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Open since 1988, the St. Lawrence Market bar has watched the beer scene grow and evolve – including during the pandemic
C’est What bills itself as “the granddaddy of craft beer bars.” But when the St. Lawrence Market mainstay opened in 1988, the term “craft beer” didn’t mean much.
“It was pretty much just Conners, Upper Canada and Sleeman’s back then,” says C’est What managing partner Tim Broughton. “So we were kind of ‘craft beer’ before there was craft beer.”
Broughton and founder George Milbrandt made the early choice not to serve Molson and Labatt. In the 80s, that was a radical move – the major breweries and their standby brews were around 90 per cent of the Canadian beer market.
Now, more than three decades later, there’s a real Ontario craft beer scene – one that continues to grow and evolve. And so too does C’est What.
The formula has stayed mostly the same: high-quality beers in a friendly environment at a reasonable price.
“We’ve never wanted to be an Irish pub or an English bar,” says Broughton. “We always wanted to be a Toronto place – to reflect our community and be a part of it.”
They don’t shout that philosophy from the rooftop, but you can definitely see it in action. Though it’s currently scaled down, the food menu is a mix of pub standards like fish & chips and multicultural mishmash, like one of T.O.’s stealth signature dishes, butter chicken poutine. As many ingredients as possible are sourced from the nearby St. Lawrence Market. C’est What was one of the first local spots to serve only VQA Ontario wines.
That philosophy spreads to the bar’s intimate basement music venue. The focus has always been on local independent acts, mostly of the singer/songwriter variety. It’s never gotten a ton of attention, but being a friendly stage for up-and-comers has made it an understated rite of passage. Alternating acoustic guitars and frosty pint glasses, many long-established favourites have passed through there in their early or later days: Sarah Harmer, Dan Mangan, Hawksley Workman, Ron Sexsmith, members of Barenaked Ladies, Broken Social Scene and many others.
Then, there’s the beer. It’s a 100 per cent Canadian list, and mostly just Ontario. In its pre-COVID peak, C’est What had 42 draft taps running at all times. A handful of those are cask ales, and another handful are beers that rotate after each keg.
“I realized a few years ago, that’s about 300 different beers a year,” says Broughton. “You could come down for lunch every weekday and never drink the same beer twice.”
It took a long time after they opened for the province, and even the country, to get to the point where it was even possible to fill that many draught lines. Broughton pinpoints the craft beer explosion to sometime around 2008-2010, a time when he found the bar was suddenly trendy.
At the same time, a community began to form of Ontario craft brewers, and C’est What became one of its home bases. For a long time, when a new independent brewery was starting up, C’est What would be one of the first doors they’d knock on. “There aren’t a lot of perks, but tastings are one of them,” Broughton quips. If it’s good, they’d always try to put them on tap and give them as much exposure as they could. They also hosted a lot of special beer events, cask festivals and craft beer collaborations.
Even with the explosion, Broughton argues the country’s craft beer movement is still in its infancy. It’s still only about 10 per cent of the Canadian market, which is why collaboration and concentration is more lucrative than competing with other craft beer bars and producers. “The more people you have doing it, the better you all are,” he says. “The market might eventually get saturated, but that’s still a long way away.”
Part of the reason for that is legislative, he says. There’s a heavy tax burden on brewing beer, and the ability to wholesale and retail is still largely dependent on the LCBO. There isn’t a lot of privately owned distribution. Ontario has about 250 craft brewers, he estimates.
Bars and restaurants can now sell their beer for takeout and delivery in Ontario – a pandemic measure that’s been made permanent – but those in the business are still pushing to be able to buy alcohol from the LCBO at wholesale prices to keep the margins reasonable, a conversation Broughton says has been going on for decades.
Off-sale alcohol is a major change bars have been asking for for a long time – a model that makes a lot more sense than privatized beer sales at grocery and convenience stores because they have the equipment and the training to sell it, Broughton says – and it could be a sign things are starting to change.
“There’s still a hangover from the puritan days of Ontario, where alcohol was treated as a sin,” says Broughton. “But that’s very slowly being dismantled.”
C’est What has had a long-standing relationship with County Durham Brewing, a Pickering brewery that sells many of its beers exclusively at the bar. Now they’ve made that informal partnership into an official one, launching canned versions of beers that were previously available as cask and draught beers. C’est What Al’s Cask Ale uses a nitro-infused can to replicate what it’s like pulling from the cask.
The other major update is their big new beer garden, tucked down the alley and relatively self-contained. A standalone beer garden is something they’ve been hoping to launch for years as a seasonal pop-up, but the city kept turning them down. But during the pandemic the city eased zoning restrictions to allow restaurants to expand their outdoor dining. They also have a CafeTO streetside patio out front.
It’s definitely different. C’est What has always been more about cozy indoor ambience. It’s actually never had a patio until last year. But it works.
Unfortunately, they can’t have many draught lines going at the moment (maybe soon to change with the return of indoor dining in step 3). The beer garden is a good 80 metres away from C’est What’s indoor space, which would mean a lot of time and effort between pulling a pint and delivering it. So it’s mostly cans and bottles right now. But eventually, they hope to get a power source going so they can build better outdoor refrigeration, taps and heating mechanisms. Ideally, even once COVID is over, the beer garden will be resurrected every summer.
The long-term goal, though, is to get those 42 taps back in action. If they do, there will always be new beer to fill them with. There are always trends – from hoppy IPAs to fruity sours – but there’s always more and more variety. And there are more and more people who want more than what’s offered at their local beer store or LCBO.
“When it comes to wine, if you talk to vintners, you can do a lot, but it comes down to the grape. Is it a good grape year or not?” Broughton says. “With beer there’s always new methods and ingredients you can experiment with. The well never runs dry.”