Sunday, 15 January 2017

The labels we loved in 2016

Back in June, Highlander Brewing's Brian Wilson sent me a private
note on Twitter, saying their new beer, Ox Blood Pale Ale, had a label
which was actually a flexi-disc that could be peeled off and played on
your standard turntable. Great idea and kinda fun but who still has a
turntable? Mine has been in my Mom's crawl-space since about 1984.
Have you ever gone to the porcelain throne without your phone and found yourself reading the label of a shampoo bottle? No? Well, lemme give you the Cole's Notes' version of that read. On pretty much every shampoo bottle label, we are told to "lather (or wash), rinse and repeat." Now if you're like me, you're probably thinking, "Why would I wash my hair twice? Is this shampoo so crappy that the first time doesn't take?"

The fact is, no, once is plenty. But if you do it twice, as suggested, you will go through shampoo twice as fast. That necessitates buying more shampoo. Big Shampoo knows that and hopes you buy into their instructions. The problem is since we have all been washing our own hair since the age of, say, eight, suddenly stopping that routine and saying to yourself, "Twice? Wow, that makes much more sense!" is highly unlikely. Perhaps they shouldn't have created a product with the word "sham" built right into it. And gawd knows who came up with "poo" as the big closer but I kinda hope he got at least pistol-whipped.

Now that we are done with both the shamming and pooing of Big Shampoo's misleading labels, let's turn our attention to some craft beer labels that caught my attention in 2016. Truth to tell, I have never seen a beer label that tells me to "pour, drink, repeat." That seems somewhat akin to your doctor saying, "For the best results in staying alive, inhale, exhale, repeat." Some things you just know by instinct.
No mention of beer labels is worthy if it does not include
a Great Lakes Brewery label created by artist Garnett
Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore. And their
Octopus Wants to Fight IPA is a great label. I looked at
their Pompous Ass Pale Ale last time but this one is classic

Back in June, I got a private message on Twitter from Brian Wilson, the brewmaster of Highlander Brewing up there in the tiny cottage town of South River, Ontario. He hush-hush whispered that the brewery would soon be releasing a pale ale where the label was actually a record that could be played on a turntable. I would tell Millennials to Google what a record is, except for the past decade all I've been hearing about is vinyl making a big comeback so presumably they know. Also, talking about the previous existence of vinyl to the younger generation that taught my generation how to download (legally and illegally) music for free seems as pointless as that "repeat" instruction. They have already found their record stores at a hefty discount on the cyber-waves.

But the Highlander beer was called Ox Blood Ale, a 5.4% "summer-style" pale ale while the song, also called Ox Blood was the work of California thrash-metal band Plague Vendor. The beer was released at just six Beer Stores in Toronto so I never got my hands on one. But I have to give the South River gang props for label innovation.
I loved Shillow Brewing's (Toronto) Beer Snob Belgian
Rye Ale's label but when I Google-imaged it, I came
across this photo of a beer lover mimicking that very
label. So I had Beer Bro Stevil St Evil inset the chap
from the label, bottom right, for comparison reasons. 
As for the song? Well, I hear it's quite likely available on the internet.

Moving along, any conversation about great beer labels in Ontario could, in fact, begin and end with artist Garnett Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore, the talented duo behind the cartoon labels that adorn a good many Great Lakes Brewing's bottles and cans. Last year, I honoured their Maniacal Hopshop IPA as the best label of 2015 and said that I wish I knew who created them. Someone instantly buzzed me back on the Twitterverse, identifying Garnett and Fabian. That lead to a separate column just on their artistic collaborations a year ago. In my last column, which looked at potential changes to GLB's much-lauded Tank Ten, I included a picture of their Pompous Ass Pale Ale, which has always cracked me up. Today, I'm throwing Octopus Wants To Fight IPA in the best-label mix-tape. I could go on and on, basically repeating a column I wrote a year ago but these two guys always rise to a very specific challenge - making the can look as good as the beer that's inside it. We are truly not worthy.

Shillow Brewing out of Toronto only has a few beers out of the gate so far but already they've thrown themselves in the clever label sweepstakes.
The artwork on Flying Monkey's Deep Tracks American
Brown Ale nagged at me. I knew I was familiar with the
art styling but could not place it. It took a while - a long
while, actually - but eventually I realized that they had
created a homage to 1960s counter-culture artist Robert
Crumb's work on this comic book. That's a great label.
I had already earmarked the label for their Bitter Waitress Black IPA for inclusion here. That was until I saw their Beer Snob Belgian Rye Ale label and better yet, found an image on Google of a beer lover mimicking the fussy little character on the can as he enjoyed one. That was a true LOL moment for me because that guy nails it! Great label, great beer, great fun.

A Flying Monkeys' (Barrie) label proved to be my biggest challenge here. When I bought their Deep Tracks American Brown Ale, I was buying far more than just the best brown ale you'll have this year. Seriously, try it - at 6.2% and 45 IBU (international bitterness units), this is unlike any brown ale you've had. Toasty caramel on the nose but followed by some tasty Centennial hops on the tongue, it's the answer to the question: What would happen if you brewed a staid brown ale but added west-coast pale ale sensibilities? But there was a bigger question at hand. As I stared relentlessly at the label, I knew the comic book-style artwork looked familiar but for the life of me, I couldn't remember where I had seen it. So I searched. No dusty corner of the Internet was safe. As a comic geek, I knew it was from the distant past but I couldn't figure it out the where and when. Eventually, I struck gold. Well, stumbled ass-backwards across the answer would be more accurate.
And speaking of comic books... Every bottle that comes out
of Collective Arts Brewing had different artwork on each
label. But this bottle of Ransack The Universe Hemisphere
IPA stopped me cold with this crazy cool Spider-Man
theme. British artist Wayne Chisnell of London designed
this one that I dubbed "Picasso on Acid does Spider-Man."

Robert Crumb was a counter-culture artist back in the late-1960s. So a bit before my time as I would have been a little kid reading Spider-Man and Batman comics back then, rather than drug-oriented adult fare. But I remember a stoner buddy having a bunch of Crumb comic books in the 1980s and they were certainly... different. But I remembered the art style. What Flying Monkeys has done, as you can see above, is create a homage to a Crumb cover but added some Canadian touches. On the label, the old blues man playing the harmonica is no longer wandering down some 1930s Mississippi dirt road but up Highway 400 (the dirt road version) towards the brewery. The label is clever and artsy but mostly, it presented me with a bloody tough memory challenge.

As a general consensus over the "cool factor" between myself and former coworker Jay-Dawg, I was going to include 5 Paddles Brewing's awesome skull-centric label for their In Your Face IPA. Except the Whitby brewery out-did that label with two others.
I never got to try this beer and I'm hoping it wasn't a one-off
because I would keep this just for the label alone. Too funny
Not long after the movie, Straight Outta Compton, hit the theatres in the Summer, the boys and girls at 5 Paddles created a huge 8%, 81 IBU brew called Straight Outta Whitby IPA. While the movie poster featured the snarling faces of the five founding members of 1980s rappers NWA (which I believe stands for Nigerians With Attitude), the 5 Paddles label featured the five owners of the brewery - Spencer McCormack, Mike Bray, Ed Woods, JP Tibensky and Ian Mills. They look like pretty happy, non-threatening white suburban males, probably because that's exactly what they are. But 5 Paddles, five owners and five medals at the 2016 Ontario Brewing Awards - this brewery is clearly about mathematical symmetry. And creating funny labels that hop aboard a clever trend when they see one. As you might recall, it was the Summer of "Straight Outta..." everything memes.

