Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Behind the Lagunitas embargo

This was as dramatic as I could make my photo of my last
Lagunitas IPA. The sun was setting behind it, illuminating
the glass lettering. But it was the sun setting imagery that
I was going for - you know, end of an era and all that shit.
There's taking a hard stand and then there's a less hard stand. The following story straddles the fine line between the two. I'm the guy wearing the open flannel work shirt and black T-Shirt adorned with an Ontario craft brewer logo, holding the sign that says, "Yeah, I'm the guy straddling that fine line."

You see, a few backs back there were more acquisitions of craft brewers by the macros - Wicked Weed Brewing was snatched up by AB-InBev while my beloved Lagunitas Brewing was completely taken over by Heineken. I talked all about it last time.

Now my main man, Drunk Polkaroo, was more than a little incensed by the macro shenanigans, especially because the day after AB-InBev snapped up Wicked Weed, they also froze out craft brewers from using specific South African hops because they had purchased the rights to those as well. The optics on that, happening one day after the other as it did, sucked donkey dick, as political wonks are wont to say.
The skid full of Lagunitas IPA was ordered in error by my
coworker Trey and showed up on my first day of work at a
new Oakville Beer Store I had been transferred to just
before Christmas. Frankly, I took it as an omen. An omen
that said I was meant to drink an entire skid of this beer.

So my man, Polk, wrote a succession of tweets condemning macro for their business practices, saying that buying and supporting "pseudo craft," meaning craft brewers owned now by macros, was "akin to handing them the bullet aimed at craft." In seven straight tweets on May 13, he blasted the macros and anyone making the choice to drink beer now owned by the macros using some pretty damn solid reasoning. It was emotional, it was provocative, it was passionate... it was Drunk Polkaroo at his craft-beer loving finest.

You see, like me, Polk used to chug back the macros back in the day. Usually for the sole purpose of getting blitzed. Taste mattered little. We just wanted the buzz. But at two separate points in time, we both discovered craft beer. Then something strange happened. The guzzling stopped. We started noticing the nuances in these new flavourful beers and began appreciating the taste, instead. It was the damnedest thing. And while I had a couple years' head-start on him, when Polkaroo jumped into the craft beer pond, it was without floaters. He has told us - repeatedly - that he believes craft beer saved his life.
When I broke my Collective Arts' Spiegelau
IPA, replacing it on a Holiday Monday seemed
to be imperative. While there, my son made
sure that they was an extra in the bag for his
Barrie bestie, Hago. You see, right now, Hago
has a Muskoka Brewing glass with my name
on it (not literally - Muskoka's name is on it)
so we had to make sure we had glassware for
him to keep things even. So Hago, we have your
glass still in the super protective bubble-wrap. 

But that's Polk. He is absolutely evangelical about the impact craft beer has had on his life. He lives it, he breathes it, he sings its praises at least thrice daily. That's why he is, in my opinion, the best Craft Beer Ambassador that Ontario has ever seen. He has that fire, that passion. "Raise your glass and your standards, one beer at a time" is his now well-known mantra.

Me? Well, I'm a different kettle of smelly-ass fish. Truly I love my craft beer, especially my Ontario craft beer, but I don't feel guilty about my macro past. My thing is simply, "I used to drink macro. Now I drink craft beer. I like this stuff a lot better." That's as passionate as I get. "I like this more." And I write about craft all the time in this space, which is kind of why I started this. My motto would be, at best, "If this wedding reception doesn't have an open bar, I'm gone. Oh, and are you gonna finish that cake?" It's a little wordy. I'm working on it. If the Latin version is shorter, I'll use that on the family crest.

But the thing is I can't get too indignant about the macros for a pretty obvious reason. I work for the Beer Store, jointly own by Molson's and Labatt with a 2% slice of Sleeman's in there. They pay my cheque. Also, I don't hate them. Hell, I like them. They do their sell-a-ton-of-beer thing; I do my craft beer thing; we all coexist peacefully. The thing is I purchased macro beers for quite literally decades so yeah, they have already made tons of money off me. It's craft beers' turn now. Has been since the Summer of 2013.
The only thing I have ever been evangelical about
craft beer since I started drinking it was this...
Buy Ontario craft beers! Support your locals!

