Prince Edward County’s microbrew scene is growing fast
Three years ago, if you had suggested that Prince Edward County was likely to become one of Ontario’s most interesting beer destinations, your prediction might have been thought ridiculous. The region is known — at least in the modern era — for wine. After all, the County is the most recent recipient of a VQA appellation and contains something like 50 wineries, including notables Norman Hardie, Huff and Hinterland. But something else is also happening.
The sudden popularity of beer in the region is a departure, but it’s not without precedent. The mid- to late-19th century saw the mass export of the region’s barley in the wake of the American Civil War. While not historically noted for local brewing, the region’s willingness to adapt has become a hallmark. Over time, the County has gone through a number of different booms, including lumbering, shipbuilding and now tourism.
“The allure of the County — and what the character is — is old, rural Canada,” says Parsons Brewing Company master brewer Chris Parsons. “The best and worst thing to happen to Prince Edward County was the 401.” Since the County is made up of small, agricultural towns, the distance to that highway limits development. This has the effect of preserving the character of Picton’s main street, drawing tourists to become long-term residents and find niche businesses to run. With three million tourists to the region in 2016, local brewing has taken off.
For Chris and Samantha Parsons, their long-term association with the area began when their parents retired to PEC. Parsons Brewing began as a cottage property, becoming a brewery only after corporate life in Toronto became claustrophobic for its owners. Informed by disparate influences, the barnlike bottle shop and taproom features an assortment of tacos, tostadas and flautas, in addition to the odd bowl of ramen and Malaysian curry. While the Crushable Pilsner and Parsons Pale are the kind of offerings that will keep a rural business afloat with locals during the winter season, it’s the more esoteric choices that truly showcase the region.
Take, for instance, Marysburgh Vortex Imperial IPA, named after the region’s Bermuda Triangle equivalent. From a recipe construction standpoint, there is serendipity at work here: it is a beer that would have been impossible to make three years ago. The beer contains 80 percent locally grown ingredients, including malt from Barn Owl near Belleville and Chinook hops from Pleasant Valley Hops in Hillier. As a result, the flavour profile is different than anything else on the market in Ontario, with local terroir shining through.
“The allure of the County — and what the character is — is old, rural Canada.” ~ Chris Parsons
Another special Parsons project combines grape and grain. Taking advantage of the Pinot and Chardonnay vines that came with the property, the brewery’s Sunkissed uses a Belgian Saison yeast to derive some fermentation character, with the acidity in the juice rendering the beer tart and refreshing. While the concept is a significant departure from mainstream brewing, it can certainly be said to use the region’s strengths to its advantage.
There’s an old saying that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. However, in the case of Hinterland’s sister brewery, County Road Beer, it’s the reverse. County Road’s concept is borrowed from the traditional beer gardens of Europe and features a seasonal menu of locally available ingredients. The tap list features mostly beers made in Belgian styles since the concept is that of a farmhouse brewery. The Saison has made it into the LCBO, but the highlight is the Cherry Gose made with organic cherry juice and suitably tart for summer sipping. At County Road, the tone is different than at Parsons, informed by a distinct set of influences and more European in nature.
While the distance in concept between Parsons and County Road may be substantial, it’s perfect for marketing. “What you’re selling people is an experiential package — you’re drawing people in from the highway. We’ve trained our staff to tell people, ‘once you’re finished here, you should try the other guys,’” says Chris Parsons. “We always hope to have the demand nearly outstripping the supply.”
That supply is small but demand is high. Last summer, Parsons was forced to outsource a double batch of its Pilsner to Mackinnon Brothers in nearby Bath. Other local breweries also suffer from a similar problem, with Picton’s 555 Brewing producing beer out of the region’s oldest brewery, Barley Days.
That said, 555 is a brewery that grew out of a different concept. Initially designed as a brewpub, the County Canteen on Picton’s main drag became so popular so quickly that keeping beer on tap was a near impossibility. The answer was an off-site production brewery down the street. 555 soon became a destination in its own right thanks to a large, spacious patio and wood-fired pizzas. While waiting for a new brewhouse to arrive to increase production to meet demand, outsourcing locally is necessary.
“The more we work together, and are seen as a region, the more it’s going to have advantageous outcomes,” says County Canteen and 555 Brewing co-owner Nat Wollenberg. “It’s a lot like the Margaret River in Australia, although we’re about 10 to 15 years behind. There are big parallels between the two, being gastronomy regions.”
Transplanted from Australia after marrying Canadian Drew Wollenberg, Nat and her husband bought into PEC completely and now employ nearly 60 people during the busy season. 555 Brewing’s branding even references local history, notably a murder in nearby Bloomfield, where a man was killed for the money he had made selling a load of hops.
The brewery gets a lot of marketing mileage out of that story. Called The Judge, their German Helles — one of the best in the province — is a lightly bready lager with a floral and herbal European hop aroma, and The Jury, their pale ale, references the Wollenbergs’ Australian origins with a South Pacific tropical hop character. There has even been a collaboration with the County Cider Company called The Executioner, a 100 percent Ida Red cider that packs an enormous punch.
Demand is ripe for more innovative styles of beer. While most of the brewing is done by Drew, the Jail Cell series is Nat’s beer. Kettle soured and rarely the same brew twice, it flies out the door.“We put on a keg at the Canteen of the first batch and it sold like crazy,” she notes.
Since Midtown Brewing opened in Wellington and Prince Eddy’s set up shop in Picton in 2017, there’s now a dozen breweries in the greater County area, which ranges approximately from Trenton to Napanee on the 401. But it may soon be impossible to keep up with the number of breweries. According to Chris Parsons, there are as many as two dozen breweries in the planning— a number that seems untenable even with the massive population boom that occurs between May and October.
For the time being, though, the atmosphere is collegial and the identity of each brewery is sufficiently distinct that they can all provide different experiences. And thanks to that distinctiveness, they can also support each other. In fact, periodically, area brewers will meet up at the County Canteen to touch base. As such, the County beer boom can credibly be said to stem from a sense of common purpose. Not surprisingly, a region that was once home to a shipbuilding boom knows better than any other that a rising tide lifts all boats.
County Road Beer Company Farmhouse Saison ($4/355 ml)
Based out of Hillier, County Road’s Saison is now available in cans, making it a more attractive proposition for vacationers in the county. It pours with an enormous head and vibrant carbonation that boosts the soft spice, white pepper, and fragrant lemon candy on the aroma. It may be the best value Saison in Ontario.
555 Brewing Company The Judge Munich Helles Lager
Available on the Main Street in Picton at their brewery tap and for takeaway in cans, The Judge is brewed in the best traditions of a gentle German lager. The soft, round, crackery malt character supports gentle herbal and floral hop character, making this a simple but balanced offering from a young brewery
Parsons Brewing Company Grandpa Miguel’s Coffee Stout
In a move requiring multi-generational planning, this stout includes Guatemalan coffee beans allowing for marvelous aromas of espresso, rich cocoa, and dark cherry all enfolded in a surprisingly light body.
Lake On The Mountain Brewing Company Onokenoga Pale Ale ($6/660 ml)
Lake On The Mountain has graduated from a small extract brewhouse to a new space will an all grain setup and the result has been an impressive leap in quality. With the Onokenoga Pale Ale, the hop character leads the charge down your palate with notes of pine and honeydew melon before ending in a sweet malt finish.