Lager and Ale

It occurs to me that a good subject for those monthly hosting sessions – where a blogger selects a topic for longer treatment by the Faculty – would be thusly: if you could choose on every outing to have the perfect beer experience, would you? Or would you rather negotiate the twists and turns of many bar sorties, i.e., where some or all of the beer inevitably is disappointing or middling? I think I’d opt for the former. When all goes right it induces a particular well-being rather beyond the efficacies of mere alcohol. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for seeking the wilder shores of beerdom: the inevitable founderings, and dull destinations, are off-set by the El Dorados found.

FullSizeRenderDurham XXX

A pint of County Durham XXX on hand pump today at Bar Volo was as perfect as cask can be: limpid at the sight, low bubble but just enough, full-tasted with English tradition written all over it. Not a single fault (oxidation, over-age, etc.) to mar the experience. Durham, long-established as a quality ale purveyor at the city’s eastern edge, rarely disappoints, but this particular pint of XXX was surpassingly good.

Later, in the Pilot a few blocks north, the new Mountain Lager from Side Launch Brewing Company in Collingwood, ON stunned by its rich clean malt qualities and complex, just-right Noble hop underpinning. The hops had a decided peppery note, not sure which sub-set of German hop mastery was employed here but the brew was like a fully-realized art work, in a word the apotheosis of the helles tradition.  Amongst the many qualities, there was no hint of DMS, a taste traditional for some helles and other blonde lagers to be sure, but which does not enhance top quality, IMO.

Side Launch Can

And so it was a two-run homer out there in the brewing fields.  The fine Canuck rock song, Kim Mitchell’s Lager And Ale, was ringing in my mind as I departed down the aluminum stairs, my decisions this time gave the very best results.

The metallic-theme decor of the Pilot reprises the look of the original location on Yonge Street, not far away.  During the war it was a resort of RCAF and other fliers training in the area, hence the all-time-zones 40’s-style clocks which festoon the main room and other period touches.

The Pilot, Toronto Image



(Thanks to my buddy Rick Radell for his kind help to improve the first image above).


Pilsner Urquell, a Towering Beer



Urquell is on top of the city, Toronto in this case, which is not to suggest it is the best beer in the city, but it is amongst them, certainly.  The rich, bitter-sweet taste, enhanced by a bare two months from packaging (per date code on base), is pretty much unique and also gastronomically very satisfying. There is a typical barley character to it, I recognize it in some other beers, that, matched with the Saaz herbal/flowery taste, is a unique stamp, one I recognize since starting to drink the beer in the 70’s.

We have never gotten it here in better condition, in fact. In James Roberston’s “The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer”, Caroline House Publishers, 1982, he described it thusly:

“Deep yellow color, huge malty hop aroma [compared to AAL, he meant], heavy body, marvellous malt-hop flavor with an attractive sour dryness, excellent balance between hops and malt. A fine beer, worthy of its reputation”.

True then, true now.


Mid-1930’s Hop Rates and Other Practical Brewing Data

A.L. Nugey was an American engineer and “brewing technologist”, a very savvy one judging by his Brewing Formulas Practically Considered (1937). I found the chapters on beer types, and brewing formulas or recipes, fascinating. His painstaking, hand-drawn chart in chapter XXV lists 15 beer types, often with multiple examples of each and is a snapshot of contemporary adjunct use and hop usage. The hop column shows the split between domestic and imported hops, sometimes only domestic are indicated, but never imported on their own. Alcohol by weight and extract renderings are given, with his assumed yields from the different “brew materials” (malt, flakes, rice, syrup, etc.).

The hops seem about from .6 -.9 lb. per barrel (31 U.S. gallons) depending on the beer style, but sometimes higher, e.g., one of the stock ales used 160 lbs domestic hops (only) per 100-bbls, so 1.6 lbs per barrel, comparable to a DIPA today and some IPAs.

