Category: Reviews

In the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of going to two distinct festivals in Toronto (sorry Session, I heard you were terrific but I was unable to see past my throbbing hangover after a best friend’s birthday).

The Hart House Craft Beer Festival is in it’s 4th year at UofT. Held in the quad that sits smack-dab in the middle of the aforementioned cultural centre, it’s got an impeccable reputation with enthusiasts and it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that it’s played a large role in the craft beer renaissance taking shape in our city.

Beside the excellent beer, they’ve got a free BBQ and a couple of DJs from CIUT, one of the best radio stations around. Did it live up to my expectations?

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Infinium (227660, 750 mL, $15) is not a great beer. It’s not as bad as you might have heard but it’s certainly interesting and a bit unexpected; like a blind date where you both choose the same bar to meet up at.

The girls I was having dinner with that night got excited when I pulled it out of my bag. “Oooh, you brought champagne!” Bring it to any party and you’ll probably get a favorable reaction but the similarities end there. Might as well get that out of the way right now.

Infinium is not like champagne.

It’s housed in a champagne-style bottle with a cork you can pop to great effect. It’s made with champagne yeast and is indeed effervescent although not dry. Those of you looking to make that comparison will be disappointed; as will anyone hoping to persuade their significant other to drink more beer.

Infinium is no gateway beer.

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Nørrebro Bryghus, hailing from the Danish craft beer scene, is the latest brewery to have its turn in the spotlight of the LCBO’s Featured Brewery program.

Like Harviestoun before, Nørrebro can be a bit tricky to locate. I had no trouble picking up the first four but the Var Tripel (210773, 600 mL, $9.35) eluded me. From what I’ve read, it’s a Belgian-inspired triple with lots of spice and citrus notes. Sounds tasty.

Attractively-packaged with a color scheme right out of the ’70′s, the large bottles are designed for sharing so I invited some friends over to help me drink them before we went out that night. Here’s what we thought…

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Crawford is about to shake up the Little Italy nightlife.

Last Saturday nearly turned out to be a bust for me and my friends. While all the essentials (what we were going to drink and whose house we were starting at) had been figured out, a simple mistake nearly unraveled the whole endeavor.

One of my friends was under the impression that 90′s Party, the retro montly at Neutral was happening this weekend when it was actually scheduled for next weekend. Although there was another 90′s party at Augusta House, I haven’t been interested in going there since 2007 so we had to find a new spot and fast.

A couple of phone calls later, we heard that Bang The Party! was moving to a new bar on Crawford and decided to check it out.

(For the rest of the article, please continue on to blogTO.)

With a solid team behind the bar and plenty of positive word-of-mouth, look for Crawford to be one of the biggest bars in Toronto for 2011.

When it comes to drinking, beer is my default option.

I’ll have a cocktail to celebrate and wine often finds its way onto the family table with a meal but whether I’m on the tail end of a long day or out with friends, a pint or two is very often just the thing.

This preference owes its allegiance to no particular season but as far as I’m concerned, beer is at its best in winter. Although crisp lagers will always embody summer for me, much like cider and pumpkin ales do in the fall, the first sight of snow always brings to mind winter beers.

Not a brew style per say, they do embody a number of characteristics that make them perfect when taking refuge from the cold. They’re stronger (with ABVs ranging up to 12%), both in flavor and alcohol content, with a complexity that can come from the addition of spices, fruit or even specific combinations of malt and hops.

Very often, a winter beer won’t taste quite the same from one year to the next which means you should pick up at least two or three. Some brews cellar quite well and giving it a couple months or even longer can result in an interesting shift in its flavor.

This year’s release was pretty good but a bit heavy on porters and stouts. It would be nice to see some more variety but one can’t have everything, can one? For information on cellaring your beers, check out The Malt Monk’s article in EatDrink magazine’s holiday issue.

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southern tier pumkingA month and a half ago, I was walking down College St. when I passed Nirvana which, along with its sister restaurants Last Temptation, Red Room and the recently-deceased Green Room; provides cheap food and drink to a largely-student clientele.

The sandwich board cheerfully announced that they now had pumpkin ale on draught and I remember this big grin coming out of nowhere, right across my face as I thought to myself, “Terrific! It’s that time of year again.”

Of course, I had to stop in for a quick pint and even though it was Amsterdam (a weaker example of this seasonal), I was still quite happy to drink it.

Hallowe’en may be over but the season’s not and when I think of what I enjoy drinking most at this time of year, pumpkin ale definitely tops the list (that and whisky).

Not all pumpkin ales are the same of course. A few are quite sweet, others bring the spices to the forefront and some prefer to let the beer do the talking. Fans are generally split between those who prefer an easy-drinking, lighter mouthfeel and others such as myself who enjoy a rich, sweet explosion that references the dessert.

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proof whiskyProof (173351, 500 mL, $19.95) Whisky is a bit of a mystery. The bottle says its produced in Toronto but a little sleuthing on the internet says it’s from Alberta. (Edit: Adam McDowell of The National Post says he heard it was produced by Highwood Distillers who also make Centennial 10 Year Old)

It also goes on to say that they’re going to release a rum and a vodka too. Right off the bat, this doesn’t sit too well with me. See, when I look at a spirit, I want to know that they’re putting out a product that they believe in. These guys should really love their whisky, I mean really love it. I want to buy my booze from true believers who know their stuff and can’t wait to share it with everyone.

