I never thought of Ontario, Canada as being a craft beer destination. I mean, a few craft breweries, sure. But dozens, even hundreds of them, dotted throughtout the province? I had no idea.
When Angela (Mrs. V&V) suggested we go on a brewery tour to learn more about this phenomenon, I didn’t argue. I mean, who am I to get in the way of blog research? If I had to drive around the province and taste the best local craft beers Ontario had to offer, who was I to get in the way of that?
So for part 1 of our brewery tour we decided to focus on breweries in and around the Oakville / Hamilton / Brantford region. If you’re not from the area, and only know about Toronto, Oakville is about 40 minutes southwest of Toronto, Burlington another 10 minutes west, and Brantford about another half an hour from there.
The first stop on tour was Trafalgar Brewing Company on Speers Road in Oakville. Trafalgar is easy to miss if you’re zipping along Speers, and the industrial area it’s in doesn’t feel like the kind of place that screams “authentic craft beer experience”. That changes as soon as you enter the area that serves as the brewery (there is also a neighbouring pub and distillery) – it’s perfectly designed with warm wood tones and a feeling like this is the place beer aspires to be quaffed. I snapped a few pictures, including the one featured below, as a dude in a Blue Jays hat had a couple of growlers filled.
The place isn’t huge, but it’s quaint, and they offer a few beers that others don’t, including a chocolate orange porter we were dying to try but wasn’t available as it’s a seasonal thing. They also make a number of meads, something I don’t have much experience with, so I bought a Mead Braggot and Ginger Mead to take home without tasting them. They did have on offer to taste an Irish Ale (good, but Irish Ale is not my favourite style) and ESB (Extra Special Bitter) that tasted well balanced. I happily bought some and chatted with the staff member, Louis (who graciously posed for the picture below).
Louis was a good guy and an excellent host. He talked about the brewery, explaining it had been in operation since 1993, founded by Mike and Nancy Arnold and George Hengstman. The current location on Speers Road, sporting ridiculously good light for photography, has been in operation for eight years.
Louis talked to us about all of Trafalgar’s products, including their line of spirits (Chili Spirits – a dream come true), gave us some tasters, and helped us pick out our products. He was great, and I am sure it’s a brewery we will re-visit in the future. I’m writing this while drinking the ESB and have to say that life is good.
The second brewery on the tour was Nickel Brook, a brewery located in Burlington. The location is handy to both Wal-Mart and Costco, so you can always fill up your growler and buy a 46 week supply of tuna at the same time.
On one side of the store they have a U-Brew set-up and make-your-own-wine shop. On the other is the brewery, where they have a full menu of beer on tap to taste and drool over. A happy Nickel Brook employee greeted us and led us to the pouring taps, where we tried the Wet Hop Pale Ale, made with 100% Ontario ingredients. It tasted light, fresh, and easy to drink. Angela, a non beer drinker, tasted it and actually gave it a thumbs up. Next up was Le Paysan Saison, a Belgian style beer perfect for summer. I loved the flavour and opted to buy a growler to take home. We finished with the Malevolent Black IPA, sporting a whopping 9.5% alc./vol. It packed a punch, and was full of flavour. This beer is serious business, one I would happily have if having people over or trying to sedate a moose. I enjoyed every sip.
Funny, while taking pictures in the brewery one of the staff came by and was shocked that the labels on the bottles I was shooting weren’t perfectly aligned.
“If you’re goin’ to take pictures you gotta line ’em up!” he exclaimed, frantically re-arranging the bottles for me. They obviously take pride in their work, something I appreciated. The bottles were pretty well aligned before he started, but it was obviously a sticking point for him. The bottles before he touched them:
Content with our tasters, we bought a cross section of Nickel Brook’s offerings (below) and went on our way.
The final stop was Bell City Brewing in Brantford, Ontario. Brantford is home of Wayne Gretzky, and the brewery is located not far from Wayne Gretzky Parkway, so I felt extra Canadian while pulling in to Bell City’s parking lot.
I’ve been to Bell City a few times, and like the guys who work there. Like Trafalgar and Nickel Brook, Bell City is in a non-descript industrial area with absolutely no redeeming qualities on the outside. But rarely have I heard someone say, “hey, Paul, try this beer – it’s amazing, even though the place where I bought it has no exterior ambience at all.”
Inside there is a small retail area with a fridge. It’s usually stocked with canned Eureka, their cream ale (amber in colour, smooth, tasty, and amazingly easy to drink at 5.8% alc./vol), and Lenoir, a Belgian ale that is sweet, fruity, and packs a punch at 6.5%. If filling up a growler is your thing, you can always go for the Ginger Wheat (I did go this route, and am happily chilling it in my fridge), the Cherry Brown, Session IPA, or whatever other concoction they have available (the flavours change based on season and what’s available that week).
From the retail area you can see the brewery floor, where all the magic happens. It has a small brewery feel and I like supporting this local business. I’ll be back for sure.
Update! Oct.28, 2016: We did return, and got to know some of the staff well. Bell City has grown quickly and they’ve added a tasting room, along with a number of exciting new flavours. Here’s trusty employees Kevin and Craig pouring me a pint of one of this summer’s releases, Peep Show. For more on our latest visit, click here.
These three breweries are a small microcosm of the craft beer scene in Ontario. I will cover more in the future, but in the meantime you can check out ontariocraftbrewers.com for everything you ever wanted to know about Ontario craft beer.
What are your favourite craft beweries?
Comment below (and feel free to mention your own blog) – cheers!