The Grape Nut

with Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

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  • Beer fest news/get while the gettin's good

    04/1/2014 1:56 PM

    First things first - let me be clear that nothing that follows is in any way April Fool's-related. April 1 has to be one of my least favourite days of the year.

    Now that we've gotten that out of the way, to the matters at hand...

    * The 12th annual Flatlander's Beer Festival has historically been held in September on the second floor of the RBC Convention Centre. This year, organizers have decided to engage beer-lovers during the summer, moving the fest up to June 12 and 13.

    Not only has Flatlander's been bumped up time-wise, but it's gotten quite the venue upgrade as well. This year's event will be held at ice level in the MTS Centre, providing far more room for new and existing brewers to show off their suds.

    Suffice to say organizers were confident when confirming this news to me that the Winnipeg Jets weren't going to be making the playoffs, never mind playing into mid-June. If you want me to believe that'll happen you'll need to feed me something stronger than beer.

    No word on ticket prices, or when they go on sale - organizers will be busy until the first week of May, when the Winnipeg Wine Festival wraps up. More on that in a minute...

    * Not to be outdone by Winnipeg, the third annual Brandon Beer Tasting Festival takes place Saturday, May 3 (the same day, as it happens, the Winnipeg Wine Festival wraps up). The festival is held at the Royal Oak Inn, and is hosted by the Rotaract Club of Brandon.

    Tickets are $25 and are available from Brandon Liquor Marts or Rotaract members, with proceeds going to Food For Thought, "an organization devoted to providing children with a healthy breakfast in order to facilitate their learning at school."

    * Since Saturday's column about the Winnipeg Wine Festival's ancillary events ran in the March 29 Winnipeg Free Press, a few of the fest's ancillary events have sold out. Gone are all the tickets for the Sunday, April 27 World of Wine event at Niakwa Golf and Country Club, as well as both Monday events (the Penfolds Luxury Wine Dinner at the Keg on Garry Street and Joe's Italian Wine Night at Bellissimo on Waverley Street).

    There are tickets left for the remainder of the ancillary events (as well as the main weekend public tasting), and can be obtained by clicking through the links via the Winnipeg Wine Festival website.

    Incidentally, this weekend's column highlights the wine-producing regions of Australia, which is the theme region of this year's wine fest.

    ***

    Here are a few reviews of beers that are in somewhat limited supply at a handful of Manitoba Liquor Marts. For details on which stores have what stock, you can check the Liquor Marts website.

    Dead Frog The Session Vienna Lager (Aldergrove, BC - $2.54/341ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Medium gold in colour and with a pale white head, there's that slight corny note you find in some lagers along with toasted malt, oat and light apple aromas. It's light and creamy, and the toasted malt/oat notes come through nicely on the palate, managing to hold back too much corny-ness. 3.5/5

    Half Pints Black Galaxy (Winnipeg - $5.67/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Deep black-ish in colour and with a rich, beige head, there's plenty of grassy hops on the nose of this black IPA - it weighs in at a hoppy 60 IBU - as well as pine, floral, roasted malt and an almost-crystallised sugar component. There's plenty of roasted notes on the creamy, chewy, medium-bodied palate, which really sets this apart from your standard IPA. Rather, in this case, the crisp, citrusy hops counteracts the roasted malt notes nicely, and there's a hint of sweetness to those darker notes that your typical IPA wouldn't bring. 4/5

    Central City Brewers Red Racer ESB (Surrey, BC - $5.50/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Deep copper in colour with a white, fine head, this extra special bitter has plenty of roasted malt and a touch of caramel on the nose to go with pleasantly pronounced bitter hops. On the light-plus-bodied palate it manages to take the creamier, roasted malt/caramel notes and marry it with the crisp herbal component, with just a touch of subtle sweetness in there. Well done. 4/5

    Twitter: @bensigurdson

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  • One bourbon, one scotch, one beard (and two beers)

    02/20/2014 10:56 PM

    As Festival du Voyageur draws to a close and the Winnipeg Whisky Festival gets underway, I find myself at a crossroads — namely, that I'm attending the whisky fest but also have to make an appearance at the Festival's beard-growing contest in the same night.

    That's right — it'll pretty much be the manliest night of my life. 

