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Why do Breweries Sell out (Part Two)

An oddly large portion of the subject when we talk about breweries selling out has to do with the concept of indebtedness. Internet response to the news of an acquisition is laughably predictable. There’s typically a certain amount of moderately witty badinage followed by exasperated outrage, threats of boycott and eventual doomsaying on the part of industry observers. The middle parts are the oddest ones. After all, wits must witter and pontificators have got to fill column inches. It’s the “How dare they sell? They owe us!” part that gets me.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the majority of your dyed in the wool brewers would make really awful office drones. They tend towards iconoclasm and are unlikely to take direction without taking it personally. One of the elements I’ve noted over the years is how similar their backstories are. They’ve come from different careers, usually where they’re dealing with widgets they don’t have a lot of control over and they want to do something meaningful with their lives: Accountancy, advertising and marketing are all fertile (and moderately lubricated) environments for brewers to spring from.

Entering brewing as a profession requires Ego. You have to believe you can make a product people will want to buy. You have to believe that your product will compete against demonstrably better and more established products. On a small scale, you have to be a polymath with understanding of business, accountancy, marketing, chemistry, biology, food sanitation and a number of other disciplines. You have to have faith that you know everything or can at least pick it up pretty quickly. Now, the level of Ego varies, but I think that when you see Tony Magee from Lagunitas justifying his decisions by quoting Neitzsche and essentially proclaiming himself an avant garde ubermensch that that might be the top end of the scale.

Imagine being 25 years into the process and your lifetime is piling up. You started your brewery at 30 at some point in the 1980’s. No one thought you’d make it, but you beat the odds. You’ve sold millions of barrels of beer, each type of which you painstakingly developed. A lot of your early competitors perished in the 1990’s when the first wave crashed. Your capacity is now well above 50,000 BBL a year and just maybe you’d like to see if there’s more to life than constantly paying attention to a brewery. It has been constant, by the way. You’re never really on vacation. You’re tired and probably have nagging injuries from having worked in brewing for a long time and, just maybe, at the back of your mind, the following thought creeps in: “I’ve taken this about as far as I can.” Does that sting? Does the knowledge that you can’t continue indefinitely cause you to think of legacy?

In some ways, you don’t own the brewery. The brewery owns you. In addition to being a parcel of boilers and vats, it’s more or less everyone you know. There’s brewers and assistant brewers, cellarmen, packaging workers, HR, accounting, tour guides, retail staff, janitors, millwrights, engineers, lab techs, social media and PR experts, cooks, servers, bartenders, drivers, delivery men, not to mention the guy who does the landscaping. The thing that you created drew all of these people under its banner and that probably means that it’s no longer completely yours except maybe monetarily. As your life has gone along you’ve become responsible for these people. If there is indebtedness on a moral level in the sale of your brewery, isn’t it to your employees?

Forget the public for a second. You want to capitalize on your life’s work. You can’t liquidate the brewery without putting all of these people you’re responsible for out of work. That’s not really an option. You’ve got to sell. The only people with money that want to buy a brewery are much larger breweries. Maybe the best you can do is broker the best deal possible: The one that allows your people to keep working. The one that allows your creation, this organism that represents the sum total of your professional accomplishment to continue growing even past your involvement and possibly beyond your ultimate demise.


It’s late August and I’m talking to Jeremy Danner. Actually, he’s pulled over on Interstate 29 to buy ice for his kegs, so I’m waiting to talk to Danner. We’ve already had a tense moment where I assumed Randyll, his wife, was his brother. He’s driving to Omaha to go to the Great Nebraska Beer Fest and I’m theoretically calling to talk to him about Boulevard’s Tank 7 Saison, but so far most of the call has been apologizing for assuming his wife’s a dude. It’s the first time that Boulevard has been in the LCBO and Tank 7 is the highlight of their summer launch. (Unfortunately I never quite managed to use the interview. How much this information can possibly help you now, three months later, I don’t know. Hopefully it will be back.)

Why was Boulevard in the LCBO at all? In 2013, Boulevard sold to Duvel Moortgat for an undisclosed amount of money. Wikipedia suggests the amount involved was over $100 million, a fairly reasonable amount of money when you consider that Boulevard is full of potential. An expansion in 2006 left them with the ability to produce 600,000 BBL a year. That’s a volume that would have put them in the top ten American craft breweries by volume at that time.

Because Duvel Moortgat has a relationship with a Canadian importer, Horizon Beers, we suddenly have access to Boulevard Tank 7 Saison. Danner, who’s responsible for a heck of a lot of entertaining social media presence on Boulevard’s behalf, is answering questions about Boulevard for me in a very straightforward way. I’m curious to know how Boulevard changed after the acquisition. He’s the man to ask. As an Ambassador Brewer, he worked his way up from starting on the bottling line in 2008 on the Smokestack line of products. He was good enough at talking to Sales Reps and answering requests for information about brewing that he was eventually placed on the marketing payroll. He now handles social media and staff tastings and mans the booth in places like Omaha.

I’m looking at Google Maps and the stretch between Kansas City and Omaha is what I believe they refer to as flyover country or Middle America. There’s a tense moment when I refer to it that way. If you strip away the quality of the beer for a moment, what you’re left with is a logistical problem. Boulevard is 1200 miles from New York City and 1600 miles from Los Angeles. Boulevard has been doing business in the Midwest very successfully since 1989. They’re selling 186,000 BBL of beer. They have the ability to make 414,000 BBL more than that. There may not be enough Middle America to soak up that volume.

The following quote is from and relates owner John McDonald’s state of mind prior to the sale:

John McDonald, who started the iconic brewery in a warehouse at 25th Street and Southwest Boulevard with used equipment, said that at age 60 it was time to find a buyer.

“My kids are too young to take over, and I don’t want to be 70 coming down here arguing with people,” he said.

Selling to Duvel is a brilliant move, as it turns out. They have presence in markets worldwide and sales forces that will be able to sell Boulevard’s beer in far more diverse geographical markets. On the east coast, you’ve got an established group of sales representatives for Duvel and their New York State subsidiary, Ommegang. Weeks before the call was scheduled, Duvel Moortgat acquired Firestone Walker. I’m mostly concerned with whether Pivo Pils is going to make it to Toronto. Danner is quick to point out that the move added a four person sales force in California and a two person sales force in Chicago to a network that had already expanded the potential for Boulevard’s sales.

Ommegang, Boulevard, and Firestone Walker are all now positioned to be larger presences in markets across America and internationally. The only changes to quality that have occurred are those that happen naturally when you expand your production volume. Well, that and the role of Brewer Ambassador has been so successful that Duvel might try it out at places other than Boulevard.

Boulevard is an example of a case where selling the brewery was not only the best move for an aging owner, but also the best move for the brewery. A campaign to increase sales volume would have been long and painstaking, involving developing logistical strategy, on the ground sales forces and test marketing for new regions. Basically, Boulevard got paid $100 million to take a piggyback ride.

Goose Island:

The lineups were pretty short, which was nice.

The lineups were pretty short, which was nice.

It’s September 19th and I’m posted up under a brick archway to keep out of the rain in a Chicago neighbourhood I’ve been warned not to walk through. Earlier in the day during a tour of the Goose Island brewery on Fulton Street we popped outside briefly to look at the vertical tank Matilda sits in, waiting. Topping the ten foot brick wall around the brewery property is a none too subtle helix of glistening razor wire. Chicago is not Toronto. There are wider undercurrents of tension both of class and race, subtexts running amok and seeping osmotically into your psyche. This much I learned on the EL from Midway.

I’m meant to be covering an event called the 312 Urban Block Party, but coverage is difficult as the storm warnings forecast tornadoes for the outskirts of Chicago. The wind is eerily calm and the rain is cool on a dog day evening. Down the block on the main stage Calexico is sounding like an early Chicano/Surf Rock Tarantino soundtrack. My interest in the Block Party is limited by the conditions in which we find ourselves. You can be dry or you can watch the band. What interests me is Goose Island in a general sense. How can you figure out what happens to a brewery after they sell out unless you visit one? How can you visit one unless they’re flying you in and providing access? On twitter and Instagram, I’m making a mockery of the ethical dilemma having declared on Friday morning that “junket coverage begins now,” but it concerns me a little. Worming around in the back of my thoughts is the idea that no matter what I say someone will claim I’m on the take.P1040203

It turns out that on the ground, Goose Island is confusing. The fact is it’s fragmented and difficult. There’s a tendency to think of a product owned by AB InBev as some monolithic entity and to ascribe a level of polish simply due to the ownership. That turns out largely to be bunk.

