While most bloggers and beer writers were relatively in favour of the Beer Academy/Six Pints when it opened in June, a lot of contentious discussion was taking place offline about the fact that Molson Coors was opening a place in the heart of downtown Toronto that was aimed at the craft beer crowd. The building itself had been home to Duggan’s and Growler’s, so it had craft beer in its walls. Some people were worried. Was Molson Coors attempting to cut into the profits of craft breweries? Was it a cash grab at a time when profits for mass produced lagers are dropping? The first six months have given a good idea of how the space will operate.
On the brewing side, the Beer Academy folks are putting out some nice beers, though nothing I go out of my way for. They’re producing an interesting array of styles, from a Black Lager to Dortmunder. The results aren’t always the most polished, but each batch is essentially R&D so results should improve over time. I’ve seen no indication that they are trying to push one beer over others (“brand” doesn’t quite work, because the beers are only named after the style) – every beer gets equal chance to shine and impress. The goal hasn’t been to make up a portfolio of beers, but introduce drinkers to different styles. The Beer Academy should be applauded for this fact.
The Beer Academy brewery also allows for participation in a lot of events like Toronto Beer Week. There was something going on almost every day of TBW at 75 Victoria, which is quite impressive. But as more time goes on, I see the Beer Academy as a place that gives Six Pints a Toronto hub to promote the Creemore and Granville Island brands. Creemore and Granville Island beers are always available at the events and tastings, plus it gives a space to hold launch parties for new beers like the Creemore Alt or the Mad & Noisy side brand. Six Pints now owns its own event space to help throw big parties for the older siblings. And as anyone who has attended an event at the Beer Academy knows, money is not a problem for the company.
It’s the business side of the equation that makes it hard for me to embrace the Beer Academy. The onsite brewery is relatively autonomous, but the larger space basically feels like a giant marketing campaign (mainly for Creemore). Instead of appealing to drinkers through advertising, Six Pints is able to pay for a building and staff to act as brand ambassadors – something that only a brewery with the backing of a large multinational corporation could get away with. Yes, the Beer Academy is also about education, but where’s the line between education and advertising?
There is also the fact that the Beer Academy hasn’t really been embraced by the craft beer industry. That’s not to say they haven’t tried to join the community, but there has definitely been push back from the people in the industry. At a time when collaborations are normal with many breweries, Six Pints feels isolated from the rest of the beer industry. When you’re looking at the industry from the outside in, that speaks volumes.
It occurred to me as I was writing this that the Beer Academy doesn’t “feel” like craft beer. I’m not trying to open up the discussion about what constitutes craft beer, but just saying that a visit to Six Pints doesn’t feel like a normal craft beer experience. Their employees are all a little too polished, like they all went to that corporate weekend retreat and learned about public speaking. The people are passionate about the beer, but it’s missing the soul that I feel in most other breweries. (Another example is the Mill Street brewpub, which has the soul of FAB Concepts). Any first year psychology student would probably say that I’m projecting all of this because I know that Six Pints is owned by a large corporation and that could very well be the case. But that doesn’t mean I’m not also right.
That being said, I still don’t think the Beer Academy and Six Pints will to cut into the profits of craft breweries. It will be a gateway that helps people discover new and interesting beers, but the corporate facade will become evident as people try different beers at different bars and go to beer events. I have no ill will against Six Pints and what they’re trying to do, but it has also been hard to be supportive.