Ralph Morana had a life before most of us knew him. He was married, had two sons, and owned an Italian restaurant on Yonge Street. When at rest he drank Coors Light. Just an ordinary man, you might have thought. A decent man, but not one destined for greatness. It’s possible that even Ralph didn’t know that greatness awaited.
But that’s the funny thing about greatness. One day you’re a Ukrainian comedian, playing the president on a TV show, next day you actually are the Ukrainian president and you’re being blackmailed by some mendacious jackass named Trump, and then a bit later you’re still the Ukrainian president and you’re being invaded by another mendacious jackass named Putin, and everybody except a handful of dictators thinks you’re the best thing since perogies.
Now I’m not comparing Ralph Morana to Volodymyr Zelensky. I’ve never had a beer with President Zelensky, for starters, though he seems like good company. And their circumstances are rather different. I’m fairly confident in saying that Ralph has never faced the Russian military, but many of us have looked on in admiration as he’s stared down the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. I don’t know how many divisions the AGCO has at its disposal, but I’m sure I’ve seen their tanks in formation outside Bar Volo more than once.
Like President Zelensky, Ralph never asked to be a hero. He had greatness thrust upon him. I don’t know who first served Ralph a craft beer, but there’s another hero. There was a man in New York in 1919 who knew a composer in want of a lyricist and a lyricist in want of a composer, so he introduced Richard Rodgers to Lorenz Hart and musical history was made. No less a contribution to human happiness was made by the man or woman who introduced Ralph Morana to craft beer.
Many of us have had our lives enhanced, even changed, by discovering things: good cheese, good bread, good books, the works of Stephen Sondheim, good beer. We make them part of our lives, and we might try to pass them on to our friends. When Ralph discovers something good, he wants the world to know about it. Roughly twenty years ago, the Evergreen Bride was employed on Charles Street, close to Yonge Street. One day she reported to me that an Italian restaurant on the latter street had a sign on the door boasting craft beer on the premises. This needed to be explored, and it was. The name of the restaurant was Caffé Volo, and its owner wanted his customers to enjoy good beer. He didn’t much care if you ordered a plate of pasta, though you were glad if you did because it was damn good. Soon most of us were there for the beer, and Caffé Volo slowly morphed into Bar Volo. (Eventually, as if to tell us he wasn’t cooking any more, Ralph installed a small brewery in the kitchen.)
Ralph wasn’t finished. Ralph is never finished. He went to England to drink beer, and he came back with a newfound passion for traditional English cask-conditioned ales. As I recall, he had bought a beer engine while there so he could use it at his bar. And there are no half-measures with Ralph. He built a separate cooler for his cask ales, which are meant to be less cool than the other beers, with shorter lines from the cask to the tap so there’s less likelihood of spoilage. Ralph thought of everything, but that’s what he does.
By 2005, Ralph’s campaign to turn the world into real ale drinkers led to the first Cask Days festival. He browbeat 14 Ontario brewers into making a cask-conditioned ale or two (no one beats a brow better than Ralph), and he invited his disciples to Bar Volo to drink 21 casks of the stuff over two days. And we did. Some of the casks didn’t turn out as well as others, but the weekend sold out and we had a good time. Which is what beer festivals are for. The following day I asked Ralph how the festival had been from his perspective. He said it was too much, that he’d never do it again. After a breath he said that he’d thought of a few changes he’d make if he ever did it again.
Which, of course, he did the very next year, and for many years thereafter. By now Ralph’s sons, Tomas and Julian, were getting old enough to shoulder responsibility (and full casks), and each year’s festival became bigger than the one before. It soon outgrew the limited capacity of Bar Volo (50 inside, 50 on the patio) and by 2012 had found a home at the Evergreen Brickworks, a venue that accommodated several hundred people at each session.
From the start, Ralph decided on mid-to-late October for Cask Days, a sensible decision. There is a well-established myth that the English like their beer flat and warm. Cask beer generates its own carbonation, so doesn’t need the injection of carbon dioxide, and is thus less fizzy than most beer. And its flavour comes out best when served less cold than we expect in North America, which is approximately the temperature of an English pub cellar. An English cellar is not a warm place. It isn’t as cold as a Canadian cinema in summer, but it is cool. And it’s roughly the temperature of Toronto in mid-to-late October. Given that most of Ralph’s casks are stored and consumed outdoors, it’s usually just about right.
Even within the world of beer lovers, cask-conditioned beers – at least outside the British Isles – are a pretty niche interest. Back in 2005 the Cask Days crowd was almost entirely people I knew – Anglos and Anglophiles. Beer geeks all. A decade later I found myself in a very long queue of people waiting for the doors to open. Behind me were two attractive young women. I don’t like to be a creepy old man (though it’s obviously my nature), so I didn’t ask them who they were and why they were there, but I was curious. Somehow Ralph had made cask beer hip. It didn’t hurt that his youthful sons had a sense of what their contemporaries like, i.e. the sort of music elderly beer enthusiasts deplore.
Still, the beer was good. And it just kept getting better. Local brewers got better at making cask ale, and Ralph began spreading his net wider. One of the weirdest things about Canada, and it’s a crowded field, is the bizarre Iron Curtains that constitute provincial borders. We make trade deals with other countries, but not with each other. I can drive to Buffalo and buy American beers from Maine to California, but if I want to buy a beer from Manitoba I have to go to Manitoba. This is good for Canadian tourism, I suppose, but in reality it means most of us have no idea what’s brewing in Winnipeg.
