St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

People complain about St. Patrick’s Day vehemently. Over the next week or so, you’ll see people correct the spelling of abbreviations and talk about amateur drinkers being on a night out or the fact that it’s unlikely there ever were any snakes at all, at all. People cringe (and rightly so) at the notion of dyed rivers and rivers of dyed lager and puffy Guinness branded top hats and a world of shamrock studded dollar store craic.

You need only look at the sheer number of places that St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated to understand a key facet of the Romanticism that surrounds it: The Irish ended up everywhere. Historically, Ireland has not been a great place to live and mass migration away from it was necessary.

By the time my family left Cork in the second decade of the 19th century there was a nightly curfew in place and those who did not observe it were likely to be transported to another continent. Still, that was preferable in a number of ways to overcrowding and typhoid. This was the basic state of affairs due in part to the fact that families were larger in those days and Ireland is small and resources are scarce. You add in religious turmoil, famine, rioting and negligent English governance and you begin to get the whole picture.

All the Tura-Lura, Danny-Boy, Come-Back-To-Erin stuff that people of Irish descent glom on to once a year is patently absurd. The reason they are Canadian or Australian or whatever is that life was going to be a lot better for their ancestors when they got the hell out of Ireland. You could have a house in Cork or you could own an entire county in Ontario. For nearly a decade in the middle of the 19th century, it was the kind of place where the only thing preventing you from getting stabbed for a potato was a severe lashing of Catholic guilt.

In a lot of the media surrounding Ireland that influences my impression there’s this notion that there’s a better world somewhere. Whether it’s Victor McLagen turning snitch on his compatriot to get to America or Malachy McCourt trying to raise enough money to get to California, the motivating factor is that it must be better elsewhere. I quite like the passage in Angela’s Ashes:

“The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” 

I suppose that it’s in that third option where the association of the Irish holiday with drink comes from. Flann O’Brien wrote his poem The Workman’s Friend, which sums it up handily:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.

No matter how bad things get, there’s still beer. In a country where things were very bad for a very long time, that truth can take on a sinister aspect. Drink doesn’t solve problems, although it might take your mind off them temporarily. In situations with insoluble problems (like flushing out non-existent snakes), it may be all you’ve got.

If you’re going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, you should drink to the following: Solvable problems, a fine turn of phrase, and your good fortune that your ancestors got out when they did. There’s no reason to guzzle The Bheag or Black Bush. Maybe just a pint of O’Hara’s or Murphy’s Stout. Maybe two. After all, a bird can’t fly on one wing.

Beau’s B-Side – Gigantic La Formidable American-Belgo IPA

The Background

Beau’s are early adopters of bits and pieces of craft beer culture, so it’s not a huge surprise that they were the first brewery in Canada to formalize the idea of ongoing collaboration. The B-Side Brewing Label reflects the history of many members of the Beau’s family as punk rockers. Steve Beauchesne is such a fan of the Dead Milkmen that I’m frankly surprised there isn’t a beer called Sour Jane. I like Steve. He’s a great dude who has made his brewery part of the communities of VanKleek Hill and Ottawa in a really positive way.

That's a pretty big snifter. I guess.

That’s a pretty big snifter. I guess.

Anyway, the B-Side brewing label is an attempt to provide exposure to brewers from other parts of the world who either don’t have the ability to get their beer into Ontario or (quite reasonably) can’t be bothered to deal with the LCBO. B-Side kicked off in 2013 with the signing of Anders Kissmeyer who produced a Nordic Pale Ale with the brewery that is still available at the LCBO for a very reasonable price. It’s a nice beer, but not the only one in Ontario from Kissmeyer who had also designed a beer for Bush Pilot, thereby slightly undercutting the premise. The Nordic Saison that emerged as a follow up was a limited time affair whose yeast profile had, at least on the two bottles I sampled, a somewhat unfortunate whiff of burning hair.

The launch of Beau’s second B-Side brewer, Portland, Oregon’s Gigantic, may not in practice be helped by the fact that it comes at the culmination of FeBREWary. Beau’s has released a new beer every week for a month and while one of them is the resurgent favourite Strong Patrick, I can’t help but feel that there’s a little audience fatigue happening. Even though the Le Coeur Noir Black IPA was quite good, I’ve not heard a lot of scuttlebutt about it. I guess this is the price you pay when everyone gets all amped up for International Gruit Day where our motto is: “Gruit: Do it to it.”

The Beer

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

There are a bunch of those little dudes under each foot.

La Formidable is an American-Belgo IPA, which just means that it’s an American IPA with a Belgian yeast strain. This is fairly familiar territory for Beau’s with previous examples like the Rudolphus IV and Farm Table Belgian Pale Ale having cut a swath through the vast undergrowth of experimentation. Gigantic themselves have a Belgo IPA called Intensify. Put the breweries together and what have you got? Bippity boppity booze, probably. This should be a cakewalk.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the standard Welles-Nelson scale of Transformer Awesomeness to gauge the quality of this product. This is only applicable to the 1986 film and is not pertinent to the rebooted Michael Bay franchise which operates on the LaBeouf “Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go” Quotient.

