Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Queen is Dead

Perry didn't lie.

It was the first beer that I ever reviewed, was the ale that made me create Beer O'Clock. And it was the best Imperial stout I ever had. When I was told that it could last 10 years, I put it to the test. And this year, it was time to say goodbye.

Months ago, when I told my friend that I only had one bottle of his stellar creation, he told me, in that calm, soft, nonchalant voice of his, "that's one more than I have." For all I know, it was the last bottle in existence. If you have any, I'd love to hear from you.

Also, if you do have a bottle, drink it now or forever keep it sealed.

Because, on this Imperial stout's tenth anniversary, it's reached its end.
Tsarina Katarina 2005 Imperial Stout (9% ABV)
Scotch-Irish Brewing Company
Fitzroy Harbour, ON
Appearance: deep, deep walnut, with a dark-taupe head that needed coaxing. In fact, I poured the bottle into a glass and then quickly poured that glass into another, to bring it to life. It raised a thick, foamy head that settled to a solid cap.

Nose: dark chocolate, licorice, and prunes.

Palate: sweet prunes and mild coffee. The liquid was mostly flat but not dead: there was a faint pulse that stimulated the tongue. But as I drank more, I could tell that the fizz was this beer's final breath. The flavour carried through to a tangy finish that was slightly sour.

As I continued to drink this old stout, I could taste it change, become more acidic, as though it was burning out. I have experienced this mouth change in some very old wines, but never in a beer. The air was taking the life out of the glass.

Overall impression: if this had been a new beer, I would have said that it was slightly off, that there might have been a flaw in the bottling. At 10 years, it was still drinkable, though the final sips told me that not only was my glass finished, this majestic brew was, too.

Knowing this beer's history, this final bottle was still enjoyable. My friend didn't lie: this ale lasted 10 years. No more.

I tip my hat to you, Perry: you were true to your word. You made a classic Imperial stout and you made it legendary. Your brewery is gone, and now what may have been the final bottle has been consumed. Be proud that it happened.

The queen is dead: rather, the tsarina is gone, but not forgotten.

Beer O'Clock rating: 3


Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Stout for Vikings

Centuries ago, Vikings came to Canadian shores and set roots, and until April of next year, they're setting up shop at our museum of civilization, now named the Canadian Museum of History. And because December seems to also bring in the flavoured stouts, it's only fitting that I take a look at a dark ale from the land of Vikings.

This one has bite.
Megagrisk Viking Chili Stout (10% ABV)
Hornsherredvej, Denmark
Appearance: deep walnut with a dark-taupe head that settles quickly to a dense lace.

Nose: dark chocolate with hints of coffee.

Palate: the hot peppers hit you from the start, followed closely by dark chocolate. The chili follows through, conquering you, all the way to the finish and is matched with a kiss of licorice. The finish is long-lasting, taking up roots, thanks to those chili peppers.

Overall impression: this is a spicy treat but I don't know if I could have more than one at a time. Don't get me wrong: I really like it but the cumulative heat on one beer may be too much in a second one.

Oh, plus the alcohol level. At 10 percent, you have to be careful.

I love spicy food, and spicy beer is good, but in limited amounts. Like Vikings, you may not want them to stick around. (The Vikings exhibit lasts until April 17, 2016.)

Beer O'Clock rating: 4


Thursday, December 3, 2015


Who doesn't love a redhead?

Ever since I first saw a summer sampler of Red Racer beer, with that illustration of a tantalizing redhead on a bicycle, I've been impressed. And it has nothing to do with Central City's symbolic lady. 

Almost every one of the many beers I've tried, I liked. A lot. Earlier, this summer, their ISA blew me away and was one of my summer picks.

Now, for December, the girl is back: and I'm in love.
Red Racer Gingerhead Gingerbread Stout (6% ABV)
Central City Brewers
Surrey, BC
Appearance: motor-oil black with walnut highlights, and a creamy, taupe head that settles to a thin cap.

Nose: rich chocolate, coffee, burnt caramel, and spice.

Palate: the gingerbread comes out at the gate, with full force. There's a slight sweetness that, when swirled in the mouth, releases tones of vanilla and a hint of root beer. Chocolate brings up the rear in what is a rich, decadent finish, without any "strong-beer" taste.

Overall impression: I love a good, full-bodied stout, and this one delivers. The added flavours of gingerbread and sweetness of chocolate make this not only a great stout, but a decadent holiday dessert. I am thoroughly impressed with this latest Red Racer offering, and this is perhaps one of the best stouts that I have had in a very long time.

That red head has got my motor racing.

Grab some while you can.

Beer O'Clock rating: 5


Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Eureka Moment

When I pick up a beer that I intend to review, I try not to read too much of the label. I avoid the sides or the back, and if I see paragraphs of text, I look away. I don't want to be influenced by what the brewer has to say about the flavours, colour, or aromas.

That's for me to work out.

When that can or bottle catches my eye, for whatever reason, I look to see what style of beer is contained within, who made the beer, and where the brewery is located. I don't want to know the alcohol content or what types of malts or hops were used.

I want to come by my opinion honestly.

A couple of weeks ago, when my family and I were in Toronto, I visited the LCBO that was around the corner from our hotel. I went in there, specifically looking for beer that was made in the GTA and that I haven't seen in any of the stores in Ottawa. I was looking for breweries that I didn't recognize, and with the explosion of craft brewers in Ontario, that isn't hard to do.

