About Halden Johnson

Halden is a father, geek and beer lover. He often finds that the best part of any beer is sharing it. @haldenj

How I met Craft Beer – Halden

Beer and I have had a long and loving relationship, sure there have been fights and we have hurt each other but through our years together we have had more good times than bad and we always kiss and make up.

My very first beer was a Molson Brador, I traded a sweet Dogtown skateboard for a twelve that my friends and I split before the school dance. I don’t remember enjoying a single sip but we made short work of the beer.

Up next was Labatt 50. 50 (or Cinquante as I prefer to call it) has been with me my whole beer drinking life, I don’t drink it exclusively as I did but I still have a bottle once in a while. Choosing 50 for me was a bit of a nod to my enjoyment of doing things a bit differently. My friends were mostly Canadian and Blue guys (it was North Bay) but I wanted something a little different. 50 was an Ale not a lager I would boast, that and it was safe at parties because no one else wanted it. I drank a lot of 50 and never really strayed until the mid 90s when we discovered you could buy beer at the LCBO.

The main draw of beer at the LCBO at the time was that you could get big beers. Oh we looked cool with tall cans and 750ml bottles. This is when I first set my eyes on Chimay. It was a beautiful tall bottle with a cork and an old world label. We had to have it. It was a sunny saturday afternoon and we sat in my future in-laws living room over looking the lake and popped the cork. We poured the beer out and we were horrified by the sediment. After a few sips we declared that this was the worst beer in the world. We poured most of it down the sink.

A big moment in Beer and I’s relationship came when the first english pub opened in North Bay. The Bull and Quench opened our eyes to Guiness, Smithwicks, Bass… and a whole world of new beer flavours. We were on our way. We were no longer satisfied with domestic beer, we were import snobs.

In 1996 I took a trip to Montréal to visit some friends that were going to school there. Much of the trip is a blur but what is clear to me are the beers that made me realize good beer could be made in Canada. We were lured by the clever names, interesting labels, and let’s be honest the high ABV. La Maudite changed everything for me, quickly followed by La Fin du Monde. These beers had a complexity that I enjoyed and packed a kick. When I returned home I could not find these beers in my hometown but the seed was planted. I had to seek out new and interesting beers.

1998 is a big year for Beer and me. I had recently moved to Ottawa so the LCBO selection improved but the biggest jump was the time my wife and I wandered into Pub Italia. The Beer Bible blew my mind. Beers carefully presented by region, by style, by taste… This is when I started to realize that this could really be serious. This is where I rediscovered Chimay and the error of my 18 year old palate. This is where my taste buds where bombarded with tastes and sensations they had never experienced. We spent many Saturday nights in Pub Italia and any visitors that even showed a glimmer of interest in beer were brought to my church.

My relationship with beer is currently in a locavore phase. I drink Ontario brewed beers with a few others that come my way, even some macros. I only first heard the term “Craft Beer” 4 or 5 years ago, before that we used Microbrew. I have tried many “microbrews” over the years and my current beer intake is almost exclusively craft and more specifically Ottawa Craft Beer. So technically my first “craft” beer was probably a Chimay or a Unibroue but my first beer I had that was sold to me as a craft beer was Heritage Dark. It was decent brew and it really made me pay attention to the burgeoning beer scene in Ottawa. The scene is Ottawa is completely different from where it was when I moved here and light years from the scene my initial love of beer came from.

All the phases of my relationship with beer from the “let’s get wasted on 50” to the “what imports do you have?” to the “What’s local beers do you have?” have helped form me into the beer drinker that I am today, so if you want a simple answer as to how I met craft beer well it isn’t simple. I have looked for well crafted brews for a long time and now it not only has a name but a community.


A Beer tour of Kitchener/Guelph/Waterloo/Cambridge

On my last visit to the mass of cities know as Cambridge/Waterloo/Kitchener/Guelph I only visited two breweries, Wellington and Grand River, this time a little more research helped me uncover a few more so I planned a little tour for me and some cousins.
The first brewery, and the newest in the area opening its doors last May, we hit was Innocente Brewing Company in Waterloo. We were welcomed as we walked in by a lovely woman who introduced herself as the Head Brewers mother and promptly offered us some samples. She indicated that the 3 white taps were the less hoppy offerings (which she preferred) and that the black taps were the hoppier beers that her son, Steve Innocente, preferred. She said she would start us off with white taps so as to not blow out our palates starting with the hop bombs. (excellent start)

