Category Archives: beer reviews

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.

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.

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.

Quick Quaff: Great Western Brewing Original 16

When it comes to selling beer, it helps to have a good story to tell. And when it comes to good stories, it’s hard to beat the one behind Saskatoon’s Great Western Brewing.

Opened in 1927 as Hub City Brewing Company, the brewery changed hands a number of times over the years, ending up as a branch of Carling O’Keefe until 1989, when the Molson/O’Keefe merger threatened it with closure. To avert this fate, sixteen employees got together and purchased the brewery and relaunched it in 1990 as Great Western.

In the years since, Great Western has never had an pretenses of being an artisanal craft brewery. Its brands are aimed squarely at the mass market and sold largely in Saskatchewan, where the brewery’s local and independent nature is what keeps them selling. So it was a bit surprising to see the launch back in March of Original 16 Canadian Pale Ale, a self-described “premium beer brand” released and named in honour of the brewery founders.

Having now tried the few cans that the folks at Great Western were kind enough to send me, I’m reminded that in the world of beer marketing, the word “premium” can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. Or more to the point – when a brewery that normally produces mass market pale lagers puts out an ale and describes it as a “premium beer,” it’s probably not going to be a rich, hoppy, full-flavoured brew.

Based on Original 16, it’s more likely to be a clear golden ale with a light and sweet aroma of honey-on-toast and fruit cocktail, a crisp and clean body, and a refreshing flavour profile with notes of honey, lemon, grape skin and cut grass. What makes it “premium” is the fact that it’s an adjunct-free, 100% barley malt brew, and that its initial 7 day fermentation is followed by nearly four weeks of aging, a rarity for mass market beer.

Basically, Great Western knows its customers, and has brewed a beer that will appeal to them – i.e. a simple, clean, golden ale that has strong stylistic similarities to a a simple, clean, golden lager. It might not turn the head or excite the palate of someone whose taste is more inclined toward big and bold craft beers. But for what it is, Original 16 is nice little beer.

Breaking the Boundaries of Beer Cocktails at beerbistro

For most of my drinking career, my opinion of beer cocktails has been one of mild ambivalence. While I’ve tried and enjoyed a few, I never really saw much point to them as I’ve always looked at beer as a beverage meant to be consumed and enjoyed in its original form.

Recently, though, I’ve been shown that if made by the right set of hands, a beer cocktail can be a truly unique creation that is more than just a lager or ale mixed over ice with a couple of other ingredients. Especially when those hands belong to Michelle Tham, the bar manager at beerbistro.

I first tried Tham’s mixological creations a few weeks ago, when beerbistro hosted a low-key tasting featuring a couple of cocktails that she had crafted using beers from Unibroue. The brewery’s gregarious beer sommelier Sylvain Bouchard was on hand to talk about the drinks and to present and explain some food pairings, but it was Tham’s demo that was the most interesting and enlightening part of the event.

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Blonde on Blonde – Keith’s Ambrosia Blonde vs. Rickard’s Blonde

While it’s unlikely that either company would freely admit to it, it’s easy to get the impression that Labatt and Molson have been shadowing each other with their respective Keith’s and Rickard’s brands in the last few years, leading to a pair of pseudo-craft portfolios that are strikingly similar in their line-ups.

The latest parallel between the two is the recent and nearly simultaneous launches of Keith’s Ambrosia Blonde and Rickard’s Blonde. While there are some differences between the two – the Keith’s is an ale while the Rickard’s is a lager; the former is a limited Brewmaster Series release while the latter appears to be a new year-round product – the similar names and the arrival of promo samples of both within a week or so of each other made it impossible to resist doing a head-to-head review of the pair.

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Quick Quaff: Cameron’s Oak-Aged Series – American Whiskey Barrel

Cameron’s Brewing has never really been what you might call an overly adventurous brewery. Yeah, they’ve put out some experimental one-offs for their monthly Cask Nights at the brewery and the odd special event, but their main efforts over the years have been focused on a line-up of four beers that are solid enough, but not exactly envelope-pushing.

Given that history, it made sense that some eyebrows were raised when it was announced last November that former Molson marketing executive Bill Coleman had joined Cameron’s as co-owner and president. Exciting or not, Cameron’s is still a well-respected craft brewery, and there was some concern that Coleman was a guy with big brewery ideas who was swooping in to take away the few interesting things that were happening at Cameron’s in favour of the bottom line.

Thankfully, though, that hasn’t seemed to be the case. If anything, it looks like Coleman might be encouraging the brewers to get more creative, assuming this new beer – a 7.4% ale aged in a Jack Daniel’s cask and released in a limited edition of 150 bottles – is any indication.

Out of the bottle, the beer instantly grabs some attention with its rich and slightly hazy chestnut-mahogany body capped with a moderate sized off-white head. On the nose, it’s big without being aggressive, with notes of whiskey, vanilla, wood, caramel malt and cocoa all nicely balanced. The flavour holds just what the aroma suggests – a well-integrated blend of mellow sippin’ whiskey and a strong and smooth malty ale – with a hint of sour wood and subtle hops in the finish.

My only real complaint is that the palate is a little light, and should the series continue, I’d be interested to see a fuller bodied beer being used in a future installment. But that’s a minor quibble over an otherwise fine brew that is hopefully a sign of more good and interesting things come from the brewery under Coleman’s watch.

