From pale ales and stouts, to IPAs and sours, here are made-in-Toronto brews that impress us the most
If we could climb into a DeLorean and dial it back three decades, we’d skid into mid-80’s Toronto to find a few craft beer early birds falling hard for small batch brews in Amsterdam’s original John Street brew pub, or in the dim subterranean ale den C’est What, one of the city’s original nano breweries.
Flash-forward 15 years, and we’d arrive at our city’s startling first sip of Tank House, right around the time that Mill Street and Steamwhistle were quickly acquainting the masses with beer that tasted like actual malt and hops.
Blast back to 2017, and Toronto now has 36 operating brick-and-mortar breweries, with almost 20 more in the works, and endless tall cans brewed on contract. Beer bars, brew pubs and full-scale breweries have, for the first time since prohibition, fully integrated into our drinking culture and cityscape. Whenever we’re feeling parched, all we have to do is walk down the street towards the nearest liquid buffet of goses, sours, pale ales, fruited wheat beers, coffee stouts, wine-barrel-aged wild ales and, yep, even milkshake IPAs.
We might be spoiled for choice when it comes to hyper-local beer (not to mention the offerings that come from other parts of Ontario – stuff that we couldn’t tackle for this story without overwhelming our livers), but we managed to whittle it down to a proper 2-4’s worth of made-in-Toronto brews that impress us the most. So, go forth and drink up!
About three times a week, owner Colin Weadick rejigs the kitchen at Laylow, his beer-focused bar and neighbourhood eatery, into what he calls “a jazzed-up home-brew system” and sets to work brewing 60-litre batches of ale. He and partner Dan Boniferro are pretty confident that theirs is the smallest brewery in the city. Laylow’s flagship stout, named for Mos Def’s canonical solo debut, is almost as silky as the rapper’s famous flow. It’s chocolatey, uncomplicated and intensely drinkable – exactly the balm we seek on a blustery Monday.
$7.50/glass at Laylow (1144 College)
A deluge of obscure, new-new (and probably made-up) hybrid beer styles can baffle beer geeks and casual drinkers alike, but Halo’s tart, tropical Shapeshifter – part IPA, part sour – gets triple the points for being cohesive, refreshing and mighty tasty. Try the blood orange version if you can.
$6.50/500 ml, Halo Brewery (247 Wallace)
Launched along with the brewery in 1999, Black Oak’s brown ale is like a formative album: listened to on loop for months, nearly forgotten for years and then rediscovered with the unhinged zeal only sparked by nostalgia. True to its name, it’s a nutty, malt-fuelled fireside beer that taps in to Ontario’s British brewing tradition.
$2.95/473 ml, LCBO (422121)
Easily one of the city’s most picturesque breweries, months-old Rorschach hugs the periphery of the Beaches amidst interlocking parks. Settling on one of the dozen-plus house beers can feel like an impossible task, so opt for a flight of four ounce pours and be sure to include Reverse Psychology, an incredibly fragrant IPA with a gentle bitter kick, in the lineup. New beers appear here every week, but we’re currently content to sip on this and leave the rest open to interpretation.
$7.50/500 ml, Rorschach Brewing Co. (1001 Eastern)
Folly brewers Christina Coady and Chris Conway make generously hopped mashups of Belgian and American-style ales on a sliding scale of funk. The brew pub has released nearly 100 beers since launching in late 2015, but Flemish Cap is one of the most consistently available. It’s light, lemony and versatile enough to drink before, with and after dinner.
$6/500 ml, Folly Brewpub (928 College)
We’re very aware that Bellwoods releases way more precious stuff than Wizard Wolf, their oft-brewed session ale. But despite what craft beer culture insinuates, exclusivity isn’t everything. Wizard Wolf is fresh-squeezed, non-polarizing park quaffing at its finest. We’re never sad to have this beer in our glass.
$5/500 ml, Bellwoods Brewery (124 Ossington and 20 Hafis) when available
Tucked away on Geary, Blood Brothers is the brainchild of co-brewers (and actual siblings) Brayden and Dustin Jones. The brewery’s gained a following for its whimsical and unique brews, including Guilty Remnant white chocolate stout, and a tart and seasonal Wit called Mother that’s flavoured with lavender and lemon peel. But we also can really get behind their core lineup, which includes Inner Eye PA, a mango medley that doesn’t end on a snarlingly bitter note. It’s a soft springboard into more challenging IPAs.
