Category Archives: Gateway Beers

Simple Done Well

becausebeer

I was at the first Because Beer Festival at the beautiful Pier 4 Park in Hamilton, Ontario a couple of weeks ago. Summer is a wonderful time because, well, there are less beer events that take place in cramped spaces and the noble Beer Geek can roam free in the glory of the outdoors. This was especially true for the Because Beer Festival because we had a gorgeous parkland and a hell of a view of the lake to go with out tasty beverages. It was definitely a beer event put on by people who have handled these before and it seemed to go off without so much as a whiff of a hitch. But it was there that I noticed a switch in myself. The biggest hit for me at the festival was, like a Hobbit’s involvment in a quest involving a ring, rather surprising. It was a simple, well-crafted English Blonde Ale by Maclean’s Ale, out of Hanover, Ontario. A simple English Blonde Ale made very, very well by a man, Charles MacLean, who has been making beers like this since the 80s.

In Toronto Star columnist Corey Mintz‘s book  “How to Host a Dinner Party” he talks about early on when he interviewed accomplished food writer and then editor of Gourmet Magazine Ruth Reichl. After trying to figure out where to take her for the interview, he decided to invite her to his place where he would make her lunch. He was terrified about what to make her, but then, very simply, put himself in his guest’s shoes. As a restaurant critic, you go out all the time and eat expensive, rich food. While delicious, it can get tiring. “So I made us GLT (guanciale, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches.” he says. “This was a valuable lesson for later. When you really need to impress someone, choose the simplest thing and make it well.”

To be clear, I’m not saying anything bad about all of the incredible, wonderful, and innovative beers that have been coming out lately. We’re at a wonderful time right now where there is so much variety coming out at such a fast pace. It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of them all and I for one think that’s a very good problem to have. I love beers that enflame the senses, make me think, and prove to be a combination of flavours that I would never have thought to combine. I’m just saying that along with that, I have a high appreciation for a well-made beer with a simple concept that I can look to as an “old reliable” for years to come.

So here are just a couple of local and non-local beers that I’m enjoying that fit that bill.

sidelaunch-wheatSide Launch Wheat – Brewery originally known as Denison’s, but has undergone a merger and rebranding, Side Launch Brewing Head Brewer Michael Hancock has been making this exact beer since it first appeared in the Denison’s brewpub in 1989. It’s a damn fine Bavarian style unfiltered wheat beer that pours a hazy yellow and has such beautiful taste notes as banana and a hint of lemon. Absolutely perfect for the summer season.

Schneider Weisse Original Tap 7 – For about 300 years the Bavarian Royal Family held exclusive rights to brew wheat beers. In 1872, due to declining sales, King Ludwig II discontinued the production of the style and later sold the right to brew wheat beer to brewer Georg Schneider. My usual advice to international folks on picking their first Weiss is to maybe make it the ACTUAL first one. Schneider Weisse Original Tap 7 is one of my go-tos for the style. With the brewery owned and operated by the Schneider family for 142 years, it’s safe to say that you can’t go wrong with this beer.

beer_7702Black Oak Nut Brown – One of the original flagships of Black Oak Brewing when their doors first opened in late 1999, any change that has been made to this beer has been an improvement. Very traditional and solid Brown Ale with notes of caramel and malt that don’t assault the senses, but provide a really nice balance on the tongue.

Muskoka Detour – The youngest beer of the group featured here. I wrote about Detour in the Session Beers post a while back and my opinion of it hasn’t changed. 4.3% ABV with gorgeous, subtle, citrus aromas, a hint of mandarin oranges in the taste and a quick dry finish. Absolutely perfect Summertime porch-sipping beer that has proven to be a good gateway beer for a lot of newcomers.

whitesWorthington White Shield – A lot of my English Beer Geek friends roll their eyes at this one, but to me it’s a solid English IPA that we just don’t get enough of this side of the pond. Originally marketed by Worthington’s Ale as East India Pale Ale in 1829 and then started going by White Shield when the logo of a (prepare for a shock now) white shield appeared on the bottles in around 1870, The Burton-Upon-Trent based beer is now owned by MolsonCoors and sees a pretty regular international distribution. That said, it’s the first time I’ve seen a CAMRA label on a bottle in Ontario and the beer is incredibly balanced. Nice amount of sweetness, nice amount of dryness, and best when consumed at cellar temperature (10-12C/50-55F). Of course it’s probably not going to be the same beer that was let out in the 1800s, but it’s still damn fine.