    I'm the Free Press entrant in this year's media category, so for 10 long weeks I've been nurturing this poor excuse for a beard. It's my third time entering the competition — the first year there were six entrants in the media category, of which the top three got prizes. Let's just assume I came in fourth.

    Last year I got going pretty well, but a weeklong trip to Portugal in warmer temperatures, added on to an eight-hour flight home, meant I walked in the door of my house feeling more than a little scuzzy. Combined with the fact I worked a night shift at the Free Press on the night of the beard-growing competition judging (poor planning on my part) meant that after eight-and-a-half weeks, I sheared the damn thing off.

    Third time's a charm, right? Here's hoping. Regardless, it's an interesting exercise in patience  — both for me and my family. And while my intentions are to give this unruly beard a simple trim and maybe keep it around in a more restrained format, chances are good come Monday it will be completely gone. Yes, look at the picture at Week 9 — the beard is a bit of an exercise in frustration (although I look a bit miserable in the Week 1 pic as well).

    Either way, I'm also collecting pledges in conjunction with the beard, with proceeds going to the Manitoba Heart and Stroke Foundation. I've surpassed my initial goal of $200, so tweaked my objective up to $300 and am currently sitting at $250. If you'd like to make a contribution you can do so by clicking here (opens in new window).

    Anyway, here are a few reviews – one bourbon, one scotch, and two (local) beers, to riff on the iconic George Thorogood song...

    Half Pints Saison de la Ceinture Flechée (Winnipeg - $5.67/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Pale copper and hazy with a white head, there are all sorts of fresh wheaty, yeasty notes on the nose as well as a hint of citrus and some modest hops. As in previous incarnations, it's fresh and creamy, with soft effervescence and plenty of bright yeast and wheat notes, a hint of bite from the modest hops and a dry finish. This is a drink-now type of beer that continues to be one of my faves among Half Pints' seasonal offerings.

    Fort Garry Big Bison Extra Special Bitter (Winnipeg - $6.55/650ml, Liquor Marts)
    The newest entry in Fort Garry's mostly excellent Brewmaster Series, this ESB is made with English malt and hops, and brings 45 IBU on the bitterness scale. Medium copper and slightly hazy in colour, the Big Bison offers plenty of toasted malt, modest hops and hints of red apple skin and caramel on the nose. It's dry and has that bitterness, but with more body and complex caramel and toasted malt flavours than a hopped-up IPA — in other words, it's much more drinkable.

    Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon (Lawrenceberg, Ky. - $59.46, Liquor Marts)
    This Kentucky bourbon whiskey is fairly fruity on the nose, with apricot, honey, vanilla, spice and pear notes coming through nicely. The spice shows well on the palate, as do the vanilla and dried fruit notes, and there's a nice touch of pepper to keep things lively in there as well. It's 45 per cent alcohol, but it doesn't come across as markedly hot or overpowering - rather, it's a smooth but intense bourbon that delivers that typical bourbon sweetness as well as spice.

    Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or (Tain, Scotland- $85.82, Liquor Marts)
    This single malt scotch is aged for 10 years in bourbon barrels, then matured for another two years in Sauternes casks. The nose here is quite expressive, showing aromas of spice, peach, toasted nut, honey, reedy and marmalade notes. It's a fairly light, crisp scotch, with bright spice, toasted nut red apple, peach, white pepper and ginger notes and no trace of peat. There's good length to the Nectar D'Or and just a shadow of sweetness as well. Excellent stuff.

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  • Winter is coming/a $200 beer lands

    12/4/2013 1:31 PM

    I know, it seems like all I do in this space as of late is write about beer, but I guess there's just been more immediate/local/important stuff happening on that front as of late, what with the Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge having taken place. (The results, by the way, can be seen here.) As we move into the New Year expect some whisky stuff in this space as well, as the Winnipeg Whisky Festival on Feb. 21 draws closer.

    So for now I continue writing about beer in this little corner of the Internet, in part because of the announcement (via Twitter) that the Samuel Adams Utopias is returning to our province via Manitoba Liquor Marts.

    With a staggering retail price of $166.41 (plus taxes), your average beer drinker won't be picking up a bottle of the Utopias, but rest assured the 30 bottles coming into the province (27 are going to the Grant Park Liquor Mart, while three are off to Brandon) will sell out quickly. The first time Utopias came into the province only six bottles arrived, and they didn't really even make it on to the shelves.

