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Oakes Weekly - June 5, 2003
Beer & Cheese; a visit to the Distillery District
June 5, 2003
Written by Oakes
<P>This Oakes Weekly comprises two events of the weekend. The first was a beer and cheese tasting that Mr. Kimchee and I put on last Saturday. I was amazed that the members of the local beer scene weren't beating down the doors to attend, given that nothing Kimchee and I are involved with is going to entail anything that remotely resembles crap. Maybe people thought we'd be serving Rickard's Honey Brown with No Name Colby, but seriously, this was the real deal.
<P>The first combination was mozzarella di bufala campana with Liefmans Kriek. Personally, I loved this combination. The mozzarella was a little runnier than I was expecting, given my past experience with the style (but not that particular brand), but the flavour was still there. This cheese is a little lactic normally, so I thought a more lactic beer would work best. I also felt the fruit flavours would not dominate the fresh cheese too much. On that last score, I think I was right. Even though the beer has a much stronger flavour than the cheese, I thought they played off of each other quite well on the palate. The acidity, however, didn't work as well for me as I felt the Kriek was a lot more sour than the cheese, and wasn't keen on that aspect of the pairing. All in all, though, I thought it was a pretty solid start.
<P>Next up was Ayinger Altbaisrich Dunkel and Tête de Moine. We tried to cover all of the cheese bases in terms of major countries and milks, so it made sense to include a Swiss cheese. Tête is probably the most flavourful and aromatic Swiss cheese I've come across, and needs a sturdy beer. The pungent, old socks character of the Tête matched well with the earthy, woody flavours of the Dunkel, but I felt the Dunkel was not strong enough to match the muscular cheese. It worked, but not as well as an earthy bock, like Brick Anniversary Bock, would have.
<P>Next up was Christoffel Blond and Chabichou du Poitou. The former is the world's foremost pilsner when on form. This most recent shipment is good, but not at its peak. The hop flavours are getting a little stale, which is really unfortunate because I would have loved to bring a boatload of it to Chicago to show it off. The latter is a goat's milk cheese from France, a substitute for Crottin de Chavignol, which I could only find knockoff versions of. The cheese would have been better if it were older, with more rounded flavours and crumblier texture, but it is creamy and decadent, and not all that goaty. In that regard, the pairing was less a matter of complement than contrast and on that level, I found it worked really well. The abrasive, slightly astringent less-than-prime Christoffel was a great foil for such a rich, luxurious cheese. A bit of an unorthodox pairing, but fine by me.
<P>Next up was Maudite and pecorino toscano. I'm a big pecorino fan in general, and have always enjoyed Maudite, but I found this the least compelling matchup. The malts in the Maudite matched the cheese well, but the fruitiness did not. Further, I didn't find that either partner did anything in terms of helping the other to be better, which is really what I look for when setting out such specific pairings.
<P>I had some Barrack Street Brown from Garrison Brewing available for the tasting, and I remember this to be one of my favourite brown ales. But I was only in Halifax to do my Master's, and that was five years ago already (holy crap!). I don't know if the beer was just a little old or if it has seen a genuine decline in quality over that time, but the Barrack Street Brown we had Saturday really wasn't up to the level I remember. Thankfully, I'll have the opportunity to find out for sure later this year. Though the beer at the tasting was not much better than any of the local brown ales here in Toronto, my memories of what were, and this is why I figured it would be a good match for the jaw-dropping cheddar from Montgomery's Farm. If you live in a major city, look up the best cheese shop in town (and you guys are beer hunters so you know what I mean when I say "best in town") and see if they have it. If they do, buy all you can carry. You might max out your credit card to do this, but it's worth it. As a pairing goes, brown ale and cheddar is a classic and it's hard to screw up a classic. In this instance, the brown ale of my memories would have performed better, as this one was eclipsed by the magnificence of the cheese.
<P>The last pairing was Wellington Imperial Stout with another of my favourite cheeses - cabrales. This is a mixed-milk blue cheese from Asturias, Spain, and is the most intense cheese I've ever encountered. It leaves me dazed and incapacitated every single time I have it. The first idea here was to have stilton with the imperial stout. I have ready access to the best stilton in the world, Colston Bassett, so it was certainly tempting, but I went with cabrales for two reasons. One is that I wanted a Spanish cheese on the menu (though I could have simply substituted the pecorino for a zamorano or idiazábal), but also because I felt that the creaminess of a stilton would clash with the stinging pungency that any good imperial stout will have. While Wellington is a mellow version of the style, it does have that character. Cabrales has it at a level no beer has ever achieved. As a result, this combination was the hands-down winner of the night. A more assertive stout would have likely fought too hard for my palate's attention, but Wellington took a comfortable back-up role, balancing and complementing the cheese but not attempting to dominate it. That said, it might be interesting one day to pair this cheese with Courage Imperial Stout just to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
<P>The next day was a beautiful spring day, and I took full advantage of that, finally coming to a stop at the Distillery District, where a jazz festival was underway. The district is on the expansive grounds of the Victorian-era Gooderham & Worts distillery (that being my favourite rye, by the way). The various distillery buildings have been converted into galleries, restaurants and shops. Everything is brick, even the roadways, upon which cars are not allowed. The district is home to the relatively new Mill Street Brewery. These guys made a rather uneasy entry into the marketplace in January with their Organic Lager. You see, local beer lovers are tired of being fed bland lagers by every single brewery in the land. We don't drink the bloody things, and quite frankly it weakens the Ontario marketplace by discouraging consumers from trying anything else. They are not gateway brands to the rest of the brewer's portfolio, but rather they are proof to many consumers that pale lager is the most important thing beer can offer, especially since all the craft brewers are making them, too. That's another reason why I root for the likes of Church Key, Scotch Irish and County Durham - no lagers!
<P>Anyway, they sell their Organic Lager in tiny little nip bottles, but at the same price as a regular six-pack. The excuse is that organic ingredients cost more, but let's be serious here. The beer has 4.2% alcohol and not much hop, so there are less ingredients per barrel than just about any other microbrew on the market. Not to mention that the cost of ingredients in a bottle of beer is next to nothing. If you assume that organic ingredients cost 40% more (and I'm pretty sure they don't), you still aren't adding more than a few pennies to the cost of each bottle. This does not justify a 40% increase in the cost per litre to the consumer. So needless to say, Mill Street and the local beer community did not get off on the right foot.
<P>I went to the brewery first, to check things out. Typical small brewery, I guess. I'm not an equipment geek so I don't often gain anything new by wandering around microbreweries these days. The chalk board listed all the beers they had on, and they were all there so I was pretty excited. I was worried that something would have sold out, which is not unexpected with the big jazz festival crowds and the brewery not having a well-established production schedule yet. The server kindly informed me that all they had was Organic Lager. Never mind what the sign said, I feel that if there is one place on planet Earth where all of a brewery's beers can be tasted, the brewery is it. I don't mind if they want to make their money on Organic Lager as long as it keeps them in business to make more interesting beers, but this was idiocy. First of all, the brewer's owners should have been there pouring, promoting and mingling. There really isn't a better way to sell than face-to-face. Second of all, they have no reason to be ashamed of their other beers. And that's what it says to me when they don't pour them. That they are embarrassed of them, and don't want to have to apologize to people for giving them bitter beer face. Third, if they are going to put all of their eggs into one basket by promoting only one of their products, they should promote the interesting ones, not the bland one. It has been said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, and that statement surely must apply to the Ontario beer drinker as well, but if you're going to have the stones to brew an assertive pale ale and a coffee porter, get up there and fight for them. Don't just focus on the one product that you think will be least scary. Love and believe in all your products equally. And even if you don't, you never want to give the public that impression.
<P>The bar across the brick "street" (for lack of a better term) had all the beers on tap, thankfully. Well, with the exception of Mill Street's contract brew, the resurrected Denison's Weissbier, for which they had a dry tap. A shame, that, because the beer still rules, and although it's step from its former greatness (Michael only had one batch to work with thus far, and I'm pretty confident that subsequent batches will see the beer regain its world-classic form) it is something that needs to be there for a lazy Sunday afternoon jazz festival in the sun.
<P>The first one I tried was the Sparkling Ale. This isn't a Cooper's knockoff, though clearly they liked the name. It's not a bad golden ale, actually. It is well-structured, with some nice esters in the aroma, and a clean finish, but I wouldn't be disappointed if they went the Cooper's route and ramped up the esters a bit more, got some phenols working and cloudied the beer up a bit. Next up was the Tankhouse Pale Ale, a fairly assertive American Pale. This is their best beer. A rich, fruity hop aroma jumps out of the glass. They use quite a bit of crystal malt in this, to the point where not only does it add a rich earthy character, but smoke even (unless they actually do use smoked malt, but I don't think they do). Grapefruit, wood, earth, lingering bitterness... this is a very well-balanced pale ale. It may lack the bombasity of something like Alpha King, and with all that crystal malt is certainly a different type of APA than either Sierra Nevada or Burning River, but this is what I like about it. Future samples will confirm that this can bang with the big boys, but even if it eventually comes up short, it brings a different look to a style that peaked six or seven years ago, which is always a good thing.
<P>The last beer was the Balzac's Coffee Porter, made with beans from nearby Balzac's Coffee...and not much else. The hops were a non-factor and the malts poorly developed (how anybody can have poorly developed malts when they have ready access to Michael Hancock is a bit of a mystery). Anyway, a coffee porter should have good coffee and good porter. They almost never do. I think Speedway was the only coffee beer I really enjoyed, a testament to AleSmith's greatness. They must have used some pretty decent beans because it was still drinkable, but this beer is totally unbalanced. Coffee drinkers might get off on it, but I'm a beer drinker - I get off on malt and hops.
<P>So the Pale Ale looks like it will be a keeper, no question. Denison's Weissbier may not be strictly a Mill Street product but it looks good on the brewery to have a beer like that coming from their facility. The Sparkling Ale is too light for me to bother with, but is well-made. And I don't know how much of that Coffee Porter I'll ever bother to drink outside of a professional situation (I do like to try new beers a few times over their first year to see where they settle up). One thing I was very impressed with though, was that the entire Distillery District only poured Mill Street. I hope that's not just a special event thing, but an everyday thing. It's a little bit out of the way, and is an easily-definable area as well, so it shouldn't be too hard for the merchants down there to develop a sense of community. I guess I wouldn't cry too much if I saw some other micros in the bars down there, but certainly I felt very safe and at home in a Big Three-free environment. I hope it stays that way.
<P>The other thing they should do is just let people walk around with their beers on the distillery premises. It's insulting enough to have plastic cups to drink out of, but to be herded up and fenced in like livestock just because you have a beer in your hand is ridiculous. But this city is too anal to let adults be adults. After all, if they can't do something as simple and logical as banning cars from Kensington Market, how can they be expected to have the common sense to encourage a vibrant entertainment district by lightening up on the alcohol regulations? It seems silly that people can't walk around freely with a drink in their hand at a distillery.
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Coffee drinkers might get off on it, but I'm a beer drinker - I get off on malt and hops.
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