Category Archives: Beer History

Big Beer and the Fine Art of Packaging

Lately I have been seeing (ad nauseam) a commercial for Coors Light featuring their innovative vented can, which allows for an “easy pour”. At the same time, there has been a lot in the news about the decline in sales of mass market beer. I even came across an article on the nine beers we no longer drink showing that North Americans really are changing their allegiances to big beer.

This got me to thinking could there be a connection between the two? Will a gimmicky can bring home the errant flocks? When it comes to big beer do we care more about what is on the outside than the inside?


Novelty vessels are by no means new and therefore cannot be said to simply be a knee-jerk reaction to the downward spiral in sales. It is also highly unlikely opening a beer can like you would a can of apple juice is going to bring back the misplaced masses. Nonetheless if the next best thing in beer packaging does not right the world at least revisiting some of the high points (?) in these beer gimmicks does make for good blog fodder.

Here are some of my favourites.


The Coors Light Vented Can

Remember when you were young and your Mom would open a big can of apple juice with one of those nifty church-keys punching a hole in either side so the apple juice streamed out all pretty? Did you ever wish you could re-create that feeling with your beer?

Well rest soundly my friend, now you can do just that all thanks to the latest innovation in beer cans. Introducing the Coors Light vented can. According to a Newswire article:

The Vented Can has a specially designed top with a distinctive red tab and a button-shape to the right of the can opening. Activation of the vent can be achieved in 3 easy steps and doesn’t require the aid of special tools:

  1. Open
  2. Turn – align the red tab over the button
  3. Vent – Press down to activate extra opening

Coors Light Vented Can


The Coors Light Two-Stage Cold Can and Bottle.

For those of you unlucky enough to be born without a sense of touch or with temperature blindness, the two-stage cold label affixed to bottles of Coors Light and the two-stage aluminum cans of Coors Light were designed to let you know just when your beer was cold enough to stomach, I mean to drink.

“When the mountains turn blue it’s as cold as the Rockies”.

Coors Light Label


The Vortex Bottle from Miller.

You know how the rifling down the barrel of a gun adds spin to the bullet as it passes through therefore increasing its’ stability and accuracy? Well obviously this principle should hold true for beer as well.

If you have had difficulties getting the beer from the bottle to your glass, or worse still, to your mouth, take heart Miller Lite has found the solution.

Miller Lite Vortex Bottle


The Bow Tie Can from Budweiser.

Sometimes you find yourself in that rare situation where you are invited to a black-tie gala that is also B.Y.O.B. You want to bring something that says I am a person of the people but at the same time you want your selection to have a touch of class.

May I present for your consideration the bow tie can from Budweiser.

Nevermind that you technically get less beer than you would in a regular can, sipping from a bow tie only further cements your image as a mature and sophisticated tippler.

Budweiser Bow Tie Can


The Cube from Heineken

You get home after a hard days work and you open your fridge in hopes of kicking back with half a dozen beers but wait a minute your fridge is literally filled with useless misshapen items like cauliflowers and ketchup taking up valuable space. If you are lucky you can fit a few bottles on the top shelf.

Innovation to the rescue once more.

Here is the highly stackable Heineken cube. Beer in a square bottle? Nifty!

heineken cube


The Wide Mouth Aluminum Bottle from Molson Coors.

If the whole idea of bottle rifling conflicts with your pacifist worldview but you really do wish it were easier to make that leap from bottle to mouth do not despair because Molson has another alternative for you.

As an added bonus if you are distressed because the significant other in your life threatened to leave you over your refusal to drink beer from a bottle, consider this your olive branch.

A bottle mouth so wide you will be sure to get the maximum volume in the minimum time allowed while hopefully not wasting a drop and. as an added bonus, a vessel that bridges the great divide between can and bottle.

Wide Mouth Bottles



The Illuminated Bottle from Heineken

Don’t you hate it when your are all dressed up at the club, the black lights come on and you find out your favourite beer did not make an effort at all? Or worse yet you put your beer down, at night, and suddenly there is a country-wide power outage. The only tool at your disposal is a black light but is is pretty much useless right? Wrong.

