Day 3 found us packing our suitcase for the traditional over night stay during Polkapolooza. We try to support as many local businesses on our trip as we can and decided our trip to Huron county, while only a few hours away, would be perfect for this edition. After some consultations and advice from friends, we found the most interesting place to stay and booked the room at The Queen's Bakery and Accommodations in Blyth, just down the road from our final stop of the day at Cowbell. After checking in, we took off to visit a couple of craft brewers before our evening in this small town with the big brewery.
Stone House Brewing
Up first was the aptly named Stone House Brewing in nearby Varna. Located on a farm with an impressive building housing another single beer brewer. The Pilsner is crisp and clean with a nice floral note that has a grassy dry finish. We looked around and chatted with the owner for a while about his move from a U Brew proprietor to salesman to farm/brewery purveyor. They cannot keep up with demand and were proud of their place in the Huron county landscape. We took 4 pilly's home with us because it was so easy drinking and a sure fire BBQing beer.
Half Hours on Earth Brewery
Next was one of the most sought after and highly acclaimed brewers since the moment they opened last year. Half Hours on Earth is located under an old Creamery and at first glance a novice to craft beer would question your choice of visiting here. It's down in the basement and filled with brewing equipment and an industrial look that belies the genius going on inside the tanks. Makers of some of the finest mixed fermentation/sour/farmhouse ales in the country, their online store booms with traffic and they acknowledge the need for a taproom as business increases and more people make the pilgrimage out to Seaforth. We sampled everything they had and then bought the same, I cant get enough of their stuff and even broke my own strict no new glassware policy because I just had to have a new HHOE tumbler. We didn't have much time before our evening plans began, so we reluctantly bid farewell with a view to making this trip again soon with some of our craft beer friends to show them this mighty engine in a small town.
We returned to our suite and got ready for an evening we won't soon forget. I have been following the building and growth of Cowbell Brewing since they first launched Absent Landlord in the LCBO as a contract brewer. Two more excellent releases in Doc Perdue's Bobcat and Kelly's Contraption hooked me as did the interactions I had with their staff at festivals and online. Pictures do not do justice to the scope and size of this Cathedral of Beer that springs up seemingly out of nowhere and dominates the landscape while being part of it at the same time. We were greeted warmly at the door and thus began one of the most unique experiences we have ever had in craft beer.
Steven and Grant Sparling, father and son, owners and very proud members of this farm country were just inside the door and after the hellos were said, a pint of their Shindig, an approachable 4.2% lager was in each of our hands as Kat and I marvelled at the unreal dimensions inside of this brewery. The beer was perfectly approachable to a macro drinker and with both them and the craft beer lover in mind, it has a crisp malt body that gives just enough oomph to keep everyone happy. A gateway to their more adventurous fare, I saw many folks with a mug of it and a sampler of something a little different at the same time.
We made our way up to the upper level, which is accessible to anyone to take a self guided or booked tour of the entire facility. They have taken great steps to ensure everyone, regardless of physical ability can enjoy all they have built and if it was just that I would be so happy to support this 10 week old brewery but it goes further. Since the very first pint and can sold, they have donated 5 cents from every single one to local charities and when you take that into account, it is indeed a beautiful thing.
Cowbell have built the first carbon neutral brewery in Canada, taking time to ensure not only the finest ingredients for their beer but that they do no harm and ensure the vital nature of this pristine part of the world isn't impacted by their business. They have so many environmental controls in place from water reclamation to green roofs to the equipment that is both efficient and beautiful. They have found a way to run both a busy (100,000 customers and over a million pints poured since opening) and focused on the long term health of the place it inhabits. Amazing architecture that is also practical, accessible and beautiful makes for quite the experience.
