A long overdue beer revolution has begun in Canada’s capital

PINTS by Jason Foster

I often wonder how the hardworking citizens of Ottawa like sharing their city with disgraced senators like Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau (and the list goes on), or (depending on your political leanings) Stephen Harper and his cabal.

How do you wash away the bad taste of the never-ending Senate spending scandal, or the federal government’s attacks on civil liberties (see Bill C-51)?

Well, good beer probably does the trick — and these days, they’ve got it.

I’ve been to Ottawa a few times over the years and have been underwhelmed by its craft beer. The Clocktower Brew Pub was decent but not particularly handy, and there was the reliable Beau’s All Natural Brewing just outside the city. But after that, the pickings got pretty slim pretty fast.

Turns out that’s changing — and rapidly. Over the past two years there’s been a mini-explosion of new breweries in the nation’s capital.

I got to experience them firsthand during a trip to Ottawa this spring.

On the brewpub front, Clocktower has basically been the city’s sole brewpub for years, but it’s now accompanied by a trio of upstarts — the most notable of which is Mill Street’s new Ottawa brewpub. Mill Street is a longtime Toronto brewery so it’s not exactly new, but their entry into the Ottawa brewpub market is — and the location is something else. At the end of Wellington Street (that’s Parliament’s street) it’s tucked into a historic pulp mill built in 1842, overlooking the river and a series of historic sites. The stunning location certainly makes pints of their Ottawa-only beer, including the pleasant Valley Irish Red, go down easily.

On the opposite end of Wellington, in the ByWard Market, is the brand-new Lowertown Brewery. In their early days of operation (I sampled some of the first batches off the brewpub brewhouse), they have three house beers. The most interesting is their White, a krystalweizen with a soft, sharp character most wheat beers lack.

Interestingly, Lowertown’s kind of a pseudo-newcomer —a brand-new entity but owned jointly (I’m told) by Clocktower and Mill Street.

The third new brewpub is Ashton Brewing Company. They offer some accessible beers, but nothing really stood out for me, so I’ll leave it at that.

While almost a dozen (!) breweries have opened in the Ottawa area in the past couple years, we’ve only got so much space here — so I’ll highlight three in particular, starting with Beyond The Pale. It’s only been open since November 2012, but has already developed enough of a reputation that even a tourist like me knew enough to know I had to stop by.

They’re currently in a hole-in-the-wall near Tunney’s Pasture, operating on a three-and-a-half-barrel brewhouse they’ve already outgrown — meaning they’ll soon be opening a new 20-hectolitre brewery a short distance away. The place isn’t much to look at, and retrograde Ontario regulations restricted them to offering me only 20 ounces of beer in total, meaning I had to make do with small tastings — but holy crap, were those tastings good. Their beers range from a grapefruit wheat to an oatmeal stout to a couple versions of IPA. Across the board, the beers were well-made, but I particularly appreciated Darkness, their oatmeal stout. It has a soft, almost creamy body with a quiet coffee roast and a deceptive linger. Their Breaking Bitter (get it?) is also a quality British ESB.

Deeper under the radar is Bicycle Craft Brewery, which just opened last year. They quietly produce some interesting ales, including their latest seasonal, a Pomegranate Pale Ale, and an oatmeal porter which is a creative option. I had a lot of time for their Velocipede IPA, which has a fruity citrus hop character accented by some alluring biscuit flavours. They can be a bit hard to find, so you need to ask around.

The third brewery is so new it doesn’t even show up on the standard online brewery lists. Open only a few months, Waller Street Brewing is tucked into a basement corner of a heritage building that houses two bustling pubs — Lunenburg, a traditional beer pub, and The Loft Board Game Lounge (Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride fans take note!). Right downtown, it’s amazing how low key the operation is. I only learned of it through a brewer I’d interviewed but you can check their handy website: theloftlounge.ca. They have a huge library of Eurogames if that’s your thing.

I only got to try one Waller Street beer, as the rest were sold out. The Moonlight Porter is a big, robust pint with a silky body and a noted coffee roast. Apparently formed by three bridge engineers, they brew sporadically and, for the moment, have a select list of tap locations. Definitely on my list of must-dos the next time I’m in Ottawa.

Finally, if you want to try some of the best Ontario breweries have to offer (plus a sweet sampling of quality imports), spend an hour or so at Brothers Beer Bistro. Just around the corner from Lowertown Brewery, it’s a small, elegant restaurant that has a fabulous bottle and tap list, and likely some of the best-educated staff I’ve seen in a long time.

Ottawa is growing up, at least when it comes to beer. Now if we could just do something with those politicians…