St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Monthly Archives: January 2012

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On The Likelihood Of Success OR Consider The Finches

One of the things that we don’t talk about very much in the Ontario beer scene is the initial outbreak of craft brewing in the province. I have the feeling that the reason for this is that it was pretty depressing for a very large number of people.

Over the Christmas break, I glommed on to a copy of Jamie MacKinnon’s book, The Ontario Beer Guide, published in 1993. It is subtitled “An Opinionated Guide to the Beers of Ontario,” which gives you some idea of the slant he took on the beer scene. It is not, it has to be said, a great deal different than the views that current commentators find themselves espousing. We like the underdogs. It’s a very interesting book for a number of reasons, one of which I will almost certainly talk about in a subsequent blog post. Also, MacKinnon is an entertaining author.

The thing that caught my immediate attention while I was leafing through it on Boxing Day was that he claimed on page 171 that Ontario would have more than 50 brewpubs by 1995. Initially I thought that this was a wildly optimistic prediction, but I’ve spoken to some other beer writers who recall that there was a period when it looked like it would go that way.

Apparently, there was a brief period in the early 90’s when there were four brewpubs on Eglinton between Yonge and Mount Pleasant. The Granite is still there, of course, but The Spruce Goose is now Philthy McNasty’s. I remember the Spruce Goose mostly as a result of the fact that they had Pinball. At 13, I was too young for beer, but I was intrigued by the multiball feature on the Jurassic Park table. Incidentally, in retrospect, the hubris of naming your business after an insane billionaire’s failed attempt at aviation was probably a poor choice. It would also probably be best not to name your hang-glider company after Icarus.

Mackinnon’s book systematically sets out to rate all of the beers in Ontario (except for Great Lakes’ Golden Horseshoe, which was too new at the time). Let’s consider the list. There’s Brick, who only continue to offer one of the beers that was rated. Conner’s is gone. Creemore is owned by Molson. Hart is gone. Lakeport is owned by Labatt and their original facility was scrapped. Niagara Falls Brewing Company is now The Syndicate. Northern Algonquin Brewery is gone, although some of their Formosa brands persist. Northern Breweries are gone. Pacific Brewing Company only exists in BC. Sleeman is owned by Sapporo. Upper Canada is owned by Sapporo (and the dark ale is a shell of its former self).

Arguably, the only brewery who has survived in a recognizable form is Wellington. The success rate for the small independent breweries listed in The Ontario Beer Guide in 1993 is about 3/13. About 23%.

In terms of brewpubs, of the 31 listed in the appendix to the book, the total number of survivors is 5. The Granite, Kingston Brew Pub, Tracks, Charley’s, The Lion. That’s not a completely accurate figure, as Denison’s and Amsterdam evolved into other things. Call it 7/31. About 23%.

If you started an independent beer related venture in Ontario prior to 1993, the aggregate chance of your having succeeded to the present day without having sold your business or having gone bankrupt is therefore about 23%. I didn’t even have to do any additional math.

That’s a 77% failure rate. Not as bad as Goldman Sachs, but not great.

Failure and collapse are parts of any ecology, even ones that appear to be thriving. Consider Darwin’s Finches. The Galapagos Islands are a relatively isolated environment and Darwin’s finches are part of the ongoing scientific study in evolution. Over time, something like fifteen species of finches have managed to evolve into individual roles in the Galapagos.

For the purposes of this analogy the one on the top left likes IPA.

They have all developed different beaks so that they can take advantage of different food sources. There are finches that eat the seed of a certain type of cactus. There are finches that eat the flesh of the same cactus, having evolved beaks that can get between the needles. The Woodpecker Finch uses various tools to get at the food source it’s after. There’s even the Vampire Finch, which has been known to sustain itself by drinking the blood of boobies.

Man, this blog post is really finch heavy. Next time I'm going to write about something awesome like Monster Trucks. Did you know that Truckasaurus doesn't have a 77% failure rate? Truckasaurus never fails.

The point is that while this is a miracle of diversity from some points of view, these are only the species that made it. At some point along the way, there must have been more finches. From an environmental perspective, the Galapagos are relatively untouched. There must have been intervening species that did not evolve sufficiently to take advantage of the food sources available. Some fall by the wayside.

In point of fact, most of the species of finches that have ever existed in the Galapagos are long since dead or significantly altered. Evolution continues anyway: a 2006 study says that evolution in terms of beak shape is possible in less than 20 years.

For the purposes of this analogy, it’s helpful to think of small independent breweries and brew pubs in Ontario as finches.

They are small, adaptive organisms, all about the same size, who have developed different beaks in order to take advantage of the different food sources available to them. If they are located close to other species, they will have to evolve in an entirely different way so as not to deplete the same food sources. Some environments will simply not support them. Before the ecology reaches a state of equilibrium, some of these finches will become extinct.

Now, Ontario isn’t like the Galapagos. For one thing, the food source is expanding. There are more craft beer drinkers than there have ever been before. The thing that has me worried is that the number of craft breweries and brew pubs seems to me to be expanding at a rate that is equal to or greater than the speed at which the number of craft beer drinkers is expanding. There is probably an equilibrium point, but I don’t pretend to know what it is.

There are a lot of new Ontario craft breweries starting up. Many of them are making some very tasty beers. Lots of them are outside Toronto. One of them is entirely fictional.

Now, we may not be anywhere near the equilibrium point for the ecology in terms of beer in Ontario. I hope we’re not, as many of the people who work for these breweries are friends of mine. Further, there will be more start-ups over the next five years as Niagara College students decide they want to brew their own beer and the craft beer market in Ontario catches up with other markets.

The failure rate might not be 77% anymore for independent breweries and brewpubs in Ontario over a 20 year period. It certainly seems as though it has gotten lower. The important thing to remember is that we’re in the middle of a boom, and it probably will not last indefinitely. There will be equilibrium.

All Hail Truckasaurus!

Molson M – Their New Commercial

I was sitting on the couch, watching Guy Fieri tell Lou Diamond Phillips that his ribs were the “bomb diggity” or “winner winner, chicken dinner” or some other vaguely positive California white guy thing. He may have used the adjective “hella.” I’m not really sure. I was paying the sort of half attention that a celebrity cook off merits. I remember that Cheech Marin can cook, if that counts for anything.

The thing that shocked me was that during the commercial break, I saw the new Molson M commercial. I believe in giving credit where it’s due, so I figure that I should probably talk a little bit about the commercial, if only for the reason that I think it’s a marked improvement on previous Molson ad campaigns.

If you haven’t seen it, I’ll provide a link to it so you can go away and watch it and then come back.

The problem that I’ve had with previous campaigns run by Molson is that, in the case of Canadian at least, the commercials didn’t ring true. In addition to the fact that very few of the people who live in Toronto have ever seen a swaying field of barley, the Canadian commercials raise a difficult logical fallacy: The No True Scotsman argument.

The No True Scotsman argument can be applied in a number of different ways, but essentially it runs like this: No True Scotsman wears underwear with a kilt. You are wearing a kilt, and while you may put salt in your porridge or have an affinity for single malt or speak fluent gaelic or hail from Aberdeen or own the complete works of Rod Stewart or have a long, proven ancestral line harkening back to Robert the Bruce, you are wearing boxer briefs under that kilt and I don’t care that it is a rental, you are wearing boxer briefs and you are therefore not a Scotsman.

Since not X then not Y, even if the tautology is demonstrably false based on extenuating factual evidence.

The thing about the Molson Canadian ads is that historically, they have asserted things about you, the consumer. You like mountains and lakes and rivers and you’re out there on God’s green earth communing with a herd of elk whenever possible.

Similar claims have been made recently by a series of Tide commercials that suggest that no true Canadian would ever consider putting off doing something because it’s cold out. This is, of course, a load of bollocks. If it’s -60 with the wind chill, I can practically guarantee you that you’re better off with a snuggie and a hot cocoa and a selection of hibernatory naps. Consider the words of Alden Nowlan:

this is a country

where a man can die

simply from being

caught outside

You’re not less sensible than a poet, are you? No, I didn’t think so. Clearly, it’s a false statement on the part of the cold water Tide campaign. They then go on to make an unrelated statement about how since you can go outside in the cold, your clothes should be washed in cold water. This makes me unremittingly angry, and I have to turn off the TV and go lie down for a while.

