Hoppy, boozy, nerdy: Ontario craft beer has a reputation for being many things — but boring isn't one of them. Varying in taste and technique, craft beer can be wonderfully complex and, at times, just complicated. For anyone who has ever asked, "what is craft beer?" Never fear, we've got everything you need to know.
First of all, not every brew will be for you and that’s kind of the point, but there is something for everyone in the world of Ontario craft beer, especially as the craft beer industry becomes more diverse.
More inclusivity in Ontario's craft beer industry means more space for new creativity, flavours and styles to flourish. Chances are if it’s edible, some brewer out there has already added it to a batch, and even if you were to use the exact same ingredient, your brews wouldn’t taste the same. To help us improve our pint-sized knowledge of Ontario craft beer, we picked the brain of Natasha Fritzley, chief operating officer of Cowbell Brewing Co., a destination and boundary-pushing craft brewery over in Blyth, Ontario.
So sit back, try a new pint from one of Toronto's many patios or local breweries and forget everything you think you know about craft beer, because even the experts are still making discoveries, one small batch at a time.
What is craft beer? Everything you need to know.
How is Ontario craft beer different from mainstream beer?
"Industrial brewing is large-scale manufactured brewing, whereas craft is very focused on high-quality ingredients. We brew in smaller-batch sizes, so it’s more of an art. Our brewers are like chefs: they’re artists and incredibly passionate about what they do. They’re constantly working and creating new recipes. It’s a labour of love. There’s diversity amongst craft. Smaller brewhouses allow us to be more experimental than our colleagues in industrial brewing. We do smaller-scale experimental batches that we only serve at the brewery. Craft beer is never boring because we’re not married to anything."
What are some common misconceptions about craft beer?
"That they all taste the same. Craft beer is so varied in style. Industrial brewers tend to stick with light, lager-style beer that are just your easy-drinking beer, whereas craft breweries produce various types of products. We do create light-tasting lagers, but we'll also brew a stout, a kölsch, a barley wine, ciders, sours — you name it, there’s something for everyone. I would try a style that we were experimenting with and I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t want to tell them [the brewers] and they were like, 'No, that’s the point of craft beer.' There’s so many different ways to make them, of course you’re going to love some and some you won’t. That’s the beauty of it."
How is craft beer made?
"You start the brewing process by 'mashing in.' It’s basically the equivalent of making oatmeal but using barley instead of oats. Once they do that, they’ll let the mash rest for about an hour at 60–72 F, which activates the enzymes in the malt and converts the starch into a fermentable sugar. Then we put the product into a lauter tun to extract and rinse the sugar from the grain. After that, we boil what is called the 'hop wort' — that’s what we created in the lauter tun — and this sterilizes and removes any of the remaining impurities. While it’s boiling, the brewers add hops, which bring bitterness and also balance out the sweetness from the wort. They transfer the liquid to a whirlpool which cools it, then they add yeast and oxygen. After some time in a fermentation tank, we’ve got beer."
Can you add different ingredients?
"Beer will always have malt, hops, barley and water. But you can put in almost anything. In the past two months at our brewery, the team has used passion fruit purée, guava purée, Canadian sea salt, chocolate and coffee beans. Predominantly you are playing with ingredients after you boil the wort but it depends on the style."
What are the different kinds of craft beer?
Lager: "Lagers are a great gateway beer to start with. They actually have a much longer fermentation tank time than dark stouts and most other beer styles. They’re light in colour and body, they usually have a lower alcohol content and a higher sugar content. They should taste crisp, clean and are less bitter than an ale."
Sour: "Exactly how they sound, sours should be acidic, tart or sour-tasting. Sours are where we have so much fun with our creativity because you can douse sours with anything, but they’re often fruit-forward. We launched a sour this spring made with Canadian sea salt and grapefruit purée."
IPA (India Pale Ale): A version of a pale ale (richer, more full-bodied than light lagers) with more hops, usually a higher alcohol content and they’re very rich. The flavours and aromas of an IPA really stand out when you do a tasting. Right now hazy IPAs are incredibly popular — they’re also called New England IPAs. They tend to be lower on the bitterness scale and they often have a tropical and juicy flavour. We have one called Hazy Days IPA and it’s that perfect beer for a warm, sunny afternoon.
Porter: People often confuse porters with stouts because they both use dark malts which give them that black colour. A porter is like the grandfather of the stout. Porters are made with dark malted barley, a decent amount of hops and usually they’re a medium-bodied beer with a bit of malty sweetness and some hoppiness. Meanwhile, stouts happen when people start to play around with porter recipes. They’ll add new ingredients and typically stouts have more alcohol. Porters use a malted barley and a stout uses an unmalted, roasted barley which gives them their signature coffee flavour."
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Any craft beer tasting tips?
"A pairing should be done by style, similar to wine. When you’re doing a beer tasting, always taste from glassware. Any glass will do. Once you pour it in, get that glass under your nose and inhale. Hold it up and check out the clarity and colour, then you want to swirl it and that will release the true aromas. Take the first sip with the tip of your tongue and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds so you can pick up the full-bodied tastes and subtle notes. Then take a big drink and let it hit the back of your throat. And remember, beer is served cold."
What's your advice for Ontario craft beer newbies?
"There is a flavour and style of craft beer for everyone and you’re more than likely to meet your match in the craft world. It’s a journey. My recommendation is to start out light or with a style that is similar to what you’re used to drinking. As you explore, you’ll find that your taste profile evolves. I started out with lagers, my next step was a kölsch. From there I went into IPAs and now I basically drink everything. For some people, they try a craft beer and maybe it’s just a style that they don’t like so then they think that they don’t like craft beer, but more often than not, it’s a case of them having a style that isn’t the right fit."
Where to get the best Ontario craft beer
Cowbell Brewing Co.
40035 Blyth Rd.
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Located on a 120-acre plot, Blyth Ontario's Cowbell Brewing Co. is a craft beer behemoth. An all-in-one sustainable brewing facility, restaurant, retail store and entertainment space, this is the ultimate day trip destination. Sip on concoctions like their papaya peach IPA and lip-puckering pomegranate honeysuckle sour.
928 College St.
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Inspired by Belgian farmhouse brewing styles, Folly Brewing creates bright and complex beer. They're always up to something fun and funky with out-of-the-box creations like their petite sirah saison, a beer-wine hybrid. Don't miss their Folly & Friends series, a curated beer box program, featuring beer from a selection of Ontario brewers.
Blood Brothers Brewing
165 Geary Ave.
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Craft beer enthusiasts, newbies and their pups are all welcome at this Geary Avenue warehouse. They have a great selection of full-bodied stouts and bright, experimental sours (nitrogen and sauvignon blanc grapes grace the ingredient list). Their easy-drinking Blood Light pale ale pairs perfectly with a hot afternoon.