Tag Archives: spiced

A Pair from Propeller


Yes, I know that  promised a series of Innis & Gunn review posts, and they’ll be coming soon eventually, and more as well. But I wanted to get this post up quickly while at least one of the beers is still in season.

The trigger for this was a package I got from Propeller Brewery in Halifax a couple of weeks ago with some bottles of this year’s batch of their Pumpkin Ale. It’s a beer that I liked a lot when I tried the 2006 version, so I was happy to give it another go, and even happier to find it just as good as I remembered it. In fact, based on this tasting notes from back in ’06…

Hazy light gold with a massive rocky white head. Big pumpkin pie aroma – cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mutmeg, pumpkin – very nice! Body is quite aggressively carbonated at first, but mellows as it warms and flattens a bit. Flavour of a pleasant, well-made golden ale laced with pumpkin and spice, and a dry finish with an interesting lemon cookie note. Very refreshing brew that lacks the cloying character that taints some other pumpkin beers I’ve tried.

… it appears that it hasn’t changed much since then. Which is perfectly fine.

And since I was in a Propeller mood tonight, I reached further into the fridge for the bottle of Propeller Hefeweizen that my friends Jeremy and Karen passed on to me a couple of months ago. I really should’ve had it sooner, as it was already 4 or 5 months old by then, and hefes are always better fresh. But it was still in OK shape considering:

Cloudy golden with a medium white head that recedes to a thin film that sticks around through the whole glass. Lightly yeasty aroma with hints of lemon and pineapple. Good mouthfeel with a nice level of carbonation. Flavour is a bit muted, but what’s there is pleasant, with nice tropical and citrus fruit notes, some crispness from the wheat, and a mildly spicy and yeasty finish. Based on the label, it looks like this was bottled back in April, so drinking it six months later I’m obviously not getting it at it’s prime. It’s still a decent hefe, though.

I briefly considered making it a Halifax trio and cracking the Garrison Hop Yard I’ve got chilling in there, but it’s getting late. So I decided to hold off, and will perhaps bring it out along with a bottle of the Ol’ Fog Burner Barley Wine that I’ll be reviewing later this week for the next issue of TAPS.

Big Rock McNally's Winter Spice Ale

bigrockwinterspiceAt the trade & media launch for Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter last Saturday, I was chatting with Stephen Beaumont & Bill White, and being close to the holiday season, the conversation naturally turned to Christmas beers – or rather, the depressingly small number of them that are available here in Ontario.

The LCBO‘s current Winter Warmers promotion includes a couple, including Great Lakes Winter Ale and Samichlaus. A couple more are available from Ontario breweries, such as Grand River Jubilation and Barley Days Yuletide Cherry Porter, although these are often limited in distribution to draught or direct brewery sales. But considering that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Christmas and holiday beers available out there, it’s unfortunate that the LCBO once again limits us to such a small selection of choices.

One of those beers not available here is McNally’s Winter Spice Ale, the new winter seasonal from Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery. Distribution is limited to the four western-most provinces, but they were kind enough to send me some for review in the form of the holiday gift set with includes four bottles of the Ale, two branded glasses, and a small package of bite-sized ginger cookies from Cookie Occasion, a gourmet family bakery in Calgary.

The cookies were a very nice touch, and it would be great to see more breweries putting such tasty treats into their gift packs. There’s a place called Northern Confections that makes peanut brittle with Steam Whistle, which would be a natural addition to their cases, and bottles of the new Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Aged Ale were sent out to media along with a small box of rum truffles, so why not include them with the retail version as well?

As for the beer, my only real complaint was that the body is on the light side for what is ostensibly a winter warmer, but otherwise, I’m pretty happy with it. The spices used in the brew – ginger, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg – all come across in the aroma and flavour, and the beer also has a pleasantly sweet maltiness to balance out the spices. Similarly, the cookies had a nice tingly kick from the ginger, but had a healthy dose of molasses as well. Great on their own, and pretty nice with the beer as well.

Big Rock has pretty decent market penetration in Ontario for many of their other beers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this one shows up next year as one of the LCBO’s usually decent selection of beer holiday gift packs. In the meantime, I guess I’ll be spending my holidays making do with the handful of Christmas beers we’ve got while reading Don Russell‘s Christmas Beer and being very jealous of all you non-Ontarians who can actually buy most of the beers in the book.

OCB Winter Beers – A Review Round-Up


Back in mid-December, I received a media pack from the Ontario Craft Brewers containing eight holiday/seasonal/dark beers. For a number of reasons, I was pretty slow to drink them all, with the final bottle finally being cracked a couple of nights ago (although I wish I had opened it sooner, for reasons noted below…), so the review round-up I promised would “follow soon” at the time has taken a bit longer than expected. Better late than never, right?

