The Master’s Will

Red Red (and Other) Wine of the Country

I had linked, but hadn’t reproduced, the 1967 Cafe del Sol menu discussed in my last post.

Below (click for perfect resolution) is the wine section of the menu. With regard to beers, there are only four, but Coors was highly reputed at the time – and better than today I can attest from personal experience. Two Mexican imports were available, one was Carta Blanca, available in the U.S. since the 1930s. It was included in the New York Wine and Food Society’s 1940s beer and food tastings I’ve discussed earlier.

What was El Paseo Gold Rush sparkling wine? Perhaps a bulk or house sparkling, given the price and the name: El Paseo is an historic Spanish enclave in Santa Barbara, CA.

Of the foreign wines, Liebfraumilch makes a de rigeur appearance – I recall my family buying it in this period, from Deinhard IIRC. Almaden was a domestic mainstay then, is it still? Note the taste note, precise and forward-looking, indicating region of origin (Santa Clara).

Only the Sauterne strikes a clearly anachronistic note, as the sweetness would not suit service for dinner today.

“Pink” wines are back in fashion. A French one was offered, a Portugal version, and two domestics. I haven’t been able to trace the Santa Nella, surely another California label of the time.

The note on Buena Vista’s Zinfandel is again in perfect pitch – Zin did become a California classic and the pedigree described is correct to my knowledge. Buena Vista was a venerable California winery of high repute, but today is not operating I believe. But many of the other names are as strong as ever. I always liked Wente’s chardonnays with their characteristic pineapple note.

Beaulieu, speaking of pedigree, needs no introduction. And everyone knows Louis Martini. These are classics of the California vineyards and restaurants like Cafe de Sol helped make it so with their forthright support for the local.

The 19th century poem included applies just as much today as then, Mondo Vino notwithstanding. The only modification needed is to substitute irrigation (often) for rain.

The legend “Cocktails” perhaps was meant ironically as none are mentioned, although the word might have meant the main types were available. But withal, this menu looked resolutely to the future of bibulous refreshment in America.

It is in striking contrast certainly to countless menus of the day, from tony restaurants and wine and food clubs, which featured wines of France and Germany, and sometimes Italy and Spain, to the exclusion of what was made in their own back yard.

Cafe del Sol struck no such pretensions. It introduced more gingerly the Mexican dishes hinted at in the building design and the menu graphics, but got there finally. The television news story linked in the italicized note in my post yesterday made it clear that in latter days the menu was fully Mexican, at least that was my conclusion.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from, and appears courtesy of, at the page linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Chile Relleno – ¡Olé!

Cafe del Sol Wowed Southern California

California pioneered many innovations in food and gastronomy in America. As a larder for the fruits and vegetables that are indispensable in good cuisine, as well as repository of a viticulture stretching back centuries, it has everything necessary to support good dining and good living. Did I mention its place on the long littoral of the Pacific, ensuring access to good fish and seafood from its full length? What it doesn’t have was shipped by fast refrigerated rail from “the East” and later by plane as necessary.

Hence its pivotal place in the history of wine and cheese tasting as I discussed earlier, its creation of an array of salads including the famed Caesar and Cobb salads, and its interest in market cuisine of which world-famous Alice Waters is avatar in Berkeley. California invented the Moscow Mule (1946, at the Cock and Bull Pub in L.A.), and the ancestor of the Martini (Martinez). It came up with the Bloody Mary. Oh, it had something to do with craft beer too.

It started the trend for “warehouse”-style restaurants of which the first was probably the Old Spaghetti Factory in the 1950s, a former pasta plant. Its eclectic mix of bare factory walls and pillars with old chandeliers, lanterns, and ceiling-suspended chairs created a new style in American and finally world dining.

(This alone created a huge industry in faux/distressed period piping and ductwork – in a word in industrial chic).

While California did not of course create Mexican cuisines, the propinquity of Mexico and large number of Latino residents whose cultural capital included foodways made it a natural gateway for Mexican food and fusion with American dishes.

Julia Child later in her life spent a lot of time in California especially the Bay Area, paying obeisance to the new trends after her own revolution in American culinary habits. We once saw her close up walking through a restaurant, I think in Sonoma, the mirthful smile just like in pictures.

And so by the 1960s, the earlier food traditions brought by the settlers from the East, more or less standard American, underwent modification starting of course with restaurants.

