Tag Archives: UK

Five O'Hanlon's Ales

Earlier this month, Ontario beer drinkers got the very good news that the latest vintage of the renowned Thomas Hardy’s Ale was now available for private ordering in our province thanks to import agency Roland + Russell. Not much was known about these folks in the beer community as they previously specialized in importing wine, spirits and fine food, but their great prices and excellent customer service won them a lot of fans very quickly.

Almost lost in the Hardy’s hype, however, was the fact that R+R is also carrying other beers from O’Hanlon’s, the brewery that revived the Thomas Hardy’s brand in 2003, a couple of years after the original brewer, Eldridge Pope, shut down their brewing operations to concentrate on their pub business. When I contacted R+R to place an order for some of the Hardy’s, they replied with info on the other O’Hanlon’s beers which I posted to The Bar Towel, and after exchanging a couple of more emails chatting about the beer business, they were kind enough to offer me sample bottles of the four O’Hanlon’s ales that they will be carrying year round, as well as a Christmas seasonal bitter.

One interesting thing about these beers is that they are bottle-conditioned, which is rare amongst the UK ales that we usually see in Ontario. When it comes to bottle-conditioned brews, I’ll often give the yeasties a swirl and pour them along with the beer, but with four of these five beers, I decided to pour slowly and leave as much of the sediment in the bottle as possible. (The exception: the wheat beer, which is a style that I prefer unfiltered.) The way I figure it, these beers are attempts to replicate cask ale in a bottle, and cask ale is always best when the publican has allowed the yeast to properly settle so the pints can be pulled as clear as possible. But if you prefer your ale with the little chunky bits, knock yourself out.

So – here’s what I thought of ’em:

Yellowhammer Premium Golden Ale
Light golden colour, and a nice aroma – a bit minerally with pleasant Cascade hop notes. Light, refreshing flavour of mellow malt, with some sweet fruitiness and an expertly hopped finish with a fresh, citric character. A pretty simple beer, but quite an enjoyable one.

Royal Oak Traditional Bitter
This is another former Eldridge Pope beer that O’Hanlon’s took on. It pours a deep amber-orange with a small white head that sticks around to the end of the glass. Great aroma right from the get-go – earthy, almost funky malts, some caramel, a bit of alcohol, and pungent hops. Soft, creamy mouthfeel. Lovely flavour of sweet and woody malt, a hint of honey and peach in the middle, and a well-hopped finish with notes of citrus and wood. Really nice!

Double Champion Wheat Beer
Initial slow half-glass pour is clear, bright yellow-gold with a good sized white head. The aroma, body and flavour are all sharp, with nice citrus and herbal notes, somewhat tart and quite dry in the finish. Second pour brings the yeast, turning the body cloudy and adding some dustiness to the aroma and flavour. The few UK wheat beers I’ve had before this haven’t done much for me, but I enjoyed this one.

Goodwill Christmas Bitter
Garnet colour with a wispy tan head. Nice aroma of sweet caramel, malt and orange candy. Same soft mouthfeel as the rest of the beers. Pleasant flavour, fairly sweet with mild spice notes, and a moderately dry finish with a faint medicinal tinge. I liked it, but I expected a bit more from an Xmas ale.

Original Port Stout
This interesting concoction is modelled after an old Irish tradition of starting the morning after the night before with a stout laced with a splash of Port. It has a nice, dark ruby-brown colour with a good sized light tan head. Interesting aroma that’s fairly malty/roasty with notes of coffee and smoke, and a tinge of sour fruit. The body is on the thin side – decent for an ale, but light for a stout. Flavour follows on the aroma, with sweet roasty notes of the top, some mild smoke and coffee, and a dry, sourish finish. Pretty neat little beer.

In general, I was impressed by the O’Hanlon’s line-up. It’s too bad that attempts to get some of them into the LCBO have been rejected so far, but at least they can be found in some of Toronto’s better drinking establishments, along with the Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

And to prove that they’re serious about this beer thing, Roland + Russell announced this week that they are now carrying a half-dozen beers and a a couple of unique beer-based distilled spirits from Austria’s Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, including the one-time strongest beer in the world, the 14% abv doppelbock Samichlaus. Between this and recent cold and snowy weather, it’s like Christmas came to Ontario a month late!

Thomas Hardy’s Ale

This article was originally written in January 2007 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

Logic generally dictates that beer is best when fresh. Cask ale – which is beer in its purest, unadulterated form – will go off within a few days of the cask being tapped. Keg beer will last longer, but even the pasteurisation and forced carbonation can’t stop it from going stale after a few weeks. And if you’ve ever had to politely force down a lager that’s been sitting in the back of Aunt Shirley’s fridge since last year’s Christmas party, then you’re well aware of the effect that time can have on bottled brew.

