Toronto’s booming craft beer scene — an insider guide
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This article is part of a guide to Toronto from FT Globetrotter
Many of Canada’s establishment dynasties owe their fortune to booze. The names Molson, Labatt and Gooderham are still stamped on labels for beer and spirits. But few remain fully attached to their Canadian roots, having been merged or sold off to international conglomerates.
Seekers after a truly Canadian brew instead need to head to one of Toronto’s more than 70 craft breweries. These indie hop-houses have sprung up in droves around the city in the vanguard of a vast wave of hipsterisation that has swept through Toronto over the past decade or two. You certainly cannot go wrong sporting your best plaid flannel to a Toronto brewery, but in reality these watering holes are as varied as the city itself, ranging from grungy garages to chic establishments where parents stop by for an afternoon chat with toddlers in tow.
Grabbing a beer is also a great excuse to branch out and explore one of Toronto’s neighbourhoods. Here is a selection to get you started, along with places you can visit nearby, either pre- or post-pint.
(A word on Toronto’s drinking laws. Until recently, the province of Ontario’s alcohol rules restricted purchases to government-run stores that kept limited hours and always tended to be closed when you most needed that late-night bottle of wine to keep the party flowing. A recent liberalisation has seen booze creep into some grocery stores, but alcohol is not to be found in every corner shop.)
Steam Whistle (Downtown and the Lakeshore)
255 Bremner Boulevard, Toronto, ON M5V 3M9
Some craft beer purists will no doubt be burbling furiously into their organic IPAs seeing that I have started my tour of Toronto watering holes with Steam Whistle. The 23-year-old brewery is now a well-established brand behind Toronto’s bars, and it eschews the ales and IPAs for a crisp, accessible Pilsner. (It adopts the motto “Do one thing really, really well”.)
But, still independently owned, it is a trailblazer in what Steam Whistle’s Josh Hillinger calls “Canada’s craft-brewing renaissance”. Initially set to be called “Three Fired Guys Brewery”, the establishment was conceived around the campfire on a canoeing trip by three axed employees of a previously independent Toronto brewery that had been bought out and closed by a major firm. Its name is inspired by its location in a retrofitted railway roundhouse just south of Toronto’s downtown core, and the actual steam whistle is normally blown at 5pm to “remind Toronto that it’s quitting time”, according to Hillinger.
Tours of the facility, which had been on hold during Covid, will be restarting soon. The vast, Munich-style indoor-outdoor biergarten provides ample space to enjoy a pint and classic German-inspired cuisine. Be alert for the sports schedule, as the place is packed to the rafters if the Toronto Blue Jays (baseball), Maple Leafs (ice hockey) or Raptors (basketball) are playing at their home stadiums nearby. (Website; Directions)
In the neighbourhood
To visit: Steam Whistle is next door to the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium, two major destinations for tourists willing to brave the crowds and the ticket prices. Alternatively, saunter down to The Power Plant art gallery
To stroll: Hold your breath for the short walk south under the highway to reach the meandering trail along Lake Ontario and the Harbourfront Centre, a waterside cultural district that offers skating in the winter. You can also catch a ferry to Toronto Island Park
To eat: If you don’t fancy Steam Whistle’s own biergarten fare, there are plenty of options along the lake
Bellwoods (Ossington and Queen West)
124 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, ON M6J 2Z5
After repeated trips south across the US border to stock up on craft beer, Bellwoods founders Mike Clark and Luke Pestl decided to try making something similar in their home city. Leaving their jobs at a more established city brewery, they started Bellwoods, which Pestl described as “the first of the second generation” of Toronto independent breweries. Now in its 10th year, Bellwoods has inspired many smaller makers with its formula, a combined pub and brewery with a firmly established neighbourhood identity.
The brewery takes its name from nearby Trinity Bellwoods Park, where drinkers temporarily flocked with their bottles during Covid lockdowns, despite the fact that drinking in public is illegal. With the brewpub open again for business, Bellwoods newly expanded premises offers plenty of indoor and outdoor space, and a full menu of elevated pub fare. The Belgian- and American-style beer list is vast, from the mainstay IPA Roman Candle to a crisp Grisette aged in oak barrels. There is a steady stream of new brews and one-off special editions to provide variety. In the decade Bellwoods has served up beers from its Ossington HQ, the surrounding area has transformed from a sleepy district to one of the best places in the city to eat and drink. (Website; Directions)
In the neighbourhood
To visit: The Drake Hotel or The Garrison for live music
To stroll: Walk south down Ossington Avenue and turn left on to Queen Street West. The former garment district turned hipster hotspot is a great place to find clothes (new or vintage) and to explore the quirky shops selling everything from straw hats to Japanese paper
To eat: There’s a lot of choice. Try La Cubana for Cuban sandwiches in a retro diner atmosphere or Golden Turtle, a classic pho joint that has been on Ossington since long before it was cool
Kensington Brewing Company (Kensington Market)
299 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON M5T 2M2
Situated in the irrepressibly bohemian Kensington Market district, Kensington Brewing Company is a casual industrial space with a handful of tables tucked among the giant silver vats of the brewery, which is decorated with murals by local artists. The open, informal atmosphere is meant to match that of the neighbourhood, a clutch of eclectic shops and food vendors that has held on to its scruffy charm as nearby parts of downtown Toronto have become evermore swanky. “The history of Kensington Market has been as a haven to generations of immigrants,” says Neil Baker, the brewery manager, who hopes the venue is equally welcoming and greets several regulars during my visit.
