Category Archives: Learning

Will It Grow? Part 2: We Rise! We Live!

So, remember when I bought a Cascade hop rhizome, planted it, and then told you folks that I’ll let you know how it goes?

Well…the hops grew.

They started to sprout after a couple of weeks and then once it was fixed up so it had some support to get up on the frame of my porch the vine grew incredibly fast. Thankfully, up here we’ve been getting a lot of rain and sun in equal measures this summer, so they were pretty low maintenence. The cones didn’t start forming until about three weeks ago and every week they seem to get bigger. They make my porch just that much more beautiful.

While the cones are pretty big, they aren’t ready for harvesting yet. Apparently the time to do it is when they actually start to give off that wonderful, citrus-like aroma that I love so much.

As for what to do with them after harvesting…I’m not sure. I originally was thinking of using them to dryhop a homebrew (since I don’t think I got enough hops for a full batch [which is TOTALLY okay because apparently in the first year you don’t get many cones]), but I’ve been in talks with someone who is also growing Cascade hops and there are talks of maybe doing a beer with them. We’ll see!

But so far…I’m really happy that I decided to pick up a rhizome to try out and will definitely be picking up more next year. And even for the beer lover who doesn’t brew their own, hop vines are an incredible decoration for your home.

But anyways, I’ll let you know what happens with these little guys soon. Stay tuned.

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Beer & Food Pairing

I’ll be honest, this post is a long time coming. Truthfully, I’ve had the most problem just STARTING the damn thing. Any writer knows that the kick-off point in a piece of writing is one of the worst and I’ve been stuck with that for a couple of weeks while also getting used to having some sort of a life outside of work and beer (video games, they’re going to be big). Over the course of being stuck I promised myself that under no circumstances will I just start this post with a “it’s been hard for me to start this” paragraph. And heeeeeere we freakin’ are.

Anyways.

Beer and food pairing. Let’s talk about this.

This is a subject that I really love learning more about and which I honestly am still at the beginning stages of understanding. While there is no single right way to look at this, I’ll try my best to explain how I see this and give a few examples.

To start out with some base knowledge, here’s a clip from Disney’s Ratatouille in which the main character Remy brings up the visualization of flavour.

If you can’t watch the clip at work or hate Disney for some twisted reason, the point of it is that there are an almost infinite number of flavour combinations out there, both simple and complex, that can make one unified flavour that is something completely different and amazing. Although the above clip was talking about food, I believe this thought crosses over to pairing as well. Take a selected beer and a selected dish and combine them to create an experience, something that combines the two elements to create one. And that’s pretty much how I see pairing.

From there you can go in to the trial and error stage, which can be fun but comes with the risk of just not working out in your meal (but hey, an excuse to order another beer is a good one). And while there are no rigid rules like wine (I remember the “red with red, white with white” rule being hit over my head when I was younger), there are some good tips people have found that you can choose to follow or ignore. Here’s a few that I’ve picked up from my own experiences or from the advice of others:

–       A hoppy IPA can bring out the heat in a good, spicy curry and a crisp and cold pilsner can tone it down.

–       A stout with heavy chocolate notes can pair well with vanilla ice cream, raspberries, or even trifle.

–       A nice IPA can bring out spiced lamb in wonderful ways.

–       Hard Cider and Pork. Yep. It works just as well as porkchops and applesauce.

–       A pilsner can cut down on the greasiness of bacon while successfully keeping the smoked taste. A stout with heavy coffee notes can make a good breakfast.

–       A light saison brings an added sweetness to seafood like lobster, scallops or shrimp.

And even then, it’s just personal opinion and taste. As the song goes, “what might be right for you, might not be right for some”. But pairing a food with beer is really a fun rabbit hole to go down due to the limitless possibilities of pairings. Cookies? Go forth and discover. Pizza? Whatever works. Braised Herbed Rabbit with Mustard Sauce? Best of luck. Sausage? WHAT KIND?