Marketing to the rescue once again kiddos as the illuminated bottles from Heineken can throw some light on an otherwise dark situation. Designed with special inks that come alive under black light you may never misplace your beer again and you’ll look cool drinking from it.

Another offshoot of this idea has bottles that light-up when you clink them together, which I have to admit is pretty cool.

Heineken Illuminated Bottles



The Write-On Label from Bud Light.

All your closest beer geek friends are over for dinner and since you all have the same excellent taste in beer, at one point in your evening you look over to the credenza to find, horror of horrors, a dozen or so open Fat Tug IPA’s in row with no means to extricate your beer from the rest of the dirty dozen.

Let me tell you that in this scenario you are clearly drinking the wrong beer because if you had wisely chosen Bud Light you could benefit from their write-on labels all the while avoiding an inevitable case of the cooties.

Never lose your brew in a crowd again. Write-on labels do for day beer what the illuminated bottles do for night beer, they let you identify your errant beer and, if you so desire, let you fly your creative freak flag.

If you have a key, a coin or a fingernail (hopefully you have one of these things) you can scratch whatever strikes your fancy on the label of your beer.

(Disclaimer: even though this beer bottle is sporting my actual non-blogger name this was not, I repeat, not my Bud Light though I am flattered they chose to use my name in their marketing.)

Bud Light Write-On Label


Now before you pat yourself on the back too hard thinking the craft beer would never stoop to such gimmicks to shill their product I will leave you with this image…


Brew Dog

*Thanks to all the brewery websites and new articles with media images for the photographs used in this post.


Scotch Off – Round 1

Autumn Leaves

There is something about the onset of autumn that makes me want to reach for a different kind of beer. Gone are the fruit beers, the wheat beers and the pils and in come the browns, the porters and the scotch ales.

Ahhh, scotch ales those lovely beers that are just a little maltier, a little heavier and a little sweeter than your summer fare and, most importantly, THEY ARE NOT PUMPKIN BEERS!

Before we get down to our head-to-head beer off here is a bit of background on the style from a previous post.


Scotch or Scottish Ale can be a bit of a confusing term; does it refer to a brewing style unique to Scotland, a style of beer heavy on malt but light on hops, or a reference to ale casked in scotch whiskey barrels? Well to be honest it can be all of the above. Luckily, like all great mysteries, the answers can be found in books, so let’s get a bit of a history lesson to figure out what the heck is going on.

Scotland has a long (think 5000 years old) tradition of brewing ales and the first beers produced were not really that dissimilar from the pale ales being brewed by their English cousins. In fact, the traditional Scotch Ales would have more in common with India Pale Ales than the sweet, ruby brews now tagged with the term ‘scotch’. The quintessential Scottish elements we have come to know really had more to do with geography than with intentional stylistic roguery. Hops did not grow as well in the north, beers were fermented at cooler temperatures and peat may have been used to dry the malt and/or imparted through the water.

Interestingly, the Scottish brewers saw these elements as flaws to be corrected out of the beer while modern beer geeks have embraced these ‘flaws’ (smokiness, peatiness, maltiness) as flavours to be celebrated.


Now for your consideration I now present the contenders:

Renaissance Stonecutter Scotch Ale


Renaissance Stonecutter Scotch Ale weighing in at 7.1% ABV . Described by the brewery as follows “We use nine malts blended together to produce layers of caramel, toffee, liquorice, chocolate and roasty flavours. These layers are balanced by a tart, raisiny fruitiness that gradually gives way to give this dark beer a lingering dry finish. Rich, full bodied, warming and moreish…”

Renaissance pours a deep mahogany with very little head and no lacing. There is some opaqueness to this beer kind of like sweet tea. A big smoky sweet nose that gives way to a fairly light-bodied beer that has leather, butterscotch and caramel notes. Stoncutter is very tepid, no carbonation, giving it a liqour like viscosity. On the finish the smokiness comes back through.



