Tag Archives: Winter beers

OCB Winter Beers – A Review Round-Up


Back in mid-December, I received a media pack from the Ontario Craft Brewers containing eight holiday/seasonal/dark beers. For a number of reasons, I was pretty slow to drink them all, with the final bottle finally being cracked a couple of nights ago (although I wish I had opened it sooner, for reasons noted below…), so the review round-up I promised would “follow soon” at the time has taken a bit longer than expected. Better late than never, right?

So, in the order of appearance in the photo above…

Wellington County Dark Ale
Chestnut-brown with a small off-white head. Toasty malts on the nose, with some toffee and chocolate. Medium bodied, and a well rounded malt flavour with notes of caramel/brown sugar, chocolate, and an odd hint of red wine. (Just see if I was imagining it, I checked my notes from a few years ago, and I noticed it then as well.) Mild hops in the finish are a bit earthy. A pleasant beer that straddles the line between a traditional UK pale ale and a nut brown.

Great Lakes Winter Ale
To quote myself: “A strong (6.2%) and malty ale spiced with cinnamon, ginger and orange peel. It has a rich ruby-orange colour and a sweet aroma with hints of fruit cake and caramel. The flavour starts quite sweet as well, but turns pleasantly spicy in the finish, with the orange peel and ginger being especially prominent as it warms up. This spiciness seems more up-front than I recall in last year’s version, but that’s quite alright, as it gives the beer a distinctive and enjoyable edge.”

Camerons Dark 266
A dark lager with a slightly murky ruby-brown colour. Nice aroma, with a good chocolate malt character with a bit of brown sugar. Similar malty sweetness in the flavour, followed by a bit of smoke, and a fresh hop finish. Medium bodied, quite suitable for the style. Like Waterloo Dark, it’s a fairly simple but enjoyable beer that is a good introduction for people who don’t think they like dark beers.

Trafalgar Abbey Belgian Spiced Ale
This is the last of the batch I tried, but I should’ve known better and opened it back in December in hopes of it being drinkable. Alas, like many Trafalgar beers I’ve tried in the last couple of years, it was infected despite being three months ahead of the supposed “best before date”, and had an aroma and flavour that sat somewhere between old sweat socks and pickle brine. It’s such a shame that a brewery with such an eclectic line-up has such poor quality control, as they’re really doing a disservice to themselves and Ontario’s craft brewers in general. Perhaps they should spend less time on their rebranding gimmicks and more time getting their core beers into a more stable condition before shipping them out.

Mill Street Barley Wine
Quoting myself again: “It has a clear, deep golden-orange colour with a good sized white head. The aroma has the sweet maltiness expected from the style, with a strong caramel character, but also a lot of orange/citrus notes that I don’t remember from the older versions. The flavour is very sweet off the top, with some spice and pepper in the middle, and strong orange peel in the finish along with a whisky-like heat that builds in intensity as the beer warms up.”

Old Credit Holiday Honey
Old Credit is one of those breweries that I rarely think about. Based in Port Credit, they have two year round brands: a “pilsner” which is more of a pale lager, and an “amber ale” which is essentially a Rickard’s Red clone. Microbrewed beer for mainstream tastes, I suppose. So I didn’t expect much from their holiday beer which is apparently available only from the brewery, and those moderate expectations were well met. It has an amber colour with a wispy head, and a simple, one-dimensional sweet malt aroma and flavour, with a faint hint of honey. It’s not offensive in any way – in fact, it’s inoffensive almost to a fault. And it has absolutely nothing in it that says “holiday” to me.

King Dark Lager
The first time I tried this beer a few years ago, I wasn’t that impressed. I guess I expected a dark beer to have a full body with big flavours. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more subtle “dark” beer styles like dunkel, and realize now that King Dark Lager is a very good crack a that style. It pours a nice caramel-amber with a small off-white head. The aroma is malty, with notes of coffee and bread, and a grassy hops. Medium mouthfeel, and a very nice nutty malt flavour with hints of coffee and toffee, and a moderately hopped finish. Great stuff, especially if you get it fresh.

