The knobs of skewered meat resting on a plate at the bar are hard to identify. Unfamiliar meat beside a row of beer taps does not normally mark high gastronomic standards, but the knobs are not unknowable aggregate sausage. It turns out they are duck hearts. And the beer taps are not pouring any old beer. The pale, amber and dark ales being passed over the bar are from the latest batch of a hopping “craft brew” scene that's getting Toronto beer lovers all frothy.
When Bellwoods Brewery (and pub) started pouring its half-dozen beers this week in a former auto-mechanic shop in deepest Ossington, it was another sign the local brewing scene is recovering from decades of suffering under industry consolidation and Prohibition-era legislation. With looser provincial laws and the recent establishment of a handful of at least five craft brewing operations, which produce smaller batches of more richly flavoured beer, Toronto is starting to catch up with craft brewers in Quebec, British Columbia and in the United States, where 2,000 craft brewers have 9 per cent of the beer market and are growing 15 per cent a year in an otherwise slowly shrinking market.
A canoe paddle used for stirring pungent ingredients rests against one of six shiny tanks behind a glass partition at the end of Bellwoods’s bar. Co-owner Luke Pestl says the plan is to let great beer and food fill the 40 indoor and 40 patio seats. Customers don't have to be the sitting kind, though. Mr. Pestl and his partner Mike Clark are renovating the adjacent storefront as a storage and retail outlet.
That extra capacity will bring them up to about 4,600 bottles a week, which puts them hardly at all closer to the fermented hops giants, Molson and Labatt. Torontonian Nick Pashley, author of Cheers! An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada, says aggressive mid-century consolidation by the two brewers “pretty much took care of any remaining independent brewers in southern Ontario until 1984.”
The two breweries, no longer wholly Canadian-owned, maintain a marketing stranglehold over the industry, but agile Toronto microbrewers such as Steam Whistle, Mill Street, Amsterdam, Black Oak and Great Lakes have shown it's possible to carve space on shelves at The Beer Store (a business owned by Labatt, Molson and Sleeman).
As Mr. Pashley notes, these pioneering microbreweries not only served as a bridge between factory brewing and craft brewing, they are also lately moving more toward craft brewing themselves.
“There has been timidity in local brewing. We tend to go for the safe choice,” he says, before adding that may be changing. Great Lakes Brewery, Toronto's oldest surviving microbrewery, made “pretty unchallenging” beers until the 2006 release of Devil's Pale Ale, according to Mr. Pashley. Black Oak, Great Lakes and stalwart brew pub Granite Brewery have lately installed smaller “pilot” set-ups for making small-batch beers that can be experimental without being financially ruinous.
Next month the Indie Alehouse Brewing Co., another combination brewery-pub-restaurant-retailer, will open on Dundas West in the Junction. It will join Junction Craft Brewing, Spearhead Brewing Co. and the Kensington Brewing Co., all based in Toronto and opened last year.
Indie Alehouse owner Jason Fisher says this is the free market acknowledging that more beer drinkers are rejecting the big brewer's model of pumping out inoffensive beer and then pushing it hard with marketing.
“They say, 'Be our customer. And after you've had our ice beer you can have our cold-filtered beer and then our draft beer,' and so on, through the labels,” says Mr. Fisher.
In addition to pouring and selling on site, he hopes to see his beers available in about 10 pubs. There should be plenty of tap space for him, but this wasn’t always the case.
“Seven years ago, there were about 10 bars in Toronto pouring two or more local craft beers,” says Mr. Fisher. “Now there are hundreds.”
What’s more, twelve years ago, in his neighbourhood, his practice would have been illegal. It was only in 2000 that his Junction neighbourhood renounced Prohibition’s “local option” and stopped being dry. An extreme case of teetotalling, perhaps, but brewer Jon Downing explains that it took about 15 years, starting in the mid-1980s with the Upper Canada Brewing company, for pioneering microbreweries to convince the provincial government to update Prohibition-era laws hobbling brewers.
Mr. Downing runs a teaching brewery at Niagara College. Now two years old, it's the only one of its kind in North America and had more than 600 applicants for 33 spots last year.
In 1985 he opened Ontario's first modern brew pub in Welland (and has licence BPL#001 to prove it) and says the “restrictive, complicated and nuanced” brewing licences that he had to contend with have since given way, making it easier for small operators to do things like sell beer out their front door.
So, how does it taste? Heather Horton can't get enough. The 37-year-old painter from Burlington was accepted as one of Bellwoods's pre-opening tasters.
She says she's sampled close to a thousand beers since stopping into a Belgian bar in New York City five years ago.
“I was so naïve,” says Ms. Horton.” I didn't know beer doesn't have to taste like nothing.”
She says the four Bellwoods brews she tried are at the top of their classes. “They are brewing with courage,” she says. “There's an edge to them that's absent in the macro beer out there. It's almost as if the macro brewers are afraid to offend people. They would rather give someone liquid Pablum than have them sit up and take notice of what they are drinking.”
The city's new batch of craft brewers are banking on Torontonians being ready to find a bar stool, sit up and take notice.