Change comes slowly but inevitably, and in Toronto that means condominiums. The stretch of Yonge Street between Bloor and College, that final ungentrified stretch of smut peddlers, head shops, and bootleg vendors is going upscale bringing with it the promise of one-bedrooms from the mid 200’s. I can’t lie that I’m happy to see some of the stuff south of Wellesley go. Having worked in the neighbourhood for several years, the seediness of it never appealed to me; facades held over from decades when the strip was a jukebox neon river of amusement. It was the era of Ronnie Hawkins’ camel walk and later of Goin’ Down the Road. Somehow it took until now for developers to look at the spent husk of one long Saturday night and judge it fit for rehabilitation.
One of the casualties of that vertically emergent lifestyle is Bar Volo. I know that it was unavoidable. In point of fact, Ralph Morana has been talking about it for years. Where he might start up a second location or, during conversation on the patio, exasperatedly gesturing at the enormous building across the street that was now blotting out his customers’ sunlight.
In truth, I have not spent very much time at Bar Volo over the last five years. I was more or less a regular between 2007 and 2011 when an in crowd would take up as much as half of the patio on Friday and Monday nights. Friday tended to draw more of a ratebeer crowd while Monday, with its five dollar pints, catered to those who enjoyed cask ale. Sometimes the unstated goal of the Monday crowd was to see how long it would take to finish off the remainder of the weekend’s cask so that something more interesting might be substituted. A good time was had by all.
Unfortunately, in 2011, a good friend I had made at Volo passed away and it never really seemed the same afterwards standing at the bar by myself. Sometimes at about this time of year Tim Mitchell’s sudden passing still prompts melancholy and an unwanted consciousness of the fragility of life. He was a lovely man.
If I’m honest, the thing I like best about Volo is its nearly complete dedication to rebirth. I might not pop my head in for four or five months and something will have changed. Now they’ve switched to bar service only. Now the taps are alphabetized. Now the number of casks has expanded. Now there’s a variety of upper tier Bourbons for your delectation. Now they’re importing beer from Texas. Now there’s an outdoor bar.
I walk down Yonge Street some nights for entertainment as much as exercise and I noted the outdoor chalkboard on my way past the patio late last month. Not a single beer on the 26 tap list existed a decade ago when I started going there. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Bar Volo as an agent of change in Ontario’s beer culture.
Change accrues through effort and through dedication and through the simple will to pile it up. At the moment we have dozens of craft beer friendly bars in the city and more to come. In the middle of the last decade we didn’t. I don’t mean to take anything away from stalwarts like beerbistro or Smokeless Joe’s. They also played their part. Bar Volo was the one that challenged brewer and drinker alike to be better. The identity has always been somewhat schizoid; celebrating the best of the local scene while acting as a showcase for rare imports. This month we will have both Cask Days and Zwanze Day and that duality sums it up: Local and fresh versus distant and funky. The ability to comfortably enjoy the best we have while dreaming of the things that we don’t.
There is an argument to be made that beer is memetic. That because it is designed it is an expression of thought and that in drinking you’re perceiving intent and information. In that sense, Volo has been an informational hub quite unlike anything else we’ve seen in Toronto.
Frequently it resulted in the long game. Imports from Flying Dog and Moylan’s and Great Divide showed people what the Americans were doing and allowed them to go away and think about what could be done. A Stone takeover (captured for posterity in Ian Coutts’ book Brew North where I’m in the back row of the photo) featuring a portion of the vertical epic series showed us that a decade long project was possible at a time when people were still hesitant to brew one-offs. Cask Days and the IPA Challenge allowed brewers to succeed and to fail and most importantly to play without much consequence hanging in the balance. It encouraged them to try. More than any other single factor in the last decade, Bar Volo allowed us the conversation that has helped Ontario’s beer industry blossom. On a day to day level it exposed good beer to any number of people. I doubt you’ll find anyone in the beer industry in Ontario who doesn’t have fond memories and a story to recount. There’s no one that hasn’t been influenced by it in some way.
I have always harbored the suspicion that the Moranas knew all of this and were doing it on purpose, sort of agents provocateur for the zymurgical set. When I accused Ralph of it some years ago he denied it was intentional, but there was a twinkle in his eye. This will be Bar Volo’s last week, but their mission has probably been accomplished for some time.
Change comes slowly, but change has come. Bar Volo will finally split its personalities into two separate locations. Birreria Volo on College West will focus on wild and sour beers while Bar Volo on Church will presumably embrace cask beers. We will end up with two great beer bars instead of one, but it won’t be the same. If you’ve never experienced the original location, you owe it to yourself to get some concept of it before the end of the week. I plan on trudging down myself at some point and exorcising a little memory.
Besides, they’ve got Monday pricing all week long.