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Call it a microbrew revolution: Quebec is now home to more than 400 artisanal beers from dozens of small breweries and brew pubs, making it one of the great beer capitals


It's a great time to be a beer drinker in Quebec.


The province boasts about 70 microbreweries, from Mont Laurier to Montreal to les Îles de la Madeleine and Sherbrooke. Many are brew pubs whose small-batch beer is available only on the spot. Others are small brewers who make their own deliveries to a few local dépanneurs.


Others, like Montreal's McAuslan, Unibroue and Au Dieu du Ciel, started small and have grown so wildly popular they can now be found across North America.


Together, they are brewing what beer aficionados say is some of the most interesting and original beer in North America. And their reputation as creative and exciting brewmasters of more than 400 different stouts, lagers and India pale ales, porter, smoked beer, barley wine, ice beer and black beer is spreading. Every month, at least one or two new artisanal beers come to market.


"Unhampered by historic beer-making traditions the way they are in Belgium, Germany and England, Quebec's brewers have let themselves be free, inventive and creative," said Philippe Wouter, editor of Bières et plaisirs, a quarterly Quebec magazine devoted to beer, in a recent interview.


"Quebec has become one of the most interesting places anywhere for beer drinkers."


Dieu du Ciel brew pub, on Laurier Ave. near St. Laurent Blvd., is a noisy, happening place, whether it's 3 in the afternoon on Sunday, 2 a.m. on Saturday or just after 6 on Tuesday evening. The place is packed with young Mile End hipsters who sit around drinking artisanal ales brewed right there in gleaming copper tanks. The beers have zany names, like Première Communion (First Communion), Revenante (Ghost) and Péché Mortel (Mortal Sin). Some of the ingredients are wacky, too, There's a Scottish ale with coffee, a pink-coloured wheat beer with hibiscus blossoms and beer with fennel and nutmeg.


Jean-François Gravel is co-owner and founder of Au Dieu du Ciel, which began as a brew pub in 1998 but then acquired another license permitting it to brew and bottle beers for general distribution at its brewery in St. Jérôme.


His beers have won dozens of awards and are now available across Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan.


But Gravel says he never wants his beer to lose its "freestyle" character.


"Our newest customers, people in their 20s, were raised on interesting beer, beer with flavour. They are always waiting for something new," he said. " So we keep experimenting, pushing the envelope with wild yeast and bacteria, fruits, and spices and herbs. If it's no good, you scrap it and move on. "


Peter McAuslan, whose brewery on St. Ambroise St. was founded in 1988, making it one of the first microbreweries in Quebec, says the last two decades have seen nothing short of a beer revolution in Quebec, with dozens of small microbreweries with their limited volumes and distinctive fuller flavours joining the fray, taking on the giants who ruled the market for so long


Across North America, overall beer sales have been flat for a number of years. Canadian sales grew only 0.5 per cent between 2002 and 2007, according to the Brewers' Association of Canada, to reach $14 billion a years.


At the same time, imported beer sales jumped more than 10 per cent, and craft beer sales are up by more than 15 per cent. The big two, Molson and Labatt, still control 95 per cent of the Canadian market, but microbreweries are mushrooming, from 4.5 per cent of the market currently to a projected 12 per cent within the next decade.


Some of the larger craft-beer makers, like McAuslan, technically are too big to be considered a microbrewery, which in Quebec is defined as a producer of less than 15,000 hectolitres a year, or about 200,000 cases of 24.


"Shortly after the Second World War, beer became common-denominator kind of stuff. There was the standard ale, like Molson Ex or the standard lager, like Labatt Blue. That was about it. Beer was made safe and uniform," McAuslan said


By the '80s, though, Quebecers, along with other North American beer drinkers, had begun trying imported beers. And a brand new generation of brewers, many of whom had been messing around making their own beer in the basement, were ready to enter the market.


McAuslan says the first craft brewers, like his own brewery, and Le Cheval Blanc, which in 1986 opened the first licensed brew pub in Montreal at its tavern on Ontario St. E., catered to the evolving Quebec taste for flavourful, fruity, aromatic beers. Beers with personality.


"Quebecers want their beer to cover a whole gamut of flavours," he said.


With beer, as with food, Quebecers are looking to buy local, and that has been a boon to the microbrewers.


At Au Coin Duluth, a Plateau Mont Royal dépanneur that has made a name for itself as a beer mecca, the shift in Quebecers' beer-drinking habits is plain. All Yan Cloutier's father ever carried at the family grocery store at the corner of Duluth and Berri Sts. was Molson, O'Keefe and Labatt.


But a year ago the Cloutier family renovated the dépanneur and dove into artisanal beers. Now "industrial" beers are consigned to two sections in their refrigerated shelves, while artisanal Quebec beers, more than 300 of them, have taken over 10 sections.


"We get beer diehards from as far away as Toronto and Connecticut who come looking for the latest, rarest Quebec brews and ordinary beer drinkers from the neighbourhood," Cloutier said.


And that, he says, is a testament to Quebec's growing international reputation for its artisanal beer.


He's not alone to say so.


"Ask anybody about the dozen or so greatest beer cultures in the world and there's a good chance that most people will list Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland and the United States," enthused Horst Dornbusch in his online dispatch for Beer Advocate, the online beer magazine.


But in terms of both quality and variety, Dornbusch said, Quebec has managed to surpass such American craft brew luminaries as Washington state, Oregon, Maine and New York.


"There is a new beer power on the rise," he wrote.


(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette. Article by SUSAN SEMENAK)

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