Monday, June 20, 2011

By Special Request: My Favourite Canadian Beers

A mysterious request came in from a mysterious man: “Hey all. I’m looking to compile a little information (for reasons I won’t go into) about your tastes in beer. Your identities will never be revealed to anyone about this…it’s sort of a little project I’m working on. Basically what I’m asking you to do is to compile for me a short list of your favourite beers (either microbrewed or mass marketed big names) from Canada. Who makes them, and why you enjoy them. I appreciate your time on this. Just send me a private message with your picks and thoughts. Much appreciated.” –Robert Andrew McTaggart.

Now, this Robert Andrew McTaggert guy purports to be one of my Facebook friends. His name even appears to be tagged in a number of pics that I’ve uploaded to Facebook over the years…private pics of mine taken at the IPA. If you don’t know what the IPA is, I can’t tell you. Anyway, there are tags of this Robert Andrew McTaggert fellow attached to my uploaded photos. All seem to be centred on my IPA friend Fox.

Which leads me to ask: just how much do I really know about Fox? I recall one IPA, in Kitchener, where I showed up early. I had asked the park attendant which site we were on, and she in return asked me whose name the reservation might have been in. I said that it was in Fox’s name. She didn’t have a Fox on her list. I was dumbfounded. Turns out the reservation was in some guy McTaggert’s name. That was about 12 years ago now I think. Hmmm…maybe I don’t know this Fox fellow very well either.

But…what can I say? I was intrigued by the notion that someone was reaching out to me, as an expert in my field, wanting my opinion. Admittedly, I don’t think I know the individual, and his query left a lot of room for utilizing my opinion for his own nefarious purposes. He won’t go into his reasons for asking me, which makes me a little nervous, but at least he’s willing to protect my privacy.

However, if I’m going to put the kind of effort into this project that this dude wants me to, I’m just going to have to share my thoughts with the world. After all, Canadian Beer is near and dear to my heart.

So, I think it’s appropriate that I should share my opinions with the world. And if this interferes with McTaggert’s nefarious plans, so be it. I don’t even know the guy anyway…I think. And what has done with Fox!?!?!

Sure, this blog of mine is one that you’ve probably grown accustomed to reading for my political opinions. But note the disclaimer at the top of the blog: “(Mainly) political musings by Sudbury Steve….” So this particular musing-o-mine is one which won’t fall into the “mainly” category. So, as it was put to me about my earlier by-law infraction, if you’ve got a problem with that, suck it up, buttercup.

Anyway, without further preamble, to satisfy this McTaggert guy, here is a list of my favourite Canadian brews. Do with this knowledge what you will, McTaggert! Just make sure Fox is present at the next IPA (if you don’t know what it is, I can’t tell you).

Old Favourites

Kawartha Lakes Raspberry Wheat
click on “Kawartha Lakes Brewery” and then “Raspberry Wheat”

What can’t I say about this Ontario classic? The Kawartha Lakes Brewery was founded in 1995, and I’ve been drinking their flagship Raspberry Wheat pretty much since day 1. I was introduced to KLB by my good friend, Mr. Tulli (who also knows a thing or two about beers, and has the innate ability of sniffing out new quality products), at an IPA or pre-IPA IPA back in the ‘90s (sorry...I can't tell you).

I understand that Kawartha Lakes Brewery has since been bought out by Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery, but the beer is still being brewed and bottled at the Peterborough facility. KLB is likely in good hands with Amsterdam, as Amsterdam has always been devoted to brewing excellent beer in small batches. Interestingly, one of my favourite Amsterdam brews is also a raspberry infused beer. But the difference between KLB’s Raspberry Wheat and Amsterdam’s Framboise are night and day.

First, here’s a bit of my own bias: I tend to enjoy light-bodied beers over fuller bodied ones. That’s not to say that I’m big on the corn-brewed megaswill on offer from the North American biggies. It’s just to suggest that although I’m certainly not going to turn my nose up at the dark roast malted products (especially on a cold winter night, sitting outside in parka, gloves and ski mask), I find that I tend to fall back on those beers which are lighter, but which still have a lot of flavour.

