Like much of the craft beer world in Toronto tap takeovers seem to be progressively changing. From humble beginnings as an opportunity for a brewery to showcase all of its half-dozen or so beers at once, we've moved to much larger and varied selections that include special one-offs and collaborations.
Last Saturday at barVolo, Amsterdam's head brewer Iain McOustra and his team offered 32 different beer selections for sampling.
Many were collaborations were partners including: Biergotter, House Ales, Great Lakes, Indie Ale House, Bridgid Young, Erica Graholm, and the Swansea Homebrew Club. It's worth mentioning that the long list of sources for barrels covered several Niagara favourites like Tawse, Flat Rock, Southbrook, and Thirty Bench.
The food for sale was made by Hogtown Charcuterie and once the doors opened to non-ticket holders at 10 PM DJ Trappist provided music.
From the list as a whole two things stood out for me. Many of the beers had a fermentation profiles that was well outside mainstream because they were sours, included Brett, or wild yeasts; and even more were aged in barrels. After what we learned on our visit last spring to the old Amsterdam brewery, I don't think either Mike or I were surprised to see these focuses.
Thirty-two options — even in quarter-pint samples — is a long list to make it all the way through. Mike and I did what we could and want to share some of our favourites with you. Unfortunately, you won't be able to find these at the LCBO or even at the brewery (except in a few rare cases) but look out for them at future events.
David Ort's Picks
Raspberry Gose, aged in Flat Rock Pinot Noir barrels in collaboration with Great Lakes 5.7% ABV, 14 IBUs
Gose is the regional style of the part of Germany around Leipzig and actually features a bit of salt in the recipe. The style's sour edge kept the raspberry and Pinot flavours from dominating or feeling too light. Between the fruit and time in barrel the sourness in this beer was light and crisp without being at all funky. It came from one of the handful of taps that were set up on the (partially heated) barVolo patio so the flavours opened considerably after some time in hand.
Satyr Farmhouse 6.7% ABV, 20 IBUs
The one-off attributes to note with this selection are the addition of Brett Lambicus and Lactobacillus during fermentation. Maybe the funkiness was calmed during its year of aging, but I was surprised at how calm evenly refreshing the Satyr managed to be. The spicy aromas and flavour of slightly overripe plums and peaches did deliver some complexity for what would be an excellent summer sipper. Generally, we should probably look forward to finding more options in the Farmhouse and (related) Saison styles when the weather warms up in four or five months–even if most of them won't have the same funky complexity. I just wish I'd had this one before the gose.
Lady Stavoren Wheat Wine 9% ABV, 89 IBUs
Wheat beers usually set up camp in the "light", "herbal", and "refreshing" sections of the beer spectrum. Not this one. On top of the warming alcohol strength it had a remarkably pleasant balance between grain sweetness and hops bitterness. If I had the choice this would be what I used to take the bite out of those frosty March nights while we're waiting for Spring to break. And the name? Have a look at the wikipedia article.
Michael Di Caro's Picks
Divination #2 6.5% ABV, 16 IBUs
This is sort of a sequel to Amsterdam's Divination #1, which was released last year at the Hart House Craft Beer Festival. Much like the name suggests this series aims to incorporate elements of the winemaking process and hopefully results in some interesting insights and tasty beers. Just like with Divination #1 head brewer Iain McOustra collaborated with winemaker Ross Wise (a trained and former professional brewer himself) as well as fellow beer-loving Niagara winemaker Greg Yemen. For this version of Divination wild yeast from last year's Niagara grape harvest was collected and used in the secondary fermentation of a special batch of Amsterdam's wheat-based Framboise before aging it one year. The beer possesses the same refreshing wheat character and tart pure raspberry flavour of the normal Framboise, but with some added layers of complexity. As it warmed-up beautiful red-plum, wild strawberry and rose petal flavours and aromas emerged, as well as a very mild hint of the sea-breeze salinity and savoriness—similar to a gose or lambic (another style of beer that relies on wild yeast). But where this beer really shines is the fuller, richer texture the grape yeast provides. Just like tweed there's some lasting substance and a comforting rustic nature to it, but it still manages to possess a smooth, rich and refined character.
Ezra (Solera #2) ABV 6.5%, 20 IBUs
This beer is another collaborative effort, but this time with Great Lakes Brewery and an assist from Caledon's Spirit Tree Cidery. It's made using the solera system (most closely associated with sherry) in which you fill a number of containers (in this case barrels) with liquid and let them age. When the liquid is ready part of the oldest barrel is bottled for consumption and then the next oldest barrel is used to top-up what was taken out of the oldest barrel. This continues down the line until fresh liquid is added to the youngest one. The thought process is some of that original liquid makes it into many successive bottlings, adding a touch of evolving complexity. This particular batch has a lovely nose and palate of golden apple and floral peach. That melds nicely with the spicy notes of this farmhouse style and the oak from the barrel. The previously filled cider barrel adds a touch of satisfying roundness that plays-off the lively carbonation and just like a great Chardonnay, the result is balanced beautifully by just enough fresh acidity.
Decalogue (1), ABV 6%, 25 IBU
This is the kind of beer I suspect Amsterdam will be pouring a little more regularly once it opens its 800 seat Brewhouse and Grill on Queens Quay in May. This is a golden ale made using Brettanomyces bruxellensis Trois yeast and is barrel fermented and aged for six months. Beers brewed with brettanomyces and beers that are barrel fermented can have a polarising reputation of being big and bold, but this one doesn't feel brash at all. It has a gorgeous topical nose of mango, pineapple, apricot and caramel that carrys over to the palate once you take a sip. Towards the finish it shows another side with a refreshing dryness and yeasty bread note along with some intriguing subtle undertones of spice, alfalfa and wet leather providing some welcome grit. The barrel fermentation works beautifully with those flavours and produces a body that is wonderfully rich and creamy without a heaviness or overtly oaky flavour. This ale serves as great introduction into the fascinating world of brett beers.
Overall A Night with Amsterdam and Friends delivered an interesting top-quality line-up with a breadth that local craft beer lovers rarely see. It was eagerly embraced with some lustful abandon so I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar event before year's end. Hopefully this is a sign of Toronto's growing and maturing craft beer market and that there are many more good things to come for those that love the wide and delicious world of well-crafted beer.