Beer Culture Shock: Quebec and Ontario

7688318264_d1b2ccdc8f_bI cringed as she took a hard right from Notre-Dame onto the 720, curving back left and down into the tunnel, jolting me about in the passenger seat. Her driving was fast, reckless and aggressive – she was very Quebecois.

As she drove me home to the northeastern corner of the Plateau, we talked about traditional music. She, a fiddler in the Acadian style, and I, a mandolinist in the Celtic style, were coming from a rehearsal with the now-defunct Custom Outfit in St. Henri, which for all intents and purposes was the opposite corner of the city as I then knew it.

“You should really go to the session on Tuesdays at Vices et Versa,” she was saying, “I think you’d love it. A lot of Irish tunes.” I had never heard of it. It was located further north on St. Laurent than my knowledge of the city yet extended. Later, when I moved into my sixth apartment in Montreal, each one further north than the previous as I was washed out by the tide of gentrification, Vices et Versa became my local.

I couldn’t believe it took me so long to find this place. 30+ beers on tap (and the occasional cask) all of them local and for the most part among the best of the best of Quebecois beers. Knowledgeable staff. Irish music on Tuesdays and good music most other days. Good food, good terrace, good crowd. Great bar.

“London Ruby Mild,” I ordered. The name itself caught my eye. Montreal is flooded with shit red ales, and it’s hard to find a “mild” anywhere, but as a fan of good reds and English-style beers, which are generally neglected by Quebecois breweries, I decided to take a chance. The beer, from Brasseur de Montreal, which I wasn’t familiar with, was a really full-bodied sessionable red ale, with a dominant toasty character.

A_x2TznCMAE2o1S.jpg largeA few days later, I bought a bottle of it from Paradis de la Biere and took it home, putting on a record while it chilled in the fridge and then pouring it into a tasting glass. I knew something was wrong when I smelled it. It smelled like unfermented wort, and it tasted even worse.

I told this to Mike, one of the staff, the next time I saw him at Vices et Versa. “You know,” he said, “The same thing happened to me with another beer. Have you had MacTavish?” He was referring to MacTavish in Memoriam from Le Trou du Diable, a pale ale which I had recently tried and enjoyed. “We had it here and I thought it was great, so I picked up a bottle on the way home from work and it tasted like shit. I mean that literally; it actually tasted like shit.”

In my case the fault was with the shop where I bought the beer. It’s too hot in there and they carry something around 200 beers; who knows how long it had sat on the shelf? In Mike’s case, the brewery was to blame. They shipped an obviously infected beer.

But even if stuff like this wasn’t as common, you still can’t really walk into a beer store in Quebec and pick up something at random. Most of it is shit. This may come as a surprise to anybody outside of Quebec, producers of world famous beers from Dieu du Ciel, McAuslan, Unibroue, etc. These breweries, among others, can easily out-brew most of Ontario’s top contenders. So what is it that makes these two neighbouring beer cultures so different?

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Bathysphere Breakfast Beer

This is my fourth time attempting a breakfast stout. The first was one of my favourites of the beers I’ve brewed (though my standards may have been lower back then). At the time, I thought it was an original idea. Being from Ontario and living in Montreal at the time, I’d never seen the like, since we don’t get Founders in Canada and F&M Brewery hadn’t yet released their Oatmeal Coffee Stout.

But, inspired by St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and Mill Street Coffee Porter, I decided that I could combine the two to create a “breakfast” beer. Taking it one step further, I added a little rauchmalt to signify cigarettes, and with the idea of actually drinking it with breakfast, I made a point of keeping the alcohol content under 4%.

The beer was as delicious as it sounds. As soon as it was gone I brewed a slightly tweaked version of the same recipe, and found myself with my first infected batch. It smelled like compost, though it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. I never poured it out – my sometimes brewing partner Joe and I eventually did drink it all, though it took about a year.

For my third attempt I again followed a similar recipe, but switched from using brewed coffee to adding coarsely-ground coffee directly to the fermenter. I let the beer sit on 100g of beans for 5 days and the beer turned out rancid. The nose smacked you in the face with intense, overbearing coffee and the flavour was extremely tannic and astringent. It’s the only time I’ve ever poured out a batch.

Clearly this old recipe was bad luck, so for this fourth attempted I started from scratch, abandoning the low-alcohol and rauchmalt ideas in favour of making a rich, full-bodied oatmeal coffee stout. The beer is fermenting away as we speak.

