2012 was a pretty good year in terms of both the quality and quantity of regularly-brewed Ontario craft beers hitting the shelves at one’s local LCBO or The Beer Store. I selected 12 of them to quantify as favourites, with a few caveats. First, the beers had to be listed at at least 25 retail outlets.
The beers had to be ones that I’ve published a review for, not just tried at a show or festival. Seasonal and one-off beers were not considered, I’ll try to make a list of those next. Re-branded or re-packaged beers were also not counted, however those that were previously available at a brewery’s retail store or at a licensee were. All that said, here are my selections in alphabetical order.
Augusta Ale (American Pale Ale, 5.5%), Kensington Brewing Company, Toronto
“King of Kensington” - Augusta Ale is a solid and refreshing session-style beer that combines the roasted character of an amber with the sturdy bitterness of a pale ale. It goes well with fried foods, potato chips, grilled meats and roasted vegetables and would make a great choice for an evening at the pub.
Boneshaker (American IPA, 7.1%) Amsterdam Brewing Company, Toronto
“Mess Around With Me” - Boneshaker is truest to the pacific style among Ontario brewed American IPA offerings. It is very hoppy, strong and remarkably balanced. This ale is an outstanding product that showcases excellent technical execution and straddles the line with an imperial IPA. Like most American IPAs, Boneshaker pairs well with bold-flavoured, spicy and fried foods, as well as grilled and roasted meats.
Cobblestone Stout (English Stout, 4.2%) Mill Street Brewery, Toronto
“Smooth from Brown Bricks to Tank House Lane” - Cobblestone Stout is a textbook example of an English pub-style stout. It’s rich, satisfying, warm, creamy and mellow. The smoke and wood characteristics add a layer of heartiness without being overbearing. I’ve always enjoyed this type of stout with french fries, oysters, sardines, crackers, creamy cheeses, pot pies and shepherd's pie.
Dead Elephant IPA (American IPA, 5.6%) Railway City Brewing Company, St. Thomas
“Turn Your Attention to the Centre Ring” - Dead Elephant IPA is a solid, highly drinkable effort. I really appreciate the sturdy grain character and it could become a regular pick up for me if it remains in steady supply (ed: it did and was). This ale pairs well with grilled meats, spicy foods and salty snacks.
Hawaiian Style Pale Ale (American IPA, 6.1%) Spearhead Brewing Company Limited, Toronto
“Tiny Bubbles Make Me Happy” - Hawaiian Style Pale Ale is a very good, but not-quite-great American IPA that could use a bit more of a malt backing to help balance the pronounced bitterness. I was expecting more of a pineapple punch as well, but can I also appreciate its subtleness. I would love to try this from a freshly tapped keg or cask, especially in an even less filtered state. The ale has paired well with sushi, grilled pork, pasta and steak fajitas in my experience.
Highlander Scottish Ale (Scottish Ale, 5.0%) Highlander Brew Company, South River
“Love is for Poets” - Highlander Scottish Ale is a rich and complex beer that is also smooth and inviting. It pairs well with roasted and grilled meats, earthy vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots and mushrooms, as well as lighter fare like deli meats and mild cheeses. As a native of North Bay, Ontario, I’m excited to see a beer of this quality being brewed in the area and distributed on the scale that it is.
Hockley Amber (American Amber / Red Ale, 4.2%) Hockley Valley Brewing Company, Hockley
“Preserves Great Taste” - Hockley Amber is a mellow red ale that is full of flavour, especially given its modest ABV percentage. It’s a great match with light fare like lunch meats, raw veggies and crackers, as well as grilled beef and chicken dishes. A beer-battered fish recipe on the can serves as a nice touch.
Hops and Robbers (American IPA, 5.6%) Double Trouble Brewing Company, Guelph
“Steal This Beer” - The inaugural effort from Double Trouble Brewing Company is extremely drinkable and refreshing. It is rather unique among Ontario offerings, harnessing the best characteristics of both West Coast style and English IPAs and it pairs well with salty, spicy and fried foods.
Kichesippi Natural Blonde (American Blonde Ale, 4.9%) Kichesippi Brewing Company, Ottawa
“Has More Fun” - Kichesippi Natural Blonde would make an excellent "gateway" beer for people who may be intimidated by the world of craft beer thanks to a robust, but approachable taste coupled with an easy-drinking nature. This beer is a great match for activities like poker, barbecues and watching sports and for foods such as pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and wings.
Nickel Brook Headstock IPA (American IPA, 7.0%) Better Bitters Brewing Company, Burlington
“The Freak Out Tent is That Way” - Nickel Brook Headstock IPA is a very drinkable, flavourful and competitively-priced entry in the increasingly crowded Ontario IPA scene that masks its ABV well and one I’ll be sure to try again (ed: boy did I ever!). It pairs well with salty, spicy and fried foods of course, but in my experience it went particularly well with red pasta sauce and sharp cheese.
Twice as Mad Tom IPA (American Double IPA, 8.4%) Muskoka Brewery, Bracebridge
“A Real Nutter” - Even if Twice as Mad Tom IPA were an average American double IPA is would get points for being the only regularly-produced offering in Ontario. The truth is that this is one of, if not the best, most well-balanced examples of the style you will find in Canada and it’s only eclipsed in my eyes by the finest American-made efforts. It pairs very well with spicy Thai, Chinese and Indian dishes, as well as blackened fish, sharp cheeses, fries and salty snacks.
Wellington Imperial Russian Stout (Russian Imperial Stout, 8.0%) Wellington County Brewery Incorporated, Guelph
“Best Out of Season” - Wellington Imperial Russian Stout doesn’t have any real faults and though it is bested by some seasonal imperial stout offerings available in Ontario, it is likely the only RIS you will find on shelves should you have a craving in the middle of July, for which it is more than agreeable. I commend the brewery for taking a chance and adding it to their regular production cycle. I have enjoyed this ale with Steak and potatoes, dark chocolate, creamy cheeses and crackers.
Almost half of the list I selected this year is made up of American IPAs (and coincidentally have names that start with H). This is not only due to preference, but also reflects the current state of craft brewing in Ontario. Pretty much every Joe (craft) 6-pack likes American IPAs, so the retailers like American IPAs.
The breweries in turn churn out what sells and is more likely to get on the shelves and move units in order to fund their more ambitious seasonal and one-off projects. It’s a vicious cycle, sure, but one I can live with. As the budding Ontario craft beer market matures and becomes more adventurous, I’m sure we’ll see a shift in trends (I’d love to see Belgian styles take off, particularly saisons), but 2012 was the year of the American IPA at retail in Ontario.
If I had to pick one of the beers in this article as “bryehn.net favourite regularly-produced Ontario craft beer of the year”, it would be Twice as Mad Tom IPA, but it would be a close fight with Nickel Brook Headstock IPA, easily my most consumed out of this bunch and Boneshaker, which is unmatched from a technical standpoint.