Where does the best imported beer come from? Belgium, you say. Or perhaps Britain or Germany? How about the Canadian province of Ontario, just across the Detroit River and literally on our doorstep?
That’s where the Ontario Craft Beer Route begins, stretching across southern Ontario to the Lower Ottawa Valley. Talented brewmeisters and thirsty tourists believe this to be the perfect place to say, “Bottoms Up,” eh?
Visit up to 29 microbreweries, clustered within five distinctive craft brewing regions of Ontario. Along the way, you’ll enjoy pretty scenery, soak up the history of Upper Canada and visit friendly communities. Maybe you’ll plan to take in one of nature’s wonders, the thundering cataracts of Niagara Falls — or an incredible man-made marvel, the CN Tower (the world’s tallest building).
Start at either end of the trail, east or west, with a rental car (and designated driver). Or fly into Toronto to pick up a brewery-rich segment of the trail in the heavily developed regions stretching east and west of the city and known as the “Golden Horseshoe.”
For a safe thrill, ride to the top of Toronto’s iconic CN Tower, which soars to 1,815 feet (or about 181 stories). Step onto a 21â„2-inch-thick panel of tempered glass and that it is all that is between you and the sidewalk. It is perfectly safe, however, able, it is claimed, to hold the weight of 18 hippos (although, getting said hippos to the top of the tower seems more of a challenge.) Caution: Your next challenge should not be traveling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Best stick to a boat trip into Niagara’s spray aboard the legendary Maid of the Mist.
Niagara is wine country, but it also has palate-pleasers for beer drinkers. Check the lagers and red cream ale at Taps Brewing Co. at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara’s Best Beer Ltd., at St. Catharines, where Best Blonde premium ale is a choice pour.
Although, as one microbrewery owner observed wryly, “the mega-breweries spill more than we make,” craft breweries are obsessed with the tradition of care and craftsmanship that distinguishes them from the brewing giants.
In Toronto, your trail for ale might begin in the “Historic Distillery District,” where Mill Street Brewery occupies an original tankhouse within the former spirits distillery complex of Gooderham & Worts. The 170-year-old complex is the largest and best-preserved collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America. Mill Street Brewery occupies 6,000 feet and includes an open-concept brewery, sampling bar and retail store. In 2007, it was named Canadian Brewery of the Year.
The Distillery District is a pedestrians-only village dedicated to arts, culture and entertainment. It is packed with galleries, artists’ studios and workshops, restaurants, bars and cafes, with several live-music venues.
Allow time to enjoy Toronto’s vibrant theater scene. The city has become internationally known as a theatrical center of a caliber approaching those of London and New York. It also is a world-class dining destination featuring numerous celebrity chefs and a wealth of ethnic eateries, neighborhood diners and sidewalk cafes. Add galleries, museums, historical pageantry, lively festivals, top sports teams, luxury hotels, inns and spas, and you have plenty of reasons — along with sampling excellent craft beer made in small batches — to visit this cosmopolitan city.
For those who enjoy theater — especially classical theater — Stratford, Ontario is about a two-hour drive west of Toronto. It is home to the Stratford Festival, produced by North America’s largest classical repertory company. Each season (April through November) it stages more than a dozen plays at four theaters, playing to audiences of more than 600,000 a season. Scattered throughout the city and environs are more than 125 bed-and-breakfast inns.
Stratford also makes much ado about beer with a stop along the “Craft Beer Route” at Stratford Brewing Co. Discerning beer drinkers head there for a signature pilsner, crafted in classic European style, golden colored and with a “hoppy” refreshing finish.
A short drive east from Stratford is Kitchener-Waterloo. Nestled along the banks of the Grand River, the twin cities celebrate the culture of early German settlers. Kitchener, larger of the twins, was originally known as Berlin before changing its name during the First World War. This is Amish and Mennonite country, but also offers a stop for beer lovers at Brick Brewing Co., which has the distinction of being Ontario’s first craft brewery.
Other trail highlights: The small family-run Neustadt Springs Brewery, a bit east of the Lake Huron shore, sits in what is reputed to be Ontario’s oldest original operating brewery. In Barrie, in a picturesque waterfront brewery alongside Lake Simcoe, The Robert Simpson Brewing Co. takes the time to craft gently its long-aged rich golden Confederation Ale. At Granite Brewery in Toronoto, the focus is on replicating rich, classic, old English beers. In Nobleton, award-winning King Brewery uses fine imported ingredients to produce Czech and German-style beers in a newly built traditional German brewery.
Information: Ontario Tourism (800) 668-2746, www.ontariotravel.net.
Getting there: Both Toronto and Ottawa are connected by direct flights from Chicago (including Porter Airline’s new downtown service into Toronto’s lakefront island airport).