Ontario Craft Beer: A Personal Journey
When I was 17, I found myself running around the streets of a small city in Northern France in the early evening with some like-minded classmates destined to take advantage of this miraculous culture that let us partake of alcoholic beverages prior to the legal age of majority back home in Ontario, Canada.
We discovered a pub, tucked around a tight corner that advertised itself as a Canadian themed establishment. For the sheer novelty of it; and probably thinking we could entertain a few local folks inside by actually being Canadian – we raced inside. To the mutual disappointment of the few patrons, and one bar staff who were not in the mood for hyper foreign teenagers, we saddled up to the taps only to realize there was nothing that particularly exuded Canadiana inside; but the passports in our pockets and the Labatt’s and Molson’s signage draped around the room with the same product pouring out of two kegs.
We resigned to quietly ordering a few pints of the same beer we hauled through fields back home in 12s or 2-4s because it was cheap and portable, and drank these light and tasteless lagers quickly before throwing down some Francs (pre-Euro days) and dashing out. The overall experience was deflating; but it was the foreign representation of my identity that damaged me the most. Of course, the most boring, bland, and outright dreary pub in France was labeled ‘Canadian’ and in bright neon orange lights!
I did not drink another Canadian beer until almost six years later.
It was an American bartender in Toronto that eventually reminded me what a bad Canadian I had been and what I had been missing out on when he brought me into a tiny pub called, Smokeless Joe’s, in the city’s core. At this point, I had travelled to Europe a few more times; back to France where I had developed an intermediate education and love for champagne and wine; but also to Brussels where an an interest in Belgian beer was initiated – more from a historical appreciation of the Trappist tradition, than that of taste, however.
With my stubbornness akin to iron, I ordered bourbon on that first visit to the Toronto pub that boasted 200+ beers. After trying to keep up with ‘Milwaukee Mike’ and his pints via my Tennessee whiskey, I quickly realized I better switch to beer – or my newfound friend would be mopping me off the floor.
I played it safe with easy-drinking Belgian and German wheat beers, at first. Then, comfortable enough to visit the intimate pub on my own, and with other friends, I got to know the incredibly talented staff quite quickly by asking multitudes of questions. Now, here were some folks that really wanted you to understand and enjoy beer – and I had always been a sponge for information, especially now for premium beverage. Very quickly came the day, a couple months after my first visit with Mike, that bartenders Colin and Eddie demanded I have an Ontario craft beer, of which they had five on draught.
I had no idea what the term ‘Ontario craft beer’ meant.
My trusted beer guides informed me that craft beer was outside the realm of corporate mass production and marketing – probably why I was unfamiliar with it. They taught me to think, understand and appreciate the quality of local craft beer in the same way I felt toward the Belgian abbey and Trappist product. In addition, the efforts behind the Ontario craft beers were like those of the local farmers, like my father, that I had grown to fiercely admire and respect. In fact, informed Colin, I had grown up right under the nose of a one, Neustadt Springs Brewery, twenty minutes from my backdoor. I truly felt ashamed, ignorant, and definitely unpatriotic as I took sips from five tiny sample glasses my friends provided.
What followed can be called an epiphany, and rightly so, for I turned my iron-like stubbornness into religious zeal in my quest to right the wrongs of my scarred beer drinking past. Determined to learn the diverse flavours, structures, and styles all made, here, in my own backyard, I frequented Smokeless Joe’s for the few years I managed a Belgian-style beer bistro nearby – bringing my staff in to compare and contrast with our own beer list. It certainly created a camaraderie amongst us; and rectified my embarrassing personal deficiencies in local beer knowledge to the point where I am now constantly asked: “how do I know so much about beer”?
Anyone can become an expert in something they believe in.
Now, it seems the Ontario craft beer industry is gaining serious ground against the once standalone corporate contenders due to: the local movement operating within the staff and patrons of our provincial pubs and restaurants; the enthusiasm, creativity, and work ethic of the industry itself; and the rapidly developing and integrated social networks we use to spread word of mouth and let each other know “what’s good”. For this reason, I am proud to be a frontline supporter of all great beer; but specifically Ontario craft beer – as I now pour from the taps at Smokeless Joe’s once in awhile promoting and educating on that which less than five years ago I chose American whiskey over; and which doesn’t require neon lights to bring in like-minded Canadians and world travelers, alike.
Below, I will list some resources – and reference only a few of my favourite Ontario craft brews – you can get your hands on, here. Plus, be on the lookout for how other Canadian craft beers – especially from British Columbia and Quebec – are making BIG waves; the latter having a particularly marvelous tradition and availability in Ontario (Dieu du Ciel) and abroad.
Some of my favourite Ontario brews include:
- Muskoka Cottage Brewery – Double Chocolate/Cranberry Stout; Cream Ale; and Dark Ale
- County Durham Brewing Co. – Blak Katt Stout; and *ESB (Extra Special Bitter) *on nitrogen preferably
- Flying Monkey’s Craft Brewery – Hoptical Illusion Ale; and Smashbomb Atomic IPA (India Pale Ale)
- Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. – Lug Tread Lagered Ale; and Festivale Ale
- Railway City Brewing – Dead Elephant IPA; and Seasonal Coffee Stout
- Neustadt Springs Brewery – 10W30 Dark Ale; Texas Tea Honey Stout; and Scottish Pale Ale
- Mill Street Brewery – Betelgeuse Belgian Tripel; Organic Lager; and Vanilla Porter
- Cameron’s Brewing Co. – ‘Dark 266’ Lager
- Nickel Brook Beers – Maple Porter; and Green Apple Pilsner
- Ontario Craft Brewers
- Craft Brewers Association of British Columbia
- Bieres du Quebec
- Bieres et Plaisirs
- Quebec Brewery: Dieu du Ciel
- Beer Advocate
- The Bar Towel
- Canadian Beer News
There are also a wealth of beer-minded folks on Facebook and Twitter; pushing thought leadership on craft product, and advancing the cause of availability across Canada. Feel free to contact me directly via social media to access a list of these like-minded folks.