Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Best of 2016 - Part 1

When I pester people to drink locally, this is
what I mean - Ontario Craft Beer. Yeah, sure,
Nickel Brook, right around the corner from me
in Burlington, may see more of me than others
but when I shop, it's Ontario-wide craft beers!
Well, another year is done and true to the way 2016 has gone so far, celebrity deaths did not end at Christmas. It's almost like we can expect a few more right up until 11:59 pm on December 31st.

I took my son over to my life-long buddy Dave's house for a post-Christmas dinner with his lady, Joann, the other night and we were talking about this. Eventually, we came up with a joint conclusion. We decided that as far as celebrities and musicians go, we didn't believe that more left us this year than normal. No, our theory is that the people we lost this year simply mean more to our generations - the Baby Boomers and the Gen-Xers. Artists like Prince, George Michael, David Bowie and Glenn Frey, actors such as Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke and Garry Shandling, as well as sports legends Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe - these people all loomed much larger in our generations' lives.

This is probably how our parents felt when icons like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby shuffled off this mortal coil, though I don't believe our folks' generation ever put quite the same stock in celebrity as we do. But to us, the people we idolized in our youth and into our adulthood simply seem too young to die. But that's not the way things work. So for all those who decried 2016 as the worst year ever, all I can say is, "Buckle up!" Because right now, 2017 is ready to hop behind the wheel with the phone in one hand, a beer in the other, texting his bros and going 90. It'll probably be just as ugly.
First on deck from one of my all-time favourite
breweries is Cameron's and their outstanding 12
Mile India Pale Lage
r. Just as delicious as hell...

Okay, using that awful segue from celebrity deaths to beer, let's move to the much cheerier of the latter since this was an outstanding year for craft beer. Having previously done these year-end, best-of lists from 2013 to 2015, I have always kept my list to only Canadian beers. Why? *Looks outside at last night's fresh mounds of snow* Well, because apparently, I've chosen to live in this Arctic Tundra. And there have been some great Canadian beers on the previous three lists. But this year, I'm getting even more exclusionary. My list's boundaries are now those of Ontario's.

You see, I am always thumping my chest and once I stop coughing, I say loudly, "Goddammit all to hell, drink locally, people!" That's important to me. When you meet people like Nickel Brook owner John Romano, Muskoka sales rep Vince Cusick or Lake of Bays sale rep Tim Glazin (among the many others I have met over the years), you learn quickly how much your support is appreciated. There is no sense of entitlement on their end. They want to earn your patronage - and they do. So I'm sorry, Quebec and the Maritimes, apologies to the Prairie provinces and BC but this year, I'm going all-Ontario with this bitch.

Even though Lake Wilcon Brewing changed the label
for their iaugural beer, Mad Quaker, from the design
on the left to the one on the right, I was thrilled with the
original for one reason. I'm colourblind and yet when I
asked a coworker if the can was purple, it turned out
against long odds that I was correct!!! That meant a lot.
Aside from the boundary changes and some expanded categories, there are only two other rules. Rule 1) No previous winners. And Rule 2) Shit, I think I miscounted because that's it. I already mentioned the Ontario thing. Okay, gang, let's... get... reeeady... to rumble!!!! Previous winners are listed in bold italic at the end of each.

Best Pale/Blonde Lager: You may notice there is only one previous winner in this new category. The reason is simple. When it comes to lagers, I like mine dirtier than that hard-to-reach part on the rear of the toilet with the two ceramic bolt covers that guys only clean if a woman is coming over. So yeah, that dirty! But I had some great lighter-hued lagers this year because damn, you guys are getting good at this. But none surpassed Cameron's Brewing's 12 Mile India Pale Lager. Brand new to the brewery this year and frankly one that should be available to the beer-drinking public year round (Did I say that loudly enough? You heard that, Cameron's?), this 5.2% brew combined the best of two styles with some great light fruit and citrus on the nose followed by both bitterness and graininess on the tongue. Frankly, this was one of the best new beers from an older house that I enjoyed this year. Just excellent, gang. (Previous Winner: Hogsback Brewing Vintage Lager.)
"Yay, this pilsner came late in the fight," says Thor, "but by
Odin's beard, I only back the mightiest of allies!" Which is
exactly the situation when Rainhard's Unfiltered Pilsner
landed in my glass two weeks ago and ended up being the
best Pilsner of 2016. Years have 12 months so it happens...

