US vacation, the beer version

My beloved and I had planned our 10th anniversary vacation back in April, before I was let go from my job of 12 years, before my life was turned upside down. I had thought a few times about cancelling it due to my change in finances, but am glad that Keith convinced me otherwise. We had not gone anywhere together for almost a year when finally got on the plane in December, and it was time to reconnect. Actually, getting on the plane was a bit touch and go – we left on the day of the ice storm. After two cancelled flights and 4 long lines, we got on one of the only flights out of Toronto.

I had thought about what beer to try while in the states. I had flipped through Stephen Beaumont’s book, The Pocket Beer Guide, that I had got during Cask Days, but hadn’t made any notes or thought of any must-haves. I decided to just see what happened along our travels.


And travel we did. This odd butterfly shape covered over 3600 kilometers of some of the most beautiful scenery in North America.

Grand Canyon Brewery Sunset Amber Ale

The first day was spent getting supplies and getting out of Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. We arrived around 3:30, just enough time to check into our cabin and go watch the sunset over the rim only a few paces away.

grand canyon

It seemed appropriate to order a Sunset Amber Ale by Grand Canyon Brewery to accompany my dinner. It hit the spot, but like my dinner, there was nothing that made it unique or noteworthy. It had a pleasant sweetness, but was a bit milder/lighter than I was expecting. Very drinkable.

Grand Canyon Brewery Starry Night Stout

Monument Valley was the next stop, where we stayed at The View Hotel on Christmas Eve. Highly recommend this place – staff was friendly, food was hearty, and of course, the views are fantastic.

We sat bundled up on the balcony after dinner, and watched the sun go down. The hotel is dry as it’s on the reserve, but I’d bought a few bottles of interesting beer before leaving the Grand Canyon. I opened the Starry Night Stout and sipped it from a plastic cup while watching  the stars pop out in a crisp, clear sky.

monument valley

It poured nice and dark, with minimal foam. It had a great smokey/molasses nose, which carried through to the taste. It had the right balance for me, and had a minimal bitter aftertaste.

Dogfish Head Midas Touch

Christmas Day found us meandering to Zion Mountain Ranch near Zion National Park, where we had booked a cabin. Ten years before, we had had our best and most memorable Christmas dinner at their fledgling restaurant, the Buffalo Grill. We know you can’t recreate a magical moment, but we wanted to make a new one. The three course prix fix Christmas dinner was delicious and completely overshadowed any beer I might have had with it. I thought about taking notes, but was enjoying the evening with my guy too much.

After dinner, we walked back to our cabin in the dark with the stars to guide us. And the flashlight app on our phone – it was still too dark  even with the incredible display of stars reflected on snow.

The cabin had a feature I couldn’t wait to try out – a huge claw-footed Jacuzzi tub! I filled it with bubbles, poured myself the Midas Touch I had bought at the Grand Canyon and listened to’s Groove Salad while Keith made a fire in the fireplace. I don’t know what your description of heaven is, but this was pretty close to mine.



I did not take a photo of the bubble filled tub, the candles and Christmas lights arranged on the window sill or of the beer. I was too busy enjoying the moment to be pulled out of it. You’ll have to imagine it.

The Midas Touch was amazing, a perfect beer to celebrate with. Smelled of grapes and malt with the faintest saffron undertone. Sweet and dry, with the initial honey flavour giving way to fruit and a hint of spice. I was disappointed when it was gone, but not sure how much more I could drink in a sitting; I think the sweetness could get a bit cloying after a while.



Gratuitous photo of our morning view – buffalo grazing outside our cabin window with the cliffs and valleys of Zion National Park in the background. Definitely a life-is-good moment.

Shock Top Belgian White

No meandering the next day as we bolted for the coast to drive the Pacific Highway. Interstates are not fun, but the conversation was great, the audio book, Ready Player One, was engaging and the the road snacks were plentiful. We got to San Luis Obispo just after sunset, and headed downtown for dinner. They had a major street closed off for a farmer’s market, and we bought oranges, home made hummus and pita, and locally grown nuts before heading in to Mo’s Smokehouse for ribs.

The choice of beer was between Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Shock Top’s Belgian Wheat – I went with the Belgian as I felt a lighter, brighter beer would go down better. The Shock Top Belgian Wheat seemed to have more citrus going on than in other Belgian wheat beers I’ve tried, but it worked to counter-balance the sweetness of the bbq sauce on the ribs.

Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve

What a day! Sunny and warm with incredible views as we drove along the Pacific Ocean. We stopped to walk along beaches, look at elephant seals, and have a picnic lunch while listening to the waves crash beside us. It took us all day to go only 375 kilometers, ending at Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco. We got there just in time to catch a brilliant sunset and watch the surfers race to get one more wave in before it got too dark.


Dinner was take-out pizza that was surprising good, and a bottle of Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve. The tasting notes on the bottle promised “a roasty, malty flavor and a hoppy spruce finish”. What I got was an off-flavour mess that tasted of imitation butter and pine. Not pleasant. Disappointed, I poured it down the sink and got a Coke from the vending machine in the lobby.

