Category Archives: Travels

Beer Travels: Cleveland, the Mistake on the Lake

DSCN3642The one question that I got the most in the weeks leading up to this trip was, “Why Cleveland?” The answer was simple – five friends going to two Indians games and a Browns practice. It wasn’t our first choice for the sports trip, but it offered the best selection of options on a weekend when everyone was available. Plus, Cleveland has that other Great Lakes brewery, which assured that there would be some excellent beers consumed along the way. Surely Cleveland would have some other attractions to offer up for a fun weekend away from our wives and girlfriends.

While the sports side of things held up fairly well – two nice nights watching baseball outdoors and one afternoon standing on the sidelines while coaches dropped f-bombs at football players – the rest of Cleveland was a little lacking. It’s no surprise that Cleveland is a bedroom community and most of the nightlife was concentrated in a couple of small areas. Luckily it is home to three brewpubs (Great Lakes is obviously the most well known, while Market Garden and Nano Brew are owned by the same folks). These three are all situated within a block of each other, making it very easy to do a pub crawl. (There was also a free shuttle from the stadium to Great Lakes, which was awesome!)

Progressive Field (aka the Jake) passed the ballpark beer test – Great Lakes was on tap at a couple of stands (Dortmunder Gold, Burning River Pale Ale and a third option I forget – maybe the Eliot Ness), one stand that had bottle options from around Ohio and one Budweiser stall that offered up Goose Island IPA. Prices were in line with a can of beer in Toronto, for those who care about that sort of thing. Great Lakes was our first stop after the game and was the best option of a classic brewpub. Not a huge selection or anything too exciting from a beer geek perspective, but Great Lakes beer really has to be fresh for maximum appreciation so that was nice. Nice pub food with a lot of locally sourced ingredients and friendly service.

Nano Brew was next, offering thirty taps that featured some of their own beers, some from Market Garden and the rest from around the States. The selection was phenomenal, but the vibe was not what I expected from a brewpub or craft beer bar. Most of the other people in the bar were dressed for a night out that involved heavy partying and/or the wooing of potential mates. There was only bar service and a DJ booth high above the bar meant that music was given a priority over conversation. On one hand I wanted to be happy that people viewed a brewpub as a  fun and exciting place to go out, but it also occurred to me that there was just nothing else going on in Cleveland. Market Garden was actually worse – the skirts were higher and most of the men were wearing dress shirts and jeans. Then lights suddenly turned on at 2am and the police started kicking everyone out. (The high police presence in the Ohio City area should have been a good clue that people went out more to get drunk than enjoy a couple of nice pints.) The beers were good at both locations, but the atmosphere was not to our taste. We did not return to this area on Saturday night.

The one place I would recommend to anyone visiting Cleveland would be Save On Tobacco and Beverage. It’s not much to look at and the name is sketchy, but it was one of the most impressive bottle shops I have seen in some time. It is in Mentor (about twenty minutes outside of Cleveland), but just off the highway if you’re driving from the east. Give yourself lots of time to look around and make sure you find the Ohio section.

But let’s be honest – I wouldn’t recommend visiting Cleveland. There’s nothing wrong with Cleveland, it just isn’t that exciting. Our guess for the insane amount of police patrolling such a small area of bars was that people had nothing to do other than drink, so trouble was inevitable. The downtown is clean and felt very safe, both at night and during the day. It’s just very, very boring. Almost everything downtown was closed on Sunday, which made me wonder how bad things would be if there wasn’t a baseball game happening. You could do much better in Detroit or Pittsburgh if looking for a long weekend away. Or do a shorter beer run in Buffalo and spend the night in better bars. Unless you want to mix craft beer and clubbing, in which case I have got just the city for you!

Cask, CAMRA & Other Things British

IMG_3860England is not exactly the sexiest beer country right now, but is still widely recognized as one of the big players on the international scene. The country has had a huge impact on the culture of beer, both in terms of what we drink (IPAs, porters, stouts, so-called session ales) and how we drink it (cask ale and CAMRA). Trying to give a sense of what the beer scene is like in England right now is tough for a couple of reasons. For starters, there are a couple of different factions of beer drinkers, for lack of a better word. Most importantly, it’s hard to spend ten days in a country and really get a complete picture of how the nation as a whole is drinking beer. So please don’t read this post as the complete and absolute guide to beer in England in the year 2013. It’s more one man’s observations of beer in London, Oxford, Canterbury and Manchester circa June 2013. Very little research has gone into this post, aside from drinking in bars and talking with people along the way.

I was obviously excited to get to spend over a week drinking in the famous British pubs, consuming fresh cask ale in a variety of styles. Trying bitters, milds, golden ales and other styles seems like something that should be done as close to the source as possible. By the time they get bottled or kegged, sent across the ocean and sit around for a while on a shelf or in a warehouse, it is quite likely not the same beer that you would get at the local pub. Armed with CAMRAs 2013 Good Beer Guide, I knew that the pubs would be serving fresh casks that were treated well on their journey to my glass.

The condition of almost all beers served on cask was excellent. They were clear, bright and beautiful looking beers. This was amazing when compared to Ontario, where hazy or cloudy cask beers are not uncommon. The being said, a number also had thin bodies to the point of being watery and the flavours were sometimes a little too subtle. It was a mixed bag, overall – one pint would be stellar and the next would be forgettable. None were terrible, but it wasn’t the amazing cask experience that I was hoping for.

CAMRA is generally accepted as the saviour of cask ale, or at least that’s the narrative they like to present, but there are many reasons why beer drinkers in England are growing skeptical of the organization. As real ale in cask or bottles has a shorter lifespan, it can’t travel as far and eliminates a lot of beers at a time when the beer scene is becoming increasingly global. While some casks from other European breweries do make it to some craft beer bars, CAMRA has also stunted the English beer scene by promoting an ethos that most of those foreign beers that come in to the country via keg, bottle or can are bastard beers regardless of the content inside. (The ale part of real ale has always bugged me. Are we just dismissing all lagers?) At a time when breweries around the world are experimenting with new styles, it seems to me that this has hurt the British beer industry because their products are quickly becoming dated at a time when younger drinkers are looking for different beer experiences.

I had heard the jokes about CAMRA being an organization of old, white men, but it seemed this stereotype was rather true. A lot of older drinkers were only cask drinkers, while younger beer lovers were introduced in a great beer, regardless of where it came from (either country or bottle/cask/can/keg). In many ways CAMRA has become too narrow of an organization. As the craft beer world has exploded, CAMRA feels increasingly dated.

Another bizarre aspect of pubs that specialize in only cask ale (what I call CAMRA pubs because I mostly found them in the Good Beer Guide, though there is no association between them) is that they serve great cask ale but then have cheap European lagers on tap. It boggles me that a pub can put such an effort into one area and then have two versions of Guinness on tap (regular and Guinness Ice – what I assume to be extra cold Guinness). This is not true of every place – there are beer bars like Craft Beer Co, Cask Pub and Kitchen and Euston Tap in London, plus Port Street Beer House in Manchester, that have great cask, tap and bottled beers. But these are great beer bars, not ones that specialize in only cask. But the CAMRA pubs clearly only care about one thing, which is very narrow minded. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of pubs in England are in danger of closing, because they can’t commit to a specific audience. Either serve only shitty lagers and axe the cask or add some great local draught options to go along with all the great casks. Otherwise you’re just confusing the consumer with a muddled message about what kind of bar you want to be.

Maybe the bars feel they can’t have great cask beer without being supported by lager, but I would point out the bars mentioned above as evidence otherwise. Personally, I was more likely to stay in a bar that had a wider range of options in various formats. Plus, thanks to Britain’s liquor laws that charge more taxes as the alcohol content goes up, you’re often charging the same for a half-pint of a 6% kegged IPA as you are for that pint of bitter.

The other problem with CAMRA pubs is that they really are the domain of men. It was a small sample size, but there definitely seemed to be fewer women in most of the pubs than you find at a lot of Toronto beer bars on any given night. I’m sure there will be people out there that disagree, but my wife and I both felt a lot of traditional cask pubs could do with a better balance of the genders. As people fret about the death of the pub, I wonder what publicans are doing to expand their market.

