There aren’t many reasons to go to Montreal in the winter (unless of course you like bitterly cold weather, dirty snow-covered everything, and bad drivers). But, should you find yourself having to make the trip north across the border, rest assured that there are a few saving graces to Quebec in early February. These graces can be pretty much summed up with one word: beer.
Okay, fine, the bagels and poutine are pretty good too.
One of my favorite parts about going to Montreal is the drive up from Boston. Highway 89 is a beautiful stretch of land that cuts through the Green Mountains of Vermont and makes for some great window-side scenery. But even more beautiful than the natural landscape is a stopover in Waterbury, VT which is an essential town for any true craft beer enthusiast. You may know Waterbury best as the home of Heady Topper, but even with the Alchemist temporarily shut down to the public, there are still a number of other craft beer goldmines to be found.
Blackback Pub is a cozy beer bar/Mexican food joint in the center of town that serves up some killer enchiladas along with a rotating tap list that is nothing short of drool-worthy. On my stopover last weekend, my traveling partner and I indulged in a glass of fresh Heady, and a handful of delicious Hill Farmstead’s (George, James and Edward). I know it may sound like these were obvious choices, but they weren’t. As painful as it was, we had to pass up a number of other ridiculous brews to arrive at these selections, including a few other Alchemist beers and Lawson’s Double Sunshine.
Before leaving Waterbury, you may want to consider a pit stop at the new Craft Beer Cellar, which is literally a stones throw from Blackback. Depending on the day of the week, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pick up a 4-pack or two of Heady, and you’ll certainly be able to find some beers that aren’t distributed in Mass. If you have a little extra time to kill before trekking across the border, you may also want to consider a slight detour to Hill Farmstead, north, or Burlington, west. Both will provide more opportunity for good beer drinking.
Anyway, on to Canada…
A weekend in Quebec’s largest city can be filled with a lot of beer exploration. I’d recommend checking out this great recap of Montreal’s craft beer scene by fellow beer writer and former Bostonian, Heather Vandenengel. But, if you’re schedule is a bit tighter, which mine happened to be, there are two spots that are must hits.
Dieu du Ciel
Dieu du Ciel is, in my humble opinion, Montreal’s most exciting brewery… and frankly (after this last visit), I’d rank them up there as one of my favorite craft breweries in North America. A few of DDC’s beers are distributed in Boston, including a ridiculously amazing barrel-aged imperial stout called Péché Mortel. But like most great breweries, there’s a lot more to be found on their home turf.
Dieu du Ciel actually has two locations in the Montreal area – their main brewery and bottling facility in St. Jerome (about an hour outside of the city), and a brewpub in the very cool Mile End area of Montreal. I didn’t make it out to the brewery this go around, but the brewpub is about as cool and cozy of a bar as I’ve ever seen. The Montreal location also serves as a small production brewery for limited run beers exclusively for drinking on tap at the pub. On my visit, I tasted through a number of their brews which I had never had/heard of, along with, yes, Péché Mortel on nitro.
Some of my other favorites included:
Pionnière: A fantastically rich and roasty black IPA, with gobs of cocoa, fresh coffee beans, some umami/hoisin notes and dry earthy hops. This beer is made only one or two times per year, so consider yourself lucky if you find it on tap.
Disco Soleil IPA with kumquats: An ultra dense, and surprisingly rich IPA, with a nice dose of ashy hops, a little marmalade/bitter orange fruit, and some sweet/malty caramel.
Resurrection: A powerfully roasty and smokey porter with dark frothy coffee and toasted cocoa nibs. This beer is absolutely packed to the brim with flavor, yet completely balanced and way to easy to put back.
**Moralité: Brewed in collaboration with The Alchemist’s John Kimmich, this Heady-like, hop-forward and hugely piney IPA is one of those beers that’s going to hit the tap line and be kicked in a couple hours. You see, Moralité wasn’t quite ready when I visited (hence the asterisks), but one of the friendly bartenders let me try a sample from the fermenter. I was very, very appreciative.
Vices et Versa
If you’ve had your fill of Dieu Du Ciel (yeah right!), then just a few minutes down the road is a hip little brasserie called Vices et Versa. With, perhaps, a slightly more hipster take on Montreal’s bar scene, you’ll find a much more diverse take on Quebec’s craft beer culture here. I was lucky enough to visit on the day after their 10th anniversary party so there was an especially ridiculous list of beers on tap – about 30 in total plus a few casks.
In the front of this laid back European-style bar was a Tom Waits/Gogol Bordelo-like accordion player screaming songs in French. Meanwhile, I got the last pour from a keg of Triple Aux 2 Bretts by A la Fut, and because I obviously didn’t have enough Dieu du Ciel already, I jumped at the opportunity to try some of DDC’s rum-aged Aphrodisiaque. If I had more time, and wasn’t in charge of driving, I would have been very happy to sit at the bar for hours, listening to beat accordion and tasting through any number of the beers on the list that night, which included brews from Brasserie Dunham, Le Trou du Diable and Les Trois Mousquetaires.
Don’t forget to pack your trunk!
Even if the clock is ticking away at your time in Montreal, there’s always time to hit up a a beer store or two. Thankfully, there are two solid shops in the very near vicinity of DDC: Supermarché Rahman Le Paradis de la Biére and Dépanneur. I wound up scoring a few sixers of DDC and a barrel-aged baltic porter from Les Trois Mousquetaires.
So with slightly more beer in the trunk than border crossing legally allows, I made my way back to America… fattened up by some killer beer, and perhaps… just perhaps… convinced that Montreal is, in fact, a damn cool city even in the brutal onslaught of winter.