by Stephen Beaumont
Let’s face it, it took Canada a while to embrace innovation in craft brewing.
In the early days of small-scale brewing in this country, right up until very recent times, in fact, Canadian brewers were mostly content to brew pale ales and golden lagers, cream ales and the occasional porter or stout, rather than veer towards anything relatively odd or unusual. Testament to this general reticence is the fact that in the second edition of my Great Canadian Beer Guide, published in 2001, even something as commonplace today as an IPA is a rare sighting, with fewer than twenty listed among the hundreds of beers reviewed, and most of those the product of brewpubs rather than higher volume production breweries.
Fast-forward fourteen years to the second edition of Joe Wiebe’s Craft Beer Revolution, of course, and IPAs appear in the portfolios of almost all the B.C. breweries listed, as is also the case for Ontario breweries in the 2017 second edition of Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John’s Ontario Craft Beer Guide and Atlantic Canada breweries in Christopher Reynolds and Whitney Moran’s East Coast Crafted. And it is the rare craft brewing operation today that lacks a hazy or New England IPA, much less something barrel-aged, kettle-soured or lactose-infused.
Still, I sometimes wonder if we might have been better off back in the day.
Don’t get me wrong, I have rallied as much as anyone against the conservative streak in Canadian brewing. When I was stocking the taps at Toronto’s beerbistro, I bemoaned the lack of options on the strong, Belgian and hop-forward fronts, and when barrel-aged beers and barley wines and hoppy behemoths finally did arrive in Ontario, I very publicly criticized the lack of nuance and complexity they contained.
And, not as a result of my criticism, I’m sure, the Canadian beerscape changed, improved and matured. Barley wines became global competition winners, saisons and, to a much lesser degree, tripels spread from coast to coast and IPAs improved immeasurably. Yet still, following a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, the first two beers I drank back on Ontario soil, both locally respected IPAs, left me feeling oddly dissatisfied. Not that they were at all bad beers, but they somehow lacked the brightness and vitality of many of the IPAs I had supped in ‘Beervana.’
Of course, Portland breweries have been at this whole IPA thing much longer than have Canadians, yielding a sort of collective understanding of what makes a beer merely strong and hoppy and what makes one strong and hoppy and exciting and memorable. Just as German brewers seem to instinctively understand pale lagers and English brewers get best bitter.
Which made me think that perhaps Canadians have some of that juju themselves, and maybe it resides in those styles we used to brew almost exclusively.
Then I thought about the Canadian beers that have excited me the most over the last year or two, and I realized that almost every one of them is of a style sorely out of fashion today, like basic pale ale or Dortmunder lager, ordinary dry stout or Czech style pilsner, dunkel or Belgian style wheat beer. They are drawn from different parts of the country and different brewing influences, but all are underappreciated and seriously unsexy, at least when presented next to an IPA that’s cloudy to the point of turbidity or a stout that’s laced with lactose and chocolate and who knows what else.
While we Canadians are so often influenced by what happens in the United States, and craft brewing has been no exception to this tendency, perhaps it’s now time to turn our attention more inward and appreciate the beers of our past brewed in the present. They might not be as Instagramable as a mango lassi IPA – although I still think that a bright golden pilsner with two fingers of white foam is about as beautiful as beer can get – but done right, they are pretty damn delicious.