Review: Great Lakes Beard of Zeus

This seemed like the natural first beer of 2015 since its makers forbade anyone to open it in 2014. This beer was a one-off Tank Ten production which came out of a homebrewing competition. More on this beer can be found in this Toronto Star Article.

Stats: 13% ABV, 28 IBUs. $9.95 / 650mL bomber (Best After Dec.31, 2014)

Appearance: Semi-opaque chestnut brown body with a small beige head. Low carbonation. More active than I suspected a beer 2 years from fermentation at this strength would be.

Aroma: Bourbon up the nose: vanilla, cinnamon, fresh carrots, carrot cake. Mild English Malt in the background when cold with notes of toffee and raisins. As beer warms notes turn to tawny port and oak becomes more apparent.

Taste: Again, bourbon is a big feature particularly when cold. But it is immediately followed by notes of chocolate, coffee, toffee and butterscotch. As the beer warms notes of sour cherries and candied fruit bring in elements of a Belgian quad. Finally, more bourbon notes of cashews and popcorn linger in the finish and give an overall impression something like a blended (un-peated) Scotch whisky.

Comments: This is seriously good stuff. A great sipper while retaining enough mouthfeel and body to remind one they are drinking a beer and not a liqueur. This reminds me somewhat of Weyerbacher’s Blasphemy (a bourbon aged Belgian quad) mid-palate. This beer is complex, expertly made and, to top it off, features some of my personal favourite flavours. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a top-10 beer.

SCORE: 10 

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Beer Store Ownership Changes?

In a rather surprising move, The Beer Store has announced that it will open up ownership of the consortium to smaller Ontario brewers. Apparently none are more surprised than those small brewers who claim they were not consulted on the matter.  What does this mean for the future of beer in Ontario? Is this the first step to a new level playing field? Does this open policy actually refute the idea that The Beer Store has operated inequitably in the past? Details at this point are fairly scarce so ultimately we will have to wait and see but from what is known, it doesn’t appear the major players are really giving up much.

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New Years Resolutions for Craft Drinkers

Happy New Year! 2014 was a great year for craft beer in Ontario and I think 2015 is shaping up to be even better. Ontario has more breweries, more brewpubs and a greater focus has been placed on the issues surrounding distribution and sales. With the disclosure of the Ontario government’s complicity in the Beer Store’s anti-competitive practices, more Ontarians are becoming aware of what they are buying and who’s selling it to them. To help support the momentum I’ve decided to try a couple of things to help support local, independent brewers which you may also want to consider.

Buy Beer at its Source 

One of the things I am aiming to do this year is purchase the majority of my beer from each brewer’s retail store. This has a number of advantages. Firstly, it gives the craft drinker access to products not available through the Beer Store / LCBO. Second, it provides an opportunity to interact with the people who make the products we love; pick their brains for homebrew ideas, get a sneak peek of what is coming up, or just shoot the breeze about beer generally. Thirdly, it gives the purchaser an opportunity to explore Ontario. Just visiting retail shops in Toronto has exposed me to areas I might not have otherwise spent much time in from the ultra-trendy area around Bellwoods Brewery to the beautiful Lakefront on which Amsterdam’s brewhouse resides.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly. this practice allows the craft consumer to buy their products outside the Beer Store / LCBO structure. The tax is still paid so the services we enjoy are still safe, but one can send a message that they do not support the archaic, anti-competitive nature of the “Brewer’s Retail” or the LCBO’s complicity in their oligopoly.

Attend More Local Beer Events

Many of the same advantages from one’s retail habits apply here; attending these events gets you out, forces you to meet others in the scene and supports the breweries you love. Such events also give positive exposure to the craft scene as a whole and show that good beer is for and is made by artists and thinkers rather than the boorish slobs imagined by those unfamiliar with craft beer and its drinkers.

I felt I definitely could have made more time for local beer events and look forward to getting more involved in 2015.

Homebrew or Blend

This made sound like an odd resolution / suggestion if the aim is to support the brewing of others, but homebrewing is really the best way to understand the brewing process and what goes into making a truly good beer. It will give you something to talk about should you pursue either of the two above options and is a great way to help train your nose and palate.

Can’t stretch all the way to brewing? Try blending! Doing so not only gets you out of your standard drinking habits, it makes you think about the individual elements in each beer you like. Here’s a nice link to get you started. One simple blend that I liked was: 1/3 Mill Street Coffee Porter, 2/3 Amsterdam Boneshaker for a roasty pseudo American Black Ale. The easiest way is to simply pour 3 bottles (1 Mill St, 2 Amsterdam) into an empty growler and serve immediately. There are all sorts of wonderful blends to try, so give it a shot. Worst case, you’re left with a bunch of leftover beer you already like.

