Jennifer Tamse describes Beertown Public House as a “gateway beer bar.” Newly opened at the corner of University and Wellington, the restaurant chain has been expanding across Southern Ontario in recent years, introducing drinkers to the weirder sides of the province’s craft brewery scene while also offering the familiar standbys.
“We’re not fully and wholly looking to compete in the space of catering to a subset of guests who just want craft beer,” Tamse, the restaurant’s “beer czar” (or director of beverages), explains. “We know we’ll get people who are afraid of the idea of craft beer, but we can slowly get them excited about what the industry is about.”
There are now over 270 licensed craft breweries in Ontario, and the pandemic has given rise to adventurous drinking as Torontonians grab one or two cans from a bottle shop or cafe and head to the park. It was only a matter of time before a larger chain restaurant came to town touting an extensive craft beer list with names like Rorschach, Blood Brothers, Bellwoods and MERIT.
Owned by Kitchener-based Charcoal Group, Beertown is in the thick of the financial district, which is still not fully back to life since COVID hit but bustling again now that Ontario has allowed pro sports, indoor dining and tourist attractions to resume. That means Beertown also has to deliver when it comes to food – which is made in-house from scratch – wine and cocktails.
The press has been touting the restaurant as a “beer hall” but Tamse says Beertown is not as big as some of its competitors. And rolling pandemic restrictions means restaurants need to feel local if they are going to sustain customers during lockdowns.
“We’re happy to take the name beer hall. It’s not as big as some of the other spaces because we want to have that neighbourhood vibe,” she says. “Last night, I was behind the bar and meeting people who lived five minutes away, which I was not expecting. We’re inviting tourists in but also people who live up the street.”
We caught up with Tamse to chat about mainstreaming craft breweries, the rise of fruited beer and the coming wave of non-alcoholic options.
How did you get interested in beer?
I’m trained in philosophy and math but I was a self-proclaimed craft beer geek. The first time I had a great beer was when I was on the trivia team in high school and I used to take the boys down to a pub in London, Ontario called the Marienbad. It was run by a Czech man that curated this insane portfolio of beer and I remember ordering a beer even though I wasn’t really of age, and it was this Trappist Belgian quad and it was like nothing I’d ever had before. From that moment on I was hooked.
What keeps you interested in beer?
Beer is such a dynamic substance, there is always something to learn and try. Unlike other spirits and wine, beer doesn’t discriminate. It was accessible to a young female. Sure, it was a male-dominated industry but I could actually afford to drink it.
What do you mean beer doesn’t discriminate?
Over the last decade, beer has fought to redefine itself in terms of challenging the status quo. Beer offers a vast range in diversity of flavours and aromas, much more so than a lot of your spirits. Much more so than even some wines just by virtue of the fact that you’re using four ingredients to brew the beer. There aren’t not the same rules that brewers have to follow [as winemakers], at least in Canada. The result is an infinite range of styles and possibilities and flavours. For the consumer, if they think they don’t like beer it’s simply because they have this narrow conception of what beer can be – a pale-gold straw-coloured substance that was sold in droves to the working class. But that’s not what beer is anymore. It’s a substance that can be for everybody. The discrimination part comes from those people who choose to market it and make it.
How do you see the market diversifying?
You need a diverse subset of people to lead the charge on what kind of beer they decide to make and who they market it too in order to attract people who normally wouldn’t drink beer. At the same time, you need the beer to cater to those people and those people to demand it. It’s a two way thing. Societal changes – in terms of gender equity, we still have a long way to go – are driving that.
Fruited beers are a big trend this summer. What is driving the demand?
Having more people brewing beer in the market has helped drive it. And there’s more access to imports and a general increase in beer. Belgian brewers have been brewing iterations of fruited sours for a long time, mind you theirs are very different. You have a flood of young, awesome people entering the market who now realize that beer can be fruited and sour. So they’re asking for it. We’re seeing a big shift in our sales mixes at Beertown towards sours, IPAs and fruited beers.
What are the other big trends?
Slushy sours, which are an iteration of fruited sours, are really big this summer. Third Moon Brewery in Milton is spearheading that charge. A lot of East Coast-inspired IPAs otherwise known as New England IPAs. These are India Pale Ales where a lot of hops are used but they’re used late in the boil. The IPA doesn’t have to be all that bitter and you get these wonderful aromatic properties from the hops depending on where they’re sourced.
I’m also seeing a trend towards beer that’s lower in alcohol – under five per cent either in the IPA category or in the saison category. We love serving stuff that’s in the 3.5 per cent range because people coming in for lunch can still have a beer and go on their merry way to work.
Crisp, clean lagers – but lagers done right. Godspeed is doing a lot of great Czech-inspired pilsners and lagers. They pour that beautiful golden hue and they pair great with salads or fish dishes.
Wine-beer hybrids is the last one I’m seeing. You’re starting to see sours, kettle sours and sour beers that are being either aged and then conditioned on grape skins or blended in with some sort of grape varietal, which results in some fun beers to present to our guests.
What trends will we be talking about a year from now?
More beer/wine hybrids and saisons aged on grapeskins. Natural wine is becoming a lot more popular in some circles of beer drinkers. And as people try different styles of beer, they are going to want to revert back to something that is easy drinking, like lager. We’re also going to see more breweries making RTDs – ready-to-go drinks. Breweries are getting interested in distilling. The pandemic accelerated that because people couldn’t go to a restaurant and have their bartender whip them something special.
I think we will see more non-alcoholic beers come into the market. That’s something guests do ask for quite a bit. There’s some really great ones out there that fall outside that standard prototypical model of non-alcoholic lager. There are imports like Erdinger Weissbier, which is a German-style wheat beer, and a Canadian company called Partake that does a stout, an IPA, a pale ale and a lager. More breweries will try to do no-alcohol beer because there is a growing demand.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.