Phillips Scotch Ale


Phillips Twisted Oak Stillage Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale weighing in at 6.8% ABV. Described by the brewery as “a rich, creamy strong ale, it is allowed to rest in wood barrels to mature and develop flavors slowly and naturally. The nose combines bourbon, American oak, and cotton candy aromas. Complex malt flavors framed in oak, with hints of vanilla, tobacco, and toffee.”

Phillips pours a dark copper colour with very little head and no lacing. The nose on Twisted Oak Scotch Ale is more earthy and a bit nutty while still belaying some caramel notes. Light to medium bodied and quite dry. As you drink the oaken character really comes through giving this one an almost sour tinge (maybe not the right term but a taste I can’t quite put my finger on). There is sweetness to this one and some richer butterscotch and even tobacco like notes.


The winner of this round…

Renaissance Stonecutter Scotch Ale by a peat.

Get your Dirndl on …it’s Oktober

Long before the seasonal onslaught of pumpkin beers marked the turning of the seasons, like 1810 long before, German beer lovers were celebrating Oktoberfest, a sixteen or seventeen day fair held in Munich that ends on the first Sunday of October.

While the origins of the fest had more to do with royal weddings and the celebratory trappings of Bavarian culture – food, music, dancing, parades, games, costumes etc. the modern incarnation is really best known, for better or worse, as a bit of a piss-up.

However, despite the presence of what is locally known as beer corpses (overtly drunk patrons) the beer in those extra big steins really does deserve some reverence.

Oktoberfest beers, true Oktoberfest beers that is,  are strong caramel forward creations, low on hops and high in sugar, that must conform to the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) and be brewed within the city limits of Munich. Presently, there are six breweries that meet the criteria to produce traditional Oktoberfest beers.


Oktoberfest Beers photo from Sanfa Media

Oktoberfest Beers photo from Sanfa Media

Like many traditions, as the popularity of Oktoberfest broadly, and Oktoberfest beer specifically, went global the essence of the beer style evolved. In Tasting Beer, Mosher suggests there has been a general trend towards producing drier and paler versions of Oktoberfest beers.  As Oktoberfest beer changed Marzen beers came to stand-in for the traditional and Oktoberfest the modern interpretation.

Nonetheless when you grow weary of pumpkin pie spices try a beer that is and always has come to typify the fall season.

According to Rate Beer the top ten Oktoberfest/Marzen beers are:

Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen

Free State Octoberfest

Surly SurlyFest

Grassroots Song of Spring Ale

Dark Horse Octoberfest

Heater Allen Bobtoberfest

Les Trois Mousquetaires Oktoberfest

Calumet Oktoberfest

A Beer for all Saisons

A couple of years back now, and many posts ago, I wrote about the history of saison beers. At the time saisons or farmhouse ales were somewhat of a novelty but like many great fads saisons appear to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance this craft beer season.

So here is a bit of my original post on the origins of the style.

Saison is French for season and it was believed saison style ales were brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the following summer’s harvest.

However, according to Mosher’s Tasting Beer the current story about saisons being brewed to sustain workers  during the labour season, while quaint, is not exactly historically accurate. Rather the term saison applied to the eccentric beers of Liège as well as the beers of Mons in an area now known as the Saison region.

The commonalities uniting these beers were the ingredients used, saisons being brewed with a regional yeast strains, malt, wheat, oats, spelt and even buckwheat or broad beans, and not the coalitions of thirsty farmers and their intrepid beer-brewing wives – though personally I find the farmer version much more romantic.

Mosher suggests that fast forward to the twentieth century and the modern day versions of these saison beers may or may not contain wheat, tend to be bottle conditioned and have a higher ABV. One of the defining elements of this newly named style is the yeast, a ‘slow cranky’ strain believed to be related to red wine yeast.  This yeast is quite heat tolerant and produces lots of peppery phenols.  Spices are optional but pepper, orange, malts and grains of paradise are sometimes added.

A Saison Darkly

While I don’t have much new to report on the historical origins front I have tried a saison worth blogging about, A Saison Darkly from Stillwater Artisinal Ales.

