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?

Keep reading…


The Great Hop Debate

The Craft Beer Community is in Crisis

Hop Tattoo

Photo stolen from Google, who probably stole it themselves anyway

Is that a catchy enough headline? A similar exaggeration is what caused this whole debate in the first place, though it had been picking up steam for a while before the recent boil-over.

A lot of people, myself included, have been making a bit of a stink about IPAs (my favourite beer style, incidentally), with the following central argument:

The IPA is now the most popular style of beer after pale lager, and more successful than any other craft beer style. This is, in some ways, unfortunate, because a lot of people don’t like hop-centric beers. They’re polarizing.

That’s from an article I wrote for The Windsor Independent which more or less covers the same ground as Finding Beer Balance. A few days after submitting the article, Slate published the now-infamous, unfortunate-titled “Against Hoppy Beer.” The first thing I noticed was that the subtitle, “The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews,” made the same point as my article.

I can’t say that I was surprised at the hostile reaction to the Slate article. It wasn’t presenting a new idea – people have been irked by the popularity of IPAs for so long that BrewDog has been poking at the issue since 2011 with their “IPA is Dead” series of single-hopped beers. But in a beer culture where putting the word “hop” in the name guarantees a sales advantage, where IPAs are, by a significant margin, the most popular beer style other than what is often laughingly called pilsener, the suggestion that there might be negative side-effect to the status quo has really hit a nerve.

Keep reading…

Finding Beer Balance

On the first Friday of every month, beer bloggers around the world are invited to participate in The Session (aka Beer Blogging Friday). This month’s Session is hosted by Bryan at This Is Why I’m Drunk, and the topic is “Finding Beer Balance.”

What is balance in beer?

Short answer – I don’t know.

Long answer – Actually I do have an idea, but it’s vague and multifaceted and, rather than try to squeeze it into a twitter-sized sound-bite, it’s easier (and possibly more accurate) to say “I don’t know.” For the purposes of this article, I will try to express the long answer by taking you for a walk along my own personal road to finding beer balance.

From Pole to Pole

If I were to chart my taste in beer, it would begin very low on the graph, back in my teens when, as far as I knew, there were only two kinds of beer: mass-produced American-style pale lagers (MPASPLs) and Guinness. “Well geez,” I thought, “I know they say beer is an acquired taste, but this is just plain boring. Why would anyone go out of their way to learn to like this?” Still, Guinness is a good beer, and I’d drink it when it was available, but I’d opt for wine or hard liquor more often than not.

Then, when I had my first taste of something “different,” I realized that there is more to beer, and my taste entered the next stage. I jumped right past the middle of the graph and went straight to “extreme.” Coffee-porters, high-gravity beers, and of course, hop bombs.

I think the following is true of most craft beer drinkers in Canada – IPAs are what got us started. The first time we had a hoppy beer we were blown away. We didn’t know beer could taste like that. It was such a jump from bland, watery malt liquor to a flavourful, spicy/citrusy/flowery/grassy IPA. We wanted more.

IPA is the Gateway Craft Beer Style

Smashbomb Atomic IPAIPAs (and their relatives, APAs and hop bombs) are now the most popular style of beer after MPASPLs, and are far and away the leading craft beer style. The craft industry is built on the taste buds of craft beer drinkers. Craft beer drinkers in general, myself included, want IPAs. They are the gateway craft beer.

This is, in some ways, unfortunate, because a lot of people don’t like them. The reason why we like them is because we thought the mainstream lagers were bland and boring and wanted something more exciting. Hop bombs are made for people who like things extreme and in-your-face, hence the name. The problem with this is that when we see someone drinking a mainstream lager, we say “don’t you know there’s better beer out there?” and they go “yeah I’ve tried that craft beer crap, it’s like licking a lawnmower.” And they’re right. And it’s because hop bombs are wildly unbalanced.

Finding Beer Balance

Most people who gravitate toward craft beer at a young age jump right to the extreme, one reason being that it seems to be the diametrical opposite of the mainstream lagers. They’re choosing their side, carving out their territory – that’s what I did. But after some experimentation in the extremes at the top of the graph, my beer palate entered the third stage: balance.

I discovered that there was something more interesting than extreme beer, and that thing was quality. More and more I shunned the beers with violent names that did violent things to my tongue and grossed out my friends. I set aside my obsession with tasting as many different beers as possible in exchange for just drinking good beer. I realized that if I could only drink one beer for the rest of my life, I would choose a session beer, not a mind-bending drinking experience.

That’s how I found beer balance. There’s nothing better than a beer that hits all the right notes on your tongue. I think that’s something that craft beer drinkers and MPASPL drinkers would agree on.

The Point

As long as hop bombs remain the standard bearers of craft beer, they will keep turning people away at the door. They are a pompous bouncer, telling the lager-drinkers “You can’t come in if you can’t handle the heat.” Non-craft drinkers who aren’t actively searching for a beer that will surprise them are not going to like hop bombs. Maybe it’s time to start looking for a gateway beer that’s not designed to blow minds, but designed to open them, a little bit at a time.

Ultimately balance in beer is shaped by our experiences and varies depending on our palates, but I don’t think it’s entirely subjective. I think it’s possible to say objectively which beer between a given two is more balanced. And I think that, given time to adjust, mainstream lager drinkers and craft beer enthusiasts can find a place in the middle of the graph, between boring and extreme, where they both have to admit that beer is at its best.

Tweet Version

IPAs scare away people who might have been interested in craft beer. A good, balanced session beer has a better chance of convincing them.