The ownership structure is odd both currently and historically. Looking at the entry on Wikipedia it becomes pretty clear to me that they weren’t an independent brewery before they were bought out by AB InBev. Widmer Brothers bought a large stake in 2006 and the Craft Brew Alliance owned 42% of the company by 2011. It’s pretty clear to me that Goose Island in 2005 faced approximately the same problem Boulevard had: Chicago is sort of a long way from the west coast. The sale to Widmer Brothers would have allowed for greater distribution. Even the numbers are fairly similar. Before the AB InBev purchase, Goose Island was producing something like 150,000 BBL annually. It’s now more like 340,000 BBL. I would imagine a lot of that is produced in New York and Quebec and Colorado.P1040209

The interesting part to me is that the company is pulling in different directions. We’re touring the Fulton Street Brewery earlier that day, before the tornados have begun to threaten, and Jared Jankowski is walking us through the plant. Walking the cordoned yellow lines, there’s a visible disconnect in the facility between past and future.

Fulton Street’s bottling line is chock a block with Bourbon County Barrels while we’re there and the amount of space given over to the barrel aged beers like Sofie and Matilda is astounding. The barrels are being given special attention. It’s clear that the attention is being given to the products that existed prior to the takeover. There are new products in development, but somehow the experimental beers being brewed at Fulton Street feel antediluvian despite their youth. An Altbier blended with Apple Cider and named for a reference to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower feels like something from the last decade. It’s good, but it’s not the future for Goose Island. Ka like a wheel.

If you're a very special barrel, you get used as part of the rare series. Also, you're pronounced Flippin' Amazing.

If you’re a very special barrel, you get used as part of the rare series. Also, you’re pronounced Flippin’ Amazing.

The brewpubs were not a part of the sale to AB InBev. This baffles me a little. They are a part of the tour that we will go on tomorrow. The Clybourn brewpub where the company started is retained by founder John Hall. It seems to slot them in the same category as the Fulton Street Brewery. It is not that they are an irrelevance. It is that they are somehow lesser than. A second thought or that rarest of things; a profitable R&D centre.

The Matilda tanks are gigantic, feeling like the fuselage of some B-52.

The Matilda tanks are gigantic, feeling like the fuselage of some B-52.

Out on the street, in the rain, the lines are short for even the most coveted Bourbon County Variants, people are huddling under umbrellas in the block long line for Hot Doug’s and I’m drinking Bourbon County Proprietor’s blend 2014, flavoured with Cassia Bark, Cocoa Nibs, Panela and Coconut Water. It tastes like expensive vegan baking in a way that I never believed I’d refer to as positive. The attraction of this beer (in addition to the fact that it’s just excellent) is that it is rare. I’ll never get to drink it again. There are probably not a lot of bottles left anywhere. There is a sense of concrete time here because of the knowledge that this is unrepeatable. Listen to the band, dodge the storm, huddle under your red brick arch, drink this wonder and wait for the flood.

Rarity is funny and something becomes obvious the second night of the Urban Block Party: In Toronto Sofie and Matilda have a sense of occasion. The heavy wine bottles that they come packaged in render them a specialty item for drinking with dinner or at least for sharing as an aperitif. On Fulton Street, amidst a sea of concert goers, a 16oz pint of Sofie and Matilda in a plastic cup that costs three dollars renders that moot. The presentation kills it dead; just another beer without the pomp. The beer in both cases is practically identical. The former bottle conditioned, the latter on keg. Near enough as makes no difference to the layman. Is the difference the wine glass?

If you go far enough back you'll find the Ark of the Covenant.

If you go far enough back you’ll find the Ark of the Covenant.

Rarity weighs heavy in the Goose Island equation. I do not have a figure on the number of barrels of production that go towards their new barrel warehouse, but I guarantee you that it’s unfathomable. I do have a figure on their square footage: 133,000. That’s just over three acres of barrel warehouse with bourbon and wine barrels stacked four racks high. I am mistrustful of this kind of show. I knock on the side of each barrel I pass. They are full up. If there’s an angel’s share then the angels have got their dancing shoes on and will need to call in sick tomorrow. We’re told that they thought it would take five to seven years to fill the space. They are well on their way two years in.

I do not have a figure for the number of barrels on the racks. It’d almost be a five digit number. There are experimental blends in the stacks and foeders on the floor. They are testing different techniques. The two farmhouse ales that are new to me on the trip are Halia and Gillian, both incorporating fruit. The first is peachy somehow retaining both tart bite and luscious chin dripping juice. The latter is strawberry and honey; a June day picking your own berries.

David Duchovny does not get his own beer. That's reserved for Scully.

David Duchovny does not get his own beer. That’s reserved for Scully.

They say that the quality drops when a large brewery takes over. Gazing down the lines of barrels it occurs to me that quality is not the issue here. I have little doubt that it will remain similar. It cannot stay identical. There are too many barrels and they will be blending Heaven Hill with Buffalo Trace with Jack Daniels. It will be different, but I know that it will not be worse. You do not throw this kind of money at a project for diminishing returns.

I wonder, instead, whether they have badly misjudged. On Black Friday Bourbon County Stout is a tradition not unlike trampling your fellow man for a half price clock radio. What happens if you take it out of that context? They are making enough of it to do exactly that. It is 23 years since it was first brewed. It is as good a heavyweight Imperial Stout as I have ever had. Would the year round availability of Bourbon County Stout kill the concept of rarity for the style entirely? They must be achieving a massive economy of scale. Given the quality and the pricing how can anyone compete against them except on novelty or the desire for context? Or will it be as it was on Fulton Street with Sofie and Matilda, the removal of the specialized context allowing me to tip half the contents of the plastic cup into a gutter without guilt as I move on to try something novel.

One thing is certain: John Hall has done well out of the acquisition. Not only does he retain control of his brewpubs, but the specialty brands he created are poised to triumph: The first Bourbon Barrel aged beer and Sofie, a Farmhouse Ale named for his granddaughter will achieve wider circulation than they could possibly have done with the brewery under his control. The employees have fared well too. There are many more of them than there had been. He seems to have cemented a legacy for the brewery in a way that he would not have been able to without selling out. There is no chance of Goose Island disappearing, but one wonders what will happen as a result of its frenetic expansion.

Why Do Breweries Sell Out? (Part One)

One of the questions that people seem to ask more and more frequently these days is: “Why do breweries sell out?”


Samuel Johnson, famous for his inquisitive glare and poodle hair wig.

Ultimately, the motivations behind such a decision have not changed much since the advent of industrialization in brewing in the late 18th and early 19th century. This is a fine opportunity to deploy my favourite brewery quote. In the 1780’s (this is before The Six was a twinkle in Drake’s eye) Samuel Johnson was tasked with selling off the Anchor Brewery in Southwark in London because his friend Henry Thrale had passed on. Hester Thrale and the Thrale children would need money in order to live and maintain their home at Streatham Park. Johnson really cut to the heart of the matter: “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”05-The-Great-Vats-Barclay-Perkins-1847-550


The brewery would become Barclay Perkins, one of London’s most famous breweries. The transformation may tell us something about the sale: Barclay Perkins would expand the volume brewed from 85,700 Barrels at the time of the purchase to 260,000 Barrels by 1809. The expansion made it the largest brewery in the world, brewing only Porter until the 1830’s. For modern context, that would make it something like the 15th largest craft brewery in North America, about equivalent to Harpoon in Massachusetts.

What are the factors in this story? Well, for one, brewing is generational. Henry Thrale lived for something like 50 to 56 years depending on which date of birth you use. The earlier history points at this as well. Located right next to the Globe, the Anchor Brewery was a success for a number of people from its founding in 1616. From 1616-1670 it was held by two generations of the Monger family and then by James Child until 1696. Edmund Halsey ran it from 1693 until 1729. Then it was the Thrales. In a lot of these cases the owner was somehow related to the previous generation (Son-in-law or nephew or brewery manager).

Man is mortal! People need to provide for their children and for their retirements. A brewery is a great generator of wealth, but eventually in order to realize that wealth you’ve got to cash out. None of this has changed since Shakespeare. That said, I recently became curious about this phenomenon and wondered whether there are additional motivations we might explore.372

When I was researching Ontario Beer, I was allowed to explore the Molson Archive in Ottawa at the National Archives of Canada. It proved to be something of an insight into the operations of a large brewery in Canada during the 20th century. For one thing, Molson was very clever. They had chemical analyses of not only their products but of some beers made by their competitors. For another, they maintained relatively detailed dossiers on their competition (which I like because it’s what I would have done in their shoes). All of the competitor’s labels were maintained in handsome, bound ledgers. I will post an example here, so that you can get the feel for it.503

These documents are not inflammatory. It’s the sign of a large and growing brewery faced with competition and consolidation trying to organize their continued existence. Sometimes that mean entertaining the purchase of some of these smaller breweries. So it was with the Blue Top Brewery in Kitchener, Ontario in 1947 for which a complete set of memorandum exist in the Molson Archive.