But the question I heard as I gushed about it on Twitter was all about the beer. Did it match the hype? Could Brewmaster Stephen Rich make beer that would be able to compete with the best this province has to offer? As we walked around with him and my Instagram pal and fellow Cowbell brewer Jeremy, we were witness firsthand to the passion and vision they have when it comes to their beer. Knowing how much I love a good IPA, Jeremy grabbed a pint of Boxing Bruin and I was floored by this hazy, juicy citrus hop bomb. Slightly sweet with a big bitter grapefruit and orange kick, it will be the game changer for many of my hop head friends when it comes to Cowbell. While I have been a huge fan of both their West Coast red Ale and Hefeweizen, this one was an eye opener to what they could do now that they had their own facility and the time to really go deep into Stephen's bag of tricks. I am found without proper words to describe how every inch of the brewhouse was built with not only functionality but inadvertent or overt art in everything, including the pipes and walls.
As we said good bye to our new friends and went down to have dinner in their spacious but cozy dining room, we saw a lot of people enjoying not just the beer, but the amazing and well thought out menu. With price points offering something for everyone ($2 Hot dogs!), they have built it with being in line with their policies of supporting local and having only the best ingredients in their food. Almost 75% of what comes out of the kitchen is from Huron county and combining that with the 150 jobs in this small rural community, you have a decidedly positive economic impact to go with the environmental one.
Ordering a flight each, we wanted to experience as many of their impressive 13 beers on tap as possible. From the Founder brews to the Rengade series, they have a lot of styles to choose from. Highlights for Kat were the hefeweizen and the Molasses Vanilla Porter, both regular and on nitro. For myself it was the aforementioned Boxing Bruin and my surprise of the night, the Holiday Spiced Belgian Ale. Loaded with a huge scent of spices and dark malts, it proved to be a full on slow sipper. Nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, dark fruits and sweet malts combined for Christmas in a glass. So good, I got another snifter as the night went on. They ensure the proper serving temp for every beer that comes out of taps, from 3 to 12 degrees depending on style and with various types of glassware, you are sure of a grand experience each pint.
We had the burgers, with fries for Kat and a Caesar for myself, delicious and cooked just right. We looked longingly at the wood fired pizza and other fare but wanted to enjoy the simplest of fare this time before we called it a night. No doubt multiple trips will be required to try everything we wanted and that is a good thing for any place looking to build a rep as a destination for food and beer. The cost was in line with what we spend when we go out to dinner at our local Hamilton spots for dinner, check out their menu here. A solid lineup of spirits and local wine round out a dining experience with something for everyone.
As a nightcap, Kathryn decided to try one of their Renegade series of beer cocktails, created in house with the beers and ingredients on hand. Hers was a deliciously spicy Molasses Vanilla porter in a tulip glass with ice, rumchata, kahluha, a maple/pumpkin simple syrup and a cinnamon stick. Warming, delightful and a worthy finish to a wonderful meal.
The service was friendly and quick and despite a full house and a big crowd, we never felt hurried. I watched as every guest was greeted warmly, people marvelled at the size and wandered about the catwalks as they waited for a table. They have many rooms available for private parties at no extra charge (reservations obviously required), including a wonderfully appointed, full of natural light space that was host to a wedding the very next day, their 3rd, including Brewmaster Stephan Rich's a few weeks earlier.
We took our leave to the large outdoor patio space and slowly let the day sink in. I may have underestimated what this trip meant when I first envisioned it but with the sheer number and diversity of places we had visited, I was seeing that it all was coming together under the vaulted ceilings at Cowbell. The Sparling family has built a destination not to be missed but more than that they care about the larger community they are part of. From the environmental controls, to the care of the guest, the beer and every nook and cranny of the building it is indeed a place you need to go.
I suppose I do look at things in a positive light most of the time but after spending 5 hours at this Blyth, Ontario Craft brewery, I know my optimism isn't misplaced. The future of Cowbell Brewing is very bright and to answer the question my friends asked about whether the beer could possibly match the hype I will leave you with this; It exceeded what I was hoping for but you need to make the trip yourself to really understand what is happening here in Huron County. A big thank you to everyone who took the time to answer our questions, talk about beer and make our visit a memorable one. We will return.
We walked back to our hotel above a bakery and enjoyed a pint while we talked about what a day we had. Our dreams were filled with visions of pints, friends and the open road that beckoned us tomorrow when we would head home with even more new stops along the way. The success of any road trip is the happiness it generates for those who undertake it and we were winning since the moment we first stepped foot out the door this week.
Raise your glass and your standards,
One glass at a time.