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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.