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.