But there are always exceptions that prove the rule, and when it comes to beer, there may be more than you think. Many styles of beer, including India Pale Ale, Bock and Imperial Stout, were created to last for months before consumption, and even beers that are not specifically intended to be kept have been known to age well. In one extreme example, a cache of around 250 bottles of beer dating back as far as 1869 was recently uncovered in the cellars of the White Shield Brewery in Burton-On-Trent, and those who have tasted some of the finds have declared them to be more than palatable.

While they may not be stocking 140-year-old bottles, some higher end restaurants have started taking the idea of vintage beer seriously, and have added some well-chosen bottles to their cellars. New York’s Gramercy Tavern recently brought in Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver – a well-known expert on pairing food and beer – to help assistant beverage director Kevin Barry in compiling a list of vintage beers and ciders to offer their customers. And it probably goes without saying that Toronto’s beerbistro has some somewhat rare bottles available for those who are willing to splurge a little.

While there are now a lot of breweries crafting big beers that are meant for aging, the granddaddy of today’s vintage beer scene is undoubtedly Thomas Hardy’s Ale. First brewed in 1968 by Eldridge Pope Brewery at the request of the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the 40th anniversary of the author’s death, the strong Barley Wine was then brewed on an annual basis from 1974 until 1999, when Eldridge Pope shut down operations. The brand was revived in 2003 by Phoenix Imports, an American distributor that had been bringing Thomas Hardy’s to the US since the very first vintage was brewed. They contracted O’Hanlon’s, a family brewery in Devon, England, to start brewing the beer again using the original recipe, and the annual tradition was restored.

At a trade tasting in New York City last fall, I had a chance to sample a recent vintage, and I found it to be exceptional. It poured a still, slightly hazy ruby-brown, and had a huge, sweet aroma of fruitcake with rich whiskey cream sauce and toffee. The mouthfeel was soft and full, and the flavour was very complex, with notes of port, whisky, dried fruit, blood orange and more, leading into a long, warm, lingering finish.

Of course, for Ontario beer drinkers, it generally takes some travelling to savour this rare brew, as it has rarely been available in this province. So there was much rejoicing recently when it was announced that Roland + Russell, a fine food, wine & spirits importer in Burlington, had added O’Hanlon’s to their import portfolio. A limited order of several different Thomas Hardy’s vintages was brought in for beerbistro, and once word got out via Bar Towel and The Toronto Star that they were accepting private orders for cases of the latest vintage at an astoundingly reasonable price ($112.80 per 24 x 8.5 oz), they were deluged with orders. If you didn’t get in on the advance order, there will be some cases available on consignment for a slightly higher price once the shipment arrives, and you will also be able to find it at some of Toronto’s beer-friendly bars and restaurants such as Volo and Smokeless Joe.

It’s worth noting that R+R are also representing the rest of the O’Hanlon’s line in Ontario, with an assortment of their excellent bottle conditioned ales – including Double Champion Wheat Beer, Royal Oak Traditional Bitter, Original Port Stout, and Yellowhammer Golden Ale – available for private ordering and at some establishments. And proving that they are serious about entering the speciality beer market, R+R have just announced that they will soon be repping Austria’s Schloss Eggenberg Brewery who, like O’Hanlon’s, are known for reviving a classic strong vintage beer: Samichlaus, a 14% Doppelbock that was once the strongest beer in the world. This is all very good news indeed for Ontario’s beer aficionados.

LCBO Winter Warmers 2006

This article was originally written in December 2006 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

“Christmas time is here,
Time to drink some beer!
Give us ale, both dark and pale,
The best way to spread cheer!”
(with apologies to Charles Schultz & Vince Guaraldi)

While the holiday season is most often associated with mulled wine, rum & egg nog, and maybe wassail if you’re feeling particularly old-timey, there is also a great tradition of special beers being brewed for the colder months in general, and Christmas in particular. Usually stronger, darker and more flavourful than a brewery’s year-round beers, Christmas and winter beers can be found in pretty much any country that has a history of brewing. There’s even an annual Christmas beer festival in Belgium where more than 100 seasonal beers are served each year.

