I’d like to start by wishing eatdrink readers a belated happy holiday season and hope you experienced the warmth that the time of year brings, with good food and drink shared with friends, relatives and special people. This fall/early winter was also a period of blissful warmth with both locally crafted and import brews being big and dark and satisfying.
In the wider perspective and looking back at the last year in craft brewing, we see a trend that indicates the local craft beer culture is growing and maturing in its tastes. Last year saw six new craft brewing ventures open in our area – Forked River, Block Three, Northwinds, Rambling Road, 5 Paddles and Left Field Brewing, as well as new brewing companies like Bell City Brewing, Collective Arts, Liberty Village, Radical Road and Ontario Brewing Company. (Brewing ventures have capital equipment i.e. they bought and use their own brewing equipment to produce their beer. Brewing companies are marketing companies who have their beer contract brewed by someone else, usually a local craft brewer with some spare production capacity.)
This activity is further evidence the local craft beer industry is growing as the craft beer culture matures and becomes more entrenched in the epicurean culture and hospitality industries. It’s a good time to be a craft brewer in Ontario – it’s also a good time to be a craft beer consumer in this local market. Just a few short years ago I would never have imagined the rapid expansion of beer variety and the eclectic tastes of craft beer consumers we have seen in the last year.
This cultural coming of age of the craft beer consumer seems to be reflected in the number and variety of outstanding beers that were released last year. As tastes mature there is an appreciation for more eclectic brewing, for big robust satisfying brews (drinking better, not more), and we find that brewers are not afraid to push conventional boundaries. More robust, stronger brews are made for pairing with cuisine rather than sessioning. This maturing in tastes was embodied in the big brews released last year – the most memorable brews of 2013 were big burley beers – barley wines, Belgians, barrel-conditioned, imperial ales and lagers. We were treated to a profusion of these epic beers in both local seasonal releases and in the import section of the LCBO. So, without mincing words and wasting line space, here are the brews that stood out for me last year.
Notable brews of 2013, from local crafters
Better Bitters Brewing Company/Nickel Brook Beer has undertaken a bold expansion of its offerings. Most recently they went into barrel aging their big beers – two wet hopped ales, Russian Bastard imperial stout and their Immodest double IPA. It is their Malevolent imperial black IPA which impressed me the most. This is Nickel Brook’s take on the Cascadian ale style. It’s a dark brown-black ale with a three-finger puffy off-white cap which has a viscous mouth feel. Aroma is very roasty with a healthy pine-citrus hop tone and, yes, there is a minty note created from the hop-yeast ester combo. The flavour has big roasty-toasty malts that assault the palate, hops balance with a resinous piney flare – complexity mid-palate with some spearmint, smoke, citrus peel, tobacco, roast walnut skins – then it goes to a rich viscous roasty-piney finish. Every once in a while a local crafter produces a unique twist on a style that just lights up your palate – Malevolent is that type of great brew. I hope it becomes available year-round.
Peter Chodo and the brew team at Flying Monkeys produced a number of unique, boundary-bending one-off brews last year. Among them were three notable offerings, all big brews: Matador (a cedar barrel aged imperial west coast IPA), BNL (an imperial chocolate stout using fresh coca nibs) and my favourite, Red on Red, an imperial red ale made in collaboration with Central City Brewing in BC. This brew is a lustrous copper-red ale with a foamy lasting cap and complex aroma big in tropical/exotic fruits, earthy pine notes and light caramel – pungent nose to it. Silken delivery but super robust…. the palate is deluged with lush tones of guava and papaya married to rich red malt sweet roastiness. The finish is slow and silky, accented by increased bittering – very lush and satisfying. I love this big red ale and I buy up all I can get when it becomes available. I’m hoping it will be released on a more frequent basis.