Still, to show an interest in Mexican food in the 1960s was unusual. Mexican immigrants were regarded as an underclass and their foodways did not receive much investigation from the culinary establishment. To be sure ethnic restaurants could be found, mainly Italian, German, and Asian of course, but Mexican food was a no-go. Even fast food stayed away until Taco Bell started to expand and introduce people to its simplified version of some Mexican classics.

But being the cradle of the American food revolution from the 1960s – c. 2000, California could not ignore the great storehouse of Mexican cuisine.

The way the new interest first manifested was how restaurants were named and designed. Thus, a Mexican ambience was created without necessarily offering very many Mexican foods.

The Cafe del Sol is a perfect illustration including the evolution of its menu. A 1967 menu is preserved in the archives of the New York Public Library. It shows that this restaurant, located initially in Montecito in a plaza – it later moved to adjoining Santa Barbara – offered a mild “casa” exterior design. The menu featured a similarly restrained Latin design motif.

When you look for the Mexican food, there is relatively little, but some. A couple of appetizers, one or two of the main dishes – I’m not sure paella qualifies.

But the elements of the future food revolution are in place. Apart from the building design and “atmosphere” being Mexican, as the menu explains, the first page is devoted entirely to non-food matters. It discusses the history of Santa Barbara and Montecito. It talks about winemaking in the area and some unusual 19th century history in that regard. It tells a romantic story. This didactic but charming style – they didn’t write like Beer Et Seq – would have appealed to an educated and aspirational middle class. Food became interesting, something to think about, enjoy in an enhanced context.

But most of the dishes were standards of national or continental cuisine: steak, sole amandine, frogs’ legs, coq au vin, beef burgundy. Only one main dish seemed Mexican: enchiladas with chile relleno and refried beans. But there was guacamole as an appetizer, probably familiar to many diners from its use in salads, and chile relleno again. The germ was there.

And look at the wines: California was solidly represented through its up and coming marquee names of Concannon, Louis Martini, Beaulieu, Wente. That was a harbinger of larger changes to come both in California’s world famous wine culture and food too. “Local” in wine encouraged a similar approach to food and ingredients.

In the mid-1960s, restaurants which stressed gastronomy, meaning its European and especially French roots, did not focus on local wines. Food and wine societies had made forays, but in general good wine meant nothing Californian. It was middle class restaurants that pioneered the discovery of the quality and distinctiveness of California vineyards. Indeed the trend started in the 1930s and even before as I explained in earlier posts but was delayed in … fructification by the Depression and WW II.

In later years, the Cafe del Sol’s menu became fully Mexican. The restaurant lasted until 2014, approximately a 50-year run, impressive for any restaurant. The site briefly became a conference locale, then was purchased by principals of the Magic Castle to become a further location for the well-known magicians night club and restaurant in Los Angeles. However, that has not occurred as yet as far as I know.

Looking back some 50 years, the menu of Santa Barbara’s Cafe del Sol seems rather dated. But it was actually ahead of its time, and the restaurant’s longevity proved that.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of California news channel KEYT 3 which featured a story on the Cafe del Sol, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Taproot of Canada’s Whisky Heritage

Yesterday, I mentioned E.A. Owen’s important early study, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement. His chapter on whiskey is worth reproducing (see below, via HathiTrust). It gives the flavour of whiskey’s importance in early pioneer life and for the rye and corn in its composition.

Owen mentions the migrating North Carolinian Davis clan in numerous respects, but does not mention their distilling history or John Davis’ implantation of the practice in Norfolk County in Canada. This was probably to avoid casting an important pioneering settler in a negative light, in the mind that is of late-Victorian Ontario.

The importance of rye and corn in distilling is highlighted. Readers may also consult pg. 370 of his book for another reference to these grains in whiskey-production. What this shows is that second-grade wheat middlings or other miscellaneous leavings of the mill weren’t always used for whiskey.* Often, purpose-grown rye and corn were mashed, grains familiar to Americans for spirit ever since the Scots-Irish and various Germanic communities had settled Pennsylvania and down into Appalachia from the early 1700s.

One third of Pennsylvania was German stock by the time of the Revolution, and Germans used rye in their own distilling and for breadstuff. Many famed Pennsylvania rye or other whiskeys had German-American origins including Michter/Bomberger and Old Overholt.

The origin of rye in American distilling may lie with them, especially as the korn distillates of Germany and some adjoining lands use rye as a base (e.g., in the Netherlands for genever, or formerly). The Ulster Irish came first to America though, some as early as 1717, and may have resorted to rye since, i) it grew well in Pennsylvania,  and ii) was not in competition for baking, as Anglo-Saxons always favoured wheat for bread.

