Will Hard Soda Create Good Feelings?

 

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What’s Hard Soda?

There has been some buzz lately about hard sodas being the next big thing. Last year, hard root beer took off. This survey of two popular hard root beers by Ethan Lascity explains the idea. While made from a brewed malt base, by the reports I’ve read, they don’t really taste like beer, more like a traditional (non-alcohol) root beer with a punch. Clearly, this has stimulated the idea in some that any soda pop might undergo “hard” treatment.

MillerCoors announced recently a line of hard sodas under the Henry name, and the Jed’s line of ditto from the venerable F.X. Matt Brewing of Utica, NY was recently introduced.

The category looks to burgeon.

Ginger and orange are flavours out of the gate for MillerCoors: there is Henry’s Hard Orange and Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale. Henry Weinhard is a famed name in brewing on the west coast. Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. was a regional independent in Oregon, but descendants of the founder sold the company to Pabst Brewing Company in 1979. It went through a number of corporate ownerships, and the labels are now part of giant MillerCoors.

Some people think hard soda will reinforce the soft drink market in the sense that people who might have balked at mixing vodka and lemon soda, say, due to the calorie load of the pop, won’t cavil at choosing a hard soda with a similar taste.

Origins of Hard Sodas

20 years ago, the Canadian-originated Mike’s Hard Lemonade created a sensation that has never stopped and you can get the brand today in numerous flavours. Mike’s provides a link to brewing in that the U.S. version gets its alcohol from a malt base (vs. vodka for Canada), but this is really incidental. It is done for labeling or tax reasons, and flavour is not added by the malt. The hard root beers and now hard soda category use grains as a base to produce the alcohol, indeed fast-rising Not Your Father’s Root Beer appears simply to be a spiced beer.

Still, the taste of the flavourings – spices, juice, sugar, etc. – seems the prime focus of these drinks, not malt and hops as such. Hard sodas are “flavored malt beverages” in the U.S., sometimes dubbed malternatives.  A malternative has to derive at least 51% of its alcohol from fermentation of brewing ingredients such as barley malt. The alcohol can be 100% from this source but not necessarily, in other words.

The labeling issue can get complex depending how the producer wants to identify the drink on the label. Where the product is clearly shown as a beer, I’d guess all the alcohol comes from a fermented cereal mash.

I tried Mike’s Hard Lemonade a couple of times (in Canada), and it tasted quite naturally like lemonade with a shot of vodka in it. Vodka coolers, which come in a riot of flavours today, are a similar idea. Wine coolers may have started the alcopop/cooler trend over generation ago. They in turn seemed to emerge from the “pop wine” era of which legendary Boone’s Farm was a pioneer. Gallo today makes Boone’s Farm beverages, generally from a malt base (vs. wine), which kind of brings things full circle.

Use of Henry Weinhard Name for MillerCoors’ new Hard Sodas

I’ve read a couple of articles which suggested the Henry Weinhard label shouldn’t have been used to brand this new line of drinks, given that is the importance of the Weinhard name and legacy to brewing history. Certainly, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, first released in 1976, had a definite influence on modern beer culture. That beer, which still exists, advertised the then-new Cascade hop, an unheard of innovation at the time. (The brand was part of an early group of influential beers which helped kick-start the craft era, including Anchor Liberty Ale, New Albion Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).

On the other hand, Blitz-Weinhard was never a craft brewery and the company actually made soft drinks earlier in the 1900’s. In addition to that, it featured ad campaigns and certain products in its heyday which to my mind fit the spirit of the new Henry’s Hard Soda line.

Therefore, and as the design and graphic work were well done, using the Henry Weinhard name for the new products made good sense, IMO.

Future of Hard Sodas

People have predicted big times before for different kinds of alcopops, or for cider of course. Cider has done well in recent years but seems unlikely to unseat beer’s dominance any time soon.

