Sunday, 16 August 2015

A night out with Nickel Brook...

If you can't count at least one brewery owner and one bar
owner among your friends, then you are living your life
all wrong. Here, John Romano, owner of Nickel Brook
Brewing and Doug Birrell, owner of The Purple Heather,
stand still just long enough to have their picture taken...
My Nickel Brook Brewing buddy, Tony and I have been trying to get together one night for drinks all summer long. The problem is while he is in the business of helping make really good beer, I am in the business of selling beer. That means our schedules are often in conflict - when he's free, I'm working and vice versa. Hey, breweries have to make beer before I can sell it, am I right?

But the stars finally aligned on Friday when he gave me a call and asked what I was doing. Well, I was working (of course) but the event would be going on long enough that I could jump in after work. You see, after eight years at the brewery, one of Tony's young co-workers, Eric, was stepping away to return to school and Tony and a few others organized a going-away party at The Purple Heather. "Can you make it over?" Tony asked.

To The Purple Heather? Uhhh, in Poker, does a straight beat a flush? To the gambling-challenged reader, the answer is yes. (However, in the washroom at Donny's Bar and Grill, nothing beats a flush.) You see, The Purple Heather is a great Burlington pub owned by a buddy, Doug, and the added feature that night of a bunch of Nickel Brook workers partying it up, well, to me, that's just a bonus...
Man, did this dude have some pipes on him!!!
Everything from Led Zeppelin to Johnny Cash
came from the stage that night and it was good!
Well, it turns out there was a surprise for Tony, as well, at The Purple Heather that night as the Hamilton band, Freedom Train, was playing. The trio, made up of brothers Carl Jennings (bass/singer), Tim Jennings (drums) and Eddie Mitchell (guitar) is long-known to Tony as he grew up in The Hammer with the Jennings boys. I hadn't heard of Freedom Train but I was soon to find out that they were indeed very popular and why that is so.

When I arrived after work, I spotted Tony instantly and quickly joined the Nickel Brook throng. When owner John spotted me, he yelled out, "What? Are you out on a day pass?" The joke was on him a little later on when I took off my black button-up shirt to show John my bright orange Las Vegas County Jail T-shirt underneath. (My inmate ID number is 80122-48021 - as is everyone's who bought this shirt, I suppose. There's a lot of us on the loose.)

From there, I made my way over to bar owner, Doug, holding court, as always, at the northern end of the table situated directly between the bar and the band. Shaking my hand, he asked with his usual gregarious smile, "You here to see Freedom Train?" Actually, no, I told him, just hanging with the Nickel Brook Mafia. He waved around at the packed bar - no easy feat during the summer months when most folks are away - and noted it was the band that drew them all in.
Stolen from their Facebook page, here's a shot of
drummer Tim playing - yes - just two drums and still
managing to get a huge rock sound with his sparse set
Looking around at quite literally dozens of pretty women in their 30s and 40s wearing Freedom Train shirts, Doug noted, "I've got to talk to the band about booking here once a month." No kidding - it made for some nice ambiance.

Given his history with the brothers, Tony gave me a crash course in the band, now together for more than two decades, before they started. All three have been in other bands before Freedom Train and have plenty on the go outside of the power-trio. Singer Carl is also a producer, musician and audio engineer at Westmoreland Recording Studio; guitarist Eddie has performed on dozens of songs and jingles and is apparently a talented designer-artist creating CD covers for other bands while Tim teaches drums at Long & McQuade, just five minutes away from me in Burlington. Beyond that, Tony warned me of their talent.

Within seconds of them starting up, I got it. Carl's voice has a four-octave range which was perfectly suited for the rock classics (including some great Led Zeppelin covers), R&B and funk they played. Eddie put on his business face, standing stoically in one spot while grinding out lick after lick. But drummer Tim? Well, here's a little story about him.
Ringo, I love you and you're my mate. But it's about time
we had a chat about your drumming skills. Better sit down.
The dude only uses two drums - a bass drum and a single mounted tom (could be a snare - I need drum lessons) with a handful of cymbals. That's it. Two drums. And they do Led Zeppelin songs! Yet, he beautifully manages to get a John Bonham beat laid down with just that in his arsenal. Even back in the 1960s with The Beatles, Ringo Starr relied on four - a bass, mounted tom, snare and floor tom. Rush's Neil Peart uses so many drums, they form a 360-degree circle around him. Two drums, unbelievable sound - that's a real skill. And I made sure to tell him precisely that during a break.

