The road trip is a staple of summers. Pack up a car, grab some friends and hit the road. Sometimes there is a purpose behind the trip or it is just an excuse to get away from the city. It was one of my goals this summer to visit some breweries outside of Toronto that I haven’t had the chance to visit. Luckily Ontario is blessed with a lot of options, which we had to narrow down to one trip. Should we tackle Muskoka, heading to Flying Monkeys, Muskoka and Lake of Bays? Go east to Beau’s, Cassel, Church-Key and more? Both were solid options, but in the end we decided on a Golden Horseshoe trip that was a little more compact. The first stop was Cameron’s, located in Oakville.
Cameron’s is an established craft brewery with four main brands – Lager, Cream Ale, Auburn Ale and Dark 266. Until recently, these were the only beers they made on a large scale, but that all changed in a big way last year when they made a beer aged in American whiskey barrels. Then came the Deviator Doppelbock, Rye Pale Ale (RPA) and the soon-to-be-released Sirius Wheat Ale. What once seemed like a dormant brewery is now rapidly changing to meet the demands of a growing craft beer market and I was curious to find out more. The brewmaster, Jason Britton, was kind enough to give us a tour around the facilities and talk about the changes that Cameron’s has seen over the years.
Cameron’s facilities are an odd mix of old and new, which show the changes that the industry have undergone while the brewery has been in operation. I was curious about a couple of older looking tanks that were covered in a stucco-like insulation. Were these special lagering tanks? No, just an older design that were the original tanks Cameron’s started out using back when breweries were closing and used equipment was plentiful. These sat right beside newer and shinier tanks, the kind that every brewery would have to buy now because the industry is booming and no used equipment comes on the market. Other highlights from our tour of the brewing facility: the empty spent grain bins that had just been picked up that morning from a local farmer and the hop plants growing behind the building. Cameron’s grows a wide variety of hops and they will be harvested sometime in the next month or two for some specialty beers.
Jason led us through a sampling of the Cameron’s lineup, starting with their four core brands. These would be best described now as gateway beers that would help transition a beer drinker away from generic lagers and ales to craft beers with more flavour. The main four are fine beers, but nothing to get excited about. The problem with that thinking is that we are judging these beers from a 2012 mindset. But what would these beers have been like when Cameron’s started? The Auburn seemed a lot hoppier than it does now and the Dark 266, which is basically a dark lager, was a rarity then (and now).
Eventually the industry started to change and the folks at Cameron’s realized they needed to keep up with the times. The brewery has had a long-running cask night once a month that let them experiment with pilot brews, but it was time to do something on a larger scale. First was the American whiskey barrel beer, which started from their Jack & Coke one-off at Cask Days (name changed for obvious legal reasons). Jason said he kept getting asked when Cameron’s was going to make a really hoppy beer and the RPA was his way of meeting that demand while also putting a personal twist on the American and British IPA styles. He and the brewing team at Cameron’s try to create beers that aren’t being made in Ontario while making beer meant to be consumed in a particular season (hence the Doppelbock last winter and the Sirius Wheat, a 4.2% American wheat ale).
Cameron’s has also jumped right into the barrel aging phenomenon. Some of the Deviator batch went into Buffalo Trace barrels, which created a dry, tannic beer that still maintained elements of the beer and bourbon. (As of our visit there were still six-packs left at the brewery for purchase. The RPA was all gone and the Sirius Wheat wasn’t out yet.) They’ve purchased a wide variety of barrels, including Bordeaux and rum, some of which have been filled and others awaiting new beers. Jason was kind enough to divulge some of the beers that were aging and it was obvious that their team was having fun in experimenting with having a wide variety of barrels. I promised not to tell what they had made, but I can say they are new beers and will be exciting to try when they are released. As a special treat, Jason opened a year-old bottle of the American whiskey barrel beer, which had really changed in the bottle. There was a lot of sour cherry present, all of which came from the wood. The whiskey character had all but died, though it was distinctly woody. It was a strange, yet tasty, transition.
After one more special sample (another new beer that I can’t talk about, but it was impressive) we left Cameron’s with a slight feeling of awe. I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Cameron’s before the tour. Were they for real or did they just get lucky with the RPA and Deviator Doppelbock? After the visit it was clear that Cameron’s is in the midst of drastic change and revamping themselves to be among the best of Ontario’s craft breweries. During the hour we spent talking with Jason it was clear that he and the rest of the Cameron’s team are passionate about creating new, unique beers that will help differentiate the brewery. Cameron’s is a perfect example of the change that is happening in the Ontario brewing industry right now and why it’s a great time to be a craft beer drinker.