The Grace of Serendipity

IMG_20150818_185731English drinks and food writer Henry Jeffreys has sagely observed that a resolute focus on a top scorer or style is not the only route to finding a gem, that serendipity plays a role if only given the scope, with the pleasure being commensurate. This truth was brought home to me recently when I found an Engineer’s IPA  more than half-full, closed with a whiskey cork, behind a group of whiskeys in a drinks cupboard.  I had put it there a couple of months before and had completely forgotten. I had consumed part of the bottle, closed it and placed it in an available spot behind a forest of whiskeys, well a grove anyway.

Sometimes I keep bottles in this form for a short time to drink later or use in blending experiments, of which I am a proponent. (It is surprising how blending can cause consternation among even the cognoscenti let alone the non-advised: once after nonchalantly tipping two malts together at a LCBO tasting counter a lady at the other end said, “how interesting, but is that legal?”. I explained that if Scots grocers could do it in the 19th century and thus inadvertently create blended Scotch, one of the most famous drinks in the world for the next 100 years, I could do the same. Somehow she didn’t seem convinced, but thanked me nicely).

And so I fished out this dusty item, and took the cork out, at which there was a loud report. One of the stories of how bottled beer started in England is, a fisherman put some ale in a bottle, went to a stream with his rod, and when he came back realized he had left the bottle on the bank, partly consumed. (Was it Isaak Walton?  I need to check this). Some time later he fetched rod and reel and returned to brave his luck on the lazy English river or branch. Lo, he finds the abandoned bottle, still partly full and closed with a rag or something else in the neck, and extracts the closure.  He recorded that the bottle had become a “gun”, referring to the build-up of CO2 from the beer working away at a warmish temperature and the cloud of vapour which burst from the neck when the bottle was opened. And he found the beer excellent.

Well that’s exactly what happened to me, the bang was loud just like the angler said, with a puff of steam coming out as from a gun. Despite all the pressure in the bottle, the beer wasn’t that fizzy and was well-rounded, in a word, matured. In the past, I’ve found that opened bottles kept for a time unrefrigerated will often go south but this beer was just fine, better once again than the first sally.

Serendipity, what?

Munich-On-The Hill Of Vankleek



I was attracted to this “Farm Table” offering from the innovative and ambitious Beau’s Brewing Co. due to the fact frankly that the beer is not an obscure or laboured style as it were (beers dosed with coffee, cocoa, hot peppers, ginger, Thai spice or other things I find generally don’t add much and often take away from what beer should be).

This is labeled as “helles lager”, a classic Bavarian type of beer of which numerous brands are available as imports at LCBO. I was much impressed with the fidelity of the beer – it tastes very similar to Jever, Warsteiner, Konigsberg and other German blonde lagers. It is dry for a helles but the style has become so in Germany too in recent decades (it used to be sweeter and richer). The beer has the classic oniony yeasty note, a lager fermentation flavour that many helles and pils beers have.  It tastes exactly like many beers I had on my trip to Munich a few years ago, and similar to numerous canned imports of this style when fresh.

I won’t say it’s my favourite style but I enjoyed the bottle for the exact mirror Beau has offered of what good beer often is like in the homeland of the style.

Now Beau, can you do an exact clone of a great English bitter, say with two-row floor-malted English malt, no or just a little sugar and lotsa Kent hops? I’m there.

An Ode to Genesee

GeneseeBeer (Genesee Beer Sign Outside Genesee Brewery, Brian Stiehler, September, 2010,

John Holl (@John_Holl) has alerted to an excellent article just up at All About Beer by Tom Acitelli, here. Tom explores the history of Genesee Cream Ale, an iconic brand of the old Rochester concern.

It’s a good beer especially on draft, and more importantly to some, it recalls a certain time. I’d hope the same malt percentage and hop spec are used as per original formulation. I wonder what Gary Geminn would say of Genesee 12 Horse Ale, particularly its original formulation. By the time I came upon it in the 80’s, it was hardly more flavourful than the Cream Ale. At inception, I’d have to think it was a much better beer.

