Toronto Beer Week: Saturday (Part One)

The Brewsfest at Black Creek Pioneer Village was a bit of a wildcard on the Saturday of Toronto Beer Week. Great Lakes Harvest Fest and the Cask! Social at Bryden’s were the beer geek draws and nicely laid out so that people could easily go to both. For many including this blogger, Black Creek is way up north, almost reaching outside of Toronto proper. While their brewery is an interesting concept (the brewing process replicates how beer would have been made in the 1860s), the location of it does not make for easy, regular visits. Having been to the brewery in its relative infancy last year, I was curious to see what changes had occurred, especially in the taste of the beer (the oak barrels were still very fresh and overwhelmed much of the taste). The Black Creek Brewsfest brought together six other GTA breweries for a day of tastings, tours and music.

The brewery is an interesting experience and not just because of ye olde brewing system, but also for the description of the beer and spirits industry and culture that existed in the 1860s. Anyone who has experienced the over-regulated liquor system in Ontario since prohibition would be amazed at the way the system ran in the 19th century – women making small table beer for the family (often 1-2%), the lack of government involvement, and whiskey and beer consumption on the job. Sounds like a golden age of beer, right? Not so when you consider the temperance movement and the fact that Molson/Labatt were already brewing, but I digress. Suffice it to say that you get a bit of a history lesson before actually trying any beer.

To repeat what was said from my first visit to the Black Creek brewery, this is a classic and simple system. A mash tun, boiling kettle, a hop sieve and some conditioning casks are the basic equipment used at Black Creek to make their beers. The beers are served straight from the cask with no filtration, pasteurization or artificial carbonation. Other than the ingredients, which are commercially purchased, this is an exact replica of an 1860s brewery. Every batch of beer is different from the last, with many little variations that can occur between brews. The most noticeable aspect of the beers from one year ago was the oak, which made the darker beers almost vinous. On Saturday this was most noticeable in the brown ale with its nutty characters almost fully overpowered by the oak. The stout was really good, giving a sensuous amount of dark chocolate on the tongue and a robustly roasted backbone. Calling it a bit thin seems redundant to say considering the brewing process, but it takes sometime to get used to the idea that this is how a stout would have tasted.

The final ale was a nice surprise as it was a wet hopped pale ale that used hops grown on the site. And it definitely the best beer they had available, a nice mix of grapefruit, pine, fresh grass from the wet hops and a tea-like tannic quality. A splendid ale that would be quite sessionable, which is luckily as a growler of it is sitting in my fridge. Speaking with Ed, the brewer at Black Creek, they’ve been doing monthly seasonals for some time, including a maple brown ale, dandelion stout and more. They announce their special beers on the brewery blog, so look for updates about a pumpkin ale and spiced winter beer in the upcoming months. I asked about stronger beers and was told that while high percentage brews were made in the time period, their current brewery would have a hard time aging a beer for longer enough in their cellar without it spoiling (there is a restaurant across the hall that keeps the brewery warmer even with the temperature drops). But he is hoping to make a barley wine just before Black Creek closes for the winter, let it age during the following months and then see how it tastes during the spring. I’m already waiting for winter to end, regardless of the fact that it hasn’t started yet.

The Black Creek brewery was just one small part of Brewsfest, though – what about all the other beer? Black Oak, Cameron’s, Trafalgar, Great Lakes, Lake of Bays and Railway City were also on-site, setting up shop in a grassy field to serve up some delicious beer. For avid fans of the craft beer scene, this part didn’t offer anything new aside from this years Hop Nouveau from Trafalgar. But the world doesn’t revolve around craft beer geeks and this day was obviously for letting the average beer drinker try something new. Hanging around the beer tents was an interesting experience, hearing people talk to the reps about the beers. When Ken Woods from Black Oak described their saison as a fruit beer, one person automatically said no because they didn’t like fruity beers. Most people seemed to be really impressed with the quality of the beer, but then the issue was often where they can find Ontario craft beer. A beer like Lake of Bays is still in its infancy and hard to find in the GTA, while other seasonals are only available at the breweries. Hearing the same conversations continuously proved that the craft beer message is not getting out to the majority of Ontarians.

The other mini-event I went to was a beer and cheese tasting, led by Julia Rogers from Cheese Culture. The beer/cheese events are in vogue these days, probably because everyone thinks it is an easy way to elevate beer to the sophisticated levels of wine. And while this was filled with three good local pairings (Black Oak Saison with a brebette, Trafalgar Old Mill Elora Irish Ale with a mustard seed gouda and Railway City Double Dead Elephant Ale with some aged cheddar) it didn’t leave me with any real knowledge of how or why beer and cheese matches work. A little more education would have been nice, rather than just trying to get people to see beer and cheese as a combination that can work equally as well as, if not better than, wine and cheese.

Overall, it was a nice day at Black Creek and a fine way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It may not be a beer geek paradise, but it is not like the makers of pale lagers were invited. The hardcore craft beer lovers are still needed to promote events like this for the sake that they survive and help convert more people to the cult craft beer (and there definitely were a couple of new marks on Saturday).

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