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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are Ontario Craft Brewers Cutting the Mustard

Someone over on BeerAdvocate recently posed this question in a new thread and the answers have taken off.

Last night I went through the OCB website ad nauseum. I looked over all the offerings listed and checked their reviews on BA. Upon completing this enlightening task, I was left with one question: Where are the world class brews?

Quebec seems loaded with breweries pushing the envelope of beer by creating exciting brews and of course you've got your Belgian's and German's and English breweries kicking out classic staples. We don't even need to mention the incredible things happening in American micro breweries.

When you compare it to what Ontario is doing, we seem to pale in comparison. There's a lack of high gravity beers, very little in the way of anything experimental and so on. It almost seems like Ontario brewers are focusing on making craft brewed versions of your typical macros.

Now, I'm not saying there's no good beers. There are a lot. But not nearly on the scale as our neighbours to the east and south. Am I out to lunch here or just missing something?
As I mentioned, a lively debate has arisen around this topic and some very good points raised.

As a reader of this blog you are no doubt aware of my support for all Canadian craft beer. I don't play favourites, I don't look at one province being better than any others, Instead I prefer to look at the brewing scene in Canada as a whole, which is what I think is wrong with this question.

The writer mentions the Belgians and he Germans and their classic styles, which as we know, are two brewing nations largely considered to be two of the best in the world, right up there with the American's, and he goes on to wonder where Ontario fits into the equation. A more accurate evaluation might focus on where does Canada fit globally and where more specifically, where does Ontario fit into the Canadian scene? It's unfair to look at a single province alongside these incredible brewing nations, and comparisons to America are moot when you consider the vast cultural and population differences. That's for another day.

A lot of the responses zero in on the problems with the LCBO and the Beer Store. Some focus on the high cost of distributing through our Ontario system and the listing fees, and others call out the brewers for not being experimental enough - an approach which highlights the differences in retail offerings between other provinces and Ontario (there is even a thread growing on Bar Towel about this).

Firstly, let's look at the LCBO. Yes, we all agree that the LCBO could be doing more to help small breweries with their presence in stores province-wide, but seriously, if the LCBO sent Muskoka's Hefe-Weissbier to a store in Beamsville how many people would buy enough to support it? Ontario is huge, freshness is key and education is key. Imagine how hard it would be to guarantee the beer from Bracebridge would still be good when the consumer picks it off the shelf to take home 3 months from the time it was delivered there. Also, think about that consumer's reaction when they crack the can - do they know what a Hefe is supposed to taste like or will they immediately write it off as not beer? It is the job of the breweries to inform and educate the public about their products, but I don't think Ontario is quite ready for a big change. People in Toronto are ready, but look outside the GTA borders and what do you still see - MolsonCoors country.

Now, although it's operated as a government arms-length agency, the LCBO is run like a well oiled business and they do have a working understanding and read of the market. Yes, there are a bunch of restrictions which hinder experimentation (restrictions on names, size, marketing requirements, past sales records, vigorous tastings and lab tests, etc.) (which is mandated by the AGCO), but as the same time they know that Ontario isn't ready for big bold IPA's, doppelbocks, and other 'big' beers. Maybe the LCBO dictates this - if they don't sell it they won't come. But even if they did the marketing and education aren't where they need to be yet to have a successful run and that could led people back to the 'safe' lagers.

I want to hammer this point home - education is key. You know as well as I do that you can't open a brewery in Ontario without making one or two easy drinking beers. While some people will disagree this claim, I'd like to point to Grand River Brewing. They started off making a couple of 'consumable beers' for both geeks, newbies, and the curious, and they've been taking it slow. Add up some $$ and you can start experimenting, releasing new beers and eventually winning over consumers one at a time with new flavours, such as their Highballer Pumpkin Ale and Russian Gun Imperial Stout. Combine that with education, and it goes a long way. The market takes time to grow, but it can grow with you if you take the right approach. If a new brewery opened its doors today on the backing of a beer like Péché Mortel, they’d struggle to survive to see next fall.

