A Word For Ontario Breweries 21

(Editor’s Note: In the last week, I’ve evaluated Trafalgar in a positive manner based on their recent triumphs, succeeded in getting Sleeman investigated by the AGCO, Blown up Triple Bogey on Twitter for astroturfing ratings and done more research into Ginger than the breweries using it as in an ingredient. I believe I can only be considered fair minded. AB In-Bev wanted me to write about Goose Island. I don’t think they expected this.)

I just came back from the pub. I’ve had three pints of Goose Island IPA. I have written notes on beers I’ve drunk while tipsy in the last five years. You’d be amazed how infrequently I’ve written the content you read with a buzz. You’ve got to taste in order to make notes, but for the most part I write completely sober. Sometimes painfully hungover, but sober.

On Wednesday, I went to Zoomer Media down in Liberty Village to record a podcast for the Ontario Craft Brewers. I spent a pleasant couple of hours with Ben Johnson and Mirella Amato talking about beer and playing the game the podcast has devised this season: name the beer. I had one beer that was laden with diacetyl and one that was so far from its original mandate as to be incomprehensible.

After that I went to the Craft Brasserie. I had two flights. I tried eight beers I hadn’t had from Ontario. They have 120 taps there. It rapidly became clear that the new class doesn’t have it. Even brewers I’d had vouched for produced vinegary off notes. I had phenols, soap and people telling me they were brewing in styles they just weren’t.

I have been doing this for five years. I have not broken even and despite that, I have not sold out. I will not sell out. I’ve made sacrifices not to. Let me put this in personal terms you can understand: I last got new glasses four years ago. I have not been to the dentist since 2009. I have written the history of this province and I have written the history of the brewing industry of the city of Toronto. As National Beer Columnist for Sun Media I kept track of all of the beer releases for four years across this country. I trained as a brewer. I wrote a book about homebrewing. I believe in Ontario’s future and I believe in the future of its brewers.

It’s for that reason I’m not going to mollycoddle you anymore.

Let me tell you what’s over the hill. Goose Island? That property that you talk about going downhill? They’re producing, even through the Labatt plant in Montreal, a better IPA than most of the brewers in Ontario are capable of making. “Oh,” I hear you say, “It’s so 90’s.” Well, listen up, sunshine: You’re making a fifth rate 2015 nothing. It’s a marvellously balanced 1991 IPA. The Honkers ESB? That’s at every Prime Pub in the province. You may say “Oh, it’s not as good as it was.” It’s still better than your beer. “Oh, it’s brewed by Labatt.” Well, that’s a barrel of production they haven’t put towards Bud Light. Net positive as anyone with a brain sees it.

There’s good news. Every time some hapless Blue or Canadian drinker tries one of those beers, he’s exposed to wider flavour. The bad news is that it’s in pubs you ignored. Maybe it’ll translate to sales at some point, but I wouldn’t bet on it helping you specifically.

Goose Island has spent millions of dollars on this venture into Ontario. They sent Sofie and Matilda a while back as bottled emissaries and those are wonderful beers. When they had me come and talk about Goose Island IPA, it was at Good Son on Queen West. They brought in Christina Perozzi. She’s every bit my equal. As part of the Beer Chicks, she was named Best Beer Sommelier in Los Angeles. She handed off to me a 12 month barrel aging vertical of Bourbon County Stout. That’s the level of thought they put in: Show ’em how the barrels work.

AB In-Bev has paid a magnificent amount of money for craft beer properties. They’ve spent millions to keep them running and they’re spending thousands to hire people to promote their brands. I found out at the podcast I was recording that Mirella Amato, Master Cicerone had become the educator for their Canadian distribution. She’s got a better palate than I do. Do you know what I say to that decision? FAIR PLAY! GO ON MIRELLA!

They are paying to educate people! The OCB has existed for what, a decade? Why aren’t they educating staff at craft beer bars? Is surviving as a lobbying organization enough? Clearly it’s not.

