Ontario’s Craft Beer History - The Ontario Craft Beer Guide - Robin LeBlanc, Jordan St. John

The Ontario Craft Beer Guide - Robin LeBlanc, Jordan St. John (2016)

Ontario’s Craft Beer History

The renaissance of brewing in Ontario has taken place in approximately the same time frame during which the rest of North America’s brewing industry has blossomed again. All across the continent, there has been an immense growth in the number of breweries operating and the number and types of beers available.

For the most part, however, the history of the brewing industry in North America has been about the consolidation and shuttering of various plants under larger banners. In Canada, throughout the middle of the twentieth century, one of our most successful businessmen, E.P. Taylor, built Canadian Breweries, an empire that thrived on this model, reducing the number of players in the market and the selection of products available to beer drinkers. His empire was not limited solely to North America. In the United Kingdom, Taylor’s consolidation of breweries and their tied houses led to a situation where Carling Lager was served in over eleven thousand pubs by 1967.

Top Five IPAs

1. Thrust! An IPa

2. Bronan IPA

3. Karma Citra IPA

4. Black Swan IPA

5. Headstock IPA

By the end of the 1970s, the number of players in the Ontario beer market was the smallest since the advent of industrialized brewing in the province. Molson, Labatt, Carling O’Keefe, Northern Breweries, and Henninger were all that was left of an industry that a hundred years earlier had boasted nearly two hundred companies. The lack of selection in the marketplace briefly created a boom in sales. The late 1970s represent the historical high point of beer sales across North America.

An indirect effect of E.P. Taylor’s empire building was the founding in 1971 of England’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Concerned by the shrinking amount of diversity in brewing, CAMRA strived to preserve traditional brewing methods and more flavourful ale styles. CAMRA in turn inspired many of the microbrewery start-ups in Ontario. Germany had similarly been a bastion for quality and full-flavoured beer due to the protections of the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law (which limited the ingredients permitted to be used in the making of beer to water, hops, barley, and yeast), and its influence can be seen in our early brewers.

New craft beers from both of these traditions have found receptive markets in Ontario. In the early days of the craft beer revival in the province, there was a claim by some that the beer market in Ontario was separated by Yonge Street. To the east, it was said, customers preferred ales, due to their British traditions and heritage. To the west, drinkers supposedly preferred lagers, due to their Germanic roots. Whatever truth there might have been to this claim has, as the market diversified over the last thirty years, become diminishingly accurate to the point of irrelevance. However, the central premise that lies at the heart of this insight does help to illustrate why Ontario has provided such a robust market for beer in the twentieth century and why so many beer lovers in the province were so quick to take up brewing in the 1980s: the majority of the population had come from beer-drinking nations.

Top Five Pale Ales

1. Golden Beach

2. Rhyme & Reason

3. 504 Pale Ale

4. Jutsu

5. Canuck Pale Ale

There has been a tremendous growth in the business of brewing beer in Ontario since the 1980s. It is helpful to think of this modern brewing history in Ontario as three distinct periods: the founding of the first wave of small brewers (approximately 1984 to 1995); a second period following failure and shakeout when conservatism reigned (approximately 1996 to 2007); and the current period (2007 to the present day), signified largely by enthusiasm, expansion, and change to the market.

The First Wave (1984-1995)

Ontario’s first craft brewery, Brick, was founded in Waterloo in 1984, literally in the shadow of Labatt’s converted Kuntz facility. Upper Canada opened in Toronto the same year, brewing a mixed selection of ales and lagers. Overall, the selection of styles on offer in the province was very basic, with the varieties being direct lifts of English and German tradition. Frequently, brewers would cite their travels in Europe as inspiration for a particular recipe. Latching on to any tradition, be it the “real ale” movement or the Reinheitsgebot regulations, provided ready-made talking points and a defined marketing context for small-brewery products. These specialty products helped to differentiate small brewers from their much larger, and more established, counterparts. The 1980s may well prove to have been the only period in Ontario history when people anticipated the annual release of a bock beer.

