Some Words For Beer In The NY Times Over Time

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Interesting to see that “craft beer” is such a post-2007 term – and one that has never quote achieved the heights that “microbrewery” did in the late 90s. “Gourmet beer” never did nuttin’ for no one. Thank God. Glad to see “good beer” has the staying power that simplicity and accuracy assures. Play this game yourself.

My Wee Experimental Brewery

Not quite this much yeast…

I was going to call this another project but I think that might be a wee bit too much so “My Experimental Brewery” (or MEB) will have to do. I have home brewed in two periods of my life. In 1987 I visited the Pitfield Beer Shop that Knut visited in 2005 but which recently shut. I picked up some books, a few collapsible kegs and backpacked them back to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a stretch of kit brewing with my recently graduated pals. From 2000 to about 2003 I part-mashed about 100 gallons a year, mixing extract and a small mash. I was pretty good and used the best ingredients I could find. I also got a bit heavy…heavier…which has put me off brewing for a while.

But recent comments here plus thinking more about beer and culture plus a colleague with an interest in brewing got me thinking – including thinking about about all that excellent yeast I have been pouring down the drain as I rinse out the bottles for the recycling bin. I’ve probably tossed back or poured down the best part of a half litre of saison yeast in the last year and another of top barley wine leavings. That can all be farmed, reused and renewed. And half the magic is in that yeast as we all know. So I put together the makings of a semi-demi-pico brewery and plan to make tiny ten litre batches of all-grain brews. Maybe a pumpkin porter with Fantôme yeast from Belgium. Maybe an imperial Scots heavy with the mixed yeasts of dubbels and Traquair to help give comfort to a few of we Scots who never got to have that empire. Maybe I will pull down that book by Tayleur that I picked up in 1987 and make something out of what I grow this summer in the garden.

So what would you make if you could make just five six-packs at a time?

C’est What, Toronto, Ontario

cest5I was in Toronto for a few days this week and was able to stop by a brewpub called C’est What. I have some notes to add later after I dig through my stuff but wanted to get these pictures up.

cest7The Next Day: I appear to have sprayed my things with notes-be-gone so I’ll do this from memory. I tried two of their own ales with my Porter Beef Ribs and like both a lot. The first was the redundantly named Brown Mild Ale. While it is true there is a style of that is a light coloured mild, it is rare enough that it is an exception to the general principle that mild is brown. At 3.3%, it is the right strength for a session of supping. The beer menu said it was nitro dispensed meaning instead of being pushed by the normal CO2 there is a measure of nitrogen added. This is the same idea behind cask flow ale in a can that leaves a tiny fine head. With this real ale, it works very well giving a creamy head that incorporates many of the flavours of the yeast. The beer was creamy with chocolate and walnut flavours. The hops were subdued giving a bit of structure to the finish. Very nice.

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At the heart of the ale there is fresh clean water, exactly right for the style. This beer alone would bring me back to this pub. It is a beer that every brew pub should offer, that and/or ordinary bitter, a low alcohol version of a hopped light ale. My only complaint is that it costs the same as the other stronger ales. As 60% of the ingredients go in, ther should be some accomodation in the final cost I pay. That being said, $5.18 CND for a quality real ale pint is a good price.

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The second ale I tried was their hemp ale. This is a favorite of mine whenever I have had it, the hemp replacing or adding to the hop effect. Depending on the amount and selection of hooping, the tastes can be quite different. In this version, it is basically a basic best bitter of 4.5% to 5.0% in terms of mouthfeel which has a layer of sweet green vegetableness added to it. And the green tastes like…fresh broad beans. Should gross but it is not. Quite good with the ribs. cest3The ribs themselves were worth attending again, though the were a smidge underdone for my liking. Meat should fall off ribs and the inner tissue should have essentially melted away. There was a bit too much of a gnaw to the meal but in terms of flavour and texture it was spot on. Served with a spring salad overly drenched in dressing and tastey fine cut herbed french fries. You can order extra ribs and I did, hence the Freddie Flinstone pile on the plate.

