The best beer in the valley: Ashton Brewing Company

By Anne DesBrisay.

SpiggotsNext time you find yourself thirsty in the Nation’s Capital you might think about a pretty little drive southwest of the city.

It’ll take you about a half hour to get to Beckwith Township on the Jock River, and there you’ll find a half dozen superior options for wetting your whistle at the Old Mill at Ashton Country Pub and Brewery. They boast the best steak and kidney pies in the Valley. And they do full-on Sunday roast beef dinners, but mostly this is food to go with the gold medal-awarded beer brewed in the basement of a haunted grist mill.

The Hodgins family of Ashton, Ontario are well known publicans, in the business of drawing ale and frying fish for 38 years. Art Hodgins, former architect and current Father Christmas look-alike, purchased his first pub in 1975. Over the years he’s birthed, bought, and revitalized derelict pubs up and down the Ottawa Valley and in Old Ottawa South.
But this last acquisition — The Old Mill at Ashton — houses the Hodgins’ family’s first stab at making beer. Together with his three sons and with longtime brewery man Lorne Hart acting as consultant, Art started with an amber ale in 2011 and it went from there.

Today, the Ashton Brewing Company (ABC) produces six brands plus a rotating seasonal brew.

Its system is modelled on the old English style of open vat brewing and relies on Ringwood, a top-fermenting yeast that’s fast and aggressive and the system tends to produce brighter, clearer beers with greater flavour character.

Which was precisely what Ottawa chef Jamie Stunt of Oz Kafé on Elgin Street was looking for in a beer. He was familiar with the ABC. He served some of their beers at Oz, cases delivered by his old elementary school chum Quinn, eldest of the brothers Hodgins. So when Stunt was invited to compete at the 2012 Gold Medal Plates, and knew he needed to pair his dish with a fluid, he headed to Ashton. His plan was to go where no other Ottawa chef had gone before in the history of GMP culinary competition. His dish was going to be matched not with a Canadian wine, but with a beer. And not with any old beer. He wanted a special brew to meet a special beast. And here’s where things get a little wilder: Stunt was working with yak. Tibetan yak from Rosemary Kralik’s Tiraislin Farm in the Lanark Highlands.

Stunt’s buddy Quinn, together with ABC’s brewmaster Eric Dubuc, were tasked to help him come up with a light refreshing beer, designed to match some of the Asian flavours on the plate. The spent grains from the brewing would also factor in the dish. The guys were fooling around with ABC’s lighter Session Ale, adding lemongrass and Kaffir lime. Stunt kept bringing over elements of the dish he was building to the Ashton brewery, and Quinn was constantly delivering samples back to Oz. As the competition plate evolved, so did the beer.

AshtonThe stunt worked well for all involved, and Jamie, a 28-year-old, self-trained chef from a quirky little restaurant called Oz, found himself standing tallest on the Ottawa Gold Medal Plates’ podium, holding high and triumphant a growler of Ashton Brewing Company beer.

The GMP rulebook says you must stick with your booze of choice for the national level of the competition, when winning chefs from cities across the country gather in Kelowna for the big weekend cookoff. And so the Ashton Brewing Company brought Jamie’s beer — now further enhanced with green tea and ginger — to the Canadian Culinary Championships last February. On the final night of the competition, the queue at the ABC’s booth was longest as guests were keen to sample the beer that meets a yak head on.

Stunt ended up back on the podium in Kelowna with a second place finish and the Ashton Brewing Company was suddenly a little Ottawa Valley craft brewery with big national exposure.

“It gave us confidence,” Quinn Hodgins tells me. “This was just the end of our first year of brewing and to get this kind of shot in the arm was just great.”

You will find the Ashton Brewing Company tucked beneath the Old Mill at Ashton. Built into the bank of the Jock River, the squat building was once a grist mill, but it had been operating as a pub for some 30 years when the Hodgins family bought it.

A haunted pub, according to local yore, but apparently not enough to deter the spirits of the Quinn family. They saw the potential for making their own brand of beer in that basement space, and with Lorne Hart (of the now closed Hart Brewery of Carleton Place) acting as advisor, they went from long-time publicans to brand new brewers. And the Ashton Brewing Company, still in its infancy, can today dust a gold and silver medal on the mantle.

Anne DesBrisay is Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates judge, and a national Canadian Culinary Championship judge. Photos courtes Ashton Brewing Company website.