Sunday, 3 January 2016

Not on my watch! The best beers of 2015

True Story: Flying Monkeys had to change the label on
their Smashbomb Atomic IPA because the LCBO felt the
background looked too much like an actual atomic bomb
going off. So they opted for this dust-storm background.
The change satisfied what one craft beer saleman called
"the LCBO Label Nazis!" He meant that in the nice way...
Okay, before I get into the Best Beers of 2015, a couple of true stories about atomic bombs. Story #1 - In 1957, the US government conducted a study called "The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages." To that end, they set off actual atomic bombs near beer to see if it was drinkable afterwards. The good news: the beer was still consumable. The bad news: those idiot eggheads set off freakin' A-Bombs to test this theory. Really? Let's set some off next to scientists in Round Two.

Story #2 - My first love of IPAs was Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA. That little hottie still makes me smile. But I haven't had it in a while. So a week ago, I checked the shelf-life of our Smashbomb stock at my Beer Store and saw that it was best before January 7, 2016. A craft IPA set to expire? In my store? Not on my goddamn watch! I bought up the shelved stock (two cases), restocked those same shelves with fresh code and brought in the new year awash in Smashbomb. None of them saw January 2nd.
BEST LABEL: I have no idea who draws the
cartoons for Great Lakes Brewing's labels but
hot damn, they always make me chuckle. I say
the Maniacal Hopshop IPA's is the year's best...
Okay, onto the Best Beers of 2015. Just three quick rules first. Rule 1) All beers must be brewed in Canada. Rule 2) No repeat winners. Previous winners are in bracketed italics after the category name. Rule 3) That's it for rules. I think I miscounted. And away we go...

BEST LAGER: (King Dark Lager, Mill Street 100th Meridian Organic Amber) I don't drink many lagers these days as my tastes have shifted to heavier fares. This is not to say they're completely off the table. And for my money, for straight-up lagers, the best I had this year was Hogsback Brewing's (Ottawa) Vintage Lager. Using 2-Row, Munich and Vienna malts, Saaz hops and German lager yeast, this beer has flavour, punch and colour. Try it, you'll like it.

BEST DUNKEL/DARK LAGER: (Side Launch Dark Lager) You want me to drink your lager? Make it dirtier than Kid Rock's underwear! Channel the dark force. This may be stretching the boundaries of the category but Lake of Bay Brewing's (Baysville) 16 Crazy Eyes Darcy Tucker Winter Bock Lager? Holy godiva, that was damn tasty! Coffee and licorice on the nose, bitter-sweet chocolate on the tongue, this was a flat-out taste-bomb and arguably the best of the brewery's highly-touted NHL Alumni series, though the specialty series named after former players were all terrific.
You want to treat a mainstream beer drinker to a
new world of taste? This Mixed-12 fills the bill.

BEST MIXED PACK: (Muskoka Hoptorial Mix-Six) You want people to explore new styles? Look no further than the Okanagan Spring's (Vernon, BC) Craft Variety Pack. It has a Bavarian lager, a pale ale, a brown ale, an outstanding amber ale, a dynamite spicy porter and a true-to-its-German-heritage wheat. Something for everyone and the perfect way to bring mainstream beer drinkers into the craft beer fold.

BEST PILSNER: (Steam Whistle Pilsner, Steamworks Pilsner) With all due respect to the previous winners, both of which are outstanding Czech-style pilsners, Black Oak Brewing (Toronto) went to new wild heights with its Epiphany No. 2 Imperial Pilsener. Goosed with Comet, Wakatu and Saaz hops, it clocked in at 7.7% and 37 IBUs (international bitterness units), which is way high for a pilsner. The bar has been set, craft brewers. Just try to beat this one!

BEST LIGHT/SESSION BEER: (Great Lakes Brewing Citraddiction Extra Pale Ale) I had a healthy handful of session ales - or India Session Ales - this year. They all have one goal - to be low enough in alcohol that you make it to the end of the hockey game but still big on taste.
At just 3.8% but still 52 IBUs, the Genius
of Suburbia packs a whole lotta taste in
the glass without the risk of getting tipsy.
No one did it better this year than Flying Monkeys (Barrie) Genius of Suburbia India Style Session Ale. The low alcohol (3.8%) doesn't mean low taste. This stuff, described by the brewery as an American Pale Wheat Ale, was hoppy and delicious at 52 IBUs, exceptionally high for a low ABV beer.

