Stepping up the game: A conversation about beer and food with Bar Isabel’s Guy Rawlings

Bar Isabel

Appropriately, when I first try to contact Guy Rawlings, he’s busy hoarding beer.

The self-proclaimed “General Manager in a chef’s body” has just learned that Les Trois Mousquetaires’ Hors Serie Gose, part of the LCBO’s long-delayed 2014 summer beer release, has finally hit store shelves and he’s loading up. When I reach him, he’s pushing a shopping cart full of the stuff, having just cleaned out the Dundas and Dovercourt location of the liquor store, and he’s juggling a cell phone trying to get his haul home.

“Sorry,” he says. “Can I call you back?”

His ability to seek out (and covet) good beer is one of the reasons I want to talk to Rawlings.

A chef by trade, Rawlings’ name has been attached to a handful of the city’s best restaurants in the last few years including the Black Hoof, the now-closed Lucien, the also-now-closed Brockton General, and Room 203, his own “event space and food lab” where he threw intimate, multi-course, private dinners featuring elaborate, collaborative and foraged menus.

If you’re a beer nerd, you might be surprised to learn that you’ve likely sampled Rawlings’ wares before, too. He previously acted as a “consultant” for Bellwoods Brewery and barVolo, helping the former create the first menu for their then-fledgling Ossington brew pub and providing the latter with an all-fermented menu for the 2012 iteration of Funk Night, Volo’s annual tribute to all things sour.

These days, Rawlings seems to have found a perfect use for his understanding of food, restaurants, and his love of beer, and is serving as the General Manger for his friend Grant Van Gameren’s restaurant Bar Isabel, a venue that ranks among Toronto Life‘s list of the Best New Restaurants in 2014 , and tops both NOW Toronto‘s Hottest Restaurants of 2014 , and The Globe and Mail‘s most recent list of the 10 best new restaurants in Toronto.

Along with the accolades the place has received from the city’s restaurant critics, Bar Isabel is also a hit among serious beer fans given that it touts arguably the best bottle selection of any dining establishment in Toronto.

Because this month I’m writing a series of blog posts exploring drinking and dining, it’s precisely this marriage of good food and great beer that I ask Rawlings about when he eventually calls me back, 25 minutes later.

As is often the case, I start the conversation by ranting about big brewers.


Ben Johnson: I feel like restaurants have this unhealthy relationship with beer thanks to the big guys who muscle their way onto tap lines with free stuff. Restaurants seem to leave beer as an after thought, then just go with the brewers that offer the best deal. 

Guy Rawlings : There’s been this period for a long time where there’s a relationship with brewers where it’s all about what you can get from brewers in terms of a free draft line or one free keg for every ten instead of focusing on good product.

I think it’s really unfortunate when people don’t have good beer lists because it really explores a different flavour profile. In terms of pairing options, there’s just things you can do with beer that you can’t do with other liquids. When you’re pairing stuff, it’s nice to have all the options. It’s nice to be able to do wine, to do sherry, to do beer, to do cocktails, to do non-alcoholic stuff as well. To not think about it is silly.

BJ: You guys obviously think about it. You have an amazing bottle list. When you buy beer, do you think about food pairings ahead of time, or do you just go after good beer and think about pairings later? 

GR: A lot of it in the end, unfortunately, has to do with supply because we can’t always get everything we want.

At one point, I started thinking about getting my Cicerone, but I started looking at what it focuses on, and it focuses on a lot of old styles and styles I don’t actually enjoy, plus styles that don’t actually matter because I can’t get them here, so I thought it was more important to understand what Ontario has and to build relationships with people in Ontario.

Some of those relationships include an ongoing one with the Morana family, the owners of barVolo and Keep 6 Imports, for whom Rawlings oversaw the food vendors at Cask Days last year. Rawling’s and Tomas Morana worked together with Bar Isabel owner Grant van Gameren to develop the restaurants’ first bottle menu. Rawlings has also worked with Ontario-based agency Craft Brand Co. for private ordering.

Having access to products is more difficult than anything else. I can’t even tell you which beers are top-fermented, bottom-fermented—all those details. I honestly don’t even care. I solely care about how things taste, the palate, and getting access to product. So when we chose stuff the major thing is what’s available. It’s not like, “Oh, I gotta hunt this out.”

But there are number of beer styles that really just don’t go well with food. A lot of craft beer is pretty aggressively flavoured in terms of the hops or even like stouts with high alcohol levels. A lot of dark beers just aren’t balanced enough for food. They’ll crush food. A lot of hoppy beers will crush food, too. So we really enjoy things like saisons, goses, Berliner weisses, Belgian pale ales–barrel-aged beers are awesome, too because of the complexity and having a proper balance of acidity. Beers with a little acidity are awesome. I would always pick like a lambic or gose over an imperial stout any day.