KLB’s Raspberry Wheat for me is one of the three best beers being brewed in Ontario right now. Wheat beers are always going to be lighter, but they tend to have less interesting characteristics, generally speaking. That’s why brewers seem to want to add things like coriander and orange peels to them (and I’m ok with that…no Bavarian Purity Act mentality here). KLB decided to infuse their wheat beer with raspberries, but not to the point of over-kill. So while the beer has some excellent raspberry flavour, it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s a perfect balance between wheat and raspberry – and it’s light, and absolutely drinkable.

The only criticism that I have about this beer (other than its lack of availability in Northern Ontario) is that it may not pairs as well with food as other beers, generally speaking. But that’s true of most beers which have “outside the box” flavours. Anyway, I’m the type of beer drinker who really prefers to eat my food without a Coke or a Pepsi or a glass of milk. I enjoy drinking beer on its own, for its own merits. As I heard recently (and concurred with), one beer is too many, and two isn’t enough.

Cameron’s Auburn Ale

Also in my top 3 Ontario beers. Cameron’s Brewing Company started off in Etobicoke, and has since relocated to a larger facility in the Greater Toronto Area. Their products, though, are generally available at the Beer Store, even in Sudbury, so I am often able to obtain this remarkable craft brew.

I think I was first introduced to this one at the Fort York Festival of Beers way back when (things are a little hazy, the further back in the past I have to go to recall specifics like dates and things…especially when beer is involved).

What I enjoy about Cameron’s Auburn, besides the incredible colour and aroma, is it’s drinkability. It’s a complicated beer without being too complex. It hints at darkness, but remains light and drinkable. I don’t know if it’s the hop or the malt (or the interaction between the two, most likely), but the beer goes down smoothly with a LOT of flavour. It makes me smile and think of flowers. It also pairs very well with food.

Cameron’s also has a cream ale which is excellent (although perhaps only a short notch lower than Muskoka Lake’s Cottage Brewery’s cream ale, which is in my opinion, the best example of an Ontario microbrewed cream ale). As for the other Cameron’s products, I’m not as big a fan. I’ll pick the Auburn Ale just about every time.

Unibroue Blanche de Chambly

A witbier, brewed by Unibroue (possibly the worst-named brewery in Canada…I can’t help but think of a bunch of hairy guys hanging out in a brewery, with a single long eyebrow running from ear to ear…which isn’t exactly something that I want to be thinking about ever, much less when I’m trying to enjoy a beer). This Quebec brewer makes a lot of important Canadian microbrews, including La Fin du Monde and Maudite! I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Belgian-inspired brewery, even if I’m not the biggest fan of most of their products (although, along with Blanche de Chambly, I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional Ephemeral and of course, Trois Pistoles, which has just about the best beer-bottle label I’ve come across!)

Blanche de Chambly is a complex beer, no doubt. And it’s not an all-purpose patio product, either. For me, it’s more of a sipping with posing-sophisticat friends sort of beer, even if that is just sitting on lawn chairs on the porch, watching the traffic go by. This beer has the ability to elevate any social gathering. And it’s not just the foil top or the beautiful label.

I normally enjoy beer straight from the bottle (and I know that by admitting this, I will have lost a lot of stature in the beer-snobbery crowd…in my defence, I’ve got nothing against beer served in the right glass, other than I just hate doing the dishes…and I guess I could justify this as an environmental thing…why dirty up a good glass for a phosphatic rinsing, when pouring straight from bottle to stomach is a more “green” practice?), but this is a beer which can justifiably be poured into a beautiful glass. Not only can you then appreciate the beautiful colour, cloudiness and head, but you’ve elevated the social gathering too, no matter if it’s just you and the boys in two-day old shorts and blue cooler. Keep the bottle handy, though (labels OUT), and you might get confused with a government-sponsored cultural event by passersby.

But beyond the look, this beer tastes great! Coriander and orange peel, sure. Some cloves to boot. But again, it’s all about balance. For me, Hoegarden doesn’t go far enough, while some imitators of the Celis White phenom simply go too far (like over-hopping an India Pale Ale). Blanche de Chambly has flavours which compliment perfectly with one another. And you feel important when you drink it.

