With over 270 breweries in Ontario, it is increasingly easy to embark on a little beer tourism almost everywhere you go in the province.
So this past week, on an extended vacation with the family at my in-laws’ cottage in Southampton, when I had an urge to get out for a little while and have a beer, I was thankful to have a few options in the area.
Finding no takers who wanted to join me, I opted to embark on a solo mission–and may or may not have been secretly thankful for some alone time. Sleeping in the same bunkie as your flu-ish wife, your five year-old, and a puppy with some kind of weird stomach thing that made him spray foamy diarrhea tends to detract from the relaxing vistas. But I digress.
Having already that week hit up my most local cottage brewery, Outlaw Brew Co on the main strip of Southampton, I opted instead to explore the fairly newly-opened Mudtown Station, which was about 30 minutes away in Owen Sound.
Opened roughly three months ago, Mudtown Station is owned and operated by Morag Kloeze, who comes to Owen Sound by way of the Niagara Brewing College and Neustadt Brewery, and most recently as the brewmaster at Tobermory Brewing Co. Kloeze and her parents had an opportunity to lease the CPR station in their home town of Owen Sound and Mudtown was born.
The Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound area actually has a fairly storied history in Ontario’s liquor lore, featuring a legacy of bootlegging and prohibition that some local tourism material touts in a “Saints and Sinners” tour you can take of places to eat and drink in the area.
So it is kind of a fun irony to see Owen Sound become home to not only a new brewery, but also one of Ontario’s few female brewmasters and co-owners. The city is essentially the birth place of Ontario’s prohibition movement and in 1847 was home to the formation of the first Canadian chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Owen Sound was actually legally dry from 1906 to 1972. Presumably 66 dry years can make a town thirsty, so thank goodness for Mudtown.
When I visited for lunch on the Friday before the Labour Day long weekend, the place was already fairly busy, with the 80-seat restaurant over half full and the patio, which overlooks the bay, almost entirely seated. Since the place is still fairly new, many of the customers who come in opt to wander in for “a look around,” and many of then during my visit saw fit to tell people that’s what they were doing. The bartender told me the response to the place’s opening has been even better than expected thus far, save the usual local holdouts who still don’t quite get “the whole craft beer thing.”
A sign told me to seat myself so I headed for the bar and spotted some interesting holdovers from the building’s former life. A vintage phone booth remains and the washroom doors still sport art deco font, for example. A mesh caged wall separates two service areas, and while I couldn’t tell if the flourish was original or an update, it all sort of adds to the dining room’s vibe which is something along the lines of “Oh yeah, I can totally tell this used to be a train station.”
Through a short hall the bar seems decidedly more updated. Polished floors and factory-style windows are either a hipster-friendly nod to the building’s origin or an extremely lucky holdover if they are original. A utilitarian concrete slab atop corrugated steel serves as the space’s bar and a brick wall with a window separates the front of the house from the kitchen and brewery where I catch a couple glimpses of Morag shovelling spent grain.
Given my short window of opportunity before I was needed back at the lake to pick up dog shit and slather sun screen on a squirming little person, I unfortunately didn’t have time to chat with Morag, though I got the sense, as I watched her hustle from one part of the building to the other, she didn’t have time to chat either. She was, after all, running a busy new brew pub on the Friday before a long weekend. So all I managed was something akin to an awkward hello and a thumbs up.
But to important things: how was the beer?
In short, great.
The draught lineup on my visit featured five offerings from Morag, as well as guest taps from Maclean’s, Side Launch, Silversmith, and Nickel Brook.
The in-house bees were A Rye Pale Ale, a Dark Mild, a Saison, a Dark Cranberry Saison, and a “Moroccan” Wheat. I was pleased to see that Mudtown wasn’t offering a ubiquitous blonde ale to appease the masses. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well-made blonde ale, but I hate the school of thought that says you have to make one to open a brew pub outside of larger cities. I like when a brewmaster can make whatever he or she feels like making. Anyway, I opted for a flight of four beers, passing on the cranberry saison given its hefty 8.8% and the fact that I was driving.
