Toronto's Best Breweries
In Toronto, small-scale craft breweries seem to be opening on nearly every corner. David Ort maps out four beer crawls around the best brewpubs and bottle shops.
It’s a golden age for beer drinkers in Toronto. Breweries have realized how terrible it is for us to shop at the Beer Store and how difficult it is for them to sell their product at the LCBO.
So, they’ve made their own premises into friendly spaces, filled with food and drink that act as community hubs for their neighbourhood. So many breweries have opened over the past three years (often in close-knit clusters) that it’s finally possible to put on a proper crawl. I drew up a map of four Toronto meta-neighbourhoods and marked off the best places in each for finding a cold one.
There had to be some casualties of this tour approach. Go to Etobicoke for low-ABV saisons and high-IBU IPAs from Great Lakes. Kensington Brewing has a rotating lineup of favourites, but the market is a neighbourhood unto itself. There’s everything from shiu mai to Mexico-City-style tortas.
Like the first-time visitor to Spain, new to the world of tapas, it’s critical to remember that the magic word is “one” – grab a beer, maybe a snack and then move on. Be responsible about your transportation.
Beyond the Wall
This one is going to require some walking, folks. Luckily, much of it will be green and shady. By my count, the gap between Amsterdam and Brunswick traverses four different parks and will give you a primer course on Toronto’s famous ravines. Of course, you could always take the easy way out and cab between them.
The effort will be worth it because between Leaside and the O’Connor area breweries you’ll also pass through Thorncliffe Park, one the most vibrant parts of the city.
Pale ales and their stronger cousins, IPAs break down into British and American styles, depending (mostly) on where their ingredients are from and the balance they strike. Happily, Mary Beth Keefe and the brewing team at Granite are adept at making both in their open-fermenter system.
Start by asking what’s on cask and go from there. And don’t let the wood panelling and long track record fool you, Granite knows how to experiment with beers like a chocolate stout or a black IPA.
With 200 seats inside and various patios, Leaside’s newest watering hole is the ideal pre-ravine refresher. Brewmaster Iain McOustra sees the brewery’s third location as an opportunity to experiment – especially with distinctive yeast cultures that produce complex, eye-opening funky beers.
On weekends, the food menu expands to include the familiar brunch options.
Gaslight Helles is one of the best lagers in Toronto.
Bricks-and-mortar or contract brewery doesn’t have to be just us versus them. Or that’s the idea behind Brunswick, a brewery and taproom built to showcase beer recipes created in conjunction with top brewing talent. The first of their Handshake series is called Ora et Labora and the doppelbock (a strong, dark lager) is the first ever collaboration brew for the famous trappist brewers of La Trappe. Brunswick is open limited hours from Thursday to Saturday.
Discerning beer lists across the city feature their beer, which comes with catchy Toronto trivia. The easy assumption is that the tucked-away location means Muddy York has to put more effort into distribution. Maybe that’s part of it, but I think it has more to do with brewmaster Jeff Manol’s consistent quality in approachable, under-represented styles. Case in point: Gaslight Helles is one of the best lagers in Toronto. He also does well with brawny IPAs – Storm Glass is a favourite.
From dour and dry meatpacking district to thriving and awash with beer in under two decades, the Junction has come a long way. Craft breweries are so tightly concentrated near Keele and Dundas West that walking almost seems too easy. The last three are close enough that they’ve given themselves a communal name: The Aleyards.
I try not to play favourites when it comes to brewery origin stories. The industry needs the marketing guys with money and the chemical engineers looking for a break from test tubes. But there is a thirst-quenching romance to seeing a home brewer go pro.
Peter Caira and Doug Appeldoorn honoured their roots by devoting one of their brewery’s taps to the product of their homebrew club, GTA Brews. After that, try a glass of their snappy Gosé Cuervo.
Early on, brewer Jeff Broeders dialled in his jabs – mainly the Instigator IPA and its double version, Cockpuncher – so that he could focus on his uppercut. That means one of Toronto’s best lineups of sour ales and barrel-aged beers with fantastic names like Grendel’s Revenge, Fallen Idol and Sword of Damocles. In other words, definitely save room in your over-the-shoulder satchel for a few choice bottles from Indie.
Think deluxe pub, burgers and flatbreads, when deciding what to order from the only full-time kitchen at a brewery in the area.
Indie's beers have fantastic names like Grendel’s Revenge, Fallen Idol and Sword of Damocles.
“Superbly wacky” is the only way to explain Shacklands to the uninitiated. That applies doubly to Dave Watts behind the bar with his expression that is equal parts convivial and intense. Even the brewery’s in-house piano has a sign encouraging guests to play whatever they want with love and gusto. The beers are equally madcap, generally Belgian in style and naturally carbonated in keg or bottle. Saison Davenport is a favourite for its tight orchard fruit flavours.
Jordan Rainhard and his team are using their newly updated brewhouse to make a list of mainly hop-forward American styles. Kapow! IPA does what it promises on the tin and delivers a blast of resiny citrus balanced by the right amount of cereal.
Pop-ups are the name of the food game at Rainhard with a rotating calendar including west-side favourite When the Pig Came Home and Steambox Dumplings.
Restrained and consistent takes on sessionable styles is the JCB way. For instance, Junction Road is one of the best black lagers in the province and Tracklayer’s Kolsch is an ideal reward for a hot day’s work.
As far as historical names for brewery buildings go, “The Destructor” is obviously the coolest. The new space is 16,000 square feet of taproom, bottle shop, brewery equipment and an ideal space for events. The docket for these ranges from beer soap making workshops to brunch pop-ups.
Lower Yeast Side
The neighbourhoods east of the Don are small enough that one can be forgiven for confusing Riverdale and Riverside and for not being sure exactly where Leslieville starts and Danforth Village ends. So, let’s take them all as one for our beer-drinking purposes.
Especially for the stretch along Queen East, it’s easy to cover ground by transit. Hope for an old streetcar so that you can open the window and experience summer breezes in Toronto at their best.
Left Field has grown into one of the most everything-friendly spaces.
Given the abundant company these days, it’s hard to believe that Mandie and Mark Murphy were the lone brewery owners in this part of town when they threw open their doors in spring 2014. Since then, Left Field has grown into one of the most everything-friendly (i.e., from children to dogs) spaces.
Look for something from their Turn Two double-variety IPA series or stick with their classic Sunlight Park saison for a blast of summer-appropriate grapefruit.
Luc “Bim” Lafontaine (Dieu de Ciel!) can tell you what goes into opening a Toronto brewery. For a year-and-a-half he wrestled with all of the red tape and pitfalls and the only thing he got was an ironic name.
The Otsukaresama is right on target for the dortmunder style. Another easy-sipping option is Yuzu, a saison accented with Japanese citrus. Both go fabulously with their homestyle, yet refined, Japanese food.
You say you like some haze on your IPA? And that dry-hopping makes everything better? Well, then mark Rorschach Brewing as a must-visit for your next east-end tour.
Commendably, the food options are egalitarian about drawing from different cultures and range from cevapi to fish tacos. Their 100-seat rooftop patio is an oasis a block south of Queen East.
If you didn’t get enough Asian citrus at Godspeed, take another crack with the Yuzu pale ale here. The Hi-Fi is a fine option for those who wax nostalgic for the heady days of 2016 when pine and citrus were all we needed to expect from IPAs.
Their Revolution 81, a biere de garde they made with Malivoire Old Vines foch, has found a place in many of the best beer cellars.
Riverside takes a left turn away from most Czech-style pilsners with its copper colour and malty body, but the clean finish re-establishes its hot-weather street cred.
The taproom on Saulter Street is the only place to try their more experimental one-offs.
At one point, not too far back in history, Ossington, Dufferin and Lansdowne would have been described as somewhere between “unglamorous” and “gritty”. Gentrification means plenty of craft breweries to fuel weekend escapades for the artists and restaurant servers, plus the edgier real estate agents and ad execs who are starting to price them out of the neighbourhood. If there weren’t seven stops I’d say ride your bike here. Fixie responsibly, folks!
Brewing On everyone’s favourite revitalised strip of former body shops, the Jones brothers can barely keep up with their hard-won popularity. And yet they somehow manage to turn out an array of specialized, small-batch aces on a consistent basis.
Torch is one of those double IPAs (made with brett) that dares you to find a hair out of place amongst its high-flying flavours. (You won’t.) Try whatever’s available from their Paradise Lost series of wild ales.
Afterwards, head to Parallel for everything made with their house tahini and then to the Greater Good for a few rounds at the arcade.
Wizard of Gose has the aroma of a basket of fresh apricots.
Despite a recent ownership change, this neighbourhood brewery near Lansdowne and Wallace has maintained its focus on hop-forward pale ales. Magic Missile is easily one of the best and, even at 6%, goes down easily on a hot summer afternoon.
Sunday afternoon is your best bet for finding a top-notch food pop-up, like Brock Sandwich or Island Oysters, at Halo.
The judicious use of everything from riesling must (young wine) to cab franc skins to oak barrels has made this the wine-drinker’s brewery in Toronto. They’re also doing interesting things with fermentation in cans.
Live music - from songstress Cari Burdett to vocal jazz trio the Lesters - in the music hall is an attraction in its own right.
When they made Food Truck blonde, one of their two all-the-time beers, Henderson really underlined their commitment to rotating food features in their parking lot. (I could drink their Best bitter all year.)
Now that Sterling is an up-and-coming strip of businesses, it makes sense to check in on the 15th for their monthly special release.
Roncy’s energetic beer garden is fuelled by a brewery on a continual mission for improvement. Wizard of Gose has the aroma of a basket of fresh apricots on the nose and the familiar tart finish du jour. They’ve also jumped on the milkshake IPA bandwagon with the “YY* ->” series.
The founding brewers decamped to the Rock to start their own operation, but things have carried on at College’s most popular brewpub. The beer recipes are Belgian-ish, so try ones with “farmhouse” in the name.
That directive includes Imposter Syndrome a “farmhouse IPA” that mixes citrusy hops with a touch of funk and Flemish Cap an Old World saison that is both straightforward and complex.
Last but certainly not least, the Toronto brewery with the most international acclaim is definitely still worth a visit, especially now that they have a production facility to keep the bottle shops well supplied. Look for White Picket Fence, a blend from the foeders that live up on Hafis Road. Or grab one of the fruit variants of Jelly King or Milkshark IPA – every brewery needs its “Brown Eyed Girl.”