On Thursday, at Beer Bistro in Toronto, awards were handed out to the fan favourites in a variety of categories for Ontario’s beer scene for the 2016 Golden Tap Awards.
The occasion, which likely skews a little too heavily toward Toronto beer bars and breweries, is probably about as good a way as any to take the pulse of the province’s current beer trends, and thus seemed to me like an appropriate time to reflect on the Ontario beer scene generally. Also, yes, I won one of these awards again last night and so I feel compelled to actually contribute something instead of resting on my laurels.
And so I had a few beers and thunk on it, and I’ve concluded that the craft beer scene in Ontatio is great.
But it’s time to get serious.
Things are pretty good…
It’s inarguable that it’s a pretty great time to drink beer in Ontario. Last night we saw Bellwoods Brewery take home the award for Best Brewpub or Tied House and Great Lakes Brewery’s Karma Citra IPA won an award for the Best Seasonal or Specialty Beer in Ontario. And certainly those are two excellent examples of how awesome Ontario beer can be and how far we’ve come. The voters of the GTAs also collectively gave the nod to Halo Brewery as the best newcomer in the province (full disclosure: With apologies to the deserving Callum Hay and Eric Portelance of Halo, I actually cast my vote for Seaforth’s Half Hours on Earth since they’re a little closer to home for me these days and I’ve had an opportunity to try a lot more of their (amazing) beer. That’s cool though, Toronto. Now I get to keep saying I’m into a brewery a lot of people still don’t know about).
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that things are good. Despite the rather Toronto-centric lens through which this industry is often viewed, beer drinkers across all of Ontario are benefitting from our growing scene. Breweries are popping up in small towns across the province and craft beer bars are becoming increasingly popular in even the staunchest brewery-dominated cities and college towns. (Shout out to Milos, Forked River, Beer Lab, Anderson, and Toboggan for holdin’ it down in Labatt’s/Western’s turf. Forest City, what.)
As of 8am on September 25, 2016, we have 188 operating breweries in this province and another 93 in the “planning stages” (and yes, 52 dirty gypsy contract breweries, too) according to the guide over on the Ontario Beverage Network. Two intrepid Ontario writers are also currently working diligently to catalogue all these breweries for a second edition of their book that attempts to list and rate all the beers these 200-ish breweries are making.
But with all this good comes some bad.
But this boom is also bringing with it some serious shit. And it’s probably time we got honest about that.
What I mean is that, because we now know what the “Ontario craft beer success story” looks like, it’s become something that is all that much easier to fake. We know what the “successful and cool Ontario brewery” branding looks like, we know what the “faux-rustic interior and garage door patio” small brewery décor is supposed to look like, we know how the medium-sized brewery does “community engagement”–we even know what the fucking Instagram-filtered-twice-daily-updates-of-life-in-the-brewery-and-what’s-available-in-the-bottle-shop are supposed to look like. But here’s something that not every brewery in Ontario seems to know how to do: Make great beer.
And so we have host of new (and old) breweries in this province who look and feel like a great brewery, but their beer isn’t very good. The marketing is there, the look, the vibe—but all too often, the fucking beer sucks. And we need to talk about that more.
It’s easy to get fired up about opening a brewery or running your existing brewery and trying new things when we see the awesome shit happening in Ontario beer. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co, for example just seems to keep trumping their own achievements/marketing feats; following an announcement earlier this year about becoming employee-owned, the Vankleek Hill brewery announced a few days ago that they launched a crowdfunded campaign to help open a brewery in fucking Rwanda. That’s crazy. Awesome things like this are happening in craft beer all the time now (well, maybe “Rwanda brewery” isn’t happening all the time). And so it’s tempting to think you need to (or can ) do something wacky, original, or gimmicky with your brewery—and that can lead to trouble. Witness Henderson Brewing Co attempting to create the “Toronto Brewery District” and associating their name in press releases with more established brewers like Indie Alehouse, Junction Craft Brewing, and Bellwoods. The reaction was largely kept out of the public eye but it was swift and merciless (and also now largely water under the bridge).
The tide also seems to be turning for Bandit Brewery, who followed a proven recipe for cool brewpubs with an awesome location and swanky digs but, as Josh Rubin and Amy Pataki pointed out in the Toronto Star, seemingly didn’t put enough effort into important things like menu development and beer recipes.
We’ve also got Ace Hill Brewing, who’ve clearly led with their marketing–famously doing a fucking Holt Renfrew fashion spread–and by virtue of their connections and a willingness to leverage their “cool brand” have found themselves in some of Toronto’s best restaurants—despite the fact that they offer a fairly run-of-the-mill and overly-sweet Pilsner. In David Ort’s well-reasoned takedown of the brand for Post City, he talked to restaurateurs who carry the beer and who all told him, anonymously, that their reason for carrying Ace Hill is either the eye-catching branding or the fact that they’re friends with one of the partners.
That shit can’t fly if we want to move this scene forward.
Every beer fan who has ever stepped foot in Bellwoods Brewery has looked around at the always full house of sour-sipping Ossington strip scenesters and thought, “Man, I want to do this.”
Of course you fucking do! But the part you don’t see is Bellwoods Brewery’s owners working for years to learn their craft, toiling meticulously at their beers, and sampling and relentlessly trying to make better beer. They are not spending their days on twitter, designing t-shirts, or drafting press releases to stir up buzz. That’s the fun shit that comes after the hard work. You need to earn the fun part. If the first thing you did when you decided to open a brewery was to register a domain name, don’t open a fucking brewery please.
Thankfully though, Ontario’s beer drinking public is savvy enough to sniff out the bullshit. You only go back for the sizzle so many times if your steak is overcooked and I strongly believe that, given time, consumers will dictate the way this market shifts and the good stuff will float to the top–but there are things that government, we critics of the beer industry, and brewers themselves can do to make that process happen more quickly. So let’s fucking do that.
If you’ve been paying attention to the beer industry in Ontario for the last few years, you know that many newspaper column inches (and entire ranty blogs. Ahem.) used to be devoted to the insane fuckery that is Ontario’s liquor legislation.
Of course, all that’s changed now, right? The province created an advisory committee led by former TD bank CEO Ed Clark with the goal of updating the way Ontario sells beer, and there has been a report released entitled Striking the Right Balance: Modernizing Beer Retailing and Distribution in Ontario demonstrating that the province is finally going to tackle our near-century old liquor laws. Ontario was gifted with the ability to buy beer in some grocery stores, the LCBO started selling growlers, and surely we’re now on the right track and the prospect of selling beer in Ontario for small brewers is far less terrible than it once was.
Sure, brewers now have the ability to sell beer at something like 60 grocery stores, but it’s still legislated that government-owned stores and a chain of 400 private stores owned by massive corporations based at least in part in the States, in Brazil, in Belgium, or in Japan are the only places other than at actual breweries (and those scant grocers) where brewers can sell their beer.
We still need to see some real legislative change in this province, and actual buy-in from government if craft beer is going to reach the levels of excellence it truly can. There is still far too much pandering to the donation-friendly big brewers who run The Beer Store and thus a lot of red tape for small brewers, and still far too few options for locations to actually sell beer. I still believe strongly that, if we’re not going to embrace full privatization, Ontario’s craft brewers should be allowed to operate their own stores, away from their production spaces or, at the very least, have the option to sell beer made by other brewers should they wish. I think you’d see the collaborative spirit of Ontario beer at work, brewers would embrace “cross-selling,” and there’d be a lot more great beer being made available in areas it hasn’t been available yet.
Being a freelance writer who covers any specific industry presents one with something of a conundrum. Being good at your job, and providing your readers with insight into the industry you cover, necessitates that you have some level of access to your industry that most people don’t have. In the world of beer writing, good stories come from hearing about projects, breweries, events, intrigue, bar openings–whatever–first; chatting with brewers, and being allowed to peek “behind the curtain” from time to time. Accordingly, there can occasionally be a temptation not to piss people off so as not to be denied that important access (and, let’s be honest, the free beer). Of course, if you’re writing in a style designed not to piss people off, you’re essentially just doing PR for brewers and that is boring and meaningless and thus a total waste of everyone’s fucking time. So stop that please.
If Ontario beer is to get to the “next level,” the basic things that we, my fellow beer writers, old and new, can do to help it get there are this: When you’re writing, stop thinking of the breweries and their employees as your friends and have a fucking opinion. It is not sufficient simply to cheerlead. Hold brewers accountable. The good and talented beer makers in this province might be mad at first, but if you’re offering constructive, insightful, and honest feedback (and not simply trashing everything for the sake of being snarky) most breweries will (eventually) see your thoughts as constructive criticism and maybe even an opportunity to improve their product or the way they do business. This is the way critics earn respect in this industry, not by tweeting out hand jobs to the brewers who offer up the best “beer mail” or who pay for a weekend junket that includes segway tours of the Distillery District and axe throwing. Ahem.
But really brewers, this is on you.