The point is basically that CAMRA could do with a makeover, one that would be more appealing to younger drinkers and women. The organization feels outdated in many ways and feels pigeonholed in their devotion for cask ale. It feels like they have blinders on that hide all the changes happening to the beer scene both at home and abroad. A lot of newer breweries (The Kernel, Wild, Beavertown, Moor) are obviously very influenced by what is happening in America, Scandinavia, Italy and other progressive craft beer scenes rather than following the British ethos of session ales served on cask. (Well, some still do cask beers and session ales, but it’s only a part of what they do.)

I’m very curious to see where the British beer industry will go from here, especially in the next ten years. There were some very nice bottle shops that dealt a lot in American beers, including some highly loved beers like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and Brooklyn Black Ops. There was an event at Port Street Beer House that I was luckily to enough to snag the last ticket for. It was hosted by Andreas Falt, the European ambassador for the Brewers Association, who was helping kick off a two week festival of American beers. It was clear that the market for American beers is quickly growing in England and that people were willing to pay a premium for beers that differed from the traditional British ales. (For those wondering, the occasional cask came from America too. Sierra Nevada Torpedo was on cask at Port Street and we saw Samuel Adams Summer Ale in Canterbury.) British beer might be in for a bit of a shakeup and that could actually be a good thing.

Mondial de la Biere: A Guide

The time has come once again for Mondial de la Biere! Montreal will be overflowing with thirsty beer lovers from Wednesday to Sunday. This is a special year as it marks the 20th anniversary of Mondial. The festival is once again moving venues, this time to the Palais de Congres. It should be a positive move away from the concrete air hanger that was devoid of outside light. For those not familiar with the festival, it brings together over 500 beers from around the world. Beers from Belgium, the United States, Italy and Brazil are highlighted alongside a large number of Quebec breweries. Samples range from $2-6, which is pretty good when you factor in that Mondial is free to enter. For any first-timers, here are some things to know to help you enjoy Mondial de la Biere.


Pack water and snacks. Yes, plenty of delicious food is available, from kangaroo to cheese, but it is only smart to take advantage of a beer festival that allows you to bring in food. Go cheese shopping at Marche Jean-Talon or Atwater first and conduct your own beer pairing session.

Arrive early. This was especially true at the old location, but probably still good advice. The big crowds start to arrive around 4 or 5pm during the weekdays, so showing up before noon and getting a good three to four hours of drinking in before everyone else is key. By then your food supplies will have run dry and it’s time for a nap (or poutine, then nap).

Skip the first beer ticket line. This may not be appropriate with the new venue, but last year there was one entrance and a booth to buy tickets, glasses, etc, was right there. Everyone lined up for that booth, even though there were plenty of other places to buy tickets inside that had no lineups. Don’t fall into this trap! Those are precious minutes you’re wasting that could be used for drinking.

Do your research. Beer geeks love Mondial because they tell you what beers will be served in advance of the actual festival in a handy PDF. This saves you from wasting money on a lot of bad beers. It also allows you to make a game plan of what you must try before heading home.

Use RateBeer or BeerAdvocate smartly. Research will probably involve one of these two sites, checking ratings and eliminating the lesser breweries. But remember that the ratings for Quebec beers and those from Latin America are often only a handful, making it harder to get an accurate score for percentile or style. Read some of the comments, which give a much better picture. Also remember that certain styles (IPAs and anything imperial) are often rated higher than saisons, lagers or fruit beers. If a fruit beer and imperial stout are in the same percentile, chances are the fruit beer is the better beer. Be sure to use the style ratings as well. For instance, La Succursale Petite Cote only has an 84 overall on Ratebeer, but it gets a 100 in the kolsch style category.

IMG_2163Don’t overplan. Not all beers will be available at all times. The Quebec brewers rotate their offerings on tap, so don’t expect the full list at their stands. Rare bottles at the bottle stations are spread out through the festival to avoid all the first-day beer geeks from drinking everything up. If the beer you want isn’t available, chat up the server and try to find out when it will be put on tap/when the fridge will be restocked (but in a nice way, not an anal beer geek way). Also expect new beers that aren’t on the list, mainly from the Quebec breweries.