This is the second time I have been to C’est What and each time I think there is something less manic about brewing that I would think normal. Less brewiana-esque than most and a little cool or, better, laid back. But I suppose that is the market they are playing to. Odd to see errors like the menu saying Black Sheep Ale is from Scotland when it is from Yorkshire. Nerds usually do not get that wrong. That being said, the quality of the beers – especially in terms of the yeast selection – is as good as I have every tried.

St. Veronus, Peterborough, Ontario

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So we went to Peterborough yesterday to see old friends and we had lunch at St. Veronus, a cafe/bar with a subtitle: “Belgian beer temple”…truer stv1words were never writ. We are now looking for jobs in the Peterborough area.  Unaccustomed to great selection, great service, reasonable prices, care and attention to interesting beer and fantastic food selection am I in a Canadian beer spot that I kept mentally making US exchange rate calculations as I browsed the menu and the beer lists. Then I would shake my head and say…this place is actually in Ontario…and Ontario is in Canada.

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I was overwhelmed at the outset when I realized what lay before me. I did not know what to order for a first drink so I just wandered around the two room cafe taking pictures. I mentioned the fact of this here website and, without shifting into a higher gear of service in any respect, the extremely helpful staff answered any number of my deer-in-headlight questions. They even allowed themselves to engage in a little beer porn for the camera as illustrated below. I settled on a Rochefort 6, a new beer to me. At 7.5% it was off their “new arrivals” short list. It was heaven. From recollection malty, a tad burlappy with even a little chocolate perhaps. Others had various lambics and Gueze as well as a very nice Barbar honey ale which I got to sip. Loverly. Just look at the bar fridge – now that’s real shock and awe.

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Despite the excellent price and variety of the beer, however, it was the food that actually made the visit. St Veronus offers a selection of grilled thick sandwiches with thoughtful ingredients that match the beers very well. The best I thought was the cheddar, slow cooked onion goo and slow cooked apple goo sandwich – it has an other better name but whatever it is called it was scoffed down by a seven year old in mucho haste. For my second sip, I had a local micro, Church-key Northumberland Ale. I did not get a six of that when I visited the brewery last winter but I will next time I go. It was a full malt-fruit forward rich pale ale under what must be the best beer handling conditions I have met in Ontario. And only 4.50 CND for a 500 ml pint.

Definitely a first of many visits.

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National Six-Pack XI: 10W30 Dark Ale, Neustadt, Ontario

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The trouble with Ontario is really expressed in its beer distribution system: it is too big. Half the nation lives here, half the office space and half the bears as well. It goes from the arctic to the Carolinian forest, from the western prairie to a few miles from Montreal. The effect on beer distribution is a focus on localization so that if you want to find one of the beer from the handful of brewers in the province you have to drive. Driving on the weekend for other reasons, I took the opportunity to test the LCBO stocks in Guelph, north on highway 6 just past the Sleemans Brewery, four hours drive to my west.

This beer was worth the drive. A dark ale that actually tries to be something other than a darkened lager like the quite foul Waterloo Dark. Dark ale is not really a style so much as a place there by brown on the lighter side and porter on the richer. It is a small place and this beer settles there well. The body is heavier than the average Canadian ale – as the automotive oil name would imply. It is however fairly fresh with bright, if twiggy, hops cutting quite a sweet rich malt profile. Within the malts there are grainy pale malt flavours as well as some chocolate. Amongst those there is also a treacle note and perhaps a little hint of licorice. A brighter and lighter Theaksons’s Old Peculier? Here is what the advocates say.

Perhaps not the most amazing ale but – for those named dark – the best I have had from Canada.

National Six-Pack X: Sgt. Major’s IPA, Scotch Irish, Ontario

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Finally the wee truck from Fitzroy Harbour up on the Ottawa River near Arnprior made its way down to Kingston giving us a taste of this excellent local ale. This is a hoppy that reminds me a lot of my recollection of the Dragon’s Breath Ale contract brewed and bottled by the old Hart Brewery of Carleton place about (without looking) 35 miles south of Fitzroy Harbour. Candy cane Goldings and grapefruity Chinook hops combine to provide quite a bit of a sour tang to this fairly lightly bodied clean ale. The finish is a nice combination of the slight rough edge of the hops and the light graininess of the pale ale.

