The Bar Towel is proud to present a new series entitled “A Beer At…”, where we feature a single bar or restaurant, have a beer there and get a feel for what makes them special. Our first visit is to Chicago’s famed The Publican, a shrine to beer and pork... > READ MORE

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A Beer At…The Publican

A Beer At…The Publican

The Bar Towel is proud to present a new series entitled “A Beer At…”, where we feature a single bar or restaurant, have a beer there and get a feel for what makes them special. Our first visit is to Chicago’s famed The Publican, a shrine to beer and pork in the city’s hot Fulton Market/West Loop area.


The Publican’s European beer hall feel is unmistakeable.

The Publican in Chicago is a beer destination in every sense. It is grand, it is unique, and the beers are always interesting, delicious and selected with an evident sense of great care and appreciation. It’s a place where I make it a point to stop in for a beer every time I’m in Chicago, so it’s a fitting to be the first feature of our new “A Beer At…” series, where we visit special beer spots and find out what makes them great. And in this first feature we are also fortunate to have a live chat with Adam Vavrick, Beer Director of The Publican for a complementary Bar Towel Radio podcast.

Upon entering The Publican you know you’re somewhere different. It’s a large, open space with numerous large communal tables lining the floor and rows of grand, bulbous lights hanging from the ceiling, reminiscent of a European beer hall. You can’t help but notice the massive murals of pig artwork adorning the walls – they love their pork (and more) here and aren’t shy to feature this fine animal throughout.

The Publican can be a place of juxtaposition. Although meticulously designed and refined, there is a definite casual and fun air to the place, with classic cheese rock jams from Journey, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi emanating through the bar on an early evening on Saturday. It’s a place where fun and fine come together seamlessly.

Local food is important to The Publican, and across their menu highlights of pork, oysters, fish and cheese, farmers or location are identified to provide provenance. And local beer is also important, but a wider reach is featured on the beer menu. Within their twelve draught taps alone five states are featured from the U.S.A., alongside Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. Breweries represented on tap at my visit included The Bruery, Stone, Left Hand, Half Acre, Allagash, Lindemans, Krombach, Andechs, Hirt and Koningshoeven. An extensive bottle list also includes the U.K., Japan, Canada and vintage offerings such at Aventinus, JW Lees and Orval. The beer list changes regularly, and every visit will provide a new experience when browsing the excellent menu.


The delicious Lambic Doux, served in a clay pitcher.

Now we’re here to have a beer, and the beer we’re having is Lambic Doux. This is one of the most unique beers you’ll find in Chicago, as it is literally one-of-a-kind at the Publican. The Lambic Doux is The Publican’s house blend lambic that features a unique mix of added flavours in small batch quantities. Served in a clay pitcher, having the Lambic Doux is a delicious and special treat, almost a sensory teleportation taking you from the bustle of the city to the farm table of Belgium. At this visit the Lambic Doux was flavoured with blackberry, mint and lemongrass, an orangey-pink hued beer with a light head and a rich sourness, with the added flavours evident. It’s simply delicious and a beer I find time for during every Chicago visit – and so should you.

The Publican is a dynamite place for a beer, and luckily during my visit I was able to have a quick chat with Adam Vavrick, the newly hired Beer Director of The Publican, which we are happy to present as as Bar Towel Radio podcast here. The podcast complements this feature, as you’ll hear from Adam about his background, The Publican’s beer philosophy and other interesting tidbits about this wonderful place. Give a listen below, on our Podcasts page, or via iTunes:


The Publican is located at 837 W. Fulton Market in the Fulton Market / West Loop area of Chicago. Formerly an industrial and meatpacking district, this area has transformed in recent years to house some of the city’s most renowned restaurants and bars. Across N. Green Street facing The Publican is their offshoot Publican Quality Meats, a delicious casual spot with sandwiches, beer and meat and food to go. The Publican will also be opening a location at O’Hare Airport in the near future.  The Publican is open afternoons and evenings seven days a week, with daytime brunch on weekends.

Our Philadelphia CBC Seminar Picks

Our Philadelphia CBC Seminar Picks

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from May 3rd to 6th, 2016 at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Part One of the preview covered our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

The Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia is here, and now’s the time get ready to take away some juicy beer knowledge alongside the delicious beer itself.  With the massive growth of the CBC in the past number of years, it the conference is almost overwhelming nowadays, with non-stop panels, seminars, demonstrations, hospitality events, meetings and vendor showcases. So let’s break it down!

The core schedule format of the CBC is consistent from recent years past, with hosted seminars and sponsored demonstrations occurring throughout the day, and the BrewExpo America trade show running simultaneously, along with various other group meetings, hospitality suites and events taking place. (See Part One of our preview for a rundown of a bar scene in Philadelphia, with links to the dozens of events happening in the city.)

BrewExpo America, a massive brewing trade show with 800 vendors offering everything a prospective or current brewery, brewpub or bar owner could need, is once again running for three days during the conference, from 9am Wednesday until 12pm on Friday.

Outside of the trade show, the CBC is heavily focused on seminars, hosted panels, talks and presentations about a wide series of topics relevant to the brewing industry. As is in years past, the seminars are divided up into streams based upon their topics: brewery operations, brewpubs, export development, government affairs, packaging breweries, quality, safety, selling craft beer, start-ups, sustainability and technical brewing.

Now let’s talk about our picks. As in the past, our picks below represent the seminars that we find the most interesting in the context of today’s craft brewing world, with a Canadian skew. Lots of quality seminars overlap, so it’s challenging to see everything. But get yourself a beer and enjoy, there’s something for everyone in the industry at the CBC. (For some handy tools to plan out your schedule, see the CBC’s online planner, mobile app and pocket PDF guide.)

