26 October 2018

Arrivals, Departures

Our one daytrip from Montréal took us up the St Lawrence to Québec City. It's a solid three and a half hours by train so obviously I brought train beer: a handsome half-litre bottle of Sour French Kiss by Microbrasserie Charlevoix. Two mouthfuls in, our friendly Via Rail conductor came by to tell me to chug it. Turns out train beer, or at least drinking your own beer on board, is illegal in Canada. Yes it said that on my ticket so yes I should have known, but it's still downright barbarous. No wonder passenger rail is underused. What's the point if you can't have train beer? A quick impression, then: I had bought this thinking it would be something like a Flanders red. Nope. It's very thin and gassy with a carbonic sharpness giving the palate a vigorous scrub. Once that subsides the fruit arrives, and when I say fruit I mean just strawberry, in a concentrated sweet and jammy sort of way. And that's your lot; one of those beers where "sour" means nothing other than "over-attenuated". I can be thankful it didn't turn out to be a complex sipper, I suppose.

Québec is a pretty town with lots of interesting sites, laid out in a very charming French style, complete with mairie and château. About half way through the day it occurred that we should have made a weekend of it. Lunch was in a bistro called Bello which had a house lager called Bière Bello. I've no idea where it's from. It's only 4.5% ABV but is heavy and sweet, offering a spongecake base spiced up with white pepper and chicory in that slightly fusty Germanic way. It's well made and far more interesting than it needs to be.

We nipped into one local brewpub later: L'Inox. It's in that rustic-cabin bare-planks style that seems to be the preferred design mood for Canadian beer bars. I opted for Saison Lilikoï, a 5%-er brewed with passionfruit. The crisp saison dryness is very faint in this, absolutely smothered by the passionfruit juice. It ends up being too neutral a base and the fruit runs riot over the top of it. This is one for people who want their passionfruit beer to taste like passionfruit and not beer.

Guest beer on the day was Davy Jones by Le Corsaire Microbrasserie, just across the river. This is an export-style stout of 5% ABV, appearing dense black with a head the colour of old ivory. A wheaty chocolate aroma leads to further chocolate in the flavour and a creamy smooth texture. A metallic bitter tang in the finish balances it and keeps it from being a total dessert. I see no mention of the use of lactose but it hits the flavour points of a milk stout exactly. A very decent effort overall.

Later, with half an hour to kill before our train back to Montréal, we stopped in at D'Orsay, an uncharacteristically American-style bar, all dark wood and cocktails. I was pleased to find a selection from Unibroue on tap, having missed these since they disappeared from the Irish market almost a decade ago. I picked an unfamiliar one, À Tout Le Monde, a light saison brewed in collaboration with Megadeth, because why not? It's all spices and oranges, a not-very-metal combination of ginger, nutmeg and tangerine with a classy hint of cedar. This manages to be smooth and warming while also juicy and refreshing. Without knowing the style or strength I mistook it for a big tripel; at the strength it's very impressively complex.

I picked up a handful of other Unibroues while I was in Montréal, happy to see the familiar 75cl bottles with exactly the same label design as back in the day. I resisted returning to old favourites to bring you opinions on some new ones.

Éphémère Pomme is a wheat beer flavoured with Granny Smith apples. It pours a crisp golden colour and smells sharply acidic, exactly like real green apples. That continues on tasting: a strong and authentically appley flavour, sweeter than the aroma, like apple jelly or a Mr Kipling bramley pie. There's a smooth wheatiness forming a neutral base, but not invisible: this is definitely a beer rather than an ersatz alcopop. Bright and fresh like a sunny October morning in the orchard, it's very well constructed and classy, entirely without gimmickry.

Presenting, I guess, a negative image to Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly witbier is Noire de Chambly, a dark ale. It's a clean and quite lager-like affair with spicy cola phosphorus and a dark fruit blend of raisin and plum. Only a very slight stickiness indicates the 6.2% ABV. An oily black pepper pop finishes it satisfactorily. I was expecting a stout but got something far more interesting.

I didn't know what I would be getting from the bottle of Raftman I carted all the way to Toronto, since it says no more than it's a smoked ale on the bottle. It poured a murky ochre colour with lots of foam. "Wholesome" is my verdict. It smells and tastes like fresh crusty brown bread. There is precious little smoke and just a faint tang of old world hop fruit. But malt it has in spades: sweet rich grains which almost but don't quite tip over into syrup. At 5.5% ABV it's quite easy going and certainly undemanding: a beer for sharing while your attention is on something else.

