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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Return visit to hometown in Canada brings beer surprises

Half Pints Brewing - Seasonal Oktoberfest
Growing up in Canada where I was born and raised, I can reflect back and realize that there were very few beer choices when I was younger.  In my old hometown of Winnipeg Manitoba, you had about 3 macro producers, and a handful of typical green bottled mass imports, with the only opportunities to buy them at government run stores, or cheap vendor outlets.  That was really all it boiled down to when I think back then.  Sure there were some exceptions but often that was the rule.  We drank, we were fine, we bragged about our beers being better than American swill, but in the end, we were all without much variety or understanding of styles, or what else could be achieved and acquired when it came to beer.

Fast forward years later, I moved to the US and discovered a large abundance of beer from smaller producers.  Belgian beers were more common, then suddenly the craft beer movement exploded.  Beer was a bigger world then I ever imagined.  I hadn't been home in some time with my appreciation for great beer, and always wondered if Canada had treasures that were suddenly available.  Sites like beeradvocate had a section for Canadian craft breweries, and there were many, plus the site had a forum for Canada that contained a place for Canadian craft beer lovers to talk and converse.  When I investigated further I realized there were not just a few new breweries in Canada since I left, there were SEVERAL, pretty much MANY I never even heard of.  One brewery was even from my hometown that didn't exist after I moved away called Half Pints.

I really felt that a future return trip deserved an exploration of drinking some new Canadian beer.  I wasn't sure what I would find, or more importantly how hard it would be to find these beers, and if they would even be worth drinking.  I had a lot of great beer in the US and I was hoping that my old stomping ground could provide a plethora of choice and deliciousness that would make me want more.  I was even more concerned that trying beers from an old hometown brewery was kind of scary.  What if I didn't like them?  I was actually nervous about this, could they measure up to all the great craft US brews too?  In the end, what I discovered was more than just tasty beer, there were some surprises too that made just understand how far beer back home had changed.

Returning home I was like a kid in a candy store.  I hadn't been home in the house I grew up in for more than 2 hours coming back from the airport before I said to my mom "Ma I am going out to get some beer!".

"You just GOT HERE, why don't you sit for a bit, I think we have some stuff in the fridge why don't you go take a look first!"  exclaimed my mother.

Keystone Lager
Patience is not one of my strong characters, but you can't keep a determined beer hunter down.  Before heading out to a government run nearby store it was a good chance to survey the scene.  A new fridge was in place where the old crumbling white and beige relic used to sit.  As I glanced inside, I was also at first reminded how much things were still the same.  There was a can of some mass produced beer that I swear was only made in the US called Keystone, painfully blocking some Anchor Steam.  I heard rumors this was actually a real cheap beer in the US common for frat parties.  However this can was red instead of blue, and it was called Keystone "Lager".

While there is a beer for every person, this one really was a classic macro fizzy lager, with little appeal to myself.  Appearances seemed fine, but it was classic macro tasting, wildly rank smelling and off balance.  A relic from a left over gift given to my parents who don't drink much beer to start with.

Can of Budweiser Shot - Malt Liquor
So what else is in here?  My eyes veered toward a can that was rather short, a very odd size, with the words Shot on it.  A familiar red bow-tie seemed to stick out on it, as I cocked my wrist thinking ... Budweiser??

It was Budweiser.  But not like a Budweiser I had EVER seen before.  This was a product called Budweiser Shot.  Reading the can I thought, so this contains coffee?  Red Bull maybe?  I figured it had to be a high ABV and that it was probably malt liquor.  I guessed correctly, even if the label claims "strong beer" whatever that means (American or English Strong Ale this is not mind you).

A surprisingly large and thick bleach white head hit, with lots of retention, quite aggressive and impressive somewhat, but the smell was all corn and sweetness.  Taste was pure sugar corn syrup sweetness, that I just couldn't even finish it.

It reminded me of many years ago in high school of some jock jerk who bragged that he drank Okeefe Extra Old Stock by the 2-4 (what we call a case in America), because it was one of the few beers back then that was mass produced higher than 5% (it was another malt liquor that clocked in around high 6.5 or 7 ABV if I remember).  I distinctly remember as a young lad that it tasted like diesel fuel, but to him drinking it was somehow a badge of honor.  I think it decreased his brain cell count.

