Category Archives: beer festivals

The Very Beery Month Of May

Wow, nearly a month since my last post. That’s a long time, even for an irregular and inconsistent blogger like myself. Lotsa things have been keeping me busy – in fact, looking back at my social calendar for the last month, you could say that I’ve just been too busy drinking good beer (+ other things) and eating great food to write about any of it…

Keep reading this post

Event Review: Pepperwood Beer Festival

(Yeah, it’s a bit lame to be blogging about an event a full three weeks after it happened, but I had this half-written before computer problems and a bad flu put me out of commission for a while, and I didn’t want to it go to waste…)

pepperwood_front.jpg

Located on the pretty waterfront strip in Burlington, about 45 minutes west of Toronto, the Pepperwood Bistro (1455 Lakeshore Road) is a bit of a hidden gem in Ontario’s brewing scene. And a slightly odd one as well.

Brewmaster Paul Dickey is a well-respected BJCP Master Judge, former president and Grand Master Brewer in the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association, and former head brewer at Black Oak Brewery (where he still consults from time to time). So as you’d expect, he produces some fine beers at Pepperwood, including a rotating monthly series of specialty beers that tend to sell out within a few days of being tapped. At the same time, the somewhat conservative nature of the community means that in addition to the house beers, Pepperwood serves a selection of other craft beers, as well as Guinness and the standard InBev import line-up. Combine this with the fact that menu of chef Mike Middlemost is a bit more upscale than what you find in most brewpubs – specialities include gourmet pizzas, fancy pastas, and bistro fare like steak frites and mussels – and you end up with a not-too-typical beer bar.

pepperwood_troy.jpg

Since I don’t drive, my only visit to the Pepperwood had been several years ago, when it was one of the stops on a Bar Towel bus trip to a few breweries and pubs. I’d always wanted to return, especially for their annual Pepperwood Beer Festival, but transportation and timing never worked out for me until this year, when Troy Burtch was driving out for the Festival on February 24th and allowed me to tag along. (That’s Troy above, pimping TAPS Magazine at the Festival.)

pepperwood_crowd.jpg

Since it’s held on a Sunday afternoon from 2:30 until 5:00, this annual fundraiser for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Association is a pretty laid-back event, with a large but not too large crowd enjoying beers both new and old along with a great buffet of bar snacks (spring rolls, hot wings, pierogies, chili…). Paul was pouring an assortment of Pepperwood’s usual house beers, plus a couple of one-offs including a cask version of his West Coast IPA and a surprisingly enjoyable Chipotle Ale. Also on hand were a solid contingent from the local craft brewing scene – Grand River, Black Oak, Trafalgar, F&M, Cool, Great Lakes, Mill Street, Nickelbrook & Denison’s – and seeming somewhat out of place, a couple of beer babes in tight t-shirts pouring the Diageo line-up of Guinness, Kilkenny, Harp and Smithwick’s.

pepperwood_ken.jpg

All in all, this was one of the more enjoyable Ontario beer events I’ve attended. I got to sample of few new beers and lots of old favourites, and it’s always a treat to socialize with the friendly folks in the local brewing community like the above-pictured Ken Woods of Black Oak. A great event for a good cause, and a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Volo Cask Day: A(nother) Belated Review

caskdays2007-1.jpg

Last year on Sunday, November 5th, I posted a review of Volo Cask Days 2006, two weeks after it actually happened. So it’s only fitting that exactly a year later, I should post a review of Volo Cask Days 2007, two weeks after it actually happened.

Once again, Ralph and the crew at Volo outdid themselves with this year’s festival. There were over 30 different cask beers available during three tasting sessions on Saturday and Sunday, plus a few rare and exclusive brews on draught, including three from the mighty Biergotter Homebrew Club. There was also a complementary cheese table courtesy of the Ontario Cheese Society, and plenty of tasty snacks from Alli’s Bread to help absorb the alcohol. And of course, plenty of good company.

caskdays2007-3.jpg

Unlike last year’s review post, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the beers I tried, mainly because my tasting notes were pretty sketchy and I’m already written them up for RateBeer. I will say, though, that I agree somewhat with Stephen Beaumont’s assessment of some of the beers being evidence of “an enthusiastic industry whose reach often exceeded its grasp“.