BEST PORTER: (Nickel Brook's Pissed Off Pete Pumpkin Porter, Mill Street Vanilla Porter) The difference between the previous winners and this year's winner, Highlander Brewing's (South River) Blacksmith Smoked Porter, is that this one doesn't have outside flavouring. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with that because, duh, they won. But this is a straight-up smoky, silky porter that was raved over by Beer Bros Stevil St Evil and Glenn. Surrounded by every tasty IPA I could find during his visit here, Hop Ho Stevil stopped cold in his tracks to add Highlander to his Twitter, just to praise this beer. Glenn had never found a porter to his liking until I steered him to this bad boy. My main man, brewmaster Brian Wilson, hit it out of the park with this one. Good vibrations, indeed.

BEST TRIPLE PLAY: In keeping with the baseball theme, this category's new and goes to the brewery with the best pale ale-IPA-Imperial IPA combo. When Nickel Brook went old school, double dry-hopping their Naughty Neighbour APA and Headstock IPA at the tiny Burlington brewery, they blew my doors off. Throw their outstanding Immodest Imperial IPA into the mix? Well, there's a reason the other craft brewmasters consider Nickel Brook-Collective Art's top dog Ryan to be a hop wizard and it's not because he stole Harry Potter's wand.
If you haven't tried Sawdust City Brewing's
Golden Beach Pale Ale, you are ugly and your
Mommy dresses you funny. Step the hell up!

BEST PALE ALE: (Spearhead's Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, Cameron's California Sunshine APA) If I picked anything but Sawdust City Brewing's (Gravenhurst) Golden Beach Pale Ale, my co-worker Jay-Dawg would probably shank me in the back with a rusty knife. At just 4.5%, this could actually qualify as a dandy session ale but damn, this pale ale is carrying a ton of taste. Somehow, even though brewmaster Sam used Galaxy, Mosaic, Sorachi Ace and Summit hops, the beer kept the IBUs to just 25 IBUs. What sorcery be this? When I went to the Burlington Beer Festival on the Friday, Nickel Brook's Robbie sent me directly to the Sawdust City tent to try this beer. I did likewise on the Saturday when Jay-Dawg and others attended with me. The consensus? This was Ontario's best pale ale. Fruit on the nose, citrus on the tongue... good golly, Miss Molly, this one had it all!

BEST SAISON: (Four Winds Brewing Saison) Well, let's keep the focus on Sawdust City's Sam and Nickel Brook's Ryan for just another minute. As the pair celebrate the same birthday - November 5th (Guy Fawkes Day) - every year they create a collaborative beer with an ABV of 11.05%. This year, they did their high-test 11-05 Saison. Fruity goodness. High alcohol. And as smooth as silk. Not much of a saison drinker but this one? Any time, any day, get the hell out of my way. This year is Sam's 40th so the next one should be legen - wait for it - dary.
Great Lakes Brewery's Happy New Year message was
more of a warning. You walk into this place, you run
the risk of hop overload. These guys just kill with IPAs.

BEST IPA: (Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic, Nickel Brook Headstock) Yeah, this one was gonna go to Great Lakes Brewery (Toronto) by hook or by crook. It started with their single hop Karma Citra IPA, which was a game-changer. But then, they released their Thrust! IPA and suddenly. it was a two-horse race. Then they put Octopus Wants To Fight IPA out there. Potentially a new winner but only until Maniacal Hopshop IPA hit the taps. And suddenly, we had a four-horse race and all the horses had the same owner, head brewer Mike. Dude, WTF? Are you actually a minion of Satan, throwing all this delicious temptation my way? Could be. Don't know the man. But there can be only one Highlander so Octopus Wants To Fight get the championship belt here. Eight legs, eight hops, eight malts, 88 IBUs and 6.2%, I have a new favourite number. Oddly, it's 47. (I don't Math well.) But Mike certainly has my number. Outstanding beer. I would stack this up against any IPA on the continent. It's that good.

BEST WHEAT: (Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Wheat, All or Nothing Hopfenweisse) A surprise winner this year. You see, this is made by Creemore Brewing. And Creemore is owned by behemoth Molson's.
Yup, it's made by Creemore and I will happily throw
this against the best out there because this is a damned
good wheat beer. My brother loved it. And I loved it.
So technically, one of the big boys can lay claim to ownership of a championship title in a column mostly dedicated to the craft brewers' best. But hey, good is good and Creemore's Hop & Weizen was the best wheat I had this year. My brother Gary landed in Canada from Spain this year and despite his dark beer roots, he loved Rickard's White. I thought, "You want wheat? I'll bring you some wheat heat!" I bought a dozen different ones. This one? Hands-down the best. Banananana (sorry, I'm never sure where to stop the na's in that word) on the nose, smooth and lightly-hopped wheat on the tongue, this was dynamite. Not a big wheat guy but I could drink this year-round.

