Friday, 29 December 2017

The Best of 2017 - Part One

We all know Rule #1 of Brew Ha Ha's Best Of 2017.
As my son, David, is displaying it's Ontario Craft
Beers ONLY! Here is where we honour OUR best!!
(I also honour them all year long by drinking them.)
Well, 2017 has been a productive year so far with a couple dozen new Ontario Craft Breweries opening and a healthy handful eagerly anticipated in 2018. Yeah, Bench Brewing in Beamsville, I'm lookin' at you! Buh-ring it!

Our good friends at the Ontario Beverage Network had to struggle up keep up all the breweries offering online ordering where you just stick your tasty beers from far-away breweries in the little cyber-carts and within a business week, they're at your front door. Well, "struggle" might be overselling it as OBN is always on top of the Ontario craft beer scene like nobody's business. They also talk about other beverages that I don't care about, such as ciders and wine, but that's because they are exceptionally well-rounded people. I am not. I am exceptionally narrow-minded when it comes to imbibing. My push-cart only aims in one direction and it always involves water, yeast, malted barley and especially hops.

But back to the point of online craft beer ordering, as my man, Drunk Polkaroo, pointed out late in the year, "Is there going to be any Ontario breweries NOT offering online ordering by the end of next year?" 
Best Pale/Blonde Lager this year was a tasty one
from our friends at Amsterdam Brewing, their
Pale Rider Dry Hopped Lager. Clean and punchy.
From his mouth to the breweries' ears because that would seriously rock.

I don't want you guys thinking I'm one-dimensional and it's all "beer, beer, beer" in my corner of the world. I pay attention to other stuff, too. Like international events. For instance, tensions ran so high between the USA and North Korea this year that France has already surrendered. See, I know stuff. I read the Internet.

But we're here today for one reason - to check out The Best of the Best, the top dogs, the Big Enchilada's of the craft beer fiefdom. However, I'm known for, uh, my strict adherence to rules so here's mine. Just as it was last year, Ontario craft beers only in this Winner's Circle. We'll add an out-of-province beer or two tomorrow as Part Two, while mostly still concentrating on Ontario, does drift elsewhere a little. And Rule #2, no repeat winners. We have so many great craft beers in Ontario that we wanna spread the honours around. Ready to rock? Hit the damn gas, Aunt Bea!
This year's Best Pilsner is made by - oh, come
on, seriously? - yup, the good folks at Great
Lakes Brewing who proved once again they
are masters of all trades. We know them for
their IPAs but it turns out they have another
trick or two up their yeast-coated sleeves...

Best Pale/Blonde Lager: Yeah, I know, ewww, gross, pale blonde lagers. That's the macro brews we used to drink, right? Well, I gotta tell you, I don't remember Labatt Blue being jacked up on El Dorado and Amarillo hops the way that Amsterdam Brewing's (Toronto) Pale Rider Dry Hopped Lager is! At just 4.2%, this packs some tasty and tangy citrus. A smooth, easy, flavourful ride with this one. (Previous Winners: Cameron's 12 Mile India Pale Lager, Hogback's Vintage Lager)

Best Dunkel/Dark Lager: This is a tougher category than you'd think as I like my lagers dirtier than Charlie Sheen's bathroom but so far this year, four separate excellent beers were vying for the top spot. But in the end, I went with Four Fathers Brewing (Cambridge) Shevchenko 9 Ukrainian Dunkel Euro Dark Lager. At 5%, this is dripping with nutty chocolate and thick, bready malts. Almost too deep to be a lager. If you love your porters and stouts, give this a whirl because it's not that far removed from the heavier styles. (Previous Winners: Lake Wilcox' Mad Quaker Amber Lager, King Brewing Dark Lager, Mill Street 100th Meridian Organic Amber Lager.)
Now THIS was a kick-ass saison. Little Beast's
La Saison D'ete, a clever play off the French
phrase Raison D'etre (your life's purpose) but
by swapping in "D'ete", it instead means "The
Saison of Summer." Someone at the brewery is
bilingual and loves their little turn of phrases.

Best Pilsner: These guys have their own separate IPA category all to themselves in this annual space out of necessity. I was worried they'd just keep winning the Best IPA category year after year. You'd think that'd be enough but nooooo... Anyway, turns out this little-known Etobicoke brewery named Great Lakes can make a damn fine Pilsner, as well, with their Hopped Improperly American Dry-Hopped Pilsner. The 5%, 25 IBU (international bitterness units) seems just kinda grassy and a wee touch of fruit on the nose like most pilsners but steps it up on the tongue with nice traces of orange and lemon. (Previous Winners: Steam Whistle Pilsner, Steamworks Pilsner, Black Oak Epiphany No. 2 Pilsner, Rainhard Unfiltered Pilsner.)

Best Saison: Although traditionally a very mild style of beer, a good crossover between macro and micro, there's always a couple of saisons that trick it up and jump to the front of the pack every year. This year, it was easily Little Beasts Brewing (Whitby) La Saison D'ete, which may have skirted the whole saison thing with this little 6% bomb-blast. Brewmaster Erin Broadfoot apparently decided, "Hey, you know what saisons really need? More goddamn hops!"
Here we have Black Bellows Brewing's White, a Belgian
Wit With Elderberries, on the left and a Big Rig Big Boot
Hefeweizen on the right. So you have your Belgian style
and your German style wheat beers all in one picture.
So she threw Amarillo, Nelson and Mosaic hops into the boil and just went apeshit on it. The result? This ain't your grand-pappy's saison. Snappin' arseholes, Margaret, this was some kind of tasty! Orange and spice on the nose (the latter meaning probably Belgian yeast) with more fruitiness on the tongue. I have to be honest. If I hadn't known it was a saison (the name is kind of a give-away), in a blind taste-test, I would have thought it was some kind of Belgian IPA. (Previous winners: Nickel Brook-Sawdust City 11~05 Saison, Four Winds Brewing Saison, Collingwood Brewing Saison Farmhouse Ale.)

Best Belgian-Style Wit: I started this category last year after I realized German-style wheats were going to win Best Wheat every year.
So wheat beers aren't usually flavoured by outside fruits
but what would happen if you did? You would get this -
Beyond The Pale Brewing's Pink Fuzz which added
some grapefruit into the mix. The result? Deliciousness!
After giving us those kick-ass waffles (and a bunch of great beers), the Belgians deserved better. So this year, our friends at Black Bellows Brewing (Collingwood) take the prize with their White Witbier With Elderflower. No idea what an elderflower is but it does explain the floral notes as well as light touch of banana on this 5% beer. You can't tell from the picture but this beautifully laced that little glass. Definitely Belgian yeast involved because there was plenty of spice on the tongue with an added touch of pepper. Great little beer! (Previous Winner: Railway City's The 'Witty' Traveler Pint.)

Best German-Style Wheat: Now this, my friends, is a true German wheat - Big Rig Brewing's (Ottawa) Big Boot Hefeweizen. With just that wee trace of bubble-gum on the nose that disappears quickly, the 4.8% beer burst with bananas, cloves and very mild spices on the tongue. A good German wheat is meant to be light and refreshing - the ultimate Summer patio brew - and this certainly fills the bill. This brewery continues to crank out beauties! (Previous Winners: Creemore Hoppy Hefeweizen, Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Wheat, All Or Nothing Hopfenweisse and Side Launch Wheat.)
Just because the category is called Beau's Lug Tread
Honourary Best Kolsch doesn't mean some Beau's
beer is gonna win it. There's tons of good Kolsch's
out there. Except, well, Beau's Haters Gonna Hate
Imperial Kolsch won it. I'm not on their payroll!

Best Specialty Wheat: I added this one last year because a brewery in Toronto blended a red ale and a wheat and the result was simply outstanding. So now, well, I guess it's kind of a thing. But honestly, there has to be one that knocks me over or I have no problem ignoring this not-at-all-traditional category altogether. One did. After one of their many forays across the Province this year, Drunk Polkaroo and his lovely wife, Kat, popped into my work with a healthy handful of beers for me, all IPAs... plus this one that wasn't. Beyond The Pale Brewing's (Ottawa) Pink Fuzz Grapefruit Wheat. Grapefruit is a taste better associated with pale ale and IPAs so what's it doing in a wheat beer? Adding a lot of flavour, first off. Think of a Radler, a grapefruit-lager combo but way better! (Which is actually ridiculously easy because radlers pretty much suck ass.) This 6% wheat was kind of a Germany-meets-California pale ale, citrus-grapefruit and wheat combo that I have never enjoyed before. Probably because it didn't exist. Zesty, a little bit hoppy and damn tasty with big bunches of grapefruit! (Previous Winner: Junction Craft Brewing Olympia Looping Red Wheat)
How has this beer not won before? This has been
one of the best session ales in Ontario for a while.
Muskoka Detour has been a low-ABV go-to for me
since its launch because it's got a pretty big taste!

