It may be the new mantra for the modern imbiber: Drink less, but drink better. The quest for luxury is being felt across all sectors of the consumer-goods industry, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ever-competitive Ontario suds business. While the province’s “Big Three” brewers (all now owned by foreign parent conglomerates, thanks to the recent purchase of Sleeman Breweries by Japan’s Sapporo Breweries) are not quite crying in their beer, there has been a distinctive shift away from the middle-ground brews that these guys pump out.
Crafting a Better Beer
Lakeport’s successful “buck a beer” campaign targets the “beer is beer” crowd that finds the bargain brews not too much different than the pricier brewskis offered by Molbattman (aka the no-doubt-soon-to-happen leviathan megamerger of Molson, Labatt and Sleeman). The rest (who haven’t hopped on the import truck) are looking to Ontario’s smaller “craft” brewers to give them the diversity the big boys don’t offer. Now, with the inception of the Ontario Craft Beer Route, those in need of a distinctive tankard just have to follow the yellow brick road, so to speak, to wind up at one of thirty-plus craft breweries.
The Craft Brewing Regions of Ontario consist of five areas situated across southern Ontario: Toronto, Golden Horseshoe, Capital Region, Greater Southwest and Lake Country. A recent jaunt took writers to five breweries located in the Toronto, Golden Horseshoe and Greater Southwest regions. Hosted by Bill White (who you might want to chat with if you think you know a thing or two about beer — if only to see how much you still have to learn — the tour kicked off at Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery (which is also where it ended, so more on this place later) and headed west to the Old Credit Brewing Company in Port Credit.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
The philosophy behind Old Credit, according to owner Aldo Lista is to “stay small.” Claiming that the brewery might be the only one in the world that has a sales force of zero, Lista took us through a tasting of the brewery’s Old Credit Pale Pilsner and Old Credit Amber Ale. These beers are created using a very unique “ice brewing” process (not to be confused with ice-brewed technique developed — and fought over — by Labatt back whenever) that results in brews with extremely low sugar levels that never go skunky. The process itself takes a full three months to complete (as opposed to the single-week cycle for commercial beers and the three-week duration of most “premium” wobbly pops). Fermentation takes up to seventeen days at 8º C to 10º C and the beer is filtered at -3.5ºC before being matured over the “European standard” of eight weeks. The finished product is hand-bottled, and each batch is fermented using yeast from a previous run (much like sour mash whisky or sourdough bread). No additives or preservatives are used.
The Pilsner is fruity and mildly hoppy on the nose — crisp, light and slightly fruity on the palate with a very crisp, clean finish. The Amber Ale (the brewery’s signature brew) shows slight caramel nuances combined with traces of malt and hops that reappear on the palate. Mid-weight and lightly hopped, it finishes with a bare hint of malt.
These Boots Were Made For … Brewing?
Back aboard the beer bus, we ambled off to lunch (and a taste) at Wellington Brewery, Canada’s oldest independent craft brewery located in (not surprisingly) Wellington County, Ontario, and named after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (England, this time). It’s also the name of the famous rubber boot.
Michael Stirrup, president and brewmaster, developed his passion for beer in, of all places, France. However, England proved to be the place where he learned his chops. “I learned how to brew the English way,” he reveals, adding that the original plan for Wellington was to produce cask-conditioned ales exclusively. “It didn’t work out,” Stirrup admits, adding that beer drinkers in Ontario appear to have no palate for beers that are “warm, cloudy and flat.”
Wellington’s Trailhead Lager shows a hoppy, mildly malty nose with a touch of fruit. The palate shows an initial sweetness that quickly gives way to a refreshing bitterness imparted by the hops. The Country Ale offers up engaging aromas suggesting smoked meat with a bare hint of chocolate and a rich, malty flavour ,while Iron Duke (a 6.5 per cent alcohol brew originally crafted from November to February) is full, rich and quite assertive with a bare note of sweetness and a firm, malty finish.
The Founder’s Brick
Brick Brewing Co. was but a twinkle in Jim Brickman’s eyes in 1979. In 1984 (an ominous year to launch anything), the brewery went live with an aim to capture the niche-beer segment. Critics were skeptical; they’re not anymore. The company has continued to expand its portfolio and currently has distribution warehouses in both Ontario and Quebec.
“There is no question the beer market is changing,” Brickman writes in the brewery’s 2006 Annual Report. “Beer drinkers now expect more choice, more variety and better value. Brick continues as one of the leading influences affecting change in the industry, by listening to and giving beer drinkers what they want.”
The latest batch out of the Brick is the new J. R. Brickman Founders Series. With the launch of this brand, Brick hopes to “outwit, outplay, outsmart [its] competition. Making a superior product wouldn’t hurt, either.”
Brick’s overall style appears to be fairly light, clean, crisp and appealing to a wide range of palates … a premium for the people, if you will. The J. R. Brickman’s Founders Series lineup consists of the award-winning Pilsner as well as Amber and Honey Red. The Pilsner, made with a combination of Bohemian Saaz and German Spalter hops, has a mild fresh-bread, slightly fruity/hoppy nose and clean, smooth, well-balanced flavours. The Amber blends four German malts with European hops for a crisp, balanced, slightly spicy flavour while the Honey Red sports a distinctive whiff of buckwheat honey and a forward, flavourful palate with a refreshing, honey-laced finish.
Fine Beer in the Distillery
At the end of the tour, we ended up back where we started, at Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery located in the historic Distillery District. This award-winning brewery has currently undergone an expansion: the original location now operates as a brewpub and the main production facility is housed in new digs in the city’s east end.
Mill Street makes a range of regularly available small-batch brews and a handful of seasonal beers. Of the half-dozen or so products tasted, standouts were the brewed-for-summer wheat beer (citric, slightly spicy and surprisingly full-bodied), the Tankhouse Ale (malty, very hoppy and quite complex) and intriguing Coffee Porter and an exceptional limited-edition Barley Wine. The latter was sampled in both the 2004 and 2005 vintages and is truly a “wine drinker’s” beer. Coming in at a potent 11.5 per cent alcohol and boasting a thirty-year shelf life, these brews displayed hints of nuts, sherry and caramel with rich, cocoa/mocha/roasted nut flavours.
The Ontario Craft Brewery Route opens up a whole new vista for imbibers seeking something a bit off the beaten brews. Though still in its infancy, it’s not hard to imagine the Beer Route becoming every bit as popular as the Niagara Wine Route. And it will indeed show beer lovers that when it comes to flavour and stylistic diversity, bigger is most definitely not better.