Category Archives: Thoughts

Your Beer is Exciting Me

Over six months later, a lot of people still make reference to that time I called the Ontario beer industry “fucking boring.” Maybe it resonated with people or maybe it’s just because there haven’t been any posts since for people to talk to me about – I don’t know. For that reason it’s something I’m always thinking about too. There’s nothing in that post I regret saying and I stand behind what I wrote, but I don’t want that to be my last comment on the Ontario beer scene. I never know which post will be the last one on this blog and I don’t like the idea that my final words will be so negative about a beer industry that I’ve done my best to support. It might be the weather (this is being written on a beautiful day, as opposed to the frozen hell of February), but I’m feeling more positive about our beer industry these days.

The most exciting thing is that there are some new breweries making some really nice beer. I’d heard a lot of good things about Burdock and my first visit did not disappoint (neither have subsequent trips to the bottle shop). Folly (formerly Habits) is making some interesting saisons and adding a barrel aged program. They have recently re-branded to place an emphasis on the beer, which will hopefully help more beer lovers find this lovely spot. I’ve only had a couple of offerings from Rainhard, but they’ve been a solid start and my friend Sam usually says good things about their beers.

The beers from all three breweries have shown a lot of promise and made me excited to see what they’ll do next. Most importantly, the quality across these breweries has been very consistent. Nothing angers me more than a brewery that makes a great beer one week, then puts out a beer that never should have been released. This seems to plague a lot of new breweries (and a lot of established ones, too), so it’s pretty exciting to have three new breweries avoid this pitfall.

The past seven or eight months have also made me appreciate the diversity of beer styles within Ontario. I went down to Vermont with friends in June and within two days was sick of pale ales and IPAs. It was as if all the Vermont breweries decided to forget that other styles existed. Most recently I was in Seattle and spent an afternoon do a brewery crawl in the Ballard neighbourhood. Almost every brewery had Citra and Mosaic single hop pale ales, which makes for an interesting comparison but a bit of palate fatigue (not to mention that it was the end of fresh hop season). No one stuck out as doing something really different.

On both trips I had this nagging thought that Vermont and Seattle were lacking the wide variety of beer styles that you can find in Ontario. It has become very common to see a saison or berliner weisse on draught lists in Toronto (often more than one). Yes, pale ales are still the standard, but they are never the only option. Ontario is even starting to become interested in making interesting lagers (Amsterdam Starke Pils, Burdock West Coast Pils), while Vermont and Seattle were dominated purely by ales. Obviously it was a very small sample size, but I love that Ontario breweries are willing to brew such a wide variety of styles.

A bunch of things are still boring (beer in grocery stores, Mill Street finally getting bought by one of the big conglomerates, everything about the LCBO including the growler station), but there are now a growing number of breweries with bottles to go (Left Field, Burdock and Rainhard, to name three newer breweries) that it’s easier to get fresh beer directly from the source and not have to worry about Ontario’s archaic distribution system (or the amount of shelf space the LCBO is giving to boring beers from contract breweries). Given how terrible the LCBO is in providing shelf space for interesting beers that don’t suck, I’m really surprised that Ontario has come so far in producing quality beers. Things will get really exciting if the province ever gets its act together and modernizes the sale of beer.

Your Beer is Boring Me

The Ontario beer scene has gotten so fucking boring.

I started blogging in 2009, back when we were still using the term “microbrewery.” Things were pretty shitty, but they were getting better. It was still a big deal to have Dieu du Ciel available. IPAs were weird to the average beer drinker. Restaurants didn’t offer good beer. Most bars only offered bottled beers purchased from the LCBO or Beer Store. But the culture was starting to change and it was exciting.

Over five years later, it feels like the industry has grown up, settled down, had a couple of kids and gotten comfortable with a slightly larger pay cheque. (Most of that also applies to me. I realize that.) Really good breweries opened. Some existing breweries turned shit around and became really good. Other breweries just continued making good beer. The level of standard for beer in Ontario was raised by a huge margin in the past five years.

So why is the Ontario beer scene boring?

Because fewer breweries are trying to raise the bar. It seems like the age of experimentation is over with a lot of breweries. I can just imagine there are a few breweries where someone said, “Look, we made a hoppy beer, what more do you fucking want?” The recent trend has been scaling intensity back for a wider audience, leading to breweries touting their crushable new beers. I love the sessionable beer trend, but that doesn’t mean to stop putting beers in barrels and playing around with new yeasts and hops. And no, taking the Dogfish Head approach of putting unique/random ingredients into your beer doesn’t mean you’re an experimental brewery.

