The Brewer’s Path, Renoir, and the Craft Beer Narrative

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One of the things that I got a real sense of while co-writing the Ontario Craft Beer Guide and something that has really stuck out as we begin our research on a possible other one, is the narrative. The story each brewery has behind them.

The fascinating thing is that narratives in this more beer-focused sense are similar to a Renoir painting. If you step back enough you can see a beer narrative on the provincial, national, and even international scale. An LCBO online store that delivers via Canada Post, Canadians cleaning up in American brewing awards, the interesting goings of the biggest beer takeover, or even the growing demand for craft beer in China and South Korea. But you can also get right up close and see smaller but no less important narratives going on. A homebrewer’s path to going professional or a brewery’s journey in navigating the consumer landscape or growing as a company. It’s those stories that writers like me live for. It can be incredibly rewarding and educational just to track how far a brewery has come over the years and what experiences get carried by brewers who shift from job to job.

Here’s an example.

robertsimpson_logoFlying Monkeys Brewery in Barrie. Founded eleven years ago and originally named after the city’s first mayor, Robert Simpson Brewery had a fairly standard lineup of beers in its portfolio, which included Robert Simpson Pale Ale, Sugarbush Lager, Confederation Amber Ale and Antigravity Light Ale. Four years later the brewery underwent a rebranding because, as founder and head brewer Peter Chiodo said, “Being named for a dead white guy just isn’t very exciting”. The newly branded Flying Monkeys Brewery launched with a new beer along with their name, the Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale, and soon after put a focus on esoteric and strong-flavoured beers with some of the craziest-looking art around. So crazy, in fact, that in 2011 the brewery saw themselves the topic of a province-wide discussion on the stronghold the LCBO has on many breweries when an application to stock the brewery’s latest beer, Smashbomb Atomic IPA, was declined because the depiction of an explosion on the label went against the government-run institution’s social responsibility policy.

smashbooombOver the years Flying Monkeys had been favouring brewing beers both extreme in flavour and high in alcohol content. Starting in 2011 with Alpha Fornication, “the world’s hoppiest beer” at 2,500 International Bittering Units, the brewery went on to make beers like Matador IIPA, Chocolate Manifesto, and the City & Colour Imperial Maple Wheat. Interesting concepts that were proudly over the top and, perplexingly, sold in large 750ml bottles despite the fact that for the most part the flavours were so extreme you couldn’t finish a pint of some of them. To add to their publicity for esoteric beers, they also regularly collaborated with musicians, notably Dallas Green and the Barenaked Ladies.

mythologyLately though, Flying Monkeys has been paying close attention to where people’s tastes are going and have started putting more of a focus on a few of their “simple done well” beers. Mythology, for instance. is a Czech Pilsner with a wonderful blend of biscuity malts and the floral, citrus character of Saaz hops. It’s incredibly well-made and has just recently won gold in the Canadian Brewing Awards. The brewery has also, finally, switched to cans, realizing that folks are more prone to buying one or two tallboys than they are for a six pack or giant bottle.

From basic entry-level beers, to outrageous and extreme flavour bombs, to award-winning pilsners in cans. That’s a hell of a brewery narrative, and it’s not even close to being finished.

One more.

DSC_0650Eric Portelance and Callum Hay are self-taught homebrewers with no formal training. For over four years they had been reading every book they could find, scouring every wiki and forum they could, to learn how to brew and brew well. They were also active members in Toronto’s large homebrewing community. When they eventually decided to start a brewery, one of the elements they had always insisted on being part of their identity was to have every single recipe for their beer available on their web site so other brewers can replicate or even expand on it. While several breweries have done this, the standard designation of it was putting out a “clone recipe”. Portelance, a former digital product designer, and Hay, a former software engineer, coined the term “Open-source beer” as a kind of tribute to their past lives. Terms aside, it was important for them to give back to the homebrewing community that helped them so much by putting their recipes out there for free.

DSC_0672After going through the usual tumbles of opening a brewery in Toronto (licensing, installation of equipment, testing the recipes etc.) Halo Brewery officially opened in the spring of this year. Located across the street from Ubisoft Toronto (people in motion capture bodysuits can frequently be seen around the area), the brewery experienced what is almost now common in the Toronto beer scene…a tremendous wave of support and near-constant packed house, with a very quick sell-out of many of the beers available that no one would ever have anticipated. Their beers include such delightfully nerdy names as Ion Cannon Strawberry & Kiwi Gose, Magic Missile Dry-Hopped Pale Ale, and Tokyo Rose Saison with Rosehips.

