Session 119: My Discomfort Beer

This month’s version of The Session is being hosted at the English blog  Mostly About Beer…… where this question was posed:

For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

This is an interesting question – even with this head cold. No need to pull out a beer as part of the challenge. The question reminds me how we are told we need to learn to appreciate all styles within the construct of the brewer’s intention. But that is the path of the dweeb – but not one without at least a lesson or two to share. I was taunted over a decade ago into teaching myself more about sour beers before they were really showing up from anywhere other than Belgium. Cantillon’s Bruocsella 1900 Grand Cru struck me as gak:

Quite plainly watery at the outset then acid and more acid…then one note of poo. Not refreshing to slightly sub-Cromwellian stridency.

I still like that review as the only think I would change is that I now like that taste which I described so accurately. Yet I would not hunt it out. Same with most gose, most smoked beers and any number of the other experimental or niche styles that depend heavily on a quirk. Once one has moved past the chase for novelty, you find that you come back to favourites. For me these are still varied: gueuze, real saison, brown ales all fit the bill when they fill the glass. I could happily drink gueuze most days though I can’t buy it here regularly. My studies of sour opened my world. I am glad I took them on.

If something could be a style that makes me uncomfortable I suppose it might be contemporary IPA where you need to pack a hop directory to figure out what’s in your mouth. They are today’s darling but I’ve never caught the fever.  Again a decade ago, I even sat down with eleven of them to try a wide range of them. I discovered… there was a wide range. Their many many siblings before and since then hasn’t altered my creeping suspicion that while the three letters are a brilliant marketing trick they are also a tool for obfuscation. You never know what you are going to get in your glass. So I tend to stick with a familiar quality IPA like Nickle Brook’s Headstock with feel the urge but if I am out and about I am more likely to hunt out a beer more daring – yet more reliable – than whatever they are serving that’s called an IPA.

Does that answer the question? It’ll have to. Cold meds a’callin’!

Ontario: In 1998 Did “IPA” Mean Macro Gak Or…?

image60This in interesting… well, to me at least. It is from the 1998 debate in the Ontario legislature on the imposition of regulation on the Brew On Premises trade. BOPs do not exist everywhere. In Ontario, they are sort of a hybrid between home brewing and macro brewing where you can go to a business and order a batch of beer from a menu, participate to a certain degree with the person running the place but get to use proper brewing set ups. In 1998, they fell under government regulation. But that’s not the interesting thing. This bit of the statement by MPP Mike Colle from 2 November 1998 is:

The appreciation of fine beer and fine Ontario wine has really exploded in Ontario in the last couple of decades. At one time, it was rare that you would go into a restaurant and see a bottle of wine on a table; you would see people having everything but wine. Now you can see Ontarians of all stripes enjoying good Ontario wine, and also they’re enjoying good beer. At one time it was just your basic beer that Ontarians were drinking. You remember the ones drinking old IPA? I call them the old IPA drinkers. Well, we’ve gone beyond the old IPA and we see people now appreciating fine-brewed micro-brews or speciality beers by the major manufacturers and brewers. It’s part of Ontario’s socioeconomic fibre that drinking beer and wine as part of your meal, in moderate, controlled fashion, is quite acceptable, It’s an industry that employs a lot of good, taxpaying Ontarians.

Apart from the weird idea that beer and wine are for mealtime, notice that reference to IPA. Likely what’s being referenced is a beer like Labatt IPA and that IPA from a point in our collective memory at its final days of popularity – before the lighter beers we all bear a certain responsibility apparently to dislike now, beers like Labatt Blue and 50. So, like now recalling the reputation of disco dancing in the age of New Wave, we are a few times removed from the beer in hand, the beer in the slur. In 1998, Colle is 53 so may be recalling the IPAs of the late 40s and early 50s. This could, in fact, be him visiting the brewery’s cask room in the 1940s. A beer with Victorian roots. The ales of his uncles perhaps.

Even just fifteen years on, it much be hard to fully appreciate the slur. What did IPA represent that was so different from “fine-brewed micro-brews”? Like Ten Penny to a Maritime kid, was it musty? Too grainy? It must have meant something to him as he referenced it three times in quick succession.


Ontario: Headstock IPA, Nickel Brook, Burlington

I suppose I should write from time to time about what is actually in my fridge. I suppose I should also check out what is in that brown paper bag back there.

