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.
Most beer-savvy souls have by now heard of Unibroue (80 Des Carrières, Chambly, tel. 450-658-7658), the Belgium-inspired brewery located on Montréal’s south shore. But if you have only come across the brewery’s ‘Big Three’—the Belgian-style wheat, Blanche de Chambly; Maudite, their excellent coriander-spiced strong ale; and Fin du Monde, the fruity, over-the-top tripel—then you have only begun to explore their vast range.
True, such gems as La Terrible, the strong black ale that offers notes of Asian spice within its complex character, and Don de Dieu, the brewery’s super-charged white beer, are available sporadically outside of Québec, but what of Eau Bénite, Unibroue’s deliciously understated tripel, and the four non-apple flavors of Éphémère—black currant, peach, cranberry and fruit-free? To taste those, you must travel to la belle province, period.
Unibroue’s Belgium-influenced success seems to have inspired other Montréal breweries, not least of which is the production version of Cheval Blanc, now a part of the brewing group Brasseurs RJ (5585 rue de la Roche, tel. 514-274-4941). Like the brewpub, the bottling Cheval Blanc produces a wide range of sometimes quirky ales, including Coup de Grisou, a buckwheat ale that appears to have lost some of its spiciness through the years; Blonde d’Achouffe, a strong golden ale fermented with the La Chouffe yeast under an agreement with the southern Belgian Brasserie d’Achouffe; and a sweet and tart cranberry winter ale called Snoreau. RJ supplements these more eccentric brews with a flagship line of ales that include the clove-accented Cheval Blanc Ambrée and the plummy, spicy Cheval Blanc Rousse.
Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest that all Montréal beers stand to the left of stylistic standards. Indeed, many of the city’s finest and most easily located beers are very fine interpretations of conventional styles, such as the pale ale and oatmeal stout of the McAuslan Brewing Company (5080 St-Ambroise, tel. 514-939-3060).
Conventional Styles, Unconventional Quality
Founded in the working class district of St-Henri by Peter McAuslan and his wife and head brewer, Ellen Bounsall, McAuslan Brewing is now 40 percent owned by the east coast regional brewer, Moosehead. The sale, which allowed Peter and Ellen to deliver some profits to their early investors and, more importantly, build a new and much larger brewery, appears to have had little to no effect on either the brewery’s flagship St. Ambroise Pale Ale or its much and rightly lauded St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. The former is a hoppy-fruity pale ale, fashioned after the popular Québécois ales of the 1950s, while the latter must surely qualify as one of the finest examples of its type brewed anywhere.
On the lager side of things stands L’amère à boire (2049 boulevard St-Denis, tel. 514-282-7448), a brewpub on a widely traversed strip of St-Denis, just around the corner from Le Cheval Blanc. Since their earliest days, L’amère has been known for its Czech-influenced lagers, even going so far at one beer festival to host a Czech pavilion where the brewpub’s Cernà Hora was poured alongside more geographically precise Bohemian pilsners. In the ocean of ale that is the Montréal craft beer scene, the Saaz-accented pilsner is a most welcome refresher.
Following a glass or two, drift over to St-Laurent and north almost to Laurier, and you’re back in ale country at the Taverne du Sergent Recruiteur (4650 boulevard St-Laurent, Tel, 514-287-1412), where adherence to tradition dictates that the nutty Bitter du Sergent is often available on cask.
Looking for a Local Focus
The one thing that Montréal does lack from a beer perspective is a decent multi-tap bar or other oasis of local beer. There are two locations of Bières & Compagnie, one on upper St-Denis near the Plateau Mont-Royal district (4350 boulevard Saint-Denis, tel. 514-844-0394) and the other on St-Laurent close to Sherbrooke (3457 boulevard Saint-Laurent, tel. 514-288-0210), but as enjoyable as these beer-themed restaurants are, the focus at each appears to be more imports than domestic brews. And with the recent closure of the Musée de la Bière, Montréal beer destinations with a strong selection of local brew are few and far between.
Fortunately, craft beer is ubiquitous in Montréal’s bars and restaurants. It is actually difficult to find a respectable eating or drinking spot that does not stock at least one or two local beers, either those listed above or the malty Boréale Rousse or fragrant Boréale Blonde from les Brasseurs du Nord, or perhaps the Cobra IPA from Le Chaudron, arguably the hoppiest ale in the city.
For bottled fare from virtually every Québec brewery, the place to turn to is the Marché Atwater, one of Montréal’s two excellent markets, where many of the province’s stellar cheeses co-exist with a diverse selection of beer at the Fromagerie Atwater. If you find yourself on the north side of Mont Royal, near the Marché Jean-Talon, the Marché des Saveurs du Québec (280 Place du Marché du Nord, tel. 514-271-3811) is a wonderful store just off-market featuring not only Québécois beer, but also Québec products ranging from caribou pâté to rose petal jelly to the province’s answer to icewine, ice cider.
If you do plan a visit to either the Fromagerie or the Marché des Saveurs, however, you might want to make sure that you’ve packed for your trip with plenty of spare room in your suitcase. Because chances are that by the end of your stay, the spirit of the city will have so infected you that you’ll find yourself wanting to take more than just a little bit of Montréal back home with you.