A toast to our amazing array of local food and drink

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Ontario has some amazing craft beers, those small-batch, local brews that highlight a certain area or trait. They’re not cheap, but the taste alone speaks for the care that goes into their brewing.

I’ve been impressed with many of them; in particular, Legendary Oddity from Muskoka Brewery, a Belgian-style seasonal ale that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a beer garden in Brussels, imbibing with a Trappist monk.

Brewers here have enviable access to two key ingredients — incredible water and superb Canadian malting barley. They can thank another legend, Ontario Agricultural College plant breeder Charles Zavitz, for the latter. In the late 1880s, Zavitz took the unusual step of travelling to Russia to bring back hardy and productive barley varieties and further develop them here. That led to a line called OAC 21, which went on to become the dominant barley grown in western Canada for 50 years. Today, most barley lines in this country have some OAC 21 lineage in them.

It was research that developed OAC 21, and it’s heartening to see research and innovation up front in the new Barley Council of Canada’s mandate. The council formed last month to represent barley growers and processors, and recognized the pivotal role of research in advancing new varieties and products.

The interest in new products was apparent last year when the Liquor Control Board of Ontario released its annual sales figures, showing craft beer sales the world’s biggest liquor monopoly grew by an almost unbelievable 45 per cent in one year. Nothing at the LCBO grows by 45 per cent, other than the number of ID checks on a weekend.

Those sales wouldn’t happen if the LCBO hadn’t become more small-brewer friendly. It still has a ways to go before it sheds its stodgy reputation, but there are signs it and the provincial government are trying to reach out more with a local appeal.

One such effort is an event taking place Saturday, May 25, at the store on Scottsdale Drive in Guelph. There, three local passions — wine, food, and charitable giving — will come together for the Ontario Consumers’ Choice Riesling Challenge.

Regionally produced Riesling wine from 15 wineries will be featured, including that of University of Guelph alumnus Sue-Ann Staff’s Estate Winery, and the Megalomaniac Winery and the Foreign Affair Winery, located at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

At tasting stations throughout the store, patrons who pay a $10 fee will get to sample the wines; the tickets they purchase at each station will be tallied and at 4 p.m. two winners will be announced in dry and off-dry categories and presented with handcrafted trophies.

As well, participants will be able to pair their wines throughout the day with snacks, local bread and cheese and locally roasted coffee, making this an all-around local food event.

Better yet, proceeds from the participation fee for the Ontario Consumers’ Choice Riesling Challenge will go to the Bracelet of Hope project. Participating consumers will each receive a bracelet from the project, which stands as an example of international co-operation, a project aimed to assist Lesotho in overcoming its AIDS pandemic.

The Bracelet of Hope effort is led by Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, recipient of the Order of Ontario, an HIV physician in Guelph. In 2005, she founded and now directs the Masai Centre for Local, Regional and Global Health, to treat HIV/AIDS patients in the Guelph area. She is a regional HIV specialist.

Research creates new products, helps solve disease problems and contributes to the overall health of a society. It’s fascinating how it can all come together at one event.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph. His column appears Monday. Also, check out his Urban Cowboy blog at www.guelphmercury.com.

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