The C Word

I just finished reading The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery. (Okay, I read most of it, but the parts on the American beer distribution system were pretty boring.) It was an interesting read at times, both in terms of addressing some aspects of American craft beer history that I knew nothing of and because so much of it related to conversations that have beer taking place a lot in recent months about the current influx in “craft” breweries in Ontario. And yes, those quotes are a foreshadowing of what to expect.

The book spent a lot of time mentioning Jim Koch – more time than anyone else, including Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe. No surprise, not everyone is a fan of Jim and the Boston Beer Company. The books goes into shouting matches that Jim had with other breweries and a lot of behind the scenes encounters that I’m sure some people would rather not have had published. A lot of it had to with Boston Beer Company being a contract brewer – two words that still create controversy to this day.

Anyone thinking of starting a brewery should read The Craft Beer Revolution because it really details what it’s like to be starting a new brewery. There isn’t one mold to be a successful brewery. The people behind the biggest craft breweries in the States are a mix of backgrounds. Some are business minded (Jim Koch), while others are homebrewers turned professional. It takes a wide variety of skills in order to run a brewery, but all breweries run into the same people – it’s fucking expensive to start your own brewery. Equipment is expensive, as are making any necessary renovations to the space to make it fit for brewing. Then there are ingredients, staff, marketing, signage and ten thousand other things you need. It’s no surprise that smaller nano breweries have become popular and that contract brewing has almost become a necessary step for most breweries.

It’s been thirty years since Jim Koch brewed his first batch of beer in his kitchen and contract brewing is still as controversial now as it was when Sam Adams started its rise to the largest craft brewer in the US. While Americans have been arguing over contract brewing for decades, it has only become a gripe for Ontario breweries in the past year or two. When you look at a number of the biggest new breweries of the past three to five years, most have chosen to start as contract breweries (Double Trouble, Kensington, Left Field, Sawdust City, Spearhead). Sawdust City is the first to open their own brewery, while two others are working at getting breweries ready, but are finding that it takes a lot of time and money. The other two are happy enough so far to brew elsewhere, which annoys some people.

I can understand both pro and con sides to the contract brewing argument. For breweries that have invested everything they have in their company, it is annoying that a contract operation can steal your business at a fraction of the cost. Some will eventually open a brewery, while others are created to try and make a quick buck with little interest in giving back to the overall craft beer industry (Triple Bogey anyone?). But if I were to start a craft brewery, as someone that loves craft beer but has no actual experience in brewing, contract would be the way I go. Hire a brewer, make a bunch of one beer to start, hopefully get in the LCBO and spend extra cash on marketing. Then use that as a basis to search for investors to start a physical brewery.

A lot of griping comes from the presumed intent of the brewery. Are they in it as a business venture of because of the love of beer? Well, why can’t it be both? Beer geeks can’t run all the breweries, or else craft beer would be too weird and esoteric for most of the general population. Everyone has their own ideal beer – for some it’s super hoppy, for others it may be a locally made lager that tastes like a macro brewed beer but comes from close to home and isn’t filled with adjuncts. As they told us in library school, for every book a reader and for every reader a book. Some of these breweries must be hitting markets that current breweries are missing or else they wouldn’t manage to stay in business.

I also find it interesting because breweries are not static entities. Two of my favourite local breweries (Amsterdam and Great Lakes) have changed so much in the past five years that they are barely recognizable. Great Lakes started out brewing with malt extract, so they should be the poster boy in Ontario for showing how much a brewery can change. The future is impossible to predict and I would wager that one maligned contract brewery currently operating will look significantly different in ten years.

To bring this around full circle, I found some of Steve Hindy’s comments to be a little funny seeing as Brooklyn started as a contract brewery. It’s basically the same thing as Kensington – contract brewery named for a location that didn’t initially start brewing in that location. Junction started out as a contract, but eventually found a home in (or at least near) the Junction. Contract brewing is a way to get a quicker and cheaper start in the industry, but most contract operations eventually realize that you need your own brewery, whether it’s because being a contract brewery is limiting production, doesn’t give the flexibility needed or some other reason.

There is no doubt that we’re encountering a weird, wacky time in the Ontario beer world, one that we’ve never seen before. Contract brewing is bound to get more controversial as new breweries continue to enter the market, but it is unfair to treat all contract operations as a homogenous group. As a beer lover, I have faith that quality will be a determining factor in the long-term success of any new brewery.

