Tag Archives: Toronto

Beer of the Week – Mill Street Cherry Beer

This article was originally written in June 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in October 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after Taste T.O. was shut down and taken offline.

While I’m usually inclined to reach for a nice dry Pilsner or a hoppy Pale Ale when the weather gets warmer, I can understand the increased popularity of fruit beers in the summer months. Their fresh and lively flavours are a reminder of the warm weather harvest, and the often complex combination of sweetness and tartness that is found in many better quality fruit beers can be quite refreshing on a hot day.

So it makes sense that the folks at Mill Street would choose to make a cherry beer as the first summer seasonal at their brewpub. (Although I suppose the fact that they had a raspberry beer available during the early spring sort of ruins the “summer = fruit beer” angle I’m playing up here, doesn’t it? Damn.)

I’d been looking forward to this beer since my first visit to the pub when I saw it listed as a Kriek in the rotating seasonals section of the beer menu. Traditionally, Kriek is a variation on the Belgian Lambic style, with sour cherries added during fermentation. The result is a lip-smackingly tart beer that is one of my favourite styles, especially in the summer, and I was really curious to try a local take on it.

Unfortunately, when I stopped by the pub last week to give it a try, I discovered that what they ended up producing isn’t a Kriek at all, but rather a cherry-laced version of a fairly standard UK-style ale.

Once I got over my initial disappointment, though, I found it to be a fairly nice quaff. It has a distinct reddish tinge to the colour and a fairly still body with very little head. The aroma and flavour are both sweet, but not cloying, with a good balance of slightly fruity malt and fresh cherry. Some mellow hops come though in the finish – enough to be briefly noticeable, but not enough to seriously interfere with the primary malt and cherry characteristics.

I guess I’ll have to wait impatiently for Liefmans Kriek to hit LCBO shelves later this summer so I can get my sour fruit beer fix. But in the meantime, the Mill Street Cherry Beer is a pleasant diversion that I’ll be happy to try again during any further visits I may make to the Distillery District this summer.

Beer of the Week – Great Lakes Orange Peel Ale

This article was originally written in May 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after the Taste T.O. blog was shut down and taken offline.

In a local craft beer scene that has seen its fair share of well-intentioned failures, Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery is a low-key success story. Founded in 1987, Great Lakes spent many years brewing nothing but Golden Horseshoe, an easy drinking lager that was initially available only on draught. It was eventually bottled and joined by two other beers, Red Leaf Lager and Black Jack Black Lager. All three beers catered to fairly mainstream tastes, and while not wildly successful, they developed enough of a following to keep the small brewery operational for the last two decades.

Sometime last year, however, they suddenly decided to break from their usual mould and try something different with a series of seasonal releases. Their first effort, the full-flavoured Devil’s Pale Ale, was launched at last summer’s Festival of Beer at Fort York, and it surprised many local beer drinkers who knew the brewery from their trio of mellow lagers. Even more surprising was their Winter Ale, a strong spiced ale that was perfect for the holidays.

Most recently, the series has continued with Orange Peel Ale. As the name suggests, this golden ale had orange peel added during the boil, giving both the aroma and flavour an interesting citrus note that compliments the sweet malts and soft herbal hops. Despite the use of five specialty malts and five varieties of hops, this is not an exceedingly complex beer, and the orange notes are quite subtle. In fact, it’s quite reminiscent of a good UK session bitter, albeit with a slightly fruit-accented character. But given the sickly sweetness of many fruit beers, it’s nice to have one that doesn’t beat you over the head with the fruit, and just lets it be one aspect of a tasty, well-crafted beer.

One other good thing about Orange Peel Ale: Unlike the previous Great Lakes seasonals which were only available on draught or at the brewery, this one is part of the LCBO’s spring beer release (LCBO 615633, $4.95/650 mL). Quantities and distribution are limited, but it’s been so popular that the brewery is doing a second batch to meet demand, so you should be able to find it for at least the next few weeks.

Beer of the Week – C’est What Mild Brown Ale

This article was originally written in February 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after the Taste T.O. blog was shut down and taken offline.

