Toronto Beer Week and AB InBev

[in-fil-trey-shuh n]
a method of attack in which small bodies of soldiers or individual soldiers penetrate the enemy’s line at weak or unguarded points in order to assemble behind the enemy position and attack it from the rear, harass enemy rear-area installations, etc.

Toronto Beer Week, which was created in 2010 by a group of like-minded publicans, beer writers, cask ale supporters, homebrewers, and craft beer enthusiasts, launches today.

The week-long celebration of local beer was originally launched with no sponsor investment and a stated purpose of helping promote the city’s burgeoning craft beer movement.

This year, it seems like that’s definitely changed.

Each consecutive year has seen TBW grow even larger in scale and, in the opinion of some grumbling beer nerds, become more and more marketing-focused in its attempts to attract evermore new participating bars and breweries.

In May of this year, Toronto Beer Week was acquired by St Joseph Media, the company that produces Toronto Life and Fashion magazine, and many of these same beer nerds wondered what this would mean in terms of the tone and direction of the nine day series of once craft-beer-focused events.

As the event week begins its ninth year today, it seems to me that we might have a clear indication that TBW has officially jumped the shark given that it now includes Goose Island Brew Pub among the list of participating breweries.

* * *

Goose Island is of course owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (AB InBev), the largest beer company in the world, and the purchase of Goose Island in 2011, to me, was clearly the beginning of AB InBev’s efforts to co-opt craft brands in order to stem the growth of real craft beer, which they increasingly view as a threat.

The decision to include an AB InBev-owned brewery in a week of events that has long been about supporting small, independent, Toronto breweries is pretty fucked up to me given that Goose Island is obviously none of these things, but rather an arm of a huge, multinational company.

Over the past week, I reached out several times to St Joseph Media to comment on the decision to include Goose Island, and after trying one last time before posting this item to my blog, the spokesperson for the company finally replied simply to say that they had no official comment about Goose Island’s involvement.

Since learning that Goose Island was involved, I also reached out to participating craft breweries to understand why they had were (or in some cases, how they felt learning that they were) taking part in events alongside a company whose business practices have historically been antithetical to what attracts most people to craft beer in the first place and the reasons most craft brewers opted to start their own enterprises.

Troy Burtch, head of marketing for participating brewery Great Lakes Brewery and one of the co-founders of TBW who cashed in when they sold TBW to St. Joseph media last year, told me, “Goose Island does great beer and that’s what beer week is about. Of course personally I support local independent craft beer brewed right here in Toronto/Ontario, but at the end of the day they’re employing local people and doing good beer.”

I reached out to the newly-opened People’s Pint Brewing Company, who noted via email only that “TBW events were how we launched ourselves originally so they’ve been good for us.”

A statement I received from Muskoka Brewery president Todd Lewin expressed their enthusiasm for “anything that celebrates beer in Canada’s most populous city,” but also noted, “The big multinationals are doing a good job of blurring the lines on what is craft, and we have previously stepped out of events that we feel misrepresent the craft beer community.” They are not, however, stepping down from any of these events.

Steve Beauchesne, of the employee-owned, socially-conscious Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company told me, “We have a good relationship with Toronto Life, and they have a track record of putting on professional, well-received events. We aren’t in the habit of asking for a list of participants before we sign on to an event,” he says. “No one in Ontario works harder to stand up for independent craft breweries than Beau’s. We are aware that craft-washing is going on in the industry, and we get your point — pseudo-craft using the company of independent breweries to make a “craft sandwich” of themselves by association is misleading, and we are careful with how our logo and our brand is used in that respect. But the fact that this is happening really just means we need to work harder to message the importance of independence to our customers, which makes getting out to events like Toronto Beer Week more important than ever.”

Cowbell Brewery issued a statement that basically amounted to “We participate in many events,” while Nickel Brook Brewery declined to comment officially, and Side Launch Brewing Company did not respond to me in time to include their comments.

