Vancouver pub-owners John Mitchell and Frank Appleton are often credited as Canada’s first post-prohibition craft brewers. In 1979, Troller Pub experienced supply disruptions that inspired the pair to brew their own beer. A keg a day was the target if they wanted Troller to be successful. On their first day of business, they sold seven.
While British Columbia may be the home of Canada’s craft beer beginnings, Ontario’s dense population in comparison to the rest of the country has seen exponential growth in both breweries and variety of style, moving away from Light Lagers and towards more on-trend styles like Hazy IPAs and wild-fermented beers.
For Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto, popularity is seemingly perpetual—it continues to grow rapidly alongside the brewery itself. Most of the credit goes toward Bellwoods’ departure from Canada’s beloved pale-yellow Lagers, like Molson and LaBatt. So much so, bar owners have begun personally picking up kegs and hauling them back to their establishments three hours away for a special events.
In 2012, Luke Pestl and Mike Clark opened Bellwoods in the Bellwoods Trinity neighborhood, just west of downtown Toronto on Ossington Avenue. At the time, Toronto was home to about 10 breweries, a number that has grown to around 60 today. During those six years, Bellwoods has become one of Canada’s most renowned beer producers. Like so many breweries, it started as an idea between a couple folks who wanted something better.
Pestl and Clark were working as brewers at Toronto’s oldest craft beer maker, Amsterdam Brewing. They passed the time conceiving their own brewpub where they’d make beer they liked and offer upscale bar snacks from a simple kitchen.
“We both had the same vision of what we wanted to do with a brewery in terms of being part of a neighborhood,” Pestl says. “Doing experimental, more modern beers. We'd drive five hours in a day to Buffalo or elsewhere in the States just to get beer and see what it could be.”
As commiseration over beers began to turn more into a more tangible plan, Pestl and Clark discovered they both had the same strip of Ossington Avenue—and eventually, they found out, the same building—in mind for their eventual brewpub home. It was a cozy 1,500-square-foot space that would solidify their resolve in moving forward with their plans. At the time, it was being used as an art gallery, and after approaching both the landlord and tenant, they found out neither were happy with the current lease. They solved both of their problems by buying out the lease and setting up shop.
Six years ago, this particular strip of Ossington didn’t quite have the trendy feel it does today with small restaurants, cafes, and boutique storefronts lined up one after the other. But the area was becoming more of a destination. While Bellwoods certainly wasn’t the first bar or restaurant to open on Ossington, nothing yet had existed quite like what Pestl and Clark were planning.
After being open a year and having a food program consisting solely of charcuterie and other small snacks, Pestl desired something more. The pair developed lunch and dinner offerings that took well-known dishes to another—albeit approachable—level. A falafel sandwich, sans pita, served on two thick pieces of fresh bread. A pierogi dish made with mixed mushrooms, buffalo ricotta, celeriac puree, and a porcini broth.
The menu was meant to meet demand for more modern cuisine as those in the neighborhood didn’t have many options in the area beyond standard pub fare and hole-in-the-wall establishments. “That’s the type of food the market was wanting,” Pestl explains. “Our customers wanted that, we wanted that, and eventually we became more of a sit-down restaurant.”
Fifteen hundred square feet would no longer be sustainable. There was no room for cold storage, for starters, and the idea of making multiple trips to an off-site facility to keep in-stock kegs at proper serving temperatures seemed like a nightmare. Again, Pestl and Clark approached the landlord who had been using the space next door as a painting studio and convinced him to concede some much-needed room for a walk-in fridge.
They’ve slowly expanded since then, adding tanks and an entire kitchen to a small area tucked away from the dining room where they keg beers, wrap silverware for food service, or process a side of pork for fresh sausage. It all happens within inches of each other, simultaneously. Navigating the narrow corridor that transitions from brewhouse to kitchen is cramped, but they’ve made it work for the last six years, putting out some truly incredible eats.
“Our food ends up being underappreciated because we’re known as a brewery with food being secondary, but I’m really proud of the food,” he says. “Often, places have good beer but people will get dinner elsewhere. We wanted to avoid that."
