Beer: G. Schneider & Sohn Aventinus Weizen Eisbock

20 01 2010

With the holiday season over, many of the LCBO’s special releases have come and gone, but luckily the winter brings a few steady favourites that are readily available throughout the cold months. A particularly appropriate style for the chilliest of days is the eisbock, the product of freezing and skimming of various, usually German, styles—a style which has recently been taken to extreme levels of strength. Schneider Aventinus Eisbock, while nowhere near the record holder, clocks in at a hefty 12% ABV, and at just shy of $4 for a 500mL bottle, is one of the absolute best deals going in terms of flavour as well as “bang” for your buck.

The first of many striking characteristics of this beer that you will probably notice is the colour. The beer is a deep, very murky brown with green highlights and plenty of particles floating around—the allusions this might create are quite subjective, but I find it rather enticing. The intensity and complexity of the appearance quite accurately foreshadows the character of the aroma and flavour. The first whiff is heavy and robust—your nose works to discern the dimensions. Overripe banana is the first dead giveaway, but a host of other dark fruit esters mingle as well along with nice spicey clove and a hint of sweet vanilla. The alcohol is certainly present in the nose, though it comes in waves, and the yeast provides a slight doughy character on the fringe of the aroma. Malt is present and very well integrated into the overall fruity earthiness of the smell.

Upon first encounter with the palette, the mouthfeel really impresses upon you the concentration produced by the freeze distillation process. The liquid is smooth and rich, wrapping up the flavours in a velvety blanket that is neither syrupy nor sticky—an exceptional textural experience. Much like the aroma, the flavour is largely dominated by banana and other fruits—fig, prune, plum and a hint of citrus—and earthy clove. Of course it’s no surprise that this is a boozy brew; fortunately the alcohol is carried exceptionally well by the outstanding mouthfeel and rich malty notes. For anyone who has tried the original Schneider Aventinus, the concentrated flavours are very familiar. Each characteristic fades in and out in a steady fluctuation which at times challenges the palette to deconstruct the overall profile or hunt for a note that has just faded away. The complexity of the flavour is rounded out with caramel, bready wheat, brown sugar, nougat and some bitter hops every once in a while. The finish is decidedly boozy, though in the perfectly warming way, and the aftertaste only increases in complexity as the alcohol fades away, revealing more defined and tempered fruit. The cloves and alcohol can be a bit sharp at time, but any rough edges soon fade as the beer warms up slightly. In fact, the multidimensionality and profundity of the flavour profile only really comes into focus after it has been tasted at a range of temperatures, so be sure to start off cold and drink slowly with intention.

While the large range of tasting notes suggest a multitude of pairing opportunities, it is important to respect the depth of character and robust flavours by not overpowering them. I would keep it simple with plain fruit and whipped cream. As far as cellaring goes, there is certainly the potential for the beer to mellow out the harsh edges, though I doubt it will evolve much in terms of complexity or additional flavour. Overall this is an exceptionally complex and flavourful beer which takes the typical weizen flavours to a robust new level.

Rating: 96

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Beer: Mill St. Barley Wine 2009

19 12 2009

While it’s usually the newcomers to the LCBO that I find the most interesting, every winter season brings a nice roster of perennial brews that rarely disappoint. Mill St. Barley Wine is a regular favourite, despite it’s relatively steep price tag. I reviewed the 2007 vintage previously, and while the same general formula remains the same, each year the final product differs slightly. 2009’s vintage is classic Mill St., though it lacks some of the refinements of older batches.

The nice ceramic bottle is back again for 2009, containing a cloudy orange liquid with some nice copper hues around the edges. It’s not surprising that, at 11% ABV, the alcohol is one of the first aromas to hit. Besides the boozy esters, the bouquet is subtle but complex. The nose is hoppy and a bit fruity—apricots and orange, fruitcake and some honey too. Unfortunately the aromas don’t quite mix well, and one is left with a slightly off blend, something almost akin to soured orange juice. The flavour bears this out, though with a little more depth. The initial sip is much like the aroma. Booze and caramel mix well, but again the fruitiness borders on vegital, and a distinct pumpkin flavour and aroma seemed to be the sum of the off-balanced notes. Still, the grassy floral notes, pine and brown sugar add more depth and multidimensionality to the flavour. I should note that Mill St. Barley Wine, and most barley wines in general, is very temperature sensitive, and letting a chilled liquid warm up to room temperature will open up a lot more complexity, bringing out the sweeter fruit notes and more delicate caramel facet. When the beer is cold, the finish is much too boozy, almost vodka-like. However, once it gets warmed up, the smooth mouthfeel carries the flavours through to the aftertaste, which takes some time to develop.

