Archive for July 2013

Beer geek road trip: To Portland, Maine and beyond!

July 27, 2013

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Alan, you’re at a beer blogging conference — why are you falling behind in your blogs?” The answer is two-fold.

  1. The wireless data roaming fees charged by Canadian wireless companies when we are down in the States are exorbitant. If we don’t want to have to sell our children into indentured servitude upon our return, Elaine & I have to wait until we are near wireless hot spots in order to post updates.
  2. The conference agenda has had us constantly moving from here to there. Up until now, we just haven’t been near any one WiFi hotspot long enough to post a blog.

However, right now we are actually sitting in a hotel meeting room for a couple of hours, so, keeping one ear open to the presentations, I can finally catch you up.

Here’s how it all started:

After many days of waiting and planning, lo! the day of leave-taking arrived. Our ultimate goal was the Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Boston, but there were several days of travel and events first. Having prepared a list of places to visit, Elaine and I set out down the highway at an early hour. Our plan for the day was to drive over to Montreal, then turn south into Vermont, arrive at Magic Hat Brewery in Burlington VT in time for a tour and sample (Alan: “Yay!”), then head over to nearby Waterbury for a tour of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory and free samples. (Elaine: “Yay!”) Then we would eat supper and sample the local beers at any one of a number of local spots.

But something funny happened. Not exactly “ha ha” funny, but “it’s vaguely possible that we might laugh about this in twenty or thirty years” funny. Three hours down the road, I suddenly realized that somehow my laptop computer had been left behind. We debated whether to continue on or not, but seriously, going to a blogging conference without a way to blog? Yes, friends, with heavy hearts, we turned around, drove back, retrieved the laptop and then, six hours behind schedule, we started out again.

Of course we knew that both Magic Hat and Ben & Jerry’s would be closed by the time we arrived (Alan & Elaine: “Boo!”), but on the plus side, when Sheila the GPS suggested that rather than driving all the way to Montreal, we instead leave the busy Highway 401 much earlier and cross the American border at Ogdensburg, we said, “Why not?”

Elaine and I live reasonably close to the U.S., and have lots of experience with waiting in line at the border for 45 minutes or more, so we were both startled when we were able to simply drive up to the border crossing. Yep, no wait, no cars in front of us. Huh.

Here’s a suggestion: If you have high blood pressure, go for an evening drive along that small rural highway that runs along the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Very calming

Of course, the sun set well before we reached Vermont, so two hours of beautiful scenery passed by unseen in the darkness. Finally,14 hours after initially setting out, we reached our B&B and fell exhausted into bed. So do the gods of chaos make jest with us mere mortals and our plans.

Ooops, leaving hot spot. More later…

Beer Geek 101: Preparing for a road trip

July 22, 2013

Later this week Elaine and I will be travelling to Portland, Maine and Boston for a “Beer Bloggers’ Conference”. Of course we could fly to Portland the day the conference starts — fast, efficient… and soooo borrrrrrring. Or we could drive there. Slow, inefficient, but way more fun.

So we’re driving. We could get to Portland in one (very long) day. But that wouldn’t leave any time for The. Most. Fun. Thing. Ever: visiting breweries and brewpubs along the way. (Elaine may not agree that this is the most fun thing ever.) So we are taking two days to drive to Portland, which should leave us lots of time for a little applied sight-seeing.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, Alan, how are you going to find all of those craft breweries and brewpubs?”

Good question. I suppose we could just amble down the highway and hope we see signs for craft breweries. You know:



The problem is that most craft breweries don’t do the sign thing all that well. You could pass within a half mile of most craft breweries and never know it. Assuming there had been craft breweries dotting the landscape thirty years ago — and there weren’t — road trips would have been pretty darned dull. I probably would have said, “Heck, let’s just fly there.”

(The decision to fly would have been made much easier by the simple fact that in those days, kids, flying was actually pleasant. Seats were larger and had more legroom, everyone got a three-course meal served on china, and of course, you could carry a six-pack of beer onto the plane in your carry-on.)

Luckily we live in an age of modern wonders, and in lieu of missing brewery signs, there is the mighty internet.

