Sunday, December 25, 2016

Advent Beer 24: December Flower

The final beer! Revealed only this afternoon after a trip to Rocky Mountain House which included a side-trek to the only mechanic open on Christmas Eve, and only to have the same sputtering symptoms recur on the return leg of the journey! Partaken of too late at night, in the strange time betwixt the end of the church service and the stuffing of stockings by parties unknown! Written about 2/3 of the way through the glass as the sweet nectar quenches a deep thirst both physically and spiritually (it's been a mad season, let's talk about it over a beer some time...).

It is a high test Belgian called December Flower from the White Pony brewery, and is approaching barleywine territory at 11.8%.

It pours a clear copper colour with almost no head to speak of, and aromas of yeast, spice and crisp fruit, perhaps apples or pears.

December Flower is a fragrant and spicy mouthful, well suited as a winter warmer. It is heavily hopped as a balance against both the malts and the alcohol sweetness, and succeeds handily, in my estimation.

Another beer ill paired with foods, but a delightful fireside beer, perhaps shared with a friend over a strong cheese like Cambozola or a sharp aged cheddar.

This year's Advent calendar has had an extraordinary assortment of beers that have been both tasty and intriguing; a delight to discover and a joy to imbibe. Another great job by Calgary's Craft Beer Import!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent Beer 23: Clootie Dumpling

Yesterday's advent beer was sampled in sub-optimal conditions; eaten with supper between arriving home from work and departing into a winter storm on our way to Rocky Mountain House.

Here's what I can tell you about the beer: it comes from a brewery in the Orkney Islands off Scotland, and Clootie Dumpling refers to a type of dessert pudding native to those parts made with breadcrumbs and dried fruit. "Cloot" is actually a reference to cloth, as per the admonition to not remove layers of warm clothing until after May, or, as they might say in the Orkneys, "ne'er cast a cloot til Mey's oot". Boy, you can't argue with that, can you?

It pours a festive amber with a bit of head but nothing too expansive or long lasting. Scents of light malts, and sweet fruits come through in the aromas.

On the palate, there are hints of ginger and cinnamon and other spices. Clootie Dumpling is sweet, but not like a dessert beer of high alcohol number. In fact, at 4.3%, it is astonishing to me that they would market this beer as a winter warmer, but it is well balanced, tasty and fresh, and a delicious accompaniment to pizza wolfed down before hitting the open road.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 22: Sauerkirsche Stout

Evil Twin Brewing is a gypsy brewer headquartered in Denmark. Having no brewery facilities of his own, he creates his ales at other breweries on a contract basis. This sort of thing originated in Scandinavia, and is the reason that today I will be drinking a Russian-style Imperial Stout brewed with cherries, which has a German name, but is actually brewed in Spain, by a Dane. Got all that? Good, that may be on the final. On to the beer!

It decants a dark, oily, reddish-brown, almost black, and with virtually no head to speak of. I worry for a moment that the beer has gone flat, but mild carbonation is detectable upon sipping. The beer smells of high alcohol sweetness, rich coffee and the scent of cherries.

Sauerkirsche Stout comes across strong and bitter at first, leading with the toasted malt, but this is quickly swept away by the sweetness of the 10% abv and the aftertaste of sour cherries. The beer does not taste like candy, nor like a Hostess fruit pie, nor like Robitussin...well, maybe a little, but honestly, I think that's more due to the abv than the cherries. I would have liked a bit more carbonation, as the finish feels a little oily and could use some freshening. Still relatively delightful though.

A deep dark drink for a deep dark night; well suited for the second-longest night in what has felt like a particularly dark year at times. At this point, I can't imagine pairing this beer with anything except a proper Bavarian Black Forest Cake, as it is practically a dessert in its own right.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 21: La Débauche Cognac Barrel

My very first thought was that if the beer was half as complex and entertaining as the label, I would be sitting pretty by the bottom of the glass,

The beer is from France's Brasserie Débauche, and is a barleywine aged in cognac barrels. Drawn by a comic artist named Grimal I am sadly unfamiliar with, the label is reminiscent of the infamous tarot card The Tower, 16th of the major arcana, and symbolic of change and upheaval.

Well, change is all well and good, but no one likes to talk about upheaval whilst drinking a 10% abv barleywine, so maybe it is best to forego the symbology at the onset and get into the beer.

