Quick Quaff: Great Western Brewing Original 16

When it comes to selling beer, it helps to have a good story to tell. And when it comes to good stories, it’s hard to beat the one behind Saskatoon’s Great Western Brewing.

Opened in 1927 as Hub City Brewing Company, the brewery changed hands a number of times over the years, ending up as a branch of Carling O’Keefe until 1989, when the Molson/O’Keefe merger threatened it with closure. To avert this fate, sixteen employees got together and purchased the brewery and relaunched it in 1990 as Great Western.

In the years since, Great Western has never had an pretenses of being an artisanal craft brewery. Its brands are aimed squarely at the mass market and sold largely in Saskatchewan, where the brewery’s local and independent nature is what keeps them selling. So it was a bit surprising to see the launch back in March of Original 16 Canadian Pale Ale, a self-described “premium beer brand” released and named in honour of the brewery founders.

Having now tried the few cans that the folks at Great Western were kind enough to send me, I’m reminded that in the world of beer marketing, the word “premium” can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. Or more to the point – when a brewery that normally produces mass market pale lagers puts out an ale and describes it as a “premium beer,” it’s probably not going to be a rich, hoppy, full-flavoured brew.

Based on Original 16, it’s more likely to be a clear golden ale with a light and sweet aroma of honey-on-toast and fruit cocktail, a crisp and clean body, and a refreshing flavour profile with notes of honey, lemon, grape skin and cut grass. What makes it “premium” is the fact that it’s an adjunct-free, 100% barley malt brew, and that its initial 7 day fermentation is followed by nearly four weeks of aging, a rarity for mass market beer.

Basically, Great Western knows its customers, and has brewed a beer that will appeal to them – i.e. a simple, clean, golden ale that has strong stylistic similarities to a a simple, clean, golden lager. It might not turn the head or excite the palate of someone whose taste is more inclined toward big and bold craft beers. But for what it is, Original 16 is nice little beer.

Breaking the Boundaries of Beer Cocktails at beerbistro

For most of my drinking career, my opinion of beer cocktails has been one of mild ambivalence. While I’ve tried and enjoyed a few, I never really saw much point to them as I’ve always looked at beer as a beverage meant to be consumed and enjoyed in its original form.

Recently, though, I’ve been shown that if made by the right set of hands, a beer cocktail can be a truly unique creation that is more than just a lager or ale mixed over ice with a couple of other ingredients. Especially when those hands belong to Michelle Tham, the bar manager at beerbistro.

I first tried Tham’s mixological creations a few weeks ago, when beerbistro hosted a low-key tasting featuring a couple of cocktails that she had crafted using beers from Unibroue. The brewery’s gregarious beer sommelier Sylvain Bouchard was on hand to talk about the drinks and to present and explain some food pairings, but it was Tham’s demo that was the most interesting and enlightening part of the event.

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Blonde on Blonde – Keith’s Ambrosia Blonde vs. Rickard’s Blonde

While it’s unlikely that either company would freely admit to it, it’s easy to get the impression that Labatt and Molson have been shadowing each other with their respective Keith’s and Rickard’s brands in the last few years, leading to a pair of pseudo-craft portfolios that are strikingly similar in their line-ups.

The latest parallel between the two is the recent and nearly simultaneous launches of Keith’s Ambrosia Blonde and Rickard’s Blonde. While there are some differences between the two – the Keith’s is an ale while the Rickard’s is a lager; the former is a limited Brewmaster Series release while the latter appears to be a new year-round product – the similar names and the arrival of promo samples of both within a week or so of each other made it impossible to resist doing a head-to-head review of the pair.

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Opening the File on Toronto’s New Breweries

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to be asked to contribute an article about Toronto’s beer culture to the user-driven news site OpenFile.ca as part of a series they’re publishing about beer across the country. I was asked to write about one particular aspect of the scene, preferably something unique to Toronto, and the angle I took was to cover the bunch of new breweries that have recently opened in town, or soon will be.

The article was posted yesterday, and while I’m happy with it, word limits and editing meant that only a couple of short quotes from the email Q&As I did with various owners and brewers were able to be used in the published version. So rather than have the material go to waste, I thought I’d post the full quotes here.

I asked each brewery “What is it about the current beer scene in Toronto that has inspired you and others to start this cluster of new breweries?”, as well as another question or two more specific to their project. Here’s what they had to say…

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Spirits Sipped: Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum


As the popularity of premium spirits continues to grow, so too does the volume of promo packs being sent out by PR companies in an attempt to get a bit of coverage for the latest tipple. Often these packages are minimal – just an airplane bottle of the booze and a bit of supporting material – but sometimes there’s a bit more thought and effort put into the campaign.

One of the more interesting pitches I’ve received lately actually came in two parts, the first being a small package containing a ceramic cup holding vials of nine different spices – vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, allspice, pepper and juniper berry – along with a note indicating that a second package would be coming soon. It was an interesting approach, and one that left me curious and anticipating the arrival of the main item – in other words, a successful bit of marketing.

The subsequent delivery was a bottle of Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum, a recent arrival in Ontario (LCBO 225680 – $27.95/750 mL bottle) that joins brands like Sailor Jerry and The Kraken in the spiced rum niche. The press bumpf that accompanied the bottle features the expected words and phrases – “authentic”, “heritage”, “premium craftsmanship” – but all I really care about it what’s in the bottle, and whether or not it’s any good.

In this case, it is, but with a caveat: A soon as the bottle is opened, it’s obvious that in order to enjoy this rum, the drinker had better dig vanilla. And not the deep, woodsy vanilla found in bourbon, but sweet, candyish vanilla, like the pure vanilla extract used in baking. The aroma is just chock full of it, with the sharper spices like cinnamon and clove just offering a hint of backing support.

Vanilla is also a big player in the flavour, especially off the top, with the other spices coming to the fore in the middle and finish. Cinnamon, clove, allspice and mace all make appearances as the liquid coats the tongue, and the finish is warm, peppery, and a bit herbal, suggesting some influence from the juniper berries.

As a whole, I found Cruzan 9  to be a pleasant rum with well-balanced spicing, but also a touch on the sweet side for my palate, at least when sipped straight. I tried it in one of my favourite rum cocktails, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, and even there the vanilla flavour came on a bit too strong, although the other spices played well with the ginger beer.

For other cocktail uses, one of the suggested recipes – The Cruzan Apple, with Cruzan 9 and pineapple juice – sounds pretty nice, and it would make for a decent rum and coke as well. Although I think this variation on that classic as featured on the provided recipe list would be even better:

Cruzan 9 Root Beer
1 oz Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum
2 dashes of Galliano liqueur
6 parts cola|
Build over ice in a tall highball glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Quick Quaff: Cameron’s Oak-Aged Series – American Whiskey Barrel

Cameron’s Brewing has never really been what you might call an overly adventurous brewery. Yeah, they’ve put out some experimental one-offs for their monthly Cask Nights at the brewery and the odd special event, but their main efforts over the years have been focused on a line-up of four beers that are solid enough, but not exactly envelope-pushing.

Given that history, it made sense that some eyebrows were raised when it was announced last November that former Molson marketing executive Bill Coleman had joined Cameron’s as co-owner and president. Exciting or not, Cameron’s is still a well-respected craft brewery, and there was some concern that Coleman was a guy with big brewery ideas who was swooping in to take away the few interesting things that were happening at Cameron’s in favour of the bottom line.

Thankfully, though, that hasn’t seemed to be the case. If anything, it looks like Coleman might be encouraging the brewers to get more creative, assuming this new beer – a 7.4% ale aged in a Jack Daniel’s cask and released in a limited edition of 150 bottles – is any indication.

Out of the bottle, the beer instantly grabs some attention with its rich and slightly hazy chestnut-mahogany body capped with a moderate sized off-white head. On the nose, it’s big without being aggressive, with notes of whiskey, vanilla, wood, caramel malt and cocoa all nicely balanced. The flavour holds just what the aroma suggests – a well-integrated blend of mellow sippin’ whiskey and a strong and smooth malty ale – with a hint of sour wood and subtle hops in the finish.

