Old ways and new ideas are the two influences that define Kitchener-Waterloo and the surrounding area. It’s not the only place that has such a duality, but I think the contrast is stronger here than anywhere else in Ontario. Where else can you drive past a horse and buggy driven by a Mennonite farmer on his way to market, while you’re heading towards the global headquarters for a tech company?
And, sure, Blackberry’s stock has fallen since the heady days of 2007 when everyone was clicking away on their blue devices and Apple and Google were trying to catch up to the Canadian smartphone pioneer. But these days, that search giant has a strong presence in the region and high-tech continues to be a major employer. The Perimeter Institute—co-founded by Blackberry’s Mike Lazaridis—has helped Waterloo maintain its membership in the high-tech elite.
So who plans a vacation based on what place has more software engineers?
Fair question. And I’ve been to Waterloo a few times (especially to visit Relish Cooking Studio), so why go back now?
For great beer, of course. While a few of the top beers from Waterloo area breweries are making it to Toronto, I had heard that much of the best was filling the cups of locals before having the chance to make it further afield.
I’d also discovered a new option, beyond the usual planes and trains, for making a road trip feasible. Have you guys heard of Turo? The easy way to explain the startup is that it’s Airbnb for cars. Some people have more car than they need and others have no car, so the app brings them together.
That’s great for getting a Tesla into the hands of the trend fiend who really wants to drive a Model X, but it also works for someone like me who needs a Nissan Rogue to get to and from the province’s up-and-coming beer destination. (I hope it goes without saying that drinking and driving do not mix—walk or have someone else to drive you on your four-brewery tour once the tastings start.)
Having been set up with an opportunity to test out this new service the transportation box was ticked and we were off for a long weekend excursion to the twin towns a couple hours’ drive
from Toronto’s west end.
Named after Abraham Erb, the Mennonite settler who traveled from Pennsylvania to found Waterloo, this has grown into one of the region’s most popular beer makers. In fact, the brewpub concept took off so quickly that they had to open a second location in Kitchener across King Street from the Google Waterloo building.
Even before dinner, the comfortable, warm space has filled up with groups sharing beer flights, jerk chicken tacos and lively conversation. The range of styles brewed here is so extensive that the paddle of samplers really is the best place to start.
Their Buggy Whip IPA (6.5% ABV) has a clean, slightly sweet malt background highlighted with American-style tropical hop notes and a pleasant dose of bitterness. For a more sessionable option, go with the 1857 Kolsch (4.8% ABV) that ends on a crisp and clean, moreish finish.
Rob Theodosiu, Abe Erb’s founder, also operates Settlement Co., a popular Waterloo-area destination for craft coffee.
I first visited this brewery, tucked away in downtown St. Jacobs, in late 2014. That trip was to brew a collaborative beer with their team for a beer dinner I was putting on with Nick Benninger at Nick & Nat’s Uptown 21.
As we worked on creating our cardamom-cranberry saison (did I mention that it was 2014?) we talked pretty extensively about how keen they were to get a barrel-aging programme underway.
Since then, Kevin Freer, has taken over the role of head brewer and really brought that undertaking to fruition. They’re making complex, refined beers, including with cherries and raspberries.
We timed our visit to Arabella Park perfectly—one day after a tap takeover by Block Three. The cobalt tiles covering one of the long walls cast cool, blue light back into the room and also do an attractive and thorough job of announcing the beer selection, which is augmented by cider.
Happily, one of them was for the Block Three Rhapsody (6.5% ABV), a red-wine-barrel-aged version of their sasion made with brett drie. I’m hard-pressed to remember a more refined and spot-on brett saison. All elements, the dry funk of brett, tannic red wine and fruity saison, are cast in an ideal balance. This is a real knee-slapper.
Before craft beer was fully established in the area, Steve Innocente arrived from the UK to open his brewery. He came with a couple decades’ of experience as a cancer researcher, and that meant he also had an in-depth understanding of how yeast work. He also brought the award-winning homebrew recipes that gave him the confidence to start his own operation.
The wide range of offerings stretches from a sharp and snappy Conscience American-style IPA (5.7% ABV) to the Charcoal Porter (5.1% ABV). The latter, originally made as an exclusive for a local restaurant group, won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2015. It touches the right bases for the style with subtle hints of coffee, chocolate, malty sweetness and a roast bitterness.
What else is worth a visit?
After a day on the snowshoe trails I had a specific and severe craving for a bacon grilled cheese sandwich. Harmony Lunch, in downtown Waterloo, to the rescue. Just the right amount of elbow polish and kitsch (collected over roughly 90 years in business) set against an updated kitchen. Chef Nick Benninger applies the same, no-corners-cut approach that has helped drive his restaurants, Uptown 21, Taco Farm and Marbles to popularity with locals in the area.
The Birds and Beers Blonde (5% ABV) made in collaboration with Together We’re Bitter has a golden-grain malt body and a crisp dry finish with a delicate touch from noble hops. It matched with both my sandwich and my girlfriend’s lox-and-bagel plate with smoked salmon from local fish favourite T & J Seafood (worth a visit in its own right). The perfect first beer of the day.
It’s available across Benninger’s Fat Sparrow group of four restaurants. “I went and physically brewed it with their brewer, Peter,” Benninger explains. “Not that ‘we can label our PBR for your bar’ bullshit. Real-deal, local collaboration between like-minded businesses.”
TWB is obviously popular with the local growler-fill crowd and is one of the area breweries to watch as it continues to experiment.
Grand Trunk Saloon is the place for a nightcap with a refined twist and bar snacks that are good enough to make into an entire meal. The “libations” are presented as a fascinating Venn diagram that includes bold, dry and sweet categories and has options like Brown Butter Ol’ Fashioned and Secretariat made with pecan vodka and rose gin.
Picking just one snack to recommend is a trial, but I’m still dreaming about the Fried Bird Biscuits. The light biscuits did a great job of soaking up the herb-seasoned and abundant juices from the crispy buttermilk fried chicken.
For a late-night complement head to the classic Ethel’s Lounge. It feels like a sports bar, but also has a cozy atmosphere and boasts on their website that they only have three TVs. Follow the lead set by the crowd of undergrads and stick to comfort classics like pulled pork or the meatloaf special.
That’s the remarkable thing about Waterloo. The presence of so many campuses—academic and corporate—means that there’s always an audience for testing new ideas. And when your diners and drinkers have spent time in places like southern California and North Carolina they expect quality execution with their innovation. j