Beer festivals, siphoning gas, and pizza the size of bagels

The craft beer industry is a gold rush.

Or at least, that’s the way it surely looks to an outsider looking in.

In the past dozen years or so, as news coverage of craft brewery openings has leaked into even the shittiest newspapers in Ontario, and as local IPAs have sneaked their way onto menus among the jalapeño poppers and zesty chicken zingers of even our lamest franchise restaurants, there has surely been no shortage of opportunist who has seen the growth and noted, “Hmm, this craft beer thing is really taking off.”

The result is that there has been all manner of “unique and interesting” craft-beer-adjacent businesses that have sprung up as these opportunists channel their inner Bill Paxtons and Helen Hunts to chase the mythical tornadoes of cash they think are swirling around craft beer.

And so the beer industry has become a charlatans’ playground with all manner of snake oil salesman and huckster trying to make a quick buck. There are shady beer delivery services, over-priced beer tours, passports that apparently you must have in order to learn how to walk to various bars and pour liquid into your mouth; even, memorably, that guy who wanted to sell UV protected shaker pint glasses so that your beer wouldn’t get skunky during the precious minutes it spent in the sun on the patio.

But even with all these greasy characters lurking around your local tap room talking about their gofundme pages, to my mind there is little competition for the title of Greasiest; because that honour easily goes to organizers of craft beer festivals. In my near decade of experience as a semi-professional drinks writer, I can confirm that I’ve seen no subsection of craft beer that is more prone to fuckery than the part of the business that revolves around the organization and execution of festivals. Continue reading “Beer festivals, siphoning gas, and pizza the size of bagels”

Vegandale, hard seltzer, and the swing of the pendulum

“I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he’d say, “That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget,
it goes the other way too”.”
                                                                                                   ~ Alabama Worley 

It was yet another weird and worrisome week in the world of craft beer.

And yet, much as the news can sometimes be troubling, it all seems to point to the idea that there is a certain balance to this industry, for better or worse. Clintons, the storied Bloor West venue, for example, announced its closure after 83 years in business, but certainly another bar or two opened in Toronto this week to help fill the void.

Breweries continue to open in the province and, as we have for about five years, we can’t help but wonder how many more this province can actually hold. Well, wonder no more. Or at least not much longer, I think. Rumours continue to swirl that there are roughy a half dozen well-known breweries in this province actively looking for buyers or some kind of exit strategy as the craft beer market share seems to finally level off and even established brewers admit privately to me they are hemorrhaging cash. Stay tuned.

It’s at once sad and vaguely reassuring. Continue reading “Vegandale, hard seltzer, and the swing of the pendulum”

The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit

Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity
is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.
                                                        ~Anonymous Ontario brewery owner

I’m not a hugger.

Whether it be my germaphobia or a personal space issue, my impulse has never been to wrap my arms around another human when greeting them or when saying goodbye. No need to pass the flesh here, bud. I’ll probably see you again soon. A handshake is great. Even a fist bump.

Some people, though, really are huggers. There is no doubt, when they open that front door to greet you or they bump into you at an event, that they are going to hug you. It’s a weird and foreign instinct to me: They are genuinely happy to see other people and they simply must embrace. Not only that, but they do it in such a way that it’s infectious. I only know five or six of these kinds of huggers, but when they wrap their arms around even hug-skeptical folk like me, they make the huggee feel good and welcome. They are Good Huggers.

Ren Navarro is a Good Hugger.

Ren, for those who don’t know, has been working in Ontario’s craft beer scene in a variety of sales and customer-facing roles for years and, as a queer, black woman, will tell you she has always felt something like “craft beer’s unicorn” among the sea of mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly male faces that comprise the brewing industry. In recent years, Ren has taken to advancing the conversation about diversity in beer to a semi-full-time gig, launching Beer.Diversity, taking part in panel discussions on diversity at craft beer conferences and offering consultation services to breweries who want to embrace diversity in their businesses. Ren and I have been in pretty regular contact over the years mainly via the internet but have met in real life a few times and, upon each occasion, predictably, she has greeted me with a great hug.

Right now though, I get the sense Ren doesn’t feel much like hugging. The reason for that is Ren’s latest project, the Ontario Beer Summit, which she launched with partner Jake Clark, was officially cancelled last week. The summit was a two day conference that focused on beer education, with a mandate to celebrate “the strength that equality and diversity brings to craft beer and our communities.”

