Ontario’s beer scene is still very much in its infancy.
Accordingly, it’s a little tough to identify the beers that have been “game changers” here just yet. The game, that is, is still very much changing.
That said, in our still-short evolution toward better beer, there have been a handful of beers that most certainly helped Ontario’s craft beer scene get to where it is today.
Here are my picks for what those beers are. These aren’t the best beers, nor are they my favourites, rather they are the beers that have helped transform Ontario’s getting-closer-to-world-class-every-day beer culture thus far.
Upper Canada Brewing Company’s Rebellion
I’m not sure this two-row pale ale made with Cascade and Cluster hops (when the fuck is the last time you heard of someone using cluster hops??) would float anyone’s boat these days, but back in tha day, this was the only Canadian Pale Ale listed in the 1998 World Beer Championships and it scored an 85. So it wasn’t something to sneeze at.
More importantly though, this is THE gateway beer. This beer actually opened the doors for craft beer in the province. For a generation, it was like, oh shit, there’s another kind of beer?
Jason Fisher is the owner of Toronto’s Indie Alehouse and he points to this beer as a gamechanger. “Upper Canada Rebellion (and even their Lager) was the first beer in Ontario made with an eye toward flavour as opposed to filling a place in the market,” he says. “They didn’t give a fuck what any marketing people said. They brewed what they wanted to and, for a time, it was great. They brought in fresh German hops to make beer with which, at the time, was unheard of in Ontario.”
*real talk: I was 17 when Sleeman took over Upper Canada, got rid of this beer, and fired three guys that would go on to build another brewery in Toronto, so I never actually drank this one. But I gotta show love to an OG craft beer.
Steam Whistle Premium Pilsner
For a long, long time, Steam Whistle was known for exactly what they said in their motto, i.e. they “do one thing really, really well.” That one thing of course was to brew a great Czech-style pilsner. These days Steam Whistle has a sister brewery making a so-so Munich Lager, they have announced an interest in selling cannabis, they have started brewing Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewing for Canadian distribution, and they’re doing weird unnecessary shit like adding foil lids to the top of their beer cans, so the “one thing” part of their business model is essentially bullshit at this point. But it is hard to look at how far the Ontario craft beer scene has come as of late without giving some credit to Steam Whistle and their premium pilsner.
Since the doors opened in 2000, Steam Whistle Brewery has been among the first brewers to aggressively break down barriers in terms of growth and distribution and show that craft beer could play where the industrial lagers play. I have less insight into the goings-on since the last of the company’s founders, Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps, and Greg Cromwell, left, but I can tell you that Steam Whistle as a company fought many battles with the Beer Store, the LCBO, the big brewers, and the Ontario government that have proven beneficial to the brewers that have followed in their footsteps. An oft-leveled charge is that Steam Whistle is so big that they are no longer craft, and frankly, I’ve always found that idea to be naive and stupid. They are, of course, relevant because they managed to grow so big. They might no longer share much of the same concerns of small brewers, but they are still (for now) providing an example and representing an independent Ontario beer success story. In other words, don’t dismiss Steam Whistle because their branding and marketing and distinctive green bottle seem to be everywhere these days. I’d argue that’s exactly why they’re important.
(A quick note to the haters that always seem to pop up when I mention Steam Whistle: Say what you will about the direction of their business, Steam Whistle still makes an excellent Czech pilsner without any adjuncts, they are still ridiculously committed to ensuring their beer is served at optimal conditions, and they make efforts to ensure it’s delivered through clean lines. It’s a good beer.)
Denison’s Weissbier / Side Launch Wheat
Still fantastic, but now known as Side Launch Wheat, this is a beer with a storied pedigree of which many might not be aware. First brewed by Michael Hancock in 1990, the beer became popular at Growler’s Pub, Crazy Louie’s Brasserie, and Conchy Joe’s–the three restaurants that made up Denison’s Brewpub at 75 Victoria Street in Toronto. A textbook Bavarian Wheat Beer, it was named the best German Hefeweizen by Ratebeer in 2002. Sadly, the quality of this beer wasn’t enough to keep the lights on at Denison’s Brew Pub and it closed in 2003. Fortunately, Hancock was determined to keep this beer alive and, from 2003 – 2010, found brewing facilities in which to contract brew his Weissbier. This beer was actually one of the first beers brewed at Mill Street Brewery in the Distillery District when that company’s founders let Hancock use their facilities, then it was brewed at Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery. In 2008 Hancock commenced brewing his Weissbier at Cool Brewery, then in 2009 he took his operations for some time to the Amsterdam Brewery that used to be at the foot of Bathurst Street. Finally, in 2010, Hancock partnered with some people looking to start a brewery in Collingwood and, after much planning, Side Launch brewery was born. Hancock still serves as “Brewer Emeritus” for that company and this beer is still brewed today (and it’s still world class. Side Launch Wheat is still ranked as the 3rd best Wheat Beer in the world, per Ratebeer ).
