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The Bar Towel on the road: HAMILTON, ONTARIO


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Special thanks go to Josh Oakes for writing this report.

Check out Josh's Beer Manifesto web site here.

For those of us living in downtown Toronto, it is easy to think that there are only a handful of decent beer bars in Ontario - Smokeless, Mackie's, the Bow and a maybe a few others. The most Torontocentric of us can hardly name a person they know in 905 Land, much less a decent place to drink beer. But once you get beyond the vast expanse of freeways, malls and subdivisions that surround the city, one discovers that some of southern Ontario's other cities have places where the locals congregate for their fine pints.

Foremost of these is Augusta's Winking Judge, in downtown Hamilton, conveniently located behind the GO station. Ever since it opened, the Judge has debuted more beers and breweries than any other establishment in Ontario. In fact, if anybody else claims to have a product first, it would be highly advisable to check with Judge co-owner Bill Rea before making such claims publicly.

The Winking Judge's commitment to serving great beer is one of its biggest drawing cards (although I have to say, it is about as cozy a pub as it gets). While their feuds with various local breweries are the stuff of industry legend, one cannot deny that they do as good a job of supporting Ontario craft breweries as anyone. At any one time, you'll find Church Key, Scotch Irish, Magnotta, F & M, KLB and County Durham products on - in fact, these guys often have multiple taps.

The best time to visit the Judge (or the worst if peace and quiet is your thing), is during their semi-annual beer festivals. These events are always sold out well in advance, and with good reason. The ten or twelve breweries in attendance represent the Ontario craft brewing scene, and the craft brewing scene only. No Sleeman, no Molson, no Interbrew, and no hard lemonade. The glasses are full pint mugs, not plastic thimbles. The food - well, this year they brought in a roast pig. I don't remember seeing that at Fort York. And the entire event is for charity.

The highlight of this spring's fest, aside from the pig, was the debut of the long-awaited Sgt. Major's IPA from Scotch Irish Brewing. Native Hamiltonian jcappadocia and I were among the first to sample this hoporific brew, which was available in both cask and keg forms (in fact, this beer will likely only appear in cask form at the Judge). Richly hoppy at 68 Chinook-derived IBUs, with a long, resiny middle, this is the beer Ontario hopheads have been waiting for. Other products of note for me were two seldom-seen beers, Trent Hills Mild from Church Key and Dark Lager from Heritage. County Durham brought their Signature Ale, which will be available in the East End of Toronto Beer Stores around the same time that this story is published. Walkerville bottles were present, as was Aventinus, the ever-popular McAuslan and Niagara Falls brought lots of Eisbock.

For my money, I've yet to see a better festival in Ontario, and a visit to the Judge is always worth your while.