But before we start, a quick story to wet the whistle. Because that's how I always start (though sometimes, it ain't so quick) but I think you'll like this one.
Anna Dumas, the owner of the Prairie Firehouse Restaurant in Brandon, Manitoba, a community of about 49,000 resident and due west of Winnipeg about 215 kilometres (133 miles), was tired of seeing her restaurant's terrific selection of craft beers from Manitoba, Ontario and nearby Minnesota get passed over by customers wanting the same old macro fare. Particularly, the beer of choice in the town - Bud Light.
So when the New Year rolled around, she instituted some new pricing in her place. Want a 355-ml (12 oz) can of Bud Light there now? That'll be $15, please and thank you. Meanwhile, the top-drawer craft stuff is practically value-priced at $7 to $8 a pint.
|Barrie Beer Brother Hago gifted me with my first|
Skull Pucker Sour IPA by the great gang at 5 Paddles
Brewing in Whitby. You see the skull's face on the
label? Pretty much what my face did. So sour, so good.
Best Sour: 2017 was the year I finally started developing a taste for sours as a legitimate craft beer style. To be frank, I was a most reluctant participant at first. But by the end of 2016, my toes were slightly deeper in the water and by mid-2017, I was cannon-balling into the middle of the pond. While my home-boys at Nickel Brook produced a ton of great ones during the Summer, the best one I had by far this year was made by 5 Paddles Brewing in Whitby - their Skull Pucker Sour IPA. At just 5% (normal for a sour) and a jacked-up 65 IBU (international bitterness units), this was 99.9% sour and 0.1% IPA. As citrus as any great IPA, this was all pucker-power. A gift from Barrie Beer Brother Hago, it was one of those deals where he was handing it to me but when I went to grab it, he wouldn't let it go. So I instructed my son, David, to kick him in the nards.
Best Belgian-Style: Truth to tell, I don't drink a ton of Belgians. I do genuinely like the style but I always seem to be chasing something new - the latest fad, usually the newest IPA - while a centuries-old outstanding style is sitting patiently on the shelf beside it, wearing the fugly bright orange bride's-maid gown. But I remember talking to Drunk Polkaroo about Belgians in the Summer, as he is a huge fan. I told him that probably the best one I had enjoyed was the 30th Anniversary Barrel-Aged Quad that we had raised for the big Happy Birthday toast at Great Lakes Brewing's 30th Anniversary Party back in February. This is... until I found an actually better version of the same beer! When my co-worker Trey popped into the brewery in the Spring (he lives five minutes away), he grabbed me the same quad but the version that was barrel-aged with cherries. Despite the style and huge ABV of 11.3%, this was full-bodied but deceptively not boozy at all in the glass (though not so much so on my legs when I finished.) It had the rich maltiness you expect from a solid Quad but the cherries added just a lightest touch of sweetness to the mix. They took a fantastic beer, gave it a tiny tweak and voila! Something a step better was born.
Best Triple Play: This one goes to the brewery that has three progressively stronger and tastier beers but all of similar style, usually their pale ale, IPA and Imperial IPA.
|You'll have to imagine their Air Ride IPA in the middle but Redline|
Brewhouse's troika of Clutch Pale Ale, Air Ride and Double Clutch
Double IPA was 2017's Best Triple Play. Tasty! Tastier!! Tastiest!!!!
|When old college roomies, Sebastian MacIntosh of Redline and Curtis|
Jeffrey of Cameron's, got together to make an IPA, it was very musicly
oriented as they used the name of Notorious BIG's 1997 classic rap song.
Best Ontario Collaboration: And just like that, Redline's Sebastian is right back in play as he and Cameron's brewer Curtis Jeffrey, former roomies at Brewing College, got together to create the Going Going Back Back to Cali Cali, a beer inspired by a song from Notorious B.I.G. - also a song that was the soundtrack to their crazy college days. Using California yeast, this 6.1%, 82 IBU (international bitterness units) was a mango-bomb. (Previous Winner was a coast-to-coast collab from Flying Monkeys, Philips, Garrison and Trou du Diable, called Coast to Coastless Imperial ESB)
|Really?? Lil Donkey Pale Ale, a collaboration between|
Redline and Rainhard Brewing, was a... burrito beer?
Craziest Ontario Collaboration: There's a reason I call our craft brewers "mad scientists." They're all fargin' nuts. Loco. Coocoo for Cocoa Puffs. The lot of them. That's the only feasible explanation between Lil' Donkey Pale Ale, a collaboration between Redline and Rainhard Brewing in Toronto. The ingredients besides the usual hops, barley, water and yeast? Well, tortillas, rice, corn, beans, lime and cilantro. Sound familiar? It should. That's what goes into a frikkin burrito!!! Now granted, these ingredients were used in the mash at the beginning of the brewing process so no, there weren't chunks of tortilla shells in the glass. And it got goosed largely by Idaho 7, Cashmere and El Dorado hops so the 5.4%, 50 IBU pale ale was an interesting take on the popular style. Obviously as hazy as hell, it had a lime base and was actually really good. I mean, there's "milkshake IPAs" so why not a "burrito beer?" I look forward to next year's "Big Mac Stout..." (Crazy bastards.)
