Drinking my way across Ontario’s Southwest

I get asked to do a lot of stuff. Often, it’s something simple, like reviewing a beer, or giving some coverage for an event. Those are nice, as it generally means I get some beer, or to attend an event. Sometimes I get asked to lend my name and brand to things I’m not comfortable with (or downright dislike). In those cases, I decline. And very very occasionally, I get asked to do something absolutely awesome, like when I recently was asked to do a two day tour of Ontario’s Southwest, focusing on the craft breweries of London and Sarnia.

Here is what I knew about London: If you wanted craft beer you went to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium, The King Edward in Ilderton was sort of near there, and there was at least one brewery, in the form of Forked River, who has been going through a spot of bother with the AGCO regarding their retail store.

Here is what I knew about Sarnia: It was a border town, and Chris Hadfield cottaged on Stag Island nearby.

So when my list of breweries, restaurants, and attractions I should visit arrived I was pretty stoked to see a rather long list.

Saturday dawned hot and sticky. The promise of thunderstorms was heavy in the air, despite mostly clear blue skies. I kissed my kids goodbye, dropped the Mrs to work, and headed west. I wish I’d thought to load some Petshop Boys on my phone. At Hamilton I climbed the escarpment, and headed into the beautiful agricultural lands that are part of the belt that surrounds my beloved city, and supplies us with much food, and our pristine water.

Needful things: Knockarounds, and JC and the Hula Girls.

Needful things: Knockarounds, and JC and the Hula Girls.

My goal was to arrive in London by 11, and take in the Covent Gardens Market (130 King St, London) as well as their weekly farmers’ market. Right on time, I found the market to be charming and familiar. A mix of full-time vendors inside (where I bought some green coffee beans to roast at home, and also the falafel that was my lunch; $10 with a soda and tip), as well as a mix of farmers, fish and meat purveyors, wineries, and artisans outside at the farmers’ market. Most people seemed to be local, out to enjoy the warm weather before the hovering thunderheads opened up.

coventry-garden-farmers-market

A multitude of white pop-up tents always piques my interest….

conventry-garden-market

Mezzanines are very helpful for getting needed interior shots…..

Leaving the car I decided to go for a bit of a wander, to see what I could see before the skies opened up.

Adorable children selling lemonade? Check.

Adorable children selling lemonade? Check.

Knowing I couldn’t check into my hotel till 4pm, and feeling fed by falafel and quenched by lemonade, I headed over to visit Forked River Brewing Co. (45 Pacific Court, Unit 16). They are located outside of downtown London, and if you’re planning a visit, you will need a way to get there. I drove, but a cab or a bike would work too, as would local buses. They are tucked away in a little industrial complex, but not hard to find.

Where the magic happens at Forked River.

Where the magic happens.

Steve (one of the founders/brewers)  showed me around the brewery and talked expansion, awards (they got a CBA last year, and are hopeful for more this year), and their event calendar (pretty much every major beer event in Ontario’s Southwest).

He served me the gamut of their beers, and I was impressed. Capital Blonde is a solid blonde ale, dry and a little citrusy. Red Coat Canadian red ale was wonderfully balanced, dry and toasty, with just enough hop to give it some bite. Rip Tide Rye Pale Ale shows delicate use of rye, great mouthfeel and just a touch of spice, with a sturdy hop finish. Mojo Citra rhubarb wheat shows hints of tang from the rhubarb and some bright tropicals from the Citra, all of which play well with the slightly tart wheat beer.

The retail shop does samples, and sells bottles and growlers, as well as branded merchandise. Riptide RPA is also now available full-time at the LCBO.

I call that shade of grey "Biblical"

I call that shade of grey “Biblical”

When the sky looks like that it’s time to check-in to your hotel.

Station Park All Suite Hotel London

Station Park All Suite Hotel

Some of the word you're reading right now, were written on that couch.

Some of the words you’re reading right now, were written on that couch.

I was booked to stay at the Station Park All Suite Hotel (242 Pall Mall St, London). It’s centrally located in downtown London, and was walking distance to everywhere I wanted to visit, save for Forked River. I checked-in, parked my car in the garage, and crashed out for a bit to wait out the apocalypse rain.

Once the initial onslaught was past, I decided to walk the few hundred metres from my hotel to Toboggan Brewing (585 Richmond St, London).

Toboggan Brewing Co.

Toboggan Brewing Co.

Toboggan is super new (they had only been open three weeks before I visited). It’s an attractive brewpub, serving 8~ beers made on-site, as well as a selection of other craft beers, and some mainline brews. I visited the brewery with Sam Smith, son of the owner and also a brewer there. At 24, he is getting quite the experience brewing with Tom Schmidt (also brewmaster at Spearhead). Given the beers I sampled, I wouldn’t be surprised if he became something of a brewing force in the area.

