In Praise Of Pumpkin Ale

IMG_20151115_142827THE VIRTUES OF A FINE PUMPKIN BEER ARE EXPLAINED AND DEFENDED

As American Thanksgiving is nigh and the Canadian one passed, one may regard the season for pumpkin beer as roughly between those two times.

Pumpkin ale has become a perennial of the beer scene in the last 10 years or so, justifiably, as a well-made pumpkin beer is one of the best things you can have on the Great Malty Way. Some people view the gourd askance in beer, thinking it some kind of gimmick. This is far from the truth, as pumpkin beer has an old history. Numerous sources attest it was drunk in Colonial times, as this 1892 article from American Notes And Queries confirms. The Colonial Magazine And East India Review of the 1800’s discloses the “Texan Pumpkin Ale“, a bottled drink of which no production details survive.

In modern times, pumpkin beer was revived in California by “Buffalo” Bill Owens. Owens, a craft brewing pioneer (and before that, award-winning photo-journalist), is now busy with developments in craft distilling. He sold his brewpub about 20 years ago to an employee who had worked with him since 1987, and the famous beers pioneered by Owens carry on including his influential pumpkin ale. As Owens recounts the story, he decided to brew beer with pumpkin and took inspiration from a recipe of George Washington’s era. He mashed pumpkin in with the barley malt, and after the starches converted to fermentable sugar, found little “pumpkin” flavour. So he added a can of mixed pumpkin spices found at a grocery store, the kind you use to make pumpkin pie and thus comprising nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace – that kind of mixture. The result was an immediate success and set the tone for a modern style which shows no sign of disappearing although the “craze” for the beer has lessened somewhat in recent years. (A side-effect of Owens’ foresight is the tidal wave of pumpkin-flavoured coffees, teas, wines, ciders and what-not seen in the market recently).

A debate which much exercised the brewing world, but seems to have died down, is whether pumpkin flesh should be used in pumpkin beer or Owens’ can of pumpkin spices or both, as Buffalo Bill used. I say both. In a good pumpkin beer, you can taste the effect of the gourd, it has a characteristic taste (doughy/earthy) and doesn’t completely disappear in the brewing. But a light touch with the spices adds a further inimitable complexity and pleasing taste.

Flavoured beers in general today are popular and use a wide range of spices and fruits, also coffee and tea, or virtually anything under the sun. This too is historical in the sense that before use of the hop became standardized in brewing, brewers added a wide variety of flavourings to beer to help preserve it or improve the taste. The field is open again in this sense, but that doesn’t mean the use is always wise.  I don’t like the taste of coffee or chocolate in beer, for example.  Good beer made from malt and hops only is a complete code… Pumpkin beer is different though, the flavour of both the pumpkin itself and the typical pumpkin pie spice complements good malt and hops, especially darker malts. Pumpkin porter, a subset of the pumpkin beer family, is one of the finest beers in the world when at its best.

And therein lies the rub: pumpkin beer of any kind needs to be made right. Beer et seq considers the following the essentials of good pumpkin beer:

  1. Hops must always be used: pumpkin beer which avoids hops, in the style of the old gruit or herb beers, doesn’t work.
  2. The best hops for this purpose have a fairly neutral bitterness and clean earthy taste, Cascade and that type of acidy/citric hop doesn’t work, at least if too assertive.
  3. Pumpkin spices, whatever the blend chosen, should be used with discretion. Too many pumpkin beers overdo the spicy taste. The spice should support the malt, hops, and pumpkin taste, not overwhelm it.
  4. The flesh of the pumpkin is necessary too, to add that vital gourdy note, but again it shouldn’t be too prominent as this can lend a raw, acerbic note.

Commercial brands I like include the one pictured above which is Great South Bay’s from L.I., New York; Pumking Beer from Southern Tier Brewery in lower state New York, which has an appetizing pumpkin puree flavour; Wellington Brewery’s pumpkin beer in Ontario, which I’ve seen only on draft, seemingly ginger-edged; Ste. Ambroise’s rich Pumpkin Beer in Montreal; and Weyerbacher’s heady Imperial Pumpkin Ale, from Pennsylvania. One of the great beers of the last decade, Southern Tier’s Warlock, combines characteristics of its Pumking Ale and a velvety black Imperial Stout. It deserves all the stars a Michelin would award if that French arbiter of flavour turned its attention to la bière.

But countless beers appear in the North American market each fall, and if you happen on one not fully to your taste, consider the following. A pumpkin beer which is too intense on the spices or in sweetness often blends perfectly with a good porter or stout, 2:1 or even 3:1, porter to pumpkin beer, usually works well. Or blend the pumpkin beer with a pale ale or IPA, this may bring the two into perfect equilibrium. Blending is the answer for a beer inapt to palate, not discarding, and thus wasting, it.

