This article was originally written in May 2006 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.
If you’re a lover of fine beer and you live in Ontario, life is often frustrating. The selection of beers available to you – at least on a retail level – is limited to what the overlords at the Beer Store/LCBO duopoly think you should be consuming. At the Beer Store, consumers in most outlets are still forced to place their orders at a counter based on a wall of tiny logos, which undoubtedly stifles the chances of many smaller breweries and imports finding new customers (although the owners of the Beer Store – Labatt, Molson and Sleeman – probably prefer it that way). At the LCBO, beer often seems like an afterthought: local craft beers that are clearly labelled “Keep Refrigerated” are displayed on warm shelves under harsh lighting; the import selection rarely changes and is focused largely on a plethora of indistinguishable pale lagers; and the limited seasonal releases are small, badly promoted, and poorly distributed.
Still, there are some positive things to be said about our local beer scene. The selection of Ontario craft beers at both major outlets has improved in the last couple of years, and our local brewers are taking more chances, making bolder beers both as year-round products and as interesting seasonals and one-off experiments that are available in bars and via direct brewery sales. The LCBO has a few world-class imports on their general list, and others appear in the seasonal releases, generally at prices that are quite a bit lower than those paid by our American friends at their private liquor stores. And in Toronto in particular, specialist beer bars and restaurants have started depending more and more on private and consignment orders to offer patrons beers that aren’t available anywhere else on Ontario.
As Gremolata’s new beer writer, I’ll be trying to focus on these positive aspects of the beer scene in Toronto and Ontario. That’s not to say that I won’t sometimes go off on a rant about the latest stupid beer decision made by the LCBO, but generally, I’ll be bringing you information about the people and places that are fighting the good fight for great beer.
To start things off, I thought I’d give a quick overview of some of those people and places. In future instalments, I’ll be giving some of these folks and establishments more in-depth coverage – just think of this as a sampler tray in advance of the full pints to come.
The undisputed nexus of Toronto’s beer scene is The Bar Towel. Launched in 1998 by beer aficionado Cass Enright, the site was initially a sort of proto-blog about his favourite beers and bars, but has become better known in recent years for its very active forum where local drinkers, brewers, importers and bar owners gather to discuss the business and pleasure of beer. The site also has a news feed – maintained by yours truly – that features event announcements, brewery & bar news, info about new product releases, and more.
As for the folks who brew the tasty beverage, most of the province’s small and mid-sized breweries banded together last year to form the Ontario Craft Brewers. Through their website, LCBO displays and other promotional events, the group hopes to expose more Ontarians to the beers that are born, bred and brewed in their own cities and towns.
If you’re looking for a place to go out and try some OCB wares in Toronto, you’ve got quite a few options. One of the original craft beer bars in Toronto is C’est What (67 Front St. E.), a casual restaurant and pub at that has featured a wide variety of Ontario and Quebec microbrews – as well as a few house beers – since they opened in 1988. Just a couple of blocks away, you’ll find the newer and more upscale beerbistro (18 King St. E.), where chef Brian Morin and beer expert Stephen Beaumont have embarked on a mission “to celebrate fresh market beer cuisine elevating it to a new level of sophistication and flavour.” Their tap list includes a good mixture of locals and imports, and their extensive bottle list delves even further into the many styles of beer, including some very rare cellar exclusives.
Heading up Yonge Street you’ll find Volo, a somewhat unassuming little Italian eatery that has become one of Toronto’s essential beer destinations. Originally a wine guy, owner Ralph Morana discovered the joys of beer a couple of years ago and decided to build a beer list for his place. He now boasts one of the most unique selections of beer in the city, including exclusive offerings from well regarded American breweries like Hair Of The Dog, Bear Republic and Great Divide that he has brought in on private order.
Further north is The Granite (245 Eglinton Ave. E.), Toronto’s only true brewpub with a half-dozen beers brewed on-site and served fresh. The Granite’s English style ales pair well with their hearty pub grub, and thanks to changes in brewery legislation a couple of years ago, they are now allowed to sell their beer at other locations such as Volo, where you will often find Granite Best Bitter on the cask ale handpump.
Hopefully, following the links and visiting the locations above will give you a good taste of what our local beer community has to offer.