In his history of beer making in Canada, Brew North, Ian Coutts credits the rise of modern craft brewing to an article written by Frank Appleton and published in this very magazine over 40 years ago (“The Underground Brewmaster,” Harrowsmith, May/June 1978, pages 84 to 97). In the intervening years, hundreds of breweries have opened up across this great country, offering modern drinkers a range of choices that their grandparents could never have imagined. In Ontario alone there are now almost 300 craft breweries, and together their brewmasters produced over 70 million litres of beer in 2018—enough to fill 28 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
It is only fitting that the National Capital Region is now home to several such microbreweries. Ottawa has almost two dozen establishments making everything from light kolsch beers the colour of hay to rich chocolate stouts that could eclipse the sun. Almost all of these facilities are open for tours, tastings and off-sales, and for residents and visitors alike, there are a number of ways to easily sample a wide selection of their highly quaffable wares.
At the Craft Beer Market on Bank Street, one can choose from more than 100 different beers, many of them local, before taking in a hockey or football game at the nearby stadium or, in the winter, heading out for a skate on the Rideau Canal.
For those wanting a guided tour of the capital’s best breweries, local operator Brew Donkey offers a variety of set and customized trips around the city, often mixed in with meals and activities. The Sip, Axe and Relax tour, for example, combines (somewhat bravely) a visit to two east-end breweries and a session of indoor axe throwing. How much more Canadian can it get?
One of the finest local establishments that you can visit for a pint is the Stray Dog Brewing Company in Orléans. This gem was named one of the best new breweries in Canada in 2017, and with offerings such as the Anytime Pale Ale, a fruity concoction perfect for a summer evening, or the Jagged Little Pilsner, winner of a gold medal as the best European-style lager at the 2019 Canadian Brewing Awards, it’s not hard to see why. Owners Justin MacNeill and Marc Plante started their company in 2017 when they realized that two regular guys could make great beer.
“We wanted to do what we loved,” Plante says, “and we didn’t want to let the fear of failure get in the way of our dreams.”
When asked about how they defined success, MacNeill doesn’t hesitate: “We get to work with our friends, doing what we love and supporting our employees. It’s perfect.”
This honest commitment to the people around them has earned Stray Dog a loyal following, and on Friday evenings their taproom is filled with happy regulars. Not having their own kitchen, MacNeill and Plante even encourage hungry patrons to order food in from local restaurants to further support area businesses.
Good beer, of course, is not limited to the city. From Beau’s in Vankleek Hill to the Square Timber Brewing Company in Pembroke, the Ottawa Valley is awash in frothy choices. One of the best of these is the Cartwright Springs Brewery, located just outside of the beautiful little town of Pakenham. Brewmaster André Rieux opened the brewery in 2015 after finding the perfect water source while out exploring the side of a mountain north of town. “When I found the spring, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “I knew that I had to use the water to make beer.”
Two days after finding the creek, Rieux owned the land around it, and today he produces almost 800 litres of beer a week, using crystal-clean water pulled from less than 15 metres away. Sold in distinctive blue bottles, Rieux’s creations include a copper-coloured bitter, a seasonal honey lager made with the help of local bees and, for the adventurous, a spruce-tip IPA made from nearby evergreen trees. Locally sourced ingredients are at the heart of Rieux’s approach to beer making. When a malting company starts operations in Pakenham later this year, he plans to purchase grain grown within sight of his front door, have it malted in town and then transformed into beer with his own water. Forget the 100-mile diet, this will be a 5 km beer! Rieux even uses the leftover grains from his fermentation tanks to help feed his neighbour’s cattle. Lucky cows.
For those looking for the widest possible range of choice, they could do no better than heading across the river to Gatineau, Quebec, where Gilles Pommet opened the playfully named Broue Ha Ha in 2010. Not a brewer himself, Pommet saw an opportunity to showcase the increasing number of high-quality beverages being produced, and pulled as many as he could into a store dedicated to craft beer.
“There was no place like this anywhere in Gatineau,” Pommet explains. “I wanted to make a place where people could come and sample all of the great beer that was being made across the country.”
While licensing laws mean that most of his beer comes from Quebec, Pommet welcomes any producer who can legally sell beer in the province. Currently, his inventory includes more than 300 selections from almost 100 breweries, and his store, which also sells local cheese, is one of the best places to go to quench a parched throat on your way home from hiking or skiing in Gatineau Park.
With so many high-quality, locally produced beers now on the market, it should come as no surprise that craft beer now represents almost 10 percent of sales in Ontario. By supporting these small brewers, we can all help to keep Canadian farmers in the fields, profits in our towns and tasty beer in our tummies.
Just one last thing: Life’s too short to be thirsty, but please, don’t ever risk making it shorter for anyone by drinking and driving.
Shawn MacWha spent his youth in the lakes and forests of the Laurentian Mountains and in a small town east of Ottawa, surrounded by cows. One of his first jobs was at the Cumberland Heritage Museum, a historic village set in the 1920s. Since then, he has travelled extensively and lived and worked in such places as Calgary, Japan and Malaysia. Shawn currently lives in Ottawa with his wonderful wife, Ann, and their four amazing kids, Rob, Ali, Henry and Clara.