On the beer trail in the Highlands

Lily Coneybeare lines up the sample cups along the wooden bar at Rhubarb Restaurant in Carnarvon and pours five tiny drinks. The cream ale is golden and smooth tasting. It’s one of Boshkung Brewing Company’s best known beers sold in yellow 35&118 cans at Beer Stores and some grocery stores across Ontario. Coneybeare explains to her guests some of the basics of beer tasting; take in the colour aroma mouthfeel and taste.

Her guests – Mike Ian Dave Jenny and a tag-along reporter – pepper the brewer with questions about ingredients the process and the business itself. The group is part of a Yours Outdoors experience called Sip Swill and Savour which takes participants on a tour of the Highlands’ two breweries and maple winery all located conveniently along the Highway 118 corridor about 20 kilometres apart.

As Yours Outdoors plans its programming around this convenient geography others are as well. Craft breweries have a reputation for being congenial with one another which helps them pool resources and launch initiatives collaboratively. Explorers’ Edge the regional tourism organization to the west of Haliburton covering the Muskoka Parry Sound area is leveraging the good will and fortuitous proximity with a new online initiative: the Cottage Country Beer Trail (cottagecountrybeertrail.ca).

It promotes six breweries – Haliburton Highlands Brewing Boshkung Highlander Brewery in Almaguin Highlands Lake of Bays Brewing Co. Muskoka Brewery and Sawdust City Brewing Co. in Gravenhurst – on its interactive website meant to act as a mobile tour guide. Besides connecting travellers with the breweries it also includes area adventures accommodations and live events at the breweries.

However it’s not just the proximity that placed each location on the trail says Kate Monk director of communications for Explorers’ Edge. They all share the same rustic vibe – embracing the wilderness and marketing their product using the landscape around them.

“All these breweries have product or branding that is associated with the great outdoors: the great Canadian wilderness” Monk says.

“That’s very distinct from other beer trails in Ontario. We wanted to leverage that.”

This is the third “self-guided mobile tour” created by the tourism organization. The other two connect Group of Seven outdoor galleries; and bicycle routes.

“It’s meant to not only promote the breweries as tourism destinations but also to tell you everything that’s going on with those breweries: events live music tastings tourings” Monk says.

Much like the co-operative spirit of craft breweries this beer trail is being developed by one tourism organization and benefiting another.

“You have to go at it from the perspective of the traveller” she says and the traveller doesn’t see tourism regions.

Coneybeare has a degree in chemistry. She explains IBU numbers which dictate the bitterness of the drink and how the more sugar present in the beer the higher the alcohol content.

Since Yours Outdoors owner and tour guide Barrie Martin is driving the shuttle everyone can enjoy the samples as Coneybeare pours them. There’s the carrot beer Peter’s Habit which involves some 200 pounds of the juiced vegetables. They made a pumpkin beer last fall she tells the group with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon.

The brewery is able to tinker with their recipes trying small batches involving all kinds of ingredients to see what comes out.

Coneybeare takes the group to the basement where the beer is brewed. The setup is tight with large metal vats in close quarters. There’s a machine that fills the beer cans and a small sales area with the latest brews and merchandise including the iconic crossed paddles which have been popping up everywhere since the company was formed three years ago.

After making their purchases the happy group loads into Martin’s shuttle and is eastbound to Haliburton Highlands Brewing which has just constructed a new brewery on the Abbey Gardens property near West Guilford. Their lobby already has a group mingling around tasting samples of the beer which owner Jewelle Schiedel-Webb pours from taps built right into the wall. A screen above the bar displays what’s available that day: Midtbuster Blue Line blonde honey brown American pale ale India pale ale and dry Irish stout.

Jewelle gives advice to the group on what they might like to sample as they wait for her husband Michael to finish brewing in the other room. The honey brown includes honey from Lindsay Ont. and Ontario oats she says. The American pale ale is more bitter and stronger than the Indian one. The Irish stout tastes a bit like Guinness.

The group takes their samples and mills around the space which still smells like new lumber. Like Boshkung HHB has well designed merchandise for sale and Martin produces a small beer glass for each tour participant with Haliburton Highlands Brewing logos on the side. Local art depicting rivers and forests is for sale along the walls.

When Michael is ready the group moves into the brewery which includes tall metallic vats and the smell of grain.

He explains he’s been making a test batch of farmhouse ale that day. Beer made in Haliburton can’t be entirely local he says as hops and grain need to imported.

“That’s why you won’t see craft beer at farmers’ markets” he says.

When Haliburton Highlands Brewing started three years ago the couple was working out of a 900-square-foot space. In October of 2016 they moved to their vastly upgraded space. Their honey brown is now sold at the LCBO in antique style bottles.

A member of the tour says he’s familiar with the Highlands and has driven by many times without knowing the brewery was here. Dave Mike and Ian are lifelong friends and each has a connection to the area. Two cottage in the Highlands and the other lives in Dwight. They’re well versed in Haliburton landmarks but the tour has exposed them to much more.

Barrie Martin says having the breweries has allowed him to expand his tour offerings and has inspired him to create different attractions for his customers. Having the Cottage Country Beer Trail also allows Martin to think about broadening his tour which is currently a half day to a full-day tour including some Muskoka breweries on the trail.

“There are all kinds of possibilities” Martin says.