The Blanche, Blonde, Rousse et Noir Tour
I did a phone survey the other day conducted on behalf on Air Canada based on my recent flight from Vancouver to Montréal. I was on the bus home from work – a commute that is way too long, may I add – and figured it was just as well to kill some time answering their questions. The interviewer was, as they say, not the sharpest tool in the shed. “And did you have to wait in line to check your bags?” “No, I just walked right up.” “How long was the wait?”
Anyway, the dimness of the 40 watt on the other end of the line was only amusing for so long, as the interview droned on for a good twenty minutes. At the end of all this tough sledding, what they got out of me was that the flight was fine but the food was a tad weak (Air Canada only has two dishes, both only marginally passable) and that they could have tried harder in selecting the movie (some Sandra Bullock travesty I didn’t even bother to watch).
It was better that I didn’t watch it because I was able to squeeze out about thirty minutes of terrible sleep. I never could sleep sitting up. Thus, I was somewhat bushed and grumpy by the time I landed. I waited several epochs for my bag to show up. But just when my beard was about to become entangled in my shoe laces, it arrived and I was able to get the Quebec Brewpub Tour started!
I seem to have done one or two brewpub tours in my day, and they all work the same way. I start as tired, testy and altogether unequipped for a hardcore beer roadtrip as possible. I collected my passengers for a 1500 kilometer swing around Quebec – Ratebeerians known as Rastacoeure, Ungstrup, and tiggmtl. We wanted to find out what was happening in the hinterlands.
The first stop was Chez Gambrinus, a brewpub I visited a couple of years ago and honestly wasn’t sure I’d visit again. Not that there is anything wrong with, it’s just off the beaten track a bit, as evidenced by the fact that tiggmtl and Rasta were visiting for the first time. The first beer I tried was a tepid Ginger Beer, but I followed this with a toffeeish, earthy, firm Scotch Ale.
The next stop was well away in Baie-Saint-Paul. The main freeways in Quebec are stultifying. Straight, flat and multilane for maximum somnifaction. The Quebecois have some intriguing driving habits, like changing lanes only by jerking the steering wheel as hard as they can rather than coolly sliding over into an empty space. Tailgating is big, too. Because of course, you’re supposed to keep right except to pass. So even if you’re in the left lane and gaining fast on the guy in the right, you absolutely must pull into the right for 1 ½ seconds of hardcore bumper-surfing before cranking the wheel like a movie stuntdriver and jumping back into the left.
Once outside urban areas however, the traffic thins out and things get dull in a hurry, not a good thing for a guy working on his second consecutive day awake. As we approached, I finally saw some hills and winding road. Coming around one bend, the whole of eponymous bay opened up before me. Sweeping down from the hill reminded me of my visit to the Isle of Man on the approach to Laxey. At Baie-Saint-Paul we visited Le Saint-Pub, home of the Charlevoix brewery. The brewery is one of Quebec’s better micros and also has some pub-only brews. The one I wanted was the bitter, but they didn’t have that. They actually only had two, one being the Premium Lager, every bit as scintillating as it sounds. Baie Saint-Paul itself is a small, cute touristy town. The kind of place where they use a tractor to change streetlights.
From there, we headed north. The road was a wonderful drive with lots of twists, hills and turns. The landscape was typical Canadian shield forested hills and occasionally a sharper formation to punctuate things. Nothing too elevating, but a welcome respite from empty fields and plain-jane forests. Eventually, we arrived in the Saguenay region and visited La Baie. At the main junction outside town, Mapquest wanted us to take “the other left” apparently, so it took a while to actually get to Le Bistrot Victoria.
Set across the road from a fairly open bay on an inlet adjoining the Saguenay River of 1996 flood fame, the Bistrot Victoria boasts five house brews and some solid bistro food. The homemade sausages are excellent. A couple of the beers were pretty good, and the Blanche, Blonde, Rousse et Noir Tour officially began. (The tour is so-named because almost every brewpub in Quebec serves the same lineup of beers – Blanche, Blonde, Rousse and Noir).
From La Baie, it’s a quick 20 minute drive to Jonquière, home of the last stop, La Voie Maltée. A mixup resulted in us not really having a place to stay. The boys thought that was a barrel of monkeys but having been down that road enough times before and having not slept in 40-odd hours, I considerably less amused. Some power-searching turned up a B&B with two rooms available not far away, which was pretty lucky considering there was some big music event going on downtown featuring a band whose shtick is covering pop tunes in medley format. Naturally, we ended up at the B&B for lovers, staying in rooms with names like La Coquine (“the Rascal”), and Le Romantique. It was either that or sleep on park benches, so we just laughed and headed out for a pint or three.
