2013 Beer in Review
2013 was a great year to be a beer lover in Ontario. Over the past twelve months I spent a lot of time exploring Ontario craft breweries and tasting their excellent beers. It was a year filled with fond memories of road trips, brewery tours, beer festivals and good times had with great friends, new and old. It’s a difficult task to condense a year’s worth of experiences into one short post; but I feel as though it’s necessary to give the year that was a proper send-off.
It’s time to raise my glass to Ontario craft brewers and the beers that really resonated with me in 2013.
Amsterdam Brewery – Tempest
A good Imperial Stout and at $6.25 a bottle, one of the best value-for-money winter beers available at the LCBO. Amsterdam has no shortage of great beers to choose from, but this became one of my cold-season favourites. I just wish that I could have gotten my hands on the Double Tempest!
Ashton Brewing Company – Hop Stravagansa
A very drinkable English style IPA, with some nice hop flavours. Right up there with their Vanilla Stout for me.
Barley Days Brewery – Yuletide Cherry Porter
A dessert beer, no question about it – like a liquid black forest cake.
Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. – Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale
Crisp, herbal, goodness. Beau’s first ‘B-Side’ collaboration with Danish brewing legend Anders Kissmeyer was my hands-down favourite Vankleek Hill-produced beer of 2013. Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale boasts a masterful balance of sweet and bitter, with a great herbal and grainy character. Fresh and flavourful, it was a perfect October beer – and perfect for Oktoberfest.
★ Bellwoods Brewery – Donkey Venom (Brett Barrel Aged Baltic Porter)
I visited Bellwoods for the first time this summer and it was a great experience – love at first taste. With so many excellent beers to choose from like Hellwoods, No Sleep Till Brooklyn or Roman Candle, it’s tough to go wrong when picking a favourite. Up until December I would have put their delicious Witchshark IIPA atop the podium; a beer I enjoyed so much that I even bought a t-shirt. In December, however, I had the opportunity to try Donkey Venom Brett Barrel Aged Porter and, somewhat heavy-heartedly, changed my mind.
If there’s ‘Brett’ in it, it’s gotta be good! Microorganisms with awesome names notwithstanding, I really enjoy sour beers. That said, I found this sour beer especially interesting and delicious. It had a fantastic balance between the tart, vinous, sour cherry and the contrasting nutty and roasty grain, particularly chocolately, flavours. Given the unpredictability of sour beers, I thought the result was pretty special.
Though by no means perfect, I really felt that this beer captured what I perceive to be the spirit of Bellwoods; a pretty offbeat and genuinely cool brewery that makes exciting, high quality beers and brands that live up to them.
★ Beyond the Pale Brewing Co. – Make’r Dark (The Darkerness)
As a pretty regular customer, I had the opportunity to try a lot of what Beyond the Pale had to offer in 2013. From the technically outstanding Brewmance Begins to the cult favourite Party Animal, I’ve yet to be disappointed – and I doubt that I will be in 2014 for that matter. The Darkerness is my real standout; in particular the bourbon barrel aged Make’r Dark.
A very drinkable Imperial Stout, The Darkerness is full of flavour; big roasty malts, chocolate, vanilla, coffee and brown sugar toffee, with a silky oatmeal stout mouthfeel. A nice treat on many a cold November night, there really isn’t much I would change about it. Well, maybe one thing.
It’s pretty amazing what spending some time soaking in a bourbon barrel can do. The result, in this case, was Make’r Dark, The Darkerness’ older brother. I first had this beer at the National Capital Craft Beer Festival and had nothing but good things to say about it. Ironically, Make’r Dark was to be re-released as I was working on this post. Luckily for me, this meant I could work off of fresh notes as opposed to relying on the, well, let’s call them ‘informal notes’ that I took at the beer festival.
One of the things that makes this beer stand out compared to other barrel aged beers is how the element of barrel conditioning doesn’t seem like an afterthought of the process. By aging The Darkerness in a bourbon barrel, Beyond the Pale was not only looking to inject a little wood and bourbon to it, but rather to change the balance of the beer altogether. The key word in that last sentence is balance. Quite often I find that barrel aged versions of beers lose the character of the original beer and take on instead overpowering booze and wood flavours. Sometimes this might have to do with the type of barrel not meshing with the flavour profile of the beer or others times just not allowing the beer enough time to mellow out.
Make’r Dark captures the sweetness of the bourbon and some great charred oak flavours that lend themselves nicely to the Imperial Stout profile. Dark chocolate, raw coffee bean, wood, smoke, sweet bourbon, orange bitter, cherry and vanilla. Some toffee, herb and pepper. It finishes a bit leathery and there’s a chocolate covered espresso bean flavour that lingers.
