One of the things that tends to define Ontario craft beer is the history of the province. While Toronto may currently have one of the most diverse populations in the world, it’s worth reminding ourselves that for a long time we were wall to wall redcoats. You don’t need to look very far for reminders. The annual beer festival in Toronto is held at Fort York and, as Alan McLeod points out in the Ontario Craft Beer Week editions of his blog, Kingston spent a long time as an edge of the empire garrison town.
We were British and Quebec was French. It almost certainly accounts for the fact that Quebec craft brewers have traditionally been more willing to experiment with European styles. France is bordered by several nations with distinct brewing traditions, and as such their descendants are more comfortable with their styles. England is an island, and they were content with ale. So symbolically was Ontario beer an island for many years. I don’t mean to oversimplify. There have been lagers and pilsners (Kitchener used to be Berlin after all, and there’s a lot of history between Queenston Heights and the banishment of the stubby bottle), but the mainstays have been English style ales.
That’s one of the reasons that the Belgontario event at Bar Volo is so fascinating. It’s a showcase for the experimentation of Ontario craft brewers in traditional Belgian styles of ale. It’s really only in the last five years that this kind of expression has been possible in Ontario, and many breweries have been experimenting with these styles for less time than that. Bar Volo has put together an interesting lineup that includes products from: Amsterdam, Beau’s, Black Oak, Duggan’s, Grand River, Mill Street, Nickelbrook and Publican House. It’s a great opportunity to see what these breweries have come up with.
One of the problems that you run into in attending an event of this nature is the fact that unless you’re very careful and order small samples of everything, it’s basically impossible to try all of the beers on offer. This is not a series of low alcohol milds. Belgian ales tend to be pretty high octane, and the styles on offer vary wildly. I eschewed the Black Oak Summer Saison because I had tried it fairly recently; It’s a tasty pint of beer, and it suits a hot summer night very nicely. It’s not so complex as to be inaccessible to people trying it for the first time, but it’s a success within the style and is one the only Saisons in Ontario. Black Oak produces cask varietals of this beer using various fruit flavours. I avoided the Grand River Ploegers Vlaams Rood for the reason that I find sour ales can have unpredictable effects on my stomach when mixed with other styles. To highlight this point, I should mention that one of my friends chose a food pairing of sour patch kids. I’m not sure you’ll find this as a suggested pairing in any instructional book.
I tried the Amsterdam Oranje Weiss, which I suspect clocks in at around 5% alcohol. It’s a drinkable wheat beer flavored with orange. I found that the flavor was reminiscent of a slightly watery freshly squeezed orange juice and that masked any banana or clove flavours typically associated with a weissbier. It’s a little bit like a beer mimosa, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure I would order a full pint of this one, but I have to hand it to Amsterdam for stepping outside of their comfort zone in order to produce it.
I found Duggan’s #10 Trappist Dubbel to be slightly disappointing, but mostly for semantic reasons. It’s not exactly cricket to use the term “Trappist” for beers produced outside a select group of monasteries. Technically, I think it falls somewhere between copyright violation and heresy. The beer itself is pretty good, but I went to it straight from the Amsterdam, so my tastebuds were shocked a little by the roastiness and coffee flavours on the first sip. It’s a well made Belgian brown ale, and in truth it’s impressive that a Belgian Dubbel can come out of a brewpub that has been in operation for such a short space of time.
There are two Belgian style trippels on offer. The Publican House Eight or Better Trippel is a good approximation of the style, but I was distracted by the presence of the alcohol within it, which made it seem downright boozy. The Mill St. Betelgeuse was overly sweet. It’s practically like candy, and I can’t claim that this particular brew run is their best version of this beer. I had it on tap last year in a blind tasting with Urthel Hop-it and Delirium Tremens and it was nuanced enough to stand up to them. It feels like a recipe tweak gone awry.
By far the most interesting beer on the list is a collaboration brew: Vrienden from Beau’s and De Koningshoeven. It’s the first collaboration for De Koningshoeven, which you have to admit is a heck of a get for Beau’s who are relative newcomers in Ontario craft brewing. Fortunately for me, Steve Beauchesne was at the bar drinking a pint of it and was pleased to explain how it came to be:
The Dutch have always been grateful to the Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands in May of 1945. In order to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the event the Dutch Embassy approached Beau’s and asked them to brew a beer as part of the celebration. They could have done just that, but in order to make it authentic and also to engage in the spirit of the celebration, they wanted to collaborate with De Koningshoeven. After a small amount of exhortation on the part of the Dutch government, an agreement was reached. Unfortunately Lodewijk Swinkels, the brewmaster for De Koningshoeven, was unable to make it to the brew day because of the cancelled flights in the wake of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Matt O’Hara, the brewmaster for Beau’s, kept in touch by phone and email and proceeded anyway. Eventually, Lodewijk managed to cross the Atlantic and gave Matt his blessing. Matt has apparently been walking around with an elated grin on his face ever since.
It’s not like Belgian style Witbiers that I’ve seen in Ontario before. It’s not just citrus and coriander; there’s subtlety here. It’s relatively light in alcohol and very refreshing. It contains maple syrup and juniper berries in order to reflect the input of the respective countries involved. It’s a pleasing colour and nicely opaque. I guess that technically this beer could actually bear the label Trappist since it involves De Koningshoeven, but that would be showing off. This isn’t about showing off. It’s about the mutual past of the two countries and exploration of common ground.
I can’t say that Vrienden is the best beer on offer at the Belgontario event (It’s actually edged out in my mind by Beau’s Belgian Imperial Stout). What I can say is that it captures the spirit of the event very nicely. If the event is about pushing past the ale styles traditionally associated with Ontario, then Beau’s has achieved that goal admirably, using as their inspiration the legacy of one of Canada’s greatest triumphs.