$5/500 ml, Blood Brothers Brewing (165 Geary)
There are zero hops in ORIA (which identifies as a sour, fruited saison bottle-conditioned with Brett, not as the herbed and hopless old-timey style known as gruit). Not like we care, because technicalities will never stop us from guzzling what tastes like the most wonderful spritzy pink lemonade on earth. Bless Burdock for occasionally bottling in 750 ml format and a handful of magnums, because otherwise there’d never be enough of this to go around. Try the pithy, golden kumquat version, too.
$7.50/375 ml, $15/750 ml, Burdock (1184 Bloor West), when available
Muddy York’s founder, Jeff Manol, formerly an award-winning homebrewer, focuses on timeless styles like this lightly smokey no-frills Porter that clocks in just shy of 5% ABV. As a well-informed pal recently observed, “exciting” beer – the stuff brewed with oyster shells, passionfruit or multiple strains of wild yeast – just doesn’t translate to everyday enjoyment for most. But three generations can easily agree on Muddy York’s porter (as well as its righteous Gaslight Helles).
$4.25/500 ml, Muddy York (22 Cranfield)
Bar Hop Brewco has only been serving in-house brews since January, but what we’ve tasted is way more than promising. Inspired by Belgium’s famous Saison Dupont, Miracle Cure gets its mouth-caressing mousse and freshness from six weeks of keg conditioning and no brettanomyces (sorry, nerds). Though pigeonholing this pristine, funkless saison as a hangover slayer doesn’t do it justice, we know what our clam hands will be shakily reaching for the day after the next booze-pocalypse: a cold glass of this everyday miracle.
$7.25/400 ml glass at Bar Hop Brewco (137 Peter)
Indie Ale House dropped their flagship IPA about six years ago, back when uber-hopped West Coast styles obsessed more or less every brewer and beer evangelist in Ontario’s zygotic craft brewing scene. Fast forward to a city sloshing with fancily-hopped pale ale permutations, and Indie’s hazy hops bomb is still one of the most balanced – and gulpable – IPAs in the game.
$5/500 ml, Indie Ale House (2876 Dundas West)
Bitter, resinous West Coast-style IPAs rank among some of Toronto’s tastiest beers, but lately the dank, juicy IPA style popularized in the east – in Vermont, specifically – has been getting a lot of love. We try not to get lost in how voluptuously tropical this beer tastes and remain conscious of its beastly ABV (8%), but we’re not going to lie – sometimes the beer is stronger than our willpower.
$8.95/650 ml, Left Field Brewery (36 Wagstaff)
At the end of a frustrating, sticky and all around dismal day, we’ll skip the tall glass of water and go straight to Rainhard’s supremely refreshing American Pale Ale. It’s crisp, invigorating and sparkly enough to scrub away any lingering bad vibes. Rainhard was the second city brewery (after Steamwhistle) to release stubby cans, an easy-riding format we predict more breweries will adopt.
$3/355 ml can, $15/six-pack, Rainhard Brewery (100 Symes)
We love a beer that clocks in below 4% (in this case, 3.9%) without us noticing, and Rainhard’s top notch New England session ale is no exception. Bright, dry and gluggable, Daywalker is one of the most flavour-packed session beers we’ve tried.
$3/355 ml can, $15/six-pack, Rainhard Brewery (100 Symes)
Before sours were quenching all of Toronto’s cool kids, a batch of ale went rogue at Indie Ale House, the then-yet-unopened Junction brewpub which marked a territory now well-populated with breweries. After some long-distance coaching on making Belgian-style sours from Luc Lafontaine, then at Quebec’s Dieu du Ciel (and now, the owner behind brand-new Godspeed Brewery), Indie’s owner Jason Fisher managed to salvage the batch and pull off a tart and funky-smelling Spadina Monkey – one of the city’s first sour ales. This cheeky brew dons various fruited disguises, but the most current – a lip-smacking, vinous pineapple version – has us praising the beer gods for fortunate fuck-ups.
$20/750 ml, Indie Ale House (2876 Dundas West)
Of all the IPAs in the on-point oeuvre of GLB’s brewmaster, Mike Lackey, THRUST! has a special place in our hearts. Each time we get wind of its release, we imagine the exact tender moment when we’ll be reunited with its ripe island fruit and coniferous goodness while Hall and Oates plays softly in the background. Pour this beer into proper glassware for the full galactic olfactory experience.
