Tag Archives: Belgian ale

Session 2: Electric Boogaloo

I’m posting this mainly to remind myself of the date, but some of you might be interested to know that the second Session will be taking place on Friday, April 6th. It’s being hosted by Alan at A Good Beer Blog this time around, and the style he’s chosen is dubbel.

I wasn’t especially thrilled to hear this at first, because there are only two dubbels currently available at the LCBO, both of them quite common ones. But then I remembered that I have a couple of bottles of a rather unique one in my stash. So it should be a bit of fun after all. Check back next Friday and see.

Four Things For Friday

  1. I’m sort of late to the game on this story, as many other blogs have already covered it, as well as “real” news outlets including the New York Times and the Globe & Mail. But in case you haven’t heard about it yet, Massachusetts-based beer importers Shelton Brothers have been having some of their products rejected by liquor regulatory bodies in New York and Maine due to the beers’ names and/or labels being unacceptable. Some, like the Santa’s Butt Winter Porter pictured to the right, were snubbed due to the name and label graphics potentially being appealing to children, while Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus and Brasserie Les Choulette’s Sans Culottes were turned down because the labels feature paintings of bare-breasted women. While the civil libertarian in me finds these decisions to be pretty offensive, I can’t help but be a little amused by them as well, if only because it shows that even though most American states have a much freer market for alcohol sales than we do in Ontario, their government busy-bodies can be just as ridiculous as our pink elephant banning LCBO.
  2. I discovered a new blog this morning that I’m looking forward to keeping my eye on: Pint and a Smoke is written by fellow Torontonian Pat McLean, and it features his musings on the pubs in our fair city. His criteria for a good pub are quite similar to mine: no TVs (or maybe one, as long as it’s unobtrusive), no loud music, at least one good stout on tap, etc. While we live across town from each other, I hope that our paths cross at some point soon, as he seems like a good guy to hoist a few with (even though based on his other blog, he seems to be an Oilers fan…).
  3. Speaking of pubs: My local, The Rhino, has recently added a cask engine to their great line-up of local taps. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but based on the experience that I and others have had there since they brought it in, I’m not especially enthused. The wife and I popped in for a pint the other night, and while our waitress knew that they had a cask ale on, she didn’t know what beer it was (“Uh… I think it’s an IPA?”), and when she went to the bar to ask, the barman sent her back with a sample rather than the name of the beer. The beer was in decent shape, at least, and I suspect that it was probably Durham Triple X IPA. But the lack of knowledge concerned me, as does the fact that the cask ale is not mentioned anywhere on their pre-printed beer menu. Cask ale lovers expect more care and knowledge, not to mention some assurance that they’ll be served a fresh pint, and newbies could end up being served stale pints that will turn them off the stuff – assuming they are even aware that it’s there.

  4. I got together last night with my pals Paul & Harry to help them drink about a dozen mediocre beers that Harry had trucked back from his last visit to Quebec. (Yes, we are beer rating whores). But just so the night wasn’t a complete swillfest, we threw in a couple of guaranteed winners, including the much-loved Struise Pannepot. The other two guys had had it before, but this was my first time trying it, and it definitely lived up to the hype. It pours a deep mahogany-brown with a small mocha head that leaves lots of lace. The aroma is big and round and inviting, with a fantastic sweet & roasty backbone supporting notes of brown sugar, caramel, and assorted dark fruits and spices. The flavour masterfully juggles notes of roasted coffee and dark sugar with hints of fruit (fig, plum, cherry) and spice (cinnamon, licorice), leading into a moderately dry and woody finish. A complex and remarkably satisfying beer that rivals the best that the Trappists have to offer.

We've Got The Funk

Work has been kicking my ass lately, so posts here have been few and far between. This should soon change – at least temporarily – as I’m heading down to New York City next week for a course, and I plan to spend my evenings doing some beer-hunting with daily reports to follow.

But in the meantime, I thought I’d give a quick mention about a tasting that I had with the usual crew a couple of weeks ago, where we sampled the wares of two of the most unique breweries on earth: Cantillon and Jolly Pumpkin.

