History has defined the speakeasy as being pretty cool. This is not surprising – it combined breaking the law with alcohol, which is a recipe for success (the fact that drinking alcohol was the illegal activity only made it cooler). Pop culture has thrown in jazz and other sorts of ribald activities as part of the speakeasy, only helping to show how great this type of bar was. The speakeasy has been transformed over time to private supper and drink clubs, where you need to know the right people/passwords or be able to write cheques for ridiculous sums of money. Last year the speakeasy concept came to Toronto beer geeks through the Saloon League, an invitation only beer club that legally brings in beers from outside of Ontario and serves them in houses around the city.
I’ve kept my mouth shut about the Saloon League for two reasons. On one hand, this may come across as a petty attack from someone mad about not being invited into the club (but, to crib from Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member). You may read this as such and have a valid argument. The other reason is that I also know many members of the Saloon League and they may not be appreciative of my comments. I’m not trying to make this personal, though – my comments would be the same no matter who runs the Saloon League and I have no interest in outing the members. But the recent article in the Toronto Star from last week pushed me to finally write this post.
One big complaint about the Saloon League is that for an underground, invitation only club they sure do love their publicity (it was also featured by blogTO and got a mention in The Grid). The website takes name and email addresses for people that want to join and a Twitter account routinely posts pictures of the beers being consumed. For something based off the speakeasy format, this isn’t very hush-hush. And though all the articles make it seem like there might be a possibility of joining, it has still been tightly controlled by a small group of people who are mainly in the beer industry. What’s the point of advertising your private club when nobody can get in? For people who have tried to join, all the publicity reeks of narcissism and bravado. I don’t care if people host private beer gatherings. It goes on all the time with tastings, especially in craft beer circles where the spirit of one-upsmanship runs wild. People may post pictures on Twitter or give recaps on Bar Towel, but never has it gone to this extent before.
Those in charge of the Saloon League like to talk about how great it is to bring all these beers in Ontario, but what is it doing to improve the state of craft beer in Ontario? Surely it is not helping expand the number of people drinking craft beer. The club is catering to those people already obsessed with beer and only serving a purpose of allowing them to drink beers never served in Ontario. It is designed to be about who you know, not for the average beer consumer that wants to learn more. Is it doing anything to help change the liquor laws by letting licensees bring these beers to Ontario? Nope, these are just kegs being brought in under personal exemptions and doing nothing to help increase access to beers from other provinces or countries.
My other main issue with the Saloon League is that it perpetuates the idea that American craft beers (plus the odd one from Quebec) are better than those from Ontario. Rather than encouraging the Ontario beer industry, these underground gatherings focus on the exclusivity and mystique of American beers. It would be nice to have more American beers in Ontario, but bringing kegs back for a select group of individuals is not the answer to our problems. Obviously these are industry people who have done a lot for craft beer in Ontario and I’m not claiming them to be anti-Ontario, but the Saloon League feels like an insult to all that work.
That is my case against the Saloon League and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. It is easy to understand the reasons behind starting the group – craft beer is getting more mainstream with hour-long waits to get into events like Beaulo. The Saloon League restores some of the exclusivity that craft beer has had for the past five or ten years. But isn’t half of the fun of being an underground beer club actually being underground?