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Best of Last Year

2015 was another banner year for craft beer in Ontario. While there are plenty of big things to talk about, I thought for this post, I’d just review my personal top 10 favourite releases of the year:

TOP 5 ONTARIO RELEASES 

Amsterdam Six Borroughs 

A bourbon-barrel aged rye porter coming in at 10% abv, this beer was brewed by Amsterdam Brewery as the official beer of Toronto Beer 2015. An absolutely amazing beer with all the notes one would expect from a bourbon-aged porter and a surprising tartness, presumably from the rye.

Great Lakes Apocalypse Much Later 

This is the bourbon-barrel version of GLB’s awesome Apocalypse Later Imperial Black IPA. I initially went to try this beer at the Bar Volo Tap Takeover but was unable to sample it. Fortunately, GLB did a very limited can release for Halloween. I’ve had a few hoppy bourbon aged dark beers such as a Aviator’s Black Mamba and this one easily keeps pace. Hopefully we’ll see a return this year as well.

Nickel Brook Winey Bastard

While Bolshevik Bastard is a solid beer, it’s never been in my personal top 10 favourite Imperial Stouts. However, when Nickel Brook threw BB into Ontario Pinot Noir Barrels, they transformed it into one of my top beers of the year. The inherently nutty, coffee notes of the base beer blend beautifully with the acidic grape-skin tartness (aided by a shot of Brett) to produce something truly memorable.

Great Lakes Beard of Zeus

Yes, this beer technically came out in 2014, but it was not meant to be enjoyed until “after December 31, 2014”. I took this rather literally and cracked it at midnight of the new (now old) year. Flat out my favourite Barleywine of all time.

Black Oak Break of Dusk

This beer proves you need not have double digit ABV to create a real depth of flavour. Basically a scaled-down American Black Ale, this beer easily outgunned brews in the 7% range. I would heartily welcome this beer as a year-round offering.

Top 5 Other Region Releases

Stone Old Guardian Extra Hoppy

The extra does of the relatively new azacca hop variety added a really interesting element to this old standby. This beer nearly erased the already blurry line between the American Barleywine and Imperial IPA by combining tropical fruit hoppiness with a creamy, syrupy malt base.

Rodenbach Vintage 2013

One of the dons of the sour beer scene, this beer had a great backstory and an immense amount of flavour. Despite pushing one’s tongue to the brink with tart, sour notes, this beer still somehow comes off as well balanced. A showcase in expert brewing and aging.

Sudwerk Bourbonator

A great beer with a killer label. Although very similar to the excellent Bourbon-aged Deviator Doppelbock from Cameron’s, this beer just barely edged it out with more distinct barrel notes.

Scheider Weisse Tap X Mein Cuvee Barrique 

Another great lager, this time taking on notes from ex-wine barrels. This beer comes off as something between an eisbock, a dry white wine and a flemish sour. An exceptional food beer.

BrewDog Black-Eyed King Imp

The idea of putting a 12.7% ABV barrel aged coffee stout into a can might seem like a pure novelty, but to me it demonstrates that companies are starting to seriously look into this more efficient and stable method of distributing beer.

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Review: Great Lakes Brewery Imperial Bout

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The folks at GLB decided to throw their fans a holiday treat along side the release of their collaboration with Amsterdam Brewery, Life Sentence IIIPA. The Imperial Bout is a 11.9% ABV Imperial Stout which has been given a dose of cold brew coffee and vanilla pods. It is available from the GLB retail store for $11.95 / 650 mL bottle.

Appearance 

The beer pours a viscous black / brown with a moderate head. As one might expect for an RIS pushing 12%abv, The Imperial Bout leaves a noticeable ‘slick’ on when moved about the walls of the glass.

Aroma

The nose is, somewhat predictably, dominated by dark coffee / espresso notes and vanilla. The overall effect is reminiscent of a big name coffee chain store with notes that remind one of freshly brewed flavoured coffee alongside slightly old ground espresso. The nose has the slightly sharp note one might see in siphon-brewed coffee.

Taste

When cold, the beer is almost completely taken over by a sharp, almost acrid coffee flavour with vanilla coming in near the end. Once given a chance to warm, the 11.9% worth of malt makes its presence known with the familiar American-RIS notes of dark fruit, soy sauce, tobacco and smoke begin to eclipse the coffee.  The finish, when properly warmed is one of molasses and high quality black licorice. I found this beer at its most balanced near or at room temperature. Even there the alcohol, while not completely masked, is well in check and adds a welcome warmth to the slightly sharp feature flavours.

