Sunday, July 3, 2011

Canada Day Drinkin! or: Whither Ontario Beer?

Happy Canada Day weekend everyone!

Thanks to a recent flurry of Canadian themed brews that made it to the LCBO's shelves in time for Canada Day (aka, The Day Canada Moved Out of Britain's Basement), I feel a little bit better about the Ontarian beer scene, which as it stood was moderate to low at best.  It's really tough to slam my home province, and I know that it's not that bad.  Sure we're stuck with a provincial liquor retailer with limited hours and beer selections that together fail to meet my late night drinking needs, and sure many of our breweries are less than stellar, but there is certainly some good to be found here.  Though the grass is certainly greener on the other side of the fence (Happy Fourth of July, everyone!), there are some fine Ontario breweries that are doing some wonderful things to further the cause of great beer in my home province.  Beau's, Flying Monkeys, Wellington, Black Oak, F&M and Grand River (my personal favorites) have had some excellent releases of late, pushing the boundaries of Ontario craft brewing and offering selections that in this humble beerman's opinion are rivalling the great brews of the US, Quebec and Europe. 

Flying Monkeys, despite the frustrations they encountered with the LCBO's initial refusal to release their quality American IPA "Smashbomb Atomic" - which mercifully has since been resolved - recently unleashed Alpha Fornication, labelled as the "hoppiest beer in the world."  Is it pleasant?  At over 2500 IBUs (compare with less than 100 for most IPAs), I sincerely doubt it; my friend who recently sampled the brew thought it was almost undrinkable.   But it was certainly important in the beer world, because for the first time in, well, ever, an Ontario brewery was the one who pushed the craft to the extreme.   Reviewers have long since raved about the high octane barleywines and imperial stouts of the United States, whose breweries have so strengthened and alcoholized their brews have essentially added new categories of style to the beer pantheon (the so-called "imperials"), bigger and stronger than their mainstream counterparts.  Dogfish Head of Delaware consistently makes the news with its extreme brews made from bizarre ingredients or from ancient recipes.  Across the pond, German brewery Schorschbrau has engaged in a protracted war with Scottish darlings BrewDog to produce the "world's strongest beer," which at latest count favors the Scots with their unimaginably potent 53% "End of History."  Up until now, no Ontario brew ever commanded such media attention, but the release of Alpha certainly raised some eyebrows abroad and helped put us in a little bit bolder font on the world's beer map. 

But lets not take this point too far.  Breweries that choose to avoid these international pissing contests should not feel that they need to do so - making quality brews that respect the art of brewmaking is what craft beer is all about.   But what is exciting about these recent developments is that they show that Ontario brewers are capable of making brews that go beyond the standard fare, and that they are willing to flaunt their stuff a little bit in the process, something Ontario has never really been known for up to this point.  With the aforementioned breweries stepping up their game, it has forced other less innovative breweries to do the same.  Recently I've been impressed with the seasonal offerings of Amsterdam, Muskoka, Nickel Brook and even Great Lakes, four breweries that I had initially pigeonholed as run-of-the-mill, but now I see as being capable of producing great things.  Things are on the up for Ontario breweries, and hopefully the sea-change will manifest itself in the form of greater selection at the liquor store to come!

In celebration of Canada's 144th birthday, here are some Canada themed brews - including two of those lovely new hoppy ales from Ontario.  Let's dig in!

Beer: Crazy Canuck
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewery (Toronto)
Type: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5.2%

Those who have followed the blog in the past (if any) will probably be surprised at my decision to lead in with a brew from Great Lakes.  And you'd be right to feel that way, considering my relatively low opinion of the brewery as a whole and the choices that they've made for their regular releases (Orange Peel Ale, Green Tea Ale, Pumpkin Ale, etc.)   Normally a brew like this would have had all the hallmarks of a beer I would typically avoid: it's loud, it's trying to hard to be "Canadian", and it's from a brewery I'm less than impressed with.  In keeping with my previous point about improvement, I have to say Great Lakes has improved their output considerably, with a marked change from year to year, and thus I find that its worth checking back in.  Moreover, there has been some pretty good online hype surrounding this year's batch of Crazy Canuck, which - unlike previous editions - is being released in cans rather than tall bottles.  So I figures, what the hell?  And you know what?  This brew weren't too bad!

A light amber-copper brew, nice n' clear, a half inch of frothy head that survives quite well and leaves a bit of lacing.

Nose is all hops: pine, citrus (grapefruit, mango), a good whiff of resin as well. Right on the mark.