Brewers know that beer inevitably comes up against the wall in reaching a good part of the mass market. Some people, perhaps the majority of alcohol drinkers, will never get the taste for it and seek other options.  While tea, ciders and apple-flavoured drinks of various kinds, and now hard root beer have proved popular, MillerCoors is betting the public will take to what is essentially a “spiked” soda.

Who could have foretold the massive and sustained success of Grey Goose vodka or Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur, say? Jagermeister is kind of similar. One never knows what will catch the fancy, sometimes for a generation or more, of the public…

Mike’s Hard Lemonade of course is a premier example. Maybe Henry’s Hard Soda is the next Mike’s.

 

Note re image above: it was sourced from this newswire story.

 

 

 

A Tale Of Two Pubs

THE DIVERSITY OF PUB CULTURE

As for restaurants in general or practically any product, there is old school, new school and middle school so to speak. Two bar establishments in Toronto illustrate well the old and the new.

Bar Volo has been in business about 30 years, but its craft beer focus is more recent. Initially it was an Italian restaurant, but about 12 years ago it started to focus on quality beer, in the process becoming both standard-bearer and bellwether for a recherché beer scene. Its bar is strictly craft, Ontario-focused but with the odd, well-chosen selection from Quebec, B.C., or elsewhere. Yesterday I noticed Cantillon Vigneronne on draft and had a go, well worth it, it was. It’s not every day you can sample artisan Belgian brewing so far away, en très bon état, il faut signaler.

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The rhubarb, winy and lactic notes of lambic have a strange attraction after the initial “sour shock”. As the offering is special even by Volo’s standards, the serving was just five ounces but well-worth the experience. I got down a Sawdust City pale lager after – good of its kind, typical German helles-style.

Two different European styles, one a rare historical survival, the other a crafted interpretation of the international beer vernacular.

Bar Volo has the hottest and coolest beer selection going including a creative, import-focused bottled list.

Sour/wild, farmhouse and flavoured beers are much of the moment, many singular and of gastronomic interest. These are frequently featured on Volo’s lists, but far from exclusively. To boot, Volo’s in-house nanobrewery, House Ales, always has offerings on the board, often a cask ale or three. The generally younger crowd are wowed by all this and so they should be.

Walking south on Yonge Street after, just before entering the subway at Dundas, I happened to see Imperial Pub’s sign. This is an old Toronto watering hole, and I realized I’d never gone in. Why not, eh?

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The interior is paneled in medium-brown wood planks, with a large circular bar in the centre. I’d guess the wood is a 60’s-70’s re-modelling as the bar was established in 1944.

Booths and other seating, utilitarian as suits the beer aesthetic, ring the room. The outside is an anonymous kind of brick, whether the original construction I can’t say. The Imperial offers beers from Moosehead, the industrial brewing stalwart from the Maritimes, but also carries beer from craft brewer Ste. Ambroise in Montreal, in which Moosehead has a stake. There are a couple of imports too, Grolsch of Holland is one.

I had a pint of Ste. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. The friendly server offered free house popcorn, which went well with the fresh and creamy black beer. The Imperial represents a disappearing genre of tavern, but is still going strong and has resisted the tide of redevelopment.

The beers are served, incongruously to my mind, in dimpled English pint glasses. I’d guess in the 70’s the bar took on an English pub image, maybe the glassware was part of it. These mugs were once quite common in Toronto but are rarely seen here now. Despite the English touch of the glasses, the Imperial today has a strictly Canadian atmosphere. And one too that recalls an older Canada. When, say, the Toronto folk scene was going strong via Joni Mitchell and Ian and Sylvia in the mid-60’s, most of the beer bars – beverage rooms in the old parlance – looked like the Imperial. It is one of the few still remaining.

I was thinking of all the soldiers and airmen who must have made their way through here in the last years of the war. On a late afternoon of a wan winter Sunday, 2015, the patrons were generally older, and no hipsters that I saw, but Ryerson University is kitty-corner, so I’d guess at other times a different crew come in.

