A Taste of Something Different in Niagara-on-the-Lake by Richard Nicol
There are many aspects that define Niagara, and though many come here to see the brilliant and majestic Niagara Falls, this area is also largely revered for its rich wine culture, dubbing Niagara-on-the-Lake as “wine country.” Wine appreciation will always be a mainstay in our current culture climate; however, on the horizon emerges a trend that is booming all around Ontario (and the world): craft beer.
Our parents may not be familiar with this term, but this generation is thriving on the growing craft beer industry, which has set itself apart from the mainstream beer brands that, for a long time, maintained a stronghold in our bars and beer stores.
For real beer lovers, this is a chance to not only taste different and unique brew, but also discover some extraordinary suds coming right out of their own backyard. Regardless of where you live in Ontario, you shouldn’t have to travel very far to find a craft brewer.
What has been previously deemed Niagara’s “Ale Trail,” craft breweries have begun popping up around Ontario at an alarming rate. While Niagara saw the arrival of Taps Brew House and Grill in 2004, in the heart of wine country, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Oast House Brewers and Silversmith Brewing Company have been making some serious waves in the short time they’ve been in operation.
On a sunny day this June (which seems to be rare this year), I decided to dedicate an afternoon to follow part of this trail, and speak to Cian MacNeill from Oast House, as well as Matt Swan from Silversmith, and try some of their delicious creations.
Niagara Oast House Brewers
Opening in 2012, Oast House began as an idea between three local beer lovers, Cian MacNeill, Kevin Somerville, and Mike Berlis. While all three of them worked together at Inniskillin Winery, Cian and Mike took away winemaking knowledge (they are both certified sommeliers), while Somerville brought to the table his vast knowledge as a brewmaster (Somerville helped establish Niagara College’s Brewmaster program). With a fervent desire to create their own beer, the three entrepreneurs decided to start looking for a building, preferably on Niagara-on-the-Lake’s active main street, Niagara Stone Road, which courses straight through Virgil into Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake. “It was just a really innocent idea, but a passionate one,” says MacNeill.
It is almost impossible to miss the big, red barn that now houses Oast’s brand new, stainless steel brewing equipment; before moving in, the barn (over 100 years old) was home to an antique shop, though originally, a fruit-basket manufacturer. Oast boasts a tightly knit operation, where everything from brewing, bottling, and corking is all done in house. “Our concept was to go out and do things the Niagara way,” says MacNeill. “It’s one of the most famous agriculture areas in Canada, so you grow as much as you can yourself.”
As far as beer goes, Oast House brews some unique flavours, including the Belgian-inspired Saison, which is bottle-conditioned (usually a second or third fermentation) for a month; Saison is traditionally a pale ale that, in French-speaking Belgium, was prepared during the cooler, more stable months, so that by harvest season, farm workers could find some refreshment and celebrate the harvest. Oast also makes “Barnraiser” which proves to be atypical to the traditional pale or country ale. Because this is not your average beer, it is highly recommended that you give this beer some time to settle on your palate before making your final judgement. The name and brand are both directly related to the rationale of these three beer barons: “‘Oast’ means ‘kiln,’ which is where the hops would be dried and processed,” says MacNeill. “They’re really just symbolic of the old agricultural breweries of Europe, so that’s something we’d like to try and get back to, and our farmers are about to start a partnership to grow us hops.”
While speaking with Cian about Oast’s 2012 charity event with El Gastrónomo Vagabundo, Pinky & the Grain, we had an unexpected visit from Chef Adam Hynam-Smith. Cian affirmed that Oast House plans to get involved in more events in the future.
Niagara Oast House Brewers is located on 2017 Niagara Stone Rd. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, open from Saturday through Thursday (11 a.m. – 5 p.m.), and Friday until 6 p.m.
Silversmith Brewing Company
While Oast was opening its doors, Silversmith was also unveiling its craft brewery in 2012, literally right down the street. If there was a beer niche that needed to be filled, certainly both Virgil and Niagara-on-the-Lake were soon swimming in a lake of barley pop. Lead by Matt Swan, Chris Pontsioen, and brewmaster Don McKinnon, Silversmith has since been producing some distinct and intimidating beers — nothing like what you’d find in your local beer store.
Silversmith found its home in an old vine-covered church, which was built in 1894, serving as an Anglican church until 1952. In spite of the ecclesiastical layout, Matt and Chris stayed with the traditional rustic craftsmanship, building upon its already-established foundation, and enhancing it through restoration such as new framework of arches constructed within the bar. “We’ve done a lot of maintain the look and feel of the place,” says Swan. “We really wanted a comfortable environment for people to come in, and be able to sit down and enjoy the beer. We get live music in here too; the place is essentially a beer hall.”
Running a business in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, Chris Pontsioen noticed there was no quality beer being brewed in Niagara. Matt reflects on how there had been (and continues to be) a regional push towards NOTL as a culinary destination: great food and exceptional wine, granted, but no real high-quality beer. “Craft beer is pretty much commanding a place in the market that’s starting to rival wine, as far as pairings with food, cooking with beer, etc.,” says Swan.
Silversmith has several craft beers on tap (and now in bottles!), reflecting many styles, including a black lager, a breakfast wheat beer, and even an oyster stout. You read it correctly; Silversmith (in collaboration with The Tide and Vine Oyster Company) created a perfectly balanced oyster stout using real oysters in the process! Some may cringe at the prospect of a “fishy” beer, but allow me to put your fears to rest. The stout is remarkably smooth, and though it hides a touch of salinity, it still retains it rich, roasted flavour. The black lager is probably the crowd favourite at Silversmith. After winning two awards, the seemingly intimidating lager (which looks almost identical to Guinness) was the first beer produced by Silversmith: “We started off with a style of beer that was a little different than what other people in Ontario were making,” says Swan. “A lot of breweries, when they start, would come out with an easily approachable-style of beer, like a pale ale or a lager, but we came out with a Schwarzbier (black lager), and most people don’t really think about beer being black, but it’s a really old German style. It’s a crisp refreshing glass of beer, but it’s got balls; it still has a full malt profile, (and) we only use high quality ingredients.”
While Matt, Chris, and Don would love to use local ingredients in their beers, the agricultural industry hasn’t caught up with the boom of craft beer.
Most of the malted grain in beer comes from Saskatchewan, goes to Germany to get malted. “Things are changing in Ontario… there are farmers who are starting to grow hops, people who are starting to malt; as soon as that happens and as soon as that industry matures, we’ll be able to use it.”
Silversmith Brewing Company is located on 1523 Niagara Stone Rd. in Niagara-on-the-Lake (Virgil), open from Wednesday through Sunday (11 a.m. – 6 p.m.), closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
These ambrosial drafts will have you seeking out more tasty suds, and one can hope that, with craft brewery beer on the rise, the “ale trail” will become that much longer.