I don’t usually take to the ol’ blog just to talk about a brewery discontinuing one of their beers, but sometimes a thing will just stick in my craw and I gotta get into it. Plus I’ve had a couple beers tonight. So come with me on a grumpy journey, won’t you friends?
I can now confirm some shitty news that I first heard rumblings about through social media: Collingwood’s Side Launch Brewing Company is discontinuing Mountain Lager, their near-perfect 4.9%, 27 IBU Helles lager.
This will no doubt come as disappointing news to many an Ontario beer fan because, quite simply, Mountain Lager is one this province’s best made lagers. It fairly quickly become a fan favourite after launching and is arguably the beer that ushered in this province’s current “crispy boi” (sorry) obsession. It is a staple in my home and if you too enjoy having a subtly-hopped, impeccably crisp beer in your fridge for in between hop bombs and puckering sours, it is likely a staple in your home, too.
I first heard that this great beer might be going away after posting an image of Side Launch’s new Northbound Light Lager to my Instagram feed, when someone suggested this was a beer that would replace (replace!) Mountain Lager. Shortly thereafter, some LCBO employees forwarded me emails they had received from Side Launch’s inside sales team confirming that yes, Northbound Light Lager will be replacing Mountain Lager and taking over its SKU in the LCBO.
(The emails also noted, incidentally, that Side Launch is releasing a New England Style IPA called “Getaway” and that they are, for some reason, rebranding their Dark Lager as “Midnight Lager.” If you’ll allow me a brief sub-tangent here, this is also weird news. This beer recipe is roughly 30 years old and now getting its…third rebrand? It was once known as Denisson’s Royal Dunkel, because Prince Luitpold of Bavaria was an early investor in Denisson’s, the company Side Launch’s master brewer founded and whose recipes Side Launch uses today. I’m not making this shit up!)
But I digress.
Faced with pretty clear-cut evidence that one of my go-to beers was about to go the way of the dodo, I reached out to the brewery to be 100% sure the unthinkable was true and, today, I heard back from Bianca Santos, Side Launch Brewing Company’s Marketing Manager who confirmed they were no longer offering Mountain Lager.
“The team at Side Launch loves and believes in our legacy brands,” she said in an email, “but due to the ever changing and exploding Ontario Craft Beer world we need the ability to change and grow in our product portfolio.”
Santos also thanked me for my support of Side Launch and noted they “can’t wait to continue to grow and learn with feedback from our consumers.”
So I thought I’d offer some consumer feedback: This fucking sucks.
Sure, some of this is just me being personally annoyed because I really liked Mountain Lager. It is one of those still-rare beers in our youngish local scene that is widely available in Ontario and is consistently fresh and of good quality. But much of the other reasons I think this decision fucking sucks is because I get the sense this could be symptomatic of a downward slide for Side Launch (an up-til-now mostly great brewery).
Here’s why: In overly simple terms, the secret to running a successful brewery is finding a balance between letting a talented brewer make whatever the fuck he or she wants, recognizing and responding to changing industry tastes and trends, and finding a way to make beer that is as profitable as possible. I would suggest that, if you’re scrapping an impeccable-tasting lager made from a recipe one of Canada’s best brewers has been tweaking for about 30 years, and you’re doing so at a time when the industry is trending toward lagers and pilsners in favour of a beer that my first impression of was “this tastes like Budweiser*”, the balance has tipped way too far in the direction of that profit part of the scales.
Mountain Lager is quite simply a great beer and I can see no reason for ceasing its production other than some version of “we can make something else cheaper,” and if that’s what’s calling the shots these days, it’s only a matter of time for the rose to come off the bloom at Side Launch, in my opinion.
I hope I’m wrong. I really do. That wasn’t hyperbole about their brewing pedigree. Michael Hancock is one of this country’s best technical brewers hands down. He has created and subsequently duplicated some this province’s best beers (ever) and has shown he could do so on something like four different systems at this point. I’m pretty sure if you put this dude in a homebrewer’s garage and gave him a couple weeks he’d brew a batch of his Weissbier that’d make you swear you had been transported to fucking Bavaria. I sincerely hope Michael Hancock continues to be able to make great beer as long as he wants to.
But my alarm bells have been ringing about Side Launch for a while.
In August 2017, the company parted ways with Garnett Pratt, who had served as President and CEO since the company was founded and who inarguably helped the brewery rise to its current prominence. Under her watch, the company was named the 2016 Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards, and Pratt was elected by her peers to serve as chair of the board of directors for the Ontario Craft Brewers association. Her departure was a puzzling decision to say the least. But then the brewery handed the job of Interim CEO over to Al Stuart and I really scratched my head. Stuart is a “Managing Partner” of The Pilot, a bar in Toronto, and I don’t think it’s weird to question the logic of putting control of your small, independent brewing company in the hands of someone who still sees fit to offer Molson Canadian, Coors Light, Keith’s, Goose Island, Stella, and more on tap of the bar he manages. No one with even a cursory understanding of how beer sales work in Ontario needs an explanation of how these beers usually end up on beer taps. And when Side Launch ousted Pratt they handed the reins over to…this guy? Oy. (Stuart is still a shareholder, incidentally, but the CEO has been Chris Jordan since last spring).
Anyway, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are perfectly logical non-nefarious reasons for getting rid of Mountain Lager in favour of a slightly lighter beer and Side Launch is still on the up and up. Maybe there were perfectly good reasons to let their on-paper-great CEO go and maybe the guy they let be CEO after her isn’t actually taking kickbacks from the craft beer industry’s biggest competition. But my Spider Sense is officially tingling and I’m officially putting Side Launch on my watch list.
I mean they axed my fucking Mountain Lager, man. Come on!
*It might be worth noting that I have thus far only tried Northbound Light Lager once. I drank it outdoors, in sub-zero temperatures, directly from the can. My first impression was that it was very much like drinking a macro-lager. I’m willing to give the beer a second shot, but I still fail to see the logic of a so-so new 4.7% lager to replace a great 4.9% one. Side Launch has indicated they’d like to send me a sample to revisit the beer. This post might change their opinion about sending me beer.