A few years from now we may look back at the last half decade and say it was when Toronto really became a beer town. Festivals, new brewery openings and a growing selection in the LCBO are being widely embraced as people's palates for craft beer grow. Along with the expansion of local craft beer has come an equally stunning rise in home brewing.
Zack Weinberg who owns and operates Toronto Brewing, which caters to local home brewers, has seen a rising interest in home brewing that can be tied directly to the local craft beer movement. “Everyone's palate is expanding. As you have more people experimenting with their beer at the LCBO and trying an IPA or a Berliner Weisse you have some saying 'Oh, I want to try brewing that!',” he says. Weinberg who was working a desk job in advertising and marketing, was able to turn a passion for beer into his own full-time business last September. “It's a really exciting time for beer in Toronto. People are just brewing beer at home and commercially at unprecedented levels.”
Many who get the home brewing bug have their interest piqued by an intriguing craft beer. For Weinberg, who has been brewing at home himself for a few years, it was a trip to the U.S. where he tried Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale—a beer credited with inspiring the growth of hoppy American pale ales. When he returned to Toronto and found he couldn't purchase anything close, he turned to the internet and discovered you could brew a clone in an afternoon. He instantly knew he had to do it. Once he did, he quickly became immersed in the home brewing world exploring a wide range of styles and experimenting with them. The idea for his business came when he found that nobody in Toronto was really catering to more adventurous home brewers like himself.
It's a similar story for one of Weinberg's customers Richard Sigesmund, a pharmacist and pharmacy owner. Sigesmund is really passionate about beer and credits his love of it to a friend who always had an interesting one in the fridge. But his passion really grew after visiting Belgium and seeing all the unique beer styles and brewer experimentation there. Out of frustration and necessity he took a big step and decided to start brewing at home seven months ago. The sours and Belgian-style beers that he loves, are even a little esoteric for many beer lovers and aren't really available at the LCBO or local breweries. So he got together with like-minded friend David Begleiter and began researching how to brew these types of beers. They've since made some Belgian saisons, Belgian blonds and they even have some beer with brettanomyces fermenting in a carboy.
Those types of beers are pretty exotic and hearing that new home brewers are tackling them speaks to the spirit of the local home brewing scene. Without having to worry about commercial viability and mainstream consumer tastes, adventurous home brewers are pushing things using fruits, spices and exotic yeasts in their beers. Even some local craft breweries like Amsterdam with its pilot program and Great Lakes with its Project X beers, are taking that daring home brewing spirit and producing bolder styles like sours and saisons in small batches, according to Weinberg. Sigesmund, who has been to a few home brewing meet-ups, says there's also another tamer side to home brewing in Toronto. On that side the focus is on producing more mainstream clones like the brewer's favourite pale ale. But, overall it's a rapidly growing and exciting scene that is truly reflective of the growth and rise of local craft beer. “The best beers home brewers are making defiantly don't take a back seat to the best local craft beers,” says Weinberg. “A good beer is a good beer whether it's made by a home brewer or commercial brewer.”
For anyone considering delving into home brewing both Sigesmund and Weinberg suggest doing a bit of research first. There's a wealth of information online and John Palmer's book How to Brew, considered the home brewing bible, is a good source that can have you well prepared to brew following an afternoon of reading. They also encourage talking to other home brewers (there's an active local community on Toronto forum Bartowel) and even the brewmaster at your local craft brewery. But, they stress the important part is not to be afraid to just try it. ;
“It's as if you were getting into pasta making. But you can get drunk,” says Weinberg about the ease and appeal of home brewing. Just like making a simple macaroni and cheese, you might make the first one straight out of the package, he explains. But if you want to take it a step further you could make your own noodles, use special cheese blends or even play with a technique of cooking on the stove top before finishing in the oven.
Just like with cooking, home brewing needn't be a big investment. According to Weinberg you can begin for as little as $150-200. All you need is a brew kettle (a big pot), a brewing starter kit, a recipe kit and in two weeks time, some bottles. That equipment will allow you to make just about any style of beer you can think of. Like any hobby you can also spend big for fancier and more efficient equipment, but it isn't a necessity.
Sigesmund sees the of growth of Toronto's home brewing scene pushing local beer culture forward. He's experienced how the Toronto craft beer scene has grown over the past four years. It's no longer underground and small. “Our collective palate will soon be challenged by the true limits of the LCBO,” he says. He is seeing hints of that as a some of the more avant-garde local craft brewers begin moving their special projects focus away from IPAs and double IPAs towards sours and barrel-aged beers. When those beers start becoming more prevalent in about a year or so, he thinks local beer culture will really change and craft beer drinkers will start demanding more varied and interesting styles of beer. “Right now, this is only the beginning,” he says.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.