Off to La Voie Maltée, located in the heart of mass of drunks and aimlessly wandering teenagers. Voie Maltée had several beers on tap, including their barley wine Polisson, and a Belgian-style Grincheuse. The pub itself is warm and woody, fairly sizeable, and got a lot busier when the music show ended. Everyone had a good laugh when Ungstrup and I were left to our own devices and attempted to place our orders in high school French.
After all that, I slept like a log and struggled to crawl out of bed. But I did, and we headed back towards Quebec City. Just outside the capital we arrived at the mountain resort town of Lac Beauport (if 300 meters counts as mountains, which it doesn’t to us west coast mountain snobs). We almost didn’t make it, however, as highway construction closed off a few exits and we were forced to make a detour. The brewpub Archibald is the newest addition to Quebec’s brewpub landscape, having been open for only a few weeks.
MartinT’s poetry had tantalized us for this visit. I sat quietly while tiggmtl toyed with the idea of lunch, as he’d seemingly forgotten Martin’s stern warnings about the food. I thought perhaps he was going to take one for the journalistic integrity of the site, but he stopped just in time. We don’t break our necks to rate food, but beer is our thing. I actually found the beers reasonably well made, with the distinct exception of the stout, but I was evidently alone in my assessment.
We broke south to Quebec City and L’Inox. This brewpub is the antithesis of the old town it’s located in. First, it’s ugly as sin as the “stainless” look promised comes off more as soulless. Second, it’s mainly patronized by locals, which is undoubtedly a good thing as a more touristy place would be totally devoid of anything worth drinking. We settled into their quaint parking-lot-cum-patio.
Being familiar with all but one of a brewpub’s offerings is not necessarily a good thing. It sure wasn’t on a recent visit to a nameless-to-protect-the-innocent establishment in BC. But in this, being able to while away an hour on a sunny afternoon with the tasty coriander, buckwheat honey and cardamom-infused wit Kermesse rather than working on a dégustation was a good thing. I will now take this opportunity to mention that a great time to visit L’Inox is in February, when they brew Viking, their best beer.
It was a fairly long haul from there to Sherbrooke, and we broke it up with some cheese, bread and salami for lunch. A little over an hour, and a long drive through suburban hell, later, we arrived at downtown Sherbrooke’s brewpub La Mare au Diable. Situated near the top of a steep hill, La Mare offers an excellent view of the older parts of the city, and on the other side of a river a tree-cloaked hillside interspersed with old buildings and a massive church. La Mare also offers some truly mind-blowing beers. Seriously, how they managed to brew so many beers my tiny peanut brain cannot comprehend.
We left a lot of time on the meter when we buggered off and headed towards Bromont and the obviously-named Brouemont. Now this brewpub was serious business. Breaking the Blanche Blonde Rousse et Noir tour for a moment to indulge in a sumptuous Scotch Ale and a pair of genuinely hoppy IPAs (a rarity this side of the border) was heaven. We hooked up with a local beer geek, who put us up for the night in his Victorian-era (maybe even before) house and hosted a small bottle tasting, including a rare Andechs Doppelbock and a pair of vintage Seigneuriale Reserves from his impressive cellar. Merci, éric.
The next morning, we decided to trek back towards Sherbrooke for a little Anglo ale, at the English-speaking university town of Lennoxville’s brewpub the Golden Lion. Yes, it’s also called Lion d’Or but the beer and food leave no doubt as to the spirit of this establishment. Naturally, they were the one brewpub that didn’t have a Noir ready for me when they’re the one most likely to get it right, but what can you do? Well, you can choose between a couple of very good bitters. I mentioned the English food? Yeah, it was lousy from the presentation to the ingredients and beyond. It’s not that they screwed up my fish and chips, but they sure didn’t try very hard either. Incidentally, the Quebecois are in love with mayonnaise, and like the Dutch put it on their fries. They’re on crack.
After the Golden Lion came another haul, towards Montréal but with a stop along the way at St-Hyacinthe. Those of you following along with a map (and I know some of you are map geeks like me) will notice we passed by Magog, a town with two brewpubs, on more than one occasion without stopping. You probably won’t need to break out the abacus to do the math on that one.
The reason for our final stop was Le Bilboquet. Draped in beer bottles and with some of the coolest décor I’ve seen in a brewpub, including maps of major beer countries carved into the tabletops and squiggly art pieces, Le Bilboquet is a place worth visiting. The tunes were great (despite the early faux-pas of turning off Zeppelin to put on some sort of African-American rhymey sort of thing) and the beer was solid if unspectacular. It fit well with the Quebec theme of brewpubs built for drinking not beer analysis, which might explain why the owner was sweating it out during the course of our visit. But seriously, this is the kind of place I want around the corner from my house. I could spend a lot of time at Le Bilboquet.
But we couldn’t, which was the real shame of it all. We had business to attend to back in the city. Some sort of summer gathering, for some website.
