Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Drinking Buddies

poster_md2To everyone that is scared away by a romantic comedy set inside a craft brewery, let me say this: Drinking Buddies is not a comedy and, depending on your perspective, may not be all that romantic. Yes, it deals with the subject of love, but in a messy way (and not just because one of the main characters is a brewer caked with sweat and grime). While the trailer is correct with the salient plot points (there are two couples and each person is attracted to the opposite-sex partner in the other couple), do not expect a lighthearted, easy going tone to the film.

The brewer, Luke (played by Jake Johnson of New Girl), is engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick, who I adore) though they aren’t rushing to set a date. Luke works at the brewery with Kate (Olivia Wilde) and the two have an obvious connection (and good on-screen chemistry). Luke and Kate play the more free-spirited and adventurous part of this love-square, while Jill and Kate’s boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) are more intellectual and focused. Everyone is attracted to the similar part of the other couple, which is where things start to get messy.

Except that the film doesn’t lead the characters to the obvious place (the bedroom). The furthest things go is a kiss. We observe from the outside as the characters play around the boundaries of the emotional affair, especially the work spouse dynamic of Luke and Kate. Not a whole lot happens in the film, possibly because most of the dialogue was improvised so there isn’t really any place to go. Drinking Buddies really could have used a subplot to explore its themes a little deeper and to pick up the pace a little.

What’s in the film for a craft beer lover? Not much really, aside from a couple of brewing montages, trying to figure out what beers they are drinking (Founder’s Centennial or Half Acre Daisy Cutter, for instance) and looking at the brewery t-shirts of Kate and Luke. (Jason Sudeikis also name drops 3 Floyds when talking about a staff trip.) There’s also a tracking shot that passes by some barrels being washed, so that happens.

The one subject the movie doesn’t touch on is alcoholism, though it is hard not to watch it and not wonder about the amount that people drink. There are few scenes that don’t involve Kate and Luke having a beer (plus the odd shot or two). Whether they are at a bar, home or work, beer is always being consumed. There are times when it seems like they may be abusing this access to beer, like a late scene where Kate comes into work and heads straight for the taps. The movie doesn’t condone or support the amount they drink, but it’s hard not to question their drinking habits (even for people that work at a brewery).

Drinking Buddies is not a must-see for beer lovers, though an interesting movie choice for those wanting a character-driven film about intimacy and fidelity. The performances from the four main cast members are all very natural and give a sense of verisimilitude to the film. If you like open ended movies that allow for debate and discussion, this fits the bill.

Drinking Buddies is now available to rent online and should be playing in Toronto starting September 6th.

Beer Review: Amsterdam De Wallen

IMG_4283Let me introduce you to the Amsterdam De Wallen, the first Ontario-made barrel aged sour ale available at the LCBO. The De Wallen was announced rather quietly, suddenly appearing on store shelves without much hype other than some social media mentions. The distribution has been fairly limited (mainly Toronto with the odd case popping up elsewhere in the GTA) and quantity is small, which may explain why the De Wallen hasn’t been given a bigger push. While it has been a while since a review has appeared on this blog, it didn’t seem right to let this momentous occasion pass by without some fanfare.

The De Wallen is a framboise that was aged in Flat Rock pinot noir barrels for a year with an assortment of yeasts and bacteria to lend tartness and provide some balance to the sweetness of the fruit. It pours a hazy ruby with tints of auburn and a thin topping of almost-white foam. Big raspberry aroma that contains both the sweet and sour elements of the fruit. A bit of oak and Brettanomyces in the nose as well. The most impressive part of the beer is the taste, which varies from sip to sip. Sometimes a big raspberry flavour jumps out, sweet at first and then fading into a tart, lactic finish. Wood and tannin burst forth at other times with a faint hint of fruit underneath. The fine carbonation is just right for this style and helps make this complex and yet very refreshing at the same time.

