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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.

  • Micah M

    I absolutely love your magazine and have been a subscriber for years. BUT I think it is absolutely in poor taste to name an article about beer Amber Alert, given the name’s more heartwrenching and useful function as a awareness program for child abductions. Seriously, think before you print.

  • Tris

    I totally agree with the first post. I love this article, and craft beer is a huge topic right now, but this headline is totally bananas. I can’t imagine a professional writer pulled that one out without realizing the hideous connotations. Are interns writing your headlines now? Bad idea.

  • Matt

    Same as the first two posts, just poor taste.

  • jokesdon’thavetobePC

    just for balance, i’m okay with the humor

  • Lynne Piil

    I agree! In fact, I clicked on the link to this article because I thought that there was a recent Amber Alert that I hadn’t thought about. This title is in very poor taste!

  • Lynne Piil

    Ooops…I mean, hadn’t HEARD about.

  • jokesdon’thavetobePC

    yes because we all know that police blotter info is located on the toronto life daily dish food blog????????

    it saddens me that stupidity can alter editorial content

  • jokesdon’thavetobePC

    actually i shouldn’t be surprised, in a city that elects rob ford mayor and a world that gives a stage to sarah palin and michelle bachmann…..

  • Mary E. Lollar

    Hi Chris: Love your food critic section – big part of why subscribe to TL. I work at TGH, cardiology, and whenever a big dinner comes up for visiting professors or a conference, I am asked where should they go and I always rely on TL for the best choices. Everyone is impressed but curious how I can afford all these high end restaurants around town, little do they know I read your articles. The purpose of this message is about two places you wrote up about. Just this hot, steamy Sunday my husband and I rode our Harley over to the Stockyard on St. Clair Ave. W. Food – fantastic- definitely not on any cardiovascular health food list (who cares) but there definitely should be warning – no air conditioning – Stockyard has never had airconditioning (or diet drinks for those who must drink diet to wash down fried chicken, you feel less guilty). We also went to Porchetta & Co on Dundas W. back in June, again no air conditioning but unbelievable food. If we continue on this path (thanks to your writing) we will be pushing the Harley around town, we won’t both fit on it. Anyway not sure if you were aware of the no air conditioning at these 2 small places with large gas ranges and ovens going full blast – take out is a better idea than sitting in. Don’t know how the cooks do it. We are off to Thunder Bay and then to Stugis, South Dakota for a 2 week bike ride – those who know Peter & I rely on our eating experiences on the rides, if we find something interesting on the way, would you be interested? After 35 years on the OPP, my husband is a renowned food critic among the larger sized cops around town. I just follow and eat 1/2 sizes. Take care, Mary.

  • Chris Nuttall-Smith

    Thanks for your note, Mary. A lot of the smaller places around town get very hot in the summer, for sure. I noticed that they did have AC at porchetta the other day (it’s probably new), but it was a death match between that and the oven, and the oven was definitely winning.
    I’d love to hear what you find on your trip. cnutsmith [at] gmail [dot] com

  • Darrin

    The LCBO is the single biggest limiter of the growth of craft brewing in Ontario. Every location across the province has a beer section where the fridges are stacked with pedestrian European beers that offer nothing to anybody beyond a huge margin for the LCBO. Ontario craft beers might get a small corner of a fridge, but most of the time they’re just stacked on a shelf somewhere. And that’s assuming there are any craft brews in the store.

    The demand is there – whenever the LCBO deigns to import a star US-based craft brews they fly off the shelves. Dogfish Head is a perfect example – for the brief time the LCBO carried it, they were virtually impossible to get anyway because they sold out within days.

    The Beer Store sells plenty of crap beer, and it’s all cold. Let them have that market and reserve the LCBO beer fridges for local brews. Or better yet, let the market decide what will succeed – let us open some private craft brew stores!

    Oh, and bummer that you changed the title of the article to appease those wine-drinkers that were complaining. :\

  • Victor Ward

    Any comment that is political in nature, such as from jokesdonthavetobePC, are in bad taste. You may not like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, but what the H**l does that have to do with the article?

  • Mike

    In terms of IPA, I’m in love with Spearhead’s (a recently craft brewery) Hawaiian style IPA. It’s super refreshing and tasty so I wasn’t suprised it one a couple best in shows during Toonto Craft Beer Week. Sadly it’s currently only available on tap.

  • jokesdon’thavetobePC

    victor, victor victor….

    political humor is in bad taste? don’t tell jon stewart or bill maher…..

    the reference to tea bag women has to do with the narrow mind with which ealier posters can read a headline or article….

    the orginal article was entitled ‘amber alert’, they were incensed that it referred to amber beer and not a missing child.

  • bierfesten

    Volo gave me my first education in Beer with the regulars who stand around in the corner talking beer. Ralph & Tom have helped the industry immensely by showing beers that nobody else would.
    Ontario with the LCBO and BC with the BC Liquor have definitely changed to craft beer support over the last 3-5 years, and the brewers in these provinces have also stepped up the quality of the beers to compete against the US counterparts. Trends in more restaurants setting up brewhouses in Canada is occurring more frequently which can only be a good thing for beer drinkers.

  • Chris Nuttall-Smith

    Darrin, one of the interesting things I heard over and over from brewers while researching this piece was how the LCBO had in fact become a great supporter of Ontario craft beer in the last few years. I have huge problems with the liquor monopoly, but it’s important to give them credit when they earn it, and on local beer they have. The LCBO’s adding great Ontario craft beers to its general list at an impressive speed, and the selection is a huge step up today from what it was even three or four years ago. It’s frustrating to see individual stores promoting Bud Light Lime and Rickards up at the tills while the Beau’s languishes at the back, but I sense that that’s changing. The biggest problem, I think, is that a lot of the great beers aren’t yet available in enough quantity to mean they’re dependably available in all the LCBO’s stores. (That said, the LCBO’s list of seasonal and limited availability local beer is pretty great.) The smarter, better breweries, like Great Lakes and Beau’s and Flying Monkeys, for instance, are ramping up to fill the demand.
    Would I love to be able to walk into a gas station, as you can across much of Quebec and the US, and find a selection of 40 great local craft beers? Absolutely. It’s idiotic that in 2011 we still need to go to a liquor control board outlet to buy a beer.
    But within the existing, crappy framework, there’s been some impressive progress.