Progress is not linear. Some years there is rapid change and advancement, other years stagnate or there is attrition. This can be evident in the history of beer – North America was home to hundreds of breweries in the early 1900s, but most were eliminated in the mid-20th century by the beer giants that dominate the industry today. From a taste perspective, this was undoubtedly beer taking a step back, though perhaps you would see rapid advancement if you were in the business (The fact the Belgian wit style was almost completely lost is evidence to this fact.) But these Dark Ages are quickly being forgotten as we move into the Craft Beer Renaissance – where progress had once declined, or at least flat-lined, it is now booming with a tremendous increase in innovation. [Note to self: write posts about a) the link between craft beer and European history, and b) a sa-beer-metric post about beer innovation. Also, start using footnotes.]
The quality of Ontario’s craft beer scene has long trailed that of the United States – this has long been documented in books, blogs, forums, scrolls and illuminated manuscripts. And while 2010 started to show major signs of progress in this regard, 2011 might become the true turning point in our beer history. Here are some of the reasons:
The Discovery of (India) Pale Ales
Many people, from those in the industry to your average craft beer drinker, thought that the first brewery to come out with a really good IPA would quickly have overflowing coffers. Well, a number of breweries came out with a number of great pale ales at the same time and none are going anywhere. The first to hit shelves was the Muskoka Mad Tom, which I would bet has had a better six months than any other beer in the history of the brewery. The Flying Monkeys Smash Bomb would have been first if not for a little government run-in – unfortunately the market was almost saturated by the time it did hit stores. The wonderful Great Lakes Crazy Canuck was an American pale ale, but probably my favourite Ontario beer this summer. ($2.50 for a 473mL can made it easy to buy a lot.) Spearhead’s Hawaiian Style Pale Ale came out in June and was another strong entrant. Then the LCBO decided to send a gift from BC in the form of the Central City Red Racer IPA. (Whether it was a gift for beer drinkers or the LCBO is a toss-up – they ended up selling thousands of cans in no time at all.)
In short, 2011 was the year that IPAs became popular in a big way. And that’s just a small sampling, as there were too many other new IPAs to list in one space. If pale ales are a common gateway beer into craft beer and they form the basis for the craft beer industry, then 2011 did a lot to establish the future of Ontario’s beer culture.
It also became quite clear in 2011 that Ontario’s beer industry is largely reactive by nature. Not only did quality pale ales with American hops take off, but so did the practice of creating experimental, one-off brews. Great Lakes started the trend in a major way in 2010 and it has finally spread to breweries like Cameron’s that had become fairly stagnant. This has led to an increase in breweries making funky/sour beers, barrel and/or oak aged, and the aforementioned hoppy beers. It has taken a long time, but Ontario breweries seem to be understanding that consumers are no longer choosing a brand of beer and then drinking it for life. Innovation is key now and you’re losing your market if you’re not coming out with new beers. (Funny that the macro breweries learned this years ago. See: Ice, Dry, Lime.)
Starting a Brewery Just Got That Much Easier
Ontario saw a lot of new breweries start in 2011, but few actually started from scratch with their own brewhouses. Spearhead, Junction, Kensington, Hogtown, Indie Alehouse and Saw Dust City all went the contract route to start, though the latter two will have their own facilities in 2012. As much of the start-up costs for a brewery go into the facilities, both equipment and property, the contract method (where the beer is brewed at an existing brewery, like those of Wellington, Cool or Niagara College) has allowed these breweries to start with less capital. The contract brew system isn’t new (see: Duggan’s, Denison’s) and it will take another year or two before we see if this becomes a trend or merely a fad. My hope is that it sticks around, allowing more breweries to start and advance the Ontario beer scene.
The only part of me that hated the number of excellent events in Toronto this year was my liver. (My local breakfast spot and Shopper’s Drug Mart did very well from the number of events.) The events have been covered previously in the blog, but let’s run through them in a chronological order: Dieu du Ciel! dinner at beerbistro, Great Lakes tap takeover at barVolo, House Ales launch (and the rest of OCB Week), Session 99, The Brewery Market, Hart House Craft Beer Festival, Funk Night at Volo, Toronto Beer Week (featuring the inaugural Barrel Bragging Rights) and Cask Days. That’s really just a small sampling of what went on in Toronto, which is phenomenal. A lot of those will be repeated in 2012, so expect another crazy year.
I’m not a meticulous note taker when it comes to beer, though improving upon this is one of my resolutions for 2012. Trying to pick my favourite beer of the past twelve months is hard because there is no record of all the beers I’ve tasted. Consider these to be more of a ‘top beers off the top of my head’ selection. Amsterdam Tempest Imperial Stout. Cheshire Valley Mild. Central City Red Racer IPA. Panil Barriquee. Beau’s Festival Plus Bourbon Barrel Aged. Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale. Stillwater Cellar Door. Great Lakes Heavy Bretting. Unfiltered Pilsner Urquell in the caves under the brewery. (For the most part these were beers I got to try more than once, which meant that could leave a greater impression.)
So yes, it was a great year. There is a great deal of excitement around the Ontario craft beer scene and should make for an exciting year to come!
To finish, let me say thanks to everyone who has read this blog, Tweeted a link, made a comment, emailed me and everyone I’ve had the chance to share a drink with in 2011. Beer people are the best people and the past year has cemented that fact. A special thanks to my wife for being awesome in too many ways to list.