Blog, Interrupted

Well, well, welly welly well. Six months since my last post. (Or if you want to be technical about it, six months less a day. Which sort of sounds like a prison sentence, doesn’t it?)

Yes, once again, this poor li’l blog has been pushed down my list of priorities, constantly overshadowed by one thing or another. Canadian Beer News has become the main focus of my online activities, growing in comprehensiveness of coverage – as well as readership – since I redesigned and relaunched it late last year. I’ve also started a spin-off Tumblr blog called Canadian Beer Notes as a place to post quick reviews of Canadian beers, and have been having a great time presenting and hosting the Canadian Beer News Dinner Series (the next CBN Dinner on June 18th – a beer vs wine dinner with Amsterdam Brewery and Flat Rock Cellars at Beast Restaurant – is almost sold out, so book soon if you wanna be there!). And I’m still doing a bit of writing for TAPS Magazine, as well as other occasional bits of scribbling here and there.

That said, I’ve got the usual growing pile of blog post ideas percolating, I just need to find – or make – the time to knuckle down and get on with the writing. History has shown that I’ll never be as prolific as some of my more disciplined compatriots (Hi, Alan! How’s it going, Mike?), but is one post a week too much to ask for?

Probably, yeah. But I’ll see what I can do.

Quick Quaff: Innis & Gunn Highland Cask, Spiced Rum Finish & Winter Beer 2011

Fans of the oak-aged beers produced by Scotland’s Innis & Gunn are numerous in Canada – so numerous, in fact, that the flagship I&G brew is reportedly the best selling bottled UK import beer in the country. This success has not escaped the notice of Dougal Sharp and his team, who have blessed their Canadian customers with an array of unique I&G variations over the past few years, including an annual Canada Day edition brewed especially for us.

Not quite so exclusive, but still somewhat limited, are the three beers pictured above and reviewed below: the latest instalment in I&G’s occasional Highland Cask series (this one aged in casks that previously held an 18 year old whisky from an unnamed distillery); an expression finished in oak that’s been infused with spiced rum; and the 2011 edition of their annual Winter Beer strong ale. Here’s what I thought of ’em:

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask
Much like Mr. Beaumont, I wasn’t a massive fan of the 2010 version of this brand, as the overwhelming notes of caramel and butterscotch made it tough to get through a bottle without my teeth starting to hurt. This year, though, they got it right: The caramel is there but more subdued, and joined by vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hints of dried fig and the faintest wisp of peat smoke. The finish is medium-dry and slightly herbal, with enough warmth to remind that it’s a 7.1% beer.

Innis & Gunn Spiced Rum Finish
I’ve enjoyed quite a few bottles of the regular Rum Cask that’s available year round, but this Spiced Rum variation didn’t really grab me. The typical I&G components of vanilla, toffee and oak are there, and as it warms, some nice golden sugar and tingly spice notes develop in the finish. But while the overall impression is pleasant, I was hoping for a big punch of rum, and ended up finding more of a light tap.

Innis & Gunn Winter Beer 2011
My tasting notes on I&G’s Winter Beer 2010 include mentions of cherry, bourbon, raisins and maple. This year, I’m hard pressed to find any of those elements in evidence – instead, vanilla-like oak and dark toffee come through right from the get-go, leaving room for little else in the aroma. The flavour is a bit more complex – some dark dried fruit here, some Christmas cake spice there – but the toffee and oak are still the prominent characteristics. Quite enjoyable, although it finishes quicker that I’d like, and could also use a bit more heft in the body to cross over from good to great.

All three of these beers are available at select LCBO locations in Ontario, the Highland Cask in single bottles packaged in presentation boxes (LCBO 271585 – $4.95/330 mL bottle ), and the other two in a special gift pack that also includes a bottle of I&G Original and an attractive branded glass (LCBO 254342 – $14.95/3×341 mL bottle ). For availability info elsewhere, check with your local retailer.