Scores can range anywhere from the least cool Transformer, the Quintesson judge who relies on his legions of Sharkticons to destroy prisoners all the way up to the most cool Transformer, Rodimus Prime. You think he’s not cool? He has his own theme music and is voiced by John Bender. In 1986 that’s as cool as is possible.

La Formidable weighs in a 6.9% alcohol and pours a vibrant orange colour with a voluminous off white head. The aroma is a sweet orange peel for the most part with some prodigious phenols from that Belgian yeast strain contributing some mild clove spice and light bubblegum. The body is cloudy but quite substantial and the sweetness tend to balance the bitterness right up until the swallow. There is a pronounced hop burn in that takes place on the finish and it lingers, leaving the impression of disharmony.

I rate this beer: Wreck Gar.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

I preferred him in Nuns On The Run.

Notice that I didn’t say it’s a Wreck. Wreck Gar is the leader of the Junk planet in the Transformers movie. Voiced by Eric Idle, Wreck Gar’s dialogue is mostly made up of marketing slogans and pop cultural ephemera. The theme song during his first appearance is Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare To Be Stupid which mirrors that popcultural panglossolalia. Wreck Gar’s body is made up of disparate parts from various places and there’s the sense that he’s not quite all there. He’s cool, but in an iconoclastic way that is certainly not for everyone. I mean, hell, some people like Wheelie.

Duggan’s Brewery Parkdale

IMAG0816[1]When last I considered Duggan’s Brewery in Toronto, it was in a different area and the context was markedly different. It was something of a valediction. That post, entitled, “So What Can We Learn From Duggan’s” was written nearly four years ago. In the interim period, Duggan’s #9 IPA and #5 Sorachi Lager have continued to be brewed at Cool in Etobicoke. Along with Brad Clifford, Mike Duggan has founded the Ontario Beer Company, which focuses on creating beer with ingredients from within Ontario. If the “100 Mile” brand isn’t completely factually accurate, it can be forgiven because it works towards that goal.

The 75 Victoria Street property is a barn. It had been Growlers before it was Duggan’s. Most recently it had been MolsonCoors Six Pints Beer Academy, which is currently under renovation to become a Creemore Brewpub. It’s a gigantic space and the majority of the problems that have cropped up stem from that fact. Even MolsonCoors, with all their capital didn’t get it right the first time.

At its nadir, Duggan’s Brewery had significant problems. They had trouble keeping up with demand on their most popular beers (sometimes the lagers didn’t have an optimal amount of conditioning time) and while the place was fairly busy, the cavernous space made it look less full. The walls were bare, and I once joked that it was like a sensory deprivation chamber. Events held in the downstairs area felt a little like a grade seven dance; to add verisimilitude all that would have been needed was crepe paper and REM’s Everybody Hurts. The complete lack of social media presence hurt them during a period that should have seen them boom.

That’s not to say that the place didn’t have its strong points. The beers on tap were of a consistently high quality.

Flash forward to February 2015, and it’s clear that Duggan’s new location at the corner of Queen and Brock has managed to fix the majority of the problems from the old location. For one thing, the size is a great deal more reasonable than the old location. It might seat 100 when full up. The menu, rather than including oysters and pizza in addition to a number of other options, has been pared down to a handful of more interesting apps and entrees. The ambiance is probably more Liberty Village than Parkdale, but the soft industrial feel of exposed girders and bulbs is cushioned texturally by wood plank treatments and broad tiles behind the bar.IMAG0807[1]

The operation makes more sense here than it did at the other location. Much of downtown is closed for business after 7:00 PM and a brewpub was hard to fill. At Queen and Brock, the audience is captive. “People will come in around 7:00 and camp out all night.” While I sat making notes on the beers, a number of young couples took up residence at booths and tables opting for the full tasting flight of beers. Duggan himself isn’t sure of the demographic. “We’ll get maybe a third hipsters. We’ll get three generations of a family with babies.”IMAG0812[1]

The lineup speaks to the amount of time Mike Duggan has spent brewing both in Toronto and internationally. There’s a disparate thought process at work that bespeaks a larger experience of the world and an understanding of a larger audience; that maybe people just want a refreshing drink. He may be the only brewer in Canada who can ask himself, “would this work in Cuba?” As we talk, it’s revealed that the basement is jammed with fermenters full of ideas he’s looking forward to playing with. There’s a nitrogenated Cream Ale in the works and that least trendy of animals, a Maibock. It’s something for everyone from a journeyman who’s not done by a long shot. By the time the new location is fully operation, he intends for there to be 12 taps at any given time.IMAG0815[1]

