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Oakes Weekly - May 6, 2004
Welcome to Swillfest ’04
May 6, 2004
Written by Oakes
Back in 1999 when I was living in Vancouver, I decided for the fun of it to head to the local liquor store and buy everything I hadn’t yet tried there. This amounted to five mainstream lagers, and I made a big event of it by hosting the tasting live online at the Manifesto called Swillfest ’99. Now, the Manifesto is gone but Swillfest was reborn. Actually Radek and I had been talking about this one for quite some time and finally, with the help of Michael_T, we were able to get it done.
Swillfests are fun. They’re like malt liquor nights. You know the beer is going to suck. You know that you’re going to end up drunk. So you just kick back, shoot the shit and have a good time. It’s far less stressful or serious than doing a tasting with good beer.
The best place around here to conduct a proper Swillfest is the Rak’N’Tap, in suburban Brampton. Not that I needed to be reminded of what suburbs look like – I had blissfully put the images out of my mind for so long it was a shock to the system to see them again. The Rak’N’Tap is a strange mix of pool hall, sports bar, attempted restaurant and beer bar. The latter component comes mainly in the form of the supermarket shelves containing three or four hundred brands of beer. This includes hard-to-find Belgians, stuff that was released two years ago and has sold out everywhere else, and every macro, all in singles. This is crucial, because many of the ones we had our sights set on are normally hard to find in bars, and only sold by the case at stores. The supermarket shelves come with supermarket lights. The importers of specialty beers report to me that Rak’N’Tap has not made a second order since they originally stocked their shelves two years ago. So the best beers are not only two years old, but have spent that time basking in fluorescent glow. Yum. The macros move a little quicker, so we figured we’d be skunk-free.
Even though it wasn’t a serious event, we weren’t about to disrespect the beers. We drew some funny looks from the drunks at the bar when we asked for glasses, but it had to be done.
When examining the case of Pale Lager and Premium Lager, one thing I wanted to avoid was having these two styles be based strictly on merit. In other words, it is not the intent to have “the good ones” as Premium and “the crappy ones” as Pale. Rather, the differences are on the production side of things – hop rates, lagering times, grain bill (use of adjuncts being key). This will of course affect the character of the beer, and these differences will mark the differences between the two styles (as is the case with any two beer styles).
But while it is as sure as the sun sets in the west that a beer borne of keener respect for traditional ingredients and techniques will have a character more appealing to the discerning drinker, that is not to say that all Pale Lagers will be bad. Further, even if they are all inherently evil, there will be those that are less satanic and those that are decidedly more.
So Radek and I went through nine of these, along with three American Dark Lagers, exploring the diversities of the beers comprising these ill-reputed styles. First up, the legendary budget brand from everyone’s favourite 1 million hectolitre “microbrewer”, Sleeman. Arctic Wolf isn’t awful – it in fact is relatively clean. It even has some malt character. Pale Lagers do on occasion have malty notes, but seldom more than a token hop. So cleanliness and a hint of malt are two big pluses. Doesn’t make it good, because achieving success is not praiseworthy when one aims so low, but it’s not bad for style.
We had a couple from the Carling range, a budget line made by Molson. They’re poorly made, these Carlings, and should be avoided.
We then had a couple of low-carb beers. Sleeman Clear is like creamy water…I don’t know what they did to boost the body but it leaves an artificial creamy mouthfeel that is just wrong. The peanuts in the finish were baffling, but not nearly so much as the bizarro off-flavours found in Molson Ultra. The maltiness is full of bad funk. I mean like rural Cambodian hookers singing drunken James Brown karaoke bad. Various tropical fruits are then thrown on stage, confusing everybody. You then head out back for a quick leak and are startled mid-stream by a mangy stray dog and make a mess of yourself. That’s Molson Ultra. It was the absolute worst beer of Swillfest ’04 for me.
One of the better ones was Northern Extra Light, a 2.4% beer made by Northern Breweries in Sault Ste. Marie, ON. I haven’t tasted a beer like this since I lived in Finland. It kind of straddled the line between lager and non-alc, giving it a half-finished impression, but with bread and hops notes, I have to tip my hat. Aside from the truly gross Superior Lager, Northern Breweries makes some of the best macrobrews in Canada.
Labatt’s made the PC (President’s Choice) line of budget brews. (I say this because Brick just won the contract. The beers tasted at Swillfest, however, were made by Labatt’s). These are cold-filtered (not pasteurized I guess is what they mean) and use Saaz hops. A lot of lousy brews squander Saaz hops, actually, so that’s no guarantee of quality. However, the Ultimate Honey Brown wasn’t bad for a honey brown. Radek hated it, but the honey and nuts thing it has going isn’t at all bad. It’s just not quite ready for prime time, that’s all.
Compare this to another dark, Brava Negra from the reprehensible Lakeport Brewery. These guys are so consumer-unfriendly it’s amazing. I mean, they are downright petulant when it comes to beer writers, and not much better with anybody else. They once made a drinkable Irish Ale, called McGinty’s Crew, but everything else I’ve had from them has been asstastic. Don’t get me wrong, Mongoose is a fine malt liquor, but being asstastic is a prerequisite for excellence in the malt liquor field. Anyway, this beer looks okay, but is so sickly sweet and unbalanced in any way that I couldn’t finish my half-bottle.
But that’s why it’s called Swillfest. It’s more about the conversation and laughs than it is about the beer. It’s a throwback to the days when cheaply-made beer was the only game in town. Some of you young drinkers and Europeans won’t understand, but we used to have no choice but to drink this stuff. We still had some good times. It’s a little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of masochism, a little bit of comedy but it’s all a chuckle. I don’t know how often I’d do these – every five years seems about right to me, but I’ll do one again at some point.
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Swillfests are fun. They’re like malt liquor nights. You know the beer is going to suck. You know that you’re going to end up drunk. So you just kick back, shoot the shit and have a good time.
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