Sitting at the bar in the central, stone-walled portion of C’est What, you get a sense that this time-worn subterranean taproom near Toronto’s celebrated St. Lawrence Market has been around forever. And in craft beer terms, at least, it pretty much has been.
Opened in 1988, the punnily-named pub—“c’est” is a French contraction meaning “this is” but pronounced “say”—originally carried both microbrews, as craft beers were then known, and major label brands. Slowly, though, it phased out the latter due to lack of demand, becoming the first bar in the city to do so. The almost three decades since have seen several transformations—a second room to the west was opened, then closed, followed by a larger additional space to the east—but the original bar and its craft beer ethos have endured.
In this sense, C’est What is a microcosm of all that has befallen Toronto’s beer scene since the 1995 opening of Upper Canada Brewing Company, the Ontario capital’s first craft brewery. There have been high times and low notes, moments when the entire operation appeared doomed, and, finally, a stunning emergence into a healthy, robust and enlightened era which, while still facing challenges, is certainly pointed in the right direction.
While I was researching the first edition of the Great Canadian Beer Guide five years following the opening of C’est What, Canada’s largest city boasted a grand total of two breweries and seven brewpubs; only three of those remained intact and unchanged by the time the second edition was published in 2001. As in many North American cities, however, the final years of the 1990s presaged a period of stunning grown in the new millennium.
If someone had suggested to me in 2006 that Toronto would, over the coming decade, not only solidify its position as the best city in Canada for beer bars but also establish enough of a brewing culture that one might spend several days exploring nothing but brewery taprooms, I would have thought him or her quite mad. But it would have been remarkably prescient.
What Drake has christened ‘The 6’ is today an outstanding beer destination—arguably the country’s finest, although both Vancouverites and Montrealers have basis for argument on that front. So impressive is the current Toronto beer scene, in fact, that it is challenging to identify just one place as its nucleus in the way that, say, Falling Rock is to Denver or the Toronado is to San Francisco. When pressed on the subject, I generally default to a pair of beer bars: Bar Hop and Bar Volo.
The latter is the older of the two, operating for decades as a family business on a busy but evolving portion of Yonge Street. It was early in the new century, however, that owner Ralph Morana and I met during a beer appreciation course I was teaching at the local George Brown College, and not long thereafter that he instigated the transformation that would turn Bar Volo from a neighbourhood Italian restaurant into Toronto’s Beer Central.
The change was gradual but groundbreaking, with Morana first privately importing several key beers, which led to the formation (with his sons) of a beer importation company, Keep 6, followed by a brewing company, House Ales, set up in Volo’s kitchen. The latest stage was an overhaul of the modestly sized bar that added taps, reduced service staff—all ordering is done at the bar, British-style—and shrank kitchen operations to allow for an increased emphasis on the brewery. Having now maximized their beer efforts in the space provided, the Moranas are working toward the 2016 opening of a second premises on College Street in the city’s Little Italy district.
Meanwhile, the bar that for much of the 1990s ranked as the city’s best for beer, Smokeless Joe’s, moved and then shut down completely, but in so doing spun off Rob Pingitore, who with Jim McDonald opened Bar Hop in 2012.
Long and thin and dark both night and day, Bar Hop was an immediate hit, to the extent that it was remodeled within its first year of business to almost double the tap selection. By mid-2013, it was already being mentioned alongside Volo as a top pick for beer-drinking in the city and is today rivalled by only Volo and its King Street neighbour, Wvrst, in its commitment to finding and featuring new and unheralded breweries. A second, newly opened and significantly larger location minutes away on Peter Street continues the beer theme and ups the already impressive culinary standards of the original.
Beyond Volo, the Hop and stalwart C’est What, Toronto offers a fairly exhaustive array of beer bars, from the afore-mentioned, bierkeller-inspired Wvrst, where a stellar beer selection is complemented by excellent sausages; to two city center locations of the Bier Markt, a rather corporate play on the beer bar theme; can-focused Tallboys on Bloor Street; and beerbistro, the downtown beer cuisine destination I helped open in 2003 (but no longer co-own). In between and well beyond are literally dozens of other beer bars ranging from the corporate to the cozy, the beer-obsessed to the merely craft beer-friendly.