Note: The beer pictured above is Great South Bay’s Pumpkin Ale, set on the bar of Albion Pub on 2nd Avenue, New York City. It has a fully spicy but soft and sweet palate, very drinkable indeed.

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale

I’ve bought this off and on for years in this season and it never fails to disappoint: rather dull, “neutral” in taste, despite the advertised “whole-dried Fuggle and Golding hops”. Not sure what whole-dried means, flowers vs. pelletized hops, perhaps. It’s pleasant enough, reminds me of a 1980’s-era English pale ale (bottled), but that’s about it.

Compared, say, to Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale or any craft beer, English or American, of similar style, it just doesn’t make the grade, IMO of course.

I think the reason is the pasteurization of the beer and relatively modest use of the (fine) hops mentioned. I don’t know why they don’t sell this bottle-conditioned and double the amount of the hops: that would be a great beer.

I never really enjoyed Samuel Smith’s beers, even the cask – unpasteurized real ale – versions in England. They always seemed rather pallid in taste.

The great and shining exception is Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, the one beer in the line you rarely see in Ontario. 🙁

Oh well, England has made so many great contributions to the brewing arts, past and present, one can’t tarry over the ones that are just middling.

 

Ballantine India Pale Ale, Then And Now

IMG_20151117_192646A “LONG READ” IN WHICH WE LOOK AT A LEGEND AND ITS PRESENT INCARNATION

A Brief Corporate History

Tawny amber Ballantine India Pale Ale is a famous brand in American brewing annals. It dates from the mid-1800’s when P. Ballantine & Sons of Albany, NY and later, Newark, NJ, was expanding steadily.

Ballantine shut its doors when National Prohibition stopped legal brewing in America in 1919. The company started up again with Repeal in 1933. Two German brothers, the Badenhausens, seeing an opportunity, bought the brewery that year from the Ballantine heirs. As brewing had stopped from 1919-1933, a Scottish brewmaster was brought in to recreate the beers which had made Newark famous.

Ballantine was an outlier in the sense of continuing the Northeast’s original, English-inspired brewing tradition. The founder, Peter Ballantine, was a Scots immigrant and he followed the top-fermentation methods of his homeland. While a Ballantine “beer” (lager) was introduced before World War I, Ballantine carved a niche by sticking mainly to Anglo-Saxon beer types.

In addition to the IPA, these included a golden XXX ale, a brown stout, porter, and a long-aged barley wine, its “Burton ale”. The latter was never sold at retail but was given to valued customers and other friends as a rare specialty.

Ballantine was sold in 1969 to a New York investor group, which sold it in 1972 to Falstaff, a sizable national-scale brewery. Falstaff had done well post-war but was running into trouble in the raider era of the 70’s. After the Falstaff purchase, the Newark brewery was closed. Brewing of the Ballantine labels re-commenced in Cranston, RI at the Narragansett brewery owned by Falstaff. The India Pale Ale had always been aged for about a year in large wooden tanks, and the practice continued at Cranston.

In 1975, Falstaff was sold to S & P, a company owned by Paul Kalmanovitz who amassed and was consolidating a group of breweries under the banner, finally, of the famous Pabst Brewery of Milwaukee. After his death, a charitable trust ran the brewery. Investor Dean Metropolous bought it from the trust and later sold it to a partnership formed by American drinks executive Eugene Kashper and a San Francisco-based private equity firm.

In the Pabst era, Ballantine IPA was brewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana from about 1980-1990, and finally in Milwaukee before being discontinued in 1995.

This timeline will be helpful to those who wish more detail on the business history.

Pabst owns, today, no breweries and contracts out production of its labels. MillerCoors produces the bigger-volume names, including Ballantine XXX and the cult brand “PBR” (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Smaller breweries are hired to make lesser-known, small-volume, or experimental brands.

The India Pale Ale 

Early descriptions of the beer (circa-1900) speak of it being “light” (pale, not weak) and very bitter, which is typical of the India Pale Ales famous in England for a century. Ballantine India Pale Ale was probably similar to these, but may have had an American hop smack. American hops from the beginning were regarded as different to English and German ones. British brewers in the Victorian era described American hops as tasting of blackcurrant (funky vegetal) or pine. The main hop grown was Cluster, a hybrid of wild American hops and English or other European types imported to the new world. New York State grew a lot of Cluster until a wilt wiped out the crop early in the 1900’s.

Cluster, still grown, has a slightly off or “dank” flavour, to use the modern term. To my taste, it is quite different from the modern Cascade, Colombus and similar hops whose signature flavour is of grapefruit or tropical fruit. I would describe Cluster as mainly English-tasting – clean, cedar-like, a little earthy –  but with “something different”.