Movember Spawned A Mon-stache

As the blurry self-portrait above attests, I’m a participant in this year’s edition of Movember, the annual campaign in which men grow ugly things on their faces in order to raise money for prostate cancer research.

More specifically, I’m one of a number of local beer writers and bloggers who are taking part in Beauvember, in which we’re each growing a moustache & soul patch combo that’s meant to resemble the one famously worn by Stephen Beaumont.

To cap this dark month that our respective significant others have hated, those of us who have been growing the Beau will be gathering at Burger Bar on the evening on Wednesday, November 30th to mock each other, have a few beers, and receive final judgement on our ‘staches from Mr. Beaumont and his lovely wife Maggie. Onlookers are welcome to come out and heckle, as long as you’re also willing to throw in a few bucks to support the cause.

If you can’t make it in person – or if you’re just feeling extra-generous – you can donate online via my page on the Movember website. Please help if you can!

Announcing the Canadian Beer News Dinner Series

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve been spending so much time contacting other blogs and media outlets about this that I’ve forgotten to post about it on my own damn blog. Which is pretty ridiculous, because if you don’t use your blog for shameless self-promotion, why bother having one in the first place?

Right, here’s the deal: I’m starting a new beer dinner series under my Canadian Beer News alter ego. Fittingly enough, it’s called the Canadian Beer News Dinner Series, and the dinners will feature great breweries and import agencies paired with great chefs and restaurants. My participation is basically curatorial – I’ll be bringing the talent together, and saying a few words, but mostly I’ll just be enjoying the meals.

The spark for the series was a dinner I attended earlier this year that featured food prepared by vegan chef Doug McNish and paired with organic wine. After the dinner – which was one of the most astoundingly good meals I’ve had this year, vegan or not – I started talking with Doug about organic beer, and casually brought up the idea of him doing a dinner with Beau’s All-Natural Brewery since all of their beers are organic.

One thing lead to another, and the dinner will be happening on Tuesday December 6th at The Windsor Arms Hotel (18 St. Thomas St., Toronto), where Doug has been consulting on some vegan menus recently. And I’ve also got two more dinners in the works for early 2012, and hopefully many more to follow.

This inaugural dinner will include a welcome reception with passed hors d’oeuvre followed by a four course meal, with the reception and each course featuring a beer pairing presented by Beau’s co-owner Steve Beauchesne. Tickets are available online, and should be purchased sooner rather than later, as there are a couple of large groups that have expressed interest in attending, so a sell out is a strong possibility.

And for those who may balk at the fact that the meal will be vegan – as I noted in the announcement over on CBN, Doug’s food will “show us that there is much more to vegan food than tofu and sprouts.” I was blown away by some the flavours and textures of the food he served at the dinner earlier this year, and I’ve no doubt that he’ll pull off something equally impressive for this event. And while I can’t speak for the rest of you, I know that my fat ass and expansive waistline could certainly do with a little less meat once in a while.

So, in summary:

Canadian Beer News Dinner #1:
Beau’s Brewing & Chef Doug McNish

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
The Windsor Arms Hotel
18 Saint Thomas Street, Toronto

6:30 PM – Reception with passed hors d’oeuvre & beer pairing
7:15 PM – 4-course Dinner with beer pairings

$95 per person including taxes and gratuities


Hope to see you there!

Cask Days 2011: A Quick Review

Anyone with at least a passing interest in Toronto’s craft beer scene will likely be aware of the almost legendary reputation of Cask Days, the cask beer event that Ralph Morana and his sons and team at barVolo have been hosting each year since 2005. Over the years it’s grown from a single day event with a couple of dozen casks from Ontario breweries, to a week-long celebration featuring various cask-themed evenings leading up to the main multi-session weekend.

Sometime around the third year, as the popularity and crowds started to grow, Ralph began talking about moving the main event to a larger venue. While some expressed concern that doing this would have a negative impact on what was admittedly a pretty fun event, those of us with slightly claustrophobic and mildly misanthropic tendencies loved the idea of having more room to spread out, and potentially more beers to choose from.

