CRAFT BEER, CLASSIC HIP HOP & A HAMILTON RENAISSANCE
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
I notice it again, as soon as we walk in the front door of Fairweather Brewing Co – located in Hamilton’s west side. The DJ Premier beat gives it away. The MC’s familiar silky-smooth voice seals the deal. Nas’ debut album – the 1994 hip hop classic, Illmatic. ‘It’s an incredible thing,’ I remark to TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis, who’s accompanied me on this journey of (craft beer) discovery in Hamilton. ‘This is the third business we’ve visited in the last two days that has been playing classic hip hop – the music we grew up with.’ I briefly mull over my own observation. ‘I think it’s a ploy,’ I remark, ‘to attract customers our age.’
Fairweather Owner and Head Brewer Ram McAllister, standing behind the polished wood bar, overhears my theory. And laughs. ‘I think there’s a simpler – and slightly less sophisticated – explanation,’ he suggests, as Cai and I take off our jackets and begin to make ourselves comfortable. ‘I’ve got Nas playing because it’s the music that I grew up with, too.’ And that’s when it dawns on me. An epiphany. ‘So that means,’ I exclaim, ‘we’ve arrived.’ I expand on the point as Ram and Cai nod in agreement. ‘Our generation is finally running the show – business owners who can play whatever music we like. And make whatever we want. And define what’s cool.’
As if on cue, the next Illmatic track drops: ‘The World is Yours.’ Located in an industrial section of Hamilton’s Ainslie Wood neighbourhood, Fairweather – and not far down the road, Grain & Grit Beer Co – are building upon an emergent Hamilton craft beer industry that’s got so much going for it.
As Ram notes: ‘The beer scene around here is nothing short of an explosion – and the local breweries are punching up in a big way. Honestly, I can’t think of a more exciting city to be in right now.’ Neither can Cai and I, actually, whose plans for TOQUE have always included sideways glances into Hamilton – or #HamOnt, as it’s come to be known by folks much younger (and hipper) than us. Which is why we’re here. On this roadtrip. Into this industrial neighbourhood of a city in which creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship seem to intersect in a uniquely energetic way.
‘It’s the reason we set up shop here’, says Ram. ‘Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city so clearly in the early stages of a renaissance.’ He goes on: ‘I genuinely believe that the potential of any business is largely defined by the community it calls home. And Hamilton right now is the perfect place to call home – particularly for small breweries.’
Which might explain why small breweries have been popping up in so many places in Hamilton. Fairweather. Grain & Grit. Merit. Collective Arts. And more. Each with its own vibe, and personality, and flavour(s) too. As Ram, who sharpened his brewing teeth with legendary Victoria BC brewer Sean Hoyne, notes of his own (ever-evolving) brewing process: ‘We’ve never attempted to recreate past beers verbatim at Fairweather; instead, it’s all about constant improvement. What we want to brew today may not be what we feel like offering people a year or two down the road. While our current beers are inspired by past creations, it’s my opinion that personal growth – and ever-evolving styles of beer – are what keep things interesting.’ This talk of moving forward encourages me to polish off my glass of ‘High Grade’, a luscious fruit forward American IPA. Cai does the same with her half-pint of ‘Silky’, an American oat porter with a soft chocolate mouthfeel. We thank Ram and his awesome team for the incredible hospitality and hit the road for Grain & Grit – about thirty seconds away by car (or four minutes by foot).
The brewery is gorgeous (as is the label artwork – executed by playful Guelph illustrator Gillian Wilson). A former automotive shop, the space is bathed in afternoon sunlight that streams in through the massive retractable glass garage doors. Owners Joe and Lindsey Mrav, together with head brewer Alex Sporn, greet us as soon as we enter. It’s not long before I’m headlong into an introductory flight of what Grain & Grit has to offer, including a ‘West End’ IPA, ‘Citrus’ saison, and ‘Pineapple’ rye pale ale – the beer that, along with G&G’s ‘Breakfast’ milk stout (one of Cai’s all-time faves), started it all. Joe, a former mechanical engineer, explains: ‘I really only started home brewing a couple years back, but instantly fell hard for it. It wasn’t long before I was brewing two batches a week. It was way too much for us to drink ourselves, so we’d gift much of it to a group of friends. A twelve-pack of four different beers once a month to four couples. They, in effect, became our tasting team, our sounding board.’
‘And now we’re here,’ adds Lindsey, a former graphic designer and digital strategist who brings her particular skills to the brewery for branding, interior design and marketing. ‘And loving it.’ She continues: ‘It’s especially nice to have Fairweather so close by. Not only do we rent space from them to store some of our stuff, but we’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other – and trading customers too.’ I look around and note that, sure enough, at least two groups of craft beer enthusiasts I saw at Fairweather just minutes before have arrived at Grain & Grit.
I get up from my seat at the bar and head for the brewery’s small bottle shop, where I grab a few tall cans and can’t help but add a couple of their distinctive t-shirts to my cache. I hold one up and admire its Gillian Wilson design. The idea of a Guelph artist helping build a Hamilton brewery tickles me. I think back to Ram’s observations about a Hamilton renaissance, and can’t help but think that this renaissance may actually be much more wide-ranging than we can grasp – propelled by creatives and visionaries and city builders collaborating across many communities: Hamilton. Kitchener. Guelph. Waterloo. Cambridge. Elora. From Brooklyn to Berlin.
I head back to the bar and take my seat. Cai is chatting with head brewer Alex, while Joe and Lindsey are serving a couple who’ve just walked in the door.
I find myself humming Nas’ track, ‘The World Is Yours’. And smile.