Despite their initial success Portelance and Hay have brought their experience of homebrewing with them, which means they are always refining their recipes and their process to get it to their own constantly raising standard. It also means that they’re learning a lot of the little differences between a homebrewing setup and a full-on brewery, which is something that can only be learned by starting your own brewery. Luckily for the duo, they anticipated all of this so they’re rolling with the good and the bad.

Callum Hay and Eric Portelance’s individual stories are long, but Halo Brewery’s has just started. That’s exciting.

Now it should be said that not all of the narratives in the beer scene are happy ones. While we’re seeing more and more breweries open up lately there are still a bunch that are closing down, and I don’t feel the latter gets as much attention as it should. A lot of breweries, most contract (folks who hire a brewery to brew their beer for them), some not, get into brewing thinking that it’s a giant cash cow and that the money will just come rolling in. Others end up just not progressing as much as they’d like to and the dream becomes unfeasible. Just today brewer Victor North announced that his brewery, Garden Brewers, was winding down operations. In his own words, he says: “We began to really focus on growing into a bricks-and-mortar company, but we also began to really lose money. I genuinely thought that we would beat the clock -and the odds- but we now find ourselves in a position where we are unable to continue”. It’s moments like that which remind you that, regardless of the reason, it is still possible to fail in this business. However, not wanting to be a downer, I should point out that while that’s the end of Garden Brewers’ narrative for the time being it is by no means the end of Victor North’s. The dude is a bright talent and he’ll continue to do awesome things within the industry. He’s by no means down for the count and I couldn’t be happier about that.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of narratives that are currently going on right now as you’re reading this. From a beer industry viewpoint they’re great to hear and provide insight into the ethos of a particular brewer or brewery. For a customer, it does the same, only I kind of feel those stories don’t get told as often as they should, what with all the commercials about the fresh ingredients and so on. But even then, all it takes to learn the story of a brewer is to simply walk up to them at an event and ask.

Chances are, they’d like to tell it to you.

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TRUTHSEEKER ALERT: NEW LEGENDARY MUSKOKA ODDITY SIGHTING!!!!

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Up here in Ontario there was some excitement on my part when I found out that Muskoka Brewery’s Legendary Oddity, formally the Spring Oddity, a Belgian Ale made with Heather Tips, Juniper Berries, Sweet Orange Peel, and Candi Sugar has not only come back to the brewery’s lineup, but also evolved from their giant 750ml wine bottle to a respectable tallboy can. I was happy about this for two reasons. Firstly, that particular beer, which itself was an oddity by being one of the early Belgian-style beers in Ontario, always marked the arrival of the spring season for me. so getting it on a day where the grey clouds actually parted to reveal sunny and mildly warm weather behind them made me feel all good. As erratic as it’s been, it was a long winter.

oddddddityThe second reason I got excited was because Muskoka’s marketing for it has leaned heavily on the Cryptozoology aspect of the beer which considering its mascot, a large eagle with antlers called a “Reineagle”, is absolutely perfect to create a story and social media campaign behind. The brewery has even gone so far as to make up some photos of Oddity “sightings” which I think are really cute (Above is my own discovery, from when I was hiking in the woods).

For those who don’t know, Cryptozoology is, in absolute basic terms, the study of animals that have very little evidence of their existence, but have been seen in legends and folklore of the locality. Think the Loch Ness Monster, El Chupacabras, The Jersey Devil, Mothman, and everybody’s favourite party animal, Bigfoot.

I love Cryptozoology. Not just because it’s taking a look at local lore and seeing if there is any substance to it, but also because in this day of cynicism, where there are all sorts of conspiracy theories over governments trying to destroy the population or personally attempting to bring forth the end of times…it’s just pleasant and downright heartwarming to know there’s someone out there looking for Bigfoot just to confirm that he exists. Like, maybe for some financial gain, but mostly just doing it to see if he’s real. Reading stuff on Cryptozoology is a good way to take a break and realize that there’s a more wholesome and optimistic type of fanatic out there.