While there were a good number of beers that I thought were very good – like Magnotta’s weizen/IPA hybrid Fog On The Tyne and Perry’s Atomic Punkin’ from Scotch-Irish Brewing – there were also a few noble but failed experiments amongst the many offerings. I find that the qualities that make cask ale so interesting and appealing – lower carbonation, higher serving temperature, etc. – also make it less forgiving to beers that are unbalanced or flawed in some way. There were a couple of beers I tried that I would frankly prefer to drink on draught, where the rough edges would be tempered a bit.

But all in all, those are small complaints. Cask Days is still the highlight of the year in Toronto’s beer scene, and I really hope Ralph keeps it going. October in Toronto wouldn’t be the same without it.

caskdays2007-2.jpg

You Down With OCB? (Yeah You Know Me)


Last week, I received a special delivery from the fine folks at the Ontario Craft Brewers to promote the appearance of many of their members at Toronto’s Festival of Beer, which kicks off tomorrow at Fort York. The package contained an assortment of eight beers (well, actually, six different beers, with doubles of two of them), as well as a copy of Bill Perrie’s book Craft Brewers Of Ontario (which I already received and reviewed last summer, so it’s been passed on to a friend) and various promotional materials.

Now, even though I received hundreds – if not thousands – of free CDs and records during my years of music reviewing and DJing, this free beer thing is still a cool novelty to me. But I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by the contents of the package. Not that I didn’t appreciate receiving it – I mean, hey, it’s FREE BEER! But as someone who is quite familiar with the products of pretty much every brewery in the OCB, I felt that the full spectrum of what our province’s craft brewers have to offer wasn’t as well represented as it could’ve been, especially if the same package was sent out to less beer-saavy media. As noted above, two of the beers were there twice, and of the six distinct beers in the pack, four were pale lagers, one was a cream ale, and one was a porter. Meanwhile, one of the promotional pamphlets bragged about the diversity of the beers being brewed in Ontario, and listed the various styles available such as fruit beers, dark ales, pale ales, and so forth. So why didn’t they include examples of some of those in the packages?

Anyway, I guess I should write a bit about the beers that were actually in there, eh? Well, to start with, there was a bottle of Great Lakes Golden Horseshoe Lager and two bottles of Cool Beer. I drank these one after the other, and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between them. Each of them is a pale yellow lager with a vaguely sweet aroma, mild and clean flavour, and little to no aftertaste. Both are well made for the mainstream lager style, but they’re just not my kinda thing. However, based on the number of neighbourhood drinking holes that I’ve seen with one or the other on tap, I can only assume they’re doing pretty well at cracking at least a few bits of the market, so more power to ’em.

Next up where a pair of lagers from Neustadt Springs Brewery – Bruce County Premium Lager and Neustadt Lager. I wrote these up for my Beer of the Week column on Taste T.O. this week, so I’ll just give you an excerpt from what I wrote there:

(Bruce County) has a nice golden colour which is a bit darker than you might expect from a 4.5% lager, with a good sized white head that doesn’t stick around. The aroma is predominantly malty with a sweet and toasty character, and the body is a bit thin, but suitable for the style. The flavour is mild but well balanced, with bready malt and herbal hops in their proper places, and the hops getting a bit bolder as it warms. Yeah, it’s a relatively simple and easy-drinking lager, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the beer is well crafted and holds a fair bit more character than a typical macrobrew.

The same can be said for the brewery’s flagship Neustadt Lager. In some ways, it’s quite similar to the Bruce County, but with a bit more colour, more aroma and more flavour. Also like the Bruce County, it’s not an envelope-pusher, but it doesn’t have to be. I like so-called “extreme beers” as much as the next guy, but well made and enjoyable golden lagers like these have their place as well, especially during the dog days of summer.

From there, I moved on to Cameron’s Cream Ale. Right up front, I have to say that I’m generally not all that hot on cream ales. The style seems like a bit of a cop out to me – an ale for people who don’t really like ales. That being said, Cameron’s version is an enjoyable quaff, with a slight fruitiness to the nose, the expected creamy body, and a balanced, refreshing flavour. Still, I much prefer their Auburn Ale.

Finally, there were two bottles of Mill Street Coffee Porter, neither of which I was able to drink because my wife stole them to take to a friend’s BBQ on the weekend. But I’ve had this one often enough to know that it was easily the best beer of the bunch. They’ve toned down the coffee from the early batches, but it’s still an excellent porter with tasty roasted coffee notes, and easily one of Ontario’s best beers.