Did Ballantine India Pale Ale in 1900 use Cluster or otherwise have a piney or “dank” flavour? We can’t know for certain, but I think likely it did. A 1930’s brewing manual advised, for ales, either a mix of domestic and imported hops or just the domestic. It would make sense that this prescription derived from pre-WW I practice. Domestic hops were often used in whole or in part in beers which underwent long storage. Ballantine IPA was of this type as it stood in wooden vessels for at least one year. Therefore, it probably had a slightly different character to the great English pale ales.

As for the post-Repeal era, no one knows for sure either: the original Ballantine brewing records have apparently been lost. It is known, however, that the recipe kept changing, probably to take account of the different breweries the beer was brewed in and different brewing materials available over time.  Mitch Steele, in his excellent study of India Pale Ale, gives good background on Ballantine IPA, his book is linked below.

The fact that Pabst in 1995 discontinued the beer showed a remarkable lack of vision. Pale ale was being recreated by American craft brewers who took inspiration from English originals and Ballantine India Pale Ale itself as a rare surviving American exemplar. Beer writer Michael Jackson had lauded the beer, which added to its allure. Yet Pabst, whose focus was on the price segment and volume, felt this historic property and brand was not in its future. It is generally accepted that by the 1980’s and 90’s, Ballantine IPA was not what it was: not as strong, not as long-aged and not as hoppy, but it was still a good beer. I remember, as I often bought it in the 80’s and 90’s but first started drinking it in the 70’s.

In Mitch Steele’s book, two detailed recipes are given for Ballantine India Pale Ale  (see pp 239-240). These are completely credible. They used hops known to have been available for the years in question such as Bullion, Cluster, Brewer’s Gold, Styrian Goldings. Most of these were English in orientation but sometimes with a new world kick. None had, IMO, a grapefruit taste. Other metrics of the beer are mentioned in Steele’s book, from the 1930’s in this case, including ABV, original and final gravity, and colour. So a beer could have been put together from these sources with good credibility. A blending of the known recipes would have been perfectly fine. In the result, some hops were employed which didn’t exist prior to 1972 and the palate attained is much more “IPA” (i.e., the taste associated with the American craft revolution) than my memory of Ballantine IPA.

 The Return Of Ballantine IPA

In 2014, Pabst finally re-issued the beer. It is brewed in Cold Springs, MN, at a smallish facility with an old history. According to credible-sounding information gleaned from the Internet, the hops selected for the beer include Magnum, Columbus, Cluster, Fuggles/Willamette, Cascade, Target and Brewers Gold. Of this group, four or five, as mentioned above, are varieties released since 1972, especially the citrus-tasting Cascade and Columbus. These hops offered new tastes, ones which helped power the U.S. craft beer phenomenon but which didn’t exist in Ballantine IPA’s heyday of 1800’s-1972. Neither did Magnum, a high alpha bittering hop, or Target.

Still, the decision was made to re-introduce the beer using such hops, plus some from pre-1972.

I find the smell and taste of grapefruit prominent in the blend. Numerous reviews of the beer online refer to this flavour. I do not recall the characteristic when I drank the beer from the 70’s until 1996. I will be the first to admit that from at least 1982, the beer did use Cascade, together with Bullion. Here is the proof, look at the entry for Ballantine India Pale Ale in the first program of the Great American Beer Festival 1982. However, the beer didn’t have a strong citric taste then, the Bullion must have predominated and perhaps Cascade was used for bittering, not aroma. The recreation which came out a few years ago of New Albion Pale Ale, a beer first brewed in 1976 using Cascade, didn’t particularly taste of grapefruit, which shows that the hop can be used in different ways…

As for Ballantine IPA in the 1970’s, while memory is not reliable that far back, I don’t recall any citric taste. Nor do reviews in beer books published at the time refer to such a taste. They speak of the beer being pungent or aromatic, but never equate the taste for example to contemporary beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Liberty Ale, Cascade-driven from their inception.

My sense is, the Cascade and Columbus are too telling in the beer’s palate. In general, I don’t really see why so many hops are used, two or three should have been enough, Cluster and Fuggles or Goldings, say, or Magnum with Styrian Goldings or Kent Goldings.

A “modern” hop blend was probably selected because the hop types available before 1972 are hard to source in commercial quantities.  Still, other steps might have been taken: production of the requisite hops might have been contracted from a hop farm, or the beer released as draft only.

Re-creating Ballantine IPA was a major event in American brewing history. One can only be pleased the beer exists again in any form. Still, I confess to being disappointed with the taste. I have no issues with the malt characteristics or the colour, or the lack of one year’s aging in wood – some kind of oak addition was made, fine – but the hop taste is not right. In my view, the beer resembles hundreds of craft IPAs available in the market, and the distinctiveness was lost.

