Handpumps (Decorate?) The Bar In 1930’s Manhattan

Billies Bar 1936

Hand Pulls in Billie’s Bar, New York City in the Mid-1930’s

I’ve mentioned hand pumps for beer in 1930s New York earlier, but would like to discuss the topic in more detail. The above image was taken in 1936 in New York, and is sourced from the New York Public Library’s historical digital collection, here.* It shows a gleaming oak bar softly lit by old-fashioned globe lamps overhead. The equipment was probably pre-Prohibition era, fetched up from a warehouse and dusted off after liquor became legal again in 1933. Perhaps the location was an old saloon boarded up during the ban, or turned to another use and then back to a bar after Repeal.

In many pictures of bars in operation not long after Repeal one sees greying, older bartenders, called back to duty for their experience in the saloon era. Above, a younger man is shown in charge. This was New York. Although the furnishings recall an older time, the personnel were probably chosen to appeal to an aspirational, younger demographic. Billie’s was midtown, then as now not exactly a sedate area, it’s always been a happening part of New York.

Amongst the older equipment one is taken aback to see beer hand pulls on the back bar – the kind of thing that pulls unpasteurized, naturally-conditioned ale or stout, darling of the craft beer renaissance then and still.

One tends to think of England as cask-central in this respect. It was originally but English practice had inspired an American emulation in the mid-1800’s. Ales brewed in New York and environs then were served by hand pump just as they had been in England. However, by the early 1900s ales in the U.S. had become more similar to lagers: cold, fizzy, and clear. The hand pumps in New York and other American cities were mostly taken out of service even before WW I. Certainly it was very rare to see them as late as the 1930s.

I suspect the hand pumps in Billie’s of the 1930s may not have been used to pull beer. Under most of the spouts one sees a pitcher. It is possible beer was served by the pitcher, but I think the pitchers may have contained cold water. Kegs of ice water may have been placed where the beer casks used to reside. America always had an appetite for ice water in restaurants – still does. The beer taps may have found a new vocation in an era when pressurized beer service was virtually universal. In fact, at the far left of the image one can make out three faucets which look like beer taps, particularly for their ball-like shape at the top.

But who knows… Maybe Billie’s hung on to serving some of its beers the old-fashioned way. In 1930’s America, there was still a surprising amount of ale, porter and stout being sold of English inspiration. This page of brewery historian Jess Kidden shows a large range of these. A few certainly were available in the New York area and Ballantine IPA, say (now restored to the American market after a 20 year gap) may have been pulled in one of those taps.

The curved housing for the handles is an old English design, lithos from the early 1800’s show the identical equipment.

One can still see the same dispensing unit to this day in McSorley’s, the old Irish bar on East 7th Street, NYC, albeit it hasn’t been used for generations.

What’s old is new again, as cask ale has a definite (albeit always minority) presence amongst the ale and stout taps of modern bars that are beer-aware. The style never stopped flowing in England, but it did in North America between about 1914 and the 1980’s. The idea that beer should be fizzy and ice-cold is probably too ingrained in modern society to disappear ever, but some people know that ale at a cellar temperature, with a slight carbonation, and not excessively filtered, is the best way to appreciate beer.

I’ll be in New York soon, and will see what’s standing on the location Billie’s used to inhabit. If it was a hostelry that would be nice, but stay tuned in any event.

*Note re image: All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Object Lesson In Classic German Beer Flavour

IMG_20160110_170032The beer opposite is one of those which still reflect the rich malt qualities of German, all-malt lager.

Ayinger is an old Munich-area concern and retains a high reputation for its beers in general. I recall enjoying its dark lager on a trip to Munich some years ago. The one pictured may be its richest beer.

Ayinger, including the Doppelbock shown, has been imported to the States for a long time. Merchant du Vin has been importing it for about 40 years and it is one of the keynote beers which influenced the American beer renaissance. Specifically, when quality ales and lagers were being rediscovered on the West Coast, Ayinger served as a model for its silky and “cascading layers of malt complexity”, as the website puts it.

There are elements of coffee, cocoa and black rye bread in the palate, with a good skein of Noble hop bitterness to offset it lightly. The beer is superior on draft, I can recall drinking it in that form in a Seattle brewpub on the water about 20 years ago. No doubt Merchant du Vin, which is based in Seattle, arranged to offer it in that form and rarely did a beer impress as much as that one despite the long distance travelled. The drink in bottled form as we get it in Ontario is more restrained but still an obvious bellwether of quality.

A factor here is Ayinger follows a traditional decoction process for the beer, an old-fashioned complex mashing technique which seems to result in beers of unusual complexity and richness.

In my posts earlier this week on the German Pure Beer Law, one thing I didn’t mention was the importance of not letting the beer finish at too low a gravity. In other words, if the yeast is allowed to consume almost all the malt sugars, the beer will have a dryish taste that doesn’t really deliver the original Bavarian character. Beer historian Ron Pattinson has done a lot of work to show that on average, lagers were richer circa-1900 than they are today, sometimes by a fair margin. Later in the 20th century, a trend developed, both in Germany and elsewhere, to let beers attenuate ever higher, i.e., to finish their fermentation to taste fairly dry. This probably responded to consumer taste but also was a way to increase alcohol in the bottle without using more malt – you could save money in other words.

Beers such as Ayinger Doppelbock still reflect the original sweet clean taste of true lager, and many German beers still do of course. It is good to recall that the pure beer law is only one factor of many in good brewing. One hopes the character of the great pale and dark lagers in Germany, and elsewhere where these traditions serve as inspiration, will be preserved through not fermenting the beers to an undue dryness. And other factors apply too: all beers need a good amount of hops, and the correct ones, and pasteurization should be used sparingly if at all as it can detract from beer flavour.

Other imports obtainable locally that have impressed by their malt qualities include DAB Dark and HB’s dark lager.

Stiegl, for blonde lager, an Austrian brand, is very good when when fresh, as is the Czech classic Pilsner Urquell. Even Heineken, an all-malt lager, shows decent malt qualities – again when very fresh as all beer needs to be. Spaten’s and Holsten’s brands, to return to Germany, lean to the drier side of things, but can be very good when in optimal condition.



A Bevvy Of Bitters



Above is a selection of bitters, which in this case has nothing to do with beer. Bitters is a European-origin beverage, fairly strong (25-50% ABV), compounded of alcohol, sweetening, and flavourings which may be spices, herbs, fruits and/or barks and plants. Generally they offer a bitter-sweet palate and often are intensely flavoured. Angostura’s and other cocktail bitters are a special class of bitters, not a beverage as such but with a not dissimilar set of flavours. Typically they are used in the Manhattan and other cocktails.

Amaro is an Italian class of bitters, there are numerous brands. The fruity-bitter Campari is also well-known, generally used with soda as an aperitif or mixed with gin or vodka.

The bitters on the right in the image is an absinthe bitters, from the reputed J.C. Baczewski. The house is or was a well-known Polish distiller but I think is based now in Austria. The bottle was bought in Ontario some dozen years ago and isn’t carried currently by LCBO, so I’m not sure if the brand is still made or where. Even though “vodka” appears on the label, it isn’t a vodka proper albeit the little water” figures in its composition. The style of the drink is called Piolunowka. Wormwood and other herbs, those associated to absinthe proper, do figure in most recipes. The herbs are allowed to macerate in strong spirit vs. being distilled to aromatise them, therein lies the difference with the famed Green Fairy.

As well, Piołunowka has a sweet side most absinthe does not. Maison Baczewski must add honey since there is an unmistakable scent and taste of the beehive, almost like a sauterne. It is very good, bitter-sweet, herbal, not anise-like in this case. I only take a thimbleful at any one time – just a little is enough.

The two new bitters in my stash are the famous Jagermeister, which I had never had before, and Alpenbitter, a local (Ontario) brand which presumably follows a Swiss or German recipe.  I assembled these to have a small group for comparison purposes.

The Jagermeister is excellent, repeated stories of its bad taste simply aren’t true – at least not to those familiar with the nuances of the alcohol palate. I’d guess the back story of bad taste, medicinal, etc. is a form of praise, using irony that is. In truth the herbal taste is really not much different to a root beer. Still, it’s kind of a cool story in a way, the famous drink that doesn’t taste great, it has a guerrilla kind of appeal.