IMPERIAL IPA: Let's make this short and sweet. Tried dozens. Mostly good... but a few, not so much. Nickel Brook's Immodest Imperial IPA was, well, three weight classes higher than the rest. Take notes. At 9.5% and 85 IBUs, this uses - and I quote - "an obscene amount of Citra and Simcoe hops" - to create the smoothest double IPA you will ever drink. To put this into perspective, the first time I tried this beer was exactly the same day I tried Stone Brewing's (Escondido, California) Ruination Double IPA for the first time. I gave this beer the edge. Over a Stone Brewing's premier double-IPA. Mind. Blown.
Strap on your Big Boy Pants for this one. At a
whopping 10% and 100+ IBUs, this is not your
grandfather's triple IPA. And that's mostly due
to the fact that Grand-Pappy didn't have this...

BEST ALE: (Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale) You will notice neither of the previous winners is a brown ale. Why? Because brown ales usually suck ass. That is until this year when Wellington Brewery (Guelph) released their Terrestrial India Brown Ale and changed the rule book. So how do you take a brown ale and make it palatable? Well, brewmaster Marvin followed this exact process. A) Take Plain Jane brown ale formula. B) Say to yourself, "What would happen if I threw Amarillo, Chinook, Centennial, Cascade and Sorachi Ace hops into this Plain Jane brown ale?" C) Realize you are talking to yourself while watching the cauldron bubble. D) Bask in the glory of what you have created. And finally, E) Talk to others so it's less weird. This was delicious. At 5.9% and 57 IBUs, it was caramel goodness on the nose, smoky goodness on the tongue. This baby took bronze at the 2015 US Open Beer Championships last year in the Brown Ale division and deservedly so. From the "Words I Never Thought I'd Say" folder, a truly great brown ale!

BEST BRITISH-STYLE IPA: ... and speaking of words I never thought I'd say. British IPAs are those malty, hops-missing-in-action kinds of beer I usually ignore. I want my IPAs west coast-style, not mild and meek. But then Longslice Brewing slapped me upside the face.
Space trucking is dirty, thirsty work and that's why
guys like Star-Lord stop for a Hopsta La Vista IPA
along the way. Hoppy top, malty backbone... oh yeah.
The Brothers Peat (Jimmy and John), along with compadre Sebastian Lesch opened a new category for my "Best Of..." list by bringing Jimmy's formula for a hybrid British/North American IPA to life in March 2014. At present, they are cleverly working their way through the Toronto bar circuit, winning admirers one at a time. They hoodwinked the judges at the 2015 Ontario Brewing Awards by entering this as a British-style IPA and damned if they didn't strike gold. In fairness to them, there is plenty of malt backbone to this beer (Pip, pip, tally-ho!) but by adding Waimea, Admiral, Comet and Cascade hops, it's got its tangy west coast surfer dude side, too. Of course, I am still waiting for this to show up in Burlington LCBOs. *Crickets chirping* You goddamn rat-bastards.

BEST STOUT: (Nickel Brook Old Kentucky Bastard, Stonehammer Coffee Oatmeal Stout) It came late in the year but damn that bourbon barrel-aged Walkerville Brewing Milk Stout was dynamite. Vanilla and bourbon on the nose, chocolate and toasty-warm bourbon on the tongue and throat. Day-um, this was one solid stout from Chris Ryan's and Mike Brkvich's Little Brewery That Could. Awesome job, boys!

Ever wonder what 100kgs of late-harvest Chinook hops
culled from Washington's Yakima Valley looks like?
Well, actually, it looks a lot like this. Hoppy goldmine!
PUT ON YOUR BIG BOY PANTS FOR THIS ONE: Turns out Amsterdam brewmaster Iain was innocently wandering through Yakima Valley in Washington state when he came upon 100-kgs (220 pounds) of late harvest Chinook hops that he quite fancied. So he called his buddy Mike at Great Lakes and the pair decided to drop the entire batch into a single 3,000 litres (793 gallons) batch. And thus, Life Sentence Triple IPA was created by the mad scientists. (Cue maniacal laughter) Muah-ha-ha! And by using the entire batch, it was, indeed, a life sentence for those poor hops. It's 10% and 100+ IBUs of the best damned IPA you'll ever taste. Caution is advised. A few of these on tap at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House and I was looking for the nearest stripper pole to show off my sick white boy dance moves. (Fortunately, for those in my vicinity, no pole was available.) Obviously, this one takes the Best Triple IPA award but kind of by default. The only other one I had this year was from New Zealand. Still, winnah, winnah, chicken dinner! Pine on top of pine with more pine added. Usually a hop used in pale ales. turns out if you drop 100-kgs of Chinook into a vat, they turn out to be something more. Something much more.

