A Weekend of Beer

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I don’t consider myself a beer connoisseur, but I sure am a fan.

A few weeks ago, I took Will on a birthday trip – a “tour of beer tours”.  The idea was centered around visiting The Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery in Barrie, which is where Will’s craft draft of choice, Hoptical Illusion, is made.

But I figured, why stop there?  It’s a 6 hour drive to Barrie, we can’t just come right back home!

So, taking advantage of my skills as an Internet Searching Person, I happened upon the Old Toronto Beer Tour, which seemed like a unique experience, and the perfect compliment to the motivation behind the trip.

And so, on Friday, we traveled the treacherous back-highways all the way to Barrie.  Kaitlyn, at Flying Monkeys, was nice enough to arrange an off-hours tour for us, since I knew we wouldn’t be able to make it there for their normal touring schedule.

It was a great tour!  It’s amazing how small the brewery actually is.  Kaitlyn gave us a tour of the entire facility, starting in their fully-stocked and reasonably-priced gift shop, through the entire brewing and bottling process, and then a peak at the offices behind the scenes.  Getting a personal tour was a real advantage, because we were free to take our time and ask any questions that came up.

Photo credit: William J. Gibson

Not to mention all the free beer samples, of course!

After sobering up at the nearby Local Gastropub, with our car loaded with shirts, glasses and beer from Flying Monkeys, we made our way down to Toronto for the rest of our beer-filled weekend.

On a rainy (yes, rainy in January!) Saturday morning, we took a quick subway ride right downtown to Steamwhistle to get our Old Toronto Beer Tour started.  We went inside and were led to the Steamwhistle event room, where there were breads, cheeses, meats and vegetables set up for our lunch – and of course, beer!  As we enjoyed our meal, our guide for the day, Oliver Dawson, introduced himself and gave the back story of how the tour came to be.  Quite a story!

Next up, we were introduced to our “bartender” – Lindsay, who then lead us on a tour of the Steamwhistle brewery.  He explained the entire process clearly, which was great for those of us who drink beer without any real idea behind the making of it.

After the tour, we boarded the bus and made our way to our second stop – Fort York.  Fort York?  On a beer tour?  I know, it seems strange.  But it worked pretty well.  The history of Fort York is closely tied with the history of brewing in Toronto, and it was interesting to learn a bit about what it was like when it started.  This part of the tour is newly added, and it still could use some polishing (a little more guidance and a little less freeform exploring) but it was an interesting break and really brought the history of it all into perspective.

The next stop was the second brewery: Amsterdam.  At this point, Oliver and his new secondary guide traded back and forth on introducing the many beers we were to sample at Amsterdam.  I lost count in the mix, but I think we tried about a dozen different beers while we were there.  I really enjoyed learning about the many varieties and methods of preparing different kinds of brews, and had my LCBO iPhone app ready to go to bookmark a few particularly interesting brews.

However, there were a few improvements that we thought could have been made during this visit.  We didn’t actually get to tour the brewery, which was a bit disappointing as it looked like an interesting set up.  It also would have been good if they had the samples prepared and ready to go before we got there, if possible – by the time the beer was poured and passed around, it wasn’t clear if you were tasting the last one that was introduced or the one before that.

After we were all sufficiently tipsy and had taken our bathroom breaks, we made our way back to the bus and onto our next destination: Corktown.  This is a historic part of Toronto, an Irish area of town, which is steeped in brewing history.  As we explored the area on foot and on the bus, we learned that much of the area was built by local brewers, for their employees.  We heard stories about architecture, business conflicts and family lineages along the way.  Unfortunately, I missed out on a good portion of the talking because my brain (and I was not alone in this) was overloaded with the thought of how important it was for me to find a bathroom NOW.  Many of the males in the group found their own creative solutions to this problem, but us girls were not so lucky. If I were to make one suggestion to improve this whole tour, it would be to find a bathroom break during the Corktown visit!

Our last stop was Mill St. Brewery in Toronto’s Distillery district.  I was really looking forward to this part, as Mill St. makes a few of my favourite beers.  Unfortuantely, I have to say that the tour fell a bit flat here.  We were shoved into their small tasting room/overly-priced gift shop and that’s where things ended.  Unfortunately, the main tour guide had to leave and the rest was left up to his assistant – who didn’t guide so much as chat with people.  We didn’t get to see the brewery, and we didn’t get introduced to any of the beers that were available for tasting.  Mill St. itself lost a few points in my book here too, I was looking forward to bringing home some merchandise, but not only were the shirts way above my price range ($35-60 or so) but I was informed that they didn’t carry anything in a Ladies Small.

Despite a few hiccups here and there, I would still really recommend both visiting Flying Monkeys and the Old Toronto Beer Tour.  Oliver seems to be always looking for ways to improve the tour, and his passion for it was obvious throughout.  It’s given me an appreciation and understanding of the brewing industry and the beers I so love to enjoy that I didn’t know I could have!