Thursday, 28 January 2021

Best of 2020: Let's Go To The Hops!


Okay, now we come to that point of the "Best of 2020 Show" that featured our hoppy friends. You know the ones I'm talking about. Hawaiian-fresh Pineapple. Luscious mango. Florida-fine orange. But-don't-squeeze-it-in-your-eye grapefruit. Resinous, sticky pine. Some... what? Okay, who TF invited lychee to the Hops Party? Meh, it has its place...

Anyway, in my 2019 version of this Best Of, my opening was the funny or not funny thing that happened that year. The whole Flying Monkeys Sparklepuffs versus SparkleChunks controversy was the big IPA Story of 2019. And man, that was one huge shitshow. I had a run of 39 straight, all perfectly fine, but many others, including my buddy Steve of the Southern Ontario Beer Boys, were not so lucky. In fact, Steve's second one was such a disaster, he ended up being the guy who coined #Sparklechunks!

But that's 2019's controversy, right? Okay, at least it was until I posted some Flying Monkeys' stickers that young Nick gave me for the Red Rocket the other night. Oh my Chunky Monkey, it kickstarted it all over again. It seems the infamous Legend of SparkleChunks may never die in Ontario craft beer circles.

But 2020's controversy makes that one look like finger-painting in Kindergarten. Yes, I am talking about the "heated, wretched and heart-rending" debate over the final order of the beers in the 2020 Nickel Brook India Pale Ale Mystery Pack. Sparkle what now? THIS right here is the serious-ass stuff!! It renders our nation literally on the brink of collapse!
That Greg guy... always with the yucks. Asked
to produce a graph that represented the Oakville
Brew Crew reaction to the Nickel Brook IPA
Mystery Pack, he came up with this. If anyone
needs me, I'll be hanging with Rodney Dangerfield.

Well, okay, perhaps not that drastic. But it seems the Brew Crew has some seriously dysfunctional splitting over which beer actually won the pack. The Mystery Pack simply has four beers labelled Beer A, Beer B, Beer C and Beer D. You drink them all and decide which one to vote for online. Simple enough. Or so you would think. I think Drunk Polkaroo and I were among the first to get our grubby little paws on the Mystery Pack and both of us decreed that Beer B had this one hands down. Not sure what Polk's final order of the beers was but mine was B-A-D-C. I also made special mention of how far behind the others Beer C was, as well as how far ahead of the rest of the pack Beer B was.

But there was disagreement among the Beer Elders. Inexplicably, some of the Brew Crew not only enjoyed Beer C, they actually declared it to be the winner! To me, that just shows the devastating and debilitating effect a pandemic and subsequent quarantine can have on the already fragile human psyche. But to be frank, if Nickel Brook scrapped all four and put Creeper Reaper IPA out year-round, I'd be one happy camper. Just sayin'...
If you are of sound mind and judgement, this is the final order of
the Nickel Brook IPA Mystery Pack. Oh sure, Beer A and Beer D
are pretty much interchangeable but clearly Beer B is the winner.

Oh well, back to the Best of 2020, a year so bad, your dog would have to regurgitate the same bowl of Puppy Chow three separate times before we could describe what a damn Dog's Breakfast that year was. First, The Rules! Because without rules, people might do something as asinine but unlikely as, oh say, storm the Capitol Building. Rule 1) Ontario Beers Only! Three reasons for that: Shop local, shop local and also shop local. They need us now more than ever. Rule 2) No Repeat Winners! So, if say, Headstock IPA has won before (and it has), it can never, ever, ever win again! New beers every year, that's the deal here.
And Rule 3) If this quarantine and pandemic has taught us anything, it's that you don't need fun to have alcohol.
Beer is also with us for the shittiest of times! Okay, let's rock this goofy little list!

Best Pale Ale: When you see the previous winners of this category at the end, you'll notice that east coast haziness crept into the list for the last few years. Back to the west coast this year! Wellington Brewing put out the hugely popular Rising Tide Collaboration Pack (more on that further down) hooking up with Great Lakes Brewing, Muskoka Brewing, Cameron's Brewing and Nickel Brook Brewing. With names like that, how good do you think those beers were? Yeah, pretty much! But my favourite of the bunch was their collab with Great Lakes - the Rising Tide West Coast Pale Ale. Grapefruit, pine back-end, resinous AF, 5.8%, it was incredible. Years fell off our lives and we were back to old school again!
Also included with that Lake of Bays' Tenth Anniversary
Pack was this "dock friendly" glass, meaning heavy duty
plastic. Since it can hold 16 ounces (473-ml), it will be making
its way down to Fremont Street when I return to Las Vegas.
Downtown Vegas has a strict plastic-only rule on the street.
(Previous winners: Beyond The Pale Yummy! North East Pale Ale, Dominion City's Paper Salesman APA, Redline's Clutch APA, Spearhead's Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, Cameron's California Sunshine Pale Ale, Sawdust City's Golden Beach APA, Rainhard's Armed 'N' Citra Pale Ale)

Best British-Style IPA: Way back in 2014, I remember telling my Lake of Bays rep Tim that they needed a West Coast IPA to go along with their 10 Point IPA, which was clearly a British style (though not identified as such.) I was all about the hops back then. I still am to a degree but I find myself appreciating the old school styles, such as super malty IPAs, more and more these day. When the brewery released its Tenth Anniversary Pack in the Summer, 10 Point English IPA was included and I was genuinely happy to revisit the beer that was replaced by the west coast Oxtongue IPA after their 2017 rebranding. (It subsequently disappeared after being replaced by Starboard New England IPA.) Heavy caramel, toasty, biscuity medium body followed by big pine, it's so good.
"Hulk say HazeMama New England IPA so good! Puny humans
are just lucky that Hulk doesn't drink ALL HazeMama beer!"
I'd feel guilty about not enjoying it more the first time around but there are so many things I should feel absolute guilt over and I don't so this will have to wait its place in line. Probably forever or longer. (Previous winners: Stack Brewing Stack '72 Imperial IPA, Market Brewing Bear Hug IPA, Walkerville's Geronimo, Longslice's Hopsta La Vista, Junction Craft's Engineer.)

