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Market finds – beer edition

4 Jun

Twice a month, a good friend of mine does the 5 hour drive from Toronto to Michigan. Before you snicker, please realize that Michigan has a few things that we in Ontario do not have – one of which is a great beer selection.  There’s been a fair amount of coverage about Ontario government’s monopoly and our lack of freedom to choice, and, without getting into the argument, the bottom line is this: a beer lover like me can’t try  many world-class beer or discover some of the award-winning beer our US neighbours are producing.  So average Joe’s like me are reduced to finding a sherpa friend to bring back beer and re-fill my beer cellar.

This is how things usually transpire:  my friend David tells me he’s going to Michigan for a few days. I get over-excited and send him a list of beer to look out for. He calls me at work and I get increasingly excited and end up mumbling “JUST BUY IT ALL!” repeatedly.

David’s cross-border trips have eliminated all of my LCBO and Beer Store purchases. Other than buying directly from breweries like Great Lakes Brewery, I have no need to choose the narrow selection you find at the LCBO.  I have also been reunited with my true beer love: funky/sour beer. *beerswoon!*

De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva,La Trap Oak-aged Quad & Dr Fritz Breim Berliner Weiss

You’re looking at my dream beer. My beer Xanadu, if you will. I present: De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva.  I tried this 11 months ago in Antwerp on my birthday. It was a mouthful of barrel-aged heaven. Imagine an oaky Cherry Coke, but in the form of a slightly sour and delicious beer.  I’ve spent the past 11 months trying to find a way to buy it in Ontario, New York or Michigan.  Its an incredibly hard-to-find Belgian beer that supposedly wasn’t shipped to North America last year.  My heart was broken…until I randomly asked David to see if the supermarket (yes, Ontario, civilized countries sell beer in supermarkets) had it. “They have four bottles and the beer manager just gave me a smile and the ‘thumbs up,'” he said.  I now have a birthday present for the next four years. Thanks, David!

La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged – Batch 6 is a blend of beer aged in New Oak Medium Toast (20%) and White Wine used Oak (80%).  The non-oak aged version of this is available in the LCBO once a year, but apparently, the flavours do not compare.

1809 Berliner Style Weiss was a beer suggested to us by the beer manager. Berliner weisse beer are the sourdough breads of the beer world. This was made with a traditional recipe and it should make a nice summer drink.

Jolly Pumpkin beer

Jolly Pumpkin is one of my favourite US breweries. They use brettanomyces, which is a slow-fermenting wild yeast that results in a funky/sour/tart beer. Think of something between white wine, beer and lemonade. Some people don’t get it, but these are incredibly flavourful and complex beer. Coors Lite, it ain’t.  Not only are these beer delicious, but I use the dregs to inoculate some of my home brews. It works amazingly well.  Some of Jolly Pumpkin beer are aged in oak barrels, giving that delicious toasted, dark, woody flavour.  As you can see from the above selection, Jolly Pumpkin with funk up any style, including stouts and ales (with cacao!!).

Jolly Pumpkin beer

Jolly Pumpkin beer

My panic email to David was about the beer on your left; its a sour, plum ale.  How delicious does that sound! It was released at one grocery chain and limited to 3 bottles per person. Hot damn!  He also found a bottle of their saison, which looks like it will taste and smell delicious.

Mikkeler and Jolly Pumpkin

Mikkeller Monk’s Elixir is a dark Belgian strong ale. I’m going to save this for the winter, since the 10% ABV might be too punchy for a hot summer day.

Leelanau Good Harbour Golden Ale

Leelanau is a Michigan brewery that ages their beer in – you guessed it – oak barrels. The Good Harbor Golden Ale is supposed to be deliciously sour, which makes sense, since oak barrels are a great source for souring yeast. The Whaleback White is supposed to be less tart, but funky nonetheless.  Man, these are sexy looking bottles.

