31 October 2018

Pump it!

We're taking a break from exploring Canadian beers in Canada to mark the date. And drink a couple of Canadian beers I brought home with me. Both are from Great Lakes Brewing in Ontario.

The ordinary Pumpkin Ale starts us off, and boy is it ordinary. 5.5% ABV,with the basics of nutmeg and cinnamon, and damn all else. It's thin-bodied and quick finishing, with no fruit character at all. I find it hard to discern what the base beer under the spicing might be; it must be especially bland. A pumpkin beer for people who want their pumpkin beer to taste like pumpkin beer, I guess, but also a prime example of why the style comes in for so much flak.

OK, let's reset. Great Lakes has also produced a pumpkin saison called (sigh) Saison Dupump. I expected this to be a bit more interesting, and I will admit it is, but it's still a very basic saison. The pepper and straw is perfectly typical while the added spices are relatively muted. At 5.2% ABV it's light and crisp and I'm certain it was very tasty before they decided to seasonalise it.

Neither of these have any distinguishing features beyond the raw and obvious pumpkin spices. I guess I'd been hoping for a new an interesting twist on the craft beer cliché, but it seems the market doesn't swing that way, at least it doesn't in Etobicoke, Ontario. These two are very basic. Here's wishing you a better than basic Halloween.

30 October 2018

Toronto: Go!

Our journey ended in Toronto. As Canada's largest city there was plenty to explore, but as usual it was just a skim of the surface over the course of less than a week.

As it happened we were staying just a block away from the Steam Whistle brewery, or at least its original part. It's sited in a photogenic round train shed with a bar in front, extensive event space, and the compact production brewery at the back where now only the draught beer is produced. The tour was fun, as these things go, and offered my first taste of Steam Whistle Pilsner, swigged from a satisfyingly heavy reusable green glass bottle on the way round.

The brewery's gimmick is that this decoction-mashed pils is the only beer they make, and have ever made. The brewery bar, however, offers a choice of filtered and unfiltered versions. A few days after the tour we dropped back to try them side-by-side. It's not a beer to get excited about, in either of its forms. It's a decent pilsner, with that extra fluffy texture I tend to associate with decoction. I found it a little light on the hopping, however, with a very slight plastic tang in the finish. The unfiltered one is a little bitterer, in a good way, but there's not a whole lot of difference between them. Steam Whistle puts on a good show but the product is decidedly average.

Down by the waterfront is another outpost of a Toronto brewing institution: the Amsterdam BrewHouse. The brewery was founded in this neighbourhood in 1986 before expanding to larger facilities elsewhere, then returning downtown to open this vast and barn-like restaurant in 2013. Despite much signage advertising special edition beers, the selection was mostly limited to the core range.

I began with Cruiser, a 4.9% ABV session IPA with Citra and Sorachi Ace hops. This arrived pale gold with a fine white head and tasted beautifully fresh and zingy: sweet lemon curd on a meringue-pie base with gentle sherbet effervescence and a sternly acidic citric kick on the end. It's charming and moreish, exactly as the style should be. Job done.

The squat orange beer next to it is Space Invader IPA. The aroma here is a mix of tropical juice and resinous herbal dankness, showing off the advertised Citra rather well. There's an expected powerful hit of lime in the flavour, as well as a less welcome fried onion vibe. Bright citrus zest finishes it on a lighter, less severe, note. As one gets accustomed to the hops, its base malt becomes a lot more apparent. While far from groundbreaking or otherwise exceptional, this is a very decent American-style IPA. Enough so for my wife to order a second while I went with the sole seasonal on offer.

That was Starke, another pilsner. This one was strangely fruity, opening on peach juice and moving towards banana. Accompanying these was a differently weird mineral or metal tang: limestone and zinc. Just as I was preparing to write it off as too weird, a proper pils-like green bitterness arose, bringing fresh celery and white pepper. The texture is rather heavy and greasy even though the ABV is a relatively modest 5.2%. This one takes a while to unfold but I think it was worth it in the end.

One last restaurant before we start hitting the bars: Fifth Pubhouse, a slightly down-at-heel bar and eatery, chosen out of a desire for something dirty and greasy which it certainly delivered. To drink, Pickup No. 26, yet another pilsner, this time by Thornbury Brewery. Somewhat joyously, there was nothing odd about this one, though the lack of head was disappointing. It has all the chewy white bread and fresh, damp, grassy hops that any Mitteleuropa lager fanatic could want, with no twists or tricks. It was badged as a house beer here and it's ideal for that: a basic, no-thought offer, that happens to be of superb quality.

From one brick-built downtown bar space to another. C'est What? has been a fixture of the Toronto beer scene for as long as I've been paying attention to it. Despite a very central location it's a little hard to find, situated in a roomy but windowless cellar, dark and quiet on the rainy afternoon we landed in.

In addition to the wide selection of assorted Canadian guest beers, C'est What? has its own brand, brewed by local producers. From these I chose Joan's Dark Secret, a dark mild served on cask. It's a deep cola colour with little head and a strangely wine-ish aroma, fortified and raisiny, like Pedro Ximinez sherry. There are raisins in the flavour but they come at the end of a long dry and roasty taste. It's fairly typical of a mild, then. The only flaw was a minor phenolic buzz, slight enough that I couldn't make up my mind on whether it was a smoky seasoning or bleachy line-cleaner. It was easily ignored anyway. Aside from it the beer is light-textured and very drinkable.

The other dark beer, obviously kegged, is C'est What?'s Mocha Porter. This is a wholesome and filling affair: 6% ABV, smelling and tasting of dark chocolate but with a quick clean finish, reminding me of Baltic porter more than the usual warm-fermented type. It's as smooth, rich and creamy as it looks: a perfect sup for a dismal day.

Once we got confident using Toronto's excellent public transport system we started exploring a little further afield. One such stop was Indie Ale House, a brewpub in the north-west of the city. I liked the way the emphasis was very much on their own beers here, with only a couple of token guests on the menu board.

I picked the barrel-aged Indie Table Beer, one of just 3.8% ABV, though I appear