Tuesday 5 June 2012

Darkside on Tour: Saint John Beerfest

'Excellent adventures' are pretty subjective. Movies have set the bar pretty high, with science fiction buddy comedies in which heavy metal, time travel, and key historical figures somehow combine to preserve a future utopian society. The stakes didn't seem nearly as high when we considered a weekend road trip to the first Saint John Beerfest in mid-April, but the potential for excellence was certainly there. Recognizing this, we made the necessary arrangements and loaded up the Drewbaru (Drew's Subaru, for the uninitiated), setting a course for our Maritime neighbours across the Bay of Fundy.

The last stretch of highway before the NB border.
(Captain Planet approves this image.)

The trip started like any good trip should - with a Timmy's run within 20 minutes of leaving home. We each picked up a medium coffee and 12-grain bagel with cream cheese (standard brew day fare), though we were disappointed to realize we had paid for 'new medium' ('old large') coffees and received 'old medium' ('new small') coffees. If you haven't been to Tim's in the last couple of months, this likely makes no sense to you. Sorry. 

The coffee/bagel combo provided the necessary dietary fuel to get us to Moncton, where we sought out the Tide and Boar Gastropub, our base instincts consumed by the notion of boar poutine. The place was packed, as it was not only the weekend, but also the weekend of the East Coast Music Awards (ECMAs). Luckily, we were able to find a table on the lower level without much trouble. Two boar poutines arrived shortly thereafter, accompanied nicely by pints of Picaroons Dark and Stormy Night. The poutine was tasty, and we really dug the boar, but it was perhaps a bit too fancy for our tastes. There were caramelized onions and a sweet ketchup-type sauce, with a small boat of light and herby gravy on the side... we both kind of wished it was just fries, curds, boar, and a nice dark gravy. Still, tasty stuff, just a little too highbrow, perhaps.

Yes, those are sprouts.

Fending off food comas with another round of road coffees, the rest of the trip to Saint John was pretty uneventful. Drew's mental map proved accurate, and we arrived at the Hilton without incident. Parking underground, we were impressed to see that both Market Square (the venue for Beerfest) and the Saint John Alehouse were readily accessible. Nicely done, organizing committee. Nicely done. 

We checked in quickly, and set out for the Ale House, figuring it would be a good spot to develop a foundation for the night ahead. Despite having eaten boar poutine only a few hours earlier, more food couldn't hurt. Also, a few warm-up beers are important before going into the main event, like stretching before a marathon or zero-gravity training before venturing into outer space (too far?). Of particular note, we tried the Pump House IPA, and were really impressed. Nice hop citrus (we're guessing Amarillo/Cascade) with a biscuit backbone, much like our own Magnitude IPA... so maybe we're a bit biased in our assessment. We also had the opportunity to check out Moosehead Cask Ale, which was light and enjoyable, overall, but pretty bland in comparison to the IPA. One thing that the Cask Ale really had going for it, however, was carbonation - fine bubbles and a thick head that lasted upwards of 20 minutes, with distinct lacing. 

Sufficiently warmed-up, we headed from the Ale House to Beerfest proper, which basically entailed walking up a flight of stairs. The space was great; open and easy to navigate. The show had a distinctly classy vibe, due in part to the presence of members of Atlantic Cirque. Initially confused by the silver people slowly walking around, we were later impressed by their contortion skills... and fire breathing. (Seriously. See below.) While the beer on hand was definitely entertainment enough, the Cirque performers added an interesting and memorable touch.

Thankfully, they weren't part of a Coors Light advertisement.

The Human Torch was denied a bank loan.

High quality food was in abundance, which was definitely a good thing, though we were too full from boar poutine and Ale House fare to really benefit. Lesson learned for next year: go hungry! Initially, we thought that handing out sampling glasses that were actually made of glass may have been a questionable decision, but in the end, there were very few dropped glasses. When accidents did happen, a university meal hall-esque cheer generally arose, to the enjoyment of all except for the dropee, who was suddenly the centre of unwanted attention.

One aspect of the event that really stood out was the presence of three cask ales, brought by Moosehead, Pump House, and Picaroon's. We had tried the Moosehead Cask Ale earlier, but were eager to try the other two, which were both IPAs. The Pump House Cask IPA was in-your-face bitter, seeming like they upped their hop quota significantly for the occasion. It was a palate wrecker, but definitely worth trying. The tapping of the cask itself evolved into quite the spectacle, with a special guest from Ducks Unlimited essentially bashing the spigot repeatedly with a wooden mallet, much to the delight of the gathered crowd.

Tapping a cask, bending the laws of space and time.
Standard Saturday night.

Our favourite, though, was the Picaroon's Cask Yippee IPA. It was fantastic. Dry hopping with Comet hops for 30 days gave the beer a great citrus aroma. It was quite bitter, but still in balance with the malt flavours. The extensive period of dry hopping also imparted a resiny flavour, which added another enjoyable taste dimension to the beer. We had the opportunity to meet and chat with Picaroon's brew master, Andrew, who impressed us both with his brewing knowledge and his Machete-like texting skills. We were very happy to see the Cask Yippee IPA take second place in the peoples' choice voting!

We're still a bit surprised that Saint John-based Big Tide Brewing's IPA won first place. Of the various beers we tried, it ranked among our least favourite. It just tasted... off. Still, we can understand people supporting their home town brand, and congratulate them all the same.

You stay classy, Saint John Beerfest.

All in all, it was a great chance to try some great new beers and meet people from the New Brunswick beer scene. The event was extremely well-organized, and the additions of Cirque performers and a few cask ales really elevated it to a level extremely worthy of a weekend road trip from the Darkside. Here's hoping that Saint John Beerfest becomes an annual fixture on the Atlantic beer festival calendar, and the motivation for more 'excellent adventures' on our part in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, boys. I was VERY happy to taste your Magnitude IPA, reminded me of a tasting Motorcycle Drive-by.

    Hope there's more posts coming soon!