    It just so happened I knew someone who was on their way to pick up a bottle of the 2012, and who texted me to see if I wanted one. I said yes, unaware at the time I was about to be out about $170 after taxes. You know what they say about a fool and their money...

    So why the heck is the Utopias so bloody expensive? Well, the easiest thing to do is to link to the Liquor Marts page on the brew — click here to see that (as well as details on sales info, etc.). As you'll see, there are a number of different brews and finishing techniques that go into the Utopias, and the alcohol by volume is a whopping 28 per cent. So no, you don't fill up a pint glass with the stuff — rather, you'd serve it like you might a cognac, brandy or single-malt scotch (hold the ice cubes).

    In 2012 only 54 barrels of the Utopias was made - they made about 100 this year, hence the increase in number of bottles coming. It comes in a kettle-shaped ceramic bottle, and (at least in the case of the 2012) with a specially designed glass created by Austrian wine-glass producer Riedel.

    I know, it's still really darn pricey, but if you've got that impossible-to-buy-for hop-head in your life this might just be the perfect gift. Even better, anyone who enjoys good port, scotch or Cognac would like this...

    So how do you get a bottle of the 2013 Utopias? Well, they go on sale Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at the Grant Park Liquor Mart (as well as Brandon's 10th and Victoria Liquor Mart), and there's a one-bottle limit per customer. You pretty much have to be there in person, and early.

    Will there be a lineup? Probably — just how many people deep it goes is anyone's guess.

    Ok... so in the interest of product knowledge I popped open my bottle of 2012 Utopias - the tasting notes appear at the bottom of this post. To get you warmed up, here are a few more interesting seasonal bottlings you should consider picking up, including a couple of locals...

    Fort Garry St. Nick's Oaked Spiced Porter (Winnipeg, MB - $6.55/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Coffee black in colour, the St. Nick's features has had spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and all-spice added to it, and has spent some time mingling with oak chips in production (they're cheaper than oak barrels). The spices come out in full force on the nose, with some caramel and vanilla notes in there as well. There's a hint of sweetness to this dark porter that's almost reminiscent of gingerbread, and it brings a good deal of chewiness in texture as well. A decidedly Christmas-y brew for those looking for something festive. 3/5

    Fort Garry Frontier Pilsner (Winnipeg, MB - $31.24/2x650ml bottles plus two glasses, Liquor Marts)
    Fort Garry has relaunched this long-time favourite, reaching back into the vault for the 1930s recipe. This means the new Frontier tastes almost nothing like what we've seen on shelves for many years now. Pale gold and slightly cloudy in colour (this beer isn't filtered), the Frontier pours with a white head, looking almost like a wheat beer. Pils malt and Noble hops are bright and clean on the nose, and there's some citrus rind and peppery notes in there as well. It's a decidedly dry, crisp, and citrusy lager, with a fairly hoppy note (although there's a rating of just 30 IBUs here). The texture here walks the line between soft creamy effervescence and a brighter peppery bite, and there's far more complexity than your average pilsner. One of the better local brews I've tasted in some time, it comes packed in a two-pack wooden crate with two glasses, meaning it's gift-wrapped and ready to go. Delicious - watch for a January release without the festive packaging. 4/5

    Ommegang Game of Thrones Take the Black Stout (Cooperstown, N.Y. - $11.25/750ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
    Game of Thrones fans and beer geeks alike have been waiting for this brew for some time. Espresso black in colour and with a beige, foamy head, the Take the Black brings cocoa powder/Nestle Quik, cola, roasted malt and Tootsie Roll notes on the nose. It's a crisp, mainly dry, medium-plus bodied stout that's got some bright effervescence as well as roasted malt, dark chocolate, white pepper and cola flavours and a long, almost-tannic drying finish. At 7 per cent alcohol by volume there's some kick here too. A bit pricey for what it is - I figured it would be a bit heavier/richer - but there's no denying the GoT fan will dig this in a big way. Certainly a good winter stout. 3.5/5