My label ponderage did give the beer a little time to warm up towards the recommended 10 degrees celsius, but pouring it did unleash a particularly vigorous head of dense but fluffy sepia-tinged foam. The head actually insulates the beer tremendously well and makes discerning aromas fiendishly difficult, but bready malts and yeasts followed by sweetness are still detectable. Later on the beer takes on an almost winey character in terms of the nose, which seems wholly appropriate.

On the tongue, the strong alcohol and cognac elements assert themselves with a spicy, acrid tang. The sweetness comes through in the finish for me though, making the experience very pleasant overall. Bread and brandy mingle on the palate throughout each mouthful, leaving a tingly sensation afterwards.

La Débauche Cognac Barrel is almost as complex and intriguing as its label, which is high praise, and this beer is an excellent winter warmer and an excellent capstone to an even of warm fellowship on a frosty night. It could also be an excellent complement to certain dessert courses; not many barleywines could conceivably wash down a crème brûlée, but this one might make a go of it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 20: Oud Bruin Hip Hops

There is a lot to be gained, and nearly as much to be lost, from reading the label of a new type of beer. Reading it, you diminish the chance of surprise and risk colouring your own descriptions with aspects written into the bottle copy. Skip it, and you approach the beer wholly unprepared, a virtual blank slate.

Reading the front of the label told me a few things: that the beer was 6% abv, from Belgium, and based on the name, would be hoppier than the last few beers to emerge from this year's calendar. Oud Bruin seemed likely to translate into 'Old Brown' an apt description perhaps of an aged brown ale,

Well, sort of.

I poured the beer, marveling at its reddish coppery colour and robust, off-white head, the colour of parchment. A tangy, yeasty smell emanated from the glass, along with a crisp, fruity flavour I couldn't pin down. Citrus? Maybe. More appley though. (Appleish? Applesque?) It's a scent I've come to associate with several Belgian ales I have had over the years, and took an anticipative sip.


Very, very sour. Not pickle-juice sour, but heading in that direction. My entire palate convulsed at the intensity of the taste, but then noticed the fruit characteristics (sour apple, maybe some grapefruit in there) and some floral notes in the finish. It's medium bodied, but oaky tannins add even more nuance to the drink. Once the shock wore off, a complex and entertaining mouthful, to be sure.

Some very quick research reveals that 'Oud Bruin' is not a brown ale of the British variety, but an established type also known as the Flanders Brown, from the Flemish region of Belgium. It is twice fermented and bottle aged, and this Hip Hops variety is actually barrel aged in between. The sourness is a result of the yeast and bacteria associated with bottle-fermented beer, and is a desired characteristic of the style.

Even the label suggests this, had I bothered to read it: "wakes up your mouth with a big punch in the face." Well fair enough, does what it says on the tin, I suppose. I love sour things as a matter of course, but most sour beers have left me cold. Oud Bruin Hip Hops is a fascinating and challenging beer I am glad to have tried, and would explore again, given the chance.

The inherent tartness makes it a bit of a challenge in terms of pairing, but I think fish or seafood seasoned with lemon, or possibly a Greek salad or something else feta-based might complement it well. A bowl of spicy chips of some fashion might not go far astray either.

Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 19: Shepherd's Watch

Today's seasonally themed beer from Wold Top in Yorkshire was packaged especially for this calendar as a Canadian Edition, which is awfully cool.

Shepherd's Watch pours a deep, rich reddish-brown, reminiscent of Smithwick's, or perhaps molasses without the thickness. The aroma is malty, like dark bread, but notes of coffee, chocolate and maybe coriander or anise lurk around the edges.

The first mouthful reminds just how much I love dark ales: malt-forward as you might expect, but wrapped in oatmeal nuttiness. There are traces of dark fruit and licorice-like spices around the finish, which is extremely smooth despite being a strong beer (6% abv). The kinds of beer that will probably make you regret saying, 'oh, sure, I'll have another', but you do it anyways.

Shepherd's Watch would be a be a great beer for 'sharing a bit of Christmas cheer' with a guest, maybe over a dish of mixed nuts or perhaps a charcuterie plate.

WWII with Aliens and X-Wings: Rogue One, Reviewed

In the interests of keeping this spoiler-free, I will be brief: if you have any love at all for the Star Wars franchise, you really do want to go see Rogue One, the first of the "Star Wars Stories" anthology series. And quickly, so you can avoid spoilers.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "But Stephen," you think, loudly (but reasonably), "How can there be spoilers in a film that is an ancillary prequel to a movie made nearly four decades ago, and where we know the outcome?"