Cantillon are a family-owned concern in Brussels, Belgium that has been brewing traditional lambics for over 100 years. They’re one of the few breweries still producing true, unadultrated lambics and as such they’ve become renowned amongst beer connoisseurs. Their beers are admittedly an aquired taste, as they are remarkably tart and dry, with strong flavours that get tagged with names like “funk” and “barnyard” and “horse-blanket”. Yeah, they may not sound very appealing, but once you get a taste for ’em, there’s really nothing like ’em.

As for Jolly Pumpkin, they’re a much newer brewery that started up a few years ago in Dexter, Michigan. Unlike a lot of craft breweries that start out with a couple of popular styles – like pale ale or pilsner or stout – before starting on the weird shit, these guys went straight to the weird shit and never looked back. According to their website, they specialize in “open fermentation, oak barrel aging, and bottle conditioning”, but that only begins to describe the wonderful and wacky beers that they produce. They only comperable brewery I can think of is Fantome, a Belgian farmhouse brewery that offers a similarly eclectic line-up of beers, many of which fall into the nebulous bière de garde category.

Along with a few other things, we managed to make it through eight of the nine pictured bottles. I didn’t take notes on all of them as I’d tasted & reviewed a few of them before, but my thoughts on all of them, whether reviewed at this tasting or previously, can be found on their RateBeer pages linked here:

Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga (The Firefly) Belgian Ale
Jolly Pumpkin Bière de Mars Bière de Garde
Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza Bière de Garde
Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca Witbier
Jolly Pumpkin La Roja Bière de Garde
Cantillon Saint Lamvinus Fruit (Grape) Lambic
Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise Fruit (Raspberry) Lambic
Cantillon Iris Lambic

Michigan Brewing Celis Grand Cru

About 10 years ago, when my interest in trying new and different beers was really kicking in, I read about a beer called Celis White that Waterloo’s Brick Brewery had just started brewing in Ontario under contract. This was a Belgian Witbier, a style I had never heard of, and the idea of a beer being brewed with orange and coriander seemed to foreign and exciting. I couldn’t wait to try it, and once I did it became a quick favourite.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later when the beer suddenly disappeared from Ontario stores that I did a bit of research and discovered that the father of this fine beverage, one Pierre Celis, had actually rescued the Belgian Witbier style from near extinction back in the 1960s when he founded the Brouwerij de Kluis in his hometown of Hoegaarden and created the now ubiquitous Hoegaarden Wit. In the late 1980s, Celis retired and sold his brewery to Interbrew – now part of the massive brewing conglomerate InBev – and moved to the unlikely location of Austin, Texas, where he soon caught the brewing bug again and opened Celis Brewery, with the flagship beer being Celis White.

A few years down the road, Celis retired again and sold the brewery to Miller, who basically had no idea what to do with it. After letting it flounder for a few years, they shut it down in 2001 – which is around the same time that Brick stopped brewing it for Ontario – and sold the Celis brands to Michigan Brewing the following year. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to try some of the other Celis brands, so I made a point of checking for them during my recent trip to Michigan (yes, the road trip & festival report is still coming soon!) and picked up a bottle of Celis Grand Cru.

This beer poured a clear bright golden colour with a pillowy white head that quickly dissipated. The clarity of the beer surprised me as I was expecting something similar to the pale yellow milkiness of the Celis White, but the connection between the beers is obvious in the aroma, which holds notes of yeast, spice and orange zest. The orange comes through strong in the flavour as well – sweet off the top, tart and dry in the finish – alongside some tingly spiciness and a pleasant alcohol warmth (it’s an 8%er, so I was expecting that). The body is a bit on the sticky side, and it’s not quite as assertive as the Hoegaarden Grand Cru I tried recently, but it certainly holds up well against it. The folks at RateBeer consider it fairly average – 3.2 out of 5 rating, 55.1 style percentile – but I’d rank it higher than that personally.