I found three breweries that fit my criteria. You can read my reviews of those ales from last week and the week before. The third brewery, from Brantford, rounds out these finds.

Bell City Brewing opened its doors in February of this year and currently has one of its ales in cans, in the LCBO. I presume that this beer is the company's flagship ale, as I also presume that the can shows Alexander Graham Bell, experimenting with one of his inventions. Bell lived, for some time, in Brantford.

What I saw, smelled, and tasted did not meet my expectations, and I'm glad that I didn't read the back of the can or visit the brewery's Web site until I finished my review. Here's why:
Eureka Cream Ale (5.8% ABV)
Bell City Brewing Company
Brantford, ON
Appearance: a clear, deep amber with red highlights and a beige head that forms a solid cap. I had to re-read the can to make sure that I was drinking a cream ale, and not a red.

Nose: caramel and rich malt. There was a sweetness in the aroma that I did not expect. It was at this point that I knew that I was in for something different, and I had to check once again that this was, indeed, a cream ale.

Palate: more caramel, barley, and mild hops. The ale is full-bodied, with a rich mouth feel and a satisfying finish. But the flavours, although enjoyable, did not match with what I expected. The more I drank, the more I  was reminded of a red ale.

Overall impression: while I was trying this beer, I was feeling chilled in my cooled house (I'm a little stingy with the thermostat and I'm fighting a cold that is aggressively trying to claim squatter's rights in my head), but after a couple of sips, I felt warmed, comforted. The alcohol content, though modest, was beginning to show itself more prominently, but not overpowering. In fact, the cream ale seemed to open my sinuses and give that cold a shot over the bow.

While this cream ale doesn't seem to have much of a creamy mouth feel, its richness made me feel like my tongue was receiving a warm hug.

After I recorded my impressions of this cream ale, I finally read the back of the can, which states that Bell City had crafted this ale according to a pre-prohibition style. As they put it, this offering "is NOT your typical lawnmower cream ale."

They have that right (though, in truth, I have no idea what a "lawnmower" cream ale is).

I had to think: was this ale what I expected? No. Was it what the brewer expected? Probably.

This was my eureka moment.

It is a good ale: it's not your traditional cream ale, and that's okay. It's more than okay.

Beer O'Clock rating: 3

At the time of reviewing this ale, my house, cooled as it was, was also filled with the aroma of a slow-cooked, barbecue pulled pork, and all I could think of was how this beer and that meat would make a perfect combination. And so I enjoyed a second can at dinner.

If you can find this ale in your LCBO, pick it up and try something different.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hopsta La Vista

You know that adage, if you say you're cool, you're not?

That saying can be applied to a brewery or a beer.

In all fairness, this Toronto brewery doesn't actually say that it's cool, but their busy can does try very hard to look cool, with it's picture of brewer, Jimmy Peat, and the claim that this "fun-loving" brewery has created a recipe that will remind you that "beer is awesome."

"... you'll be back!" they add. The play is on Arnold Schwarzenegger, as The Terminator, telling a police sergent, "I'll be back." The name of this IPA also comes from a play on another quip from that iconic movie.

But is this a killer beer? Is it even cool? Let's see.
Hopsta La Vista India Pale Ale (6.5% ABV)
Longslice Brewery
Toronto ON
Appearance: bright, clear, orange-amber with a creamy, off-white head that pours thick and collapses to a solid foam cap.

Nose: earthy caramel and a slightly citrus aroma, though I found most of the bouquet was closed.

Palate: some malt, some hops, and little else. There is balance to the two main ingredients, but I would have liked to find more flavour. Where was the grapefruit? The alcohol comes out in the finish but is more palate-cleansing than boozy (which is a good thing).

Overall impression: I drank this IPA while I worked from home, during a conference call. The meeting was dull, so I made my notes in between following my computer screen and listening to the conversations.

The meeting wasn't the only thing that I found dull.

This ale may appeal to those who want to break from the doldrums of Molson and Labatt products. It has more mouth feel and packs a bit of a punch. But for craft-beer enthusiasts, it may come off as being pretty bland (in my view, of course). As an IPA-lover, I find this one ho-hum.

My first impression, from the design of the can, is that Longslice is trying too hard to appear cool, which isn't cool. (Visiting their Web site, my suspicions were confirmed.)

As for the "... you'll be back!"? No, I won't.

Beer O'Clock rating: 2


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bitter Waitress

I've never met a bitter waitress.

Sure, I have been served by an impatient waiter, a waitress who has had a bad day and isn't all smiles, but bitter? Never.

If you're going to have a bad attitude, serving the public is not your calling.

For the most part, I've had decent servers. I've been lucky enough to have outstanding servers. I even had a regular server, who knew my name, knew what I wanted, would bring me my first drink, already in hand, when she came to my table to greet me. She would always return with a fresh drink, just as I was finishing the last one. Her deliveries would continue until, on her latest visit, I would point to that newly arrived glass and say, "this is my last one."

I loved her.

Not that puppy love, the kind where you look desperate, longing for love and attention, to have those feelings requited. I loved her, but rarely thought of her outside of the context of the restaurant that I frequented.

I would ask her to marry me every time I showed up and took my usual table. She would say no, knowing that I wasn't serious, though she would occasionally respond with a, "careful: one of these days, I might say 'yes.'"

