Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some thoughts on St. Patrick's Day (or: Once you go Black, you Always Come Back)

Time has passed and the pain of all our misadvesnture (in alcohol or otherwise) eventually fades. As I lay in recovery from my revelry, I had time to collect my thought about a great holiday: St Patrick's Day. I humbly nail these theses to your computer screen, for your approval.

First off: do not refer to it at ‘Patty’s Day’. That would be a holiday named after someone called Patricia. It is Paddy’s Day, the diminutive of Pádraig, and the proper Irish equivalent of Patrick. Trust me. This comes straight from an Irish friend who tears his hair out to see his nation’s holiday misnamed. 

St. Patrick’s Day is, in reality, a religious holiday. In the popular consciousness it is a day for Alcoholic Adventures and overindulgence. One positive is that it drives people to try some beer that perhaps they would not otherwise. 364 days a year many people would not try a Guinness fearing it is “too heavy” or “tastes to dark”. Some people’s comfort zones are barely measurable but at least they are trying to take a baby step outside of them.

Guinness is like a training wheels beer for what the world of black beers—stouts and porters—have to offer. In it, you will find the flavour notes that are more played up in other dark/black beers. Guinness has a touch of the roast and ‘tang’ flavours from black patent malts, the creamy head you will find in nitrogen dispensed beers and of course the black-as-night colour. 

If you even remotely enjoyed Guinness then you already know you’ll like the flavours in some of the beers to follow. They are great alternatives to Guinness on any day of the year and will give you a sense of the full range of flavours and textures available in Stouts and Porters. If you are wondering what the difference between Stout and Porter is that will be the subject of a future post. For now, you can be content knowing they are basically the same thing.

This has many of the same flavours you’d find in a Guinness only kicked up a notch. Best of all, it remains as quaffable as the Irish stand-by even though it’s body is a tad more substantial. This is on nitro, with a creamy head that clings all the way down the glass. The roast flavours of the malts are more played up here than in a Guinness and the tang is downplayed and shifted into the nose and the finish.

Also, this beer tasted good cold, right off the hop. Most porters and stouts could benefit from a minute or two to warm up but this is full of flavour right away.  

Just look at it. 

The head is absolutely glorious. It looks like you could balance a coin on it. In fact, I did balance. For about a quarter second before falling to the bottom of my glass and eliciting a laugh from some patrons and one of the bartenders.

A subdued tanginess/astringency plays backup to chocolate notes. The toast-y flavours are also here, but the chocolate is more in charge. The body is butter-smooth, like chewy silk. The beer is absolutely opaque—a truly black beer. The flavours are distinct and clear, but mellow and not in your face. It has a lovely fade-away aftertaste like drops of espresso on the tongue and a smooth consistency. The body is a nice medium between the extremes of heavy/sticky and thin/watery. It is a little on the dry side, but has the body of a robust & sweet stout.

I haven’t actually tried this yet but I have had some of their other beers and they were all quite tasty. I’m sure this is awesome. These gentlemen seemed to be enjoying it.

This is just scratching the surface of the scratch in the surface of 'dark' beers. There will be more to follow. Consider this part I in my guide to black gold.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On Prostitutes and Wine (Herdade Paco do Conde)

I have a friend who owns a pair of shoes that retail for $1000, he got them at an auction for a couple hundred, good deal I suppose. This same friend owns a designer backpack for which he paid $900. When I learned the price of his attire I nearly spat out a mouthful of $100 wine.

It seems insane to pay more than $100 on shoes or a backpack (personally I opt for the $100 shoe-backpack combo!) yet for some reason I am willing to shell out that kind of money for a good bottle of wine, a bottle that will last a few hours at most and might give me a decent buzz. The money someone is willing to spend on an item is often influenced by knowledge and appreciation of whatever it is they’re buying, or they are ignorant and have an excessively high credit limit.  Many people who buy wine have an upper limit of about $20 yet these same people are buying $3000 handbags. How is it that we decide what we are willing to pay top dollar for, how do we assign value and what does it all mean?

