To drink one of the best Ontario-brewed beers in recent memory, you'll likely have to get out of town. Silversmith Brewing recently won a gold medal at the Ontario Brewing Awards for its Black Lager, a German schwarzbier whose look belies a light, crisp and refreshing taste. But one of the only ways to drink a Silversmith beer is to actually visit Silversmith in Virgil, Ont. On tap at only 100 bars – with all but 10 outlets in the Niagara region – they won't be found in the Beer Store or LCBO.
But that's not the point, says co-owner Matt Swan. "We're tiny, absolutely," he says. "But it was really important for us to build something for locals that would offer them an alternative."
Silvermith is located on a stretch of highway leading to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The region is most famous for wine, but it has seen a boom in craft brewers reaping the benefits of tourism during summer months. An estimated two million people visit the area every year. But once the cold and snow hits the QEW from Toronto, these breweries survive – and thrive – as hyper-local community generators, tapping into their own regional histories.
In Virgil, the Silversmith space has ambience and atmosphere in spades. Built from a former Anglican church erected in 1894, it was turned into a beer hall in 2011 by Mr. Swan's team.
There are seasonal beers, of course, such as this weekend's release of Devils & Details, a winter-warming 9-per-cent Belgian golden ale. But it is innovative events and shows that ingratiate the brewpub to the town of 2,300 people. They have live music every Thursday and Sunday. And on Feb. 17, they host another edition of Dinner Deconstructed, a dinner party where butcher Jamie Waldron gives a seminar with one half of an animal while chef Jonny Blonde is in the kitchen cooking the other.
"Increasingly, it seems like there is always something going on to drive people through," says Cian MacNeill of Niagara Oast House Brewers, which operates down the road from Silversmith, a little closer to town. Their red-barn-cum-brewhouse has been serving beer since 2012 and is hard to miss. "A lot of it," he says, "was building on, and piggybacking off, the wine-route culture."
But to keep the regulars coming when the tourists have gone home, the hayloft at Oast was converted to a hip event space to keep the taps flowing. They've teamed with the El Gastronomo Vagabundo food truck to offer a menu in the hayloft on weekends to go with a rotation of live bands.
In Ridgeway, on the southern edge of Niagara, Brimstone Brewing Co. is but one piece of a community hub that has transformed a former church into the Sanctuary Centre for the Arts. While beer is made and drunk in the brewpub downstairs, the Fort Erie Arts Council operates a gallery and event space on the upper floor, where art happenings, live music, Zumba classes, psychic fairs, weddings and "tap 'n' taste" dinners happen year round. This weekend, it hosts a fundraiser for Spencer MacKenzie, a young local musician trying to cover travel costs for a blues competition in Memphis, Tenn.
Brimstone co-founder Rob Daigle says they are still "in the middle of the young upstarts" in the industry. While Brimstone beer can be found in a few LCBOs, it's the brewery's local contributions that have made it successful so far, even winning a Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce Emerging Business of Excellence Award for its efforts.
If there is a strong indicator that craft-beer tourism is here to stay, look toward Niagara Falls. Owned by Canadian Niagara Hotels Inc., the Niagara Brewing Company opened last June as part of its hotel and entertainment complex at the foot of Clifton Hill.
The company asked veteran brewmaster Gord Slater to run the massive brewhouse, which features large silver fermenting tanks – both indoors and outdoors – as shiny decor. It took a breakneck year-and-a-half of construction to open in time for the busy summer season: Mr. Slater estimates they went through 600 hectolitres, "maybe more," of beer this summer, though the company hasn't disclosed an official number. (In contrast, Mr. Daigle at Brimstone began with a 50-litre system in 2013, and has only recently expanded to a 15-hectolitre capacity.)
When Ontario brewpubs were first legalized in 1985, Mr. Slater, who worked at Molson "100 years ago," remembers small breweries having trouble succeeding; big-name brands still commanded loyalty at the taps. Today, he says, an operation such as the Niagara Brewing Company is just what the customer demands. No one is drinking their father's beer any more.
But even a corporate-run craft brewery in the middle of tourist-filled Niagara Falls needs a little something extra to bring in customers these months: Live music runs Fridays and Saturdays, while food and drink specials are on offer for football Sundays. In February, Mr. Slater will host an evening where he unveils icewine- and chocolate-flavoured beers of his own creation.
Big or small, brewers in the Niagara region know that beyond their home bases, they can rely on one other community for support: themselves.
"My experience in this industry is that it is extremely collaborative," Mr. Daigle says. "I always feel that if you go to a brewery down the road and ask for a cup of malt, you'll leave with a six-pack and the recipe for their flagship ale. We help each other."