And in case you’re wondering what Mr. Celis is up to now: he moved back to Belgium after the Miller sale, but has now at least partially unretired once again and is teaming up with Real Ale Brewing in Blanco, Texas to launch a new wheat beer called Brussels Grand Cru. Even at the age of 81, it’s obvious that he’s got a lot of brewing left in him yet.

A Bushel of Fruit Beers – Part 2: LCBO Year-Round Selection

This article was originally written in July 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.

In my previous post, I had a look at the fruit beers featured in the LCBO’s summer beer release – Belhaven Blueberry, Floris Ninkeberry, Liefmans Frambozenbier and St. Louis Premium Kriek – plus the honey-flavoured Fuller’s Organic Honey Dew. As with all LCBO seasonal beer promotions, they are only available at selected stores in a limited quantity, so if you have a taste for fruit beers and want to know your year-round options, here’s a handy guide to what’s available on LCBO and Beer Store shelves and at local breweries on a more regular basis:

Amsterdam Framboise ($2.60/341 mL, 6.5% abv, available at the brewery)
The beer that comes alphabetically first on this list also happens to be the best fruit beer currently being produced in Ontario. Amsterdam Brewing takes the tough road to brew this one, using whole raspberries rather than juice or extracts, and adding them during a second fermentation process rather than just adding the flavour to a finished beer. The bright ruby-pink colour may be a bit shocking and suggestive of sweet fruit soda, but the aroma and flavour both exhibit a fresh raspberry character that holds a perfect balance of sweet and tart notes. The result is a fantastically refreshing beverage that pairs well with desserts, or simply as a thirst-quenching sipper. The only bad thing about this beer is that it is usually only available at the brewery (21 Bathurst St. at Front), although it sometimes appears at the LCBO in a unique ceramic jug ($10.95/750 mL, LCBO 637769).

Belle-Vue Kriek  ($3.30/375 mL, 5.2% abv, LCBO 487231)
Founded in 1913, Brasserie Belle-Vue is probably Belgium’s best known maker of fruit beers, mainly thanks to the fact that they have been owned for a number years by the multi-national brewing conglomerate InBev. There are some who claim that the Belle-Vue beers have been dumbed down in the years since the InBev buyout, with the rough, tart edges being smoothed and sweetened to appeal to a larger range of customers. Perhaps that is the case, but at its core, Belle-Vue Kriek is still a very traditional beer. In his excellent book Microbrewed Adventures, beer writer and homebrewing legend Charlie Papazian reports on a visit to the Belle-Vue facility where he saw their Kriek being brewed by adding whole cherries to barrels of young lambic, a unique Belgian beer that is produced by spontaneous fermentation – the brewing vats are left open and exposed to bacteria and wild yeasts, a process that imparts the beer with a distinct dry, sour and vinous character. The fruit-laden lambic is left to ferment for a couple of years before being prepared for bottling, during which is it likely that further fruit juice and sugars are added to sweeten the mixture. The result is a bright ruby beverage that holds hints of it’s pedigree in the slightly tart aroma and flavour, but which is ultimately too sweet and cloying, at least to my palate. The finish is especially unappealing, with the sweet and tart notes clashing to a produce a vaguely medicinal flavour that is not unlike cherry cough drops.

Brick Bambay  ($8.95/6 x 341 mL, 2.5% abv, LCBO 679357)
In a recent newspaper article, the founder of Waterloo’s Brick Brewery, Jim Brickman, referred to Bambay as “breakfast beer”. It may be a strange description, but Bambay is a strange beverage. Most juice-based fruit beers tend to be blended at a ratio that allows the drink to still be clearly identifiable as a beer, just one that happens to have some fruit flavour added. But Bambay is a 50/50 blend of beer and citrus juice (oranges, grapefruit and key lime), and the result is a concoction with half the alcohol and none of the flavour of a beer. That’s not to say it’s a bad beverage, as it’s actually quite tasty, and would appeal to folks who enjoy Ting and other citrus drinks. But if you’re in the mood for a beer – even a fruit flavoured one – this probably isn’t the drink for you.

