“So this is 26 years of experience?” I said to Bim.
“Is that what it is?
“It’s what you’re doing with it.”
“If I had more money, it would have been bigger.”
Godspeed Brewing is an odd phenomenon, because so much of it is bound up in expectation. One of the things that I like about Luc Lafontaine is that he has never tried to convince me of his brewing ability. I think the only times I have ever talked to him about Dieu Du Ciel are on occasions when I brought up the subject. He’s not a man who rests on his laurels or, in point of fact, even mentions that he might own a laurel.
I stopped by the brewery on the Sunday of the Canada Day long weekend to have a look at the space. The opening had been pushed back and pushed back. Originally it was meant to be last fall and more recently on his birthday in June, but problems plagued development. As I walked in, a very tired Bim sat at a table hunched over a labelling machine attempting to line up the cans so they would align perfectly.
Attention to detail is a hallmark of the successful brewer and I have frequently joked that the person you want making your beer is the guy who wakes up screaming at 3AM because he doesn’t remember whether he sanitized a spigot. Bim is on a somewhat different level. Walking me through the brand new space and custom designed brewhouse he makes the opposite observation most brewers would make: “It will never be this dirty again.” It may someday produce 6,000 HL and there are plans for foeders, but they will all sparkle.
This from a man who began as most people did in brewing: with a Cooper’s malt extract kit on his way into university at CEGEP. The cleanliness of the equipment doesn’t matter much to the quality level with Cooper’s (there is only so much you can expect of a can of malt extract). The difference is that Bim went on to work with Dieu Du Ciel at their brewpub and it is from that period that some of the expectation for Godspeed is derived.
When Dieu Du Ciel began to show up in Toronto, it was because of the Morana family of Birreria Volo and Keep6 Imports fame. Getting Peche Mortel or Aphrodisiaque (Aphrodite in Ontario because of the horrific implication that someone might be having a good time) on tap was an absolute coup as recently as seven years ago. Here was this great, rare bird that would show up periodically. The hype built around Dieu Du Ciel and by the time Peche Mortel graced the shelves of the LCBO, the offerings in Ontario did not really reflect what the brewery actually does.
The first time I went to Dieu Du Ciel was 2009 on Mondiale weekend and Bim was probably working. I didn’t meet him at the time. That would have been too convenient for this narrative. I was there on the recommendation of Eric Ecclestone. The brewhouse at the brewpub is essentially a two story pit with fermenters round the edges, but it gleamed. It is probably worth noting that Peche Mortel only made up one tap of the many at the brewpub. I went in with the intention of trying everything, but ended up drinking Deesse Nocturne, the dry Irish stout all afternoon as people came and went on Avenue Laurier and finished crosswords at the bar. In Montreal, Dieu Du Ciel was part of life for the Plateau. In Toronto, it became definitive because of the weight Volo could afford it. Bim has not been with Dieu Du Ciel for a very long time: 20% of his career.
Bim is aware of the expectation, but as we begin to talk about it we’re joined by Crystal Luxmore and Conor McCreery. Crystal and I talk about the beer, but Conor engages on the subject of Japan and somehow the conversation gets onto kimonos and silkworms. His second day in Japan he ran into an artisan who produces his own silk and makes his living by his craft in a small mountain village. They became friends and as a result, Bim has learned how to tend silkworms. It’s always good to have a fallback. The attraction was the life of the master craftsman; the practically hermetic devotion to daily minutiae in aid of creation.
It seems to me that in many ways Godspeed is different from what exists in Toronto. When we write the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, Robin and I joke about the breweries whose backstory is “a group of friends decided to start a brewery.” This is the other end of the spectrum. Godspeed encompasses a quarter century of experience; a singular vision that you only get to through having lived through success and failure.
Bim knows down to the day (December 9th, 2014) the last time he brewed on his own system in Japan and it seems to me that the Godspeed logo, a stylized tall ship is appropriate. When he talks about the Japanese brewery he becomes a little wistful. It is an odd analogue, but the situation strikes me as that of a half-pay brevet Captain, temporarily landlocked and waiting for a ship to command.
He has a crew. The people running the makeshift labelling station as we talk are his wife, his brother and his brother’s wife. The labellers themselves are borrowed from Indie Alehouse and Bellwoods. His assistant brewer, Brandon Judd, finished brewing school in Berlin and then waited patiently while Godspeed was built. Most of the taproom service staff have jumped ship from Bar Hop, where he worked behind the bar in order to pay the bills while also acting as General Contractor on the new brewery. Bim inspires enough loyalty that his coworkers joined him.
He has been trying to do everything himself, pushing it forward inch by inch. He has had to learn the details of Toronto zoning laws and the business aspects of brewing in Ontario. The false bottom on the lauter tun has been letting material through and the pipes have clogged. The first brewday took forty hours. The second a mere thirty. He is beyond punch drunk. It is a total effort.