This past Sunday, the curmudgeons were proven right, as the Cask Days festival was moved to the regal and spacious Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, and ended up being one of the best beer events Toronto has ever seen.

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Quick Quaff: Newcastle Werewolf & Newcastle Winter IPA

Like many drinkers of better beer who came of age a couple of decades ago, one of the first imports I tried was Newcastle Brown Ale. It was never a top choice for me – if I was drinking a dark beer from overseas, it was usually Guinness. But back in the days when the local microbrew scene was still fledgling and decent imports were few and far between, I had no problem downing a pint of two of Newkie in places where it was available.

While I don’t often see it on tap in these parts anymore, Newcastle Brown is still one of the top import brands down in the US. It makes sense that parent company Heineken would want to use that brand recognition to try and grab a bit more of the market, so I wasn’t surprised when I received a PR pitch a few weeks ago regarding the Newcastle Limited Edition series, a set of four seasonal beers – Summer Ale, Werewolf, Winter IPA and Founders’ Ale – that are being brewed in the UK especially for the American market.

In keeping with the season, samples of Werewolf and Winter IPA were provided, and while I tried them and jotted some notes soon after arrival, various factors have kept me away from the ol’ blog for a while. So with apologies for my tardiness, here are a few thoughts on the pair:

Newcastle Werewolf is described in the promotional bumpf as a “formidable beast”, suggesting that something big and bold is being contained by the bottle. Mention of “a bite of bitterness” that’s “long, deep and lingering” raise even more anticipation. Sadly, though, aside from it having the promised “blood red” colour, it’s a pretty straightforward darkish ale. The aroma has toasted malt, a bit of chocolate, and not much else, while the flavour augments those two notes with some dark cherry and perhaps a smidge more hops than typically expected from the style, but not approaching anything I’d describe as “lingering”. It’s a respectable enough brew, but one that ultimately isn’t really worthy of its name.

And speaking of misnomers; Anyone expecting a full-bore craft-style India Pale Ale from Newcastle Winter IPA will be setting themselves up for disappointment, as its is more in line with mainstream UK IPAs like Wells Eagle and Caledonian Deuchars. Using those brews as a comparison point, Winter IPA performs well, throwing off burnt toffee and biscuit on the malt side, and even-handed hop notes that are somewhat tea-like with a backing grassiness. There’s also a slight mineral tang around the edges, and a soft and slightly creamy mouthfeel to hold it all together. Like its lycanthropian cousin, it’s not a showstopper, but it might just twig a few Newcastle Brown drinkers to the fact that there are more beer styles out there that are worth exploring.

Toronto Beer Week 2011: The Opening Weekend

I must admit that up until a week or so ago, I wasn’t overly excited for this year’s edition of Toronto Beer Week. Aside from a few gems, the line-up of confirmed events was a bit underwhelming, with many key venues and breweries missing from the list completely.

But then the week leading up to Friday’s kick-off saw a deluge of new listings added, and suddenly number of events that I was planning on checking out grew so quickly that I’ve got myself booked for at least one event every evening from now until next weekend. And while daily updates/recaps are unlikely, I’ll do my best to getting something written up a couple of times during the week, starting with this review of how the opening weekend played out for me.

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From Blogging to Brewing (& Bragging)

Anyone who makes a living or hobby out of being a critic has likely received feedback to a negative review accusing them of not knowing what they’re talking about. It’s equally likely that the feedback will suggest that the critic should try creating their own version of whatever it is that they’re reviewing before passing judgment on others.

Personally, I’ve always looked at this as a bit of a spurious argument. The fact that my musical ability extends to knowing how to play about three notes on a guitar doesn’t mean that the opinions I expressed in my many years as a music writer were invalid. I just knew what I liked and what I didn’t, and had spent enough years obsessing about music to know what I was writing about. (Well, most of the time, at least.)

