Tiny breweries in small towns are beginning to dot the landscape of Southwestern Ontario, waiting to be discovered by craft beer explorers These are nano and microbreweries, labelled as such by the small batches or annual output they produce. Many sell their beer only from an on-site bottle shop, in labouriously filled 500 mL bottles or 1.8 mL growlers. Some hire a portable canning line to package beer in tallboy cans. Some are farm-based, with a hops yard literally out back.
They’re never mentioned in the same breath as Steam Whistle, Mill Street, or Muskoka and unless you live in or near the rural towns they call home, chances are you don’t know they exist.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are 12 spots to explore, worth a road trip of brewski discovery.
Caps Off Brewing Company
168 Curtis Street, St. Thomas. Opened in 2019, Caps Off was a hobby that’s become a business for couple Rick and Fran Dunseith. The low-key brewery on a downtown side street gives a tip of the hat with the beer names — Under the Brim Cream Ale, Drop of a Hat IPA, Straw Hat Saison, and Stove Pipe Stout. A sampler tray is called a Hat Trick, and it’s an excellent place to start. Caps Off was at the Truly Local Craft Beer Festival hosted by London Brewing in September, upping its local ingredient credibility.
Natterjack Brewing Company
25929 Talbot Line, West Lorne. A family brewery inspired by son Matt Soos, Natterjack was opened in 2016 by a group of six family members with rural roots in west Elgin County. The beer to take home is Natterjack Toad, a Belgian-style blonde. The brewery has also brewed interesting seasonal or one-off beers such as Easy Breezy Blueberry Squeezy, which was featured at Truly Local. This dark ale incorporated fresh blueberries grown on two West Elgin farms.
Rusty Wrench Brewing Company
9 Front Street West, Strathroy. A brewery and pub, Rusty Wrench opened in 2017. Its core beers include Crappy Tire, a hefty 7.5 per cent alcohol oatmeal stout with notes of dark chocolate and coffee. There’s also Left Handed Spanner, a West Coast-style fruity IPA.
7143 Forest Road, Plympton-Wyoming. A farm-based brewery near Forest, Stonepicker is the creation of two farm couples with passions for agriculture and beer. Opened in 2017, Stonepicker’s slogan “Our beer rocks” fits nicely. Its beers carry farmer themes, and the places to start are the Crop Tour lager and the Farmer’s Tan blonde ale, Oops It Fell Out is also a lager and uses barley malted on site. Among the seasonals is Pail Ale, an earthy pale ale brewed with British hops.
Widder Station Brewing
8395 Decker Road, Thedford. A brewery, a pub, and a golf course. Pick your passion. Widder Station’s flagship beer is a lager crafted for the 19th hole. Train Wreck is a light 4.8 per cent alcohol lager served on tap. The rest of the board is filled with a well-curated selection of craft beers from the likes of Sons of Kent in Chatham, Railway City in St. Thomas, and Stonepicker.
River Road Brewing and Hops
35449 Bayfield River Road, Bayfield. A family farm-based brewery, River Road captures the hearts of malty beer lovers with Up Your Kilt, a heavy Scottish style ale. It’s 6.8 per cent alcohol, making it as strong as a caber tosser. Intriguing seasonals include Survey Elixir, an IPA infused with spruce tips.
Stone House Brewery
76048 Parr Line, Varna. Hockey player Ryan O’Reilly made little Varna famous when he won the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues last spring. But before that there was Stone House, the original craft brewery in Huron County. Stone House’s newest beer is a Bavarian lager. But it started with and still highlights a Czech-style pilsner brewed with Saaz hops. There’s a compact space to enjoy Stone House beers on site, but it’s best to take some bottles home from the shop. Stone House beers are also served at several top eateries in the region, including Hessenland on Highway 21 near St. Joseph, Bentley’s in Stratford and Smackwater Jack’s in Grand Bend.
Half Hours on Earth
151 Main Street, Seaforth. Highly regarded in the craft beer world, Half Hours on Earth brews a barrage of farmhouse sour-style beer recipes in small batches. Among them are some oak barrel-aged and flavour-infused beers such as Bees! (a sour with honey) and Attenborough (a mild entry-level farmhouse). Centigrade, also oak-aged, incorporates black currants and dandelion root. Things change so often, fans need to frequently check the Half Hours website to verify availability. Or, better still, just go with what they’ve got when you get there.
Shakespeare Brewing Company
2178 Line 34, Shakespeare. Located a short drive from Stratford, Shakespeare Brewing is owned by a husband-and-wife team. Reckless Rooster, a pale ale featuring Ontario-grown ingredients, is the star attraction and there’s no kidding with Grumpy Goat, the brewer’s bitter take on an India Pale Ale. It’s a milk stout that catches the eye as the weather turns cold. Classy Cow is full-bodied, smooth and finishes sweet.
Bitte Schön Brauhaus
68 Huron Street, New Hamburg. The name means “You’re Welcome” in German. Located in a renovated historic building, Bitte Schön brews gluten-free beers. Huron Street Hefeweisen is sold in cans at the LCBO. There are free tours Saturday afternoons and you can bring in food from nearby restaurants to eat while enjoying a beer inside the brewery. Owned by the same folks who run Descendants Beer & Beverage Co. in Kitchener, Bitte Schön has a special item for sale on the menu — the brewery itself.
Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm
2970 Swimming Pool Road, La Salette. Peanuts with your beer? Ramblin’ Road traces its entrepreneurial food, family farming, and beverage lineage to Picard Peanuts. An early player in farm-based brewing, Ramblin’ Road has the perfect gift for the craft beer fan on your Christmas list — a “Quick Six” pack “grown” on the farm and featuring Pure Bred Red and Ramblin’ Road’s lager family, and its IPA. Piquing interest is Dakota Pearl Ale made with the same potatoes used to make Ramblin’ Road’s kettle chips. The pairing seems obvious.
Dundas & Sons Brewing Company
400 Adelaide Street North, London. Rob Dundas, the big bearded owner of Old East Village’s tiniest brewery will make you feel at home. Dundas & Sons, which famously uses hops grown on the owner’s porch, brews beer styles you’d expect, such as an American pale ale, and some you might not, such as a honey elderberry saison. The board changes frequently and the selection is supplemented by kegs from other brewers.