To most North American drinkers, mention of a beer with a 3% to 4% alcohol level will undoubtedly bring to mind fizzy yellow light/lite lagers that taste even less of beer than their 5% kin. But fans of UK-style ales will more likely think of Mild Ale, a style that was once on the brink of extinction but that has been gaining popularity thanks to the efforts of CAMRA and other real ale supporters.

Brewed since the 1600s, if not earlier, the definition of Mild Ale has varied a bit over the years, but it has typically referred to malty ales that are darker in colour and have a lower alcohol content than Bitters and Pale Ales. Back when ales were generally stronger across the board, Milds would vary in strength from 5% to 7%, but most modern interpretations sit somewhere in the 3% to 4% range.

Like most traditional ale styles, Mild is more common in the UK (although even with CAMRA’s efforts, it still hasn’t been restored to the point where nearly every pub had a Mild on at least one of their taps). But with the increasing popularity of cask ales in North America, more and more microbreweries are taking a crack at the style.

The only local example of the style comes courtesy of C’est What (67 Front Street East), the almost-brewpub (their house beers are brewed off-site at County Durham Brewing) that has been at the forefront of Toronto’s craft beer scene for over 19 years. Their C’est What Mild Brown Ale had actually crept up to 4.1% abv, but it was recently reformulated back to its original 3.4% level without sacrificing any of its unique character.

In the glass, it has the appearance of a nut brown ale or even a light porter, with a ruby-brown body and light mocha head. Both the aroma and flavour hold notes of roasted malt, cocoa, coffee and toasted nuts, with a delicate touch of hops in the finish. The body is on the creamy side due to the fact that it is served using a nitro tap of the sort typically used to serve stouts and some cream ales. Personally, I’d rather have it served as a cask ale, but in this case the nitro doesn’t have as much of a negative effect as it can have on lighter beers. Dispensing method aside, it’s just nice to have a flavourful beer that one can quaff several pints of in a session without falling off one’s barstool in the process.

Esplanade Bier Markt

This article was originally written in February 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after Taste T.O. was shut down and taken offline.

Esplanade Bier Markt
58 The Esplanade
(416) 535-8089
dinner for two with beer, tax & tip: $125

I like good food. I like good beer. I really like good food and good beer together. So applying accepted scientific principles, it would seem that I should just love Esplanade Bier Markt. Before beerbistro and other so-called gastropubs came along, the Markt was the first place in Toronto that attempted to show that beer can be paired with good quality food just as well as wine. They had a beer list that was at the time rivalled only by the selection at Smokeless Joe, and they served a solid line-up of bistro-inspired dishes. All in all, it was a seemingly perfect place for me.

For a number of reasons, though, I’ve never really enjoyed myself there. The ambience suffers from a severe case of split personality, and while beer is obviously the Bier Markt’s main raison d’être, it sometimes feels as if it’s not given the attention it deserves. But before getting too negative, I should focus on some of the good things about the Bier Markt. As noted above, the food has always been great, and remains so under executive chef Michael Cipollo.

Keep reading this post

Beer of the Week – Denison’s Weissbier

This article was originally written in February 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after the Taste T.O. blog was shut down and taken offline.

Up until a few years ago, one of the best quick meals to be had in the downtown core was a heaping bowl of steamed mussels and clams at Conchy Joe’s, a welcoming seafood restaurant on Victoria Street. Along with adjacent steakhouse Louie’s Brasserie and downstairs neighbour Growler’s Pub, Conchy Joe’s was part of Denison’s, a brewpub specializing in classic German lager styles such as dunkel, hell, bock, marzen – great beers all. However, my favourite from the Denison’s line-up – and my regular companion to those mussels and clams – was their spectacular weissbier. And I wasn’t the only one to feel that way, as it was voted the best German-style weissbier in the world on RateBeer.com.

Sadly, landlord problems caused the entire Denison’s complex to be shut down in early 2003, and it looked like all of the Denison’s beers were dead. But thankfully, brewmaster Michael Hancock wasn’t willing to let that happen, and he was soon contract brewing Denison’s Weissbier at Mill Street Brewery using his original recipe. He’s since moved production to Black Oak Brewery in Oakville, but the beer remains the same as I remember it being back at Conchy Joe’s: an absolutely perfect rendition of the style, with the classic banana and clove combo in the aroma, wonderful fruit and yeast in the flavour, and an amazingly crisp and lingering finish that keeps you coming back for more. Like any good weissbier, it’s a great warm weather refresher, but it also has enough flavour and body to be enjoyable at any time.

