Chris Nuttall-Smith on the craft-brewing movement that’s taking over Toronto

Chris Nuttall-Smith on the craft-brewing movement that’s taking over Toronto

Bar Volo is the spiritual home to many of Ontario’s best beer makers (Image: Igor Yu)

In a dingy former office at the back of Great Lakes Brewery in Etobicoke, nine waist-high, 50-litre fermenters gently burble with what might be some of the most interesting beers ever brewed in Ontario, spitting out carbon dioxide and foam through clear plastic tubes as the yeast in the liquid does its work. There’s a ginger-goosed Belgian saison in the canister marked Ginga Ninja, while the sweet, fragrant, whitish brew in the one called Bag ’O Mango is feeding on a couple of kilograms of chopped fresh fruit. Mike Lackey, Great Lakes’ ball-capped and goateed experimental brewer, has also got a couple of wheat beers going (one of which is marked Miami Weiss), plus four hop-addled, bitter-edged, high-alcohol India Pale Ales (including RoboHop, My Bitter Wife and The Etobichoker) and a cloudy, oaky, slightly cheesy and intensely sour beer—one of the first of its kind in Canada—that’s made with lactobacillus yogurt bacteria and a finicky wild yeast called brettanomyces. (That one is named Heavy Bretting.)

Lackey and his bosses at Great Lakes are at the leading edge of a radical movement in the land of Molson and Labatt: they’re crafting beers that are specifically meant to have bold taste. A surge of microbreweries, many of them new, has started producing IPAs, extra special bitters, imperial stouts, Belgian wheat beers, fruit beers, dark, malty, full-figured, almost confected-tasting porters, and—if Lackey has his way—Flanders-style sour beers, most of which haven’t been made in Ontario in generations, if ever. Brewing is by far the most creative, risk-embracing and accessible field in food and drink in Ontario right now—when your product sells for just $7 a pint, the stakes are low enough that you can try out new things—and it’s only getting more interesting by the week.

At Great Lakes, Lackey has developed hundreds of beers in the last couple of years—he often comes up with 15 or 20 new recipes in a month. Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill, in the two years since it started its own experimental program, has released dozens of limited-edition trial casks and bottlings with names like Night Märzen, Screaming Beaver, Matt’s Sleepy Time and Bog Water, which is made with wild-foraged bog myrtle. Black Oak Brewing Co., based in Oakville Etobicoke, has developed a double-chocolate cherry stout aged in whiskey casks, a nut-brown ale that tastes like pie spice and sweet potato and a beer called Transvestite’s Tipple that’s reminiscent of pineapple, fresh bread and citrus zest. At Flying Monkeys in Barrie, company CEO Peter Chiodo is making one entirely new experimental beer each week, the more extreme the flavour, the better.

This is a major change of direction for the brewery; before it rebranded as Flying Monkeys two years ago, it was called The Robert Simpson Brewing Co., and it made just two products: an arch-conservative golden ale and a light beer. Chiodo has just finished brewing a 15-litre batch of the world’s most bitter beer, called Alpha-fornication for its surfeit of puckery, piney, citrus pith–like isomerized alpha acids, which come from hops. Though bitterness this pronounced is hard to measure, Chiodo says Alpha-fornication topped out at around 2,500 bittering units, compared with around five for the typical mass-market light lager. “It’s quite drinkable,” he says. He’s also hoping that with the aid of a blast freezer—and the advice and labour of a couple dozen engineers—he will soon make the world’s highest-alcohol beer, with a gravity of 62 per cent. In the meantime, he’s close to nailing a final recipe for the beer he calls his holy grail: a highly ageable brew for which he’s experimented with turbinado, demerara and Belgian candi sugar, plus maple syrup, fistfuls of Madagascar vanilla pods and bourbon-soaked oak barrel staves, in addition to the usual malt, yeast, water and hops. The beer, called Divinity, will have close to 32 per cent alcohol, a velvety texture, a sweet, Port-like taste and a colour he describes as “gruesome black.”

“It’s craft brewing,” Chiodo says with a savvy smile. “Why not go aaaaaall the way?” Divinity will sell for $50 per 750 mL bottle. Though it won’t be ready until Christmas, it has already been sold out for months.

UPDATE: The headline of this article has been modified.

Aside from the novelty of all these beers, the most incredible thing about them is how readily (and suddenly) they’re finding a market well beyond the expected true-believer types. Great Lakes’ Crazy Canuck, a new pale ale with a hoppy, unmistakably bitter finish, won a general listing from the LCBO this past spring and quickly became the most successful release in the company’s 25-year history, even though it’s a little strange to unaccustomed palates. “Its acridly bitter taste is way beyond gross and its metallic aftertaste makes you think you’ve been licking lawn furniture,” one angry customer wrote in an email to the brewery. Great Lakes proudly posted the note on its Facebook page.

Flying Monkeys, too, has done incredibly well with a general audience. Sales of the first beer released under the Flying Monkeys label, a full-flavoured, fruit- and resin-edged, hop-riddled, mildly bitter ale called Hoptical Illusion, increased 171 per cent at the LCBO in the past year. Until recently, the company shipped a single 53-foot tractor-trailer load of beer every month; these days, Flying Monkeys ships that much in a week, and sales are still growing.

