Category Archives: Learning

Pretty Good Year

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I’m currently at my family’s cottage in beautiful Muskoka, sipping on some coffee, watching the beautiful day out there, and starting to come to terms with the fact that I’m no longer in that beautiful state between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where time doesn’t matter and all that exists is sleep, media, and chocolate.

So. 2017, then.

Firstly I’m going to get it out of the way. In a lot of ways 2017 was a garbage fire of a year. It was like the shitty, more gory sequel to 2016 and I’m glad that this milestone is done. Politically, if there’s something that can be taken from the year, it’s that we no longer should be HOPING for a better year, but picking up our axes and actively working to make it better.

Personally it was a hell of a mixed bag for me. I moved out of Scarborough and into a wonderful house in Cabbagetown with my new roommate Candace Shaw (who has done some amazing work in creating a report card for female representation in Canadian music festivals) and have been thriving pretty well, making new friends with the folks in my excellent building and community. Unfortunately, my neighbour and super, Andrew Kinsman, went missing in June 26th and still hasn’t been found. I’ll spare you all the details on it, suffice to say it’s been a messed up experience. But also, I started getting out of a pretty bad depression and have been feeling more able to breathe creatively and able to make friends. Huzaah for that!

RIGHT, 2017 IN BEER

IMG_20171007_171659_1-01.jpegBeer-wise things have been a hell of a ride. At this time last year I had about four entries left to do on the Second Edition of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, released in May. Jordan and I remain incredibly proud of this book, and still feel that it’s the best representation of what we wanted for the first book. We figured out a formula for working, raised the number of suggested pubs to over 100, and included colour photos mostly taken by me throughout the book. The book launch, and its resulting tour of speaking gigs and media interviews, made for a busy and wonderful time. I’m so glad that so many people have been realizing how wonderful Ontario is by exploring the province through its beer.

1201.jpegI also finally got to make some collaboration beers with brewers! I’ll talk more about them in a more detailed post later on, but the first was made with Sawdust City Brewing for the book launch and called 12:01 Northland, a Vermont-style IPA named after the first Ontario Northland bus out of Toronto that I took often while writing the book (and that makes stops in the brewery’s home of Gravenhurst). I’m really pleased with how it turned out! Was bright and cloudy as hell, but proved to be a very accessible beer, with lovely citrus notes in smooth body. I actually miss the hell out of this beer. The second collaboration was a hell of a fun one and made at Sawdust City with brewer Duncan Crone and former brewer-turned-ingredient wizard Dan Beaudoin from David Carriere & Associates. Basically, the three of us got together for our mutual love of the McElroy Brothers, who put together a well-known podcast called My Brother, My Brother & Me among MANY other things. So we decided to go a bit goofy with it and make a Black Milkshake IPA with Haskap Berries, all while listening to the podcast and making ihateyouron.jpegconstant jokes about it. The results of our efforts, poured at the Sawdust City Saloon, were a huge hit and the beer, called I Hate You, Ron (Made in reference to a MBMBaM bit) turned out super nice, with very little roasted notes and the blueberry-like haskap berry balancing things out beautifully. Like I said, I’ll write more on my experiences collabing later on, but I’ll say that I learned a lot in terms of figuring out what flavours would work, had a ball brewing at one of my favourite breweries, and made some awesome friends in Dan and Duncan, who I now play Stafinder with.

Besides from that, there’s been some great work developments. I left working as Torontoist’s beer columnist, but am now writing columns for Quench Magazine and contributing to the newly created MASH Magazine along with my regular On Tap column at Muskoka Life/Metroland North Media, which…cripes, it’ll be two years I’ve had that column soon. Wow.

I’ve also been very fortunate to be a returning Judge for the Canadian contribution of the World Beer Awards, as well as a new judge for the World Cider Awards and the new New York State Craft Beer Competition & Governor’s Excelsior Cup. As always, I’m honoured to be considered a colleague among a prestigious many people judging these competitions.

