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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Michigan Festival & Road-Trip Report: Part One

Anyone who has spoken to me about beer for more than five minutes or so is quite familiar with my rant about the pitiful selection of American craft beer here in Ontario. The only American microbrew available to us on a year-round basis is Anchor Liberty Ale, and the only other even halfway decent US beer on our shelves is Sam Adams Boston Lager. This despite the fact that some of the best beers in North America - if not the world – are being brewed just across the border.

I learned just how much we're missing back in 2003 when I joined a couple of friends on a road trip to the Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival. At the time, I only knew about one or two Michigan breweries, so it was quite an adventure to be exposed to several dozen new breweries and their 200+ beers. I ploughed through as many of them as I could in the few short hours of the festival, but there were so many more that I didn't try, so a return trip had been on my mind ever since.

Back in the spring, my four regular beer tasting buddies and I decided to take the trip to this summer's edition of the Festival, and hit a few other beer destinations on the way. Thanks to beermapping.com and the Places & Metros sections on RateBeer, we were able to put together a nice itinerary for ourselves, and on July 21st we were on our way.

We all crawled out of our respective beds bright and early, and after some zig-zagging around town to do the pick-ups and the obligatory stop at Timmy's, we hit the highway. The morning passed quickly, and the border crossing at Sarnia/Port Huron was uneventful. We made it to Royal Oak by noon, just in time for lunch at our first destination.

Bastone (419 South Main St., Royal Oak, MI) is a slightly upscale but unpretentious Belgian-themed brewpub. The room is large and high-ceilinged, but made to feel cozy with strategically placed booths and dividers, and the service is attentive and friendly. Their food menu features Belgian favourites alongside such pub-friendly selections as burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and pastas – if you happen to visit, I highly recommend the oven-baked macaroni & cheese with truffled breadcrumb topping.

Most importantly, they make some mighty fine beer, drawing influence not only from Belgian brewing traditions, but from other European classic styles as well. Their regular line-up features Blonde, Pilsener, Belgian Wit, Pale Ale and Dubbel, and they also dedicate two taps to seasonal offerings, with Dortmunder and Hefeweizen being the selections when we visited. The only real disappointment in their line-up is the Blonde – it's a 4% pale lager, obviously brewed to appease any Coors Light drinkers who may dine there – but the rest ranged from enjoyable to very good. I especially liked their Pale Ale, which struck a perfect balance between sweet caramel malts and sharp, citric hops; and their Pilsener, a refreshing and well-hopped take on the style. Good beer, good food, good atmosphere - it was a promising first stop for the weekend.

It was only a few miles from Bastone to our next stop: Kuhnhenn Brewing (5919 Chicago Road, Warren, MI). Kuhnhenn is one of the most creative and adventurous breweries around, as illustrated by their brewery page at RateBeer that lists over 100 different beers, ciders and meads they've brewed since 1998. Our primary purpose for this visit was to pick up some bottles of their revered Raspberry Eisbock, and between the five of us we cleared them out of all but a few bottles from their last couple of cases. And since we were there, we couldn't resist getting a few sampler trays to try the beers they were serving in their rustic looking taproom.

As at Bastone, the most disappointing offering was their pale lager which they dub Classic American Lager and fittingly describe on the menu as "light in color, some sweetness, no hop aroma, very low bitterness" – i.e. one for the mainstream lager drinkers. Thankfully, the rest of their line-up is much more creative, with some highlights from our visit being their perfectly on-style Hefeweizen, their fruity and hoppy IPA, their astoundingly decadent Crème Brûlée Java Stout, and their unique Tangerine Wit that we all agreed would make a perfect breakfast beer. We also sampled their Nine Belgian Ale, Loonie Kuhnie Pale Ale, Scotch Ale, Maibock and ESB.