Did this stop Ralph? He started an importing company. Not necessarily to import beers from other countries, but to import Canadian beers within Canada. Crazy, but it worked. Soon we were getting casks from across Canada. But where do they really know their cask ale? England. Ralph’s trips to England involved a lot of networking. He wanted their beer, but many of the brewers were dubious. How do I get my empty cask back? Ralph had an answer. He had new casks made in England and shipped to the breweries. They filled them up with beer, sent them to a central location, where they were consolidated and shipped to Canada. By comparison, getting casks from California, Oregon, and Washington State was child’s play.
In a few years Ralph went from 21 local casks on his pub patio to more than 300 casks from practically everywhere, plus lots of cider. The logistics of all this are beyond the ken of mere mortals, and the price of attending grew, but I’ve still never spotted Ralph driving a Lamborghini. My favourite sessions of Cask Days were the first one (Friday afternoon, when there were fewer people) and the last one (Sunday afternoon when it was cheaper, or even free if you’d attended an earlier session, and Ralph wanted to drain the casks). You may have noticed, on your journey through life, that some people are whiners, and there were always people on Sunday afternoon who complained that the best stuff was gone. So you have only 75 casks of real ale to choose from. Poor diddums. You should have been drinking beer in Ontario in 1965.
Cask Days lasted from 2005 to 2019, but then you-know-who reared its spiky head and put paid to any such sociable activity. As we slowly emerge from two years of plague, pale of skin and red of eye from our lockdowns, what will be left? Will we see Cask Days again? Not if my most recent conversation with Ralph can be believed. I know, I’ve heard him say ‘never again’ before, but this time I think he means it. At least not on the scale of more recent pre-plague years.
But Ralph is more than Cask Days. A number of years ago he heard local beer drinkers complaining about the state of the Ontario IPA. It was too insipid, people were saying. Typical Ontario half-measures. Put some damn hops in the stuff. So Ralph instigated the IPA Challenge, daring local brewers to make a cask-conditioned IPA to go head-to-head with their competitors. He assembled a panel of judges, some qualified, others (like me) merely enthusiastic, to cast votes. He then opened the doors to a thirsty public, whose votes were also solicited. It was all done with blind tasting. We didn’t know which beer was which. We just thought #14 was better than #8, or not. Perhaps our IPA choices would have improved without Ralph’s impetus, but not as quickly.
Toronto beer fanciers used to flock to Buffalo to feed their habit. One of the most popular threads on the Bartowel website dealt with the best ways to negotiate crossing the border on your way home with a trunk full of beer. Be honest or hope they’re not going to check? My approach was always to tell the truth, somewhat. They wanted to know how many beers you had, not if they were any good. On one trip I confessed to having 22 beers (we’d been over for only a few hours so were not entitled to any duty-free). The woman at customs smiled conspiratorially and said, “I get it. You bought a 2-4 but you couldn’t resist breaking into it.” And she waved us on.
On another occasion, a humourless border guard sent me over to the building they send bad people to, where you pay for your sins. Outside the building a woman, presumably doing triage, asked me how great my sin was, and I replied shamefully, “I have 28 bottles of beer.” Contemptuously she gestured for me to go inside. There I spoke to a man who repeated the question, then said, “She sent you inside for 28 beers? Was it the one with the big hair?” Yes, I replied. He said, “Okay, you and I are going outside, I’m going to pretend to look in the trunk of your car, and then you’re going home.” I was slightly worried that he would see that my stash was not just Old Milwaukee Light but a party pack that included some Belgian gueuzes and other obscure treats, but no. He was as good as his word. No money changed hands and I drove home.
We’d been so used to these cross-border shenanigans that we scarcely noticed that things had changed. Talking to Ralph one day at Volo, he pointed out that we used to envy anyone who was travelling, because they’d get better beer almost anywhere else, but he said it wasn’t the case any more. He was right, of course. I still like to visit Buffalo, but I no longer feel the need to fill the trunk with contraband.
The influence of Ralph is everywhere. If you go to Halifax, your first stop should be Bar Stillwell. There are good places to drink in Halifax, but Stillwell is a must, with a 91 rating on Ratebeer.com. Chris Reynolds, one of the three proprietors, learned his trade at the White Horse, Parson’s Green, in London and at Bar Volo, two excellent apprenticeships. The first time Anne and I went to Stillwell, Chris was behind the bar. The place had just opened for the day, and Chris was collecting credit cards from customers wanting to start a tab. He looked at us and said, “Volo regulars don’t need to show their card.” That’s a good club to be a member of. Chris and his partners appear to be following in Ralph’s footsteps by encouraging the growing numbers of Atlantic breweries to up their game. That’s what good bars do.
Ralph is not a showy guy. Not many of the hundreds of people at Cask Days would have noticed the middle-aged guy in a hat walking around looking worried. He’s not one for public speaking. He just gets things done and makes the world a better place, and to hell with the authorities.
A few years ago the condo gods struck, and Bar Volo was consigned to the list of Places You’re Going to Miss When They Get Torn Down for Condos. There are other good beer bars in Toronto, but Ralph had made Volo a hub. Around the time of Volo’s death knell, Ralph and the boys opened Birreria Volo on College Street, and just in time for Peter Pandemic Ralph had found a new location for Bar Volo and spent a fortune turning an empty space into a glorious woody pub.
Our incumbent mayor recently announced his intention to run for a third term in this year’s election – his motto: I’m still not Rob Ford. This news did not excite the denizens of our town. I’d encourage Ralph to run, but he’s doing far more important work as it is. Honestly, how Ralph Morana has not been inducted into the Order of Canada is beyond me. What the hell kind of country is this?