McArthur & Co., Toronto
Soft cover, $19.95 US; $24.95 Canadian, 272 pp.
The Assignment: Taste and provide informed commentary on the beers from Canada’s 163 breweries and brewpubs between May and November 2000 to prepare a beer guide. Travel in excess of 10,000 kilometers by car and spend more than 50 hours flying time to gather the information. Conduct more than 60 blind tastings of beers sent to your home to sample and verify former tasting notes where applicable. Write about your findings.
For many of us, this assignment would be a dream come true. Apparently, for prolific beer author Stephen Beaumont, it was a trial. At least, what else am I to surmise, when out of 1,300 beers, he finds only one “world class” beer? Pity.
Not that I disagree with his choice. McAuslan’s Oatmeal Stout is “an outstandingly creamy and complex beer,” which, according to Beaumont, contains a full symphony of “notes of coffee, raisin, date and plum in the aroma and a mouth-coating, espresso-ish body holding dark chocolate and roasted malt flavors along with hints of anise and smoke.” Amen! It’s a great breakfast beer, too!
No one can ever fault Beaumont for not taking up Michael Jackson’s call to provide descriptions about the taste of beer. He finds Labatt’s Blue to be “a light gold lager with a perfumey aroma and grassy character.” And in what must be the understatement of the year, he opines Coors Light as “subtle-tasting, thinnish.”
If a beer has character, Beaumont has words to describe it. The three-star Arkell Best Bitter from Wellington County Brewery “has a floral, lightly nutty (pecan?) character with dryish notes of caramel and hay and a mildly bitter, dry finish.” Iron Duke Strong Ale from the same brewery “is a round, malty warmer that combines dark chocolate notes with hints of allspice and port wine.” For Belgian beer aficionados, Beaumont gives Maudite, brewed by Unibroue in Chambly, Quebec, 3.5 stars. He writes, “the stylistically enigmatic but quite delicious, 8 percent (beer) is still a masterpiece of restrained complexity (it is?) with its dryish finish, earthy mix of chocolate, fruit and spice.”
Often criticized for not enjoying lager, Beaumont waxes eloquent about Creemore Springs Premium lager. This three-star “is a highly flavorful beer that is difficult to classify, said to be in the Bohemian pilsner style but more like a Vienna lager with its sweetish, malty palate and drier, toasty, faintly fruity character.” As for Creemore’s seasonal urBock, rating two stars for 2000, the author says it “showed a lightly sweet body with notes of petrol and dates and a dry, moderately roasty finish with a slight, warm note of alcohol.”
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I have reservations about some of Beaumont’s findings. For example, he calls Dragon’s Breath by the now defunct Hart/Robinson Brewing Co. balanced! His notes must have been mixed-up. This was the most gloriously unbalanced hoppy beer in the Ontario market!
This, however, is not a fault. To my thinking, two of the leading attributes of a successful beer guide are its ability to provoke heated debate and to encourage the reader to go out and learn more about the beer he/she loves from first-hand experience. This Beaumont does in spades, from his symphonic descriptions to his draconian rating system.
Throwing out the traditional language of beer and beer judging, in his chapter, “The Greatness of a Beer,” the author tells the reader to be wary of judging a beer by style alone and claims to take a “more holistic approach to beer tasting.” Balance is the first item in this equation, by which he means “that the component parts of the flavor blend together within the beer.”
After balance, Beaumont looks for character, which he describes as a beer’s ability to capture his attention. The final element in this rating system “is that intangible something—what the French would be perfectly content describing as a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ It is what makes a beer stand out on any occasion, irrespective of circumstance, and an attribute that takes a beer with body, character and style and elevates it to the next level.”
Along with the creation of the mystical beer rating system, The Great Canadian Beer Guide features a cursory chapter on the history of brewing in Canada, the obligatory chapters on brewing and terms, and a concise chapter on beer appreciation complete with a chart matching beer with food. The bulk of the book is naturally taken up by short histories of the respective breweries, brewpubs and, of course, the beers.
Would I buy this book? Sure. With Canada’s brewing industry blossoming from 74 facilities in 1993 to 163 today, where else are you going to find such a comprehensive listing with which to pursue your passions? And how else can you carry on a heated debate into the wee hours of the morning about your favorite tipple with “a leading international authority”—without ever leaving your chair?