Fruli Strawberry Beer (2.10/250 mL, 4.1% abv, LCBO 698548 & Beer Store)
If you’re looking for Fruli in one of the self-serve Beer Store locations, you will find it shelved next to the malt-based alco-pops like Dave’s Spiked Lemonade and DJ Trotters Sex On The Beach. It may seem strange to see a Belgian fruit beer racked next to such low-rent sugar bombs, but once you’ve tasted it, you’ll understand why – ’cause DAMN, this stuff is sweet! If you’ve ever had sickly sweet strawberry freezer jam, you’ll instantly recognize both the taste and flavour of this beer. There’s a bit of tartness in the finish, but not enough to cut the sugary strawberry candy notes that predominate. I’ve been told that this pairs well with rich desserts like chocolate cake, but I was barely able to get half a bottle of this down on its own, so I won’t be rushing to get another bottle to experiment with.

Kawartha Lakes Raspberry Wheat  ($11.25/6 x 341 mL, 4.5% abv, LCBO 698498 & Beer Store)
Back when Kawartha Lakes Brewery was still based in Peterborough, this beer was a summer favourite of mine. The base beer was a crisp, refreshing golden ale with a hint of wheat, and the raspberry extract was subtle but fresh tasting, with a nice tartness in the finish. But after KLB was bought out by Amsterdam and production was moved to Toronto, the quality of this beer has dropped dramatically, at least to my palate. The base beer is now bland and stale with an unpleasant sticky character, and the raspberry flavour is barely there – just a hint comes through in the finish, which is cloying and medicinal in nature. Apparently I’m in the minority on this one, as it’s still a fixture on a lot of summer draught lists around town, but it’s no longer the fixture that it used to be on my personal summer beer list.

McAuslan Apricot Wheat Ale  ($11.95/6 x 341 mL, 5% abv, LCBO 691113 & Beer Store)
This brew from Montreal’s McAuslan Brewery was originally a summer seasonal, but it proved to be so popular that it became a part of their regular line-up. I must confess that my feelings on this beer are tainted somewhat by the fact that it once served as my final pint in a very long night of drinking and carousing, and then proved the “last in, first out” theory quite strongly during my stagger home, so I guess you could say that it quite literally left a bad taste in my mouth. That said, it’s actually quite a nice little quaff, with the light wheat ale balancing well with the jam-like apricot flavour that is sweet-but-not-too-sweet. You’ll find this on tap in a lot of the better beer bars around town, often alternating seasonally with McAuslan’s fantastic St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout.

Mort Subite Framboise ($3.85/375 mL, 4.5% abv, LCBO 602888)
With a name that means “sudden death” in French, you might be a little wary of this one, but there’s really no need as it’s a rather nonthreatening beverage. Brewed at Belgium’s Brouwerij de Keersmaeker, a brewery with roots extending back to 1686, Mort Subite Framboise is created by blending fresh raspberry juice with traditionally made lambic. This beer pours a cloudy red-orange colour with a light pink head, and has an aroma and flavour of tart, fresh raspberries. It’s definitely not as complex as the fruit flavoured lambics produced by small brewers such as Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen, but it’s still a crisp refresher that balances sweet and dry notes nicely. If you’d like to do some side-by-side taste tests, you can find unflavoured Mort Subite Gueuze Lambic at some LCBO outlets, and the Cherry, Cassis and Peach variations are on the menu at several beer bars around Toronto.

Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner ($11.95/6 x 341 mL, 4% abv, LCBO 615138)
Beer and apples might not exactly sound like two great tastes that taste great together, but the combination actually has precedent in several different beer cultures, from apple-infused Belgian Ales – represented nicely in this country by the apple version of Unibroue’s Éphémère series of fruit-flavoured beers – to the Snakebite, a British pub classic made with a 50/50 mix of lager and cider. For their new apple beer, Burlington’s Better Bitters Brewery looked to Germany for inspiration. Despite the fact that most German brewers still hew quite closely to the Reinheitsgebot – the beer purity requirement that states beer must be made with only water, malt, hops and yeast – there is a large and growing market in that country for various beer and fruit juice combinations, most of them being a 50/50 blend that results in a beverage with an alcohol level in the 2.5% range. For their take on the style, Better Bitters went for a higher alcohol level in order to please the typical Canadian beer drinker, but the beer still has a continental flair, thanks to the crisp, grassy nature of the fully lagered Pilsner and the fresh, tart green apple extract that they import from Germany. This is a beer that should appeal to fans of cider and European lagers alike.

And there ends our review of the fruit beers available to Ontario drinkers. As mentioned in the previous part of the series, many of them are conveniently available in single bottles, making it easy for you to sample a few to see what you like, or perhaps put together an assortment to share in a tasting session with a few friends. Try pairing them with desserts, cheeses, fruits and other foods both sweet and savoury. You’ll surprised at how well some of the combinations work out, and you may just end up with a new favourite or two.

A Bushel of Fruit Beers – Part 1: LCBO Summer 2006 Seasonal Release

This article was originally written in July 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.

Fruit beers have it pretty rough. Ask a mainstream beer drinker what they think of them, and if they’re not completely baffled and/or disgusted by the concept, they might be reminded of Twist Shandy, the horrible lemon-flavoured beer cooler that Labatt produced in the 80s and 90s. Ask a beer geek for their opinion and they’ll often dismiss them as tarted up gimmick beers made for people who don’t really like beer, or as something to keep their girlfriend/wife happy at their favourite beer bar while they themselves drink a big Imperial Stout or uber-hoppy Double IPA. (I should mention before going any further that my wife calls me a “girlie man” when I drink fruit beers, and counts St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and Great Divide Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout amongst her most favourite things ever, so don’t believe the stereotypes!)

It’s unfortunate that such animosity and attitude exists on both sides of the beer-drinking spectrum, as there are a multitude of fruit-based beers being brewed around the world, and not all of them are of the sickeningly sweet alco-pop variety. In fact, serious beer aficionados hold some of them in very high regard, such as Quelque Chose, a strong cherry beer from Quebec’s Unibroue <> that is meant to be served heated, and Raspberry Eisbock, a 10.6% elixir brewed in Michigan by Kuhnhenn Brewing that currently sits at number 10 on the hit parade on RateBeer.com.

If you’re interested in exploring fruit beers, the first thing to know is that the addition of fruit flavour to beer can be accomplished in one of two ways: fruit can be added during the fermentation process, or fruit juice or extract can be added to the beer after it has been fermented. As you might expect, the former method is generally considered to produce a higher quality result, but it’s also much more difficult as the fruit sugars add an extra level of complexity to the already volatile fermentation process. So the majority of fruit beers use the second method, which usually results in a sweeter and less complex end product. As noted in a recent blog post on the topic by Toronto beer scribe Stephen Beaumont, there are some quite palatable examples of beers made using the juice/extract method, and they often appeal to drinkers who are used to heavily sweetened wine- and spirit-based coolers. But it’s the fruit beers produced using the full-fermentation process that tend to receive the most plaudits from hardcore beer geeks.

There are a number of fruit beers available at the LCBO and Beer Store, some of them on a year round basis, and some as part of the LCBO’s current summer beer promotion. While most of them fall on the sweeter side of the flavour spectrum, there are a couple that show a bit more character and complexity. Since most of them are available in single bottles, you can easily grab a bunch and have a tasting with a few friends to find your favourites.

In this post, I’ll cover the fruit beers in the current LCBO seasonal release, while my next post will look at those that are available in Ontario on a regular basis.

