at C'est What
Back in 1985, I had zero understanding of cask-conditioned ale. In hindsight, I suppose I had seen it, given that I’ve been watching the British soap Coronation Street off-and-on since I was a little boy – my mother was a fan – and the show’s central pub, the Rover’s Return, has always done a brisk trade in the stuff. But having yet to visit the UK at the time, and cask ale then pretty much not existing outside of Great Britain, I had no idea what it was or how it tasted.
That last part, the widespread and utter lack of appreciation for or understanding of cask-conditioning in Ontario, did nothing to dissuade the trio behind the province’s second microbrewery from building their entire business plan on the back of cask ale. And neither did it stop the people behind Toronto’s seminal beer bar from stocking it.
And thank goodness for that!
The brewery was Guelph, Ontario’s Wellington County Brewing, now the Wellington Brewery, and the two cask ales the founders thought would “have the world beating a path to their door” were County Ale, broadly an extra special bitter, and Arkell Best Bitter.
And while some pubs did agree to stock the casks in those early years, they were not many in number and, for a few, the novelty wore off rather quickly. This left the brewery owners scrambling for a contingency plan they had not expected to require.
Putting conditioning beer into plastic bag within a box turned out to not be the answer they were looking for, since the still-fermenting beer quickly turned the cubes into balls. So filtered kegs and PET bottles were decided upon as the next, and far more successful, step. The cask-conditioning program, however, did continue.
Enter the pioneering Toronto beer bar C’est What, which opened its doors in February of 1988 just east of downtown near the city’s celebrated St. Lawrence Market. A basement bar with an ineffable charm, C’est What’s mandate was to stock almost exclusively ‘microbrews,’ although in a nod to the realities of the time, with some of the major brands also available.
According to one of the original partners and still the man most immediately identified with the bar, George Milbrandt, the concession to big brewery tastes didn’t last long because, simply, there was little to no demand for the beers. So while the major labels were phased out, cask-conditioned ale was phased in.
“About a year in, we installed two hand pumps for Wellington Arkell Best Bitter and County Ale,” he recalls.
The move went over well and soon C’est What became a hit with ex-pat Britons seeking a taste of home, as well as the growing ranks of microbrewery beer fans. As time went on, the bar first expanded into the building immediately to the west, then retreated from that part and expanded instead to the east, along the way growing its tap list and trying out the on-site fermentation – though off-site brewing – of its own beers.
C’est What is now home to 42 taps including 8 cask ales, although the ‘ferment pub’ approach has long since been abandoned in favour of contract brewing of their beers. And the local cask-conditioned ale market has expanded to the point that, according to Milbrandt, seldom are Wellington’s original cask ales on tap these days. “Those two have been scarce around here lately,” says George, although for Flagship February I’m told that Arkell will be specially ordered.
I decide to go visit an old friend. No, make that two old friends, the beer and the pub.
Arkell is as I recall it: dry, slightly tannic, with a perfumey maltiness and soft notes of orange marmalade. Or maybe I’m imagining all that in a beer which, over three decades ago, was an important part of my growth as a beer drinker and, eventually, beer writer. But no, even though the cask was rushed to the pump, and is therefore not as bright in colour or flavour as it deserves to be, the base elements are all there. It is, truly, the beer of my memories, even if those memories might have faded a bit over the years.
Similarly, C’est What remains a bar that matters. It might not be talked about in the same hushed tones of reverence as the current – and deserving! – beer hotspots, but it still does what a beer bar is supposed to do: separate the wheat from the chaff and serve great local beer at as fair a price as Toronto rents allow. The cask ales are simply a bonus!
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.