Toronto Craft Beer

Fellow brew enthusiasts,

As some of you may know, I periodically contribute to a website called TransitHub. This morning, they published one of my articles (click to see). However, I felt that the article would be equally at home in Beers For Breakfast. Thus, here is a shameless repost:

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Toronto is, without the slightest doubt, a world-renown city. It draws its fame from its astoundingly high CN tower and the surprisingly low costs of its lunchtime meals; from having both the shortest ferry ride and the longest street in the world*; from having the most academically-inclined strippers and one of the worst commuting times in the world. But in a world of superlatives, where the most useless of attributes are enough to bring a city fame, Toronto stands out in a completely different way.

In its heart, Toronto is a city that cares less about being the most of anything, and more about doing things with skill, passion, care, and personality… and nothing proves its mantra better than a weekend spent exploring a vastly underappreciated aspect of Toronto: its craft beer scene.

As an Ontarian, the world of beer has me worried. If you take a look at the top-selling brands, it’s clear that the majority of beer purchases in Ontario are drawing money out of the province, or even the country. More importantly (and this even applies to Ontario breweries), they are drawing culture out of the province. A brewery should be an institution that brings people together; one that provides jobs for its cities; one that respects the area in which it’s located; one that gets to know its neighbours and facilitates community. In the past, this is how breweries were; in modern times, a small handful of breweries are growing to colossal proportions. The way in which brewing happens today (out of town, industrially) makes it hard to imagine a time when the town brewery was an important social institution, not just an economic one. But even amid the difficulties of today’s world, craft breweries do exist… and they may just be our city’s greatest assets.

In fact, last Friday, I spent the day walking around Toronto with an out-of-town friend of of mine. In one day, we managed to visit three craft breweries… and we did it all on foot! Here is a brief overview of three fantastic craft breweries that are definitely worth visiting.

1) Amsterdam Beer: Purity. Passion. Revelry. — 21 Bathurst Street, Toronto
Despite its name, the Amsterdam brewery is as local as it gets! I mean, they even have a beer called (416)! Their wide range of beers includes crowd-pleasers such as their Natural Blonde Lager, Big Wheel Deluxe Amber, and their Nut Brown Ale, as well as exciting seasonals like their Oranje-Weisse Premium White and Wee Heavy Scotch Ale. Make sure to stop by on Saturdays between 1 and 6 pm for a “tasting and product knowledge session” and pick up some of their delicious brews!

 

2) Steam Whistle: Do one thing really, really well. — 255 Bremner Boulevard, Toronto
Walking into the Steam Whistle brewery feels like arriving at exactly the right time to a party exclusively for awesome people. The decoration is lively, the people are chatting up a storm, and the staff is nothing short of hilarious! Load up on some merch, buy a generously-priced six-pack, drink a complimentary sample, and most fantastic of all: take the brewery tour! You’ll learn about everything from how they organize their events to why they chose their iconically thick-glassed, green bottle. You’ll even get a little something to take home! Come check out the free art gallery, attend their many events, or enjoy their expertly-crafted pilsner, straight from the source.

 

3) Mill St.: Great beer lives here. — 55 Mill Street, Toronto
The Distillery District is known for its cobblestone roads and its high-end art. It is a very flavourful and fancy part of Toronto. But among the art galleries and theatres lies another of Toronto’s hidden gems: The Mill St. Brewpub. With delicious dishes such as their Sausage Skillet or their Sweet Potato Fries, you’re guaranteed a tasty experience… and what better way to enjoy it than with a hearty winter beer, such as their Vanilla Porter, their Coffee Porter, or their Cobblestone Stout? All in good company, of course!

 

To me, the Toronto craft beer scene seems to embody the Toronto spirit; these breweries are not looking to become the leading brand of beer in the world; they see more value in giving you the opportunity to enjoy a delicious beer brewed right down the street from your house than in attempting to lay claim on a trivial world record. Torontonians didn’t seem discouraged by the construction of the Burj Khalifa in 2007, despite the fact that it exceeds the CN Tower by almost 300 metres. We know that it’s not about being the biggest; it’s about doing things with well.

And besides, the CN tower is beautiful! Especially after visiting these three breweries in a row. 😉

Cheers,
— Ionatan Waisgluss

For more musings about craft beer, home brewing, and having a good time, be sure to check out Beers For Breakfast, a collaborative effort started up by some friends of mine!
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* Yonge Street is not techinically the longest street in the world, as it is not synonymous with Highway 11. If it was, it would achieve this fabled status.

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Ghosttown Stout

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Like a pride of malevolent cats, hiding behind a shelf of Great Lakes Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale, dozens of pairs of eyes stared me down as I crept my way around the Yonge & Wellesley LCBO. Patiently, they waited for me to spot them. As I filled up my basket with seasonal goodies, saving what I presumed to be the best shelf for last, I spotted a beer like none I had ever tried before… Brasseur De Montréal’s Ghosttown Stout.

Having never tried anything from this myserious brewery, I immediately looked up their selection of beers, all of which feature a pair of eyes on the bottle. I enjoyed this delicious beer in good company, deliberating the unusual flavours found within it.

Ghosttown stout is a self-proclaimed strong flavoured beer. It draws its repetoire of flavours from the controversial spirit absinthe. Absinthe (from the Greek apsínthion, “wormwood”) is a strong spirit made with various herbs, including anise and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Wormwood contains various semi-toxic volatile oils which are of use medicinally. An alcoholic extraction of these chemicals, particularly of thujone, has been said to be psychoactive, though the claims have been shown to be largely exaggerated. It seems unfair to blame wormwood for all this, given that wormwood is also used innocently in certain desserts, such as Korean rice cakes. In the 1840s, absinthe was given to French soldiers as a treatment and precaution for malaria. When the soldiers returned home, they brought back absinthe culture with them. Drinking absinthe was reported to makes its drinkers delirious, and would allegedly bring about distorted visions of the green fairy. Because of this, 5 pm came to be known as l’heure verte (the green hour) in absinthe-era France. Due to its controversy, absinthe was banned in many countries in the early 20th century. More recently, Absinthe is making a glorious comeback, thanks to companies like Lucid, the bottle of which looks quite a bit like our Ghosttown Stout…

Both bottles are, of course, green and black. The green probably comes from true absinthe’s usual colour, and its connection the green fairy, as well as the colour green’s toxic connotation. The black has more to do with darkness and mystery– two things which, in this beer, abound.

This beer is very complex, and definitely not something you could comfortably drink within ten minutes. Set aside a good half an hour, or more, to polish off a bottle. The tongue’s first impression is of coffee or chocolate, but that soon gives way to a very noticeable cigar-like copper, which in turn is followed by a smoky, herby complexity which goes beyond that of pure wormwood, or even the Lucid absinthe I recently got to try. According to the website, the recipe includes raisins, herbs, and profoundly-roasted malts. This beer keeps you on your toes with its “concerning amount of flavour.” It is extremely opaque, and possibly the darkest shade of brown known to man.

If you come across one of these bottles in your LCBO, I urge you to take one home. Be warned, however, that the taste is not for everyone… And please, tell the green fairy I say hello.

I would give this stout 3.5 heads out of 5

Lindemans Kriek

When it comes to beers, I like brews that are traditional yet unusual. Luckily, history is filled with traditions that seem strange to us. In ancient times, it was common practice to make a beer by mashing together the right ingredients and leaving the resulting soup open to the air. Compared to today’s practice of sterilizing every single piece of equipment used in beermaking, this seems like a bizarre thing to do. In the past, however, you could not buy yeast in little envelopes… you had to make do with your environment. Amazingly, yeast spores are everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time before your sugary soup turns into a breeding pool for Saccharomyces cerevisiae, our favourite microorganism.

Many cultures believed that the spirits had to blow life into the sugary soup, and once that happened, it would ferment into a tasty and nutritious beverage. They weren’t very far off. Replace spirits with wind, and think of fungi as life forms, and you could say they were on to something. Thanks to the microscope, we now have countless images of our favourite Saccharomyces species, and a fairly thorough understanding of how it makes its (pun alert) daily bread. This microcsopic fungus has two growth forms. It can grow as threads (like the soil fungi we’re so accustomed with), or it can grow in its budding form, which looks like little spheres that duplicate and snap off one another, colonizing liquid media at astonishing speeds. Over time, we have selectively bred yeast strains, just as we’ve bred big, juicy lettuces, to suit our needs and peculiarities. And just like there are wild lettuces in the wild, there are wild yeasts all around us, full of untamed brilliance.