The situation is an interesting one. In 1941-42 a moratorium was placed on the expansion of breweries in Canada due to involvement in the war efforts. It is not as though the industry was going great guns before that point in time. After the repeal of prohibition, the Canadian industry peaked at 79 breweries in 1931 before consolidation a simple lack of demand in some parts of the country began to shutter properties. By 1947, the total number of breweries had decreased to 58 despite a five year tripling of volume. Per capita, Canadians were drinking 11.6 Imperial Gallons (~53 litres) although the population of Canada in 1947 was only 12.5 million.

Blue Top had been the C. N. Huether Brewery at King and Victoria in Kitchener. In 1937 it had gone bankrupt and was taken over by Blue Top which was owned by partners Arthur Driesbourg and William Renaud. By 1947 they had invested in capital significantly as the documents will show, but the Molson representative saw the situation thusly:

“From my talk with Driesbourg last September … I gathered that Driesbourg wants to get rid of Renaud and that Renaud wants to get rid of Driesbourg but that they are tied to each other by their agreement and also the difficutly of getting any money out of the company without the sale of their holdings… Renaud is the more dependable of the two, both from the point of view of a possible partner for us or him, or as a continuing independent.”

From Molson’s point of view, the transaction would be part of a more complex gameboard. Lurking off in the distance is E.P. Taylor, whose Canadian Breweries are buying up everything in sight and starving out those he can’t buy. Driesbourg is actively attempting to stymie E. P. Taylor. “He hates Eddie Taylor and is obviously pleased at the fact that Eddie is locked into a minority position in the Company with no way of getting either further in or out.”                

In this situation, Molson is really only worried about purchasing the 40,000 outstanding shares, but they are treading cautiously. Driesbourg is talking a price of $3,000,000 for the brewery in total, which he intends to invest in a mining venture. It produces 110,000 Barrels annually, but the contents of those barrels is iffy: “Driesbourg is over-optimistic … For instance, he seems to think that a demand for Blue Top products will increase indefinitely and he is spending some money on further plant expansion. He has apparently no conception of the bad name which their beer appears to have in the province and referred on several occasions to their fine quality.”   souv_pic-r-956

In terms of motivation to sale Blue Top represented an interesting set of circumstances. Driesbourg clearly wants to capitalize on his investment in the brewery and use that money to go do something else, but there are other elements here: The owners apparently do not get along even remotely. The beer, having reached a high point in terms of volume has decreased in quality and the owners are apparently unable to judge that fact. It was a finely built brewery that was being operated to its own detriment. The reasons motivating the sale are all too human and have to do with tricks of the ego, hatred of both partner and rival and an inability to accurately self-assess.

Molson, incidentally, was justifiably worried about “annoying Mr. Taylor,” who took over the plant in 1952. One assumes that he simply waited out one of the partners who divested himself of his shares at the expense of the other. The terrifying thing about the brewing industry is that the people within it are not necessarily rational actors. When someone like E.P. Taylor comes along and displays patience and willingness to outlast the competition, they’re very dangerous.

Ottawa and the Ontario Craft Beer Guide

Beautiful downtown Ottawa! Wait. That's not Ottawa. That's not even Nottawa.  Hang on.

Beautiful downtown Ottawa! Wait. That’s not Ottawa. That’s not even Nottawa. Hang on.

Sitting here in a hotel room and looking across the river at Detroit’s skyline, it seems like an odd time to talk about a trip I recently took to the other end of the province. The difficulty with writing the Ontario Craft Beer Guide is that Ontario is four times the size of England and time seems increasingly brief when you’re confronted with distance and an editorial deadline. Any moment you can claw back to accomplish some writing and fulfill some of the tasks on an ever increasing stack of obligations is a necessity.

Beautiful downtown Ottawa! (phew)

Beautiful downtown Ottawa! (phew)

One of the questions that my co author, Robin LeBlanc, and I get asked most frequently about the book is about the speed with which the market is expanding. There are something like 275 breweries extant and in planning in Ontario at the moment (that we know about! Rumsfeld would be all over these unknown unknowns) and there was a week during the planning of this venture in the summer when three breweries opened during the same week. Were we daunted by the news?

Frankly, yes. We’re not idiots. Crazy, obsessive, and given to ironic patter, but not stupid. Just last night as I was having the Perch special for dinner at Rock Bottom in Sandwich, Ontario, the bartender told me that there was a brewery opening next door in about six months. It was all I could do not to cry into the tartar sauce. Clearly, Sandwich Towne brewery should be using the motto “Enjoy Every Sandwich.”

 We’re aiming to keep up with the market right up to a week before our editorial deadline, but sometimes you get a place like Ottawa that makes it difficult. There have been 13 breweries founded in Ottawa in the last two years. That doesn’t include breweries in places like Calabogie or Casselman or Perth or Forester’s Falls. The last one, Tooth and Nail, had opened 8 days before our research trip.

Brew Donkey has a range of tours that operate to various breweries and wineries in the region.

Brew Donkey has a range of tours that operate to various breweries and wineries in the region.

A research trip for a beer guide can be a bit of a grind. Union station at dawn and Ottawa Transpo by noon. (I’ll give Ottawa Transpo this: dedicated separate lanes for buses seem like a really good idea, although I did wonder a little about the likelihood of concrete gullies focusing winter winds towards the passenger shelters. February must be a bad time for a bus pass in Ottawa.) Google maps makes getting to places straightforward with the schedules inbuilt and forunately our itineraries were open for the trip allowing a little freedom in terms of timeline. On the second day of the trip, I used Brad Campeau’s BrewDonkey service, which is a great way to get around Ottawa to look at breweries and a fun tour besides. Ottawa Transpo doesn’t offer donuts.

The thing is this: Drinking beer recreationally is fun. Drinking beer on a purely informational basis, less so. By nature, writing a guide demands that you act in good faith. The key duty is to the reader, meaning that you have to accurately represent your experience and that your experience has to be valid. You have to go to as many of these breweries as is reasonably possible and attempt to explain what they’re about. When it’s not possible to visit the brewery in person, you have to endeavour to honour the brewer’s work by attaining fresh samples that they are happy with so that they are not misrepresented on the basis of a can sitting on a pallet in a non-refrigerated warehouse for a month and a half.P1040273

Dominion City's Fermentorium

Dominion City’s Fermentorium

Since you’re providing ratings, you’ve got to do so without fear or favour, calling it straight down the middle to the best of your ability. Total objectivity is not possible, but knowledge of brewing flaws, historical and categorical style descriptions and values, and a decade of context are helpful. In terms of actually sampling the beer, you’re equipped with an educated palate, a notebook and a working referential understanding of several methods of evaluation. The knowledge that people, brewers and readers, will disagree with some of your evaluation is something that you’ve got to banish to the back of your mind with the insistence that you’re doing a difficult thing to the best of your ability.

What it comes down to, really, is representing who the brewers are and what they’re trying to do: telling their story and the story of the evolution of this brewing renaissance we’re in the middle of. We’re trying to capture a snapshot of where the Ontario brewing industry is at the moment and if the end result of that is people supporting their local breweries or visiting ones further afield, so much the better.

Ottawa is a marvelous microcosm for the Ontario scene and an illustration of the cumulative nature of a brewing industry. Ottawa’s beer scene isn’t as advanced as Toronto’s for a number of reasons: The population base is smaller, for one. That said, the biggest reason is that there was never an Amsterdam or an Upper Canada in Ottawa. If you look at brewing in Ontario, there are a huge number of brewery employees floating around that worked at some of the first wave breweries in the province. There’s cumulative pedigree that affects the quality of brewing and the quantity of breweries. A large brewery will always cast off employees because that’s a natural part of its ongoing operation: people learn and then want to go and apply what they’ve learned to their own projects. Brewers at Bellwoods and Northwinds and Burdock have worked at Amsterdam.P1040298

The majority of Ottawa’s breweries are third wave: They were founded during the modern “craft” boom. I don’t have an exact date for that, but it basically predates my involvement slightly. Call it 2008-9. They’re fundamentally DIY organizations with their own influences and tastes that don’t necessarily reflect a lot of brewing context. This can result in some outside the box thinking. At Dominion City, they’re brewing an Earl Grey Marmalade Saison because one of the owner’s wives (whose name is in my notes back in Toronto) was making Marmalade and they thought it would fit. At Nita, all of the construction work on their facility except for the HVAC system was done by the partners in the business, all of whom come from trades. At Broken Stick, I’m offered quite a good harvest ale and also a Cherry Bacon beer which in retrospect defies polite vocabulary. Broadhead, founded by Engineers and (I think I’m getting this right) a blood spatter analyst, continues to refine its production and are about to have a second beer in the LCBO.P1040301

Beyond the Pale have made good, expanding into a second location at City Centre from their original location. They’ve got their own steel now instead of borrowed equipment from Beau’s. Kichessippi are expanding their product line significantly and are immensely proud of their new canning setup. Big Rig has expanded dramatically and now have two brewpub concept restaurants and a central brewery that is large enough to permit some contract brewing. Seeing Lon Ladell’s look of pride at that facility tells you all you need to know. The newly founded Tooth and Nail benefits a little from that cumulative pedigree I talked about earlier. Matt Tweedy was at Beau’s for a while and King before that. Dayna Guy was bar manager at Beerbistro. Their Pilsner is practically electric. Walking back to the hotel from Hintonburg to burn off some calories, I could only wonder what they’ll get up to in the future.

