Tastings School - Toronto the good

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Toronto the good

Canada is a major player in the beer revolution that is sweeping North America. Robert Hughey seeks out the beer venues in its largest city.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city with a population just under five million, was once known as ‘Toronto the Good’ because it was a bastion of Victorian morals. Reviving the line with a slight revision might nudge closer to the truth of today: Toronto, the Good Beer Place. Quite a relief, really, after years of the mass-produced lagers and ales churned out by Canada’s two big breweries, Molson and Labatt, now owned and manipulated by foreign concerns.

Too long the domain of dark, grungy taverns with burly men huddled around tiny glasses of icy cold beer covering small round tables, Toronto has steadily seen the rise of a wide variety of distinctive and welcoming places in which to sample and consume beer. Today this cosmopolitan city offers a myriad of beer choices, from fine hoppy cask ales to sparkling Czech-style lagers and robust Imperial stouts, with a full array of seasonals to challenge the palate and delight the beer drinker any time of the year.

Bar Volo, a former Italian restaurant and wine bar, has emerged as one of the city’s main beer attractions thanks to owner, Ralph Morana. At 587 Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, the cozy Volo, with its eclectic furnishings, has a stunning and everchanging lineup of locally brewed beers on tap. Recently on tap: Denison’s Weissbier, a spritzy wheat beer that delivers a fresh banana and cloves aroma and lively citric notes on the palate; Mill Street Tankhouse Ale, a generously hopped American style pale ale; Black Oak Pale Ale, full of peppery hops poutingly playful on the palate; Denison’s Dunkel, a Munich style dark lager with notes of roasted malt, toast and chocolate; the citric hop driven Durham Hop Addict; MacLean’s Pale Ale revealing Fuggle hops as the brewery moves toward single varietal hops for its range of beers, seeking finesse and subtlety over kick-ass, burn the throat hopping; Church Key West Coast IPA, an aggressively hop bitter ale from a micro near Campbellford; and Plowman’s Ale, a forthright hop bitter ale from Ontario’s newest microbrewery, Grand River Brewing in Cambridge.

Bar Volo does a fabulous cask conditioned beer event in October, offering around 25 to 30 new beers brewed specificially for the two-day event by Ontario’s microbreweries and a few homebrewers, served up alongside artisanal cheeses and funky bread. Beware that Volo opens at 4pm and is closed on Sunday.

A few doors along behind Volo on Dundonald is Local 4, which has a very decent selection of microbrewery beers on draught and good food.

Just east of downtown in the Historic Distillery District, which was built in the late 1870s, and is a well-preserved example of classic Victorian industrial architecture, resides the Mill Street Brewpub at 55 Mill Street, Building 63. It has been transformed from a basic stainless steel brewery to a showcase brewery, pub and restaurant, where a slate of new beers and fine fare fit in neatly alongside Mill Street beer stalwarts Tankhouse Ale and Coffee Porter.

Dark wood panelling is set off by red and mustard coloured painted brick. On the walls, stylised artwork depicts people contentedly consuming Mill Street Brewery beers. Wooden booth dividers are topped with half moons of cut glass inlaid with brewery brand names such as Tankhouse Ale. Dark stained wooden floors are laid throughout, with tile directly in front of the bar.

Overhead large black and burnished nickel chandeliers have the words water, malt, hops and yeast imprinted on their sides, and in the summer there is extensive patio seating.

On the beer front, new beers reveal more refined flavours to tempt the palate. Mill Street Pilsner is a pale golden German style lager showcasing a brisk hop presence. Mill Street ESB has a malty imprint that is embraced by a forthright hop attack, and a long bitter finish. The ebony coloured Mill Street Cobblestone Stout has roast, toast and coffee in the nose and a dry, bitter finish. The copper coloured Mill Street IPA delivers a hit of hops and malt upfront, followed by a hop attack, leading to a long, bitter finish.

The Victory Cafe, located at 581 Markham Street in Mirvish Village in the Annex area below the garish glare of Honest Ed’s discount store, is known for its succulent hamburgers, weekly poetry readings and savoury weekend brunches with background jazz. In the summer months, a wrap-around patio encloses the front and the side of the twin rambling Victorian houses that make up the Victory. On tap as a cask conditioned ale, sample Durham Brewing Company’s Hop Head, a light, refreshing ale featuring a citric flavoured hop attack. Or try the F&M Stone Hammer Pilsner, a crisp German style pilsner, or the hop peppered Great Eastern IPA from Saint Andre, a contract brewer.

