By car or train, it takes about four or five hours to get from Toronto to Montréal. By the VIA Rail train that transported me on my most recent trip—which actually stops and sits for a time en route, allowing its passengers to sleep and arrive fully rested in the morning—the journey lasts eight hours and forty minutes.
Let’s just say that Montréalers are significantly more hedonistic than are their neighbors to the west.
Even that extended voyage, however, does not begin to illustrate the gulf that exists between Toronto, the city I call home, and Montréal, where I was born and raised. Visit the two metropolises and their philosophical differences become immediately and starkly apparent: Montréalers populate their cafés throughout the day, where Torontonians appear certain the economy would grind to a halt were they to stop for a midday glass of beer or wine or a cup of coffee; when weather permits, the sidewalks of St-Laurent and St-Denis nightly teem with sharp-dressed citizens strolling or window shopping or just standing and chatting, while Toronto’s Queen and King Streets are primarily boulevards mandated to get a person from point A to point B, with no lingering; and where food and drink are concerned, well, let’s just say that Montréalers are significantly more hedonistic than are their neighbors to the west.
This last point, of course, applies as much to beer as it does to fine wine, haute cuisine or poutine. (Distinctly Québécois, poutine is an over-the-top indulgence of a dish, combining fries, gravy and cheese curds.) Although the city came later to craft brewing than did Toronto, Vancouver or even the modestly-sized Nova Scotian capital of Halifax, once they finally did get started, the city’s brewers have largely led the way for Canadians. As a result, although the fact is widely unrecognized, Canada’s second largest city rates with Denver, Portland, San Francisco and Philadelphia as one of the continent’s finest beer destinations.
Examples of Montréal’s leadership in beer are legion, but begin with the city’s first brewpub, Le Cheval Blanc (809 rue Ontario est, tel. 514-522-0211).
The Experimental Approach
When Jerôme Denys took over his family’s central Montréal tavern in 1981, representing the third generation to oversee the long, narrow room, his first priority was to bring the venerable establishment into the modern age. To compete in the eighties, he figured, the old fashioned, time-worn Cheval Blanc would require a couple of key renovations, such as the addition of a women’s washroom! The idea to brew in the basement didn’t come until half a decade later.
When Denys finally did begin selling his own beer in 1987, Montréalers welcomed the development with great enthusiasm, making the brewpub, according to Denys, an overnight success. And in its early days, Le Cheval Blanc was indeed a brewpub in the purest sense of the word, selling only the house-brewed beer and one commercial brand, all on draught—no bottled beer, no food, no wine, no liquor.
From the start, Denys began setting the tone for what would eventually become Montréal’s pervading approach towards craft-brewed beer. Taking the approach that beer, like wine, should vary from season to season and even batch to batch, Denys regularly altered his recipes so that, for example, a bière blonde tasted in July would necessarily taste different from one sampled in November. If occasionally maddening, it was also a practice that fostered experimentation and so crafted an attitude that would severely influence the next generation of brewpubs to come.
At the head of that generation is Dieu du Ciel (29 avenue Laurier ouest, tel. 514-490-9555). Located just east of Mont Royal, the ‘mountain’ for which the city is named, Dieu du Ciel is, at first glance, more neighborhood local than destination brewpub. But step up to the bar and that impression quickly changes, as the bartender guides you through beers like La Charbonnière, a wonderfully rounded and balanced smoked malt ale, and La Route des Épices, an outstanding seasonal ale flavored with black peppercorns. Order a pint of Rigor Mortis Ambrée, the brewer’s abbey-style dubbel, or the very convincing pilsner brewed occasionally by Jean-Francois Gravel, and you begin to wonder if the man can do no wrong.
Venture no further in your Montréal beer travels than Dieu du Ciel and Cheval Blanc and you will have been well-served by the new school and the old. But to do so would also be to deny yourself the province’s bounty of craft brewery beer seldom seen outside of Québec.