When Northern Breweries closed its Sudbury doors in 2006 some people worried there’d never be another brewery in northern Ontario.
Not enough big population centres, they thought. Too many macro drinkers. Raw materials can cost more than in the south.
But just over a decade later, the north is home to a thriving brewing scene. From Sudbury to Thunder Bay, from North Bay to Kenora, breweries are popping up left, right and centre.
Shawn Mailloux, who got things rolling again when he opened Stack Brewing in 2013, says he’s had nothing but a positive reception from local drinkers, even those more accustomed to drinking Coors Light or Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“People are glad to have their local brewery back. It means a lot to them,” said Mailloux, a former school teacher, who opened Stack with his friend Michael Guillemette.
But while being from the neighbourhood might get Stack in the door — and pint glass — of local drinkers, Mailloux doesn’t take it for granted it will keep them there.
“Supporting local is part of it, but it has to be good, or you won’t get many repeat customers,” said Mailloux.
For Taras Manzie, who opened Lake of the Woods brewing in Kenora a short while after Stack started up, the new wave of breweries in the north is no surprise.
“It’s no different in northern Ontario than it is anywhere else. People are eating more locally, they’re drinking more locally. They’re looking for small, mom and pop cafés. And beer is part of that,” said Manzie.
And the more breweries there are, says Mailloux, the merrier.
“It’s great to see more of them in different parts of the north. It takes more than one of us to make a big difference,” said Mailloux.
Here are some northern brews to help quench your southern thirst:
Highlander Scottish Ale $5.95/650 mL bottle
This amber-coloured brew hails from South River, Ont., where it is the flagship beer of Highlander Brew Co. It has a biscuity aroma; flavour-wise, there’s a hint of caramel and some nuttiness. Not stunningly complex, but enjoyable.
Lake of the Woods Forgotten Lake $3.75/473 mL can
Most fruit beers (aside from the tart, complex lambic brews from Belgium) tend to be rather light affairs. Many are based on wheat beers, or a nondescript light ale of some sort. This blueberry red ale, however, isn’t one of those light, playful refreshers. Instead, it’s got a rich, malt backbone that’s more like an English-style Extra Special Bitter, with a potent 7.7 per cent alcohol to match. The blueberry character is present, but it’s more of a complement than a dominating flavour. This is very good with pulled pork or a spicy barbecue chicken.
Lake of the Woods Sultana Gold $2.85/473 mL can
This one won’t satisfy the hopheads, but it’s not meant to. Instead, it’s aimed at being a gentle introduction into craft beer for people who are used to drinking macro-brewed lagers and ales. There’s a gentle, malty sweetness, and a slightly fruity aroma.
Lake of the Woods Tippy Canoe Wild Rice Ale
Like good brewers everywhere, Lake of the Woods uses local ingredients. In the case of this slightly nutty-tasting, grainy ale, they use locally-harvested wild rice. The wild rice (which technically isn’t rice at all, but the seeds of a wild grass) has been part of the diet of the local Ojibwe people for centuries. It’s not available at the LCBO or The Beer Store, but can from time to time be found at some Toronto-area bars. For a steady supply, you might have to make the trek to Kenora.
Stack Cloche $3.25/473 mL can
This Belgian style ale is hazy gold in colour, with a fruity, slightly spicy aroma. At 6.9 per cent alcohol it packs a punch, which is masked somewhat by sweetness. Not quite enough bitterness to balance out the sweetness here, but it’s not a bad beer at all. Pairs well with Oka cheese.
Stack 4x4 $4/473 mL can
This Belgian-style “quadruple” is a rich, strong treat. There are notes of dried fruit, some sweetness, and just enough bitterness to keep it from being cloying. At 10 per cent alcohol, it’s also pleasantly warming — just the thing for a northern winter. It’s also an excellent match for Roquefort, rack of lamb, or dark chocolate.
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