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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sheraton Gets Serious About Beer

Today's post by Jay over at Brookston Beer Bulletin reminded me that I intended to write about this topic back in November, but I never got around to it. Ah, well, better late than never...

I don't travel a lot, but when I do, I always lament the poor beer selection that I find in most hotel restaurants and mini-bars. While I understand that hotels (at least the mid-range ones that I usually stay at) generally try to cater to the average (i.e. unadventurous) person when it comes to their food and drink offerings, their boring beer lists have always seemed like a wasted opportunity to me. After all, most tourists visit new places in order to experience things that make those places unique, including the local food and drink. So why not offer them some locally made craft beer?

It seems like someone at Sheraton Four Points, one of the mid-range chains owned by hotel giant Starwood, had the same idea, as they launched a new initiative called Best Brews this past fall. According to the mid-November press release, bars and restaurants in Four Points properties around the world now feature beer lists that offer "a selection of local, regional and imported craft beers", with each location serving "a minimum of four draught beers and a selection of up to 20 bottled beers". In addition, "all Four Points lounge and restaurant staff must complete the Best Brews online training program and master all aspects of the curriculum", and each location will have a "beer champion" on staff who will be "helping guests discover new tastes and brands, as well as educating them about the differences between each beer".

Looking over the Best Brews web page, this looks to be a serious and well-researched program. Unlike some other online resources, the information presented on the site is accurate and informative without being too geeky or know-it-all-ish. And adding a but of fun to the whole thing is the "job search" for a "Chief Beer Officer" that Four Points have been running for the past few weeks. The press release claims that it is a real position that they are looking to fill, with something verging on an actual job description:

One of the primary duties of the CBO will be to document all official activities and beer learnings on a Four Points beer blog. This includes discovering new brews to feature in the program and sharing their thoughts about each beer they sample in the portfolio, as the CBO will have a sampling of the collection delivered to their door each quarter.

However, the online "application" for the position is just a series of simple multiple-choice questions related to beer, and a request for your address and phone number, suggesting that it may just be a ploy to promote the program and build a mailing list of microbrew drinkers. Whatever the aim, it's still an exciting step forward for craft beer, and one that will likely convince many beer lovers - including myself - to consider staying at Four Points hotels during any trips we may take in the future.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Pub Review: The Rhino

The Rhino
1249 Queen St. W. (west of Dufferin)
(416) 535-8089

One thing I've intended to include on this blog since I started it are reviews of some of my favourite (and maybe some of my not-so-favourite) bars & pubs in Toronto. So for this first in an occasional series of reviews, and it seemed fitting to start off with my local haunt, The Rhino.

For close to 13 years now I've lived in Parkdale, a neighbourhood of Toronto that used to be quite affluent but that fell on hard times a few decades back. Gentrification has started creeping into the 'hood in the last few years, but back when I first moved here, The Rhino was pretty much the only place within a reasonable walking distance of my place to get a decent beer and food that was a step or two above typical greasy spoon fare. Not that they served anything fancy - it was your basic pub grub staples like burgers, sandwiches, pizza and pasta - but it was tasty (well, usually - more on that in a moment) and cheap, and there was a selection of microbrews available to wash it down. It's a theme that they've stuck with ever since.

One big problem with The Rhino, however, has been the inconsistency of both the service and the quality of the food. The staff turnover seems to be quite high, so aside from the family members who run the place and occasionally wait tables, we've rarely been served by the same person more than once, and as a result, the service has ranged from friendly and attentive to indifferent and glacial. Once, my wife and I popped in for a beer and a quick bite. We sat down, got glasses of water, and waited fruitlessly for our waitress to return to take our order. After 30 minutes, we could only assume that she had either been kidnapped or simply chose to knock off early for the night, so we left.

The food has had similar ups and downs. While it's never been gourmet quality, we have been served some really tasty meals there. Back when we ate meat, we were both fans of the Thai Chicken Pizza, made with juicy chunks of chicken and spicy peanut sauce. The fish & chips is usually a safe bet as well. But we've also suffered through some pretty bad meals: overcooked burgers, undercooked french fries, soggy nachos, hard poached eggs under cold Hollandaise sauce.

So why do we keep going back, especially now that places like Mitzi's Sister and the Cadillac Lounge have opened in the nabe? I suppose it's partly a slightly misguided sense of loyalty. After all, they've been in Parkdale as long as we have (longer, actually), and they were there for us when our only other local options were smoke-filled dive bars serving unmarked draught (spelled "draft") to drunks that like to pick fights for no apparent reason.

And the beer selection is certainly a big asset, especially since they decided a year or so back to expand their bottle list to 200+ beers. None of them are especially rare, but the prices are amongst the cheapest in the city, and the draught selection - recently enhanced by the addition of a handpump for cask ale - features a solid line-up of a dozen or so local micros, also at dirt cheap prices.

It also doesn't hurt that the food prices have remained relatively unchanged since we started going there over a decade ago. There were hints that the menu (and presumably the prices) would be changing a year or so back when it was announced that they would be undergoing a facelift of sorts, presumably to keep up with some of the cool new kids on the block, but those renovation plans seem to have died - or at least been put on hold - and the menu and prices remain unchanged.

So while I'm well aware that it ain't perfect, it's still my local, and as long as I live a couple of blocks away, I'll still be stopping in for the cheap beer, the variable food, and the comfortable, familiar atmosphere. That's what The Rhino is all about, and that's what I love about it.

(Note: The photos for this review were taken by my lovely wife, Sheryl Kirby, for a review of Rhino that she wrote a couple of months ago for a new arts & culture website, Toronto Bits.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

So, This Is Christmas...

It hasn't felt much like Christmas around these parts this year. The weather has only dipped below freezing once or twice, and there isn't a flake of snow on the ground - on the contrary, the grass is still green on most lawns in our neighbourhood. I even saw some bulbs sprouting in a neighbour's flower bed earlier today. Since I find it hard to find the Christmas spirit at the best of times, it's been especially tough to get into the holiday mood this year.

But that's not to say that I haven't been doing some celebrating. My pal Doug hosts an annual beer tasting bash at his place on a Saturday in mid-December every year, and this year's instalment was as enjoyable as ever. Everyone brought along some bottles to share (the remnants of which can be seen in the accompanying photo), Doug put on his traditional spread of chili, cheese and other munchies, and a good time was had by all.

Last Thursday, I hosted a smaller event with my usual tasting buddies. We had a fine assortment of beers from all over the damn place, most of them acquired by those mad beer traders Paul & Harry. We started the night with Bolshoi!, a potent Imperial stout from Brooklyn's Six Point Brewing, and ended it with Old Boardhead Barley Wine from Full Sail Brewing of Oregon, knocking off another dozen or so along the way.

And of course, no December would be complete without enjoying some local holiday & winter beers. Up until a couple of years ago, the selection of such beers in Ontario was quite limited, but a number of new and established breweries have started stepping up when it comes to solid seasonal releases, so there are a few more to choose from now. Here are my thoughts on the ones I've had a chance to taste so far this year:

Amsterdam Tilted Kilt Scotch Ale
I really liked the Kerstmis beer that Amsterdam used to make it each Christmas, and when I heard they were bringing back their winter seasonal, I was hoping it would be that. So I was a bit disappointed when I discovered it was a different beer, but at least this is a pretty good one as well. Pours a very nice dark copper-amber with a thin head. Nice aroma, very toasty, with notes of roasted nuts and a bit of cocoa. Body is a bit thin, but OK. Flavour is fairly sweet as promised, with more nuts and cocoa in the middle, and a fresh mellow hoppiness to finish.