From Bar Volo to Imperial Pub … opposite in many ways, but they share things too. They both refresh and offer a respite from the fretful and sometimes parlous days that characterize life in the early 2000’s. And old and new can be deceiving in some ways, e.g., Volo’s building is actually older than the Imperial’s location by a generation or two.

But one thing I know: we have it better than the soldiery who drank lager and ale at the Imperial in ’44 and ’45, many of them never came back or ended in hospitals. I drained the leavings in my dimpled mug in silent salute to them and their like today who hold us harmless from the inevitable malignities of all eras. After that I entered the subway and came home.

 

Note re blackboard image: drawn from Bar Volo’s website.

It’s All About the Malt, ’bout the Malt

SOME BEERS IN WHICH THE MALT MAKES A TELLING APPEARANCE

IMG_20160102_191241Upper Canada Dark Ale

This was one of the early Ontario craft beers, appearing in the mid-80’s from Upper Canada Brewery, a pioneering venture purchased after some years by Sleeman, a mid-size independent, now itself part of Sapporo. The beers were offered in numerous styles – light lager, regular blonde, dark ale, the strong lager Rebellion, and others.  IMO there was a house flavour, kind of butterscotch-like.

The Dark Ale then had a spicy, banana estery quality and Michael Jackson termed it partly Belgian in taste. It was and remains all-malt, always a plus.

After Sleeman bought Upper Canada, the dark ale became cleaner and IMO much better, more like an English brown ale should be. It is clean but well-flavoured with turbinado sugar and earthy tones and has a suitable level of non-citric hops (Challenger) on the finish. It is the kind of brew suited to large glasses, the standard 330 ml bottle hardly does it justice.

It is still one of the best “darks” in Ontario despite flying under the radar for some years now. Beers similar to it in style locally include Wellington Brewery’s County Dark Ale, Amsterdam’s Downtown Brown and Black Oak Nut Brown Ale, all made by long-established craft brewers. They represent a Canadian take on English brown ales such as Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith Brown Ale, Mann’s Brown.

While less exotic (today) than many of the weird and wonderful styles now favoured by Ontario and world breweries, a well-made brown beer is still one of the best experiences to have on the malty way.

Bavaria 8.6

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This Dutch brewer has a line of different brews, I’ve only tried them occasionally over the years. It still does its own malting, a point in its favour.

The beer shown is its “red” and 7.9% ABV, strong in the beer world as that would be Double IPA territory and a patch on most bock.

It is very sweet, to the point I wonder if sugar is added to enhance the malty character. Very grapey too, like a blush or labrusca wine. Yet still there is a “Belgian” character to it underneath. An unusual beer, it probably appeals to those who like flavoured coolers and that type of drink, sweet and fruity and between wine and ordinary beer in strength.

I found its best use in blending, a dryish acerbic stout mixed very well with it, 2:1 respectively.

Einbecker Winter-Bock Beer

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I may have had an Einbecker bock only once before despite decades of experience on the beer routes. The company makes a number of different bock beers (in general a malty, strong lager). I found the bottle pictured in a loose bin in New York.

Everything ostensibly looked to contrive a bad experience despite that Einbecker is in a town which reputedly invented bock beer 700 years ago.

There was the green bottle; the form of display (suggesting the bottle had hung around for a while); the marked-down price.

But the beer was surpassingly good, with a particular malty-molasses character only the Germans seem to get at. It’s pictured next to a port bottle because its character is akin to that wine style in some ways.

A lot of German beer, at least as we get it in export form, is so-so but occasionally you can find a classic that shows easily why the country was (is) synonymous with great beer for so long. Dark brews and wheat beer styles often fit the bill, which is appropriate in that blonde lager is a relative interloper in German brewing tradition.

 

 

The Session Topic #107 – Breweries and Friends

session_logo-thumb-150x182-126The Session is a monthly round-up of beer blogging opinion on a topic assigned by a rotating host. The host is generally a blogger but this month it’s a brewery, Community Beer Works of nearby Buffalo, NY, a nice change.