The beers that are available to taste when I’m there make up the basic lineup. The 100 Mile Lager has a distinct soapiness to its aroma, but the citrus from the Ontario grown Hallertau hops shines through in the middle of the palate. The 100 Mile Ale is much as I remember it from the week it launched. Pine and orange. Toasted grain with a nutty character. Revisiting the #9 IPA for what might be the first time in two years, I’m pleased by the substantial crystal malt, brown bread and straightforward Cascade pine. I’m pleasantly surprised by the #46 Parkdale Bomber and we joke that if you’re going to sell a Malt Liquor it’s practically worth selling paper bags out of the brewery store. The #13 Hefeweizen leans towards Kristallweizen clarity and banana character, making it reminiscent of Erdinger’s Hefe. The #7 Stout is possibly the best beer on offer from an objective standpoint. It’s a full bodied number and the roast comes through without acridity. There’s a chocolate-y tootsie roll tone playing in the distance.

Even with some congestion, I can tell there’s something wrong with the #5 Sorachi Lager. It’s got a more than a hint of brackish standing water. What Duggan does is revealing. Rather than getting the bartender or another member of staff to deal with the problem, he walks over to the bar to scope out the situation. Five or ten minutes pass and I busy myself making tasting notes while he hooks up a new keg and pours pitcher after pitcher of foam to get the beer to where it is supposed to be. Tipping the pitcher into the drip tray, he has the air of a man who would be fine if everyone would just leave him alone to get on with it. It’s the kind of precision I like in a brewer. I’m rewarded for the wait by a quaffable lager with that earthy sorachi dill-herb character at its core. IMAG0811[1]

Duggan’s new brewery fixes nearly all of the problems that were hallmarks of the previous location. Walking out, I’m struck by how well it fits into a rapidly gentrifying Parkdale. There’s a lot of promise here and there’s the potential for the brewery to grow into the bones of its new home in way that it never would have been able to on Victoria street. I find myself cheering the possibilities.

The Hobbit Beers OR Beer and Back Again

In a box in the sky there lived a blogger. Not a nasty, dirty, sexist blogger, concerned with ethics in games journalism, emitting an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, literary blogger with nothing to say but positive things about can-con: he was a beer blogger, and that meant reviewing beverages.

The Background

To celebrate the nearly interminable series of Hobbit films, Warner Brothers has licensed a series of beers to be marketed in Canada and in the United States. In the United States, the beers are brewed by Fish Brewing, while in Canada they are produced by the estimable Central City Brewers + Distillers in Surrey, BC. Central City produces some consistently high quality beer in their Red Racer series and fit happily into that rare category of dependable, affordable beer you actually want to drink.

In some ways, it’s an interesting problem. Clearly Fish Brewing has had these beers out since September and Central City was granted the rights to the property later on. This means that they must be adapting another brewer’s ideas as their own. If the filmic version of The Hobbit has taught us anything at all, it’s that adaptation is a rascally business and fraught with peril. Things people might love in one version don’t end up in the other. Sometimes things get added that people disagree with. Central City without real fault or credit here since they produce consistently high quality beer and are adapting someone else’s ideas.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon at play in terms of selection bias. If you look at the ratebeer ratings for the American versions, they’re consistently higher because they come from all over the country and from people who are into a Hobbit beer in the first place. If you look at the ones from Canada, we’re a hell of a lot harder on Central City. Limited market means more critics, I would guess.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria

Today we’ll be using the internationally respected Bombadil Protocol as an evaluation tool. Scores reflect the amount the evaluator is annoyed by the character of an item. Naturally, this is an inverse value scale. A 10 on the Bombadil scale might cause one to put down a series of books and never pick them up again. Behaviour that might cause such an action would include singing about yourself.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

His coat is blue. His boots are yellow. His manner is so infuriating I never finished the damn books.

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!” would, for example, rate a 10.

The Beers


Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn't this have been better as a Dubbel?

Turned into a second fiddle. Wouldn’t this have been better as a Dubbel?

Bolg is a truly interesting choice to turn into a beer. In the book, Bolg is killed off by Beorn. Peter Jackson spends several hours building up Azog as the ultimate Badass to challenge Thorin Oakenshield, whilst Bolg is relegated to getting the crap knocked out of him by Orlando Bloom. In the book Azog doesn’t even merit despatch at the hand of Thorin. Dain Ironfoot does for him in what we can only assume is a Glaswegian dockworker’s accent.

The beer is kind of confusing. If you’re given the entire Hobbit mythos to play with to come up with a beer, I’m not sure you’d choose Bolg. Beorn Braggot. Fili & Kili Double IPA. Gandalf’s Hempen Gruit. Thorin’s Dwarven Ale (Oak Shield Aged). Bard Black Arrow Schwarzbier. Knocking Thrush Steinbier. You can probably knock a couple out in the comments.

Bolg's head looks better in the glass than on the label.

Bolg’s head looks better in the glass than on the label.