The De Wallen reminds me most of a cross between a fruit-infused Belgian lambic and a Flemish Red. This is a big step forward for Amsterdam and hopefully one that leads to even more experiments with sours that see wider distribution. Nothing like the De Wallen has been released by an Ontario brewery before, both in terms of style and quality. This is a world class beer, one that will hopefully appeal to the average Amsterdam fan as much as the beer geeks. Once again, the bar has been raised.

Alexander Keith’s Single Hop Series

IMG_3302By now you’ve read the title for this post, maybe glanced at the photo, and are a little confused, possibly even slightly worried. Please bear with me. Every now and then it’s fun to stop focusing so intently on craft beer and see what else is going on in the beer world. Usually most emails from the big breweries get deleted automatically from my inbox. (New wide-mouth cans? Deleted! A new contest featuring cheerleaders on a boat? Deleted!) On the rare occasion, one of these emails is actually interesting and that has led to today’s discussion on Alexander Keith’s new single hop series. As a card carrying hophead, I was curious (and admittedly very skeptical) about these new beers.

Sometimes these press emails also come with the opportunity to interview someone, like the assistant to the assistant of marketing, and I wonder if anyone ever takes the brewery up on this offer. But this came with the opportunity to chat with brewmaster Steve Durand, who was kind enough to speak with me for a bit about the single hop series. Steve was able to confirm that the beers are all-grain, made with hop pellets and dry-hopped – a good start. The base beer is the same with the only difference being the Cascade and Hallertauer hops used in each beer. The hops are mainly used for flavour and aromatic properties, so don’t expect much bitterness from either. (They clock in at 27 IBUs.) Other single hop beers are currently in development and somewhere in the product testing phase.

The Hallertauer is a fairly subtle beer and the hops really struggle to come through. I had expected a lighter, cleaner malt base, but the caramel and biscuit notes dominant the spicy and earthy hop characteristics. The beer is just too sweet and unbalanced, lacking any of the properties one would expect from a single hop beer. The Cascade beer is definitely more intriguing as the juicy citrus component of the hop shines through and matches the sweet caramel body. The aromatics aren’t quite as strong as most other hoppy pale ales, but it is surprisingly not far off. It definitely plays up the floral and citrusy hop flavours, which help give the beer a more refreshing quality that the Hallertauer lacked. A little more body and some bitterness in the finish to provide balance would round out the beer, but it was still enjoyable enough to drink the whole can. The closest beer that compares is the Hop City Big Mouth Pale Ale, another beer that emphasizes the flavour and aromatics of citrusy hops but lacks bitterness.

One of the big questions that always gets asked when multinational breweries start to make crafty beer is, “Who are they trying to attract with this beer?” Steve said the beers are not aimed at the kind of people that only drink Keith’s, but those looking for more flavour and character in their beer. The goal for the series according to Steve is to “give the consumer what they want,” meaning a beer with more character and flavour. The beers in the hop series are not meant to turn hardcore Keith’s drinkers into hopheads, but to appeal to the different segments of the beer market. Read into that what you will – my suggestions are either something along the lines of “We realized there were beer drinkers that we weren’t making money off of” or “We realized that some people have figured out that Keith’s isn’t really an IPA.”

Maybe people are expecting me to lay into Keith’s for making a beer that seems purely based on business reasons, but craft brewers do the same thing all the time so I can’t fault them just based on that point. They didn’t take a short cut with malt extract, hop extract or adjuncts, which is impressive and commendable. There are still strides to be made in terms of overall quality, but I am also not the intended demographic. My general opinion is that Keith’s is more than welcome to put their marketing force behind single hop beers. People that drink Mad Tom or Boneshaker won’t be switching to these beers any time soon, while more flavourful and aromatic beers like these can only end up pushing consumers into the arms of craft beer. The Cascade and Hallertauer beers only continue to emphasize the importance of the craft breweries that push the envelope, rather than the multinationals that exist two years behind the curve.

