The Grape Nut
with Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
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.
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.
11/21/2013 11:40 AM
OK, so the Beaujolais Nouveau has landed and it's out there for sale now. Every year on the third Thursday in November, these wines are released to the public, with increasingly dwindling fanfare. As the quality of the wines has plateaued and the prices have continued to rise, there's been little reason to get overly excited about the wines. You can read more about my thoughts on Gamay/Beaujolais here.
Having said that, I'm generally a big fan of wines made with the Gamay Noir grape, although the Nouveau wines rarely impress over the long term.
Generally speaking, Beaujolais Nouveau wines are fresh and fruity, and should be drunk sooner rather than later — they're optimal reds to have with turkey dinner at Christmas.
Here are my first impressions of a couple of the reds available in our market...
Georges Dubœuf 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau (Beaujolais, France -- $16.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The sole Beaujolais Nouveau brought in by Manitoba Liquor Marts this year, the Dubœuf is bright purple in colour, with strawberry candy, raspberry jam and light yeasty notes, as well as an underlying latex-y aroma that's a bit perplexing. It's decidedly light-bodied and quite juicy, yet there's some tannin that dries out the red berry notes a touch. I also picked up a hint of tart greenness to the fruit that's accentuated by a splash of acidity — a touch underripe, perhaps? I'll revisit this over the next couple days to see if my opinion changes. Right now, though, I'm certainly not blown away. 2/5
Signé Vignerons 2013 Domaine de L'Aubépin Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau (Beaujolais-Villages, France -- around $20-21, private wine stores)
The Domaine de L'Aubépin is from the smaller Beaujolais-Villages region. It's slightly darker in colour than the Dubœuf, and is a little less immediately generous on the nose. Floral, fresh strawberry, and red licorice aromas don't come across quite as sweet-smelling on the nose as the former wine, and eventually secondary blueberry skins and spice show themselves. This wine shows far better ripeness than the Dubœuf, with plush red fruit — especially ripe strawberries and cherry skins — working well with light tannin. This Gamay Noir brings nice intensity and decent structure, and is certainly work the extra few bucks. 4/5
11/9/2013 10:52 PM
If you have a hydrometer or a carboy in your basement, chances are you've made your own beer before — heck, you may consider yourself somewhat of a budding brewmaster.
Well, if you think your lager or ale stands up to other homebrewers, you may want to think about entering the first annual Half Pints Pro/Am Brew Challenge. Put on by the Winnipeg Brew Bombers in conjunction with local brewery Half Pints, the competition pits homebrewer vs. homebrewer in a battle to see whose beer reigns supreme.
(Of note: There are also categories for mead, cider, and perry [pear cider], which I get to help judge.)
There are two overarching categories — professional and amateur — with first, second and third place in each category. A professional and amateur winner will be named from each beer category on both sides, from which a Best of Show will be crowned.
The winner of Best of Show gets a special treat — they'll get to make 1,000 litres of their beer at Half Pints Brewing Company as a special release, which will then be available at the brewery and at select pubs/beverage establishments on tap.
Interested in entering? You can do so here until November 22.
Judging takes place from Nov. 28-30, which is closed to the public. There are, however, a few public events taking place over that weekend. Thursday night is the Judges' Pub Night at the Yellow Dog Tavern (which will feature a special Half Pints cask), Friday night is the Brewer's Beer Dinner at Mise Haute Prairie Cuisine, and Saturday is the awards ceremony, taking place at Barley Brothers. Tickets for the beer dinner are $65 plus taxes and gratuities — for the menu etc. click here. The other events, to my knowledge, are free.
Brew Bombers vice president David Phillips says he hopes the event can eventually morph into some sort of craft beer week.
Of note: serving home brew to the public isn't allowed, so you won't be able to taste the competition unless you make friends and do so behind closed doors, which is really a shame.
The deadline for getting your beer/mead/cider/perry in to the competitionis Nov. 22, so fire up the bottling line and get to it. Registration is online here.
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.
Blogs that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson follows:
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