Over two days, we sampled 108 beers and lamented that we didn’t get to everything. Between now and December, we will try everything else. Time is short and I’m going to stop writing this now so that I can write entries for the four Windsor breweries I visited yesterday.


And in Every Town

A little under a month ago I was sitting in Chaucer’s in London, Ontario with a group of beer writers and Matt Brown. Matt is the mayor of London and I’m afraid I made a bad impression by referring to him as “your worshipfulness.” It was the third stop on a pub crawl and I had tried small samples of everything that Toboggan Brewing makes, which is just enough beer to make me feel playful. It’s always a good policy to point out that you’re drinking with the Mayor on Untappd.

Our guide for the afternoon, Andrew Sercombe, had been regaling us with tales of London. About the Covent Garden market and of department store bowling alley disasters where customers had been tossed like skittles. He talked about the mall on Dundas Street that had had to be turned into a public library due to its emptiness. He talked about a beleaguered downtown that needed new life blown into it; the possibility of making some of the streets pedestrian walkways during part of the day to encourage foot traffic. He talked about the Walmart out by the highway and how no one comes downtown anymore.     

London is hurting. It is hurting badly enough that they think beer writers can help fix the problem. They want me to tell you about Toboggan Brewing which has started up in the space that was occupied by Jim Bob Ray’s on Richmond Street. They want me to tell you about Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium across from Budweiser Gardens and how the Beer Lab nanobrewery that services the pub makes the best Berliner Weisse I’ve seen in the province. They want you to know that the Forest City Beer Festival attracted 5000 people and was a giant success by anyone’s lights. Part of their plan for revitalization is beer.

Hell, Ontario is hurting. We’ve got more debt than any other geographical region in the world that isn’t a country. We’re not exactly the dust bowl or the rust belt. It’s not Tom Joad time just yet. Take a moment and read this excellent piece by Jordan Foisy for Vice about Sault Ste. Marie. Recognize that this has happened across the province. The manufacturing base is long gone from a large number of towns in the province. You just go ahead an ask anyone from Leamington or Chatham or Oshawa what they think about it. At the FCBF someone was telling me how you used to be able to tell what the Kellogg’s plant was making by the aroma wafting over the city. Maybe never again.

I had gone to London mostly to deliver a talk about beer and the economic development of Ontario. A lot of Ontario was built by brewers. In the 19th century it was an integral part of the province’s economy. I was talking about John Carling and his contributions to the waterworks and fire department and schools of London, Ontario. There were brewers doing similar things across the province. They had an obligation, not entirely motivated by selflessness, to build the society into which they were selling beer.

People talk about Craft Beer in pointlessly arbitrary terms. We’re lucky enough at the moment to have about 180-200 small breweries in Ontario ranging from a handful of hectolitres to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 350,000. I don’t buy that Craft Beer is uniformly artisanal; I think that brewing as art is bumf in all but a handful of cases. I do not buy that Craft Beer is traditional; They didn’t have Mango Saison much before three years ago. What I think is demonstrable is that Craft Beer has been a battleground for the soul of commerce in North America. I upset a very nice lady who works for Labatt as a tour guide at my talk in London by suggesting that this is the case (I tried to calm the situation by thanking Labatt very kindly for buying us a couple of World Series Championships.) I think that there are two economic models at play in the beer market.

First of all there’s the macro model. It’s a late 20th century model based on global corporate hegemony. Giant conglomerates arrived at through merger and acquisition over the course of the 20th century who are answerable only to their shareholders and who are obligated to continue turning a profit even as their mature market volumes shrink. AB In-Bev and MolsonCoors and SABMiller fall into this category. They may have plants near you, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll remain there if it becomes unprofitable. They are concerned about your welfare in the way that a wolf is concerned about the herd of elk.

Second, there’s the craft model. It’s not specific to craft beer. It’s a 19th century manufacturing model. It’s generational, driven possibly by the lifespan of the founder and the interest of his partners or progeny and it’s on a vastly more human scale. The smaller production level means that the owner is answerable to a community. The wealth that it generates will end up flowing back through the community in which it operates. Like John Carling or Eugene O’Keefe or the other 19th Century brewing magnates in Ontario, the brewers do not operate entirely selflessly. However, the benefit to the community is tangible. The wealth generated doesn’t go overseas into the pockets of shareholders you will never meet.

The best illustration of this is from, believe it or not, the 1938 Labatt Employee Handbook.

It sounds fanciful, but imagine having 200 plants where this is the case.

It sounds fanciful, but imagine having 200 plants where this is the case.

We have towns where it seems like nothing can grow and we’ve got debts that no honest man can pay, but in the middle of this we’ve got operations like the MacKinnon Brothers out in Bath, Ontario growing fields of wheat and barley and raising hops on loam their family has owned for 225 years. We’ve got farmers raising barley and hops and we’re vertically integrating agriculture into a brewing process in a way that no one has done in Ontario for decades.

Possibly it is only because they recognize a good thing when they see one, but politicians of all stripes and at all levels are actively supporting craft beer at the moment. The day before I went to London, I was in Kitchener-Waterloo to see Brick’s new plant. It finished two months under estimate and of the 9.3 million that went into the build 5 million ended up in the pockets of local contractors. This is legitimate economic stimulus that helps a community. For a couple hours I drank beer with the Mayor of Kitchener, the Mayor of Waterloo and Diane Freeman from the NDP Party who volunteered to step out for an afternoon touring breweries in her constituency. In Toronto, councillors Layton and Perks have displayed significant interest in improving the city’s craft beer scene. Kathleen Wynne’s twitter has taken to promoting beer weeks across the province. 

All of this activity comes at a time when the messaging around the federal election seems to be “We Cannot.” The Conservatives act as though Canada hit some high water mark long ago and that there is nothing that can be done except to further reduce taxes on the wealthy and on large corporations. The growth in the craft beer sector belies that. It may look like an antiquated economic model, but it has been working and it will continue to work. It has grown at a factor of 1.3 for the last six years. The message that small breweries in Ontario need to embrace is “We Can and We Are.”

Every town might as well be London. Every town has shuttered windows in its downtown core and Every town has a Walmart by the highway and Every town is hurt and bleeding because they’ve lost manufacturing industry. The small breweries of Ontario need to send a clear message: When you support us, you support manufacturing jobs above minimum wage. You support a product that cannot be outsourced or digitized, simplified or pirated. You support activity in the downtown core and tourism dollars from visitors to that core. You support municipal services through tax base and in doing so you support yourself and your neighbour. To achieve this all you have to do is drink better beer.

I see cynicism about short delays in reforms to grocery store beer sales and cynicism about growler fills at the LCBO, but it is a mistake to think of brewing as a battle of months. The 19th century industrial model progress is riding deals in lifetimes. Only the 20th century global model has blamed the weather in the summer months for its failings. A bad quarter might oust a high powered CEO, but the 19th century model is a larger risk of personal stake on a much longer term.

I recognize that small brewing in Ontario can’t save the world. It is a piece of a much larger puzzle, but it is a growing one. When you’re in as much debt as Ontario is, a little optimism can’t hurt. In this case, I’m optimistic that people will see a model that can succeed in every riding in Ontario. One that creates local vertically integrated economic growth, jobs, and tourism dollars. One that allows the possibility of expansion and of export to other markets. Maybe its success will cause people to think that there is room for growth and industry in Ontario that is not based in the knowledge economy. Maybe if we believe in it, it will help us all.

Maybe inviting beer writers to London wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.

Beer and Food: Estrella Damm Tapas Journey

There’s always something a little dispiriting about a delivery you’re not expecting showing up at the apartment when you’re out of town. All you can really do is buzz the guy into the building with instructions to leave it in front of your door and hope that the neighbours don’t have a larcenous streak. My neighbours have been uniformly excellent for the last decade. The only time a delivery has ever gone missing, I got a knock on the door and an apologetic “I think they delivered this to the wrong apartment.” We don’t even jaywalk in midtown.

I had forgotten about the phone call entirely until Sunday evening, but there sat the unmolested package, its contents unknown. It turned out to be part of a promotion for Estrella Damm focusing on Tapas and containing gift certificates to go and eat food. I like delicious, punchy food and there is apparently a contest on to go and see Ferran Adria.  I have read the El Bulli cookbook, so I can get behind that. The problem that I have is with Estrella Damm itself.