I was possibly the most surprised to see Toronto’s Indie Alehouse listed alongside Goose Island as a participating brewery. Jason Fisher, the owner of Indie Alehouse, is a person with whom I often share a sort of rage-based sentimentalism for craft beer; and with whom I have shared more than a few pints while discussing the topic; so it wasn’t without some gentle mockery that I inquired as to how it came to be that one of Ontario’s most fiercely-independent publicans had teamed up with the world’s biggest beer company to be part of an event.

“We have participated since the beginning [of TBW] and in the first year we participated before we were even open,” he told me, “All that to say we have a sentimental attachment to TBW, so much so that in 2016, we did the official beer of TBW, which was a big deal for us at the time; the largest batch of anything we’ve ever made.”

“TBW sold this year,” he said, “Most beer things that sell to larger entities eventually suck. Perhaps TBW will go that way, perhaps it won’t.”

Fisher did not miss an opportunity to throw a dig my way: “Much like beer writers who write about big brewers as well as craft, or go on paid tasting junkets from big brewers*, it doesn’t impact what we do and how we do it, so it’s less harmful to us than say, a foreign-owned beer store monopoly and political campaign contributions… so we rail against those more than this.”

[*When Mill Street Brewery was first purchased by Labatt, they invited a handful of writers and ‘influencers’ from across Canada for a fully-paid press junket that included meals, beers, a night out—even Segway tours of the Distillery District. I was there. I sent Fisher selfies from my Segway. He brings it up often]

“We will in all likelihood, end our participation in TBW after this year,” he continued, “but I’ll leave it open to see if they take the feedback and adjust, or if it is just a vehicle to sell advertising to large corporations. It’s sad, and kind of feels like giving up. Toronto has such a wonderful craft beer scene but also has a mountain of growing pains too long to list. [Ontario] is, after all, a market that is only really 3-5 years old, with horrible laws and distribution, a weak or absent advocating group, and it is full of faux brewers and craft–all causing consumers to be overloaded with noise in their quest to just have a nice local beer and relax.  We’re disappointed AB is a main focus for TBW, however, we have an event at Barhop we are super excited about and one at Trinity Commons and that’s what we are going to focus on. [. . .] Anyone who has any doubt about where Indie stands on the beer scene is new to earth. Come to the Indie Alehouse and have a fresh local beer and we will tell you all about what that means.”

Interestingly, Goose Island Brew Pub is actually host to an event for TBW called “Lager Day,” an official event that will be pouring beer from other breweries too, meaning that a handful of Ontario craft brewers have actually made beer that will be sold at Goose Island. The brewers participating rank among some of the best in the province, in my opinion, and I also have personal relationships with most of their owners and brewers and so I reached out to ask why the fuck they were OK with their products and brands directly helping the world’s biggest beer company to profit.

Luc Lafontaine, the passionate owner and brewmaster of Toronto’s Godspeed Brewery, told me he was participating in this event to celebrate a style that he really cares about, with brewer friends that really care about beer.  “It’s all about beer and friendship and nothing else,” he told me via facebook messenger. “The young brewers at Goose Island Brewpub in Toronto are awesome guys that brew amazing beers and we have been inspiring each other as brewers for the last year or so. They come to Godspeed all the time and we since developed a great relationship. When they asked me to participate I thought about it for a while but decided to move forward not because of the big machine that Goose Island is a part of but because I feel like having good time celebrating lagers around great inspiring brewers and great beers on that day.” He added: “From what I do know, we’re all going to be there having an amazing time.”

I connected with Matt Tweedy of Tooth and Nail Brewery via email. “When approached by the organizers of Lager Day with a request for participation, of course I had some concerns,” he told me. “I decided to visit the brewpub and do a bit of loose research on the brewers.  I also had heard from fellow brewers and some media members that the beer quality at the Brewpub was good and that the brewers there were out often enjoying all kinds of Ontario and Quebec beer.  [. . .] In fact I think that many of our Ontario Craft Brewers could learn a great deal from them in terms of what a quality pint is, as we are flush with many below average products throughout the province. [. . .] It was a decision based on the beer and the brewers that I wanted to get to know rather than a politically driven decision.  To be honest, I have come to the point where much of the bickering about this very topic has become incredibly distracting and uninspiring. I run a tiny brewery in a great neighbourhood in a small city and am in the business of staying in business, which means reaching out to a variety of audiences with my product.”

