Category Archives: beer people

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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I Was Not Informed That There Would Be Cameras Present!

Or maybe I was informed. I was pretty drunk after all. But either way, there is some unfortunate video evidence of the “Not Always in Good Taste: Beer Writers in the Round” event that I was part of at C’est What during Toronto Beer Week back in September.

In the video above, you’ll see Josh Rubin, yours truly, and Troy Burtch revealing some embarrassing beer-related moments; and below, you’ll see the two Steve’s – Beaumont and Cameron – and I ranting about some of the worst beers we’ve tried. For my part in this second video, I gave a spoken variation of the especially (and deservedly) scathing review of Wellington Silver Wheat Ale that I’d written for TasteTO a couple of weeks earlier.

Assuming that you can stand watching these two videos, there are a couple more posted to C’est What’s YouTube account, both of which are mercifully free of any of my aimless ramblings.

Toronto Beer Week – Day 2: Eatin' and Yappin'

Given my past record, I suppose I should’ve known better than to think I’d able to keep up a next-day diary during all of Toronto Beer Week. It went well enough for day 1, but then – well, it’s now two and a half weeks later, and I’m just getting to day 2. Hardly seems worth it given that everyone else has finished writing about the whole week and have moved on to other things, but I’m not gonna let all the goddamn photos and notes I took go to waste!

The most anticipated event for TBW for many folks was the BrewDog Brewery dinner at beerbistro, with co-founder James Watt flying in from Scotland to host. (He’s the sly looking fellow on the right in the photo above, next to me in the middle, and Josh Rubin – beer writer for the Toronto Star – on the left. Photo courtesy of Stephen Gardiner.)

I imagine that anyone bothering to read this blog already knows about BrewDog’s reputation for pushing the envelope of brewing and marketing with their super-strong beers, cheeky promo videos and media baiting. And it’s hardly news that you can always expect something pretty great from a dinner at beerbistro. So let’s skip the background and get straight to the proceedings…

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Cheers, Jim

jimbrickmanThe guy in the photo on the right is named Jim Brickman. Way back in 1984, he founded a brewery in Waterloo, Ontario called Brick. He probably doesn’t know it, but he and his brewery are the main reasons I became a craft beer drinker.

This may sound strange to younger folks who are only familiar with the Brick of today: a brewery known mainly for their “buck-a-beer” Laker brand along with a bland mainstream lager (Red Baron), a bland dark lager (Waterloo Dark), and a bland retro-ale (Red Cap). But as I briefly noted in the first post on this blog, during the couple of years I attended the University of Waterloo in the mid/late-1980s, Brick (along with Sleeman and Wellington in nearby Guelph) was an early pioneer of microbrewing in Ontario.

Brick’s line-up of beers wasn’t extensive at the time – just two, or maybe three brands – and in keeping with the German heritage of the Kitchener-Waterloo area, it concentrated on lagers. But they were lagers that were actual relatively flavourful and distinct from the standard Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe beers that had been the only option for beer drinkers in the previously few decades.

I can’t claim that I didn’t drink my fair share of mass produced suds back then. I recall having a strange fondness for Molson Golden (which was an ale, at least), and like most black-clad punk/goth/alternative club-goers of the time, Carling Black Label became part of my uniform for a couple of years. But early on in my drinking career, I discovered Brick Lager and Red Baron, and they kick-started my interest in trying other microbrews and imports.

Through the 1990s, Brick remained at the forefront of Ontario’s craft brewing scene. Their core line-up expanded to include Waterloo Dark and several other lagers; they rescued the brands of short-lived small breweries such as Algonquin, Formosa and Conners; and they signed deals to contract brew such renowned international brands as Andechs Spezial Hell, Henninger Pils and Celis White, the latter being the first Belgian-style witbier I ever tasted. And let’s not forget Brick Anniversary Bock, an annual offering through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s that remains one of the best beers ever brewed in Ontario.

But then, a few years ago, things started to change, as Brick seemingly decided that market share was more important than product quality and diversity. The international brands all disappeared, as did most of the smaller brands they had purchased over the years, and the Anniversary Bock was discontinued. The Laker discount brand purchased from Molson in the late 1990s became a bigger part of their portfolio, alongside an array of undistinguished and indistinguishable pale lagers being sold under the Brick banner. Aside from cracking an occasional Red Baron or Waterloo Dark for nostaligic reasons, I pretty much stopped paying attention to Brick at this point, as the beers they were brewing obviously weren’t being made with craft beer drinkers in mind.

