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Craft beer boom takes hold in Southern Ontario

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – The family dynamic has changed among some recent travelers to Clifton Hill.

Blame the Niagara Brewing Co., which opened earlier this summer between the Rainforest Cafe and the Guinness Book of World Records Museum in the heart of the kitschy tourist district.

“When a family sees we’re here, the mom and the dad have a discussion at the door. Then the dad stays and mom and the kids leave,” said Karen Belfry, a hostess and retail sales associate in Southern Ontario’s newest local brewery.

The dynamic is part of a larger craft brewing phenomenon that mirrors the one with a firm grasp on Western New York.

There now are seven craft beer-making havens in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the Lake, with two more scheduled to open in the next year – part of an explosion of small breweries, brew pubs and contract brewers from the Falls to Toronto.

Four years ago, they numbered about 20. Since then, 40 more have opened and at least 20 more are in the planning stages, according to the Ontario Beer Network. Toronto accounts for most of the growth, but smaller cities to its south also enjoy more choices when it comes to bellying up to the bar for local brews, or buying bottles, cans and growlers to go as alternatives to the two big provincial outlet stores: the Beer Store and Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

“Being here in wine country, beer goes hand-in-hand,” said Ram McAllister, bar manager at Silversmith Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “We’ve got tons of barrels and lots of like-minded people. Right now, we mostly want people to know that we’re here and we like to share what we’re making. It’s the same kind of attitude it is down in the States. Everybody is really excited about beer.”

Belfry, 23, grew up in Warkworth, Ont., a small town of about 500 outside Peterborough. She studied biology for three years looking to follow in the footsteps of her father, a paramedic, before she started taking classes last summer at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery.

Her classroom quarters include a public tasting room on the Niagara College Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, which has churned out about 120 graduates since it opened in 2010. They include Dave Collins, chief beermaker at Resurgence Brewing Co. on Buffalo’s West Side, and Jerad Lewinski and Jason Crossett, beermakers for the New York Beer Project brewery scheduled to open later this year in the Town of Lockport.

Belfry is on a similar track.

“Beer is my passion,” she said.

She recently took a Buffalo News reporter on a tour of four of the most popular microbreweries tight to the U.S. border, stops that easily can be incorporated into a trip to the Falls or nearby wineries. You can eat at two of the brew operations, as well.

1. Niagara College Teaching Brewery 135 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake (firstdraft.ca)

Many Western New Yorkers may be familiar with the Niagara College Wine School, which has a tasting room and vineyard near the college entrance along Route 89, about a mile from the Queen Elizabeth Way. They might not know a beermaking school sits just up the entry road, alongside the college horticultural program. The place includes a retail outlet run by students who make several standard beers and small batches that age in the 5- and 10-barrel tanks you can see through the tasting room window. The small batches have uncatchy names: Student #1, Student #2, Student #3 and Student #4.

Immediately, you can begin to taste the differences in craft brews north of the border, which tend to be a little lighter on India Pale Ales (IPAs) and heavier on stylings from Great Britain, Ireland and other parts of Europe. The flagship brew here: 1812 Butler’s Bitters. Its Brewmaster Series includes a strong ale, IPA, wheat, stout and cherry pilsner, the latter of which uses locally produced cherry extract and has surpassed Butler’s Bitters in sales, Belfry said. “I like the stout best,” she said. “It’s nice, well-balanced. You taste a lot of chocolate and coffee but it’s not too sweet.”

2. Silversmith Brewing 1523 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake (silversmithbrewing.com)

Silversmith is one of two brewing outfits along the route that leads from the west into “Old Town” Niagara-on-the-Lake and includes Trius, Jackson-Triggs and Pillitterri Estates wineries. The brewery was cradled into an old Anglican church built in the late 1800s and converted into retail space after it closed a half century ago. Outdoor guides Chris Pontsioen and Matt Swan opened the place in 2011 with a desire to replace “crappy beer” with better local varieties.