In terms of beers consumed and new breweries opened…man, that’s a bit of a big answer. I will say that it’s been amazing seeing the ever-rapid growth of new breweries opening up this year. Hamilton in particular has come up with some good ones with Fairweather Brewing and  MERIT Brewing both opening up and creating some fantastic beers. It’s also done my heart good to see some kind of organization starting up between Northern Ontario breweries to the point where they made a mix pack for LCBO distribution. Here’s hoping more breweries up there get in on that and more people south of them try some of the amazing talent coming out of that region.

Miracle_BrewAnd finally, I’ve been reading a lot, but two beer books released this year (aside from my own haha) have stood out for me. The first is Pete Brown’s Miracle Brew, which goes into detail of the fascinating stories behind the four main ingredients that make countless different beers: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. What makes this book stand out to me is Brown’s iconic and influential writing style, which dances between casual, funny, and informative with an ease that only he knows how to pull off and has no doubt honed with his many books and columns over the years. Miracle Brew stands out as perfect book for hardcore beer lovers and beer newbs alike.

bestbeersThe other has been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s Best Beers, a guide to the world’s…well…best beers. Good gods, it’s right there in the title. After writing my own, I’ve found a deep appreciation in the amount of work and information that goes into beer guides and Beaumont and Webb really went all out for this one, helping the reader solve the constant problem that arises in travel regarding beer selection. Best Beers cuts through the chaff and highlights beers and breweries all over the world that simply can’t be missed. Wherever I’ve gone in the world I’ve always had my copy of Beaumont and Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide handy, and Best Beers will definitely be a book that I pack in my travel bag from now on.  

Well, now we’re on to what I hope for 2018.

This year the craft beer community did a lot of naval-gazing, but what set it apart from the normal one was that we’ve been having a lot more productive discussions on where craft beer fits in the ever changing landscape and what it could be doing to grow in a healthy way.

For one, folks have been slowly waking up to the fact that the amount of people who demand bold, adventurous beers are no longer calling the shots and demand feels like it’s been shifting more and more to simple done well, with styles like dry-hopped pilsners being a kind of compromise that both like. Either way, there feels like a demographic shift, but I’m happy to say that breweries are realizing they don’t have to choose one or the other and can cater to both. I’m interested to see where that will go. Hopefully for the better.

Along with that, we’re seeing a lot more breweries in small towns pop up and no longer seeing any need to market to big cities for validation. Where a city like Toronto that burns through trends on anything at an alarming rate may go through a flagship beer in a month or two, there’s a better chance of making a flagship a bar staple two towns over. More and more folks in the towns are being turned towards well made local beer and by gods, I say let them have it.

Holy crap, we’re finally talking about racism and sexism in the scene in a way that isn’t totally cringeworthy. Let’s keep that going, and let’s keep shutting up the dudes who don’t see what the big deal is.

And this is all leading up to what my hope is every year, that as customers we take a look in our glass and, like we’ve done with our food, wine, spirits, clothes etc, we really appreciate how important it is to not skimp on the quality of our experience. In 2018 I hope you settle for nothing less than perfect in choosing the right beer for the right occasion.

And with that, I think it’s time to close my chromebook, blink for a bit in quiet contemplation, join my family for New Year’s Eve festivities, and pour myself a damn fine beer.

Have a wonderful 2018, friends.

 

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Beer for Ears: The World of Craft Beer ASMR

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***PLEASE READ WITH EARPHONES ON AND VOLUME TURNED UP***

Well, of course there’s ASMR of it.

That’s something I never thought I would say on this site, even though I should have expected it. But here we are.

So, a bit of context before we continue with what turned out to be a pretty fascinating way to celebrate and explore beer. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and it’s a method to essentially trigger a static-like tingling in the brain that brings forth a good response. Essentially it’s a brain orgasm, but I recognize that it’s a pretty simplified explanation. You know the good feeling you get when you hear a sound you really really like? Something that makes you relax or feel happy? That’s ASMR, baby.