If you’re lucky, Maz, aka the beer wench from Manchester, may be about and available for a chat about hops, beer and brewing, or just about anything else.

The Granite Brewery, located at 245 Eglinton East at Mt. Pleasant in an area known for its antique and art shops, brews some fine English-style ales and serves them up in a comfortable 170-seat pub environment. Starting out as a brewpub, the Granite switched its license to that of a microbrewery a few years back so that it could retail growlers through its own on-site outlet and ship beer to other pubs. The Granite has a busy airy front bar with floor to ceiling windows and a library room on the opposite side of the entranceway. A snug sits adjacent to the glass enclosed, 10 hectolitre, fullmash, electric-fired brewery, and next to a large dining space at the back, which has a raised gas fireplace at one end and is the venue for Brewers’ Banquets and weddings. There are patios front and back, where a colourful mural by local artist Julian Mulock has pride of place.

The Granite Brewery, under brewer and publican Ron Keefe, has seven regular beers and one seasonal, the Summer Ale. The Best Bitter, Best Bitter Special, Winter IPA and the Summer Ale are cask conditioned. The Best Bitter is a rich copper coloured bitter, well hopped in the English tradition, with a pleasant hop fragrance from Yakima Fuggles in the nose and a smooth dry finish. Best Bitter Special is the Best Bitter generously dry-hopped with Fuggles hops. The IPA features East Kent Golding hops in this assertively hopped ale.

Allen’s, 143 Danforth Avenue on the edge of Greek Town, is situated amid a plethora of home furnishing stores and restaurants featuring all manner of world cuisines, from Greek to Japanese.

Allen’s is a long narrow American style bar and restaurant with a few booths facing the sturdy polished oak bar at the front of the house and at the back an eclectic scattering of wooden chairs and tables that are draped in fresh blue and white gingham tablecloths. The erudite proprietor John Maxwell runs a good house with crisp service.

Chalkboards list a good range of interesting beers with, for example, the hop-driven Sergeant Major’s IPA from Scotch Irish Brewing, Ottawa, and the finely crafted crisp King Pilsner, a Czech style pilsner, the neatly balanced MacLean’s Pale Ale from the F&M Brewery, Guelph, and Amsterdam Nut Brown as the featured microbrews on tap, with some 100-plus diverse offerings in bottle. There is also an excellent selection of around 210 single malt whiskies available for tasting, as well as Waupoos Cider and superb Ontario VQA wines. Here in summer you will find a fabulous naturally shaded backyard featuring good food such as barbecued rack of lamb, steaks and ribs, with creative side salads. Next door to Allen’s is Dora Keogh’s traditional Irish pub, which opens at four and serves a mean pint of Guinness and Steam Whistle Pilsner in its draught range.

The Steam Whistle Brewing Company, in the shadow of the landmark CN Tower at 255 Bremner Blvd., occupies space in the historic CPR John Street Roundhouse, which dates from 1928, and originally housed steam locomotives for servicing in its 32 stalls. Steam Whistle brews a single beer, Steam Whistle Pilsner, a golden coloured German-style pilsner, with floral hop notes mingling with fresh malty aromas in the nose, leading to a crisp, dry finish. It’s sold in kegs and in a distinctive and stylish embossed green bottle circa 1945. Uniquely, the brewery is powered by steam from the central Toronto steam system. Brewery tours by appointment for groups of 10 or more, otherwise hourly tours seven days a week from 1pm to 5pm.

In the St. Lawrence Market area (time your visit for Saturday during the busy farmer’s market and pick up a steaming hot peameal bacon sandwich, aka Canadian bacon) and close to the theatre district, is C’est What? at 67 Front Street East. Under publican George Milbrandt, it is one of the original bars to support the microbrewery industry. C’est What? has some 35 microbrewed beers on tap in its refurbished cavernous cellar devoted to beer, including up to five cask ales. Featured among the beers, are it’s own contract brews: the hoppy Al’s Cask Ale, Chocolate Ale, Coffee Porter on nitro-tap and Hemp Ale. Sample from: Arkell Best Bitter, Wellington County Brewery, Guelph, the first brewery to do cask conditioned ales in 1985; F&M Stonehammer Dark Ale on cask, F&M Brewery, Guelph; 10W30, Neustadt Brewing of Neustadt; Nut Brown Ale, Black Oak Brewery; Irish Stout from Amsterdam and Great Lakes Brewery Devil’s Pale Ale, both of Toronto.

