You may have heard the news recently that Collingwood’s Side Launch Brewery issued a recall of some of its beer, Side Launch Wheat.
And while some may find this news troubling–the newly minted Best Brewery in Canada per the Canadian Brewing Awards had to recall arguably one of the world’s best weissbiers?–it’s news I actually really like.
And here’s why.
Essentially, I like it because it means that not only is Side Launch paying attention, but they give a shit. And, unfortunately, that isn’t as common as you might expect in Ontario brewing.
For some background, the problem with the beer was this: Essentially, some Side Launch Wheat beer was becoming sour at room temperature–and not in the funky-white-wine-stave-and-Brett way that we like beers to be funky. Beer that was refrigerated was OK, oddly beer that was kept in a warmer environment was also OK, but the stuff at room temperature tasted funky and, clearly, this was not a good thing.
If you know Side Launch’s storied veteran brewer Michael Hancock, you’ll know that there was no chance he would allow a beer that was not up to snuff to leave the premises of a brewery he oversaw and so, the company got down to figuring out how to issue a recall.
I spoke recently with Garnet Pratt Siddall, president and chief executive officer of Side Launch Brewing Co, about the recall. While we chatted by phone, she was actually looking at a massive pile of recalled Side Launch Wheat that had been returned to the brewery. “It’s quite large, and kind of beautiful” she jokes. “I’m looking out my office window at a mountain of yellow beer cases that have come back.”
Exactly how many beers are in the mountain is likely in the range of 28,000 cans, she says. Some of it is likely already sour, and some may have actually stayed cold and thus never become sour, but, she says, there was no question about whether or not to do a full recall on the batch in question.
“There was nothing to calculate,” she says. “When it was definitive that there was an issue, we all got in the room and said ‘What are the mechanics, how do we do this?’ There wasn’t a decision to make, just how do we do this recall. What are we going to do for customers that have this beer, LCBO, Beer Store, grocery stores.”
What they ended up doing was to call the LCBO and ask them to issue a notice to all of their stores and have them pull all the Side Launch Wheat from their shelves. They did the same for The Beer Store and grocery stores, and they set up an email address (QA@sidelaunch.com) so that anyone who had purchased the beer could send them a photo of the date code, tell them how many beers it was, and they’d send new beer.
And while this was not a move any brewery would want to have to make and it clearly represented a significant financial loss, it was the right thing to do, and I applaud them for it.
And frankly, it’s probably something we don’t see enough of.
As I tour more and more breweries, and drink more and more beer, I often find efforts at quality control and quality assurance are lacking. And if you’ve drank beer in Ontario for any length of time, you too have probably said something like “This isn’t as good as the last time I had it.”
And that’s not where we want to be.
But let’s face facts, corners are often cut in the name of profit. Many new breweries, for example, don’t even have onsite labs and don’t justify paying the cost to get their stuff tested offsite. That’s simply insane. And to my mind, extremely short-sighted.
There was a time recently where I picked up a few cans of a reliable Ontario beer made by a not-that-small-or-new brewery and knew fairly quickly after opening one that something was wrong. And it wasn’t long before I heard a few whispered rumours or got a few inquisitive emails from blog readers asking what was up with said Reliable Ontario Beer. As is my wont, I reached out to the brewer who oversees production of Reliable Ontario Beer and asked if something was up with the beer. His unfortunate answer was yes, there was something wrong with the last batch of Reliable Ontario Beer, but the brewery had opted to send the beer to the LCBO anyway.
This sucks for a lot of reasons.
As it was explained to me, this was “a business decision” and the brewer did not agree with it. I understand that people running a business are often forced to make decisions based on their bottom line, but if you’re willingly going against the wishes of the men or women who actually make the liquid in the can in a race to the highest margins, you’re on a slippery slope that likely ends somewhere near Amber Brewery.
It also sucks that this brewery, as I was told, felt that they had to make this decision because they feared losing shelf space in Ontario if they couldn’t keep those shelves stocked. Specifically, they felt that, if they held back their beer, they’d lose their SKU at the LCBO. (This actually wasn’t the case for Side Launch, incidentally, they felt the LCBO was extremely supportive, but that doesn’t mean Reliable Ontario Brewery didn’t feel the pressure.)
And so it is that I see this recall, and assume others will see this and similar recall efforts, as potentially a good thing (assuming it’s a maximum of one time per brewery, of course. Let’s be honest, they get one strike here). Like other self-audit measures — brewers sitting on barrels they knew aren’t quite ready despite a planned release, brewers sending back their own beer in bar or even taking one out of my hands — a recall demonstrates a clear passion for only producing and sharing the best possible product and, obviously, I dig that.
I am less likely, for example, to buy that Reliable Ontario Beer these days because I know now that a brewery I liked and respected put out beer that they knew to be less than its best. That was super disappointing. On the flipside, today I’d say I’m even more likely to buy Side Launch beers (I’m drinking a Mountain Lager right now, actually) because I have faith in their commitment to quality control.
I hope their actions serve as an example to other Ontario brewers put in a similar position in the future. The short term costs might seem large, but the longterm negative effects can be far more dire.