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While Toronto may seem like the craft brewery capital of Ontario at the moment, one would be short-sighted to restrict their beer choices to the GTA alone. In small towns all over the province, creative brewers are at work coming up with the next crop of unique and incredible beers. Once-dying industrial cities are experiencing a resurgence of young businesses moving in, with many breweries transforming abandoned warehouses, factories, churches and schools into bustling community hubs. At the same time, hip new bars, restaurants and coffee shops are giving locals comfortable spots to eat, drink and chill.

A mere forty-five minutes west of Toronto, Burlington and Hamilton are quickly becoming craft beer destinations for those willing to jump on a GO Train or (for the truly brave) a long but relaxed bike ride. Working for Nickel Brook Brewing Co. has exposed me to the awesome growing beer and food scene just down Highway 403. Peppered with both established and upcoming breweries, thirsty visitors can easily enjoy a full day of samplings and exploring in the shadow of the escarpment, complete with food, beer and maybe a little caffeine boost. I recently headed out to Steeltown, Hamilton’s nickname and ode to its steel routes, with my photographer friend James for the perfect Craft Beer Daytrip.

Nickel Brook Brewing Co

We started in Burlington, with one of the provinces oldest and most adventurous craft breweries. Started as a U-Brew facility in the ‘90s, the Romano brothers made the switch to full-on micro-brewery in 2005. While things were slow to take off initially, the hiring of Brewmaster Ryan Morrow and a shift to more hop-forward and adventurous beers soon built Nickel Brook Brewery’s reputation among those in the know. They were early adopters of barrel-ageing, creating Kentucky Bastard, an incredibly rich and dark Imperial Stout aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels that was awarded RateBeer Beer of the Year 2015.

More recently, Nickel Brook joined forces with Collective Arts to take over the abandoned Lakeport brewery in Hamilton. This move has allowed Nickel Brook to convert their Burlington spot to a dedicated funk-and-sour beer brewery dubbed The Funk Lab. My current favourites include the Raspberry Uber Berlinerweisse, and a Cucumber-Lime Gose known as “Ceres”. With sour beers growing in popularity, The Funk Lab is positioned to be a leading player in this new scene.

While there isn’t much of a tap-room to speak of, the staff at the bottle shop are always happy to walk visitors through a flight of samples from their huge menu, and there is a great variety of bottles, cans and growlers to take home. If you happen to drop by on a Saturday, you might even get to take a quick tour of the spot, sampling beers in progress straight from the fermenters.

Collective Arts Brewery

Next, it was on to our partners in brewing, Collective Arts. Sharing a space and brewery staff with Nickel Brook, Collective Arts has carved a distinct identity for themselves through their unique labels, heavy involvement in the Canadian art scene and, of course, delicious beers.

Rather than creating a single label for each beer, Collective Arts solicits submissions from musicians, visual artists and designers to generate a portfolio of 40+ labels in each series. Labels can be scanned with an app, linking the drinker to galleries of each artist’s work, music videos and more.

This “Art + Beer” theme is carried through to the tap room, which features murals by local artists along with a gallery of all their labels. Brewery tours run every weekend, and there’s live music, stand-up comedy or DJs featured throughout the month. While there’s no kitchen on-site, food trucks post-up out front every weekend in the summer, or visitors are free to bring in their own snacks. Weekends see a steady stream of locals enjoying flights of their newest “Collective Project” creations, tourists checking out the brewery tours and McMaster students picking up growlers and six-packs. Recent faves are the Imperial IPA and Sour Pumpkin Saison.

Knead Pizza

Two breweries in, we needed some food to fuel the rest of our adventure, and I knew just the place. A short walk over to James St North led us to Knead Pizza for a quick slice (or two). Sister restaurant to the Salt Lick Smokehouse a few doors down, Knead churns out the best slices in Steeltown. Everything is made in house, from the dough to the dipping sauce, with signature pies incorporating smoked meats from Salt Lick too.

The crust is thin but chewy, holding up perfectly to the generous helpings of gooey mozzarella and fresh pizza sauce. The fridge boasts a variety of local craft beer tallboys, and two slices can be had for only 5 bucks, making this the perfect stop on our tour. Almost as important as the pizza is the vibe inside: classic vinyl spinning on the record player, signed albums lining the walls and a handful of classic arcade cabinets and pinball machines. This is the kind of pizza place you actually want to hang out in long after your slice is reduced to crumbs and grease stains on a paper plate.

Detour Coffee Roasters and Café

Stuffed with beer and pizza, we needed a quick caffeine boost to see us through the afternoon. Luckily our last brewery destination is around the corner from one of the best coffee shops in the area: Detour Café. Begun as a coffee roaster in Burlington, the café on King St West in Dundas serves up perfect flat whites, espressos and lattés using only their own house-roasted beans. The single-origin bean selection is constantly changing, giving coffee lovers a welcome change from the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s that sit on every corner in Hamilton. There is an equal focus on the food, using locally sourced ingredients and making everything in-house.

For those looking to get an even more in-depth coffee experience, the roaster (2234 Harold Road #2, Burlington) hosts cuppings every Thursday. Guests are given a flight of various coffees and guided through the complex aromas and flavours imparted by different levels of roasting and different bean origins.

Detour has also been involved in the local beer community recently. In 2015, Nickel Brook added Detour-roasted coffee beans to their bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout for the first edition of their “Café Del Bastardo” beer. This year, their coffee was infused into a pale ale brewed in conjunction with local rock heroes Arkells for the Nickel Brook “Morning Brew”. The café is also licensed and features tall cans and bottles from locals including Collective Arts, Bench Brewing and West Avenue cider. Fueled up on flat whites, we sauntered over to our final destination: Shawn & Ed Brewing Co.

Shawn & Ed Brewing Co

One of the Hammer’s newest craft breweries, Shawn & Ed (formerly Shed) boasts one of the nicest tap room spaces in the province. Occupying a former foundry built in the mid-1800s, it is a study in contrasts, with ancient wooden beams straddling gleaming stainless-steel tanks. An impossibly-heavy looking anvil holds pride of place at the tasting bar, and a beat-down mid-century truck is tucked away in the events space in the back.

Opened on April 1 2016, S&E has already made a splash locally, finding a spot on draught line-ups around town, and growing through the LCBO. Unlike the hop-forward, sour and funk beers brewed by Nickel Brook or Collective Arts, Shawn & Ed’s brewmaster Rob Crayton has been tasked with making “a damn good lager”. Their core offerings fit this mold, featuring Original, Lighter and Darker lagers. The “Barrelshed” series leans a bit more experimental, with a German Weisse and dark Porter on tap when we stopped in.

The beer is on-point, but the space is definitely the big draw here. The brewhouse is right out in the open, and massive skylights give the old building a modern lightness. With plenty of space for weddings and holiday parties, the brewery has hosted some awesome events including a 16-piece jazz band set up in the shadow of the fermenters. Definitely keep an eye on the events page on their website next year.

Filled to the brim with beer, pizza and coffee, James and I made our way to the GO Station and caught a bus back to Toronto. Though we’d spent the day exploring Burlington and Hamilton, I felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what they have to offer. There are many bars, breweries and coffee shops to explore, and we will definitely be coming back to find them all. CHEERS!

Burlington and Hamilton Brewery Tour
Article by Matt Gibson // Photos by Jamie MacDonald

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