At the Goose Island Launch last week, I got to try Bourbon County Stout and Bourbon County Barleywine. I got to try a Belgian Tripel called Ogden that maybe two breweries in Ontario could have made and which I even got the Bud Light drinking boss of Labatt, Charlie Angelakos, to admit he liked. All of those beers were better than their Ontario counterparts.

I want to impress on you this thing: I love Ontario. I believe in our future. I sacrifice personally daily to promote Ontario beer.

Forget who owns Goose Island. They are not going away. They are your competition forever. Blue Point is coming. Elysian is coming. 10 Barrels is coming. Sierra Nevada is coming. Lagunitas is coming. Oskar Blues is coming. New Belgium is coming. Many, many others are coming.

Your existence is not enough, Ontario breweries. With a rare few exceptions, you should be pants-wetting terrified. Next time you don’t quite believe in the beer but send it out to make margin, you hurt yourself. Next time you don’t put in R&D time on a new brew and the customer pays in dissatisfaction, you hurt us all. Next time you don’t aim to be at least as good as your competitors, you retire a pauper. Next time you don’t up your game, you die slowly.

If you don’t think you can hack it, figure out what your equipment is worth and sell it off now.

No Quarter.

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21 thoughts on “A Word For Ontario Breweries

  • Greg

    Awesome article. Too many Ontario brewers I think rely on a novelty factor and some kind of loyalty because they are a town or neighborhood’s local brewery. But the novelty is disappearing, in most places a brewery isn’t the only local choice. And as you said if you can’t make consistent, quality beer, brand it well and sell it at a competitive price you are going to lose.

  • Pinví Filosof

    Leaving geographic and market specifics aside, this is something that should be heard, and listened to, by all those microbrewers who still believe that being local, new and craft is enough to make them successful in the long run.

  • Albino Rhino

    I actually find the hatred of Goose Island funny “I WILL NEVER DRINK GOOSE ISLAND THEY ARE OWNED BY ABINBEV” then you see them in line for BCBS and they come back with “Oh but this isn’t brewed at inbev” well yes it is if it’s an inbev property…but I digress.

    Drink beer because it’s good regardless of who makes it…..my only jibe at Goose Island is it can’t really call itself crafty any longer when it has Labatt contract brewing it’s beers in Ontario…the beer isn’t bad, I have no problem with the beer, I just find little ticks like that amusing.

    • Greg

      For a while i have thought that the whole craft vs crafty debate was started by small brewers who are scared as hell. Those guys used to be able to separate themselves from the big guys by making interesting flavourful beers while the big guys made light lagers. Now the big guys can make just as flavourful beers, more consistently and put them in any store they want. So the only way for the small guys to stand out is to make up some artificial notion about how they are true craftspeople and an arbitrary group of other brewers isn’t .

  • itslunchtimeca (@itslunchtimeca)

    it pains me to say that you are right. Not in a OCB you suck kind of way or a bandwagon bob way. I have been drinking seriously for a long time and nowhere the pro level but most beer is average at best.

    I have lost some of my loyalty to breweries I once loved (Robert B. Simpson), on the fence about some of my faves (Beau’s) and been thrilled by some who changed and came aways upwards to the light (Cameron’s, GLB, and Black Oak).

    I didn’t hate what happened to Creemore and found the product more consistent afterwards. Good beer is good beer but too much reliance is on hometown pride. Thanks for talking about this again, Jordan.

    BTW, pulled out your book for rough guidance on homebrewing an all grain teff beer. So, double thanks for doing stuff that is actually relevant.

    I only hope that the hipsterism and anti hipsterism of beer finally dies and we start talking about whether a beer or brewery is good again. All this posturing has allowed for too much bad beer.