Off South Winton Drive in Rochester aka the Flour City, the pioneering retailer Beers of the World had its main store for many years – now relocated elsewhere. Because I went there a number of times, I learned about Fox’s Deli next door, an excellent New York-style deli with its own take on things as all good delis should have. It offered Genny Cream on draft in stemmed schooners and it always tasted best to me there.  I looked at the current menu and am glad to see Genesee beers are still mentioned, the bottled form specifically. One hopes mavens of the draft cream ale will be rewarded by a quick scribble on the pad followed by a frosty schooner as I remember.  A Reuben at Fox’s, schooner of Genny draft, and a Kent with the Micronite filter after.  (Oops, let’s lose the Kent).

I hope one day I can meet Tom and John for lunch at Fox’s – give me some dates, gents, and I’ll brave the border.




Of Bitter Beer, Hot Weather and Some Current Reading

IMG_20150816_175707As I write it’s over 8o F in the room and I’ve just opened a l’Interdite from Brasseurs du Monde in Saint-Hyacinthe, QC ( It’s taken straight from a 12-pack – tablette – of three of their beers. The first one, the Assoiffée, a Belgian-style dubbel, was as much a winner as this one. The beers are bottle-conditioned, which means they retain their original yeast or enough to ensure a slow conditioning.

Despite some weeks at ambient temperature and being knocked around before that on the trip from Montreal, they are fresh-tasting and as good as can be. The yeast in the bottle uses up the residual oxygen, preserving high quality despite daunting storage conditions. Had brewers stuck with bottle-conditioning vs. the ubiquitous heat-pasteurization, overall beer quality would be superior in my opinion, but that’s an issue for another day.

The Interdite is a 6.5% IPA and claims an American style, which it is, as it has the American citrus punch (thank you Oregon) notably in the aftertaste.

However, there is a grateful English influence as well, both in the Ovaltine-and-quinine flavour but also the darkish colour. It reminds me quite a bit of the legendary Ballantine IPA in its heyday.

How can you drink IPA, or any beer, room temperature in this soaking heat? Mais c’est bien simple. “When you’re a Jet you’re a….”, okay? I’m not saying I would turn down the beer in chilled form but it’s best this way to scope all the subtleties. You wouldn’t chill a red wine – or very much – same thing for a beer of this quality.

I’ve placed next to it a book I was re-reading recently, one that had a big influence on me, Stephen Morris’ The Great Beer Trek (1984). I’ll write a separate post on this book but suffice to say it’s one of the top 5 beer books I’ve read. Morris and his wife took a beer tour of America in 1978, so essentially at the dawn of the beer renaissance but it was early enough that he covers the first craft brews to emerge, e.g. Sierra Nevada and New Albion. Essentially though it is a lively canvas of the light North American lager style as produced by the national and surviving regional breweries of the day. Morris, a Vermonter with the idiosyncratic perspective of many from that state, is still going strong and I had an e-mail palaver with him a couple of years ago. The book’s engaging hand-drawn artwork is another plus, including drawings of Dogbone Brewing Company and its “tap”, McDogbone Ale House, Morris’s projected ideal small brewery. It is one of my regrets that a planned Dogbone brand, Bolt Upright, never saw a bar-top. Morris had come out of the home brewing culture of upstate hippie Vermont and …  well… more anon about this fine book.

The brown volume in the image is Complete Practical Brewer, a mid-1800’s tome that is a constant reference. The red volume is a biography of the poet Allen Ginsberg – I went through a beat phase about 20 years ago (the literary aspects not the political such as it was) and was reading about him again. You don’t really hear much about him now, all things must pass, as George Harrison, from a band rather better remembered, wrote. But there was a connection after all, think of the Beatles’ name.

The white volume is Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days And Collect. Whitman was a forerunner of the Beats and much more of course. A very interesting writer, the parts about the Civil War are very moving, someone should do a film of Whitman’s time spent in hospitals in Washington, D.C. during the war.

It all ties in and it all makes sense at beeretseq central.


A 1920’s Montreal Grocery Fascia and Its Beers


(Source: Ville de Montréal. Gestion des documents et archives).

Above is a fine image from the City of Montreal’s historical photographic archive. One can see with a couple of clicks some great period detail of beers and beer styles offered by some Montreal breweries.

As I mentioned in a post yesterday, bière et porter (“ale and porter” in English) was a typical description for the main types of beer then sold in mid-1900’s Montreal. You see the words under the vertical letters spelling Molson. This particular grocery store advertised other brands including Ekers I.P. Ale (India Pale), and Black Horse Ale, which was from Dawes of nearby Lachine, QC and later Montreal. The general type of Molson ale then sold, still brewed as Molson Export Ale (but does it taste the same?), was not a IPA, and Black Horse Ale was probably the same. Ekers’ IPA was probably more intense in flavour and somewhat darker.