One of the most useful tools for the beer geek is The Beer Mapping Project — quite simply, a user-driven Google Map that attempts to identify the location of every brewer within a given country. The principle is quite simple: if you know of a brewer who is not on the map, you send a note to the editor with the name and address, and voila! it appears on the map. Once it has been pinpointed, users are free to add a rating and comments about their visits to the brewer.

As is typical for a lot of internet projects, maps of the United States are front and centre — as they should be, since it’s a country with over 2,000 breweries and countless brewpubs. However, there are also maps for Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as Europe (an overall map of Europe, and then individual maps for Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K.) Canada’s map is pretty actually pretty thorough — in addition to breweries and brewpubs, it also shows the locations of good beer bars, beer stores and homebrew supply stores.

Of course, a map such as this is only as good as the information supplied to it, so there are lots of places that are not yet on the maps. In addition, there seems to be a lot of outdated information — in just one search along my route to Portland, I came across several breweries and brewpubs that are clearly no longer in operation. I have sent a note to the editors, and it will be interesting to see how long those places stay on the map.

Getting back to the matter of planning your road trip, of course  the BMP is a good way to start — choose the route you want to take, then see what breweries lie within a reasonable distance. Or better yet, see what breweries you want to visit, then plan a route to visit them. (Elaine would call this “the tail wagging the dog.”)

But the BMP is only a start. You’ll also want to check out brewery websites to see if they seem to be the sort of places you’d want to visit, or even if they are still operating. Take a look at the storefront on Google Streetview. (Hint: Yellow strips of police tape across the front door are a bad sign.) Get a feel for their products by searching RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. For brewpubs, restaurant reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor can give you a sense of whether you should be stopping just for beer, or whether it’s safe to eat too.

Which brings me back to my first question: what DID we do before the internet?


I think someone’s following me…

July 17, 2013

You know that nerve-tingly feeling you get when you sense you’re being watched? You look around and don’t see anyone, but it doesn’t stop that naggy little feeling, does it?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt it several times. Sometimes I would be quaffing a beer when I would get that strange little feeling. I would look around, Elaine would ask me what was wrong, I would shrug and go back to my beer. Or I would  be washing some of my beer glasses, get that feeling, look around, Elaine would ask me what I was looking for, and I would shrug and go back to washing my glasses.

Wait a minute… It suddenly struck me… Elaine was the one who was watching me! Yes, suddenly everything fell into place. If I happened to glance over at her, she would be furtively looking at me. Then she would go back to typing away on her iPad — almost as if she was taking notes on me.

And there were all those questions too. If I was putting away a beer glass she would casually — too casually — ask, “So, how many beer glasses do you own?”

Or if I was gluing a beer label into my collection, she would just happen to walk by and ask how many labels I now had.

Hmmm. I started watching her watching me. She was clearly up to no good.

Even if you don’t think you know Elaine, you do know her, sort of, if you’re a regular reader of this blog. When I visit a brewery, she’s often  the one who patiently takes notes while I drink beer and ask questions. She also re-reads each of my blogs and makes some very perceptive suggestions. She’s been a kind of editor-in-chief and co-blogger.

Or she used to be.

Last week, she announced that she was starting up her own blog: Married to Beer: Seeing the humour in a spouse who loves suds!


With a horrible sinking feeling, I started reading it, hoping against hope that her subject was someone else’s husband. But no, there I am, captured in prose — the ever-expanding number of beer glasses, the bottle cap collection, the incessant hunt for new beers…

Now I have the feeling of being watched… by everyone.

I think I’ll just slip down into the basement and surreptitiously have a beer.



Ads begone! (And more summer beers)

July 10, 2013

In today’s blog, I open up the mailbag and share some recent emails with you. This one looks interesting. Why, it’s from my wife Elaine, who writes: “When did you start to put rum ads in your blog?”


So I took a look at my blog. No ads. Hmmm.

I logged out of WordPress and looked at my blog as if I was a tourist. Aha. There was a video ad buried in my blog near the bottom.

