A little over two decades ago, Stephane Ostiguy was studying biology at McGill. More than studying, actually. He was gunning for his PhD, trying to solve complex problems about living things. He’s in his lab one day, hunched over a microscope and in walks Jean-Francois Gravel, a young Master’s student specializing in molecular biology. They were going to be lab partners for the year. But other things were brewing.
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Stephane and Jean-Francois hit it off and became friends almost instantly. They’d frequently go out for beers after long days in the lab. They turned into beer nerds, to the point where beer was almost all they’d talk about. And then one of them said it: let’s make our own beer.
It seemed like a reasonable idea. They were both biology students, after all. The beer would be another experiment, a chance for them to use the scientific method in real life. What would happen if they used one kind of yeast instead of another? What about different hops? Should we sample that control group again?
“We worked a lot”, Ostiguy says. “Mostly on the beer. We wanted to work with different yeast strains, to see how they changed the taste of the beer. We were constantly coming up with new recipes and testing them.”
Their pub is kind of a dive — albeit one that serves award-winning $9 IPAs. It’s exactly the kind of place that would be dreamed up by a couple of mad scientists.
Needless to say, Ostiguy doesn’t have his doctorate, and Gravel doesn’t have his Master’s degree. But they do have damn good beer. The rest of the story unfolds in much the same haphazard way. The two started brewing and opened a little pub. They called the place and their beer Dieu du Ciel, which translates roughly as “god from the sky” — or better, “Oh my god!” which is the general exclamatory sentiment Ostiguy and Gravel hope their beer elicits. They made a name for themselves with a truly experimental beer, a coffee stout called Péché Mortel — which, back in 2001, was far from ordinary. Péché Mortel, which means Mortal Sin in French, is a dense and thoroughly bitter beer infused with fair trade coffee and packing a punch with its 9% ABV.
“We all laughed at this beer at first”, Ostiguy says. “But then it started gaining exposure. It landed on RateBeer.com and people started to talk about it. And then all of a sudden it was number two in the world.”
It’s a pretty basic American Pale Ale, remarkable in its subtlety. It manages to be both hoppy and feather light at the same time. If you can find it where you are, this should be your beer of the summer.
Le Cheval Blanc Blanche
That’s a lot of French to take in, but stay with us. Le Cheval Blanc is a brewpub more or less around the corner from Dieu du Ciel, and one of the first in the city. Their signature is a traditional Belgian white beer that’s light, fruity and delicious.
Les Brasseurs de Montreal Griffintown
One of the bigger operations on this list, les Brasseurs is based in the still-kind-of-industrial neighbourhood of Griffintown. They brew a wide selection, but you can’t go wrong with the aptly named Griffintown, a clear and malty blond. You’ll find it all over the city.
L’Amere a Boire
This brewpub on Saint Denis has been around for almost two decades, and it’s a destination for beer afficianados. Their namesake brew is a red British style that’s strong and bitter and really, really good.
Benelux Session d’ete
Right in the heart of the University district, Benelux is a brewpub that looks almost too polished for its own good. But the atmosphere is friendly and the beer, brewed in house, is delicious. We’re particularly fond of the Session d’ete, a light summer beer that you can drink all day long.
Within a few years, Dieu du Ciel couldn’t keep up with demand, so they expanded. They even started bottling the stuff. You can now get it all over Canada, which is pretty far reaching for a post-grad science project — although it’s best enjoyed fresh. Their brewpub on Avenue Laurier has become quintessentially Montreal. It’s a chaotic heap of mismatched tables and chairs, chalkboard menus that ricochet between English and French (and are indecipherable in either language) and the smell of sticky lager drying on the floor. The patio juts right out into the middle of the street and is always packed during the few months of the year it’s open. It’s kind of a dive — albeit one that serves award-winning $9 IPAs. It’s exactly the kind of place that would be dreamed up by a couple of mad scientists (or mad science students).
It’s also the kind of place people that has become a destination for beer lovers all over the country. It isn’t just that Dieu du Ciel has won awards for its beer — which it has, more than are worth listing here, at the Canadian Brewing Awards and at international events like the San Diego International Festival of Beer. It’s that Dieu du Ciel’s beers are different. They’re ambitious. They’re curious. They’re a little eccentric. They’re almost like science experiments. Delicious, delicious science experiments.
The brewery’s current roster includes about three dozen varieties. Sure, there are relatively simple brews like the 6e Soir, an American-style pilsner that’s light and easy to drink, especially in hot weather. But it gets exponentially weirder (or at least more adventurous). There’s the Aphrodisiaque, for example, a black ale with hints of vanilla, cocoa and bourbon. Or the Rosee d’hibiscus, a pink wheat beer brewed with hibiscus flowers. Or the Equinox du Printemps, a malty scotch ale brewed once every spring using real Quebec maple syrup. Plus, Dieu du Ciel is a frequent collaborator with other top breweries around the world, cooking up strange one-offs with the likes of Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery, Delaware’s Dogfish Head, and Nagano, Japan’s Shiga Kogen.
And, according to Ostiguy, it’s exactly that adventurous spirit that has made Dieu du Ciel so popular — and, conversely, why their hometown has so wholeheartedly embraced the craft beer movement.
“People have always been curious in Montreal for drinking good wine and eating good food”, he says. “So it’s a good match. Now more and more people are aware that beer can be different and more tasteful. People fall in love with it and tell their friends. Craft beer seems to be kind of viral.”
He’s right. Seems like every back alley in every major city is home to a brewery these days. Montreal has roughly fifteen of them all told, most of them brewpubs. Craft beer is so popular that the city hosts the annual Mondiale de la Biere, one of the largest craft beer festival in the world.
There might be no city in the world more attuned to the craft beer revolution than Montreal. Mostly because, if Ostiguy’s theory is to be believed, Montrealers are a curious combination of people who just like beer — you know, in general — and people who have a refined palette for the best of food and drink.
And the best of the bunch, by a not-insignificant margin, is Dieu Du Ciel.
“If you’re about to spend money in a bar”, he says, “you’re better off drinking the good stuff.”