It was cancelled due to a lack of registrations. Continue reading “The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit”

Flagship February

In case you weren’t aware, we are currently in the final throes of “Flagship February.”

Flagship February is an idea that sprang forth last year from the mind of professional drinks writer Stephen Beaumont to give some love to the flagship beers that we often overlook. Beaumont has written a baker’s dozen worth of books on beer and understands the beverage’s history and tradition.

I’ve seen him backhand a bartender for serving him a Kolsch that wasn’t in a stange. He once called in a bomb threat to a bar on St Patrick’s day because he knew they consistently poured pints with the tap nozzle touching the beer. It’s rumoured he once hobbled a server who had never heard of ESB. “You cut the achilles,” he told me once with fire in his eyes. “The limp will ensure he never forgets again.” He’s a man who takes beer seriously.

This February, as with last, Beaumont and a team are preaching the merits of mainstay beers with a series of essays. As Beaumont’s site explains,

a Flagship is the beer that defines a brewery. It’s the one that you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name, the one that most people associate with the business. In most cases, it is their best-selling beer and often the one that outsells all their other offerings by a wide margin. A good flagship also allows a brewery to be able to afford the seasonals, specialty beers and the other one-off beers in their lineup.

Continue reading “Flagship February”

When your pint isn’t a pint

I recently read an item about pint sizes that got me thinking.

Adam McDowell, writing in August for the “booze newsletter” Moose Milk, which he cofounded with drinks writer Christine Sismondo, opined on the strict and seemingly seldom-observed definition of the word “pint.” As he noted in the article, the term “pint” has essentially been bastardized to the point where it now basically just means “a large glass.” In reality, of course, the pint has an actual exact measurement. In Canada, it’s 20oz.

McDowell’s premise was that bars advertising a pint are all too often not serving actual pints. You’re more likely, he posits, to get 18oz or 16oz. He also noted that bars and restaurants are actually legally required to serve correctly-sized pints. In a conversation on twitter that followed after I shared his article, McDowell also informed me that the Government of Canada has an official complaint mechanism to report measurement-related complaints like improper pints — which might be the most Government of Canada thing I’ve ever heard.

At first blush, this seems like the kind of thing I’d get my manties in a knot about, so I happily shared the item on social media: Getting shafted on beer? Shady advertising? Where’s my torch and pitchfork?!

But then recently I thought…is this actually an issue? How many bars actually advertise “pints?” Continue reading “When your pint isn’t a pint”

How to drink at kids’ parties

A version of this post first appeared in the pages of the December 2018 edition of Original Gravity magazine.

It’s a conundrum as old as breeding: The weekend arrives and all you want to do is drink beer, but you’re a parent, so you have responsibilities.

If, like me, you too have procreated, intentionally or otherwise, you will know the debate well. Saturday rolls around and you have to weigh the benefits of your child having an active and healthy social life against your own perfectly reasonably desire to do nothing more than spend the day casually sipping beer in your backyard.

I would argue, however, that the two options are not mutually exclusive: You can and should drink at functions geared to children.

I would even argue that one demands the other. Anyone having spent an afternoon in close proximity to a dozen children re-enacting Lord of the Flies can attest to not only the propriety but, indeed, the necessity of having alcohol on hand.

In fact, I feel fairly confident that drinking alcohol was likely invented by a parent facing a birthday party. I can picture the first Aztec, about to watch kids play pin-the-tail-on-the-sun-god and jumping around an inflatable bouncy pyramid, compelled to drink something he or she had let ferment in hopes it might take the edge off.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. Continue reading “How to drink at kids’ parties”

Russian pepper shots

This is a true story.

I used to work in bars and restaurants when I was in university.

My longest tenure at any one place was at a divey bar attached to a Howard Johnson near the 401 here in London. It was called The Black Pint and, at one point, it had been someone’s attempt at a quaint Irish Pub. By the time I arrived, however, The Black Pint’s best days were behind it, though it still did a pretty lively business on weekends, patronized by an eclectic mix of musicians, bikers, and whomever was staying in the adjacent HoJo—then the lowest cost accommodations in that part of town (now torn down to make way for The Keg). Fights were not uncommon at The Black Pint. A jealous member of a famous motorcycle club had once put three of our regular customers in the hospital. It was not without a certain charm. 