There are many ways to learn more on pairings and improve your palate. For books ‘Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink’ by Randy Mosher has a really great section on the subject. There is of course the above mentioned trial and error option, where you figure things out for yourself (I personally like trying to figure out the best beer to go with a burger while taking the condiments in to consideration). A handy tip is to be sure to read the description on the bottles of certain beers as the brewmaster may have some pairing suggestions that they feel best compliments their beer. And also, depending where you are, there are always classes and events going on, put on by a brewery, importer, restaurant or some combination of the three.

A recent examples of a pairing event: A while back I went to the first in a series of quarterly beer pairing dinners at Bier Markt here in Toronto (King St. West location). Operations Manager Daniel Schmidt and Chef Kris Tatemichi brought forth a total of six courses along with beers to accompany each one. Although that sounds intimidating as hell, the servings sizes weren’t monstrous and each pairing was allowed to have their moment. As each course was being served to us, Daniel would talk a little bit about the beer that was being paired with the dish and why it was selected and Chef Kris would talk about the dish. While there were some small problems to be associated with a first time event (The section for the dinner wasn’t separated from the local crowd who came in, making for a noisy night) and some of the pairings missed the mark for me personally, the good outweighed the bad with inspired pairings such as housemade apple and pork sausage paired with Poperings Hommelbier (a beer that on first taste almost resembles tree bark but combined with the sausage to create a smooth, earthy and delicious combination that I remember still), Picked Ontario Mushrooms and Schnieder Weisse Tap 7 (when combined made for a very creamy, rich dish) and Bier Beignets with pastry creme and Sinha reduction with Unibroue’s La Maudite Strong Amber-Red (which made for an elegant and creamy taste that wrapped up the event nicely). I left the night feeling like I had gotten an education and a few new base blocks of understanding in my own pairing explorations and experiments.

Although that was a good exception, I give you a warning about pairing events: They can be a little unbalanced at times, sometimes focusing more on the food or more on the beer depending on who is putting the event on. Too many times have I been to a pairing where the beer selection was an afterthought and it just fell short. By all means check them out, but be aware that it’s possible it may miss the mark for you.

In the end, the important thing is to have fun with it and go with what works for you. As long as you like it, there is no “wrong” pairing. Just keep on combining and figuring it out and you’ll be fine.

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Will It Grow? Part 1: In To The Ground, My Sweet

So one of the advantages of no longer being in the office (and there aren’t TOO many, but that’s for my non-existent therapist, not you) is that I have time for some personal projects in between errands and freelance work. One personal project is my garden.

I have a raised bed in the backyard which currently has some beet, onion and radish seeds in it. Later to come will be cucumbers (that I intend to pickle) and Hungarian Black Hot Peppers, which I intend to put in dishes and watch loved ones scream in despair when I feed it to them. But those need a little more time yet.

I’m also growing some Cascade Hops, which is the point of this post.

I missed out on purchasing the rhizomes (an underground stem that shoots out roots, basically) last year, but this year I managed to preorder them from Toronto Brewing a few months ago and my little darling arrived yesterday.

I always knew I’d plant it in the front yard, where the hop vines could grow and wrap themselves around my porch frame, which I think will look beautiful and smell wonderful. For those that know me well in regards to beery stuff, it’ll come as no surprise that I chose Cascade Hops, which have a beautiful light citrusy character to them that drives me wild.

My yard is one of those “Weeds everywhere no matter what” places, so this required some digging in my selected place followed by a method of mulching that’s worked for me in the past. Basically getting some newspaper, layering it on the bottom of the hole, soaking it with water and putting a good layer of soil over it. This prevents any weeds from growing and what weeds do get through can easily be picked out. I used basic gardening soil along with a nutrient mix from Urban Harvest that slowly releases all the good things that make for healthy growing.

Apparently there is some debate on exactly how to plant the rhizome. Hops Direct’s youtube series says to plant it vertically, while the book “The Homebrewer’s Garden” by Joe and Dennis Fisher and several other forums and guides say to plant it horizontally, roots down and white “nibs” up, about 2 inches in the soil. I chose the latter method.

