Dedicated to all things beer and brewing, Canadian beer expert Greg Clow edits and publishes Canadian Beer News, a one-stop-shop for beer news and happenings (festivals, awards, events, brewery openings, etc.) across the country.
Greg also writes beer-review blog Canadian Beer Notes, contributes regularly to TAPS: The Beer Magazine and has a personal beer, spirits and food blog, Beer, Booze & Bites. He recently launched the Canadian Beer News Dinner Series, which brings Canadian breweries and top chefs together for Toronto-area beer-and-food pairings.
How did you get into the business of writing about beer?
I was going to the University of Waterloo in the late 1980s when early microbreweries like Brick and Wellington were starting out in the area, so I developed a taste for what eventually became known as craft beer early on.
In 2001, I discovered a Web site called RateBeer and started writing and logging tasting notes for every beer I could get my hands on. This then led to me writing about beer for a couple of local food and drink Web sites (including Taste T.O., a now defunct Web site published by my wife and I), contributing to TAPS Magazine, starting my own beer blog, and eventually launching Canadian Beer News.
Are there any common misconceptions about Canadian beer?
The biggest one is probably the old adage that Canadian beer is stronger than American beer. When it comes to mainstream pale lagers from the big breweries, 5% alcohol by volume is the standard in both countries, but since American breweries often measure and list alcohol by weight, their beers are labelled as having 4% alcohol. Now that craft breweries on both sides of the border are brewing beers in every style and alcohol level imaginable, it’s even less accurate.
What’s exciting you most about the beer industry in Canada now?
I’m pleased and impressed by the innovation and experimentation that is happening at breweries coast to coast. There are beers being made in Canada now that would’ve been unimaginable just a couple of years ago. New breweries are opening on an increasingly frequent basis, and the market share for craft beer continues to increase as well.
This has even rubbed off on the large breweries, notably Molson Coors, who is opening a small brewery and beer education centre called Six Pints Beer Academy in Toronto this spring. I had a chance to visit for an early tour recently, and while it was far from complete, I was really impressed by the commitment that a large company like Molson Coors is making to celebrating beer in general, not just their own brands.
So, we have to ask: What are some of your favourite Canadian beers?
Naming favourite beers is hard, as there are so many factors to consider: time of year, location, food to pair it with, etc. That said, one of the best Canadian beers I’ve tried recently is Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus from Microbrasserie Charlevoix in Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec. It’s a a strong, 10% Belgian-style golden ale that’s made with a lot more hops than a typical Belgian brew, giving it aromas and flavours of tropical fruit and citrus, and a long, bitter finish.
As great as it is, though, it’s a bit big for everyday drinking. For that I’m more likely to turn to beers like Tree Hophead IPA from Kelowna, BC; Mill Street Tankhouse Ale from Toronto; and McAuslan St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from Montreal.
Which beer events in Canada are worth making dedicated trips to attend?
Without a doubt, Mondial de la Bière in Montreal is Canada’s top beer festival. It brings together the majority of Quebec breweries and features hundreds of beers from breweries around the world, many of them rarely available in Canada. And during the five days of the festival (this year June 6–10), many brewpubs and beer bars in Montreal hold special events when the festival lets out at 9 pm.
Another fantastic event is Cask Days, a weekend festival in Toronto each fall. It spotlights cask beer, which is beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask or small keg that it’s served from. It’s grown into one of the largest cask ale festivals in North America, with last year’s edition featuring beers from more than 50 Canadian breweries and a few from the UK.
You live in Toronto, so with a beer-loving visitor in tow, what would be your top stops in the city?
We’d start at barVolo: they pour great beers from all the best local breweries and always have a beer or two on tap from House Ales, their tiny in-house brewery tucked into the corner of the kitchen. After that, we’d head to beerbistro for a gourmet dinner paired with a rare bottle or two from their cellar list. For a nightcap, we’ll walk over to C’est What, a pub that has been serving craft beer since it was called microbrew; they have a couple dozen taps and five casks, all pouring Canadian craft beers, including a few house exclusives.
Are there any beers or breweries that you think are underrated and should get more attention?
There are two breweries just north of Toronto that don’t get as much attention as they deserve: King and Magnotta. They don’t push the envelope with experimental or extreme beers, instead concentrating on making authentic versions of classic beer styles: pilsner, dark lager and Vienna lager from King; IPA, weisse and altbier from Magnotta.
What has been one of the best breweries or beer tours you’ve attended anywhere in Canada? Why?
This might seem like a strange thing for a beer geek to say, but I actually find most brewery tours to be kind of boring. The basic mechanics of all breweries are pretty much the same, so unless there’s something about their setup that is especially unique, it can be a “seen one, seen ‘em all” situation.
But I’d encourage anyone in Toronto to take a tour of the Steam Whistle Brewery, if only to have the chance to explore the Roundhouse, the spectacular historic railway building where the brewery is located. Plus, Steam Whistle is a beer best enjoyed as fresh as possible—and you can’t get much fresher than at the brewery itself!
What are some of the Canadian “hubs” for excellent craft brewing?
On a provincial level, British Columbia and Quebec tend to be the two stars of the Canadian craft beer scene. BC brewers have drawn a lot of influence from American brewers in the Pacific Northwest and California, which means that big, bold, hop-forward beers tend to be popular. The Quebec scene is more eclectic, drawing heavily from Belgian brewing traditions, but also from other brewing cultures old and new.
Elsewhere in Canada, there are pockets of great brewing opening up in few places. Halifax has a number of great breweries and brewpubs; Toronto has had an explosion of small breweries in the last couple of years; and while Whitehorse might be a one-brewery town, that single small brewery, the aptly named Yukon Brewing, is the only craft brewery in Canada to outsell the national breweries in its home market.
What, if anything, do you hope changes about the Canadian beer scene?
In Ontario, I’d love to see some major changes in the ownership structure of The Beer Store. There is no logical argument that can be made for the main retail outlet for beer in the province to be owned by three breweries (Labatt, Molson and Sleeman) that are either foreign-owned or part of a multinational conglomerate. It’s the last remnant of a dated system that should have been overhauled years ago.
On a more general level, I’d like to see a vast reduction in the amount of legislation and red tape that small breweries need to deal with to get their product onto the market, from inter-provincial trade barriers, to monolithic provincial liquor boards, all the way down to municipal bylaws and inspections. It’ll never be a perfect system, of course, but if at least some of the more archaic rules could be loosened or scrapped, it would make it a lot easier for craft beer drinkers across the country to really appreciate everything that Canada’s craft brewers have to offer.