Offerings from its darkwood bar include Bavarian Breakfast Wheat, Black Lager, Hill 145 Golden Ale and Dam Buster British Pale Ale. Its Tide & Vine Brewery Kitchen offers wings, bratwurst, fish and veggie Po’Boys, and three kinds of oysters prepared on-site by the Viking Oyster Co. Silversmith also is one of several craft breweries that has been granted provincial permission to serve beer from other breweries because its beermaking operation is considered separate from its pub. A flight of four standards fetches $7 (Canadian) and you’ll find here that Ontario IPAs tend to be milder than many American-made varieties.

“We have an interesting brewing tradition in Ontario,” said McAllister, the bar manager. “It came largely from British origin. Quebec has a really big Belgian brewing history, so that’s the kind of craft beer you’ll get there. So there’s a little bit of influence from Quebec that comes here.”

McAllister is a Niagara College Teaching Brewery grad. Several part-time staffers at Silversmith and its craft brewery kin are current students – giving these spots a 20-something vibe similar to its Buffalo cousins. McAllister likes the Western New York beer scene, as well, and is a frequent visitor to Blue Monk, Resurgence and Premier Gourmet, the latter of which he calls “the best bottle shop I’ve ever been to.”

3. Niagara Oast House Brewers 2017 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake (oasthousebrewers.ca)

A barnlike building, opened in late 2012, nestles in front of a vineyard a short drive down the same road as Silversmith. Inside, a copper-topped bar features four taps. Growlers and 750-milliliter bottled beers are for sale here, as well as tastings. This place is to beer what Diamond Estates up the road is to wine tasting – a quick in and out, unless you want to play ping-pong. There’s a table off the tasting room. Standard offerings include Barn Raiser, Farmer’s Tan IPA and Hef’s Big Wood. The brew that bows to Hugh Hefner is a hefeweizen wheat aged in oak barrels. Fall seasonals are expected to include a Dutch pale ale, strawberry rhubarb beer and a peach brew, said Amanda Ali, a beer shed associate.

Barn Raiser – similar to an IPA or American Pale Ale, but neither – is the flagship beer. “It’s very hop forward with grapefruit notes,” Ali said. “It’s our most popular beer.” You can find it on tap in about 250 bars and restaurants in Ontario. Oast house tends to see more U.S. visitors from outside New York than those from nearby, Ali said. “A lot of the tours that just used to cater to the wineries now are putting us on the stops,” she said. “People don’t think of it as a beer place but people love what we’re doing, which we love because we know the States are ahead of Canada in craft brewing. We’re younger here.”

4. Niagara Brewing Co. 4915-A Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls (niagarabrewingcompany.com)

A great place if you plan a trip to the Falls with teens who can be handed $20 and sent on their way to the cheesy Clifton Hill tourist traps – or for couples and groups who want to leave the kids at home to get that vacation feel close to Buffalo. Niagara Brewing is owned by the DiCienzo family, whose holdings include the Sheraton and Crowne Plaza hotel complex next door and hotel properties in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The two-story spot has the feel of a craft brew pub you might find in Denver, San Francisco or Seattle. Like Resurgence, it has a garage door along one wall that can be lowered depending on weather and raised for outdoor seating.

Its brands are made on the premises and flights of four are available for $8 (Canadian).

It also offers other Ontario craft beers and wines. “We have a few solid core brands,” Belfry said. “We’ve been selling out of our lager like crazy.” The others include Beer Devil IPA, Amber Eh! and Honeymoon Peach Radler, a lighter malt beer with a touch of ginger and peaches. Food choices include a snack sampler, warm pretzels, tortilla chips and guacamole, cheese and charcuterie boards, and a slider trio.

Belfry enjoys working in the place as she looks to her future in the Ontario craft beer industry, which like its Western New York counterpart has found creative ways to stoke enthusiasm.

“A lot of the brewers are starting to work together,” she said. “There’s a lot of festivals and interesting programs going on. There’s a lot of 5K running groups that will grab craft beers after a run. There’s the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies, a women’s-only beer club where there’s an event every month. There’s the craft beer passport program, where you buy a passport for a set price and that entitles you to X number of pints at X number of bars.”

What does her father make of this career pursuit?

“As long as I occasionally make beers he likes,” Belfry said, “he’s fine with it.”

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com

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