Heritage Black Currant Rye
Two years ago, this beer was a lager that was first made available at Volo Cask Days, and later as a limited bottle release. Last year, it became an ale that was, frankly, pretty bad. This year, it’s an ale again, but it’s been reformulated with some help from Perry Mason of Scotch-Irish, and it’s much better for it. Pretty ruby colour with a good size pink head. Great balance of malt and sweet-tart fruit in the aroma, while the flavour has a mild malt profile with a nice infusion of red currant. It’s a good fruit beer that’s sweet without being too sweet, but it’s also an odd choice for a winter seasonal – it really seems more summery to me.

Black Oak Nutcracker
This beer wasn’t actually part of the promo package, but I added it to the picture in order to make it more symmetrical, and to add another true winter/holiday beer to a somewhat slapdash selection. Nutcracker is a rich and robust porter laced with cinnamon, and it’s annual release is a highlight of my holiday season every year. That anticipation is one of the indicators of a great seasonal beer, and it’s also the reason that Nutcracker would’ve been a great addition to this package. Ah well, there’s always next year…

Big Box o' Beer from the OCB


While it unfortunately arrived a bit too late to help me out with last Friday’s Session post, I was happy to receive a media pack from the Ontario Craft Brewers the other day containing some winter seasonals and other brews conducive to cool weather drinking.

Now, I’ve admittedly been somewhat critical of some of the OCB’s past promotional efforts, such as their rather mainstream “Discovery Pack” and the uninspired package that they sent out to press this past summer. But this new package is a serious improvement, at least in terms of variety. The eight beers in the package include Wellington County Dark Ale, Great Lakes Winter Ale, Cameron’s Dark 266, Trafalgar Abbey Belgian, Mill Street Barley Wine, Old Credit Holiday Honey, King Dark Lager and Heritage Black Currant Rye Beer. Certainly better than a bunch of pale lagers.

(Yes, I know that there’s also a bottle of Black Oak Nutcracker in the photo above. I added it for the sake of symmetry, and because I agree with Stephen Beaumont that it really should’ve been included in the package.)

Since I was sick all weekend and into Monday, I haven’t had a chance to knock many of these off yet. The only one to be drained so far is the Mill Street, which I wrote up for my Beer of the Week column on Taste T.O., but the rest will be consumed and (hopefully) enjoyed in the coming days, and a review round-up will follow soon after.

The Session #10: Winter Beers

session-logo-med.jpgIt’s the first Friday of the month, and therefore time for another Session, when beer bloggers far and wide all make a post about a particular beer style or topic. This month, we’re being hosted by tedo at Barley Vine, and he selected Winter Beers as the topic. A bit obvious? Maybe, but still enjoyable.

That being said – work and life and other things mean that I just don’t have the time to write a full post today. So I’m going to take the lazy way out, and link to a couple of winter beer I’ve recently written for my Beer Of The Week column over on Taste T.O.: Wychwood Bah Humbug and Great Lakes Winter Ale.

(My columns through until the end of the year, and perhaps into January, will likely feature several more seasonal brews, so keep an eye on the site – or the handy “Greg’s Taste T.O. Posts” RSS widget to the right of your screen – to catch those each Tuesday.)

Sorry for the lame-ass contribution. Check out Barley Vine for a round-up of all of this month’s Session posts sometime in the next couple of days – I’m sure that most of them will be more interesting than this one.

Christmas in October with Het Anker


A while back, the fine folks at Roland + Russell importers set me up with bottles of a few of their newest offerings. Amongst them were two brews from Het Anker, the Belgian brewery better known for their main brand name, Gouden Carolus. Since I had a third Het Anker beer on hand at the time, and had recently sampled a fourth at a tasting session, so a rating round-up seemed to be in order.

Gouden Carolus Christmas
I’d tried this strong spiced ale a couple of times before, but I had no complaints about drinking it again. It pours a dark, hazy mahogany with a small mocha head. Big aroma that is sweet, spicy and herbal with some dried fruit notes. The flavour is quite sweet as well, with notes of cherry, pineapple, cinnamon, clove, dark malt and brown sugar. A great winter warmer – I almost wish I’d saved it to drink closer to Christmas. Almost.