The fun thing is that there’s a massive ASMR community out there, many of its residents living on YouTube and using binaural microphones meant to be played with earphones on (I suggest Bose noise cancelling headphones for a particularly real experience). And the variation of it is…staggering, catering to folks who use ASMR for various reasons, from trying to get to sleep, and even to feel less lonely. To give an example, there are videos of tea drinking/money sounds, positive affirmations, and haircut sounds, and fantastically odd stuff like Nightmare-themed sounds, Psionic Initiation Roleplay, Linda from Bob’s Burgers roleplay, and Funky Kong consoling you after a messy divorce.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s out there and that wasn’t a particularly deep search for some truly weird stuff. Suffice to say that one of my new rules of the internet is “If it exists, there is ASMR of it” and so far I’ve not been let down.

Which brings us to beer. And, well, of course there’s ASMR of it.

And it makes sense that beer-related sounds would trigger good feelings for our brains. The sounds of a bottle or can opening, a beer pouring into a glass, and even the sound we make drinking the beer itself, are all key components that are part of our enjoyment of beer. So it should come as no shock whatsoever that a community that celebrates sounds that make us feel good would have a whole genre dedicated to the sound of and discussion of beer.

Even better, one brewery last year even twigged onto ASMR being a new and intriguing way to celebrate beer. Sweden’s Norrland Guld Ljus created a video ad promoting “Ear Beer” and created playlists on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube that make full use of the audio experience of enjoying a beer.

But for good beer listening and discussion, there’s no better place to go to than YouTube! Scottish YouTube user ASMR Muzz features a Mill Street beer in one video. Cosmic Tingles talks about her exploration of craft beer while reviewing Elysian Space Dust IPA, Sierra Nevada Ovila Sage Saison, and Great Divide Nadia Kali Hibiscus Saison. And Ephemerel Rift has a playlist of 66 beer reviews which are fascinating to listen through.

So I think it goes to say that I’m kind of hooked on ASMR, both in general and, thanks to searching for this post, about beer as well. Beer is such a wonderful drink that takes on many forms, both in its application and its appreciation. With that in mind I’m excited to find out about this additional way of celebrating it.

*clink*

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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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The Divination Six Pack – Beer & The Tarot

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One of the things I’m often asked to do when trying beers is to assign a particular profile to whatever it is I’m drinking. This works as a descriptor of when/where to try a beer, but like with all things that involve taste and smell, it’s entirely subjective. To me a hotdog is best enjoyed on a city block while trying to fight away pigeons, whereas to others it might be in a baseball stadium. Each person has a different ideal scenario for what they’re having and each one has a very specific kind of emotional attachment to that scenario.

But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back a couple of nights.

So I’m chatting with a friend of mine, Philosophy Professor and Occult Reality Augmentation Man-About-Town, Damien Patrick Williams about the popular method of divination, the Tarot Cards. Within that he brings up his own unique way of doing Tarot pulls that don’t involve the actual cards. Instead, he puts his music player on shuffle. When he asks his question (let’s say “How do I see myself?”), a song will come up and he’ll take in the lyrics and his emotional reaction to the song and figure out how it fits in to his question.  He feels that it works similar to the tarot, but also has the ability to provide a bit more nuance than cards, as songs can make you feel a whole mix of feelings at the same time.

This got me thinking about beer. After all, each beer has incredibly unique flavour profiles and brings about its own unique emotional response. If there was a way to create a randomized list of beers, could I do the same thing that Damien did with his music player? I decided to find out.

In creating a “deck”, I formed a list of a healthy mix of Ontario beers that were the resulted wins of the 2014 Ontario Brewing Awards, which involved three beers in each section, which was many different styles from Lite Beer to Dark IPA, to Wit Beer. To make things easier for a pull, I removed beers that either no longer existed (and that I hadn’t tried) or would be impossible for me to try in the span of a few days, leaving a grand total of 62 beers for this experiment. After making the list, I ran it through a list randomizer several times and it was complete.

