Upon my return to Toronto, the city that I hold closest to my heart (second to Sheffield of course); I have had the opportunity to see how it has changed since I left four years ago. More importantly, I can see the development in attitudes to alcohol.
I remember touching down in TO, as a young and excited 22 year old, and instantly falling in love with the city. It was bustling, fast paced, diverse and friendly.
The first week was a blur of partying, sight seeing, watching NBA games and breaking up a fight in a kebab shop between a drunk arsehole and the owner. I remember the owner ending up on the floor, scurrying away and, as I was about to get punched in the face by the ogre who I was trying to restrain; the owner of the kebab shop came running round the corner yielding the biggest meat cleaver I’ve ever seen. The week culminated in me having a very profound conversation with a drag queen hilariously named Lena Over.
It was quite frankly the best week of my life… to that point.
Now I’m back for a little while before I head off to Nova Scotia for my next project. So, I’m a few years older and eager to see what has changed in the city from the perspective of wine and beer.
The first thing I noticed was that the craft beer phenomenon has hit Ontario. Back in 2012, the beer scene was good and I recall the likes of Mill Street Organic Lager being popular in bars and in the LCBO (government controlled liquor store, stands for Liquor Control Board of Ontario). The brewery was actually sold last year to Labatt Breweries who are owned by Ab InBev.
But, in general, the selection was poor if you wanted good and affordable beer. There were a selection of micro breweries but not in the abundance that they’re in now. Upon my return, I have seen a whole fleet of breweries which didn’t exist or were just starting out four/five years ago, such as Bandit Brewery who offer a beautiful dry hopped pilsner.
This gets me very excited as it is bringing more variety to the Toronto beer scene. With the number of smaller breweries opening up and people opting to go direct to them, it is challenging the control that places like the LCBO have and forcing them to adapt/update their selections.
Because of strict Canadian liquor laws, and Ontario’s especially, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a crate of beer or bottle of wine. You have to go to the government controlled liquor stores (LCBO, Wine Rack and The Beer Store).
Obviously, this limits convenience and choice. I have a love/hate relationship with the LCBO. On the one hand, I love walking into an emporium full of alcohol: I got caught the other day by an employee whilst filming a snapchat, running through an aisle singing “Booooooze!” Luckily he found it funny.
I absolutely adore the way they are set out. It all feels very grand and it is easy to navigate your way through the different alcohol sections. However, I hate the fact that I find pretty much the same selection in every one I go into. It’s dominated by the same brands and, to be honest, I could just as well be in an Asda or Tesco in the U.K.
I find Canadian liquor laws baffling and increasingly frustrating when it comes to wine.
Canadian wine is very good and, in general, the country has a great climate for growing vines/grapes. Provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec are producing fantastic wines with interesting varietals. I recently met Christina Coletta of Okanagan Crush Pad Vineyards and tried one of her phenomenal Pinot Noir, aged in concrete barrels. British Columbia (BC) has a similar climate to Oregon, USA, which is renowned for making excellent Pinot Noir, so it’s not surprising that BC has the capacity to make good Pinot.
The thing that I find frustrating though is that, because of the strict licensing laws, it is hard to export and import wine from province to province. It is actually easier to import wine from Europe than it is to export wine to Ontario from Nova Scotia. There are a few reasons for this, one being that the provincial governments want to protect their local wine industries, which is something I understand and to some extent applaud. However, I believe that this is giving consumers a raw deal because it limits what is readily available.
Ontario’s wine is great and most vineyards are situated in Niagara, near Lake Ontario (a beautiful part of the world). For a large part it is styled on French Bordeaux varietals. There’s a lot of Pinot Noir being produced there too.
The thing is, Canada is huge and each place has a completely different terroir so wine from Nova Scotia has a completely different identity to Ontario wines and they use different grapes. You wouldn’t go to France and assume that a bottle of Pouilly Fume would taste the same as a bottle of Jurançon just because they are French, so it annoys me that a country as big as Canada can segregate their wine industry so much.
There is so much potential in this amazing country and even though the laws surrounding alcohol infuriate me, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to be a part of the industry.
It’s encouraging to see the smaller breweries say “Fuck you” to the ‘big guns’ and people react positively to it. It’s actually great to know I can go to any half decent bar in Toronto and be served a nice glass of local wine.
I have even been to some dive bars (I love a good dive bar) and asked for a wine list to be told by the bartender that the options are white or red. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by whatever it was that I was drinking.
To draw this to a conclusion, I have to say that, on the whole; this city has a great attitude towards alcohol and it reminds me a lot of Sheffield in the sense that a lot of breweries have popped up in industrial yards. My first time in Toronto was great but, this time I am, so happy to be able to appreciate it more, especially the alcohol culture.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: sequels are always better.