I can’t comment on many products in this world, I don’t know why a t-shirt can cost $75 or $5 but I am fairly well versed in the world of alcohol. I understand, to a certain degree, why a bottle of wine may cost $50 or more while there are some that are as low as $7. There are legitimate costs that go into producing an excellent wine that will drive the price sky high, a new barrique (a wooden barrel made out of oak that holds 225L) costs in the thousands of dollars and can only be used once for the full effect. Only selecting the best quality grapes takes an unbelievable amount of time and most people who work at picking grapes are rather fond of being paid for it. These are two factors that influence quality and cost, on the flip side a winemaker may simply add oak chips to a wine housed in a stainless steel container, and may rent a machine to quickly and efficiently shake the grapes off the vines. Neither of these practices are especially good for quality but they sure can bring down the cost of a bottle.

Candi circa 1890
Price of wine, like the price of so many things in life, is not solely dictated by the cost of creation, like any good lady of the night will tell you reputation and prestige go a long way in determining the asking price. Once in a while you find yourself asking was it really worth paying double for Candi over Trixie? Paying top dollar for “companionship” is much like paying for a fine Bordeaux when it really comes down to it you’re just paying a lot of money to get… well you know.

Throughout my adventures in alcohol I have determined a $50 bottle will be able deliver the most opulent flavours known to man, assuming the wine is properly selected. For the true lover of wine, beer, whisky, steak, gambling etc. there is no upper limit as far as cost is concerned. With $50 in your pocket you can have a wine that is probably equally well crafted as a $200 bottle, but they won’t taste the same! Curiosity will eventually take hold and one may find oneself a little late on this months rent…

Value is something we assign to things we are passionate about, for the truly passionate value is absolute. A $900 backpack is a good purchase because it is beautiful or durable or something, at the very least it will enjoyed for a hell of a lot longer than a $200 bottle of wine.* For the passionately curious no price is too high if there is something to be gained be it knowledge or enjoyment. Sometimes you get burned and all that has been learned is that a great amount of guilt can accompany a great amount of spending but that in itself can be a reward. It can be a costly endeavour discovering ones likes and dislikes. As much as I have disliked some of the more expensive bottles of wine I have bought I am satisfied for having learned something and taken the riskier path of exploring rather than sticking with the tried and true. Life is too short to buy the same bottle twice!


I should add that I have been writing this with red wine in mind. As far as white wine goes it almost never pays to buy a $100 bottle. For whatever reason it is easier to find mind blowing whites that are $30 or less than it is to find equally tantalizing reds for the same price.

Post disclaimer note on the wine of the night:

I was lucky tonight, while the wine I am drinking wasn’t a recommendation per say, I was mostly just spying on the wine one of my coworkers was buying, it is certainly delicious and well worth the $120… sorry $12 I spent on it.

Producer: Herdade
Wine: Paco do Conde
Region: Alentejano, Portugal
Year: 2007
Price: $12
Alc: 13.5% 

Notes: This is my favorite type of wine: well made and easy on the pocket book. Paco has good balance and tastes pretty damn good: plum, raspberry, tobacco, leather, spices and herbs oh my! Portugal you've done it again, if I were the type of person who bought wine a second time this one would be a staple of my diet, it is Very Nice!

*This actually kind of gives me pause, I still enjoy some of the best wine I have tried throughout my life, the memory of such wine is often enough to bring a smile to my face. Maybe a topic for a future post.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rock me Amadeus - Les Brasseurs de Gouyant, Amadeus Witbier

Les Brasseurs de Gouyant (Doual, France)
500 ml Can

A little background: though it comes from France, this is a Wit bier in the Belgian style. Germany has wheat beers too, but these have much more wheat and different characteristics. I prefer wit biers, personally, but both are nice. Despite this shared ingredient, they aren't too similar. Commercial beers like Rickard's and Keith's White give a nod to the style. Hoegaarden is to Wit Bier what Guinness is to dry Irish stout.

My first impression of this beer is that it smells sort of like Orange Crush. It also has a sort of soft, chalky, dried lemon smell. Sort of like lemon candies or a sports drink. The wheat offers a nice texture to the beer and downplays the flour-y note that can come into play in the smell or the flavour with the use of this ingredient.

The lemons are in charge here in a big way. There is some lemoncello going on here. The flavour is of big, lumpy, Italian lemons. Not those wussy lemons we get in North American grocery stores. The beer throws a nice fizzy head and has a cloudy yellow thanks to the wheat.

There is a grassy spritziness to it. The lemon flavours are all fresh rind, none of the bitter pith (white stuff) flavours. Wit Biers are great for pairing with foods, enjoying in the summer, and enjoying in winter when you wish it was summer.

