Quick Quaff: Hop City Mr. Huff Persuasion Pilsner & Happy Hour Ale

Say what you will about Moosehead and their beers – and lord knows I’ve said some not-so-positive things about them in the past – but one thing you can’t say about them is that they don’t know how to throw a party. From their small afternoon media scrums to big evening blowouts, every Moosehead event I’ve attended has been a great time, even if I haven’t always been a fan of the beers being presented.

This reputation continued with last Thursday’s launch party for Mr. Huff Persuasion Pilsner, the awkwardly named new release from Hop City, a small Moosehead subsidiary that operates out of the former Cool Brewing facility in Brampton. Held at 99 Sudbury, a swank events space in downtown Toronto, the bash also did double duty as an after-party for Moosehead’s annual sales meeting, which meant that the company big-wigs were on hand along with a few hundred other folks. In the main space, a DJ and cover band got the party mood going, while endless pints of all four Hop City beers kept attendees well lubricated.

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It’s the Time of the Saison for Drinking

While the analogy is far from perfect, I look at saison in sort of the same way that Miles in the film Sideways looks at his beloved pinot noir. It’s a style I love, and part of that love is rooted in the fact that it’s a bit of an underdog, rarely seen and often under-appreciated.

It’s also a style that historically wasn’t really a style at all, but rather a name used to describe a variety of ales brewed for the workers at farms throughout Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region. In more recent times, Saison Dupont has come to be considered a standard bearer of the style – deservedly so, as it’s a fantastic beer – and the result has been a bit more predictability in terms of what you can expect from a beer that is tagged with the saison descriptor. Even so, it still remains a fairly flexible style, ranging from elegant examples with sweet and floral characteristics to more rustic versions that are tart and funky and at times almost lambic-like.

Saisons aren’t seen in Ontario often, in either domestic or imported form. Saison Dupont has made a couple of brief appearances at the LCBO, and Black Oak makes a nice one every summer, but otherwise, it takes trips, trades or travelling friends to get your hands on some.

The trio of saisons pictured above have all come to me via friends and colleagues over the past year or so, and after storing them in the stash for a while, I’ve cracked into all three of them recently. Here’s what I thought of them…

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Quick Quaff: Alexander Keith’s Tartan Ale

Did you know that today is Tartan Day in Canada? Neither did I until I got an email last week from Adam Grant at The Monks Table, a great pub and restaurant in midtown Toronto, announcing that April 6th is officially recognized as Tartan Day – a day to celebrate Canada’s Scottish/Celtic heritage – and that he’d be holding a week of events at the pub to mark the occassion. And with some Googling, I found a bit more about it.

Unfortunately, my schedule this week is making it unlikely that I’ll be able to make it up for any of the events, so as a consolation prize, I toasted the day with a bottle of Alexander Keith’s Tartan Ale, the latest in the Keith’s Brewmaster Series of limited edition brews. Some may remember my joking complaint a few weeks back about not receiving a press sample of this beer when every other beer blogger in town got one, and thanks to the magic/creepiness of the Internet, a rep from the PR company contacted me the next day to apologetically rectify the situation.

My comment wasn’t intended to be bait for a freebee – I was being more self-depreciating than self-promoting – but I did want to give it a try, so I accepted the offer. And of course, given the large number of opinions that have already been offered , it’s hard to say much that hasn’t already been said, especially since my impressions are similar to many already expressed.

To wit: Pouring a deep and clear reddish-gold with a large white head, it has a respectable appearance, and an equally respectable – if somewhat muted – aroma of sweet caramel and barley candy. The caramel predominates the flavour as well, with supporting notes of maple and orange, and a suggestion of peat smoke that builds a bit as the beer warms. The finish is short, but noticeably hopped, leaving a final impression of a beer that is a well made step-up from most of the Keith’s/Labatt line-up, but which isn’t really interesting enough to inspire me to purchase or open another.

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.

Take A Trip To The Tier

For my Torontonian readers, here’s something pretty cool that’s coming up:

The fine folks at Roland + Russell, importers of many excellent beers (along with wine, spirits and other tasty things) are arranging a bus trip down to Southern Tier Brewery on Saturday, April 30th.

In addition to touring the brewery and meeting Southern Tier brewer/owner Phin DeMink and his crew, there will be pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, and yes, some beer to drink.

All of the details, including ticket info, are up on the R+R website.

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 Barriquée Sour (LCBO 210591 – $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.