WHAT BETTER WAY TO SPEND THE DAY?
Story by Adam Steel
Photos by Stella Kulagowski
“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
- Benjamin Franklin
An atypical summer morning in the city, with grey clouds looming and the ungodly scent of Toronto’s marshy harbor penetrating the wispy air, the weather would not (and did not) alter our expectations—or stop our fun. After all, this is beer we’re talking about.
Now, we all know that Toronto is virtually brimming with activity on all fronts; from the east to the west, you’d be hard pressed to spend a Saturday searching for fun only to come up empty-handed. Like the dubious mix of nude bodies that dot the shoreline at Hanlan’s Point, the opportunities are endless and will doubtlessly present themselves to you when you aren’t even looking. Luckily for tourists and residents alike, there is one particular destination that screams to be discovered; its location, ironically enough, is within walking—or stumbling—distance from the CN Tower.
Our Saturday began at 255 Bremner Boulevard, beside Leon’s furniture store and across from the SkyDome (I will never refer to it as the Rogers Center), waiting for a miniature train—with an oversized conductor and one singular passenger, slumped over in the rear caboose—to pass before we could gain entry to Steam Whistle Brewing’s Wonka-like paradise (my immediate reaction to the other side of those giant doors was akin to Homer’s cavorting through the Land of Chocolate). Greeted by the charismatic Oliver, our guide for the day, we set forth on an interactive tour of the facilities (my photographer even got a chance to pull the titular whistle located along one of the arterial catwalks) including the mammoth-sized kilns, the kegging platform, the can/glass depository and ended, appropriately enough, at the mouth of ‘Beverly,’ a giant bottle-shaped refrigerator stocked to the roof with golden brews. Friendly and knowledgeable staff provided the intricate details of the firm’s rich history: from takeover bids to train stations to top secret stuff (ever wonder why each slender Steam Whistle bottle has ‘3FG’ etched into the glass?) From there, it was off to the party-mobile.
The prospect of loading into a tiny, green bus to visit the city’s hidden treasures conjured up an image that was not unlike Cosmo Kramer’s J. Peterman reality tour up and down Newman’s postal route: non-stop hilarity. Fortunately though, this is where the similarities ended. Noticeably absent were the pizza bagels and miniature candy bars; instead, Oliver’s shrewd observations and meticulous attention to detail made for an afternoon as refreshing as the pilsners that he has helped make famous. Following a few toots on the vehicle’s novelty horn, we set off on a riotous day of drinking and learning. And more drinking.
We arrived a short chug away at Toronto’s historic Fort York (because everything is better with the smell of burning wood in the air), where the city’s rich history of brewing took an interactive form. Standing amidst the vast grounds, littered with teepees for Luminato’s upcoming exhibition, we were regaled with historic datum that actually settled in the mind without flying out the other ear—a magnificent feat given the number of ‘samples’ ingested by this point. Did you know that soldiers at Fort York were once paid in beer? Six pints a day?
Our next stop, Amsterdam Brewery (21 Bathurst Street), featured a wide array of lagers and ales: from the delicious coriander-infused Oranje Weisse (with the yeast on the bottom); to the 86-calorie light (that looked and tasted like fairy pee); to the fantastic and popular Nut Brown Ale (made with “fuggles” hops—ha!). A testament to Oliver’s expertise, sampling occurred on a light-to-dark ratio to ensure a balance of individual taste without leaving anything too heavy on the palate.
From ‘Amsterdam,’ we travelled to Ireland, pulling through historic Corktown, aptly named for its predominantly Irish settlers who took to brewing as soon as they disembarked from the arduous journey in the early 1800s. Moseying down quaint Bright Street, we were inundated with spectacular examples of the city’s early architecture.
The end of the line: Mill Street Brewery (21 Tank House Lane) in the Distillery district proved a welcomed respite from the bumpy east-end journey—minus the cobblestones which, coupled with inappropriate shoes, proved near-fatal after a day of samples. Diving right in, the mostly organic Mill Street offerings were lackluster by comparison, so too was the atmosphere (not sure if the dinner hour is the best time for a guided tour through a brewery that doubles as a popular restaurant—the sampling room, which also served as a gift shop, was no more expansive than a generous-sized walk-in closet). Nonetheless, standout tastes were not hard to find: Coffee Porter (notes of chocolate and roasted beans), the zesty Helles Bock (pale ale with hints of currants) and the signature Tankhouse Ale proved to be fan-favourites.
It seemed appropriate to begin and end our day at 255 Bremner Boulevard: not just because the tour is organized and executed by Steam Whistle staff, but because ‘the Whistle’ has more than proved itself to be a worthy David to the dime-a-dozen Goliath breweries across this great land. Famous for its one and only beer—a pilsner, simply made but expertly crafted—it has not collapsed under the weight of its own hubris (like many other competitors), adhering to one flavor, one taste, one brand. Given its limited availability (Ontario, B.C., Alberta, and a few bars in Saskatchewan), we don’t know how fortunate we are to have its prestigious pedigree and learned craftsmen in our very own backyard. As demonstrated by the Beer Lovers’ Tour, they ‘do one thing. Really, really well.’
A benchmark of Toronto tourism (TripAdvisor and Yelp.ca declare it a must-see attraction), Steam Whistle, the independent brewing house first opened in 2000, offers daily facility tours complete with complimentary pilsners fresh off the bottling line, hosted by friendly and knowledgeable guides.
For information on taking the Beer Lovers’ Tour, visit www.beerloverstour.com. Tour runs through September 2012; day tickets are $99.00/person; plus dinner $149.00/person.
Visit www.steamwhistle.ca for individual tours, event hosting, and more.