Tracks Brewpub – Old Mill

Despite my feelings about bottled beer, I have to tell you that I always prefer draught to a bottle. Always. It’s just that I don’t have the kegs hooked up on the front porch, and transporting them to the IPA has proven to be cost-prohibitive (Tulli looked into this at one time). Plus, a kegger on the beer table just wouldn’t have the same effect.

Summer and beer go together very well for me, although I acknowledge that there are often other times when mass consumption is appropriate (and here I’m thinking St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve and, well, frankly any time you can find a free day following a beer drinking campaign, in order to have time to recover from the hangover).

Now, although they call me “Sudbury Steve”, I guess I’ll always be a Brampton boy at heart, given that I spent my formative years growing up in splendid suburbia. At the tale end of those formative years, I was introduced to a Brampton tradition, known as Tracks Brewpub.

The City has tried to close this landmark down on several occasions (ok, not wilfully, but with all of the construction and road rearranging which has gone on in front of Track’s location on Union Street –is that even still a real street? It’s seemed like the City hasn’t been exactly helpful). I mean, I’m not even sure how to get to Tracks any more. Problem with Brampton is that it’s not very walkable, and for a neighbourhood pub to thrive, it helps to have parking. Tracks, however, is the type of pub that you’d want to walk to, if for no other reason than it makes sense to leave the car at home, because after you’ve tried one Old Mill, you’re going to want another couple.

Hopefully, all of that new condo development will lead to a downtown renaissance for Tracks, because the pub itself certainly deserves it. Too many landmark Brampton pubs have fallen victim to chain-restaurantism. Let’s take a moment to remember and lament the loss of some other Brampton classics: The Hare and the Hound (where I fell in love with Newcastle); the Puck and Ball (“who’s paying for this Dom Perignon?” “YOU ARE!!!”); and of course, the pub in the bottom of the library slash Civic Centre, Bramalea Place…where I received some advice from my friend Aaron Silbermann, fresh back from a trip to Liverpool, which stayed with me for the rest of my life (and which I continue to aspire to live up to). When we baseball-cap wearing high-school grads not yet off to First Year University guys, sipping on our Molson Dry and Labbatt’s Blues gathered at Bramalea Place across from the City Centre started making fun of Aaron for his audacity to order a dark-coloured draft from a foreign country (which turned out to be a Double Diamond) from the barkeep, he turned to us with the sort of mischievous twinkle in his eye that Aaron was wont to get, and said those two words which changed my life: “Try it”. And then he offered his glass for all to sip.

Since then, I’ve tried to spread the gospel of good beer to all who will listen. I’ve had some success, but have experienced considerable setbacks too. My wife, for example, continues to cling to Coors Light (at least she, a born and bred Northerner, doesn’t put salt into it). Aaron’s words remain my inspiration, however, and I will continue along my quest for good beer, no matter where it takes me.

As with most things in life, the quest for good beer has taken me away from Brampton. But Tracks Old Mill remains my Brampton anchor. If it’s possible for a beer to be “sweet”, Old Mill is that beer. This is the kind of beer which is very difficult to have only one of, especially if you make the mistake of going out onto the back patio, which is a little oasis in the midst of construction-crazy downtown Brampton. Try an Old Mill with Tracks fries, too, which are excellent. Rich in colour, Old Mill is possibly one of the most drinkable beers that I’ve found on my life-long journey to “try it”.

Old Credit Pale Pilsner

And now we come to a very important and completely underappreciated beer. Old Credit Pale Pilsner is one of those beers which takes time to enjoy. It does so for a couple of reasons. First off, they only sell it in 750 ml bottles, so this beer take some commitment to get through. The payoff, though, is worth it, even if I do recommend going sharesies on the big bottle. You see, this is an Ontario-brewed beer that wants to be COLD.

The beer also takes time because it’s ice-brewed, using a unique brewing process pioneered in North America by the Old Credit brewery. I know, I know: you think “ice brewed” and you can’t get the picture of the Labatt Ice euro-trash guy from those ads 15 years ago out of your head (the guy who had a bit part in “Die Hard” and who met his own tragic end a few years later…I’m sure the story must be available on wikipedia). Anyway, you think “ice beer” and you think sweet, sickly syrup which nobody really wants to drink ever.

