By: Alyssa Andres
Over the past few decades, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, has become known as one of Canada’s premier destinations for wine. The historical region of Canada sees thousands of tourists each year who come to experience the tastes of Niagara. While there is no shortage of spectacular wine tasting to be done in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the newest phenomenon to hit the area is the craft beer movement. As tourists continue to flock to the area each year, thirsty for the latest and greatest in food and beverage, local breweries have become a spectacle of their own. Now beer lovers can visit the region for a tour of the local craft brewery scene. On these tours, brewers are offering an array of small-batch beers that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else.
One of Canada’s oldest towns, Niagara-on-the-Lake was established in 1792. Located where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, the region experiences more mild winter temperatures than its neighboring cities and a much longer growing season. Local families have farmed the land for generations, and, for over two hundred years, the town has been home to extensive fields of fruit trees and grapevines. Only in the past decade have tourists, who already flocked to the area for a glimpse of the world-famous Niagara Falls, started to recognize nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake as another must-see destination. Now, a bustling tourism industry has begun to take form in the little town.
Straying from the large scale, big batch production of modern-day brewers, Niagara-on-the-Lake breweries are producing small-batch, handcrafted beer, which allows them to experiment more with their unique personality and flair. Focusing on natural and more traditional production methods, Niagara craft brewers are taking us back to the roots of the region. The breweries tend to focus on seasonal ingredients, traditional brewing methods and sustainable business.
When it comes to style, the region knows no bounds, producing styles ranging from classic and traditional to completely out of the box. Better yet, most tasting rooms offer an array of rotating taps that change regularly, so you can sample an Eisbock made with skins from icewine grapes on one day and a milk and cookies porter made with actual chocolate chip cookies on another. This rotation keeps tourists and locals on the lookout for the latest and greatest of Niagara beers.
Setting a Path
The first craft breweries started opening up in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2011, back when the tourism industry was still growing. The Niagara Oast House was one of the first craft breweries to open their doors to the public. Since then, they have become a hub in the community and a prized destination for tourists.
Set inside a historic barn built in the 1800s, Oast House creates seasonally inspired beers using on-site well water. Upstairs, the barn has been converted into a German-style bierhall that overlooks fields of grapevines and hosts events of up to 80 people. In the back of the brewery, Oast House has an incredible patio complete with an outdoor bar and a stage set atop a farm truck for live performances. S
Staples like the Oast House Barnraiser Country Ale and Pitchfork Porter can be found across Canada, and new, innovative beers are being released constantly. You will find an array of unique offerings, such as their Oast House Verjus Sour, the first of its kind, made from pressing under-ripe pinot noir grapes and combining them with three different malts and a unique yeast strain created in-house.
That’s just one example of Oast House’s original recipes. The brewery is continually concocting new and innovative methods of production, releasing new beers regularly. They are a must-visit when touring Niagara’s craft breweries. When visiting, be sure to enjoy the offerings of the brewery’s restaurant, Brushfire Smokehouse. Their menu is well known to be some of the best BBQ in the area.
The other brewery that paved the way for craft beer in Niagara-on-the-Lake is Silversmith Brewing Company, which poured its first beers in 2012. Silversmith Brewing is housed in an old Anglican Church built in 1884 that’s been transformed into a brewery and restaurant space complete with vaulted ceilings and incredible stained-glass windows. It also boasts live music and community events. The brewery’s signature Black Lager has been the star of the show since the brewery first opened its doors. Their traditional Schwarzbier is a local favorite with notes of coffee and chocolate on the nose and a smooth, crisp finish. It is a must-try when doing a beer tasting in the area.
This year brings on an expansion for the Silversmith Brewing Company, an indication of its continued success. The brewery has been working hard to complete renovations on a new event space and larger brewing facility, set to open this year.
Creating a Legacy
These two businesses made way for others, and, since the early part of the decade, Niagara-on-the-Lake has seen close to a dozen new craft breweries open their doors to rave reviews. Bench Brewing Company is one of the newer craft breweries in the Niagara region that is especially thriving. They are taking the idea of local and bringing it to a whole new level.
Located in the Twenty Valley, also known as “The Bench,” Bench Brewing Company sits in the heart of Niagara fruit and wine country. Surrounded by orchards and vineyards boasting everything from cherries to peaches, this craft brewery decided to embrace its landscape and create beers centered around the local produce that so abundantly surrounds it. Here, they use everything from elderflowers to spruce tips to craft an award-winning line of beers.
Bench Brewing not only ages their beers in French Oak foeders previously used to house Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but they even age their beer on the skins of the grapes themselves. Their Folklore Dark Sour Ale is aged on Cabernet Franc skins taken locally from the Twenty Valley. The sour ale earned Canada’s country winner in the Experimental category at the 2019 World Beer Awards, an annual competition that sees thousands of beers from all over the world.
Bench Brewing placed in several competition categories, including awards for their Clean Slate Pale Ale and their Plum Grove Sour Ale. Acknowledgments like these help to support the region’s growth and development as well as the international reputation of Canadian craft beer.
As the region’s wine and beer industry continues to grow, the local Niagara College has developed programs to support the education of skilled workers in the industry. The college now offers several full-time programs on winemaking, brewing and distilling. Niagara College Teaching Brewery is honing in on the next generation of Niagara brewers, who will continue the tradition of craft brewing in Niagara. The two-year Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program started in 2010 and has since seen over 150 brewers graduate with almost 100% employment rate. The college works to drive a growing number of young people to the area who will be the next leaders in the industry and help build more local businesses.
The teaching brewery has an impressive facility with an on-site hop yard and the capabilities of producing 1000L of beer at a time. Students cover everything from brewing and evaluating beer to packaging and selling it. The college also sells the beer to the public at its tasting room. The line of beer is fittingly named Beer 101, and each can has a label that comes with a lesson on the corresponding style of beer.
The label includes the flavor profile of each beer, its history, ingredients and proper food pairings. Beers from lagers and IPAs to Saisons and sours are available for tasting and purchase in the retail store. You can also find them at several bars and restaurants in the area.
From a little farm town to a bustling tourist hub, Niagara-on-the-Lake and the surrounding region has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Now home to almost 100 wineries and nearly a dozen craft breweries, Niagara-on-the-Lake has an opportunity to change the way people think of Canadian food and beverage.
Through standing by traditional values, practicing sustainable approaches to business and putting out diverse, quality products, the town continues to nurture and perfect the art of craft brewing and winemaking. Whether you’re a wine lover or you prefer the tastes of a quality craft brew, mark Niagara-on-the-Lake down on your list of the next must-see travel destinations