Friday, June 28, 2013

Rethinking Gluten-Free Beer

I had just finished taking notes for my fifth gluten-free beer, ready to condemn most of them, when I had a epiphany of sorts.

I was going about my approach to these beer-like, alcoholic beverages the wrong way.

I'm a beer snob. I turn my nose up at far more beers than I embrace. I look at the major producers as corporations who have more passion for making money than making beer. I look at clear, pale-yellow beer with much disdain.

I love craft beer that has body, flavour, and character. And if your beer tastes anywhere near the mainstream piss that they try to sell you at Swiss Chalet or Denny's, I won't touch you with a 20-foot cattle prod.

But that's just me and my snobby opinion: life's too short to drink mediocre beer.

I realize that there are many people who like that generic-tasting style. Many more, though the number of craft-beer drinkers is growing (but is still a fraction of the population).

I think that the brewers of gluten-free beer are trying to appeal to that wider audience. And so, I am rethinking my comments on the Nickel Brook beer I tried earlier this week. I owe an apology to the brewers. It must be hard to create a beer without gluten, and then to target an audience that will appreciate it. I'm thinking that you went for the beer drinkers who are used to Labatt or Molson. And, I think, to that end, you succeeded. I'm sure that that audience will enjoy that beer and appreciate that you had their interests in mind.

To the Glutenberg folks, you also made a blonde ale that would appeal to a wide audience of mainstream beer drinkers, but you also made a couple of styles that would be targeted towards the craft-beer fans. And for that, I tip my hat.

Last night, I tried another beer that I also think targets the mainstream beer drinkers.
Bard's Gold (4.7% ABV)
Bard's Tale Beer Company
Utica, NY
Beer O'Clock rating: 1.5
Appearance: a clear, deep gold with a foamy, white head that dissipates immediately to a thin cap, and then to nothing.

Nose: soap and grass.

Palate: lemon and petrol, that fade to a watery finish.

Overall impression: the first taste wasn't bad for a mainstream beer. I felt that in successive sips, it fell short on flavour. I didn't get much off the nose or in the mouth, and what I got I didn't care for.

When I sipped at my first glass, I noticed that the bubbles fell off to a tiny, faint stream of pearls, and then stopped altogether. By the time I was halfway through my glass, my beverage was flat.

I thought this might have been a fault with the bottle, so I opened a second. Again, halfway into my glass, my drink was flat.

Granted, when I review a beer, I drink slowly. Often, as with this review, I write the post while I'm still drinking. As I write this paragraph, I'm about three ounces from the bottom of my glass and Bard's is flat, lifeless, and tasteless.

If you want to drink this beer, drink up. Don't write, don't download photos. Hell, don't talk. Just pour it back.

If you're a fan of the major breweries Bard's Gold may be okay for you, especially if you can't have wheat or other glutenous grains in your beer (this ale is made with sorghum).

On the other hand, if you're a craft-beer lover, this beer may disappoint: it lacks body and character.

This week, I tried five different gluten-free beers. My favourite? The APA from Glutenberg (Brasseurs Sans Gluten). It had the flavour that I look for in a beer. And while it wasn't outstanding as an APA, it was pretty good. It didn't taste like a generic beer and had character of its own.

There are still other gluten-free beers out there that I didn't try and won't try. You'll just have to experiment for yourself.

In Ontario, Nickel Brook and Bard's is available at the LCBO. The Glutenberg beers can be found in Québec, at Bières du Monde and Broue Ha Ha.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Search for GF Beer Continues

After such a disappointing foray into gluten-free beer, I was ready to give up on this style of alcoholic beverage. I was about to tell my friends and acquaintances, who were looking to get gluten out of their bevvies, to drink wine.

Wine is great: it comes in different styles, such as sparkling, fortified, or dessert. It uses different varieties of grapes, each with a unique flavour. It is made world-wide, and the terroir comes through in the end product.

And wine is gluten-free. Always has been, always will be.

But what kind of beer reviewer would I be if I gave up after only one can of gluten-free brew? (Note to Stacey, who called me an "expert." That was very kind of you, but I'm not a beer expert. I'm just a guy who has tried a shit-load of beer, who likes to share his experiences on this blog. But thank you.)

The other night, as I sat on my front steps, anticipating rain as thunder storms passed overhead, I tried three more gluten-free offerings from a brewery that was recommended to me a while back. I have purchased these beers on two occasions for folks who must avoid gluten, based on that recommendation, without trying the beer for myself.