The topic is explained here and requests opinion whether a brewery should have a conversation with customers and consumers, in a word if they should be “friends”.

My view is emphatically yes. The only way for customers to learn about a company’s specific products, but also about beer in general, is to ask questions of the people who make it. The more you find out, the more you know. Originally this process took the form of asking questions in letters, or during a brewery tour. Later, you could send an e-mail request through a company’s website.

In recent years, Facebook and Twitter help a lot to get advertising messages across but also facilitate two-way conversation: consumers can learn about production methods, new product releases and other information.

Some breweries make themselves more available to the public than others. The beer writer Michael Jackson in his first major book in 1978 acknowledged the cooperation of most breweries yet lamented the few who were “reticent to the point of discourtesy”. So it always was and always will be.

I have found brewers (almost all) remarkably willing to share information, and want to hear whatever they have to say. All information is good, even fairly non-specific advertising content, you can learn from everything.

Most brewers, too, are interested to hear what consumers say, it’s good business but also there is a special kinship between brewers and consumers. Good drink of any kind inspires fellowship and solidarity, a drink with friends helps bring people together. Who better to form part of the conversation than the person who made what’s in your glass?

I follow a number of breweries on Twitter, I like to see the content they put across and occasionally respond to make a comment or suggestion. At a brewpub, or bar where a brewer I know is present, we always talk about brewing ingredients, recipes, what’s good, what’s next, what’s better.

Breweries certainly are friends to those interested in how beer is made, its palate, its history. For those not interested to talk to producers, it’s easy to avoid the process by not following them on Twitter or Facebook, or chatting with a brewpub owner about the weather or politics, say. That’s not me. If I met the people from Community Beer Works, I’d ask, hey guys, which hop in your single hop releases did you really like, what beer got the best consumer reaction, have you ever tried Sterling for ales, any chance to get your beer in Toronto, maybe call X whom I know in town, etc. etc.

Canadian Beer Is Stronger Than American, Not.

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A stock notion, firmly held by most people in the 1970’s-90’s whatever their interest in beer, was that Canadian beer was stronger, or better, than American. Or both. Indeed Americans, famously proud of their country and its multiform achievements, shared the opinion. It was one of the few areas they were willing to concede superiority to their Canuck neighbours.

How did it break down? The idea was that the typical Canadian beer, at 5% alcohol by volume, was stronger than the American beer norm. This was true, but the American standard was actually 4.7 or 4.8% ABV, a negligible difference. The real reason American beer was thought weaker was that its strength, when expressed not by volume of alcohol but by weight, came to 4%. (Alcohol is lighter than water). Even though beer strength wasn’t generally shown on the label stateside, somehow the idea formed that Canadian beer was a point stronger than American.

Also, at the time Canadian beer was thought to have a heavier body and more pronounced taste than American brews. The difference was real and due partly to the fact that a lot Canadian beer then was still ale while most American beer was lager. Second, Canadian ale probably on average used less starch adjunct than American lager. This was certainly so in the period leading up to WW I when much Canadian ale was still all-malt and most American beer, of any style, had 25-30% adjunct. Generally, adjunct beers are lighter in taste than all-malt beers. Canadian beer may have used more hops on average than American beers, another factor.

In a 1976 American book on beer can-collecting the theory was offered that after Prohibition U.S. consumers wanted beer that tasted like the pop they got used to in the 20’s, but Canadians still made good beer because many U.S. brewers left their homeland during Prohibition to take up the mashing fork in Canada! Now there’s an ingenious acknowledgement of Canadian brewing savvy –  the Yanks still come out on top. 🙂

Be that as it may, all were agreed in the old days that Canuck brews had the edge, e.g., 1970’s beer books, American or Canadian, concur on this one way or another.

Until as late as last year, I still heard an expression of the old idea. It was on a radio show, someone being interviewed mentioned it incidentally. The interviewer, if he/she knew any different, let it pass.

