Friday, September 3, 2010

Local Drinkin': A Sojourn to Grand River Brewing!

In terms of local craft brewing scenes, KW is actually a pretty good place to be.   Within about 100km, there are at least a dozen breweries to visit - a fine number compared to other regions in Canada.  Starting from my digs in Waterloo, if I were so inclined I could swing by the good folks at Wellington, F&M, Creemore, Mill St., Amsterdam, Brick, Duggan's, Great Lakes, Nickel Brook, Steam Whistle, Camerons, and even Magnotta in Vaughan, which is better known for its wines yet still produces some fine craft brews.  Slightly further out in the field, but still within driving distance are Flying Monkeys (Barrie), Church Key and Niagara's Best.  A great slate to choose from.

Visiting craft breweries such as these can be a peck of fun.  Not only is there the high chance of getting proper liquored on a brewery tour (thank you Wellington!), there's also the fact that breweries only tend to submit their best-sellers to the LCBO and local pubs; stopping by their retail store gives you the chance to sample and bring home some of their lesser-known brews.  For example, for the longest time the only place I could ever pick up Wellington's Iron Duke and their Russian Imperial Stout were on-site; fortunately, in recent months they've expanded their output so I don't have to drive out to Guelph every time.  As a final point, as is often the case the stuff available for sale at the brewery is about as fresh as it gets; without the time spent in the truck and on the store shelf, you're getting the brew as close to the brewmaster's intentions as possible, which is a great thing.  I've been to Wellington Brewery out in Guelph several times for their annual Boot Chuck, done the Steam Whistle tour on a few occasions, but other than that, I'm a bit ashamed to say I haven't been to many of these fine breweries.  Well, no longer!  I'm making it my mission to make brewery stopovers whenever I can, pick up a few new bottles, chat up the brewer if possible and pass on what I've found to you, the loyal reader! 

First on the agenda is one of my very favorite breweries, Grand River Brewing of Cambridge.  I love them because aside from the fact that pretty much every beer of theirs I've reviewed has earned at least a 'B' score in BA (a rare feat), they possess, at least in my mind, the closest representation of a true 'craft' brewery in Ontario.  Their marketing is minimalist.  Their brewery site is low-key, out of the way and very small; only in the last year have their beers made an appearance in local LCBO stores.  And yet despite all this they've earned the following of a small, yet dedicated fanbase (including yours truly) who appreciate owner Bob Hanenberg's and brewmaster Rob Creighton's passion for quality craft ales and lagers.   Grand River has a great appreciation and respect for the region they call home.  Many of their brews are named in honor of places and events in the Tri-City area: Town Hall lager bottles feature a motif of Cambridge's old city hall, while Mill Race Mild pays tribute to the city's major local park, home to the annual Mill Race Folk Festival.  On top of all this, they also happen to be some very nice folks.  I've had the pleasure of chatting with Bob n'  Rob on many occasions, and after only a few moments you can tell that these two are passionate about beer.   I talked to Rob about their recent LCBO experience, his new brewing projects and about beer in general, and I could tell this was a guy who knew his stuff.   Everything about this brewery suggests that the folks there are in it for the beer.

Grand River specializes in producing beers that are a bit lower in alcohol in most, but are certainly not considered 'light'.   There has been a growing movement in the craft beer community in support of these so-called 'session beers' - beers a bit under the standard 5% range that are enjoyable to drink in greater quantities (sessions).  The idea is that with session beers you can drink of them, but feel the effects less and without sacrificing flavor and density, so you can savor brew throughout the evening.   The kind of beer you can have at lunch without throwing off the rest of your work day.  The concept is growing in popularity as folks like me find the experience of feeling drunk (and then hungover) to be proportionately less-enjoyable as we get older.  I loves me beer, but I don't have to be drunk to enjoy it.  A mild beerphoria is all I need. With the exception of their recent offering Russian Gun Imperial Stout, all of Grand River's regular slate of beer offerings are under this 5% range, and yet none of them suffer for it.

On a late August morning, I decided to make the drive down to the brewery to check things out.  It's a great little drive if you plan it right, taking the country roads past New Hamburg and approaching the city of Cambridge from the west end.  The brewery is located in the southern end of Galt district, in a long and squat red-brick well-windowed building that used to house the Galt Knife Factory.  Fairly unimpressive, but then again, few North American breweries are; brewers need a place to brew, and older factories provide a cheap alternative that are more easily modified to suit brewing needs.  A simple little retail store, a few hats, shirts and other swag available, with two main beer racks, one fridge full of single bottles, and a growler rack.  Growlers are a fun, eco-friendly craft beer bottling method, commonly utilized by new, growing breweries without a great deal of capital to put towards single-serving bottles and labels.  Growlers are quite large, holding the equivalent of 5-6 pints of beer, and are a good way for new brewers to start distributing to new customers.  After buying the beer and making a deposit, you take the growler home, enjoy said beer, then return it so it can be washed and re-used.  Repeat as needed.
I would have picked up a growler, but both brews available were ones I can get on tap at the Grad House, so I stuck with the bottle option.   Behind (to the left of) the small retail store is the brewing room, which is large and full of antique equipment from the old factory, keeping in step with GRB's connection to local heritage.  I chatted a bit with the clerk and made my way to the bottle fridge.