In an ill-advised attempt to save the business at a time when it seemed like most of our customers were only there to fight each other and most of the employees were only there to steal and/or get fucked up on the job, the business was sold to new owners who, for some reason, thought it might make a good spot for a family restaurant. Accordingly, they re-branded the place “The Wobbly Penguin” and started serving brunch. It was every bit as bleak as you might imagine and most of our customers and staff fled the place like rats on a sinking ship, but for some reason I stuck around. Continue reading “Russian pepper shots”

Indie Alehouse announces Birrotecca brew pub at Eataly Toronto

Two days ago in a piece for the Globe and Mail which I still haven’t read because it has a paywall and seriously who pays for things on the internet it was revealed that the Toronto location of Eataly will feature an onsite brewery operated by Toronto brewery Indie Alehouse.

Eataly is a global luxury Italian grocery and restaurant chain and recently announced a 50,000 square foot flagship space in the Manulife Centre in Toronto that will feature a market, groceries, and “half a dozen bars, counters and coffee shops.”

The first Eataly opened its doors in Torino in 2007, when an old vermouth factory was transformed into Eataly Torino Lingotto and it has since expanded to 35 global locations. The business model has also involved partnerships with craft beer, most famously the rooftop brew pub at Eataly New York that was built in partnership with storied Delaware craft brewery Dogfish Head back in 2000.

When the Eataly team started planning a Toronto location, they began a search for an appropriate brewery to partner with here and the shortlist, for a time, seemed fluid. During at least one point in the process it looked like the brewing operations in Toronto were going to be a collaboration between two popular local breweries, but when the dust settled, Junction area company Indie Alehouse was the last, and only, brewery standing. Continue reading “Indie Alehouse announces Birrotecca brew pub at Eataly Toronto”

Under the influence: Beer and political donations

“Republicans buy sneakers too.” ~ Michael Jordan

 

Should we refuse to buy beer from breweries whose politics don’t seem to align with our own?

That’s the question that was raised on twitter over the weekend when a handful of “beer personalities” stumbled upon the fact that certain Ontario-based breweries had donated to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. At a time when Doug Ford is helming this party and appears to be taking an axe to all manner of social service, educational, and healthcare funding, the perceived association of breweries with the PC party was not something to which the twitterati took kindly. Tweets flew mentioning the breweries by name, demanding an explanation for these donations, and even calling for boycotts of the offending companies.

As it turns out, the outrage-machine that has become twitter appears to have failed to vet their sources and, the database used to induce their rage (The National Post’s Follow The Money campaign donation database) actually only lists data up to 2017—meaning none of the donations discovered by angry tweeters actually even went to Doug Ford’s current iteration of the PC party. It’s not clear to me if this means the boycott is still on or if the torches and pitchforks have gone back into the rhetorical shed for now, but the skirmish got me thinking: Why are we so concerned about the political affiliations of brewery owners, especially when we typically don’t seem to be that concerned with the makers of other commodities? Continue reading “Under the influence: Beer and political donations”

From Graft to Glass

This piece originally appeared in print and online for in the December 2018 edition of The Growler, Ontario’s Beer Guide.

As a paying customer in a bar, you might think that the beer on tap is chosen to suit your tastes. It feels like a safe assumption that not only the food but also the beer pouring from the gleaming row of taps is selected to appease you, in order to make you spend money, return, and maybe even invite friends along.

But it usually isn’t. Those beers are there for different reasons and that bar isn’t actually a really big fan of the 12 very similar lagers that Labatt offers.

The truth is, most bar and restaurant owners treat their draught taps, and often their fridges of bottles and cans too, as not much more than prime real estate, available to the highest bidder. Brewery sales reps come into bars with an arsenal of free shit in order to “influence” their way onto these tap lines. They’re flush with “swag” like t-shirts, patio umbrellas, bar mats and chalkboards. They have budgets to offer keg deals, buy five get one free, for example; and they often simply hand over cash or offer to pay for a bar to install draught lines so that the brewery can make sure their beer is always in that line. There is no loyalty in the hospitality business. A bar manager’s love for a brewery is really only as good as the last rep who walked in the door with free tickets to a Ti-Cats game and a fucking snapback hat. Continue reading “From Graft to Glass”