9.5% seems high for a Belgian Tripel, and at 35 BU Bolg is a little unbalanced. The sweetness really drives the flavour and aroma on this one. There’s the typical clove and bubblegum thing, but an almost lactose-y creamy thing around the edges. On the palate the hops are a little soapy with a wildflower hit and there’s some honeyed malt character. I will say this for it: It’s a good beer. It’s just conceptually dodgy.


This is a straightforward conceptual leap. What does Gollum want? The Precious. The Precious is made of gold, Pilsner is golden coloured, the lacing leaves a ring around the glass. Actually, I suppose you could have used any kind of golden coloured beer, but given Smeagol’s tragic past and the fact that he was once a common stoor hobbit, a common beer style sort of fits the bill.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Sirkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I'd have no idea.

I just realized that I have no idea what Andy Serkis looks like. I could pass him on the street and unless he was wearing a lot of ping pong balls, I’d have no idea.

We likes it. Standard 5.0% Pilsner weight with about 30 BU puts this square in the middle of the style. Aroma is rising dough, light grain toast, peach and white grape. The bitterness on the palate is mostly herbaceous; sort of long grasses flowering. Straightforward finish. Maybe not worth losing a finger over, but I wouldn’t be too quick to throw it into Mount Doom, either.

SMAUG STOUT – 2 Bombadils  

Who's... some manner of winged cat? You... are, I guess.

Who’s… some manner of winged cat? You… are, I guess.

Smaug is probably the easiest beer from a conceptual standpoint. It has to be big. It has to be black. It has to burn. Dragons are somewhat limiting in terms of beer creation. I guess you can go the AD&D 2nd Edition route and choose different coloured ones with different breath weapons, but that’s a cheat. Dragons mean fire and fire means smoke and heat. Whether it’s a Tolkien beer or a Game of Thones beer, it’s going to involve chilies.

The Smaug Stout is actually surprisingly balanced. The aroma is not exactly a hurricane, although you can pick out both the peppers and the hop character amongst the sweet malt notes. This uses habaneros, but the shock of its tail is not exactly a thunderbolt. It’s biting, but not like swords. The heat amps up after about half a bottle, so we may consider the “my breath death” quota satisfied.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Ably voiced by Zillyhoo Flintersnitch.

Actually, between this and the Fire and Blood beer from Ommegang, I’ve got a lot of respect for the restraint being used. Unlike Quest for Glory, you can safely order the Dragon’s Breath. This beer works nicely and is probably the best of the lot.

Beer Review: Spearhead Belgian Style Stout

(Ed Note: Would it shock you greatly to know that it has been over 14 months since I actually reviewed a beer on St. John’s Wort? It’s a beer blog, for God’s sake. I know actually reviewing things is out of fashion and simply posting stuff on pinstagrest is de rigeur, but let’s give it a shot.)

The Background


The medieval period: When monks had snifters and didn’t get the plague. Use appropriate glassware, junior rangers.

Spearhead came into being in 2011, rustling feathers as one of the first contract breweries in Ontario to maintain a command presence during events like Ontario Craft Beer Week. There had been contract breweries before, but Spearhead were the ones who went out and proved that the model could work. With their shiny orange vans and frequently visible merch, they have remained prominent in the Toronto beer scene and have succeeded in part because of the rightly popular Hawaiian Style Pale Ale and partly due to the fact that they’re a bunch of enthusiastic go-getters. I like all those guys. They’re nice guys. Especially Tomas Schmidt, the brewmaster, who is now so ex-Labatt that he’s frequently seen sampling IPAs.

The Beer

Spearhead’s third and fourth offerings came to the LCBO at approximately the same time and they are a Belgian Style Stout and the Sam Roberts Band Session Ale. I cannot objectively review the Sam Roberts Band ale because it beat my beer at the Session festival this year and I am a big sulky baby.


A lot of explanation for a short label

The Spearhead Belgian Stout, on the other hand, is a pretty interesting property. It’s more complex than you’d assume its 5.8% alcohol would admit. The aroma is high percentage dark chocolate and high test espresso ringed with vanilla, banana and clove. The flavour leans towards raw sugar sweetened espresso with Belgian yeast characteristics and it remains sticky sweet at the front of the palate while drying out at the swallow, eventually leaving a chalky sensation as though you’ve bitten into baker’s chocolate. There is more bitterness than the 35 IBU suggests, leading me to suspect that some of it is astringent bitterness from the 200 SRM of dark malt.

Let’s look at what’s happening here conceptually.


It really is quite a dark beer.

It’s a stout. That makes sense. There’s pleasant chocolate and espresso that would be appropriate in a big American Sweet or Dry Stout. But, they’ve decided to make it Belgian. Oh HO! I suspect that at some point in the design process they must have thought, “well, what makes a beer Belgian?” It’s a fine question. How can you encapsulate the complexity of Belgium’s styles in one beer? I think that the answer is that you probably can’t.