Start light. This should be obvious advice that applies to any beer festival – begin with the beers under 5% and work up to the heavy stuff. Think of it as a marathon, not a race, which means saving your liver for a final sprint at the end. You might make one or two exceptions based on availability, but try to hold off till the end of your session.

Bring/buy a glass. Yes, you can buy a glass for $10 (or a plastic cup for $5), but the tall glasses aren’t ideal for your beer. To remedy to this is bringing your own glass (as long as it holds less than twelve ounces) or buy one from a brewery (a free sample is often included with the purchase of a glass). You’re going to be drinking lots of beer and you really want the right glass for the job. If you’re worried about your glass getting lost or damaged, get a tulip glass from a dollar store.

Take notes of what you like. The samples come fast and furious, so it helps to keep track of what you liked and what you pour out in the grass, especially if you’re stocking up at a depanneur for beers to take home. It’s impossible to remember everything, even before you factor in all the alcohol. A simple system of check-marks and Xs works well.

Pour out the bad beers. Doesn’t matter if it cost one dollar or five. Save your liver and taste buds for the good beers.

Love the nightlife. Montreal’s brewpubs are still open and serving delicious beers, so enjoy Dieu du Ciel!, Benelux, Le Cheval Blanc, Le Saint Bock or another fine establishment in the evening. Expect the brewpubs to be extra crowded during Mondial. And remember there are night events, which get very crowded as well. Get there early while everyone else is still at Mondial.

Be responsible. Take transit. Know when to leave.

Make friends. The charm of going in the day is that you will likely see the same people over and over. Enjoy some conversation about beers and scout out what beers to try/avoid.

Be friendly with the people at the booths. This might seem like obvious advice, but be nice to those pouring the beers. Whip out the French you haven’t used since middle/high school and at least show you’re trying. It’s good karma, plus sometimes you get a bit more beer in your glass.

Beer Travels: Philadelphia and Lancaster County

IMG_3196If you’re looking for a place with stranger alcohol laws than Ontario, let me introduce you to the state of Pennsylvania. This fine state (which I briefly touched on after a visit to Pittsburgh) only allows single bottles and six packs of beer to be sold by establishments serving food, meaning mainly bars and the odd convenience store that sells hot dogs. Cases can be sold by beer depots, but these are not usually the best places to find craft beer unless you’re looking for a two-four of Rodenbach or Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (a couple of brands I saw last week  and would buy a case of). Licenses are hard to come by and usually handed down within a family, severely limiting competition. All of this causes higher beer prices, though the selection can be quite inspiring.

Only having one night in Philly, there wasn’t much time to explore much but what I did find was mighty impressive. My hotel was conveniently located near a great beer store and a world-class bar. The store was the fairly new Corner Foodery, a combination of beer store and artisanal sandwich shop. With apporximately 500-600 bottles, the Corner Foodery had an ample selection for someone looking to do a quick shopping trip. Belgium was well represented, as were a number of Californian breweries that I was surprised to see so far from home (Russian River and Lost Abbey) in particular. The dead of the afternoon was a great time to slowly browse the fridges and pick out some goodies. After inquiring if the Founder’s KBS had arrived (it arrived in most stores in Pennsylvania around the time of my visit, according to Twitter feeds), the person working behind the bar said it wasn’t going to go on sale till that evening, but was kind enough to preemptively sell me a bottle.

IMG_3189The downside of the Pennsylvanian liquor laws is that the beer stores I went to did not have any six packs, meaning that single bottles ($2.50-4.00) add up to be quite expensive. It’s great for sampling, but a hard hit on the wallet. The larger bottles were very expensive compared to what I have seen in other states. A lot of the Californian bottles were priced around $30, which quickly steered me in other directions. (Okay, I admit it – there was a splurge on one fancy bottle.)

After a dinner that had very little to do with beer (that is to say beer was consumed, but it was not a beer restaurant and not warranting a mention), a short walk lead us to the Monk’s Cafe. This is a bar that I’ve known about for years, though have no recollection why I know anything about it except for the fact that it is awesome. Belgian beer is the specialty here, both in bottles and a substantial draft menu, combined with an array of mussels. It was about as packed as I expected for a Wednesday night, which means it was busy but seats could be found. (Warning, though – tables are only for people ordering food.) The Monk’s Cafe actually consists of a front and back bar – the front is smaller and covers mainly American style offerings (hello again, Russian River!), while the back has all the Belgian goodies. Most beers came in tulip glasses, which was perfect considering the ABV of the majority of beers. Only a couple of lighter IPAs and ales came in pints, which is just as I think it should be. Prices were reasonable considering the size of the glasses. A short, but impressive visit. Philadelphia definitely warrants another trip.

