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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Like We Needed An Excuse To Drink More Stout!

Stan over at Appellation Beer has come up with a grand idea indeed:

Food bloggers have their own cooking day once a month. Wine bloggers have Wine Blogging Wedesday.

It seems that beer bloggers around the world should have something similar. So let’s start one, an event that will occur on the first Friday of every month. It doesn’t have to have a name (yet) or a logo (like wine), just participants who want to have a little fun and don’t mind learning a little along the way.

On Friday, March 2nd, the first instalment of this yet-to-be-named beer blog meme will take place, and the inaugural theme will be "Not Your Father's Irish Stout". Since my father drinks Labatt Blue, pretty much any stout would do in my case, but the rules specify that we have to stay away from the Big Three: Guinness, Murphy’s or Beamish. Otherwise, anything goes.

So check back here (and here, and here, and here, and probably here, and lots of these places) in just over a month to see what we all end up drinking. Maybe I can even convince my wife to get in on the action - she likes the black stuff even more than I do.

Oh, yeah - I should mention that I'm off to Seattle tomorrow for a meeting on Friday, and I plan to indulge in beer & food geekery on Friday night and Saturday. And of course, since I'm from the land of the CN Tower, I will point at their puny Space Needle and laugh. Ha!

Five O'Hanlon's Ales

Earlier this month, Ontario beer drinkers got the very good news that the latest vintage of the renowned Thomas Hardy's Ale was now available for private ordering in our province thanks to import agency Roland + Russell. Not much was known about these folks in the beer community as they previously specialized in importing wine, spirits and fine food, but their great prices and excellent customer service won them a lot of fans very quickly.

Almost lost in the Hardy's hype, however, was the fact that R+R is also carrying other beers from O'Hanlon's, the brewery that revived the Thomas Hardy's brand in 2003, a couple of years after the original brewer, Eldridge Pope, shut down their brewing operations to concentrate on their pub business. When I contacted R+R to place an order for some of the Hardy's, they replied with info on the other O'Hanlon's beers which I posted to The Bar Towel, and after exchanging a couple of more emails chatting about the beer business, they were kind enough to offer me sample bottles of the four O'Hanlon's ales that they will be carrying year round, as well as a Christmas seasonal bitter.

One interesting thing about these beers is that they are bottle-conditioned, which is rare amongst the UK ales that we usually see in Ontario. When it comes to bottle-conditioned brews, I'll often give the yeasties a swirl and pour them along with the beer, but with four of these five beers, I decided to pour slowly and leave as much of the sediment in the bottle as possible. (The exception: the wheat beer, which is a style that I prefer unfiltered.) The way I figure it, these beers are attempts to replicate cask ale in a bottle, and cask ale is always best when the publican has allowed the yeast to properly settle so the pints can be pulled as clear as possible. But if you prefer your ale with the little chunky bits, knock yourself out.

So - here's what I thought of 'em:

Yellowhammer Premium Golden Ale
Light golden colour, and a nice aroma - a bit minerally with pleasant Cascade hop notes. Light, refreshing flavour of mellow malt, with some sweet fruitiness and an expertly hopped finish with a fresh, citric character. A pretty simple beer, but quite an enjoyable one.

Royal Oak Traditional Bitter
This is another former Eldridge Pope beer that O'Hanlon's took on. It pours a deep amber-orange with a small white head that sticks around to the end of the glass. Great aroma right from the get-go - earthy, almost funky malts, some caramel, a bit of alcohol, and pungent hops. Soft, creamy mouthfeel. Lovely flavour of sweet and woody malt, a hint of honey and peach in the middle, and a well-hopped finish with notes of citrus and wood. Really nice!

Double Champion Wheat Beer
Initial slow half-glass pour is clear, bright yellow-gold with a good sized white head. The aroma, body and flavour are all sharp, with nice citrus and herbal notes, somewhat tart and quite dry in the finish. Second pour brings the yeast, turning the body cloudy and adding some dustiness to the aroma and flavour. The few UK wheat beers I’ve had before this haven’t done much for me, but I enjoyed this one.

Goodwill Christmas Bitter
Garnet colour with a wispy tan head. Nice aroma of sweet caramel, malt and orange candy. Same soft mouthfeel as the rest of the beers. Pleasant flavour, fairly sweet with mild spice notes, and a moderately dry finish with a faint medicinal tinge. I liked it, but I expected a bit more from an Xmas ale.

Original Port Stout
This interesting concoction is modelled after an old Irish tradition of starting the morning after the night before with a stout laced with a splash of Port. It has a nice, dark ruby-brown colour with a good sized light tan head. Interesting aroma that's fairly malty/roasty with notes of coffee and smoke, and a tinge of sour fruit. The body is on the thin side - decent for an ale, but light for a stout. Flavour follows on the aroma, with sweet roasty notes of the top, some mild smoke and coffee, and a dry, sourish finish. Pretty neat little beer.

