This Beer Tastes Like a Rothko

A lot of ink (both real and virtual) has been used to define the craft beer movement. For the most part, craft beer has often been defined by industrial terms (the way beer is produced, how much is produced, who produces the beer) and cultural (people drink craft beer because it offers a wide variety of new and interesting tastes). While both of these points are crucial to understanding what is happening right now with beer, it still feels as though there is an element lacking when describing the current beer world in such terms. The amount of innovation and experimentation going on in breweries around the world is missing when you only look at the industrial and cultural sides of the equation.

My memory of the four cinema studies courses I took in undergrad is kind of hazy by now, but the method of viewing works of art through various lenses (cultural/economic/technological/aesthetic) has always stuck in my brain. Recently a question popped in my head – could we define the current craft beer world as an artistic movement ? This may sound kind of crazy, but it fills the void not covered by looking at beer through the industrial and cultural spheres. It acknowledges that there is more happening with craft beer right now than just people making (and drinking) beer in a more traditional manner.

A lot of early craft brewers focused more on reviving styles and bringing back flavour to beer. That is not to say that the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale wasn’t an innovative beer, but it was still just barley, hops, water and yeast. Anchor was brewing their Steam and later Porter. Porters may have been almost extinct, but it was still based on tradition. Many breweries started through the 80s were usually making a pale, amber or brown ale – interesting beers when lager dominated the market, but not quite exploring new ground in an historical sense.

The beer world has significantly changed since then and I would argue it is possible to view a lot of new beers as part of a larger movement within the beer industry. Playing around with ingredients has become normalized in the craft beer industry and can be viewed as modernist or postmodern. Breweries are now exploring ingredients and beer styles that would have been unimaginable when the craft beer industry started. If you’re reading this in Ontario, you have probably tried either the Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale or the Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale – two beers that you could drink without knowing they had extra ingredients. Of course the twist to the pale ale style is part of the marketing of these beers, yet the final products can easily be enjoyed without being aware of the extra ingredients.

Think about all those times someone has said, “It’s good, but it’s not really a saison” (or whatever style the beer claims to be). It happens fairly often. But what if we were to call that beer a modernist saison? Is it now allowed to bend and play around with the saison style? In a way, it all goes back to how styles are defined and the flexibility of a brewer to test the boundaries of how we define any particular style (or even how we define beer).

This isn’t a stretch when you think of molecular gastronomy/modernist cuisine (or whatever you want to call it). It’s not a perfect comparison (molecular gastronomy joins the worlds of science and fine dining, while beer and science are old friends), but the cerebral component is similar. The goal is still to put together something tasty, but also challenge the audience into thinking about what they are consuming. It challenges our notion of how we define something, whether eating eggs benedict at wd-50 or a beer made with ten different ingredients. Going back to the Spearhead and Kissmeyer beers, they strike me as modernist pale ales – they fit the style yet do so with a twist. Cynics may claim that a lot of these beers are just a way to differentiate one pale ale from the larger market, but I think they are indicative of a larger movement happening in craft beer.

That is not to say that all craft beers fit in the frame of modernism, the same way that not all films made in France from the late 50s through the 60s were New Wave. Breweries often test boundaries while make a range of beers that fit within normal style guidelines. But having a term for all these beers that defy, test or play around with styles seems important as more breweries experiment with flavours and techniques.

2013 Predictions: Update #5

By now you should know the drill. Here’s the latest on the 2013 Predictions:

  • There are two new beers at 4.5% ABV or less – the Hockley 100 and Railway City Canada Southern Draft. (Hey, I never said they were going to be good beers!)
  • There are also two new barrel/oak-aged beers – the Beau’s Festivale Plus Sticke Alt and the Radical Road Wayward Son (which is listed on the LCBO website and will be appearing in stores soon).
  • A half point is given to the Great Lakes Audrey Hopburn for being a hybrid Belgian ale (in this case, an IPA). Once again, it should be on shelves soon.
  • One point is also lost for good – there was not a special beer released for OCB Week, which is too bad. That seems like a wasted opportunity.

The score now stands at 12.5 our of 31, which is pretty reasonable for this time of year. Can’t wait for all the September to December releases boosting my score!

Rhino Summer Beer Festival

Putting together a beer festival seems like it should be an easy task. There should be plenty of beer and hopefully a nice variety. The cost should be reasonable and people should leave feeling they got their money’s worth. Washrooms should be plentiful. Lineups should be at a minimal, whether they are for beer, food, purchasing tickets or admission. Yet festivals continually seem to get at least one aspect wrong, though not always at the fault of the organizer.

