Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Something, something 'dark beer'....Something, something complete!"

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like booze, booze and more booze.  In fact, counting off the top of my head no less than seven presents wrapped under my Christmas tree are alcohol-related, and sadly, none of which are as yet for me.   Fortunately, the LCBO had itself a nice little winter release this year, so I decided to pick myself up a few early Christmas presents cause, you know - fuck waiting.   I'm not really worried about picking up new brews this close to the arrival of St. Nick; the great thing about giving or receiving beer as a present is that you never worry about accidentally receiving the present twice - in fact, I welcome it!   So I managed to spend a good chunk of change on beer, most of which probably could have been spent on others.  But, you know.  I didn't.  Instead, my gift to all of you is for me to try some of these brews out and tell you how much I enjoyed them.  And, in the end, isn't that the real meaning behind the season? According to the good book, "Yes, yes it is." (Judges 6:18-36...ish)

Thus, on this dark, cold, damp day, here are a couple of the darker brews available on limited release!

Beer: Muskoka Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout 
Brewery: Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery (Bracebridge)
Type: Imperial Stout
ABV: 8%

I've been happy with Muskoka's other seasonals, especially their Harvest Ale, so this should be a treat. Muskoka's been doing a fine job as a newer brewer to the Ontario scene, producing decent-to-great brews marketed using a delightful cottage-country aesthetic.  I'd even go so far as to say that the brewery tends to get overlooked in any discussion of quality Ontario craft beer.  No longer, thanks to this terrific brew.

750 mL bottle with a pleasant label design.  The hinged opener was a bit tricky.  And by 'tricky' I mean I somehow managed to rip the whole thing off and hit the cat, but fortunately the contents were still intact.  Apparently, hinged bottles are my archenemy.

Poured into a Chimay goblet.  The house was pretty dark when Michelle and I shared this brew, so apologies for the picture quality.  A rich, dark brew, with only the faintest chocolate hue around the upper echelons.  Left behind about a half inch of dark mocha head that receded into a thin, sturdy ring. A few flakes of lacing.

Nose was a lovely blast of salted milk chocolate, cream, mild coffee and toasted malts. No berries here, but all goodness thus far.  Very rich and inviting.

Somehow I was able to allow this to warm up to around 11 degrees before consuming.  Definitely worth the wait.  Creamy, with lovely notes of milk chocolate and caramel. Slightly sour and dry to the finish.  Not anything I would have initially identified as 'cranberry', but certainly a finish that was berry-like in tartness.  Fortunately, a bit of air and further warmth did wonders for this brew, as towards the end of the bottle the cranberry-raspberry flavor finally snuck in, providing just a touch of puckery holiday goodness. The cranberry flavor is certainly very slight, and certainly isn't the brew's defining feature, but it's enjoyable nevertheless. 

The body is a bit thinner than I'd like, but it coats the tongue nicely enough and has decent mild carbonation.

A very enjoyable brew on a blustery winter's night, especially when putting up the last of the Christmas decorations! I'm liking Muskoka's tall-bottle approach, and even though the price point is quite high (9 bucks a pop), the taste is certainly well worth it. A fuller body and a bit more depth would have really sent this brew into the stratosphere. Great stuff!  Might make for a great Christmas present as well.  See? I'm always thinking.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Marston's Oyster Stout
Brewery: Marston, Thompson and Evershed (Burton, UK)
Type: English Milk Stout
ABV: 4.5%

Marston's is located in one of the many brewing meccas around the world, Burton-on-Trent, a region that can rightly claim to be the birthplace of both the English Pale and English India Pale Ale styles.  For much of the 19th century, the vast majority of British ales were produced around Burton, and were shipped to Empire locations across the globe, with the main target market being the British Raj in India.  Burton itself is situated in the Midlands on the river Trent, whose waters were particularly well-suited for brewing.  Something about the local waters made the beer very accepting of hops and extra malting, allowing for the production of beer that could be shipped across vast distances without spoiling.   This higher ABV, extra-hopped variety was particularly popular amongst company men and officers working in the hot climate in India, so much so that when they returned home to England, they craved for brews of the "Indian" variety - thus, the India Pale Ale was born. 

Unfortunately, Marston's Old Empire IPA isn't available in Ontario, but I'll happily give their Oyster Stout a go.  Don't worry folks, it won't taste like oysters (I hope); rather, this is a style of stout designed to be paired with oysters, which were often consumed as a cheap pub snack in the days of yore (especially before Christmas!)

