What to expect from Ontario beer in 2018

Because it’s that time of year, here are the things that I think are going to shape the conversation as it relates to beer, especially in Ontario, in 2018.

When it comes to the craft beer industry, it seems kind of crazy to me how little attention is being paid to the legalization of marijuana in Canada. To my mind it is impossible to suggest that the destiny of any meaningful changes to our beverage alcohol sector won’t now be intrinsically tied to all things pot.

Government resources are right now being dedicated to drafting new legislation, debating policies, and creating laws that will govern how each province will handle the prospect of legal weed. And if you’re a pot fan or a policy wonk, these are exciting times, but if you had any hope that you might see meaningful changes to your respective province’s liquor laws anytime soon, I’ve got some bad news for you: Much of the resources and political capital that would be needed for progress in the world of beer are going to be focused squarely on sticky-icky for a while.

Here in Ontario, it’s been with some degree of schadenfreude that I’ve watched my handful of pot-activist friends rage impotently on Facebook as the province has unveiled an increasingly legislated plan for weed that does away with independent companies in favour of heavy regulation. I feel compelled to ask Ontarians who are shocked by this development: Are you fucking new here?

Of course regulating weed and drawing an income off of it is what Ontario was always going to do. It’s…kind of our thing.

Ontario is in fact one of the few provinces that has opted to go fully privatized. BC and Alberta will have private dispensaries (BC notably already has more dispensaries than they do Starbucks) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba appear to be leaning toward private stores too. Weed here will be overseen by the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corp., which will be subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. So if you loved how handcuffed beer is to bureaucracy, lobbying, and union posturing, man, you’re going to love grabbing a bag of weed in Ontario.

On the plus side though, I also think pot will provide interesting new avenues for the craft beer industry. If you’ve met many brewers, you probably already know that many of them share an affinity for weed and while I’m not sure our province will ever legally allow THC-infused beer, the fact that every Ontarian will now be allowed to grow four plants for personal use will, at the very least, provide the legal means for many a blazing brewer to experiment with a new medium (and will almost certainly make home-brewed THC beer a more widespread reality, in my opinion).

Plus, you can definitely expect that many column inches will be filed by substance-enthusiastic writers exploring the new avenues provided by craft beer and weed pairings. This might be a pro or a con, depending on your views on beer writing, but surely someone is in a basement right now writing a craft and cannabis connoisseur’s guide.

Lastly, and to my mind probably most interestingly, the Ontario craft beer scene saw a few eyebrow-raising high-profile departures from the scene this past year. I have a suspicion some of those folks might be interested in once again playing a pioneering role in an exciting new industry. In fact, I’d bet decent money we might see something along the lines of “Three Fried Guys” or “Muskoka Cannabis Co.” in the next year or so.

Gerard Comeau, aka potentially the most important story in beer right now
This one also definitely gets filed under “why the fuck aren’t we all talking about this more,” and I too am guilty of not diving in, but there is literally a fight happening right now that could change the face of retail alcohol sales across all of Canada.

I’m taking of course about Gerard Comeau, a 64 year-old man from Tracadie, New Brunswick, who in 2012 stopped over the border in Quebec on the way to a friend’s house and purchase some booze. 14 cases of beer, two bottles of whisky, and a bottle of liqueur, to be precise. On his way back, Mr. Comeau was stopped as part of a sting operation and was slapped with a $292.50 fine.

This is because the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act sets a personal importation limit of 12 pints of beer or one bottle of wine or spirits, and Mr Comeau violated that rule, as he has done consistently so for about five years, by his own account.

Instead of paying his fine, Mr. Comeau demanded his day in court and he was was first heard in 2015, where he argued that the prohibition against transporting booze across provincial lines violated Section 121 of Canada’s Constitution Act, which promises free trade of goods between the promises. Mr Comeau won his case in provincial court and a Court of Appeal sent his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. And so, while at the heart of the matter is essentially a 64 year-old dude who doesn’t think he should have to pay his $300 fine, there’s actually a lot at stake here.

If the provincial ruling were to be upheld, it would basically mean that years and years of rulings related to interprovincial trade are being reversed and that, ostensibly, Canadians will be free to import, order, and fill their trunks with booze from any province they see fit. In other words, you might be able to order sours from Cascade Brewing and have them delivered to your door in Ontario and/or you might be able to hop in the car or go online and order goodies from your favourite/the cheapest beer retailer in Canada.

Is this actually going to happen? Well, probably not. Each province and a number of organizations that benefit from current trade barriers have already lined up to argue against Mr. Comeau, with provinces noting the important income their respective private liquor stores bring in that is then often spent on schooling, healthcare, and roads and they’ll also argue the always-important local jobs angle when booze retail becomes a national race to the bottom.

On the flip side though is that pesky little thing called “the will of the people.” An Ipsos Reid poll recently found that 89 per cent of respondents think they should be allowed to bring “any legally purchased product from one province to another,” and 78 per cent said “they think they should be able to bring any amount of beer or wine they buy in one province into another.”

This would of course also have serious implications on item (1) here, and a ruling consistent with the New Brunswick courts would presumably allow Canadians to order potentially cheaper BC and Alberta weed from private retailers instead of the forthcoming Ontario government shops. And you can probably imagine how eager most provincial governments are to see that sweet, sweet weed money they’ve been busy legislating to get their hands on go up in smoke (sorry).

Common sense and public sentiment don’t have the greatest track record against greed, decades of bureaucracy, and the will of big business, but a beer fan can hope, right?

Beer on the inter webs
The end of 2017 saw the beginning of an amazing trend wherein a slew of breweries seemed to realize they might do some brisk sales if they could make their products available for order online.