I love flights.

I love flights.

You can get flights in factors of 4 at the bar, served in adorable toboggan glass-holders. I opted to sample all 6 Toboggan beers on draft, as well as their house ciders. The ciders are made in partnership with a local cider maker.

The standard cider was nice, and just a bit sweet. Exactly what the average person asking for a cider would be looking for. The Dry Cider was notably drier and tannic. Just a bit of an acidic bite, and some complexity from the apple blend gave it depth beyond it’s refreshing palate.

The beers on offer were their blonde, blueberry wheat, amber, American pale ale, IPA, and stout. The blonde, while Sam assured me was a brew to please the drinkers of the big brewery yellow beer, was so much more. Late hopped with Citra and amarillo hops, it was tropical and citrusy. The malt was just sweet enough with a bit of honey malt, to give something for the aromatic hops to work against. I was very pleasantly surprised. The Blueberry wheat showed just enough natural blueberry to give some earthy sweetness, which worked very well with the solid, slightly spice wheat ale. Toboggan’s amber is fantastic in it’s simplicity. Perfectly balanced, toasty and a some spicy hops. The American pale ale show classic west coast piney hops and snappy dry finish. The IPA is a new world classic, but and bold with a biting hop presence, and solid caramelly maltiness. The stout is big and robust, with big coffee and chocolate aromas.

Flights are $7.50/four samples, and with two lovely perch tacos ($5/each), I had a tasty late afternoon meal for $30. And you can hit up their retail store for growlers and howlers (half-sized growlers) of their wonderful beers, as well as the usual selection of branded merchandise. As their main focus is in getting their production up, to keep up with demand in the brewpub, they will not be at as many events as others, but they are in the heart of downtown, and are easy to find, and even easier to remain at.

Later in the evening, under a grey drizzle worthy of London’s namesake, I wandered over to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium (420 Talbot St, London), to connect with Milos, and meet an old friend.

Milos' Emporium of Craft Beer.

Milos’ Emporium of Craft Beer.

With 25 draft lines and 2 cask hand-pumps, there is no shortage of beer. And if you’re overwhelmed, the staff know their stuff, and can make excellent recommendations, whether you are just in for a beer, or are having a meal. Most beer is served in 16oz glassware, for $6.50/glass. The exception are very high alcohol beers, which are generally served in 12oz tulips. Milos also has an incredible cellar of bottled beer from some of the finest breweries in Europe, as well as some of the greatest in Canada.

milos-chickpea-burger

While they are renowned for their beer, Milos also takes great pride in his food, which is sourced as much as possible from local producers. I enjoyed their house-made beer nuts ($4.50), and an amazing chickpea burger, topped with pickled turnip, harissa yogurt, and tahini ($13). Match that with a pair of beers and tax and tip, and dinner is still under $40.

After that, I was glad to collapse, entirely full of beer and food and good times, into my wonderfully comfortable bed and sleep like the dead.

Sunday morning was still grey and damp. I wandered down to The Early Bird (355 Talbot St, London) for breakfast. A funky little diner, The Early Bird is part 1950s diner, part Tiki bar, and part rock music shrine. The hip young staff are friendly and efficient, and quickly I found myself with a cup of coffee and a mountain of decadent french toast, smothered in thyme-poached local berries ($12.95, with coffee tax and tip $20).

early-bird-french-toast

I then picked up another local friend who was to be my guide out to Sarnia, and for a quick foray across the border into Port Huron, MI. The drive is a straight-forward 60 minutes which gave us time to catch-up.

stones-and-bones

Knowing that we were still a bit early to check out Refined Fool, we popped into Stones and Bones (223 Christina St N, Sarnia), a cool little museum on the main street. We took a quick look around, and I realized that I would have to return later with my little dude, who would go crazy for all the fossils and rocks. We swung through the gift shop for some “sorry daddy was away all weekend” gifts, and headed down to Refined Fool (137 Davis St, Sarnia).

We felt welcome.

We felt welcome.

Refined Fool is also relatively new, and reminded me a lot of my friends at 5 Paddles. A group of buddies who home-brewed together, and have now found success as a commercial brewery. They don’t pull any punches, and on offer to sample that day was: Chester’s Revenge smoked wheat, The Brouhaha Nut Brown, Antique Peepshow IPA, Joe Sent Me milk stout, One Tax Break Short of a Great Name breakfast stout, Ripsnorter vanilla bourbon porter, and Strike Four quadrupel. Sadly they had just run out of their Noble Oaf rye saison and Short Pier, Long Walk IIPA. All are available in 12oz samples for $5.00-6.50, or in sample paddles of four flights for $7.

refined-fool-beer

The smoked wheat was interesting, showing lots of good German smoked malt and a nice touch of wheat. The nut brown was the most “simple” and yet was a fantastic brown ale. Roasty and nutty, dry, but balanced. The IPA was not as aggressive as some, but floral and a little tropical. The milk stout was properly sweet and smokey. The breakfast stout was thick with roasty coffee, with just enough malts and hops to keep balanced. The vanilla bourbon porter showed plenty of the promised bourbon qualities, but also some chocolately malty porter notes as well. The quad was jammy and spicy, with a notable alcoholic heat.

