Wednesday 18 June 2014

Toronto day one

Another tour, another set of travel reports to write. It feels like being back at school.

The little time I spend at home is now consumed by writing about my travels. Life could be worse. Every day could be much like the last. I should enjoy the excitement while it lasts.

My schedule is as punishing as ever, kicking off with two nights in Toronto. It's a city I've not visited before. Only my second time in Canada, too. My only previous experience of the country was a few nights in rural northeastern Ontario. Where I brewed a beer at Beau's and hung out at their festival back in September 2012. I had a great time and unexpectedly got a chance to practice my French. But I'd not seen big-city life, other than rushing through the Montreal suburbs going to and from the airport.

I divvied up some extra dosh for more legroom on the flight out. Well worth it. I've no twat in front of my reclining his seat down into my lap. Plus there's just one seat next to me. There's so much legroom that the burly Russian sitting by the window can go for a leak without me needing to stand up.

I've brought Boak and Bailey's "Brew Brittania" with me. Travelling is about the only time I get chance to read anything long for pleasure. Though I do catch myself looking at the footnotes, curious to see their sources. That's not really what you'd do on a 100% pleasure read. Old habits are like Bruce Willis.

Once they get to the 1970's, they're retelling events I lived through. It's both slightly unnerving and highly illuminating to see them narrated in a coherent way. I thought I knew the story of the CAMRA's birth, but it turned out to be both more complex and character-driven than I had realised. I'd noticed the tensions around the formation of CAMRA Investments without realising how deeply in had split the movement.

The stuff about the SPBW was mostly news to me. I'd been aware of them, but, other than seeing their stand at beer festivals, they'd had little direct impact on me. Having learned more about them, I'm tempted to join.

Some of what was recounted form the 1970's really resonated with me. Like The first big national CAMRA festival at Covent Garden. It was in the summer I left school. Me and Martin Young, one of my classmates, made the trek down from Newark. It really did look as if the market had been moved out the previous day. We had to queue a while, but were lucky enough to get in. I recall drinking a pint of Yorkshire Clubs Dark Mild. The brewery was taken over and closed not much later.

It was another moment of bizarre recognition when a couple of places in Leeds were mentioned: CAMRA pub the White Horse and the Brahms & Liszt. I was once refused a drink in the latter for looking too much like a hippy. Sort of put me off it. I never had any trouble in the more down-to-earth pubs. Bloody yuppies.

The description of the machinations around the Beer Orders was informative, too. I'd only seen the affair through CAMRA eyes at the time. And though "Government Intervention in the Brewing Industry" has since informed me of the big brewers' side and in particular Guinness's perfidious role, I'd heard little of the publicans' view.

The personal connection weakens after the 1990's, if only because, living abroad, my personal links with the British beer scene have loosened.

Hang on. This is supposed to be a travel report and I've ended up writing a book review. May as well throw a conclusion out. Well written - but I'd expect no less from them - and with loads of good stories about the individuals who drove the quest for better beer. It kept me entertained even while my arse was aching from hours of sitting.

I got a free copy, obviously. I'd have been pissed off if I hadn't, seeing as I had my publisher send them a copy of mine. Though I would have bought one as it's a pretty damn useful book for anyone interested in recent British beer history. And you know me. History is my thing. I've also met the authors once, exchanged multiple emails with them and my name appears in the acknowledgements.

Where was I before I wandered off? Sitting on a plane enjoying extra legroom. Let's continue.

I arrive in Toronto on time and start hunting for Peter Friesen. He's organised my Toronto event and offered to pick me up. Somehow we don't manage to connect. Me forgetting to charge my US phone before leaving didn't help matters. After a while of trudging around outside I get a taxi.

Despite being Saturday, it takes forever. Partly because Toronto sprawls so much - the airport is miles out, despite not being at the city's edge - and partly due to road works. Nearly an hour later, I roll up at my hotel.

The cab ride has left me with the impression of a schizophrenic city. On the one hand, there's the low suburban sprawl of houses and light industrial units. On the other, clumps of residential tower blocks, slowly forming into a forest around the lakefront and downtown. Like a combination of Hong Kong and Melbourne. Don't think I've ever been to a city quite like it.

The hotel is in a rather grand 19th-century mansion. I arrive with not long to spare before an appointment with beer writer Jordan St. John. He's taking me for a tour of the city's cultural highlights. Only kidding. It's a pub crawl. At least I hope so. I've just about got my head sorted from the travel and time jump when he trawls up in the hotel lobby.

He suggests kicking off at Stout. Who am I to argue with a local? It's about a ten-minute walk away. On the way I get a chance to see a bit more of the city. Its schizophrenia is confirmed, with towering  new flats alternating with remarkably English-looking Victorian terraces. Stout is a on a street of the latter, with tram tracks running down its centre. I think: "The kids would love this." Though maybe the kids aren't quite as into PCC cars as they were age nine. I keep forgetting that they're nearly adults.

Stout's billing as an Irish pub might have put me off, had Jordan not assured me of its good beer selection. It's pretty hot and we sit on the patio at the rear. They have a cask beer. Churlish to to start there. Great Lakes Canucklehead. A golden Paley Aley sort of thing topped by a deep collar of creamy foam. Pretty effing brillarific. Especially as it's my first beer in a while.

Jordan shares my love of history, beer and beer history. We've plenty to chat about. He tells me about the book he wrote with Alan Mcleod on the history of brewing in Ontario and the new one he's writing by himself about the brewing in Toronto.

The Canucklehead slips down so sweetly that I order another. Food is ordered, chewed and digested while we wait for Alan (Mcleod) to show up. More beer is consumed, too. An Imperial Stout because, well, I'm on holiday and I can do what I want.

I'm easing into the day, Canada and the tour. Relaxation, like the beer, flows through my body like a low voltage electric shock. Only more pleasant. Just a few hours in and the fun is already palpable.

Next time Alan arrives and I finally meet up with Peter Friesen.

You may have forgotten, but I haven't. The main point of my trip was to tart this:

The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer.

Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer
Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey

Stout Irish Pub
221 Carlton Street East,
Toronto, Ont. M5A 2L2.
Tel: 647-344-7676

Ontario Beer
A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay
Alan McLeod and Jordan St. John

Great Lakes Brewery
30 Queen Elizabeth Boulevard (Map)
Etobicoke, Ontario
M8Z 1L8
Tel: 416-255-4510


Wheaty said...

1970s London CAMRA beer festivals…

BryanB said...

I like your summary of Toronto - it is a bit like two cities in one, isn't it? Tremendously cosmopolitan too, as I recall.

Ron Pattinson said...


thanks for that. Look at those haircuts. . . .

Alan said...

I can't wait for the shouts and finger pointing!

Gary Gillman said...

You could actually do a "Victorian" beer tour of Toronto and think you are in parts of London almost, with terraced homes, spired square edifices and Anglican churches, and big brick thingies that look like disused breweries in London's East End. Wait, that's because they are disused breweries, like Davies Bros on Queen Street East (was that the name? Jordan will correct me if I'm wrong) and the Gooderham & Worts distillery at the bottom of Parliament Street.

Conversely, you could do a tour that is resolutely tower-and-glass/spiffy suburban.

We have it all - and all the beer styles. :)