Crafted in Toronto: Rapid Growth in Ontario with Founder Luke Pestl of Bellwoods Brewery
Interviewed March 8, 2016
at Bellwoods Brewery – Toronto
Like many growing up in the Midwest, our perception of Canada was practically limited to what Ontario could convey. As such a large land mass–stretching from New York to Minnesota–it only makes sense that the province be producers of plenty great exports. But sadly, in terms of beer, we may never had known. Ontario craft beer just hasn't made it's way across the border. At the heart of this great region, on Lake Ontario, sits the country's largest city: Toronto. A city, that in the last few years, has undergone it's own impressive beer renaissance. Like many cities' scenes that we're familiar with, a few stalwart brewpubs had endured for years–while little else in the way of craft breweries had spawned. Well, with a nearly quadrupled brewery count in the last five years, things are on the uptick.
At the forefront of this wave, was westside Toronto's Bellwoods Brewery, helmed by co-founder/brewer Luke Pestl. By pushing the boundaries of sour beers, hoppy styles and challenging what a brewpub can be, Bellwoods has experienced it's own impressive growth. Within just four years, they're set to open a third space, all the while having the fortunate issue of running out of beer. We met up with Luke on a recent trip to Toronto, to discuss this growth, the importance of packaging design and what makes a true Canadian.
Can you describe the neighborhood? Is this area Bellwoods?
Yea, it's sort of in transition. Historically it was "Little Portugal." So, most people know it as that still. We're on Ossington Avenue, which is sort of it's own hub of activity here. It's become more of a destination in the last 5-10 years. Before that it was mostly auto body shops and such. It's only recently been known for restaurants and going out.
How did you decide where in Toronto you wanted to set up shop?
Well Mike [Clark], the other owner, and myself lived in this neighborhood. So, we were eager to open in this area, mainly because of proximity to our houses. It was already a booming area—which helped also—and it was in close proximity to Trinity-Bellwoods, which is the big park nearby. People know 'Bellwoods'—it's a pretty famous park in Toronto.
When you opened back in 2012, what was the beer scene like in Toronto?
It was...picking up. There were not very many options. There'd been brewpubs open for years, like Granite Brewery on Mt. Pleasant—it'd been open since the 80's. Amsterdam [Brewery] had a brewpub since '89 also. So, there were other breweries around, but not very many. Especially not very many small, and 'exciting' breweries, I would say. Like, you couldn't get a really good IPA back then. Or a good double IPA, or sour beer; not in Ontario that I knew of. There was a huge hole in the market.
Well, I was only sure that Labatt was a beer that came out of Ontario, to be honest. We don't hear much in the way of craft from this area, down in the Midwest. For example, if you're going to order a beer in Detroit, it's Labatt. We never got any 'craft' beer out of Ontario, despite being just across the river...
Well, I guess there weren't that many large breweries up here. The biggest ones around here are Steam Whistle, Mill Street, and Amsterdam. But, Ontario's such a huge geographic area, and it was really lacking in craft beer options. When we opened, there were under 100–maybe 75 or so–breweries in all of Ontario. I think it's tripled or quadrupled in the last five years. In this area alone, there were none aside from Amsterdam that had a production facility. Now I think there're 12, just in a two kilometer radius here in the west end.
And how would you describe Toronto's craft beer scene as it stands today?
Picking up, haha.
Still picking up?
Yea, I think so. We're definitely on a rapid upswing. There're a lot of new breweries opening. And a lot of breweries doing very interesting things. They're experimenting in really exciting ways, like not being afraid to get into sours or other things. I think we're a long way from what we could be, but it's definitely picking up.
You previously brewed at Amsterdam Brewing here in town. What pushed you to make the leap to opening your own brewery?
It was always my goal. I come from a biochemical engineering background. I dropped out of my masters to take on a full-time brewing position at Amsterdam. But it was always my intention to open my own place.
That must've been a pretty scary move at the time.
Yea, when I left studying to go into a low-pay, hourly job brewing beer. It seemed less than ideal, let's just say. But I did at least start in a brewing role right away.
