When one thinks of Canadian beer, thoughts of traditional lagers come to mind, such as Labatt, Molson and Moosehead. However, in the city recognized as Canada’s financial center and known for the CN Tower, the NHL’s Maple Leafs and the MLB’s Blue Jays, Toronto is going through a craft brew revolution that will change how you think about beer from our northern neighbors. I recently took the short, ninety minute flight to the city on Lake Ontario to experience the explosion of Canadian craft brewing for myself.
The Beerbistro was at the top of my list of places to visit in Toronto. Opened in 2003 by Monk’s owner Tom Peters, Fergie’s owner Fergie Carey, chef Brian Morin, and beer writer Stephen Beaumont, Beerbistro is considered by some to be the wellspring for the craft brew movement in Toronto. With a beer list that reads more like a beer pairing book (referred to as the “Beer Bible”), Beerbistro offers hundreds of bottled, canned and draft selections including American craft brews from Victory, Brooklyn, and Rogue, multiple European selections from Belgium (Cantillon, Westvleteren), Germany (Schneider, Hacker-Pschorr), England, Scotland and Ireland. And of course, Beerbistro carries the up and coming craft brews from Ontario.
The bar manager, Raymond, happily spent time with me, showcasing the best attributes of Beerbistro. He served me an order of their world famous frites with homemade mayo and spicy ketchup, a mainstay on the ever-evolving menu at Beerbistro. According to Raymond, people come from around the world to have these frites with their beer. After a few bites, I could see why, especially when I washed them down with a De Koninck on draft, an amber Belgian ale that paired very well with the saltiness of the frites.
In what is believed to be a first for Canada, Beerbistro cellars and offers vintages of Orval. When I was there, the Beerbistro cellar had the Orval October 2012, January 2012, March 2011 and January 2010 vintages available. And that is not all—the cellar also contained several bottles that some would consider “whales,” such as Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva 2005 and Cantillon St. Lamvinus (2009).
To help me understand the growing Toronto craft beer scene, Raymond explained that 10 years ago, Beerbistro was alone in its love for craft beer—in fact, it was the only place in Canada to get Cantillon. In recent years, more beer-centric pubs have opened, and in the past year or two, little craft breweries have made themselves known. As an example of one of Ontario’s finest craft brews, Raymond poured me a Cameron’s Rye Pale Ale. With a citrusy aroma and scent of peaches and apricots, this fine representation of Canadian craft slid right down.
The Beerbistro offers three new beers every week, and for my last sample of Canadian craft brew at Beerbistro, Raymond offered me a newly tapped Church- Key Holy Smoke, an incredibly flavorful but drinkable Rauchbier with the distinctive aroma of smoked ham. After I thanked Raymond for his beer tour and insight into Toronto, I bid him farewell and decided it was time to try some Toronto-style food.
Whenever you ask someone from Toronto what type of food the city is known for, more likely than not you will be sternly informed that Toronto is an international city and therefore embraces all international cuisine—not just one style. But if you spend any amount of time walking through the financial district, you will notice one thing—hot dog vendors on the streets. Some locals may not agree, but I would venture to say that Toronto loves hot dogs.
Recognizing Toronto’s affinity for sausage, Brian Morin, a Toronto native and one of the founding fathers of Beerbistro, opened Craft Dogs in May 2013 after his hand-crafted hot dogs met with unbelievable success at Beerbistro. Just a block and a half east on King Street from Beerbistro, Craft Dogs focuses on creating hot dog masterpieces from locally raised meats and other ingredients. While the best seller is the “Naked Dog,” a pork shoulder and beef chuck sausage with any toppings you choose, Brian has developed other specialty wieners. When I was there, some dogs of note included the “Reindeer Dog”—a sausage made with reindeer shank and pork shoulder accompanied on the roll by arugula, brie, caramelized onion and cherry compote; and the “Thanksgiving Dog”—a white and dark meat turkey sausage surrounded by celery apple stuffing, roasted onion, and maple cranberry sauce pepper.
Of course, nothing goes better with a hot dog (even a fancy hot dog) than draft beer, and Brian has ensured that his patrons at Craft Dogs have worthy pairings for their meals by offering Canadian craft beer. When I was there, draft choices included local brews King Pilsner and Mill Street Organic, but bottled beer such as Anchor Steam was also available. Because I ordered the “Oktoberfest Dog,” a pork shoulder and belly sausage with house made sauerkraut, black mustard mayo and pretzel pieces sprinkled on top, I went with the King Pilsner, which was the perfect match. To quote some of the artwork in Craft Dogs, it was a “nice weiner.”
Brian told me that although Craft Dogs hasn’t been open for a full year yet, the response has been great, especially from the college crowd. Since Brian has been involved in the craft beer scene for the past ten years, I asked his opinion on the recent explosion in Toronto craft breweries. He said, “I used to be able to name every single brewery in Ontario and today I can’t —they are popping up like crazy. It’s a brand new renaissance up here. We’ve got some young brewers who are really passionate and [have] gotten some education, and we’re seeing some interesting saisons and imperial stouts—it’s refreshing.”
As I enjoyed a traditional “Golden” in the Molson Pub waiting for my flight back to Philadelphia, I reflected on my visit. What had become abundantly clear to me is that Toronto is going through an exciting craft beer discovery period, much like Philadelphia did 15 years ago. The old standards—such as Labatt, Molson and Moosehead—as well as the newer standards—Steam Whistle and Amsterdam—are still in high demand, but small craft brewers are making their voices heard.
Anyone who enjoyed the emergence of craft beer in Philadelphia would be well-advised to put Toronto into their travel plans and see it all again. It’s an exciting time in a beautiful and friendly city, and I can’t wait to return.
Because my time in Toronto was brief, I was unable to heed the advice of Raymond and Brian and left many stones unturned. A few places that will be on my list for my next visit include:
barVolo – [barvolo.com] Opened as an Italian café in 1985, barVolo has embraced Canadian craft beer and its 30 taps and casks are constantly changing.
Bar Hop – [www.barhopbar.com] 36 craft beers on tap with rotating selections, plus 2 rotating cask selections; 100 canned/bottled selections.
C’est What – [www.cestwhat.com] Described as “Toronto’s cultural ambassador, offering a diverse menu of comfort food made from scratch with real, honest ingredients alongside an unsurpassed selection of local craft beer, wine, and original music. We are Toronto’s ‘local’.”
The Biermarkt – [www.thebiermarkt.com] With three locations in Toronto, the Biermarkt represents Toronto’s international reputation by offering 150 beers from 30 countries, with a large selection of Canadian craft beer.