Comments 

This is a solid high-octane RIS with some interesting elements added by the cold-brew coffee and vanilla. At first I wasn’t overly fond of the sharp, slightly acrid note which many high-ABV coffee-stouts develop. However, as the beer warmed this was well tamed by the rich malt and soft vanilla notes both in the nose and on the palate. This would be a great pairing for a dessert such as Christmas pudding with Devonshire Cream.

Score: 9

Strength in Numbers

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While in line at this year’s release for Amsterdam’s Barrel Aged Double Tempest, I asked one of the employees about the noticeable reduction in the beer’s alcoholic strength. Whereas 2013 and 2014 editions were bottled at an eye-watering 15% abv and 14% abv respectively, 2015 was being sold at a (relatively) subdued 11.9%. I was curious as to whether the brewery was attempting to make the beer more accessible or whether the idiosyncrasies of the barrel aging process had simply produced a less potent ultimate product. To my surprise, I was told flatly that the beer had been capped due to legal reasons. Apparently, the previous two editions had been skirting the rules slightly, but with BADT quickly becoming a big-time event, the brewery had been forced into strict compliance. Thinking back, I had seen that somewhat curious figure of 11.9% before; both from craft products,like Great Lakes’ Behind the Wavy Wall, and the dayglo-coloured “malt beverages” sold at The Beer Store such as Mojo Shot.

What rule might be the source of this cap? It seems to be routed in the definition of beer in the Excise Act, s.4 which defines beer or malt liquor as something which does not exceed 11.9% abv. This definition appears to have crept into Ontario-specific legislation like the Liquor License Act and its associated regulations. However, as an Ontarian, you may have seen a number of beers for sale which were above this limit. Indeed, this rule only seems to affect beers sold out of brewpubs or, more specifically, brewery retail stores which are only licensed to sell ‘beer’ in the legal rather than factual sense. This is why, presumably, The Beer Store (formerly known as “The Brewer’s Retail”) adheres to this limit as well.

Some might not see a need to remove this cap. Leaving aside the prohibitionist / alarmist argument that high strength beer will necessarily lead to irresponsible consumption, there are compelling reasons to support an upper limit. For instance, it might be argued that an upper limit would force brewers to concentrate on quality and balance rather than trying to get attention with ever bigger numbers. I will freely admit that none of my top 10 favourite beers are above 11% abv, and that I actually found this year’s edition of BADT much easier to appreciate right out of the bottle (we’ll see after 3-5 years how it stacks up with its bigger siblings).

The problem is, the cap only affects Ontario brewers and specifically those who do not use the LCBO as a distribution network (Ontario brewers can, and do sell 12%abv+ products through the LCBO). In practice, this means that smaller, local brewers who depend on experimentation and attention grabbing products to get by, are disproportionately affected by the regulation. While companies like AB InBev can pay for a special launch party for the 13.6% abv Bourbon County Vanilla Rye (more on that in another post), your local independent brewer likely cannot.

Another argument might be that the LCBO is simply the most responsible place to sell high strength products and thus brewers should be forced to go through them if they want to make something of extreme alcoholic content. After all, with the right techniques, beer can be made as strong as distilled spirit (just ask Brewdog) and a brewer who is only properly meant to sell beer shouldn’t be able to get around that through fractional freezing. However, even if one accepts that LCBO employees are truly the most qualified to sell wine and spirit-strength drinks, this argument would only work if they were the only people who could. But, as anyone who has been to a dive-bar on shots night can attest to, this is not the case. Indeed, many brewpubs also have a full liquor licence meaning that while they can’t sell you a bottle of 13%abv bourbon-barrel imperial stout to enjoy at home, they can sell you 45% abv straight bourbon.

Thus, the most fair and consistent options would be to either make the cap apply to all beer in Ontario or to get rid of it. Alberta tried the former option, to rather predictable results. The final Albertan plan of simply taxing ‘imitation spirit’ at a higher rate would be a halfway solution. That way those who fear $3 cans of 25%abv beer being sold can rest easy while brewers can still make whatever they want.

Ultimately, my real issue with the cap is its arbitrary and ineffectual nature. There is no magic in the 12%abv line. I seriously doubt anyone buying Faxe Extra Strong or Crest Super is planning to enjoy it more responsibly than someone buying Mikkeller Black or Samichlaus. Further, I could probably count on my hands the number of beers I’ve seen in Ontario this year which have met or exceeded 11.9%. While I don’t think most beers improve once they go over 12%, I think consumers should be given the opportunity to make that choice themselves and if we are licensing someone to sell alcohol, we should be confident that they can responsibly sell it at any strength.