I loved her like a good friend. She was somebody with whom I cared, would watch out for. When I think of favourite servers, she has always been right at the top.

I also tipped her very well. She was worth it.

So no, I have never met a bitter waitress. Until now.
Bitter Waitress Black IPA (6.5% ABV)
Shillow Beer Company
Oakville, ON
Appearance: deep walnut-brown with a creamy, dark-taupe head that creates a solid cap. Only through bright light can you see this ale's colour.

Nose: coffee, dark chocolate, prunes, and black licorice.

Palate: the licorice carries through in the mouth and is dominant, with the prunes and strong coffee following along. There is a long finish that is balanced by malt and hops, though the hops win out in the end.

Overall impression: this black IPA is enjoyable, though it's not an ale that I could see myself drinking in abundance—rather, it is one that I can see myself having only one can of, in one sitting, perhaps to finish off the evening, and even then, not after having more than one or two lighter ales. Bitter Waitress is slightly heady, at 6.5% ABV, and is slightly filling.

At my old restaurant, as my favourite waitress brought me my second-last drink, I would have to say something like, "I'm wrapping up," which would be her cue to bring me a glass of this ale to finish the evening.

Not a bad way to end the night, for sure.

Beer O'Clock rating: 3

Shillow is one of the beer companies that I discovered on a recent visit to Toronto, where I checked out the local craft breweries in a downtown LCBO. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll examine the other beers that I haven't seen in Ottawa.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Revenge of the Ginger

It sounds like a cheesy B movie.

The bespectacled, copper-bearded man on the can looks psychotic.

But it really is what's inside that counts, right?

On the day before I went on my nearly month-long hiatus from booze, I partook in various beverages that were stored in my basement from earlier in the summer. I had meant to do a beer review at the time, but because these beers were going to be my last for a while, I put down my camera, set aside my notebook and pen, and just savoured the flavours.

One beer stood out, and I promised that when I had the chance, I would give it a proper review.

That day has come.

Though this brewery is located in Guelph, I actually didn't get a chance to visit it when I was there, seeing some old friends, only the day before I first sipped this ale.
Revenge of the Ginger Kickin' Ginger Red IPA (6.2% ABV)
Double Trouble Brewing Company
Guelph ON
Appearance: unfiltered, deep amber-orange with slightly red highlights; a creamy, beige head that pours thick and settles to a solid cap.

Nose: candied ginger, pineapple, and spices (clove and cinnamon).

Palate: spiced malts hit the taste buds right away and reminded me of nut loaf. The ginger becomes more distinctive in the second sip and stays with you through the glass. There is good balance between the malt and the ginger, with very little bitterness that I expect from an IPA. There's a solid, distinct finish.

Overall impression: you've heard of comfort food, right? Well, this is comfort beer. It's full-bodied without being heavy, it cools you on a hot day or warms you on a cool day, and its easy drinkability makes it something that you could drink all night.

Beer O'Clock rating: 4

Here's the kicker, and perhaps where some revenge comes into play. This ale is a summer release, so unless your local LCBO still has some on the shelves, you'll have to wait until next year to try it.

It's worth the wait.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tooth and Nail

It seems that every couple of months, a new brewery opens up in Ottawa. And while I make every effort to get to all of them, it's not always easy. Some are off the beaten path. Others are nowhere near my route to and from work, or near places I tend to frequent.

Not so with our city's newest brew house. It's in Hintonburg, so it's not too far off from one of my routes to the office. It's also in a neighbourhood where I sometimes meet friends for Thursday Pints, and I think we should make this place one of our venues.

Tooth and Nail Brewing Company opened its doors just over a month ago, and already it's creating a buzz on the Ottawa beer scene. Located on Irving Avenue, just off of Wellington, the brewery has a long, inviting tasting bar, a few tables, and a friendly atmosphere. They are licensed to sell beer by the pint, as well as samplers.

You can also take some of their beer home, in cans. When I was there, last week, small cans of their stout and pilsner were available, plus they could fill and seal a monster can of their Belgian session ale, nearly one litre!

I decided to stay and try a sampler of all of their offerings: six 5-oz glasses. I took my time, enjoyed each in due course. I did swap the order of the last two ales—the stout and the IPA—and I'm glad I did. With the bold flavours and hops of the IPA, you want to drink it last.

Here, with a brief description, is each:

Housewarmer Multigrain Ale (5.1% ABV)

Appearance: pale straw.
Nose: wheat, like fresh-baked bread.
Palate: light body with a flavour that I can best describe as marshmallow. A good, clean finish.
Overall impression: this reminded me somewhat of Beau's Lug Tread, but with finer flavours. This ale is a collaboration with Beau's, so I did expect some influence from the Vankleek Hill brewery.
Beer O'Clock rating: 3

Stamina Belgian Session Ale (5.2% ABV)

Appearance: an unfiltered gold.
Nose: slight ginger spice and candied fruit.
Palate: more spice and alcohol but well-balanced.
Overall impression: this ale has a nice body that holds up well from start to finish. It was one of my favourite of the bunch (hence the monster can that I took home).
Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5

Vim & Vigor Unfiltered Pilsner (5.2% ABV)