As mentioned, these five breweries and around a dozen other OCB members will have booths at Toronto’s Festival of Beer running August 9th-12th at Fort York. For all of it’s flaws, the fest is still a good opportunity to get a taste of Ontario’s craft brewing scene, as well as a bunch of the good (and some not-so-good) quality imports available in the province. Just stay away from the Labatt and Molson tents and you should be fine.

Volo Cask Day: A Belated Review

One of the great mysteries of the Toronto beer scene is how a cozy family-run Italian restaurant called Volo has become a go-to destination for all serious beer aficionados. One of these days I’m going to have to do an interview with owner Ralph Morana to get the full story, but for now, we can just enjoy the fruits of his tireless labours to bring the best of the beer world to thirsty Torontonians.

The latest example was Volo’s second annual Cask Days festival, where Ralph invited over 20 Ontario craft brewers – as well as a couple of homebrewers and a special guest from Quebec – to provide cask ales that were served up over the course of two sessions on Saturday, October 21st. In a city where the number of bars that serve cask ale on a regular basis can be counted on two hands, the idea of having somewhere around 30 casks available for sampling in a single location is like beer heaven, even if it only lasts for a few hours.

Of course, as previous Volo events have proven, Ralph and his wife, Aina, and the rest of the Volo crew never do things by half measures. In addition to bringing together an outstanding line-up of beer, they also provided complimentary cheese from a variety of Ontario artisan cheese producers. And throughout the day, Ralph and staff walked through the crowd with baskets of sandwiches, pasties, and other tasty treats to help our tummies absorb all the beer we were downing.

And as for the beer itself, the brewers really stepped up with a selection that included lots of one-offs, ranging from variations to existing beers (lots of barrel-aging and wet- & dry-hopping) to brand new beers brewed exclusively for the event. I tried a dozen or so over the course of the day, and all of them pleased me in some way, but I had a few favourites:

Biergotter Hopocalypse
This IPA from the Biergotter Homebrew Club was definitely the buzz beer of the festival, and with good reason. It was a big, ballsy beer that was heavily influenced by West Coast IPAs, with a huge hop aroma and flavour, but enough malt in there to keep it from being completely ridiculous. More than one person was heard to say that someone needs to give these guys some cash to open a brewpub or brewery. Check out their extensive blog post about the day, as well as the recipe for Hopocalypse.

Dieu Du Ciel! Péché Mortel, Corne Du Diable & Vaisseau des Songes
Ralph scored quite a coup when he convinced the folks at Montreal’s venerable Dieu Du Ciel! brewpub to participate in this event. Due to the vagaries of Ontario liquor laws, the DDC beers (as well as the homebrews) could not be served as part of the regular admission price and had to be separately purchased with all money going to charity, but that didn’t stop them from being amongst the most popular beers of the day. Péché Mortel is an absolutely decadent coffee-laced Imperial Stout that I’d previously tried in bottled form, but having it on cask was a real treat – and it was the only beer of the day that had me going back for seconds. The Corne Du Diable is described as an American-style IPA, which means a big whack of hops upside your head. The Vaisseau des Songes was a surprise addition to the fest, and while it was in keg rather than cask form, it was still very nice – I’d describe it as the little brother of Corne Du Diable, as it’s also an IPA, but much more restrained in flavour and lower in alcohol.

Black Oak H&H Overkill
According to Ken at Black Oak, the H&H stood for “Hops & Jalapeños (pronounced: Halapeñooooo!!!!)”, which had me worried as I’m generally not a fan of chili beers. Not because I have an aversion to the hot stuff, but because most of the ones I’ve tried have simply been crappy lagers or bland golden ales with an assload of chilies thrown in. When I took my first whiff of this one, I thought it would go down the same road, as there was nothin’ but jalapeños going on in the aroma. But the flavour was surprisingly good, with the heat of the peppers taking on an almost sweet character to balance the fresh hops. Not something I’d drink every day, but still a pretty successful experiment.

Scotch Irish Admiral Perry Imperial IPA
Yeah, it’s another big honkin’ IPA. But nobody makes these suckers like Perry at Scotch Irish does. This one had so much spruce and pine on the nose that I thought I was sniffing a Christmas tree, and the hops in the flavour were absolutely ass-kicking. I wrote in my notes: “Stupidly over the top, but I liked it.” That pretty much sums it up.

