St. John’s: all right beer, fantastic pubs

by Jason Foster

Anybody who’s ever been there knows I’m just stating the obvious, but Newfoundland is a damn cool place: its outgoing, friendly and brilliantly quirky qualities are unique in Canada and a definite asset to this country as a whole.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I got the opportunity recently to head to St. John’s for a few days, to soak in a bit of Newfoundland’s beer culture (oh yeah, and attend some meetings for work).

Just like Newfoundland culture overall, St. John’s beer scene is one of a kind. It’s a bit harder to find quality craft beer there than in some other parts of the country, but it’s a piece of cake to stumble across a really great time in a pub or three.

Like most Canadian cities, the vast majority of beer sold is produced by the two big corporate giants, Molson and Labatt. But unlike most places, the beers on offer from the behemoths are regional brands specific to Newfoundland. Forty years ago, regional brands were commonplace across the country (Lethbridge Pils and Calgary Beer are western examples), but today they’re much rarer.

Newfoundland has more regional brands per capita than any other place in Canada: there’s Black Horse, Dominion Ale, Blue Star, Jockey Club and India Beer. Sure, they’re all brewed by Molson and Labatt — and they’re all basically the same type of cheap, pale, corn-laden lager — but their labels go back generations.

If you’re looking for genuine craft beers, St. John’s has two micro-breweries and a fairly recent brewpub.

Quidi Vidi (named after, and located in, the historic fishing village on the other side of Signal Hill) is the oldest, having opened in 1996. Their standard list has a handful of fairly straightforward beers, ranging from light lager to honey brown ale. None of them will blow you away, but the 1892 Traditional Ale is a perfectly acceptable pint. But I also tried their Christmas seasonal, Hummer’s Brew, which was lovely: a complex dark ale with rich toffee, caramel, molasses, nuttiness and a touch of smokiness to dry it out. Easily the highlight of their lineup.

Storm Brewing opened in 1997 and is quite a bit smaller — it’s basically a part-time operation for its owners. I had a hard time finding their beer — it was sold out in every liquor store I checked, and pubs had a limited range. That sucked, because I was really hoping to try their Hemp Ale. No dice. On the upside, I did sample their Irish red and coffee porter. Neither was perfect but both were interesting takes on their style: the porter accented coffee roast, while the red started smooth and malty and finished dry.

Yellowbelly Brewpub opened in 2008 in a historic building (one of the few to survive the great 1892 fire) just beside the infamous George Street. They offer four permanent beers — a wheat ale, an Irish red, a pale ale and a stout — and a rotating tap (while I was there they had a Christmas porter with vanilla, Belgian chocolate nibs and other additions). Yellowbelly made the best Newfoundland-made beers I tasted on my visit, all well-crafted and flavourful. The wheat was more complex than I expected it to be, while the red mixed caramel malt with hints of hops and the stout had a nice roastiness to it. Plus the food was pretty great.

So that’s it for local beer. But the best part about St. John’s beer scene is where you get the beers, rather than the beers themselves.

I’ve been in a ton of great pubs but I don’t think I’ve ever had such fun as I did in the pubs in St. John’s — not the flesh exhibitions of George Street clubs (although that might just be my age talking) but the places where the locals go when they want a couple of pints and a conversation.

St. John’s has a handful of classic working class pubs that made me never want to leave. The beer selections aren’t always the best (although most seem to make sure to reserve a couple of taps for the local microbrewers) but if good company, laughs and a relaxing hour or two is what you want from a pub, St. John’s is the place to go.

Space is running short, so I’ll just highlight one — The Duke of Duckworth. The Duke recently became famous for its association with CBC’s show The Republic of Doyle, but it’s been a go-to local watering hole for decades. (Left-wing political types in Newfoundland are particularly fond of it.) Located on a stepped side-alley between Water and Duckworth Streets, it’s grubby, greyed and easy to pass by without a second glance.

Here’s betting that in any other city it’d be a destination for lonely elderly men looking for cheap beer, but in St. John’s, that earthy rawness comes across as approachable and homey. I’ve never found a place where it’s been easier to strike up a conversation — and almost always an intelligent one — than at the Duke. And with 19 taps, including a house ale made by Storm, they’re clearly making a good effort on the beer side of things.

St. John’s is a blast in so many ways, but it’s absolute nirvana if you’re the type that loves nothing more than a few awesome hours at a great pub on a regular basis. Throw in some good beer — and definite hints of future promise — from their tiny group of craft brewers, and you’ve got the type of town that makes you want to stay for a long time.