The company has advertised recently that the equally legendary Ballantine Burton Ale will soon reappear. One hopes it will taste like a barley wine would have before the era of the new American hops.

 

New York City Beer Jottings

IMG_20151115_170618Returning from a few days in NYC, I find the beer scene relatively stable in town. The variety of the last few years continues, with cider on the upswing and pumpkin beer less in evidence. “Sours”, variations on European originals such as Flanders red ale, are still big, and gose and Berlin wheat beer too. Various smoked beers are still seen too. These are arcane European types I don’t favour personally although many obviously do. Flavoured beers are still prominent, e.g., using coffee, chocolate, various fruits or tea in addition to hops and malt.

What is notable in the last two years is more craft beer everywhere, it is just more present, including in places which don’t specialize in beer as such. It’s the same thing on retail shelves. True, some of that is Goose Island, owned by giant Anheuser Busch InBev, or other brands now owned by big brewing, but that’s okay, it is still craft beer in the taste. If anything, my sense was IPA and more characterful beer are pushing out the Blue Moon (owned by MillerCoors) that was once ubiquitous.

A rare spotting of a California Common style from the area’s Barrier Brewing disappointed since the beer was heavily soured and had obviously gone off in the keg or the line. In a time when sour beer is considered a staple part of any good bar’s inventory, it is bootless to complain about this since the staff think the sourness is normal. Trying to explain that steam beer aka California Common Beer isn’t and never was sour is like thinking a waiter mid-town will appreciate your custom as much if you don’t tip him. Barrier is generally very reliable, so another time.

 

IMG_20151115_165707I will list the beers I thought were the best on this trip, in no particular order since they differ by style:

  1. The super-fresh and creamy draft Pilsner Urquell in the huge handle glass at Nelly Spillane’s on 33rd, next to Rattle ‘n Hum. Equal to the best draft I had in Prague. Craft beer before there was craft.
  2. The bottled Harvey Christmas Ale at the Cannibal and Beer counter in the elegant-hip Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. This is Harvey’s from Sussex, England. Whatever most brewers think they know about beer, Harvey’s probably forgot, but suffice to say it had a spicy treacle character with rich malt and good hop underpinning – all achieved in the good old English way with top yeasts and the right hops.
  3. Great South Bay Pumpkin Ale from the area. It’s a soft-textured beer which managed to show the squash in the mash as well as the typical pumpkin pie spice in a very drinkable way, not an easy act to achieve.
  4. Southern Tier’s (NY state) phenomenal Warlock Imperial Pumpkin Stout. This has the trademark “pumpkin puree” of the brewery’s renowned pumpkin beer but with a luscious porter character added. It’s velvety and spicy and the height of the brewer’s art pretty much. In pure gastronomic terms, easily the equal of the great classified growths, sauterne, vintage port, etc.
  5. Tres Equis lager from Threes Brewing in Gowanus, a delicious, clearly all-malt lager which is probably how a lot of American lager tasted when the style was first brewed here in the mid-1800’s. I happened to have part of a Miller High Life later that day, not by design, and the two were like night and day. One is thin and dominated by corn, the other generous in the malt yet with a firm neutral hoppiness in support. Tres Equis deserves to be widely known, it is a real winner.
  6. The old school-new school Sierra Nevada Stout, on draft at The Gingerman on East 36th Street. It is still the best medium gravity stout in the U.S. or just about anywhere. The rather more venerable Carnegie Porter from Finland, of which a 2014 brewing (bottled) pleased, was as good perhaps, with a molasses note the other didn’t have. I brought home a bottle of Founder’s Porter from Michigan and will be interested to see if it comes close to the Sierra Nevada. Generally, I find beers from newer, fashionable craft breweries aren’t as good as Sierra Nevada’s beers (where an equivalent is made of course). The reputed local, Other Half’s, stout, tasted in a flight on the same occasion, didn’t approach Sierra Nevada’s IMO notwithstanding the buzz attending this brewery.
  7. The Oktoberfest beer at Paulaner’s brewpub on Bowery at Houston. Rich and spicy in the way a real marzen rarely is in North America. Its wheat beer was second best. The blonde and dark lagers were a little thin I thought.  All these were tasted in a flight, sometimes I change my mind when I have a full glass, so I reserve the right to re-taste in a half liter. 🙂

IMG_20151115_142827The Gingerman is still the best beer bar in Manhattan. I visited some newish ones, e.g., Albion on 2nd Avenue, and Village Pourhouse, but none come close to the temple of beer that Gingerman is. I stopped by a number of others including the worthy Pony Bar, just to look at their list but didn’t sample anything. One always misses things on any trip, a pub devoted to all-draft Guinness looked interesting, but it didn’t open for an hour. A Belgian Beer Bar near our hotel looked ditto, but it was never the right time…

Gambrinus always looks forward to the next trip though, good beer is always in memory but always in prospect.