To do a reading all you have to do is go to a random number generator, think about your question, and click “Generate”. Look up the number in the beer list, and then think about (or try!) the beer, noting it’s full flavour profile and what you think of it, including situations where you think it would be ideal to drink it in (and think about how you would feel about that situation, good or bad?). With those connections made, think about how they relate to your question and how they apply to you.

Removing the Tarot element of this, I feel it’s an excellent exercise in really getting to think about the connection you have with certain beers and may help you for pick out selections in the future. It’ll provide some context in your thought process and help you understand what kind of beer you want when faced with the dilemma of “what should I have?”. Additionally, this would be a really fun way to share beers with friends, as you can create a Divination 6-pack for them as a gift.

For the Ontario folks, I have this handy-dandy list pre-made, so you can use that (though feel free to make your own). For everyone else, at last we have a use for lists that web sites make! Ratebeer has a top 50 beer list section that can be customized, or you could spend an hour or so creating your own. The more there is on the list, the better. All you need is the random number generator and you’re good to go.

As for the questions, I’ve kept it simple but strong with six ones. You as you see yourself, you as others see you, your goal, recent past, near future, and ultimate outcome. As an example, I’ve done a pull of my own below. While I’m not going to give you specific aspects of my life, I have included my personal reaction to the results and have outlined the ones I feel have the strongest connection.

And here we go.

You As You See Yourself: Highlander Brew Company  Scottish Ale – A very soft-spoken beer in the public eye, but revealed to have a level of complexity due to the malts.

You As Others See You: F&M Stone Hammer Maple Red Ale – An all together solid beer and arguably one of the most solid from this particular brewery, it’s an Amber Ale brewed with locally sourced maple syrup. However, it isn’t to everyone’s tastes. Folks will either have one and never think of it again, or reach for another

Your Goal: Amsterdam Brewery – Downtown Brown – Whenever I think of Downtown Brown, I tend to think of “Balance”. While it has many of the elements of a solid, grounded brown ale, there is also a level of lightness to its taste that makes it a drink that doesn’t demand a certain atmosphere to enjoy it with. Very easy-going but grounded.

Recent Past: Molson-Coors Rickard’s White – Rickard’s White is actually a pretty good beer, but in America, where the exact beer is known as Blue Moon, it is a a beer that is constantly mistaken for something made by a smaller brewery (When in reality it’s made by one of the largest). As a result, there is a deep mistrust among the craft beer crowd and it has the image of trying to be something that it is not.

Near Future: Mill Street Frambozen – A very bright and sweet beer, ideally preferred in the sunshine. However, the taste is quite brief. (Only real personal note – Am planning a trip to Montreal soon)

Ultimate Outcome: Wellington Imperial Russian Stout – With several exceptions, I often view Imperial Stouts as the grand finale beer of a particularly trying day. With it’s dark roasted notes and slight alcohol burn, it’s a beer that’s meant to be savoured and sipped slowly. My ideal circumstance would be sitting in an easy chair with some music playing and a good book. Ultimately, with an Imperial Stout, in particular this one, I’d like to unwind from something with it. While this may not be my absolute first choice, it’s a damn good choice nonetheless.

And there you have it.

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Beer Blogging, Being a Woman In Beer, & Having Fun: What I Should Have Said At Queens of Craft

 

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A couple of weeks ago I was at a round table discussion in Guelph put on by Wellington Brewery called Queens of Craft, with proceeds of the event going to Women in Crisis Guelph. Basically it was a lot of Ontario’s most respected women in the beer industry and me talking about a subject of our choosing to an audience of women. It was a thrill to even be asked to be a part of it.
Unfortunately, I think I blew it a bit. At the last minute we were told that the 20 minutes we were each getting to talk would be cut down to 10, with a bell hitting the eight minute mark indicating that we better start wrapping up and talk about a beer we had selected for a tasting. I had things I wanted to talk about, but the cut time, the bell, my jet lag from a recent trip to England, and my inexperience with public speaking left me a bit of a rambling, nervous mess. I’m pretty sure I came off as a looney.

I was disappointed, because I had some things I wanted to say, but time constraints and social anxiety ruined it. So after sitting on it for a bit due to preparation of travel and the travel, here is what I wanted to say.

