A toast

My dog is lying on the carpet in a sunbeam near my feet.

Occasionally he looks up when I shuffle or reach for something. He’s got anxiety so he’s not usually the most restful dude, but he’s trying to relax. He also suspects there’s food around as we get closer to dinner time so he’s vigilante about the potential for dropped scraps.

The music of Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans is currently playing quietly throughout my house.

My son is watching TV in the basement and my wife is napping.

It’s one of those rare moments over the last couple weeks where things almost feel normal.

But then, of course, I remember that things are very far from normal.

And it seems pretty clear that, whatever happens on the other side of this, we’ll almost certainly have a different definition of “normal.”

So while most people who are reading this probably know me as a “beer blogger,” that’s not why I fired up the laptop today and, realistically, I’m not sure I’ll have much motivation to jot down any thoughts about drinking beer for the foreseeable future.

It seems like kind of a weird time to think about beer, other than my immediate needs to find it around 5pm and to put it in my mouth, or a time to think about maintaining a fucking blog, of all things. Indeed, it’s a weird time to think about much more than the safety of our loved ones.

My wife and I are are both still working, but she is shouldering the majority of the work trying to create some structure for an active, bitingly funny, scarily smart, curious, loud, and energetic grade one student as the demands of my work often mean I’m still tethered to my desk for large parts of my day. It is an insane, hectic, often frustrating situation. Sometimes there is yelling. Sometimes there are tears. But we remind each other that we are both extremely fortunate to have jobs we are able to do remotely and for which we are both still being paid. Many people have lost or will lose their jobs before this is over. We are also fortunate to have space to let that energetic kid burn off some energy from time to time. I can’t imagine how we would cope if we were still in the condo we left behind in Toronto five years ago.

It hits me more and more each day of this pandemic what a luxury it is for us to be able to handle this situation the way we are, and, while we are frequently at our wits’ end, I am thankful.

So maybe I will make this about beer, for just one second.

Because the reason I’m writing this is that I’d actually like to take a minute to raise a virtual glass. A toast to those who are still going to work today, and tomorrow, and until someone says not to anymore. I don’t just mean healthcare providers, who are willing to go to work and care for the sick and put themselves in harm’s way and whose selflessness will literally be the thing that saves many and many of our lives.

I am of course more thankful than ever for healthcare providers and our country’s healthcare system. But I’m also extremely thankful for the people who are still stocking store shelves and who are still bagging groceries, who are manning assembly lines and driving trucks full of the things we need, who are still making sure the lights are on, the phones are working, and the fucking internet is still working so we can all stay connected to talk about Tiger King like the world is somehow still a little bit normal.

Most of us aren’t leaving our homes unless it’s utterly necessary—and yet we find ourselves totally reliant on the resiliency and bravery of the people whose jobs leave them no choice but to leave their homes.

So it doesn’t feel like a time for silly little websites about beer, but I wanted to take a minute, sitting here with my dog at my feet and my family safely snug in the Sunday stillness of our home before the madness of working remotely and home schooling and calming a rescue dog who barks at every delivery, to say thank you, to raise a toast, and to wish all of you well.

I hope all of you are finding some semblance of normalcy and comfort in these weird times and I hope to raise a glass with all of you in real life soon.

Hang in there.

Vegandale, hard seltzer, and the swing of the pendulum

“I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he’d say, “That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget,
it goes the other way too”.”
                                                                                                   ~ Alabama Worley 

It was yet another weird and worrisome week in the world of craft beer.

And yet, much as the news can sometimes be troubling, it all seems to point to the idea that there is a certain balance to this industry, for better or worse. Clintons, the storied Bloor West venue, for example, announced its closure after 83 years in business, but certainly another bar or two opened in Toronto this week to help fill the void.