Let’s be clear: the meme is as dead as the dodo in this era of strong and tasty craft brews. Indeed the Americans inaugurated the change in the 70’s via the path-breaking New Albion Brewing Co. and Anchor Brewingas well as through the considerable achievements of the American Homebrewers Association. Even in the 1980’s and 90’s, Canadian mainstream beer had turned stylistically to lager, or light (in alcohol) beer, and adjunct use wasn’t getting any smaller; the beer traditions of both countries were in fact merging even before craft beer took hold in North America.

Cultural product units, as the sociologists call them, are essential to civilized living. The Canadian beer-is-stronger thing was one of them, a detail, even a standby, of the old North American beer culture. But its time is long past. This post can serve as its memorial.

For those to whom this comes as news, meet the new boss, and it’s not the same as the old boss.

 

Note re image used: the image is in the public domain, sourced here.

 

We Put A Scotch Beer To The Test

Having scoped earlier (see also the Addendum) the smoky side of Scotch beer, let’s drink some, shall we? Well I will.

If Ontario isn’t a Scottified outpost, I don’t know what is, so Beau’s 80 Shilling is a good place to start.

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There is a fruity yeast background, a biscuit malt taste I recognize from somewhere but can’t place, and a touch of the advertised organic roasted barley. Earthy, slightly drying, not smoky in this case.

A good beer that would be outstanding on cask.

Aye, laddie, ’tis a bonny beer – where’s the whisky?

Scottish Beer And The Smoke Question

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SMOKE GETS IN YOUR BEER…

There has been some controversy in recent years whether Scottish ales should have a smoky or prominent roasty note. Some people insist they should not. The current edition of the American style guideline BJCP (see p. 25), is an example, repeating for the various categories that a roasty or peat smoke note is inauthentic. It acknowledges (how could it not?) that roasted barley or brown malt can figure in the mashbill but states this is a matter of colour adjustment, and peated malt is excluded from the suggested ingredients. BJCP states if you want to make a smoky Scottish ale, it should be classified in the Classic Styles Smoked Beer section.

The BJCP reflects the current thinking of some that peated or roasted tastes came into Scottish-style beer through an error of thinking Scots brewers must have used peated malt just as Scottish distillers did for their classic malt whiskies.

This is a revisionism gone too far. In my own taste experience with numerous classic Scottish ales since the late 1970s, they sometimes taste of cured malt or a tinge of smoky fire. The early American beer writer James Robertson, in 1978 in The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, wrote that McEwan’s Edinburgh Ale had a “roast bacon” taste.

Why would he say that? He had no ax to grind on this issue. He said it because the beer tasted like that. The re-introduced McEwan’s Scotch Ale, which I’ve tasted numerous times, has a similar taste. See for example the reference to “smokey malt” (twice) and “a little bit whisky” in the March 19, 2015 review on Beer Advocate, here.  Of course, not all reviews read the same but not all tasters can identify specific traits in beer due to varying experience and different sensitivity levels. If one reads all the reviews since the beer was brought back by current label-owner Wells Young, I think it is quite clear it has the taste in question. Wells Young researched the taste history of the brand before bringing it back. I doubt is in error as to the taste as it’s been at least from the 1970s.

Belhaven’s St. Andrew’s Ale, about 15 years ago, had a similar tangy cured barley note. Earlier reviews on Beer Advocate show this clearly. This review from December 13, 2010 in Britain states: “mildly dirty and peaty note that nears mild elements of smoke”.  The May 28, 2010 review says “peaty smoke”.  Other reviews use the words “touch of smoke”, “peaty”, “earthy”. Belhaven was not a craft brewery but old-established, as the McEwan’s brand is, and wouldn’t have mistaken the taste of Scottish beer.

