Archive for the ‘Beer’ category

Ben Johnson asks the question we all should have: Why does sexist marketing still exist?

February 2, 2017

Ben Johnson is a beer writer who twice (2014 and 2015) was voted “Best Beer Writer in Ontario” at the Golden Tap Awards. His blog, the aptly named Ben’s Beer Blog, should be required reading for anyone who makes or drinks Ontario craft beer.

Ben has posted a significant piece about the ever-present sexism in our craft beer industry, Let’s Talk About Sexist Beer Marketing in which he beards the lion in its den by contacting offending brewers and asking them why they have taken the low road.

Read his blog. Contact the breweries mentioned and tell them they are creatively sterile and lazy. Drink someone else’s beer.


Iron Brewer 2015 – The results

October 8, 2015

The Iron Brewer competition has come and gone and alas, the trophy which so proudly adorned my family room mantel for twelve months has gone to a new home. Here’s how it went down.

After examining the bag of ingredients, I decided to make two beers, which would give me a choice of which one to bring to the competition. The batches I wanted to make were too small for the Teaching Bewery’s pilot systems, so Nate Ferguson, the college’s Brewmaster Program Coordinator, again offered to let me use his home system.

Mashing in

Mashing in the Vienna lager

First off, I decided to make a Vienna lager — a basic amber lager style noted for its bready, full-bodied flavour. There was only enough Vienna malt to make up about 65% of the grain bill, so I used pilsner malt and a bit of the double roasted crystal to supplement. Alas, while mashing in (and posing for photos), I knocked the lauter plate out of position. The plate is essentially a false bottom in the mash tun — it has holes or slits that allow the wort to drain away while holding the grain back. Of course I didn’t realize that I had knocked the plate out of position until I tried to drain the wort — and nothing came out. It was the dreaded “stuck mash”. Sometimes this occurs if the grains form a mushy impenetrable layer — this often happens with wheat or with barley that has a high protein content. Or it happens if the lauter plate is not in position, allowing the mash to block the discharge tube. When I realized what had happened, Nate helped me to reach in (with protective gloves — that mash is HOT) and reposition the plate. Then we cleared the discharge tube by pushing water into it from the outside. The rest of the brew and fermentation went without a hitch.

My second beer was a sarsaparilla mild. Mild was very popular in Britain between the wars but is now difficult to find. It is a low gravity style (often only 3.0%-3.5% abv) but with a round body and full flavour profile usually associated with bigger beers. The colour is dark brown to black, and it tends to the sweet side, with notes of chocolate. In my previous two Iron Brewer competitions, I stayed away from the specialty flavourings — I was concerned that if everyone else used the same flavouring, my beer wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. However, the aroma of the sarsaparilla seduced me, and besides, my main beer and probable entry was going to be the Vienna lager.

This time the brewing process went without incident. Rather than adding the sarsaprilla root during the boil — I felt that would extract astringent tannins — I hung a bag of it in the fermentor once fermentation was complete.

Two days before the competition, I bottled both beers, and it turns out that the Vienna lager was rather meh. Whether that was due to the mash problems or my recipe, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t a stand-out. I decided to go with the sarsaparilla mild, even though my chances would hinge on not too many other of the brewers choosing that same flavouring. It was a very good beer, with a nose of dark cherries and vanilla, and flavours of cherry, vanilla, chocolate and caramel. I felt fairly confident in my chances… until I arrived at the competition. Of the fifteen brewers, seven of us had used sarsaparilla. Dang.

In the past, the Iron Brewer trophy was awarded to the most popular beer as voted on by attendees. This year the trophy was awarded by a panel of three judges. (Attendees still voted on a “People’s Choice”). In the end, the winner and new Iron Brewer was Ian Johnston, an avid homebrewer and last year’s third-place brewer, who made an excellent smoked porter. The People’s Choice was Mick Muzzin’s Imperial Pilsner.

And the seven sarsaparilla beers? It seems sarsaparilla was not anyone’s favourite flavour — none of us were in the top three either as a judges’ choice or people’s choice.