And the Breweries
As impressive as has been Toronto’s expanding selection of beer bars, it pales in comparison to what has happened over the past several years in terms of the city’s brewery population. And it all began with Bellwoods.
The product of Luke Pestl and Mike Clark, both formerly of the local Amsterdam Brewing Company, the Bellwoods Brewery appeared on the scene in early 2012, determined from the outset to shake up Toronto’s generally conservative approach to brewing. For while the West End’s Black Oak had produced a seasonal double IPA called 10 Bitter Years since 2009 and the now-An-heuser-Busch InBev-owned Mill Street had taken a couple of cracks at the barleywine style, the wheelhouse of Toronto and area breweries remained for many years conventional beers like pale ales and pilsners, wheat ales and weissbiers, and, most damningly, “premium lagers.”
Bellwoods changed that almost immediately, toasting its first summer of existence with Mashpipe, a smoked Berliner weisse; introducing the city to Brettanomyces with Brettal Head; and cheering the arrival of Christmas 2013 with a plum- and lemon-infused imperial saison called Blitzen. They were unusual beers almost anywhere for the time, but were near revolutionary at that time in Toronto.
Whether by inspiration, coincidence, design, or some combination of the three, the arrival of Bellwoods kicked off a period of unfettered brewery growth the likes of which the city had not witnessed for a century. Among the most noteworthy arrivals were two in the city’s long-ignored Junction district: the Indie Ale House, designed in a more traditional brewpub fashion, and Junction Brewing, a small production brewery with a roughed-in tasting room.
Neither is simple to get to, situated as they are away from major transit lines, but together they make the journey worthwhile. The Indie rewards travellers with beers like the flagship Breakfast Porter, a silken and chocolaty oatmeal porter, and the delightfully named seasonal double IPA, Cockpuncher, alongside a menu that keeps getting better and better. Junction rewards the walk into a bit of an industrial wasteland with a steady stream of solid specialties, plus regulars like Conductor’s Craft Ale, an aromatic pale ale, and the just off-dry Stationmaster’s Stout.
Not far from Junction is a third area destination, Rainhard Brewing, one of the newest of the new breed of Toronto breweries and, along with the wildly anticipated 2016 start-up by Luc “Bim” Lafontaine (ex-brewer from Montréal’s Dieu du Ciel), one of the most promising. Young enough to still be getting its beery focus in order, early flagship offerings like the Armed ‘N’ Citra Pale Ale ably demonstrate that the necessary brewing skills are well in place, while the brewery’s rough-hewn tasting bar meshes well with the area’s manufacturing heritage.
Other brewery experiences visitors won’t want to miss include Left Field Brewing, a baseball-themed brewery and tasting room on the East Side best known for its rich Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale; the Amsterdam Brewing Company’s large and modern Brewhouse bar and restaurant on the waterfront, where strong beers rule the roost and the imperial stout Tempest rules the strong beers; the summertime beer garden at IPA specialist Great Lakes Brewery; and Steam Whistle, a lager brewery in the shadows of the Rogers Centre ballpark where the pilsner is actually more of a helles—although a highly impressive one—and the brewery tour is sufficiently entertaining that it sometimes sells out in advance.
It all adds up to an urban beer scene which, while not without its problems—underconditioning and buttery-tasting diaceyl faults remain too commonplace in beers—is vastly improved from the days when I would instruct potential Toronto tourists to instead meet me in Montréal. These days, even Quebeckers and traditionally Toronto-loathing westerners are finding their beer bliss in Canada’s largest city, and those of us lucky enough to be experiencing it all on a daily basis are simply basking in our new-found good fortune.
A tour of DRAFT’s favorite Toronto beer stops
Steam Whistle Brewing
Sunlight streams through the windows of this glass-enclosed brewery located directly across from the CN Tower and Rogers Centre. When the doors fling open (to the high-pitched sound of a steam whistle, of course) expect an upbeat tour elevated by a bumping soundtrack. You’ll also get the lowdown on the brewery’s many green initiatives while sipping the one-and-only brew it makes: The super crisp, refreshing Steam Whistle Pilsner.