Appearance: light gold.
Nose: I found no bouquet. It held its aroma close to its chest.
Palate: toasted hops and warm malt, with a good finish.
Overall impression: I'm not generally a fan of pilsners, but I did like this one. It's well-balanced with a good body and a nice finish. I would drink it again.
Beer O'Clock rating: 3

Tenacity Pale Ale (5.8% ABV)

Appearance: a clear, warm gold to amber.
Nose: grapefruit.
Palate: orange citrus and light hops, with a lightly bitter finish.
Overall impression: I felt somewhat disappointed by this pale ale. I anticipated great flavour with the grapefruit aroma and orange taste, but it seemed to fall away, with little hops. I wanted more on that front.
Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5

Fortitude Stout (5.3% ABV)

Appearance: brown with red highlights (similar to root beer).
Nose: coffee and cocoa.
Palate: dark chocolate and espresso, with toasted malt.
Overall impression: this is a very good stout—one that I could drink all night long. I brought four cans home but I fear that's not enough. This was my favourite pour of the lot.
Beer O'Clock rating: 4

Rabble Rouser IPA (6.8% ABV)

Appearance: a clear, deep gold.
Nose: this ale, like the Vim & Vigor, gave me no aromas.
Palate: burnt caramel and orange, with big hops and a lingering finish.
Overall impression: I'm glad I saved this IPA for last. With its bold, delicious flavours and long finish, I could taste this ale long after I finished the sampler. I was disappointed that it wasn't available in cans, because I would have liked to stock my cellar with it.
Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5

If this is how Tooth and Nail starts, I'm very excited to see how the brewers do once they get their groove and settle into the community. If you haven't been to see them, do yourself a favour and go. You can also follow them on Facebook.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Straw Hat Matt & A La Mode

When I learned that a new brewery was opening, this summer, in a small town in Southern Ontario, I was thrilled. First, because it was opening in one of the prettiest towns in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, and second, because I was going to be visiting some friends in Guelph, and we were a very short drive away, which meant that there was no way that I was going to pass through the area without dropping in.

Elora is about 20 minutes or so north of the centre of Guelph and lies along the Grand River. There's a majestic gorge that cuts through a beautiful conservation area. Over the years, Elora has evolved into an artisan town, with its bakeries, craft shops, restaurants, and ice-cream parlors. It is picturesque and friendly, and worth a stop any time you're in the area.

The brewing company, located in the heart of Elora, also houses a gastropub, which serves up-scale pub-grub made by a world-trained chef. Even the ketchup is homemade.

When I visited the pub, I tried a sampler of the brewery's four signature brews. You can see a brief review of them, along with some other beer finds, in a previous post. And while I loved their flavourful IPA, I wasn't prepared to bring a growler all the way back to Ottawa (so I drank it with my friends, in Guelph, that evening). I did, however, manage to snag a couple of their ales that are offered in 500ml bottles, and this week, I finally got a chance to sit down properly with them.

The first selection is a wheat ale, or weisse.
Straw Hat Matt (4.3% ABV)
Elora Brewing Company
Elora, ON
Appearance: a pale apricot, unfiltered murkiness, almost like grapefruit juice, but slightly darker. An effervescent, white head starts thick but quickly settles to a half-cap.

Nose: fresh citrus fruit, yeast, mild hops, and a creamy malt. Enticing, to say the least. I spent a long time just breathing in the aromas.

Palate: light and creamy, with some fruit that I wished came out more. The finish brought out a tone of banana, and was clean.

Overall impression: this is an easy-drinking weisse that goes down well and leaves you longing for that next sip. It's well-balanced with a light body, something that would quench your thirst after working a good day in the fields.

Or in whatever field in which you work.

Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5

The second ale that I brought back to Ottawa was perfect for this time of year. And no, I'm not talking about another pumpkin ale. Though, there is definitely a pie element.
A La Mode (3.9% ABV)
Appearance: a hazy (slightly unfiltered), deep-gold to amber-orange glow, with an off-white, foamy head that settles to a thin cap, and then to a fine lace.

Nose: cinnamon and baked apple, complete with a fresh-baked crust.

Palate: all-spice, more cinnamon, and apple. This ale has a big mouth feel, as though you've taken a bite of dessert. There's an essence of sweetness without actually being sweet: it's more of a tart apple pie, but not too tart.

Overall impression: this ale tastes exactly like a home-baked apple pie. It's a liquid pie. At a time where pumpkin seems to rule, this is a welcome change.

Though this is a regular offering at Elora Brewing, I think that it would be made more special and be more sought if it was offered only as a fall seasonal. During my family Thanksgiving dinners, we always end the feast with a selection of both pumpkin and apple pie.

And I usually have a little of both.

Beer O'Clock rating: 4

Congratulations to Elora Brewing: you seem to be off to a great start. I hope you make your way to Ottawa LCBO stores. Mind you, I now have one more reason to visit my friends in Guelph.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

City Hops and Other Great Ales

I almost had a panic attack, last night.

I was starting up my computer, ready to sit down and write this post, when the unthinkable happened: I couldn't find my notebook.

It's a simple notebook, with a hard, brown cover. The inside pages are blank, unlined. The only thing in this book are the notes that I have taken with the beers that I have consumed, with the intention of reviewing them. Everything that has been written for the past year in this blog is contained within the opening pages.

And I misplaced the book.

I ran around the house, looking in every place that I would possibly put this book, without success. And I was freaking out: sure, I could write future reviews in any old book, but I had reviews in this book that I haven't yet published.