Do you have any reliables? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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The Kinda-Sorta Rise of Session Beers

So these days the words “Session Beers” are entering the mindset of beer geeks and casual beer drinkers more frequently. This isn’t a new thing at all, Session Beers are a very common type of beer, but small breweries are deciding to take a break from their usual projects to create the perfect one and the public eye is wondering just what the hell a Session Beer is.

A Session Beer is, essentially, a beer that is low in alcohol (Usually about 4.5-5% ABV or under) and thus a beer that you can drink frequently during a drinking “session”, which is a period of time where you are having several drinks.  So my version of the perfect session would be sitting on the top of my friend’s apartment building in Bushwick and splitting a six-pack of a beer that barely leaves me buzzed by the end. But really, a session can be spent alone or with friends, at a bar or in the comfort of your own home. Wherever good times are had. There are other aspects to what makes an arguably good session beer, such as balance of flavour and reasonable price and so on, but they are by no means strict rules that one must follow (although I will agree that they are somewhat in line with the spirit of the social aspect).

If you’ve had beers like Guinness, Pilsner Urquell, Newcastle Brown, or even Blue Moon, you’ve had a session beer before. They’re nothing new (Like I said, it’s just an alcohol level). So why am I telling you this?

Because in a craft beer climate where breweries seem to be looking for the next Big Beer (Here, have this Imperial Belgian Stout aged in Bourbon & Absinthe barrels that is roughly 12% ABV!), it pays to know that it is possible to have something simple and finely crafted. Don’t get me wrong, I adore geeking out over over a sample of rum-barrel aged barleywines or basking in the beautiful aromas of an Imperial IPA, but at the end of a particularly tiring day of work, I tend to go for a beer that doesn’t get me buzzed after half a glass and is something I have the option of not thinking about if I don’t want to. The latter is particularly important to me if I really just want to relax. Also, it may be just me, but I think that Sessionable beers have a better chance of “converting” folks on to the smaller breweries than the sensory explosions do. Not that the big ABV lads don’t pull their weight, it’s just I’ve often found the smaller alcohol beers that are made very well end up being great Gateway Beers. It’s for that reason that I think small breweries are starting to put some nice session beers in to their brewing schedules lately.

One such beer that is making the rounds up here in Ontario is Detour Session IPA by Muskoka Brewery and it pretty much matches my criteria for a great session beer. At 4.3% ABV and hopped with Eldorado, Sorachi, and Citra hops, this is a beer with gorgeous, subtle, citrus aromas, a subtle note of mandarin oranges in the taste and a quick dry finish. It’s a very well balanced beer, hoppy enough for you to take notice, but not too hoppy so you’ll end up thinking about it too much. Were we not having lousy Smarch weather right now, I’d be out on the porch slowly sipping this beer. Instead I’ll settle for sipping this at the end of the day in my office and know that I have something to look forward to in the brutal heat of summer.

GoToIPA_6packIn Amerika, the big one that has exploded right now is Stone Brewery’s Go To IPA, which at first was a bit weird to think that Stone would do a 4.5% beer, but then I remembered that they have their Levitation Ale which is 0.1% lower (HUGE difference, I know…).

For more information on some amazing international Session Beers out there, I can’t recommend The Session Beer Project enough. This site has been going on with sporadic updates since 2009 and has been an absolute joy to go through. Be sure to subscribe to it or just flip through the archives.

So when you hear someone say that their beer is really “sessionable”, what they mean is that you can drink a few of them without having to worry about waking up in a city you’ve never been in married to someone you’ve never met. Sometimes that’s a really good thing and after a long day where all you want to do is chill out a bit, it’s the perfect thing.

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Gateway Beers Part 3: Trappist Beers

Yes, GATEWAY BEERS.  Maybe you noticed some strange things happening with your son and/or daughter.  Leaving craft beer magazines lying around the house, starting a collection of coasters or glasses from brewpubs and microbreweries or even having a schedule of beer events happening WITH SEVERAL OF THEM CHECKED OFF OR CIRCLED. Yes, there’s no way around it.  Your kid is a Beer Fiend, a Hophead, a Malt Maniac, a Liberal, or whatever the hell kids are calling them these days. And it was all thanks to that damn Lambic!

Basically, this was inspired by the friends and family I have who have said “I don’t really drink beer, but when I do I usually drink _______.  What should I have?”.   