The Spanish have not traditionally been thought of as much of a beer culture. Marvelous wines. Tart, refreshing sidra. I’m given to understand from flashes of social media that there is craft beer in Spain (just like everywhere else) and that the scene is expanding with some rapidity. Long before that, Spain got what everyone else got: expatriate German brewers.

It happened in the USA and Canada and Thailand and Japan and Mexico. It happened everywhere. Around the period of German unification under Bismarck and the wars and general strife such a political consolidation yields, Germans left border regions like Alsace, Swabia and the Palatinate. I have talked about this before and about the eventual ramifications on what we think of as beer food in North American which is basically a modified Oktoberfest diet.

In places where you got brewers independent of a large population of settlers, you got more or less the beer that was popular in Germany at the time. The trend had been lightening lager styles edging towards the Helles: Less hopping, less body, lighter colour. If you ever wondered why mass produced lager was so popular worldwide, that’s the reason.

Estrella Damm is from about 1876 and was the result of August Damm moving from Alsace to Barcelona. It’s even lighter than the styles in Germany from that era and included barley and rice at its inception. It now contains barley, rice and corn. If you pay close attention to the aroma, you can pick out both the steamed rice and corn grits far more quickly than you can detect any specific hop character. To a modern craft beer audience, Estrella Damm is more or less anathema.

David Chang wrote a piece a while back championing beers like this. Garrett Oliver wrote a follow up piece which amounted to a disbelieving “Really?” and we all had a couple of days of angsty navel gazing while wondering whether Mr. Lucky Peach might have been right. I’m suspicious when a cook tells you he prefers a thin watery gruel of barley, rice and corn over something a touch more piquant. You’re told frequently if you follow beer media that there are three kinds of beer and food pairing: Cut, Contrast and Compliment. There’s a fourth and it comes largely under the heading of “get the hell out of the way.”

When it comes to cuisines from countries that didn’t grow up alongside beer, it’s no wonder they prefer something that gets out of the way. The important thing is not really that the beer matches the food. The important thing is that the beer is cold and washes the food down.

Take a look at this plate of tapas from Cava in Toronto. Cava is at Yonge and St. Clair and they’ve been doing high quality Spanish and Andorran tapas since 2006, long before the current wave of Bourdain inspired interest.

Gratuitous product shot. Hooray!

Gratuitous product shot. Hooray!

On the left you have a skewer with a creamy room temperature manchego, a ribbon of jamon trevelez and a quail egg pickled in a rice wine vinegar escabeche. In the centre, you have fried chickpeas with a zatar comprised of sesame seeds, salt, sumac, oregano and marjoram. On the right, a crostini with smoked mackerel, grilled asparagus and small segments of pink grapefruit.

These things are designed as bites and they are more or less self-contained. The slight acidity from the pickled egg contrasts the creaminess from the manchego and is brightened up by the salt and light smoke from the jamon. A more assertive lager like a pilsner might be on more equal footing than Estrella Damm, but if the idea is to showcase the food you want something that won’t leave any impression at all. “Vaya!” says the jamon. “Get out of the way.”

I wondered whether it might not be a good idea to try one of the other locations on the tour that was not cadging from the Spanish pantry. Valdez looked like a good option with its Latin American inspired street food, but it wasn’t really far enough away.

Funny Fish. The fish probably don't find it as funny as I do.

Funny Fish. The fish probably don’t find it as funny as I do.

I settled on Kanpai Snack Bar in Cabbagetown at Carlton and Parliament, since I really don’t know about Taiwanese food and I figured it’d be a good test of the theory. I’m also pleased to report that Kanpai is quite good value for money and that the hip hop naming conventions of the menu are a lot of fun. As I understand it, Taiwan’s food exists as a sort of crossroads of various Asian influences. Will a Spanish beer work?

MC Hammer Chicken so called because of its untouchability. It is almost too legit.

MC Hammer Chicken so called because of its untouchability. It is almost too legit.

The Kanpai tapas menu consists of MC Hammer, a sort of spicy popcorn chicken in a karaage style differentiated by what I think was Szechuan peppercorn in the breading. There’s Taiwanese Antipasto consisting of pickled carrot, lotus root and seaweed given a sort of japchae treatment. Finally, Funny Fish, a bar snack of fried mini fish and tofu with peanuts and chilis.

I really enjoyed the lotus root, which seemed to have taken on a little numbing heat from some szechuan peppercorns. I should have asked, I suppose.

I really enjoyed the lotus root, which seemed to have taken on a little numbing heat from some szechuan peppercorns. I should have asked, I suppose.

This is an excellent metric for the “Get out of the way” school of thought. Everything goes with delicious fried chicken and the stinging zazz of the breading really only demands cold and wet. The salt and acidity of the antipasto enforce similar criteria. The Funny Fish are vaguely reminiscent in flavour profile of Lao Gan Ma because of the peanut and chili oil and between the funk of the tiny fried fish and the friability of their little skulls between your teeth, it’s hard to know what could possibly stand up to that in a conventional sense.

I wouldn’t choose to drink Estrella Damm by itself. While it’s well made, I find it pretty boring. I doubt that I could pick it out of a lineup in a blind taste test with other breweries founded in similar circumstances. That said, I can certainly see why it would be popular in Spain with small punchy dishes that demand of it only that it be cold and wet and contain alcohol.

LCBO 12 Packs and Grocery Store Sales

(ed. note: This is longer than usual. It is hard to have a discussion about nuanced topics in short form. If that’s what you’d like, Buzzfeed is looking for 12 Readers Who Can’t Believe What Happened Next.)

You may have noticed that when they announced the changes to Ontario’s beer retailing system back in April, I didn’t actually write much of anything about it. You may additionally have noticed that the frequency of Ontario beer writing in general dropped off a cliff at about the same time as the announcement. A victory against The Beer Store, however small, was more or less the end of a narrative arc. I think everyone who had been covering it was more or less exhausted on the topic.

I’m brought back to thinking about the problem by last week’s announcement that the pilot project for 12 packs in LCBO’s had started.

Now, I agree with the skeptics on that one. The LCBO has limited shelf space and 12 packs don’t make a lot of sense in that context. The problem is that the LCBO has to perform the pilot project due to the optics of the situation. The lynchpin of reform was their not terribly secret agreement to allow The Beer Store to handle 12 and 24 packs exclusively. Somehow that made the public very angry and allowed for other concessions to be made.

I don’t care about whether I can buy a 12 pack at the LCBO (you could already buy two sixes), but some people in more rural areas might view it as a win. I do like the idea that this might open up the possibility of beer advent calendars getting stocked in the Christmas lineup further down the line, but I think you’ll agree that’s a minor point. The success or failure of the pilot project is immaterial; all it does is fulfill an obligation to be seen to invalidate the agreement with The Beer Store.

That said, I think that the sale of beer in grocery stores is going to prove to be a really significant victory and I’d like to tell you why.

First off, it’s really important to remember the chronological scale that we’re working on. When you consider that The Beer Store’s roots come from Brewer’s Warehousing in 1927 and a co-operative distribution system with individually owned stores, it’s easy to forget that there were eleven years of prohibition before that. That means that with a projected date of about Christmas, it has literally been a hundred years since anyone was allowed to handle beer outside a monopolistic system.

I can already hear your argument: “Because of the fact that they still have to use the LCBO as their supplier, this is still a monopoly.”

You’ve been paying more attention than usual, fictive strawman reader.

Yes. You’re absolutely right: this is more or less an extension of the existing system. The condition that people seem to overlook is that it’s a necessary extension because of the way the shape of the market has changed.

Secondly, there’s the caveat that change is coming slowly. There are projected to be 450 grocery stores selling beer eventually, but something like 150 by May 1, 2017. I’ve seen otherwise rational people complain that nothing had yet happened something like 70 days after the announcement. Even with permission to start immediately, it would have taken that long to renovate the retail space. It has taken decades of arguing and lobbying just to get to the point where beer in grocery stores was on the table. In this situation, any change is good change because it is likely to lead to more change later.

Thirdly, and this is the one I find pretty baffling, there’s the argument that “this is only going to help the big guys.”

This kind of crab bucketing mentality is one of the reasons I haven’t written about this yet. It’s massively depressing because beer nerds are most often the ones making this argument. They argue, despite having seen grocery stores in the USA, that the international conglomerates will buy all of the shelf space. That’s not the case there and it won’t be here. They also argue that the only companies that will benefit are “big craft” like Steam Whistle and Mill Street.

Neither of those are big breweries. 100,000HL is chump change in perspective. Sam Adams does 35 times that annually. I think that somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the actual economic scope of things. I’ll break down Ontario’s production over the last six years in order to help you understand what I’m talking about. These numbers are from Beer Canada’s 2015 statistical report. They are derived, as I understand it, from Revenue Canada.