The Ratebeer.com Summer Gathering is always a stellar occasion and this year was no exception. Most certified beer geeks won’t see a bottle tasting like the one we held, let alone the non-certified masses, so I’ll spare the details suffice to say that a good time was had by all but the cleaning staff.
Saturday brought a visit to the finer brewpubs in Montreal. At this point, we were a group some 50 strong. L’Amère Á Boire is a bright, woody place on Rue Saint-Denis that offered us some lagers and lunch. The lunch was tasty, though after the night before some form of cow may have been more appropriate. The beers there are solid all-round. No weak blonde to speak of, thought they did have a blanche. The all-round quality of the beers makes them a favourite of local aficionados.
From there, the main event. Dieu du Ciel! is the flagship brewpub of the entire nation and they pulled out a large amount of stops to provide a crazy beer experience. There was Péché Mortel, the famous coffee imperial stout; Grande Noirceur, the regular imperial stout; Solstice d’été, a raspberry Berliner weisse; Solstice de Printemps, a maple-infused Scotch ale; Rigor Mortis Abt, an ultra-strong abbey style ale; Voyageur des Brumes, an excellent cask bitter; Charbonnière, a smoked ale; Chaman, an Imperial pale ale; and Quintessence, a strong ale matured in maple liqeur barrels. Wow.
The wait staff proved a hit with the mainly male crowd. Though genetics has something to do with it, Montreal’s womenfolk are beautiful for their unique, subtle style that few other cities can match. St. Petersburg comes close, but that’s about all I can think of. Rue Saint-Denis is Montreal’s answer to St. Petersburg’s awesome Nevsky Prospekt, and a few of us left Dieu du Ciel! and headed back down that thoroughfare towards the brewpub Le Cheval Blanc. This formica-draped tavern makes some excellent beers, though admittedly their offerings this time out were not their best ones. They have a patch of grass out front which served as a bar from which those of us inside talked to the ones outside, some of whom had given up on good beer and were nursing warm cans of swill. We were treated to the spectacle of drunken hippie wrestling, drank beers made with blueberries and chile peppers (not the same beer), and attempted to sort out the toilet situation. You see, Le Cheval Blanc used to be the type of tavern women never visited. So when that changed, they had to add a toilet. There’s only one in the whole place, which isn’t normally a big issue. However, several of us were suffering the digestive wreckage of a 1978 vintage Billy Beer and were forced to make for what ostensibly is the ladies’ room.
Aside from a chance meeting with an equally happy bachelorette party, there wasn’t much to report on for the rest of the evening. When the sun arose, it did so with a vengeance and a busload of us headed out of town on a tour of Quebec’s cideries. I will first – and it takes great restraint to do this without launching into a rant – point out that there is no such thing as non-alcoholic cider. Most of the cider consumed in North America is total crap. It is industrial garbage representative of its product in the same way that Miller Lite or Wonderbread represent the sum total of the beer and bread worlds.
Quebec is probably the foremost region for cider-making in North America, and a world leader. The signature product is ice cider, an apple kin to ice wine. La Face Cachée is the pioneer of this product and was our first stop. There are different forms of ice cider. The first involves cryoconcentration, which is taking the apples or juice and freezing it (naturally) them removing the ice. This concentrates the product, leaving it rich in sugar and aromatic compounds. The juice is then fermented. After a year of aging, the product emerges. At Face Cachée, this is Neige, and it is basically a liquefied apple crumble.
The other method, as used to product Face Cachée’s Frimas, involved leaving the apples on the tree until they freeze. This requires a stretch of consistently bitter weather, something which Quebec amongst apple regions claims exclusive claim to. (I’d suggest that Eastern Washington and Kazakhstan also have the requisite bitter winters and apple orchards, but so far nobody in these regions has attempted ice cider). When the cold snap hits, it’s harvest time. It takes fifty apples to produce enough cider for 375ml of Frimas, but it’s worth it. This is one of the greatest beverages I’ve ever tasted, with a woodsy, spicy character and an intriguing mix of dark and light fruit notes (fig, apricot, apple amongst others).
We visited a couple of other cider makers as well, to get a representative sample of the area’s product. We then headed to Chambly for the Unibroue brewery’s Fourquet Fourchette restaurant and dinner. The restaurant is huge, set in an 1890′s schoolhouse over looking the Saint Lawrence River. The meals are a bit pricey for what you get, but certainly not bad. Unibroue’s lineup of yeasty Belgian-style ales is on offer as well. From there, we finished off at the brewpub Bedondaines et Bedons Ronds. This place rocks. It’s basically a beer museum, with a stunning collection of bottles lining the walls including several never-sold-to-the-public commemorative editions and beers from ancient days. They even had several wooden casks of various Canadian ales, which must predate World War Two.
This marked the end of my five-day Quebec brewpub odyssey, and yes, I was sad to go.