My beer cellar’s full yet again and the pack rat in me has to try to not squirrel all of these delicious beer away.  While sour beer are almost impossible to find in Ontario (you can get Cantillon at Beer Bistro, but be warned about the price), they are part of the new wave of US beer. Sours and funky beer will eventually be brewed in Ontario. Until then, if you find yourself in Michigan, find yourself some Jolly Pumpkin. Chill the hell out of it before opening (or else you’ll need a mop for your floor), poor the beer into a wide-mouthed chalice, let it breathe and warm up and enjoy.


Photos and text by Richard


De Struise Brewery, Oosvleteren, Belgium

6 May

When I planned our Belgium itinerary, it included one West Flanders brewery tour day. Due to brewery logistics, we had one day where we could arrive in Poperinge, rent bikes and head up to Abbey Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren and De Struise Brewery in neighbouring Oosvleteren. The logistics appeared to be quite simple; as long as the weather held up (which is never a guarantee when in Belgium), we would have a few kilometers of biking to take us from one brewery to another.  Logistics, of course, don’t account for drinking a few chalices of strong beer, buying eight bottles of beer and glassware and storing it on the back of your bicycle.  The one thing working in our favour? Belgium is, for the most part, flat as hell.

Biking through Belgian countryside near Westvleteren

Using a hand-drawn tourist board map from the Poperigne tourism office and a series of street signs, we tipsily made our way down seven kilometers of back roads and hop fields to the sleepy town of Oostvleteren.  With some difficulty, we finally found a subtly-marked doorway that lead us to the promise land: De Struise Brewery.

De Struise Brewery, Oostvleteren, Belgium

Located down an alley and in a former school house, De Struise is a subtle brewery that makes not-so-subtle beer. They’ve quickly gained a cult following and have been named one of the world’s top brewers.  Being from Ontario, we never had the chance to try Struise’s beer before going to Oostvleteren and based our visit solely on adventure and reputation. Before we arrived, I emailed Carlo Grootaert, one of the brewers, to see if we can get a tour.

"The classroom" at De Struise Brewery

Before our tasting began, I had to make a bathroom pit stop.  The bathrooms are a (semi)converted old stable!

With my mind and my bladder liberated, I was ready to taste De Struise’s beer.

Carlo Grootaert pouring a beer at De Struise Brewery

Carlo met us upon our arrival and brought us to the classroom.  This wasn’t your typical tour; Carlo talked to us about his beer, gently opening bottle after bottle for us to taste, carefully eying, smelling and tasting his wares.  Behind him was a blackboard that explained (kind of) the brewing process. It was like an alcohol-inspired version of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

blackboard at De Struise Brewery, Oostvleteren, Belgium

The best part about our visit was how casual it was. Here we were, a brewmaster and two Canadian visitors, sitting in an empty classroom, sipping world-class beer and talking about beer.  Two locals popped into the room and, knowing Carlo, told him about a French Trappist brewery they just drove to across the border. Out came a bottle for all of us to taste, and our party of three briefly became a party of five.

Mont-Des-Cats trappist beer (from France)

They brought a bottle of a new trappist beer, Mont des Cats. We split it among the room and, while it wasn’t earth shattering, it was a nice, clean drink.

It was at this tasting that Robin was introduced to one of her favourite beer in the world; Pannepot.  Named after a traditional fishing boat from the De Panne area,  Pannepot was a beer made based on what the brewmaster imagined that his family had brewed in generations past. Its a Belgian strong ale that has the characteristics of a stout without any stouty bitterness.

Pannepot beer being poured

This beer is a real winner. It has nice, chocolately and fig flavours but is incredibly gentle and light on the palate. It has delicious herbal notes of cinnamon and coriander. Its smooth and not overly sweet, but is overly delicious.  If it was available in Toronto, it would be our go-to beer. Its best served slightly below room temperature so the flavours can pop in your mouth.

Pannepeut beer by De Struise Brewery

Next we tried Pannepeut and Roste Jean. Pannepeut is slightly higher in alcohol than Pannepot and is a traditional old monk’s ale. This was a 2007 vintage (yes, you can age some beer very well) and it was interesting to do a horizontal tasting versus Pannepot. Roste Jean (“Red Haired Jean”) is brewed with Westvleteren yeast, so the yeast is what represents the beer.  It has a delicious candy sugar taste to it and was another interesting offering from De Struise.

