It’s not often that you find a real ale pub on your travels abroad, so it’s always good to stumble across a side street that has a homely bar that serves fine cask beer. On a cold, windy autumnal day, I just happened across such an establishment: the Oxley Public House on Yorkville street in the heart of Downtown Toronto. It has a cosy snug upstairs, and provides an outdoor, seated patio for the smokers amongst us (if you can brave the chill). As you are about to saunter past the building, you are immediately struck by the vivid puce exterior, which stands out from the rest of the brick buildings along the road, not to mention the glass and concrete high-rises in the immediate vicinity. It looks exactly like the sort of place I need to get some shelter in – there are folks sitting outside, clearly enjoying themselves, and I spot a pint or two of darker beer on the table. I’m hooked.
I step inside, and am greeted warmly by the server behind the bar. You can see that it’s definitely an old building with Victorian wooden panels, painted a warm green, and the walls are splattered with an eclectic mix of sepia prints and a gold-framed oil painting above the mantle piece. But unlike the Village Idiot pub or its neighbour, Sin & Redemption bar, down on McCaul Street, this place has embraced the modern world – yes, they have WiFi. That obviously means the Apple Mac gets taken out for a quick blog. The password for you Brits will amuse you: ‘Jrhartley’…. remember the advert for Yellow Pages where the guy is looking for a book on fly-fishing in a second-hand bookstore written by J R Hartley? I smile when she hands me the piece of paper with the password written down on it, and she asks me if I’m from the UK… unsurprisingly, no-one else ‘gets’ it. I admit to her that I am. “So, what’s on tap?” I enquire. Well, I’m startled to find that they not only have one real ale beer from the old-fashioned pulling handles, but today they have two. I’m not fussy which one I try first – I surely know that I’ll be diving into both. Therefore, I naturally work my way from left-to-right and plump for the “Junction Pumuckl”. But then, the cherry on top of the cake… it’s served up in a proper handle!
I can’t tell you how happy this makes me – back in the UK, I’ve been known to refuse taking a beer served in a ‘straight’ (talking about ‘cutting your nose off despite your face’)! Firstly, I tend to prefer a darker ale, but to get it served up in a tankard warrants a few words of approval, if for no other reason than to encourage publicans to get them to adopt the practice. Steve, the owner, comes over for a chat – probably intrigued about the announcement that there’s a beer blogger sitting up at his bar – he’s got a strong English accent (so that explains the ‘Jrhartley’) and he’s passionate about beer…. shock, horror. I ask him about my first choice in beer. The Junction Brewery – “Conductor’s Ale” is their main one, plus “Station Master Stout” [ed. all with obvious railway links] – brews this amber ale for ‘fall’.” I sip it. It’s a wholesome number with a hoppy overture that leaves the palate with smoky, toasted, yet mild coffee bean aftertaste. Steve goes on to explain that the Oxley has been around for a couple of years, whereas its sister pub on Elm Street, the Queen and Beaver, has been around for 5 or 6 years. The main point about the Oxley is its focus on beer, cocktail and friendliness – for Steve, it’s all about ‘local and craft’
Strangely enough, it’s taken a long time for the beer scene to come to prominence in Canada in general – for example, history has seen some draconian attitudes to drinking (the temperance movement ended decades ago, by the way!) – so it’s really encouraging to see the changes happening. The vibe is almost palpable. ‘Yorkshire’ Steve is a real enthusiast, having moved here from London some four years ago with his Canadian wife. In addition to the 3 Brewers (see previous post), the Oxley, Queen & Beaver, there are still only a handful of choice establishments – the Indie House (his local), the Granite which has actually been open for 25 years, and Belwoods Brewery “have all managed to break the mould,” he explains.
I ask for the second beer available on tap. This is from the ‘local’ Durham brewery – “Fresh Hop” – brewed by ‘Bruce’, who is a one man band. “He has been brewing for 20 years – you order on a Tuesday and he drives the van that delivers the beer on a Wednesday.” The reason he can do this is that he administers the hops in the morning and it’s coming out of the tanks by the afternoon. It’s probably fair to say that Bruce “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” This is a remarkable fresh offering – a summer beer that hides the hops really well, with a hint of hedgerow about it… mellow, honey. ‘Local’ here means within a two-hour drive, and given the guest tap has been going for 18 months and they’ve never repeated an ale twice, it just shows how many real ales there are now available in the area. It turns out that the reason Steve serves beer up in tankards is because he deliberately wants to make this the most English pub in town – which he seems to be achieving. Interestingly, the cost of setting up a brewery is just as prohibitive here as it is in the rest of the world, but in Ontario there’s a lot of contract brewing going on where you do the brewing but at someone else’s facility… the snag is you can’t sell this at events, just pubs. However, it’s a great model. Whereas in the UK, we’ve been seeing a lot of pubs closing down (it was an average of 39 pubs a week in 2011, sorting the wheat from the chaff, which fortunately has now slowed down), here in Canada it’s a growing business, with establishments popping up all over the place.
“The thing about beer is that it’s really easy to like – people ‘get’ it,” says Steve. I definitely ‘get’ that, Steve!