Friday, July 21, 2017

Close out your July at Toronto’s Festival of Beer


Fittingly, for Toronto’s largest and longest running celebration of beer, there will be 416 brews available to sample at this year’s Toronto’s Festival of Beer.

The late wrestling legend Andre the Giant was a prodigious drinker, but even he would be hard-pressed to quaff an amount of beer equal to Toronto’s area code at the July 28 to 30 event at Bandshell Park at Exhibition Place. Quality over quantity is what I’m most interested in, however, and there should be lots of that to go around.

“We want to give our patrons a chance to discover a whole new world of the tasty golden beverage and I'm confident we've accomplished that,” said Les Murray, the president of Beerlicious and Intelivents, which is responsible for presenting Toronto’s Festival of Beer in conjunction with the Beer Store.

Ontario House will feature 17 breweries while the New Brews Tent will showcase five breweries that are participating in the event for the first time.



While I’ll no doubt drop in on those sites, for the past few years I’ve spent the majority of my time at the World of Beer Pavilion. That will likely be the case again, as this year it will be named the Canada 150 Pavilion in honour of our country’s landmark birthday.

The 20,000-square-foot area will feature 48 brands from breweries from across the country — from Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. from Victoria in the west to Nine Locks Brewing Co. and Spindrift Brewing Co. from Dartmouth in the east. It will feature winners from both the Canadian Brewing Awards and Ontario Brewing Awards along with collaboration brews. Food will be prepared by Matty’s Seafood and Barcue.

Fifteen other food vendors will be on site and the Grilling Tent will showcase different chefs demonstrating their skills in making food with beer each day.

If you want some rhythm and booze, there will be lots of music to accompany all of that drinking and eating. New York hip-hop duo Method Man and Redman will end Friday night’s proceedings, while Toronto via Halifax power pop band Sloan will headline on Saturday and Great Big Sea member Alan Doyle will do likewise with his band The Beautiful Gypsies on Sunday.

Writing this has worked up my thirst. I think it’s time for a beer.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The best of 2017’s Canadian Music Week Festival

This was my 27th Canadian Music Week Festival, and I thought the 2016 edition was the best in several years. While this year’s event didn’t quite measure up to that level, I still managed to see 31 acts over five nights. Here were my 10 favourites:

Ferraro
Saturday, 2 a.m. at The Cameron House

Ferraro’s Losing Sleep was my ninth favourite album of 2016 and I’ve seen this Toronto-based, brother-fronted band more than any other over the past year. Their ’50s and ’60s-influenced pop songs are full of ear worms and their whip-smart cover choices reflect their love and knowledge of vintage music that’s rare in young musicians. I have a great time at every Ferraro show I attend.


Ferraro

The Velveteins
Thursday, 1 a.m. at Cherry Cola’s Rock ’n’ Rolla Cabaret & Lounge

A Hot Second With The Velveteins was one of my favourite EPs of 2016, and the Edmonton trio lived up to my high expectations on stage. There are some throwbacks to ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop, but the hook-filled songs carry a harder and more rock-oriented edge. A closing cover of Bad Company’s “I Feel Like Making Love” didn’t really fit with what came before it, but it still worked.


The Velveteins

KOLARS
Tuesday, 11 p.m. at The Rivoli

This husband and wife duo features Rob Kolar on guitar and lead vocals and Lauren Brown wearing tap shoes while standing on top of a bass drum and pounding on three other drums. It was danceable but still raw and minimalist as it mixed glam, indie and art rock ingredients that made for a very tasty meal. I had a good conversation with the Los Angeles musicians and artist manager/former Canadian Idol judge Jake Gold in The Rivoli’s front bar at the end of the night. Kolar and Brown were very nice and even bought me a beer, which I swear had no bearing on this high ranking.


KOLARS
KOLARS

Bueller
Friday, 11 p.m. at The Silver Dollar

This Toronto quartet has male and female lead singers and a sound that mixes bratty, nasally vocals with large dashes of power pop and garage, punk and indie rock. It’s eclectic, but the common denominator through most songs is the presence of immediate hooks. I would like to hear a longer set.


Bueller

Casper Skulls
Saturday, 11 p.m. at Lee’s Palace

If I hear elements of Wire, The Fall, Joy Division and The Streets in your set, I’m almost assured of liking you. That was the case with this Toronto band that has a lot of British post-punk influences in its music. It was loud, dynamic and in your face.


Casper Skulls

Punchline 13
Thursday, midnight at Bovine Sex Club

I first became aware of Punchline 13 when the pop-punk group entertained me at the Bovine for last year’s CMW. If Simple Plan was able to make it big (which I predicted very early in its career), I’m not sure why this Montreal quintet is languishing in relative obscurity.

Sly Rawk is a great frontman.

Punchline 13
Punchline 13

 
Early Hours
Wednesday, 1 a.m. at Nightowl and Friday, 1 a.m. at The Cameron House

This very young South African band has a knack for writing smart and catchy indie pop songs that are delivered in an upbeat and energetic manner. There’s an element of highlife in a few songs that helps set the group apart, since it’s something you don’t often hear in Canada. I liked the band enough that I saw it twice and spent time in engaging conversations with the four members and manager Sarah Jane Nicholson, a tireless promoter who was dancing, taking photos from the stage and making new friends at each show. Early Hours gets bonus points for covering David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” selections which belie the group’s youth.


