With a chill in the air and a frosty brew in your glass, you’ll truly appreciate the seasonal flair and beer culture of Montreal.
by Chantal Martineau
At the mention of Montreal, you might be inclined to conjure images of cobblestone roads, madames air-kissing, and men hoisting wine goblets with the gusto of their European counterparts. In fact, while the roads may be cobbled in places and the kisses exchanged mid-air at times, Montreal has always been more beer-happy than wine country. And there is no better place to witness this than in the city’s many brewpubs.
The decidedly European-flavored burg is the second largest French-speaking city in the Western world next to Paris. But with much of the population fluent in English, it’s a lot more accessible. Having grown up here, I must admit that my beer vocabulary didn’t extend much further than Molson and Labatt until my 20th year or so. (Yes, we start young; the legal drinking age is just 18.) But I and my fellow Quebecois have refined our palates over the last decade while microbrews have taken over the city.
One of the first places I expanded my malt-and-hop horizons is Brutopia, a laid-back live music venue decked in red brick walls and rough wood floors located in Downtown Montreal. The big copper tanks used for fermenting can be seen from the bar. Master brewer Chris Downey characterizes his naturally brewed beers as “straightforward, uncomplicated” English-style ales. Using mostly Canadian and some British malts, as well as hops originating from the States and the U.K., Brutopia reuses its yeast to craft eight house beers. You can always find the hoppy IPA, sweet Honey beer, earthy Nut Brown Ale, bold Extra Blonde and fruity Raspberry Blonde on tap, plus three seasonal beers that change with the weather and Downey’s mood. This season, when the ground is frozen, the Maple Rousse is sure to make an appearance on the menu: It’s a hearty red ale with a hint of Quebec Maple Syrup.
For a completely different vibe, crowd and carte du jour, head to Brasserie Benelux. One of the newer additions to the city, it’s a true concept bar specializing in Belgian beers, such as the heady witbier and chocolaty La Marge stout. Set in a former bank, the décor is minimalist and industrial, complete with exposed piping, pint glass light fixtures and shiny black kegs lining the entryway. What was once the bank’s vault has been transformed into a private back room lined with sleek leather sofas. And should the worst happen, there are directions posted on how to unlock the safe from the inside. (Although, to be fair, getting locked in the VIP vault of this bar wouldn’t exactly qualify as “the worst.”)
The city’s first and longtime local favorite brewpub is Le Cheval Blanc. Not to be confused with an unrelated microbrewery by the same name, this quaint—if not quirky—completely unpretentious bar serves up its own array of idiosyncratic beers, from the rye-noted Pale Ale to a coriander-hinted wheat beer called La Blanche. Speaking of spices, give La Piment, a blonde ale spiked with red chili pepper, a try. Pints here are cheap, especially before 8 p.m., so you might find yourself in the mood to line the walls of your stomach with one of Le Cheval’s Hungarian-style hotdogs.
In fact, lining one’s stomach is neither a bad idea nor a challenge in this 24-hour gastro-destination. With more restaurants per capita than any town in North America aside from New York City, it’s easy to find a good meal at any hour. Bières et Compagnie, in the trendy Plateau neighborhood, features more than 100 beers—30 made locally—and an impressive menu of dishes best accompanied by, and often made with, beer. The French onion soup is flavored with Boréale Noire, a nearby microbrewery’s stout, while the raclette (a Swiss cheese dish) has the distinct tang of Griffon Blonde, another local offering.
If it’s really late, however, skip the gourmet meal and go native with quintessential Quebec diner fare: poutine, a greasy mess of fries, gravy and fresh cheese curds. Some 20 different versions of the dish are served at the 24-hour hipster hangout La Banquise.
No trip to Montreal is complete without a stroll around Old Montreal. The historical district with its narrow cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages is sure to transport you not only back in time, but also across the Atlantic to the Old World. It’s worth a stop in Les 3 Brasseurs, a small yet growing chain of brewpubs serving food.
While a brewpub crawl is a great way to experience Montrealers’ love of artisanal beer, local microbrewery offerings can be found in nearly every bar in the city, as well as corner shops, supermarkets and the S.A.Q. (Société des Alcools du Québec, or S.A.Q., is a government-owned chain selling wine, beer and spirits. Unlike your average liquor store, all staff is required to have considerable expertise in the products sold.) Some of the most widely available microbrews are from Unibroue, makers of the charismatically named La Maudite (The Damned, 8% ABV), La Fin du Monde (The End of the World, 9% ABV), and La Terrible (10.5% ABV. No translation needed). These strong beers have made their way across the border to be sold in specialty stores and taverns around the United States.
The best way to expand your microbrew vocabulary in Montreal is to flex your lingual muscles. Montrealers are enthusiastic about sharing their culture and culinary heritage with visitors, and so much more so when faced with even the tiniest effort to speak the language. Just remember: Here, “salut” means goodbye. When it comes to a toast, we drink to our health: “Santé!” •
Cider Houses Rule: As any school kid will attest, the Montérégie region just outside the city is known for its apple orchards. While the tots enjoy the picking, grown-ups tend to prefer sampling the, ahem, fruits of that labor—especially, locally invented ice cider. Call ahead to book a tour of one of the 30 artisanal cideries sprinkled along what has been dubbed the Cider Route. Alternatively, go to your nearest S.A.Q. and buy a bottle. A few suggestions are the woody, amber-colored Neige La Face Cachée de la Pomme 2005, lush yet complex Du Minot des glaces, and honey-noted Domaine Leduc-Piedimonte cidre de glace 2005.