Top Five Pilsners

1. Vim and Vigor

2. Pils-Sinner

3. West Coast Pilsner

4. Starke Pilsner

5. Steam Whistle

Small brewers were helped in their battle to capture the imagination of the market by a labour dispute at the Beer Store, which closed down for the month of February in 1985. At the time, the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) had not fully diversified into beer sales, offering only inexpensive American imports like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lonestar. With the province’s only real outlet for beer sales closed and the LCBO struggling to keep up with orders, small local breweries became important in the short term. Customers were lining up in order to purchase their beer, and sales were so strong that the small breweries were pleading in newspaper interviews for the return of empties so that they could bottle more beer.

One of the hallmarks of this period was the ambitious attitude toward the market. For decades, the beer industry model in Ontario involved an attempt to sell beer to the whole province through the Beer Store. It was a model dictated by the largest players in the market and many start-up breweries attempted to emulate it. The small breweries founded in this period were huge by today’s standards. By the end of its first decade of operation, Brick was producing 40,000 HL of beer annually and was publicly traded. Sleeman, partially funded by Stroh’s in Michigan, began producing beer in 1988 at 200,000 HL annually. In point of fact, of the thirteen microbreweries listed in 1993’s Ontario Beer Guide, the very smallest produced just under 10,000 HL of beer and the majority were vastly larger.

Top Five Stouts

1. Cobblestone Stout

2. Ships in the Night Oatmeal Stout

3. Or Dubh Stout

4. Luck & Charm Oatmeal Stout

5. Blak Katt Stout

Toward the end of this period, the industry was plagued by two issues. The first was quality. The drive to create large volumes of beer for sale led to issues with consistency on the part of brewers who were, after all, relatively inexperienced, having started only a decade previously. Adding to the problem of inconsistent quality was the proliferation of extract brewing systems in brewpubs across the province. By 1993, Ontario had thirty-one brewpubs, many of which operated with these systems. Extract brewing was touted as something anyone could do, as replacing all-grain brewing with malt extract removed much of the effort from the process. A small number of these brewpubs simplified things even further by simply using imported wort, removing even the necessity of adding extract to hot water and making them responsible only for fermenting it on premises. Without sufficient training, information, and respect for cleanliness, however, the quality of the beer being served suffered enormously. It is not a surprise that the majority of those that survived employed all-grain brewing methods.

Top Five Saisons

1. Flemish Cap

2. Brett Farmhouse Saison

3. Farmageddon

4. Praxis

5. Pengo Pally

The second issue was the emergence of the discount beer segment at approximately the same time. In late 1992, President’s Choice launched its own brand, which managed to capture fully 2 percent of the market by spring of the following year. Loblaws, which had commissioned the beer, struggled to keep up with demand. Imitators were spawned and the large brewers entered the discount-beer market. Ontarians, perhaps sensibly in the wake of a recession, decided that, rather than paying a premium for inconsistent beer produced by small brewers, they would prefer to pay much less for a dependable product that was somewhat inferior in flavour. Even those who enjoyed a more flavourful beer increasingly avoided the not- always-dependable small breweries and brewpubs. Instead, they began taking advantage of the numerous brew-on-premises outlets that opened at the time. These allowed anyone to walk in off the street and make small batches of beer of a relatively high quality at a massive discount.

Top Five Porters

1. Robust Porter

2. Muddy York Porter

3. Bricks & Mortar Coffee Porter

4. Nutcracker

5. Clifford Porter

As a result of these issues, sales in the craft beer market declined significantly. Brewpubs folded left and right. Small breweries closed or were consolidated into the holdings of larger companies. The effects of the shakeout of the mid-1990s can be seen to this day. Some of Ontario’s early craft brands are owned by odd companies. Brick has ended up with Conners and Northern Algonquin. Sleeman still produces Upper Canada Lager and Dark Ale (which are shells of their former selves).

The Second Wave (1996-2007)

If the second period in our recent history has a theme, it is that of caution.

As one might expect following such a period of tribulation, the late 1990s saw craft breweries reining in experimentation. Instead, the surviving breweries focused on quality and consistency. It had become apparent that the key to long-term success in the beer market in Ontario was not the size of the brewery, but rather the ability to grow predictably while maintaining the quality of the product.