So let’s get real. The beer industry is probably not going to be saved by a sudden change in government sympathies that sees sweeping changes to our liquor legislation. We just saw the biggest changes to liquor laws since prohibition and we barely moved the ball forward five yards. Furthermore, despite what one angry publican in the Junction might think, the job of policing the beer industry can’t fall on the shoulders of beer writers. And I’m not just saying that because most of us don’t have shoulders thanks to years hunched at our laptops.
If Ontario beer is going to get better, our breweries have some work to do.
First and foremost, please stop being so damn sleazy.
Yes, we’re going to have the “draught lines conversation” again. Ontario beer isn’t going to get better when the thing that dictates which beers are on tap in all our bars is who was willing to pay the most money for a draught line install, who threw in the most free kegs, or who was willing to shell out for chalkboards and table-toppers. It creates a race to the bottom that newer and smaller brewers can’t compete with and ultimately only hurts the craft beer scene as a whole. I won’t get into all the myriad reasons yet again but it is beyond time to get this technically illegal practice out in the open. We all kind of “wink wink nudge nudge” about it. Everyone I talk to about says something to the effect of “Well we don’t do it, but…”
And that’s bullshit.
Every sales rep I talk to is hesitant to publicly name bars for fear of losing that account. And so we all pretend to be mad about it and act as though there’s nothing that can be done about it. And we pretend we don’t know why a bar is mostly Amsterdam products, or we play dumb about why the bar with the Muskoka Brewery patio umbrellas is so excited to sell you some Detour, and we don’t wonder why there is so frequently two very similar Flying Monekys beers on tap, or why we, as an industry, accept the odd keg “thrown in” with a large purchase of Collective Arts beer. And yes–gasp!–I’m using real brewery names here for once. But the truth is, I could substitute in virtually any brewery name. Many brewers in Ontario publicly applaud me and send me private congratulatory emails when I open my big yap about our pay-to-play environment but here’s the simple, hypocritical truth: ALL BREWERIES DO THIS.
When the AGCO clearly has no interest in enforcing rules that are clearly stated in our liquor legislation and when bars feel free to literally solicit breweries with emails seeking the highest bidder to put on tap, this practice is only going to stop if breweries take a stand together and decide to end this practice. If bars want to serve beer from the highest bidder, let them serve Labatt products. That’s their loss. Ontario’s brewers have to hold themselves to higher standards than fucking Budweiser. This is not going to change unless someone (paging the OCB!) makes an actual stand on this issue and puts it into writing: Our members will not influence bar owners with cash or incentives in exchange for exclusivity, and if they do, there will be consequences.
Just do it already. My arms are getting tired from beating this dead horse.
Lastly, and most importantly, Ontario’s brewers need to put the beer first.
You can have the best marketing, the coolest location, the flashiest branding, and you can flood the beer bloggers homes with free swag, but If your beer is shit, nothing else matters.
So perfect your beer, then name it and come up with a label. Not the other way around. Do quality control. Don’t settle for mediocre beer. Get a fucking lab. Remember that the brewers are your rock stars, not your sales team. It’s easy to forget when the loudest marketing team gets the attention or the biggest offer for payola gets the draft line, but the people making your beer are really important. Brewing isn’t glamourous work. There are guys and girls behind the logos and t-shirts who are shovelling spent grain and toiling with caustic. They’re mostly not on twitter and they’re not reading blogs. They’re busy making beer and cleaning. So much cleaning. These are the people who can help lead your company. They make beer because they’re passionate about it. So give them a seat at the table when you make decisions that affect your company. If the person making your beer is the last to know about your vision for the company, you’re doing it wrong.
It starts with good beer, so build your company on that. The state of Ontario’s beer industry is really good. And if those who are interested in improving it try a little harder, it can easily be great.
(Also, enough with the crystal-malt-heavy pale ales, please.)
EDIT: In the section of this post addressing “keg deals” I originally included an insinuation that “the price of a keg of Beau’s Lug Tread sometimes isn’t the same for two bars that are side by side.” I will admit that this part of the post was based only on information I received second-hand. Since posting this, I have been contacted by Beau’s owner, Steve Beauchesne whose email to me included the following:
A keg of Beau’s is always the same price, no matter what the venue. We go even further in that regard and try to keep it as close to the same price per litre for smaller keg sizes, to encourage smaller bars to order the size that keeps beer fresh, instead of buying a keg size that will sit longer but give the bar a discount.
We aren’t perfect, and if someone wants to really dig into it, I’m sure they would find many reasons to criticize us, but this one is just way off base.
Given Steve’s willingness to state publicly that the price is always the same, I am more than happy to remove that part of the post and I sincerely apologize for spreading a rumour. If any other breweries I mentioned here feel comfortable putting in writing that their keg prices are always the same, I would be happy to print that addendum as well.