The email I got on April 16th came quite as a surprise to me. See that: an invitation as judge of the 2012 Greg Noonan MBeer Contest in the course of the 19th edition of the Mondial de la Bière in Montreal. Although this is definitely not the kind of things you want to refuse, I must say that my participation was quite questionable due to the precarious health of my father.
But life eventually adjudicated and my father died on May 13th, 3 weeks before the event. As you can suspect it, this left me with very few time to prepare and to rejoice on my trip in Canada. Nevertheless I left for Montreal with many goals.
First of all, I definitely wanted to meet with my “old” friend Josh Oakes, one of the most knowledgeable person on beer I know. Even though we know each other since 1997 (back then, we were about the only beer-hunters displaying their trophies on the internet) we have never met directly. And considering the fact that Josh is traveling recently through different countries as frequently as I am fueling my car, meeting him there was not something I firstly considered as realistic. Fortunately I have been proven wrong !
My second goal was to visit a lot of brewpubs. The more the better ! I think it’s always great to taste the beers “at home”. It also gives the opportunity to feel the local life and to discover the city as well.
Talking about the city ! I have been told many times that Montreal is a beautiful town, so to see the most possible of it, was definitely a must.
And finally, well, I’m a beer-hunter ! So I’m not gonna leave this town without rating one beer or two … And it was clear that my focus would be placed on the canadian beers.
So I tried to fit all that tasks in a quite compact schedule and, retrospectively, I can say it has been quite successful.
As I remembered my experiences the last time I crossed the Atlantic, I considered mastering the jet lag as quite an issue. Just before leaving, I read an article containing some advices on this subject but I stopped after the first one, which was “do not drink alcohol“… When I arrived at the hotel at about 5 p.m., I could have easily slept for the next 10 hours, but luckily my schedule said something else and was planning some walk for me ! So I went first to les 3 Brasseurs at the Saint-Catherine location for some junk food and some junk beers. Well, that’s not exactly right: firstly the food was not bad at all and secondly, even if this is very probably the worst brewpub in Montreal, the Brune and the IPA were honestly more than correct. Then I walked some more and had two (excellent) beers at Brutopia, near the legendary Centre Bell (yes, I’m a hockey fan too ;-)). This brewpub is a quiet, old-style place with an attentive and knowledgeable service. I may not have had many beers there, but I surely cannot understand the quite hard criticisms I have heard about this place.
First lesson learned: the brewpubs staffs know about their stuff. A clear difference with many brewpubs in Switzerland.
Tuesday, June 5th
I had not much time to complain about my chaotic night of sleep as work was calling. After the breakfast at 7 a.m. followed by some instructions, it was time for the first judging session. Perfectly organized by friendly and qualified people this contest has the originality that there are no predetermined styles categories: the evaluation is based on the intrinsic qualities of the beer. Fair enough to me, considering the fact that I am also not rating according to style. Nevertheless, for this blind tasting, the beers were presented four at a time in a friendly order, so that you would not have to judge some pale lager after an imperial stout. This first session lasted for about 4 hours and consisted of 24 beers. If my impressions about the contest itself were very high, my enthusiasm about the beers I had was moderate: if very few of them have been bad, not many more have been tremendous. In fact an overwhelming majority has been just about slightly above average. But I may have been unlucky, since each of the 12 judges had to evaluate only 25% of the beers presented to the contest.
As the beer festival was only beginning on Wednesday, my afternoon schedule was consisting of just one activity: pub crawling ! I started first with 5 samples at Le Saint-Bock and learned another lesson there: there is in Quebec an impressive and frank collaboration between micro-brewers which fiercely contrasts with the spirit of secretiveness and competition I have witnessed on too many occasions in my country. As you can see it on the picture on the left, on the 19 beers offered by this brewpub, 13 were brewed by 10 other microbreweries !
My second stop was just a bit further at l’Amère à Boire. This place constitutes the main regret I got from my trip: to have not been able to spent more time and drink more beers from there. This brewpub distinguishes itself from the other in town by the fact they don’t offer trendy beers for hopheads fans but are instead specialized in (very good) lagers.
And as the beer world is small, it’s there that I met with two interesting persons, Caroline Bandulet from the excellent brewery of Charlevoix and Benoit Tavenaux, director of the french museum of brewery. So it is together that we continued our pub crawling at le Cheval Blanc. This brewpub, the oldest still active in Montreal (25 years), is a large place offering very nice beers (also from other breweries like De Molen). And it is there that I met not only with Frederick Tremblay – the big boss of the microbrewery of Charlevoix – but at last! with the legendary Josh Oakes and the charming Sunshine “Beershine” Kessler. After seven really nice beers at le Cheval Blanc, we moved under a heavy rain – yet another lesson: the weather in Montreal is able to change as fast as in Switzerland ! – to Benelux. At this modern place we drank some more quality beers in the pleasant company of the two local lords: Martin T. Thibault and David “Rastacouere” Levesque Gendron. If you can read in french, be sure not to miss their book: “la route des grands crus de la bière“.