Best Great Lakes IPA: This time last year, I said 2019 would be the final year that Great Lakes Brewing had their own category. I created it in 2015 because I was afraid that A) With Mike Lackey at the helm, Great Lakes would keep winning Best IPA over and over or B) fantastic Great Lakes IPAs would be pushed aside in the name of fairness even if they deserved to win. Back then, with all their IPAs in rotation through the year, GLB was Ontario's Hop Juggernaut. Then I realized something one day. This was my list and I can make up any dumb-ass rules I want. So I did and gave Great Lakes their own category.
This would be Ricky from Who-Knows-Where
hanging at Binion's outdoor bar on Fremont
Street in Downtown Vegas. I loved the shirt so
I said, "Dude, can I take a pic?" and he said,
"Dude, go for it!" So this dude took that dude's
photo. A heavy dude-y moment. Because alcohol.
But again, last year, I said, nope, this is it for the Etobicoke brewery having their own category. So what changed my mind? Okay, number one, turns out Great Lakes is located pretty much next door to that asshole Adamson BBQ that defied the Provincial lock-down on restaurants. Hey, don't we all have smarmy white privilege "can't tell me what to do" neighbours that attract non-mask-wearing morons to eat greasy BBQ crap? But due to police blockades, that seriously bunged up GLB's bottom-line business for a week or more in a year when no business could afford that. (I bought a tray of their Burst! New England Pale Ale for $60 to hopefully help a little. Also great price! Win-win.)

But more importantly, they finally put out a year-round east coast IPA called HazeMama New England IPA. This has all the key ingredients - it has orange, it has peach, it has melon, it was 7%, it has a medium-heavy body and oh yes, a lightly warm boozy slide down the throat-hole. Good gawd, this is a stellar beer. So maybe next year, I'll yank the GLB solo category. (Probably not.) (Previous winners: Electric Circus New England Style Tropical Pale Ale, New England Style Octopus Wants To Fight, Meanwhile Down In Moxie, Thrust! An IPA and Octopus Wants To Fight)

Best West Coast IPA: I suspect this choice might be a little bit curious to some but hear me out. Because this one really impressed me for a few reasons. First of all, who made it.
For decades, Steam Whistle Brewing did "one thing very well." A top-notch Czech-style Pilsner. Eventually, they released a Pale Ale. And as a result... they still only did one thing very well. They followed that with a Session Lager. Yeah, still just that one thing. A couple of whiffs there. However, when they started brewing for New Belgium out of Colorado, they did everything right. Their version of the brewery's Fat Tire Amber Ale, considered to be one of America's best in style, was bang-on to the America version that I've enjoyed in Vegas. For more than a year, their reps teased me that another was coming out of their Etobicoke facility. "Voodoo Ranger IPA?" I always asked hopefully. Maaaybe, they countered. It was and man, was I happy. New Belgium North nailed the hell out of it. Fruit front end, pine back, light malt middle. *Bam!* One of my favourite west coasters of the year. Now if they wanna follow up with the Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA and Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA, hey, I'm here for ya!
(Previous winners: Cameron's Jurassic IPA, Anderson Craft Ales IPA, Beau's Full Time IPA, Nickel Brook Headstock IPA, Flying Monkey's now discontinued Smashbomb Atomic, Big Rig's Alpha Bomb Unfiltered.)

Best New England IPA: Okay, the problem with this category in 2020 is that a crazy amount of breweries released New English (or) Hazy (or) Juicy IPAs. I mean, it was crazy. What can I say? As much as some purists hate the style, it's what's selling and trust me, I'm a happy consumer of it. Supply and demand, baby. I could quite literally pick any one of 15 to 20 and I guarantee you people would nod in agreement. So I went a different route.

The one that meant the most. Okay, Wellington Brewing's Nothing Civil IPA did for a couple of reasons. First of all, coworker Nick The Sour Guy and his father, Mike, were headed out for a Guelph (and area) Brewery Run and Nick, of course, asked me for my list.
Wait, is that Beer Diversity Queen Ren Navarro wasting
a perfectly good beer on the sacred lawn of Wellington
Brewing? It is, indeed, with her Lacuna Collective mates
Lexi Pham and Truth Is... and it would appear they seem
to care about the lawn being watered? Regardless of their
landscaping skills, this beer was for an important cause. 
I didn't give him a list. One, I was too lazy to google the breweries where they were headed. And two, I thought, "Let's see how he does?" But mostly one because seriously, I'm pretty damn lazy. Uhhh, he did very well. And yes, one of the beers he brought me was Nothing Civil.

I think Nick just saw IPA and that was enough to add it to my list, which was a wise option where I'm concerned. But it's actually much more. A collaboration between Diversity Queen Ren Navarro (@beer_diversity), poet and Welly employee Truth Is... and certified beer sommelier Lexi Pham, the trio known as The Lacuna Collective released this beer for the second time in the fall because the Summer first run at Wellington sold out quickly. All proceeds to Black Lives Matter (as in 100% of every can) at a time when that phrase means more than ever. As a young kid who watched the Civil Rights movement behind Dr Martin Luthor King Jr on TV in the 1960s - the protests, the many marches, his eventual assassination - I would not have thought this would still be an issue 50 years later. Even as a kid in the white suburbs of Oakville, I knew which side was in the right. I knew what hatred was. I knew what what really mattered. 
According to the time stamp on this picture, I got
this wayyyy back in early April 2019. I thought the
best part was that they sent me a bottle opener with
a bunch of cans. Okay, I was wrong. The Big Kahuna
Imperial IPA was the easily the best part of this gift!
It's pretty sad that an eight-year-old kid in Canada got that while many adults still do not. But the beer itself? Huge pineapple, a whiff of pepper, citrus, Vermont yeast - it was the real deal. (Previous winners: Orleans' Juicy McHazy New England IPA, Dominion City's Sunsplit IPA, Beyond The Pale's Aromatherapy NEIPA.)

Best Imperial IPA: I was ready to crown this one in 2019 except for a timely reminder from Boston 'LAGAHHH' Adam (now Fergus by way of Guelph). He noted after I had posted it for about the sixth time, praising it through the roof, that very few people had actually tried it. Huh. He wasn't wrong.

