Beer. It’s the best damn drink in the world. — Jack Nicholson
2018 was the year of the challenge: the Biggish Bird Year, where I challenged myself to see 250 bird species in Ontario, and the Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge, where a mate challenged me to sample one beer for every species seen. As you have read in these pages in excruciating detail, I did manage to clock 278 bird species. So how did I fare on the beer challenge?
Well as the Duke of Wellington said about the battle of Waterloo, it was a near-run thing. Throughout the year I was perennially in catch-up mode, as each time I started to make up some ground I ended up seeing new birds, necessitating even more beer species. At the end of November I was 40 beers in arrears, but with the aid of some boon companions a late push got me just over the line. I spotted the 278th bird on December 29th, and downed the 278th beer on the 31st.
It didn’t actually require a massive effort, just a certain amount of diligence. Even operating under self-imposed political constraints (no beers from fascist countries, from countries sliding towards fascism, or from countries run by populist demagogues) and even after losing the month of November to an unnamed plague virus, I still managed to get the job done. I even ended up with a few extras in the fridge to kick off the 2019 year list.
So we now have established that there are upwards of 300 beers available in Ontario, a happy and healthy increase from the days of my youth when there were about ten and they all tasted the same.
And by the way, the level of effort required to sit in comfy pubs or at home in my armchair sipping a cool one compares very favourably to the many hundreds of hours I spent out in the wind, rain, perishing cold and blazing heat searching for birds.
Carrying on the Quest
So should anyone be inspired to replicate this noble challenge, I think that it should be quite possible to shoot for 300 in a year. The real limiting factor is finding sufficient stocks of new beers to try, but with diligence (that word again) and the help of friends it should be do-able. So I now throw down the gauntlet: a decent bottle of whisky to the first one of my readers to hit 300.
The Rules of the Game
Here are the rules, as codified by a panel of expert:
- Sample Size. Ideally each beer should be imbibed in its natural form. For draft beers this means a pint glass; bottles or cans should be decanted into an appropriate-sized glass. Half pints are acceptable, as are flights of beers provided that the serving size is adequate to assess the quality of a beer.
- Radlers may be included.
- Neer beers (i.e. alcohol-free beers) may not be counted.
How to Approach the Challenge
As long as you stick to the rules the path to success is fairly simple (and should only cause mild annoyance among your friends):
- When out on the town, try to steer your friends towards brew pubs or places with large beer menus.
- Don’t just order the beer you like. Nerdishly search the list of available beers for new targets.
- If in doubt, consult your year list, which should be on your phone.
- Order a different beer with each round.
- When out of town, never pass an LCBO without checking to see if they have any regional brews.
- Drink beer when you might otherwise prefer wine or a cocktail.
Along the way there were a number of people who helped (or in AA terms facilitated) this quest.
- My brothers, who eagerly leapt into the spirit (so to speak).
- Andrew and Mike, who supported the guiding philosophy of birds+beers during our road trip.
- Brother-in-law Rob, who always had interesting bottles in stock when we came to visit.
- Larry and Janice, my sister’s neighbours, who heard about the challenge and brought me back several Newfoundland specialties.
- Bruce, who designatedly drove while I sampled the wares of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
- Christie and Zarko, who on their travels thoughtfully picked up a six-pack from an obscure craft brewery.
- Brother-in-law James, who bravely took time off from Christmas Eve preparations to sink a few with me.
A shout out is also due to those virtuous bars that offer flights of beer: the Craft Beer Market in Ottawa, Mississauga’s Bier Markt, the Exchange Brew Pub in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Kingston’s own Stone City Ales.
Of 278 beers tasted, 97 received a star, signifying an interesting brew of high quality and drinkability – “more-ish” as the Brits would say. Stone City Ales had the highest score with five starred brews, followed by Collective Arts and Muskoka Brewery with four each.
Those that didn’t make the grade generally fell into two categories: boring (yet another Labatt’s Blue clone or over-hopped IPA) or weird. In the weird category I would count most of the sours.
Sours are the latest craze among brewers. They have a long history and, in the right circumstances (which normally include being in Belgium), they are an interesting diversion. But they generally fail on the quaffability and I-think-I’ll-have-another criteria.
In the Hall of Shame were eight brews rated as dreadful/never try again: Barley Days Wind and Sail Dark, Bennett’s Dominion Ale, Budweiser Light, Coors Banquet, Coors Light, Henderson’s Food Truck Blonde Ale, Puppers Letterkenny Lager, and Wolfe Island Brewery Out for a Sip. You have been warned.
My first post on this topic included a list of recommended beers. Here are a few more good ones for your delectation:
- Amsterdam Brewery Space Invader IPA
- Blyth Brewing Company Doc Perdue’s Bobcat
- Benediktiner Hell
- Beyond the Pale Pink Fuzz Pale Wheat Ale
- Bicycle Craft Brewery Velocipede IPA
- Braufactum Pale Ale
- Brooklyn Lager
- Collective Arts Jam up the Mash Dry-hopped Sour
- Collective Arts Surround Sound Double Dry-hopped IPA
- Hop City Brewing Co 8th Sin Black Lager
- Kingston Brew Pub Dragon’s Breath
- La Trou du Diable Saison du Tracteur
- MacKinnon Brothers Eight Man English Pale Ale
- Mill Street Tankhouse
- Northwinds Rooster Tail American Pale Wheat
- Robinsons Iron Maiden Trooper beer
- Sons of Kent Brewing Co 8 Track IPA
- St Mary Axe India Pagan Ale
- Stone City 12 Star Session Ale
- Stone City Shallow Grave American Stout
- The Publican House Brewery Square Nail Pale Ale
- Traquair Jacobite Ale
- Whitewater Brewing Co Astrolabe Session IPA
And remember, as Benjamin Franklin didn’t say (but should have):
“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy”