Category Archives: Ontario Tiers

The List – May 2013

Back in February or March there were some teaser tweets that I had started work on the 2013 edition of the Ontario brewery tiers. It was rather preliminary work, but I found myself running into problems. Ontario now has a massive amount of craft breweries, which make the tiers even more onerous for a man with a day job. I found myself with little to no knowledge about a lot of the breweries (especially those in the Ottawa region) and felt the process would be undone by a significant number of exclusions. Keeping up with seasonal and one-off beers has become increasingly harder, so fairly rating each brewery was also proving to be challenging. I could keep going on, but the point is that the brewery tiers are now dead. (If someone wants to buy the concept for their blog or website, I’d be happy to trade you the rights in exchange for beer.)

Not wanting to completely trash the concept, I’d like to introduce you to a new monthly feature tentatively called “The List.” At the beginning of every month, I’ll rank the hottest ten breweries in Ontario. What’s “hot” is going to be rather subjective – a non-scientific survey of what beers are tasting fine and what the beer community is talking about. This will allow me to be timely than the tiers and give more kudos to the smaller breweries that had a harder time moving up tiers for various reasons.

1. Bellwoods. Hitting a nice stride, culminating in Bring Out Your Dead (a cognac barrel aged imperial stout for their one year anniversary). Start lining up now for spots on the patio this spring and summer. Hopefully they will avoid the sophomore slump.

2. Great Lakes. Got LCBO listings for My Bitter Wife and the Amsterdam collab Maverick & Gose. Love their Johnny Simcoe. The only question is where to erect the Mike Lackey statue.

3. Amsterdam. See above re: Maverick & Gose. Brewpub patio should provide healthy competition to Bellwoods and can’t open soon enough.

4. Mill Street. The new Beer Hall has gotten lots of publicity for the bierschnaps, but I’m more interested in the Ampel Weiss, a 3.8% Berliner Weisse. Mill Street has lost its lustre in recent years and the Beer Hall might be the last chance to get it back.

5. Nickel Brook. Quietly producing a number of fine beers. My dark horse pick to go far at the Cask Days IPA Challenge.

6. Muskoka. Corked bottles of the Legendary Muskoka Oddity are impressive for Ontario. Having the Summer Weiss in six-packs is a smarter choice than the large format bottles, though I still miss the Hefe in cans.

7. Left Field. Their launch party was cut short because they ran out of beer. Yeah, I think people are interested.

8. Bush Pilot. Hard not to talk about an 11% barley wine aged in Calvados barrels, even if people are divided over the final product.

9. Cameron’s. The RPA is now in LCBOs and they’ve released the Obsidian, an imperial porter aged in rum barrels.

10. Sawdust City. The Red Rocket Stout is pretty darn delicious and the Lone Pine IPA is coming to the LCBO. May not sound sexy, but my taste buds approve.

Honourable mentions:

  • The possible LCBO strike has people talking about how alcohol is sold in Ontario, which is always a good thing. Though I’d say the odds of a strike actually happening are about 1%.
  • Liberty Village, a new Toronto brewery that released their 504 Pale Ale.

Finally, I hate coming up with names for new features, so if anyone wants to put on their pun hats and think of something to describe this I would be very appreciative. (And no, I’m not going to call them “power rankings” or similar terms used for ranking sports teams.) Put your suggestions in the comments or on Twitter.

2012 Ontario Microbreweries – The First Tier

And it all comes down to this. The four best breweries in Ontario battling it out for top spot. Let’s get to it!

Beau’s

Regulars: 2. Nothing against the Lug-Tread, I just can’t remembered the last time I ordered one. It’s a fine beer, but usually there is something more interesting on tap.

Seasonals: 4. A great selection of seasonal beers that really show a lot of creativity. The Dunkel Buck was a favourite from last year, while the Hogan’s Goat was a weird experiment that they somehow made work.

Availability: 5. Lug-Tread is everywhere and they released four seasonals into the LCBO. Most of the other Wild Oats beers managed to get into bars, either on draught or in bottles.

Consistency: 5. Remarkable consistent for the volume of beer they produce.

Extras: 5. Buy Your Beau’s Online. The Greener Futures Project Barrel Aged Beers. Oktoberfest. These are just a couple of the Beau’s projects, all of which help get great beer into your hands and support awesome causes.