Be that as it may, rye and corn were well-established in the North American distilling of whiskey by 1800, one need only consult the Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s distilling manual of the period, to which I have often referred.

Today, the County of Dover is one of Ontario municipalities, the main towns are Delhi, Port Dover, and Simcoe. Simcoe is the largest at some 13,000. It is named for John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, newly created in 1791 to accommodate specifically the needs of a settler community whose cultural specificity differed from the French element which dominated in Quebec. Hence the partition of the lower and upper St. Lawrence basin into Lower Canada and Upper Canada.

Simcoe allocated much of the land settled by Loyalists, to whose needs he was unusually attuned: this Eton- and Oxford-educated Briton had led loyal Americans in the famed Queen’s Rangers in the Revolutionary War.

And so the ironies of history: the British army and navy in the period drank brandy, rum, wine, and beer, depending on rank and availability. Whisky was then not an English drink (see my earlier posts and citations), meaning not typically one and not a military one certainly.

Yet the British army-supervised settlement of English Canada permitted the implantation here of a whiskey tradition. It was formerly associated with remote Scotland and Ireland and rural America especially on its frontier; the latter directly, and the former proximately with a possible role for German distilling practice, are the taproot of Canada’s whisky heritage.





*There is no question substantial quantities of wheat were also distilled in early Upper Canada. The economist Douglas McCalla has documented some of this activity in his articles, and other evidence attests to it including popular histories and antiquarian studies. For McCalla’s work, see e.g., the table for wheat production in his 1983 article, “The ‘Loyalist’ Economy of Upper Canada, 1784-1806”. At the same time, as I’ve mentioned earlier, American distillers were no less familiar with wheat for spirit as shown by Samuel M’Harry’s and other early distilling manuals, e.g., Harrison Hall’s (wheat has a good yield but “too high a price“). The choice of rye and corn finally as “the” distilling material in the U.S. and Canada was driven by the optimum cost/yield ratio and perhaps too a catering to the public sentiment that wheat should be reserved for bread. Still, some wheat was always distilled for liquor, “white wheat whiskey” was a commodity on both sides of the border in the late 1800s, for example.

The Distilling Davises of North Carolina and Ontario

Long Point, ON is a sandy projection in eastern Lake Erie which fronts on the townships of Norfolk County. They were settled by thousands of Americans after the Revolutionary War who came from the Canadian Niagara after making the crossing at Niagara River. They had petitioned Governor Simcoe for land to recompense losses for supporting the Crown in the late battles. Simcoe wanted to open up the area around Long Point, which was largely virgin forest and by its location and other factors felt suitable for settlement.

Many may not realize that not all Loyalists were Northeasterners: quite a few came from the south, as far afield as North Carolina and Florida.

R. Robert Mutrie is a modern local historian in Ontario who has placed online numerous materials printed in hard-to-find local publications. Some pertain to the Davis settlers of Long Point and can be read here.

The Davis clan originated in Orange County, NC and migrated to Upper Canada after an earlier, exploratory visit. John Davis set up a well-constructed mill and distillery in Norfolk County. Quite a few details are known, as the account linked above, The Davis Family of Norfolk County by James Stengel, shows.

There were two stills for example with a known capacity, the second smaller and obviously the spirit still. This is drawn from license records discussed by Stengel whose account is referenced in an academic fashion. John Davis was granted a licence to operate these stills in 1800.

What is further of interest is that the Davis family were distillers and brewers on their plantations in North Carolina. Stengel makes the point distilling was a family tradition, implanted to Canada.

This 1898 book, a well-known chronicle by Egbert A. Owen of early Norfolk County, ON pioneer life, explains that rye and corn were used in distilling. Numerous ads attest to the same appearing throughout Ontario in the first decades of the 1800s.

These grains were not the only ones used in early Ontario distilling but rye and corn feature prominently in many early accounts and ads. They were the basis as well of American distilling.

As there were at least 200 legal distilleries in Ontario through the 1840s, and as much of the province was settled by Americans, it is obvious general whiskey knowledge arrived here as a cultural acquis, given too that before the Americans came, whiskey, as I discussed earlier, was not a usual drink here.

But Stengel’s account is an example where specific distilling expertise came to Canada from the U.S. as well.