From there, it was an hour or so to our hotel near Ann Arbor where we checked in, dumped our gear, and then headed out on our main shopping expedition of the weekend to Bello Vino Marketplace (2789 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI). These sort of upscale grocery stores that also house a great selection of beer & wine are quite commonplace in a lot of American cities, but to Ontarians who are at the mercy of the LCBO and The Beer Store, they're like a little bit of heaven on earth. Bello Vino reminded us a lot of Premier Gourmet, a fine food & drink emporium in Buffalo that is a favourite spot for Toronto beer geeks making border runs. But being in a different state, we found a much different selection of beer, including lots of stuff from Michigan mainstays like Bells, Jolly Pumpkin & Founders (although alas, they were out of the latter's mindblowing Breakfast Stout); goodies from other Midwestern faves such as Great Lakes and Goose Island; and a fantastic array of imports that we could normally only dream about. Thanks to a very helpful staffer who was willing to split up a bunch of six-packs for us, we were all able to put together a new assortment of local and not-so-local beers, and we headed back to the hotel with a much heavier back-end than we'd arrived with.

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Michigan Brewing Celis Grand Cru

About 10 years ago, when my interest in trying new and different beers was really kicking in, I read about a beer called Celis White that Waterloo's Brick Brewery had just started brewing in Ontario under contract. This was a Belgian Witbier, a style I had never heard of, and the idea of a beer being brewed with orange and coriander seemed to foreign and exciting. I couldn't wait to try it, and once I did it became a quick favourite.

It wasn't until a couple of years later when the beer suddenly disappeared from Ontario stores that I did a bit of research and discovered that the father of this fine beverage, one Pierre Celis, had actually rescued the Belgian Witbier style from near extinction back in the 1960s when he founded the Brouwerij de Kluis in his hometown of Hoegaarden and created the now ubiquitous Hoegaarden Wit. In the late 1980s, Celis retired and sold his brewery to Interbrew - now part of the massive brewing conglomerate InBev - and moved to the unlikely location of Austin, Texas, where he soon caught the brewing bug again and opened Celis Brewery, with the flagship beer being Celis White.

A few years down the road, Celis retired again and sold the brewery to Miller, who basically had no idea what to do with it. After letting it flounder for a few years, they shut it down in 2001 - which is around the same time that Brick stopped brewing it for Ontario - and sold the Celis brands to Michigan Brewing the following year. Ever since then, I've wanted to try some of the other Celis brands, so I made a point of checking for them during my recent trip to Michigan (yes, the road trip & festival report is still coming soon!) and picked up a bottle of Celis Grand Cru.

This beer poured a clear bright golden colour with a pillowy white head that quickly dissipated. The clarity of the beer surprised me as I was expecting something similar to the pale yellow milkiness of the Celis White, but the connection between the beers is obvious in the aroma, which holds notes of yeast, spice and orange zest. The orange comes through strong in the flavour as well - sweet off the top, tart and dry in the finish - alongside some tingly spiciness and a pleasant alcohol warmth (it's an 8%er, so I was expecting that). The body is a bit on the sticky side, and it's not quite as assertive as the Hoegaarden Grand Cru I tried recently, but it certainly holds up well against it. The folks at RateBeer consider it fairly average - 3.2 out of 5 rating, 55.1 style percentile - but I'd rank it higher than that personally.

And in case you're wondering what Mr. Celis is up to now: he moved back to Belgium after the Miller sale, but has now at least partially unretired once again and is teaming up with Real Ale Brewing in Blanco, Texas to launch a new wheat beer called Brussels Grand Cru. Even at the age of 81, it's obvious that he's got a lot of brewing left in him yet.

Book Review: Craft Brewers Of Ontario by Bill Perrie

It will probably be a day or three before I'm able to get my Michigan Road Trip report finished and posted. In the meantime, here's a beer book review that I originally wrote a couple of weeks ago for The Bar Towel:

Craft Brewers Of Ontario
By Bill Perrie
WMI Books, 128 pp.
$19.95
Reviewed by Greg Clow

In the past decade or so, there have been numerous proclamations that the days of reference books are numbered, and sometimes it's hard not to believe it to be true. After all, in an age where so much up-to-the-minute information and reference material can be Googled or Wikied at a whim, who needs a shelf full of yellowing books that are often out of date before they even leave the warehouse?

