Tuesday, July 26, 2016

My Swedish lessons at Toronto's Festival of Beer

Johan Spendrup

I was having dinner and a couple of beers at the Richmond House Hotel in Fort Augustus, Scotland earlier this month when a Swedish family sat down at the table beside me. We got chatting and the father told me he was heavily involved with home brewing and he talked about trends in Swedish beer.

It made me realize that aside from Carlsberg, which I primarily associate with Denmark, and Pistonhead Kustom Lager, a run of the mill brand which got a marketing push in Canada a few years ago, I didn't know much about Swedish beer.

That changed on Friday when I met Johan Spendrup, the chief executive officer and brewmaster of Gotlands Bryggeri (and the brother of the man responsible for Pistonead), at Toronto's Festival of Beer. This year's fest put Sweden in the spotlight and featured 28 brands from six Swedish breweries.

While overly refreshed patrons were walking by and asking for Ikea beer, Spendrup generously took time to pour me each of his beers he had available at the fest from Sweden's first craft brewery and to explain about each one, while also telling me more about the Swedish brewing industry.

The first one I had was Wisby Hopfenweise, a 5.6-per cent alcohol beer made with 60 per cent wheat malt, light caramel malt and Bavarian malt as well as Chinook, Magnum and Centennial hops. It's fermented in open tubs. It poured dark gold and had a lovely aroma with a hint of banana. It comes in at 30 IBU and has a slightly bitter taste with a hint of acidity.

Next up was Sitting Bulldog IPA, an American IPA that was amber in colour and poured with a rich white head. The 6.4-per cent beer uses only American hops (Centennial, Chinook and Amarillo) and crystal and light caramel malts from an island off the coast of Sweden. It was a little more malt-heavy than I like my IPAs.

Great White Bulldog Wheat IPA is an American pale wheat ale made with 55 per cent wheat malt and hops from four continents. The 7.2-per cent beer pours golden orange with a medium, foamy white head. The taste is complex and somewhat fruity with citrus elements, and it's a bit heavier than most wheat beers.

I was aware that IPAs have taken off in Sweden from my conversation in Scotland, but I was surprised to see how many sour and gose beers there were at the festival. I'm not much of a fan of either style, so I stuck more to what I know and like when trying some of the other Swedish beers.

Omnipollo Leon Belgian Pale Ale poured orangey gold and is made with Amarillo and Simcoe hops and champagne yeast. The 6.5-per cent beer is mildly fruity, slightly acidic and has a decently dry finish. It's quite refreshing.

Omnipollo Mazarin Pale Ale is cloudy orange with a nice white head and has a hint of melon in its bouquet. It's made with Columbus, Amarillo, Chinook, Citra and Simcoe Hops. The 5.6-per cent beer registers 48 on the IBU scale but it tastes more bitter than that.

Omnipollo Viktor IPA is a hazy, pale gold that poured with a big white head. The 7.5-per cent beer has a lovely aroma with touches of fruit and brett, and the brett is quite evident to taste. It's quite bitter and has a crisp finish.

Omnipollo Olympus Mons Imperial IPA is made with Mosaic, Simcoe and Columbia hops. It has an eight-per cent alcohol content, and that comes through a bit too much in the flavour. It's OK but I had hoped for more.

Omnipollo Nebuchadnezzar Imperial IPA is dark gold and had a small white head. It has an 8.5-per cent alcohol content. While the aroma and flavour are complex, I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Dugges All The Way Session IPA poured gold with a thick white head. It's made with barley malt and Amarillo, Cascade, Columbus and Citra hops. The 4.2-per cent beer has a nice floral bouquet with a hint of pineapple, and there's a bit of pine in the flavour before finishing dry.

Dugges Orange Haze IPA is cloudy gold with a light white head and a light fruit aroma. The 6.4-per cent beer is made with barley malt and Columbus, Citra and Cascade hops. There's a hint of fruitiness in the taste but no overt orange element jumped out. There was some bitterness and a crisp, dry finish.

Poppels Bryggeri Session IPA is dark gold/orange and had little head. The 4.2-per cent beer has a fruit and malt aroma and a slightly malty flavour. It's mildly bitter, slightly malty, dry and relatively indistinct.

Poppels Bryggeri Fatserie 006 Single Hop IPA Southern Passion is made exclusively with Southern Passion hops from South Africa. The 6.5-per cent beer is pumpkin orange and has a slightly resinous aroma and finish. Melon and blueberry flavours make for a relatively juicy brew.

Tempel Brygghus Surpene Rhubarb Sour IPA is dark gold and pours with a creamy head. The 5.7-per cent beer has an acidic nose and flavour, and you can taste the rhubarb. This was my least favourite of the Swedish beers I sampled.