For those who have never heard of Lancaster county, that’s probably because good beer is a little tougher to find. About an hour and a half outside of Philly, the county is home to a large Amish and Mennonite population that do not drink. Alcohol is allowed in the county, but there are less people looking for it (and even fewer by the time you factor in the rural farmers). The city of Lancaster is home to a couple of breweries though, but their results are mixed. The four beers I sampled from the Lancaster Brewing Company were disappointing – thin and watery with muddled flavour). The Lancaster location of the Iron Hill brewpub chain was more impressive, but some of the chain-wide house brands disappointed. They did make a killer Black IPA though, so that’s something. The interior of the brewpub felt a little too much like you were in a chain restaurant and lacked character, but did well enough when you’re away from a major urban center.

Lancaster does have at least one nice bottle shop in the form of The Fridge (which also makes nice looking pizzas, though I cannot speak to their quality). With limited space, they also don’t carry six-packs so it clearly wasn’t just a problem in Philly. The selection was more skewed to American beers and while they didn’t have the rarer beers I found at the Corner Foodery, there were more bottles and cans that piqued my interest (partially because they weren’t as expensive as the rarities). It was very to do a lot of damage.

Pennsylvania is obviously a little strange in terms of its liquor laws, but it also has few well known breweries for a state its size. Victory and Troegs are probably two of the more reputable craft breweries, but their beers are also easier to find in other states. Of the beers I tried, nothing really seemed to be pushing any boundaries – they were hoppy and delicious, but haven’t really past that point. Still, there is clearly a lot of good beer flowing around Pennsylvania and I heartily recommend that any beer lover gives Philly a visit.

A Beer Drinker’s Guide to San Francisco

San Francisco is a beer drinker’s town – it houses the brewery that started the craft beer revolution (Anchor), an internationally acclaimed bar (Toronado) and is located near a number of stellar breweries (Lagunitas and Russian River and pretty darn close). Signs for Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas almost outnumbered the Bud and Coors promotions in bar windows. Four days was not long enough to cover all the top spots (unfortunately, we missed the Magnolia brewpub and didn’t tour the Anchor brewery), but here are some highlights:


  • Toronado. I had heard mixed reviews of Toronado before heading to San Francisco and my visit only reinforced them. The positives: over forty taps, three hand pumps, a nice mix of Californian and Belgian, excellent prices for the selection. Cons: grimy bar, surly servers. If you like heavy metal and/or punk music, it could be your kind of place but it’s not the place I’d want to hole up for a couple of hours. Not a cozy bar, though luckily we were there on a sunny afternoon with the light cheering things up a bit. I can see the appeal for some – it is an unpretentious spot with great beer – but wouldn’t become a regular drinking hole for me.
  • Monk’s Kettle. This was a little bar and restaurant near our apartment in the Mission district. It was packed every night of our trip and required two employees at the door to deal with the thirsty beer drinkers. The selection was smaller than Toronado, but a nicely chosen 15-20 taps of Belgian, American and German beers, plus an extensive and expensive bottle list. The tap list was even nicely sorted by styles, leading off with lagers, followed by wheat beers, pale ales of all strokes, Belgians and sours. Some of the sizes were weird (6, 10 and 11 ounces?) but that is what happens when your bar has a wide selection of glassware that is appropriate for a range of styles. Our bartender was top-notch, guiding us through a couple of choices with descriptions of the beer and coming around later to have a quick chat about what we thought. The Monk’s Kettle was cozy and warm in the same way that Volo is with lots of distressed wood and people closely clustered in conversation. More expensive than most bars, but the quality of the beer and the atmosphere made it worth every dollar.


California is an open market for selling alcohol, meaning that every convenience store and grocery store sell alcohol. My beer shopping was only done in three stores (no Whole Foods or other big grocery store), which provided an interesting glimpse into how beer retail worked in California.

