Planning your next holiday around touring craft breweries? Beer vacations are on the rise and our Canadian Craft Beer guys are here to help with some handy craft beer tour guides that will take you from coast to coast. David Ort starts it off with a craft beer tour of Hamilton, Beamsville and the Niagara region - also known as the Golden Horseshoe - that includes travel tips and breweries to stop and visit!
A Hamilton and Niagara Craft Beer Tour
Itching to escape the big city this summer? Heard about the rejuvenation in Hamilton and want a firsthand look? Have an out-of-town guest who absolutely has to see Niagara Falls? Whatever your motivation, make sure the schedule includes stops at the excellent craft breweries that ring the southwest corner of Lake Ontario.
Don't Taste and Drive
Right off the bat, we should have a serious conversation about transportation for this trip. With four breweries in Hamilton itself and another four spread out between Beamsville and Niagara-on-the-Lake, driving sounds like an attractive option. Don’t taste and drive.
As well as the usual problems with mixing alcohol and cars, the variable size and strength of taproom servings can make it difficult to really know how much you’ve had. Much better to talk one of your group members into being the designated driver.
But here’s what I’d do: take the bike train to Niagara Falls and then head up to Niagara-on-the-Lake for Friday night. Then you have Saturday to cycle your leisurely way to Beamsville and Sunday can focus on Hamilton.
Obviously, it’s important to avoid intoxicated cycling, so this schedule spaces out the stops, but go at a pace that you think is safe and consider the many options for putting someone else in charge of the driving.
The Exchange Brewery
Right in the very centre of Ontario’s most picturesque tourist town, Exchange has an excellent tasting bar and bottle shop. They’ve developed a reputation for excellent farmhouse ales, barrel-aged projects and beers that benefit from wine influences. (All of their oud bruin, Flanders red and peppercorn saison fall nicely into these categories.) But their breakfast stout and golden ale are just as good and, admittedly, more approachable for a first stop.
This summer also sees their hefeweizen and berliner weisse appear in cans — two great picnic styles in a lightweight package. Warm-weather weekends often see a special creation, with a nod to Niagara produce perhaps, on offer at the tasting room.
Niagara Oast House Brewers
Really, all of Niagara is wine country, but somehow Oast House feels like the spot most likely to attract stretch SUV limos filled with groups in coordinated, wine-stained golf shirts. The top-notch beer makes up for the crowds, though.
Oast’s biere de garde continues to improve and they're also putting plenty of their fruit-infused concoctions (some like the apricot IPA, but I’ve had better results with the strawberry-rhubarb ale) into cans. As of now, they have a permanent restaurant (positive notices are already rolling in) and the patio offers a serene break.
Silversmith Brewing Company
Silversmith Brewing is a recognizable milestone further out on Niagara Stone Road for its historic church setting. They make a black lager that's won a fistful of awards, for good reason: it's one of the best in that style in Ontario. A glass of it plus a shared tasting flight of the limited releases available when you visit is the best plan here. I expect even wider selection as soon as their under-construction expansion comes online later in 2018.
The excellent side benefit of visiting Silversmith is that the brewery is directly across the street from The Pie Plate. Here they sell Niagara’s best peach pie — a tall order given the close proximity of so many peach trees — and also some more unusual treats, like a pizza with grilled peaches. If you’re there before stone-fruit season the lemon meringue is the on-the-money choice.
Bench Brewing Company
Our fourth stop is a bit on the theoretical side, I admit. Bench Brewing has been making some excellent brews (Citra Grove dry hopped sour and Ball’s Falls IPA are two standbys), but their tasting room is still a work in progress. They’re angling to be open in June 2018 and I’m confident it will fit right in with the excellent Beamsville-area wineries.
August and The Good Earth are your best bets for a restorative Saturday dinner in Beamsville. Both have menus that are thoroughly in tune with the local food scene that starts at their respective doorsteps. The town also has plenty of B&Bs for further restoration.
Sunday can start at a gentle pace. Our first stop, Clifford Brewing, is the only craft brewery in east Hamilton and doesn’t open until noon on Sundays. You’ve all heard about their Clifford Porter, right? It deserves the attention, but so do their APA, Pinball Wizard, and the newer lager creations.
Now it’s into the newly bustling core of Hamilton for a late lunch and a beer at Merit. They do a straightforward West Coast IPA (Young Rival) that definitely leans to the tropical. That foreshadows the rest of the lineup where they engage in some pretty excellently wacky experiments with fruit flavours derived from both hops and actual produce.
Right now, that includes SVP SVP with sous vide pineapple (it’s an anniversary beer, so may not last for long) and Way Out that packs lavender, lemon, vanila, tarragon and coriander into a wheat base.
Merit’s food menu rotates around the sausage creations by the chef Jesse Vallins. They also happen to be located on James Street, which, along with the two blocks to the south, is home base for Hamilton’s restaurant resurgence. The Winking Judge, Mezcal Tacos & Tequila, Fsh & Chp, Nique, The Burnt Tongue and Jack & Lois are all worth considering, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
Grain & Grit and Fairweather Brewing Company
On Hamilton’s west side, our two final stops are relative newcomers. Grain & Grit and Fairweather are an easy two-minute walk from each other and really should be taken together. Fairweather’s beers tend to be a bit more experimental (I quite like their High Grade American IPA and Natural Mystic, a white IPA conditioned on cedar) and their taproom is filled with bright sunlight. G&G has slightly more straightforward beers — Bees Knees blonde ale and Citrus saison are worth trying — and excellent samosas as a light food option.
From here, the options for getting back to Toronto are plenty. Closest by, the McMaster bus stop has options to connect you to the rest of the GO system. Remember that an eight-brewery tour is a marathon, not a sprint. Travel responsibly and don’t feel any shame in opting to take bottles or growlers home with you instead of overdoing it on taproom samples.
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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 [email protected]