Note: Stengel calls John Davis a “pioneer distiller” in Norfolk County and a “pioneer industrialist”.


Liquor in an Early Ontario Catholic Community

Peterborough is a small city in south-central Ontario, north of the Lake Ontario rim, in the backcountry in the early 1800s. Its lands were allocated somewhat later than those along the lakeshore, where settlement by American Loyalists was the rule.

Peter Robinson, an early Canadian legislator, helped settle Peterborough by organizing the immigration of 2000 Catholic farmers mainly from County Cork. The details of their departure, the travails incurred and successes finally realized, were well described in a six-part series by Patrick Leahy in the Peterborough Examiner in 2015.

The atmosphere of Peterborough as it emerged in the 19th century was well-evoked in a series of articles in the 1920s by Francis Hincks Dobbin (1850-1932), a journalist and local historian. His son collected his accounts in 1943 in Our Old Home Town (J.M. Dent & Sons (Canada) Limited).

Given the father’s long life span, these provide a fascinating look at early Canadian pioneer society – one part of it – and its evolution. Clearly Dobbin had absorbed lore from older residents, reports that ring true based on other research I have done.

Dobbin was writing when liquor Prohibition in Ontario was still in force, as he mentions that liquor was not legally sold. He doesn’t state he was a teetotaller but seems in any case to have approved of tight controls on booze. He notes that the public attitude to alcohol changed from about 1850, compared that is to an early more liberal attitude.

Nonetheless his commentary is enlivened by a dry humour, as this story from the book shows.



How Dobbin would be amazed at the Ontario of today! The easy availability of beer, liquor and wine would shock him, given too it is sold in attractive outlets owned by the very government which had put an end to the liquor traffic in his day. (He would also be surprised that the close-fitting cap with “lugs” over the ears has come back as a fashion item, you can see them in the chic parts of town from Toronto to Tel Aviv).

Something of the presence of liquor in early Peterborough County can be gleaned from this extract from Dobbin’s book.

The reference to Cavan may have meant Cavan in Ulster, Ireland, a mostly Catholic community near the Irish border. There is also a Cavan outside Peterborough, but one way or another Hammon’s Irish roots are evident.

While Dobbin pays respects to the zeitgeist of the 1920s, some of his comments reflect an understanding that liquor played a measured role in society. He states that a decorum was observed when liquor was used on social occasions. A pour of “two fingers” was correct. Three was “ample”. To take more raised eyebrows. At the same time, he recounts the abuses. One problem in town was the “Irish Fighting Factions” would go at it: clearly the Irish Catholics vs. the Orange Irish. Even then, he states the enmity was not really serious, it was more to show who was the stronger group, as in a prizefight one might say.

Although Peterborough was not a Loyalist centre, Dobbin’s description of the “bee” system for barn-raising, house-building, and so on, is similar to that for pioneer communities closer to the lake: the pail of whiskey was indispensable.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peterborough today encompasses Peterborough County and a wider area as described in its website. It was formed in the 1880s but is an outgrowth of the Diocese of Kingston, established in 1819 from earlier Catholic presence. Despite all the social changes since Peter Robinson’s Peterborough, Catholic presence in Peterborough is still notable: the small city, c. 82,000, counts seven Catholic churches.

Finally, contemporary Peterborough, ON may have little resonance for our British readers, but one feature may interest them. Selwyn, a community within 10 miles from the city, houses the private Lakefield College School. Prince Andrew, Duke of York spent six months at the school in 1977 in an exchange program and has maintained ties to the school ever since.

Note re images: the extracts shown above were drawn from the book by F.H. Dobbin cited in the text. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Extracts are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Black Watkins – Porter and Elderberry

The Englishman George Watkins wrote a brewing manual, The Complete English Brewer, in numerous editions in the second half of the 1700s. He advised to use elderberry juice in making porter as it emulated in home conditions (he said) the aging of a large bulk of porter in commercial breweries.

You can read the passage here, see especially pg. 129, in the 1773 edition.

It appears the dark red juice was favoured also for the colour it lent, but clearly the sharp fruity notes were meant to emulate the winy taste old beer can assume. Watkins advised to place the juice in the cask as conditioning was being completed, and he instructs to drink it within about 15 days from bunging. Presumably the juice would not ferment out completely in this time and thus lend its full flavour, as he refers to “good body” in the drink.