Wednesday, 9:15-10:30: Welcome keynote.  In recent years the CBC has welcomed keynote speakers from outside of brewing to provide unique perspectives on business.  Last year’s by Simon Sinek was very memorable and informative, as should this year’s, from baseball executive Billy Beane. There’s parallels that have been drawn between Billy’s story of success as a small fish in a big pond which should be very relevant to today’s brewing community.

Wednesday, 1:20-2:20: The future of craft depends on quality.  It’s fitting that the CBC seminars kick off with Dick Cantwell, a craft beer hero of sorts through his dissenting opinion against the sale of Elysian, the brewery he co-founded, to Anheuser-Busch in 2015.  Now a “quality ambassador” for the Brewers Association, it is always entertaining to hear Dick talk and this subject should continue to stoke the fires of our craft beer passion.

Wednesday, 2:40-3:40: Fruit refermentation in a production brewery.  Fruit beers have been and continue to be a hot, just as the Jester King brewery of Austin, Texas is.  Head brewer Garrett Crowell will be talking tips about how to best use fruit in what should be a juicy talk.

Wednesday, 2:40-3:40: Transitioning from nano to micro: a how-to.  Growth is something most breweries strive for, and this talk from Mike Hess, owner of the impressive San Diego brewery of the same name, should be an interesting perspective of getting big in a competitive landscape.

Thursday, 1:20-2:20: A reasonable approach to trademark enforcement. Lessons from craft brewers.  Managing a trademark in a sea of beer names can be a challenging and heated task, and this subject has been present for a few years now.  But there’s no easy solution, and will be tackled by representatives from Smuttynose, Rock Art and Old Ox.

Thursday, 1:20-2:20: The cost of opening a brewery: 3 perspectives.  It seems that there’s a new brewery opening up every week around here, but it’s not a cheap endeavour.  This chat features Jeremy Cowan of Shmaltz about how he transformed from contract to production, and Sean Lawson of the famed Lawson’s Finest Liquids, who recently announced a new brewery planned in his home state of Vermont.

Thursday, 2:40-3:40: The science, art and mystery of sour beer production. Sour beer can be delicious, but it’s not exactly a walk in the park to do it right and well.  In this talk representatives from Avery Brewing and New Belgium Brewing, two quality sour beer brewers from Colorado discuss their techniques.

Friday, 12:30-1:30: Hiring and brewer retention: A brewer’s perspective.  In a growing and competitive industry like craft beer, keeping your best talent will become an increasingly important business issue.  This all-star lineup will discuss their perspectives of hiring and holding onto good people, including Mitch Steele, brewmaster of Stone, alongside representatives from Victory, New Belgium and Karl Strauss.

Friday, 12:30-1:30: Sustainable design and build strategies for craft brewers.  Craft beer is expanding rapidly, so sustainability will be of increasing importance as the industry continues to grow.  Hear from the Founder and Brewmaster of Hopworks Urban Brewery of Portland, Christian Ettinger, plus the Sustainability Manager of Sierra Nevada at this panel.

Friday, 3:20-4:20: Spontaneous fermentation in a production brewery.  Making spontaneously fermented beers can be delightful and produce delicious results.  This panel features some of the most well-known brewers in this field, including Vinnie Curlizo of Russian River, Jason Perkins, Brewmaster of Allagash, and Jeremy Stuffings, Founder and Chase Healey, Brewmaster and Co-Founder of Jester King.

Friday, 3:20-4:20: The Return of the Gourdians.  The Gourdians, a semi-regularly featured collection of craft beer personalities are back once again to tell what is surely to be a sprawling and interesting range of beery tales.  This year the panel comprises of Stone Co-Founder Greg Koch, Canada’s own Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s and beer promoter Marty Jones.

The CBC seminars always cover a wide range of interesting and informative topics and this year is no exception.  If you are heading to Philadelphia, please reach out to us @bartowel and let us know what you’re up to at the conference. We’d love to hear about the experiences of the Canadian beer world in attendance this year!

Craft Brewers Conference 2016 Preview: The Bars of Philadelphia

Craft Brewers Conference 2016 Preview: The Bars of Philadelphia

The Bar Towel is proud to once again present our annual preview of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America (CBC), taking place from May 3rd to 6th, 2016 at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Part One of the preview covers our highlights of breweries, bars and other sights of the city, and Part Two covers our picks for the conference seminars.

Philadelphia is a city of firsts.  I say that because there always seems to be a plaque wherever you turn in Philadelphia – be it for the America’s First Lager or America’s oldest street. However, it’s not always the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of top beer destinations in the United States.  Portland, San Diego, Denver and others often percolate to the top of ‘must-visit’ beer cities, but Philadelphia should be on that list, and due to that it is unsurprisingly the host city for this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, the largest conference of its kind in the world.

Philadelphia has been a beer city for centuries.  Beer is in the blood of Philadelphia, and a visit here will not only quench your thirst for delicious brew but give you a great history lesson and cultural experience to boot.

Getting to Philadelphia is relatively easy.  It’s location on the east coast is a short flight (about 90 minutes), and Philadelphia’s transit system SEPTA runs a train to the city centre for $8. Philadelphia is about 800km by drive to Philadelphia, making it about a similar distance to Chicago or New York.  The downtown area of Philly is easy to navigate and walking friendly. It’s laid out as a logical grid so finding things is very easy. Exploring Philly is fantastic – lots of little residential alleys to wander down and interesting old buildings to look at.  So it makes for a great city for a beer tour during CBC week.  

As with all CBCs, the host city is transformed during the week, with local beer bars and breweries hosting numerous special events to celebrate, and this year is no exception.  So let’s explore!

