It’s Friday afternoon. I’m a travel-loving food and drink enthusiast (or stalker) and I’m in Montreal – a city famed for both these aspects of its culture – for a ‘long’, but surely too short weekend of leisure. As in all good stories, I’ve skipped the tedium of airport arrival and AirBnB check-in) infuriatingly delaying the real “beginning” of the trip. Finally, like a dog forced to remain on the leash until the park gates, I’m free to run riot across a new city. As a smug “not part of the mainstream” type, I’m at the furthest point possible from the downtown chain bars and backwards-hatted, bearded white dudes in basketball jerseys (I myself forwards capped, forever baby-faced & surreptitiously checking playoff scores on my phone). Need a coffee and something to line my stomach in preparation for the beery road ahead, I grab a delicious Italian style Americano at the bustling, decades tested Café Olimpico in Mile End - a trendy neighbourhood a-tip the sprawling Plateau that I’ll eventually make my way to - then choose St Viateur bagel over Fairmount in a decision purely based on proximity, but that I’ll retrospectively rationalise as quality driven in the pointless war for bagel loyalty. Multigrain, light cream cheese; a ‘healthy’ choice which, in my mind, counterbalances the forthcoming tsunami of artisan beer that shall follow it down my thirsty throat. Deliciously fresh, I inhale it, powerwalking to the true start-point of my crawl, Vices & Versa.
Espoused by many as the best beer bar in the city, it’s only logical I start here, when I’m so flush with optimism that pretty much any brew would give me the “it’s everything I hoped for” validation that washes over me with my first sip, swirl, swallow and sigh. From a marvellous list displayed only on the many chalkboards, I choose ‘No Tahoma Farmhouse Pale Ale’ from Brasserie Dunham, powerful in farmyard funk and floral aromatics, but light & dry enough on the palate for the perfect starter. The sun is surprisingly strong on the leafy terrace to the bar’s rear, and I’m thankful for the beer’s tart, lemon flesh edge. I know that each bar I’ll visit is worth more than an evening’s stay, but my mission is one of variety, sacrificing the luxury of lingering for a sense of having somewhat ‘completed’ Montreal by Sunday evening. That said, with 40 beers on draft, I grab a 5oz galopin to chug – Le Castor’s iconic Yakima IPA – a flash of caramelised orange swiftly banished by the kind of aggressively crisp finish I took for granted before the wave of juicy, milkshakey NEIPAs that robbed us of the concept of balance.
Onwards then, to Brasserie Harricana which immediately throws a spanner in the works of my pacey pilgrimage. Gleaming copper, expansively lit by floor to ceiling windows, I pull up a stool (as I’m flying solo) at the long marble bar where a suave, white shirted bartender with a romantically French name and a twirly moustache that I initially hate, hands me a draught list and a food menu so inviting that I’m trapped by the promise of a top notch beer-paired dinner of my own design, and this warm-smiling, devilishly bright-eyed wallet assassin (though he does later reward my spending with a couple of freebies). A fresh, piquant steak tartare twinned with a spicy Szechuan RyePA at 5% starts me off blindingly, and if I had any self-restraint would have sufficed. However, a giant, silky-steak cheeseburger oozing with grease (let’s call it stomach lining) topped with bacon, rich, dusky mushrooms and glossy beer gravy follow the sophisticated starter. What better to go with, than one of my favourite styles, a Maya Porter! Roast coffee and dry, savoury meatiness to pair with my grill-marked umami patty, with a credibly prickly chilli heat and bitterness to re-enliven my palate. Mouth still somewhat coated though by the heaviness of the dish, I opt for the #Nebb.Yolo aged in Californian red wine barrels, armed with both the tannin and acidity to see off the tail of the beef. Bottomless pit as I am, I’m playing a dangerous game here, and can’t afford to wallow in post-meal stupor, so I’m back on my feet and out the door.