That changed dramatically in 2020. When the Evil Plague started shutting down public visits to our many craft breweries, they all stepped up their game ten-fold and got down with mail orders. That meant any of us could get almost any beer we wanted in the entire Province dropped off at our front doors! Talk about a game-changer that the breweries can never change back.
Wait, is that a 32-can mail order from Spearhead
Brewing on my back deck? Well, yeah, sure looks like
one. That's okay because I was probably sharing it
with others, right? Uhhh, yeah, "sharing." I probably
was *checks the word again* sharing. Absolutely. Yes.
Not that they'd want to. Online mail orders have kept many an Ontario brewery afloat through this viral shit-storm and it would be foolhardy to abandon the system afterwards. I mean, they've nicely got their pieces in place.

Also in 2020, Spearhead Brewing's Big Kahuna Imperial IPA started showing up in LCBOs. Even Boston "LAGAHHH" Adam could get it now. I had seen friends describe a light fruitiness, certain essences to this beer. You wanna know what it actually is? Imagine Paul Bunyon ripping a pine tree out of the ground and beating the hell out of you with it. So, yeah, super piney. And, of course, there is some question whether at 10%, this is an Imperial or a Triple IPA. That's for the brewers to decide. I just drink them. And this one was killer! (Previous winners: Barncat Space Juice Double IPA, Left Field Laser Show Vermont Style Imperial IPA, Indie Ale House Cockpuncher, Nickel Brook's Immodest, Innocente Brewing Two Night Stand)

Best Triple IPA: Well, holy crap, for a style that is usually very scarce, we were ass-deep in Triple IPAs this year. Collective Arts had one; Lake of Bays had one, Flying Monkeys had one (somewhat infamous and carried on from 2019), Innocente Brewing had a beast released and in April, Steve from Southern Ontario Beer Boys, presented me with a growler of Nickel Brook Double Headstock IPA that clocked in at 10.6%... so double, my ass. As any baseball scorekeeper would tell you, that's a triple. 

But the one I ended up loving the most was recommended by our Port Sydney friend, Danny Brown. He was the first to try Redline Brewhouse's White Knuckle Triple IPA and based on his description, I ended up ordering eight. Pricey, yes! But given the year brewers were having, what the hell? Throw out a lifeline, I say. And while I enjoyed ALL of the Triple IPAs we were gifted with this year, there was just something about White Knuckle.
When I ordered all that White Knuckle Triple IPA, I also threw some
Redline Clutch American Pale Ale into the mix. I'm all about balance.
Huge peach, big pineapple, back-end of pine and a heaping dash of pepper. I absolutely loved this beer. Like I said, all the Triple IPAs I enjoyed this year were knock-em-out-of-the-park beauties but I gave this one the edge.

It's like my Grandpa Ernie used to say, "If it's good enough for that Danny Brown character, then it's good enough for you!" (Which is odd because he passed 20 years before Danny was born but they're both Scots and that tribe is so competitive.) (Previous winners: Little Beasts' Kraken Triple IPA, Dominion City's Needless Luxury Triple IPA.)
Ironically, for a brewery that has used pretty much all the
baseball terminology in their beers' names, Left Field
has never won the Triple Play category. Tragic oversight
or just the way things go? Beats me. I do this thing and
al I know is there's no real rules. It's basically Beer Anarachy.

Best Triple Play: This is the part of this little Westminster Kennel Dog Club Show where I look at a string of hoppy beers from the same brewery that follow a style pattern, such as Pale Ale-IPA-Double IPA or IPA-Double IPA-Triple IPA and decide who had the best run of three.

Much to my surprise, given their own super specific marketing, Left Field Brewing, which is all about baseball terminology (I have had to Google countless number of their beer names to get the reference - I'd do much better with hockey) has never won this.
The big switch-up (definitely a baseball phrase) way back in 2018
when Laser Show Vermont Style IIPA and Greenwood IPA were
swapped out from 650-ml (22 ounce) bottles and into 355-ml (12 oz)
cans. I miss the bottles but I will say cans are easier to refrigerate.
Well, I suppose today they get their due. If I have to explain either Greenwood IPA or Laser Show Vermont Style Imperial IPA to you, well, I'm not sure what to say. Twitter is trending that someone named Halsey is pregnant so I'll make you a deal. You explain to me who the hell she is and I'll explain these beers in return.  But every successful Triple Play has to start with one player and Left Field nailed it with their Rally Cap Pale Ale with Lactose. Big oats, lactose, spruce tips gave this a huge melon, orange, mango, pine taste. The perfect starter for a triple play. (Previous winners: Cameron's Jurassic IPA, Skeleton Crew Evil Genius IPA, Knucklebone IPA, Dominion City's Sunsplit IPA, Fidelis Double IPA and Needless Luxury Triple IPA, Redline's Clutch APA. Air Ride IPA and Double Clutch IIPA, Nickel Brook's Naughty Neighbour APA, Headstock IPA and Immodest IIPA, Collective Arts' State of Mind Session, Rhyme & Reason APA and Ransack The Universe IPA.)
When Wellington Brewing celebrated their 35th anniversary
in 2020, they pulled in the big guns to collaborate with on
this mixed pack - Great Lakes, Muskoka, Cameron's and
Nickel Brook. Four great beers, four very different styles.
Best Mixed Pack: Okay, there were some really fantastic mixed packs this year - Refined Fool out of Sarnia had a great IPA Mixer as one example - but there was no way anyone was going to beat the Wellington Brewing Rising Tide Collaboration Mix Pack. Let's put it this way. This Mixed Pack out-mix-packed Wellington's other great regularly-released Mix Packs... which are always great mixed packs.

