Sometimes it is not so much the physical characteristics of a place that make it special, as it is the character of the people who live there. And following a recent visit to Sarnia, Ontario, where I met only a few of its residents, I have to agree this could not be more true – and the first impression they left was a great one. Let me introduce you to a few of them here, as well as a few things to do in Sarnia.
Don’t be Fooled: Have a Brew at Refined Fool Brewing
Make no mistake: the ten friends who originally started the Refined Fool Brewing Company may have a great sense of humour, but they are no fools. What began as a tiny craft brewing operation named ironically after the region’s ‘refined fuel’ industry, has already grown into a much larger operation in less than 3 years.
Refined Fool’s uniquely-flavoured craft brews (with names like Noble Oaf and Short Pier Long Walk) come in equally unique packages (large bottles are called Growlers) and are carefully crafted by Dallas Willms, the self-appointed – and self-taught – brewmaster. And the other partners making up these ‘Original 10’ (as I dubbed them) are as diverse and varied in their backgrounds as the ingredients that flavour their brews.
Take Nathan Colquhoun, the bearded, laid-back partner responsible for the branding at Refined Fool, who acts as general manager when he’s not running his own marketing firm. As casual as the brewery/bar’s decor and vibe, the 30-year old looks more like one of the patrons than one of the owners, but that is part of what makes Refined Fool so accessible. Customers feel like they are free to just hang out here and enjoy a beer while the latest batch of brews ferments only meters away in the totally open concept space. Guests are even encouraged to BYOF (bring your own food) to the bar if they’d like, while playing a retro board game or two.
It’s as industrial-chic and on-trend a place as you would expect to find 3 hours east in Toronto, and just the kind of vibe that is popular with the big city’s hipster crowds. As Nathan joked, ‘there are only about six hipsters in Sarnia, but they are all here.” Fortunately for those of us over 30, you don’t have to be a hipster here to fit in, because although the brand names may be ironic, the welcome is genuine, and there is no pretentiousness in the people behind the brand. Making a brew at the Fool one of the best things to do in Sarnia, regardless ow whether you are a visitor or a local.
Breathe it all in at Forest Glen Herb Farm
Cynthia Cook, owner of Forest Glen Herb Farm greeted me in muddy rubber boots, and with a handful of just-picked fragrant herbs she was about to use to prepare a welcome pot of tea. It’s the kind of thing she does for all the visitors who come to her 8-acre herb farm and B&B, whether it’s for an hour or a weekend – and it’s proven to be part of the appeal of this little country escape: the moment you arrive, you instantly feel the stress leave your body.
After 33 years tending her 8-acre farm, and growing over 1500 varieties of herbs along with other vegetables and plants, Cynthia knows more than just a thing or two about gardening – she understands the healthy benefit of being connected to the land itself. And it’s what she tries to share through her business by offering not just organic herbs, but culinary classes, and educational weekends that you can help create based on your own interests. She’s also a big fan of supporting local farm-to-table food initiatives like the region’s annual Feast of Local Flavour.
Walking into the 150-year old barn where she holds some of her classes is like entering an aromatherapy spa; the main floor store is filled with dried flower bouquets (‘tussie-mussies’), fragrant wreaths and potpourri, pouches and jars of herbs and dry rubs, all quite overwhelming for amateurs in the kitchen like myself who wouldn’t know a saffron flower from a thistle. But Cynthia’s advice when it comes to choosing and combining herbs is as down-to-earth and calming as she is: “if you love the fragrance, you’ll love the flavour” – a philosophy that even I could put into practice.
Clearly, Cynthia’s passion for the land and for healthy foods has landed her in a very zen place, which lucky for her visitors and clients, is a place and a way of living that she is more than happy to share.
Keep Toronto, Just Give me That Countryside – and Wine!
Start a vineyard in Lambton/Sarnia? You must be nuts. And that’s exactly what Anne Alton tells her engineer husband, Marc, on a daily basis – not just when he decided to pursue his dream of a ‘hobby winery’, Alton Farms Estate Winery, in a rural region that had never grown a grape, but also when he continues to come up with other pioneering ideas.
Like the time Marc wanted to plant a Christmas tree farm – and 6 months later, a brutal winter froze and killed almost all of the 2,000 saplings. Or the time when he insisted they get a few sheep and Anne finally relented on the condition they would only buy female sheep or castrated rams so there would be no animal husbandry involved. Two sheep later (appropriately named Oopsie and Daisy), they realized the castrated ram they thought they had bought was actually “fully operational”, and since then, Anne has adopted every member of the growing flock as her ‘babies’.
But while Anne may have you laughing with her Life-on-the-Farm reality show stories, the wines that she and Marc produce are no joke. Every one of the 5 that I tasted could hold its own to a larger, more established winery’s, so between all the laughs and unplanned additions to their sheep herd, they’re doing something right. And even a happy accident (pouring Sauvignon into an oak barrel by mistake instead of Chardonnary), resulted in a delicious vintage that Anne best describes as a ‘party in your mouth’.
Hearing their trials and tribulations as newbie winemakers sounds like an episode of the 60’s TV show Green Acres – made more charming by Anne’s hilarious storytelling. Unfiltered and a self-admitted city-turned-country-mouse, she is the kind of person you could spend hours sharing stories with, with or without a glass of wine. But regardless of how long your visit, the experience is sure to leave you with more than just a delicious Dry Reisling to savour.
Sarnia: You Are Who We Meet
If the character of a place is reflected in its residents, then Anne, Cynthia and Nathan were a terrific cross-section of Sarnia itself: hard-working and entrepreneurial, sophisticated yet down-to-earth – proving that you don’t have to be in a big city to find success. In fact, in Sarnia, you might even have the chance to enjoy the lifestyle that comes with it.
And for the rest of us who may just be visiting and looking for things to do in Sarnia, it’s a great place to chat with the folks who live here over a beer, a cup of tea, or a glass of wine.