There is no doubt that the Ontario craft beer business is booming, with many breweries opening over the last few years. And what goes for Ontario as a whole also goes for Waterloo Region. Brick Brewing and Wellington Brewery (technically in Wellington County, but close enough) both opened in the mid 1980s, and they pretty much held down the local market for almost 30 years. The fall of 2013 saw Block Three Brewing Co. open in St. Jacobs, with Innocente Brewing and Abe Erb both following suit in Waterloo in the Spring and Fall of 2014, respectively.

In some industries people might consider this number of suppliers popping up as over-saturating the market, but this growth of the market is good for everyone—beer fans and breweries alike. And the breweries keep on coming. February 2016 saw the opening of TWB Brewing Co-op in Kitchener, and Descendants Beer and Beverage Co should be opening their physical brewery soon too, after contract brewing—having their recipes brewed on other breweries systems—since 2014.

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This obviously means we’re living in exciting times for the local craft beer enthusiast, but what does it mean for the average drinker?

That’s exactly what a group of folks decided to figure out one night in February. We rounded up nine beers that the local breweries had on offer, and a group of people closer to the “average drinker” end of the spectrum, and sat down to do a blind tasting.

Blind tastings are interesting; beers are poured away from the group and brought in unmarked glasses to remove any preconceived notions about the brews in question. We used scoring sheets that covered a number of criteria and exchanged many questions about definitions of terms, flavour profiles and descriptors, and how much head is a good amount of head—take that how you will.

Tastings can be serious, and they can also feel a little silly, as you look around and see your friends holding beer glasses up against paper to judge the colour and sniffing deeply of the beer and taking notes before finally moving on to tasting. You’re likely not a cicerone, but you can have fun tasting, and learning more about beer while you do it.

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We separated our beers into two “average drinker” categories—light and dark—and analyzed each beer in stages, starting with appearance and aroma, before finally tasting our beer. We then moved on to mouthfeel and finish, before giving the beer a score out of five, and making some notes.

It’s always important to remember that taste is subjective when you’re looking at beer. A beer may be well made, but you still may not like it, and as a person develops a taste or palate for different styles, two people may notice very different notes in the same beer. A blind tasting with a varied group can lead to very interesting tasting notes, aroma comments, and a big range of scores.

So what did our non-expert panel think of our local beers?   Here are their rankings and quotations and my analysis. Cheers.

Scoring Details
Each score is out of five.
1. Not my favourite
2. It’s good but I won’t go out of my way to try it again
3. I would for sure order this again
4. This is now my regular order
5. This will always be in my fridge.  This is my forever beer.  I will write songs about it.

Descendants
Harbinger, American Pale Ale

• Average Score: 2.75
• Highest score: 3.25
• Lowest score: 2

“Tastes like it would wear flannel unironically—in like an actual country way. He’s kinda cool.”
“I wish the glass was bigger.” (Comment from 2 reviewers.)

I actually thought this beer would rank higher with our panel. It’s a very drinkable beer and, I think, very palatable to the average drinker. Its tight high to low score range makes it clear this was the least polarizing of the beers we tried

Block Three
King Street Saison

•  Average Score: 2.625
•  Highest score: 4
•  Lowest score: 1.75

“I think this is probably a well-made beer, but I don’t want to drink any more of it.”
“Tasted different, but also kind of the same… My emotions are confused.”

The comments on this beer were interesting, and not surprising. To me, King Street Saison is a good entryway beer to the saison style, while still hedging closely to an ale, which is more palatable to your average beer drinker.

Abe Erb
Buggywhip IPA

• Average score: 2.91
• Highest score: 4
• Lowest score: 1.5

“Totally crushable. I would consume many of these, but in a way that would make me happy-drunk.”
“This is a good beer.”
“Kind of gross.”

As we got to the hoppier side of the pale beer section, things got more polarizing. It became clear that one of our reviewers was not a fan of American style IPAs, though the others generally quite liked this one.

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TWB
Wobbly Wheel IPA

• Average score: 3.2
• Highest score: 4.5
• Lowest score: 2

“Like a guy who talks a lot, without actually telling you anything. Will get pie at 3:00 a.m. and share.” (This was the 4.5 scorer, so this is a positive comment.)

“Yes, I used a fucking lettuce (arugula) to describe this.”

Personally, I like the balance and hop flavours a little more in this IPA, so I’m not surprised that it did better than Abe Erb’s. Even the non-IPA person ranked this a little higher.

INNOCENTE
Charcoal porter

• Average score: 2.96
• Highest score: 4 (2 of them)
• Lowest score: 2

“Like a movie or game with awesome visuals, but peeled back it falls flat, like a Star Wars prequel.”
“A wannabe hipster that I want to hate, but secretly love.”

I find this to be a solid, drinkable example of the charcoal porter style. It’s not surprising to me that this is the beer Innocente has available in the LCBO. I think any other beer in their roster would have had a more polarizing result with our panel.

TWB
Pullman Porter

• Average score: 2.8
• Highest score: 3.5
• Lowest score: 2

“If Vanilla Coke was a beer. Smooth, and inviting like good R&B.”
“A guy who is way too cool for me and knows it.”
“Reminds me of childhood, and eating molasses on toast.”

From talking to the TWB folks, I know this recipe will change, which I am interested in, but I also love it as is. Spent a recent night drinking a good share of this beer, and was not disappointed.

Block Three
Guy on a Buffalo Coffee Porter

• Average score: 3
• Highest score: 3.75
• Lowest score: 1.5

“Highschool girl who was way cooler than me, but still wanted to be friends.”
“Guy you should break up with, but just don’t.”
“Like tomatoes I don’t really want to eat, but it’s pretty good anyway.”

While I don’t usually like coffee porters too much, I was pretty impressed by this, as I often am with newer Block Three releases. It’s rich and flavourful.

Waterloo
Dark

• Average score: 2.85
• Highest score: 4
• Lowest score: 1

“Mediocre at best. Mom likes him.”
“The safe guy I would date begrudgingly.”
“I’m having a hard time caring about this one. Not that good, not that bad.”

I guess there’s a reason Waterloo Dark has been a stalwart for so long—the comments show it as the least offensive, but also fairly uninteresting. At the same time, the scores show that our panel would likely gladly drink it again.

Wellington
Russian Imperial Stout

• Average score: 2.9
• Highest score: 4.5
• Lowest score: 1.5

“Creamy and rich and full bodied, but also tastes medicinal.”
“I don’t love it, but I would probably marry it.”
“Maybe I’m drunk. Maybe it’s Halls.”

This is one of my favourite beers to drink in the winter, though admittedly it took a long time for me to come around to it. It’s dark, heavy, and boozy. I can see the medicinal comments, but they don’t come off that way to me. Take one before bed.

What did we learn?

20160215-IMG_5713For one thing, six people is a small sample size that led to very close scores overall. But also, and perhaps more importantly, there’s a beer out there for every beer drinker in the region. Most reviewers had at least one beer they scored a four, and all reviewers had a beer they scored a two or lower. The fun thing with local beers is that the only way to know if you’re going to like them is to try them, and there’s so many out there!