I took an opportunity to visit the Mondial de la Biere last week, and I traveled there with Uncle Jack Curtin (as Uncle Jack has been recounting -- more or less truthfully -- recently). Credit to UJ, actually, because it was his idea. I called him to see if he wanted to go to Pittsburgh to check out the wonderful new places that have opened there recently (the Rivertowne Pourhouse, Point Brugge (new to me; I keep trying to get in, and keep hitting it when it's closed, terribly frustrating), Bocktown Grill, a new D's, Marzoni's West, the new beer engine at Piper's Pub, and a new breakfast joint run by an old friend of ours, the Hot Metal Diner (most of which I do intend to visit in about 10 days on the way to Kentucky...)). There was a bit of malice in the invite, since Jack was apparently traumatized by our last road trip to Pittsburgh (page down, it's there, and worth a couple chuckles), the great weenie, but I did want to go.
But Jack said, no, what he really wanted to do was go to the Mondial. Good idea! Even better, I had a lecture lined up for Wednesday of that week in New Paltz, with a room and a fee that would easily cover my costs for the trip to Mondial. Perfect became perfecter when Jack found lodgings in Montreal that were a 15 minute walk from the fest, clean, secure, and only $45 a night. (Nice work, Jack.) We were on.
Getting over to the Beer Yard to pick up Jack was a traffic horror, getting through NJ was almost as bad, and when I found myself happy to be paying $4.69 a gallon for diesel, I knew things were screwed. As it turned out, I was wrong. The lecture went smoothly, and we also fit in a quick visit to the Gilded Otter brewpub in New Paltz (excellent alt, as always; a bit overly chocolatey to be classic, but not a problem when it comes to good drinking), the Tuthilltown Spirits distillery (more on that in another post...maybe, because I might be able to sell that one -- meanwhile, that's a picture of the stillhouse on the right.), and an excellent -- huge -- German dinner at the Mountain Brauhaus (highly recommended, great German fare and beers). Things got even better when I forced a visit to the Miss Albany Diner for breakfast, one of my top ten breakfast spots, a classic Silk City diner with house-made sausage and a MAD assortment of specialty omelettes and waffles (the Irish whiskey waffle is just nuts).
Okay, enough prelim. We slid up through the Adirondacks (sedately; I've discovered the zen of mileage, and got 43 mpg over the whole trip (I think Jack was somewhat chagrined by the calmness of my driving)), smoothed down onto the flats outside of Plattsburgh, and just before the border, yes, I did realize that my cell plan was stupid expensive in Canada, and called my family and asked them to only call me for emergencies (something Jack would twist cruelly at every occasion into "He told his family to stop calling him."). Onward to the border, only...
Jack and I got stopped at Customs. We were detained. After a long chat with the woman in the booth, who seemed quite pleasant, she suddenly started asking questions. Did we have any firearms? Did we have any firearms at home? (I do, one antique shotgun that was my grandfather's, but why that's a concern of Canadians -- or any of their business -- is beyond me.) Where else have you lived? (A fairly long list of different states for me.) Do you have any alcohol? (A flask of whiskey for personal use only.) Jack wisely said "No" to most of these questions, but I just couldn't help being truthful.
And she gave us a yellow card and told us to go park in the detainee lot and give our passports to Immigration. This didn't sound good. But it was just hand over the passports, watch the woman we gave them to stand around doing nothing while holding them, and then her calling Jack -- I'm sorry, John Curtin, and who the hell is that? -- up, and giving the passports back, along with a secret code number (*4050, and I'll probably never get into Canada again now) to get out of the parking lot. Stupid silliness; I can't imagine what 'profile' me and Jack Curtin headed to Montreal for two days would fit. It really pisses me off when government folks pull this screwing with you and never saying why crap. Ah, me.
So we headed up the AUT 15 with me in a somewhat foul mood, but the beautiful day soon got me over it. Things are pretty flat in this part of Quebec, which only makes the rearing backdrop of the Mont Royal all the more striking. My GPS was practically useless in Canada, so I'd fired up the laptop with Streets & Trips, and Jack was balancing it on his knee as we tried to figure out where to go.
The expressway part was easy, but once we got onto the surface grid, things were moving too quickly, and the street names on the screen were too small to read fast in the bright sunlight. I beat the directions into some kind of usable thing and found our lodgings...and then took about 10 minutes trying to get pulled over in front of the building so Jack could go in and find out where we were supposed to park (at least Canadians drive on the right side of the road...mostly). We did that, checked in, and headed down the Boulevard René-Lévesque to the Mondial.
It was a breezy mile and a quarter walk, and we bobbled around a bit finding it, but it was quite the thing once we did. It's an indoor-outdoor fest in a large restored train station and the outdoor courtyard. It's big, and fun, and free admission/pay for beer (which got expensive at times and stupid cheap at others: $2 for a big 12 oz. pour of St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout -- yum -- but $3 for a niggardly 4 oz. pour of La Route des Indes IPA from Au Maître-Brasseur that tasted nasty and off). It was a thoroughly enjoyable festival, with cider and cheese and spirits to boot, which of course would be illegal as hell in most of the U.S., God help me.
I'll leave Jack to give the blow-by-blow (except to add my admiration for the drop-dead beauty and friendliness of the Unibroue serving women and their cute as hell lace-up vests) and move on to overall impressions. There were some absolutely outstanding beers at the Mondial, Canadian, French, and the usual American suspects (the "Petit Pub" had a wide assortment of non-represented beers, including some Sly Fox that Jack was quite exercised about). I had my first Unibroue Eau Benite in way too long, and it was exquisite, as were pretty much every beer I had from Dieu du Ciel, (where Jack and I would retire for a long, very enjoyable session that evening), Ferme Brasserie Schoune (where we were led by Tony Forder to meet the brewer and Tom Peters, who was already arranging for them to do a beer dinner at Monk's), and Benelux-Brasserie.
But I was struck by the number of inferior beers I also got. We've pretty much gotten used to the idea that beer festivals in the U.S., craft brewers in the U.S., have reached a certain level of competence. I remember ten years ago sampling beers at fests and remarking to friends that the brewers must not be sampling them, because they were all too obviously flawed and often infected. That's gone away, and I have not had a flawed beer in quite a while at a U.S. fest. I had at least three dumpers at Mondial.
I don't really think this is attributable to anything but the atmosphere and culture. Canadian brewing/drinking seems even more dominated by big breweries -- MolBatt, the Canadian equivalent of American beer geeks' BMC -- than America, and the impediments to cross-provincial beer sales haven't helped. It's not chance that the very best Canadian breweries seem to be either brewpubs, breweries with strong export sales, or new. There is acceptance of craft beer in Canada, but it seems to be behind the curve a bit.
I'd say it's rapidly catching up, though, and the experimental stuff, like the hibiscus amber at Dieu de Ciel, is equivalent to the stuff American brewers are doing, with its own direction. Canadian brewers, and particularly Quebecois brewers, explore things with less fear of having the results labeled as "girly beers," and I think that's a very good thing. There seemed to be less of the embrace of the EXtrEme beer, which I also think is a good thing.
That was about it, except, yes, I did go to Hard Rock Cafe Montreal. I'd never ever been to one, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. To be honest, I still don't know. It was perfunctory service, all MolsonCoors beers (the Molson Export I was served almost brought me to tears: I drank a lot of Ex in the 1980s, and this was a pale, sweet shadow of that beer), and stiff prices ($6.50 for a shaker pint of mass-market beer seemed extreme (please note my stupidity...I've since realized that this was NOT a shaker pint, it was actually a larger beer; my apologies)...especially since Jack and I both left 2/3 of our beers sitting on the bar (he'd got a Rickard's Red, which he repeatedly said was the worst non-infected beer he'd ever had). I guess I just don't understand what most people want from an evening out. Which is okay with me; I know what I want, and usually see that I get it.