Here in Ontario, we have a more recent winter beer tradition in the form of the LCBO’s Winter Warmers promotion, which sees them bring together an assortment of strong beers from around the world each December, just in time for holiday enjoyment. This year’s selection is skewed heavily towards the UK, where the winter beers tend to be beefed up versions of classic ale styles, often augmented with spices or specialty malts and hops. Here are some notes on a half-dozen festive UK brews that are currently available in limited quantities at selected LCBO outlets:

Belhaven Wee Heavy ($3.10/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 698977)
Wee Heavy is a designation that been is use for a couple of centuries by Scottish brewers to refer to their strongest offerings. Analogous to England’s Barley Wine style, they are sometimes known as 90 Shilling (written 90/-) in reference to the usual invoice cost of a hogshead barrel of the style in the early 19th century. While some Wee Heavies can inch up towards the 10% abv mark, Belhaven’s version keeps the booze in check, making it much more quaffable. It features flavours of sweet malts, brown sugar & caramel, and a hint of smokiness joining the mellow hops in the finish.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2006 ($6.95/500 mL, 8.5% abv, LCBO 676213)
One of the highlights of each year’s Winter beer promotion is the arrival of the annual Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Brewed in limited quantities using a different recipe each year, these Barley Wine style ales are fine to drink right away, but also lend themselves to aging. Each bottle also comes in an embossed burgundy box, making it a great stocking stuffer for your favourite beer drinker. This year’s edition is a bright orange-amber ale with aroma of biscuits, sweet fruit, herbal hops and some alcohol dryness. The flavour is big and warm, like a classic English Pale Ale laced with a half-shot of smoky whisky. I suspect that it will improve with a bit of aging to mellow to boozy edges, but it’s still a fantastic sipper for a cold evening.

Greene King Strong Suffolk ($3.45/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 575530)
Greene King is one of England’s oldest breweries, and also one of the country’s largest thanks to a series of sometimes controversial buy-outs that it has undertaken in recent years. With Strong Suffolk, they go back to their roots, restoring the tradition of blended ales that was once quite common amongst breweries and publicans. This practice of mixing one beer with another was often employed as a means of using up older or spoiled beers by mixing them with younger, fresher stock, but it was also used for more legitimate reasons to produce quality products that customers enjoyed, such as the pub staple Black & Tan. In the case of the Strong Suffolk, they brew a 12% beer called Old 5X that is aged in oak vats for a minimum of two years, and then mix it a freshly brewed batch of a dark ale called BPA just before bottling. The result is a ruby-chestnut beer with a soft & sweet aroma, a smooth body that brings to mind a good cask ale, and a flavour that starts slow, but builds to include notes of sweet malt, raisins & prunes, and some slightly tart wood notes in the finish.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale ($3.95/550 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 408005)
Established in 1758, Samuel Smith is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, and one of England’s oldest independent breweries. Their Winter Welcome is one of the best known UK seasonal beers throughout the world, and it is also one of the least traditional, as it is produced using artificial carbonation and is only available in filtered and pasteurized bottled form, whereas more traditional British ales are made available in more natural cask versions. Still, this is a pleasant amber ale, holding notes of caramel, mint, almonds and bread, along with the expected malt and hop characteristics. And since Samuel Smith has finally started shipping their beers in brown bottles rather than clear glass, you are now much less likely to find yourself with a lightstruck (aka “skunky”) pint when you open one of these.

St. Peter’s Winter Ale ($3.50/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 890079)
Known for their distinctive flask-like bottles, St. Peter’s brews ales that range from the traditional (Best Bitter, Old Style Porter, IPA) to the quirky (Cinnamon & Apple Ale, Lemon & Ginger Ale). Their winter ale falls into the former category, and is accurately described on the label as a “classic winter warmer”. It’s the darkest of the lot, pouring a deep, dark ruby-brown with a small tan head. As with the Strong Suffolk, it has a soft, cask-like body, which lends it even more of a traditional air. The aroma is roasty and smoky with notes of dark cherry and cocoa, and the flavour brings to mind an old style Porter, with strong chocolate, coffee and roasted malt notes, and a warming bitterness in the back of the throat.

Wychwood Bah Humbug ($3.25/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 3822)
Wychwood are the folks behind the popular Hobgoblin and Fiddler’s Elbow ales, as well as the nicely labelled but rather poor quality Black Wych Stout. Their seasonal Bah Humbug is a strong ale brewed with a healthy dose of cinnamon, and it comes through in both the aroma and flavour. The aroma also gives off notes of fruitcake, nutmeg, roasted malt, and a hint of chocolate, while the flavour is malty and fruity, some mild spice and banana bread coming through, followed by a faint hoppiness. It’s very nice stuff, but it’s also getting scarce already, as it hit the shelves a few weeks before the rest of the winter beers. Look around a bit and you be able to find a few bottles kicking around, but if you can’t, you’ve got the five previously mentioned beers to choose from, not to mention the rest of the winter release:

Chimay Blue ($3.20/330 mL, 9.0% abv, LCBO 357236)
De Koninck Amber Ale ($2.15/330 mL, 5.0% abv, LCBO 676882)
Innis & Gunn Limited Edition Oak-Aged Beer ($4.85/330 mL, 7.2% abv, LCBO 16337)
Okocim Porter ($2.45/330 mL, 8.3% abv, LCBO 340919)
Trafalgar Celebration Ale ($3.95/650 mL, 5.7% abv, LCBO 684878)
XO Beer ($3.95/330 mL, 8.0% abv, LCBO 527838)

Cheers, and Happy Holidays!

