Monday, 21 May 2018

Is anyone still drinking lagers?

Only Drunk Polkaroo would have the balls to pose for a photo like this in
an Ontario Winter. And by gawd, there he is, mimicking the label for
Great Lakes Brewing's Over My Dad Body Pilsner in the Arctic Tundra
we call a country. The illustration was created by former GLB artist
Garnett Gerry and inspired Polk to show off his Dad Bod in the chill.
It started, as many things do in Ontario Craft Beer circles, with a simple question on Twitter from our man, Drunk Polkaroo...

Basically, the question was: Does anyone drink lagers anymore?

You see, not all that long ago in our macro days, that's all we drank! Pale gold lagers. I drank Labatt Blue. Polk was partial to a few, notably Old Milwaukee and Brava Light. My old college buddy, Beer Bro Glenn, was a devout Brava drinker. The list of now-craft-beer-fanatics and their macro lager past goes on and on.

But when we all stumbled our way into the Wonderful World Of Craft Beers, lagers quickly fell to the wayside as we were assailed with favourful ales - Red Ales, Brown Ales, Amber Ales, Pale Ales and, of course, the Belle of the Ball, India Pale Ales. Because our tastes had shifted, lagers quite simply were no longer a preference.
So then if you're like me and drink only beer, that can put you into a bit of a pickle when you're out on the town with friends in a traditional roadhouse-style bar. Your choices are macro lagers and... well, that's about it. It's not like I can switch to wine or liquor, simply because I never acquired a taste for them. Spending the night drinking macro lager - and believe me when I say you won't drink nearly as many as you did in the old days - is definitely something to be filed under First World Problems. Not life-threatening. I can safely assure you that you'll live to drink tastier craft beer tomorrow.

When we had a high school reunion at Monaghan's Sports Pub and Grill last Summer (another coming up this weekend), I quickly checked the place out. Found out it was a Molson's bar. So I figured, "Oh well, I guess I'm drinking Canadian tonight..." And frankly, that's not a big deal. (In the end, I lucked out as they had Creemore's Hops and Bolts India Pale Lager on tap as well and that has some nicely-hopped tangy bitterness to it. Macro-owned but micro-flavoured.)
I've heard this in the past and I believe it's very
true. You can tell a lot about what kind of craft
beer drinker you're dealing with by their initial
reaction to Steam Whistle Pilsner, If they simply
dismiss it out-of-hand, they are Beer Snobs as it
is an excellent Czech-style Pilsner. Always tasty.

But in its defence, Molson Canadian is a perfectly good example of a balanced macro lager. I drank a ton of it in bars during my macro days. No bells. No whistles. Very far from my first choice these days but as my young friend, Charles from Nickel Brook Brewing pointed out after someone's question about macro quality when we were guest speakers at the 2017 BurlOnTap Festival, "Molson's and Labatt make millions of dollars every year. Face it, they are doing something right." But I understand where the question was coming from (as does Charles) in that Molson's and Labatt products are brewed at such an insanely-high volume, the breweries have little choice but to include adjuncts, such as corn, oats and rice, to keep up with the demand. Craft breweries don't include adjuncts, simply because they are making beer on a much smaller scale and hence, don't need to. ("Thankfully so," said every craft beer drinker reading this.)

But back to Polk's original question, which was: Is anyone drinking lagers anymore? Since it's Polk, let's assume he meant craft lagers and further to that, I will simply add: Are there craft lagers worth purchasing, given our tastes have shifted so dramatically towards ales? Both Polk and I know the answer is "Yes!" - me because I started trying a large number of them for this very column. And Polk because I've seen him review plenty on his You Tube channel.
Okay, this is one of the best pilsners I have ever enjoyed -
Rainhard Brewing's Unfiltered Pilsner. As you can see, Thor
himself was willing to fight the Frost Giants to procure one
for himself, leaving all that goddamn snow in my backyard
after their epic battle. Still, for this beer, I would do battle.

