The Underground Brewery Stories about brewing beer and train traveling from Tom Coughlin

July 24, 2012

VIARailing around Lower Ontario– Guelph, Stratford and Montreal (June 2008).

Filed under: — Tom @ 11:33 am

With the cost of travel at an all-time high, and a shortage of railroad package trips this year, Meg and I cobbled together a Viarail trip that took us to Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and a couple of interesting small towns in Ontario, and offered us a chance to do some traveling on Viarail’s Windsor-Quebec City Corridor, which is the system’s main artery in terms of ridership.

Thanks to a Viarail Canada late train that Meg and I rode on last March, we earned a $200 credit toward future travel on Viarail, however it was good only for six months. With this in mind, we started looking at taking a summer trip right after school let out in June. As luck would have it, Via was running a sale on railfare, a new airline had just started up that connected Newark Airport with the downtown Toronto airport. To further grease the skids on trip planning, The Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario was offering $20 tickets to mid-week shows. A cluster of good travel deals is always a good excuse to plan a trip.

Last Tuesday morning (June 10, 2008), Meg and I grabbed our bags and walked over to the Princeton Junction train station to catch an express NJTransit train to Newark Airport, and in about 40 minutes we were going through the people mover turnstiles at EWR looking for signs to direct us to Porter Airlines, EWR’s newest tenant. Porter Airlines was started a couple of years ago by the airport operator of Toronto’s City Center Airport and added Newark Airport as a destination in March. Arriving at terminal B, the place was nearly empty-this is the international terminal and most of the flights that originate there go out in the evening. When we checked in, the agent asked us if we wanted to go on the 9:30 flight instead of our scheduled 11:30 departure (struck us as strange as it was 9:30 and we hadn’t been through security yet). She said, “don’t worry, we’ll hold the plane for you.” Seemed like a good idea to get out early, so we said sure.

I have never had such little trouble getting from the front door to the airplane, even back in the old days. Our handbags were quickly x-rayed, and we were metal dictected in about two minute by a couple of bored and chatty security guys. True to their word, Porter’s 9:30 flight was waiting for us at the end of the Jetway. A strange looking plane-an Ontario-built Bombardier  Dash 8 Q400, 70-seat twin turboprop. It seemed larger and roomier than the Embraier jets that Meg and I take to Halifax, and despite being a prop plain, it was quiet. Out on the runway, the plane took off nearly straight up in a brisk headwind. The Q400 is a recent design that features short takeoff (a necessity for the short runways at Toronto City Center Airport), cruising speeds that approach that of jet, and according to Porter, is the most fuel-efficient commercial aircraft on the market today. An hour and a half later, the plane made a right turn east of Buffalo and we could spot Niagara Falls out the window as the captain welcomed us to Toronto over the intercom.

In Toronto, the terminal was empty and the Canadian customs agents drolly interviewed the 40 or so passengers in about 15 minutes. Outside of the terminal, we lined up for what is reportedly the shortest commercial ferry ride in North America, a car/passenger ferry that travels a distance of 397 feet in less than a minute and connects the island airport with the foot of Bathurst Street. From Bathurst Street, Porter’s shuttle bus takes passengers to the Royal York Hotel, across the street from Toronto Union Station, where we checked our bags for the evening train to Guelph, and took off on foot to try to find some lunch. Toronto had had some rain in the morning, and the air seemed clear, damp and a little chilly, which was great after a week of 90-degree days in New Jersey. We wandered east on Front St. and then north on John St., to find that the restaurant we had in mind would not be opening until dinnertime. Undaunted, we walked over to Beerbistro on King St., for lunch and a couple of pints of locally produced ale.

Beerbistro is owned by Toronto-based food writer Stephen Beaumont, and is well known for a delightful and very reasonably priced lunch with some equally delightful and reasonably priced beer from all over the world. After lunch we took another walk around downtown and wandered back to the train station in time for our evening train to Guelph.