According to Ralph, he had to turn away both brewers and attendees this year due to the lack of space, so there’s a germ of an idea to move it to a bigger venue next year. While it may never grow to the size and prestige of the Great British Beer Festival, it could certainly become of the premier cask ale events in North America if he sticks with it. Here’s hoping!

(PS: All of the crappy photos above were taken with my newfangled cameraphone. You can see more of them, as well as much nicer photos by people who presumably used real cameras, or perhaps cameraphones that take better photos than mine does, at the Volo Cask Days Flickr Group.)

Keepin’ It Real: A Guide to Cask Ale in Toronto

This article was originally written in October 2006 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.

To most North Americans who have grown up drinking mainstream lagers that taste like rancid corn juice once they inch above near-freezing, the idea of drinking warm beer is positively stomach churning. That might be why there are so many derisive jokes about the British and their supposed love of warm beer. While there is a grain of truth in this stereotype, there are two very important factors to keep in mind:

1) “Warm” is this context means cellar temperature, or roughly 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

2) “Beer” is this context means traditional ales like bitters, pale ales and strong ales, not the adjunct-laden light lagers and golden ales that the big brewers specialize in.

To most beer aficionados, the best way to enjoy one of these traditional ale styles is in it’s most traditional state – unfiltered, unpasteurised and dispensed without artificial carbonation. Known as cask ale or real ale, this method of storing and dispensing beer is how things were done for centuries before the development of bottling, refrigeration, pasteurisation and pressurised kegs (not to mention the increasing popularity of light lager styles) all combined to drive these traditional ales to the brink of extinction. By the 1970s, traditional ales had all but disappeared from British pubs, and were a little-remembered relic of bygone days in North America.

However, thanks to the efforts of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the traditional British pub ale was saved from almost certain death. With a fervour that verges on the religious, the CAMRA folks have fought to save what they describe as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” 35 years after it was formed by four drinkers who just wanted to find a decent pint, CAMRA now boasts over 80,000 members around the world, and has helped to push cask ale to the forefront of the craft and micro brew movement.

Here in Ontario, the resurgence of cask ale can be traced back to Guelph’s Wellington Brewery, where they’ve been producing cask versions of their ales for over 20 years. In fact, they were the first modern North American brewery to offer real ales, and their Arkell Best Bitter and County Ale remain popular choices for Ontario publicans who serve cask-conditioned brews. In the subsequent two decades, other Ontario brewers including Granite Brewery, County Durham, Black Oak and Scotch-Irish have joined the cask ale revolution, often augmenting the cask versions of their beers with extra hopping, aging in whiskey barrels, and other unique twists.

The main drawback of cask ales is that they require much more care and attention than pasteurised and pressured kegs. It takes an experienced publican to properly store, tap and serve cask ale, and an honest one to keep an eye on the quality of the beer in order to ensure that it is not served once it is past its prime, which is generally three days or so after the keg is tapped. (Some pubs use a device called a cask breather to replace the oxygen in the cask with a small amount of carbon dioxide, which will help extend the freshness of the beer, although some purists consider this to be against the real ale philosophy and frown upon it.) As a result, there are very few pubs that are willing to take on the responsibility of serving cask ale, and places that do so are generally given strong support from local beer lovers.

One of Toronto’s strongest advocates of cask ale is Ralph Morana, the owner of cozy Italian eatery Volo (587 Yonge St.) which has unexpectedly become one of Toronto’s top beer hot-spots in the last couple of years. In addition to having two handpumps pouring a rotating selection of cask ales on a regular basis, Volo is also the location of Toronto’s first and only all-cask beer festival, the annual Volo Cask Days, with this year’s edition taking place on Saturday, October 21st. Over the course of two 5-hour sessions, attendees will be able to enjoy cask ales – and even a couple of unfiltered, unpasteurised lagers – from 21 Ontario breweries and homebrewers, plus a special guest from Quebec, the renowned brewpub Dieu Du Ciel. Some of the more anticipated beers at the festival include Black Oak’s H&H Overkill, a variation on their Pale Ale brewed with extra hops and jalapenos (“pronounced Halapenooooo!!!!”); Neustadt Springs Brewery‘s Big Dog Beaujolais Porter, which is their seasonal Big Dog Porter aged in a wine barrel; Heritage Brewing‘s Smokin’ Maple, brewed with maple sap and Bamberg smoked malt; and a Pear Ginger Oatmeal Stout from homebrewer George Eagleson.

