It’s been over 20 years since someone wrote a guidebook to beer in Ontario. Back then, there were only 13 microbreweries, and about 20 brewpubs. The changes we’ve seen in beer styles and culture since then have been revolutionary. With 176 breweries open, 54 more making beer on contract, and 90 in the planning phase, there’s a need for a guide that sorts the best from the rest, and recommends how to drink our province’s beers in the most fun and efficient manner.
Luckily, two of my beer-writer colleagues, Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John, have dedicated the last six months to creating just that. I had a sneak peek at the guide and I’m delighted to say it’s highly thorough, thoughtful and fair, with ratings and rankings that are useful and surprising.
You can win a copy of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide from us — to enter just be a resident of Canada and leave a comment below this post about why you need the guide in your life. Contest closes May 6th!
I’m not going to give away their Top Ten Breweries in Ontario, or their personal Top 5 Beers to taste (which I love) but I will say both of those lists added some new must-drink beers and destinations to my list. The guide begins with an overview of beer sales and history in Ontario — and let’s face it, with all the bureaucracy around liquor in this neck of the woods, it’s a little dry. Personally, I’d rather this portion was skipped and instead the book included a thorough tourist-guide section, with mapped-out road trips to taste certain regions, and one or two-day itineraries in major cities. I skimmed the intro and headed straight to the ratings to see which beers got a coveted and rare 5 point-rating and which dropped to the very bottom.
In doing so, I kept marvelling at all the work, travel and time spent tasting these beers — it sounds like a fun job, but believe me it ain’t glamorous. I chatted with Robin about how and why they created the guide and asked her for some of her top recommendations of regions and breweries to visit, and beers to try right now. There’s much more in the guide, get yours on Amazon.
In the age of UnTappd and Ratebeer, why did you feel the need for a guidebook to Ontario Craft Beer?
Well, UnTappd and Ratebeer are great, but in terms of navigating the immense number of beers in the province while still encouraging discovery, it leaves a lot to be desired. With both of those platforms you sort of have to know what you’re looking for in order to get the reviews on it. Here we’ve included ratings for beers in the province written by two authors with eleven years collective experience writing about and reviewing beer. To have that all in one physical resource is great for helping you discover a possibly overlooked small brewery. Additionally, ratings are only half of what the guide contains. First and foremost Jordan and I wanted to present a snapshot of the Ontario Craft Beer landscape in its current state. The guide provides historical context for beer in our province, celebrates the breweries by providing full background information on them, and may just be the push someone needs to go out and explore this amazing province.
How many beers did you and Jordan taste for the guide?
Something like 780 beers sampled in a span of five months. By the end we developed a deep appreciation for water, club soda, and peppermint tea.
Can you recommend a brewery that is worth a road trip to visit?
Too many to name, but one of my favourite trips is heading to Sawdust City in Gravenhurst. The space is huge and beautiful, there’s always something going on, and there’s plenty of beer and merch. My personal tip: ask the folks there about the road that inspired their Winding Road for 7km Rye Saison and check it out. It’s one of the most beautiful drives in Muskoka.
After writing the guide, how did your perception of beer in Ontario change?
Without a doubt my view of the province’s beer scene grew significantly. Living in a city like Toronto with such a rich beer scene, it’s easy to not look much past that bubble. After writing the guide I developed a whole new appreciation for the many incredibly talented brewers that make this province great. Also in visiting a lot of these places you really get a feel for the sense of community local breweries bring to their regions.
The guide begins with an in-depth history of brewing and beer sales in Ontario — what do you predict will happen to the brewing and sales scene here in the next 10 to 20 years?
That is a question with an answer that may be too massive for the space you have *laughs*. But in terms of the brewing scene, it’s just going to grow quicker and quicker. Already it seems likely that we’ll have about 81 new breweries opening by 2017, so if you thought things were crowded now, just you wait. As far as sales goes, I personally hope that we’ll be seeing more retail channels open up to better accommodate the huge variety we’re already producing.
What is your favourite brewpub in the province?
It’s got to be the one I go to most, and right now that’s Folly Brewpub here in Toronto. The food by Chef Luis Martins is delicious and brewers Christina Coady and Chris Conway are two incredibly talented artists making beers that I love. The Flemish Cap Old World Saison, for instance, is a fantastic example of what a quality yeast (in this case from Guelph-based Escarpment Labs) can do to simple ingredients like pilsner malt and malted wheat, creating a refreshing and slightly tart beer with hints of citrus. Don’t take my word for it though, go there. Have a flight. Order the chicken and waffles. Tell the staff I said hi.
What region surprised you most?
By far Northern Ontario. Living in a city it’s so easy to think that there’s not much demand for more flavourful beer outside of your space, but it turns out the demand is not only there, but thriving. Breweries in small towns do double duty by producing beer and being incredibly active members of the community and it’s just amazing to see how much that’s been embraced. It really gives you an idea of how much local beer really matters.
Any fun regions that folks could drive to for a weekend of beer and food
Well, if I wanted to plan a road trip, I might head over to Manitoulin Island by way of Collingwood, Owen Sound, and the ferry in Tobermory. All of those locations have some fantastic breweries like Side Launch, Kilannan, Tobermory Brewing Co. & Grill, and Split Rail, but like the book itself, half of the fun is getting to explore this remarkable province. I’d also maybe get some camping in at Bruce Peninsula National Park up by Tobermory as well, but that’s just me.
Can you name three under-the-radar beers or breweries that people should try, or try again?
Tooth & Nail Vim & Vigor hasn’t been so much under the radar these days, but it’s still a fantastic beer that needs as much attention as possible. Muddy York’s Gaslight Helles is wonderful and I really enjoyed New Ontario Brewing’s IPA. As for something to revisit, the beers coming out of Ashton Brewing Company (ABC) had definitely improved since I first tried them a few years ago.
If you were hired as a consultant for a brand new brewery in Ontario — what would you tell them to do or make?
If you’re going to go with simple styles, don’t phone it in because it’s a difficult process to achieve well-made simplicity. Aside from that, excellent balance of flavours, consistency, and creativity are all factors that every brewer should focus on.
What are the problems you spotted (or tasted) with Ontario craft beer, and do you have a recommendation that could help fix it?
Well, the big issue I found came in the form of a lot of contract breweries popping up. While contract brewing is a very noble stepping stone in the eventual plan to acquiring your own brewery or to even expand production of beers you already make, as a sole business model it’s just unfeasible and is a very expensive mistake for folks looking into getting in on the craft beer craze. So my big advice to help avoid that would be to say there’s no easy and quick way to make it work in this industry and that contracting should be used as one step of many more in your plan.