Thursday, March 31, 2016

Southwestern Road Trip, Part 1

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love road trips. When you're rolling on a highway, you see so much of a country, you experience so much of the changing landscape as it unwinds before you. It gives you a chance to stop and smell the flowers.

Or taste the beer that you encounter.

For two weeks, this month, my family and I packed up and headed to the American southwest, to the state of Arizona and to Southern California—specifically, the so-called craft-beer capital of the United States, San Diego. Over these two weeks, I had three specific goals in mind: to visit family, to shoot as many photographs as my data cards could hold, and to discover as much craft beer as I could handle (and still travel).

I accomplished all three objectives.

In the 14 days that I was on the ground and running, I found craft beer to be flowing everywhere I turned. From Phoenix to Page, over the Grand Canyon, From Flagstaff down to Tucson, and in San Diego, I tried beer in brew pubs, family restaurants, in hotel lobbies, and from liquor stores and Whole Foods. In these 14 days, I sampled a total of 56 distinct brews—that's four different tastings a day.

(Don't worry, I didn't drink and drive. Also, many of these samples came in four-ounce glasses, and I sometimes shared or didn't finish the glass.)

What I'd like to do over the next few posts is to share some of the highlights, some of the disappointments, and some fond memories of the places and the brews they offered. I acknowledge that lots of these producers are not widely available—although there were a couple of breweries that I had heard of, I have never seen any of their beer on Ontario store shelves—I just might pique your curiosity enough to prompt you to visit these places yourself.

I'm breaking this post into the major areas that I visited: Phoenix, Northern Arizona (Page, Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff), Tucson, and San Diego.

While I tried to get out to brew pubs and restaurants, I also shopped for beer. In Litchfield, I was introduced to Total Wine and More, a mecca of spirits and craft beer, on N. Litchfield Road. That's where my beer journey started.

Thanks to the convenience of Untappd, here is a list of the first 14 distinct beers that I tried, in order, while in Phoenix, complete with my Beer O'Clock rating (I apologize for the quality of the photos, which were quickly shot by my smartphone and didn't seem to focus clearly):
Camelback IPA, by The Phoenix Ale Brewery (ABV 6.1%, rated 2.5): on the eve of climbing the Phoenix mountain of the same name, I tried this light-bodied IPA. I was slightly disappointed because I expected more bitter hops, and I found this ale somewhat watered down. Without knowing the alcohol content, I would have believed this to be a light (under 5% ABV) ale. I bought a six pack and left the remaining five bottles for my brother-in-law.
Sex Panther Porter, by SanTan Brewing Company (ABV 6.9%, rated 3): this double-chocolate porter had good flavours and went down easily, but I found the body light (which is not a bad thing), bordering on watery (which is not good), despite the alcohol content. Still, I would drink it again. And the name is irresistible.
Sriracha Stout, by Rogue Ales & Spirits (ABV 5.7%, rated 4): I had previously seen this beer on social media by fellow beer lovers, and even though the LCBO does bring in Rogue beer from time to time, I have never seen the bottle that so resembles the hot sauce I love so much. Zesty and full of body, I found that as I worked my way down the bottle, my tongue started to feel the same way that it did when I put too much of this red-rooster sauce on a pizza slice. Chocolate also comes through and makes this concoction seem like a South American delicacy rather that a stout. I liked it a lot but, like the sauce it's made with, I have my limits and couldn't drink more than one bottle in a sitting. Or two.
Pacifico Clara, by Grupo Modelo S.A. de C.V. (4.5% ABV, rated 3): okay, this isn't craft beer. Grupo Modelo is a large Mexican brewery that is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. This beer tasted like the mass-produced lager that it is, but I have to say that on a hot day, after doing touristy things in Phoenix and ending up at a Mexican restaurant, this bevvy went down well. I'd drink it again and I don't care who knows it.
Oatmeal Stout, by Nimbus Brewing Company (5% ABV, rated 3.5): I first tried this stout on a warm evening in the heart of Phoenix, at Copper Blues Rock Pub & Kitchen. Live music played as my wife and I sat in a slightly quiet section, where we could converse with my brother, who lives in Chandler, to the southeast of the city. I enjoyed the classic flavours and solid body of this oatmeal stout, and when I visited the brewery a week later, I was happy to try this beer again. It's well worth a try.
Short Hop, by Four Peaks Brewing Company (5.2% ABV, rated 4.5): because we were travelling with kids, my wife and I thought that it would be only fair to let them choose some activities on our trip. Being teens, they wanted to shop: specifically, they wanted to check out used games stores. My eldest is caught up in nostalgic game systems (NES, in particular) and is always on the eye out for old consoles in good condition.

We found a Flashback Games in Tempe, just east of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, not far from Arizona State University, but when we pulled into the parking lot we were surprised to learn that it didn't open until noon, which was almost a half-hour away. We were all hungry, so I went onto Google to find the nearest brew pub and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Four Peaks was just around the corner. It was on my list of must-try breweries, so 10 minutes later we found ourselves seated at a table.

I have to say that the service in this brew pub was stellar. Our server was friendly and attentive, and made me feel as welcome as the folks at Mill Street, who have known me for years. The food was simple but delicious, and generous (my wife and I split a single plate and both came away full), and the beer was outstanding.

I ordered their sampler but added a tasting of one of their seasonals, the Short Hop session IPA. It was aromatic, with light, fresh citrus and assertive but not overpowering hops. It awoke my palate and went down well in the heat. It was a great starter for what was to follow.
Sunbru Kölsh, by Four Peaks Brewing (5.2% ABV, rated 3): I find kölshes to be malty and a bit nutty, and this one didn't disappoint. It coated my tongue without cloying. Good body, great finish.
Kilt Lifter, by Four Peaks Brewing (6% ABV, rated 3): this was a good Scottish ale, with good malt and caramel, but I didn't find it as flavourful as I expected from this style. It was nice, but I was eager to move on to the next sample.
Oatmeal Stout, by Four Peaks Brewing (5% ABV, rated 3.5): a good, solid stout. Nicely balanced with a solid finish.
8th Street Pale Ale, by Four Peaks Brewing (4.9% ABV, rated 4.5): this was my favourite of the sampler, and I was tempted to take a six pack with me, but my wife reminded me that we still had leftover beer at her brother's home and that we should limit what we pick up. Plus, she was ahead of me on the sampler tasting and I think she had another beer in mind. This pale ale was refreshing and well-balanced, with great hops that cleansed my palate. I did find it on tap at another pub in Tucson, and I gladly ordered a full pint.
Peach Ale, by Four Peaks Brewing (4.5% ABV, rated 3): peach flavours came in abundance through the nose and on the palate, and this is a nice summer beverage if you like fruity beer. Even though I tend to steer clear of peach beer, I found this one pleasant enough.
White Ale, by Four Peaks Brewing (5.4% ABV, rated 3): this witbier was light and refreshing, and had all the classic flavours of a wheat ale. Not much more can be said: I liked it, but it was a standard ale of this style.
Hop Knot IPA, by Four Peaks Brewing (6.8% ABV, rated 4): the citrus and hops live up to its name. This is a great IPA with lots of flavour and great body, from start to finish. Hop Knot was also my wife's favourite ale of all the samples, and because I liked it too (though, 8th Street was my favourite), we picked up a six pack that travelled with us for the rest of the trip, with the last cans making it all the way back to Ottawa (but were finished during our first dinner at my parents' home). It's a solid IPA and is highly recommended.
Raj IPA, by Four Peaks Brewing (6.9% ABV, rated 3): I liked this IPA, but I found the balance wasn't quite right and that the alcohol stood out a bit. I much preferred the Hop Knot.

On the fifth day of our vacation, it was time to head north and explore more of Arizona, starting in Page. In my next blog post, I'll share the brews and breweries that I discovered in that small Navajo town, the Grand Canyon, and on to Flagstaff. Come along for the ride.


Thursday, March 10, 2016


No, Olivia Newton-John has nothing to do with this beer.

But there is a bit of Nirvana to this brew.

Last summer, when my family vacationed on the Bruce Peninsula, we stumbled upon an altbier by a brewery in Owen Sound. It paired nicely with my homemade burger at a restaurant just outside of Tobermory, and it prompted me to also try their lighter, Kölsch, which I also liked.

I told myself that I would have to visit this brewery when I passed through this small Ontario town, on my way to Guelph.

Kilannan Brewing Company is a small operation, set in a non-descript warehouse at the intersection of Highway 6 and County Road 18, and when I pulled up to the side of the building, I was beginning to think that they had no sales area, that they were merely a production and distribution centre. I was going to turn around and continue on my journey, but something told me that I had to at least stick my head in the door and look around.

I'm glad I did.

While the brewery isn't build with looks in mind, they do have a tasting bar and a large refrigerator that is stocked with their mainstay offerings and seasonals. I had also tried their stout, in Tobermory, but unfortunately it was also a seasonal and was no longer available.

As luck would have it, they did have a few bottles of another seasonal stout on hand, and I picked up a few to have at a future date.

The future is now, and we find ourselves in Xanadu.
Xanadu Imperial Stout (9.5% ABV)
Kilannan Brewing Co.
Owen Sound, ON
Appearance: deep brown, with a creamy-taupe head that remains a solid cap. I literally stepped out of the house after a couple of sips and returned an hour later, and there was still a head.

Nose: prunes, licorice, and dark-roasted coffee.

Palate: black licorice and cocoa. The Imperial stout holds a nice body with a slightly astringent finish that brings out bourbon and oak. After a few mouthfuls, you can start to feel the alcohol on the tongue, but it is never overpowering.

Overall impression: this is a strong but gentle Imperial stout, one that doesn't bowl you over but can still flex its muscle and leave a solid impression. But remember: it is a strong beer in a large, 650ml (about 22 oz) bottle. I sipped the beer over an hour, and by the time I was done, I knew that there was no way that I was driving anywhere.

This is an ale that I would highly recommend that you search out. Hopefully, it's not as elusive as its name suggests. (And there are no Australian actresses associated with it, either.)

Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5