The beer list is as unpretentious as the space, starting with Normal Beer, a crisp German-style Pilsner. But Kensington’s brewers also have some surprises in store. I was sceptical about their alcoholic seltzers (White Claw is a supermarket equivalent), but the tart black-cherry fizz was refreshing and endlessly drinkable. Also make sure to try one of their brews that were designed using artificial intelligence to crunch through thousands of beer recipes to come up with its own. “The first few times we tried it was a disaster,” Baker confesses. But with a mango-scented IPA, the robot delivered a techno hit. (Website; Directions)
In the neighbourhood
To visit: The Art Gallery of Ontario, renovated by Toronto native Frank Gehry, which is a short walk down Augusta Avenue and along Dundas Street, through Chinatown
To stroll: Augusta Avenue between Dundas Street and College Street is the main drag of Kensington Market, but don’t neglect its many side streets
To eat: The market is packed with casual eateries. Seven Lives tacos is a local favourite
Blood Brothers Brewing (Uptown)
165 Geary Avenue, Toronto, ON M6H 2B8
Founded at home by brothers Brayden and Dustin Jones, who moved to Toronto to make it in music and found brewing instead, Blood Brothers is every inch the craft brewer’s craft brewery. From the black and brass decor to the beer-tap handles fashioned from charred tree branches, it looks like a chic bikers’ clubhouse. I kept waiting for a Harley-Davidson to roll in. And, indeed, Blood Brothers took over the site of a former “chop shop” on a bog-standard commercial strip along the train tracks north of downtown. “Most of the guys who worked there are probably in jail,” joked the bartender. Blood Brothers itself has courted legal attention with cheeky names for its products, jokes that have sometimes failed to amuse the lawyers at major brewers. The menu on my visit featured Blood Light, a play on the classic American draught.
Blood Brothers specialises in IPAs and sours, such as its remarkably tasty nectarine-infused sour ale called Bear Worship. The tap room also offers booze-soaking street food from Beast. With a fleet of picnic tables, the venue thrives on summer evenings when the garage doors are rolled open and the drinkers spill out into the street. (Website; Directions)
In the neighbourhood
To visit: A trip up to Blood Brothers puts you in striking distance of Casa Loma and the Spadina Museum, two historic residences. (About 10 minutes by car or bike, half an hour walking.)
To stroll: From Casa Loma, walk or cycle south under the railroad tracks and dive into the tree-lined side streets of The Annex, where billionaires and politicians live alongside students and frat houses — or head further south to the University of Toronto campus or the Royal Ontario Museum
To eat: Down the hill from Casa Loma on Dupont Street, drop into Ezra’s Pound for coffee and poetry puns or get a delicious bagel with lox at Schmaltz Appetizing
Bandit Brewery (Roncesvalles and The Junction)
2125 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON M6R 1X1
Bandit Brewery takes its name (and adorable cartoon logo) from Toronto’s resident rascals, the raccoons. “I think if you grow up in Toronto you hate the raccoons, but tourists take pictures of them,” says co-founder Stéphane Dubois, who moved to the city from France. These mischievous mammals are so inventive and well adapted to their urban home that they feature in the BBC documentary series Planet Earth II. The raccoons have inspired an equally playful brewery, specialising in IPAs and sours with plenty of inspirations from fruit and tropical flavours such as guava, watermelon and hibiscus.
Bandit is located in a converted auto shop in an up-and-coming corner of the city’s west end. You’ll see plenty of kids running around its spacious terrace. There are plenty of food options for a meal or snacks — and you must try the cheese curds (a staple of Canada’s national dish, poutine), which are deep-fried into succulent morsels. The district also has a dense concentration of breweries, so if you’re looking for a beer crawl this is the place: Henderson, Halo and People’s Pint are all nearby. (Website; Directions)
In the neighbourhood
To visit: The Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto is a short walk away
To stroll: Walk north-west on Dundas Street West to its junction with Roncesvalles Avenue, then turn left to stroll down the district’s main drag. When you’re finished browsing, take any of the side streets to the west to hit High Park, one of the city’s largest green spaces
To eat: The Ace, a casual neighbourhood diner
Tell us about your favourite Toronto craft breweries in the comments
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