Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Charge of the Light Brigade: How Light Beer With Attitude Invaded our Patios

“Why is light beer like having sex in a canoe?”
“Because its ‘effing close to water!”

We’ve all heard this wisecrack in a bar or a backyard before. Perhaps the joker was even specific enough to name names and take shots at a particular brand. Light beer has long been a punching bag for advocates of bolder beers that put flavour first. Why not? It is an easy target.

‘Lite’ beers are perfect straw men that set the stage for the micro vs. macro argument. The product’s most distinctive feature is a hole in the can that lets you guzzle one down faster than you can flip a burger. Sure, you can put away a whole lot of them, but why would you want to?

This is a pretty fair picture but it isn’t the whole picture.

“Light beer” is actually a very broad idea and a lot of beers and beer styles can fit under that umbrella. Session ales are created with the idea of enjoying several over a long period of time. Mild ales, a criminally under appreciated beer style in the British tradition, could also be classed as light beer. Don’t forget about Berliner Weiss, the real wheat king of the summertime patio. You could even count Saison, a style with roots as a rustic Belgian farmhouse brew, as a light beer as well.

Suddenly, light beer isn’t such a bad word after all!

There is more emphasis on lighter beers this summer and for good reason. With crappy beer everyone loses, but good beer is a win win for everyone: “Pub owners are loving the fact that patrons will be willing to stick around and order a few pints, and customers enjoy the full flavour and complexity” says Flying Monkeys rep Nick Baird.

Here is the takeaway: beers below the usual 5% alcohol don’t need to give an inch when it comes to flavour. The beers on this list truly embody drinkability and more-ishness*. Here are some examples that can re-define the light beer category and jazz up your next visit to the patio:

    • Every genius has a secret. The Genius of Suburbia’s secret is a touch of oats that give this 3.8% beer the body of a 5-percenter. A bold-yet-light alternative to their Antigravity light ale. Find it at Milos’, Crossings, The King Edward in Ilderton, and Mercer Hall in Stratford.
    • Don’t think twice about ordering this beer. It may only have 3.5% alcohol but it has a lot of soul and is a 2011 Gold medal winner at the US Open Beer Championship. Best found at Grand River’s retail store, but can also be spotted at Milos’, The King Edward, and the Winking Judge in Hamilton. If you are supremely lucky you’ll find it on cask.
  • Beer Lab - Session Ale
    • Beer Lab is the ultimate local secret. Brewed by mad scientists Adil Ahmad and Nick Baird, Beer Lab’s Session Ale recipe comes in at 4.4%  The formula is still being tweaked and improved but it is already a hit at the only place you’ll find a pint: Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium. Look for special appearances at Milos’. It never lasts long.
    • Detour is widely available and a good example of the session beer trend. The beer packs a hoppy punch, 4.3% alcohol, and capsizes the idea that drinkability has to mean watery. Muskoka chair recommended, but not included. Look for it at LCBO & Beer Store and licensees across Ontario.
    • Many German cities have their own local beer style and Berlin is no exception. The Berliner Weiss style is characterized by practically non-existent bitterness, low alcohol levels, and a mild sour tang. In Germany this is enjoyed with a shot of fruit or woodruff syrup. Uber may be the most quenching beer on this list. 4.2% alcohol and waiting at an LCBO near you. Prost!
    • Session Toronto featured over a dozen collaboration beers and this one walked away the winner by popular vote. Brewed with input from the Sam Roberts Band and featuring a blend of British and American ingredients, this beer can be found on rotation at Beertown and Chaucer’s Pub. It might just be Spearhead’s best beer. Spearhead also has a London connection in head brewer Tomas Schmidt. Look for an LCBO release this fall.
    • Black Oak doesn’t make one bad beer and this is my favourite one to enjoy in the summer months. The beer is widely available on tap and in bottles (LCBO) and it is a perfect introduction to the Saison style if you’ve never tried it. A touch of wheat, a bit of peppery character from the yeast, and a zesty note in the aroma. At 4.5% its also the strongest beer on this list.

* More-ishness is an unstoppable primal urge to order a second beer right after finishing the first. It is a strange paradox of being satisfied and needing another beer at the exactly same time.

Note: this article will appear in print in Venture Cover, a magazine profiling ass-kicking people in business, sports, and culture and is re-published here with their permission.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Beautiful Sex and Old (blind) Wine

Fucking* an ugly person is objectively just as much fun as making love to a person of great physical beauty.  From my experience the lights during sex are usually extinguished at the lady's or ladies** request... which should give you some indication of my relative level of attractiveness, I'm sure the Edwards of the world get the opposite request. Assuming we live in a world where you can only have sex blind, much like the world that I inhabit where I am forced to taste wine blind, the attractiveness of each party is inconsequential, try to assess beauty with your hands! Or just try to assess asses with only your hands, more fun and more informative!