Favourites of Ontario 2014

I figured I would put up my personal favourites of the year. Some of these are beers that were released for the first time this year, others are old standbys which remain undefeated in their category (according to me). I’m aware that I did not really break my list down by strict style but given the sheer number of distinct styles and tendency for overlap I decided to go with more general “categories” to prevent confusion. I have also included my favourite 2 releases of 2014.

Best Wheat-Based Beer: Side Launch Wheat 

Runners Up: Side Launch Colossus, Beau’s Ashnan

Best Rye-Based Beer: Flying Monkeys The Matador 2.0: El Toro Bravo 

Runners Up: Cameron’s RPA, Forked River Riptide

Best Saison / Farmhouse Beer: Bellwoods Farmageddon

Runners Up: Beau’s Siduri. Amsterdam / Great Lakes Ezra

Best British Style Pale Ale: Granite Brewing Best Bitter Special 

Runners Up:  Black Oak Pale Ale, Great Lakes Pompous Ass

Best American Pale Ale: Great Lakes Canuck Ale 

Runners Up: Publican House Square Nail Pale Ale, Augusta Ale,

Best IPA: Great Lakes My Bitter Wife

Runners Up: Amsterdam Boneshaker, Muskoka Mad Tom,

Best Imperial IPA: Nickel Brook / Sawdust City 11.05

Runners Up: Great Lakes RoboHop, Black Oak Ten Bitter Years, Bellwoods Witch Shark

Best Hoppy Dark Ale (“Black IPA”): Wellington (Extra) Terrestrial 

Runners Up: Great Lakes Apocalypse Later, Flying Monkeys Netherworld

Best Brown Ale: Black Oak Nut Brown Ale

Runners Up: Wellington County Dark Ale, Granite Peculiar

Best Porter: Mill Street Coffee Porter 

Runners Up: Amsterdam Stenhouse Porter,

Best Strong Porter: Bellwoods Donkey Venom

Runners Up: Cameron’s Obsidian, Bellwoods Bounty Hunter

Best Stout: Stonehammer Oatmeal Coffee Stout 

Runners Up: Bellwoods Grognard, Mill Street Cobblestone Stout

Best Imperial Stout: Amsterdam Tempest 2014 

Runners Up: Nickel Brook Winey Bastard, Beau’s Matt’s Sleepytime Stout

Best Strong Belgian Style: Black Oak Epiphany No.1

Runners Up: Bellwoods Grandma’s Boy,

Best Traditional Pale Lager: King Pilsner 

Runners Up: Creemore (Molson) Pilsner, Double Trouble Prison Break, Howe Sound Lager

Best Macro-Style Lager: Amsterdam (416) Local Lager 

Runners Up: Old Credit Pale Pilsner, Steam Whistle Pilsner, Cool Beer

Best Amber Lager: Beau’s Festivale Altbier

Runners Up: Creemore / Zum Schlüssel Collaboraton Altbier, Howe Sound Lager

Best Dark Lager: Silversmith Black Lager 

Runners Up: Hop City (Moosehead) 8th Sin

Best Strong Lager: Cameron’s Bourbon Barrel Deviator Doppelbock 

Runners Up: Amsterdam Springbock, Beau’s Hogan’s Goat (6.9%), Bush Pilot Norseman

Best Hoppy Lager: Flying Monkey’s Green Man 

Runners Up: Mad & Noisy (Molson) Hops & Bolts Imperial Pale Lager (5.3%), Hop City (Moosehead) Barking Squirrel,

TOP 3 OF 2014

Bellwoods Motley Cru 2014

Barrel Aged Imperial IPA? Hoppy Sour? This limited release by Bellwoods beautifully defied style conventions and challenged my palate. Flavours and aromas came in waves and were too many to list. In some ways its terribly sad that this was a brewed once, but I suppose it makes it all the more special.

Muskoka Detour 

This beer, while wonderful in and of itself also made me happy for what it represented: a greater focus on session ales. While I love high intensity beers as much as anyone, the lower-strength market has been sorely neglected and hopefully beers like this indicate a long overdue interest.

Nickel Brook / Sawdust City 11.05 

Without a doubt, the stealthiest beer I’ve had north of 10%. Even a hop load like the one in this beer couldn’t possibly hide this much booze on its own. An expertly crafted “Triple IPA”. The two breweries managed to stuff just about every hop note you can imagine (Citrus, pine, dank, ginger, tropical fruit, resin etc.) into the aroma and taste.

Big Beer Taking Some Hits?