Let's look at them now.

Glutenberg Blonde Ale (4.5% ABV)
Brasseurs Sans Gluten
Montréal, QC
Beer O'Clock rating: 2

Appearance: pale straw with a creamy, white head that retained a thin cap.

Nose: slightly malty, with grass, a light, honey melon, and a faint hint of ginger ale.

Palate: sour ginger and creamed corn. The ginger lingers at  the back of the throat in the finish.

Overall impression: not bad. Again, I'm reminded of a light, generic ale: not a lot of character, not much flavour. However, on a hot summer's day, it would quench your thirst, but it had me craving more flavour, more body.

Add a lime to it, however, and you're good to go. You might have a gluten-free version of Corona.

The second gluten-free ale piqued my interest as I poured it.

Glutenberg American Pale Ale (5.5% ABV)
Beer O'Clock rating: 3

Appearance: copper, with light-brown highlights, and an off-white, foamy head that dissipates to a full lace.

Nose: dark honey or light toffee.

Palate: burnt toffee and butter, sour hops, and a lingering herbal finish that tasted more and more like oregano as I drank it. The alcohol also coats the tongue in the finish.

Overall impression: of the gluten-free beers that I've tried so far, this was the best. It tasted the closest to conventional beer. This APA is made with quinoa, which would make my wife happy (she likes to feed it to me all the time), and displays the most body of the GF beer I've had.

The third choice was also promising.

Glutenberg Belgian Double (6.5% ABV)
Beer O'Clock rating: 3

Appearance: copper-red with a light beige head that dissipates to a thin lace.

Nose: cherry, backed by a chemical and candied aroma.

Palate: sharp apple and tart cherry that comes to a clean finish and lingering alcohol.

Overall impression: this Belgian-styled ale was by far the most flavourful of the bunch. There was quite a bit of body to this beer: had I not known that this was a gluten-free beer, I would not have guessed it.

But as I drank more (I didn't pour any of these beers down the drain), the strong fruitiness started to remind me of wine that came from a bottle that had been opened for a couple of days. It wasn't necessarily bad, but it wasn't what I would expect from a beer.

But maybe that could be a good thing. If my gluten-avoiding friends don't want to stick to wine, would like to try a beer-like alcoholic beverage, this is somewhere in between.

On Friday, I'll review one final gluten-free beer and will give my overall impression.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Going Gluten-Free

A few friends have asked me, why don't I review gluten-free beer? There are plenty of people who have gluten allergies and others who are trying to reduce gluten intake for dietary reasons. So perhaps I could find a beer that doesn't contain gluten but tastes good.

I first accepted the challenge to find a good, gluten-free beer almost a year ago, when a friend, who has allergies, said she couldn't find a gluten-free beer that had any flavour. I was able to find her a beer, in Québec, and she later told me it "wasn't bad."

I never tried the beer myself.

A few months ago, an acquaintance also asked me about gluten-free beer, and had I tried any. I hadn't. Hadn't brought myself to trying what, to me, is the beer equivalent to decaffeinated coffee. That's not coffee: that's a hot coffee-like beverage.

Last week, when yet another friend asked me about gluten-free beer, I decided to pony up. To put my prejudice aside and judge this specialty beer myself.

Yesterday, I did just that.

But I made the tasting interesting, having the brew back-to-back with a beer—a true beer—by the same brewery.

I say "true" do describe a beer because one of the key components in beer is, in fact, gluten. Gluten is a protein composite that is found in grains: for beer, primarily wheat, barley, and rye. As a protein, it helps bind the molecules and helps give beer its body.

As its name suggests, it's a food agent that acts as glue. Without gluten, a beer can be astringent, without body. It can have a lifeless taste.

In theory, anyway.

But, to be fair, over the next few days, I will try some gluten-free beer and give my honest opinion of them.

To start, I chose a Burlington, Ontario, brewery, and I compared it with one of its regular, gluten-laden, ales. The brewery is Better Bitters Brewing Company, which operates under the name Nickel Brook.

About a year ago, I tried a draft of theirs, Naughty Neighbour. At the time, I really liked it. So when I discovered that it was recently made available in bottles, I had to pick some up and give it proper attention. But, because my main focus was the gluten-free beer by this brewery, I put the Naughty Neighbour aside until afterwards because I didn't want the taste of it to interfere with the gluten-free brew.
Gluten Free Alcoholic Beverage (5.8% ABV)
Nickel Brook
Burlington, ON
Beer O'Clock rating: 1.5
Appearance: deep straw with a white head that quickly dissipates to almost nothing, but retains a good effervescence.