Overall, the 2009 vintage seems a tad inferior to previous releases. It is a bit brash around the edges, and the recurrent pumpkin allusions weren’t exactly in tune with the rest of the flavour profile. However, aging can do wonders and I look forward to revisiting this again in a few years. Serve up after dinner or with a pumpkin soup beforehand.

Rating: 86





Beer: Southern Tier Crème Brûlée Stout

17 12 2009

Stouts, stouts, stouts. I’ve written about a couple of excellent stouts recently, and while I will never tire of the dark malty style, I’ve decided to make this the last stout review for a good while, despite holding on to several I’d like to write about. That said, Crème Brûlée is no ordinary stout. Flavoured with vanilla beans and lactose sugar, Southern Tier’s unique creation is both simple and enigmatic, even if it falls a bit short of fully realizing its potential. A self declared “stout of great contention,” Crème Brûlée will certainly arouse a lively dialogue, if not of beerish intellectual pursuit, than at least of flavours in the mouth.

Before you even pour the beer in its glass, the rich aroma wafts out of the bottle to hint at the unique character Crème Brûlée brings to the table. A deep brown liquid with a minimal tan head gives the appearance of a regular stout, yet the nose says anything but. The robust and focused sweetness of butterscotch and caramel immediately monopolize the aroma. Eventually the vanilla and cream notes sneak in from the sidelines until the bouquet becomes that of butterscotch-drizzled vanilla ice cream, and eventually crème brûlée par excellence. At first it’s hard to believe that underneath what presents itself is an overabundance of rich sugars and vanilla there is an actual malt beverage. However, the first sip introduces a much more balanced and familiar profile. Sweet malts fade into mild espresso and milk chocolate. A warmer liquid begins to reveal a mysterious bitterness that is difficult to pin down, but the sweetness still frames the entire palette. Though the initial blast of caramel found in the aroma still makes its presence known, the overall flavour is a bit underwhelming compared to the bouquet, and you will find yourself relapsing into the realization that this is in fact a flavoured stout, with all the positives and negatives that accompany the association. That said, the malts do match very well with the fifth and sixth ingredients, though the flavours perform something of a see-saw and do not completely harmonize in the way I imagine they could. The mouthfeel is slightly light for what I would have expected, yet it carries the 10% alcohol well through the finish to simmer with the sugars.

At $9.60 per 650 mL bottle, this is not something I would keep around. That said, it is an experiment, and Southern Tier does pull off some flavour acrobatics which are worth checking out, if nothing more than to perhaps inspire a new after-dinner cocktail (dare I suggest beer and coffee?). Furthermore, if it weren’t for the price, I could see myself experimenting with this beer as a topping (perhaps reduced down with some real vanilla) for dessert or another cooking agent. Otherwise, this is definitely a bottle to share.

Rating: 85





Beer: Rogue Yellow Snow I.P.A.

14 12 2009

For the past year or so, India Pale Ales have grown to become one of my absolute favourite beer styles—especially the ‘west coast’ style IPAs, those citric hopbombs that have become ever so popular in the American craft brewing scene. Rogue’s Yellow Snow IPA, a fairly recent addition to the LCBO’s lineup, has managed to ease my cravings for a real tongue bruising bitter available close to home, and while it isn’t quite up to the standard of my personal favourite, Bear Republic’s Racer 5, it is nonetheless an excellent beer all around, and a great example of this unique and relatively new style.

Originally brewed for the 2000 Olympic games, Yellow Snow comes appropriately named for the season, and a bottle of it would certainly help take the edge off the frigid air that carried in so much of the white stuff here recently. The liquid is quite hazy—a translucent yellow orange, accompanied by a big white head. With beers in this style you usually know what to expect, and this one delivers: big hoppy nose, lemon and grapefruit aromas with a hint of lychee and pine—overall a very citric and pleasant combination. The taste delivers its 70 IBUs upfront with some excellent bitterness to highlight the usual characteristics. It provides a more robust hop profile, leaning slightly more towards the grassy and piney side than the aroma does, but is still focused on the citric facets with a hint of coriander. Malts are hidden and subtle but occasionally peak through the bitterness, and the 6.2% ABV provides a mild cleansing burn. The finish is a bit unbalanced as the bitter Amarillo hops dominate in the swallow, but the aftertaste ends strong. West coast IPAs aren’t really about balance or complexity; they do one thing and do it well. Yellow Snow IPA is no exception, and while the tasting notes aren’t as well defined or profound as some, it is still an extremely flavourful and delicious beer. Given the flavours and the bitterness, Yellow Snow would make a great match with spicey Mexican foods featuring lime and cilantro.

