2011 Canadian Brewing Awards

Full list of winners at the link – That should keep you busy for a while.

Nice to see lots of my old favourites going home with hardware, as well as plenty of beers I haven’t yet had the pleasure of trying. For anyone reading who doesn’t drink beer, or drinks only one or two specific beers, a quick browsing of the categories should give you an idea of how broad the Canadian brewing scene really is. I’m sure I’ve said it before – Beer need not be boring, and this is proof of that.

Also of note – at the bottom – there’s an “Experimental Beer” category. Glad to see some crazy ideas recognized. Cheers to all the winners!

Amster’dam Good Evening

For a place that prides themselves on “Amster’dam Good Beer” they put on a damn good party too.

The other night I was in attendance at the final Open Roof Films of the season, where The Junction played followed by a screening of the documentary Eco-Pirate. Amsterdam provided Blonde, Big Wheel and 416 Wheat on tap in abundance.

I feel a little cheated that this is the first time I had heard The Junction, who are finishing up their third album. Local to Toronto, they have an approachable pop-rock sound that’s really catchy and fun. Framed by the white movie screen and the CN tower in the background, it was an excellent performance. I’m always wary of going to concerts where I don’t know the band, but the great sound quality and memorable tracks The Junction played made even the uninitiated feel as comfortable as a super fan. If I had to pick something wrong about the night it would be that the chairs set up for the film screening were in the way of getting up and enjoying the concert on your feet. It feels a bit unnatural to sit when the band is so easy to get up and move to.

As for Eco-Pirate, I have to admit I went in not expecting to enjoy the film. The Hot Docs People’s Choice pick chronicles Captain Paul Watson and the crew of the Sea Shepherd as they hunt for illegal whaling operations around the globe. From his early days at Greenpeace to breaking out on his own, the picture gives an interesting look at a very unconventional environmentalist. Expecting a gushing, sappy, save-the-whales film that painted Watson as a folk hero, I was pleased to see him presented as human and flawed. Controversial (and illegal) as his tactics may be, it’s hard to disagree with his cause and that’s what makes the film interesting. I also found it interesting how the movie showed his relationship with his daughter and ex-wife. Watson is a man so hell-bent on a singular goal that his personal relationships seem to suffer for it.

Thanks again to Amsterdam for the free pass. They, along with many other breweries in this city have figured out that while beer is good, beer with culture and food is better.

Beer & Food

A long while back The Beer Store handed out these little paper wheels a bit bigger than a coaster. You could rotate the one side of the wheel to the type of beer you were going to be drinking and the wheel would reveal food suggestions that would pair with that beer. These wheels were designed by Roger Mittag.

Roger Mittag, The Professor of Beer, Guru of Brew* with an Insatiable Thirst for Knowledge does something interesting if you ever have the pleasure of attending one of his tastings. He does an excellent beer and cheese pairing. Don’t make a face until you’ve tried it – he lines up several beers and a few cheeses and you move from light to dark with the beer, tasting various cheeses along the way. If you’ve only ever really paired cheese trays with wine, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

Beer and food pair very well. When most people pair specific snacks or meals with alcohol, most people think wine. Although wine and food do go well together, don’t discount beer as a valid option the next time you’re having dinner.

Much like wine, you can pair beer to complement or contrast the taste of your meal. Beer can also cover a much broader range of meals. Being a red wine fan, I save the bottle for another night when I’m thinking of a spicy dish. But a nice crisp lager to cut through the heat? Excellent idea!

*Gonna take full credit for “Guru of Brew”. Catchy. And yeah, go read Roger’s blog right now.

Give a Pint, Get a Pint

If you happen to live in the San Diego area, Stone Brewing is having a glorious event called “Give a Pint, Get a Pint” in support of their local blood bank.
Since drinking alcohol is…ill advised when you’re low on blood, the promo works like this: Donate blood, get an empty pint glass. What a great idea! Donating blood is fairly simple, and fairly painless for those without fears of needles, plus who doesn’t enjoy the chance to show their love for one of their favourite micro brews?
“Every blood drive we’ve had here at Stone has been among the most successful the San Diego Blood Bank has ever held.”
So, Toronto brewers, do you have a response? Mill Street? Steamwhistle? Spearhead? Amsterdam? Anyone? Who wants to step up for charity and help organize a blood drive? I’ll roll up my sleeve.