This is the first beer I have tried from this brewery but I am a long-time admirer of the incredible artwork adorning the labels of their beers and I was intrigued enough by the promise of a dark take on the saison style to bring one home.

A Saison Darkly 8% ABV (great beer name to go with a gorgeous label) pours dark brown black with lots of mocha coloured head on the initial pour. There is pretty decent head retention on this beer. Lots of sediment remains in the bottom of the bottle, most decidedly the mark of a good saison, and there is a bit of cloudiness and sediment in the glass. A funky yeasty nose but there is also a coffee chocolate dark beer element to the nose. First couple of sips and this beer speaks more to the dark beer character rather than the farmhouse. I find the saison style gets a bit overwhelmed by the roasty malty character of this beer but that does not necessarily mean this is an inequitable partnership. As you drink the yeastiness comes through now and then reminding you you are not drinking a straight-up porter. Overall I think this is a great blending of styles and I look forward to sampling more from the Stillwater line-up.

Sometimes the ad is better than the beer.

Lately I have been on a bit of a beer drinking break as I recover from an extended seasonal beer blitz. During this hiatus I have been taking some time to delve into beer history, specifically beer advertising. As craft beer continues to grow and expand the move into advertisements seems inevitable so I thought it might be fun to explore one of the arguably most successful beer ad campaigns ever.


Let me introduce Sascha better known as the Hamm’s Beer Bear.


Hamms Beer Ad Flowers


First a little background on the Brewery

Hamm’s brewery was established in 1865 in St. Paul Minnesota by Theodore Hamm, a German immigrant, who inherited the Excelsior Brewery from his friend and business associate. Thanks to the pure water from the brewery’s wells and its utilization of the native sandstone, the operation grew quickly. By 1910 the brewery was shipping 700,000 barrels yearly. After just over one hundred years through the trials of prohibition, decreasing national sales and competition between big breweries, 1968 marked the first of many ownership changes for Hamm’s when the company was acquired by Heublein, which sold it to Olympia Brewing Company. Eventually Hamm’s became the property of MillerCoors, the current owner and brewer of the Hamm’s Brand.



The Hook

Truly great ad campaigns manage to marry and iconic image with a signature jingle. Oh yes, the jingle that infectious little tune that sticks in your head whether you want it to or not. For Hamm’s that jingle was derived from the song “From the Land of Sky-Blue Water”.  The jingle was first used on radio and later on television. Here is a portion of the lyrics (imagine tom-toms echoing over the water):


From the Land of Sky Blue Waters,

From the land of pines’ lofty balsams,

Comes the beer refreshing,

Hamm’s the beer refreshing.


Hamms Beer Ad From the Land


The Star

While the jingle was catchy and enforced the direction of the ad campaign it was Sascha the Hamm’s Beer bear that was to become the real star. Hamm’s ad campaign sought to emphasize the cleanliness and naturalist qualities of Hamm’s beer owing to its clear water and production in pristine Minnesota.  The first television commercial depicted animated beavers beating their tails to the tom-tom beat of the jingle, as well as live action shots of the forests and lakes of the “enchanted Northland” aka Minnesota.  The second commercial, produced in 1952, introduced a clumsy dancing black-and-white cartoon bear, which proved so popular it was used for the next three decades.


Hamms Beer Ad  Seattle Worlds Fair


Last (and least) the Beer

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about Hamm’s beer. As a community of craft beer enthusiasts it is very unlikely you will want to go out of your way to seek out any of the Hamm’s line-up but just in case you are trapped in an isolated community that time forgot and there are only three options staring back at you from the dusty liquor store shelf here is what rate beer thinks:


Hamm’s America’s Classic Premium Beer has a score of 2.

Hamm’s Golden Draft has a score of 10.

Hamm’s Special light has a score of 10.




While Hamm’s beer may not have stood the test of time Sascha sure did. The beer bear is the subject of books, adorns countless types of brewiana, has online devotees, and lives on through the miracle of You Tube.


*Thanks to wikipedia and numerous online resources that shared their love of the bear and the brewery.