When I mention that people aren't ready for it, some people may look at that as a cop-out for the breweries. After all, they have been saying that as well. It took Mill Street years to get their Tankhouse Ale to where it is today, and it helped that they received an influx of money to help with the sales and marketing of the brand a few years back. Their stuff is pretty damn good and the quality should speak for itself, but sometimes, in Ontario, it takes more than quality - time and money. If Durham starts bottling their Hop Head or Black Eye, do you think it will catch on quickly? Beside the beer geeks who'll buy a six pack or two, will the general public be quick to jump on it. Probably not, it will take time to build up the brand with limited resources available to brewers, and hope to gradually win over more consumers, all while paying the bills.

Beer geeks/enthusiasts' are great for the industry. We're passionate about the state of our brewing industry, we follow it daily, yet we only reflect a very tiny fraction of the beer buying public out there. Brewers know this and they have to make a beer that will sell to more than a small sector of people. People on Bar Towel, BeerAdvocate, and RateBeer love trying new beers all the time. Trading, rating, and experimenting. And there is nothing wrong with that. But how often do they buy multiple cases of something from either the LCBO or Beer Store? Importers I know often mention that multiple people split on one case of beer, walking away with three bottles or so each. Again, nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't help with the brewers loan(s).

The Beer Store. Here are my thoughts on it. I won't add anything else.

Now on to seasonals. Ontario has a great select of seasonals released throughout the year, but the sheer geographical enormity of our province makes it difficult to get them into the hands of people from Windsor to Ottawa. The other problem is that breweries can't make enough, or don't have enough capacity to make more which could be sold through the LCBO system. More capacity means more sales and money, but more capacity needs more money and it's a fine balance for sure.

One thing that springs to mind when thinking of Ontario is the spike of Ontario cask conditioned ale. Ralph Morana who knows his cask, recently mentioned to me in conversation that he believes that the quality from some brewers producing the 'real ale' are right up there with the cask brewers from the UK. Ontario cask is something special, and something that has taken time to build up, but you have to have dedicated publicans handling it and people actually have to leave their house to drink it. The segment is growing here faster than any other province, and while it's still largely Toronto-centric right now, this is a part of the brewing scene where Ontario happens to be a leader.

I look at beers like the Granite's Best Bitter Special, Durham's Hop Addict, Mill Street Tankhouse, Duggan's No. 9, King Pilsner, Hockley Valley Stout, Muskoka Hefe, Denison's Weissbier, Mill Street Barley Wine, Publican House Square Nail Pale Ale, Black Oak Summer Saison and Nutcracker Porter, St. Andre Vienna Lager, Creemore Kellerbier, Wellington RIS and Arkell Best Bitter....... we have great beers in Ontario. We are lacking some IPA and Imperial Stouts, Porters and others for sure, but Ontario is different than Quebec, different than BC. People are different, culture is different, and the beer landscape in each province is different due to how beer's history has played out.

Don't get me wrong. I would love nothing more than to walk into my local LCBO and reach for a Baltic Porter or an Imperial IPA from a small Ontario craft brewery, but I understand where the brewery is coming from with deciding not to brew it. I think we're getting more and more adventurous with our beers and I strongly believe that one day the LCBO stores will be full of unique beers from small breweries for all seasons. In the meantime, if you enjoy a particular craft beer from a local brewery, support it. Buy a case every now and then. I know the breweries want to play around with new brews, but they need some financial stability to do so.


Jeremy said...

"at the same time they know that Ontario isn't ready for big bold IPA's, doppelbocks, and other 'big' beers."
Many of these beers have done well in the LCBO and private orders here. If we had some that weren't so expensive due to shipping from a distance I expect they would do even better.