Put those thoughts away, and do as I say: Visit the Old Credit Brewery in Port Credit, Mississauga. Upon arrival, you’ll likely be told that you have to take a tour of the brewery, because these guys are so damn proud of their beer, there’s no way that you’ll get away with your box of beer without them showing you exactly what goes into making it. Their secret ingredient is a wicked one: time. This beer takes about three times as long to make as a regular beer, and if you think about it, time in the world of beer really is money. While they’re storing their beer for three times as long as others do, that’s three times fewer beers which they could be brewing. But time does wonders for this beer.

If Old Mill goes down easily, Old Credit Pale Pilsner can be enjoyed with almost zero effort. It’s light on the tongue, but it’s packed with freshness. I don’t know how else to describe the beer: it’s simply the freshest tasting beer that you’re ever going to have. Sure, there are additives or preservatives, but a lot of beers are being made au natural like that. So what makes Old Credit different? It’s the ice brewing. And it’s the cold…

But this beer takes time. And that’s also its weakness. Too often I’ve purchased a sub-par Old Credit from the Brampton Liquor Store (it’s only available in limited LCBOs…check the internet for a location near you). That “no additive or preservative” thing can kinda hurt this beer…I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a skunk, but the quality hasn’t always been there at the LCBO. Which is another reason why I strongly recommend a visit to the Old Credit brewery (which also happens to be located in one of the most beautiful areas of Mississuaga).

When you’re drinking this fine product, share it. Sure, it’s great from the bottle, but maybe split that big boy with a friend. The reason: unless you guzzle it, you’re likely to experience a temperature loss during consumption. The beer will change its flavours when it starts to warm up. Don’t misunderstand me: a fresh Old Credit will still taste excellent and be good to the last drop…but there’s something about the COLD that makes this beer one of the top 3 Ontario beers, in my opinion. If you share with a friend, you’ll finish the bottle sooner, and then can grab another cold one without experiencing the temperature loss.

Old Credit also makes a crazy good Amber Ale, which you should also stock up on if you’re going to visit the brewery.

Mill Street Tankhouse Ale

Mill Street brewery has made quite a splash since it opened its brewpub in the heart of Toronto’s distillery district. In some ways, Mill Street was responsible for bootstrapping this historic part of the City into the trendy part of town that it now is. I have a tremendous amount of respect for this brewery – and not just their beers, either, but also because of their investment in neighbourhood and community and an urban vision that I share. I know, that’s pretty heavy reasoning for liking a beer, but I fully believe that perceptions can effect taste.

But…that’s not the case with Tankhouse Ale. Mill Street was on the cutting edge of a trend to bring overly-hopped beers to the public. When Tankhouse initially came out, I couldn’t believe that it was a Canadian beer, although beneath the abundant hops, there remained a traditional Canadian flavour and feel. It was just that no Canadian brewers were hopping their beers like this (although I actually think that the first Canadian crazy-hopped beer that I had was from the Scotch Irish Brewing Company, again at the Fort York Festival of Beer, back in the late ‘90s – Sergeant Majour India Pale Ale).

Since Tankhouse has come out, I’ve had many more beers with even more hoppiness. I think, though, that Tankhouse remains a favourite of mine because, for me at least, it has the right balance between hoppiness and malt. It feels great going down (especially straight from the painted bottle, slimmer in your grasp than a traditional beer bottle, so your mind kind of instinctively knows that this is something a little different).

Mill Street also brews some other great and interesting beers (although I wish that they would stop using those damn clear bottles for their Organic beer…too often those are skunky by the time they make it up to Sudbury, or so it seems; anyway, I’ve stopped trying with them).

Wellington County Arkell Bitter

What can I say about Wellington County Brewery? I just love it. This is a brewery that has never lost sight of itself. It’s been around for a while now, but it still continues to consistently produce a number of products which are head and shoulders above the rest of what’s out there.