Early Hours
Early Hours

Twist
Saturday, 9 p.m. at Lee’s Palace

I enjoyed an earlier incarnation of Twist during the North By Northeast Music Festival in 2015, and the Laura Hermiston-fronted Toronto quartet has improved since then. You can hear the pop heart beating within the dense body of guitars and a rumbling bass that I could feel in my stool near the stage. With Hermiston’s dreamy vocals floating over the top, it makes for an experience drenched in moody but not depressing atmospherics.


Twist
Twist

Devin Cuddy Band
Friday, 2 a.m. at The Cameron House

The son of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy has made a name for himself in recent years as a piano-playing country rock artist. There were large doses of both those styles on display at this late night set that included a mix of Cuddy originals and classic covers, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”


Devin Cuddy Band

Dentist
Wednesday, 10:45 p.m. at Monarch Tavern

This Asbury Park, N.J. quartet played several CMW sets and I’m quite happy I caught this one. Singer/guitarist Emily Bornemann’s ethereal vocals present an effective counterpoint to the band's melodic but fuzzed-out sounds of punk, surf and indie rock. I was reminded of The Pixies a couple of times during the set.


Dentist
Dentist

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Toronto Winter Brewfest learned from last year


The second edition of the Toronto Winter Brewfest was misnamed by a few days, since it launched during the first week of spring, but that was about the only quibble I had with this year’s event.

The introduction of RFID bracelets meant all transactions took place electronically and, after getting used to tapping them a couple of times to pay for your beer samples or food, it was an efficient way of handling things. Top-up stations made it easy to add money and, despite the large crowd that attended on Friday night (Saturday night sold out in advance), lineups were generally shorter and increased space meant that there was more room to move than last year.

Prices were also lower, as more than two-thirds of the four-ounce sample glasses were priced at two dollars, with beers above 6.1 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) going for three bucks.

Toronto is blessed with a variety of beer festivals and events, and this newcomer drew mixed reviews in its debut, but I heard very few complaints from patrons this time out.

And believe me, I know about complaints. I dealt with a lot of them at last year’s Toronto Winter Brewfest after serving for a shift behind the busiest bar. There were problems with the refrigeration trailer that made the beer pour unreasonably foamy and caused us to shut it down for a period of time until technicians made adjustments and repairs.

I spoke with Alex Van Dieren, one of the organizers, who generously bought me a $12 pork souvlaki from Pappas Greek on Wheels food truck as a thank you for making the best of a bad situation the previous year. He said he’d received much better feedback this time out and was pleased with how the evening was progressing. Lessons learned seem to have paid off.

While on the topic of food, T Dot’s Nonsense, Delight Bite, Hank Daddy’s Barbecue and Pappas had trucks on hand to offer hearty dishes to soak up all of the beer being consumed. I paid $11 for a small and delicious order of chicken poutine from Delight Bite later in the evening. Lineups were small and there was an adequate amount of tables and chairs to sit down and eat at.

The bars that weren’t specifically dedicated to a single brewery were the ones that most interested me, as they had the best variety and most interesting styles to choose from, but they’re staffed with volunteers who can’t explain much about what they’re pouring. But during my wandering around the Enercare Centre Heritage Court I had the opportunity to talk shop with: Jordan St. John, co-author of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide and other books, who bought me a beer; and Toronto Star beer writer Josh Rubin.

My friend Jeff and I made cameo appearances 37 seconds in to a Winter Briefest report on the local CTV six o’clock news.



Armed with 50 “Brew Bucks” given to me by Brew Fest organizers and the publicity team from Halo PR, I sampled 19 different beers over several hours.

My favourites were:

Beyond The Pale Juicy Dream IPA
This pale gold Vermont-style IPA from the Ottawa brewery poured with a nice white head and had a rich and fruity aroma and full-bodied flavour with an easy finish. It measured in at six per cent ABV and 50 international bitterness units (IBU).

Beyond The Pale Aromatherapy IPA
This was quite similar to Juicy Dream, but was a slightly darker gold and poured with a smaller white head. The alcohol and bitterness were notched up slightly, at 6.5 per cent ABV and 55 IBU respectively, and left a pleasant taste in your mouth and a smile on your face with its effective mixture of Citra, Mosaic, Amarillo and Centennial hops.

Redline Sprung! Belgian Pale Ale
This slightly cloudy gold ale was finished with a rich white head and had a definite citrus aroma. It uses four kinds of hops, three types of malt, Belgian yeast esters and coriander seed that combine to produce a pleasant flavour with hints of bubblegum and banana. With 4.9 per cent ABV and 31 IBU, this Barrie, Ont. brewery has come up with a beer that acts as a good introduction to those wanting to ease their way into the wonderful world of Belgian pale ales.

Stalwart Down By The River Wheat Ale
This Carleton Place, Ont. brewery has made a well-rounded 5.3 per cent ABV, 29 IBU ale that includes wheat and oats. It has a floral and lemon bouquet, a slightly cloudy gold colour and a dry and mildly bitter finish that leaves you wanting another one.

Gainsbourg La Traitresse 2.0
This Hull, Que. brewery has made a Belgian Tripel-style beer that’s medium gold with a thin head and a rich floral bouquet. At 10.7 per cent ABV, you can taste the high alcohol content, but it certainly doesn’t overpower you and it has a surprisingly easy finish.

