The Beer Hype Machine

When really I started to get into beer four or five years ago, the Quebec beer scene was getting talked up like it was the Beer Promised Land. There was this brewery called Dieu du Ciel! that was relatively small and you could only get their beer in Quebec. The Mondial festival was still being held at Windsor Station and was an internationally renowned beer festival. It seemed that someone was taking off to enjoy the beer pleasures of Montreal every other weekend.

I will admit to getting sucked in by the hype. My first bottles of Peche Mortel (brought back from Montreal) were savored during my one year of grad school in London, Ont and only consumed for special occasions, like the end of a semester. Montreal was nice for quick and relatively cheap trips after graduating and visiting my wife’s family in Ottawa usually meant a trip over to Gatineau. I had to admit that there was a lot of nice beer being made in la belle province, but there was also a lot of junk. Why did it seem like everyone had beer blinders on?

Most beer people in Ontario are jealous of Quebec’s beer laws. Corner stores and grocery stores can sell beer made in Quebec and there is a lot less red tape. For the most part that is great, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home with a lot of old beer that was past its prime. (I do take partial responsibility. This was before I knew to check for bottling dates or for tell-tale floaties at the bottom of the beer.) That’s assuming the beer was good in the first place – there are a couple of breweries in Quebec that I would say have Trafalgar-esque track records.

Eventually beer from Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix, Trois Mousquetaires and other breweries started coming to Ontario, which has increased the hype about Quebec beer in some ways, but has also lessened the hype as this is not as rare or scarce of a product anymore. As soon as something becomes available to the LCBO (and, by extension, the general populace), it loses some of the mystique. All you have to do is walk/bike/drive/take transit to an LCBO, rather than spend five hours traveling to a different province. Is it any surprise that people talk less about going to Montreal to stock up on beer?

Michigan became the next trendy beer destination for a year or two as people got their fill of Bell’s and Founders (also coming to the LCBO soon). Now Vermont is the preferred destination for anyone in the eastern half of North America, driven largely by the fact that you can only get Hill Farmstead or Heady Topper by visiting the brewery. Scarcity and hype are driving the market once again, which will likely remain until these breweries eventually start distributing throughout the States. We are once again reduced to talking in generalizations about a state, emphasizing the good and leaving out the bad (for surely there are bad breweries in Vermont, but everyone is too focused on a select number to notice).

I’m no psychology major, but it seems pretty obvious that when someone spends four-plus hours traveling for beer that comes with lots of hype, it’s quite likely that there will be some mental self-trickery happening when that beer hits their tongue. (A simple Google search could probably tell me what this is called, but I’m too fucking lazy and it’s not like this blog technically exists anymore.) We’re primed to think that beer is great because a) that’s what everyone tells us and b) WE JUST SPENT ALL THAT TIME GETTING HERE FOR THIS DAMN BEER!

That’s not to say that Dieu du Ciel! or Hill Farmstead aren’t world class breweries. They are. But the availability of a beer changes our perceptions. Would Hill Farmstead still be so interesting if they started widely distributing their beers? Is Heady Topper just the east coast second coming of Pliny the Elder? I wish it was possible, but beer cannot be tasted in a vacuum. There are all these external factors that influence our perception of the beer we taste.

I’m clearly a little rusty in my writing, because no grand finale is coming to me. So let me just remind everyone that it’s okay not to like a beer. Even if the whole world disagrees with you, stand by your opinion. Some of the hype is true, some of it is bullshit. Only you know which is which.

Please Kill the LCBO Seasonal Releases

Let me cut straight to the chase – the LCBO seasonal beer releases are quickly becoming pointless. While they’re fun to get excited about and discuss for a couple of days after the release, the LCBO no longer brings in beer at only four times during the year. The seasonal releases made sense when stores had limited beer space and it was a way to reserve room on the shelves for beers that they knew would rotate out every three months. But beer is now occupying bigger areas in LCBO stores with a lot more turnover of products.

The logistics of the beer releases have always been treated by the LCBO as an afterthought. Beers appear sporadically, slowly rolling out through stores in a haphazard manner. They give a date of when beers should start appearing, but one or two always come out before that date while others may not appear till a month later (or sometimes dropped without any notice). There is no promotion done for the release other than a small media tasting in Toronto. You pretty much have to be a Bar Towel reader to find out the full lists (especially since a certain blog stopped posting the lists). The LCBO doesn’t really care to advertise the releases, which makes me wonder why they don’t just bring in the beers whenever they choose.