Its been a rough couple of months for big beer in Ontario. Of course, the most sensational event was Martin Regg Cohn’s article on the secretive LCBO-Beer Store deal. But even before that, there were rumblings of a shakedown of The Beer Store for more revenue. Most recently it appears that even more subtle operations are flagging with the closing of Molson-Coor’s Beer Academy.

As for the first two items, I think it is finally beginning to reach the average Ontarian’s consciousness that the Beer Store is not a neutral government run institution. This makes the Beer Store vulnerable. The more publicly visible the monopoly (held by Molson-Coors, Labbat-InBev and Sleeman / Sapporo) becomes, the less public support it can count on. As documents like the one revealed by the Star begin to come out, the Ontario government has less to fear by pushing against the Brewer’s Retail. At the end of the day, few Ontarians are going to feel bad for multi-billion dollar, foreign-owned companies who won’t sell them beer on holidays.

The other thorn in The Beer Store’s side is the sudden explosion of alternatives available to the Ontario consumer. Toronto now enjoys a plethora of brewery retail stores which offer beers you can’t get in The Beer Store, a chance to talk to those involved in making the products and often more accessible hours. In response, Molson opened up The Beer Academy; a small brewhouse in the seemingly cursed 75 Victoria Street Location (formerly Duggan’s and before that Dennison’s). Despite producing an interesting range of competitively priced beers, it seems Six Pints couldn’t hold it together.

Perhaps it was the fact that the target audience for this project was the sort of drinker who would know enough to see through the independent brewer veneer (note: The beer academy does not openly disclose its ties to Molson-Coors) and be put off by it. When I went and asked the staff about the being a part of Molson it didn’t seem like an unfamiliar question. Indeed I was given a sort of pre-prepared statement in which it was admitted that Molson was a sort of grand-parent, but that Six Pints (the “brewery” which operates through The Beer Academy) was nonetheless independent. Whatever the arrangement was, it clearly wasn’t working and now apparently 75 Victoria will become a Creemore Springs  outlet (Six Pints was already selling Creemore beer and merch so it shouldn’t be too big a shift).

One wonders at the point behind this change. Like Six Pints, Creemore is very quietly owned by Molson. By opening a brewpub, a company necessarily puts itself under the microscope of the more savvy beer consumer (i.e. the kind that would actually bother going to a brewpub). Thus, would things not go the same way? Perhaps Molson is hoping that the more recognizable name will get some of those who might be on the fence or just getting into craft drinking.

To some degree, I feel that The Beer Academy’s products were overshadowed by what they represented; a slightly underhanded attempt to siphon business from truly independent craft producers. In actual fact, many of the beers they produced were (are) quite good. So while I will likely not be making them a major part of my purchasing habits, I do look forward to whatever new products come out of this reorganization.

Stout Hearted

Now that we’re into December it appears Imperial Stout season is in full swing in Ontario. There are a number of great beers returning as well as some new ones making the round in the LCBO. The reason for this yearly flood is, to my mind, twofold.

The first reason is that as the temperature drops, beer drinkers may want something a bit richer and more warming rather than thin and refreshing. Few styles fit the bill quite as well as the Imperial Stout. The slight alcohol warmth, the roasted notes which remind one of cocoa and chocolate and the velvety mouthfeel create a brew which is perfect for cold winter nights.

The second, perhaps more pessimistic reason is that the Imperial Stout is easy to package as a premium drink. This time of year, people are more willing to part with some extra cash to get something a little nicer. These beers lend themselves to special editions and extravagant packaging. For some, this may be a turn off or seem like a money grab. For me, however, I will admit it adds a sense of occasion to these brews. Nonetheless, I’ve split my recommendations into two price points to accommodate those just getting into stouts or who would rather forgo the ornate stuff.

Imperial Stouts Below $10

Wellington Imperial Russian Stout 8% ABV ($3.15 / 473mL can)

Although not a seasonal (its available year round) this beer continues to be the value leader within this style (despite a whopping 20 cent increase in price this year). This is a much more traditionally English Imperial Stout so look for slightly sweeter notes of milk chocolate, figs and sweetened light roast coffee. The perfect transition from other dark styles such as porters, brown ales and milds.

Amsterdam Tempest 9% ABV / 100 IBU ($6.25 / 500 mL bottle)

Returning for 2014 into the LCBO, this powerful American style Imperial stout is definitely aimed at the more seasoned beer drinker. Despite being cellared for 3 months prior to release, the hop notes are still quite vivid but are balanced by a huge malt profile accented with a small proportion or rye. Bitterness is the core of this beer’s profile with notes of espresso, cooking chocolate and smoke coming to the front. Ready to drink now but with such a high hopping level, this is a great beer to start experimenting with cellaring (it will change fairly dramatically over a year or two). Look out for even more extreme versions such as the Sour cherry Stout ($12.95 / 750 mL), Full City Coffee Tempest and the all-conquering Barrel Aged Double Tempest featured below.