Vox Populi Anna Citra
This Belgian Tripel-syle beer from the Boucherville, Que. brewery is made at Oshlag Brasserie & Distillerie. It’s made completely with Citra hops, which happen to be my favourite, and Belgian yeast. At 10 per cent ABV and 75 IBU, it’s probably not wise to drink a lot of these — but you’ll want to.

Castor Yakima IPA
This is made in Rigaud, Que. but has the bold hop and flavour profile of an American west coast IPA. It’s dark gold and has a large white head and its strong citrus flavours and aromas on a bed of pale malt produces a refreshing beer that’s not as bitter as you might expect from a 6.5 per cent ABV, 75 IBU ale.




Here are the other beers I drank, in rough approximation from most to least favourite:

Le Trèfle Noir La Mafia Gibb American Pale Ale
Barnstormer Accelerated Stall Double IPA
Benelux Cuda West Coast IPA
Left Field Prospect Hallertau Blanc Single Hop IPA
Nita Beer Coach’s Challenge Imperial IPA
Beau’s Bush Fire Rooibos-Honeybush Beer
Gainsbourg Cote Ouest Tangelo (cask)
Walkerville Sweet Milk Stout
Folly Brewpub Little Barasway Porter
Waller St. Harvest Sour (cask)
Whiprsnapr Blackberry Blastr IPA
Innocente Two Night Stand (cask)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Discovering Vat Phou in Laos' Champasak province

I’ve been privileged to twice visit Angkor Wat and several other temple complexes in the vicinity of Siem Reap, Cambodia, but am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of Laos’ Vat Phou until I went there in December.

The surviving ruins of the Khmer Hindu temple complex in Champasak, in the southwestern part of the country six kilometres from the Mekong River and at the base of Phou Khao mountain, were built from the 11th to 13th centuries — making them around the same age as those around Angkor Wat. Although the site is still used for religious worship, it’s been opened to tourists who pay approximately eight dollars to visit. Lao people receive a 60-per cent discount while monks, those under 18 and disabled persons are admitted for free.

An electric vehicle takes you from the entrance to the base of the complex, which is accessed by a long central walkway flanked by phallic symbols. Two reservoirs called barays, and formerly used for bathing, are on both sides of the path.


The walkway to the temple complex.
The first two buildings you encounter are the north and south palaces, which sit on terraces and feature interior courtyards. It’s not known what they were used for, though they may have had a religious purpose. While in disrepair from age, the detail of many of the sandstone and volcanic rock carvings on them remain beautiful. 

The south palace.
Stairs lead up to other terraces with small buildings until you reach the top level, 100 metres up. You’ll find the ruins of a sanctuary (in which more recent Buddha statues have been placed) and a small library, as well as rock carvings of crocodiles, elephants and snakes. 

The sanctuary.
There’s also a “sacred spring” that brings water from higher up the mountain.

The "sacred spring."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this top level, however, is the view it presents of the rest of the complex and the surrounding countryside.

The view, and the author.
Caucasian visitors must still be relatively rare, as I was stopped by three different groups of Lao teenagers who wanted to have their pictures taken with me as I was descending the stairs.

The electric vehicle returned me close to the site entrance, where a museum houses a collection of recovered objects, architectural elements and sculptures, with explanations of their use and importance. There’s also a shop with products made by local artisans and a tearoom, where I was able to quench my thirst on a hot day by purchasing my first Beer Lao Gold for $1.60.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

My introduction to southern Laos

Entering Laos was forbidden to non-essential visitors during the period I was travelling through southeast Asia in 2004, and I’ve always wanted to return to visit the country. In December I had the chance to do just that.

I thought that the nation of 6.8 million people bordered by Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand might still be holding a grudge against me, however, when I arrived at the only Cambodia to Laos border crossing from Dong Kralor to Veun Kham and found out that Canadians had to pay more than any other nationality to obtain a visa. I paid $42 U.S. while people from other western countries were charged $30 or $35.


The Cambodia-Laos border crossing.
The crossing itself was rather surreal. While large buildings have been constructed and it looks quite grand, the duty free store was deserted and the 15 folks on my bus were the only ones heading into Laos while three people walked across the border going the other way. But after getting through that bureaucratic process, I found the Laotian people to be very friendly and welcoming.

It was a short drive to Don Khong, the largest of the 4,000 islands in the area on the Mekong River, and Pon’s River Guest House in the small town of Muang Khong.

The guest house was centrally located for walking, bicycling or boating. The room was fairly basic but clean, with two beds and a washroom with a toilet and shower with hot water. I was able to change money at the front desk. It was all I needed.


The view from the riverfront restaurant.
The guest house also operates a restaurant directly across the street, right on the shore of the Mekong, which provides great views of the river, the far shore and a few of the 4,000 islands. The food was fine, the beer was cold and inexpensive, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

Southern Laos is the least visited part of the country and its laid-back style is perfect for relaxing and soaking in the atmosphere. After checking in and having a large tuna sandwich and large bottle of Beer Lao for less than five dollars while enjoying the breeze off the Mekong, the guesthouse proprietors arranged a late afternoon longtail boat tour that included a 45-minute stop to walk around a smaller island that was home to about 500 people.


The small island.
There were no vehicles on the island and it was pretty poor and backward, but the people seemed happy — especially the children, who start school at age seven. I high-fived several of them and played soft toss with a few others using some nuts, although they had no concept of catching and didn’t manage to hang on to one after five minutes. But they laughed hysterically when I showed them the photos I’d taken of them.

