A CRAFT BREWERY THAT IS SO MUCH MORE
Emerging, bleary eyed, from another endless winter, I made my glorious return to Muskoka over the Victoria Day weekend and settled back in at the cottage with some friends. With the annual maintenance chores taken care of by Saturday afternoon, my weary mind settled on two thoughts:
1) I wonder what’s new around here? and 2) Must have beer.
I had grabbed a copy of the local visitors guide at a gas station on my way into town, and I idly flipped through it on the dock. An ad for Sawdust City Brewing Co. jumped out at me. I’d been loosely aware of the place for a couple of summers, but somehow I’d never checked it out. It seemed a likely way to satisfy the brain’s fixations on 1) and, more importantly 2), above. I hustled my friends together and we hopped in the boat and headed over to the Muskoka Wharf.
We strolled up from the Wharf, basking in the afternoon sunshine. It took about 10 minutes to get to Sawdust City, but with our jobs done at the cottage, we were feeling pretty chill, and we enjoyed the walk up Bay Street with its old manor homes. I could almost picture them in their heyday, their elegant Victorian and Georgian architecture symbolic of the owners’ status as the barons and executives of Muskoka’s lumber trade. Th at lineage would surely have provided the inspiration for Sawdust City Brewing Co.’s name. Gravenhurst was once known by the moniker because of the number of sawmills that lined the shores of today’s Muskoka Wharf, Lake Muskoka’s most southern point.
I was expecting such a new brewery to have a small tasting room and niche following at this point, but I was entirely off the mark.
Sawdust City Brewery Co. is in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, within the several-block radius surrounding the Gravenhurst Opera House, Oar and Paddle Restaurant, and Gypsy Market Mews—a few of Gravenhurst’s famed local hotspots. It struck me how Sawdust City had been part of a transformation in the downtown business core since it opened in 2014. The whole area seemed transformed, vibrant, and bristling with energy.
First impression upon entering: Sawdust City is big. Huge. I overheard the bartender telling a tourist that the building was once a Canadian Tire store, which gives you an idea. Hardware and automotives are the last thing you’d think of when you walk in, though. Sawdust City is a fully-fl edged brewery operation, with tons of seating in a spacious, multi-room environment, and even though I went at an off -peak time (early afternoon on a Saturday) the place was packed. A three-piece blues band was in the middle of their second set. This was the first, but not the last, time during our visit that I heard myself uttering “I can’t believe I haven’t been here before.”
As you would expect in Muskoka, even though the space is large, there was a warm, cottage feel, and the ambience was welcoming. As we scanned the place for a free table, I sensed we would have been welcome to share with just about anyone.
We found a spot in the pub area, which looks out over the production floor. From there you can watch the brewmaster Sam Corbeil and his team working to bring life to their tasty brews.
Beer Snob, Beer Noob, or somewhere in the middle?
We initially ordered two “flights” each. A flight, for the uninitiated, is comprised of four quarter-pint glasses or 4 oz. Each glass is filled with one of Sawdust’s 12 beers, all brewed on-site. Now I’m not a beer snob, but I’m no Coors Light drinker either. I found that the Sawdust Kölsch and Little Norway brews were flavourful easydrinkers. In fact, since this first visit to Sawdust, their Kölsch has become my new go-to beer. Luckily for me, I can get it at my local LCBO in Oakville.
My friend Bram, who leans more toward the “Beer Snob” side of the spectrum, has been aware of Sawdust since their launch in 2014. He tells me that Sawdust is already one of the most respected craft breweries in Canada. I probed the bartender on this, and he said Sawdust has been the recipient of many awards internationally—a fact evidenced by the trophies on the wall.
Bram had ordered a dark stout hilariously called “Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus.” After taking a sip, he elaborated on the “Long, Dark Voyage” for the benefit of the bartender, who was the only person present who could really understand what Bram was on about. “This stout,” said Bram, “is dark with a ruddybrown cap in the glass. It smells pretty, almost berry-like and the flavour follows suit. There is a hint of roastiness but it doesn’t cross into harshness.” The bartender agreed with Bram’s assessment and a long, adjectiveladen beer geek conversation ensued. (I just watched the band.)
Jason, the “noobiest” of our bunch, admitted to being a wine drinker, but the bartender found him quite a comfortable home in the “Little Norway” brew—a light, crisp lager which is arguably Sawdust’s lightest beer. Incidentally, the “Little Norway” name has historical and local roots. In 1940, as World War II gripped Europe, Canada opened its arms to an occupied Norway and an alliance was forged between the two countries. Gravenhurst then became home to over 3,000 Norwegian airmen as they used our small airport as a base to hone their aviation skills. Th us, we became endearingly known as “Little Norway.” I know all this from my history degree, of course. (Just kidding—I read it on the can.)
Exceptional beer and a great experience!
With the band playing on the day of our visit, the environment at the brewery is festive. “We put our best effort forward to make every trip to the brewery an experience,” brewmaster Sam Corbeil tells me. “Sawdust City’s events, both annual and weekly, are a big part of what helps introduce new people to the brewery. Next to the quality of our beer, giving people a great experience at the brewery is the most important thing to us.” From weekly trivia nights to full – blown multi-day events, the Sawdusters have a robust entertainment agenda. If not just for the beer, Sawdust City gives cottagers looking for a good time plenty of reasons to come on down to Gravenhurst.