IMG_20151114_143827

 

MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Co.’s Crosscut Canadian Ale

IMG_20151111_175816

This beer, from two brothers with impressive credentials (engineering, graduate degree at Heriot-Watt in Scotland), shows just how good beer can be when expertise informs the result.

It is a deep gold, with a rich but clean maltiness and a firm bitterness that is more English than anything else. It pours almost clear from the can without a single of the faults that sometimes attends new releases (no oxidation, no acidity or flabbiness of body, everything right).

I’ve had one or two of their beers including the Wild Peppermint Stout, and each is an excellent, well-made product.

One to watch.

Lot 40 Canadian Whisky

Lot40-Oct12-lgTHE CANADIAN WHISKY PALATE AND BRAND PICTURED ASSESSED

Whisky is also an interest here at Beer Et Seq., so today we will consider the first Canadian whisky in modern times to have an emphatic whisky (distillery) palate, Lot 40 from Corby Spirits and Wine.

By distillery palate, I mean, one from which the grain character has not been stripped out by distilling it at or near to neutral spirit (vodka) level.

The Canadian whisky style since the late 1800’s has been to distill a base spirit, often from corn but another grain can be used, to a largely neutral taste. It is then aged in wood barrels. Prior to bottling, a small amount of characterful aged whisky is blended in, made often from rye, which adds a subtle spicy or peppery note. Sometimes, the two types of whiskey are blended unaged, and the blend is put in barrels to age at least three years. More commonly the neutral and “flavouring” elements are aged separately and then blended before bottling. The blended or “married” spirits can be given a further period of aging in wood or “resting” in ceramic, glass or other containers.

Products like U.S. bourbon and the Scottish single malts, as well as Cognac, tequila, and rum when made in a traditional way, are distilled to a low proof (alcohol level) off the still and aged to maturity. They acquire a resultant “heavy” or distinctive spirit character. The character comes, not just from the wood compounds leached into the whisky during aging and certain oxidative changes, but from the chemical composition of the spirit when new. A traditional spirit off the still has a characteristic strong chemical taste, this is so whether it is made from rye, barley, the tequila plant or grapes. This quality is altered by the effect of aging, except for white tequila, or white overproof rum, where the taste is wanted unmodified.

Canadian distillers always made – or brought in –  some of this traditional heavy spirit, but they used it to blend with, not to sell on its own. In Scotland, some unblended whisky – the single or vatted malts – was always sold on its own, ditto for U.S. bourbon and straight rye. The U.K. and U.S. also produced blended versions, but the original unblended whiskies were never taken off the market. In Canada, for some generations at least, you could not buy the so-called flavouring or heavy whisky on its own, its purpose was for blending only. Some distillers felt the unblended product was too harsh in taste for the general market, but this may have been a justification to sell a more profitable product.

About 15 years ago, Corby to its credit released Lot 40 which is not just a 100% rye product, but is distilled at a low proof, one comparable to that used to make the spirit for a single malt or bourbon. In recent years, other whiskies have emerged in Canada which represent this flavouring element on its own or are blends which use a higher percentage of the flavouring element than has been traditional.

This article contains an interview with Corby’s master blender which explains the production of Lot 40, and other whiskies produced by Corby, in numerous aspects. Essentially, Lot 40 is distilled like a U.S. bourbon, once in a column still, and once in a pot still. The resultant spirit will have a lot of taste, a lot more than the neutral-type base whiskies referred to in the interview, and is put away in wood for at least three years. The final age is not disclosed, there is probably a combination of different ages in the bottle. Whether some base whisky, often called grain whisky, is added to the bottle is an open question, but Lot 40 has a very pronounced palate so the effect of any such blending is minimal. For all practical purposes, I consider Lot 40 a straight whisky, comparable in production style to a U.S. bourbon or a Scots single malt.

One factor that can notably influence the palate is the kind of barrels the whisky is aged in. Canadian distillers sometimes use barrels sent by American distillers after their fill of bourbon is emptied. Sometimes, new oak barrels are used, charred black on the inside or not, or ex-wine or brandy barrels, etc. Each whisky brand and each distiller will have a particular specification and approach.

I’d guess Lot 40 is aged in reused bourbon barrels, which the linked article appears to confirm.

Lot 40’s recipe was developed in the 1990’s from an ancestral recipe associated with an early Ontario pioneering family. It is clearly akin to the “flavouring”, or straight-type whiskey used for blending by Canadian distilleries. I once asked a distiller who worked at a now-defunct Canadian distillery what his flavouring whisky tasted like. He said, like a bourbon or U.S. straight rye. (These latter differ only by the relative proportion of corn and rye in the mash).