Now living in Melbourne, where coffee is taken very, very seriously, I will be using the coffee I drink every day, locally blended and roasted at Wide Open Road here in Brunswick. I don’t know where the name “Bathysphere” comes from, but I do appreciate that it makes for a good alliterative name for the beer:

IMG_9044 Recipe below the fold…

Session #80 Round-Up: the Nays

Now we come to the nays. In answering my own question, “Is Craft Beer a Bubble?” it turns out that I chose the winning side. Of the 28 (including me) beer bloggers who contributed to the Session #80, 13 leaned heavily to the ‘nay’ side of the debate.

Of course this doesn’t make us right. I would think that beer bloggers would have some bias, and as Jon Abernathy said in his contribution on The Brew Site, “people on the inside of them have such a hard time recognizing there is, in fact, a bubble until it’s too late and it bursts.”

graphStill, it was a remarkably balanced debate, with 9 bloggers suggesting there is indeed a bubble (or something like it) and 7 on the fence. In order to give every contributor the time of day without having to subject the world to a 4000-word blog post that I wouldn’t expect anyone to read, I decided instead to split the round-up into which of the three camps I felt each blogger fell into.

Part 1: the Yeas

Part 2: the Undecided

And finally, here be the optimists among us:

Keep reading…

Session #80 Round-Up: the Undecided

2852-940x626As the host of Session #80, I posed the question “Is Craft Beer a Bubble?” To my delight, the (to my count) 27 contributions to the Session were very much distributed across the spectrum of possible answers to that question.

I decided I should divide the round-up according to which side (as I understood) the author of each contribution was on in the debate. Yesterday I published the first part, which included the 9 contributions which, to my mind, argued in favour of there being some kind of bubble which must eventually burst.

As I said yesterday, it’s not all black and white and none of the contributors treated it as such, so none of the responses fall totally on the one of the extreme ends of the spectrum. But today I’m round-up all those contributors who seem to sit more or less on the fence, not arguing strongly for either side of the debate.

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Session #80 Round-Up: the Yeas

Well I think I can safely say that Session #80 was a success. I count 27 contributions which I found, with some surprise, to vary widely in their views on the subject. Because of how balanced the debate was, I’ve decided to split up the round-up according to which “side” the contributors were on, beginning with those who argued that yes, craft beer is a bubble.

Of course it’s not all black and white and none of the contributors treated it as such, so many of the responses that I consider to be in the affirmative are to some degree on the fence, and several of them rejected calling it a bubble while still suggesting that a burst or bust of some kind is inevitable.

So without further adieu, in order of appearance, here be the pessimists among us. Come back tomorrow for the rest of the round-up.

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Why I Don’t Have a Problem with Brewdog Fishhead Conceptual Beers and Failed Experiments

We’ve all heard of Dogfish Head’s new Celest-jewel-ale, brewed with moon dust. Most of the responses to the news have been in the vein of “Why?” and “Gimmicky bullshit, I’m surprised its (sic) not Brew Dog doing it to be honest.” But the only thing that offends me about this beer is the name. Personally I think it’s cool that there are brewers having this kind of fun.

I am generally an all-malt drinker. I prefer my beers to adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, with some notable exceptions: Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique, my favourite beer brewed in Quebec, includes oats and wheat, and most Trappist beers are brewed with sugar. But the fact that I prefer true-to-style beers doesn’t make me contemptuous of conceptual beers and failed experiments.

Dogfish Head and BrewDog’s core lineups include some of the most well-loved IPAs in the world. With their year-round beers firmly established, it’s a good time for them to brew some truly weird things, and I’m sure they’re having a blast doing it. Treating beer with irreverence is what got them this far. Why stop now?

Session #80 – Is Craft Beer a Bubble?

On the first Friday of every month, beer bloggers from around the world all write their own perspective about a single topic, as chosen by a monthly host. As this month’s host, I have chosen the top to be “Is Craft Beer a Bubble?”

I’m going to take a local approach to my answer and talk specifically about craft beer in Ontario.

Let’s start with numbers. There are 31 breweries in the Ontario Craft Brewers Association, the newest of which are Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm of La Salette and Sleeping Giant Brewery of Thunder Bay, and there are a few more craft breweries in the province that don’t belong to the OCB. The total number is probably around 40.

For a comparison, Belgium, with a population less than that of Ontario, is served by nearly 200 breweries. Closer to home, Michigan, again with a smaller population than Ontario, has around 140 craft breweries, having grown from only 3 in 1991.

The incredible growth rate in Michigan is representative of the US as a whole – in the 1970s there were less than 100 breweries in the States, including the BMCs, while today there are over 2,500. This is an all-time record; the number had previously peaked at a little over 2,000 before Prohibition.

Clearly, if we take the States as a comparison (and I think it’s fair to do so), a craft beer bust is not imminent in Ontario. If anything, the boom here is just getting started.

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