The children.
We returned to the boat and continued the tour, stopping to watch a lovely sunset, before docking, having a couple of more beers and preparing for dinner at Pon’s affiliated but more upscale Pon Arena Hotel a short walk away. Fifteen dollars got me a traditional Laotian fish and rice dish, garlic bread and another large Beer Lao.

The sunset.
The next morning I elected to walk around the town for a couple of hours, which involved passing three schools and playing with more smiling and laughing kids. I visited two monasteries with ornate architecture, carvings and stupas, and came across a memorial monument to a man who was 115 when he died. 

The 115-year-old man memorial monument.
It was time for lunch, and eight dollars got me a plate of pad thai with chicken and two large Beer Laos at Pon’s riverfront restaurant to pass the time while waiting for a 2 p.m. bus to take me on to the next destination.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Steve McLean’s favourite music of 2016

The top 10
1. Gringo Star - The Sides and in Between
2. Hidden Stash - Mixed Cassette Tape
3. Dressy Bessy - Kingsized
4. Pixies - Head Carrier
5. Pkew Pkew Pkew - Pkew Pkew Pkew
6. Tuns - Tuns
7. Death By Unga Bunga - Pineapple Pizza
8. Waco Brothers - Going Down in History
9. Ferraro - Losing Sleep
10. The Seams - Meet The Seams
 
  
 
The next 10
11. The Monochrome Set - Cosmonaut
12. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial
13. Dexateens - Teenage Hallelujah
14. Jonny Fritz - Sweet Creep
15. The Monkees - Good Times
16. Shonen Knife - Adventure
17. Brian Whelan - Sugarland
18. Skinny Lister - The Devil, The Heart and The Fight
19. The Mekons - Existentialism
20. Brian Fallon - Painkillers



Honourable mention
The I Don’t Cares - Wild Stab
U.I.C. - The Wiseman Sessions
Laura Sauvage - Extraordinormal
The Gotobeds - Blood Sugar Secs Traffic
Alejandro Escovedo - Burn Something Beautiful
The Thermals - We Disappear
Bleached - Welcome the Worms
Communism - Get Down Together
The James Hunter Six - Hold On!
The Coathangers - Nosebleed Weekend
JPNSGRLS - Divorce
Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Acapulco Lips - Acapulco Lips
Blue Rodeo - 1000 Arms
Cyndi Lauper - Detour
Dwight Yoakam - Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars
Jeff Rosenstock - Worry
Surf Bored - The Rehearsal
Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle - Colvin & Earle
Neil Young - Peace Trail
Nick Waterhouse - Never Twice

 
EPs
1. The Orielles - Jobin EP
2. The Kickstand Band - Summer Dream
3. Tokyo Police Club - Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness (Part 1)
4. The Accidentals - Parking Lot EP
5. Tokyo Police Club - Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness (Part 2)
6. Dogheart - Real Mood
7. The Donkeys - Midnight Palms


Reissues and live albums
1. The Beatles - Live at The Hollywood Bowl (Remastered)
2. Adam and The Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier 2016
3. Barenaked Ladies - BNL Rocks Red Rocks
4. The Velveteins - A Hot Second With The Velveteins (Reissue EP)

Concerts (chronological order)
Joe Strummer tribute - Jan. 8, Tennessee, Toronto
The Jammed, Blondee, Gabba Heys - Jan. 16, Cherry Cola's Rock 'n' Rolla Cabaret & Lounge, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls - March 11, The Danforth Music Hall, Toronto

The Paul Collins Beat
Danny Laj and The Looks, The Paul Collins Beat - March 30, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
Skinny Lister - March 31, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Royal Crowns, Chalk Circle, Crummy Stuff, Peter Zaremba's Rock Delegation featuring Keith Streng, U.I.C. - April 2, Royal Canadian Legion, Oshawa, Ont.
Jacques and The Valdanes, The ARC Sound - April 9, Tennessee, Toronto
Daddy Long Legs, Catl - April 21, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Who - April 27, Air Canada Centre, Toronto
The Rheostatics - April 29, Massey Hall, Toronto
Bob Mould - May 3, Horseshoe, Toronto
Mabel - May 4, Handlebar, Toronto
Darts, Archie Powell & The Exports, Punchline 13 - May 4, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
The Kickstand Band, Laura & Greg - May 5, Nightowl, Toronto
The Orielles, Thrifty Kids, The Magic Gang, OL' CD - May 5, Handlebar, Toronto
Tommy Stinson - May 6, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
New Swears - May 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
HUttch, The Spook School - May 7, The Garrison, Toronto
Forever Distracted - May 7, Cherry Cola's Rock 'n' Rolla Cabaret & Lounge, Toronto
The Orielles, Fat White Family - May 7, Velvet Underground, Toronto
Sam Cash & the Romantic Dogs - May 7, Horseshoe, Toronto
Ferraro - May 7, Cameron House, Toronto
Waco Brothers - May 13, Horseshoe, Toronto
Scott B. Sympathy, The Lawn, The Dundrells - May 15, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Black Eleven, The High Tides, The Hang-Ten Hangmen, The Men In Gray Suits, The Reverb Syndicate - June 4, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto

The Royal Crowns
The Royal Crowns, The Shuffle Demons, The Dears - June 11, Dundas West Fest, Toronto
The Jayhawks - June 11, Horseshoe, Toronto
Sam Cash & The Romantic Dogs, By Divine Right - June 14, The Rivoli, Toronto
Lucky Ron - Aug. 20, Chateau Lafayette, Ottawa
Ferraro, Gringo Star - Aug. 26, Velvet Underground, Toronto
Ferraro, Sam Cash & The Romantic Dogs - Sept. 9, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Far East, The Specials - Sept. 13, The Danforth Music Hall
Margo Price, The Hives, Skinny Lister, Dropkick Murphys, Drive-By Truckers - Sept. 16, Fort York, Toronto
Lush, Okkervil River, Whitehorse, Barenaked Ladies, Guided By Voices - Sept. 17, Fort York, Toronto
The Mekons - Sept. 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
Corb Lund and The Hurtin’ Albertans - Sept. 18, Horseshoe, Toronto
Leather Uppers, U.I.C. - Sept. 24, Horseshoe, Toronto
Kenny James, The ARC Sound - Sept. 30, Tennessee, Toronto
Nick Waterhouse - Oct. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto

Nick Waterhouse
Catl, Dex Romweber - Oct. 22, Garagenoir, Toronto
Stiff Little Fingers - Oct. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Arkells - Nov. 4, Massey Hall, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Arkells - Nov. 5, Massey Hall, Toronto
Lydia Loveless - Nov. 5, Adelaide Hall, Toronto
The Johnstones, The Planet Smashers - Nov. 18, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Aquamaniacs, The Surfrajettes, The Blue Demons, The Men In Gray Suits - Nov. 19, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
Alejandro Escovedo - Nov. 23, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Tailbreakers - Dec. 10, Duggan’s Brewery Basement, Toronto
The Rheostatics - Dec. 10, Horseshoe, Toronto

Monday, November 21, 2016

No going hungry or thirsty at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

You’d think that I’d eat a lot at an event called the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, but that hasn’t always been the case. I attend more for the wine, beer, ciders and spirits. The food, for me, is almost an afterthought.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought that there were more food exhibitors and more of a focus on food at this year’s event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre than in recent years. So I paid a bit more attention to sampling edibles, while still getting my drink on, from Friday to Sunday.

I’ve walked by Entice Culinary Lounge on Toronto’s Queen Street West dozens of times without ever going in. But proprietor Ali K graciously offered me three of the things it offers in the restaurant that it also had available at its Gourmet Food & Wine Expo booth. The ravioli, Korean beef ribs and unique bread pudding in hot chocolate were all delicious.

Two companies were peddling jerky: Krave and Lorissa’s Kitchen. They each had four varieties available and, while I enjoyed them all, Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky was my favourite, as it had the most bite of all of them.

That bite also gave the edge to Campbell’s Thai Tomato Coconut Soup, though I'd also have no problem serving its tomato basil and golden butternut squash flavours, which I also sampled.

Cool isn’t the word I’d apply to most of Cool Runnings’ sauces, but I tried almost all of them and most bring a satisfying amount of heat. Damien’s only had two sauces, one hotter than the other, but both were terrific. They would have gone well with the parmesan turkey meatballs I sampled.

I always have a jar of Matt & Steve’s Extreme Beans in my fridge, and now I know I also like their similarly flavoured asparagus and olive products — and I don’t even eat olives.

Casa Manila has treated me right at past Gourmet Food & Wine Expos, and did so again this year, as I closed both Friday and Sunday sessions at its booth. On night one a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew hit the spot. And on Sunday I was left satiated and satisfied with grilled chicken skewers, salad, rice and more chicken adobo. I accompanied both meals with a delicious calamansi mojito.


Speaking of cocktails, I had several of them on Sunday.

The worst was first. Social Lite comes in a can and has a full ginger and lime aroma, but those elements are much less pronounced in the flavour. It’s certainly light, with just 80 calories and a four-per cent alcohol content, but it’s much too watery and lacks the kick that both lime and ginger can provide.

Things improved considerably after that, starting with a simple Bombay Sapphire Gin and Fever-Tree Tonic. You can’t go wrong with those two ingredients.


Great Britain’s dry and non-citrusy Boodles Gin was the primary alcoholic ingredient in my next three cocktails, which were mixed and served by a lovely young woman from Invite Catering.

The Boodles Smash was made with 45.2-per cent alcohol content Boodles Gin, QCumber Water, Belvoir Elderflower Water, cucumber, lime and basil. It’s as cool as a cucumber and would make a great summer refresher.

The Boodles Mule was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Apple Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and a slice of lime, and then shaken and served over ice with an apple slice. The ginger beer comes through loud and clear in the nose and flavour, but the apple adds a distinctive touch and mellows things out a bit.

The Boodles Blossom was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Mango Passionfruit Juice, Kiju Lemonade, iced tea and fresh raspberries that were shaken and served over ice with a bruised mint leaf. The raspberries and iced tea provided the strongest flavours in this easy-drinking translucent pink cocktail.

Jeremy Parsons mixed my next two drinks with 1800 Tequila.

The Winter Sun Margarita was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Cranberry, Pomegranate and Blueberry Juice, Kiju Mango Orange Juice foam, and a lime slice, shaken and served neat. While I’m a traditionalist when it comes to margaritas and prefer the original lime juice-based version, this was a fun alternative.

I preferred 1800 Punch, which was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Pomegranate Cherry Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and an orange slice that was shaken and served over ice. It’s surprisingly mellow, considering the tequila and ginger beer combination, but it’s beautiful.

Circa Lemon Ginger was made with Ciroc Ultra-Premium Vodka, lemonade and ginger beer, and then garnished with mint and lemon. The ginger beer cuts through and makes this sparkle.

