Chasing the Beer Scene in Stratford, Ontario

Ontario Street is the main drag of downtown Stratford, with everything from bars and cafes to chocolatiers and kilt shops // Photo by B. Alcer

Ontario Street is the main drag of downtown Stratford, with everything from bars and cafes to chocolatiers and kilt shops // Photo by B. Alcer

Minneapolis–St. Paul has been ranked as “the best” on several national lists. It’s not surprising. We have abundant green space, a sophisticated bike lane and trail system, world-class theaters, and a wide variety of boutiques, high-end restaurants and, of course, breweries.

Now, imagine all that the Twin Cities have to offer and squish it down from a metro of 1 million people to a town of 30,000. That’s Stratford, Ontario.

Per capita, Stratford has everything a savvy traveler appreciates, on a scale that can be fully experienced and appreciated over a long weekend getaway. Home to North America’s largest Shakespeare festival, Stratford is also gaining popularity as a provincial mecca for slow-food locavores and craft beer aficionados. With the American dollar strong again over its Canadian cousin, there’s never been a better time to taste what this little hamlet on the Ontario prairie has to offer.

The Festival Theater is the crown jewel of the Stratford Festival, featuring a traditional three-quarter thrust stage, perfect for Shakespearean productions // Photo by D. Hodges

The Festival Theater is the crown jewel of the Stratford Festival, featuring a traditional three-quarter thrust stage, perfect for Shakespearean productions // Photo by D. Hodges

The Stratford Festival, which runs from May to October, has been attracting theater patrons to Ontario from around the world for the last 63 years. Minnesota has had ties with the festival since it began in the early 1950s; Tyrone Guthrie, longtime artistic director and founder of the Guthrie Theater, was the Stratford Festival’s first artistic director.

Stratford has four theaters scattered across the city: the Festival (the largest, pictured above and featuring a thrust stage), the Avon (a traditional proscenium), the Tom Patterson (smaller thrust stage), and the Studio (a blackbox). In a given season, the festival will feature a dozen plays from traditional Shakespeare to Chekov to Rodgers and Hammerstein, with a company of resident actors each playing multiple parts.

Keep an eye out as you browse the Saturday farmers’ market or grab butter tarts for brunch at the kitschy Madelyn’s Diner: it’s not uncommon to glimpse last night’s Hamlet jogging around Lake Victoria, or to be seated next to Maria von Trapp’s table.

While patrons flock to Stratford to see the likes of Christopher Plummer, Maggie Smith, and Dana Carvey take the stage, a slew of businesses have grown to cater to the droves of tourists. Restaurants often have pre-show specials, with quick service to get you to your seat on time. Before seeing the farcical “She Stoops to Conquer” this year at the Avon Theater, I grabbed a refreshing lunch of mushroom and chevre quiche, chickpea salad, and a glass of lemony VQA Trius Sauvignon Blanc for only $13 CAD at Canadian Grub To Go, where every ingredient is locally sourced.

Madelyn’s Diner is one of the many pit stops on the Bacon and Ale Trail. Dig in to the honey-garlic sausage and egg for breakfast, and take a bacon or pecan butter tart to go for dessert. // Photo by Cristeta Boarini

Madelyn’s Diner is one of the many pit stops on the Bacon and Ale Trail. Dig in to the honey-garlic sausage and egg for breakfast, and take a bacon or pecan butter tart to go for dessert. // Photo by Cristeta Boarini

One way to get a taste of many shops and restaurants all in one go is by touring the Bacon and Ale Trail. The self-guided tour costs $25 CAD (tickets can be picked up at either of Stratford’s tourism offices) and includes five bacon- and/or ale-inspired dishes chosen from 10 different establishments located in Stratford and its neighboring towns of St. Mary’s and Shakespeare. Be sure to call ahead to the five Bacon and Ale Trail establishments you want to try, as some of them only offer their goodies on certain days or need some time to prepare. Pick your establishments wisely, because a half pint of Ontario-made Creemore lager and jalapeno poppers with maple bacon sauce at the Boar’s Head Pub is much more practical for a traveler than, say, a four-pack of frozen bacon burgers from the Best Little Pork Shoppe.

After you’ve whet your appetite, rent a bike from Stratford’s local bike shop, Totally Spoke’d, to tool around the quaint downtown, ride along the Avon River to feed the city’s resident swans, or explore the winding trails of the Ontario countryside. Totally Spoke’d offers tandem cycles, too, which is a great option when traveling with that special someone.

Black Swan features four beers in regular rotation. Pictured from L to R: the sour Berliner weisse, “Wild Child;” the porter; and the English Pale Ale. // Photo by Cristeta Boarini

Black Swan features four beers in regular rotation. Pictured from L to R: the sour Berliner weisse, “Wild Child;” the porter; and the English Pale Ale. // Photo by Cristeta Boarini

Black Swan Brewery is one of the newest feathers in Stratford’s culinary cap. Founded in 2014 mere blocks from two of the festival’s four theaters, Black Swan’s 1,000-liter (or approximately 8.5 barrel) system churns out high-quality ales that have enthralled tourists as well as townies.

The brewery boasts four beers that run the gamut of flavor: an English pale ale, an IPA, a porter, and a sour Berliner weisse. While the pale ale and IPA are both fairly traditional with a good balance of floral and pine hops and lots of caramel malt, the porter offers an extreme contrast with a more chocolate-rich version than most porters on the market. But of all four, the true revelation is the Berliner weisse. Dubbed Wild Child, this wheat beer is brewed off a sour mash and has zero IBU. Notes of green apple and white wine benefit from the silky wheat mouthfeel and make Wild Child the perfect beer to sip on a hot summer day.

Stratford Brewing Company is much different from its younger counterpart. Having opened in 2004, the brewery doesn’t have a taproom, although the flagship lager can be found at most of the restaurants in town—including Bentley’s, a popular pub and inn. Clean and crisp, Stratford Brewing’s lager is the precisely the kind of beer that can convert a Labatt drinker into a craft beer fan.

Barely the size of Winona, Minnesota, Stratford may not be on everyone’s radar, but when you can eat, drink, bike, and experience fine entertainment all in one small town, it’s certainly worth the trip.

 
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