Tag Archives: Gremolata

LCBO Winter Warmers 2006

This article was originally written in December 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.

“Christmas time is here,
Time to drink some beer!
Give us ale, both dark and pale,
The best way to spread cheer!”
(with apologies to Charles Schultz & Vince Guaraldi)

While the holiday season is most often associated with mulled wine, rum & egg nog, and maybe wassail if you’re feeling particularly old-timey, there is also a great tradition of special beers being brewed for the colder months in general, and Christmas in particular. Usually stronger, darker and more flavourful than a brewery’s year-round beers, Christmas and winter beers can be found in pretty much any country that has a history of brewing. There’s even an annual Christmas beer festival in Belgium where more than 100 seasonal beers are served each year.

Here in Ontario, we have a more recent winter beer tradition in the form of the LCBO’s Winter Warmers promotion, which sees them bring together an assortment of strong beers from around the world each December, just in time for holiday enjoyment. This year’s selection is skewed heavily towards the UK, where the winter beers tend to be beefed up versions of classic ale styles, often augmented with spices or specialty malts and hops. Here are some notes on a half-dozen festive UK brews that are currently available in limited quantities at selected LCBO outlets:

Belhaven Wee Heavy ($3.10/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 698977)
Wee Heavy is a designation that been is use for a couple of centuries by Scottish brewers to refer to their strongest offerings. Analogous to England’s Barley Wine style, they are sometimes known as 90 Shilling (written 90/-) in reference to the usual invoice cost of a hogshead barrel of the style in the early 19th century. While some Wee Heavies can inch up towards the 10% abv mark, Belhaven’s version keeps the booze in check, making it much more quaffable. It features flavours of sweet malts, brown sugar & caramel, and a hint of smokiness joining the mellow hops in the finish.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2006 ($6.95/500 mL, 8.5% abv, LCBO 676213)
One of the highlights of each year’s Winter beer promotion is the arrival of the annual Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Brewed in limited quantities using a different recipe each year, these Barley Wine style ales are fine to drink right away, but also lend themselves to aging. Each bottle also comes in an embossed burgundy box, making it a great stocking stuffer for your favourite beer drinker. This year’s edition is a bright orange-amber ale with aroma of biscuits, sweet fruit, herbal hops and some alcohol dryness. The flavour is big and warm, like a classic English Pale Ale laced with a half-shot of smoky whisky. I suspect that it will improve with a bit of aging to mellow to boozy edges, but it’s still a fantastic sipper for a cold evening.

Greene King Strong Suffolk ($3.45/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 575530)
Greene King is one of England’s oldest breweries, and also one of the country’s largest thanks to a series of sometimes controversial buy-outs that it has undertaken in recent years. With Strong Suffolk, they go back to their roots, restoring the tradition of blended ales that was once quite common amongst breweries and publicans. This practice of mixing one beer with another was often employed as a means of using up older or spoiled beers by mixing them with younger, fresher stock, but it was also used for more legitimate reasons to produce quality products that customers enjoyed, such as the pub staple Black & Tan. In the case of the Strong Suffolk, they brew a 12% beer called Old 5X that is aged in oak vats for a minimum of two years, and then mix it a freshly brewed batch of a dark ale called BPA just before bottling. The result is a ruby-chestnut beer with a soft & sweet aroma, a smooth body that brings to mind a good cask ale, and a flavour that starts slow, but builds to include notes of sweet malt, raisins & prunes, and some slightly tart wood notes in the finish.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale ($3.95/550 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 408005)
Established in 1758, Samuel Smith is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, and one of England’s oldest independent breweries. Their Winter Welcome is one of the best known UK seasonal beers throughout the world, and it is also one of the least traditional, as it is produced using artificial carbonation and is only available in filtered and pasteurized bottled form, whereas more traditional British ales are made available in more natural cask versions. Still, this is a pleasant amber ale, holding notes of caramel, mint, almonds and bread, along with the expected malt and hop characteristics. And since Samuel Smith has finally started shipping their beers in brown bottles rather than clear glass, you are now much less likely to find yourself with a lightstruck (aka “skunky”) pint when you open one of these.

St. Peter’s Winter Ale ($3.50/500 mL, 6.5% abv, LCBO 890079)
Known for their distinctive flask-like bottles, St. Peter’s brews ales that range from the traditional (Best Bitter, Old Style Porter, IPA) to the quirky (Cinnamon & Apple Ale, Lemon & Ginger Ale). Their winter ale falls into the former category, and is accurately described on the label as a “classic winter warmer”. It’s the darkest of the lot, pouring a deep, dark ruby-brown with a small tan head. As with the Strong Suffolk, it has a soft, cask-like body, which lends it even more of a traditional air. The aroma is roasty and smoky with notes of dark cherry and cocoa, and the flavour brings to mind an old style Porter, with strong chocolate, coffee and roasted malt notes, and a warming bitterness in the back of the throat.