In doing some research I was disappointed to find that, while Ontario has some legendary creatures of our own, they don’t seem to excite many folks in the cryptozoological community. We have a bunch of lake monsters reported as far back as the 1800s and the odd Sasquatch kicking around, but that’s about it.

Well…actually there is one.

Wendigo1The only creature that really sticks out is the famous Wendigo, a half-man-half-monster that has its origins in the belief system of the Ojibwe, Cree, Naskapi, and Innu people and has been spotted around Northern Ontario, particularly near Kenora (Note to self, call up Lake of the Woods Brewery up there). While the legend itself varies, one thing is common, a person could transform into a Wendigo by taking part in cannibalism, a strong taboo in the Algonquian cultures, even in dire circumstances such as needing to survive the cold. The transformation would leave that person as a horrible creature of pure malevolence, obsessed with the consumption of human flesh.

For further reading on Cryptozoology, check out American Monsters by Linda Godfreys. While it puts its focus on the States, it is fun to read about creatures of air, land, and water in the regions.

Now. On to the beer.

To be honest, it’s been awhile since I’ve tried this beer. It’s been on hiatus for a while and my tasting notes are lost to time. I’m happy to note that the flavour is really….well, bright is the only way to put it. The juniper berries provide a nice tart note along with a gin-like mouthfeel (not surprising, since the berries are a key ingredient in gin), while the heather tips and orange peel do the heavy lifting making for some wonderful bitter notes. The candi sugar wraps it all up in a lovely sweet blanket and there’s a gentle jab of warmth and a fairly dry mouthfeel. All in all, it’s definitely a great welcome in to the Spring season.

Muskoka’s Legendary Oddity will be out in LCBOs on April 1.

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Filed under Beer Products, Currently Drinking, Learning, Seasonal Beers

At Year’s End: So Long, 2015

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I’m up at the family cottage for the holidays. Currently I’m sipping on some decent coffee, have Big Trouble in Little China playing in the background, and looking through my notes from the book reflecting on the past year.

And what a freakin’ year it’s been. One that truly has underlined the blessing and curse of the saying “may you live in interesting times”.

Professionally, this was probably one of the best years for The Thirsty Wench and me as a beer writer. Some notable highlights included finally getting my own column in Torontoist. The punny Inherent Weisse has been chugging along every two weeks and it’s…actually been pretty nice. For the first time in a good long while I’ve been forced to look at my local beer scene and it’s been an interesting and often frustrating dance making my focus go smaller.

And oh yeah, the book haha.

IMG_20151210_113643Since the announcement of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, Jordan St. John and I have sampled beers from all of the province’s breweries (with a cutoff of two weeks before the manuscript was due) and we’ve learned a few things from it. Firstly, despite how it may sound, drinking every beer in the province is not fun. Mainly because you’re not drinking for pleasure, you’re drinking for work, and have to maintain a strong focus and sharp senses from your first few beer samples all the way to your 50th. Because of this, you really start to develop a deep appreciation for small samples. That said, the both of us found a LOT of surprises in the unlikeliest of breweries and found that a lot of much-hyped breweries were, surprise surprise, not as great as many would believe.

Secondly, it was great to see the changing landscape of beer in Ontario. I’ve been happy to see that “simple done well” has been on the rise in terms of beers, with some wonderfully complex and understated offerings. Additionally, I’m really fond of how breweries, mostly outside of the cities, have really gone out of their way to be active members of their local communities and it turns out that said communities have always wanted a good quality local beer available to them and that the fierce loyalty to Molson or Coors is a bit more bullshit than I would have originally thought.

And finally, I learned about the whole book writing process, which was a tough and stress-filled lesson. For this edition I found myself awake at 3am, knocking back energy drinks like they were water, writing frantically, and listening to Death in Vegas. So basically it was like I was in college again and at my ancient age of 31, that wore me the hell out. By the time we submitted the manuscript I was practically feral, with plates, glasses, and cans scattered around my desk like monuments, and a foul smell that comes from forgetting to abide by the basic rules of personal hygiene. Ah, the glamour of writing!

Anyways, the year is over now. Well, almost.