(The judging scoresheets, which were returned to us at the end of the competition, were a bit of a headscratcher for me — none of the judges mentioned sarsaparilla, cherry, vanilla or chocolate, but they did comment on “smoky flavours”, as well as “raisins” and “cloves”. Hmm.)

Next year I hope to be back in the competition, but since I didn’t place in the top three, my name goes back in the hat for the random draw next May. Got my fingers crossed already.

Iron Brewer: The planning begins

July 23, 2015

Yes, it’s that time again. The Master Brewers’ Association of Canada (MBAC) has just released the list of ingredients for the 2015 edition of the Iron Brewer competition.

For those of you who have joined this channel since last summer, the MBAC provides 15 brewers with identical bags of ingredients. Each competitor must make at least 10L of beer using only the ingredients provided plus brewing water. (Just like Iron Chef competitors don’t have to use every ingredient on the pantry table, Iron Brewers don’t have to use every ingredient in the bag.) The beers are judged, the scores are toted up, and one brewer is crowned the Iron Brewer.

Since there are always more than 15 brewers interested, names are drawn from a hat, with the exception of last year’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishers, who are given a bye into the next competition.

Here are the ingredients in the bag this year:

Base Malts:
Czech Pils, OIO 2-row, Weyermann Vienna, Simpsons Pale Ale Golden Promise

Specialty malts:
Briess Smoked Cherry Wood Malt, Bairds Carastan 30/37, Chocolate, Simpsons Light Crystal, Simpsons Double Roasted Crystal, OIO Toasted barley, Weyermann Carabelge, Crisp Clear Choice, Harvest Malt & Hops

Admiral (13.6% AA), Celeia (4.3), Pilgram (9.0), Jarrylo (14.8), Pekko (15.4) + whole leaf from Harvest Malt & Hops & possibly Winterbrook Farms

Belle Saison, Munich Classic wheat, Abbaye belgian, S23 Lager, US05 Ale, Fermentis Abbaye

Special Ingredients:
Oak Chips, Sarsaparilla, Whirlfloc

There may be some additional ingredients added by the end of next week. I have until the end of September to brew at least 10L of beer with only the above ingredients + brewing water.

Does anyone have suggestions on what type of beer I should make?

Travelling global, drinking local

March 23, 2015

Although Elaine & I are usually pretty stoic about winter, this past season had an especially vicious bite — week after week of record-cold temperatures, dark overcast skies and seemingly endless snow. Although we do not regularly flee south, this winter proved to be too much for us.

Old San Juan

The narrow but colourful streets of Old San Juan.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves having breakfast on the rooftop of the Hotel Milano in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The modern city of San Juan is a bustling urban centre of over two million people. But right in the middle of the city, on a narrow peninsula lying between the busy commercial harbour and the Atlantic Ocean, lies historic Old San Juan. It’s tiny by any standards, covering an area of only seven blocks by seven blocks. Anyone, at a slow stroll, can cross from one side of OSJ to the other in under thirty minutes. But there’s five centuries of history packed into that small area, including the oldest fortifications and the oldest churches in the New World. Even the ground has a historic overlay — the narrow streets are covered with blue-glazed cobblestones from Spain, a relic of the ballast stones left behind by Spanish galleons to make room for Aztec gold and Incan silver.

Blue-glazed cobblestones

Blue-glazed cobblestones

So there we were at breakfast, chatting with our server about things to do when somehow — and this seems to happen a lot with me — the conversation turned to beer.

Now I confess that my expectations of beer in the Caribbean are not high. If you overlook St. John Brewers, a craft brewery in the U.S. Virgin Islands that makes a killer mango pale ale, the predominant style throughout the Caribbean is yellow American lager, served icy cold.

Almost every island takes pride in creating their own brand of this style:

  • Jamaica: Red Stripe
  • Barbados: Banks
  • Antigua: Wadadli
  • St. Lucia: Piton
  • Dominica: Kubuli
  • Turks & Caicos: Island Lager
  • Puerto Rico: Magna, and the lite version, Medalla

(Yes, on some of the islands with British history, strong stout is still brewed, notably Jamaica’s Dragon Stout, a curiously heavy drink for such a hot climate.)

