Category Archives: beer reviews

Quick Quaff: Okanagan Spring Pale Ale

Way, way back in the days when the number of Canadian beer bloggers could be counted on one hand, it was pretty easy to write about a new (or even old) beer with some confidence that you’d be the only person doing so. Nowadays, though, there are so many of us – and so many breweries and PR companies sending samples to most of us – that my RSS feed of Canuck beer blogs can be a bit of an echo chamber at times.

Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of us in Ontario were sent six-packs of Okanagan Spring Pale Ale, a BC beer that has been available on tap here for a couple of years, but is new to the LCBO. I’ve made a point to try and avoid reading the reviews that have followed in hopes of giving an untainted opinion, so I’ll be curious to go back and see what the rest of the guys thought.

First, I don’t often mention packaging when writing up reviews, but I have to compliment whoever designed the branding for this beer. The label is particularly nice, with striking iconography and a unique layout that has text and graphics going every which way without looking too busy or cluttered. With such an impressive introduction, it’s just too bad that the beer itself isn’t nearly as inspired or innovative.

That’s not to say that there’s anything particularly wrong with it: from its bright copper colour , to its clean aroma and flavour that bring together notes of toasted grain, fruity malt and cut-grass hops, to its soft and crisp mouthfeel, it’s a perfectly pleasant beer. I had no problem drinking all six, with a few of them accompanying meals such as pizza and roti and doing a decent job of it.

What they didn’t do, however, was leave any sort of impression behind. While drinking, I’d think “yeah, this beer is all right” – and a few minutes after finishing, I’d barely remember what it looked, smelled or tasted like. Even now, just moments after polishing off the last bottle, I’m already having a hard time recalling anything about it that would make me want another.

And needless to say, that isn’t a good state to leave a beer drinker in when you’re hoping to get them to buy more of your product.

A Shot with a Beer Back: Compass Box Spice Tree & Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor

Each weekday last week, I was planning on posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Due to various factors, I was unable to get Friday’s post done in time, so here it is now…

Compass Box Spice Tree (LCBO 220806 – $67.25/700 mL)

If you know whisky, you’re probably aware of the stir that Compass Box and its founder/whiskymaker John Glaser has caused in the whisky world in the last decade or so. Even as a casual whisky drinker, I’ve been aware of the cult-like status that Glaser has developed for his products, as well as the controversy that some of them have caused. (Google “John Glaser” and “Scotch Whisky Association”  together to get a taste of the latter.) In simple terms, Glaser obtains whiskies from various distilleries, combines them, and then matures the blends in different woods to create artisanal blended whiskies that are ranked as high as premium single malts by many aficionados. Spice Tree is one of Glaser’s Signature Series whiskies, and the appropriateness of the name comes clear from the moment it’s poured, as big notes of clove and ginger come forward, with supporting notes of cinnamon, vanilla and orange peel. Ginger dominates the palate as well, with toasted oak, vanilla and cinnamon behind, along with a developing hint of nutmeg, and a whiff of wood smoke.

Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor (LCBO 211284 – $3.10/330 mL)

Just as the whiskies of Compass Box are considered unorthodox, so too can Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor be looked at as a bit of an oddity, and a product of a modern and experimental beer culture. For years, the ales of Belgium have been known to emphasize aromas and flavours produced primarily by malt and yeast, with hops playing a backing role. But more recently, as the hops-forward beers favoured by many American breweries have started filtering back to the Old World, some brewers there have been cutting loose and beefing up the hops in their recipes. Hopsinjoor is one of those beers, brewed using four strains of hops, each added at a different point in the brewing process to bring out their aromas and flavours to full effect. It pours a beautiful golden colour with a vague haze and a huge cap of rocky white foam. Forcing their way through the head are rich aromas of peppery yeast, fruits like pineapple and orange, some lemon zest, and a slightly medicinal pine-like note. The body is quite active, giving a crisp and effervescent mouthfeel that cleanses the palate and lets the hops shine through in the flavour, with notes of grapefruit, pine sap and cut grass, along with hints of banana and pineapple, and a bit of pepper in the finish.

A Shot with a Beer Back: Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt & Ölvisholt Skjálfti

Each weekday this week, I’ll be posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Today’s picks are a whiskey from Ireland (yeah, I’m doing the St. Paddy’s thing…) and a beer from Iceland.

Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt (LCBO 223776 – $48.60/750 mL)

While the Scottish single malt whiskies get most of the attention, there are quite a few Irish single malts out there as well. This one from Knappogue Castle is the first in their range to have an age designation – previous bottlings had been given vintage years, making it difficult to know exactly how long the liquid was inside the wood, which is something that most aficionados want to know. As is typical of many Irish whiskeys, it has a mellower character than a comparable Scotch might have, with an inviting aroma of biscuit and toasted grain, and smooth flavours of light golden sugar, vanilla and lychee. It finishes light as well, with a bit of orange zest and a suggestion of pepper. A nice session sipper.

Ölvisholt Skjálfti (LCBO 168393 – $3.90/500 mL bottle)

In addition to their similar names and fairly close geographic proximity, Ireland and Iceland have some strong historic connections, with Irish monks believed to be the first settlers there before the Norse showed up. So I guess it’s fitting that I feature this Icelandic beer alongside an Irish whiskey. As I noted when I reviewed it for Taste T.O. last summer, Skjálfti is unique not only because of where it comes from, but also due it being brewed using lager yeast, but fermented at a warmer temperature more typical of ales. That combined with the use of Cascade hops – a strain that contributes notes of bitter citrus that are more commonly found in American pale ales – makes Skjálfti a full-bodied, flavourful and well-bittered beer that even the most anti-lager ale-head would enjoy.

A Shot with a Beer Back: The Balvenie Caribbean Cask & Panil Barriquée Sour

Each weekday this week, I’ll be posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Today’s picks are a sweet whisky and a sour beer.

The Balvenie Caribbean Cask (LCBO 221200 – $99.95/750 mL)

The newest permanent addition to the Balvenie line-up – although only available temporarily in Ontario – this is a 14-year-old expression of the whisky that’s been finished in rum casks. As you’d expect, this layers the aroma and flavour notes you’d find in rum – dark sugar, toffee, vanilla, spices – on top of the soft honey, fruit, heather and oak notes typical of Balvenie. The result is a spirit that is quite sweet, but never cloying, as all of the notes find just the right balance. (It’s also a treat to try this side-by-side with other Balvenie offerings, which I recently had the chance to do – a write-up on that is coming soon.)

Panil Barriqu̩e Sour (LCBO 210591 Р$14.00/750 mL)

Aside from the frequently infected beers from a local brewery who shall remain nameless, sour beers are not often seen at the LCBO, so for those of us who are still pining for the days when Rodenbach Grand Cru was (briefly) available in Ontario, the inclusion of this Italian delicacy in the Spring beer release is a godsend. Intentionally soured with lactobacillus bacteria and triple fermented – 15 days in iron, 90 days in cognac and bordeaux barrels, and 30 days in the bottle – Panil Barriquée Sour is a hazy ruby brew with a tart and funky aroma holding notes of sour cherry, cranberry and wood. The flavour is a wonder that seems to change with every sip – I picked up lemon, cranberry, sour cherry and other overripe berries, grape must, yeast, cheese, wood and leather. The finish is dry and dusty and quite acidic, leaving the palate craving more. It is, as the cliche goes, an acquired taste – but once you’ve acquired it, you’ll be saddened by the reality that this beauty will only be available in Ontario for a limited time.

A Shot with a Beer Back: Maker’s Mark 46 & Amsterdam Spring Bock

Each weekday this week, I’ll be posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Today’s picks are a new variation on a classic bourbon, and a returning seasonal beer from a veteran Toronto brewery.

Maker’s Mark 46 (LCBO 225565 – $49.95/750 mL)

Created by aging the original Maker’s Mark bourbon for an additional few weeks in modified barrels containing charred French oak staves, Maker’s Mark 46 (which is actually 47% abv, despite the name) shows a good deal more complexity than the regular brand. Spices in particular are more prominent – cinnamon especially, with lesser hints of clove and ginger – and there are also caramel, vanilla and dried apple notes that serve as connectors to the original MM. Burnt oak is also in there, but in more of a supporting role. I found the 47% to be just high enough to give more of a boozy burn than I usually like in the finish, so I don’t know if I’d turn to this as a sipping bourbon, but in the right hands, it would make a fine cocktail.