The second 5 Paddles label came to my attention after my beer-video-reviewer buddy, Hago Vanayan, posted it on Twitter. I only remember which social media platform because I retweeted it as I laughed.
While this is not Hago's picture, it was his post that
first drew me to this 5 Paddles' Skull Pucker Sour
IPA. I love... love... LOVE this label. Great job, gang
Back to their skull-centric theme, the graphic designers for 5 Paddles created this hilarious one for their Skull Pucker Sour IPA, showing both the skull's reaction to the sour flavour and the brewery's flair for a clever name. When I retweeted it, I told Hago how much I loved the label and he confessed, "That was my face when I drank it." Oh, I remember my face when I tried my first sour - Nickel Brook's Berliner Weisse. And yeah, I made that "baby takes a bite of lemon for the first time" look.

The last labels I'm going to look at today are not glamourous or glitzy but rather a rebranding of a core line-up. Cameron's Brewing out of Oakville was happily selling their Lager, Cream Ale and Auburn Ale in serviceable but somewhat plain packaging during their 20-year lifespan. (Actually, this year is exactly 20 years as founder Cameron Howe created it in 1997.) But like I said, the packaging was somewhat plain. Not that I truly care because I'm all about what's in the bottle, not on the label. Still, this is a column about labels and Cameron's did a damn big revamp last February, recreating their Core Three brews into new packaging with brand new names. And the new look was a beauty that beer lovers applauded.
As well as a new Cameron's Brewing logo, the brewery
rebranded their three main beers last February for this
cool new look with brand-new names attached. Very nice
The Lager became the Captain's Log Lager, the Cream Ale became the Cosmic Cream Ale and my personal favourite, the Auburn Ale became the Ambear Red Ale. The new branding and packaging came with help from Toronto firm, Cactus Designs, and gave each beer a brand new back-story.

That's it for my look-back at the labels I loved this year but I'll probably continue to drop more clever ones in here from time to time. However, with my two Best of 2016 columns followed by the news buzz around both Nickel Brook and Great Lakes Brewing in my last one, it dawns on me that I am miles behind on my actual beer reviews so lots of those next. But remember, if you're feeling down and out, looking to just build a wall around your emotions, you go ahead. As I understand it, Mexico will pay for that wall. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...

Sunday, 8 January 2017

New Year's news from GLB and Nickel Brook

While the Arts and Science Brewery in Hamilton
makes beer for both Collective Arts and Nickel Brook,
we tend to think of it just as Collective Arts' building.
Why? Because it's their retail component. To buy
some Nickel Brook beer, it's a drive to Burlington...
This was supposed to be my loving look back at last year's best labels and while that is coming next, I have a tendency in this little column to get very easily side-tracked. I don't want to say I get side-tracked every moment of every day, mind you. I actually do. I'd just prefer not to say that.

Okay, what the hell was I talking about before that squirrel just ran across my patio? Oh right, hadn't really started.

This story starts back in 2016. All the way back to December 31st. I remember it like it was last week. At the suggestion of my new Beer Store manager, Jeff, I had taken the work days between Christmas and New Years off "to be with your little guy!" I thought that idea was a great one since I got my boy on December 26th so hell yeah, I'll take that week off. (We had a blast that week but that does not pertain to this news alert in any way.)

So, un-side-tracking my way back to New Year's Eve, I figured I better get some beers in my fridge for both that night and January 1st due to some Pagan ritual that sees Canada shut down entirely on the first day of the year. That is except for gas stations, McDonald's and Donny's Bar and Grill (because the owner is a Buddhist and cannot read a calendar.)
As you can see, young Kylie is right (as usual). The Beer
Garden at the Arts and Sciences Brewery has both Nickel
Brook and Collective Arts beers available for your happy
Summer imbibing. That's a whole lotta tasty in one place.

So off to Nickel Brook I drove. After all, if I'm bringing in a New Year, I'm doing it with my homeboys' beer. After an arduous 300-second drive to the brewery (they are that close), I was happily chatting with long-time brewery stalwart Robbie and happy newbie Charles. They told me that some Nickel Brook (administrative) staff had been moving from Burlington to Hamilton into the Arts and Sciences Brewery which houses both Nickel Brook and Collective Arts. Not surprising as the space at the Drury Lane facility is limited but he added a new wrinkle. "We're also setting up a new retail (outlet) there," noted Robbie. Instantly, I panicked and asked if the Burlington brewery was shutting down.
 Not going anywhere and thank God for
that! The Drury Lane Brewery is staying
put and will continue to be a retail outlet
for both Nickel Brook beers and the new
variants coming out of their Funk Lab.

"No, no," Robbie assured me. "This place is staying. We'll just be for sale in two places." That sparked my curiosity since as I understood it, by law, craft breweries are only allowed one retail outlet. "We brew in both places," offered up Charles. "Maybe they have to let us?"

Still uncertain of the legalities, I texted long-time Nickel Brook buddy, Tony Cox, early on New Years Day and asked him simply, "Are you the first craft brewer in Ontario with two retail outlets?" Out of respect for my homeys, I also asked if the news was hush-hush, never to be spoken of... you know, like that nasty-ass Lord Voldemort. (Shout-out to Harry Potter fans there. Go, Gryffindor!)

Tony got back to me within the hour and asked: "What in the blue hell are you doing up so early on New Year's Day? Shouldn't you be hungover?" I saw the New Year in on live-stream from New York City's Times Square with my lad so yeah, I kept it quasi-respectable. But I'm glad true friends care about my often-addled state.

As to the question at hand, Tony noted that Mill Street Brewing has long had a retail outlet in Toronto, as well as another at their brewpub in Ottawa. Of the new Nickel Brook outlet in Hamilton, he offered, "It's in the works." That likely translates into "hog-tied at this exact moment with bureaucratic red tape" but hey, nothing good comes quickly or easily. The Ontario government makes sure of that. (Also, it's been pointed out to me since publishing this that Amsterdam and Bellwoods both have two bottle shops.)
Nickel Brook Brewer Patrick Howell is now in
charge of the newly-created Funk Labs, which
cranks out all manner of wild and crazy beers.

The new retail outlet does make sense, mostly for the reason that young Charles pointed out - Nickel Brook does, in fact, brew both in Burlington and Hamilton. Their regular line-up, including my much-beloved Headstock IPA and Naughty Neighbour American Pale Ale, are now brewed in the much larger vats in Hamilton. That leaves Nickel Brook's Burlington brewery open to create far more esoteric beers (which I'll get to in a second.)

But the thing is, even though I have watched the creation of the jointly-owned Arts and Sciences Brewery over the past three years - from crazy thought to actual reality - I, like many others, only think of Collective Arts when I venture to the plant on Burlington Street in Hamilton. And that's simply because they are the sole retail component. I get my Nickel Brook beer in Burlington, the city, not on Burlington, the street.

When I was at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House recently, I bounced the notion off my favourite beer technician Kylie, as she knows a number of employees at both breweries. She said she had heard "whispers of it" but pointed out that ultimately it makes sense.

As rock group Extreme themselves sang in 2004.
If you don't like... what we're brewing... get the
funk out..." That's some solid advice right there.
"Well, they do sell both Nickel Brook and Collective Arts (beers) at their Beer Garden," she said of the venue first set up at the Hamilton brewery last Summer. "So I can see it."

So with all the first-line Nickel Brook beers being brewed in Hamilton now, what's going on with the Drury Lane brewery these days? Well, back in October, they announced that they had reinvented themselves as The Funk Lab. And that means what exactly? According to the gang of mad scientists and mutant misfits in Burlington, it means they are "dedicated to brewing small-batch funk and sour beers using rare and wild yeast strains." One of them, their Uber Raspberry Berliner, a sour German wheat aged with Canadian raspberries, already copped a gold at the 2016 Canadian Brewing Awards. And they have already made dozen more, many reviewed in this very spot, including the Ceres Cucumber-Lime Gose, the Dreamsicle Orange Vanilla Pale Ale and their biggest bomb-blast to date, the Cafe Del Bastardo Imperial Stout which blended stout and Colombian coffee beans into a bourbon barrel. So explosively tasty, it damn near killed me.