Almost all recipes called for adjunct or sugars/syrups of some kind, one porter though was all-malt except for a liquorice addition. Elsewhere in the book he suggests that adjunct use should be 25%-40% although it’s the lower end usually recommended in the table. He seems generally opposed to all-malt on taste grounds, suggesting at one point people would find the beers too heavy and that good beer needs some adjunct; at the same time he cautions against using too much to avoid “thin, watery” beer.

Unfortunately, some would argue the mass market by the 70’s and 80’s was largely in that space due to reduced hop usage and (I’d think) an increase on average in adjunct or syrup utilization since the 30’s. Others would retort that that is what the market wants. The mass market beer type still has the great majority of all sales despite undoubted gains in recent years by the craft segment.

I’ve read that Sam Adams Lager from Boston Brewing Company, which is all-malt, uses 1 lb. hops per barrel. So if you poured a glass two-thirds full of the Sam Adams and topped it with any current mass market pale lager or light perhaps, I think that might get pretty close to a good, post-Volstead 30’s lager. True, Sam Adams uses all-imported Noble hops, but I think the overall character would be similar.

A fascinating text is Mr. Nugey’s with many nuggets, e.g., on pasteurization (he felt it essential but cautioned on how to get it right), filtration and clarity (he was a fan, on palate grounds too), and much else.

Back In Black

Still sailing on a Stygian sea, I essayed tonight O’Hara’s Stout on draft, served in exemplary condition at the Wallace. This was a joltin’ joe, not in the sense of abv (alcohol by volume) – the coffee implication stands in toto – but in palate as compared to the bottled one. The stout captured and tamed in glass seems rather a murmur compared to the full-tasted draft for which expresso-sweet is not too far a term. In kegged form too, the smoky quality, from roasted barley or malt, peals out as contrasted with the empyreumatic whisper issuing from the bottled variety.

Find the genie in the … draft is my beery reminder of the day. Draft over bottle was an axiom of pre-craft times.  The situation today is more nuanced, but still the old learning applies.

Tony, who has to be one of the best bartenders in Canada or anywhere, had some pointers on a “Black Velvet”, which is a blending of stout and cider. (Champagne is used too, sometimes). I’ve made a mental note but knowing from drinks history that these blends are usually done 50/50, I think I’ll depart from that given cider’s rather strong taste – 1:2 cider to stout seems about right. A concoction that may well please at the cost of entering wine-dark currents for the former Stygian, but such is the ebb and flow of malty peregrination.

It’s fixed in my mind now, one-third Pommies cider, two-thirds O’Hara’s stout.  Next time.

A Brace of Black

Pictured are the Lapatt Robuste Porter of Dunham Brewery in Quebec (à la gauche), and its incomparable La Petite Mort Imperial Stout aged in Armagnac, Cognac and brandy barrels.  These were all I tasted today from the Dunhamian draft and bottled bacchanal at Bar Volo which was held on Saturday, as I was out of town.  (A few beers are still available today; these are two).

I also got down some very good American pale ale with an assertive New World hop taste but “even-flow” on the palate, it reminded me in a different way of the skill Stone Brewery in California has with pale ale/IPA.


It is hard to overestimate how good the Impy stout was, a luscious rich glass of beer that spells strong porter perfection. It was equal to or better than Wells Young Courage Imperial Russian Stout, kind of a cross between that and Thornbridge’s imperial stout. I checked Ratebeer after forming my own conclusion, and it rings in at 99, which is no surprise at all but a testament to the good judgment of the Ratebeer crowd.

The barrel residuums combined to magical effect with the dark malts, imparting a dark fruit note yet avoiding the crude oxidative notes so many barrel-aged beers have (a kind of “degraded vanilla”  one might call it, although tastes vary in this area as most things concerned with the malt). The effect was like a fine estate dark chocolate dipped in some far out assemblage of old Madeira, old bourbon and scented brandies.

The porter, in the contemporary Irish style, was worthy with the typical “burnt fresh grain” notes. Faced with the Olympian achievement of the impy, its vocation was more as chaser, which it acquitted very well.

In general no one I met who attended the festival expressed anything less than awesomeness at the results.


