This week’s Canada’s Craft Beer post comes from our Ontario and Quebec craft beer guy, David Ort. Today David talks to the folks at Exchange Brewery about how they make their beers recognizable for their Niagara connections.
How many craft breweries need to open in Niagara before it has to change its name to “beer and wine country"? After only a year in (fully fledged) business, Robin Ridesic’s Exchange Brewery has a growing list of accolades, including three medals from the Ontario Brewing Awards, and is bringing beer lovers to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Right out of the gate, Exchange made it known that their beers would be recognizable for their Niagara connections. "For our beer programme,” explains head brewer Sam Maxbauer (formerly of Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan), "we're just trying to be able to play around. And I know a lot of brewers do that too, but we're really experimenting with local ingredients, fruits, and yeast cultures."
All of those influences — the yeast cultures in particular — make for distinctly tart, sour, or funky notes in many of Maxbauer’s creations. Roughly speaking, yeast and related beneficial-to-beer bacteria enter the process either by the brewer’s hand (also known as “pitching”), by leaving unfermented wort open to the elements (“spontaneous fermentation”), or when cultures make their way out of wood and into the beer during the barrel aging process.
"Our barrels are all secondhand wine barrels and we try to get them from more natural winemakers like Pearl-Morisette and Southbrook, which are organic and biodynamic,” says Maxbauer, who goes on to estimate that 60 percent of the beer Exchange makes goes into barrels.
Pearl-Morisette, he explains, is particularly non-interventionist about their winemaking. In other words, they emphasize finesse and do their best to let grapes and natural yeast express flavours in their wine. "We embrace that funk and that essence of Niagara in the barrels,” he adds.
Visiting The Exchange (the name comes from the building, Niagara’s first telephone exchange) is also a very Niagara experience. "It's easier being in a wine region,” Maxbauer says. "If people come to a tasting room they feel like they've in an environment where they're willing to try something that they're not normally used to."
Not all of their beers are unusual or challenging for those visiting their first brewery taproom. They’ve given each one a number from 1 to 10 corresponding to whether they’re more approachable or aggressive. For example, they make an amber ale that comes in at a beginner-friendly two.
Maxbauer also points to their hefeweizen and Berliner weisse as good hot-weather options when I ask what he’ll be drinking at home with friends on a July afternoon this summer.
Christine Nagy, the assistant brewer at Exchange, brings her experience from NOTL neighbour Silversmith and from her time as head brewer at Louis Cifer in Toronto.
Exchange beers are gradually making inroads with drinkers outside of their home region. There’s a good chance of finding one on tap at Toronto beer favourites like Birreria Volo, either of the Bar Hop locations or the Wren on the Danforth. About three dozen Loblaws locations have bottles of the easy-drinking Session Saison and their Golden Ale is making its way into LCBOs this week.
The latter is one the best ambassadors, I think, for Exchange’s take on beer making. It has both bright and tropical fruit notes as well as a subtle funkiness and the oak-and-vanilla notes that will be familiar to white wine drinkers.
This summer, expect to see the elegant prosecco-style bottles at cookouts and pool parties. It’s also worth heading to the source for a glimpse of the interesting beer coming from the Ontario wine country’s backyard.
Check out all our Canada’s Craft Beer articles.
David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.