Sam Corbeil, brewer at Sawdust City, told me he didn’t give the idea of making beer to be poured at an AB InBev-owned brewery much thought. “Basically, I saw a great opportunity to talk about our Little Norway lager at an event that looked pretty cool,” he told me via email. “We launched Norway this summer at the LCBO and to be honest, it’s a difficult sell.  I love that beer and I spent a great deal of time developing it, so having a platform to talk about it and other lagers alongside some of the coolest breweries in Ontario sounded pretty good [. . .] And yeah, when I saw the list of breweries that was taking part…I wanted to be involved.  [. . .]  I guess I saw their names and didn’t really think about Goose Island’s name.”

Jeff Manol of Muddy York Brewery likewise told me his brewery was involved because of their relationship with Goose Island staff. “The implications of this event were not lost on us – and did give us pause before we agreed to sign on,” he told me via email. “The backstory here is pretty simple. Max Morin [Toronto Sales Manager for Goose Island] has been a big supporter of Muddy York (and likely many of the other breweries involved in this event). He curated a really great bottle shop inside the Bier Markt on the Esplanade when he was working there, selling bottles of the best craft beer from around the province and around the world. So when he invited us to be part of Lager Day at Goose Island, it was more about our direct relationship with Max than it was tacit support for the business practices of AB InBev. We accept that that may seem naive or hypocritical. We, like some of the other great breweries involved, have taken public stances against The Beer Store and the unsavory business tactics of the global beer corporations. Those views haven’t changed. This is a one-day event showcasing a style of beer that we’re big proponents of in the company of some of our favourite breweries. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t honoured to be placed in such great company, perhaps at the expense of the bigger picture. Again, we’ll take that criticism.” He added, “We appreciate that you speak truth to power and that you aren’t afraid of calling anybody out when you feel they’ve crossed the line.”

Amsterdam Brewery declined to comment on the record about their participation in “Lager Day.”

 * * *

I must admit, some of the arguments above almost sway me. I get that the people making beer at Goose Island might be great people and they may even make great beer. I get that small brewers want to get their product into the hands of as broad an audience as possible. And I definitely get why a brewer would want to participate in an event with Matt at Tooth and Nail, and Jeff from Muddy York, Bim, Iain MacOustra, Sam Corbeil, and Michael Hancock from Side Launch. They’re great beer-makers and if they’re focusing on making beers in the same style to showcase together side by side, it is very cool. Hell, an event featuring these brewers all pouring lagers is basically my idea of a dream beer event and if it were somewhere else, I’d be the first one in line to buy a ticket.

But it’s not somewhere else. It’s at Goose Island and that makes this situation fucked up and really hypocritical.

Because here is the thing: Goose Island Toronto is not just a place where some good dudes are making some good beer and, oh yeah, it just happens to be owned by a big brewery.

No. Goose Island Toronto is in fact part of the world’s biggest beer company’s calculated marketing strategy to intentionally obfuscate the true nature of the brand, and to slow the growth of real craft beer.

I can already hear my Craft Beer Reddit anti-fan club rolling their collective eyes and dusting off their keyboards and I am anticipating comments and tweets along the lines of, “It’s just about beer,” but seriously, this shit matters. It’s fucked up that any small brewer would be willing to participate in a series of events officially sponsored by AB InBev, especially when it involves pouring beer AT Goose Island. I’m not just manufacturing outrage when I say the intent of this place is to harm craft beer. It was literally a stated business goal when AB InBev acquired Goose Island and then started a regionally-strategic plan to buy other craft breweries. When the world’s largest beer maker couldn’t figure out how to slow or beat craft beer, they started buying their way into it. That strategy started in 2011 with Goose Island and continued with Kona (2013), Omission (2013), Redhook (2013), Widmer Brothers (2013),  Blue Point (2104), 10 Barrel (2014), Elysian (2015), Golden Road (2015), Four Peaks (2015), Turning Point (2015), Stanley Park Brewing (2015), Mill Street (2015), Microbrasserie Archibald (2016), Breckenridge (2016), Karbach (2016), Devil’s Backbone (2016), and Wicked Weed (2107).