The Rhino Summer Beer Festival presented by Canadian Beer News was perfect in all the basic requirements of a beer festival. The cost was justified, regardless of whether you paid to get in early (and maybe paid for brunch too, which was perfect pre-drinking fuel) or showed up after 1pm and paid $2 for a nicely sized 5oz sample. (Full disclosure: Greg is a friend and my ticket was a media comp.) There was plenty of seating inside the Rhino for those who wanted it and the patio was available for those looking for some sun.

I left relatively early (1:30pm) but it was far from crowded and I didn’t hear any complaints from those who stayed after me. There was a lot of great beer on offer, most of it being very appropriate for drinking in the heat. In typical beer fest fashion, most of the booths were managed by the breweries but the tap station pouring a variety of breweries was a nice touch. Beers were also available at the bar, so some breweries were able to send a beer or two and not have to worry about staffing the event.

The nicest part was just the general vibe of the festival – much like the Rhino, it was relaxed and didn’t take itself too seriously. It wasn’t a party like the Festival of Beer and it wasn’t populated by people going around with homemade lists of what beers to try. In the summer I just want to relax with good beer and good company, which is exactly what the Rhino festival offered. The next festival will be in the fall, but the date has not been confirmed.

Beer Pornography: The Cantillon Experience


In many ways, there isn’t much to say about drinking in Belgium. There is obviously a lot of great beer to be had in Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges, it’s just a matter of knowing what you want (for example, geuze or a traditional Flemish bar) and finding the right places. Obviously a highlight was visiting the Cantillon brewery, which is also a museum and popular with lots of beer geeks. You go on a self-guided tour through the whole brewery, from the mash tun and cool ship to the barrels where the lambic is fermenting, finally ending up in the cellar where thousands of bottles are undergoing the final fermentation before being ready to be shipped out around the world.

The tasting area has fewer than ten tables, but they fill up quickly with people from around the world. I was lucky to meet some Americans and we split a couple of bottles (50ºN 4ºE and Zwanze 2012, in case you wanted to know), chatted about beer, places to drink in Belgium and life on the road. It wasn’t life altering, but there is something about Cantillon that made it special.






IMG_3904(This barrel had the side cut out so that people could see what it looked like on the inside. I assume the gunk below the top ring is a by-product of fermentation.)






Book Review: The Audacity of Hops

the-audacity-of-hops-tom-acitelliBeer history, much like the history for almost any other subject, can be equally fascinating or mind numbingly boring. Often it is personal preference – clearly some people enjoy digging back in time to find out what styles may have tasted like in 1800s, while others (ie. me) find this tedious work. Trying to talk about what a “historical” porter would be like is kind of moot, because it would be almost impossible due to technological advances for anyone to brew that beer now. What interests me is all the reasons (social, economic, industrial, etc) that have changed beer over time and had influence upon the beverage we all care so much about. So let’s just sum up this intro by saying that I was wary of how Tom Acitelli would make the American craft beer revolution an interesting read in The Audacity of Hops (and string it out for 350 pages).

Luckily, he has succeeded for the most part in making a book that strikes a nice balance of being very information based while still being readable and interesting. Dividing the book up into relatively short chapters that jump around the country really helps keep the book moving. It is never allowed to drag for too long on one person or brewery before seeing what is happening at some other part of the country. The author doesn’t impart too much of himself in the writing, but keeps things light with the right amount of anecdotes to provide levity and humour to the text. There are moments when it drags on a little (the 80s weren’t a particularly interesting time for craft beer – basically breweries opened in new places), but overall it is an interesting read for anyone curious about the rise of American craft beer through the last fifty years.

One thing the book got me thinking about was how the narrative of the craft beer movement has been shaped and how readily it has been accepted. It’s like the saying, “History is written by the victors.” The main people we talk about when discussing the start of craft beer are people like Fritz Maytag, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman and Charlie Papazian. These are also people who have gone on to be at the forefront of relatively large breweries (with the exception of Papazian who has had a hand in publishing and various associations, plus a little thing called the Great American Beer Festival). It is not surprising that they have become the faces of the early years of craft beer because they have also had some of the greatest successes. I started to wonder how much they have been able to shape the narrative of craft beer through the constant retelling of the history of their organizations.