Total: 21. Last Year: 21. Another great year from Beau’s. They keep churning out quality beers and get much love from a group of drinkers that usually shies away from lagers, craft or macro. An eco-friendly brewery with a charitable heart that continues to shape the industry in amazing ways.

Black Oak

Regulars: 3. The Pale Ale and Nut Brown are excellent session beers.

Seasonals: 5. I can never get enough of the Summer Saison or Nutcracker Porter. Some of the recent one-offs have been amazing. Oh yeah, and it turns out that Ken is still bitter.

Availability: 3. Rumours keep circulating that a Black Oak beer will make it into the LCBO with a seasonal beer, which would definitely raise this score. Not sure how far outside of the GTA they get.

Consistency: 5. Absolutely perfect all the time.

Extras: 4. Black Oak have always been around at Toronto events, but they’ve finally opened up the doors to the brewery and usually have one event a month. Lots of casks around Toronto. Finally hired someone to help out with that whole social networking thing.

Total: 20. Last Year: 21. This may be a Toronto-centric rating, but I love me some Black Oak. For the past couple of years it seemed people were always saying “If only they got a seasonal in the LCBO…” or “If only they got on Twitter…” Now all those things are coming true (well, fingers crossed on the seasonal beer) with tremendous results. I’ve always loved the beers and glad to see the changes being made.

Great Lakes

Regulars: 3. The Crazy Canuck is a great beer and a treat to have year-round in cans. The Red Leaf and Golden Horseshoe on the other hand…

Seasonals: 4. Yes, Lackey does great things, but we often forget that the Orange Peel and Green Tea take up space on the LCBO shelves every year. Why don’t they start putting a nice IPA in one of those bottles?

Availability: 4. While Great Lakes are becoming the favourite craft brewery for most beer geeks in the city, my assumption is that a lot of their draft and casks don’t leave our city limits. Got to show the whole province some love.

Consistency: 4. I know things like the kielbasa beer were hilarious experiments with low expectations, but still have to dock them for that and the disappointing beers I had at Caskapalooza. At least the diacetyl issues appear to be over.

Extras: 5. Does any brewery in the province make more casks? Project X nights are always fun, especially when you come home with a whack of new beers. Saisons, sours, imperial stouts… they make all of them.

This Year: 20. Last Year: 20. As a Torontonian, it is easy to love Great Lakes. It seems they supply the casks for half the city, the one-offs are always available and they support some great causes. Love the beer and the brewery, but it would be nice for the rest of Ontario to share in the joy. 2012 is the 25th anniversary of Great Lakes and there are some great plans to celebrate, which will hopefully show the province why Toronto is so infatuated with this brewery.

Muskoka

Regulars: 3. Riding on the back of Mad Tom. Have shown a willingness in the past to rework their lineup, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cream Ale or Lager don’t survive 2012.

Seasonals: 5. Harvest, Summer Weiss and Winter Beard are all solid beers. Looking forward to seeing and tasting the upcoming Spring Oddity. Luckily for them the price of seasonals is not counted in this category.

Availability: 5. All of their beers are available in retail and always around on tap.

Consistency: 5. Continuing a trend in this tier. No point in making great beer if you’re not consistent, which Muskoka is.

Extras: 4. Love the branding and the fact that I’ve seen their advertising everywhere from The Grid to Toronto Life. Always show up to events with a one-off. I know they’re quite active at the brewery and around Muskoka with events, though I haven’t been up there myself.

This Year: 22. Last Year: 20. I had not picked Muskoka to come out on top, but it became clear when I was doling out the numbers that they deserve the top spot for 2012. Mad Tom is a delicious IPA, they roll out a nice seasonal every four months and do a great job of telling people about craft beer. Muskoka doesn’t make the most beers in Ontario, but they make sure that their beers count.

That brings the 2012 Ontario Microbrewery Tiers to a close! Latecomers can catch-up by reading about the second, third, fourth and fifth tiers. It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks getting this all together, but all the comments, Tweets and emails have made it really fun.

Coming up next week on A Year of Beer!: a tour of Six Pints and some thoughts on CASK! Toronto.

2012 Ontario Microbreweries – The Second Tier

Last year, the second tier seemed like a mix of decent-to-good breweries, but not thrilling on the whole. This year I am thrilled by this cluster of breweries and view them as a snapshot of the great things that are happening in Ontario. (Well, that is mostly true. There is clearly one brewery in here that I don’t love, but no spoilers.) The first tier had better watch out, because any of these breweries could move up a spot next year.