While this event would be a great place for a cask ale newcomer to get their feet wet, it has been sold out for weeks, so if you don’t have a ticket you can try dropping by Volo on Sunday when the leftovers – should there be any – will be available for general sale. Alternatively, if you can’t make it to Volo this weekend but would still like to try a pint or two of cask ale, you can always visit one of the pubs listed below, all of which offer cask ale on a regular basis.

Just remember: when it comes to cask ale, fresher is better, so make a point of asking your server when the cask was tapped before placing your order. If it’s been more than three days, or they don’t know the answer, you’re better off sticking with the kegged stuff until you can find a cask that is guaranteed to be fresh.

The Bow & Arrow (1954 Yonge St.) –three casks, rotating between different beers

C’est What (67 Front St. E.) – five casks, one dedicated to their Al’s Cask Ale house beer & four rotating

Cloak & Dagger (394 College St.) – one cask, Wellington

Dora Keogh (141 Danforth Ave.) – one cask, as well as a second handpump serving Fuller’s London Porter from a keg without additional carbonation

The Duke of Kent (2315 Yonge St.) – one cask, Wellington

The Feathers (962 Kingston Rd.) – one cask, Wellington

Granite Brewery (245 Eglinton Ave E.) – two casks, Granite Best Bitter Special & Granite IPA

Smokeless Joe (125 John St.) – one cask, County Durham

Victory Caf̩ (581 Markham St.) Рone cask, rotating

Volo (587 Yonge St.) – two casks, rotating

 

An Award For Beau's Lug-Tread (Sort Of…)

Last weekend I headed on down to beerbistro for the 4th annual Golden Tap Awards, a beer awards event arranged and presented by Cass Enright of The Bar Towel. Unlike other Canadian and Ontario beer awards, the GTAs are chosen via online voting by beer drinkers, not industry insiders or “expert” tasting panels, and there are no outside sponsors, so there are no token awards like “Best Selling Beer: Coors Light”. As a result, they’ve quickly gained the respect of breweries and bar owners from across Toronto (where the awards were focused for the first three years) and Ontario (where they expanded this year).

Adding to the democratic nature of the awards is the Best Of The Fest prize, which is awarded based on votes cast for the beers that are being served on tap and in bottles during the event. This year’s nod went to Lug-Tread Lagered Ale, a Kölsch style beer from Beau’s All Natural Brewing, a new brewery up near Ottawa.

Well – more accurately, it went to an odd variation on Lug-Tread that Beau’s Steve Beauchesne has dubbed the world’s first “Kölsch-Bock”. The birth of this mutant hybrid is described in a blog post about what happened when they kegged their first commercial batch:

Our Lug Tread is a tribute to the very subtle Kölsch style from Cologne, Germany. This batch, while very tasty, was anything but subtle. Assertive bitterness and mouth-filling maltiness were the dominant traits, with a notable alcohol flavour. In fact, it tasted more like a Bock or a Bière de Garde than a Kölsch.

While we stood there perplexed, back at the brewery Matt was discovering the secret of what we would later christen our Kölsch-Bock. Our double-jacketed unitank, with icy kosher propylene glycol coursing through its veins, apparently worked a little too well. A 150 litre “iceberg” had formed, effectively concentrating the remaining wort and giving the yeast little opportunity to settle.

As this discovery was made during weekend of their official launch in Ottawa, with kegs ready to tap and media ready to hype them up, they felt that they had no choice but to release the beer under the Lug-Tread name, and hoped that they could spread the word about the beer-sicle accident so people would understand why the beer was the way it was. And according to a later blog post from Steve:

[I]t looks like our initial gamble to release the high-octane version of Lug Tread was the right decision. It seems that most people get the fact that we’re new and that one batch is going to taste different from the next for the first few rounds through (insert huge sigh of relief, wipe sweat from brow).

Of course, it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Response from the folks on RateBeer has been far from kind, although some of that can be chalked up to the fact that style sticklers may take some objection to this very non-Kölsch-like beer, even after the reasons are explained by the brewer.

I’ve also seen comments that since the beer didn’t come out as expected due to a mechanical malfunction, Beau’s should have chucked the batch and started over, even though they thought the resulting product was quite tasty, and pitching it would have caused the last-minute cancellation of a long-planned Canada Day launch event.

Or maybe some people simply don’t like the beer.

