Taste your way around Woodstock, ON in a day with a Dark Side Tour!
It was another fulfilling day trip visiting 5 different producers of different food and drink that all had one thing that tied them together…the local beer.
Coffee, Cheese, Chocolate and Beer are the delicious subject matters today and all are produced within 20 min of each other in the growing city of Woodstock, ON.
Let me back up a bit here, as the focus of this trip began with registering for The Brewed Exploration experience at Upper Thames Brewery. This small town brewery has created a new way to discover their beer and turned it into an experience, which involves learning about malt, pairing with some local treats, bottling a beer yourself and designing your label.
As I dug in a little more into this experience I realized the local producers that are
talked about in this experience are all close and decided to turn it into a day that involved visiting, tasting and learning from ALL of them.
So as my itinerary expanded to coffee, cheese, chocolate and several beers I gave my taste buds a pep talk and we were ready to taste our way around Woodstock. Don't forget to watch the video at the end of this post!
Round #1 Coffee
Coffee seemed like an obvious place to start the day so we ventured to Early Bird Coffee Roasters, a small batch coffee roaster that opened their doors to the public this past April. Elio has been roasting beans for 2 years and was proud to open up the retail side of the business where you can go in, sit down and enjoy a cup of his finest coffee surrounded by the beans and roaster that make your cup of coffee complete.
Coffee roasting has become another subject that I have developed quite a bit of interest in. From all the places coffee comes from, the different aromas & flavours it comes in and the roasting of beans.
Like barley for beer, beans for coffee need to be roasted and the different levels of roasting provide different characteristics to the coffee as malted barley does to beer.
Elio’s beautiful coffee roaster sits as a centrepiece to the shop and is fired up weekly to supply both the demand in store and wholesale too.
Early Bird remains Oxford County’s only coffee roaster and you can find their coffee also sold locally around town and used in Upper Thames Brewing’s Mocha latte porter! I love a good coffee beer and making it with quality local coffee makes it that much more of a treat!
Don’t be shy next time you go by Early Bird to grab a coffee and ask a question or two to discover a little more about how your coffee has evolved from bean to cup, Elio is a wealth of coffee knowledge and happy to share a part of his story.
Oh and they have the best decaf around if that’s what you are indulging in these days.
Round #2 Cheese
My name is Tiffany, and I'm addicted to cheese. So much so that I am not above processed and formed varieties in dark times but I will never forget the moment I fell in love with stinky, locally made, aged cheese. It really pushed that processed stuff to the side and made it for grab and go snacks, you know like cheese strings!
Cheese is a wonderful food, and its popularity, like craft beer, is continuously rising. Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese is no stranger to great quality cheeses; they’re a small artisan cheese plant nestled in Oxford County on Gunn's Hill Rd. Their retail shop is on location and if you have the chance while visiting you should take a tour. I can’t even believe all I learned about cheese in 20 min … for real! Did you know that 75% of making cheese is washing it? It is very labour intensive, like beer, and the passion behind this family business shows. The glow of the cheese showcase in the retail space calls your name as you glance over a variety of sheep, cow and goat cheeses of many flavours. I also recommend trying the Brie Ice Cream, sounds weird right? Well it is but equally delicious! The tang to it and the way the berries on top add some sweetness are a perfect pair.
Q: What do cheese and beer have in common? A: Nowadays Lactose!!
Ya, I know I won't quit my day job besides the parallels between beer and cheese are plenty with their histories both dating way back and as a home-based industry. In addition to the growing appreciation for both artisanal cheese and beer they were both happy accidents over 3000 years ago and are both involve fermentation. Beer and cheese pairings are popping up across the land as beer has proven to be, if I dare say, better to pair with cheese then wine! Think carbonation and cutting through the rich creaminess of cheese.
At Gunn’s Hill they make a cheese with the Dark Side Chocolate Stout from Upper Thames Brewing Company called Dark Side of the Moo and it's delicious! The cheese is soaked in Stout for 4 days then vacuum packed and aged for 4 months before it hits your belly! This is a hand-crafted cow's milk cheese is a mild creamy cheese with buttery flavours.