Beerbistro, at 18 King Street East near to the centre of the business district, resides in a bit of an odd, voluminous space, what used to be the lobby of the building, that is softened by dark wood, cream colours and an active open kitchen at the back, and a half-moon bar at the front.

Beerbistro has made a considerable effort to bring food and beer to the table in imaginative combinations. Under the direction of chef and owner Brian Morin, Beerbistro uses beer as an integral ingredient in food with such offerings as pizza dough made with beer, flatbreads made with oatmeal stout and pan fried catfish with pilsner black eyed pea orzo.

With some 20 beers on tap such as King Dark Lager, Blanche de Chambly and La Maudite from Unibroue of Chambly, Quebec, Magnotta Altbier, the stellar St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from Montreal, Quebec, and close to 100 bottled beers from around the world, the beer drinker has plenty of options.

Try also: Bow and Arrow at Yonge and Davisville, Rebel House on Yonge near Rosedale Subway, The Only Cafe near Danforth and Donlands, Smokeless Joe on John St. near King.

Toronto has a rich and developing beer culture that will grandly reward those who are willing to come and explore in detail the exceptional establishments serving up finely crafted microbrewery beers throughout the city.

Seasonal specialties

And if you are fortunate enough, you might sample one of these great seasonal specialties, which may either be found in bottle or on draught...

ORANGE PEEL ALE from the Great Lakes Brewery, Toronto, is brewed with six different malts and five varieties of hops, including Saaz and Cascade. Also in the mix are generous amounts of dried orange peel, fresh orange peel, and fresh oranges, all going into the boil, mainly in the later stages. The beer features citrus notes from both the fruit itself, as well as from the tangy citric Cascades hops, with a dash of late dryness, resulting in a beer of high drinkablity. Phil DiFonzo, head brewer and owner of the King Brewery, Nobleton, has been tweaking the King Pilsbock, making it a little bit thicker with a more pronounced bock flavour, that is, more towards a Maibock. The revised bock flavour is a bit like tangy marmalade, with the Saaz hops having played their part too. Samples revealed a touch of caramel, a burst of hop flavour and a defining bitterness, followed by a late dryness, making for a highly drinkable end product.

GREAT LAKES WINTER ALE 2006/2007 is a true winter warmer, weighing in at more than 6.2% ABV, with a rich auburn colour and a distinctive ruby hue. Handcrafted with a variety of specialty hops and malts, combined with generous amounts of cinnamon, ginger and orange peel, this beer pours with a thick crop of almond coloured foam, while releasing enticing aromatics of fruit, spice and Christmas pudding notes. This fairly full bodied ale delivers notes of port, a dash of warming alcohol and a late hit of ginger dryness.

THE 2006 BLACK OAK NUTCRACKER, a 5.5% ABV robust stout, from the Black Oak Brewery, Oakville, pours with a thick collar of malted milk coloured foam. This deep ebony ale reveals roast notes alongside a whiff of piney hops and chocolate. On the palate, there’s an enticing opening of roast, followed by an undercurrent of hop bitterness, with alcohol pushing out gently from beneath. The finish is leading edge dry, with a trace of chalkiness, a hint of spice (cinnamon?) and a late hit of chocolate.

MACLEAN’S SCOTCH ALE, a traditional Scottish winter warmer draught beer at 7% ABV is brewed by the F&M Brewery in Guelph. Brown in colour with reddish hues, it contains plenty of rich malt with balancing hop bitterness underneath. In the finish, MacLean’s Scotch Ale delivers a warming mouthful of juicy malt, chocolate and a hint of background alcohol.

WELLINGTON IMPERIAL RUSSIAN STOUT, at 8% ABV, is brewed by the Wellington Brewery Inc. in Guelph. This full bodied dark ebony coloured stout has toasted and roasted barley notes surrounded by chocolate flavours invading the senses. Nicely balanced stout with roasted barley malt flavours and good hop bitterness with recessed alcohol. Long finish with hop dryness and malt dryness from the roasted barley is finely tuned with just enough balancing malt sweetness in this wonderfully complex stout.