Still, I wanted to directly support my buddy, Polk, in his crusade but not be a complete hypocrite at the same time. Fortunately, we already sell some fine local Ontario craft beer where I work. I walk out of there almost daily with six-packs of the finest IPAs Ontario has to offer, made by notables such as Flying Monkeys, Muskoka, Amsterdam, Collective Arts and now, even my homeboys, Nickel Brook. So I can buy beer at my place of employment (supporting it) but it's craft beers (supporting them). I also pop into the LCBO for the odd new find but even more prefer to visit the breweries myself, often with my son, David, in tow because he loves the shiny vats. I know Polk also prefers the brewery visits above all else, taking his lovely wife, Kat, with him because she, too, likes the shiny vats. And the porters. She loves her porters.

But here's the crux. If there is one thing I have been vocal about in this space, it is this: Buy locally and support your local craft brewer. And that's when I figured out how to support Polkaroo. As you can see above, my Beer Store was delivered a full skid of Lagunitas IPA, which is not local. They're from Petaluma, California. Earlier, I threw myself into the task of making a serious dent into that skid.
While my stance is a little more conciliatory about the
big guys, Polkaroo believes that all macro breweries
operate near this corner. That's why he is the premier
spokesperson for craft beer in Ontario these days...

But every time I walked out of work with a six-pack of Lagunitas IPA, that was $15.50 out of my pocket that could have gone to an Ontario craft brewer, instead. So, to support Polk's protest, the now-Heineken-owned company became my sacrificial lamb. No more Lagunitas IPA! Surprisingly, when I posted that top photo on Twitter, there was some contrary discussion from many of our craft beer loving friends regarding the stand. Was it too stringent? One suggested that, "If you drink a Lagunitas beer every once in a while, I promise you no craft brewery will go out of business because of it." Another noted, "Keep in mind that craft brewers do not go into it to not make money. It's for sale, not for free." All true.

So let's call my protest stand a soft one rather than a hard-line. I will only walk out of my Beer Store with fine Ontario craft products in hand. But I'll still be popping into the LCBO for new products we don't carry. And truthfully, if I see more Lagunitas Maximus Imperial IPA in the liquor store like I did last Summer, yeah, I'm likely to grab one six-pack. I will sample new fare I come across, regardless of its geography but with a sterner eye towards ownership.
Snappin' arseholes, Margaret, this packs a serious hop
punch! At 8.8% and 88 IBUs, Sawdust City's Twin Pines
Double IPA both tickled my taste buds and kicked me in
 the nuts all at the same time. Yeah, worth the nard shot!
I'll take that case-by-case, But first and foremost, Ontario craft breweries get my dough. (Open bar wedding receptions and free cake give me more pocket change.)

Okay, while I was going to write about Lake of Bays Brewing's new line-up and rebranding in this space today, that will have to wait until next time. The reason our friends at the Baysville, Ontario brewery have to get pre-empted for a few days at least is because my former coworker Jay-Dawg dropped a bomb on me last week. Six bombs, actually, all courtesy of Sawdust City Brewing in Gravenhurst.

And what a six-pack it was - two of their Twin Pines Double IPA, an I, The Mountain and the Leprechaun's Flute Imperial Red Ale, an Old Fashioned Dust Up Rustic Pale Ale, a The Princess Wears Girl Pants Muskoka Saison and a Sugar Pants Chocolate Oatmeal Brown Ale.
When I posted a picture of the six brews, it was the
Old Fashioned Dust Up Rustic Pale Ale that my
Newmarket Beer Store brother Paul wanted to hear
about. It was a dandy. Spicy, Belgian and hoppy!!
You see, Jay-Dawg, his brother Jonny (my present coworker), other brother Matt and father John all went up to Gravenhurst last weekend for a Father-Son Golf Excursion... and promptly got rained out. So they did what I would have done - hung out at a craft brewery all day. "It was great," Jonny reported back. "There was live music and awesome beer! It was like a really cool bar!"