Nickel Brook’s Headstock IPA has become my “go to” beer which, to be fair, is because that can of Narragansett Porter back there is the only one I have and maybe one of a handful in Canada. Why do I like this so much? Well, it is big but not insane at 7% but has as much wallop as any number of stronger DIPAs I have had from the states. Then you have to simply like the price, $2.65 for a 473 ml can. No, I am not able to explain how it is we have 473 ml cans and not 500 ml cans but it is what it is. I can get almost three litres for just over fifteen bucks and it is the backbone of the weekend. It pours a slightly less than clear orange amber with a rich foamy white head. The aroma is pungent Seville marmalade. Sweet bitterness in the mouth. More orange flavours including bitter pith, pink grapefruit juice, prickly spicy green weedy hop, white pepper burn in the finish all in a satisfyingly rich even thick brew.

BAer respect. I like it way more than their average suggests.

New York: Frankenwhale, Community Beer Works, Buffalo

OK, it is Frank and The Whale, actually, the two brews from Buffalo’s Community Beer Works. The recent Euro 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference has sent the up a red flag about the ethics of samples. Really? I suppose some have ethical debates within about the free bit of gak they might foist upon you at a grocery if you don’t plan your cart route cleverly. I think Tandy is on the right track. Missed PR opportunity. That’s all.

These samples sparkle ethically. A work friend was coming to this end of Lake Ontario from the other end and rather than stay in Canada popped south. He asked if there was anything he might pick up and I directed him to CBW who hand filled these two bottles for same delivery back across the border. They are only on tap so far so the bottling is a bit of an experiment. The “F” and “W” black markered on the cap is not actual branding. So, not available in my town or country and not available in this format. If I like them, I know the pain and torment of alienation from the beloved. If I don’t, well, what was the treat that I was somehow leveraging against my inner compass? No ethical mine field when the prize is crap. Result? My soul is as pure as the lamb’s.

Let’s see. Gimme a second to get a glass…

Frank poured a clouded light gold, under whipped egg white head. The aroma jumped at me as soon as I popped the cap. Bright apricot and lime citrus on the most modest snort. On the swish, it is a lighter bodies mouthful of grapefruit and arugula. Very much the lawnmower in the the weedy ditch sort of hopping. At 4.6% God knows I could not possibly suggest this is sessionable but one sure could consume a significant quality at a moderate pace over a long period of time. The slightly drying finish reminds me a lot of Nickle Creek’s APA of a couple of weeks ago. But this is a bit more of a fruity take of a pale ale. Like it lots. BAers who have had it have the love.

The Whale is beefier at 5.9%. Rahther than rocky meringue, from above this looks like a very large espresso with its fine mocha cream head. Plenty to smell: date, cocoa, coffee. In the mouth a wonderful wash of soft water cream and coffee with nut and dark dry fruit flavours wafting about. Really quite rich and lovely. Hopping is there, a bit minty but only a bit, to cut any cloy and also to frame the flavours in the malt. I get licorice and a bit of white pepper, too. Maybe even a little cigar. Quite the thing. Rich but not flabby. Still bread crusty. More BAer love.

So. Feeling ethically pure still? Sure am. A fine brace of beers as ever I had and certainly so given that they are from a brewery that has only been open for month and could fit in my shed.

Saturday Afternoon Beer As I Smoked Meat By The Shed

After two weeks off that saw a lot of road, it was good to have a Saturday to commune with 5 pounds of pork and 5 hours next to the Weber set up as a smoker. As perfect a summer day as ever there was, the fire sparked quickly given the subtle breeze. I dry rubbed the joint for only an hour or so and then settled in for a long afternoon’s watch.





Despite the moment, I took a few scribbled notes:

⇒ Mill Street Organic Lager is a beer that had been mainly offered in an irritating 10 ounce bottles but is now available in 500 ml cans. It has a nice body for a 4.2% beer – some pale malt roundness framed by slightly astringent hopping leafing to an autumn apple finish. one of the few Canadian better sort of sessionable beers. Good beer at a good price that lets you have a few.

⇒ I should be grateful to have a Rickard’s Blonde in the fridge – because I happily downed the first two samples sent and then had to go back and ask for more. It’s a slightly sweeter lager than the Mill Street, a bit darker with a slightly peachy tone supported by heavy carbonation. Its light astringency is present from first sip onwards leading to a bit of a rougher hop finish. Its sameness from the sip to swallow got me thinking but it is quite worth buying for what it claims to be.

