You may be thinking Montreal and Quebec aren’t beer towns. That’s where you’d be wrong. Both towns have a passion for beer that trails only their passion for hockey and gravy covered cheese curds and fries. Though the spoken language may be different, these towns share a love for the common language of good beer, and most interestingly, what seems to be a particular specialization in excellent Belgian style ales. You won’t find many big hopped west coast IPAs here, though some can be found if that’s your thing.
I had a three day weekend, or what was more accurately about 36 hours after the long drives to explore the best of what these areas had to offer. The six breweries and two restaurants we found should be on any beer lovers’ beercation destination list.
You’ve likely heard of Unibroue if you are a fan of craft Belgian style beer. Their La Fin Du Monde is a pretty widely distributed Belgian tripel ale and one that ranks near the top of my beer list. I actually first discovered it at a wine tasting event and immediately switched to drinking it. There’s always more wine; awesome tripels don’t grow on trees.
However, there is a hitch. One which leads me to skip their brewery. The brewery sits about 30 minutes outside of Montreal. They do not have a tasting room. There is a restaurant called Fourquet Fourchette (probably something hockey related), but it looks pricey and I cannot determine for certain if there is a bar. The menu sounds interesting as it heavily features beer pairings and beer inspired menu items. Since I cannot be sure about the bar or tastings, and it is out of the way of our journey, and mostly because I can get their beer at home, we skip it.
Instead, we hightail it to Montreal’s Quartier Des Spectacles which is either an amazing sounding magical and mystery themed area, or where all the optometrists are. The temperature is -10 F with a wind chill of -22, so I can’t see the spectacles or optometrists because my eyes are frozen shut. We pass several intriguing (read: warm) looking bars on the way, but continue to Le Saint-Bock, a haven for craft beer aficionados and Montreal Canadiens fans alike.
Le Saint-Bock has just under 50 beers on tap featuring 20 of their own with the rest composed of craft beers from other Quebec province brewers and a few Belgian as well. Even better, the beer list is displayed on several large tvs around the place, all of which happen to be next to TVs showing the Montreal Canadiens game. I will finally get my Canadian hockey bar experience. They even ring a bell behind the bar and make some sort of announcement in French for every goal scored.
I begin near the top of the list with Le Saint-Bock’s own Nelson saison. This has all the crispness and depth of malty flavor one expects from a farmhouse style, and it pleases me to find that the style has come over from the old country well. In fact, one could drink only saisons in Quebec and lead a pretty good life.
Up next is the Sabbat, a smoked beer, or what I will always refer to as a Rauch, which is what the Germans who I typically associate with the style call it. In The Complete Beer Course, the book which began my beer education, the description of smoked beer is simple. Whenever you see this on a menu, order it. The style is fairly rare, especially in the US, and incredibly unique. They have the depth of malt flavor of a saison, but the smokiness and often smoothness of a stout. This one is pretty high up there, and it kicks off a thirst for smoked beer in me that I will continue throughout the trip.
Our waitress appears to speak little English to us and hardly comes by until I order my third beer which somehow triggers a break in the linguistic barrier. Either Canadians only tip after the second beer or my attempt at French pronunciation which largely involved grunting and gesturing while curling my lip breaks the ice. I ask for a suggestion and pointed to le Malediction, meaning curse. This is described on the menu with the word “guimauve” which sounds like a spice or fruit to me. Sadly it turns out to mean marshmallow, and not only does my beer have an odd taste of sugar in it, it is adorned with a marshmallow like a Blue Moon would be with an orange. Zut alors! I don’t think I’d go back for this one. So much for anglo-franco relations.
I also go for a burger here which naturally has the option to upgrade the fries to poutine which naturally I accept. Naturally it is delicious. I’m not sure fries with gravy and cheese curd could be bad, but even if a bad version exists, I don’t find it in Quebec. The burger is pretty awesome too with super succulent meat cooked a perfect medium raw.
Fueled and warmed by the beer, poutine, marshmallow, and Canadians victory, we set back to old town and explore the sights a bit under the lights. In the square of the cathedral, we meet a Russian transplant to Montreal and her dog, Ringo. I make friends until Ringo steals my glove and runs away and I have to yell at him. Thus ends day one in Montreal.
