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Toronto taps craft beer market

In a worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt labeled Hopman, Doug Pengelly doesn't look much like a de facto mad chemist. 

Sure, his unruly tuft of auburn hair and ginger scruff divided by a pair of spectacles might hint at some mild form of hidden madness, but for the most part the brewmaster—who deals less in the realm of chemistry and more in the delicate balancing act of malts and hops at Junction Craft Brewery—is a low-key guy, his mind on the next batch.

Launched by Pengelly, Tom Paterson, the founder of Queen West Mexican joint La Hacienda, and David Hayes, the founder of graphic design studio Hayes+Company, the Junction Craft Brewery has whet hopheads' palates for the past three years with its staple brew, Conductor's American Pale Ale. Tucked in an industrial park in the Junction, the brewery has become a symbol of Toronto's craft brew rapture. 

The key to the rapture is individualism, a potion brewmasters can call their own. Pengelly brews four 250-liter batches a day, three times a week, in a space hardly bigger than a seedy autoshop—all with a two-kettle nano-brewery he designed and built. When the beers run out, they'll put another experimental batch on.

"It's our way of being able to provide really interesting beer for people that live in Toronto," says Pengelly. 

Another round

Craft brews have been fermenting in the underground for the past decade, but this year in particular, the genre exploded with a collective supernova of microbreweries offering up unique mixes of hops. 

While the Junction's Conductor's is offered in the LCBO and certain brews can be found in restaurants such as Bar Hop on King St. or the Only Café on the Danforth, a lot of the concoctions on the brewery's menu are here today, gone tomorrow.

Sean Seymour, the sales rep for Junction, sees craft brew riding on the back of the city's foodie and locavore movements. "People want to know who makes their beer, just like they want to know who's cooking their food and growing it," he says. 

In mid-September, Seymour coordinated a craft brew cruise on the Riverboat Gambler. Nearly 1,500 people sampled beers from 11 brewers and one cidery while meandering around the Toronto harbour on one of three cruises. 

Craft beer mainstays like Etobicoke-based Great Lakes Brewery peddled seasonal fusions to tipsy cruisers across from upstarts like Oshawa's Underdogs Brewhouse. Below deck, newbies Mandie and Mark Murphy from Left Field Brewery hawked their Eephus Oatmeal Brown Ale. 

Left Field hasn't even set up shop in their new space at Greenwood Ave. and Gerard St. yet, but that hasn't stopped them from contract brewing at Grand River Brewery in Cambridge. Currently, they operate in the on-premise channel, which means the brand can be sold only through licensees like restaurants including Cold Tea in Kensington and Get Well on Dundas West. 

The pair launched Left Field a year and a half ago after Mark abandoned a five-year career as a chartered accountant to take Niagara College's newly offered Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management certificate. Mandie left a career in communications at Rogers to work with a wine brand managing cider and coolers.

"At the time, we were both really getting into craft beer we were starting to home brew and we were getting excited about what was going on in the scene and in Toronto," Mandie says. "We thought this could really be what we end up doing someday."

That "someday" came shortly after Mark graduated from college and had put in some time with one of the big brewers. 

"[It's] highly competitive, but at the same time the growth of craft beer is great and there's so much demand," says Mandie. 

Un-tapping inner entrepreneurs 

Dig in a bit and you'll find the craft brew scene is filled with these romantics, entrepreneurial artisans who were willing to give up everything to add their concoctions to the rapture. And it's not just craft beer you'll find in this city, but homebrewed cider as well. 

Best buds Chris Noll and Adam Gerrits saw their chance to stand out in the craft and cider world, launching Toronto's first cidery, Brickworks Ciderhouse, last year.  

"No one was actually producing cider in the 416, so if you can be the first of anything in Toronto, you jump at the opportunity," says Noll. 

The pair came up with the recipe nearly a decade ago, but only recently decided to take the leap of faith. What really makes their artisanal cider – Batch: 1904 – stick out is the narrative Noll and Gerrits have weaved around it.

Named for the Great Fire of 1904 that burnt Toronto to the ground, and the li'l brickworks factory tucked in an apple orchard on the Don River that supplied all the bricks to rebuild the city from the ground up, their self-mythology is only dampened by the fact that they ferment up by Downsview thanks to the red tape and sluggish process of settling in a historic building like Evergreen Brickworks. 

"People are drinking it from 150 LCBOs and 250 bars in the Golden Horseshoe area, loving it for just being good," says Noll. "[But when] they find out the history behind the name, it really ties them into the brand." 

The art of branding

Bob Russell, co-founder of Hamilton-based Collective Arts, has also built his craft brew around a strong narrative, tying the brews to Toronto bands like July Talk and Hands and Teeth as well as global acts, artists and photographers.

"We wanted to create an upside down brand where instead of having that one label, we give it to the art and music community four times a year and let them constantly reinvent the brand so we're ever evolving," says Russell.

Since it launched last year, Collective Arts has used over 300 labels picked from 3000 submissions and 28 countries. 

"It has become much bigger than [co-founder] Matt Johnston and I had ever dreamed of," says Russell.

Collective Arts and craft beers in general are an answer to something. Maybe it's that feeling of exclusivity when you crack open a cold one from a block away—that organic energy that comes from knowing something is handmade. Sure, drinking is social, but maybe there's more to the story than beer commercials let on, says Russell.

"I think people are tired of this over-branded non-relevant approach to beer, almost a caricature of what people think a crowd would be" says Russell, referencing the fraternity-like image of mainstream beer. "It's become such an abstraction of reality, but craft beer provides this very authentic, embracing world that people can enter and really connect with." 

As to why Toronto and why now, Russell points to its place as a Richard Florida creative culture dreamland, a place where you're always a block away from a cultural hub. As the fourth largest city in North America and the home of five universities and four colleges, the city has also become a mecca for artistic millennials thirsty for the latest creation. 

"Line up all of those components and it makes Toronto a hotbed for seeking new things and devouring new things," says Russell. "Culture, art, music and craft beer, they all fit incredibly perfect into that environment."

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto Starthe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journalamong other places. He loves Toronto, but doesn’t like to sit still for too long and publishes stories of his adventures at whenwedrift.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter @WhenWeDrift.
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