The sun just having dipped below the horizon, it’s welcomely bracing in the spring evening shadow, and I gather myself with a quick blast of The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” and cut probably a less purposeful stride than I imagine to Isle de Garde a few minutes North-East. I need to re-start back at the bottom of the flavour intensity ladder or I’ll soon be lost in the inky world of imperial stouts, a stumbling fool unable to recall a single drop. This is the key to a good crawl; get outside, have a word with yourself and go back to something sessionable to arrest momentum. The dunkelweiss brewed in house does the trick on this occasion, crusty brown bread in liquid form. Two novelties impress me as I contentedly study the chic, spacious taproom. Firstly, the fanciest of dispense systems on the tap wall, allowing them to simultaneously serve beers at different temperatures, Bravo! and secondly “a round of beers for the chefs” actually printed on the menu. I could lie here and claim I rewarded this brazen bid, but I’ve just blown a day’s hospitality wage in 90 minutes at Harricana, and don’t plan to be washing dishes myself to cover my tab.
I’ll skip the stroll this time (aside from the unremarkable nature of my journey to Rosemont, I need to save my synonyms for ‘walk’ if I’m to avoid repetition or thesaurus vomiting). Brewpub Brouhaha comes well recommended, and as it immediately gives off more of a dive-bar sensibility than the well-dressed previous two venues, I relax opposite a pixie-ish, semi-shaven punk type girl behind the bar, at whose Quebec accent and depth of beer knowledge I marvel in equal measure. I grab a glass of Saison Voatsiperifery (which I obviously order by pointing rather than pronouncing. I’m charitably offered a bite of the ‘must-try’ Poutiflette; poutine with onions, lardons & fromage Pied-de-vent, by the pixie’s conversation partner at the bar, and still more generously a glass of her 10th birthday edition Sergeant Ripin Farmhouse Ale, aged in Chardonnay barrels. Damn, don’t these French-Canadians know their way around a wine barrel! This generosity of spirit is something I encounter again and again, arguably outweighing the beer itself in my reasons to revisit, hence my so regularly providing bartender character profile.
Offering my clumsily effusive thanks, I make a move to MaBrasserie, a cavernous, modern co-op taproom under the umbrella of which fall most of the breweries I visit today, and where I step back into IPAs with the Tribal, American interpretation of the style, bursting with leafy freshness. I try to show off a bit as I work my way through their Pimentiere home-made beer hot sauces on crispbread (yes I’m still eating) as I become ever more eager to show all these great, knowledgeable people that I’m one of them. My synopsis of Bohemian vs German pilsners is almost certainly unwelcome, but since it’s delivered in my second tongue gives me the confidence necessary to continue jumping into conversation with the locals. It’s evident that most will experience this bar as a group, as MaBrasserie hosts excellent beer tours, with knowledgeable guides making their well-trodden script and accompanying banter sound always as fresh as their maiden delivery. A giant, multipurpose space, I can’t picture a time of day I wouldn’t drink here, but unlike the almost universal 3am finish in the city, this lot knock it on the head two hours earlier, so I’m pointed towards Verre Bouteille to the East, which satisfies the yearning for ‘more’ that habitually plagues me this far into an evening. I push my way through a rideaux-culous entry curtain (my first legitimate French pun) into a jam-packed with all sorts, borderline-deafening live music tavern with a smaller but no less diligently chosen beer list. I people watch, lament that I never had the patience to learn the guitar (something that only ever matters to me when I’m drunk, watching the hero of the hour strum away in the spotlight) and sip my final glass of the night, of which I won’t pretend to remember in much detail. A Labatt 50 at half the price would have done fine. A long, moonlit walk home through the beautiful Parc Lafontaine and down the quintessentially outdoor-staired rows of cosy duplexes gives me time to reflect on a first foray of near perfection, which would take some beating on day two. “I want everyone to experience that exact thing” I affirm to myself, and so I put it to paper, not just for others to read but to attempt in tribute to the first of many a night out in Montréal.