Their intention with these acquisitions has always been to have a “craft” option to squeeze out real craft beer and to mislead consumers into thinking the beer was a regionally-made craft beer in order to take market share from actual craft brewers in the retail and draught space. Do you think they bought Mill Street in 2015, for example, because they want to help Amsterdam Brewery grow craft awareness in Ontario? Do you see the word “Labatt” or “Anheuser Busch” on any cans of Tankhouse? No. Mill Street Brewmaster Joel Manning might be a good dude making good beer, but he is now an AB InBev employee because the company saw an opportunity to dive into the Canadian “craft” market and fuck with brewers like Amsterdam. That is WHY they did it.

Do you think AB InBev slashes prices on newly-acquired craft brands (kegs of IPA, for example, on the market for as little as $56 USD where most craft brewers sell their IPA for $170 USD a keg) because they want to help Side Launch Brewery grow the craft category? No. They want Side Launch, and all craft beer, off their tap lines and they will flood the market with lower-priced product to do it.

Do you think AB InBev bought and launched beer-related blogs and ratings sites like RateBeer because they want to be part of the craft beer conversation and share the news, for example, that Muddy York is now in the LCBO? No. They want to manipulate the conversation and steer it to advertisements of their beer so you’ll go buy it.

In his excellent book, Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out, author Josh Noel spoke directly to this strategy, which all started with Goose Island, about whom the book is written:

The ideas that “great beer is great beer” and “we should celebrate all of it” meant that the world’s largest beer company could be camouflaged on taps and store shelves; the sooner the distinction was dropped, the better.

Speaking about how AB InBev capitalizes on the “only think about what’s in the glass” mentality, Noel also writes:

As long as drinkers bought in to the sentiment – and didn’t think about the strong-armed tactics that might have funneled that beer into their glass – they could be had by marketing and outsized influence they couldn’t recognize. Sure, beer drinkers would need to think they chose what they drank, but there were a thousand quiet ways to help them reach that conclusion.

Goose Island’s Toronto brew pub, while certainly staffed with real humans, some of them who might be making nice beer, is literally nothing more than an advertising expense; one of the “thousand quiet ways” to sell retail beer and draught.  It’s not a fun new outlet of a little brewpub on Fulton Street in Chicago. It’s part of a strategic global marketing strategy to disrupt craft beer and it is just one of a network of similarly nice brewpubs and bars staffed with similarly nice and inspired beer people in Sao Paolo, Seoul, Shanghai, Monterrey, Mexico, Philadelphia, and London. They’re not here to make good beer, make friends, and have a good time. They’re here to make fucking money. Goose Island’s sales last year were $75.7 million USD, thanks in large part to these brew pubs helping grow the brand and blur the lines of what craft beer is. These brew pubs legitimize AB InBev’s craft credential in order to push kegs and cans of beers like Goose Island’s Honkers Ale, 312 Urban Wheat, and Goose IPA, which are all now brewed in New York and Colorado in literally the same fucking tanks where fucking Bud Light Lime is made.

And apparently our local brewers, and our local event promoters (hell, Goose Island is even pouring at Cask Days this year) are just fine helping AB InBev with that cause because…at least some of the people at the brew pub make good beer?

Well, fuck that.

St Joseph’s Media, Cask Days, the participating breweries, brewmasters, and the great craft beer bars that are official partners of these sorts of events all need to seriously reconsider the impact of aligning with events that normalize “big craft.”

