The Queen of England might get a kick out of making “sirs” and “dames” out of her favourite public figures, but in Belgium they grant knighthood to the crème de la crème of beer experts. That’s a round table we’d much rather be seated at. Achieving such a renowned rank is no easy task. In fact, there are only four official Beer Knights in all of Canada, and Guy McClelland is one of them. So what exactly does such a high-ranking brew aficionado do, anyway? As the resident Beer Knight at McClelland Premium Imports (MPI), McClelland travels Europe in search of the Old World’s best and most authentic beers to bring back home to Canada. Sure, he also goes by the title “president” on Canadian soil, but we don’t blame him for opting for more unique business cards to reflect his international status. Besides, his job is basically an ongoing modern-day hero’s quest to find the holy grail of beers overseas. Over the course of his adventures he’s put together a collection of premium craft beers from legendary beer countries like the aforementioned Belgium, as well as Germany and Austria. We caught up with McClelland to find out more about knighthood, his favourite beers, and what pervading beer myths he wants desperately to debunk…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
Well, I might have the greatest job in the world. I come from the Canadian prairies and beer has always been a passion. As an importer of European craft beers, I’m doing what I love: introducing people to different tastes and styles of beers. As a Beer Knight, I have the chance to educate Canadians about beer and debunk some commonly held beer myths.
You’re a Beer Knight. What is a Beer Knight exactly and what are some of the perks?
It isn’t as glamourous as it sounds. Just kidding. It’s actually a pretty serious honour – almost diplomatic – that the Belgians bestow on only a handful of people each year. I’m in fairly select company – only four Canadians have been knighted to date.
The biggest perk, really, is you are a celebrity when you go to their annual beer weekend. In my opinion, it’s the greatest beer consumer show that I’ve ever attended in the world. It’s great to go to Belgian Beer Weekend and be recognized, if not for my own face, but the symbol of knighthood – the medal that they gave me when I was knighted in 2007. It’s been said (and I haven’t actually tested this) that a Beer Knight should never have to pay for a beer when in Belgium. So I’m planning my retirement there.
What makes Belgian beer so special in your opinion?
You could go a long time on that question. Beer is to Belgium as Scotch is to Scotland. There’s a reverence to beer in Belgium that’s entrenched in the fabric of their culture. One of the reasons is rather historical and religious in nature and has to do with the monasteries that made bread, cheese and beer dating back over thousands of years. During medieval plagues, monasteries were havens where beer was encouraged as a beverage of choice above water. Back then, for unknown reasons, people who drank beer survived the plague and people who chose to drink water didn’t fare so well. No one knew why and it was declared a miracle. There is downright religious fibre in beer in the country of Belgium.
Belgium’s geography in Europe is part of what has made their beer so special. Over the centuries, Belgium has been occupied by many different nations and empires. I could even say in the last hundred years – the fact that Germany entered France through Belgium in both World Wars (obviously the Germans have a great reputation for brewing in their own right) – there’s been a lot of influences, tastes and cultures. As a result, their philosophy of brewing is about experimentation and naturalness above all. There are over 650 different styles of beer in Belgium. Unlike the Germans, they’re not focused on a particular style of beer; they challenge themselves to create new and different tastes. Belgium will always remain a very special place for beer. To me it’s beer paradise. It’s a place with the most variety of beer styles and the smallest geography in a sense.
What are some of the best European beers that we can get here in Canada?
It’s unfortunately true that today there’s still a very limited selection of some of the best beers in the world in Canada. I would say the Abbey/Trappist style of Belgium is, in my opinion, the superior beer style of the world when you’re talking about taste, flavour, richness, and balance. There’s only two Abbey beers in Canada (that I can think of), one of them being Affligem Blond and the other Leffe. Affligem Blond is one of the top beers you can get in Canada from what I consider to be one of the most important styles of the beer food chain.