In case you’re just joining us, catch up with the third, fourth and fifth tiers.

Amsterdam

Regulars: 2. Saved by the Boneshaker. The other beers are usually only needed at bars with small or predominantly macro beer lists.

Seasonals: 4. Huge leap in the quality of seasonals last year, led by the Tempest. One-offs have shown tremendous promise and good things are expected from their new pilot system.

Availability: 4. A lot of their main seasonals are now in the LCBO. Really easy to find their beers on tap or in bottles, at least in Toronto.

Consistency: 4. Docked Steam Whistle for green bottles and Amsterdam gets the same treatment.

Extras: 4. Starting to use the brewery more for events. Helping to bring funky beers to Ontario.

Total: 18. Last Year: 14. Amsterdam gained the most points of any brewery, which was much deserved. Their regular lineup will make it harder to go much higher, but they should rock the other categories for years to come.

Cameron’s

Regulars: 2. The Auburn Ale is decent, but none of the other beers offer anything unique.

Seasonals: 4. Nice to see Cameron’s enter the seasonal game with a barrel aged beer and the Deviator Doppelbock. Add an attempt at a sour for Cask Days and they get a solid four.

Availability: 4. Getting a seasonal product into the LCBO would probably push it up to a perfect score.

Consistency: 4. Reliable beers for the most part.

Extras: 3. Cameron’s host a monthly cask night, which I always wish was more accessible. Doing a better job of trying to reach out to beer drinkers at events and online.

Total: 17. Last Year: 15. Cameron’s is another brewery that started to gain some respect this past year. Like the track that they are on, which includes more innovation and less following.

Flying Monkeys

Regulars: 5. Can any other brewery in Ontario compete with the Smashbomb, Hoptical and Netherworld as their year-round offerings?

Seasonals: 3. They talk a big game with their experimentation, but little is ever seen (at least outside of Gambrinus in London). The Super Collider was nice with some age on it, but I will never forgive or forget the Toronto Festival of Beer debacle.

Availability: 4. Lots of LCBOs and bars. As with Cameron’s, another seasonal in the LCBO would gain a perfect score.

Consistency: 3. An area they have struggled with for some time. Impossible to predict just what a beer will taste like.

Extras: 3. They go to just about every event possible and usually bring a one-off. Pair up with Gambrinus in London a lot, as mentioned.

Total: 18. Last Year: 19. Another brewery that people either seem to love or hate. Some will say that this mark is too low, others that Flying Monkeys are overrated. For me, the sometimes atrocious one-offs and lack of consistency in the normal beers really keep them from the top tier.

Grand River

Regulars: 5. Lots of great beers in classic styles that all come in under 5%. Great session beers.

Seasonals: 4. The seasonals are a tad more experimental, with a hoppier IPA, pumpkin beer and imperial stout among them. All unique and tasty in their own way.

Availability: 3. Seems their push to get bottles in the LCBO has left them on tap in fewer bars.

Consistency: 4. The variations between batches have long been thought of as intentional. That being said, the beers all have the same backbone.

Extras: 2. There are events at the brewery, but not much else aside from the odd cask.

Total: 18. Last Year: 17. Another great year from Grand River. Slowly increasing production and availability, while keeping the same ethos behind their beers. Making tasty beers that don’t care for industry trends.

Granite

Regulars: 4. Not the sexiest beers in Ontario right now, but the Best Bitter Special and Hopping Mad are a nice change of pace in terms of traditional British ales.

Seasonals: 4. Nice to see the Granite starting to brew some different seasonals, like the Mild, Darkside IPA and Hazy Daze Wheat Beer. Add in the Gin Lane barley wine and a nice group of seasonals are starting to form.

Availability: 2. Starting to see more kegs and casks making it out of the brewpub, which is the only other place to get your Granite fix.

Consistency: 4. Casks are never completely similar, which would make a five nearly impossible for Granite to ever achieve. Not a knock, just a fact of beer.

Extras: 3. I was at a craft beer event this summer, talking to someone about how it was the first time we had seen Granite with a booth at a festival. Points for that, plus being a cask pioneer in Toronto.

This Year: 17. Last Year: 15. The Granite was in a bit of a rut. They were making the same beers for years and that was fine, but the industry was changing. Luckily the Granite realized they needed an update in the styles they offered, but kept all the old beers we all know and love. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to renew your love affair with the Granite.