A few modern brewers have used elderberry in brewing. A U.K. brewer actually made a stout with it, the name escapes me for a moment but it was sold at the LCBO briefly. It was nice but the effect of the fruit was faint, at least to my palate. The local brewpub, the Granite, made an elderberry porter a few years ago. It was nice but the fruit didn’t as I recall contribute that much.

When I heard that Sapporo-owned Unibroue brewery in Quebec put out an elderberry wheat beer – another fruit spin on its Wit series called Ephémère – I tried to get a bottle as soon as possible. The reason was I assumed the juice was added at the end of fermentation, as for Watkins’ beer, and I wanted it fresh before the sugars were used up. Ephémère is unfiltered and some conditioning must continue in the bottle or so I assume unless it is pasteurized now, but I don’t think it is.

I was not successful in getting a bottle near release, which was 4-5 months ago. I did find one in Montreal last weekend, and here is my impression.

The fruit notes were noticeable and in this case the flowers of the plant were added which contributed a Muscat note as the bottle labelling states. Withal it was akin to adding a dash of cranberry juice to beer. You get something sharp and fruity at the same time, a racy red fruit edge.

This element in porter would emulate lactic acid production from bacterial microflora in the aging vessels or brewery environment. Port was sometimes added to stout in Britain, and other fruity things, perhaps all an echo of the 18th century aging and blending methods which made for a sharp estery drink. The Black Velvet, a combination of Champagne or cider with stout, is broadly similar.

Finally, I added the glass shown to a Black Velvet I made, a blend of perry, Russian Stout, and black lager in this case. It was very good, the fruity or sharp parts from the wheat, pear, and elderberry blended well with the sweet malt and hops.

I wonder though if the elderberry taste in the Unibroue was muted after some five months aging. Certainly the colour lasted, as you see in the image.

You can buy elderberry juice, the ones I’ve seen are blends with cranberry. So just adding that to porter should make a Black Watkins, I’ll dub it. For hyper-authenticity, it should be added to a nearly full bottle of unfiltered porter or stout, stoppered and left to sit for two weeks. I may do this soon.

Caution re elderberry: based on my reading, the variety generally used for wine and jam both here and in Europe is not poisonous but most types of the genus are. This means the fruit should be cooked to ensure safety. Watkins’ juice almost certainly was a reduction by boiling and therefore had undergone heat treatment. I don’t know what Unibroue uses, but anyone proposing to make elderberry juice or a derivative product at home should ensure the fruit is cooked first.



Yankees, Whisky, Broken Heads, and Amity in Old Ontario

In a series of posts last month, I made what I consider a comprehensive argument that whisky in Canada has an American origin both as to the social custom of drinking it and the materials entering its manufacture.

Whisky of course is ultimately of British origin, Irish and Scottish*, but it implanted in the American colonies early and received in particular a boost from Ulster Scots immigration in the 1700s.

The page set out below (via HathiTrust)provides further support and context for this view. It is authored by John Mercier McMullen, an Irish immigrant of the 19th century who is often termed Canada’s first historian. It is from his History of Canada, issued in multiple editions in the 19th century. One may note its compressed but forceful explanation of the immense importance of “Yankee ways” in the early development of Ontario.

McMullen confirms what I inferred earlier, that the British settlers who arrived after the initial Loyalist and other American influx did not alter the social fabric of society. While McMullen speaks of “rural” society, it must be recalled that almost all Ontarians lived outside of Toronto then – the majority still do – and the province counted numerous regional centres of importance.

Rather than impose their customs, the British incomers adapted easily to “Yankee ways”. McMullen notes this was facilitated by a common ancestry (British) and language. Further in the chapter he mentions the numerous varieties of the Protestantism these peoples shared while noting some Catholic presence as well.

McMullen was almost certainly born Irish Protestant, probably in Ulster. In any event he understood well the cultural unity of the Anglo-Saxon groups he described.

He was born in 1820 and, unusually for his time, lived all the way to 87. He lived in Brockville, ON, a heartland of Loyalist settlement. The first edition of his History was published in 1855, and further editions appeared into the 1890s. Thus, he lived through the period when much of the history he wrote took form or followed upon events still within living memory.

For example, some Canadians who were, say, 80 in 1855 arrived as children with their Loyalist parents in the 1780s. And many Americans came here after the 1780s Loyalist migrations, so some were first-generation even in the 1850s.

A portrait of McMullen and some further biographical detail appear in this source, a webpage maintained by Doug Grant who is a local historian in Brockville.