And today's review was important.

I found the book, eventually, near the computer, tucked behind the monitor. I must have tucked it there earlier, when I was working from home, with my office laptop stacked on my personal one, and I had made room for office notes.

I'm so glad that I found these notes, because recreating them would have meant that I would have to replace the beer that I had consumed and start from scratch. Not that that would have been so bad: I could easily drink this beer again.

But it was just over a year ago that I first reviewed this Ottawa brewery, and now that these brewers have just surpassed their one-year anniversary in Ottawa, I wanted to pay tribute to them again.

With Bicycle Craft Brewery's first anniversary, I have seen Fariborz Behzadi and his wife, Laura, grow this excellent brew house to the success that it is today, with their five mainstay brews and their countless seasonals and one-offs. While I was sorry to miss their anniversary party, I was lucky enough to try five recent seasonals.

All of them were excellent: two of them, Isidore's Harvest Ale and Pumpkin Spice Ale, I enjoyed last year and was keen to have them again. The Pumpkin Spice Ale is the best in the city, and is the only pumpkin ale that I'm going to drink this season (I've reviewed too many over the past couple of years and am pumpkinned out, except for this one).

One nice fruit ale that came out this season was Edgewood Avenue. I enjoyed it the day after my Thanksgiving feast, with a cold turkey sandwich, and it was a marriage made in heaven, with the nice malt and slightly tart fruit, mixed with the poultry and stuffing (yes, I put stuffing in my turkey sandwich!). Yum!

On The Lam was released at the anniversary party, and is a delicious IPA that does not overpower the bitter taste sensors, but provides a great balance of hops and citrus. It's an ale that I could drink all day long—a half-growler was not enough.

But my favourite of their seasonal ales is the one that I will focus on for this review, and now that I've found my notes, let's get to it.
City Hops (4.9% ABV)
Bicycle Craft Brewery
Ottawa ON
Appearance: dried apricot, with good effervescence; a creamy, off-white head that stays to a thick, solid cap.

Nose: mild, citrus hops; slightly herbal.

Palate: slightly tart with grassy notes that grow to fully bitter hops and a full finish.

Overall impression: this ale got better and better with each sip, and it started off great. It's an ale that needs to open up and when it does, it's brilliant.

I didn't need my notes to remember that this harvest ale needs to be snapped up while it's available (please say it's still available, Fariborz and Laura!).

Beer O'Clock rating: 4

Grab the other seasonals while they last, too, and wish the folks at Bicycle Craft a happy first anniversary, with many more ahead.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Remembering Oktoberfests

Would it surprise you to learn that I have only been to three Oktoberfest celebrations in my entire 50 years of existence?

And the first time doesn't count, because I was a kid, much too young to be drinking beer (although, I wouldn't be surprised if my father gave me a sip). My sisters and I were stuffed in the back seat of our car, as my parents drove us down to Whiteface Mountain, in the Finger Lakes district of New York State. We were part of the Porsche Club of Canada, part of a long line of these exotic German sports cars, and while my parents reminded me that we weren't crammed into our orange 912, my sisters and I remember the 911s, the 356 tubs, and the 914s in the convoy.

I remember the beer hall, in Wilmington, the polka music, the clinking steins, and the green, feathered hats. I don't remember how long we were there, I don't remember how we whiled away the hours, and I barely remember our late-night drive home. But that was my first Oktoberfest.

I almost spent my second Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, in 2009. Almost. I saw the fair grounds, saw the peaked, white tents of the festival grounds. I was about 2,500 feet above it, in a plane, on my final approach to the Munich airport.

My family and I had vacationed in Italy, having visited Rome, Tuscany, Pisa, and Venice. I had flown on points and, while we travelled from Ottawa to Rome together, my return flight was different from the rest of my family's. They flew from Rome, to Frankfurt, and then straight back to Ottawa. I, on the other hand, had to leave Rome shortly before them, to Munich, where I would catch a connecting flight to Frankfurt, where I would meet them and continue home, together.

My flight to Munich only allowed 20 minutes for my connection, which was crazy, but I thought that if Air Canada would allow it, it was possible. Only, my departure from Rome was 10 minutes late.

The plan with my family was simple: if they didn't see me in Frankfurt, they were to assume that I missed my Munich connection and continue home without me. I was an experienced traveller: I would find my way home.

Approaching Munich, I was panicking. I didn't want to miss my connection. I would be alone in a city I didn't know. Flying over the Oktoberfest grounds and realizing that I would be in Munich during a beer festival, my mood changed. There were worse things that could happen to me. I would be more than okay.

While we had flown over the Alps, the flight attendant had informed me that we would be disembarking the plane on a tarmac and boarding a bus that would take us to the same gate from where my connection flight would be leaving. All I had to do was get off the bus, go through the doors, climb the stairs, and make a 180-degree turn to be at my boarding gate.

I made my flight, with no waiting. Most of the passengers were boarding. Even my luggage made the connection.

But I was disappointed that I would be missing a truly authentic Oktoberfest.

My first Oktoberfest as an adult was only about three years ago. I was invited to be the official photographer at the festival in Barrhaven, and I was privileged to meet the one and only George Wendt (Norm, from Cheers!) and the very funny Shawn Majumder. The beer was great and was flowing freely for the photographer, and I had a great time over the two-and-a-half days.