Mill Street

Regulars: 3. A generous score on the basis of the Tankhouse, Coffee Porter and Wit. The Stock Ale, Lemon Tea and Organic keep them down.

Seasonals: 3. Every now and then there is a Mill Street seasonal that is really good, like the Weiss from last summer. But then they make the Tripel or something else that is a watered down version of a nice beer style, which undoes all the nice feelings.

Availability: 5. Lots of retail, including their seasonal samplers that bring one or two seasonals to the LCBO. Plenty of draft, though it feels like I see them less often (or Mill Street is abandoning the hardcore beer geek bars).

Consistency: 3. There have been a number of times when the brewpub beers have been noticeably off, both growlers and bottles. Especially evident in beers like the Pilsner, where it is hard to mask defects.

Extras: 4. Host a wide menagerie of events at their brewpub. Always at events, often with a cask of a seasonal brew or a reworked brand, like the dry-hopped Tankenstein.

This Year: 18. Last Year: 19. Mill Street does a lot of things right, especially when it comes to marketing and making their beers available to the public. But as craft beer in Ontario to continues to become like the American market, the beers are becoming less relevant. A good transitional brewery for those just getting into craft beer.

2012 Ontario Microbreweries – The Third Tier

As we move up to the third tier, the quality of the breweries significantly increases and it becomes much harder to differentiate the quality of beers and breweries. Your favourite brewery could possibly be in this tier, right beside another that you regard as vastly inferior. I just distribute the points and figure out who goes where after. Remember to check out the fourth tier, fifth tier and how the points are assigned. The second tier will be up on Wednesday and the first tier on Friday, with some other programming in between.

Black Creek

Regulars: 3. The Pale Ale was quite nice, but the Porter and Stout were just okay.

Seasonals: 3. Nice seasonal selection that tries to use ingredients of the time, plus they’re experimenting with growing their own hops and barley.

Availability: 3. Black Creek started brewing offsite and getting into the LCBO, which really helped raise their score here.

Consistency: 4. Remarkable consistency considering, a) they brew using 19th century methods and b) their bottled beers are made at Trafalgar.

Extras: 2. Yes, the whole 1800s brewery concept is really cool, but it kind of limits them to being a brewpub located in a crappy part of the city. The dusty growler on my floor is evidence of that fact.

Total: 15. Last Year: 15. Black Creek was actually tough to judge. How does one separate their bottled products from the historic brewery? Does it matter? Regardless, it is nice to see that the brewery is surviving, adding an interesting twist to the Ontario craft beer market.

Cheshire Valley

Regulars: 1. A pity point because there is not really a year-round beer available from Cheshire Valley. One instance where my rating system fails.

Seasonals: 5. The Robust Porter is one of my favourite Ontario beers. Love the mild and the Galaxy IPA. I order a Cheshire beer whenever possible, because they are just phenomenal.

Availability: 2. Mainly found in Toronto and strictly in bars. Sadly, this will probably not change in the near future.

Consistency: 5. The next time I have a bad Cheshire Valley beer will be the first time.

Extras: 3. It is hard to give a numerical value to this category, because Cheshire Valley is essentially Paul Dickey and Paul does so much for craft beer in Ontario. That being said, Cheshire beers are often on cask half of the time in bars and found at a decent number of events.

Total: 16. Last Year: Not rated. Cheshire Valley is one of my personal favourite Ontario craft breweries because they show that traditional styles can still have a place in the craft beer renaissance. I always expect the best from a Cheshire Valley beer and have never been let down.

House Ales

Regulars: 4. The Run ESB, Tu-Hop and a couple of others aren’t regulars in the classic sense, but the most recurring House Ales beers and they’re all fine choices whenever they grace the barVolo chalkboards.

Seasonals: 4. The one-offs came and go so quickly, but all retain the same expectations. The In Limbo Rye Saison is a recent selection that will hopefully appear again.

Availability: 1. Blame the weird liquor laws in Ontario that determine that House Ales beers can’t leave the premises, even to go to another establishment.

Consistency: 4. There can be slight variations between batches, but not it in a bad way. Just, “Oh, that’s a little different from last time.”

Extras: 3. This is a tough category, as separating barVolo and House Ales is not easy. But points for doing lots of collaborations, plenty of casks and bringing the funk.