So, in the order of appearance in the photo above…

Wellington County Dark Ale
Chestnut-brown with a small off-white head. Toasty malts on the nose, with some toffee and chocolate. Medium bodied, and a well rounded malt flavour with notes of caramel/brown sugar, chocolate, and an odd hint of red wine. (Just see if I was imagining it, I checked my notes from a few years ago, and I noticed it then as well.) Mild hops in the finish are a bit earthy. A pleasant beer that straddles the line between a traditional UK pale ale and a nut brown.

Great Lakes Winter Ale
To quote myself: “A strong (6.2%) and malty ale spiced with cinnamon, ginger and orange peel. It has a rich ruby-orange colour and a sweet aroma with hints of fruit cake and caramel. The flavour starts quite sweet as well, but turns pleasantly spicy in the finish, with the orange peel and ginger being especially prominent as it warms up. This spiciness seems more up-front than I recall in last year’s version, but that’s quite alright, as it gives the beer a distinctive and enjoyable edge.”

Camerons Dark 266
A dark lager with a slightly murky ruby-brown colour. Nice aroma, with a good chocolate malt character with a bit of brown sugar. Similar malty sweetness in the flavour, followed by a bit of smoke, and a fresh hop finish. Medium bodied, quite suitable for the style. Like Waterloo Dark, it’s a fairly simple but enjoyable beer that is a good introduction for people who don’t think they like dark beers.

Trafalgar Abbey Belgian Spiced Ale
This is the last of the batch I tried, but I should’ve known better and opened it back in December in hopes of it being drinkable. Alas, like many Trafalgar beers I’ve tried in the last couple of years, it was infected despite being three months ahead of the supposed “best before date”, and had an aroma and flavour that sat somewhere between old sweat socks and pickle brine. It’s such a shame that a brewery with such an eclectic line-up has such poor quality control, as they’re really doing a disservice to themselves and Ontario’s craft brewers in general. Perhaps they should spend less time on their rebranding gimmicks and more time getting their core beers into a more stable condition before shipping them out.

Mill Street Barley Wine
Quoting myself again: “It has a clear, deep golden-orange colour with a good sized white head. The aroma has the sweet maltiness expected from the style, with a strong caramel character, but also a lot of orange/citrus notes that I don’t remember from the older versions. The flavour is very sweet off the top, with some spice and pepper in the middle, and strong orange peel in the finish along with a whisky-like heat that builds in intensity as the beer warms up.”

Old Credit Holiday Honey
Old Credit is one of those breweries that I rarely think about. Based in Port Credit, they have two year round brands: a “pilsner” which is more of a pale lager, and an “amber ale” which is essentially a Rickard’s Red clone. Microbrewed beer for mainstream tastes, I suppose. So I didn’t expect much from their holiday beer which is apparently available only from the brewery, and those moderate expectations were well met. It has an amber colour with a wispy head, and a simple, one-dimensional sweet malt aroma and flavour, with a faint hint of honey. It’s not offensive in any way – in fact, it’s inoffensive almost to a fault. And it has absolutely nothing in it that says “holiday” to me.

King Dark Lager
The first time I tried this beer a few years ago, I wasn’t that impressed. I guess I expected a dark beer to have a full body with big flavours. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more subtle “dark” beer styles like dunkel, and realize now that King Dark Lager is a very good crack a that style. It pours a nice caramel-amber with a small off-white head. The aroma is malty, with notes of coffee and bread, and a grassy hops. Medium mouthfeel, and a very nice nutty malt flavour with hints of coffee and toffee, and a moderately hopped finish. Great stuff, especially if you get it fresh.

Heritage Black Currant Rye
Two years ago, this beer was a lager that was first made available at Volo Cask Days, and later as a limited bottle release. Last year, it became an ale that was, frankly, pretty bad. This year, it’s an ale again, but it’s been reformulated with some help from Perry Mason of Scotch-Irish, and it’s much better for it. Pretty ruby colour with a good size pink head. Great balance of malt and sweet-tart fruit in the aroma, while the flavour has a mild malt profile with a nice infusion of red currant. It’s a good fruit beer that’s sweet without being too sweet, but it’s also an odd choice for a winter seasonal – it really seems more summery to me.

Black Oak Nutcracker
This beer wasn’t actually part of the promo package, but I added it to the picture in order to make it more symmetrical, and to add another true winter/holiday beer to a somewhat slapdash selection. Nutcracker is a rich and robust porter laced with cinnamon, and it’s annual release is a highlight of my holiday season every year. That anticipation is one of the indicators of a great seasonal beer, and it’s also the reason that Nutcracker would’ve been a great addition to this package. Ah well, there’s always next year…

Christmas in October with Het Anker


A while back, the fine folks at Roland + Russell importers set me up with bottles of a few of their newest offerings. Amongst them were two brews from Het Anker, the Belgian brewery better known for their main brand name, Gouden Carolus. Since I had a third Het Anker beer on hand at the time, and had recently sampled a fourth at a tasting session, so a rating round-up seemed to be in order.