I started this site as a way to chronicle my own discoveries about beer in a way that my close friends could read up on if they wanted. I’m still a bit perplexed on how it got as far as it has and a bit weirded out by the whole Saveur Award thing. When I started I didn’t know what I was doing, my palate was not even close to what it is now, and I was regurgitating information that, I thought, was pretty common knowledge. But I was learning new things, chronicling my educational journey, and having fun, which I think are the best reasons ever to start a blog.

I’m reluctant to give advice on how to run a beer blog (or any blog, really) to a semi or even fully successful level. Despite what marketing books and other bloggers tell you, there is no One Right Way to run a blog. It’s a natural progression that involves getting comfortable with the medium and cultivating the voice you’re going to use for it. I will say though, that unlike published writers, you have the incredibly unique gift of being your own editor, with no restraints of word count or tone. Use that gift to weave fantastic tales, get lost in a tangent, or just explain something. You don’t HAVE to be any voice that you aren’t comfortable with doing. I’m best comfortable using a tone that’s both informative and entertaining. Like I’m saying it in a pub over my second beer, for instance. Look in earlier posts and you’ll see that I’ve come a long way in figuring that tone out.

Only other pieces of advice I can offer in terms of starting out are to learn to use twitter as a great method of networking, go out to events frequently so you can put a face to the twitter handles, learn to take pictures to go with your words, and do not be afraid to go against the popular opinions of the community. If you don’t like something that others like, no one is at fault and anyone who tells you otherwise is a jackass.

Ah. And the final piece of advice I could probably give is to remember that beer is only HALF the fun of it. It’s what surrounds the beer, the people, the history, the lore, the places, the events, the moments…that make it so amazing. If you remember that you’ll save yourself some premature burnout later and it will keep you going in times when you begin to question the point of continuing. Beer is fun, and should remain so.

Now, on being a woman.

Every female in the beer industry gets asked the same question to a nauseating degree on what it’s like being a woman working in beer and why we’re in it and I’m always left bewildered because the tone suggests a kind of “What are you even DOING here?” element that I find offensive. As if it’s so outlandish that women are individuals with their own minds and interests that should take them anywhere they damn well please, including something that’s apparently regarded as a boy’s club despite there being no sign on the door that says any such thing.

brewstersPlus, history is filled with women in beer. Before men took the reigns of beer through Industrialization, we had commercial female brewers (named Brewsters) in the middle ages, and brewing was primarily women’s work, being part of kitchen duties. Hell, the oldest recipe in the world is a Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian GODDESS of Beer. While I feel that beer is something enjoyed by both sexes and I hate having to list the historical tidbits of women in beer as if to provide some sort of proof that women belong there (argh), I do like keeping this history in mind when certain people criticize women for enjoying or being a part of beer. Of course we do.

Modern day, I’m going to freely admit that there are problems, but it’s not as prevalent as one might think. There are offensive jokes, jerks who say jerkish things, and an outsider media that needs to run a “WOAH! WOMEN ENJOYING SOMETHING!” article every six months or so, but there are also engaging conversations, nerding out over a drink with complete strangers who end up becoming friends, and being part of a community that loves to educate and share its passion, which transcends genders and is the reason why I love the community so much.

Beer is a beautiful thing. As I said in an interview once, Beer has been the beverage of choice for royalty, slaves, peasants, gods, hard workers, executives, low class, middle class, upper class, and many other groups I can’t think of right now. It has helped end disputes (as well as cause some), has been a peace offering, and a way to break the ice to start lasting friendships. To me beer is a common factor for us all, a drink that humanity can sit down together and laugh over. To top all that off, despite all the years it’s been around, we’re still finding ways to make it differently.

Beer, one of the many testaments to the human race’s ingenuity, makes me want to raise a glass, view the beautiful colour of my beer, smile, and say “look at you”.

And that’s what I wanted to say.

8b19903u

 

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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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“When Are You Going To Get Certified?” – The Prud’homme and Cicerone Beer Certification Programs

“So when are you going to get certified?”