Guelph, Ontario is a small, old town a three hour train ride east of Toronto that was settled by Scottish settlers and still retains it’s Scottish flavor, and gets a few trains a day from Viarail from the train’s to Sarnia (Sarnia trains take the less-served northern route through Kitchener on their way to London, Ontario, and ultimately to Sarnia. Windsor trains, travel the more densely-settled southern route to London, and continued on to Windsor). Home to the University of Guelph, it’s a quaint college town, that somehow managed to avoid the tawdriness that comes to many university towns. It also has densely built downtown were inns, restaurants and car rental places are all in walking distance of each other, but most significant for my visit, it’s a beer town.

Guelph was not so much founded but discovered, as places with unusual natural resources usually are. In this case, Guelph’s natural resource is the water-the Arkell Aquifer, a source of lightly mineraled, slightly acidic, but mostly carbonate-free water flows through the ancient waterworks and winds up in beer produced by Sleemans, F&M, and Wellington. The aquifer gets its name from John Arkell, an Englishman who built the first brewery there in the 1830s, Ironically business was not good for John, who shut down the brewery after a few years and returned to Wiltshire, where his later beers caught on with the drinking public and production continues to this day.

Our evening train had a few Toronto commuters who appeared to make the long trip a few times a week. After arriving at Guelph, we wandered up Emerosa St. to the Norfolk Guest House, an ornate Victorian house that would be our base camp for two days, and then afterward went down to the Woolwich Arms and Arrow for a very typical contemporary English dinner of a pint of ale and Indian food. Set up in the manner of an English neighborhood pub, the Wooly is an excellent spot to sample the many seasonal offerings from the band of local breweries, including a few served cask-style on a hand pump. After dinner, we wandered through the old downtown, past the Anglican cathedral that stands atop a hill to the west of town and seem to dominate most of the vistas, past the ancient row houses and rehabilitated mill buildings. In the distance, we heard the last Toronto train of the day whistling as it approached the old Grand Trunk station.

Nothing ruins a train trip more than having to ride in cars and busses. If it was up to me, I’d have taken trains all over Ontario and Quebec for six days, but unfortunately Via’s scant schedule left us no option but to drive to Stratford on Wednesday and Thursday for visits to the Shakespeare Festival. Wednesday morning, I walked into town to the Enterprise car rental shop and picked up a tiny blue Nissan to take us to the Festival, after breakfast at the in, Meg and I road by way of Kitchener and arrived at the Festival Theater in plenty of time for our 9:30 am tour of the facility.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been one of the leading repertory theater groups in North America since the 1950s and has slowly evolved into an organization with a $60 million budget, four theaters and a season that spans eight months and 15 productions. The Festival Theater was their main building for many years, and when it opened in the late 1950s, the company was able to give up performing under tents. At the time it was built, there were no thrust stage theaters in North America, and the idea of starting a repertory company in the model of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England must have seemed quaint. Besides the 1,800-seat semicircular theater, the building is also home to the costume and prop shop, as well as the armory and two rehearsal halls. Meg and I enjoyed the tour, which is given a few days a week in the mornings. After the tour, we did some touring by car and browsed a couple of antique stores and had a late afternoon lunch in Kitchener.

That evening, we went on our second tour of the day, a visit to the large modern Sleeman brewery in Southwest Guelph. The current Sleeman Company was started in 1988 and the facility is modern (though not highly automated), however the recipes and traditions go back to the 1840s

After John Arkell shut done his brewery, the next brewer in town was John Sleeman. Sleeman a recent English emigrant from Cornwall who started a brewery in St. Catherines (in Niagara-Great Lakes area where the water has a pronounced mineral bite), decided to relocate to Guelph and built a new brewery there in the 1840s. The original Sleeman’s company was active until 1933, when John’s son George Sleeman was forced to sell the brewery to cover the legal expenses of his sons who got into trouble with the revenuers in Detroit when illegally exporting beer to the US during Prohibition. For many years the old brewery sat disused at the southwest corner of town, and their family estate home, which was connected to the brewery by an underground tunnel became a gentlemen’s club.