⇒ Hop Devil is an old pal that served as a change of pace mid-smoke. It pounds that crystal malt that some English beer commentators now suggest is overkill. The hops have black pepper and pine tree with maybe a bit of menthol. A beer I would happily have on hand anytime.

⇒ The Samson came my way care of a pal who was traveling through Quebec and found this at the Government SAQ store up in Gaspé on the Atlantic coast. Apple butter with molasses notes open up into black cherry. Bready and bready crusty make me think of the drink that Dr. Pepper wishes it was allowed to be. No need of this to be held out for the few and the easterly. Nothing Earth shattering but more evidence that Canada needs better beer distribution.

Shed. Beer. Shed beer. They held me in good stead as the afternoon wore on. Slow smoked the pork and slow passed the hours as I day dreamed about the human condition as well as the drawing to the end of holidays.

Why Do Names For This New Beer Style Kinda Suck?

Forget the question of whether styles are real and essential. Forget the question of whether beer styles have been accurately described and traced historically. The real issue is that the names of beer styles are a mess and cause consumer confusion. Andy raises the question of the name of one black hoppy brew and seeks resolution for this very good reason:

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

He then goes on to ask us to choose from a number of choices that have been bouncing around beer nerd circles like Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. There is only one problem. They all suck as names. Let’s be clear. They aren’t related to India and they aren’t pale, as Andy notes, but also no one outside of the Pacific NW actually knows what “Cascadian” really means. Plus, while the picture of me from 1992 shows I have a great long love of the Vermont Pub and Brewery and the work of the late Greg Noonan, the idea of calling it “Noonan Black Ale” suffers from the same problem, needing to know some sort of back story. Also, there is a minor sort of beer – perhaps not a style at all – that you see from time to time called Dark Ale. What’s it taste like? Dark? That’s like something tasting ice cold.

We can do better. We can make sense. If the point of the name of the style is to inform let’s get to the point. The beer is black and it is bitter. Keep it simple. So call it Black Bitter. I might even try the stuff if it was called a name as swell as that.¹

¹Plus it already comes with its own 70s rock tune for the ad campaign. Just have to change the words a bit: “Whoa-oh Black Bitter! Bam-a-lam!!!” And, yes, I want credit.

Book Review: Hops And Glory, Pete Brown (Part 4)

hag1Well, I finished the book on Wednesday watching kids softball practice. The short message really is that if you are reading this blog you should buy the book. Well written, informative without being stuffy, funny yet quite personal. Likely the best beer book of 2009.

And I checked. I didn’t make the credits. I didn’t think I would but you never know. You never know if you are going to see a note about the whack job who was emailing about the (Inter-)National Toast for Michael Jackson on 30 September 2007, a few days into the tall ship portion of the trip. But no. No, I got something better. On page 248, when he was ten days from Brazil, experiencing one of his lowest points of the entire trip what did he write?

…And even if I had been successful, so what? Who would actually have cared apart from a handful of blogging beer geeks? What was I going to do?

I was verklempt. When one feels like an utter loser and that one’s mission is a dud who springs to mind? Beer bloggers, that’s who. I am sure it was really thoughts of Knut rather than me that steadied our man Pete in that hour of darkness upon the high seas but it’s the general idea, right?

You should buy it. So, go buy it – still 50% off at Review part 1, part 2, part 3.

Book Review: Hops And Glory, Pete Brown (Part 3)

hag1OK, we have moved from page 145 to, what, 332? Yes, that’s it. So, I’ve work through almost central half of Hops and Glory this weekend – still 50% off at by the way – and our lad, Pete, has gone on a cruise liner, a tall ship to Brazil and then a container ship to India. As before there is a patch of the life of Pete Brown, then a patch of the history of the English beer trade to service the East India Company’s needs. Pete, beer. Pete. Beer. But then something funny happens. From 237 to 306 the pattern is dropped. Not much history. Mainly just Pete and his boaty bits.

“What was he doing?” thought I. If I use the hockey analogy and, being Canadian, I will – it gets a bit second period. A bit “boy not yet realized which girl he really should love” if we analogize to date movies. Which got me thinking about Tristram Shandy, that odd proto-novel-deconstruction thing from 1759 or so which I now know is just three years after “grog” was set out in British navy regulation. It’s an interesting book, Tristram Shandy, because it is self-conscious and is a bit about what a novel would be if one could not suspend one’s imagination or if one did entirely or something like that. Eighteenth century literature class was 26 years ago, you know. I’ll let you can judge the value of the academic investment. It’s also about the bleaker end of age of enlightenment as was, we learn, the East India Company.

