I cringed as she took a hard right from Notre-Dame onto the 720, curving back left and down into the tunnel, jolting me about in the passenger seat. Her driving was fast, reckless and aggressive – she was very Quebecois.
As she drove me home to the northeastern corner of the Plateau, we talked about traditional music. She, a fiddler in the Acadian style, and I, a mandolinist in the Celtic style, were coming from a rehearsal with the now-defunct Custom Outfit in St. Henri, which for all intents and purposes was the opposite corner of the city as I then knew it.
“You should really go to the session on Tuesdays at Vices et Versa,” she was saying, “I think you’d love it. A lot of Irish tunes.” I had never heard of it. It was located further north on St. Laurent than my knowledge of the city yet extended. Later, when I moved into my sixth apartment in Montreal, each one further north than the previous as I was washed out by the tide of gentrification, Vices et Versa became my local.
I couldn’t believe it took me so long to find this place. 30+ beers on tap (and the occasional cask) all of them local and for the most part among the best of the best of Quebecois beers. Knowledgeable staff. Irish music on Tuesdays and good music most other days. Good food, good terrace, good crowd. Great bar.
“London Ruby Mild,” I ordered. The name itself caught my eye. Montreal is flooded with shit red ales, and it’s hard to find a “mild” anywhere, but as a fan of good reds and English-style beers, which are generally neglected by Quebecois breweries, I decided to take a chance. The beer, from Brasseur de Montreal, which I wasn’t familiar with, was a really full-bodied sessionable red ale, with a dominant toasty character.
A few days later, I bought a bottle of it from Paradis de la Biere and took it home, putting on a record while it chilled in the fridge and then pouring it into a tasting glass. I knew something was wrong when I smelled it. It smelled like unfermented wort, and it tasted even worse.
I told this to Mike, one of the staff, the next time I saw him at Vices et Versa. “You know,” he said, “The same thing happened to me with another beer. Have you had MacTavish?” He was referring to MacTavish in Memoriam from Le Trou du Diable, a pale ale which I had recently tried and enjoyed. “We had it here and I thought it was great, so I picked up a bottle on the way home from work and it tasted like shit. I mean that literally; it actually tasted like shit.”
In my case the fault was with the shop where I bought the beer. It’s too hot in there and they carry something around 200 beers; who knows how long it had sat on the shelf? In Mike’s case, the brewery was to blame. They shipped an obviously infected beer.
But even if stuff like this wasn’t as common, you still can’t really walk into a beer store in Quebec and pick up something at random. Most of it is shit. This may come as a surprise to anybody outside of Quebec, producers of world famous beers from Dieu du Ciel, McAuslan, Unibroue, etc. These breweries, among others, can easily out-brew most of Ontario’s top contenders. So what is it that makes these two neighbouring beer cultures so different?