Our first Beer was Encounter. This is a nice crisp Pilsener that despite my aversion to Pilseners was refreshing and interesting. Next up was Confessions which is Innocente’s crack at a Belgian Pale Ale, it was a nice offering. Confessions was balanced and had a nice sweet finish from the Candi sugar. Glance is a Rye beer that had an very strong Rye taste, a little unbalanced but worth a try. Now we hit the Black taps.  We worked our way up from the lowest IBU to highest. Fling clocked in at 32 IBU and was a refreshing pale ale that would make a great “gateway to hops” beer. Bystander was the standout beer for me, It fell right in my wheelhouse at 50 IBU and 4.7 ABV. Galaxy hops gave this beer a great citrus nose and the right amount of Malt balanced this very nicely. Conscience is their Hop Bomb, 80 IBU but it doesn’t rip your face off.
I was very impressed with the offerings at Innocente and they were by far the most welcoming and had the best sampling session of the breweries.
Our second stop was Block Three Brewing who has been making beer in St-Jacobs for exactly one year on the day we tasted their wares. The location is excellent right on the Conestoga river and in the very touristy and foot traffic friendly St-Jacobs downtown. The brewery was very busy when we arrived but we were still welcomed and offered some tastings. We didn’t get as much facetime or explanation of the brews but it was quite understandable as the sample bar was swamped.

Block Three had four offerings for us to sample. Fist we tried the King Street Saison. I found this to be an average Saison that was a little more sour than I care for. Up next the Dead Now Belgian Dubbel. This was a very nice Dubbel, big dried fruit nose and taste with a nice 7.5 ABV to cut the sweet and leave you with a nice finish. The After Market Mild was a very interesting beer. English brown milds are not something we are seeing a lot of in the Ontario craft scene and this is very nice. A rich nutty, breadlike taste from the malt. Sweet but not overly and a reasonable 3.9 ABV means you can sip this all day. The Blockhear APA was interesting, lots of hop cirtus/grassiness on the nose but very light in bitterness.
Block Three’s offerings and atmosphere definitely will have me coming back at a less busy time to get the full rundown.
Stop number three was Stone Hammer in Guelph.  I was weary of this one. The website is circa 1996 and the store front is hidden in an industrial complex but nothing ventured…

When we entered and enquired about tasting we were told that we could only sample if we intended to buy, apparently he was legally required to tell us this but I have never heard such a thing at a brewery. Once that awkward moment was done we sat at the bar and were treated to some interesting surprises.
The first beer was the Stonehammer light, not my cup of tea my a nice light, easy drinker with a decent amount of flavour. The Stonehammer Pilsener was a nice little Pils but so far nothing to write home about.  We sampled a nice refreshing American Pale Ale that was well made.  Nothing had really wowed me yet but then our beer tour guide told us he would have us try his favourite beer. The Stonehammer Dark Ale was a really tasty dark beer. Nice caramel and mocha notes and it was solidly balanced. Last and certainly not least he hit us with the Oatmeal Coffee Stout. This beer is a real winner and easily worth a return to Stonehammer just to get more of this. There is an incredible roast and smoke flavour profile and an incredible mouthfeel from the oils in the coffee.
In the end I am really glad we didn’t skip Stonehammer.
The penultimate stop was Wellington Brewery I had been here before and I was really hoping to get there in time for a tour and tasting but alas we arrived after the 4pm cutoff. I still managed to grab some cans of the Bad Seed Pomegranate Wheat one-off.
Finally we made our way to Grand River Brewing. I am familiar with Grand River and have been quite a few times but this was the first time we got to saddle up to the tasting bar.
First we sampled the Tailgate Pilsener (formerly Hannenberg Pils) average Pils. The Galt Knife was next and I really did not enjoy this beer, it had an odd sour/salty thing going that was really off putting. Highballer Pumpkin was the seasonal that they were sampling as they had just phased out the Tangerine Tanktop (I bought a bottle though). Highballer is one of my favourite pumpkin beers, mild spicing and sweetness. One of the few offerings they had that I had never sampled was the Mill Race Mild, this is a nicely balanced English brown mild, a solid beer. What we thought would be our last sample was the Plowman’s Ale, this is my favourite Grand River beer. A nice hoppy ale with a nice malt and grain backbone to balance it out. We were about to head to the bottle shop to scoop a couple up when the sales rep asked if we wanted to try a yet unnamed beer that they were experimenting with, OF COURSE! This was a light straw coloured wheatbeer. Not exceptionally strong in flavour but crisp and refreshing. He informed us that there were some tweaks coming and they had a front runner for the name (I can’t recall) but I think this will be a nice addition to their line up.
Overall this was a great day of chatting and sampling and I am glad to see craft beer is taking of in the area. I look forward to my next visit to see what these guys are up to and to hit the ones I missed this go round.