Tuesday 1 January 2013

La Barberie Blanche aux Mûres

I am not sure how long, but I have been eagerly waiting to write something about this little brewery in Quebec City called La Barberie. Please note that the brewery is NOT called La Barbarie - as in barbarity or barbarism, despite the helmet logo. It is called la Barberie because, as company folklore has it, its three co-founders all had long and luscious beards (la barbe = beard) when they got together and decided to convert their hobby of homebrewing into a full-time occupation. While La Barberie is first and foremost a brewery, they are also known for their little pub, which they call the salon de dégustation and is located adjacent to the brewery underneath a Highway overpass just outside the old city. The brewery is a work cooperative - owned by its employee members and governed by a council of members. It is one of many breweries in the Quebec micro-brewing scene with an expressed objective to help improve societal sustainability. In the case of la Barberie, their organizational form itself exemplifies communal values, its location in a low-income neighborhood symbolizes its solidarity with the under-privileged, it sells several products of which some of the proceeds are used to fund social causes, and it engages in a number of community building and environmentally responsible initiatives.

While la Barberie is also known for brewing over 160 different recipes, among others for local restaurants, depanneurs, and private functions, they offer a selection of regular brews in a fine 500 ml bottle. At a recent Christmas party, I came with four beers and I left with four, having received four of those beers in a little game called Yankee Christmas gift swap. I will review these beers over the next four posts. In working through them, I will follow what I would consider an appropriate sequence of drinking, if one were to drink several different beer styles during a given evening. For me, two simple principles set the initial order: Always drink from lower to higher alcohol content, and always drink pale malts first, then move to darker ones. I start therefore with the Blanche aux Mûres, which already introduces the first exception to one of the two principles above: Always drink Weissbier and Blanche first - this is to fully appreciate the flavours of the yeast in combination with the malts. But even here, you would drink a Blanch first, and then move to a Dunkle Weisse or a Wheat Double. This feature beer is laced with some fruit - probably blackberries.

The Blanche aux Mûres pours a wonderful foam head, as evidenced below, and shows a reddish appearance, presumably from the berries. This was yet another very Belgian beer, the ones for which I do not have a very receptive palate. I'd say the beer is balanced, with a dry malt flavour that a number of the interpretations of this style in Quebec share. It also had a peppery yeast spice on the front palate that I did not appreciate. Notwithstanding the spicy upfront character, the beer was balanced overall, with an acidic berry taste that nicely played off the malts. The back palate was quite bitter for a Blanche style, but not necessarily with hops - it might be a taste attributable to berry seeds.

Monday 17 December 2012

The Snow Queen: Warsteiner Dunkel

More winter beer is on the way on I am thirsty for a beer, although I am still treading softly on the path of brews for cold winter evenings because it just ain't that wintery yet. In addition, my palate needs some adaptation to dark malts and my liver to elevated alcohol levels. But on a truly cold day and working on the first of my required adjustments, let's sample Warsteiner Dunkel. Warsteiner is the self-declared "Queen among beers" (cited from the can in three languages), who is not related by any marriage to either the King of Beers or the King of the beers. We will therefore present our main feature as the evil Snow Queen, kidnapping little Kai after a splinter of the magic mirror pierces his eye and lets him see only the ugly things in the world. As this beer is a Dunkel, our Snow Queen is not only evil but also dark, right out of The Lord of the Rings.

Who is she? What does she bring to my palate? According to a seal printed on the can, Warsteiner Dunkel is brewed in a natural way, a claim that is supplemented by the statement that Warsteiner adheres to the German Reinheitsgebot, an edict I have previously mentioned. However, it is not clear to me what this seal is intended to communicate. There are no organic certifications other than a declaration of being brewed with selected roast malts (which, I note, are nicely reflected in the taste of this beer), and brewing according to the Reinheitsgebot is rather like obtaining an MBA these days - a sine qua non. The can also self-declares Warsteiner as the official supplier of the European Golf Tour, leading me to wonder not about the projection of status, which seems evident, but of the combined character meaning our Dark Snow Queen is intended to have. She seems to be a conservative royal who pretends to be hip, and her black belt in image management qualifies her to swing a golf club at consumer subjects who do not comply with popular mythology.

The Warsteiner Brewery is a privately owned family organization, and one of the largest such breweries in Germany. I applaud their desire to stay independent and am delighted to see them continue a 250 year tradition, even as they have also assumed a leading position in a modern brewery group to compete with the big corporate brewing bigwigs. According to Wikipedia, they have been brewing for export markets since the 19th century. I was a little flabbergasted to learn also that the Warsteiner Brewery had its reputation sullied in 1994 by allegations of a link to the Church of Scientology. Just a month ago, the long serving President and owner, Albert Cramer died, and his daughter Catharina Cramer, who had been managing the firm together with him for the past few years, has now assumed the position of President. I wish her best of success in this job, as its tough going out there against the aforementioned big boys. I would also like to note that in the old days, women were the principal brewers in the household, so Warsteiner may very well be in good hands. If she decides to continue her father's success in image positioning, I sure would like to discuss that with her.
I like the reflections of twigs in the beer glass in all three pictures, and the shadows of twigs on the can.

