As winter rages around us, it seems like a great time to reflect on travels in warmer times. Last summer we were visiting Grey County, so we couldn’t resist stopping into some classic Ontario breweries, Neustadt Springs Brewery and MacLean’s Ales.
Though MacLean’s only opened in 2014 in Hanover, we call it a classic because the brewery’s namesake and one of the co-founders, Charles MacLean, has been involved in the Ontario craft beer industry for years, as one of the founders of F&M brewery (which would eventually become StoneHammer). MacLean’s Ales was founded by MacLean along with Michael D’Agnillo and Curtis Schmaltz.
The building is like a modern strip mall had a child with a classic British pub. The same vibe followed on the inside where it was largely utilitarian with some elements of coziness like a vintage couch and magazines. We spent time chatting with the bartender and the frequent locals who came by to pick up their regular brews.
As it was mid-summer, the beer available also mostly followed the season. A lot of lighter beer, heavy on British influences which were very strong examples of the styles. The seasonality may have been the reason we didn’t see their Armchair Scotch Ale, a perfect exemplar of the style, though the Luck & Charm Oatmeal Stout was available.
Standout Beer: MacLean’s IPA. Not quite British and not quite American – they describe is as “a unique Ontario spin”. Perfumey in the scent. Fresh, this tastes beautifully green, and not overly bitter, but just enough to make it crisp and refreshing.
Neustadt Springs Brewery
The town of Neustadt has apparently once been named one of the prettiest in Ontario. With a charming main street full of flowers and old stone buildings, it does live up to the name. Neustadt Springs Brewery is one of the village’s big draws, embedded in a historic brewery building from 1859. We didn’t get a chance to take the tour to see the original brewery’s caves and crystal springs, but even in the sampling room you could feel the history. It has the atmosphere of a cozy living room of someone’s century home.
Started in 1997 by its family owners, Neustadt Springs is one of the oldest remaining Ontario craft breweries, and one of the founding members of Ontario Craft Brewers. We had a nice chat with the proprietors about the beer industry and its changes over the last 20 years, and it made for a very interesting stop for beer-culture-lovers like us.
At the time of our visit, their license limited them to 12 oz pours per person, which meant no hanging out for pints in the cozy place (a shame). It also meant we had to choose our three 4oz samples wisely. We already knew we that their 10w30 Brown Ale and 456 Marzen rank among our favourites and are often available at the LCBO, so we went for some that were harder to get.
Standout beer: Sour Kraut Raspberry Lager. A nice light sour, only a bit tart with a fresh and really real raspberry flavour.
On our trip we also discovered the Saints and Sinners beer and cider discovery route, which had a passport you can get stamped at a variety of local food and drink places in Grey, Bruce, and Simcoe Counties.
We’ve done the beer itself, but craft beer tends to be such a movement that there’s so many other things going on. Here’s a few of our favourites from 2017.
Best Beer Experience Overall
Organizing a Beer Festival For the First Time. We got recruited to be the “Beer Coordinators” for the first I Heart Beer Festival in Hamilton, February 2017. We took all of our beer and Ontario brewery knowledge and ran with it, learning a lot along the way. We also did Beer Coordination for the April 2017 festival in Guelph. Unfortunately we then had to step back from our role as I Heart Beer was growing more than we could participate in with day jobs. Congrats to the team on expanding throughout Southern Ontario though – we were proud to attend the Hamilton I Heart Beer Christmas fest as guests rather than hosts, and see how much it had grown.
Honourable mention:Prud’homme’s Level 1 course. Yes, we’re now certified Beer Enthusiasts (as opposed to before when were were un-certified beer enthusiasts). This course was great and we’d recommend it to both a novice to beer and those with a bit more experience such as the two of us. Our hope is to be able to attend one of the Level 2 courses in 2018 en route to becoming full Beer Sommeliers.
Best Beer Fest
(Not counting the ones we coordinated, of course).
Because Beer, Hamilton. We’ve been going since the 2014 inaugural year (see our post on it here), and it never fails to impress. It has a great brewery selection dedicated to Ontario craft, a lovely location by the water, and smooth timing and logistics. As a non-niche festival it works for a general audience – including us. The beautiful weather this year made it even better.
Honourable mention:Funkfest, Sawdust City Brewery, Gravenhurst. One of the niche festivals, this one is entirely dedicated to funky, sour, farmhouse, and barrel-aged beers. Totally up our alley. It’s a really fun festival – for brewers as well it seems – and is worth the trek to Gravenhurst.
Best Beer-Related Paraphernalia
Pretty Pennie Jewellery Hop Necklace. After lusting after it all year, the solid brass hop necklace was Jessica’s Christmas present from Josh. A local artisan out of Cambridge, you’ll often see Pretty Pennie Jewellery at all sorts of local craft and/or beer shows. They’re gorgeous in person too!
Honourable Mention:Brewcrafters Game. Fun game play and maybe frustratingly realistic about how little money you have left at the end of the “year” – yikes! Very chit-heavy in the set-up though, but once we got things organized the most logical way in their baggies, it was a bit better.
Best Brewery- Visiting Experience
Valentino’s Restaurant, Hamilton. Some Hamiltonians might be surprised to see this old standard Italian restaurant on our brewery list, but it’s our favourite place for pasta AND a pint. The Westdale location brews for the restaurant, and both locations will generally have their flagship Bohemian Ale along with a seasonal. Most recently it was a Lemon Stout and we’ve also seen beers like a Cream Ale, Boreal Brown Winter Ale, and more.
Honourable mention:Neustadt Springs Brewery, Neustadt. In an old brewery building from 1859 inside a really charming village, Neustadt Springs feels like a bit of a holdover from an older age of beer. They don’t have any food or a license to serve pints, but you can sample their beer. We spent a bit of time and chatted with the proprietors – some of the few remaining founding members of the Ontario Craft Brewers Association. Their 10w30 Brown Ale has always been a favourite but a visit exposed us to others like their very tasty Sour Kraut Lager, a raspberry sour.
Best Beer News
The Expansion of Beer in Hamilton.We love travelling Ontario – and beyond – to tour breweries, but it’s really exciting for us to finally have a good selection of breweries right at home. Collective Arts has become the oldest Hamilton brewery with a physical location, and Shawn & Ed has been trucking along Dundas for a little while, but 2017 saw Merit, Grain & Grit, and Fairweather Brewing all open in Hamilton. Great news for local beer lovers! We’ve heard that Rust City Brewery is getting close to actually being able to brew, and Clifford Brewing has a place which is so close to opening. We predict 2018 will be another great year for local beer nerds.
Honourable mention: Online Ordering from Breweries. This is a great piece of beer news we haven’t yet taken advantage of, but our new year is going to be filled with beautiful deliveries from far-flung breweries. We’ve been drooling over Instagram pics of other people’s orders from breweries like Dominion City and Half Hours on Earth.
Did we miss any amazing 2017 beer experiences?
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We carefully combed through our Untappd reviews and logs to see what beers stood out in 2017 for the two of us. Though we didn’t always completely agree – or, in fact, always have the same beers – we found a good list of winners. They tended to be quite complex beers, which we guess should be no surprise for people who drink a good deal of beer.
In no particular order, here’s our top 7* beers of 2017:
*Why 7? It just seemed to work with our “best-of-the-best” ratings approach.
Barnstormer Brewing – Smokin’ Skywriter Peat-Smoked Scotch Ale
Malty, smoky, and sweet. This beer was Barnstormer’s January seasonal, and we were happy to get it in the beer-of-the-month club we had throughout last year (which was from AmazingClubs.ca – thanks to Josh’s mom!). As fans of smoky beers, this peat-smoked offering won us both over with a slightly smokiness and a good dose of sweetness.
The Exchange Brewery – & Oud Bruin
One of the most complex beers on our list, this sour, malty, red wine-barrel-aged classic Belgian style (also known as a Flanders Brown) is beautiful. There’s a lot going on but it evens out very well, and has a sort of dried cherry taste overall. Their “& Flanders Red”, also complex and sour, deserves an honourable mention as well. We did a post about The Exchange and it’s now one of our favourite Ontario breweries.
