Jim Byers explores London and St. Thomas

Three very different settings. Three great places to enjoy the bounty of Southwest Ontario. I recently spent a day in the London-St. Thomas area, checking out two fabulous craft brewing spots and a quiet, lovely winery I hadn’t heard about before.

Ontario has fully embraced the craft beer scene, and Southwest Ontario has some of the best in the province. One of the newest guys on the block is a sleek, attractive and already wildly popular spot on Richmond St. in London called Toboggan Brewing Co. Locals Ricky Doyle, who owns a wine agency, and Mike Smith, who owns several downtown London restaurants and bars, have teamed together to open a bright, brash and attractive restaurant and bar/brewpub. You’ll find a giant, curved wood fixture in the shape of a toboggan hanging over the main floor interior space and curving down towards the open kitchen, as well as a wall covered entirely in brightly coloured, aluminum beer cans; a great Instagram spot. The upstairs patio is standing room only on a summer’s night. 

We dined on great tacos made with beef brisket and a nice Italian sausage pizza made in their wood-burning oven as we chatted about the beer business and London and tasted eight or nine (hiccup) of their beers. I was struck by how flavourful they make their beers, including those with fairly low alcohol. They do a Belgian style beer with just 4.5 per cent alcohol; much less than most behemoths I’ve tried. But it’s wonderfully tasty. I also try a blueberry wheat beer, a medium-body amber beer, a nice stout (and I don’t usually like stout) and a terrific American Pale Ale, which strikes me as a more flavourful Creemore Springs product.

Smith tells me it’s a balancing act.

“The masses say they like craft beer but many folks usually order something like Mill St. Organic,” he says with a laugh. “The beer geeks can’t get a hoppy enough IPA.”

Smith says they buy as much local product as they can.

“The bananas and oranges, not so much.”

Smith said the name Toboggan came from his aunt, a librarian who was doing some research about how London was at one time a huge centre for tobogganing.

“She told me Mark Twain had even come up here, and that two of the toboggan centres were across from the Carling and Labatt Breweries. So it seemed like a natural name.”

Toboggan is located in the space formerly occupied by Jim Bob Ray’s, directly across from Victoria Park and walking distance (thankfully) to my suite at the spacious and chic Station Park Hotel. They’re all suites, actually, which is great for business people who like to spread out or for families looking for a bit more elbow room.

Just down the road a ways is the rapidly expanding Railway City Brewing Co., one of southern Ontario’s most established craft or boutique outfits. They were busy in the back shop so I had to settle for a quick tour from one of their summer students, Corissa. She explained the beer-making process to me and pointed out where they added dry ingredients such as hops or wet ingredients such as honey for speciality beers. 

“When we’re finished making the beer we give the leftover grain to local farmers,” she explains.

She also tells me they make mostly ale, not lager, owing to the fact that lagers take three weeks and ales only two. She gives me a Canada Southern Draft beer to try as an entry level brew, explaining that it’s “ideal for folks who aren’t sure about craft beer.”

I enjoy their Witty Traveler, an award-winning Belgian style beer with strong hints of orange peel and citrusy hops. It’s a great name for a travel writer, but in all honesty I prefer the Iron Spike copper and amber beers and the Dead Elephant IPA. They also make a Double Dead Elephant IPA with 7.5 per cent alcohol.

One small bit that’s fun is that you can sniff the hops from a small jar near the tasting bar and then sip the beer they’re made with for comparison purposes. Very cool.

I take only a few sips at Railway City as I have a long day ahead of me. I stop for a great burger special ($5.99, including fries) at Legends Tavern in downtown St. Thomas and then stop to pay my respects to the Jumbo the elephant statue west of downtown. Jumbo, for those unaware of the story, was the world’s most famous elephant, a giant who was touring with the Barnum and Bailey circus when he was killed by a freight train as he stood on the tracks in St. Thomas in September, 1885. 

I take a few photos as a man sits on his porch at a home across from the statue, no doubt bemused by the hundreds of folks who make the pilgrimage every day. I don’t have time to linger as I have a mid-afternoon visit scheduled for Quai Du Vin, a lovely winery south of St. Thomas and a few km’s north of Lake Erie.

Jamie Quai gives me a short tour of the vineyards, welcoming the chance to get away from his indoor chores and out into the rows of grapes on a sunny Ontario afternoon. “It’s actually our 25th anniversary today,” he tells me. “Well, it might be tomorrow. My Mom isn’t sure. But we opened in June, 1990. My grandparents had a farm and my parents started the winery.”

It’s an area of the province with heavy clay soil, which stays colder in spring and makes the growing season a bit shorter. But the land also is on the St. Thomas or Sparta moraine (it depends on which geographic text you want to rely on) and sits up relatively high which means breezes that help keep the frost away in winter and also cuts down on bugs and disease in summer.

“I’m told my grandfather is from the same village in Italy as Don Ziraldo from Inniskillin,” Quai tells me. He explains they grow some 15 varieties of grapes on 20-21 acres of land. 

“We want to use as many types as we can to basically hedge our bets,” he says with a smile. “It’s kind of like having a bigger box of paints to choose from.”

Quai tells me they phased out insecticides a few years ago to help the environment. “We’ve noticed a lot more flowering plants growing nearby since then. And now the bugs are eating those instead of the grapes.”

Despite their distance from St. Thomas, it’s a big events spot. The views and the solitude make it an ideal spot for summer concerts, and it’s a very popular spot for weddings and high school prom events.

After the tour we taste nice Pinot Gris and Chardonnay inside the small but pretty tasting room, which has a lovely patio. The whites are snappy and flavourful and the reds reasonably full-bodied for this part of the world. The Cabernet-Merlot would be great with steak or red meats.

A couple from the big city are on a motorcycle tour of the area and have come to taste wines. They find several they like and ask Quai about the relatively low prices (many wines are less than $15).

“We’re out of the way,” he explains. “People have to burn up gas to get here. So we want to price the wine accordingly.” 

I had the chance to check out Covent Market in London one morning. It’s a tremendous market in a bright, airy building downtown that features a huge variety of fresh produce, baked goods and meats and cheeses. I found strawberry gelato with jalapeno (nice) as well as Macedonian Feta cheese, spicy sauces from Thailand and a café serving sticky toffee pudding that I stupidly failed to order; sticky toffee pudding being perhaps one of the lord’s best gifts to mankind. I also surveyed shops selling bee pollen, sassafras roots and hominy corn grits and surveyed outdoor stalls selling everything from bright red Ontario berries to locally grown Chinese spinach; a very impressive variety.

I somehow hadn’t visited Wortley Village before. But I had a great time wandering about this small corner of London, where you’ll find tall church spires rising into the southern Ontario sky and fun restaurants.

I spot kids with the parents slurping ice cream cones outside a shop called Chill, while a few feet away older folks sipped beers on the patio at an Irish pub. I stop in at the Village Harvest, which makes 32 different types of bread, including sourdough and Saskatchewan Wheat. It feels like the hub of the local community, with posters for local events and a low-key, homey feel. I tell the woman behind the counter I’d buy something but already had coffee cake from the Black Walnut down the street.

She insisted on tucking a bun into the bag from the rival shop across the street.

My kinda town. 

View more photos from this trip and other blogs from Jim Byers here.