Stray Thoughts As The Year Closes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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