It seemed we were off to a bad start, perhaps some things hadn't changed after all.  Experiences are worth trying, but you always try to set your sights a little higher.  There is fun sometimes in tasting odd beers you may not care for, but you begin to move on.  I was wondering even if people in Winnipeg forgot how to drink.  A wine store at the Forks I frequented often and took classes at in the past had a customer come in and say "You got any Coors eh?".  Besides the fact that the store doesn't sell any beer, people in Winnipeg are drinking Coors now?? I thought this was the most bizarre thing since the concept of drinking mass produced US beer was considered treasonous by my Canuck counterparts when I was younger (it also wasn't readily available like it is now).  It was time to head to the MLCC stores and see if things might make for a different experience.

The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission is the entity in the province of Manitoba that regulates the sales of alcohol.  Like many places in the US that have county or state stores, it means you grew up having to get your beer/wine/spirits in only one place.  It's a little more complicated and the laws vary but I think I've made my point.

Back in my time, without sounding like a crotchety old man here, MLCC store selections for beers were atrocious.  They offered very little beer selection compared to the mass macro vendors.  Often it was no point going to them for beer, you went to vendors for beer, got the macro Canadian stuff from the cooler and then went home.  Another problem was their hours. I seem to remember they didn't stay open late on certain nights, and they weren't open on Sunday.  However on my return,  I discovered they are now open on Sundays, and they stay open later, but there were also some surprises on the shelves.  It's the same vanilla, but there were things to behold.

First off, while the selection is nowhere as varied as can be down where I live in the US, there were plenty of items domestically and a few foreign gems that I have always had on my radar.  Another surprise was you could break up six packs and buy single 12oz bottles.  As someone who is a major beer reviewer and taster of everything, this is extremely appealing.  Being on the East coast in the DC area, with the ability to travel to several counties and different states, there are many places where you can't even do this. I learned long ago not to waste time on buying six packs being stuck with beers I found I didn't want to drink.

Ossian Supremely Golden
My eyes immediately glanced over to one foreign gem I've been dying to try for years.  It's a beer from Inveralmond called Ossian, which is described as a golden ale from Scotland, and is considered in the category of "milds" for beer styles.

Ossian pours a real nice brassy yellow, and a head that fluffs a great white.  The nose is filled with marmalade, and apricot flavors, and a great tasting sweetness of malt, cask like feel, citrus and orange zest.  It's a wonderful beer.

Cocking my wrist I then discovered this beer was... very old, a problem I have with not checking labels.  Consuming this beer though 9 months past expiration still brought a lot of joy.  However, since every MLCC store is the same, I went to another one and found plenty of this beer and fresher.  It was still fantastic, but strangely I am almost convinced it was better aged.

Golden and fantastic the beer was also everywhere I went, which brings another point about government stores.  It doesn't matter where you go, they all carry the same stuff.  I gave some thought, and felt that this beer should be put on top of the Winnipeg legislature and crowned the new Golden Boy.  That being said, there was an abundance of it, and it probably isn't that popular among the mass offerings.  A few sips off to family confirmed this as they didn't like it.  No problem, ... more for me!  But having a pint of this on the "ledge" as the locals call it would probably make the Scot community quite happy in the city.

3 Monts
Speaking of other beers I found in the MLCC, I ran into another I wanted.  3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale is a beer from France that is full of flavor and greatness.

Wonderful candy notes, and hints of honey, with a body crisp and wine like.  Pear and champagne flavors tantalize the palate with a wonderful finish while consuming.

Suddenly the trip to the old MLCC was not as bad as I remember.  Another surprise for myself was the price on these bottles.  Ossian clocked in at $3.45 and 3 Monts not that much more.  These bottles where I live would have easily been more expensive to buy, even at parity with the US dollar.

It seemed like I got some imports that I could have fun with, but also there were many Canadian craft brews to be had.  Many of them were very well done.

Russell Brewing Company's - IP'eh!
Russell Brewing Company out of Surrey BC, had two bottles that I picked up.  One was an iconic IP'Eh with a classic 1987 style Canadian maple leaf reminiscent of the Canada Cup hockey series.  What's more iconic than that!?  As an English style IPA, it's hop angle did bring the classic herbality, but it had a wonderful rich and malty backbone complimenting nicely.

Another surprise from Russell was a Scotch Ale called, what else Angry Scotch Ale.  In a remarkable great twist of fate, a ham dinner provide a wonderful pairing for this malty rich and toffee tasting great brew.

Russell Brewing - Angry Scotch Ale
There were many other fantastic offerings as well among the shelves.

A brewery out of Barrie Ontario called Flying Monkeys had a plethora of great offerings.

Hoptical Illusion is one big take on a hoppy pale ale.  The hops keep coming also in Smashbomb Atomic, and then there was probably the best memorable beer I had on my visit.

