This was the beer that caused a slight rift in the fabric of that great evening three weeks ago with Ron, Jordan and Peter. We were at the end of the middle act of the night at 3030 when we all had this same one last beer, brewed within walking distance of the bar. “Mmm… sweet malty goodness,” says I. “Yik, crystal malt,” said another. And we were off. The brewery says of this beer: “Our signature brew is Conductor’s Craft Ale, a ‘hopbacked’ hybrid ale utilizing British, German and American brewing techniques.” I can see your furrowed brow. Me, too.
The beer pours a pleasant clear filbert paper brown under a rocky egg white head. Plenty of nut aromas. In the mouth, this is quite interesting. More nut than dried fig along with a crusty brown breadiness and a touch of dry cocoa. The whole thing is framed by a really clever hop choices: black tea and twiggy, then a bit of steel and then spicy pine resin at the end. There is a lot going on. When I described some of these flavours, Ron suggested disapprovingly it sounded like Wells Bombardier, a beer I wrote positively of a a decade ago. This one has more acidity and complexity than likely you would find in Bombardier now.
The main thing I thought the beer illustrated were the off pale malts, maybe the lightest of the crystals. In certain circles, these are unfashionable flavours in beer right now. Beery flavours. Boethius would understand. Perfect match for a plain Snappy Griller with its white pepper jag on a billowy bun. I look down at the average BAer’s view.
An interesting tidbit from The New York Times of 6 February 1858 in an article entitled “An Important Question Decided“:
It has long been a disputed point whether lager bier can be properly classed among toxatious drinks, but yesterday, Judge Strong of Long Island, decided, in the case of Jacob Staats, who was indicted for selling intoxicating liquors on Sunday, that lager bier is not an intoxicating drink. If the question had been whether lager is a stupefying drink, or not, the decision would probably have been in the affirmative. The decision is a very important one, and it will have a decided effect upon the habits of a very large class of our population, to whom lager bier has become almost a necessary of life. There will be great rejoicing over the decision of Judge Strong by our German population, and the “saloons” where their favorite beverage is sold will be crowded to-morrow with thirsty devotees.
There some interesting things in there. Is “saloons” in quotation mark to challenge the use of the term? Were they then too lowly? There are certainly plenty of stories in the newspapers of the period of dark deeds done in the lager saloon. And on the scale of words for drunk wouldn’t “stupefying” represent a higher state of affairs than “intoxicating”? A reminder to be wary of familiar words arising in other eras. The ruling ended up not deciding the matter. More court cases would follow as the role of the new lighter German style beer was assessed. Not just drinking on the Sabbath but drinking after midnight. Theater owners complained about entertainments in beer gardens, not required to pay the same license fees. Evidence is given of astounding feats of consumption over and over, of drinking 30 quarts in two hours… without “intoxicating” effect.
The stories are laced with an undertone of cultural conflict and, as part of that, an understanding of what beer is. To those writing the laws and drinking older styles, beer is stronger and something that could not be downed in such volumes. Beers like the over 8% Albany ales needed legal regulation even before the full rise of the political power of the temperance movement. In the 1850s, “lager bier” is a new social technology that doesn’t fit and may threaten. By the 1870s, however, Germans are presented as the model immigrants, supporting savings banks and charities even if they still have their lager bier saloons. If there had been a culture war, they may well have won.
Somehow, Toronto achieved a late spring evening without humidity or auto exhaust or heat or crowds or any of the other things that make me not love going to Toronto in the warm months. Maybe they were all at other events or at the cottage. Whatever it was, it was a great night for walking from bar to bar with good company. A good night for taxis, too, as the only hotel room I could get was out by the airport. The planes land every 45 seconds through the night. In case you were wondering.
We met in the mid-afternoon at Stout, a pub off Parliament on Carleton. Ron was drinking Nickle Brook’s imperial stout. He must have liked it because he had another. Jordan was drinking a sensible Muskoka Detour. We were joined by home brewer Peter Friesen who had arranged Ron’s presentation the next day at Toronto Brewing Co. Ron is on the Great Lakes portion of his global tour. We then drove about 25 miles to drop off my car and then taxi back into the Junction district via highways showing their age, past 1970s concrete office towers with neon signs proclaiming things like “Canada Bread” where, according to Jordan, Carol works in accounting. We stopped at Indie Ale House and 3030 in the Junction before finishing at Bellwoods.
