On the Trail of Ontario Beer
Recently, a group of Ontario brewers put themselves on the map by creating an Ale Trail. It wasn’t a physical trail, but a one-weekend-a-month open house. For a couple of dollars, one bought a “passport” good for entry into the breweries, a few samples, and conversation with other beer lovers. Hospitable staff were on hand, and they were proud to introduce guests to their product.
Let’s Hit The Trail
The Ale Trail is no more–perhaps it was an idea before its time–but most of the breweries on it are still open. They’ve been joined by new entries as well; Ontario’s brewing industry is steadily growing, and the province now has some 40 craft breweries. So let’s hit the trail!
The original Trail started halfway between the border and Toronto, but because we live on the American side, we penciled in an extra stop in Windsor, Ontario. A short drive north along the Detroit River brought us to the Walkerville Brewing Co. If the name Walkerville doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps Hiram Walker and Canadian Club whiskey do.
Hiram Walker, the legendary distiller, also established a lager brewery, which became one of Ontario’s largest. It fell victim to consolidation in the Fifties, but in 1998, a couple from Windsor bought the right to use the name “Walkerville Brewery,” and revived brewing operations inside an old Hiram Walker warehouse near the original brewery site. Walkerville turns out a Classic Amber and a Premium Blonde, which can be found in beer stores–more about them in a moment–throughout the region.
From Windsor, it’s a two-hour drive to London, whose blend of the foreign and familiar makes it an ideal base for weekend getaways. Something to eat, and some al fresco beer–an Ontario microbrew, of course–on Richmond Row, puts us in the right frame of mind.
Our first trip to London brought us face to face with some quirky liquor laws. Beer isn’t available in supermarkets and convenience stores; you have to buy it in provincial stores. And beer couldn’t be sold on Sundays and holidays. On a Canada Day weekend, we found ourselves in a fix until a friendly bartender alerted us to a loophole in the law. Breweries could sell their own product on Sundays. So that explained the line of cars outside the Labatt brewery. Fortunately, the law has been changed, and Sundays aren’t quite as “blue.”
From London, it’s a half-hour drive to Stratford, and one of our best-loved destinations. The world-class theater at the Stratford Festival is reason enough to go, but other attractions include roaming the streets of the prim downtown and watching the swans and rowboats glide along the Avon River. More often than not, we finish our day with after-theater pints at Bentley’s, a British-style pub that pours British and Canadian favorites.
Bentley’s beer lineup now includes locally-brewed beer, something last seen in 1952, the year before the Festival made its debut. The beer became a reality when Joseph Tuer and Alan Peterson decided that their hometown needed a beer as good as its theater. They also concluded that Ontario’s microbrewers weren’t turning out enough high-quality pilsner. The result: Stratford Pilsner, brewed in the Czech style. They’ve also given it the perfect slogan: “beer as you like it.”
On To Brick In Waterloo
A half hour east of Stratford, you’ll find the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, which hosts one of the largest Oktoberfests outside Bavaria. For nine days, venues in both cities become festhallen with traditional German food and entertainment. There are also plenty of family events, including a parade to mark Canada’s Thanksgiving Day.
Waterloo is the home of two stops on the original Ale Trail. One of them is Brick Brewing Company, where we spent part of a sunny Saturday absorbing a short course in Ontario brewing–with appropriate samples, of course. Brewery tours are popular with University of Waterloo students who, for some reason, have a keen interest in the process of making beer. The Brick family has grown to 15 beers. They include the Conner’s, Laker, and Formosa labels as well as original Brick lager and Waterloo Dark Ale, whose logo is a ferocious-looking wild boar.
Not far from Brick is the Huether Hotel, the home of the Lion Brewery and Restaurant. The first time we were in town, the name alone was enough to lure us inside; the King of Beasts is our favorite animal. Once inside, we found the convivial pub, which occupies the bottom floor of what used to be a commercial hotel.
The Lion serves beer brewed next door at the Gold Crown Brewery. Its flagship beer is Adlys Ale, named for the family that bought and restored the historic hotel. There are eight other beers on the menu, and samplers are available. There’s also tasty pub grub, and one of our favorite barroom pastimes: NTN trivia, an interactive game that pits us against thousands of players across North America.
The Trail next heads north and east, toward Guelph, whose pristine water proved conducive to making good beer. In 1834, John W. Sleeman brewed his first batch of beer, and the family business chugged along for nearly a century. Then, in 1988, John W.’s great-great grandson dusted off the recipe for Sleeman Cream Ale and revived the family business.
Sleeman is located in a modern facility just off the expressway leading into town. If the wind is blowing right, you’ll be greeted by the aroma of malt as you enter. There’s a tasting room on the second floor, which also serves as the staging area for tours. The beers you’ll be served include, among others, a honey brown lager, a dark ale, and Sleeman’s rendition of steam beer.
Guelph is also the home of the Wellington Brewing Company. It’s named, of course, for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon in 1815. Ontarians are proud of their British heritage; even tiny communities have streets named “Wellington” and “Waterloo,” and usually several more named after Britain’s royal family.
Wellington Brewing is Canada’s oldest independently-owned microbrewery and one of the first to revive cask-conditioned ale in North America. In fact, the owners are proud members of the Campaign for Real Ale. Cask versions of County Ale and Arkell Best Bitter can be found in establishments across the province. They’re also available at the brewery’s Iron Duke House, whose imposing oak bar is an ideal place to learn more about Real Ale–from the proprietor himself, if he happens to be in. Wellington’s seven-beer range also includes an Imperial stout, Iron Duke Strong Ale, and a lager made with wild Ontario honey.
Blaze Your Own Trail
The original Ale Trail ended a short distance away, in the charming town of Elora. Sadly, the little brewery there has closed. But if you’ve developed a thirst for Ontario beer, you can blaze your own Ale Trail. One possibility is pressing on to the Greater Toronto Area; if you’ve gotten this far, you’re practically on its doorstep. Or you could head north, where a number of small breweries have sprung up in recent years and brought back the Canadian tradition of the cottage breweries. For directions and information about tastings and tours, visit the Ontario Craft Brewers Guild’s website, www.ontariocraftbrewers.ca.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher who travels as much as his budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.