Q&A with Mary Argent-Katwala

I met Mary through Barley’s Angels. Mary and her husband moved to Toronto from England a couple of years ago and are actively involved in the craft beer scene in the city.

Here’s a look at Mary a ‘new’ Torontonian.

1. You’ve relocated from England to Canada 2 years ago, how is the craft beer scene in Toronto different then the one in London?

I moved to Toronto from London with my husband Ashok in August 2009. I’d lived in London for eleven years and grew up in Essex, which is the county just east of London.

The term craft beer is fairly new to the UK. When I was living there, you were more likely to hear talk of independent breweries or the occasional microbrewery.

London didn’t really have a craft beer “scene” as such when I was living there. I find Toronto has a much better developed sense of community around craft beer and I think this stems from the fact that good beer is much harder to find in Toronto so dedicated drinkers band together. I guess my friends and I took it for granted that we could get decent beer in most UK pubs; certainly the number of different pubs I went to was much higher in London than in Toronto.

I’m struck by the growing number of beer events in Toronto that are organized by all sorts of groups and individuals. In London and the rest of the UK, most of the beer events I went to were CAMRA gatherings (Ashok and I lived in Earls Court so the Great British Beer Festival was on our doorstep) but I never felt like part of that crowd. Most of the CAMRA members I met were grumpy old men who weren’t very approachable. By contrast, I’ve met some lovely friendly women and men from a wide range of ages and backgrounds through craft beer enjoyment in Toronto and I would definitely say I am an enthusiastic member of the craft beer scene in this city.

In the last few years before I moved to Toronto, craft beer grew in popularity in the UK; there is even a microbrewery in my home town: Brentwood Brewing Company. And since I moved to Canada, the momentum has really gathered pace with various new breweries and pubs opening up. I’ve been back to the Mothership three times and made new discoveries on each occasion. I was particularly impressed with the Craft Beer Company and its sister bar the Cask Pub & Kitchen; both have a great range of beers including U.S. brews that are hard to get in Ontario. Of the new breweries, the Kernel is worth checking out.

I don’t know if the current excitement around craft beer means there will be a greater sense of community among London drinkers. London is a much bigger city than Toronto so the community spirit can be lacking at times but if a huge city like New York can support a thriving craft beer scene then London can.

2. When you moved to Toronto did you have any expectations of what the beer scene would be like?

I’d only visited Toronto twice before I moved here and only once as an adult. I guess I naively thought that being closer to the States meant greater availability of the amazing craft beers I’d tried on trips to Boston, New York and San Francisco. Ashok was much more diligent that me about investigating the beer scene and knew about Ontario’s unusual
system. We came to Toronto on a reconnaissance trip before deciding to move here and Ashok made sure he tried out the best bars to see if he could survive life here. Happily, he concluded he could survive and we moved.

I had some surprises when I started drinking in Toronto because things I had taken for granted in London were absent and I hadn’t expected that. I was surprised that going out for drinks with your colleagues is less common here and that people don’t buy rounds of drinks. Also I was shocked that pint glasses were not filled as high as I was used to; CAMRA ran a long campaign in the UK to increase awareness of short measures and encouraged drinkers to ask for top-ups so space at the top of the glass was pretty rare by the time I left London.

3. UK brewery you miss the most?

I can’t narrow it down to one!

Mighty Oak from Maldon in Essex, which is the town I lived in until the age of three. Their Oscar Wilde mild was CAMRA‘s champion beer of Britain last year.

Crouch Vale, which is just ten miles down the road from Maldon and also won champion beer of Britain back in 2005 and 2006 with Brewers Gold.

Mighty Oak and Crouch Vale‘s beers are hard to find outside of beer festivals and local pubs but Adnams is more widespread with a fair number of London pubs selling their bitter and Broadside.

I really recommend a trip to Southwold on the Suffolk coast where Adnams is based because there are some fantastic pubs selling their seasonal beers including Tally Ho and Mayflower.

4. Favourite Ontario/Canadian brewery?

I have a soft spot for Black Oak. I’m not a hophead and my beer preferences oscillate between porters and stouts in winter and saisons or wheat beers in summer so Nutcracker Porter and Summer Saison from Black Oak suit me perfectly.

5. What are some of your beer events in the city you look forward to the most?

I’ve been to Cask Days every time since I moved here. The last one at Hart House was fabulous and bodes well for the future. I also love the monthly Cask! socials because the people are wonderful and the event is in a different pub each time so it’s always interesting.

6. Favourite restaurant that serves great food and craft beer in Toronto?

I’m a vegetarian and although Toronto has some of the best veggie food I’ve encountered, I find it hard to find places where my food and drink preferences coincide. In general, the fancier the restaurant, the fewer veggie options there are and in the restaurants I do go to, I usually find myself drinking wine instead of poor beer. At bars, my food choices are
usually mac and cheese or an insipid veggie burger. I love the vegan chili and African Peanut soup at Smokeless Joe’s and C’est What has some good options. I was excited to see that Castro’s offer a lot of veggie dishes so I’m keen to try that out.

7. What is your ideal pub?

Obviously my ideal pub would serve good examples of my favourite beer styles (porters, saisons and milds) but I also like a decent cider selection, which is almost unheard of in Toronto. And the servers would know what I mean when I ask for a shandy.

I like pubs where the landlord or landlady has a lot of personality and isn’t afraid to run the establishment as they see fit even if it annoys some punters. I’m thinking of the Nag’s Head in Knightsbridge where Kevin enforces a strict ban on mobile phones and leaving coats on chairs. I also like Roxy at the Seven Stars in Holborn because she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. You’re a guest in a landlord or landlady’s house and their presence should be felt. They should act as a catalyst for good conversations and stop bad behaviour that detracts from the atmosphere.

I love beer gardens. I spent a lot of my childhood in them and love the smell of grass as I enjoy beer. I miss the Viper at Mill Green near Brentwood which has a garden at the front and also serves great beer and food. I love the garden at the White Horse on Coxtie Green Road in Brentwood but the beer is not worth travelling for. Beer gardens are
harder to find in London but we found a little oasis in the Rose and Crown, which is a Shepherd Neame pub, just south of Blackfriars bridge.

8. Do you have any personal beer goals/resolutions? (ie. Attending a certain beer fest, learning more about beer, brewing your own beer etc.)

I would like to explore the west coast of North America. I’ve only been to San Francisco and I would like to go to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  I’d also like to visit Philadelphia. I read good things about the beer in all of those cities.

I don’t take an academic approach to my enjoyment of beer so I don’t see myself learning more. And I’m not keen on brewing my own beer when I can buy it from the growing number of talented brewers in the area.

9. Any beer trends you predict for Canada 2012? Or any trends in beer you would like to see?

I don’t have a lot of insight here. Obviously, there’s an expansion in the number of breweries and bars offering craft beer and I’m excited about Bellwoods Brewery opening at the end of my road later this year. I think a lot more people are getting excited about craft beer so hopefully more restaurants will start serving decent brews and I won’t have to choose
between drinking and eating.

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