On a previous visit to San Juan, we had stopped in at the Old Harbour Brewery, a brewpub featuring several ho-hum beers that I found to be, well, okay, I guess. By coincidence, it turned out that our breakfast server had actually worked at Old Harbour for a time. “However,” she confided in us, “if you are looking for really good beer, there is a new a bar in Old San Juan called La Taberna Lúpulo. It has over a hundred beers imported from United States and Europe.”

My ears perked up — lúpulo is the Spanish word for hops. How could any self-respecting bar call itself “The Tavern of Hops” and not have interesting beers?

Of course, there was one small obstacle to overcome: the server couldn’t remember exactly where it was, and there are A LOT of bars in Old San Juan. However solving problems like these only adds to the sense of accomplishment, right?

So it was that a few hours later, at noon, we were standing on Calle San Sebastiano, outside Taberna Lúpulo. The reason we were standing outside was because it was closed. In retrospect, the chances of the bar being open by noon were slight — Old San Juan is a late night party place that rocks on until just before dawn. Most shops don’t open until after 10 am, and bars only get going at sunset.

So it was back out into the narrow streets of OSJ for a few more hours of sight-seeing.

Taberna Lupulo

Five minutes after opening, the locals are already arriving. Ten minutes later, there is not a seat to be had.

But at 6 pm, as the sun was meandering down to the horizon, we found ourselves back at Taberna Lúpulo, and this time, the doors and windows were wide open. And it’s a good thing we got there just as it opened, because not only did we get a nice table by one of the open windows, but ten minutes later, there was not a seat to be had — it’s clearly a favourite with locals.


Up to 48 beers on tap, including a few I didn’t recognize

As promised, there were a lot of beers available, up to 48 on tap and another 100 in bottles. The taps were mainly imports from the States (Smuttynose, Victory, Harpoon, Stone, Abita, Founders) as well as a few European imports like La Chouffe and Moretti. The bottle menu also featured a mix of well-known American names and some prominent Belgian breweries.

Barlovento IPA

Blue cobblestones, open window, Barlovento Golden Ale

However, I didn’t recognize some of the names. “Hopera?” Over the noise, the barmaid shouted a name at me several times. I finally made out what she was saying: “Hopera Golden Ale by Barlovento. Puerto Rican craft brewery” she yelled.

It took me a moment to comprehend that phrase — “Puerto Rico” and “craft brewery” are not normally two phrases that you hear in the same sentence.

Turns out Barlovento is brewing beer in the Puerto Rican town of Manati, (30 mi) west of San Juan. This was good news to me — I didn’t even realize there were craft breweries in Puerto Rico.

Seconds later, I was sitting by our open window, contemplating a pint the colour of aged amber, with a wonderful grapefruity citrus nose. The body was light, but firmed up by a good assertive bitterness. Dang, Barlovento hit this one out of the park.

Dacay Chocolate Blueberry Stout

Dacay Chocolate Blueberry Stout

Hopera unfortunately had an extremely High Evaporation Rate, and before I knew it, my glass was empty. I wandered over to the bar to look at the list of taps, this time deliberately looking for tap names I didn’t recognize.

Dacay Blueberry Chocolate Stout? My life score of Puerto Rico craft beer sightings immediately doubled from one to two. Yep, turns out that Dacay is another Puerto Rican craft brewery, this one in a San Juan suburb.

And this stout, a seasonal from Dacay, really was very excellent — light in body, but with a rich smooth fruity chocolate flavour — perfectly in tune with the rapidly darkening streets of San Juan. I was really getting to like the craft beer scene in Puerto Rico.

Taberna Lupulo

Outside Taberna Lúpulo, sadly contemplating an evening without Old Rasputin

However, all too soon, my glass was again empty, and it was time to go. My only regret was, that as we were leaving, I noticed the name the barmaid was writing over a new tap: North Coast Old Rasputin.

Old Rasputin on tap?? Seriously?? Dang!!

Alas, the tropical night — and dinner — called.