The same goes for beer. I’ve never had a lot of interest in being a homebrewer – I have neither the patience nor the imagination needed to do a good job of it – but I’ve consumed enough of the stuff, and read enough about both the product and the process, to have a pretty good understanding of how beer is made, and how to differentiate between good ones and bad ones.

Still, even if I don’t consider it to be a necessary precursor for writing about beer, a bit of hands on experience can never hurt. So when Mike Warner of the excellent (but no longer accurately named) blog A Year of Beer let me know that he was planning a event for Toronto Beer Week that would feature beers created by beer bloggers and writers in partnership with pro brewers, I was pleased to be invited to take part. Even moreso when Adam Grant of The Monk’s Table came on board to host the event, and provided a bunch of 10 litre oak barrels for aging the beers, adding another interesting element to the proceedings. Taking place tonight under the name Barrel Bragging Rights, it’s one of the kick-off events for TBW 2011.

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Quick Quaff: Granville Island English Bay Pale Ale

When it was announced in October 2009 that Molson Coors – via its Creemore Springs subsidiary – would be acquiring Granville Island Brewing, it inspired a fair bit of speculation regarding how long it would be until brands from one of the breweries was introduced into the market of the other. Apparently the answer to that question was “just under two years”, as Granville Island English Bay Pale Ale made the trip east to Ontario back in July.

It was around that time that a friendly Creemore rep passed me a six pack to try, I’ve tipped back a bottle every now and then in the couple of months since, and having now finished the half-dozen, I’ve come to two conclusions: (1) I like it; and (2) I won’t go out of my way to drink it again.

Yeah, I know that these conclusions seem to be contradictory, but here’s the thing: English Bay Pale Ale is, as Stephen aptly puts it, a “highly quaffable ale.” It has a nice dark copper hue; a nutty caramel aroma with faint peppery tinge; and a flavour that could use a bit of a boost in the hops department, but which still fits nicely into the “well balanced UK-style pale ale” niche that appears to be the aim.

That said, it’s also a beer that leaves little in the way of an impression, lasting or otherwise. Even while it’s being consumed, there’s little to grab the drinker’s attention (which probably explains the somewhat generic nature of my tasting notes above), and even less remains on the palate or in the memory once the glass is empty.

In other words: It’s not a bad beer, but it’s also not a memorable one.

Crisis on Infinite Beer Blogs

Any readers of this blog who are – or at some point have been – comic book geeks are likely familiar with the concept of “retroactive continuity”, or as it’s colloquially known, a retcon.

For the less dorky among you: a retcon refers to a situation when facts established in an earlier story are changed in such a way that the previous story couldn’t have happened the way it was originally written – in other words, the previously established continuity has been retroactively changed. Sometimes these changes are small, affecting minor attributes of a single character; and sometimes they’re massive, affecting an entire shared fictional universe (as was the case in the classic DC Comics series Crisis on Infinite Earths that the title of this post lazily evokes).

The reason for this nerdtastic tangent is that this blog is about to undergo a bit of retconning, as I’m starting to integrate many of the posts that I wrote for Taste T.O., the food and drink website run by my wife and myself that we recently converted from a daily blog to an events listing site, taking the old content offline in the process. My contributions there included many beer reviews, pub profiles, and other beer and booze related articles that I’d like to keep online, so folding them into this blog seemed to make the most sense. While doing this, I’ll also be editing or removing any posts that referred or linked to the Taste T.O. posts, fusing the material from both sites into a seamless whole! (Insert dramatic George Perez splash page here.)

Since I’ll be backdating these posts to the dates they were originally published on Taste T.O., the whole process should hopefully go unnoticed to most readers. But for those who enjoy digging through archives, there will be lots of “new” stuff to read.

And as for REAL new stuff – I’m hoping to get more on top of that in the next little while as well. I’ve got quite a backlog of notes and photos from the past couple of months, and while not all of it is post-worthy, there are a few things that I’d like to get written up soon, especially since the fall is shaping up to be a pretty busy season for beer happenings.