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Eat & Drink

The top 10 low-alcohol (session) beers made in Toronto

Posted by Ben Johnson / February 5, 2014

session beers torontoSession beers are so named for their suitability to being enjoyed over long, extended drinking sessions. Accordingly, they're typically appropriately low in alcohol and don't feature excessively bold flavours that might overwhelm the palate after drinking one or two (or four or five).

They're beers ideally suited to post-game refreshment, afternoon drinking that stretches into the evening, or maybe even the responsible evening beverage option for an on-duty parent. Refer to them as whatever you want, but just don't call them "light" beers. We currently have an excellent selection of beers available to us from Ontario brewers that demonstrate one needn't sacrifice taste when making a beer that's also easy to drink.

Here are my 10 favourite local session beer options.

Muskoka Brewery's Detour
In case it's not clear from all my previous lists, I've officially adopted Muskoka Brewery in the name of Toronto as a local brewer. I do so in part to occasionally help me round out lists of local options like this, but also because their great beer is generally ubiquitous in Toronto's bars. Detour will certainly be no exception this year. Muskoka's newest offering is a dry-hopped and aromatic IPA that weighs in at a practically chuggable 4.3%. This is for sure the current contender for patio dominance this Summer. $13.65 for a sixpack, LCBOs and The Beer Store.

Bellwoods Brewery's Wizard Wolf
I've long been unabashedly enamored with this beer (even before Robert Plant, thank you very much) and it's perfect-for-an-afternoon-of-drinking-in-the-park-4.8% glory. All the big hoppy aromas that bitter beer lovers crave are here and the taste is all mango and citrus. Quite possibly my favourite beer -- session or otherwise. $4.50 in 500ml bottles at the brewery.

Mill Street's Cobblestone Stout
Usually when we hear about a local stout these days it's preceded by the words "barrel aged" or "imperial." And while that's all well and good and there's certainly a place for those great, boozy beers, there's something to be said for the humble, comforting Cobblestone Stout. It's just 4.2% ABV, but it delivers an excellent rich, smooth, creamy goodness that makes this something like the local beer version of comfort food. Available in 440 ml cans at the LCBO for $2.90.

Nickelbrook's Naughty Neighbour
This bloody great beer from Nickelbrook was arguably the first Ontario beer available in six packs that managed to pack all the hoppy, piny, aromatic goodness of an American Pale Ale into a low alcohol beer. It's just 4.9% ABV but manages all kinds of favour and its popularity at the LCBO might have helped usher in the current trend toward hoppy but low alcohol craft beer (ahem, Detour). The jury is out on whether the label art that's reminiscent of a porno DVD helps or hurts this beer, but at this price, who really cares? $11.95 per six pack at the LCBO or brewery.

Mill Street's Organic Lager
Craft beer drinkers like to pretend that there's no place for lager in anyone's beer lineup, but that's a little silly (namely because it dismisses a style of beer most enjoyed by roughly 80% of people who drink beer in North America). The truth is, from time to time there's something to be said for a refreshing, extremely easy to drink lager or pilsner and at 4.2%, Ontario's first certified organic lager fits that bill quite nicely. Haters are definitely going to hate this selection, but for a local, light, crisp beer with a clean finish, Organic is hard to beat.

Great Lakes Brewery's Miami Weiss
While it's not a regular offering from Great Lakes, it tends to pop up seasonally seemingly by virtue of beer nerds willing it to happen since this beer is so damn good.. A hop-forward, non-traditional wheat beer with great mango and floral aromas, this piney, bitter beer retains a soft and light-feeling body with ample carbonation and a nice big head and weighs in at 4.5% ABV. It's not currently on any store shelves but I imagine it will be back come summer. Or else there will be big trouble.

Cheshire Valley's Mildly Amusing
Another seasonal offering, Mildly Amusing is easily the best local English Mild around. Yes, there's a ridiculously small amount of competition for that title, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a damn good beer. It's 3.7% ABV with just a hint of bitterness balanced with chocolate and roast malt flavours and is something like an exercise in subtlety, which is an increasingly rare feat in craft brewing and one well worth seeking out when this beer pops up in select bars around Christmas and New Year's.

