Toronto Beer Week: Tuesday

The big event Tuesday night was the BrewDog dinner at beerbistro with James Watt from the brewery acting as our host for the evening, leading us through six courses of beer and food pairings followed by a couple of surprises at the end. BrewDog is a controversial brewery due to its in-your-face marketing/branding and, to some, gimmicky beers. They caused quite a stir in the UK with the Tokyo* imperial stout, an 18% beer that drew the ire of certain groups, which then irked BrewDog. This prompted them to make an increasing number of high alcohol beers including Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32% ABV), Sink the Bismarck (41%) and the infamous The End of the World (55%), the bottles of which are put into stuffed roadkill animals such as stoats. Marketing genius, poor taste or both? That’s your call. My main questions was, “Can these guys actually make beer?” I took my seat, which was with a group of people from the Toronto Regional Association of Specialty Homebrewers (TRASH) and sought to answer this question.

The dinner was arranged to begin with the lowest ABV beers and work up to the intense ones, so the Trashy Blonde (Ratebeer) was first up and paired with a sea scallop with seared foie gras, walnut pancake, banana raisin compote and chocolate veal jus. Obviously lots of flavours going on with the food and required diners to be fans of savoury/sweet combinations, which appealed to my taste buds. With such strong flavours in the food the Trashy Blonde acted as a palate cleanser, using its substantial hoppiness to prepare for the next bite of food. Surprisingly the tropical fruit flavours in the beer still came through, adding a nice final touch to the first course.

Up next was a butternut squash soup and mini grilled cheese on brioche paired with the 5a.m. Saint (Ratebeer). The 5a.m. Saint has a lot of aromatic hops for an amber ale and I started to notice a trend – no matter the style, BrewDog will hop something up. From the citrus aroma the beer segues into a biscuit and toffee middle that was nice but a little overpowered by pine. Not what I would consider a typical amber ale, but expecting conformity from BrewDog is like expecting a gold digger not to cheat (or to have ethics. Choose the punchline you like the most). The beer was good but the pairing didn’t do much for me as the hops didn’t meld well with the sharp cheddar in the sandwich and soup.

The Punk IPA (Ratebeer) tasted like a one-hop, unbalanced IPA when the LCBO brought it in and I still feel the same way. For my palate it is too bitter and resinous, lacking any of the softer hop qualities that makes for a complex IPA. There was a cumin and coriander spiced rabbit chimichanga to go with the Punk IPA and while the food wasn’t spectacular, the beer and spices really enhanced each other. The cumin popped out of the chimichanga, proving once again that IPAs and Mexican food go superbly well together. As James said, a good pairing is one that improves both beer and food, which is exactly what this accomplished.

The main course was braised horse with potato truffle totellini, served with the Hardcore IPA (Ratebeer). The thinking here was obviously that the Hardcore IPA (which at 9.2% is really an imperial IPA) would cut through the horse and jus with the intense hoppiness. Unfortunately the horse was a little dry and not as dominant as expected, though there was a sense of what was trying to be achieved. Still fine together, but not magic. The Hardcore is a fantastic beer, however – nicely balanced with a lot of depth and character. James talked about trying to get it into the LCBO at some point, which I fully endorse.

The beginning of the dessert courses (that’s right – more than one) also brought a shift to more malty beers, starting with the Paradox Isle of Arran (Ratebeer). There are many different versions of the Paradox, this one being aged in Isle of Arran whiskey barrels, giving an intense peaty aroma. The dessert was a vanilla bean white coffee ice cream and I thought there was no possible way it could match the whiskey, sherry and cocoa in the beer. Vanilla can’t stand up to casks! Of course I was fucking wrong. This was the best match of the night – the ice cream made the beer explode with coffee and vanilla undertones, the two elements playing off each other superbly. I would have savoured this longer if my ice cream wasn’t melting.

James had a surprise for us in the next round. Instead of getting the planned Tokyo* we would be the first to try Abstrakt AB:04, an imperial stout brewed with coffee, cocoa and Naga chilies. Or rather one Naga chili pepper as the Naga is the world’s hottest pepper (Wikipedia confirms this, so it must be true). When compared with the 1,000 bottles of the AB:04 that were made, that is not a lot of chili. Aromas of tamari and red chili sauce. The smell brings the chili heat right into the sinuses. Absolutely no head or lacings. The chili hits the palate first then the flavours of roasted malts and dark chocolate round out the beer. Soy sauce evident as well. There is no heatfrom the chili, just the residual flavours. Well balanced. This was my first experience with a chili beer and it grew on me with every sip (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t like chili chocolate).

And then there were two samples left, the ones everyone was anxious to try. Lots of discussion at my table was about whether or not a 32% or 41% beer was actually beer as the beers were not brewed to that high gravity but were frozen and had water removed. To me that is the same as an eisbock, just to a greater extent. I tried to keep as much of an open mind as possible and just enjoy this unique experience. The samples were served side by side and I started with the Tactical Nuclear Penguin (Ratebeer, on the left). No head or lacings once again. Big scotch aroma and a bit of alcohol, but not at all harsh – it is obvious this is going to be really smooth. Some salt and bacon smell. The Islay scotch flavour is huge and I still get some bacon. Expands at the back of the tongue to salt, tamari, leather and roasted notes. Doesn’t take like a beer but a really good scotch. The alcohol is really hidden at first, but some heat starts to come through as it warms. Slick mouthfeel, which is to be expected. The most surprising thing to me is that the beer has legs, which can be seen in the photo above. Call it beer or a liqueur, it tastes great either way.

Sink the Bismarck (Ratebeer, glass on the right) is a whole different beer. This is an IPA gone wild, the brain child of a mad scientist. While the Tactical Nuclear Penguin had the cask and malt flavours adding complexity, the Bismarck is all about hops. Bit of citrus, but mainly a strong medicinal quality. It is like drinking a Band-aid, albeit one that burns your throat on the way down. And then washing it down with pine cleaner. The alcohol really comes through and accentuates the pine. Not an enjoyable drink to me, but an interesting experience.

James (on the left with yours truly) was a great host for the evening, giving candid thoughts on the Scottish beer scene and the difficulties they’ve had with censorship. Apparently brewing a beer with stimulants and depressants (guarana, poppy, Scottish heather honey and kola nut) and calling it Speed Ball will rile some people (this beer is now called Dogma). Lying to banks to get a loan? They’ve done that too. But all of his stories also fit into the BrewDog branding – intense beers for rebellious people. The dinner felt like a sales pitch at time, trying to get us to buy into the BrewDog philosophy and aesthetic. The dinner did answer my question – they can make damn good beers, sometimes I just wish they would concentrate on them a bit more.

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