Best Amber/Dark Lager: Lake Wilcox Brewing, which recently opened their own brewery in Vaughan, Ontario, came flying out of the gate this year with their Mad Quacker Amber Lager. Originally contract-brewed out of Railway City in St. Thomas, their inaugural beer was a sessionable 4.7% with dark fruit and breadiness on the nose with a thicker caramel and toffee finish on the tongue. Heavy-duty and damn delicious! This is why I like them dark and dirty. It's like rare prime rib to a carnivore - it's something to bite into! This brewery started off perfectly and appears to be headed further on that same trajectory. (Previous winners: King Brewing Dark Lager, Mill Street 100th Meridian Amber Organic Lager.)

Best Pilsner: Now here's a category about which I feel somewhat badly. You see, I had a winner slotted in this spot way back in April and no one knocked it off its lofty throne. Many contenders came over 2016 but none could beat it. It was free and clear. Until just two short weeks ago when I popped into Rainhard Brewing for some fresh beers and a glass. Suddenly, a newcomer had brashly, brazenly knocked the crown off the king.
Is it a Saison? Is it a Farmhouse Ale? Well, actually, it's
both and it's also the best Saison I had in 2016. Kudos to
the Collingwood Brewery gang for this exceptional beer.
Yup, the Rainhard Unfiltered Pilsner ended up being the best one I had this year. Pale but hazy in the glass (because unfiltered rocks the house), there was absolutely grassy maltiness on the nose but the 4.9%, 35 IBU (international bitterness units) brew surprised the hell out of me on the tongue. A quick hop punch and some citrus made this light-to-medium bodied beer a lot more in the glass (my brand new Rainhard glass, I should say) than your average pilsner. But then I've long since learned that nothing brewer Jordan Rainhard does is average. This is a brewer on a mission and we, the beer-lovers, get the spoils of his journey. That works for me. Great job, Jordan and hold tight - you're back to this little party quite soon. (Previous winners: Steam Whistle Pilsner, Steamworks Pilsner and Black Oaks Epiphany No. 2 Imperial Pilsner.)

Best Saison: Man, I had a lot of saisons this year which is remarkable because that style used to be much lower on my list of priorities. But this year saw a banner crop of them and I jumped in. This year's winner, Collingwood Brewery's Saison Farmhouse Ale, comes with a back story. One day, I was making my lunch prior to a late shift and I was scanning my fridge for a nice, light beer to pair with it.
I love this Drunk Polkaroo's picture of Side Launch
Wheat, this year's Best German-Style Wheat. But I
love this delicious beer even more. Banana goodness!
I spotted this one and thought, "Perfect." Except as soon as I cracked it open, there was a WTF moment. The smell was too deep and rich for a saison. Checking the ABV, I realized that I was enjoying a 7% beer before going to work. (Not recommended at all.) But since I was committed to it at that point, I drank it for King and country. Oh man, thick aroma of tropical fruit with some light sweetness on the tongue followed by a bitter bite. This was one heavy-duty saison and I loved it. These guys also make a great pale ale and ESB. Great work. (Previous Winners: Nickel Brook-Sawdust City 11-05 Imperial Saison, Four Winds Brewing Saison.)

Best German-Style Wheat: It is an absolute privilege this year to name Side Launch Wheat as the best in this always-tough-to-pick category. Back in the Summer, the brewery made the tough decision to recall three batches of this beer, simply because they were worried if it was improperly stored, it might not be 100%. That prompted me and Beer Writing pal Drunk Polkaroo to create a #stepupforsidelaunch social media campaign to show our support for this Collingwood brewery. However, as far back as March, I already had this slotted as best wheat.
Aside from a very clever name, Railway City's The
"Witty" Traveller Pint is a damn tasty beer. It is also
the first winner of my Belgian Wit category here.
This beer came to the brewery several years back from the original recipe for Denison's Weissbier (as did Denison's Dunkel, renamed Side Launch Dark Lager, also one of my favourites.) The Bavarian-style 5.3% beauty is all banana and cloves on the nose with coriander, more banana and light yeast on the tongue. I'm surprised it took this long for me to choose it. More on our Collingwood friends tomorrow so stay tuned. (Previous Winners: Creemore Hoppy Hefeweizen, All Or Nothing Hopfenweisse and Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Wheat.)