(Quick Ringo story: when a journalist once asked John Lennon if Ringo was the world's best drummer, Lennon quipped, "Ringo's not even the best drummer in The Beatles.") Anyway, an awesome night of music. But back to the Nickel Brook Bash!
I recently noticed these words at the
bottom of my beer glass after having a
pint of Muskoka's Mad Tom IPA on tap at
Burlington's Rib Eye Jack's Ale House.
All these beers later and I had never
noticed their motto on the glass' base.
Because the bar serves Nickel Brook's hoppy Naughty Neighbour Pale Ale, there was little doubt what I was purchasing first. That became a moot point soon as owner John was buying pitcher after pitcher of the same beer and refilling our glasses repeatedly. I got a chance to meet his wife, Tracey, and as I introduced myself, she said, "I know who you are." That's usually not good but this time it was. I remember John telling me months ago that she read him a blog of mine about the brewery off her phone while they were driving somewhere and mentioning she got a little misty-eyed while reciting it. Usually the only people who choke up reading this thing are English professors. I was sure to compliment her on how great their kids, Nick and Brook, are because 1) mothers love hearing that stuff and 2) it's very true in this case.

In the end, I learned three things that evening. If you get a chance to see Freedom Train, go see them! If you get a chance to go to Doug's bar The Purple Heather, actually go there! And finally, if you ever get a chance to party with John Romano, for gawd's sake, just do it!!!

The many clocks at Donny's Bar and Grill may not agree on the time (seriously, they're like snowflakes - no two are alike) but they all know this... it's time to talk about some beers! So let's go there, shall we? Now you may have read about my favourite beer technician Kylie at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House in this space once or twice but what you didn't know is that she and I have a Beer Exchange Program. I give her beer, she gives me beer - we both learn. Good on her end because, well, she's a beer technician and good on my end because I write this thing.
And what did I get in return for those crappy
Labatt-USA Bourbon Barrel Ales? Ummm,
three quality beers. Cue the Guilt Card now.
It's always been an equitable exchange program... until recently. My coworker Marie managed to get me a six-pack of that gawd-awful Labatt-USA Bourbon Barrel Ale brewed out of Genesee Brewery in Buffalo recently and I gave three to Kylie - more for chuckles, really. They taste like ass... actually, charred ass (and no, I don't know - I'm just guessing there.) What I got back in return? A Southern Tier (Lakewood, NY) Right-O-Way (session) IPA, a Great Lakes Brewing (Cleveland) Commodore Perry IPA and a Great Divide Brewing (Denver) Hercules Double IPA. Well... crap. I wasn't even remotely aware that I could feel guilt (it's awful - I do not recommend it!) but as it turns out, issues of beer parity can send me tumbling down the shame spiral. I made it up as quickly as I could by gifting her with a Stone IPA and an Amsterdam Boneshaker IPA (one of her all-time favs) T-shirt. The shirt was given to my boss at the Beer Store by our Amsterdam rep and since I was off sick, she was told subsequently by every one of my co-workers, "If you don't give that to Donny, he will, in fact, kill you." Kill is a strong word. Torture? Maim? Tickle until crying tears of anguish? Sure, they all work. But I digress...
I have had better IPAs, to be
honest, but this one comes with
a pretty funny story about it...