In the end it KIND OF looks like I buried an animal in the front yard, but it’s done and the key is to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet and make sure it gets at least six hours of sunlight, apparently. After it sprouts and the vine reaches to about a foot I’ll need to set up a small trellis leading up to my porch frame. Then I’ll have to regularly make sure the little guys get some water.

I’ll be letting you folks know the progress of it, of course. But for now…we wait.

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The Thirsty Wench’s St. Patrick’s Day Survival Guide

It’s that time of year again where people see a lot of green stuff and guides for a good St. Patrick’s Day are being released by bars, breweries and newsfolk alike.

So I thought I’d throw my hat in to the ring and give you my own St. Patrick’s Day Survival Guide.

  1. Stock up on supplies. – It’s only for a weekend, but still. Buy enough food and good beers to last you for that time because you won’t be leaving. Give a last final embrace to any friends and family you cherish, just in case.
  2. Board up your windows and lock your doors. – If you don’t, you may find that a keg of crap beer you didn’t buy will be in your house surrounded by shattered glass and you’ll be overrun with university and college students screaming and breaking things and singing Danny Boy even though they aren’t sad because IRELAND.
  3. Arm yourself. – A baseball bat is best. I have a battle axe. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
  4. Pray or alternatively recite the Litany Against Fear – It’ll all be over soon. Don’t worry. You must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
  5. DON’T GET BITTEN.
  6. DON’T OPEN THE DOOR. – Ignore the other people who aren’t being Irish for a day trying to get in to your place for safety. You open the door, you put yourself and others in your home at risk. They should have prepared. Like you.
  7. Drink a beer because you want to, not because you have to. Really, folks. Nowhere does it say that you have to drink until you vomit on St. Patrick’s Day. If you feel like having a drink, do so. If not, then don’t.

That’s all from me. Stay safe out there, folks.

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Small Lessons Making a Big Difference

So I’m going to tell you folks a little story.

You sitting down? What about you in the back? Okay? Good. Here it goes.

So back in 2011 when I was still trying to get this blog going and was still at the very start of the grand journey of learning about beer, I went to my first Ontario Craft Beer Week event, which was a “meet the brewer for a tutoured tasting” thing with Mill St. Brewery at The Rebel House. Brewmaster Joel Manning and brewer Bridgid Young showed up with samples of their Original Organic Lager and Tankhouse Ale. And since the place wasn’t too busy, they sat down with me and taught me about the ingredients that go in to their beers. Even bringing bags of two types of grain and a bag of hops to show. Joel encouraged me to taste the grain that went in to their Tankhouse Ale and then try the beer. Suddenly I realized the source of the biscuit-like flavours I was tasting. Even with the hops, I learned how to take a handful of the flowers, grind it with my hands and smell the wonderful hints of citrus and sweetness that the hop is known for.

It was my first exposure to the individual ingredients that went in to beer and was nothing short of a revelation on the senses for me and changed the way I looked (and, well, tasted) beer. Now and then when I do a tasting of a beer my mind sometimes goes back to the lessons I learned that day.

So why am I telling this story? Am I too tired? Am I off my meds and just feel like rambling?

Well, yes.

hops1But also to segue in to talking about earlier this week when I went to the launch of Alexander Keith’s Hop Series of beers, which opened with two single-hop beers (that’s a beer that is made with one variety of hop); a Cascade Ale and Hallertauer Ale.

Now, I’ve only tried the Cascade Ale so far and while it’s a pretty decent and comfortable offering (but not to my personal taste) I really need to bring attention to the packaging. The cans themselves talk a bit about the history of the individual hop they’ve used, which I think is a fantastic idea. Also press were given this little pack (seen on the right) that came with two small jars of flower hops. The only labels on the jars were “Hop A” and “Hop B”.

Confusion was cleared by the accompanying card:

hops2

And I thought that was such a brilliant way to get people learning about what goes in to beer and encourage a whole appreciation for it. Sometimes when a 2-300 page book or big event seems too intimidating for a beginner in learning or when you just plain don’t know, it takes one person to show up with a jar of flower hops or a bag of malt and say “this is what went in to what you’re drinking”. Like in food, breaking something down to its raw ingredients increases an understanding in it.