Any of the above names are far more common than Jack McAuliffe and his New Albion brewery, the first craft brewery started in the modern era. It tasted from 1976-82 and influenced a lot of people in the industry, but it is harder to understand the effect of a brewery that no longer exists and whose beers have not entered like collective consciousness like an Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale or Sam Adams Boston Lager. People like Jim Koch, who are still going around the world and continually reinforcing the Boston Beer Company origin story, get to write their own histories because they have existed for so long and managed to grow into large craft breweries. The sources for the book include interviews with many of the subjects or the books they have written. Not to knock the author on his research methods, but it would have been nice to see some criticism or analysis done on the narratives that these breweries present.

Not to keep harping on Jim Koch and the Boston Beer Company, but it provides a good example of a time when  The Audacity of Hops stuck to the usual origin story and failed to dig deeper. Koch was interview for the book so it is no surprise that we get a recounting of the history of the brewery and the Boston Lager. He takes centre stage, while co-founder Rhonda Kallman (who people may remember from the Beer Wars documentary) is portrayed as more of Koch’s assistant than a business partner. Kallman later does get credit as the “leader of the industry’s most productive sales force” (pg 270), but it was one of moments that rang a little hollow. As the face of the Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch and his history drives their narrative. It just becomes harder to except everything in the book as truth when it seems to be regurgitating the marketing of large breweries.

The most interesting part of the book is the section on the 90s that examines what happens when a number of breweries went public. (Hint: it mirrored the tech bubble.) While the industry has been fairly stable this century, it was fascinating to learn of the hard times that craft beer went through. A number of breweries closed because they went big too soon and there wasn’t enough demand to match their new capacity. These difficult years are almost never talked about and Ontario breweries would be smart to learn from the mistakes that the States made fifteen to twenty years ago. (For more, read the excellent post “Fun With Numbers: Doom and Gloom Edition” over at St. John’s Wort. Good stuff from Jordan.)

The Audacity of Hops is worth reading just for this section, but the book has a lot to offer as a whole. It would be a great pick for a beer book club because there are a lot of different discussion points that arise. The author has also done a great job writing a book that can be enjoyed equally by people with different levels of beer knowledge. Finally, it also contains an awesome picture of Michael Jackson from the 70s that makes me laugh every time I look at it – it’s worth buying the book just for that reason.

Cask, CAMRA & Other Things British

IMG_3860England is not exactly the sexiest beer country right now, but is still widely recognized as one of the big players on the international scene. The country has had a huge impact on the culture of beer, both in terms of what we drink (IPAs, porters, stouts, so-called session ales) and how we drink it (cask ale and CAMRA). Trying to give a sense of what the beer scene is like in England right now is tough for a couple of reasons. For starters, there are a couple of different factions of beer drinkers, for lack of a better word. Most importantly, it’s hard to spend ten days in a country and really get a complete picture of how the nation as a whole is drinking beer. So please don’t read this post as the complete and absolute guide to beer in England in the year 2013. It’s more one man’s observations of beer in London, Oxford, Canterbury and Manchester circa June 2013. Very little research has gone into this post, aside from drinking in bars and talking with people along the way.

I was obviously excited to get to spend over a week drinking in the famous British pubs, consuming fresh cask ale in a variety of styles. Trying bitters, milds, golden ales and other styles seems like something that should be done as close to the source as possible. By the time they get bottled or kegged, sent across the ocean and sit around for a while on a shelf or in a warehouse, it is quite likely not the same beer that you would get at the local pub. Armed with CAMRAs 2013 Good Beer Guide, I knew that the pubs would be serving fresh casks that were treated well on their journey to my glass.

The condition of almost all beers served on cask was excellent. They were clear, bright and beautiful looking beers. This was amazing when compared to Ontario, where hazy or cloudy cask beers are not uncommon. The being said, a number also had thin bodies to the point of being watery and the flavours were sometimes a little too subtle. It was a mixed bag, overall – one pint would be stellar and the next would be forgettable. None were terrible, but it wasn’t the amazing cask experience that I was hoping for.