Indian Wells Brewery Orange Blossom Amber

Back on the interstate to head east toward Death Valley. It was a bit surreal to be driving through the green lushness of the growing region of California and have it turn to arid desert by just going over one mountain pass. We stayed the night in Ridgecrest, home of a naval base in the middle of the desert, speaking of surreal. We decided on steak that night, and were recommended a place called Caseys within walking distance from our hotel.


On a whim, I ordered the Orange Blossom Amber. It poured an almost neon orange colour, the colour of C-Plus pop. The comparison to orange soda did not end there. Both the smell and taste were of over-powering sweet orange that would have been better as a dessert beer than with dinner. Even then, it might still be too much. Not to my taste at all.

Lindemans Framboise

The last day was a warm and dry drive through Death Valley and back to Las Vegas. After a dinner so memorable I can’t even tell you where it was much less what it was, we headed back to our spa suite at Mandalay Bay to pack and relax on our last night of vacation. While Keith watched Family Guy in the main room, I drew a bubble bath in the huge spa tub, poured myself a glass of the last bottle of beer in our cooler and watched a Harry Potter movie. Yes, a tv in the bathroom. I was very careful not to drop the remote control in the tub.


I have to admit, I really prefer a bit of tart or sour more often than not. The Framboise was a treat for all my senses – I loved the deep raspberry red colour of the beer in the glass with the faintly pink head. The smell of tart raspberries fills the glass, with little or no discernible malt or hops tones. The taste is all nicely tart/sour fruit – Granny Smith apple to start followed quickly by the ripe raspberry.

Perfect end to a perfect vacation.

Cask Days 2013

Cask Days 2013 is the first beer event I’ve gone to in about 8 years. The last one was at the Toronto Beer Festival when it was still at Old Fort York. I’d gone one year and had a great time with some friends tasting beer and enjoying the sunshine. The next year it should have been called Frat Boy Fest. I spent most of my time dodging drunken 20-somethings with 6-packs reconfigured as hats and avoiding the increasing puddles of sick as the afternoon went on.

I didn’t go again. To quote Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, I am too old for that shit.

Fast forward to now. I’d heard good things about Cask Days, and decided to try the casks on Saturday and volunteer on Sunday. I asked my beer-drinking friends if they wanted to join me for Session 1, but they all had plans. I’ll be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable at the thought of going on my own (yes, I’m a introvert with hermit-like tendencies), but I forced myself to go. I can only learn so much by sitting at home reading blogs on the internet. I printed out my tickets and a list of all the casks, highlighting those that  sounded interesting.


I signed up for the First Access and Tasting session with Stephen Beaumont so I could get some guidance around the British casks that were on hand. It was worth every penny. I would have likely not tried any of these lovelies:

I didn’t take any notes at the Cask Days, a mistake I won’t make again. Middle-age memory is fickle. I enjoyed them all, but I do remember thinking that I enjoyed the Wells & Young Courage the most. Which is more than I thought I’d remember. You see, two of the cast members from my TV guilty pleasure, Lost Girl, were in the session as well. I found it hard to concentrate on the beer when I was busy trying not to act like a dorky fangirl in front of Kris Holden-Reid and Paul Amos.

I set out on my own after the session. I was quite happy to be on my own, as it allowed me to go where I wanted and be more open to random conversations. I talked to a Viking for a while, and ran into the Thirsty Wench who then introduced me to Nate Ferguson from the Brewmaster program at Niagara College. They introduced me to sour beers, and encouraged me to try the Storm Imperial Flanders, for which I will always be grateful. So delicious.

I found that asking people, “what’s the best beer you’ve tried so far?” was a perfect conversation starter. I soon abandoned my highlighted list, and tried many of the recommendations. I tasted a lot of novelty beers; Liberty Village’s Gummi Beer,  Grand River’s Beetifide Bohemian and Hockley’s Jaffa Cake all had interesting flavours at first sip but palled by the third or fourth. I met Cheezweezl and her husband by chance, and they directed me to the coffee goodness of Amsterdam’s Full City Double Tempest and its neighbour, Amsterdam’s El Jaguar, a chocolate chili stout that was so good I tweeted that I would marry it if I weren’t already married.

I ran into Andy, a former colleague, who has the same love of beer and punk rock as I do. Of course we would run into each other there. We compared notes and wondered what we would have to do to get the DJ to play more Clash.

Andy and I joking with the guys at the Quebec casks. Photo Credit: Connie Tsang (

The next day I volunteered and was working the Manitoba and Alberta casks. The day was still cold, but the rain held off, and the brief bursts of sunshine made the day wonderful. I had a chance to meet Ralph Morana of BarVolo and learn a bit about the proper care of a cask, and had a great time pouring the beer and talking to people.

I finished the weekend very impressed by the work and dedication of the Cask Days organizational team and the volunteers – it takes a lot of work to make these many pieces fall together effortlessly.

I can’t wait for next year.

A selection of beer tshirts that caught my eye.
Found these in my pocket when I did laundry. Hopefully, I’ll remember where I stashed them when I head to Cask Days 2014.