In 1988, John Sleeman (George’s grandson) restarted Sleeman’s brewery in a new location about a mile from the old one and revived the family’s old Cream Ale recipe to revive the brand. Cream Ale is a beer style that was developed in the mid 1800s as a marketing response from the mostly English producers of ales in North America, to the ever-increasing popularity of lager beers produced by brewers of German extraction. The style features the crystal clearness and the lighter body refreshing qualities of a lager, but retains the fruity, floral flavors of ales frequently with a higher hopping rate and slightly more alcohol than one would find in lagers.  Cream ales do not require the long fermentation and lagering times of lager beers (typically commercial lagers are stored for a month in large tank at temperatures in the 40s in order to clear the beer and finish the fermentation), and as such can be produced more economically by smaller brewers. Cream Ales historically were most popular in Canada and places in the US such as Minnesota, and Upstate, New York. I guess they go well with snow and cold weather.

Sleeman offers a tour a few times a week, and we had the fortune to be part of a group that consisted of about 30 MBA students and two accounting professors from the University of Waterloo. In an unusual departure from the normal brewery tour practice of walking around the fermenters and aging tanks first, and then doing samplings in the tasting room, our two Sleeman guides did the sampling first. Five beers later, all felt very witty and intellectual. As someone who makes beer at home for fun, I never miss a chance to take a brewery tour, especially of the larger breweries. A well-conducted tour can be a source of interesting tidbits of brewing knowledge. I had a chance to learn about the effects of Sapporo’s takeover of the company. Sapporo, a Japanese company which is slowly advancing in the US markets, continues to make Sleeman’s without any changes in recipe or procedures, but added a lot of new production to the brewery when they started brewing Sapporo beers there for the North and South America market. Sleeman continues to hold a distant third place in market share in Canada with 10 percent of the total market (Labatt, owned by the Belgian brewer InBev, and MolsonCoors, which is jointly controlled by the Coors and Molson families, together have a lock on more than thee-quarters of the total market, including much of the distribution and retail sales in the country). After the tour, it was back to the Norfolk Guest House for another night’s rest.

On Thursday, we got up a little late and after a leisurely breakfast, we said goodbye to the Innkeepers at the Norfolk Guest House, and a short ride across town to the Willow Inn (unfortunately we could not stay at the Norfolk on Friday night due to a large wedding party coming in. Quickly we said hi to the innkeeper, dropped a few bags and headed off to Stratford for a Shakespeare double header: Romeo and Juliet at the afternoon matinee, followed by Hamlet in the evening (two tragedies in a row, so many actors dying in short succession). In between, we had a quick dinner in downtown Stratford, followed by a brisk walk around town, and then back to the theater for more dying actors.

After the play, we had a very late 45 minute drive back to Guelph, and set our alarms to catch the early train to Toronto.

Friday morning came, and we filed into the train station in Guelph (actually, I dropped off Meg and the bags, and drove a few blocks to return the rental car). Our train was more than a half hour late, which surprised us considering the reliability of the corridor trains. Meg went into the station and got the story from the agent: the train from Sarnia broke down and a Windsor train was being rerouted though Guelph as a substitute. Not such good news for us, as we had tickets for a tight 23-minute connection in Toronto for an afternoon train to Montreal. Meg weighed the consequences of missing the connection: if we miss the Quebec train, we’ll probably get free passage on the next train and a few hours to spend in Toronto. On reflection, it didn’t seem like an undesirable event

Finally the train showed up-a long string of Budd HEP II cars pulled by an F-40. We settled into the rearmost car of the train, which was filled with restless high school students from rural western Ontario who were taking a school trip to Toronto. They were traveling with a guide from the provincial tourism office and had anticipated getting into Toronto early and having a full day of sightseeing, but apparently their train trip was running several hours behind, delayed and misdirected onto the slower and more ponderous northern corridor route. The poor guide spent most of his time on his cell phone at the front of the car discussing ways to savage the group’s itinerary, and then profusely apologizing to the teachers (also hiding out at the front of the car away from the students) for the delays and thwarted plans.

Meg and I sat down across from a group of four grade 7 and 8 girls and before long, we had struck up a conversation. I have worked with high school students for 8 years, and can solemnly attest to you that you will meet no smarter people in the whole world than a group of 14-year-old girls. With this in mind, I will always jump at a chance to petition such a conclave for sage advice. “Are you from Guelph?” one asked. “No”, I responded. “We’re from New Jersey”. “Are there any bums there?” The conversation seemed to revolve around destitute people for most of an hour. They would look out the window and excitedly report whenever we passed someone sleeping under an overpass. They asked us if we’d ever been to Toronto, and if there were bums there. I observed to them that in my experience Vancouver is the Canadian city with the most bums.

Due to the late train, the coffee and tea were free. The attendant on the car explained that the engine on the original Sarnia train failed (“the engine is gone,” she said sanguinely), and this train was held in Windsor for some time before Via decided to reroute the train to Guelph. The lead attendant offered to call ahead and ask about connecting trains for us, but wasn’t sure if Via was going to be able to hold the Montreal train.

Approaching Toronto, the lead attendant announced that our connecting train to Montreal was being held at the station waiting for our arrival, and would be across the platform from us, and we’d have a few minutes to cross over and get seated. The Montreal to Quebec trains featured LRC cars and a GE P-42 engine, and frequently did 90 MPH on the relatively straight and well-groomed right-of-way.

The train was able to make up time as we went, and we arrived at Montreal on time. Our hotel for the next three nights, the Sheraton Center, is about three blocks west of the station, and after a quick change into our walking clothes we were out on the street again this time strolling up St. Laurent in the direction of Jean Talon, stopping off at Sergeant Recruiter, a small brewpub in Little Italy, for a pair of unusual small pizzas, and some of the best cream ale in Montreal.

Saturday morning, we made a trip up to Quebec for the day to see the Louvre show A dwarf-sized set of Renaissance cars pulled by P-42, expeditiously took us on our way. Meg and I had been there before so we kind of knew the lay of the land: mostly up-you get off the train and have to climb a steep hill to get to the old city, or ride a funicular railway if you’re not much of a mountain climber. I found the Museum of the Beaux Arts on the map. It was quite a bit west of the train station and it looked like it was close to the river, so I did not anticipate having to climb the hundreds of steps (once we walked west and found no museum there but a very steep cliff and a narrow set wooden steps that drifted side to side as it ran up the cliff. These steps were so long and so steep, that we didn’t see anyone actually going up them, although there were many people who came down. It seemed like we were climbing for an hour. We could look up and spot the nearing top of the stair, but alas, we made it over a bend, and another five or six staircases appeared above what we thought was the end.

Half way up, I stopped a group of people coming down and asked them the question that I really didn’t want to ask, “is the museum at the top or bottom of the stairs?” One person answered in halting English, “Sure it is up. About a 20 minute walk when you get to the top.” At the top of the steps there was a manicured urban park with auto and walking trails and maps in several languages showing the location of our desired destination. Arriving at the museum, we deposited our tickets (we had bought them months before online), and entered the exhibit.

Meg’s and my visions of seeing Bosch’s Ship of Fools, Vermeer’s Astronomer, or any of Michelangelo or Da Vinci works started ebbing in the first gallery, which was full of ancient decorative arts; nice stuff, but it looked like the kinds of things that the Louvre would keep in it’s attic. The letdown built even more in the second gallery, which presented “the Louvre Experience”, a collection of artworks that displayed the essence being a visitor at the Louvre, including photographs of the galleries interior. Wait a minute, this wasn’t a show of works from the Louvre, this was an advertisement to try to get us to spend additional time and money to go to Paris and see the real thing. Once we were on to their game, things ran downhill. Subsequent galleries displayed planning models and drawings from a famous statue of Louis XIV, copies of Venus de Milo in several sizes and full-size photographic reproductions of both the front and the back sides of the Mona Lisa, along with a movie that describes how the images were made in two languages. The folks at the Louvre were rubbing it in.