There’s really very few things that pair with an imperial stout. We’ll still have one on our list, but ideally it’s a stout that’s aged, so it’s not like thick petrol oil.

Which is not to say there’s no place for big beers at Bar Isabel. Impressively, the restaurant has an aging program. Under Rawlings watchful eye, the bar will buy imperial stouts or barley wines and sit on them, often waiting for the flavours of these “bigger” beers to soften so that they’ll be more appropriate to pairing with food. They have just recently, for example, added to their menu some beer from Brouwerij De Molen in the Netherlands that they purchased in August 2012. They’ve also been aging Orval and have just released it on their menu so that there are three different vintages available to purchase. 

BJ: Do you make sure the front of the house staff is well versed in beer?

GR: Oh yeah. For sure. When you start work here, there’s a minimum three week training period before you’re allowed the possibility of working the role you’re hired for. There’s a lot involved here. It involves understanding all the cocktail program. You sit down with the person in charge of [each section of the restaurant]. You go through every single bottle and you’re tested on it later. And then we have training sessions every two weeks that are mandatory for all the front of the house staff where we go over everything.

Beer education is a very important part of working here, as is cocktails and wine.

BJ: So why do so few restaurants take the time to treat beer right?

GR: I think it’s lack of experience or interest. Beer is very new. Canada as a country is new, Toronto is new. You can see how things just blow up. The craft beer scene is new, but it’s had a big surge recently. If you asked people five years ago about hops, most people wouldn’t really be able to explain what that word means or even how to describe the flavour of something with hops in it. If you ask now, the amount of people who can answer that question has increased exponentially. So if you come back and check in in 15 years, it will be really different. Toronto is a teenager of a city. We’re growing and we’re learning, so I think it will change. When certain people set a bar, other people look at like, “Oh, shit. I gotta step up my game, too.”

BJ: Yeah, but I feel like you’re always going to have that fight with the big guys buying up tap lines. It’s tough to turn down that free shit. 

GR: Yeah, and I think that will change soon too. Not for everyone, but for people who truly care about the flavour of what they serve and the quality of their product. It will take some time, but people will increasingly be concerned with the goods. People will be like, “How come that place is able to have that beer and we’re not?” People will realize it’s not about “what can you do for me” but it’s about having a relationship with your suppliers and treating them with respect and getting treated with respect in return.

BJ: I hope you’re right. It always baffles me that places that take such care with their cocktail program and their wine list will still have something like Coors Light on tap.

GR: Yeah, well, don’t get me wrong, I drink shit loads of 50 at home, that’s my beer. There’s a time and place for everything, like with wine, too. You don’t always need to be drinking fancy, complex and intricate things. Sometimes you just want something simple. Sometimes customers just want something simple. So there’s a place for everything. There’s a place for Coors Light, but there’s a place for Cantillon.

(photo credit: Ian Lefebvre)

Guy’s approach to making beer recommendations…

It really depends on the person, like what they’re experiencing, and what their experience is in beer. That’s what it comes down to with any pairing and any person: finding out where they’re at, what they’ve experienced and what mood they’re in. For me, everything is mood-based. I might want something refreshing, I might not.

It all depends on what I experienced in the last 30 minutes or hour of my day and how it’s making me feel.

With every customer–and not just with beer but with food and wine–it’s about discerning what they’re in the mood for and then trying to find those keywords and then matching things with it. Sometimes you get it wrong, and that’s all right. That’s the adventure! OK, that’s not it, let’s try something else.
Sometimes it’s about opening stuff, tasting it and taking it away if you’re not into it.

Guy’s picks for those who are new to beer and food pairing.

Liefmans Goudenband  Rodenbach Grand Cru
Goudenband Brouwerij Liefmans Rodenbach Grand Cru

“They both have a little bit of acidity in them. People don’t typically associate beer with acidity but it can be great to either cut the fat in a dish or match the acidity in the food, so they’re a good start for experimenting with pairing. Plus they’re classic beers but they come in an interesting format. The Goudenband is wrapped in paper, has a cage and cork. It looks interesting and it tastes differen, so it can help people change their perception of beer. These can be great beers to start.”


5 thoughts on “Stepping up the game: A conversation about beer and food with Bar Isabel’s Guy Rawlings

    1. Ha. Yeah, for some reason this is something I come up against a lot chatting with chefs this month. They all seem to have a weak spot for the beer they grew up drinking. To be fair, I feel like most people (not jut chefs) seem to have a go-to “dad beer.”

      It always amazes me when it’s craft beer people, too, but it’s common. People are like, “I really like good craft beer, but I still buy Blue once in a while, too.”

      I’ve actually seen proprietors of breweries and great beer bars sneaking OV and 50 while they’re out in Kensington, too. I’m sitting on the details to blackmail them one day though.

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s