Belhaven Blueberry ($3.10/500 mL, 4.8% abv, LCBO 676866)
I’m a sucker for blueberries, so I was really looking forward to this one, doubly so since I’ve enjoyed some of the other beers I’ve tried from Scotland’s Belhaven Brewery. Given their strength in producing traditional ales, I was surprised to find that the base beer used here is a rather pale Pilsner-style lager with not a lot of character. As a result, the predominating characteristic of this one is the blueberry flavour, which was quite fresh and natural tasting in the first bottle I tried, but a bit stale in one that sat in the fridge for a couple of weeks. It’s somewhat one-dimensional, but crisp and refreshing, making it a decent hot weather patio beer.

Floris Ninkeberry  ($2.65/330 mL, 3% abv, LCBO 479154)
The Floris line of flavoured wheat beers from Belgium’s Brouwerij Huyghe is infamous among beer lovers, with the Chocolat version having the dubious distinction of once being ranked the worst beer in the world on RateBeer. Thankfully, the Ninkeberry variation isn’t quite so awful, but it’s nothing to write home about either. It pours a nice orange-gold colour, with a good sized white head. The aroma and flavour are both chock full of sweet peach, mango and non-classifiable berry notes. When the beer is cold, it’s not bad, but as it warms, it starts to feel like you’re drinking a liquid Life Saver. It’s rumoured that this is intended to be a beer for children, which would definitely explain both the low alcohol and the candy-like qualities.

Fuller’s Organic Honey Dew ($3.50/500 mL, 5% abv, LCBO 676858)
OK, it’s not exactly a fruit beer, but it’s flavoured and on the sweet side, so I thought it would be worthwhile to include on this list. As it comes from Fuller’s, the same UK brewery responsible for the fantastic London Pride and London Porter, I was expecting a fair bit from this beer, and I wasn’t disappointed. The colour is a clear, bright honey-golden, and it has a mild, fresh aroma of honey, hay and earthy malt. The body is light and crisp, and the flavour is simple but fresh and pleasant, with notes of biscuity malt, honey sweetness, and a subtly hopped finish. While it’s not my favourite of the bunch, it’s certainly the most quaffable, and would be a fine session beer for a mild summer’s evening.

Liefmans Frambozenbier ($4.95/375 mL, 4.5% abv, LCBO 439984)
While it’s brewed using the juice-added method, this raspberry beer from Belgium’s Huisbrouwerij Liefmans rivals the complexity and quality of many fully fermented fruit beers. There are two main reasons for this: they use the juice of whole fresh raspberries pressed just before mixing, and the base beer is their renowned Flemish Sour Ale, Liefmans Goudenband. The result is a beer that has the aroma and flavour of fresh, tart raspberry compote, backed up with some oak and earthy malt, and a lingering sour finish. (If you’d like to compare it to the unflavoured version, there are still a few bottles of Goudenband kicking around from the LCBO’s spring beer promotion.)

St. Louis Premium Kriek ($tba/4 x 250 mL, 3.2% abv, LCBO 676890)
At the time of writing, this cherry beer from Belgium’s Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck had yet to appear on store shelves, or even in the LCBO’s online inventory. While I try to keep an open mind, my expectations for this one are low due to the poor quality of St. Louis Gueuze and the fact that it will be sold in cans, a package that is suitable for many styles of beer but not a traditional Kriek, suggesting that this will likely be of the sweetened variety.

In closing I should mention that if flavoured beers just aren’t you’re thing, there are two other beers in the summer promotion that you may find more to your liking. Christoffel Blond ($2.30/300 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 696955)  is a golden-hued Pilsner from Bierbrouwerij St. Christoffel of The Netherlands that has a spicy, herbal hoppiness that makes it fantastic for steaming mussels and to drink with them once they’re done, of course. Goldings Summer Hop Ale <> ($3.30/500 mL, 4.7% abv, LCBO 676874)  from Britain’s Shepherd Neame  is a light golden ale with some soft floral notes, but it’s unfortunately been packaged in clear bottles, making it prone to skunkiness thanks to the open shelves and harsh lighting at most LCBO outlets. So if you’re going to get some Goldings, I highly recommend that you grab the bottles from an unopened case if at all possible.

Next post – Fruit Beers, Part Two: The year-round selection.