Best Canadian-American Collaboration: Okay, stretching a bit beyond our Ontario borders now but only as far as New York state. This was a great idea as Collective Arts (Hamilton) got together with Thin Man Brewing (Buffalo) and Sloop Brewing (Elizaville, New York) to co-create a New England-style IPA, Smooth Maneuvers. The three brewmasters - Ryan Morrow in the case of Collective Arts - created the recipe and then all three brewers took it home and did their own batches separately. Were they all identical? Doubtful. Different suppliers, different water, different countries, different... well, you name it. But it's also safe to assume they were remarkably similar with the New England style at least. We only got the Canadian version here but lemme tell you this for free, shit, this was dynamite. The Canadian one used Vic Secret and Motueka (that's a new one for me) hops in this 6.3%, roughly 45-50 IBU murky mess of deliciousness though I believe the two Yankee brewers went for different hop profiles. (I'm not 100% sure, though. Like I said, all craft brewers are somewhat daft.) I was sure to grab some for both Beer Bro Glenn and Barrie Beer Brother Hago. Nothing but orange rind and mango in a glass and believe me, that is a good thing. A very very good thing.
Best Brewmaster Gift: It's a personal point of pride for me that I have never asked any brewery for a freebie. Have I received some? Yes, absolutely but to be honest, they were always appreciative thank you's on their part for something I had said or written. A friend or owner or brewer from a brewery hands you a gift, you say thank you as graciously as you can, drink the hell outta it and be glad someone thought of you in a nice way. But frankly, how can you even appreciate something you asked for? (I ain't some Rosedale Millennial asking her Daddy for a BMW convertible "but it has to be eye shadow blue.") Bottom Line: Pay for what you get, people! They're small businesses, not charities. Even then, I was incredibly blown away when my niece, Genny, flew in from Halifax, bearing a gift for me from the Hop Hellion of the Eastern Seaboard, Greg Nash, of Unfiltered Brewing. It was a growler of his outstanding Twelve Steps to Zion Imperial IPA. Yes, I said a growler. That 1.9-litre (64 ounce) glass jug. My niece was a beer-mule for a big-ass flagon of craft beer from Halifax. She and Greg actually go way back to when she was a university-age server (now a nurse) at a brew-pub where he was the underappreciated brewer genius. Now I have written about Greg in the past as his brewery was on my Bucket List when Genny got married in Halifax in October 2016.
Best Craft Brewery Executive: So how was early-December's Whitby Craft Brewery Invasion? It was the frikkin bomb, man. We had a limo. We went to four craft breweries in one afternoon. And it got vague and sketchy by dusk. So perfect, right? Yes, butttt... As the organizer, I had some serious help with that and his name was Mark Woitzik of Brook Street Brewing. Before I even landed in Oshawa to start the adventure, Mark was on the phone to me, setting up a side-visit to the site of the new Brock Street Brewing actually on Brock Street with the builders of the place. That included one of our own, Josh Beaven, the carpenter putting the final woody touches on the new brewery-restaurant's retail area. One of my favourite memories of 2017 was Josh sidling up to me and telling me what he envisioned for that retail area. In the words of the late great Gord Downie, it was My Music At Work as he explained his ideas almost lyrically. Once we got to the actual brewery on Hopkins Street, Mark and another co-owner Victor Leone were, well, I dunno what to say but geezuz, we were treated like royalty.
The Spirit Of Craft Beer: This award goes to the Ontario craft brewery that best exemplifies the spirit of what they create. The enthusiasm. The fun. The great beer. This year was seriously a dilemma. Given my friendship with Beer Brother Hago and the fun we've had in Barrie, I knew it would be one of their three craft breweries - Redline Brewhouse, Barnstormer Brewing or long-time favourite, Flying Monkeys Craft Brewing. (My son loves them for Wizard of Oz reasons.) Do I go with Redline because our friend, Kaitlyn Krawczuk, basically took us on the first tour and was such an awesome guide, as well as a kick-ass hockey player? Do I got with Barnstormer because their clever social media dude, Brad Arliss, hilariously conned both Hago and myself on April 1st by convincing us both that there were going to be individual Craft Beer retail outlets in Ontario?
|Just as I promised Great Lakes Brewing I would|
bring them a cake on their actual 30th birthday
(and did), I promised them that Gordie Levesque
and I would see New Year's Eve together in Las
Vegas. Hey man, a promise make is a debt unpaid.
Beer of the Year (aka The Wingman Award): This has always gone to IPAs. Not this year. This year, it goes to a Pale Ale and that beer is Great Lakes Brewing Canuck Pale Ale. It was the brewery's 30th Anniversary and this is their core beer. But it's more than that. Sometime in the Autumn, I posted a picture of it on Twitter and said words to the effect of "Because it's always there, because it's always available, I often forget how good this beer really is." Many agreed, including Robin LeBlanc, the co-author of the Great Ontario Beer Guide with Jordan St. John, who responded that she had been at some big conference that beer writers attend, had it and thought exactly the same thing. And I figured, "Well then, no way I'm off-base here if Robin agrees with me." (Well, more like, "Holy crap, I'm right?" Doesn't happen much.)
Okay, that's a wrap on 2017 but I want to add one thing. I feel badly because the established craft breweries outnumbered the newbies by something like a three-to-one ratio. A bit too much Nickel Brook, GLB, Cameron's and Muskoka and not nearly enough Little Beasts, Merit and Meghan Markle. (Seriously, who is she and why am I supposed to care?) That's on me. My year was kinda turned upside down and I'd like to tell you all how I became the Prince of a place called Bel Air. Or Oakville. Close enough. So I didn't get out as much as I'd like to due to family stuff but hey man, I'm all settled in now. I pulled together that Whitby Craft Brewery Invasion on the fly at the end of the year and it rocked hard so I'm good to go in 2018. Granted when you tell people, "Four craft breweries and a limo," you know the organizer isn't the rock star. The limo and breweries are. But you know something? That was one helluva memory and sometimes, starting a New Year right means ending the previous one correctly. A limo followed by a trip to Vegas? This guy does it right sometimes. And Hago made a kick-ass video of the Whitby right here called: Hago's Kick-Ass Whitby Video. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! I'll be back with Vegas beers on the weekend but until then, I remain...