Which Came First: the Chicken or the IPA?

There must be some mathematical formula for figuring out the demand for craft beer in any given province or state. The variables would be dependent on the province/state but would include any laws and regulations (for Ontario, that also means the whims and desires of the LCBO and what it chooses to put on shelves), local breweries (factoring in their size, how long they’ve been in operation, the beers being made), foreign breweries (desire/willingness to get into said market) and local demographics (urban vs rural, disposable income, maybe even age and education). It would largely be a theoretical exercise as trying to actual plug in the appropriate numbers for all the variables would be near impossible, but it would at least help to figure out how demand for craft beer changes over time.

This may sound weird, but it has been fascinating to watch the craft beer market in Ontario change so rapidly over the period of a year or two. Lately I’ve been trying to piece together all the little changes that brought craft beer to the forefront. It used to be that Ontario was kind of a waste land. Few breweries outside of Ontario wanted to deal with the LCBO because it just took too long to get your beers here. (Usually you brought in a beer or two through the seasonal releases, then might get a larger listing.) Though our population was large, the market was relatively unproven. Ontario breweries weren’t making anything too interesting or exciting because, once again, there wasn’t a proven market for IPAs or Imperial Stouts. What has changed in the past two years? How have we ascended to hop heaven so quickly? (There was no surer sign that the enlightenment had come than when the LCBO was advertising IPAs at TTC bus stops and on subway platforms.)

The claim that Ontario was ready for a big, hoppy beer permeated for years even though the release of Southern Tier IPA and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA in 2008 led to people obsessively tracking the beers down. (Dogfish Head later pulled out of Ontario because demand was too high for their beers in the US.) Neither beer was cheap – in fact, I can remember the Southern Tier IPA approaching $15 at one point. The beers got publicity and hype, leading very often to empty shelves. Yet still Ontario breweries refused to acknowledge that the market was evolving.

Here is my theory for why the whole “The Market Isn’t Ready Yet” theory persisted for so many years – because consumers are generally lazy. It takes a special kind of beer geek to go on regular beer runs to Buffalo or other cities with close proximity to the border. The time, money and energy just isn’t worth it for most people when compared to going to their local LCBO and picking up a six pack or two. People were ready for bigger beers packed with flavour, but had limited means of showing it (outside from the hardcore beer lovers making pilgrimages to the States). It had to be the Ontario craft breweries to change this idea by releasing hoppy beers and seeing how the market reacted. The people of Ontario spoke with their wallets, quickly establishing Smashbomb, Mad Tom and Crazy Canuck as regular brands in Ontario. Once these beers were available on a consistent basis through the LCBO, it was possible to prove that Ontario was now a very viable market for a wider range of craft beers. Black Oak could have run away with the market two or three years ago with 10 Bitter Years. By the time that beer finally gets released into the LCBO (latest reports say May), the competition will be much stiffer and the beer will have a harder time finding its place in the market. I find that rapid change in the market to be astonishing.

Another way of thinking about the Ontario beer market is to ask this question: has there ever been a case in the past three years where a beer made in Ontario was released that was ahead of the market? I can’t think of any instance where there was a really good beer (or even a really terrible beer) that no one was buying. Some of the foreign beers in the LCBO seasonal releases have not gone over so well, but the Ontario craft beer section is thriving. Even better, it is not one or two breweries leading the pack, but a solid effort from dozens of breweries to bring interesting products to the people of Ontario.

The LCBO gets shit on almost daily by craft beer lovers, but it has done a very fine job of recognizing the growing craft beer market and providing people with a greater selection. Yes, the system is still onerous to deal with and is not perfect, but it is not the hindrance that it once was. (I think it could be argued that the breweries had as big of a role in stalling the craft beer movement as the LCBO did.) The LCBO is probably the greatest influencer on what happens to craft beer and is doing better job at getting more seasonal products out to the province, while still finding room for new general list items. Not recognizing their role in the growth of craft beer would be shortsighted.

My theory is that the recent success by Ontario craft breweries in releasing more eclectic offerings has made the market more tempting for breweries outside of Ontario. Recent arrivals to the LCBO have included beers from Founder’s, Goose Island (being owned by AB-Inbev probably helps), Elysian, Green Flash and Phillips. Rogue started shipping kegs to go along with their bottles that appear in the LCBO. The gains that the Ontario breweries made is now making the market more attractive to outsiders, which in turn should cause the Ontario breweries to be more creative and experimental in their products.

In a year or two all the recent gains will seem trivial, just as all the hype over Smashbomb and Mad Tom seems funny now, but for now the golden age of beer is getting brighter by the month. The market shows no signs of slowing down – rather, increased competition seems to only drive craft beer to greater gains.

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2 responses to “Which Came First: the Chicken or the IPA?

  1. I must disagree with the writer, in suggesting that the LCBO has been the greatest influencer on craft beers. It is and always will be the consumer that drives the market. When a great craft beer is made available, the beer network is quick to get the word out. This stimulates enough sales to keep the LCBO bringing it in. Conversely, a lacklustre beer or one that didn’t travel well will not get the needed following to be continued. Supply and demand at its best! Being one of those guys who has been travelling to Buffalo and farther to find worthy craft beer, I do appreciate the fact that the LCBO has offered us a local source. Certainly they outshine the Beer Store, who continues to use a monopolistic approach th the beer choices there.

    • Thanks for the feedback! My reasoning for saying the LCBO has the greatest impact for craft beer is because it allows craft beer to reach the greatest audience. Without the LCBO, breweries are relying on a few craft beer bars to sell their product. People must know about these bars and frequent them with regularity. When the LCBO sells your product, there is now the potential to sell your beer across the province in stores that people are more likely to browse through. They may not go into a store looking for a certain product, but might find a beer they’ve never heard about.

      The LCBO reaches beyond just beer geeks to a wider section of the beer market. Getting a new beer listing in the LCBO can be huge for a brewery, especially as it means you can save time by not selling individual kegs to bars. As beer geeks who constantly follow the latest beer news (be it on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or word of mouth), LCBO listings may not always be the biggest news, but you have to look outside our narrow viewpoint to understand how the LCBO impacts the ordinary beer drinker.

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