Whatever the case Рeven though they were generally happy with the reception their K̦lsch-Bock garnered in Ottawa, Steve and co. still took these criticisms to heart, especially when they were planning what to bring to the GTAs:

Instead of bringing a keg from batch 2 – still not exactly where we want the final product to rest, but a much smoother beer, definitely moving in the right direction – I had an idea which I ran by Matt (our brewer): “What if we brought the bathtub beer?” This was a nickname we had given the last remaining keg of our Kölsch Bock.

You see, en route to deliver the keg to Pub Italia, we found out they were not able to put us on tap right away and asked if we could deliver it the following week. What to do with the keg??? We had a walk-in cooler that was not operational yet, and, desperate to save the beer, we put it in Jamie’s bathtub, filled the tub with ice, and hoped it would survive.

Knowing that the Golden Tap crowd would a) recognize good beer and b) be interested in something different and new I thought to myself, what a great way to use up the rest of this keg. A week before the event Matt and I tapped the keg to give it a test. I was convinced that the beer was fabulous, but Matt was worried. Would these aficionados forgive the beer for not being what it had originally intended to be and judge it simply on what it was? Or would they write it off as a pitiful attempt at a very specific beer style? Matt reminded me that the brewery’s fortunes aside, his reputation as a brewer was at stake, something I had not considered up to that point.

After sampling the beer with a few more friends and fellow brewers, they went with their guts and stuck with the Kölsch-Bock. Based on the audience response, it looks like this was another gamble which paid off big.

Oh, I guess I should mention what I thought of the beer. First of all, it probably goes without saying that it doesn’t resemble a Kölsch in the least, aside from the bright golden hue. And given its high octane alcohol level, it definately has some boozy notes in the nose and flavour. But it also has a very nice sweet, fruit and slightly floral character that I quite enjoyed. It actually reminded me somewhat of King PilsBock, a similar – but intentional – hybrid that came out from King Brewery back in the spring. It wasn’t my favourite beer of the fest – that honour goes to the fantastic Ste. Andre Great Eastern IPA – but it’s an interesting, flavourful and enjoyable beer, style be damned. And isn’t that the most important thing?

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part Three

Yes, here it is, the long-awaited third part in my bloated Michigan Road-Trip Trilogy. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read Parts One and Two first.

Saturday was the main event – the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival. The festival actually started the night before with an evening session that we decided to skip in favour of checking out the scene in Ann Arbor, although as the previous instalment in this series showed, we’d probably been better off going to the fest. But no matter, we had a good day ahead of us.

Now, I can hardly call myself a beer festival expert. I go to Toronto’s Festival of Beer every year, and have been to other smaller fests and events here in town, but my only out-town-festival experiences have been Montreal’s Mondial de la Biere a few years ago, and the Michigan fest in 2003 and this year. But I think I can safely say that the folks in MI put on one of the best beer events in North America. First of all, it’s held in the absolutely gorgeous Riverside Park – which is, fittingly enough, a big park beside a river – located in the picturesque town of Ypsilanti. And more importantly, it features astoundingly good beer from a range of breweries and brewpubs that is just mind-boggling, especially for those of us who live in a province where antiquated liquor laws and government red tape have led to a somewhat stunted – but thankfully improving – craft beer culture.

Soon after arriving with my crew (Jeff, Paul, Jeremy & Harry), we met up with fellow Canucks Mike & Derek, and a few American pals who we knew from RateBeer – they have real names, but we know them best as 11026, Styles and BBB63. We were soon joined by Quebec RateBeerian beerbuzzmontreal and his pal, and then the drinking began.

As much as I would have loved to try every beer available at the fest, the fact that there were something like 200 of them made it a little difficult. But by sharing some samples, I was able to get at least a taste of about 3 dozen or so, and some of my favourites included:

Livery Cask Aged Belgian Cherry Wheat
This Flemish Sour from The Livery brewpub of Benton Harbor was my first beer of the day, and it was so good I was worried that the day might go downhill from there. It featured a strong, inviting aroma of sour cherry and oaked whiskey, and a very nice flavour with tart cherry and wood notes. It was also dangerously smooth for such a strong beer (8.5%) – a theme that continued for much of the day.

Founders Blushing Monk Belgian Razz
Another wickedly strong fruit beer (10.3%), this one from the always reliable Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids. It poured a dark ruby-pink with a tiny white head, and had lots of fresh, tart raspberry in the aroma with some mild funkiness in the background. Sharp raspberry flavour, with enough tartness to keep it in line – some of the others at the table found it cloying, but I really dug it.