Bitterness is this brew's defining attribute, but bitterness is what I look for in an APA, and so I must say I am well pleased. The malt profile is a bit overwhelmed with all the hoptacular activity, with the caramel and bread only inching in at the beginning. The finish is bitter and very pronounced - lingers for a great deal. 

Smooth, slightly creamy, good carbonation.

Canuck is right on the money. A tip of the cap to Great Lakes, they've got something good here and it's worth celebrating.  Worth a pickup for your next patio-adventure! (Grade: B, pushing into B+ territory)

Beer: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA
Brewery: Lakes of Muskoka Cottage Brewery (Bracebridge, ON)
Type: American IPA

ABV: 6.4%

A bottled Ontario IPA - in six packs???  My cup runneth over!  Actually, come to think of it, I can't remember the last time there was a sixer of IPA in the LCBO, and that's just pathetic.  But the wait is now over, because Muskoka's put forward a dandy of an India Pale Ale, and there's enough to last you a good solid evening.  Although with this brew's drinkability, it might not last you that long...

Poured into a nonic. On the paler end of the India Pale Ale spectrum, a nice amber-golden with a decent fluffy head and some lacing patches.

Nose is a friendly citrus and earthy hop blast with a bit of orange peel, grapefruit, pine and caramel. 

Powered my way through this six pack with great pleasure - this is one fine IPA. A bit more English than I'd expected, but still a damned tasty brew. Good lingering earthy bitterness, with the citrus and caramel at the forefront.

Slightly creamy, a bit of oil, nice zippy carbonation.

Muskoka has really done itself proud recently with its Summer Weiss and Chocolate Stout, and this brew is another fine addition to the family.  This is exactly the kind of beer I was hoping an Ontario brewery would produce.  It's local, it's tasty, it's full of flavor, and it's got a memorable name and label with just the right amount of quirkiness.  Hopefully Mad Tom will keep lurking on the LCBO's shelves, because this could well become my default sixer for the summer. The kind of brew you can enjoy while wearing a red lumberjack shirt.  While not as juicy and potent as some of the big American brews, this is certainly on par with many an American IPA offering south of the border. Great stuff! (Grade: A-)

Beer: Innis and Gunn Canada Day 2011
Brewery: Innis and Gunn (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Type: English Strong Ale

To cap things off on such a wonderful Canada Day weekend, I simply had to go with this brew by Innis and Gunn, whose delightful oak and rum cask ales have brought many a smile to my face on so many occasions.  But a Scottish brewery that makes a "Canada Day" ale?  What up with that?  Turns out, this has been a sort of a thank-you tradition for the past few years; apparently Canadians are one of the largest consumers of Innis and Gunn's products worldwide.  And so, in gratitude of our collective dedication to beer drinkery, the brewery has put forward a special edition of it's oak aged brew just in time for Canada Day.  Score!

In past years, Innis and Gunn have incorporated something uniquely Canadian into this seasonal brew - last year, it was maple syrup as I recall.  This year, they chose the cultural route, employing the design of a Canadian artist Deborah Colvin to dress up the commemorative outer packaging, which I must admit looks pretty damned cool.

I poured  this one into a short snifter glass to really capture that classic Innis and Gunn oak-aged nose. A light amber hue, slightly golden when held to the light.  As the brewery claims, the intent of this years edition was to replicate the colour of maple leaves, and the result wasn't too far off. A thin, but relatively stable head, a bit of lacing sheets.

Nose is indeed classic Innis and Gunn - malt, a bit of peat, bourbon whiskey and a touch of vanilla.

I think I'll have to buy another bottle to stack this up against their regular oak-aged brew, because they seem pretty similar. Nice and malty, with that trademark bourbon and oak flavour.  This edition finishes with a bit of vanilla and fruit, and some slight earthiness from the Fuggles hops. A pleasure to drink, and the alcohol is well-masked.  Light carbonation, thick and slightly oily - coats the tongue well. Some heft to this. Drinks like a mild barleywine.

Though I'm not sure what - aside from the artwork - is Canadian about this, I know that Innis and Gunn made this brew in appreciation of Canadians' devotion to their brew, and the gesture is certainly a nice one. That slight earthy and vanilla character reminded me of Nova Scotia for some reason. Not sure why, but it was nice all the same. Certainly worth picking up, even though Canada Day has since past.  I myself might hold on to one for next year's celebrations!

Three great Canada-themed brews on a fantastic Canada Day weekend - what more could a guy ask for?  Hopefully this is a sign of better things on the shelves for the rest of the summer!

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