Every city deserves a quality brewpub. A place that offers delicious food and unique beers in a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere can be a haven for locals and visitors alike. So far, I haven’t found many options in Niagara but The Merchant Ale House in downtown St. Catharines – a bulwark of a brewery – does offer that experience. You have to give them credit for sticking with their city through some bleak times after the local manufacturing industry went belly up over eight years ago. After moving here, locals would tell me about how the downtown used to be the armpit of the city but now it’s getting back on its feet. The Merchant Ale House is being joined by a growing number of spots that are offering great craft beers (usually not brewed onsite) contributing to an effort to revitalize the downtown core.
Enough history, more food-story!
Brewpubs lean heavily on crafting playful palate pleasing beers and the food they offer tends to compliment the hoppy and malty characteristics of various types of beers.
This is certainly the case with the Merchant Ale House. They follow a rotating cask conditioned tap and offer some usual suspects, like a stout and an IPA, as well as some seasonal treats. Unlike many hop-obsessed brewers out there, the Merchant Ale House offers something for everyone (who likes beer). Their lineup ranges from a lager for those who like a clean crisp beverage to an oatmeal stout for those who confuse beer and gravy. This is where it’s difficult to be objective with beer, we all have our preferences and mine are heavier on the bitter and stout side of things. But their stout is thick and deliciously malty, their IPA has the right level of citrus tasting notes and their blueberry wheat is not too sweet. You can tell that they’ve been putting their long history of brewing to work in concocting craft beer that does have a touch of its own flare. Their pumpkin seasonal beer has switched in the two Octobers I’ve been here. While I prefer the first iteration I tried (it was more malty than the new kid), they are clearly not afraid to take a chance with changing things up.
As for the food, it’s genuinely delicious but not outstanding. Different dishes pair nicely with different brews but I never think of going back for the food. At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Their menu has items like a cheese board and avocado and pulled pork egg rolls. These are items I’d expect on a gastropub menu (a brewpub with higher end cuisine) and not at a place to relax over a pint and a burger. Thinking about it longer and over another Drunken Monkey (that’s their stout), my wife and I agreed that it’s dangerous to compare the Merchant Ale House’s food to that of a gastropub and may be misguided. This isn’t a gastropub and it doesn’t need to be. Maybe they’ll change the rest of their menu but that’s not the vibe of the place right now. The Merchant Ale House is a comfortable place to enjoy great beer with good food as accompaniments to conversation and good company.
I’d suggest that the real strength of a brewpub is its atmosphere. Sure it’s not a brewpub without well-crafted beers but the experience is intimately tied to the mood of the establishment. Consider one of the most popular tropes of American sitcoms: the drinking hole. From Cheers and The Simpsons to How I Met Your Mother and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, most of the time the bars and pubs of these shows are a place where you get your usual booth or stool and everybody knows your name. Sounds lovely, right? Even the woebegone Moe’s Tavern has a striking atmosphere that lets its patrons feel comfortable and be themselves (according to the confines and demands of the narrative). This trope works so well that no explanation is required. Viewers see the characters in the place on a regular occurrence and they know this place means comfort of some fashion.
The Merchant Ale House certainly offers a comfortable atmosphere where all are welcome. I’ve gone to the pub and enjoyed a pint with municipal leaders, business owners and families. You’ll see people from all social and economic classes enjoying their time together. To see that kind of community does not happen easily. For a city trying to rebuild its sense of community and its downtown core, St. Catharines needs to celebrate places like the Merchant Ale House.
The service at the Merchant Ale House is probably its weakest link. But don’t misunderstand me, the service is good, it just could be a lot better. Staff are friendly but don’t check up on tables frequently enough. While this could be simply a matter of the brewpub being understaffed, it’s still unpleasant when your glass is dry and you could use another pint.
Staff are also knowledgeable and can readily offer suggestions for how to pair a beer with your food in ways that aren’t listed on the menu.
The weakest part of the service at The Merchant Ale House is how inaccessible it is. Having a loved one who can’t walk easily anymore has made me notice when a place is not wheelchair accessible. The washroom is downstairs, which is dangerous enough after a few pints of their aptly named brown ale – The Skullcrusher. You shouldn’t count that against them too harshly, but it may be useful to know if you or your company are not fond of stairs. It would be nice to have some development in that area as I believe that everyone (of legal drinking age) deserves access to a great pint.
The Merchant Ale House provides St. Catharines locals and visitors a great option for craft beers brewed onsite with good food to compliment them. If you are looking for a place to hang out with friends, de-stress with colleagues after a crazy day at the office or a pint before, after and during live music, consider The Merchant Ale House.