As any good beer enthusiast would do, I decided to turn my family's nice Christmas holiday with our extended family into a bit of a beer hunt. This was constrained by several issues:
<li>Lack of opportunity: I would be without a vehicle and relying on my extended family for transportation, or counting on a good store within walking distance (which was never actually the case).
<li>Lack of funds: The trip set us back a bit financially, so even if I found cases of Westy for sale, I wouldn't be buying.
<li>Lack of space: The six suitcases we brought were already filled with diapers and baby toys, so I would be choosing very carefully what to cram in there.
<li>Lack of purpose: I guess I should actually spend some time with my extended family, since that was the point of the trip.
<li>Lack of availability: My extended family lives in Eastern Canada in the provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador. For Ratebeerians who have never been out there, you are not exactly talking about a beer-lover's paradise.
We departed from Toronto, forgoing the Can$6.00 Rickard's Red at the airport and the Can$5.00 Labatt Blue on the plane. After arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and heading for where my brother's van was parked, we had to walk past the government-run liquor store located right in the airport. In Nova Scotia, all alcoholic products, including beer, are sold only at government-run Nova Scotia Liquor Commission (NSLC) stores. And, as I walked past this one I saw a little black box with a red circle calling to me. This NSLC store had St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, a beer which stores back in my hometown in Ontario have stopped carrying. I left my wife (fellow Ratebeerian silverbullet), children and luggage in the hall and ran inside to buy some, just five minutes before they closed.
My next beer excursion came a few days later when I mentioned to my brother, in an off-hand way, that I'd like to buy some beer. He offered me some Keith's from his fridge and I declined politely. So, he drove me to the nearby NSLC and I went in, while he and his family sat in the van. The pressure was on.
Inside I saw that the beer was divided into three sections: macro, micro and international. Macro is mostly Labatt and Molson (or Moosehead) brands, mostly in dozens and almost all boring. International consisted of the usual suspects: Guinness, Kilkenny, Grolsch, Bass, etc. etc. There was only one single beer which I had never tried but I turned it down for three reasons: it was in a clear bottle, it was made with Grand Marnier and it was French. It was "Madison" from Brasseurs-Gayant, and is not in the Ratebeer database, so it would have been a new addition. I'm still guessing I made the right choice.
The micro selection was meager. Two local microbreweries (Propeller and Garrison) represented by a few brands each, and two empty rows for St. Ambroise beers. I bought two 650 ml Propeller Porters and a 4-pack of Martello Stout and considered myself lucky. On the way out, I noticed a solitary Keith's "Happy Holidays" tall-boy can sitting under the counter and asked if I could buy it (since I'm a collector geek as well as a beer geek). The nice NSLC lady said no, but that she would give it to me. Keith's may not be good, but free beer is always sweet. Thank you NSLC lady!
Given that we were in Halifax around New Year's, that we were dragging arm-loads of babies, and that everybody (except me) got horribly sick, it became apparent that my mental plans for visiting the Granite Brewery and Rogue's Roost brewpubs were mere dreams, better left to a less rushed visit. Still, it would have been nice to sit in that cozy, dark basement again at the Granite and have a pint of Peculiar. Sigh...
OK, off to Newfoundland & Labrador (the official name of the province), or Newfoundland (the official name of the island portion of the province) for the rest of the vacation. The main airport in Newfoundland is in the city of St. John's, which is even less of a beer-lover's paradise than Halifax. And my wife's folks live in a little community a ways away from St. John's, so I was prepared for the pickings to be very, very slim.
Unlike in Nova Scotia, beer in Newfoundland is sold at almost every convenience store, gas station, and grocery store, but the selection is almost 100% Labatt and Molson. Government-run liquor stores also sell beer, but Guinness in cans was a revolutionary idea the last time I checked. Newfoundland does have some regional macros, so this is where I decided to put my efforts.
When we arrived, my father-in-law revealed that he had tried very hard to find me Molson India Beer, a regional brand that was pretty good the last time I tried it (like five years ago). Turns out it is all but discontinued, so I may never get that rating or bottle for my collection. I tried to console myself with one of the other readily available brands. Labatt brews Blue Star and Jockey Club while Molson brews Black Horse and Dominion. I know that the Blue Star has been asymptotically approaching Labatt Blue in the last ten years, and I already have a few cans of Black Horse in my "cellar". So, the coin flip came down to Jockey Club and Dominion, and Jockey won. Which, as it turns out, was really too bad. Three years ago the Jockey was at least a little darker, and a little tastier than other boring macros. By the end of 2002, the marketing geniuses at Labatt had turned it into another Blue clone.
The day before we were to leave, my father-in-law invited me to drive out to a larger community to buy gas (since it had gone down to $0.80 a liter!), go to the bank, pick up traveling groceries and so on. The gas station was a little surprising, since there was a liquor store attached to it. Inside, the beer selection appeared to be not much different than everywhere else. Then I checked in the last fridge and there was a mixed 6-pack from the Quidi Vidi microbrewery. Six new beers, six I had never rated or even tasted! They weren't going to be good, mind you, but they were new. And Quidi Vidi Kriek was not one of them. It was almost a Christmas miracle.
The final tally on my beer hunting trip was:
<li>1 great beer, previously rated.
<li>2 very good beers, previously unrated.
<li>1 good beer, previously unrated.
<lI>3 bland beers, previously unrated.
<li>2 disappointments, previously unrated.
My next article will deal with the tasting of several of these, especially regarding taste testing stouts and a porter with members of my family who had never seen black beer before. We also did a blind taste test of Labatt macrobrews under the title "Is there actually a difference?" Stay tuned...