Great Lakes Brewing's Head Brewer Mike Lackey stands in
front of the famous GLB Tank 10. There's some big changes
coming to the tank this year. But so far, the brewery is only
tossing a tease our way. Official announcement is next month.

Several days after they made the Funk Lab announcement, I got a panicked message from Beer Bro Stevil St Evil, all the way down there in Wellington, New Zealand. "Where are you gonna get your growlers of Headstock IPA now? Do you have to drive to Hamilton?" Please understand that when Stevil stayed here for a week in June 2015, he loved all the Canadian craft beers I plunked down on the table but one of his personal favourites was Headstock IPA, fresh from the growler. So I assured him that no, all Nickel Brook products were still available down the street and around the corner from me. Despite the fact that he is 14,000 kilometres (8,750 miles) away, he seemed oddly relieved.

So leaving the "in the works" and "makes sense" speculation surrounding Nickel Brook's possible second retail outlet, let's drive happily east on the QEW (it's a highway named after the Queen of England) until we land in front of 30 Queen Elizabeth Boulevard (apparently a highway wasn't enough for that royal bit... never mind) in Etobicoke, home of Great Lakes Brewing.
My next column is about labels I loved in 2016
but I'm giving GLB a head-start on the others
with this beauty from artist Garnett Gerry and
graphic designer Fabian Skidmore. This label
allowed them last February to put on their sign
out front: "Fresh GLB. Get your Pompous Ass
in here!" Too bad these guys don't have any fun.

On December 30th, just one day before I was picking up my New Year's Eve stash, GLB was making a splash of their own with a video announcement of changes to their Tank Ten series in 2017. (I'll include a link to the announcement at the bottom.) So what's Tank Ten? Well, to Ontario craft beer drinkers, it's the most popular and likely most profitable beer tank in the Province in which we actually know its number. Oh sure, GLB has other tanks of different numerical significance but we couldn't identity any of them, even under police interrogation.
Good Cop: What tank do they use to brew Canuck Pale Ale?
Me: I dunno. I swear. Tank Seven? Tank Four?
Bad Cop: I will kill your goddamn dog!!

As you'll hear in the humourous announcement, some of the previous occupants of Tank 10 will be vacating in 2017. Which ones? Well, they didn't say. So let's go onto their website and check out the previous tenants. There's some beauties in here - Octopus Wants To Fight IPA, Thrust! An IPA, Lake Effects IPA, Miami Weiss Wheat Ale, Miami Weiss White Pale Ale, Karma Citra IPA, Robohop Imperial IPA, Harry Potter and the Bourbon Soaked Vanilla Bean, Audrey Hopburn Belgian IPA, My Bitter Wife IPA, Chill Winston Grisette, Limp Puppet Session IPA, Johnny Simcoe Pale Ale, No Chance With Miranda Saison, Saison Dupump, Citraddiction XPA, Hissyfit Grisette, Long Dong Pilsner, Etobichoker Belgian Double IPA, Apocalypse Later Imperial Black IPA, Harry Porter, Maniacal Hopshop IPA, Life Sentence Triple IPA and Body Dubbel Belgian Ale.
My first beer of 2017? GLB's Bourbon Barrel-Aged
Solstice Imperial Stout. While I had previously said I
would enjoy this beer of the day of Winter Solstice,
December 21st, the shortest day of the year, I got
sidetracked (there it is again) by the Christmas Beer
Store traffic. So I drank it on the shortest day of 2017
(so far), January 1st. That's a New Year's Resolution!

Got all that? Aside from a couple I've never heard of (and would really like to try), I think there's a few more missing from the list. So who's going and who's staying? Well, we don't know. Those marketing teasers and tossers never said. But we'll know in a month or so. Best bet? Every IPA stays put. But that too, like Nickel Brook's second outlet, is purely speculative at this point. We'll have to wait for a few celebrities to die first before they tell us. (Too soon?)

This brings me to my first beer of 2017. Rather than a Headstock IPA, I went off-script and started the New Year with Great Lake's Bourbon Barrel-Aged Solstice Imperial Stout. According to the label, it was brewed on the Vernal Equinox (March 20 - first day of Spring) and then shifted into bourbon barrels on the Summer Solstice (June 20 - longest day of the year). From there, it rested until they tapped into those barrels in December. To that end, I was supposed to drink this Christmas gift from Beer Bro Glenn on the Winter Solstice (December 21st - the shortest day of the year) but Christmas happened, it got forgotten and thus became my first beer of 2017. Whoa, quite a way to start a year. The 11.9% coal-black stout had big blasts of coffee, vanilla and booze on the nose, followed by more coffee, bitterness, bourbon and woodiness on the tongue. A terrific start to the year! "Otay!" as Buckwheat would say, back in a few with those labels I loved. And here's GLB's video announcement here: GLB's Tank Ten Tease! But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Best of 2016 - Part Two

Back in May 2014, it was suggested that super-model
Kate Upton, shown here with late-night TV host Jimmy
Fallon playing Flip Cup, may have helped Brew Ha Ha
reach 10,000 hits because I had earlier included a photo
of her with a beer nestled in her upper region of her

hourglass swimsuit figure. She's quite famous. Turns
out that picture connected to this column was the first
hit if you Google-imaged "Kate Upton and beer" Ooops.
My Google fame was short-lived as the pic is now linked

to some Pinterest account. It was good while it lasted...
Well, something interesting happened yesterday. As some point when I was writing this year's Best of 2016 - Part One column. which was no doubt a fascinating and educational read (My Brain: "Seriously, you just said that? Dude, you're an asshat."), this little horse-and-pony show called Brew Ha Ha crossed 100,000 hits.

Now in terms of beer blogs - or even blogs in general - that's probably small potatoes. I honestly have no idea. But I do know this. If I had 100,000 dollar bills (dollah, dollah bills, y'all) in my bank account, I would be a happy camper. Well, actually, I'm kind of a happy camper already but that's mostly because I don't camp.

Me: "If only there was a way to camp without the outside stuff and potential of bears..."
Morgan Freeman Voice-Over: "Howard Johnson Hotels... for all your camping needs."

The last time I talked about reaching a milestone was the 10,000 hit mark back in May 2014. That was until an eagle-eyed buddy, Joe, pointed out that a Brew Ha Ha column was linked to a Google Image of Kate Upton with a beer propped up in her cleavage. (Don't even try it. I ended up with beer all over me.) I thought that was maybe a bit of a cheat being linked to an Upton pic so I have refrained from using her pictures since then. Oh, I still check her pics out from time to time. Because I have a keen interest in the swimwear industry.
The best mixed pack of 2016 goes to Muskoka Brewing
for their Winter Survival Pack. There's a delicious
lager, cream ale, session IPA, actual IPA (and one of
my favourites), a stout and a Winterweiss. That's a
whole lotta different flavours in one excellent package.

I meant to acknowledge my 25,000th hit here but missed it. And again, I was going to say something about my 50,000th hit but missed it, too. This time, I was paying attention. I told Beer Bro Stevil St Evil earlier in December that I might hit six-digits by Christmas. Meh, I was off by a few days. And lemme tell you this, now that I have crossed that awesome threshold? *Looks around at messy apartment* Yeah, nothing's changed. Same old, same old. My toilet didn't magically clean itself. Oh well.

