News / Canada

How creativity fuels Canada's craft beer boom

TORONTO - When reaching for a cold one, more Canadians are turning to craft beers, a category that has seen major growth across the country.

In 2014, overall consumption of beer declined by six per cent but craft beer servings were up seven per cent, according to data from NPD Group.

The marketing analysis firm says craft and microbrew beers accounted for 17 per cent of all beer consumed at casual dining restaurants.

Tim Broughton says the beer landscape today bears little resemblance to when he and business partner George Milbrandt launched C'est What? in Toronto, a pioneer in showcasing local beers, in 1988.

“When we opened there was no such thing as craft beer,” Broughton says, adding the only two breweries that weren't Molson or Labatt were the now-defunct Conners and Upper Canada.

C'est What? now offers 42 craft beers on tap, with a selection of rotating small-batch beers.

“Over the last few years you could have come down here every day for a pint and never had the same beer twice,” says Broughton.

“We were going through over 300 beers in a year. It's nice that the industry has developed that far. If you go back to '88 that was a different story.”

Of about 150 brewers in Ontario, there are 50 or so that are considered small or craft, relying on local, natural ingredients to make more than 450 handcrafted premium brews with no preservatives, the Ontario Craft Brewers Association says on its website.

The BC Craft Brewers Guild dubs itself “the birthplace of craft beer in Canada,” founded in 1982. It now includes close to 100 breweries throughout the province and sales have doubled in the last four years, according to its website. The Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia has 19 members.

Quebec too has had an explosion of craft brewers over the last couple of years, says Les Murray, president of Beerlicious, which operates Toronto's Festival of Beer, one of the largest such events in the country, marking its 21st edition July 24-26.

When the festival started, fewer than 10 brewers took part with about 30 brands. Now there are about 100 exhibitors and more than 350 different brands of beer available.

Brewers are getting creative with the classic recipe of malt, water, hops and yeast.

“It used to be that everybody came out with a lager because you had to compete with Molson Canadian,” says Broughton.

“For years there was this huge wave of IPAs, sort of West Coast, American-style IPAs, heavily hopped, reasonably strong alcohol.

“Now you're seeing a whole bunch of other types of beer showing up.”

The varieties are endless: brown ales, stouts, white beers and sour beers. Brewers are experimenting with grains like rye, or using rye or whisky barrels in the aging process to add complexity.

Then there are “additive” beers, with spices, herbs, chocolate, coffee, orange, raspberry and pumpkin.

“It's fun because you can really make different and interesting products,” says Broughton.

“I think winemakers to some extent don't have the same flexibility. You've basically got to work with grapes and tweak it whereas in beer you can use just about anything.”

Inventive mixologists and bartenders are combining beer with juices, bitters and other ingredients - ginger is common - in cocktails, and chefs and brewers are suggesting food and beer pairings.

Murray points to a link between consumers keeping an eye on their gluten intake and the growing popularity of cider - that's hard cider, the fermented variety usually made from apples, though pears or peaches can be used.

Broughton has noticed a trend over the last four or five years of “weird beer names.”

Flying Monkeys started out as Robert Simpson, named for the first mayor of Barrie, Ont., who also was a brewer. Now the brewery has devised flashy labels and such monikers for brews as Smashbomb Atomic and Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale Ale. Gravenhurst-based Sawdust City makes a stout called Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus.

“The nice thing is it's not just marketing,” Broughton says.

“They're not just making a crap beer and putting a funky name and label on it. They're making good beers and also having some fun with the names on the labels.”

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