While I was in the Swedish section, women were walking around with trays of Aalborg Taffel Akavit, a Danish schnapps with 45 per cent alcohol that has a licorice flavour but isn't as sweet as Ouzo or Sambuca. I didn't need a second shot.

I walked around to see what else would catch my interest and came across a few breweries that were new to me.

Sextant Craft Brewery is from Etobicoke and its Why So Sirius? is a 4.8-per cent summery, light pale ale with elements of mango and citrus. It's dry-hopped and has a crisp finish from its 33 IBU bitterness. It's solid but nothing exceptional, but I like brewmaster Dave Wingfelder and wish him well.

Brock Street Double Vision IPA is an amber beer with a small white head. It's made with New Zealand hops and is fairly bitter. The 7.5-per cent alcohol content is a little too evident.

High Park Brewery's Off the Leash unfiltered IPA is a 6.5-per cent beer made with English and American west coast hops. It's amber and pours with a medium head. It has a citrus-hop aroma and flavour and comes in at 57 on the IBU scale.

I met up with Spendrup the next night at Reposado, a Toronto bar best known for its tequilas and mezcals, but which also has a small selection of craft beers and ciders on tap. I introduced him to two Canadian beers and he bought a round of high-end tequila. 

Spendrup also turned out to be a big music fan and had heard of the Horseshoe Tavern, since Triumph had played there in the band's early days, so I took him there since I know all of the staff and owners and could help make him feel more at home. There was more beer and liquor consumed until we reached our limits and went our separate ways for the night. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

13 days and 77 beers and ciders in the U.K.

I've never been much of a Scotch drinker, nor have I developed an appreciation for most of the Scottish or Scottish-style ales available in Canada. So since discovering and trying new beers is often a big part of my travels, Scotland may have seemed like an unlikely summer vacation destination.

However, much like in North America, there's been a craft brewery explosion in the United Kingdom in recent years. And I was able to take advantage of that during 11 days of sightseeing, exploring, hiking and drinking in Scotland and two days in London this month.

I've compiled lists of my favourite beers and ciders that I've never had before this recent trip and sampled for the first time, as well as all of the others. A handful of them weren't made in the U.K. but I've included them anyway since they're available there.

Top 10 beers

1. BrewDog Jet Black Heart Nitro

I got this sublime and slightly sweet oatmeal milk stout on tap in BrewDog's Camden pub in London. With 4.7 per cent alcohol content, it would be easy to enjoy several of them in a single sitting, and it tastes so good and goes down so smoothly that you'll probably want to.


2. Hogs Back Montezuma's Chocolate Lager
This collaboration between Guildford-based Hogs Back Brewery and the Montezuma chocolate company was a deserving gold medal winner in the International Specialty Beer Challenge in 2014. The 4.5-per cent brew looks like a regular lager but has a white chocolate nose and flavour with a hint of vanilla. It's not what I expected but it was excellent.

3. Beavertown Gamma Ray American Pale Ale
This cloudy gold, 5.4-per cent beer pours with a nice head and a bold citrus and hop aroma. London's Beavertown Brewery makes it with three malts and five hops. It offers a tropically fruity flavour that's well-balanced in combination with a decent amount of bitterness that comes in at 55 IBU.

4. BrewDog Elvis Juice
This 6.5-per cent American IPA is dark gold and provides a big grapefruit flavour and finish through the addition of grapefruit peel. The citrus and hops combination on top of a caramel malt base is delicious.

5. Franciscan Well Chieftain IPA
This 5.5-per cent, unfiltered amber ale from Cork, Ireland has a nice floral hop aroma and a somewhat complex flavour profile from ale malt and Citra, Tettnanger and Magnum hops. It's not so bitter that it will scare off those who don't like bolder IPAs, but there's enough there to satisfy those who do. It finishes very nicely.

6. Adnams Southwold Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale
Made exclusively with Mosaic hops by the Suffolk-based brewery, this 4.1-per cent alcohol ale is vivid gold and pours with a rich head and subtle hop aroma. Flavours that emerge include a nicely balanced blend of mango, peach, lemon and pine, leading to a nicely hopped finish.

7. Williams Brothers Birds & Bees Golden Summer Ale
This 4.3-per cent ale is made by the Alloa, Scotland brewery with a blend of lager malt and Cascade, Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin hops, with a late infusion of elderflower. It has a floral aroma but is surprisingly bitter. It's complex, flavourful and very good.

8. The Kernel India Pale Ale
This 6.7-per cent IPA brewed by The Kernel in the London suburb of Bermondsey uses Mosaic, Citra, and Centennial Simcoe hops and is closer to American-styled hop-forward ales than most British beers.