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch: This category is named as such because for years, I never picked a Best Kolsch. Last year, there were two winners because my co-worker Jay-Dawg and I couldn't agree on the best one. And neither of the choices were Lug Tread, the Province's most beloved lagered ale. So, ironically, Beau's (Vankleek Hills) has never won my Best Kolsch. Until now. Because you see, Beau's Haters Gonna Hate Imperial Kolsch is not only a great beer, it's also a mistake. When they were brewing their first batch of Lug Tread, they accidentally froze it a little. That resulted in the ABV shooting up above 7%, a little high for the marketplace. They got it right the second time but, well, that spoiled batch had its fans within the brewery. It took 10 years but they finally returned with their new take on that original mistake. At 7.1% and 40 IBUs, Haters Gonna Hate has a bit of a musky aroma but on the tongue, it's very tropical mango and fruity for a lagered ale. And as the IBUs indicate, it has a little more hop-pop than your average Kolsch. This just proves that sometimes, mistakes are the best thing that can happen in life. And that, dear readers, is exceptionally good news for me. (Previous Winners: Cowbell Absent Landlord Country Kolsch, Old Tomorrow Track 85 Lagered Ale)
Yeah, sure, that's one big-ass wall of my favourite
Nickel Brook beer in the background but up front is
their Cause & Effect Blonde Ale, the little beer that
has done more for charity this year than any other.

Best Session/Light Beer: First brewed in 2015, Muskoka Brewing (Bracebridge) slugged a bases-loaded homer with Detour, their session IPA. Frankly, I should have awarded this beer much sooner but, well, other beers got in the way. At a very reasonable 4.3% and 30 IBUs, the brewery starts with fewer hops in the early boil but then, puts in a lot more at the end during the dry-hopping process. El Dorado, Citra and Sorachi Ace hops all contribute to the pine finish while giving it a beautiful citrus and grapefruit nose. Now available in 355-ml (12 ounce) cans in either six or 12-packs, this is one of those good things that come in small packages. One of those really good things. (Previous Winners: Great Lakes' Sunnyside Session IPA, Flying Monkeys' Genius of Suburbia ISA, Great Lakes' Citradiction Extra Pale Ale) 

Best Blonde Ale: Blonde ales are, well, blonde ales. They're a nice, mild style that won't set the world on fire but still hold their place in the craft beer world because they are so damn accessible. Anyone can drink a blonde ale. Even your grandmother. You know, if she wasn't so blasted on gin already.
Cameron's Brewmaster Jason Britton continues
to resist my pleas for a hoppy pale ale or an IPA
but dammit, between his 12 Mile India Pale Lager
and Dark & Sticky India Brown Ale, he is giving
me some dynamite alternatives. This is damn good
Nickel Brook Brewing's (Burlington) Cause & Effect Blonde had itself a busy year as it was the brewery's centrepiece for fundraising. Coupled with brewery BBQs, over $8,000 was raised this year by Nickel Brook for cancer-related hospices. Their ongoing Cause For A Cause campaign saw a dime from every can sold go to charity. Believe me, that adds up. And the beer itself is certainly a great example of the style - at just 4.7% and 19 IBUs, it's an easy drinking ale with whiffs of citrus. Given the brewery's charity efforts, this may have been the hard-working little beer in the Province this year. So cheers to Cause and the Effect it had on others this year! (Previous Winner: Lake of Bays Summer Sunset Session Ale) 

Best Amber-Dark Ale: This, quite frankly, might just be the best new beer of 2017. Cameron's Brewing (Oakville) is literally down the street from me and while they continue to resist the pale ale or IPA bandwagon, they have two of my favourite beers constantly in stock - their 12 Mile India Pale Lager (frankly, the best lager in the Province) and their brand new Dark & Sticky India Brown Ale. Given the category, it's the latter we're looking at today. This is quite literally a brown ale meets an IPA. So it has all the thicky smoky malts of a brown ale but is goosed with Idaho 7 and Falconers Flight hops to give it some serious juice.
It's hazy, it's hoppy and it's a glass full of kick-ass.
Redline Brewhouse's Clutch Pale Ale is one of those
beers you discover and just keep enjoying. Over
and over and over in my case. This one's a beaut!!
At 5.5% and probably 30-plus IBUs, the rich treat was at first only available in the Brewmaster's Selection Four-Pack but proved so popular that their retail started selling it individually. I know because I have bought a ton of them. Just fantastic. (Previous Winners: Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale, Wellington's Terrestrial India Brown Ale, Cowbell's Doc Perdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale)