So, Lot 40 is really “our” bourbon or straight rye, or “our” single malt to use a more distant but still relevant analogy.

What does it taste like?

Indeed, Lot 40 tastes rather like a bourbon, or a U.S. straight rye such as Bulleit Rye or Wild Turkey Rye. It has, not just a woody taste as any whisky does, but a “distillery” palate resulting from the chemical composition which distillation at a low proof (under 160 proof, or 80% abv) imparts. Various bottlings of Lot 40 show this chemical edge more or less, which may recall for some a gingerbread or rye bread note but also floor cleaner or acetone – these are simply metaphors to try to get at the taste. All traditional whisky, no matter how long-aged, has a chemical note, but in different concentrations and manifestations. To my taste, Lot 40 is a bit too raw and chemical-like. I believe aging it another few years would transform that element into something softer and more fruity, as in a 8-10 year old American bourbon or rye. It may depend too, again, what type of barrels are used for aging. Aging in reused barrels generally requires a longer maturation period than aging in new charred oak barrels. I would like to taste an “extra-aged” Lot 40, in a word.

Generally, after tasting a dram or two on its own, I end by blending Lot 40. I might combine it with two parts bourbon, say, or that plus another Canadian whisky to dampen down that “acetone” flavour. Of course, it is precisely that vigorous raw taste which many people admire in the spirit. There can be little doubt that prior to the development of modern blending and rectification techniques, much whisky on the market, in Canada and elsewhere, tasted like Lot 40. This is why whisky was often used in punch, or in toddy with sugar, or in cocktails and mixed drinks, to somewhat alter its feisty character. In fact, Lot 40 makes a fine Manhattan cocktail or whisky sour. On its own though, which is how I normally drink whisky, I prefer a more approachable taste, hence the kind of blending I mentioned.

And so, the process comes full circle in a sense, once can see why distillers, not just in Canada but around the world, evolved blending techniques to soften and make more approachable the taste of traditional spirits. Still, some of these can reach a high level of gastronomic achievement, as a fine Scots malt, say, or premium Cognac. I wouldn’t put Lot 40 in that group, but perhaps one day an iteration will emerge, further-aged or with some additional process used, which will put the brand in that class.

 

Note re image used: The image of the Lot 40 bottle was taken from Corby’s website.

 

Chimay Première (Rouge) – Is It A Great Beer?

IMG_20151109_080954Chimay is a legend, one of the select Trappist beer group, or beer brewed by monks of the Trappist order within the confines of the monastery. It was and probably still is the best known Trappist beer, as well.

The Notre Dame abbey at Scourmont, near Chimay (a town) in the wooded Hainaut of Belgium, has made beer since the 1860’s. Chimay was an early import to North America (from the 1970’s) and helped influence the craft beer revival here. Writers such as Michael Jackson wrote lyrically about the beer, and Trappist brewing in general. This caused a wave of interest in Belgian brewing which is unabated to this date.

I first drank Chimay Rouge, 7% abv then as now, in about 1980, in Montreal. A restaurant in Old Montreal, with flagstones dating from the French Colonial era, carried it.

To my best recollection, it was herbal and aromatic (perfumed), but whether similar to the beer today, it is difficult to say. In checking books both in English and French of the same period, there are few really helpful sensory descriptions. Michael Jackson used different terms in his books, such as blackcurrant, which can mean funky-vegetal, juniper, spicy, red fruit, but it is hard to pin down the palate from what he wrote. James Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, said it reminded him of his Aunt Beenie’s root beer, which is one of my favourite beer descriptions of all time. Root beer suggests a sweet and wintergreen or minty/herbal taste. I don’t find Chimay today like that, but again it’s hard to know what Robertson really meant.

As many beer fans know, Chimay is not an all-malt beer. It uses something like 15% wheat flour or wheat starch – accounts vary, but either is an adjunct – and 5% dextrose. The brewery says the beer has not changed since the 1940’s when famously, the yeast was isolated which is used in the brewing to this day. It is a strain which performs well at high temperatures and flocculates well, or drops in the bottle so the beer will look clear. Still, 80% malt is certainly respectable, similar to what British ales were using in the period before craft brewing from America impelled some British brewers to brew all-malt. Thus, it seems Chimay was not all-malt in 1980, although some doubt persists.

A factor which may have affected the palate more was the move, in the late 1980’s, to cone-tipped cylindrical fermenters. Prior to that, the beer was open-fermented as the Westvleteren beers, from another renowned Trappist brewery, still are. Some have speculated the behaviour of the yeast changed in the different vessel and altered the palate.