In general, I was impressed by the O'Hanlon's line-up. It's too bad that attempts to get some of them into the LCBO have been rejected so far, but at least they can be found in some of Toronto's better drinking establishments, along with the Thomas Hardy's Ale.

And to prove that they're serious about this beer thing, Roland + Russell announced this week that they are now carrying a half-dozen beers and a a couple of unique beer-based distilled spirits from Austria's Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, including the one-time strongest beer in the world, the 14% abv doppelbock Samichlaus. Between this and recent cold and snowy weather, it's like Christmas came to Ontario a month late!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sleep is Overrated...

It seems that running this blog, serving as news editor at The Bar Towel, contributing to Gremolata, and - oh, yeah - working at a full-time job just wasn't enough for me. So, my wife and I have launched Taste T.O., a website & group blog dedicated to covering Toronto's food and drink scene.

Actually, we haven't "officially" launched it yet. That will happen in February, once our other contributors have had a chance to get some stuff written and posted. But it's up now for a sneak peek.

One of my regular contributions to the site will be a Beer of the Week column, where I write a review/profile of a different locally-available beer each week. The first instalment is up today, and features my thoughts on Toronto's very own Steam Whistle Pilsner.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Beer: Snob Drink or Slob Drink?

This past weekend, while taking a break from working on the Really Cool Project that my wife and I will soon be launching, I spent an hour or two catching up on a week's worth of blog reading, and I was somewhat amused by all of the attention that was being given to a fluff piece that ran in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last Wednesday. Entitled "Beer snobs forget the true meaning of beer", the article sees columnist Mike Seate lamenting the influx of bars catering to people who actually want some choice and flavour when it comes to their beer.

If you read the piece (go ahead, it's short), you'll see that Mr. Seate has two big problems with these sort of places:

  1. The beer is too expensive; and
  2. The people who choose to drink the type of beer served in these places don't know what beer is really supposed to be about.
His argument is summed up by the penultimate paragraph:

Is it just me, or has somebody forgotten that beer is supposed to be a workingman's drink, as free from pretensions and airs as a kielbasa smothered in sauerkraut?

As you might expect, this caused quite a flurry of commentary on the beer boards and blogs that us hoity-toity non-workingmen like to frequent. Lengthy threads sprang up on RateBeer and Beer Advocate, and most notable (and opinionated) beer-bloggers chimed in with their thoughts, including Alan at A Good Beer Blog, Stan at Appellation Beer, and Jay at Brookston Beer Bulletin.

Perhaps the best counter-argument came from Stephen Beaumont, who asks "Who defines what a workingman should drink?", and sums things up nicely in these two paragraphs:

What does bother me [...] is the idea that North American “workingmen,” as popularly defined by people such as Mr. Seate, are expected, no, required to make do with ordinary, often boring food and drink, as if the past two or three decades of gastronomic evolution have never occurred. If your collar is blue, the theory goes, you are expected to make do with a pint of pale, ice-cold lager and an order of previously frozen chicken wings and fries, and be happy for the privilege.

Now, contrast this with what I see in continental Europe, where local people of all stripes and economic classes, and both genders, tend to eat local food and drink local wines and beers. In areas like rural Wallonia in Belgium, the Proven├žal countryside and the hills of Tuscany, one needn’t worry about being derided for preferring the wares of the small winery or brewery down the street, or noshing on some artisanally-produced cheese or cured meat. Quite the opposite, in fact; a person might be thought too big for their boots if they went with the national, mass marketed brand.

In the aftermath of all this activity, Mr. Seate made a couple of posts to his own blog where he quoted some of the irate emails that he received from beer aficionados who took offence to his article. As expected, he doesn't take them very seriously, expressing shock that there people out here who "spend their off hours visiting Web forums where they discuss beer, worship beer, analyze brewing techniques and generally turn something as simple and refreshing as beer into a Star Trek convention nerd-fest".

Hey! I resemble that remark!

But am I upset or angry by the column? No, not really. I'm well aware that my habit of sniffing, swishing and scribbling while enjoying my beer makes me one of those
"weird beer enthusiasts" that Mr. Seate refers to in one of his blog posts. I've always had mildly obsessive tendencies and a habit of collecting and cataloguing things, and I've moved from being a comic geek to a music geek to a beer geek. Most people don't get it, and I'm fine with that.

It's unfortunate, though, that so many people are ignorant of - or indifferent towards - the fact that while 90% of the beer produced in the world today may be bland, industrially-produced pale lagers, the remaining 10% consists of brews of a variety and complexity that rival the best wines and spirits. Or that so many people are content to treat beer as nothing more than a commercial product, like
"cornflakes or, say, Hostess cupcakes", to use Mr. Seate's words. But if they're happy too look at beer as just another item on their grocery list, and don't have the time or interest in exploring the beer world beyond Blue, Bud or Boddingtons, then who am I to argue?

Anyway - just to add a little twist of irony to this whole episode, I thought I would mention that I spent a night in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago, a time when, according to Mr. Seate:

[...] few local bars served anything more esoteric than, say, Old Frothingslosh, and the concept of drinking a Guinness stout from a tap just like Europeans do was something of a beer-lover's revelation.