“What are you going to put behind the bar” I said to Bim, noting the blank wooden wall above the taps.
“I don’t know. I have to make decisions. It has been two days. I like it this way.”
“Take away a decision. It’s your place. If it makes you happy, leave it empty.”
Between the opening of the retail store and the soft launch, the online reception is delicious in its absurdity. Step back from the details related above. Forget who the brewer is. It is a brewpub at Coxwell and Gerrard. If it were anyone else, no one would even visit the damned thing. We will have six to eight new breweries in Toronto in as many months. Even the most devoted beer nerds are running months behind openings at this point.
In this case, because of the weight of the hype built by Bar Volo and Keep6 over the years, people talk about the brewery before the opening in messianic terms; as though Bim walked into town across Lake Ontario. At one end of the spectrum a local wag claims on twitter that the beer is terrible and two of the first three batches should have been drain poured. At the other end is a wine professional who proclaims the English style IPA the best he has ever had. On both ends is the response to the expectation that Godspeed will somehow redeem the Toronto beer scene, as if it needed it.
The truth is we have Bellwoods, Indie, Muddy York, Left Field, Amsterdam, Blood Brothers, Black Oak, Great Lakes, Halo, Folly, The Granite and more. We have never had it better and may it always be this good. We suffer from this inculcate fear that we are not as good as. I have heard people wax rhapsodic about Pittsburgh, for God’s sake. We put ourselves up against the best things to come out of other markets and take the cream of the crop from the rest of the world as some abstract competition for our burgeoning city. We thieve trends and crush them underfoot in short order. We fail, inevitably, to be proud of what we achieve and there is no reassuring voice to proclaim our success, to quash an undeserved sense of inferiority. The progress has been remarkable not just in terms of number of entities in the market, but in the increase in quality.
Bim’s presence in Toronto has helped that along over the last couple of years. It is not as though Godspeed is the first impact he has made. Consultancy for other brewers, collaborations, or just conversations at a bar have influence in ways you might not expect.
Bim has been trying not to look at the reviews although they filter in. There are some concerns about the pricing. $3.75 a can for 355ml seems high to the public. But then, it is about a penny a milliliter. There are certainly examples in the LCBO of Ontario beers going at about that price point. The other gripe is about the styles of beer being brewed. There are people reviewing it who are willing to dismiss a third of the nascent brewery’s production because there is a Dortmunder Lager involved. I know through the rumour mill that Bim has spent much of the last two years drinking Spaten Munich Helles.
The uncomfortable fact for many is that this is not Dieu Du Ciel west. This is an older brewer now, practically a different man, who has, through experience, stripped away the frills and is confident enough to brew the things that he enjoys. The captain of a ship doesn’t ask the sea what it thinks; he just plots the course.
To get the total picture, you need to go to Godspeed during service.
The menu is Japanese comfort food. It is not on trend. There is no sushi, there is no ramen. The idea is that these are dishes that you might make yourself at home if you lived in Japan. The chef is a mutineer from Momofuku. A Katsu sandwich served on rye seems influenced by both Family Mart and Schwartz’s. The Karaage is moist with a crunchy breading. The Chikuzenni is apparently frequently served by Bim’s wife’s family. The dashi complements the nutty lotus root and I find myself thinking that I may visit the brewpub just for this dish, or at least blag the recipe. The Gyuusuji Doteni is braised beef and hacho miso. It is reminiscent of Carbonade Flamande in its umami components, but the Belgians wish they had this. It is maybe the best thing I have eaten in six months. The Pickle Plate, the Gyu Tataki, the Yaki Onigiri, all excellent bar food and so dependent on texture. The room is dependent on texture as well, with the low lights and the comforting wooden walls.
The beer is better than it has any right to be. A 40 hour brewday aside, the Dortmunder is appropriately bitter, relatively light in body. The Stout weighs in at 4.8% and slots into that Dry Irish style with a little outsized bitterness that peaks just as the roast comes through on the finish. A Saison (not in cans) almost didn’t make the cut, but that is ludicrous. It is light, dry, and refreshing with a small pear ester.
The first service is a soft launch. The table numbers are not quite worked out and there is a little confusion for the servers. The hoses for the draught lines have been replaced at very nearly the last minute. At one point, with the light bulbs flickering Bim mounts a ladder to replace the dangling 60 watt bulbs with 40 watt bulbs. He works on every detail down to the minutiae himself to make it as right as he can make it today.
By the mid point of service, he has transformed. Gone is the tired man who just days earlier was hunched over the labeller replaced by a visibly younger Bim. For a few moments, there’s a sense of the horizon Godspeed is bound for. It’s not going to be what you thought: It’s so much more exciting.