Jordan St. John on Black Oak Pale Ale

Black Oak Pale Ale

Black Oak Pale Ale

American-style Pale Ale
First Brewed
Nov. 1999
Malt Varieties
Canadian 2-Row, Toasted Wheat, Crystal Medium & Carafoam
Hop Varieties
Northern Brewer, Azacca & Chinook
California Ale yeast
Works really well with spicy food, curries and hot wings. It keeps your palate clean so you can enjoy the spice.
Jordan St. John on Black Oak Pale Ale

Since I moved back from university something like thirteen years ago, my pub life in Toronto has been split between craft beer bars and my local pub.

Toronto has gone through a boom in the last decade. You used to have to travel across town to find good beer on tap. Now there are dozens of well-curated tap lists, sometimes 150 lines in the same venue. Out on a walk twice or three times a week, I’ll pop my head into various pubs just to see which breweries are making the push to market. Places you wouldn’t have thought might entertain a milkshake IPA are giving them a try. It’s all you can do to keep the inconstant swirl of activity in your head.

At the other end of the spectrum is my local pub. It has changed names three times since I started drinking there, having finally settled on The Wallace Gastropub. They have had the same beer on the far left tap the entire time: Black Oak Pale Ale. It is the sort of bar that occupies a building that could no longer be anything else. At this point the only thing a new owner could do with it is improve the fixtures and polish the floor; it’s a pub or nothing.

Jordan St. John
Jordan St. John

Downtown, Birreria Volo will have (in its now meagre 32 tap selection) beers people would have given their eye teeth to try five years ago. An aged version of Hill Farmstead Arthur on tap with no social media furor; this marvel from Vermont that you will not see again this year in Toronto. Many of the other taps are equally good, but you’re spoilt for choice. I can take ten minutes gauging the menu to make sure I am not screwing up or missing out. Check Arthur’s nearly citric scrub of acidity and carbonation. Wonderful, but gone tomorrow. So infrequent as to make discussion of it impossible except for acknowledgement that it has been tried. Engender FOMO in your Instagram feed; that’s what it’s there for.

At my local, Dave, my bartender, says to me, “Black Oak is tasting a little like strawberry this week.” Black Oak Pale Ale has been Black Oak’s best-selling beer since the brewery was founded in 1999. I have probably had one a year since I turned nineteen. I sometimes have several a month.

I have seen the recipe. I have worked the packaging line. I’m guessing that the Willamette flavour and aroma additions must have been tweaked. It’ll throw red licorice, but strawberry? Maybe a more assertive season of growth and more myrcene. Maybe less and the brewer is tweaking the hop varieties to emulate Willamette. Maybe they backed off the Northern Brewer bittering addition. Something has changed. Not enough to call the brewing team.

Bruce, a regular at my pub, although less so these days, would be able to tell the change between the beer week to week despite a pack a day habit. He wouldn’t talk about it much. It was close enough.

The benefit of a flagship beer is character. It allows a brewery to establish a personality. Now that may change over time, but it will almost certainly change back. Variance is a hallmark of character. Even if a brewery hits specs, there will be variance between batches. Constancy may be a virtue, but it is the attempt that is virtuous.

You could (and people do) choose to drink a different new beer every day until some point in the far flung future when you finally succumb to age. It may be enjoyable, but the benefit of having brewery flagships that you return to is the ability to develop an appreciation of nuance, of ingredient, of context for the flood of new brands into the market. Here is Black Oak Pale Ale. It tastes like 1999 and 2019 all at once. Twenty years old. Old enough to drink in Canada, and always there to greet you.

Jordan St. John is the author of five books on beer, including two editions of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide. He is also the head of the new Beer Certificate program at George Brown College in Toronto.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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