Left Field Brewery and the Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale

left field eephusThere is either some divine intervention working for the new Left Field Brewery or the brewery is also part of Alex Anthopolous’ master plan to become the most beloved man in Toronto. Launching in the spring with the start of a new baseball season was likely a planned move, but Left Field has also been lucky that baseball is once again big news in Toronto thanks to the recent offseason trades by the Blue Jays. Add this to the fact that craft beer is gaining in popularity at an incredible rate and you’ve got a formula for some early success.

I’ve already spent some time talking about craft beer and baseball, but it also occurred to me that one can make a comparison between the fans of baseball and craft beer. Drinkers of craft beer and watchers of baseball used to stereotypically thought of as the same rough demographic – old white dudes (possibly bearded). Things have been changing recently as younger fans get drawn in, either by new and exciting beer styles or, in the case of baseball, Bill James and new metrics. Of course, there has always been a crossover between watching sports and drinking beer and baseball has always been thought of That Sport Fat People Can Play (see: Wells, David; Fielder, Cecil; Fielder, Prince; any Men’s softball league). Let’s not forget that beer was an integral part of the collapse the Red Sox experienced in 2011. It is this intersection that Left Field should comfortably occupy.

Left Field will be starting out with three beers: 6-4-3 Double IPA (the ‘P’ could stands for Play in my mind), Maris* (an American Pale Ale named after Roger Maris and brewed with mostly Maris Otter malt) and the Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale (currently on tap at better beer bars in Toronto). The Eephus pitch is a pretty rare one is baseball, a low speed pitch designed to catch the hitter off-guard. Left Field was kind enough to supply me a sample bottle of the Eephus to review and while it may not catch anyone by surprise, it’s definitely not a junk pitch.

The Eephus pours a medium-t0-dark brown with a strong ruby character and clear body. A small head forms, a shade lighter than a cappuccino, and leaves lacing as it settles down. The toasted grains come out first from the aroma with an undertone of wet earth, followed by dark cherries and toffee after a quick swirl. The malts come out first with flavours of toast, almonds, molasses and a small amount of cherry. This is followed by a big blast of earthy hops, cutting the sweetness from the malts. At 35 IBU it is not a very bitter beer, but dry enough to eliminate the residual sugars from the palate and encourage the next sip. A green hop character comes through in the aftertaste. The oatmeal definitely adds a lot of weight to the body, making this feel like a bigger beer than 5.5%. A really nice beer for those cool outdoor nights in early spring or a long playoff push in the fall.

Left Field is currently running as a contract operation out of the Grand River brewery. All three beers will be available at their Home Opener party happening at 3030 Dundas St West on Friday, April 5th. I know some people don’t care at all about branding, but it just has to be said that everything from Left Field (bottle labels, glasses, tap handles, website design) looks gorgeous and all makes sense as a cohesive whole. The Left Field Brewery is definitely a hot prospect that is having a promising start to their major league career.

Barrel Aging in Ontario: A Case Study

IMG_3081The barrel aging trend has finally hit Ontario in a big way. Trends unofficially come to life when the LCBO jumps on board, which has definitely been the case over the last couple of months. A small amount of barrel aged beers from breweries like Nickel Brook and Cameron’s made surprise appearances before Christmas and were quickly bought up before a lot of people noticed. Mill Street put their annual barley wine in barrels. Two barrel aged beers have already hit shelves and more are on the way (Bush Pilot Stormy Monday is one example). These beers usually appear in smaller quantities because of the barrel aging, but presumably the higher cost ($10+) makes it worthwhile for the LCBO to stock these niche products. Ontario breweries have been playing around with barrels for a couple of years, but it is now going to the next level.

Bourbon barrels are the most common type of barrel used in Ontario right now, but breweries are also using whiskey, wine, Cognac and brandy barrels (and more that I’m probably forgetting). I had amassed eight different barrel aged beers from Ontario and got a group together this past Saturday to do a large tasting to see how effective the breweries have been in using barrels. The styles of beer were diverse – imperial stouts, German-style lagers, a Belgian spiced ale and even a pale ale. This was a very small sample of what is going on in Ontario, but obviously still a fun exercise.

