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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.