Ben's Beer Blog

A place for all things beer.


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Some advice to Budweiser about next year’s Super Bowl ad

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In case you missed it, last night during the Super Bowl, Budweiser opted to double down on a marketing strategy that sets its sights squarely on making craft beer seem like the drink of pansies.

Last year during the Super Bowl we learned that Budweiser is “brewed the hard way,” and this year, via galloping, muscular Clydesdales and manly men doing the hard work of brewing Bud, they proudly proclaimed they were “not backing down.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that last year’s ad (which to my mind better “pansified” craft beer than this year’s) was so roundly ridiculed in the days that followed Super Bowl 49 that it’s shocking to see the tact repeated this year, albeit less effectively. It’s also amusing to note (as others have and will again) that AB-InBev attacking craft beer (again) is profoundly hypocritical given that the strategy is paired with one that has seen them buying up said pansy craft breweries in the last few years. Continue reading


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Moosehead threatens legal action against New Brunswick government

moosehead

Following previous successful legal actions taken in the name of trademark infringement, New Brunswick’s Moosehead Brewery today named yet another claimant in their fight to make sure their name remains unique: The Government of New Brunswick.

On the heels of legal action in November of 2014 that forced Sudbury’s Stack Brewing to change the names of its Friendly Moose and Angry Moose brands and an ongoing opposition to a trademark filing by Regina’s District Brewing over the name Müs Knuckle Lager, Mooshead has announced they’ve now got beef with the New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. Continue reading


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Mill Street’s production brewery is for lease

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Charming 45,325 sq/ft brewery is the ideal spot for a mid-sized craft brewery looking to upgrade or an adventurous entrepreneur who loves beer and has more money than sense.

Gently used by a pioneering Toronto craft brewer who needs to vacate the space in a hurry thanks to a business offer they simply couldn’t refuse, this luxurious space on a 2.62 acre lot features roughly 20,195 sq/ft of new construction, a sunken living room and hardwood throughout. Steps to transit and the the shops of Scarborough Town Centre. 

OK, the above listing isn’t real, but it’s pretty close to the interesting “property for lease” notice recently posted by global real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield.

Yes, the brewery at 300 Midwest Road in Scarborough, better known as the production facility of one Mill Street Brewery is currently up for lease. Continue reading


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What’s in store for Ontario beer next year?

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Last week I rounded up some of the biggest developments in beer in 2015 and it got me to thinking about the year ahead. Here are some of things I predict what we might see in beer in Ontario for 2016.


Small scale innovation

Grocery store sales are not going to be the tipping point for Ontario beer.  As I noted in last week’s post, that development doesn’t seem all that ground-breaking for me. I think it’s possible that, as the grocery store program rolls out over the next couple years, there might be some outlier chains and independent grocers who opt to support local and craft beer exclusively; however, given that Farm Boy, who were rumoured to be aiming at 100% craft beer on shelves, has opted to stock big beer on store shelves, I think it’s more likely that grocery stores will simply bring us more of the same beer we already have access to through the Beer Store and LCBO.

Instead, I think 2016 will continue to bring interesting and innovative solutions to Ontario’s unique legislative problems by way of small businesses and entrepreneurs. I predict a rise in home-delivery services that bring unique craft offerings to people in areas where distribution is difficult and I predict the coming of increased numbers of niche-market bars and restaurants that can offer rare imported beers given how hard it can be to bring in beers from other markets.  The forthcoming new bar from the family behind Bar Volo that will focus on barrel-aged and sour imports, to my mind, could be the first of many. Continue reading


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2015 Beer News Round Up

2015 in beer
Last year, for my round up of beer news that occurred in 2014, I  summarized my thoughts on the scene generally with an uncharacteristic sense of optimism.

The “Ontario beer conversation” seemed to have leapt from blogs and bars to the mainstream and a seemingly constant series of newspaper articles and op-eds was bringing more and more of the general public into the beer world’s previously private world of fist-shaking, head-scratching, anti-monopolistic, impotent rage. At the close of 2014, change in Ontario’s frustratingly archaic retail beer system seemed not only likely, but practically inevitable.