Weston's Cider (aka How Do You Like Them Apples?)

While it’s rarely my beverage of choice, I occasionally find myself in the mood for a good cider. Unfortunately, here in the land of the government-run alcohol monopoly, the selection of ciders available to us is generally limited to UK imports such as Strongbow and Blackthorn – mass-produced ciders that are artificially sweetened and carbonated, making them the Bud/Coors/Blue/etc. of the cider world – and similarly mainstream domestics like Growers.

The selection got a little better earlier this year when the LCBO added Stowford Press English Export Cider from Weston’s Cider to their general list. While Weston’s may not be a small artisanal cidery, at least they’re a family owned business producing ciders that are much closer to traditional styles than the industrial muck churned out by the big boys.

So having enjoyed the Stowford Press the couple of times I’d tried it, I was happy to see a pack of three other Weston’s ciders as one of this year’s holiday gift box selections. The selection includes 1880 Cider (8.2% abv), a special blend created in 2005 for Weston’s 125th anniversary; Henry Weston’s Vintage Reserve (8.2% abv), which is aged in oak vats for six months before bottling; and Weston’s Organic (6.5% abv), produced using locally grown organic apples.

I enjoyed all three of them fairly equally, and found them to be quite refreshing and, well, appley. I also thought them to be quite similar to each other in a lot of ways – perhaps too similar. In particular, there is a slight funky/cheesy note to the aroma and flavour of all three of them, as well as the Stowford Press, which I can only assume is a house characteristic shared by all Weston’s ciders. I liked it, but I would’ve preferred a bit more variation between the three.

Anyway, I’m still a cider neophyte, and I’m sure that even the Weston’s offerings would pale in comparison to a fresh local cider enjoyed in a village pub in the UK countryside. But they didn’t disappoint me, and I’d happily take them over a Strongbow any day.

A Bushel of Fruit Beers – Part 1: LCBO Summer 2006 Seasonal Release

This article was originally written in July 2006 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

Fruit beers have it pretty rough. Ask a mainstream beer drinker what they think of them, and if they’re not completely baffled and/or disgusted by the concept, they might be reminded of Twist Shandy, the horrible lemon-flavoured beer cooler that Labatt produced in the 80s and 90s. Ask a beer geek for their opinion and they’ll often dismiss them as tarted up gimmick beers made for people who don’t really like beer, or as something to keep their girlfriend/wife happy at their favourite beer bar while they themselves drink a big Imperial Stout or uber-hoppy Double IPA. (I should mention before going any further that my wife calls me a “girlie man” when I drink fruit beers, and counts St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and Great Divide Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout amongst her most favourite things ever, so don’t believe the stereotypes!)

It’s unfortunate that such animosity and attitude exists on both sides of the beer-drinking spectrum, as there are a multitude of fruit-based beers being brewed around the world, and not all of them are of the sickeningly sweet alco-pop variety. In fact, serious beer aficionados hold some of them in very high regard, such as Quelque Chose, a strong cherry beer from Quebec’s Unibroue <> that is meant to be served heated, and Raspberry Eisbock, a 10.6% elixir brewed in Michigan by Kuhnhenn Brewing that currently sits at number 10 on the hit parade on RateBeer.com.

If you’re interested in exploring fruit beers, the first thing to know is that the addition of fruit flavour to beer can be accomplished in one of two ways: fruit can be added during the fermentation process, or fruit juice or extract can be added to the beer after it has been fermented. As you might expect, the former method is generally considered to produce a higher quality result, but it’s also much more difficult as the fruit sugars add an extra level of complexity to the already volatile fermentation process. So the majority of fruit beers use the second method, which usually results in a sweeter and less complex end product. As noted in a recent blog post on the topic by Toronto beer scribe Stephen Beaumont, there are some quite palatable examples of beers made using the juice/extract method, and they often appeal to drinkers who are used to heavily sweetened wine- and spirit-based coolers. But it’s the fruit beers produced using the full-fermentation process that tend to receive the most plaudits from hardcore beer geeks.