The Moksha Indian Bistro booth was out of its chicken when I arrived shortly before closing time on Sunday, but the Niagara Falls restaurant more than made up for my disappointment with that with its cocktails, including the excellent Moksha Ginger Sour made with Jagermeister and ginger. I also tried a concoction made with rum and tamarind. It made me smile.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. At the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

White wine fever at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

“White Line Fever” is one of my favourite Motorhead songs, but I was overcome with white wine fever at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre over the weekend. After focusing on beers on Friday, trying a variety of white wines was at the top of my agenda on Saturday and Sunday at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

There were a few booths specializing in New Zealand wines, and a high percentage of them were Sauvignon Blancs. The bright and fruity yet dry style is made in different parts of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine-growing region, some areas of which produce a more grassy flavour. I’m more of a fruit-forward guy and preferred those.

My favourites were Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Villa Maria Private Bin Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. I’d rank Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Icon Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and the Maori-made Te Pa slightly behind them but still worthy of recommendation.

Joiy, which just arrived from New Zealand in boxes containing four 250-millilitre bottles, was a pleasant surprise: a sparkling and aromatic wine made with no added sugar, concentrates or flavours that would work well for the holiday season.

I was also very fond of the extra dry White Cliff Sauvignon Blanc 2015 from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region on the north island.


I spent time at a few California booths and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, what impressed me most was the Fetzer Gewurztraminer from Monterrey. The style is fairly uncommon for California and this one was sweeter than what I generally prefer in a wine, but its bold floral aroma, rich full-bodied fruit flavour (with a hint of pineapple) and oily finish won me over.

The organic Fonterra Chardonnay from further north toward the Oregon border had pleasant green apple, pear and citrus flavours and tied for second on my list of favourite California wines from the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo along with the gentler and earthier Chloe Chardonnay.

I enjoyed Italy’s Ruffino Prosecco, an extra dry and very bubbly sparkling wine with peach and apple aroma and flavour profiles.

Calmel & Joseph Villa Blanche Chardonnay 2015 was the only French wine I had, and the extra dry medium-bodied wine with apple, peach, melon and citrus elements didn’t disappoint.

I didn’t get around to trying as many Rieslings as I normally would at this year’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, and only one from where the style is best known: Germany. The light and easy Funf Riesling lived up to its fun name with its peach and apricot bouquet, citrus flavour and clean finish.

Closer to home, I became a fan of the bold, refreshing and off-dry Rosewood Sussreserve Riesling from Beamsville, Ont. The Rosewood Legacy apple and honey mead was interesting, but a bit too sweet for me.


Port Dover, Ont. is the home of two cheekily named brands, Frisky Beaver and Smoke & Gamble. Frisky Beaver Sparkling was off dry but wit some sweetness and would be my first choice over Frisky Beaver Frisky White Riesling, Smoke & Gamble Chardonnay and the only rose I tried over the weekend, Frisky Beaver Blushing Beaver.

The other Ontario wine I sampled was Fielding Estate Winery’s Long Weekend Pinot Grigio Chardonnay, an enjoyable casual wine with a robustly fruity aroma and flavour.


Perhaps the least favourite wines I sampled were from Greece: Santorini Assyrtiko; and a Sauvignon Blanc called 2014 Thalia White.

And finally, thank you to the lovely couple from Cambridge, Ont. who gave me three sampling tickets as they celebrated their anniversary on Saturday. And also to my New Zealand wine-drinking buddies Natasha and Louise, who gave me four tickets but then didn’t show up at The Cadillac Lounge afterward like they said they would.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Beer night at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo


Toronto’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo seemed smaller this year, but there were still a couple dozen beers and ciders that I hadn’t tried before (as well as a few cocktails and wines) that were available to sample on Friday night.

Four beers stood out from the rest.

Smuttynose Brewing Finest Kind IPA from New Hampshire is made in a LEED Gold-certified brewery, but it’s not just its facility that’s impressive. The 6.9-per cent alcohol ale pours a slightly cloudy gold with little head and a pleasant hop aroma. It stands at a 75 IBU on the bitterness scale but, despite this, the taste is crisp, clean and well-balanced and isn’t excessively bitter. It has an excellent and surprisingly easy finish.

Beau’s Collabrewnaut Espresso Pilsner was perhaps the most unique beer I tried. I’ve had espresso porters and stouts before but had never tried it in a pilsner. It works wonderfully. It’s very finely filtered so the coffee bean darkness doesn’t infuse the five per cent beer, but the flavour certainly does.


Beau’s Polaris Pale Ale was made for the Polaris Music Prize gala and, since I didn’t attend this year, the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo presented my first opportunity to try this five-per cent alcohol beer that’s brewed with spruce tips. It’s rich gold, pours with little head and has a 32 IBU. There’s not a lot of spruce in the nose but it comes through in the flavour. The spiciness of the spruce gives it a bit of bite almost like ginger, making Polaris a bit reminiscent of a ginger beer.

I didn’t expect a lot from Moosehead Radler, but I was happily surprised by it. It’s a pale and slightly cloudy gold and, at four per cent, has a bit more of an alcoholic kick than many radlers. I’m on medication where I’m not supposed to eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice, so I couldn’t have many of these for that reason, but they’re certainly refreshing enough that I’d like to on a hot summer day.

There were three other beers just a notch below these.