Best Belgian-Style Wit: Well, what can I tell Railway Brewing out of St Thomas, Ontario, other than the fact they are the first winner in this category? That's because every year, I would opt for a German wheat over the Belgian style simply because I prefer those. But I recognized that's not fair so, hey, new category this year! And I chose Railway City's The "Witty" Traveller Pint as the inaugural winner. 
Way back, the tiny town of Blyth, Ontario was
named Drummond. But in 1855, some British
dude named Blyth bought the whole town up
and renamed it after himself. But he never
once made the trip overseas to visit his new
namesake community and so Cowbell Brewing
named their first ever beer, Absent Landlord.
As expected, from the Belgian yeast, this 4.5% brew adds some spiciness on the nose along with the banana with some pepper and bubble-gum on the tongue. I will always prefer the German style but top-notch beers like this are bringing me a little more onside with Belgian Wits. Excellent effort equals excellent result. Well done.

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch - Part One: As I mentioned a couple of columns back, I feel badly that I've never honoured the lagered-ale Kolsch style in the past hence it is named after Ontario's biggest and best, Beau's Lug Tread. And you'll see the reason for the "Part One" shortly. While I have always maintained that pale ales are the best crossover from macro to craft beers, lagered ales are an equally friendly style to achieve that. And my favourite this year was the brand new Cowbell Brewing Absent Landlord Country Kolsch. I was stunned to see this checked in at just 18 IBUs as it has a lovely bitterness on the tongue. At 5.3%, this is lightly spicy (Belgian yeast?) with some caramel on the nose with some hop punch and tartness on the tongue. Like Lake Wilcox before it, Cowbell came out at the first bell swinging. And as we speak, Cowbell is busy building a massive brewery, slated to open in the Summer of 2017, with indoor-outdoor seating for 216 visitors and an outdoor venue for entertainment, sports and children's use.
There can be no question that Old Tomorrow's
Track 85 Lagered Ale, named after the final
section of railway track being laid in 1885 to link
Canada coast-to-coast, is definitely one of this
year's best Kolsch beers. Old Tomorrow rocks!
What an addition to Blyth this brewery will be.

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch - Part Two: I'm not doing this category twice because I've neglected it in the past. Well, maybe a little. No, I'm doing this twice because former co-worker Jay-Dawg vehemently insisted that if I picked any Kolsch except for Old Tomorrow's Track 85 Lagered Ale, I was just plain wrong. "This is the best Kolsch I've ever had in my life!" he insisted. And he's not incorrect as it's certainly one of the best I've enjoyed this year. But I had my choice so here's his. Some toasty malts and caramel on the nose, the 4.5% beer has a herbal and fruity finish on the tongue. A very different beer than Cowbell's but a damn good one. Jay will have some input into tomorrow's sour beers selection, as well, because that's what friends are for.

Best Blonde Ale: Here's another first-time category, simply because amber and dark ales were taking Best Ale every year thus far. So in the name of fairness, I added this because there's some damn fine blonde ales out there that were being neglected, simply because I like my ales dark. And this is a joint choice between myself and Jay-Dawg because we both loved the Lake of Bays Summer Sunset Session Ale. At just 4.5%, this would qualify as the Best Session Ale but I slotted here instead. Some light citrus on the nose with grassiness and lemon on the tongue, this was as refreshing as hell. Loved it!
Aside from the outstanding label created by both artist
Garnett Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore,
this was just a fantastic session IPA, not to mention the
second time Great Lakes Brewing has won this category.

Best Amber-Dark Ale: Okay, the first two-time brewery winner on today's and tomorrow's Best Of 2016 lists but certainly not the last. Once again, Cowbell Brewing stepped up huge with their Doc Perdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale. Again, a beer I had very late in the year that snatched the win away from another established red ale, I felt I had little choice. This was just too damn tasty. At 5.5% and roughly 40-45 IBUs, this one had both the caramel of a red and the citrus of a west coast pale ale on the nose while following through on the tongue with a deep, rich and hoppy finish. It take two of the styles I love - red ales and west coast pale ales - and blended them perfectly. (Previous winners: Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale and Wellington Terrestrial India Brown Ale.)