*There may be a Germanic component to the first American whiskeys in the form of rye in the mash. I discussed earlier the theory that German-origin whiskey-makers influenced bourbon, see here.



Wolfhead Distillery

Appreciating vodka is a rather nuanced art: the vanishing point appears distressingly early. By this I mean, it is hard to distinguish among brands given the drink is a neutral spirit to begin with, indeed is subjected to further treatment (often by charcoal filtering) to earn the vodka designation.

Yet, differences there are. These can be discerned probably after a maximum of one drink. After that, the vanishing point has arrived. The palate is too numbed and the drink too clean to worm out (sorry) any further differences.

Still, a one-drink tasting, apart from its inherent decorousness, does offer the possibilities of connoisseurship.

So let’s talk.

The feedstock used – corn, rye, wheat, etc. – probably has some influence even if only in parts per million. The human senses of smell and taste can pick out very subtle differences. The water used, especially in proofing down for bottling, has an influence too. Demineralized water is often used, maybe distilled, but in practice the waters are not identical.

Other variables are the final distilling-out proof, which can vary slightly, and the type and other details of charcoal filtering. Some vodkas have a faint burned wood note from charcoal filtration, for example.

This leads me to the vodka pictured, from a craft distillery in Amherstburg, ON, Wolfhead Distillery.

The distillery is on the outskirts of a historic town on the lake, in Windsor-Essex County, a fertile farming region in southwestern Ontario.

The distillery makes its own vodka in a copper pot-and-steel or aluminum column still set up. It has whiskey aging but none to sell of its own since too young. It sells under its name a whisky sourced from Hiram Walker in Windsor, a mix of a well-aged corn whisky and a younger, five year old rye whiskey. (I’ll return to the whisky soon).

The vodka is extremely good. The base is wheat. I didn’t get whether malted grain or artificial enzyme is used to convert starch to sugar, probably the latter. It has what seems a light farina-like scent, and a creamy taste. There is almost no bite, no “alcohol” notes as many vodkas have.

The label states the drink is filtered with limestone but what that means exactly I don’t know. I was told the groundwater in the area percolates through limestone beds and this water is used in mashing. Whether pulverised or other limestone is used in some way in final processing I can’t say.

At $35 a bottle, it is worth the extra money and trumps the average Russian or Scandinavian import. I tried it at room temperature as I’m not sure that chilling wouldn’t reduce some of its distinctiveness.

The house sells a banana-infused version of the vodka, and a coffee-flavoured whisky, both are excellent with good natural flavours. The same applies to an apple and spice-flavoured whisky.

I didn’t buy the regular (non-flavoured) whisky as it is treated with wood chips and to my mind this took away qualities of the drink. It’s too woody IMO and the balance isn’t right.

The business grew out of a wood palett processing business in the area, which of course ties in to barrels or at least expertise in choosing them. It’s a pleasing transition, from one arborial-based pursuit to another.

The building is well-designed with a bar on one side and the retail counter on the other. There is a line of beers as well available at the bar, made by a brewery somehow connected to the distillery. I liked the IPA, but other beers need some work, IMO.

The still is behind the rear glass wall. An outdoor restaurant completes the picture. It should be very successful and I look forward to when its own whisky will be released. I was told that a rye whiskey is aging distilled at a low proof in the alembic, so straight in other words, and high proof spirits were produced using the columns and are aging as well. The rye whisky on its own, and a blend of that and the high proof whisky, will be placed on the market in due course. At least that’s how I understood it from the staff.

All good news, and a picture perfect example of the vitality of distilling in Ontario today.


A Few Beers at Goose Island Toronto

Below I comment on some of the beers at Toronto’s new Goose Island Brewhouse. I didn’t try them all and one, a cask English-style bitter, is not available yet.

The brewpub is situated downtown in a historic block on The Esplanade, adjacent to the business district and burgeoning young crowd condo area. It gets a good tourist trade as well in the season. I’ve included some images to give a flavour of the neighbourhood.

The brewery has a joint venture with Biermarkt, a beer house chain and restaurant in Toronto. Biermarkt has some good offerings, many are imports, and a good kitchen so the link up makes sense. The eastern side of the total space, formerly an Irish pub, is home to Goose Island and Biermarkt’s space continues much as before except an additional bar was added in front. The wall between Biermarkt and the old pub was opened to make one large space. The idea is people in the brewpub will tend to favour its beers while those on the other side have a wide range of imports (and other beers) to choose from.