Now, while I tended to drink local microbrews at the time, I was far from being the raving beer-rating fanatic that I am today, so I wasn't on doing any beer hunting. I was just on a the road for a few days to see a couple of musician friends playing shows in some Midwestern towns, and their show in Pittsburgh happened to be at a place called the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. It was a comfortable college-friendly place with a banner out front proclaiming that they served the "Best Perogies in Pittsburgh".

And it also had dozens of different beers from all over the world. So many of them that they ran out of room behind the bar and put the overflow on the customer's side of the bar,
in fridges with lights that flashed when they were opened so the staff could make sure no-one absconded with the goods without paying. I don't remember now what I drank that night - maybe something from Russia? - but it was definitely something I'd never had before. And I liked it.

Isn't it funny that one of the milestones in my journey towards full-fledged beer geekdom happened right in Mr. Seate's backyard?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm Still Here...

My apologies for the recent lack of activity around these parts. I've been busy with a couple of things, including a pretty exciting project that my wife and I will be launching soon, so my time has been even tighter than usual.

I do have a couple of things that I'm set to write about, so there should be some new posts coming soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of a monkey drinking a beer.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hooray For Boobies! (& Butts!)

As mentioned here (and on every other damn beer blog) back in December, Massachusetts-based beer importers Shelton Brothers had several of their beers banned in Maine due to the labels being "undignified or improper". The beers included Santa's Butt Porter, which pictures a rear view of the jolly old elf enjoying a pint while checking his list; Les Sans Culottes, featuring Delacroix’s classic painting Liberty Leading the People (detail pictured); and Rose de Gambrinus, featuring a watercolor painting of the king of Flanders sitting with a bare-breasted woman.

Well, it seems that common sense prevailed, and Maine's Liquor Licensing Unit backed down after the threat of legal action from the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Unfortunately, the decision didn't get reversed until just before Christmas, and Don Shelton didn't find out until he returned from vacation this past week, so sales of Santa's Butt were still heavily impacted.

And while Shelton Brothers may be happy about the outcome, they still plan on proceeding with legal action regardless:

Shelton, whose company has challenged similar bans in other states, said Thursday he has no plans to drop his lawsuit because state law still allows officials to deny applications for beer labels that contain "undignified or improper" illustrations. About a dozen beer and wine labels, out of 10,000 to 12,000 reviewed, are rejected each year on such grounds.

"You can't have a law based on propriety and dignity. It's too vague," Shelton said.

It'll be interesting to see what impact this might have on the arcane and outdated liquor laws not only in Maine, but right across the continent.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year? Yeah, Whatever...

My wife and I are not a romantic couple. We love each other dearly, and we look forward to spending the rest of our lives together, but we don't go for all the lovey-dovey hearts-and-flowers crap that many couples thrive upon. Valentine's Day is completely ignored in the Clow-Kirby household, and birthdays are generally celebrated with a small group of friends at a comfortable restaurant rather than with some elaborate, overpriced candlelit dinner-for-two at a pretentious, overrated bistro.

As for New Year's Eve - well, not only are we not romantic, but we're also somewhat misanthropic, so the idea of joining the teeming masses and wearing stupid party hats while drinking crappy sparkling wine at midnight just isn't that appealing to us. Since NYE is also our wedding anniversary, we have gone out for dinner a couple of times to mark both occasions (yeah, we're not completely cold-hearted), but we've always stuck with early seatings in order to be home well before the ball drops.

For the past couple of years, though, we haven't even bothered with a dinner out, and instead we just order in from one of our favourite Indian restaurants and spend the night in front of the tube - this year's selection included downloaded episodes of Little Britain Abroad, Kitchen Nightmares and No Reservations.

Our one nod towards the celebratory nature of the night was opening one of the bottles of Kuhnhenn Raspberry Eisbock that I picked up at the brewery back in August. This was my first time trying this renowned elixir, and I was actually a bit disappointed by it, especially considering how much I paid for these li'l bad boys.

It poured a murky looking ruby-brown with a very still body and a faint wisp of a tan head - not that appealing looking, to be honest. The aroma was worrisome at first - some nice chocolate & caramel, but also seeming quite stale. Whatever it was cleared after a few moments, and it became much more pleasant, developing notes of raspberry and sweet alcohol. Body is soft and smooth, very nice. The flavour is pleasant, with nice notes of chocolate, toffee, raspberry, licorice, and some slightly woodiness, but it didn’t knock my socks off. It’s a very good beer, no doubt about that, but it simply didn’t live up to the hype for me.

Anyway, cynicism and slight disappointment aside, I really did enjoy my typically atypical New Year's Eve, and I hope that you also enjoyed yours, no matter how you chose to celebrate it (or not). While it started out a little rough, 2006 ended up being a pretty
good year for me, and here's to 2007 being a good one as well, for all of us.