One of Bellwoods’ best-sellers, Jelly King, is a style-bender to say the least. It’s a mixed fermentation ale dry-hopped with Citra that ends up being a juicy, low-bitterness approachable beer that can have customers lined up along Ossington Avenue on a Saturday morning—especially when a fruited varietal is set for release. With beers like that, it’s perhaps easy to understand why Bellwoods so quickly outgrew its home and what had to happen next.
With limited space, the brewpub is home primarily to small-batch, one-off beers, mostly in bottle format which sell at their own-premise bottle shop for the sake of speed and convenience. They keep limited kegs on tap to supply a quick turnover of beer and a tight draft list to maximize what little space they have. In order to bottle at the brewpub, they close the kitchen, move what unnecessary culinary equipment they can out of the way, drag pallets in, fill them up, and only keep what will immediately sell in the bottle shop on-hand.
“You can only imagine what it looks like to do 3,000 bottles at a time in here.” Pestl says. “It’s crazy, but we find room. Opening the Hafis location has been a big relief.”
That big relief is a 15,500-square-foot production facility about 10 kilometers (or six miles) northwest of the brewpub that opened in summer 2016 with a modest taproom that came online in December 2016. The additional space has allowed the brewpub the ability to scale back production by about two-thirds in the second half of 2016 and another third in 2017, opening up the ability for more experimentation and a barrel program.
“If a tank was ready we'd transfer it, clean it and brew into it the next day while bottling so we could brew into that tank again the next day,” Pestl recalls. “We were turning over up to five fermentors a week, brewing up to 11 batches a week Monday through Friday, and bottling three days a week at the same time. It was a nightmare.”
Despite the capability to brew nearly 2,500 hL (2,130 bbl) on the seven-barrel brewhouse at the Ossington location, the jump in capacity that comes from adding 775 hL (660 bbl) of stainless is a welcomed change. But they’re not looking to get too big.
“We could do 20,000 hL (17,000 BBLs) a year, but we’re not trying to do that,” Pestl says. “We want to focus on stuff that we like, which just makes our brewery more interesting. We didn’t open a brewery to do one IPA all the time.”
Bellwoods’ best sellers are Justu, an immensely juicy and tropical Hazy Pale Ale, and the aforementioned Jelly King. Keeping a steady supply of bottles for retail and wholesale is a priority, and part of the reality of keeping shelves stocked with what your customers like. But the increase in space has allowed a focus on stuff the brewers like, too.
That stuff tends to be barrel-aged, sour, blended, and/or wild fermented—all styles that would cause a slow-down in the fervent production schedule previously held at Ossington which made it hard to brew with any consistency. In addition to more stainless, Bellwoods is now able to work with four 60 hL (51 bbl) foeders, two 20 hL (17 bbl) foeders, about 380 barrels, and a new, mobile, triple-decker coolship.
Around the time Bellwoods opened in 2012, sours were starting to begin their ascent in the American brewing landscape. It was only around 2013 that Casey Brewing opened and Jester King Brewery had abandoned pure culture fermentation and set on their current path of mixed-fermentation focus. In Toronto, the market was playing it safe. Breweries weren’t pushing the envelope on overtly hoppy IPAs. Like the rest of the beer-drinking world, Canada’s highest-selling style is still the Light Lager, and the country has remained fairly reserved when it comes to adopting more modern styles. This lack of diversity allowed Bellwoods the opportunity to introduce the next generation of Canadian craft drinkers to more adventurous beer.
As Pestl describes it, “When we first started putting out sour beers, it was such a new thing to most people. They had no idea what we were offering or whether or not it was supposed to taste the way it did. The average person has such a better understanding of those beers now.”
A better understanding and affinity for an expanding variety of beer styles has helped breweries educate and attract drinkers worldwide. Bellwoods is no exception, and has been able to draw folks from all over the region who seek out their beer both in releases held at Ossington as well as Hafis. Fans have been known to travel the 535 kilometers (330 miles) from Montreal to Toronto for bottle-release events. Opening Hafis, located just off of a major Ontario highway, has made those types of pilgrimages more available for out-of-towners.
