Summing up 2018 (and Wellsprings)

The Bruting and Bretting of Beer

With three and one-half years passed since this site revved up, but some 40 years before that intensive study of beer, brewing, and their history, my summing up tends to telescope a much longer period and experience than calendar 2018.

Hence, we tend not to enumerate lists of favourite beers, pubs, beer blogs, and other writerly productions of the last year. Our perspective is much broader.

As well, we have not the time to follow and read everyone who should be followed, and would leave out probably important names or information, which should not be slighted thereby.

Further, for us the experience of enjoying a fine beer, or whisky, is much tied to the moment. A can of the same beer, bought at the same time, often seems different when broached a month later, whisky too even from the same bottle. So a nod may not hold much water, so to speak.

It is better to give general impressions that take into account my long experience and how each year adds to it. In a word, 2018 has never been better. There is more choice of beer, and more better beer, than I have ever seen. Whisky and other spirits, the same.

It is true in Ontario, and here in Florida where I am on extended sojourn. It is true in Britain and France, each of which I visited twice this year. It is true everywhere else I have been.

At the same time, the wider beer world continues. Most people still like light, flavourless beer. In the supermarkets here the ranks of Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite, Corona, Modelo, and similar are long and impressive. The equivalent is true in Canada.

In some regional markets, say southwest U.S. or south Florida, the Hispanic market remains a major demographic for similar beers from Central and South America.

So this world goes on and likely will for a long time. So does the more traditional world of imports, where both quality and “price” pre-craft beers still sell well such as Heineken, Becks or other German brands, and many U.K. or Irish brands (Fuller, Newcastle Brown, and of course Guinness).

We like some of these and have found off-beat brands from corners of Asia that continued traditional European styles often with more authenticity than Europe offers today. San Miguel Negra (Dark) from Philippines puts the Paulaner Dunkel I had in Munich in the shade, so to speak again.

A beer from French-influenced Laos, 6.5% ABV Laobeer dark lager, was similarly superior in relation to dark lagers from France.

Yet some German blonde lager, and other Dunkel or bock available here, show why Germany has been a byword for centuries for brewing. I mentioned some in recent tweets.

These beers are rarely trumpeted in their home land in the way craft beer is here, but the relationship is close.

If I had one granular comment to make for 2018, it is that this seemed the year in Ontario when almost every can of craft beer seemed to include wheat as an ingredient. Even in many ales and lagers this was true, in which it is not traditional.

In Florida, the ale and lager equivalents I have run into wheat is not mentioned in the ingredient lists. I think the beers are better for it. Wheat seems often to add a drying or toasted note, especially in well-attenuated beers. It is simply not necessary in my view, and I wonder if it is being used to assist raising a head for beers that are over-attenuated.

It is the one trend I have not liked but all the rest, from brut to brett, is fine with me even if I hew mostly still in personal supping to ale, porter, and lager.

I should add as well that the limited edition 1870 AK Bitter, a historical recipe I brewed with Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto, was a personal highlight. We are repeating it in 2019 but the approach will be tweaked somewhat, details to appear here soon.

The advent of online media has largely rendered books and magazines superfluous as a source of information for consumers, but they are still valuable for other purposes – historical work or memoir, say, or to showcase a skillful stylist, Briton Adrian Tierney-Jones is the foremost example.

To use the vernacular that originated in the land I write, net net, it is all good. It is win win.

And the reason for that is the freedom to implement new ideas in our liberal economies, to be a Ken Grossman in 1980, or Campaign for Real Ale seer in 1971, or Jim Brickman in Ontario in 1985.

Risk there is a plenty – they go hand in hand – but innovation and creative thinking have changed the beer landscape irreversibly in 40 years. Change will continue depending on what producers (mainly, today) envisage, and what their consumers want. In a free society, so it should be.

From a personal standpoint, where it began in 1978 and where it stands now is the realization of everything one could hope for and then some.




Mixmasters of the Art

Marrying Beers, Whiskies; Wade Woodard’s Whiskey Blog

Some years after I became familiar with the fundamentals of beer and spirits, I started experiments to blend bottles at home. Apart from it being intuitive to do so, it is a literal extension/modification of the mashbill common to both drinks, or of their hop component (or other flavouring), in the case of beer. And needless to say producers have been doing it forever, sometimes to achieve a particular flavour, sometimes for consistency.

