Look East

“Getcha beer here,” bellowed the beer guy at a Detroit Tigers game. Seeing Blue Light beer in his cooler I muttered, “If I wanted water I’d ask for water,” quoting the old Labatt ad.

Odd. I am watching the Yankees play America’s pastime in America, and they’re selling Canadian beer. I was ready to launch into my “why don’t they serve local beer at sports events” rant when somebody told me about the Michigan Craft Beer shop right at the ballpark. It stocked dozens of Michigan beers, including the classic Bell’s Oberon Ale. Oberon is close to my heart; I tried it over ten years ago at Bell’s Kalamazoo brewery, but I remembered it like it was yesterday.

This June, I was back in Ontario, with a few days in Detroit too. Food was eaten, beer was consumed and — I have to say — eyes were opened, and, not just with the ballpark experience. Having lived in Ontario for many years, I had the opinion that the province was stodgy and slow to change, especially where beer was concerned. Ontario’s craft beers seemed dull when compared with the innovative beer in the west, or in Quebec.

So it was a pleasant surprise to visit Ottawa and discover a vibrant craft beer scene. One evening, I wandered into The Black Tomato, a bistro in an old limestone building on the edge of the Byward Market. It was dusk but the evening was warm, so we sat out back in a pleasant cobblestone courtyard. Our server explained the Lac Brome duck confit and suggested a good beer to match — Festivale Altbier, from local Beau’s Brewing, was a revelation. The beer’s crispness cut through the fat of the duck and perfectly complemented both the dish and the early summer evening.

Later I learned from Beau’s owner Steve Beauchesne that The Black Tomato was their very first restaurant account. Just a few years later, they now sell to over 600 restaurants, including over a hundred in downtown Ottawa. Steve notes that they focused on chef-run, independent restaurants when they started out, which helped spread the word.

Another evening and another delightful dinner in the Market, this time at Ottawa’s version of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon — Murray Street Kitchen. I ordered Ian’s Fowl, matched with Beau’s flagship beer, Lug-Tread Lagered Ale. Lug-Tread is a Kölsch, a quirky beer style that combines the virtues of ale and lager — and pairs well with poultry. It won a gold medal at the 2012 Canadian Brewing Awards this June.

Beau’s All Natural Brewing is an innovative brewery on a farm in Vankleek Hill, about 100 km from Ottawa. Only five years old, Beau’s is a success story, showing that nice guys doing things the right way can finish first. Indeed, their biggest challenge has been dealing with success. I asked Steve when we would see his beer in Alberta and he noted that they don’t even service all of Ontario yet. But a big new brewhouse this summer should allow them to think about other markets. Steve noted that the ease of entering Alberta’s market means Alberta is high on the list.

Beau’s is part of a new wave of adventurous breweries shaking up the Ontario craft brewing scene. From Railway City in St. Thomas to Flying Monkeys in Barrie to Barley Days in Picton, there are nearly 50 craft breweries in Ontario now. I hope we see more of these beers in Alberta soon.

Wellington Arkell Best Bitter, Guelph, Ontario

An English ale from one of the first wave of Ontario microbreweries, founded in 1985. Wellington’s goal was to brew English-style beers in Canada and they have succeeded mightily. I can vouch for Arkell’s effortless drinkability, having enjoyed many a pint at the UWO grad pub in London, Ontario in the ‘90s.

Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale, Barrie, Ontario

One of the new wave of Ontario craft brewers. Founder Peter Chiodo says his brewery is “all about colouring outside the lines to bring out really provocative beers.” Here they add masses of Amarillo and Cascade hops to a pale ale by dry-hopping, to create a punchy, citrusy ale resembling an IPA.

Innis & Gunn Canada Day 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland

A special beer produced for Canada Day in homage to Canadian fans of Innis & Gunn. Canada is the largest export market for Innis & Gunn’s oak-aged beer. At 7.7% alcohol, this year’s ale is a malty beast, aged for 49 days in oak. A well-balanced beer: sweet, malty and a bit hoppy.

Alley Kat Saison d’Être Farmhouse Ale, Edmonton, Alberta

A summer seasonal from the always-interesting Edmonton brewer. Saison or farmhouse ale is a complex style characterized by a fruity-earthy aroma and flavor with some spice. Alley Kat’s quaffable version is a perfect summer brew, tart with notes of citrus and pepper.

Whistler Paradise Valley Grapefruit Ale, Whistler, British Columbia

Whistler Brewing comes at the saison style differently, adding grapefruit zest and coriander to create a summer ale with a citrus tang in the finish. This is very much a beer with a grapefruit edge unlike the Stiegel Radler grapefruit, which is a shandy of lager and juice.

Yukon A.D.D. Imperial IPA, Whitehorse, Yukon

The third in Yukon Brewing’s A.D.D. series of unique brews — this time an 8% alcohol double IPA. Don’t be scared off by the hops as this is an approachable introduction to the style, with the big hops muted and fruity in character. A drinkable, English version of the style.

Edmontonian Peter Bailey loves Alberta but misses the sun-dappled Ontario lakes of his youth.