If you’re a fan of craft beer in Ontario and have spent any amount of time participating in the conversation about the scene online, it’s likely you’ve run into Richard Sigesmund.
A perennial critic of the province’s beer scene, Sigesmund generally isn’t afraid to tell anyone how he really feels about a certain beer, brewery, or trend and, on occasion, the conversation has been known to get a little heated. As of this post, for example, he has unfriended me on Facebook (though we still trade barbs on twitter and we chatted via email for this post).
To call him a fan of Belgian beer would likely be putting it lightly. Sigesmund travels to the region at least once a year and interned as a brewer there. He’s also an avid home brewer and has collaborated on a few brews with Toronto’s Muddy York brewing. And while he’s fairly quick to share his thoughts on the superior beer scene in other regions, unlike most Ontario beer-critiquing twitteratti or self-righteous beer bloggers (ahem), Sigesmund is poised to put his money where his mouth is later this year when he officially launchers Gleemer Imports, his very own Ontario beer agency “importing liquid happiness from Belgium and beyond.”
I chatted with the fledgling agency owner to see what we might be able to expect from Ontario’s newest beer importer.
Ben’s Beer Blog: So what exactly is your background with beer? You’ve sort of been “lurking” in the beer world for some time, actively commenting on the industry and doing some collaboration brews, but what’s your experience and history with beer and how did you get into it?
Richard Sigesmund: I started getting into beer around 12 years ago, stumbling onto sours at Bar Volo and Belgian beer at Sarah’s on the Danforth as sort of my gateway. I’ve been homebrewing now for almost six years so that I could make more of the styles that you can’t frequently get at the LCBO (sours, barrel-aged stouts, Belgian-style beer, etc). I was inspired by a trip to Belgium in 2011 and by fellow homebrewers and I started wondering if I should take the plunge and open a Toronto brewery.
And so after interning at one of my favourite breweries (De Struise, which is located in a tiny village in Oostvleteren, Belgium), I explored the idea of opening a brewery but at that time it seemed like every Harvey Homebrewer was opening up a microbrewery and the Toronto real estate market went absolutely nuts. People were either opening up a closet-sized brewery and struggling to make money, or they sought investors to help fund a proper sized project — and that’s IF they were able to find something around 4000 sq ft in Toronto. So I decided to put my dream aside and to continue to be involved in Toronto’s beer scene here and there. I still brew on occasion, and that’s with Jeff Manol at Muddy York.
BBB: So why start an import business?
RS: I still go to Belgium once a year and visit my brewer friends and I’m always an Ontario advocate when I’m there, asking and encouraging [brewers] to sell their beer in Ontario. I’d always get the same reply: “Ontario? Oh, that’s the LCBO? Then, no.” Every market has its obstacles and has its advantages, and I found myself selling them on Ontario’s growing hunger for craft beer, our large population, our single distribution system, etc as a reason to sell their beer here, and, in some instances, I ended up convincing Belgian brewers that Ontario was worth investigating. On my last trip, I had a great conversation with a lambic brewery and we discussed whether or not I’d be interested in acting as their Ontario agent. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a lot of different business experiences–I ran an independent record label, I owned two pharmacies, I ran a consultant company–and so when an opportunity arose to work with the brewers I admired, respected and am friends with, the chance to bring their beer into Ontario seemed logical and natural. So far, the response from my Ontario friends and my Belgian friends has been really overwhelmingly positive.
BBB: What kinds of beers are you going to bring to the Ontario market?
RS: I want to bring in unique beer and styles that aren’t gong to be redundant. I’m not bringing in lagers or IPAs or kolsches, which are made in abundance in Ontario. I’m off to Belgium in a week and I have meetings booked for most of my five day trip. So there are some pending clients I can’t talk about yet. So far, I have Brouwerij Alvinne as my first Belgian brewery and a handshake agreement with a second Belgian brewery. My focus will be sours, lambics, barrel-aged Belgian strong beer and fruit beer. I’m also bringing in mead.
RS: Yeah. Moonlight Meadery from New Hampshire is my other client. I met the owner at a beer conference in Grand Rapids and, out of all the amazing beer we had that weekend, his mead blew me and my friends away the most. Ontario hasn’t had much positive mead experience, so this is a niche market but one that I’m really passionate about.
BBB: Why is the timing right for another import agency in Ontario?
RS: Thanks to the LCBO’s web sales model, the opportunity for new agents and more imported beer is great. For the first time, beer agents have more of an opportunity to represent breweries and make it easy for restaurants and the public to buy beer. Over the past decade, the Ontario beer scene’s grown in leaps and bounds and beer drinkers want more than lagers or pale ales to drink. I know that the breweries I’m representing are making niche beer, but there is a growing demand for bigger, bolder and stranger beer.
BBB: You keep mentioning our abundance of pale ales as a downside to our craft beer boom. What do you think is lacking in Ontario beer right now?
RS: It would be great if the LCBO looked at our neighbouring provinces and opened up something similar to Dep Peluso in Montreal, that is a bricks and mortar location where beer enthusiasts could go and buy hard-to-find imports or niche beer. Right now, Ontario has a strange alcohol model, where the LCBO has multiple stores selling the exact same thing. I think that consumers would love a place where they could go and try something new–unheard of and unusual–where the staff was excited about the beer they carried and could make suggestions to customers. Put a few of these locations around Toronto and they would be booming. I also think that Ontario brewers should be able to sell beer from other Ontario brewers and from select (import) “friends”. Again, access and options only make the beer scene better, so why not find ways to increase variety?
BBB: I think it’s fair to say you’re known for being critical of our local beer scene. So I have to ask, what do you think is great about Ontario’s beer scene?
RS: There’s a genuine craft beer excitement here. You used to walk down the street and only see people carrying 24s of Molson Ex or Moosehead. Or you’d go to a house party and the fridge would be full of Blue. Now, you see people walking down the street with Bellwoods’ 4-packs, or driving across town to get Muddy York’s new ESB. There’s a good segment of the population that wants something local, something new, and something different. Also, when I go to Belgium and see the excitement that Belgian beer aficionados have for Ontario beers like Bellwoods or Great Lakes, you know that we’re no longer years behind the rest of North America’s beer scene.
BBB: What will you offer the market that other importers in Ontario don’t?
RS: I am really excited to bringing Moonlight Meadery. Their mead has the rich flavour of icewine without the residual sweetness, but it is a fruit bomb. There’s nothing like this in Ontario and I think that wine lovers and restaurants with a natural wine focus will be really interested in offering this to their patrons as a dessert or cheese pairing beverage. As far as beer goes, I’m focusing on big beer, on beer with the depth that you get from wild yeast or aging in wine barrels and beer that’s made with traditional Belgian flavour in mind.
BBB: When can we expect to see beers imported by Gleemer available on the LCBO website?
RS: I’m hoping my first products will hit Ontario in early fall 2017
Photo credit: Evelyn Shaller-Auslander