Indie Ale House
This cool brick- and wood-dressed brewpub was the brainchild of Siebel brew school graduate Jason Fisher (who brewed his first beer as a 10th grade science project). Hopheads should order Instigator IPA, a melony, piney and grassy brew, while everyone should try the toasty, chocolaty Breakfast Porter. Don’t skip the seasonals, which will include a Flanders red and a raspberry sour this spring. Known for collaborations, Indie teamed up with Amsterdam Brewing, Great Lakes Brewery and Sawdust City to open-air ferment a lambic three years ago in Niagara and last year in a Milton, Ontario orchard. (Look for that blend in 2017.) Notably, chef Todd Clarmo is a vet of Michelin-starred kitchens; here he whips up a mean fried chicken that pairs well with a few pints and a long nap.
One of North America’s buzziest new breweries, Bellwoods is a little white house with lights strung across the street-facing patio. A small but elegant menu features shareable plates that include worthy cheese and charcuterie; try the Nduja and ricotta crostini. For your glass, the dry hay- and lemon-imbued Farmhouse Saison is a winner; the piney, juicy mango Witchshark double IPA is also a fan favorite. Check the vintage menu for Bring Out Your Dead, a cognac barrel-aged stout with gorgeous chocolate, plum and a nip of cognac deep in the flavor; it’s a perfect nightcap.
Thirsty and Miserable
In the heart of Kensington Market, a bohemian district lined with brightly painted homes where you can buy vintage clothes and handmade housewares, this hole-in-the wall is grungy in the best way: graffiti-etched tables and a beer list handed to you on a piece of cardboard that was once a six-pack holder. The selection’s outstanding; you’re as likely to find local one-offs as you are rare Belgians.
Grab a seat on the patio for some of the best people-watching in Kensington Market, or duck inside for a spot at a candlelit table: This new, chic eatery seamlessly melds impeccable plates with pure fun. Take, for instance, the crisp buttermilk chicken and cornbread waffles drizzled in honey butter and chipotle maple syrup, or the you-had-it-here-first lobster corndogs with citrus dip. The 20-plus taps mix top local options with thoughtful nods to breweries across the pond.
Bar Hop Brewco
The newest location of Bar Hop is a cool, moody haunt with repurposed barrels dangling from the ceiling as light fixtures. The spacious second floor doubles as an event venue; head up one more flight of stairs for the summertime roof deck. Wherever you are, have a beer in hand: The award-winning tap list pops up frequently on Twitter and later this year will feature house saisons that are now sleeping in barrels behind the bar.
At this cooler version of a German beer hall, you still get the communal tables and sausage, but with art-lined walls and upstairs window seating overlooking the neighborhood. Sausage comes in rare varieties like kangaroo, bison, elk and pheasant (along with more traditional breeds, of course). But the beer selection is simply remarkable: With more than 600 bottles and 24 drafts that include stars like Blood Brothers Brewing Cocoa Woman (a chocolate gose) and vintage bottles like 4-year-old Westvleteren 12. The best time to come: The first Sunday of every month for a vintage keg tapping.
It cannot be overstated that Bar Volo has been the spot for beer in Toronto under the direction of iconic owner Ralph Morana. The space is comfortable and elegantly toned-down, but the enormous chalkboard beer list might be wonderfully overwhelming, with regional beers, wines and ciders plus cask-conditioned ales and rare bottles. Veer straight for the house beers like the Manza Notte Espresso Milk Stout, which is especially delightful on cask; also visit during Cask Days, the most celebrated Cask Festival in North America. Look for a second Bar Volo location later this year.
If you try one beer:
High Road Brewing Co. is barely a year old, but its Bronan IPA has already become a star. Find it on draft around the city.
The Delta Hotel Downtown Toronto is a stone’s throw from the CN Tower, Rogers Centre and Steam Whistle Brewery. Opt for the Corner Skyline Soaker Room to view all of the sights through floor-to-ceiling windows from the comfort of your bathtub.