HL 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
<2000 23000 28000 28000 26000 45000 48000
<5000 24000 15000 23000 31000 22000 92000
<15000 43000 56000 55000 61000 38000 48000
<50000 107000 17000 33000 122000 292000 260000
<100000 110000 209000 252000 221000 254000 388000
>100000 9077000 8095000 9323000 8000000 7815000 6731000


In the case of this table, which I’ve borrowed from the report, we’re talking only about beer that’s produced in Ontario over the last six years. This doesn’t take imports into account, but it gives us a pretty real idea of the size and shape of the industry up to the end of 2014. What these numbers display fairly clearly is that the international conglomerates Molson Coors and AB InBev are bleeding incredibly badly. Between 2009 and 2014, they have lost 2,346,000 HL of production in Ontario. They are producing 26% less beer than they were in 2009. You may feel like laughing at them, but remember that the entire industry lost 19.3% even taking small brewers into account.

The volume produced by small brewers grew by a factor of 2.7 over the six year period. They now account for something like 12.4% of the beer produced in Ontario. I suspect that if you include Brick, which is over 100,000 HL, it’s actually more like 15%. When you think about what this means in terms of the percentage of brewers represented in The Beer Store, they were actually doing a worse job than you thought of being inclusive. It also means that the three brewers that own the beer store somehow managed to lose production to the tune of a quarter of their business while holding a defacto retail monopoly. That deserves a sarcastic slow clap.

Beer Canada’s statistical report says that there were 140 breweries in Ontario at the end of 2014. It is actually significantly higher than that now, and growing fairly rapidly to the chagrin of chroniclers. Almost no one can keep up. Numerically, the growth has been most prodigious in categories less than 5000 HL. Those breweries increased 75,000 HL in production between 2013-2014. That’s impressive as it goes, but that entire increase is still smaller than Steam Whistle. On the other end of the small brewing spectrum, between 15,000 and 100,000 HL, you’ve got an increase of 431,000 HL in six years. That segment tripled. In 2015, we’ll pass 1,000,000 HL in production fairly easily.

It’s hard to argue that really large breweries will benefit very much from Grocery Store sales. At the moment Molson Coors and AB InBev are floundering about trying to sell you apple flavoured Lager. I know that you think they will, despite the fact I just showed you they lost a quarter of their production with a monopoly. They’re already at more or less peak advertising. They’re actually going to have to spend more promotional budget on Grocery Store sales. I suspect it will be significantly worse for them than the current system. Remember: the limit on package size is going to be a six pack and the large brewers thrive on volume. Their entire model in Ontario has been predicated on selling 24’s of beer. Here are 450 new locations where they can’t do that and where everyone else can grow their overall volume selling 473ml cans.

There’s also the grocery store shopping experience to be taken into account. People are acting as though we’re going to get a purely No Frills experience. I wonder where people are shopping when I see some of the online arguments about this. You’re going to get huge chains attempting to replicate the relatively pleasant experience of the LCBO in their largest locations because they’re competing against it for traffic. They’re not just going to stock the ten most popular products because this isn’t a loss leader. This is a guarantor of foot traffic through their grocery store. I predict a significant bump in impulse bought gourmet snack foods.

Yes, this is going to take time. I don’t know that we have an end date on the 450 store model that has been suggested. I don’t believe that the changes will end there. I think that any change is going to lead to more change. My colleague Josh Rubin pointed out to me the other week that the arbitrariness of licensing based on square footage will probably lead to significant lawsuits from a competition standpoint. I rather suspect that the Convenience Stores have not given up either.

No, the system we’re getting is not ideal. It looks to me, based on the statistical evidence, as though it is intended to be economically protectionist of Ontario producers and to steward further growth in a calm and measured way. It favours increasing excise tax rather than focusing on consumer convenience.

The important thing is to remember that nothing was ever going to happen overnight. This is better than things have been in a hundred years. The complexity of the market has increased dramatically due to the number of players involved in retailing. While past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future growth, the production of small brewers has been growing at an average factor of 1.3 annually. That was in an unfavourable environment with distribution controlled by very large competitors. We just added 450 stores over the next half decade in retail environments that will likely be tonally similar to the LCBO, but specializing in beer. Even without those additional stores, small brewers were managing production growth at 30% a year. It’s fairly likely based on the statistical evidence that they’ll make up something like 30% of the volume of beer produced in Ontario by 2020.

Grocery store sales are going to function as a tool that allows small brewers in Ontario to increase their market share to the point where they have an increased ability to influence legislation. I think that’s a good thing, but it does call into question what happens after that. Will the largest players ever legislate against themselves? Probably not. We may never get a free market in Ontario, but the best way to get anywhere near such a thing is to reduce the power of MolsonCoors and AB InBev in the sector. This will help do that. Any other outcome is unknowable.

Fun With Numbers: Sums and Sommeliers Edition

The Cicerone Certification Program announced today that it will be introducing a level of certification between Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone. The press release was worded in a rather interesting way of whose nature I am dubious. It reads:

Previously, the only way for a Certified Cicerone to advance in the program was to take the Master Cicerone exam. Many who took the Master exam told us that there should be another way. They wanted something that required clear improvement in knowledge and skill without having to achieve the “ultimate” expertise required to pass the Master exam.

This is truly interesting. I hold the rank of Certified Cicerone (although I suspect that might be rescinded after writing this article) and I am curious about this logic. I do not believe that I’ve ever met another Certified Cicerone who has requested an intermediate level of testing between Certifed and Master. It seems to me like an imposition. You’re still going to have to study the same amount in order to eventually complete the Master Cicerone exam, but you’re going to have to take two tests to do it. It does not necessarily follow that this is desirable.

Let’s run the numbers.

As of this date, the Cicerone Certification Program has awarded 54,386 Certified Beer Server certificates, 1878 Certified Cicerone certificates and 10 Master Cicerone certificates. This is according to the Cicerone directory.

The program is designed to be fairly difficult. There is no point in a certification if just anyone can get one. Indeed part of the prestige of the Master Cicerone certificate, presumably, is that there are only 10 of them. According to the website the Master Cicerone exam is administered “one or two” times a year and it is capped at 24 registrations per exam. Given that the certification has been around for some time and there are only 10 of them, we may take it as read that it is very difficult indeed. That’s a good thing. It keeps the riff raff out.

However, if you’re a Certified Cicerone, you have 1877 equivalents world wide. There’s a lot of prestige in being one of ten people who have done a legitimately difficult thing. If 1878 people can do something, the shine sort of wears off. That’s a lot of Certified Cicerones and you’ve got to imagine that there are more coming because the Certified Beer Servers outnumber them by 52,958. They’re like some manner of Mongol Horde, the Certified Beer Servers, just sweeping down through the beer halls and devouring all the Lambic in sight.

If you’re a Certified Cicerone, you probably want to take the Master Cicerone level exam just to breathe that rarefied air and get away from the beer peasants. Problem is that because the failure rate is so abysmal and because there are so many applicants, you’re put in a lottery against people who have already failed and are allowed to retake the exam. You’re not guaranteed to be able to take the exam at all because of the lottery approach to candidacy and by the time they have the next one there’ll be an intermediate level that’s a prerequisite.

This means that even if all 24 of the next sitting of the Master Cicerone level exam are Certified Cicerones that have not yet taken the Master Cicerone level exam, there are 1854 Certified Cicerones that would be forced to take the Advanced Cicerone exam in order to take a subsequent Master Cicerone exam.

I have to ask you whether that sounds like something that you would request if you were a Certified Cicerone? I’d like to see a show of hands on that one.

Let’s get financial.

Further, the Master Cicerone exam costs $895 to write. You’ve got to go to Chicago to do it and it takes a couple of days. With “one or two” sittings a year that means that you can accommodate a total of 48 exam takers for a total of $42,960 in revenue for the Cicerone Program.

With 1878 Certified Cicerones on the books all clamouring for an additional level of testing before Master Cicerone, the proposed Advanced Cicerone level of certification will come to a town near you! That’ll save you some travel money (actually, it won’t because if you still want the Master Cicerone certification later, you’ll probably still have to go to Chicago).

Let us assume for the purposes of argument that the Advanced Cicerone level of certification will be a more difficult test than the Certified Cicerone test. It will take longer. That almost certainly means that it will be more expensive. The initial test for Certified Cicerone costs $395 to write. Let’s split the difference between that and the Master Cicerone cost and estimate that Advanced Cicerone will cost you $595 to write.

On an individual level, that means that to have a shot at attaining Master Cicerone status you’re going to pay not $895, but $1490.