But you know what?  Today I feel reckless.  Today I don’t think I’m going to go with the template of “I usually drink ________”.  Today I’m going to just suggest a type of beer that you HAVE TO TRY before you die.

I am talking of the holiest of them all, the Trappist Beers. Cue the music to play along while reading this!

Trappists, also known as The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are an order of Roman Catholic contemplative monks who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict to the letter and have taken a vow of stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.  While they don’t go so far as to take a vow of silence, talking too much IS discouraged.  Apparently speech disturbs a disciple’s duty for quietude and receptivity, and may tempt them to exercise their own will instead of the will of God.  A special sign language was created to further discourage speech and all meals are spent quietly listening to a reading.

There are about 175 monasteries and convents in the world and most of them make stuff! Turns out the Rule of St. Benedict encourages the monks to produce stuff with all income going to the monastery! This stuff ranges from clothing to food to toys…and BEER (which works because the monks don’t abstain from alcohol or think it’s particularly wrong).

In response to breweries, clothing companies and other non-Trappist purveyors abusing the Trappist name by calling their product Trappist, the International Trappist Association was formed which put a smackdown on the fakers and set up some strict rules to determine what is worthy of getting the “Authentic Trappist Product” sticker on their product.

Because this is a beer blog, I’ll give the rules as they relate to the making of beer:

  • The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, by or under control of Trappist monks (although this has been stretched to allow outsourcing to breweries outside of the abbey as long as the ENTIRE process is overseen by the monks).
  • The brewery, the choices of brewing, and the commercial orientations must be of secondary importance within the monastery and should reflect the monastic way of life.
  • Profit is not a goal.  Money received from sales goes towards the living expenses of the monks and building and maintenance of the grounds.  The rest goes to charity.
  • Trappist breweries must be constantly monitored to ensure the best of quality.

And if any one of those rules are broken BAM, The sticker comes off and they are no longer considered Trappist.  But why is that considered a big deal? After all, There are thousands of Abbey breweries out there.  This is true…but there are only seven Trappist breweries in the entire world (six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands), so staying on that list packs a lot of prestige.

Now I’m going to go through the seven breweries and say what I can about them.  Keep in mind that, due to limited availability, there are several that I have not tried and therefore won’t be able to comment on them.  Though with that it should be said that trying all the Trappist beers is something that should be put on your bucket list.

Bières de Chimay: Comes in three different, wonderful colours.White, Red and Blue. Chimay Red Cap was actually the very first craft beer I ever tried and the complexities just blew my mind.  First brewed in 1862, Chimay Red Cap has  a lovely copper colour, sweet apricot aroma and a taste that reveals the fruit nuances and delicious malts.  These folks also put more in to advertising than any of the other breweries and with their easy availablity are often a gateway in to the world of Trappist beers.

Brasserie d’Orval: This brewery makes two beers; one for the public and one just for the monks (but can also be purchased at the monastery itself or the cafe near it). The public one, Orval, has a light cloudy colour, is somewhat high in carbonation and with a spicy, leathery aroma.  Taste is sweet with some citrusy tones and a distinct note of pear and apple.  Slight hoppiness due to dry-hopping during the three-week maturation period.  Also should be noted that the brewery uses a unique local wild yeast for fermenting.

Brasserie de Rochefort: Never tried the three beers from this brewery. Rochefort 6 is only brewed once a year and is very difficult to hunt down, Rochefort 8 is their most popular brew and Rochefort 10 packs a punch with an 11.3% ABV, which I imagine adds some lovely distinctions to the flavour.  A fun note about this brewery is that they obtain the water from a well within the walls of the monastery.

Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle: Westmalle makes three brews speculated to be based on the Holy Trinity. A Dubbel, a Tripel (the first golden strong pale ale to be called one) and Westmalle Extra, which is pretty rare.  Not going to lie here folks, when I first tried Westmalle Tripel I actually wept tears of joy.  The aroma is quite sweet, with hints of lemon zest, orange and sweet spices but the the taste is another matter. VERY creamy mouthfeel to it with such a complex flavour.  Really, nothing I can say about the flavour will do it justice.  Every time I try to do a tasting I’m just left dumbstruck.  Combinations of sweetness, bitterness and earthiness combine to form a holy trinity on its own.  For the love of all that is Holy (and these folks are pretty holy) try the Westmalle Tripel.