  • irnbruer

    Do you seriously believe craft brewers have “ignored” a large number of the province’s pubs? I’ve been in the craft beer biz for 22 years and any rep will tell you that since Jim Brickman fired up his kettle in 1984, the vast majority of Ontario licencees have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the very existence of craft beer. The widespread availability of Goose Island has more to do with Labatt reps twisting the arms of the managers of their tied houses.

    Tied houses! We don’t have tied houses, you say. I stopped at the Grand Hotel in Lindsay yesterday. On tap they had Coors Light, Canadian, Rickards Red and Creemore. Molson might not own the place, but they might as well. Chains are the worst. All decisions are made at head offices, who usually refuse to even meet a craft beer rep. In recent years, Mill St. and Steam Whistle have got a foot in the door. Most pub managers are not the least bit interested in what their customers might want to drink, only in who will offer them the best “inducememts.” When I walk into most bars, I can tell right away who’s been doing the best inducing. It’s really unfair to blame craft breweries for the generally poor state of availability of their draft products.

    • admin Post author

      Alright. Given those small number of opportunities, let’s talk about the instances where they get on tap, where they have the ability to impress the public. In at least eight cases last week, beers I tasted from small Ontario breweries had off flavours. Can’t blame the lines at the pub, since they were literally just installed weeks ago. Sending out bad product is an unforced own goal. If the situation is as dire as you say and it’s impossible to get taps because of inducements, shouldn’t they care enough not to release vinegary red ales or diacetyl laden IPAs? If you can’t do that in your only avenue to the public, why bother at all? You can’t beat good beer and money with bad beer and no money.

    • Greg

      I see this complaint about things time and time again, and I find it almost impossible to get upset about it. Mostly because it would seem that just about every other industry does the exact same thing when it comes to what you would call “inducement”s. I mean has anyone ever been to a bar or restaurant where you could order coke or pepsi? Are small brewers some kind of special delicate snowflakes that they need this kind of extra protection that other products don’t get?

  • ace potato

    I’ve noticed its almost trendy to be the devils advocate for goose island. You can bitch about off flavours in craft beer and marvel at the power of budweiser, but remember the independant craft beer pioneers are the reason why we are here, they put flavour back in beer. If the big guys had it their way they would just be ramming shitty cheap to make piss water down your neck and this blog and the whole climate of beer today would not exist.

    • admin Post author

      Yeah, and if not for that meteor the damn dinosaurs would be brewing your Pale Ale. We’re here now and they’re not owed anything. They’re successful businesses. That’s both the long term and short term prize. It’s the only prize.

      The big craft brewers are just as much a threat to the small craft brewers as the globalized multinational brewers. This is not a Devil’s Advocate situation. This is a warning for small brewers that can’t get a handle on quality control. They’ll drink your milkshake.

  • ace potato

    Nice assumptions, try and think what the beer industry whould be like had not the craft beer revolution started. The parallel story is yes its all business, it has to be we live under the capitalist umbrella. If a small brewery closed shop because it made shitty beer thats the same argument in any industry, if you suck at what you do you will fail. I for one thank the innovators also as a homebrewer because now we have this plethora of new hops/malts etc to keep it interesting and fun. I’d love to have a brachiosaur as an assistant brewer 😉

    • admin Post author

      This is the thing: we can simultaneously be the best and worst we have ever been. With all the potential permutation out there in terms of ingredients it’s so painful to see unimaginative things done badly.

      • Rob

        It’s something that I find applies to Beau’s based off my tasting of many of their products. Not the main lineup, but their oneoffs tend to be extremely hit and miss.

        I’m not alone with that opinion either.

  • Dave

    Great article. I’ve been drinking Ontario craft for so long that my tastebuds have been slightly dumbed down to the point where I praise beers that aren’t really that amazing. I’m reminded of this every time I pick up one of my old favourites, like a Spitfire or any Samuel Smith or Fuller’s product. The arrival of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is another reminder of how far Ontario craft beer has to go. Hone your core brands instead of releasing some stupid new concoction every week in the name of originality.