I did a little investigating and discovered that WordPress occasionally places ads into unsuspecting blogs. I say “unsuspecting” because if you are a registered user of WordPress, you don’t see the ads. Since you have to be a registered user in order to blog, you will never see the ads inserted into your own blog. But your readers will — at least those readers who are not registered members of WordPress.

I had three choices.

  1. I could accept that occasionally WordPress was going to insert ads into my blogs. The problem with this option is that I have no control over the ads. They could be for Coors Light, Bud Light Lime or birthday-cake-flavoured vodka, which would both really suck, and seriously lower my beer cred. Worse, some of my readers might believe that I deliberately added the ads in order to make money off of their eyeballs.
  2. I could shake my fist at the heavens and rail against The Man. Having occasionally resorted to this since the days of love beads and Woodstock, I can assure you that although there is a certain satisfaction gained, the end result is usually less than effective.
  3. I could pay WordPress $30 to make the ads go away for a year.

After some consideration, I chose option 3. Think of it as your early Christmas present. You’re welcome.

Let’s go back to the mailbag.

“Loved your blog about summer beers, but only two out of the six beers are available in the LCBO. I know I should get out more on weekends and take daytrips to Niagara-on-the-Lake and Cambridge and Mount Forest and Etobicoke, but in the meantime, could you list more beers that I can walk to the store for?”

First of all, Etobicke is hardly a daytrip — for those outside southern Ontario, Etobicoke is actually a part of Toronto. You can get to it on a streetcar. Nonetheless, I see the man’s point — if it’s hot and humid and one needs a cold beer, one is unlikely to hop in the car and drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake. So on top of the two beers I mentioned that were available in the LCBO (Great Lakes Miami Weiss and Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion), here are four more that can also easily be found on government-approved shelves:

  1. Stiegl Grapefruit Radler: Radler is similar to shandy, being a mix of grapefruit juice and beer. It was supposedly invented by a German innkeeper who was trying to quench the thirst of some hot and tired cyclists. (Ein Radler is German for a cyclist.) Stiegl has created the perfect blend, and it is the import hit of the summer here in Ontario. If you like grapefruit, this is an amazing summer beer. Drink it cool, not cold.
  2. Great Lakes Orange Peel Ale No mistaking this one in bars — the tap handle is a large plastic orange. Strangely, when I first tasted it several years ago, I couldn’t taste any orange. However, GLB has evidently upped their game in the past couple of years, and the orange peel flavour is now very evident.
  3. Beau’s Festivale Altbier Altbier was made in the Dusseldorf area by brewers who, as the lager revolution washed over the land, refused to stop using ale yeast. However, they used it like lager yeast — cold fermented, long storage. The result is  a beer that is smoother and less fruity than many ales, but has more body and character than your usual lager.
  4. Black Oak Pale Ale I tasted a lot of this on the bottling line last summer — hey, quality control is important — and this is one of the best British-style pale ales out there. An earthy nose, a bit of citrus, and a nice snap at the end of the aftertaste.

Summer beers

July 7, 2013

I have learned to be cautious when people ask me for beer recommendations. I mean, I’ve got most of my friends figured out. There are the hopheads, the Belgian farmyard-funk aficianados, and the Alexander Keith’s/Stella Artois drinkers. So a craft beer I recommend to one friend may not be the beer I recommend to another.

It’s different when a group of strangers asks for some recommendations. Wow, I don’t know. What kind of beer do they normally drink? How far out of their comfort zone are they willing to move?

I mention this because a couple of weeks ago, Elaine was in a meeting, and the topic of summer beer came up in the pre-meeting conversation. You know — “I’m getting bored of the same old same old. What should I try this summer?”

All eyes swivelled to Elaine.

So here I am, pondering my answer. Don’t get me wrong — there are a large number of new and fabulous beers out this summer. It’s just that those who consider Alexander Keith’s new hop series a radical step — which it isn’t — might not appreciate something like Amsterdam Brewery X Great Lakes Brewery Maverick & Gose Liepziger Gose, a medieval style of malted wheat beer that is salted and spiced.

So here are six beers to try this summer that I think will gratify both those who are more experienced in the ways of craft beer as well as those who are looking to step away from Stella.