There is now a strong precedent to bring in beers throughout the year as temporary listings. This has become especially common with Ontario craft breweries – most breweries can get a short term seasonal listing that is completely separate from the seasonal release (unlike the old days where the seasonal releases included Ontario beer). But it’s not just Ontario beers that get this exemption. Goose Island, 3 Fonteinen, Rochefort, Ommegang – these are some of the breweries that have come in this year without a listing in a seasonal release. These are also listings that have gone very well without the press that accompanies a seasonal release.

Being on a seasonal release means that a lot of the beer will be ordered, which is sometimes excellent but leads to lots of leftover stock at other times. Rather than turning over products, the shelves are stagnant while beer gets old. A lot of beer drinkers would rather see smaller orders and more turnover of products, giving more reason to visit the LCBO on a frequent basis. Now that most of the Winter release is on shelves, we’re looking at a long dry period before the Spring release of 2014.

The seasonal release program is another example of old LCBO business practices that need to be updated for the current beer environment. There have been changes in the right direction over the past couple of years, but they have not gone far enough. The structured seasonal releases have to go, allowing the LCBO more flexibility to bring in beers throughout the year in smaller quantities. If the LCBO doesn’t start improving the seasonal beer program, they should give it the axe.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Beer

Is it better to burn out or to fade away? That question has been hovering around this blog, at least in my head, for the past eight months. Today marks the end of A Year of Beer, which I think puts me in the “burn out” category. It is also the fourth anniversary of this blog and the 600th post, which seems like an apt time to bring a sense of closure. It may be a slight OCD tendency, but it’s nice to end on round numbers.

There are many reasons why I’ve chosen to end the blog at this point in time. The demands of work have made it harder to regularly produce content. There are things I’d rather be doing with my evenings or weekends than sitting in front of a computer. The beer journalism landscape has changed drastically in the past four years, meaning that I’m now competing with freelance writers for stories and content. This is great for the industry in general and these writers are friends, but it’s hard on a blogger that works full-time. More media events and tastings are being held during the weekdays, which made most almost impossible to attend. It was not an easy decision, but one that feels right.

This is something I’ve been contemplating for months, but didn’t make a final decision until I was in Belgium earlier in the summer. I had a bit of a buzz and was wandering the cobblestone streets of Brussels, anguishing over the thought of coming home and having to write about my trip. That is when I realized that blogging had no longer become fun, which it was for the first three years. Yes, there have been nice perks, but the benefits were now outweighed by the sense of obligation to write two or three posts a week and provide coverage for anyone kind enough to send some beer in the post. It was then that I decided to end the blog before it killed my love of beer.

The sense of bliss after making that decision may partially be a result of all the gueuze, coupled with how beautiful Brussels is in the rain. But there was also a sense of freedom – it was now possible to once again enjoy beer and be free of my shackles as a beer blogger (woe be unto him). It has now been two months since that decision was made and it’s time to shut it down. If you see me at a Toronto Beer Week event and I look insanely happy, it’s because I don’t have to rush home and write an event wrap-up post.

My love of beer has never been stronger. A big part of my decision is wanting to go back to enjoying beer without all of the outside distractions that come with blogging. Those in Toronto can still expect to see my face at a lot of events. I will still be active on Twitter under my @ayearofbeer handle. Giving your opinion in 140 characters or less is much better for time management, so that is where most of my beer-related thoughts will go now.  I can also now put my time and energy into other projects like Toronto Bottle Share.

The craft beer landscape has changed so much in the past four years and it has been thrilling to play a teeny, tiny role in how beer gets talked about in Ontario. The Ontario beer scene has been getting better every year this blog has been in existence and I know that the best is yet to come. The biggest change that I’ve noticed is that Ontario craft beer now gets treated with a respect that was not there four years ago. The beer made here holds up to those from anywhere else in the world.