Beer guides can be especially prone to obsolescence. Open up Stephen Beaumont's The Great Canadian Beer Guide (2001) or Jamie MacKinnon's The Great Lakes Beer Guide: Eastern Region (1997) and you'll find numerous beers that are no longer being brewed, or breweries that are long out of business. While these two books – and many more like them – are well-written and enjoyable, they don't exactly have the timeliness and accuracy of a web-based resource.

But their instant out-of-datedness is actually part of their charm. They provide a snapshot of a particular place and time in the craft beer world, and flipping through one of them 2 or 5 or 10 years after it was published can bring back memories of long gone favourites, or tell you about some great beers that you missed out on back in the day. And sitting and reading one of them – preferably while enjoying one or two of the beverages featured in their pages – can be a great way to spend a lazy afternoon or evening.

Bill Perrie's Craft Brewers Of Ontario is the newest guide book to our region's brewing scene, and the timing of it's release is impeccable given the relatively high profile currently being enjoyed by the year-old Ontario Craft Brewers association. While not an official OCB publication, it has strong connections to the organization: all of the breweries featured in the book are OCB members (except for recently departed Church Key Brewing), and OCB president John Hay provides the forward. Also in on the fun is beer historian Ian Bowering, who provides a brief but enjoyable – and lavishly illustrated – history of brewing in Ontario to open the book.

And speaking of "lavishly illustrated", this book is easily one of the most colourful and graphics-heavy beer guide books that I've ever seen. Each of the eighteen brewery profiles features photos of the brewery owners, brewmasters and the breweries themselves. This lends the book a personal touch, giving the reader some familiarity with the folks that work behind the scenes on their favourite brews in a way that a text-only publication just can't do.

This familiarity is also enhanced by Perrie's text which is written in an almost conversational tone. Each section of the book starts with a brief history of the featured brewery, which is generally presented in the context of the town where the brewery is located, emphasizing the community oriented nature of many of Ontario's microbreweries. Attention is also given to the people behind the beers, with founders and brewmasters receiving more ink than the beers themselves in most cases. And if you're familiar with Perrie's previous books – The Pub Lovers Guide to Ontario and The Pub Lovers Guide to Canada – you won't be surprised to learn that each profile includes several suggested pubs in the area of the brewery where their beers can be enjoyed.

Observant craft beer fans will notice that the "eighteen brewery profiles" mentioned earlier in this review falls short of the thirty brewers who are members of the OCB. The exclusion of well-regarded brewers such as Denison's and Scotch Irish is understandable given that they don't own their own brewing facilities, but there are still several conspicuous absences in the book, most notably Amsterdam and Black Oak. Those unfortunate exclusions aside, the brewers that are included run the gamut from old-timers like Brick and Wellington to newcomers like King, Niagara's Best and Robert Simpson, so a good cross-section of Ontario's brewing scene is represented.

As far as the descriptions of the beers themselves, Perrie doesn't use any sort of rating system and steers clear of offering much critical analysis. Brief tasting notes are given for all regular beers from each brewery, but they are very objective, offering little in the way of judgements. Instead, there is a blank page for "personal tasting notes" at the end of each section, encouraging the reader to make their own call on what they like and what they don't. This approach may be too diplomatic for some, and a few of the tasting notes can come across more as PR fluff than the opinions of a serious beer drinker, but in the context of the book, they serve the purpose of informing the reader of what is available and steering them towards trying something new and (hopefully) enjoyable.

On the negative side, I found some of the profiles to be a bit light on content. Rather than just talking about the breweries and the people behind them, it would've been nice to see Perrie actually talking to them in the form of short interviews, or at least a direct quote or two. There are also some typos and editing/proofreading errors that are very distracting, most notably in John Hay's forward where he refers to the book several times as Ontario Craft Brewing rather than the proper title.

But these are minor quibbles. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, and I wouldn't hesitate to point it out to friends who might be interested in exploring our province's burgeoning craft beer scene. It may go out of date, but I'll be holding on to it, and maybe I'll pull it off the shelf a few years from now and remember the many beers that are mentioned in its pages. Hopefully, most of them will still be around.

