Craft in the County: Why PEC is the perfect place to unwind with Ontario’s soaring craft beer scene

I feel sorry for travel agents trying to hawk flights and all-inclusive packages to Ontarians at this time of year. From late summer, through until mid-November our always-beautiful province is at its very best.

Whether you want to take the kids with you (and sneak in a few brewery visits between the hay-wagon rides and apple picking) or are planning a beer-fuelled getaway for two, Prince Edward County is a top-class destination.

Geographically, it’s a headland—looks a bit like an island but is connected to the mainland by a thin strip—on Lake Ontario’s north shore that is halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. And in proper Ontario fashion, it has a non-standard political system: technically, it’s one city (of just 24,000 people spread over a whopping 1,000 square kilometres) with about ten wards.

Far simpler to think of it under the historical organization: Picton is the main town with a tourist bent, Bloomfield is the arts-and-crafts village and once-sleepy Wellington is a magnet for new restaurants. Everywhere else has the friendly, rural personality common in Loyalist country.

Give some thought to how you’re going to get between stops. You could get in a few breweries with under 25 km of cycling. Or when the weather cools off, a designated driver or an organized tour company like Rides with John are the preferred options. There are cabs but you may have to wait or book ahead. In any case, don’t drink and drive.

Even more than other parts of Ontario, the County has enjoyed a recent wave of new breweries that present a wide range of beer styles and are tightly focussed on quality brewing.

Gillingham Brewery

Just open this year, Gillingham feels very much like it belongs in Prince Edward County. Perched on the vineyard Andrew Gillingham’s family owns, the beer has a strong connection to his and his wife, Christine’s, family.
So, for instance, Dave ESB (5.9% ABV) is a refreshing, malt-forward take on the style that’s named for and designed to please both of their dads. Andrew combines his homebrewing background with his experience as a creative director. That means different iterations of a concept—such as wide-ranging interpretations for the Howlett IPA (about 6.5% ABV)—are to be expected.

As we get even further into autumn, my bet is that their back patio will be one of the best spots to enjoy the waning warm weather. And while you’re in Hillier, check out Flossie’s Sandwich Parlor and Sugarbush Winery, both just down the road.

Parsons Brewing Co.

Across the County and just outside of Picton, Parsons is the brewery with a gold-plated reputation among craft connoisseurs. That was earned with outstanding brews like Noice (8.1% ABV) a double IPA bursting with a tropical cocktail of aromas and flavours from six exotic hop varieties. Or there’s Sunkissed (7.5% ABV) a beer that’s made with 30% wine from their own pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.

At the same time, Parsons makes Crushable (5% ABV), one of the best and most approachable pilsners in the province. Oh, and they also have a bit of a stout obsession with standouts like Devil’s Right Hand – The Son (8.5% ABV) which gets its character from time spent in whisky barrels from nearby distillery, Kinsip.

Get in a visit to the beer garden before the snow flies for a relaxing, easy-does-it drinking experience. The Argentinian-style asado grill lends a South American vibe to the food programme that ranges from grilled flatbread with chimichurri aioli ($11) to the gaucho burger ($19).

Matron Fine Beer

Things tend to the extremely relaxed at PEC’s newest brewery, tucked down a country lane outside of Bloomfield. The renovated former warehouse has just the right amount of polish to make it the perfect spot for a lazy mid-afternoon tasting session.

Beer options centre on their standbys like Janky IPA (6% ABV) that strikes a fine balance between a clear, medium-malt body and fine hop notes on the nose and in the background.

Co-founders and vets of Stone City Ales in Kingston, Mallory Jones and Justin da Silva (plus Jes Nettleton) see the rest of Matron’s beers keeping a tight focus on refined styles from the farmhouse-style catalogue.

Say hi and save an ear-scratch for Rhubarb, Matron’s friendly brewery dog.

Midtown Brewing

Without picking favourites, I think it’s fair to say that Midtown might be the most balanced all-rounder. That means the brewpub, built into a former meatpacking plant offers everything from an old woodstove to a skateboard ramp outside.

The beer programme, led by co-owner Paul “Spike” Lees, has a noticeable British lean that reflects his childhood in Manchester. That means they do a UK-style IPA (5% ABV) with more copper malt character than is strictly typical these days and also a dry Irish stout (4.2% ABV) that swings heavier than its test indicates.

Save a big spot in your eating schedule for chef Neil Dowson’s food. From chicken schnitzel ($20) to fish ‘n’ chips ($17) it manages to be both unpretentious and of top-notch quality.

Given they’re a community cornerstone, it’s no surprise that Midtown has a “pay it forward” board so that customers can buy each other a pint of beer in absentia.

Where Else to Visit

A quick glance at a map makes the County look like an island sticking out into Lake Ontario. It’s easier to get to than most islands but enjoying the lake is a must-do while there. Walking amongst the picturesque dunes at Sandbanks Provincial Park, especially near sunset, should be high on your list.

Like Niagara, PEC started its recent career as a culinary destination with wine — thanks, guys, we’ll take it from here. Kidding aside, there are a few really interesting wineries that stand out from a crowd of winners.

Rosehall Run and Closson Chase specialize in the cool weather grapes—mainly pinot noir and riesling—that Ontario’s climate is built to produce. The Grange is our good-value pick for County wine to go with the country chic atmosphere. Hinterland is the place for clean and crisp sparkling wines—plus they took a crack at making beer, so there’s a kinship here. And Lighthall makes their own cheese to go with a pleasant lineup of light-touch wines.
Speaking of cheese—even better with beer—Fifth Town Artisan Cheese is a world-class producer located out on the eastern side of the County. They take an environmentally respectful approach (Platinum LEED-certified since 2009) to fermenting local goat, cow and water buffalo milk. Their Isabirra is a cow’s milk cheese soaked in dark beer.

In the same neck of the woods, the County Cider Company is a longstanding favourite for its namesake drink and Kinsip is one of the most interesting new distilleries in Ontario. And, of course, there are several more breweries to visit, include Prince Eddy’s, 555 Brewing and Strange Brewing, spread throughout the area’s backroads and main thoroughfares.

Farmers’ produce stands, craft stores and antique shops are pretty easy to find, with slightly more in artsier Bloomfield.

And if you didn’t cover off your dining needs at one of the breweries, Sand and Pearl Raw Bar is the place for all things briny. Plus, spots like Ponodoro are great for a full meal.

Where to stay

Bed-and-breakfasts and rental properties were the established go-to until the Drake made PEC their weekend home. First it was the Drake Devonshire on the lakefront in Wellington (opened in 2014) and it has now been joined by the Drake Motor Inn. This is a stylish and very modernized take on the highway motel concept with an app for checking in and the Drake’s trademark, hip-retro aesthetic. Plus, it’s about 25 steps from Midtown Brewing so there’s no need worry how you’re getting home after your last pint.

Getting to PEC

I love finding ways to get out from behind the wheel, but driving really is the easiest route to the County. (There is a VIA station in Belleville but it’s about a $50 cab ride the rest of the way to Picton, Bloomfield or Wellington.) The southern half of the area, in particular, offers plenty of scenic spots and reasons to pull over and take in the view.

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