Lindeman’s Lambic Kriek is made by taking a pure lambic beer (a beer made with spontaneous fermentation) of approximately six months, and then adding the pure juice of Schaerbeekse Cherries (a cherry chosen for its fruitiness and perfect about of sourness). The mix is left to ferment for up to a year more, resulting an a mouth-watering, amazing beverage that is quite the treat for sour cherry lovers.

The only other kriek I’ve had is Nickelbrook’s sour cherry kriek, which was also really good, very opaque and delicious. Unlike Nickelbrook’s kriek, this beer is very translucent, and a beautiful ruby red colour. The pleasantly sour notes that accompany this beer make you salivate like a dog— a feature not really found in Nickelbrook’s beer. My prognosis? Nickelbrook still has a long way to go before making a kriek of this calibre.

Note that this beer protects its delicious innards with both a cap AND a cork. You will need a whole arsenal of tools to get this beer into your belly. This is the first time I’ve seen this, but I completely understand. If you were this delicious, wouldn’t you be just as careful?

4.5 Paul Westerberg heads, without a doubt.

Mahou: A Spaniard’s Delight

Months after the fact, I’ve still got traces of Spain on my mind.

I’ve shared my thoughts about this inspiring country with quite a few people, and I even wrote a blog post about the ecosystems I got to see while I was there. But, as everybody knows: no visit to another country is complete without a beer review. This is why I’ve decided to review the beer you’ll wind up drinking 95% of the time in Spain.

In most Spanish bars, if you ask for a beer, you will get a Mahou. Mind you—every now and then, they’ll inform you about their options, but for the most part, those are all interchangeable; you might as well not have to make any beer-based decisions. Oh, no, ladies and gents. Save your decision-making processes for what you’ll be eating that night.

The food in Spain, while not being overly special, is hearty, tasty, and readily available. In fact, the culture is shaped in such a way so that the majority of the conversations you overhear (if you happen to be a Spanglophone*) will be about what those people just ate, will eat, or are eating. For those of you more visually inclined, allow me to illustrate my point.

Yes. It was as tasty as it looks. This was eaten while standing, from a barrel that doubled as a table. What’s more, it was enjoyed with Mahou.

Now, Mahou is not a particularly good beer… but it is refreshing! And to me, Mahou will always represent something more than the beer. It represents good food, a relaxed lifestyle, and the fuck-it-all attitude that comes with intercontinental travel.

I would give this beer 3 heads out of 5, and I would suggest pairing it with a healthy-sized serving of Spain, and maybe some canned mussels.

* Yes, Spanglophone is a completely bogus word. Deal with it.

Millennium Buzzkill

Greetings gentlefolk,

It’s been a while since I ranted to you about my carbonated passion. I blame my studies for robbing me of the time to post, but rest your furrowed foreheads— they have not stopped me from enjoying brews galore.

In fact, Toronto (my place of study and partial residence) lends itself to all sorts of fermented opportunities, and after a long day in the lab, nothing’s better than a fantastic beer— even more so if it’s on a student budget.

Given the sheer number of excellent pubs downtown, I tend to enjoy my delicious cereal beverages in one of these establishments whenever possible, but since the situation last week called for bottled drinks, I decided to stop by The Beer Store just south of Spadina and Bloor. This locale is an example of how The Beer Store should be stocked, very much in contrast to the pathetic waste of space that Burlington has to offer. Here was a store with some variety, one that had an honest shot at satisfying my beerlust.

Full of glee, I picked up a six-pack of Wellington Dark Ale  to split with a friend (4/5 heads for Welly), and a four-pack of a beer that had caught my eye a long time ago, but that I had never had an opportunity to try. This beer was none other than the Cool Beer Brewing Company’s Millenium Buzz.

For those of you not familiar with this beer, the picture says it all. It’s a red lager made with roasted Alberta malt and German hops, as well as hemp from British Columbia. It’s cold-filtered, natural, and allegedly wholesome. But above all, it’s meant to be cool!

