Exploring Southern Ontario Craft Beer
When I ambitiously set out from Ottawa last Friday afternoon to document the ‘Great Southern Ontario Craft Beer Road Trip’, I had no idea what to expect. The experiences I was able to share-in over the next several days with friends, new and old, were as exciting as they were inspiring.
After a drive of a little over 5 hours, I was in Guelph knocking on a friend’s door and graciously accepting a St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout as a welcome present. After a slightly abbreviated work week, that felt like anything but, I was champing at the bit to leave the stresses of a corporate job at the door and completely dedicate myself to the exploration and appreciation of excellent beer for the next few days. While I was most excited about heading to London in the morning for the Forest City Beer Fest, I was told that we were in store for a pretty good night. And we were…
Baker Street Station is a really cool place. I loved that atmosphere, the enthusiasm of our server (a surprise sample is one of the fastest ways to my heart), the food (mmm duck confit beignets) and of course their selection of beer. While I sampled mostly from their featured menu, there was an everyday selection that had something for almost everyone. The highlight of my experience, however, was a Welly One-Off, which for me was a two-off, as I both started and finished the night with it. Welly One-Offs are unique small batch beers concocted by the good people at Wellington Brewery. The one that stood out for me was Wellington’s Terrestrial India Brown Ale, an English Brown/American Pale Ale. It was extremely flavourful, capturing the depth of the brown ale and balancing it nicely with the citrusy bitterness of an APA.
After a really tasty breakfast at With the Grain in Guelph, we were late and had to hustle if we were ever going to make it to London for “NOON”. A leaking fuel line, soon had us feeling uneasy about the prospect of making it anywhere. Somehow, despite our poor planning and the ticking-time-bomb with wheels we called our ride, we made it to the beer fest; and only an hour late at that.
The afternoon session of the Forest City Beer Fest was a modest gathering of people who were extremely passionate about craft beer, with the odd person who just wanted to see how many Steam Whistles they could polish in one afternoon. On the bright side, no matter if you belonged to ‘column A’ of ‘B’ everyone seemed pretty friendly and enthusiastic to be there. A small afternoon crowd suited me just fine. It gave me plenty of opportunity to sample a great variety of beer and chat with people who are also passionate about the stuff. And the passion definitely came across in the lengthy discussions that I was having. In fact, I missed out on a few interesting brews due to the fact that I probably spent too much time yakking; but that is really what made the experience so special for me.
In particular I enjoyed, contemplating future craft beer travel destinations with Brian from Kensington Brewing Company (and enjoying a glass of their Baldwin FishEYE PA), learning about the adventure of starting up a new craft brewery with Dave from Forked River Brewing Company (sampling their Capital Blonde Ale) and just talking beer styles with Laura from Silversmith or Cian Oast House Brewers (Silversmith Black Lager and Hef’s Big Wood, respectively). It was also great to meet The Thirsty Wench, an excellent beer blogger, who had some very encouraging words and excellent recommendations for the remainder of the trip.
Most of the beers at the festival could, quite frankly, be found at many of the pubs I would visit over the course of the weekend. For me the biggest difference between trying a beer at a pub versus sampling it at an event like this one is the ability to discuss and ask questions, which results in a more intimate understanding of what you’re drinking. I was impressed by the number of booths that were being staffed by owners or sales reps, as opposed to event staff who may or may not have a good grasp of what it is that they’re pouring.
After a quick stop at Ribfest, which by some divine providence was taking place the same day and virtually right next door, we closed out the afternoon by taking a trip to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium. By the time I visited two or three booths at the beer fest, I had already heard a lot about a man named Milos who apparently had an excellent bar that was very supportive of local, and not-so-local, craft brewers. By the end of the afternoon there was no way we were not going to stop by before making the trip back to Guelph. I only wish that we had a bit more time to spend there; reluctantly, we left after just one beer. I had a 6-4-3 Double IPA from Left Field Brewery and as a marketer by trade, was pleased that the beer quality reflected their excellent promotional abilities. It was a hard choice to make, given the impressive beer selection available at Milos’, but it was a good one. A cool vibe with decorated in a way that would appeal to any beer nerd, I will definitely need to explore Milos’ more thoroughly in the not too distant future.
It was Sunday morning and by the time we had ourselves washed, fed and packed into a less than spacious Fiat 500 it was obvious that we were running out of steam. Were we being too ambitious with this road trip? Were we ever going to make it through another day visiting pubs and another night visiting with friends?