There are exceptions to this. I’m not saying that all breweries have stopped this, more that it has been toned down in recent years. While overall quality for a lot of breweries has increased in the past couple of years, it has come at the expense of some of their more unique offerings.

Because the new imports on draught are boring. Having Stone, Ommegang, BrewDog and Atwater on tap seemed cool at first. It was a sign that things were opening up slightly for draught beers and that people were realizing there was a market for craft taps from outside of Ontario. While most of the new beers are good, they are mainly limited to the one or two big sellers from the breweries. Maybe this will lead to more interesting offerings in a couple of years, but for now we’re basically getting the excess production that can’t be sold south of the border.

Things would have been very different if these beers came to Ontario five years ago, but you can find lots of comparable beers brewed in the province. (In my opinion, there are better IPAs made in Ontario, so why would I buy the Stone IPA other than as a change of pace every now and then? The one exception is the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, though I haven’t had it on tap here yet.) For the consumer, the long-term impact might be really interesting. In the short-term, I’m trying to stifle my yawn.

Because I’m fed up with our retail system. This winter I tried to stock up on good beer before my beer trading stopped due to freezing temperatures. I remembered from previous years how bleak things get in February when the LCBO has had the same seasonal beers on the shelves for a month and nothing new is in sight. The LCBO floods its shelves before the holiday season, then we are left with the scraps for months until the temperature warms up. In some ways my planned work, except it’s hard to stock up on IPAs when you’re trying to drink them fresh.

So many words have been wasted on how awful it is to buy alcohol in Ontario. The LCBO and Beer Store model makes it harder for breweries to build a diverse portfolio, because getting shelf space takes money (Beer Store) or luck (LCBO). For both systems, it’s best to make a lot of one or two beers that are widely distributed, meaning store shelves look the same month after month, year after year. For those that want to try new beers with an obsessive zeal, we have a retail system that makes beer extremely boring.

Because the new breweries suck. Breweries are opening at a staggering rate in Ontario. Go into Volo or Bar Hop on any given night and you’re likely to find a beer on tap from a brewery you’ve never heard of. I have often ordered beers from unknown breweries, because, well, that’s what I do. On nights where luck is on my side, the beer might be pretty average. Many times they have been fucking terrible. No surprise, those breweries are often never seen back on the draught list.

Obviously you can’t have every new brewery be the next Bellwoods. It often takes time for brewers to figure out their system, tweak recipes and really hit their stride. But I’m tired of drinking crap beer just to support the new guys and hope that they get better. I love that a lot of the new breweries are trying to be creative and are not just making generic pale ales, but don’t sacrifice quality. I’m sure some of these breweries will figure shit out and become the next big thing in Ontario, but for now I’m going to drink from breweries I can count on.

Does this slightly contrast with my earlier point that fewer breweries are trying to raise the bar? Yes, in a way it does, but quality has to factor into the equation. I’m also not sure if these new breweries are trying to raise the bar or just stand out in a more crowded market. (Though that’s my biased opinion from living in Toronto, where great beer is plentiful. If you live in a smaller town where your options for local beer are limited, that new brewery can be seen as raising the bar for the province as a whole.)

That’s my rant, one that may be affected by the freezing temperatures and general malaise that strikes at the end of February. Maybe I’m just becoming less and less interested in beer, as evidenced by my lack of motivation to blog or tweet about beer. But I’m starting to think that part of the reason is because Ontario is just boring the fuck out of me right now.

The C Word

I just finished reading The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery. (Okay, I read most of it, but the parts on the American beer distribution system were pretty boring.) It was an interesting read at times, both in terms of addressing some aspects of American craft beer history that I knew nothing of and because so much of it related to conversations that have beer taking place a lot in recent months about the current influx in “craft” breweries in Ontario. And yes, those quotes are a foreshadowing of what to expect.

The book spent a lot of time mentioning Jim Koch – more time than anyone else, including Fritz Maytag and Jack McAuliffe. No surprise, not everyone is a fan of Jim and the Boston Beer Company. The books goes into shouting matches that Jim had with other breweries and a lot of behind the scenes encounters that I’m sure some people would rather not have had published. A lot of it had to with Boston Beer Company being a contract brewer – two words that still create controversy to this day.