Spearhead seems to have borrowed from Trappist beers the use of Trappist yeast and added sugar as a boost in both flavour and in fermentables. They seem to have borrowed Curacao Orange Peel and Coriander from Belgian Witbier. All of these things are as Belgian as Toots Thielemans playing a Waffle Harmonica and make about as much sense.

The Arbitrarily Chosen Score Based on Various Criteria


Poirot is accompanied everywhere by a young heir, a lady’s maid, a butler, a retired major and a dowager just so that he can practice his accusation.

Today we’ll be using the International Suchet-Golightly beer evaluation scale, which naturally rates famous Belgians on a spectrum from Hercule Poirot to Audrey Hepburn.


Idolized by millions, but still capable of burning the roast.

At one end, we have Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He is, rather than a Belgian-Style Stout, a Stout-Style Belgian. At the other end we have Belgian born Audrey Hepburn; the only lady in the world who can make Linus Larrabee give up plastics.

Coco Chanel said something Audrey Hepburn relevant: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” This is very good advice. Spearhead Belgian Style Stout is too busy. The earrings distract from the pendant and the feather boa is absolutely outré, to say nothing of the spats.

I preferred him in Blackbeard's Ghost

I preferred him in Blackbeard’s Ghost

I rate Spearhead Belgian Style Stout a Peter Ustinov as Poirot. It’s a good performance if a little filigreed and would be helped somewhat by the restraint of David Niven.

Craft Beer, Elysian and Emmanuel Goldstein

Did you hear the one about the successful brewer? Of course you did. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a man who did not like the job that he was doing. He was an (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) and all day long, when he wasn’t (underwriting/deducting/flippin’ burgers) he thought that it would be neat to open a brewery. The man didn’t act on the idea of opening his brewery because he didn’t have a lot of faith in his ability. He brewed at home for a while but eventually (Grandpa’s Magic Recipe/Brewing School/Won an Award for Homebrew), which changed everything. He decided that he would take the steps needed to open a brewery.

He opens the brewery and he hires people to work with him. These are typically rather eccentric characters who also don’t particularly like the jobs that they are doing (Bearded Lumberjack/Bearded Mighty Pirate/Wookie). With these new employees, production at the brewery increases and all the while the brewer and his associates are faced with problems like (Quality Assurance/Dilapidated Equipment/Nefarious Competitor). At some point the brewer will run into really significant problems and sacrifice nearly everything (Health/Family Solidarity/Any Kind Of Personal Wealth) in order to make his dream work.

The gamble pays off and the brewery becomes so successful that it is considered a fierce competitor by all the other breweries around it, large and small. Other breweries lag behind and attempt to emulate and compete with the brewery. Shortly after this point in time the brewer realizes he has gotten old and does not have the drive he once had. Rather than being a young man starting out, he is an elder in the industry. The creation of the brewery has gained the (Adoration/Respect/Money) of the public and the brewer has been transformed by the acquisition of that thing from the callow young (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) he started out as. He has achieved mastery.

You have heard this story because it is the most popular story there is. It has been defined and categorized by Joseph Campbell as The Hero’s Journey. It’s the single most influential western narrative structure and it covers every story you’ve ever been told from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. You can switch out the gender. You can switch out the setting. You can switch out the profession. You can add episodes and details as you see fit, but the story is always the same when there is success.

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Every successful brewer tells this story. John Molson, John Labatt, Adolphus Busch, Adolph Coors, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman. Success follows a single narrative arc, while every failure is different. It’s particularly effective in the context of North American capitalism because there is that innate Horatio Alger quality to it: Rags to riches. Even better, it is rags to riches doing something you love doing.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

Brewing is a business that succeeds primarily during the first generation of ownership. Breweries are either handed off to the next generation (if there is one) or sold. Very few of them survive to a third generation of ownership. In writing about the history of brewing in Ontario this truth crops up again and again. It is the way brewing has worked since before industrialization.

This iconoclasm and independence is one of the reasons the Brewers Association is going to have to come up with a better brand than “Craft Beer.” The sooner this happens, the better off we will all be.

I don’t like talking about “Craft Beer” because it’s a nonsense. It’s a marketing phrase that means less and less with every year. It is mythmaking that will not survive the first generation of small brewers that it purports to represent. “Craft Beer” is a collectivist myth and in being such it must compete with the underlying myth of the individual that all successful breweries will eventually lay claim to.

Collectivist mythmaking starts with a very dicey proposition: That there is an ‘us’ and that we are all on the same side. The only way that works is if you embrace an arbitrary binary division. There must be a party or parties who make up ‘them’. They must be pretty bad if they oppose us. We’re the good guys, after all.

This proposition of binary division is a vast simplification of a complicated reality. The beer industry is, if anything, united by the fact that every manufacturer is producing the same product. It is all beer and everyone is in the same business. There are thousands of breweries and there are an astounding number of moving parts and motivations playing out constantly and concurrently.

