When you venture to a new country you expect things to be different, and while it’s not necessarily a good or bad thing you still brace yourself for changes. Such was the case when I pulled up to the Canadian border between Vermont and Quebec, a beer traveler preparing for a whole new world of malt delights. After an hour long delay spent holding it together with a full bladder while immigration officers inspected my underwear we sped north toward Quebec City at 100 km/h. Our destination was La Barberie a microbrasserie of great renown in Northern Quebec and purveyor of the illustrious Carrousel.
We met with head brewer Bastien, who was unfortunately headed to another meeting shortly due to our unplanned lateness – thankfully we didn’t smuggle anything into Canada or we would have been face down on the concrete still. He showed me the brewery’s inner workings – tanks, fermenters, brewhouse, and packaging before heading to a yeast meeting with a few specialists. The brewery itself is meticulous, particularly important in a place like La Barberie where there are more than 20 styles in process at any one time.
Each and every vessel is labeled with La Barberie’s logo and numbered for ease of reference – replacing the typical notes attached to each fermenter with a large dry erase board for the ever-rotating brews. It was evident that the staff was moving at a quick pace, and that it was rare the pace behind the scenes ever slowed too much – only enough for a quick slug of water or cigarette on the loading dock. While the back of house is in a constant state of motion, the tap room is a throw back to my visits to Brussels and Paris, a persistent but sluggish drinking pace that enjoys each and every sip and takes pride in the smallest pour.
So what about those brews? How do they stack up?
Well, for me La Barberie was the introduction to Quebecois beer that I needed – each and every style I tried during my time there was considerably different from beer here in the states and much of it was directly French-inspired. The Blonde au Chardonnay is a heavily alcoholic brew with light, refreshing carbonation that brings pricks of grape flavors forward on the tongue. The Lime et Framboise is an exceptionally light beer with citrus and raspberry immediately up front and reminds more of a cooler than a beer. The Rousse is a deep Russian beer with malty and earthy bite that borders on chewy – in a word – delicious. The final beer on our carousel was a Sangria-inspired brew whose name escapes me, but whose flavor is impossible to forget. A blend of citrus and wine flavors with a malty backbone this beer is intrinsically interesting though I don’t know that I could kill a pint.
As we would come to find in Quebec the locals take their beer quite seriously, and have no problem sharing opinions on what is good and bad, let alone what isn’t worth drinking at all. As we left Quebec City for Montreal we took a detour to Shawinigan – our host’s hometown – to visit his main source of local pride – Trou du Diable. While the downtown area of Shawinigan has a number of nice-looking restaurants and bars (be sure to try poutine and a Michigan if you can) we were here solely for Trou du Diable and so we made our way to the pub.
Literally translated as Devil’s Hole the brewery offered 8 different brews the day we were in town, including a beer brewed entirely with ingredients from Quebec. We were reminded of the local pride in their beer, and definitely appreciated the passion. Each of the beers here was a bit different, though most again played on typical Belgian styles in interesting ways. L’amere Indienne, literally bitter Indian, IPA was an interesting take on an American style IPA with strong bitter flavors and decent malty background. Annedd Ale was the previously mentioned Quebecois beer with malt sourced locally and only tree tips to bitter the brew. While I might not order it again it was an interesting departure from much of the beer we tried in Quebec, and you could tell it was skillfully made. The double IPA on offer might’ve been my favorite of the list, which is unusual for a dark beer nerd like myself. It was subtle and balanced for such a hoppy beer, and not overwhelming even in the extreme heat which was quite impressive.
At this point we made our way to Montreal and I decided to leave my camera behind for a day so we could easily travel public transportation and enjoy some of Montreal’s finest beers. Our new host introduced us to L’Amere a Boire mainly a lager brewery in the heart of Montreal. Considering he has a beer room in his apartment dedicated to the drink of choice we felt we were in good hands and trusted the recommendation. I immediately went for Kozak, a Baltic Porter/dark lager that reminded me more of Kostritzer than a deeper Baltic Porter. As it turns out, Kostritzer is among my favorite beers and so it was a hit with me. Deep, dark, and malty the brew was perfect for the evening we enjoyed it and paired wonderfully with my medium-rare burger. I also enjoyed intermittent sips of the beers being enjoyed by the rest of the table, including a pilsener, hefeweizen, and pale ale. Each one was surprisingly light and refreshing, particularly appreciated on a warm summer night that was relentlessly humid.
After overindulging on lager and meat we made our way home and tried a few local offerings our host had on hand, further cementing his reputation with us. We even tried an Ice Cider, similar to Ice Wine in that the apples are allowed to freeze while still on the tree forcing the concentration of sugars and leading to an intense and syrupy sweet concoction that was enjoyed by all.
The next afternoon we made our way to Dieu du Ciel! to see the #1 rated brewpub in the world and the place did not disappoint. I could go through the long list of beers I sampled and bore you to death with intense details of each brew, but instead I’ll generalize and pick out the two beers I thought best exemplified their ethos and creativity. Each and every beer we tried was outstanding, an excellent example of the style and almost always with a small twist on the tradition enhancing the beer and making it more of a statement. The staff are all friendly and accommodating, goofing around as they serve and ensuring that you enjoy yourself too.
The beers that blew me away were Blind Dattes and Route des Epices, the first a Belgian style ale fermented with dates and the second a rye ale fermented on peppercorns. Blind Dattes is unapologetically sweet, intensely and endearingly malty, and somehow manages to finish without drowning your taste buds in syrup. The inherent lack of balance in the beer doesn’t seem to affect its flavor profile the way it should, and the beer finishes cleanly and with only a hint of lingering sweetness. Route des Epices is simply impressive for its masterful juggling of the flavors of rye, malt, hop, and peppercorn blended together to maintain an almost perfectly balanced brew. The pepper does take the lead up front, but it gives way to the spiciness of the rye and the sweetness of the malt. However, once the malt and hop fade away the pepper once again comes to the foreground in the finish, leaving a mellow burn on the tongue that I found extremely pleasant – in fairness I also add sriracha to my eggs in the morning so take that as you will.
The breweries of Quebec took us to a whole new place on this trip, both literally and figuratively. A wide variety of unexplored flavors and nuances of different philosophies of brewing are on display just north of the border and I for one can’t wait for the collaboration brew to start rolling in.
Until then, Cheers!