My own readings in early Scots literature suggest that beer made on the crofts or in similar artisan surroundings had a smoky taste, one admired locally. An example from the later 1600’s  is here, authored by Sir Robert Murray. He wrote in a discussion of Scottish malting that “the best fuel is peat”. Murray was clearly referring to material for ale-brewing in the discussion.

Another example is here, from a book published in 1822 in London but containing letters written in the 1720s ascribed to Edward Burt. He says plain as day that Scottish common ale was smoky from use of peat, turf, or furze to prepare the malt. The way he writes, it is clear that by then English ale did not have the taste – he notes the Scottish taste as something unusual and acquired due to custom.

With the industrialization of brewing in Scotland through the later 1800s, styles more similar to English mild and pale ales emerged, and these beers did not generally exhibit smoky tastes. Earlier, at an artisan stage, they must have, when wood, turf, straw, or fern was used to cure all malts. With the development of coke or smokeless coal, a smoky note in beer would have subsided except partially in the black porter, where the taste was still wanted. I believe that Scots brewers knew or continued the ancestral use of peaty or smoky malt in brewing and some Scottish beer always showed the taste. Michael Jackson in his 1993 Beer Companion noted a “peaty” note in McEwan’s beers from roasted barley and suggested, or I read him that way, it was a traditional taste; this was the same brewery Jim Robertson wrote about in 1978.

As traditional and craft brewers like to highlight older practices, it is no surprise that since the late 70s, both craft and some traditional Scotch ales have a smoky or cured edge. By cured I mean lightly phenolic or earthy/smoky versus the clean, dark caramel taste of a German dunkel, say.

Addendum: In this 1828 text on malting and distilling by a Scot, John McDonald, he describes in Chapter 99 (see pp 119-120) the procedure to prepare malt. While his focus is spirits, he addresses ale as well and describes under the term “beer” the mash extract for both ale and spirit. He specifically mentions “peats” or “peets” as the fuel to make his malt. Particularly for small-scale ale brewing, I think it is evident that in about 1830 some ale had a peaty reek in Scotland.  In 1867, in Charles Dickens’ All The Year Round, reported that in New York Scotch ale tasted “disagreeably sweet and smoky”. This brings matters to the last quarter of the 1800s.

All this being the case, that some Scottish ale was always given a peaty or smoky snap, probably the most traditional type resistant to English influence, seems easy to conclude. It might have been done by ensuring some malt was kilned with peat or wood or in some other way. Even some pale malt might easily have been prepared for this purpose. And we know that in 1978 – and after – some Scottish ale conveyed to tasters smoky, earthy, peaty and whisky flavours. This spells a clear pattern.

Note: The image above is in the public domain, as indicated here.

 

 

 

Some Classic Lagers Revisited

A fine beer, i) is made from traditional ingredients and not heavily processed, and ii) has an excellent flavour. Craft productions do not occupy all the space here. Blonde lager made by old-established companies can be superlative too. European lagers in particular have set the pace for quality since pale lager took root in Pilsen, Czech Republic in 1842. But you have to get the right beers, and at their best.

In the early days of the craft brewing era, some names in Europe were highly reputed for lager. The most famous was and still is Pilsner Urquell. Another was Grolsch from Holland, which had a top reputation for its all-malt recipe and lack of any form of pasteurization.

Another beer well-reputed was Stiegl Gold of Salzburg, Austria.

Recently I had these in a flight – a serving of about 4 oz each – at the Loose Moose downtown in Toronto.  Unlike on most previous occasions when tasting these anywhere, each was nigh on perfect. This means: the beer was well-brewed, it was very fresh, and served in very clean glassware.  It may sound odd to say that brands such as these made for generations can be brewed differently or taste different but I’m convinced this can occur. Brewing processes change, sometimes subtly but they do, ingredients certainly change especially the availability of some hops, and of course the age of a particular barrel and how it was treated before beer hits your glass can vary quite a bit.

Sometimes conditions contrive to make the perfect taste though, as the other day at Loose Moose.