Best Pale Ale: Well, this little contest was over as soon as I had my first Redline Brewhouse (Barrie) Clutch American Pale Ale in the Spring. You know those hazy New England-style IPAs you always read about? Yeah, this is the pale ale version of that. In fact, when I would pop into the now-defunct Rib Eye Jack's Ale House for an after-work pint or two, I always started with this. At first it confused the servers, who would, out of habit, start reciting the latest IPAs on tap to me but they caught on quickly. As one eventually noted when she saw me coming through the door, "Donny wants his Clutch first!" And indeed, I most certainly did.
For those who may be worried that the name is culturally
insensitive, the Geronimo IPA is actually named after a
bootleg cargo ship that ran between Canada and the USA
during Prohibition. So there's some nobility to this name.
As cloudy as a London morning, this ale's flaked oats give it a wonderful, smooth mouthfeel on its base while the Centennial, Citra, Amarillo and Mandarina Bavaria hops provide so much punch, you'd think it was an IPA. At 4.8% and 42 IBUs, it's busting with peaches, pine, grapefruit and peaches. I always buy whatever's new and interesting at Redline when I pass through Barrie but I never walk out with less than six of these. I would put this up against any pale ale in North America. (Previous Winners: Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, Cameron's California Sunshine APA, Sawdust City's Golden Beach Pale Ale, Rainhard's Armed N Citra Pale Ale)

Best British-Style IPA: This is an often tricky category as it usually means a nicely hopped IPA but with an unsually strong malt backbone. The trick is not many breweries make this style, preferring to go malt-light, full west coast hops. But there's always a couple that capture my attention and this year, it was Walkerville Brewing's (Windsor) Geronimo IPA.
Great Lakes Brewmaster Mike Lackey makes such great IPAs that last
year, I just threw up his hands and gave the brewery their own category.
The fact was that GLB would quite likely win the Best IPA category for
probably five years running. Others breweries do make good ones, too.
At 6.3% and 55 IBUs, it certainly has the stats of your basic west coast offering and its Cascade, Centennial and Summit hops do bring that grapefruit, orange peel aroma. But, as you can tell from the colour, it's the malts - 2-Row, Munich and Crystal - driving the back end of this bad boy. Very well balanced! (Previous Winners: Longslice Brewing's Hopsta La Vista IPA, Junction Craft Brewing Engineer IPA) 

Best Great Lakes Brewing IPA: Yes, this category was created last year because I looked at their stable of Tank Ten IPAs and thought, "No one else is gonna win Best IPA with these guys in the mix." So I gave them their own category. The good thing about this little craft beer party is that I can make up rules on the fly. And I often do.
I think this one caught all Ontario craft beer drinkers
a little off-guard this year as Beau's finally released a
west coast style IPA and goddammit, was it ever good!
This year, the GLB IPA I looked forward to the most and bought in abundance when it was stocked was their Meanwhile Down In Moxee American IPA. The story behind this new one is that GLB Brewmaster Mike Lackey was wandering around Moxee, Washington, near Yakima Valley where he was searching for fresh El Dorado hops. But while in Moxee, a small town with just 4,027 residents, he happened upon a great Teriyaki restaurant, something you do not expect to see in a town that size. So the town name and picture of that Teriyaki restaurant soon adorned the label drawn by Garnett Gerry (one of his few without a character.) Though far less hazy and chunky than the ones I am used to, this is the brewery's first New England-style IPA and it is one tasty mofo. At 6.4% and 65 IBUs, it has mango and orange on the nose followed by more orange and peach (the latter being a flavour stable in the New England style) on the tongue. Even though the new beer only saw two releases this year, I was good for about 50 of them. Loved this one! (Previous Winners: Octopus Wants To Fight IPA, Thrust! An IPA)