Big Rig – Double Chocolate Milk Stout
In the early fall, I was really craving a lactose sugar. Big Rig did their part with a Double Chocolate Milk Stout, enjoyed on draught at the Ottawa Brewery Market.
Black Oak Brewing Co. – Ten Bitter Years
One of the best Imperial IPAs that I’ve had; I love the flavour profile in this beer, in particular earthiness and pine. That flavour profile was the inspiration behind the Imperial IPA that I brewed in the fall. I discovered this beer a little late, but I like to think that I made up for lost time.
Broadhead Brewing Company – Dark Horse Stout
I didn’t try as much Broadhead as I would have liked this year, however, their Dark Horse Stout was my favourite of the ones I did have. It’s a simple and well executed stout.
Cameron’s Brewing Company – Obsidian Imperial Porter
Obsidian Imperial Porter was really notable for me. I love the richness of this porter, and the flavour that the rum barrel imparted to it. Malt-driven bitter dark chocolate, caramel richness and vanilla flavours worked beautifully in this barrel aged beer.
★ Church Key Brewing Co. – Honey and Oats Stout
Prior to going to their tap-takeover at the Branch Restaurant, in Kemptville at the end of September, I had only tried their Holy Smoke Scotch Ale. Based on my, albeit limited, prior experience with Church Key, it didn’t come as a surprise that their other beers were also quite tasty.
Church Key’s Honey and Oats Stout made greatest impression on me. The addition of honey to the Oatmeal Stout resulted in a remarkably smooth and humbly decadent beer. It rounded out the big roasty malt flavours nicely, but never came across as ‘too sweet’ as you might have imagined.
Honey and Oats Stout is not available in the LCBO and is only produced seasonally at Church Key Brewery. Rather than patiently waiting for the day to come for Honey and Oats to be listed in the LCBO, I instead used it as an excuse to take a day trip to Campbellford and visit the brewery; an experience that I recommend to anyone with an interest in good beer. My only regret is having only brought two bottles back with me. I would love to have this stuff on draught at home.
Covered Bridge Brewing – Double-Double Stout
This coffee-infused Milk Stout was the only beer from Covered Bridge that I tried in 2013. Maybe a touch sweeter than I would have liked, but it had great flavour. I look forward to trying it again as well as all of the other CB beers.
★ Flying Monkeys – Red On Red Collaboration Ale
Flying Monkeys is a fantastic brewery that have a proven track record of producing excellent, often a bit off-the-wall, beers. In a calendar year where specialty offerings like BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout, Matador Double IPA and Manifesto Triple Choclate Milk Stout were available, in support of an already great year-round lineup, the decision to choose a favourite would normally be very difficult.
That said, for me this was the year of Red On Red, a beer that I loved from the moment I first tried it at Vancouver Craft Beer Week – a summer highlight. Billed as a ‘Double Red’, this collaboration with Central City Brewing of Surrey, BC, is a showcase of sweet malts and fruity hops that meld together beautifully to hide the bitterness and cut the alcohol burn. Visually and texturally pleasing, Red On Red has earned itself a place in my heart – and in my cellar, as I have about 10 bottles of it put away.
Forked River Brewing – Blackbeerd Stout
I had the opportunity to meet the Forked River guys at Forest City Beerfest. I enjoyed their beer and their story. Over the holidays I stopped in to sample some of their other brews, including some Lord Simcoe’s Revenge IPA right out of the fermentor. I have to admit that the unfinished IPA may have actually been my favourite out of the bunch based on the beautiful hop balance, but having never had the finished product I feel obligated to choose something else.
It was a real toss up between their Double Dunk Weizenbock or the Blackbeerd Stout, but in the end the Blackbeerd Stout came out on top. Just a good, honest stout with some nice flavour to it. A shame there weren’t any growlers of it ready for the long haul back to Ottawa.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. – Hissy Fit
Great Lake’s Tank Ten produced some superb beers like Audrey Hopburn, Lake Effect IPA and Miami Weiss. Indeed, if you find a bottle that has the ‘Tank Ten’ badge you can rest assured that you are in store for an enjoyable drinking experience.
Clocking in at a meager 3.8% ABV, my favourite of the series was their Hissy Fit Grisette. A Grisette is a style of farmhouse ale that became popular with the working class from French-speaking regions of Southern Belgium. Farmhouse ale yeasts produce spicy, acidic, fruity and tart flavours in beer.
Bubbly and dry, like champagne, Hissy Fit was a little bit sweet, a little bit sour and very crisp. Lemon tartness and acidic fruit flavours were met nicely by earthy and grassy hops and there was an underlying spicy, peppery character. The overall experience, to me, was better than with their other Grisette the 4% ABV Chill Winston.
Kensington Brewing Company – Baldwin FishEYE-Pa
First drank at the Forest City Beerfest, and often picked up from the LCBO thereafter, Baldwin FishEYE-Pa is a great beer for a warm summer evening.
Lake of Bays Brewing – River Walker Summer Ale
An easygoing ale with some good flavour. Light and refreshing, the kind of beer you would want after hot day full of yard-work.
Left Field Brewery – 6-4-3 Double IPA
I’m a big fan of Left Field’s branding; an old-school baseball vibe. When I came across them while researching my Southern Ontario craft beer road trip, they stood out immediately. Unfortunately, not being from Toronto, it hasn’t been easy to get many samples. Luckily I was able to track some down at Pub Milos, in London, during the summer.
Their 6-4-3 Double IPA was, in my opinion, among the best of the style in Ontario. A good use of bright fruity hops balanced with a light biscuit and sweet caramel malt backbone; I hope I’ll get some more soon!
Muskoka Brewery – Harvest Ale (2013)
Muskoka makes delicious beer and this season’s Harvest Ale is no exception. Beautiful to look at and even better to drink, with a compelling citrusy, earth and grassy flavour, held up by rich caramel malts and ending with some spice, some flower and some breadiness. Despite taking forever to tease the cork out of the bottle, I have nothing but great things to say about this one.
Niagara Oast House Brewers – Hef’s Big Wood
Having lived in Bavaria, I like a good Weizen – and this is a good one. I’ve had the chance to sample a couple other Niagara Oast House brews and each was pretty tasty, but Hef’s Big Wood (great name) was my favourite of the lot.
Since it has been aged in wine barrels, the beer takes on some additional flavour that you wouldn’t expect in you average Weizen. It developed a woody/earthiness, as you might imagine, and took on the some of the vinous fruit qualities reminiscent of a Farmhouse Ale.
Nickel Brook Brewery – Old Kentucky Bastard
A little rough around the edges, like any good bourbon (or bourbon aged beer?) should be. A real standout, despite the fact that it could probably use a little more time to mellow out, Nickel Brook’s Old Kentucky Bastard is a palate-rouser.
Dark chocolate comes in for an instant before the bourbon and deep wood flavours come through. Orange zest is present throughout and there are some nice vanilla and mild coffee notes that give way to a sweeter chocolate and dried fruit flavour towards the end. The booziness is not so subtle, but is very well supported (and the support will only get better). There is a bit of a leathery aftertaste that is not at all out of place.
Another great one from Nickel Brook.
★ Sawdust City Brewing Co. – The Princess & Girlpants Meets The O.D.B.
Brewers of many of my highlight beers from past year, I had the hardest time of all picking just one from Sawdust City. Initially, I was tempted to choose their Gateway Kölsch. I was 16 the first time I went to Cologne and Kölsch was the first style of beer that I truly learned to appreciate. I haven’t had a better tasting one on this side of the pond (I love the graininess).
…Then, I thought maybe I should go with one of their stouts; Long Dark Voyage to Uranus, Skinny Dipping Stout or Red Rocket. All of them are very well put together and very enjoyable; but for some reason I still wasn’t convinced.
Finally, I settled on my original favourite; The Princess & Girlpants Meets the O.D.B. This Belgian-style Strong Ale was a hit at the National Capital Craft Beer Festival. It smelled like sour wine, citrus and spice, with some malt. Dry and vinous with sweet malt, wood, fruit and berry and balanced out by nice citrusy hop flavours. A great beer I’d love to try again sometime.
Silversmith Brewing Company – Black Lager
Roasty malt, coffee and smoke, balanced vanilla and chocolate sweetness and crisp hops . One more from the Forest City Beerfest collection that I am patiently waiting for to be distributed through the LCBO. I only got to try it once and have only had Silversmith once since (their Oyster Stout, which is also a tasty beer), but it has stuck with me.
Spearhead Brewery – Hawaiian Style Pale Ale
The 3 p’s: pineapple, pine and pepper. One of my go-to beers for hosting – enough flavour for those who want it, but not too intimidating for those who don’t. Another good one for summer.
The pineapple doesn’t come across as strongly as you would expect for a beer intentionally brewed using pineapple juice, but it does mesh with the tropical fruit quality in the hops quite well. There are also citrusy and grassy hop flavours, supported by a nice sweet malt biscuity, candied sugar malt character.
Wellington Brewery – Terrestrial India Brown Ale
Wellington’s Terrestrial India Brown Ale is my favourite in their Welly-One Offs series. It was a really interesting idea, marrying the malt richness of an English Brown Ale with the hopping schedule of a Cascadian Dark Ale.
In theory, it sounded like it could work – and it did. I really liked how the nutty, brown sugar, caramel and even some chocolate malt flavours worked with the grassy and citrusy hops. It was a little milder than I would have expected, but always nice to try something a bit different.