A Black IPA/Cascadian Dark whatever you want to call it, a brew called Netherworld.  The brewers website refers to it as "weird".  I call it a mish mash of American and English IPA styles slammed together with roast goodness.


Flying Monkeys - Netherworld
It is truly a fantastic and unique offering for this style.

It seemed I was doing quite well so far.  Many of the brews I sampled were providing an abundance of great flavors and reminded me of many of the tasty brews I had in the US.  It seemed things in Canada for beer were progressing VERY well compared to my past.  But... what about the home team?

From here I had to come back to my most anticipated beers for this trip, and that is checking out a hometown brew.  I am not sure of when Half Pints started brewing, but it was certainly not at a time when I was living in Winnipeg.  Thinking about this brewery made me pray that my hometown could deliver.  You all have memories and fondness for the place you grew up in.  Could they play with the big boys of the beer world?  Could they make a simple solid style?

Half Pint - Humulus Ludicrous
I thought about all the beer I had in the past, how could I feel about what they offered?  I was thinking if I could even be partial to enjoying beer made in Winnipeg.  I thought I had to be honest with myself, but what if I had something that was truly awful, a mess, how would I feel to say these things?  I was conflicted, I couldn't be a homer, but you always want your friends to succeed.  Luckily I didn't have to think much about this once I had a beer called Humulus Ludicrous.

A giant large Double IPA, Humulus to me rips with dank and earthy hops on the nose, complete with a hoppy palate and rich minty finish.  Boy I like mint on beer, but I find it so rare on hoppy brews.  Half Pints didn't just make a solid beer, they picked the geekiest beer style that would easily make any hop head chasing junkie happy.  Stir Stick Stout turns out acceptable for a coffee stout.  Their take on an Oktoberfest style fits in nicely with most other Märzens I've had.  However, I was even more pleasantly surprised by a flagship brew called St. James Pale Ale.

St. James (no doubt taken from the neighborhood of the same name), is actually more like a Kölsch style brew, as the brewers website describes.  I love Kölsch, it is one of my favorite styles, and I really felt they nailed this solidly.  Floral hoppy with great tasty bread action.  It's what I look for in this style.  I felt like I could just drink these till I was blue in the face.  The naming of this beer sort of throws me (perhaps it's a terroir thing), but I wish I could bring these beers home with me.

I was far from done it seemed.  The neighboring province of Saskatchewan (or I like to call the big "S") even proved it was up to the task.  As much as I like to make fun of those guys, it turned out a brewery called Paddock Wood made one heck of a memorable style Czech Pilsner called what else, Czech Mate.

Full of super dry grassy hops and huge nose of citrus and lemon lime, the beer has a great crisp texture, matching citrus and some candy grapefruit.  Unlike most Czech style pilsners I had this one was truly mouthwatering.

So it seemed as I surveyed the MLCC shelves, I made a good dent and was quite surprised by what I found.  I don't think it's going to vary much from now, but I didn't quite have everything either.

However, a return trip may not provide other new Canadian beers to try, but plenty of repeat beer offerings.  I guess the problem though now is if I want something new from Canada I just may have to go somewhere else.  But as long as these beers are around, I don't think I'll ever be missing anything if I return, cause I will be more than satisfied upon my return.

Well done Canada.  Well friggin done eh?

Beers reviewed and tasted on trip to Canada:
(in no order of preference within the groups, italics indicates foreign)

Exceptional:
  • Netherworld Cascadian Dark - Flying Monkeys, Barrie Ontario
  • Ossian Golden Ale - Inveralmond Brewing, Perth Scotland UK
  • Humulus Ludicrous - Half Pints, Winnipeg Manitoba
  • 3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale - La Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre, Saint Sylvetre Cappel France
Very Very good:
  • St. James Pale Ale - Half Pints, Winnipeg Manitoba
  • Czech Mate - Paddock Wood - Saskatoon Saskatchewan
  • Muskoka Mad Tom IPA - Lakes of Muskoka Brewing, Bracebridge Ontario
  • Russell IP'eh - Russell Brewing Company, Surrey British Columbia (BC)
  • Russell Angry Scotch Ale - Russell Brewing Company, Surrey British Columbia (BC)
  • Hoptical Illusion - Flying Monkeys, Barrie Ontario
Worth trying:
  • Oktoberfest - Half Pints, Winnipeg Manitoba
  • Stir Stick Stout - Half Pints, Winnipeg Manitoba
  • Mill Street Coffee Porter - Mill Street Brew Pub, Toronto Ontario
  • Einbecker Brauherren Premium Pils - Einbecker Brauhaus, Einbeck Germany (watch out for  skunkiness though because of the green bottles)

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