A Beer Note Miscellany

Pilsner Urquell Still On Top

Pilsner Urquell is just out in our market in attractive new packaging, the bottle is now brown with retro-looking labelling, a change implemented some time ago in the U.S. The can design is new too.  Judging by the best-by dates, and factoring a 9 month freshness window which I understand the brewery uses,  both forms at LCBO seem hardly more than two months from packaging.  Each is excellent although I still feel the can is superior.  Urquell is an unlikely survivor from the 19th century and its current owner (SAB Miller) deserves much credit for maintaining its integrity.  In this particular case, terroir really means something as the malt and hop characteristics lend a unique stamp to the product.  I’m sure the yeast does too, but the special qualities of Czech barley malt and Saaz hops shine through and give it its defining character, in my view.

Labatt Porter Carries On

This is an old favourite I first encountered in the 70’s.  I had one in Montreal recently. The flavour was mild but good, not really roasty but more a dark chocolate-licorice taste, rather sweet though, almost like Coca-Cola.  It tasted possibly all-malt, or all-malt plus a sugar addition.   One always hopes for more character in the mass-market products but this is a good beer from a large powerhouse, and idiosyncratic in nature, which fits into the current ethos perfectly.

Labatt Porter 2015 image








Mountain Lager

Side Launch Brewing Company in Collingwood, ON has just released Mountain Lager, I’ve seen it so far draft-only at Bar Volo in Toronto.  5% ABV and apparently a keller-style although the one I had looked perfectly clear.   This is one of the brewery’s best beers right out of the gate: rich, flavourful, tasty, Bavarian helles in style (vs. Germanic pils, IMO) but without the “sulphur springs” DMS taste so many of these (there and here) have.  A real winner courtesy the company’s master brewer Michael Hancock – and if anyone ever deserved that moniker Michael Hancock does, he is a legend in Ontario brewing circles and did much to install a quality beer culture here decades ago when at the helm of Denison’s brewpub in Toronto.

Dora Keogh Irish Pub and Gary Gillman to Recreate Upscale 1944 Beer Tasting August 5, 2015

In September, 1944 The Wine and Food Society, Inc. of New York held a “Tasting of Beers, Ales & Stouts” at the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue in New York City.  As accompaniment to the beer, a variety of foods was offered: smoked fish, marinated herring, smoked hams,  brandy-flavoured blue cheese, authentic Swiss cheese, “Devonsheer” (a type of dried bread or cracker), and popcorn and nuts.  The provenance and quality of the foods were carefully noted, as one would expect of a gastronomic society.

I found the menu while perusing the historic menu archive of the New York Public Library recently.

The Society’s main focus, as indicated by its name, was wine, but occasionally beers and other drinks were explored. And so it was on September 28, 1944 that Society members with an interest or curiosity about beer entered a Waldorf salon to sample the “malt”. The organizing committee, composed of three ladies, did excellent work. They selected 18 beers, both draft and bottled. Some were the same brand, no doubt so the guests could appraise any differences.  Almost all beer styles then usual were represented. The menu contains modern-sounding taste notes such as “sparkling old-time”, “all-malt”, “full-bodied”.

On August 5 Dora Keogh Irish Pub and I will present a recreation of that event. The Program can be seen here: Beer Tasting – August 5, 2015

The 1944 tasting is nothing less than fascinating. First, it was held during the war. This may explain the all-domestic beer choice except for Guinness, which was probably pre-war stock. This Guinness was almost surely the”Foreign Extra Stout” brand, unpasteurized and with residual yeast, so any extra time in the cellar was benign or a boon.

The vibrant, post-Prohibition New York-New Jersey beer scene afforded numerous lagers, ales, and stouts for the tasting, famous names such as Ruppert, Rheingold, Trommer. The Committee also reached further afield, to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, for beers clearly regarded as having cachet. The reputed Prior Light, a pilsner-style, and Prior Double Dark, a pre-craft Czech or Bavarian dunkel-type, were on the roster.

The tasting, if one allows for some period language, could easily be given today. Such was the foresight and creative thinking of those who organized something around 40 years before it became common to do so. Independence of mind they certainly had because not only would some Society members have objected to “tasting” beer, society in general tended to view beer as not worthy of prolonged musing. It’s an attitude that endures to this day. But the Society cast aside all such irrelevancies and forged ahead to take on beer as a gastronomic subject.

The event at Dora Keogh Irish Pub on August 5 is intended to recreate and imagine how the original guests enjoyed a gastronomic adventure of a different kind, and to honour an early foray into reflective beer appreciation. Mostly Ontario  beers will be selected, and the food similar in type or spirit to what was served at the original event. Beers will be offered from breweries of different sizes although the preponderance are craft beers. As different-size breweries were represented at the Waldorf tasting, we wanted to follow suit.