Barely legible just across from the vehicle in the background is a sign between sidewalk and window display for Frontenac, another Montreal brewery. Here is a fascinating (to amateurs of brewing history) tidbit about Frontenac and its too-short history.

Molson Porter was still sold, in Ontario at any rate, into the 1980’s and was pretty good, the Sleeman Porter I mentioned yesterday is somewhat similar.

No, I can’t remember the 1920’s, but updated versions of these signs endured into the 1960’s and 70’s, and je me souviens.




Ale and Porter – “Biere et Porter”

Growing up in Montreal in the 60’s, I remember grocery store signs with the legend “Ale and Porter”.  In French, it was “Bière et Porter“.  I recall wondering what those meant. Beer was delivered to homes in the area by small black pedal bicycles (no gears), these were fitted with a wide, low metal basket which held a case of beer – 24 12 oz. beers that is. I’ve looked online for the fascia of a store that says Ale and Porter or Bière et Porter, but can’t find one.  Such are the ephemera of one’s years… A verbal description will have to do but anyone who grew up in Montreal in the period I mention, or earlier, will understand, comprends, farshtey.

It was only years later that I actually had a chance to try the ale and porter of my native Quebec province.  The ale – Molson Export, Labatt 50, Laurentide Ale, O’Keefe Ale – were tasty enough. The porters were reduced by the time I could broach any to Porter Champlain which was a sweet, licorice-tasting black beer.

These were somewhat attenuated versions of  the real thing, and in later years with the onset of the craft beer revival I got to see what real ale and real porter were all about. Here are images of the ditto, savoured recently in my adopted city of Toronto.

This is Stone IPA, all the way from San Diego, CA but tasting very sound thousands of miles from home: rich and sweet, resinous and rather bitter, withal the real deal of old England via Oregon hop fields.


The porter is a rather mild example of the genre, courtesy House of Sleeman in Guelph, ON, and apparently a replication of an 1800’s porter as brewed by a Sleeman family ancestor. There is an old book of recipes from that time and while a certain cynicism takes hold often in the beer world, I saw the book myself 25 years ago when touring the place with the late Michael Jackson. It’s still a good beer and may well be similar to the palate of some of the porters which had hung on in Quebec province in the 50’s and 60’s.


The beer traditions of Quebec, while indubitably inaugurated by French colons, not least l’Intendant Jean Talon, were later appropriated by English settlers after la Cession of the 1770’s. However, all residents, whether French, English, or other, seemed to like the beers they installed. I was an other.

In Quebec taverns circa-1970, the call, “donne-moi une Porter Champlain tablette [room temperature]” was commonly heard – I was listening, farshtey?



Quebec Hiking Memories and Quebec Cider

Dieppe_Rocky_Otterburn copy(See below for image attribution)


Back when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, occasionally I would visit the Gault Estate with friends and climb Sugarloaf Mountain (in French, Pain de Sucre), which is part of the Mont-Saint Hilaire hills pictured above. This protected nature reserve has been owned by McGill since the late 1950’s and is now a UNESCO-recognized biosphere with old-growth forest and other pristine features of the original landscape. As I recall, it took a couple of hours or so to reach the top, from which there were panoramic views of the countryside and Richelieu Valley.

We would drive down there from Montreal, I think a half-hour drive or so, this is when Montreal and area traffic still had human dimensions unlike today’s semi-gridlock pattern.

Usually we would stop at farmhouses on the way and buy three things: a white loaf (Quebec country bread was quite plain, a simple white loaf with a light crust), white cheddar curd cheese which was salty and would squeak on the teeth – if it didn’t squeak it was too old – and, if he had some, the farmer’s apple cider, typically made from the McIntosh variety which is still a big eating and cider apple in Quebec. The Mac hails from Ontario originally and still has a good crop here, but Quebec adopted the variety as its own early on and does the best work in the field, in my view. Quebeckers quite naturally took to apple cultivation as many French colons were from Normandy where apple cultivation and derivative products are both legion and legendary.