But I'm not here to talk about my dubious achievements as interesting as I, no doubt, am. (Brain: "Seriously, man, just shut the hell up!") No, I am here to honour all that is good and pure and holy in the Ontario craft beer industry for the year 2016. And when I say "holy," there are no Biblical connections. It's just that there were more than a few beers I drank this year and exclaimed, "Holy shit, that's good!" So the blasphemous version of "holy" because while we might all be Hell-bound, I got my ticket first. So let's jump into Part Two of the Best of 2016, shall we?
I enjoyed the hell out of Collective Arts' 3 X 2  Summer
Mixer with its Hefeweizen, Gose and Papaya Saison. It
was, quite simply, the kind of beers that are meant for dog
days of Summer - all light, all refreshing, all damn good,

Best Mixed Pack: The Muskoka Brewing Winter Survival Pack beat out another mixed pack this year - their Summer Survival Pack, which I had earlier earmarked for this award. What made that Winter pack a tiny bit better? The inclusion of their Shinnicked Stout with its rich infusion of Lumberjack Coffee from local beanery, Muskoka Roastery. Half coffee, half chocolate, all delicious. A great party pack because it has something for everybody, including your drunken, racist Uncle Bob (we all have one), who was passed out in the Lazy Boy two hours before Christmas dinner. More for you! Also, smarten up, Uncle Bob, it's 2016, not 1956. (Previous Winners: Okanagan Spring's Craft Variety Pack, Muskoka Hoptorial Mix-Six.)

Best Summer Sampler: There were a few contenders for this crown, including packs from Mill Street and Cameron's, but in the end, I had to go with the Collective Arts' 3 X 2 Mixed-Six. Why? Because the beers here are absolutely Summer beers! Start with their German-style Hefeweizen, follow that with their light, refreshing Gose and finish up with the best of the three, their Papaya Saison. I bought this six-pack so many times that I probably paid Collective Arts' hydro bill in August.
When Junction Craft Brewing moves to Symes Road this
coming Summer, they can expect to see me as a frequent
visitor. Granted, the fact that they are a stone's throw from
Rainhard Brewing and Shacklands Brewing doesn't hurt.

Best Specialty Wheat: I didn't include this in yesterday's Best of 2016 list because it's a little off the beaten trail. But what would happen if you mixed a red ale with a German wheat? Well, Junction Craft Brewing's Olympia Looping Red Wheat kind of answers that question. Like a good wheat, there's banana and a whiff of bubble-gum on the nose while on the tongue, the 5%, 18 IBU (international bitterness units) ruby-red treat is tangy apple, fruity and dry. Combining a red ale and wheat made this the world's most perfect Autumn beer. The best season of all now has a complementary beer. Excellent job.

Best Fruit Beer: I have never honoured a fruit beer before because, frankly, most of them are gross. Far too sweet for my liking. But every once upon a blue moon, someone gets it right. That was the case with Wellington Brewing's Rhubarb Saison. Rather than sweet, it was tart. A little spice on the nose with no discernable fruit, the 5% beer had light rhubarb on the tongue but with a really nice dry finish. How about that? Morgan Freeman Voiceover: "Rhubarb: It's not just for pie anymore."
There are lagers and then there was this. Lake of Bays took an
 amber lager and decided to oak-age it. What was the outcome?
Well, you're reading about it here so it must be pretty damn good.

Best Specialty Lager: Let's be honest here. Lagers are a perfectly safe style. Yes, they can be goosed nicely as I noted yesterday but it's seriously tough to really jazz them up. Well, then, trust my favourite Baysville, Ontario brewery to give it the old college try. I should say "try and succeed" because their Lake of Bays' Stamp Hammer Oak Aged Amber Lager was a little slice of small batch goodness. There was a deceptive note of sweetness on the nose that initially spooked me but on the first sip, I knew this 6.5%, 20 IBU lager was cut from a different cloth. Both fruity and tangy on the tongue, the oak doesn't come through until about the halfway point. And when it does, you go full Matthew McConaughy, smile a little, sit back in your patio chair and simply say, "Well, alright, alright, alright..." Frankly, nobody makes specialty beers quite like Lake of Bays. I am constantly on the look-out for any new singles they release because they always bring the Funky Cold Medina.
Witness, if you will, in the full majesty of this Paul The
Beer Guy photo, the glory that was Old Tomorrow's
Monty's Golden Ryed Ale. Aged in ryed oak, this was a
full-flavoured deeply rich ale with a whole lotta kick.

Best Specialty Ale: To be honest, I was leery of this, simply because it was aged in used rye (Canadian Whiskey) barrels. I actually hate rye. So I bought a bomber of Old Tomorrow's Monty's Golden Ryed Ale more as a measure of support to the young brewery rather than anything else. And it sat there in my fridge... for quite a while. Then one day as I was, no doubt, buoyed by a few tasty IPAs, I thought, "Well, how bad can it be?" and cracked it open. I noticed a little rye on the nose because to a beer drinker, that's a particularly distinct and not all-together pleasant odour. So with some trepidation, I took a sip of this 5.2% ale and was surprised with the smoothness. You do notice the wood instantly on the tongue and the rye influence is subtle at best, giving it a, well, earthy taste. This was unlike any ale I had in 2016. Had the rye influence been any stronger, I probably would not have enjoyed this but man, it was just right. In the end, I bought a few more because I really enjoyed it. To be frank, I could not drink these all afternoon, despite the low ABV. It's firmly in the ranks of a "once in a while" beer. But it was the one that surprised me the most... well, that is until I get to a wine barrel aged sour beer further down.
Three similar styles and three great tastes. Here's an IPA, Extra Pale Ale
and Session IPA from Collective Arts, all three of which are strong beers.
But put them together? Now you got yourself an excellence Triple Play... 

Best Triple-Play: The Best Triple play goes to a brewery with the best three beers of a similar style. Last year, it went to a brewery's pale ale, IPA and Imperial IPA. This year, we're gonna veer off that script slightly and give it to Collective Art's troika of the solid State of Mind Session IPA, their outstanding Rhyme & Reason Extra Pale Ale and their Ransack the Universe IPA, which will pop up later. Hell, you could throw their outstanding Black IPA into the mix and call this tandem a Fab Four. (Previous Winner: Nickel Brook's Naughty Neighbour APA, Headstock IPA and Immodest Imperial IPA.)

Best Collaborative Beer: While I have been keeping this all within Ontario's border, I did mention yesterday that a couple would go beyond this Province.
I shared the Canada Coast to Coastless Imperial ESB with
Beer Bro Glenn one afternoon when he popped by. Neither
of us could believe the flavour that came out of this bomber.
After meeting at the 2014 Canadian Brewing Awards in Fredericton, New Brunswick, respective brewers from Ontario's Flying Monkeys, Nova Scotia's Garrison Brewing, Quebec's Trou du Diable and BC's Philips Brewing decided to collaborate on a beer or as they called it, a Quad-Laboration. To that end, they decided to create a high-test English Special Bitter that they called Canada Coast to Coastless Imperial ESB. But this was not your traditional British ESB. No, at 7.6% and 50 IBUs, the four breweries, which all made their own batches, using identical ingredients, created something far beyond a regular ESB. While the hops used vary from report to report, they were definitely there as this fairly burst with flavour. Mine came from the good folks at Flying Monkeys and was shared with Bro Bro Glenn during one of his visits to Donny Bar and Grill. He, in turn, reviewed it on RateBeer, giving it an impressive 17/20 (I would have turned that dial up to 19) and noted that it "poured an impressive dark red with a thick and creamy head. Lots of semi-sweet malts on the nose with a little plum, some caramel and a little bit of sweetness on the tongue. Hoppy as well."
This is an actual photo of Unfiltered Brewing
top-dog Greg Nash. During a recent trip to
Halifax, I had the opportunity to try three of
his IPAs, the highlight of my trip. Well, I
guess the wedding of my niece was big, too.

The Beast Of The East; The Best Of The West: Okay, a quick peek beyond our provincial borders for the next two. Let's start out in BC and look at the beauty made by Driftwood Brewing from Victoria that regularly adorns the shelves of our local LCBOs. That would be their Fat Tug IPA, a big favourite of Beer Bro Glenn and coworker Jonny. Well, throw me in the Fat Tug Fan Club (wait - this isn't some weird prison thing, is it?) because on occasion, I overlook my guilt at not buying Ontario beer and grab myself a couple off the shelf. Hey, at $6/bomber, it's a steal. Five different hops goose the jungle juice, which features notes of grapefruit, mango and melon. At 7% and 80 IBUs, this bright orange brew curls your toes with big taste. And for some beers I do not feel guilt over, let's look to Unfiltered Brewing in Halifax. You will not find any of Greg Nash's dynamite IPAs on the LCBO shelves. Nor will you find them on the shelves of the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. Nope, the only place you can get the goods is to visit the brewery at 6041 North Street. It is available exactly two ways - at the brewery bar or in one and two-litre growlers for take-away. While in town, I had a chance to try his 7% Riddle of Steel IPA (very good), his 8%, 100 IBU Twelve Years to Zion Imperial IPA (exceptionally good) and his 7.5%, 100+ IBU Double Orange Double IPA (OMFG!) Bursting with Citra hops, the Double Orange is one of the best IPAs I have ever had. Orange, citrus, the kitchen sink - you name it because it had everything. This beer was, indeed, the Beast of the East. As I told the kid at Walmart who was looking for the Arnold Schwarzenegger action figure, "Aisle B, Back."
You see this nice lady holding a Side Launch
Wheat? Her name is Garnet Pratt Siddall and
she is a good person who did a good thing even
though it was a costly decision. Cheers, Garnet!

Best Childhood Memory Beer: I'll be honest. I thought the Nickel Brook Dreamsicle Orange Vanilla Pale Ale wouldn't fly - too gimmicky. But again, I support my locals so I grabbed one. Created out of the brewery's Funk Labs under the watchful eye of Funkmaster General Patrick Howell, I thought it would be sweet and, well, nasty. But I was hugely surprised when it turned out to be tart and tangy. The 4.1%, 25 IBU bright orange brew had some orange and vanilla on the tongue but it was subtle and fun. As Patrick himself said, "This beer is my childhood summer memories in liquid form. Eating a melting popsicle on the front porch on a warm Summer night - that was the idea we had when designing this beer." It was tart, fun and well, funky. Great job.

The Buck Stops Here Award: Here's where we give credit where credit is due. When a taste panel at Side Launch Brewing in Collingwood found a few batches of Side Launch Wheat could spoil if improperly stored, brewery president Garnet Pratt Siddall made a hard choice and recalled three separate batches made in July. Within a few weeks, there were fresh batches on the liquor store shelves but for a while, the brewery was awash in bright yellow cans that were recalled. It was not an inexpensive hit. But man, it was a brave move and it was the right move. You are only as good as your reputation and with that recall decision, they only added to their good name. Cheers to Side Launch!
Here's our choices for Best Sours this year. On the left is
mine,  Bellwoods Motley Cru 2016 and the right is Jay's
choice, his very much-beloved Bellwoods Jelly King. To be
perfectly honest here, I forget which one is in the glass. 

Best Sour Beer(s): This is another category where I am ably assisted by my former coworker, Jay-Dawg. I'll start first because of... "it's my blog" reasons. When I was gifted by Rib Eye Jack's Ale House's GM Steve with a Bellwoods' Motley Cru 2016, I had no idea how prized the beer was. While Jay-Dawg is happily splashing in the middle of the Sour Pond, loving the style, I am still dipping my toes in at the edge like the coward I am. I'm still not sure what to make of the style but brewers are putting a lot of time and effort into it so I pay attention. Now the Motley Cru is an open fermentation beer that uses no regular yeast. How is that possible, you ask? Well, the beer is mixed with Gewurztrammer grape must - must being the pulp, seeds and skin of the grapes. Apparently, the wild yeast on the grape skins do the job. This year's, Motley Cru was aged in French oak barrels from Tawse Winery (Vineland, Ontario) for two years and then blended with a sour ale that had been barrel-aged for the same length of time. So how was the end result of the 8% sour? Tart as hell with some white wine notes (obviously) with some really nice apple and woodiness on the tongue.
Nickel Brook's Cafe Del Bastardo had a huge
blast of coffee the minute I popped the waxed
cap. It was so pungent that I put away my beer
glass and poured it into my Marvel Superhero
coffee mug. I'm using this picture instead to
show you the deep colour of this imperial stout
Three years in the making, this was a taste like I have never have before and would gladly have again. The only problem is finding it. Once a year release and it does not last long. They made 5,200 bottles this year - the most ever - and apparently, it was still gone in record time. This beer was also my beer writing buddy Drunk Polkaroo's 1,000th review on Untappd.

Now moving from the hard-to-get beer over to what is clearly their most popular and far more readily-available sour, Jay's choice was Bellwoods' Jelly King. Seriously, as soon as he had his first Jelly King, Jay could not stop raving about it. He was all, "Jelly King this, Jelly King that, Jelly King rules and I forgot to put on socks because Jelly King." To me, the 5.6% sour was quite tasty (not in the same league as Motley Cru though I suspect few are) with a mouth-puckering citrus finish. due to dry-hopping with Citra. I can easily see why Jay would pick this one as his favourite sour of the year. When it comes to sours, I defer to Jay and Drunk Polkaroo. They know their sour stuff.

Best Coffee-Infused Beer: This is a brand new category in this catch-all, wrap-up-for-2016 column (I did all the traditional styles yesterday) because it involves my two favourite liquids - coffee and beer. Some would say those are the only two liquids I ingest. And they would be right. I get the water necessary for humans to stay alive from both. *Checks pulse* I'm fine, thanks for asking.
In this award-winning photograph from Paul The Beer Guy, we see young
Taylor manning the bar at Brock Street Brewing on Hopkins Street in
Whitby. She's just one reason the brewery is the Spirit of Craft Beer 2016.
This one was an easy pick as Nickel Brook's Funk Lab cranked out one called Cafe Del Bastardo. When I opened it, there was so much coffee aroma that it filled my kitchen instantly. And I hadn't even poured it yet. Okay, so what is this miracle of blended coffee and beer that Funkmaster General Patrick and his brew crew created? First, they got their grubby mitts on a crap-ton of coffee, supplied by Detour Roasters from Los Idolos, Colombia. So you know, real coffee!  So they took these coffee beans and put them in Kentucky bourbon barrels with Nickel Brook's Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout - the same recipe as their Kentucky Bastard Imperial Stout... but with coffee! Oh, good gravy, this was outstanding. Probably the biggest taste of the year. At 12% and 70 IBUs, there was (duh) coffee and bourbon on the nose with more coffee, bourbon, vanilla and chocolate on the tongue. I wish I had saved this for... well, today, to be honest. Just insanely delicious.
REBUTTAL OF THE YEAR: When I had a laugh at the
fact that artist Garnett Gerry had drawn beloved character
Roland Baggetts wearing socks with sandals on the label
of the Great Lake Brewing's Sunnyside Session IPA, their
social media man, Troy Burtch, fired back this photo on
Twitter near instantly. Don't lie, guys. We've all done this.