So, had you been a homebrewer before?
No, I actually started homebrewing while I was at Amsterdam.
That's pretty unique. And impressive.
Thank you! Yea, I sort of worked my way backwards, I guess.
So, you knew you wanted to open your own brewing operation—did you have styles that you knew you wanted to be your focus?
Yea, that was partly why we were so eager to open Bellwoods. Mike and I both really like our hoppy beers—Belgian-inspired beers. Nobody was really using Brett, so we were very eager to get into that as well. We really were just excited to brew what we liked. But, this place has been an experiment since we opened, in terms of developing beers. I think we're only figuring out the styles that we really want to be brewing, now. We've had to go under an immense development process as we've started planning our expansions, "What are we going to be brewing there?" We're doing around 60 different beers a year.
Do you feel that you're still working your way toward a core lineup?
Umm, yea. I'm sure we'll do more experimenting, but we're fine-tuning our lineup. I don't think we'll ever focus on just a few beers and that's it. We're not planning on closing this brewpub here. So we can do one-offs on a smaller scale in this space and keep those 'core' brands going into the production facility.
I've read of your expansion. It's multiple new spaces. Can you explain that?
Yea, there are two new spaces. One is production-based; bottles and draft. That will be supplying our retail sales initially and draft for wholesale. We probably won't be doing much bottle wholesale initially. We're more interested in providing fresh, hoppy beers on draft to accounts in the area. We'll probably export some of our more shelf-stable bottles, like our Brett saisons, and imperial stouts.
We'll probably begin brewing at the production brewery starting in July...
You've been here on Ossington since 2012, and you've had one of the other new spaces for a little while as well?...
The 950 Dupont Street space we've had for a while. This other one, that we're building into quickly, we took over in January. It's going really quickly there...
So, three brewspaces total–you don't see that often. Will you ditch one of them?
Nope, we'll have three. The Dupont one is a beautiful building. We'll have a larger public focus there, so we'll have another brewpub there. And, we'll have an event space, and offer tours and stuff like that.
Do you anticipate having to brand that brewpub under a slightly different name?
We're not really sure yet, to be honest. There are issues surrounding that, so we're navigating that territory still. We don't want to, but we might have to because of the laws.
We've seen that similar situation in Michigan, with Jolly Pumpkin/North Peak Brewing.
We might face that. We weren't planning on having three spaces, but the one on Dupont has had a lot of delays, and there were various reasons we needed to open another space anyway. So, we figured, let's move on it and get it going, to get some production in there.
We need beer quickly. We run out of beer in the summer, and we're not even wholesaling. So, that will allow us to keep up and wholesale as well. And then when the Dupont space does open, it will be more for the public, and will house our sour program primarily. We'll do a lot of barrel-aging there. We've got foeders waiting to go into use, just no space to put them yet.
So if I were to walk into the liquor store in Toronto, I wouldn't be able to buy Bellwoods. Only here, at the moment?
We've never sold to liquor stores, no. Not enough beer.
And at the bar?...
We'll do draft at the bars. We have done that already, actually. When we have beer available, BarHop is usually the first to get it. Right now, we don't have enough to keep up, though.
So, BarHop–I just came from there, that's a great beer bar. What do you consider to be the go-to bars for great beer in Toronto?
BarHop, and Volo–those are probably the best. Folly Brewpub is good, too, and nearby. Indie Alehouse, that's another brewpub I go to often also. Volo is kind of a 'godfather' beer place. They did a lot to promote craft beer, and it's a family business.
If you're taking a break on a brew day, where are you going for a bite?
A break? On brew day, haha. I'd probably just head to my house. Dinner is easier around here anyway. Dandylion. That's a great restaurant close by. They don't have a big beer list, but what they do have is good. They probably only have 4 bottles available at any time, but they're world-class beers. And really, really good food. Or Bar Isabel. Great beer and wicked, wicked food.
If you're not drinking your own beer, what are you drinking. Other Ontario beers?