In the early 1970’s, cider had not yet been legalized for sale in Quebec, this came a little later. So it was sold under the counter as the expression goes, either that or perhaps it was sold as apple juice with the purchaser deciding if he liked the sharp tang that week’s version offered. 🙂  I recall that it was quite rough in taste, usually bone-dry too, similar to some scrumpy cider I later drank in England. After a good walk up the wending path to the top, this tripartite snack really did refresh and I recall a fourth element too, a good cigarette as these were the smoking years. It might have been Export A hand-rolled, a favoured Quebec brand then – that was a long time ago – or maybe one of the American brands I would bring back from beer runs to Plattsburgh, NY. Kent in the long white pack, say, or Camels or Philip Morris, no filter. The good old days. 🙂



Image attribution: “Dieppe Rocky Otterburn” by Guillaume Hébert-Jodoin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Great Cloudy vs. Limpid Taste-Off

I’ve been on this issue for years as well, initially my experience came simply from noticing that an “all-in” glass of bottle-conditioned beer tasted inferior to one decanted carefully. The hop and malt character can be blurred by too much yeasty stuff in the glass. Then I noticed, or thought I did, the same thing for cloudy pints. Whether the same proportion of yeast and protein gets in both forms, I have no idea, but it has been my impression “on the ground” that fined pints are better – nothing to do with “learned cultural prejudices”.

Now in these discussions, people never do the obvious thing. Just do blind taste tests! Boak can do it tonight with one of the beers in their bunker and serve it to Bailey in the same glass, who noses and drinks with eyes closed. So easy to do. (Of course you can do it vice versa well, but I think Bailey will rather object :)). And it can be done in a pub too, I mean with cask beer, although more preparation is needed.

The great cloudy vs. limpid taste-off, come on guys, just do it and report well and truly. I am not against all the theorizing in print and have contributed to it not a little myself, but time to do some work in the field. It may well, as some have projected, depend on particular brand and if so fair enough.


Why Did American Beer Tend to Blandness Prior to the Craft Era?

I haven’t read the book which is the subject of this interesting Atlantic article, but would like to offer some thoughts.

First, even post-Prohibition, American beers must have had plenty of taste. Look at A.L. Nugey’s table of beers circa-1936 I posted a few days ago. Those beers were hopped at .5 lb to upwards of 1 lb per (American) barrel, which is much, much more than the modern norm – I’m speaking here of the typical mass market beer, not the craft segment. It’s rather more than English bitters were achieving in the period leading up to the craft beer onset in the U.K.

Even though most of those beers used some rice and corn adjunct (or sugars), they had to be far more impactful on the palate than the typical modern light beer or standard macro offering. This is due both to the much larger hop content than today but also the probable average lower percentage of adjunct used as compared with modern mass market beers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager uses about 1 lb hops per U.S. barrel and is based on an 1800’s recipe of the founder’s ancestor: would anyone claim it is bland? Would anyone claim Pilsner Urquell, the “first” blonde lager and 4.4% abv as it was in the 1800’s, is bland? The American Budweiser in the 1800’s surely tasted much closer to both these beers than it now does… I don’t see that German immigration or lingering Volstead attitudes had much to do with the decline of beer flavour. The lowest alcohol level permitted in some states after 1933, 3.2 alcohol by weight, is about 4% by volume, fairly respectable. Foster’s lager, a large-selling brand in English pubs, is currently 4% abv. And many states post-Volstead had higher limits on beer abv or no limits.

I believe the blandification of North American beer started mainly in the post-war era and gathered pace from the 1950’s in particular. This was for a variety of reasons: cost-savings under more sophisticated business strategies (use less or less costly materials = make more money), expanding the beer market to include more women and young people, and foremost, industry consolidation. Also, the U.S.  and Canada had a corn crop, thus corn (or rice) became acceptable to use as an adjunct to barley, for which too there were technical brewing reasons at the outset, e.g., they promoted clarity.

The UK has a lower-alcohol, inexpensive lager-based beer culture.  So does France, Spain, many other countries. Well how did they get there then? No Prohibition, no huge German influx. I think the same factors explain the watery mass market taste as occurred in America after WW II. I do agree that a lot of lager was on the weaker side in the 1800’s, but this was so in Germany too at the time – the achievement of the circa-5% abv norm only occurred somewhat later both in the U.S. and Germany. This was probably connected, or in my view, to reduced multiple unit consumption vs. the later 1800’s, something which made sense both in light of greater health knowledge but also the increasing urbanization and mechanization of society. Of course this discussion is largely of a historical nature since the craft beer segment now ensures a range of very characterful beers (as the Atlantic piece noted), but still I thought it useful to indicate some thoughts in reaction to what I read.