I won’t play by play the consumption but a couple of things stuck with me. One thing was a lot of of the people out and about were loud mixed groups of friends with, especially at Bellwoods, almost half being young women. Sure people were on dates, too, but there was solid representation of the genderless interest in good beer and good food that gave me hope for my school-aged daughters’s future. Also, a difference between Indie Ale House and Bellwoods was primarily in their brewing choices. In many other ways, they were very similar. The food at both places was excellent and reasonably price… and both served their meals on those individual slabs of lumber which will one day keep cottagers toasty as these burn in their fireplaces after this trend passes.
What set them apart was how at the Indie the beers were decidedly leaning towards the added flavours school of craft brewing while at Bellwoods there was a bit more of a traditional approach. Both were largely excellent. The IPA at Indie was extremely fruity, even more fruit cocktail than, say, Kipling. But it was cut neatly by the arugula side salad next to my smokehouse burger. At Bellwoods, an undoctored guest cider from West Avenue went down exceptionally well with a rabbit on toast thingie. OK, it was rillettes de lapin which I have only bought in Quebec so I translate it as thingie so you will understand. The unadorned brown beer there was also really good. Jordan convinced me to eat a duck heart. You should eat a duck heart.
A good evening out. But for the lack of hearty north woods plaid chic, you might have even thought you were on Duluth in Montreal. Which is a very good thing.
My own favorite local.
Stan linked to this story a few days ago. It got me thinking… but not fast, “get me to the keyboard” thinking. It was this bit at the beginning that got me mulling:
I was watching a video online when it was interrupted by a commercial for Budweiser. The name of the spot was “Do You Know Where Your Beer Is Brewed?” Soft guitar music played while clips of idyllic landscapes and sunrises peaking over breweries slid across the screen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The gentle voice of the narrator says, “With 12 breweries spread all across the United States, your next Budweiser is closer than you think.” Budweiser hangs its hat on the fact that it can produce the same beer at 12 facilities and it will always taste exactly the same no matter where you drink it. No small feat, to be sure. But then the voice adds, “You might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer.” My eyes narrowed and my brow furrowed. ‘What in the heck is this?” I exclaimed. “That is our word!”
Our word? There’s a lot of weird words in there. Not the least of which is “our” – whose the hecks is that referring to? Don’t get me wrong. I like the work of the author Jeff Baker just fine. He’s the manager of the Farmhouse Bar and Grill in Vermont. Nice place. Real nice. Just not my local. Because “local” can mean that, too. The distance of the drinker from the drink.
But that’s not his point. It sorta illustrates mine but that’s not really the goal of where I am going. He is asking about local ingredients. If you want that world, go back 200 years and have a look at the Vassar day book with local beer being made of local grain and hops being sold back in small batches to the farmers and tavern keepers of the central Hudson Valley just getting back to some sort of normal after the devastation cause by the Revolution. This is the mid-1830s book but in the 1808-11 book the economies of beer are clearly still defined by the cart horse. That is actual local brewing. Are we willing to go there? Doubt it. You don’t really want local. You want some local. Now and then. But you want the global economy beer made with the best ingredients brewed on the newest, bestest equipment. Right?
Craft beer and macro are not all that far apart in this respect. Brewed on computerized stainless steel to a scale and upon a recipe that meets the needs and budgets of their respective clients. The only actual local thing that is reliably present at the brewery is the staff. Hard to be a brewer who lives over 45 miles from the brewery. There’s a hint by the way. If the person discussing the beer in your glass doesn’t live about that close, not a brewer. Sales guy, likely… owner, sure… but that’s all. Both use good foreign malt and distant, shipped in hops. Both tweek their water and yeast to match those found elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I like “local” just fine. It just means, for me, the bok choi and beets I have growing out there in the yard. Not beer.
When anyone in beer – whether Bud or craft – claims a word like “local” or “small” or “real” there is marketing going on – even if only to a small circle. Even if only to the speaker. It’s all unnecessary. When I think of Bud, I think of the brewery at Baldwinsville, New York to my south where local people earn a decent wage. If I have a decent hoppy IPA, I think of the three nations and seven generations needed to make the beer exist. Beer is global and has been since at least the 1400s when the Hanseatic League was beginning to ship Baltic brewed hoppy beer to the Low Countries. Except for odd examples like postwar agricultural collapses like Vassar faced in 1808. Except for that, it’s been beer or large parts of it hauled out from the hold as often as not since the Dark Ages. Good non-local beer.