Ontario’s smallest brewery will soon expand its seating capacity
No, Nick Baird isn’t going to the PUP show tonight.
It’s a question he’s asked maybe a dozen times as we make our way across two venues and handful of beers over the course of a mild Monday in late summer.
PUP, the Toronto punk band, is in London to play a sold out show at the London Music Hall; a venue that’s roughly a five minute stumble from Beerlab!, the small, experimental brewery where Baird is co-owner.
It’s not an unreasonable question. Baird has roots in the music scene that run deep—he is, in fact, friends with the members of PUP—and his brewery, which he opened with his partner Adil Ahmad in 2019, has become a de facto pre-drinking spot for live music events in the city’s downtown core. That’s clearly the case tonight as the place is rammed with concert-going friends and acquaintances—and so we opt to head south down Talbot Street to Holy Diver so Baird can avoid the overwhelming urge to hop behind the bar to pour beer for his buds.
Like a lot of places around Beerlab!, Holy Diver is owned by folks with whom Baird and Ahmad are friends. It is, by design, a dive bar, but you can see suggestions that the Beerlab! friendship has borne fruit here. Case in point: We order Pilsner Urquell pints poured from side pull draught taps as we grab a booth.
Ahmad is notably unable to join us for side pull Czech pilsners on this particular evening because, while his passion might be creating unique craft beer, his time-consuming other “hobby” is working as a family doctor.
The pair met in the early 2000s as they orbited each other at the handful of London bars that showed an early interest in pouring anything other than Labatt’s products—places like Chaucer’s, Chancey Smith’s, and the Alex P. Keaton — and were eventually encouraged by one time Chaucer’s and Chancey Smith’s general manager (and now renowned publican) Milos Kral to pursue their homebrewing passion more seriously—and so Beerlab! was born.
Four years into the brewery’s existence, the duo has largely stayed true to their original vision.
“We still brew whatever the fuck we want,” Baird tells me, echoing what he said upon opening in 2019. You are unlikely to find the same beer brewed the same way twice at Beerlab!. The team is more interested in seeing what a subtle tweak can do to a recipe. “We’re hyper-focused on yeast strains again,” Baird says, “and playing with different hops in a very subtle way, especially with the lagers.”
World domination has also never been part of the duo’s plans. There are no designs for LCBO or Beer Store distribution and they maintain a tight list of about 30 licensees that Baird still delivers to personally. “We always just wanted a space that feels like hanging out in the kitchen,” Baird says.
Of course, as they welcome more and more beer fans, concert-goers, curious downtown passersby, and pre- and post-game London Knights fans, that kitchen has begun to feel just a little too tight. “We’re technically Ontario’s smallest square foot craft brewery,” he says.
And so the plan is to expand seating capacity.
After an initial concept for a second location in London’s east end fell through, Baird and Ahmad lucked out and had an opportunity to expand their hospitality capabilities closer to home.
Much like when the duo first opened Beerlab!, Baird prefers to keep details of their expansion plans close to the chest. Difficulty obtaining permits and unforeseen delays tend to come with the territory when opening or expanding a brewery ,so talking to a nosy beer writer can feel like putting the cart before the horse. It might even feel like you’re jinxing what you’re working so hard on.
Of course, much like in 2019 when drywall dust was essentially permeating the walls of the adjacent Pub Milos as they built Beerlab!, the veil of secrecy Baird wants to keep over their expansion plans is a little laughable. Regulars at the brewery are well aware that Baird and Ahmad have taken over the lease for the other space next to their current location—formerly occupied by a wine bar—and that work is underway. Baird has asked that I not publish too many details for the reasons stated above, but I’m allowed to tell you the space will add considerable capacity (I’d estimate 90 seats) and will allow the duo to serve food. It’s not entirely clear what will be on the menu, but if you walk by you’ll see that the windows are papered with a design that features slices of pizza.
What is clear is that this good news for beer drinkers in London. Once plans are complete, a relatively large portion of Talbot Street (directly across the street from the crowd-drawing Budweiser Gardens arena) will be occupied by venues (with patios!) providing about as unique and interesting a beer menu as there is anywhere in Ontario—whether you’re going to a concert or opting to skip it to drink beer (and maybe eat pizza).