When light is not part of the equation it's all the same really: slot Y is inserted into slot X and friction ensues,
or in other cases slot Y into slot Y, or X into... X? I've never truly understood the exact physics of X, X slot fitting but I know there are many women who understand it and as long as they do that's really all that matters, it's all a beautiful expression of human biology no matter what the configuration. If you experience your partner 'blind' the quality of sex will depend entirely on the performance that ensues, you are forced (hopefully not literally) to do nothing but enjoy the experience for what it is without any personal or societal judgments that go along with physical beauty. Trust me on this one I've been to a lot of lights off rumpy-pumpy parties.
Sex-god, Vampire or a dude who just ate a lemon and is
vaguely angry about it?

For us non-Vampires it is relatively unlikely we will encounter a mate and follow through with rumpy-pumpy without ever actually seeing them due to the unfortunate fact that the sun exists.*** There are obvious values placed on beauty and because of this most people chase after beautiful people with the idea, I guess, that the sex will be better. The sex may or may not be better but at the very least it's easier to brag about bedding an Adonis rather than Oscar the Grouch. Along with bragging there is also a feeling of conquest, "I touched that which many wish to touch". All of this is a long winded way of saying context matters, it affects' the way we assign value to something or someone which in turn will impact our opinion and relative enjoyment of that value laden object.

It is much easier to taste a wine blind then it is to have sex with a person blind, you just get a friend to put a bag over the bottle and pour it, do that with a human and you are going to jail. There are many claims made that expensive wine is often rated to be equivalent quality or lesser quality than cheaper wines by experts when they are forced to taste them blind (check out the Freakonomics podcast "Do more expensive wines taste better?" as one such example) I will not argue against this. Preconceived notions about a wine play in heavily when determining the origin, grape and relative quality/desirability of the wine. Just as I would rather bed Scarlett Johansson than someone who isn't Scarlett Johansson I would rather drink a 1947 Cheval Blanc than literally anything else because both are deemed to be the highest possible quality in their respective fields that one can hope to experience, regardless of how they actually hold up to that standard, than any alternative. (Sorry Scarlett I know you read this, I didn't mean to objectify you but I had to chose someone and you won, feel free to text me and we can chat about it over drinks)

"Don't worry Josh I forgive you, but I did just guess that Alsatian Sylvaner blind..."

The house I live in and the circles I roll in are filled to the brim with blossoming wine experts, almost everyone I know has been working in the industry for years, often with sommelier training and is either currently studying to get a degree in wine making or already has such a degree. At my house it is a sin to pour a wine with the label, or any other physical clue from the bottle, visible. We drink wine and we drink it blind 100% of the time, sometimes to my great chagrin.

Once a wine is poured we, as a group, have no idea what the wine is beyond the obvious of it being either red, white or blush. But there is one more clue most in the group can rely on when trying to determine the wine being poured: the person pouring it and the grapes and regions they gravitate towards. I have noticed a trend as of late: most times I pour a wine the guesses as to grape and origin are widely inaccurate, which at one point was largely due to my purchasing of the most obscure and unguessible wines, wines we lovelingly refer to as blowjob wine because if in the holy-hell anyone could guess such an obscure wine that is precisely what they would be owed.**** The trend has changed and I now buy quite guessible wines yet it almost never happens that anyone guesses them. Why is this? I try my best not to stick to one region or grape, as such making inferences and narrowing down what the wine could be based on my personal tastes becomes much less likely. One of my friends almost always chooses Niagara or Australia as region of origin, considering virtually every country on the planet now makes wine knowing his natural proclivity towards these two regions is a great help in narrowing down the possibilities and accurately guessing the wine.

Niagara, Australia... sure I'd live in both, I'm really just a lazy raccoon
Thanks DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 for this now non-stolen photo ;)

Knowing the region or grape and being able to guess it is vastly different from assessing enjoyment level (quality). But to those schooled in wine, the history and what a wine represents often has a large impact on the enjoyment of the wine, and the determination of it's relative quality. A friend of mine often says he enjoys a wine when it it blind, but once it is revealed that the wine is actually a very pale Shiraz rather than a robust  Pinot Noir he recants his enjoyment and proclaims the wine to be shit, I have argued at great lengths about the variability of his enjoyment based on knowledge of what it is, but now that I truly reflect maybe there is something to this opinion. If you were to be served a delicious tuna sandwich and after consuming it be informed that it was actually a ham sandwich would you pat your belly contented or recoil in horror screaming "Why the hell did you serve me ham so spoiled that it tasted like fish!?!?!" and then promptly vomit in your shoes?