Rating: 89





Beer: Dieu du Ciel! Péché Mortel

11 12 2009

First off I’d like to appologize for the lack of posts lately, especially at such an important time in the beer purchasing and drinking season. For several personal reasons I have been unable to keep up with tasting and writing as much as I’d like, but I hope that that will change as of now. Now on to more pressing matters. Every once in a while, you encounter a beer that, be it subtly or profoundly, changes the way you think about what a beer should be. For me, Dieu du Ciel!’s Péché Mortel is one of those beers. One of two offerings brought in from the revered Montreal brewery by the LCBO for the season, Péché Mortel is a class apart from any other beer brewed in our great country, and a world class stout of the first order.

Expectations, whether we like it or not, always play an important role in the drinking experience. Coffee stouts carry a strong reputation, as does the revered Dieu du Ciel! brewery. As soon as the first whif hits the nose, expectations are both confirmed and destroyed. This is certainly one of the best beers any Canadian can get their hands on, but it is no ordinary coffee stout. The bouquet initially exhibits some surprising fruit esters—cherries, peaches and bananas. These mellow into burnt malt and espresso, candied fruit and dark chocolate. The aroma is supremely balanced, never being dominated by any single note. What I expected to be a very bold and relatively simple bouquet was instead delicate, complex and incredibly satisfying. However, it isn’t until the first sip that Péché Mortel makes its strongest case for changing the way you should approach this type of beer. Like waves of flavour perfectly in phase, the superposition of roasted malt and bitter coffee create an amorphous taste profile that is greater than the sum of its parts. Rather than complexity, Péché Mortel’s flavour is a singularity of profound depth, an irreducible yet multidimensional whole. All the expected characteristics are there: bitter espresso, burnt cocoa, heavily roasted malt and molasses. Other notes include licorice, brandy, vanilla, candied fruit and even a hint of horseradish. Yet these are not individual flavours to be discerned on the palette—they are pieces of a nebulous yet focused taste that cohere in a way that I have never experienced at this level in another beer. As such, each sip requires significant focus and investigation, and this beer will give in proportion to what you put in. The mouthfeel is rich and somewhat oily, but not heavy. The alcohol provides the perfect slow burn from the initial sip all the way through to finish, always complementing and never overpowering the beer’s other facets. The aftertaste is nearly as profound as the liquid itself. Like its namesake, ‘mortal sin’, this beer will haunt you long after you’ve savored its last oily drop—bitter chocolate gives way to warming booze, then seemingly out of nowhere the roastiness melts away and you’re left with the lingering taste of unmalted barley, a testament to the quantity of ingredients used in the brewing process.

It’s been a long time coming, but us Ontarians are finally able to readily get our hands on this country’s top beer (at least as far as uncellared brews go). Unfortunately, the word has spread and all of Dieu du Ciell!’s offerings (the one other being the excellent Corne du Diable) are flying off the shelves, so I implore anyone who spots this brew to purchase as much as possible as soon as possible. I doubt aging will improve the taste so much as shift its focus, so don’t be afraid to enjoy a few immediately. As far as pairing goes, this beer demands so much attention on its own that a completely undistracted palette is required—drink slowly from a sifter or tulip glass (a large red wine glass will do in a pinch) and attend to every drop.

Rating: 98





Beer: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

23 09 2009

The evenings are getting cooler and the days shorter, which means that the LCBO autumn releases are just around the corner. Unfortunately for dark beer lovers, the trickle is slow and most of the more exciting brews may not hit shelves for a while. In lieu of good locally available options, I’ve decided to taste another American import I picked up in B.C., Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. This is only the second offering I’ve tasted from this brewery (the first being their excellent Monster Ale barleywine) and they have yet to disappoint.

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One of the darkest and strongest of Brooklyn’s beers, Black Chocolate Stout is brewed from October through March to a warming 10.1%. As the name implies, the beer is nearly pitch black, with just a hint of reddish brown around the edges and a rustically brown foam. The aroma is rich but fresh—no overwhelming sweetness or roastiness that stouts sometimes possess. Instead, well balanced malt, cocoa and some bready notes fill out the nose, with just a hint of brown sugar and coffee aromas as well. It’s no wonder they call this beer Black Chocolate Stout despite the lack of any actual chocolate in the brewing process. On first encounter, the taste is malty, boozy and rich with very dry, dark chocolate flavours. But again, like the aroma, there is a more refreshing side to the flavour with a little tanginess and burnt cherry under the tongue. The edge of the palette picks up the bitterness, which compliments the dryness of the beer well. While the upfront flavours of this beer are exemplary in themselves, its the ending that really distinguishes Black Chocolate Stouts from the countless others that I have tasted. The oily mouthfeel translates into what seems like a thick coating on the palette which gives this beer’s finish extra depth and an aftertaste that lasts and lasts and lasts. Boozy warmth and smooth sweet cocoa and molasses notes draw themselves out into a slightly bitter aftertaste that makes you feel like you need to swallow again to finish off the sip.