(Apologies to those of you who live outside southern Ontario. Elaine’s meeting was in Toronto, so I am specifically targeting  beers available in and around that region.)

Oast House Saison: A saison is a spicy, dry, refreshing style of beer first brewed in the French-speaking part of Belgium centuries ago — perhaps as far back as the medieval period. Not surprisingly, it is stylistically very similar to biere de garde brewed just across the border in France. Both are light-bodied farmhouse ales with a dry finish, brewed in early spring, then stored away in deep, cool stone-lined cellars until the hot days of summer arrive. Oast House Saison is an excellent bottle-conditioned example of the style, and a great thirst-quencher. Not available in the LCBO, but what a nice weekend drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake to get some right at the brewery!

Black Oak Summer Saison: (Full disclosure: I worked at Black Oak last summer, and developed a real passion for this beer.) Black Oak’s Saison is a pleasant unfiltered beer with a touch of orange peel in the nose, and a hint of coriander in the taste. Even more citrusy is “Marmalade Saison”, a cask-conditioned version to which chunks of grapefruit, lemons and oranges have been added — watch for it at finer beer bars in Toronto. (You can probably do the same thing with a bottle of Summer Saison, a French coffee press and some chunks of citrus fruits. Try it.) Black Oak Summer Saison (the bottled variety) is only available at the brewery in south Etobicoke this summer, but will be availabe in the LCBO next summer.

Great Lakes Miami Weiss: I tasted this for the first time as a one-off experiment at a Great Lakes “Project X” night several years ago, a sort of slightly more bitter North American take on a German weiss — the best of Germany mixed with our slight obsession with hops. It was so well received that the brewery made another batch, then another and another until… Well, Project X nights are no more, but Miami Weiss is a keeper. This one is available in the LCBO.

MacLean’s Pale Ale: I have to admit, when I am in the mood for a British style pale ale, this is my go-to beer — biscuity, crisp, flavourful. If you find this on tap, it was made at F&M Brewery in Guelph. If you find bottles of it in the LCBO –and fair warning, it’s a rare find — those come from the farmhouse brewery of Charles MacLean, a few kilometres north of Mount Forest. Both taste great. If you’re in the mood for a nice country drive, make the trek to Charles’ farm and by some bottles right from the source. (But phone first and make sure Charles is home — he is a busy guy.)

Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion: In 2009, when the very staid and laidback Robert Simpson Brewery — purveyors of the bland and insipid Confederation Ale — changed their name to Flying Monkeys, you knew there was going to be a change of attitude and and a change of product. Sure enough, Hoptical Illusion quickly made a hop-forward statement that was news to Ontario at the time. Although other  craft beers may have overtaken Hoptical Illusion in the bitterness arms race, it was never all about the hops anyway, but much more about drinkability. It is a great gateway beer for an Alexander Keith’s drinker curious to find out what hops actually taste like. Available in LCBOs.

Grand River Hannenberg Pils: This is another easy-drinking beer with a lot of flavour, perfect for a hot summer day.  It starts with a nice grassy, floral nose, and ends with a crisp finish.   Some of Grand River‘s offerings are available in the LCBO, but unfortunately you will have to drive to the Cambridge brewery for this one.

Iron Brewer: Game On!

July 4, 2013

Today I received an email from the organizer of the MBAC Iron Brewer competition: my name had been drawn out of the hat for one of the 11 open spots in this year’s contest. Woo-hoo!

I announced this on the Niagara College Brewmaster Facebook page. Scant minutes later, fellow competitor Mark Murphy posted, “You’re going down, Brown.”

To which I replied, “Bring it, Left Field.” (Mark is co-founder and brewmaster of Left Field Brewery.)

If that seems a bit mild, watch out. As we get closer to September 27, my trash talk will likely descend into the gutter, with comments about his yeast’s asexual proclivities and how his alpha amylase is degenerate. (That’s pretty smashmouth stuff  in the brewing world.)

However, the real competition will begin in two weeks when I pick up my bag of ingredients.



My Post-Apocalyptic Life

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Married to Beer

Seeing the humour in a spouse who loves suds!

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Madly Off In All Directions

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It's what's on tap...

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