Judging beers in the Big Smoke

Given the variety of quality beer options in the Six, maybe Toronto should be known as the Six-Pack

Judging beers for the Canada Beer Cup at Amsterdam Brewery. Joe Wiebe photo

Early last fall, I had the opportunity to travel to Toronto to be part of the judging panel for the inaugural Canada Beer Cup. I got there a few days early to spend some time with family and friends. Although it was the first week of October, the summer-like weather gave me the chance to go for a bike ride along the lakeshore with my brother. On the way back, he mentioned we could visit a brewery that wasn’t very far off our route. Little did I know it was the very brewery I most wanted to visit on this trip.

A little backstory: back in the spring, on a BC Ale Trail media trip to Northern B.C. that I co-hosted, I befriended a Toronto beer writer named Max Morin (check out Max’s story here). Over our time in B.C.’s North, I pestered him with questions about Toronto’s beer scene, and especially Godspeed, the brewery where he works as the sales and marketing coordinator. 

Luc “Bim” Lafontaine enjoys a schnitt at Godspeed Brewery while he chats with Joe. Joe Wiebe photo

So I was thrilled when I found myself at Godspeed Brewery after a short ride up from the lakeshore. And I was even happier when I found Max inside. The date actually coincided with their annual Oktoberfest weekend and they had just tapped their Nonbe Oktoberfest Lager, a glass of which quickly found its way into my hands. 

Located in a building that once housed a Bargain Harold’s (ask someone who grew up in Ontario), Godspeed’s stylish tasting room felt both expansive, thanks to the high ceiling and the view of the brewery in the back, and cosy at the same time, probably because of all the dark and distressed wood, metal and stone used throughout. 

We sat down at a long table where we were soon joined by the owner, Luc “Bim” Lafontaine. Max brought him a schnitt, which turned out to be a half-litre glass of beer that was about three-quarters full of foam. Apparently, it’s a traditional order in Bavaria and Bohemia when you want to enjoy some beer but maybe not a full serving (i.e. while you’re still supposedly working).

I tried not to guzzle the delicious festbier too quickly as I listened to Lafontaine’s origin story: born and raised in Gatineau followed by a long stint at Montreal’s famed Brasserie Dieu du Ciel where he worked his way up from server to Head Brewer before deciding to move to Japan, his wife’s homeland, to open a brewery there with some business partners. Eventually, he returned to Canada to open his own brewery but surprised his friends and fans in Quebec by choosing to do so in Toronto. 

Much of Godspeed’s branding and décor is influenced by that stint in Japan, and some of the beers feature Japanese ingredients like yuzu and green tea, but the brewery is best known for Bim’s gorgeous, complex, perfect lagers. 

Many craft brewers hold high respect for the great lager brewing tradition in the Czech Republic. For Bim, that respect is more like reverence. Back in 2018, he experienced a brewing epiphany on a trip where he made strong connections with the folks at Pilsner Urquell and Budějovický Budvar, the original Budweiser. In 2021, he returned to Plzeň to work with the master coopers there to make two enormous, pitch-lined barrels in the traditional way Pilsner Urquell has produced them since 1842. After several months of seasoning, the barrels were shipped to Toronto—the first time the famous brewery for which the Pilsner beer style is named has ever sent its unique barrels anywhere else.

Lafontaine hoped the barrels would be at the brewery in time for the Canada Beer Cup judging so he could show them off to the international team of judges, but shipping delays meant they wouldn’t arrive until after our visit. Once they did show up, however, batches of his Sklepník Plzeň-Style Pale Lager would be conditioned in the barrels, which are designed to be able to hold beer under pressure, recreating the authentic and unique Czech lagering process.

Joe enjoys a perfectly poured řezané: a glass of half dark (tmavé) and half light (světlé) lagers at Godspeed. Joe Wiebe photo

Before departing I was lucky enough to enjoy a perfectly poured řezané: a glass of half dark (tmavé) and half light (světlé) lagers expertly layered by Godspeed’s bartender, Jan Strnad, who hails from Prague. It tasted as good as it looked. 

The judges’ reception was held at the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies’ Clubhouse, which includes a taproom, bottle shop, artisan market, and event space. It is open seven days a week and also offers event rentals. The organization that runs it was founded in 2014 by five women who wanted to shake up the male-dominated beer industry. 

Following this mix-and-mingle social event Max took me to a favourite spot of his not too far away: Paradise Grapevine. If that sounds like a wine bar, it is, but it also has a solid draft list of rotating beer taps, which is what we sampled from while we sat on the leafy back patio where we were entertained for a time by a visiting raccoon. 

Judging beers for the Canada Beer Cup at Amsterdam Brewery. Joe Wiebe photo

The beer judging began in earnest the next day: approximately 50 judges spent three long days holed up at the Amsterdam Brewery in Leaside, repetitively tasting small quantities of very, very similar beers and scoring each one out of 50, with points awarded in a variety of categories. In total, I tasted more than 100 beers in several different style categories, but everything was anonymous so I honestly don’t know what the beers I judged were. 

Our reward after the first day was a special dinner and tasting at Left Field Brewery, a baseball-themed brewery that opened in 2013. Co-owner Mark Murphy and his team treated us judges like visiting royalty, serving delicious pizza from a local place along with excellent beer, including two Oktoberfest-themed lagers—it was surprising how thirsty we all were after judging dozens of different beers. 

Following the second day of judging, a large group of us visited a historic Toronto brewpub, the Granite Brewery & Tied House, which has been brewing “real ale” since 1991. Reminiscent of classic British-style brewpubs like Spinnakers and Swans here in B.C., I felt right at home.

Avling Kitchen & Brewery’s Foxtail Zwickelbier. Joe Wiebe photo

Nothing formal was planned following the final day of judging, but I wanted to check out another one of Max’s recommendations. Avling Kitchen & Brewery is based in a building that once housed an A&P and was thoughtfully renovated into a multi-purpose facility that includes a basement brewery, a gorgeous, airy restaurant on the main level, and a rooftop garden where a lot of the ingredients used in the kitchen are grown. I had plans to join some of my fellow judges for a farewell bowl of ramen later on so I didn’t get a chance to eat there, but the menu looked fantastic. 

Avling’s brewmaster, Brandon Judd, had previously brewed at Godspeed, so I was excited to check out the beer list, which featured a long list of classic styles under the “Draught” heading as well as two more pages of barrel-aged and sour options. With so many choices I asked the bartender to pick one, and he brought me a tall, dark and foamy glass of the Foxtail Zwickelbier, a delicious brown lager with a caramel character. And as a follow-up before catching the streetcar downtown, I couldn’t resist trying the playfully named Salieri Vienna Lager. Let me just say this one played second fiddle to no one.

A few weeks later, it was gratifying when Vancouver’s Callister Brewing won the inaugural Canada Beer Cup. As far as judging Toronto’s beer scene goes, I’d say it deserves high marks, too.

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