Bonfire Kristallweizen
This lovely beer from Northville’s Bonfire Bistro and Brewery was my first ever Kristallweizen, and I’m glad to have tried a fresh, locally brewed sample rather than a potentially stale bottle from Germany. It had a golden yellow colour with a very faint haze. Nice weisse aroma, a bit yeasty and tart with mellow banana notes. Very clean flavour with a bit of spiciness and wheat, and mild banana to finish. Excellent!

Fort Street Farmers Tan
I was going to call Lincoln Park’s Fort Street Brewery the dark horse of the festival, but since Dark Horse Brewing was there, that might get confusing. So I’ll just say that they surprised all of us with the quality of their beers, especially since we’d never heard of them before the festival, as this Brown Ale was the highlight of their beers that we tried. It was dark brown with a nice creamy tan head, and looked really nice for a festival sample. The aroma was roasty and a bit smoky, almost like a porter. It had a soft mouthfeel, and a mellow flavour of roasted malt with notes of yeast and cocoa.

Bo’s Solar Eclipse Imperial Stout
The folks from Bo’s Brewery and Bistro claim that this beer is 22.5%. All who tried it at our table were skeptical of this claim, but if it’s true, then they’ve discovered the secret to hiding the alcohol burn ’cause godDAMN this beer was smooth! It poured pitch black, of course, sitting in the glass like motor oil, and smelling sweet and smoky with notes of coffee with cream, molasses, vanilla – yum! The flavour was absolutely fantastic – roasted coffee & nuts, bourbon, wood, sweet malt – just completely luscious stuff.

Grand Rapids Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale
Schmohz Kiss My Scottish Arse Scotch Ale
Livery Cask-Aged Kilt Tilter
If it’s nae Scottish, it’s CRAP!

Towards the end of the day, a few guys from Beer Advocate stopped by our table, and while we briefly considered starting a beer-rating-site rumble, we instead decided to enjoy our last beers together and have a few laughs. I was especially glad to meet up with Jonathan Surratt, the guy behind the absolutely indespensible RSBS, an aggregator of RSS feeds from around 100 (and growing) beer blogs and news sites. I gave him mad props, and promised a pint or two if he ever makes it up north for a visit.

Sadly, the festival came to an end at 6 PM, and tentative plans to do something or other with our American pals were scuttled when they found their car had been towed. We briefly considered another attempt to hit some of the Ann Arbor hot spots, but remembering the near disaster of the night before, decided it might be best to stay at the hotel for the evening. After all, with the goodies we’d purchased the day before at Bello Vino, it wasn’t like we were wanting for beer.

I don’t think I mentioned previously that we were staying at the Best Western Executive Plaza, a bizarre hotel/motel hybrid that seemed to be stuck in some sort of time warp, particularly when it came to Bedrock’s Eats & Beats, the hotel bar/restaurant where we had our dinner on Saturday. As the name suggests, the place had a weird Flintstones theme going on, and based on the size of the place and the large dancefloor and DJ booth, it looked as if it might’ve been a very happening place at one point. But on this particular Saturday, we pretty much had the place to ourselves aside from two other patrons who sat and smoked and drank Bud at the bar. At least the food was decent in a bar food sort of way – although Harry’s Bronto-Burger frightened the rest of us a little bit.

Hunger satisfied, we spent the rest of the evening hopping from room to room and sampling stuff from each of our stashes. Dead soldiers that night included HeBrew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A, Avery Twelve, Arcadia Scotch Ale, Sprecher Generation Porter, Baltika 6 Porter and Arcadia Hopmouth Double IPA. You can click the links to see my notes and ratings at RateBeer.

The next morning, we hit the road bright and (fairly) early for our trip back to Toronto. He had a quick stop outside of Detroit to trade a few things with our American RateBeer buds (who thankfully got their car out of the pound the night before), had the easiest border crossing ever, and hit Windsor just in time to have lunch at our last stop for the weekend, Charly’s Brew Pub.