The Future of the OCB and OCB Week

Last week I got ready for OCB Week as many people do –  by perusing the list of events on the OCB Week website. One or two events looked interesting, but I was pretty dismayed by what was happening in Toronto. Three breweries (Amsterdam, Beau’s and Mill Street) dominated the listings. Most other breweries were at one of the two festivals (Session or Beaches BBQ) and that was their only real OCB Week participation. My brief Twitter poll confirmed that most people felt the same way.

A bit more research led to finding some events that weren’t on the website, but it didn’t really make a big chance to the rather boring slate of offerings. It got me thinking – is this just a one year blip or is it indicative of larger problems with OCB Week and the OCB itself?

The OCB always seemed like a bit of an odd organization during my years as a blogger.  Their main objective has always been outreach and promotion – getting OCB brands into LCBOs, combining economic power to create end of aisle displays and creating informational resources for the public (podcasts, pamphlets, etc). They have recently done more educational work for the industry with a conference and various lectures throughout the year, but this aspect still seems to be developing.

I’ll admit to never really trying to find out what the OCB viewed as their main goal for Ontario. My relationship with them existed mainly as a series of retweets and I never questioned what they were trying to do, though it always seemed like the OCB was capable of so much more. As the voice of Ontario breweries, why wasn’t the OCB been an advocate for changes in our retail options? Why haven’t they complained about craft-y brands (Creemore, Beer Academy) like the Brewer’s Association? The OCB has always come off as very conservative – opting to play within the system rather than railing against. For this reason I wonder if the OCB is reaching the end of its shelf life.

By my count, the OCB website lists forty breweries as members. Many newer breweries (Bellwoods, Indie, Kensington, Spearhead, Beyond the Pale and Forked River are some examples) are not OCB members. One can speculate some reasons why these breweries are not members – they do not produce enough beer to sell in the LCBO and therefore see no advantage in joining the OCB, or they feel they are better at branding and marketing their beer than the OCB. Whatever the reason, the fact that many new breweries are not joining the OCB ranks should create some panic to those in charge. Being an OCB member might have been crucial six or seven years ago, but its value is clearly under question. This is the biggest sign to me that the OCB needs to modernize itself in order to stay relevant to consumers and breweries.

As fewer breweries join the OCB, the events of OCB Week start to suffer as well. Non-OCB breweries are obviously excluded from most events, or the events do not get published on the OCB Week website. Session was one exception, as many non-OCB members were allowed to participate. (Why were there non-OCB breweries while Amsterdam and Cameron’s did not have booths?) Aside from that festival, the most interesting event in Toronto involves two non-OCB breweries as Indie Ale House and Bellwoods combine for a tap takeover at Bar Hop. This event just serves as a reminder that some of the most innovative breweries are choosing not to be OCB members.

OCB Week also needs to be moved out of the month of June. While it made sense three or four years ago to tie the week to the start of beer season and Father’s Day, the landscape has changed and it has to be harder for breweries to help put on events. There are currently more beer festivals through the province than ever before. Every major city now seems to have at least one festival in the summer (with cities such as Burlington and Hamilton joining the list this year), which adds to the workload for breweries and their sales reps. I can understand why breweries that were at both Session and the Beaches BBQ festival would be reluctant to plan extra events during the week. An OCB Week in March or April would allow more breweries to participate while not impacting the beer festival season.

As I said, maybe this is a one year anomaly with the OCB Week, but it shows greater cracks within the larger system. The OCB needs to realize that beer has become political and must become a stronger lobbying organization with a voice that meets the demands of craft breweries. It needs to develop a definition for craft beer in Ontario – it could copy the Brewer’s Association or create its own template. Most importantly, it must become an organization that every brewery in Ontario wants to be a part of or else risk becoming irrelevant.

Beer Fatigue, or The Trials of Too Many Beers

There have been times when beer friends have told me they are getting bored with beer, which prompted a reaction close to “Wha-wha-whaaaaat?! Sacrilege!” But lately I have felt the same way on occasion, though the feeling doesn’t usually last long. Being a hardcore beer geek – one that tracks release schedules, seeks out the new and unusual, will call and visit multiple stores to find the beer they want – is a time consuming hobby, especially when the payoff isn’t there when compared to cost (both monetary and time/energy).

One of the reasons I love beer (and I think a lot of people would agree with me) is the wide variety of styles and flavours. There may not be another beverage in existence with the possibility for such a wide range of flavours as beer. There are more beers than one could ever try in a lifetime. You may be like me and have a bucket list of ones to seek and try, though it seems like whenever I cross one off I find another to take its place. The search for new beers can go on forever if that’s your game. I would say that this is at least partially true for all beer geeks, whether you’re a ticker on Untappd/Rate Beer/Beeradvocate or not.