Perhaps encouraged by everyone’s favourite lil’ purveyors of sours, Half Hours on Earth, who were early adaptors of online sales given that they’re in fucking Seaforth, Ontario, it seems like almost everyone is getting on board with the idea of sending their beer in the mail. And it’s actually kind of shocking it’s taken this long, frankly. Faced with the difficulties getting beer onto LCBO or Beer Store shelves or keeping local grocers stocked, why not simply send the stuff directly to consumers?

If there is one thing the history of beer in Ontario has taught us it’s that retail sales will not be contained. Beer breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.

John Hammond: [sardonically] There it is.

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group of downtrodden craft brewers will…open their own stores?

Dr. Ian Malcolm: No. I’m, I’m simply saying that beer, uh… finds a way.

Old Dogs and New Tricks
Here’s where I’ll just make some random and baseless predictions, because that’s fun right?

I think a lot of bigger, older, and established craft breweries are going to try some weird shit this year. Muskoka Brewery, for example, has already quietly gotten into the spirits game and they have a gin on the market now based on the same botanicals that make up their Muskoka Oddity (It’s decent, by the way. They sent me a bottle and I’ve used to make both martinis and negronis over the holidays. It does better in the latter, by the way, with the funky, herbal notes lending themselves better to the Italian aperitif).

I feel like other breweries are going to start to mix it up, too. Whether it be brewery founders who might be a little bored, bigger companies trying to show they’re still innovative or people just trying to avoid market stagnation, I’m predicting new things from old brewers.

We’ll definitely see more brewers try their hand at spirits, likely in very small batches to start. I also feel like this is the year we will see Steam Whistle Brewery unveil a second beer. As for the details of style, I have no idea, but I’d also wager money we’ll see something like “Cam’s Ale” before 2019. I pray it’s not an amber.

If they can find a loophole to make the aforementioned THC beer legal, it will be a race between Amsterdam Brewery and Great Lakes Brewery to see who does it first.

I also think at least one Toronto brewery will partner with Uber or Lyft to provide same day delivery in a sort of “modern dial-a-bottle” extension of the current online ordering trend.

Bellwoods Brewery will open a third location called “BB’s Shake Shack” that will look like a 1950s malt shop and will exclusively sell milkshake IPAs.

OK, probably not that last one. I fucking hope.

As for general trends, I really hope this is the year beer in Ontario gets a little less “precious.”

I was of course joking about the aforementioned shake shack, but a lot of brewers seem to to be capitalizing on the FOMO attraction of small batches and limited releases. I don’t blame breweries like Bellwoods for it (why wouldn’t they keep making stuff you’re lining up for?) but I have a sense that urgency among consumers is going to fade. 2018 will hopefully be the year that people realize their time is maybe worth more than the prestige of being able to instagram one of a few $17-bottles of liquid. Don’t get me wrong, Ontario brewers are making beer worth lusting over, but ultimately, it’s just beer, right? Let’s chill a bit folks. It’s great, but we can order a lot of this shit online (via Lyft, probably) now.

And when it comes to the styles that I think we’ll see trending, I really don’t think we’ll see anything new rising up to surprisingly romance Ontario palates. Instead, I’d wager most Ontario breweries who don’t already have a New England Style IPA will add one to their lineup in 2018, which is cool I guess, and our burgeoning obsession with sours will evolve to include more of the dry-hopped variety and, presumably, more brewers will experiment with spontaneous fermentation and the addition of fresh fruit to their sour offerings.

I’d love it if some of the great breweries who have added capacity in the last couple years see fit to use some of that space for year-round nicely balanced lagers. You’d have to be stupid not to have noticed how quickly the craft beer sect took to Side Launch Mountain Lager once they were offered a new, well-made craft lager and a handful of other brewers made some nice Helles Lagers this year, notably, for me, Wellington, who even saw fit to put it in backyard friendly 355mL cans and Left Field, who’s Cannonball Munich Helles-style Lager is a beer I could literally drink every day. I think I predicted we’d see the pilsner rise in popularity last year, and while that didn’t really happen (Tooth and Nail and Dominion City’s awesome offerings notwithstanding) I’m still holding out for the inevitable rise of the well-balanced craft lawnmower beer.

More writing, please
Lastly, it is perhaps cliche for a blogger to suggest that he or she would like to produce more writing in the coming year, so I won’t do so, but I do promise to be a little more diligent in 2018 churning out the sort of stuff that has made me the darling of the Toronto Craft Beer Reddit forum.

I’d also love to see some new entries or approaches to an Ontario beer writing scene that can, at times, feel a little stale. That’s not to say there aren’t great things happening—Robin and Jordan have, of course, released the second edition of their Ontario Craft Beer Guide this year, Greg Clowe continues to steadfastly aggregate just about every piece of news you might want related to beer, a new print publication, MASH (for which, full disclosure, I am a contributing editor) has provided a glossy new space to read work from Crystal Luxmore, David Ort, Alan MacLeod and more, and, of course, Robert Arsenault, aka Drunk Polkaroo continues to passionately document his craft beer journey with an enthusiasm and consumption rate that is equal parts admirable and alarming.

But I do think there is room for more considered local commentary in Ontario’s scene. Maybe another book or two…We’ve probably got about all the “influencers” we need dutifully instagramming their beers in hopes of a free t-shirt or six pack, so I do hope some more folks will join in the conversation this year. It can be exhausting arguing with the same six people on twitter.

2 thoughts on “What to expect from Ontario beer in 2018

  1. Another excellent pilsner that debuted in 2017 is Stone House (Varna, Ontario). Mike Corrie, owner/brewer, has acquired equipment to start a second line, though I haven’t heard yet what he has decided to make. Whatever he decides, I expect it’ll be excellent.

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