"You know as well as I do that you can't open a brewery in Ontario without making one or two easy drinking beers."
This is a fallacy, and is exactly why we have 5-10 beers all fighting over the pale ale market. "No one will by our barleywine/belgian ale/etc.!" "But you haven't tried so you don't actually know!"

- I do not recall the order in which they came out but even Grand River's core brands have a decent amount of flavour and are a good step up from the mainstream. If anything I think they are great example of why the above is false! (or perhaps just that "Easy drinking" is vague enough to not really mean much)
- How well have Robert Simpson, Niagara's Best done with "easy drinking" beers? RS is now getting into more flavourful fare, and NB has a brew pub that offers a much wider range of beers.

"Importers I know often mention that multiple people split on one case of beer, walking away with three bottles or so each."
Does this surprise anyone? Seriously. I doubt that stores or distributors in the US are suprised when the $9+ a bottle imported from Scandanavia stuff doesn't sell as briskly as stock at half the price. Neither are the sales rates of $100+ cases indicative of how those beers might sell individually. I personally routinely pass on cases that I would likely buy a six pack of if given the chance, and I know others do as well.

"I look at beers like .... we have great beers in Ontario."
This is completely subjective assessment obviously, but imho we have a handful of great beers in Ontario, and a number of very good beers. Your list also includes 3 seasonals, a couple of draft only products, some that were only recently available in a bottle/can. If that's our best, well, we're not off to an awesome start.

"It's unfair to look at a single province alongside these incredible brewing nations, and comparisons to America are moot when you consider the vast cultural and population differences."
But if you look at Canada as a whole that only serves to highlight the fact that there are great beers brewed in Canada that are unavailable to the vast majority of the rest of the country. I don't expect to see a vast slew of craft beers in Tiny Town Ontario, but when you can't get some of the best beers from Montreal in Toronto, and vice versa that reflects a problem.

Troy Burtch said...


1. Many of these beers have done well in the LCBO - in Toronto maybe.

2. I understand what you mean, but my point is that if you have the balls to brew a belgian ale (correctly) in Ontario, it might sell great in Toronto, but outside the GTA? I doubt it. And brewing beer is a business like anything else - people want to make money.

3. Grand River - that's why I used them for my example. They didn't release their RIS first. They didn't come out with their Jubliation Ale first. They came out with their Town Hall Lager and the Mild (if I'm not mistaken) first, and built up the Grand River name.

4. My point about the importers.... people will buy three beers - not three cases.

Stephen Beaumont said...

Troy, look for a second at Toronto. Not Canada or Ontario, but just our not-so-little city. It's one of the largest in North America; it has had craft brewing for close to a quarter century; it is tailor-made for breweries who want to work directly with licensees; it is home to a sizable community of beer aficionados who, given the opportunity, will happily buy special edition/seasonal/experimental beers directly from the brewery.

Now, compare what's available within Toronto to what comes out of, say, San Diego, a much smaller city with nowhere near the years of craft brewing history.

Case closed.

bushidoka said...

Beer Advocate? WTF? There is the problem. Last time I looked at that site beers like Bud were the most popular.

Look at the awards Beaus has won lately. Including some international ones. Nuff said.

I don't like the way the Beer Store is set up any more than you do, but you can still walk in there and buy a variety of Ontarian craft beers that I will proudly hold up against any beer in the world.

The original argument would seem to me to be a classical example of the philosophical fallacy known as begging the question.

Xander said...

My perspective on things here comes from a certain perspective. I lived in Toronto for most of my life until I moved to Michigan for school. Since moving to the U.S. I have spent time living on both coasts and have tried Beers which range from Stone Beers, to Boston Brewing co. There are many things which are wrong with beer culture in Ontario. They range from the things mentioned here, but there is one major thing which has been missed.