The Grolsch had no grassy skunky notes. I’ve often noticed this taste before, and I don’t think it comes (usually) from the green bottle as I’ve noticed it in the canned version too. I believe it is a dimethyl sulfide note (DMS), that typical boiled onion taste so many Euro lagers have, and which many people like evidently. I am hoping either that the draft is made a little differently than the bottled stuff or the lab people at SAB Miller are seeking to rub out the taste.  (If they are, keep going team, you’re on the right track). The result was a dryish, clean malty taste with some good neutral-type hops underneath in support. Not a strong taste but a good one. I’d rather have a fine but restrained taste than bags of flavours which don’t cohere or taste right.

Stiegl was more hoppy and a little heavier in body with a fine apple note from the yeast surely. It was spicy in the best German way but with no DMS, no chemical/chlorine taste as numerous other German imports seem to have, perhaps from overage or deterioration to heat.

The Urquell was winy-like, with an insistent hop presence and the slight rye bread note the beer usually has. But the balance and freshness were better than I’ve had from cans or bottles recently, and well, it’s just the right taste. It reminded me of very fresh Urquell in NYC where the turnover is high and after all NYC is the first landing in from the Atlantic. (Still, it can be indifferent in New York too).

When European lager is as good as these, it easily matches the best top-fermentation beers of England or Belgium, and now too North America which does a good turn in pale ale and India pales.

But rare is the opportunity, in my experience, to taste each of these at their very best. It’s nice when it all comes together. For the student of the beer palate, small differences can make all the difference…

Stray Thoughts As The Year Closes

Some unconnected thoughts that nonetheless encapsulate in toto my specific approach to beer, pubs and other things bibulous.

First, I note with bemusement the febrile rivers of bandwidth still being devoted to big brewery takeovers of craft operations. The angst seems always present even when the opposite posture is proferred.

I was there at the beginning and can say the goal was to get good beer. Many large or old-established regional breweries then, especially in England, Belgium and Germany, made great beer. Guinness (bottled) was great then. No one was concerned as such with how large a brewery was. No one would suggest, say, that Courage Directors or Ind Coope’s Burton Ale were anything but world-league beers. The problem was that breweries in North America had consolidated to the point where light-bodied beer was a firmly-held mantra, culmination of a decades-long process.

The small is beautiful mantra came later as a spin-off from the beer revival movement. While valid unto itself, it was never the only model for good beer, nor could this really be possible as new entrants often lack the skills and palate experience to make fine beer.

Tempus fugit and with it, the tastes and assumptions of a previous generation…

The widespread availability of fine beer in a range of styles has now been fully addressed since 1980. This was due to the landmark efforts of Michael Jackson, Ken Grossman, Fritz Maytag, Charlie Papazian, Bert Grant, John Sleeman, and many others. In a word, they made large brewers take notice. The growing tide finally convinced the megas they were behind the times, to the point some well-known small breweries are being bought up; that’s good. (And it’s not entirely a new phenomenon either, it started almost as soon as the craft breweries did. Its acceleration simply speaks to the slow but certain acceptance of quality beer by the market at large, or enough of it to make a difference).

There is every reason to think big brewers will continue the quality standards the small units bought out made their reputation on. Except for the Bud Light type of beer, and also certain imports such as Corona and Heineken which have an inherent status in the eyes of many, the future is in full-flavoured beers. Big brewers know this. We’ve won, and if any doubt persists, there are lots of existing and upcoming breweries to keep the big fellas honest. If they change Goose Island IPA, say or Mill St Tankhouse Ale, lots of hungry breweries will take up the slack.

The issue is done as dinner as far as I’m concerned, and I hope the beer press leaves it alone except to note clinically the further buy-outs as they occur.