I  mentioned on Wednesday another brewery that likes its handsome large bottles: Brasserie Les Trois Mousquetaires. My wife picked the Maibock to bring back to the room. It's not a style I would choose, and this one is a shining example as to why. Though an innocent lemon barley water colour, it is insanely thick and sweet, tasting simultaneously of porridgey wort, boiled sweets and candied popcorn. Yes there's a little nibble from the herbal noble hops but that's brief, coming just ahead of a finish that's pure Sugar Puffs. While well within the style boundaries and probably exactly as the brewer intended, it tastes unfinished to me, and that's despite a full 6.8% ABV.

Though Granville Island is no longer the trailblazing brewery it was 20 years ago I still wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to try its beer the first time I saw it, at Montréal station on the afternoon we departed for Ottawa. Infamous is certainly like an IPA from the olden days. It's a dark copper colour and 6% ABV. Sweet and sticky crystal malt dominates the flavour while a soapy bitterness forms the other side, contrasting without actually balancing it. Overall it's like a failed mutant version of Sierra Nevada pale ale. If that's your bag, go for it.

Other cans acquired and consumed at our lodgings in Ottawa and then Toronto included this one from Muskoka, one of the Canadian breweries whose wares occasionally show up in Europe. Shinnicked Stout is new to me, though. It's coffee-infused and 5.2% ABV, a dark brown colour with a perfect cream coloured head. While there's definite after-dinner filter coffee in the flavour, I got a creamy and boozy dessert vibe: not pastry but not all coffee either. It's just a genuinely tasty, medium-strength, roast-forward stout; balanced and satisfying.

Amsterdam's Boneshaker describes itself as an unfiltered IPA, though that's hardly unique and there are hundreds of IPAs of its hazy deep copper colour in North America alone. It smells zesty: sweet orange pith meeting spicy sandalwood. The ripe orange -- satsuma and mandarin -- is the cornerstone of its flavour, with just an edge of caraway and sesame on the finish. It's all very clean and bright: the 7.1% ABV being very well hidden. Consider also the balancing pine bitterness and a certain weedy dank and you have Canada's neat answer to Sierra Nevada Torpedo. I approve. Isn't it good to know that "unfiltered" doesn't have to mean mucky? More from Amsterdam when we visit their Toronto outlet next week.

Another reddish IPA to follow, IPA 9 from Duggan's: a little bit lighter at 6.2% ABV. This time the aroma is strongly toffee-infused with a hint of red apple. Flavourwise it has the tea-like tannins of a good English bitter and while it's missing any full-on new-world citrus punch, it's at least clean, dry and unsticky. Like many of this sort, especially the stronger ones, it does get a little astringent towards the end. I'd say the ABV needs to be roughly halved for it to work properly.

Pumping the ABV up to 9%, and feeling no shame about it, is Immodest by Nickel Brook. It's a hazy orange colour and smells powerfully of booze and orange cordial, like the vodka mixers I remember from the 1990s. The flavour is an absolutely classic west coast blend of citrus and pine, coupled with big alcohol and finishing on a warming glow. It's a flavour profile I haven't tasted in a while as I think it's thoroughly out of fashion, but which reminds me of Russian River's Pliny the Elder in particular. If you want your DIPA hot, punchy, unsubtle, but with a certain clean and fruity charm, the LCBO has you covered with this.

Chosen by the other half solely for its awesome name, Ransack the Universe is an IPA from Collective Arts which uses Galaxy and Mosaic hops. It's the medium hazy yellow of old-style lemonade and smells both juicy and sharp; mandarin meets lime, but all cool and fresh. The flavour continues this beautiful tropical double act, offering notes of pineapple, guava and mango up front before bringing in a tight and almost astringent bitterness on the end. There's lots on offer for those who think IPAs are best when acting as surrogate juiceboxes, and those who think no punch, no point. My only gripe is a very slight caraway hit on the end but that's minimal. Overall an absolutely benchmark modern IPA.

Enough cans, it's back to the pub next. Find out on Monday what Canada's capital city had in store for us.