Knowing the story of something can be half of the fun of enjoyment. Lusting after and sleeping with a beautiful women, even if the sex is worse, is in the grand scheme of things more satisfying to me than just randomly hooking up with a women I am moderately attracted to.***** The context surrounding an experience informs our enjoyment of that experience. To those who poo poo wine experts and relative wine qualities I say poo poo away because I am not drinking fermented grapes, I am drinking a story, and it is the story I truly love. Who, in their right mind, would commit their life to drink?

Japan would agree with me on this one.

*Interesting side note: Rumpy-pumpy is a synonym for fucking/coitus/sex according to the Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus, it's now my preferred term.

**Don't tell me to give up my dreams.

***Well completely blind people probably have experienced this but that doesn't really help me prove my point.

****Thankfully no-one has ever guessed one... I doubt they'd claim their prize even if the did.

*****Yes I'm depraved but you are too don't lie.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

His name is Sancho and he dances on the sand (behind the scenes in a vineyard)

Next time you see a Mexican man at the grocery store hug him, then ask if he works in vineyards, if he doesn't apologize and go about your business, if he does buy him a beer and say "pinche Sancho".

The wine industry in Ontario and to a certain extant BC runs on Mexican migrant workers. These are men who spend 6-8 months out of the year in Canada and the rest of the time in Mexico. In Canada they live in big group houses, in Mexico in their respective Pueblos' they stay at home with their families, and they do have families, they all have families, often quite young families with recent new borns and more on the way. They are not the middle class Canadian kid who decides to spend a year working and traveling abroad, they are family men who often curse or bless Sancho depending on their mood.

Recently the Mexicans and I have been tucking vines, this is an exceedingly tedious task that seemingly never ends. We spend 12 hours a day, all day, taking the newly grown shoots and tucking them under wires so the tractors can easily move through the rows and spray pesticides without damaging the vines. The vines just keep growing and growing so we keep on tucking and tucking. Doing one block at a time we then have to go back to the start once we have finally finished:  Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and then back to Merlot because it refuses to stop growing! It's outrageously boring and incredibly simple which allows for ample time to have impromptu Spanish and English lessons and cultural exchange.

If you look closely you can see the right side, which has been tucked, has considerably less errant shoots than the left side which has yet to be tucked. This row would have taken about an hour.

The conversations between me and the Mexicans started out with the most basic of descriptive sentences "te gusta cerveza?" "senorita caliente?" Contextually our conversations often made no sense and exclusively revolved around tequila, beer, attractive women, being tired and being hungry. As time has progressed my understanding of Spanish has improved and we have been able to express more complex thoughts with one another. The most perplexing and intriguing notion they have shared with me so far is the existence of Sancho and the strange attitude they take towards him. When I first heard of Sancho I tried to commiserate "Pinche Sancho" (curse Sancho!) but the response was not one I expected: "no, no Sancho est bueno." Esteban then went on to explain to me that Sancho looks after his family and takes care of his wife while he is away. If anything dirty poped into your head when you read the phrase "takes care of his wife" then you have a very accurate imagination. Sancho helps with chores and opening pickle jars while the men are off working the fields in Canada. Sancho also takes care of Esteban's and every other Mexican migrant worker' wife while the husbands are away. Sancho is a very busy man.

The relationship the men have with Sancho is a strange one. The Mexicans are both happy for and curse the role Sancho fills. No husband is pleased about his wife sleeping with another man, but they deal with it and a lot of the men have Sanchas here in Canada which helps soften the blow. No one seems to know who their wife's Sancho is and everyone seems pretty content to keep it that way; ignorance is bliss.

Sancho's primary role is pleasing other mens' wive's, chores and never being seen. As skilled as the families have become at keeping quiet about the arrangement with Sancho secrets have a way of bubbling up to the surface. Manuel once accidentally discovered his Sancho. Sancho disappears when the men return, not necessarily physically but the role of Sancho and all that goes with it must vanish, at least in the human social world. Unfortunately dogs rarely abide by accepted social behaviour, they poop on sidewalks for gods sake! Upon Manuels return back home his dog was acting unfriendly towards him. A few days passed and Mauels friend Pedro dropped by for a visit. The dog was suspiciously friendly towards Pedro. Now Pedro is dead!