But for the brewery's 35th anniversary, Brewmaster Marvin Dyck pulled out all the stops, enlisting such industry stalwarts as Great Lakes, Muskoka, Cameron's and Nickel Brook in to collaborate with the mixed pack.
This is Wellington Brewmaster Marvin Dyck way
back when a group of us descended to create a
beer back in January 2019. That beer ended up
being the 5/5 Foreign Export Stout and I don't
wanna say it was the best beer ever made by Welly
but that's just modesty. It totally was, no doubt...
The results shouldn't be the least bit surprising. The pack was as dynamite as the pedigrees that went into it. A West Coast Pale Ale with Great Lakes, adding a nice touch of coffee to the Muskoka Cream Ale, a Kveik IPA with Cameron's (you go, Jason Britton!) and a Dry-Hopped Sour with blueberry and pear with Nickel Brook. Basically, all that was left was deciding which one was your favourite. On top of all that, some of the proceeds went to, a group established to help out small businesses and hospitality workers during the Covid shut-downs. 2020 was not without its causes, all of them important in different ways. But I think what impressed me most was that this mixed pack highlighted the collaborative, all-hands-on-deck spirit of Ontario's craft brewers, willing to pull together in good times and bad times alike. We have something very special in this Province. Let's never forget that. (Previous winners: Muskoka Hopsonic IPA Mixer, Wellington's Welly Re-Boot Vol 5, Nickel Brook's Mystery Pack, Muskoka Winter Survival Pack 2016, Okanagan Springs' Craft Variety Pack 2015, Muskoka's Hoptorial Mix-Six)

Okay, that wraps up the hoppy stuff but we have The Dark and Dirty (porters and stouts) up next (hopefully quickly - the return of hockey derailed me), followed by the people, places and things in Ontario craft brewing during that awful year. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Best of 2020: The Mild But Still Wild


This beer is getting special mention simply because it is a special beer.
Several times over the course of 2020, Muskoka Brewing dropped the
price of their Tread Lightly Light Lager so that it was actually cheaper
than macro mainstays suck as Coors Light and Bud Light. This was the
perfect opportunity to show Macro Uncle how much better craft beer is.
This is the time of the year when I typically reflect back on the previous year and talk about the beers that wowed me.

Except last year was 2020. I suspect most of us would prefer to leave that year in the dustbin of history. In 25 years, this will amount to dinner-table conversation. "Mom, when it was 2020, did you...?" "Beyonce, how many times have I told you 2020 never happened? We went from 2019 directly to 2021 due to the glitch in the Gregorian Calendar!" Yeah, it was pretty bad. That said, there were some shining moments and surprise, surprise, to me, most of those involved beer.
Several years back, we had a Brewery Invasion in and
around Barrie, venturing north of the city's limits to head
up to both Muskoka Brewing and Sawdust City Brewing.
Yeah, it was damn cold out but those breweries threw out
all the stops to keep our rag-tag group cozy at their places.

But in the end, one beer very much stood out to me for the oddest of reasons. You see, even though I work at a Beer Store, I seldom know the prices of our beers. They change too rapidly to keep up so I just push the buttons on the machine, tell the customer what their total is and simply move on to the next person.

However, one day in September, a customer walked up with a 12-pack of Muskoka Brewing Tread Lightly Light Lager 355-ml cans. I rang it up. It was $23.95. I was a little startled, realizing it was less than $2/can. So I rang in 12 cans of Bud Light ($24.95) and Coors Light ($25.20). Like I said, I don't keep track of prices.

Granted, Tread Lightly was on sale but a craft beer that cost less than a mass-produced macro? Frankly, to me, this was unprecedented. I announced it far and wide on Twitter, suggesting that this might be an excellent purchase for your Macro Dad or Drunkle. Tell them it's a beer "that tastes like a beer," You know, the kind that appeals to them. 
From that day forward, I made a point of grabbing a dozen cans of Tread Lightly on my way out the door. Turns out I quite enjoy cracking a lighter beverage as my starter to unwind after work. Even though its regular price is now $25.95 ($49.95 for a case), it's still just nickles more than the macros. It didn't win my 2020 Beer of the Year but by the end of 2020, it did end up being my Most Purchased Beer of 2020. Ask any Ontario brewery which means more to them.

Okay, onto the Best of 2020... but first, the rules. Rule #1) Ontario beers only! I am big on shining a light towards our local breweries, especially now that they could use our help more than ever. Rule #2) No repeat winners! That means if a beer won any category from 2013 through 2019, they are no longer eligible. That said, I repeat the previous years' winners at the end of each category so you can see some shining stars of the past. And Rule #3) Even if you are celebrating Dry January, that doesn't preclude you from drinking Brut IPAs! Just call it Ridiculously Dry Finish January instead. Hell, have mine, too. I'm just that generous. Okay then, let's get this party started, shall we?

Best Pale/Blonde Lager: I kinda jumped back into lagers in a big way in 2020.
This is possibly due to Boston Adam (now in Fergus by way of Guelph) yelling "LAGAHHH!" every second day on Twitter. I think it kinda got stuck in my noodle. But yeah, I feel like I came back to the style more than ever in 2020. So over there in Stoney Creek (aka Polk Land), there's this award-winning brewery called Clifford Brewing run by this amenable chap named Brad. And this Brad fellow makes some amazing beers. One of those I enjoyed most last year (of many) was his Devil's Punchbowl India Session Lager! Now THIS is a lager with some bite to it. Still light at 4.8%, this kicks up a beautiful citrus punch with the faintest whiff of grapefruit in the mix. This ain't your Grandpapa's Pabst Blue Ribbon. Just a gem. (Previous winners: Wellington Crispy Forever Helles, Muddy York Helles, Amsterdam Pale Rider, Cameron's 12 Mile IPL, Hogback's Vintage Lager)

Best Amber/Dark Lager: Okay, yes, certainly a tumultuous year for our friends at Cowbell Brewing up there in Blyth but like the rest of us, they pulled through. In part due to the efforts of our Beer Diversity friend, Ren Navarro. (Yay Ren!) 
Why on earth is this Cowbell Oatmeal Vanilla Black
Lager in the tumbler of my dryer? Well, that was
part of the Glenn Hendry Appliance Series of Beer
Photos, an exercise where we showed our friend that
it doesn't really matter what your environs are, you
can always set up a fun beer photo! Or a ridiculous on
Their Big Winter Mix-Six Pack last year included three beers from their Renegade Series, all of them top-flight. To my mind, the best of the three was their Oatmeal Vanilla Black Lager. Huge vanilla added to the traditional coffee, light licorice of your regular Black Lager. If the brewery decided to make any of their Renegade Series a part of their regular line-up, this one would be my vote! (Previous winners: Beau's Night Marzen, Napanee Blacklist German Lager, Four Father's Shevchenko 9 Ukrainian Dunkel Euro Dark Lager, Lake Wilcox Mad Quacker Amber Lager, King Brewing Dark Lager, Mill St 100th Meridian Amber Lager.)

