Lockdown project founded by high school friends becomes successful Toronto shop
Lockdowns have sadly decimated some businesses here in Toronto, but there have also been so many new and exciting projects rising from the ashes that came about due to the many changes the last few years have brought.
Enter Bevi Birra: a sandwich and bottle shop that originally opened in Woodbridge in November 2020 in the thick of restrictions, capitalizing on the provision for liquor-licensed establishments to sell alcohol.
"We began to see bottle shops open up around the province," says owner Paul Liberti. "We knew that we would be able to feature more breweries, and more beer from each brewery if we were to open a bottle shop of our own since we had spent the last few years building relationships with breweries."
Liberti opened Bevi Birra with high school friend Sam Puntillo.
By the time they were opening Bevi Birra, the pair already had two and a half years of experience in the craft beer industry through Small Batch Dispatch, an online beer curation shop.
"We would spend every weekend visiting two to three breweries and driving hundreds of kilometers to get our hands on beer that simply cannot be found at the LCBO, Beer Store, or Grocery Store," says Liberti.
"We decided that there must be others like us and started to offer curated selections of craft beer that would highlight nine beers from nine different breweries every month. We built relationships with many of the 250-plus breweries across the province and grew with them as craft beer came to prominence in the province."
Their idea with opening Bevi Birra was "to give another sales channel to breweries and put a spotlight on those that we thought were pushing the envelope of what craft beer can be, with a focus on propelling the industry forward."
In August 2021, the two friends expanded the shop by realizing a dream they'd had even before their beer club: opening their own restaurant.
"Sam and I both share an Italian heritage and have always been passionate about food. After returning from a trip to Italy one summer, Sam told me about a restaurant in Florence that sold 'schiacciata' sandwiches with crispy airy bread and deli meat. We tested our own 'schiacciata recipe' and even came up with the title of our prospective restaurant, Focaccia Fresca," says Liberti.
"Ultimately, being that we were just starting our post-university lives, we decided to put the restaurant dreams on hold as we simply didn't have the money to invest in such a big dream at the time. As we grew our beer club, and bottle shop, we finally had the means to start producing and selling our fresh focaccia sandwiches."
In another nod to their heritage, their sandwiches ($13) are named after their grandmothers in honour of their passion for food.
The Giovanna has garlic ricotta, hot soppressata, hot pepper spread, honey and arugula. The Anna Rosaria comes with rosemary aioli, prosciutto, provolone and olive tapenade.
The Filomena has mortadella and muffuletta, while the Angelina has turkey breast, garlic ricotta, balsamic reduction and sundried tomato spread.
For dessert, there's tiramisu ($10) that's as easy to transport for a grab-and-go meal as their sandwiches and beer.
"Our bread is made exclusively with naturally occurring yeast in the form of sourdough. We use only four simple ingredients, water, flour, salt, and olive oil. The sourdough starter is simply flour and water mixed together, where the naturally present yeast in the unbleached flour eats away at the sugars to multiply and produce the signature flavour of our bread," says Liberti.
"The starter is fed daily and stored at room temperature, which may be different from most home-use starters that are kept in the fridge. The fact that it is fed daily means that the yeast strain matures and improves seven times more often than home-use starters kept in a fridge. I like to joke that it is maturing in dog years, and is 14 years old currently."
The focaccia is also cold-fermented in the fridge for at least 24 hours, and fresh focaccia is baked every day for their sandwiches which are all made to order.
Like opening the restaurant, when it came to opening a Bevi Birra location in Toronto, Liberti and Puntillo were already two steps ahead in their minds.
"We knew we wanted to eventually expand to Toronto even before opening our first location. Toronto, and especially The Junction for that matter, has always stood out to us as a city that truly supports local artisans," says Liberti.
"We think craft beer is art, and we take a similar approach to our bread as our favourite breweries do with their beer. Further, we also wanted to share a large part of Italian cuisine that often gets overlooked when people think of Italian food, deli sandwiches. We knew that Torontonians have an appetite for learning more about the cultures around them."
They now carry around 100 beers at a time in the shop and bring in around 30 to 40 new ones a week, always trying to stay on the cutting edge.
"The rarity of beer can mean different things such as the style itself being less common, like a rauchbier - a German lager with smoked malt - or perhaps because the beer came from a specific barrel where only 200 units were ever bottled and no more will be made," says Liberti.
They're hoping to continue to expand by possibly opening more Bevi Birra locations, or to progress with other types of ventures focused on beer and food.
"The idea that ties all of our ventures together is our mission of making it easier for Ontarians to get their hands on craft beer, and while we've had a lot of fun getting to where we are, we're not done yet," says Liberti.
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