My only complaint about this beer is that I have to go out to get it, as continuing demand from his draught accounts has made it impossible for Michael to make his beer available in bottles. But the upside to this is that his pride in his craft and his sense of perfectionism means that Michael always does his best to ensure that the bars and restaurants carrying his Weissbier (as well as his Dunkel, which he has also revived) serve it in the best condition possible. So while it may not be quite as fresh as it was when it was being served from a bar just a few feet from where it was brewed, you can generally be assured that any pint of Denison’s you order will be amongst the freshest beers available in Toronto. And if you can find a place where you can order some mussels and/or clams to go with the Weissbier, that’ll be a nice bonus.

Beer of the Week – Steam Whistle Pilsner

This article was originally written in January 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in September 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after the Taste T.O. blog was shut down and taken offline.

For this inaugural instalment of Beer of the Week, it seemed fitting to take a look at a beer that is synonymous with Toronto for many drinkers. Since its launch in 2000, Steam Whistle Pilsner has become one of Canada’s fastest growing craft beer brands, but even as their popularity has spread beyond our city’s borders, they’ve still managed to build and retain a reputation as Toronto’s hometown beer.

It’s a reputation that has been well-earned, as Steam Whistle founders Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell were all employees of Upper Canada Brewing, one of Toronto’s first microbreweries. When Upper Canada was bought by Sleeman and the original brewery closed down, the three friends moved on to other things, but the brewing world pulled them back in, and they began concocting plans in 1998 that led to the launch of Steam Whistle two years later. With it’s iconic 1950s-style branding and the picturesque brewery in The Roundhouse where they host numerous art and social events, it didn’t take long for their painted green bottles to become ubiquitous around the city.

Ah, yes, the green bottles. It’s hard to deny that they look snazzy as hell, but they are also one of the reasons that some beer aficionados have a problem with Steam Whistle. ‘Cause if there’s one thing that can ruin a beer – especially a light lager like Steam Whistle – it’s putting it in a green (or clear) bottle. Leave it sitting under light for even a little while and the beer will become light-struck or “skunky”, which is obviously not an ideal state for beverage enjoyment. In fact, the very first Steam Whistle I tried soon after its launch was completely skunked, and it took me a couple of years to give it another shot.

When I did try it again, it was on draught from a fresh keg, and I found it to be an enjoyable and refreshing pint. The colour has a nice golden hue, the aroma holds some inviting grassy hop notes, and the flavour is fresh and clean with a mellow maltiness and a nicely hopped finish. The flavour isn’t quite as full as some of the classic European pilsners like Czechvar and Urquell, and it also has a less prominent hop character, making it less bitter. But if you can find a place that has it on tap and keeps it fresh, it pairs well with many pub foods, and provides a fine accompaniment to warm afternoon on a patio.

I still stay away from the bottles, though…

Keepin’ It Real: A Guide to Cask Ale in Toronto

This article was originally written in October 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.

To most North Americans who have grown up drinking mainstream lagers that taste like rancid corn juice once they inch above near-freezing, the idea of drinking warm beer is positively stomach churning. That might be why there are so many derisive jokes about the British and their supposed love of warm beer. While there is a grain of truth in this stereotype, there are two very important factors to keep in mind:

1) “Warm” is this context means cellar temperature, or roughly 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

2) “Beer” is this context means traditional ales like bitters, pale ales and strong ales, not the adjunct-laden light lagers and golden ales that the big brewers specialize in.

To most beer aficionados, the best way to enjoy one of these traditional ale styles is in it’s most traditional state – unfiltered, unpasteurised and dispensed without artificial carbonation. Known as cask ale or real ale, this method of storing and dispensing beer is how things were done for centuries before the development of bottling, refrigeration, pasteurisation and pressurised kegs (not to mention the increasing popularity of light lager styles) all combined to drive these traditional ales to the brink of extinction. By the 1970s, traditional ales had all but disappeared from British pubs, and were a little-remembered relic of bygone days in North America.