“I really think 2015 is poised to be a big year for beer in Ontario,” I wrote, one year ago today, in a post that seems almost as painful in its earnestness as the Geocities website I once created for my high school punk band.

Because of course, as is often the case in this province, the reality of the change to the beer scene in Ontario has been painfully slow, unnecessarily complicated, and largely unsatisfying. And so, instead of the celebratory year we might have had, this year, if I had to chose one word to describe how I felt about the beer news that went down in 2015, that word would be “meh.”

Here are some of the major events and themes of 2015 in beer that have me feeling a bit ho hum as we look toward 2016.

TBS PollWhile it seems like a distant memory now, my favourite news of 2015 might just be the campaign that The Beer Store embarked on to convince people it wasn’t actually a completely unfair monopoly. A few months earlier, Ed Clark had been appointed to lead an advisory committee to help the province figure out what to do with beer sales and it seemed like that monopoly might actually finally be in jeopardy. And so on January 7th The Beer Store issued a press release heralding a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT (all caps their actual choice): The Beer Store was happy to announce that “ownership was being opened up to all Ontario-based brewers large and small.”

The fine print of course was that this “ownership” was ceremonial at best, and that no one–either in government or representing small brewers–had been consulted on these plans. The result was that the move was so overtly transparent that virtually everyone piled on TBS in a glorious frenzy. Two of my favourite examples (among what must have been literally a hundred) are still Dan Grant’s piece for NOW and an editorial conversation in The National Post between Chris Selley and Jonathan Goldsbie. The fall-out had the Beer Store in full damage-control mode, releasing clearly-biased polling about their own announcement just days after the announcement occurred, buying up major ads in newspapers and issuing a press release almost every day for two weeks (even issuing three in one glorious day). This seemed like a great beginning to 2015 for craft beer fans as public sentiment shifted massively against The Beer Store, and the Minister of Finance and the Premier said teasing things like “I am going to proceed with redesigning and reassessing the Beer Store” and ““people can expect to see changes, absolutely,”respectively. Proponents of real change rallied, smelling blood in the water.

Queen's ParkIn March, at the annual OCB tasting event at the Ontario legislature hosted by the Speaker of The House, the only trade organization currently representing small brewers in this province made a fairly impassioned plea for the ability to operate their own retail stores. To me, this, and the public release that followed two days later, was one of the most overlooked and symbolic news items of the year for two reasons: 1) The proposal, outlined by Darren Smith, the owner of Lake of Bays Brewery and the Vice Chair of the Ontario Craft Brewers, was perhaps the most reasoned and straightforward case for change that I’ve heard presented on behalf of Ontario’s small and independent brewers. Smith outlined the need for better access to retail and, on behalf of the OCB, explicitly asked a room full of politicians and their staffers

to also allow us to open our own stores offsite, and to cross sell each other’s products, so as to cooperatively sell each other’s products in our own brewery retail stores, and to be able to open more stores as we believe the liquor control act allows.

This is almost literally the exact proposal I had outlined as a solution to our retail woes just three months earlier (which is not to say it was even a very original idea then) and, to me, has long been the only logical way to give brewers independence and responsibilty of the sale of the products they make. Of course, the event was also tellingly symbolic because, 2) It was uniformly ignored, both at the event I attended and in the days that followed when the OCB followed up their official release. When Smith gave his plea, they literally closed off half of the room at the Queen’s Park event and people talked over him and then, it would seem, the proposal fell on deaf ears during consultations with Ed Clark. Because just one month later…

1297688612298_ORIGINALOn April 16, the province announced that beer sales would be expanded to grocery stores. Tucked curiously into a joint announcement about the “broadening” of Hydro One ownership, details of the new plan were scant, except that we would see beer in 450 grocery stores by 2017.