Best Pale/Blonde Ale: Way back on February 22, 2020, a bunch of us traveled to Kingston to take part in Spearhead Brewing owner Josh Hayter's Kingston Brewery Invasion. Beers from that event will pop up throughout this.
However, in actual fact, this beer was purchased on the drive home with Greg and Cartoonist/Artist David. We popped in Whitby's 5 Paddles Brewing because, as I recall, Greg had promised to grab a specific beer for our Oakville mate, Kimmy. While there, I snagged whatever IPAs and Porter-Stouts were on hand but noticed something called Double Double Coffee Blonde Ale with Lactose. I seldom buy Blonde Ales as I prefer ales either much darker or much hoppier. But I thought, hey, Double Double is how I take my coffee so why not? Grab one. If it sucks, it's just one. Afterwards, I wish I'd bought a dozen of them. Coffee, lactose mimicking the cream, this was dynamite. Never mind coffee, I could start every morning with this! (Previous winners: Whiprsnapr Mick Maple Cream Ale, Grain & Grit Bee's Knees Blonde Ale, Nickel Brook Cause & Effect, Lake of Bays Paddle On Session Ale.)

Best Amber/Dark Ale: Okay, going way back to last January for this one.
I believe this was the second collaboration with Henderson Brewing (out of west Toronto) and the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies, which saw all of their great extracurricular activities pretty much grind to a halt. Like the rest of the world, I suppose. (Mark down October, SOBDL, as I'm betting that's when the social wheels will start to turn again, pitting this timeline against that of the 1918-20 Spanish Flu but factoring in the vaccine.) Back to the beer. Good Golly, Mz Mollie, the collab Vanilla Orchid Brown Ale was some kind of tasty! Nutty but sweet on the nose, more nuttiness, oatmeal and a light spice. At first, I assumed the vanilla was lactose but I think it's from the Vanilla Orchid Rooibos Tea, provided by TeaAlchemy, an independent tea company. Not sure 100% but I know good when I taste it. Way back on January 11, I said this would be the Dark Ale to beat in 2020. Some came close but none surpassed. Just outstanding. (Previous winners: Wellington Old Buddy Espresso Brown Ale, Redline Brewhouse Leather Interior Brown Ale, Cameron's Dark & Sticky India Brown Ale, Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, Parallel 49's Gypsy Ruby Tears, Wellington's Terrestrial India Brown Ale, Cowbell's Doc Purdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale.)

Best Pilsner: A bit of a break from the past winners for one reason. It's dark. But I can guarantee you this - Greg remembers this beer just as fondly as I do. You see, during the Kingston Craft Brewery Invasion of February 2020 (where we all just jumped into a bus, sitting mere feet apart, without masks - the good old days), Greg and I were at the same table when we stopped in at Stone City Ales. Their Nocturnal Czech Dark Pilsener was one of our samplers and after our taste, we looked at each other and nodded in hushed agreement. This beer was stellar! Roasty toasty malts, medium body, a gobsmack of licorice. Technically, this belongs in the Amber/Dark Lager category but the label says pilsener so I don't care. My list, my rules. (Previous winners: Fairweather Barbarossa Dry-Hopped Imperial Pils, Brock St Bohemian Pilsner, Great Lakes' Improperly Hopped American Dry-Hopped Pilsner, Steam Whistle Pilsner, Steamworks Pilsner, Black Oak Epiphany No 2 Pilsner, Rainhard Unfiltered Pilsner)

Best Saison: It was Drunk Polkaroo who suggested strongly if I ever got the chance, I should grab some of Shacklands Brewing's killer beverages. Well, the only problem with that is after March, I was somewhat reluctant to stray too far from home, much less the west end of Toronto, lest the nasty-ass Covid Cooties attach themselves to me.
Because he didn't have a cool Shacklands Brewing
bumper sticker for my ride, the Red Rocket, Jason
instead brought me a sweet Shacklands Brewing
glass, which is totally dope, too. Maybe when the
weather gets nicer, I'll just duct-tape it to the car.
Well, that little dilemma turned sideways on its head when owner-brewer Jason Tremblay messaged me in late November and said he had to make two deliveries to Stoney Creek. Being as Oakville is along the way, he wondered, did I want anything? YES, PLEASE!!!! I very quickly placed my order (#3121 - still remember) and was all set for the brewery with the reputation of making the Best Belgians in Ontario. Part of my order was a couple of his flagship beer, Saison Davenport. Whoa. Clove and pepper nose, a nice fruitiness that I guessed was maybe wild raspberry. Just perfect for the style. After I posted it, Jason confirmed that, yes, the red berry flavour came from the Alsatian hops. If you haven't tried it, do so. After I posted it, Homebrewer Graeme, the Brew Crew's Saison Guru, noted, "It's a really well done Saison. I'm a big fan. Cheers to one of the most underappreciated styles." If you want a sense of what a Saison should taste like, this is the one. (Previous winners: Beyond the Pale Saison Tropicale, Little Beasts Really Good Friends, Little Beasts La Saison D'ete, Nickel Brook-Sawdust City 11~05 Saison, Four Winds' Saison, Collingwood Brewing's Saison Farmhouse Ale.)

Best Belgian Style Wit:
First, backstory! As a kid, maybe eight or so, my family rented a houseboat for a couple of weeks one Summer and traveled through Trent-Severn Waterway. I feel certain that one of the Locks - a structure in the waterway with steel gates on both ends where your boat sits and either rises or drops to the level of the next section - was in Fenelon Falls. I had the town's pennant (and others from that trip) pinned to my bedroom wall for years until they were later replaced by posters of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Farrah Fawcett in a one piece red bathing suit. (*Thinks about that poster for a second* Ahhh, the 70s.)

But back to Belgian Wits. Greg got me this one, among others from Fenelon Falls Brewing. This Belgian Wit called Rural Jewel is exactly that - rural and a jewel. Light spice, slightly peppery, citrus and a medium body, which (I think) is quite rare for the style. Well done, Fenelon Falls gang!
(Previous winners: Brock Street Blueberry Belgian Wit, Amsterdam Spotted Cow White Wheat, Black Bellow's White Witbier with Elderflower, Railway City's The Witty Traveler Pint.)