9. BrewDog Vagabond Pale Ale
Scotland's best known craft brewery is acclaimed for its experimental beers, but this dark gold, 4.5-per cent ale has a nice citrus hop aroma that has a little gentler hop flavour than expected and an excellent finish. This may be the best gluten-free beer I've ever had.

10. Loch Ness Brewery Smokie Ness Rocking Red Ale
This five-per cent amber ale is made in collaboration with Yorkshire rock band Smokie and was rather unique and a pleasant surprise. Ingredients include honey, ginger and a variety of hops and malt. The smokiness hits you first and then the ginger makes its way to your palate in the finish.

The others (in alphabetical order)
Anderson Valley Hop Ottin' IPA
Awesome Ness Amber Ale
Bellhaven Black Scottish Stout
Bellhaven St. Andrews Ale
Bellhaven Twisted Thistle IPA
Black Isle Organic Blonde Lager
Black Isle Organic Porter
Black Isle Red Kite Ale
Black Isle Organic Yellow
BrewDog 5 a.m. Saint
BrewDog Dead Pony Club
BrewDog Electric India Dry Hopped Saison
Broughton Hopopotamus IPA
Cairngorm Black Gold
Caledonian Deuchars IPA
Caledonian Coast to Coast Pale Ale
Caledonian Kickoff Summer Ale
Camden Pale Ale
Charles Wells/Dogfish Head DNA New World IPA
Cill Chuilmein Best Bitter
Crabbies Scottish Raspberry Ginger Beer
Cromarty Black Hop Down
Devils Backbone Eight Point IPA
Essex Street Brewery American Wheat
Famous Grouse Ginger Beer
Fierce Beer Lemmy 'Avit
Hebridean Brewing Islander Strong
Heverlee Premium Belgian Lager
Hogs Back Hopping Hog IPA
Howell's Howell at the Moon
Loch Ness Brewery Inver Ness Session IPA
Orkney Brewery Dark Island
Orkney Brewery Dragonhead Stout
Orkney Brewery Red MacGregor
Orkney Brewery Skull Splitter
Redwell India Pale Lager
Roosters California Common
St. Mungo Premium Lager
Skye Black
Skye Gold
Summer Wine Diablo IPA
Swannay Brewery Muckle IPA
Swannay Brewery Orkney Porter
Swannay Brewery Scapa Special Flagship Pale Ale
Uprising Brewery Treason
WEST Hefeweizen
Williams Brothers Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale
Williams Brothers Joker IPA
Williams Brothers Seven Giraffes Extraordinary Ale

Fruit-flavoured ciders (aside from the traditional apple and pear) have taken off in the U.K. much more than in Canada so far, as they're available in bottles and on tap in almost all pubs and in store refrigerators. Most of them are quite sweet and reminiscent of wine coolers and the like that had their moment in the sun a couple of decades back.

I'm assuming they're largely aimed at people who don't like beer or more traditional ciders, but still want to get buzzed with their friends at the bar or merely quench their thirst on one of those rare hot British days.

I sampled a mix of apple, pear and these new fruit hybrids. Here's what I found:

The best

1. Thistly Cross Traditional Cider

This Scottish 4.4-per cent alcohol cider pours light gold and has a mild apple aroma but a deep and rich flavour that's well-balanced and tastes very fresh. Excellent.


2. Westons Wyld Wood Organic Cider
This six-per cent cider from England's Herefordshire company is matured in oak vats and has a robust apple flavour and a ripe aroma.

3. Bulmers Wild Blueberry and Lime Cider
This 4.2-per cent English cider is dark red and has a strong blueberry flavour with a hint of lime. It's not too sweet.

4. Kopparberg Pear Cider
This 4.5-per cent Swedish perry is almost clear and although it's sweet it's still pretty well-balanced.

5. Stella Artois Cider
This pours medium gold and has a nice apple aroma. There's a nice balance between sweet and tart. I'll take this over the Belgian brewery's much better known lager.

The rest (in alphabetical order)
Aspall Waddlegoose Bullhead Cyder
Bottlekicking Cider Company Fullback
Bulmers Zesty Blood Orange Cider
Celtic Marches Down Down Cider
Kopparberg Mixed Fruit Cider
Magners Orchard Berries Cider
Old Mout Passionfruit and Apple Cider
Old Mout Pomegranate and Strawberry Cider
Rocquette Traditional Cider
Strongbow Dark Fruit Cider
Thatcher's Katy Cider
Tillington Hills Premium British Cider
White Star Refreshing Cider