[Craft Brewers Of Ontario is currently available for purchase at the breweries featured in the book, and will start appearing on book store shelves in late summer. It can also be ordered directly from WMI Books, 161 Frederick Street, Toronto, ON M5A 4P3 for $19.95 plus $3.50 shipping - cheques or credit cards accepted. Contact James Williamson for further details.]

Monday, July 24, 2006

Back From Michigan & Gremolata Articles

I got back last night from a whirlwind weekend in Michigan, which included Friday visits to Bastone, Kuhnhenn & Ashley's, Saturday at the MBG Summer Festival, and a special bonus stop on Sunday. A full report will come once I've stopped admiring the box of goodies I brought back, including several insanely expensive bottles of Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisbock and an ominously large bottle of Dogfish Head Golden Shower.

In the meantime, why don't you go and check out my articles on Gremolata? Most recently, they published my two part series on fruit beers - Part One on the beers included in the LCBO's recent summer promotion, and Part Two on fruit beers that are available to Ontario beer drinkers year round. And from a couple of months back, my first Gremolata column which gives a very quick overview on Toronto's craft brew scene.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Begin The Begin

So, uh, how do people start these things? Saying "welcome to my new blog" seems sort of silly – like, should I be throwing a blog-warming party? – but I feel like some sort of introduction and explanation is in order.

As noted in my profile, I spent around 20 years involved in various aspects of the electronic and experimental music scene. I started out as a music reviewer at the student newspaper at the University of Waterloo, and spent time in the years that followed as a club DJ, zine publisher, concert promoter, magazine columnist, record reviewer, radio DJ, and record company owner – many of these in conjunction with my lovely and patient wife, Sheryl Kirby.

However, one after another, these various projects came to an end. In the last few months of 2005, I quit my radio show Feedback Monitor after nearly a decade on the air, we shut down the label, and I set aside the writing. I felt like I'd hit a wall, and needed some time off to recharge – not to mention help Sheryl recover from an accident she had in the fall, and deal with an unexpected house move earlier this year.

My plan was to take a break for a few months, and then revive Feedback Monitor as a podcast and blog covering the same sounds I'd featured on the radio show. But as I started work on the first instalment back in the spring, I still wasn't feeling the spark that I used to get from doing the old show. So rather than slog away at something that I wouldn't enjoy, I decided it was time to officially "retire" from my "career" in music.

Running parallel to all of this was my interest in good beer – an interest that also started when I was going to school in Waterloo at a time that coincided with the start of Ontario's modern craft brewing culture. Waterloo was at the epicentre of the scene in the early days, with Brick, Sleeman and Wellington all located in the area. It didn't take me long to realize that there were better beer options than Labatt and Molson, and I've spent the following two decades – and the last few years in particular - exploring the world of microbrews and craft beers as much as possible.

Which brings things back to early 2006, where as I was winding down my involvement in music-related activities, I started to ramp up my involvement in the local beer scene. I became the news editor at Ontario's top beer website, The Bar Towel, and then got the opportunity to write regular beer articles for Toronto food and drink webzine Gremolata. Working on these projects brought back the spark I'd lost, and got me interested in writing even more beer-related stuff, some of which wouldn't really work on either of those sites. I also got a bit of the music bug again, although not as strongly as I had it before. And thanks to discovering RSBS (Really Simple Beer Syndication), I started reading a bunch of beer blogs, and found the format inspiring.

The end result to all of this was the blog that you're reading right now. Beer, Beats & Bites will primarily be a forum for me to post beer-related material that doesn't fit in on the Bar Towel news feed or my Gremolata columns. This will include more detailed beer reviews than those I post on Rate Beer, thoughts on industry news and developments, festival features (watch for a report next week from this weekend's Michigan Brewer's Guild Summer Festival and the surrounding roadtrip), book reviews, and whatever else passes from my fingers to the keyboard. Music will take a smaller role – I'll post a review if an album really moves me in some way, not just for the sake of doing so, which is how things were in the old days. And being a bit of a foodie, I'll throw in the occassional restaurant or cheese review as well.

For the most part, though, it'll be about the beer. Speaking of which, I think I'll go have one now. Hopefully, you'll stick around and join me.