Breweries continue to open in the province and, as we have for about five years, we can’t help but wonder how many more this province can actually hold. Well, wonder no more. Or at least not much longer, I think. Rumours continue to swirl that there are roughy a half dozen well-known breweries in this province actively looking for buyers or some kind of exit strategy as the craft beer market share seems to finally level off and even established brewers admit privately to me they are hemorrhaging cash. Stay tuned.

It’s at once sad and vaguely reassuring. Continue reading “Vegandale, hard seltzer, and the swing of the pendulum”

The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit

Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity
is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.
                                                        ~Anonymous Ontario brewery owner

I’m not a hugger.

Whether it be my germaphobia or a personal space issue, my impulse has never been to wrap my arms around another human when greeting them or when saying goodbye. No need to pass the flesh here, bud. I’ll probably see you again soon. A handshake is great. Even a fist bump.

Some people, though, really are huggers. There is no doubt, when they open that front door to greet you or they bump into you at an event, that they are going to hug you. It’s a weird and foreign instinct to me: They are genuinely happy to see other people and they simply must embrace. Not only that, but they do it in such a way that it’s infectious. I only know five or six of these kinds of huggers, but when they wrap their arms around even hug-skeptical folk like me, they make the huggee feel good and welcome. They are Good Huggers.

Ren Navarro is a Good Hugger.

Ren, for those who don’t know, has been working in Ontario’s craft beer scene in a variety of sales and customer-facing roles for years and, as a queer, black woman, will tell you she has always felt something like “craft beer’s unicorn” among the sea of mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly male faces that comprise the brewing industry. In recent years, Ren has taken to advancing the conversation about diversity in beer to a semi-full-time gig, launching Beer.Diversity, taking part in panel discussions on diversity at craft beer conferences and offering consultation services to breweries who want to embrace diversity in their businesses. Ren and I have been in pretty regular contact over the years mainly via the internet but have met in real life a few times and, upon each occasion, predictably, she has greeted me with a great hug.

Right now though, I get the sense Ren doesn’t feel much like hugging. The reason for that is Ren’s latest project, the Ontario Beer Summit, which she launched with partner Jake Clark, was officially cancelled last week. The summit was a two day conference that focused on beer education, with a mandate to celebrate “the strength that equality and diversity brings to craft beer and our communities.”

It was cancelled due to a lack of registrations. Continue reading “The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit”

Flagship February

In case you weren’t aware, we are currently in the final throes of “Flagship February.”

Flagship February is an idea that sprang forth last year from the mind of professional drinks writer Stephen Beaumont to give some love to the flagship beers that we often overlook. Beaumont has written a baker’s dozen worth of books on beer and understands the beverage’s history and tradition.

I’ve seen him backhand a bartender for serving him a Kolsch that wasn’t in a stange. He once called in a bomb threat to a bar on St Patrick’s day because he knew they consistently poured pints with the tap nozzle touching the beer. It’s rumoured he once hobbled a server who had never heard of ESB. “You cut the achilles,” he told me once with fire in his eyes. “The limp will ensure he never forgets again.” He’s a man who takes beer seriously.

This February, as with last, Beaumont and a team are preaching the merits of mainstay beers with a series of essays. As Beaumont’s site explains,

a Flagship is the beer that defines a brewery. It’s the one that you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name, the one that most people associate with the business. In most cases, it is their best-selling beer and often the one that outsells all their other offerings by a wide margin. A good flagship also allows a brewery to be able to afford the seasonals, specialty beers and the other one-off beers in their lineup.

Continue reading “Flagship February”

When your pint isn’t a pint

I recently read an item about pint sizes that got me thinking.

Adam McDowell, writing in August for the “booze newsletter” Moose Milk, which he cofounded with drinks writer Christine Sismondo, opined on the strict and seemingly seldom-observed definition of the word “pint.” As he noted in the article, the term “pint” has essentially been bastardized to the point where it now basically just means “a large glass.” In reality, of course, the pint has an actual exact measurement. In Canada, it’s 20oz.

