Whether it’s a function of the nature of memory and nostalgia, or just the brain’s inability to conceptualize broad expanses of time and space, it’s funny how common it is for migrants (both internal and external) to carry around a mental and emotional image of their abandoned home that’s frozen in time. So while the cities, towns and countries left behind continue to evolve following a migrant’s departure, in their heart and their mind, these spaces remain seemingly unchanged (often creating a stark emotive dichotomy between the unknowns of the adopted territory and – thanks to the numbing effects of nostalgia – the comforts and familiarities of their birthplace). I definitely encountered this phenomenon when I was growing up, but always thought it was a more of a reflection on my family, and a figment of the uniquely Portuguese propensity for melancholic longing and nostalgia (a.k.a. Saudades). It wasn’t until I learned from a colleague in grad school (who was writing her dissertation on this very subject) that I realized how common this experience really is. You see, she had interviewed a large number of migrants, from multiple different points of origin, and had found that this shared commonality of impression cuts across lines of age, ethnicity, and culture.
So, I know what you’re thinking right about now – what exactly does any of this have to do with beer? Well, I grew up in Toronto, but apart from a two-year stint in grad school 12 years ago, I haven’t lived there since 1999. And although I always understood on a rational level that Toronto, like any city, was in a constant state of flux, the mental and emotional impression I carried around were of the city that I’d left behind. For a beer industry type, this disconnect was especially evident in my preconceptions of Toronto’s craft beer scene. You see, as I watched the craft beer industry proliferate in our little corner of the world, transforming our neighbourhoods and our local cultures, I always kinda thought that things were a little different back in Ontario. These days I’m definitely aware that there are over 180 breweries in Ontario – but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, until around the time that Bellwood’s opened in 2012, I was blissfully unaware of how far Ontario’s craft beer industry had progressed since I came out west. So while I happily toasted the latest locally-made triple IPA, Flanders red or bourbon barrel aged Russian imperial stout, I always envisioned my friends back in Ontario drinking the same malt-forward ales and central European lagers that I’d left behind.
Enter Toronto’s Bellwood’s Brewery. Like Four Winds’ impact in our neck of the woods, Bellwood’s 2012 arrival was a bit of a ‘game changer’ in Toronto’s beer scene, elevating it to a completely different level (they also happen to produce the kinds of beer that you’re most likely to find in my fridge or my cellar on any given day – big IPAs, new world sours, and barrel-aged farmhouse ales and imperial stouts – so maybe I’m a bit biased here). However, before this past Christmas, I hadn’t been back to Toronto in eight years, so while I’d tried a few of their beers, I’d completely missed out on visiting Bellwood’s.
Fortunately, over an eight-day trip last December I had the opportunity to make multiple visits to their Ossington Village brewpub, sample a wide assortment of their offerings, and grab more than a few bottles to bring home.
The room itself has a clean, almost industrial aesthetic with ample whimsy, character and irreverence thrown in for good measure. Bellwood’s stellar branding also features prominently, with several brilliant label design posters on display – which they also sell in the bottle shop located next door (personally, I always appreciate when a brewery with as much of a focus on seasonality and creativity puts this much thought and care into their branding).
As for the beer, everything I tried was on-point, with notable mentions for Jelly King, a dry-hopped sour, the 2016 3 Minutes to Midnight, an imperial stout barrel aged with cherries, and Farmageddon, a barrel aged, bottle conditioned brett saison. Bellwood’s also has a full kitchen at the Ossington Village brewpub, offering an ever-changing assortment of solid charcuterie and cheese options as part of their focussed, seasonal menu (my cheese plate featured some beautiful brie paysan which paired effortlessly with both the tart earthiness of the Farmageddon and the warming, boozy richness of 3 Minutes to Midnight). But the absolute stand-out pairing for me was their whipped chicken liver mousse and sour cherry compote with the 2016 Montmorency Cherry Farmageddon.
Every year Bellwood’s releases limited quantities of this gorgeous farmhouse ale, produced by aging their flagship brett saison in Niagara Montmorency cherries. Balancing brett with fruit can be tricky, but Bellwood’s executed this dance perfectly in the nuanced 2016 iteration I tried. As with the standard version of this beer, the brett funk is evident, but isn’t overly prominent, creating a perfect harmony with subtle notes of oak and cinnamon, and the tartness of the Montmorency cherries. The bright effervescence and the dry, mild salinity present in the regular Farmageddon remains, and did a fantastic job of cutting through the richness of the chicken liver. The subtle peppery tartness of the Belgian yeast also contrasts pretty nicely with the creaminess and texture of the mousse, and works really well with the warm, slightly toasted sourdough that accompanied the dish.
With the weeks and months quickly passing since my December visit, my cellar cache of Bellwood’s is, quite tragically, starting to dwindle. Fortunately, after countless rumours that Bellwood’s would find distribution in BC, they’ve been picked up by UnTapped Craft Imports, with Jelly King recently hitting the shelves of select bottle shops around town (don’t hesitate to grab some if you see any). Either way, if you find yourself visiting my long abandoned home town and want to try some of the best beer that fair city has to offer, make visiting Bellwood’s a priority.
Pro tip: Next time you’re at Bellwood’s Ossington Village brewpub, be sure to make the short walk over to Burdock Brewery at 1184 Bloor West. Their phenomenal Peche Brett and Brett Farmhouse Saison were steady companions during my visit and are not to be missed (Burdock just happens to be located right around the corner from the place we stayed – a very welcome addition to the family holiday). The walk between Bellwood’s and Burdock winds past some lovely tree-lined streets, chock full of restored Victorian and Edwardian homes, and should only take you about 30 minutes.
Hat tip to Celine Kim for the awesome photos.