But as often is the case in life, their misfortune on the links was my good fortune in the goodie giftbag. So let's look at some of these Sawdust City bad boys, shall we?  That Twin Pines Double IPA already had praise heaped upon it a couple of blogs back when Polk brought me one home (and nine others!) from his Polkapalooza 2017 tour to 50 different Ontario craft breweries during one week in March. (See what I mean about this dude?)

So let's look at the other four - a wide array of styles that will prove conclusively why for a while now, Sawdust City has been in the upper echelon of our Province's best. And why it's on my Summer Must-Visit List.
There's brown ales (meh) and then there's THIS 
brown ale (whoa!) Sawdust City has taken a boring and
staid style and given it a full stout treatment here. Nice.
Okay, my Beer Store brother, Paul, plying his trade up there in Newmarket, wanted the 4-1-1 on the Old Fashioned Dust Up Rustic Pale Ale so let's start there. What happens when a Trappist Ale meets an American west-coast pale ale? This beer. A collaborative effort between Sawdust City and Ottawa's Tooth and Nail Brewing, the collective brewmasters used some Brettanomyces Bruxellensis (think: super funky yeast that's all the rage with these brew boys) to give this 5.3% ale an outstanding cross-section of European spiciness and North American sass due to its subtle notes of citrus and pineapple. Two brilliant brewing minds, one tasty-ass beer.

Moving onto the one that was the biggest surprise to me was their Sugar Pants Chocolate Oatmeal Brown Ale. Okay, if I say "chocolate oatmeal" to any craft beer drinker, their brain goes in exactly one direction: "Must be a stout." About the best thing I can say about brown ales is that they're a step up from pale lagers. So what makes this one different?
A 9% Saison?? Not exactly your light Summer fare. More like a fruity
sledgehammer to the skull.  But I swear on someone else's mother's
grave, this was not a saison that last time I had it. But man, it's hoppy!
Well, what the oat malts add to this 5.3% ale can't be underscored. They give it a hefty body, something to chew on. Throw in the chocolate, which almost gives it a boozier feel, and you have a brown ale I could hand to my craft buddies and say, "No, seriously, I'm not kidding! It's good!" The only mystery behind this beer? What the hell does that "I swear it was your idea!" on the label mean? A mystery befitting the Scooby Gang! (I'll ask when I visit.)

Okay, two big guns to finish this one off and let's start with The Princess Wears Girl Pants Muskoka Saison. The last time I had this beer a couple of years back, I swear to gawd it was either an IPA or a Belgian Pale Ale. I can't remember which. Except I know for sure it was not something called a Muskoka Saison. If the formula has stayed true to form, let's say IPA (Imperial IPA if it was also 9% back then) because this is jacked with Ella, Amarillo and Galaxy hops.
This was the one Jay-Dawg was the most pumped about passing
along to me, knowing my love for red ale and/or hops. Yes,
Sawdust City's I, The Mountain and the Leprechaun Flute
India Red Ale was everything Jay promised and then some. 
Ringing in at a low-for-IPA but high-for-saison IBU (international bitterness units) of 35, this is remarkably easy-drinking for a 9% beer. Zero booziness, light spice and tons of citrus on the nose and tongue, this is the ultimate patio-beer-that-should-never-ever-be-a-patio-beer! Packs a helluva punch. So unless you wanna look like a newborn giraffe, struggling to stand up, share this one. That is, unless you want to be like that pregnant giraffe in upstate New York that inexplicably had people glued to the internet earlier this month. Someone showed me the final video. That baby giraffe dropped like 15 feet to the ground. That's harsh. I wonder if giraffes gather around their laptops, watching breathlessly as Shirley in Buffalo gives birth and then chortle, "The human didn't even hit the ground. Lame." I suspect not. But damn, baby giraffe legs potential aside, this beer is a great one.