Black Oak Nutcracker
One of the old-timers on the local seasonal scene, it's always a treat when the annual batch of Nutcracker is released by our friends at Black Oak. This spiced porter has a dark ruby-brown colour with a thin tan head, and a complex aroma of coffee, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom & pepper. The body is rich, smooth and slightly creamy. Roasty, toasty, nutty flavour with notes of chocolate and cinnamon and other spices - the spiciness has been ramped up a bit this year, making it better than ever. They even did a cask version with a bunch of whole cinnamon sticks thrown in à la dry hopping ("dry cinnamoning"?).

Great Lakes Brewing Winter Ale
No, this isn't a new beer from the renowned Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland, but rather a new seasonal from a Toronto brewery of the same name that is better known for producing mainstream lagers. They surprised everyone earlier this year with their Devil's Pale Ale, and now they've done it again with this enjoyable winter warmer. Aroma of malt, banana, orange zest, brown sugar and a bit of cinnamon. The flavour is sweet but not cloying, with some nice fruitcake and licorice notes. As with the Devil's Pale, it could be a little more aggressive, but it’s still another great step forward for these guys - onwards & upwards!

Over the rest of my holiday break, I'm hoping to get a chance to try Maclean's Scotch Ale, C'est What Hazelnut Coffee Porter, Nickel Brook Winter Bock, and the just announced Scotch-Irish Christmas Cake Porter. Assuming my attempts to get out and try them are successful, you can expect a Part Two post in a week or so.

In the meantime, I hope that everyone is having a Merry Christmas. May you have a well-stocked beer fridge now and into the new year, and good friends to help you enjoy it. Peace & cheers!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sandy McTire Would Approve

Like 5 AM hockey practice and the double-double, Canadian Tire money is a tradition in our fine country. Introduced nearly 50 years ago as a loyalty reward program by the Canadian Tire hardware & gas chain, these coupons featuring the visage of cheery Scotsman Sandy McTire have become so ubiquitous that they're often referred to as "Canada's second currency". Check the glove compartment of any vehicle on the road in Canada, and you're bound to find a few bucks worth of the colourful funny money.

Of course, if you only shop at CT occasionally, there's always the question of what to do with this stuff when you end up with some. Saving it until the next time you need to pick up some tools or get an oil change is an option, but if you happen to live in Edmonton and would like to buy something a bit more fun with it, you now have another option:

A west Edmonton liquor store is accepting Canadian Tire money at par as a form of payment, and its owners say the program is a hit with shoppers. "There's a liquor store on every corner nowadays, so you need to have a bit of an edge to get someone to stop by your liquor store," said Don Calder, a part owner of Liquor International.

Calder, whose store takes in about $5 worth of the stuff on a slow day and up to $200 when things are hopping, put the policy in place about a year and a half ago.

It was supposed to be a short-term gimmick but proved so popular that he's kept it up.

"We do have a fair amount starting to stock up," he said. "And, I assure you, we actually look for items now to go to Canadian Tire and buy."

Sadly, it's unlikely that such a policy will ever be implemented at Ontario's booze outlets. Not only are the stores here run by a government monopoly, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, Ontario retail tax laws state that such coupons "must be reimbursed by the franchisee". Too bad - I've got a couple of bucks worth of this stuff myself that I'd be more likely to trade in for a bottle than a lug wrench...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Where My Hosers At?

Question: Are Alan, the Biergotter guys, and myself the only Canadians on the beer-blogosphere?

(Yes, I know that Stephen Beaumont has a blog, and also contributes to the group blog On The House, but he's a pro who does the blog thing on the side. I'm talking about folks whose primary writing outlet is their blog.)

Based on our respective populations, logic dictates that we should have roughly 1/10th the number of beer blogs in Canada as there are in the US. But there are certainly more than 30 (or if you want to count Beaumont, 40) American beer blogs. My guess based on RSBS and other sources is that it's well over 100 and growing.

So, where are all the Canucks? Given the importance that we place on beer in our country, you'd think that there would be more than a tiny handful of us blabbing about it on the Intarwebs. Maybe it's the fact that our craft beer culture is still lagging behind the Americans? Or maybe we're too busy drinking beer to write about it?

Whattaya think, eh?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Winter Beers

My article on six UK winter/Christmas beers that are currently available at the LCBO has been posted as part of this week's issue of Gremolata. As you can see in my crappy photo montage to the right, the beers covered include Belhaven Wee Heavy, Fuller's Vintage Ale 2006, Greene King Strong Suffolk, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale, St. Peter's Winter Ale & Wychwood Bah Humbug.

I might follow this up with a blog post next week reviewing a bunch of local holiday beers, assuming I get a chance to try them all between now and then.

Along the same theme: Jon at The Brew Site has been making "Advent Beer Calendar" posts to his blog since the beginning of the month, featuring a different winter/Christmas beer each day. He started with Anchor Christmas Ale on December 1st, and most recently wrote up the very tasty sounding Young's Christmas Pudding Ale. Unfortunately, very few of the beers he's covered are available in Ontario, so I've had to use my imagination to play along. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Menu For Hope III

While BB&B is mainly a beer blog, I do dabble in a bit of food-related posting (as the "Bites" in the name suggests). I've also started reading a number of food blogs recently, and many of them have featured posts in the last couple of days about a fundraising event called Menu For Hope.

The purpose of this annual event, which is being held for the third time this year, is best described by campaign director Pim Techamuanvivit on her blog Chez Pim:

To us Food Bloggers, food is a joy. On our blogs, we celebrate food as a delight or even an indulgence. Unfortunately, for many others who share our world do not share that privilege. For them, food is a matter of survival. This "Menu for Hope" is our small way to help.

The campaign involves a mass raffle that features prizes donated by dozens of food bloggers around the world, often with the participation of other culinary luminaries like bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain and Toronto's own Susur Lee. The money raised will be donated to the UN World Food Programme, which provides hunger relief for needy people worldwide.

If you're interesting in getting involved, a full list of available prizes can be found at Chez Pim, while my fellow Canucks may be interested in seeing the list of prizes from Canadian bloggers, which is available in both English and Français at Confessions of a Cardamom Addict.

My one complaint about this thing is the complete lack of beer blogs being involved in the project. As the list hosted at Vinography attests, there are plenty of wine blogs contributing prizes, but none of my beery brethren are represented. I think we'll have to do something about this in 2007...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Review: Homebrew 4U

First of all, I have to mention that this is a paid review, solicited from me via, a service that I recently registered for after seeing it mentioned by Alan at A Good Beer Blog. I am admittedly a little bit torn on the ethics of this, as after spending years as a music reviewer and DJ, I'm worried about anything that might be construed as payola. But ReviewMe has a policy that all paid reviews that are posted must be identified as such which makes the process more transparent. I guess you can therefore consider this review - and any that might follow - to be sort of like infomercials, except they may not always be glowingly positive. I might be getting paid for this, but not enough for me to lie about something if I hate it. And besides, I'll just end up spending the pittance on beer, which will mean more content for you to read and enjoy, so everybody wins!

Now, then: I've been asked to give my thoughts on Homebrew 4U, a website in the UK that sells supplies and equipment for homebrewing of beer, wine and cider. Now, I am at a bit of a disadvantage here because:

1) I've never homebrewed myself; and
2) I don't live in the UK.