Nose: light grass and honey melon.

Palate: bitter grass and sour hops. It lacks body. As I took more sips, the flavour made me think of what it would taste like if I sucked on rubber bands. The alcohol comes out in a watery finish, which is lengthy, though I wished it would end.

Overall impression: Nickel Brook got one thing right: they called this drink an "alcoholic beverage" and not a beer. Although, after the first sip, it reminded me of one of the big-brewery ales: grassy and sharp, with very little flavour. In that first sip, I thought, "okay, I see what they are aiming for, but it's not my cup of tea." I was prepared to give Nickel Brook credit for their attempt. I also thought, "it's not bad, but it's not great, either."

But after a few more sips, I wanted the taste to leave my mouth. I looked at my glass, knowing I couldn't finish, and so I did what I rarely do: this.

It was time to move on to the beer that I chose to compare the Gluten Free with.
Naughty Neighbour American Pale Ale (4.9% ABV)
Beer O'Clock rating: 3
Appearance: an unfiltered, bright gold, with a foamy white head that held a dense cap.

Nose: intense citrus—a honeyed orange with rich hops.

Palate: sour grass, orange and grapefruit rind, mixed with a peppered, black tea, and hops, all of which end in a medium finish.

Overall impression: my memory of this draft version is different, which makes me wonder if Nickel Brook created two versions of the Naughty Neighbour. I remember the colour being more orange and the flavour also containing more orange in the mouth. I also remember bolder hops: my memory made this neighbour to be very, very naughty. And nice.

So either this is not the same beer or I don't have the beer imprint memory that I pride myself on.

Nevertheless, this Naughty Neighbour was enjoyable and helped me get rid of the taste of the gluten-free, alcoholic beverage.

My search for a good gluten-free beer continues.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Beer and Gourmet Food

Beer and food always go together. There's nothing I love better than enjoying some excellent craft beer with a good burger, or pizza, or steak.

But when really good beer is paired with gourmet food, I'm in absolute heaven.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending another Brewmaster's Dinner at Mill Street, and once again, my favourite brew pub surpassed all expectations.

From the wild boar amuse bouche, to the rack of lamb, to the "beervertail" dessert, I savoured all of the flavours.

As expected, the beer was great. Though not all of the beers were my preferred style, they were all delicious with the food pairings. My favourite of the evening, Tankenstein, is a hopped-up version of my favourite ale, Tankhouse.

There was also a bonus bevvy: a schnaps, made by Mill Street in Toronto, that was made with some of their Frambozen Raspberry Wheat Ale. On the nose, you could catch a faint sniff of raspberry... if you used your imagination and sniffed with your mouth open. On the palate, the 45-percent alcohol pretty much blows your taste buds away. But it was a great experience. I'd be curious to compare this schnaps with their Cobblestone and Tankhouse ales.

The host of the evening, Mill Street Brewmaster, Joel Manning, was entertaining as always, enlightening with stories about what went behind the creation of these brews and some education about what makes those beers so special.

I'm not going to review the beer I drank nor the food I ate. The overall experience rates a 5: I will continue to go to these dinners as often as I can and I highly recommend that you come out as well, if you haven't already.

I will leave you with a visual recap of the evening. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, or both, you've seen most of these images.

My thanks goes to the kind and generous folks at Mill Street for making this a memorable dinner. See you at your next one, in September!


Friday, June 21, 2013

Starting Summer Right

Here we are: the first official day of summer. The time when we think about hot, sunny days, hanging out on the beach, and relaxing on a patio with a cool beer to quench our thirst.

And I've found the perfect beer to help ring in this hot season.
Hawaiian Style American Pale Ale (6% ABV)
Spearhead Brewing Company
Toronto, ON
Beer O'Clock rating: 4
Appearance: a pale orange, semi-clear liquid with a whitish head that settles to a thin cap and eventually to a fine lace.

Nose: orange and lime citrus with a hint of pineapple.

Palate: grapefruit rind and bold hops that culminate in an orange-peel finish.

Overall impression: this is a great, easy-drinking APA. It's a refreshing ale that I've enjoyed with steak and potatoes, with pizza, and on its own, and it goes down beautifully any way you sip it.

