It’s funny how we often don’t appreciate the things in our hometown until we leave. I grew up in St. Catharines, a small city in southern Ontario, and spent most of my life there until I moved away in my 20s. In spite of that, I never really did anything in St. Catharines, and it’s been only recently that I actually experienced any part of the culture.
We experienced some St. Catharines culture last weekend when we went downtown with my brother and his wife on a Saturday night. Now, by “night” I mean 7 p.m., so events were pretty tame by downtown standards, but we are like old people and can’t stay up that late. That said, we had a great time with fun people and sampled some of my hometown’s finest craft beer.
Downtown St. Catharines is actually pretty cool. St. Paul Street, the main street that winds through the downtown, is full of great restaurants, bars, stores, and music venues, and with the recent additions of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Meridian Centre arena, and Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, it’s become a bit of a cultural hub as well. When I was a kid I didn’t realise how nice our downtown actually was, but compared to some of the other cities I’ve lived in, downtown St. Catharines has a real homey feel.
I could go on about the history of the downtown (which goes back to the early 1800s) and all the neat little gems the downtown holds, but we’ll save that for another time. This trip was focused on one specific place with one heck of a beer list: The Merchant Ale House.
The Merchant Ale House (“The Merch”) is a restaurant/brewpub that is always busy. It’s got food and live music, and the draw for us was their list of house beers. Many pubs have a house beer that they may or may not brew on site, but the Merch puts them to shame. On the night we went, the Merch had THIRTEEN. Thirteen house brews! How is a girl to choose?
Lucky for us, the Merch has tasting flights and my sanity was preserved. Between just the two of us, we sampled nine of their house brews and liked pretty well all of them. Here’s what we tried:
- Blueberry Wheat (American Wheat Ale)
- Dark Wheat (American Dark Wheat Ale)
- Drunken Monkey (Oatmeal Stout)
- Extra Special Bitter
- Headless Horseman (Spiced Ale with Real Pumpkin)
- India Pale Ale (West Coast)
- Old Time Hockey Ale (English Brown Ale)
- Skullcrusher (Nut Brown Ale)
- Strawberry Blonde (Fruit Beer)
My favourites were the India Pale Ale and the Extra Special Bitter, and Sean liked the blueberry wheat, which he said was a perfect balance of blueberry flavour that didn’t overpower the beer. We didn’t really dislike anything, and that is a good sign.
I should probably mention the food, too. Holy Moses, their food was good. Like, surprisingly good. I had nachos, made with local corn chips and perfectly cheesed, and Sean had the most delicious buttermilk-coated chicken nuggets of his life. My brother, Steve, absolutely inhaled his ale house burger and sis-in-law Adrienne’s pulled pork was, in her words, “orgasmic”. Crazy good!
(Pro tip: If the pub seems busy and a crowded restaurant isn’t your thing, there is also seating downstairs!)
Also on this crazy Saturday night was a game of bowling at the super-busy Parkway Lanes (purchased with a Groupon and included excellent customer service, thank you very much) and the famed pickle shots at Patrick Sheehan’s Pub, across the street from the Merch. Pickle shots, you ask? What is a pickle shot? Well… I’m not really sure. Vodka, maybe? Regardless, it’s a shot that comes with a slice of pickle, and it’s delicious. I’d be happy with just the pickle.
That was the first of many visits to St. Catharines. I’m kicking myself for not spending more time exploring my hometown while I lived there, but the great beer, food, and company showed us it’s never too late to go back home.