This would go well with a number of foods:

·         Fish and Chips
·         Oysters
·         Lemon Gelato
·         Hummus and Pitas
·         Grilled White Fish
·         Quesedillas
·         Regular Potato Chips
·         Tempura Battered Vegetables
·         Sushi would be a fun experiment, too. Anything you'd serve with Tzatziki (yogurt + cucumber dip you get with Greek food) would be nice as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What Kind Of Wine Drinker Are You? (J.Lohr Chardonnay)

A male customer, accompanied by an attractive young women, recently asked for my help in selecting a wine. He explained he was looking for a $120-130 bottle of wine – odd most people lead with the type or flavours they want – he went on to tell me he wanted a sweet, light bodied, fruity red wine. He was trying to “learn” about wine he explained, I’m sure the blond to his side had nothing to do with the price being the first mentioned qualifier for the type of wine.

Recently I was asked to recommend a couple $15-20 bottles of wine for a wedding, a white and a red. Astonishingly the first white I bought to test as an appropriate recommendation blew my mind, I have been much less successful with the reds so far.

Pompous Bastard!
These two experiences made me seriously evaluate the process by which I make a wine recommendation. Wine is or was – I would argue over the past few years the situation has greatly improved – plagued by pompous Essex types that seem to be determined to make sure laymen will never have access to the knowledge required to consistently choose and drink good wine. The wine world is viewed as pretentious warranted or not. I for one would like to do my part to remove pretention from the world of wine but this is not always as easy as it may seem.

There is a lot of misunderstandings about wine. When a person asks me for a sweet red I am always torn. Let it heretofore be known that there is essentially no such thing as a sweet red wine!* This situation presents me with a dilemma: do I risk loosing there trust and sounding like a pretentious ass by explaining all those reds they have drank in the past were not actually sweet but rather had intense fruit flavour, low acidity and low tannin (or they’ve been drinking nothing but port) or do I lie and point them in the direction of a wine they will believe to be sweet?

When a customer asks for a $130 bottle of wine that is light bodied, sweet, and fruity, do I explain that they don’t make $130 bottles of fruit juice?

As with any entertainment based set of expertise one must be careful when discussing ones area of focus with people who may only have a passing interest in the subject. I enjoy movies to a certain extent but I mainly enjoy the Yellowtail equivalent of movies – woe be to the man who tries to get me to watch a foreign subtitled movie, if I wanted to read I would pick up a book. I understand that the vast majority of people who drink wine don’t care about the difference between berry flavour and sweetness, most people don’t get excited when their wine tastes like tar or cat pee.

Knowing you’re audience is important no matter what your field, some wine drinkers are going to opt for Yellowtail over a nice Barolo, much like I would opt for Dude Where’s My Car over American Beauty (or whatever people consider a really good movie). Every wine (with a few exceptions), much like every movie, has it’s place. The person who loves Yellowtail in any of it’s incarnations is totally right in asserting that it is an awesome wine: tastes are subjective.

Every subjective entertainment based form of expertise must, to justify it’s existence, develop an objective standard of quality even though fundamentally it will be a completely arbitrary standard. But without developing such a standard wine and movies can only be talked about in subjective terms, Dude Where’s My Car would be on equal footing as Gone with the Wind, and to most people that just seems wrong. The world of wine is no exception but it would seem people don’t have the same understanding of why a great wine might be great if it does not fit their tastes where they might with movies or music.

The agreed upon standard of quality allows for us to better measure and understand wine but it also makes wine more mysterious and inaccessible by those who are not privy to the standard. It divides wine drinkers into different groups, the experts, the interested, and those who just like wine. The experts and the interested will most likely develop their palate and become interested in more complex and bizarre flavours: tar, gasoline, botrytis amongst others while those that just like wine might appreciate the fruit and oak flavours.

It is rare indeed that a wine will unite these three distinct groups. Just like they don’t make $130 bottles of fruit juice they often don’t make complex well balanced appealing wine for under $20. But they did! Wine that will satisfy all types of wine drinkers are rare and hard to find. The wine must have sufficient complexity and balance to appeal to the connoisseur yet must also posses fruit forward flavours to appeal to those that may just have a passing interest in wine.

When I recommend a wine I try to get an idea of what a person likes and how seriously they take the pursuit of wine. When a man wants to spend $130 on a bottle of wine there is a lot of interesting and delicious wine that I can suggest, when a man wants to spend $130 on wine so he can get laid the options available that he will enjoy become severely limited. I pointed him in the direction of Bella’s Garden Two Hands Shiraz which is full bodied, dry, fruity with a lot of other complex flavours basically not at all what he was looking for but he was unwilling to pay $10-20 so it was pretty much the closest I could suggest.