That last part probably isn't true but I'm sure there was an awkward silence when everyone in the room realized what was going on.

Sancho is a bizarre facet of Mexican culture that seems to have arisen from work-away husbands trying to raise their family out of poverty. Some of the guys I work with have spent 8 months out of every year for the past 12 years working in Canada. The great distance and time that separates these men from their families has led to a secret care taker, one that tends to the needs of the family while father is gone. It is clear the life of a migrant worker isn't an easy one. While the work isn't always that hard it can be incredibly monotonous and the hours tend to be outrageously long for very little pay by Canadian standards*. One ends up having way too much time to think while in the vineyard, maybe it is all this thought that has lead to this confused but zen like acceptance of Sancho.

Now here is a picture of a young grape cluster:

* They do seem to be fairly wealthy by Mexican standards making roughly 10 times what they would make in Mexico

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sucker for Wine (How wine gets made: grape growing in the spring)

I, as a 27 year old man, with an average bathroom usage of 4 times a day, have made roughly 40 thousand trips to the bathroom. This rough guestimation of bathroom usage suggests that I have touched the reproductive organs of a grape vine far more than my own.

The amount of work that goes into producing wine for our consumption is unimaginable. The sheer scale of production would astonish anyone not intimately familiar with the process. A 100 acre vineyard in Niagara would be home to roughly 400 thousand vines, each needing individual care and attention multiple times a year. Very little work is done by machines in the vineyard, in general the only time a vine will be touched by a machine is at harvest, the rest of the year it is human (often Mexican migrant workers') hands that are transforming a grape vine from a wild plant to a neatly trellised vine that will produce quality fruit. My hands serve as a testament to the attention required by each vine. In 4 short weeks my hands went from being the soft hands of an academic, to cracked, cut and permanently dirty, unable to feel the stab of a branch or the bite of a spider.

During the early spring the job that takes the most amount of time is suckering. Suckering is done to ensure that the grapes that are grown are quality grapes. A grower can choose to grow for quality or quantity. Grapes are sold by the tonne; an acre of quality grapes producing anywhere from 2-5 tonnes, less quality grapes for bulk wine will often yield 6 or more tonnes an acre. Suckering brings what would be around 8 tonnes an acre to about 4 tonnes an acres. The less grapes grown on a vine the better quality the grapes will be, the vine will put all its energy into 5 bunches rather than 10 bunches which increases concentration and ripeness it's the difference between this:

Thirty Bench "Triangle Vineyard"- one of the best Rieslings coming out of Niagara http://www.thirtybench.com/

and this:

If you were drinking in the 70's or 80's I think you get the point, to anyone else: this is still sold go pick up a bottle to see the effect of (what I'm guessing is) large tonnage per acre. http://en.mateusrose.eu/

There are several practices employed to control yield (tonnage per acre or hectare if you want to be all European about it) one of which is suckering. Keep in mind a vineyard of 100 acres has roughly 400 thousand vines, the crew I'm with is responsible for maintaining roughly 360 acres so about 1.5 million vines. There are 15 of us. 100 000 vines per person. The reason we have to sucker is because vines love growing shoots. In the picture on the left you can see shoots coming out of the cane. The shoots are the light coloured branches that the grapes and leaves are attached to, the cane is the horizontal piece of dark wood the shoots are growing out of.

Without suckering the picture above would look very different, instead of there being 6 or so shoots visible there would be none visible because the foliage and grapes would be so dense. Because god hates wine and vineyard workers he decided it would be appropriate for a vine to produce anywhere from 2-4 shoots (called the secondaries, tertiaries, and quaternaries) from the same location, for good wine we want 1 (the primary shoot). All this is a long rambling way for me to say I have to turn this:

Notice the leaves on the bottom of the stem and in between the two wires.

into this:

No more leave on the bottom or between the wires.

These vines are simple, they are young and the suckers (the shoots that grow in places we don't want them; bottom and between wires in this case) and the secondaries are all easily accessible and visible. On older vines, particularly Pinot Noir, they are neither easily accessible or visible. The labour involved is often back breaking and extremely mundane but there are a mere 100 000 vines I will have to do this to in the span of a few weeks, roughly equivalent to the number of bathroom breaks I will have taken if I make it to the age of 60. It is amazing that any of us can even afford to drink wine, given the amount of labour involved and the risks from disease and insects each bottle of wine should cost about $10 000, '47 Cheval Blanc anyone?

As a final disclaimer: I don't work for either 30 Bench or Mateus but I do think both wines are worth trying.