The Monforte on Wellington in Stratford, Ontario

Montfort Beer and Cheese FlightIn Stratford, ON over the weekend, visiting the famed Shakespeare festival, we took in a couple of local haunts for beer including the new Monforte on Wellington cheese and craft beer café.  Minimalist yet stylish, the Monforte sums up everything good about the current beer-and-food scene, offering excellent beers (and Ontario wines) paired with selections of local cheese and charcuterie. Two cheddars were tasted, showing all the character one would expect from a café that is the outgrowth of a local dairy. Each had a rich, farmhouse flavour which bespoke the terroir that has informed the thriving dairy industry around Stratford for more than 100 years. These morsels were complemented by slices of summer sausage, the type long familiar in Mennonite country and previously unsung by bistros local or Toronto-ist to my knowledge.  The type chosen was particularly good or rather suitable for sampling by urbanites, as they were not as dry and ferociously salty as some of the classic types. One hopes local restaurants will offer more of the Mennonite and Germanic ways with sausage and patés of which the Kitchener-Waterloo region is deservedly famous.  There is a rich variety as can be seen at local farmer markets, but these are not often featured in our restaurants.

The beers were superb, an IPA from the new Black Swan brewery just a few paces away, and a wheat beer from Railway City Brewing Company in St. Thomas (further south toward the lake) which had a striking black pepper note and lively fresh cereal quality.

The Black Swan’s beers are being offered in a number of local pubs and I liked the porter especially, rich but on the dry side, all-malt I’d guess (no raw grains).

Stratford changes relatively little over the years at least in the centre, which is part of its charm, but additions like Monforte are all to the good.



New Beer Now Added for August 5 Recreation of Historic Beer Tasting in Toronto

In my July 8 posting I explained the background and goals of this tasting.  The tasting is described at the pub’s site as well, see

One beer, Steamwhistle Lager, appeared twice, this was intentional since some beers at the original (1944) tasting were offered in both draft and bottled form. The reason clearly was to allow guests to decide if the tastes differed and which they preferred. We felt we should do that with at least one beer and Steamwhistle was chosen. However, in further brainstorming, we decided it would be better to keep the Steamwhistle draft and slot in a new bottled one.  The reason is that whether draft or bottled, Steamwhistle is (commendably in my view) unpasteurized.  It should therefore taste the same in either form, perhaps with a minor difference in carbonation level. In the 40’s, the bottled beers would have all been pasteurized but draft was not. Comparing draft and bottled was more meaningful than today with craft beers such as Steamwhistle

Rolling Rock was chosen as the new beer.  This way too we now have 12 different beers, not 11. Rolling Rock originated in 1939, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was presumably available during WW II and could have been on the original list: other beers from Pennsylvania were included. Certainly it represented a type which would have been familiar to the tasters, crisp, refreshing, and light-coloured. Numerous lagers served would have met this description including Ruppert lager.

Thus, it is of the period, American taste of the day, and offers another choice for the evening. (We are aware the bottled one is locally brewed but in my view, this does not change anything, as the taste is very similar to Rolling Rock in the 70’s when I first tasted it).



Brugal Rum


The communications/public relations experts, Praxis in Toronto, organized a great event for Brugal rum in Toronto about a month ago at The Rum Exchange, a downtown bar and restaurant specializing in rum. This old brand of the Dominican Republic certainly shone in two cocktails served, I liked in particular the Manhattan. Two rums were featured, the 3-5 year old Anejo, and an older expression, Siglo de Oro, rich with wood character.  The cocktails were made with the Anejo which gave a good liquor taste without the other ingredients clashing.  The buffet table was lavish with cheeses and fine charcuterie, capped by a blue Stilton into which rumbullion goodness was percolating from an upturned bottle of Brugal.

There was a detailed presentation by the roving ambassador of the company, and he answered all questions accurately and fairly (based on my own knowledge of rum, which is reasonably detailed).  Then, two rums were served neat for discussion, the Anejo and the Siglo de Oro.  The rums are on the dry side, it is a house characteristic.