The taste of this beer was quite satisfying, brewed in a similar style as the Samson Tmavý ležák. The front palate was a nice combination of dark malts (those mentioned above, I presume) with a little bit of grist texture from spent grain, the kind destined to be fed to pigs in the brewer's industrial symbiosis with farmers. There is ample hops bitterness throughout the middle and back palate, and the overall mouthfeel is as it should be for the style, with only a hint of that sugary taste of rationalization on the middle palate. A faint grainy bitterness, reminiscent of burnt toast, comes through at the back palate, giving this beer an overall nice balance, even as some hops notes lingered a bit too long for my liking.

By the time of the last photo, the top of the foam head became wonderfully stable because it froze.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Bock-Beer Bout: Holsten Festbock vs. Brasseurs du Monde l'Entêté

As alluded to already last week, winter beers are on the agenda, and we start today with a little squaring off between beers of the assertive variety for the hardy types: Bock beer, a style whose legendary pedigree in the German town of Einbeck foreshadows homebrewing, as the Oxford Companion to Beer reports. Citizens, is says, were not allowed the right to a brewery but allotted a ration of malt and given the right to brew in their basements, under the auspices of the city which supplied a brewing method and city-owned brewing equipment that traveled from house to house so the people could make beer in a more or less standardized way. Bock beer was also usually brewed to a stronger alcohol level to supplement the food diet during lent and other fasting periods that lead up to a holiday (hence the name Festbock).

The bout today is a match of David versus Goliath, one from the home of Bock beer, Germany, the other from the provincial backwaters of Quebec. A made-for-export beer made by Holsten-Braueri A.G. of Hamburg, a subsidiary of the gigantic Carlsberg Brewery, against the locally produced specimen from Les Brasseurs du Monde in St. Hiacynthe, QC, a beer brand that is so obscure, it is not even listed on the company's website. One bock in a bottle, the other bock in a can. And finally, the location of the bout at "I am thirsty for a beer", home of the most pro-German beer judges of all of Canada's beer blogs, loads the deck with the stench of partisan partiality. Here they are, first the self-imagined reigning Champion of the Bock Beer World in the green corner, wearing the armor and wielding a shield: Holsten Festbock. And in the red corner, the unknown challenger, wearing the proud horns and sticking his snout voraciously into a beer mug - hence the name, I suppose: L'Entêté (possibly meaning "faced in').


Round one is an even affair, with both combatants testing each other's strengths and weaknesses. The nice bottle of the L'entêtê lands a body blow to the inherently inferior can of the Festbock, while Festbock replies with a whopping 7% strength, compared to 6% by L'Entêté. They draw each other close on aesthetic design and container size (500 ml each). I do like the black knight on the green background, yet the facial expression and stance of the ram on L'Entêté demonstrate once again the artistry of beer labels in Quebec. Round one ends lively and on par.

Pictures to come!

As the second round starts, l'Entêté opens with a malty aroma pushing out, while Festbock reponds with a soft nose-butt of ethanol and malt. As I have observed from previous experiences with bock, either beer does not build as strong a foam head as one might expect and certainly not as some other beers - it seems the head is less stable possibly because of the high alcohol content. On first sight, Festbock lands the upper hand, producing more and smaller bubbles, but they fizzle out from below and stabilize to the level of those by L'Entêté. In the end, each produced a small but relatively thick textured foam top, enough to cushion some of the head blows by the opponent. Festbock's colour is slightly lighter than l'Entêtê, yet both have a pleasant copper tone that promises a malty smothering of the palate.

Round three - now the bout is up for the tasting, and it is over as soon as a combination blow lands Festbock on the floor. What a tsunami of malty richness l'Entêté unleashes on my palate. The front is viscous and grainy, mixing in some grist texture in the middle palate, and finishing with a pleasantly balanced combination of grain and hops bitterness. It is true to the style - rather malty and gently hopped. Festbock just does not measure up, and the judges are overtly exasperating while privately gleeful. The Festbock has a sugary sweetness with ethanol undertones, and a slightly watery palate in comparison. The back palate is dominated by a lingering sweetness, not unpleasant but too ephemeral to stand up to the mighty malt mallet of l'Entêté. Unfathomable, the provincial lightweight heaves the hometown favorite over the ropes with ease, and the lacings on the glasses tell where the malt was.