Breweries,  Reviews

The Most Impressive Brewery that is Much More Than a Brewery

When I think of a brewery, I think of an abandoned warehouse-type building with a bunch of steel tanks producing a variety of some good, mostly mediocre, beers. One new brewery not only sets the standard on avant-garde brewing facilities, but took the brewery experience to a level that rivals even the most impressive destination wineries. With sustainability in mind, quality in mind and the promise of even more to come, this is the most outstanding and unique brewery I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Cowbell Brewing Co. is located in Blyth, Ontario, about two hours from Toronto. Less than one year old, this facility, built on 111-acres and 26,000 square feet of space, is massive and modern by design but features a vintage, barn-like aesthetic. They feature a full service restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, event spaces with seating up to 100 people, a retail store and of course, all of their brewhouse glory in full display, with both guided and self-guided tours available.

The historic town of Blyth was founded in 1877 and is now home to just over 1000 people. Upon opening Cowbell Brewing Co. in 2017, the founders set a goal to acquire 100,000 visitors by the end of that year, 10 times the population. A little ambitious, no? Also consider that Cowbell didn’t open until August of 2017, giving them less than five months to reach their goal. Really, ambitious is an understatement. But, against all odds, they did it, and I can see why.

As mentioned earlier, Cowbell Brewing Co. features awe-inspiring, state-of-the-art brewing facilities that they proudly show off to their patrons visually and verbally. They’ve kept environmental-consciousness top of mind when choosing high-efficiency equipment that produces more beer using less water, using less energy and extruding less waste. They’ve also invested in self-sustaining operations such as their own water well and waste management system so as not to affect the surrounding town’s supply. These initiatives, alone, are exceptionally admirable.

Ok, but what about the product? As expected from a brewery, beer comes first. They divide their beers into two categories: their year-round Founder’s Series, a selection of six, available in kegs and cans; and their small batch Renegade Series, currently a selection of five, only available on tap or in a keg. In addition to that, they are currently featuring an additional brew called Shindig, available in cans or in a keg.

In the couple of times I’ve visited Cowbell, I have tried five different kinds of beer and Matt has tried an additional one. Their Founder’s Series, some of which are available at the liquor store, are all named after influential characters in Blyth’s history. Fly Girl, a nitrogenated oatmeal stout, was named after Lorna Bray, the youngest Canadian female parachuter. Granted, I have not tried a great many stouts due to my general distaste for them. Cowbell’s Fly Girl, though, has inspired me to try more, because it was so surprisingly pleasant. Warm and unbelievably smooth, this brew has a dense foam and a deep dark chocolate cookie flavour with a light espresso aroma. Matt and his parents all agreed that it is much like Guiness but smoother, due to the nitrogenation.

The Absent Landlord was named after the Blyth estate in England who bought the town without ever having visited it. This kolsch-style brew is unfiltered and unpasteurized which allows it’s hazy golden body and clean flavours to speak for themselves. It is elegant and creamy with sweet springtime flower and honey flavours. This is a beer that I would recommend to someone new to beer drinking. It’s very well balanced between the full-bodied fruitiness of an ale and the crisp, thirst-quenching finish of a lager.

Most excitingly, on my last visit I tried the newly featured Shindig lager, a German-style pilsner brewed with German malt and hops. The result is a refreshing, light-bodied beer with wheat flavours from bread and cereal, beautiful for summertime patio sipping. If you’re into wheat beers like Muskoka’s Summerweiss or Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc or ales like Labatt’s Shock Top, the Shindig is similar but without the strong citrus flavours.

For a full list of their current beers and all of their specs – and anything else you may want to know about the brewery – visit their website here.

Moving on to food. Cowbell’s restaurant is beautiful, located in the centre of the building with soaring ceilings and a large stone fireplace. The kitchen features a very large wood-fired pizza oven, on display in the corner of the dining room behind the pizza cook. Their main menu has a selection of eight pizzas and six hand-helds, making up half their menu. They offer several starters such as a sausage board and poutine, and a few salads and main dishes with pasta, fish and steak. Notably, they also have a 36oz bone-in Tomahawk Steak, intended for 2 to 3 guests, for $99.

If I could write this review ignoring the restaurant and food all together, I would. But, for the purposes of this food blog and open and honest opinion-giving about my experiences, I feel I must express my disappointment with the food I’ve tried so far. In reality, the other remarkable goods and services this establishment offers simply outshine the food quality. This is not a bashing. The food is good. It’s just not 100%. And it becomes apparent when everything else is at 120%.