Like any good soap opera, no death is final and the blog may be sporadically resurrected from time to time. There will be a final post for the 2013 Predictions in December. You may still find the very occasional rant about a beer-related topic, but it’s hard to say right now. Maybe I’ll do guest posts for whatever other blogs will have me – it’s hard to say. I am very proud of the four years worth of time and effort put into this blog. My fear was that keeping this blog alive would only diminish all of that hard work if the posts suddenly dried up and I just allowed it to fade away. (My other fear is not being allowed back onto the Beer Writers curling team.)

The past four years have truly been amazing and have far surpassed my expectations when this blog began (though I had no expectations, so that is not really saying much). There were a countless number of times that I wrote a post only to think, “Hmmm, I doubt anyone will care about this topic but me.” Those posts usually got the most comments, shares and views. It has been the support of my readers throughout the past four years that has kept this blog going for this long. It seems hollow when compared to all that you have given me, but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’d also like to thank my wife as she has put up me and this blog for the past four years. There have been too many times where I’ve been unable to do something with her because of blogging obligations, yet she continues to be my biggest supporter. (Don’t feel too bad for her, though – she was usually my plus one for events. And yes, she likes beer too.)

Drinking so much amazing beer has been great, but the best part has been meeting so many people who are passionate about craft beer. So many people have supported this blog and I am grateful to everyone one of you. Expect to still see me at your bars, breweries and events drinking delicious Ontario craft beer. There are too many people to thank individually and I’m terrified of leaving someone out, so let’s leave it at this – beer people are truly the best people. Thank you all once again.

-Michael Warner

Brands on the Brain

The summer is almost over and breweries will slowly be ramping down production as their busiest season comes to an end. Fermenters will be freeing up for new seasonals and stronger winter beers. It is a good time for breweries to look at their sales numbers and figure out what beers people are buying a lot of and if there are brands that can should maybe be phased out of production.

The beer industry is dynamic and tastes are always changing. Ontario is undergoing a rapid change right now and the breweries are doing a decent job of keeping up with the evolving demands of the consumer. But one area that breweries could improve is by looking at their core brands and figure out if any of them are under performing. There are a good number of breweries, especially those that have existed for ten or more years, that have brands that are too similar.

I understand that the best-selling beers for most breweries is an easy drinking lager or ale. It sells well and makes money, even if the more adventurous offerings are doing well and likely growing at a larger rate. The best-selling beer can be sold to the greatest amount of bars and is easy to take to summer festivals around the province. People won’t be scared away by it when they come for a brewery tour. It may act as a gateway beer or just be the everyday beer that people in the local community can drink. I’m not advocating getting rid of that beer. It’s that beer you’ve got right beside it, the cream ale or stock ale, that leaves me puzzled.

Two Ontario breweries that I can think of (Muskoka and Cameron’s) have lagers and cream ales. Mill Street has their Organic Lager and a Stock Ale. Wellington has the Special Pale Ale and Best Bitter. (Read the descriptions of the beers and tell me they don’t sound almost exactly the same.) Maybe these beers seemed vastly different they were introduced to the market, but now the breweries are left pushing what seem like very similar beers.  The longer they keep both brands alive, the more time and effort they are wasting in the brand that sells less. (They’re also wasting valuable LCBO shelf space, which will become more important in the coming years.)

This isn’t a judgment on any of the beers. And yes, I am well aware that lagers and ales are very different, nor am I claiming that any of the above beers taste the same. It just seems like a bizarre business move to have beers that are close to being interchangeable. Are reps going into bars and saying, “Well, maybe you don’t like our lager but have you tried our cream ale?” You might as well say, “Here’s a variation of the beer you just turned down.” Why not get rid of the brand that sells less, push more of the better selling beer and use the extra fermenter space to try something new?

A good example of a brewery that does this right is Beau’s. The Lug Tread is their flagship and none of the seasonal beers could be confused with that beer. They realize what their main money maker is and don’t undercut that brand by releasing something similar. The fact that the Lug Tread is also their only year-round beer also helps in that regard.

Stopping production on beers is not unheard of in Ontario. Muskoka tried a Pilsner Light beer but eventually canned it after a couple of years (pun intended). Their Hefe Weiss went from year-round in cans to a seasonal product, so it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent. As the craft beer industry becomes more competitive in the coming years, my theory is that breweries will have to talk a hard look at what they are making and figure out how to distinguish themselves from the competition. Hopefully they will realize that focusing more energy on one or two core brands will help them in the long run. The short-term pains of angering beer drinkers losing their favourite beer will be met by bigger long-term gains.

