Canada’s vineyard country goes crazy for craft beer

by Jason Foster

pintsI was recently in the Niagara region — the heart of Ontario’s wine country. For most people, that would mean a great opportunity to find the perfect glass of Merlot. But I’m a beer geek, so my mission was to find some good craft cerveza.

When I was in the region a decade ago, there wasn’t anything that could even be called local beer, much less quality craft, so I wasn’t optimistic this time around. So it was a very nice surprise to find that the last couple of years have been good for the region’s beer drinkers.

Niagara’s craft-brewing scene is young and small, but thriving. I spent some time happily hangin’ at three breweries and a brewpub, all of which proved that an appreciation for beer is on the rise in this wine-obsessed region.

One of the most interesting developments — and one that should pay huge dividends for the region and even the country over the long term — is the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, the commercial arm of the country’s first college-level brewmasters’ program. Created a couple of years ago, it’s dedicated to producing Canada’s next generation of professional brewers. Like a lot of other things, the best way to learn how to brew is to just do it, which means they have a fully operational brewery. And if you’re going to have a brewery, you might as well sell that beer to area pubs and stores.

Their current beers aren’t bad, although they didn’t blow me away. The two annuals — First Draft Ale and First Draft Lager — are pedestrian, although the lager is at least all-grain and decent, while the one-off seasonal projects are more interesting, if still a bit uneven. But they’re made by students, so I’m going to cut them some slack.

On more solid ground are two new breweries, five minutes apart, on the Niagara Stone Road leading into Niagara-on-the-Lake. Both are very young, and each is carving out its own niche.

The first — and the “oldest”, at a whole three years of operation — is Silversmith Brewing. Silversmith is set up in a de-commissioned church that was built in 1892. It’s got an amazing interior design, and it’s a great local place to sip on some very interesting beer, so it’s no surprise they’ve quickly developed a solid local following. (They tell me that the region’s wine-makers regularly stop by after work for a beer or two. Now that says something.) Silversmith offers a wide range of styles, with their Black Lager, a solid beer with some light coffee and chocolate character, being the anchor of their line. They also cracked open a bottle of their very special Strong Wrong #1, a Lambic beer, for me. It’s aged for eight months in Pinot Grigio barrels and spiked with Brettanomyces wild yeast, which slowly alters beer. The Wrong has a lovely puckering character and just a touch of earthy mustiness — a result of the Brett. It’s a fine first attempt at a Lambic.

Just down the road is Niagara Oast House Brewers. Housed in a historic red barn, it proudly ignores the new craft-brewery mantra of blonde ales and lightly hopped pale ales. Instead, Oast House jumped headfirst into farmhouse ales (true, they were offering a pale ale and an IPA when I was there, but it was their range of traditional farmhouse ales that took centre stage). This may be the only brewery in Canada that offers both a Saison and a Biѐre de Garde as regular listings. These related styles both have a spicy, earthy character, but differ significantly in their details. The Saison has a honey front and a back end of balanced white pepper, resulting in a very delicate, soft and dry interpretation of the style.

My fourth stop was an unassuming brewpub in the auto town of St. Catharines. Officially on the edges of wine country, it still has more links to that region than it does to the beer-loving city of Toronto. Situated in downtown St. Catharines (which has seen better days), The Merchant Ale House has a comfortable, rustic feel to it. I felt totally at home in its dark room.

The Merchant offers 12 constantly rotated in-house beers, with six guest beers. Highlights on the day I was there included the ESB, which had a nice caramel malt and floral hop with a pleasant two-tone linger. I also appreciated the Dark Wheat, which adds a bit of dark malt notes to a light, fruity wheat beer.

All the roadside signs in the region might point to wineries, but don’t be fooled: beer is quietly but steadily on the rise here. Right now the scene is small — only a handful of options in a sea of wine choices — but if it keeps growing the way it has been, I won’t be waiting another 10 years to visit again.