One of the benefits of getting out of Toronto is the contrast that it necessarily provides. Recently, I went to a bar called Thirsty and Miserable in Toronto. I like Thirsty and Miserable. It seats about twenty five and as many as can stand around nodding to the punk rock and indie soundtrack that comes with a small, niche craft beer place of a certain variety. It’s pretty awesome and it has a lot of things going for it, including a carefully selected draught list and a truly excellent selection of bottles, especially when you consider the scale and the amount of thought that must have gone into it.
I want to talk to you about the other end of the spectrum. I want to talk to you about an Edmonton restaurant called Continental Treat.
Now, I never managed to connect with Sylvester, who has the beer stick at Continental Treat, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’m scheduled pretty tightly in Alberta, and running a restaurant is not exactly a light gig. I did manage to get to Continental Treat for lunch.
The first thing that you notice on walking in is that it is prodigiously old school. It’s old world as well. I’ve been to Vienna and Budapest, and this reminded me of nothing so much as the Amadeus Café. It’s the kind of place that you walk into and expect to hear the theme from The Third Man. Zithers ahoy!
The thing is this, and we forget it from time to time: Beer is an old world thing. Munich. Vienna. Prague. Without those places, I wouldn’t want to think where we might be. I didn’t have a craft beer. I had a Hacker-Pschorr Munich Helles, and because Alan McLeod and I had been discussing it recently, borscht. It’s a world beating borscht for sure. Alan’s helpful addendum was that I should attempt to get into a debate about the spelling on “borscht.”
I believe he’s trying to get my other arm broke.
The bottle list is extensive. They have some representation of all of the Trappist breweries. They have maybe two hundred bottles. That’s by no means an amateur move. There are posters suggesting that they’ve got Westvleteren XII and that there will be a tasting of Affligem coming up shortly.
But that’s not all. They have Anderson Valley. Big IPAs. The entire range of Samuel Smith products. All manner of groovy things are happening on that beer list, as you can see from the list of products available on their website.
As you can see in the photos, the décor is pretty old world as well. It’s the kind of joint that has seen a cross section of the rich and famous, right down to Robert Goulet. You probably think of Goulet as a comic figure as a result of the Will Ferrell parody. I saw Goulet as King Arthur in Camelot in the mid 90’s at the O’Keefe center. He owned it.
If ever I would leave you. Classic Goulet.
This brings me to the point that I have been considering since I had the excellent borscht and a Reuben sandwich that could not be beat.
The music in the background while I was there was not punk rock or indie. It was Tomasini and Vivaldi and Handel. Precision driven Western Art Music. As I sat there, in front of the fireplace, having finished my lunch, I perused the beer list, thinking about having a second lunch beer (research is important). While there were any number of craft beers from California that I hadn’t tried, I couldn’t bring myself to order one. I went with an Achel Bruin, which seemed to suit the mood.
I have noticed that a number of the people involved in craft beer are frustrated musicians. I would like at some point to take a survey of craft brewers to find out how many instruments each of them play. I would bet that it is a ratio of about 2:1 on average. It might be higher. Some of these people have played punk rock or sort of garage or indie music. There is a DIY ethos that carries over to craft beer. Much of the time, craft beer seems to be about creating a mood or a certain amount of impact, which might also be the goal of a young musician trying to make an impact.
There’s a dichotomy between the precision that you find on the soundtrack at a place like Continental Treat and the organized chaos you might find at Thirsty and Miserable. This is neither good nor bad, but a question of appropriateness for the venue.
Is there, then, a reason that I felt totally comfortable ordering a Great Lakes Karma Citra at Thirsty and Miserable, but couldn’t bring myself to order even an excellent pacific northwest IPA at Continental Treat? Karma Citra and Handel’s Water Music would feel wrong. There’s a tonal quality that is incompatible.
There might be a reason that seasoned beer people seem to enjoy a pub without a soundtrack; without televisions. There’s a kind of sensory neutrality that goes with beer appreciation. Would Gregorian Chant turn a Black IPA to ashes in your mouth? I’m willing to bet that it might if you approached it without a certain amount of ironic detachment.
This realization doesn’t make me like either of these places less. Thirsty and Miserable has the rough charm of Shane McGowan. Continental Treat is all Harry Lime. How can you compare them honestly? One is no better than the other.
The difference, essentially, is that the Goulash is better at Continental Treat. Robert Goulet thought so anyway.