Tutored tastings after a relaxing cocktail and fine buffet are a great way to introduce people to a drink which seems to be better known every day.  Especially today, companies sense it is not enough to put a product out there and rely on a hallowed reputation for the category (rum, whisky, gin, etc.) or a long-established name.  Brugal understands that and will benefit surely by its focus on this kind of product promotion and education.  I must say, the one type of rum I’m not really fond of is spiced rum.  I was glad the rums offered by the company were not spiced.  Tasting rum as it comes from the aging barrel with assertive foods or in mixed drinks or cocktails provides plenty of additional flavours, one doesn’t need the spicing, although “your mileage may vary” and fair enough.

An excellent night and exemplary way to introduce an old drink to a wider audience.


The Lively Current Interest in Beer – Roots and Analogies

The current consumer interest in beer is becoming a world-wide phenomenon. Ask for “IPA” in the bars of any major Western city, chances are it elicits no special reaction. Parts of the world remain resistant of course, many tourist areas in particular, or in some countries with deep-rooted wine traditions.  Still, anyone who persists can usually find good imports even in these places, or a brewpub or two, to sate the desire for full-flavoured, natural brew. A friend reported recently that with only a little effort he was able to find excellent IPA and other craft beer in Barcelona and Madrid, for example.

Within my own memory, the appreciation of flavours and different beer styles was completely unknown in the larger culture. Not just that, it did not exist as a sub-culture. In England, CAMRA (the Campaign For Real Ale) and earlier, the Society For The Preservation Of Beers From The Wood, started a ferment which had broad repercussions in the U.K. and finally, indirectly at least, North America. But here around 1970, say, there was virtually no interest in beer apart from an understanding that the major brands differed somewhat. The consumer was expected to find one to his taste and stick to that – end of story. Advertising then, and still of course for much of the mass-market, was focused on various aspirational and other values: leisure, fraternity, tradition in a vague sense – the consumer was left to figure out the taste.  A former sales executive for a national brewer in the 1980’s once told me the attitude prevalent then in the business was, “you’ll sell what we make”. I asked him, how did they know what to make? He said, they just knew.

I think in part this was due to the fact that alcohol was understood as existing primarily to relax or even to intoxicate. Brewers and distillers knew that was what people sought primarily.  The means to facilitate that – a sweetish cereal drink with the bitter tang of what was originally a preservative, hops – was a secondary feature, not requiring justification or explication. Also, the temperance history of North America surely inclined alcohol makers away from flowery encomiums in their advertising. I’d think ad agencies were given a brief to be restrained in how they created appeal for the products, so as not to attract unduly dour government inquiry.

The vocation so to speak for beer and other alcohol to alter mood will always be so, yet a cult of appreciation had existed for centuries in the wine world – it was small and Anglo-centric, but the critical appreciation of wine has been accepted for hundreds of years and probably longer. I am sure classical studies disclose examples of a wine culture in this sense in Ancient Rome and Greece. Epicurean thinking has involved the twain of food and wine since at least its Greek avatar, but probably started earlier.

Whence then the origin of the modern critical reception of beer? A similar recent change attended the development of whisky. Re-reading the superb Scots on Scotch, ed. by Phillip Hills (1991, reissued in a new edition 2002), the answer was brought home to mind. Hills explains that in the 1970’s, a small group in Scotland, diverse in social origins, promoted interest in malt whisky and grew steadily.  Until then, malt whisky was little understood by consumers vs. the ubiquitous Scotch blends in which the “real stuff” makes a minority and qualified appearance. There is a fascinating cultural side to this, in that Hills compellingly argues the rebirth of Scottish nationalist sentiment and cultural pride from the mid-1900’s assisted the recognition of single malt whisky as a classic product and symbol of Scotland. The distillers picked up on this interest and saw the potential for good margins in a niche category. To get people to twig to malt whisky, which by definition was not a “brand” (it was craft-like – sound familiar?), advertisers sought to trumpet hitherto occult qualities: peatiness, sherry notes, a waft of briny sea, and so on.

