Hamilton’s eight breweries punching above their weight in the brewing world


Published December 22, 2023 at 7:02 pm

Collective Arts Hamilton
Collective Arts Brewing Hamilton

With nearly a million people, Ottawa is more than a bit bigger to Hamilton’s 580,000 or so residents and with some 48 breweries, Ottawa dwarfs the Steel City in brewing quantity.

Even Victoria, B.C., which has half the population, has more breweries than Hamilton with 11.

But quality? That’s where Hamilton punches above its weight. The city’s eight breweries (and several cideries) are all world class and offer patrons plenty of choice, from IPA factories to all-round establishments to a brewery that keeps the old-world traditions alive with barrel-aged beers that are re-fermented with locally grown fruit.

That would be Hamilton’s newest brewery, Barrell Heart in Ancaster, which opened in early February and has already established a loyal following for their Saison-style beers aged in oak barrels, such as Oubliette of Staves III, with notes of lime zest and pepper; and Washed Away by Sea II, an aged Gose spiced with sea salt and Indian coriander.

Barrel Hearts Brewing, Ancaster

Another relative newcomer (though pre-pandemic) and a neighbour is Brewer’s Blackbird Kitchen and Brewery, which opened on Wilson Avenue East in 2019 in a pre-confederation 1830 house and serves up great food and most of the classic beer styles, such as a Marzen, West Coast Pale Ale, Mexican Lager, IPA and an English Bitter.

2017 was a very good year for beer in Hamilton, because it marked the opening of three very popular breweries, including two right across the street from each other in the Ainslie neighbourhood, near McMaster University.

Fairweather Brewery and Grain & Grit are both much-loved by the university crowd and Fairweather has earned a reputation for well crafted brews, such as Wishing Well Imperial Stout (with toasted coconut, cinnamon, vanilla and Niagara wildflower honey; their Mid Citrus Wheat and a mainstay of the brewery: High Grade IPA.

Grain & Grit, meanwhile, has developed a similar rep for quality beers, as well as a brewery that cares deeply about providing a safe and inclusive space for the entire community.

Some of their recent offerings include a Winter Stout, Morning View Cream Ale with coffee beans, Invisible Friend American Pale Ale and Little Thrills Pilsner.

Also opening in 2017 was Merit Brewing downtown, which has a huge taproom right in the heart of the city serving up craft beer and elevated-meets-casual pub fare – their Butter Chicken Sausage is legendary – for the city centre crowd.

Beers on tap include Nowhere Coffee and Snowhere (with hot chocolate and marshmallows) Imperial Stouts, Waves Fruited Sour with peach, mango and vanilla and Waves with red dragon fruit, blueberry and vanilla; Happy Place Cab Franc Skin & Vine Saison, and Young Rival IPA.

Shawn & Ed’s opened in historic Dundas the year previous in 2016 and is a community hotspot, known as much for their great brews as they are for their community work, such as their Cheers for Charity Food Drive, which recently collected a tonne of food for the local food bank.

Current beers on tap include Salted Lime Cerveza, Barrelshed Amber and Lagershed India Pale Lager.

East Hamilton has its own brewery too in Clifford’s, which opened on Nash Road in 2015 and has been racking up awards – especially for their Clifford’s Porter – at the Ontario and Canadian Brewing Awards ever since.

The 2019 Canadian Brewer of the Year has regulars and one-offs in their tap list right now, including the Porter, Devil’s Punchbowl India Session Lager, Pinball Wizard American Pale Ale and Extra Ball Hazy Pale Ale; Valhalla Kveik IPA and Spider Palace White Stout.

The OG in Hamilton breweries and likely the best known around the world is Collective Arts, located near Hamilton Harbour. The brewery, which dabbled in expansion to New York City before the pandemic and still collaborates on art projects and in distribution of its ales south of the border, was born in 2013 with a mandate to combine “the craft of brewing with the inspired talents of emerging and seasoned artists, musicians, photographers & filmmakers.”

Their Audio/Visual Lager also publicizes independent musicians with special limited edition band-themed cans, rotating every few months to promote a new selection of four artists.

Other beers in their arsenal include Ransack the Universe IPA, the World Cup of Beer-winning Stranger Than Fiction Porter, Rhyme & Reason Extra Pale Ale, Beyond Reason Micro Pale Ale (2.9 per cent), Jam Up the Mash dry-hopped Sour and Life in the Clouds New England IPA.

The fact that Hamilton is still adding breweries and keeping their originals is a major accomplishment, as the Ontario brewing landscape is now on the downslope, with economic conditions putting many breweries in the province in a world of pain.

Jordan St. John, Ontario’s foremost beer writer and historian and keeper of the Ontario Brewery Map, notes the province is already down 14 brick & mortar breweries this year.

“Despite re-namings and startups, mergers and acquisitions, we are down from 413 physically located breweries and brewpubs to 399,” he said at the last update in the fall. “There are a lot of closures and a lot of purchases, and for the first time ever a not-insignificant number of breweries switching from physical locations to contract status as they look for a place to relocate.”

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