Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Fresh Headstock and Hot Buttered Beer highlight Winter Beer Festival

I got my first lesson in beer freshness at my pal Don's place, in the hours before we trudged through the tundra to attend the Burlington Winter Beer Festival.

I've had Headstock, Nickel Brook's fantastic IPA, many, many times but I've never been able to drink it straight from the growler, or visited the Burlington brewery for that matter. Don calls those happy things Monday. And Tuesday. And sometimes all the other days in the week.

So while we were waiting for the steaks to finish sizzling on the BBQ (you just lay a towel down in the snow and step out in your flip-flops to cook, in case you were wondering how we Moose-Kissers do it up here) I was instructed to help myself from the fridge. I grabbed a growler of Headstock - Don had picked it up a couple of hours before and it was still unopened - and poured myself a glass, choosing Captain America from Don's super hero stemware collection.

Mind. Blown.

Mmmm Headstock IPA
It had all the hoppy, bitter awesomeness of regular Headstock, but with a healthy dollop of fresh adrenaline added to the mix. It was simply amazing.

I remember having more than one. More than a couple, more like. Okay, we finished the growler. Stop judging.

We also dipped into my own beer stash from Consumers Beverages in Niagara Falls, N.Y. while we waited to hear if our other friends - and my date - were going to make the fest on this stormy, wintry day. I wasn't going to let the threat of a major winter storm stop me from a border crossing to grab some American IPAs from Stone Brewing and others, but I realized not everyone has my dedication/total lack of wisdom.

So we cracked open a bottle of Double Jack from California's legendary Firestone Walker brewery, just because one growler of delicious IPA is never enough. This is a 9.5 per cent powerhouse that is heavy on the malt and the boozy goodness, with some citrus and pine bitterness lingering in the background.

I think we were off to a good start. Unfortunately, the texts started coming in from our friends that the snow was going to keep them home bound, so Don and I grabbed our coats and headed downtown to the Waterfront Hotel, hosts of the festival.

How we do winter BBQs
(in flip flops) in the frozen north
Most of the big players were there, such as Flying Monkeys, Muskoka, Mill Street, Cameron's, Amsterdam and Beau's, along with some brewers I hadn't tried before. All of them - and us - were jammed into what looked like a medium-sized conference room in the hotel and the only nod to 'winter' in the name of the festival was the adjoining tent, which served up chili and baked potatoes and provided an opening for the die-hard smokers - I'm looking at you, Don - to get their fix on.

We entered and turned left - finely tuned clocks turn clockwise for a reason, I guess - and I hit up the Amsterdam booth first off to try their brand-new Cruiser All Day Pale Ale, a 4.9 per cent session ale that has been the talk of a few of my friends lately. Chief among the people singing its praise was Amsterdam regular Cat, who was supposed to attend this event but was scared away by the weather. No worries, Cat. I drank it and loved it. Full-on citrus aroma and delightfully smooth, this light-bodied ale is packed with Citra and Sorachi hops: two of my favourites.

(Amsterdam should be happy to note that my review on Rate Beer pushed its score from 83 to 85. I did my part.)

After that it was a bit of a blur, but I remember having Headstock (of course) and Maple Porter from Nickel Brook, watching Don have a beergasm ("Here's two tickets. Fill my glass, please") over Flying Monkeys awesome Division By Zero (an 11.5 per cent Imperial Nut Brown Ale), and enjoying a new IPA from Beau's All Natural called Mission Accomplished. This was a 6.7 per cent ale made with the classic west coast hops (Citra, Cascade, Centennial and Simcoe) plus a dose of Rakau from New Zealand. Not overpowering but real tasty.

I had Mad Tom from Muskoka and Cameron's Rye Pale Ale - both old favourites - and I even tried a Singha Lager, which isn't exactly craft beer. Meh. I've had worse.
Don with Trish Watson of Turtle Island

The highlight turned out to be found at Turtle Island, one of those newbies (for me, anyway) on the beer fest circuit, and their Hot Buttered Beer. This is their Ixcacao Triple Chocolate Stout, mixed and warmed with crockpot melted butter. More like a special dessert treat than any beer I've had before, this stuff was delicious.

It was about that time when  Don wandered over in full voice, having just experienced his double Division By Zero (is that even mathematically possible?), and a nice gentleman named Wayne - who turned out to be one of the co-founders of the festival - politely asked us if, perhaps, we've had enough beer for the evening?

It's like he was psychic or something.

So we bundled outside in the cold to hail a cab (and for me to drop my awesome commemorative glass onto the sidewalk) and headed back to Donnie's Bar and Grill, where I quickly passed out in the easy chair, beer in hand.

Let's do this again soon.


I took a different approach to my border crossing this time. Instead of trying to smuggle a few bottles whilst declaring a six-pack or so, I went for the honest angle. I put all my buys - seven bombers and a six-pack of regular bottles - right up front with me. Canada Customs still rifled through my trunk and the un-amused fellow implied I was an idiot for going all that way just for a few beers. Clearly a Coors Light drinker, he nonetheless waved me through, duty free. Honesty worked!

My haul included the aforementioned Double Jack from Firestone Walker, a few Ruination (I had forgotten how bodaciously bitter this beer was) and a trio of Enjoy By (02-14-15) IIPAs from Stone Brewing. I also picked up a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for Don's co-worker Marie (she wanted it for a recipe) and a six-pack of West Coast Double IPA from San Diego's Green Flash Brewery.

I also went home with six tall boys of Immodest, the Imperial IPA from Nickel Brook that I had been seeking for weeks - I had it once before, nearly a year ago - so all in all a pretty damn good haul.

I'll do that again soon, too.


Stone Brewing wanted to ensure their Enjoy By IPA series of beers were enjoyed fresh; so much that they put the best-before date right in the beer's name. This one was 02-14-15, which also happened to be Don's birthday, and it did not disappoint. Citrus aroma with grapefruit and orange, giving way to a little stickiness and some floral notes. This beer is fairly bursting with flavour and if not for the small boozy kick at the end I'd never have known it was a 9.4 per cent double IPA. Terrific beer.

Still fresh and delicious on 02/07/15
The West Coast Double IPA was another winner, though there was no subtlety with this 95 IBU brew. It looks like an ale in beast mode with that rich copper colour and sure smelled like it, with a heavy dose of pine making no secret of the rock solid malt backbone. Really smooth and sticky at the same time. Powerful beer.

I should mention another beer that was still in my fridge when I returned home Sunday morning (after first stopping at my workplace for a seven-hour shift to fight the storm, hangover and all): Love Triangle IPA from Indie Ale House. I bought a growler of this and was impressed. It was so chock-full of Calypso hops I could hear the steel drums banging in my head and it tasted like pine and citrus-scented grass with a slightly floral/citrus aroma, with a touch of vanilla. Very nice.

Immodestly fantastic
The winner on this weekend, however, was the Immodest IIPA Don had snared for me at one of his daily brewery visits to nearby Nickel Brook. I wanted this beer so bad I put three of my best men on the job: Don; fellow beer writer Chris, who promised to mail me some if he could find it; and Darryl,  my friendly neighbourhood publican, who said he'd try to grab a keg before it was gone. Both of the latter gentlemen, fine men that they are, failed in their quest, leaving Don, who said he nearly OD'd on the stuff before grabbing one of the last six-packs for me, to come through.

Thanks bro. This was a truly extraordinary beer. They used an "obscene" amount of Citra and Simcoe hops to give it strong aromas of grapefruit and pineapple with creamy pine notes and a solid caramel malt base on the way down. My highest rated beer so far.


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