On Saturday, I attended the Oktoberfest in Vankleek Hill, some 100 kilometres east of Ottawa. The event was hosted by craft brewery extraordinaire, Beau's. When I arrived, I knew it was going to be big but I didn't expect it to be as big as it was. Two stage areas, massive tents, halls, bleachers, skateboard park, and games areas. The music seemed to run non-stop, broken only by comedian-host, Elvira Kurt.

I cycled to the festival as part of the fundraiser for the United Way of Ottawa. Some 200 cyclers had signed up for the 100-km journey, but I doubt everybody participated. While we had mild temperatures and sunny skies, we faced an incessant 30-kph headwind that would often increase to 50 kph, gusting to nearly 60.

I don't like to cycle in the wind. I would much rather have rain than wind. At Carlsbad Springs, at the 25-km mark or so, I found the ride a challenge. Passing through Cheney, I was no longer having fun. I was cycling with a beer friend, Katy, and I was thinking that when we reached the halfway point, at Bourget, if Katy wanted to continue, I would. My wife was meeting us at the rest area, where she had decided she would start the ride, and the three of us would slog it through to the end. But if Katy wanted to stop, I would stop.

Before we entered the Bourget town limits, it didn't matter to me whether Katy wanted to keep going. I was tired. I didn't enjoy the prospect of reaching Vankleek Hill and being too tired to enjoy the festival, or worse: too tired to want to drink.

And I hadn't had a beer since September 7.

I saw my wife, standing by the road, watching out for us. I waved. She smiled, relieved to see us. We were almost an hour later than we had anticipated, and she was afraid we had run into trouble.

"I'm done," said Katy. I sighed a big relief.

"Me, too," I said, and then to Lori, "tag: you're it." I told my wife that it was a hard ride, but that she could do it. She could do what Katy and I had done.

Katy and I threw our bikes into my van and we made the rest of our way to Vankleek Hill.

It was a great festival, though the wind still raged. Standing in the shade, unless you were packed in a tent with the other hundreds of party-goers, was chilling. But the beer was great and I was able to try a wide variety of ales. Here's what I had:
  • Rumtopf Pale Ale (Beau's)—malty and flavourful, with nicely balanced hops, this was my first beer of the event and my first beer in almost a month. It went down nicely as a secondary recovery drink. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • Farm Table Märzen (Beau's)—clean and light-bodied, it went well with fish and chips. Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5
  • Return of the Mumme (Beau's)—this was my wife's choice, and she liked it so much that she stuck with it for the rest of the day. Easy-drinking and light in body. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • Shawi Beach (Le Trou du Diable)—my favourite of the day, this west-coast IPA had beautiful tropical flavours with lush hops. If I had tried this ale first, I may have stuck to it for the rest of the day. Beer O'Clock rating: 4
  • Achterbahn Dunkel (Junction Craft Brewing)—this was good dark lager but it didn't really stand out. My wife didn't enjoy her sip of it, and when I was halfway through it, I was looking forward to moving on. That said, I was looking forward to starting the Shawi Beach, which I ordered at the same time and had already sniffed. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • One Ping Only (Beau's)—this Nordik porter was a great beer on which to end the day. Rich coffee flavours and not overpowering, I would love to give this ale a proper review sometime. Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5
One of the advantages of having the van in Vankleek Hill was that we wouldn't have to wait for the bus that Beau's had provided to get the cyclists home, and we could keep our bikes with us. I wasn't in a condition to drive, but my wife had only tried a couple of samples, and was more than fine.

Would I do the ride again? Maybe. At this time of year, the weather is a bit of a crap-shoot, and there's nothing worse than being cold, or wet, or, as it was this weekend, wind-swept. I would have to be better prepared.

Would I go to Beau's Oktoberfest again? Oh, yeah! Absolutely.

With only two Oktoberfest celebrations under my adult belt, I have more celebrating of the harvest season left in me.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Maclean's Pale Ale

One of the many perks of travelling is that you not only enjoy the sights but also the flavours that the region offers, even when you haven't left your home province.

The LCBO is good at bringing local craft beer to its shelves, but with the explosion of Ontario craft breweries, it's hard to put every brewer in every store. More times than not, you will see the beer from the breweries that are closest to your home. And while this is not a bad thing in of itself, it does mean that you may not get the opportunity to discover the smaller producers that are farther afield.

About a month ago, in the week leading up to my beer hiatus, I had the opportunity of discovering some of the breweries that are not widely known in the Ottawa area. One of these breweries is MacLean's Ales.

This Grey County brewery models itself on English-styled ales that brewer Charles MacLean discovered on a motorcycle ride across England. And while I travelled around the Bruce Peninsula, I tried two of his ales: his IPA and his pale ale.

The IPA was fine, went down well on a hot, sunny afternoon, but I found that for an India Pale Ale, the hops weren't as prominent as I would have expected. It was good, but it was safe, too.

With an IPA, I'm not interested in being safe. I want bold, distinctive.

I enjoyed the pale ale more, and so I'll focus on it.
MacLean's Pale Ale (5.2% ABV)
MacLean's Ales
Hanover, ON
Appearance: amber-copper with a beige head that settles to a dense lace. It was a tad darker and more red than I would have expected in a pale ale, but it still looked good in the glass.

