Tonight is one of the biggest nights in Toronto – Nuit Blanche. The whole of Downtown is lit up with arts, the bars don’t close till 4am and the subway runs all night. I’ll probably sleep well on my flight to San Francisco tomorrow, not least because my first stop this evening is ‘Little San Francisco’ as it’s known to the locals of ‘the Junction’. I’m taking the subway there, which is particularly easy to navigate – they only have 2 lines and there are a plethora of buses supporting the public transport system. You pay your $3 token once at the beginning of any journey, which takes you to your final destination by underground and bus. What is quite bizarre though is that if you ask for a weekly ‘pass’, it only starts on a Monday – in every other city in the world, it’s a simple 7-day pass that starts from the day you purchase it. Looking at the weekly pass ticket, in fairness, it does look like it’s a simple solution… this is ‘week 40’ of the calendar year, so the ticket has a ’40’ sticker on it, which makes it easy for the bus driver to know you’ve paid for the correct week to be travelling. The journey itself is uneventful, albeit one amusing advert on the underground train: the local University introducing ‘app development’ as a course this year…. it took this long to introduce this?!? Welcome to Ontario. Anyway, I’ve made my way to the first lights of the night, those of the Indie Ale House.
This place is heaving – a testament to the popularity of great beer in Toronto, but the lack of great places to find it. A large bar, this place has loads of seats and lots of beer. I find myself a pew at the bar, and Lori serves me the food menu and a ‘tasting flight’… I can choose from any of the wide selection on offer (there’s 12 on the list, which apart from the Guest Ales are all brewed on the premises), but I ask her to take the decision for me. As I’m waiting for the beer to arrive, I peruse the menu – similar to the Sharp’s theme (see Cornish Connoisseur posting), what hit’s you straight out is the “Beer and Food Pairings” theme… I think I’m gonna like this place. The beer selection arrives.
Again, from left to right, we start with “Instigator IPA’. This is a West Coast style IPA and a typical 6%… every brewer in north America is doing one of these: you just have to have one on tap to avoid disappointing anyone. It’s very hoppy, unsurprisingly, just like marmalade. Moving swiftly on, therefore, to “Barnyard Belgian IPA” – this is an IPA but made with a Belgian yeast – quite unique in its finish, and not at all overly hoppy… I’m not sure the Belgians would lend their identity to this. However, we now move onto “New World Brux’ – this is the Guest tap, which is brewed locally in Ontario (a territory larger than Wales) by Nickel Brook – phenomenal. A distinctly sharp beaujolais on the nose, this baby is a real Belgian sour, due to the wild yeast from the wood of the barrel that it matured in. The only problem is that it’s like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. But that’s what makes beer so special.
Our landlord, Jason, appears. Behind me he says is the main man from the Amsterdam brewery, another local brewer – they circulate between each other on a Saturday night. This a small beer community in Ontario, fighting the BIG BOYS – whereas he’ says, “nothing happens in Ontario,” which is why they are so far behind the curve, despite the fact that Coors and Labatts are both headquartered dust 5 miles north of here, Ontario still boasts an amazing 5% craft beer of the total beer market; not bad for an industry dominated by lobbying, marketing spend, and politically-driven laws written in the favour of the most powerful. I say, “let the people decide,” but my naivety is brushed off… sure, the boutique beer industry will double in the next 5 years here, but half of the brewers will go out of business because the fight will kill them off. Really? Yep. For a local brewer like the Indie Ale House, they have no choice whatsoever other than to get all their inventory from the big boys – their competitors – at an outrageous sum per annum (in the 10s of 1,000’s of Canadian $). Worse than a duopoly, it’s actually a monopoly, as both the big boys make each other’s beers!
Small means you have to beat them on quality – there’s no point in competing on marketing. Accountants are driving the big boys business – just because Sharps brews all its own beers, the very fact that Coors owns them equals a potential compromise on quality: buy cheaper yeast; save more on this; add less of that… you get the picture. Anyway, the next beer is a Scottish favourite of mine – full of oats, punchy, smooth, a true mocha – the chocolate misgivings of their “Breakfast Porter” is only balanced by my sense of home-coming, like my grandmother’s chicken soup. Talking of which, my ribs arrive – fresh, zany, spicy, caramelised: this is ribs a la gado-gado. I savour the lot for a bit longer than you might expect.
Last but now least, “It’s Wabbit Season” (their autumnal one-off) must bring Bugs Bunny to this joint every day till winter is through. It’s not only the carrot and walnut cake strength, but the subtle vanilla beans that makes up the feast… there are raisins on top of nutmeg; dare I say it, but it’s perfect for Halloween. Jason tells me that he hopes to double in size, which he’ll probably do from his takeaway growlers alone, not least due to another well-drawn picture on the blackboard. As I prepare for the rest of Nuit Blanche, I wish him and Lori the very best of success.
I get out the subway at Queen – the mob is unfathomable, and whilst I look at the approaching swarm as I start to cross the road, it feels like I’m going into a game of British Bulldogs as both sides surge towards each other. I don’t yet know my Canadian opponent – if watching (ice) hockey on the TV is anything to go by, these guys are fearsome, move very fast, and hit you hard. As it turns out, the family atmosphere turns a potential civil war into a Sunday stroll as everyone creates previously non-existent channels through each others crowd, two combs aligning. I ask a passing policeman what’s it all about? “A bunch of weird art if you ask me – just follow the crowd into the square over there.” I did, but he was wrong. This festival started in Paris a decade ago and the Torontorians have borrowed its format – City Hall and the surrounding area has several major projects to go and see, hear, and feel; a veritable outdoor and undercover art gallery. You get the real sense of people learning from the whole experience, as well as soaking up the atmosphere, similar to ‘VIVID’ in Sydney.
Nuit Blanche – from the darkness… light