There is a pleasant outdoor “garden” as well.

By any definition, it’s a beer haven – another in a town that offers an increasingly wide range of restaurant-format beer options.

Goose Island has established a number of these pubs around the world in the last couple of years. Its parent AB InBev bought the Goose Island brewery, founded in 1988 in Chicago, some years ago. The Toronto brewers, Bernard Priest and Marc Mammoliti, were most helpful to talk to and open about their approach and recipes.

Goose Island IPA and Honkers Ale are available, not brewed on site; all other beers are. They are described on the company’s site with well-drawn notes that largely save me the trouble of describing the tastes. But some personal impressions:

The ’59 Brown, 6% abv, is an American brown ale that is full-bodied, malty, with a blend of New World hops. It reminded me of the original Pete’s Wicked Ale but was better. The Off Season Lager was a Marzen style with an orange zest note and grainy, “cracker” quality. It recalls somewhat Holsten’s Festbock but with a freshness and appeal only a beer brewed on site can have. The German-sourced brewhouse is arranged in a U shape with seven gleaming cylindro-conicals arrayed behind the bar.

Cult Classic is a Munich Dunkel, well-made and rather like the dunkel from Collingwood, ON’s Side Launch: tasty but light.

The Mantis, a Double India Pale Ale, had all the advertised flavours (see the company’s note). At 8% abv it’s something to savour rather than drink by the pint. I’d call it a stylish strong American ale.

I had a taste from the tank of the Polish Grodziskie, known to some as Gratzer, 3% abv and made mostly from lightly smoked wheat malt, the rest is pilsener malt. It was first-rate, with a grainy character and faint, lemon-like acidity that is the marker of a wheat mash, malted or otherwise. I recall arguments in beer historical circles whether this style should be sour but the confusion may arise from a natural tang imparted by the wheat. Phenolics from the smoked malt may contribute as well.

The other four or five beers on the list must await another day for sampling.

All the beers were well-made and when I say that I mean the brewing gets the basic beer palate right. Some brewpubs and breweries make idiosyncratic products, often I feel due to not realizing what a “sound” beer profile is, or from shortcomings in brewing or storage. The beers I had at Goose Island were faultless in execution and most were in my personal zone of taste, as a bonus.

I visited the original Chicago brewpub a number of times about 20 years ago. The beers I had yesterday were much better than my experience at the original G.I. Some of those beers were wonky, not well-made in the sense I’ve indicated.

Whatever one thinks of big brewery purchases of smaller outfits, and I made my position clear yesterday, in this particular case, the buy-out resulted in better beers than 20 years ago.

To give some final context, while there are some good beers up the street at Batch, Molson Coors’ brewpub, on the whole I thought the five I tried at Goose Island Toronto were better. On the other hand, Batch offers the India Pale Lager brewed at Creemore which is one of the best in Ontario. As good as the (apparently) tweaked Goose Island IPA is, that IPL is better, IMO.

In my view, if a pub has just one superlative brew, it’s reason enough to patronize. In practice both places mentioned offer even more than that. It’s no different at most brewpubs in town and for the offerings of most craft breweries. Batch and now Goose Island Toronto just add to the choice and palate range. As well, each will focus on a particular demographic. It’s all good.



Loss of an “Anchor” of Craft Brewing? Hardly.

My Views on the Buy-out of Anchor Brewing and Similar Earlier Buy-outs

To expand on a tweet the other day, for the life of me I cannot understand how the sale of craft breweries continues to upset so many people. The sale of San Francisco’s local jewel Anchor Brewing to Sapporo, the large Japanese brewer, is the latest stimulus for discontent.

On various beer boards, blogs, Twitter, and other media the refrain continues that a stalwart of craft brewing, in Anchor’s case a pioneer, is being lost to “big brewing” or “big beer”. The implication, stated clearly or implied, is standards might change in the future, or the beer will be brewed outside the original site, and somehow the soul has been lost.

Arguments are also made that big breweries might out-price out small independents since they have the ability to buy raw materials in massive volumes, or to use their clout with distributors to winnow down competition.

The only part of these arguments I find persuasive is where there is a clear risk of anti-trust activity. Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) in a well-publicised article some months ago suggested a closer look be taken to ensure large brewers such as AB InBev don’t use their market position to unfairly restrict competition. If issues arise in that arena, I’m sure U.S. anti-trust officials and competition law authorities in Canada will be on the alert and initiate action if necessary. Private anti-trust lawsuits can seek relief from violations that hurt their businesses, and one or two lawsuits have been reported recently.

