Photo: Bellwoods Brewery on a Thursday night
A lot has been written about the West Coast’s importance in the development of North America’s craft beer scene. Deservedly so, since the pioneering breweries in both the US and Canada appeared on the Pacific side of the continent, and Cascadia hosts the craft world’s most influential hop growing territory. It’s a fact that BC consistently outperforms other Canadian provinces in terms of craft beer market share and major awards won. With all this, one could be forgiven for feeling that our seniority and pedigree afford Left Coasters a superior position in the annals of Canadian brewing.
However, we see evidence at Vancouver’s Farmhouse Festival and Victoria’s Great Canadian Beer Festival that some of Canada’s best breweries reside in that darned, smug Ontario. If only grudgingly, one must admit that one might want to stop in and check some of them out, if one happened to find oneself in or around Universe Central. The Beer Seekers faced just that type of temptation this past summer and caved in readily.
We’re in the GT, Eh
The Greater Toronto Area has its fair share of breweries and beer bars. With only a couple of days in town, we had to be choosy.
An absolute must-visit was Bellwoods Brewery, with two locations. We were the envy of beer friends and family when we posted pictures from their original Ossington Ave brewpub, open late on a Thursday night. There were nine beers on tap, including some of the best beers of the trip, like Fruit Helmet: an incredibly delicious tart beer that looks and tastes like beer with pink grapefruit juice.
It’s not impossible to find a Bellwoods brew on tap in BC; in fact, right after our trip, son Kevin posted us back while drinking one at St. Augustine’s. Keep an eye on the What’s Brewing Top Picks Calendar for the next Bellwoods tap takeover in BC; one held last year at Darby’s Gastown caused a legendary lineup.
Located in the heart of downtown at King Street and Yonge, Beerbistro is an upscale taproom co-founded by Canada’s most famous beer writer, Stephen Beaumont. Although the beer list is heavily focused on bottles (100+), they also have 22 taps featuring a variety of beers from around Ontario, other parts of Canada, and the rest of the world. Two of the lines are one-keg-only offerings that are constantly rotating.
The best part of visiting Beerbistro was getting to meet What’s Brewing illustrator Emile Compion (a.k.a. Montevarious), who lives in T.O. We’re still impressed that he reached out to us years ago and joined our team from afar. He gave us what is now our most prized beer mat: a coaster featuring his artwork printed by Hamilton’s “art+brewing” specialists Collective Arts Brewing.
Blood Brothers, a family-owned brewery operating in an industrial area just outside of downtown Toronto since 2015, is another hot name in Canadian brewing. Their ten taps included three sours, two IPAs and several varieties of Pale Ale, many hazy or unfiltered. One of their signature moves is presenting variations on core recipes, so guests can compare two or three different versions of the same beer and compare flavours. For example, their Paradise Lost sour ale series included a Spiced Cherry, a raspberry/vanilla Razzle Dazzle, and one with pear and chai. All beers we tasted were well-crafted and enjoyable.
Amsterdam BrewHouse is a massive brewpub on the waterfront next to the CN Tower. The list of ~10 taps is presented in four categories: Crisp, Hoppy, Malt (only one beer, their Brown Ale) and Seasonal. The beer was good, and so was the food; not extraordinary, but solid. It’s a worthwhile visit, based on its location and history.
That history began in a small location as Amsterdam Brasserie and Brewpub in 1986 and evolved in 1988 when a second location called The Rotterdam opened. A few star BC brewers like Trading Post’s Tony Dewald got their start at the Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Today, the Rotterdam’s old King Street West location is Bier Markt, a chain with several locations across the GTA, Ottawa, Montreal and beyond. We visited and found that, while the beer list is extensive, only some of it is draught, and some of that is macro-owned. For instance, their Esplanade location is promoted as “Canada’s first Goose Island Craft Brewhouse.” Overall, the selection was not quite as interesting as Beerbistro, but there were still several excellent choices to be had.
The Ale Yards
Named after the industry that defines it, Toronto’s Stockyards District has an inglorious reputation that’s being transformed by a Port Moody-like row of breweries including Junction Craft Brewing, Rainhard and Shacklands. In 2017, the trio released a collab. brew named Aleyards IPA that cemented their alternative neighbourhood moniker.
If you don’t like the strong smell of dead livestock being processed, approach the Ale Yards from the West rather than the East. Otherwise you’ll walk through a vegetarian’s nightmare: massive slaughterhouses lining both sides of the road. Fortunately, the breweries a block away are safely stench-free once you step inside.
In particular you have to see the Shacklands tasting room, festooned with a hodgepodge of pop culture bric-a-brac. The beer is fantastic. But the best moment was when operator Dave Watts pulled out the second-ever issue of Northern Brewer, subtitled Canada’s Beer Magazine, published 1989. Mentioned in there is John Mitchell—recognized, then as now, as the pioneer of Canadian microbrewing—as well as a list of Canadian micros, including all five from BC. It was a great wrap-up to a hasty Toronto brewery tour.