I love trying new wines. I understand the language, I know the etiquette, I'm familiar with many varietals, and I know how to taste the wines.
But beer? Whisky? Tea?
Not so much.
So I set out to learn a little bit about each at the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This year's theme was “Globally inspired, locally grown,” showcasing local food and drink, combined with international flavours.
Stratford is located about an hour and a half west of Toronto. The entire city seems to be focused on celebrating their local products. Every restaurant and shop that I visited proudly noted the origin of the meats, cheeses, vegetables, wines, and beers on offer, and most had travelled less than two hours from field to table.
At the festival, I took part in three tasting sessions, each hosted by a local expert. It gave me a new appreciation for drinks made without grapes – and showed me how much I have to learn.
First, the beer
My favorite part of this session was the presenter. Mirella Amato is a Master Cicerone. What a sommelier is to wine, a cicerone is to beer. Mirella is one of only 18 in Canada, and the only one to have achieved the Master designation. Her vast knowledge of beer, combined with her enthusiasm and passion for her subject, made this tasting a lot of fun.
We tasted 5 different types of beer – some local, some international – each with entirely different flavors, colors, and textures. Mirella spoke of the importance of color, and how hard brewers work to achieve specific shades. When tasting, appreciating the visual appearance is an important part of the experience.
The winner of the day for my palate was a German Rauchbier (smoked beer) called Schlenkerla. It tasted like bacon to me, which was a real surprise! This flavour is created by smoking the grains over beechwood. Delicious and unexpected.
Then, the tea
I like tea. I drink it several times a week, but I don't really pay much attention to it. Well, Karen Hartwick, a Certified Tea Sommelier, and her daughter, Michelle Stevenson, a Medical Herbalist, certainly do. With them, I tasted 4 teas with local and international ingredients. I learned that Japanese tea cups have no handles so that you can really connect with your tea as you hold, smell, and drink it. I learned that I might be a green tea hater because I have been steeping it too long, or using water that is too hot, and not because I actually dislike the tea itself. And I learned that these women possess a wealth of knowledge about plants and herbs that I can't even begin to imagine.
The winning tea for me this day was one that was created especially for this event. It included chamomile, local lemon balm, alfalfa, and oatstraw. And when I say local, I mean it – a local forager collected it from the countryside near Stratford. Karen and Michelle encouraged us to take some time out of each day to practice mindfulness and enjoy the tea by steeping it in a mason jar for 15 minutes, sitting quietly and watching the herbs swell and release their color, flavour, and aroma, before drinking it.
And finally, the whisky
This one had me a bit worried: would I be strong enough to handle tasting 5 whiskies straight up? In this case, I think my concern was pretty valid. I clearly have a big learning curve ahead of me. But having Davin de Kergommeaux lead us through the entirely Canadian line-up was fascinating.
The first taste was of a locally produced white rye from Dillon's Distillers, just down the road in Beamsville. I love the concept of small batch distilling, of having a drink made from local grains, I even love the shape of the bottle and the packaging. But this stuff just about knocked me over! Luckily, as we tasted from left to right, from young to aged, from white to brown, the tastes became smoother and more flavorful – in other words, easier for the uninitiated to take in and appreciate.
I was definitely intrigued. Bitten by the whisky bug, you might say. This will require further investigation.
Using what you've learned
Savour Stratford offered a great opportunity to not only taste local products, but also to learn how to fully experience them. The fact that all of these tastings were rolled into one event made for a great weekend trip full of surprising flavours and new learning in a relaxed, fun environment. Tastings tend to be very social, so although I was traveling solo, I found I was constantly talking to new people and sharing thoughts and opinions on our new discoveries.
Acquiring skills in the art of tasting, picking up some of the vocabulary, and understanding a bit of the context of different beverages can enrich your tasting experiences as you travel. Tell us about your travel tasting experiences in the comments section below. Cheers!