That being said, I do know a bit about website design, and Homebrew 4U looks pretty nice. The front page is informational without being too busy, and the inclusion of an option to change between small and large fonts is a nice touch. The only real design turn-off for me is the use of stock photos in the top banner and the left sidebar, but that's just personal preference.

As for the contents of the site, the main area is the online shop which is well organized into logical categories (Beer Kits, Wine Kits, Cider Kits, etc.). However, the stock and selection seem to be oriented primarily towards novice homebrewers who aren't especially adventurous: for example, the only beer kits available are for lager and bitter, and they're of the "just add water & sugar" variety. Perhaps they should consider branching out into selling hops, malt and other supplies for the more serious homebrewer that prefers to create their own recipes.

The site also features a Homebrew Advice Forum, although the only post is a "welcome to the forum" message from a couple of weeks ago, so it's not that useful at the moment. Maybe it will pick up as the site gets more established, but if all they're selling is starter kits, I'm not sure how they'll be able to attract experts to give some advice to the newbies.

The final section of the site is Homebrew Resources, which features some fairly rudimentary information on how beer and wine are made, although again they are oriented towards a novice making beer or wine using a starter kit, so most if the info won't be of much use to someone looking to move up to using raw ingredients and more unique recipes. For that, they'll have to turn to some homebrewing books, which are helpfully offered for sale in this section via links to

All in all, Homebrew 4U looks to be a decent site for folks in the UK who are looking to take their first steps into homebrewing. The site is simple to navigate and the selection looks to be sufficient for beginners. But it's probably not of much interest to people outside of the UK, or more experienced homebrewers who are looking for a supplier for their next batch of Imperial Stout or Double IPA.

If you'd like some other opinions of the site, you can see what Alan had to say, as well as what Michael or Chris (I'm not sure who wrote the review) over at Hail The Ale thought of it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Four Things For Friday

  1. I'm sort of late to the game on this story, as many other blogs have already covered it, as well as "real" news outlets including the New York Times and the Globe & Mail. But in case you haven't heard about it yet, Massachusetts-based beer importers Shelton Brothers have been having some of their products rejected by liquor regulatory bodies in New York and Maine due to the beers' names and/or labels being unacceptable. Some, like the Santa's Butt Winter Porter pictured to the right, were snubbed due to the name and label graphics potentially being appealing to children, while Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus and Brasserie Les Choulette’s Sans Culottes were turned down because the labels feature paintings of bare-breasted women. While the civil libertarian in me finds these decisions to be pretty offensive, I can't help but be a little amused by them as well, if only because it shows that even though most American states have a much freer market for alcohol sales than we do in Ontario, their government busy-bodies can be just as ridiculous as our pink elephant banning LCBO.

  2. I discovered a new blog this morning that I'm looking forward to keeping my eye on: Pint and a Smoke is written by fellow Torontonian Pat McLean, and it features his musings on the pubs in our fair city. His criteria for a good pub are quite similar to mine: no TVs (or maybe one, as long as it's unobtrusive), no loud music, at least one good stout on tap, etc. While we live across town from each other, I hope that our paths cross at some point soon, as he seems like a good guy to hoist a few with (even though based on his other blog, he seems to be an Oilers fan...).

  3. Speaking of pubs: My local, The Rhino, has recently added a cask engine to their great line-up of local taps. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but based on the experience that I and others have had there since they brought it in, I'm not especially enthused. The wife and I popped in for a pint the other night, and while our waitress knew that they had a cask ale on, she didn't know what beer it was ("Uh... I think it's an IPA?"), and when she went to the bar to ask, the barman sent her back with a sample rather than the name of the beer. The beer was in decent shape, at least, and I suspect that it was probably Durham Triple X IPA. But the lack of knowledge concerned me, as does the fact that the cask ale is not mentioned anywhere on their pre-printed beer menu. Cask ale lovers expect more care and knowledge, not to mention some assurance that they'll be served a fresh pint, and newbies could end up being served stale pints that will turn them off the stuff - assuming they are even aware that it's there.

  4. I got together last night with my pals Paul & Harry to help them drink about a dozen mediocre beers that Harry had trucked back from his last visit to Quebec. (Yes, we are beer rating whores). But just so the night wasn't a complete swillfest, we threw in a couple of guaranteed winners, including the much-loved Struise Pannepot. The other two guys had had it before, but this was my first time trying it, and it definitely lived up to the hype. It pours a deep mahogany-brown with a small mocha head that leaves lots of lace. The aroma is big and round and inviting, with a fantastic sweet & roasty backbone supporting notes of brown sugar, caramel, and assorted dark fruits and spices. The flavour masterfully juggles notes of roasted coffee and dark sugar with hints of fruit (fig, plum, cherry) and spice (cinnamon, licorice), leading into a moderately dry and woody finish. A complex and remarkably satisfying beer that rivals the best that the Trappists have to offer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gourmet Food and Wine Expo

This past weekend, the wife and I went down to the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo at the Toronto Convention Centre. It was our first time attending this annual event - we'd considered it in past years, but because we're cheapasses, we were scared off by the relatively high admission charge. This year, however, we were armed with a 2-for-1 coupon and decided to give it a shot.

All in all, we were pretty underwhelmed. Sheryl has given her impressions in a post to TorontoBits, and I'm pretty much in agreement with her assessment. As she notes, there was a lot about the event that wasn't particularly "gourmet" in nature. For example, the wine-in-a-bag pictured to the right certainly doesn't say "gourmet" to me. And I was especially offended to see Bright Pearl amongst the food vendors, as the food I was served at their booth at the Taste Of Toronto festival back in September was high on the lost of the worst things I've ever put into my mouth.

That being said, we did manage to find a few palatable food options, even for finicky pescetarians like ourselves. The grilled sardines and fish cakes from Cataplana weren't bad, and it's hard to go wrong with oysters from Rodney's (although the ones we were served could've been cleaned a bit better - nothing ruins a nice oyster more than grit between your teeth). But the highlight was definitely the sushi from EDO which was fresh and tasty, and one of the few food items on offer than wasn't sitting in a steam tray for hours. Speaking of which: The other item available at the EDO booth was a small Kobe beef burger, but Kobe beef or not, anyone willing to plunk down 7 bucks for a burger that was cooked hours before and kept warm in a steam tray is a frickin' idiot.

As for the liquids - well, as I've stated before, I'm really not much of a wine guy, so I walked past most of the wine booths with a mixture of confusion and fear. We did try a couple of wines that I liked, including this year's Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais nouveau and some other red wine that made Sheryl feel all melty and fluttery. I also had some fantastic scotch that I completely forgot to write down the name of, but I recall being told that it was a private label release of an 8 year old Lagavulin that sells for about half the price of the regular stuff. It had been a long time since I'd had a scotch, and this reminded me of how much I enjoy it.

On the beer side of things, I started with some Christoffel Blond, a favourite of mine that was being served up the Rubaiyat import agency. At the Embrujo Flamenco booth, I tried a sample of Ambar, a fairly standard pale lager from Spain. And at Black Oak, our pal Ken was serving up this year's batch of his seasonal Nutcracker Porter which was in fine form - rich and spicey, just how we like it.

The final verdict: This event may be great for wine lovers, but for the occasional wine drinker going more for the food and beer, it's a disappointment. Especially if you're paying the full admission price of 15 dollars, plus buying a stack of sampling coupons for a buck each and dropping 2 or 3 of them for each sample. It's definitely not a cheap way to spend an afternoon.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Newsflash: Beer Goes Well With Cheese!