Hamms Beer Ad Paws of Refreshment

Coming Full Circle Back to the Barrel

Like the wheel, the invention of the barrel had lasting and momentous consequences for the advancement of humankind and for their desire to consume spirituous beverages.

For much of its life beer was fermented in wooden barrels until that pesky thing called human nature kicked in and we became woefully skeptical of all things germ related. You see wood is porous, it breathes and expands, it sucks liquids in and creates pockets for air and yes bacteria and while this was good enough for us to consume for hundreds of years (and remains good enough for wine and spirits) by the time the 1950’s rolled around it was no longer cool for beer.

So it was during this period that brewers’ transitioned to the use of cold and impersonal stainless steel, which while good for sanitation and frankly for the production of mass-market lager did little to retain that unique and funky character that can only be imparted through time spent in the barrel.


The Benefits of Wood

According to Mosher in Tasting Beer wood contains chemicals that dissolve in the beer over time producing woody, oaky, vanilla and other flavours in the beer. He goes on to speak about how porosity affords the creation of oxidized flavours and the growth of microorganisms, which lambic and sour beers depend on to create the bacterially driven tartness that defines these beer styles. With all this potential it makes you wonder why craft brewers stayed away from the wood for as long as they did.


So how to craft brewers come back to the barrel?

Well as usual it was intrepid home brewers who re-ignited the barrel-aging trend. It turns out that while beer may have turned away from the wood distillers and wine makers continued on using wooden barrels often only once to preserve the integrity of whatever they happened to be creating. This meant there was a surplus of oak barrels infused with wondrous notes of bourbon, of whiskey, of wine etc. just waiting to be filled with something …something beery. Mosher recounts how a group of Chicago-area brewers pooled resources to purchase spent bourbon barrels and many gallons of imperial stout; add A to B and presto you have a bourbon barrel aged stout.

After this experiment proved a rousing success the flood gates opened so to speak and all of sudden everyone was trying their hand at putting beer back into the barrel. There are many, many wondrous pairings from blonde ale in gin barrels to whiskey infused strong ale to fruit beers fermented in pinot noir to sour ales conditioned in chardonnay and my personal favourite anything dark and/or strong aged in bourbon barrels.



A Stellar Example of Why Wood is Good

Hair of the Dog Bourbon Fred from the Wood (Bottle Conditioned 2012) ABV 12%

Fred from the Wood pours a deep caramel colour with lots of cloud and sediment (try to leave the sediment in place by pouring this one slowly). There is tons of thick creamy head that remains firmly in place on top of the beer. The nose is an amazingly rich blend of bourbon, malt and toffee. This beer is big bodied with a creamy cloying mouthfeel. It is like Christmas in a glass, warming and heavy with candied fruit notes, vanilla, toffee and liquor. Fred likes to warm up to let all these complex flavours come into balance, it is also most definitely a sipping beer. Sweet liqoury finish with just a little touch of warmth reminding you just how strong this one is. If you have never had this beer go and try it immediately!

Hey, there’s Scotch in my Beer!

Scotch or Scottish Ale can be a bit of a confusing term; does it refer to a brewing style unique to Scotland, a style of beer heavy on malt but light on hops, or a reference to ale casked in scotch whiskey barrels? Well to be honest it can be all of the above. Luckily, like all great mysteries, the answers can be found in books, so let’s get a bit of a history lesson to figure out what the heck is going on.

Scotland has a long (think 5000 years old) tradition of brewing ales and the first beers produced were not really that dissimilar from the pale ales being brewed by their English cousins. In fact, the traditional Scotch Ales would have more in common with India Pale Ales than the sweet, ruby brews now tagged with the term ‘scotch’. The quintessential Scottish elements we have come to know really had more to do with geography than with intentional stylistic roguery. Hops did not grow as well in the north, beers were fermented at cooler temperatures and peat may have been used to dry the malt and/or imparted through the water.

Interestingly, the Scottish brewers saw these elements as flaws to be corrected out of the beer while modern beer geeks have embraced these ‘flaws’ (smokiness, peatiness, maltiness) as flavours to be celebrated.

