On my trips to Montreal I often visit the Benelux Brasserie on Sherbrooke Street near St. Lawrence Boulevard, the old “Main” storied in novels of writers such as Mordecai Richler and other scribes in Shakespeare’s tongue. (Those writers are now increasingly forgotten in Quebec’s francophone-oriented culture, but times change, so it ever was for one reason or another).
The reason is not that it is the best beer bar in town, although it may well be, but simply that it is closest to where we stay on those trips. We either stay downtown or on the west side. There are many beer specialty bars in the greater Montreal area, but not that many in the downtown “core” or westerly reaches.
Benelux is one. The two others I like closest to it are on boul. St-Denis further east, not that far really, but in winter or when time is tight, I tend to stick to Benelux.
Just below it is the Université de Québec’s Montreal campus, and as students and beer pubs seem to go in hand-in-hand, a better location could not be imagined.
As well, McGill University is just a few blocks to the west, so it will send some students “east” to mix with their francophone counterparts at UQAM.
Still, Benelux is a “franco” hangout, at least by an unofficial sounding of the voices at surrounding tables. Two days ago it was mostly Québecois, a bit of metropolitan French, and one or two English, visiting Americans I think.
The franco atmosphere doesn’t prevent staff from speaking English to all comers and most accommodating they are about it. My French is not so bad – it should be better having grown up in Montreal but I hail from a different time, when anglophones were able to operate more autonomously. Still, retailers in Montreal are accustomed to switch to English, given too many visitors hail from the U.S. or other parts of Canada.
In Michael Jackson’s 1976 The English Pub, he described the “random accoutrements” often seen in Britain’s pubs: mismatched tableware, whimsical or clashing decoration, that kind of thing. This applies well to the Benelux with its concrete “bunker” design of the 70s-80s, bright blue exposed ductwork (like a child’s toy on steroids), and simple plank tables probably meant to evoke wood barrels.
Such incongruent elements are often a sign of the proudly independent beer pub, the precise opposite of the “corporate” style, which is no less valid, just different. Anyway it suits the easygoing atmosphere, reasonable prices, and popular spirit that beer bars at their best exhibit around the world.
The focus is the beer, that’s what’s important at Benelux or any good beer bar! I have never figured out if they brew onsite or somewhere else, it doesn’t matter really. I should add there is a newer Benelux in Verdun, a working quarter about a mile to the southwest, but I haven’t had a chance to visit yet. I think the beer is made at the first site and transferred to the second as needed.
I tend to stick to pale ale/IPA, porter, or lager but numerous other styles are covered. The European connotations of the term Benelux are only loosely applicable, there is usually a Belgian-style offering but “Belge” is not a theme really.
The beers are even better than 10 years ago, when the place started. The only style I’d say they don’t get right, based on past tastings, but almost no one in Quebec does in my experience, is English pale ale or mild/brown ale.
I bought a canned pale ale on the trip, Chipie, from Archibald brewery in Quebec City. The term pale ale in Quebec usually connotes the English style, meaning no evident citric U.S. hopping, a dose of sweetish caramel malt, and moderate bitterness.
Chipie is all that but doesn’t really evoke the Albionic taste, the flowery English hop note I like is missing, and the malt taste never seems quite right.
Maybe those beers reflect more what beer was like in Quebec in the 1920s-1940s. It is satisfying to think that, on the other hand; and they are certainly good session beers in any case, or with a meal.
But the Benelux Catapulte, an American IPA, is faultless, full of flavour and deep malt taste. Their American barley wine, even more so. The Captain Ganache Imperial Porter had a coffee addition, which takes it out of the strict Britannic heritage, but the coffee was handled lightly and it was very good.
The food is “bouffe” style. Hot dog doesn’t describe well the offering of that description, a veal sausage similar to what you get in France with a choucroute. I.e., better than a hot dog nord-americain. And some of that kraut is piled on a stick of French bread, with potato chips and olives on the side. All for a grand total of $4.00 if you buy a full pint. Bon marché.
The panini looked good too, mixing and matching the different culinary traditions that interweave Montreal’s contemporary popular food culture. Smoked meat, bacon, butter chicken, Tex-Mex, guacamole, pulled pork, and more can enter into the panini and wraps on Montreal menus, alone or mixed, and it is pretty good usually.
Another local specialty I saw: fried rice with bits of smoked meat. This started back in the 70s when I still lived there. Fusion with a capital F. How about poutine with General Tao chicken? Or the irony-abounding poutine à la French onion soup?
There was no poutine in Montreal in the 1970s. This unlikely international star of tables popular and even chic is a new traditional food of Quebec. If that makes any sense. Its true roots seem to lie in English mining country, but that’s another story.
The best beer pubs around the world offer what Benelux does: great beer, good prices, détente in atmosphere, and often a discordant design that becomes harmonized under the influence of a beer or two. We’ll see, soon, ce que la francophonie propose dans le même ordre d’idées in Paris and Lille, where Beeretseq wends soon.
This is the current draft beer line-up at Benelux, taken from the pub’s website:
American Barley Wine 2017 8,5%
Armada – Brown Ale Américaine 6,0%
Berlinoise – Berliner Weisse 3,7%
Duplex – Helles 5,0%
Gaïa – Blanche 4,9%
Lux Rousse – Munich Dunkel 5,2%
Nébulose – Assemblage de Saisons – 6,3%
*Capitaine Ganache – Imperial Porter au cacao 7,5%
*Catapulte – American IPA 6,8%
*Beretta – Pale Ale au Sarrasin 4,4%