Craft beer: Full-bodied fad or on tap to stay?
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Tom Green’s first sips of beer came courtesy of his dad, Richard — sort of.
“When you first start drinking,” the Canadian comedian recalls in a phone interview with Metro, “you sneak whatever your dad has in the fridge.”
Growing up in the nation’s capital meant sneaking the nation’s top brands, namely Molson’s Export and Canadian, and Labatt’s 50 and Blue.
When he started buying his own beer, the funny man considered himself a bit of a connoisseur. “I always went towards the craft — Rickard’s Red and Alexander Keith’s, good Canadian beers,” says Green, who now lives full-time in L.A.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, choice was limited. New microbreweries started, then went flat fast. These days, the options are seemingly endless. There are saisons for patio season, pumpkin ales come fall, stouts for the holiday season and maple syrup concoctions in the spring.
We are currently in a “golden age” of craft beer, says Joel Manning, the brewmaster at Mill Street Brewery in Toronto, who has been working in the business since 1986.
Over the past four years, he says, an average of one new microbrewery pops up in Ontario each month. It’s a similar story across the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
Garrison Brewing Co. in Halifax recently released an India Pale Ale. It's packed with aromatic and bittering hops, delivering citrusy and tropical fruit aromas and a balanced malt backbone.
Mill Street in Toronto just launched the 100th Meridian Organic Amber Lager. It has a light floral grapefruit/citrus aroma.
Beau's All Natural Brewing Co. near Ottawa teamed up with comedian Tom Green to make a mean milk stout.
Creemore Springs Brewery in Creemore, Ont., brews its namesake Premium Lager. The bohemian lager has a brilliant copper colour, overtones of sweet caramel malt and a well-balanced floral hop character.
Granville Island Brewing Company in Vancouver makes a mean English Bay Pale Ale. The classic pale ale features malt-forward caramel flavours and rich copper hues.
Big Rock Brewery in Calgary offers up McNally's Extra Ale. This solid Irish Red Ale displays caramel and toffee malt notes balanced by a lightly bitter hop quality.
Paddock Wood Brewing Co. in Saskatoon regularly offers its 606 India Pale Ale. Its an English IPA with an American hop finish.
Alley Kat Brewing Company in Edmonton has a gluten-reduced Scona Gold Kölsch. The light German style ale was fermented from grains containing gluten and crafted to reduce the gluten protein content below 20 ppm.
Hopped up on going local
Green teamed up with Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. in Vankleek Hill, Ont., a one-light town about an hour east of Ottawa, to make and sell The Tom Green Beer.
The beer bottles, bearing a beautiful illustration of the comedy legend with one eyebrow cocked, seem like an elaborate prank. But it’s actually a serious award-winning milk stout, inspired by the milk gags Green used to pull on his Rogers cable access show before he hit the big time.
It’s this attention to detail of what’s on, as well as in, the bottles that has led the father-son team of Tim and Steve Beauchense to big-time success.
Beau’s (a shortening of their surname) launched on Canada Day in 2006 and is now served in about 1,200 restaurants and sold in roughly 400 Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores.
“This is part of the local food movement,” says Steve, explaining the phenomenal growth of his certified organic brewery. “People want to have authentic food and beer.”
Drinking beer has always seemed as authentically Canadian as ice hockey and maple syrup. But cracking open a few cold ones actually peaked in the Great White North in 1975 at 106.50 litres of beer per capita. By 2010, consumption had dropped to 73.86 litres per capita, with many opting for wine instead, according to Statistics Canada.
But beer is still the No. 1 alcoholic beverage for Canucks, with many now choosing a microbrew. Sales of craft beer have increased by 1,800 per cent to approximately $50 million over the past 10 years, according to a spokesperson with the LCBO. In B.C., sales from breweries producing less than 15,000 hectolitres have more than doubled since 2009 to $67.9 million, reveals a spokesperson with B.C.’s liquor distribution branch.
It used to be men, like Green’s dad, would buy “yellow, fizzy beer” by the case, for life, from the dominant Canadian brands. “Most people now have 10 to 12 beers on rotation,” says Manning.
The big guys react (or not)
Molson has woken up to this sobering reality.