Another interesting historical tidbit with regards to Scotch Ales is the nomenclature designating ale strength in shillings. The shilling categories were based on the price charged per hogshead (54 Imperial gallons). Stronger beers naturally cost more so Scotch Ales were labelled as Light (60/-), Heavy (70/-), Export (80/-) and Wee Heavy (120/-) – if you want to blow the minds of your beer geek friends ask for a pint of eighty bob! While the shilling terminology has fallen out of favour the strength designations live on to help us distinguish between the different types of Scotch Ale.

In order to try a cross-section of the style, I conducted a little mini blind taste test of three scotch ales; Rogue’s McRogue Scotch Ale XS (OR), not much description on the bottle but fyi I aged this for just over a year, Phillips Double Barrel Scotch Ale (BC), aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels and then in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, and Le Bilbouquet MacKroken Scotch Ale (QC) brewed with thistle and wildflower honey.

Thoughts on the Beers…

Rogue McRogue Scotch Ale XS

Beer Geek Girl: Deep orange with lots of sediment and some creamy coloured head. Sweet barley wine like nose and a strong sweet casked flavour. Lots of body, almost chewy but quite smooth to drink. Strong liqoury finish.

Beer Geek Boy: Cloudy with a sweet barley wine nose. Has an aged quality to it, and smooth to drink.

Phillips Double Barrel Scotch Ale

Beer Geek Girl: Deep orange and very clear with quickly dissipating head. Subtle sweetness on the nose. Quite light bodied with sweet mallet flavours and an ever so slightly bitter finish.

Beer Geek Boy: Nose and flavour fairly similar to an Extra Special Bitter (ESB). Very clear. A little sweet with mild hop flavours and an easy finish.

Le Bilboquet MacKroken Scotch Ale with Honey

Beer Geek Girl: Red, clear, carbonated with lots of creamy colour head that sticks around. Very sweet honeyed nose and a sweet floral flavour. Medium body, liqoury with a ton of caramel (burnt almost) notes.

Beer Geek Boy: Darkest colour of the three with some head. Has the appearance and nose of what I am familiar with for a Scotch Ale. Not a lot of nose but sweetness. Malty in flavour, heavy and strong.

*Thanks to Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer and the ever-informative Wikipedia for assistance (but not with the drinking part)

I Am Canadian

When I was a young lass the North American beer scene was a very different animal. Dominated by big breweries producing the only most basic of beers, you did not even consider ordering a beer by style rather you ordered by naming one of the two big brands – I will have a “Canadian” or a “Blue”. Amid this sea of bland lager there was one underlying truism that we as Canadians could cling to, a platitude that kept us warm in the evening and made us feel ever so slightly superior – our beers were made of stronger stuff than the brews coming from our American cousins.

Flash forward to the weekend and I am out and about looking for a patio to drink at. Using some random foodie app I check out Yaletown Brewing Company (YBC) to see what people thought when I came across a review by an American tourist sampling the beer line-up. They prefaced their review by saying they passed over the “Canadian piss beers” and moved straight onto the IPA, which they went on to favourably compare with some of the US microbrewers.

Now hold on just one second, when did Canadian craft beer become piss beer? Has the resurgence of craft beer resulted in a geographical role reversal? Are Canadian microbreweries brewing blasé beers? Are we now brewing the Old Milwaukee of the craft beer scene? Maybe the answers lie in looking at our brewing pedigrees.

From the destitute landscape that was the beer reality of the 1970’s, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, one of the last remaining microbrewers, was purchased by a good soul dedicated to preserving authentic beer. At roughly the same time, the counter culture movement had begun altering people’s perceptions about how we live in the world. Home brewing, embracing local economies and travel to Europe opened people’s eyes to just what beer could and should be and as they say they rest is history. Craft breweries were steadily popping up throughout the US in the 70’s and 80’s, and by the 1990’s the craft beer industry was growing at 45 percent per year (Mosher 2009). This means American craft brewers have been hard at work for over forty years perfecting their art.