Walking into Charly’s is like walking into any roadhouse sports bar in any small North American town – lots of TVs; a group of regulars holding up the bar; a faint hint of cigarette smoke still lingering even though smoking has been banned for months; and a slightly surly but efficient waitress; and greasy but tasty food. But in addition to all of this, Charly’s has a beer list of 100+ bottles from around the world (mostly LCBO general list, but still impressive for this sort of place), as well as a small brewery where they brew their house beer, Time Out. In fitting with the atmosphere, Time Out is a pale lager designed to appeal to Blue and Bud drinkers, but unlike those industrial lagers, it has a fresh character and some recognizable malt and hop notes. It certainly wasn’t in the same league as any of the beers we’d enjoyed in the previous two days, but we still enjoyed our pitcher, and found it amusing to note that they also sell a bottled version called Buck Off Beer in honour of the fact that it’s priced at a dollar less than bottles of Blue and other domestic swill.

A few hours later, and we were back home again. All in all, it was a great weekend of good beer and even better company. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again sometime.

News From Toronto's Festival Of Beer


The wife and I checked out Toronto’s Festival of Beer yesterday, and I put together a news item for The Bar Towel on the new beers and other announcements made at the fest. I’ll be editing and expanding the piece into a full festival report that I will probably submit to Gremolata (and link here, of course) – but first, I need to finish my bloated three-part report on the Michigan festival before it becomes completely outdated and redundant…

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part Two

In the first part of this report, I wrote about our stops on the way down to Ann Arbor on the day before the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival, and left off with our visit to the Bello Vino Marketplace where we did some serious bottle shopping. From there, we returned to our hotel for a quick rest and some freshening up before hitting downtown Ann Arbor for some bar and brewpub hopping.

Or that was the plan, at least. Our intentions were to get a quick cab ride into town, have dinner and beer at Arbor Brewing, make a quick stop at Grizzly Peak Brewing for a taste or two, and then head over to Ashley’s to finish off the evening. However, we didn’t account for two factors:

1) The concept of a “quick cab ride” does not seem to exist in Ann Arbor. Instead, when you call a cab, it will take roughly 45 minutes to arrive, and will end up being a dilapilated wreck driven by a guy who looks like he should be living in the mountains with a stockpile of guns & ammo plotting to take over the government.

2) The weekend of the MBG fest corresponded with the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, a group of four concurrent outdoor art exhibitions which close down most of the downtown core to traffic and draw a reported 500,000 people into a city that has a population of only 114,000.

As a result, once we finally got downtown, we found that both Arbor Brewing and Grizzly Peak were packed to the gills. So we slogged our way through the crowds and headed to Ashley’s, which was – of course – packed to the gills. However, the door girl assured us that there would soon be some space available as they were going to be opening up the downstairs, so we hit the sub shop on the corner for a quick bite, and got back in time to score some seats in the downstairs bar (The Underground), a dark, cave-like space that reminded me a lot of the sort of places I used to hang out in when I was younger and wore black all the time – except with a better beer list. While the selection in the basement was limited, it still boasted several taps from Bell’s as well as a couple of other local breweries and some well chosen imports.

However, being a bunch of old fogeys – well, except for Jeremy, but we’re working on him! – the loud music and cigarette smoke started to get to us, so we made our escape to the less claustrophobic main floor where we things had started to clear out a bit. While the beer selection downstairs had been nice, the upstairs bar had a tap and bottle list that I believe more than one of us described rather enthusiatically as “fucking awesome!”. The tap selection features 70 brews with a good balance of locals and imports, including some that we could only dream of ever seeing on tap in Ontario (Young’s Oatmeal Stout, Spaten Optimator, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Gulden Draak…). Not to mention the three handpumps (including Dogfish Head 90 Minute!) and the rotating, often exclusive selections from Jolly Pumpkin, Kuhnhenn, New Holland, Rogue, Victory and Short’s. And let’s not forget the 70+ bottles…

Needless to say, we were all feeling pretty good by the time we left Ashley’s. But we felt a little less good when we remembered the problems we had getting a cab down there, and even worse when a local informed us that even if we saw a cab driving by, trying to hail it would be futile since people just don’t hail cabs in Ann Arbor. Our waitress had given us the number of one of the cab companies, but their estimate to get a cab sent to pick us up was “around 20 minutes”. Considering that our earlier pick-up had been promised to be “around 10 minutes” but had taken over 45, we eventually decided that it might be better to walk the 2.5 miles back to the hotel rather than wait around for a taxi that might never show up.

Somehow, at least one of us managed to retain some semblance of direction in our beer addled brain, and we actually made it back to the hotel unharmed. And thanks to the brisk walk and copious sweating, relatively sober as well. And as indicated by the photo to the right, our trek seemed to take us through the liberal part of town, which allowed my buddy Jeff to make a fine political statement…

To Be Continued