Best West Coast IPA: I gotta be honest. When I heard Beau's All Natural Brewing was releasing an IPA this year, I was skeptical it would be a true west coast one.
Beyond The Pale Brewing's Aromatherapy IPA is pretty
much the best Vermont-style IPA brewed in Ontario this
year. It's hazy and yucky-looking and totally delicious!
I figured there'd be some weird Belgian yeast festering in there or some all-organic fresh-from-the-field Eye of Newt in it. I mean, they're Beau's! They're known for their eclectic offerings. Which is what we love about them. So when it landed in my Beer Store, I took a bottle of their Full Time IPA home with me that night, as did coworker Jonny, figuring, "Hey, man, it's Beau's. It won't be what I'm expecting but it doesn't matter because they're always good." (Which is very true.) Well, spank my ass and call me Sailor Boy because holy crap, it was not only a true west coast IPA but it was a really really good one! In fact, of the initial 24 bottles we were sent, Jonny and I piled through 20 of them within the next few days. Anticipating that very thing, the morning after my first one, I called the brewery and had 48 more delivered that week. Good thing, too, as their stock depleted quickly and it was unavailable for a few weeks. Even the brewery didn't anticipate the humongous demand. Where to start? Okay, jacked with Simcoe, Cascade, Citra and Nelson Sauvin hops - all organic because that's the Beau's way - this 6.7%, 60 IBU hopbomb is a beast.
Indie Ale House only releases their Cockpuncher
Imperial IPA once or twice a year and they only
make 800 per batch. So you gotta be fast if you want
to enjoy this one. My day off timed with their release
date this year so I zipped into Toronto to grab some.
Tons of pine, citrus and tropical fruit on the nose, there's a huge fruit juiciness on the tongue and as the name indicates, just like Lug Tread, this baby is available year-round. Good thing too because it's a top-shelf IPA that I quite literally put on the top shelf of my beer fridge. How relevant is that? Not at all. Who cares? This is fantastic! (Previous Winners: Flying Monkeys' Smashbomb Atomic IPA, Nickel Brook Headstock IPA, Big Rig Alpha Bomb Unfiltered IPA)

Best New England Style IPA: This is a first time category because 2017 was the first year the hazy, funky east coast IPA style caught on with our brewers. And a healthy handful of them did it very well. But none moreso than Beyond The Pale Brewing with their Aromatherapy NEIPA. The Ottawa brewers use Citra and Mosaic hops in the initial boil before adding Amarillo and Centennial to the dry hopping. The result? A 6.5%, 55 IBU murky monster that bursts with a floral and citrus nose followed by a truckload of fruit and peach juiciness on the tongue. I can't wait for more brewers to hit the shelves with this style!

Best Imperial IPA: Well, it took me four years but I finally got my hands on some Indie Ale House Cockpuncher Imperial IPA. Why did it take so long? This beer is scarce and fleeting when it lands in their retail with extremely limited stock.
Toronto Maple Leafs superstar sophomore Auston Matthews
holds up a t-shirt I wish I owned. But I will be seeing Auston
and his crew on Sunday in Las Vegas for their first ever trip
to Sin City. I tell you, I think the Golden Knights will prove
to be up to the challenge as the expansion team is damn good!
But I finally got my hands on some this year and wow, it was worth the wait. At 11% and over 100 IBUs, they use 10 different hops in this and it'll take the top of your head off. Every possible fruit in this and any other known galaxy on the nose gives way to a pine tree punch in the gut on the tongue. Truly just an astounding beer. One of the country's best! (Previous Winners: Nickel Brook Immodest Imperial IPA, Innocente Two Night Stand Double IPA) 

Well, that's it for Part One but Part Two is coming soon where we'll look at the best porters, stouts, sours, barrel-aged beers, fruit beers, specialty beers and of course, the Beer of the Year! I'm off to Las Vegas tonight to catch the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Golden Knights on New Years Eve and while I will be taking my lap-top, Part Two may wait for my return due to "I'm in Vegas" reasons. But mindful of the fact that Vegas is an expansion team in the middle of a desert, I want to help their American fans with some common Canadian hockey cheers. Terms such as "Go hockey game!" Or "Yes, play sports!" Perhaps "Shoot the hamburger at the webbed cage!" And of course, "Elude the heavily-padded fellow guarding the cage and wearing the murder mask!" I'm all about helping those with a lesser understanding of hockey explore their potential as a true "Rink Rat." But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until Best of 2017: Part Two, I remain...