The Spirit Of Craft Beer: This is the part of the assembly where we heap praise on a brewery for being, well, fun. And this year, Brock Street Brewing checked off all the boxes for us. While I had been creeping harmlessly following them on social media since they opened in 2015, my first connection with the brewery, located five minutes away from my buddy, Johnny, in Whitby, was back on January 30th. I remember it like it was 11 months ago. The second annual Burlington Winter Beer Festival was being held at the Holiday Inn that's exactly a $17 cab ride away from where I live. One of the booths there was being run by Brock Street dudes Andrew and Phil. They had a miniature 30-inch ping-pong table and were challenging all comers. All I heard coming from that booth was laughter and good-natured trash-talking from both the guys and the drinking public. Then they got a miniature pool table and called me out on Facebook to try my luck. I finally visited the brewery in July and seeing my son, David, peeking in the back, sweetheart server Taylor asked if he wanted to check out the shiny equipment. He was in the back before I could even ask him.
According to my receipts, I have drank more
of Collective Arts' Ransack The Universe
Hemisphere IPA than any other single beer
this year. Good thing it's super-tasty or that kind
of devotion would seriously suck for me personally.
Because they love their customers as much as they love their beer, Brock Street Brewing is the 2016 recipient of the Spirit of Craft Beer award. You guys make me proud of the folks who make our craft beer. (Previous Winner: Longslice Brewing.)

Beer Of The Year (aka The Wingman Award): Well, there's always that one beer that grabs me by the throat and utters, "Say Uncle, dammit." This year, that was Collective Arts' Ransack the Universe Hemisphere IPA. Loaded with Galaxy hops from Myrtleford, Australia and Mosiac hops from Yakima, Washington, this 6.8%, 85 IBU hop monster is all tropical fruits, mango and citrus on the nose and tongue. But it was also that sneaky voice on my shoulder. If a lady liked a photo of mine on Facebook, Ransack was there, whispering in my ear, "Dude, wake up! She totally wants you!" If someone posted a political view that I disagreed with but ignored, Ransack was there to tell me, "Argue with him! People love their political views being challenged! Don't be a wuss!" It was my best buddy this year and the bromance will continue long into 2017. The year's best. (Previous Winner: Muskoka Mad Tom IPA.) 

But folks, that's a wrap on 2016. I'll be back just into the new year with a look at the labels we loved this year... and much much more. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next year, I remain...

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Best of 2016 - Part 1

When I pester people to drink locally, this is
what I mean - Ontario Craft Beer. Yeah, sure,
Nickel Brook, right around the corner from me
in Burlington, may see more of me than others
but when I shop, it's Ontario-wide craft beers!
Well, another year is done and true to the way 2016 has gone so far, celebrity deaths did not end at Christmas. It's almost like we can expect a few more right up until 11:59 pm on December 31st.

I took my son over to my life-long buddy Dave's house for a post-Christmas dinner with his lady, Joann, the other night and we were talking about this. Eventually, we came up with a joint conclusion. We decided that as far as celebrities and musicians go, we didn't believe that more left us this year than normal. No, our theory is that the people we lost this year simply mean more to our generations - the Baby Boomers and the Gen-Xers. Artists like Prince, George Michael, David Bowie and Glenn Frey, actors such as Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke and Garry Shandling, as well as sports legends Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe - these people all loomed much larger in our generations' lives.

This is probably how our parents felt when icons like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby shuffled off this mortal coil, though I don't believe our folks' generation ever put quite the same stock in celebrity as we do. But to us, the people we idolized in our youth and into our adulthood simply seem too young to die. But that's not the way things work. So for all those who decried 2016 as the worst year ever, all I can say is, "Buckle up!" Because right now, 2017 is ready to hop behind the wheel with the phone in one hand, a beer in the other, texting his bros and going 90. It'll probably be just as ugly.
First on deck from one of my all-time favourite
breweries is Cameron's and their outstanding 12
Mile India Pale Lage
r. Just as delicious as hell...

Okay, using that awful segue from celebrity deaths to beer, let's move to the much cheerier of the latter since this was an outstanding year for craft beer. Having previously done these year-end, best-of lists from 2013 to 2015, I have always kept my list to only Canadian beers. Why? *Looks outside at last night's fresh mounds of snow* Well, because apparently, I've chosen to live in this Arctic Tundra. And there have been some great Canadian beers on the previous three lists. But this year, I'm getting even more exclusionary. My list's boundaries are now those of Ontario's.

You see, I am always thumping my chest and once I stop coughing, I say loudly, "Goddammit all to hell, drink locally, people!" That's important to me. When you meet people like Nickel Brook owner John Romano, Muskoka sales rep Vince Cusick or Lake of Bays sale rep Tim Glazin (among the many others I have met over the years), you learn quickly how much your support is appreciated. There is no sense of entitlement on their end. They want to earn your patronage - and they do. So I'm sorry, Quebec and the Maritimes, apologies to the Prairie provinces and BC but this year, I'm going all-Ontario with this bitch.

Even though Lake Wilcon Brewing changed the label
for their iaugural beer, Mad Quaker, from the design
on the left to the one on the right, I was thrilled with the
original for one reason. I'm colourblind and yet when I
asked a coworker if the can was purple, it turned out
against long odds that I was correct!!! That meant a lot.
Aside from the boundary changes and some expanded categories, there are only two other rules. Rule 1) No previous winners. And Rule 2) Shit, I think I miscounted because that's it. I already mentioned the Ontario thing. Okay, gang, let's... get... reeeady... to rumble!!!! Previous winners are listed in bold italic at the end of each.

Best Pale/Blonde Lager: You may notice there is only one previous winner in this new category. The reason is simple. When it comes to lagers, I like mine dirtier than that hard-to-reach part on the rear of the toilet with the two ceramic bolt covers that guys only clean if a woman is coming over. So yeah, that dirty! But I had some great lighter-hued lagers this year because damn, you guys are getting good at this. But none surpassed Cameron's Brewing's 12 Mile India Pale Lager. Brand new to the brewery this year and frankly one that should be available to the beer-drinking public year round (Did I say that loudly enough? You heard that, Cameron's?), this 5.2% brew combined the best of two styles with some great light fruit and citrus on the nose followed by both bitterness and graininess on the tongue. Frankly, this was one of the best new beers from an older house that I enjoyed this year. Just excellent, gang. (Previous Winner: Hogsback Brewing Vintage Lager.)
"Yay, this pilsner came late in the fight," says Thor, "but by
Odin's beard, I only back the mightiest of allies!" Which is
exactly the situation when Rainhard's Unfiltered Pilsner
landed in my glass two weeks ago and ended up being the
best Pilsner of 2016. Years have 12 months so it happens...

Best Amber/Dark Lager: Lake Wilcox Brewing, which recently opened their own brewery in Vaughan, Ontario, came flying out of the gate this year with their Mad Quacker Amber Lager. Originally contract-brewed out of Railway City in St. Thomas, their inaugural beer was a sessionable 4.7% with dark fruit and breadiness on the nose with a thicker caramel and toffee finish on the tongue. Heavy-duty and damn delicious! This is why I like them dark and dirty. It's like rare prime rib to a carnivore - it's something to bite into! This brewery started off perfectly and appears to be headed further on that same trajectory. (Previous winners: King Brewing Dark Lager, Mill Street 100th Meridian Amber Organic Lager.)

Best Pilsner: Now here's a category about which I feel somewhat badly. You see, I had a winner slotted in this spot way back in April and no one knocked it off its lofty throne. Many contenders came over 2016 but none could beat it. It was free and clear. Until just two short weeks ago when I popped into Rainhard Brewing for some fresh beers and a glass. Suddenly, a newcomer had brashly, brazenly knocked the crown off the king.
Is it a Saison? Is it a Farmhouse Ale? Well, actually, it's
both and it's also the best Saison I had in 2016. Kudos to
the Collingwood Brewery gang for this exceptional beer.
Yup, the Rainhard Unfiltered Pilsner ended up being the best one I had this year. Pale but hazy in the glass (because unfiltered rocks the house), there was absolutely grassy maltiness on the nose but the 4.9%, 35 IBU (international bitterness units) brew surprised the hell out of me on the tongue. A quick hop punch and some citrus made this light-to-medium bodied beer a lot more in the glass (my brand new Rainhard glass, I should say) than your average pilsner. But then I've long since learned that nothing brewer Jordan Rainhard does is average. This is a brewer on a mission and we, the beer-lovers, get the spoils of his journey. That works for me. Great job, Jordan and hold tight - you're back to this little party quite soon. (Previous winners: Steam Whistle Pilsner, Steamworks Pilsner and Black Oaks Epiphany No. 2 Imperial Pilsner.)

