Walkerville: The Only Beer in Town

A Profile of Windsor’s Original Craft Brewery

This article was originally published in The Windsor Independent, but I am re-publishing it here in a slightly edited version as part of Boak & Bailey’s Let’s Go Long in September.

The Only Beer in Town

Most people don’t know that there’s a nice part of Windsor. It’s out of the way for anyone passing through and the opposite side of town from the university. Students studying in Windsor can ride their bikes down the riverside until the path abruptly ends – there are no signs saying “This Way: Historic Walkerville,” there is no indication that the city doesn’t just end right there. But this is just a stone’s throw away from Windsor’s best-looking neighbourhood, full of independent stores, bars and restaurants, and only a few minutes’ ride from Walkerville Brewery, producers of the only beer in town.

Windsor is comfortably tucked between Southern Ontario and Michigan, two major forces in the craft beer world. Michigan alone sports over 200 breweries, while Ontario has caught up to and surpassed the more traditionally beery provinces to the east in variety, quality and enthusiasm. Yet somehow, until last September, we had no brewery of our own, not even a specialty beer bar.

Then Walkerville opened. Not the one we thought we knew, but a totally new Walkerville Brewery in the hands of operations manager Chris Ryan and brewmaster Nick Posloski. Another brewery by the same name had a false start in 1998, declaring bankruptcy 10 years later. This is the Walkerville many of you remember. It seemed like their timing was right, getting into the craft beer scene just as it was beginning to bloom, but there was one problem with their business plan: the beer was terrible.

I headed to Walkerville to find out if the new owners had fixed that fatal problem. I parked at the corner of Brant and Devonshire, to the rear of the brewery. Walkerville is a small brewery, with a capacity of only 25 hectolitres, or about 800 kegs. Through the half-open loading dock door I could see the four huge, stainless steel fermenters. Dean, who set up my meeting with Chris Ryan, rode up on his bike just as I was walking up the ramp to the entrance. He warned me that Chris had double-booked us and we were in for a wait.

I remember the old Walkerville, housed in the same building, as a single counter with a tap, the rest of the brewhouse walled off. Chris has completely opened it up; you can see the whole facility the moment you step through the door. There are offices to the right and a fridge full of growlers to the left, with a single round reception desk straight ahead. To the left behind the reception desk is the taproom, while the remainder of the building is the brewhouse proper, only a half-wall partitioning the two. We spotted Chris up ahead, busy mingling with a tour group a dozen-or-so strong.

Indie-Pale-Ale-from-Walkerville-BreweryThe Beer

While we waited, the bartender/receptionist showed us to a seat in the taproom and poured us a taster each of their three tapped beers. The plastic cups put me off – call me an elitist, but to me beer always tastes better out of glass. We started with the Kölsch, a German-style lagered pale ale at 4.5%. It was refreshing, light and hoppy but not bitter. It could make for an excellent gateway craft beer; better and more flavourful than the standard corporate fare but not a radical departure from it either.

Following the Kölsch was the amber lager, often known simply as “Walkerville.” It’s their original beer and the only vestige remaining from the former incarnation of the brewery. The current lager is stylistically similar to how I remember it, but vastly improved in quality and drinkability, with a prominent, creamy malt character. It’s smooth, sweet and balanced – really quite excellent. When I brought home a couple growlers to share with a half dozen friends and family members, everyone agreed that Walkerville has come a long way from the swill of the previous incarnation.

The IPA, cleverly branded as “Indie Pale Ale,” is a nice counterpoint to the competitively hoppy fare available at the LCBO, with a relatively low ABV of 6.3%. It was a specific goal of the new Walkerville to produce a much more controlled, balanced beer than the super-hoppy, aggressively bitter IPAs on the shelves. A very drinkable beer and my favourite of the three.

Like in any good brewery tour (not that we took a proper tour), Dean and I were poured a complimentary beer of our choice. The tasting took all of ten minutes and we were left to wait for Chris. We chatted over our beers while tables of two flowed in and out of the taproom. We spoke briefly to Mark Boulay, another of the throng of Windsor businessmen helping to finally bring craft beer to this town. His Barrel House Draught Co. & Grill, open at 3199 Sandwich St. in the west end as of August 15th, has joined downtown’s Windsor Beer Exchange as one of the first craft beer bars in town.

