Friday, 15 March 2019

Snow in Las Vegas? It's a crazy place

I left Las Vegas in the mid-afternoon on February 20 on my flight
back to Toronto. This is what happened on the strip that same night
at about 9 pm. Snow in Las Vegas. What a lot of people don't seem
to get about deserts is that, yeah, they're very hot during the day
but at night, they can get damn cold. But this US National Weather
Bureau photo shows us a Winter story about Fabulous Las Vegas...
Quote #1: "You shouldn't play hockey in the desert."
Quote #2: "You don't have to shovel the heat."

So you know (though not that it's particularly relevant), these quotes are in chronological order.

Quote #1 was the rallying cry from hockey purists after Las Vegas received an NHL franchise on June 22, 2016 - a team that would begin in the 2017-2018 NHL season. The reason I suspect many Canadians may have been upset was that Quebec City, which also had a franchise bid in, was declined that same day. I gotta assume most American hockey fans wouldn't give a rat's wet fart if Quebec City got a team or not. Granted, I wanted both cities to get a team but if only one could, I gotta be honest, I was hoping for Vegas because any excuse to catch a plane to Sin City works for me. That's not to say that "no hockey in desert" quote only came from Canadians. Let's not rule out our northern American hockey fans, who, weather-wise, frankly, have a lot more in common with Canada than the NHL fans in, say, Florida, Arizona, California, Texas and now Nevada.
Usually I book my stay in the Excalibur Hotel
and Casino. This visit, I bunked at The LINQ.
Why? It was $10 cheaper a night and far more
importantly, it's right beside the esplanade where
the Yard House is located. The Yard House has
170 taps of the best craft beer available in Vegas.

So you know, Quote #2 absolutely came from a fellow Canadian when I was in Vegas last October. This gentleman from Wasaga Beach, Ontario and I both found ourselves having a morning smoke and a coffee outside Excalibur Resort and Casino on a beautiful sunny morning. He was recounting how when he just left his scenic town, the snow was falling for the first time last year. So basically, the same Winter we're still in but technically, Autumn of last year when we were talking. After taking a sip of his coffee, he looked at me and said, "The best thing about Vegas is that you don't have to shovel the heat." Indeed, it was gorgeous out, even at 9 am, sitting 22C (72F) and destined to get warmer as the day rolled along.

Well, at this point, I have to say both quotes are factually incorrect. You see, I was in Las Vegas from February 12 to 20 to see the Maple Leafs battle the Golden Knights on my birthday - February 14th. Some of you may recall last year I also traveled down there to see my Maple Leafs play the Golden Knights for the first time ever on December 31, 2017. I love going to Las Vegas and I especially love watching my Maple Leafs in Sin City. After my son, my two biggest loves. And to be frank, it is far easier for me to get a ticket to see the Leafs down in Sin City than it is to see the Leafs play any team - even the shitty ones - up here in Toronto!
My man, Justin, gives a double thumbs-up to my
choice of a Big Sky Brewing (Missoula, Montana)
Shake-A-Day IPA at the Yard House in The LINQ
Esplanade beside the hotel. The 6.5%, 75 IBU beer
has a great fruity nose and pine back-end. Tasty!
Even taking into account the American-Canadian money exchange, it's cheaper in Vegas. No joke.

But the reason the two opening statements are factually incorrect is this. On the night I flew home, it snowed in Vegas. So much for the hot, dry desert theory. Further to that, in some parts of the higher elevations around the city, they got as much as eight inches. So much for the not shoveling theory. I'm glad I beat the snow by about six hours because flights were delayed two and three hours. Beyond that, I went to Vegas to get out of the goddamn snow!

Okay so let's get the hockey portion of this out of the way. The first time I went, Vegas whomped my Leafs by a 6-3 score. This time, we thumped Vegas by an exact same 6-3 margin. In a city built on the phrase "The House Has The Advantage," that's about as Even Steven as it gets. And I love the enthusiasm of the Vegas fans, always cheering, always applauding, just happy to be at the NHL Party Table. And the pageantry? Holy shit, they have a lot of fun in the T-Mobile Arena during a game. They have knights on skates, a whole section on the north end of the arena is a platform with ongoing entertainment throughout the evening - kings, queens, royal proclamations, just wild stuff. A great environment, lots of families, lots of kids. This IS a great hockey town! Their fans kill it!
The happy Leaf couple were all smiles after the big 6-3
win in the T-Mobile Arena on February 14th. And hey,
a pretty nice birthday present for old Donny Boy, too!

The best thing about Vegas having a team is that the tourists come from everywhere to see their team play. The day I landed, Arizona was playing and there were Coyote jerseys everywhere. On the weekend, Nashville was in town and the casinos were flush with Predator sweaters. And, of course, on my birthday, Leaf jerseys everywhere in town!! I swear there were almost as many Leaf fans in the crowd as Vegas fans. In fact, with the Leafs up 5-3 and about three minutes left in the third, I decided to hit the john before the end-of-game rush. While I was in there, there was a humongous roar and cheer from the crowd (meaning goal scored) and I thought, "Oh shit, it's 5-4. Vegas is making it tense." Nope. The Leafs had scored to make it 6-3. That's how many we numbered in the crowd. In fact, where the hell are these vocal Leafs fans in Toronto at the ACC-Scotiabank-Whatever-It's-Called-This-Week Gardens? Half the time it sounds like a damn library in there. But my last boss, Dave, a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan, called it after Vegas' improbable Cinderella story run at the Stanley Cup last season. He said: "It's like the Golden Knights are everyone's second favourite team now." Indeed.
Knowing I was going to Las Vegas to see
our Toronto Maple Leafs play there on
New Years Eve 2017, my boy, David, went

to Giant Tiger in Sarnia and got me this
Leafs sweater for the game. It's actually
wool. I hate wool. Itchy. So what do I do?
Of course, I wear the sweater. It's David.

T-Shirt underneath and hey, I'm golden.

Okay, it's time to get to the beer. First, a quick weather report. This was the coldest I have ever seen Sin City. When I landed, it was barely double-digits and dipped into single digits by the time I was leaving. Let's just say, my shorts were never worn. If you've ever seen my Vegas pics, you know that every day is marked by a new Ontario craft brewery T-Shirt. I pack those, one pair of shorts and jeans, couple of pairs of socks... and 12 pairs of underwear. Not sure why. It's like Packing Donny is convinced, yes, this is be the trip I crap my drawers every second day. It's never happened so Packing Donny is a bit of an alarmist and needs to calm the hell down.

But let's get to that beer. My Beer Adventure actually started at Pearson Airport in Toronto. I got there very early for my flight because it looked like freezing rain might bugger me up. A full third of the flights had been cancelled that day but mine was showing all systems go. Looking around, I found a place called the Red Rocket Cafe that served a beer called "Toronto Style IPA". Ordering some food, I got a pint of it. The glass was branded Henderson UPA, as in Toronto's Henderson Brewing. It was pretty damn good, especially being surrounded by macro taps. Turns out Toronto Style IPA is how the brewery describes it, noting that the train from Union to Pearson passes by them every six and a half minutes, thus they made it 6.5%. Nice pine on the nose, solid pine and malt on the back-end, the brewery did a great job. However, I remembered a long ago girlfriend, who worked in a hotel for the Summer, told me never to use the room glasses. Why? Because in some places, they use the same cloth to clean the glass as they do the sinks, counters, showers... and toilets.
Oh, the adventures my Henderson UPA glass had in Vegas!
Here it is holding one of my all-time favourites, the dynamic
Stone Brewing (Escondido, California) Ruination Double
IPA 2.0. That's 8.5%, 100+ IBUS of the piniest, hoppiest,
fruit-laden, citrus-packed beer you will ever drink. Evah!
And since I prefer my beer in a glass without fecal matter, I decided that Henderson glass was about to go on vacation, too. (60 Minutes probably did an expose on that and it's no longer the case. But you know how stuff sticks in your brain?) Henderson Brewing, one of your branded UPA glasses had a great week in Sin City. If you want it back as I still have it, just ask. Oh, I'm keeping it but hey, you're welcome to ask. It's traveled 6,240 kilometres (3,877 miles) round-trip with me. We're married now. And the beers that got poured into this? My glass bride got spoiled.

Where do I start? Okay, at the beginning, I guess. Once I had landed and cabbed my way over to The LINQ Resort and Casino, (highly recommended) it was time to set up shop and get my flop-pad in order. That means a few things. Pulling the blankets and sheets loose from their confinement (I feel like a damn mummy when I get into a properly-made hotel bed), unpacking all that underwear my clothes, getting my laptop, phone and tablet hooked up to their Wifi, the usual Lost Traveler In Paradise stuff. But I don't settle into Vegas without a brew and when I landed last October, Samuel Adams Brewing (Boston) had just launched their New England IPA.
Hey look, Sawdust City Brewing made its Vegas debut
during my Birthday Week down there! Hey Adam, zup
dawg? But it's that Samuel Adams' New England IPA
that I wanna talk about here. This was a go-to for me the
entire week I was down in Vegas. They kinda nailed it.

Wandering into The LINQ's in-hotel tourist trinket store, I found a healthy selection of craft but hey, I was so impressed with Sam Adam's NEIPA the last time, I went with the slam-dunk while setting up shop. It takes me roughly one beer to get my room ready. I ain't playing games here. It's Las Vegas. You don't hang in your room. But back to Sammy A's New England IPA. I was always happy to drink the brewery's Rebel IPA on the strip and have countless times. But damn, this New England IPA (which I'm kinda surprised took them this long because Boston is as New England as it gets) is good. Like, damn good. At 6.8% and a low, low 35 IBUs, this, like many east coast IPAs, has wheat malts blended in on the back-end but cranks up the Hop Heat with Galaxy, Simcoe, Mosaic, Citra and Cascade in the mix. Orange and pineapple all up in this hood. Jeebus, that's a good brew.

Now as soon as I was set up, I did what any rational and sane man would do. I went down to the esplanade between The LINQ and The Flamingo Resort and Casino (home of Donny and Marie!) and immediately walked to my favourite Vegas craft beer bar, Yard House.
You want showgirls? Trust me, they're up and
down the Vegas strip. You want beefy cowboys?
Yeah, they're hanging out there, too. That's the
thing about Vegas. There's something there for
everybody and anything goes. It's kinda nuts...
We're talking 180 taps - 170 of them the best craft beers in the world and 10 macros for your Aunt Phyllis. (Why on earth would you go to Vegas with her? She's gonna want to see some country tribute acts for sure. "OMG, he sounds exactly like Garth Brooks!" That's nice, Aunt Phyllis, but I still don't care.) Now here's the thing. It's been pretty much established in this space that they are my favourite craft beer bar in Vegas and they, in turn, have acknowledged I am absolutely their favourite Canadian. Well, if Michael Buble or Celine Dion are not in town that week. If they both are, I slide down the Canuck Scale to third favourite. I'm cool with that. I know my place.

And there was little doubt I was going there. While I have had the odd pint there, I go for their half-yard glasses of beer. And I always post those pictures on Twitter. After one of those postings, Beer Bro Glenn (not so happily freezing his arse off in Canada) asked me how much was in a half-yard? I replied, "Well, it's... I don't know." I have literally had dozens of these at the Yard House over the past year and never once thought to ask. I guessed a little more than a litre so 34 ounces or so? Before long, Yard House jumped in to answer the question, telling the pair of us that it's 32 ounces so a couple of tall boys or the exact same as a proper Oktoberfest stein. Suddenly, I realized why I've never had more than one during a sitting because given the high octave IPAs I drink there, I would, in fact, have to remain seated. In fact, the bar gives you a plastic take-out Solo cup if you can't quite finish it. I've never taken that option. I don't like leaving any projects unfinished. But man, a half yard at the Yard House and you return to the strip with a warm glow, that's for certain. So my first half yard of this trip? Dogfish Head Brewing's (Milton, Delaware) Flesh & Blood IPA. Boy howdy, this kicked off the Yard House portion of the trip nicely. Tons of apricot (so good), citrus and strong orange in this 7.5%, 45 IBU beauty. Definitely was one of the best, if not the best, IPAs on this trip.
Okay, the best and the brightest independent American
craft breweries all have one thing in common. They all
display that "Certified Independent Craft Brewers
Association" stamps on their bottles, packaging and cans.
Why is this important? Because there are many American
breweries who have been bought out by Big Beer and
frankly, I can't keep track of whom. So I #SeekTheSeal.

And while we're on the topic of Dogfish Head, thanks to copious amounts of craft beers in their Walgreens and CVS supersize drug stores on the strip - including one having a humongous walk-in beer fridge - I got a chance to try 60 Minute IPA and 90 Minute IPA side-by-side. This taste test was done in The LINQ Casino under the supervision of no one except myself and perhaps Odin, who watches over all the denizens of Midgard. Well, one young waitress came over and sweetly asked if I needed anything. I had two Dogfish Head beers directly in front of me on a slot machine so thank you but no, Miss, I'm hella good. I was in my Happy Place. So which is better, their single (60) or their double (90) IPA? Okay, keeping in mind this is just one man's opinion (though Odin may be subtly influencing me) but I believe it's the 60 Minute IPA. Granted, the minute I posted pictures of both on Twitter, the opinions were flying fast and furious on the pair. Both have huge fan-bases so really, Dogfish Head, you have very little to be worried about because I suspect it was keeping you up at night. Just keep making both. You'll be fine.
Two newer releases from our friends at Elysian Brewing
(Seattle), which was bought by Anheuser-Busch in 2015
and Sierra Nevada Brewing (Chico, California), which
proudly proclaims on top of its cans "Family Owned,
Operated and Argued Over." Yeah, that's independent.

But the challenge of Vegas isn't finding craft beers. They're everywhere. It's finding new craft beers! Two I came upon at exactly the same time were Elysian Brewing (Seattle) Dayglow IPA and Sierra Nevada Brewing's (Chico, California) Hazy Little Thing IPA. Elysian was snapped up four years ago by Anheuser-Busch (I forgot to #SeekTheSeal - my bad) while Sierra Nevada is still independently family-owned so their board meetings probably sound like a lot like this... "Shut up, stupid!" "I'm not stupid. You're stupid!" (I'm just guessing here and actually just basing it on my family's Thanksgiving dinners. Sierra Nevada's meeting are likely far less chaotic. Or not.)

Okay, both of these were really strong offerings. The Dayglow IPA at 7.4% had beautiful fruit notes with a nice wheat malt back-end while the Hazy Little Thing IPA at 6.7% was 10 beautiful shades of melon. I enjoyed them back-to-back and if I'm not mistaken, I'm fairly certain this was my Breakfast that day.
This was sitting in The LINQ's in-hotel convenience
store the entire time I was there and I didn't notice it
until late in the trip. The Ballast Point Brewing's
(San Diego) Fathom IPA was a nice orange-pine
combo, west coast style, lightly malty back-end.
I kinda just grab burgers, pizza or burritos on the fly when I'm down there. I'm obviously something of a fitness buff. Some people consider their bodies to be a temple and hey, I admire that. My body is more like a Meth lab above a tattoo parlour.

Late into the trip, I wandered into The LINQ's in-house convenience store (great staff, always happy and chatty - I was Donny Canada to them and was greeted thusly - I loved that) to pick up a brew or two and right beside the Ballast Point Brewing (San Diego) Sculpin IPA and Grapefruit Sculpin IPA was their Fathom IPA. Because the can is not their traditional gold and white colours and I am, in fact, colourblind, meaning I always look for colour markings familiar to me, I missed it until, oh, Day Seven? Yeah, you'd think the huge Ballast Point logo would be enough. Trust me, it never is. Okay, also back in 2015, this brewery was bought by Constellation Brands (Corona, other popular meh beers - except Ballast Point - and a lot of spirits) for $1 billion. I get it. Hard to say no. I couldn't. But help a Canuck out here! Ownership be damned, this was really good. Totally west coast (no haze here), this 6%, 50 IBU hoppy bugger has orange on the front, malt and pine on the back and is a damn solid beer. Better than Sculpin IPA? Well, let's not get crazy here. But hey, a pretty good one.
My very last beer in Vegas came courtesy of
Lauren and it was the Yard House "House
IPA." So who makes it, I asked her, thinking
one of the local craft breweries. Nope, she
said, "Stone (Brewing) makes it." Holy crap,
I should have tried it sooner! It's 6%, fruity,
citrus and one helluva send-off. Stone rules!

Okay, a couple more brews and then let's wind this little vacation story down. Another pair I grabbed at the same time (though photo folder evidence shows I had also enjoyed them during my October trip) Saint Archer Brewing's (San Diego) IPA and Stone Brewing's (Escondido, California, baby!) Tangerine Express IPA. The amount of Stone beers on the strip is phenomenal! As Beer Bro Glenn and myself like to say, "Stone can brew no wrong!" We often yell it. At small babies and puppies.