Many newspapers and websites across Canada that get a feed from the Canadian Press ran a fluff piece recently about a shocking new food and drink activity that is "becoming all the rage in some trendy corners": pairing cheese with beer (gasp!) rather than wine! (It also mentions scotch, but since this is ostensibly a beer blog, that's what I'm focussing on.)

Now, I've always argued that good beer is much more conducive to many food pairings than wine - but then again, I'm not much of a wine guy, so that's really just me talking out of my ass. But it seems that executive chef Lee Humphries at FigMint Restaurant and Lounge in Vancouver agrees with me:

While wine seems like a natural to have with cheese, the likelihood of a mismatch is much greater with wine than with beer and scotch, says Humphries.

"Beer and scotch work really well with cheese because the flavours are so complementary," he explains. "Many wines just overpower the delicate nature of cheese, making wine pairings that much more difficult to perfect."

And it's not just chefs who think this - the scientists are in agreement that wine & cheese don't work well together:

Bernice Madrigal-Galan and Hildegarde Heymann of the University of California, Davis, presented trained wine tasters with cheap and expensive versions of four different varieties of wine. The tasters evaluated the strength of various flavours and aromas in each wine both alone and when preceded by eight different cheeses.

They found that cheese suppressed just about everything, including berry and oak flavours, sourness and astringency. Only butter aroma was enhanced by cheese, and that is probably because cheese itself contains the molecule responsible for a buttery wine aroma, Heymann says. Strong cheeses suppressed flavours more than milder cheeses, but flavours of all wines were suppressed. In other words, there are no magical wine and cheese pairings.

It's curious to note that Humphries thinks that wine overpowers cheese, while the science-types argue the opposite. But either way, it's obvious that wine and cheese just don't get along as well as people like to think, and they should just split up now so beer and cheese can get together. I mean, they make such a cute couple. It's inevitable, really. Wine should just accept it and move on.

Anyway, this story comes along at an interesting time for me, as I've got plans afoot with a local cheese guy that may lead to some fun stuff in the new year. More on that as things develop...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Land Of Chocolate

As news editor at The Bar Towel, I occasionally receive invitations to press events and launch parties around town, but generally they have something to do with beer. So I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when I was emailed an invite to the 6th Annual "Chocs-O-Fun" event presented by Ganong, a New Brunswick based chocolate maker that is Canada's oldest candy company and one of the oldest family owned businesses in the country.

I wasn't sure if I should RSVP, as I couldn't really do much in the way of promoting Ganong via The Bar Towel. But when I mentioned it to the wife, her eyes lit up, and she immediately pitched it to Gremolata as a story idea. Helped by the fact that the event was also serving as a launch for Ganong: A Sweet History Of Chocolate - a beautiful book that documents the history of the company in words and pictures - the story was approved, so we could attend without feeling like freeloaders.

The event was held this past Thursday at the very swank Dominion Club at King & Yonge in downtown Toronto. Smartly dressed waiters floated around the room with plates of hors d'oeuvres, soothing jazz played in the background, and a large marble table was piled high with boxes and boxes of chocolates and fruit candies. Each attendee also received a swag bag on departure containing three boxes of various tasty Ganong treats.

There was also an open bar, but the beer selection was limited to the terrible trio of Blue, Canadian and Corona. Too bad, as a rich and roasty stout would've provided a great pairing for the chocolate bon-bons. In retrospect, we should've headed a block east to beerbistro afterwards and cracked open our gift bags to try a couple of pairings of our own. Ah well, I'm sure we'll be able to come up with some good ones here at home...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Beer Blogs I Like

While I try to make a point of checking out the fantastic beer blog aggregator RSBS (Really Simple Beer Syndication) on a daily basis, I sometimes find it hard to keep up with the new posts from the 100+ blogs that are featured there. So there are several beer & drink blogs that I keep track of more directly via my RSS reader, and I wanted to give a shout-out to a few of them:

A Good Beer Blog
Written (mostly) by Alan McLeod who lives at the other end of Lake Ontario from me, AGBB was the first beer blog I discovered a couple of years ago, and I've been a loyal reader ever since. Part of my loyalty lies in the fact that he's also in Ontario, which means that I can relate to his occasional complaints about the LCBO. He often makes me jealous with his frequent trips south of the border to buy lots of the good stuff, and I'm also jealous of all the beer books he gets sent to review, although given the number of promo CDs I got during my years as a DJ and music writer, I can't complain too much. Anyway, I hope it won't make Alan's head get too big when I say that AGBB was one of the main inspirations for me to start this blog. So depending on how you feel about BB&B, you've got Alan to thank or blame.

Lyke 2 Drink
While it's not exclusively devoted to beer, this blog from long-time drinks journalist Rick Lyke is a well-distilled (pardon the pun) digest of news from the worlds of beer, wine and spirits. Unlike similar blogs that just cut & paste press releases and articles from other sources, Rick often adds his own observations to the news content, and has also featured reports from beer festivals and other events. And since he was a published writer well before he was a blogger, his posts are well written and judiciously edited. If you have any interest at all in the behind-the-scenes comings and goings in the beer industry, you really should be reading Lyke 2 Drink.

On The House
As with Lyke 2 Drink, this is not a beer-only blog, and it's also unique in being a group blog that features around a dozen beverage industry "insiders" posting about various topics related to beer, wine, spirits, cocktails, and the hospitality industry in general. My main reason for reason for reading it is to check out the posts from Stephen Beaumont, who writes mainly about beer as you might expect, but there are some other great writers there as well. It's also worth mentioning that in addition to his posts to On The House and the monthly updates at his World Of Beer website, Beaumont also writes a solo beer blog for the "entertaining + drink ideas" website That's The Spirit, although since it lacks an RSS feed, I don't check it as often as I should.

Brookston Beer Bulletin
When I see that there's a new post up at the Brookston Beer Bulletin, I usually wait to read it until I have a half-hour or so to spare, as writer Jay Brooks generally has a lot to say about the topics he tackles. He also writes with such style and passion that I don't mind setting aside a bit of time to digest his words. His longest and most entertaining rants are usually directed towards sloppy and uninformed beer articles from the mainstream press, as well as restrictive beer & alcohol regulations and the "Neo-Prohibitionists" who are usually behind them. If every beer lover had even half the passion that Jay does, we could take over the frickin' world, or at least make it easier to get a decent beer in every corner of it.

If you have any favourite beer blogs you'd like to share, or a blog of your own to hype, please leave a comment!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Weston's Cider (aka How Do You Like Them Apples?)

While it's rarely my beverage of choice, I occasionally find myself in the mood for a good cider. Unfortunately, here in the land of the government-run alcohol monopoly, the selection of ciders available to us is generally limited to UK imports such as Strongbow and Blackthorn - mass-produced ciders that are artificially sweetened and carbonated, making them the Bud/Coors/Blue/etc. of the cider world - and similarly mainstream domestics like Growers.

The selection got a little better earlier this year when the LCBO added Stowford Press English Export Cider from Weston's Cider to their general list. While Weston's may not be a small artisanal cidery, at least they're a family owned business producing ciders that are much closer to traditional styles than the industrial muck churned out by the big boys.