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.

Searching for the Perfect Summer Beer

IMG_4324Everyone remember the beginning of July when it was 40º C and really gross? I looked in my fridge and it was full of all the usual beer geek delights – IPAs and pale ales, a couple of porters and stouts, the odd strong bottle left over from spring and a good chunk of sours that had just returned from Belgium. There were some great beers, but I didn’t want to drink any of them. I wanted something lighter, more refreshing and a beer that wouldn’t challenge my taste buds too drastically on the way down. At the same time, I still desired something with character and a beer that would match well with the lighter foods that constitute summer cooking. (I live in a BBQ-less universe, so my wife makes a lot of delicious grain salads in the summer.) I also wanted a beer that could easily be transported around town (both from the LCBO and to summer gatherings) so I limited my options to cans.

I went shopping to a couple of LCBOs without checking what they had in stock and started picking an assortment of beers. My carts were filled with cans from around the globe – European lagers nestled next to Ontario craft beers and I even threw in some of the retro hipster brands from the Big Boys. Most of the beers I hadn’t tried in years and it seemed only fair to give everyone a chance at being my mainstay for the summer months. My hope was to find something that would be available at most LCBOs in order to maximize convenience, while not giving up taste. Ideally the beer was also going to be 5% ABV or less and available in tall boys, though it didn’t matter if they were lagers or ales.

I used to have a favourite can for summer, back when Muskoka canned the Hefe Weiss. Since then the brand has been changed to Summer Weiss, went to big bottles (then six packs) and lost me along the way. At the time, it seemed like it was going to be a long, hot summer and I knew that my current beer selection would not do. Of course, the summer has turned out to be relatively mild and it has been easy to drink whatever a beer geek fancies, but I kept going through with my quest. The weather is supposed to heat up in Toronto this week, so this may be the last chance to release my findings at an appropriate time.

A couple of early offerings were Ontario beers that hadn’t crossed my palate in some time, but neither the Wellington Best Bitter or Muskoka Cream Ale matched what I was looking for (a little too much malt in the former, while the latter just made no sense to my taste buds). The hipster retro offerings (Molson Old Style Pilsner and Labatt 50) were more exciting than your average industrial beer, but neither would be able to hold my interest over the course of the summer.

Next up were some middle of the road offerings – Cameron’s Lager and the Hogtown Ale (which is of the Kölsch family). Two beers that were easy to drink and with a bit more complexity than the ones listed above, but they didn’t stand out from the pack. The Cameron’s Lager was clean with lots of cereal grains coming though, but too empty in the finish. The Hogtown Ale had some noble hop characteristics that were nice and helped create a dry finish, but the beginning was too sweet and the beer lacked some finesse. It is also only available in Toronto, which isn’t helpful for the rest of the province.

That Pilsner Urquell would be one of the top two choices is probably not a surprise. It is the classic example of a Bohemian lager, well balanced and with a great evolution from start to finish. This is a refreshing beer, while still being very tasty and intriguing. The second beer that will be a mainstay for hot days is the Steam Whistle Pilsner. Most beer geeks relegate Steam Whistle as one of the beers they drink when nothing else is available, which is a disservice to this beer. It won’t do the trick for those times when you’re craving a pale ale, IPA or stout, but works quite nicely when you’re drinking a fresh can on a hot day. It avoids the lager trap of being too sweet and just feels right for those really hot days. Plus, it’s just about impossible to walk into an LCBO and find some cans. I’ll admit that Steam Whistle wouldn’t have been my guess for a beer to come out on top of this exercise, but maybe the beer has slowly worn me down through the years.

So that was my very unscientific experiment of the summer. There will probably be people that say, “I can’t believe you didn’t try (insert beer name)!” but remember that I just went to an LCBO and picked what was available. I also purposefully avoided hoppy beers like Crazy Canuck, because there are enough of those in my fridge and the whole point was to look for something different. If you’ve got a go to summer can for hot days, camping trips or park afternoons, let me know in the comments.