A newer, stronger Flying Monkeys offering called Smashbomb Atomic India Pale Ale has also won a coveted spot on the LCBO’s general list and will debut in stores this month. (You might have heard of it after the liquor monopoly’s social responsibility department briefly objected to the name and label art last spring.) Chiodo has ordered five new 7,000-litre fermenters, which will double his brewing capacity. And he accomplished all this with a publicity budget that couldn’t even buy the stationery for Molson’s creative team. “We don’t spend a penny on advertising,” Chiodo says. “People come to us, which is the way we like it.”

Though sales of Ontario craft beer at the LCBO are still tiny next to mass-market and international brands ($16 million versus $889 million), they’re climbing. Craft beer sales spiked 53 per cent last year and 46 per cent the year before that. Ontario craft beer has been the LCBO’s fastest-growing category for three years straight.

Most of this would have been unimaginable even five years ago. While Quebec, Alberta and B.C. were deep into their own craft-brewing revolutions, and craft beer had almost become religion in many parts of the U.S., Ontarians remained loyal to clean-drinking, mass-market lagers—the sorts of brews that claim “no aftertaste” as a positive quality. Even the province’s corps of microbrewers, which began building in the mid-1980s, obliged: with few exceptions (Scotch Irish Brewing Co., in Ottawa, for instance), they aimed mostly to show that they could make lagers and Pilsners just as well as the big boys. “We used to change the labels more than we’d change the beer,” recalls Lackey.


Great Lakes Crazy Canuck Pale Ale (LCBO 242545)

Muskoka Summer Weiss (LCBO 238212)

Neustadt 10W30 Brown Ale (LCBO 64642)

In 2006, Tom Morana, whose father, Ralph, has run the beer-focused Bar Volo on Yonge, near Wellesley, since 1985, put out a call for Ontario’s finest IPAs. There were just three entries that year, but Morana, who had just turned 19, continued inviting brewers to send him their most interesting work, including experimental beer casks. In return, Morana gave them a market for their trials, as well as enthusiastic feedback. Morana is a master at the art of hand-selling an ephemeral, sometimes challenging product. “Every day, another person in Toronto turns 19, and it’s my job to get to them before the big breweries do,” he says. Morana got 24 entries when he ran his IPA contest this year.

The federal and provincial governments also helped, with two key policy changes. In 2006, Ottawa drastically reduced the amount of excise tax that microbrewers paid compared with the megabrands; in some cases it meant a 90 per cent tax reduction. And then most of the provinces agreed to drop barriers to the interprovincial trade in beer. Those changes made an enormous difference for small brewers, many of whom suddenly became profitable. The best of the brewers used the new capital to hire staff and experiment with new techniques.

This spring, Tom Morana asked Lackey if he would take over Bar Volo’s 14 taps for a night. At first, Lackey demurred. Great Lakes had already begun holding popular monthly Project X tastings at the brewery, where they’d tap one or two trial kegs. Producing that many one-offs for a single night would mean a pile of work for his one-man operation. But Lackey eventually agreed to the date and sent 19 of his specially brewed beers, including a Russian imperial stout called Dude, Where’s my Czar? and a hefeweizen named Does This Muu Muu Make Me Look Hefe?.

He arrived at Bar Volo that night at 6 p.m. to a line running out the door and north on Yonge Street for an entire block. All but two of his beers sold out within hours. (Flying Monkeys has a tap takeover planned for September.)

These days, hard-core beer lovers know they can find one-off or otherwise interesting local ales at Volo, as well as at C’est What? on Front Street, Smokeless Joe on John Street and Bryden’s at Bloor and Jane, and the list is growing. Many of the city’s better restaurants have started selling interesting beer; Beau’s Lugtread Ale, for instance, which will be recognizable to drinkers accustomed to mass-market beer, but is richer and creamier and tastes of toasty malted barley instead of nosebleed hockey tickets and defeat, was everywhere this past year. And even top-drawer sommeliers are discovering that good beer pairs remarkably well with good food: James Treadwell, the sommelier at Tread­well in Port Dalhousie, for instance, pairs McAuslan oatmeal stout from Montreal with bittersweet chocolate and Belgian Früli fruit beer with his chef-father’s berries-and-cream Eton Mess.

We’re about to see more restaurant-breweries around town. Brock Shepherd, the owner of Kensington Market’s Burger Bar, is installing a 500-litre brewing system in the back of his restaurant. In the Junction, Jason Fisher, a former business executive, is planning to launch a brew-pub called Indie Alehouse this month. Even the Moranas have dived into brewing, with a 50-litre “nano-brewing” system in a corner of Bar Volo’s kitchen. They’ve put John Hodd, a tattooed, 26-year-old waiter-turned–beer maker, in charge. You can now find one or two of Bar Volo’s house-made beers, with names like Wild Style Mild, West Side IPA and Run ESB, on the menu most nights. Some of them are challenging at first, but that wears off after a couple of sips. They’re complex, fascinating, drinkable, delicious even. You should go.