Amsterdam Spring Bock (LCBO 208942 – $3.95/500 mL)

First brewed in 2009 based on a recipe developed by homebrewer Derek Hyde, Spring Bock has become a regular part of Amsterdam’s seasonal beer program, and is now the first of those seasonals to graduate from being available only at the brewery store to LCBO distribution. This likely means that it’s now being brewed in larger batches, but the quality doesn’t seem to have suffered because of it. Dark mahogany with an off-white head, it has an aroma of sweet toasted malt, dark dried fruit, cocoa, a bit of smoke and wood, and light herbal hops. The flavour gives what the aroma promises, with nutty malt and bittersweet cocoa coming to the forefront as it warms. A great beer that is superior to other bock in the release, Höss Doppel-Hirsch (LCBO 106237 – $3.75/500 mL), in pretty much every regard – although to be fair, the latter has likely suffered somewhat due to having to travel from Germany rather than Bathurst and Lake Shore.

A Shot with a Beer Back: The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve & Tree Hop Head Double IPA

Each weekday this week, I’ll be posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Today’s picks are a blended whisky that surprises, and a hotly anticipated beer that lives up to the hype.

The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve (LCBO 220764 – $39.95/750 mL)

At first glance, including a less-than-$40 blended whisky in a line-up that features primarily higher-end single malts seems like an odd move on the part of the LCBO. But just as the standard Famous Grouse is one of the best entry-level blended Scotches available, the Gold Reserve is a fantastic mid-level blend that rivals some single malts in complexity and quality. It offers a nice balance of flavours, with fruit (especially apricot) and spice off the top, peated grain and sherry wood in the middle, and smooth caramel notes in the finish. A really great whisky, and an amazing value.

Tree Brewing Hop Head Double IPA (LCBO 209346 – $5.35/650 mL)

As one of the first American-style Double IPAs to ever be widely available in Ontario, the anticipation among Ontario beer geeks for the arrival of this beer was such that it’s been selling out almost instantly as it hits the shelves, which means it might be hard to track down. But if you do manage to get a bottle, you won’t be disappointed – assuming you’re looking for some red-hot hop action, of course. Reddish copper with a thick and creamy off-white head, it throws off a delicious aroma of pine resin and candied citrus peel, with caramel malt notes playing second banana. In the flavour, the malt comes forward a bit more, giving some balance to the big hops that sing out with pine, spruce and grapefruit. The full body gets a little syrupy as it warms, but not to the point of being cloying. Fantastic stuff, and if you want to see how it stacks up against a great Double IPA from south of the border, grab some Southern Tier Gemini (LCBO 211425 – $9.00/650 mL bottle) which is also part of the Spring release.

Quick Quaff: Garrison Blackberry Wheat

Garrison Blackberry Wheat isn’t exactly the most seasonal beer to be drinking on a cool evening in March – quite literally out-of-season, in fact, as it’s only available from the brewery in May through September, and this bottle was sent along with a few other east coast brews as an Xmas present by my brother-in-law in Halifax. So I can’t even be sure exactly when it was brewed and bottled, aside from knowing that it’s at least six months old. Not promising, especially for a 4.6% abv beer.

It still seems to be in good shape, though, with an inviting aroma of slightly tart blackberries and toasted grain malt coming off of the golden body and large white head. It’s light and crisp on the tongue, and malt and berry notes come together in the flavour to evoke something close to blackberry pie, with a hint of orange and herbs joining in the subtly hopped finish.

Definitely one of the better non-lambic fruit beers I’ve tried, and hopefully I can convince my bro-in-law to send me a few in the summer when they’re even fresher and more suited to the weather.

Quick Quaff: Alexander Keith’s Harvest Ale

My biggest weakness as a blogger has always been my habit of writing so-called “blessays” – i.e. long posts that take a lot more time to write than I usually have to spare. The result has been a blog that is often neglected for days or weeks at a time, while the backlog of things I want to write about – and beers that I intend to review – keeps getting bigger and bigger.