This Year: 16. Last Year: Not rated. Having a nanobrewery in barVolo had the potential to go very wrong. The bar is the focal point for craft beer in Toronto, which many that the House Ales beers had to be as good as the rest of Ontario, right from the beginning. Now the pressure is on to keep pushing the limits.

King

Regulars: 4. The Pilsner, Vienna Lager and Dark Lager do not get a lot of respect, but they are well made beers that honour the German tradition.

Seasonals: 2. Been a while since a seasonal appeared, but they were in line with the quality of the regular lineup.

Availability: 4. Three beers in the LCBO and a decent tap selection are good enough for four points.

Consistency: 5. Anyone care to argue with this score? Didn’t think so.

Extras: 1. A very quiet brewery for the most part.

This Year: 16. Last Year: 15. I was expecting the King brewery to expand and start to push the market when purchased from Beer Barons, but not much has really changed. It would be nice to see the beers get a big push, especially at events.

Lake of Bays

Regulars: 2. The Pale Ale is alright, but one I hardly turn to as there are so many better options in Ontario.

Seasonals: 4. The Mocha Porter is one of the more underrated beers in Ontario. Looking forward to their IPA this spring.

Availability: 3. Mainly found in the LCBO, Hopefully on draft in more places around Muskoka.

Consistency: 4. Pretty much the same from one bottle to the next.

Extras: 2. The odd cask and the bottle for the Mocha Porter is a beauty. Would be nice to see them at events and put some faces to the brewery.

This Year: 15. Last Year: 14. A slight uptick in this year, which is partially a bet on better things to come. Could easily see them going up or down next year.

Spearhead

Regulars: 4. The Hawaiian Style Pale Ale has been around sine June and the luster has not worn off. Always nice to have a pint of this beer.

Seasonals: 1. The Heart of Darkness collaboration with House Ales was excellent, but that’s the only other beer they’ve done in almost a year. Time to bring out the next one.

Availability: 3. Spearhead is pushing to get into bars all around Ontario. After a bit of a dip in availability, the HSPA is gaining traction once again.

Consistency: 4. The rare pint is just a little less than ideal, but that might be because they are catering to a lot of bars that normally don’t deal with craft beer.

Extras: 4. One of the most active breweries in Ontario. Pretty much a guarantee that they will be at every event, talking up craft beer. Also partner with a lot of bars for Spearhead-only events.

This Year: 16. Last Year: Not rated. I fully expect this to be a controversial rating, but the criteria mainly judge the beer and not the business practices. Spearhead will always annoy some people with their marketing and hype, but it helps get craft beer into more glasses. I won’t complain as long as they keep making good beer.

Steam Whistle

Regulars: 2. An okay pilsner, as long as it is fresh and not in green bottles.

Seasonals: 0. Sorry Steam Whistle, but it was your choice to only make one beer.

Availability: 5. Probably the most widely distributed craft beer in Ontario.

Consistency: 4. See: green bottles.

Extras: 5. Steam Whistle loves to throw parties and promote the crap out of everything.

This Year: 16. Last Year: 14. The constant stream of press releases boasting all the great things that Steam Whistle does may have finally gotten through my tough blogger exoskeleton. Someday I will find the flaw in their armor.

Wellington

Regulars: 3. Perhaps a slightly generous score, but the Imperial Russian Stout is pretty much a year-round offering. Though I had forgotten about the Silver Wheat Ale. That one still stings.

Seasonals: 3. A little hit and miss, but at least they’re starting to try.

Availability: 3. The standard lineup is slowly fading from bars, but the seasonals help pick up some of the slack. Please get the IRS in the LCBO.

Consistency: 3. As mentioned, the seasonals vary in quality. The casks are a bit iffy as well.

Extras: 3. Regular production of casks. Starting to do more brewery events. At a decent number of events.

Total: 15. Last Year: 14. I had started to give up on Wellington, but they are one of many breweries this year that realized it had to update the way it does business in order to stay alive. Hopefully they will continue to build on these advances.

2012 Ontario Microbreweries – The Fourth Tier

A lot of interesting things are going on in the fourth tier. Some breweries are working their way up, other breweries are just barely outside of the fifth tier. All of these breweries scored either thirteen or fourteen points, meaning there isn’t much wiggle room between them and the other tiers. If you missed it, have a look at the fifth tier and how the tiers were created. The top three tiers should be up on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with beer reviews showing up on Tuesday and Thursday.

Church-Key

Regulars: 3. The Holy Smoke is always a nice find on a cool fall evening. The Northumberland brings down the mark, while the West Coast Pale Ale falls squarely in the middle.