Because I write about beer, I often get asked on what to drink for New Year’s, but I often disappoint when I answer because they’re really asking what to drink at a New Year’s party and hahahaha I don’t party. Most times I either go to a Buddhist temple to reflect on the lessons of the year or I spend it quietly with my family doing very much the same. All I can really say is…drink whatever makes you happy and make sure you’re where you want to be. It could be out with friends or alone at home. As long as you’re comfortable, that’s all the matters.

Me, I’m going to probably open up a bottle of Rochefort 8 from my cellar. Originally brewed in 1955 as a beer specially for New Year’s Eve before becoming year-round in 1960 and containing beautiful notes of caramel and dried fruit, I’m looking forward to cracking it open. After that…we’ll see where it goes.

2016 is going to be fun. Have some travel planned, the book will be launching, and I’m planning some really interesting posts for the site. Way more than there was in 2015 for sure! So stay tuned.

Happy New Year, friends. May 2016 bring joy and wonder to you and yours.

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Goose Island and the Return to Chicago

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I have a lot of fond memories of Chicago.

Longtime readers may remember that I was there back in 2012, where I went to C2E2 with my partner at the time, hung out with a few of my friends (some from Chicago, others from NYC), and tried a LOT of fantastic beers. 3 Floyd’s Arctic Panzer Wolf, the many amazing selections Revolution Brewing had and still has, and, of course, Goose Island beers. In fact, Matilda was the very first beer I had in Chicago, and was the first beer with Brettanomyces in it that I had. While it wasn’t the best Goose Island beer of the trip (That title goes to the FANTASTIC bottle of Bourbon County Bramble Rye I had), it still has a special place in my heart. Hell, I still think I have one of the bottles from that trip stashed away in the cellar.

IMG_20151113_144843-01What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that there was a very heated debate going on in the beer circles. In 2011 Goose Island announced that they would be selling their stake of the brewery to Anheuser-Busch InBev, with the remaining shares also being sold to AB InBev. Social media went, as it always does with news like this, absolutely nuts. A year after the announcement when things were starting to roll out, the web was filled with conspiracy theories and scenarios of the quality of beer taking a severe nosedive. Three years later, Goose Island has made more of a push in to the Canadian market, with the latest offering, Goose IPA, being a favourite among many.

So when Goose Island invited me on trip to Chicago in September to tour their facilities and check out the much anticipated 312 Block Party, I jumped at the chance for a few reasons. Firstly, I’ve heard a lot about the block party. My local friend from Chicago, Corben, said a lot of good things about it, as well as many beer nerd friends. Secondly, I wanted to try some of the more different offerings from the brewery. So far we only have Matilda, Sophie, Pepe Nero, Honkers, and Goose IPA. All staples and mainstays. I wanted some one-offs. And finally, I wanted to see the differences found four years after a small brewery has been bought by one of the big guys.

And folks, some of you might not like hearing this, others, like me, might have known this for years, but…

They’re doing really good work in the name of better beer and the buyout has done little more than given them the tools to play around more and bring forth offerings typically found in a few bars in a single city to places all over the country. Aside from the very normal problem all breweries regardless of size have in terms of some batches not doing as well as others, there has been very little drop in terms of quality (frankly there’s been a rise) and the rate of consistency of said quality is outstanding. 

IMG_20151113_143627With no other beer is this more true than with Bourbon County Stout. Originally served as a special milestone “batch 1000” beer at their Clybourne brewpub in 1992, the beer now has a cult following among beer nerds. The Bourbon County off-shoots have an arguably even more rabid following, with crowds at the 312 Block Party running as fast as they could in the rain to get in line for a small sample of the selected limited release batches. And to be honest, after tasting the Proprietor’s Bourbon County at the event, with the gorgeous notes of Cassia and coconut water and a slightly warming creamy texture…hell, I’d run through a fire for that beer. Several fires, even.

As far as what’s changed at Goose Island since I was last there, it seems to be one of those “good kinds of problems” that I’ve been seeing a lot with breweries who are either bought or are just naturally growing. Similar to the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, Goose Island’s Fulton brewery, where the beers were mostly made, seems to be slowly transforming in to an art space for beer, allowing brewers to experiment with ideas on new brews that range from alteration on classic styles, to . The other part of the brewery is devoted to one of their best sellers, Matilda. The tanks holding Matilda are freakin’ huge, with several vertical tanks on the roof being maintained temperature-wise because head brewer Jared Jankowski and his team found that Matilda tastes better when it’s brewed in the winter.

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The real big change though, and by far one of the most impressive, is Goose Island’s Barrel House. A 133,000 square foot facility filled with full barrels in numbers so large I don’t honestly think I can accurately guess and they’re already talking about expanding the damned thing. The facility is filled with beer aging in pretty much all types of barrels you can think of (different bourbons, different wines, different tequilas…), all in varying degrees of time length and temperature. It’s a monstrous facility that really brings home the primary drive of Goose Island’s success: their ability to make rare beers combined with the actual talent it takes to make them well.

So as I’m standing in the barrel house sipping on a 2013 Gillian, a mindblowing farmhouse ale with strawberry notes and a hint of wildflowers and honey with a delicate dry finish, a world class beer to be sure…I can’t help but think “why would I ever be against a brewery, or a company that purchases a brewery, that wants to make this facility and beers like this a reality?”

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And that’s where, in the name of good beer, I have to side with Goose Island. I understand that a lot of people hate big breweries and feel that they take jobs and revenue away from smaller breweries, but this trip gave me the impression that Goose Island isn’t trying to do that as much as people suspect. While they have many quality beers as part of their regular rotation (Again, my love for Goose IPA is deep) and those are found around more and more, it’s the rare beers like Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout or the 2013 Gillian, that are very clearly the focus and frankly, there are very few breweries that are making rare beers like they are on that large of a scale. Regular beers get lost in the shuffle and there’s a lot of concern about oversaturation. Hell, go in to any liquor store (Like Chicago’s Binny’s) to see the reality of that. White Whale Beers however, the kind of beers the people line up for 5+ hours for or run at breakneck speeds through the rain for a SAMPLE…those are growing, but are less abundant. And it’s there that I think Goose Island is most comfortable.

IMG_20151113_142904The 312 Block Party was a testament to that final point, I feel. While the first night was rainy, the second night had clearer weather and was just jam-packed with folks enjoying themselves and clamouring for the beers on offer. Many didn’t care about the politics of the brewery, they were there for several reasons. The rare beers, the seasonal beers and collaborations (including the incredible Coffee Ale, brewed with Intelligentsia Coffee beans), the music, and because the block party has quite simply embedded itself in to the city. Of course there are many breweries within the city, and when you think of Chicago several come up, but one of them certainly is Goose Island and I know very few locals who aren’t excited when the Block Party comes around each year.

I’m really glad I went on this trip. Aside from getting to see my friend Corben, getting introduced to some fabulous places like the Eleven City Diner and the delightful dive the Ten Cat Tavern, and getting some serious shopping in at The Spice House (my favourite spice shop ever), it was good to see the status of a brewery that I initially had fond memories of and to see that their quality hasn’t dropped over time, but that they have been putting more focus in to higher quality beers and embracing the concept of rarity.

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So I’ve been busy (Ontario Craft Beer Guide Announcement)

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Hey folks, a lot of you might have noticed that I haven’t posted much on here this summer. My deepest apologies. Work has been absolutely crazy, with things just getting incredibly busy leading up to a string of business trips last month. Rest assured that posts are on the way. I have at least three posts in my drafts folder waiting to be tweaked on.

But before we get to that, I wanted to let you all in on some news. This will excite many people, but in particular long time readers and loved ones, who have seen this site grow since 2011.

As of today, fellow beer writer Jordan St. John and myself have signed a book contract with Dundurn Press to write The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, a comprehensive guide of Ontario’s breweries, brewpubs, and contract breweries.

Details will come soon. We’ve only just signed the thing and put it in the publisher’s hands. But I can say that we’re looking at a 2016 release, it will feature pictures, and that it’s the first book of it’s kind since 1993’s “Ontario Beer Guide” by Jamie Mackinnon. Safe to say that a lot has freakin’ changed since that time.

Right, I should get back to work. I just wanted to let you folks know. While this has been a Thing In The Works for a little while, now that it’s out there in the big world, it’s…it’s emotional, to be honest. Just going through this whole journey from blogger to contributor to columnist, to author. Freakin’ author.

Man.