Jager tastes very much like a Manhattan cocktail, or a Sazerac if you sweeten it and go easy on the anise. The Alpenbitter is honeyed with a good herbal note, different again from these other two. Perhaps it falls midway between them, in fact.

I know that Jager is regarded as a specific – an old word for a hangover cure, but it easily fulfills a much more pleasant office, say an ounce next to a chilled pilsener, or late at night before retiring.

The image above is slightly overexposed which gives it a 1960’s day glo effect, as in photos or merchandising from the era. Kind of appropriate in the context of all that alcohol and exotica of herbs… But Beer Et Seq will experience no psychedelic visions. Modest sips are the way to go, the flavours are scoped, and a little more is learned from l’univers des alcools.

Precis of My Views on the German Pure Beer Law



A friend asked me to summarize briefly my post of yesterday defending the German Pure Beer Law (the Law).

The main points:

  1. The Law has an inferred justification rooted in palate even though there may be multiple reasons behind the original law of 1516.
  2. German beer on average reaches a high standard due to all-barley malt being required for lager beer.
  3. The gastronomic merits of all-malt beer have been recognized by experts, and tacitly by the German people for centuries.
  4. Germany should retain the law as a key component of its extraordinary beer heritage.
  5. Modern craft brewing in large part arose due to the great respect American craft brewers had for the Law. The recent influence of craft brewing in Europe is therefore not a reason to withdraw the Law; au contraire.
  6. Possibly the Law should be changed to allow German brewers to brew non-compliant beer. If so, the beer should have a special name with appropriate labeling to show it is in a special class, e.g. foreign or historical.


Note re image used: the image of malted barley shown is in the public domain, and was sourced here.

In Defence of the German Pure Beer Law


In 1988, Michael Jackson wrote in his The New World Guide To Beer:

“The law itself could not insure that all brewers would have skill, flair and sensitivity, but in no corner of the world has as much good beer been made as in Bavaria. No beer routinely tastes as clean and malty as that made in Bavaria. If the law prevented the Bavarians from making Belgian Kriek or British Sweet Stout, for example, no one seemed to mind. Now, if the Germans want these specialities, they can import them”.

Beer fans are aware, many of them, that since the 1500’s Germany has had a form of “pure beer law”, the ReinheitsgebotThe law has a long and complex history which, in the context of a quotidian blog, I will summarize as follows: in 1516 two dukes in Bavaria enacted a law that required for brewing only three things: water, barley and hops. Yeast was not mentioned, probably because beer was often fermented by wild yeast, or if yeast was regularly harvested from ferments and reused, it was taken for granted as necessary to produce alcohol. Also, barley is specified, not barley malt, but one can infer barley malt was meant as this has been the interpretation of the law for hundreds of years. Also, it is extremely difficult in practice to brew from 100% raw (unmalted) barley.

Bavaria was smaller then than now, and the law initially did not apply in other German lands in the south, and in the north. In brief, the law was extended to these other parts progressively as Germany unified, becoming a national measure only in 1906. In 1918 after WW I, the reconstituted Germany agreed to accept the pure beer law when Bavaria insisted on it as a condition of entry.

Northern Germany had its own beer traditions. Many of its beers used herbs, fruits or other ingredients not allowed by the pure beer law. Eg a beer called Lubeck used, in addition to conventional ingredients, oatmeal, beans and a variety of herbs, possibly attesting to the pre-hop era when, as in Britain and elsewhere, a wide variety of flavourings were used. Some beers used unmalted grains as a fermentables source, as Belgian wheat beer (wit) still does. Once the pure beer law became writ in these areas, these beers disappeared, as did the use of rice in some German lager in the north.

Before 1918, the law was referred to as the “surrogates law”, that is, a law banning substitutes in brewing. Only when Germany re-federated in the wake of WW I was the law referred to as the purity law, which is the meaning of the term Reinheitsgebot.

It has been stated by some writers that the original law was passed partly or wholly to protect the bread market from competition with brewing, in effect to protect a staple of the people. In general, barley is better suited for brewing than baking. Wheat contains a large amount of gluten and other proteins. Gluten is not generally desirable in brewing but suitable for bread and other baking.  Thus, the “allocation” theory has a surface attraction, as does a trade protection theory which has been bruited. These are theories and inferences, not clearly established by period sources as far as I know. One can as easily infer, or I do, that the first pure beer law was a quality measure. Possibly the law had multiple justifications, this does not of itself remove the basis for its continuation in Germany.