Wellington has been around from the days when Upper Canada brewery was making its incredible Rebellion Ale, only to be bought out by one of the big boys, and now essentially isn’t worth drinking. Wellington was there when Creemore Springs was the toast of the Toronto urban hip (and me, too, because I was never numbered amongst the urban hip, even though I had more than a few Creemore in my University years). Creemore Springs has also gone the megaswill route, despite its lame attempts to continue to sell itself as something “different”. And Guelph rival Sleemans…well, Sleemans was never like Upper Canada, Creemore or Wellington.

Wellington County Ale is as fine an ale as you’re ever going to drink, and it certainly defines this classy brewery’s product line. For me, though, the stand out product amongst a series of beers which should all be considered stand-outs, is the Arkell Best Bitter. This is the best bitter being brewed in Canada, in my opinion, and even straight from the bottle, it will beat a Boddington’s on tap at a scenic outdoor patio overlooking the Thames in some English new town. I know that’s pretty bold, but you have to try this beer to get it.

The bitter style of beer is an absolute classic, and one which I’ve been known to enjoy. Unlike Old Credit, though, this one shouldn’t be consumed in the cold, which is why it makes a good summer beer, as it can be savoured from the cooler, even as it warms up in the heat. Arkell is better than the best bitter: it’s simply heavenly.

Brick Brewing Company – Formosa Springs Draft

And speaking of Upper Canada and Creemore…whatever happened to the excellent beer being brewed by Brick Brewery in Kitchener? They used to make some truly exciting beers, along with some truly uninspired choices (does anyone remember Pacific Lager?). Brick used to brag that it was Canada’s first microbrewery…but now it’s firmly on the megaswill side of the ledger (unless someone can correct my assumption…but they’re brewing Laker, right?).

Anyway, Formosa Springs Brewery was probably one of the first little breweries to be snapped up by a larger little brewery. Brick bought this brewery, located in Formosa, Ontario (in Huron County, I believe) a long while ago, ostensibly for access to some of the cleanest and purest water available in this province.

While the quality of Formosa Springs might have declined somewhat, there’s still something about this class Canadian-style lager which compels me to pick it up once in a while, as a favoured old stand-by. It must be something in the water. This isn’t a remarkable beer, but if your buddies are having a night out which might otherwise be spent with a case of megaswill (although that’s not saying much for your buddies, I know), think of reaching for Formosa Springs instead. One last good thing about Formosa Springs: you can get it here in Sudbury.

Northern Breweries Red Maple (deceased)

I feel kind of bad about doing this, but since I was asked about my favourite Ontario-brewed beers, I felt that I would be remiss in not including this classic beer on my list – even though the brewery which made it, just down the road from my house, has been sadly out of business for the past 5 years now. Truly, Northern Breweries Red Maple, a once-loved product, is deceased. And I will never enjoy its beauty again. *Sigh*.

Now, Northern Breweries had been around for about 100 years before it went completely belly-up. There used to be breweries in Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins, as well as Sudbury. Their flagship brand, Northern Ale, was, well, not all that good, in my opinion. And their Superior Lager was one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted. But they had a few other decent products, including Eidelweiss, and before closing its doors, they were brewing a few beers under license, notably for Manitoba’s Aggasiz breweries. It helped that I could pick up a six-pack of fresh beer walking on the way home from work.

They also had a crazy Soviet-style labelled beer, called “Big Ram” which was quite tasty, but deeply incongruous from a marketing perspective.

But for complexity and enjoyability, Red Maple was where it was at. This beer came out at a time when breweries were starting to put sweet things into beer – remember the honey lager craze? Well, Northern decided to try making a beer with a hint of famous St. Joseph Island maple syrup. And unlike other maple beers (Upper Canada’s comes to mind), Northern got the balance of this beer just perfect.

It helped, too, that they put it in a beautifully labelled bottle, and focussed on a southern Ontario market (given that Northerners seemed to enjoy their less-complicated Northern Ale and Superior Lager…eeesh!). This beer was really putting Northern Breweries on the map until…until it was taken off the map.

Yes, truly I miss this wonderful beer, and regret that I will never be able to purchase 6 of these on the way home from work again. But the beer’s memory remains alive in the dreams of beer-drinkers like myself, and of course on the internet, where its webpage is apparently still alive and well. Bizarre.