Nickel Brook Brewing – Cafe del Bastardo
Josh’s sole 5/5-star beer of the year, while Jess didn’t try it (as she doesn’t like coffee). This was one of the next level versions of Nickel Brook’s Bolshevik Bastard Imperial Stout, this time barrel-aged and on coffee beans. It was a dream for Josh, as it took everything he loved about the Bastard family, and added coffee.
Bellwoods Brewery – Plum Jelly King
Jess’s sole 5/5-star beer of the year, while Josh didn’t try it (as he missed it!). Of all the Jelly Kings, this one stood a head above the rest from Jessica’s perspective, with the fruity, sour, and dry tastes all perfectly lining up to match strength-for-strength.
Side Launch Brewing – Festbier
A Festbier is one of the styles we call Oktoberfestbier (the other being Marzen), and though we’ve had a decent number of these, Side Launch’s version is comparatively great. It’s got a cracker-ish malt taste and a warm caramel smell which follows up with a lightly spiced robust body with the slight sharpness that reminds you it’s a lager at the end. Though it’s probably the least complex on this list, it’s got a lot of flavour and still manages to be easy-drinking.
Great Lakes Brewery – Grimace’s Tears Milkshake IPA
Another Jess-only one on this list, and a strange one at that since IPAs are not usually her style. However, Grimace’s Tears is basically the dream come true of what a “milkshake IPA” could be. Quite transparent, but very creamy tasting with vanilla and orange tones; Creamsicle-esque.
With two entries on our list, it’s evident that Great Lakes had some real winners this year. This was our favourite sample while at Indie Ale House’s 2017 Stout Night . It blends flavours of coffee, bourbon, cocoa, and vanilla for this smooth and strong taste that even non-coffee lovers can really get behind.
This year seems like it’s going to be the year of the Hamilton brewery scene. There will be several new breweries adding to the robustness of the Hamilton beer scene, so here’s a sneak peek at what will be opening over the next few months.
Grain & Grit
PLANNED OPENING: September 2017
Joe and Lindsey Mrav, a craft beer loving couple (sound familiar?) bought an old auto place at 11 Ewen Rd, and they’re in the midst of gutting it to turn it into the Grain & Grit brewery. It’s out with the old and in with the new, from newly poured concrete to a shiny set of new brewing equipment.
The couple met their head brewer Alex Sporn, a recent arrival from Germany, via a touch of serendipity, and hit it off. Both Joe, an avid homebrewer and Alex, also a homebrewer with a wine-making background as well, will be brewing for Grain & Grit.
They’re in the midst of testing flavours with friends, family, contest winners, and the odd lucky beer blogging couple that gets invited by (e.g. us). The team plans to continously put out new beer and one-offs, not necessarily sticking to a list of standards. The starting lineup may change come September but here’s a sampling of what was around when we visited:
Pieschen Prohibition Pale Ale – one you’ll probably see, part of a “prohibition” series that references the fact that it does not actually contain the strongest flavoured ingredient – in this one, it tastes strongly of peaches but has no peach in it (it uses Galaxy hops instead); we also tried a Melon Prohibition version, same idea but honeydew!
Pineapple Rye PA – A juicy pale ale brewed with pineapple, bold flavour and light on the bitternes
SMASH Sour that avoided the overwhelming hoppiness of many SMASHs we’ve tried (that’s Single Malt And Single Hop), instead with a biscuity, licorice-y vibe with the Columbus hops, plus the sour, of course
Bob’s Brown Ale and Bob’s Little Sister – part of an interesting series of entirely different can conditioned beers
ESB – malty yet well-balanced
Grain & Grit won’t have an on-site kitchen, but they’ve got a decent-sized parking area where they plan to invite food trucks by. This little industrial corner of West Hamilton is soon to become a beer destination, with Fairweather Brewing (see bottom of this post) opening soon right around the corner.
