It sometimes feels as though I shall be inexorably writing about the launch of a brewpub at 75 Victoria Street. This will be the third time that I’m covering exactly that topic in the space of five years. Originally the building housed Michael Hancock’s Bavarian backed Denison’s brewpub, which lasted in the space until 2003. Ex Mill Street brewer Michael Duggan had a brief kick at the can before it was taken over by the Molson Coors owned Six Pints Beer Academy.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that it’s not a challenging space to work with. It is, for better or worse, a brewpub. That equipment is seemingly part and parcel of the building at this point so that it cannot very well be something else. Over the years I have heard rumours that the rents on the property are exorbitant and therefore prohibitive to running a restaurant without some brewery component, or indeed anything at all. It is an enormous space from a square footage perspective, and it’s interesting to see how it has been handled historically.
With Denison’s, it was actually separated into a few restaurants with different menus and supplied by a central brewhouse. That worked for nearly 15 years until the area went through development. If you watch old episodes of Due South, you can see Denison’s in the background of exterior shots of the Police Station. That was 1994 and tall buildings were not really visible. Downtown Toronto changed in a hurry and it’s no shock that the rents went up.
With Duggan’s, it was a single restaurant and brewhouse which suffered from the problem of having a massive amount of negative space. The basement level was more or less empty except from the occasional private function or party. I do not recall sitting in the southern room of the property. The walls were almost totally white. I referred to Duggan’s as a sensory deprivation chamber.
Beer Academy attempted to combine a brewery and tasting room with a private event space and offices. This came at a time when suspicion of large brewer owned “craft” properties was at an all time high, and while the Beer Academy products were tasty, space was clearly an issue. Although the southern room was frequently busy, I cannot imagine it was breaking even. The private event space had the air of a museum gift shop: Not so much designed for ribaldry as meticulous analysis. Dead and dusty things do not a party atmosphere make.
Batch, I’m pleased to report, is the most successful iteration of the space that I have seen to date.
The bottle shop has been moved from the southern room to the lobby space in front of the main doors on Victoria Street. Walking in, I’m greeted by a combination of Soul, R&B and Classic Rock and a welcoming ambiance. The design seems to mirror that of the Creemore Brewery itself, with exposed brick, light coloured wood and incandescent lighting. The characteristic blue accent of the Creemore brand is missing at Batch and serves as a helpful delineator along with the No Frills typography of the logo.
Televisions play darts and footie noiselessly, making the southern facing room feel like a cross between cookbook cover and sports bar. The aesthetic accents have to do with shipment and travel consisting of belted leather buckles on the banquets and whitewashed hat boxes and satchels in a stack near the bar. The staff all wear matching New Balance running shoes (temporarily throwing a serious Hale Bopp vibe) and seem relaxed and comfortable.
This conveyance of motion ties in nicely with the message on the menus. Yes, it is “Batch”, but with the affixed subtitle “from Creemore.” Rather than the shoehorned “Beer Academy” this is simply an extension of an extant brand. Regardless of how you feel about Creemore’s Molson Coors ownership, it is probably a step in the right direction that they are transparently owning that fact.
The improvement in ambiance (or indeed the inclusion of ambiance) aside, Batch is billed as a “gastrobrewery,” which I think an unnecessary pretension. The quality of the food is not in any question due to the involvement of Ben Heaton. The menu is focused on pub fare and quite reasonably priced for the neighbourhood. Having tasted some of the appetizers at the launch, I can heartily recommend the scotch olives and I have it on the authority of several beer nerds that the burger is happy-making. The selection of pies on offer are enough to make me want dessert and I do not care for pie; they’re visually stunning.
On the brewing side, Batch has Andrew Bartle, previously of Northwinds in Collingwood. He has put in considerable effort in refurbishing the quarter century old equipment, including new elements for the electrically heated kettle and special attention to the fermenters. Whereas Creemore produces lagers, Batch is focused entirely on ales and has opted for a lineup of six fairly basic, food friendly styles which are likely to improve a little as the brewer spends more time with the equipment.
The Cream Ale includes a touch of corn (reminiscent in that facet of a previous Northwinds and Left Field collab called Lil Slugger), sweet with a round orchard fruit character on the nose, while the Witbier has a lightly soapy bubblegum nose that gives way to orange on the palate with the peel pushing through to exaggerate the bitterness on the finish.
The highlights are the Irish Red Ale (which plays toward the sweet end of the style, with roast coming through as chocolate and coffee behind a nutty, darkening caramel character with slightly twiggy hops on the finish), the Porter (on the American end of the spectrum, light in body and therefore reminiscent of an egg cream or chocolate soda before the roast and a small hint of ash show up in the mid palate) and the Pale Ale. If you were going to have one beer from Batch, it should be the Pale Ale, which uses Amarillo hops to great effect. The aroma is practically blood orange and the bitterness and malt balance works such that you have the impression of having bitten into a pip, making the illusion of a blood orange more effective. It’s a good trick and worth your attention.
Batch is not going to be for everyone. I don’t believe that it will hold the attention of beer nerds for more than a single visit, and that is a good thing for its long term success. It’s part and parcel with the space that it occupies that Batch has to be a successful brewpub, which means attracting repeat business and gaining exposure for well made straightforward food and beer. It’s aimed squarely at the mainstream.
The fact is that 75 Victoria hasn’t worked as a single room brewpub or as combined office space/tasting room. Sometimes, what you’re faced with is making a space the best version of itself that you can. Where Duggan’s underachieved and Beer Academy unsuccessfully reimagined, Batch is rushing headlong at the obvious: comfort and quality at a reasonable price in a neighbourhood where that’s relatively hard to find.