To start on a positive note, they do source over 75% of their product locally, which is wonderful and still very uncommon. Furthermore, they intend to plant an on-site garden to grow their own produce in the future. Big thumbs up.

Unfortunately, ingredients are not the only part of good food. The pizza gets a teetering thumbs sideways. The thin crust is crispy and chewy and smoky, just like you’d expect from wood fired pizzas. We chose a margherita pizza where tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil make up the cast. The good news: they were good. The tomato sauce was smooth and sweet, the mozzarella was stringy and salty with some good caramelization happening on the top, and the basil was blitzed into a puree, drizzled on top. The bad news: there was way too much of everything!

Much like pasta, where you have to consider the shape and integrity of the pasta when pairing with a sauce, you have to consider the size and thickness of the crust when choosing the kind and amount of toppings. I have established a cardinal pizza requirement to put to the test when I taste pizzas: I must be able to pick up a slice of the pizza with minimal to no droopage. In this case, our Margherita not only failed this test, but the crust got so soggy that the toppings slid right off, even with effort put in to hold them in place. This does not provide a particularly pleasant eating experience but, on top of that, you couldn’t taste the crust at all until you got to the edge. Pizza crust is as much an element of the pizza as the toppings are and so I want to be able to taste it.

Contrastingly, Matt’s dad tried the Meat Lover’s pizza which, visually, seemed to hold up to my test much better than ours did. Perhaps they are more successful with other ingredients on their pizza shells.

Their #1 Poutine gets a thumbs up. Though not out-of-this-world exceptional, with crispy thick cut fries and a surprisingly satisfying turkey gravy, it was certainly an enjoyable poutine.

I ordered their feature of the day, a pulled pork sandwich, with a side of caesar salad. The sandwich gets a solid thumbs up. Served on a soft ciabatta bun, it was a well-balanced sandwich in terms of the ratio between meat and bun. I will say, though the sweet, smoky barbecue flavour was present and the pork was cooked to a moist, light pink medium, thinly sliced and juicy, if you’re looking for the super saucy, sloppy-joe-like pulled pork sandwich, this will not be satisfying. The coleslaw that topped the hand-held was, sadly, the same: not dry, but not the creamy coleslaw you might expect. I found it to be a very light, crunchy coleslaw rendition.

Finally, the caesar salad dressing was pleasantly tangy with some spice from the garlic and the salad was topped with chewy bacon bits and freshly grated parmesan. Regrettably, I can only imagine this would have been a great caesar salad, were it not for the wet lettuce. Good on them for washing the romaine, but due to a lack of thorough drying, the dressing was watery and didn’t stick to the leaves well at all. The flavours were there but it was poorly executed.

All in all, despite several execution issues, all of the food was good, just not great. My gripe stems from the hyped-up excellence of everything else about this brewery and the restaurant food being the weak link.

To end on a positive note, another feature of Cowbell Brewing Co. that distinguishes them from, literally, every other brewery I have visited is their diversified, quality retail shop. Here, they offer every beer glass they use, all of the beers available in a can, hats, gloves, travel mugs, card decks, dog collars and much more. Most notably, though, they have sweaters and t-shirts, made here in Canada. I love that additional nod to locality. I now have two of their t-shirts, the first of which I got in September and absolutely love it; it washes well, keeps it’s shape and still looks and feels great. If you do visit Cowbell, I highly recommend you pick up a t-shirt.

To finish, I am thoroughly amazed with their well-rounded selection of brews. This is, not surprisingly, their biggest highlight. The environmentally-conscious efforts they’ve made and are continuing to make with their operations, buildings and equipment are idyllic and almost futuristic. To learn even more about that, go for the guided tour; their storytellers, as they call them, are very knowledgeable and very entertaining. As an added bonus, their retail shop is the best I’ve ever seen in a brewery. If only they were able to improve their food quality, I truly believe that Cowbell Brewing Co. would be one of my top favourite destinations in Ontario.

As it is, I would still highly recommend making an appearance. When you go, head to the bar and order a flight to try a few of their brews. Pick your favourite to sip on through the guided tour plus a pint for 15 bucks. Then, take the 15% off the retail store (except beer) coupon they give you during the tour and pick out a t-shirt. If you’re hungry, by all means, take a seat at the restaurant and try some food. But don’t forget to let me know how it is! I can’t wait for them to up their food game and take their brewery to that next level perfection.

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