Best Session/Light Beer: Again a choice with which I know Jay-Dawg will agree, the best session beer I had this year - hands down - was Great Lakes Brewing's Sunnyside Session IPA. At just 3.9% and 25 IBUs (Seriously? It tastes way hoppier than that), it poured a beautiful hazy gold with nothing but citrus on the nose.
When Beer Bro Glenn and I recently visited Rainhard
Brewing in West Toronto, we both walked out with a
six-pack of Armed 'N Citra as it had a sale price for
the sixer. Didn't have to ask us twice with this beer.
At first, I got some some lemon on the tongue but a few sips later, pineapple also popped up. You could pound this delicious treat all afternoon and still operate heavy machinery... but probably shouldn't. (Legal disclaimer: Back away from the backhoe, asshat!) But man, if you want to make it to the end of the Maple Leaf game, here's the one for you! (Previous Winners: Flying Monkeys Genius of Suburbia India Style Session Ale, Great Lakes Citradiction Extra Pale Ale.)

Best Pale Ale: Frankly, I'm a little shocked and appalled that I haven't chosen this one in the past. I should probably punish myself by drinking a bunch more soon. That seems only fitting. No, don't try to stop me! I have to atone for my sins. That said, my second two-time brewery win of this two-day extravaganza goes to Rainhard Brewing's Armed 'N Citra Pale Ale. This 5,2%, 45 IBU single hop west coast pale ale has tons of citrus and tropical fruit on the nose. When I started my Best of 2016 list back in late-February, this was the first beer on the list. Nothing knocked it off because nothing could. It's just too good to beat. (Previous Winners: Spearhead's Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, Cameron's California Sunshine APA and Sawdust City's Golden Beach Pale Ale.)
Junction Craft Brewing's Engineer's IPA has that British
malt on the first few sips and then suddenly, the hops pop
through on the tongue. Very deceptive, this beer. And tasty.

Best British-Style IPA: I added this style last year to give it a nod and frankly, I found a great one. Well, here's another great one - Junction Craft Brewing's Engineer IPA. Yes, it's heavily-malted on the nose and tongue... at first. At 6.2% and 59 IBUs, there's also a bit of citrus on the nose while the tongue remains all malty caramel. But about halfway through, all of a sudden, pineapple pops up and within seconds, there's some hoppiness on display. This is a sneaky beer and I love a beer that can surprise me and give me something new further into the glass. More from this brewery tomorrow. (Previous Winner: Longslice Brewing Hopsta La Vista IPA.)
Because Great Lakes Brewing suffers an embarrassing
abundance of riches in the IPA category, I have actually
had to give them their own category so others can win...

Best Great Lakes Brewery's India Pale Ale: Well, here's a wonderful problem to have. Great Lakes Head Brewer Mike Lackey has pumped out so many outstanding IPAs from his legendary Tank Ten that frankly, GLB could win the next six Best IPA titles easily. Last year, my Best IPA was Octopus Wants To Fight but it beat out other GLB offerings, Thrust! An IPA, Karma Citra and Maniacal Hopshop. That's not even mentioning My Bitter Wife and Lake Effects. That he cranks out so many outstanding IPAs out of one tank over the years has left me in a bit of a quandry, one that Drunk Polkaroo feels as well. So congratulations and damn you all to hell, Mr. Lackey, as you now have your own IPA category, just so other breweries can win too. Oh and this is now the third brewery double win of the next two days as Thrust! An IPA gets the nod this year. Beer Bro Glenn may want to throttle me for this because Karma Citra would be his choice but this 6.5%, 72 IBU bomb-blast of hops has tons of grapefruit and mango on the nose which is followed by a huge blast of resin and tropical fruit on the tongue. So good, it's frankly unfair. (Previous Winner: GLB Octopus Wants To Fight IPA.)
Okay, getting back to IPAs made by mere mortals, the
one that knocked me out this year was Big Rig Brewery
Alpha Bomb Unfiltered IPA. I seriously loved this one.

Best India Pale Ale: Okay, if we can move away from the fact that Mike Lackey landed here in a rocket from Krypton, there were other really good IPAs this year and here we see that Big Rig Brewing's (Ottawa) brewmaster Lon Ladell is no slouch himself. Because a slacker couldn't have made the outstanding Big Rig Alpha Bomb Unfiltered IPA. Hot damn, this beer was so frikkin' good. Ladell used Chinook and Columbus hops at the beginning of the boil and then Mosaic hops at the end of it to finish this bad boy. The 6.7%, 87 IBU (yikes!) brew had a metric-ton of grapefruit on the nose with a beautiful tropical fruit as well as a strong malt backbone on the finish. Big Rig has some great beers but this is their best by far. This brewery is going places. (Previous winners: Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA, Nickel Brook's Headstock IPA.)