The good news was that the first generation of small brewers in Ontario had produced a significant number of personnel capable of running breweries that conformed to this model. Of the relatively small number of start-ups that emerged following the shakeout, the majority had employees that had formerly worked in successful breweries. Steam Whistle is the most famous example, with founding partners who had worked at Upper Canada. The “3FG” code on its bottles stands for Three Fired Guys. Mill Street was founded by personnel from Amsterdam. Magnotta entered the beer industry having already developed expertise in wine production. Other new ventures were frequently staffed by veterans of existing breweries who had outgrown their positions or found themselves without an employer. The pattern repeated throughout the industry, creating a sense of continuity in the slow but steady recovery.

Jordan’s Picks

1. Side Launch Mountain Lager

2. Amsterdam Howl

3. MacLean’s Farmhouse Blonde

4. Olde Stone Red Fife

5. Refined Fool You Are Lazy, Susan

During this period, the quality of the beer on offer increased dramatically. However, the variety of beer styles being brewed remained approximately the same and, at various points, may even be said to have decreased. Ontario developed a reputation internationally for beers that were of high quality even if they were not particularly interesting. By way of contrast, in the United States, which had always been a more adventurous market and somewhat less bound up in tradition than Ontario, brewers created mould-breaking, highly experimental beers.

Robin’s Picks

1. Muddy York Gaslight Helles

2. Manantler Seismic Narwhal

3. Big Rig Bock Me Gently

4. Side Launch Wheat

5. Tooth and Nail Fortitude

In the defence of Ontario’s craft brewers, it can be said that, chastened more than a little by the troubles of the mid-1990s, they were justifiably timid. The decision to offer a new brand was not taken lightly. However, experimentation was minimal. After all, the beer was selling, and many brewers saw little benefit in developing new recipes. A residual effect of this, which persists to this day, is the sentiment among beer geeks that Ontario lags behind the United States in terms of interesting beer.

The Third Wave (2007-Present)

The term craft beer entered into popular usage midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The change in language helped to differentiate a category in which small brewers could participate. The Ontario Small Brewers Association, originally founded in 2003, changed its name in 2005 to Ontario Craft Brewers in order to take advantage of this development.

Gradually, over the course of the decade, the number of kinds of beer being offered began to expand. The hop-forward ales that had been popular in the United States began to have additional influence on recipe design north of the border. The earliest commercially available examples were still malt-heavy. The now retired Devil’s Pale Ale from Great Lakes was considered extreme at its launch in 2006, containing a whopping 66.6 International Bittering Units’ (IBU) worth of hopping.

Slowly, confidence returned to the market and new breweries began to crop up. The build-up was slow, however. In the first half of the decade there were entire years that went by without a brewery launch. From 2006 to 2010, the average was approximately four a year. An increase in the status of craft beer was helped by the addition of bars and pubs focused specifically on the category. Events like Bar Volo’s Cask Days and an increasing number of other festivals provided showcases for experimentation and challenged brewers to come up with something new to delight the public.

The focus of the business began to change. Rather than intending to sell beer to the entire province, brewers focused on specific localities, due in part to the expense of dealing with the foreign-owned Beer Store chain. Distribution through the LCBO has increased and the focus in packaging has shifted from the traditional six-pack of bottles to a system that prefers single cans of beer. For the most part, very small craft breweries prefer to do business out their front doors. Compared to the early brewers of the 1980s, the ambition of Ontario’s new craft brewers is somewhat smaller. The size of these companies may not be as large, but the imagination on display is infinitely greater.

The caution that followed the shakeout of the 1990s has served us well. Many of the young brewers opening their own facilities gained experience under long-time industry veterans and have had the idea that quality matters drilled into them as a mantra. The cumulative wisdom is having a real effect.

The addition of the Niagara College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program helps to ensure that brewery start-ups will survive, and has engendered a greater sense of community in an already collegial industry.

Between 2012 and 2016, Ontario will have added 150 breweries to the roster of brewing operations in the province, including individual brewpub locations, contract brewers, and bricks-and-mortar breweries. That surpasses the high point of the nineteenth century. During the five-month period in which this book was written, Ontario launched more breweries than it did during the 1990s in total.

At the moment, there are very few styles of beer in the world that are not brewed in Ontario. In addition to the brewing industry, there is currently a burgeoning hop industry, a handful of maltsters, and suppliers of yeast starting up. The brewing renaissance is in full swing and the province has taken notice. Recent changes to the retail system will ensure that this development continues.