Monday, March 11, 2013

Maple Season

With the pre-spring thaw in the Ottawa area, we are firmly planted in what is often known as maple-syrup season. What better way to break in this season with some beer?

Last month, during the WinterBrewed festival, I had the privilege of trying some outstanding craft ale. Among my favourite tastes was one by a favourite brewery of mine, McAuslan. Among their standard fare of fine ales (their St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and IPA are among my favourite beers of all time), they had a special seasonal that, to this date, is not available in Ottawa or in most locations in Ottawa.

Luckily, I live on the border of the brewery's home province of Québec, and I work a short distance of beer shops that stock it.

But what I didn't realize until I started my quest for this special ale was that other breweries craft a similar brew.

That beer is maple ale.

Over the last couple of weeks (and especially, this weekend), I came across and sought out more maple-flavoured ales and decided to conduct a comparison.

I found four, and over the weekend I tried all of them, which I will share with you now.

The first beer I tried this weekend comes courtesy of my favourite Ontario brewery, and came to me as a birthday gift. Mill Street has recently launched a spring sampler pack, with three bocks, called Spring Imp, and three maple ales, which lead my tasting for this review.

Spring Thaw Maple Ale (5.3% ABV)
Mill Street Brewery
Toronto, ON
Beer O'Clock rating: 3
Colour: deep amber to a copper orange, with a foamy beige head that dissipates but maintains a thin coating over the top of the glass.

Nose: a pumpkin-like citrus and maple, with a bit of a freshly baked bagel.

Palate: fresh citrus and very mild honey; the maple grows in the mouth but stays dry through the finish.

Overall impression: this is a fresh, easy-drinking ale with just a kiss of maple. While it is highly enjoyable, I was reminded of the pumpkin ale and, to an extent, the Tartan Scotch Ale. I liked this beer but was starting to wonder if this breweries seasonals were taking on a familiar theme, based on a single recipe with a few differences.

Still, I really liked the beer and looked forward to the remaining bottles in the pack.

Next, I went to the beer that I sought out and that started my whole maple kick.
St-Ambroise Erable (4.5% ABV)
Brasserie McAuslan
Montréal, QC
Beer O'Clock rating: 5
Appearance: tawny-amber with a whitish-beige head that vanishes quickly.

Nose: candied fruit with definite tones of maple syrup.

Palate: intense maple without the cloying sweetness of syrup.

Overall impression: I love—LOVE—this ale. I could happily pour it over my pancakes (though I'd have to add some sugar). The maple clearly comes through. This is the best maple beer I've ever had.

Next, I went for something different but right up my alley.
Maple Porter (6% ABV)
Nickel Brook (Better Bitters Brewing Company)
Burlington, ON
Beer O'Clock rating: 4
Appearance: dark walnut-brown that allows no light to pass through it; a foamy taupe head that dissipates but coats the top of the pint.

Nose: coffee and chocolate malt.

Palate: definite maple off the top with chocolate and coffee backing it up. It's rich with a mild sweetness in the finish.

Overall impression: this is an incredibly balanced porter. There are rich flavours of a great porter that happens to have a touch of maple syrup. I could drink this ale all day. It's beautiful.

Finally, I tried a beer that was recommended to me by a fellow Ottawa blogger and Twitter friend, who warned me that this ale was "crazy sweet." He said it was like drinking a Wurther's Original. Reluctantly, I picked it up.
Spring Maple Belgian Blonde Ale (7% ABV)
Lake of Bays Brewing Company
Baysville, ON
Beer O'Clock rating: 2
Appearance: honey gold with a white foam that vanishes immediately.

Nose: honey, orange citrus, lemongrass, and candied fruit.

Palate: grassy hops with very little maple.

Overall impression: this ale was nothing like I expected. It was very grassy in the mouth and quite herbal, but I found no cloying sweetness. In fact, my taste buds worked very hard to find any sweetness at all. I did find a touch, but it was overwhelmed by the grassiness of the hops. And I really didn't get enough maple to consider this selection a maple ale.

While there was nothing wrong with this beer, it wasn't to my taste and I don't think I would drink it again. But it did round out my sample of maple ales.

So I think my appetite for maple ales is satiated. I will stock up on St-Ambroise and Nickel Brook and will enjoy Mill Street's offering while I can.


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