5 April 2018
All my Polk's in Niagara - Polkapolooza Day 4
Heading round the Golden Horseshoe and driving south east lies the Niagara Region, home to wine, The Falls and a burgeoning craft beer scene. We ventured this way to check in on many breweries we had visited before, but not for quite some time. The changes we encountered were at times admirable and applauded and in a one instance, just not worth the time and money we spent on our stop there. Focusing on the positives is what we try to do for the most part, but those of us who share our beer and the resulting adventures in it shouldn't shy away from when things aren't quite right. The exceptions to what we find as good experiences are not overshadowed by a few poor ones, but we have a duty to our friends and the truth to uphold at all times. Niagara Day begins with pints shared among friends and finishes with a surprise extra stop in a small town ready for it's own spot in the Ontario Craft beer spotlight.
We were happy to be able to sleep in a bit as this day started at Brimstone Brewing around noon and we took advantage to enjoy a leisurely morning slowly recovering from the 600 plus kilometres we travelled the previous day. This day was going to prove to be much shorter but with the added bonus of my 'work daughter' Shyann, who is a student at a nearby college, joining us on our jaunt around the region. We wanted to show her what craft beer could be and were looking forward to sharing a few stops with her after our first one.
Pulling up at Brimstone, we were struck by the huge glass and steel enclosure covering a part of their patio that wasn't there when we last visited. On a chilly March day, it was warm and inviting the moment we stepped inside and that was doubled when our pals Preston and Len were already hanging out waiting form our arrival. As good of an excuse as any, I grabbed a pint of the delicious Belgian IPA on tap and we sat down for a much longer visit than anticipated. Trading stories about fave beers, trips and festivals, we lingered a while as the brightly lit cube gave us a warm and happy place to hang out. Brimstone is located in Ridgeway and it is also the home of the annual Albino Rhino Beer Fest, put on by the legendary beer YouTube beer reviewer of the same name and at which all proceeds go to Ronald McDonald House. We went for the first time in 2017 and would love to repeat that appearance again, as many of our favourite brewers and plain old beer nerds like us converge to enjoy and do some good at the same time. Parting is such sweet sorrow but we had a member of our extended family to pick up and show around, so we trundled off into the day with a smile and some beer for further examination.
Grabbing Shyann after her classes for the day were done, we headed next to Fonthill and Kame and Kettle Beer Works in a new and improved space. As soon as we entered, we were greeted warmly and grabbed a couple of flights to try out everything on the tap list. Walking Shyann through how we try to work our way through the beer, I had her start with the kolsch and cider/beer hybrid to ease her into the larger flavour profiles. We encouraged her to try everything and then let her finish whichever ones she enjoyed the most. Not easy for a 20 year old to learn moderation but a skill much needed at any age. The beer was much improved from our visit of over a year ago and while they still have a ways to go, it serves the community well and that is exactly what matters as they grow and mature as a brewery. Nothing stood out but we also enjoyed the atmosphere which enhances any visit to a brewery and can play a large part in repeat business. We had many more stops to make and we bid farewell to Kame and Kettle to head to one of Canada's premier tourist attractions at Niagara Falls proper and the brewery staged on its' busiest street, Clifton Hill.
We had been to the Niagara Brewing Company once before in January of 2017 and wanted to come back primarily to see what had changed as the beer had been serviceable if not decent with the Ice Wine beer being our most sought after repeat. A busy joint on a Wednesday as it was March Break, harried parents looking for a break, excited kids and a bright and airy taproom with food, live music and the brew house taking center stage at the far end. We grabbed a table and order a flight with one of every beer on tap, even paying the extra for that premium Ice Wine beer just because. The service was quick and friendly and we were quite happy despite many warnings from beer friends to avoid this obvious tourist destination. That all changed once we had our fist sips of the beer put before us. Kat noticed it first on the Ice wine beer and commented that it tasted buttery, a sure sign of the off flavour diacetyl and a big no no when it comes to any brewery we've visited. Taking a sip, I noticed it as well and found myself trying to keep a happy demeanour as we explained what we found to Shyann and why it was so rare. I'll share what I posted on Instagram when I had some time to calm down and truly think about what we had experienced as I think I captured our reaction bang on :
"Family flights Niagara Brewing Company on Clifton Hill. Taking my work daughter for her first mini tour of Ontario and I wanted her to see all sides of craft beer. While I'm not one to say an unkind word, my $28 flight had some issues with diacetyl or buttery flavours and that was unfortunate. I don't want to be an asshole but it was supremely disappointing to spend that kind of money of 8 samples that would run maybe $20 in most craft breweries. I'm not mad so much as upset, but let's face it, I'm not the target audience anyway...that's what the unsuspecting tourists and novice drinkers are for.
I appreciate seeing craft beer in one of Canada's premier travel destinations but shudder to think international or Canadian tourists will view this as indicative of our craft beer scene. It isn't our best foot forward and I know it can be better. If you know me you know how hard I struggle when I don't like something or feel misled by a Brewery but this tour is about the truth through exploration and someone else shouldn't have to experience this kind of off flavoured and over priced beer. I'm sad to say we won't be back anytime soon, there are just too many options and they deserve our dollars and our support. Hopefully one day I can return and report back wonderful things, but I highly doubt that. This is the first time I've come away saddened by my experience on a beer tour. Hope lies within our next stops and that drives me on."