But I’m sure the large brewers are careful to examine anti-trust implications before buying small breweries or making other inroads in craft beer culture. I doubt any serious obstacles exist to the pattern we’ve seen to date.

I take the point sometimes made that disclosure is fudged when large breweries keep the branding and small brewery image of their acquisitions intact. On the other hand, I’m convinced most of the market isn’t that concerned with brewery size and source. Anyone with more than a casual interest in beer will find out pretty soon that, say, Shock Top isn’t a start-up from down the block or someone else’s block.

Further, advertising has always taken certain liberties, indeed for almost any consumer or business product. A little “puffery” as it’s known is expected, we live in a business culture that relies on the ability to market effectively and sell. That pays the bills, pays salaries, pays taxes. Consumers are not simpletons and I think most people, at least who take more than a minimal interest in who makes their food and drink, know to read labels and placards with a grain of salt.

The implications of the takeover critiques are often vague. Are the critics suggesting that the vendors of small breweries shouldn’t sell to big brewers? Who can they sell to then, assuming their children, if any, don’t want to continue the business? What about private equity funds? Someone in an unrelated business, is that okay?

The small and medium-size brewers who sell their businesses usually took big risks and worked for fairly minimal returns for years for lots of hard work. We live in a free market, more or less, which is what enabled craft brewing to begin with. I don’t think an implied suggestion not to sell to big brewing will get very far with people who worked for years to make products of integrity because they liked them and their customers did.

Is the idea therefore that consumers should stop buying craft beer once it falls under the aegis of big beer? Of course, if someone wants to support only small independent enterprises, that is their right. Part of the ethos of beer appreciation from the beginning has been to support the small, the local, the little brewery that could. It inspires some of my purchasing, but not all and I suspect at day’s end most committed beer fans want to buy products that are good and, often, well-priced. That means seeking them in different quarters.

Some critics have made the point that recipes can change. I’ve read Goose Island IPA apparently uses a different yeast than before the purchase and one of the hops has changed. Well, I think the new beer is better than it was before! I concluded that even before knowing there was some kind of change.

Buy-outs can make beer better. Upper Canada Dark Ale and Lager improved significantly IMO after Sleeman in Ontario (not part of a mega-brewery at the time) bought Upper Canada’s assets. And beer formulations sometimes change anyway, for a number of reasons, even when ownership does not. The current Stone Pale Ale is different than the original, I believe…

But often the beers don’t change or not significantly. I don’t think Creemore Lager has changed in the least, for example.

If it changes and I don’t like it, I won’t buy it, simple.

Looking at Anchor specifically, Anchor’s beers were pasteurized in any form even before this latest purchase, a process not typically associated with small-scale brewing. And Anchor wasn’t a craft brewer anyway in strict terms, it was founded in 1896. Fritz Maytag turned it into a proto-craft brewery after rescuing it from insolvency in the mid-1960s. In addition, Maytag sold out a few years ago to two individuals who formed an investment company. They had worked with a vodka business earlier, not in brewing…

Anchor did great spadework for craft beer, certainly. Its good work is evident in the form of the thousands of craft brewers in America currently and elsewhere indirectly. But the fact that at this juncture it has found a new home cannot hurt good beer in any way; rather, it will keep the brewery going for a long time. That is something which can’t always be taken for granted with businesses of their size, market, and ownership structure.

What started craft brewing was the idea to make a superior product. Brewery size in and of itself was not the driving factor. Great beers were made by very large companies in England, say, in 1980 and were lauded by beer fans and consumer beer writers. Almost all the Big Six were the result of a complex series of acquisitions and mergers over a long period, too. Where big companies made only or mostly bland stuff, they were taken to task by those who liked a more traditional taste, and rightly so.

Big brewers by making these acquisitions or setting up in-house craft brewing units are making beers which for 40 years critics said they should make. Now we don’t like it?

At bottom, quality is what counts, good beer that is, indeed very good beer. It can be made on any scale, by any type of business. I will buy such beers.

Finally, independent brewers will be incented to get a leg up by big brewery interest in “their” beer. It will impel them to innovate more, make better beer, and compete on being nimble. The buyouts hardly spell the end for small and medium-size brewers. People always want something new, creative, or just superlatively good. The small brewery down the block has an advantage that no big brewery can take away whether it makes craft beer or not.