What this means is that if every one of those 1878 Certified Cicerones want to climb on up the ladder, they’ll have to take that test and pass. That’s $1,117,410 dollars in examination fees that didn’t exist yesterday. That doesn’t include the fees for retaking either the written or tasted portions of the exam should you fail the first time around. That’ll bring in more annual revenue for the Cicerone Program because they’ll be able to invigilate many more exams in many more locations per year. 48 seatings for an exam per year no longer limits their revenue stream.

Remember: that’s just to reclaim the ability to take the Master Cicerone exam eventually. That’s a million dollar obstacle in front of an option you had yesterday for free. I feel like maybe people should demand exemptions.

Now, you may be worried about keeping up with the Joneses, but it seems to me that the prestige of Advanced Cicerone is not much of an improvement. Ask any Cicerone how many times they’ve had to explain what that term means. I’ll let you in on a secret: the ones who succeed are the ones who had enough hustle to do it without a credential they had to explain.

As for me, I think I’m going to hang my hat on Certified Cicerone. After all, they might add more levels, and I don’t really want to end up standing on street corners asking people to hold two Pilsner Schooners so that I can measure their beer related stress.

If you’re one of the Certified Cicerones who demanded an additional level of certification, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

That Old Belgian Moon – Why You Should Register Your Trademarks

I tweeted the following yesterday:

Dear Brewers: Remember to register your trademarks internationally. It doesn’t cost much and prevents you looking stupid later.

With the amount of coverage that’s been going on about Blue Moon coming to Canada under the sobriquet Belgian Moon, you’re probably wondering why that happened. It should be obvious that the strength of selling a brand internationally has to do with the merit of the brand itself. The difference here ought to be apparent: Blue Moon is one of the bestselling beers to come out of the United States in the last 30 years. Belgian Moon is nothing but whole cloth invention.

For a brewer, any brewer, branding is part of the total package and in a world where there are now something like 4200 breweries in North America that means that you’re eventually going to run out of trademarks to register. I know that some of you have bought the alpha acid okey doke; that the “brotherhood” of craft brewing with its hop scented hackey sack and backslapping good times doesn’t get litigious. I don’t quite know how to impress upon you that we’re not all in this together.

You may not have wealth creation in mind as your goal. Maybe you just want to have a little nanobrewery and be on tap at your local pub. What you need to understand is that not everyone feels that way about brewing. Not everyone is a dilettante. The next time you see a lawsuit over a brand name in craft beer, you’ve got to remember that it is not a moral problem. You should cheer for whoever had the foresight to trademark their product name.

The Belgian Moon fiasco is a great cautionary example.

Blue Moon was developed in Colorado in 1995. Now, regardless of whatever Keith Villa says in interviews, Blue Moon was a Coors property. It was originally brewed at Coors Field in the Sandlot Brewery. It has always been owned by Coors and has never been independent.

I’m not saying that to disparage the beer, incidentally. The beer is fine. I’m saying that because I want to impress upon you that a very large brewing company did not do due diligence. As a wholly owned subsidiary, the Blue Moon trademark should have been registered throughout North America at that point. Who knows why they didn’t? In 1995 the market wasn’t so crowded and maybe they never dreamed that they’d sell that much beer. After all, it was only a ballpark brewery. Maybe they were distracted by a Larry Walker dinger.

The problem is that you can’t see the future and you don’t know what’ll happen.

According to records over at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO, hereafter), no one registered Blue Moon until 2006. Unfortunately for Blue Moon, it wasn’t Molson Coors. Molson and Coors only entered into partnership in 2005 and apparently it didn’t occur to them at that time to register their trademarks in both countries. This is incredibly poor oversight because it allowed the following to happen.

A company called Ontario 2008474 registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada. That company is also known as Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing. It’s not just that they registered Blue Moon. They registered Firestone and Fat Tire. Subsequently, Ontario 2008474 would stymie Goose Island’s initial marketing foray into Canada by registering and using several three digit area codes to prevent a rebrand of 312 Urban Wheat for Canadian Markets. 416 Urban Wheat didn’t exist for no reason. Neither does Sweetwater Squeeze Radler.

It’s a very clever tactic. If you own the Canadian trademark for a large competitor in another country you’ve bought yourself time and reduced your local competition. You might claim it’s unsporting, but so is buying up shelf space.

Molson Coors expanded production of Blue Moon in 2007, but couldn’t sell it as Blue Moon in Canada. The current marketing spin claims that Blue Moon and Rickard’s White are different products, but that wasn’t the case in 2007 according to the Montreal Gazette. Maybe it is now, but the only difference I can see, even on the Blue Moon and Rickard’s websites are the variety of hops.

But that doesn’t explain why it’s Belgian Moon in Canada, does it?

In October 2007, SAB Miller and Molson Coors entered into a partnership in the United States under the name MillerCoors. In 2011 MillerCoors finally got around to registering the American trademark in Canada. By 2013, they had managed to secure the registration of the trademark in Canada from Ontario 2008474. You would assume that would mean they’d be able to call it Blue Moon, right?

Not so fast. The Blue Moon trademark is registered to MillerCoors. Not Coors, who should have registered it in 1995 or MolsonCoors who should have registered it in 2005. MillerCoors. The problem is that MillerCoors registered the Blue Moon trademark in Canada in October. The previous January, Miller sued Molson to be allowed to distribute their own brands in Canada.

This has had some upsides and downsides: Pilsner Urquell is getting additional play in Canada, but so is Miller Lite. Most importantly though, it means that Miller owns a portion of the Blue Moon trademark in Canada and due to their infighting with Molson, we get Belgian Moon.

Because Coors didn’t register their trademark in Canada in 1995 and because large brewery partnerships come and go we’re now in the situation where MolsonCoors has basically the same beer in the market twice as Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White and the original brand (the one that has all the cachet) is nowhere to be found.

It’s an incredibly dumb situation. It is the kind of situation that leaves you wondering how they get their socks on in the morning without cutting their own heads off.

I know that your temptation here is to laugh at MolsonCoors and Belgian Moon and Rickard’s White. That’s not what you should be taking away from this. The lesson here is that not registering your trademark is 1995 thinking. You might have been able to get away with it at that point, but there are 4200 breweries in North America and many of them are trying to increase in size. Few of them are all that creative when it comes to naming conventions. Register your trademarks early and often and you won’t run into this situation where you have to dilute a successful brand in order to have something to sell.

(Ed. Note: Thanks to alert readers for pointing out it was 416 Urban Wheat and has now been rebranded Local Lager.)

Irish Beer at the Toronto Festival of Beer

One of the things that I’m always fascinated by is the development of beer culture in non-North American markets. If you look at the United States and Canada, the narrative is all too familiar because it’s something like 30 years old. There have been problems with regulation and with monopolies, and there have been periods where the envelope was pushed to the extremes of taste. There’s a villain or two for small brewers to kick at in their marketing on their way to becoming larger brewers.

Photography n.: A practice by which beer gets skunked in the sun to give the audience something to look at.

Photography n.: A practice by which beer gets skunked in the sun to give the audience something to look at.

Probably the most interesting book on beer I read last year was a guide to the breweries of South Africa. This is because the development of their brewing renaissance hinges on a whole different set of factors than the North American version. For one thing, they had apartheid to deal with and economic resurgence. The climate is different and the presence of different colonial powers meant a different set of inherited tastes. They also didn’t have the Yakima and Willamette valleys with their hop production to provide inspiration.

When it was announced that the Toronto Festival of Beer was going to feature brewers from Ireland, it was the first time I’d been excited about the event in years.

Ireland is, first and foremost, a very small market. Consider for a moment that the entire population of the Greater Toronto Area is something like six million people. The GTA (or The Six, I guess, if you’re Drake) is more populous than Ireland by about a third. If the number of offensive advertisements running in the city is any indication, there’s a steady stream of emigrants from Ireland.

It's important to crowd around and take pictures of the obligatory photo-op. It makes the nice people from the tourism board feel good.

It’s important to crowd around and take pictures of the obligatory photo-op. It makes the nice people from the tourism board feel good.

Of course there are the iconic Irish brands like Guinness and Murphy’s, but like a number of other countries, Ireland has been subject to the ministrations of massive brewing companies over the years. Diageo aside, there’s Heineken which has bought up both Murphy’s and Beamish and closed the Beamish brewery in Cork. It’s one of the places where Ontario’s Carling brand has remained relevant. A contract brewed version of Budweiser made a large push into the market some twenty years ago and Diageo managed to cannibalize their own Harp Lager brand with that move. Left unchecked, the suggestion is that even the brands we’re familiar with in Canada (Harp, Kilkenny, Smithwicks) would have eventually disappeared in the name of moving additional volume in the Irish market.

Diageo and Heineken are the two largest breweries in Ireland producing millions of hectolitres each. This is, incidentally, the way it has been since the late 19th century. The St. James Gate and Lady’s Well breweries have occupied those market positions seemingly indefinitely. The only difference is that some of the competition has shut down in the interim period.

