Typically, one of the best things about Christmas in Kingston is that I get to revisit, if briefly, an old haunt. The Kingston Brewing Company is the oldest brewpub in Ontario and Canada’s oldest wine producing pub.
Back when I lived in Kingston for a short period of time after university, it was a place that my brother and I would hang out. We were both working in a call centre and as relative newcomers we had been put on the night shift. It was a call centre for an American cell phone company’s activations line and we were dropped into the queue at a time when it suddenly became possible to port a number from other service providers.
Of course, the technology wasn’t perfect when it was introduced. People were promised that their numbers would be ported within 48 hours and in some cases it took several months. More often than not the port would fail, the number would drop back into circulation and people would be entirely without phone service.
What I’m getting at here is that there was a lot of yelling which we had to sit good naturedly by and accept as per the provisions of the script. If you can picture yourself being paid to sit quietly at a half cubicle desk getting yelled at by Foghorn Leghorn, it was sort of like that: a dunk tank, but instead of water there was verbal abuse.
Typically, by the end of the week, you’d need a trip to the pub. There was a pleasing alignment in that our paycheques were usually deposited by midnight on the last day of our weekly shifts and that the KBC was close to our house and took interac. We would sit and drink Dragon’s Breath and mercilessly take the piss out of people from Alabama who wanted their cell phones “cut back on.”
I have a lot of good memories of the place, but until this year I was never a beer blogger and never thought about it from a professional standpoint, so it was interesting to visit this year and see how my perception of it changed based on the amount of context I have.
If you’re used to brewpubs in Toronto, there are a certain number of expectations that have cropped up in the last few years. First of all, the place is going to look corporate. Think about Mill Street or Three Brewers or The Granite. They all have relatively clean looks to them and they all have pretty elaborate layouts capable of seating a hundred people simultaneously. Duggan’s sort of resembled a sensory deprivation tank for the first months of its existence; I don’t know whether plain white walls can be classified as “decor.”
The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand has been amassing memorabilia from all over the world since 1986 and has a collection of bartowels that I have never seen matched. During the regular course of business, the sheer number of framed towels is pretty daunting. During the Christmas season, they really go to town. Lights and garlands everywhere. Camels festooned with ornaments. A Santa hat on the papier mache polar bear that lives over the entranceway. It’s enough to throw an interior designer into an apoplectic rage. That said, it does give the place character and a certain joie de vivre.
Another marked difference is the fact that Toronto brewpubs are likely to have several of their beers on at any one time and that they will have only their own beers on offer. Additionally, they’re caught up in the current atmosphere of development and brewer’s whimsey. Mill Street and Duggan’s keep coming up with new beers in order to stay at the cutting edge of the Ontario Craft Beer scene. Even The Granite will periodically come up with a new release, the most recent being their smoked porter.
The Kingston Brewing Company, on the other hand, is one of the only venues for Ontario Craft Beer between Toronto and Ottawa and it seems like they’re completely willing to share the stage with any number of Ontario Brewers. It’s not something that you can really fault them for when you see the size of their brewing setup. I think that the brewing facility (located just behind the bar) would be hard pressed to accommodate more than two people at a time and I’m sure that given the customer volume I’ve observed over the years there’s no way that they could possibly keep up with demand. Brewing of their two most popular beers is outsourced. Their Whitetail Cream Ale is brewed by Brick and the Dragon’s Breath Pale Ale is brewed out of province by McAuslan.
So I guess the question is “What do they brew?”
Well, they still brew their Real Ale on site and they also brewed a winter seasonal called Figgy Puddin’.
I tried both of those and I don’t really know what to think. The seasonal brew actually contains Rum as an ingredient, so I have no idea what to make of that. I’m not advanced enough as a brewer to know how that would even work. I suspect it’s dark rum added after fermentation to create depth, but I don’t know for sure. The Real Ale is just sort of alright, which is about fair when you consider that they’re trying to do cask conditioned real ale on an extract brewing system.
Truth be told I think I’m judging the Kingston Brewing Company harshly based on the fact that I want it to be better. I certainly seem to remember it being better. For a period in the late 90’s Dragon’s Breath was contract brewed by Hart and was fairly widely available. At the time it was one of the hoppiest beers in Ontario and was certainly different than just about everything else on the market. I don’t know how it would stand up today, since it was an English style IPA and those have fallen out of favour.
I think that the issue is probably complicated by the fact that it’s a very popular brewpub in a town dominated by tourists during the summer and university students during the rest of the year. I suspect that since much of their business is based on volume of sales, they probably don’t have to try very hard to make a great deal of money. That’s the sort of thing that might engender a certain amount of complacency.
I tell you what: The place doesn’t lack for character. They once reprinted their menus in order to fit in “decriminalized pot-pie.”
Anyone who’s willing to stretch that far for a joke is OK in my book. I just wish they had a little more pride and experimentation in their brewing. It occurs to me that in the wake of the first crop of Niagara College graduates, they’d do well to pick up an apprentice brewer and switch to an all grain system.
It’s one thing to rest on your laurels as the first brewpub in Ontario. It’s quite another to remain relevant. My hope for the Kingston Brewing Company is that they can manufacture some type of resurgence in the next few years and not only reclaim some of their former glory but surpass peoples’ expectations.