The law evolved over time to take account of a number of factors, primarily the existence of a wheat beer tradition (reliant partly on malted wheat) which took root in the royal court in the 1600’s. Also, top-fermentation brewing survives as a vestige in German brewing, notably the alt and kolsch beer traditions. Top-fermentation brewing, reflecting its artisan roots, always used a broader range of ingredients than bottom-fermentation (lager) brewing. The modern pure beer law, last changed in 1993, permits for such beers certain sugars and malted grains other than barley malt. In summary though, for lager brewing, only barley malt may be used, no other source of starches, e.g., corn, rice, unmalted barley or rye, and no sugars. Even in top-fermentation brewing, no raw grains can be used, they must be malted.

In the early days of North American craft brewing, the pure beer law had a huge influence. Most craft beer was and still is made from all-malt. The Brewers Association, the national group which represents U.S. independent small brewers, until 2014 required that member breweries have an all-malt “flagship” beer. This requirement was changed in that year to permit old-established regional breweries to join the BA which had always used a measure of corn in their main brands. Nonetheless for 35 years until then, the growth of the American craft beer movement was built mostly on all-malt beer, a momentum which carries on to this day and has provided a boost to quality brewing in England and elsewhere around the world. England also required beer to be all-malt until 1845 when sugar was first allowed in brewing. Later in the century, a “free mash tun” law permitted grains other than barley to be used in brewing as well.

In 1987, the European Court of Justice decided that the pure beer law, while still valid for Germany, could not be used to prevent import and sale of beer which didn’t meet the law’s requirements. To do so would be to countenance a trade barrier inconsistent with Germany’s free trade obligations under the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Nonetheless, Germany’s beer market, reflecting in part probably cultural and historical factors, is still largely a domestic one, which hews to the law loyally except for some exports. It is my perception that the exports typically encountered in our area comply with the law. I had a Holsten Premium last night which so advertised on the label and had the full clean taste I associate with an all-malt beer.

Many argue the German pure beer law is no longer necessary if it ever was, that it restricts unduly the range of beers that German brewers can make, and in any case doesn’t ensure of itself that beer will be well-brewed.

I would argue that the law is well-founded because all-malt beer is a gastronomically superior flavour and the long continuation of the law in Germany reflects that understanding, one that may (often) be tacit but is no less real for that. People do not have to know a lot about beer to appreciate its quality – it is only when confronted with a beer reliant on, say, 40% corn adjunct that they see the difference. Corn and rice contribute a high degree of fermentability to beer in contrast to barley malt, therefore primarily contribute alcohol, as does sugar. This is not to say various forms of these adjuncts don’t leave traces of their flavours  – they can in some cases – but all-malt beer in my own experience has a richness and full quality no adjunct beer has. True, if you use adjunct in very small amounts, or in very strong beers, the difference may be hard to detect, but adjunct use is a slippery slope as the history of American lager shows. What was 10-20% in the late 1800’s became 30% and today can be 40% or even higher.

People say some famous Belgian beers use sugar, as most British beer did even before adjunct lager became the main type consumed in Britain from the 1970’s. British ale however never used adjunct in the same quantity as American mass market beer. This assisted to preserve its character especially as it remained reasonably hopped to the present day. Anyway, what is suitable for Britain and Belgium should not necessarily apply to Germany. It has its own traditions and its beers, while certainly not all of high quality, in general have a roundness and drinkability which unquestionably in my view is linked to their all-malt construction. Even alt and kolsch beers are all-malt, and for good reason. Drink a German bock or dopplebock, most brands, and you may see why, but the quality is evident in all German beer IMO albeit specific formulas and house tastes won’t appeal to everyone.

Why did Heineken move to all-malt – returning to its 1800’s roots – 20 years ago? Because it knew this assisted beer quality and improved consumer acceptance. Would even Beck’s, which I like when very fresh, be better with 30% adjunct? I don’t think so. Adjunct beers have a characteristic dryness, a “starchy” quality that detracts IMO from their beer nature. One can argue adjunct doesn’t have to have this effect but I think it does, generally speaking.