In the downtown area you will most likely hear one name more than anyone else: Monk’s Cafe.  Monk’s is likely Philly’s most well-known destination, a haven for Belgian food, beer and culture.  And there’s a reason Monk’s is so well known – it simply doesn’t disappoint. The space is comprised two areas – a front bar and back bar with varying tap selections in each section. There’s great food, friendly staff and excellent beer.  It’s an essential stop and will likely be even more perpetually jammed than it usually is during CBC week.

IMG_4416Other spots worth checking out downtown include McGillins Olde Ale House (the oldest pub in Philly, dating back to 1860), the Mexican themed craft beer bar Jose Pistola’s, brewpub Nodding Head, pin-up themed Varga Bar, the vast multi-tap bar City Tap House and the upscale chain Tria with the Tria Taproom, and two locations of the Tria Cafe (on Walnut St. and Spruce St.).  A wander around downtown wouldn’t be complete with a visit to the great Reading Terminal Market, a vast and delectable food market.  Have a bite at The Dutch Eating Place or a hoagie at Carmen’s.

It’s worth wandering down to the Old City and through historic Independence Park, home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. It’s free to check out the bell so it’s worth poking your head in.  While in the area check out the fun, neighbhourhood spot Khyber Pass Pub, international themed Eulogy Belgian Tavern, the Ben Franklin-era period recreation yet sleepy City Tavern and brewpub 2nd Story Brewing.  Also, the aforementioned oldest street in America, Elfreth’s Alley, isn’t too far away.  If you’re willing to take your chances in getting an impossible table, I guarantee a visit to Zahav will delight your tastebuds. This renowned modern Israeli restaurant was one of the best meals I ever had at a recent visit.

IMG_4845The Italian Market on 9th Street is a dynamic and interesting street market, one of the oldest around.  Here you’ll find the duelling, gawdy and tasty Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks battling it out for Philly Cheesesteak supremacy.  Personally I like a sandwich from Paesano’s while in the market but you need to have a local cheesesteak for the full Philadelphia experience.  While in the area just a couple of blocks away is The Pub on Passyunk East, a nice pub with a good selection of American draughts, along with the craft and import focused Devil’s Den.  While in the area don’t miss the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, a truly one-of-a-kind immersive experience, a walk-in art environment by artist Isaiah Zagar that you won’t forget.

Back on the north side of downtown lies the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wide divided avenue that houses a row of dynamite museums, including the Barnes Foundation, a museum with not only one of the best collection of Impressionist artwork you’ll find, but one with an equally interesting and controversial history to match.  Continuing along the parkway will lead you to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which you will likely recognize as the iconic steps from the film Rocky.  Jog up the stairs to work off some of those ales during CBC week.  While in the area, head along Fairmount and check out the brewpub Bar Hygge, or up to Brewerytown and have a stop in Crime and Punishment Brewing.

IMG_1543The Northern Liberties is a cool, no-longer-in-transition neighbourhood with lots of interesting things to check out.  On the beer front you can’t go wrong with craft beer stalwarts Yards Brewing, the awesome Standard Tap, the old school, rock and beer bar Johnny Brenda’s, the Philadelphia outpost of Brooklyn’s Fette Sau and nearby, the cozy and lively Memphis Taproom and Philadelphia Brewing Co.

If you’re willing to venture further afield, there’s even more beer to seek out and enjoy.  The adventurous beer seeking travellers might want to check out the delicious Earth Bread + Brewery in Mt. Airy, the fun, cask friendly Grey Lodge Pub in Northeast Philadelphia, one of Philly’s beer originals Dock Street in West Philadelphia, Manayunk Brewing in Manayunk, Tired Hands Brewing in Ardmore, Round Guys in Lansdale, Forest & Main in Ambler or the well-known and successful Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown.

If you are going to the CBC then you are most certainly a fan of beer.  And because of this, Philadelphia will not disappoint.  But Philadelphia is a city not just beer, but of urban adventures, friendly people, rich history and interesting sites.  You’ll find a pub to suit your tastes and it’ll have great beer for you.  Philadelphia is a bit of an overlooked destination compared to other beer cities in the U.S., but it’s a gem.  Enjoy the CBC and all the beer the city has to offer!

Stay tuned for Part Two of our CBC preview where we’ll offer our seminar picks for the conference.  In the meantime, stay on top of what’s happening in the city during CBC week with great events listings from Joe Sixpack, Brew Lounge and the CBC, plus great local resources Philly Tap Finder, Philly Mag’s Foobooz and Joe Sixpack.  Please find below a map with all of the bars, breweries and sights pinned, and more.


Pints and Pistes in Ellicottville

Pints and Pistes in Ellicottville

When one thinks of combining good skiing and good beer whilst living in Toronto, usually that means an arduous trip to venture to Quebec, Vermont, or further afield to the Rockies or beyond. But as learned this winter, we’ve got access to a great destination for both that’s only a couple hours outside of the GTA.

The view atop the Holiday Valley ski resort.

The view atop the Holiday Valley ski resort.

You might not realize that both good skiing and good beer can be found in the western side of New York state, in Ellicottville, located less than 250 kilometres from downtown Toronto. Ellicottville and the nearby Holiday Valley resort has the charm of a classic a ski town, a fun and diverse skiing experience and much excellent craft beer to keep one quite nicely imbibed during a visit.

Ellicottville is a town of under two thousand residents and is intrinsically linked to the Holiday Valley ski resort, located just a couple of minutes from the main street of town. But the town is a good place to start a beer exploration before venturing onto skiing. Downtown Ellicottville is a charming place, with a storefront lined main street of cafés, bars, ski gear outlets, trinket shops, antique stores and other interesting spots to poke your head into. The main drag of Washington Street is an easily walkable strip with lots of check out. But we’re here for the beer and there’s some great pints to be found in this picturesque village.

A good first stop on a beer tour of Ellicottville is the vast and impressive Ellicottville Brewing Company (EBC), founded in 1995 by Pete Kreinheder and Phin DeMink (who later founded Southern Tier himself). Located just off Washington on Monroe Street, entering the pub feels like walking into an old house front. One is immediately greeted by the original bar area, with an impressive long bar (evidently originally built for the 1893 World’s Fair) leading to the original brewery, still in operation in the back of the room which acts as EBC’s pilot system or regular on-tap brews.

The EBC restaurant is a good place to explore, as adjoining the bar is a recent expansion (nicknamed ‘Newtown’ as opposed to the original bar, ‘Oldtown’) that significantly grew the overall floor and table space. A unique feature of the layout is the presence of beer everywhere – there are stacks of six packs neatly lining the floors and shelves – all of which are available to-go. It’s a fun experience to explore the beer throughout the space than simply looking at a beer fridge (but they have one of those too in the gift shop).

Next to the newly expanded area lies the new brewery, which opened in 2013. The new brewery is an impressive section, with a private dining and event space leading to a platform and bar overlooking the new brewery. You can tell that this was designed for tours in mind, which occur throughout the weekends. During my visit a tour, which included an informative history of the brewery, interesting stories from the past and four samples at the brewery tasting bar.


Vintage kegs still in operation at EBC.

EBC offers a diverse range of styles, including during my visit a pilsner, blueberry wheat, session IPA, nut brown, oatmeal stout, kolsch, India pale lager, hefeweizen with blood orange, an “ultra” pale ale, plus from their “Imperial Series” a strong IPA, chocolate cherry imperial stout and seasonals winter lager, and a hoppy winter ale. To top it off they also had a guest tap from Hamburg Brewing, an American double India pale ale. Although EBC’s Blueberry Wheat accounts for 50% of their volume, I was impressed with their commitment to a wide range of styles, and everything I had was well made.

EBC is an impressive place, a spot which I came back to multiple times during my visit. It would be a great destination anyway, but being in a ski town it only turbocharges the Ellicottville experience. Settle in at the bar, have a tour and stay for the beers. You won’t be disappointed.


Charming architecture to be found in Ellicottville.

Nightlife in ski towns is usually known for being quite active, and Ellicottville is unsurprisingly no exception. In fact, it is more lively than some other ski towns I’ve visited in North America. Visitors and residents in Ellicottville definitely like to have fun.

One of the great spots on the main strip is The Gin Mill, a lively bar full of vintage paraphernalia, bar tchotchkes, groan-worthy signs and, interestingly, taxidermy. Upon walking in the front door the classic vibe of apres-ski bar is apparent, and they deliver. The room consists of a long bar down the right-hand side, with numerous tables and a back area with more tables and vintage video games.

The beer at the Gin Mill is top-notch. They’ve got a strong lineup of 25 taps, with craft highlights including locals EBC, Four Mile and Southern Tier, plus Great Lakes, Smuttynose, Abita, Bell’s and Heavy Seas. A fun and party-happy bar, on a particular Friday night during the evening the staff cleared out all of the tables in the main area and stored them outside on the sidewalk, to accommodate more patrons inside. Now that’s just a good way to keep the fun flowing.

Around the corner there is Balloons on Monroe Street, which feels like two bars in one. Featuring two entrances, one side during my visit had a retro cover band (belting out the cheesy “Van” favourites including Halen’s Panama and Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl), whilst the other side was a bit more of a classic bar, with a dark interior adorned with decor of vintage automotive antiques and old beer ads. The beer selection was decent, featuring numerous options from EBC, Southern Tier and Brooklyn.

Also in town it’s worth checking out the Tops Market, which alongside EBC is a great place to pick up some packaged craft brews, Tips Up Café for a casual bite and brew in town, and Bike and Bean, a bike shop and late night burrito take away, all located on Washington.


John Harvard’s Brewhouse, right at the base of Holiday Valley.

Holiday Valley, the ski area and resort located a few minutes from downtown Ellicottville, also has great beer slopeside. Located within the Tamarack Club hotel is a location of the John Harvard’s Brewhouse chain. The pub, located right at the bottom of the main lifts could not have a better location for apres-ski beers (however, they don’t have the ‘leave your ski boots on’ kind of vibe here). The room is bright and airy, with nice views of the slopes from the seating area. A large three-sided bar sits as the centrepiece of the room, with views of the taps and other beer drinking patrons.

Oftentimes good beer can be hard to find slope side at some resorts, due to relationships with large brewers. But this is certainly not the case here and the beer menu delivers at John Harvard’s. They had an excellent lineup including house beers Foxfire Amber, Tamarack Pale Ale and Winter Lager (there isn’t an onsite brewery at this location, but they are brewed at EBC) plus wide range of craft brews including Long Trail’s Limbo IPA (a personal apres-ski favourite) plus brews from Four Mile, EBC, Brooklyn, Magic Hat, Southern Tier and more.


Take a break in Cindy’s Overlook at the top of Holiday Valley.

Now all this great beer is made even more delicious if preceded by a good day of skiing or snowboarding, and Holiday Valley delivers on that front.  With 1,400 acres, 58 trails and 750 feet of vertical, it is an wide and oftentimes surprisingly challenging ski area.  Personal favourite trails included Foxfire, Chute and Cindy’s Run.  Being able to slide down the hill right to the Tamarack at the base of the slope and into John Harvard’s made for an excellent ski experience.  Holiday Valley is usually ranked close to other Eastern resorts such as Tremblant, Stowe and Killington, a testament to the well-rounded experience that the town and the ski area has going for itself. Be sure to listen to the ever enthusiastic and lively Pete’s slope report at 716-699-2644 to start out your day.

When you’re in the Ellicottville area, there’s even more beer to check out.  Southern Tier, a brewery that Ontarians would know well as they’ve been available in the province for many years, is located 45 miles west in Lakewood.  Four Mile Brewing is about 30 miles southeast in Olean, and Hamburg Brewing can be a stop on the way home, which is about 30 miles north on the way to Buffalo.  And of course a stop in Buffalo itself is always worthwhile with its numerous excellent beer bars and breweries.

Ellicottville is a lively, interesting and walkable town with many bars, restaurants and shops to explore, plus some excellent skiing considering the generally modest contours in this part of the world. Ellicottville is located only 45 minutes south of Buffalo and easily accessible from the Greater Toronto Area which makes it an ideal destination compared to trekking to other ski destinations further afield.  Good beer, good skiing and both within a reasonable distance from Toronto? I’ll have one of those.

A Visit to Detroit’s Cass Corridor

A Visit to Detroit’s Cass Corridor

In the late summer we posted an article about the emerging Windsor beer scene, noting that a visit to the city can be amplified even further with a trip across the river to Detroit.  Luckily on that particular trip I was able to do just that, and wanted to relay some thoughts on this ever-interesting and rapidly-evolving destination.

Detroit is a city of rich culture, history and heritage, with a significant story to its past and where it’s headed. It’s a city whose reputation often precedes it, often unfairly so. It is certainly a city undergoing a transformation (Detroit refers to itself as “America’s great comeback story”), with many areas of downtown that are remarkably and noticeably changing for the better.  There’s a lot of exploration required to see the vast urban landscape of Detroit, but on a recent trip I only had a short amount of time there, and I wanted to recap some of the highlights here.

Crossing the border via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel takes you from downtown Windsor to downtown Detroit on the other side of the river.  When traffic is light, it is a quite swift and unique experience to head underground in one city and emerge at another.  Winding the way through downtown, I headed a short distance up to my destination for the evening: the area referred to as Midtown Detroit.

DSC01776Midtown Detroit is an area roughly bounded from the I75 to the south and west, I94 to the north, and the John Lodge Freeway on the west.  The area encompasses many cultural landmarks of the city, including the Detroit Institute for the Arts, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Public Library, as well as Wayne State University.  It is a unique part of the city, with many remnants of the past present, alongside much progress, such as the M-1 Rail Line, currently under construction on Woodward Avenue to connect the area to downtown.  It is a diverse and interesting neighbourhood, with what is becoming a dense zone of awesome beer.

One of the main areas of the district is the Cass Corridor, an area around Cass Avenue, one of the major arteries of Midtown.  It is a street undergoing rapid change, like much of downtown Detroit, with the addition of shops and restaurants in what has been a historically less-than-savoury landscape.  But at Cass Avenue around West Canfield Street is very walkable block of beer that will certainly be drawing in thirsty patrons from far and wide.

DSC01668On West Canfield in between Cass and Woodward lies the brand-new Detroit location of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales.  This attractive, high-ceilinged brewpub with wooden and industrial décor opened in April of 2015, bringing over 30 Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak beers on tap, as well as a bottled collection.  The beer lineup is drool-worthy to put it mildly, featuring such famous Jolly Pumpkin ales as Bam Biere and Bam Noire; Calabaza Blanca, Oro de Calabaza and Noel de Calabaza; La Parcela Pumpkin Ale, Tortuga Ale Co Chocolate Stout, Fuego del Otono Fall Saison and more.  Alongside Jolly’s ales include a wide variety from North Peak, including an IPA, Black IPA, Wheat IPA, Hefeweizen, Pilsner, and an offering from Grizzly Peak.  Alongside cocktails, infused spirits and wine, there really is something for all tastes at here.  A full food menu complements the beers, including numerous creative pizzas and sandwiches in this fun and friendly room.

Whereas Jolly Pumpkin represents the modern Midtown Detroit, the Traffic Jam and Snug, located virtually next door on Canfield, is a living remnant from another era.  Opened since 1965, the Traffic Jam is truly a one-of-a-kind place, but also reputedly Michigan’s first brewpub, having opened an on-site brewery in 1992.

DSC01659It’s a memorable spot with old-school décor, vintage memorabilia, stained glass and stag heads, a cross between a classic family restaurant, a cottage and hunting lodge.  With numerous rooms and floors, it’s a spot tailor made for exploration.  Sitting at the wrap-around bar one can try a decent range of interesting beers, and at my visit they included Midtown Dubbel, Mexicantown Maibock, Delray Dunkel, Golden Galaxy IPA and Czar’s Breakfast Stout. If you’re hungry for a quick snack, not only is there a full menu but a takeaway shelf of in-house made baked goods.  This is a hipster-free, homey and legit authentic experience.

Across the street from the Traffic Jam also lies another venerable Midtown institution, Motor City Brewing Works.  Open since 1994, Motor City is an intimate and cozy brewpub with a solid house beer lineup that included a Pale Ale, IPA, Nut Brown, Honey Porter, Summer Wheat, Tripel and Amber Lager.  Motor City has a friendly feel around the circular bar surrounding the taps, and a unique mosaic tiled decor to admire over a pint.

DSC01605At the corner of Canfield and Woodward is the Detroit location of HopCat, a mini-empire of beer bars with locations in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and recently having expanded outside of Michigan.  Each HopCat has a staggering amount of beer available, and this location is no exception, with upwards of 130 taps on offer.  Of them, the “Local 30” cover local and Michigan area breweries, including Founder’s, Bells, Perrin, Frankenmuth, Vivant, Dark Horse, Short’s, Kuhnhenn and more.

The rest of the massive list is broken out stylistically, including Ales, Wheats, Pales & IPAs, Ambers & Browns, Porters & Stouts, Strong Ales, Scotch Ales and Barleywines, Belgian, Ciders & Meads and Miscellaneous.  It would be hard to not find something you like at a place like this.  The general atmosphere and mood at the time of my visit (late at night on a Friday) was decidedly quite party-like, which to me didn’t lend itself well to settling in to sample some of the delicious treats available.  Hopefully outside of late night the HopCat here maintains a bit more of the casual vibe that makes their Grand Rapids location so memorable.

Just a couple of blocks down Cass Avenue lies Slows To Go, a quick service offshoot of the famed Slows BBQ.  Unlike the original Slows which features a full beer lineup, Slows To Go is primarily a take-out or quick sit-down option.  However, the BBQ is dynamite and worth a stop for some grub if you can’t make it over to the main location (which is in Corktown a couple of miles away on Michigan Avenue).

DSC01719Also worth some stops if you’re wandering around the area include a Whole Foods Market, located at Mack and Woodward for an always-reliable bottle shop that the chain is known for. Back around Canfield the Green Alley is worth a walk down, a unique converted green space behind the Motor City Brewing Works off of 2nd Avenue.  And anchoring the retail landscape conversion along Canfield lies the flagship store of Shinola, along with the newly opened outpost of Jack White’s Third Man Records to do some stylish shopping while enjoying some of the finest brews Detroit has to offer.

Visiting the Cass Corridor is only a small taste of Detroit’s beer scene.  The city and surrounding areas have even more bars, breweries and sights to explore, but that will have to be saved for the next visit to this intriguing and exciting city.

Ontario Craft Ingredients: Escarpment Yeast

Ontario Craft Ingredients: Escarpment Yeast

In recent years craft brewing has undergone quite the renaissance. Hundreds of new brewers, thousands of new beers and countless loyal craft beer drinkers. Behind the scenes, a second revolution is starting to take shape: The craft growers, cultivators and producers of craft beer ingredients. As part of a three-part series, I’m taking a closer look at a handful of these less-heralded players in the craft beer industry. This time I’m profiling a promising young company by the name of Escarpment Laboratories.

Of the four primary ingredients in beer, none has as great an impact on beer as yeast. It gives a saison its peppery zip and a hefeweizen its notes of bananas and cloves. Different strains of yeast lend an incredible range of attributes to beer, from the clean crispness of a bohemian pilsner to the complex layers of flavour found in a Belgian quad. It even has an important role to play in styles where it doesn’t come to the forefront, such as the you-might-as-well-gargle-hops American India Pale Ales that are pretty much ubiquitous with craft beer these days. John Kimmich, the brewer behind Heady Topper, which is pretty much the pinnacle of the style, has been known to credit the so-called Conan yeast strain as the factor that sets his beers apart. There’s also the all-important contribution of alcohol to the finished product, which cannot be overlooked.

For all its importance, yeast is easily the least-understood ingredient in beer. For most of beer’s history yeast was a complete mystery. It was first observed by Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1680, who didn’t recognize it as a living organism but rather “globular structures” of some sort. The process of fermentation wasn’t known to be caused by microorganisms until 1857, when Louis Pasteur published Mémoire Sur La Fermentation Alcoolique.  Keep in mind that beer is old. Very, very old. It has been mentioned in countless historical texts, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Hymn of Ninkasi and The Bible . The oldest known recipe for beer was found on the Ebla Tablets, which date to around 2500 BC, but archaeological findings indicate that beer was being made in China as far back as seven thousand years ago. That means that we’ve only known about a critical ingredient in beer for maybe 2% of its history!

The reality is that beer was an accident that must have appeared at various times and places throughout history, shortly after a civilization started cultivating grains. The advent of beer was inevitable, thanks to the inherent properties of yeast. Yeast can be found almost anywhere: It’s found on apples, it’s found in fields, it floats through the air and on one occasion it was found in a brewmaster’s beard. All it takes for fermentation to take place is for some of that airborne yeast to come in contact with some water and a source of sugar, such as barley. Early beers were probably the result of a sort of porridge that someone left lying around long enough that it started to ferment spontaneously thanks to some airborne yeast. Someone, somewhere, was hungry enough to choke down the bubbly goop anyway and it made them feel good. From there it’s just a matter of repeating and refining the process to eventually get to something that we would recognize as beer.

Over the next 6600 years or so, most of what we learned about yeast was attributed to a mix of magic and superstition. For example, early brewers figured out that re-using fermenting vessels without cleaning them between batches produced better results, but they had no way of knowing that was due to the residual yeast. Over the years this led to a lot of brewing traditions that brewers underwent without understanding the reasons for them, such as Lambic brewers washing the walls of a new brewery with beer before producing beer in it.


By my estimation, that’s about $800 of beer in that sprayer.


Industrial production of yeast didn’t get started until relatively recently. Yeast companies started popping up simultaneously in the 1800’s all over the Western world. The oldest Canadian example I can find is Lallemand, which was founded in Montreal at the end of the 19th century by a French immigrant. As the makers of the Danstar brand of yeast, they’re easily the biggest (partly) Canadian name in the industry. Skipping over a hundred or so years of technical and scientific innovation, the modern yeast industry for beer got going in the 1980’s with the founding of companies like Wyeast and White Labs. While the craft beer industry was experimenting with new styles and ingredients, companies like these were experimenting with newly discovered and exotic yeast strains. They have been very successful, to the point that the current beer yeast market is dominated by only a handful of companies. At this point, calling those companies “craft” is a stretch, simply due to their size. However, there’s another group of emerging yeast companies that are worthy of the label, which tend to focus on exotic and wild strains of yeast that have funky or sour flavour profiles. One of these companies just happens to be starting up in our backyard: Escarpment Labs.