Brouwerij Westvleteren: These folks do absolutely no advertising, make just enough beer to support the monastery and the only official sell points are the brewery itself and a cafe across from the abbey.  Any other places you get it should be punished because once purchased the buyers are given their receipt with “DO NOT RESELL” on it.  No pubs have it either.  They have not changed the amount of beer they produce since 1946.  This kind of thing brings out the romantic in me and makes me want to go on a pilgrimage.

Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis: The smallest of the breweries, the building of which was assisted by the monks at Westmalle and Rochefort. They brew six beers, two of which are available only on tap at the Abbey, one available in bottles only at the abbey and the remaining are distributed worldwide but to quite limited availability. I regret to say that I haven’t tried any of these beers, though I have been told that Achel Extra Brune, which seems to be their most popular beer, is “what a strong ale should be”, with a creamy mouthfeel and hints of rye, caraway, molasses and cloves.

Brouwerij de Koningshoeven: More known as La Trappe.  The only one of the Trappist breweries not based in Belgium, but in the Netherlands.  While they make about seven beers plus one seasonal, in my experience the three most popular are the Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel.  As luck would have it, a pub right down the street from my office serves all three on tap.  The tripel  has a rich, bittersweet taste with hints of pears and coriander while the quadrupel would have to be the sweetest of them all, with strong tastes of molasses, cloves, bay leaf, vanilla and raisins, a sticky mouthfeel and a very slight bitterness that only comes from it’s alcohol content (10%).  A personal goal of mine is to try the oak aged batches of the quadrupel, which adds a whole new element to an already fantastic beer.

PHEW!  So that’s all of them.  So here you have a group of breweries with a very rich history and a way of life that is so unique.  Not to mention that by buying the beer, you know the money is going towards maintaining the monastery with the rest going to charity.  In all respects Trappist beers are feel-good beers.

So now that this post is written, I’m going to get something to eat, head down to my local pub, purchase a bottle of Orval and let out a very solemn “hallelujah!”

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Gateway Beers Part 2

Yes, GATEWAY BEERS.  Just like The Rock And Roll is a gateway to gang violence, Satanism and baby murdering, so too are there beers that lead you down a path where there is no turning back.  Take the story of Johnny. He was captain of the basketball team.  He didn’t think there was any harm in trying a beer from Belgium.  But after that it all changed for Johnny.  He quit the basketball team and started attending underground craft beer events.  Split the money with his hoodlum friends in ordering some Bolivian Pale Ales to be shipped to his town.  Three months later Johnny was found dead in an alley, a broken bottle of Westmalle Triple in his hand.

Sorry, I have a passion for mental hygiene films. These just come out.

Basically, this was inspired by the friends and family I have who have said “I don’t really drink beer, but when I do I usually drink _______.  What should I have?”.   

I USUALLY DRINK GUINNESS

I’ll say this now.  Guinness is a great drink.  It really is.  For years it’s been known as the beer someone orders if they don’t like the weak mainstream drinks like Molson or Bud.  It’s rich, smooth, creamy and can easily substitute a meal.  It has a wonderful history and a great tradition and while there is a slight risk of looking like a douchebag while drinking one (especially if you explain why it’s so better than the beers your friends are drinking) that doesn’t take away from the fact that it clearly is a work of art in itself.

But, as is the point of this series of posts, there is more out there.

I won’t lie to you.  To find a suitable “next step” for you might take a bit of trial and error.  But the first thing to do is examine what it is you enjoy about Guinness.  Primarily the “heaviness” of it.  On that, there’s three levels to it.

1.  The heaviness frankly scares me and I want something a bit lighter 
– Well it sounds like a nice dark ale would suit you down to the ground.  Hobgoblin Ale by the wonderful Wychwood Brewery was a WONDERFUL starting dark ale for me and to this day remains as an ol’ stand-by when I don’t have a specific beer I want to pick up.  A wonderful dark ruby colour with a taste of chocolate and toffee.  It’s refreshing, comfortable and not as much a meal as Guinness can be.

Another suggestion would be Leffe Brune, a nice little Belgian number that I grew fond of last summer.  A soothing beer with a slight hint of roasted spices and  fruits and a bitterness that’s not overbearing at all.  Truth be told, I actually cook with this as well (see the recipe I posted last week).  Definitely a drink worth trying.

2.  The heaviness is just right, actually.
Well, have I got two beers for you then.  Dragon Stout out of beautiful Kingston, Jamaica really fits the bill for this.  It’s got about the same heaviness of Guinness with a nice, chocolaty finish to the taste.  This is DEFINITELY ideal for a hot sunny day.