Now in this little treatise, I will be looking at both lagers and pilsners, since pilsners are a form of lager, named as such simply because they were created in the Plsen region of Czechoslovakia.

Now before I begin, I will caution that I tried a few dozen Ontario craft lagers for this and I have one complaint about a great number of them. A lot of you are just making your own nearly-identical versions of Molson Canadian. Not naming names, certainly, because I get why you're doing it. You want an accessible lager for macro drinkers to sample your fares. To that, I say one thing - Don't! We already have tons of access to Molson Canadian and I won't pay extra to drink your damn version of it. In fact, one honest clerk at a craft brewery actually waved me away from their lager once, saying simply, "It's basically Canadian." So knock that shit off, brewers. Create a different one. Molson's has Canadian nailed down.

And as I start now, a second caution, gentle readers. I will be dealing with only golden pale lagers. No ambers, darks or Viennas.
If the Drunk Polkaroo picture up top is my second favourite
Polk Pic, then this clearly is my Number One! Taken a couple
of Summers back, Polk told me it took countless tries to get
this picture because of wave reasons. This is a beauty of a pic.
Cameron's Captain's Log Lager looks damn refreshing here!
Just pale lagers. That's the style we all used to drink so that's my subject criteria here.

Let's start with Ontario's Big Two Straight-Up Lagers and they would be Muskoka Craft Lager and Cameron's Captain's Log Golden Lager. For my money (and both breweries have received a tidy sum of my money for this pair), these are the two most solid craft lagers in Ontario. Captain's Log (a reference to Oakville's first lighthouse formerly used by captains as a navigational landmark) is 5%, just 15 IBUs (international bitterness units) that uses Canadian 2-Row malts, as well as Noble Variety and Saaz hops, the latter being a traditional pilsner hop. At 4.8% and 13 IBUs, Muskoka Craft has an extra little touch by being unfiltered - a rarity for lagers. This one also uses 2-Row, as well as Crystal 40 malts with a boost of Saaz and Magnum hops. Both are smooth, easy-drinking lagers, created for warm Summer days and as such, are great starters to any patio evening. Style-wise, neither is a massive step away from macro lagers but taste-wise, both are a significant step up from them.

While those two are probably the Province's best-known craft lagers, one I wish had similar exposure is HogsBack Brewing's (Ottawa) Vintage Lager.  As a gold medal winner twice at the Ontario Brewing Awards and once at the Canadian Brewing Awards, this 5.2%, roughly 15 IBU lager is very European-style - a crisp, clean and delicious lager, using three malts, Saaz hops and German brewing yeast. (In the Far-Less-Relevant Award Category, it was also my Lager of the Year for 2015.) If you see this at either the LCBO or the Beer Store, part with $3 and try it as your evening starter. You can shower me with love and affection afterwards. (Don't be shy - I'm used to it dying for it.)

Okay, so that's three solid craft lagers so let's look at three top-notch pilsners. In Ontario, you have to start with the one that's our longtime gold standard - Steam Whistle Pilsner. As much as we love our hops, I don't know any serious craft drinker who doesn't enjoy this beer. In fact, it's the one I always keep on hand because macro lager drinkers always happily enjoy this one as well. This might just be the ultimate macro-to-craft crossover beer.
Trust Steam Whistle, affectionately known as "The
Good Beer Folks" in these parts to have a little more
fun than others. Each year, they put out a "Steamy
Men of Steam Whistle" calendar which invariably
has their workers, beer guts and all, putting it all out
there for charity in various stages of undress. A riot!
First brewed at the iconic Roundhouse in 2000, the recipe has not altered one iota since the original Brewmaster Harald Sowade created it. A true Czech-Style Pilsner, the 5% beer uses barley malts from Saskatchewan, hops from Germany, spring water from Ontario and yeast from Hungary. Being as all of their Brewmasters over the years have been European, it also adheres to the rigid confines of the Bavaria Purity Act of 1516. With all the crazy tastes available in Ontario's countless craft beers, Steam Whistle's hand has always been on the rudder - never wavering and consistently outstanding in its style. It honours us all having this gang of rowdy-ass thugs around.