Supporting Goose Island Brewery, and by extension AB InBev, either tacitly or explicitly by shrugging off their inclusion in events like Toronto Beer Week hurts craft beer. It has a real impact on craft brewers and their business interests and it influences the up-and-coming brewers who look to the industry leaders for guidance.  When we normalize the world’s biggest beer-maker feigning indie credibility, we are actually all taking part in watering down the industry. And if you only care about “the beer in the glass,” guess what? Looking the other way while AB InBev masquerades as craft beer is actually helping big beer get more of their beer into your glass.

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

14 thoughts on “Toronto Beer Week and AB InBev

  1. I find it funny (as well as sad) about the comments from the craft breweries participating. “Gave us some concerns” or “end our participation after this year” and “the implications of this event are not lost on us, and did give us pause” rediculous. All bullshit. In the end they all signed on to pour alongside big beer and be part of the problem. I suppose the all mighty dollar wins again.

  2. Great post Ben. Hopefully enough craft beer fans will vote with their wallet and avoid craft washing events, making the correct decision that much easier for small brewers struggling for exposure.

  3. It’s definitely a bit confusing and worth a discussion. I am one of the ‘us vs them’ kind of guys and my initial reaction would be aligned with Ben’s. I call many of the participating brewers my friends and know some of them well enough to be confident they are not sellouts. Living in London, i got to know several people working at Labatt’s. Few of them I respect and call friends, as well. I can imagine a situation where I would find it difficult to refuse an invitation to be part of something…
    I’m pretty sure, we all have done things contradicting our professed belief system. I watched Ben post a picture od Budweiser he enjoyed during his grilling session. I sell Czech Pilsner, despite proclaiming my opinion we should drink fresh, local beer.
    Having said that, I would hope that it won’t become a tradition blurring the lines….

  4. It reminds me of the bar that opened last year in Toronto (or maybe even earlier this year), the Craft Beer Market. They promoted the shit out of themselves as “Toronto’s newest craft beer venue”, or something like that, and I was kinda excited to visit.

    Then I checked out their tap list online, and found:

    – Shock Top
    – Belgian Moon
    – Granville Island
    – Goose Island
    – Mill Street
    – Lagunitas
    – Bud Fucking Light!
    – Sapporo

    So I tweeted them, questioning their taps, and how they can have Bud Light sitting next to the likes of Shawn & Ed, Flying Monkeys, etc. Their response: “Well, some of our audience want the core beers.” Fine – then just call yourself the fucking BEER MARKET.

    I get friends wanting to support friends, etc., but how does that play out when your friends work at places that want to destroy the very thing we’re meant to be supporting?

  5. Excellent writing about beer. Again. If you could only eschew that level of diligence and insight to post a multitude of short videos that don’t promote or prompt any depth of thought on the subject matter you may be able to reclaim that award that is rightfully yours. If there us a Jason’s Journalists Jotter, I sure he is crying foul.

  6. Moving north of Toronto 2 years back, I obviously saw my craft options shrink at local watering wholes.
    While some bars have tried to expand their taps to include “craft” lines, around here it pretty much amounts to Creemore Springs.
    While I’ve tried to explain the independent nature of other local craft brewers such as Side Launch, Redline, Flying Monkeys, etc. it more than often falls on deaf ears.

    Outside of Toronto, big craft seems to be “good enough” and in my eyes are continuing to win market share and dilute true craft.

  7. As knowledgeable craft beer drinkers, this is always a battle.
    I have plenty of friends who enjoy craft beer, but don’t care enough about it to learn/know who actually owns a beer or brewery. They think they are supporting craft beer wherever they go, but reminders are often needed. It isn’t called “Toronto Craft beer Week” so we can’t bitch too much. I will say the more that gets written about such misleading events or brewers, the better. I do hear more and more people complaining, or asking about, contract brewers and I suspect it’s been from a growing buildup of articles and information about that aspect of the industry. perhaps the same will happen eventually for people being aware of what craft looking beer isn’t really craft beer.

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