Finally, a beer that you can drink in front of Mom and Dad to bring up the topic of marijuana and make them feel old-fashioned— A beer you can drink with your mentally-prepubescent friends and compare how stoned you feel after drinking it— A beer that allows you to flaunt your superiority by showing how chill you are about illicit drug use. Of course, you’ll have to get a beer hat to drink this out of, and take up smoking as a fashion statement. Cool? morel like tool.

As anyone capable of turning on a light switch knows, hemp does not contain the mind-altering chemical THC. The being the case, why is the Cool Beer brewery capitalizing on a hemp leaf version of the marijuana icon that has flooded our society over the last couple of decades? How could this beer have so much publicity based on an ingredient that has so little to do with the image it sells? Could the answer be in the stamp-like unforgettable icon? I mean, this beer’s managed to get the attention of everyone I’ve mentioned it to!

“Oh, the one made with marijuana leaves or whatever?”

Their advertising is incredibly effective. Had this beer been marketed around something other than the image of this famous leaf, and simply as an all-natural beer of which hemp was just an ingredient (rather than the main event), then I would still respect this beverage… especially if some effort was put into figuring out how to make it taste a bit less unremarkable. But I really shouldn’t be complaining— I mean, I got four beers for $5.50, and they weren’t terrible… they just weren’t any good—especially after a Wellington Dark Ale.

It has some hints of… something. If you try real hard, you can even imagine the hemp aftertaste. Plus, who knows? Maybe it’s going to inspire more breweries to use hemp as a major ingredient. That would be fantastic, especially if they manage to capture its skunky essence! As I finish the last one in the four pack, I write these closing remarks.

If I tried this beer out of an unlabeled bottle, given to me by a kind elderly man, I might give it three (maybe three and a half) heads. But undeservingly capitalizing on a cultural icon does not go unpunished. Over all, I consider this beer a novelty item, rather than an actual beer. This beer is to the beer world what penis-shaped pasta is to the world of haute cuisine.

Two out of five heads. And you know which heads I’m referring to.

Rosee D’hibiscus

On my way home from work, I decided to pop into my local liquor dispensary to pick up a couple of different beers to sample. Among my collection was a beer from the Dieu du Ciel Brasserie, in St. Jerome, Quebec. For those of you who strive to disprove Canada’s claim to bilingualism, allow me to remind you that “brasserie” and “brassiere” are two completely different things. They are both of comparable merit, housing things that have intoxicated men for millennia, yet only the former refers to a place where beer is brewed.

This particular brewery is home to just over a dozen beers, hosting names such as Route des épices, Equinoxe du printemps, and Aphrodisiaque, all of which look absolutely scrumptious. The only one that my local LCBO seems to be carrying is Rosée d’hibiscus, which I will now gladly review.

Let’s start with the bottle itself. Like all of the beers this brewery puts forth, the label is a work of art. There is only a front label, which boasts an Angelina Jolie look-alike version of mother nature, adorned invitingly with hibiscus flowers. While the ingredients are in both languages, the description for the beer is only in French, making it an intriguing puzzle for some, and a welcome opportunity for others. It’s clear that thought even went into designing the cap. It is delicately protected by a symbolic sticker which must be ripped in order to consume the beverage—a detail that alludes to the beer’s unadulterated purity.

Upon pouring the beer into a glass (preferably a chilled one), one is surprised to find a reddish-burgundy colour flow out of the bottle, looking almost like a diluted and darkened tomato concoction. While this beer does have a distinct iron-copper  taste, and a pronounced astringency, there is little else that it holds common with tomato juice.

This beverage is sold as a bière blanche, but the malt is listed as being a bigger ingredient than the wheat flavour; this is definitely evident in the taste. Additionally, there is a distinct undertone of hops, which is not characteristic of this class of beers. Having tried a pure hibiscus beverage, I can claim that overtones of this selling-point herb are definitely present. This is much more evident in the aftertaste than there is when actually drinking the beer. I guarantee you that this beer won’t take very long to finish; despite being stronger than a lot of beers (5.9%), it goes down exceptionally smooth.

For $3.10 a bottle, this is something I could easily drink again. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for more beers from the Dieu du Ciel brasserie, a brewery which pleasantly surprised me with a very unique beer. I can only imagine that their other products will be just as remarkable.

Overall, 4/5 Paul Westerberg heads