So having enjoyed the Stowford Press the couple of times I'd tried it, I was happy to see a pack of three other Weston's ciders as one of this year's holiday gift box selections. The selection includes 1880 Cider (8.2% abv), a special blend created in 2005 for Weston's 125th anniversary; Henry Weston's Vintage Reserve (8.2% abv), which is aged in oak vats for six months before bottling; and Weston's Organic (6.5% abv), produced using locally grown organic apples.

I enjoyed all three of them fairly equally, and found them to be quite refreshing and, well, appley. I also thought them to be quite similar to each other in a lot of ways - perhaps too similar. In particular, there is a slight funky/cheesy note to the aroma and flavour of all three of them, as well as the Stowford Press, which I can only assume is a house characteristic shared by all Weston's ciders. I liked it, but I would've preferred a bit more variation between the three.

Anyway, I'm still a cider neophyte, and I'm sure that even the Weston's offerings would pale in comparison to a fresh local cider enjoyed in a village pub in the UK countryside. But they didn't disappoint me, and I'd happily take them over a Strongbow any day.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Me Me Me!

OK, as much as I hate the word "blogosphere", I received a sign a few days ago that I'm now a part of it whether I like it or not:

This guy named Anthony left a comment on one of my NYC posts saying that he found while searching for info for a blog post of his own reviewing d.b.a., one of the bars I visited there.

So I went over to his blog - the very funny Wiseass Reviews - and found the post in question. And not only had he given me a link, but he also made me a tag!

Thanks, Anthony. I'm returning the favour.

Oh yeah - just so this post isn't completely off-topic and self-indulgent, I should mention that I drank some Black Oak Saison tonight. Review: It was yummy.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Mill Street Brewpub

For a city of its size and population, Toronto has an embarrassing dearth of brewpubs. In fact, up until a couple of weeks ago, we had exactly one of them: The Granite. It's a great place, but since I'm a downtown snob who tends to get nosebleeds if I go too far north of Bloor Street, I don't make it up there very often.

(C'est What is often referred to as a brewpub, but since their house beers are brewed off-site at Durham Brewing, they don't meet the usually accepted definition of the word.)

So when word came down earlier this year that Mill Street Brewery would be relocating their main operations to a much larger brewery in the suburbs and turning their original Distillery District location into a brewpub, there was much rejoicing throughout the local beer scene.

After months of anticipation, the Mill Street Brewpub was finally opened in late October with surprisingly minimal fanfare. I made it down for my first visit earlier this week, and I can say with very little reservation that it was well worth the wait. My only disappointment was that Alan at A Good Beer Blog beat me to the reviewing punch even though he lives about 250 kms away. Plus he never lets me know when he's going to be in town. Bastard.

Anyway. Since it's located in the Distillery District, the place has great atmosphere almost by default, but they've really gone above and beyond with the renovations that they've done over the past few months. Aside from the brewing tanks in the middle of the room, it's almost unrecognisable from its time as a regular brewery, and it strikes the perfect balance between being spacious and cozy.

It pretty much goes without saying that the beer is excellent, but I'll say it anyway: The beer is excellent. In addition to their core line-up of Tankhouse Ale, Organic Lager, Coffee Porter and Stock Ale, they've promoted their Oktoberfest, Wit and Helles Bock from seasonal to year-round status, revived their Cobblestone Stout which hadn't been available for a couple of years, and added an IPA and an ESB to the roster. A Kriek is coming soon, as well as some one-offs/seasonals, and the bar will soon be outfitted with a hand-pump for some cask ale action. Oh, and they found a keg or two of their 2004 Barley Wine that they're serving up as well.

Lots to choose from, but I was in the mood for some new stuff, so I went with the two that I hadn't tried before. The ESB was excellent - fresh, earthy & fruity with an appealing graininess and a moderately dry, herbal finish. I was less enthralled with the IPA - it was pleasant enough, with a nice, well-balanced flavour, but when they've already got the hoppy pale ale bases covered with Tankhouse, this one almost seems like an afterthought.

As for the food side of things, since pubs tend to cater strongly to the carnivore set, the wife and I were expecting a lack of vegetarian options, and our expectations were pretty well met in that regard. There are only two completely veg options in the main courses - a veggie pizza and the ubiquitous roasted vegetable sandwich - although the appetizers and salads are a bit friendlier to the meat-avoiders. Since we also eat seafood, we had a few more options than if we were complete veg-heads.

To start off, we snacked on a generous basket of kick-ass sweet potato fries. For my main, I ordered a Caesar salad and sprung an additional $3.99 to get some calamari added. At that price I expected maybe a handful of calamari thrown on top, but was pleasantly surprised to find the salad so covered in tasty golden-brown squidy goodness that I could barely see the green stuff underneath. Sheryl went with the veggie sandwich which she proclaimed to be fairly average, and our carnivorous dining companions both decided on the pulled pork sandwich which was declared good but "unusual" due to the inclusion of cheese.

Final verdict: Amazing space, great beer, decent food. It's a bit out of the way for me to visit often, but I'll happily return for new beers and other events.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Shufflin' Off To Buffalo

My friend Jeff is expecting his first kid in a few weeks (well, I guess his wife Kelly is officially the expectant one...), and since the new addition will likely put a bit of a kibosh on any out-of-town beer-related adventures for a while, he decided to gather up some buddies take a quick overnight trip down to Buffalo for a good old-fashioned piss-up.

I must admit that my memory of most of the night is somewhat hazy, and the dark & blurry photos I took with my phone (like the one on the right) certainly didn't help any. All I can really tell you is that we started at Cole's, went next door to Mr. Goodbar, staggered back to Cole's, and somehow made it back to our pal Rudy's place when we were done. Along the way, I enjoyed...

Brooklyn Blast
Rogue Monk Madness
Arbor Super Snapper
Stone Imperial Russian Stout
Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald
North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Stone Arrogant Bastard

Good times, good times...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Volo Cask Day: A Belated Review

One of the great mysteries of the Toronto beer scene is how a cozy family-run Italian restaurant called Volo has become a go-to destination for all serious beer aficionados. One of these days I'm going to have to do an interview with owner Ralph Morana to get the full story, but for now, we can just enjoy the fruits of his tireless labours to bring the best of the beer world to thirsty Torontonians.

The latest example was Volo's second annual Cask Days festival, where Ralph invited over 20 Ontario craft brewers - as well as a couple of homebrewers and a special guest from Quebec - to provide cask ales that were served up over the course of two sessions on Saturday, October 21st. In a city where the number of bars that serve cask ale on a regular basis can be counted on two hands, the idea of having somewhere around 30 casks available for sampling in a single location is like beer heaven, even if it only lasts for a few hours.

Of course, as previous Volo events have proven, Ralph and his wife, Aina, and the rest of the Volo crew never do things by half measures. In addition to bringing together an outstanding line-up of beer, they also provided complimentary cheese from a variety of Ontario artisan cheese producers. And throughout the day, Ralph and staff walked through the crowd with baskets of sandwiches, pasties, and other tasty treats to help our tummies absorb all the beer we were downing.

And as for the beer itself, the brewers really stepped up with a selection that included lots of one-offs, ranging from variations to existing beers (lots of barrel-aging and wet- & dry-hopping) to brand new beers brewed exclusively for the event. I tried a dozen or so over the course of the day, and all of them pleased me in some way, but I had a few favourites:

Biergotter Hopocalypse
This IPA from the Biergotter Homebrew Club was definitely the buzz beer of the festival, and with good reason. It was a big, ballsy beer that was heavily influenced by West Coast IPAs, with a huge hop aroma and flavour, but enough malt in there to keep it from being completely ridiculous. More than one person was heard to say that someone needs to give these guys some cash to open a brewpub or brewery. Check out their extensive blog post about the day, as well as the recipe for Hopocalypse.