CAMRA is generally accepted as the saviour of cask ale, or at least that’s the narrative they like to present, but there are many reasons why beer drinkers in England are growing skeptical of the organization. As real ale in cask or bottles has a shorter lifespan, it can’t travel as far and eliminates a lot of beers at a time when the beer scene is becoming increasingly global. While some casks from other European breweries do make it to some craft beer bars, CAMRA has also stunted the English beer scene by promoting an ethos that most of those foreign beers that come in to the country via keg, bottle or can are bastard beers regardless of the content inside. (The ale part of real ale has always bugged me. Are we just dismissing all lagers?) At a time when breweries around the world are experimenting with new styles, it seems to me that this has hurt the British beer industry because their products are quickly becoming dated at a time when younger drinkers are looking for different beer experiences.

I had heard the jokes about CAMRA being an organization of old, white men, but it seemed this stereotype was rather true. A lot of older drinkers were only cask drinkers, while younger beer lovers were introduced in a great beer, regardless of where it came from (either country or bottle/cask/can/keg). In many ways CAMRA has become too narrow of an organization. As the craft beer world has exploded, CAMRA feels increasingly dated.

Another bizarre aspect of pubs that specialize in only cask ale (what I call CAMRA pubs because I mostly found them in the Good Beer Guide, though there is no association between them) is that they serve great cask ale but then have cheap European lagers on tap. It boggles me that a pub can put such an effort into one area and then have two versions of Guinness on tap (regular and Guinness Ice – what I assume to be extra cold Guinness). This is not true of every place – there are beer bars like Craft Beer Co, Cask Pub and Kitchen and Euston Tap in London, plus Port Street Beer House in Manchester, that have great cask, tap and bottled beers. But these are great beer bars, not ones that specialize in only cask. But the CAMRA pubs clearly only care about one thing, which is very narrow minded. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of pubs in England are in danger of closing, because they can’t commit to a specific audience. Either serve only shitty lagers and axe the cask or add some great local draught options to go along with all the great casks. Otherwise you’re just confusing the consumer with a muddled message about what kind of bar you want to be.

Maybe the bars feel they can’t have great cask beer without being supported by lager, but I would point out the bars mentioned above as evidence otherwise. Personally, I was more likely to stay in a bar that had a wider range of options in various formats. Plus, thanks to Britain’s liquor laws that charge more taxes as the alcohol content goes up, you’re often charging the same for a half-pint of a 6% kegged IPA as you are for that pint of bitter.

The other problem with CAMRA pubs is that they really are the domain of men. It was a small sample size, but there definitely seemed to be fewer women in most of the pubs than you find at a lot of Toronto beer bars on any given night. I’m sure there will be people out there that disagree, but my wife and I both felt a lot of traditional cask pubs could do with a better balance of the genders. As people fret about the death of the pub, I wonder what publicans are doing to expand their market.

The point is basically that CAMRA could do with a makeover, one that would be more appealing to younger drinkers and women. The organization feels outdated in many ways and feels pigeonholed in their devotion for cask ale. It feels like they have blinders on that hide all the changes happening to the beer scene both at home and abroad. A lot of newer breweries (The Kernel, Wild, Beavertown, Moor) are obviously very influenced by what is happening in America, Scandinavia, Italy and other progressive craft beer scenes rather than following the British ethos of session ales served on cask. (Well, some still do cask beers and session ales, but it’s only a part of what they do.)

I’m very curious to see where the British beer industry will go from here, especially in the next ten years. There were some very nice bottle shops that dealt a lot in American beers, including some highly loved beers like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and Brooklyn Black Ops. There was an event at Port Street Beer House that I was luckily to enough to snag the last ticket for. It was hosted by Andreas Falt, the European ambassador for the Brewers Association, who was helping kick off a two week festival of American beers. It was clear that the market for American beers is quickly growing in England and that people were willing to pay a premium for beers that differed from the traditional British ales. (For those wondering, the occasional cask came from America too. Sierra Nevada Torpedo was on cask at Port Street and we saw Samuel Adams Summer Ale in Canterbury.) British beer might be in for a bit of a shakeup and that could actually be a good thing.

Best Of A Year Of Beer: You Can’t Make Friends With Salads (or Lagers)

While this blogger is soaking up the cask ales of England and sour beers of Belgium for a couple of weeks, please enjoy these “Best Of” posts. This was originally posted on July 23rd, 2012.