The problem I’m finding in my search for new beers is that it is becoming harder for a beer to absolutely blow me away. We all know that feeling of having a beer hit all of our pleasure centres at once and being transported to our happy place. This experience is becoming rare as I try more beers. Every new beer is being compared to the great number of beers that came before. Does it offer an interesting new flavour or flavour combination? Is it as good as that other beer in the same style? It’s becoming tougher to find a beer to really, truly excite me as my drinking history grows.

I am envious of people just starting out their exploration into the world of craft beer because of this. Everything is new and exciting when you’re just beginning to drink craft beer. There are so many firsts – one for every style of beer! My first imperial stout was probably the Wellington Russian Imperial Stout, sitting in front of the fireplace at C’est What. It was served in a pint glass and luckily the keg blew right after my pint, because I would have ordered more and had a very messy night not knowing the ABV of that strong beer. That pint was pretty fucking fantastic. The Welly RIS was in pretty limited production around then and I sought it out whenever it was made. Since then I’ve tried a lot of imperial stouts and my perception of the Wellington version is considerably different now. That’s not a comment on the quality of that beer, but just an example of how our tastes and perceptions change as we drink more beer. The Wellington version is a good introduction to the style, but it just touches on the possible flavours one can find in an imperial stout. It’s easy to think that every beer is great when you’re just starting to get into craft beer because, well, you just don’t know better! (I probably should have found a better example than the Wellington RIS as this paragraph sounds like a backhanded compliment. It is a beer that is still dear to me.)

It probably doesn’t help that my palate has become Americanized in the past six or seven years. Everything has to be bigger and stronger. Once you’ve become accustomed to really hoppy or really strong beers it is hard to train the palate to find equal joy in the subtleties of a clean lager or low ABV British ale. Is there any wonder why I love the session IPA because I need the big hops but don’t always want the alcohol? It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there’s a correlation between my preference for beer styles and the occasional bit of beer fatigue.

So why do I keep going? Though the “Oh god this is so good I’m so happy I could die right now” moments are rare these days, it’s still a pretty special feeling when it happens. While I like bourbon, scotch and food, none of those other things gives the same satisfaction as an amazing beer does. I’m also grateful that brewers are still experimenting, which means that new flavours are out there waiting for me to try and get obsessed over (currently infatuation – brett IPAs). When a time of beer fatigue does hit, I’m happy to drink something else and give my palate and neural synapses a chance to hit refresh, knowing that beer will always be waiting for me when I’m ready to come back. And I always come back.

The 2013 Predictions: The Final Results

The final results of my 2013 Predictions have been posted and, well, this year didn’t fair so well. Only 58% of my predictions came true, which was well below the 2012 result of 71%. This is a big disappointment from the past year, on par with the last Blue Jays season. Like the final interview while clearing out the locker at the end of a season, here are some final notes and thoughts about what went wrong in 2013:

  • The RateBeer prediction was a total flop. Beers I hoped would make a jump, like the Bellwoods Witchshark, stayed relatively flat in their 99 scores. There weren’t as many big beer releases in 2013 as there were in 2012 (which had a number of high scoring beers from Great Lakes, Bellwoods, Flying Monkeys and the Muskoka Twice as Mad Tom). Based on early ratings it’s possible the Amsterdam Barrel Aged Double Tempest may get close to a 100 score, but the big question will be whether it gets enough ratings.
  • The east end brewery of my dreams has not materialized, though I’ve heard rumours that Muddy York is trying to get started in East York.
  • The business side of things was boring. No one closed and no one was bought out. I still think we’ll see a brewery close their doors in the next year or two, especially as competition increases.
  • There were Ontario beers that cost $15+ per bottle, but none of them were released in the LCBO. Bellwoods, Great Lakes and Amsterdam all had beers that met this amount, so my prediction wasn’t too far off.

Not the most stellar year of predictions, but a pretty damn good year of drinking beer. I’m only going to make one prediction for 2014: the Ontario beer scene will be awesome!

The Beer Hype Machine

When really I started to get into beer four or five years ago, the Quebec beer scene was getting talked up like it was the Beer Promised Land. There was this brewery called Dieu du Ciel! that was relatively small and you could only get their beer in Quebec. The Mondial festival was still being held at Windsor Station and was an internationally renowned beer festival. It seemed that someone was taking off to enjoy the beer pleasures of Montreal every other weekend.

I will admit to getting sucked in by the hype. My first bottles of Peche Mortel (brought back from Montreal) were savored during my one year of grad school in London, Ont and only consumed for special occasions, like the end of a semester. Montreal was nice for quick and relatively cheap trips after graduating and visiting my wife’s family in Ottawa usually meant a trip over to Gatineau. I had to admit that there was a lot of nice beer being made in la belle province, but there was also a lot of junk. Why did it seem like everyone had beer blinders on?