Those three beers were a mixed bag - all good but some moreso than others. Let's start with the Hercules Double IPA which was close to perfect and keep in mind, my Gold Standard for double/imperial IPAs is Stone Ruination Imperial IPA, at this point, the best IIPA I've ever had. Hercules comes damn close. Very fruity on the nose, piney and bitter on the tongue, the 10%, 85 IBU (international bitterness units) crotch-kicker has got it down. It'd push your grandmother off the curb into oncoming traffic for shits and giggles. Great job by Great Divide! My next favourite was, surprisingly, the session Right-O-Way by Southern Tier. At just 4.6% and I'm guessing maybe 45-50 IBUs, this was a nice day time drinker. Citrus on the nose, grapefruit on the tongue, this actually delivers. Not quite in the same league as Flying Monkeys' Genius of Suburbia either taste-wise or hop-wise but pretty damn good. And that takes us to the Commodore Perry IPA. Now don't get me wrong, this is certainly good but my standards for single IPAs are nearly impossible to meet, mainly because I've had so many great ones, notably from their Canadian counterpart of the same name, Great Lakes Brewing in Toronto. The 7.5%, 80 IBU beer has some nice orange rind on the nose, citrus on the tongue but... it falls a little short. I'm no brewer but maybe some dry-hopping at the end? The name, of course, is from the famous commander who fought on Lake Erie during the War of 1812 between Canada (well, the British, really - we weren't a country yet) and the USA (since 1776, not big fans of the Brits). You can Google him but long story short? In the US Navy and a big deal back in the early-1800s. Statues and stuff. Shares a name (Matthew Perry) with the Canadian actor called Chandler Bing ("No statues, Joey - could life BE more unfair?") from the TV show, Friends.
Manantler Brewing's Seimic Narwhal Imperial IPA -
the explanation behind this beer's name is totally worth
the price of admission. Keep in mind, you paid nothing.

Okay, since we're in the IPAs-that-didn't-quite-cut-it mode, let's look at Stonehammer's Andrew's Second Wish IPA, a beer out of the Guelph brewery that I quite admire. As I wrote back in March, Phil and Lesley Woodhouse bought the place outright from the former owners. Why? Because owning a craft brewery and winning the Stanley Cup are 1A and 1B on the Canadian Wish List. So the couple wandered from employee to employee, asking for their wish list. The Stanley Cup thing probably had a few takers but one of their brewers, Andrew, had a different list. According to the back label, his first wish was a shower. I don't know if he meant in-house or the poor bastard just wanted to go home for a shower. But his second wish was for a "really hoppy IPA." Now I'm not sure how this landed in Rib Eye Jack Ale House's possession because it was a super-limited release (I suspect the bar's head honcho Steve actually drove to the brewery). So if they got some, I got one because that's the way life should work. Okay, the beer itself - despite using five times the hops they do in their pale ale and then wort-hopping it and dry-hopping it... well, it wasn't very hoppy. It was sweet and had tons of caramel and wasn't a bad beer. But it was far more a British style than "super hoppy." Kylie had a sampler of mine and pretty much agreed. I think I got a "meh" from her but the bar can get noisy. Not what I was expecting from a 7.7%, 70 IBU beer. That said, give these new owners time. Their Coffee Oatmeal Stout is truly outstanding and I believe their best is yet to come.

Remember, people, not every hero wears a
cape. (This message is endorsed by Beer
Bro Glenn, the Pizza Dude himself...)
Well, let's end this with a left-over from Beer Bro Glenn. When he came here for the Burlington Beer Festival a month ago, he brought a handful of brews with him. Among them was Manantler Brewing's (Bowmanville, Ontario) Siesmic Narwhal Imperial IPA. Now lemme tell you what's crazy about this name. Narwhals are a type of whale indigenous to the Arctic. Recently, a handful of egghead scientists were using seismic airguns (heavy-duty sonar, let's call it) to check crevices in the Arctic for natural resources. Except the Narwhal whale is super-sensitive to noise (moreso than other whales) and thus, the introduction of this equipment to their natural habitat is the equivalent of that kid pulling into the parking lot playing hip-hop with the bass turned up to 11. Not ideal. So basically, Narwhals and Seismic noise go together like gravy and an ice-cream sundae. See? You learn cool stuff here! Or weird stuff. Whatever. And the beer? Oh, it was good. Nothing but pine on the nose, this 8.5%, 80+ IBU beer is all grapefruit on the tongue. 'Twas a beast. Nice job to the relatively New Craft Beer Kids On The Block!

Okay, back next time with a "Closer Look At..." Highlander Brewing Co. out of South River, Ontario... which means no IPAs... because they don't make one. Yet. Brewmaster Brian Wilson is a cool dude and his brewery deserves a hearty plug. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time, I remain...