Roste Jean beer by De Struise brewery

Part of appreciating De Struise’s beer is looking at its beautiful appearance.  Hot damn…this picture’s making me thirsty.

Tasting table at De Struise Brewery

We ended our tasting session before our legs were too wobbly. After all, we still had a 15 km bike ride back to Poperinge and had to protect our backpack full of delicious beer. We weren’t sure what to expect when we arranged to visit De Struise. We ended up leaving there with a great appreciation for their beer and for their bathrooms.  Besides the excellent hospitality, we discovered that De Struise is one of our favourite breweries and look forward to the day when their beer will (somehow) make it into Ontario.

Carlo and the braintrusts at De Struise

Photos by Robin

Text by Richard

Home Brewing: Part 1

14 Jan

In case you haven’t deduced this yet while reading this blog, we both love beer. What we don’t love is the lack of choice at the LCBO and The Beer Store. We’re DIY-ers in many other aspects of our lives, so we decided to start homebrewing. Richard prepared the first batch with his friends: David, an engineer, and Zack of Toronto Brewing who is THE grain and yeast supplier for Toronto’s home brewing community. Zack provides us with yeast, grains and a mill. He lead Richard and David through their first brew, and gave them a recipe for a top notch chocolate stout. Last week, Richard and I tried our hand at our first brew without the training wheels.  Richard decided to make a Belgian single, which is a cloudy, blonde beer which will (hopefully) taste grassy and let the special strain of Belgian yeast stand out in the beer’s flavour profile.

The pilsner malt.

The pilsner malt.

Grinding the grains

Grinding the malt

The pilsner malt, ground.

The pilsner malt, ground.

Our home brewing set-up

Our home brewing set-up

I have to start out by saying that the design for our entire DIY brewing system was David’s pet project.  You don’t need to be an engineer to build a system on your own (though it probably helps), but you do need to be handy. Our system is composed of 3 parts: a mash tun, a brewing pot and a fermenter. A “mash tun” is fancy talk for “a container where you steep your mix of grains in warm water so you can extract the malty goodness needed to make beer.” We used a Coleman’s rectangular cooler and installed a spigot so we could drain the liquid (known as “wort”).  The brewing pot was part of a large turkey fryer kit. This lets us brew outside without stinking up or, in the summer, heating up our house. It also minimizes indoor messes.

Draining the wort

Draining the wort

Adding hops

Adding hops

The wort chiller

The wort chiller

The pipes that the cold water is being pumped through to cool the wort

The pipes that the cold water is being pumped through to cool the wort

After boiling your wort for an hour and adding hops to your boil, you want to cool it immediately and as quickly as possible.  David designed a wort chiller, which is a series of copper coils attached to a pump that feeds water from an ice bath through the copper pipes, which are submerged into your wort.

Aerating the wort

Aerating the wort

Aerating the wort

Doesn't this look disgusting?

Pouring into the carbuoy

Pouring into the carboy

Adding the yeast

Adding the yeast

Once it’s close to room temperature, you pour the wort back and forth between buckets to introduce oxygen, then pour it into a fermentor and add the yeast. We used a glass carboy so we could watch the fermentation process.

After 3 days

After 3 days - The sediment at the top and bottom is hops.



Its fun to watch your beer bubble, burp and ferment in front of your eyes. There’s an air lock on the top that keeps the oxygen out while allowing the gas from the fermentation process to escape. 3 days after we made the beer, there were bubble escaping from the airlock every half a secon and things inside were churning. I think our Belgian yeast friends were gettin’ it on at a VERY rapid pace!  At that point the gas that was coming out of the airlock smelled disgusting. We were pretty concerned about how the beer was going to taste. But after a few more days we smelled again and this time you could smell a bit of sweetness, similar to the smell of bananas. Ten days after the brew date, the beer has a beautiful golden colour to it.  We’re going to rack it (aka, bottle it) next week, and when it’s drinkable I’ll post a “Part 2” with the results!

For a more in-depth explanation of the particulars of home brewing, check out this article.


Photos and Words by Robin