Great craft beer comes from unlikely places, such as when your wife wins a trip to Montreal on The Price Is Right
In our quixotic quest to find the world’s best beer, Dave and I find ourselves in places both exotic and banal. French Canada is somewhere between the two. Do the locals believe that fries are best served wet, sloshed in gravy and cheese curds? Sure, it’s their thing. And wine is certainly the adult beverage of choice in this old city. But is there craft beer in Montreal? Oh yes, indeed there is.
The Oxford Companion to Beer notes that the province of Quebec “is home to some of the most creative and talented brewers in the country”. For the majority, priding themselves as French people, beer is an afterthought in Montreal, living in the broadly cast shadow of vino; somewhere between Perrier and Champagne. But secondary status does not necessarily indicate sub-par product. To the contrary, unique cultural elements in the province of Quebec come together to gift beer aficionados with a special terroir, capable of producing wonderful brews.
The French gastronomy prides freshness and purity of flavor above all else, and these are elements that can certainly lead to wonderful craft beer. Another factor in the craft beer in Montreal is the British influence. Even though Canadian CAMRA leads its antiquated zealotry from a far western province, their beer engine loving fetish is a strong influence in the local beer bars and brewpubs. Sample anything on cask before buying the pint.
Starting out, no craft beer in Montreal drew me in more than Dieu du Ciel. Their beer garden faces a street that seems to host more bicycles than cars. Inside, a medium sized gastropub and surprisingly petite bar wrap around a small tank room. The ten minute, uphill walk from the Metro will have you thirsty, drawing your eyes to the lengthy draft list. On our visit there were over 10 beers on draft including Belgian and American IPAs plus a cask brew. Péché Mortel, their best known beer, is a coffee flavored imperial stout and served on nitro. Having had this in bottles I was not prepared for the greatness of a fresh pour. Dark roasted cocoa powder, with a bready sweetness and dry finish, with only a hint of the alcohol. The addition of nitro made it all the easier on the palette and Péché should only ever be poured this way. The cask beer, Friendship and Farewell, was a high ICU (International Citrus Units) India pale ale. A collaboration between Dieu du Ciel and Hill Farmstead, this delicious brew with significant body, was a citrus hop lovers dream. As quaffable as an 6% ABV beer I have tasted. Also tasted was Pee Wee, an American Pale Ale that was a bit malty, with strong bittering hops in the finish. Less piney than a west coast, and less citrus than an eastern APA, but quite drinkable. Paired these with a dynamic and delicious local cheese plate.
For a very different feel, Benelux brewpub offers up an industrial look, with thumping euro-house music and hip youth; the wall of 1/6th barrels are the only hint this is a spot for craft beer in Montreal. First up was Amok, a Belgian strong dark ale that needed a bit of spice and more defined yeast, but was otherwise well met. Then came CUDA: An American “West-Coast” IPA that was a joy to drink. Huge pine and floral hops explode in the mouth, commingling marvelously with the hop bite. If you are in Montreal, GET THIS BEER!!! Best IPA I have had since Hopslam or Pliny the Younger earlier in 2012. We tasted a few other decent ales and La Marge, a chocolaty but thin stout. Not one beer was bad, and most were above average. Benelux has a weird mix of European lounge surrounding a brewery that fits perfectly in Montreal. The service is good and the beer is excellent.
The final brewery we tried in Montreal seemed to be a favorite of locals of a certain age. Les 3 Brasseurs is actually a chain founded in France, with each location brewing its own beer on site. The concept reminded me a bit of Pizza Port locations in San Diego. Unfortunately, the beer did not match the quality of what Port Brewing is doing. Les 3 Brasseurs actually has at least nine locations. We stopped by their spot on St. Catherine street. The service was friendly inn their multi-leveled , contemporary, if a bit generic, space. There is a large food menu, and free wi-fi is available. We ordered a sampler and found it wanting. Other than the Raspberry Red, a salvageable fruit beer, the beers were bland and in a few cases infected. Hopefully other locations are better.
With so many brewpubs, finding craft beer bars that don’t brew actually became a challenge. Luckily, the one we did find was worth the effort and the hike from the Metro. Vices & Versa is a beer bar and bistro that takes local seriously. These guys serve exclusively beers from Quebec, excluding the macros like Molson. Even Unibroue is too commercial to make their 33 taps. The bar is decent but on good weather days you can enjoy a wonderful escape from the city in their verdant patio. A laid back, casual feel makes taking your time to find the perfect sampler of small batch, Quebec craft beer a delight. Brewers like Dunham, Brasseurs Illimités, and Le Bilboquet get a chance to show their wares off to appreciative, mostly younger, craft beer fans. In addition to the beer a few ciders were on draft. One we sampled, the Cud Cuvee Sur Lie fr Les Vergers de la Colline, clocked in at a whopping 10% ABV; not bad if you have to drink cider! This place totally kicked ass and I cannot recommend it enough to beer fans visiting Montreal.
At one time, I, like many Americans, thought of Canada as we did Europe, having a great beer culture and as such, brewing better beer. While the USA may still be the land of Bud Light, beer fans know that the renaissance in American brewing has spawned perhaps the most creative and best brewed beers of the past decade. Canada, from my perspective, had been a non-factor in the increases in quality and innovation seen in brewers to the south. That was my opinion until I visited Montreal, at least. While still playing it conservatively, Canadian brewers in Quebec are certainly brewing top quality beers including big IPAs, that deserve to be better distributed and recognized for the excellent brews they are. If you are ever visiting Montreal, do yourself a favor and try some of the local beer. You’ll be happy you did.