As for the wedding J.Lhor Chardonnay is a winner, now if only I could find a red…

Producer: J.Lohr
Wine: Chardonnay
Region: Arroyo Seco, California
Year: 2009
Price: $22
Alc: 13.5%

Notes: I don't generally love Chardonnay but this is probably one of my new favorite whites! Great complexity, great balance, great taste. Banana, melon, pineapple, butterscotch, vanilla, toasty, smoke, peach, mineral, lovely! What truly sets this Chardonnay apart from the rest is the perfect level of oaking, it's not overpowering and it is well integrated - a rarity amongst California Chardonnays I have tried. This wine is Awesome!

I was going to post some notes on a couple of the reds I tried as potential suggestions for the wedding but quite honestly I don't see the point of putting in the effort of typing out my notes about wine that underwhelmed me, if you what a suggestion for a wine that is average just ask.

*Given the best possible conditions for a human to detect sugar there must be at least 2g/L  and a best this will taste mildly sweet, with tannin and acidity in the mix a persons ability to detect sugar will be further decreased. I just quickly checked a mass made wine the could probably be described as “sweet” to a person looking for a “sweet” red, it had 3g/L. I remember this wine, I didn’t especially like it, it was not sweet I wouldn’t even call it off-dry it was definitely dry but it had intense fruit flavours which give the perception of being sweet. The key to determining whether a wine is sweet or dry is the tip of your tongue, that is where you will sense sugar most intensely. Ripe berry flavours do not a sweet wine make.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beau's Knows II - Bog Water, Treading Water & Winter Brewed

Part II of my Beau's Notes:
Treading Water at left, Bog Water at right

Bog Water
Beau's All Natural Brewery 
Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
6.6% Alc.

Notes: Bog Water has a sort of clove-ish smell slightly reminiscent of some homebrew. This did not pan out as a significant flavour as I continued to drink. Instead, liquorice and pepper leapt up. So did a kind of Dr. Pepper small and taste. There was a tang drawn out, I suspect, from the darker malts used here. Mouthwatering, slightly puckering but not sour. This beer was like a spice rack or a market stall: cinnamon, cool melon flavours and pumpkin pie flavours were rounded out by the tastes of s’mores(graham cracker, toasted marshmallow and chocolate in case you have never been camping before) and ginger that picked up as the glass drained.

What made this beer interesting is that it is an unusual style known as gruit. Gruit has a medieval-era pedigree. Back then, depending on the time and region in Europe, no hops were used to give brews bitterness, aroma or flavour. Instead a blend of herbs and spices was used. Gruit was the name for the spice and herb blend brewers employed, but nowadays it is easier to simply call the beer itself gruit.

The herb used here in known as Bog Myrtle or Sweet Gale. I’ll be honest, this beer is not for everyone. In fact, it was more of a curiosity for me since I don’t get to have Beau’s (let alone gruits) very often. I like spiced beers but I also think there is a reason that bog myrtle isn’t a common ingredient anymore. If you want to know what beer was like before the renaissance then give it a try. I commend them for making this brew. It is an interesting adventure in alcohol, but not a place I’d visit again soon.

Treading Water
Beau's All Natural Brewery 
Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
??% Alc.

I also tried Treading Water, which is a blend of Lug Tread and Bog Water. If you are curious, yet the Bog reference puts you off or you want to drink beer from a time when drawings weren’t hilariously flat, this is the way to go. You will have the reassuring bitterness there to balance the beer out in a way we are more accustomed to. Yet you can still experience the bog flavours.

Like the Bog Water this beer was cloudy, but less so. No worries there, just an observation. This blend played up the malt notes more alongside the bitterness of the hops from the Lug Tread. Blending the beers brought out the sweetness in the Bog Water`s dark malts. It also lightened up the body which made for a better delivery vehicle for the spice flavours. Of course, these were muted in comparison to the original, and tempered by the hops, but that was likely the whole point in blending the two together. I’d never call you a wuss for not trying Bog Water (at least not to your face) but I do understand how one could be curious about it, yet not sufficiently tempted to try it. This blend fills that gap. If Bog Water drops you directly into the Medieval Times to fend for yourself (good luck you as a sword-less peasant), Treading Water is a kind of sanitized guided tour that will keep you safe while still being able to say “I was there”.

