It’s true, beer geeks: Hop City is not really an independent craft brewery. But who cares when the drinking is this good?
When it launched in 2009, Hop City produced a respectable 459,000 pints’ worth of beer in its first year. By this summer, production was up to 1.7 million pints per year—so much that it had to knock out the front window of its Brampton brewery in July to install more tanks. (The vessels couldn’t fit through the back door.) But the success story still has some ale lovers crying into their pints over Hop City branding itself a “craft brewer,” since its origins aren’t exactly mom-and-pop.
Hop City was born when Moosehead—the venerable New Brunswick–based, commercial-scale lager-slingers—bought out the Niagara Falls Brewing Company in order to earn a slice of the booming craft-beer market. Setting up in Brampton’s Cool Brewery, it retained John Gagliardi and Kevin Gray (brewers at Cool and Niagara Falls, respectively) as its new brewmasters.
The pair don’t put much stock in their anti-corporate critics, but they’re not entirely free of head-office influence. “At a major brewery, marketing tells you what to brew,” says Gray. “Here, we like to think we’re still partially in charge of what happens.”
The process does involve a fair amount of negotiation between the brewers and the suits. When Hop City’s head office wants to launch a new beer, it invites Gray and Gagliardi to taste a range of beers in that style. The team nails down where they want theirs to land, flavour-wise, and the brewers work up samples. But management doesn’t always get final say, says Gagliardi: “When we brewed our wheat beer, head office chose one sample they liked, but we really loved a spicier, fruitier version. So we put our foot down, and that’s our Lawn Chair Weisse.” (It won a 2010 Ontario Brewing Award for best German-style wheat beer.)
When Hop City debuted, says Gagliardi, “beer geeks looked down on us.” Three years later, the high quality of the brews—amped-up versions of traditional styles, always at a keep-em’-comin’ five per cent alcohol-by-volume—has softened the harsh words. After trying a Mr. Huff pilsner, Greg Clow of beerboozebites.com wrote, “It’s simply a really well-made lager, that I could easily drink the hell out of.” Forget the craft or not-craft debate—those are words any brewer likes to hear.
The Hop City Lineup
Happy hour Pale Ale: The boldest of Hop City’s beers, with fresh grapefruit notes from start to finish.
Mr. Huff Persuasion Pilsner: This is one courageous pilsner, soft and light with a baguette backbone and big notes of hay and fresh-cut grass.
Lawn Chair: This sunshine-hued brew is a clove-forward German wheat with a crisp, dry ending.
Barking Squirrel: The flagship lager is sweet and toasty, with a creamy head and a spicy, floral finish.