In Canada, we were a little late to the craft beer party, seriously getting on the bandwagon in the 1980’s with microbreweries like Upper Canada Brewing Company in Ontario and St. Ambroise in Montreal. Growth in the craft beer industry has been equally impressive in Canada with British Columbians buying craft beers 12.7% of the time in the early 2000’s ( So are these regional differences real or imagined? Perhaps Canadian craft brewers are still testing the waters so to speak, carving out a niche for what will come to define our new national beer identity.

Coming full circle back to YBC, I am sipping lager and my partner brown ale and we both feel the same way; these beers are fine, they are drinkable, but I am not wowed and I want to be wowed. Obviously the challenge for the craft brewer is to keep the customer interested and coming back, which for a growing mass of educated beers geeks means putting out new and challenging product while maintaining a high standards of quality. In many ways I feel like we play it a little too safe here. Call it cultural differences, but American craft brews are assertive, quirky and most definitely challenging while our beers are …well …nice. One of the reasons I often turn to the US craft brewers for my staple beers is that many brewers seem to have found what works for them, they have created a beer identity, and they do not necessarily brew one of every beer style in the guide.

I wonder, what does the “I am Canadian” rant sound like now that we are a nation of craft beer drinkers?

*Thanks to VanCity Love and Barley Mowat for the photos

Who (or where) Brews it Best?

Tuesday night was fight night at Firefly Fine Wine and Ales as Lundy Dale from Pink Pints led a group of raucous beer geeks in a blind taste test to determine just where the best beer styles are coming from. Are European breweries with their distinguished pedigrees, years of brewing experience and matter-of-fact labeling making the best beers on the market? Or are the new-kids-on-the-tap North American microbreweries with their assertive ingredients, style bending combinations and cheeky labelling defining craft beer styles for future generations?


The nights line-up consisted of head-to-head match-ups in four common beer styles; Bohemian Pilsners, Belgian Tripels, English IPA’s and London Porters:


Bohemian Pilsners are a type of pale lager that originated in 1842 in the Czech town of Pilsen. Pilsners are a bottom fermented beer, which means a bottom-cropping yeast is used to produce the ale at low temperatures. They should be burnished gold in colour with notes of caramel and spice. Pilsners are hoppy and bitter but clean drinking. This is one of those cases where a singular beer defines the style.

For the blind taste test we sampled the grandfather of all pilsners Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic) and Paddock Wood Brewing Company’s Czech Mate (Saskatoon).

Belgian Tripels, or Belgian Abbey Tripels, are Belgian beers with styles similar to Trappist ales but brewed by secular commercial breweries. Generally, Belgian beers favour malt flavours over hoppiness and have a unique flavour imparted by the regional yeast strain. Tripels are malty, spicy and highly carbonated. They are strong and have a honey like sweetness with a dry finish.

Our tasters were St. Bernadus (Belgium) and Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde (Quebec).


English India Pale Ales are very close to the bitter beer style but tend to have more substance with tons of malt character while still maintaining the UK hop profile. Descended from October beers brewed in the English country side. English IPA’s are nutty and spicy in flavour with a bitter finish.


We tried Thornbridge Brewery’s Jaipur (UK) and Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s IPA (California).


London Porters are dark brown beers with roasted malt character and subtle hops. A diverse and hard-to-define style, Porters are considered to be the first industrialized beers. I like to think of them as stout’s kid brother but since they came around first I guess Porter are more like stout’s frail grandparent; this is merely to say they are lighter in body and often lower in ABV than their robust stout offspring.

Last up was Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter (UK) and Propeller Porter from Propeller Brewing Co. (Halifax).


It was not that easy to tell these beers apart in a side-by-side comparison, which speaks volumes about the overall quality of the craft beers being produced on both sides of the pond. Being a student of history and a fervent adherent to the adage ‘they don’t make em’ like they used to’, I assumed the European beers would be the exemplars of the styles with the North American brews being adequate representations BUT I was pleasantly reprimanded by the beers I tried.

