Of all the reasons to be jealous of the beer scenes in Quebec and some American states, the availability of beer in grocery stores may not be at the top of a lot of lists. Most people usually care more about the beer being sold rather than where they are buying it, but are jealous of the fact that these stores can supply a lot of different brands and can add new products with ease, unlike the rigorous process that it can be to get listed in the LCBO. The breadth of selection has always been nice, but it is the mere fact that you can get your groceries and beer in the same place, at the same time, that enthralls me. Yes, part of it is the convenience of doing one-stop shopping, but also the fact that beer (and often wine) is viewed as merely another consumable good, one on par with the other items stocking grocery store shelves. It becomes just another part of the shopping experience, taking away some of the specter that says, “This is dangerous and must only be sold in specialty stores.” Beer becomes on par with bread, milk, fruits and veg.
Ontario does have a selection of wine stores attached to grocery stores, but they usually feature one or two brands and some “cellared in Canada” blends. To be honest, the selection is pretty dreadful and I’m fairly certain that 90% of the wine purchased at these stores will be consumed at dinner parties where the hosts don’t want to serve the good stuff. I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether beer or wine is better (though you should be able to guess what side I’d fall on), just recognize that only having one available in grocery stores is a disservice to those that enjoy the other. While it would be nice to have similar stores for local beer, these wine stores have been grandfathered in and the only hope for Ontario beer drinkers is that the province sells the LCBO in a fit of madness (which is a much different topic for another day).
Luckily those of us living in Toronto have seen the first shift this month to getting beer in our grocery stores with the Corks Beer and Wine Bar in the new Longo’s location at York and Bremner. Emphasis is needed on the “bar” in the title, as beer is not being sold for take-home consumption and must be consumed in the designated eatery area (as if there are minors in Longo’s looking for people to buy drinks for them). Nobody would blame you for assuming that the tap lines are full of the usual Molson/Labatt products, but this is the most pleasant surprise at the bar. All six tap lines feature Ontario craft beer: Grand River Ploughman’s Ale, King Dark Lager, Granite Keefe’s Irish Stout, Black Oak Pale Ale and maybe a cider. Lots of bottles are also available, such as Flying Monkeys Hoptical Illusion and Beau’s Lug Tread, which help form a really strong selection of local beers. A large amount of work has obviously gone into the bar and to make sure it follows the foodie ethos that is evident in the rest of the store (fresh, flavourful, local). Even better is that the beer tastes great out of the taps – my 12oz of Grand River was at an excellent temperature, tasting bright and crisp. The bartender also did a double pour to make sure I got just the right amount of head. The menu has tasting notes for all taps and bottles. With this much attention to detail the bar is definitely not an afterthought.
The one thing Corks won’t be is a replacement for your neighbourhood local. While there is some seating at the bar, the majority is multi-purpose seating that also serves the cafe and eatery. The end result is furniture that looks upscale cafeteria or fast-food, rather than cozy pub. Everything is a little too plastic and non-descript for my liking, lacking any character. According to the bartenders, service has been a little slow so far with many people coming by to take a look at the bar and saying they will come back another time. Given the lack of craft beer options in the area (the Real Sports Grill is right next door and Front St is dominated by tourist/905 traps), Corks is a great option when going to an event at the Air Canada Centre or when heading home from work.
While it is not yet my ideal scenario of doing beer and food shopping at the same time (which is actually doing grocery shopping and being able to drink at the same time), it at least represents the first change to the Ontario system where there is some integration. My hope is that they will be allowed to bottle growlers in the future, but I have no knowledge of this actually being in the works or legally possible. Regardless, it is a great first step and Longo’s deserves a lot of praise for supporting Ontario craft beer. Do your part and go have a pint.