This beer was one of the earliest examples of how great independent Ontario beer could be and, whether they knew it or not, likely influenced a generation of local drinkers’ perceptions of what a wheat beer should taste like. It’s also a testament to his ridiculous technical skill that Hancock managed to maintain the quality and consistency of this beer over 28 years while brewing at half a dozen different breweries, something a lot of new brewers have trouble doing from one batch to the next on their own systems.
Mill Street Brewery’s Tankhouse
At the voter-chosen Golden Tap Awards in 2004, Mill Street Brewery’s Tankhouse Pale Ale tied Steam Whistle Pilsner as the best beer in the Greater Toronto Area. The beer was less than a year old and for Ontario’s fledgling craft beer scene, it was mind blowing–and there was nothing else like it for years. Tankhouse went on to win Best Beer Made in the GTA honours in 2005, 2006, and 2007 as well.
It seems weird now given the propensity for heavily-hopped ales that started to crest circa 2010 that this malt-heavy, copper coloured beer was once a revolutionary pale ale, but it really was.
“Mill Street’s Tankhouse was a game-changer in Ontario,” says Cass Enright, the owner of the beer forum bartowel and organizer of the Golden Tap Awards. “In the late 90s and early 2000s, beer lovers in Ontario were wanting fuller flavour and hoppy beers, but we had a lot of conservative styles dominating the landscape. When Tankhouse hit the scene it was immediately embraced: a rich pale ale with a strong (by the standards of the day) hoppiness. I would credit it as the beer that begun a “flavour forward” movement in Ontario that encouraged other breweries of the day (and ones that would open) to have richer flavoured beers as anchors of their portfolios.”
County Durham Brewing’s Hop Head
While you can still find County Durham beers on tap sporadically, mostly around Toronto, and while the company is now just one guy, Bruce Halstead, who brews whatever he feels like and on his own schedule, it’s hard to overstate how ubiquitous and groundbreaking the brewery, founded in 1996, once was. Their English styles, cask-conditioned offerings and early hop-forward beers like Hop Head were mainstays at Toronto’s earliest craft beer haunts like C’est What (which is still the best place to find Durham beers).
“Durham helped inspire me and Great Lakes Brewery,” says Mike Lackey, GLB’s brewmaster. “Hop Head was a revelation for me for a couple reasons. Having a pint (or seven) at C’est What? I loved how citrus forward it was with very little crystal malts in the grist bill. Hop-forward Ontario brews at the time tended to be more “balanced” by the caramel malts which always muddied the waters, in my opinion.”
Given that I still think caramel malt muddied pale ales are still something of an issue in Ontario, the beer that first launched the opposition is certainly worth a nod
Great Lakes Brewery’s Devil’s Pale Ale 666
In the early to mid-2000s, Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery was actually on the verge of losing their brewery. They will now admit they were largely “lager floggers” at the time who brewed with extract instead of grain and it…wasn’t great. Then, in 2006 the federal government changed the tax structure for small brewers and the break gave GLB a bit of boost–and some cash to start to try some new stuff. The result was Devil’s Pale Ale 666. It was sort of the the first big American-style craft beer here and one of the first here that came in a 473mL can. Plus it had a fun gimmick (666!! The Devil!!!). They launched the beer at the Toronto Festival of Beer and the gimmick helped them sell out of both the beer and the t-shirts that they brought to promote it. They added a branded hearse to their marketing efforts and, voila, the stage was set for Great Lakes’ second life. And the Ontario beer scene wasn’t the same.