Wychwood Bah Humbug ($3.25/500 mL, 6.0% abv, LCBO 3822)
Wychwood are the folks behind the popular Hobgoblin and Fiddler’s Elbow ales, as well as the nicely labelled but rather poor quality Black Wych Stout. Their seasonal Bah Humbug is a strong ale brewed with a healthy dose of cinnamon, and it comes through in both the aroma and flavour. The aroma also gives off notes of fruitcake, nutmeg, roasted malt, and a hint of chocolate, while the flavour is malty and fruity, some mild spice and banana bread coming through, followed by a faint hoppiness. It’s very nice stuff, but it’s also getting scarce already, as it hit the shelves a few weeks before the rest of the winter beers. Look around a bit and you be able to find a few bottles kicking around, but if you can’t, you’ve got the five previously mentioned beers to choose from, not to mention the rest of the winter release:

Chimay Blue ($3.20/330 mL, 9.0% abv, LCBO 357236)
De Koninck Amber Ale ($2.15/330 mL, 5.0% abv, LCBO 676882)
Innis & Gunn Limited Edition Oak-Aged Beer ($4.85/330 mL, 7.2% abv, LCBO 16337)
Okocim Porter ($2.45/330 mL, 8.3% abv, LCBO 340919)
Trafalgar Celebration Ale ($3.95/650 mL, 5.7% abv, LCBO 684878)
XO Beer ($3.95/330 mL, 8.0% abv, LCBO 527838)

Cheers, and Happy Holidays!

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


A Brief Introduction to Toronto’s Craft Beer Scene

This article was originally written in May 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.

If you’re a lover of fine beer and you live in Ontario, life is often frustrating. The selection of beers available to you – at least on a retail level – is limited to what the overlords at the Beer Store/LCBO duopoly think you should be consuming. At the Beer Store, consumers in most outlets are still forced to place their orders at a counter based on a wall of tiny logos, which undoubtedly stifles the chances of many smaller breweries and imports finding new customers (although the owners of the Beer Store – Labatt, Molson and Sleeman – probably prefer it that way). At the LCBO, beer often seems like an afterthought: local craft beers that are clearly labelled “Keep Refrigerated” are displayed on warm shelves under harsh lighting; the import selection rarely changes and is focused largely on a plethora of indistinguishable pale lagers; and the limited seasonal releases are small, badly promoted, and poorly distributed.

Still, there are some positive things to be said about our local beer scene. The selection of Ontario craft beers at both major outlets has improved in the last couple of years, and our local brewers are taking more chances, making bolder beers both as year-round products and as interesting seasonals and one-off experiments that are available in bars and via direct brewery sales. The LCBO has a few world-class imports on their general list, and others appear in the seasonal releases, generally at prices that are quite a bit lower than those paid by our American friends at their private liquor stores. And in Toronto in particular, specialist beer bars and restaurants have started depending more and more on private and consignment orders to offer patrons beers that aren’t available anywhere else on Ontario.

As Gremolata’s new beer writer, I’ll be trying to focus on these positive aspects of the beer scene in Toronto and Ontario. That’s not to say that I won’t sometimes go off on a rant about the latest stupid beer decision made by the LCBO, but generally, I’ll be bringing you information about the people and places that are fighting the good fight for great beer.

To start things off, I thought I’d give a quick overview of some of those people and places. In future instalments, I’ll be giving some of these folks and establishments more in-depth coverage – just think of this as a sampler tray in advance of the full pints to come.

The undisputed nexus of Toronto’s beer scene is The Bar Towel. Launched in 1998 by beer aficionado Cass Enright, the site was initially a sort of proto-blog about his favourite beers and bars, but has become better known in recent years for its very active forum where local drinkers, brewers, importers and bar owners gather to discuss the business and pleasure of beer. The site also has a news feed – maintained by yours truly – that features event announcements, brewery & bar news, info about new product releases, and more.

As for the folks who brew the tasty beverage, most of the province’s small and mid-sized breweries banded together last year to form the Ontario Craft Brewers. Through their website, LCBO displays and other promotional events, the group hopes to expose more Ontarians to the beers that are born, bred and brewed in their own cities and towns.

If you’re looking for a place to go out and try some OCB wares in Toronto, you’ve got quite a few options. One of the original craft beer bars in Toronto is C’est What (67 Front St. E.), a casual restaurant and pub at that has featured a wide variety of Ontario and Quebec microbrews – as well as a few house beers – since they opened in 1988. Just a couple of blocks away, you’ll find the newer and more upscale beerbistro (18 King St. E.), where chef Brian Morin and beer expert Stephen Beaumont have embarked on a mission “to celebrate fresh market beer cuisine elevating it to a new level of sophistication and flavour.” Their tap list includes a good mixture of locals and imports, and their extensive bottle list delves even further into the many styles of beer, including some very rare cellar exclusives.

Heading up Yonge Street you’ll find Volo, a somewhat unassuming little Italian eatery that has become one of Toronto’s essential beer destinations. Originally a wine guy, owner Ralph Morana discovered the joys of beer a couple of years ago and decided to build a beer list for his place. He now boasts one of the most unique selections of beer in the city, including exclusive offerings from well regarded American breweries like Hair Of The Dog, Bear Republic and Great Divide that he has brought in on private order.

Further north is The Granite (245 Eglinton Ave. E.), Toronto’s only true brewpub with a half-dozen beers brewed on-site and served fresh. The Granite’s English style ales pair well with their hearty pub grub, and thanks to changes in brewery legislation a couple of years ago, they are now allowed to sell their beer at other locations such as Volo, where you will often find Granite Best Bitter on the cask ale handpump.

Hopefully, following the links and visiting the locations above will give you a good taste of what our local beer community has to offer.