So say what you will about the taste of Keith’s, or dismiss them because they’re a big brewery, but I say they did something right here and that this is a pretty cool way to educate people about what’s going in to their drink. And that’s something.

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Homebrewing, Winter Beer Fest, and BlogTO

Okay, so the day job and a slight case of the Cambodian Swamp Virus put a damper on any writing time I had the past week or so. So let’s play a bit of catch-up because quite a bit has been going on.

1. I’ve been homebrewing! Although I have dabbled with varying levels of success, I admitted my weak points (primarily recipe formulation) and the wonderful people from Brauhaus, a Toronto homebrewing club made up of some of Toronto’s most talented and creative homebrewers, hooked me up with Richard Sigesmund (whose brew “Boom Gose the Dynamite” was a hit at their last event) as a way to pilot a mentorship program that pairs off experienced homebrewers with noobs like me. After countless e-mails with me asking questions and Richard patiently answering, a recipe that was in my head was formed and a few weeks ago I brewed it. It’s an American Brown Ale with Chamomile and Lemongrass. Hops used were Warrior, Amarillo and Centennial (dry-hopping with Amarillo and Chinook ). I just bottled it over the weekend and it will now be left for a couple of weeks to condition in the bottle. So far though, the colour turned out perfectly and the chamomile flavours came out pretty well. It also seems to be at 5.9% ABV. With a little luck this will be a good beer to have chilled and at room temperature.

I learned so much with this one, so it will get a proper post on it’s own once I try the beer. But I wanted to tell you folks that I’m keeping it up and seriously check out Brauhaus and, if you’re a Toronto homebrewer new or experienced, to consider joining up.

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2. The winter (and indeed the dreaded month of February) was made a little less grey a couple of weeks ago at The Rhino’s First Annual Winter Beer Festival, put on by the good folks at The Rhino Bar & Grill and Mr. Greg Clow of Canadian Beer News. The festival was split in to three different times (A VIP breakfast and first shot of beers to a limited 40 people, a standard version of about 100 people and finally a free event where as many people as possible could come in) and featured special beers by some of Ontario’s most respected breweries.

I had been kindly invited to attend the VIP breakfast and to stay for a few hours and I must say I had an incredible time. The Rhino was a perfect venue to have such a festival at as, unlike many beer events I’ve attended at other places, it wasn’t the size of a closet and in no way was I struggling to move from one area to another. It was a spacous, warm, relaxed environment. A wonderful mix of the beer-loving public and industry players mingled and discussed their favourite drink.

Highlights for me were the Rye Pale Ale by Cameron’s Brewing (my only notes for this were “…Sweet Jesus”), Skinny Dipping With Friends by Sawdust City Brewing (beautifully spiced Stout), Alan Never Left by Black Oak Brewing (wonderfully balanced beer with Jalapeno peppers) and, most unforgettably, Martian Mango Pale Ale, a homebrew by Chris Burek of Mom ‘n Hops.

The event, while not without it’s small issues that normally arise with any event (even a first one such as this) was a total success. It was a relaxed and enjoyable day and I look forward to next year’s!

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3. Myself and several others in Toronto’s beer scene were asked where we go to drink by Ben Johnson from BlogTO for the article “10 bars & pubs where Toronto beer experts go to drink”. If you’re in Toronto check it out! There are some great places listed there!

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4. The wonderful and awesome Fabian Skidmore from The Only Cafe taught me the ways of the cellar a couple of weeks ago. I learned how to clean the taps, how the draft system works, how to tap a cask and how to pour the perfect pint. I learned lots about this and can’t thank Fabian enough.

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And that’s all for now! When I get better expect a couple of reviews and other fun bits of news.

Here’s a teaser pic of what’s to come, the Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus by Sawdust City. Photo by me.