August 5 2015 Recreation of Historic New York Beer Tasting

IMG_6947                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Image courtesy Rick Radell, Toronto)


[Below is the printed version on which my speech was based, inevitably it wandered a bit from the strict text but not the spirit.  It was a great evening].

Thanks to everyone for attending this event, very much, and to John Maxwell for believing in this project and making it happen “on the ground”. No one could do it better, due to John’s unquestioned status as one of Toronto’s premier restaurateurs. John, also, has been a long-time supporter of fine beer, and fine local wines, in Dora Keogh’s, and Allen’s next door, in our fair city.

I am a full-time business lawyer in Toronto and research beer and brewing history as a pastime. I found the 1944 beer menu recently when perusing historical menus uploaded to the New York Public Library’s online menu archive. When I saw it, I realized we had to recreate that event as a time machine to enjoy some rare gastronomic history.

As John observed to me recently, beer was always part of gastronomy and always appreciated as such. But until recently, appreciation at the level of investigation and reflection was restricted to a few privileged groups, mostly in London and New York (the same applied to wine, for that matter). In addition though, to organize any kind of epicurean event at the height of WW II took some doing.  After all, wartime involved food shortages, rationing, and other privations both imposed and voluntary. Still, the organizers found a way to mount a very respectable tasting by any definition. Indeed, the same Society had organized a similar but even more lavish beer event in 1942, also at the Waldorf. That menu has twice the number of beers of the 1944 tasting and many more foods and taste notes. After two years and some of hard slogging in the war and countless sacrifices, I think the organizers of the 1944 event felt they should be more restrained. Still, the intricacy of their menu speaks for itself and once again, the mid-40’s was very early times for this.

Many of the foods presented at the 40’s beer tastings of the Waldorf were regional American specialties. They included Virginia ham, Mohawk Valley, NY Limburger and Swiss-type cheese, NY sharp cheddar, “Nova” Salmon, Smoked Black Cod, various smoked lake fish, whole-grain breads, Saratoga and Devonsheer biscuits and crackers, and the rather modern-sounding shrimp chips. Many of these were from New York State or prepared there. While these were cold foods, it is notable that many distinctive American dishes were featured. In the 1930’s and earlier, cuisine more typically was an imitation of French or other European cooking.

What of the beers (18) chosen for the 1944 tasting? Many were from the greater NY area, in particular Brooklyn, a brewing powerhouse until the 1970’s. Most were blonde lagers, but there was also dark lager, different types of ale, and two black stouts. Even the blonde lagers could be divided between the original Germanic, all-malt type and the Americanized, lighter version which used grain adjunct or sugars. The menu in its subject headings made an attempt at a logical style division but the actual listings didn’t follow it strictly, due probably to the haste with which the event was organized, or last minute changes to the selection. Well before the mid-1900’s, lager beer had become the dominant American style, acquired via German immigration in the 1800’s, and had displaced largely the ale and porter of the English colonists.

Some beers at the tasting were sourced from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and one or two other states. Guinness Stout, almost certainly Foreign Extra Stout, was the only import.

The strong focus on domestic beers and distinctively American foods may have resulted from sentimental or practical reasons, or both. Whatever the explanation, we can infer that, from these 40’s tastings, a new appreciation of “local” was gained. The “locavore” and food and wine scenes of today have their origins distantly in events such as the 1940’s Waldorf beer tastings and the other tastings (usually with wine) held by the pathbreaking Wine and Food Society, Inc. from the 1930’s through the 60’s. It was not alone of course but played a large role in the history, in my opinion.

I’d like to close by saying, one of the first people I sent tonight’s Program to said to me, “Gary, you say in here the Wine and Food Society, Inc. of New York in 1944 was instrumental in the tasting of beer as a, quote, ‘aesthetic’.  That may well be. But I’ll tell you one thing the Society was not instrumental in”.

I said, “What’s that?”

He said, “Tasting beer as an anaesthetic”.

Have a great evening.