I will write in the future on other aspects of the 1944 tasting, such as the influence of the wartime context, and a more elaborate beer event the Society held a few years earlier – one whose taste notes read like an extract from a top beer or wine writer of today.

Meanwhile, beer or wine fans in the Toronto area should consider buying a ticket for August 5 – it is expected to sell out.

Cask Beer Over The Summer in Perfect Surroundings – Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto

Sipping at Bar Volo tonight the new Mountain Lager from Sidelaunch Brewery in Collingwood, ON (a real winner, soft and rich), I learned that Cask Days, the Morana family’s long-established and essential, annual Toronto cask beer festival, has partnered with Evergreen Brick Works to present cask ales, and some cider, at the Sunday farmers’ market.

The feature will run from July 12-September 13 of this year, each Sunday from 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.

More details here and note the stunning art work!  http://www.caskdays.com/blog/2015/7/6/cask-conditioned-beer-at-evergreen-brick-works-sunday-farmers-market

All beers and ciders will be served by gravity as at the wonderful Cask Days festivals.  I can’t attend the opener this Sunday but will be there the Sunday following.  It’s a great notion, fitting in perfectly to the ethos of the farmers market.


Thomas Hardy’s Ale – Hale and Hearty In Its Mid-30’s

John Maxwell, restaurateur par excellence in Toronto (Allen’s, Dora Keogh Irish Pub), rang me up and said I’m intent on opening a Thomas Hardy’s Ale brewed 34 years ago. We met posthaste and the bottle indeed showed it was brewed on July 1, 1981.   We met on July 1 just past: it was exactly 34 years.

Image Provided by John W. Maxwell

The beer poured very dark, darker than I remember it when new (oxidation?).  It had a rich coffee and Madeira odour, and tasted very much in this vein, with a slight lactic note.  No (acetic) sourness, no damp paper oxidation.   John noted some vegetal notes, which I thought might be autolysis.   But the palate was very “logical” in its way, it all made sense…

A lovely drink of beer, “sound old” by my lights, i.e., what the devotees in the 1800’s of old ale would have regarded as right proper old beer.

A rare experience and a grateful one for me.  Beer is funny, six months can go by and render a 6% ABV beer undrinkable from damp paper oxidation or vinegar spoilage – here a 34 year old beer, albeit much stronger, was like those bands which go out 25 years after their bloom of youth and prime – older, wiser, still good but in different ways than of yore, withal delivering top value.

Welcome to My Beer Blog

I began studying beer as a hobby back in the 70’s.  (Yes, in one of H.L. Mencken’s memorable formulations, I even “got some down”, and still do).   By studying, I mean I bought a lot of magazine and books, both consumer books describing tastes and styles as well as tomes on how to brew beer in a commercial setting.  I’ve never brewed at home, while having great respect for those who do.  I did a weekend, hands-on brewing seminar in the 1980’s with William (Bill) Newman in Albany, NY.  Bill founded one of the early craft breweries.  This enhanced the book knowledge I was acquiring, as did countless tours of production breweries.

I’ve also travelled quite a bit with my wife Libby, mostly in Canada, the U.S. (most regions), England (extensively), France, Belgium, and once in Germany, Austria, and Czech Republic. On my travels,  I had the chance to try a lot of beers and develop a good understanding of beer styles and the related culture, extending to the cuisines which accompany beer in its heartlands.  For a time I concentrated on cooking dishes using beer as an ingredient, dishes scattered in books from North America, the U.K., France and Belgium, and one day may write a book collecting these recipes.  Chicken with beer sauce spiked with genever gin, anyone?

A key point in my beer education was meeting the late beer authority Michael Jackson on many occasions.  Indeed Libby and I travelled with him for a week once, in the early 1990’s, to explore the brews and beer culture of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in France.  I am privileged to say he mentioned me a couple of times in his writing.  He was a key influence on me and I never would have developed the kind of interest I did in beer but for him.  One of the things I learned from him is that beer doesn’t stand alone, it exists in a social, economic and cultural context and understanding beer well means exploring many facets of this larger world.

Of course, I followed craft brewing closely from its earliest days in California.  In addition, I have always had a deep interest in beer history.  I have contributed a lot of comments over the years on blogs of people I admire greatly who focus on that area, but also on the blogs of many other beer, and food, writers.  Many of them, with others, encouraged me to set up my own blog, and finally I have done this.

I intend to explore every facet of beer as I have come to know it but also stretch beyond that occasionally into other drinks, and food.  For some years I learned about bourbon and Canadian whiskey, and travelled extensively to Kentucky where the bourbon industry is centered.  I was named Bourbonian of the Year a few years ago by www.straightbourbon.com, the leading consumer bourbon site in the world.

I hope you enjoy my particular take on what beer and “et seq.” are all about.