Bit of a digression there.

Anyway, Molson M’s campaign is a change in strategy for Molson in that it does not assert anything about you, the consumer. That’s a big step forward because the ad is suddenly about the product.

I think that it’s successful because it’s clearly meant to be inclusive of an urban market, which is, let’s face it, what Canada is predominantly comprised of. It displays people who are masters of their crafts doing what they do. There’s a ballet dancer doing what I assume is some kind of grand jete. There’s Mark McEwan, flambéing something with a taciturn look on his face. There’s a graffiti artist composing a mural. A drummer, banging away at a snare. A tattoo artist, applying ink.

Finally, it cuts away to a Molson brewmaster, Jonathan Lowes doing some stuff in a brewery. He’s crushing hops in his hands and smelling them. He’s pulling a sample from a tank. To be fair, it’s hard to represent brewing to a mainstream audience because the process is probably not something they’re really familiar with. It’s visually difficult. The important thing is that the continuity carries through to allow the tagline to assert that “every medium has its master.”

It also manages not to be explicitly exclusive of rural markets. Doing something well is universal. A subsequent commercial could easily focus on rural artisans.

Not only is it clever because of the assertion that brewing is art, which is being drilled into the public consciousness, it manages to rebrand the product. I don’t see the word “Microcarbonated” in there anywhere, do you? I’ll tell you why that is. The general public cares less about microcarbonation than the honey badger, who, as we all know, is preternaturally unconcerned. If you didn’t know about this brand, you would think, based on this commercial that M stands for “Master” because of the fading text at the end.

Is brewing art? Yes, it is. Is Jonathan Lowes a master of that art? I don’t know. I’ve never heard of him before. You don’t get to be a head brewer at Molson by being a chump. Let’s assume that anyone who can perform that job has a lot of training and is significantly talented. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. He almost certainly is. The question will always remain whether the product is art. Craft beer drinkers will certainly not think so. I do not think so, but I admire the mechanics behind it.

I don’t know if a mass produced thing can be considered art. Hotel room paintings are not a Manet original, but they fulfill the criteria of being cheerful and lending color to the room. Is the dichotomy that nags at me one of production? Is it the difference between an impressionist’s single canvas offering and a silk screened Warhol reproduction?

The important thing is that the commercial has forced me to ask questions and think about the product. It is assertive, but about the product, rather than the consumer. That is an improvement, and whoever came up with that campaign should probably be given a large bonus.

Can Beer Bars Survive North Of Bloor?

One of the things that I find irksome about living at Yonge and Davisville (aside from the inevitable late night taxi fares, which are one of the apparent hazards of being a beer writer) is the fact that otherwise intelligent people who live south of Bloor seem to think of it as being somewhere near Moosonee, geographically speaking. This is not only untrue, it’s simply hurtful. I’ve been chased off of campsites on the Moose River by black bears, whereas I might actually be the largest predator at Yonge and Davisville. If you’re in Moose Factory and something is banging on your wannigan trying to get at a loaf of bread or a jar of honey, that’s a bear. If you’re lying in bed in an urban setting and you hear someone stealing  beer from your fridge, that’s probably me. I guess there’s some overlap if you’re carrying beer on a portage, but probably only if it’s any good.

The point I’m getting at here is that life doesn’t end at Bloor Street. I didn’t realize that there are people who don’t think of Yonge as the main dividing line in Toronto. Some misguided urbanites believe that Bloor is the actual cutoff line, and they always seem a little amazed when they’re required to board a train going north.

“Hills!” they think. “My God, there are hills! This cannot be Toronto. My fixie bicycle will not ride on this terrain.”

It’s amazing because they’re somehow not being intentionally disingenuous about this. These are the fortunate people for whom the suburbs simply don’t exist. They will never shop at a centre owned by RioCan unless they do it ironically. The last time they went to Ikea, they bought enough Billy bookshelves to last a lifetime, cognizant of the fact that a constant supply of hex keys means that they’ll never have to see the 401 again.

