Montréal’s beer scene is a great mix of classic and new

PINTS by Jason Foster

It’s pretty easy to explore a city you’ve never been to before: everything is new so there’s an opportunity for excitement around pretty much every corner. But what about a place you’ve been to fairly often? How do you keep it fresh?

This question became quite real for me a while back when I found myself in Montréal, a city I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a few times over the past six or seven years. It’s a brilliant place:  one of Canada’s most inviting cities, with lots to offer every kind of traveller (including the wandering beer geek).

So obviously, I was going to have a great time. But just how should I go about spending that time? I’ve been to many of the “must-see” beer spots in the city in the past, so the dilemma was whether to return to those reliable old haunts knowing that I’d be perfectly content, or to venture onto new turf — risking disappointment but potentially making some great new discoveries?

Thankfully Montréal’s beer scene has become so vibrant over the past couple of years that there were a number of new places that really grabbed my attention. But I also just wouldn’t have felt right about skipping some of my longstanding faves.

So the solution, obviously, was to do a bit of both.

I made a point of visiting some of my favourite places, including Dieu Du Ciel (29 Laurier West), where the beers are uniformly impressive, and where you can always find an intriguing pub-only offering. (This time around I loved the Saison St. Louis, an earthier and grainier interpretation of the saison style.)

Then it was off to the Benelux brewpub (245 Sherbrooke St.W.), which I visited the first time I went to Montréal but hadn’t been back to since. It was nice to see their beers still hold the same quality, and the barley wine was particularly lovely.

A pair of old standbys hadn’t let me down. So far so good. But the highlights of my trip were mostly found in new places.

One that particularly caught my fancy was Isle de Garde Brasserie (1039 Beaubien St. E). Tucked away in the quiet neighbourhood of La Petite-Patrie, it’s part brewpub, part craft-beer bar — they offer four beers made by the pub and another 20 taps that highlight some of the best Québec has to offer. It’s a quiet pub with an elegant but understated décor, with wood and stainless steel accenting the modernist character.

The house beers at Isle de Garde are quite good, but the guest beer selection is truly impressive, and it includes a daily cask ale. The day I was there it was a red ale from Microbrasserie La Memphré, dry-hopped with Columbus hops which gave it a nice pine flavour.

But what really sets Isle de Garde apart is that it’s the first beer bar I’ve ever been to with a tap system that allows them to serve at different temperatures — meaning every beer is served at its ideal temperature. They serve their lagers at four degrees, their standard ales at eight degrees and then specialty beer, like Belgian ales, at 12 degrees. Very, very impressive.

Another newish place in Montréal is the brewpub La Succursale (3188 Masson St.). This small but bustling place in an upscale neighbourhood near Olympic Stadium brews a surprisingly wide range of styles. When I was there they had a hefeweizen, an altbier, an IPA and a Tripel, as well as the expected amber and pale ales. The Tripel, called Triple De La Reine, was definitely the highlight.

I’m a bit of a sucker for small places that take pride in being the “go-to” spot for the local neighbourhood. Every town needs one, and Montréal’s small pub with a big heart is L’Espace Public (3632 Ontario St. East).

Tucked into a quiet corner of the Hochelaga neighbourhood, it’s an unassuming place — one you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for its low-key signage. It’s a strip of a place, with a long bar and a single row of tables on the opposite wall. It’s a full-on brewpub, so all of the beers are made on site — and despite the small size, they offer up some pretty big beers. Their P’tit Dej stout is an assertive, full-bodied stout that can easily stand up to the best in the country. I also appreciated their Monty Python, an English special bitter. Its soft toffee notes are balanced well by a floral, earthy hop bitterness.

To find some of the newer places in Montréal you have to stray away from the main strips. These are places designed to please locals and other people in town who are in the know — and that’s at least half their charm. They aren’t designed to satisfy tourists — they just make and sell good beers because that’s what they love doing.

Clearly, there are enough Montréalers who love them for doing just that. Not to mention the occasional beer writer who wanders in for a new experience.