Okay, so *sigh* to begin, Saint Archer was bought by MillerCoors in 2015. I don't know for how much but at this point, I want to say $100 kajillion so I don't feel badly. I seriously can't keep track of the buy-outs down there but it's a lot. That said, the beers still seem to be really top-notch. It does seem to be hands-off ownership - at this point, anyway. Craft is 12% of the American beer market and the big guys want that piece of the financial pie. So anyways, the Saint Archer IPA is junked up the cake-hole with Amarillo, Mosaic, Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Simcoe and Citra hops. (I hope MillerCoors paid a pretty penny for them, too.) But this is a clean-cut west coaster - 7%, 66 IBU, tropical fruit and citrus. Tasty-ass beverage, too. I'll happily drink it again. I'd steal it as a finger to the big guys but, you know, Vegas... cameras everywhere.

And then there's our good friends at Stone, fiercely independent, one of the best ever, just a buncha crazy-ass mofos having fun.
Lit up by a slot machines lights are Saint Archer IPA
and Stone Brewing Tangerine Express IPA. So Saint
Archer IPA had tons of tropical fruit and citrus but can
you guess the flavour profile of a beer with the word
"tangerine" in its name might be? I know you can do it!
You know many many times I've enjoyed a Stone beer on the strip? Try 2,317 times exactly. (Legal Disclaimer: That is a guesstimate.) Stone IPA, Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0, Stone Go To Session IPA, Stone Hop Revolver IPA, Stone Ripper San Diego Pale Ale... and now, Stone Tangerine Express IPA. Yes, marijuana possession has been legal in Nevada since 2017 but man, I get Stoned down there a different way. (Pot and beer together just makes me super-sleepy, like instantly. I choose you, beer!)

The Tangerine Express was dynamite. The brewery says there's a solid backing of pineapple. I didn't catch that all that, to be honest, in this 6.7%, 75 IBU orange dream. But shit, this was good. Tart, not sweet. Another favourite by these guys.

Okay, let's finish this off with some fun Vegas notes. Prostitution is, of course, also legal in Nevada. Every casino on the strip seems to be a circular bar in the centre and that's where they gather at night. The escorts are very young, attractive and seem quite sweet.
It is 11:30 am in the Food Court at The Flamingo
Resort and Casino. Dude did NOT make it back to
his room. Either that or the poor guy lost all his
cash to gambling. I wasn't gonna wake him up to
ask. Doesn't matter what time it is there because
a tourist is asleep publicly somewhere in Sin City.
But here's the thing. The first time I went to Vegas in July 2007, I was already well old enough to be their father. Now 12 years later, I'm edging into the Grandfather Zone. So, yikes. I totally run that Loki Moment from Thor, The Dark World in my head where he says, "You must be truly desperate to come to me." I'm always polite and, you know, Canadian. If you tell them your wife is over at the roulette table, they're quite respectful. Let's put it this way. I'm at the age where I don't really want a Life Coach because he'd probably look at my habits (smoking, drinking, zero exercise, bad food) and my age before just shrugging, "I dunno, Don. It's kinda pointless now. Maybe just consider running out the clock?" Also on Facebook, I now get ads for dating sites with names like Silver Singles. And to be honest, I'm not coming here to meet a lady. I'm coming here to take a little break from one. Taking care of your 89-year-old mother might be noble or something. But seriously, you need time away. Vegas is my beer-filled, brain-free, Donny-Time Fun Zone.

And while sexism in the craft beer industry is being looked at under a harsh spotlight here in Ontario and, of course, almost everywhere else... maybe not so such in Las Vegas. Case in point: Sin City Brewing. This was the only craft brewery I saw here when I first came to Vegas in 2007. I was drinking MGD at the time so I didn't pay much heed to them.
If you are waiting for political correctness to land
in Vegas, don't hold your breath. The strip is built
on three things for adults - money, gambling and
sex. This is what I was told when I asked anyway.
But you will notice in the photo that the brewery logo is the silhouette of a naked woman... with a devil's tail. That might not fly up here right now. So I waited until a lady was working and decided to go in and ask. They made a great IPA, pine on the nose, malt back-end. I forget her name because, of course, "I won't forget." (Please refer to above paragraph regarding my age.) The conversation went something like this. I explained the push against sexism in craft beer marketing up here and asked if they ever got flack for their imagery. "Your first time here?" she asked. No, my 12th, I said. "You see those trucks up and down the street all day, all night, advertising 'girls to your room'?" she asked. Yes, of course, they're everywhere. "This place is built on three things - money, sex and gambling. That's never gonna change." Does it ever bother her? "No, it's like working in a factory with a loud fan. After a while, you don't hear the noise," she shrugged. Well, okay, there you have it. Also at some point, I'm 99% sure she worked in a factory with a loud fan.

But I love Vegas for two reasons. Great American craft beers plus the noise, the buzz and the lights. This town is always alive, even at 4 am. Yard House, my good friends, I'm coming back May 6th to 14th. Tell the Golden Knights to still be in the playoffs because this place is crazy when they are and I'll hopefully be watching my Maple Leafs on some humongous 25-foot screen in a casino. Best way to watch the NHL playoffs ever! But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Back soon with... *checks notes"* oh geezuz, the Sparklepuff Triple IPA controversy. Why would I do that to myself? Until next time, I remain...

Sunday, 10 February 2019

When Von Bugle met New Belgium...

When Von Bugle Brewing was launched several months back,
we kinda all went, "Okay, that's it? Seriously?" I mean, do not
get me wrong. This is a very nice Munich (Amber) Lager but
when Steam Whistle, an Ontario institution, is starting up a
second brewery, we expected... more? Like a lot more. Well,
there is more. We just don't know yet how much more. Hmm.
This is another one of those Big Beer deals I was told over two months ago... but have politely sat on. *Sigh*

Anyway, on Tuesday, it was officially announced that Steam Whistle, through their Etobicoke holding, Von Bugle Brewing, was contract brewing New Belgium Brewing's Fat Tire Amber Ale.

Who told me? The same person who told about Von Bugle Brewing more than two months before the Etobicoke brewery was announced (though staffers had hinted to me something big was cooking.) No idea who this person is. Just PMs through Twitter. Funky but non-specific and vague Twitter handle. You know, like no real name, no nothing. Could be a man; could be a woman; could be a Martian... I have no idea. But one thing is clear. He or she knows inside stuff at Steam Whistle. So whoever this is, well, they're batting two-for-two.

And for the record, No Name Attached has never sworn me to secrecy. But whenever I seek clarification at the brewery level, I'm usually told it's still "hush hush." (But not always.)
Why does New Belgium have an old-school bicycle on
their Fat Tire Amber Ale? Because that's what bikes
looked like in 1991. Yeah, kidding, try, oh, 1955. Chain
guards? Like anyone of us have ever seen those before. 
I get why. It's their secret story to reveal, not mine. But this No Name Attached person, who is following practically no one and has few followers (meaning it is likely a better-known Twitter person with this intentionally-tiny second account for backroom info), well, I don't know if they're connected to Steam Whistle-Von Bugle or just have a really keen ear to the ground? That it's a sales rep I've dealt with is a possibility or, at least, my best guess.

Okay, anyway, but it's out there so let's deal with that. So let's look at New Belgium Brewing. These guys are not newbies. Established in Fort Collins, Colorado, back in 1991, they are considered among the pioneers of the American Craft Beer Movement. Their Fat Tire Amber Ale, while maybe considered a little less buzz-worthy these days by craft drinkers, was some pretty exciting shit back in the nothing-but-macro days. As well, it's still one of the bigger selling American craft beers out there (likely Top-Five for that style) so if it works, leave it alone, right?

But the brewery itself is notable for a few reasons.
Along the left side of New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins are a huge
amount of bike stands for customers. They're also in he foreground here
that I've cropped out because you know what a bike looks like. It's got
two wheels, a seat that's usually uncomfortable, a chain. Apparently, it's
part of a healthy lifestyle but I only know what I read about that stuff.
Number one, it's independent. In fact, it's employee-owned. At Year One of Employment, each employee gets their stake in the place. That is not a small deal. It's actually pretty damn huge. With craft brewery buy-outs happening more and more in the US, it's nice to see a brewery that quite literally can't be bought out by a macro.