So when I hear that a company is trying to diversify its brand by releasing three spirits, all marketed under the same eye-catching design; I get a bit suspicious. I start to think that maybe it’s not about the product after all but more of a gratuitous circle-jerk centered around a too-obvious marketing campaign trying desperately to cultivate a little cachet with the urban crowd.

I’m down with Canadian whisky. Hell, I’m damn-near patriotic at times and if you give me a decent product at a fair price, I’ll buy it every time. Centennial 10 Year Old (387209, 750 mL, $24.80) and Century Reserve 15 Year Old (105858, 750 mL, $30.05) are quite strong competitors and neither of them are trying to be quite so cool as Proof.

But enough about the goddamned look of the bottle. Is the whisky any good?

Pouring it into my cowboy-style shot glass, I take a whiff. Very clean with the alcohol front-and-center (I guess that extra 2% really does give it some “edge”). A couple of sips in, it becomes very clear that this is hardly any different from your dad’s Canadian Club. It’s a bit sweet, as Canadian whiskies generally go in that direction and there’s any interesting citrus element tucked away in there but this is hardly memorable. If anything it reminds me of my college days when my fellow freshmen and I thought we were trading up by going for the C.C. Reserve.

This whisky is a mixer and while you could do worse, the irritating marketing campaign hardly puts me in a favorable state of mind that would find me going back for a second bottle. Drop the pouty models and put a fuckin’ deer on the label.

pouty model

(Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Canadian whisky “whiskey”. I blame spell-check. Maybe lack of sleep.)

hintachino nest real ginger beerOne of my favorite things they do to beer is adding flavorings to beer to create something new. Fruits and spices make for great adjuncts so when I picked up a bottle of Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew (171546, 330 mL, $3.95) I figured I might be onto a good thing.

I like non-alcoholic ginger beer and ginger ale. Some of the best I’ve ever had was made by Kyle Burch of the sadly defunct Bespoke Bar blog from his house. He’d brew it in leftover Beau’s Lugtread Ale ceramic bottles. It was peppery as all hell with a much softer carbonation than was found in the commercial recipes. Both types go very well with West and East Indian food; the spicier the better.

Anyway, I decided to make a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches to eat with the ginger beer. There were some interesting odds and ends in my fridge and I’d had a hankering for one ever since I visited The Grilled Cheese, a little cafe serving just that in Kensington Market at 66 Nassau St.

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When I first moved to Toronto back in 2001, the only cider you could get was Strongbow. I had a lot of fun drinking six-packs in High Park but due to my generally-high levels of consumption, I soon grew tired of the bubbly, apple beverage.

Over the years, I’ve tried every cider out there, from Bulmer’s to Gaymer’s but I’ve stuck to the English ciders because their Canadian counterparts are usually sugary and about as enjoyable as a cooler.

On a recent expedition to my local LCBO, I picked up  a new can of cider. I didn’t pay much attention to what it was all about (novelty can go a long way with me) but when I examined William Premium Cider (173039, 473 mL, $2.75)  closer later on, I was pleased to see that not only was it Canadian but certified organic as well.

After letting it chill, I cracked open the can and poured myself a glass and goddamn if it didn’t snack-crackle-pop with the sheer force of the carbonation! While the head dissipated rather quickly, the bubbles continued for a good long while. A nose of apple and pear continues into its taste which is thankfully not too sweet; about on the level of a extra-dry sparkling wine. Without lingering around like a recalcitrant guest, it provides the kind of finish that complimented the rotisserie chicken and bok choi (sautéed with garlic and sesame seeds) that I paired it with.

It would go equally well with a spinach salad, particularly if one were to add candied pecans and strawberries or something along those lines. Whether you drink it by itself or alongside a meal, William Premium Cider definitely holds its own against Strongbow or Magner’s and has the added benefit of coming from our side of the pond.

(Image taken from Conception Focus. My camera’s acting up…)

A recent foray into the LCBO at the Manulife Centre (after a screening of Iron Man 2) led to me discovering a a new hefeweizen called Georg Schneider’s Wiesen Edel-Weisse (157651, 500 mL, $3.25).

These types of beers are German, feature at least a 50:50 ratio of wheat to barley malt, strong notes of banana and cloves and a dry and tart mouthfeel (unlike the Dutch witbiers, think Hoegaarden, which are typically made with unmalted wheat and have more of a citrus and herbal taste).

It sat in my fridge for a couple of days because you don’t just casually drink this beer before a night out on the town. This is a beer best savored when you have nothing else to do.

Monday came along and after dinner, I decided to have at ‘er. After leaving it out to take some of the chill off, I cracked it open and poured it into my vase-like Erdinger glass.

I was immediately impressed by the cloudy, golden color and the thick, substantial head. Even after the first swallow, there was a good amount of lacing. There was also a fair bit of carbonation which is always nice to see if you’ve ever been served a pint with maybe half-a-dozen lonely bubbles crawling to the surface.

The dominant aroma was one of banana and cloves which continued on in the flavor with wheat malt, some citrus and bitterness from the hops that lasts a surprisingly long time.

I’m surprised by how long it took me to finish this but this is a substantial beer that is not meant for downing quickly. Thankfully, in the time it took to drain my glass, it stayed refreshing. A nice, dry finish lingers and although I can’t remember what the original Schneider Weisse tastes like, the fact that this one’s organic makes it a winner as far as I’m concerned.

This is not the type of beer you might want drink more than one of but it would certainly suit for a quiet evening. Definitely a worthy alternative to Edelweiss Snowfresh White Weissbier (73718, 330 mL, $1.95)  (which is making a welcome return to LCBO shelves this summer.)

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