Particularly impressive for me was Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde, which could pass for a ‘true’ Belgian without question. Another interesting surprise was Thornbridge’s Jaipur, which on appearance alone did not even seem like it belonged in the IPA family yet it had a strong hop profile and nice dry finish. A very informative and challenging event!

The Cult of Pliny

In all things in life from music to film to literature there are a few rare creations that manage to transcend boundaries uniting even the most disparate of critics in the belief that something truly exceptional has been created. For those in the know, these incomparable objects become a kind of secret handshake welcoming members into an exclusive cult comprised of those who have heard, seen, read and tasted. While I think the phrase “best beer ever” gets tossed around a little too liberally Russian River’s Pliny the Elder may just be the one beer that warrants that title.

My affair with Pliny got off to a tumultuous start when an enthusiastic Whole Foods employee informed me he had something special in the back. Curious, and slightly relieved, he came back with a bottle of Pliny the Elder and the caveat that they do not sell Pliny to just any passing beer geek. In fact, you have to ask a worker to retrieve bottles from their ‘reserve’ in the back room.

Back in my room that evening, I became quite distressed with the pine notes emanating from the nose of this beer and in my most eloquent assessment I exclaimed that it tasted like a pine air freshener and passed the remainder of the bottle to my partner to finish. So began (and ended) my relationship with IPA’s.

Several months later, and with many more craft beers under my belt, I was back in Portland, OR and I knew it was time to revisit the Pliny. After another go at the circuitous method of obtaining Pliny from Whole Foods I was once again facing off with a bottle in my hotel room but this time I was ready. Armed with a great deal of hop experience, I realized just how perfect this pine dominant ale truly was. This double IPA is golden and clear with tons of white head. Dominant hops on the nose and in the flavour; it is light in body, very crisp and has a relatively high ABV, which compliments the bitterness. Fantastic in the bottle and transcendent on tap; I never tire of this beer.

Who was Pliny the Elder

According to the information on the bottle label, Pliny the Elder, born in 23 A.D., was a Roman naturalist, scholar, historian, traveller, officer and writer. Pliny, and his, contemporaries, created the original botanical name for hops, Lupus Salictarius, meaning wolf among the scrubs. Hop vines, at that time, grew wild among the willows, likened to wolves roaming wild in the forest. Pliny the Elder died in 79 A.D. while saving people during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He was immortalized by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who continued his uncle’s legacy by documenting much of what his uncle experienced during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This beer is an homage to the man who discovered hops and perished while being a humanitarian.

A Little on Pliny the Younger

The Russian River Brewing Company describes this beer as an almost a true Triple IPA with triple the amount of hops as a regular I.P.A. That said, it is extremely difficult, time and space consuming, and very expensive to make. And that is why we don’t make it more often! This beer is very full-bodied with tons of hop character in the nose and throughout. It is also deceptively well-balanced and smooth. Pub draft only, VERY limited distribution locally and to distributors on draft only, seasonal- released at our pub the first Friday of February and is available for just 2 weeks, available at select accounts during February.

This beer has become the stuff of legend with people lining up by the hundreds just for the chance to sample Pliny the Younger while it lasts.

A Little on Don the Younger

Don the Younger is a sessional IPA brewed in memory of publican Don Younger who owned the iconic Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 35 years. Last year Don asked Russian River to make a beer for the Pub’s 35th Anniversary Party. He asked for a hoppy, low alcohol session ale, and he wanted us to call it “Don the Younger”. Sadly, Don did not make it to the party at Horse Brass but they honored his wishes and made his beer for the Horse Brass 35th Anniversary anyway. Don the Younger was available for toasting at the two pubs.

By the will of the beer gods I happened to be in Portland when this beer was tapped and like all the IPA’s in this series it did not fail to disappoint. Bright and crisp with the signature resiny hop profile, Don the Younger was extremely drinkable and an amazing homage to the memory of Don Younger.

But Don’t Just Take my Word for It…

According to Rate Beer’s list of the world’s best overall beers Pliny the Younger is number 14 and Pliny the Elder is 23. Both Plinys have an overall score of 100 points.

According to Beeradvocate both Plinys have 100 points.

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