Best German Wheat: Here's the problem with picking out a solid German Wheat. I am too big a fan of the German Wheats that come from Germany! Particularly the world's oldest German Wheat, Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, a beverage that Jordan St John, author of 71 beer books, declared is "on year 996 of their dominance in the category." So okay, the bar's set pretty high. I mean, yeah, I do pick a winner every year and they have all been pretty good Wheats but it's tough to match the Germans. Close enough will usually do to win this. But that plucky Grain & Grit Small Batch Beer in Hamilton, owned by Joe and Lindsey Mrav, actually had a built-in Deutschland home-field advantage I had never previously considered. Their young Brewmaster Alex Sporn actually hails from Germany! Well, then, mach schnell! Let's talk German Wheats!
Me, Lloyd Dobler, in 2020, outside of 2019's house.
Okay, their Zigge Zagge German Wheat might be the best Canadian version I've ever enjoyed. Not to downplay the others. Several were quite good and you're about to see previous winners. But remember, we're on the Weihenstephaner Scale here and I measure other German Wheats on that very scale. The banana, the clove, the mildness, the initial faint whiff of bubblegum. This belongs on that scale. Outstanding, especially considering what I am measuring this against. Close your eyes, man, you're in Munich now. (Previous winners: Stalwart Brewing Down By The River American Wheat Ale, Chronicle Brewing-Wave Maker Craft Brewing Hasheeshian Hop Hefeweizen, Big Rig's Big Boot Hefeweizen, Side Launch Wheat, All or Nothing Hopfenweisse, Creemore Spring's Hoppy Hefeweizen, Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Wheat.)

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch: Okay, this category is named after Beau's Lug Tread Lagered Ale (because we're not supposed to say Kolsch here in North America) because I ignored Kolschs when I started these lists. Why? Well, I found the style kinda bland, to be honest.
Now I'm not throwing shade because Kolschs (as well as craft lagers, pilsners and Blonde Ales) are the ultimate cross-over styles for macro drinkers. That's how we bring 'em to the Dark Side. But long story short, I stumbled across a few Kolschs I really enjoyed and thought it was time to add the style to the Best Of mix-tape a few years back. But Lug Tread, Ontario's best-known Lagered Ale, has never won because by the time I added Kolschs, it was too late. Except it kind of did this year. You see, Beau's took the Lug Tread recipe, added Caramunich malts to give their Country Vibes Amber Lagered Ale a big caramel bite, a suitable darker hue. One malt made that much difference? Probably a little more to it than that but ohhhhh yeahhhh. Much more malty and toasty than a Kolsch, this is leaning in the Altbier direction without landing there. I was very pleasantly surprised by this one.
(Previous winners: Braumeister Brewing Rheinwasser Kolsch-Style Ale, Sawdust City's Adaptation Vic Secret Dry-Hopped Kolsch, Beau's Haters Gonna Hate Imperial Kolsch, Cowbell's Absent Landlord County Kolsch, Old Tomorrow Track 85 Lagered Ale.)
Best Session/Light Beer: Once again just like the previous two years, an embarrassment of riches in this category. Brewers are going out of their way to crank out the low-ABV beers. The trick, as always, is to keep the alcohol low but retain that full body quality. No one wants a thin beer. If I wanted Bud Light, I'd drink Bud Light. I wouldn't be alone. Many do. As I sifted through the couple dozen I quite enjoyed this past year, one popped out at me. Nickel Brook's Creeper Reaper IPA. Despite being just 4.1%, this bad boy, their Halloween offering, was jacked with flavour and body! With one of the four hops being Sabro, this had that bit of coconut, as well as a huge serving of grapefruit and back-end pine. Just a fantastic hockey beer. (Previous winners: Muddy York Switchboard Session IPA, Grain & Grit Light Ray Session IPA, Muskoka Detour, Great Lakes' Sunnyside Session, Flying Monkeys' Genius of Suburbia, Great Lakes Citradiction Extra Pale Ale.)
Well, that's a wrap on Part One but Part Two will drop in a day or two and it's my favourite with all those hoppy bastards that I do so love! But until then, Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until Part Two, I remain...

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Chris and Alicia are Hopping Happily


Okay, so that's Chris on the left, the guy behind the Hop Happy beer blog and
also well-known as @gamblinmcgoo to our many Vegas friends. So you might
look at this photo and think, "Awww, what a good man, taking in a homeless
fellow like that guy on the right and getting him that beer." But no, that's me.
Chris, his wife, Alicia and I all got together at Clifford Brewing back in late
September to enjoy some beverages on a beautiful Autumn day. Cheers to us!
Way back in 1995, there was a classic episode of the TV show, Seinfeld. In it, George finds himself in a relationship, which is all well and good. Except his new girlfriend wants to meet his friends.

This vexes George, who believes there are two versions of himself - Independent George, which he is with Jerry, Elaine and Kramer, and Relationship George, which he is with his girlfriend. In essence, he does not want the two worlds to collide because he believes the second he walks through Jerry's door with his new lady, it's like matter meeting antimatter. Everything collapses. Black hole. As he exclaims with no small amount of anguish: "A George, divided against itself, cannot stand!" 

It was, to be certain, a silly premise as most of us, while slightly better behaved in new relationships, are pretty much the same either way. But this TV show carved out nearly a decade of hilarity based on nothing but ridiculous premises.
When I met Alicia and Chris, aka @gamblinmcgoo, the Vegas lover but also
@hophappyblog, the craft beer lover, at Clifford Brewing towards the end
of September, I learned that Alicia takes the great majority of the photos
for the blog. That's impressive because the photos are fantastic. She has a
very keen eye at setting up both environment shots, the brewery itself and
the little quirks many would miss, as well as the beer shots. Quite talented.

So taking this George theory where there's more than one version of yourself and extending it to myself on Twitter, let's see where this lands.

I mean, there's Beer Donny. That's a pretty huge circle right there. Hundreds, I would say, when I take in everyone I follow or who follows me based on beer alone.

Then there's Vegas Donny and I really enjoy that Donny because, boy howdy, he sure loves it there. And that circle, though it started small, is humongous now.

Now the line between the different Donnys on Twitter is bleeding these days. My Vegas Twitter and Beer Twitter are all over each other's posts and unlike George, I think it's cool. Meeting of the minds... yadda, yadda, yadda. 
These two are a lot of fun and between them, they have created
what I consider the one of the best beer blogs out there. With
Alicia's skills behind the camera and Chris' ways with words,
Hop Happy Beer Blog has become a must-read for me. It's fun,
it's lively, it's informative and best of all, they explore Ontario
breweries that we really don't know until the pair land there.