It’s great for propaganda to have an enemy. It rallies the troops and gives you something to hate. This hate was on display the other day when Seattle based Elysian was purchased by AB In-Bev. Let’s look at these examples.Elysian Comment 1 Elysian Comment 7 Elysian Comment 6 Elysian Comment 5 Elysian Comment 4 Elysian Comment 3 Elysian Comment 2

That’s not a rational reaction. That’s hatred. “Craft Beer” has conditioned its adherents to launch into a predictable form of hatred when presented with a stimulus. I can certainly think of a collectivist myth in which that behaviour is a central feature. Unfortunately for “Craft Beer”, it’s George Orwell’s 1984.

Let’s look at “Us”. “Us” is a disparate group of approximately 3400 brewers who make up 16.1 million barrels of beer production. The thing that they have in common is that they all produce beer. Now, it stands to reason that the market competition that takes place for the kinds of beer they make is predominantly between themselves. The beer market is finite and shrinking. The total volume made by “us” grows while the total volume sold by “them” shrinks. Who exactly is “us” competing with for sales? Here’s a hint: AB In-Bev isn’t making 4000 different kinds of Saison and 15000 different IPAs. The smaller “us” are competing with the larger “us” and the hope is that no one will notice if we hate “them” enough.


As slogans go “War is Peace” isn’t exactly “Put a Tiger in Your Tank.”

In 1984, there is also a central bureaucracy that announces statistics we are meant to cheer unthinkingly. They are also about “our” progress, but they do not entertain the possibility of victory.

When Elysian sold to AB In-Bev, a number of “Craft Beer” people on social media rushed to pronounce them dead. In 1984, Elysian would have become an unperson. Because they are not deemed ideologically pure, they are erased from the landscape of “Craft Beer.” Realistically, it’s very difficult to claim that ideological purity is uniformly held by “us” because “us” are 3400 disparate companies operating in a capitalist system. They are not 3400 widgets. They are 3400 owners who have dreams and goals and motivations that are not consistent with the 3399 others.

Look at what Elysian did. They started from nothing in 1995 with three partners near the tail of the first microbrewery washout. They were among the first to promote pumpkin beer, which makes up a vast percentage of yearly sales for the entire market segment. In twenty years, they grew production from nothing to 50,000 bbls and were slated to increase to 70,000 bbls before the takeover. They brewed 350 different beers during that time and influenced a large number of subsequent breweries and beer drinkers.

The reality is that Elysian was a massive success by just about any metric you want to use. It did a massive amount for craft brewing. Rather than focus on the positive effect it had or thanking them for the annual pumpkin beer windfall, they’re pronounced dead to “us” in a second because they’re now “them.” Craft Beer is a revolution that will not allow its heroes to succeed. We have always and must always be at war with AB In-Bev.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

“Craft Beer” has a problem with ideology. Not entirely unlike the party in 1984, the constituent parts of the ideology are up for grabs. Remember when the size limit was 2 Million barrels and they changed it to 6 Million to allow Sam Adams to stay in? You’re not meant to. That was meant to go down the memory hole. Remember when Yuengling was absolutely not “Craft Beer” and then suddenly it was? You’re not supposed to think about the bump in the statistics that caused in 2013. You’re just meant to look at the statistics and cheer. You’re meant to learn to love “Craft Beer” no matter how it changes from year to year. Sometimes I hear people say “Oh, but Craft Beer means something different to everyone.” That is how effective this propaganda has been: You’re engaging in doublethink.

The “Craft Beer” narrative doesn’t work because it conflicts with the capitalist Horatio Alger construct. “Craft Beer” demands of its heroes that they build and build and never sell or retire. “Craft Beer” is a state of perpetual war against an opponent which is at once omnipresent and omniscient and incapable of producing a half decent product.

Brewers are going to retire. Brewers are going to hand off their properties to underperforming relatives that do not have the drive to succeed. Brewers are going to sell to whoever will let them monetize their life’s work. Brewers are going to make deals that benefit them. This has always been the case, since the beginning of industrialization. They are human beings and they do not go on forever. The individual narrative is self-contained. Speaking historically, success in the first generation of a brewery is making it to the point where there’s something worth selling. They are incapable of fighting the perpetual war that “Craft Beer” requires of them. They are not betraying anything because they were only ever true to themselves. The irony is that as more brewers succeed and retire or sell, the less powerful the collectivist myth of “Craft Beer” becomes.

A Word of Advice for Ontario Breweries…

If you’re a brewer in Ontario you are probably weighing the changes that The Beer Store proposed yesterday. I’d like to review them for you.

First of all, there’s the concept of ownership. On The Beer Store’s conference call last night Ted Moroz made much of the idea that by offering ownership to Ontario Breweries, we would be going back to the way The Beer Store was intended to be; that we would be reclaiming its heritage.