In an attempt to avoid this trap in the future, this post inaugurates a new and hopefully regular series called “Quick Quaff,” where I’ll be posting fairly short tasting notes on beer (and occasionally spirits) that I’m drinking. And somewhat fittingly, I’m starting with a beer that I meant to review when it was sent to me a few months back, but didn’t get around to due to the various personal matters that had me out of commission for a while…

Released last October in limited quantities, Alexander Keith’s Harvest Ale is the first in a new “Brewmaster’s Series” of smaller batch beers that seem aimed at giving the Keith’s brand a bit more of a craft beer cachet. (The second brew in the series, Tartan Ale, was just released recently, with reviews popping up here, there and everywhere – I’m guessing the lack of a sample being offered to me can likely be chalked up to my delay in writing about the Harvest Ale, which is perfectly understandable, as if I were Labatt‘s PR company, I’d probably hesitate in sending more beer to a deadbeat blogger like myself…)

My initial impressions of this beer are good – it pours a really gorgeous mahogany colour with a thin tan cap, and the aroma is appealing, with notes of caramel and cherry candy (I almost wrote “cherry cough drops,” but it’s not quite so medicinal). The body could do with a bit more heft, but it’s still adequate to carry the flavour, which follows on the aroma with some caramel and dark cherry, joined by a faint nuttiness, a suggestion of cocoa, and a moderate bitterness in the finish that doesn’t quite balance the sweetness, but comes pretty close.

In the end, it’s undeniably a fairly mainstream product, with the aromas and flavours being more restrained than they might be in a similar beer from a small craft brewery. But for a brewery the size of Keith’s/Labatt, it was an admirable and generally successful experiment, and one that has me really curious to try the Tartan Ale.

Christmas Cheer with OCB Beer

Just in time for the holidays, the latest batch of sampler packs to media from the Ontario Craft Brewers went out a couple of weeks ago – and interestingly, rather than just sending out their latest Discovery Pack, they did up one-off samplers in handy six-bottle/can carriers from the fine folks at CRAP, along with some tasty bottle and mug shaped cookies.

My package contained six beers that I’m quite familiar with – Beau’s Lug-Tread Lagered Ale, Black Oak Nutcracker Porter, Cameron’s Auburn Ale, Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion, Muskoka Cream Ale and Wellington Special Pale Ale. All nice enough quaffers. And quaff them I have – or most of them, at least, with the last couple sitting in the fridge to be downed soon.

Given my aforementioned familiarity with them, I haven’t bothered taking any tasting notes – and honestly, most of them are beers more suited to drinking and enjoying casually rather than analytically. But thanks to the magic of RateBeer, I’m able to bring you some notes I wrote up about each of them in the past (with a few new comments & amendments as needed)…

Keep reading this post

Catching Up

While I take some time to get things together for some posts I’ve got planned, here are links to the beery and boozy writing I did for Taste T.O. in the couple of months before we put the site on hiatus.

Nov 9th: Beers of the Week – Harviestoun Ola Dubh Series
A review feature on the five Ola Dubh versions – 12, 16, 18, 30 & 40 – that were released at the LCBO recently.

Nov 2nd: Pub Crawl – Parkdale
A virtual tour of five of the best places get a pint in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

Oct 28th: Glenfiddich – Not Just For Newbies
A re-cap of two Glenfiddich tasting events I attended in one day, one of which included the somewhat rare 21 Year Old, and the really rare 40 Year Old.

Oct 26th: Beer of the Week – Creemore Springs urBock
Review of a returning seasonal favourite.

Oct 19th: LCBO Opens The Whisky Shop
A look at the line-up of premium spirits on offer via the LCBO’s new Whisky Shop promotion.

Oct 12th: Beers of the Week – Birrificio Brùton
Some thoughts on the beers of Italy’s Birrificio Brùton, which I enjoyed in the company of brewery founder Iacopo Lenci.

Oct 5th: Pub Crawl – Downtown Yonge
The first installment in the returning Pub Crawl series, and also the first in the new multi-venue format, featuring short write-ups on five bars and pubs in the same neighbourhood.

Sep 28th: Beers of the Week – Here’s to Hallowe’en!
An advance preview of the pumpkin beers and other spooky ales brought in by the LCBO for Hallowe’en this year.

Sep 21st: Beer of the Week – Muskoka Harvest Ale
Review of one of the best seasonal ales available in Ontario this fall.

Sep 14th: Beers of the Week – The Ales of Autumn
Preview of the beers included in the LCBO’s 2010 Autumn Ales promotion.

Sep 7th: Hanging Out With Bud And Jack
Notes on a unique day where I met the men currently responsible for two of America’s most legendary alcohol brands: George F. Reisch, Brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch; and Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s.