If you had asked me 2 years ago what I thought of beer, I would have told you that it lacks flavour, has a horrible after taste, and it all tastes the same. I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about over a product I thought was so bland. Clearly, my beer experiences had been limited to a few of the major beer brands produced for mass consumption (ie. getting drunk on the cheap). But after I discovered craft beer, my previous opinions on this brewed beverage were laughable.
Craft beer, or micro brewing, is the handcrafted production of beer on a small scale. Each brewing facility has a brew master who essentially makes the recipes and oversees production. Beers are made with all natural ingredients with no additives or preservatives. What makes craft beers stand out from the pack is the individualization of each product. Instead of creating a drink to appeal to the masses, craft beer is created for varying palettes. With ingredients such as fruit, tea, coffee, cinnamon and honey, it’s all about creativity.
Over the past 10 years, craft beer has been making its mark in bars and restaurants, and in liquor stores across Canada, and is growing every year. No where is this more apparent than in Southern Ontario with the Ontario Craft Brewers estimating there are over 50 craft breweries in the province with over 100 nation wide.
Tristan and I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon on a craft brewery tour in Toronto. If this opportunity had presented itself 2 years ago, I would have passed with no hesitations, but considering my newfound appreciation for the beverage, I was very excited for the chance to visit three craft breweries and learn a little bit more about craft beer.
We were picked up by our driver at the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto and driven out to our first stop, Great Lakes Brewery.
Great Lakes Brewery
Great Lakes Brewery is the granddaddy of them all. Founded in 1987, this multi-award winning facility is Toronto’s oldest craft brewery. Located near Islington Ave and the Gardiner, this family-run brewery offers four different beers year-round plus a variety of seasonal beers including a Green Tea Ale, Orange Peel Ale, Pumpkin Ale, and Winter Ale.
The sales associate gave us a quick overview of Great Lakes, including the history and brewing processes. We were given samples of each of their year-round beers, including (from lightest to darkest) Golden Horseshoe, Red Leaf, Crazy Canuck Pale Ale, and Devil’s Pale Ale, plus a taste of their current seasonal beer, the Winter Ale.
Of the five that we sampled, two really stood out for me. The Winter Ale was by far my favourite, packed with lots of flavour and hints of ginger, honey, and spicy cinnamon. Perfect for the winter season. I actually went back to the brewery about a week later only to find they were completely sold out! An unfortunate (or fortunate if you’re the brewery) downside to seasonal beers.
The Crazy Canuck Pale Ale came in a close second. When it comes to beer, my preferences are towards darker beers. I’m also not a fan of overly hoppy beers (hops are a flavouring agent and provide a distinct bitter taste to beers), but if I had to choose one, the Crazy Canuck would be it. Started as a one-off beer, it was so well received, Great Lakes gave it a permanent place on its roster. The only thing I didn’t like about the Crazy Canuck? The somewhat cheesy and cheap looking beer can. Apparently though, many people actually like it.
Black Oak Brewing Co.
Just a short drive south of the Gardiner on Horner Ave, we made our way to our second stop; Black Oak Brewing Co. Originally located in Oakville, Ontario, Black Oak moved to their current, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location in 2008. Run by a passionate small group of beer aficionados, including their President Ken who’s regularly out front mingling with customers, Black Oak produces two year-round beers and five seasonal beers.
We were met by Sonja, the Brewery Coordinator, who took us on a tour of the facilities. As we walked through the heavy double doors and into the action, I was taken aback at the little space that was needed to produce their beers. Bags of grain were stacked on skids, an assistant brew master was washing down a new batch, and empty kegs were sitting ready to be filled, all of which could be seen from any single spot in the brewery.
After our tour, Sonja brought us back out to the front entrance and gave us three different samples to try. Their two main staples are Pale Ale and Nut Brown. Sonja admits that it was her first taste of Black Oak’s Pale Ale that won her over. Currently studying to be a Beer Judge, where she has to be able to differentiate between 25 beer varieties while blindfolded, it’s safe to say this girl knows her beer. I preferred the Nut Brown myself, though it was their seasonal Double Chocolate Cherry Stout (out for Valentine’s Day) that had me turning to Tristan and asking for his sample too.
When they’re not busy brewing their own products, Black Oak occasionally hosts events including a “bring your own board game” night complete with pizza and beer from the brewery for around $10. They also rent out some of their space to smaller craft brewers and experiment with different offerings including a gluten free beer and a scotch ale (under the Canny Man label) set for release in 2013.
Mill St. Brewery
Back in the car, with a noticeable buzz, we headed back into downtown Toronto to the Distillery District for our third and final stop; Mill St. Brewery. Mill Street is the popular kid on the block, and for good reason. They make exceptional beers to suit all taste styles. Its location gives it a more prestigious character and being attached to a restaurant means a steady flow of customers and high visibility. My personal favourite is the Coffee Porter.
To be perfectly honest though, I was really disappointed with our visit to Mill Street. In fact, it was such a let down that it left me with a bad impression of the brewery. We walked into their retail space and the sales associate just said to let him know which beer we wanted to sample. That’s it. No explanation of the brewery or the beers. No small talk or what interests him about beer. Tristan tried asking questions, I read the beer cards, and you could almost hear crickets chirping.
A tour is about providing an experience and adding value to a product you wouldn’t normally get. What can I learn on this tour that I can’t find on your website? There was nothing different about our visit to Mill St than if I had bought a bottle of each of their beers and had my own tasting party. Actually, the latter would have been cheaper.
The tour, “An Afternoon Tasting of Award-Winning Brews”, was run by Ontario Craft Brewery Tours, a division of Ontario Group of Touring Companies. Our driver, Bill, picked us up in a comfortable Ford Flex and transported Tristan, myself, and two other guys around for the afternoon before bringing us back to the Royal York Hotel. I liked the set up, in which Bill offered some information about the breweries but mainly acted as a driver. In total, we got to sample 12 different beers in a span of about 3 hours.
There was a nice balance between the three breweries, though I would recommend switching Mill St Brewery for a smaller, lesser-known brewery in the area. Mill St. has a firm grasp on the craft beer market, so it would be better to highlight and promote one of the other craft brewers in Toronto.
Since the tour, I’ve been gravitating to the craft beer section whenever I’m at the Liquor Store. And I’ve been paying particular attention to those brewed in Ontario trying a new one each time. Buying local is a win for us all and there are some seriously great beers to choose from made right in Ontario.
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