What does Chimay Rouge, best known of the three beers in the Chimay range, taste like today?  It is fruity, as in cherries or plums, and rather light-bodied, with a strong, bready yeast smack to it. The yeast taste is one which many who know Belgian beer will recognize. It is like the smell and taste of a fresh cork, a cork not long in the wine bottle. I used to think the cork in the tall bottle version of Chimay imparted the taste, but it tastes the same from the skittle-shaped bottle closed with a cap. As other Belgian ales have a similar taste, e.g. Leffe, whose recipe originates in monastic brewing, it is the yeast which is at work here.

The next time you have Champagne, see if you don’t notice a resemblance in the yeast background. I always felt that a wine yeast, possibly from Champagne, a region fairly close to Wallonian Belgium, may have been used to help isolate the Chimay yeast. Wine yeasts are adapted to fermenting wine at alcohol levels of 10-12% abv and more. Chimay’s beers are not quite wine strength but are much higher in alcohol than the typical ale of the mid-20th century which was 4-5% abv.

In the last 20 years, I find this yeast taste overwhelming in Chimay. It dominates the palate strongly, with malt and hop flavours playing a supporting role. I don’t find the flavour particularly attractive. For example, there is a scent of fine flowery hops in the beer, I’d guess English ones for recent brewings anyway, but that taste is almost submerged under the yeast dominance of the beer. Someone once suggested to me that Chimay is much better when aged a few years, that the yeast taste breaks down and the malt and hop flavours come more to the fore. I may lay a few bottles away and test the idea.

I’ll leave the reader with a final reflection. About a year ago, I had a bottle of Westvleteren Abt, the legendary Trappist beer from another monastery in Belgium. I hadn’t had Chimay prior to this tasting for a few years.

The first thought that came to mind when I swallowed it was, Montreal, 1980, Chimay Rouge, flagstones…

 

 

 

PBR Under The Gaze Of Beer Et Seq.

PBR IN ITS AMERICAN AND CANADIAN GUISES, AND INCIDENTAL REMARKS ON BLENDING

Before the craft beer era, and well into it, a common feature of the beer scene was to compare the same beer as brewed (or available) in two distant places.

For example, Munich’s Lowenbrau became a locally-brewed, licensed beer in the U.S. in the 70’s. Somebody might get hold of the German original and bring it to a tasting to compare to the local one. Another example: James D. Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseurs Guide To Beer, compared Molson’s bought in Toronto with the imported one he could obtain in New Jersey. (Molson told him they were the same but Jim liked the one brought direct from Canada better). A version of this was to compare an import, Heineken, or Beck’s, say, with the same beer just off the plane from Europe; this was usually an eye-opener.

We still do this today, even in the hyper-sophisticated and complex world of contemporary beer. Someone might bring a Goose Island Honker’s from Chicago and compare it to the one made in Toronto now. In fact, I may do this soon, as I have some local Honker’s and will be in the States soon where I can get the Chicago one – or at least an American one, since it is brewed in different places now by AB In Bev.

The extra-large can of Pabst Blue Ribbon you can get at The Beer Store in Ontario is brewed in the U.S., in distinction to the other forms of PBR available here. PBR is a famous old beer, one of the first national-scale lagers, and it had a premium image. I recall it in the 1970’s as having a pleasant, perfumed taste, quite different to today’s, but that’s another story.

With the growth of the craft beer segment  – i.e., the return to flavour which all beer had historically – PBR declined in profile, but then had an unlikely revival: it became a “hipster” beer, a commonly used but somewhat misleading description. Hipster implies a socially-aware young person, one in tune with trends. One would expect hipsters to favour craft beers, and many do of course. But the hipster community is not uniform. One of the sub-sets was more concerned with price and retro appeal than the myriad distinctions of the craft world with (often) prices to match. It is this group who took to PBR.

While some have predicted a fall for PBR, the company’s website reports continued growth and enthusiastic reception by millenials. The beer looks possibly to become, or become again, an enduring American icon. And so, a long and winding path: from local (1800’s Milwaukee) hero to national icon to declining American adjunct beer to a niche exemplar of cool. What’s next? Well, calm appraisal under the eye of Beer et Seq, we will look at both the American one brewed at La Crosse, WI and the version made by Sleeman in Ontario.

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The outsize tin is the American, the other, the Canadian one.

I found them rather different. The only thing that was similar was the unmistakeable high corn or other adjunct content, it lends a distinctive dry, starchy note familiar to most who know the elements of the beer palate.

The American one was better, with a notable lager yeast smell, that typical sulphur note so many blonde lagers have around the world.

Unfortunately (for me), instead of the sweet malty taste one hopes will follow as for any good helles, a keen flavour of corn seemed to dominate, as you might find in cornbread or popcorn. But still the taste was reasonably full and mildly sweet – recognizably a beer, the type that became popular in the later 1900’s when malt rates were reduced significantly and hops too. A well-made product by the standard of what it is.