Nose: grass, malt, and a mix between caramel and corn syrup (a malty sweetness).

Palate: I detected more malt than hops, but there is still a nice balance, blended with good flavour. While I understand that a pale ale is not typically as bitter as an IPA, I would have liked to have tasted more bitterness. The finish fades quickly.

Overall impression: this is not a bad pale ale, but it actually reminded me more of a lager, rather than an ale. But if you're looking for something to quench your thirst on a hot summer afternoon, this pale ale went down nicely.

Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5

I was really glad to get out to another part of my province, where I could experience craft brewers that I don't typically see in my home LCBO. With the selection that I had on my vacation, I want to get out and try even more.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Road Trip, Part 2

Highway 6, on the Bruce Peninsula, is a straight stretch for kilometres on end. The only obstacles to passing slower traffic on the single-lane stretches are the oncoming cars and the blind spots in the rises and falls off the gently rolling landscape. It's less than an hour from Wiarton to Tobermory, driving through cattle farmland and both provincial and national parks.

The entire population of the residents of the Northern Bruce is only slightly more than the number of students and faculty at my kids' school. Driving along this stretch of road, you have a sense of isolation.

Highway 6 ends in Tobermory and yet, it doesn't really end. The road stops at a ramp: you can either drive into Georgian Bay or onto a ferry to South Baymouth, on Manitoulin Island, and then onward, all the way up to Espanola, in Norther Ontario. But Tobermory is where my family and I stopped, and it's where I discovered a new brewery.

At only a year old, Tobermory Brewing Company is situated with a commanding view of the tour boats that come and go from Little Tub Harbour, across the street from the trailhead of the Bruce Trail. The brewery has a cozy bar room in the front of the converted house, with tables at the back that provide a view of the fermentation tanks. But on a warm, sunny day, you'll want to take your brew out to the veranda, which wraps around to the west side of the brewery.

My wife and I sat right out front, where we watched the tourists wander Bay Street and the boats come and go. We also chatted with two other couples, who had a cottage nearby and were visiting the brew pub for the first time.

Tobermory Brewing has two ales, both of which are polar opposites: a blonde and a porter. My wife ordered the former; I, the latter. We exchanged sips and shared our opinions.

The Bruce Trail Blonde is clean and refreshing, and goes down well. It was a well-balanced, traditional blonde. And while blonde ales aren't my thing, I appreciated it for what it was and would recommend it.

Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5

I loved the Fathom Five Porter. Rich, solid malt flavours in this medium-bodied dark ale. And though this ale is darker by appearance, its 4.2% ABV made it a lighter brew than the blonde, which weighs in at 5%. If we had the day to kill, I would have stayed on the veranda and consumed this porter all day. If it had been available in cans or returnable bottles, I would have stocked up. And thought it's available in growlers, I wasn't willing to drive the eight hours to bring the empty back.

I should have stopped at the brewery on my first day and taken a growler then, rather than my last day on the Bruce Peninsula. My loss.

Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5

Driving south of Owen Sound, Highway 6 joins with Hwy. 10, before the two split at Chatsworth. Before they do, you come to Regional Road 8. At this intersection, you will find a non-descript, warehouse-like building that houses another Ontario craft brewery, Kilannan.

I discovered this brewery in Tobermory, when my family and I dined at the Ancient Cedars Café, where I had the best smoked-meat sandwich in my life. The beef was locally raised, the meat was smoked only hours before it was served, and it was cut thick and piled high. My family and I dined twice at this establishment and I can't recommend the place enough. The owners are friendly and show that they care. I'm sad that we live so far, but if we needed another reason to return to the area, the Ancient Cedars is one.

The café offered two ales from Kilannan: a kölsch and an altbier. While the kölsch was nice (Beer O'Clock rating: 2), I preferred the altbier (Beer O'Clock rating: 3), which had nice malt flavours. The brewery also makes a delicious oatmeal stout, The Men Who Stare At Oats (Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5), which I enjoyed on the rooftop patio at The Crowsnest Pub, also in Tobermory (served in a Tobermory Brewing glass), but when I stopped in at Kilannan Brewery, they were sold out.

I picked up more of the altbier directly from Kilannan, so you can expect a full review in the weeks to come. The same goes for a bourbon-barrel-aged Imperial stout, but look to winter for that review.

Travelling further south, along the 6, toward the town of Guelph, you can take a little jog, west, from the even smaller town of Fergus (or is it a village?), you come upon the pretty town (or village) of Elora, and one of Ontario's newest breweries.

The Elora Brewing Company, situated in the heart of Elora and just north of the shops that back onto the Grand River, opened as a brew pub that offers good food that you can wash down with great beer. I visited the brewery just before the dinner rush, when the hostess was forced to turn guests away because every table was full, and tried a sample of four ales.

Three Fields Triple Grain Lager has a fancy name but it's a basic lager. Clear straw in colour and clean tasting, it's what you'd expect from a lager (Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5).

Straw Hat Matt is a flavourful  Hefeweizen, perfect for late-summer patios. I bought more and will give it a full review in the weeks to come (Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5).

A La Mode is an apple flavoured ale that tastes like liquid apple pie. I was initially nervous about drinking this beer, because of my allergy to apples and apple juice, but I took the risk and it paid off. I liked this beer better than I thought I would, and again, I'll pay full respects to it in an upcoming review (Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5).