Best beers of 2015? For me, Germany’s DAB Dark with its velvet, molasses-like palate, very stable in the can and showing the true qualities of Bavarian dark lager albeit from Dortmund. In Toronto: Amsterdam Brewery’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, which used fresh (unkilned) hops from an Ontario farm. The vivid qualities of these hops surely evoke the kind of beer made in the distant era when hop culture and processing were a local, non-standardized business. I must also mention Bellwood’s Cat Lady IPA, which I discussed in posting a few months ago. In New York, the collaboration brewing of Tres Equis by Threes Brewing and Other Half set a new standard for a broadly Czech-type pale lager as far as I’m concerned. And I must say my re-acquaintance with the venerable Molson Stock Ale was pleasing. It has a full flavour with an insistent hop quality I can only call “nervous”, in the sense that is used to describe certain French white wines. (See the definition of nervous in wine-speak here for those not familiar with the term).

Most interesting Toronto beer bar? As always, Bar Volo due to its ever-changing and imaginative selection and sympa service as well as its connections to the ineffable Cask Days. Other bars appreciated were Dora Keogh, the Wallace, the Granite, the Wheatsheaf, and Cork’s Wine and Beer Bar (Laird St. location). Each offered something different, not least a personal touch from the owners or staff.

When a dram of whiskey is wanted, this year Tennessee’s Jack Daniel Single Barrel impressed a lot. There is an ever-increasing range too of excellent Canadian whiskies, tangy with the mint or spice of rye grain sheathed in sweet barrel gums. Alberta Springs Dark Horse, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye and Gooderham & Worts Four Grain would surely rank in most peoples’ top 10.

In wine, Ontario Niagara sparklers are surely at a peak of quality, especially Tawse’s and 13th Street’s, also Henry of Pelham’s and in general riesling from that area. A number of assemblages of reds put together by skilled craftsmen/vintners in the VQA genre made a statement too.  And did you see I didn’t mention icewine…?

We live in the best of all possible times for quality beer, wine and spirits in Ontario – it will only get better.

 

 

 

 

The Wheatsheaf – A Toronto Classic

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The Wheatsheaf, a downtown pub (really tavern), has operated in the same location with the same name since about 1850!  In other cities, that fact would be lionized with perhaps the inevitable gentrification that happens to storied old haunts. Not in Toronto: the Wheatsheaf wears its history and venerability with nonchalance and remains pretty much the place it always was, a Toronto beverage room where all are welcome, old-timers, young condo-dwellers, hipsters, those who count pennies to make the price of a pint, businesspeople out for a quick lunch, everyone.

It other words it does what a good bar should do: sup and feed at a reasonable cost, in interesting surroundings.

The beer culture in Toronto, focused as it has been (understandably) on beer itself, overlooks the Wheatsheaf. No doubt this is due to its largely macro beer choice, mostly Molson Coors beers. But the pub is a spacious and comfortable place, full of those long wooden tables and chunky “banker’s” chairs that contrive to be comfortable even though they don’t look it.

There is always a food special on, and if they play music on the sound system I didn’t hear it (there are TVs here and there but they don’t seem to obtrude).

The waiters are efficient, no-nonsense but friendly. If you ask about the tunnel supposedly buried underground leading to Fort York they will give you their version of the tale.

You can get Mill St Tankhouse Ale, Steamwhistle lager and Creemore there, so while not the summum of the beerological arts, there is brew sufficient to placate the fastidious taster.

And you know what? You can get Molson Stock Ale there on draft, which is entirely appropriate to the history of the place.  Molson used to have a brewery on the lakefront nearby, on Lakeshore Boulevard, and I’ll bet plenty of Stock Ale was dispensed from the Wheatsheaf in the heyday of that 1950’s artifact (now dismantled).

Advertisement_for_Molson's_Ale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doug Taylor, a Toronto historian, wrote a good summary of the pub’s history with some interesting details on architecture, here.

Want to go old-school in Hogtown including old-school Canuck beer? Visit the Wheatsheaf, order a pint of Molson Stock and some wings or a burger with back bacon, and you’re good. Or I am.

 

Note re images: the images used were sourced from the Internet and indicated as in public domain.