at The Only Cafe
Jordan St. John
Flagship February is an international affair, and I know people forget about Canada. We’re tucked away up in the decreasingly frozen tundra. But Toronto has more construction cranes in the sky than just about anywhere in world history and sometimes Drake sits on the CN Tower. Toronto is predicted to be the second-largest city in North America by 2040. We’re sort of having a moment.
The cost of this contemporization is that everything, including the beer we drink, moves along international lines. Brut IPA passed through here barely six months after it was invented, and the less said about our Glitter fortnight the better.
That’s right. I said fortnight. We’re part of the British commonwealth. Even after Brexit, although maybe not for a lot longer.
The conventional wisdom is that we’re behind America in terms of our brewing culture, but I’d venture that our best stuff is as good as anyone’s. Our inferiority complex is such that we are perpetually anxious to keep up with the Joneses, and living as we do in the shadow of New York City, that makes us overlook properties that are exceptional by any standard.
I’ll give you an example: Neustadt Springs 10W30.
The Neustadt Springs Brewery is unique. It opened in 1859 as a part of the empire of a transplanted German brewing family called the Huethers, who would have been contemporary with Yuengling in Pennsylvania in terms of bringing lagering to North America. Their brewery had a significant cellar and a spring that still provides its water.
Like the United States, we had a bust in the 90’s, but that didn’t dissuade Andy and Val Stimpson from opening a brewery at the absolute nadir of craft beer in Ontario. They had come from Thwaites in Blackburn, Lancashire, and being properly northern, nothing would dissuade them from owning their own brewery.
That was 1997, and Neustadt Springs found a market that was timid. The downturn had caused people to have caution in their dealings. Right up until 2007 you’d have been hard pressed to find more than one beer being introduced monthly in the entire province. To this day, 10W30 is patently uncategorizable stylistically. The audience had just sophistication enough to absorb the text that remains on the can: Malty Grain Premium Dark Ale. It didn’t lean on style because the audience wouldn’t have understood the difference between them.
It’s dense, with residual sugar and water chemistry that lend body. It’s got a chewy grain character somewhere between a loaf of wholemeal bread and a molasses cookie and there’s the faint fruitiness of a Christmas cake somewhere off in the distance. There’s a gently bitter tang that makes it moreish. I’m tasting it at The Only Cafe to refresh my memory and Fabian Skidmore, the owner, points out that it has always been this good. Thinking back, I can’t deny the proposition.
Checking out the credentials, I can tell you that it has confused international competition. The US Beer Open had it winning medals in two categories in 2009: American Brown Ale and English Mild. This is a beer that has been on tap for over two decades in Ontario and comes with all the pedigree that you could possibly want. At The Only Café on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, it’s one of the beers that keeps the regular crowd coming in. The Only has everything you could possibly want, but more importantly the few things you need.
The Café has been in business since 1983, and fittingly for an essay about a slightly confusing beer, it’s not the only The Only – the original owner having opened a second location the same decade. The decor is a mixture of faded high art and vibrant low culture. Local rockers The Lowest of The Low immortalized the bar with the lyric “let’s get a table by the window/ beneath the shot of Chairman Mao.”
At the time, we had a raft of blue collar expats from England who were mostly escaping Thatcher, so that political connotation is part and parcel of the experience. That this group would welcome a near perfect pint of indistinctly described Dark Ale to quench their homesickness and salve their weariness a decade into their tenure in a new country can be taken as read.
Fabian and the bloke at the end of the bar are chatting, prompted by the history lesson. They’re trying to figure out how long they’ve known each other. Twenty years, it turns out, although the regular has been here since 1987. Much longer than the current wave of the craft beer boom. Not as long as Neustadt Springs has been making 10W30. Any number of beers have come and gone in that time, and a lot of them were designed to keep up with trends south of the border, with varying levels of success.
Neustadt Springs Brewery’s 10W30 was always as good as anyone’s. We just didn’t know we were meant to be proud of a Dark Ale.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.