The Ladyfriend IPA seems to be their flagship ale and was my overall favourite. It's a big-flavoured IPA with good hops in the mouth but not overpoweringly bitter. I would have loved to bring some home for a proper review, but came away with a growler that I polished off, later that evening, with friends in Guelph. It didn't last very long (Beer O'Clock rating: 4).

I had planned to visit a couple of the breweries in Guelph, but my prime reason for being in that agricultural and university town was to spend quality time with my old friends, and that's what my family and I did. All that means is I'm going to have to return to that town again, on my next beer road trip.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Road Trip, Part 1

I love hitting the road and discovering the many craft breweries that Ontario has to offer. To date, there are some 200 microbreweries in the province, with no slowing in sight.

Obviously, I can't get to all of them at once, but little by little, I'm paying my respects to more and more of them.

On my recent vacation, I hopped in my car and drove to the Bruce Peninsula, in Southern Ontario. If you don't know where that is but have a basic concept of what Ontario looks like, Southern Ontario looks a bit like an arrow head, with its directional point towards southwest: the Bruce Peninsula is that northern point in the arrow head, and it's the narrow strip of land that separates Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

From Ottawa, depending on your route, it can take approximately seven-and-a-half hours to reach the Northern Bruce, which is just north of Wiarton. I chose my route carefully, making sure that I passed a few craft breweries along the way. My intention was to stop for lunch in the Muskoka Lake district and visit three breweries: Muskoka Brewery, Lake of Bays Brewing Company, and Sawdust City Brewing Company. As time had it, I never got the chance to stop at Lake of Bays.

My first stop was to Muskoka Brewery, in Bracebridge. Not far from the intersection of highways 118 and 11, the brewery was only a couple of minutes off of my route. These criss-crossing thoroughfares join up south of the town, so the drive to the brewery gives you the impression that you're out in the back woods. Sort of. You definitely feel as though you're in cottage country, which suits the brew company well, with its iconic Muskoka chair as its logo.

Muskoka Brewery is one of my favourite Ontario ale producers. I love the hoppiness of Mad Tom, and last year, I almost exclusively drank their Detour session ale. I was looking for something special to try at the brewery and anticipated something on tap at their tasting bar.

On that note, I was sadly disappointed. Four ales were on tap: Mad Tom, Detour, their cream ale (or possibly, the Craft Lager—I didn't pay close attention), and their Summerweiss. All four (or five, since I don't remember with of the two beers the fourth tap offered), I have had before, and I like all of them, but I wanted to try something I had never had before, something I could take with me that I wouldn't normally find in my local LCBO.

Happily, while there was nothing new for me to taste, their refrigerator held two beers that were new to me: Moonlight Kettle Just Peachy, a peach kölsch, and Winter Jack, a barrel-aged, double-chocolate stout. I grabbed a bunch of both, and within about 10 to 15 minutes after pulling into the parking lot, I was on my way.

Because I'm not drinking in September, you can expect a review of the kölsch in October. The Winter Jack is laying down until Christmas.

On my drive, when Hwy. 118 cut through Carnarvon, I should have turned onto the 35, heading north, towards Dorset. From there, I would have turned onto the 117, which would have taken me to Lake of Bays, my other intended stop. Because I didn't know how long it would take me to backtrack, and because I like to keep moving forward, I decided to save that brewery for another trip. My next destination was Gravenhurst and Sawdust City.

This newish brewery is located in the heart of Gravenhurst and was only a couple of blocks off my route. Located in what looks like it could have once been a small department store, Sawdust City boasted a large retail area with a wall of refrigeration cases and a sitting area that could host dozens of visitors. Large windows showcased the fermentation tanks, and a small stage offers live music on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Now that's a Muskoka chair!
I pulled into their parking lot just after noon, just in time for lunch. I learned that you can order food from a truck that is parked in the lot, so I ordered a Korean beef bulgogi sandwich. The owner of the food truck takes your money and delivers the food to your table inside the brewery. I ponied up to the bar and tried a four-glass sampler, selecting four ales that I hadn't yet tried from Sawdust City: Gateway Kölsch, Golden Beach Pale Ale, Skinny Dipping Stout, and The Princess Wears Girlpants, a lovely Belgian blonde.

The kölsch was light in body and in flavour, and while it was a good beer to sip on a hot day, it wasn't my favourite of the bunch. I really liked the pale ale and the stout, but by far, my favourite was the Belgian blonde. My greatest disappointment, however, was when I learned that the brewery was sold out of cans, and the only way to enjoy it for this season would be to drink it from the keg at the brewery.

Next year, Sawdust City, I want to write a full review of this ale, so keep some aside for me, okay?

I left the brewery with a full stomach (the food from the truck was amazing!), some lovely beer flavours in my mouth, and cans of the pale ale, stout, and a third, untried selection—a saison called 7 Weeks of Staying Up All Night (with a name like that, how could I resist?).

Back on the road, I continued my road trip, without stopping, until I came to a rest at the mouth of Lion's Head Harbour, overlooking the curving coastline of Georgian Bay, where the high, sheer cliffs mark the beginning of the Niagara Escarpment, waiting to meet up with my family, who had been camping on the peninsula for the past three days before my arrival.

Together, we visited a few more breweries over the next week, and in my next Beer O'Clock post, I'll continue the road trip and share some thoughts on the beer I sampled.