Nickel Brook Bolshevik Bastard 8% ABV / 70 IBU ($9.95 / 4×355 mL) 

Nickel Brook’s offering is notable for coming in 12 ounce bottles for those who may wish to drive after enjoying. While definitely more with the North American style, this brew is slightly more approachable than Tempest. Look for dark chocolate and brewed coffee as feature flavours. Ready to drink right away. Nickel Brook also produces some barrel aged versions discussed below.

Grand River Brewing Russian Gun Imperial Stout 8.4% ($4.95 / 500 mL bottle)

This is one of the more unique offerings in the sub $5 category. The addition of molasses and various spices can be slightly hard to detect in this beer, but the result is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying Imperial Stout experience. While more bitter than the Wellington, this one is still a bit more approachable to the uninitiated than Tempest and makes for a great, low-cost introduction. Whether you love or hate the slightly home-made looking labels and plain red bottle caps, its clear Grand River isn’t charging you a premium for extravagant packaging. Good to drink now.

Imperial Stouts $10 and Above 

Nickel Book Old Kentucky Bastard 10% ABV ($12.95 / 750 mL bottle) 

The Bourbon barrel aged version of Bastard sees a substantial increase in alcohol (up 1.5% ABV). Bourbon notes are quite present in this beer with the classic combination of vanilla oak and cinnamon spice  being most noticeable. While fairly restrained for a 10% the additional alcohol makes its presence known. For those who like Bourbon influenced stouts, this is a definite winner. While this beer would not doubt be a great cellaring candidate, it is ready to drink now. Also, consider the Pinot Noir Barrel aged “Winey Bastard” available at the brewery and on tap at select craft beer bars.

Amsterdam Barrel Aged Double Tempest 14% ABV / 115 IBU ($15/ 650 mL bottle) 

Returning for a second year, Amsterdam has, as the name suggests, taken Tempest, doubled the amount of hops and malt / rye and aged the resulting concoction in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels for 11 months. When it comes out, the beer comes in at 14% ABV – and (from what I can tell) that’s without any of the aid of any added sugar, a secondary fermentation or fractional freezing. In the realm of extreme stouts (Dogfish Head World-wide, Three Floyds Dark Lord, Mikkeller Black, Avery Mephistopheles’ ) this beer is actually fairly drinkable but I would let this beer cool for 6 months to a year to really get the most out of it. Only available from Amsterdam’s retail stores.

Cellar Aged Muskoka Winter Beard 8% ($13.95 / 750 mL bottle)

This beer comes to you already cellared for one year. The flavours from the cranberries and dark chocolate predictably remind one of Black Forest cake and dark chocolate fruit filled candies. Despite being a very well brewed and excellently packaged product, I will admit the price is a bit steep compared to some of the other big stouts out there considering it has not been barrel aged. Ready to drink now. Even older versions can be purchased from Muskoka’s retail store. If you’re going up that way, also consider the slightly cheaper (and much cooler named) Blood of Cthulhu by Sawdust City which is another berry infused Imperial Stout.

Unibroue: A new pricing strategy?

I still remember when the first release of 17 Grande Reserve hit the LCBO. At $9.95 / bottle, it was at that point one of the pricier beer offerings available. Nonetheless, for a 10%, oak aged Belgian-style ale of such high quality, the price was not prohibitive and the beer quickly sold out. When Terrible followed some time later at $10.95, people didn’t really bat an eye. But then began a weird sort of leap-frogging with each beer coming in again at a higher price than before. The problem was that as the price climbed, the impact for each release was lessened. People knew now that the beer would be coming back so there was no rush to stock up. At the same time as this the regular Unibroue offerings in the beer store were creeping towards the $15/ 6-pack range.

I recall quite vividly being in an LCBO in late spring of last year with a huge surplus of 17 bottles going at huge discount (extremely rare in the LCBO). Clearly, something had gone wrong.

Unibroue’s response has been interesting. For the beer store (of which Unibroue’s parent company Sapporo has a 2% stake in) Unibroue simply switched to 4 packs at $9.95; keeping the same price point but making it appear more attractive. I was eager to see what they would do at the LCBO. Would they go to 375ml bottles? Thus far it appears as though Unibroue is pursuing a much more aggressive strategy, placing the new La Resolution at $8.95 (which puts it below many competitors like St-Bernardus Abt. 12). And now, it appears that 17GR is coming back at its original $9.95. Makes you wonder how much of those price hikes was just the company seeing how far they could go.

For those still intent on breaking the bank, Unibroue has brought 50 6 litre “Methuselah” bottles to the Summerhill location for a cool $149 / each.