By Crystal Luxmore, Advanced Cicerone®
There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Canada. In 2019, Canada was home to 1123 breweries, most making over 100 different styles of beer each year, and together they are revolutionizing the way we experience beer. Compare this to the early 1980s, when Canada was home to just 10 brewing companies, making similar golden lagers and selling them out of clinical and efficient liquor stores.
Today, you can roll into nearly any Canadian town, find the local brewery and take a seat on their patio (or post pandemic, in the friendly taproom), where you can taste a radical new style you may have never heard of—or stick with their crisp pilsner.
All of this variety makes beer drinking more fun and interesting than ever — but it can also feel dizzying and tough to choose. No worries, I’m a professional beer drinker (seriously*) and I’m here to help.
What is “craft beer” anyway?
This question doesn’t have an easy answer: it’s a hotly debated topic in the beer industry, and there is no widely agreed upon definition. Fifteen years ago, craft beer was popularized as a term by small, independent breweries who were brewing punchy, full-flavoured beers that were radically different from the golden lagers made by commercial, global conglomerates like AB-In Bev and Molson Coors. But once craft beer’s market share started to grow and commercial beer sales continued to stagnate, these big breweries launched their own “craft” brands, or bought up smaller breweries creating their own “craft” departments.
Today instead of “craft,” many small brewers call themselves “independent” to signal that they are independently owned.
As for the beer itself, craft brewers claim they don’t cut corners when it comes to ingredients, and most styles use 100 percent malted barley in the recipe, rather than lightening the body and flavour by using corn or rice (unless the style’s original recipe calls for these ingredients). Beers, big and small, source most of their grain from Canadian barley farmers because our farmers produce one of the best and largest barley crops in the world, and we expertly malt it to high brewing standards. Craft brewers can also source hops and yeast from Canadian farmers and producers because they can work with small quantities of ingredients, plus they tend to be less concerned with creating one or two flagships that taste exactly the same from year to year. Instead, they can produce small batches, one-off recipes and are more comfortable tweaking flavours over time than international breweries.
Browse Canadian Breweries by Province & Territory
What to look for in a craft beer:
The world of craft beer is wide — start by visiting or ordering a mixed pack from a local craft brewery and taste through the varieties noticing what styles you like best. Then use those as a jumping off point to taste similar styles in that flavour family. For example, do you dig wheat beers? Try a fruity effervescent Belgian tripel or a refreshing sour wheat beer like a gose. Do you love stouts? Try other roasty or toasty styles like American porters, brown ales and dark lagers.
What makes a craft beer special?
The best craft beers are made by dedicated brewers who have perfected their craft over time, but with so many breweries popping up, it’s tough to choose. My pro tip is to take a look at the beers on tap by the best, taste-making craft beer bar in your city or region—those folks know beer, and they choose only the finest.
It’s not just the liquid, though. Flavour is a composite of all of our senses, so be sure to pour your beer into a glass with a foamy head that enhances the aroma, and smell it as you’re drinking.
How to Taste Beer 101
1. Pour it
You wouldn’t drink wine from the bottle, so why are you still treating your precious brewskie as a second-class citizen? Pouring your beer into a glass ups the enjoyment factor in two big ways. First, it releases carbonation, so you can say goodbye to bloat. Second, it creates a foamy top. My go-to for nearly every beer style is the tulip glass.
2. Head. Learn to dig it
As Canadians, we like our beers poured right to the top of the pint glass—just scrape off the foamy waste, right? Wrong! A thick head (say 1.5 to 2 inches) is a thing of beauty: it traps aromatics and protects from ale-spoiling oxygen. Plus those bubbles make for some good mouth texture. Aw yeah, mouth texture. To create optimal head, pour beer at a 75-degree angle, tilting the bottle straight up once your glass is filled up about three-quarters of the way.
3. Sniff it
Once you’ve poured your beer into the glass, smell it. Immediately! Or else its delicate volatile aromas will disappear. Our tongues only pick up six different flavours, but our noses can discern over 10,000 aromas, so a couple of hound dog-like sniffs are guaranteed to deepen the beer’s deliciousness. The ale’s flavour changes as it warms, so remember to sniff it again later, too.
Warm it (a little)
Besides pale lagers and cream ales, most beer styles are not meant to be drunk straight out of the fridge. Cold temperatures dumb down your tongue’s taste receptors, and the beer’s scrumptious aromas. Try your favourite brew after at least five minutes out of the fridge and see how the flavour opens up.
How long you should take your beer out of the fridge before opening it:
COLD: wheat beers and lagers—5 minutes
COOL: Pale ales, ambers, tripels, stouts and porters—10 minutes
CELLAR: IPA’s, bitters, brown ales, saisons, higher alcohol stouts and porters—15 minutes