Most beer people in Ontario are jealous of Quebec’s beer laws. Corner stores and grocery stores can sell beer made in Quebec and there is a lot less red tape. For the most part that is great, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home with a lot of old beer that was past its prime. (I do take partial responsibility. This was before I knew to check for bottling dates or for tell-tale floaties at the bottom of the beer.) That’s assuming the beer was good in the first place – there are a couple of breweries in Quebec that I would say have Trafalgar-esque track records.

Eventually beer from Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix, Trois Mousquetaires and other breweries started coming to Ontario, which has increased the hype about Quebec beer in some ways, but has also lessened the hype as this is not as rare or scarce of a product anymore. As soon as something becomes available to the LCBO (and, by extension, the general populace), it loses some of the mystique. All you have to do is walk/bike/drive/take transit to an LCBO, rather than spend five hours traveling to a different province. Is it any surprise that people talk less about going to Montreal to stock up on beer?

Michigan became the next trendy beer destination for a year or two as people got their fill of Bell’s and Founders (also coming to the LCBO soon). Now Vermont is the preferred destination for anyone in the eastern half of North America, driven largely by the fact that you can only get Hill Farmstead or Heady Topper by visiting the brewery. Scarcity and hype are driving the market once again, which will likely remain until these breweries eventually start distributing throughout the States. We are once again reduced to talking in generalizations about a state, emphasizing the good and leaving out the bad (for surely there are bad breweries in Vermont, but everyone is too focused on a select number to notice).

I’m no psychology major, but it seems pretty obvious that when someone spends four-plus hours traveling for beer that comes with lots of hype, it’s quite likely that there will be some mental self-trickery happening when that beer hits their tongue. (A simple Google search could probably tell me what this is called, but I’m too fucking lazy and it’s not like this blog technically exists anymore.) We’re primed to think that beer is great because a) that’s what everyone tells us and b) WE JUST SPENT ALL THAT TIME GETTING HERE FOR THIS DAMN BEER!

That’s not to say that Dieu du Ciel! or Hill Farmstead aren’t world class breweries. They are. But the availability of a beer changes our perceptions. Would Hill Farmstead still be so interesting if they started widely distributing their beers? Is Heady Topper just the east coast second coming of Pliny the Elder? I wish it was possible, but beer cannot be tasted in a vacuum. There are all these external factors that influence our perception of the beer we taste.

I’m clearly a little rusty in my writing, because no grand finale is coming to me. So let me just remind everyone that it’s okay not to like a beer. Even if the whole world disagrees with you, stand by your opinion. Some of the hype is true, some of it is bullshit. Only you know which is which.

Please Kill the LCBO Seasonal Releases

Let me cut straight to the chase – the LCBO seasonal beer releases are quickly becoming pointless. While they’re fun to get excited about and discuss for a couple of days after the release, the LCBO no longer brings in beer at only four times during the year. The seasonal releases made sense when stores had limited beer space and it was a way to reserve room on the shelves for beers that they knew would rotate out every three months. But beer is now occupying bigger areas in LCBO stores with a lot more turnover of products.

The logistics of the beer releases have always been treated by the LCBO as an afterthought. Beers appear sporadically, slowly rolling out through stores in a haphazard manner. They give a date of when beers should start appearing, but one or two always come out before that date while others may not appear till a month later (or sometimes dropped without any notice). There is no promotion done for the release other than a small media tasting in Toronto. You pretty much have to be a Bar Towel reader to find out the full lists (especially since a certain blog stopped posting the lists). The LCBO doesn’t really care to advertise the releases, which makes me wonder why they don’t just bring in the beers whenever they choose.

There is now a strong precedent to bring in beers throughout the year as temporary listings. This has become especially common with Ontario craft breweries – most breweries can get a short term seasonal listing that is completely separate from the seasonal release (unlike the old days where the seasonal releases included Ontario beer). But it’s not just Ontario beers that get this exemption. Goose Island, 3 Fonteinen, Rochefort, Ommegang – these are some of the breweries that have come in this year without a listing in a seasonal release. These are also listings that have gone very well without the press that accompanies a seasonal release.

Being on a seasonal release means that a lot of the beer will be ordered, which is sometimes excellent but leads to lots of leftover stock at other times. Rather than turning over products, the shelves are stagnant while beer gets old. A lot of beer drinkers would rather see smaller orders and more turnover of products, giving more reason to visit the LCBO on a frequent basis. Now that most of the Winter release is on shelves, we’re looking at a long dry period before the Spring release of 2014.

