It's amazing that things like this are allowed to happen.
I've talked many times before about Great Lakes Brewing of Toronto, with its seasonal flavored ales like their Orange Peel Ale and Green Tea Ale. Yet just a short hop away in Cleveland, Ohio there is another brewery with essentially the same name, with only the finishing word "Company" to distinguish the two from one another. What gives?
Both cities can lay a rightful claim to the moniker, given their location on two of the massive freshwater lakes, as well as their unique history in relation to the Great Lakes region. A little bit of internet hunting seems to confirm that the Cleveland brewery was founded first, and that Toronto may have been blissfully unaware of its brewing neighbour to the southwest, and went ahead with its own naming scheme. Considering the fact that, for much of either brewery's history their respective markets were isolated from one another, there was unlikely any reason for a naming switch. But with more and more American and Canadian craft brews being exported across the border, the possibility of having two breweries with almost the same name being sold in the same beer store seems very unlikely, especially at the LCBO. So it looks like if you want to try Great Lakes Cleveland brews, you'll have to make a trip to the States to do so, as I did.
And man, do I wish our situations were reversed. Although I try my very best to support Ontario breweries whenever I can, when it comes to the two "Great Lakes" breweries, there really is no comparison between the two. Based on the offerings found in this great sampler pack (along with a couple I managed to try on draught, I can definitely say that Great Lakes Cleveland is one amazing brewery. I mean seriously: these brews were fantastic. Nothing gimmicky or half-assed about it - every brew was flavorful, exciting, well-crafted and among the top of its class. Let's dive right in.
Beer: Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold
Type: Dortmunder Lager
Dortmunder Lagers are essentially export lagers, which were originally very popular around the German city of Dortmund. They are a little stronger, and tend to have a nice biscuity profile with a good deal of complexity. Great Lakes takes a lot of pride in this brew, considering the label sports their gold medal from the American Beer Festival. Not too many breweries would do that on the bottle - overly boastful, or a portend of great things to come?
Poured into a Czechvar fluted pilsner glass. A lovely, rich amber golden hue, with a couple inches of fluffy head. Great retention on this, with scads of sticky lacing. Top notch.
The nose is quite malty, with notes of fresh grain, honey, biscuit/bread, and some light citrus/tea hops.
Wow - this is a fantastic brew. Rich and malty, with a lovely taste of crispy bread and cracker, lemon, honey, and a slight hop bitterness to the finish. Perhaps the fullest flavor of any pale/golden lager I've ever encountered. Balanced enough for every day quaffing or slow, contemplated sipping. Medium bodied for a lager, good carbonation. Having trouble slowing myself down. I dare anyone who likes beer not to enjoy this. Dare them, I say! You win this round, Great Lakes. Your gold medal label is fully justified. Just a stellar lager, loads of fun to drink, that is complex enough to satisfy the most discerning beer geek, but accessible enough that it could be used to bring those who normally avoid craft beer to the fold. (Grade: A)
Beer: Great Lakes Eliot Ness
Type: Red Lager
Gotta love a little jab at Prohibition, especially when your beer is named after the man responsible for cleaning up Chicago's speakeasies with his "Untouchables". In all seriousness, it seems like this brew is more named in respect of Eliot Ness than in jest of his anti-liquor operations; according to the bottle, Ness was originally a Safety Director for the City of Cleveland who "frequented the original bar that is now the Great Lakes Brewpub." Here was a man who certainly did his duty, even though he probably would rather have drank the stuff than combat its production. I'll drink to that.
Poured into a tall pilsner tulip. A brilliant ruby-amber colour, clear, nice frothy head, a bit of lacing. A fantastic looking brew.
Nose is quite malty, with notes of grain, caramel, sugar and earthy hops.
A malty extravaganza, this brew is full of flavor and a real pleasure to drink. Caramel, earth, a hearty grain taste, and a clean hopped finish. Reminded me of a Scottish Wee Heavy somewhat in terms of its flavor and robustness. Very tasty brew. Carbonation is a bit high for my liking, but it has a nice crisp feel.
Another solid brew from Great Lakes. As hearty as a non-bock lager as you're ever going to find! (Grade: B+)
Beer: Great Lakes Burning River
Type: American Pale Ale
One thing (of many) that Great Lakes does particularly well is its commitment to enviromental causes. The brewery is a huge promoter of efforts to maintain local water quality and to reduce pollution into Lake Erie and the nearby Cuyahoga River. Great Lakes also regularly contributes to the Burning River Fest, a beer n' music festival held to promote sustainable resource usage and clean water initiatives. The name Burning River refers to a horrifying incident in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire because of industrial pollution. This bizarre event acted as a catalyst for many of the United States' environmental protection acts, including the Clean Water Act of 1972. Feeling good inside about purchasing this brew, it's time to jump right in!
Poured into a nonic. Nice, bright amber-golden in colour, leaves about a 3/4 inch head, nice lacing, good retention. Solid ring remains long after the pour.
Nose is sweet caramel malt coupled with crisp, piney-citrus hops. Classic American pale.
A solid pale ale, full of flavor, nicely balanced. Caramel malts, mild citrus hops to cleanse the palate. A bit of earth, resin and chocolate kicking around. Not overly complex, just a great tasting brew.
Medium bodied, slightly creamy.
Though not as mind-explodingly good as the Dortmunder, this is nevertheless a great tasting pale, that is light and crisp enough to quench a thirst on a humid afternoon, yet tasty enough to sit and ponder over. (B+)
Beer: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Now its time to close things off with the big gun, the crown jewel of the Great Lakes beer lineup, the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. Easily one of the most reviewed and most beloved beers on Rate Beer and BeerAdvocate, and certainly one I've been looking forward to trying for quite some time. Brewed in honour of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank with all hands lost in 1975 while caught in a Lake Superior winter's storm. The ship, one of the largest ever to traverse the Great Lakes, made regular stops in Cleveland, and was due to spend the rest of the winter docked in Cleveland's harbor.
Poured in to a Duvel chalice. Lovely pitch black brew, slight chestnut when held to the light. My aggressive little pour created about an inch and a half of coffee foam-coloured head, which descended slowly into a thick ring with some patches of lace. Brilliant looking porter.
Nose is rich coffee, chocolate, marshmallow, toasted bread, biscuit. Very pleasant.
After a string of various brews whose nose proved far more complex than their taste, Great Lakes is completely the opposite. Dark, roasty, and complex - everything I like in a porter. Subtle notes of peat and leather occasionally break through. Dry coffee finish.
Mild, but zippy carbonation, slick mouthfeel coats the tongue well, thin bodied and creamy.
Textbook porter - rich, hearty, flavorful, yet thin and smooth enough for easy drinking. Totally worth seeking out. Now if I could only get that damned Gordon Lightfoot song out of my head... (Grade: A)
Great Lakes is a brewery that is committed to the three tenets of craft brewing: they make fantastic, diverse and interesting brews; they are committed to the local community; and they make the local environment and history of the region a part of their brewmaking processs by paying tribute to Cleveland's maritime history. Though it seems unlikely that we will ever see these brews make their way across the Canadian border, I strongly urge anyone who makes the journey to the northern United States to seek these brews out.