Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bitters are Best! Notes from a beer tasting

The aftermath...

Hi everybody, before we get to the tasting I just want to mention that all may not be lost on the downtown brewpub location front! It’s incredible, for the past month we’ve been feeling rather stuck, that we had completely exhausted all the options for a decent location, and that no matter how much effort we put into this the horizons continue to look more like brick walls. And then one week later, and I won’t say much more than this (I’m hoping I’m not already jinxing us by saying anything at all), we are feeling a seismic sort of shift in the universal alignment and #boom# a host of new possibilities appear! Our hopes are cautiously renewed, and with them comes renewed energy and optimism. Cross your fingers for us, please…

This is obviously not an option for a location as it is in Mahone Bay.
However, it is incredibly cute and charming.
So, after our visit to Hell Bay, 6 pack in hand, we stopped by the Premier Wine and Spirit’s Boutique, on Dresden Row in Halifax. Although the name doesn’t suggest it, they also have an incredible selection of craft-brewed beer. We grabbed a varied assortment of ales and brought them back to Antigonish with us. Our plan was to have a little tasting session to help us analyze what it is we really love in a beer and develop a bit of a profile for the types of beers we want to create. However, our tasting crew, which was to include my folks, my sister and her fella, are very busy people. This meant it didn’t happen right away, which meant poor Terry and I had to accomplish the herculean feat of not drinking all the mysterious and exciting beers that were currently taking up the top shelf of our fridge…

We managed admirably, only dipping into one or two of the 6 Hell Bay brews we procured, and about a week later were able to get together with the crew for the big event. I wanted to try to do the whole tasting thing more or less properly, or at least have a few suggestions and hints for how to approach and articulate our experiences of these beers. So I found a few websites (here, and here, although I couldn't re-find my fave) with helpful info, made some notes, and then pulled out my clipboard as we all sat down to the table, much to my sister’s dismay (“Oh,  I thought we were actually going to have fun…”).

Of course, despite my scholarly approach, we did have fun–unlike a wine tasting, a beer tasting requires that you actually drink the beer! We sampled each of the beers and discussed and made notes on it’s appearance (colour, cloudiness, the way it pours, the head might be “rocky” or smooth), aroma (hops or malt? Spicy, fruity, etc.), mouthfeel (weight or texture, eg. “a silky, dry stout” or “a thick and chewy scotch ale”), taste and finish (includes after taste).

So, to introduce the contenders in the order we sampled them:

Propeller Kristall Weiss (NS wheat beer)
Bell’s Oberon Ale (a wheat ale hand delivered from Michigan!)
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel Routes des Épices (a rye ale with pepper, QC)
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel Rosée d’Hibiscus (ale with hibiscus flowers and spices, QC)
Oxfordshire Ales Triple B’ Bitter (UK bitter or pale ale)
Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted Blonde Ale (Scotland!)
Hell Bay English Ale (a traditional English bitter from NS)
La Vache Folle Extra Special Bitter
Lost Coast Indica IPA (a west coast India Pale Ale, from California)

Lovely labels. But how do they taste???

We did our best to describe what we were tasting and observing, had a few rather pointed disagreements (the pepper beer really divided the ranks), and a few clear winners:  A few choice comments on various brews: “warm, tasty middle,” “tastes better than it sells”,  “unambitious,” “light and airy-fairy,” “jammy,” “boozy,” “pruney,” “very fluffy,” “mega yucky,” “ridiculous colour,” “disturbing colour” (those last two were both about the hot pink hibiscus ale), “appearance: too dark and scary, taste: NO No No!” (that was my father on the peppery one). By the end we were all a bit tipsy, but had a somewhat better sense of what it is we really love in a beer.

Terry and Will approach the pink cautiously...
We all really, really enjoyed the Harviestoun Bitter & Twised with its incredible citrusy hop aroma, and really well balanced taste. Their favourite in Irleand, Susie and Will say it’s even tastier on tap. We’ve also previously enjoyed their  Old Engine Oil porter. We also agreed that Hell Bay’s caramel malts and bitter hops were perfectly balanced, although it seemed to drop off rather abruptly after each sip.  And the Lost Coast full-bodied, hoppy IPA was also a hit. None of us were overly fond of the Kristall Weiss, or quite sure what to make of the pink hibiscus beer, and we were all a bit confused by the La Vache Folle’s ESB which was at once bitter, jammy, and very boozy… tasty, actually, but only in small doses. Other opinions were less universally held. Some us really enjoyed the peppery rye and thought it would pair incredibly with a steak. One among us loved the Triple B, finding it well balanced and subtle, while the rest of us found it overly sweet and malty.

My mother, Anna, and sister, Susie delve deeper...
As you may have noticed, the range of beers was somewhat limited, some summery wheat beers, some novelties, and a lot of bitters. We know we want to make an English style bitter ale (also known as pale ales), with a nice balance of hoppy bitterness and aroma and caramel malt. We may experiment with wheat beers in the summer months. But what about winter beers? And IPAs? We really only sampled one, and IPAs are among the most popular craft beers being brewed the world over. I guess there is no way around it. We’ll probably have to have another tasting session for stouts, porters, IPAs and pilsners in the near future…. Care to join us?


  1. What fun! Fingers crossed, you are well and truly on the way. Thanks for the update, and especially the photos.

  2. Very excited for your plans. Keep me posted!

  3. Bitters _are_ better, but it's no surprise that the majority of you didn't think much of the Triple B - many English "Bitters" really aren't by modern standards.

    PS. Harviestoun's in Scotland...

  4. Thanks, guys! We'd be interested in hearing your faves, too. And, yes, Harviestoun is brewed in Scotland, but it's also available on tap in Ireland where Sue and Will grew to love it.