Ralph Morana is credited for starting Toronto’s craft beer bar scene. He opened an Italian restaurant in 1988, made it a beer bar/restaurant in 1999, and rebranded to brewpub and craft beer destination Bar Volo in 2010. Since then, with the help of his family and sons Tomas and Julian, he has built something of a craft beer empire: they have their own importing agency, supply beer to some of Toronto’s best restaurants, and run Cask Days, the most ambitious beer festival in the country, which happens every October.
The Moranas are the reason we can get Cantillon in Toronto. I had it on tap last night, at a special preview of their new space Birreria Volo at 612 College St. A couple kegs will be making the rounds to some local beer bars soon. This is now a thing we can get used to. This is a big deal.
Birreria Volo is a new bar dedicated to funky, sour and barrel-aged beer, cider (and maybe wines), and their preview on Thursday showcased what they do best: bringing world-class beer to this city in style. It was the first time many of Toronto’s beer connoisseurs got to try a wide selection of farmhouse offerings from Oxbow Brewing Company in Portland, Maine. The owners were there, and their beer was available by bottle, 3 or 6 oz pours.
The highlight of my night was a blueberry wine barrel aged farmhouse ale called Stillbow Oxtisanal; a collaboration with Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal, another American brewery famous for their farmhouse ales.
This preview was the perfect way to introduce Volo’s long-time regulars to their new venture. The space is reminiscent of Volo’s classic New York chic industrial exposed brick style with European flair, though they have done away with the order-at-the-bar shtick in favour of table service and expanded their food offerings.
Birreria Volo will have the small plates of charcuterie and other Italian snacks we are used to, with an added tapas flare via canned sardines à la Bar Raval, which is just down the street at 505 College St.
Pawel Grezlikowski, who contributes to the menu for all Volos and is well-known for his charcuterie, is debuting a new venture next to Birreria, which you can also order in the bar: P.G Clucks fried chicken. Giant pieces of moist chicken with thick, flavourful battered skin, are accompanied by two complimentary sauces: smoky cayenne hot sauce and creamy buttermilk ranch. In addition to chicken, you can get sandwiches, cruellers (dense, moist and custardlike, perfected by pastry chef Stephanie Forgione of Circles & Squares Bakery) and kombucha slushies at his take-out counter, right next to the Royal Cinema.
Tomas Morana tells me the narrow exposed brick and wood design of the space is an homage to classic narrow New York bars, and it’s a chic new look for a changing local beer scene.
The indoor space is similar to when it housed Souz Dal, all exposed brick with the intimate yellow glow of candles. There is standing room at the front, and Volo’s classic lettered wooden tap handles (A-Z) reappear at the long bar, which is guaranteed to feature a lively scene of beer enthusiasts at all times of the night. Narrow picnic tables line the back, right before a row of accessible single stall washrooms.
Then you get to the back patio. This space formerly housed a tiki bar, complete with a colourful mural and sand. Gone is the sand and colourful murals. The minimal new colour scheme and art accents allow the space to shine.
Those familiar with Cask Days art will recognize the iconic art of Kellen Hatanaka, showcased with a mural on the wall of the back patio. It is a coat of arms in service to the beer gods: two men kneeling as they hold up a giant cask, surrounded by hops, beer, a mallet (used to tap the cask) and crown, symbolizing divine nature and immortality. Below them, the earth. Above them, the beer. The crown symbol appears throughout the space, from the front door to the glassware, and Ralph tells me it is “inspired by imagery from Italian playing cards and being next to the Royal Cinema.” Indeed, the Royal’s iconic illuminated sign features a classic crown above the R, while Volo’s has Italian flare.
The back patio, still only partially covered, starts out sauna-like with a cedar wooden wall housing a laneway that leads to a beautifully lit space with picnic tables at the very back. Featuring a partially weathered tin wall and more brick, the patio will soon be fully covered and weather-proofed, with the addition of fans to help with air circulation: all in good time.
The main room at Birreria offers a glimpse into their walk-in fridge, in which a row of Cantillon bottles adorn a windowsill.
Volo is the reason we can buy Belgium’s Cantillon lambic beers, and many other creative European and North American beers, in this city which has been traditionally severely limited in its selection. The Moranas have their own importing agency, Keep6, which keeps beer bars well stocked with world-class beer, in addition to our homes, thanks to online orders through the LCBO.
The LCBO will never sell Cantillon, that classically wild fermented beer us beer enthusiasts flock to try. Cantillon poses the same conundrum as natural wine, in that it is as traditional as you can get, but is “weird” in that it doesn’t fit our (limited and outdated) definition of what beer should be. It is sour, funky, fruity and wild. It straddles the world of beer and wine while laughing in our faces.
The limitations the LCBO imposes is the reason we’re seeing record-breaking numbers of microbreweries pop up in this city, with sour beer and wine about to hit as the next big thing.
Every year, Cantillon makes a limited edition beer and releases it, with many other rare beer presents, across the world on one day: this day is calledZwanze Day. This year’s Zwanze Day, taking place on Saturday October 1st, will be a particularly historic one: it will mark the end of an era of Bar Volo at 587 Yonge St. It is the last event they are hosting before losing their lease due to an impending condo development. Thankfully for Toronto, it’s just the beginning of a new and exciting era for craft beer lovers.
Birreria Volo is located at 612 College St., in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood. It will officially open on Tuesday, September 13. It does not have set hours yet.