Monday, January 17, 2011

Microbrasserie Charlevoix Four Pack Mega Review Extraordinaire!

I know what you're thinking.  Here I go with another review of a Quebec microbrewery that specializes in Belgian ales.  You're also probably thinking that I'm going to spend the rest of the review praising the efforts of Quebec brewers in making quality versions of Belgian beers, like I did here, here and here

Guilty on both counts. 

As I've sometimes vented about before, I'm very much at the mercy of either what the LCBO brings in or what my friends and well-wishers bring back for me, which in the case of the latter has been mostly from Quebec or Nova Scotia.  Not that I'm complaining in the slightest, it's just that I'd absolutely love to expand my beer sampling and reviewing capacities to include more American and Western Canadian brews.  Yet, here we are.   In the coming months, I'm hoping to make a sojourn to Buffalo to hit up a few beer stores there, and I've still got that trip to Australia in April to look forward to, so hopefully there will be lots of variety in my posts this year.  Until such time, I'm going to continue lauding whatever great brews that I can find in what can sometimes be a challenging environment for beer hunting.   Deal?

 This four pack from Microbrasserie Charlevoix represents the final offering from my fantastic November beer haul, generously brought back to me from Quebec by a buddy and fellow ale-enthusiast of mine.   The name of the brewery is in reference to the Charlevoix region of Quebec, a lovely rolling and picturesque region of the St. Lawrence Valley.  Charlevoix is somewhat of a newcomer to the Quebec scene, having been founded in 1998 in the small town of Baie St. Jean (located on the north side of the St. Lawrence between Quebec City and Chicoutimi) , but it has quickly became known among discerning beer drinkers as being a great brewer of Belgian and English style ales.   This particular series, Dominus Vobiscum (Lat. "God/Lord be with you") is their Belgian slate of offerings, and has received some mighty impressive accolades thus far.  In addition to these standard brews, the Dominus line includes a terrific winter spiced ale (which is phenomenal), and a beer designed to resemble champagne (which sounds phenomenal).  As seems to be the way of things, Charlevoix has utilized a simple, yet effective bottling design with some lovely artwork that reflects the hauntingly beautiful landscape of northern Quebec.  A $2.5 million expansion of their facility and brewing equipment has allowed their brews to be distributed all across southern Quebec and sometimes as far as Ottawa-Gatineau.    I'm hoping that eventually their distribution network makes it further into Ontario, because if it did, I can assure you their brews would be in my fridge at all times.  

Let me explain:

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Blanche
Type: Witbier or Biere Blanche, depending on which half of Belgium you happen to be in.
ABV: 5%

Witbiers are similar to German weizenbiers, except that they often include spices and other ingredients (usually orange peel) that weren't permitted under the four-ingredient-only German Beer Purity Law.  Like most wheat beers, witbiers are unfiltered, opaque, and because of the pale malts utilized in brewing are a bright yellow golden colour that sometimes approaches white, hence the name 'wit'.   You've probably had Hoegaarden before - it's a witbier as well.

Poured into a weizen glass.  Pale golden and opaque, with lots of bubbles on the sides of the glass, a sturdy two inches of head that left behind some nice lace, and survived as a thin layer throughout the pint.   I could have poured this even more aggressively to produce a much more billowing head, but I wanted to leave a little of the bottom dregs of the bottle behind to swirl around and then top off the glass when there was room.  Good retention on this brew, as the head remained present throughout the pint.

The nose is banana, bubblegum, citrus and fresh grain.  A bit of yeast and spice as well, coriander and clove or cinnamon.

A great witbier, full of flavor and ridiculously easy to drink. Lemon, spice, mild bubblegum and yeast towards the finish. Slightly sweet and spicy - a great blend of flavors. I also picked up a clear presence of cinnamon and lime as well, which may have been added along with the hops later in the brewing process.  Or, it might have been a unique character of the Belgian yeast; either way, it tastes fantastic.
Mild pinprick carbonation, almost creamy mouthfeel, medium-bodied.  I really had to hold myself back from utterly blasting through this.  A lineup of nine or ten of these would make for one terrific summer's afternoon, I guarantee that.

Dominus Vobiscum Blanche is fun to drink, flavorful from start to finish, a few nice tweaks (cinnamon, lime, bubblegum) to distinguish this from other witbiers.  I'd certainly place this among my top Canadian wheat beers for sure; were it more readily available, I'd prefer this to the ubiquitous Hoegaarden.  A terrific start! (Grade: A)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Blonde
Type: Belgian Pale Ale*
ABV: 5.5%

*Belgian pale ale is a pretty broad style term that can include brews of all different colours and flavor profiles.  But really, the idea here is to distinguish these lower ABV brews from the higher, extra-fermented Dubbels, Tripels and Quadrupels.   Generally speaking, these brews are sweet, spicy, yeasty and awesome.

Poured into a tall tulip glass.  Simply put, this brew looks magnificent.  A lovely peach-golden hue, slightly opaque, with lovely streaks of carbonation rising to the surface to compliment the billowing meringue head.  Remarkable retention and lacing - several minutes after the first pour, it still has a 3/4 inch head.  Clearly, the head has securely put the parking brake on, because it's not going anywhere.
The nose is yeast, soft peach and apricot, a slight boozy character, mild floral hops.  Like their other brews, the nose pleasant, but a bit mild.  This is where some of the Belgian and American versions tend to be a bit stronger. 

