By Stephen Beaumont
The history of craft brewing in Canada is less a straight line than it is a series of interconnected spirals, as brewers, brewery equipment, and even brands regularly vanish from one company only to reappear weeks or months or years later at another.
Thus, it comes as less of a surprise than you might think to discover that one of Niagara’s newest (and largest) breweries, the Blackburn Brew House, has a close connection to one of the region’s oldest. Said association arrives in the form of Kevin Gray, who honed his brewing chops over 14 years at Niagara Falls Brewing, where he was involved in the making of some of the best beers in the country during the 1990s, including the fondly remembered seasonal releases, Maple Wheat and Eisbock.
Gray followed his brewing kit to Brampton after the company was bought, moved and rechristened Hop City by new owner Moosehead between 2004 and 2009. But the commute was finally starting to wear on him, according to Blackburn co-owner George Hantziagelis, and with such a veteran, proven, local talent available, the partnership was only too happy to invite him aboard.
Said partnership is comprised of Hantziagelis, Andy Burt, and Amyn Kassam, and came together when property developer Burt found himself with a piece of land in a new industrial park and a need to speedily decide what to do with it. Looking around at successful operations like Toronto’s Brunswick Bierworks and Equals Brewing in London, they saw an opportunity for a similarly styled brewery in Niagara Falls, created with a mind to brewing beers under contract for others.
Rather than be a pure-play contractor, however, as Brunswick started and Equals remains, the trio decided to combine that concept with a fully functional brewing company of their own, complete with taproom, conference facilities and ample outdoor space. In that regard, Hantziagelis says, “We were following the model of some of the big wineries in the region.”
Ground was broken in June of 2019 and the first beer was ready in May of 2020, smack dab in the heart of the pandemic. This plus the ever-changing series of restrictions, Hantziagelis says, caused the partners to have to change their business model “five or six times.” Still, they managed to open their retail store in June of 2020 and got their patio and limited occupancy taproom operational shortly thereafter, save for the foodservice portion, which was managed instead by invited food trucks.
While COVID-19 restrictions persist, Blackburn continues to sell its beer through the retail store and via home delivery, which covers most of the Niagara region and is free for orders over $60. A hastily-acquired distilling license has the company also producing hand sanitizer, although Hantziagelis is cagey when asked if spirits production is on the horizon for Blackburn.
Completing the past-to-present loop, Hantziagelis says that he and Gray have actually known each other for most of their lives, having attended the same high school, presumably long before running a brewery was a thought in either’s mind. Interconnecting spirals, indeed.
A Blackburn Six-Pack
Blackburn Screaming Tunnels Amber Lager (5%) — Bright orange-gold colour, with an aroma holding notes of caramel and biscuity malt with a hint of burnt toffee, this starts with much of the caramel noted in the nose, alongside drier, leafier and faintly spicy notes that grow more bold in the mid-palate, alongside a touch of red apple. The conclusion is dry, toasty, and fairly quenching, with just the slightest suggestion of bitterness. Not the most complex beer in the world, but a very satisfying quaffer.
Blackburn General Bock (7%) — Bright reddish-amber in colour, this is a heartfelt love letter to maltiness, with rich toffee on the nose, fragrant but not too sweet, accompanied by just a hint of roasted caramel. The flavour begins with that roasted caramel and progresses to something more toffee-ish, again sweet but not overly so, with suggestions of orange zest and something a bit spicy-floral, culminating in a finish that is both soothing and warming, just as a proper Bock should be. This is presently not counted among the brewery’s core brands, but it is to be hoped that oversight is corrected, as it is one of the finest Ontario Bocks I’ve tasted.
Blackburn Back Alley Black Lager (5%) — With Silversmith’s The Black Lager being brewed due north of Blackburn in Virgil, these beers, stylistically known by their German name, Schwarzbier, are becoming a bit of a Niagara specialty. Mahogany in colour – more dark brown if you hold it up to a light – with an off-dry, slightly roasty, mocha-ish aroma, this is a very credible take on the style, with a slight sweetness in the body, 60% cocoa content chocolate flavours, hints of dilute espresso and a long, dry, cocoa-ish finish.
Blackburn Lemonhaze Pale Ale (8%) — There is no actual lemon listed among the ingredients for this beer, but such is its citrusy aroma and flavour that it’s almost hard to believe. The nose really does come across as a beer version of limoncello, as implied in the label copy, although the flavour, while still quit lemony, is a bit more reserved in its limoncello-ness. As for its 8% alcohol strength, well, that is as well hidden as is the provenance of all this lemony appeal. If you’re expecting a straight-forward Pale Ale, expect to be disappointed, but if you’re wanting an adventure in taste, lemon-accented, of course, then this is your beer.
Blackburn Heartland Haze Pale Ale (4.5%) — Not as turbidly hazy as some, but definitely a pretty cloudy, light golden ale, and similarly, the nose is not the rush of tropical fruit aromas one finds in some ‘hazies,’ although it is still fairly fruity with notes of pineapple and mango most prominent. Don’t expect to feel the brunt of the label-listed 35 International Bitterness Units, or IBUs, though, as such hop-derived bitterness is largely mitigated by a fruity, malty character that makes this more a soft caress than a hoppy punch. As sure to please the haze-craze crowd as it is to disappoint anyone looking for an Old School American or English style Pale Ale.
Blackburn Portage Porter (5%) — A beautiful, purple-ish brown, this has a dark chocolate nose with hints of raisin and burnt wood. The palate entry has a slight sweetness and a bit of plummy fruitiness leading to more roasty mid-palate with raisiny, raw cocoa notes that dries as it crosses the tongue and heads for the throat, after which it finishes dry, dry, dry and just a bit campfire-y. On the can, the recommended serving temperature is 3 to 5 C, but I’d suggest closer to a cellar temperature of 10 C or more in order for all the flavours to fully express themselves.
8001 Blackburn Parkway
About Stephen Beaumont
Stephen Beaumont is one of the world’s leading writers on beer and spirits, with 15 books to his credit, including Canadian Spirits: The Essential Cross-Country Guide to Distilleries, Their Spirits, and Where to Imbibe Them (with Christine Sismondo) and the upcoming, fully revised and updated third edition of The World Atlas of Beer (with Tim Webb).