It’s the iconic image of summer in Ontario cottage country: reclining on the dock, toes in the water, cold beer in hand. So, it should come as no surprise that craft breweries have been popping up across northern Ontario, carrying on the legacy built over nearly a century by the Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie-based Northern Breweries.
Today, there are 19 breweries spread across this expansive region, joining the more than 270 operating throughout Ontario. It would take you about 18 hours to travel between the southernmost brewery, Highlander Brew Co. in South River, and the northernmost, Lake of the Woods Brewing Company in Kenora — and that’s without accounting for scenic detours or stops in between. So, while a traditional craft beer crawl might not be feasible, if your summer road trip plans are taking you across the Canadian Shield, why not check some of these small batch beers off your tasting list in between outdoor adventures? To make your route-planning easier, we’ve rounded up some of the best breweries to visit in Northern Ontario.
Split Rail Brewing Company, Manitoulin Island
The craft beer renaissance in Northern Ontario was largely driven by demand from locals who were searching for a homegrown beer to support. A Manitoulin Island-based success story, Split Rail Brewing Company was launched by Andrea Smith and Eleanor Charlton in response to a strategic economic plan developed by their local government — but it’s flourished because of their interest in creating something vibrant and new within the community. First opened in 2015, Split Rail is undergoing their third expansion as tourism increases on the island. During a summer weekend, they have been known to sell over 1,400 bottles, which comes as no surprise to the locals who have become fond of their easy drinking beers. Be sure to add the Hawberry Ale (ABV 5.1%) to your tasting flight; this sweet berry grows all over Manitoulin Island and is hand-picked for this beer.
Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, Thunder Bay
Local ingredients are a common theme among the northern breweries, but one company takes it to a new level. Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in Thunder Bay, named for the area’s most famous natural landmark, uses its location on the north shore of Lake Superior to its advantage, drawing on the lake’s crisp, clear water to give their beer its distinctive taste. They’re also fortunate to have Canada Malting Co. for a neighbour — the Thunder Bay plant is located just one kilometre from the brewery’s doors. This allows them to experiment with different malts to create flavourful, unfiltered beers like the Skull Rock Stout (ABV 5.1%), an oatmeal stout brewed with actual rolled oats. They’re best known for their core beers like the Northern Logger (ABV 4.9%) and Mr. Canoehead Red Ale (ABV 5.9%), both balanced and easy-drinking options. If you’re feeling adventurous, end your tasting with the Hoppet (ABV 6.5%), which has 70 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) — on the higher end of the scale.
New Ontario Brewing Company, North Bay
New Ontario Brewing Company in North Bay was the first brewery in Northern Ontario to try their hand at brewing sour beers. Their experimental brewing style has helped them grow in popularity with visitors stopping in North Bay to pick up beer en route to their cottage or campsite. While their Bear Runner Blonde Ale and Tree Topper Red Ale are still their top sellers, seasonal brews like the Kiwi Berliner Weisse, Shadfly Radler, and the Edward Pumpkinhands Brown Ale showcase the range of their brewing styles with more fruit-forward flavours. You can find New Ontario beer at 170 LCBOs across the province, but it’s worth the drive to North Bay to try some of their small batch brews, only available at the brewery.
Manitoulin Brewing Company, Manitoulin Island
With an emphasis on ambiance as much as quality beer, the Manitoulin Brewing Co. has become a bona fide destination on the island. During the summer, their patio is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike to gather over a flight and a bite from The Trough & Silo. Brewed by proud islanders, their beers pay homage to iconic landmarks on Manitoulin, like the Swing Bridge Blonde Ale (ABV 5%), named after the Little Current Swing Bridge that connects Manitoulin Island to the mainland, Cup & Saucer English Ale (ABV 5%), inspired by the rugged cliffs and dramatic landscapes found along the Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail, and Bridal Veil Pale Ale (ABV 5%), named for the Bridal Veil Falls. Be sure to try their Small Batch Series Porter (ABV 6%), infused with dark chocolate from the local Manitoulin Chocolate Works in Kagawong.
Stack Brewing, Sudbury
Stack Brewing was one of the first craft breweries to launch in the north, opening their doors in June 2013. They’ve helped shape the craft culture in Sudbury, paving the way for other businesses like Crosscut Distillery across the street and the Taphouse Northern Grill + Pub downtown. Two new breweries, 46 North and Spacecraft Brewery, have started up in Sudbury in the past year, helping to create a craft beer trail in the city. Stack brewmaster Shawn Mailloux recognized an opportunity to not only explore new flavours through craft beer, but to engage the community through festivals and social events. While the Saturday Night Cream Ale, Panache Session I.P.A, and the Nickel City Light Lager are the most popular choices in their tasting room, you’ll want to add one of their award-winning brews — the deep amber Les Potres de L’Enfre or the Stack Farmhouse Dark — to your flight. Stack has also been experimenting with sour beers that are a refreshing, effervescent option on a hot summer day.
Northern Ontario beer festivals
If driving the equivalent of the distance between London, England and Vienna, Austria isn’t part of your summer plans, there are a number of festivals popping up in the region where the tents and taps are much closer together. In Sudbury, Stack Brewing hosts the Northern Ontario Microbrew Festival each March, while in August, the Elgin Street Craft Beer Festival brings a variety of craft and imported beers available in Ontario to the city’s downtown core. The BrewHa! Craft Beer Festival also returns this year to Prince Arthur’s Landing in Thunder Bay, showcasing craft beer and food from around the province in August.
Try Northern Ontario beers at home
Not able to make a beer run north of Lake Superior? Luckily for those living all across Ontario, the Northern Ontario Sixer multi-pack allows you to try some of the best-selling beers at your local LCBO. Now in its third year, this year the Sixer will include the Lion Grass Specialty Golden Ale (ABV 5.4%) from Highlander Brewing Co, Lakeside Kolsch (ABV 5%) from Lake of the Woods Brewing Company, Swing Bridge Blonde Ale (ABV 5%) from the Manitoulin Brewing Co., Tree Topper Red Ale (ABV 5.2%) from New Ontario Brewing Company, Mr. Canoehead (ABV 4.9%) from Sleeping Giant Brewing Company and the Expansion Sour IPA (ABV 6.5%) from Stack Brewing.
Caleigh Alleyne is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist.