Drink, Features

Toronto’s craft beer revival

As the craft beer trend gets hyper-local, a spate of new microbreweries is reviving whole areas of the city. We talk to Chris Craig-Neil of Soho House Toronto about how the scene has changed the landscape

Beer is the blood that flows through Toronto’s veins. Back in 1800, beer was brewed for soldiers in the days when the Ontario capital was still a young town called York. Immigrants from Britain and Germany kept the beer tradition going strong, turning it into a major industry. But somehow it lost its way, as brewers became big and corporate, producing bland lagers with little character. By the mid-1980s, however, small brewers started to rebel against the big boys. Jim Brickman blazed the trail in 1984 with Brick Brewing Company in the city of Waterloo, and was soon followed by Creemore and Great Lakes Brewing, among others.

And now, like much of the western world, Toronto has embraced craft beer wholeheartedly. But what sets this particular revolution apart is how the growth of microbreweries has changed the city’s landscape. Formerly rundown neighbourhoods have been transformed by the arrival of microbrewers – which in turn bring in other businesses and more jobs and people.

The Junction is a classic example. This west Toronto neighbourhood had its ups and downs – quite a lot of downs, in fact – over the years. But things started to perk up when Junction Craft Brewing arrived in 2011, swiftly followed by Indie Ale House in 2012. Having had a reputation for being full of rowdy, drunken workers around the turn of the century, the district was actually dry from 1904 to 2000; not that you would know it from the number of bars and newer arrivals like Henderson Brewing Co and Halo Brewery.

Chris Craig-Neil, who looks after the beer list at Soho House Toronto, has seen the transformation up close. “Over the past few years there has been a real explosion of breweries opening in virtually every neighbourhood,” he says. “The Toronto – and more widely Ontario – craft beer scene has been growing at a remarkable pace over the past decade. There are now at least 300 breweries in the province, compared with fewer than 100 only a decade ago.”

It’s hard to keep up with the numbers. The Ontario Brewers Directory lists 31 in Toronto itself, and that’s not including the Greater Toronto Area. They’re opening up all the time.

“There are a few breweries that are doing really amazing things,” continues Chris. “Because of their more experimental approach, they are forced to support themselves through sales at their own bottle shops and licensee sales. One of our favourites at Soho House Toronto right now is Burdock Brewing. We’ve carried products from them on our bottle list for the past six months.”

Like the microbreweries in the Junction, Burdock Brewing has been doing its bit to regenerate its own neighbourhood, Bloordale, since opening in 2015. Burdock’s combination of microbrewery, bottle shop, restaurant and live music venue sits well alongside new restaurants and art galleries in the west-of-downtown district that reflect Toronto’s typically multicultural mix: Portuguese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian and Sri Lankan, to name only a few nationalities found here.

It’s a similar story a 20-minute walk away at Blood Brothers. Its tiny microbrewery and tap room are in a less-than- salubrious industrial area that has had a bit of a makeover of late, as new Portuguese cafés and bakeries join hipster bars such as the Greater Good – another champion of the city’s craft beers.

Chris Craig-Neil has recently started adding beers from Bellwoods Brewery to Soho House Toronto’s beer list. “It’s Ontario’s only brewery featured in RateBeer’s Top 100,” he notes. Bellwoods is another example of how an artisanal producer can revamp its surrounding area, in this instance Ossington Street going south towards Trinity-Bellwoods Park. The street is almost unrecognisable from even five years ago, with a lively collection of restaurants, coffee shops and bars.

Chris looks back even further, adding: “One of the early pioneers was Mill Street Brewery based in the Distillery District a couple of kilometres from Soho House. Its flagship Organic Lager has been on tap at the House for most of the four and a half years we’ve been open.”

Mill Street Brewery’s founders have done well out of getting ahead of the game: opened in 2002, it was bought in 2015 by Labatt, one of Canada’s big breweries (now owned by Anheuser-Busch).

But while craft beer is big business, for drinkers in the newly trendy districts around the microbreweries small is still beautiful, says Ontario Craft Brewers board member Peter Bulut. “Consumers want to drink more local stuff,” says Peter, whose Great Lakes Brewery has been going since 1987. “A few years ago they wanted to drink local from the province, but a lot of them want to support their super-local, their neighbourhood guys.”

Ontario Craft Brewers have seen rents nearly double over the past few years, with seemingly no effect on demand for former industrial units. “Some people are just opening up tap rooms with a small-production brewery and a bar area,” Peter says. “A lot of young drinkers have never even put a big-brewery beer to their mouths. They want to hang out at the brewery and get all the smells and talk to the people working there. It’s a good experience.”

See for yourself by checking out Soho House Toronto’s craft beer list, below and on the bar in the House itself.

Words: Mary Novakovich

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