The brew is sweet, but is nicely challenged with a nice dry finish.  Notes of peach, yeast, apple, wine, maybe a bit of cinnamon and other spices as well.  A slight mineral tang to the finish.  Tastes like a Belgian pale should, but despite catching a few notes here and there, this beer is a bit simplistic for the style.  Then again, it still tastes terrific and would be a pleasant evening sipper.  I'm not knocking it, I'm just saying there's room for improvement.

Zippy, potent carbonation. A few other online reviewers have likened this to champagne - I certainly got that impression early on, but as the brew sat for a few minutes things settled down.  Might be a reflection of the quality of the head.  Thicker bodied, coats the tongue nicely.  Slightly creamy.
This is one dandy of a Belgian pale, not as flavorful and well-crafted as other variations of the style, but still a terrific brew.  I would happily drink more of this, were it more readily available.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Double
Type: Belgian Dubbel
ABV: 9%

As you can probably surmise, subbels are about double the alcohol content of your standard Belgian pales, ranging around 8-10%  They tend to be darker in colour, and have a bit of extra sugar in the mix to give them a nice rummy, fruity, caramel character.  Dubbels are among my favorite beer styles, if not my very favorite style, because they drink a great deal like a happy marriage between a sweet sherry and a Belgian pale.  Chimay Red is an example of a dubbel you might see in the LCBO.

Poured into an Affligem goblet. An interesting colour: a sludgy russet brown hue, unless it is held to the light, at which point it becomes a lovely dark cherry. First pour of the bottle crackled with carbonation and the head quickly burned off; upon second pouring the head gained some strength from the sediment and has survived as a thin layer and leaves some lacing as well.
The nose is mild, with faint whiffs of yeast, dark fruit, a bit of green apple. Again, while pleasant, it's barely there.

The taste is certainly spicy and rich, but not nearly as malty as other Dubbel offerings I've had over the years.  Still, some great flavors are here: cinnamon, clove/nutmeg, licorice (anise?), raisins, apple tart grape, and a bit of sweetness from the caramel.  The 9% is tucked away nicely, which meant for a powerful burst of drunkticity towards the finish.  This brew is undoubtedly very flavorful, but it lacks that bready malt character to hold everything together. The finish is surprisingly tart and is quite long.

Pinprick carbonation.  The alcohol presence is warm and provides a nice burn.  A creamy mouthfeel as the brew warms.

A fine dubbel with a nice spicy sweet taste, certainly worthy of recommendation. Not the greatest dubbel I've had, but certainly an enjoyable one.  I could certainly drink a lot of this over the course of the evening, though the ABV is probably going to prevent that.  Although this is probably my least-favorite of the bunch, it's still great.  That's the kind of quality we're dealing with here.  (Grade: B)

Beer: Dominus Vobiscum Triple
Type: Belgian Tripel
ABV: 9%

Even though this is considered a "tripel", you'll notice that the ABV is roughly the same as in the dubbel, which may seem surprising.  Tripels tend to be stronger in alcohol content than dubbels, but aren't necessarily so; the difference in styles reflects the brewing process rather than how strong they are.  Unlike the dark malty, sweet and fruity dubbels, tripels are brighter, drier and often are more bitter.   Unibroue's La Fin du Monde is a good example of a Canadian tripel.

Poured into a taller tulip glass.  The appearance is lovely: its hazy golden sheen catches the light brilliantly, and its head is thick, fluffy and displays remarkable retention.  Loads of lacing patches grace the sides of the glass.  Light sediment flakes on the bottom, with faint carbonation bubbles sustaining the head nicely.  Spot on - looks a great deal like the Blonde.

Nose is soft and pleasant - wheat malt, yeast, banana, pears, lemon and spice.  As it warms, the banana becomes more prominent over the rest, a sweet, lightly-fried banana scent.

While not nearly as dry as their provincial counterpart and perennial favorite La Fin du Monde, Charlevoix is nevertheless a lovely, flavorful tripel, sweet and yeasty, with nice pear, banana and citrus notes. A nice mild bitterness to clean things up at the finish.  Remarkably smooth; the alcohol is present, but only provides a warming sensation rather than a burn.  Hard to believe that nearly a tenth of the glass is alcohol...

The only, and I mean ONLY fault I had with Charlevoix is the mouthfeel, which I thought was lacking in the carbonation department.  For tripels, I want to feel the citrus and yeast notes explode on the tongue; Charlevoix felt a bit flatter than it should be and thus this didn't happen as well as it could. Still, a nice body and slightly creamy feel.

Since I love tripels so much, it's hard for me to knock them down. Fortunately, this won't be a problem with Charlevoix' version.  Flavorful, attractive, insanely easy to drink, this is the kind of tripel I could drink all day long. I'd happily cite this brew as being among Canada's best.  (Grade A)

Another terrific roundup from a fantastic Quebec microbrewery.  Though they may still be newer to the brewing scene, and with a considerably smaller presence than Unibroue or even Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix has made a name for itself by brewing damned fine brews.  As their name gets more attention outside of Quebec, and as the their massive 2008 expansion begins to pay dividends for both volume and distribution, I think Charlevoix will eventually be a major player in the competitive Quebec craft brewing market.  Definitely a brewery to watch out for.

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