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Finding Better Beer and Hockey in Toronto

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(In honor of the NHL playoffs, we’re re-running this piece that was originally published in January 2010.)
By Chris Gigley

Toronto is ruled by giants. Just ask any brewing company not named Molson, Labatt, or Sleeman. Or, better yet, ask any hockey team not named the Toronto Maple Leafs. The little guys have an uphill battle convincing the people of greater Toronto that there’s more to both beer and hockey.

But they’re trying. The city’s craft brewing community is a small and determined band of beer enthusiasts, each putting their own unique spin on beer to attract fans. The one making the most noise is Steam Whistle Brewing Co., based in a historic roundhouse in the shadow of CN Tower. Thanks to its location near Rogers Center and the home of the Leafs, Air Canada Center, its bar and brewery tours have become pre-game staples for the locals. The beer has become a draw, too.

“Our thing from the beginning has been to do one thing really well,” says Sybil Taylor, marketing communications manager for Steam Whistle.

That one thing is Czech-style pilsners. Steam Whistle doesn’t produce anything else. It has a new custom-built Czech brewhouse and a Czech brewmaster, Marek Mikunda, who honed his skills at the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the Czech Republic. The result is a bright, smooth, and thirst-quenching beer that rivals the pilsners from the old country.

Steam Whistle is the only craft beer hockey fans can buy at a hockey game — any hockey game — in the area. The brewery supplies the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ top minor league affiliate. The Marlies play five minutes down the road in Ricoh Coliseum, an imposing concrete building reminiscent of the grand-old NHL hockey arenas. That includes Maple Leaf Gardens, which still stands dormant north of the city center.

“There really isn’t a bad seat in [Ricoh Coliseum],” says Chris Goddard, Steam Whistle’s marketing director and resident hockey afficionado. “But the Marlies just haven’t been able to draw. If people don’t have Leafs tickets, they’d just rather watch them on television than go out for a Marlies game.”

What they miss is great hockey in a great, old arena for a fraction of what it costs to see a Leafs game. Great Lakes Brewery‘s John Bowden is just as perplexed as Goddard by Toronto hockey fans’ fixation on the Maple Leafs. He should know. He is one. Bowden has never been to a Marlies game, and he offers no explanation for it.

Launched in 1987, Great Lakes is the first craft brewer in Toronto. Today, the brewery has a storefront and brewhouse just west of downtown that’s visible from the Gardiner Expressway, the main artery leading to and from Toronto. Bowden often leads tours of the brew house, which is more typical of Ontario craft brewers — small. While Steam Whistle produces more than 12,000 gallons of beer each day, Great Lakes’ daily output is about 1,320.

Great Lakes produces seven beers, three of them seasonals. Soon, says Bowden, there will be more. Seasonal beers are Great Lakes’ strongest performers, and beer lovers who visit the city right now are in luck. Its winter ale, which features generous amounts of cinnamon, honey, ginger, and orange peel, is easily the brewery’s most popular seasonal brew.

“I think there’s been a huge shift toward more flavorful beers in Toronto,” says Bowden. “But it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. Until people find beers like ours and try them, they won’t start asking for them at bars. But the ball has started rolling for sure.”

A sign of that are two other small breweries that have opened in the neighborhood. Cool Brewing Co., with a three-beer lineup that includes a unique hemp-based red lager, is about four miles north. Black Oak Brewing Co., which brews an award-winning nut brown ale, is less than two miles to the east.

The local hockey team for Great Lakes Brewing is the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, part of the Ontario Hockey League. The OHL, one of three major junior hockey leagues in Canada and the U.S., is similar to NCAA basketball. Most of the good pros have come through the league, including the legendary Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and last year’s overall first-round pick, John Tavares. Even though the Majors play in Hershey Center, a gorgeous new hockey arena with even better sightlines than Ricoh Coliseum, the building is rarely full.

The gravitational pull of the Leafs doesn’t ease until visitors get about an hour away from the city, where OHL towns are staunch supporters of their own teams, even when the Leafs are on television. The best example is in Kitchener, where the Rangers play in one of the oldest arenas left in the league, Kitchener Auditorium, which opened in 1951. Attendance is always at or near capacity, the fans are loud and knowledgeable, and the cozy confines of the building produce a hockey atmosphere that is about as authentic as it gets.

The Sleeman Center in nearby Guelph is another great OHL rink. The home of the Storm is set downtown and adjoins a quaint indoor shopping mall, making the intermissions a little more bearable. Unfortunately, the arena is ruled by local brewing giant Sleeman. That’s fine during the game, but beer lovers should check out Guelph’s Wellington Brewery, Canada’s oldest independent microbrewery.

After experiencing greater Toronto’s array of OHL teams and craft brewers, the answer will be as clear as a Steam Whistle pilsner. When it comes to beer and hockey, smaller is better.

– Chris Gigley favourite thing about Canada is Tim Horton’s, where the combo meals don’t include fries. They include donuts. He suggests the Canadian Maple.

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