But I’ll be back, Taberna Lúpulo, looking for more Puerto Rican craft beer. And keep a keg of Old Rasputin ready too.

Iron Brewer Throw-down

December 2, 2014

Yes, it’s been over two months since I last blogged. Here’s what happened: a BIG project. Back in the summer, I was given responsibility for creating an on-line version of our History of Brewing course. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It started off as a normal project. But, like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, the project began to grow and take on a life of its own. By the end of the summer, I was working on it seven days a week. By October I was working on it seven days a week, often from 8 am until 1 or 2 in the morning. It’s done and dusted now, doubtless a real achievement in the annals of on-line education. I’ll blog about the whole thing later, once the nightmares and flashbacks have calmed down.

However, now that I have a life again, let’s return to the matter at hand — the Iron Brewer competition some eight weeks ago.

In case you need a reminder, the Iron Brewer is an annual competition held by the Master Brewers Association of Canada (MBAC), where all the entrants get an identical bag of ingredients, and have to make at least 10 litres of beer using only what’s in the bag plus brewing water. I had chosen to make a strong Scotch ale.

View from my table. Nice place.

View from my table. Nice place.

This year, competition judging happened at Amsterdam Brewhouse,  a brewpub down on Queen’s Quay at the Toronto waterfront. It’s a very nice location, right beside a marina, if you can get there — for the past two or three years, Queen’s Quay has been a construction zone, raising the challenge of Toronto traffic from impossible to nigh impassable. But finally I and my cooler of Scotch ale arrived.

My wife’s coworkers had suggested possible names for my beer, and I was particularly taken with “Highland Gale Highland Ale”. (I came soooo close to using “Big Jimmy”.) I didn’t print labels this year, but I did have a graphic on the table of a highland warrior laying about with a claymore.

Last year, my table was pretty Spartan compared to some of the other displays of grain and hops brought forth by competitors. I had every intention of creating a better display this year, but… well… anyways.


My table, as Spartan as last year

So my table was a bit barren again.

This year, Elaine wasn’t able to make it, so I didn’t have anyone bringing me beer samples from the other competitors. I did manage to slip away a couple of times, and man, the other beers I was able to taste were fantastic this year! Andy Preston, who came in second last year, was at the table next to me, and had concocted a delicious brown ale. (That’s actually a pun, because he had used a double decoction method to make the beer. “Concocted”. “Double decoction”. Get it?)


Never mind then.

The special ingredient in the bag this year was heather tips, and many took advantage of this. Victor North, who with his wife Sonja has started up Garden Brewers in Hamilton, had made something incredible with the heather tips, although the exact style escapes me right now. (It WAS eight weeks and a lot of beers ago.) Siobhan McPherson also used the heather tips — again, I can’t remember what the style was, but it was good. A fellow Brewmaster graduate, Chris Freeman, now brewmaster at Collingwood Brewery, brought a delicate heather-spiced English mild. Current third-semester Brewmaster student Caleb Gilgan eschewed the heather tips in favour of the oak-smoked wheat malt, brewing up a crisp and lip-smacking smoked Oktoberfestbier.


This was early on. It got way more crowded.

While the judging was going on, I tried to describe my beer to each drinker: a nose of wild honey, a full rounded palate, with soft notes of caramel leading to a lushly sweet finish. Or words to that effect. However, it got quite crowded, and noisy, making erudite and witty commentary impossible By the end of the afternoon, I was pretty much reduced to pushing beer into people’s hands and screaming, “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!”


Organizer Paul Dickey hands me the trophy. No, I don’t know what the object on top of the trophy is.

After a couple of hours of judging, it was time for the winners to be announced. Third place went to Ian Johnston — unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sample his beer. Second place went to Victor North for a beer I hope Garden Brewers produces commercially. And for first place: me.

“Gobsmacked” is not a word I commonly use, but for the first time, it was perfect: I felt gobsmacked. There was some fantastic beer there, far more complex than my simple Scotch ale, but apparently Highland Gale Highland Ale had achieved some sort of zeitgeist. Huh.