Gouden Carolus Christmas
I’d tried this strong spiced ale a couple of times before, but I had no complaints about drinking it again. It pours a dark, hazy mahogany with a small mocha head. Big aroma that is sweet, spicy and herbal with some dried fruit notes. The flavour is quite sweet as well, with notes of cherry, pineapple, cinnamon, clove, dark malt and brown sugar. A great winter warmer – I almost wish I’d saved it to drink closer to Christmas. Almost.

Anker Boscoulis
One of the few non-Carolus beers from the brewery, this fruit beer has a slightly hazy ruby-amber colour with a good sized white head. The aroma is jammy, with tons of sweet berry notes, and some yeastiness lurking behind, and the mouthfeel is sticky. The flavour is sweet at first – very, VERY sweet – almost like liquid jam. But as it warms up, some tart and yeasty notes develop in the finish to help take the edge off. Still too much on the sweet side for my personal taste, but better than a lot of fruit beers I’ve tried.

Gouden Carolus Classic
A very fitting name for this one, as it truly is a classic example of a strong Belgian ale. Looks great in the glass – reddish-brown with a good sized off-white head. The aroma is warm, rich and sweet, with notes of malt, dried fruit and dark sugar. Smooth, full mouthfeel, and a big flavour of fruity malt, a bit of chocolate, some spicy yeast, and a slightly boozy finish. Lovely!

Gouden Carolus Ambrio
This lesser-known Carolus has a lighter colour, body and alcohol level than the Classic, but it’s still a decent Belgian strong. It has a clear amber colour with a short white head, and the aroma is warm and sweet, with notes of caramel and rye whiskey. Medium bodied, with a sweet, yeasty, warm and peppery flavour. Probably the least complex of all the Carolus beers I’ve tried, but still very good.

So, This Is Christmas…

It hasn’t felt much like Christmas around these parts this year. The weather has only dipped below freezing once or twice, and there isn’t a flake of snow on the ground – on the contrary, the grass is still green on most lawns in our neighbourhood. I even saw some bulbs sprouting in a neighbour’s flower bed earlier today. Since I find it hard to find the Christmas spirit at the best of times, it’s been especially tough to get into the holiday mood this year.

But that’s not to say that I haven’t been doing some celebrating. My pal Doug hosts an annual beer tasting bash at his place on a Saturday in mid-December every year, and this year’s instalment was as enjoyable as ever. Everyone brought along some bottles to share (the remnants of which can be seen in the accompanying photo), Doug put on his traditional spread of chili, cheese and other munchies, and a good time was had by all.

Last Thursday, I hosted a smaller event with my usual tasting buddies. We had a fine assortment of beers from all over the damn place, most of them acquired by those mad beer traders Paul & Harry. We started the night with Bolshoi!, a potent Imperial stout from Brooklyn’s Six Point Brewing, and ended it with Old Boardhead Barley Wine from Full Sail Brewing of Oregon, knocking off another dozen or so along the way.

And of course, no December would be complete without enjoying some local holiday & winter beers. Up until a couple of years ago, the selection of such beers in Ontario was quite limited, but a number of new and established breweries have started stepping up when it comes to solid seasonal releases, so there are a few more to choose from now. Here are my thoughts on the ones I’ve had a chance to taste so far this year:

Amsterdam Tilted Kilt Scotch Ale
I really liked the Kerstmis beer that Amsterdam used to make it each Christmas, and when I heard they were bringing back their winter seasonal, I was hoping it would be that. So I was a bit disappointed when I discovered it was a different beer, but at least this is a pretty good one as well. Pours a very nice dark copper-amber with a thin head. Nice aroma, very toasty, with notes of roasted nuts and a bit of cocoa. Body is a bit thin, but OK. Flavour is fairly sweet as promised, with more nuts and cocoa in the middle, and a fresh mellow hoppiness to finish.

Black Oak Nutcracker
One of the old-timers on the local seasonal scene, it’s always a treat when the annual batch of Nutcracker is released by our friends at Black Oak. This spiced porter has a dark ruby-brown colour with a thin tan head, and a complex aroma of coffee, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom & pepper. The body is rich, smooth and slightly creamy. Roasty, toasty, nutty flavour with notes of chocolate and cinnamon and other spices – the spiciness has been ramped up a bit this year, making it better than ever. They even did a cask version with a bunch of whole cinnamon sticks thrown in à la dry hopping (“dry cinnamoning”?).

