On Tap: Canadian Beers Rule Vermont Brewers Festival

Sarah Kleiner, of Buffalo, N.Y., the writer’s sister-in-law, offers her glass for a sample from Brasserie Dunham, a Quebec brewery, at the Vermont Brewers Festival July 20 in Burlington. (Valley News — Chris Fleisher)

Sarah Kleiner, of Buffalo, N.Y., the writer’s sister-in-law, offers her glass for a sample from Brasserie Dunham, a Quebec brewery, at the Vermont Brewers Festival July 20 in Burlington. (Valley News — Chris Fleisher)

My tasting glass was still sticky with the residue of an “old ale” aged in brandy barrels when I handed it back to the man who’d poured me the beer just 15 minutes earlier.

In that space of time, he’d probably served several dozen 3-ounce samples to other attendees at the Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington. But he recognized my face. He paused when he saw me, grinned and cocked an eyebrow.

“You again?” he said.

Yes, me again. I had precious little time and too few tickets to taste everything I wanted at the annual festival held a week and a half ago. But I knew I wanted some more of what this guy was offering. After trading two tickets for one of Brasserie Dunham’s bottle-conditioned beers, I’d gone right back to the end of the line to wait for another. I then had plans to go to Dieu du Ciel’s tent, then perhaps to Hopfenstark and Le Trou du Diable.

None of these brewers, mind you, were from Vermont. They weren’t even from the U.S. They were Canadian. The land of Molson and Labatt Blue. The country where Bob and Doug McKenzie had their adventure in Strange Brew.

Oh Canada, how far you’ve come.

As enthused as I continue to be about Vermont’s beer scene, it was the Canadian brewers, specifically those from Quebec, that stole my heart at this year’s celebration on the Burlington waterfront. Those were the tents where I tasted spicy saisons aged in wine barrels and made with rye and raspberries. There was a fruity India Pale Ale brewed with kumquats, a sour beer with cherries, wheat ale with strawberries, a Russian Imperial stout made with maple and aged in Canadian whisky barrels, a gluten-free red ale with roasted chestnuts.

There was “normal” stuff too. Plenty of blondes, porters and pale ales. I wasn’t in the mood for normal.

I’m not sure whether it’s the French-inspired culinary culture, a long-overdue reaction to weak light lagers dominating the Canadian market, or the influence of the craft beer explosion in the U.S. — small brewers in Canada have been producing some of the most interesting beers I’ve tasted lately.

Back in the early 1990s, Unibroue, which makes award-winning spiced beers such as La Fin du Monde, was among the first to introduce the Canadian market to flavors (or “flavours,” if you prefer) beyond the corn-like sweetness of mass-produced lagers. Since then, Quebec has been building its reputation as a destination for adventurous drinkers.

“For years, it was dominated by Molson and Labatt,” said Scott Russell, who manages the beer selection at South Royalton Market and keeps a close watch on what’s happening in Quebec. “Credit goes to Unibroue for opening that up.”

My last few visits to Montreal have been largely drinking tours, mapped and scheduled according to the opening times at breweries and gastropubs. And I discovered it’s not just French- and Belgian-style beer up there. In April, I enjoyed smooth German lagers at the brewpub L’Amère à Boire, followed by more standard American-style pale ales and IPAs at Réservoir. When I visited the tiny corner market of Épicerie Au Coin Duluth, the shelves were so packed with Quebec brews that it was overwhelming. I walked out with a six-pack that included selections from Brasseur de Montreal made with absinthe and the South African rooibos plant, as well a few bottles from Dieu du Ciel.

Dieu du Ciel arguably reigns king over Montreal’s fascinating beer scene. It was while tasting the microbrewery’s Rosée D’Hibiscus years ago at the Vermont Brewers Festival that convinced me I needed to pay more attention to our neighbors to the north. The Belgian-style witbier is brewed with hibiscus flowers, lending a delicate floral character supported by the wheat body and fruity aromas in the yeast. It’s a nice summer beer. But Dieu du Ciel also make lots of good stuff for the cold months, too. (Canadians know a little something about dark winter days.) The Péché Mortel, an Imperial coffee stout, is a complex, rich and strong beer that will warm you up with 9.5 percent alcohol.

You don’t have to travel across the border, however, to find these beers. Plenty of local stores, including Norwich Wine & Spirits, the Coop Food Stores and South Royalton Market stock Canadian bottles. Russell told me that he carries Dieu du Ceil as well as a spiced quad from Charlevoix, a brewery considered by some the best in Quebec. I’ve seen the Péché Mortel sold locally, as well as the St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from McAuslan Brewing.

Unfortunately, bottles of the brandy-aged old ale from Brasserie Dunham are going to be difficult to find around here. It may be time for another trip north.

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.