I sat down with co-founders Angus Ross and Richard Preiss over pints of Richard’s home brew gose (which, by the way, was excellent. If Richard ever offers you a beer you should drink it). Currently finishing up masters degrees in microbiology and molecular biology in a program offered by the University of Guelph that specializes in yeast, these guys are uniquely qualified to get into the yeast game. They actually met working in a yeast lab, where they discovered they had common interests, or, as Richard put it “beer, food, arguing about beer and food.” In a program that most people enter to either further a career in education or to get into scientific research, these guys knew from the start they wanted to apply what they learned to beer. At first they started experimenting with yeast at the home brew scale, mostly as a hobby. Then they started thinking about how the stuff they were learning about in school and tinkering with at home could be applied to the professional scale.

At that point it was really exploratory. We were working with Royal City, but then we also approached Wellington, and Block Three and a few other local breweries. We wanted to see what they were interested in and if they would try out some of our yeast or some of our ideas and thankfully they did. I think that really gave us the confidence to start to pursue it as a serious business.
-Richard Preiss

From there they explored working out of a local brewery. Royal City didn’t have the space and Sonehammer – then F & M – didn’t work out for one reason or another, but eventually they talked to Wellington, who ended up being the ideal partner. As one of the oldest brands around and a member of the OCB they know pretty much everyone in the industry. They’re also a 24-hour brewery, so there’s always some wort around. Better still, they actually already had a lab of their own that they use to do quality control (QC) and they were willing to share.

Escarpment have banked three hundred strains of yeast and counting, which is enough to make pretty much any and every style of beer. Where would an aspiring young company get their hands on that many strains of yeast, you might wonder? It turns out that nobody really owns patents on most commercial yeasts, so just having a beer made with one is usually enough to a viable sample from, which you can then bank, grow and eventually sell. It took them years, starting out saving the dregs from good beers they tried, eventually growing that into a formidable collection of strains. More exotic stuff, like Brettanomyces (aka Brett), the provider (and I swear these are all positive flavours) of funky, horse-blanket and well, manure aromas, or Lactobacillus (aka lacto), the most common souring strain which is technically a bacteria, not a yeast, tended to come from rarer bottles of beers. A mixed-fermentation beer like a Lambic or American Wild Ale could be a gold mine, yielding four or five rare strains each. They’ve also put some effort into isolating some truly wild strains, taking samples from local apple orchards or hop farms to get their hands on some really unique flavours.

As far as I know, there’s no reason whatsoever to harvest yeast from hops over any other source other than it’s kinda neat.


When I talked to a hop farmer, she gushed about the terroir of Ontario hops. The yeast guys were a little split on whether Ontario yeast has a distinctive flavour. According to Richard, the dominant character in all wild yeast from everywhere in the world is that they are, well, wild. Wild strains are high ester and phenol producers (phenols being volatile organic compounds and esters being chemical compounds that are normally derived from phenols, both produce a wide range of flavours in beer) and have wildly different fermentation characteristics. Some wild yeasts will quit at 2 or 3% alcohol, where others will ferment things up to 8% or higher. Angus is also reserved, but maybe a little more optimistic.

I’d say that we don’t actually know yet. We haven’t tested enough different wild Ontario strains to really have a clear picture of what the flavour profile of Ontario yeasts. I think we’re hoping to find an Ontario characteristic but we’ve really only moved forward with commercialization of one or two wild strains. I think in the future with a larger sample size of things that ferment well we may uncover there’s a terroir, there’s a taste of a place.
-Angus Ross

The wild stuff seems to be what’s generating the most interest. Early backers like Folly Brewing are making their flagship beer with Escarpment farmhouse strains, which they proudly label as being made with Ontario yeast. (Folly are a very cool outfit who you might remember from Denis’ recent piece).  I certainly came at this article most interested in the wild stuff, since I like the styles made with those yeasts. However, the reality is if Escarpment is to be a long-term success, they’re probably going to do most of their business off lots of pitches of more mundane ale and lager strains that brewers can use to make their core brands.

Not all yeast is harvested from picturesque moss-covered rocks beside bubbling brooks with a conveniently placed pine sprig for ambience.


These days brewers normally buy liquid yeast from three large companies in the US or dry yeast from a local distributor. The big guys don’t just buy individual vials of yeast, like I would when I make beer at home, they pitch gallons of it into a single batch of beer. When I make beer I also keep some yeast aside from each batch in the fridge to use in future brews, partly because I’m a dork who finds that sort of thing interesting, but also to save money. Brewers can do essentially the same thing, but they have to be a little more careful about it. Before storing, most will give their yeasts an acid wash to get rid of any possible infections that could have been introduced during brewing. I don’t know it for a fact, but I strongly suspect their storage techniques are a little more advanced than my collection of mason jars in the fridge door. Even with the best care, yeast strains will change their character a little every time you use them. To keep a consistent flavour, many brewers will only re-pitch eight or so times before going back to the original strain, where others will go up to 20 or 30 batches. Some brewers, especially the old-school guys who have been around forever just pitch ad infinitum, which can help explain the migrating flavour patterns you might have noticed in some of the brands that have been around a while.

Luckily for the guys at Escarpment, their appeal to local brewers extends beyond novelty strains and the marketability of a local product. Their big edge is geography. They’re much closer to Ontario brewers than any of the big yeast companies, which means they can get product to the brewers faster than the competition. Maybe their biggest advantage is they don’t have to cross any borders. Not only is it time consuming and expensive to do so, but it’s also not unheard of for customs to open a shipment of yeast and inspect its contents, in the process melting the ice packs the yeast was shipped with and sometimes tainting the shipment. What that all adds up to is Escarpment can not only deliver a superior product, but they can also add that small business personalized service for local brewers. They’re also cheaper than the big guys, which is probably the most important thing at the end of the day.