Seamus O'Hara, pouring the ceremonial pint of stout. O'Hara's makes a number of other beers which I'm now very curious about.

Seamus O’Hara, pouring the ceremonial pint of stout. O’Hara’s makes a number of other beers which I’m now very curious about.

The third largest brewery in Ireland is the Carlow Brewing Company, who make O’Hara’s. Founded in 1996, the entire idea behind their flagship stout was to attempt to recreate beers of the kind that had been popular up until the 1950’s and 1960’s. It should not be surprising that Irish stout became simplified as Guinness, focused largely on export, played to foreign tastes. O’Hara’s makes 28,000 HL of beer annually. The entirety of the Irish craft brewing scene is only 80,000 HL. If you’re keeping track, that’s about the size of Toronto’s Steam Whistle.

O’Hara’s hits a number of notes you’d be happy to see in any stout. The official sell sheet is telling me that I should be looking for dry espresso in the aroma, but that’s not what makes the beer work. There’s a complexity of flavour here ranging from dark chocolate and tobacco to licorice and a pronounced malt chewiness to the mid palate. It improves on the typical Dry Irish Stout in that it supplements the mild roast malt astringency with additional flavours and, unlike Murphy’s and Guinness, has a more substantial body.

Perhaps the most important thing is that O’Hara’s Stout is 4.3% alcohol: a measure that reflects the nature of Irish drinking culture. Beer in Ireland has been somewhat lower in alcohol due to the fact it’s consumed largely in pubs in session format. Walking around the Irish Pavilion at TFOB, you get the sense that there’s a struggle between this utilitarian drinking tradition and the ideas that are coming across the Atlantic. There seems to be a sort of battle at work in the development of small brewers in Ireland between the traditional place and purpose of beer and the adoption of stronger, more flavourful ingredients and styles.

Nothing looks impressive on a paper plate, but take my word for it: excellent.

Nothing looks impressive on a paper plate, but take my word for it: excellent.

It’s an interesting practical contrast with the food featured by the lads from Dublin Pop Up at a beer dinner the previous evening, featuring modern treatments of more or less indigenously Irish ingredients. At TFOB a smaller version of that dish was available: Rapini (Asparagus when they’re in Ireland) with hazelnut butter, charred Leeks, kombu baby potatoes, soured goats cheese, rye and dill snow. It’s an inventive treatment of traditional ingredients. Even more traditional was Tim McCarthy’s Black Pudding; so traditional, in fact that the course’s introduction was highlighted by the butcher downing a shot of Pig’s Blood (which one suspects might have been jagermeister)

If the culinary scene focuses on celebrating the strong points of tradition in imaginative ways, the youthful brewing scene seems more conflicted about their heritage in the face of prevalent international influence. McGargle’s branding suggests that the Irish Red Ale is appropriate only to grandmothers at this point while the visual look of the other labels in the lineup is suggestive of self-parody in the vein of Moone Boy.P1040094

Bru Rua takes the Red Ale far more seriously, but I found myself wondering whether it was any the better for the sleek branding and lack of whimsy. That’s how young the brewing scene is in Ireland: There are still brewers attempting to fill a single niche. Tom Crean’s Lager, for instance, is the kind of property that every brewing scene needs: a locally made lager that’s a gateway improvement on the mainstream. The amazing thing is that the Dingle Brewing Company that makes it is only four years old.

Stephen Clinch from Trouble Brewing, enjoying a leisurely pint before the hordes bear down

Stephen Clinch from Trouble Brewing, enjoying a leisurely pint before the hordes bear down

Amongst the newest members of the brewing scene, there were beers that could have been brewed anywhere at all. One problem with international brewing scenes interacting is that you end up with things like Trouble Brewing’s Equinox SMASH. Our own Nickel Brook in Burlington, Ontario did one of those about two months ago. For all that craft brewing suggests permutational possibility, you sometimes end up with monoculture. According to Brewer Stephen Clinch the influence in ingredients comes largely from North America, but frequently filtered through the English craft beer market. It’s an influence visible in his Hop Priority Triple IPA (a style whose time seems to have passed in our market.)

Trouble Brewing also presented what might be the best expression of Ireland’s brewing in a modern context in their Graffiti Session IPA. Session IPA tends to play as watery and without much in the way of malt character. Graffiti manages to pack a great deal of flavour into its 3.6% alcohol. The hops are Citra, Amarillo and Magnum. Instead of front loaded fruit salad impact, it’s balanced by Munich, Cara, Crystal and Carapils malts. The result is a beer that’s light in alcohol, balanced and just that touch too interesting to swill thoughtlessly down. It felt perfectly suited to discussion in a pub. It seemed to me like a fulcrum point between old and new, which is an admirable thing to achieve in an emergent scene that doesn’t quite seem to know how seriously to take itself.

If you're going to host an Irish Pavilion in Toronto in July, you'd do well to leave complimentary sunscreen about the pavilion. Someone at Tourism Ireland thought ahead.

If you’re going to host an Irish Pavilion in Toronto in July, you’d do well to leave complimentary sunscreen about the pavilion. Someone at Tourism Ireland thought ahead.

Review: The Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi

The Background

When you get right down to it, the job of a critic is to tell you whether something is good or bad.

Most of the time, I’m able to convey that information in prose. I don’t often use numeric ratings because that has always struck me as inutile. Unless you’re going to catalogue everything, that universality of context is not necessarily helpful. Whether it’s out of five points or a hundred points, unless you can create justification in context against everything else, a single point of data doesn’t really matter.

Besides: It’s essentially thumbs up or thumbs down. The variable is the size of the thumb.

Sometimes I can’t even manage that.

The way the media tasting at the LCBO works is this: On a given day at a given time, most of the people who write about beer in Toronto show up during a two hour window and try a small sample of most of the things that are going to be in the release. Sometimes they don’t have everything. The cast of attendees rotates somewhat, but it’s full of familiar faces. Sometimes there are a lot of beers and it takes a very long time. In some release lineups there’s no good point of entry.

If you’re tasting beers you usually want to work your way from least hoppy and/or assertive to most hoppy and/or assertive. It reduces palate fatigue and prevents burnout from bitterness or sourness or tartness. It’s one of the first things you learn.

Sometimes though, you get a weird one at about beer eight and it’s so different from everything else that everyone in the room sort of looks at each other to see whether there’s a consensus to be reached. Is the beer incredibly clever and our palates are shot? Is the beer terribly, freakishly weird? Beyond the objective scope, can you even figure out whether you like it?

That’s what happened with Wild Beer’s Ninkasi. In a tasting with not a few Saisons, it was something of an anomaly. I promised myself I would revisit it if only for my own edification.

The BeerP1040061

The Wild Beer Company is based in Somerset and they’ve used a number of ingredients in this beer. It’s something of a kitchen sink. They’ve used locally sourced apple juice (and I wish they had listed the varieties), wild yeast (probably both from the apple skins and directly inoculated), New Zealand Hops and a Champagne style refermentation. The beer is 9% alcohol and is suggested as a “Celebration Beer,” probably in the style of Deus or Charlevoix Brut.

It pours a golden colour with a big white fluffy head that recedes fairly quickly in my snifter, leaving trickles of carbonation but no significant lacing.P1040070

The aroma is complex. At first there’s the vanilla and mild clove that you might expect from a Saison yeast. Lemon and an indefinable tropical fruit note dance around the apple core. The apple aroma is that combination of slightly musty apple skin and the malic explosion of the first rending of the torus of an unripe windfall. There’s something earthy on the sip and at the LCBO tasting I recall comparing it to the nitrogen rich potting soil character of an altbier. Call it dead leaves and the dirty ground. The apple character does not carry through on to the palate in the way you might expect and much of the character is spent in the aroma. The scrubbing carbonation and acid rather than refreshing, actually seems to deaden the tongue. The alcohol is massively warming and the heat in the throat and dryness of the beer are practically arid. The retronasal sting continues that autumnal aroma of a copse of leaves turning and dying. The staying power of the finish is massive and (what I’m guessing is) the wild yeast character that plays around the finish reminds me of the agglomeration of leaves and stems that would sit at the bottom of the bushel of Empire Apples in the wine cellar of my childhood home; that apple not meant to be overwintered which nonetheless hangs on until February and continues to make appearances in the lunchbox.

Thus equipped, I am now ready to speak for this beer both in the objective and subjective cases.

Is It Any Good?

It’s Brilliant. It manages to evoke the entire autumnal life of an apple from the orchard itself to the wrinkled old maiden in the bottom of March’s storeroom. I don’t think it’s a summer beer, so you should probably hang on to it until the first cold night of fall.

Do I Like It?

No. Sometimes I don’t want to have to work that hard to enjoy a beer. For me, it doesn’t meet the criteria I want in a “celebration beer.” While this is life affirming in its way, it’s not exactly Kool and the Gang, you dig?