I think 2013 is the year that craft beer final hits our little peninsula, partially thanks to the LCBO finally giving beer some much-deserved attention. We now have two craft beer bars, Motorburger’s line of house-brewed beers, new lakeside brewer The Lonsbery Brewing Co. in the planning, and Chris Ryan’s Walkerville, which will be remembered as the first craft brewery in Windsor.

The Craft Beer Renaissance in Ontario

While craft beer is enjoying a renaissance all over the world, the transformation in North American has been especially extreme. Prohibition wiped out variety and craftsmanship in one fell swoop. Only the largest breweries survived, and the ramifications were felt around the world.

Meanwhile, the Walkerville Brewing Company, founded in 1885 by Hiram Walker, did quite well at the time. By hopping into bed with Al Capone and his ilk, the brewery helping Detroit to earn the reputation as the wettest city in the US during the height of Prohibition.

Howeve, once Prohibition ended, the big three American brewers began a campaign of consolidation and globalization which allowed them to buy out the few small struggling breweries that were left. Walkerville was bought by Carling after the Second World War and started brewing Red Cap and Black Label. After Carling entered the UK marketplace, they shut down Walkerville in 1956. The original brewery was demolished in 1962. Carling was later bought by Coors, which in turn merged with Molson.

In the 70s the number of breweries in North America was at an all-time low. But when one of the last vestiges of Prohibition, the law against homebrewing, was repealed in 1979, things began to change. Suddenly, all the closet brewers who were privately drinking illegal, full-flavoured beers were finally able to go public and start sharing the love. Since then the number of American breweries has climbed from less than 100 to more than 2,500.

The pioneer of modern Ontario craft beer was Jim Brickman, who founded Waterloo’s Brick Brewing Company in 1984. Brick’s beers are not winning any awards, but they were the first ones to the scene and helped to inspire dozens of others to get into the business of putting flavour back into beer.

Walkerville-Brewery-1-2013Chris Ryan’s Walkerville Brewery

In Chris Ryan’s purchase of the Walkerville Brewery, he has inherited all the original recipes, but so far Nick Posloski, his brewmaster, has focused on creating original but true-to-style beers. The Kölsch and Lager are tapped year-round, while the IPA is one of many seasonals presented throughout the year. There are no plans to expand their year-round line-up, and while I’d love to taste some of the original recipes, I was very impressed by what this young brewery is pouring.

The quality is of course a testament to Posloski, but some credit has to go to Chris for having his priorities in order. When Chris made it through the throng of people vying for his attention and finally got to our table, he ordered a lager and joined us. No tour, no spiel, no direct marketing – he just spoke to us unrehearsed, face-to-face over a beer. I don’t think there’s anything else he could have done which would have shown me any better that this is a man who truly understands the craft industry. Neither geekery nor marketing was allowed to get in the way of beer’s true role in society: to ease uninflected, open conversation as equals.

Chris, a long-time restauranteur and more recently the CEO of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island, has plans for the future of the brewery, but he isn’t in a hurry. In his own words: “We’re getting the liquid right first, the rest will follow.” There is no plan to start a bottling line in the near future, so the beer is only available at the brewery and at local bars and restaurants for the time being. This fits perfectly with Chris’s idea of what a brewery should be: a part of its community. He’d rather have people walking into the brewery for a growler than developing a distribution chain.

Chris took a risk by reopening Walkerville. The 1998-2007 version of the brewery was in very recent memory – I’m only 26 and have drunk my share of that incarnation of Walkerville Lager – so Windsorites still remember that lackluster brew. But he took that risk because he knows that beer isn’t just beer, it’s also tradition, terroir, and community. By inheriting the brand, he has inherited the history. He’s willing to take the long road in changing peoples’ perceptions of the brewery. He’s willing to build brand loyalty from the ground up on a solid foundation of good beer and respect for tradition – a good man to set an example for the rest of the breweries we’ll be seeing in Windsor soon enough.

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