Seasonals: 3. Nice seasonals, except for the ones that taste like cheese. Some claim the parmesan taste is on purpose, but I don’t care. Get it out of my beer.

Availability: 3. Easier to find in the LCBO than on draught. Where has the Holy Smoke gone?

Consistency: 2. See above re: parmesan cheese taste.

Extras: 2. Yes, they will sometimes make the trek out for certain beer events, but they operate on a fairly local scale, just like many of the fifth tier breweries.

Total: 13. Last Year: Not rated. Just snuck into this tier, barely elevating them above a lot of other small-town breweries. But the cheese…

Durham

Regulars: 4. Used to be some of the finest beers in Ontario, but now the market has caught up to them. Ordering the Hop Addict/Head less and less.

Seasonals: 3. Hard to know exactly which Durham beers are seasonal, but this mark mainly represents the Red Dragon and ESB, neither of which really impress me.

Availability: 2. Instead of flourishing as more bars added casks, Durham beers have become harder to find.

Consistency: 4. One of the better breweries in the province for making every batch taste the same.

Extras: 1. A single point for cask ale and that is all. Would a little promotion hurt? Or an actual website?

Total: 14. Last Year: 16. The beers have stayed the same, but they’ve become harder to find. Laissez-faire attitude hurts, especially with an increase in competition with hoppy beers. Should have been leading the craft beer movement, but now find themselves being overtaken. How long can they last with the current business model?

F&M

Regulars: 2. The Stone Hammer Light, Pilsner and Dark are all okay, but make me think of what Ontario craft beer looked like two or three years ago.

Seasonals: 4. The Oatmeal Coffee Stout is a very good beer and they’re willing to experiment, even if the results are mixed.

Availability: 2. F&M is another example of a brewery that has been lax in getting into bars and restaurants.

Consistency: 3. Like I said before, sometimes those experiments don’t work out, but the regular lineup is consistent.

Extras: 2. Starting to see more casks around. Redesigned website and getting into social media. Seeing their beers at more events is the next step.

Total: 13. Last Year: 13. There were gains in some areas and losses in others, which offset each other. I know F&M is working to get back into more licensees, so an improvement next year is quite possible.

Hockley Valley

Regulars: 3. Not a fan of the Black & Tan, but the Dark and Stout are fine.

Seasonals: 2. This score is mainly for past beers, as I can’t remember the last seasonal or one-off from Hockley.

Availability: 3. The cans are everywhere, at least in terms of retail. Anyone seen them on tap anywhere recently?

Consistency: 4. Never been a problem with Hockley.

Extras: 1. Well, there was that one time they did something… at least I think it was them. Ahem.

Total: 13. Last Year: Not rated. As I wrote this evaluation, it became clear that Hockley should have been in the last tier. My judgment when giving marks was clearly clouded by sentimental memories of those Hockley jugs. A brewery that has been left behind by the sands of time.

Kensington

Regulars: 3. The Augusta Ale is not my favourite of beers from Paul Dickey, but a decent flagship that will appeal to a wide variety of beer drinkers.

Seasonals: 1. There has been lots of talk of the Fisheye PA, but haven’t seen any evidence of it so far. Token point for that reason.

Availability: 3. LCBO cans are on their way, while major strides have been made in getting the Augusta Ale into bars.

Consistency: 4. A reliable product that has been uniform in flavour in my experiences.

Extras: 3. Brock has been willing to get to events and push the Augusta Ale. The Burger Bar connection helps get it out on cask and put through Randall the Enamel Animal.

Total: 14. Last Year: Not rated. A good start for a new brewery that is operating on a fairly small scale. There are bigger plans in store, which could easily see Kensington jump a tier next year.

Neustadt Springs

Regulars: 3. The 10w30 and Scottish Ale are rarely in my fridge, but they are a nice surprise on those occasions.

Seasonals: 3. Nothing spectacular, but nothing terrible. One of the first on the bandwagon with their Sour-Kraut.

Availability: 3. Cans are common in a lot of LCBOs and they do pretty decent draught business compared to a lot of other breweries in small towns.

Consistency: 4. Another strong mark, which has helped differentiate the fourth and fifth tiers.

Extras: 1. The Double Fuggled cask makes an appearance around town, but there isn’t anything else that would warrant a higher mark.

