Although I grew up in Toronto, I spent a year after university living in Kingston. I like Kingston, but I never really felt as though I understood it. The downtown is laid out as a sort of Triangle, and the bar scene at the time was more or less based on the fact that Queen’s students enjoy cheap beer. The pleasant limestone construction can impose itself on your imagination as you make your way through streets blasted by winter wind. I am comparatively pleased that I wasn’t there for the Ice Storm, since I have seen the six foot icicles that hang off those roofs during the best of winters.
I don’t mean to hold forth on the character of the city overmuch, as that is clearly the bailiwick of Alan McLeod. I will content myself with having my column appear periodically in the Kingston Whig-Standard.
One of the things that always struck me is that this is a city of over a hundred thousand, halfway between Toronto and Ottawa and that no one has seen fit to build a brewery there. It’s more or less ripe for the picking, but without some investment of time or effort, there will not be a brewery there. I think that a proper brewery in Kingston is something of an inevitability.
I’m not entirely discounting the presence of the Kingston Brewing Company, which has a very nice pub, but I’m of the opinion that the shot they took at Ontario market might not work in the current climate. The Dragon’s Breath Pale Ale was a well made and thoroughly satisfying beer back at the turn of the century, but I can’t see anyone with the space to bring it back as a contract brew as Hart Brewing once did. It is still a nice place to spend a couple of hours.
The fact of the matter is that Kingston has incredible potential for a craft brewery, and not just for the reason that there is an annual influx of student loan money and enthusiasm for going out on a Friday night. The city has changed somewhat in terms of appreciating what’s around from a culinary perspective. It can lay claim to some of the best charcuterie in the country in the forms of Luke’s Gastronomy and Seed To Sausage (Up Highway 38 near Sharbot Lake). There’s some very nice cheese being made in Wilton. There are some excellent dairies and organic vegetable farms. This is a city where it’s now possible to buy local everything if you know where to shop.
In addition, the pubs that I remember are not the pubs that people are talking about. There was the Tir Na N’og, which benefited massively from the influx of Belgian beers under the Oland company in the mid 90’s. There was the Toucan, which was where bartenders would call their orders in from other pubs when it was time to close down.
It’s something of an amazement to me that less than a decade on, there are a number of pretty decent places serving craft beers, but no brewery.
As a for instance, there’s The Alibi, which, judging by their facebook presence, may as well be in Toronto. They have Spearhead and Boneshaker and even had a Great Lakes one-off in the form of Audrey Hopburn just before Christmas. Of course there are the more locally based breweries in the form of Barley Days and Church Key. This looks to me to be a step in the right direction.
There’s the Iron Duke, which had Muskoka Mad Tom last time I visited. There’s Sir John’s Public House, which is decorated in the manner of an early 19th century public house replete with haggis fritters (I believe it to be a city by-law that there must be at least one drinking establishment in Kingston which features the likeness of Sir John A. MacDonald. Unlike in America where it is “Washington slept here,” in Kingston it’s “MacDonald drank a fifth of gin, passed out, fell down the stairs, got up without a scratch on him and proceeded to debate a portrait of Thomas D’arcy McGee.”) Sir John’s is a marked improvement on the previous incarnation, Johnny Mac’s, which is now a bridal shop.
The place I had heard the most good things about was The Red House. Before I went to Kingston for Christmas, I found that they had a cask of Pinot Noir barrel aged imperial stout from Nickel Brook. Apparently Ryan Morrow visits the area occasionally and brings beer. I wanted to try it because their Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout “Kentucky Bastard” is a freakin’ monster.
By the time I got to The Red House on Boxing Day, they had run out of that beer, but that turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. It’s hard to enjoy your dinner if you start out with the imperial stout. Their tap lineup was suffering somewhat as a result of it being the Christmas season. They were even out of Pilsner Urquell, which is something you don’t see much. I take this to mean that patrons are blowing through good beer in Kingston at a decent clip. Encouraging.
Not as encouraging as the food. It’s the sort of upscale down home cooking that makes any beer you order better. My Brother had the leek, potato and bacon soup and the fried chicken sandwich. I had the burger and Caesar salad. We split a side of lentils because… well, how often do you see a side of lentils? (They were delicious if a tad dijon mustard heavy.)
Skipping dessert, we had the charcuterie platter, which the menu doesn’t really do justice to. In addition to what’s described, there was pepperoncini and marinated artichoke and what I think must have been eggplant. It came with local cheese and meat, which must have come from within a hundred kilometers.
All of this was reasonably priced, especially when you consider the effort the care that has gone into creating the menu. The most expensive thing on there is the cassoulet, and I bet it’s excellent. McLeod, who I mentioned earlier, reported having to restrain himself from licking a plate on one visit. If that’s not an overwhelming endorsement, I don’t know what is. If they had more uniform access to really good beer, this would potentially be one of the best pubs in the country.
At some point, there’ll be a brewery in Kingston to take advantage of this new crop of pubs. The stage exists and only needs an actor to make it work. Then again, I thought more or less the same thing three years ago and nothing has happened yet. Eventually, some second year bio-chem student will take up a hobby. There is definitely room to expand your brewery in Kingston. Probably for cheap.