At this point we needed some food and because I had never stopped in there before, despite us spending many nights in The Falls, we hit up Taps on Queen and grabbed some grub to fuel the rest of our day. Not fancy at all, but with the feel of a neighbourhood bar, we arrived on 20 cent wing night and that was just fine by me. Traditional bar wings are kind of my jam and these were right in that wheelhouse. Not gourmet but rather reminiscent of my old time hangouts, the ladies grabbed a burger each and I settled in for a flight and a few dozen wings. The beer is brewed in house and is fine to passable with the IPA being the most true to style and easily my favourite of the bunch. Our stops had been wholly uninspired so far and our next one was where true redemption of Niagara was to begin.
The Exchange Brewery is located smack in the middle of downtown Niagara on the Lake, one of Ontario's prettiest towns and we wandered in looking for some true innovation and adventure to give our young friend. We were not disappointed as they delivered some tasty beer that had us smiling and finally enjoying what was in our flights. A Peach pie and then a cherry beer made the biggest splashes with us and we marvelled at the sleek and lovely taproom that has the feel of a high end bar with fantastic beer. This was a solid choice for showcasing what wine country and craft beer makers can come together with and we left with a better feeling than we arrived.
For all the time we spent at less than stellar breweries earlier, we missed our chance to visit Oast House brewers just up the road and sadly drove past cursing our luck on this midweek winter trip. We will return in the summer no doubt for another go at the Strawberry Rhubarb Ale if it returns. Such a delightful beer it was...
What was supposed to be our final stop, but was ultimately the penultimate one, Virgil's own Silversmith Brewing was the very first Ontario Craft brewery I wrote about on this blog 2 years ago and I was stoked because I had a pint waiting for me on their "Buy Someone a Pint Wall" and who doesn't love that! Grabbing a glass of The Black Lager...yes it is indeed The Black Lager in my humble opinion...we settled in for our last stop as the ladies shared a flight of some one offs that were on tap that night. This former church now houses a beautifully appointed brewery that is in the process of a massive expansion to keep up with the demand for their on point beers. A community hub and tourist destination, I have always been partial to visiting here for both the beer and atmosphere where all things feel a little more like home. We dawdled a bit as after this stop we would be returning Shyann to her dorm before heading home, making plans for a summer trip around Hamilton now that she had the bug about trying all the styles and flavours craft beer had to offer. It has been my pleasure on more than one occasion to help someone discover this amazing scene and all it has in it and when its someone who has become part of your extended family, that's pure gold.
Our tale should have ended here but for the Ontario Bev Net Map (found here) that popped up when I tried to plot our way home. I am a fan of this website and their map, having shared it many times and extolling it's virtues to anyone who is looking to do a road trip in Ontario. Just 15 minutes from the college, in the small town of Port Colborne lies Breakwall Brewing, opened less than a month at that point and we headed up the road laughing at ourselves because this is what we do now. Let the fates take us where they may and hope for some good beer at the end of the road.
Walking into this sleepy burg we were struck by the full and lively Wednesday night crowd at Breakwall. Still feeling the vibe of opening, the locals were buzzing with excitement over both food and beer while we stopped to try a sample of one or two of their beers before heading home. Again we were wrong, as the friendly conversation with founder Fred Davies turned into a full tasting and a preview of their next version of the 9 O'clock Whistle IPA (deliciously hazy and citrusy I might add) on this mid week capper to a very odd day. They are taking recipes from the original Port Colborne brewery and bringing them back to life as well and the honey ale was simply beautiful. Reinforcing the growing narrative of all beer being local once again, it was evident that this town had not only embraced Breakwall but damn near took all the beer in the fridge! Lucky for us, some of their Sailor Saison was still available in tall boys and we grabbed a few to take home. We left with the promise to return for dinner sometime soon so we could get the whole experience of what they were trying to bring to the community they live in and love so much.
To say the least, Niagara is a dichotomy of clashing styles, goals and cultures when it comes to beer. The solid wine tourism industry is a good model for what can happen in this area, albeit with a little more blue collar crowd and a whole lot more collaboration between the breweries. We saw some of the finest examples of what good beer is and some of the worst. Craft beer has a long way to go in some aspects and it is up to us to help hold that mirror up and call out things that are less than stellar. If a beer does what the brewer tells you it will, that's all you can ask for. When it falls short or your experience is just not right, we have obligation as members of the community to ask questions or let our friends and family know when things aren't on the level. Never talking about things that aren't pleasant not only brings the whole industry low, it allows for creeping mediocrity to take hold and that is something I am passionate about not letting happen. We will be back to revisit most of these places, but our dollars must go to supporting those who value quality over everything.
Next up was our annual overnight trip and this time we headed southwest to visit a town coming into it's own when it comes to Ontario Craft beer.
Niagara in a Snapshot!
1. Brimstone Brewing
Website - http://www.brimstonebrewing.ca/
1st Impression - sunny and bright
Favourite Beer - A Mountie and a Buffalo Walk into a Bar Belgian IPA
2. Kame and Kettle Beer Works
Website - http://www.kameandkettle.ca/
1st Impression - Improving
Favourite Beer - Schwarzbier
3. Niagara Brewing Company
Website - https://niagarabrewingcompany.com/
1st Impression - Nope
Favourite Beer - Water
4. Taps on Queen
Website - http://tapsbeer.ca/
1st Impression - Norm!
Favourite beer - IPA
5. The Exchange Brewery
Website - http://exchangebrewery.com/
1st Impression - Fancy
Favourite beer - Belgian IPA
6. Oast House Brewers
Website - https://oasthousebrewers.com/
1st Impression - Big Red!
Favourite Beer - Grandma's Strawberry Rhubarb Ale
7. Silversmith Brewing
Website - http://www.silversmithbrewing.com/
1st Impression - Beer Church
Favourite Beer - The Black Lager
8. Breakwall Brewing
Website - http://www.breakwallbrewery.com/
1st Impression - Rocking!
Favourite Beer - 9 O'clock Whistle IPA