I don't think it is a spoiler to say that at the end of Rogue One, the plans for the Death Star are in the hands of the nascent Rebel Alliance. But beyond the telling of just how it happened (similar to Episodes I-III), this movie is all about counting the cost, and it does so tremendously well.

Of the eight theatrical releases in the Star Wars universe thus far, Rogue One is the first one to feel like a war movie to me, and that cost is a big part of that.

Certainly the original trilogy has a lot of the trappings of a war movie: the  briefing room and underground hangar of Star Wars, the uniformed troops fighting against lumbering war machines in the snow of Hoth, etc,. In the end, though, these are adventure films, less concerned with the cause and the conflict, and more about leveraging them to provide a suitably dramatic backdrop for the hero (of a Thousand Faces).

Rogue One is not an overtly political movie, but does a wonderful job showing both sides squaring off for their inevitable confrontation, from the machinations of an Empire building the ultimate WMD to the disparate and squabbling elements of the Alliance as they try to determine whether or not to commit themselves.

There is adventure too, obviously, but the final set piece, showing troopers with unbuckled helmet straps running through the surf under withering fire, while explosions framed by palm trees loom in the background, made me feel like I was watching a remake of Guadalcanal Diary with extra-weird-looking Marines and X-Wings playing the part of F-4 Corsairs for ground support. And in all the right ways, too.

That's not to say there is no adventure, far from it! Intriguing characters, fascinating creatures, exotic locales and cool vehicles (both familiar and new) abound. There is gunplay, martial arts, daddy issues, quippery, and humor galore, but all of it under the umbrella of a galaxy about to commit to civil war.

If you haven't watched Episode IV in a while, you might want to before going to see Rogue One. You will have a greater appreciation for just how neatly they have tied this story into the larger saga, and you are more likely to catch the immense amounts of fan service the filmmakers managed to cram in without feeling overtly nostalgic.

Director Gareth Edwards has done a masterful job giving a just slightly darker and grittier take on a universe that started out as a re-working of Flash Gordon, without wallowing in cynicism or losing the wonder of the original movies.

The initial pitch for Rogue One came from Lucasfilm visual effects supervisor John Knoll, but writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have done an even more amazing job; in filling in some of the details of this galaxy before and after the arrival of the Death Star, they have made the original Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope) an even better movie than it was before. Don't ask how; just go see it, and we'll talk later.

If the rest of the Star Wars Stories are as respectfully arranged and as deftly executed as Rogue One, fans of this far, far away galaxy are going to be enjoying themselves for some time to come!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 18: Molotov

We wrap up the third week of the Advent Calendar (well, not precisely, but we are at the arithmetical 3/4 mark for sure)  with yet another multicultural and spicy beer. Italy's Birrificio Del Ducato has gifted us with Molotov, a strong ale (7% abv) with a Russian moniker, but seasoned with a decidedly Japanese spice: wasabi.

As a result of this, I approached Molotov with no small degree of trepidation, but I was safer than I thought. It pours a hazy gold with very little head to speak of, and gives off a scent that is far more citrusy than horeradishy.

In the mouth, Molotov is very well balanced, the malts tamed by the fruity hops but not so much so that you get any IPA pucker out of the affair. Moderately carbonated, the beer has a smooth finish and any spiciness is left towards the very end of each sip. Yesterday's Black Alligator felt more intensely peppery than Molotov does, strangely enough.

It is a pleasant enough beer, despite not matching the incendiary qualities one might associate with the name. A failure of marketing, or a triumph of brewing? Each will have to judge for themselves.

I'm not sure what sort of food it might go best with; one is instinctively compelled to say 'sushi', which could be quite all right, actually. Roast pork or other white meats could also make a good pairing, or a chef's salad garnished liberally with shredded radish.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 17: Black Alligator

From Budapest comes a Belgian style saison flavoured with West African pepper...y'know what, I don't get it either, but let's judge the beer by its taste, shall we?

Another darkety dark beer, as befits both the name and its appellation of 'black saison', topped by a modest head of beige foam which quickly dissipates. The nose is malty with hints of burnt chicory or coffee and a bit of yeast. There is some piney tartness as well.