Shortly thereafter, the province released the page-turning 67-page report, Striking the Right Balance: Modernizing Beer Retailing and Distribution in Ontario which detailed the changes a little more–but ultimately still left people scratching their heads about what this new beer retail environment would actually look like. Included in the proposed changes were:

  1. Beer would be sold in 450 grocery stores, being phased in over three years, starting in late 2015;
  2. The Beer Store would be forced to open up ownership to small brewers, in an arrangement curiously similar to the proposal from early 2015 that was so roundly mocked;
  3. The LCBO would try selling 12 packs in a 10-store “pilot program;”
  4. An ombudsman would be appointed to field consumer and brewery concerns about all retail sales; and
  5. The LCBO would begin selling growlers.

(For a complete list of the proposed changes, see my April 21, 2015 blog post, here).

In the days and weeks months that followed without any more developments, there was lots of rumour and speculation about what beer in grocery stores would actually look like and I chatted with not only the CEO of  Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers but also Charles Sousa, Ontario’s Minister of Finance, to try to get some hints.

  • The buyouts in Ontario get started
mill-street-pub-signOn October 9th, Mill Street Brewery announced that they had been purchased by Labatt, a Canadian beer company that is of course now owned by AB InBev, the largest beer company in the world. The reactions, as you can imagine, ranged from the supremely butthurt (one guy made and tweeted a video of himself dumping a Cobblestone Stout down the drain; it has since been deleted) to the slightly more rational, but for the most part everyone seemed pretty ticked, which frankly I found weird.
In a story I wrote for Toronto Life, I attempted to explain why this actually isn’t the end of the world for craft beer fans, and then I was fairly roundly criticized by the twitterati. I won’t bother rehashing my arguments again (mainly because obviously I am right and everyone who disagreed with me was wrong), but I will say this: If AB InBev buying a craft brewery surprised or upset you, you haven’t been paying attention.
In addition to Mill Street, the beer behemoth now owns US brewers Breckenridge Brewery, Goose Island Beer Company, Blue Point Beer Company, 10 Barrel Brewing, Elysian Brewing Company, Golden Road Brewing, Four Peaks Brewing Company, and the UK’s Camden Town Brewery. They have formed a separate division called The High End which will encompass all their “craft” brands. At a time when big beer is slowly losing market share to craft breweries, you can be sure they won’t give up ground easily and will continue to do what they do best: buying up little guys to stem the tide the only way they know how. It’s literally the way big beer has operated since essentially the middle of the century. Make no mistake, they’re coming for your “craft.” Try not to use up all your stores of moral outrage next time there’s news of a buyout, because there’s going to be more.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 8.04.24 AMThe Ontario Beverage Network, née Mom n’ Hops, website, announced in November that their Ontario Brewers Directory, which lists open or “in progress” breweries in Ontario, now includes more than 300 breweries. This is awesome for all kinds of reason. For one, it means craft beer in this province is inarguably gaining traction in the market place: People are buying and supporting beer made by small local brewers. The quality of the beer that we have access to will thus surely only continue to increase and, with increased numbers in the market, presumably small brewers will be able to demand more changes to a system that has been historically unfair to their business and we’ll be able to get that beer in more places (some day).

It’s also funny to consider that this news of Ontario beer’s exponential growth broke while fellow beer writers Jordan St. John and Robin Leblanc embarked on an effort to document all of the province’s beer for a forthcoming Ontario beer guide, ostensibly ensuring that the guide would be out of date by the time it is published. Which isn’t so much funny “ha ha” as it is funny “ha ha.” (You should totally still pre-order their book though, obviously).

  • Loblaws becomes the first grocery store chain in Ontario to actually sell beer

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 10.54.57 AMWith much fanfare, thanks perhaps in part to a wily beer blogger who leaked the story four days ahead of time, Loblaws was joined by Premier Kathleen Wynne to announce on December 15 that they had commenced beer sales at 19 Loblaws locations and that 58 other grocery stores would soon be joining them in stocking beers both craft and macro on their shelves. The announcement was the culmination of literally months of speculation and rumour and is almost certainly THE big takeaway news item for beer in Ontario.

