One of the best things about traveling as a beer lover is delving into whatever might be available where your plane touches down. With the U.S. reaching a total of 4,144 licensed breweries as of December 2015, it’s almost a given that where ever you end up, you’ll be able to find something new and noteworthy from a brewery you hadn’t even heard of five minutes before walking into a bar. What has become exciting personally is seeing first-hand the way Canada has begun to shape their craft beer scene in a similar fashion. Each trip to the great white North brings something new and noteworthy.
Every other month or so for the last two+ years, I fly to Montreal in Quebec, Canada’s biggest producer of beer and while beer in Canada may make you think of brands like LaBatts and Molson or the popular “gateway” beer La Fin du Monde from Unibroue, it’s the several smaller craft breweries that are beginning to take their share of the market. According to Beer Canada, the country currently has roughly 550 licensed breweries, a small percentage in comparison to the States, but has begun a mirrored effort to make craft beer as prevalent as it is in the U.S.
My first few trips to the city, I relied on a nearby L’intermarché’s small beer cooler on an end cap that featured mostly lagers, blondes and an occasional IPA that would wind up tasting like a lager. Most everything tasted like a lager those first few trips. But then I noticed some new breweries popping up in the coolers. Then the coolers expanded and held twice and then triple what they had in visits prior.
Convinced there had to be more than what I was seeing in a grocery store, I began Googling the best bottle shop in Montreal and found Au Coin Duluth, a small dépanneur (aka a convenience store) that appeared to have the best selection around according to its Yelp reviews. Stepping into the store, I had to double check I was in the right place with aisles so narrow you had to turn sideways between racks of snacks and toiletries and yet, no beer in sight. I shimmied down the aisle and found the coolers tucked all the way in the dimly lit back end of the store, chocked full from floor to ceiling with bottles, all new to me.
Early favorites in Montreal were of course Dieu du Ciel!, St-Ambroise, Brasserie Dunham and an occassional obligatory bottle of fresh Éphémère from Unibroue, with L’intermarché introducing me to smaller, lesser known breweries that were seeing their distribution expand as the demand grew in Canada. As time went on and Au Coin Duluth became a necessary stop each visit, I began to unearth new breweries that hadn’t been there before. I was no longer drinking iterations of lager flavored ales wrapped in different labels, but a huge variety of styles that were distinct and really well done.
Beer that is well done according to style standards is one thing, but living in Chicago has spoiled me beyond the ability to merely be wowed by beer that is simply properly executed. More and more, I find myself being enamored with something I’ve found in Montreal and in my last visit earlier this month, a few truly stood out as beers that were being inventive and a bit daring in comparison to others; a Berliner Weiss by Les Trois Mousquetaires, an espresso coffee stout called La Grosse Moustache by Brasseurs Illimités and Kissmeyer Nordic pale ale from Beau’s out of Ontario.
The Berliner was the first successful Canadian beer I had tried that managed to hit the mark on a sour flavor profile. I picked up a gose from Beau’s called …And Boom Gose The Dynamite that I was excited to try, but upon doing so, found little to no salt and citrus character and wound up with something more closely resembling a blonde ale. Upon further inspection of the bottle, it called itself a spiced ale AND a gose, which left me confused. On the other hand, Les Trois Mousquetaire’s efforts in their Berliner was clean, crisp and light with that acidic bite on the finish, a stark contrast to the gose. So simple, yet so good.
Brasseurs Illimités’ coffee stout could stand against any I’ve had and won me over with its heft. I’ve found that most of the beer I try in Canada leaves a lot to be desired in mouth feel, but La Grosse Moustache had the thickness that forced me to put the glass down in between sips. Boozy, frothy and warming with a pronounced coffee backbone, it’s everything you want in a stout — especially in the middle of winter.
My favorite was the Nordic pale ale by Beau’s. Good pale ales are a dime a dozen which is what makes finding really, really GOOD pales that much more exciting. Kissmeyer features a long list of ingredients including maple syrup, healher flower, rosehips, cranberries, wild sweet gale and yarrow. Just reading that you would think this beer was a diaster, but the heavy dose of rye malts proved exactly what that kitchen sink recipe needed to pull it into a beautiful balance of astringency, delicate herbal sweetness and a strong, but not over-powering hop presence.
While stand-outs like Kissmeyer and La Grosse Moustache are becoming more common in dépanneurs and dedicated craft beer hot spots, Montreal hasn’t quite seen the integration with the restaurant scene that we have, especially in Chicago. Most restos and bars offer nothing more than a blonde ale like Cheval Blanc or Rickard’s Red ale next to the familiar sights of a Molson Canadian lager tap handle. What’s fun is seeing the change happen, the slow creep that begins in bottles on shelves and slowly makes its way into the draft lines of your favorite restaurants the same way it did in the U.S. over the last decade. The market is taking shape nicely in Ontario and Quebec, with more and more breweries pushing the envelope. Come March when I reappear in the streets of Montreal, there will be a few more breweries in the cooler at Au Coin Duluth and a few more beers giving Molson a run for their money on the tap lines.