Next to that you have to go back to some very classic styles and who makes very good examples of them. The one classic style I would say is Bavarian wheat. Bavarian wheat is special because of its purity. In Southern Germany they still subscribe to the Bavarian Purity Law, which means beer can only be made with four ingredients: hops, malt, yeast and water. If you get a quality bottle of fermented German wheat like Erdinger, you’ve got a fantastic ‘different occasion’ type of beer from the Belgian Abbey style, but beautifully natural, light, delicate and delicious. Erdinger Dunkel is one of my favourite beers. It’s my go-to. It’s a Bavarian Purity Law beer with chocolate roasted malts.
Third, it’s a toss-up between Stout and Czech Pils – Czech Pils because purity of beer is important in western Czech Republic, but more importantly it’s the birthplace of lager, the world’s favourite beer style today.
The terms Pils is short for Pilsner, which means ‘of Pilsen’, which is the town in Czech Republic where lager was truly invented. Pilsner is the original style of lager. As a lager, it’s bottom fermented, but what’s special about a Czech Pilsner is it’s more in line with the original level of hoppiness. It’s a more hoppy lager than a regular lager. A great example of that would be a Pilsner Urquell.
If I was going to add one more, I’d pick a really authentic Irish Stout – perhaps an O’Hara’s or a Murphy’s from Cork. An Irish Stout is smoky, creamy, light bodied, very dark in colour from burnt, roasted malts, has a very high bitterness level, but a sessionable bitterness level – 50 IBUs, tops!
Debunk a couple myths about beer for us…
The beer belly: I’m a great believer of taking great care of what you put in your body. I’m very health conscious and exercise regularly – and I do drink a lot of beer. I’m also a very big label reader. I’m certainly of the school that the shorter the label ingredients list the better, and that certainly permeates into beer. The first beer myth is really the beer belly. It’s a rather unfortunate term that has generally been applied to North American obesity, especially for adult males. It’s an unfortunate thing because beer is actually a very low-calorie beverage. In the range of possible options for beverages whether they may have alcohol or not have alcohol, beer is among the very lowest in calories in unit volume. The famous beer belly is really a lifestyle belly.
The colour of beer determines taste: Dark beer does not mean strong beer. Many Canadians today still hold the belief that the darker the colour of beer the stronger or more intense the flavour, which may or may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a complete myth because the colour of the beer actually comes from the roasting of the malts. While it may provide some flavour nuances from a caramelizing sweetness to a chocolate bitterness, it really has nothing to do with the strength of the beer, being the alcohol, or the bitterness of the beer which comes from the hops.
Beer makes you bloated: Another popular myth is that beer is filling and makes you bloated. It’s probably one that too many Canadians still believe because they have a really bad habit: they drink beer from the bottle. Europeans simply do not do this. They always drink beer from a glass. Beer was never intended to be consumed directly from a bottle or can. A naturally fermented beer, on average, contains about 2.5 volumes of carbon dioxide. So if you drink it right out of the can or bottle, you’re essentially putting a bottle of water and 2.5 bottles of gas in your stomach. And that will no doubt leave you feeling bloated. The gas that gives beer its characteristic bite or bubbliness or effervescence is a natural aspect of fermentation. But it’s really intended that you explode some of that gas out when you pour it. The simple action of pouring the beer out of the bottle gives it the right taste, mouth feel, and greatly reduces that filling or bloating feeling that results from drinking beer out of the bottle.
Where are some of your favourite places in Toronto to grab a beer?
Esplanade Bier Markt is one of my top places. It’s really the original beer destination and has been for going on 15 years. Besides an amazing beer selection they have excellent food. Beer Bistro is also one of my favourite spots. They are foremost in the country at the art of beer and food matching. Every food item on the menu suggests a style of beer to pair and they also incorporate beer into the actual dishes themselves. I really like going to Fionn MacCool’s. It’s just a fantastic place for a great burger and a great beer. I watched the Olympic hockey there and it was a great atmosphere. Really love Fionn’s.
Two other new favourites to grab a beer: Union Social and Rad Brothers. Union Social has a fantastic, upscale, contemporary casual atmosphere. The food is a plus at Union Social and they have a pretty good beer selection with beers like Stiegl Lager on tap and Erdinger Weissbier in bottles. Rad Brothers is a bit west of the city in Milton. It’s a very comfortable go-to place for great causal food with a great beer selection.