Bay Street’s Beer Bonanza

The proliferation of fashionable beer bars continues in the Toronto business “core”. I define it as the area between Yonge, Queen, University, and Front Streets, but it takes in some streets beyond. Fashionable = “upscale but relaxed” to adapt an expression  Reds, a veteran restaurant in the core, uses to describe its ambience.

The latest beer destination is the Wvrst satellite in York Concourse Hall, a revamped section of Union Station. Surrounding are a number of trendy food shops, so far of the snack or pastry variety but more substantial ones are planned. Just opposite Wvrst is Union Chicken, a restaurant that bills itself as free-range for free range people. Hence, two sit-down restaurants in a busy station that formerly offered few amenities.*

A few paces away is a splashy new food court of contemporary design, and behind that the departure lounge of Go light rail.

Wvrst started out west of the core on King Street a few years ago and was immediately popular. The focus is its high quality sausage kitchen and gourmet french fries. Ad-ons in later years – salad was a good one – broadened the appeal and the York Concourse branch offers even more choices. From Day 1 Wvrst was a beer haven too, focusing on the local craft scene and quality imports.

The decor of both locations is a stylized blend of Bier Hallen, English pub, and industrial chic. Stylish touches in the new location include a winking display panel listing the draft beers which mimics a rail timetables board.

The beer list consists of rotating drafts, at least a dozen, and well-chosen bottled and canned offerings. There are some great choices from Belgium in particular, with many lambic-based rarities.

Ciders are a sub-specialty of Wvrst with French, Spanish, and Estonian (!) selections while not ignoring Ontario – or Los Angeles, CA (who knew from L.A. cider?). The U.K., of Olympian importance in cider, seems oddly missing, but they will get to it in time I’m sure.

I ate at the bar, bratwurst on a bun with fries – same quality as the King Street parent, which means very high. The meat had the right touch of mace, so un-North American or English really unless you reach for heritage recipes. The sausages, of which there must be a dozen types again, include good vegan options.

A commuter next to me grabbed a quick Major Small Best Bitter, from Muddy York in Toronto, and left within 10 minutes. Most people were eating as it was lunch-hour. Not a few ordered one of the exotic bottled beers or ciders to accompany.

Wvrst at Union Station was preceded by the Mill St Pub, the craft brewery now owned by AB InBev. It’s in a relatively remote part of the station, adjacent to the train which links to Pearson Airport. With Wvrst, and Union Chicken’s local (bottled) beers, the beer stakes for the rail traveller or interloper are raised at a stroke.

The draft beer choice at Wvrst is careful calibrated. Three imports are currently offered, Weihenstephaner (wheat), Pilsner Urquell (lager), and Paulaner (lager). Each represents high quality, especially the first two. A more sedate choice would be, say, Heineken, Erdinger, and Stella Artois.

The Ontario drafts currently include a half dozen of the wildly popular sour category – a sour stout, anyone? – with good representation of cornerstone styles. Wvrst was never pro forma about beer, which may sound a contradiction in terms but beer bars can “let go” after a while; it never has.

There must have been good competition for its spot, but the re-development managers chose well.

With the pioneering beerbistro at King and Yonge Streets, there are now in the core: Walrus Pub and Beer Hall, the sizeable Taps in First Canadian Place, the huge Craft Beer Market, and the more intimate Boxcar Social, on Temperance Street (yes that’s the name). Goose Island’s brewpub (AB-InBev) and Batch (Molson-Coors), albeit a touch outside the core, count as well. So does the Biermarkt (a small chain) next to Goose Island. Let’s add the Loose Moose, a 10 minutes walk west of the station. All offer an inviting beer variety, or together they certainly do.

There is yet more if we add the older English or Irish pubs in the core as well as Reds and other general restaurants, a Three Brewers, and the new food halls strewn through the canyons. The core can now add brewing riches to the monetary kind tended by the wizards in the towers.

In this area downtown, beer has come a long way in the last 5-10 years. In a word, it has arrived. One of the early flagships for craft beer downtown, the boho-flavoured C’est What, still thrives next to St. Lawrence Market to the east. In business a generation now, C’est What can gaze proudly on the beer ferment in the core today, as it was an indirect influence.

Today good beer is not just hipster, not just suburbia, not just college/intellectual. Craft beer is for everyone. No one owns it, no one can define it.

It’s taken 40 years of trying, and nothing will reverse it, neither takeovers, nor slowdowns in the boom, nor blandishments like alco-pops, cider, and wine. I doubt legal cannabis will have much effect either.

This should not be a surprise really as craft beer is simply, or it aspires to be, fine beer. And great beer is an age-old heritage. It belongs to everyone with the imagination to taste with discernment and curiosity.

A not inconsiderable bonus: the wider the audience for it, the greater the market for our craft brewers.

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*A member of the Toronto beer community subsequently told me there was a bar before Wvrst in the same space, to his recollection curtained and quite basic. Wvrst has an open scheme and looks pleasant and inviting, not to mention its diverse and creative wares as described above. With Union Chicken added to the picture, the situation regarding licensed premises seems clearly improved, certainly in the north-central part of the station.

 

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