Great Lakes Brewery’s Canuck
It is perhaps not a secret to most craft beer fans in Ontario that, after the Devil’s Pale Ale breakthrough, Great Lakes Brewery’s amazing hop-forward beers did not actually just spring forth from the brain of brewmaster Mike Lackey. I mean, they sort of did. He is, of course, one of this country’s best brewers, but his style was very influenced by trips to the US where he realized that no one was doing west coast style beer here in Ontario. The result is that he borrowed much from that scene and arguably officially introduced West Coast style IPAs and Pale Ales to this province. There is no better or more enduring example of this than Canuck, first brewed for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Today Canuck is still the beer that probably every brewer in Ontario would admit is their go-to beer. It is in this sense quite literally the benchmark against which all other pale ales in this province are brewed and judged. And for good reason. ‘Nuff said.
Black Oak Brewery’s 10 Bitter Years
If you consider that the hop-forward pale ale Canuck was first released in 2010, it’s pretty crazy to think that 10 Bitter Years, Black Oak Brewery’s Imperial IPA came out a full year before Canuck did, in 2009.
“The whole idea behind 10 Bitter Years was to present an Imperial IPA to Ontario when most people were still afraid of hops,” says Black Oak’s Ken Woods. “It was to commemorate our 10th anniversary, and we discovered some hop heads did exist at that time. We sold all 25 cases in about two days out of our retail store.”
In this sense, 10 Bitter Years was something like Ontario’s first effort in experimenting with massive amounts of hops — so much so that Black Oak Brewer Ken Woods essentially had to create the dry-hopping process to brew this beer.
“The first time we made it,” Woods says, “it was dry-hopped into a tank without a standpipe and all the soggy mass of hops managed to clog my bottling machine. I’ve still got a bottle around here with an inch of green hops in it somewhere.”
And so the next time Black Oak attempted the beer, they opted to steep the beer in the tank and had to find something to keep the hops from clogging the tank. “Before the days of standpipes in tanks, we used pantyhose as a hop sock because it was easily sterilized,” Woods says. ‘We did get funny stares in the dollar store when buying 12 pairs at a time dressed in brewing gear.”
These days the beer is made in small batches and Woods says there is a lot of effort put into ensuring the time between packaging and consumption is as short as possible, but the original version, and its pantyhose-steeped predecessors, ushered in a new level of hopping in Ontario.
King Brewery’s Pilsner
King Brewery relaunced in 2015 under the Thornbury label that is now known as “Thornbury Village Cider House & Brewery” and includes four beers and some ciders, but before that, the little Nobleton brewery that launched in 2002 was something like the pilsner outlier in an an English and American style dominated scene.
The company had a dedication to one clean, crisp, Czech style lager that was unmatched (if perhaps overshadowed by Steam Whistle). Even as the industry trended toward hoppier and more extreme styles, Brewmaster and owner Philip DiFonzo made his beer using a decoction brewhouse that utilized a style rarely seen outside of Germany. There is a version of this beer still on the market, once rebranded as Pick Up Truck Pilsner and now Thornbury Pickup No. 26 Pilsener, for some fucking reason, but King Pilsner, in its first iteration, is quite possibly Ontario’s OG Crispy Boi.
Bellwoods Brewery’s Witchshark
I had my first sip of Bellwoods Brewery offerings among power tools and sawdust with two guys I only knew as “former Amsterdam Brewery employees” back in 2012 when the brewery was still a work in progress. Among the beers I sampled that fateful day was Witchshark, the now storied imperial IPA from Bellwoods, and it was what I’d call a “holy fuck” moment. The beer would go on to be the first real standout from a brewery that was recognized by Ratebeer in 2013 as the third best new brewery in the world. Witchskark, with its big, hoppy profile and remarkable balance, announced the arrival of a world-class brewery to Ontario’s scene, and did it in a 9% ABV, kick-you-in-the-ass way.
(It should be noted that Witchshark is basically a totally different beer today than it was when I first drank it at the under construction brewery. The most recent iteration is lighter, with an almost fluffy mouthfeel. Today it’s hazier, fruitier, and grassier. A lot of people were upset with the change, suggesting that Bellwoods should have kept Witchshark as is and released this new iteration as something different. I disagree. Tastes and trends change. The original Witchshark would not blow minds today they way it did in 2012. Why not change it up?)