The idea to mix comes as mentioned from the mash which typically is a combination of malted and/or other grains. So by mixing finished whiskies, you are adding more elements, or more perhaps of the same type. One distiller might make a whiskey, say, from barley malt and corn. Another, from barley malt and rye. Mix both, you have a mashbill of barley malt, corn, and rye, which is a typical bourbon mashbill.

Lot 40 Canadian whisky is 100% rye. If I mixed that with the Hudson bourbon that is 100% corn in varying percentages, I’ll arrive at near a typical bourbon mashbill, okay I’ll add a dash of Scots malt whisky to throw in the malted barley. Some consider that mashing and distilling these when combined vs. as separately produced results in a different taste. I just don’t agree with that after many years of experimenting.

If I mix a Busch beer, which must be 50% grain adjunct today (it tastes like it) with a 100% malt beer I find too sweet, by simple calculations I can get the percentage of adjunct I want to dry down the palate, 50/50 produces 25% adjunct, which sounds about right, or I may aim for 15 or 20% adjunct.

A lot of British and Belgian ale traditionally uses a percentage of maize or something functionally similar, perhaps sugar, or both.

Finished beers and whiskeys of the same class, and even of different classes often, can produce an alternate taste you may like more than the constituents. At a minimum, it produces variety without increased expenditure.

I do this all the time, it’s not rocket science but it’s surprising how many people are resistant to it. My favourite story, I’ve told it before, is I once ordered two 1/4 oz. samples of whisky at a LCBO tasting counter and combined them. A lady next to me was heard to state, “Is that legal?”. (Don’t say it’s a typical Ontario story, it can happen anywhere).

The practice to marry or mingle created the Scotch blending industry and the Canadian whisky style, as well as cocktails. It lurks in the background to the development of porter, among other beers. Mingling occurs even with the same whisky type as the same whisky from different warehouses or parts of warehouses may taste different, hence batching them to get a more uniform taste.

Every barrel can taste rather different in fact, even when all other variables are the same, even when the barrels sit near each other.

Recently an excellent primer on marrying or mingling whiskey was given in Texas-based Wade Woodard’s whiskey blog, see I know Wade well, he is a devoted student of whiskey and long-time participant at the world’s premier bourbon (and related whiskeys) resource,

Wade established his blog, Tater-Talk, a while ago but I just learned of it. He was kind enough to mention me recently in connection with the home blending of bourbon, specifically in relation to the Weller brand, see here. I discussed my minglings frequently when active on the SB forums, and as Wade notes, some people called the practice Gillmanization.

In his post Wade quotes at length an industry professional who makes some interesting statements about whiskey blending. Many things stated go back a long way in the industry.

The idea for example to barrel up for a few months married whiskies is advised in this 1885 manual by Joseph Fleischman, down to using if possible an oak container to do the marrying, see pg. 28.

Fleishman gives various blending formulas, with a progression of quality based on how much straight whiskey is used. If you use all-straight whiskeys, the highest quality, you are really vatting to use an old British and Irish term. The analogy with blending practice over the Atlantic is perfect.

I don’t quite agree with everything the expert stated. For example, I’ve mingled whiskies that produce instantly a harmonious silky texture and taste, one doesn’t always need time to develop this. And conversely, some whisky blends remain disharmonious no matter how long you rest them.

In general though I take the point that “time in a bottle” improves married or mingled whiskies. It’s the effect of some oxidation and other complex processes (see the post again).

Wade has great knowledge too of the U.S. whiskey regulations and labelling practices, and offers many insights in his writing. If you like reading about whisky, don’t miss his regular postings.

Obs. It won’t surprise anyone reading that logically, one ends by mixing beer and whisky. And of course some people do, in beer cocktails, and via, too, the frequent practice of bourbon barrel aging of stout and other beer. Hopped whisky is the other side of the coin, as is whisky finished in a barrel that held beer. Even wines come in for the treatment now – and vice versa.

It’s a bibulous fusion, we see it in cooking – what else is a recipe but a blend – but also in combining elements from different national cuisines, and in contexts outside food and drink, music, say, that may influence how people prepare food and drink, perhaps even subconsciously.

Duncan Brewing/Florida Brewing Inc., Auburndale, FL

40 years ago, emboldened by some freshly-printed consumer beer texts (by M. Jackson, M. Weiner, J. Roberston, etc.), I’d seek out the local beer scene on travels.