Total: 14. Last Year: 14. My knowledge of Neustadt is fairly small, but I picture it being a mom and pop operation, albeit one that operates very well. They do enough to stay relevant in the craft been scene.

Nickel Brook

Regulars: 2. I know the Gluten Free and Green Apple Pilsner are probably big sellers, but they drag down this mark.

Seasonals: 4. This mark would have been unheard of last year, but Nickel Brook has churned out a nice imperial stout and Flemish brown ale that show just what is possible. Not sure if the Headstock IPA is going to be a year-round beer, but for this year it helps bump up the seasonal mark.

Availability: 3. The retail side has always been a strength, but the increase in seasonal offerings has led to an increase in draft availability.

Consistency: 3. This mark does not reflect any inconsistencies within an individual beer, but the fact that they make some bad beers and some really good ones.

Extras: 2. Starting to get out some casks and I’m seeing them at more events. Social media presence is coming along.

This Year: 14. Last Year: 11. A brewery that is definitely heading in the right direction. Nickel Brook will always make the Green Apple and other less desirable beers, but they’re starting balance that with more interesting beers. It reminds me of Amsterdam a year or two ago, which means that expectations have now been raised.

2012 Ontario Microbreweries – The Fifth Tier

Welcome to the second year of the Ontario Microbrewery Tiers! The fifth tier contains a mix of breweries and probably a couple of surprises. Some of these microbreweries make great beer, some make drain pours, but the common element is that most do not work hard to push their beers on the public. If you missed it yesterday, have a look over the five criteria used to rank the breweries. Let the judging begin:

Barley Days

Regulars: 2. Inoffensive and lackluster overall. Something to drink when there’s nothing else available.

Seasonals: 2. Perhaps a generous rating, as my experience with their seasonals has resulted in very sweet beers that lack balance. The second point is for effort.

Availability: 3. The bottles are regularly in the LCBO. On tap occasionally, but with greater frequency in the Kingston area.

Consistency: 3. Every now and then it seems like the sugars haven’t fully fermented, but other than that the beers are fairly consistent.

Extras: 1. Other than contributing the obligatory Cask Days one-off, this is a quiet brewery that just sticks to making beer.

Total: 11. Last Year: Not rated. A typical brewery in small town Ontario that is not concerned with expanding much beyond their base. The nicest thing that can be said about the beers is that they are fine.

Denison’s

Regulars: 4. The Weissbier and Dunkel are really, really good and I must have been feeling a little bitter when handing out a score of four.

Seasonals: 1. There is a rare one-off every now and then, or an aged dunkel if you’re lucky, but not frequent enough to give a better score.

Availability: 3. The Weissbier is in cans, but finding Denison’s on tap is becoming increasingly difficult.

Consistency: 3. The cans are hit or miss, which really hurts this mark. Always reliable on tap.

Extras: 1. Michael Hancock can usually be found at events but almost never promoting his beers, which really irks me. His beers are good and deserve a chance to gain new converts.

Total: 12. Last Year: Not rated. Great beers, but hard to track down a lot of the time. It would be nice to see some more effort being put to promote the beer, both at bars and events.

Duggan’s

Regulars: 3. The #9 IPA and #5 Sorachi Lager are good candidates for the ‘Meh List’ in the New York Times.

Seasonals: 2. Haven’t seen many seasonals or one-offs since the brewpub closed. Bringing back their porter, at least for the winter, would give a nice boost.

Availability: 3. Another brewery that is riding the LCBO coat-tails and losing ground in bars.

Consistency: 3. The seasonals have always been hit or miss from one batch to the next. Beers from the old brewpub sometimes came out a little too young.

Extras: 1. Never at events. Their last Tweet was in June.

Total: 12. Last Year: 13. Yes, it’s been a rough year for the Duggan’s Brewery and I’ve tried not to knock them down too far because there have certainly been distractions other than making beer. They need to re-establish themselves and gain a presence online, in bars and at events.

Hop City

Regulars: 3. Four solid beers that I would be perfectly okay to drink on any given day.

Seasonals: 0. Do they have seasonals?

Availability: 3. The Barking Squirrel is in cans and the other beers can usually be found at chain restaurants, which I think adds up to a score of 3.

Consistency: 4. You could argue for a perfect score here and have a valid point.

Extras: 2. A Hop City booth shows up every now and then for events, plus they use their Moosehead dollars to throw really massive parties every so often. That being said, I’m surprised they don’t have more marketing prowess considering where the money comes from.

