These days when I go to a tasting for a new brewery, I’m always a little bit leery. The sheer number of startups in Ontario at the moment suggest to me that we are in a boom period for craft beer. If you want to look at it objectively, you could probably claim that the boom is represented by the day Spearhead came off the line in June of 2011. Since then, we’ve had Hops and Robbers and Hogtown and The Indie Alehouse and Sawdust City and Silversmith and Oast House and that’s just near Toronto. Add in the fact that you’re going to have Snowman and Ramblin’ Road and Radical Road and 5 paddles and a large number of others and you start to think “Hey. Some of these fellows are going to lose pretty badly.”
The difficulty is that I generally like brewers and people who work for breweries. It’s hard not to like people who are passionate about what they do and who have given up other careers in order to make it work. I don’t want to see them fail, but I begin to get the sense that some failure is inevitable. I wrote it about it over here last year, prognosticating the issue. No one seems to have paid any attention, which is about par for the course in a boom. One of the problems with passionate people is that they believe in what they’re doing.
I think that the best thing you can do, if you’re a nano-brewery startup, is find a populous area that no one else has cornered the market on and set up there. It helps if the people are young and drink beer and have money. You might get bonus points if they wear a lot of plaid and ripped jeans and have ironic horn rim glasses despite living in pretty nicely appointed condos.
The folks behind Liberty Village Brewing are thinking ahead in just that way. At their first tasting on Tuesday night, it became clear that they have the support of much of the liberty village community. The location for the event was provided gratis, and they seem to have struck up an arrangement with the local BIA. Like many of the other startups we’ve had in Toronto, it’s a group of people working together with one brewer. In this case, the brewer is Eric Emery, who took 3rd place in the IPA category of the Toronto Beer Week Homebrewing contest in 2011.
I have some sympathy for that position since I fared exactly the same in that category in 2010.
Liberty Village Brewing is going to try to get their own space up and running in 2013, with a view to eventually getting into the LCBO. I think that will be difficult at such a small volume, and may prove to be unnecessary in Liberty Village since there’s so much parking.
They have chosen the odd route of having public tastings for the purposes of R&D in order to refine recipes and discover what their audience is likely to want. On the one hand, it seems like an ideal solution to marketing beer. If you already know what people want, it becomes easier to produce it for them. On the other hand, it does make it a great deal more difficult to surprise them with something new that they might not have tried.
Of the beers I tried, there wasn’t a stinker among them. This is pretty good for an outfit that’s currently using homebrewing equipment. Some of the beers that were up for tasting reminded me pretty explicitly of beers that I have had before in Ontario. I suspect that if you’re a homebrewer on the way to becoming a brewer with your own stage, you more or less have to start out emulating things you like. You don’t end up with clones, but rather amalgamations of flavour combinations that you’ve seen work elsewhere.
For that reason, some of the beers on display were reminiscent of beers that have been available in Ontario. There was a malt heavy pale ale that fits nicely into the mold of Ontario Pale Ales from the latter part of the last decade (albeit more aggressively hoppy). There was a northern California/pacific northwest IPA that was not entirely dissimilar to Boneshaker (although lighter in Alcohol). There was a Robust Porter that seemed to mimic some of the best qualities of a good vintage of LTM Baltic Porter.
Interestingly, however, there were a couple of beers that didn’t have an equivalent within the market. There was a light, balanced Pale Ale that blended new world and noble hops. It would be ideal for a summer patio, weighing in at 36 IBUs. There was also an Imperial Amber Ale that came as something of a surprise. It’s not a hop monster, remaining balanced by its caramel malt presence and a touch of smoke that made it distinct from the rest of their lineup. It seemed to make the biggest impression on the crowd, which is an odd thing for such an eccentric offering.
Oddly, what I came to respect most was that people in attendance were given the opportunity to try some of the R&D batches that didn’t make the tasting. I had one IPA (R&D batch 7) that had resulted in a sort of Oniony funk. Now, you might think that serving such a beer at a tasting designed to impress a new market would be a misstep. I think that it speaks of both the scale and transparency of the operation. They served the beers that would make the best impression first, and then displayed some of the beers that they had to make in order to be able to put their best foot forward. It says:
“Here is where we are. That was where we were. Can you imagine where we will be tomorrow?”
Unlike some startups, Liberty Village seems content to carve out a niche for themselves within the Toronto scene. It seems to call for a small brewhouse, a small retail store, a restricted number of recipes and a supportive presence within their community. Incremental steps for a sensible tomorrow. I like their chances.