Imagine a Venn diagram with two sets, one labeled “Foodies” and one “Beer Geeks.” The intersection is considerable. My guess would be that at least half of the “Beer Geeks” would also be “Foodies” of some ilk, which is not surprising. Drinking craft beer is all similar to being a devoted lover of food – we strive for flavour, love local, crave the rare and seek out that which is new. This is not a new comparison, but I’m always curious to see how the world of foodies mirrors or overlaps the growing number of craft beer lovers. I was reading the latest issue of Lucky Peach (yes, I am one of the many worshippers to the throne of David Chang) and was surprised to find the yeasts Lactobacillus and Pediococcus mentioned in regards to the microbial terroir of cured meats (the article didn’t sound crazy until I had to type that sentence). Not being a science-y guy, my naive assumption was that these yeasts were mainly important for turning beer deliciously sour and funky. Turns out they also help add a lactic tang to sausages. (On a side note, makers of cured meats would do well to advertise that these bacteria are present and cater to beer geeks, though presumably these are different strains of the yeast.) This little piece of trivia made of think of other ways that foodies and beer geeks are similar.

As I continued to read the magazine I was continually struck by the way foodies operate at the polar opposites of the culinary spectrum. On one hand, you have the modern American chefs trying to remake what it means to be a fine dining restaurant, using molecular gastronomy while blaring 100 decibel music for customers paying $150 for your tasting menu that is booked solid for the next two months. Then you have the other end, where taco shacks and fried chicken truck stops are anointed as the true American culinary experience. These concepts exist mutually within foodies, which is not necessarily a bad thing even if it seems contradictory. An expensive dinner out can be as equally enjoyable as fried food that explodes with grease.

Mass-produced beer is often compared to fast food – it’s cheap, made in large quantities and meant to taste inoffensive. Foodies generally hate most fast food and beer geeks generally hate most mass-produced beer. This is an easy comparison that most people would likely get correct on an IQ test. If we were to extrapolate the foodie/beer-geek comparison, the high-end culinary experience would be equatable to most big, bold beers that are favoured by beer geeks – IPAs, sours, imperial stouts, heavy duty Belgians. These beers can be expensive and rare, often soliciting the biggest drools and the silent anger of fellow beer drinkers that have not shared in your good fortune.

Then I got to wonder if there was a comparison between the truck stop/diner version of the foodie and a sub-genre of beer geek. As foodies search for the most “authentic” tacos, southern BBQ or burger, is there a beer geek equivalent to this foodie spectrum? Do beer geeks care for a well crafted, easy drinking lager? Not really, unless it’s a super-hopped Victory Prima Pils. I would argue that we solely operate in that high-end spectrum, not appreciating the simple, clean flavours of a Beau’s Lug Tread or King Pilsner – the beer world equivalent to the truck stop. That is not meant to be insulting, though it might sound like a backhanded compliment. These beers have their own unique profiles that deserve respect, not to be cast aside as gateway beers for those working their way up to IPAs. (And no, IPAs, pale ales or British ales are not comparable to the truck stop/diner foodie. Every sane person loves that kind of food, but hops really only appeal to a small group of us.) The highlight of the Garrison brewery feature way back in February was the Pils in my opinion, yet everyone wanted to talk about every beer but that one. To me it was an incredibly well made pilsner, one that transported me to the beer gardens of Munich (the German equivalent to the truck stop, where lagers are very much appreciated).

Beer geeks can learn something from foodies – enjoy the finer things, but sometimes enjoy beer just for what it is. It is possible to enjoy a beer as just that, rather than making tasting notes to put online or analyzing the beer past the point of enjoyment. Yes, that hoppy beer would probably go well with your taco, but so would a cold lager, maybe with a slice of lime if you’re feeling really unpretentious. It’s just a taco. It’s just a beer.

Best Of A Year Of Beer: The Ontario Inferiority Complex

While this blogger is soaking up the cask ales of England and sour beers of Belgium for a couple of weeks, please enjoy these “Best Of” posts. This was originally posted on April 30, 2012. The OIC still exists, but things are getting better.

At one time or another, every craft beer drinker in Ontario has probably described a beer by saying, “It’s pretty good… for Ontario.” Our judgments of beer made in Ontario are always skewed by something I call the Ontario Inferiority Complex. There is often a qualifier added to any comments about a locally made beer, which can sometimes be positive (“I can’t believe this is made in Ontario!”) or negative (see above). In either instance there is a strong undertone that Ontario beers are being judged by a different set of requirements, with the understood implication that beers from Ontario are inferior to beers from other countries or provinces.