I first tried Hawaiian Style at this year's WinterBrewed Festival, and while I could taste the crisp hops, the weather was far too cold to understand the complexities of this beer (I detected no pineapple, nor any fruit, on that frigid day). This is not a beer to serve cold: don't store it in your refrigerator. Keep it in a cool place, like a cellar, or put it in the fridge for only a half an hour or so before enjoying it.

While it's the perfect beer for a hot summer's day, it is not something that you want to chill.

Just chill out with some.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Favourite Spot is Expanding

It's no secret: I love Mill Street beer and I love their brew pub in Ottawa. The beer is flavourful and satisfying, and the pub is in a gorgeous location, has a warm and inviting interior, had great food, and the staff is outstanding. I'm privileged to call some of the folks there friends.

In the coming weeks, the restaurant will be expanding, adding a unique, intimate setting for private functions. They call it, The Ruins.

The other day, I was invited to check out the progress of the space, which is below the restaurant and brewery, in an open area just by the river. While there were no fixtures or appliances yet there, I was blown away by the view. The rock outcrops, the dam that emits a waterfall, the high stone walls, the sound of the flowing river.

It is spectacular.

I mean, where can you enjoy a dining experience in a historic setting and watch a heron perched nearby?

I thought I would share some of what I saw. (I know, this is not a beer review. But I hope to sit down here one evening and sample one of Adam's new creations.)


Monday, June 17, 2013

You Won't Want to Dump This

Remember the days of Prohibition? Neither do I.

But I do remember studying about how contraband liquor, when confiscated, would be cracked open (when in barrels) and poured down the gutters. The streets would be awash in rivers of gushing alcohol.

It's enough to make a man weep.

This weekend, I finally tried a bottle of an American IPA that I have been hanging onto for months, meaning to have it with the other IPAs that I craved to try. I still have hankerings for a hoppy, bitter brew (usually, around 2:00 in the afternoon), and so with Father's Day upon me, I thought I'd treat myself.
L'interdite American IPA (6.5% ABV)
Brasseurs du Monde
Saint-Hyacinthe, QC
Beer O'Clock rating: 3
Appearance: a cloudy, rusty orange with a creamy, taupe head that retains a thin cap on the top of the beer for most of the pint.

Nose: a floral malt with hints of orange.

Palate: bitter malts, citrus, spice, and hops that lead to an unsweetened, caramel finish. The more I drank, the more the alcohol came out in the finish.

Overall impression: this is a serious IPA; it's not easy-drinking, but it's a good ale to sit back with and enjoy. I found that it was a bit cloying, which makes for a rich beverage, opposed to the clean, crisp flavours that I prefer in an IPA.

While I would drink this ale again, I think I'd enjoy it more on a cold winter's day, rather than a hot summer's afternoon.

But I wouldn't prohibit you from trying it.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Me, Getting Some Sweet Action

If that's not a title to turn you away from my blog, nothing is.

But that's exactly what I got when I visited New York City a week and a half ago. A four-pack of an ale that is part pale, part wheat, and part cream, as the brewery describes. I couldn't quite identify the style as I drank it, so I had to discover it through the brewery's Web site. The can it came in wasn't offering any insight.

But let's take a look together.
Sweet Action (5.2 ABV)
Sixpoint Craft Ales
Brooklyn, NY
Beer O'Clock rating: 4
Appearance: a slightly cloudy, orange-amber colour with a whitish, creamy head that maintains a solid cap through most of the session.

Nose: a malty orange cream that is a little candied, with a hint of spice.

Palate: slightly sweet and hoppy, a perfect balance of malt and hops with a solid body. The hops continue through to the finish, leaving almost an orange pekoe tea flavour. The finish is clean.

Overall impression: this is a highly quaffable ale. The balance of malts and hops gives some sweet flavours but it finishes dry. This is a thoroughly enjoyable ale.

Unfortunately, I am unable to get this beer in Ottawa, so I may have to return to The Big Apple. I didn't visit the brewery itself, but found this pale-wheat-cream ale, along with other Sixpoint offerings, at the Whole Foods in Columbus Circle.

Next time, I'm going to the brewery and I'm coming back with not only armfuls of Sweet Action, but other Sixpoint suds.

If you are able to get this beer where you live, I envy you. You're getting more Action than I am. And it's Sweet.

(I'll stop now, but end with a Vine video of me getting my Sweet Action.)