Railway City Express India Session Lager is a dry-hopped, 4.8-per cent, 18 IBU beer made with Galaxy, Mosaic and Cascade hops at the St. Thomas, Ont. brewery. It’s light gold with  a beautiful hop and pine aroma and a well-balanced flavour.

Railway City Double Dead Elephant Imperial IPA is a 7.5-per cent alcohol beer that’s dark gold and pours with a big white head. It has a gentler aroma and flavour than I expected, as the high alcohol content and bitterness expressed in its 90 IBU rating aren’t overpowering. It finishes very nicely.

I’m a wimp when it comes to sour Berliner Weisse beers, but Nickel Brook Raspberry Uber may be my favourite of the style since it’s not overly sour and isn’t that much different from some raspberry-flavoured beers I’ve had.

There were three beers I’d put in the next tier.

Charlie Wells Dry Hopped Lager from the United Kingdom just arrived in Ontario and the 4.7-per cent alcohol beer has more body than a lot of lagers. It’s gold, has a small head and is made with two types of malt and four different hops. It’s an easy-drinking, refreshing beer with a smooth finish and is best suited for summer.

Nickel Brook Equilibrium ESB is a 5.5-per cent, 43 IBU beer that pours dark gold with a small head. You can taste the complex blend of hops and malts, but it’s hoppier than many extra special bitter beers I’ve had — which is a plus for my palate.

Nickel Brook Cucumber Lime Gose is cloudy gold and had no head. The cucumber is wonderfully evident in the aroma and, while you can detect the lime as well, it comes through more in the flavour and gives the beer a slightly sour taste. I don’t drink a lot of goses because they tend to be too sour for me, but that’s not the case with this one.

There were seven beers I’d rate a step down from those.

Wellington Kickin’ Back is a dark gold, dry-hopped session ale with a somewhat floral bouquet. At 48 IBU, it may be the Guelph, Ont. brewery’s most hop-forward beer. The 4.8-per cent alcohol ale is dry on the first sip and stays that way through the finish.

Smuttynose Brewing Robust Porter is very dark brown with a tiny head. The 6.6-per cent alcohol beer isn’t as robust as a stout but it has the dark chocolate bitterness of some of them. I preferred the initial introduction over the finish.

Badger Fursty Ferret is from the United Kingdom, where it’s apparently the top-selling craft-bottled ale. It’s a light golden brown and has a bouquet of malt and orange. Raisin comes through with the malt in the flavour, which is nicely balanced and not too heavily malted. I don’t often drink English pale ales, but I appreciate this one.

Median Brewing Dark Ale is a 5.2-per cent alcohol beer from a Windsor, Ont. brewery that opened early last month. The aroma is stronger than the taste, which is initially sharp but then quickly mellows.

Whitewater Midnight Stout is a 4.5-per cent alcohol oatmeal stout that pours black with a medium tan head. It’s coffee and dark chocolate flavour is pleasant, but I would have preferred more body as I found it a bit thin for a stout.

Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner is a light gold beer that’s certainly decent but doesn’t stand out. It’s a crisp but easy drinking pilsner.

Propeller IPA from Halifax has just been introduced to Ontario in a can. The 6.5-per cent alcohol, 68 IBU ale is a slightly cloudy gold and has a fruity and full-bodied bouquet. It’s not bitter at first but it has a bit of bite in its finish.

Luckily I have no reason to drink gluten-free beer, as most of them I’ve had aren’t very good. There’s nothing offensive about Bard’s Gluten Free from Utica, N.Y., but it’s very dull in its aroma and flavour profiles and has little to offer. It was my least favourite beer of the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

I was quite happy with the three ciders I sampled.

Brickworks Cherry Cider will arrive in the LCBO in early December. I prefer it over the company’s two apple ciders and one peach cider. It has a dry apple cider base augmented with cherries, with all ingredients grown within 300 kilometres of Toronto. It has a five per cent alcohol content and isn’t nearly as sweet as many cherry ciders. Although it’s a seasonal product, I could enjoy it year-round.

Double Trouble Grow A Pear Cider is a pale, 5.5-per cent alcohol perry made in Stoney Creek, Ont. It’s made with water, sugar and pears from Winona, Ont., in the heart of the Niagara wine region. It was a bit sweeter than expected, but I thought it was excellent.
 

Pommies Perry is a light straw-coloured, semi-sweet and medium dry pear cider with a five per cent alcohol content. It’s crisp, but not overly so, and is very pleasant. Its pears come from around Meaford, Ont.

I’m generally not a fan of barley wines and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to have another Midian Brewing Barley Wine, it was certainly decent. The eight-per cent alcohol brew from this new brewery is a cloudy, dark amber. While you can detect the high alcohol content in the aroma, it’s not overwhelming. It’s full bodied, fruity and gentler than most other barley wines I’ve tried.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. This time I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire is a dry and creamy sparkling wine with a slight lemon aroma that’s made with chenin, chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes. The 12-per cent alcohol wine is aged between 18 and 24 months by Amirault in France.

Rodrigues Blueberry Wine from Whitbourne, Nfld. is all natural with no sulphites that rates a two on the sweetness scale and has a 10-per cent alcohol content. I’ve had better blueberry wines.

It was suggested that I also try mixing the Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire with the Rodrigues Blueberry Wine. I did, but preferred them both on their own.

