With my frequent visits to the LCBO over the last few years, I’ve become more and more familiar with Ontario’s craft beer scene. Unlike Quebec, in Ontario alcohol can only really be sold in two establishments: the “LCBO” (Liquor Control Board of Ontario)” or “The Beer Store” (a chain of retail stores owned by multinational beer corporations located outside of Canada). Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who thinks this doesn’t make any sense. There are some fantastic breweries in Ontario, including GLB, Flying Monkeys, Muskoka, and so on. Almost all of my experiences with Ontario beers have been by purchasing them through the LCBO. That being said, one thing that Ontario has that the island of Montreal doesn’t allow, is the ability to purchase beer for take out from a brewery’s retail store. This means that you can walk into certain bars and buy bottles or growlers (reusable glass jugs) to bring home with you from their shop. Pretty awesome stuff!
Because most of my Ontario beer drinking experience has been through purchasing bottles from the LCBO, it was only recently that I was able to finally sample beer from Bellwoods Brewery. The Bellwoods Brewery Bottle shop is located in a pretty fantastic up and coming neighborhood West of downtown Toronto, and lucky for me I have some close friends who live practically next door to the Brew pub and Bottle shop. They’ve brought me bottles several times now – thanks so much guys! As well, my good friend Malty Tasker went this Christmas and got me a few bottles as well. It’s all about friends! Bellwoods beer is pretty much only sold in two places, the Bellwoods brew pub and bottle shop next door, so clearly they don’t mass produce by any means. And because they don’t make a shit-ton of beer, they are able to be more creative with the brewing process, experimenting with barrel aging, and style modification. I will say though, everything I’ve had by them so far was quite exceptional, and although they may be experimenting, there seems to be an underlining authenticity in everything they do, which is not something I can say about every brewery I enjoy.
I have so many bottles at this point that I’ll need to separate these articles by style. For this first one I’ll be talking about a few of Bellwoods hop-forward beers. Below, I have an Imperial IPA, an American Brown Ale, two American IPA’s, and an exquisite Belgian IPA. If you can believe it, although I have five hop forward beers listed below, there are many more IPA’s that they brew.
Boogie Monster – Imperial IPA
Boogie Monster is a 10.1% Imperial IPA. It doesn’t have it’s own label so I didn’t bother including it in the above “kneeling in the snow camera-phone photo shoot.” It seems that Bellwoods brews so many different beers that they can’t keep up with the artwork, and I don’t blame them! It pours out an orange amber color with a nice little head on top. Wow, the nose on this behemoth is all hops, with more hops, mixed with some more hops and a side of hops. I’m getting lots of citrus fruit, earthy freshly cut grass, strawberries, and a pretty potent amount of ethanol booziness.
On the flavor front there are loads of citrus fruits, with some piney hops, strawberries, and some minimal malt sweetness; but everything is cut down abruptly by a potent bitter and boozy finish. This is really hot, and certainly very “sharp” in many ways, but it works well with all the intoxicating hop flavors. After my palate adjusts, the alcohol becomes less apparent and the fruity, more sweet flavors come out – although minimal. This is really exceptional, and a bit unexpected. In my experience with IPA’s pushing 10%, they usually land in barleywine territory, with a huge malt bomb backdrop, and quite sweet. Rather, this pushes the limits of what a medium bodied IPA can be; just teetering on the threshold of being overly boozy, but never crossing that line as it finishes perfectly and extremely dry. This is something special here, I’d be excited to try it again.
Grizzly Beer – American Brown Ale
Grizzly Beer pours out a dark brown color with a thick, yet fluffy head that doesn’t disappear. The nose on this bad boy is extremely hop forward, with tons of pine and lemon zest, mixed with some caramel malt, coco, and maple syrup. Smelling this one made me quite excited because “American Brown Ale” can be a bit of a loose title, ranging from above average bitterness with virtually no discernible hop character, all the way to an explosion of hops, on all fronts. This one is closer the the latter, with citrusy American hops taking over, but still leaving room for the roasty brown malty goodness.
Wow, this has a much lighter body then I expected from the nose, and it’s also rather dry. Just as the nose foretold, it is extremely hop forward, with piney citrus hops at the forefront. The hops certainly own this beer, and I’m not complaining. However, there are some darker roasted malts peeking through all these hop flavors and bitterness, although not as much compared to other examples of the style. Caramel, brown sugar and nuts start coming through over time, although there is little to no sweetness here, and the little there is, is being masked by the bitter finish. This is a fantastic American brown ale (or India brown ale), and they are quickly becoming a favorite of mine, although they seem to be far less available as compared to American Black Ales (or Black IPAs).