There are a number of fruit beers available at the LCBO and Beer Store, some of them on a year round basis, and some as part of the LCBO’s current summer beer promotion. While most of them fall on the sweeter side of the flavour spectrum, there are a couple that show a bit more character and complexity. Since most of them are available in single bottles, you can easily grab a bunch and have a tasting with a few friends to find your favourites.

In this post, I’ll cover the fruit beers in the current LCBO seasonal release, while my next post will look at those that are available in Ontario on a regular basis.

Belhaven Blueberry ($3.10/500 mL, 4.8% abv, LCBO 676866)
I’m a sucker for blueberries, so I was really looking forward to this one, doubly so since I’ve enjoyed some of the other beers I’ve tried from Scotland’s Belhaven Brewery. Given their strength in producing traditional ales, I was surprised to find that the base beer used here is a rather pale Pilsner-style lager with not a lot of character. As a result, the predominating characteristic of this one is the blueberry flavour, which was quite fresh and natural tasting in the first bottle I tried, but a bit stale in one that sat in the fridge for a couple of weeks. It’s somewhat one-dimensional, but crisp and refreshing, making it a decent hot weather patio beer.

Floris Ninkeberry  ($2.65/330 mL, 3% abv, LCBO 479154)
The Floris line of flavoured wheat beers from Belgium’s Brouwerij Huyghe is infamous among beer lovers, with the Chocolat version having the dubious distinction of once being ranked the worst beer in the world on RateBeer. Thankfully, the Ninkeberry variation isn’t quite so awful, but it’s nothing to write home about either. It pours a nice orange-gold colour, with a good sized white head. The aroma and flavour are both chock full of sweet peach, mango and non-classifiable berry notes. When the beer is cold, it’s not bad, but as it warms, it starts to feel like you’re drinking a liquid Life Saver. It’s rumoured that this is intended to be a beer for children, which would definitely explain both the low alcohol and the candy-like qualities.

Fuller’s Organic Honey Dew ($3.50/500 mL, 5% abv, LCBO 676858)
OK, it’s not exactly a fruit beer, but it’s flavoured and on the sweet side, so I thought it would be worthwhile to include on this list. As it comes from Fuller’s, the same UK brewery responsible for the fantastic London Pride and London Porter, I was expecting a fair bit from this beer, and I wasn’t disappointed. The colour is a clear, bright honey-golden, and it has a mild, fresh aroma of honey, hay and earthy malt. The body is light and crisp, and the flavour is simple but fresh and pleasant, with notes of biscuity malt, honey sweetness, and a subtly hopped finish. While it’s not my favourite of the bunch, it’s certainly the most quaffable, and would be a fine session beer for a mild summer’s evening.

Liefmans Frambozenbier ($4.95/375 mL, 4.5% abv, LCBO 439984)
While it’s brewed using the juice-added method, this raspberry beer from Belgium’s Huisbrouwerij Liefmans rivals the complexity and quality of many fully fermented fruit beers. There are two main reasons for this: they use the juice of whole fresh raspberries pressed just before mixing, and the base beer is their renowned Flemish Sour Ale, Liefmans Goudenband. The result is a beer that has the aroma and flavour of fresh, tart raspberry compote, backed up with some oak and earthy malt, and a lingering sour finish. (If you’d like to compare it to the unflavoured version, there are still a few bottles of Goudenband kicking around from the LCBO’s spring beer promotion.)

St. Louis Premium Kriek ($tba/4 x 250 mL, 3.2% abv, LCBO 676890)
At the time of writing, this cherry beer from Belgium’s Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck had yet to appear on store shelves, or even in the LCBO’s online inventory. While I try to keep an open mind, my expectations for this one are low due to the poor quality of St. Louis Gueuze and the fact that it will be sold in cans, a package that is suitable for many styles of beer but not a traditional Kriek, suggesting that this will likely be of the sweetened variety.

In closing I should mention that if flavoured beers just aren’t you’re thing, there are two other beers in the summer promotion that you may find more to your liking. Christoffel Blond ($2.30/300 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 696955)  is a golden-hued Pilsner from Bierbrouwerij St. Christoffel of The Netherlands that has a spicy, herbal hoppiness that makes it fantastic for steaming mussels and to drink with them once they’re done, of course. Goldings Summer Hop Ale <> ($3.30/500 mL, 4.7% abv, LCBO 676874)  from Britain’s Shepherd Neame  is a light golden ale with some soft floral notes, but it’s unfortunately been packaged in clear bottles, making it prone to skunkiness thanks to the open shelves and harsh lighting at most LCBO outlets. So if you’re going to get some Goldings, I highly recommend that you grab the bottles from an unopened case if at all possible.

Next post – Fruit Beers, Part Two: The year-round selection.