Smokey Jon Kelly, master of the BBQ over there in Ireland, loves his craft beer, Vegas and, well, BBQ. My Beer Twitter peeps are all over Jon when he's posting food pics. Hell, I think Homebrewer Graeme wants to fly over, set up a tent in Jon's backyard and live there for a while, just to eat the food that Jon posts.

And then there's Chris. Now Chris is the subject of this little outing but because my preambles are ridiculously long (y'all still awake?), photos of him with his wife, the photographically-skilled as well as photogenic Alicia, have been used three times here without actual mention in this text of who he is.

Okay, then, who is Chris? Well, when I first got to know him on Twitter, he was McGoo (@gamblinmcgoo), a Vegas lover. I knew he was from the London area and that he flies down there four or five times a year, much like me. While I have become a huge fan of Downtown Vegas recently, Chris, a serious gambler, prefers to spend his time on the famed Strip.
This what what I mean about Alicia's photography skills. About
mid-October, Chris decided the change in the weather meant it
was time to switch to Porters and Stouts. So Alicia set up this
photo to illustrate that. This is some Creative AF photography!
So whenever I was in Vegas and I was tagging photos, my man, McGoo, was one of the tagged. Tagging someone in a travel photo is quite literally saying, "Look where I am! Cool, eh?" Fellow Vegas fans can relate.

Eventually, I noticed Chris paying extra attention to my "Beer in Vegas" photos. As it turned out, some time earlier, Chris had abandoned the Macro Train after his first visit to Triple 7 Microbrewery-Restaurant at Main Street Station Resort-Casino. As memory serves, it was there that he first tried their Black Chip Porter and... *bam* Bud was removed his tasting table forever.

Now I first went to Triple 7 last September on the word of my friends, Mike and Laura, better known as @hogand2cent on Twitter. As I walked closer to the place, I noticed a billboard promoting the award-winning microbrewery. They were about to meet an award-winning drinker, I thought to myself.
This is Chris on the Vegas Strip way back in 2012, performing
what is know as The Beer Fountain! It's a fast, efficient way of
demolishing a sixer of macro. If you tried this with an IPA or
Stout, you would die. In 2012, I was drinking the macros, too.

For the record, my beverages of choice at Triple-7 were their Carlsbad IPA and their High Roller Gold Blonde Ale. While not a typical choice of mine due to its mildness, I chose the Blonde Ale because I believe if you can pull off a Blonde Ale, Pilsner or Lager, you are a good brewery. There is no hiding flaws behind hops or dark malts. Gotta be bang-on. Both were perfectly on point style-wise.

So this past Summer when Chris said on Twitter that he wanted to try his hand at a beer blog, he got an enthusiastic response from me. My rationale has always been the more eyes out there in the Ontario Craft Beer world, the better it is for us all. This is how we learn.

What I wasn't perhaps anticipating was how quickly and cleverly his endeavour would be set up. First of all, he branded himself - - creating his own web domain. 
Even in something as simple as a sampler photo, Alicia has
a knack of adding real texture and depth. I mean, I take
beer photos all the time and trust me, none of them look
like this. Not sure what kind of camera her phone has but
lemme tell you, it's serving her well. This lady has a knack.
That's smart. I never really tried to brand myself and I probably should have. It turns out being lazy as hell and simply floating though life is actually a negative. Who knew? To most, I am simply Donny, That Dude Who Likes Beer. That's lax branding at best. Meh.

But secondly and more importantly, it's the way he writes his blogs. One brewery at a time. Clever, funny preamble each time. Some great background on the brewery follows that. Personal interaction with the staff or quirky details about the brewery is up next. And finally, he reviews ALL the beers that brewery has on tap the day he and Alicia land there.

When he, Alicia and I all met at Clifford Brewing in Stoney Creek back in late-September, he was taking notes on everything he drank. I rely on my memory. Show of hands - which method do you suppose is more accurate? I mean, I'm not saying that my memory sucks gigantic donkey butt but that's mostly because donkeys are a noble and respected beast of burden.

I have no idea where this is but I will say this. Whatever brewery is doing eight
ounce flight glasses, five per flight, I wanna go there! However, I do know this
is a few years ago, for sure. Young Chris is looking pretty happy here for sure!
So back in mid-August, Chris dropped his first blog. He started with the "This is why I wanna write a beer blog" intro. You kinda have to do that one.

His second one was on London's very well- known Anderson Craft Ales, a place we all applaud these days due to "Man, they're awesome and don't make a bad beer" reasons.

But after that, it was the smaller breweries. The lesser-known to most of us. And that's when things really took off for me as a reader.
Chris and Alicia invited two craft-loving neighbours over to
their house for the Great Pumpkin Beer Challenge just
before Halloween, pitting these six beers against each other
in an Ale-Off. Which won? Well, you'll just have to read it.

They have since stopped in at Steel Wheel Brewing in Brant, London Brewing in London, Stonepicker Brewing in Plympton-Wyoming, Fixed Gear Brewing in Guelph, Charlotteville Brewing in Simcoe and New Limberg Brewing, also in Simcoe.

With the possible exception of Fixed Gear, these are not well-known Ontario breweries. But each of them has their own unique, often fun or revealing story-behind-their-story. And Chris and Alicia are there to document it.

Born in old farms, old country estates and even in the case of New Limburg, an old elementary school, these are breweries that are substantially different than the ones we are used to in the GTA or other urban areas. No shortage of character, that's for sure.

So if you're not doing so, read Hop Happy which you can find here: Chris And Alicia Love Beer! You'll thank me later. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...

Monday, 9 November 2020

One person can make a difference


That is my handsome son, David, between these two smiling faces at Cowbell
Brewing in the tiny town of Blyth, Ontario. David and his Mom were in the
neighbourhood back in August, David spotted the brewery and told his Mom
they had to stop so he could buy Daddy some beer. They also ate there and I
will say his Mom told me the food was really great. That's where this starts.
This is the story of a young boy and a full-grown woman.

They have never met. Indeed, their paths have never once crossed but to me, they are now connected. Neither of them would know how. But that's why I'm here. I'm the narrator of this fanciful tale.