When having a barrel aged beer, I always try to imagine why the brewer chose that beer to go into that barrel. There should always be some connection between the two in the glass or else it seems like an experiment rather than a conscientious decision. One questionable beer before the tasting was the Cameron’s VSPA, a pale ale that went into Cognac barrels. Hoppy beers don’t usually get put into barrels and the beer sounded like an odd combination, but the flavours worked very well together. There were big notes of peaches and pears, plus some wood character that worked well with the bitterness. The barrel started to give a bit of funk and slightly soured the beer, especially as it warmed. It was really bizarre, but also extremely tasty. Cameron’s also did well with their Deviator Doppelbock put in barrels for six months. The bourbon was definitely there and it was less cloying than the three month bottles they had available in the summer.

One beer that didn’t go over well was the Radical Road Canny Man. Aged in Speyside Scotch barrels, the peat character dominated the underlying beer. I could see what they were thinking (Scotch Ale + Scotch = GOLD!), but the final beer seemed like one that could have been created with a lot of smoked malts instead of barrels. (For some reason it was also corked and in the most ridiculous packaging, including some matte plastic finish over the bottle.) It was a bit of a head scratcher in many different ways. The Nickel Brook Cuvee (also put in bourbon barrels) was also perplexing. There wasn’t much barrel character at all in the beer and a spiced Belgian dark ale just didn’t seem appropriate for the type of barrel. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t all too interesting either.

Then there were three beers from breweries do a bunch of barrel aging. The Beau’s Greener Futures project has put out some odd barrel aged beers, but the Dunkel Buck was a nice surprise. The subtlety of the beer was lost, but the malts and bourbon barrel worked well together. The Amsterdam Tempest in a bourbon barrel was nice, though I still think it is not a big enough imperial stout to truly balance the barrel. As a contrast, the Great Lakes 25th Anniversary Imperial Russian Stout sounded like it was going to be a really big beer, but came out surprisingly mellow. It was definitely not a product rushed out onto the market and had been allowed to develop properly. Their 25th Anniversary Robust Porter in Buffalo Trace barrels was still my favourite by far. Just a great depth of flavours and perfectly balanced between both beer and barrel elements.

The barrel aging trend is really just starting to take off, but early results from a number of breweries are promising. As more breweries start barrel aging programs, hopefully they do it for the right reasons (creating new and interesting beers) and not the wrongs ones ($$$). It will be interesting to see how large the market is for barrel aged beers in Ontario – I could easily see this being a case of quick market saturation as people get more selective in buying bottles over beer that cost over or around $10.

Beer Review: Ramblin’ Road Country Pilsner

ramblin road country pilsnerThe first question that might spring to mind when you hear the name Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm is, “What the heck is a brewery farm?” Well, in this case, it’s basically a brewery on a farm. The farm does grow hops, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve been used in the beer yet (and presumably the fall of 2013 would be the earliest any home grown hops could be used). It seems safe to say that the “brewery farm” is more of a buzzword now than anything with substance, which is all well and good once you realize it’s just a bit of marketing. The more interesting thing to me is the big splash Ramblin’ Road is trying to make. A lot of start-up breweries are just trying to scrape by once they’ve bought all the equipment and rented the space, but Ramblin’ Road has a spiffy website and a PR firm to help send bottles out to beer bloggers (which is how this bottle came across my desk). It seems there is quite a bit of money to be had in being a potato farmer.

Obviously the business side of things takes a back seat to beer quality, so let’s take a look at the Country Pilsner. The Country Pilsner pours a clear, bright straw/light gold in colour and a light head. The nose was sweet cereal grain. A lot of the same grainy wort character hits the palette at first with a lot of sugars. The middle is bready and earthy, two flavours that come to dominate as the beer warms up. There is an odd malt characteristic that comes late in the finish with a small hint of butterscotch, which is out of character for a pilsner but not unpleasant. The tasting notes (and some other reviews) have mentioned a bit of hop bitterness adding balance, but no hops were noticeable even as I let the beer warm to above cellar temperature.