Dieu Du Ciel! Péché Mortel, Corne Du Diable & Vaisseau des Songes
Ralph scored quite a coup when he convinced the folks at Montreal's venerable Dieu Du Ciel! brewpub to participate in this event. Due to the vagaries of Ontario liquor laws, the DDC beers (as well as the homebrews) could not be served as part of the regular admission price and had to be separately purchased with all money going to charity, but that didn't stop them from being amongst the most popular beers of the day. Péché Mortel is an absolutely decadent coffee-laced Imperial Stout that I'd previously tried in bottled form, but having it on cask was a real treat - and it was the only beer of the day that had me going back for seconds. The Corne Du Diable is described as an American-style IPA, which means a big whack of hops upside your head. The Vaisseau des Songes was a surprise addition to the fest, and while it was in keg rather than cask form, it was still very nice - I'd describe it as the little brother of Corne Du Diable, as it's also an IPA, but much more restrained in flavour and lower in alcohol.

Black Oak H&H Overkill
According to Ken at Black Oak, the H&H stood for "Hops & Jalapeños (pronounced: Halapeñooooo!!!!)", which had me worried as I'm generally not a fan of chili beers. Not because I have an aversion to the hot stuff, but because most of the ones I've tried have simply been crappy lagers or bland golden ales with an assload of chilies thrown in. When I took my first whiff of this one, I thought it would go down the same road, as there was nothin' but jalapeños going on in the aroma. But the flavour was surprisingly good, with the heat of the peppers taking on an almost sweet character to balance the fresh hops. Not something I'd drink every day, but still a pretty successful experiment.

Scotch Irish Admiral Perry Imperial IPA
Yeah, it's another big honkin' IPA. But nobody makes these suckers like Perry at Scotch Irish does. This one had so much spruce and pine on the nose that I thought I was sniffing a Christmas tree, and the hops in the flavour were absolutely ass-kicking. I wrote in my notes: "Stupidly over the top, but I liked it." That pretty much sums it up.

According to Ralph, he had to turn away both brewers and attendees this year due to the lack of space, so there's a germ of an idea to move it to a bigger venue next year. While it may never grow to the size and prestige of the Great British Beer Festival, it could certainly become of the premier cask ale events in North America if he sticks with it. Here's hoping!

(PS: All of the crappy photos above were taken with my newfangled cameraphone. You can see more of them, as well as much nicer photos by people who presumably used real cameras, or perhaps cameraphones that take better photos than mine does, at the Volo Cask Days Flickr Group.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New York City - Night 6: Midtown

[A month after I got home, and I'm finally getting the last part of my trip report posted. Ah well, better late than never...]

NYC - Night 6 - Friday, September 29th:

For my last night in the Big Apple, I decided to stick fairly close to my hotel and hit a few Midtown locations that I hadn't visited yet (and ultimately, one that I already had).

First up was the renowned beer emporium The Ginger Man (11 E. 36th St. between 5th Ave. & Madison). I'd first tried to visit on Monday night and found it packed from wall-to-wall, but this time I made it down early enough to beat the crowds. With high ceilings and lots of well-polished wood, this place gives off an elegant but comfortable vibe, and the combination of an astounding tap line-up of 60+ beers and a small but well-selected menu of sandwiches, salads and cheeses seemed to make it a popular place with the after-work crowd. I enjoyed a pint of Erdinger Festweiße and considered following it up with something else, but the Friday night rush was starting in earnest, so I decided to try and find some place a little quieter.

I'd hoped that place might be Stout NYC (133 W. 33rd St. near 7th), but thanks to Eric Clapton, it wasn't to be. It seemed that his concert at the nearby Madison Square Garden was being celebrated with a pre-show party at Stout being thrown by a local classic rock radio station, and as a result the place was jammed beyond belief. However, I did get a look at the tap list, and based on what I saw, I had no problem leaving without a drink: aside from Guinness and Murphy's, there wasn't a stout to be had, and the remaining taps were a couple of Brooklyn Brewing beers, a bunch of mainstream lagers, and and assortment of the usual overrated imports that are available pretty much everywhere. Apparently their bottle list does a better job of living up to the promising name of the place, but I wasn't ready to fight my way through the crowds to find out.

So I hit the road again and headed north to The House of Brews (363 W. 46th St. between 8th & 9th Ave.), a cozy lower level pub along the touristy Restaurant Row strip. I really liked the atmosphere in this place - very comfortable and laid-back, with friendly staff and a nice selection of over a dozen beers on tap and 80 or so in bottles. Based on the bartender's recommendation, I started with a pint of their cask ale selection, Chelsea Catskill Hop Harvest Ale, which was a very nice & hoppy little number that was in fantastic condition. I followed it with Harpoon Octoberfest which isn't the most exciting beer around, but still a pleasant one with a good maltiness. My only real complaint about this place was the food, as my dinner was a lacklustre order of fish & chips that featured limp french fries and soggy, over-battered fish filets. I also shared some nachos with my neighbour at the bar, and we both agreed that they were far from the best we'd ever had. Still, the vibe and the beer selection made this a great place to hang out and watch some of the ball game (I don't even like baseball, but the Jays were playing the Yankees, so I felt some obligation to my hometown team to cheer them on while sitting on enemy turf).

To cap my evening & my week in the city, I decided to head around the corner and revisit the place where I had started back on Sunday night, The Collins Bar (735 8th Ave. at 46th St.). It was a bit busier than my first visit, but I managed to find a spot at the back near the jukebox, which I proceeded to feed most of my remaining US currency in order to annoy the rest of the patrons with my eclectic musical tastes. I got excited when I saw the rare Sierra Nevada 20th Street Green Hop Ale on a list of special beers they had on tap from a Union Beer tasting event a couple of nights before, but was disappointed to find out that the keg had kicked just minutes before I walked into the bar. Combined with Sunday's Schlenkerla situation, I was definitely having some bad luck with the place, but that didn't change my opinion of The Collins as being a quintessential NYC watering hole - tons of history, a classic look that hasn't changed in decades, and needless to say, a brilliant selection of libations to choose from. Their feature beer for the night was Magic Hat #9, an interesting apricot pale ale that I'd enjoyed in the past, so I went for a pint of that before moving on to the Southampton Imperial Porter, a dark & luscious brew that was much better on tap than the bottled version I'd tried a few months previous.

With that, I woozily toddled back to my hotel, and flew home the next morning. All in all, it was a fantastic trip that proved to me that New York is an essential city for beer travellers to visit. It's only big deficiency would seem to be a lack of quality bottle shops, but since I wasn't doing much shopping on this trip, that was a minor quibble for me. Otherwise, it was remarkably easy to fill my free time with beer-related pursuits, and I hope to make it back there sooner than later to revisit a few places, as well as pay first visits to a few places I managed to miss.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Keepin' It Real

The latest in my occassional series of beer articles for Toronto food & drink website Gremolata was posted today. It's a brief introduction to cask/real ale, including a preview of tomorrow's Cask Days 2006 event at Volo, as well as a list of establishments in Toronto that serve cask ale on a regular basis. Not a lot of new info for beer geeks, but hopefully it'll convince some of the foodies & wine drinkers who make up most of Gremolata's readership to try a pint or two of the good stuff.