$3.50/473 ml, $78/case of 24, Great Lakes Brewery (30 Queen Elizabeth Blvd)
Toronto is frothing for sour beers, and the King continues its reign this summer as a local fave. Soured with Bellwoods’ proprietary strain of lactobacillus (a bacteria whose brethren lend tang to yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut), this thirst-smasher also comes in rare fruited forms – ghosts of Jelly past include plum, cherry and blackberry.
$5/500 ml, Bellwoods Brewery (124 Ossington and 20 Hafis) when available
Beer aficionados need no introduction to brettanomyces, the funky little microbe loathed in the wine world but embraced by brewers for the powerful – and sometimes poopy – complexities it bequeaths. As the popularity of wild-fermented and farmhouse-style beers has skyrocketed, brett’s become a badge of honour and Bellwoods, unsurprisingly, makes a particularly succulent barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned and artfully infected ale. Consistency is beside the point, so expect variances from batch to batch After all, isn’t personality what we line up for?
$12/500 ml, Bellwoods Brewery (124 Ossington and 20 Hafis) when available
Though it drinks less like the West Coast IPA it claims to be riffing on, and more like a pale ale shacked up in a farmhouse, Henderson’s UPA is a midsummer thirst smasher. We dig this Sterling Road brewery’s Toronto-centric spirit – their monthly Ides Of series pays homage to the city through brews like a passionfruit radler (for Sweet Pete’s bike shop) and a maple brown ale (made to pair with Carousel Bakery’s famously loaded peameal-on-a-bun).
$3.05/473 ml, Henderson Brewing (128A Sterling)
Granite’s creamy, fragrant dry stout has been kicking around the city since way before craft beer became cool. Introduced to Toronto at the Granite’s uptown brewpub in 1991, Keefe’s stout was one of three flagship brews on offer when the original Granite opened in Halifax in the mid-eighties. There’s no chocolate, fruit or coffee beans added and no wine-barrel-aging going on here, and the old-school simplicity is exactly what we dig about this beer. Keefe’s laurels rest on a roasty wallop of malt and a decades-strong reputation as Guinness for locals.
$18/2 L (including growler deposit), Granite Brewery (245 Eglinton East)
Every autumn, we witness the same change-of-guard: As soon as pumpkin beers scurry off shelves and back to their special patch in hell, whiskey-barrel-aged beers start throwing their weight around. But few grip our attention quite like Amsterdam’s rich and gloriously monstrous Double Tempest, the extra-potent version of the brewery’s stormy stout, which has a reputation as black gold in a bottle. Double Tempest is only released once a year (usually in November), so grab one to stash in the cellar.
$15/650 ml, Amsterdam Brewhouse (245 Queens Quay West)and Amsterdam Brewing Company (45 Esandar), when available.
Just a little yuzu – a fragrant and puckering variety of citrus widely cultivated in Japan – can be way too much. But Radical Road’s pale ale is balanced, crushable and, despite its in-your-face florals, a versatile match for all kinds of cuisine. It’s worth noting that everything poured at the tiny, almost year-old Leslieville brewpub is brewed on site, but the more subdued Yuzu tall boys soon to be sold at the LCBO are brewed under contract at the Common Good Beer Company in Scarborough.
$2.95/473 ml, Radical Road (1177 Queen East)
Burdock has a rep for making some of the city’s most elegantly eccentric beers, and this one tasted like funky-fresh electric lime rinds. Brett Lime Lite, a beach-grade low-alc version that flipped a playful bird at a certain widely-guzzled corporate beer flavoured with “lime,” was released this spring, but as with many unique brews, we’re not sure when – or if – Brett Lime will return. We’re thinking about starting a petition, though…
$7.50/375 ml, Burdock (1184 Bloor West), when available.
Predating Left Field’s brick-and-mortar east side brewery, this velvety, coffee-tickled brown ale was one of brewmaster Mark Murphy’s inaugural releases – and hot damn, it’s still terrific. Named for an obscure baseball reference (because that’s Left Field’s schtick), Eephus tastes like malt chocolate flecked with a melange of nuts (wait, does that treat exist and can we buy it in a store?) and leans, though not errs, on the sweetish side. We wager that even a grandma would genuinely relish this beer.
$5.45/650 ml, Left Field Brewery (36 Wagstaff) and LCBO (481879)
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