The offer is a snare and a delusion. The Class E and Class F shares that are on offer do not buy you a stake in the company. You do not get a stake in the capital of the organization. They simply buy you the ability to vote for a representative on The Beer Store’s board. Now, it is worth pointing out that the three positions offered by The Beer Store on their board amount to 20% of the total board vote. There is no feasible situation in which Molson and Labatt will vote against their own interests in your favour. Your three board positions are therefore entirely meaningless. It is pointless busy work. Do not fall under the sway of the idea that your brewery’s President might gain status by being on the board. It’s an empty seat only a fool would covet.

Secondly, much was made of the idea that “owners” would be given five free store listings for two products. The initial product fee would be waved and also the listing fee for the five Beer Store locations nearest you. Let us do the math on this. The listing fee is something like $2650.00 and the per store fee is something like $230.00 per store. They are offering you a one time concession of something like $7600.00 in the hopes that you will stop pressing for reform.

Let me explain something about the changes they are proposing. They are founded in a deep arrogance. They believe that by giving you some crumbs that they will be able to keep the whole loaf. They think of you as dogs to be fobbed off with scraps.

The worst part of The Beer Store’s offer is that it is calculated to divide you. They believe that some one of you will want to claim the role of board member. They believe that you will turn on each other for $7600.00. That’s the amount of money The Beer Store believes will sway you. They want you to be so excited about their $7600.00 that you forget the following key detail.

You will still be in the thrall of a system that has disregarded you until this moment. The Beer Store offers you these scraps in order to prevent having to make any more concessions. They hope that it will be enough. They will not change. Your input will be disregarded. Your stock will not be displayed in the front of the store. You will not be treated equally. They have had thirty years to change the business model. They pretend to do so now only under duress.

We are at a crossroads. You have the opportunity to think of the future of your brewery. There is every possibility that you will have your own stores in the near future. That you will prosper in business and be a scion of your community. That you can build a system of your own and with it bolster the economy of a province that sorely needs the aid. That you can achieve your dream of building a business that might live on in your family.

The Beer Store would have you sell your dreams, would have you sell your future, for $7600.00

The Beer Store did not consult with the Ontario Craft Brewers about these changes. They did not consult with the Provincial Government. They believe that this will be enough compromise to bring you to heel. They believe it will stop you in your tracks.

Let me tell you something. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the sheer bloody number of dogs in the fight. They are worried enough to offer these concessions unprompted and it’s because they fear there is worse coming. They know that the number of brewers that have been maltreated by The Beer Store has increased to the point where their very existence is in jeopardy.

This would be a good time to take advantage of your numeric superiority. Stand together. Make some noise with your Members of Provincial Parliament. Let them know that the time for change has come. Let The Beer Store know that your dignity, your integrity and your future are worth more than the pittance they offer.

Do not ask what they will give you. Ask what you can take from them. It may very well be everything.

The Ontario Problem

Since I started writing about beer about four and a half years ago, the Ontario situation has become more and more interesting. There are more breweries competing for market share and there’s increased media coverage of the beer retailing problem. Martin Regg Cohn, for instance, has been on fire of late pointing out the Beer Store’s lobbying practices. I’m not going to accuse anyone of peddling influence because I don’t have a lawyer on retainer. Instead, I’ve decided to see if I can recap the problem and explain why change is extremely likely to happen in the next couple of years.

The Beer Store was never intended to be for the benefit of customers. What Brewer’s Warehousing was designed to do from the start was to take beer retailing out of the hands of the province. Even in 1927 the idea was that it would take the necessity of warehousing out of the hands of the provincial government. This was a pretty good idea as long as it was a co-op. Breweries were getting larger and the fact that everyone had a hand in the distribution system was a good thing. It made it equitable.

E.P. Taylor exploited the obvious flaw in this system and started buying up breweries left, right and center. By the early 1980’s, there were very few breweries left. Allen Winn-Sneath’s Brewed in Canada suggests there were 40 breweries left in Canada in 1980 and only 8 were not owned by Molson, Labatt or Carling O’Keefe. In Ontario, this meant Amstel and Northern Breweries. I have put the plants on a map so you can visualize what that might have looked like. The vast majority of these plants are now gone. WatPL30858f

This was a pretty good deal for the large brewers. The Beer Store’s organization is such that it works in your favour if you are a very large company. The fact that your beer can only be sold in predetermined locations and that the organization that runs those locations stocks those stores from centralized warehouses means that you don’t have to pay for delivery, storage or a sales force. It’s a gigantic savings. The large breweries don’t generate profit from owning and running The Beer Store and this is something critics frequently fail to understand. The monopoly is not profitable for the owners because it extracts profit on sales. It is profitable for the owners because it saves a frankly ridiculous amount of money on outlay. Large brewers don’t have to pay for a labour force for sales and delivery in the way you might have to in a completely privatized market.

