One of only four Canadians to be dubbed a Beer Knight by the Belgian Brewers Association, McClelland Premium Imports (MPI) founder Guy McClelland will be sampling several world class beers at the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival, which runs from November 9-11, 2012.
He will be bringing beers from some of Europe’s oldest and most respected breweries including Erdinger Weissbräu and Affligem Brouweij. I had the chance to chat with Mr. McClelland about the brands he will be sampling at the show and the import business in general. I’ll also briefly review the beers in his company’s Ontario retail portfolio.
Guy McClelland was involved in the early days of importing beer into Canada in the 1990s. He worked for the fledgling import branch of one of Canada’s largest breweries and was heavily involved in the launch of a popular Belgian beer you have undoubtedly heard of.
When market conditions started to change, the company he worked for was absorbed by a multinational firm and the import department was being scaled back he “saw the writing on the wall”.
Armed with the knowledge of the Canadian import process he had gained the and relationships he had established with European breweries, McClelland ventured into business for himself. His new company, McClelland Premium Imports was born and the company delivered their first beer (Früli Strawberry Beer) to Canadian shelves in 2004.
Because of his commitment to and prevalence in helping expand the Belgian beer export industry, the Belgian Brewers Association saw fit to award him with their highest honour, enthroning him in the Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mash Staff in 2007.
MPI is very focussed on the consumer level of the business and being national in scope helps them get the products they represent onto the shelves of retail agencies like the LCBO and MLCC. Guy McClelland is also quite active with promotion through attendance at events like the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival.
2012 will mark his first visit to this particular show to sample and promote beers, but rather than feeling like the odd man out, he sees wine and food-focussed events as a chance to create “high quality engagement” with a consumer base that tends to be well-educated and interested in classic and authentic styles of food and drink.
Mr. McClelland has hand-picked a small, but impressive stable of brands to represent and his company delivers a number of premium European beers to the Ontario retail market that include:
Affligem Blond (Belgium, Affligem Brouwerij, 6.8%)
This Belgian strong pale ale is brewed using an Abbey method that dates back to 1074. Affligem Blond has a clear golden colour with orange tinges and a very large and soapy white head that leaves a fair amount of lace. A typically yeasty smell is joined by aromas of grains, ripe apple, honey and pepper.
The taste of Affligem Blond is rich and malty with accents of banana, apple and honey. The mouthfeel is fairly light and creamy. The finish is tart and dry with the aftertaste carrying a peppery note.
This would be a great starting point for someone new to the world of Abbey and Trappist beers.
Erdinger Weissbier & Erdinger Weissbier Dunkel (Germany, Erdinger Weissbräu, 5.3%)
A classic bottle-fermented hefeweizen, Erdinger Weissbier pours a pale, hazy golden straw colour with a frothy white head that leaves moderate lacing as it settles into a collared film. Erdinger Weissbier smells mellow, but also sharp with traditional banana and clove aromas and a warm overtone of freshly cut wheat.
The taste of Erdinger Weissbier is rather mild, with flavours of fresh and toasted wheat dominating and accents of sharp lemon rind and pepper. Where this beer really shines is its creamy and slightly earthy mouthfeel. The finish is tart and the aftertaste carries a hint of citrus.
Erdinger Weissbier Dunkel is much darker, pouring a hazy light copper colour. The aroma has a bit more punch to it, along with chocolate and plum notes and a hearty roasted grain character that is also present in its taste, mouthfeel and finish, making it more suited to fall and winter fare than its lighter brother.
Früli Strawberry Beer (Belgium, Brouwerij Huyghe, 4.1%)
I’ve had a number of fruit-infused beers before, but Früli Strawberry Beer takes it to a whole other level. This wheat-based fruit beer is brewed with 30% pure strawberry juice, which gives it a bright pink color. Its light pink hued head gets retained as a collar and leaves spotty lacing.
Früli Strawberry Beer smells a lot like strawberry candy, with a light yeast tone behind that. The taste of this beer is unsurprisingly dominated by a sweet, thick strawberry flavour with a syrupy note a hint of spice. The mouthfeel is quite lively and a distinct tartness comes through in the finish.
Great with or as a dessert, Früli Strawberry Beer appeals to people that may prefer cocktails to beer, as well as fans of the somewhat more intense lambic style.