OPENING: May 11, 2017 at 5pm
With MERIT Brewing‘s clean lines and room of communal tables, this brewpub will fit right into the James North scene. The industrial chic style, Instagram-friendly light bulb logo, exposed brick wall, and the gleam of the brewery equipment just behind the glass will jive with the Art Crawl crowds. The lure of ultra-locally made beer will bring in more.
The brewery is a project of Tej Sandhu (who beer-industry folks may know from Run TO Beer), head brewery Aaron Spinney (who previously brewed with Sawdust City), and chef Jesse Vallins (from Toronto’s Maple Leaf Tavern).
There is a brewpub area and a bottle shop area, which includes a premium growler filling station. The two standards, both in the bottle shop and at the bar, will be:
Chanan – Dry Hopped Saison with Orange Peel and Indian Coriander – slightly spicy with the coriander and quite dry, almost pale-ale-esque
Young Rival – IPA named after a Hamilton band you might recognize, not heavy on the hoppy bitterness, but with some light fruity flavours
We were able to attend for a pre-grand-opening, and some of the other beer they had on tap at the time were:
S’il vous plait (SVP) – French table beer with saison yeast pulling in at a very low 3.0ABV (hence the “table” part) – pretty unique in what we’ve seen in Ontario craft
Between Us – Gose – even for a gose this is very light. Softly tangy, lightly fruity, not much of a sourness, and just a hint of the characteristic gose-saltiness at the end
Tomorrows – Earl Grey Tripel – Dry tripel with the citrus-y taste of an Earl Grey.
Real Real – American Sour Saison, collaboration with Jen Nad from Dieu du Ciel – as the American versions of anything go – this goes to an extreme – in this case, a real sour. Mouth puckeringly sour, but with a red fruit tang. If you’re an ultra-sour lover, try this one
My Only – our top winner of the night, a Brett Hibiscus saison – the perfect dessert beer; fruity, tangy, and refreshing
Beyond beer, Merit is a proper brewpub, with the food that goes along with that. Matching the German beer hall style tables gone upper-scale, the menu is sausage heavy but gastropub gourmet. Such as a “butter chicken” sausage with mango & apple chutney and black pepper-lime yogurt in a naan, or pork sausage with fennel, chili, tomato jam, garlic aioli, and fresh oregano. Add this to the pork rinds, baked beans, pickles, and those crispy fries, and you have yourself some pretty sweet beer grub.
OPEN NOW as a beer bar/coffee shop; PROJECTED TO SERVE THEIR OWN BEER: August/September 2017
Located at 27 King William Street, Rust City Brewery got snarled up in some City zoning and bylaws and decided that instead of waiting until they could brew on-site, they’d open up as a beer bar and coffee shop right away. Currently that’s where they stand, but good news is on the horizon with the next couple weeks looking like the zoning issues may be solved. They expect to be serving their own brews around late August or early September, 2017.
Currently, there’s a solid tap and bottle list, where you’ll often see the Hamilton contract brewers (THB, Clifford) and some harder-to-find locally beers on tap (e.g. Napanee Brewing) and the popular Toronto bottles (e.g. Bellwoods, Halo, Burdock) in stock.
When they are able to do their own batches, it’ll be focused on British and Belgian styles. With a very small batch system, they’ll focus on flipping it a lot, with lots of experimentation, and a special love for sours and barrel aging. Plus, they plan for regular casks.
The space is simple, with an order-at-the-bar set-up that includes a pretzel list, and coffee shop dining (soups, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods), all created with a focus on organic food and local producers.
It’s also a tipping-free bar – the tips are built in to prices, staff are paid a living wage with benefits and profit sharing. It makes those pints a little pricier, but it’s not out of the realm of craft beer pricing – and we think it’s worth it.
PLANNED OPENING: Late May, 2017
Fairweather Brewing has moved in to a big space at 5 Ofield Rd in West Hamilton (right around the corner from the upcoming Grain & Grit from the top of this post – Hamilton’s “brewery district”?). It will end up with a pretty large scale brewing operation for a start-up, and has a great bar area.
The brewery is owned by business partners Brent, Ram, and Dan, with a lot of beer experience between the three of them, including homebrewing, the Niagara College Brewing program, working at Lakeport, and participating in brewing and brewpubs in the BC craft beer scene.