Bellwoods Brewery’s Milkshark
Milkshark isn’t one beer, but rather a series of beers. First brewed using pineapple purée the beer is Bellwoods Brewery’s “milkshake style IPA,” and it has proven to be an extremely lucrative offering, spawning raspberry, strawberry, passion-fruit, grapefruit, Neapolitan, guava, and “tropical” versions (and more) which all very quickly sell out. Bellwoods wasn’t the first brewery in the world to brew a dry-hopped milkshake-style IPA with lactose sugar and vanilla, but it is undeniable that they did so with borderline ridiculous commercial success. People throw money at Bellwoods for this beer. Milkshark arguably took Bellwoods Brewery’s offerings from covet-worthy to an almost embarrassing collector status where it suddenly seemed like people had to make sure they tried every iteration (“You haven’t tried GUAVA?!”). The result is that lactose beers, love them or hate them, are now almost as ubiquitous in Ontario as IPAs were circa 2012. You’d be hard pressed to find a brewery in this province that hasn’t attempted some version of a milkshake beer and it’s clear to me that we have Milkshark to thank for that, for better or for worse.
Beau’s All Natural Lug Tread Lagered Ale
It’s actually kind of hard to believe that Beau’s only opened their doors in 2007. In a relatively short time, they’ve done an incredible amount of work building the company up and, with almost no exceptions, they’ve done all the things they’ve done in an admirable and conscientious manner. They expanded distribution outward from Vankleek Hill in a measured and strategic way, they embraced environmental sustainability as part of their business model, they opened ownership up to their employees, and their owner, Steve Beauchesne, has been a leading voice in the conversation about the province’s craft beer industry. It’s actually kind of fucked up how…good they are.
Mark Murphy, co-owner of Toronto’s Left Field Brewery, concurs. “For me, that’s the first Ontario beer/brewery where you really got a sense for the people behind it,” he says. “Such friendly people with a passion for great beer and community. And they were the first ones to really show what that model can do in terms of their explosive growth.
In other words, they just do things right and their beer is generally no exception. Lug Tread, their flagship, approachable, reasonable, and all around…nice…beer is no exception. It’s essentially always been a perfect extension of their brand, and it still is.
Tooth and Nail’s Vim & Vigor
This beer seems to have taken the province’s newfound respect for clean, crisp beers to its predictable, admirable, and delicious extreme. It’s pretty much a perfect pilsner. Milos Kral, owner and operator of Milos Craft Beer Emporium here in London, will often find a way to get some of this beer from Ottawa to tap at his place. “[Tooth and Nail Brewer] Matt Tweedy is one if the few Ontario brewers with an extreme passion for the craft and disdain for gimmicks,” Kral says. “His pilsner is a fantastic rendition of German style. It is a consistent, refreshing, simple lager, and it takes great skill to produce a beer this good batch after batch.”
Burdock Brewery’s BUMO
Burdock Brewery came out of the gates awesome, then ditched its head brewer, took a second to find its new stride, then essentially came back a different kind of awesome. Case in point, BUMO, which isn’t actually a beer but a series of collaboration beers made with Niagara Region winery Pearl Morissette.
The first iteration was a bottle-conditioned sparkling pinot noir rose Saison blend that underwent mixed fermentation, BUMOs II and III were both pinot noir, pinot rose, and farmhouse saison blends, BUMO IV was made with Cabernet Franc, and the most recent was made with riesling and mixed fermentation wild ale, barrel-aged on orange wine skins.
I would argue that these experimental winery/brewery collabs have enjoyed various degrees of success, but they’ve each been quite different and helped push boundaries and change Ontario beer drinkers’ understanding of what beer can be.
Granite Peculiar or Best Bitter
While we tend to think of Ontario’s beer evolution in terms of our readiness to adapt the big, brash styles of our brewing pioneer neighbours to the south, it’s worth noting that, along the way, our brewers have picked up a trick or two from across the pond. When the Granite Brewery and Tied House opened in Toronto in 1991, the idea of bringing English style beer to a market that was dominated by the industrial lagers of Molson and Labatt was about as crazy as dumping fruit loops in a mash is today. The old fashioned, perfectly balanced English ales were actually fairly radical, especially given the breweries propensity to do open fermented ales for cask.
Granite’s Peculiar is a stronger, reddish-brown malty ale and their Best Bitter is a classic English style bitter. Both have a ridiculous, silky mouthfeel and softness to them that makes them about as comforting as any beer can be. While this style of beer seems to be increasingly out of favour (though I’m hoping for a comeback), Granite’s English style ales were a groundbreaking development in their time and part of many a young brewers’ beer education.
It’s probably worth noting this post was inspired by Josh Noel, who compiled a list of the 15 most important Chicago beers for the Tribune and made me start to think about Ontario’s beer history.