01 November 2018

The high end

In Tuesday's post I covered one of the few Toronto beer bars I'd heard of before I began the research for this trip: C'est What? Another was Bar Volo, which closed in its original location in 2016 but has now returned as Birreria Volo with a new premises. Well, I say premises; it's barely that, looking more like a roofed-over alley with a long straight bar and rickety furniture scattered inside. Yes, it's craft as craft can be but there was a friendly neighbourhood vibe about it when we dropped in late one afternoon.

From the selection I picked Vim & Vigor, a pilsner from Ottawa's Tooth & Nail brewery and the only one of theirs I encountered on the trip. It's a gently floral take on the style, eschewing the hard grassy edges. A rich malt aroma introduces it while the flavour is all hay and meadows, wildflowers swaying in the breeze. There's just enough of a sharp pinch in the finish to end it satisfactorily. I wouldn't normally laud a pilsner that's as soft as this but it's unarguably delicious.

My next one was Ci-Tron, a dry-hopped and barrel-aged Berliner weisse by Small Pony Barrel Works. This had a spritzy lemon-zest foretaste, like a squeeze of Jif Lemon, but not a whole lot else afterwards. The sourness is simplistic and inoffensive, resulting in a net effect of something like lemonade: tasty, refreshing, but not really built to be savoured.

The final round here gave me a brut IPA called Groupthink from Toronto's own Halo Brewery. It's a big 'un at 7.5% ABV, and uses a promising combination of Galaxy, Citra and Azacca hops. Promising, until the substance got sucked out of them by that brut-alising enzyme, I suspect. There's a plain and dry lemon cookie foretaste and then a straw-like middle, reminiscent of a saison, and no finish or aftertaste to speak of, really. At the same time there's a certain sweet sickliness too; the sort of vanilla tang one might expect in a New England IPA. However you look at it, I did not enjoy what this beer was offering and frankly felt a little cheated.

An actual saison is next to it: Series 3 by Redline Brewhouse. This is a barrel-aged and Brettanomyces-fermented saison with added apricots: 6.6% ABV and all murky orange. I was expecting lots of succulent stonefruit here, but really the barrel seems to be in charge of the flavour. Funk and pepper forms the aroma, with just a little apricot sweetness. The taste is fantastically spicy, full of pink peppercorns, incense and juicy pomegranate. These are all smoothly integrated into a cohesive overall taste, building in intesity as they go, with a sour pinch near the end followed by a long barnyard finish. Really beautiful stuff. I don't think I've ever had as many wins from a single style as I've had with barrel-aged saisons.

On every must-visit pub list for Toronto is Bellwoods. The production brewery is on a busy commercial street, with a roomy taproom out front, extending to an even roomier front terrace. Service was attentive and the beer list looked interesting. Time to get stuck in.

White Picket Fence was where I started, batch 7 of the foeder-fermented saison. It's a very pale yellow colour with a very funky aroma, all farmyards and apricots. The flavour delivers a surprise punch of sharp lime at the front, smoothing out into gentler white plum after. Another surprise was the alcohol burn: much more than I'd have expected for 6.4% ABV. A sprinkling of briney salt is the only other noteworthy feature. It's a little busy overall, lacking the integration of flavours I got with the previous beer. This tastes like an experiment that needs one or two more goes to be right.

In the more prosaic glass next to it is Runes, an IPA, this version using Loral and Motueka hops. While it looks like orange juice it smells like garlic and tastes gunky and yeasty with a hot garlic finish. You could call the texture "creamy" if you were feeling charitable, but this was definitely not my sort of thing at all.

Bellwoods likes big bottles but conveniently offers single servings from them at the taproom. I took advantage of this smart policy to try Donkey Venom, a blend of imperial stout, porter and a sour culture: old school. The aroma was probably its best feature: a rich waft of cherry and chocolate. Dark chocolate opens the flavour, followed quickly by a quite harsh sour pinch and then some mushroom-like umami. While interesting, it doesn't really make the best use of its constituent parts. Possibly it just needs some time in the bottle to gel together better.

I went for Jelly King next, a mixed fermentation sour beer with Citra and Amarillo. It arrived a bright opaque orange colour, smelling powerfully tart, of minerals and citrus juice. The smooth texture was a bit of a surprise, and the sourness is dialled back in the flavour, felt more than tasted, via the tooth-stripping acidity. I got hints of fresh orange juice and then lots of dank resinous hops long into the finish. Despite everything going in in here, it's well balanced and very accessible.

Finally, Bellwoods's single-hop IPA series is called Monogamy and I tried the Citra one. Here's that surprising smooth texture again, and a herbal aroma of basil and oregano. It was going well until the flavour decided to take us on a trip to New England, via the garlic patch and vanilla plantation. Doubtless this sort of hazy low-bitterness IPA has a market, but I've tasted plenty like it before and it doesn't work for me. Bring the fruit, please.

We made just one daytrip out of Toronto, the inevitable trip to see Niagara Falls. The excursion also involved a short stop in the picturesque town of Niagara on the Lake. Among the beautifully preserved 19th century buildings, mostly now giftshops and cafés, is one housing a brewery: The Exchange. I didn't have long so secured a large flight to get a feel for the beers here.

was where I started: a 4% ABV Berliner weisse. It's a bit dull, with a grainy lager aroma and a vaguely chalky flavour, like antacid tablets.

The session IPA in the range is called 5, and has a bright and fresh lemon aroma. There's a real kick to the flavour: sharp herbs and pine, with a touch of urinal cake about it. It's a little extreme for a 4.6% ABV beer, but the finish is quick and clean and I liked the assertive way that it presents itself.

3 is a porter, though a very pale one; chestnut red in colour. It has a pleasant espresso aroma, and tastes similarly roasty at first, opening out into strawberry and raspberry, before finishing abruptly on a watery metallic note. It's 5.3% ABV which should have been enough to give it more substance than it has. I'd probably be happy enough with this on its own, but it was thrown into serious shade by being presented beside...

... 8 Foreign Exchange Stout. This export stout is 7.2% ABV, with a proper cream head and a proper roasty nose. Like all the best stouts it goes for hoppy bitterness in a big way, its caramelised malt matched perfectly with heavy smoke and hot tar. This is an absolutely textbook example of how to brew stout: rich, complex, balanced, bold, and immensely satisfying to drink.

The final two are special editions so get symbols rather than numbers as names. & is a Flemish-style oud bruin, a big 7.4% ABV and dark red. These often taste like HP Sauce to me, and none more so than this one, beginning with the intense tamarind aroma. The flavour is a simple mix of tartness and spices, leaning heavily on the balsamic vinegar with some added summer fruit complexity. The texture is very thick for a sour beer and the weight was just too intense for my comfort. It is authentically Belgian tasting, however: a convincing clone of the Liefmans original.

The foliage was just beginning to change colour at this point in mid-September, which of course means it was time for the pumpkin beers to appear. The Exchange's is called , perhaps implying that we'll never be rid of them. They claim a Belgian influence on this, and it certainly has a larger quotient of fruity esters than most. It's a bright orange colour and the aroma is like real pumpkin pie filling. Clove and cinnamon dominate the flavour, sharp at first, but then fading to a soft and luscious fruit character that could well be actual pumkins. The spices reassert, turning it to aftershave in the finish, but other than that it's a jolly decent seasonal effort: the spices making a real contribution to the overall character instead of just masking it.

We'll go back to Toronto to wrap up the trip tomorrow, and maybe not be so precious about the fancy beers this time.

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