The Sleeman version had none of this lager yeast aroma – not necessarily a bad thing as I don’t favour the “sulphur springs” note. However, it had very little else going for it. The beer was very attenuated, meaning very dry, and had a chemical-like note, to my palate. It was as if you might blend seltzer water and Schweppes tonic water with a touch of toffee apple caramel added.

I am sure many like these beers but they are not something I normally go for. So what to do? My answer, as many will guess here, is to blend them with another beer, one that has much more malt and taste. This evens out the flavours and, done right, reaches a stasis I find much more to my taste.

I tried a Belgian porter the other day, Viven Porter, 7% ABV:

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I corked the bottle after a swallow or two. It is a good beer but the brewer must be a using a well-smoked or roasted malt as the beer had a strong “cured” taste, almost like some Scotch whisky. It was a bit dry, too, for the style, IMO. In Beer et Seq’s world, its best vocation, as for the PBRs, is blending.

In a pint glass, I poured two thirds the PBRs combined, 2:1 American to Canadian, intentionally. The third part was the aforementioned porter.

This produced a perfect blend. Barley malt was evident while lightly modified by adjunct, which I’m good with (I don’t mind adjunct as such), and there was a lightly roasted tone throughout. The beer was a dark brown with reddish highlights, and rather, in flavour not colour, like Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier from Bamberg which has a lightly smoky note.

The PBR oil cans are still in the fridge, each about half-full. (I leave any can of beer opened for 2-3 days with blithe unconcern – there is so much CO2 to begin with that the amount which bleeds off usually works to the beer’s advantage, with plenty of gas left). Tonight or tomorrow, I’ll do a blend like the first one, but using Sinha Stout for the one-third which is highly flavoured. This is the fine, almost Imperial stout from Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, the brewery was established by British colonials in the 1800’s.

 

A Pot Pourri Reviewed

First, a fine dunkel from DAB in Dortmund – maybe not classic dunkel (dark lager) territory but DAB nails the style: coffee/dark nut-like, a little sweet, good racy hops underpinning the malt but in a neutral way.  Beer as it’s meant to be, few craft dunkels come close.

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Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide in Denver, Colorado, a very rich, well-bittered stout with a grainy, coffee-like palate. This version was “regular”, no unusual yeasts, no aging regimen in bourbon barrels: all to the good. A worthy beer to stand with the great English exemplars of the style, if slightly under them in the league table.

 

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Beau’s Lugtread (no image shown).

The current draft samplings of this beer show it being the best ever brewed at Beau in eastern Ontario. While nominally a kolsch-style, it tastes like a blonde lager in every usual particular, and what a lager. The clean but tasty malt and German hops are to the fore, and the yeast background complements these flavours – the old DMS taste, which spoiled the beer in my opinion, is finally gone.

This is the essence of great German-style brewing, and I hope Beau will keep the beer exactly as it tastes now, it can’t be any better.

The Session – November 6, 2015

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TWO BEERS MEET AND END UP GETTING CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The Session is a monthly round-up where bloggers tackle an assigned topic and submit the results to the Session leader. Today, Mark at Kaedrin Beer Blog has requested that two beers be tasted, compared and contrasted, optionally in connection with a movie double header. Not being a movie buff I’ll do just the beer part.

Below are two beers, both lagers, yet different as can be. There is only one glass pictured, and that’s because after trying a few ounces each, I blended them.

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Guinness Blonde Lager is a new release. Occasionally, a classic or even something solid and valuable can emerge from a first try. My experience is more that first tries don’t reach the mark, and that is the case here. An aromatic American hop taste – generally characteristic of pale ale or an IPA – sits uneasily with a caramelized malt tone and the beer’s description, blonde American lager. To me the beer has a “processed” taste, one I often encounter in craft-type beers from large brewers.

Perhaps there was an attempt to blend an IPA palate with a lager profile to lighten it and make it more accessible.

The Czech Kozel always tastes to me like a lighter version of Pilsner Urquell. This sample, very fresh at only three months from packaging, fits that bill perfectly. It is clean and classic in palate, but a little light, and therefore dull, IMO.

My solution: I blended them, as shown in the pint glass pictured. The malts combined very well as the Kozel’s clean pale malt cut the caramelized tone of the Guinness Blonde, but the latter’s malty quality loosened the restraint of the Czech beer. The blended malt taste now is auburn with blonde highlights (or the other way around!). On the hop side, the roiling American hop taste of the Guinness Blonde was improved by the noble Saaz variety which informs the Kozel. I mixed them 50-50 but if I did it again, I would do 60-40 Kozel to Guinness, possibly even a touch higher on the Kozel.

The blend was excellent, a dark blonde lager with some American accents, similar to some “brown bitters” from England.

I wasn’t planning the blend, but as mixing beers frequently improves the taste of the components, I often have recourse to it to avoid discarding something I don’t like.