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Launched in 2017, Merit Brewing Co. is one of a number of new food and beverage businesses that is marking something of a renaissance taking place in Hamilton. That is very good to see — for any city.
Located on James Street North between York Boulevard and Vine Street in the city centre, Merit, well, merits a visit. The Hamilton Farmers’ Market is just around the corner, and the area in general, part of Canada’s ninth largest city, has seen a significant cleaning up of its downtown core. Hamilton and Dundas have special significance for me when it comes to family roots – there’s something called Corso Racalmuto, a portion of Murray Street West, which is named for the town in Sicily where my Nonna came from – so it has been good to see the re-vitalization.
Helping re-vitalize urban centres
Breweries have played a key role in the recovery. Now, as a rule, I find beer halls are either cramped and closed in or spacious and open; Merit is the latter, although both are acceptable when it comes to atmosphere. It just depends on what you like and what mood you’re in. Frankly, I do like the space at Merit: in a way, you can call it a sort of emporium to craft beer and sausages.
Large communal tables – as beer halls are wont to have – look into the brewing apparatus. Behind huge panes of glass, it’s an impressive collection of tanks and tubes and gauges of stainless steel – as breweries are wont to have.
“I think people have pigeon-holed who they think the craft beer drinker is.”
— Mallorie Edward
Merit founders Tej Sandhu and Aaron Spinney opened Merit only about 18 months ago; it quickly made its mark. General manager Mallorie Edward says the brewery was in the planning stages for about four years. Spinney has brewed at other breweries over the last decade; he graduated from Niagara’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations program. As for what the facility produces, variety and diversity is a target, along with quality.
“We try to have a well-balanced tap list,” Edward says. “It goes from something very light to stouts and to sours. We do some barrel aging as well. Aaron has a passion for learning new things and keeping it exciting, so in May we brewed an IPA that was the first of its style in Canada. It had a very dry, almost minerally character.”
One wall of the space is an expanse of cinder block construction; the opposite wall over the bar and POS system is an artistic wood design along with taps, a graphic with an Italian-based quotation and a board of daily selections. Those communal tables in the beer hall are made with reclaimed wood from a Hamilton glass factory, while the Edison bulb and filament design-feature that characterizes Merit branding is an homage to the Steel City’s early adoption of electric power. “It highlights the innovation, creativity and exciting things happening in this city,” Edward adds.
Energetic relaxed vibe
Adjacent the entrance off James is the bottle room; through the beer hall and past the brewing area down a long hall is a backyard patio. The structure was built for Merit and its brewhouse specifications, according to Edward. “It was a Mexican restaurant before. We got it to this point in only about 10 months.” Clearly, the four years of planning paid off in an expeditious execution and build-out.
The clientele in the Merit beer hall is wide-ranging in terms of demographics, and the vibe is energetic though relaxed – as you would expect and want in a beer hall. The owners have also been involved in a “beer diversity group” that reaches out to the community and has no doubt continued to shape not only their own commerce but has helped build the neighbourhood-village environment, I’m sure. “I think people have pigeon-holed who they think the craft beer drinker is,” says Edward identifying the intent of the initiative. (Incidentally, there was only one hipster-bearded guy in sight.)
All of those features, however, are the macro view of Merit. The food and beer is the micro view – and what really counts. Merit has a 20-hectoliter system that has produced about 96 different beers or so. There is some sweet, some bitter and some citrus flavours across the portfolio. The beer menu at table comes with tasting notes: the Chanan saison is inflected with a touch of orange peel and coriander making it distinct and refreshing. The SVP has a touch of pineapple. The Young Rival IPA has a controlled hoppy quality that is moderately – and enjoyably – bitter.
The sausage is the thing
The food is really good, especially the sausages. That’s the purview of chef Jesse Vallins, one of the partners in the business. The menu is divided into snacks and sides – perfect for quaffing good beer – sausages (and vegetarian sausages), large format ($60 platters of all the sausages!), pickles (which are excellent) and desserts (that would be PB & J ice cream sandwich for $8).
Who wouldn’t like a jalapeno popper with chorizo? The fries are terrific and come in a very large serving, indeed; they’re delicious, though some would say over-salted (just drink more beer, I say). The pickles – including carrot, black radish and asparagus – are perfect as a counterpoint to rich food like sausage.
Yes, the sausage is the thing at Merit, aside from the beer. Perhaps like a Munich beer hall, the two items pair supremely well: rich, fatty full-bodied porky goodness is tamed by the crisp, clean work of a slightly carbonated beer that has a long, slow finish. Das schmeckt.
There are five inventive sausage creations ranging from butter chicken replete with masala and mango chutney and a smoked Peking duck version with plum sauce (which was delicious). You could try a Philly cheese steak or a jerk sausage. The Nashville hot includes rich chicken leg and crispy skin. It is wondrous with a slight char from the grill.
“The butter chicken is an unconventional flavouring for sausage,” Edward says. She’s right, but it works and works quite well. “We smoke our own sausages and try to make as much as we can here,” she says of the food menu.
Now, it’s perhaps odd to say that the bar has been set high at breweries and in the same beery breath add that the sausage is the thing (or just good food, generally speaking). But that is the reality here. Heavily bearded or not, good grub – food with merit, in other words – is what people expect even when they’re visiting for the beer. I’m quite sure of that.
107 James Street North, Hamilton, ON L8R 2K6