“You’re number two” says the greying Asian man to the bartender as he’s walking in the door of Habits Gastropub. I’m confused temporarily and take it as either a set up for a punchline or a low normal motivational chant. It’s quickly explained to me by co-owner Michelle Genttner that Habits has the second best whiskey selection in Toronto. A glance at the wall confirms this, but it’s anathema to me because I’m at Habits to drink their House Saison. All I can manage is to make a note of the presence of the Rip Van Winkle bourbon in case I ever feel spendy.
The nanobrewery looked for a brief period to be the next big thing in Toronto. When Bar Volo started theirs in 2010, Ontario was still a 50 brewery province. Nano brewing never really caught on to the extent that it was expected. For one thing, the amount of effort expended into the process tends to vastly outweigh profit. Similarly, if the brand succeeds there’s not really anywhere to go with your production levels. I believe that House Ales now contracts out at least one of their brands. The second adopter, Brad Clifford’s nano system at Get Well at Dundas and Ossington, has since been removed to Innocente as I understand it. This is probably just as well. I always got the impression that the main draw at Get Well was pinball and that the crowd would have been happy drinking most anything. Clifford’s Porter is a step up over the assorted styles he’d produced down there.
Habits is a different part of the market than Volo or Get Well. For one thing, there’s a more pronounced focus on food thanks to chef Luis Martins. The menu of bar snacks clearly demonstrates some Portugese and Spanish influence which carries over into a far more interesting set of entrees than you’d typically expect from a Toronto gastropub. The charcuterie is very impressive, with a Duck Prosciutto that melts away delicately into a suffusion of hazelnutty fat.
The brewing staff at Habits is made up of three people. Chris Conway, Christina Coady and Doug Allen. All three are talented homebrewers, a fact which does not always suggest that there is success in the offing. The collaborative effort at Habits, however, is clearly working out. The brewery has taken just over a year to put together at this point. The brewhouse itself takes a place of pride in the kitchen and its newness is still obvious. The Blichmann kettles gleam, untarnished yet by scorch and boil over.
The fermenters are in the back and I’m led through the curtained off stage area, dark and cool on an off night, to an area that doubles as storage and cellar. Chris Conway jokes about the microclimate they’ve created for their repurposed milk cans under the stairs next to the walk in. They’re making 250 litres of beer a throw at Habits and on their third batch they’re already subject to that mad brewer’s drive to acquire improved equipment. Small fans are positioned point blank to maintain temperature, providing what I assume is all the efficacy that they can muster.
Conway got into homebrewing out of necessity. It was only two years ago that Newfoundland got its first packaged IPA in stores: Muskoka’s Mad Tom. It’s easy to forget that there are parts of Canada where the current craft brewing boom has been late to catch on. Newfoundland’s Yellowbelly is more likely to produce a parsnip beer than a series of IPAs. Call it a cultural pocket where bitterness never really caught on. Conway’s entry into homebrewing was a way of providing significantly hopped beers for his own consumption and it becomes obvious in conversation that there is a small part of him that will always consider taking the beer he loves back to the rock.
The love they have for quality beer is obvious at Habits, with a tap list that includes a variety of small Ontario brewers. What I didn’t expect was to see other Saisons on the menu. The brewers are asking their third batch of Saison to stand up to Nickel Brook’s Paysan and Amsterdam’s Howl. Were I the owner, I would be tempted to present a single Saison, but in truth, the House Saison doesn’t need the handicap. I suspect that with recipe development in brewing the first three batches will get you 95% of the way to your goal and the next fifty will get you the remaining 5%. They could easily have tried three different beers out of the gate, but the decision to refine a single recipe is a good one. The difference between the other Saisons on tap and the House version is that, at the moment, they are more themselves.
It gets difficult for a moment. Chris Conway wants feedback; he’s clever enough not to want praise. He wants me to tell him what’s wrong with the beer and there’s little to pick at. The peppery dryness comes through and the citrus from the Amarillo dry hop comes through. If anything it might be just that little bit too subtle. Maybe higher peaks would make the desert of the Saison finish more pronounced. Drop back the Magnum at bittering and increase the Styrian Golding dry hop? These are issues of nuance; ideas to play with over the next year. The House Saison will improve over the next year.
More than the beer, I’m impressed with Habits. It’s not quite a neighbourhood pub, but that’s part of its DNA. It takes a lot of attention to maintain a menu of upscale comfort food, live music and a whiskey selection that large. You can see why the addition of a nanobrewery requires three people. It also displays a shrewd understanding of the clientele. They’re people willing to pay for niche quality. If Habits had simply wanted their own beer they could have contracted the job out, but I suspect they’re unwilling to give up that level of control. There are many signs of a well run pub, and this level of control over variables is one of the best.