Saturday, June 9, 2007
Les Brasseurs de la Quebec
My ancestors on my dad's side of the family are from Quebec, so for a long time I've wanted to visit the Canadian province. My interest in French Canada goes back to when I was in high school, where I studied the French language for two years. Last month, I dusted off my French books and headed to Quebec City, where I spent roughly five days exploring the narrow, hilly streets of the nearly 400-year-old city with my wife Carol.
Quebec is a very old city by North American standards; the oldest part of town, the walled city (the last remaining in North America) was where we explored the most, walking the sometimes cobblestone streets for hours until our calves hurt. Our starting point each morning on these walks was our hotel, the wonderful Hotel des Coutellier. One of the reasons I picked this hotel was because it was connected to Moss, a Belgian Bistro that prides itself in serving mussels 14 ways. The hotel was very comfortable (it helped that breakfast was waiting for us in a picnic basket outside our door each morning) and Moss did indeed have some tasty mussels.
We only had dinner once at Moss, as it was a little pricey. (Our bill was about $70, but included some really fabulous Belgian chocolate desserts and a couple drinks.) I had mussels with butter and basil, steamed with Stella Artois lager. This price of the dish included the beer; served in its own glass. I didn't realize at first that each of the 14 different mussels dishes at Môss included a beer pairing. Some of the mussels came with a Duvel, others with a Leffe, etc. What a fantastic concept, I thought. The mussels were served as they would be in Belgium in there own pot with some frites (fries). Carol had the French version of pepper steak and that was rather good, too.
I would've had more than one beer at Moss, but I had already quaffed a couple pints at the Thomas Dunn Pub across the Gare de Palais train and bus station. This pub, with a large sidewalk café out front, seemed to specialize in Canadian beers and English beers on tap along with a rather large bottle selection. My first pint was a St. Ambroise Cream Ale. This was a very tasty Imperial-sized pint, with a dense creamy nitrogen enhanced head. For a cream ale, the St. Ambroise had a nice bitter hop accent. As tasty as this pint was, I wasn't satisfied and I had another stronger pint sort of by accident. All the pours at the Thomas Dunn come in small, medium or large (written in French in the menu). I ordered a medium of a Belgian beer called Lucifer, not knowing it would be a rather large serving for such as strong beer. The medium ended up being an Imperial pint and the 9.5 percent alcohol content by volume went to my head. Oh, well...at least I wasn't driving. In fact, that was one of the best things about visiting Québec -- not driving, but walking everywhere.
Another pub that I found that was highly recommended to visit was the Pub St-Alexandre. This pub was found along a rather trendy strip of Rue St. Jean (still in the old city). The beer selection at this pub was quite good and great care was taken with the serving of the beer. We just had one rather expensive round at the pub, a Leffe Brune and a McAuslan Stout. I had the stout and it was probably one of the best pints of stout I've ever had, worth the $7. Carol's Leffe Brune was quite good, too. It was served at the right temperature, in the right glass, and even with a little Leffe doily around the stem. Lovely. Unfortunately, the pub was a little too American in terms of the crowd and the music (yes, I know I'm from the U.S.) and we wanted more of a local feel. The place made us feel like we were hanging out in Lincoln Park. That said, the Pub St-Alexandre is a cool pub with lots of breweriana and old bottles of beer to look at behind the bar. The coolest piece of breweriana I spotted was an emptly three-liter bottle of La Fin du Monde. Coincidentally, La Fin du Monde, one of the excellent beers from Quebec brewer Unibroue, was available at the Depanneur (convenience store) across the street from our hotel. The Unibroue beers are certainly the best Quebecois beers that I came across, which makes me happy, because they're pretty ubiquitous around the Chicago area, where I live.
Before the trip I identified two brewpubs in Quebec City that I wanted to visit (the only two brewpubs, actually). The first one I visited was L'Inox. This brewpub had a good selection of beers ranging from blonde ales, to reds, to wheats. The best beer in the sampler that we tried was a bitter. It was worthy of a full pint. In the early evening on a weekday, L'Inox was fairly quiet. There was interesting art on the walls and the place seemed cozy enough. Nobody was using the pool tables in the adjacent room, the music was turned down, but the chilled vibe fit us just fine. I've heard that L'Inox can get quite busy and pretty noisy later at night and on weekend.
Part of our last evening in Quebec included a stop at La Barberie. I guess we saved the best for last. I really enjoyed this little place. A bit difficult to find in the Saint-Roche District, the brewers (or shall I say brasseurs) at La Barberie are indeed artisans making some interesting fruit and spice beers among others. All of the beers in our eight beer carousel sampler had a consistent house character, a sort of mineral component, almost akin to terroir in wine. Both the beers at La Barberie and L'Inox struck a balance between the malt and hops that presented the malt first and hops later in the finish or in the middle -- except for maybe for the American pale ale at La Barberie. We sat at the end of the bar here opposite the handcarved Viking-inspired wooden tap handles on the wall, with what handmade earthenware pitchers hanging from the ceiling -- very Brueghel if ask me. Somehow, the environment at La Barberie spawned more interesting conversation. I liked both places -- L'Inox and La Barberie -- but I saw more of myself and my kind of brewer at La Barberie. The only drawback at La Barberie is that there is no food, except for some gumball machines that dispense nuts (we also found these machines at L'Inox; must be a cultural thing).
As far as Quebec craft breweries go, Unibroue at McAuslan are the leaders. Many of the sidewalk cafés sported Unibroue patio umbrellas; it seemed like the most favored brand of beer for the bistros. I did run across a red ale I hadn't heard of from Les Brasseurs des Nord called Boreale Rousse (think Bass Ale) at a small diner in the antiques district not far from our hotel. The cozy, bordering on cramped, Buffet de L'Antiquaire offered excellent Québecois comfort food. Our meals there included such regional favorites as Poutine; a combination of fries, white cheddar cheese curds and gravy. The food here was pretty cheap and not to be missed. The place is popluar though, so be prepared to wait.
One final note and a rather curious aspect of Canadian beer culture. It seemed the use of the term IPA is used by some brewers as some type of marketing term and not a reflection of the style of beer. I picked up a couple of beers at the local Depanneur that were labeled IPA, but utterly lacked any hop character or complexity. They tasted more like rather bland lagers with just the tiniest hint of complexity. The Alexander Keith's IPA from Halifax was a prime example; a decent enough light ale I suppose, but no hop real hop bitterness or flavor -- the ingredient isn't even mentioned on the label -- I guess that was an early warning sign!
One very last thing: it may seem obvious, but if you travel to Quebec, be prepared to speak and read some French. It will make your trip much easier and you will gain more respect from the locals. English is spoken, but it is the second the language and all street signs, restaurant menus, etc., are en Francais.
A snappy pint of bitter at L'Inox with complimentary chips or a tasty European hot dog stuffed in a baguette if the chips don't do it for you.
37 Quai St. Andre
Vieux-Port de Quebec, Quebec, Canada
phone: (418) 692-2877
A visit to La Barberie, a co-op brewery and home of unique artisanal ales.
310 Rue St. Roch
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
The Pub St-Alexandre and well cared for drafts served in the appropriate glassware.
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
A visit to Thomas Dunn Pub and tasty pints of St. Ambroise.
369 Rue Saint-Paul
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
phone: (418) 692-4636
Dinner at Moss (adjacent to the Hotel des Coutellier) and mussels 14 ways.
255, Rue Saint-Paul
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada