Suds scene changes

Vet­eran beer-mak­ers, pro­mot­ers and lovers pre­dict the fu­ture of Toronto's ever-chang­ing beer land­scape

NOW Magazine - Beer Guide - - BEER GUIDE - By DAN GRANT

Two black taps. One said ale, the other lager. Those were your draught choices. “One would be a bit more bit­ter, so you could imag­ine 50 or Ex be­ing the ale, and Blue, maybe Cana­dian, would be the lager. But that was pri­mar­ily it,” says Roger Mit­tag of the dis­mal era when he started drink­ing beer.

“It was tav­erns. Pubs were just start­ing to come in.”

That was the 1970s. Thank­fully, it was near­ing the end of the bland era when beer, like food (think in­stant pota­toes, Minute Rice, frozen din­ners) was mar­keted to con­sumers who chose con­ve­nience over flavour.

Now, of course, the beer scene is much more vi­brant. With close to 150 brew­eries in op­er­a­tion, On­tario is near­ing the peak it reached in the 19th cen­tury. Se­lec­tion has ex­ploded, and so has in­ter­est.

This stag­ger­ing growth led Mit­tag to found Prud’homme Beer Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, his home­brewed ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, which awards beer som­me­lier cre­den­tials while fos­ter­ing dis­cern­ment.

The Etobicoke na­tive takes stu­dents through les­son plans that go well be­yond mem­o­riza­tion and sen­sory per­cep­tion. From is­sues with draught sys­tems to brew­ery tours and even a cook­ing class, the three-level pro­gram draws on his ex­ten­sive back­ground as an ed­u­ca­tor and con­sul­tant.

“Small batch beer!,” is the ral­ly­ing cry of the mi­cro­brew­ers, draw­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween their own hands-on ap­proach and the for­mu­laic recipes of the brew­ing gi­ants. But Mit­tag wor­ries some are putting too much em­pha­sis on the in­die cred that comes with be­ing small, cre­at­ing yet another di­vide be­tween them­selves and the craft brew­ers that are do­ing the most to change the pub­lic palate.

“There are peo­ple who view the suc­cess of Steam Whis­tle and Mill Street neg­a­tively,” he says, re­call­ing that every­one loved them when they were new. “but now that they’re do­ing things with great qual­ity and driv­ing their sales, they’re viewed as sell-outs. To me that’s sad, be­cause they’re re­ally the ones lead­ing the way.”

The in­dus­try is ma­tur­ing, but with that come grow­ing pains, and the moans are get­ting louder.

THE CHAL­LENGE OF RE­TAIL

As quickly as they’ve grown, On­tario craft brew­ers’ big­gest prob­lem isn’t lack of de­mand – at least not yet. There’s an enor­mous ap­petite for the lo­cal juice. The province’s dated re­tail­ing sys­tem, how­ever, is pre­vent­ing sup­ply from meet­ing de­mand.

On­tario liquor laws per­mit brew­ers to sell at their own phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion, the LCBO or the Beer Store. That’s it. And that’s a prob­lem.

The LCBO, de­rided by brew­ers for its cum­ber­some ap­proval and dis­tri­bu­tion process, is still the pre­ferred op­tion. In the past decade, On­tario craft beer has en­joyed nearly 35 per cent an­nual growth at the provin­cial agency, which doesn’t charge sup­pli­ers to be listed.

Now, how­ever, the LCBO is pass­ing on brews from pop­u­lar lo­cal pro­duc­ers, com­pelling some to make an ex­pen­sive gam­ble on a sys­tem they’d rather avoid or re­sort to pay­ing off pub­li­cans in order to grow their brand.

Kens­ing­ton Brew­ing Com­pany chose to roll the dice. In busi­ness only since 2011, it’s what’s known as a con­tract brewer, mean­ing its recipes are brewed at another fa­cil­ity with ex­tra ca­pac­ity. By the fall, KBCo hopes to move into a space cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion at 299 Au­gusta, but un­til then it has no re­tail shop of its own.

The brewer’s flag­ship beer, Au­gusta Ale, is listed at scores of LCBO lo­ca­tions from Ot­tawa to Lon­don and right up into cot­tage coun­try. Its sec­ond re­lease, Fish-Eye PA, has an even wider reach, from Wind­sor to Thun­der Bay. Last year’s fol­low-up, how­ever, met with a dif­fer­ent fate, de­spite be­ing both unique and very pop­u­lar.

Fruit Stand Wa­ter­melon Wheat, brewed for the summer of 2013, was a big seller at bars. The pub­lic liked it so well, they voted it the best sea­sonal beer in On­tario at Septem­ber’s Golden Tap Awards – im­pres­sive for a beer that was only avail­able on tap. Even that didn’t con­vince the LCBO to stock it for 2014.

“I’m not go­ing to bash the LCBO,” says KBCo

owner Brock Shep­herd. “They’ve been good to work with. It is cu­ri­ous, though. I went in yes­ter­day and saw two new Shock Top flavours [an Anheuser-Busch brand], and we can’t get in with ours.”

Shep­herd ended up tak­ing his award-win­ning beer to the only re­tail op­tion left. Un­like the govern­ment-owned LCBO, the pri­vately con­trolled Beer Store is open to any player with deep enough pock­ets. For KBCo that meant shelling out $15,000 to get into just 40 lo­ca­tions, where it fi­nally ap­peared a month af­ter bars started pour­ing it.

Bar­rie’s Fly­ing Mon­keys had a sim­i­lar prob­lem get­ting its new dark rye ale into the LCBO. It, too, grudg­ingly sent its Mata­dor 2.0: El Toro Bravo to the Beer Store shortly be­fore re­leas­ing a pub­lic state­ment im­plor­ing the govern­ment to open the sys­tem to new, pri­vate com­pe­ti­tion.

With­out com­ment­ing on why these two beers were re­jected, the LCBO says a range of fac­tors such as qual­ity, flavour, the brewer's mar­ket­ing plan and lo­cal tastes de­ter­mine whether a prod­uct is ac­cepted.

Each year, ac­cord­ing to se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant Lisa Mur­ray, more than 100 new On­tario craft beer prod­ucts are eval­u­ated by a tast­ing panel, in­clud­ing the brand cat­e­gory man­ager and brand prod­uct man­ager. At present the LCBO car­ries 227 dif­fer­ent On­tario craft beer prod­ucts and is in­tro­duc­ing 25 more this summer.

Cit­ing walk-in beer fridges at new and ex­panded lo­ca­tions, Mur­ray says the LCBO is keep­ing pace with the growth of the province’s scene.

“Peo­ple that have a new beer, come and see us.” Michael Han­cock feels dif­fer­ently. “I think the mar­ket is be­com­ing ex­tremely crowded – not just the num­ber of beers, but what the LCBO can han­dle,” says the head brewer at the newly opened Side Launch Brew­ing Com­pany in Colling­wood. The English­man has been part of the lo­cal in­dus­try for nearly four decades, hav­ing crossed the At­lantic in 1976 to be­come an engi­neer at Mol­son’s Toronto plant.

One of the most re­spected brew­ers in the province (see more on Side Launch, page 19), Han­cock has also faced his share of chal­lenges, from the clo­sure of Denison’s Brew­ing Com­pany, where his Weiss­bier gained in­ter­na­tional renown, to be­ing pre­vented by a le­gal tech­ni­cal­ity from brew­ing that same beer at Mill Street. For the last 10 years he’s been a con­tract brewer, rel­e­gated to observer sta­tus as oth­ers brewed his beer for him.

Now at Side Launch, Han­cock has an own­er­ship stake in a bricks-and-mor­tar fa­cil­ity where he once again is the brewer of record. It re­mains to be seen, how­ever, how the newly branded Side Launch Wheat will be re­ceived. Denison’s Weiss­bier was the high­est ranked he­feweizen in the world for close to a decade on one of the web’s most in­flu­en­tial sites.

“It’s ac­tu­ally a lit­tle em­bar­rass­ing, how that started,” con­cedes Han­cock. Rate­beer.com’s edi­tor-in-chief was rav­ing about it as early as 2002, “and ob­vi­ously that af­fected how other peo­ple view it.”

At the time, Denison’s was only avail­able at the Vic­to­ria Street brew pub now oc­cu­pied by the Beer Academy. Un­like other brands that would lose their char­ac­ter­is­tic fresh­ness af­ter be­ing bot­tled and shipped long dis­tances, his had the ad­van­tage of be­ing scored by a com­mu­nity of en­thu­si­asts drink­ing it at its source. “I’m sure peo­ple in Ger­many were say­ing, ‘Who the hell is this English guy in Toronto?’”

