England for damage limitation/cynical rebranding of his other rag The Sun as The Sun on Sunday, all I can really think to do is microwave some popcorn, crack a beer, and watch the whole shit show go down in lurid detail.

So, while we're on the topic of hackery and rebranding, did you notice I gave my blog an extreme makeover?

Wait, let me try that again.

While we're on the topic of hackery, rebranding and "naming and shaming" — I have to pay tribute to Wolf Brewing Co. (formerly Fat Cat Brewing) of Nanaimo BC. In a week where the headlines have left a taste so bad in everyone's mouth that a turd sandwich would be considered a palate-cleanser, Wolf Brewing's Red Brick IPA should be applauded for wringing fresh grimaces from my over-worked wince muscles.

Dave told me it was the same recipe as Fat Cat's IPA, something I'd read elsewhere. This raises two questions: Why take over a brewery, change its name, and produce exactly the same beers? and Can Fat Cat's one really have been this bad?

The nicest thing about Red Brick IPA is Wolf's new old-timey stylings. The new bottles resemble those of several blended scotch whisky brands; the artwork is well done and approaches classy. The beer itself is not too reminiscent of the style I know as IPA. Wolf's beer is citrusy enough, but not in an aromatic way. Red Brick has a lemon rind flavour and is generally unsuitably sour and lifeless. The hops are strangled and anemic. As I was debating whether to bother with a second pour, I noticed the description on the label reads "impressive west coast style IPA": that's about as accurate as it is humble.

I don't like giving a local(ish) brewery a kicking, but on this evidence it is deserved. To be fair to them, perhaps Wolf are maintaining these recipes while they get a sense of their own approach. I do not know much about the new owners, they could be just finding their feet — so by all means try their beers for yourselves. But if Wolf's management wanted advice, I'd tell them to launch one or two new lines with straightforward appeal and lots of quality. This aint gonna cut it.

If you'll excuse me, I have some popcorn to get out of the microwave and some schadenfreude to extract from some squirming media moguls. Now that's tasty.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Street Beer

After a dizzying experience hosting my daughter's (4th) birthday BBQ at a beach (we lost her twice and a crow ate part of her cake), I find myself at home, several hours later, microwaving some left-over street meats and contemplating what to drink.

"It's time," I said to my wife.
"You're going to drink that can of Cariboo I found in the street aren't you?"

I was interested in Cariboo back when I worked in the Hillside Liquor Store. HLS's fridge is divided into sections according to how cheap or rubbish a beer is. Starting at the posh end of the store you have the bombers and quality imports, then the good BC micros like Tree Brewing, then the crappier ones like Granville Island, then your Kokanees and Buds and Canadians and all that shit.

Finally, at the end, you get the weird ones you don't really know where to place: Bowen Island, Moosehead, Wildcat. These beers are cheap, but their labels are at least more interesting than the bland landscape of silvers, reds and blues in the macro fridge next door.

Cariboo is one such beer. "Brewed with spring water" it announces, above a jaunty picture of a leaping Cariboo and a cute, curly yellow logo (that looks like it says "Cariboos" to me).

Maybe it was the glimmer of yellow on green that caught my wife's eye as we walked home one night last month. I picked up the dented can, musing that a hammered student had probably let it slip from his grip and written it off as burst on his way to urinate on someone's porch. I stashed it in our kid's stroller for a laugh more than anything else and we walked on.

But here I am, feeling as battered as the can, munching a reheated burger and sucking gratefully at the simple yellow goodness of Cariboo. Nice.


small beer would like to hear reader's reviews of beers that you found on the floor, if you'll admit to it of course…