Anyways, for some more official news, check out Canadian Beer News and Ontario Beer Network’s articles. Stay tuned for more details.

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Reading with The Wench: The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer Review

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Imagine my face when I saw, several months after I had set up this site, that there was a Beer Wench in America?

To say that Ashley Routson (aka The Beer Wench) is a social media savvy beer educator is almost a disservice. She’s one of the original beer bloggers and probably the most savvy personal brand in beer around, with over 33,000 twitter followers clocked and constantly posting on most platforms. She has contributed to the Brewer’s Association’s site CraftBeer.com, is the founder of the social media holiday #IPADay, and has been featured in DRAFT Magazine, BeerAdvocate and Time.com.

So when news spread that she was authoring a beer guide, titled “The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer: An Unpretentious Guide in Craft Beer”, the main response from those following her career with interest was “about damn time”.

One of the things I kind of like about Ashley is just how much of a polarizing effect she has on people. I’ve known very few people in the middle of the love/hate sections when it comes to her. Her article on Thrillst titled “6 DIRTY LIES MEN SPREAD ABOUT WOMEN AND BEER” brought forth a MASSIVE wave of reactions. Long, thought-out articles have been devoted to tearing apart or lifting up her opinions. Hell, there are long articles and discussions devoted to her relevance, which in turn makes her relevant. It is with all this and more in mind that, with some trepidation, I go ahead with a review of her book.

A lot of beer guides for the uninitiated (and there ARE a lot of them) tend to follow a pretty standard formula. Basics of beer (ingredients, how to brew), beer style descriptions, beer tips (how to pour, how to cellar, glassware guide, how to taste), pairing beer with food, recipes to make with beer, and sometimes beer cocktail recipes. It’s standard, and something that is found in nearly all beer guide books, but they really are the foundations to understanding things. At least to start with. What makes the books unique from one another is the way this knowledge is written. Some fantastic notable examples for me are Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, Christina Perozzi & Hallie Beaune’s Naked Pint, and most recently Mirella Amato’s Beerology. Each author brings in their own unique style and experiences to their book and, to me anyways, I like having more than one guide around because I can consult the book that I feel has a particular strength in the specific subject that I’m looking up.

514347qrvyL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_For me the most notable strengths in The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer is clearly the food recipe and beer cocktail recipe sections. Food recipes have oftentimes been a bit of an afterthought, but Routson has used selected recipes of her own, from breweries, and from friends which look tantalizing. Notably there are recipes for tacos, cerveza carnitas, and beer mole, which suggest a bit more of an upped game from the standard recipes on offer in other guides.

Where Routson’s creativity really shines through though, is the cocktail sections. With most of the recipes formulated by herself, we see such cocktails made with bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, mezcal, vodka…and all with beer as an ingredient. While cocktails personally aren’t my bag, some of these look and sound quite delicious and have me looking at my cocktail shaker with a bit of longing.

When we get more into the guts of the BEER section of this beer book, things start to feel a bit disjointed. The glass section has no pictures of the four types of  glasses it’s describing, which can be confusing to a newcomer. Additionally her beer style guide, while good for someone unfamiliar with the styles, doesn’t quite stand up well when stacked up against Mosher, Amato, and Perozzi/Beaune’s books.

In the end I think the biggest problem with this book is one of tone and pace. Routson does her damndest to use all these incredible raw facts about beer and work them in to her own unique tone, but the end result is something that ventures into way too internet-focused casual territory, seems slightly jammed in to make it fit, and is more rushed than leisurely in pace. For much of this book I think the knowledge would have clicked with me more if Routson and I were in a bar together and she was talking about this stuff in person, but that voice being separated from it’s source and into a book makes it somewhat jarring. Unfortunately, that’s one of the hardships of writing a book of this type. Making it all fit, working it out in a way that makes it easy to read and understand, while also setting itself apart as an individual among many books touching on the same topic. While there are several moments in this book where Routson succeeds admirably in this, there are other points where those challenges become more evident.

One of the things I admire about Routson is her ability to put herself out there, and say to hell with the haters (they are just gonna hate, after all). The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer is very much an extension of her being and so intrinsically HER that you almost have to respect it for unapologetically being there.