    Samuel Adams 2012 Utopias 10th Anniversary (Boston, Mass - N/A)
    Once the Utopias was opened, the smell totally took over my kitchen - it smelled like I had spilled tawny port all over the place. Deep reddish-brown in colour, there's no visible carbonation or head to this beer - rather, it looks just like a tawny port too. My initial impression aromatically was that the Utopias smells almost exactly like fruit cake. Digging deeper, aromas of dried fruit (raisin, fig, apricot) are big and bright on the nose, with more subtle notes of brown sugar, bread pudding and vanilla. On the palate it's medium-plus bodied and viscous, with medium sweetness coming through on the initial attack, then slightly tart citrus that's bolstered by light acidity followed by some real heat and peppery notes on the finish thanks to the higher alcohol. Flavour-wise, the dried fruit notes are certainly front and centre, with the citrus notes offering more of a hat-tip to Cognac than Port. Port/Cognac references/similarities, there's still something about the Utopias that tastes decidedly like beer; I think it's an underlying malty note on the finish as well as a hint of wheat that do the trick here. It's not really fair to rate this, as it's unlike any beer I've ever tried. Fans (like me) of Port, scotch, Cognac or other similar spirits would really dig this - and while I'm glad I had a chance to pick up/taste the 2012 Utopias, I don't think I'll be braving the lineups come Saturday morning to get the 2013 version - if only because the timing means it's a big hit heading into the holidays.

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  • What gets brewing behind the scenes

    11/29/2013 11:13 PM

    Despite some fairly sketchy driving conditions — at least within the city — I bundled myself up Thursday morning and made my way out to Lockport to serve as a steward at the first annual Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge.

    The beer competition is being put on by the Winnipeg Brew Bombers, a group of local brewers. Both professional brewers - ie. actual bricks-and-mortar breweries - and home brewers were eligible to enter the competition (hence the "Pro/Am"), which is sponsored by local brewery Half Pints.

    Certified beer judges from across Manitoba and beyond convened in Lockport (in the big insulated garage at the home of one of the members of the Brew Bombers) Wednesday evening to start the process of meticulously examining the colour, clarity, aromas, flavours, texture and effervescence of the 400+ beers submitted to the competition. Beers are given a score and from each category emerges a winner, which advances to the Best in Show judging that happens Saturday afternoon. Sort of like the Westminster Dog Show, but tastier.

    As a steward, I was one of the guys fetching, pouring and delivering beers to judges at their two- or three-person panel. As is the case at the wine competitions I judge at, beers are tasted blind — judges are only given the style of beer, and don't know whether the brew in front of them is made by an amateur or pro.

    I'm used to sitting on the other side of the wall, and having people ferry out various glasses for me to sniff, swirl, sip and spit, so it was great to get a perspective on just how much work goes into making a competition such as this one run so smoothly.


    There were also some interesting differences between wine and beer judging:

    - At wine competitions, we typically get anywhere between 8-12 wines at a time for judging - usually all made from the same grape or in a similar blend. Notes are made on each wine (normally for the judges' use after the competition only), and scores are received by competition organizers and entered into the database/program used to tabulate finalists/etc.

    Beer judges, meanwhile, get one beer at a time. At beer competitions, judges are also given a separate, industry-standardized sheet of paper to fill in for each brew, a copy of which goes back to the brewer. Categories are highly specific about visual, aromatic, taste and textural components, with a section near the end of the sheet for suggestions, etc.

    Considering there are so many amateur brewers in the competition, this is a nice touch, as they tend to appreciate the tips/feedback. However, all of this means beer judging takes about twice as long as wine judging (in a typical wine-judging day I'd taste somewhere between 70-100 wines).

    - One thing you always have at a wine-judging table is a spit bucket - even if you just tasted one ounce of each wine, tasting 100 wines would be the equivalent of nearly four bottles of wine. Beer judges, however, don't seem too bothered to spit out what they're tasting (unless it's skunky swill), although they taste about half as many samples of a drink that brings one-third of the alcohol of most wines. (For what it's worth, judges at the Half Pints Pro/Am Challenge were also transported to and from the judging location, for what it's worth.)

    The winners are being announced Saturday night at Barley Brothers, with events getting underway around 7 p.m. for all to attend. On Thursday, Half Pints brewmaster Dave Rudge indicated his brewery would probably have a few special treats on-hand for toasting the winner of the competition.

    The main downside: Manitoba liquor laws dictate the public can't try homemade beer in a public venue.

    Up next in this space: reviews of a couple of recently released local brews and an import that fans of TV's Stark family should pick up while they can.

     

     

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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