However, there's a few more Ontario craft pilsners that I'd put in Steam Whistle's lofty stratosphere and not too surprisingly, Great Lakes Brewing of Etobicoke makes one of them - their Over My Dad Body Pilsner. Hilariously illustrated by my man Drunk Polkaroo's picture up top, the 5%, 25 IBU German-style pilsner has the same straw and light citrus on the nose that the rest of these do and is a little hazy, meaning unfiltered to a certain degree. I can also personally confirm that it goes beautifully with a three-pound Shrimp Burrito made by my buds over at Mucho Burrito here in Oakville. How do you beat that? (You don't.)
Sometimes change is good. In this case, change is great!
When Lake of Bays Brewing rebranded and swapped out
their Rock Cut Baysville Lager for the new Switchback
Pilsner, they did a very pure and noble thing. Because this
is one of the better pilsners in Ontario right now. Smooth!

Okay, last Summer, our friends up at Lake of Bays Brewing (Baysville) rebranded nearly all their beers and in my opinion, replaced them with far superior ones. However, the one that seemed to cause the most stink online was replacing Rock Cut Baysville Lager with the new Switchback Pilsner. Their beleaguered social media person just kept repeating the same thing over and over: "Try the pilsner!" I hope those whiny-ass bastards did because man, Switchback blows its predecessor out of the frikkin' water. Created (or would that be recreated?) by Head Brewer and the sole Dane in their chop shop, Dan Unkerskov, he created a whole new bird with this 4.5% beauty that's fresh-cut grass and floral on the nose with some nice citrus on the tongue. This is both one of my favourite pilsners and session beers, all in one cool rebranded package. To those who complained, look, I'll admit that it's not my place to say you were wrong. So I'll say instead that you were completely incorrect. And possibly suffering from head trauma.

This all leads me into my favourite Ontario pilsner and one that may owe a favour to Steam Whistle... in a kinda, sorta way.
When Jordan Rainhard, right, got together with
Beau's All Natural Brewing's co-founder Steve
Beauchesne a while ago, well, Steve gave Jordon
the ol' rabbit ears. They were brewing a beer
together but when in Vankleek Hills, Ontario,
well, shenanigans will ensue. It be crazy there.
You see, whenever Steam Whistle goes to a Beer Festival, they always bring an unfiltered version of their beer, as well as the original. Inevitably, that leads to the Fest drinkers saying one thing. "Why do they not bottle this one, too?" Seriously, I hear it every time. Well, someone else put out an unfiltered pilsner called... *checks notes* okay, this is a little too on the money, Unfiltered Pilsner. That would be our man, Jordan Rainhard of West Toronto's Rainhard Brewing. When Beer Bro Glenn and I got together for a pre-Christmas 2016 lunch, we popped into the brewery and despite being a hophead like me, this was the beer Glenn insisted I try. This 4.9%, 35 IBU (that's not a typo) beauty was all citrus and a nice hop punch. It's a seasonal at Rainhard but when I see it, I grab it. It's that good.

Okay, here's the deal. I'm stopping this now but I'm only halfway through my list. I'll be back here Wednesday morning with the remainders because yes, the Province has some great lagers! Upcoming is one from Bellwoods Brewing that should have (but didn't) get them sued, two beautiful Helles (German-style) Lagers and a healthy handful of nicely-hopped lagers, including the one that I think is Ontario's Reigning Lager Champion. And you know what? I thought I'd be able to cover them all today. But this is gonna need a Part Two. That's good news for lager lovers. But Scooby Doo Gang, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time (so, you know, Wednesday morning), I remain...