Beau’s Natural Brewing continued to excite interest with a series of new releases last year – most notably Beau’s quaffable Opa’s Gose (a revival rendition of an esoteric German style from Leipzig, saline-sour wheat beer), and Beau’s Winter Brewed (a delicious strong amber ale infused with fresh ground coffee). But my picks were, Beau’s Festivale Plus, a Düsseldorf-styled Sticke Altbier and Beau’s Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale (done in collaboration with famed brewer Anders Kissmeyer). Festivale Plus pours a deep brown-ruby color with a puffy tawny cap that lasts. Gorgeous aroma of toasty grains, cocoa and filbert nuts. Medium-bodied, rich slick mouth feel. Flavour profile has big roasty-nutty malts in the front, then a decent balance from German noble hops. As the brew breaks into the finish, the roasty-cocoa-nut flavours intensify to a hoppy terminus – a rich, robust and satisfying Altbier. Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale pours a pale hazed straw color with a large sticky white cap. The aroma is the highlight of this brew, with the sharp pungent smell of herbs, herbaceous plants and spicy hops over light bready pale malt tones. Flavour is hop/herb forward with the spicy-herbal hop bittering riding just above the biscuity malts. The finish goes dry with increasing bittering and a sharp herb-biscuit kiss at the closing. A superbly designed specialty pale ale, where the natural adjuncts compliment the hops chosen…very pleasing, very drinkable and unique.
Cameron’s Brewing refuses to sit on its success with its great RPA (Rye Pale Ale) and released a world-class rum barrel-aged imperial porter called Obsidian. Cameron’s Obsidian is a good looking ale – dark black – a bit of ruby highlight, murky, unfiltered. It takes a hard pour to put a head on it. Two-finger creamy mocha coloured cap. Aroma is typical of a big porter – dark fruit, roast, succulent fruits, cocoa and some coffee. Flavour is more well balanced than you expect of a big ale – lots of roasty astringence and hop bittering to balance off the thick malts – some vanilla, some light smoke, dried figs. Not overly complex but pleasant. Long rich finish with increasing bittering, clean, roasty. A really good big porter – good tasting, with light barrelling flavours. First rate offering from this craft brewer.
Sorry, but I can’t stop raving about Bush Pilot Brewing’s Stormy Monday barley wine. To my mind this was the highlight of last year’s crafted beer offerings. Yes, it was pretty gutsy for this new brewer to offer such a big complex beer as its initial offering but very welcome –dedicated craft beer devotees like myself rarely get to taste a brew this complex. This dark opaque big ale’s aroma is complex and layered, rich in spice, dark fruit, herbaceous tones, bedded malt aromas – amazing. Similarly, the flavour is complex – complex to a point of almost chaos – the palate is assaulted with a cornucopia of flavours from piquant to subtle – spices, fruits, malts, herbs, wood, hops and various impressions caused by the amalgams of these – some new aroma or taste emerges as the brew warms. This is barley wine meets spiced ale meets barrel aging. An amazing offering done in collaboration with famous artisanal brewer Anders Kissmeyer of Norrebro fame.
Looking back to the lighter brews of last year, I was really impressed with an offering from Cheshire Valley Brewing: their Mosaic single hop pale ale. CVB Mosaic is a clouded golden coloured ale with a one-finger dull white cap. Aroma is relatively uncomplicated but very dulcet – big wafts of earthy-pine notes over bready-sweet pale malt. The pleasing flavour essentially follows aroma with uncomplicated earthy-pine tones of the mosaic perfectly complimenting fresh bready malts – dries out slightly in the finish and offers some pleasant bittering. A very, very drinkable APA, uncomplicated but offering rich flavour and soothing.
Notable imports of 2013
I have to mention the wonderful brews made available through the LCBO seasonal and brewer highlight programs. Again, the best brews released this last year seem to be consistent with the “big beer” meme that defined the craft beer landscape in 2013. All have my hearty recommendation and I have quickly rated them according to my impression of the samples I tasted on a simple 1-100 scale.
Amager Rugporter (a big rye porter): 98
St. Feuillien Grand Cru (Belgian strong blonde ale): 94
Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve Limited Edition No 4 (oak-aged ale Armagnac): 94
Maisel’s Weisse Dunkel (dunkel wheat ale): 98
Le Trou du Diable SMaSH IPA (single malt and single hop IPA): 92
Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pilsner: 90
Founders Dirty Bastard and Backwoods Bastard (scotch ales): 89/99
THE MALT MONK is the alter ego of D.R. Hammond, a passionate supporter of craft beer culture. He invites readers to join in the dialogue at maltmonksbeerblog.wordpress.com