Cat Lady – American IPA
Cat Lady IPA has one of the best labels I’ve ever seen, I don’t know the story behind it, but it’s hilariously amazing. It pours out clear orange with just a hint of amber. This is a frothy cloud like head that sticks around, causing great lacing around the glass. It looks purrrrrdy. Get it! Whatever, it’s funny.
It smells just like Red Racer (central city brewing), one of my favorite IPA’s out there – this is a good sign. It has a very fruity aroma, but not overtly citrus forward; rather I’m getting lots of strawberries and general red fruits, mixed in with a nice caramel maltyness. There is some lemon though, and a good amount of earthy yeast as well.
After the first sip I’m getting some booziness to start, followed by lots of fruity hops; although over all it’s much dryer than the aromas lets on. The bitterness is potent on this one, pushing a bit beyond the usual bitter IPA standards, and this certainly plays a role in my perception of how dry this beer is. As the beer warms and my palate adjusts to the bitterness (It’s always more sensitive in the daytime), the fruitiness comes out more, and the beer becomes a bit less dry. Strawberries and cherries come out, with a bit of citrus fruit, and some caramel malty sweetness as well. There is a nice, subtle vanilla finish to it, that rests on your tongue, alongside the intense bitterness. Over all this one is quite good. I should also note that the bottle is about two months old which can drastically change an IPA.
Catherine Wheel – Belgian IPA
Catherine Wheel pours out a foggy orange yellow color with a nice frothy white head. Oh my, the aroma is a giant citrus hop bomb. Amazing: it smells like Heady Topper. Lemon zest, orange peel, grass, and earthy hops are mixed with some nice spicy yeast esters, like cloves and cardamom. It’s also a bit musty, with some booze as well. I’m no hop expert, but I can only presume that this is heavily hopped with citra.
The taste pretty much mimics the nose. It is a little booze forward, with some orange and lemon zest, candied strawberries, apricots, peaches and grapefruit, alongside some grassy earthy hops, and it finishes with a lot of Belgian yeast flavors; Must, earthy yeast, and spices (cloves, etc…). This is one of, if not the best Belgian IPA’s I’ve had to date. It’s incredibly fruit forward, and light bodied, carrying a beautiful effervescence; everything on this one just works well. Bitterness is there, but not particularly pronounced. There is a zesty, slightly herbal backdrop from the yeast that really compliments the fruit forward hop profile. For those familiar with Dieu du Ciel!, Catherine Wheel could be the love child of Hèrbe a Détourne (New world tripel with Citra hops) and Moralité (American IPA).
Roman Candle – American IPA
Roman Candle pours out a clear amber orange color with a bone white head that sticks around. On the nose I get vanilla, pine, and a lots of candied fruit; Lemon and orange in particular. It smells sweet, with just a little bit of musty yeast. The more I take in, the more this reminds my of something; Strawberry shortcake! I guess it’s whatever is causing the vanilla aroma mixed with all the fruity hops.
The taste mimics the nose, but the heavy bitterness really cuts everything down, making the finish pretty dry. That being said, this is the least dry of the bunch, being quite malt forward. It’s also extremely fruity, with red fruits at the forefront, like strawberries and cherries. There is some citrus as well, but more orange, rather than the usual lemon zest one gets from American IPA’s. There is this tangy, almost fermented vanilla thing going on here that’s is a bit odd. I’ve tasted it in other beers as well, and I’m not sure exactly what causes it. It’s not off putting, but certainly quite apparent and dominating. Overall this is a well balanced, solid IPA, but my least favorite of the bunch.
As I was saying at the start of the article, Bellwoods impresses me. And after having tried all of these hop-forward bad boys, I’m ever more impressed. Part of me hopes they expand so that their beer can be more readily available for everyone (especially me), but mostly I don’t. A model like this allows them to experiment and have fun, they can fail and not lose too much money, while at the same time being able to hone their skills with every new small batch. It’s like home brewing meets commercial brewing. All I know is that I’m lucky to have friends close by this brewing gem, and I hope beer drinking Torontonians also realize that this brewery is something quite special.