Best Saison: Man, I had a lot of saisons this year which is remarkable because that style used to be much lower on my list of priorities. But this year saw a banner crop of them and I jumped in. This year's winner, Collingwood Brewery's Saison Farmhouse Ale, comes with a back story. One day, I was making my lunch prior to a late shift and I was scanning my fridge for a nice, light beer to pair with it.
I love this Drunk Polkaroo's picture of Side Launch
Wheat, this year's Best German-Style Wheat. But I
love this delicious beer even more. Banana goodness!
I spotted this one and thought, "Perfect." Except as soon as I cracked it open, there was a WTF moment. The smell was too deep and rich for a saison. Checking the ABV, I realized that I was enjoying a 7% beer before going to work. (Not recommended at all.) But since I was committed to it at that point, I drank it for King and country. Oh man, thick aroma of tropical fruit with some light sweetness on the tongue followed by a bitter bite. This was one heavy-duty saison and I loved it. These guys also make a great pale ale and ESB. Great work. (Previous Winners: Nickel Brook-Sawdust City 11-05 Imperial Saison, Four Winds Brewing Saison.)

Best German-Style Wheat: It is an absolute privilege this year to name Side Launch Wheat as the best in this always-tough-to-pick category. Back in the Summer, the brewery made the tough decision to recall three batches of this beer, simply because they were worried if it was improperly stored, it might not be 100%. That prompted me and Beer Writing pal Drunk Polkaroo to create a #stepupforsidelaunch social media campaign to show our support for this Collingwood brewery. However, as far back as March, I already had this slotted as best wheat.
Aside from a very clever name, Railway City's The
"Witty" Traveller Pint is a damn tasty beer. It is also
the first winner of my Belgian Wit category here.
This beer came to the brewery several years back from the original recipe for Denison's Weissbier (as did Denison's Dunkel, renamed Side Launch Dark Lager, also one of my favourites.) The Bavarian-style 5.3% beauty is all banana and cloves on the nose with coriander, more banana and light yeast on the tongue. I'm surprised it took this long for me to choose it. More on our Collingwood friends tomorrow so stay tuned. (Previous Winners: Creemore Hoppy Hefeweizen, All Or Nothing Hopfenweisse and Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Wheat.)

Best Belgian-Style Wit: Well, what can I tell Railway Brewing out of St Thomas, Ontario, other than the fact they are the first winner in this category? That's because every year, I would opt for a German wheat over the Belgian style simply because I prefer those. But I recognized that's not fair so, hey, new category this year! And I chose Railway City's The "Witty" Traveller Pint as the inaugural winner. 
Way back, the tiny town of Blyth, Ontario was
named Drummond. But in 1855, some British
dude named Blyth bought the whole town up
and renamed it after himself. But he never
once made the trip overseas to visit his new
namesake community and so Cowbell Brewing
named their first ever beer, Absent Landlord.
As expected, from the Belgian yeast, this 4.5% brew adds some spiciness on the nose along with the banana with some pepper and bubble-gum on the tongue. I will always prefer the German style but top-notch beers like this are bringing me a little more onside with Belgian Wits. Excellent effort equals excellent result. Well done.

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch - Part One: As I mentioned a couple of columns back, I feel badly that I've never honoured the lagered-ale Kolsch style in the past hence it is named after Ontario's biggest and best, Beau's Lug Tread. And you'll see the reason for the "Part One" shortly. While I have always maintained that pale ales are the best crossover from macro to craft beers, lagered ales are an equally friendly style to achieve that. And my favourite this year was the brand new Cowbell Brewing Absent Landlord Country Kolsch. I was stunned to see this checked in at just 18 IBUs as it has a lovely bitterness on the tongue. At 5.3%, this is lightly spicy (Belgian yeast?) with some caramel on the nose with some hop punch and tartness on the tongue. Like Lake Wilcox before it, Cowbell came out at the first bell swinging. And as we speak, Cowbell is busy building a massive brewery, slated to open in the Summer of 2017, with indoor-outdoor seating for 216 visitors and an outdoor venue for entertainment, sports and children's use.
There can be no question that Old Tomorrow's
Track 85 Lagered Ale, named after the final
section of railway track being laid in 1885 to link
Canada coast-to-coast, is definitely one of this
year's best Kolsch beers. Old Tomorrow rocks!
What an addition to Blyth this brewery will be.

The Beau's Lug Tread Honourary Best Kolsch - Part Two: I'm not doing this category twice because I've neglected it in the past. Well, maybe a little. No, I'm doing this twice because former co-worker Jay-Dawg vehemently insisted that if I picked any Kolsch except for Old Tomorrow's Track 85 Lagered Ale, I was just plain wrong. "This is the best Kolsch I've ever had in my life!" he insisted. And he's not incorrect as it's certainly one of the best I've enjoyed this year. But I had my choice so here's his. Some toasty malts and caramel on the nose, the 4.5% beer has a herbal and fruity finish on the tongue. A very different beer than Cowbell's but a damn good one. Jay will have some input into tomorrow's sour beers selection, as well, because that's what friends are for.

Best Blonde Ale: Here's another first-time category, simply because amber and dark ales were taking Best Ale every year thus far. So in the name of fairness, I added this because there's some damn fine blonde ales out there that were being neglected, simply because I like my ales dark. And this is a joint choice between myself and Jay-Dawg because we both loved the Lake of Bays Summer Sunset Session Ale. At just 4.5%, this would qualify as the Best Session Ale but I slotted here instead. Some light citrus on the nose with grassiness and lemon on the tongue, this was as refreshing as hell. Loved it!
Aside from the outstanding label created by both artist
Garnett Gerry and graphic designer Fabian Skidmore,
this was just a fantastic session IPA, not to mention the
second time Great Lakes Brewing has won this category.

Best Amber-Dark Ale: Okay, the first two-time brewery winner on today's and tomorrow's Best Of 2016 lists but certainly not the last. Once again, Cowbell Brewing stepped up huge with their Doc Perdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale. Again, a beer I had very late in the year that snatched the win away from another established red ale, I felt I had little choice. This was just too damn tasty. At 5.5% and roughly 40-45 IBUs, this one had both the caramel of a red and the citrus of a west coast pale ale on the nose while following through on the tongue with a deep, rich and hoppy finish. It take two of the styles I love - red ales and west coast pale ales - and blended them perfectly. (Previous winners: Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale and Wellington Terrestrial India Brown Ale.)

Best Session/Light Beer: Again a choice with which I know Jay-Dawg will agree, the best session beer I had this year - hands down - was Great Lakes Brewing's Sunnyside Session IPA. At just 3.9% and 25 IBUs (Seriously? It tastes way hoppier than that), it poured a beautiful hazy gold with nothing but citrus on the nose.
When Beer Bro Glenn and I recently visited Rainhard
Brewing in West Toronto, we both walked out with a
six-pack of Armed 'N Citra as it had a sale price for
the sixer. Didn't have to ask us twice with this beer.
At first, I got some some lemon on the tongue but a few sips later, pineapple also popped up. You could pound this delicious treat all afternoon and still operate heavy machinery... but probably shouldn't. (Legal disclaimer: Back away from the backhoe, asshat!) But man, if you want to make it to the end of the Maple Leaf game, here's the one for you! (Previous Winners: Flying Monkeys Genius of Suburbia India Style Session Ale, Great Lakes Citradiction Extra Pale Ale.)