Anyway, the point is that for 237 to 306, Brown takes us into his internal experience – into the doldrums of the sailing ship and then into the small heart of darkness that is the international shipping trade today – by seemingly forgetting to slip back into the history. It’s a good technique. It weighs a bit, wears a bit. But it still takes us along as if to say “it’s alright, Al, no need for you to ever go on a container ship from Brazil to India all alone for five weeks… I’ve done it… don’t bother.” Thanks Pete. I won’t. It’s off my to do list.

Book Review. Part 1. Part 2.

Book Review: Hops And Glory, Pete Brown (Part 2)

hag1Well, I am up to page 145 of 451 and believe we have a romp on our hands.

Hops and Glory (now 50% off at is a very entertaining read as well as a better introduction to larger questions of British history in India than I had expected. The format of a chapter on Pete’s travel and then a chapter on India keeps it lively. I don’t recall whether the format is exactly what I recall from my reading of Brown’s 2006 Thee Sheets to the Wind but the cheery tone certainly is. You know, I am not sure, now that I look back, whether I actually did a review of TSTTW as opposed to just the Norwegio-Canuck interview. But like his last book, well, the man may well turn out to be a pain in the arse were we ever to meet in the corporeal rather than digital worlds – but he sure paints a pleasant portrait of himself as well as his struggles to undertake the journey.

Which is an interesting point in itself. Most travel books are about journeying to another place. But this book is a little more self-conscious as it is in large part a book about the writing of this book given that the book is about a task and an education and a telling all wrapped up together. It also tells the tale, at least up to page 145, of one of my favorite parts of history, the British Empire of the 1700s. The later Victorians get all the attention as far as I can tell but living in a city which was created in 1783 as a key westerly outpost of the same Empire it is interesting to see the similarity and differences in how British North America developed compared to British India.

In particular the vast scale of alcoholic celebration simply stuns the modern perspective. One of my favorite guys is William Johnson, 1st Baronet of New York and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies, who may as well have set up my town though he died nine years before it was settled by refugee Loyalist troops and their families. His mastery of the New York frontier was based in large part on his ability to celebrate on a scale that the Iroquois nations could respect. Herds of Johnson’s cattle and cart loads of his rum were driven up the Mohawk Valley in the 1750s when parlays were called for and days were taken in the consumption of it all. Similarly, Brown describes how the social lives of those in East India Company were lived on a scale really quite unfathomable – let alone repeatable – to our times. In 1716, we read, one outpost of 19 East India company staff over just one month consumed 894 bottles of claret, 294 bottles of Burton ale, 2 pipes and 42 gallons of Madeira as well as 6 flasks, 274 bottles, 3 leaguers, 3 quarters and 164 gallons of various other forms of booze. I would say it boggles the mind but I think the mind would have been completely boggled by no later of the ninth of that particular month.

But Hops and Glory is not just dipsography. Brown’s struggles to figure out exactly why he’s doing the trip are honestly and humorously told. Which is why I am about to go turn to page 146. More later.

Book Review: Hops And Glory, Pete Brown (Part 1)

hag1A big lump came in the mail today. For someone who is used to packages with DVDs or even VHSs of 1970s sci-fi slipping through the mail slot, this package looked like a lump. When I opened it and saw it was Pete Brown’s new book sent from the publisher I knew it would be a good week after all. Monday evening rarely gives you that promise even one in June.

There was a sad moment, however, when I pulled out my invite to last week’s launch party. Sure, it was an ocean away and, sure, 6:30 pm is just after lunch my time meaning I would have had some very special explaining to do with both my family and my boss. But it would have been good to have had to try.

Who is kidding who? I can’t make it down the street most days let alone across the ocean. These days I am more of the curling up with a good book lump of a man than anything like my former “jumping on a plane with a backpacking” youth. And it does look like a good book. From the first few pages it appears to be about yachting. I am hoping he’s on the coal scuttle later, too. Good for Pete to stretch out a bit. There’s no money in writing about good beer.

Maybe I will hit him up for an interview like with the last book. What could I ask him? What would you like me to ask?