Niagara-on-the-Lake is a hub for an expanding network of craft breweries in Ontario’s wine country.
There are a few things that obscure how obvious Niagara-on-the-Lake is as a beer destination.
Especially near the water, it’s stately and preserved as if a historical society has a universal veto on everyone’s choice of front door colour and tree selection for their yard. There aren’t any grocery stores (more or less) let alone beer gardens.
You’re probably thinking that the location in wine country is also a strike against it. But that’s where the case begins to turn.
The proximity to wineries means that breweries here have closer access to barrels, talent and ingredients. They also need to make beer to satisfy a clientele with dozens of drink options pulling them in multiple directions.
That’s why I say: Soak in the surroundings, pull up to one of the excellent tasting bars and maybe even try a glass of wine. Niagara is one of the best beer spots within a short drive for a lot of Ontarians.
Not strictly in Niagara-on-the-Lake proper but we’re getting closer. This is where a great deal of investment has built one of the most impressive new breweries in Ontario. The Beamsville location also means plenty of nods in the direction of the grapevine.
Ball’s Falls (4.5% ABV), as a session IPA, leads off flights with its clean balance and way more tropical citrus notes than you’d expect at that ABV.
Dig into the Foundry series with complex options like Bewilder Brett IPA (4.9% ABV) that balances summer stone fruit aromas with a clean, brett-enhanced finish.
Folklore (6.8% ABV) is an especially lovely dark sour aged on cherries from nearby Twenty Valley farms. If possible try it beside the version, with the same name, made with cab franc skins. The Grove series also shines a spotlight on sours with a single hop variety added at the dry-hopping stage.
Niagara College Teaching Brewery
If there’s one place to taste the future of Ontario craft beer, this is it. It serves as the lab for students in the brewmaster programme at the college.
Their English-style pale ale, Butler’s Bitter (4.4% ABV) has a ton of well-deserved medals. And the Beer 101 series is a great primer on beer styles that are both the basis for innovation and delicious in their own right. For instance, Beer 101 Bock (7% ABV) is perfect for chasing away spring chills.
The brewery in the unmissable, red barn on the road into town has paired Belgian-leaning core beers with a willingness to experiment and bring seasonal fruit into their recipes. They’ve greatly expanded around the original front room and are now worth a stop just to find out what’s new upstairs in the Hayloft or out back on the patio.
From the originals, the Biere de Garde (7% ABV) is my favourite for the combination of raisin, dark fruit and treacle plus its strong cellar potential. In their Rural Route series, both the Strawberry Rhubarb Ale (4.8% ABV) and Oak-aged Peach Hefeweizen (5% ABV) are very good showcases for top-notch Niagara produce.
If you’re there in March, they might be brewing the very good Sweet ’n’ Sowr Biere de Mars (5.5% ABV).
Silversmith, with their cozy, former-church atmosphere and sessionable beer options, is just a few minutes up the road.
We’re now right downtown for the craft brewery that was named after a telephone hub. Many of the beers made by Sam Maxbauer’s team use barrels and mixed fermentation to show beer flavours at their most complex.
Peppercorn Rye Saison (6.9% ABV) is a soft-drinking farmhouse beer that adds peach notes to the title ingredients. Equally, Oud Bruin (7.4% ABV) is one of Ontario’s best takes on this darker sour style that’s part of beef carbonnade.
Their Foreign Extra Stout (7.2% ABV) is a dark coal colour with a creamy mouthfeel and dessert-like notes of cocoa and vanilla but a roasted, slightly bitter finish for balance.
Where else to visit
Everyone will tell you that if you’re on Niagara Stone Road, visiting Oast House and Silversmith, a walk across the street to The Pie Plate is mandatory. All of their creations are pretty dynamite, but the small-size versions are my favourite because they let groups smaller than a hockey team try a variety of the flavours like unexpected grape pie or the iconic peach.
No matter what the weather is like, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town that demands a stroll. Whether you’re visiting during a cold snap or in to catch a show at the Shaw Festival in August, The Olde Angel Inn is the place to seek comfort.
At 230 years it is the oldest inn in Ontario and does the whole traditional English pub thing with vigour. Classic pub fare goes well with the most varied beer list on the main strip.
We’re a beer crowd, I know, but on a trip to Niagara visiting a winery or two won’t hurt you. Michael Di Caro, the editor for Vitis, our soon-to-launch sister magazine about Ontario wine, helped out with a few tips for nearby stops.
We both really dig the wines coming out of Big Head, especially the Raw line they make by fermenting juice in concrete tanks. Stratus spans the range for their niche, high-end Red and White blends to the good-value Weather Report series. Pillitteri (very close to Oast and Silversmith) are very strong in the icewine department and continue to push boundaries.
Di Caro also pointed us to wineries like Rosewood (and I’ll add Flat Rock) who are bringing our two worlds closer together through collaboration with Ontario craft breweries.
If that seems a lot to plan (see our listings on pg. 58 for more), you can opt for an organized tour. These range from bike-based ones (pedal responsibly, please) to climate-controlled vans. Niagara Craft Brewery Tours is the leader in the area.