Palm Export (Belgium, Brouwerij Palm, 5.4%)
This Belgian pale ale has a copper-amber hue with a white head that has good retention and leaves some nice lace. Palm Export has a malty, biscuit-like aroma with accents of citrus, pepper and mineral water.
The taste of Palm Export is very sweet by my standards and has a syrupy malt character as well as a grassy hop profile. A mineral flavour imparts a solid bitterness that remains throughout the finish of this medium-bodied brew.
Palm Export is a very accessible beer for a casual drinker, but may lacking a bit for the typical Belgian ale fan.
Stiegl Bier (Austria, Stieglbrauerei zu Salzburg, 4.9%)
Among the seemingly countless European lagers that line store shelves, Stiegl Bier stands out, and not just because of its can. This Helles lager is a golden yellow color with a large and soapy white head that gets retained as a thin film.
Stiegl Bier has a floral, hop forward aroma with light malt and yeast tones and a subtle alcohol note. The taste of Stiegl Bier is very well-balanced between sweet and bitter without taking either to an extreme.
A bready malt backing is countered by soapy, grassy hop profile. A mild oiliness and fine carbonation can be felt on the tongue, while the finish and aftertaste are both crisp and clean. Stiegl Bier is both very accessible and versatile in terms of food pairings.
MPI also represents Brouwerij Mort Subite and regularly brings the brewery’s Kriek Lambic to Ontario shelves, though a sample was unavailable for review at the time of writing.
Though import beer sales have been relatively flat in recent years, they do maintain a steady growth rate and currently represent roughly three times the market share than that of their local craft beer cousins in Ontario.
Rather than seeing the current trend of people wanting to eat and drink locally-sourced products as a threat, Guy McClelland remains confident that most beer connoisseurs will at some point want to try authentically made examples of beer styles that they may first experience through a local craft brewer.
There are some hurdles to importing beers into Ontario because of AGCO and LCBO policies. For example, MPI distributes Delirium Tremens from Brouwerij Huyghe in other parts of Canada and though it is widely considered to be a top-notch Belgian strong ale, the LCBO will not list it based on its name and logo because the AGCO social responsibility guidelines prohibit suggestive images and wording.
The LCBO also recently rejected a retail listing for the popular gluten-free beer Mongozo Premium Pilsner from Mongozo BV in The Netherlands. It should be noted though that both of these brands are available in Ontario in 30 litre kegs at The Beer Store and served at select licensees throughout the province.
When I asked if MPI was bringing anything new to the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival or the Ontario retail market, McClelland quipped “All of my beers are old”, referring to the heritage associated with Belgian and German brewing. He is unwavering in his commitment to the portfolio of brands he and his company represent and exudes a sense of passion for what he does.
MPI does however have a pair of products on the LCBO shelves for the holiday season, namely Erdinger and Stiegl gift packs that both contain branded glassware.
In case you were wondering about my personal take on the MPI lineup, I don’t care for Palm Export much at all and find it far too sweet. I think Früli Strawberry Beer is quite a tasty treat, but it simply isn’t something I’d buy regularly. Erdinger Weissbier and Weissbier Dunkel are two of the finest examples of wheat beer that I’ve tried to this point.
Stiegl Bier has long been a personal favourite for accompanying a good deli-style sandwich and though I consider Affligem Blond a quality choice for a Belgian strong pale ale, I prefer both the brewery’s Dubbel and Tripel.
I encourage you to come to the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival and sample the beers above for yourself. I will be attending on Friday, November 9 and look forward to meeting Guy McClelland in person. McClelland Premium Imports will also be at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo in Toronto from November 15-18.
Imported beers are often branded with the stigma of being faceless, factory-produced products and while that may be true in many cases, breweries such as Stieglbrauerei zu Salzburg and Affligem Brouweij make craft beers in the truest sense, utilizing recipes and methods that are often centuries old, as well as high quality ingredients.
The conversation that I had with Mr. McClelland was very interesting and gave me incredible insight to the business of importing beer to Canada. I’ll probably take more notice of the import shelves at my local LCBO because of it, if not necessarily for the beers themselves, for the story behind how they got there.
Please Note: McClelland Premium Imports provided me with samples of the beers featured in this article, as well as the visual assets used. I was approached to conduct my Interview with Guy McClelland by Courtney Senior of Instigator Communications.