So this is the story of a boy named David Redmond and a woman named Ren Navarro. Oh, and also a very popular Ontario establishment and tourist attraction called Cowbell Brewing.
This beer, Black Is Beautiful, a collaboration effort between Grain & Grit Small
Batch Beers in Hamilton and Ren Navarro, was a tricky one to explain to David.
The best I could do is tell him that many people are not treated fairly by others
and that he and I should always want everyone to be treated exactly the same. 

So, one day this past August, David's Mom texted me to say that they had stopped into a brewery and that my boy had bought me some beer. Obviously, I was pumped. That's a pretty big father-son moment right there.

When she sent the picture up top, well, my heart sank a little. They had gone to Cowbell. Ouch.

There's little point in beating around the bush on this one because the story is well-known in Ontario craft beer circles. Long story short, early in the Summer, a couple went to the brewery. He's black, she's white. Not particularly note-worthy to most of us. I would hope.
Now this is a picturesque looking brewery. And in fact, after his first trip there,
Drunk Polkaroo wrote, "Pictures do not do justice to this cathedral of beer."
But the brewery that was doing absolutely everything right slipped this year.
When they got to the front of the line, the hostess told them the dining room was fully booked but they were welcome to sit on the outdoor patio. Seems fair enough. Except the wife notices more and more couples being let into the dining room. Her Spider-Sense was tingling. So she walks up solo, sans hubby, to see if she can get an indoor seat. Yes, she can immediately, says the hostess. Now none of us can claim to know what was actually going on in that young lady's head. But let's face it - the optics were not good. Dreadful, actually.
While he and his Mom forgot to pack this four-pack
of Cowbell Brewing beverages that David bought for
me in his August visit, it was remembered for his
September stay-with-Dad. And it was consumed!

When the lady posted the story on Facebook, it did not take long to make the social media rounds. Same-day service, if you will. And believe me, we all noticed. In fact, most of us noticed furiously.

Before long, Cowbell also noticed and quickly issued an apology that was sadly lacking in one regard. The apology itself. That further infuriated people. However, I was somewhat heartened to read that they were planning to reach out to Ren, Ontario's reigning Beer Diversity Monarch, (a hail and hearty "Long live the Queen!") to come to the brewery and do that thing she does so well. And that is, "plain-splain" why the Ontario Craft Beer industry needs to be to be more inclusive towards the BIPOC and LGBTQ2 communities. As a member of both, Ren is uniquely equipped to calmly, rationally and even happily explain its importance to people, even those as dense as myself. (Seriously. Never bother to ask me what day it is. Just assume I don't know. Because I don't.)

But let's step away from Ren for just a moment (a brief moment, a mere second in time) and get back to David because while I believe both have hearts of gold, the reality is I have only known one for 29 years. 
I am not sure who took this photo of our Beer Diversity
Queen Ren but, whoa, that is one million dollar smile! 

Back when I got the Cowbell picture with my boy, I honestly thought, "What do I do? I don't want to be insensitive to all this but, man, it's David! This means the world to me."

So I threw the old "rock and a hard place - what do I do here, folks?" out there to the Twitterverse. The answers came quickly. Boston Adam from Fergus noted, "It's the thought that counts. Enjoy the beers" which was pretty much echoed by Greg, who said, "Don't say a word. This is definitely a case of 'It's the thought that counts'." Danny up there in Sudbury chipped in, "I think the good outweighs the bad in this case." Drunk Polkaroo offered up, "Honest gestures of love are far more important than a dumb PR response."

But it was Paulie G who got me all verklempt with his touching thoughts. "Don, we all know you are a despicable person. This doesn't really change anything. Carry on." I tell you, that Paulie G guy could make a statue weep. The old softie.
Graeme screen-captured this image of Cowbell's
diversity training with Ren. According to the
brewery itself, it is just "Phase One" of ongoing
training. Some questioned the singular use of
just posting on Instagram but Ren stepped in to
say that was her suggestion. I get that. If you
throw it on every social media platform, then it
all seems very force-fed, doesn't it? Clever lady.
So having been given what I suspect is the "David Hall Pass," (whereby if David is involved, it's all good) I went ahead and drank those beers. Somewhat guilt-free, I should add. Again, it was a gift that meant a lot to me. Also among the four was their Doc Perdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale, a huge favourite of both Danny and myself.

And I continued to watch the situation up there in Blyth as Ren came into the town, floating on an umbrella, much like Mary Poppins. *Checks notes* Never mind. She drove there. Turns out there are no bullet trains non-stop between Blyth and Kitchener. (If GO Transit could get on that, that'd be great.)

I mean, I knew she was up there doing her thing but wondered how it was going. On October 15, I got my answer. On their Twitter feed, Cowbell released a video with Ren narrating. After establishing shots of the brewery itself, Ren came onscreen and told us all this. "I'm Ren Navarro. I run a company called Beer Diversity. Yeah, I talk about beer. Yeah, I talk about diversity. But I also talk about inclusion and why craft beer is such a great liquid. How we all love it and how it's accessible for all of us. Working with Cowbell the last few months, I'm learning a lot from them and they're learning a lot from me because it's all about conversations. Opening it up and having safe spaces where we can try and make some change. So when you're sitting at the craft beer family table, don't ask someone to leave. Just shove over a little bit. Make a little more room and share your favourite beverage. Cheers."

When Ren was called upon by Cowbell to head up and help out,
she quipped to Hamilton artist-cartoonist David Buist that she
needed some kind of Bat Signal, designed specifically for her.
Within the hour, David responded, posting this beauty, which
totally nails it. Like Ren herself, David never lets us down.
That was enough for me. However, I hasten to add it was not for others. I see posts from folks not willing to Cowbell it up just yet. Which is perfectly fair.

But I was hoping for a better ending and I think I got it. They're back on my Spendy-Spend List. You see, Cowbell's strength has always been in its sense of community. Since its inception back in 2017, the brewery has donated five cents a can of their flagship beer, Absent Landlord Country Kolsch, to four children's hospital in Ontario. David spent the first week of his life in an incubator at Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital so when Cowbell hit $500,000 in hospital donations last week, well, that was a pretty big deal to me. 

Yeah, they slipped. But Ren reached down, grabbed their hand and pulled them back up onto their feet. So why is that enough for me? Because it's Ren. She will always be enough. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...