Obviously the beginning of January is not the ideal time to rate a pilsner and the Ramblin’ Road Country Pilsner would not be a beer I would reach for right now. That being said, it has no major flaws and would definitely be a beer I’d like to try again on a warm summer day. I hate to nitpick a name, but for something called a Country Pilsner the beer is too clean – I was expecting more of a working man’s pilsner with some rugged qualities. The Ramblin’ Road Country Pilsner probably won’t appeal to many beer geeks, but will work nicely as a gateway beer for people moving away from adjunct lagers.

Brew Review: Niagara Oast House Barnraiser

niagara oast house barnraiserNiagara Oast House, one of the new breweries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, opened in middle of November and their beers have been in demand ever since. I was lucky to get a bottle of the Barnraiser via trade with someone who was visiting the brewery, which was handy because the beers aren’t traveling to Toronto all that often. There was no information available about what to expect from the beer – a 5% Country Ale – so all I could do was open it up and hope for the best.

The Barnriaser poured a dark golden/light orange with a half inch of tight head the quickly receded and left some lacing on the glass. The nose is very fruity, with lots of peach and some berry qualities. A white peach flavour jumps out, but surprisingly little overt hoppiness. There is a little buttery taste as well, but this surprisingly disappears after a minute or two. A slightly grainy and toasted character from the malts, though the malts do not jump to the fore. It dries out in the finish with a touch of spiciness in the yeast. Soft carbonation and a little thin in the body, but the sort of beer that one would expect to be great on cask.

This is definitely a pale ale that owes a lot to the British tradition. It’s a juicy, fruity pale ale but not in the assertively hoppy way many of us expect from North American pale ales. My first couple of sips left me quizzical and unsure, but the Barnraiser slowly grew on me as it warmed up to cellar temperature. It doesn’t really have a comparable pale ale in Ontario, which is an important factor as the market for ales gets increasingly crowded. The Barnraiser won’t be a unanimous crowd pleaser, but I recommend not to be swayed by your initial impressions. Give the beer some time to work away on your palate. A nice start from the Niagara Oast House brewery.

Week of Reviews: Great Lakes 25th Anniversary Imperial Black IPA

When I started to think about doing a week full of reviews, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was really going to be a week talking about hoppy beers. Turns out I accidentally saved the hoppiest beer for last, much to my surprise. The Great Lakes 25th Anniversary Imperial Black IPA has been tempting me for over a week, but it takes a certain kind of night to crack open a 9.5% ABV beer that comes in a 750mL bottle. (Apparently, that kind of night is called Thursday.) This is the third bottle release to hit LCBO shelves as part of the 25th anniversary of Great Lakes, hence the name. (No offense to the beer or brewery, but I’m kind of looking forward to the end of the anniversary year because the full names of these beers are getting annoying to write. Please go back to short, pun filled names ASAP.) As much as I enjoyed the Robust Porter and Saison, the Imperial Black IPA is definitely my favourite of the series so far.

The beer pours pitch black with a gorgeously frothy mocha head. There is a huge, bright hop aroma dominating the nose with resinous pine and a touch of grapefruit. It’s like putting your nose up to a bunch of hop pellets, which is great. Dark chocolate and espresso are the first flavours on the tongue, but that is soon eviscerated by a wave of hops. Actually, it’s not so much a wave but tsunami, earthquake and Hurricane Sandy all rolled into one. (Too soon?) There is still some of the citrus and tropical fruit elements, but it’s really a pine beast full of resin and hop oils. The bitterness seems tame compared to the pine flavour, but it’s strong. This is one palate wrecker of a Black IPA.

The one way this hoppy beer stands out from the previous three is that it doesn’t try to have any semblance of balance. For a Black IPA, the malts are fairly tame. The hops dominate most of the roasted malt character, even as you let the beer warm up. It is just an obliterating hop punch to the face, which I love, and drinks fairly well considering its strength. This is definitely a beer to open up and share with a couple of people – tackling the whole bottle yourself will leave you drunk and tasting pine for a week. Awesome job by the folks at Great Lakes!