The iconic brand, started by John Molson in 1786 in Montreal, has heavily relied on nationalism to build loyalty. The average clean-cut Joe reciting the ‘I am Canadian’ rant in a plaid shirt in the early 2000s was the Platonic ideal of the Molson customer. Then, Canada’s brewery merged with American behemoth Coors to form Molson Coors Brewing Co. in 2005.
While Canadian guys in 2014 are still partial to plaid, the young ones also tend to have a craft beer from a local brewery in their hands. This shift led Molson Coors to set up a craft beer division in 2011, after acquiring two top microbrewers — Ontario’s Creemore Springs and B.C.’s Granville Island Brewing Co. Molson Coors had about 39 per cent of the national market and had net sales of $4.21 billion US worldwide in fiscal 2013, according to company reports.
Meanwhile, Labatt Breweries of Canada is sticking with its tried-and-true formula — largely staying away from the move to stronger flavoured beers. The brewer, founded by John Labatt in 1847 in London, Ont., eventually merged with Belgium-based brand Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2008. Canada’s No. 1 brand is a hair ahead of Molson with about 40 per cent of the market, according to a company report.
It’s a never-ending party?
Men and women of all ages are seeking out the next big thing. Beer has shed its stereotypical hoser image, immortalized by Bob and Doug McKenzie on 1980s comedy show SCTV.
CanLit goddess Margaret Atwood has a gruit ale (herb and berry-infused) with Beau’s. Rock god Sam Roberts has a “session ale” with Toronto’s Spearhead Brewing Company. Hipsters with nothing more than a home brew kit and a dream are giving it a go. The money is flowing, but so is the hubris.
The story of Mill Street starting as “three guys and a truck” in 2002 is intoxicating, but Manning warns some upstarts won’t make it. Small outfits can have issues with quality control and some lack a basic understanding of the business side.
The Beauchesnes have been able to steadily build their brewery by mixing the father’s business background, with the son’s passion for the product. Having a national comedy treasure hock his eponymous beer on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show last year didn’t hurt, either.
Beau’s is now available in New York state and there are plans to expand into Quebec.
Success is giving microbrewers a nice buzz, but is the trend close to tapped out?
“The popularity of craft beer is still growing,” asserts Green. “People like original things.”
Raise a glass of (craft) beer and cheers to that.
Starting a microbrewery
Starting a microbrewery takes skill, and perhaps a bit of liquid courage. Granville Island Brewing Co. (GIB) in Vancouver has managed to stay in the beer biz for 30 years and counting. Here’s some key ingredients for brewing up success.
- The lightbulb moment: In the early ’80s, Mitch Taylor and Bill Harvey were inspired by the beer culture in Germany and Belgium and decided to try to bring it to British Columbia.
- Do your homework: The pair embarked on years of research, visiting microbreweries in the U.S. and Germany. They also got to know the main stakeholders.
- Have laser focus: The duo decided to focus on offering premium bottom fermented lager beers aged for several weeks in cold pressurized tanks, sold in draft in bars. They also made GIB available in bottles in local restaurants and stores.
- Build a cult following: In 1984 GIB was born, focusing on a German lager beer to gain a loyal local fan base.
- Stay true to your roots: While GIB is now owned by Molson Coors Brewing Co. it remains small and in B.C.
Start your own home brewery
Some VanBrewers members at Vancouver Craft Beer Week, where they did a demo brew/Two Peas Photography
Home brewing has gained a bad rep over the years as a hobby for cheapskates who make bad beer. But, VanBrewers HomeBrew Club, which started with just a handful of guys in 2009, is out to change that. The group now boasts about 250 paid members, plus about 500 active users on its forums at vanbrewers.ca, and mainly appeals to highly-educated males looking for a challenge. Corey Baker, director of communications for the VanBrewers, says making your own beer allows you the “freedom to create” killer brews to share with friends and family.
You can get all the basic equipment at your local home brew store, which will run you $70-$80 for the basics. Once you get a handle on brewing with extracts you can take it to the next level with all-grain brewing, says Baker. Here’s everything you need to start your own micro-microbrewery.
1. A pot to boil your beer in.
2. A bucket to ferment your brew in.
3. Siphoning supplies.
4. Syrups, malt extract and hops.
5. Bottles, caps and kegs.