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The Long War: Big vs. Small Beer

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I think for about as long as I’ve been writing on this site, and definitely many years longer than that, there’s always been this epic war going on between smaller breweries and the big breweries. I know I definitely took part in fighting for the side of Small Craft Beer, especially when the lines were divided so distinctly between “unique, flavourful beers” and for the most part “tinted water painted up to look sexy”. It was, and still is, a thrill to see small businesses pull one over on the big corporations. It’s a sign that quality DOES matter to consumers and that each battle won, be it in the form of a growing selection at bars or stores, or in the rise of beer events, the small will always win. It’s always an aspiration and a joy to feel like Anya Major in the 1984 Apple commercial, throwing a sledgehammer at the screen broadcasting Big Brother’s word and showing the drones of people that there are other options out there and they can think for themselves.

The problem is, though, that at some point it became a war over ideals than actual quality of the product. This wasn’t helped by the fact that no one really managed to get a firm definition of exactly what “Craft Beer” is. The Brewer’s Association have one, but considering they’ve changed it so they can keep certain famed breweries under the “craft” label, it’s safe to say that their definition isn’t too great. With that, everyone has a personal ideal of what “Craft” represents. I often joke by saying that Craft Beer is the sun rising in Spring and is the warmth you feel when a loved one holds your hand. Frankly, I feel that “Craft Beer” should either be trademarked (similar to “Trappist Beer”), or left be. The definition is so broad.

workersAdditionally, the distinct line between flavours blurred as more and more the big brewing companies were purchasing smaller ones and had them continue to make the beers that made them famous, only with MUCH bigger distribution and budget behind it. Similar to when a favourite indie band signs with a big label, many fans forget that there is a business side to every art and that “selling out” is very different from “changing who signs the cheques”. Boycotts and expressions of outrage over a betrayal usually follow the news of a smaller brewery getting bought. It’s weird to see that, even though smaller breweries have won so much, many of its fans still fight as if they have everything to lose, as if everything they’ve fought for could all slip away without a moment’s notice and we’d immediately go back to The Way Things Were. For many, when we think of small breweries we think of the lone brewer skillfully working on their craft, but when we think of big breweries or breweries owned by a bigger one, our mind leaves the brewing floor and focuses on people in suits having a meeting about marketing strategies. And that IS terrifying. Our minds go back to the quality distinction and there’s this small, gripping fear that anyone picked up by a company that historically was on the wrong side of that distinction will be lost to us, drowned in watered-down piss, and emerge as one of the nameless machines that churns out mediocre brews.

Not to suggest that big brewing is blameless and doesn’t warrant that distrust. Like how Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is run by the same folks that sign off on AXE Body Spray ads with bikini-clad women, it’s hard to trust a company that is so big that they have sections that cater to things you’re both for and against. I love sitting down at a patio with a nicely made beer, but I hate being at an event where nightclub partiers scream and fall down with a beer-case cardboard hat on their heads. And yet big breweries are in this position where they are able to comfortably sell to both sides of that market. Along with that and actively engaging in offence and deceit tactics, as a consumer I totally get how someone could look at that and not want to support it.

For myself and many others, there’s been a few things we’ve had to do. Firstly is to acknowledge that everyone has different tastes (duh). Secondly is to put the politics aside and see how the beers stand up along with the others we’ve enjoyed. While Miller Light, Coors, Bud, and Molson Canadian will always be passed on for me, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and IPA, Rickard’s Lederhosen Oktoberfest, and Pilsner Urquell will always be considered damn good beer. Just like a beer being “craft” doesn’t mean it’s a good beer, the same goes the other way for big beer. It’s not all yellow water with a flavour note of “cold”.

But hey, you’re all adults capable of making informed choices. I certainly don’t want you to choose sides, though as a personal rule that doubles as a compromise, I’m more prone to give local smaller breweries my money and attention while knowing that if I find myself in a spot, a good quality big beer is handy if I need it and they can work great as “old reliables”. From a variety within the brewery perspective, I’ll get some amazing limited one-offs from local breweries. Big breweries? Not as much.

There are many wars being fought in regards to beer. But I do feel that with the way things have been going, with big brewing companies courting smaller breweries and trying their best to embrace some of the adventurous spirit in those brewers, small beer has won the war on flavour. How that victory will continue to take shape is something we’ll discover as time goes on.

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