Cheshire Valley and Burger Bar

If that were actually a pint glass, it would fall over.

Tuesday, I was invited along to a beer tasting at Burger Bar in Kensington Market. Now, for me, this wasn’t just any beer tasting. Thomas Riley Marshall, former Vice-President of the United States, once opined that what the country needed was a good five-cent cigar. I have always felt that what Toronto needed was a good sessionable ale. Well, we’ve got one now thanks to Paul Dickey: Cheshire Valley Unfiltered English Mild.

Paul, for those of you who don’t know, is the man behind Cheshire Valley Brewing. In terms of the Ontario beer scene, he’s a man of many parts. He has brewed for Pepperwood Bistro and Black Oak. Everyone enjoys a pint of Nutcracker. He created that one; Also the Summer Saison. He’s a Master Judge in the BJCP program. This is a man who knows what he’s doing. If you need proof of that, it’s worth noting that his Cheshire Valley beers tend to be among the first to run out at cask festivals. It’s one thing for a brewery to rate high on the internet amongst the tickerati (raters gonna rate), but it’s quite another to view the evidence of quality displayed by people making a bee line for a mild ale at a festival with high alcohol offerings and one-offs.

The mild is very tasty. It’s about 3.5% alcohol and the flavour is malty with some small chocolate presence. The nice thing about it is that you can certainly carry on a conversation while enjoying it. Some beers grab your lapels and demand your attention. The Cheshire Valley Unfiltered English Mild doesn’t do that, but that’s not to say that it’s not worthy of your attention. It’s complex enough that you can think about what you’re tasting, but not so forceful that you absolutely have to. In a market where IPAs are not only grabbing your lapels but turning you upside down and shaking the change out of your pockets, this is a refreshing change.

It’s only available in pubs, and that’s a good thing. It’s the perfect thing for a civilized conversation. I sat there in Burger Bar with various bloggers and no one ended up with a lampshade on their head. The wonderful thing about a pint of mild is that you can go and do something else after enjoying it. If there were a warning label it might well read, “Please do not operate heavy machinery unless you absolutely have to, although if you give it about twenty minutes, a backhoe is not out of the question.”

Cheshire Valley is interesting in that it’s a virtual brewery. The beer is brewed on Black Oak’s premises, but it’s not one of their brands. It’s very much its own product line. I talked to Paul at Cask Days, so I may have some of the details wrong, but the impression that I got was that he’s only going to brew six times a year for now. The beers on offer will loosely follow the seasons. The mild is the fall offering, but the next one up is a robust porter for when the weather gets colder.

The beers don’t have names. There is no gimmickry. There is only quality. The styles are not outlandish or experimental. These are recipes that have been tried and tested and are solid and dependable. They are the result of a career’s worth of trial and error.

Paul also told me a little about the business model he’s using. All of the beer goes into keg sales, the vast majority of which have been pre-sold. By the time it starts fermenting, it has been spoken for. Now, it’s not a huge number of kegs; maybe 30-33 per batch. That’s not a volume that’s going to make anyone rich, but it’s sustainable. The impression I came away with is that it’s not about making anyone rich. Paul has simply come up with a sustainable way to do the thing he loves doing, and make people happy while doing it. It’s amazing what passion for your métier can accomplish.

Speaking of, I feel like I should talk about the venue a little.

Burger Bar, to me at least, seemed to crop up out of nowhere in early September. I hadn’t heard of it before Toronto Beer Week, but all of a sudden, there it was: Hosting events almost weekly. I talked to the owner, Brock Shepherd about this emergence and it turns out that I wasn’t off by a lot. Burger Bar really has only been around for about seven months.

The concept is pretty simple and the name tells you nearly everything you need to know. The beer is local and of high quality and Brock has already expanded the number of taps available, including bringing in a beer engine with a sparkler for cask. The menu is mostly hamburgers, but they’re of a high quality and the number of toppings makes them nearly endlessly customizable (x=16! and that’s just the additional toppings). I was also pleased to see that Brock hadn’t completely abandoned the previous concept. Some of the most popular rice bowls from Burger Bar’s previous incarnation survived. Why alienate the old guard?

Brock has been bitten pretty hard by the craft beer bug. You know you’re in trouble when you start buying toys and he’s got maybe the only Dogfish Head Randall in Ontario. He’s also got a slightly worrying glint in his eye when he starts talking about his plans. He’s talking about learning to brew his own beers, which would make Burger Bar one of only a handful of brewpubs in Toronto. Burger Bar’s in a really good location to take advantage of the growth of craft beer in Ontario and if his enthusiasm is any indication, I’m going to enjoy watching the place grow and develop.

It’s worth reflecting that the fact the Cheshire Valley tasting was at Burger Bar is not an accident. Paul and Brock have something in common: They have figured out what they are passionate about and they’re both going for it. Paul’s project is the result of a long career in brewing in Ontario and years of practice and refinement. Brock is just starting out in the craft beer world. The motivation, though, is very similar.

If you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing, you’re eventually going to make it work.

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