  • Ales Unlimited. This was a little shop tucked away in a fairly fancy area of San Francisco, but not really near any of the big sights (though fairly close to Japan Town, which is why we were in the area). Surprisingly, it does not have any Ratebeer reviews considering it had an excellent selection. We had a chat with the owner, who told us interesting things like, a) their stash of Pliny the Elder goes so quickly they don’t even bother to put it in the display fridges (which also helps from tourists buying up their supply) and b) they get priced out of most local beers by the big grocery stores so focus on imports. The latter was a trend we noticed at most stores – six packs of Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Lagunitas weren’t present. Most of their money comes from European imports or large format American bottles, which makes for difficult purchasing by tourists. (Also, the bottle of Pliny he gave me was eight days old, which is apparently too old for some Californian mindsets.) He pointed me out some local beers, but was hesitant to recommend anything because people’s tastes are so different, which is a policy that I can appreciate. Definitely a nice local shop.
  • City Beer Store. Another store located not really close to anything, but a little more downtown-adjacent. The perks of City Beer Store are that it’s also a bar, so you can shop with a beer (either from the local tap list or a bottle from the fridge). A really nice selection, including lots of Russian River, Oskar Blues Gubna, plus a decent local-to-imports ratio. Some rarer treasures that made this a must-stop place for beer shopping.
  • Healthy Spirits. A cramped little shop just north of the Castro, Healthy Spirits was a decent enough stop but a little too hodge-podge for my liking. The layout was confusing – imperial stouts grouped together here, beers from one country over there – that made for ADD shopping. A nice selection, but nothing that couldn’t be found at City Beer Store or Ales Unlimited. Apparently they have really good hummus.

The Baseball Stadium

  • It was impossible to pass up the Oktoberfest night at AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. The Oktoberfest wasn’t anything special (Widmer Hefeweizen and Okto Festival Ale), but inside the stadium was paradise compared to any sports venue in Toronto: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Lagunitas IPA, Speakeasy Prohibition and an Anchor Taproom with the Anchor Steam, Liberty Ale, Porter and the Anchor Summer Beer. The only problem was our inexperience with outdoor stadiums in September – damn, it was cold! Aside from the chill, it was a lovely spot to watch a game and drink some local craft beer.

While San Francisco has lots of great bars, stores and breweries, the best part was just being able to try some really fresh bottles of classic beers like the Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. California has been a huge innovator in the beer industry for a longtime, but these two beers are perfect examples that sometimes simple is better.

Beer Road Trip: Miscellaneous Comments

Yesterday’s post on visiting Nickel Brook was the last brewery stop on the beer road trip, but here are some general points that didn’t really fit into any of the posts:

  • When you’re touring a brewery, ask as many questions as possible. Aside from questions about your tour guides personal life, everything is fair game. (No, your tour guide does not want to date you. If they seem interested in what you have to say, they are merely good at their job.) Asking questions lets them know you’re a little keener than the average person off the street. You may end up getting them to divulge secrets of a new beer or, if you’re really lucky, try something special they have tucked away.
  • I would make a barrel porn blog if I didn’t have enough of a hard time trying to post on here three times a week. Do other people love it when they see barrels at a brewery? I’m always like, “Woah, cool, barrels! And they’re filled with beer!” Someone can feel free to start the site (this seems like an appropriate use of Tumblr) as long as I get credit.
  • Ontario is nuts for craft beer right now, a fact that was evident at all our stops. When the growing demand for craft beer hit our hot, humid July, sales went crazy. As one brewery said, the four months of summer represent a large portion of their sales and events. A lot of breweries are trying to figure out how to maximize their current production or expand. From an outsiders perspective, it seems impossible to be a craft brewer that isn’t making money right now.
  • If the cab driver in Buffalo asks if you want to party, always say no.
  • Whenever you visit Silversmith after it opens, hit The Pie Plate across the street for lunch or a piece of pie. I’m told they now have Silversmith on tap as well. Just prepared that if you’re a table of males, you may be the only men in the place.
  • It is unfortunate that most breweries aren’t very visually appealing. I understand why most are situated in industrial parks, but the locale doesn’t inspire any warm feelings. Wineries clearly have the leg up in this department with their fields of vines and open spaces. There are maybe one or two good examples in Ontario (Steam Whistle is a great example, with the historic roundhouse, a catwalk that allows for tours and an exceptionally clean brewery), but these are the exception.