I am just as guilty for making statements like those (even last Friday night, when trying the awesome House Ales X Amsterdam Night Train, which I couldn’t believe was made in Ontario), but am fucking sick and tired of them. Saying that a beer is good considering it was made in Ontario is pretty much the same as saying the beer is okay, but it surpassed your lowered expectations. No beer drinker should make a concession for flavour – say if it’s a bad beer or just okay. Judge an Ontario-made beer the same way you would any other, or else you are continuing to reinforce the idea that our beers are inferior.

It would be great for the beer industry in Ontario if everyone stopped comparing beers made in the province to those from the States. Not that I think Ontario beers can’t match up to American ones, but how is it fair to compare the output from one province to everything made in the USA? You’re pitting a province of thirteen million people (where liquor laws and bureaucratic red tape are a hindrance to breweries, both provincially and nationally) to a country that has three-hundred million more people (and many states with significantly different liquor laws). There are twenty-nine breweries in the OCB and 1,400 in the Brewers Association. This is a comparison that Ontario will never win, no matter what our breweries produce.

Yes, it is easy to drive to Buffalo or Detroit and get lots of awesome beer, but those beers don’t all come from New York or Michigan. We think “Look at all these great American beers,” because they are representative of the whole country and not the state itself. Our attention is also often focused on the best breweries in a state (say, Brooklyn or Founder’s) and miss all the crappy ones. Sure, Wisconsin has New Glarus, but they also have Leinenkugel’s. Our beer blinders don’t allow us to see all the shitty breweries that other states or countries have. Our focus is usually on the best of everywhere else and the worst of Ontario.

The most infuriating part of the Ontario Inferiority Complex is when people aren’t willing to spend money on good Ontario beer. The same people that bitch about the lack of availability in Ontario are the same ones that complain when a beer costs over eight dollars (often making the comparison that for the same amount of money they could get Beer X from Stone or Beer Y from Dogfish Head). Have they tried the beer and do they know how it tastes? Usually not, but they know it is from Ontario and there is no way an Ontario beer could be worth that much money.

I always find it funny when people say that, yet have no problem spending twelve or thirteen dollars on a six-pack of Ontario beer when some states have sixers of something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for seven or eight dollars. In this case it is understandable that laws and taxes create an inflated price, but the expectation for a 500 or 750mL bottle is that it should be cheaper because it is from Ontario. If it is good beer, there is no reason to expect it to cost less just because it is from an Ontario brewery.

The cure for the Ontario Inferiority Complex is for beer drinkers and breweries to stop making excuses. Yes, the situation in Ontario is less than ideal, but that is no reason not to make great beer. Our breweries have the resources, knowledge and capabilities to produce fantastic beers, which is what consumers should expect. We have to stop unfairly trying to compare Ontario to the States and just focus on creating a dynamic, thriving beer industry that allows Ontarians to have access to great locally made beer.

Best Of A Year Of Beer: My Love-Hate Relationship With One-Offs

While this blogger is soaking up the cask ales of England and sour beers of Belgium for a couple of weeks, please enjoy these “Best Of” posts. This was originally posted on February 21, 2012.

After a certain amount of work and time, any beer lover will get to a stage when they will hear of an event and naturally ask, “Yeah, but is there going to be anything new?” And this is justified in many ways, the main reason being that we could save the price of admission and just go to a bar to drink the same beer and talk about it with fairly similar people. That beer from a bar will be served in full pint glasses, not those piddly little plastic ones at a lot of events, and there won’t be a lineup for the washroom (which inevitably leads to men doing their best impression of a dog finally being let outside after twenty-four hours). There has to be some reason to hand over our money and endure the worst forms of bladder torture. That reason is usually a one-off beer, created solely for the event or produced in such small quantity that it might as well have just been created for the event.

The appeal of one-offs is also easily justified – it is new and there is nothing sweeter than mocking people who missed out on that amazing beer that will never be served again (and it was a cask!). Or you’ll be that early adopter and get to say something like, “Yeah, that beer is good, but the best version was still from that event on a boat. The original recipe was lost when the brewer fell overboard and was never found.” No one can argue with you unless they were there.

This may be surprising, but that scenario rarely happens. In most cases, the one-off is somewhere between a drainpour and kinda good, often falling in the rough proximity of okay. Why do breweries frequently bring marginally decent beers to events? Well, often they are told that they must bring a one-off, if for no other reason than to attract the beer nerds. And between the day-to-day operations there isn’t a whole lot of time to make and brew some great recipe. They’ve also got just one shot to get the recipe right – no chance to refine or tweak a recipe until it is perfect, as they did with their regular lineup of beers. And if my kitchen experiences are any indication, there is always something that can be changed the second time through. (There are also breweries that don’t really care if a one-off is any good, but for this argument we will assume all intentions are noble.)