That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately. I’ve had this blog for nearly three years now and all around me people are flocking towards beer certification programs like high school seniors are towards College and University pamphlets. It’s the big question that seems to pop up in conversations. “So how are you? How’s work going? Are you going to get certified?” And also similar to College and Universities, there are a number of different certification programs to fit your needs. The two that stand out the most to me are the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program and the Cicerone Certification Program.

More and more bars and breweries are using Cicerone and Prud’homme certifications as a requirement for their employers. While a chunk of that for bars is a publicity thing to attract the beer geeks, it’s also genuinely creating more informed servers and a better overall experience for the customers. (After all, a big way to ensure a customer doesn’t come back is, among many things, a staff that has no idea what they’re selling) Similar for breweries, who find it helpful to use the names “Sommelier” or “Cicerone” as an indication of a set amount of knowledge without the hassle of reciting a résumé every time they meet someone or want to craft a release. Although I’m simplifying it, these are good reasons to get certification.

But which of the two do I take? Both have a really good reputation and each appeal to different personal preferences for the people taking them. I’ve heard good things and bad from both and I’m feeling conflicted. So let’s sort this out a bit and learn something about the programs.

Things seemed to start for Roger Mittag in 1997 when he was hired on to be part of the sales team for Interbrew-owned Oland Specialty Beer Company. As part of his training, they took his team for a full-on crash course in beer education starting in Halifax and going through several countries across the pond. It was there he learned how to store, pour, smell, taste, serve, and talk beer. When they got back, they were then instructed to use what they learned to better educate their customers. It’s there he worked for four years before being tasked by head office to design a training course for the entire Labatt team as the National Sales Manager.  Mittag excelled at this and won an InterBrew award for People Development.

In 2005 he founded Thirst For Knowledge, an organization dedicated to Beer education and in 2006 became the lead organizer for the Ontario Brewing Awards. In 2009 Mittag formed the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program, named after Canadian brewing pioneer Louis Prud’homme. While based primarily in Toronto, there are plans to expand the program across provincial and international borders.

There are three levels of certification in Prud’homme and they go: Beer Enthusiast, Beer Specialist, and Beer Sommelier. All of these courses require class time (with the exception of the Beer Enthusiast level, which has an online option). The most popular course is the first level of certification, as it’s the first step people take within the program regardless of their reasons (Work requirement or personal interest).  The remaining two are technically geared towards people with an interest in pursuing or developing a career in the beer or hospitality industry, but to be honest I witnessed and heard from a healthy mix of people who were there for career and personal interest. In terms of education, you start out learning about tastings, pairings, and the serving process and go to how to develop a beer education event and host a pairing dinner.

A common complaint I’ve heard from people who have taken the program to completion who worked within the industry before attending the courses has been its level of difficulty. For a person already well immersed in the industry and with a near-encyclopedic knowledge on things concerning beer, it may feel like almost a waste of time to be there learning stuff you already know. But what makes this program so worthy of note is that it teaches you something that a lot of beer geeks and industry people often struggle with: how to talk to people about beer in an easy-to-understand way. A lot of people overlook this, but if you have any part of your mind set to teach people about beer, whether it is in a classroom, a brewery tour, a television interview, or even in a dinner with friends, you have to know how to take all that knowledge and boil it down for people in a way that doesn’t go over their heads, isn’t condescending, and encourages further education. As a professor at Humber College’s School of Hospitality, Roger understands the importance of that. I was invited to attend one of the classes in the Beer Sommelier level where students picked a beer style from a hat and had to form a presentation on the history of that style along with providing samples to taste. A focus was, of course, on knowledge of the subject (which the students learned very well), but you also had to make the presentation as if you were addressing a tour group filled with people of varying levels of knowledge. It’s that angle that makes Prud’homme unique to me.

Another admirable quality is the level of comradery from the classroom setting. I’ve talked with people who took the program years ago and still maintain friendships with their classmates. Even on the class I sat in on, there was the social and fun element of beer present, which made the experience enjoyable.

