Despite what virtually all of the Ontario breweries, beer writers, and various beer-scene hangers-on that I happen to follow on social media have been telling me for the last week or so, Jordan St. John and Robin LeBlanc have not written a beer book.
I mean, technically, of course, they did “write a book,” the soon to be released Ontario Craft Beer Guide, but what the authors–one a former nationally syndicated beer columnist and the other the current beer columnist for Torontoist, both of them prolific bloggers–have actually written is a unique and thorough snapshot of the beer industry in a region that is on the cusp of a very large boom.
Craft-beer sales in Ontario rose a whopping 26.6 per cent between 2013 and 2014 according to the last available data from the LCBO and, according to the Ontario Craft Brewers, their share of beer sales has increased nearly 220 per cent since 2010. “Craft” is by far the fastest-growing segment of beer in the Ontario market. The Ontario Beverage Network formerly known as Mom n Hops has 300 breweries on its list of beer-making-operations that are either currently open in the province or are in the planning phase, and that number is up from just 100 three years ago. To put it bluntly then, craft beer in Ontario is going fucking gangbusters. And so it’s an extremely interesting time for the arrival of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide which, in effect, will serve as an excellent and ridiculously detailed archive of Ontario craft beer essentially right as it’s coming into its own.
First, and foremost, the book is a fantastic guide to have as an index of all that is going on in our ever-growing beer scene. LeBlanc and St. John have provided a comprehensive list of Ontario brewers, some key facts and figures about each of the businesses they list (or at least those who weren’t so horrendously disorganized that they couldn’t be arsed to return the authors’ emails and phone calls) and, best of all, have rated a smattering of beers from each brewery with a simple but effective numerical score out of five.
Naturally, quantitative data like that begs for ranking (we must have lists!) and, while I’ve been led to believe they were added at the reluctance of the guide’s authors, I find the handful of “top 5 lists” scattered throughout the introduction of the guide to be one of the most interesting bits here. St. John and LeBlanc have clearly taken a fairly methodical approach to rating each and every Ontario beer they could get their hands on, so it only makes sense for these numbers to be used to create some objective rankings of beer styles and of brewery quality overall.
I won’t reveal who they’ve ranked “The Best Brewery in Ontario,” (hint: they make a nice hefeweizen) but if you read their studious efforts to document all they could find on the Ontario beer landscape, it’s hard to quibble with their results; some of which might surprise you (and I’d suggest might have interesting positive effect on sales of certain beers–can I invest in the previously relatively unknown Bronan IPA, for example?)
Of course, the guide is somewhat problematic for the very same reasons I find it fascinating.
St. John and LeBlanc probably won’t want to hear this, but I found this book interesting not necessarily as a means by which someone might discover something new about Ontario beer, but rather as a sort of frozen in amber look at the time in Ontario beer during which they wrote it. Because the very nature of this book means our booming craft beer industry made the publication out of date essentially on the day that it was printed. That is to say, it might be a perfect time to write a guide to Ontario beer, but it happens to be a perfect time because it is a wholly imperfect time to write a guide: Since this book went to print, the list of brewers that could’ve been included has already grown. The “on-hiatus” Shacklands Brewing of Toronto has returned, 4 Degrees Brewing in Smiths Falls has launched, Skeleton Park Brewery opened in Kingston, Barncat Artisan Ales opened in Cambridge, Seaforth has welcomed Half Hours On Earth Brewery, etc.
Furthermore, given the nature of craft brewing, many of the beers sampled, rated, and ranked within its pages have possibly already changed (or even disappeared forever) owing to the availabilty of ingredients, upgrades to the equipment used to make them, or even a change in recipe at the whim of a brewer.
However, while the passage of time will inevitably make this book less and less useful to a casual reader, I’d argue that it will make it by degrees more interesting–at least for the serious beer nerd. This book will serve as a means to look back and say, “Oh yeah. Remember those guys before they sold out/went under/got really popular?” or “I remember that beer! Why did they stop making that one?” or “Wow, this beer has gotten so much better.”
Indeed, as a means to entice new drinkers, there are probably some missed opportunities here. Pictures, notably, might have made this book more appealing to the uninitiated, as would taking the breweries, which are listed by region as an addendum, and offering up some suggested road trip routes to visit them. (This last oversight however, might be a side effect of the fairly amusing fact that neither author owns a car and, amazingly, the travel for this book was actually completed by bumming rides or taking mass transit).
But again, I’m not sure enticing new drinkers is what this book is for. Instead of a glossy pamphlet welcoming new people to join the craft beer revolution, we have a just the facts, ma’am alphabetical and meticulous archive of the scene.
And so I really dig this book.
Granted, I am not like most folks casually looking for a present for my nephew at Chapters this Christmas. No. This isn’t a book for Kenny the casual beer fan. This is a book for geeks. For better or for worse. It’s certainly going to live on my desk as an invaluable reference for my beer writing and, with it’s shorthand summaries of virtually every brewery in Ontario that includes contact information, addresses, hours of operation, and key facts, will likely become mandatory for any writer/blogger/hardcore craft beer aficionado/brewer/supplier who needs this info at the ready.
Among these serious beer people, this book won’t be consumed like a regular book. In addition to acting as an invaluable resource, it will be poured over, debated over beers, and scrutinized by beer geeks like cigar-chomping bookies analyzing a track form. We know these horses, we have our own opinions and insight on their jockeys, and we all have our predictions about which will win, place, or show (and which ones really already ought to have been retired to the glue factory).
And so St. John and LeBlanc have accomplished something great. Though it seems aimed squarely at beer geeks, it will almost certainly prove to be a success–because, as luck would have it, Ontario craft beer is having quite a moment and we happen to be teeming with the exact sort of beer geeks to whom this book will appeal.
You geeks can meet the authors at the official launch party for The Ontario Craft Beer Guide on Wednesday May 11th at Bar Hop in Toronto (391 King Street West). Books will be available for purchase and signing and, as befitting the occasion, there will be a thorough lineup of craft beer on tap to enjoy.