The seasonal release program is another example of old LCBO business practices that need to be updated for the current beer environment. There have been changes in the right direction over the past couple of years, but they have not gone far enough. The structured seasonal releases have to go, allowing the LCBO more flexibility to bring in beers throughout the year in smaller quantities. If the LCBO doesn’t start improving the seasonal beer program, they should give it the axe.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Beer

Is it better to burn out or to fade away? That question has been hovering around this blog, at least in my head, for the past eight months. Today marks the end of A Year of Beer, which I think puts me in the “burn out” category. It is also the fourth anniversary of this blog and the 600th post, which seems like an apt time to bring a sense of closure. It may be a slight OCD tendency, but it’s nice to end on round numbers.

There are many reasons why I’ve chosen to end the blog at this point in time. The demands of work have made it harder to regularly produce content. There are things I’d rather be doing with my evenings or weekends than sitting in front of a computer. The beer journalism landscape has changed drastically in the past four years, meaning that I’m now competing with freelance writers for stories and content. This is great for the industry in general and these writers are friends, but it’s hard on a blogger that works full-time. More media events and tastings are being held during the weekdays, which made most almost impossible to attend. It was not an easy decision, but one that feels right.

This is something I’ve been contemplating for months, but didn’t make a final decision until I was in Belgium earlier in the summer. I had a bit of a buzz and was wandering the cobblestone streets of Brussels, anguishing over the thought of coming home and having to write about my trip. That is when I realized that blogging had no longer become fun, which it was for the first three years. Yes, there have been nice perks, but the benefits were now outweighed by the sense of obligation to write two or three posts a week and provide coverage for anyone kind enough to send some beer in the post. It was then that I decided to end the blog before it killed my love of beer.

The sense of bliss after making that decision may partially be a result of all the gueuze, coupled with how beautiful Brussels is in the rain. But there was also a sense of freedom – it was now possible to once again enjoy beer and be free of my shackles as a beer blogger (woe be unto him). It has now been two months since that decision was made and it’s time to shut it down. If you see me at a Toronto Beer Week event and I look insanely happy, it’s because I don’t have to rush home and write an event wrap-up post.

My love of beer has never been stronger. A big part of my decision is wanting to go back to enjoying beer without all of the outside distractions that come with blogging. Those in Toronto can still expect to see my face at a lot of events. I will still be active on Twitter under my @ayearofbeer handle. Giving your opinion in 140 characters or less is much better for time management, so that is where most of my beer-related thoughts will go now.  I can also now put my time and energy into other projects like Toronto Bottle Share.

The craft beer landscape has changed so much in the past four years and it has been thrilling to play a teeny, tiny role in how beer gets talked about in Ontario. The Ontario beer scene has been getting better every year this blog has been in existence and I know that the best is yet to come. The biggest change that I’ve noticed is that Ontario craft beer now gets treated with a respect that was not there four years ago. The beer made here holds up to those from anywhere else in the world.

Like any good soap opera, no death is final and the blog may be sporadically resurrected from time to time. There will be a final post for the 2013 Predictions in December. You may still find the very occasional rant about a beer-related topic, but it’s hard to say right now. Maybe I’ll do guest posts for whatever other blogs will have me – it’s hard to say. I am very proud of the four years worth of time and effort put into this blog. My fear was that keeping this blog alive would only diminish all of that hard work if the posts suddenly dried up and I just allowed it to fade away. (My other fear is not being allowed back onto the Beer Writers curling team.)

The past four years have truly been amazing and have far surpassed my expectations when this blog began (though I had no expectations, so that is not really saying much). There were a countless number of times that I wrote a post only to think, “Hmmm, I doubt anyone will care about this topic but me.” Those posts usually got the most comments, shares and views. It has been the support of my readers throughout the past four years that has kept this blog going for this long. It seems hollow when compared to all that you have given me, but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’d also like to thank my wife as she has put up me and this blog for the past four years. There have been too many times where I’ve been unable to do something with her because of blogging obligations, yet she continues to be my biggest supporter. (Don’t feel too bad for her, though – she was usually my plus one for events. And yes, she likes beer too.)

Drinking so much amazing beer has been great, but the best part has been meeting so many people who are passionate about craft beer. So many people have supported this blog and I am grateful to everyone one of you. Expect to still see me at your bars, breweries and events drinking delicious Ontario craft beer. There are too many people to thank individually and I’m terrified of leaving someone out, so let’s leave it at this – beer people are truly the best people. Thank you all once again.

-Michael Warner