Anyone thinking of starting a brewery should read The Craft Beer Revolution because it really details what it’s like to be starting a new brewery. There isn’t one mold to be a successful brewery. The people behind the biggest craft breweries in the States are a mix of backgrounds. Some are business minded (Jim Koch), while others are homebrewers turned professional. It takes a wide variety of skills in order to run a brewery, but all breweries run into the same people – it’s fucking expensive to start your own brewery. Equipment is expensive, as are making any necessary renovations to the space to make it fit for brewing. Then there are ingredients, staff, marketing, signage and ten thousand other things you need. It’s no surprise that smaller nano breweries have become popular and that contract brewing has almost become a necessary step for most breweries.

It’s been thirty years since Jim Koch brewed his first batch of beer in his kitchen and contract brewing is still as controversial now as it was when Sam Adams started its rise to the largest craft brewer in the US. While Americans have been arguing over contract brewing for decades, it has only become a gripe for Ontario breweries in the past year or two. When you look at a number of the biggest new breweries of the past three to five years, most have chosen to start as contract breweries (Double Trouble, Kensington, Left Field, Sawdust City, Spearhead). Sawdust City is the first to open their own brewery, while two others are working at getting breweries ready, but are finding that it takes a lot of time and money. The other two are happy enough so far to brew elsewhere, which annoys some people.

I can understand both pro and con sides to the contract brewing argument. For breweries that have invested everything they have in their company, it is annoying that a contract operation can steal your business at a fraction of the cost. Some will eventually open a brewery, while others are created to try and make a quick buck with little interest in giving back to the overall craft beer industry (Triple Bogey anyone?). But if I were to start a craft brewery, as someone that loves craft beer but has no actual experience in brewing, contract would be the way I go. Hire a brewer, make a bunch of one beer to start, hopefully get in the LCBO and spend extra cash on marketing. Then use that as a basis to search for investors to start a physical brewery.

A lot of griping comes from the presumed intent of the brewery. Are they in it as a business venture of because of the love of beer? Well, why can’t it be both? Beer geeks can’t run all the breweries, or else craft beer would be too weird and esoteric for most of the general population. Everyone has their own ideal beer – for some it’s super hoppy, for others it may be a locally made lager that tastes like a macro brewed beer but comes from close to home and isn’t filled with adjuncts. As they told us in library school, for every book a reader and for every reader a book. Some of these breweries must be hitting markets that current breweries are missing or else they wouldn’t manage to stay in business.

I also find it interesting because breweries are not static entities. Two of my favourite local breweries (Amsterdam and Great Lakes) have changed so much in the past five years that they are barely recognizable. Great Lakes started out brewing with malt extract, so they should be the poster boy in Ontario for showing how much a brewery can change. The future is impossible to predict and I would wager that one maligned contract brewery currently operating will look significantly different in ten years.

To bring this around full circle, I found some of Steve Hindy’s comments to be a little funny seeing as Brooklyn started as a contract brewery. It’s basically the same thing as Kensington – contract brewery named for a location that didn’t initially start brewing in that location. Junction started out as a contract, but eventually found a home in (or at least near) the Junction. Contract brewing is a way to get a quicker and cheaper start in the industry, but most contract operations eventually realize that you need your own brewery, whether it’s because being a contract brewery is limiting production, doesn’t give the flexibility needed or some other reason.

There is no doubt that we’re encountering a weird, wacky time in the Ontario beer world, one that we’ve never seen before. Contract brewing is bound to get more controversial as new breweries continue to enter the market, but it is unfair to treat all contract operations as a homogenous group. As a beer lover, I have faith that quality will be a determining factor in the long-term success of any new brewery.

The Future of the OCB and OCB Week

Last week I got ready for OCB Week as many people do –  by perusing the list of events on the OCB Week website. One or two events looked interesting, but I was pretty dismayed by what was happening in Toronto. Three breweries (Amsterdam, Beau’s and Mill Street) dominated the listings. Most other breweries were at one of the two festivals (Session or Beaches BBQ) and that was their only real OCB Week participation. My brief Twitter poll confirmed that most people felt the same way.

A bit more research led to finding some events that weren’t on the website, but it didn’t really make a big chance to the rather boring slate of offerings. It got me thinking – is this just a one year blip or is it indicative of larger problems with OCB Week and the OCB itself?

The OCB always seemed like a bit of an odd organization during my years as a blogger.  Their main objective has always been outreach and promotion – getting OCB brands into LCBOs, combining economic power to create end of aisle displays and creating informational resources for the public (podcasts, pamphlets, etc). They have recently done more educational work for the industry with a conference and various lectures throughout the year, but this aspect still seems to be developing.