On this trip I managed to pick up two new brews unavailable in the LCBO, and one of my old favorites.  A good little haul. 

Beer: Plowman's Anniversary Ale (2010)
Type: IPA
ABV: 6.5%

In honour of the brewery's 3rd anniversary, this is a revisit of one of their flagship brews, Plowman's Ale.  Similar to the Plowman's recipe, but with a greater malt and hop presence, pushing the ABV up from the standard Plowman's 4.7%.  A special seasonal.

Now, remember what I said earlier about freshness?  Like many breweries, GRB date-stamps their bottles to give folks an idea of how old the beer is and whether it might be past its prime.  No risk of that here: this pint was bottled that morning.  You just can't get any fresher than that!

Poured into a tapered ale glass. A brilliant colour - predominantly ruby-russet, brown in the dark, cherry-red when held to the light. Good frothy head, leaves a slight ring after a few minutes, with patches of lacing scattered throughout the glass. Looks great.

Nose is quite malty, with notes of caramel and toffee. Bread, biscuits, citrus hop tang.  Smells similar to an eastern American IPA.

Tastes indeed like maltier, hoppier version of Plowman's, one of my favorite Ontario brews.  A big malt entry and a good use of hops here, both earthy and citrus notes. Very slight banana flavor. The caramel and toffee poke their heads in every so often, smoothing things out. Very tasty and balanced.  Certainly tastes like the kind of beer I'd want with a Plowman's lunch.

Slightly thick for a pale ale, but light, crisp carbonation helps make Anniversary a fine drinker.

Good spin on the original Plowmans. Heavy in flavor, but not so much in the body, making this one easy to quaff.  I argue that this could compete with many an American IPA.  Great stuff. (Grade B+)

Beer: Galt Knife Old Style "Pre-Prohibition Style Lager"
Type: American Pale Lager
ABV: 4.4%

We used to have Galt Knife on tap at the UW Grad House several years ago, and I must admit, my tastes hadn't evolved to the point where I could enjoy it.  It was just too hoppy and bitter for me.

Amazing how much my tastes have changed in three short years, as this has now become one of my favorite Ontario microbrews.  Heck, even across the Canadian beer spectrum, this one holds its own well.  Thankfully available in the LCBO.  Bottled three days prior.

Poured into a lager glass. A nice amber lager, medium-golden when held to the light, with lots of visible carbonation. Terrific lacing, an incredibly sturdy head that survived the entire pint.  A splendid looking brew.

Smell was very subtle: bread, biscuits, a bit of fruit (apple), and of course the hops, which were spicy and bitter, rather than the Cascade citrus hops often seen in American lagers and ales.  A touch of yeast character to the nose as well. 

A lovely bitter lager, very full-flavoured and satisfying. Nice juicy, fruity hops with a solid malt base (a characteristic of old American lagers, hence the name). The finish is long and bitter, with notes of caramel, lemon and pepper. 

Carbonation was slightly lower than I'd expected; if it were a touch higher it'd be perfect.  Creamy and smooth, not entirely unlike a cream ale.  Goes down very easily.

A great standard lager, up there with Creemore in my books in terms of drinkability.  (Grade A-)

Beer: Raspberry Pils
Type: Fruit beer/pilsner
ABV: 4.5%

Sorry folks, forgot to get a picture of this one. Only picked up one bottle, which I shared with a buddy at a recent BBQ.  Bottle label features a rooster on a farm fence.  Cute.

Poured into a pilsner glass. Slightly opaque golden with a slight orange-pink tinge, leaving a thin, but stable frothy head.

Nose is yeast, light hops, and a slight fruit character I wouldn't have called raspberries if I hadn't known the name. Smells like neither a pilsner nor a fruit beer, but something in the middle.

Hrrm. Not sure about this. Tastes a great deal like their Hanenberg Pils, of which I'm quite fond, but with a bit of a strange fruit character in the back, which again I wouldn't necessarily call raspberry. The hops and fruit almost cancel each other out, to the detriment of both - the fruit is muted by the hops, so it doesn't taste like how I feel a fruit beer should, but the fruit also softens the hops, reducing its 'pils' standing. What I get is a very bready, yeasty brew, with only a slight fruit flavor lurking in the background.

Betwixt and between, neither a pils nor a fruit beer. Didn't really do it for me. Might have worked better with a wheat ale base to allow the fruit to make more of a statement. Or at the very least a more potent raspberry flavor.

Bit of a disappointment. It certainly is quite drinkable, and I wouldn't turn it down, but it's not really worth seeking out either.  Fruit beers are, in my opinion, the most difficult beers to ace; you either go heavy with the fruit, which can taste overly sweet and unbeer-like, or you don't go strong enough and it dilutes the flavor of the beer unnecessarily.   GRB does a better job with their Bumbleberry Wheat Ale, which has a terrific harvest fruit pie taste and mild wheat backing.  Pick it up if you get a chance.   (Grade: B-)


Other terrific brews to check out are their hoppy Curmudgeon IPA, the standard Plowmans Ale, and Mill Race Mild, a brown session ale in the old English style.  GRB has some fun seasonals, including their annual Highballer Pumpkin Ale which should be available in a month or so.

If you're excited about local beer, be sure to give Grand River a try; if you can make it down to the brewery, you'll get a bit more variety than at the LCBO.  A fantastic, growing Ontario craft brewery.  Well worth a check out.

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