Wine producers were doing this earlier but not for all that long. Initially, high end producers in Europe and California had a base among those who had learned about their quality, there was no lauding of terroir and grape varieties in consumer wine magazines – there were almost no consumer wine magazines. Bulk producers satisfied the broader market in various commodity classifications and that was that, this was especially so in France where people accepted wine as a birthright. It was Anglo-American and Antipodean connoisseurs via their wine clubs, gastronomy societies, small publications and other tentative means who helped establish wine as a bourgeois consumer interest. Finally, this approach transplanted to France, Italy and the other great wine-producing areas.

Where does beer fit in? It fits in very well in that CAMRA, the consumer writer Michael Jackson, the developing craft brewing industry in California and the home brewing movement created the broader interest in good beer which had taken root in the last generation for wine. Both malt whisky and beer developed a similar critical appreciation in this period. And just as for whisky and wine, beer advertising too, certainly that of the craft producers but increasingly for some products of the national brewers, started to focus on product attributes.  These covered e.g., notable ingredients, a unique taste, an interesting history (Belgian white, you say…?). In the end, what appealed to small and disparate groups initially became much bigger and the producers borrowed their language and enlarged on it. The history of so many things is similar, whether food products like cheese, olive oil or bread, or cultural phenomena such as blues music, visual arts, fashion.  It goes on.

Date Codes Are Your Friend

I’ve always found that with imported beers but also domestic craft beers, whether pasteurized or not (craft beers generally are not), bottled or canned, beers within 3 months of packaging offer a surer route to a good experience than an older beer especially one over 6 months old. There are always exceptions, and any beer drunk cold and without much attention to palate will be okay no matter (within reason) how old it is. But those seeking the optimal beer experience are advised in my experience to seek out beers as new as possible off the line, even strong, well-hopped and bottle-conditioned beers.

I am setting aside in these notes the experience of buying beers to lay down, or store. They are separate category but for beers intended for current consumption, it is advisable in my experience to buy and drink them as new as possible.

Some beers that are recently packaged may still offer an unsatisfactory experience. Damp paper oxidation is still a problem occasionally, for craft beers in particular. Other factors can explain this though, too much residual oxygen in the container, poor handling of the beer in bulk before packaging, poor storage or handling at the wholesale level, etc.

In general, craft beers, especially local ones but even from far afield, are more reliable than in the past.  This may be because more today are bottle- or can-conditioned.  A yeast presence in the beer can scavenge stray oxygen in the container, so can a substance in the interior lining of crown caps frequently used today.  Filtered beers are, IMO again, subject to faster degradation than unfiltered ones unless pasteurized. Perhaps too beers with a lot of hops or other flavours can disguise the damp paper or other faults lurking underneath so to speak. A retired brewer from a national brewer once told me that certain kinds of “soft” faults in dark beers are less apparent than in pale beers because dark malts “hide” them better.

It is a mantra that brown glass is more protective than green. Still, even brown glass will let in light over time. Cans of course are exempt from this but they conduct heat (and chill) much more effectively than glass, with commensurate risk for degradation. This is why even pasteurized imports seem superior, or IMO they are, when 2-3 months vs. say, 6-9 months from packaging. Jever cans in our market seem by by the date system currently to be about 10 weeks from canning date, Kovel too. They are drinking very well, with a full natural taste a lot of imported beers seem to lose after a few months in the can or bottle. Pilsner Urquell is the gold standard in Ontario of a very fresh beer showing its stuff. For years now, you can find these – I buy the cans only – at about 10-12 weeks from packaging and they always taste really good.

Most imported beers use a best-by system and a one year freshness window.  Urquell cans use a 9 month system: so, factoring out the year, add three months to the date appearing on the base and that is packaging date. Some bottles and cans have more delphic systems, or none at all, and in such cases it is can be harder to know how old the product is. Sometimes you can tell by a change in label design or simply by a spruce appearance of the label.

Finally, some beers of course will never satisfy no matter how new, simply because they aren’t your preferred taste. But all beers should ideally have a level playing field in the market. It offers the surest way to taste them as the brewer intended, and to make comparisons and judgments from there. The market isn’t perfect and never will be, but careful attention to the best-by or other freshness codes on bottles and cans in general will offer a better experience than simply buying willy-nilly.