If you’re a beer lover, you probably already know that this is Ontario Craft Beer Week. Across Ontario, there are a large number of events scheduled, and everyone is getting on board. There are tastings and pub crawls and food pairing events that you can choose to attend, and the variety of events is such that you can find a situation and location that’s comfortable for you. Perhaps the most interesting event will be the Session Craft Beer Festival, being held at the Sunnyside Pavilion on Saturday the 26th.
To my mind the only thing that’s missing is background: Why is Ontario Craft Beer Week happening now? The odds are that if you’re just interested in hoisting a few pints of decent beer, then this thought hasn’t actually occurred to you. You may run into the concept of Ontario Craft Beer Week for the first time when you head down to the pub to watch the world cup. Don’t worry. I’m nerd enough for both of us.
In order to understand why such an interesting series of events is being announced, you have to think about the history of the Ontario Craft Brewers, the chronology of craft beer in Ontario and the climate in which the industry operated and continues to operate. (Big ol’ caveat: I am working with an imperfect understanding of all of the issues involved, and as such am making some educated guesses pieced together from my own research.)
If you try and piece together a history of the OCB from the media kit on their website, you run into some problems. The media kit includes a brief history of the organization and a fairly clear mission statement: “The small breweries have banded together under the Ontario Craft Brewers banner to provide collective marketing muscle, promote regional tourism and expose Ontario’s beer drinkers to a world of more than 150 handcrafted premium beers brewed in their home province.”
What it doesn’t provide you with is a sense of the growth of the organization or the circumstances under which it was founded.
The first thing you have to know is that craft beer in Ontario in its current incarnation has only really existed for 26 years. Jim Brickman is credited with founding the first craft brewery in Ontario, Brick Brewing Co., and that was back in 1984. Wellington, Nickel Brook, Great Lakes, Sleeman and Upper Canada were founded in the latter half of the decade. By 1995 there were slightly more than a dozen functioning craft breweries. The expanding market share and the sudden availability of craft beer in the Toronto and Guelph/Waterloo areas led to two interesting phenomena: Firstly, craft brewing was becoming, if not exactly cool, at least feasible as a startup business. In 1997, five of the current members of the Ontario Craft Brewers were founded. Secondly, it was at least theoretically possible to make money from brewing even if your last name wasn’t Molson or Labatt. A trend toward corporatization emerged in 1996 and two of the larger breweries, Sleeman and Upper Canada went public. In both cases, this worked out pretty well for Sleeman, who ended up offering to buy all shares of Upper Canada in 1998.
There were pretty significant problems in the late 90’s if you were a small craft brewer. The public had just survived a decade of Ice Beer and Dry Beer and (God help us) Red Dog. The people who were drinking beer produced by independent brewers were probably drinking Sleeman, since it had market share and the successful IPO had given them a lot of coverage in the Business section. I’m guessing that for most small brewers at the time questions of marketing and distribution took a backseat to churning out enough profit to ensure continued existence. The Ontario Small Brewers Association started in 1996 in an attempt to allow brewers to do better than simply exist. In a relatively indifferent market, they were greater than the sum of their parts. In an industry renowned for low margins of profitability, collectivization allowed for combination of marketing budgets and greater inroads to public awareness. By 2003 they had incorporated under their current name.
While I’ve been unable to find a list of the original member breweries, I was able to extrapolate some data about the current members of the OCB, which is essentially a chronology of the founding dates of surviving Ontario craft breweries:
This data is not entirely accurate. Some of the founding dates differ depending on which source you look at. It doesn’t take into account failed breweries (like Steelback, whose primary products seem to have been arena sponsorships and hubris.) What it does is paint an interesting picture of industry growth: 22 of the current members of Ontario Craft Brewers were founded after the advent of the OSBA in 1996.
Look at the accomplishments of the OCB since that date: They moved rapidly to secure grants from the provincial government. They have more than doubled their market share since 2002; They have created a craft beer route in order to establish beer tourism in Ontario; They have created a logo to delineate their products in the marketplace and act as a seal of approval; They have launched websites, blogs and podcasts; They have increased awareness of their members’ products through their discovery packs and awareness of their mission through dogged perseverance. Perhaps most importantly, they have been able to reduce the failure rate of startup breweries. As a result, they now have 30 members.
With each step forward the organization makes, with each new member brewery, more things become possible. There are beer styles being brewed in Ontario at the moment that there was no market for five years ago: Flemish Sours; Imperial Stouts; Double IPAs. With each new brewery and each new style of beer, public awareness is increased and the palate of the consumer expands slightly. You want proof of the concept? Think about this: Beau’s flagship beer is a Kolsch that was until recently packaged in a ceramic bottle. At what other point in the history of the Ontario brewing industry could that have possibly worked?
The OCB is the strongest that it has ever been and Ontario craft beer is the best that it has ever been. The market share for Ontario craft beer continues to increase despite the fact that the amount of beer consumed per-capita is decreasing according to Statistics Canada. Thanks to a combination of the efforts of the members of the OCB, pub owners, industry professionals and savvy consumers, Ontario craft beer has become a success in its own right.
If Ontario Craft Beer Week is anything, it’s a celebration of the fact that after a quarter century of incredibly hard work, craft beer thrives in Ontario. It’s a party for everyone involved in the process. It’s a seven day victory dance.
Most importantly, I suspect that it signifies the beginning of a new era for Ontario craft beer.