Pink Beer

From this opinion piece in The Globe and Mail regarding Molson-Coors’ strategy to get more women drinking beer with a pink..umm…lager, I guess:

“Women are an essential part of future growth for the beer industry and can no longer be ignored. We need to repair the reputation of beer among women by launching products that meet their needs.”

Molson’s website adds:

The 4% ABV beer is lightly sparkling and finely filtered with a delicious, fresh taste. Animée will be available in three variants: clear filtered , crisp rosé and zesty lemon. The new brand positioning aims to dispel the perception among women that all beers look and taste the same and that there is nothing to tell them apart. The positioning is supported by Animée’s unexpectedly sophisticated appearance and delicious, fresh taste.

Well, Molson, maybe if you took that opinion to heart and actually represented women in your beer commercials in a way other than scantily-clad, bleached-blonde, “man-venture weekend” supervisors, you’d find yourself sharing in some of the success smaller brewers are finding with female beer drinkers.

To be entirely honest, I see women in beer commercials serving a very limited role.  If they’re not the supermodel supervisors of a weekend getaway aimed at men, they’re simply there. Eye candy at the cottage or bbq that don’t serve much of a role in the proceedings.

You can’t alienate a demographic with one commercial and win them over with another. It doesn’t work like that. Pink beer might get you a small segment of the market who will buy anything coloured pink, but you’re going to push away another (I suspect larger) market of women who just want to be treated like beer drinkers with pallets like anyone else.

And as for dispelling “the perception among women that all beers look and taste the same and that there is nothing to tell them apart”, I invite anyone of that opinion – man or woman – to join me at the pub. We’ll hunker down somewhere with several taps and sample glasses.

As some additional reading, there are actually lots of women that are involved in the brewing industry beyond drinking.  Cheers!

International Bitterness Units

Much the way you measure the strength of hot peppers, you can gauge how hoppy and bitter a beer will taste by it’s IBU rating. Although no scale is really the final test for a beer, (gotta go get a pint of it!) it’s an interesting statistic to start with when you’re trying to decide if a beer falls within the range your pallet is used to. I won’t expect to convince many Coors Light drinkers to enjoy Atomic Smashbomb right away, but maybe something slightly higher on the IBU scale than they’re used to would be doable.

Here’s some beers I’ve enjoyed and how they rank, from least to most “bitter”:

Mill Street Organic Lager - 14
Steam Whistle Pilsner - 21
Amsterdam Stout - 32
King Brewery Czech Pilsner -38
Duggan’s Brewery #9 IPA - 55
Spearhead Hawaiian IPA - 60
Durham Brewing Hop Addict - 85
Stone Brewing Arrogant Bastard - 100+ “classified”

Clearly an abbreviated list, and for many lighter beers (I’m surprised I could find an IBU listing for Organic) it’s not a defining number.  ”How hoppy is this beer?” is sometimes like asking “how spicy is this orange juice?” It doesn’t really apply.

Now, a few oddities that might require clarification:

Yes, you see a stout closer to the top of the list in the same area as pilsners and light lagers. That’s because the dark rich flavour you’re getting from the stout isn’t traditionally a bitter, hoppy flavour. That taste comes from malted barley, not hops. Malt gives you those chocolate and caramel notes.

Spearhead Hawaiian IPA lists as more hoppy than Duggan’s?  Well, yeah. It has a kick of hops to it, but that aggressive flavour is mellowed by the pineapple you get a hint of on the finish. You lose the edge on the bitter by tasting the sweet.

And of course, Arrogant Bastard doesn’t seem to publicize their IBU, as part of their “we are the most aggressive beer on the planet” style marketing. (Don’t let them fool you – denying you do a lot of marketing is marketing. To the brewer’s credit though, their beer does speak for itself. Also, most of the awareness they tend to generate is for either their pub or the craft beer community as a whole.)


The Guys from Spearhead

The guys from Spearhead and I rolled into Victory around 9:30. Their bright orange van is parked up on the curb out front. As we make our way to the back of the bar, none of them are speaking. Their ears are attuned to that familiar phrase in any pub:  ”What’s on tap?”.

Omar is a true believer. Anyone lucky enough to catch his attention while they’re pondering draft gets a pint of Hawaiian India Pale Ale to try, plus a hat if they love it – and people who don’t are few and far between.

He tells me that when he first tasted Spearhead, he knew it was his favourite beer. It’s not hard to see why after one sip – and one sip tends to be all it takes to convince people to make it their second and third beers.

Spearhead has been hitting the summer festival circuit hard. Omar tells me what he’s finding is that at the tastings, maybe one or two people out of 100 make that previously familiar “eww, this beer is bitter” face. Most people light up and come back for more. At only nine weeks old, they’re available in more than 50 bars in Southern Ontario, many of which are right here in Toronto.

This love for IPA’s in general is something that you wouldn’t have seen in Canada even ten years ago. However, the guys from Spearhead don’t believe they’re capitalizing on a trend, they see the Hawaiian IPA as their flagship. A year round brew that will one day be the centre of a larger family.

“Yes, we could ‘do one thing really, really well,’” Omar said. “But…we do. So lets do more.”

I have no doubt that one day this will be true.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying their Hawaiian IPA yet, seek it out. I’ve seen these sales reps convert Canadian and Coors drinkers, which honestly shocks me. The beer is cloudy and unfiltered, with a deep amber colour and a rich soapy head.

The smell has a hint of the hoppiness as well as the sweetness that will follow. It’s dry, it’s bitter, and then there’s a bit of pineapple juice to take the edge off.

When they talk about pairing it with food, they run the entire spectrum. Spicy,  light, stews, salads – anything goes with this diverse ale.

Everything about Spearhead is carefully thought out. The bright orange van, the t-shirts, the swag, even the glassware only came out after bringing their beer to the United States and tasting it in several different shapes of glassware before settling on the tulip glass.

Kate enters the bar closer to 10:30 and after scoping out the taps, finally deciding on the Spearhead.

“Oh…”, Kate’s eyes widen, surprised, as she takes a second sip. “I could drink far too much of this.”

Her reaction is typical for the night.

Happy IPA Day!

Well, it’s almost over now, but there’s till time to enjoy some of your favourite India Pale Ales.  Bar Volo has a bunch on tap to mark the occasion.

India Pale Ales are such named because they have a high enough alcohol and hop content (both preservatives) that they could withstand the  boat trip the long way from Europe to India around the southern tip of Africa without going bad.

So enjoy it!  The humidity has broken and it’s a perfect patio day!

A Work in Progress

This is very much one of those projects that can never truly be finished, and I’d love to hear some recommendations. This map will become a permeant link in the sidebar.

It’s a map of pubs and notable beer locations in Toronto. As you recommend and I discover, the map will grow. One correction that needs to be made already – Smokeless Joe has moved, and I need to add their new location.

Not that it’s exactly difficult to find a pub when you’re out and about downtown, but I’m thinking of what kind of details could be added. How many taps do they have? Do they serve craft beer exclusively? Is it Ontario craft beer? Food quality?

Trouble Brewing at the Beer Store

I had this brought to my attention this morning. Smaller craft breweries want the province of Ontario to intervene and do something to make it more appealing for independent brewers to list their beer at the Beer Store.

(Something that shocked me – and maybe this is because I tend to frequent the LCBO for my beer – is that the article states 85-90% of all beer in Ontario is sold at the Beer Store. I figured it might be just a bit lower than that.)

For those unfamiliar, The Beer Store itself is actually owned by Labatt (49%), Molson (49%) and Sleeman (2%). It currently costs $77,000 to list a single beer across the Beer Store (plus your own costs for brewing, bottling, packaging and shipping). The Beer Store sells your beer and keeps a running tally of how much it owes you, and then pays you back on a monthly basis. You can easily see why this is a problem for smaller breweries which may produce excellent beer but just float by because of a lack of awareness and sales.

Sadly I’m not sure the other extreme is the correct solution either. Being able to buy beer at grocery and corner stores is convenient in the states, but selection and quality varies widely from store to store. You may not be able to get your favourite beer at your nearest corner store, pricing can be inconsistent and selection can vary from day to day.

What I like about the LCBO and Beer Store is easy to see when you walk in to most any location. There is a wide selection, and there is a certain level of quality. Aside from special things like small runs and limited editions, I rarely see the LCBO sold out of something they normally carry. My local corner store on the other hand just stopped carrying Arizona Fruit Punch.  Why?  Because, that’s why.

Do yourself a favour and go visit a small brewery. If you’re in the Toronto area there is no shortage. Many will do tours and samples and they’re able to sell beer to you directly which may not be available at the LCBO or Beer Store. You’ll see that there is a lot more beer out there than is at the Beer Store. It would be nice if they rethought the way they do business, but I’m not sure that will happen with it’s current owners.