Usually stuff that I bring home, to be honest. I don't go out too much. I'm either here or at home. But, I usually tend to drink sour beers. So, I'll seek those out. The last beer I had was from Oast House Brewers, from Niagara. I was at a place that had their beer so I grabbed it. I had a Boneshaker IPA from Amsterdam Brewery, too.
So, is there a sour brewery you really admire?
My wife and I are headed on vacation soon, to Asheville, and we're gonna go to Wicked Weed. I tend to seek out breweries like that. I was in California recently and had a lot of hoppy beers from Cellarmaker, and went to the Rare Barrel. So I tried to bring back as many bottles as I could. I tend to drink so much of my own beer, that I can actually keep up with the rest of my drinking habit with stuff that I pick up from my favorite breweries; The Rare Barrel, Russian River...Cellarmaker, if they bottled, but they only do growlers.
I don't binge, but I do drink beer consistently. I'm actually a pretty cheap drunk–I can't actually drink that much. So, I try to make it worth it, ya know?
Of course, no time for crap.
I see you've got a Revolution Brewing sticker there. Have ya been?
No, somebody brought that in. But I've made it out to Chicago. We drove out there, to Lagunitas, Local Option and then to Three Floyds.
Any dream recipes that you'd love to explore that you haven't yet?
We usually dive right into things, so we're quick to experiment. But ya know, I would love to do spontaneous fermentations. We don't have a coolship, but it's on the books.
So, you must have made it to Belgium then...
Will you be continuing the same format at the production facility, 500ml bottles?
We're getting parts for 355(ml), 500(ml) and 750(ml), actually. We'd love to put some of our hoppy beers into 355's, and we'll keep using the 500's because we do so much bottle conditioning, and they're ideal for that. And, 750's just would be nice, so we thought to just get all of the parts.
Is canning becoming more popular for craft beer in Canada, also?
It definitely is, but it's not really appealing to us. We have to stick to bottles for a lot of the beers we do, for conditioning. It's forced us to do bottles, and we can't afford to do both.
So, the 500ml bottle format that you use, it lends to some nice space for label artwork. That's actually how I first came across Bellwoods–because I'm a fan of the guys who design your labels, Doublenaut, for their gig posters.
Oh really? Their studio used to be two doors up, above a motorcycle gear shop that they co-own. It was just happenstance that we found them even.
So, did you just stumble into their shop. How did you connect with them for design?
We became friends first. Then so many people kept suggesting, "You should really use them for design." We eventually looked at their website and said, "Yea, we should totally use them!" So, we started that conversation and it's grown from there.
How important is that aspect to your brand's image?
The design is very important. We spend a lot of time just working on that, and we let the Doublenaut guys do their thing. We're definitely involved in the process, too. We either like it or we don't, and if we don't, they'll throw more stuff at us.
How often are they doing a new label for you guys?
I think they're working on three at the moment. On average, I'd say one a month, maybe. We have a lot. And we change them, too. Like, Motley Cru is an annual release we do, so they'll do a modified label for every release. Same with our Farmageddon (Brett saison). We change the labels to reflect the change in the beers–sometimes it's worth communicating that we did that.
And you get a poster for every label, which is a pretty great deal.
Yea, they intentionally had designed them as sorta "posters on a bottle." And they were doing a lot of screenprinting already–gig posters, etc.
If you're taking a day away from beer, what are you doing in Toronto?
Well, I honestly think you're in and around the best area of the city over here. Kensington Market is a really interesting area. It's a great area to see–really diverse. They've got a lot of cafes, resale shops...it's just really bustling. Probably the most bustling little pocket of interesting activity in the city; definitely worth going to.
And, we get out of the city a lot, too. I head to the Bruce Trail for hiking, it's about 40 minutes drive. Mount Nemo, there, on the Niagara Escarpment. It's huge, protected, geographic feature that heads all from Buffalo, north toward Georgian Bay. It's huge, it spans the whole province. So, yea, there's great hiking. The beach at the east end of Toronto is great as well.
Other than that, it's just curling and hockey of course, hah.
I've curled twice in my life, and played hockey once.
So, does that make you a bad Canadian?
Haha, um, ya know...it probably makes me a typical Canadian actually.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.