Speaking of Cask Days (which should really be called "Cask Day" without the pluralizing "s" this year, since both sessions are happening on Saturday), I will be there, and assuming I remember to bring my camera and notebook, I'll post some photos and a festival report next week. Right after I finally get the last report from my NYC trip written and posted...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

New York City - Night 5: Brooklyn

[Yeah, I'm still really busy - maybe I'll get these NYC posts finished before the next time I travel down there...]

NYC - Night 5 - Thursday, September 28th:

The trade tasting event that I attended on Tuesday had brought brewers from around the world into NYC, and several of them set up other events during their visit to give their beers some more exposure to the public at large, such as the sadly cancelled Schlenkerla night that I tried to attend on Sunday at The Collins Bar. The one that I was really excited about, though, was the Rogue night at Barcade in Brooklyn, which was set to feature 20 Rogue beers on tap - including a few rarities - and brewmaster John Maier in attendance.

HopStop maps in hand, I caught the subway out to the wilds of Williamsburg for a mini barhop. Before the drinking began, I satisfied my craving for something tasty and slightly greasy with a mock-meatball sandwich at Foodswings (295 Grand St.), a vegan fast food joint that even a carnivore could love. No tofu & spouts, hippie-dippie, peace & love shit at this place - the staff is pierced and tattooed, the music is down and dirty, and the menu features vegan versions of all your greasy spoon and pub grub faves, including chili con soya, "fish" & chips, nachos and "chicken" drumsticks.

It's also conveniently located just a couple of blocks from Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Ave.), an unassuming looking place that has been voted the #4 Beer Bar in the U.S. on RateBeer and has been named the Best NYC Beer Bar by both New York Magazine and TimeOut New York. Like many of the bars I visited during my trip, Spuyten is a small place with a friendly neighbourhood vibe and tons of quirky character. The food menu is limited to plates of cheese and cold cuts, but patrons are welcome to bring in other food if desired. The tap list is small in size (6 draughts and a single cask) but big in quality, and the bottle list is astoundingly good, featuring an impeccably chosen selection of brews from around the world, including a good number of Belgians and more than a few rare and obscure treats. Since I was visiting solo, it was hard to justify dropping the big bucks on a 750 ml bottle of Cantillon or Fantome, so I stuck with a pint of Lagunitas Pils, a lean & well-balanced Bohemian pilsner, and a bottle of Kerkom Bink Blond, a surprisingly hoppy Belgian ale.

After that, it was off to Barcade (388 Union Ave.), which is one of the few "concept" bars I've been to that I actually enjoyed. A lot. Located in what seems to be a renovated garage or warehouse space of some sort, Barcade combines two of the best things in the world: great beer and classic video games. For someone who spent most of the early 80s converting my paper route earnings to quarters in order to get my fix of Robotron 2084 and Time Pilot, this place was like heaven. I arrived with a pocket full of quarters to find the place packed to the gills, and after fighting my way to the bar for a pint of Rogue Chocolate Stout on cask, I headed to the machines and started feeding them. The Chocolate was so good that it just had to be followed by another, during which I briefly met John Maier who was being mobbed like a rock star. Second pint of Chocolate drained, I considered having a third, but then realised that of the 20 Rogue beers on tap, there were probably at least a half-dozen that I would never have a chance to try again unless I visited the brewery in person. So I went for a glass of Rogue Love & Hoppiness, a robust pilsner that Maier and his wife, Stacey Wacker, originally brewed last year on Valentine's Day to be served at their wedding on April 9th, 2005. It was a very pleasant surprise from a brewer better known for his ales, and a great choice for my last beer of the night.

Then it was back to the subway and off to my hotel in Manhattan, with one more day and night left ahead if me to enjoy the city. I'll try to get the report of my last night on the town posted in less than a week this time, but I make no promises...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

New York City - Night 4: The East Village

[Sorry for falling behind on these, folks. Work has been busy since I got back, and the new hockey season started this week...]

NYC - Night 4 - Wednesday, September 27th:

If you only have one night to spend in New York and want to hit a few beer-friendly establishments, the East Village is the perfect neighbourhood to do so. There are about a half-dozen great bars within staggering distance of each other, not to mention plenty of restaurants to fortify yourself before, during or after your pub crawling.

My original plan for Wednesday night was to start with dinner somewhere and then hit several bars, but class let out early, so I had more time to myself than expected. I decided to start with a late afternoon snack at a non-beer location: Teany (90 Rivington St.), an aptly named (i.e. it's really teeny!) vegetarian cafe and tea house owned by Moby. (I'm semi-vegetarian, by the way - pescetarian, to be exact - so I spent as much time researching veggie restaurants before my trip as I did cataloguing beer destinations.) The tea menu in this place is as intimidating as the beer menus in some of my favourite bars - 98 different teas sorted by style, all with detailed tasting notes. I ended up with a white tea flavoured with chrysanthemum and a slice of very tasty vegan pumpkin "cheese"cake.

Sweet tooth satiated, I made the short walk to d.b.a. (41 1st Ave. between 2nd & 3rd St.). Located on the lower edge of the East Village, d.b.a. was one of the first beer specialty bars to open in Manhattan, and it still has a pretty solid reputation - it was voted 34th in RateBeer's list of Best U.S. Beer Bars for 2006 - although a couple of locals I spoke to later in the week have said that the selection and service have taken a downturn in the past year or two. Personally, the only complaint I had about the place was the horrendous state of the tiny washroom, although I guess it was no worse than the ones in the divey bars I used to frequent in my wayward youth. Still, I expected something a little more sanitary from this otherwise clean and comfortable place.

No complaints about the beer, though. They had a good selection of micros and imports on tap, including a couple of handpumps, and a chalkboard which not only listed their draught and cask selections, but included the dates that they'd all been tapped - a really nice touch that I'd like to see in more places. The bottle selection was also quite impressive, with lots of US micros and imports from Belgium, Germany, the UK, and even several Unibroue beers. And for those who like the hard stuff, they stock plenty of premium bourbon, tequila, whisky and other spirits. I stuck with the beer myself, and since I couldn't decide between malty or hoppy, I went both ways and had a very nice pint of Blue Point Hoptical Illusion on dry-hopped cask, and a glass of Brooklyn Oktoberfest on draught.

At my next stop, I was also offered a choice - not between malty or hoppy, but between "light or dark". Yes, I stopped in at McSorley's Old Ale House (15 E. 7th St. near 3rd Ave.), a NYC institution where they've been slinging suds for over 150 years. There's sawdust on the well-trod floor, white-aproned servers behind the weathered bar, and two types of beer, the aforementioned light and dark, served at a minimum of two mugs at a time. Brewed for the bar by Pabst/Miller, these are not hoity-toity craft beers, just simple brews that are easy to pound back. If you'd like to have a quick visit and try them both, ask the bartender for a "one & one" to get a single mug of each.