Their retail store has growlers and bottles available, as well as some merchandise.

Needing a refill of coffee before we braved the under-construction bridge to Port Huron, we decided to seek out Alternate Grounds Dockside (97 Seaway Rd, Sarnia). Right on the St Clair river, we found it to be more of a diner, than a coffee shop, and wished we were ready for lunch. We grabbed two coffees for the road and headed towards the bridge. On my friend Paul’s advice, we were heading to two beer shops: Wolverine and Ryan’s Party shop, to pick-up some hard-to-get American beers, then a quick stop at Thumb Coast Brewery for beers and a late lunch. As ususal, I was blown away by the selection of beers unheard of in Ontario, just a pleasingly short hop over the river. People who spend time in Sarnia have my envy: in addition to the amazing Refined Fool, they have access to Thumb Coast, and some of the best craft beer from all over the USA less than 10 minutes away. An added bonus: the views of the south end of Lake Huron from the bridge are stunning.

ale-house-london

I dropped Paul back to his family in time for dinner, and made my way over to the London Ale House (288 Dundas St, London). Part English pub, part sports bar, the London Ale House actually surprised me a bit. The draft line up included some decent beer offerings from Forked River, as well as Mad and Noisy (which yes, is owned by Creemore and by proxy Molson/Coors). They regularly have specials, for instance Sunday evening when I was in, appetizers were half price, sharing plates were 25% off, and you could get a domestic pint and the house-made hamburger for $5 each. If you played your cards right, you could have a very full dinner and a beer and be out for less than $20 tax/tip included. I tried a few of the appetizers, which were mostly predictable bar-food things, but were pleasant, and went well with my Forked River RPA.

I was enjoying myself so much, I nearly forgot I was working, and needed to photograph things.

I was enjoying myself so much, I nearly forgot I was working, and needed to photograph things.

I was ready for the drive home, but needed to stop in on The King Edward pub in Ilderton (13239 Ilderton Rd, Ilderton), which is less than a 20 minute drive north of London. A traditional English pub, they are known at least as far as Toronto for their amazing staff and service, and fantastically well-maintained cask ales. It was worth the diversion, and the pint of MacLean’s IPA was the perfect way to cap a wonderful weekend away.

Deserving of whatever royal titles you can think of. I'll go with HRH The King Edward, OG, Ilderton, Ontario.

Deserving of whatever royal titles you can think of. I’ll go with HRH The King Edward, OG, Ilderton, Ontario.

In my adult life, I’ve nearly always weekended north (in cottage country), or else east (cottages or Ottawa area). I must confess I’ve rather missed out. The whole area of Ontario’s Southwest is wonderful. London and Sarnia are fun towns to hang out in. There are more country spots than just The King Edward in Ilderton to explore, and of course, Stratford and their amazing dramatic festival are not far away. And if the three breweries I visited are any indication, we can expect more good things in terms of beer from the region. I will most certainly be back, sooner, rather than later.

Would you like to visit too? Well have I got news for you! Ontario’s Southwest is running a contest, “The Dream Foodie Escape”, at oswculinary.com/enter-to-win. Go there, drag three ingredients from the array of eight and drop them onto the harvest table, then fill out your info to be entered. Then tag your photos of Ontario’s Southwest foodie inspiration using the #OSWPourAway and #OSWDigIn to increase your chances to win.

The Dream Foodie Escape is a four day adventure and is valued at $1500. It includes three nights accommodation, dinning experiences, a cheese tasting, multiple winery tours and tastings, craft beer and cider tastings, and a gas card for transportation. Full details at oswculinary.com. Plus you can check this post out there too: http://oswculinary.com/foodie/view/Nano-Nano

2 Comments

  1. Bud Lorch
    Posted June 15, 2015 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    It’s too bad, but it appears “The Witty Traveller” didn’t even think of driving down to St. Thomas to Railway City Brewery.

  2. chris
    Posted June 15, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey Bud,
    I actually (obviously) did think of it. Except contractual obligations, and a very limited timeline meant that I wasn’t able to visit Railway City, Walkerville, or Motor Burger. But no need to get your knickers in a knot, my friend Doug did a similar trip, and those were *exactly* the breweries he visited. Feel free to note in his comments that he failed to visit Toboggan, Forked River, and Refined Fool.
    http://oswculinary.com/foodie/view/Ale-Tales

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