Here's a look at what's happening in Toronto’s craft beer scene.
Toronto’s craft beer scene has been up-and-coming for a few years now, and any visitor to Toronto will find not only quite a few craft beer bars boasting Canadian beers but even a few local brewers and brewpubs peddling Ontario and even super-local Toronto beers.
Since Toronto adopted a proposal in May to “make Toronto the craft beer capital of the world,” we thought it was high time we saw what was happening in this Canadian urban center.
Here are our top 5 beers being brewed in Toronto right now and some great food to enjoy with them.
5. C’est What Caraway Rye Beer & Poutine
C’est What is a Toronto brewpub and restaurant, serving up international comfort food and a long list of intriguing beers. They call themselves "Toronto’s Local," and it’s true that the "pubby" ambiance here is very nice, and it’s quite centrally located as well.
Here, we opted for a Canadian classic, poutine, to pair with one of the 36 "Always Here" beers on the draft list, the Caraway Rye Pale Ale (54 IBU, 5.4%). This beer has a very distinct, sourdough aroma, a pleasant, malty sweetness with a touch of ripe stone fruit, and a hint of a black pepper kick, making it a great pairing for the poutine’s black pepper gravy.
If I didn’t know there was caraway in the beer, I wouldn’t have guessed it; the rye is much more present, particularly in the sour nose and in the spice. It’s not as full-bodied as many ryes I’ve tried before, but it does have more of an edge than your typical pale ale.
4. Amsterdam Big Wheel Amber & Beer Cheddar Dip with Pretzels
Amsterdam’s brewery is located on the waterfront, making it ideal for a post-Blue Jay’s drink. When it’s not frosty out, you can even sit outside, which is always a plus.
The award-winning Big Wheel Amber (23 IBU, 5% ABV) was one of four on the “King and Portland” flight and my personal favorite. According to Amsterdam, the amber was created “out of a desire for a perfectly balanced beer,” taking inspiration both from the richness of a pale ale and the drinkability of a modern lager. They hit the nail right on the head with this one. It’s exactly what it promises: drinkable, crisp yet rich with sweet malty, bready flavor and just a hint of grassy hops. It’s a fairly mild beer and while a bit one-note is the solid sort of ale that can please everyone.
It wasn’t the ideal pairing for the Boneshaker cheddar dip with pretzels, I’ll admit – luckily I had a taster of the Boneshaker IPA as well that made for a much better pairing – but I couldn’t resist ordering it, and it surpassed my expectations. The amber ale would be better paired with one of the house pizzas.
3. Mill Street 100th Meridian Lager
I tried the Mill Street 100th Meridian Lager (24 IBU, 5% ABV) at the Victory Café, one of my old favorites from when I was at the University of Toronto. But they’ve definitely amped up their beer selections from the last time I was there, and this may be a new favorite.
This organic beer gets its name from its ingredients, all of which hail from the west of the 100th Meridian. A cool story, but what does that mean for flavor?
While this is technically an amber lager, it drinks a bit more like a pale lager… which leaves me wondering what to expect from Mill Street’s pale lager. The slightly golden hue of the beer and the sweet caramel aroma of the malts may be reminiscent of amber styles, but the dry flavor and hint of lager yeast are much closer to that of a light lager. A middle-of-the-road carbonation plus hints of earthy hops round out this easy-drinking beer with a very clean finish. It’s a good all-purpose beer to accompany anything with a blend of flavors, like a gourmet cheeseburger.
2. Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale
I tried a bottle of this Hawaiian-style pale ale at Bier Markt, a beer garden with a very extensive menu and a good number of local brews. Unfortunately, they were tapped out of a few local drafts I wanted to try, but this bottled pale ale definitely made up for it.
The tagline for Spearhead Hawaiian-Style Pale Ale (60 IBU, 6% ABV) is “Aloha from Toronto!” It’s basically a lightly carbonated, pineapple-infused hoppy American ale, and I don’t know why I haven’t tried anything like it before.
The bold flavors of the Cascade and Northern Brewer hops encounter the sweetness of pineapple, which comes through more in the aroma than in the flavor of the final beer, and culminates in a refreshing, slightly sweet flavor with just the right amount of bitterness – a bit more than I’m used to on an American pale ale, but less than you’d expect from an IPA. It’s very drinkable and just a bit surprising. This is definitely a new favorite.
We tried the sliders at Bier Markt, which were tasty, but I think this beer would pair even better with a slightly spicy Pad Thai.
1. Great Lakes x Bar Hop Sweet Zombie Jesus
I imagine that the name of this beer, which I tasted at Bar Hop, one of the brewers, comes from what you utter the first time you take a sip.
Sweet Zombie Jesus (5.5% ABV) is a sweet stout with strong flavors of peanut butter and dark chocolate. Seriously, this is a bit like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a glass… at least on the nose. What makes it even more pleasant is that the flavor of this stout isn’t necessarily overwhelmingly sweet, but instead roasty, a bit like raw cacao or mocha. A smooth mouth feel adds to the illusion that you may just be drinking a glass of alcoholic peanut butter. A really nice nutty aftertaste seals the deal. There’s only one qualm. You can’t get this anywhere but Toronto.
I always find pairing sweet stouts and food a bit challenging, especially because the sweetness of the beer always tends to be overshadowed by the stronger sweetness of a dessert. For this reason, I’d be interested in pairing this stout with the jelly side of the equation – a cheese plate with grapes seems fitting, or for something a bit less adventurous, how about a banana pudding?
Honorable Mention: Brickworks 1904 Cider
This isn’t a beer, so it only gets an honorable mention, but I sampled some local Brickworks cider (5% ABV) at Bier Markt, and it’s definitely worth writing home about. Crisp, dry and fruity, this cider is much more appley than some that hail from the UK. Named for the Great Toronto Fire of 1904, the cider is made entirely with Ontario apples and is a great way to drink to local pride.
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