Week of Reviews: Kensington FishEYE PA

Of all the beer samples and deliveries I’ve received, none have come in a nondescript, unbranded can. This particular can came from Mike from the Kensington Brewing Company and contained some of their brand new FishEYE PA, a West Coast style IPA. The beer has gone through a couple of trial versions, but this was close to what Mike and Brock (owner of KBC and the Burger Bar restaurant in Toronto) had as their final vision. The beer is being contract brewed at Wellington for the time being and is starting to appear in bars across Toronto.

The FishEYE PA pours a light tan/deep amber with hints of ruby and orange. A finger of cream coloured head that leaves nice lacing on the glass. The colour is a lot darker than I expect from a West Coast IPA, pushing the boundary of an amber ale the same way that Nickelbrook’s Headstock or Troeg’s Nugget Nectar does. Some citrus on the nose, a lot of malt character (caramel and cereal grain) and a fruity tea character from the yeast. The beginning reminds me a lot of an English ale with a big dose of earthy malt. A touch of citrus before resiny hops leads to a slightly astringent and soapy finish. The bitterness in the finish is a little jarring after the sweet beginning. A little light in the body considering the malt profile. Very drinkable for 7% ABV (which comes from the KBC website and not the can, obviously).

I can see where Kensington is trying to go with the FishEYE, but it still needs some more work. My recommendation would be to reduce some of the crystal and Caramunich malts in order to lower the sugars, allowing more of the hops to shine. This would also allow for a slight reduction in the bittering hops, hopefully losing some of that astringency. I know they’ve experimented a lot with dry-hopping the Augusta Ale and the same technique would probably do wonders for the aroma of the FishEYE. (Keep in mind that I’m not a homebrewer, so these are just ideas from my limited brewing knowledge that I think would help the final product. I also know Brock and Mike would not consider themselves to be brewers, so I applaud the work they’ve done to create the FishEYE.) This is a good start, but it lacks an all-around hop punch to really be a West Coast IPA.

Week of Reviews: Half Pints Humulus Ludicrous

We’ve all got those beers that we really, really want to try and one of the top beers on my bucket list was the Humulus Ludicrous from Half Pints, based in Winnipeg, MB. Luckily I was able to snag a bottle through a trade (as well as most of the regular Half Pints portfolio), allowing me to try one of the more respected Double IPAs in Canada. For those who attended Cask Days, you may have sampled some Half Pints beers – Smoktoberfest (a Rauchbier) or Punk n’ Fest (a caramelly sweet pumpkin beer). (There was also a pre-Cask Days event at Volo that featured the Humulus and other Half Pints beers, but I was sadly too sick to attend.) The Humulus Ludicrous was also apparently destined for the LCBO at one point, but unfortunately things fell through. You can probably come to your own conclusion about who was at fault for that one.

This was an interesting beer to review in the same week as the Muskoka Twice As Mad Tom, because there is a distinct link between the two beers. The ABV on the Humulus is slightly lower (8% to 8.4%) and the larger IBUs (100 to 71) are offset by a bigger malt character. The Humulus is another big beer that could have been brash, but chose restraint in many ways. The nose had a lot of pine, green earthiness, toasted and caramel malts. Citrus and pine dominated the flavour, but the nutty caramel flavours from the cyrstal and Munich malts add balance and a lot of sweetness. The finish is quite bitter, but offset partially by the substantial backbone of the malts. There is a touch of astringency in the end underneath the resin. The mouthfeel is a little oily.

The Humulus is a good example of a Double IPA that is more of a seasonal beer. The malt character is too big to be a summer beer, but it lends itself very well towards cool fall evenings. It’s pretty close to fall in a glass, actually – pine needles and the earthiness of crunchy leaves. There is definitely a lot going on with this beer, even if it doesn’t appeal to hop heads because of the malty backbone. Good things are definitely happening in Winnipeg and Half Pints are quickly becoming a brewery to watch.