Wednesday, June 6th
The second judging session which lasted from 8 a.m. to about 12 a.m. with another 24 beers improved my moderate impressions from the previous day about the beer qualities quite a bit. I had especially 2 marvelous brews which drastically increased my frustration to not know what was presented in my glasses … But as the beer festival began, I had really no reason to complain.
The first day of le Mondial has been pretty pleasant as the number of visitors remained moderate. It was quite easy to move from one stand to the next and to find some place to sit down. Despite having my taste buds destroyed by the awful Twisted Pine Ghost Face Killah (a poisoned courtesy of Josh and Sunshine …), I have fully been able to enjoy the highlights of the day: the Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Brut and the Ducato Machete. But more important to me was to meet with people like famous beer writer Stephen Beaumont as well as with some of the top Canadians ratebeerians like Radek Kliber, DougShoemaker and Lubiere.
But the real beer highlight of this Wednesday was finally the off-Mondial special event “collaborations evening” at Dieu du Ciel! where a serie of beers designed and brewed in collaboration with brewers from all around the world was presented in a very crowded brewpub. So beers like Friendship and Farewell (an IPA brewed with the Americans from Hill Farmstead) and the Isseki Nicho (an “Imperial Dark Saison” concocted with the Japanese from Shiga Kogen) but also especially the 100% DDC Pionnière and the exceptional Péché Bourbon turned the beers I had at the Mondial into simple anecdotes …
Thursday, June 7th
The second day of le Mondial started with the medals ceremony. Besides 10 gold medals, 2 platinum medals (the highest distinction) have been attributed to Equinoxe du Printemps (from Dieu du Ciel!) and Mein Eisbock Barrique (from the Germans of Schneider & Son). The details can be seen here. Fair enough … but neither the Equinoxe nor the Mein Eisbock Barrique were to be found at the festival ! The first one was just absent of the program and the second one (an Aventinus Eisbock matured for 15 months in Pinot Noir barrels) was already sold out at 1 p.m.. It even caused some perplexity at the VIP lounge as the standard Aventinus and Aventinus Eisbock were sometimes confused with the Platinum winner. Knowing the fact that to participate to the contest a beer had to be presented at the festival with a minimum of 30 liters, this left me a little puzzled and frustrated.
Anyway this was clearly insufficient to ruin my day which I filled with 34 another beers, medalists or not ! Among them I met with some pretty bad beers from France and Argentina, like the Puisaye la Grenouillette Stout, the Berlina Munich Blonde, the Otro Mundo Strong Red Ale and the Antares Scotch (this, a scotch ? come on …). On the other side of the pleasure scale Brazil brushed up the image of South America with the superb Colorado Vixnu. But the top of the day belonged to Canada with the Dieu du Ciel! Revenante (an impressive Smoked beer) and the Trou du Diable Dulcis Succubus, a Saison aged in red wine barrels with brettanomyces, a beer which certainly would have deserved a medal.
I spent the first part of my evening at the “Flaveurs Bières et Caprices”, a gastronomic event about beer and food pairings (see details on the right). It was a very interesting and pleasant convivial gathering, even if I have not been always convinced by the validity of some pairings.
Then it was time to have some last beers with Josh and Sunshine. I have been slowed down by the sudden closure of the metro exits near Benelux in reason of the students demonstration against planned tuition fee rises. Next lesson: considering the panic reactions I have witnessed and the pretty harmless character of the demonstrations, the Canadians do not seem to be accustomed to real troubles. Despite the fact that many protestors were naked, I prefered to go to my rendezvous at Benelux. But as the rain started to fall again, we left the terrace of this brewpub very soon and went again to the inevitable and bodacious Dieu du Ciel!
It is when fellow ratebeerian DougShoemaker – who kindly offered me a bottle – asked if I had something to carry it, that I learned my last lesson: in Canada (like in America), you are not supposed to walk on the street with a bottle of alcohol in your hands ! Except if you want troubles with the police of course. I was thinking about this last evening in the center of my hometown as I saw a good dozen of people in less than 15 minutes, walking with cans of beers, bottles of rosé wine, vodka or baileys. Despite the important philosophical question: “how the hell can you drink baileys by a temperature of 30 degrees ??”, I personally cannot see any reasons to hide alcohol consumption.
Friday, June 8th
My last day in Montreal was pretty soft what beer concerns. I woke up fairly early and – like the previous day – made some visits around the city. I came back to the Mondial at noon and finished my canadian odyssey with 14 more beers. I got no deceptions on this day but instead some very beautiful brews like Dogfish Head Burton Baton, Dieu du Ciel! Baraque and Baladin Nazionale.
A nice conclusion for these 5 memorable days in Montreal.