The brewery has a pretty good web presence which provides the names of bars where you can buy a pint of tap. It also describes the Sgt. Major IPA as follows:

Our Sgt. Major’s IPA is our most intense ale to date. It’s a massively hoppy and quite bitter beer, yet one with a nice, full-bodied malt background. It weighs in at 5.5 percent Alcohol (balanced by its big body). It is hopped with lots of Chinook hops which impart a tasty white-grapefruit/spice/resin flavour and aroma (and a total of 68 IBU) making the ale wonderfully refreshing. Being at the low end of the alcohol range for the style, it’s as close to a supping pint as tradition allows. While the Sgt. Major’s rather considerable bitterness is nicely balanced by its full-bodied maltiness, this is overall a predominantly hoppy ale. The full body of our India Pale Ale comes from lots of English pale ale malt and crystal malt, with a very small amount of chocolate malt. Our all-natural draught ale uses no artificial additives or preservatives.

I don’t know if that means the bottled version does have artificial additives and preservatives. I would also think that the full-bodied characterization is pushing it a bit in a world where a drive as far south as this is north will get me a Middle Ages Wailing Wench or Druid Fluid. It is, for example, lighter but hopper than Propeller’s ESB from Halifax, one of the nicer bodied ales in Canada, but according to the standard scheme of bitters and pale ales a grade below an IPA. But this all is not to distract from the ale, just the adjectives. Like Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, the lighter mouthfeel I think reflects the apparent or possibly emerging Canadian style of pale ale, as opposed to my suggested putative style sweeter fuller Canadian amber but less hoppy. Both are a degree or two off the standard for an American pale ale or its amber sibling and different again from English ones.

Nevertheless, this is very good beer and a worthy addition to quest for the National Six-Pack. The quality of the craftsmanship makes me think a wee trip to the Manx in Ottawa is in order to try out the brewer’s draught only Session Ale, a rare ordinary bitter which – if true to style – should not hit 3.5% and ought to be as refreshingly quaffable as a good dark mild.

Awful Al’s, Syracuse, New York

Never was a beer from Stone so appropriate…
 

We only stopped in Awful Al’s briefly when walking between Clark’s and the Blue Tusk. Two reasons. I was told to stop taking photos and it is a reminder of how great the anti-smoking laws are for the consumption of fine beers. It is, however, the dimmest lit bar I think I have ever been in and as a result the doctored photos give you the sense of the place as cross between photographer’s dark room, a 1970s era Soviet submarine and a very merry upper level of Hell.

One kind correspondent, Jim of Maltblog, has written me:

Awful Al’s is the place to go for whiskeys and bottled beers. They have a very good selection and a hip atmosphere and clientele. It’s a bit of a meat market, so be warned – it can be very crowded and is filled with the yuppies that you didn’t find at Clark’s. But if you are looking for a dram of Balvenie PortWood or a Laphroaig, this is your place. It’s also the only place I know of in Syracuse that have a waiver from the smoking ban in bars and restaurants – it’s very smoky as a result.

Very smoky as the streets by dark industrial mills at midnight in 1840 were smoky. The ever excellent Lew Bryson is warmer to this particular flame to the moth in his ever informing book New York Breweries (1st ed, p. 205):

…walk over to Awful Al’s Whiskey and Cigar Bar (321 South Clinton Street, 315-472-4427), across from the Suds Factory and lose yourself in contemplation of hundreds of bottles of spirits. Come back to your senses and realize there are some great taps of beer here as well, a big old humidor, and big couches and armchairs to relax in while you enjoy your smoke whiskey. This is civilization….

Look – he’s right. The wall of wickedness. You know, you really ought to buy Lew’s books if you have any interest in ales and find yourself in New York or Pennsylvania or coming soon Delaware, Virginia and Maryland. You can’t be relying on us for every good opinion. Sure I am looking for a signed copy to review…but I will pay. The piper is due his wages.