Round #3 Chocolate
By now I’ve had coffee, gone into a cheese coma and need another pick me up before we get to the beer… chocolate!
Habitual Chocolate is Canada’s largest producer of bean to bar chocolate and this shop is a must visit to learn, taste and shop! Again I have found myself in another place where the product is made from beginning to end and it’s fascinating.
The story of chocolate begins in the world of Mesoamerican mythology, similar to beer, and its origins go back at least 3,100 years ago in Central America not as the sweet treat we now crave but as a celebratory beer-like beverage and status symbol, according to this recent article. (Read it, it's a pretty cool find)
Cacao beans originate in a larger pod and these beans are then brought to Woodstock, ON, where they are produced in an authentic rustic style by Habitual. Their passion lies in showcasing the unique tastes, flavours and characteristics of each country of Origin. Sounds similar to coffee doesn’t it? All the beans come from a number of small family farms in exotic locations including: Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Madagascar, Peru and the Dominican Republic.
With the theme showing of all these businesses supporting each other and working together you will find Early Bird coffee being sold on the shelves here and Upper Thames Brewing also uses their cocoa nibs in their Darkside Chocolate Stout.
I am a fan of spice and love the combination of hot spice and dark chocolate so it was an obvious move to purchase that delicious combo in one of their bars, El Diablo 75% cocoa. Also available was homemade hot chocolate, ice cream and MANY other varieties of chocolate from milk to dark!
Round #4 Beer
Upon entering Upper Thames Brewing Co, the bouquet of steeped grains, hops, and giddy excitement filled me up. I love drinking beer but I really love being involved behind the scenes with the freedom to ask all sorts of questions. Brewed Exploration experience is exactly that.
See the world behind the taproom as you discover what it takes to brew and bottle beer and discover there is a fifth ingredient in beer…passion. After a warm greeting and meeting the rest of the participating group or “free labour” as we joked we were rounded up and brought to the back of the brewery and presented with a flight of beer. We started off by discovering the various grains and flavour profiles they provide to our beer in a blind taste test.
Yes we all love hops but we cannot forget that malt is an important part of beer for colour, flavour and aroma. We also have local malt houses in Ontario and barley being grown for our beer. We chatted with co-owner and head brewer Drake about all things malt and it was a blast.
We then head over to the bottling area where we got to bottle our own Dark Side Stout and cap it by hand just as our brewers do every day, it helps appreciate all the work put in. We then dig out the crayons and markers and coloured a customized label to finish the job.
As the finale, what would a visit to the brewery be without more beer? Back out to the taproom we went and pulled up a seat at the bar to pair the Darkside Stout with a signature paddle featuring three locally sourced ingredients and one awesome partnership. Hint Hint you may just find the chocolate & cheese I spoke about earlier
waiting for you!
I’d go over a few more details like what beers we tasted along the way but I don’t want to give away the answers as guessing is part of the fun! You can find out more about the experience and register for the next one on September 21st here https://upperthamesbrewing.ca/brewed-exploration/
Round #5 More beer and food
Sometimes sampling beers is thirsty work; it was time for a pint and some lunch with friends at Upper Thames Brewing Company's second location Brickhouse Brewpub. With 12 taps dedicated to Upper Thames Brewing, there are an additional 12 taps featuring rotating Ontario craft beers! All this in addition to a full food menu is hosted inside the most beautiful spacious brick building alongside a smaller batch brewing system and an outdoor biergarten!
Since pubs are the perfect place to gather with friends it only seemed right to invite a couple old friends to lunch and enjoy all the offerings together over some beer-centric conversation.
They do sell beer to go in bottles and cans in the retail shop alongside some t-shirts and souvenirs of a successful trip to Woodstock, ON.
Huge thanks to Tour Oxford for setting up this fantastic day and to all the businesses involved for doing what you do, very well!