I admit that I attend the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo more for the booze than the food, but I’ve enjoyed the Filipino food from Casa Manila in the past and stopped by its booth again. This time I had a small but delicious meal of a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew. I accompanied it with a lovely calamansi mojito. If you haven’t had calamansi juice before, I definitely recommend it. It has a mix of orange and lime flavours that’s great on its own or, as I found, in a rum cocktail.

The Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky I sampled was excellent. The sweet chipotle flavour was also nice, but not as good.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Rugged beauty of Lewis and Harris shines through the rain, the wind and the cold -- in July

You soon realize how sparsely populated the Isle of Lewis is when you arrive by the large MV Loch Seaforth ferry to its major city of Stornoway, whose 7,500 occupants comprise 40 per cent of the island off the northwest coast of Scotland’s inhabitants.

Stornoway
Stornoway has the typical small town stores, restaurants and pubs you’d expect, as well as a disproportionately large amount of barber shops and storefronts promoting religion and Christianity. If you’re looking to find God or get a haircut, this is your place.

Stornoway is a strongly Calvinist enclave, an important port and the administrative centre for the Outer Hebrides islands. I stayed at Heb Hostel, a clean and friendly place to rest your head and enjoy a warm peat fire after a day exploring the rest of Lewis. And you’ll want to explore, because there’s not a lot to do in Stornoway.

I was with two dozen other people on the 10-day Compass Buster tour of the Scottish highlands, the Western Isles, Orkney, Skye and Loch Ness run by Haggis Adventures, which gets you out and about to see and experience several sights without the hassles of renting a car and driving.


Abhainn Dearg Distillery
Our comfortable and roomy bus left Stornoway for the west coast through a landscape of small, rocky hills occupied by grazing sheep. Our first stop was the tiny and rustic Abhainn Dearg Distillery, where we were greeted by high winds and torrential rains. Thankfully, the staff was much more accommodating than the weather as they showed us their small operation and offered us samples of their Spirit of Lewis and my favourite, Abhainn Dearg Single Malt. It’s a smooth, totally homegrown Scotch with a natural cask colour and a pleasing finish despite its 46-per cent alcohol content. I enjoyed several free shots and while I’m not used to drinking that much Scotch at 11 a.m., you have to take advantage of such things when circumstances arise.

Callanish Standing Stones
We moved on to the Callanish Standing Stones, a large stone circle that’s considered one of the most significant and important megalithic complexes in Europe. Think Stonehenge, the most famous stone circle, on a smaller scale. The pelting rain and fierce wind, unfortunately, dampened my enthusiasm and appreciation for this historic site.

Carloway Broch through a wet camera lens.
It was a short drive to what’s left of Carloway Broch, a round Iron Age structure positioned well from a defensive standpoint on a hill with free roaming shape. It was probably the home of tribal leaders and important members of the community hundreds of years ago.

Gearrannan blackhouses
The Gearrannan blackhouses aren’t as old, but it’s still difficult to believe that they were inhabited until 1974. Blackhouses acted as homes for both people and livestock and were constructed of stone with gaps filled in with earth or peat. Wood frames held up thatched or turf roofs which had to withstand severe weather. I was there in July and shuddered to think what it might have been like to live in one of these structures in January. There were several blackhouses at Gearrannan, some of which have been modernized to house a small museum and hostel rooms.

Butt of Lewis
I’ve always loved rugged landscapes where cliffs meet the sea, and the Butt of Lewis provided an opportunity to enjoy one of these vistas. The rain had stopped and the wind had diminished, allowing us to roam over the soft green turf and peer down at waves crashing into small coves, with seals occasionally bobbing above the water’s surface.

Port of Ness
There was a short stop in Port of Ness, where the tide was out and boats were stranded on sand, on the way back to Stornoway. 

Upon arrival back in town, I went to an unlicensed Thai restaurant and paid $18.50 for a good if unexceptional meal of two chicken skewers, fried rice, beef and vegetables. McNeill’s pub was the place to be later in the evening for fruit-flavoured ciders (which are much more popular in the United Kingdom than in Canada) and musicians covering country songs until midnight.

When morning came it was time to make the journey south to Harris, which is attached to Lewis by a causeway. Harris has higher elevations and its rocks evoke thoughts of lunar landscapes, but the white sands of Loggantir beach were as nice as you’d find at Caribbean resorts. The water, however, was still cold even in July and there was no-one swimming.


Loggantir dunes
I walked alone along the beach for 30 minutes before climbing up the dunes that overlook it. I shared them with sheep and was wishing I had something to slide down on when I came to a sand canyon. I instead climbed down and then back up to get back to where the bus was parked near a small cemetery. 

St. Clements Church
A nip of Scotch did the trick to pick me up before arriving at St. Clements Church, which was built around 500 years ago for the MacLeod clan. It was repaired after a fire in the 1800s and its lovely setting surrounded by rocky hills on one side and the sea on the other would have been an interesting place for a golf course —- and I soon discovered that the Isle of Harris Golf Club wasn’t too far away. Owing to the winds blowing in from over the water, a 215-yard hole was still a par four.

After reaching the southern tip of Harris, we headed back north to the village of Tarbert, the embarkation point for the ferry to the Isle of Skye. It didn’t take long to walk around, so it wasn’t difficult to find Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd. While the distillery is waiting for its Scotch to mature, it’s making gin. I was given a sample, and it was fine, but I didn’t spend $63 for a bottle. Nor did I buy any of the tweed that Harris is famous for before boarding the 4 p.m. ferry to Skye.