I’ll admit to never really trying to find out what the OCB viewed as their main goal for Ontario. My relationship with them existed mainly as a series of retweets and I never questioned what they were trying to do, though it always seemed like the OCB was capable of so much more. As the voice of Ontario breweries, why wasn’t the OCB been an advocate for changes in our retail options? Why haven’t they complained about craft-y brands (Creemore, Beer Academy) like the Brewer’s Association? The OCB has always come off as very conservative – opting to play within the system rather than railing against. For this reason I wonder if the OCB is reaching the end of its shelf life.

By my count, the OCB website lists forty breweries as members. Many newer breweries (Bellwoods, Indie, Kensington, Spearhead, Beyond the Pale and Forked River are some examples) are not OCB members. One can speculate some reasons why these breweries are not members – they do not produce enough beer to sell in the LCBO and therefore see no advantage in joining the OCB, or they feel they are better at branding and marketing their beer than the OCB. Whatever the reason, the fact that many new breweries are not joining the OCB ranks should create some panic to those in charge. Being an OCB member might have been crucial six or seven years ago, but its value is clearly under question. This is the biggest sign to me that the OCB needs to modernize itself in order to stay relevant to consumers and breweries.

As fewer breweries join the OCB, the events of OCB Week start to suffer as well. Non-OCB breweries are obviously excluded from most events, or the events do not get published on the OCB Week website. Session was one exception, as many non-OCB members were allowed to participate. (Why were there non-OCB breweries while Amsterdam and Cameron’s did not have booths?) Aside from that festival, the most interesting event in Toronto involves two non-OCB breweries as Indie Ale House and Bellwoods combine for a tap takeover at Bar Hop. This event just serves as a reminder that some of the most innovative breweries are choosing not to be OCB members.

OCB Week also needs to be moved out of the month of June. While it made sense three or four years ago to tie the week to the start of beer season and Father’s Day, the landscape has changed and it has to be harder for breweries to help put on events. There are currently more beer festivals through the province than ever before. Every major city now seems to have at least one festival in the summer (with cities such as Burlington and Hamilton joining the list this year), which adds to the workload for breweries and their sales reps. I can understand why breweries that were at both Session and the Beaches BBQ festival would be reluctant to plan extra events during the week. An OCB Week in March or April would allow more breweries to participate while not impacting the beer festival season.

As I said, maybe this is a one year anomaly with the OCB Week, but it shows greater cracks within the larger system. The OCB needs to realize that beer has become political and must become a stronger lobbying organization with a voice that meets the demands of craft breweries. It needs to develop a definition for craft beer in Ontario – it could copy the Brewer’s Association or create its own template. Most importantly, it must become an organization that every brewery in Ontario wants to be a part of or else risk becoming irrelevant.

Beer Fatigue, or The Trials of Too Many Beers

There have been times when beer friends have told me they are getting bored with beer, which prompted a reaction close to “Wha-wha-whaaaaat?! Sacrilege!” But lately I have felt the same way on occasion, though the feeling doesn’t usually last long. Being a hardcore beer geek – one that tracks release schedules, seeks out the new and unusual, will call and visit multiple stores to find the beer they want – is a time consuming hobby, especially when the payoff isn’t there when compared to cost (both monetary and time/energy).

One of the reasons I love beer (and I think a lot of people would agree with me) is the wide variety of styles and flavours. There may not be another beverage in existence with the possibility for such a wide range of flavours as beer. There are more beers than one could ever try in a lifetime. You may be like me and have a bucket list of ones to seek and try, though it seems like whenever I cross one off I find another to take its place. The search for new beers can go on forever if that’s your game. I would say that this is at least partially true for all beer geeks, whether you’re a ticker on Untappd/Rate Beer/Beeradvocate or not.

The problem I’m finding in my search for new beers is that it is becoming harder for a beer to absolutely blow me away. We all know that feeling of having a beer hit all of our pleasure centres at once and being transported to our happy place. This experience is becoming rare as I try more beers. Every new beer is being compared to the great number of beers that came before. Does it offer an interesting new flavour or flavour combination? Is it as good as that other beer in the same style? It’s becoming tougher to find a beer to really, truly excite me as my drinking history grows.

I am envious of people just starting out their exploration into the world of craft beer because of this. Everything is new and exciting when you’re just beginning to drink craft beer. There are so many firsts – one for every style of beer! My first imperial stout was probably the Wellington Russian Imperial Stout, sitting in front of the fireplace at C’est What. It was served in a pint glass and luckily the keg blew right after my pint, because I would have ordered more and had a very messy night not knowing the ABV of that strong beer. That pint was pretty fucking fantastic. The Welly RIS was in pretty limited production around then and I sought it out whenever it was made. Since then I’ve tried a lot of imperial stouts and my perception of the Wellington version is considerably different now. That’s not a comment on the quality of that beer, but just an example of how our tastes and perceptions change as we drink more beer. The Wellington version is a good introduction to the style, but it just touches on the possible flavours one can find in an imperial stout. It’s easy to think that every beer is great when you’re just starting to get into craft beer because, well, you just don’t know better! (I probably should have found a better example than the Wellington RIS as this paragraph sounds like a backhanded compliment. It is a beer that is still dear to me.)

It probably doesn’t help that my palate has become Americanized in the past six or seven years. Everything has to be bigger and stronger. Once you’ve become accustomed to really hoppy or really strong beers it is hard to train the palate to find equal joy in the subtleties of a clean lager or low ABV British ale. Is there any wonder why I love the session IPA because I need the big hops but don’t always want the alcohol? It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there’s a correlation between my preference for beer styles and the occasional bit of beer fatigue.

So why do I keep going? Though the “Oh god this is so good I’m so happy I could die right now” moments are rare these days, it’s still a pretty special feeling when it happens. While I like bourbon, scotch and food, none of those other things gives the same satisfaction as an amazing beer does. I’m also grateful that brewers are still experimenting, which means that new flavours are out there waiting for me to try and get obsessed over (currently infatuation – brett IPAs). When a time of beer fatigue does hit, I’m happy to drink something else and give my palate and neural synapses a chance to hit refresh, knowing that beer will always be waiting for me when I’m ready to come back. And I always come back.

The Beer Hype Machine

When really I started to get into beer four or five years ago, the Quebec beer scene was getting talked up like it was the Beer Promised Land. There was this brewery called Dieu du Ciel! that was relatively small and you could only get their beer in Quebec. The Mondial festival was still being held at Windsor Station and was an internationally renowned beer festival. It seemed that someone was taking off to enjoy the beer pleasures of Montreal every other weekend.

I will admit to getting sucked in by the hype. My first bottles of Peche Mortel (brought back from Montreal) were savored during my one year of grad school in London, Ont and only consumed for special occasions, like the end of a semester. Montreal was nice for quick and relatively cheap trips after graduating and visiting my wife’s family in Ottawa usually meant a trip over to Gatineau. I had to admit that there was a lot of nice beer being made in la belle province, but there was also a lot of junk. Why did it seem like everyone had beer blinders on?

Most beer people in Ontario are jealous of Quebec’s beer laws. Corner stores and grocery stores can sell beer made in Quebec and there is a lot less red tape. For the most part that is great, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home with a lot of old beer that was past its prime. (I do take partial responsibility. This was before I knew to check for bottling dates or for tell-tale floaties at the bottom of the beer.) That’s assuming the beer was good in the first place – there are a couple of breweries in Quebec that I would say have Trafalgar-esque track records.

Eventually beer from Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix, Trois Mousquetaires and other breweries started coming to Ontario, which has increased the hype about Quebec beer in some ways, but has also lessened the hype as this is not as rare or scarce of a product anymore. As soon as something becomes available to the LCBO (and, by extension, the general populace), it loses some of the mystique. All you have to do is walk/bike/drive/take transit to an LCBO, rather than spend five hours traveling to a different province. Is it any surprise that people talk less about going to Montreal to stock up on beer?

Michigan became the next trendy beer destination for a year or two as people got their fill of Bell’s and Founders (also coming to the LCBO soon). Now Vermont is the preferred destination for anyone in the eastern half of North America, driven largely by the fact that you can only get Hill Farmstead or Heady Topper by visiting the brewery. Scarcity and hype are driving the market once again, which will likely remain until these breweries eventually start distributing throughout the States. We are once again reduced to talking in generalizations about a state, emphasizing the good and leaving out the bad (for surely there are bad breweries in Vermont, but everyone is too focused on a select number to notice).

I’m no psychology major, but it seems pretty obvious that when someone spends four-plus hours traveling for beer that comes with lots of hype, it’s quite likely that there will be some mental self-trickery happening when that beer hits their tongue. (A simple Google search could probably tell me what this is called, but I’m too fucking lazy and it’s not like this blog technically exists anymore.) We’re primed to think that beer is great because a) that’s what everyone tells us and b) WE JUST SPENT ALL THAT TIME GETTING HERE FOR THIS DAMN BEER!

That’s not to say that Dieu du Ciel! or Hill Farmstead aren’t world class breweries. They are. But the availability of a beer changes our perceptions. Would Hill Farmstead still be so interesting if they started widely distributing their beers? Is Heady Topper just the east coast second coming of Pliny the Elder? I wish it was possible, but beer cannot be tasted in a vacuum. There are all these external factors that influence our perception of the beer we taste.

I’m clearly a little rusty in my writing, because no grand finale is coming to me. So let me just remind everyone that it’s okay not to like a beer. Even if the whole world disagrees with you, stand by your opinion. Some of the hype is true, some of it is bullshit. Only you know which is which.

Brands on the Brain

The summer is almost over and breweries will slowly be ramping down production as their busiest season comes to an end. Fermenters will be freeing up for new seasonals and stronger winter beers. It is a good time for breweries to look at their sales numbers and figure out what beers people are buying a lot of and if there are brands that can should maybe be phased out of production.

The beer industry is dynamic and tastes are always changing. Ontario is undergoing a rapid change right now and the breweries are doing a decent job of keeping up with the evolving demands of the consumer. But one area that breweries could improve is by looking at their core brands and figure out if any of them are under performing. There are a good number of breweries, especially those that have existed for ten or more years, that have brands that are too similar.

I understand that the best-selling beers for most breweries is an easy drinking lager or ale. It sells well and makes money, even if the more adventurous offerings are doing well and likely growing at a larger rate. The best-selling beer can be sold to the greatest amount of bars and is easy to take to summer festivals around the province. People won’t be scared away by it when they come for a brewery tour. It may act as a gateway beer or just be the everyday beer that people in the local community can drink. I’m not advocating getting rid of that beer. It’s that beer you’ve got right beside it, the cream ale or stock ale, that leaves me puzzled.

Two Ontario breweries that I can think of (Muskoka and Cameron’s) have lagers and cream ales. Mill Street has their Organic Lager and a Stock Ale. Wellington has the Special Pale Ale and Best Bitter. (Read the descriptions of the beers and tell me they don’t sound almost exactly the same.) Maybe these beers seemed vastly different they were introduced to the market, but now the breweries are left pushing what seem like very similar beers.  The longer they keep both brands alive, the more time and effort they are wasting in the brand that sells less. (They’re also wasting valuable LCBO shelf space, which will become more important in the coming years.)

This isn’t a judgment on any of the beers. And yes, I am well aware that lagers and ales are very different, nor am I claiming that any of the above beers taste the same. It just seems like a bizarre business move to have beers that are close to being interchangeable. Are reps going into bars and saying, “Well, maybe you don’t like our lager but have you tried our cream ale?” You might as well say, “Here’s a variation of the beer you just turned down.” Why not get rid of the brand that sells less, push more of the better selling beer and use the extra fermenter space to try something new?

A good example of a brewery that does this right is Beau’s. The Lug Tread is their flagship and none of the seasonal beers could be confused with that beer. They realize what their main money maker is and don’t undercut that brand by releasing something similar. The fact that the Lug Tread is also their only year-round beer also helps in that regard.

Stopping production on beers is not unheard of in Ontario. Muskoka tried a Pilsner Light beer but eventually canned it after a couple of years (pun intended). Their Hefe Weiss went from year-round in cans to a seasonal product, so it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent. As the craft beer industry becomes more competitive in the coming years, my theory is that breweries will have to talk a hard look at what they are making and figure out how to distinguish themselves from the competition. Hopefully they will realize that focusing more energy on one or two core brands will help them in the long run. The short-term pains of angering beer drinkers losing their favourite beer will be met by bigger long-term gains.

Searching for the Perfect Summer Beer

IMG_4324Everyone remember the beginning of July when it was 40º C and really gross? I looked in my fridge and it was full of all the usual beer geek delights – IPAs and pale ales, a couple of porters and stouts, the odd strong bottle left over from spring and a good chunk of sours that had just returned from Belgium. There were some great beers, but I didn’t want to drink any of them. I wanted something lighter, more refreshing and a beer that wouldn’t challenge my taste buds too drastically on the way down. At the same time, I still desired something with character and a beer that would match well with the lighter foods that constitute summer cooking. (I live in a BBQ-less universe, so my wife makes a lot of delicious grain salads in the summer.) I also wanted a beer that could easily be transported around town (both from the LCBO and to summer gatherings) so I limited my options to cans.

I went shopping to a couple of LCBOs without checking what they had in stock and started picking an assortment of beers. My carts were filled with cans from around the globe – European lagers nestled next to Ontario craft beers and I even threw in some of the retro hipster brands from the Big Boys. Most of the beers I hadn’t tried in years and it seemed only fair to give everyone a chance at being my mainstay for the summer months. My hope was to find something that would be available at most LCBOs in order to maximize convenience, while not giving up taste. Ideally the beer was also going to be 5% ABV or less and available in tall boys, though it didn’t matter if they were lagers or ales.

I used to have a favourite can for summer, back when Muskoka canned the Hefe Weiss. Since then the brand has been changed to Summer Weiss, went to big bottles (then six packs) and lost me along the way. At the time, it seemed like it was going to be a long, hot summer and I knew that my current beer selection would not do. Of course, the summer has turned out to be relatively mild and it has been easy to drink whatever a beer geek fancies, but I kept going through with my quest. The weather is supposed to heat up in Toronto this week, so this may be the last chance to release my findings at an appropriate time.

A couple of early offerings were Ontario beers that hadn’t crossed my palate in some time, but neither the Wellington Best Bitter or Muskoka Cream Ale matched what I was looking for (a little too much malt in the former, while the latter just made no sense to my taste buds). The hipster retro offerings (Molson Old Style Pilsner and Labatt 50) were more exciting than your average industrial beer, but neither would be able to hold my interest over the course of the summer.

Next up were some middle of the road offerings – Cameron’s Lager and the Hogtown Ale (which is of the Kölsch family). Two beers that were easy to drink and with a bit more complexity than the ones listed above, but they didn’t stand out from the pack. The Cameron’s Lager was clean with lots of cereal grains coming though, but too empty in the finish. The Hogtown Ale had some noble hop characteristics that were nice and helped create a dry finish, but the beginning was too sweet and the beer lacked some finesse. It is also only available in Toronto, which isn’t helpful for the rest of the province.

That Pilsner Urquell would be one of the top two choices is probably not a surprise. It is the classic example of a Bohemian lager, well balanced and with a great evolution from start to finish. This is a refreshing beer, while still being very tasty and intriguing. The second beer that will be a mainstay for hot days is the Steam Whistle Pilsner. Most beer geeks relegate Steam Whistle as one of the beers they drink when nothing else is available, which is a disservice to this beer. It won’t do the trick for those times when you’re craving a pale ale, IPA or stout, but works quite nicely when you’re drinking a fresh can on a hot day. It avoids the lager trap of being too sweet and just feels right for those really hot days. Plus, it’s just about impossible to walk into an LCBO and find some cans. I’ll admit that Steam Whistle wouldn’t have been my guess for a beer to come out on top of this exercise, but maybe the beer has slowly worn me down through the years.

So that was my very unscientific experiment of the summer. There will probably be people that say, “I can’t believe you didn’t try (insert beer name)!” but remember that I just went to an LCBO and picked what was available. I also purposefully avoided hoppy beers like Crazy Canuck, because there are enough of those in my fridge and the whole point was to look for something different. If you’ve got a go to summer can for hot days, camping trips or park afternoons, let me know in the comments.

The Ontario Microbrewery Strategy and the Politics of Craft Beer

There has been a small amount of debate recently over the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy and what involvement the provincial government should have in supporting the craft beer industry in Ontario. The money ($1.2 million/year through 2016) comes from the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment and goes to helping breweries with marketing, training and tourism opportunities, all in the name of job creation (though the fact that craft beer keeps seeing rapid increases in sales at the LCBO probably helps).

Trying to talk about the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy without getting into personal political beliefs is rather hard. There are those who think that government money should not be used to support industries, regardless of size or location. Others will argue that such initiatives are welcome for craft breweries that struggle to compete against the international conglomerates that are able to utilize economies of scale, large marketing budgets and other possible tax incentives that encourage industries to stay within a city/province/country.

Then there is the issue of how the government should support the industry, which is raised in a very interesting article by Porter’s House Beer in the article “How much beer will $2.4 million buy?” To me, the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy is better for larger craft breweries (Muskoka, Mill Street, Beaus are three examples) that have established brands, bigger market share and multiple beers that get distributed throughout the province. That may not seem fair, but these are the breweries that have worked hard to develop the craft market and should be rewarded for their efforts. While the money is not sustainable, it would not be a large hindrance to the breweries should the money even disappear.

Others, such as Junction owner Tom Paterson in this CBC article/video, want grants or loans to assist new breweries. This is an idea I want to support as a craft beer lover until my the logical side of my brain takes over. Craft breweries, just like any business, should be responsible for finding their own investors to front the capital costs. (I was going to mention small business loans – oops, just did – but then realized that the startup costs for a new brewery would mean any loan would probably buy one-tenth of a fermenter). The number of new breweries set to open in the next year or two is astounding, so people are evidently finding sources of money to cover startup costs. I’m sure it’s tough work, but isn’t that what every small business owner/entrepreneur says?

