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Global Cuisine Meets Sustainability at Toronto’s Most Exciting New Brewery

July 15, 2019

By Charlie Friedmann, July 15, 2019

In 1845, Scottish immigrant George Leslie founded a plant nursery in the east end of Toronto. It soon grew to become the largest in Canada. Leslie’s gardens were the center of the neighborhood, bringing a new post office, a railway station, and a raft of surrounding businesses. But today, Leslieville, the neighborhood that bears Leslie’s name, is more urban jungle than greenspace—home to film studios, furniture stores, and an ever-increasing number of breweries. The newest brewery here, though, brings Leslieville back to its roots.

Named for the Norwegian word for crop or harvest, Avling Kitchen & Brewery opened in early July. It’s what you might call an urban farmhouse brewery, if it weren’t such an oxymoron. It’s in the city, in a space that feels like a converted warehouse, but up on the rooftop there’s a burgeoning farm that signals the new outfit’s lofty ambitions: to bring a focus to local ingredients and sustainable food systems.

“The overall thrust of Avling is looking for ways we can close the circle,” says Avling’s owner Max Meighen, as we sit in his new restaurant looking out at cinder block walls brought to life with a pastel-colored mural depicting rolling hills and farmhouses. “A good example of that will be when we take wastewater from the brewery and put it on the rooftop garden to grow herbs that then go into the beer. That pairs with bread that’s served in the restaurant, and then the unsold bread can go into brewing, and around that cycle goes again.”

Meighen began his career as a cook, working at Toronto’s celebrated Canoe and Montreal’s Joe Beef before moving to London to work in a pair of Michelin-starred restaurants. There, he fell into brewing and, after a few years working in breweries overseas, Meighen came back to Toronto determined to bring something new to his home city. At Avling, he draws as much inspiration from chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi and Blue Hill’s Dan Barber as he does from other breweries.

“From the brewing perspective we’re taking a culinary approach, in the sense of being very deliberate with where things are being sourced from, who we’re working with, what other ingredients we’re using,” Meighen says. “We’re looking as much we can to be local and find farms that are growing things in a biologically diverse and regenerative way.” 

In a practical sense, that means beers like “Galette,” which features lemon thyme from the rooftop garden that complements the buckwheat saison base. The light tinge of citrus and herbal kick balance the bold buckwheat, keeping everything in balance. Alongside it on the opening menu are “Esperta,” a lightly hoppy Belgian ale, and two core offerings—a clean and craveable IPA with a hop ratio that doesn’t overpower the aromas of citrus and stone fruit, and a saison that leans more toward the classic European farmhouse flavor profile than the funkier, bretty examples often seen around Toronto.

“A lot of the trend in North American craft beer right now is more is more and I don’t agree with that,” says Brandon Judd, Avling’s head brewer who trained at VLB Berlin. “At Avling what we’re going to try to do is use German techniques to make North American style beers.”

“Chefs are obsessive about using certain ingredients and telling stories of where this ingredient comes from, but the craft beer world puts zero restrictions on itself,” Meighen adds. “Let’s bring in mango puree, or put 100 kilos of frozen raspberries in our beer in February, or put this into a bourbon barrel and add chiles to it. Not to say any of those are inherently bad, but there’s no story behind it, nothing driving the overall message.”

Instead of using those imported fruit purees, Avling is looking to find ways to repurpose other people’s waste in an effort to keep closing that production circle. Currently conditioning in a tank is a kettle sour infused with cherry skins, pulp, and pits sourced from a local juice company. It’s a peach-colored, slightly hazy brew with subtle sour cherry notes and a touch of marzipan from the cherry pits on the finish.

Soon, the Avling rooftop will even supply the brewery with enough buckwheat and oats to make what Meighen suspects will be an “appreciable difference” in select brews. And even if the garden never supplies a huge volume of grains, Judd has his eyes on one other potential use. “We can gather the ambient flora or microflora, or we can pull flowers or herbs and see if we can culture yeast from them,” he says. “It’s something that’s more common to country breweries, but there aren’t many urban breweries that have this kind of on-site terroir.”

Head chef Suzanne Barr, a former producer at MTV who started cooking after 15 years in film and television, has more immediate plans for the garden. Herbs, edible flowers, salad greens, and small vegetables are already featured on dishes across the menu. And she’s giving back to the garden as well, washing used eggshells and adding them to the soil to spur the budding garden’s growth as suggested by Avling’s gardening expert.

“It’s fair to say that as a restaurant we have a role to play in some of the largest problems that we’re battling in the world which have a lot to do with food waste and garbage,” Barr says. To that end, Barr uses the pulp from juiced fruits and vegetables to flavor fresh pasta and even to fill fresh chocolate truffles. “Repurpose, reuse, recycle, and reinvent is a big thing for me—and pushing the grain in conversation of what people are using in kitchens is important.”

Barr’s parents both come from West Indian backgrounds, but her mother was born and raised in England. While Barr was born in Toronto, she has also lived in England, New York, Georgia, and Florida. At Avling, Barr’s food reflects that background and the backgrounds of her diverse kitchen crew.

“I want to bring my British and West Indian roots, thinking about what modern brewpubs look like these days and offering a menu that shines a light on the ethnic background of what this city is all about and the cultural diversity of this city,” Barr explains. There’s a masala fish fry that draws on her childhood curries, but also a savory turnip cake served with buttermilk ranch that meshes the American South and dim sum—a reflection of Toronto’s large Cantonese population.

“It’s really exciting to me to have this diasporic approach to cooking and menu development. I love thinking of how that impacts people’s palates and what the future of food is going to be in the city,” Barr says.

In tune with Avling’s vision to close the circle, Barr’s kitchen also works hand in hand with Judd’s brewery. Saison vinaigrette dresses rooftop salad greens, for example, and a gastrique made from the cherry sour will soon pair with sticky rhubarb bread pudding. Later this summer, Barr plans to grill chicken brined in wort from an amber ale. Diners will eat the dish while looking through the large glass wall at the rear of the restaurant into the brewery where that wort would ordinarily go down the drains.

“There may be more ideological purity in locating yourself out on a farm,” Meighen says, discussing Avling’s goal to become a hub for discussions around Canadian food and drink and food safety more generally. “But it’s tough to carry that message as far. In a city, you have access to the largest base of people to tell these stories and be able to engage with a large group of people. This can be one way of looking at urban food systems and imagining an option for what they might be in the future.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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