Cameron’s Oak-Aged Series – American Whiskey Barrel is available now at the Cameron’s Brewery store in Oakville, priced at $12.95 per 750 ml bottle.

Quick Quaff: Molson Canadian 67 Sublime

OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat:

Molson Canadian 67 Sublime is not a great beer. It has very little colour, aroma and flavour. It’s bland and, frankly, kind of boring. The several bottles I had at the launch party that Molson threw at The Fifth last week are likely the last I will ever drink.

Those are all the things that I, as a Serious Beer Drinker, am expected to think and write about beers like this. And in general, they’re all true.

But they also don’t much matter, as Molson Canadian 67 Sublime – a low calorie and low alcohol beer infused with lime and lemon flavour – isn’t a beer for Serious Beer Drinkers, and what Serious Beer Drinkers think about it is pretty much irrelevant. It’s not a beer to be sniffed and sipped and swirled and savoured; it’s a light and lightly-flavoured beverage designed for calorie conscious consumers who want to enjoy a few brews on a warm patio with friends and not think about what they’re drinking aside from making sure it’s cold and refreshing.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sure, I could pull out the argument that those who want to cut back on their caloric intake could just drink a less – and preferably craft – beer rather than settling for a low calorie macrobrew. But that assumes that the people who choose to drink 67 Sublime and other low-cal and lime-flavoured brews are settling, when in fact, many of them are likely quite happy with what they’re getting.

And what exactly are they getting? A pale yellow liquid with lots of carbonation, very little aroma, a very refreshing mouthfeel, and a clean flavour that’s reminiscent of 7-UP with a backnote of malt. (My wife claimed that it tasted like Irish Spring soap, but I think that was caused by the combination of the beer and the cilantro in one of the hors d’Å“uvre that was being served. Plus she generally hates fruit-flavoured beers, and calls me a girly-man when I drink them.)

Sitting on the lovely enclosed rooftop patio at The Fifth, chatting with friends and colleagues, and enjoying a sultry early summer evening, I drank one, and another, and another besides that. Sure, they weren’t as good as the Hacker-Pschorr Kellerbier I’d enjoyed at a nearby pub beforehand, or something else similarly full of flavour and character, but they were cold and wet and drinkable (sorry, Steve!), and I was thirsty, and I drank them.

So for what it is, and who it’s made for, Molson Canadian 67 Sublime is a product that fits its niche perfectly. It’s just pretty clear that I (or any other Serious Beer Drinker) don’t really fit into that niche along with it. That’s not a passing of judgment, just a statement of fact – a fact that I’m fine with, and that I expect Molson is fine with as well.

Going Rogue: The LCBO Rogue Brewery Feature

As much as I appreciate that the LCBO’s periodic series of brewery features has been bringing in some great beers that Ontario drinkers might not see otherwise, I really wish the agency were a bit more organized in terms of release dates and distribution so that customers have a clearer indication of where and when the beers will be available.

Case in point: The current release featuring a half dozen selections from Oregon’s Rogue Brewery was originally announced as being due in stores in late June, so I’ve been sitting on my notes from the early May media tasting, and was planning on posting something a bit closer to the release date. Then I got word that they’d be coming at the end of May, and got ready to write something sooner – until I head that it was back to late June, and held off again.

And then the beers suddenly started hitting the shelves a week or so ago, and are already selling out in some locations, which makes this post a little less timely than I’d hoped.

There are still bottles of most of them out there, though, so here are a few quick thoughts on each to help you decide whether they’re worth the hunt…

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Quick Quaff: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA

This past week’s launch of Muskoka Brewery‘s Mad Tom IPA ($12.95/6×355 ml at The Beer Store) was one of the most anticipated Ontario beer releases in recent memory, and while only one other local beer blogger seems to have gotten a review up, you can expect that to change pretty quickly. You can also expect that most of those reviews will be positive, as Mad Tom gives Ontario beer drinkers something that’s been sorely missing from our retail shelves: a locally-brewed version of a well-hopped American-style IPA.

That’s not to say that no Ontario brewery has crafted a beer in this style before. It’s just that all of them – such as Black Oak Ten Bitter Years, Flying Monkeys Smash Bomb and assorted experiments from Great Lakes – have been draught/cask-only or for sale in bottles exclusively at the brewery.

In fact, the only comparable Ontario-brewed beer with wide retail distribution at the moment is Great Lakes Crazy Canuck Pale Ale, which hit the LCBO in cans around the same time that Mad Tom was released at The Beer Store (with LCBO availability to follow soon). Both beers are fantastic, but it’s Mad Tom that I’m giving props to today.

Pouring a shining golden-orange with an ample white head, the beer throws off the aromas you’d expect from a beer dry-hopped with Chinook and Centennial – i.e. citrus and pine, with some tropical fruit cocktail playing a small supporting role. In the flavour, the malt makes a valiant effort to show itself, offering some nice hints of caramel and biscuit off the top, but it can’t hold back the hops, which punch through with tons of grapefruit, lemon zest and pineapple, a smidge of pine resin, and an odd but not unpleasant suggestion of pepsin (à la Beemans Gum).

Well done, Muskoka – you’ve earned Mad Tom a regular spot in my fridge for the summer, and I imagine the fridges of a lot of other folks as well.