Great Lakes Brewing Winter Ale
No, this isn’t a new beer from the renowned Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland, but rather a new seasonal from a Toronto brewery of the same name that is better known for producing mainstream lagers. They surprised everyone earlier this year with their Devil’s Pale Ale, and now they’ve done it again with this enjoyable winter warmer. Aroma of malt, banana, orange zest, brown sugar and a bit of cinnamon. The flavour is sweet but not cloying, with some nice fruitcake and licorice notes. As with the Devil’s Pale, it could be a little more aggressive, but it’s still another great step forward for these guys – onwards & upwards!

Over the rest of my holiday break, I’m hoping to get a chance to try Maclean’s Scotch Ale, C’est What Hazelnut Coffee Porter, Nickel Brook Winter Bock, and the just announced Scotch-Irish Christmas Cake Porter. Assuming my attempts to get out and try them are successful, you can expect a Part Two post in a week or so.

In the meantime, I hope that everyone is having a Merry Christmas. May you have a well-stocked beer fridge now and into the new year, and good friends to help you enjoy it. Peace & cheers!

Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection

I know that it’s not cool to admit this amongst serious beer geeks, but I’ve always had a fair bit of admiration for the Boston Beer Company, aka Samuel Adams. They were indisputably one of the main impetuses behind the American craft beer movement, and their Boston Lager was probably the first American beer I tried that didn’t completely suck. In fact, I still consider it a benchmark in the Premium Lager category, a stance that some people still agree with, even if others don’t.

Even though they’ve grown to become the largest craft brewer in the US (so large that some argue they no longer fit the “craft beer” definition), they still have the balls to produce some really crazy, out-there beers. Not all of them have been successful, of course – helloooo, so-called Cranberry Lambic – but at the very least they deserve props for redefining what a beer can be with their Triple Bock, Millenium and Utopias.

Their latest laudable experiment is the Brewer Patriot Collection, a set of 4 beers that I will lazily describe by taking an excerpt from the press release:

“The Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection honors our fine American brewing tradition by bringing back historical beer recipes and by using many of the same authentic ingredients the founders used,” said Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams beers. “Brewing beers that the founding fathers would have brewed and enjoyed themselves is a one-of-a-kind experience. It gave me a true sense of connection not only to our country’s heritage, but also to these first American brewers.”

When I heard about these back in June, I knew I wanted to try them, and thanks to my buddy Harry‘s sister who called him from a bottle shop on her way through Ohio to ask if he wanted her to pick up anything, I was recently able to do so. Here’s what I thought:

Traditional Ginger Honey Ale
Ginger beer was quite common in the 1700s, and according to the label of this beer, “records show that Thomas Jefferson and his wife brewed 15 gallons of ginger beer with fresh lemons and honey every two weeks for daily consumption”. It pours a hazy yellow-gold with a small head. There’s lots of honey in the aroma, along with some fresh ginger notes, and a bit of maltiness. The flavour has a nice hit of ginger off the top, followed by smooth honey notes, and a floral/lemony finish. A nice one to start with.

1790 Root Beer Brew
Being a big fan of root beer, I was really looking forward to this one. It ended up being not what I expected at all. My tasting notes started “wow, this is some weird-ass shit!” and went from there. Colour is a hazy ruby-orange with a tiny tan head. Aroma is very herbal and medicinal – smells like some old timey snake oil remedy or something – with notes of dark sugar and vanilla as well. Flavour of bitter herbs, wintergreen, anise, licorice, vanilla, and some stuff I just don’t recognize. I wanted to love this beer, but sadly, I didn’t. It’s an interesting experiment, and I’m glad to have tried it, but I’m also glad to have shared it with my friend Jeremy who came by to split the pack with me – and I’m really glad that my wife liked it, ’cause Jer didn’t much like it either, so at least the rest of the bottle didn’t go to waste.

James Madison Dark Wheat Ale
Appearance – hazy dark amber-brown with a small white head. Aroma is quite muted, with a hint of sweet malt and a faint smokiness – my wife says “It smells old, with an e on the end”. Soft mouthfeel, and flavour of toasted malt and brown sugar. Seems like it could be a good beer if the flavour were pumped up a bit more.

George Washington Porter
I expected this to be the highlight of the pack, and I was right. Clear dark brown appearance with a strong tan head. Very nice aroma: dark malt, coffee, a bit of molasses, and some sour herbal notes. Body is thin, but active. Flavour has a nice roasty quality, complimented by notes of licorice, coffee and molasses, and finishing with more licorice and a slightly acidic bitterness. A really nice offering that is comparable to some of the better old style porters I’ve had from the UK.

So all in all, this pack ran about 50/50 for me, but even the ones I didn’t like were interesting in their way. That’s more than I can say for a lot of beers that I’ve tried. It just makes me sad that SA’s Canadian distributor, Sleeman, is so worried about these superior south of the border brews making their line-up of bland “premium” beers look bad that they will only import the Boston Lager for sales in Canada. Thank god for good beer stores just across the border