They’re hard at work brewing up a storm, and already working to bring a lot of styles to fruition. While we were there, we were able to try
Dry hopped saison – a bright and refreshing version of the style, with a slightly floral hop note and quite low noticeable bitterness
Grisette – this rustic Belgian style is a sessionable one at under 4.0% ABV, and slightly sweet on the mouth through the use of roasted oats
We explored their vats and talked beer plans, and they have a lot on the go. When they open, you might see an IPA, an APA, kettle sours, a roasty/malty porter, and a saison aged in cherries in oak. The team wants to be able to explore and play around with styles, so you can expect this will be a brewery consistently producing new and different varieties.
The space is clean and and crisp, with brick, bare bulbs, wood, and greenery setting off the look in a sort of West coast industrial chic vibe. With the gleaming wood tables and white-washed picnic tables in the long tasting room, it looks like ti will be a great place to hang out.
Honourable Mention: West Avenue Cider at Somerset Orchards
Opening: June 3, 2017
West Avenue is one of our favourite cideries, and they move into their orchards at 84 Concession 8 E out in Freelton (which, yes, is part of Hamilton!), as of June 3. We can’t wait to get the chance to pop by their tasting room.
We were enticed to head down to Niagara-on-the-Lake this past weekend for a Sour Tasting & Tour at The Exchange Brewery. Neither of us can resist a good sour, and this absolutely didn’t disappoint.
The Exchange Brewery is in a compact historical building right downtown in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Despite the size constraints, they packed a lot of space into the area, with two floors of service, brewing and some barreling on-site, and a very chic look that tied it all together.
Because it was The Exchange’s first anniversary, we were able to get a tour of the facilities. At first when the eager group piled into the very small working space behind the glass enclosure of the brew room, we worried we may had signed up for yet another lesson on the absolute basics of beer-making, like we’d seen on some other tours.
Fortunately, we needn’t have worried!
The tour felt very personal to the brewery itself. The set-up was unique, and the stories were less focused on an ephemeral “how beer is made”, and more about how this brewery chooses to make their beer. The operators had even purchase different sets of much of their apparatus for sours vs non-sours, which was something we hadn’t seen before.
But the most impressive part of it all was how efficiently they used such a small space. In a room where you could barely squeeze 20 people in, everything was tightly packed with perfectly organized hoses running the liquid up and down and back and forth.
During the talk by the head brewer, he talked about the brewery’s two focuses: hop-forward West coast ales and Belgian-style sours. We could definitely see those focuses in their beer list, especially in the sour selection. He mentioned also making a variety of styles, to please the large variety of people that come through the door – the balance of having a working brewery in a tourist-heavy city.
They had about 15 different beers on offer, including a couple on cask as a special anniversary weekend event. Some of our top hits were:
& Oud Bruin Barrel Aged Sour – Our winner of the night, a complex sour with a dark brown/red colour – sour, malty, with a sort of dried cherry taste. A bit of everything.
71 White IPA – An interesting mashup, with the coriander and orange peel of a witbier combined with the hoppy bitterness of an IPA, but without too much of either. This blend worked very well for us.
Black Saison – A very surprising beer. Sour, malty, even a bit of toasty oak at the end. Quite diverse in its taste profile, and unique among saisons.
∞ Belgian Stout – Medium-bodied, with a flavour reminiscent of those fancy cherry chocolates. Quite a pleasant cool-weather brew.
Flanders Red – Another complex, rich sour, with a light, slightly nutty flavour; stays quite true to its roots.
What’s with the numbers and symbols? The building was once used as a telephone exchange (hence the name – and the numbers!). It also works perfectly on the round trays with plastic ‘tokens’ they give out to mark their flights.
The Exchange has a short food menu with snacks and bar staples the can be made behind the bar (cheese trays, hummus, flavoured popcorn), but they also build partnerships with local food places on different nights – sushi, food trucks, pizza places. When we were there, British-fusion food truck Ello Gov’na was parked outside supplying the bar patrons with a delicious apricot cauliflower curry.