If you’re thinking about doing a road trip sometime, here are other possible itineraries (I called ours the Golden Horseshoe):

  • The Muskoka Trip: Flying Monkeys, Muskoka, Lake of Bays
  • The Eastern: Church-Key, Beau’s, Broadhead, Cassel
  • The South-Western: Grand River, F&M, Wellington, Railway City

Edit: I forgot to mention that breweries don’t always have regular tours, so you may have to call or e-mail in advance. Sometimes there may be a small cost for a tour, but they are often free. But don’t just show up and expect a tour – breweries are busy places!

Edit #2: Beer road trips are also great at any time of the year. Go in a different season and most breweries will likely have different beers. There is no need for road trips to only be a summer thing when beer is involved.

Beer Road Trip: Nickel Brook

Nickel Brook was our fourth (and final) brewery stop in two days and took every last ounce of endurance to get through. It may not sound like drinking a lot of beer samples in two days is arduous work, but it is when you consider that most of our other time was spent driving or drinking in Buffalo. Walking through the breweries was all the exercise we got and eventually it just feels like your body is being punished, albeit in a delicious way. It didn’t help that Nickel Brook probably had the most beers to sample out of all of the stops.

In many ways, Nickel Brook is emblematic of what is happening to a lot of craft breweries in Ontario right now. Demand has increased so much in recent years that they are now undergoing construction to another brewing system and get a new bottling line, all the while trying to meet current demand during a hot, dry summer. Their Gluten Free beer has been so successful that they are installing a dedicated system for it, which will be easier than the intense clean their current system has to go through whenever brewing up a batch to ensure that there is no contamination. During our tour we saw someone labeling bottles by hand, so it should be obvious why a new bottling line is needed. Nickel Brook isn’t a big brewery by any means, but they are aided by the fact that they have a basement that fermenters can fit into.

Much like Cameron’s, Nickel Brook has been expanding its product line with new beers that offer more exciting flavours than their standard lineup. This summer has seen a number of excellent beers from them, including the Green Light Berliner Weisse, Le Payson Saison and the Naughty Neighbour Pale Ale. Add in the Headstock IPA (available in cans through the LCBO) and this is another great example of a brewery experimenting with different styles. Seeing a number of barrels down in their basement was no surprise, because you’re not really a craft brewer anymore unless you’re doing some sort of barrel aging. (A lot of the barrels were dated from last fall and winter, which seems like a lot of time for barrel aging. Those could end up being some potent beers.)

Our tour guide made an interesting observation that I’d never heard before – it is easier for Nickel Brook to experiment with new beers outside of the summer season because the summer is the busiest time of the year and the fermenters are all full of their standard beers. (I don’t think Nickel Brook has a pilot system, which would obviously use less space for fermenting.) Makes sense, but I had never heard those comments before.

I had tried most of the Nickel Brook beers sampled at the brewery except for their Marzen, which I didn’t even know they made. It was the last bottle of the season and I could see why this was a popular beer. The Marzen was  a complex red lager – bready, nutty and refreshing. The Naughty Neighbour was just as I had remembered and the bottles have been a hit at home. We also sampled the non-alcoholic root beer and ginger beer. If you’re ever touring Nickel Brook, have the ginger beer last – it’s a spicy blast of ginger that takes a while to leave your palette.

Nickel Brook is just another example of how craft breweries are being forced to modernize and keep up with an increasing demand for local beer. The Green Apple and Gluten Free beers will always be big sellers for them, but their recent seasonals have proven that this is also a brewery that can compete with the rest of Ontario. They definitely have a lot of fans in Burlington – people will constantly coming into the brewery store and picking up beer. Hopefully that love will spread throughout the province in the next couple of years.