Total: 12. Last Year: Not rated. Perhaps this mark is being reduced by the knowledge that Hop City’s inclusion as a microbrewery is a little dicey. A definite contender to move up in the ranks in the near future.

Railway City

Regulars: 2. The Dead Elephant is fine, but the Iron Spike beers don’t bring anything to the beer scene.

Seasonals: 3. I don’t know if the Double Dead Elephant is still around, but that was an alright beer. They’ve been trying out some new beers, which is promising.

Availability: 2. A couple of products are in the LCBO, but they give the impression of not really caring about being in bars.

Consistency: 2. Railway City is known for spoiled products, a reputation that was confirmed to me recently by a fresh can of the Dead Elephant that tasted like cleaner. Hard to win over people with such a major flaw.

Extras: 1. The only time I remember seeing Railway City at an event was a wine show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Can’t explain the logic behind that.

This Year: 10. Last Year: 13. Infected products are bad and so is showing little interest in reaching out to consumers with your beer. Railway City took a big dive this year and there are few signs that will change.

Stratford

Regulars: 2. Continuing the common thread in this tier that the regular lineup is middling.

Seasonals: 1. I can’t actually think of a recent Stratford seasonal or one-off, but they get a point just in case there was a beer I missed.

Availability: 3. Once again, they are in the LCBO but not a lot of bars (though the bars that do carry them are pretty loyal to having the Common or Pilsner on tap).

Consistency: 3. You know what you’re getting from a Stratford beer, which is perhaps both a compliment and insult.

Extras: 1. Another brewery that prefers to operate well under the radar.

Total: 10. Last Year: 11. Stratford doesn’t do anything to offend people, but there is also nothing about the brewery that creates any warm, fuzzy feelings.

Trafalgar

Regulars: 1. With a habit of constantly renaming beers, it is hard to know what the actual year-round offerings from Trafalgar are. Regardless of name, I don’t want to drink them.

Seasonals: 1. See above.

Availability: 3. Still constantly in the LCBO, though it feels like less and less as time passes. Trafalgar beers are never found in bars, which I hope is a sign that publicans are smarter than our bureaucrats.

Consistency: 0. I really don’t think anything needs to be said about this score.

Extras: 1. They get a point for still being in operation.

Total: 6. Last Year: 6. Yes, the bottom-dweller retains its crown as the lowest ranked brewery. Congrats Trafalgar!

Getting Ready for the 2012 Ontario Beer Tiers

As promised, the second annual version of the Ontario Microbrewery Tiers is upon us. Creating the tiers is a simple process, but very time consuming. A list is made of all the breweries in Ontario that could considered microbreweries or craft breweries, which are then judged by five criteria. The first is their Regulars: how good are the beers that they make year round and how often do I want to drink them? Then comes Seasonals: what is the quality of their seasonal releases and one-offs? Next is Availability: are their beers available in the LCBO and bars with regular frequency? (I do my best to judge this for the province and not just Toronto, which is admittedly difficult). Following that is Consistency: do they have bad batches of beer or can you always rely on them for a good pint? Finally, there is the broad category of Extras: is the brewery active with events, making casks, promotion using social networks and anything else that generally raises the bar of beer in Ontario? Each criteria is given a score out of five, which is then added up so each brewery ends up with a mark out of twenty-five. The breweries are then roughly divided into five groups, or tiers.

There were some breweries that were missed last year, which has hopefully been corrected this year. A number of newer breweries (Sawdust City, Junction, Indie Ale House) have not been included. I think it would be unfair to judge them so soon, especially as two of them have not opened their breweries yet. The other reason a brewery may not be included is that I did not try enough of their beers in 2011 to accurately ascertain their quality.

I have done my best to be objective and treat all breweries equally, which is difficult when you know brewers, sales reps and owners. My goal is to be fair, but honest. Any industry needs criticism to grow. People new to craft beer need to know that not every brewery is created equally.

That being said, there has been a definite improvement of most scores from last year to this year. The brewery that I thought would get the best marks didn’t, which surprised even me. With the tiers I also want to applaud all those breweries that have taken great strides in the past year to improve their products and the beer scene in Ontario. Lists and ranks also seem to be really popular, leading to lots of great discussion. Look for the tiers to start appearing tomorrow, with new ones being posted on a regular basis through the next two weeks. In the mean time, have a look at the 2011 tiers.