Second up is Black Creek Porter out of Toronto’s own Black Creek Historic Brewery (actually in Black Creek Pioneer Village if, like me, you have fond memories of that place. Now’s a reason to go back!).  While a porter is usually supposed to be “heavier” than a stout, I find this one hits the mark rather well.  Nice chocolaty taste with a hint of spices.  This is also a recipe used my Ontarians in the 1860s, so it also provides a nice history to it.  I just recently started drinking this beer and I can’t get enough of it.

3.  Guinness is FAR too light for me.  Give me something heavier!
Alright there, Rambo.  First up is Fuller’s London Porter from our good friends at Fuller’s Ales.  One day my mother, who wanted to teach me about some of the brews she grew up with, bought four cans.  Two was Fuller’s London Pride (which we’ll talk about later) and the other two was this one.  And MAN, was it refreshing.  A deep black colour that not even light can escape out of and a smooth, creamy taste with a strong taste of cocoa.  If Guinness is a meal, Fuller’s London Porter is a meal with seconds.

The second one I’d suggest is John By Imperial Stout by the Scotch-Irish Brewing Company in Ottawa.  All I can say about this beer is: DAMN.  I tried it for the first time last weekend and was really impressed.  Much like the London Porter, nothing can escape the darkness held within and there’s a strong cocoa taste to it.  I’ll be honest, this was a drink that I could probably have one or two of.  You actually feel FULL after this drink, which can be said about many Imperial Stouts, but it still is refreshing.  A wonderful brew.  I actually wonder what it would be like at room temp…

And that’s all for now.  And damn, now I think I’m going to head off to the pub and have a London Porter.  I got me the craving…

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Gateway Beers Part 1

GATEWAY BEERS.  Yes, like Marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine and LSD AS WE HAVE ALL LEARNED AT SCHOOL, so too are there beers that can get you hooked and lead to something more complex.  Sure, you might be at a party and someone offers you a Chimay or St. Andrew’s Ale.  What’s the harm?  It’s a party after all and you want to be cool.  Plus that girl Sandy you’re sweet on is drinking a La Fin Du Monde and SHE seems pretty on the ball. But in two month’s time WHAMMO. You’re at a local shindig and creating a scene because the bar doesn’t serve any reputable Abbey ales.  You’re kicked out.  You’ve alienated all your friends, your family doesn’t understand you and your local priest thinks you’re beyond hope.  It’s a sad, horrible life.

I’ll stop now.

Basically, this was inspired by the friends and family I have who have said “I don’t really drink beer, but when I do I usually drink _______.  What should I have?”.   So to start off, We’ll hit the most common one I’ve heard.

I USUALLY DRINK HEINEKEN (or Bud, Molson, Steamwhistle, Labaat, Busch…)

We all have at some point.  As a Canadian, it almost seemed like my duty to drink Molson.  My old drinking buddy and I used to buy Steamwhistle by the pitcher and during my senior year at high school I drank nothing but Heineken. But as I discovered myself, there is so much better out there.

If you are used to these light coloured (and flavoured) beers, stepping towards something darker and richer might be too much too soon and have you running away.  You might want to take baby steps.  And with that, I’m going to suggest a good Pilsner.

Pilsner is a style of beer in the lager family and is named after the city it was created, Plzen, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and was made by people who were sick of these dark cloudy brews that, at the time, seemed to go sour a lot. They dreamed of a beer that didn’t seem like a meal and this was their answer.  The combination of the lager yeasts, the pale grains and the natural soft water of the region made for one delicious brew.  If you want a damn good pilsner beer, throw away that Heinie and grab a brew made in Plzen.

Going by what’s available in the LCBO stores here in Ontario, my main suggestion in this style is going to be the Plzen-based Pilsner Urquell, which can be found anywhere in bottles, cans and sometimes on tap in pubs.  The first thing that will hit you about this beer is the colour.  A beautiful golden wheat colour that will make you instantly thirsty.  When you try it I guarantee it will be a whole new world for you.  The crisp, biscuity quality to it, the subtle spices thrown in…yeah, there will be no going back.  As Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune said in their fabulous book The Naked Pint, it’s like going your whole life eating waxy halloween chocolate and suddenly taking a bite of an 80% cacao chocolate bar.  You really never knew something so light could taste so GOOD.  And why should you?  You’ve been drinking Molson or Bud.  It’s all you’ve ever known.

And that’s the first Gateway Beer I have for you.  There will be more in the future and then we’ll move on up.

But for now, I’m off to have a drink.

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