However, thanks to the efforts of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the traditional British pub ale was saved from almost certain death. With a fervour that verges on the religious, the CAMRA folks have fought to save what they describe as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” 35 years after it was formed by four drinkers who just wanted to find a decent pint, CAMRA now boasts over 80,000 members around the world, and has helped to push cask ale to the forefront of the craft and micro brew movement.

Here in Ontario, the resurgence of cask ale can be traced back to Guelph’s Wellington Brewery, where they’ve been producing cask versions of their ales for over 20 years. In fact, they were the first modern North American brewery to offer real ales, and their Arkell Best Bitter and County Ale remain popular choices for Ontario publicans who serve cask-conditioned brews. In the subsequent two decades, other Ontario brewers including Granite Brewery, County Durham, Black Oak and Scotch-Irish have joined the cask ale revolution, often augmenting the cask versions of their beers with extra hopping, aging in whiskey barrels, and other unique twists.

The main drawback of cask ales is that they require much more care and attention than pasteurised and pressured kegs. It takes an experienced publican to properly store, tap and serve cask ale, and an honest one to keep an eye on the quality of the beer in order to ensure that it is not served once it is past its prime, which is generally three days or so after the keg is tapped. (Some pubs use a device called a cask breather to replace the oxygen in the cask with a small amount of carbon dioxide, which will help extend the freshness of the beer, although some purists consider this to be against the real ale philosophy and frown upon it.) As a result, there are very few pubs that are willing to take on the responsibility of serving cask ale, and places that do so are generally given strong support from local beer lovers.

One of Toronto’s strongest advocates of cask ale is Ralph Morana, the owner of cozy Italian eatery Volo (587 Yonge St.) which has unexpectedly become one of Toronto’s top beer hot-spots in the last couple of years. In addition to having two handpumps pouring a rotating selection of cask ales on a regular basis, Volo is also the location of Toronto’s first and only all-cask beer festival, the annual Volo Cask Days, with this year’s edition taking place on Saturday, October 21st. Over the course of two 5-hour sessions, attendees will be able to enjoy cask ales – and even a couple of unfiltered, unpasteurised lagers – from 21 Ontario breweries and homebrewers, plus a special guest from Quebec, the renowned brewpub Dieu Du Ciel. Some of the more anticipated beers at the festival include Black Oak’s H&H Overkill, a variation on their Pale Ale brewed with extra hops and jalapenos (“pronounced Halapenooooo!!!!”); Neustadt Springs Brewery‘s Big Dog Beaujolais Porter, which is their seasonal Big Dog Porter aged in a wine barrel; Heritage Brewing‘s Smokin’ Maple, brewed with maple sap and Bamberg smoked malt; and a Pear Ginger Oatmeal Stout from homebrewer George Eagleson.

While this event would be a great place for a cask ale newcomer to get their feet wet, it has been sold out for weeks, so if you don’t have a ticket you can try dropping by Volo on Sunday when the leftovers – should there be any – will be available for general sale. Alternatively, if you can’t make it to Volo this weekend but would still like to try a pint or two of cask ale, you can always visit one of the pubs listed below, all of which offer cask ale on a regular basis.

Just remember: when it comes to cask ale, fresher is better, so make a point of asking your server when the cask was tapped before placing your order. If it’s been more than three days, or they don’t know the answer, you’re better off sticking with the kegged stuff until you can find a cask that is guaranteed to be fresh.

The Bow & Arrow (1954 Yonge St.) –three casks, rotating between different beers

C’est What (67 Front St. E.) – five casks, one dedicated to their Al’s Cask Ale house beer & four rotating

Cloak & Dagger (394 College St.) – one cask, Wellington

Dora Keogh (141 Danforth Ave.) – one cask, as well as a second handpump serving Fuller’s London Porter from a keg without additional carbonation

The Duke of Kent (2315 Yonge St.) – one cask, Wellington

The Feathers (962 Kingston Rd.) – one cask, Wellington

Granite Brewery (245 Eglinton Ave E.) – two casks, Granite Best Bitter Special & Granite IPA

Smokeless Joe (125 John St.) – one cask, County Durham

Victory Caf̩ (581 Markham St.) Рone cask, rotating

Volo (587 Yonge St.) – two casks, rotating

 

A Brief Introduction to Toronto’s Craft Beer Scene

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.