Of course, I am never at a loss for words, so when I was handed the mic, I held forth: “Errr.. Ummm… Uhhh… Thanks.”

Since that time, my fame has known no bounds. People stop me on the street.

Okay, I’m lying about that part.

However, Jon Downing, the brewmaster at the Teaching Brewery, borrowed my recipe, and last week, I helped mash in what will become about 400 litres of the Highland Gale Highland Ale. It should be available later in December — perhaps in time for Christmas!


Missing out on some firsts (and seconds)

July 7, 2014

I’m usually pretty good at planning. My Google Calendar pages are littered with colour-coded blocks representing meetings, events and reminders. Upcoming birthdays and anniversaries? Heck, I plan for solar eclipses. (If you’re a solar eclipse chaser, check out August 21, 2017.) Thinking ahead is just something that I do. Yet somehow when we planned a return trip to the West Coast of Canada this year, I didn’t check my calendar. Only after the (non-refundable) plane tickets had been purchased did I glance at the calendar and realize with a sinking heart that I’d managed to choose the very same part of July when there are some pretty significant beer events happening right here in my own backyard.

1. Because Beer Festival, Friday, July 11, Hamilton

This is a brand-new craft beer festival happening on the Hamilton waterfront, about a 20-minute drive from my house. The organizers seem pretty serious, in a light-hearted way, about developing a craft beer scene in Hamilton. They even added a homebrew beer competition as part of the festival that attracted over 300 entries. (There were so many entries that I got a call earlier this week asking if I could help out with the judging. Haven’t judged a beer competition before? No worries, I will take you behind the scenes in a future post.)

I’m very sorry to be missing this one a) because it’s brand new, b) because I’d like to watch the the homebrew awards being handed out, and c) because the organizers sound so darned nice. Over 30 breweries. Food trucks. Bands playing. Admission only $25 and includes a sampling mug and 4 sampling tickets (or $40 for both days gets you the mug and 10 sampling tickets). Each 4-oz sample only costs 1 ticket, and you can buy more tickets for a buck a pop. They’re encouraging visitors to bring a lawn chair, chill out and enjoy the music. How am I missing this one? I shake my fist at the uncaring gods of travel schedules.

2. 2nd Annual York Region Craft Beer Festival, Thursday, July 17, Richmond Hill

This one is a bit further afield, but I really wanted to give it a look-see this year since I missed the inaugural event last year. (We were on to the road to Boston.) It’s just one evening long (6 pm-11 p.m.) but admission is only $20 at the door, and most samples are $1. The nice thing about this one is that it’s a Rotary event, so all profits go towards charities. There’s a dozen breweries attending and several local restaurants involved as well — sounds like a good time for a good cause. Next year, I promise!

3. Burlington Beer Fest, Friday, July 18–Sunday, July 20, Burlington

Like the Because Festival, this is also a brand-new craft beer festival, and it’s also happening on the waterfront, in Burlington this time, only about 10 minutes from my house.

However, I started out not as excited by this one, since the impression I got from their website is that it’s a wee bit less about promoting craft beer and a wee bit more about making money. Admission is $35 per day + a $3 service charge — that does not get you a mug, but you do get 8 tickets. However, the website is less than forthcoming about how many tickets each sample will cost, and how much more tickets will cost. About thirty brewers and cideries will be taking part, but be aware that a few of those will be “crafty” brewers (i.e. macros in sheep’s clothing) — Alexander Keith’s (AB Inbev), Hop City (Moosehead), Granville Island (Molson Coors) and Creemore (also Molson Coors).

On the other hand, when I started to read about the other breweries involved, I got excited again — this would have been my first oppoortunity to taste brews from newcomers Side Launch, Underdog’s, Turtle Island, and Longslice.

So I’m missing all three festivals. I’m sad. Or at least I will be until I taste my first B.C. beer.


A Battle for the Ages

June 5, 2014

I met Dave in a small rural public school in Grade 6. We connected through a mutual obsession with Star Trek and all things science-y. It was immediately clear to me that Dave was going places. Anyone who could weld together a lamp in Grade 8 from pieces of scrap metal using an oxy-acetylene torch, build a music synthesizer from scratch, or set up and calibrate his own radio-telescope antenna from spare parts found lying around the house was clearly destined for higher things.