McDowell’s premise was that bars advertising a pint are all too often not serving actual pints. You’re more likely, he posits, to get 18oz or 16oz. He also noted that bars and restaurants are actually legally required to serve correctly-sized pints. In a conversation on twitter that followed after I shared his article, McDowell also informed me that the Government of Canada has an official complaint mechanism to report measurement-related complaints like improper pints — which might be the most Government of Canada thing I’ve ever heard.

At first blush, this seems like the kind of thing I’d get my manties in a knot about, so I happily shared the item on social media: Getting shafted on beer? Shady advertising? Where’s my torch and pitchfork?!

But then recently I thought…is this actually an issue? How many bars actually advertise “pints?” Continue reading “When your pint isn’t a pint”

Indie Alehouse announces Birrotecca brew pub at Eataly Toronto

Two days ago in a piece for the Globe and Mail which I still haven’t read because it has a paywall and seriously who pays for things on the internet it was revealed that the Toronto location of Eataly will feature an onsite brewery operated by Toronto brewery Indie Alehouse.

Eataly is a global luxury Italian grocery and restaurant chain and recently announced a 50,000 square foot flagship space in the Manulife Centre in Toronto that will feature a market, groceries, and “half a dozen bars, counters and coffee shops.”

The first Eataly opened its doors in Torino in 2007, when an old vermouth factory was transformed into Eataly Torino Lingotto and it has since expanded to 35 global locations. The business model has also involved partnerships with craft beer, most famously the rooftop brew pub at Eataly New York that was built in partnership with storied Delaware craft brewery Dogfish Head back in 2000.

When the Eataly team started planning a Toronto location, they began a search for an appropriate brewery to partner with here and the shortlist, for a time, seemed fluid. During at least one point in the process it looked like the brewing operations in Toronto were going to be a collaboration between two popular local breweries, but when the dust settled, Junction area company Indie Alehouse was the last, and only, brewery standing. Continue reading “Indie Alehouse announces Birrotecca brew pub at Eataly Toronto”

From Graft to Glass

This piece originally appeared in print and online for in the December 2018 edition of The Growler, Ontario’s Beer Guide.

As a paying customer in a bar, you might think that the beer on tap is chosen to suit your tastes. It feels like a safe assumption that not only the food but also the beer pouring from the gleaming row of taps is selected to appease you, in order to make you spend money, return, and maybe even invite friends along.

But it usually isn’t. Those beers are there for different reasons and that bar isn’t actually a really big fan of the 12 very similar lagers that Labatt offers.

The truth is, most bar and restaurant owners treat their draught taps, and often their fridges of bottles and cans too, as not much more than prime real estate, available to the highest bidder. Brewery sales reps come into bars with an arsenal of free shit in order to “influence” their way onto these tap lines. They’re flush with “swag” like t-shirts, patio umbrellas, bar mats and chalkboards. They have budgets to offer keg deals, buy five get one free, for example; and they often simply hand over cash or offer to pay for a bar to install draught lines so that the brewery can make sure their beer is always in that line. There is no loyalty in the hospitality business. A bar manager’s love for a brewery is really only as good as the last rep who walked in the door with free tickets to a Ti-Cats game and a fucking snapback hat. Continue reading “From Graft to Glass”

London’s Beerlab! is finally ready to open

London beer’s worst kept secret is now out in the open.

Beerlab!, the small batch brewery owned and operated by Nick Baird and Adil Ahmad, is finally set to open its doors June 7th. Beer drinkers in London are, of course, likely already aware of both the duo and their fledgling brewery given that the location of the soon-to-open small batch venue is adjacent to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium, and both Baird and Ahmad have spent time working (and drinking) at Milos.

For those who haven’t tipped pints, talked local music, or chatted beer with Nick or Adil (or hounded them endlessly about when they were going to open their fucking brewery so you could blog about it), the Coles notes version is this: these guys are super into brewing, have been working on opening their doors for a long time, and next week Londoners are going to get another cool spot to drink great beer made by passionate brewers. Continue reading “London’s Beerlab! is finally ready to open”

It’s time for better beer: An open letter to Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro

Dear Mr. Shapiro,

Your promise of discount beer at the Rogers Centre today was a nice gesture, but it is not going to cut it. It is time to offer Toronto Blue Jays fans locally-made, independently-owned beer at the Rogers Centre.