Rate­beer still lists Denison’s Weiss­bier as the third-best he­feweizen on the planet. Side Launch Wheat, de­spite be­ing brewed by Han­cock from the same recipe, still doesn’t fig­ure in the top 50. For­tu­nately, it is avail­able at plenty

of LCBO lo­ca­tions. (In­ci­den­tally, Side Launch Dark Lager – for­merly Denison's Dunkel – is num­ber two on rate­beer.com.)

NASTY COM­PE­TI­TION

Get­ting re­spect for an up­start brand would be a chal­lenge for any brewer. Mak­ing mat­ters worse is the sug­ges­tion that other, bet­ter-fi­nanced craft brew­ers are us­ing ne­fabi­ous means to re­strict the mar­ket­place.

No one is nam­ing names – at least not for the record – but bit­ter sales reps and their bosses all have sto­ries about brew­ers they used to ad­mire pay­ing to get their kegs onto draught lines at bars. That, in fact, is il­le­gal, but through creative mar­ket­ing (pa­tio um­brel­las, spon­sored par­ties, base­ball tick­ets or other favours), com­pa­nies with big­ger bud­gets can make it pretty easy for a publican to get com­pla­cent about their non-ro­tat­ing taps.

“Be­cause it’s so com­pet­i­tive, peo­ple are cut­ting deals and do­ing dif­fer­ent things,” ex­plains Mit­tag. “In­stead of craft brew­ers tak­ing [busi­ness] from big­ger brew­ers or in­ter­na­tional brew­ers, they’re tak­ing from each other.

“They’re hunt­ing in the same place. If you want to be suc­cess­ful and grow, you have to learn to hunt in places that aren’t over-hunted.”

THE WAY IT WAS

Try to imag­ine how much more com­pet­i­tive it would have been in the 19th cen­tury. Jor­dan St. John and Alan McLeod’s new book, On­tario Beer: A Heady His­tory Of Brew­ing From The Great Lakes To Hud­son Bay ($21.99, His­tory Press), tells of brew­eries op­er­at­ing side by side near Trin­ity Bell­woods Park. Three more were within stum­bling dis­tance of one another in Cork­town, sev­eral oth­ers in Rosedale Val­ley and the area we now call down­town. Toronto’s pop­u­la­tion at the time was ap­prox­i­mately 80,000.

To the east, Kingston’s 136 li­censed es­tab­lish­ments vied for the af­fec­tions of fewer than 9,000 res­i­dents. In Lon­don, mean­while, La­batt was out­pac­ing its com­peti­tors, build­ing an em­pire that con­tin­ued to add staff even through Pro­hi­bi­tion. Its In­dia Pale Ale fa­mously won the gold medal at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadel­phia and would re­main the brew­ery’s flag­ship brand un­til the 1950s.

But as larger brew­ers like La­batt gained ac­cess to bet­ter dis­tri­bu­tion, first through rail­ways and later high­ways, lo­cal brew­eries in smaller cen­tres couldn’t com­pete with the pres­tige (and pre­sum­ably bet­ter qual­ity) of the big­ger, more mech­a­nized ones. By 1958, On­tario had just five pro­duc­ers.

It wasn’t un­til the 1984, when Jim Brick­man started Brick Brew­ing in Water­loo, that new On­tario brew­eries started pop­ping up again. Up­per Canada, Welling­ton County, Great Lakes and Am­s­ter­dam fol­lowed in the next few of years, and de­spite some stag­na­tion in the 90s, the lo­cal scene has grown im­pres­sively ever since.

THE WAY IT WILL BE

Although the in­dus­try con­tin­ues to grow, some be­lieve a craft beer cull is com­ing. With a new gen­er­a­tion of beer snobs post­ing blogs and bark­ing opin­ions at any­one who’ll lis­ten, drinkers sud­denly have bet­ter in­for­ma­tion and ex­pect more from each pour.

“At some point con­sumers are go­ing to get tired of all things new all the time,” says Mit­tag. “The evo­lu­tion of beer has been about con­sis­tency and qual­ity and some­thing you know you can count on ev­ery time, rather than open­ing a cap and get­ting a sur­prise. The brew­ers who are go­ing to be suc­cess­ful over the next 10, 15, 20 years are go­ing to be the ones who pro­duce bal­ance, con­sis­tency and qual­ity ev­ery day, day in, day out, and not 100,000 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties.”

The head brewer at Side Launch, who has no in­ter­est in cut­ting deals, is count­ing on it. “If you stick to your guns,” de­clares Han­cock, “you can stand on the qual­ity of your beer. That, and your hon­our.”

TYP­I­CAL BAR TAPS 2014

TYP­I­CAL BAR TAPS 1970

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