Best Pale Ale: Frankly, I'm a little shocked and appalled that I haven't chosen this one in the past. I should probably punish myself by drinking a bunch more soon. That seems only fitting. No, don't try to stop me! I have to atone for my sins. That said, my second two-time brewery win of this two-day extravaganza goes to Rainhard Brewing's Armed 'N Citra Pale Ale. This 5,2%, 45 IBU single hop west coast pale ale has tons of citrus and tropical fruit on the nose. When I started my Best of 2016 list back in late-February, this was the first beer on the list. Nothing knocked it off because nothing could. It's just too good to beat. (Previous Winners: Spearhead's Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, Cameron's California Sunshine APA and Sawdust City's Golden Beach Pale Ale.)
Junction Craft Brewing's Engineer's IPA has that British
malt on the first few sips and then suddenly, the hops pop
through on the tongue. Very deceptive, this beer. And tasty.

Best British-Style IPA: I added this style last year to give it a nod and frankly, I found a great one. Well, here's another great one - Junction Craft Brewing's Engineer IPA. Yes, it's heavily-malted on the nose and tongue... at first. At 6.2% and 59 IBUs, there's also a bit of citrus on the nose while the tongue remains all malty caramel. But about halfway through, all of a sudden, pineapple pops up and within seconds, there's some hoppiness on display. This is a sneaky beer and I love a beer that can surprise me and give me something new further into the glass. More from this brewery tomorrow. (Previous Winner: Longslice Brewing Hopsta La Vista IPA.)
Because Great Lakes Brewing suffers an embarrassing
abundance of riches in the IPA category, I have actually
had to give them their own category so others can win...

Best Great Lakes Brewery's India Pale Ale: Well, here's a wonderful problem to have. Great Lakes Head Brewer Mike Lackey has pumped out so many outstanding IPAs from his legendary Tank Ten that frankly, GLB could win the next six Best IPA titles easily. Last year, my Best IPA was Octopus Wants To Fight but it beat out other GLB offerings, Thrust! An IPA, Karma Citra and Maniacal Hopshop. That's not even mentioning My Bitter Wife and Lake Effects. That he cranks out so many outstanding IPAs out of one tank over the years has left me in a bit of a quandry, one that Drunk Polkaroo feels as well. So congratulations and damn you all to hell, Mr. Lackey, as you now have your own IPA category, just so other breweries can win too. Oh and this is now the third brewery double win of the next two days as Thrust! An IPA gets the nod this year. Beer Bro Glenn may want to throttle me for this because Karma Citra would be his choice but this 6.5%, 72 IBU bomb-blast of hops has tons of grapefruit and mango on the nose which is followed by a huge blast of resin and tropical fruit on the tongue. So good, it's frankly unfair. (Previous Winner: GLB Octopus Wants To Fight IPA.)
Okay, getting back to IPAs made by mere mortals, the
one that knocked me out this year was Big Rig Brewery
Alpha Bomb Unfiltered IPA. I seriously loved this one.

Best India Pale Ale: Okay, if we can move away from the fact that Mike Lackey landed here in a rocket from Krypton, there were other really good IPAs this year and here we see that Big Rig Brewing's (Ottawa) brewmaster Lon Ladell is no slouch himself. Because a slacker couldn't have made the outstanding Big Rig Alpha Bomb Unfiltered IPA. Hot damn, this beer was so frikkin' good. Ladell used Chinook and Columbus hops at the beginning of the boil and then Mosaic hops at the end of it to finish this bad boy. The 6.7%, 87 IBU (yikes!) brew had a metric-ton of grapefruit on the nose with a beautiful tropical fruit as well as a strong malt backbone on the finish. Big Rig has some great beers but this is their best by far. This brewery is going places. (Previous winners: Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA, Nickel Brook's Headstock IPA.)

Best Double/Imperial IPA: This one was fiercely-contested but at the same time in the end, it was kind of my choice from the second I enjoyed it. It was the one to beat. Innocente Two Night Stand Double IPA was such a huge beer that it could not be ignored. Head brewer Steve Innocente unleashed a hop monster with this one.
i had a ton of really good Double/Imperial IPAs but this
one? Holy crap, this was insanely tasty. It was one of
those "Only Three Beers You Can Take To A Desert
Island" beers. You might just pass on the other two...
At 8.5% and 100+ IBUs, this was the Irish car bomb of double IPAs. While that imagery might not be the most appealing of descriptions, allow me to explain. The aroma was the juiciest of the year - mango, grapefruit and citrus on the insane nose, it paved way for huge resin and solid malts for balance, which fairly exploded on the tongue. You would step over your mother to get one and I would cheer you on. Screw her. A very limited release, Rib Eye Jack's Ale House GM Steve put one of these nasty-ass throat blasters in my hands. Best. Gift. Ever! (Previous Winner: Nickel Brook Immodest Imperial IPA.)

Best Porter: This guy again? Already? Yup, seems so. Steve Innocente, please take a step forward because the Innocente Charcoal Porter was a step above the others this year, as well. This 5.6% glass of black velvet had smoked malts and burnt something (wood?) on the nose and followed it up with strong chocolate on the tongue with toasty malt on the tongue. Not gimmicked with any fruit flavours, it tastes like it came from aging in a nice barrel. Dark, smooth and lovely. (Previous Winners: Mill Street Vanilla Porter, Nickel Brook Pissed Pete Pumpkin Porter, Highlander Blacksmith Smoked Porter.)

Former coworker Jay-Dawg came back from Kingston
raving about this Stone City Ales' Ships In The Night
Oatmeal Stout. Turns out he had good reason - great beer! 
Best Stout: Again, another one that came out of left field. When Jay-Dawg visited Stone City Ales in Kingston back in the fall, he brought back four beers for me - a German wheat, two IPAs and one stout. The one he couldn't stop talking about? The Ships In The Night Oatmeal Stout. The dude is a total IPA and sour fiend but man, he loved this stout. I, for one, applaud his good taste because this 5.6% glass of black magic had some killer coffee and chocolate on the nose with some very tasty bittersweet chocolate and toasty malts on the tongue. Just a medium body but a huge taste! (Previous Winner: Stonehammer Oatmeal Coffee Stout.)

Best Imperial Stout: Bellwoods Brewery at Queen and Ossington in Toronto never enters its beers in awards. I'd like to think it's maybe because they want to save every last drop for customers. Probably not but hey, I like my theory.
Was it barrel-aged or was it not? That's a
damn tough call because it certainly tasted
that way but this was so rich and heavy, it
didn't really matter. Truly outstanding...
I think there's a good reason that the devil is on the label for their Hellwoods Imperial Stout but mostly because it's sinfully delicious. Nothing but rich, thick, boozy chocolate and coffee aroma on the nose, this 10% cocoa-bomb has tons more chocolate and deep rich plum on the tongue. Some of this year's early batch was barrel-aged; some was not. I think the one I enjoyed at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House way back in January was but there were so many strong flavours, it was tough to tell. Either way, wow, whatta beer! (Previous Winners: Nickel Brook Kentucky Bastard, Walkerville Barrel-Aged Milk Stout.)

That's it for today but I'll be back tomorrow with many many more beers to award. We have barrel-aged everything to discuss, two different sour beer winners (one chosen by Jay-Dawg), fruit beers, the best mixed packs of craft beers, coffee-infused beauties, best memories of youth beers and hey, a few more important ones. Which brewery captured the Spirit Of Craft Beer the most this year? Which brewery made the most socially responsible corporate decision of 2016? And which beer gets the Beer Of The Year, aka Wingman of the Year Award? All of these will be as they are today - Ontario craft beers because we love our brewers. Except for three as I also have a collaborative beer that crosses four Provincial boundaries. as well as the best west coast beer and the best east coast beer I had this year. So see you tomorrow because guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here, Until tomorrow, I remain...