It’s probably no coincidence that during this same time period, Brickman’s role at the increasingly corporate brewery seemed to diminish. He was replaced as President and CEO in 2004, and while he retained the title of Executive Chairman and remained the public face of the brewery, it was clear that decisions on what brands to brew and what ones to cull were pretty much out of his hands, with the board being more interested in increasing share value than satisfying adventurous beer drinkers.

brickmanbeersThings took a slight turn for the better a couple of years ago, when most of the Brick brands were killed off and replaced with the J.R. Brickman Founders Series, a trio of beers that seemed to be intended to return Brick to its craft brewing roots. Some claimed that the brews – Pilsner, Amber and Honey Red – were simply rebrandings of the discontinued Brick brands, but to my palate, they seemed to have a fresher and more flavourful character, with the Pilsner being especially impressive. Sadly, though, the quality hasn’t been consistent, with a can of the Pilsner I tried back in July being especially poor, suggesting that corners are now being cut on what was originally intended to be a line-up of premium beers.

And now, as Brick is about to enter it’s 25th year, there comes another blow: Jim Brickman has left the brewery. The announcement came with little fanfare in a press release last week, buried beneath the quarterly financial statements. There was no direct quote from Brickman, just a brief notice that “Jim Brickman has provided his notice of retirement to the Company which the Company has accepted effective immediately”, followed by the typically corporate quote from President & CEO George Croft stating that “The Company appreciates the significant contribution Jim Brickman has made to Brick Brewing since founding it in 1984”.

There has been no subsequent statement from Brickman giving details regarding the reasons or circumstances of his departure, and I don’t want to get wrapped up in any conjecture, aside from noting that “retirements” that are “effective immediately” are rarely amicable ones. But even if this one is, it’s still a sad day. Yeah, Brick will continue making beer, and Jim Brickman may pop up somewhere else, but it’s still the end of an era in Ontario’s – and Canada’s – brewing industry.

Cheers, Jim. And thanks.

Beer Stuff on Taste T.O.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down for a chat with Ralph Morana of Volo, one of the best beer bars in Toronto. He recently celebrated his 20th anniversary of ownership (although it’s only been a go-to place for beer for the last 5 of those), and we talked about the ups and downs of the last two decades. The resulting article was posted to Taste T.O. today, so under the assumption some some of you might be interested in reading it, here’s the link.

Also on Taste T.O.: One of our other writers interviewed Brian Morin, co-owner and chef at beerbistro. That article was posted yesterday. And here are links to my Beer Of The Week columns that have been posted since the last time I did one of these round-ups:

April 29th: Trafalgar Oak-Aged Rye
April 22nd: Southern Tier IPA
April 15th: Weltenburger Kloster Asam-Bock
April 8th: no column (posted a list of upcoming beer dinners instead)
April 1st: Rogue Brutal Bitter
March 25th: Headstrong Pale Ale & Headstrong Munich Lager

A Toast to Michael

toastposter_promo.jpgThe beer-blog world is buzzing about yesterday’s official announcement that plans have been finalised for A National Toast in memory of Michael Jackson. On Sunday, September 3oth, drinking establishments across the U.S. will be hosting memorial parties, with a nationwide toast at 9 PM EST, and proceeds to be donated to National Parkinson Foundation.

Plans are also starting to come together for non-Americans, with one pub in England already on board. Nothing has been announced for Toronto yet, but I expect a couple of places should have plans announced soon. Volo is holding a special pre-Cask Days event earlier in the day on the 30th, so perhaps they can do an early toast to Mr. Jackson.

For those in non-U.S. locations who want to set something up at their local, Alan has put together a list of a few Parkinson’s organisations in various countries.

Two Greats Are Gone

I’ve had a busy couple of days, so I’m a bit late to the game on both of these, but I still wanted to pay a brief tribute to two important men who have recently left us.

jackson.jpgThe first is Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson, a man who was quite possibly the most read and respected beer writer the world has ever known. I must admit that I haven’t personally read a lot of his work (my beer book library is somewhat lacking), but I do own his Great Beer Guide and Ultimate Beer, as well as his Malt Whisky Companion from my brief time as a self-styled Scotch aficionado, and I enjoyed many of his columns in various beer publications over the years.

But aside from what I’ve read and what I haven’t, the fact is that if not for Jackson, today’s craft beer scene would likely be much less interesting and vibrant than it is, and for that alone he deserves thanks and remembrance. If you check today’s posts (and probably tomorrow’s as well) at RSBS, you’ll see that he’s been getting a lot of both from beer bloggers around the world. Cheers, Michael.

kristal.jpgA bit before I heard about Jackson’s passing, I read that Hilly Kristal had died on Tuesday from lung cancer. If your response to this is “who?”, then you’re not alone, as Mr. Kristal’s name was much less famous than the name of the New York City nightclub that he opened in 1973: CBGB. Officially named CBGB & OMFUG (“Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers”), the club moved away from its roots music origins quite soon after opening and was essentially the birthplace of punk and new wave, with artists like The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and Patti Smith making their earliest appearances on the club’s stage.

Kristal stuck with the club through good times and bad, continuing to support underground music right up until a dispute with the building’s landlord forced the club to close in October, 2006. Even after that, Kristal kept going, and was developing plans to open new CBGB clubs in other cities. Like Jackson, he kept his passion for what he loved with him until the end. I can only hope that people will be able to say the same about me when I’m gone.