What’s brewing in Ottawa?
Dallas Morning News
It’s 15 years since I moved from the UK and became a Canadian citizen. But while I love living in the land of poutine and maple syrup, one issue was almost an emigration deal breaker: coming from a country where beer is a life-giving force, locating good ales here initially seemed harder than finding malt vinegar for my fish and chips.
Fast-forward to now and Canada has since undergone a lip-smacking craft beer renaissance. On my recent visit to Ottawa – the nation’s historic capital – I made a concerted effort to prove the point, searching for a full round of regionally-made tipples that didn’t even exist when I signed my passport papers all those years ago.
First stop: Friday night at Brothers Beer Bistro in the heart of the ByWard Market area, a strollable old-town neighborhood of cozy eateries and taverns popular with nightlife-loving locals and visitors. Crammed with chatty quaffers on my arrival – mostly at candlelit wooden tables or perched at the little bar – the highlight of its extensive beer list is a tasting flight of six Ontario and Quebec brews.
Muskoka Brewery’s Mad Tom IPA hits the hoppy spot, while Wellington Brewery’s County Ale and a couple of spicy Spearhead Brewing beers keep things lively. But while the smooth Kichesippi Natural Blonde is a near-perfect pale ale, the Péché Mortel stout from Dieu Du Ciel Brewing is tonight’s winner. Dark, slightly sweet and beautifully balanced, it combines light coffee and chocolate notes. But just to be sure, I order a pint for more considered savoring.
The following afternoon, I dive headfirst into the regional brewing scene at one of Ottawa’s two main annual beer festivals. Joining the merry crowd on store-lined Sparks Street, I weave between dozens of al fresco stands pouring generous samples including Beyond the Pale’s Rye Guy IPA, Broadhead’s Victory Brown Ale and Hogwild IPA by Hogtown Brewers.
But one beer stands out. Lug Tread Lagered Ale – a crisp, kolsch-style tipple from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company – is a great entry-level microbrew for those more used to mainstream beers. Noticing my not-very-surreptitious note taking, a bearded server stops for a chat, revealing that he’s the co-owner of the family-run operation.
“It’s a good time to be a beer drinker in Canada,” says Steve Beauchesne. “New breweries are opening every day and old breweries are challenging themselves and each other.” And for thirsty visitors, he has a simple tip. “The first and best question you should ask at a bar or restaurant here is: What do you have that’s local?’”
I deploy the strategy a few hours later while indulging in a feast-like dinner at edge-of-Chinatown’s Zen Kitchen, a charming, art-lined bistro with a vegan menu that routinely surprises meat-eaters (like me) who typically dismiss anything remotely vegetarian – the sesame-crusted mushrooms and sweet potato gnocchi are highly recommended. My server, a self-proclaimed beer fan herself, offers some Ottawa pub tips before bringing over a perfect taste-tripping flight of four locally-made beers.
Next day, I try an unconventional cure for my mild hangover. Ottawa’s landmark museums – especially the National Gallery of Canada, Canadian War Museum and Canadian Museum of Civilization – are ever-popular with visitors, but I decide to clear my fuzzy brain with a 35-minute drive from the city and a descent underground.
The Diefenbunker – nicknamed after Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and officially the Central Emergency Government Headquarters – was a 300-room secret subterranean facility built in the 1950s to house the government and 535 staff in the event of a nuclear attack. Only fully operational during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, it was decommissioned and slated for demolition in 1994.
But luckily an army of volunteers stepped in and created Canada’s Cold War Museum. Entering along a giant blast tunnel – like strolling an underground metro line that’s lost its train – I join a guided tour snaking through the war cabinet room, the prime minister’s bedroom, the gold reserve vault and a large cafeteria where staff dined in front of a huge mural of Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
It’s a fascinating museum but its dark themes are enough to drive anyone to drink. Which is my cue to head back to the city and find two final bars recommended to me by several locals.
Downtown’s Chez Lucien is like a friendly village tavern in France. Sliding onto a seat at the tiny, sun-warmed bar, I chat with the server about her favorite beers. Bold ales from Quebec’s Unibroue and St. Ambroise breweries are menu mainstays here but when I ask for the “most local” beer, she pours a Kichesippi 1855. Made six miles away, it’s a smooth brew with a malty bite – a perfect afternoon quaff.
Next, I take advantage of the sun with a 20-minute stroll along Elgin Street. Lined with neighborhood bars, I’m looking for one that many have told me is Ottawa’s best. On an unassuming street corner, I descend a short flight of stairs and push open the door of the Manx. Hit by a waft of animated conversation, the wood-paneled nook feels like a lively sitting room in someone’s home.
Snagging the only open bar seat, I peruse a bewildering chalkboard menu of local and regional beers crammed with unfamiliar names. It’s the widest selection I’ve encountered and I need some help navigating it.
The young barman tells me his favorite Canadian beer changes almost weekly. But he recommends a handy caveat to the “what’s local” question suggested by Beauchesne. “Ask for what’s seasonal as well,” he says. The Manx always has a few intriguing limited-run brews available, often wheat beers in summer and rich stouts in winter.
Inspired, I indulge in a pint of the cheekily-named Bog Water made by Beau’s, a slightly sweet gruit beer with a fruity undertone. Complex yet balanced enough to be highly quaffable, it’s a perfect reminder of how far Canada’s homegrown brewing scene has come since I moved here. In fact, I might even stay. But I’ll just try another beer to be sure…
Access (40 words):
Fairmont Chateau Laurier (www.fairmont.com/laurier) is centrally located.
Brothers Beer Bistro: www.brothersbeerbistro.ca
Next beer festival: National Capital Craft Beer Week (August; www.nationalcapitalbeerweek.com)
Zen Kitchen: www.zenkitchen.ca
The Diefenbunker: www.diefenbunker.ca
Chez Lucien: 137 Murray Street
The Manx: 370 Elgin Street
For trip-planning information: www.ottawatourism.ca