My only real complaint is that the palate is a little light, and should the series continue, I’d be interested to see a fuller bodied beer being used in a future installment. But that’s a minor quibble over an otherwise fine brew that is hopefully a sign of more good and interesting things come from the brewery under Coleman’s watch.

Cameron’s Oak-Aged Series – American Whiskey Barrel is available now at the Cameron’s Brewery store in Oakville, priced at $12.95 per 750 ml bottle.

Spirits Sipped: Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix

While it may play into stereotypes somewhat, there is some truth to the old adage about Scots being both thrifty and ingenious. So when the record snowfalls that struck Great Britain in the winter of 2009-10 caused the roofs of several warehouses holding casks of Glenfiddich whisky to collapse, it was almost inevitable that Malt Master Brian Kinsman (pictured above) would figure out a way to turn a potential disaster into something great.

Along with his team, Kinsman checked the contents of between 400 and 500 of the exposed casks – some ex-sherry, some ex-bourbon, with liquids ranging in age from 13 to 30 years – and selected around 200 to be melded into a special one-off bottling, something that is quite rare for the distillery. The result is Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, a whisky limited to 60,000 bottles, with a portion of that recently arriving in Ontario (LCBO 236752 – $89.95/750 mL).

Kinsman recently came through town to hold some one-on-one tastings of Snow Phoenix, along with a run through of the standard line-up of Glenfiddich 12, 15 and 18. I shared my thoughts on this classic trio over on Taste T.O. last fall, so I’ll skip those here and go straight to the new arrival:

First of all, it’s worth noting that unlike most Glenfiddich whiskies, Snow Phoenix isn’t chill filtered, meaning that it has a slight haziness that becomes more pronounced when a splash of water is added. It’s also bottled at a higher proof than the regular range – 47% abv vs. 40% – which raises the expectation of it being a bit hotter than a regular Glenfiddich.

At first nosing, though, the increased alcohol is not especially evident. Instead, there’s a very pleasant melange of the fruit, honey and toffee typical of the Glenfiddich house style, along with some spice (cinnamon and clove), orange oil and faint oak as backing notes. On the palate, the honey and orange oil are the first to hit, with notes of sherry and vanilla filling the middle, before the booze finally takes over in the warm, spicy and slightly woody finish.

As we tasted, Kinsman stressed that while it’s limited nature has inevitably led to Snow Phoenix being viewed as a bit of a cachet product, his intention was still to make a whisky that is easy and pleasurable to drink, not just something to display on a shelf. He definitely succeeded in this regard.

In addition, the $89.95 price point puts Snow Phoenix at a cost quite reasonable for a limited specialty Scotch, making it accessible to more than just the collectors. Although if you have a few extra bucks kicking around, you might be interested in its sibling, Glenfiddich 50 Year Old, a single bottle of which is available now at the Summerhill LCBO for a mere $26,000. For the rest of us, though, Snow Phoenix will do just fine.

A Six-Pack of Picks for Ontario Craft Beer Week

It’s no secret that Ontario beer drinkers complain a lot about the state of things in our province. A quick scan of the Bar Towel forums will reveal numerous threads bitching about something or other, with the LCBO and Beer Store being especially popular (and sometimes deserving) punching bags.

But even amongst that negative noise, there’s developed a realization that while our craft beer scene may not be perfect, it’s still pretty damn good. Our local breweries are getting more adventurous with their offerings; our selection of great imports continues to improve; an increasing number of bars and restaurants are stocking better beer; and the events focussed on good beer have become more and more frequent.

One of the best examples of the latter is Ontario Craft Beer Week, an initiative launched last year by the Ontario Craft Brewers, and which returns for this year starting tomorrow, running June 19th to 25th (although unofficial pre-week events such as the Cask Ale Crawl and the Beach BBQ and Brews Festival have already started happening). Not to be confused with Toronto Beer Week, which also debuted last year and will be back in September, OCB Week encompasses a wide variety of events across the province, ranging from brewery open houses and casual tastings to formal dinners and festivals.