Winter Brewed
Beau's All Natural Brewery 
Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
5% Alc.

Finally we come to my favourite beer of the evening. This is a coffee-infused beer made in partnership with Bridgehead, a fair trade coffee company.

There is enough coffee beers out there to break the back of Juan Valdez’s donkey if it tried to carry them all. Many are worth a try but this one is much better than average. The use of the coffee flavour here is on the mocha and coffee-cake side. Extremely roasty and aromatic—it reminds me of walking into a coffee shop that roasts its own beans 

The coffee and bitterness mix to give a sort of bitter cocoa powder effect. I liked how they went with the roast aroma notes of the coffee instead of the “this-beer-tastes-kinda-like-coffee” effect that is sometimes the extent of the marriage between bean and brew. The coffee and beer definitely consummated their marriage.
At this point, my notetaking had to stop in order to seize an interview opportunity. Jerry, a gregarious Beau’s rep, was coming my way as he was making a point of talking to everyone at Gambrinus. If you haven’t already I suggest you listen to hear more about Beau’s and why this visit to Gambrinus was special.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Beau's Knows Beer I -- Lug Tread Lagered Ale

You may not be old enough to catch the Bo Jackson reference in the title. I hope, however, you are old enough to enjoy beers without soliciting passers-by or using a fake ID--because getting Beau's on tap is hard enough as it is in my city. Located near Ottawa, my current homebase of London, Ontario is simply too far to be a regular stop for them.

Here is the scoop in the 4 brews they brought down to Gambrinus Bistro as a special treat.

Lug Tread Lagered Ale
Beau's All Natural Brewery 
Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
5.2% Alc.

Notes: Lug Tread refers to the tire treads on the tractor in Beau’s logo and is Beau’s flagship beer. First off, let's tackle the 'Lagered Ale' addendum to the name.

This is another way of saying the beer is a Kolsch, a style of beer native to Cologne (Köln in German). Kolsch, however, is just like an Appelation controlée in the wine world. It can only be used to describe beers made within the city of Cologne that fit the style. This is why you will sometimes see references to ‘Kolsch-Style’ or lagered ale in beer names. They are simply attempts at Kolsches that are not made in Cologne.

How does one lager an ale? The exact definitions and technical processes that define lagers and ales could fill a whole post. The easiest way to explain it is that the wort is fermented with a lager yeast and then chilled down like a lager. This combines the crispness typical of lagers and some of the flavour notes typical of ales. Kolsches are beautiful beers and Köln is more than worth a visit if you want to dip your toes in the German beer world.

This beer is very more-ish. You want to have a second. Lug Tread does a good job of displaying bitterness in a beer that, for all appearances to the mythical ‘average drinker’, looks like a typical mainstream lager. It is a great flagship product with a quenching bitterness. It hints at the potential at the rest of the lineup.

Hay is a word that comes to mind when initially sipping. The body is not thin and watery, but has the appeal of cold water in your mouth.  The CO2 bite, the airy and bready malt notes and the bitterness come together in a finish that shows what a lager-influenced beer can be. It isn’t complex but it isn’t supposed to be. It is a relatively simple and well executed brew that can appeal to those with little experience outside mainstream brews. Yet it is an example in a traditional European style that craft beer enthusiasts prize for its flavour.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where Angels Fear to Lug-Tread

You have to admire a beer from a town of less than 2000 people and named after a tractor tire. Lugtread (left) isn't the only tractor-inspired bit of Beau's. In fact, a sturdy-looking--and anthropomorphically happy-looking--tractor is also their logo. Beau's All Natural brewing boasts a strong presence closer to it's home turf of Vankleek Hill (in the Ottawa area).

Yet the cries of thirsty drinkers lured them down to London (an 8 hour drive) for the evening with an assortment of beers in tow. Jerry Coburn, a Beau's rep, sat down with me to talk about Beau's origins--like every superhero, all breweries have an origin story.

We touched on each of beers--all of them interesting & tasty. This interview even dares to touch upon the issue of where one obtains Bog Myrtle. If you want to know what beer (a variety known as 'gruit'--sounds like 'grew-it') may have been like 500-900 years ago then crack a beer and listen along.

A thank you to Beau's for bringing the adventure to us and to Gambrinus Bistro for playing host.

More to follow and notes on all the beers, too!

Beau's All Natural Brewing Company -- Meet and Greet Interview