I also tried the imports, a suprisingly large range if you had a good retailer source, and regional or national brands. So my beer education is of long standing and predates in fact the craft beer era.

For this reason probably, I retain a fondness for that era, as some of the beers were good and with the benefit of looking back, interesting at a minimum.

In 1973, a brewer called Duncan from the northeast set up a brewery between Tampa and Orlando called Duncan Brewing Inc. His focus was price beers, making beers both under his own name and for private labels.

“Dunk’s”, quite naturally, was the house brand but there were others. Establishing a new, independent brewery then was highly unusual. Still, it happened here and there, e.g., in Alaska in the mid-70s in the form of Prinz Brau, owned by the Dr. Oetker group in Germany. (Yes, of the pizzas you know and love).

It happened in Ontario in ’73 in Hamilton when Henninger of Frankfurt set up brewing there albeit on a brewing site founded by Andrew Peller in the 1940s.

And it happened here in Florida. Who was Mr. Duncan? His full name was Lemoyne Nathan Duncan, originally from Maryland. He lived from 1917 until 2010. You can glean details of his life in this memorial notice.

He sold out to the conglomerate Heileman in 1980 according to Jim Roberston’s The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer (1982 edition). He may have continued working in the brewery as the notice states he retired at 69.

One wonders what he thought of the craft revival, something he did not capitalise on; it was just too early and Florida then was not the most propitious place for it.

In the 80s the brewery was sold again and at least once after, to independents. Today it’s owned by the Venezuelan beverage and food group that make Polar Pilsner, a big seller not just in Venezuela but elsewhere in South America, in Central America, and into south Florida.

Florida Brewery in Auburndale today hence makes Polar Pilsner, its main brand. The brewery also makes a line of malt beverage (non-alcohol), popular in Hispanic markets.

Other brands in the brewing line include Gator Lager and Amber Lager, which seem Euro lager and craft-styled, respectively. The company also does co-pack and private label work. Maybe the original Dunk’s formulation is on a grocery shelf somewhere…

It seemed long odds arriving in Florida again in 2018 that Lemoyne Duncan’s brewery still exists, but it does. Polar Pilsener is in the older, refreshing, pre-craft style. I won’t judge it until I taste, but online reports use terms such as the Budweiser of South America. In an odd kind of way, perhaps its profile ends by being similar to the Dunk’s of the 1970s, to which Jim Robertson gave a respectful review.

Maybe I’ll even get up to Auburndale. Florida Brewery has a beer garden, I understand, and may make craft-style beers for sale onsite. Get out the GPS.

Postscript: Florida Beer Co. Ltd., which I mentioned earlier, is a different concern, based in Cape Canaveral. It too though is owned by a large group further south, in its case based in Trinidad. Hence Mackeson stout being made in Florida now.

What is Sweet Now, Turns so Sour

Today is auspicious: the 77th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. We offer our remembrances, with the thought that while time’s flight makes such events seem remote, they must always be remembered for the lessons they offer for future tests of freedom.

Can You Show me Where you Are?

Ben Morgan in the comments here recently made some interesting points about a visit to Watou in Belgium and the new restaurant and centre at St. Bernardus there.

St. Bernardus is a secular brewery that for many years brewed the ales of Westvleteren, the Sint Sixtus monastery famous today for its strong top-fermented beers. This was a licensed arrangement, inaugurated in 1946 and terminated over 20 years ago when the fathers resumed brewing at their retreat a half-dozen miles from Watou.*

St. Bernardus overcame the loss of monastic approbation and continues the old recipes, while those of Sint Sixtus have evolved. The two breweries, in this and other respects, have a modus vivendi. It is a good example of the special character brewing has in business. The religious element probably favours it in this case, but still.

The worldwide popularity of Belgain beers occurred in the last 40 years for quite specific reasons I’ve discussed earlier and won’t rehearse.

That trend built on and expanded the special position beer has held for centuries in Flanders and Wallonia. Beer was part of gastronomy in Europe, in these regions and a few others, long before the world caught on via inquisitive journalists and clever publicists.

The social history of beer in Belgium and northern France remains to be written, vs. many aspects of its technical and business history. But there is no doubt beer enjoyed a special respect in Belgium that endured even under unfavourable circumstances. Nothing similar had existed in North America or Britain, certainly.