A bit sour on the palate too, but flavourful, with the malt-forward taste followed by coffee and juniper notes. The alligator pepper itself (also known as mbongo spice) is fairly subtle, a residual spiciness lingering on the tongue after a tingly finish. A bit more astringent than the porter from two days ago, but an intriguing beer.

Monyo Brewing's label (according to Google Translate) says:
The MONY Brewing Co. presents a Black Alligator, the ruthless predator. The beer is based on a traditional saison, a spicy character of the three kinds of yeast by the Alligator Juniper Pepper and makes it unique. The latter is a Special West African pepper species that simultaneously gives slightly spicy and citrus flavors in beer. Aszíne dark as the alligator her skin, but the classic roasted malt ízjegyeket ignored. Note that sticks in the throat!

I can't help but think Black Alligator would be a good complement to spicy foods, a nice (and multicultural) beer for Heritage Days, but at 9% abv, it would be a poor choice to extinguish gastronomic fires!

2016 Advent Beer 16: Gno More Gnomes (Barleywine with Figs by Evil Twin)

In terms of when a fermenting beverage stops being an ale and becomes a barleywine, none are anxious to weigh in. Trappist ales can run up to 14% abv or more, while barleywines are typically 8-11%, so strength is not the only factor.

I strongly doubt I could tell one from the other in a blind taste test, but I can tell you with assurance that barleywines feel more Christmassy, although I am at a loss to explain why that might be. Certainly strong beers like these have a grand reputation as a winter warmer which is greatly appreciated on a night when the thermometer is expected to drop to -31 degrees Celsius!

This may be the first barleywine I've encountered in the Craft Beer Advent Calendar, and seeing that Gno More Gnomes comes from famed gypsy brewer Evil Twin made me excited to try it. The colever name and brilliant label only serve to add to the experience.

Poured into a stemmed glass, it presents as a deep coppery amber, with hints of ruby glistening through, crowned with a picturesque crown of beige foam, about a finger's worth. Scents of big alcohol, followed by fruit esters (fig as expected, but also traces of apples and maybe raisins), a bit of yeast of subtle spices.

The taste is the same: powerful, sweet but also tart, and finished with the gamey sweetness of figs. It grows in complexity as it warms, and traces of cinnamon and vanilla, perhaps imagined, are nonetheless detectable.

Gno More Gnomes is an appealing, whimsical, and most importantly, tasty way to spend a cold evening inside. This beer could accompany grilled fish or even a roast turkey, but was almost a meal unto itself when paired with simple mixed nuts.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 15: Imperial Baltic Porter by Pohjala

Although this year's calendar has seen Belgian beers originating in Scotland and West Coast IPAs brewed in Spain, today's beer is remarkably focused in comparison, geographically speaking: an Imperial Baltic Porter brewed by Pohjala, in Estonia.

Estonia is one of the three Baltic states, along with Lithuania and Latvia, which embraced porters from England back in the day. They brewed them in an amped up fashion, however, similar to Russian Imperial Stouts, with even toastier malts and higher alcohol content than the British originators. This style was also popular in Finland, Poland and Russia, but virtually disappeared in the West during the Cold War.

Dark Imperials like this are my preferred style of beer, especially in the winter, when the robust malt character and the warmth of the big abv (10.5% in tonight's offering!) can go a long way in dispersing the winter blues and warming one's innards.

Pohjala's IBP pours a deep rich brown, almost black, reminiscent of India ink. There is very little carbonation, so almost no head to speak of, despite a vigorous pour. A moment later, a thin, perfunctory layer of fine, caramel-coloured foam appears in an almost obligatory fashion, as if to say, 'Yeah,right, you came here for the head, just like those guys who claim to read Playboy for the articles.'

The high abv permeates the aromas emanating from the glass, but also carry a deep richness. Hints of strong coffee, bitter chocolate and dark fruits, like blackcurrants, add to the bouquet.

The richness continues as I take my first mouthful, toasted malts, just shy of burnt, bring a biscuity taste offset by bitter coffee notes. It finishes sweetly (10.5% abv!) and with an almost vanilla-like quality and smoothness.

Pohjala's Imperial Baltic Porter is a brilliant rendition of the style, and I am sure it would have shown even more complexities as it warmed, if I had only allowed it to.

Not really a beer to accompany a meal, but an excellent way to finish one. I have a clear picture in my mind of a dinner with friends, capped off by a glass of this beer for dessert, paired perhaps with espresso beans covered in dark chocolate, in hopes of extending the evening into the wee hours...

A definite contender for favourite beer in this calendar, and I will definitely be searching it out after the holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 14: Bersalis Sourblend

Having a beer while cooking is always a pleasure, so sipping on tonight's blond ale while working over a repurposed wok was a treat, if perhaps a bit distracting.

Bersalis Sourblend pours a cloudy gold-orange with a wispy white head, and exudes a pleasant tartness, backed by a tangy yeastiness.

Belgium's Oud Beersel brewery informs us via the label that this beer re-ferments in the bottle, and the first mouthful is tart without being astringent, with a sweetness born out of its 6% abv. The blond ale is hopped just enough that it balances out the sour and sweet elements nicely.

Bersalis Sourblend is not a beer for everyone, and even I, a fan of all things tart, do not appreciate every sour ale I have come across. I would gladly have a second bottle of this one if the opportunity arose, and think it would pair nicely with fish, seafood, or perhaps a pesto dish.

It even went well with the diagnostic samples I took of the jambalaya I am preparing for tomorrow's potluck!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 13: Adventurous Brown (Nøgne Ø)

Nøgne Ø means "naked isle" in Norwegian, and is an apt description of the southern coast of that Scandinavian land, where their eponymous and celebrated brewery is located. The name "Adventurous Brown" refers to the anticipation and celebration of the advent season, and the fact that this is a brown ale.

Very brown, as it happens.

It pours a very rich, dark brown, like burnt caramel, but not completely opaque; a colour reminiscent of opulent libraries, with comfortable leather chairs and dark, oiled wood. A thin line of off-white head the colour of aged paper completes the whole bibliophilic effect, at least for me.

In terms of smell, Adventurous Brown brings the malty sweetness of fresh born bread to the fore, with hints of molasses lurking at the edges. At 10% abv, the sweetness in the scent is hardly surprising.

And the taste? Smooth and luxurious, with the bready malts followed swiftly by sweetness. Probably more than enough sweetness for most people, but its Christmas, so I find the molasses and slightly caramelized sugar notes in keeping with the season, and making this beer either a great winter warmer or a fantastic dessert beer. I can't claim to tell the difference between oak and cypress in this context, but barrel-aged beers are one of my favourite things in the world, and the wood does bring significant nuance to this ale.

Seriously, there aren't a lot of brown ales that would make a delightful accompaniment to bread pudding with a rich bourbon sauce, but I could see Adventurous Brown doing so with aplomb, or perhaps washing down a plank of charcuterie and aged cheddar. One of the best offerings from the 2016 calendar thus far!

Monday, December 12, 2016

2016 Advent Beer 12: Pukki

Mixed feelings abound when I come across a low-alcohol variety in the Craft Beer Advent Calendar. On the one hand, when I drink a beer, I like to feel like I've drank a beer afterwards. On the other had, it's a school night, the weekend was pretty tiring, so perhaps this 3 percenter (abv) is just some sensible programming undertaken on my behalf by the calendar crew.

Then I saw that Pukki is a Polish/Finnish collaboration, then I saw that it has had spruce added, and then I saw that it is a smoked beer (sometimes called a rauchbier), and my acceptance turns very swiftly to anticipation.

After supper tonight, I poured the beer and was greeted by a cloudy and pale gold beer, with a crisp white head that left a nice ring of pearls around the edge of the glass. The scent of smoke is easily discernible but not overpowering, and you can smell the fresh, biting scent of spruce needles behind it.

The beer-taste itself is very mild, owing to the fact that Pukki is made from malted wheat, not barley, and its subtlety serves as an ideal delivery vehicle for the smokey warhead. It is a tremendously smooth -drinking beer, with the acrid and tangy taste of the spruce coming through at the very end, and providing a brilliant finish to the beer.

There is more information about this "Grodziskie" style of beer on the Browar Wasosz website, including the difficulty in brewing this 'Polish champagne' and the nature of the Finnish contribution.

An absolute delight to discover, Pukki (Finnish for Santa) is exclusive to the Advent Beer Calendar for now, but I wouldn't hesitate to buy this beer if I came across it again. Daring in some ways, comforting in others, I think it would make a fantastic complement to just about any sort of grilled meats, especially salmon or a pork tenderloin cooked on a cedar plank.