All of this goes some way to explaining things about the way craft beer is laid out in Toronto.
Go ahead and name me five beer bars in the 905 part of the GTA. There’s The Feathers, (ed. note: People on twitter, especially @davidsunlee, have been quick to point out that Scarborough is not the 905 and that my portrayal of Scarborough as being part of the 905 is divisive and cruel and unusual and that I am a big ol’ poopyhead with no geographical understanding of the city and that probably my mom brought me up wrong and that my father very possibly has a wooden leg with a kickstand. I apologize, my family apologizes and the termites in my father’s wooden leg apologize.) although when I hear about them, mostly I hear about the selection of whiskies. They do have some very nice Cask selections. There’s West 50 in Mississauga, and from what I’ve seen of them, they have interesting events. The problem is “how do you get to it if you don’t drive?” Well, you just don’t.
It seems to me like there is not a lot of conviction that craft beer pubs can exist past the 401. The good news is that I think we’re heading in that direction. Over the Christmas break, I went to a couple of places that are trying to use beer as a draw outside of the downtown core.

First of all, there’s the newest offering from the people at the Bier Markt, who have decided to open a location at Don Mills and Lawrence. This sort of makes sense because some of the clientele that would frequent the Bier Markt’s other locations probably live somewhere near the Bridle Path. It’s a well laid out location and it offers the same variety of beers and the same quality fare that are available at the other Bier Markt locations. It’s a case of transplanting a successful model to a new location, and the location itself bears some talking about.

I hadn’t been to the mall at Don Mills and Lawrence since I was in high school. At the time, it was a down at heels mall without a lot of interesting features. I think the highlight might have been an A&W in the food court. In a stunning act of capitalist reclamation, it is now more or less an extremely upscale drive thru buytopia that features box stores for chains that I didn’t know we had in Canada. I mean, I suppose I knew that Tommy Hilfiger had their own stores, but I didn’t realize that could happen here.

The selection of beers reflects the setting. It is wide and varied and upscale and proper. All of the brands are established brands. This is clearly a corporate setting, and it shows. The correct glassware is used for everything and it seems to me like the model developed in the other locations has left nothing to chance. That may sound negative, but my feeling is that it’s right for the neighbourhood. These are professionals doing this thing. Let’s face it, if you’ve spent a long day manipulating the world of high finance or sitting comfortably as VP of a division that’s way over budget, and drive up to the Banana Republic to buy some dress chinos for the cottage and you decide to whet your whistle, you don’t want some schmuck recommending something you’re not going to like.

I kind of liked the place, since there’s a part of me that appreciates intricate attention to detail and efficiency and wants to make the trains run on time.

For a more organic feeling, there’s Coco Rogue, which is a relatively recently established place near Yonge and Eglinton. It’s not exactly a pub, since it was initially envisioned as a place specializing in Belgian chocolate. While there’s no shortage of people who are interested in chocolate, they have decided to revamp their menu in order to incorporate heavier belgian fare and European beer. Not only do they have the typical Moules Frites, but some truly interesting dishes that incorporate chocolate. I look forward to trying the vegetable mole on my next visit. Clearly, mole sauce isn’t Belgian, but I figure that it’s worth trying if only because they’re going to incorporate some of that Belgian Chocolate into it. Similarly, the chocolate fondue must be of an exceedingly high quality, although I didn’t try it.

The draft selection is going to be relatively minimal, and I heard Tilburg Dutch Brown Ale being

floated as the staple beer. There will also be a wide selection of products from Roland and Russell on hand for the bottle list.

The most interesting thing is that because it was initially a chocolate lounge, the layout is not necessarily what you would expect. The second floor contains some very comfortable group seating with low leather couches and mood lighting. While it was designed for groups to share fondue, it would be a good place to relax and enjoy some very high quality bottles with friends. The first floor has a baby grand piano and old movies projected on the wall. Not everyone is down for Bogart hovering over the room in a white dinner jacket, but I like a surreal touch, me.

The menu is solid, the beer list is solid and the decor is eclectic and slightly funky. I think it will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve. The main concept I came away with is that chocolate has its own terroir, as do wine and beer. I think that there’s a lot of room to play with that idea.

I hope that both of these places do well. As high quality imports and craft beers continue to grow in the market, it’s this kind of experimentation with new neighbourhoods that will go a long way to creating converts.