Beer and the Bard go hand-in-hand in Stratford, where a pair of craft breweries has taken different routes to satisfy the thirsts of locals and theatre patrons alike.
The original is Stratford Brewing Company, launched 12 years ago by Joe Tuer to specialize in brewing a craft pilsner, his favourite style.
After graduating from Ryerson University, he spent more than three years in Singapore as a management consultant for a small cosmetics company.“It was time for a move from Singapore (or I would probably still be there), researching different cities/countries for relocation,” Tuer said. “Stratford came up at the top of the list of cities, but what to do? A friend reminded me that I had always wanted to start a brewery.”
Indeed, every assignment at university seemed to include a brewery. But right after graduation, banks rejected his business plan. Further research involved Beer Laos while actually floating in an inner tube down a river in Laos and led to the conclusion that Ontario needed a quality craft pilsner that’s free of adjuncts such as corn syrup, and brewed with patience.
He describes Stratford Pilsner, which is available in 341 mL bottles at select LCBOs and on draft at various local restaurants, as well balanced between malty and hoppy, reflecting his personal taste in beer. “I reckoned if nobody liked it, then I would have a boatload of beer to drink, so I may as well make what I wanted,” he said. He also brews Stratford Lager, which is 4.9 per cent alcohol.
“I brewed an IPA about eight years ago in a series of seasonal ‘one-offs’,” Tuer said. “However, the next one-off was a California common and it has been constantly brewed since then.” California common, also known as steam beer, ferments more quickly, at higher temperatures.
Tuer suggestedthat of all Shakespeare’s characters, Macbeth would most enjoy a Stratford Pilsner.“(He) encourages his guests, ‘Be large in mirth, anon we’ll drink a measure the table round.’”
Newer to the Stratford craft beer scene is Black Swan Brewing Company at 144 Downie Street, a short walk from the Avon Theatre. Just two years old, Black Swan was opened by local teachers Bruce Pepper and Ryan Stokes, who were both also home brewers.
“After a few years of trying new things and tweaking recipes, we started to think it might be fun to take it to the next level,” Stokes said. “There seemed to be a growing interest in craft beer and people’s minds were becoming open to the many interesting styles of beer that were offered. After getting the go-ahead from a couple of lenders and, more importantly our wives, we decided to give it a try.”
The name of the brewery came from the famous swans, so familiar to summer visitors to Stratford. “Swans are an important part of Stratford’s identity,” Stokes said. “There was indeed a single black swan that lived in town. He stood out as being a crusty old bird, yet was well loved by the community. We liked that.”
The partners approached craft brewing the same way they did home brewing, creating recipes for a variety of styles from porter to a sour Berliner Weisse. The best seller is an English pale ale, which is malt-forward with light bitterness. Gaining ground is an American-style India pale ale featuring pine aromas.
“I’d have to say that the Berliner Weisse is the one we’re most proud of,” he said. “It’s a beer that started out as a one-off that Bruce has worked on fastidiously to find just the right level of tartness and flavour. It has evolved tremendously and continues to become a better beer with each batch. It also has introduced a lot of Ontarians to the world of sour beer, which is an exciting thing.”
When Black Swan first opened, there was a divide between the beer tastes of locals versus the theatre crowd. That divide has quickly shrunk.
“Ontario’s collective palate has changed a great deal in a short period of time,” he said. “Locals started drinking our much more approachable English pale ale more than any other beer, but are much more likely to leave the brewery with some of our more challenging, bigger beers now. Our many American visitors have had access to fantastic craft beer for a couple of decades, so often come to us with a fairly sophisticated beer knowledge. We love that our customers come to us with an open mind and a willingness to try the many things we offer.”
Finding Black Swan beers means a trip to the brewery, where it is sold in 32 ounce elixirs and 64 ounce growlers, or else to the many Stratford restaurants that have it on tap. It’s also available at Jack Astor’s on Fanshawe Park Road, at the Black Dog in Bayfield and at Little Red’s in St. Marys.
“We’re in the process of figuring out just what our next steps are going to be,” Stokes said. “Our current demand is far greater than our supply, so it seems that growth might happen fairly soon… In the meantime, we’re having a lot of fun selling our beer out our own front door and getting to know the amazing people who drink it.”
Cheers to that.
Stratford Brewing Company
114 Erie St., Stratford
Black Swan Brewing
144 Downie St., Stratford.
Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist in London who enjoys writing about beer and travel.