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When my friend James pitched the idea of a brewery tour around Caledon and the Headwaters area, I admit I was skeptical. Despite my love for all things craft beer, my knowledge of brewing geography remains decidedly urban. Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa – this is where all the good brewing is happening, right? Driving through the rolling countryside just north of Toronto, I began to chastise myself for subscribing to such a narrow view. Great beer knows no city limits. The best ciders aren’t pressed in a downtown warehouse. For the good things, sometimes you need to get out of town, put a few miles on your car, and let the rural charm penetrate your hardened city mouse soul. Which is how I found myself following questionable directions down meandering roads to a gorgeous orchard in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.

Spirit Tree is what is known as an Estate Cidery. In basic terms, all of the apples used to make their various ciders are grown right on the property. Under Ontario law, cider falls under the same classification as wine, not it’s much closer cousin beer. As a result, cider makers can only sell their product on-site if they have at least five acres of orchards. Luckily, Spirit Tree doesn’t have any issue on that front: their 27-acre orchard boasts over 3000 apple trees. And they have taken full advantage of the ability to operate an on-site bar and retail shop.

Their restaurant includes a gorgeous wood-fired oven for pizzas and fresh bread, and a wide selection of local meats and cheeses. The BBQ platter (meant for 4-8 people) made all of us turn our heads as it was carried from the kitchen. Cozying up to the bar is my favourite way to experience a brewery, so we planted our butts in repurposed metal tractor seats mounted on barstools. While they were tragically out of the Dry-Hopped Cider on our visit, I bravely powered through and sampled a flight of 5 draught ciders.

The Estate Reserve was nicely dry, with a faint apple skin character, while the Draught was beautifully effervescent with a subtle sweetness. The Ice Cider was way too sweet for me, but at 9% I can see the appeal as a dessert sipper. Picking favourites, it’s a toss-up between the surprisingly rich Appel Lager (which was apparently originally made by accident) and the Perry, which had a nice sweetness with a very clean body (it should be noted the pears are not grown on-site). Just as we were about to leave, the server offered us a sampling of their Sparkling Pear juice, a non-alcoholic option that I could definitely see enjoying with a summer brunch or weekend picnic.

We rucked back to the car and made our way to Caledon Hills Brewery, the self-proclaimed first brewery in Caledon. While many breweries these days are pumping out milkshake IPAs and barrel-aged stouts, the family at Caledon Hills is keeping things simple. Focusing on classic styles, their flagship lager is a testament to brewmaster Stefan Riedelsheimer’s German heritage. It’s also a style that fits into the dominant market up here, to be fair, as the majority of beer drinkers in the Hills seem to be wary of overly-flavourful brews. The lager is crisp and refreshing, with sweet bready malts and a hit of green apple skin.

Their lager isn’t the only beer on the menu, and their Deadly Dark brings some intense roasted malts to play. They’re still real small though, and with a dozen local Beer Stores now carrying their cans, they’ll be working hard to keep up with demand. They’ve been thrilled with the local support they’ve seen so far, and are optimistic about their future in the Hills. We rolled on with our route, eager to what our immediate future looked like too.

Okay, so this is supposed to be a brewery and cidery tour, but to be honest, if you’re going to visit this area you HAVE to stop by Sheldon Creek Dairy. As a bread-maker and homemade butter enthusiast, I had been dying to try this milk and cream ever since James first told me of it. His stories of cream-capped 2% and ice cream-rich chocolate milk were fueling my dairy dreams, and I had to see it for myself.

I was not disappointed.

Situated just south of Highway 89, Sheldon Creek is everything I want a dairy to be. They boast “minimally pasteurized non-homogenized milk products”, which are much tastier than they sound. Essentially, they are selling as near to raw milk as legally allowed, and the difference is astounding! The whole milk comes with a quarter inch of cream floating on top, the first sign that this is unlike any milk you’ve had before. The chocolate milk is dark and rich and dangerously delicious, and the cream whipped into the freshest butter I’ve ever tasted. My only regret is that I didn’t buy more, but I drank a lot of dairy products that week, let me tell you.

While the shop isn’t much, just a fridge and a counter (what was I expecting, really?), they do have Big Day on the Farm every June, offering tours, hayrides and a pancake breakfast. Good wholesome dairy fun! For anyone not lactose intolerant or dairy free, Sheldon Creek is a must-do on your Headwaters checklist.

Turning towards Orangeville, I was intrigued to check out Hockley Brewing Company. I didn’t know much about them other than the odd fact that their Dark is the only true craft beer available at the Rogers Centre. It’s something of a mystery in industry circles, really, how that came about, though it is the best-selling beer in its category, according to the LCBO.

Founder Tom Smellie (imagine growing up with that last name) is old-school craft. A hands-on, DIY kind of guy, he’s been running the show here since 2003. Well, not here precisely. Around 2008 they moved production to their new spot in Orangeville, leaving the much-smaller facility in the namesake village and giving them four times the space. With larger tanks, a new automated canning line and way more brewing capacity, they’ve certainly ramped up from their humble origins.

The man behind the beers is brewmaster Andrew Kohnen, who received his training in England and Germany, lineage that is clearly present in the styles he turns out. The Dark Ale, Irish Stout and Hockley Gold are all true-to-style, reliable beers. Rather than chasing the trends with fruited sours or hazy IPAs, Kohnen is brewing well-crafted, traditional ales and lagers, and that seems to suit the locals just fine. The one major downside? The brewery is only open Monday to Friday, 9AM to 5PM. Not exactly convenient for a weekend visit. I guess you can always grab a couple cans at a Jay’s Game.

While nowhere in the province has breweries popping up as constantly as Toronto seems to, you’d be sorely mistaken to assume there aren’t great things brewing outside the GTA. It may require a bit more driving or cycling (or maybe riding a horse?), but if you put in the time you’ll be rewarded with good folks making good beers (or milk) in a beautiful part of the province. The Headwaters are brewing, no doubt about it.

The Headwaters are Brewing:
Article by Matt Gibson // Photos by Jamie MacDonald

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