Beau's Lug Tread Lagered Ale put a smile on Kim's
face as we languished on the patio of the Waterfront
Pub this summer. In the foreground was Stevil's and
my choice of beer: Black Oak's Ten Bitter Years IIPA.
BEST ON TAP - IN TOWN: When Nickel Brook had trouble getting a keg of their Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout to Rib Eye Jack's earlier this year, they subbed in a keg of the Malevolent Black Imperial IPA. Two words. Kah. Ching! At 9.5% and 90 IBUs, this one's all black magic, using crazy amounts of Simcoe, Columbus and Centennial hops. You could smell the coffee, hops and chocolate as soon as it was within five feet. I dined on that one for a long, long time. A much deserved gold medal winner at the 2014 US Open Beer Championships.

BEST ON TAP - OUT OF TOWN: This past summer, I drove Stevil St Evil to picturesque Napanee to (sadly) reunite him with brother Dave and sister Kim for their father's funeral. While there, Dave suggested the Waterfront Pub right on Napanee River was the best gin joint in town so off we went. The selection of beers was left in my hands as Dave and Kim are diehard Sleeman's drinkers and Stevil was unfamiliar with Canadian craft fare (that soon would change.) Asking our cheery server if they had any good craft beers on tap, she handed me a frikkin' book. Whoa, was not expecting that. Our two Sleeman's drinkers loved the Beau's Lug Tread Lagered Ale I suggested while Stevil and me happily piled into pint after pint (after pint) of Black Oak Ten Bitter Years Imperial IPA.
The Longslice Banditos: John and Jimmy Peat up front,
Sebastian Lesch in the back centre. Don't know who the
other dude is back left and thus henceforth, he shall be
named Waldo. Yeah, henceforth is harsh. I went there.
Piney on the nose, tons of pine and citrus on the tongue, I was stunned that this was on tap. Every bit as tasty from the keg as it is in the bottle.

THE SPIRIT OF CRAFT BEER: Jimmy and John Peat started brewing beer in their Muskoka basement as under-aged teens because while buying beer was illegal, buying the ingredients to make beer was not. Jimmy will be the first to admit their home-brew was "f***ing awful" but added it wasn't much worse than some of the mainstream fare out there. Supplying their suds to parties made them a popular pair, it turns out. Eventually, they drifted to Toronto and with long-time friend Sebastian Lesch, they started brewing what would become Hopsta La Vista (hybrid) IPA. When the Longslice boys attend a Beer Festival, they attend a Beer Festival. You get to meet them, shoot the breeze with them and if a stripper pole is nearby, dance with them. To me, these wacky, fun-loving brewers are the epitome of the spirit of craft beer. Watch for them in 2016.
Day in and day out, this beer was there for
me, dancing its way into my mouth... and
that just sounds wrong, creepy and weird
You can't miss them. As my Mom likes to say, "They do the You-Tubes..."

WINGMAN BEER OF THE YEAR: Let's face it, craftonauts, you need that one beer that's always there for you. Many of Great Lakes' fine IPA offerings are not year-round. Nickel Brook's Headstock struggled a little at first to figure out the radically-different chemistry of their much larger tanks in Hamilton. (My growlers and I will be doing further product testing this afternoon - drink locally, people!) I have drank enough Smashbomb Atomic to sink a battleship. Well, a Canadian Navy battleship so more of a tug-boat where the sailor has a crossbow. So who was there for me? Muskoka Brewing's Mad Tom IPA. It's 6.4% and 64 IBUs of grapefruity goodness. If I had something clever to say to a pretty woman, Mad Tom was there by my side to make sure it came out stupid and offensive. In scientific studying, I learned that four Mad Toms will convince me that I can dance... because there's four of them. (No idea what that means. Still don't Math well.) This is an Ontario hop classic and was my best buddy this year. Never leave me, Mad Tom, you glorious brain-bashing bastard! Okay, next up in a few days is everything you need to know about the upcoming Burlington Winter Beer Festival. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time, I remain...