Best Double/Imperial IPA: This one was fiercely-contested but at the same time in the end, it was kind of my choice from the second I enjoyed it. It was the one to beat. Innocente Two Night Stand Double IPA was such a huge beer that it could not be ignored. Head brewer Steve Innocente unleashed a hop monster with this one.
i had a ton of really good Double/Imperial IPAs but this
one? Holy crap, this was insanely tasty. It was one of
those "Only Three Beers You Can Take To A Desert
Island" beers. You might just pass on the other two...
At 8.5% and 100+ IBUs, this was the Irish car bomb of double IPAs. While that imagery might not be the most appealing of descriptions, allow me to explain. The aroma was the juiciest of the year - mango, grapefruit and citrus on the insane nose, it paved way for huge resin and solid malts for balance, which fairly exploded on the tongue. You would step over your mother to get one and I would cheer you on. Screw her. A very limited release, Rib Eye Jack's Ale House GM Steve put one of these nasty-ass throat blasters in my hands. Best. Gift. Ever! (Previous Winner: Nickel Brook Immodest Imperial IPA.)

Best Porter: This guy again? Already? Yup, seems so. Steve Innocente, please take a step forward because the Innocente Charcoal Porter was a step above the others this year, as well. This 5.6% glass of black velvet had smoked malts and burnt something (wood?) on the nose and followed it up with strong chocolate on the tongue with toasty malt on the tongue. Not gimmicked with any fruit flavours, it tastes like it came from aging in a nice barrel. Dark, smooth and lovely. (Previous Winners: Mill Street Vanilla Porter, Nickel Brook Pissed Pete Pumpkin Porter, Highlander Blacksmith Smoked Porter.)

Former coworker Jay-Dawg came back from Kingston
raving about this Stone City Ales' Ships In The Night
Oatmeal Stout. Turns out he had good reason - great beer! 
Best Stout: Again, another one that came out of left field. When Jay-Dawg visited Stone City Ales in Kingston back in the fall, he brought back four beers for me - a German wheat, two IPAs and one stout. The one he couldn't stop talking about? The Ships In The Night Oatmeal Stout. The dude is a total IPA and sour fiend but man, he loved this stout. I, for one, applaud his good taste because this 5.6% glass of black magic had some killer coffee and chocolate on the nose with some very tasty bittersweet chocolate and toasty malts on the tongue. Just a medium body but a huge taste! (Previous Winner: Stonehammer Oatmeal Coffee Stout.)

Best Imperial Stout: Bellwoods Brewery at Queen and Ossington in Toronto never enters its beers in awards. I'd like to think it's maybe because they want to save every last drop for customers. Probably not but hey, I like my theory.
Was it barrel-aged or was it not? That's a
damn tough call because it certainly tasted
that way but this was so rich and heavy, it
didn't really matter. Truly outstanding...
I think there's a good reason that the devil is on the label for their Hellwoods Imperial Stout but mostly because it's sinfully delicious. Nothing but rich, thick, boozy chocolate and coffee aroma on the nose, this 10% cocoa-bomb has tons more chocolate and deep rich plum on the tongue. Some of this year's early batch was barrel-aged; some was not. I think the one I enjoyed at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House way back in January was but there were so many strong flavours, it was tough to tell. Either way, wow, whatta beer! (Previous Winners: Nickel Brook Kentucky Bastard, Walkerville Barrel-Aged Milk Stout.)

That's it for today but I'll be back tomorrow with many many more beers to award. We have barrel-aged everything to discuss, two different sour beer winners (one chosen by Jay-Dawg), fruit beers, the best mixed packs of craft beers, coffee-infused beauties, best memories of youth beers and hey, a few more important ones. Which brewery captured the Spirit Of Craft Beer the most this year? Which brewery made the most socially responsible corporate decision of 2016? And which beer gets the Beer Of The Year, aka Wingman of the Year Award? All of these will be as they are today - Ontario craft beers because we love our brewers. Except for three as I also have a collaborative beer that crosses four Provincial boundaries. as well as the best west coast beer and the best east coast beer I had this year. So see you tomorrow because guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here, Until tomorrow, I remain...