As always, I am saving the best for last and geezuz, this was a dilly of a bomb. When Jay handed me the I, The Mountain and the Leprechaun Flute India Red Ale, it was with visible excitement.
Of all the drug-addled comments to
come out of beloved counter-culture
writer Hunter S. Thompson's mouth,
this was the worst. Good people drink
whatever the hell they want. Period.
Thompson drank Stella Artois, for
crying out loud. A good beer, sure,
but nothing that calls for that level
of beer snobbery. Drink what you like
You see, Jay knows I love both a good IPA and a good red ale. But the two style paths seldom cross. This beer not only crosses both paths, it blends them into one single super-highway of kicking my pasty white Irish ass. Briefly "retired" by the brewery a couple of years back, it is back and baby, it is big!! Pouring a deep amber, this 7.5%, roughly 75 IBU rouge monster was berries, a slice of apple and pine on the nose but balanced beautifully on the tongue with oat malts. One of the best beers I have had this year - beginning and end of story. Period. No wonder Jay was so pumped passing it along. Just beautiful...

Okay, before I sign out, let's have one final word on macro beers. The fact is that they will always have a place in my fridge - the bottom shelf, to be specific. That's where I keep my "guest beer." If you're a craft lover, think of it like the carnival. The biggest prizes are on the top shelf, the smallest on the bottom one. But they are there because many of my friends don't drink craft beer. I made my Molson Canadian-loving coworker Gord take a sip of Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA once. His reaction? "That tastes like turpentine!" So I think his beer tastes like water and he thinks mine tastes like a cleaning solvent. Fair enough. I have seen a similar reaction to craft beers on Drink Polkaroo's videos when he invites his whiskey-loving brother, Mike, along for taste tests. His best reaction to one was, "Where the f**k are you getting all these smells from? All I smell is beer!!" 

But the fact is, no matter who lands on the patio at Donny's Bar and Grill, I make sure there's an enjoyable beer waiting for them. If Craft Beer Bros such as Polkaroo, Jay, Jonny, Glenn or Hago stop in, well, there's many little pots of gold on the top shelf, man. For everyone else (and there's a lot more of them), there's free, cold macro beer at the bottom.
It's a crappy cellphone photo, to be sure, but my
buddy, Liam McKenna, left, the brewmaster at
St John's, Newfoundland's YellowBelly Brewing
had a chance meeting with Sawdust City's head
brewer Sam Corbeil at his eastern brewery a
week or so ago. What do head brewers do when
they meet? They drink beers and swap recipes.
In fact, Gord popped in on Holiday Monday. He happily drank Coors Banquet while I enjoyed my Collective Arts' Ransack the Universe IPA on my patio. As usual, we talked about work, women, sports, women, our next cars and then probably women some more. There is no room in my world for judging someone based on the beer they drink. I'd rather judge them for the music they like. That makes more sense.

And the final, final word belongs to my homeboys at Nickel Brook Brewing here in Burlington on Drury Lane. You see, every May, the Beer Store asks for donations to go towards the studying and hopefully curing Leukemia some day. It culminates in the huge Bottle Drive Day on May 27 here in Ontario, with volunteers out front of all stores asking for empties donations. Last year, we collected $1.7 million and now in its 12th year, we're looking to top $15 million raised in total. To that end, now that their products have found their way to the shelves in the Beer Store, Nickel Brook's Events and Communication manager Tory told me they've been collecting empties all month for the cause. But for every empty you donate to Nickel Brook, they match its value, doubling its worth for the drive when they take back empties for Leukemia Week. According to Tory, they have already filled their "first huge bin" with empties. So gang, make your empties worth twice as much - take them to Nickel Brook pronto! And hey, here's a video of Nickel Brook owner John Romano wandering into four hot bistros along James Street North in Hamilton with a TV reporter, watching as chefs use Nickel Brook beer in their recipes. It's right here called: Let Them Eat Beer! Frankly, that looks like the pair did a lot of walking. That's why I'll never buy a FitBit. I know how unfit I am. I don't need a $200 wristwatch reminding me. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time with Lake of Bays goodies, I remain...