The road in to Toronto always seems longer than it should be. We made it into town painlessly enough and found some parking close to the condo complex where we would be spending the night. After some discussion we decided to abandon our initial plan of going to Barvolo, opting instead to head to Bellwoods Brewery which The Thirsty Wench felt we would enjoy. We took off on foot, a mere 4.7 km away, thinking nothing of it. By the end we had reconsidered. An hour and a half later, with a brief stop at The Beer Academy (cool architecture and decor/palatable beer), we made it to our destination.
I dug it immediately. Just the look of it was marvelously cool. We stood waiting for 10-15 minutes for a table; worth every nanosecond of the wait. Every Bellwoods beer that we sampled was exceptional. For me the standout was the Witchshark Imperial IPA (can you tell that I’m on a bit of an IPA tear?); but it was close between that and No Sleep Till Brooklyn, a collaboration with Evil Twin Brewing billed as a sour stout. The Witchshark was a somewhat sweet, citrusy tasting beer with a strange woodsy sort of quality to it; though not for the faint of heart. No Sleep Till Brooklyn was something totally new for me. It starts sour and fruity and finishes with a chocolaty-roasted barley flavour.
To list all of the other beers that we enjoyed at Bellwoods would basically be listing off their menu. They were all great. We had to made a quick stop at their retail store. Afterwards we headed back to the condos where we enjoyed our purchases on the rooftop with a stunning view of Toronto. Joined by more good friends, including local comedian Evan Desmarais, who luckily knows more about telling jokes than he does about beer, it was a great night to cap off a great day.
Our battered bodies were piled into the car again; we had longer ways to go.
But no matter, the road led to more beer.
By Monday morning, the thought of abandoning our adventure and heading home was being weighed very seriously. On the one hand, we had already seen a lot and it would be nice to be back in Ottawa at a reasonable hour. On the other hand, we were so close to the finish line and still had an exciting day ahead of us. Hurting bad, we decided to keep going.
I had never been to Barrie before and it wasn’t at all what I expected, in a good way. We arrived on picturesque Dunlop St about half an hour early for our tour of Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery (formerly The Robert Simpson Brewing Company, I would come to learn). The brewery retail store was bright and inviting. The young lady who was working that day was very friendly and became our best friend as soon as she started giving us samples (working from one end of the fridge to the other). The brewery itself was pretty impressive.
What impressed me most, however, was the quality of the tour. I have visited a number of breweries over the years, but no tour has been delivered as well as this one. It had everything to do with Bruce, a beer fan turned tour director due entirely to his ongoing interest in a craft brewery being built in his hometown. He led the tour with a tremendous sense of humour, notepad in hand to write down any questions he may not have been able to answer, so as to not be stumped by the same question in a future tour. The notepad was blank at the end of the tour. He made something that could seem very technical and dry to some, into something relateable. Even after the tour was finished, he game me a half hour of his time showing me around some of the different stations, telling stories, etc. Overall, I would wager that there aren’t too many better things to do at 2:00 in the afternoon in Barrie than a free tour of a freaking cool brewery like Flying Monkeys.
Flying Monkeys have made some pretty far-out beers that taste delicious. BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout is very high on my list, Netherworld is a winter staple, but to me one stands alone. I was lucky enough to visit the Alibi Room in Vancouver in June, where I first tried their collaboration beer with Central City Brewing: Red on Red Imperial Red Ale. I was very impressed with this beer. Advertised as an 80-IBU ale, I was intrigued at first, but came to find that it drinks surprisingly easy. The alcohol content really cuts the bitterness and it had some almost floral qualities to it. I loved the smell of it, the taste of it… that was the version that was brewed in BC. I was extremely excited to see a fermentation tank with “Red On Red” written brightly on the side, as you would expect from Flying Monkeys, on Monday. To say that I am excited for another taste is an understatement.
After a beautiful ride home through the Muskokas and Algonquin Park, to avoid traffic, I made it home. More than 1,500 km traveled, more than 30 beers sampled and I somehow had to digest it into a blog entry. I could probably write another couple thousand words and still have something to say, but for the sake of everyone I will cut it off here. I had an amazing time exploring the craft beer culture of Southern Ontario. There are people who know it much better than I do and plenty of other resources available to act as a guide for anyone looking to have an interesting craft beer experience. With that in mind, hopefully some of the experiences I’ve shared will be useful as we continue to explore great beer.