Sidling up to the 30-foot-long, marble-topped, antique wood bar at Birreria Volo in Little Italy, I ordered a three-ounce glass of Farmhouse Pale Ale, a peppery saison from cult Portland, Me., brewery, Oxbow. The bartender slid a silver bowl of salted lupini beans across the bar, gratis. I felt transported: It was as if I had one foot inside Brooklyn’s Scandinavian “it” beer bar, Torst, and the other in a cozy wine cave in Rome.
The alleyway bar opened two weeks ago and looks equal parts ancient and modern. The slender L-shaped spot encourages drinking while standing – the long bar and the entryway’s cigar-shaped wine barrel tables, warmly lit by antique overhead fixtures, offer no seats. There are a few tables after the bar and before the cantina (the tiny but enviable beer cellar), and more are around the corner in the open-air beer garden where fairy lights twinkle over rustic picnic tables.
Owners and brothers Julian and Tomas Morana were inspired by their favourite skinny beer haunts in New York City, and the subterranean natural wine bars they discovered in Italy. The spot gives Torontonians a glimpse of where beer is headed next. The beer program has a laser focus: Its 26 taps concentrate on two beer families, farmhouse and sour ales; over all, they’re delicate, dry and light to very funky. Birreria is also dedicated to showcasing breweries – such as Austin’s Jester King and Brussels’s Brasserie de la Senne – that are “terroir-driven,” making beers that are difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world.
It’s also one of the first bars in Canada to offer pours from rare, house beer bottles by the glass, just as restaurants do with wine. Each week, they pick five bottles to offer by the glass, which gives drinkers a chance to “pop” a rare bottle such as Oxbow’s Saison Dell’Aragosta (a saison fermented with live lobster and sea salt) for $9.75 for a six-ounce glass. All of the beer, including pours from the taps, are served in three-, six- or 12-ounce pours to invite drinkers to try three or four beers in a visit, instead of a couple of pints.
The bar’s mission is to treat beer with the same respect as wine. It could come off as pretentious and pricey (six-ounce pours range from $2.75 up to $7), but the expert beer curation and attention to service make it more of a love letter to the art of brewing. “Not everything is ‘just a beer,’” says Tomas, 29. “Can you really put something that has taken four years to make and something that has taken four weeks to make side by side, and say these should be the same price, and be enjoyed in the same way?”
It’s a way of thinking that’s baked into their DNA. Their father, Ralph, founded Canadian beer institution Bar Volo 28 years ago as one of the first dedicated beer bars in the city; the brothers worked there through university. Since then, father and sons launched more enterprises that have shaped the province’s beer palate, including Keep6 Imports to bring sought-after breweries into Ontario, and built annual Cask Days into the biggest real-ale festival in the country.
“Bar Volo has been a gateway place where we had to offer every type of beer, so that every type of customer could come in and find something that they like,” Tomas says. “It’s a template that a lot of bars are following – they’re doing craft beer in a very good way, but also a very safe way.”
Birreria is challenging the idea of what a beer bar can be – and the brothers are convinced Toronto beer drinkers are ready. Pouring from their taps now is a saison with rosehips from Toronto’s Halo, and soon, hard-to-find beer from Denver’s Crooked Stave and San Francisco’s Almanac Beer. The bottle list is a selection of vinous, wild-fermented bottles from Italy’s LoverBeer (which collaborates heavily with the area’s winemakers) and a hefty collection of lambics, which you can think of as the Godfathers of sour beers.
By importing Italian products and nodding to Italian ways of serving food and wine, Birreria Volo is subtly re-injecting a certain Mediterranean flare into a neighbourhood that had been losing it to a wave of pool halls and martini bars.
The cuisine is a cross-pollination of North America and Italy too. Like many bar owners, they sought a way to do food without a kitchen, and Julian came up with a solution: povera cucina, or “poor man’s kitchen,” the idea of preserving the season’s bounty through preserves and pates. Their spuntini menu is simple, rustic fare such as funghi, artichokes and fatty, white anchovies, plated simply. Hungrier customers can order fried chicken and all the fixings off the menu, and it’s brought to the table from P.G. Cluck’s next door.
The streamlined spot is a deliberate departure from Bar Volo (which closes its doors after this weekend, but announced plans to reopen on Church Street next year). And it’s not just because the brother’s tastes have evolved, Tomas says: “The breweries are changing, and the tastes of the audience are changing, too.”