Dave grew up into Dr. Dave, a scientist who travels to conferences and meetings all around the world. He is also a zealous member of the Church of Beer, dedicated to seeking out and tasting good barley-based beverages wherever he can find them. This has led him into caverns beneath Prague, random grocery stores in Washington D.C., and pop-up beer festivals in Brussels.

Every once in a while, he drops in for a visit armed with his latest finds. Usually I have no idea what he’s brought until he plunks it down on the kitchen counter. Greenish nettle beer from the Czech Republic. A French take on an American-style IPA. A Wisconsin sour cherry ale. Usually you just never know what he’s going to pull out of the bag.

This time, he gave me fair warning. First, he texted me from Paris that he was sitting in some tiny bar , drinking an ounce of the very rare BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin. A few days later he texted me that the morning after drinking this very special libation, while walking down a narrow Parisian street, he saw a bottle of the very same rare beer displayed in the window of a small bottle shop. So he bought it. And brought it back to Canada. And would be arriving on my doorstep bearing same.

Wow. Tactical Nuclear Penguin (aka TNP) is something of a white whale in the beer world — you hear about it, you talk to people who say they know people who have seen it, but actual verified sightings are rare.

The story behind TNP is that the enfants terrible of the U.K. brewing scene, James Watt and Martin Dickie of BrewDog Brewing, wanted to create the world’s strongest beer, surpassing even the 27% abv of Samuel Adams Utopias. They did this by brewing a monster stout first, then concentrated it using the “freeze and skim” method. (You lower the temperature of the beer to just below 0°C/32°F. Water freezes at that point, but alcohol remains liquid. So if you skim off the ice, you remove water but not alcohol, raising the percentage of alcohol that’s left in the beer. This method has been used by brewers in Kulmbach, Germany for centuries to produce eisbock, although German brewers, perhaps wisely, usually call it quits when their beer reaches the 12-13% range. James & Martin, who did not show the same restraint, kept freezing and skimming until the beer hit 32% abv.

There was a fair amount of controversy in beer circles about using this method to create a super-strong beer — are you really brewing and fermenting a super-strong beer, or are you creating a spirit through freeze distillation? Regardless of whether it is actually a beer or not, bottles of TNP are very rare and very sought after.

I spent more than a few minutes thinking about beers to serve, since surely we wouldn’t just pop the top on the TNP as soon as Dr. Dave (and other guests) walked in the door. No, as tempting as that sounded, this occasion clearly called for substantial food and some quality lead-up beers. In the end, to accompany a steak dinner, we shared bottles of some beers that I thought would wake up our taste buds: Left Field Resin Bag (gold medal, IPAs, Niagara College Beer Competition),  Black Oak Ten Bitter Years (bronze medal in the same category), and Flying Monkeys Shoulders of Giants (gold medal, Imperial India Pale Ales, 2014 Canadian Brewing Awards).  To accompany my own caramel chocolate cheesecake, I chose Great Lakes Harry Porter and the Bourbon-Soaked Vanilla Beans.

After dinner, we slowly meandered through a few other beers Dr. Dave had brought. (He never arrives with just one beer.)

  • BrewDog Nanny State. A low-alcohol (0.5% abv) but heavily hopped beer, made in reaction to criticisms that BrewDog only makes high-test beers. A noble experiment, but to my mind, the lack of a malt backbone left the hop bitterness overpowering and astringent.
  • vladimirBrewDog Hello My Name is Vladimir. This double IPA flavoured with limonnik berries (supposedly an aphrodisiac) was made in reaction to Russian anti-gay legislation. The Andy Warhol-inspired label, showing Vladimir Putin with eye shadow and lipstick, certainly casts him in a less than masculine light.
  • Jean Chris Nomad. A gueuze formerly brewed by Cantillon in Belgium, but now made by Brasserie Thiriez, a small brewery in Normandy near Dunkirk. Gueuze brewers must lie awake at night wondering what their beer will eventually taste like — rather than adding a carefully calculated amount of a very carefully chosen strain of brewer’s yeast to the wort in an air-tight fermenter, the brewer leaves the unfermented wort in open-air “ships”, where any Tom, Dick and micro-organism blown through the open attic windows can fall into the beer and ferment. If too many microbes that produce lactic acid end up in the wort, the result can be overpoweringly sour. However, Nomad must have got just the right combination of anonymous strangers to visit, because it proves to be light, tart and refreshing.
  • Cuvée des Jonquilles  — a bière de garde by Brasserie Bailleux, a small brewery in the village of Gussignies in northern France less than 100 metres from the Belgian border. A pleasant beer, but perhaps a bit light-weight for this time of the evening.

Finally it was time for the big moment: Bring out the Tactical Nuclear Penguin! And this is where I pulled my own surprise, lifting my bottle of Samuel Adams 2013 Utopias from its clever hiding place on the floor of my office. (You could hide several cases of beer in the piles of stuff on my office floor.)

Fancy pants Utopias versus the hand-drawn charm of TNP

Fancy pants Utopias versus the hand-drawn charm of TNP

The two beers presented a study in contrast. Utopias is packaged in an individually-numbered ceramic container molded to look like an old German brew kettle, the 10th anniversary edition signed in gold pen by Jim Koch. Tactical Nuclear Penguin comes in a brown paper bottle bag with a hand-drawn penguin. The two beers differ in other ways as well. While TNP uses freeze distillation to achieve its strength, the brewers at Boston Beer Co. use a “pulse fermentation” method that apparently does not build strength through concentration but through actual fermentation. (Yeast cannot survive in beverages with more than about 12-14% alcohol. I suspect in the making of Utopias that many innocent yeast cells die before their time due to alcohol poisoning, but apparenly they die with their boots on, making a few more molecules of precious ethanol even as they expire.)

Both beers are barrel conditioned, but TNP is aged only in Scotch barrels, first Arran whisky casks, and then Islay whisky casks. The Utopias barrel regime, in contrast, is considerably more complex and varies from year to year — my 10th Anniverdsary edition was aged in bourbon casks, tawny port casks, vintage ruby port casks, and Nicaraguan rum barrels. In addition, older batches of Utopias are blended into the current batch, and the 10th anniversary edition even has a bit of old Samuel Adams Triple Bock blended in — Triple Bock is the predecessor to Utopias, so the batch that was blended in must be at least 11 years old.

Enough shilly-shallyiing. Let’s get to the beer. Opening both bottles, we poured samples of perhaps an ounce each into small snifters.

After hours of strategic skirmishing and preparation, the battle lines were finally drawn. As Claudius says to Hamlet at just before the final, mortal duel:

Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to heavens, the heavens to earth.

And so, we drank.

First up was Utopias at 27% abv. It poured thick and viscous, not a hint of carbonation in its ruby depths. Swirling it produced great legs on the inside of the glass, speaking to its high alcohol. As always, a complex nose, this time of raisins, Demarara sugar, molasses, rum-soaked plums, and yes, a touch of booziness. The nose invited us back for another sniff, again and again. Finally, a taste. The mouthfeel was oily, firm and mouth-coating, the taste sweet but not cloying, with a touch of vanilla and perhaps more than a touch of ruby port. Despite its strength, no heat from the alcohol. The finish was relatively quick, with a lingering notes of alcohol and raisins.

Next up, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, weighing in at 32% abv. It also poured thick and still, a rich chestnut tinged with carmine highlights. The nose was a surprise — tobacco and old leather. The taste was dark and sweet, the old leather again coming through. The cigar smoke finish was long and lingering. Again, despite the high alcoholic content, no heat.

Both are fascinating beers that demand a closer examination of their subtle complexities — an ounce of either should be easily a 30-minute commitment to silent and rapt contemplation.

Dr. Dave left with the rest of the bottle of TNP, but perhaps he will bring it back on his next visit. Here’s hoping.

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