There are over 100 events to choose from, and they’re all worth supporting, but here are a half-dozen happening in Toronto that are especially worthy of attention…

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A Sneak Peek at The Beer Boutique

There are a lot of things that I don’t like about The Beer Store. I don’t think it’s right that Ontario’s main retail outlet for beer is owned by three foreign-owned/partnered companies (Labatt/InBev, Molson-Coors and Sleeman/Sapporo). I dislike the restrictive listing fees that make it difficult or impossible for many small breweries to get their products stocked. And most of all, I despise the fast food style counter service offered at the majority of its locations, a sales method that presents customers with a wall of labels and prices with no other information about the beers on offer, ultimately discouraging many of them from trying new things and enforcing the status quo of The Big 10.

While I don’t see my first two complaints being addressed any time soon, the third has been mitigated somewhat by a few self-serve locations, such as the one I visit occasionally at Dufferin Mall. But while it doesn’t bother me much that the main browsing area at this store is essentially a refrigerated storeroom, there are others who are looking for something a bit more refined in their retail experiences – not to mention more variety in singles and six-packs than what’s offered at the average Beer Store, where the 2-4 tends to be king.

It’s undoubtedly these types of customers that inspired the creation of The Beer Boutique, a new offshoot of The Beer Store that opens its first location in Toronto’s Liberty Village today. Last night was a media and VIP preview, and I got in to take a few snaps and check out the joint.

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Quick Quaff: Molson Canadian 67 Sublime

OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat:

Molson Canadian 67 Sublime is not a great beer. It has very little colour, aroma and flavour. It’s bland and, frankly, kind of boring. The several bottles I had at the launch party that Molson threw at The Fifth last week are likely the last I will ever drink.

Those are all the things that I, as a Serious Beer Drinker, am expected to think and write about beers like this. And in general, they’re all true.

But they also don’t much matter, as Molson Canadian 67 Sublime – a low calorie and low alcohol beer infused with lime and lemon flavour – isn’t a beer for Serious Beer Drinkers, and what Serious Beer Drinkers think about it is pretty much irrelevant. It’s not a beer to be sniffed and sipped and swirled and savoured; it’s a light and lightly-flavoured beverage designed for calorie conscious consumers who want to enjoy a few brews on a warm patio with friends and not think about what they’re drinking aside from making sure it’s cold and refreshing.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sure, I could pull out the argument that those who want to cut back on their caloric intake could just drink a less – and preferably craft – beer rather than settling for a low calorie macrobrew. But that assumes that the people who choose to drink 67 Sublime and other low-cal and lime-flavoured brews are settling, when in fact, many of them are likely quite happy with what they’re getting.

And what exactly are they getting? A pale yellow liquid with lots of carbonation, very little aroma, a very refreshing mouthfeel, and a clean flavour that’s reminiscent of 7-UP with a backnote of malt. (My wife claimed that it tasted like Irish Spring soap, but I think that was caused by the combination of the beer and the cilantro in one of the hors d’œuvre that was being served. Plus she generally hates fruit-flavoured beers, and calls me a girly-man when I drink them.)

Sitting on the lovely enclosed rooftop patio at The Fifth, chatting with friends and colleagues, and enjoying a sultry early summer evening, I drank one, and another, and another besides that. Sure, they weren’t as good as the Hacker-Pschorr Kellerbier I’d enjoyed at a nearby pub beforehand, or something else similarly full of flavour and character, but they were cold and wet and drinkable (sorry, Steve!), and I was thirsty, and I drank them.

So for what it is, and who it’s made for, Molson Canadian 67 Sublime is a product that fits its niche perfectly. It’s just pretty clear that I (or any other Serious Beer Drinker) don’t really fit into that niche along with it. That’s not a passing of judgment, just a statement of fact – a fact that I’m fine with, and that I expect Molson is fine with as well.