Beer Road Trip: Silversmith Brewing

Let’s continue the Golden Horseshoe road trip, this time stopping off at Niagara-on-the-Lake to have a look at how things are progressing at Silversmith Brewing. For those who missed the news, Silversmith is a brand new brewery that is currently converting an old church to be their future home. They have two beers in production so far, a Black Lager and Bavarian Breakfast Wheat, which are being contract brewed and popping up sporadically across the province. Silversmith is the work of Matt Swan and Chris Pontsioen, along with Scottish-trained brewer Dan MacKinnon, beer lovers who saw a part of Ontario that was largely being ignored by the craft beer revolution.

The brewery was basically a big construction project when we visited, but it was clear under all the sawdust that this was going to end up being a gorgeous spot. The outside of the brewery is covered in vines and the inside retains most of the original structure, meaning lots of wooden beams and brick walls. Not much was set up yet – a bar was in the middle of being stained and the pilot system was waiting to be installed – but I would have been happy to have some beers even in the middle of the chaos. This building will house the retail store, pilot system and event space, while construction has yet to begin on an adjacent building that will become the main brewhouse.

The Silversmith team hopes the Black Lager and Bavarian Breakfast Wheat will offer something new to the Ontario beer industry. Matt and Chris were kind enough to open a bottle of the Wheat for us to try and I think this is going to be a beer that people will love. It’s a drier, hoppier wheat with an incredible nose and long finish. The recipe will be tweaked, but it was already a great start. Early reports on the Black Lager are equally as positive. Dan will be given every opportunity to put his own stamp on the beers and experiment on the pilot system. Using local ingredients from the Niagara region are very important to them, so expect fruit beers that are made with local produce. I can’t divulge some of the experimental beers that might get produced, but it is obvious that there is a lot of creativity behind the beers.

Chefs from the area are already inquiring about coming in to make beers to pair with dishes, which shows how much wine country needs a brewery. Between Silversmith and the Oast House Brewers, Niagara-on-the-Lake is finally coming on to the beer scene in a big, exciting way. It is hard to really judge a brewery before they have actually finished construction, but I’m excited about the possibilities of Silversmith and it has become obvious that a lot of other people are as well. If the reaction so far is any indication, Silversmith cannot be up and running soon enough.

Beer Road Trip: Taps Brewing Company

When you’re on a beer road trip, having a stop that combines lunch and craft beer is a good time saver. You’ve gotta eat and it might as well be done with a nice pint. Food is especially necessary during a beer trip to help balance out the alcohol. So on our way to Buffalo we decided to stop in Niagara Falls at the Taps Brewing Company, a brewpub located near downtown but far enough from the tourist strip.

I’d had some good beers from Taps over the years, especially when Kevin Somerville was the man behind the brews, but Taps has rarely been available in Toronto. Other than those few times, the brewery has remained a mystery to me. It now owns the Niagara’s Best brand and the Syndicate brewpub, which seems to have the same beers. It has the same name as Canada’s only beer magazine, but there is no relation between them. Was it a beer geek place, a seedy bar or more family friendly like the Granite? I had no clue, but was eager to find out.

Taps is really none of those three options. The space itself is open and bland – no beer paraphernalia, little signage and lots of blank walls. It was kind of sad in its emptiness and the orange coloured walls reminded me of party rooms for childhood birthday parties. Not the kind of place I would be willing to make my local waterhole unless the beers were phenomenal. As I remembered, the beers were decent but not special. My friends got the ESB and Mild, which packed lots of flavour but were both a little unbalanced. I was adventurous and tried the Vanilla Wheat, which sounded bad in theory but was actually the nicest beer of the three. A very pleasant weisse beer that has only a slightly vanilla quality and a dry finish. I would have gladly had another if we weren’t in a rush to hit the road.

While the beers were decent, there were other factors of our visit to Taps that would probably stop me from visiting again. The food was what you would expect from a place that advertised a $7 lunch. None of us felt quite right after our meal, but the food cannot be definitively pointed to as the cause. There was only one server when we were there, which was admittedly at a normally slow time of 2:30pm. It was quite busy though, leaving our table and a number of others waiting a while for drinks, food and bills. This is in no way to blame her, but just say that it didn’t make for a great experience.

If you’re passing through Niagara, Taps is not a bad place to stop and get a drink. But only get a drink and order at the bar.

Beer Road Trip: Cameron’s Brewing

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.