 

 

 

 

 

So in the end I did not have a dram or a drop in Awful Al’s, driven by oxygen deficit syndrome as well as my fear of such a complete temple to appetite and someone’s reasonable sensitivity to having your face on the internet. I think that I would have to get to know it better, drop the residual asthma and have a change of clothes so that I could burn the nicotine soaked ones I would be leaving in. And buy those spy camera glasses everyone is talking about. But that is just me. Every heaven is not the same heaven and you might like Lou’s better than mine. I know I found mine at the Blue Tusk which I will report on anon.

It is, in reflection, interesting that Al’s, Clarks, the Blue Tusk and even the hotel bar at the Marx where we stayed each suited a different definition of comfort-and-joy and God-rest-ye-merry-gentlemanliness. All distinct from the Maritime and New England taverns of benches and heavy wood tables like those of Halifax or Portland Maine’s Gritty McDuff’s and Three Dollar Dooies, again, despite the shared goal. Speaks to the differences in local culture as much as anything I suppose.

Ontario: Church-Key Brewing, Campbellford, Northumberland Co.

I got off the 401 at the Brighton exit and headed away from that town, going north. I will write more about this brewery tomorrow when I am not so tired but for now here are some pictures and the assurance that some of the best beer in Ontario is being made in a small Victorian church in the rolling hills of Northumberland county. Just one point before tomorrow, however: there were renovations going on and that is why a good swiffering looks due.

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The Next Day: You have to spend an hour getting to and from Church-Key Brewing from the 401. Do it. It sits between Campbellford and Springbrook on route #38 on a high point among small century farms. If it is not on the road, you will notice the yellow draft dispensing van out front. The brewery is housed in the former Zion United Church which was likely the former Zion Methodist Church. The main body of the building is from the 1860s or ’70s with an addition from the 1920s that the brewery is expanding into at the moment. Its 3000 litre conical fermenters stand floor to rafters like the dullest organ pipes in the what was the sanctuary.

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I got to spend an hour with Church-Key Owner John Graham and Marketing Director Cary Tucker. We got so quickly into talking that I didn’t even sample any samples. They only sell six-packs at the brewery, moving kegs to bars and restaurants from Ottawa to Toronto, Kingston to Peterborough. Cary and I got into beer travelling, the joys of the Galeville Grocery and his website. These guys like to know what is going on in the industry and, after five years or operation, are still self-described beer nerds.

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They brew a lager, a pale ale, a smoked ale and a chocolate porter and, going by the two sixes I picked up, the beer is some of the best made in the province. I’ll review the smoked ale and chocolate porter later but suffice it to say that I can easily see making the two and half hour round trip some Saturday just to get another fix. Recently, they have won some important awards:

Church-Key Brewing picked up three Gold Medals at the second annual Canadian Brewing Awards held at the Duke of Westminster Pub in Toronto. Church-Key’s first gold medal came in the Scotch Ale competition as Holy Smoke was chosen Best of Category. In the Cream Ale Category, Church-Key’s Northumberland Ale tied for the Gold Medal with Gulf Islands Salt Spring Golden Ale from British Columbia and Quebec’s Microbrasserie du Lievre La Montoise. Church-Key’s Decadent Chocolate Porter, flavored with cocoa from World’s Finest Chocolate in Campbellford, tied for Gold in the Stout or Porter category with Black Oak Nutcracker from Oakville, Ontario and Boreale Noire from Quebec.

Impressive competition which makes me think we have a couple of candidates for the National Six-Pack.

Directions to Church-Key Brewing.

Irene’s, Bank St., Ottawa, Canada

Last night before going to see the Pixies, the siblings and I took advantage of the moment to visit an old friend, Irene’s pub in Ottawa’s Glebe district. Irene’s is a neighbourhood bar which means it is not necessarily the place to take someone on a first date unless you are on a serious testing night-out. If she agrees to go to Irene’s again, she wins. If she suggests going to Irene’s again, you win.

Opened in 1985 as a sort of Maritime Canadian bar in Upper Canada, its almost 20 years of experience shows in the honeying pine of the wainscoting and the furniture, the colour of good real pale ale. I have seen bands play there, ended work weeks there with pals, had dinner parties collapse into it and wished often I lived nearer to it. People there can be loud. They can also be worse for wear for the night – or even for the decade. A little harder than the Pilot House in Kingston but the same idea. The beer selection is pretty good but not great. The Guinness moves well, however, meaning it is always fresh. Upper Canada Dark on tap is also a good choice. I was driving so those were the brother’s choices.

