The Merchant Ale House
What is the best pub in the world, you ask? Why, it’s The Merchant Ale House (St. Catharines, Ontario) of course – affectionately referred to as the Merch. Though you may not think we’re the preeminent pub critics, our drinking experience here at SN is global, it touches just about every continent the world over.
So, this past Canada Day weekend, I dragged Squid and a few friends down to St. Catharines to experience the pub that I quite literally grew up in. No, they DON’T SERVE TO MINORS. But they have been a local live music hub sympathetic to the senescent-ly declined for at least 15 years now. They also seem quite happy if I bring some of the youngins in for dinner so long as it’s early enough in the evening.
For food, the Merch serves the finest pub fare including the best Shepherd’s Pie I’ve had the pleasure of tasting (for a meagre $12.95), a notable steak (Chipotle New York Strip Steak, $15.95), and a good beer sausage (Grilled Beer Sausage $11.95) for the banger inclined.
But food is secondary because this little gem of a watering hole is all about the beer and the ambiance, the latter of which is largely affected – quite positively – by the former. They brew 12+ beers in house, the brewing apparatus punctuating the interior space from the back-left portion of the pub. Drink at the Merch and you’re drinking at the source for the freshest beer you’ve ever had! If you’re not a beer connoisseur, freshness makes more of a difference than you’d expect (and your life sucks).
The rest of the place is contained by a wooden floor and exposed brick walls that house a simple and efficient bar and a smattering of Merchant Ale House memorabilia across the walls. Live bands play by the front window most weekends (last weekend’s band played some Dick Dale, the Clash, Rancid, the Bouncing Souls, etc. and other musical acts range from rockabilly to old school rock n’ roll), there are darts nestled in the back away from most of the tippling traffic, and but 2 TVs, one of which has only just been upgraded to a flatscreen. That’s right, a pub so good it pulls crowds without having to bombard and zombify its patrons with the maddening din and flash of a hundred screens.
The staff are kind and attentive without being irritating and the bouncers that come in to control the weekend crowds are courteous (that’s a first!). It’s worth noting that the crowds at the Merch, though sometimes amply soused, are rarely rowdy to the point of violence and defenestration save for one Xmas incident a few years back involving a group of Santa Clauses and the local ER. But who can honestly resist a hard boot to the pants of a drunken Santa over the hols!
And finally, to the beers. They are consistently the best I’ve had in each their own category:
FOR THE AMBERS, the Old Time Hockey Ale is the first beer that the Merchant Ale House produced. Apparently it uses chocolate malt, though I’ve not detected anything of the sort in its flavour or nose. It’s a good amber ale that manages to be rich while not overpowering and perhaps that’s where the chocolate malt comes in. This one is for the lager drinkers that like something with a touch more body and an extra .5% ABV.
FOR THE WEISS LOVERS and for a hot day, both the Light Wheat and Dark Wheat are crisp and refreshing with the slightest hint of hay. They come ice-cold and served with citrus. I love a good wheat beer and count Erdinger Light and Dark Wheat, Cameron’s Dark Wheat, and Beau’s No. 10 Dunkel Buck among my favourites. The Merchant’s wheat beers measure up to them all.
FOR THE EASY DRINKER, the Blonde Bombshell is the Merchant Ale House’s lager styled ale that has a very subtle flavour. It is lightly hopped and also great on a stinker.
FOR THE LADIES in the house and for the sweet and fruit-toothed, the Merch offers a Strawberry Blonde which is fruity without destroying the underlying blonde ale flavours. They aslo offer a seasonal Blueberry Wheat (which I have yet to try mostly because I find blueberries in southern Ontario to be highly suspect).
FOR THE IPA ENTHUSIAST (Alexander Keith’s is NOT a proper IPA!), the Merch puts together a wonderful IPA that is best tried when on cask for the proper old style, pulled pint experience replete with natural fermentation. This one’s bitter-sweet with punchy malt and hops flavours vying for your palate and 6.5% ABV.
FOR THE ENGLISH ALERS, the Maris Mild has taken a cool first place atop my drinking list (away from Smithwick’s). According to one of the servers, the Merch has been brewing the Maris Mild for quite some time but I have only just now discovered it. It’s a reddish ale a bit like Fuller’s London Pride though not quite as dark and not nearly as flat and soapy – it tastes a lot more like Smithwick’s. Imagine drinking Smithwick’s fresh at the brewery in Ireland and that’s the Maris Mild sort of gist. So maybe it’s not at all like an English ale. They also offer a true English style bitter called the ESB that I have yet to try.
FOR THE STOUT, the Merch offers a roasted barley and chocolate malt oatmeal stout called the Drunken Monkey. For the stout aficionado, it is a thing of beauty. Honestly, I’d eat it for breakfast. Drunken Monkey T-shirts are also available. I’d say the Merch is somewhat famous for the stuff and it makes one hell of an Irish Car Bomb. BOOM!
THE REST OF THE BREWS. Among the beers I have yet to try or do not recall trying are the Skullcrusher Nut Brown Ale (probably because saying ‘nut brown’ makes me giggle like a git), the Ginger Ale, and the Headless Horseman Pumpkin Ale (f*cking gross). I would advise asking for a taste before committing to an entire pint of any of those last three.
Finally, the guys behind the Merchant Ale House are well established in the brewing scene and feature guest cask brews from time to time. It’s ALWAYS worth a try if you can get it on cask.
The SquidNiki approved way to taste beer is to go out with several people and buy a round of different pints. Pass them round and be merry. Discuss. Argue. Clean your palate with shots and repeat step 1.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY CANADA! Please make drinking more affordable inside you.
Remember, wasting beer is alcohol abuse. Please drink responsibly.