Given those advantages, demand has understandably been pretty brisk. Ever since they started producing commercial pitches in late June, demand has far outstripped supply. Like most craft producers in the province, they’re still best suited to meeting demand for one-off or seasonable beers with limited distribution. They can currently do pitches for 20 hl batches comfortably (that’s just shy of 60 kegs of beer, or about 100 standard-sized homebrew batches) or 40 hl if they put their minds to it. They’re adding capacity quickly, but the reality is demand is probably going to outstrip supply well into 2016.

We approached pro brewers and said ‘Hey, we’ve got these funky yeast strains, you want to give them a shot?’ That was a lot of fun.
-Angus Ross

Although drumming up orders hasn’t been much of an issue for them, I shouldn’t give you the impression that everything has been easy. Unlike almost every other part of the craft brewing industry that I’ve been exposed to, growing yeast is an area where nobody else in the business will help you out. Angus and Richard are a little lucky, since they can get some help from the other people involved in the yeast program at UoG, but even if they had local contemporaries the reality is nobody would share any information. Home brewers like me (have I mentioned enough times yet that I brew at home?) out there are probably a little confused as to why there’s so much secrecy in the industry, as yeast is pretty straight-forward to grow on the small scale. When you make the jump to the commercial scale things tend to get a lot more complicated. You have to deal with different nutritional, aeration, efficiency and other technical considerations that otherwise don’t exist. Plus since you can’t protect your strains, process is everything.

It’s not like starting a brewery where everyone is very willing to share what they’re doing. If you’re making beer you’re going to be able to find ten other people in your town or province who will teach you how to make your beer better. That doesn’t really work for the ingredient supply chain. Especially with yeast where the techniques that are used to grow yeast are largely kept as a trade secret.
-Richard Preiss

Since process is everything, the Escarpment guys wouldn’t tell me much about theirs. In fact, they even balked at me going to their lab to take pictures for the article, so they’re clearly keen to keep their process as secret as it can be. That said, here’s my best guess about their process. At heart, it’s not that different from making beer. The basic process is going to be that you start with wort that’s roughly the same as the beer the yeast will eventually be pitched into, since once yeast adapts to a local environment it will continue to perform better in that environment. In lower concentrations yeast tends to reproduce, whereas in higher concentrations it tends to produce more alcohol, so they’re definitely stepping up their batches in sizes, from beaker, to jug, to carboy. The equipment used (outside of the storage part of the operation, where they would need a centrifuge and a very cold freezer) is probably about on par with a high-end home brew or a brewery’s pilot system with a handful of fermenters and definitely temperature controllers to ensure precise fermentation. Given that their lab is inside a brewery, they probably buy or more likely trade for their wort. The trick in all of this is every yeast strain will behave a little differently. To produce an optimal product you have to know exactly how each strain behaves at each step of the process. How many steps do you need to get to your final cell count? What temperature should each step run at? How much nutrient should you give it at each step? What pH should the wort be? Getting to know each particular strain intimately is necessary to optimize this process, which is probably why while Escarpment have hundreds of strains banked, most of the beers you’ll see out there are only made with one a couple dozen of these strains so far.

Growing strains for some yeast trials. A lot of what they do is try stuff out on smaller scales like this.


This actually touches on another potential area of business for Escarpment: Quality Control (QC). Earlier I touched on how breweries will try to pitch the same strain of yeast a few times themselves, to try to keep costs down. This is a good idea, but how are they to know if a yeast colony is healthy enough to be pitched again, or if some kind of infection has found its way into the pitch or the final product? The answer is QC. The actual process involves a lot of fairly mundane work carefully inspecting ingredients, machinery and finished product for infections, but this is something that big breweries do a lot of and craft brewers, particularly in Ontario ought to do a lot more of.

Have you ever had a beer from a brewery and liked it a lot, only to have it again a few months later and find it, sour, funky, dull or otherwise unsatisfying? This is far too common a thing in Ontario and while changes from batch to batch can be caused by many things, a lot of them could be caught and remedied by more stringent QC. If you look at regions in the US where craft beer is a little more mature than it is here, you’ll find that after the big surge in the number of craft brewers, there was a bit of a contraction as weaker breweries were pushed out of the market. The breweries that survive tend to be those that can consistently put out a high quality product and to do that I think you need good QC.

I’ve visited breweries in the US that are about the same size as most of the breweries that have started up in the last two or so years here. The key difference between those breweries in the US, that are achieving world-wide renown, and the ones of the same size here is the ones in the US have labs and lab staff. And they’re doing QC. This is a major difference that I don’t really see here.
-Richard Preiss

So, three thousand or so words later, what can the average home brewer or consumer who is reading this do to take advantage of this new company? Unfortunately, not much just yet. The big companies sell lots of yeast to home brewers, but that’s simply too much work for too little volume for a company like Escarpment to tackle directly at this point. The good news is the founders are avid home brewers, so they definitely have plans to eventually make their stuff available to us to use, via your local home brew supply shop, starting sometime in 2016. For now all we can do is keep an eye out for beers that are marketed as being made with Ontario yeast. In the past year there were quite a few of them that you might remember. The official beer of the Session beer festival this year was a gose which was made with a lacto strain donated by Escarpment. At that same festival the Ontario Craft Brewers had a tasty table beer that was a 25-brewery collaboration that used Escarpment yeast harvested from a local russet apple. A couple cider makers in Revel and West Avenue have, in my opinion, done some of the best things out there with Escarpment yeast in their wild cider offerings. Going forward, keep your eyes peeled for a LCBO listing from Royal City, more stuff from Folly and Burdock in their brewshops, lots of things at various festivals around the province and I’m sure lots more that will develop in the new year. Fans of wild strains in particular should keep a look out for details on a big wild yeast isolation project that should land sometime in the next year.

Coming Soon?

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