How Craft Beer Has Changed My Palette

Like many Portuguese families growing up, my family encouraged wine with dinner. My Grandfather still drinks his homemade red wine with every meal. And as I’ve described in post’s past, we ate a lot of wonderful and delicious things. By all rights, I should have grown up a wine lover.

Alas, I am not. But that is changing, and I think I owe it all to craft beer.

In earnest, I didn’t start enjoying craft beer until about six or seven years ago. Since then, my palette has grown tremendously; I prefer barrel aged stouts and experimental sours to more traditional brews. In fact, having now tried thousands of different kinds of beer, one of my favorites remains Nickel Brook’s Winey Bastard, an Imperial stout aged in Pinot Noir barrels.

Late last year I started sampling with red wine out of curiosity and, much to my surprise, I’m really enjoying it! Red wine presents the same depths and complexities that I’ve come to expect in my favorite styles of beer. Fruity, chocolaty, toasted, acidic, boozy, bouquet, leathery, herbaceous, complex, smoky, spicy — these are all hallmark descriptors for some of the best beers in the world, and they belong right at home in a sommerlier’s vocabulary, too.

Wine drinkers, I’m putting you on notice: craft beer is a gateway to your world, and it should be vice-versa.



Brewery Visit: The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA)


Based out of Berkeley, California, The Rare Barrel is an exclusively-sour beer brewery at the forefront of the sour beer renaissance (currently the hottest trend in craft beer). In a pool of heavyweight breweries– think de Garde, Jolly Pumpkin, Lost Abbey, Almanac, Jester King, Wicked Weed — The Rare Barrel is, arguably, the best in the world right now at what they do.

Sour beer is complex, expensive and still largely misunderstood by the majority of beer drinkers. While almost always fermented with tart fruits, it is, in fact, the unique bacteria strains and barrel aging process that give sour beer their unique tart and funky taste. If you’ve never tried one, the best description is like drinking a cross between white wine and lemonade, with varying degrees of tartness. Sour beer is on the opposite spectrum of the bitter hop-bomb IPAs that have dominated the craft beer landscape over the five years. In that respect, they are refreshing, in more ways than one.

Situated in an industrial neighborhood, The Rare Barrel’s facility looks more like a warehouse than a brewery. It’s 20+ foot ceilings are stacked to the brim with rows of barrel racks, each filled with beers that need time (some, several years) to mature. Each barrel is like a fingerprint, imparting it’s own unique flavor profile to the batch as it ferments.


And there really is a search for that rare barrel amongst their collection. Each year, beer sommeliers and enthusiasts alike sample from each of the barrels in the warehouse, until they’ve come to a consensus on the best batch. That barrel is deemed the Rare Barrel.

I’ve visited The Rare Barrel a half dozen times, and each time they have an array of blends on tap, several bottles for purchase and a delicious sourdough grilled cheese to pair with your beer (and pair you should!). Unlike most other breweries today, The Rare Barrel does not offer growler fills to the general public. Given the rarity of what they’re producing, they simply can’t keep up with demand. If you want a growler filled, you need to be one of the lucky few who lands a membership in their Ambassador of Sour club. If I l lived in NoCal, no doubt, I’d want to join that club!

Tip: Finding The Rare Barrel’s bottles outside of the brewery is legendarily difficult. On my last trip, I was led to a local grocery store down the block from the brewery called Berkeley Bowl West. Here, you’ll find several bottles that you can’t get in the brewery, along with bottles from many other fantastic breweries. The grocery store is also a great spot for hard to find cheeses and delicious ethnic treats.


Brewery Visit: Great Lakes Brewery (Etobicoke, ON)

Situated in Toronto’s up-and-coming Etobicoke borough, Great Lakes Brewery (GLB) has won the best brewery in Canada award twice (2013, 2014) and has established itself as craft brewing force in Ontario. It’s flagship beers — Canuck Pale Ale and Pompous Ass English Pale Ale — can be found in LCBO’s across the province, and were part of the first beers to hit Loblaw’s shelves this year when Ontario finally passed a bill allowing for beer to be sold in grocery stores.

As a craft beer fan, you’ve got to love what GLB has done with it’s Project X and Tank Ten series lines. Project X is a members-only program that allows GLB fans to a monthly tasting of GLB’s experimental beers. These beers are also sold out of the brewery’s bottle shop in very limited amounts, and they sell out quickly. Among 2015’s most memorable Project X brews includes Harry Porter and the Cherry Hoarder, GLB’s Harry Porter infused with cherries.

GLB also uses it’s Project X program as a test pilot for experimental beers. If a Project X brew has rave reviews, they may move it to the Tank Ten series, casting a wider production net. These beers are seasonal and may, on occasion, be available outside of the brewery’s bottle shop. In my opinion, Tank Ten is where GLB produces some of their best beers. Standout’s include Thrust! An IPA (possibly the best Canadian IPA on the market), Karma Citra, Audrey Hopburn and Octopus Wants to Fight.

The brewery is unassuming, on a small side street sandwiched between the Gardiner and the Queensway. Though they do have a small taproom, most of the best beers in their offering can be snatched up in the bottle shop. The staff is always super cool, and because GLB does a lot of tap takeover’s across the GTA, they become familiar faces on the Toronto beer scene.

Lastly, and worth mention, is GLB’s Blonde Lager. In my opinion, it’s very underrated, and one of the most refreshing beers in the Toronto beer market. If I’m out fishing, or headed to the cottage, this is one of my go-to brews.

Notable Brews

Blonde, Harry Porter and the Cherry Hoarder, Thrust! An IPA, Life Sentence IIPA, Imperial Bout Imperial Stout

Brewery Visit: Bellwoods Brewery (Toronto, ON)


Nestled on one of the hippest blocks in downtown Toronto, Bellwoods Brewery isn’t just one of the most innovative breweries in the city, it’s widely considered to be among the best in the world!

As a cellar keeper and collector of aged beer, Bellwoods is often my go-to local brewery for Brett-laced sours, boozy stouts and porters that only improve with time. Their barrel program is among the best in Canada, and constant releases drive fans to their bottle shop (which is open until 11PM everyday, by the way) on a regular basis.

Don’t let their big, barrel-aged releases overshadow the rest of the Bellwoods beer catalogue, though. They produce some solid IPA’s and session ales, too. Witchshark, Boogie Monster and Roman Candle are all regularly available and respectable IPAs.

Aside from consistently innovative and fantastic beer, Bellwood’s also has some of the most creative and visually appealing label art in the business. Most of the labels can be purchased in poster-form in the bottle shop, and all are man-cave worthy. Notable labels include Witchshark , Farmageddon and 3 Minutes to Midnight.

Perhaps the only downside to Bellwoods is the brew pub. Being located in the heart of Toronto’s hipster-ville, the small bar area is always full and I personally find the crowd pretentious. If you manage to get a spot, though, the bottle list always has some old gems from the Bellwoods vault. The food is not bad at all, but you should note that you’re in the heart of Ossington/Dundas West and food choices near the bar are varied and fantastic.

**Note: Bellwoods has recently announced plans to open two new locations in Toronto! The location on Hafis Road will be dedicated to production and storage with a bottle shop; the location on Dupont Street will be a brew pub and event space (events are not managed by Bellwoods). To read more about the progress, follow their blog here.