Photo courtesy Muskoka Brewery
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“Beer,” Benjamin Franklin was reported to have said, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Amen to that! But what the great 18th Century thinker, inventor, and politician neglected to mention was the fact that, obviously, God was referring to Canadian beer…. and, in particular, Ontario’s wonderful craft brews.
Don’t laugh, but it’s a fact (though perhaps a little-known one) that beer is as important a part of our great nation’s fabric today, both economically and culturally, as it was when Canada was founded. Example: Canada Day celebrations account for one of the biggest spikes in beer sales in the country.
Indeed, Ontario’s economy from the get-go was built upon the supply and demand of a few basic commodities: fur and lumber, naturally, but would you have guessed beer, too, played a role? The province’s beer industry began the moment the early settlers from Europe arrived and established small breweries to make unique beers for their own consumption, and later expanded this to friends and the local community at large.
The Best Breweries in Ontario are Steeped in History
The arrival of prohibition, the Great Depression and a couple of nasty world wars, however, put many of these small brewers out of business. Those that did weather these storms were often simply swallowed up by larger conglomerates more interested in quantity over quality, and for a few dark, desolate decades, beer for the majority of Canadians was little more than a slightly alcoholic version of pop.
Then along came the Eighties, and with the big hair and new wave music came a resurgence of interest in independent brewing. In Ontario, credit for the province’s first craft brewery went to Jim Brickman whose Brick Brewing Company Ltd., founded in 1984, was followed soon after by several other independent breweries, each determined to create high-quality, handcrafted beers.
Today, with some 269 craft brewers calling the province home, along with around 55 brew pubs, Ontario rivals some of Europe’s best-known brewing areas for its concentration of establishments busy making quality beers: beers that place an emphasis on local roots and distinctive tastes now account for approximately 15 percent of the Ontario market.
18th Century Taste, 21st Century Beer
And with trendy names like Barley Days and Flying Monkeys, as much creativity goes into the naming of the breweries and their brews as goes into the products themselves.
In fact, beer consumption today is not unlike the slow food movement, and for many people has become the “new coo,” with enthusiasts taking the time to savour their favourite brews. In addition to the hip factor, the tremendous increase in the popularity of craft beers and the breweries that make them is largely due to the quality of the finished product.
Visit any of the best breweries in Ontario today and you’ll find brew masters willing to make riskier choices when it comes to ingredients. Brewers are taking old-style recipes, the kind that would have been popular before prohibition, and are adapting them, trying new things. And they’re getting back to their roots, operating regional businesses catering to regional tastes.
The end result? More choice, better quality, and big, bold beers with incredible flavours. Read on to find out more about some of the very best breweries in Ontario, and the great beer they make.
Brave New Brews: The Best Breweries in Ontario
Spearhead Brewing Company, Kingston
Founded by Dimitri van Kampen, a. former Bay Street lawyer and beer hobbyist, Spearhead Brewing Company in Kingston is famous for having won two top brew awards within just 10 days of its launch in 2011. That beer? The exotically named Hawaiian Style Pale Ale, still a brewery favourite after 12 years on the market.
Spearhead is still known for experimenting with beer recipes using non-traditional ingredients like fruit and spices to create complex, unanticipated flavours. For example, the already mentioned Hawaiian Pale Ale gets its fruity overtones from the pineapple (yes, real pineapple) added to its ingredients. And unlike some breweries that filter their beer and carbonate it using CO2 (think mass-produced variants) Spearhead’s brews are unfiltered, non-pasteurized and naturally carbonated so that the flavour remains in the glass, where it’s supposed to be.
Muskoka Brewery, Bracebridge
One of a handful of craft breweries now calling cottage country Muskoka home, Muskoka Brewery was founded in 1996 in Bracebridge by Gary McCullen and Kirk Evans and has become an icon in this vacation region of Ontario.
With a focus on producing high-quality, innovative products, the brewery goes to great lengths to ensure its practices are environmentally sound and sustainable. Consequently, their craft beers contain no additives, preservatives, or cheap ingredients to speed up the brewing process, and pasteurization is a distinct no-no.
A sip of the flagship Muskoka Cream Ale is enough to convince enthusiasts that these guys make real beer. The company’s first offering, this British-style cream ale is crisp and refreshingly hopped with a wonderful malt balance. Not a company to rest on its laurels, Muskoka Brewery has since gone on to develop other award-winning brews.
Innovation and experimentation are key to the craft beer style, and the brewery’s seasonal offerings certainly fulfill this mandate. One of the most popular is the Muskoka Summer Weiss (unfiltered and naturally hazy), a perfect balance of wheat, barley and subtle hopping that makes this an intriguingly aromatic and flavourful brew.
Another seasonal fave is the Tap Handle Harvest Ale. It marks the end of the growing season and is brewed using premium local ingredients giving it a rich malt backbone and is dry hopped for a subtle grassy character reminiscent of the harvest.
With its heady aroma and citrusy undercurrent, Muskoka Mad Tom IPA is a strong IPA that goes down a treat with burgers, especially if topped with strong cheddar or bacon (better still, add a drop to homemade burgers!)
Undoubtedly the company’s most daring seasonal brew is the flavourful and warming Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. This rich, sturdy stout is brewed with roasted dark chocolate malts, real cocoa, a hint of vanilla and freshly harvested local cranberries, and is given an extra punch from its increased alcohol content.
Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, Vankleek Hill
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Eastern Ontario sits the community of Vankleek Hill, population 1,996… and a brewery. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company was started by father and son team Tim and Steve Beauchesne and has built a reputation as a brewery noted for its interesting, award-winning, tasty beers. All its products are manufactured using the highest quality, natural ingredients, from the certified organic hops and malts to the local spring water used, something which provides the brewery’s seasonal beers with their unique flavours as their mineral content changes with the seasons.
Beau’s is known for brewing according to style and tradition and lets its beer age, and then age some more, giving it a unique, clean, and crisp flavour. This hands-on approach is not only applied to the brewing process but to details such as personally delivering the beer fresh every week to stores and restaurants across the province.
The company’s year-round flagship brand is Lug-Tread Lagered Ale. Aptly named after the tracks left in the mud by tractors (the name’s a nod to the community’s farming roots), it’s a golden beer that combines the fermentation of ale with the aging techniques of lager. This provides a wonderful combination of subtly complex ale flavours and fruitiness with the crispness and mouthfeel of a lager.
Seasonal brews include a spring beer, the wonderfully named Beaver River I.P.Eh?, a bold India pale ale, and the summery Festivale, created especially for the Ottawa Jazz Festival and based on the German alt style. For Fall, the company produces its popular Night Marzen, a traditional Oktoberfest Märzen and their only beer fermented with lager yeast.
Winter is celebrated with the release of Bog Water, a strong and spicy dirty brown ale featuring Bog Myrtle, a herb used in brewing back in the 15th century. But as good as these names are, the company has one that’s even better that only rolls out for special occasions its limited edition – brew-on-demand Iron Arse Ale.
Lake of Bays Brewery, Baysville
Established in 2010, Lake of Bays Brewery has worked hard to make a name for itself. Now widely regarded as one of Canada’s leading craft breweries, this Baysville-based brewery offers a variety of uniquely crafted beers. Highlights include Rousse, a year-round red ale that obtains its rich tones and flavour from the malts used (they’re also responsible for its colour and its distinct colour and velvety smoothness).
Other notable brews include the Old North Mocha Porter, a perfect winter beer brewed using roasted barley, chocolate malt, and real ground coffee to give it its full, rich character. The result is a balanced, flavourful beer that leaves you wanting more. Be sure to sample their Rock Cut Baysville Lager, an easy-on-the-palate lager is popular for the slight sweetness provided by an oh-so-subtle hint of caramel.
Lake of Bays Brewery is also making a name for itself as a fun place to visit thanks to its guided brewery tours, on-site retail outlet and tasting bar. They’re also now operating two excellent brew pubs, including the Huntsville Brewhouse and the Bracebridge Barrelhouse.
Sawdust City Brewing Company, Gravenhurst
A star amongst beer enthusiasts, downtown Gravenhurst’s Sawdust City is the relatively new kid on the block. Named after this historic town’s lumber-focused past (it was called Sawdust City as its many waterfront wood mills were literally built on sawdust), this first-rate brewery only opened to the public in 2014 and has already taken the craft beer-drinking community by storm.
Its award-winners include:
- Golden Beach – A distinctly American-style wheat ale with juicy citrus hop flavours and hints of tropical fruit.
- Lone Pine IPA – Hoppy as a bunny and as piney as a Muskoka forest, this dockside favourite – balanced with a blend of four different malts – bursts across the palate with a citrusy tang.
- Skinny Dipping Stout – Super-chocolaty and dark, this delicious brew beer.
- Ol’ Woody Alt – Named for its rich mahogany hues (the same rich red, in fact, as the classic wooden boats that still ply the waters of nearby Lake Muskoka), this lagered ale draws its inspiration from the classic beers of Germany’s Dusseldorf region.
- Gateway Kölsch – With a nod to the ales of Köln, Germany, this crisp aged beer with its hint of hops and mellow malt notes has become one of the brewery’s signature beers.
Be sure to visit Sawdust City’s Saloon, one of the most happening places in Muskoka. With 12 beers always on tap, including one-offs, seasonal brews, collaborations and guest brews, along with a good selection of wines, spirits, ciders and single malt whiskies, it’s well worth spending a little time here, particularly on music night.
Great Lakes Brewery, Toronto
Toronto’s Great Lakes Brewery (GLB to those in the know) is the brewery behind Canuck Pale Ale, a West Coast-style pale ale boasting a big hoppy aroma and a nice bitterness. A hefty amount of cascade hops are used at the end of the boil and for dry hopping, leading to a lingering bitterness and is complemented by a soft bready malt flavour.
This popular brew pours a slightly hazy amber, with an aroma big on resinous hops, herbal and floral notes, pink grapefruit juice, and faint caramel.
Tips & Tactics
Want to know what beer enthusiasts really think of a particular craft brew? One of the best online resources – certainly one of the most comprehensive – is RateBeer (www.ratebeer.com), a website made by craft beer enthusiasts for like-minded souls.
Hey, why not make a day trip out of your beer adventure? Check out our coverage of the best unique and luxury hotels in Ontario for ideas and inspiration.
Bryan Dearsley is a luxury lifestyles and travel writer and Co-Founder of Riley. Oh, and beer enthusiast.