Size matters!

The world had not heard the word “microbrewery” until a couple of dozen years ago. Then, all of a sudden, there were thirteen to the dozen of these things. Nowadays, even obscure villages that nobody’s ever heard of, including the people living there, are sporting microbreweries. What the heck happened?

There was a time when big breweries thought they could rule the world – in particular, there was one very evil, big brewery – let's call it SauronBrew – that kept buying out all the other ones, using the One Recipe (crap lager) to bind them all into the idea that mediocre beers that could be brewed cheaply but sold reassuringly expensively was all you needed in order to be successful.

Then, just as it looked as if SauronBrew would indeed conquer the entire brewing world, one or two enterprising individuals – let’s for simplicity’s sake call them FrodoBeer and SamAle – came along and started to brew on an experimental basis, creating new (or re-creating old) brews that actually tasted like proper beer, or at least tasted like something other than branded industrial crap lager. Scholars disagree exactly where FrodoBeer and SamAle started their fight against SauronBrew, but what is quite clear is that their fight has been crowned by some success, even though the One Recipe has still not been destroyed, but continues to cast its spell over way too many Gollum-ible individuals throughout the drinking world.

OK, enough references to that famous trilogy. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please use either Google or (preferably) your local pub to seek wisdom. An undisputable fact is that during the last 20 or 30 years, several thousand microbreweries have sprung up in most countries in this world, including Iceland, and in the last couple of months I have had the pleasure of tasting the brews from no less than five of these countries: Poland, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

It started off with Poland. A country I have written about before, more known for its particularly terrible history than for its brewing heritage, but nevertheless able to brew some decent beers. A good friend of mine, who happens to come from this place, brought back no fewer than four lovely bottles of absolutely superb beer from his latest trip back to his homeland. These were all from breweries I had never heard of or had any chance of pronouncing correctly, yet they had everything a beer lover loves: plenty of taste, a refined balance and a lingering aftertaste – without losing the ability to be refreshing. Poland, be warned: I am coming to visit again – my last visit was almost 10 years ago and I’ve clearly missed some important events in my absence.

Great Polish beer, but try to order it at the bar and see what you get...
Next my lovely wife and I flew to Canada to see the family. Canada is a country more known for its massive size and its abundance of tundra, nothingness and arctic cold than for its brewing heritage. Nevertheless, the revolution that has spawned the creation of several thousand breweries south of the world’s longest unguarded border has also spilled across the very same border, perhaps due to it not being guarded. Microbreweries are popping up everywhere, and nowhere is this more visible than in one of the cutest towns in Canada – Niagara on the Lake – which happens to be my favourite place in Canada because it has no less than 3 breweries and because I got married there (in no particular order).

My mother-in-law does not conform to the stereotypical one that would hate my guts – on the contrary she clearly thinks very highly of my liver since she bought me a brewery tour for Christmas. So we packed into the car (this is, after all, Canada, so there are no buses or trains), and headed off to the Oast Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This brewery resides in an old barn or something, and despite opening only 18 months ago is astonishingly well run. A knowledgeable and pleasant young lady gave us plenty of samples and showed us the bowels of the brewery where we also got to chat to the Brewmaster, who despite (or perhaps because of) his young age had conjured up a few memorable brews, including a Belgian-inspired Saison and a very nice Pale Ale. Needless to say, we bought both souvebeers and souvenirs.
My Christmas present!

The next brewery was called Silversmith, located in an old church just down the road from Oast. Although the beers were also very drinkable, they lacked some of the subtlety of the Oast ones, and the reception at the brewery was also much less friendly – no brewery tour, only tasting – so it wasn’t quite the same. Still, if you have a few hours to spare in the Niagara region, and you’re not desperate for a wine tour, you could do much worse than coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake to check out its various breweries. There is a third bonus one too.

Later during Christmas I made my way to Norway, a country more known for its fjords, northern lights and astronomical prices than for its brewing heritage. As I have repeatedly commented on this blog, the politicians in this country have done their utmost to eradicate what little brewing heritage there is, but despite this there are a dozen or so microbreweries operating around the country, One of them, Haandbryggeriet, is located in my home town, and I take no small amount of pride in declaring that this is also Norway’s best micro. I had the pleasure of tasting their full range of Christmas beers as well as their “Dark Force”, which is no less than a Russian Imperial Wheat Stout packed with an unbelievable amount of taste, and their “Dobbel Dose”, which is a seriously hoppy beer designed to make you outrageously happy.

The only problem with these lovely beers is that they are very expensive, which means that a lot of bars don’t actually stock them because there are cheaper alternatives from abroad. And so it came to pass that when I went skiing in a fashionable ski resort, I was forced to order brews from Sweden in my own native land. The only alternative was industrial pilsner, and since the actual brews were in fact quite good, I didn’t mind so much – though I forget exactly what I drank. The point is... when a local Norwegian microbrewery is rejected in favour of a Swedish microbrewery situated several hundred kilometres away because the Norwegian one is simply too expensive (this was what the bartender told me), there’s something seriously wrong. I can solve this problem, but I am sadly lacking in dictatorial powers.

Happy blogger with hoppy beer
Finally I was in Denmark, a country known for its brewing heritage, and could once again confirm that the Danes, as with most things, are way ahead of their Scandinavian brethren, both in terms of making their industrial lagers taste of nothing and in terms of making their microbrews taste amazing. I happened to be in Odense, the biggest city on a small island called Fyn, but regardless of where you are in this small, flat country you'll find yourself fairly close to good beers, despite the terrible things the best-known Danish brand has done to the world.

Amazing Danish beer number six-and-half-five-score
In conclusion: I love microbreweries. I love what they’ve done to increase the choices I have, I love the fact that they’re not afraid of experimenting with new recipes, and I love the fact that they're making their brews taste like real beer. Not all of them are equally good, and eventually the lesser ones will disappear, but as long as the good ones keep supplying my fridge and the bars I go to when I travel, I don't mind. So let's all adopt the following new year's resolution in time for the Chinese New Year: next time you're in a fancy restaurant or bar and have the choice of a hundred fantastic wines and one crappy beer, demand justice and a microbrew. On this challenging note I shall say farewell and wish you all a very beery 2014. Sjabbeduings!