While Black Chocolate Stout is a rich and flavourful beer from the first sip until well after the last drop, it is lacking a bit in complexity—its general flavour profile remains the same over the course of drinking, and the range of diverse flavours is somewhat limited. However, this is only a small complaint considering its superb balance and excellent chocolatey richness. As far as accompaniment goes, I would completely agree with Brooklyn’s pairing recommendation of Stilton cheese or chocolate dessert, though I imagine the enigmatic sweet/dry/bitter character would prove an excellent match with even the fruitiest cheesecakes and softer, creamier cheeses. However, the high alcohol content of the stout, which really makes itself known in the long warm finish, would also make this an excellent sipper on its own for cool autumn evenings.

Rating: 96





Beer: Dogfish Head 90 Minute I.P.A.

18 07 2009

_MG_6039While the LCBO is making some progress towards bringing more of America’s voluminous offerings of world class microbrew to Ontario for us to enjoy, it is still much easier to get some of the best beers from south of the border in other provinces. I was fortunate enough to bring back a few exceptional imports from my trip to B.C., including a few bottles of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute I.P.A., one the brewery’s most highly revered bitters, and probably the best I.P.A. I’ve tried to date.

90 Minute I.P.A. gets its name from the length of time that the beer is continually hopped, as well as the final I.B.U. rating. The liquid itself pours a beautiful golden colour with moderate white head. Considering its impressive creation process, one would expect this beer to be a real hop monster. However, from the first whiff you begin to understand what makes this beer not just great but an outstanding India Pale Ale: balance. There is no in-your-face hop aroma or overly pungent citrus notes. Instead, the bouquet begins with a smooth base of rich malt, perfectly balanced with grassy floral notes and well integrated hoppiness. On top of this is the expected grapefruit and orange notes, but also, and perhaps even more prominent, are sweeter fruit aromas—peach, apricot, banana. Just on the edge of the nose are hints of raisin, toffee and even a little smoke. Nothing is overpowering, and each note gently integrates into the overall aroma. The first sip again reinforces the perfect balance of the beer, while developing the flavours to greater depth. The beer is instantly bitter, but certainly not what one would expect for 90 I.B.U.s. Incredibly smooth, almost buttery grapefruit and citrus rind flavours sit up front while slightly spicy notes float around the edges. All the while, the sweet fruitiness comes in waves as the liquid warms in the mouth, and the finish accentuates the floral flavours. The aftertaste maintains most of the initial flavours, again exhibiting superb balance. The most exciting part of drinking exceptional beer (and I would consider few beers exceptional) is experiencing the flavours and aromas morph and evolve, both from start to finish, as well as within each sip. 90 Minute I.P.A. delivers such an experience in a perfectly balanced way. One sip might start off sharp and hoppy, then become smooth and malty, then sweet and fruity, then spicy and floral. While the glass warms up, each of these dimensions changes in intensity, and the overall experience is like a shifting kaleidoscope (cliche perhaps, but I think it’s appropriate). The mouthfeel is smooth but not too rich, a perfect match to complex and multidimensional flavour profile.

While no particular flavour or aroma stands out, this is not to say that they are neither intense nor robust. Instead, it is a testament to, again, the incredible balance of flavours in the beer. Everything makes an appearance at just the right time, and nothing is every overpowered, only enhanced by the bitterness and alcohol. The complexity and balance of the beer also give it almost unlimited pairing possibilities. Dogfish Head suggest offerings such as Stilton cheese, escargot and pork chops, but I would also recommend pairing this with fruity though not overly sweet dessert (I should also point out that many of the beer’s characteristics reminded my an icewine, including the colour and sweet fruit notes, and that it might serve as an excellent substitute for a Vidal dessert wine). As far as aging is concerned, I find it difficult to predict what benefits, if any, cellaring this particular I.P.A. would have, so it would certainly not be a crime if you can’t resist the urge to drink all your bottles before they’ve “matured”.

Rating: 98