And this is definitely one of the news items that’s got me saying “meh” at the close of 2015.

Supporters and makers of craft beer in Ontario have long been clamouring for change to a system that inarguably favours the three mostly-foreign-owned beer companies who are the only entity allowed to operate private retail beer stores in this province. And while proponents for change have offered up myriad solutions–full-scale privatization that allows anyone to obtain a license to sell beer, full-scale regulation that sees only the government overseeing booze sales, craft brewers operating their own stores, etc.–the first change that we see to beer sales in Ontario in roughly 100 years is to bring in another, heavily-unionized entity with its own powerful lobby groups and to hand them the right to sell beer?

That’s a kind of logic that sure only flies in Ontario.

It’s almost as though, realizing they couldn’t please everyone with any policy changes they opted to make, the province decided to please no one. Sure, craft brewers get more shelf space, but they also have yet another third party to oversee the sale of the products they make. Grocery stores get to sell beer, but only in six packs, and only up to a certain limit per year. The Beer Store gets to continue operating, but now has to “compete” with another retailers. Ontario consumers who spoke fairly loudly and clearly about disliking how unfair the Beer Store is have another place to buy beer, but The Beer Store continues to exist and to have the exclusive right to sell as much beer as they want and in any formats they want.

Frankly, it’s bullshit.

Sure, yes, it could just be the beginning. It might be a great thing that exposes more people to craft beer and “normalizes” its purchase and consumption. Maybe the general public will begin to embrace small and local beer and, as a result, politicians will make life easier for small brewers in this province, seeing that it’s only logical to help small business operating in our backyard to create jobs and bring in tourist dollars.

Sure, maybe logic will prevail.

But to me there is too much evidence to suggest that policy related to beer in this province isn’t usually shaped by public desires, logic, or fairness (see this Toronto Star article from Martin Regg Cohn almost exactly one year ago that detailed precisely how much money they three big beer companies who own The Beer Store throw at all three political parties).

And for me there are far too many “outs.” Grocery store sales as well as growlers and 12 packs in the LCBO are being tested via a “pilot project” that will encompass multiple years (years!) before widespread implementation. Who knows which way the wind might blow in the time it takes to roll out these initiatives? I’ve only been writing about beer in Ontario for about five years now and I’m already cynical and bitter enough to know better than to count any chickens before they hatch.

So beer in grocery stores. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. It’s just kind of…a thing.

 

 

What do you think was the biggest beer news of 2015? Also, stay tuned. Next post I’ll share my predictions for 2016. 


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Former Dieu du Ciel brewmaster opening east Toronto brew pub

Bim's Place

If you’ve been paying any sort of attention to craft beer in Canada for the past decade or so, you already know the name Luc “Bim” Lafontaine.

Bim started working at Montreal’s famed Dieu du Ciel! Microbrasserie in 2001, became the head brewer in 2007, and made a name for himself making beers that were fairly universally considered among Canada’s, if not the world’s, best.

He’s known as something of a “brewer’s brewer” if there is a such a thing, and has earned a level of respect in the industry such that Hill Farmstead gets excited when he stops by to do a collab. Continue reading


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Loblaws set to launch beer sales

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Early next week Loblaws will announce the details of their pilot program to be among the first grocers in Ontario to sell beer.

The grocery chain’s stores are among a select 450 Ontario grocery stores who will be allowed to sell beer by 2018 and they are also among an even more select 60 stores who will be allowed to sell beer “before Christmas,” a date that grows ever closer, despite what the weather might have you believe.

Ben’s Beer Blog has learned that, with an eye to that “Christmas” launch, Loblaws will likely be hosting a press conference next week where Premier Kathleen Wynne will be on hand to help the retailer announce the details of the launch of their beer program.

I’m going to add a big disclaimer here that I have been unable to verify all of what I’m about to reveal, but for the most part, I have the details that will be announced. Continue reading

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