A few short years ago, you couldn’t buy a full glass of beer at an Ontario brewery. Now taprooms are everywhere
Possibly the most unexpected sight that has ever greeted this long-time beer scribe upon entering a brewery was the gaggle of baby-toting mothers and fathers packed into a taproom. This was at Toronto’s Blood Brothers Brewing one sunny Thursday afternoon, and remained a unique experience until I encountered the exact same scene at the east side’s Left Field Brewery several weeks later.
Moms and dads and their tots love brewery taps. Who knew?
Regularly scheduled parents-and-kids afternoons may look strange at a brewery, but in Ontario it’s an oddity to purchase full glasses of beer to drink at a brewery in the first place. Up until recently, you could sample beer at any brewery in the province, so long as they were willing to serve you, but the province’s mandarins had decreed that the proper drinking of beer – as in, decent-sized glasses – was restricted to bars and restaurants.
That changed when the government introduced the “by the glass” initiative in 2012, which allowed breweries to sell beer in quantities up to 341 ml (12 ounces) from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Many took the authorities up on the offer.
Today, brewery taprooms abound in the city, and residents and visitors alike are partaking of them with tremendous enthusiasm. What follows are Billy’s picks of the best taprooms in Toronto, grouped into three categories to help guide your own beery explorations.
The Old Guard
Although some local newspapers and magazines still act as if craft brewing is something entirely new to Toronto, the city’s longest-standing breweries have been around for decades. And those older and more established companies are not about to leave all the taproom glories to the younger upstarts.
Likely the first brewery most visitors will encounter is Steam Whistle Brewing, owing to the company’s location in the Roundhouse at the foot of the CN Tower. So much as set foot in the front door and you will be offered a sampler of their pilsner; venture a little further and you may buy glasses of the same brew, which is the only beer the company produces. You don’t have to have tickets to the very popular brewery tours – which are frequently sold out in advance.
You’ll need to head further afield to find Black Oak Brewing and the Great Lakes Brewery, but your efforts will be well-rewarded. (A GO Train ticket from Union Station to Mimico puts you within a 20 minute walk of either.) Great Lakes offers five rotating taps of its beer, usually including a couple of award winners, and has a lovely if sometimes slightly noisy patio out front for sunny days. Black Oak also pours from five taps on busy days, but presents more of a rec room vibe inside their industrial mall location, complete with a large selection of board games for those interested in whiling away an hour or two.
The Game Changers
While what we used to call “microbrewing” has existed in Toronto since 1985, for its first quarter century or so it wasn’t a terribly exciting industry. Sure, there were some terrific beers produced during that period, like Black Oak Nut Brown Ale and Steam Whistle Pilsner, but stylistically the city was far from cutting edge. That changed with the arrival of the Bellwoods Brewery in 2012.
Inside, at the Ossington Avenue location of Bellwoods Brewery
While its Ossington Avenue location, the one visitors are most likely to find, is more brewpub (complete with food menu) than brewery taproom, it does provide easy access to a constantly rotating array of some of the more creative beers in the city, from musty and dry, Brettanomyces-influenced ales like Weft & Warp to robust Baltic porters, fruited sour beers and single hop pale ales. For quieter crowds and a different selection, Bellwoods operates a more traditional brewery tap at their production location on Hafis Road, in an industrial area far uptown, near Lawrence Avenue and Caledonia Road.
The rustic yin to Bellwoods’ somewhat more polished yang is Junction Brewing, named for the neighbourhood it calls home. Usually with eight to 10 beers on tap, Junction offers variety from pilsners and black lagers to its flagship brews, Conductor’s Craft Ale and Stationmaster’s Stout, all in a rough-and-ready space that feels like it’s right in the centre of the brewery – mainly because it mostly is. (Junction is building a new brewery nearby on Symes Road which the company plans to occupy in the fall of 2017.)
The New Breed
The stage having been set by the success of Junction and Bellwoods and others, the city soon had breweries opening all across its length and breadth, most including their own taprooms and beer stores.
One of the early adopters was an operation that got its start having its beers contract brewed by others before getting its own brewery up and running on the east side. Although not the easiest to access on public transit – nor the easiest to find, it being located down a narrow street that is little more than an alley – the baseball-themed Left Field Brewery is a genuinely fun place to share a beer or three, especially on a Blue Jays game day with a glass of Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale in hand.
A more recent arrival is Blood Brothers Brewing, opened in 2015 on the commercial roadway known as Geary Avenue, once described as possibly the city’s ugliest street. The area is still industrial in feel, but with a brewery, a distillery and a handful of bars and restaurants now in residence, the Dufferin and Dupont offshoot is far more attractive than it once was, and made all the more so by Blood Brothers’ modest and quirky Draft Room, where the staff pour eight or nine beers that change frequently but usually include the brewery’s stellar Inner Eye Pale Ale.
The unique taproom at Blood Brothers
Stephen Beaumont is co-author with Tim Webb of the fully revised and updated second edition The World Atlas of Beer, out now, and author of the Beer & Food Companion, available online and in stores.