Disappointed by the show, Meg and I found solace by wandering around the old city and the provincial parliament buildings. It was a nice day, and despite having to climb 1,400 steps to get to this advertisement for travel to Europe has left us wanting to boycott the Louvre when we visit the EU next summer. We wandered down to the lower city down one of the slowly sloping roads on the other side of the hill, and had dinner at a brewpub near the train station that was inexpensive but only served hot dogs (Meg gave in and decided it was okay for us to eat there.

Close to 5 pm we went back to the train station and lined up and waited for our train back to Montreal to board (it was just sitting there). A large Eucharistic Conference was being held in town, and there was a assembly of very religious-looking people waiting for the last train into Quebec from Montreal to arrive so they could pick up visitors from all over North America. Finally the Montreal train arrived an a large contingent of priests and sisters slowly poured out of the gate moving slowly with some of the largest pieces of luggage I had ever seen. (I realize that as you get older, your luggage gets larger, but I hold firm to the concept of never carrying more than your weight in baggage regardless of the destination or the duration of the visit). Anyway, they took their time getting out of the station, and the station agents wouldn’t let us get on the train until all the baggage and humanage from the last train was on it’s way to it’s next destination. Interestingly, despite the delay, they got us back to Montreal ahead of time.

It was nearly 9 pm when we got back, too early to go to bed, but too late for us to get started on any evening tours of town. We rode the Metro to Lionel Groulx station and wandered around the Atwater Market area in hope that the large drugstore would stay open late so we could get some postal items. Unfortunately, we missed by a few minutes. The stroll back took us through a blue-collar section of the city, and there were many well-dressed teenagers wandering around the neighborhood us looking for parties and enjoying the cool and pleasant evening.

Sunday was our bonus day in Montreal. The hotel rooms were relatively inexpensive (compared to most hotels in most cities these days), and we decided to stay an extra day in Montreal pretty much at the last minute. We had a late start so we could attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Church (one of the many English language parishes in the downtown area). The Eucharistic conference that we ran into on Saturday was a big deal in Canada, and to mark the event, the pastor put a very large monstrance that was made in 1910 and for use at a Eucharistic conference that was held at St. Patrick’s and the nearby Basilica of Notre Dame. It was a monstrous monstrance, that needed two people to pick up, and because if it’s weight couldn’t actually be used in benediction services.

After church, we went back to the train station in search of the elusive almond croissant, the single most yearned-after item of food that Meg always searches out every time she is in town. Sadly, the bakery at the train station was closed. As consolation, I took Meg to Jean Talon market by train where we spent a pleasant afternoon in gastro tourism and took in some pretty good salmon and croissants (though no almond ones). We decided to do some window-shopping on rue St. Dennis and wandered up and down St. Laurent for an hour in the bright sunlight, and stopped at Sergeant Recruiter again for a pitcher of Cream Ale and endive salad. After dinner, we walked back to our hotel, down St. Laurent and across on St. Catherine, and got back rather early. We had had two days with a lot of walking, and while we weren’t totally worn out by it, we were sleeping pretty well at night.

The following morning was go home day. We checked out and made it over to the train station on foot by 8:45 so Meg would have time to purchase our lunches at a sandwich place in the station, along with two of her beloved almond croissants. We quickly boarded the Adirondack, which today was composed of a set of not terribly clean cars, with neglected toilets and a mostly unstocked snack bar. The trip home was comfortable enough (excepts for trips to the bathroom). The air conditioning was blowing extremely cold, so I put on a sweatshirt and Meg went to the snack bar car to read a newspaper and warm up. We were about a half hour late coming into Rensselaer, NY, and things got even more delayed south of there, but were into New York Penn Station before 8:30 and promptly caught an NJ Transit semi-express train to Princeton Junction with clean, new bi-level cars. We were home a few minutes before 11:00, and was happy to find our house still as we had left it. Finally, we kicked off our shoes, and rolled into bed.

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