When the general Ontario public talks about beer, they are simply content with their Canadian beer being better than Miller, or Bud Light. I have found that people generally think because their beer mass market beer compares favorably against PBR there is no reason to look to beer which is anywhere beyond Alexander Keith. It is this reason that the beer culture within the province has been mostly stagnant until recent times, with people claiming a misconstrued superiority over all American without understanding that there is so much more to the world than supposed IPA's which don't really have hops.

Alan said...

I dunno, Troy. I have introduced my basic beer drinking pals to the sorts of beer the bright lights of Syracuse, Ithaca and Rochester offer and we now mule for each other. I spent last Tuesday night in a neighbourhood bar on election night and half the place was drinking CNY craft. I don't buy the LCBO and OCB are not at fault. They have a part to play in the stultification of the market.

But what I really don't buy is the Ontario brewers have done all they can. Toronto is not special in terms of buyers. It is special in terms of vendors as far as Ontario goes. But all of Toronto has a smaller craft brew scene than Syracuse. That is sad and weird. Ontario's brewers should push more - push the beery envelop, sure, but also push the law, push the market and push those like us who can talk them up. Me, the busiest beer blogger in the world? I get more emails from any brewers in other jurisdiction in the western world you can name compared to Ontario. It's like they don't care. It shows.

Troy Burtch said...

Just got home from my wife's convocation. Had some Maudite with dinner afterwards. Tired. Going to bed. I'll reply tomorrow.

Good comments!

Rob Creighton said...

At Grand River we released our Plowman's Ale and Galt Knife Lager first and the first brews were 72 and 48 IBU's which even I found to be way over the top (They're now 52 and 38). The Mild and Town Hall were brought out for special events in Cambridge that summer and now that the Town Hall is in the LCBO, we're going to change it - beef up the body and hopping. The move is not to flavourless but quite the opposite.

Troy Burtch said...

Stephen - as always, great point. You've been doing this a lot longer than I have and a lot longer than I probably will and I always respect your comments and views. I agree. Toronto could be doing a lot more. Ontario brewers could be doing a lot more. But I truly believe that the 'general beer buying public' in this province isn't where it would need to be to sustain bold beers to a degree where it would be feasible for the brewery. American's love to do it up big. Ontario, not so much.

Xander - you touched on the mentality of Ontarians/Canadians and that is what I'm saying as well. Education and marketing. Ontario breweries don't do near enough to inform the public about what they brew and because of these drinkers still think Keith's is an IPA.

Alan - the granddaddy of bloggers! That good to hear Alan, you converting your buddies. But did you teach them how to appreciate the styles? And emails - I hear you. I try my best to encourage all the small breweries in Ontario to let me know what's going on at the brewery; I only hear from a handful (and it's the same handful everytime).
**Coming up to Kingston before Christmas, let's plan for a pint.**

Anyways, this is just my own opinion, which everyone deserve to have. I appreciate all the comments.

Troy Burtch said...

Sorry Rob, missed you comment. Thanks for clearing up my earlier comment. Good luck in the LCBO.

Stephen Beaumont said...

Here we come to the chicken-and-egg argument, Troy, as it seems we inevitably must. Is the Ontario public reticent to buy bolder and bigger beers because that's the way they are, or because they have had little to no contact with them? Given the way high-priced, privately-imported big beers from American, Belgian and Scandinavian breweries fly off the shelves at beerbistro, I'd have to conclude that, with respect to Toronto, at least, it's the latter case.

Xander said...

These are all very good points, but I still think what Ontario needs is de-regulation. Have you noticed how many very good beers started coming out of Quebec after they deregulated? Even Alberta is getting better with beers like Big Rock. The free market in itself will create a system in which new ideas and flavors and brews will come in.

3 Dog Brewery said...

I agree. We do need more interesting beers. Our local breweries both make a nice IPA here in Peterborough. The Beer Store is to blame for the way they present their own brands when you first walk in. No browsing here folks, just buy our mega-no-taste bland beer and go home. We need a private Craft Beer store in this province with no affiliation to any brewery.

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