Seeking the Soul of Steam Whistle Pale Ale

by Stephen Beaumont

When Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewing brought out their second beer under the Steam Whistle banner – fourth overall after Von Bugle Munich Lager and brewed-under-licence New Belgium Fat Tire – the general response to the new Pale Ale from the local beer cognoscenti was, to say the least, unenthusiastic.

On the Ontario Craft Beer Guide podcast, host Jordan St. John declared himself to be “underwhelmed,” although, after attending the launch party, on the next episode his co-host, Robin LeBlanc, countered by saying that she was merely “whelmed.” Beer writer Ben Johnson called it “a 2010 relic in a glass,” Brew Ha Ha blogger Don Redmond said he was “less than impressed,” and even the eternally positive Robert Arsenault, aka Drunk Polkaroo, had to admit that he thought it only “okay.”

At the heart of a lot of these complaints was the supposed predictability of the style selected for the company’s second release, although I wonder if the chorus would have been more positive or negative had Steam Whistle decided on a trendy kettle sour or hazy IPA or pastry stout? (Me, I would have preferred a bock, but I understand that Steam Whistle might be more concerned with making money than pleasing me.)

So I attended the launch event, along with LeBlanc, and sampled the beer under rather adverse circumstances, specifically a loud and noisy room filled with people knocking back free beer. Even in such conditions, however, I found little to dislike: The full malt backbone was in evidence; there was a hint of British-ness to it, which I later found came from the exclusive use of Golding hops; and the finish seemed satisfyingly bitter. So, I decided to investigate further.

My investigation took me, as it often does, to a blind tasting. Assembling a half-dozen of what could be termed “classic” Canadian pale ales – Great Lakes Canuck, Nickel Brook Naughty Neighbour, Spearhead Hawaiian Style, Black Oak, Amsterdam Cruiser and St. Ambroise – I asked my wife to pour me all six alongside the new Steam Whistle beer in unmarked glasses. Then I sampled each in turn with no idea of what I was sipping.

The Steam Whistle stood out, as did the St. Ambroise and for broadly the same reason. Rather than being characterized by the citrus quality of their hoppiness, each presented a different take on the hop, orange spice cake in the case of the Steam Whistle and peppery and tannic fruit notes in the St. Ambroise. That said, when I calculated my favourites from among the strong field, suspecting but not knowing the identity of each beer, Steam Whistle wound up in third place and St. Ambroise tied for second.

(The surprise for me was the solid showing of Naughty Neighbour, a beer I drink rarely because of its crude and sexist can art. No surprise at all was the strong showing of Canuck, which led the field from aroma to aftertaste. And for the record, I correctly identified five out of the seven.)

My conclusion, then, is that the generally poor response Steam Whistle Pale Ale received at its launch came about because of the following:

1) People expected something more exciting and were disappointed;

2) Pale ales are not in vogue these days, and so a new one doesn’t get the credit that long-standing entries generally receive; and

3) The English hops, which I thought were the beer’s best attribute, threw for a loop people expecting an American style pale ale’s typically bold and citrusy hop profile.

Bottom line: Steam Whistle Pale Ale might not be on point in this haze-crazed beer world, or present the hop profile that you might be expecting, but it’s actually a pretty good beer. You should try a can or two, with an open mind.