Hop To It

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For those of you who like straining the hop cones out of your teeth after a pint, Great Lakes is somewhere to visit this weekend. The brewery, in addition to its regular line up of hop-forward creations like Canuck and Devil’s Pale ale, has several limited run products to sample at very reasonable prices.

Two familiar Tank Ten alumni are Johnny Simcoe Pale and Apocalypse Later.

As the name implies, Johnny Simcoe is a tribute to both Canadian historical figure John Graves Simcoe and the distinctive Simcoe hop which this beer uses exclusively. Despite coming in at a rather manageable 5% ABV, Great Lakes has hopped this beer up to 70 IBUs which, if you like the dank, catty notes associated with Simcoe hops, should be perfect.

Another returning favourite is Apocalypse Later Imperial Black IPA. This beer initially was rated at 9.9%/99 IBUs as a riff on the 6-themed Devil’s Pale Ale but now, in its more metrically sound 10%/100+ IBUs, features the full cast of Tank Ten characters from RoboHop to Carrie Nation on the label. If you like over the top American Black Ales in the vein of Sublimely Self Righteous (RIP) or Tree Hop Head Black, this is for you.

Finally, the newcomer on the scene is the idiosyncratically named Octopus Wants To Fight You IPA, a reference to a particular form of coat hook vandalism. Brewed with a combination of Mozaic, Citra and Amarillo, this beer is apparently intended to fill the gap between the exit of Karma Citra and the return of Thrust!. Furthering this beer’s image as the scrappy under dog, it is actually one of the lightest IPAs GLB has done at 6.2% but  it has been hopped up to 88 IBUs which, as far as I can tell gives it the highest IBU/ABV of their catalog at 14.2.

Since these beers are in cans, they range from $3-$4.50 per 473mL which makes them extremely cost effective. For instance, 2 of each of these will bring you a total of around $21.

Return of the Cru

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Bellwoods Brewery has announced the release of this years Motley Cru anniversary ale.

In keeping with the brewery’s ethos of experimentation, every year has produced a totally different beer. Last year’s version was 9.7% Brett-IPA blend which I ranked as my no.1 beer of 2014. This year we’re looking at an 8.7% sour red ale blend from 1-3 year old barrels aged with Tawse Pinot Noir grapes. Looking closely at the labels, one can see there will be only 3956 bottles total which means lining up next Saturday (April 4) to ensure you get some.

I, for one, have quite high hopes. Over the past few years, I have really come to enjoy both sour ales and beers with a wine influence. Tawse does a particularly good pinot noir and their barrels have been used in the lovely Winey Bastard by Nickel Brook (available for a while in the LCBO at $14.95/750 mL). When it comes to both sours and barrel aging, Bellwoods are at the forefront of the Toronto brewing scene.

I’ll see you there.

Beat the Rush

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In case you missed it in cans or on draught, Great Lakes Brewery’s much sought-after Karma Citra IPA is hitting LCBO shelves this week. If past experience is any indication, one would do well to track some down early in the week and stock up; the stuff goes fast.

As the name implies, the only hop in this IPA is citra. While many breweries have experimented with single-hop citra beers, Great Lakes is one of the few to produce something exceptional. Expect a review soon.

No Beer in Corner Stores?

It seems that whatever the much touted changes to beer distribution in Ontario will be, they will not include putting beer in corner stores. The jury is still out on whether large chains like Loblaws and Costco will be able to sell (there is currently a pilot project to put LCBO counters in some grocery stores already), but there is a definite no on convenience stores selling alcohol of any sort.

Should beer be in small stores?

To me, it would seem that the most obvious reason for keeping beer out of convenience stores is the fear that small business owners may not exercise the same discretion as a large chain whose employees have no personal stake in the sale of the product. Indeed, it was this exact fear that the Beer Store tried to capitalize on when they ran a rather ridiculous series of “Beer Facts” commercials. While the commercials largely backfired, the sentiment that underlies them, in my opinion still exists.

The problem is, there aren’t really a whole lot of facts to either support or rebut a claim that placing beer in small stores will increase socially irresponsible sales or consumption. Having been to Quebec a number of times, I can’t say that I saw anything particularly worrying with the depanneur system, but that does not necessarily mean anything in regards to introducing a system in Ontario (assuming my impression was at all accurate).

Personally, I feel the best system would be dedicated beer retailers which could be subject to more stringent regulation. I have long thought the OCB would be a natural choice to help run stores for the sale of craft beer. After all, many breweries run successful retail stores which have thus far not caused any problems.