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The Art of the Beer Label

I have a confession to make: when I am unsure about which new beer to try I often pick the one with the most creative label and conversely (and perhaps more detrimentally) I often avoid brewers with less-than-stellar aesthetic sensibilities. Despite how often we are plied with the euphemism to not judge a book by its cover we just darn go ahead and do it anyway. Part of this is necessity; if we were allowed to pour a sample glass before buying a bottle or can we could judge a beer using all of our available senses. But this is perhaps the fevered dream of an as-yet-unbuilt beer utopia… As such this post will be grounded in cold hard truths of reality and entirely devoted to some of my favourite beer labels.

Taste is subjective. What I appreciate in a beer label may not be what you enjoy, and this is good thing since brewers express themselves in a myriad of ways from the fairy-tale beauty of Pretty Things, to the adverserial taunting of Stone, to the medeival nerdiness of Russian River. So what do I like in beer labels? I am not sure I can put my finger on any unifying stylistic elements but I do admire many differing qualities including but not limited to simplicity, clean lines, creative use of colour, witty banter, historical references, an overarching theme and perhaps above all an effort to stand out from the (six) pack. What follows are some of my favourites in no particular order:


I Love Porters

I do. I love them. Really and truly I do. True I enjoy a good stout as much as the next gal but sometimes I don’t want an entire meal in a glass and here is where the porter really steps up to the plate. Porters have many of the elements that make a great stout –roastiness, rich malt, creamy mouthfeel, bitter aftertaste– while retaining that amazing drinkability of a middle of the road ale. In honour of this (assumed mutual) admiration I thought I would devote an entire post to the wonder that is dark brown ale.

First a little bit of a history lesson: Like many other well-known beer styles dark brown ales were being brewed in London for a generation before the term ‘porter’ was ever applied to them. In Tasting Beer Mosher suggests that far from being invented “porter emerged over a generation or more, transforming itself from an assemblage of brown ales into a pedigreed family of chestnut-colored brews that eventually came to named for the transport workers who were its most visible enthusiasts”. Porters are considered to be the first industrialized beers i.e. brewed and exported on an industrial scale. There has been a great deal of evolution in the style known as porter. Porters were first brewed from moderately kilned ‘brown’ malt. Then they were brewed more efficiently using the extract-rich pale malt but this meant the loss of the trademark appearance. Finally, burnt sugar was added to the process to re-capture that signature dark brown appearance; however, the addition of burnt sugar did more than just darken the beer it also changed the fundamental flavour. In 1817 Daniel Wheeler invented a roasting kiln for making black malt and once more ‘porter’ became an entirely different tasting beer. In addition to changing tastes there are different types of porter including Baltic Porter based on beers exported from England to Russian in the eighteenth century, Philadelphia Porters, which were famous for their quality and George Washington’s patronage, and German Porter had its day in the mid to late nineteenth century in response to the success of English porters. Sadly, the rising popularity of stouts did little to solidify the place of the porter in the beer pantheon, and when Guinness stopped production of it’s porter in 1974 the style seemed to be “officially dead”.

Luckily something this good never truly stays dead and thanks to the resurgence of craft brewing the porter has found its way back into our beer drinking arsenal. So what exactly constitutes a porter? According to the Beer Judge Certification Program the prototypical porter has the following characteristics:

Flavour: Creamy roasty-toasty malt, hoppy or not (I love the term roasty-toasty btw)

Aroma: Roasty maltiness, little or no hop aroma

Balance: malt, hops, roast in various proportions

Gravity: 1.040 – 1.065

Alcohol: 4.0 – 6.5% by volume

Attenuation: Medium

Colour: 20 – 50° SRM

Bitterness: 20 – 40 IBU plus, low to medium-high

Thirsty yet? One terrific example of the re-birth of the porter is Alice a renaissance Baltic porter from our eclectic friends at BrewDog. According to the brewers Alice is “decloaked and radically reinvisaged…a 6.2% sacred union of one 300-year-old recipe and two cross continental hop varieties. A delicate mirage of chocolate, red fruit and burnt sugar”. Alice is a very good girl. She is a deep clear brunette with a suitable amount of caramel head. The nose is an incredible mix of malt and burnt; like sweet bread that has been over toasted. There is even a touch of sourness on the nose. Alice has a sticky almost chewy mouthfeel with a fig-like flavour that gives way to a slightly bitter aftertaste. The body is deceptive because the flavours trick your palate into thinking you are drinking a heavy dense beer but the low ABV makes it imminently drinkable. Excellent fall to winter beer.

Overall a 5 out of 5

Follow Alice down the Rabbit Hole...

*Thanks as always to Randy Mosher (2009) Tasting Beer An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink

‘Kick you down the stairs’ Beer

Awhile back I was perusing the selection at O’Hares liquor store when the manager recommended DeuS Brut des Flandres as a beer that would ‘kick me down the stairs’. Intrigued and slightly confused by the sales pitch I promptly bought a bottle. What I learned later is that DeuS is a nice example of a strong Belgian Ale; the ‘kick you down the stairs’ adjective comes from the relatively high ABV of 11.5%.  Using this as a launching point I thought I would devote this post to an exploration of strong beers.