Sometimes these one-offs are a first step in the creation of an amazing beer. Great Lakes have been using one-offs and their Project X nights to test and refine recipes, or to see if a kielbasa or gummi bear beer works). The Crazy Canuck started at a Project X night, was slowly altered and now is one of the best Ontario pale ales. If it weren’t for events and one-offs, some great beers would not be available.

As a beer drinker, it is the unknown and the possibility of something wonderful that has us ordering the next pint or buying one more bottle than we should. An experiment can turn out great or it can be… an experiment. It is easy to love one-offs when they work out and hate them when flawed. One-offs are inherently inconsistent, which will continue to bring upon feelings of anger and awe, often at the same event (but rarely because of the same beer). As a beer lover, I know that it is my own flaws that keeps me trying one-offs and supporting the events that feature them. And I don’t know if I want to change it one bit.

Best Of A Year Of Beer: The Myth of the Flagship Beer

While this blogger is soaking up the cask ales of England and sour beers of Belgium for a couple of weeks, please enjoy these “Best Of” posts. This was originally posted on February 28th, 2011. It may still be true today.

There was some debate going on between myself and Matt from One Beer at a Time in the comments section of my post of the third tier of Ontario microbreweries. I was bemoaning the fact, as many beer geeks do, that new microbreweries tend to make their flagship beer a blond/pale lager/ale (or some variation, like Beau’s Lug-Tread. That beer is a kölsch, which is German for pale lagered ale). These flagship beers often result in very similar products, imbuing lots of delicious irony into an otherwise uninteresting product. The argument for flagship beers usually focuses on the fact that breweries need to make money and making a beer that appeals to a large cross-section of the population is the best way to pay the bills. My goal is to debunk this myth.

The first, and largest, error that I see with basing your business model on a generic flagship brew is that it does very little to promote growth and brand recognition with beer drinkers. The decline of brand loyalty in macro beer drinkers is well known, which is why the big brands have to spend so much in advertising too appeal to drinkers. There is no reason to think that this doesn’t carry over to people that drink craft beer: they do not just drink beers from one brewery, but vary their drinking habits based on availability, desire, etc. If you’re a brewery, why do you want to make a product that can easily be replaced by another beer made by someone else? Consumers will not go out of their way to find your beer – it will only be one they occasionally drink. Most microbreweries lack the money to differentiate themselves with significant marketing campaigns, so it is baffling why they do not take the opportunity to do it with their beer.

Countering my argument is fairly easy: breweries keep making these beers, so they must be making money off of these beers. And doesn’t that prove the necessity for flagship beers to be pale ales or lagers? In my opinion, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the flagship beer is likely to get the most promotion from the brewery. They will try to get it into the most bars, into the LCBO and will heavily feature that beer in advertisements, signage, coasters… pretty much everywhere possible. So it is no surprise that these beers become the best sellers from their breweries, because they are marketed to become exactly that.

Proponents of flagship beers say that most beer drinkers do not want anything too challenging. To twist those words around, flagship beers usually aim for drinkability. Sound familiar? Yup, the same word that the big breweries use to describe their beers can be applied to these boring beers that microbreweries make. This is the biggest reason that I get offended by having an uninspiring flagship beer – the aim is to make a beer that is inoffensive to most people in order to make money. Yes, it is easy to judge when my money and livelihood is not at stake, but doesn’t this go against the whole point of craft beer? What message is being sent by offering beer that tries to achieve the same result as most other beers?

I have no problem with trying to make a beer with mass-appeal, mainly because I think (perhaps naively) that an excellent beer can sell to a wide-spectrum of beer drinkers. This isn’t a call for a flagship beer that is an American-style IPA. A well made beer in a variety of styles (mild, bitter, ESB, German or Belgian wheat, saison, maybe even a Belgian ale) could offer something different while not eliminating large portions of the beer drinking community. The perfect example is Unibroue. Yes, they make a couple of shitty beers (the “U” series), but they are best known for the Belgian-style ales (Blanche de Chambly, Maudite, La Fin du Monde). These are beers that don’t sacrifice taste or quality, yet have still proven to be very popular. It can happen in Ontario too, and the first brewery to do so will hopefully make a lot of money to prove everyone else wrong.