Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium

Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium   |  420 Talbot St, London, ON 

London, ON is Labatt’s town. Literally. The company was founded in London by John Kinder Labatt in 1847.

Accordingly, the story of London is inextricably tied to that of Labatt’s. As is the case with many towns that benefitted from being the home of a brewery early on, the city’s early hotels and taverns were tied to beer made at Labatt’s on the Thames River. A steady stream of seasonal hard-partying Western students keeps Labatt’s macro lagers reigning supreme in The Forest City. Labatt’s 50 – Canada’s best-selling beer from 1950-1979 – was produced in London, as was the beer that replaced it as number one, Labatt’s Blue. Even when Blue battled Budweiser for supremacy in the 1980s, Anheuser-Busch was already brewing Budweiser in London under contract. As Labatt is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, the London brewery now pumps out all manner of fizzy yellow lagers under the banner of a company controlling almost a third of the world’s beer. 

Faced with this, what publican Milos Kral has accomplished at his London bar, Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium, is almost unbelievable.

Occupying the corner unit of a small redbrick complex on the corner of Talbot Street and Carling Avenue, just a kilometre away from Labatt’s Brewery, Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium has the trappings common to any bar. At first blanche it doesn’t seem to differ much from many student haunts in London. On closer inspection it is much more. Instead of the dozen or so Labatt or Molson draughts typical of student-filled bars on London’s infamous “Richmond Row,” Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium features 23 draught beer options—all but one dedicated to Ontario craft beer.

Pub Milos features the big screen TVs you’d expect, but these screens only show the ever-changing draught lineup. Stop by for a few pints on a Friday night and you’re likely to see the screen shift as a keg is emptied and something new gets tapped. The exception is the one, non-Ontario draught line, dedicated full-time to Budvar, arguably the world’s best Pilsner, brewed in accordance with the 1516 Reinheitsgebot law. Talk to Kral for any length of time and you’ll understand. “Fuck man,” he’s likely to say, “I’m bloody Czech!”

Kral has worked in hospitality for over 40 years, coming to Canada in 1988. Given that he grew up with great beer culture (“Beer is liquid bread to us”) he faced what he describes as “total cultural shock” about the quality of our beer. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that people were willing to pay money for whatever it was they were calling beer,” he says.

Accordingly, after landing work in London as a bar manager, Kral realized that he could have an impact on the local dining scene by putting effort into his beer menu.

“I started to buy whatever I could get my hands on from LCBO consignments and private orders,” he says, “and I slowly discovered the Ontario craft beer scene.” 

Kral worked to make contacts at Ontario’s craft breweries and literally drove to their doorsteps to ask for beer. “I drove around like a maniac and talked to whomever I could, but I kept hearing, ‘Sorry, we don’t do business in London,’ he says, so I just kept driving and bugging people until someone would sell me a keg of beer.” In large part, over ten years later, this is still what Kral is doing, but now he’s doing so at his own bar. London’s beer scene is improving; yet many independent Ontario brewers don’t have sales reps covering the area, so Kral still visits breweries to personally pick up kegs. 

On an afternoon visit to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium it’s not strange to see Milos returning from a keg-buying expedition to breweries like Beyond the Pale in Ottawa or Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto. Nearing a five-year anniversary, Kral has built a monument to craft beer in London. 

He still buys ‘whatever he can get his hands on,’ maintaining a deep and impressive bottle list that includes lambics, imported table beers, and some of the best barrel-aged and sour offerings from Ontario and Québec. He still visits those same Ontario craft brewers whom he bugged in his early days. His loyalty is rewarded with a steady supply of unique one-off and seasonal offerings, as well as collaborations with London breweries or Kral himself. 

“If I had a nickel for every time I heard ‘you can’t do that, this is Labatt’s town,’ I’d be a rich man,” he says, but look at it now. There are four different places brewing beer in town and there is space for many more. It’s definitely getting better than it was.

Kral does brisk business all week and closes shop on Sundays. There is a fairly rabid contingent of craft beer fanatics in London and, thanks mostly to Kral, that number is growing. By virtue of being downtown – steps from Covent Garden Market – he is exposing Londoners to interesting beer every day. His bar is also a popular spot for beers before and after London Knights OHL games and for the regular series of events that take place in the team’s arena.

Of course, the arena fans spill out of is called “Budweiser Gardens,” serving as a constant reminder that this is still very much Labatt’s town. For now.

Ben Johnson