And it's even nicer to see Steam Whistle and by extension, Von Bugle associated with New Belgian. Why? The three original Steam Whistle founders, Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell, are no longer involved with the brewery. Founded in 1999, Cromwell left just a couple of years later to join his wife in Australia and create a brewery there. Taylor retired in 2017 from the day-to-day operations.
Is this green worth gold? It may well be soon. And
some believe that New Belgian's recent alliance
with Steam Whistle/Von Bugle may be tied to the
wacky tabacky and its legality here in Canada.
However, long not after Taylor stepped away, he became president of Nuuvera, a humongous cannabis company that spans the globe. (Okay, now hold that thought for just a second!)

Heaps is the son of Dan Heaps, the former owner of the Upper Canada Brewing company, eventually bought out and shut down by Sleeman's Brewing out of Guelph (which is, of course, now owned by Japanese mega-giant, Sapporo.) After that, Cromwell, Taylor and younger Heaps, then Upper Canada employees, struck out to found Steam Whistle, makers of Canada's best and best-known Czech-style craft pilsner. Canadian craft beer history, one thing really well, blah, blah, blah.

So I was happy to hear about the new connection between New Belgian, a fiercely-independent brewery and Steam Whistle-Von Bugle simply because a board of directors now runs Steam Whistle. The same fierce loyalty to the Steam Whistle's original owners' dream of remaining independent forever might be altered somewhat if run by another group. Which it now is.
Jordan St John, left, shown with with Robert Arsenault, aka
Drunk Polkaroo at the 2018 Ontario Brewing Awards and
Golden Tap Awards in September. Jordan has his own theories
on the Von Bugle-New Belgian association. Is he correct? Oh,
yeah, he probably is. Well, I'd be in serious shock if he wasn't.
So I guessing I'm hoping this new association with New Belgian might keep them inclined to stay the independent course. We'll see.

But is there even more to this? Esteemed (he might go as far as "famed") Toronto beer author Jordan St John believes there may be even more to this deal. For the record, Jordan has a shit-ton (that's a real measurement) of craft beer cred. He's co-authored a few books on Ontario craft beer, two with Robin LeBlanc, another with Alan Mcleod, was Sun Media's syndicated beer columnist for about five years and he really, really likes jam. (I don't know, man. Ask him.)

So he writes about beer. I write about beer. What's the difference between us? Allow me to explain. Okay, you see that Third Year University Advanced Calculus class? That's him teaching it. Go a little lower for me. No, not freshman, that's too high. Lower. No, that's high school graduation. Go lower. Okay, you see that kid sitting in the back corner of  Grade 9 High School Remedial Math class? The one that looks as high as shit? That's me.
It is impossible for me to think of Steam
Whistle without also thinking of our
driver Vince's bull terrier named Paul
From Shipping. Beautiful dog. Love it.

Okay, now that I've established a clear level of difference in our respective credentials, allow me to continue. About three weeks ago, Jordan went on a very illuminating Twittter roll. He wondered aloud if "there are any Toronto breweries with a hastily-introduced flagship brand..." Full stop. That would be Von Bugle. He then continued to wonder if that brewery "just happen to have an outsized, retrofitted in a suburb." Full stop. Von Bugle's in Etobicoke, right around the corner from Ken Woods' Black Oak Brewing. (There's no connection - just giving you a sense of location.)

He went on to further suggest "you'd get to brew interesting things and test marketing for a period in the future where more states were legal and marijuana was no longer a Schedule 1 drug in the US. Heck, you'd have a supply ready to go." Full stop. Marijuana is legal in 10 of the USA's 50 states. So 20% of the states in the country. Marijuana is now legal here in 10 Provinces and two territories, meaning, *looks at map* huh, the whole country. How bout dat?

He also noted that an American brewery could be "in a position where you had already diversified to the east coast of the United States and you had no more market share to gaining from traditional craft brewing." Full stop. New Belgium opened a second brewery in Asheville, North Carolina back in 2014. Marijuana is very much illegal there.
This is New Belgium's Asheville, North Carolina brewery that
opened in 2014. Beer author Jordan St John is wondering if
the company has gone as far as it can go in the craft brewing
genre and is looking to cash in on the legality of marijuana up
here in Canada? As theories go, this might not be far-fetched.

Okay, continuing on, he wondered that if you "were a large craft brewery from the USA from a state where marijuana was legal..." (it is in Colorado) "... and you had interstate regulations temporarily limiting your audience, it might make sense to purchase an extant undervalued property and sell your marijuana to a whole country."

Now, this last thought hinges on a couple of key points. One, Jordan is surmising (whimsically or not) that perhaps New Belgium has entered a deal with Von Bugle to brew their biggest beer with an eye to scooping up the entire Etobicoke facility at some point in the future. If the sale were allowed by the regulatory powers-that-be up here (and let's face it, hundreds of American companies have Canadian investments so probably), they would have an established base of operation for possible marijuana distribution in a country where that exact thing is now permitted.

But would they be interested in a country like Canada whose total population is a ninth the size of the US? Absolutely. Why not?
Is this the next beer that may be
available to us from the folks at
Von Bugle, now is association with
New Belgium Brewing? Well, it
sounds like that's the talk around
the Etobicoke brewery. Liking this.
Market share is market share and international holdings are always good from a business vantage point. Canada may seem small next to our neighbours below us but in terms of population, we're equal to Illinois plus Michigan plus Washington plus Colorado with Maine thrown in for good measure. To an American business, that ain't a small base of consumers.

What can I tell you? Canada, with its relaxed marijuana regulations, has suddenly become the sexy siren at the school dances. The Ugly Duckling became a Beautiful Swan. And granted, dozens of our brewers are now looking to add marijuana's active ingredient, THC, to beers up here. Dozens and dozens. Personally, I say, hey, go nuts. I don't really partake anymore - or haven't in a good while - but the simple fact is, at my age, if I stand up quickly, I can get exactly the same head rush. But as far as I'm concerned, it's 10,000 times safer than alcohol. So have at it.

So Jordan may well be ahead of the curve on this one so there's probably nothing I can add from a business perspective. But I do have a little nugget from a craft beer perspective. Talking to my Steam Whistle driver, Vince, about the New Belgium deal, I asked if we could expect more of their products once Fat Tire was established. Yeah, he told me, there was talk about "Voodoo something." Wait, I asked, do you mean Voodoo Ranger IPA?  Yeah, he said, that's the one. Okay, much like Jordan's musings, that's a wait-and-see. But Voodoo Ranger IPA would make a lot of hop-heads up here pretty damn happy. We'll see. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...


Sunday, 3 February 2019

#IGBrewCrew gets their Welly's on!

This was the #IGBrewCrew in action at Wellington Brewing
on January 11. And believe me, we put the "inactive" into
"in action." But we made ourselves what we believe to be a
fantastic British-style old-school Stout called 5/5. We'll see!
Like most of us, I seldom venture onto my emails these days. Emails are pretty 1990-2010, the era when they were the cutting edge of communication technology. These days, I can relay a personal message to pretty much anyone in the world through phone texts, Facebook, Twitter or Whats App. And I do. Much to their annoyance. (Hey, gang, whatever emotions happen on their end of the phone is their issue, not mine.)

So when I got an email from one Kenneth Pyper, I immediately thought, "Oh, I wonder which collection agency he represents." And then when I saw the subject line, "Brew Day," I thought, "Ohhh, man, they're getting good." This is how they lull you into a false sense of security. They find your weakness and exploit it.

Well, it turned out that he was better known to me (to all of us, really) as Ken, The Ontario Beer Guy. (The Kenneth thing threw me off just as someone calling out "Donald!" is unlikely to illicit any reaction from me.) And on that December morning, he was inviting me to be part of a Brew Day on January 11 at Wellington Brewing in Guelph, one of Ontario's oldest craft breweries.
This would be me and my Malt Partner, Tiffany, who's
probably better known as "The Travelling Pint" on
Instagram and Twitter. She decided on that name
because The Traveling Wilburys was already taken.

I responded instantly that yeah, I'd always wanted to visit Wellington as their Imperial Russian Stout is a major love of mine. (I also love some people but the beer list is larger and more deeply felt.) And then, as Odin is my witness, I responded a day later and asked, "Wait, what's Brew Day?" I suspect my question alone to something that obvious was enough to make Ken ponder the use of the "buddy system" at the brewery. And in my specific case, a leash.