Left Field Brewery's Maris*
Much like its namesake, Left Field Brewery's Maris* is something like a no frills pale ale. It delivers a grassy hoppiness and a cereal malt backbone but no really big flavours stand out. It weighs in at just 4.5% so it's not made for those Mickey Mantle-esque benders, but it's a perfectly respectable beer that gets the job done -- and presumably it will stand as such for 37 years until a beer called McGuire shows up and does it better. Maris* is available sporadically on tap in better beer bars, but will show up in cans sometime next year.

Bellwoods Brewery's Stay Classy
With an ABV of 2.3%, Bellwoods half jokingly claims that Stay Classy is the lightest beer in Canada. Whether or not that's actually true, this beer definitely stands in stark contrast to most of Bellwoods' heavy-hitting lineup of boozy beers but it still manages to deliver on flavour. Stay Classy is an impressively aromatic and flavourful "India Session Ale" that's tart and refreshing but not overly astringent. $4.00 in 500ml bottles at the brewery.

Amsterdam's Calm Before the Storm
Perhaps an overlooked beer in brewer Iain McOustra's killer lineup of "Adventure Brews," Calm Before the Storm was a perfectly drinkable English Mild that deserved your attention. The beer used the same malt bill as Amsterdam's 10% Tempest Imperial Stout so it had all the richness and interesting espresso and dark chocolate flavours you'd expect from a good dark beer, but it delivered it all with 3.2% ABV, amped up carbonation, and a frothy rather than creamy head making it a rare dark beer you could drink a dozen of. This one isn't currently available at Amsterdam but maybe if you send them a tweet saying you want to try it, they'll bring it back...

Ben Johnson also writes about beer over on Ben's Beer Blog. All the cool kids are following him on twitter @Ben_T_Johnson



Lushy Liver / February 5, 2014 at 01:49 pm
Where are the IPAs?
PC / February 5, 2014 at 01:55 pm
Lushy Liver - perhaps your handle says it all! India Pale Ale is, by definition, a strong beer. This article is clearly about lower alcohol beers that are "sessionable" meaning you can slam a bunch without getting too wasted.

Not brewed in Toronto but fully deserving of mention is Grand River Brewing's Mill Race Mild. It's a 3.5% English Mild with a huge amount of malt character.

Also, plus a million for Amsterdam's Calm Before the Storm - I could drink a case of you!
RobFord'sChinFat / February 5, 2014 at 03:27 pm
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm cheeseburgers
Derek / February 5, 2014 at 03:54 pm

Great list Ben. Not sure mine would have been any different and I am glad to see brewers focus on this style as I love Beer more than Alcohol so lower ABV means more Beer!!!

Totally on board with starting trouble if Miami Weiss is not back this year. There 2013 version was off the charts good after a so-so 2012 edition.
w-hat / February 5, 2014 at 03:59 pm
Big fan of session beers, will add some of these to my list. Granite Brewery's Best Bitter Special, which is a Cask Ale, is certainly a top ten sessioner for me.
Rob 'the rubby' Ford / February 5, 2014 at 05:08 pm
My piss is low alcohol - 3.5%! But also 3.5% coke!
EJam / February 5, 2014 at 08:02 pm
Also, Great Lakes Simple Porter at a quaffable 3.7%!
DanielMac / February 5, 2014 at 09:41 pm
My vote for Cobblestone Stout. But, I must admit, it is not nearly as good in the can as it is from the tap, IMO. I know that Lion on the Beach on Queen St. East had it, not sure if they still do.
Peekay / February 6, 2014 at 09:14 am
I'd add Wellington Arkell Best Bitter. A tasty ale at 4%
Matt replying to a comment from Peekay / February 6, 2014 at 02:16 pm
Tried Detour on tap last week and really enjoyed it, agree that Arkell Best Bitter is a great one for this list, maybe not Toronto enough?
Mick / February 10, 2014 at 04:49 pm
Not many people are aware of its existence (how the hell I can't fathom seeing as they've been around so long), but Neustadt's Mill Gap Bitter is one of the best low alcohol beers around. I'm campaigning to get it into cans in the LCBO!
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