People have already written about Bellwoods Brewery. I sort of suspected that would happen out of the gate. It seems like everyone in beer in Toronto has been there. I knew it was going to be a big deal when my next door neighbour, Dave, mentioned in passing that he had heard really good things about it. Dave isn’t a beer guy. When the hype gets to the point that people I barely know are suggesting story ideas for the paper, that’s a pretty good sign that the thing is going to take off.
I wanted to wait a month before going in. I figured that they’d have everything just so before opening, and that turned out to be correct. When their regular operations started in April, they had already been brewing for two months. That’s enough time to make sure that all of the beer is in the right shape. I wanted to see what it looked like on a regular day.
I managed to wait almost exactly a month.
The main impression that I’ve come away with, having had a day or so to think about it, is how modular everything is. I suppose that the closest approximation I can come up with is LEGO. Everything is designed to fit together in a way that belies the simplicity of the concept. You can do just about anything with a modular design, and it feels to me like they may have approached the problem this way.
I’ll give you an example. The brewery itself is actually smaller than my apartment. I’m not aware of many operating breweries on a smaller footprint in Toronto. There are some that are smaller in terms of the volume that they produce, but in terms of sheer ability to condense a brewery into the space, Bellwoods is impressive.
They have somehow managed to fit a 7BBL brewing system, 3 14BBL fermenters, one 7 BBL fermenter and two 7 BBL bright tanks into that space. The bright tanks are actually stacked on top of each other. This is not a solution that a lot of people would have gone with, but it needed to work in the space. Not only do they have this equipment, but a pilot system. The keg washer is mobile. The bottle filler will eventually be mobile. A barrel aging area has been set up on racks. This is clearly a case of brewers having had to find a solution to work with the building, but somehow it doesn’t feel cramped.
I stepped off the bus directly in front of the brewery and one of the brewers was outside cutting molding for the blackboards with a mitre saw. To me, this explains a lot. Mike Clark and Luke Pestl are clearly DIY types. The fact that I unwittingly showed up early allowed me to see a little bit of this. If you own a brewery, you’re going to end up fixing things. The relative ease with which Luke was gliding around fixing things is not something I’ve come across frequently. Molding. Ladder. Nailgun. Done.
In point of fact, I was sitting at the bar, watching him install a glass rinsing station when they started serving drinks. I think it took something like ten minutes. This happened between brewing and setting up for the day.
The design is spare, favouring form over function. There is restraint and taste at work here. Brewpubs accumulate bric-a-brac over the course of their existence, but Bellwoods has kept it basic. Rough hewn wooden shelves hold the simply branded glassware. The walls are white, featuring photographs and sketches. The original print that was used for logo design hangs over the bar.
The approach to the beer list is modular as well. I tried samples of all of the beers being offered, and they’re all very well made. There’s no timidity here. I think that the Berliner Weisse was my least favorite of the available beers, but this is because I was expecting a slightly more tart yeast character. For the iron brewers competition last year, Luke had produced a Berliner Weisse with yeast he had caught himself. If this minute quibble is the best I can muster regarding their lineup, then they must be doing something right.
The tap list hangs together well. I think Mike and Luke are aware that not all of the beers on offer can be directed at beer nerds, but they’re still finding a balance on the tap list. While the Witch Shark Double IPA has been much lauded, there are relatively few beers on the list lighter in alcohol than 6.0%. The Common Pale Ale, which survived the launch of the brewery, looks to be on the chopping block as they experiment with finding sessionable beers that will fit in with the rest of the lineup. Why? Because it doesn’t thrill them.
There’s no such thing as a flagship brand at Bellwoods. Everything is changeable. Every beer can be replaced.
The same sense of modularity carries through to the food menu. There is enough variety to make sure that everyone is happy, but it’s a seasonal list. The list will change as the chef is inspired or as the seasons dictate. Personally, I was happy to see a cheese list that included not only local Canadian cheeses, but a Brie de Meaux, which is something of an old school favorite. There is a sense that things can be swapped out. Even the more esoteric offerings, like the skewer of Duck Hearts in Charred Jalapeno Oil are a great deal more accessible than I would have thought.
While I was there, I talked with Luke and Mike about their patio. “So when are you going to buy chairs?” was my question. It doesn’t work like that at Bellwoods. They’re going to build their own patio furniture. And a pergola. And railings. And they’re going to open a bottle shop. And they’re going to knock through to next door and add more fermenters. And they’re going to fill growlers. And they’re going to get more barrels going. And they’re going to take over the world.
I get the feeling that this is as much a brewery as an ongoing renovation. It’s DIY heaven. It will grow and expand and the offerings will probably become more elaborate. Mike and Luke don’t seem to me to be the kind of guys who will settle for having a set taplist or a set menu. These are guys who enjoy a project. I don’t know what Bellwoods will look like a year from now, but I can guarantee you that the shadow they cast will be a great deal larger than the 350 square feet their brewery takes up.