Why The Saloon League is Bad for Craft Beer

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?

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9 responses to “Why The Saloon League is Bad for Craft Beer

  1. As I understand it, the way to get an invite is to bring in a keg from the US (or maybe Quebec) that meets whatever criteria they have set. Personally, If I go to the trouble to bring a keg into Canada, I’m going to share it with my friends on an open-invite basis because I enjoy sharing new beer with a wide range of people. But maybe that’s me….

  2. Dont Worry About It

    Well said Mike! I couldn’t agree more with your comments. I admire your recent posts with regards to exposing the truth to many current factors in the beer industry. It is nice to see a blogger that isn’t biased towards one group of people, setting the facts straight is the right thing to do.
    Cheers!

  3. Well said. It’s an industry where brewers borrow ingredients from one another, place group equipment orders, and freely give help and advice. The fact that there’s an invite only, but widely publicized drinking group, smells like elitism to me. Leave the snobbery to the wine industry.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum is the brewery market, which is a fabulous initiative.

  4. I’d still go if I were invited in. Haha, I mean, I absolutely love American craft beer, and it’s super difficult to get up here. I’m sure the guys involved in the club, drink and do their fair share for Ontario craft, so what’s the biggie if they don’t invite 375 people over to split a keg or two they were able to get across the border?

  5. I don’t see this as being all that much different than any other private tasting. They’ve just taken it to the next level and seem to have some publicity surrounding what they do.

    I would argue that anything which raises curiosity about craft beer and lets people know there’s more and better things out there than you’ll find at the LCBO/TBS is a good thing. The Ontario beer scene is getting inexorably better, but I don’t just want to drink beer from Ontario. I want to drink GOOD beer from Ontario. And anything which expands the frame of reference as to what good beer is good for craft beer in my book.

    By way of an analogy: If I formed an invitation only club to bring back movies from other countries that aren’t available here and invited a bunch of people over for a private screening, is that bad for Canadian cinema? Do I have to further the cause of Canadian cinema every time I watch a movie, or can I just watch something from another country with some like-minded individuals and enjoy it without some higher purpose?

  6. William Munny

    “Bad for Craft Beer” ??

    Honestly you have in no way made this point in your article. You were not invited, basically is your argument.

    The SL highlights that there are great beers not available in Ontario, due largely to our oppressive liquor laws. That’s about it. The rest of the tweeting and articles is just people having fun drinking good beer.

    How is it bad for craft beer? It’s not. You’re just jealous. BTW NOTHING said or written about the SL is in anyway elitist. There is no looking down on local beers, or exclusion of anyone- basically it’s friends drinking at someones house. If you are not one of the friends why should you have any expectation to go to a private party? Start your own beer tasting party and have fun.

    Write about the AGCO policies and the Beer Store monopoly if you want to write about whats bad for craft beer. If you want to be bold, write about the OCB being gutless and promoting very average beers as craft and not doing anything about the real issues facing craft beer in Ontario. But calling out 20-30 people who managed to get some PR and have some fun while legally drinking very good beer they can’t otherwise get in Ontario as bad for craft beer? Really?

    Not even close.

    • “BTW NOTHING said or written about the SL is in anyway elitist.”

      uhm…

      “It requires a personal summons from the Saloon League, an underground invitation-only beer society that shifts from house to house and patio to patio” – Toronto Star.

  7. William, you certainty do not understand the approach Mike is taking. I don’t think its the “invite only” he is concerned about, its the hidden agenda behind it. I find it strange that publications such as the ones mentioned, and the Toronto Star would even write a story on this league. If it’s just a private party, why does the rest of Toronto need to know about it? Good on them for sharing a passion of good imported beer that is not available, but to get media buzz? Give me a break – sounds like someone is eager for attention or has a plan.

    Please explain to me how writing a story about the SL is relevant to the craft beer industry in Ontario. Quote Josh Rubin “This is a kegger with a cause” – whats the cause here? Maybe it’s to bring awareness of how ridiculous our laws are… but keep in mind that the second American draft is readily available in Ontario – I can assure you that many local breweries will go out of business. Not to down play the quality of local brews, but many “conservative” brands will not last.

    Do not get me wrong, I would love to see more variety in Ontario – I love beer. And a part of me likes the idea of this SL – even though I have never attended one. Maybe it will make people question how ridiculous our laws are. So I’m not really against, but just question the attention it has been getting – really… 4 publications?

    But, I do agree with William with regards to the OCB – that is a whole different story that actually should be addressed. I wonder what the OCB thinks of this league.

  8. Doug McKenzie

    sour grapes

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