Bistro Brasseries Les Soeurs Grises
The next morning, now down to a so-cold-it-doesn’t-feel-any-colder -33 F, we explore the old town in the daylight which does little to warm us, then walk around downtown. We pretend to be incredibly interested in antiques, clothing, and glassware in order to get a few minutes in the heated indoors of several shops.
After trying to make up a walking tour because I can’t bear to pull my phone out of my pocket in the cold, we decide to head to the Old Port area and the Soeurs Grises microbrewery. Soeurs Grises is named for the nunnery that used to stand here, and not as my brain is tricked into believe, an expression meaning sour grapes. Inside is a trendy bar that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn. Edison bulbs (those exposed filament bulbs that hang without enclosure in hipstery restaurants) hang from the ceiling and there’s even a loft. It would actually make a pretty nice Brooklyn apartment.
The staff though, is pure Canadian friendly. Not only does the bartender explain each of the beers, all of which are brewed on premises in the fermentation tanks visible in the back, he also makes suggestions such as staying away from the fruit beer and giving the Amber a try. He even gives Gen a taster of the Blonde just so we can all toast together. The Jericho Belgian Blonde has a beautiful honey color and a matching sweet but naturally spiced flavor. My Cheri Cherie Amber, like the song, is lovely as a summer day. Or at least as warming on this frigid day. Also like the song, it’s got a little distant cloud to help you pick it out of a crowd.
The brewery may also have the nicest restroom in Canada. It’s that nice.
Dieu Du Ciel!
There is just enough time between a round at Soeurs Grises and our dinner reservation to take an Uber over to the more suburban neighborhood of Mile End to visit what was frequently mentioned as Montreal’s number one beer bar, Dieu Du Ciel. Dieu Du Ciel is the kind of beer bar you take a date who you want to meet the real you, and you, the real them. It’s an incredibly unpretentious yet hip space with what seems like a million tiny round tables and even more people. It’s like if you took a Parisian cafe’s sidewalk tables inside a London pub. The beer list is outstanding with the expected but excellent like Tripels and Blondes, and the unique like a beer brewed with hibiscus.
The staff is again amazingly friendly, especially at the bar where an interesting polyglot of languages is spewed. There is a semi-military precision to the way they make the nachos, chopping the ingredients like the Ford factory and running them through the toaster oven.
As we figure out that the line inside is just for tables, not for the bar, I order the Gospel Oatmeal Stout as we grab two seats that empty up. I first inquire about the cask beer pump, but find it is an IPA so decide on the Stout instead. The gospel according to Dieu is medium bodied with a nice roast, a dark coffee color, and a smoothness just below a nitro stout. It is very lightly hopped which suits me well.
As I finish the stout and we move to the next round, we are privileged to overhear a conversation from two older gentlemen at the bar next to us who discuss the proper technique to hunting badgers from snowmobiles. I am incredibly excited as only Justin Bieber singing the anthem for a Canadiens game would be more Canadian.
I order the Rigor Mortis Belgian tripel, mostly based on the name and a bit because I’m craving the sweetness and clove-ness of a tripel after all the darker beer. The Rigor Mortis has the spiciness in spades as well as a smooth creaminess that is excellent for the style. Sitting five feet away from the fermentation tank definitely adds some flavor to it as well.
Le Garde Manger
There is no device so creatively engineered by men to soak up beer than a flavorful poutine, so for dinner, we head to Le Garde Manger, where chef Chuck Hughes cooks up his famous lobster poutine; a dish so good it beat Bobby Flay in a battle of lobster on Iron Chef. The menu changes daily here, but the poutine reigns supreme and is a constant. Of course we get it. We also order the decadent guinea hen stuffed with truffles and foie gras. Just ordering it gives you gout. Sadly they don’t have much for craft beer here, though the wine menu is great.
It is another fortifying meal which allows us back into the cold night. We go in search of Ringo, but he is not to be found on this desolate arctic winter’s night in Montreal.
The next morning we drive on to Quebec. Part two of the beercation can be found here.