After the old-timey diversion of McSorley's, I wanted to get back to the fancy stuff, so I headed a block east and found myself faced with yet another choice: should I visit Burp Castle (41 E. 7th St. near 2nd Ave.) or Jimmy's No. 43 (43 E. 7th St. near 2nd Ave.)? OK, to be honest, I already knew that I was going to choose Jimmy's as I'd read about their Wednesday night beer & cheese tastings, as well as their menu of local and organic food. Located below street level, it looks like a tiny hole-in-the-wall on arrival, but it's actually a rather spacious place with several interconnected rooms and a very monastic decor. I stayed in the front room and grabbed a spot at the bar near the friendly rep from Merchant du Vin who was pouring small samples of Orval, Westmalle Tripel and Samuel Smith's Organic Lager to be enjoyed along with a complimentary cheese plate. Those served as a nice appetizer for a main course of their excellent mac & cheese and a pint of Six Point Bengali Tiger IPA, a wonderfully hoppy beer from a fairly new brewery in Brooklyn. I enjoyed it so much that I had their Smoked Baltic Porter for dessert - and yes, it was just as good as the name suggests. And I had a chance to meet the namesake owner of the place, Jimmy Carbone, who not only remembered me from an email I'd sent him a couple of weeks beforehand to ask about the beer & cheese night, but who also emailed me a couple of days after my visit to say thanks for stopping by. Who says New Yorkers aren't friendly?

My final stop of the night was the Hop Devil Grill (129 St. Marks Place at Ave. A), a funky hang-out with around 30 taps (mostly US micros, with a few well-selected imports) and a slew of bottles to choose from. I felt like something light to finish off my evening, so I had a pint of Brooklyner Weisse while watching the tail end of a Rangers pre-season game on the big screen. I was tempted to have another when I noticed a poster advertising their $3 Wednesday night "Kill The Keg" special, but I also noticed the time on my watch, which made me think better of it. No need to push things too far, as there would be more beer to enjoy tomorrow night. Oh yes, indeed...

Friday, September 29, 2006

New York City - Night 3: Union Beer Trade Tasting

NYC - Night 3 - Tuesday, September 26th:

A couple of weeks before my trip, I was poking around for info about any beer events that might be happening in NYC during the week of my visit, and I stumbled across a short announcement about a free tasting event for the bar and restaurant trade that Brooklyn's Union Beer Distributors would be hosting at The Puck Building in downtown Manhattan. I figured it would probably be a small event with some local brewers on hand, and maybe a few imports being sampled as well - a nice way to spend a few hours and try some new beers, assuming I could get in.

I dropped them a line mentioning my "credentials" as news editor at The Bar Towel and writer of this blog, but wasn't holding out a lot of hope as it seemed to be a NYC-centric event based on the description. After a week with no response, I pretty much wrote it off as a "not gonna happen", but then I got the following email:

Dear Greg:

On behalf of Union Beer Distributors, I cordially extend the invitation for you to attend the most extensive craft beer Trade Tasting in New York City history. On Tuesday, September 26 from 5 until 10 PM at the historic Puck Building on Lafayette and Houston, 85 breweries from around the world will serve their libations to an exclusive audience in an intimate setting. Complete with live jazz music, hors d’oeuvres, and speeches from some of the industry’s most influential figures, this will be an event not to miss.

Among the dozens of internationally acclaimed brewers in attendance will be:

Matthias Trum – Owner, Head Brewmaster, Aecht Schlenkerla, Bamberg, Germany
The sixth generation brewer of the world renowned Brauerei Heller Trum produces the world’s most popular rauchbier (smoke beer) style.

Etienne Dupont – Owner, Cidermaster, Domaine Dupont, Normandy, France
The fifth generation Cidermaster from Normandy is one of the world’s foremost calvados producers, however he earned his place in the world of craft cider when the New York Times voted his cider as the best in the world in a 2004 blind tasting.

Hans Peter Drexler – Head Brewmaster, Schneider Weisse, Kelheim, Germany

Toshiyuki Kiuchi – Owner, Brewmaster, Hitachino Nest, Kounsosu, Naka-shi, Ibaraki, Japan

Chris Beauwarts – Owner, Brewmaster, Brasserie d’Achouffe, Achouffe, Belgium

And many, many more.

Looked like it was going to be a little larger than I'd expected.

I arrived at the Puck Building soon after 5:00 PM and was ushered into a good sized room with beer being poured by a variety of brewers both familiar (Rogue, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada, Ommegang) and not-so-much (Mercury, Cape Ann, Butternuts). A fantastic selection - but all American micros. What happened to the imports?

Then I noticed the passageway to the other room. The spacious, ornate, gorgeous ballroom with dozens and dozens of brewers and beers from Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Japan and beyond. Not to mention a spread of bread, cheese & dried fruit, countless wait staff serving hors d'oeuvres, and a live jazz trio providing some elegant ambiance.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I almost wept a little.

Seriously, this was the most refined and well-organized beer event I've ever attended. Seeing beer being presented in such a civilised and respectful environment was a great thing indeed. Although since the event was being held by a distributor trying to flog their wares in one of the most competative bar and restaurant markets on earth, I suppose I should've expected it. I guess it's hard to shake the jaded nature I've developed from living amongst the backwards beer culture of Ontario for so long.

So after walking around with my mouth hanging open in disbelief for a few minutes, I started in on the tasting. I haven't gone through my notes to do a full count, but I'm sure I sampled somewhere around two dozen beers over the course of the evening, and enjoyed almost all of them. Here are a few highlights:

Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout
A new beer from Japan's Hitachino Nest brewery that they were pilot testing at the event. It has a still, deep brown body with no head, and an amazing aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee. The body is a little thin, but the flavour is fantastic, with lots of coffee backed-up with some cocoa and malt notes. Hopefully, it'll be added to their official line-up soon.

Troubadour Blond & Troubadour Obscura
These beers from Belgium's Brouwerij The Musketeers were completely new to me, but I'm glad I stopped at their small table, as both of them are very good. The Blond is described on RateBeer as a saison, which seems to be an appropriate style, as it has a bright golden colour and aromas & flavours that encompass yeasty, fruity and spicey notes. The Obscura is self-described as a stout, although it's also undeniably Belgian, so it holds a very interesting combination of sweet roastiness and tangy spice that I really enjoyed.

Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier
I was very happy to have a chance to try this rare treat from smoked beer specialists Aecht Schlenkerla, as I'm a big fan of their more commonly available Märzen. Unlike the other Schlenkerla beers, there is no smoked malt used in this golden lager, but it picks up a delicious smokiness from the brewery's filters. And it helps that even without the smokiness, this is a very nice lager, with well-balanced malt and hop flavours and a crisp, subtle body.

Thomas Hardy's Ale
This famous vintage ale is descibed by the brewer, O'Hanlons, as "the beer enthusiast’s equivalent of rare cognac". A little hoity-toity, perhaps, but having finally tried it, I'd say that it's a pretty apt description. I sampled the 2004 vintage, which is considered somewhat young - it's said to improve with age for 25 years or more - but I still enjoyed it. It has a huge, sweet aroma of toffee, fruit cake and whiskey, and a complex flavour of port, whiskey, sweet orange, chocolate and much more, all leading to a warm, tingly, lingering finish.

Aventinus Edelbrand
One of my favourite beers is Aventinus, the standard-bearing Weizenbock from Germany's G. Schneider & Sohn. So when I walked by their table and saw a smaller version of the distinctive purple Aventinus label on what looked like bottles of icewine, I was intrigued. I asked and discovered that it was Aventinus Edelbrand, a brandy-like spirit with 42% abv that is created by distilling Aventinus rather than water. This rarity is generally available only in Germany, but several bottles of a special barrel-aged version were brought over especially for this event. The samples being doled out were understandably small, given the potency and scarcity of the beverage, but I got enough of a taste to appreciate the flavours of oak, port, whiskey and grapeseed. Not the best hard booze I've tried, but good enough that I'd be happy to own a bottle of it.

There were lots more, but that's a good sample. Full notes and ratings for the whole night will end up on RateBeer soon.