Ales brewed with beets. Saisons that taste like apricots. Black IPA aged in casks. Last night in Montréal, the annual three-day L'Hivernale des Brasseurs (Winter Warmer Montreal) beer fête began got into swing inside the Thèâter Plaza, part of the Montreal et Lumiere arts and culinary festival that continues through this weekend. I drove up last night to check it out, stumbling into a room of three bars (on two levels) exuberantly poured beguiling, unusual beers from the province and beyond, some of which hardly ever see the public eye.
For a $95 ticket, participants were given a tiny, tulip-shaped glass and invited to drink all they wanted, as well as nosh on circling plates of ribs, gougeres and pastries topped with pea-shoot puree. Though the glasses were small, it didn't keep bartenders from filling them to the brim and toasting along with you. It was like a garden of paradise for the serious beer lover, which in this case seemed to be primarily (and usually bearded) men.
The event — organized by Montréal's Broue Pub Brouhaha — invited "lovers of strong beers," but mostly, I found the beers less muscular and more mellow than the American ales I'm used to — more redolent of herbs, fruit and spices, with their hops elegantly blended. For instance, a Dulcis Succubus 'Saison Sauvage' from the Québec microbrewery Le Trou du Diable: the blue light of the room made it hard to tell the exact color of any beer, but this one seemed to linger between honey and straw. The flavors bounced between cream and apricots and hops and lemon and herbs — all fruit and zing and layers of sour and sweet flavors. It was heavenly.
So, too, was the 'Temperance' from Microbrasserie Le Naufrageur, a microbrewery in Carleton-su-mer, Québec. When I asked where this brewery was, the barmaid drew a crude map on my pad that makes the province look like an amoeba and the brewery, a pimple on its northern edge. Still, I got the idea — they brewed afar. The beer had whiffs and notes of cardamom, vanilla and other spices, and was like drinking dessert, though not as intense. I think it might've been brewed for Christmas, but my French skills are so shaky (and the ambient noise was so loud) that I'm not quite sure.
The ruby tinge and fruity aromas of another ale I tried lent a clue to its origins: L'Entrave, from Brasseurs Illimités, is an imperial ale brewed with beets that are left to freeze and sweeten. It was spicy, rich and mouth-filling.
It went on. Ice ciders, ice Scotch ales, black IPAs, a porter aged in bourbon barrels. Beers of 9, 10, 11 percent strength. Beers too strong to drink before a long drive home, but seductive nonetheless.
The event runs until 1 a.m. and tickets are still available for tonight, though the snow might be a deterrent to the not-fully-committed. But some of the same brews will be represented at Mondial de la Bîere this June in Montréal. Just have a hotel room lined up first.