So he explained that we go there, we make a beer, we drink some beer and then we publicize the fun on social media. Well, I'm not bragging but I score an A+ for all of those things... except the making of the beer part, which is new to me. But I am certainly down to learn a new skill. So long as it's beer-related, anyway. It turns out there's a gang of fun-loving hooligans, co-founded by Ken himself, called the #IGBrewCrew (the Instagram Brew Crew) that travel from brewery to brewery making funky new beers. And I was being invited to join the fun. So I asked my immediate superior at work, Trey, if he could spring me on a Friday, traditionally a busy day at the Beer Store, and his muttered response was "Yes, please."
Boy, the #IGBrewCrew cannot thank these two fellows
enough for their guidance on Brew Day. That would be
Brewmaster Marvin Dyck on the left and owner Brent
Davies on the right. Marvin walked us all through the
brewing process during the day while Brent took time
out of his hectic schedule to give us the history of the
brewery over our lunch-hour. Just two fantastic guys!
I'm not sure what that means but it's gotta be good, right?

So I dutifully drove to Guelph that early morning on January 11 and with the help of Google Maps,("No, not that left, you idiot, the other left...") landed at Wellington Brewery, a town fixture since 1985.

Once inside in their quite-large taproom, our crew, which numbered 14 sleepy-eyed, need-coffee (they had some for us) wannabe brewers, was greeted by Karyn Boscariol, Welly's events coordinator-media-community outreach person, who walked us through how the day was going to proceed. ("In an orderly fashion" was not mentioned once.) She then introduced us to the man who would be our Brew Shepherd for the day - Marvin Dyck. Yes, the very same Marvin Dyck who is Wellington's Brewmaster. Basically, an Ontario Legend. For us? Well, now, this just got better and better.

I recognized a few people. Ken, of course, but also Tiffany Martin, aka Travelling Pint on Twitter and Instagram, as well as Steve Hukari, one-quarter of the founding members of South Ontario Beer Boys (@SOBeerBoys), who have at this point raised over $20,000 for McMaster's Sick Children's Hospital in little more than a year.
"Okay, here's where you earn your keep today," said Marvin on the
left. Wait, what? Physical labour? Why was I not warned of this?
Well, we poured malts into a bucket so physical might be overselling
it a little. But Ken is eyeing those bags pretty warily, I would say.

Okay, so what would we be brewing on this fine January morning? Well, Marvin informed us we would be creating a British-Style Stout. That met with a 100% Approval Rating from our rag-tag squad. And that meant LOTS of malts! So off to the malt room we wandered where Marvin had a crap-ton of bags waiting for us. He got us to pair up for a ceremony that could only be called "The Pouring Of Malts Into A Five-Gallon Home Depot Pail Resting On An Old-School Weight Scale." Religious experience. My kind of denomination, too. So Tiffany and I paired off and were charged with the pouring of the Smoked Barley Flakes, one of almost a dozen malts that were used. So I poured the bag, which was not actually heavy but just a little awkward because it's grain. It went like this. Tiffany: "Okay, more, more, more... a little more, little bit more... okay, way too much." I'm not a professional pourer, people!
What I didn't realize until afterward is that
another Ontario Craft Beer Legend was
among us. Karyn Boscariol, shown here in
a Guelph Today online photo by Kenneth
Armstrong, is founder of Queen of Craft
brewing sessions at Wellington whereby
women take over the brewery for a day and
do what we did in an inclusive environment.
Marvin assured the pair of us that you can't have enough malts in a good stout and that a little extra Smoked Barley Flakes was just fine. So when you try it, if you notice, "Hey, that's some real strong Toasted Barley Flakes in this," yeah, that's Tiffany and me doing our thing.

Okay, once we all poured our buckets of malt, this giant vacuum-like tube transported it all to the initial boil in a huge kettle where we would be taking turns stirring it with a paddle. And I mean a literal canoe paddle that had huge holes drilled in it. Lousy for use at the lake, perfect for beer. 

From there, we wandered from place-to-place throughout the brewery, first to the canning and bottling area where we were told exactly how the beer lands in those containers. Humongous rolls of all-too-familiar labels were stacked throughout the area. And for the uninitiated, not-yet-labelled cans come down the track in the canning machine without tops, are filled, and then the tops are sealed on. Bottles, same premise. Uncapped, filled, then capped. And then labelled. Later, we buy them and drink them. The Circle of Life but for beer. It all starts with a heavy dose of too much Smoked Barley Flakes and travels forward.

From there, it was over to the production area where Brewer Jeremy, in his stain-covered clothes (hence, the hardest worker there), explained how the big computers behind him - and we're talking NASA-looking stuff here - basically monitors every single batch of beer being brewed at various stages throughout the brewery at that exact moment.
Show me a brewer in dirty stained clothes and
I'll show you a brewer earning his keep. Here,
Jeremy walks us through how the automation at
Wellington monitors every batch in every vat.
Now normally, at this point, I would rail on with my "But This Is How The Machines Take Over!!" conspiracy theory. However, there were many in the group I didn't really know so I kept that to myself. No one wants to be thought of as "Hey, do you remember Weird Machine Conspiracy Guy?"

At this point, we had done all we could do, vis-a-vis the brewing process so it was back to the tap-room where Karyn explained some packaging. She had talked to their designer and he had suggested we call the beer "5 out of 5 Foreign Export Stout." Being as the room was filled with Instagrammers who constantly rate beers online, that met with overwhelming approval. In fact, I voiced my consent by noting loudly (my only volume), "I knew if I lived long enough, I knew I would get a perfect score at something," I announced. "Now I've finally done it. I've lived my dream. I'm not even gonna wear a seatbelt on the drive home!!"

Now, a quick side-note on Karyn Boscariol, if I may. It turns out during my subsequent research that she has a pretty impressive accomplishment. She is the founder of Queen of Craft, a group of women who come in and take over the brewery in a friendly, non-threatening environment. 
Brewmaster Marvin adds the final ingredient: yeast.
So what does yeast look like? Well, imagine if you
will, grayish porridge. Hard to believe something so
ugly is part of something so beautiful as tasty beer.
As she told cbc.ca in a March 2017 interview, "We're looking at a paradigm shift where women are now becoming participants in beer. (The) craft beer industry is booming and almost 40 per cent of all craft beer breweries are run by women or employed by women." To that end, any beer brewed by Queen of Craft sees a portion donated to Guelph-Wellington Women-In-Crisis, certainly a worthy cause. I last had their Spice Oddysey Chai Latte Stout and damn it was good.

Moving along, our lunch hour was highlighted with a visit and talk from brewery co-owner Brent Davies, who walked us through the history of Wellington Brewing, what the day-to-day activities were around there and basically, everything we needed to know about the outfit in a nutshell. He fielded questions, offered up observations and even thanked us for making the trip there. (I made sure I shook his hand and thanked him before he left.)

After lunch came more work and this one was actual physical labour. With the contents shifted out of the brewing vat, a giant door was opened at the bottom where all the spent grain remained. Our job? Rake that used grain out into huge buckets so the tank could be cleaned afterwards. So I did what I always do when physical exertion is involved.
Steve Hukari of the Southern Ontario Beer boys puts
his back into the raking of the spent malts. And I
applaud his effort and the efforts of others who took
the rake to clean out the vat. Just when I was ready
to, it was all done. It's really funny how that works...
I broke out my camera and started taking pictures of everyone. You see, no one ever thinks to stop the person taking pictures. No one ever hands us the work rake. Why? Because people like having their picture taken. You wanna get out of work? Carry a camera. And if you have an old-school digital camera like mine, they think, "Oh, he must be like the serious photographer here." It's really that simple.

And so you know, I took it upon myself to investigate an increasingly common craft beer brewer phenomena during the day. In a quiet moment when we were walking from place to place in the brewery during the process, I had an opportunity to ask Marvin the same question you would ask any Ontario Craft Beer Legend, should you come face-to-face with one. "How long did it take you to grow that beard?" For the curious, it took him about two years. Aren't you glad I was there to ask? I leave no mystery uncovered. And for the record, I think the gray streaks are natural.

With the final pouring of the yeast by Marvin, our work there was done. We had made our 5 out of 5 Foreign Export Stout or at least, we had gone as far as we could go. All that remained was the fermenting and the eventual canning of what is bound to be the 2019 Beer of the Year.
It blew me away when Wellington announced
their February releases and there was our
5-out-of-5 Foreign Export Stout next to the
Chocolate Milk Stout and the new Dissolved
Splendor Bourbon Barrel-Aged Baltic Porter.
I mean, holy crap, that's our beer right there!

Within the week, Karyn emailed us all and asked how February 9th (this Saturday) worked for all of us. Well, turns that it worked just fine. (An asked-for Saturday off work, another "Yes, please" from Trey. I wonder what that means...)

And man, once the artwork was released, the Instagrammers were all over it, posting announcement of the Big Release Party from 2 to 5 pm at the brewery. Steve from Southern Ontario Beer Boys hyped the release, noting the beer was brewed by "some of Ontario's top craft beer influencers."

For the record, I don't consider myself a craft beer influencer. I just drink a lot of beer, post pictures mostly on Twitter and say, "Hey, look! I drank this!" I would say I'm more of a Craft Beer Influenza, in that I talk about beer so much, it can sometimes make you feel a little sick. That said, after over a year away, I am making my way back onto Instagram as I finally have a phone that takes killer photos. So if you're looking for something to do this Saturday from 2 to 5, come join the #IGBrewCrew at Wellington. Man, do we have a beer for you. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...






Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Best of 2018 - The People, The Places

The very day of his passing, Hamilton cartoonist-
artist extraordinaire David Buist did this caricature
of Marvel Comics' legend Stan Lee in his classic
"slinging Spider-Man's web" pose. It was a death
that rocked a lot of us comic geeks, despite his age.
One of the things I like to do when a year ends is review the "Dead Celebrity List." It's a macabre exercise to be certain but a year-end tradition nonetheless and in the case of 2018, well, that was a macabre year that deserved to close in a macabre manner. The list is always chalk-full of actors, athletes, musicians, as well as various and sundry miscellaneous types. But the thing is half the time I read the list, I'm like, "He/she died? Really? Don't remember that." That speaks to two things. One, even long after high school, I do not pay attention in class. And two, it speaks to the transient nature of "celebrity" in today's electronic age.

To be certain, some deaths do register strongly because they scrape the bone. Robin Williams is a good example. I remember him first as Mork from Ork and yet, a generation later, my son remembers him first as the Genie in Aladdin, one of the more comically brilliant cartoons ever produced. In more recent years, insanely-gifted musician Chris Cornell's death gave me both long pause and immeasurable sadness because it was awful to see someone so talented die that young, like Williams, taking his own life.

But in 2018, it was the passing of Marvel Comics' legend Stan Lee that stunned me, leaving me in a daze for a week. I mean, the guy was 95 years old and I still couldn't accept it.
Damn you, Thanos! Damn you all to bloody hell! RIP, Stan.
Like many, I enjoyed his cameos in Marvel movies so much that I found myself doing a mental checklist. He was still alive for the filming of Captain Marvel, being released in March (which I think may prove to be their best yet) and then Avengers: Endgame, being released in April, pretty much the most-anticipated flick of the year. So he'll be in those, which will be bitter-sweet to be certain. And then... that's it. Damn.

But anyway, enough musings from a comic geek - let's get to the business at hand. Ahh yes, with January 2019 now three-quarters gone, it's time to finish up my Best of 2018 list. The entire list was prepared by January 1st. At times, it takes me a while to write these because my quiet basement room is called the Batcave for a reason. I have crimes to solve. You get that, I'm certain. So anyway, let's finish this ugly bastard off so I can continue with 2019 beer stories, which are on pause until this is done. I'm sure you all remember the rules. No repeat winners from any previous years, Ontario beers and breweries only and, yeah, Beer Bro Glenn is really old. (That's not relevant in the least. Just fun to say.)
One of my favourite brewery stops last Summer was the day my
son and I traveled to Bench Brewing in Beamsville. You drive
through some amazing wine country vineyards on your way and
the brewery itself keep the front of a 100-plus year old school-
house as part of its facade. It was the best of old and new there.

Best Sour: This choice is far from the sourest beer I had in 2018. However, it is the one I drank the most. Once they finally opened in the Summer, my son and I drove out to Beamsville on a Lazy Sunday to visit our friends at Bench Brewing at their brand-new facility. Frikkin gorgeous! The brewery was already pretty well-known to me as they were contract-brewed by Nickel Brook for two years prior to their opening. So I found many Bench beers landing in my hands long before Bench had a roof and walls of their own. And the one I enjoyed the most was Bench's Citra Grove Dry-Hopped Sour. More tart than heavily sour, the 6% beer offered tons of Citra hop, giving it a tasty orange and citrus taste. I always grab a couple of these whenever I see them. Great beer, great brewery. (Previous winners: 5 Paddles Skull Pucker Sour IPA, Bellwoods' Motley Cru 2016, Bellwoods' Jelly King.)

Best Milkshake Beer: While Milkshake IPAs seem to get the most attention in the Wild Wacky World of Lactose, I left this particular category open to all styles. Why?
When I first bought the Collective Arts' Liquid Art Fest
IPA, the woman at the counter seriously warned me to get
it home and into the fridge as soon as possible. She also
said to store it upside-down so the puree didn't pool at the
bottom of the can. Within two weeks, the same beer was
sitting on LCBO shelves, getting very warm. No one died.
Because at this point last year, I was still a little dubious over the addition of lactose in IPAs. However, I found a stout with lactose that I loved so with that in mind, to begin this category, I left it wide open to all styles. But soon, a Milkshake IPA very much attracted my (and others) attention this year - Collective Arts Brewing (Hamilton) Liquid Art Fest IPA, a Milkshake IPA loaded with passion fruit, mango and vanilla. Unlike many other Milkshake IPAs, the vanilla and glucose do not add an unusual or off-putting sweetness or mouthfeel to the beer. If anything, their addition thickened it and this was one of the best New England style IPAs I've had. Very tropical, very mango and yet another winner from Collective Arts. Some of the premiere beers in Ontario, being brewed right there in The Hammer. (Previous winner: Merit's Neapolitan Milkshake Stout.)

Best Fruit Beer: An unusual category, yes. But some Ontario breweries had done a handful of exceptional ones so...
Yes, it's a shaker pint glass but I do employ that Excalibur Resort
and Casino glass from time to time if I don't have a brewery glass.
Why? It's got that cool-ass dragon logo. I want a dragon as a pet.
I tend to veer away from the style but when I hear something has either cherry or blueberry in it, well, I'm a little less resistant in checking it out. My favourite fruits. Once again, that glorious old bastard Beer Bro Glenn got me another real beauty from our friends John and Erin at Little Beasts Brewing in Whitby. The 6.5% wheat beer (that is either red or purple, you decide, I can't tell) has beautiful whiffs of vanilla but is back-end blueberry and wheat malts all the way. According to the brewery, they aged it with 75 kg (165 pounds) of blueberries from the Saguenay Lac St-Jean region of Quebec. I say 75 kilos of blueberries is a lot. Hell, I'd go as far to say a shit-ton. Probably stained their teeth just brewing this. Fantastic! (Previous winners: Turtle Island's SMASHed Cherry Ale, Lake of the Woods' Forgotten Lake Blueberry Ale, Wellington's Rhubarb Saison)

Best Belgian Style Ale:
Every once in a while, usually the late Autumn as things cool down, I get a hankering for a big-ass Belgie! Why? They warm you when there's a chill in the air.
When Sawdust City's Sam Corbeil gets together with Nickel
Brook's Ryan Morrow every November 5th for both their
birthdays, big things happen. Like a 11.05% big beer every
year! This year's Belgian Quad With Oak and Cherries was
the freakin' bomb, man! Honestly, you didn't taste the ABV.
Well, this year's best came a little later - November 5th to be exact. You see, that's the shared birthday of Sawdust City brewmaster Sam Corbeil and Nickel Brook-Collective Arts' brewmaster Ryan Morrow. Every year, they put out a BIG beer that has 11.05% ABV and varies in style each time. (My greatest regret is never having tried their Triple IPA, brewed back in 2015.) And when the Barrie Craft Brewery Invasion 2018 made a stop at Sawdust City, well, you can be damned sure I filled my little wagon with this year's 11-05 Belgian Quad With Oak and Cherries. Big malts, big cherries, a touch of sweetness and a whiff of oak from the barreling, all hiding the big booze in the glass. Oh man, this was gorgeous! Dangerously so! (Previous winner: Great Lakes' 30th Anniversary Barrel Aged Belgian Quad With Cherries)

Best Ontario-American Collaboration: Here's where we briefly step outside Ontario's border with a glance towards our neighbours and friends to the south. During the past Summer, there was meant to be this big Canadian-American Beer Festival where New York and Ontario breweries would get together and brew some collaboration beers.
Maybe Thin Man Brewing out of Buffalo couldn't get across the
border but dammit, their collaboration with Redline Brewhouse
did!! This hazy bastard was off the hook with tasty goodness!!
There were literally dozens of breweries involved. It was gonna be awesome... Wellll, that kinda fell through. I forget why. Doesn't really matter. But dammit, Redline Brewhouse in Barrie and Thin Man Brewing out of Buffalo were bound and determined to do the challenge regardless and stuck to their plan. Well, that is, until the gang from Thin Man got denied at the border on their road trip to Barrie. Since both breweries got together to create the recipe for their Squeeze Across The Border (oh, the irony) Hazy IPA, Redline simply went ahead and brewed it. Barrie Beer Bro Hago, who told me the back-story on this one, showed up in Oakville with some goodies on Summer day and this beer was among them. Geezuz, they threw everything into this one. American Cascade, Chinook and Equinox hops in the boil, Australia Enigma hops in the dry-hopping, three yeasts from England, Belgium and Germany. Malts that are probably also relevant but we don't care right now!!! Seriously, everything. In the end, they (meaning Redline, I guess) created a big, hazy beast!
On the left is Cameron's Brewmaster Jason Britton.
On the right is a Jack-Hole who makes Jason's life a
living hell by constantly pestering him about brewing
more hoppy beers. Surprisingly, the J-Hole kinda got
a win as Cameron's is now in the middle of a special
growler-only run that is fantastic. Thank you, Jason.
It was banana, it was peach, it was melon, it was... fantastic! At 6.4% and 55 IBUs, it was pretty much bang-on for a fantastic New England Style IPA. An excellent recipe from both breweries. (Previous winner: Collective Arts-Thin Man-Sloop Brewing's Smooth Maneuvers New England Style IPA)

Best Brewery Only One-Off: This one comes with a quick story. Cameron's Brewing is, of course, just down the hill from me. Three minutes away. On occasion, I do bump into brewmaster Jason Britton there. When he sees me, he does the "Homer Simpson backing into a bush" GIF... but he uses doors, scrambling backwards desperately trying to find the door-knob. Why? I pester him about hoppy beers and making an IPA. Nag, even. Cajole, oh yes. The poor guy. I'd feel bad except, you know... the actual feelings and stuff involved in that so *ugh* effort. Okay, fast-forward to the Ontario Brewing Awards 2018 in September. At one point, my buddy Drunk Polkaroo and I find ourselves standing face-to-face with Jason at the facility's north-end bar. Cameron's had won a bunch of awards - six in total. So, of course, I ask, what's next? This time, he was ready for me, telling us that they were about to release a healthy handful of one-offs that we would be very happy with. He wasn't lying.
Adam at Sawdust City (also @SawdustCityAdam)
holds up the two Mystery Bottles that brewmaster
Sam Corbeil had asked him to gift to our group.
He started with a couple of hopped-up pale ales, the second of which was Hazy With A Chance Of Hops, a triple dry-hopped American Pale Ale. It was a sessionable 4.7% brew that oozed peaches, plum and definitely a heapin' helpin' of oat malts. Oh man, I think he's done six or seven specialty brews at this point but dang, that was my favourite  by far. Sometimes, being a colossal pain-in-the-ass actually works out for a beer lover. (More likely? I'm too clueless to notice when things don't work out.)

The Sawdust City Mystery Bottle Riddle: Okay, when we ventured out on the Barrie Craft Brewery Invasion 2018, we were treated like gold. Gold, Jerry, gold! It's like they thought we were a different (way more important) group or something. But the reality is Ontario Craft Breweries have long bend over backwards for their clientele. We help pay the bills, the staff and upkeep on the stainless steel canning line so yeah, they like us. They really like us! So when we landed at Sawdust City Brewing on December 8th, our tour guide dude, Adam, gave us the big tour, answered every question no matter how dumb Glenn's were (Oh, bazinga! I tease because I love) but at the end, there was a Mystery Surprise! (*Cue eerie music*)
♫ You ugly! You ugly! Your Mamma say you ugly! 
This beer has floaties only a sewage waste disposal
employee could love. But hot damn, if it wasn't one of
the tastiest beers I had all year! Nice job, Left Field!!
He presented us with two corked-and-caged 750-ml (25 ounce) bottles with no labels. What are they, we asked. Well, that's the thing because we don't know, said Adam. Turns out like a half year earlier, they'd found a crate of them in the basement with no identification whatsoever. Brewmaster Sam Corbeil had instructed him to pass two along to us. What they actually are is shrouded in mystery around the brewery (though I suspect the brewers could pinpoint them to a large degree - if not exactly, close enough). So we happily took them and by "we," I mean Hago and myself as we will both readily acknowledge, "It's all about us." We're all about entitlement so if you give us bright red MAGA hats, I can assure you, we will burn them as quickly and effectively as possible. We're very efficient that way. Also, the fire speaks to me from the depths of Hell is pretty. A month back, Hago enjoyed his first. His assessment: "Grapefruit, citrus on the nose, light fizzy head like champagne. Earthy, maybe wine barrel aged. Sour, my guess. Sour saison." I saved mine for New Year's Eve. My notes: "A shit-ton of sediment. Sour but not hugely so. Definitely barrel-aged but straight (oak). No bourbon or wine. Probably 6.5% ABV. Lots of apricot. I'm thinking Apricot Berliner Weisse?" (Halfway through the bottle, I dropped that ABV to about 4%.) So we both agree on a barrel-aged sour but with differing flavour profiles. And he was bang-on about the carbonation. Exactly like champagne. So who's closer? We don't know. Matt says nobody knows. Well, damn. But hey, that was a fun way to end 2018! The Mystery Bottle from Sawdust City!

The Fugliest Beer of 2018: Ontario Craft Brewers, this wasn't even a contest. It's like Left Field Brewing (Toronto) looked at The Alchemist's (Vermont) Heady Topper DIPA and said, "Really? That's the ugliest you can go?"
Did we keep Collective Arts Brewing's No 5 IPA alive?
Well, a quick answer would be "yes." But a far more
accurate and honest answer would be "uh, no." But hey,
here's more awesome art from Hamilton's David Buist!
Part of their "Prospect Series" where the brewery takes a single hop and gooses the crap out of it in an IPA (they've done about 10 so far), their Prospect Double Dry-Hopped Simcoe Single Hop IPA was a big ol' bucket of pulpy ugly. It was so chunky, Campbell Soups was ready to file for copyright infringement. Okay, the beer itself. Yeah, tons of melon and grapefruit but there was something else there I haven't run into with a lot of New England IPAs. Pine. Seriously, I always thought the east coast yeast knocked the west coast pine out but it was here on the back-end. At 6.1% and roughly 55 IBUs, I kept buying this from the Oak Park LCBO... until it was gone. Every last fugly one of them. Left Field, your gang blew me away with this one. Nicely done.

Is IPA No 5 Alive?: The question before the Ontario Craft Beer Courtroom is simply this: Did we #keep5alive? To bring you up to speed, Collective Arts Brewing (Hamilton) released their IPA No 5 sometime in the Spring. It was 2018's "Broadway Smash Hit" beer.
Rage Against The Beer Machine? While Drunk
Polkaroo may appear like he's about to drop the
hottest tracks of 2019, he actually screaming at
Surround Sound Imperial IPA to stop tasting so
damn good. But beer speaks. It does not listen.
While all of Collective Arts numbered IPA series have all been great (except one that we shall never ever mention again), the No 5 was so spectacular that as Ed Grimley would utter, "We all went completely mental, I must say." It was a New England Double IPA with Simcoe and Citra, 8.2%, probably 70 IBUs glass of glorious hops that had us all raving. How good was it? Well, before they even came out with the next one, about 30 or more of us started a #keep5alive campaign on Twitter. Did it trend? Go viral? Well, no, it's not a Kardashian. It's actually something of societal value, dammit. And man, we kept at it for a while. Finally, the brewery relented and our favourite multi-media person, Toni Shelton, let us know that #5WasAlive! It was Steve from the South Ontario Beer Boys that let me know it was available on tap and now called Surround Sound Imperial IPA when we were all at the hugely-successful, fund-raising Brewers' Ball Baseball Tournament in September. So I grabbed a growler on my way home. It was excellent... but not the IPA No 5 I remembered. Turns out what the brewers did was keep the recipe but change the hop profile with each release. I think they've released four or five different ones now. Every single one has been fantastic. But did we save Collective Arts IPA No 5? The honest answer? No, not exactly. The brewery sorta kinda resurrected IPA No 5 but it's not quite the original. Like Zombie IPA No 5?? If you listen, you can hear, "Grains... grains..."
This devilishly-handsome dude is Matt Allott, the
owner of Manantler Craft Brewing way out there
in Bowmanville, which looks unusually tropical
in this picture. For service above and beyond,
Matt is our Craft Brewery Executive of the Year.
But it was again Steve from SO Beer Boys who sought out the silver lining here. While he wouldn't say it was for the better, he would "say for a more interesting and continual experience as we now have four reincarnations of Surround Sound this year. Bring it on, Collective Arts!" Grains... grains...

