You needn't have fallen under the spell of the hit movie Sideways to appreciate that wine tourism is big business. But last year's other booze-and-travel film, the documentary American Beer, showed how microbreweries have become destinations too -- and not just in the United States. From coast to coast, Canada has much to offer the traveller who prefers barley to grapes.
While a brewery may lack some of the romance of the vineyard, there's still plenty to see and taste during a brewery tour -- from the overview of raw ingredients to the fragrant, steaming kettles and inevitable sampling at the end of the line. Some brewers have even been known to draw a glass or two off the fermenters for a taste of beer that's as fresh as it gets.
It's important for the beer tourist to remember, though, that breweries -- unlike wineries -- are intensely active, often cramped places, and so full tours may simply not be possible. The best bet is to call in advance and try to visit at times, like weekends, when no beer is being brewed. At brew pubs, where the making and serving of beer are given equal importance, scheduling can be looser and the experience more intimate, with brewing often taking place within sight of the table at which you're enjoying your meal or pint.
Here, then, is a tour-friendly, regional breakdown of Canada's top microbreweries:
A perfect beer tour is one you can walk, and that's what you get in the heartland of Maritime brewing. A 10-to-15-minute stroll from downtown is the Propeller Brewing Company, where proprietor-brewer John Allen crafts a line of traditional British-style ales, including a mocha-ish London Porter fashioned from a two-century-old recipe. Kids can sip Propeller's lineup of artisanal soft drinks, from root beer to all-natural orange soda.
A walk along the southern perimeter of the Halifax Citadel and Royal Artillery Park brings you to Spring Garden Road and the Rogue's Roost brew pub, a second-floor perch overlooking the bustle of one of the city's busiest streets. Affable brewer Lorne Romano will show you around, after which a casual lunch may be accompanied most deliciously by a glass of his fruity, bitter IPA.
Continuing your walk toward the water, expect to arrive first at The Granite Brewery & Ginger's, the East's original brew pub, now in its third downtown location. Plan a little extra time in case owner Kevin Keefe is around, since he has been known to talk the ear off visiting beer aficionados, and treat your taste buds to his dry, leafy Best Bitter -- surely one of the finest cask-conditioned ales brewed in Canada.
Still closer to the waterfront is one of Canada's most curious brew pubs. John Shippey's is located in what could best be described as a food court, the Harbourside Market, and laid out with the brewery looming above the bar. Rest assured, however, that there's nothing odd about the brewery's toasty, tasty Bootlegger Nut Brown Ale.
Montreal and the South Shore
The beer tourist seeking to explore the Greater Montreal Area faces two hurdles: the fairly tight control on tours imposed by most commercial breweries, and the fact that almost all of the city's brew pubs remain shut until late afternoon. Still, that needn't discourage you from experiencing one of the continent's great beer destinations, since a little planning allows you to skirt around both issues.
From downtown, it's about a half-hour drive to Chambly on the South Shore, home to the Belgium-inspired brewery Unibroue. There, a "tour" is more a visit to the cinema, with a sharply produced film offering a thorough overview of the process, followed by a look at the bottling facilities and, of course, a tasting.
Cap your visit with a leisurely lunch at Fourquet Fourchette, the brewery's own restaurant, where a caribou ragout may be both accompanied by and flavoured with the richly malty, spicy Trois Pistoles ale.