Pat Ozols, a regular who has made frequent 90-minute trips since discovering Bellwoods in 2014, recognizes Bellwoods’ knack for working ahead of the curve.
“In the scope of beer in Toronto, I feel Bellwoods has their ear to the trends more than anyone else,” says Ozols. “Also, [they’ve] got immense trade value in the beer community. Even when I was in Brooklyn at Other Half, Jelly King or a Milkshark went a long way. They are becoming a collab phenom and getting around the world.”
That type of demand doesn’t go unnoticed for long, especially in a city that has craved more adventurous beer. As tastes for beer evolve in Toronto, breweries have begun to look toward Bellwoods as a model for style innovation as well as how to run and operate a brewpub.
You don’t have to look much further than one of Pestl’s favorite brewpubs, Burdock Brewery, to understand that inspiration. The business has paralleled Bellwoods in beer style and food, as the two have both excelled with hazy, tropical APAs, IPAs, and some killer Brett-aged beers paired with small plates like pork rillettes and mushroom hash quesadillas.
“Bellwoods have definitely influenced the styles of beer we like to brew. Jutsu and Jelly King essentially moved the goalposts when it comes to Pale Ales in Ontario,” says Dave Everitt, head brewer at Burdock. “I think Jutsu is one of my all-time favorite beers and has definitely inspired me. I remember being completely shocked (and perhaps aghast?) by the opaque haze of Jutsu when it was first released. I’d never experienced such a tropical explosion in a beer before.”
“They were the first brewery in Ontario to have a sour program that really competed with elite breweries worldwide,” Everitt continues. “Nowadays, there are several superb sour programs in Ontario, no doubt influenced by what Bellwoods have accomplished.”
Even Bellwoods’ beer labels have drawn admiration. The brewery works with Doublenaut, a design company with a diverse range of well-known clients, even doing concert posters for bands like the Flaming Lips and have fashioned Bellwoods’ labels to embody the concert poster feel. After working on a few designs for Bellwoods, Doublenaut was approached by other brewers, so Pestl moved quickly to put an exclusivity agreement in place. “It’s such a large part of our brand now,” he says. Large part, indeed. They even sell prints of their concert-poster-inspired labels at both the Ossington and Hafis retail shops.
Hafis has also become home to another first for Bellwoods. They held their first ever on-premise festival , Witchstock, its name a play on Woodstock and their DIPA, Witchshark. Bellwoods invited 15 breweries from around the world—including some of the coolest of the cool kids like Other Half, Trillium, and Beavertown—and opened up the production facility to allow attendees to wander the entire building.
“The whole point was to bring attention to this facility because it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. We had a mariachi band playing with food trucks and a cafe making cappuccinos,” Pestl beams. “Since the festival, business has definitely picked up beyond what we were thinking.”
Despite all the attention, Bellwoods is playing its business as close to the vest as possible. Of the 6,000 hL (5,113 bbl) Pestl anticipated Bellwoods brewing in 2017, only 1,500 went to wholesale.
“Our biggest market is our own place. We’re not on any shelves except for our own. It’s not normal, it’s rare, and we’re really, really lucky. For us, there isn’t any shelf competition,” Pestl says.” I can’t think of anyone else in that position in Canada.”
Pestl doesn’t see Bellwoods trajectory as a reason to expand. His goal for 2018 is to focus on improving operations between and within the two locations and to provide a good experience—from the bottle shop to special releases to the dining experience to everything in between.
Pestl hasn’t mashed in for close to a year. As he sees it, for Bellwoods to grow to what it should be, it would be ridiculous for him to be in the brewhouse instead of letting someone else who knows the equipment better than he does take care of those things. For now, he’s excited about growing the spontaneous program and enjoying the ability to do more experimentation with mixed cultures while letting their existing beers evolve.
This includes their blended foeder Saison, Farmageddon, which happens to be sitting on some cherries in a foeder right now. Watching him taste it, I get the sense that this is the future of Bellwoods. Or at least the future he’ll be focusing on in the years to come.
“Day two, day three before any activity was happening in there, it was all sugar,” Pestl explains, taking a sip. “It was so fucking crazy and juicy. It was just delicious.”