My first impressions were good. Mudtown Runaway ryePA (7.1%) is a very nice example of the style. It has a subtle aroma with a little spice, and a slightly bitter finish makes it extremely well balanced. A little bit more malt character becomes apparent as you drink it.
The Dark Mild is an awesome example of a woefully under-represented style in Ontario. It’s nutty, not so subtly carbonated and features great lacing. Anderson Brewery here in London has made a nice mild and Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto made a good mild once called Calm Before the Storm, but I would say I have sampled perhaps one really standout mild made in this province since I started writing about beer seven years ago, and it is Cheshire Valley’s “Mildly Amusing.” Mudtown’s mild would give that one a run for its money head to to head. The aroma is subtle and comforting, and while I hate writing these words, it has supple mouthfeel (yech. Sorry) and finishes with just a touch of spice. This beer is almost inappropriately flavourful for its misleading 3.8% ABV.
Mudtown Station’s Station Master Saison (5.9%) is something of a malltier, slightly darker interpretation of the style than we’ve perhaps come to expect in an Ontario market flush with golden-straw-coloured fluffy saisons and this one dwells more on the chewier, Juicy Fruit, bubblegum notes than the lemon-y cardamon and spice spectrum. It’s very nice and subtle and seems to be the go-to for people asking for the “lightest tasting option.” I overhear the bartender and a few servers recommend this beer to the uninitiated and it seems to be a crowd pleaser.
Mudtown Moroccan Wheat (5.0%) is the only disappointing part of my flight, and not because it isn’t well-made, but only because it’s not my bag. It pours pale gold with a finger of frothy head and from six inches away the aroma is intense spice. I get heavy cardamom, allspice, and star anise and these notes continue in the flavour where I also get ginger and subtle lemon. In short, it’s something of a spice bomb and the flavours seem to linger. Some people may like this, but it’s not my cup of beer. Oh well.
The menu at Mudtown Station was perhaps the most pleasant surprise. In an area largely dotted with fast-food and franchise spots, I was expecting the ubiquitous burgers, fries, wraps, etc. or perhaps the cliched “updated take on pub food” but instead I found what I’d wager is one of the most interesting and ambitious menus in the area.
Overseeing the food at Mudtown is Chef Tyler Cunningham, who was born and raised in Owen Sound but comes to the gig by way of his most recent stint as the owner operator of the Whippoorwill Restaurant & Tavern in Toronto.
Cunningham’s menu includes Falafel, Charred Broccoli with Tahini, Cauliflower Steak with toasted Almonds, Pastured Pork Meat Balls with tomato, basil and pecorino, Smoked Trout, a Griddled Amish Ham and Gruyere sandwich, and more. I opted for the fried chicken sandwich since I seem incapable of ordering anything else when I see a fried chicken sandwich on any menu, and I ordered the spicy iteration with a salad so I could pretend I ate something healthy that day. I was not disappointed. Heaping pieces of fried chicken came wedged in a soft, slightly-toasted bun with pickles, onion, and lettuce and the chicken was sauced with a smoky, chipotle heat that was enough to raise sweat on my brow. Perfect.
I love that the place does not seem to pander. Which is not to say that people in Owen Sound aren’t capable of having more sophisticated palates, only that hospitality in places with smaller populations is often “safe.” Morag and Tyler seem to making the product they want to make, and for my money, that always generates the best results. Whether or not the place will eventually bend toward more mainstream tastes or Owen Sound will stick with more adventurous options longterm remains to be seen, but I’m definitely hoping it’s the latter. Given the ambitious menu and the promising beer, I’ll definitely be coming back as often as I can to find out, and the vibe is such that, if I can convince them to come with me, the place would also please my wife and son, and even my in-laws. Just not the dog.
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