There is no way craft brewing would have achieved the growth and world acceptance it had without being based on all-malt. American all-malt ales of the 1980’s, which simply restored the kind of beer typically encountered for most of the 1800’s in Britain, had a savour and richness of high gastronomic standard. It made people take notice. A good example is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Anchor Celebration Ale, or (in lager brewing) Sam Adams Boston Lager. But there are countless others which show why such high quality beer immediately made an impression – all-malt was a major part of this.

Pilsner Urquell is the classic all-malt pilsner, the biggest selling import in – Germany. If Germans didn’t recognize the superiority of all-malt on palate grounds, why would the Czech Urquell have such an honoured presence in its market? And this is nothing recent, the recognition of Bavarian beer as superior in Germany was attested by an article in the 1850’s in United States Magazine, called “History of Beer”. The author described how the “conquering Bavarian hogsheads” were replacing northern beers deemed suspect by their high strength or use of unconventional ingredients.

One can say today this was a naive inference from what the author was told or gleaned on a German tour, but he is clearly reporting common knowledge of the time. This is many decades before the pure beer law was applied nationally. The writer knew that northern beers were “beer”, but was of the opinion the German market was quickly abandoning them, once again well in advance of the beer law extending to all German provinces. The argument that a scheming law (so to speak) pushed out firm local favourites doesn’t hold, er, water.

All things equal, all-malt brewing sets a high standard for quality. It doesn’t mean good beer can’t be made from different ingredients, and I am all for such variety, but brewers who want to grow their market can never go wrong IMO by sticking to all-malt as their “flagship”. When beer becomes too reliant on adjunct, people may stop buying it – look at what is happening to mass market North American lager and light beer, it is a declining category. The Germans will be wise not to let that happen. I know that beer consumption had fallen in Germany in recent years (now somewhat recovered), but would the situation be better if brewers were allowed to use corn and rice in their helles and pils? I don’t think so.

I am all for introduction domestically of anything brewers want to make. Nuanced labelling can surely address the difference appropriately. Perhaps an amendment to the current law is advisable to permit such products to be called, say, “Non-German Tradition Beer”, or “Historical Tradition Beer”. If that is too close to the mark, the term “Specialty Beer” might work. E.g., “Specialty Beer (Non-German Tradition)”, “Specialty Beer (Historical Category)”.

Brewers can work with legislators, I’m sure, to come up with a solution. But that “beer” tout court in Germany should remain malt-based and using barley malt for lagers, I have no doubt.


A Century-Old Canadian Beer Gets a Road Test



The National Post reports today on a beer found recently in Halifax harbour after a sojourn of, oh, 100 years or so.

The sensory and technical results are very interesting. The reference to sulphur and burned barrel may refer to a taste imparted by the wood barrels of the day. At the time, barrels were often burned black on the inside to sanitize them – ergo the bourbon whiskey barrel as we know it today. Also, sulphur “candles” were inserted whose fumes masked off-flavours from organisms lurking the wood or items previously stored in the barrel.

It is not out of the realm of imagination for example that barrels used on the seaside had once held whale oil, herring or salt pork…

The “meaty” taste is probably yeast autolysis, as the expert in the article suggested. (The yeast in the bottle fed on itself due to the contents not being consumed in the intended time).

15 IBUs (international bitterness units) isn’t that much, however all the years resident on the seabed, despite a tight cork seal, may have altered the original hop taste. Even today a beer kept long seems to lose hop flavour and aroma albeit again all seems sealed up in a bottle with nowhere to go.

The panel seems to have concluded the beer was an India Pale Ale, very appropriate for the time and place it was brewed. An IPA called Alexander Keith is well-known in the area to this day albeit it is a sparkling ale of the modern type, probably rather lighter than the beer in the old bottle (but who knows).

All hail to Canada’s doughty scientists and tasters for trying a beer with a few years on it. I’d be game, too.


The image shown is a stock photo, sourced at www.novascotia.com.



Will Hard Soda Create Good Feelings?



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


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.


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?


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


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


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


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.