Cicerone, however, isn’t a course. It’s a test. Well, THE test, it seems. Founded by famed beer writer, event organizer, publisher, Veteran beer judge, and award winning home brewer Ray Daniels, the Cicerone Certification Program’s levels are a good indication of technical knowledge and skill in all aspects of beer. It initially started when Daniels grew tired of going in to bars and being served a spoiled beer as a result of poor beer handling. The idea of a knowledge set for bars then grew beyond to brewers, distributors, and educators. With the premise of bringing knowledge in to the hands of the people who handle beer, a complete A-Z list of virtually everything about beer was formed, and the tests were created.

There are three levels in the program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. Each test has it’s own syllabus and list of suggested resources, including an optional paid online course called BeerSavvy for the Certified Beer Server level. The Certified Beer Server test is taken online and requires a 75% or more to pass. The other two levels are tests that must be done in person, with schedules and locations for the test put up on the site.

The more you read about the Cicerone Certification program, the more you realize how incredibly industry focused it is. While a home brewer or someone interested in beer is welcome to study and take the tests, these may not be the waters for them. Many bars with a focus on craft beer are making their staff take the Certified Beer Server test as a way to improve the serving experience (and, as I said earlier, publicity that beer geeks appreciate). And with a syllabus that is updated every five years or so, the program does an excellent job of keeping current on techniques and equipment used. A wonderful aspect to the studying is the formations of local study groups for the different levels. Together the groups meet up to go over their notes, quiz each other, and even take field trips to breweries and bars to learn about their systems.

As of writing this, the US-based Cicerone Certification Program just announced the much-anticipated launch of the Canadian branch of the program. Spearheaded by renowned beer consultant, Beerology founder, and Canada’s first ever Master Cicerone Mirella Amato, Cicerone Canada will issue exams and syllabi that reflect the Canadian beer market. The new tests and syllabi will be out March 1st of this year.

So that’s the two of them, boppers. While Prud’homme teaches a lot of great things about beer in a relaxed and warm setting to a varying group of people with both a professional and personal interest in beer, advanced students may find it frustrating despite the valuable lesson of being able to actually talk about the stuff you know, which is an incredibly essential skill to have. At the same time, Cicerone does not seem to have that warmth that Prud’homme does, but upon completion of the exams you may very well be a talking encyclopedia of beer knowledge, which is also incredibly essential.

It should be noted that, based on experiences people have shared, doors will not suddenly open for you upon certification. Many people have often had to explain what a Beer Sommelier or Certified Cicerone actually is to media outlets, and several employers throughout the industry are starting to use certification as a minimum requirement along with experience needed. I say this just to underline that certification will help you, but it is in no way a guarantee to success.

The biggest common factor with the two, and one that Roger Mittag and Ray Daniels both readily agree on in regards to their programs, is that the certification you get at the end is minuscule compared to the knowledge and skills you acquire in the pursuit of it. Like Mirella Amato told me once ages ago, “You’re learning this stuff anyways, so you might as well get something for it”. And you do get something for it. A title that can be put on a résumé to indicate that you have a certain knowledge and skill set. An indication that you know what the hell you’re talking about. One or two words that you can carry with you instead of a list of qualifications.

I initially started research for this post in an attempt to figure out which course to take for my own personal development. As I mentioned earlier, there is this pressing urge in my brain that I should look towards certification as that next big step, and I wasn’t sure which route to actually take.

But in the end as I’m typing this, reading through the notes I’ve made, checking on the e-mails from people who have gone through certification, and reflecting on my observations, I see that, like picking the right beer with the right cheese, the two programs complement one another. Learning everything on the technical aspect of beer along with proper handling (among many other things) is incredibly important to me.  But so is being able to talk about it with people and to teach them about this world in a wonderful, laid back setting. So I’m in the position of finding it’s not one or the other, but a combination that may be needed.

While I am essentially back where I started in my mindset, I now have the required knowledge to move ahead with a decision. Figures!

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