New Best Friends

Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner

I’ve had the pleasure of sampling this new offering a few times now, although regrettably, sometimes I’ve had to opt for cans. Nevertheless, this light-flavoured beer has enough apple taste that it shines through like the full moon on a cloud striated evening (ok, no more attempts at poetry for me). A lot of apple ales, though, frankly don’t deliver with the apple. This one does, but it’s not over-powering. Here, the apple ripens in harmony with the beer (ok, one last failed attempt).

Lake of Bays Pale Ale

A great offering from this aggressive young brewery, the flagship Pale Ale has become one of my new number one favourites (yes, I’m allowed to have more than one number one). It’s got the right level of hoppiness, and a clean finish. It’s very drinkable (although more of an indoor beer, I believe, than an outdoor, if that makes any sense). And if you can get it on tap, so much the better.

Drinking this Pale Ale made me want to try the other offerings of this wanna-be “northern” brewery (sorry, but Muskoka just isn’t Northern Ontario, although it is kind a purdy…). To that end, I’ve tried both the Mocha Porter and the new Rousse. And my advice is…stick with the Pale Ale. Sorry, boys from Lake o’Bays, but your other two offerings are just not…very good at all. Complicated, for sure, but filling out a tax form is complicated, so we can’t really compare complexity with quality in all circumstances.

But do give the Pale Ale a go.

Brick Brewing - Red Baron Lime

And finally…I’m sure you’re saying “WTF” here…well, let me explain. Red Baron Lime is NOT a good beer…but, on a boiling hot day, when the sun is pelting down on you, crack open one of these (in the *shudder* clear bottle), and down it…maybe even in one, big gulp. Lime beer really took off from a marketing perspective last year, thanks to the treacly-sweet Bud Lime. Red Baron Lime, though, doesn’t have that same level of sweetness; in fact, it’s a little sour, but that makes it all right.

From a quality perspective, I’m sure this beer isn’t up on anyone’s list. But…if you’re looking for something to enjoy on a really hot day, give this one a try. I know that I will be picking up a six sometime soon. Even my Coors Light-loving wife likes this one, although I’m sure that I’ll get to enjoy the whole 6 myself. Maybe after I tackle mowing the lawn for the second and last time this summer.

Honourable Mentions

McAuslan Apricot Wheat (St. Ambroise Brewery, Montreal, Quebec)

Fort Garry Pale Ale (Fort Gary Brewery, Winnipeg, Manitoba)

Robinsons Black Cherry Ale (no longer available, as Robinsons’ Brewery in Mississauga, Ontario, has been out of business for a while now)

Hockley Valley Dark (Hockley Valley Brewing Company, Hockley Valley, Ontario)

Elora Irish Ale (Trafalgar Brewing Company, Oakville, Ontario; formerly from the Elora Brewing Company, Elora, Ontario; best enjoyed overlooking the gorge!)

Ringberry Ale (Granite Brewery, Toronto, Ontario – enjoy it on tap at the Granite Brewery brew pub on Mount Pleasant, south of Eglinton)

So, there you go. Thank you, Robert Andrew McTaggert, whoever you are, for giving me a reason to share these thoughts of mine with one and all. All of these beers are yours...except Europa. Attempt no drinking there. Use them wisely; use them in Peace.

I hope you enjoy. I’m going down to crack open my last Sergeant Major (in a stubby no less) left over from IPA (if you don't know what it is, I can't tell...oh, we've been over this enough already!), and perhaps enjoy it on the front porch.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Anonymous said...

Tracks was sold a while back and Old Mill is no more. What ever it is they are offering it was bad enough that I don't even frequent the establishment anymore.

Sudbury Steve said...

OH NO! Seriously!?!?!?!'s still up on their website (I write knowing that Northern Breweries still has Red Maple listed on a website, even though that company went bankrupt three or four years ago...)


Well, thanks for the newsflash. I guess very little remains the same in Brampton. At least you can still get a hair cut at Ross & Cosimo at Kennedy and Queen, and a dog at Sonny's across the street.