Thursday, August 19, 2010

C'est What!

With the unfortunate demise of the wonderful beer house that was the Castle on King (*shedding a single tear*...), there has been left a terrible void in the KW area for craft beer and cask tap options.  With the exception of Kickoff in the University plaza (and of course the Grad House, my place of employment!), there really isn't a whole lot around town for diverse craft brew selections, particularly cask-pumped brews.   Having read many a brew-review on Beer Advocate, I noticed that many of the rarer Ontario craft offerings - the kind unavailable in the LCBO or at any of my local hangouts - were being sampled almost exclusively at two downtown Toronto pubs - C'est What and BarVolo.  Apparently, these two are among the finest locations in Toronto to sample new and exciting beers: both of these pubs have been repeatedly nominated by BarTowel (and have received laudatory reviews in both the National Post and Globe and Mail) as having the best beer draught selection in the city.  With a mutual day off, Michelle and I decided a visit to such greener pastures was most definitely in order.  

We decided to go with C'est What this time around - it was closer to where we wanted to be in the city, and I find the name to be so very amusing.  (We also went this route because on a previous excursion to Toronto, our GPS utterly failed us, and we missed the bar entirely, leading to a great deal of yelling and cursing).  C'est What is located right in the heart of the city on Front and Church, just a few blocks from Union Station and the Rogers Centre.  The area has a thriving pub culture, with many a watering hole to be found in the vicinity.   Our destination was a basement joint tucked away in a brown building home to a variety of other shops and restaurants.  We descended to the bowels of 67 Front with no idea what to expect.

Our first impression was a good one - right at the entrance was an aquarium where fish darted about a sunken bottle of Steam Whistle (hopefully well-cleaned).  Cute.  C'est What is a long, narrow pub, with a plethora of beer posters and modern art gracing the stone walls.  Good mood lighting, lots of places to sit, dartboards and pool tables scattered here and there.  Eclectic music played at a reasonable volume.  Looked like a great place to spend an afternoon.  The place was only sparsely populated, so we had our run of the seating area. 

I knew we were in for a treat when Michelle found the beer menu.  That's right, menuOnline you can find the whole three-page listing of regular brew offerings, which are indeed quite impressive.  C'est What boasts an almost-exclusively Ontario craft beer selection, featuring some of the most difficult to find brews from the GTA and across the province.  It also has a regular rotation of cask taps, a truly wonderful way to experience beer - naturally carbonated and pumped by hand.  Aside from a slate of 'house' options (brewed by County Durham Brewing), C'est What has a great lineup of fare from Mill Street, Neustadt, Camerons, Church Key, Granite, Scotch Irish and Flying Monkeys, to name a few (unfortunately, their only Wellington brew was Silver Wheat, by far their weakest release).   Their food menu also looked good - a fine mish-mash of pub, ethnic and vegetarian meals.   After being overwhelmed by the sheer variety of beer to be had, we settled down for our flight of new brews!

Beer: Granite Hopping Mad (cask)
Brewery: Granite Brewing Co. (Toronto)
Type: English pale ale/IPA fusion
ABV: 6.0%

First up was a regular mainstay on C'est What's cask tap, an IPA from Granite brewing in Toronto.  Although the brewery and BA both refer to this brew as being an American IPA, it really didn't taste like one; rather, it possessed more of the characteristics of a well-hopped English pale ale, so that's what I'm calling it. (C'est What's menu also describes the brew as being a pale ale, so clearly the staff are in agreement!)

From the cask, Hopping Mad poured much like a Boddington's or Kilkenny - a orange jelly-coloured brew that took a few moments to settle.  The settling process left behind a remarkably creamy head that lasted throughout the pint, producing some impressive sheeted lacing.   Looked fantastic.

The nose was, as I mentioned before, decidedly not that of an IPA: instead of a rich hop aroma, I picked up more bread and malt notes, with only a hint of caramel and floral hops.  Still very impressive, but not what I had anticipated.  

Hopping Mad is certainly a fine brew, with the hops providing more of a presence in the taste than in the nose.   Like an English pale ale with American hopping. Creamy and malty, but finishing with a tasty, floral hop kick. I went into this expecting a Canadian stab at the American IPA style, and while this wasn't it, it certainly was enjoyable.  Boddingtons with a stronger hop character, is how I'd describe it.   Highly quaffable - I could certainly see myself drinking several of these in a night.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Church-Key Northhumberland Ale
Brewery: Church-Key Brewing Co. (Campbellford, ON)
Type: claims to be a brown ale, I say blonde or pale ale
ABV: 5%
Again, problems with categorization - it claims to be a brown ale, but it is certainly not:  far too light in colour and not nearly malty enough.  The pub listed this as being among their cream ale selection, which is a bit closer to the mark. Unfortunately, this was our dud of the afternoon - neither Michelle nor I enjoyed it very much.
Poured a rich golden hue, very light for the style, with some visible carbonation and a thin head with some retention.

Nose was citrus, honey, light hoppage. Floral and fruit notes as well.  Not too bad.

A very fruity, grainy ale with something vegetable-like going on in the back.  Yeasty.  Had a very strange taste to it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, and certainly didn't care for.  As crazy as it sounds, I swear I could detect chicken in the beer.  (Seriously!)  Whatever it was, that shouldn't happen!   Northhumberland is a brew that is desperately out of balance; it needed either a bigger hop presence or better use of malts to bring it more in line with the style. Tasted more like a blonde ale than a brown.  Funny enough, I ordered a spicy dish for lunch that actually paired well with this, but for exactly the wrong reason: by numbing my tastebuds a little, I could actually finish the pint.  Otherwise I doubt I could have.   A strange-tasting ale (if one could ever call it an ale) not something I would pick up again. Something about the whole construction just felt off.  A big pass on this one.  (Grade: D+)

Beer: Duggan's #99 IPA (cask)*
Brewery: Mike Duggan Brewing (Toronto)
Type: IPA or Double IPA
ABV: 7.2%

Our gem of the day, but I'm still not confident on what it was.  The waitress said that this was the last of the cask of Duggan's #99 Double IPA (stronger than a regular IPA, usually even hoppier), but what we got didn't match with how the other BA reviews described it, so my writeup will have to be given an asterisk.   Because it was the end of the keg, this might have affected the taste, but whatever the beer was, I can say this - it was awesome.

A dark ruby-tawny brew, sporting a big, frothy head.  Loads of lacing, great retention.

The nose was simply spectacular.  In addition to a strong floral hop presence, this brew boasted a fantastic blending of delicious flavor notes, including chocolate, caramel, cherry, dark fruit and vanilla.   More in line with a barleywine or a Belgian dubbel than an IPA, but again, the fact that this was the bottom of the keg probably affected this. 

The taste was similarly impressive.  Drank more like a sherry than an ale, but that was just fine with me.  Rich and hearty, with a complex meshing of flavors, similar to what was detected in the nose.   Thick and slightly creamy, this brew was most definitely a sipper; the bold flavors and hearty consistency probably negates the possibility of having more than one of these in an evening. 

Whatever this mystery beer was, both Michelle and I really loved it.  A great little brew to sip over the course of our lunch.  Even though it didn't taste like an IPA, whatever Mike Duggan has done here, it was terrific.  (Grade: A-)


We would have loved to have stayed longer, but full stomachs and a hefty parking ticket (don't ask...) required us to move on.  If you happen to be in the downtown core and are looking for some great craft brews, be check out this little gem.  C'est What definitely lived up to its reputation as having among the best draught lineups in southern Ontario.  Good set up, fine location, decent food - a great place to bring friends who enjoy trying new beer.  Check it out! 

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