Today you offered up the idea of $5 beer at the Rogers Centre and, while that sounds great, and is already grabbing you the headlines you probably hoped it would, you don’t need to be a cynical basement-dwelling, impossibly handsome beer blogger to see what this transparent ploy really is. You have in the past given lip service “improving the fan experience” at Jays games and you even seemed to publicly flirt with the idea of bringing in craft beer, as they did in Cleveland when you were there. I fear that you will now use $5 dollar beer to show that “you listened” and will claim the beer has improved. Reports are that the $5 beer will include 355ml cans of Bud and Bud Light so I wanted to clarify to you that selling the same shit at a lower price point in a smaller format is not actually an improvement. Indeed, it seems to me this might be the solution that Rogers and AB InBev came up with together to “improve” the beer situation at games in hopes that the conversation would go away:

FANS: “We want better beer!”
BLUE JAYS: “This small beer is now only five dollars! Isn’t that better?”
FANS: “It’s the same be–”
BLUE JAYS: “FIVE DOLLARS!”

I want to let you know that this conversation isn’t going to go away. (For the record though, I’m loving the dollar hot dog days. Definitely do that shit, please).

And it isn’t just me that wants this, I assure you.

Actual craft beer at Jays’ game would go a long way toward improving the fan experience to a level that is currently experienced literally everywhere else in baseball: The Toronto Blue Jays are the only team in major league baseball who have yet to offer fans a significant, readily available craft beer experience.

When it comes to this part of the overall product for which you are ultimately responsible for, you are literally losing to all 29 of your competitors—but not to worry. This part is an easy fix. Forget for a second the unceasing competition to find the right mix of players on the field, coaches in the clubhouse, salary caps, your pitching woes, scouting, etc. Here is a thing you can do better, right now, that will improve the Blue Jays “product.” Give us better fucking beer. Continue reading “It’s time for better beer: An open letter to Blue Jays CEO Mark Shapiro”

The 15 most important Ontario beers ever

Ontario’s beer scene is still very much in its infancy.

Accordingly, it’s a little tough to identify the beers that have been “game changers” here just yet.  The game, that is, is still very much changing.

That said, in our still-short evolution toward better beer, there have been a handful of beers that most certainly helped Ontario’s craft beer scene get to where it is today.

Here are my picks for what those beers are. These aren’t the best beers, nor are they my favourites, rather they are the beers that have helped transform Ontario’s getting-closer-to-world-class-every-day beer culture thus far.

Upper Canada Brewing Company’s Rebellion
I’m not sure this two-row pale ale made with Cascade and Cluster hops (when the fuck is the last time you heard of someone using cluster hops??) would float anyone’s boat these days, but back in tha day, this was the only Canadian Pale Ale listed in the 1998 World Beer Championships and it scored an 85. So it wasn’t something to sneeze at.

More importantly though, this is THE gateway beer. This beer actually opened the doors for craft beer in the province. For a generation, it was like, oh shit, there’s another kind of beer?

Jason Fisher is the owner of Toronto’s Indie Alehouse and he points to this beer as a gamechanger. “Upper Canada Rebellion (and even their Lager) was the first beer in Ontario made with an eye toward flavour as opposed to filling a place in the market,” he says. “They didn’t give a fuck what any marketing people said. They brewed what they wanted to and, for a time, it was great. They brought in fresh German hops to make beer with which, at the time, was unheard of in Ontario.”

*real talk: I was 17 when Sleeman took over Upper Canada, got rid of this beer, and fired three guys that would go on to build another brewery in Toronto, so I never actually drank this one. But I gotta show love to an OG craft beer. Continue reading “The 15 most important Ontario beers ever”