…Yes, it’s the alien from Independence Day. Yes, I do own on. And yes, I do enjoy the hell out of that film. Don’t you dare judge me.

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Can the Can: On Canned Craft Beers

I’m sorry if the title of the post was somewhat confusing, but you only get to make one or two Suzi Quatro references in your lifetime and so help me, I chose to go with it.

Canned beer has kind of a negative stigma with a lot of people. A common negative image, at least in North America, that comes to mind is that of drunken jocks, chanting their fraternity motto while slamming cans in to their foreheads and beating up nerds (or for my older readers, the image of Billy Beer comes to mind). A common taste is that of tin and warm water. Regardless, for some reason canned beer feels to many like a step down from bottles.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

More and more in the past while craft breweries have been taking the canned route. Some breweries have even been switching from bottles to cans. Now there are a couple of obvious benefits with cans, being easy to stack, less breaking…but what else? Is there a financial benefit? Is there a sacrifice by compromising the flavour?

To answer some of these questions I e-mailed Michael Gurr at the Kensington Brewing Co. Their beer, Augusta Ale, just came out at the LCBO this week. In cans. I thought it a good time to ask what their rationale was for going with cans instead of bottles for their release. I was surprised to discover just how many benefits there are to both the brewery and the consumer.

On the business side of things, cans make sense especially for a new brewery. They’re cheaper to manufacture and don’t include additional costs such as a six pack holder, thus cutting down on initial expenses. The cost of a single tall boy can, which is a common method of selling canned craft beer, is also meant to be less intimidating on potential new customers, allowing them to purchase a single can ranging at about $2.50-3.00 instead of taking a chance on a new brand/beer by committing to a  6-pack for $12-14. This creates more liklihood of bringing in new customers (it’s reasons like that which make me more likely to purchase singles than packs as well).

For the consumer’s benefit, for one, you have an environmentally friendly container. “Cans are much lighter than glass, using much less material to hold the same amount of beer.”  Gurr says, “Less weight = less emissions. The rate in which people recycle aluminium is also shown to be far greater than glass.” (Although, Gurr admits, this does not take in to account the Beer Store’s bottle return program which, apparently, has a 99% return rate.)

Cans are also a good way to go because there is no light exposure on the beer, preventing the chance of a “skunky” chemical reaction that isn’t fun in the slightest (which is why beer bottles are typically dark. Green and clear bottles have more of a chance of going skunky, so beware!). This also makes for a beer that can be stored longer.

But what about the tin taste? Well, there’s two possible causes to people’s problem with that in the past. The first being that the taste of tin was actually a smell (think where your nose goes when you sip from a can) and the other being that some cans didn’t have protection on them that prevented the the beer from extracting materials from the can, creating a tin taste. The good news though, is that modern beer cans are coated with a special food-grade epoxy resins that prevents this extraction.

Other benefits include what most already know; easy storage, less breakability (Can’t say I’ve ever seen someone smash a beer can open and attack someone with it) and faster cooling time. And for me anyways, I love seeing the beautiful designs that cover the entire container as opposed to a label. Good show, package designers!

Still got that negative stigma and think that canned beer is a step down? Well, here’s a simple solution: do what you’d do with bottled beer and pour it in a glass! That way you’ll be able to drink amazing beer without the fear of being “found out” as a can drinker. While you’re at it, you can even let people sip your beer and find you’ve converted some anti-can folks.

What beers should you go with? Well, explore around! If you’re in Ontario give the three in the above picture a try, as they’ve been *ahem* tested by myself and have proven to be quite delicious and satisfying in this hot-as-balls Summer. International, I would suggest going with BrewDog’s Punk IPA, which has been hitting the stores in can form and is also quite refreshing!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dance to more of Miss Quatro’s music.

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Special thanks to Michael Gurr over at Kensington Brewing Company for the insight in to cans! 

Beers in image (left to right): Hops & Robbers IPA by Double Trouble Brewing Co., Augusta Ale by Kensington Brewing Co. and Dead Elephant IPA by Railway City Brewing Co.

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