Anker Boscoulis
One of the few non-Carolus beers from the brewery, this fruit beer has a slightly hazy ruby-amber colour with a good sized white head. The aroma is jammy, with tons of sweet berry notes, and some yeastiness lurking behind, and the mouthfeel is sticky. The flavour is sweet at first – very, VERY sweet – almost like liquid jam. But as it warms up, some tart and yeasty notes develop in the finish to help take the edge off. Still too much on the sweet side for my personal taste, but better than a lot of fruit beers I’ve tried.

Gouden Carolus Classic
A very fitting name for this one, as it truly is a classic example of a strong Belgian ale. Looks great in the glass – reddish-brown with a good sized off-white head. The aroma is warm, rich and sweet, with notes of malt, dried fruit and dark sugar. Smooth, full mouthfeel, and a big flavour of fruity malt, a bit of chocolate, some spicy yeast, and a slightly boozy finish. Lovely!

Gouden Carolus Ambrio
This lesser-known Carolus has a lighter colour, body and alcohol level than the Classic, but it’s still a decent Belgian strong. It has a clear amber colour with a short white head, and the aroma is warm and sweet, with notes of caramel and rye whiskey. Medium bodied, with a sweet, yeasty, warm and peppery flavour. Probably the least complex of all the Carolus beers I’ve tried, but still very good.

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!

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!

Four Things For Friday

  1. I’m sort of late to the game on this story, as many other blogs have already covered it, as well as “real” news outlets including the New York Times and the Globe & Mail. But in case you haven’t heard about it yet, Massachusetts-based beer importers Shelton Brothers have been having some of their products rejected by liquor regulatory bodies in New York and Maine due to the beers’ names and/or labels being unacceptable. Some, like the Santa’s Butt Winter Porter pictured to the right, were snubbed due to the name and label graphics potentially being appealing to children, while Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus and Brasserie Les Choulette’s Sans Culottes were turned down because the labels feature paintings of bare-breasted women. While the civil libertarian in me finds these decisions to be pretty offensive, I can’t help but be a little amused by them as well, if only because it shows that even though most American states have a much freer market for alcohol sales than we do in Ontario, their government busy-bodies can be just as ridiculous as our pink elephant banning LCBO.
  2. I discovered a new blog this morning that I’m looking forward to keeping my eye on: Pint and a Smoke is written by fellow Torontonian Pat McLean, and it features his musings on the pubs in our fair city. His criteria for a good pub are quite similar to mine: no TVs (or maybe one, as long as it’s unobtrusive), no loud music, at least one good stout on tap, etc. While we live across town from each other, I hope that our paths cross at some point soon, as he seems like a good guy to hoist a few with (even though based on his other blog, he seems to be an Oilers fan…).
  3. Speaking of pubs: My local, The Rhino, has recently added a cask engine to their great line-up of local taps. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but based on the experience that I and others have had there since they brought it in, I’m not especially enthused. The wife and I popped in for a pint the other night, and while our waitress knew that they had a cask ale on, she didn’t know what beer it was (“Uh… I think it’s an IPA?”), and when she went to the bar to ask, the barman sent her back with a sample rather than the name of the beer. The beer was in decent shape, at least, and I suspect that it was probably Durham Triple X IPA. But the lack of knowledge concerned me, as does the fact that the cask ale is not mentioned anywhere on their pre-printed beer menu. Cask ale lovers expect more care and knowledge, not to mention some assurance that they’ll be served a fresh pint, and newbies could end up being served stale pints that will turn them off the stuff – assuming they are even aware that it’s there.

  4. I got together last night with my pals Paul & Harry to help them drink about a dozen mediocre beers that Harry had trucked back from his last visit to Quebec. (Yes, we are beer rating whores). But just so the night wasn’t a complete swillfest, we threw in a couple of guaranteed winners, including the much-loved Struise Pannepot. The other two guys had had it before, but this was my first time trying it, and it definitely lived up to the hype. It pours a deep mahogany-brown with a small mocha head that leaves lots of lace. The aroma is big and round and inviting, with a fantastic sweet & roasty backbone supporting notes of brown sugar, caramel, and assorted dark fruits and spices. The flavour masterfully juggles notes of roasted coffee and dark sugar with hints of fruit (fig, plum, cherry) and spice (cinnamon, licorice), leading into a moderately dry and woody finish. A complex and remarkably satisfying beer that rivals the best that the Trappists have to offer.