Naughty Neighbours and Top Hats: A Wrap of the Ontario Brewing Awards

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BY: Enrique Barrios

I’m so excited I can imagine a battle horn sounding as I charge towards the Gladstone Hotel for the 10th Annual Ontario Brewing Awards (OBAs) in my trusty cab ride. Up until this point, I’d never been to the OBAs, and there are certainly no battle horns here – just a good live band and a huge crowd of very eager beer drinkers dying to find out who’s won in their favorite beer categories.

Roger Mittag, lead organizer for the OBAs, plays host and I’ve gotta say, the OBAs does a great job featuring some fantastic beers and pairing them with food at different stations throughout the venue. The event also features the unveiling of the design for the 10th anniversary trophies: a hand holding up a branded OBA pint glass.

“There are some people in the Canadian beer industry at polar opposites that say Quebec and British Columbia are leading the industry,” says Mittag in his opening remarks. “But I would challenge that—I think that Ontario is a vibrant and dynamic beer community where brewers strive to create beers that are balanced and easy to drink.”

I eagerly anticipate the North American pale ale and North American India pale ale categories. Nickelbrook takes top honors in both categories for their Naughty Neighbour pale ale and Headstock IPA. It’s interesting to note that out of over 200 entries from 46 different brewers, 31 win an award, something Mittag says demonstrates “parity across the Ontario brewing industry.” Big Rig places repeatedly and wins gold in the pilsner category for their Champion Pilsner eventually taking the honor of Newcomer of the Year.

Throughout the evening I run into some now familiar faces like the Paul Dickey, who organizes the Beer Judging Competition Program’s judges to determine the outcome of the awards, and Brad Clifford, Get Well’s brew master, who took two silver awards for his Fuggle It dark ale and his porter.

I also have the opportunity to meet other brewers such as Mark and Mandy Murphy from Cambridge’s month-and-a-half-old Left Field brewery. For those that haven’t heard of them, they produce some very exceptional beers such as Maris Pale ale and Eephus brown ale, which are made from Mark’s recipes. Left Field also produces a double IPA called 6-4-3 which I can only imagine is just as good as their other beers. After trying their pale and brown ales at the OBA beer tastings I had to meet them to find out what else they might work on.

“Ideally, we can get into some cask brews, but right now our focus is on the three styles we’re offering,” says Mandy Murphy. “Three is very ambitious.”

The awards ceremony concludes, the venue is now louder with chatter and some brewers are carrying around tons of trophy hardware. It’s certainly eye-catching and I sure wouldn’t mind one of these sitting on the ol’ mantle (if I had a mantle). I run into Mittag and ask him about his comments on what makes Ontario brewing stand apart from Quebec and British Columbia’s beer industry.

“Quebec focuses a lot on Belgium styles and British Columbia focuses a lot on American IPAs,” Mittag explains. “With Ontario and its history you see that, even though there’s a lot of IPAs and British-style beers, there is more variety in styles – gluten free, barrel aging, imperial stouts and porters.”

Ultimately though, it isn’t just variety that stands out in Mittag’s mind.

“For me, what I like to see is balance and I think Ontario brewers understand drinkability and balance.”