This press story in the Rochester Democrat Chronicle chronicled the abundant food and drink, free of any ration system, available in Belgium in 1948. As little as three years after the war, the author could write:

This morning I had orange juice, two eggs, coffee, rolls and more butter than I could eat at the continental breakfast they
throw in with your room rent. I had lunch yesterday at the Palace Hotel, the fanciest spot on the line, and though the
grunt—or tab—bore more than a slight resemblance to the national debt, it was wonderful again to taste roast beef and ice cream with thick chocolate sauce.

The pastry cooks are having a field day and their luscious looking creations are everywhere on display. You can buy the finest chocolate candy, the Trappist beer (I never touch the stuff, so I am no practical authority on this), they say is the finest beer on the continent…

Sadly the writer, Henry W. Clune, was a self-professed non-beer drinker, so we get no direct assessment of 1940s Trappist beer, but his report is clearly based on informed opinion.

Think about it: only three years before, a cruel German occupation meant, if not great physical damage as the article notes, privation for most and death or jail for not a few. Just 36 months later, a rich culinary and catering tradition is restored.

It was probably more or less the same in Paris, but Britain still struggled under food rationing. It seems the occupied nations were in some ways better off than the victors, not America of course but it was much further away from the fighting except as noted in Hawaii.

This recognition of Belgium’s own appreciation for Trappist beer, something that evidently predated WW II, is one of the first international acknowledgements I know of for the genre.

A second followed in the 1969 article by Phillipe Mercier I discussed in this post, which showed that Trappist breweries were using all-malt in 1969. But Mercier was writing in an obscure scientific journal vs. Clune’s general audience.

The Belgians simply have a special relationship with beer, and food. Even though they took to mass-produced lager like everyone else, cranky artisan styles survived there long enough to help found an international brewing revolution. In turn that helped ensure the health of abbey and other specialist brewing in Belgium, whence the vibrancy of St. Bernardus today.

Maybe if Clune had liked beer and praised this rare specialty of Trappist beer in 1948 it would have spiked interest in the U.S. much earlier than the mid-70s.

Some Trappist beer was available in the U.S. before Michael Jackson’s 1977 The World Guide to Beer, but it was just another oddball import. And some reviewers dismissed it, and other idiosyncratic Belgian ales, as an obscure byway not likely to interest their readers.

I discussed some of this commentary in my recent article in Brewery History on 1970s, pre-Michael Jackson American beer writers.

Every country, at least in pre-globalized times, had its interests, its priorities, its special gifts. It wasn’t even a question of one category trumping the same in another. British beer arguably in 1950 was as diverse and interesting as Belgian beer, more so in some ways.

But the British, and North Americans in their considerable wake, at least until the consumer revolution of the 1960s, were interested mostly in other manifestations of culture: cars, music, film, fashion, sports. Germany, despite its reputed obsession with beer, was not much different by the postwar era.

Can one imagine a foreign journalist being told in New York in 1948 that the “in” beer was Ballantine India Pale Ale? Or in London, Colne Spring Ale?

No way José.  Don’t be barmy. You want a good beer do you? Here, try Miller High Life, it’s much better than the stuff the pokey Brooklyn breweries still foist on us. Have a go with this Barclay’s lager, it’s brilliant, the future for beer in this country.

Times did change, finally, both Stateside and Blighty for wine, beer and the eating arts. And they play rock and pop in Belgium now, the  chansonniers had to give way, hélas.

Fair exchange, we think.

Posctscript: Henry Clune died in 1995 at an impressive 105, long enough to see the beer revolution take root in America. He lived near Rochester, NY, not all that far from Ommegang in Cooperstown, the Belgian-inspired brewery that made its own contribution to the beer revival.  The Trappist beer Clune didn’t taste but took note of in 1948 wrought a change in American customs he could hardly have imagined then.


* See Ben Rogers’ correction on this point in the Comments, the fathers at Westvleteren had never ceased brewing.





Cars, Craft, and Culture

Most of November was devoted to a major essay I posted on butter tarts history. I’m working with the editor of a food journal to have a referenced, expanded version in print early in 2019.

Currently I’m spending some extended time in south Florida. The car-dominant culture always makes an impression in the U.S. The whole way of living is built on it, certainly in endemic suburbia, in Canada too of course but nowhere is it more apparent than the south and southwest. Prolonged heat and a paucity of public transport make vehicles a necessity.

I’m not the first to say it, but it’s salutary to remind: the car and air-conditioning worked a social revolution here. Almost no one walks except to and from the car.

Jack Kerouac once said Americans have a characteristic lope from the way of walking on parking lots; it’s true.

Yesterday I did a two-hour jaunt through residential and light commercial Fort Lauderdale and didn’t pass another walker, not one. The only people I encountered were leaving or approaching vehicles. One or two were on bikes, but nothing to what you see in the urbanised north. Parts of Miami Beach and Miami are different, but the suburban pattern is widespread here.

Of course the areas are very attractive. It’s a way of life that, while earning the indifference or derision of some, is the envy of the world and has been emulated from Britain to Brisbane.

Even in my folk music phase in the 60s, shortlived as it was, I never bought into the jazz of “little boxes on the hillside, made of ticky-tacky”. My own family history disproved the proposition only too graphically.

Then too there is romantic truth, or exaggerating to make a point, and real truth.

I’ve purchased beer for four days straight here including in Total Wines, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, and ABC Wines and tasted pehaps a half-dozen.

I buy based on criteria important to me but probably opaque to many. Sometimes it’s 1970s classics such as the discovery of the trip so far, San Miguel Dark (Negra on the label), from Phillipines.

People say you can’t remember taste from 20 years ago, the only previous time I had it. It’s not true, it tastes exactly as I remember it, I think in Philadelphia. It’s no wonder a panel picked it as the top beer in a 1970s Business Week poll as mentioned by beer bard Michael Jackson.

I also buy for value, as it’s easy to find, say, of the 2,500 beers at Total Wines, something in the category you want at half the price of another. Take Bell’s Christmas Ale, a Scotch Ale going for just a couple of dollars; you can spend much more for similar beers. Ditto Anchor Brewing’s spiced Christmas beer also just out.

For 50 cents off you could buy Anchor’s 2017 edition, so I’ll have both to compare.

A six pack at Aldi of Wernesgruner, just eight weeks from packaging, tasted super-fresh and went for a song. A buck a beer, you know.

It had more grateful bitterness, in the finish, thank you, than most craft lagers I try day in day out.

But I will “spend” when I want to, I’ve long wanted to try the rum barrel version of Chimay Blue, the famous Trappist beer, so $25.00 later it’s in the bag. I’ll crack it with Dave Lee in Toronto when I get back in January.

And I bought a few craft beers in the higher price range just because I wanted to. Brewers are entitled to charge what they feel a beer is worth, and when I encounter a fine experience I am never sorry.

A Champagne Velvet lager from Upland Brewing in Indiana really impressed. An online review states it’s like Coors Light if made by a craft brewer which is kind of true, but the different slant makes all the difference.

All the flavour in the grains is preserved by the brewing attenuations of the 1930s and earlier, which I discussed in previous posts here.

A Baltimore IPA was really good too, Fast Faster and Disaster with every element in the cone. Cone, not zone. Fighter aircraft enthusiasts will get the reference from the Curtis-Wright P-40 on the hatgear.

After a couple of days with cap off in fridge I let it warm and it tasted like a high quality English cask beer…

I check out Budweiser too when in the States. The one I tried yesterday was terrible, the malt adjunct taste was unpleasant, and apart from that it tasted virtually like soda water.

The beer was much better in the 1970s as I well remember and beer writers of the time chronicled. What a comedown. A beer with a great history and heritage left to languish. The owner clearly focuses now on Stella Artois for the premium segment. Stella was better too decades ago, imo, but is still a decent quaff when fresh.

Finally, Guinness Extra Stout as currently imported from Dublin is a standout: rich, malty, bitter, everything a good porter should be. Many craft versions of stout and porter at around 5% abv fall quite short, but then taste is personal. We speak for our taste, here.

I’m meeting up with friend Gary Hodder at New Year’s in Naples and we’ll taste much of what I bought then. And if we run out I know where to get more, courtesy the amazing Total Wines.

Obs. The Mackeson stout is brewed in Florida by a long-established craft brewer, Florida Beer Co. in Cape Canaveral. Florida Beer was bought by the owners of Carib Brewery in Trinidad and Tobago a couple of years ago, and Carib has long brewed Mackeson under license. Hence the devolution to Florida Beer for the U.S. market. Ontario’s supply of Mackeson is still from Carib.