According to my sources, it will soon be announced that Stone Hammer Brewing in Guelph is closing its doors for good.
While I have not been able to reach the company for confirmation, I’m told that last week employees were told to head home and asked not to return and that production of beer had ceased permanently.
And while it’s unlikely that “lack of shelf space” will be listed as the official cause of death for Stone Hammer Brewing, the closure has me — once again — wondering if the inevitable purge of Ontario craft beer is about to begin.
It’s a topic I seem to be asked about with increasing frequency whenever a reporter is doing a story on craft beer and stumbles upon my blog seeking “industry expertise.” Can Ontario continue to sustain this growth of craft breweries? My answer is always the same, and it’s “No. It’s not sustainable. Something’s gotta give.”
The industry here has essentially ballooned over the past half a dozen or so years. Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John have now written two editions of their guide to craft beer in the province and between the first and second editions, published just a year apart, they had to visit 50 more breweries to add to the list—and even the latest edition was essentially outdated as soon a they went to print because of the breweries that had opened in the interim. It’s predicted that, by this time next year, roughly half of all Ontarians will own and operate their own small brewery or brewpub.
OK, not really, but the growth has been exponential and it has, thus far, not been met with equally exponential growth in opportunities for brewers to actually sell their beer. As I’ve lamented elsewhere on numerous occasions, there are still just four places that brewers can sell closed containers of their product in this province: the state-run LCBO, the big-foreign-brewery-owned Beer Store, a brewery’s own onsite retail space and, as of 2015, a smattering of grocery stores.
That roughly 250 craft brewers in this province are forced to compete for this limited shelf space (along with the usual collection of marketing-first industrial lager companies) is absurd and seemingly not sustainable long term.
And yet…here we are.
The funny thing about my answer to those reporters chasing down whatever craft beer story is current, is that that has been my answer for about three years now. For three years I’ve been saying this growth is not sustainable and for three years I have been proven wrong. With the exception of a few relatively unsurprising brewery closures, nothing seems to have given yet.
Somehow craft beer in Ontario, like life on Jurassic Park, finds a way. And while many might point to recent government initiatives as a show of support for the industry, I will argue (and often do) that craft beer in Ontario has not been growing because of government, it has actually managed to grow in spite of it. There are frequent token gestures, notably the provincial government recently handing out grants to breweries like a drunken Oprah throwing out car keys, but none of them really fix the eventual and inevitable bottleneck at the end of the distribution chain: Retail space.
It’s all well and good for the Ontario government to throw money at Steam Whistle and Muskoka Brewery, for example, but it seems like those two breweries, who have enjoyed success working within the current system, will use the dough to find ways to be more profitable working within Ontario’s limited retail space or, more likely, will expand their distribution outside the province. The net result, in other words, is probably that government money won’t actually grow the industry and won’t be used to create new jobs here in the province–and that would probably be the end result if the provincial government could instead dedicate resources to opening up the retail playing field.
The owners of Stone Hammer, Leslie and Phil Woodhouse, arguably just gave the former F&M a few more years when they purchased and rebranded the brewery in 2015 and perhaps the fate of the former F&M brewing won’t surprise a lot of folks familiar with how the business was being run as of late, but every time I hear news like this, I can’t help wondering if the other shoe is finally about to drop in Ontario.
We can bolster our existing breweries all we want, but without more space for them to actually showcase and sell their product to the public, we’re definitely going to see more closures like this. The only question is when.