Book Review: Terry Foster, Beer Writer

Terry Foster is one of my favorite beer writers and the most interesting thing about him as a beer writer these days is he does not have a website. I don’t know how you can exist without a website these days. How else will all the Google bots be able to share your daily musings. Google bots…bots…Google…[Ed.: Giving author a good shake] Oh, right…there is no money and no audience in a website and others are doing it already so why bother. Good point.

I encountered Terry Foster as a home brewer. He is the author titles #1 and #5 in the Classic Beer Style Series published by the Association of Brewers, a US company promoting the homebrew industry. Pale Ale is the first in the series and Poer the fifth. These books are now over a decade old but recently I noticed that Foster has been writing articles for Brew Your Own magazine regularly as well. These sorts of writings as well as my years of one hundred gallons of output have convinced me that the appreaciation of beer is uniquely advanced by learning about and undertaking its production.

A number of the early homebrewing authors started me on that path and it would be my suggestion that Terry Foster is a continuation of that line of thinkers and writers about beer. In April 1963, month of my birth, the British Government ended the taxation of homebrewing under the Inland Revenue Act of 1880 which required records to be kept and a one ound license to be paid. As W.H.T. Tayleur states in his text Home Brewing & Wine-Making (Penguin, 1973) at page 15:

This legislation reminaed in force for eighty-three years, but although at first many thousands of private brewing licences were taken out the number of home brewers steadily declined over the years until by the middle of this century, and after shortages of the necessary ingredients caused by two world wars, hardly any of the few that were left bothered to take out licences.

By removing the need to license, the government created an industry and changed brewing, to my mind, for two reasons. First, self-trained home brewers became self-trained micro-brewers as the opportunities to make money with the skill became apparent. Second, consumers gained access to well-made home brews which were much cheaper and much tastier than the standardized industrial kegged beer the 1960s were foisting upon people. Without men like the 1960s authors C.J.J. Berry and Ken Shales as well as David Line in the 1970s, all writing primarily through Amateur Winemaker Publications, many a brew-pub or craft brewery on both sides of the atlantic would simply not exist.

C.J.J. Berry, Ken Shales and David Line

Foster is perhaps the last of this tradition of British home brewing writers – and not just because his slicked back hair, styled in common cause with them. His two books, Pale Ale and Porter each provide a history of the style, a description of the elements, a guide to making them and a discussion of the commercial examples. Like those earlier authors he provides the context of the style and also deconstructs the mystery of how the brews can be made. Context and technique are two things modern industrial commercial brewers would like to shield from their customers – they more they were to know about what is out there and what it costs, the less likely the concept of brand loyalty might hold the customer.

Foster’s recent articles in Brew Your Own magazine continue this tradition. I have copies of the following articles:

“Pale Ale”, BYO September 2003, page 30.
“Old Ales”, BYO, September 2004, page 27.
“Anchors Away – A History of Malt Extract: Part 1”, BYO October 2004, page 30.
“Let’s Get Rid of the Water – A History of Malt Extract: Part 2”, BYO, November 2004, page 34.

As is the mandate of the magazine, Foster provides context and technique, showing how historical styles can be recreated with confidence. For example, in the third article he discusses how the British Navy invented malt extract in an effort to provide beer to sailors as a necessary food while in the fourth he describes how later extracts were used to avoid the stupidities of prohibition.

Foster’s style is attractive in that he is a plain speaker. In a world of where reputation and brand is all important, he can write of Yuengling’s Pottsville Porter:

…this is in some sense a classic porter, although it is bottom-fermented. Unfortunately, although it has many adherents, I am not one of them as I find it a little disappointing.

Not only is he not looking for the next PR opportunity when he writes, he is a bit folksy while also well researched. He is a trained chemist and has been a professional brewer for over 40 years, according to his BYO bio. He is interested and as a result interesting.