With downtown Buffalo such a short drive away – anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how backed up the border is – from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, the one thing many 19 year olds do with their ample freetime is take advantage of Ontario's slightly more lenient drinking age.
Which is great if you were born in the '90s, and able to witness Canada's burgeoning craft-beer scene firsthand, but what about anyone who lived through the Reagan administration? Well, we had to endure such macro-brewed monstrosities as Molson Canadian, Labatt Blue, and whoever was waging the "Ice Beer Wars" that week. Mostly because the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario wanted things that way – heavily regulated, with all the spoils going to a government-run chain (LCBO) and the basic brewers (Labatt, Molson Coors, and the 'Notoriously Good' Sleeman) behind its only lawful competitor (The Beer Store).
My, how the market has changed. While more than 1,000 state-blessed shops still have a monopoly on retail sales throughout the region, a loosening of the sales ban in larger grocery stores has meant more shelf space for the little guys at such local standards as Sobeys and Loblaws.
There are at least 30 breweries that are on my must-visit list for the immediate future.”
Not that anyone needs them anymore. As it turns out, the sluggish reform of Ontario's liquor laws happened to coincide with the sudden legality of sanctioned off-sales options like brewpubs and taprooms. Just in time, too, as 2015 was the beginning of a welcome sea change in what Canadian consumers expect from their breweries, especially in the greater Toronto area.
"When we were in the planning stages [in 2015]," says Halo Brewery co-founder Eric Portelance, "there were only a handful of breweries in the core of the city. I can’t even keep track of how many are here now."
"Seriously," adds Folly Brewpub co-owner Michelle Genttner. "Every time I turn on my phone lately, there’s a new brewery opening, which means we get to plan another road trip. There are at least 30 breweries that are on my must-visit list for the immediate future. Tomorrow I’ll probably add another."
But what if you don't have time to tour 30 breweries the next time you visit Toronto? That's where we come in; here are six essential taprooms that sell direct and are far better than 90% of what you'll find on The Man's shelves….
The one name that comes up in nearly every conversation about Toronto's craft-beer scene is Bellwoods Brewery. In fact, Halo Brewery's Eric Portelance calls the Ossington Avenue staple "one of the best breweries in the country" and Burdock co-owner Matt Park is quick to credit its position in putting "Ontario on the global stage."
How have they made such major inroads in such a short time, you ask? Well Bellwoods had a no-nonsense bottle shop ready within a year of its 2012 opening, giving folks the option to bag such bold numbers as an imperial stout aged in cognac barrels (Bring Out Your Dead) and a lactose-and-pectin-enhanced IPA (Strawberry Milkshark) that wouldn't look out of place in Omnipollo's Instagram feed.
If you only have time to take a newbie to one craft-beer classic in Toronto, make it Bellwoods' flagship location. Hell, even the food – from several well-composed salads to light bites like grilled squid, confit tuna, and next-level pierogis – is fantastic.
"Our brand and values never really fit the LCBO," says Blood Brothers co-founder Dustin Jones. "We would love to be more accessible, but not at the cost of warm storage and long shelf times. We love being part of the community and recognizing locals; it just works for us."
When they first started brewing, bottling, and selling their experimental ales out of a claustrophobic warehouse closet in 2015, Jones and his literal brother Brayden didn't have any other choice but to know their customers. After all, it's hard to forget faces when they venture down an otherwise dead block to buy your wine-and-cherry-laced sours (Paradise Lost, White Lies) from what's essentially a takeout window. And while Blood Brothers quickly outgrew their original space, their current taproom is still far enough outside Toronto's main stretches to feel like a poorly kept secret.
"We originally wanted a hobby space to legally make small batches of beer that were interesting to us," says Jones. "Our goals now are not working more than 12 hours a day."
As for what they have on deck next, he claims he's "not quite sure yet…. Something awesome?"
If Bellwoods is the gold standard of Toronto's new wave – everyone's gateway drug essentially – Burdock is where Ratebeer cynics go to get wowed. With a love of natural wine that extends to both its bottle list and actual beer (a growing number of "grape ales", according to co-owner Matt Park), the cult Bloordale Village hit runs a tight "sharing and pairing" ship that highlights the seasonal dishes of Chef Jeremy Dennis.
"It's the most underrated element of Burdock," explains Park. "The food the kitchen is putting out is of really, really high quality."
A cursory look at a recent menu certainly sounds like it beats the usual tacos and burgers take; where else are you gonna find spaghetti squash pakora, hand-rolled beet cavatelli with torched brussels sprouts, or an ancient grain risotto featuring purple Ethiopian barley, toasted farro and spelt, a broccoli puree, and Korean honey-glazed pork shoulder?
"Our beer is inspired by the balance and food friendliness of wine," says Park, "especially our saisons and barrel-aged beers…. There's never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Ontario."
Unlike many of its competitors, Folly Brewpub isn't the first act of former homebrewers; it's actually the logical rebranding of a College Street gastropub called Habits.
"We still stress quality food and beverages," explains co-owner Michelle Genttner. "It's just different food and beverages."
Well, mostly; while Folly dialed back on its wine and cocktail options, it kept one of Toronto's largest "whiskey walls." The selection makes for quite a nightcap, but first timers should open the evening with a Flemish Cap saison or one of the Belgian-style beasts that'll appeal to beginners and the not-so-easily-impressed.
"We see more and more informed consumers daily,"says Genttner, "but we also meet a lot more people who are trying independent beers for the first time. It’s great to watch that progression and be able to chat with people as they expose their palate to different things… The 'stronger together' camaraderie of small breweries is quite contrary to the 'them or me' attitude that is rampant in restaurants."
Transparency isn't just a big part of Halo's business model; it is the business model. Their "open source" approach stems from Eric Portelance and Callum Hay's previous work in coding and design. That's right; all of Halo's recipes are made available to the public, going against the industry's "but I'd have to kill you" approach to closely guarded techniques and secret ingredients.
"We've learned so much from other brewers," explains Portelance. "They were kind enough to share their recipes and process, so this is our way of giving back."
As for whether he worries about fans and fellow brewers repackaging their best ideas – from a sour IPA in several variants (Shapeshifter) to a foreign extra stout made with sarsaparilla (Event Horizon) – Portelance is quick to say, "Not really. To be honest, I think a recipe alone doesn’t matter very much. The process in brewing is more impactful. It’s difficult to capture all the steps – from wort production to yeast management to cellaring – in a way that's easily digestible online. There’s a lot of trial and error."
You don't have to be a sports fan to appreciate Left Field's Leslieville taproom, but it certainly doesn't hurt, considering how much Mandie and Mark Murphy hammer their Field of Dreams theme home. Aside from always having the latest Blue Jays game on, the married couple made a massive scoreboard the focal point of their bar area and gave their so-fresh-and-so-clean beer names like Squeeze Play (a blackberry tangerine sour), Wrigley (an oat pale ale), and Laser Show (a Vermont-style double IPA).
"The pace of beer openings has really accelerated in the past year or so," says Mandie. "It's a friendly and collaborative scene; we find ourselves in this weird spot between the veterans and the real newbies. We have lots to learn from the vets but also lots to share with those that have come since us."