Strength in the brewing world refers to both alcohol (the main product of fermentation) and gravity (the amount of solids in the unfermented wort). More malt brings more alcohol and more malt requires more hops in what can become a delicate dance between strength and drinkability. Gravity is used as a rough measure of the amount of alcohol that may end up in the finished beer; however, not every wort of the same gravity will end up as a beer with the same alcohol content. A whole other host of variables comes into play before we get our final ABV including the brewing process, yeast strain, sugar used, fermentation temperature etc. Brewers use the concept of apparent attenuation -finishing gravity divided by starting gravity subtracted from one hundred- to arrive at an approximate, if not entirely accurate, idea of beer strength. Real attenuation can only be assessed through the labour intensive process of distilling the alcohol out of a small sample but this is not commonly done. The higher the apparent attenuation the more of the beer’s extract has been turned into alcohol and voila we have a strong beer.

As a quick historical aside, the quest to make strong beer is not solely a modern endeavor in fact there are several Old English terms for strong beer including Stingo, Huffcap, Nipitatum, Clamber-skull, Dragon’s milk, Mad-dog, Lift-leg, Angel’s food and Stride-wide.

Back to modern brewing; beer styles such as barley wines, stouts, quadruples and double IPA’s all enter into this strong beer realm and a few brave brewers have ventured beyond into the ‘ultra-strong experimental’ kingdom. When it comes to taste these beers really have much more in common with fine liquors like scotch or cognac and they should be sampled as such; small pours in proper glassware, served as aperitifs and shared amongst friends. Some notable examples include:

Brewer Beer Name Beer Style/Description ABV
BrewDog Tokyo Intergalactic fantastic oak aged stout 18.2%
BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin Beer for the dedicated 32%
BrewDog Sink the Bismark IPA for the dedicated 41%
BrewDog End of History Belgian blond infused with nettles and juniper berries 55%
The Bruery Black Tuesday Imperial Stout 19.5%
Dogfish Head Fort Belgian ale brewed with a ridiculous amount of raspberries 15-18%
Dogfish Head World Wide Stout A very dark beer brewed with a ridiculous amount of barley 15-20%
Fouders Brewing Devil Dancer Triple IPA 12%
Kleinbrauerei Schorschbrau Schorschbock 40 Whisky like brew 40%
Mikkeller Big V Barley Wine 15%
The Refrigerated Ship Start the Future Drink it like a cocktail 60%
Samuel Adams Utopias Barrel aged beers 24-27%


As one might suspect the quest for the title of world’s strongest beer has become a somewhat farcical game of one-up-man-ship; please see the following video by BrewDog for your consideration.

*Thanks to Mosher, Randy 2009 Tasting Beer An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink.

Firefly ‘La Table Commune’ Introduction to Craft Beer

Forces out of my control, namely surgery, sightseeing and Stieg Larsson, have conspired against me and my blog resulting in an inexcusable absentia from any sort of posting regularity.  Nonetheless now I am back and focused with a rather daunting amount of material to work through.  The first review I want to do is more of a synopsis of a relatively recent beer tasting night at Firefly Fine Wines and Ales.  During this intro to craft beer session a smallish group of people learned about the beer basics from malts, to hops, to brewing processes and beer familial relations.  This informative chat was followed by a sampling of eight different ales: Industrial Lager (the mystery mass produced beer), R&B Red Devil Pale Ale, Wells Bombardier Ale, Moylans IPA, Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, Dupont Saison, Cantillion Kriek, and last but definitely not least Brew Dog ‘TNP’.  For the sake of brevity I will offer a few comments on each of the offerings.  The industrial lager was your average ball park beer, you know the beer you get when there is only one option on the menu or when you are underage and some nice relative offers to go to the beer store for you, a somewhat watered down but drinkable bevie that you learn later bears little to no semblance to what the rest of the world considers beer.  Though in all honesty it was fun to guess which ‘big box brand’ we were sipping –turns out my partner knows his crappy beers!  Moving along, Red Devil was easy drinking crisp pale ale; I found it light on the hops compared to other IPA’s but this worked well for me.  The Wells ale was more complex with many different flavours emerging from blended hops, to spices and caramel overtones.  The cheat sheet described the next offering, Moylans, as provocative but I though it tasted a bit like lilac soap.  This IPA was hoppy, a little too hoppy for me, but the other non-biased IPA lovers seemed to really enjoy it.  I really liked the Samuel Smith and I did not think I would.  The ale was a rich reddish brown hue and had a really nice nutty flavour with an apple aftertaste.  The Saison is highly carbonated ale with definite floral tones and heavy sediment.  Saison beer is a somewhat unique style and once you have tried one you will become a fan or not.  I personally like Saisons but I enjoy unfiltered, lambic, gueze, unpasteurized etc. so this style suits my palate.  Next up the Cantillion, now if you put Kriek on the label I am in so I may not be that objective here.  The Kriek is a beautiful red ale that is tart and challenging -the notes mentioned barnyard aroma but I ignored that.  These types of beers cellar well and the longer the age the better the cherry flavour gets as it ferments in the bottle.  The coup de grace of the evening was the tactical nuclear penguin a 32%, yes that is correct 32%, beer banned from its native Scotland due to concerns about the high alcohol content.  We split one small bottle between twelve people and I could not have finished anymore than that, wow, this beer is one tough cookie it tastes and looks more like a scotch than a beer.  It would be fantastic with a rich dessert since it has a slight butterscotch nose and is very rich.  The TNP from Brew Dog rounded out our evening.  The best thing about TNP was the story behind the creation of this beer and its successors Sink the Bismark and End of History which comes to you in a dead squirrel -yep a squirrel.  Please check out their fantastic website for the story.  Overall great night, lots of great beer and great company I think I will be back to participate in the sour beer tasting event.

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