Handsome bottle design I have to say.  Lovely image of an English beachfront with a small oyster fishing boat in the sand and a tern flying overhead.

Poured into a nonic. Dark chestnut/black in colour, left a half-inch of frothy mocha head. Receded fairly quickly, leaving only a razor thin ring and a few flakes of lacing.

Nose is nice and roasty with notes of chocolate, and mocha. Mild. A touch of mineral and something very strange and almost unsettling that I can't quite name - almost cheesy. 

A decent-tasting stout, but certainly on the thin side. The typical milk stout tasting notes of chocolate, mocha, and light cream are certainly present, but are far too muted to really make a lasting impact, especially when challenged by a tinny, mineral character and an English tea-like hop flavor. An interesting leeky flavor as well. As I work my way through the pint, I'm finding I'm enjoying it less and less - far too mild to be calling itself a stout.  I'm sure if I were in a Burton pub with some classical Christmas music and a plateful of oysters in front of me I'd relish every sip, but since I'm at home on the couch, it's not really anything special.

Body is too thin, almost watery, with unnecessarily harsh carbonation. Really killing it for me.

Because the flavors are a bit washed out, this beer could have been great as an easy quaffer - something one could down with a plateful of oysters or scallops.  But with such a thin body, harsh carbonation and mixed bag of flavors, this one didn't really do it for me.  Felt more like an English mild brown ale than a stout.  I could certainly down a pint or two of this, but there are better stouts and browns to be had instead: ones that blast the flavors out loud, rather than muffle them.  (Grade: C+)

Beer: Lava Smoked Imperial Stout
Brewery: Ölvisholt Brugghús (Iceland)

Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.4%

Ahh, Iceland, you've done it again.  After raving so much about my first Icelandic brew, I was certain it would be many years - perhaps even a trip to Scandinavia - before I'd have the pleasure of sampling another.  Turns out it took about five months.  Turns out, this one is even better!

As 2010 comes to a close, I like to pause and reflect about the year that was, all the things that I've done and all the events that have demanded the globe's attention.  Like, oh, I don't know - the Icelandic volcano eruption?  The one that shut down air travel across Europe for days, stranding passengers all over the continent and leading many, like myself, to wonder if this was merely the first step in the path to Iceland's dominance of the world? ("All hail the mighty, omnipotent Althing!  Hot spring saunas and geothermal power and Lutheranism for ALL!")

Well shit, son, if that ain't a volcanic eruption right there on the bottle!   Nothing like constantly reminding the world about that geological stunt you pulled by pasting it all over your beer labels. God bless you, Iceland, and all that you do.

Poured into a nonic. Nearly pitch-black with only the finest hints of chestnut when held to the light. Dark mocha head, thick and bubbly but dissolved into a thin ring after a few minutes.

Nose is lovely and rich, with roasted malts, chocolate, smoke, caramel and nuts.

Great stuff, a truly memorable and enjoyable Russian Imperial Stout.  Begins with the usual RIS suspects of roasted grain, chocolate and dark coffee, before doing an about-face by blasting me with a lovely smoked wood and leather flavor explosion.  Reminds me of the peat character often found in Islay scotch whisky.  More than justifed use of the word "smoked", a great tasting brew.  I guess the only fault I can claim about this beer is an overlying sweetness that could have been reduced in favor of more smoky goodness.  Other than that, this brew is brilliant.

This brew is certainly easy to get down. Thick, coats the tongue well, carbonation is mild (could have been a touch zippier), alcohol burn is mild for something approaching 10% ABV.

2 for 2 from Olvisholt, 2 for 2 from Iceland.  Great pickup by the LCBO - a superb Russian stout whose smoky character distinguishes it from the rest of the pack, giving this brew a uniquely Icelandic feel. Amazing that this brew came from a country with only twenty years of legal brewing experience.  If shutting down air travel is the price we pay for having quality Icelandic stouts delivered to my local liquor store, then I say fire up the volcano ovens - post haste!  (Grade: A-)


Still more to come from the LCBO winter release, including Sint Christoffel Bock, La Trappe Koenigshoeven Quad and a few other delightful seasonal goodies!  Till then, cheers to holiday beer drinking!

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