The number of new breweries opening in the province right now is staggering and my fear is that making it easier to find money to open a brewery (or expand production facilities) would lead to a lot more supply than demand. Ontario seems to be blissfully living in a state where any craft beer will sell, but that will definitely not be the case forever. Studies have shown that people will give up larger luxuries during tough economic times (say, vacations or cars) and indulge in less expensive ways (like switching from cheap lagers to craft beer). I wouldn’t be surprised if some of craft beers current growth could be explained by this phenomenon. Simply creating more craft breweries would not help the industry grow in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Ontario microbreweries and brew pubs are already taxed significantly less than the competing beer manufacturers. This is a small measure, but the easiest way to help all Ontario craft brewers regardless of size. It requires no extra provincial money and should the government ever raise the tax, the breweries could simply pass the cost onto the consumer (and hopefully make a big stink about that fact).

If people have their own opinion or other options for how the government could help, please put them in the comments. (Just please don’t mention selling the LCBO or privatization – that’s not going to happen and I’m tired of talking about the possibility.) There is also a good chance I have misremembered information from some of my undergrad Economics courses, so go ahead and refute anything that is incorrect. WordPress doesn’t come with a fact checker.

This Beer Tastes Like a Rothko

A lot of ink (both real and virtual) has been used to define the craft beer movement. For the most part, craft beer has often been defined by industrial terms (the way beer is produced, how much is produced, who produces the beer) and cultural (people drink craft beer because it offers a wide variety of new and interesting tastes). While both of these points are crucial to understanding what is happening right now with beer, it still feels as though there is an element lacking when describing the current beer world in such terms. The amount of innovation and experimentation going on in breweries around the world is missing when you only look at the industrial and cultural sides of the equation.

My memory of the four cinema studies courses I took in undergrad is kind of hazy by now, but the method of viewing works of art through various lenses (cultural/economic/technological/aesthetic) has always stuck in my brain. Recently a question popped in my head – could we define the current craft beer world as an artistic movement ? This may sound kind of crazy, but it fills the void not covered by looking at beer through the industrial and cultural spheres. It acknowledges that there is more happening with craft beer right now than just people making (and drinking) beer in a more traditional manner.

A lot of early craft brewers focused more on reviving styles and bringing back flavour to beer. That is not to say that the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale wasn’t an innovative beer, but it was still just barley, hops, water and yeast. Anchor was brewing their Steam and later Porter. Porters may have been almost extinct, but it was still based on tradition. Many breweries started through the 80s were usually making a pale, amber or brown ale – interesting beers when lager dominated the market, but not quite exploring new ground in an historical sense.

The beer world has significantly changed since then and I would argue it is possible to view a lot of new beers as part of a larger movement within the beer industry. Playing around with ingredients has become normalized in the craft beer industry and can be viewed as modernist or postmodern. Breweries are now exploring ingredients and beer styles that would have been unimaginable when the craft beer industry started. If you’re reading this in Ontario, you have probably tried either the Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale or the Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale – two beers that you could drink without knowing they had extra ingredients. Of course the twist to the pale ale style is part of the marketing of these beers, yet the final products can easily be enjoyed without being aware of the extra ingredients.

Think about all those times someone has said, “It’s good, but it’s not really a saison” (or whatever style the beer claims to be). It happens fairly often. But what if we were to call that beer a modernist saison? Is it now allowed to bend and play around with the saison style? In a way, it all goes back to how styles are defined and the flexibility of a brewer to test the boundaries of how we define any particular style (or even how we define beer).

This isn’t a stretch when you think of molecular gastronomy/modernist cuisine (or whatever you want to call it). It’s not a perfect comparison (molecular gastronomy joins the worlds of science and fine dining, while beer and science are old friends), but the cerebral component is similar. The goal is still to put together something tasty, but also challenge the audience into thinking about what they are consuming. It challenges our notion of how we define something, whether eating eggs benedict at wd-50 or a beer made with ten different ingredients. Going back to the Spearhead and Kissmeyer beers, they strike me as modernist pale ales – they fit the style yet do so with a twist. Cynics may claim that a lot of these beers are just a way to differentiate one pale ale from the larger market, but I think they are indicative of a larger movement happening in craft beer.

That is not to say that all craft beers fit in the frame of modernism, the same way that not all films made in France from the late 50s through the 60s were New Wave. Breweries often test boundaries while make a range of beers that fit within normal style guidelines. But having a term for all these beers that defy, test or play around with styles seems important as more breweries experiment with flavours and techniques.