Best Craft Brewery Executive: The first time I met Matt Allott, the now-owner of Manantler Craft Brewing in Bowmanville was December 9, 2017. It was the day of the Whitby Craft Brewery Invasion and while he couldn't get away for the full day, he skipped off for a short stint and met us at Little Beasts Brewing. And while I hadn't met Matt prior to that, I knew all about the brewery itself from Beer Bro Glenn, one of their biggest fans since their opening day. In fact, on their Legends Stout Series, Glenn's picture was one of four labels, all featuring early supporters of the brewery. Originally, Matt's brother Chris was the owner, along with the then-brewmaster and two silent partners before he bought them out. Then, Chris brought Matt in as an owner but as Glenn says, "Chris started making bajillions on Bitcoin" (one Bitcoin equals $4,700 at the moment) and the business was handed over entirely to Matt. But that day in Whitby, Matt arrived with a trunkful of Manantler swag and it quickly became a "take my money" frenzy around him. My sick blue Manantler T-shirt has seen the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip and will once again in a few weeks. (But where?)
When Matt Allott posed with both Lady and Drunk
Polkaroo during the Golden Taps-Ontario Brewing
Awards, none of us were aware of one thing. That
Matt was the only one with enough foresight to tape
Polk's big moment at the mic after his huge win...
Still, here's the thing. Every time Matt knows Glenn is planning a trip to Oakville, specialty beers get set aside before they're sold out. And Glenn has brought some beauties to me - several of them winners in the Best of 2018. While that is all more than enough for me to honour the dude, there's one more thing. And to me, it's pretty big. You see, at the Golden Taps-Ontario Brewing Awards in September, the set-up was simple. Winners were announced, they came up on stage, took a bow or curtsy (some of those burly bearded brewers did a mean curtsy) and then exit stage-left. Except when Drunk Polkaroo won the Best Beer Writer of 2018, he didn't just bow. He took the opportunity to grab the mic and thank a lot of people. It was a spontaneous gesture, much like Polk's actions tend to be. A few days later on Twitter, Polk noted he wished he'd had that speech taped. It was all off-the-cuff so of course, days later, even he couldn't remember what he'd said. Within a few minutes, Matt responded with two simple words: "I gotchu." On his phone, Matt had taped the whole Polk moment. He was the only person in the entire room who thought to do so. And right then, he posted it for Polk to relive. A moment caught in time. Ontario Craft Brewers are always thanking us for our support. But it's moments like that where we realize, "Wow, they really take care of us, too." That's pretty cool. Whatta community. And, Matt, you make us all proud. (Previous winners: Mark Woitzik of Brock St Brewing, Garnet Pratt Sidell, formerly of Side Launch.)
Pretty much the only pair in Hamilton who can give Drunk
Polkaroo and Lady Polkaroo a run for the money in the
Cutest Couple Award would be Grain & Grit Small Batch
Beer owners Joe and Lindsey Mrav. I was impressed with
this place the second I walked through the door and thus
returned so many times over 2018, that it feels like home.

Best Brewery (aka The Spirit of Craft Beer Award): Way back in February, Beer Bro Glenn and I did a Hamilton tour that included two new breweries in the west end - Fairweather Brewing and Grain & Grit Small Batch Beer. We loved both but it was hard to ignore Grain & Grit as it was 1) Set up in an old auto repair garage with limited space and 2) We were served by the owner himself, Joe Mrav. Okay, co-owner because let's not forget his wife, Lindsey. But it was a quiet February night, cold as sin, so we had Joe's ear the entire time we were there. For starters, how were they cranking out such low-ABV with such high-IBUs, not mention mind-blowing aromas and flavours? Their session IPA, Light Ray, was 4.5% but 80 IBUs? Their flagship IPA, In The Palms, is just 5% but 90 IBUs? Be this dark wizardry? No, chuckled Joe, their brewmaster, Alex Sporn, a German native, was just that good. While I was out having a smoke, I scouted. It's a small set-up so naturally, I went around the back to see if there was room for expansion. Looked pretty open back there. So I broached Joe about knocking out the back wall and creating more space. Nope, he replied, someone else's property. They're landlocked. You know what that means? They will always be a small batch brewery! There is something about that I very much dig. A purity to it that can never be tainted by big moves. Regardless of style, Alex manages to put a fresh new spin on it and they simply created some of the best beers I had in 2018. I will hop in the car just to go there on a Sunday. (With Fairweather across the street, it's a two-fer.) Joe and Lindsey, I love your cozy cool little joint!
When Nickel Brook released their four-beer Mystery
Pack towards the end of 2017, Beer C - what ended up
becoming Wicked Awesome IPA - was clearly my choice.
To that end, I pushed hard on social media for people to
select it as their choice. I cajoled. I persuaded. And if the
need was there, I threatened. Well, if "I will steal your
beer" can even be considered a threat. To many, it is.
Small place, big heart, fantastic beers! (Previous winners: Longslice Brewing, Brock St Brewing, the Barrie Craft Beer Mafia - Redline, Barnstormer and Flying Monkeys)

Best Beer of the Year (aka The Wingman Award): If you follow me on Twitter, this one should come as no surprise. While Muskoka's Summerweiss Tropical Wheat and Left Field's Laser Show Vermont Style Imperial IPA were both strongly in the running, I've given them their awards because in the end, there can only be one Highlander. This year, that was Nickel Brook's (Burlington) Wicked Awesome IPA. The other two reached for the stars. But Wicked Awesome actually grabbed it. But let me take you back to late-2017 when Nickel Brook released a Mystery Pack - four beers simply labeled Beer A, Beer B, Beer C and Beer D. They were, in order, a low-ABV stout, a session Hazy IPA, a full-ABV (6.5%) Hazy IPA and a Dry-Hopped Sour (because if there's one thing Nickel Brook needs to work on, it's their Sour Game?? Riiight.) Clearly, to me, Beer C was the obvious choice. But others started to make their own arguments for some of the other beers in the four-pack. I was shocked. I was appalled. I was aghast. Clearly, independent thought was running rampant in Ontario Craft Beer Circles. How could this happen? Is this not how anarchy begins?
Believe me, we thank our local brewers on a
daily basis. Whether craft beer drinkers
realize it or not, we are very spoiled here in
Ontario. I would put our beers up against
any beers being brewed anywhere. Truth.
So, of course, I pitched the laurels of Beer C whenever and wherever I could. Online, to friends, in bus shelters, at my many church functions (*cough*), basically, to whomever might listen. In the end, the tropical fruit bouquet of the deliciously-tasty Beer C was enough to garner 34% of the four-way vote - a clear majority, not spoiled by archaic and antiquated systems such as Electoral Colleges (dafuq is that crap?). Within a month or so, Beer C was redubbed as Wicked Awesome IPA. All was right with the world. I could sleep soundly once more. And last year, to me, it was the best in the Province. Well done, my Burlington brothers and sisters. (Previous winners: Great Lakes' Canuck Pale Ale, Collective Arts' Ransack The Universe IPA, Muskoka Mad Tom IPA)

And with that last winner, we finally have a wrap of The Best of 2018. Yes, it took me nearly a month into 2019 but there was an unusually large spat of crimes that needed to be solved from the Batcave. With the use of my Bat Technology - a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a TV and, of course, the Bat Fridge - all crime in Oakville has been solved, except for people who park poorly. I'll leave that to the locals. But I wanna to single out two people who handed me some real winners this year - Nepean Beer Store Beer Brother Ben (who pretty much owned the hoppy section) but mostly, Beer Bro Glenn who brought me beauts throughout the year. These two made this list. Back soon with a look at the #IGBrewCrew's Invasion of Wellington Brewing on January 11 and the beer we created! But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...