The problem is that the beer industry doesn’t work the way it did in 1980 and never will again. The breweries that operated in 1980 were all capable of producing well over 300,000HL of beer at once. The largest craft breweries in Ontario at the moment hover around 75,000HL for tax reasons. There are currently 220 craft breweries extant or in planning over on the Mom and Hops directory. If you would like to visualize what that looks like, here is a map that was put together for me by a talented young geographer named Kevin Roy. (He would like me to tell you that the brewery data came from the Mom n Hops Brewers Directory 4.0 in March, and the population data is calculated from Statscan’s 2011 Census of Canada.)

CraftBrewing wGraphicsCited

The high point for Canadian beer consumption was 1978. We drank 106.5 litres of beer each. We’re currently down to about 64 litres a piece. That’s about 42.5 litres of beer per person less. That volume loss did not hurt craft brewers. Many of them didn’t exist yet. The large brewers lost that volume. They have shut down plants in Barrie and Etobicoke and Edmonton and Halifax and bottling lines in Vancouver. They lost 40% of their volume in 36 years and that’s terrible.

The truth of the matter is that The Beer Store is losing. Look at this polling data that Lorne Bozinoff at Forum Research was good enough to run for me last spring. People under 45 are equally likely to buy beer at the LCBO and at The Beer Store. The LCBO didn’t really sell beer until the mid-1980’s when The Beer Store had a month long lockout and managed to alienate beer drinkers province wide. Since then they have lost 50% of their customer base in what is practically a monopoly.

Let me say that again. In about 30 years, the large brewers who own the beer store have lost approximately 40% of their volume in sales and 50% of their customer base despite sweetheart deals, lobbying and a practical monopoly. If it were a real company rather than a cost offsetting device operated for the benefit of the owners, a series of CEOs would have had to resign in disgrace.

In contrast, there are the small breweries. Every year we get statistics from the LCBO about how much the Craft Beer retail segment has grown. The number is usually something like 30%. The total number is 575% since 2006. In truth, we don’t know how much Ontario Craft Beer could have grown if there had been an equitable distribution system for it. It has grown as much as the LCBO has allowed it to grow, so the 30% average growth is sort of nonsensical. The number could probably have been much larger than that except that there are really significant problems.

If the 1980 version of the beer industry was built around monolithic brands, the current model is built around niche products. To extend the metaphor from a previous blog post, we’ve got a distribution system designed for Network TV but what people are increasingly interested in is Netflix.

If you are a small brewer, you have a couple of options for distributing your product. First of all, you can attempt to get into the LCBO. The LCBO is not designed for beer sales. It does not have anything like the shelf space required to stock all of the products submitted. The LCBO is not obligated to stock your product. In fact, the shelves are so crowded at the LCBO that it is a nightmare attempting to find anything in a store. Sometimes, instead of your product, they will stock Norwegian Barleywine for no discernable reason.

This one. This cack was on the shelves for nine months in some stores whle other products were sku'ed out.

This one. This cack was on the shelves for nine months in some stores whle other products were sku’ed out.

Any brewery can get into The Beer Store. All you have to do is pay a listing fee for each packaging iteration of your product and then pay a shelving fee for each store. It’s about $30,000 dollars for 100 stores for a single packaging format. If you’re a small brewery starting out, that’s an employee that you are going to have to forego. Additionally, since you are a small brewery, you probably make seasonal products. It would be ridiculous to pay $30,000 to shelve a beer for three months in a retail setting that discriminates against your product. Even Moosehead’s Hop City brand doesn’t do it and they have deep pockets. Barking Squirrel may be at the Beer Store but all the rest of their beers are LCBO only. (Next time you see an Oland brother making an argument in favour of The Beer Store feel free to ask him about this in a loud and vocal manner.)

If you’re a small brewery, there’s no guaranteed avenue of sales that doesn’t force you to pay your largest competitors. People have been making this argument for a very long time. It is not new information.

The difference is this: There are 220 small breweries out there already existing or in planning. There will be more. Each of these represents a business that is going to be someone’s life’s work. Even a very small brewery probably employs four or five people. If you look at the 2014 map from earlier, you’ll see they are everywhere. Until the last couple of years this wasn’t the case. Just about every city in Ontario now has a brewery. More than ever before, the public is identifying with the small brewers because they are their neighbours. The media coverage of the problem is not slowing down even a little and everyone is more aware of The Beer Store’s foreign owned monopoly than they were five years ago. The public is increasingly aware that small businesses owned by Ontarians are suffering at the hands of foreign owned companies.

Those are small businesses that probably employ a couple of thousand people directly and which are going to grow over the course of the next twenty to thirty years. They provide jobs upstream and downstream. More than that, they provide employment locally rather than in a central location. They provide a sense of local pride and let’s not forget those tourism dollars.

The large brewers, on the other hand, are shrinking. They are selling less volume and all you need to do is google Molson or Labatt and “layoffs” to see how they have been trying to achieve more with less over the last half decade.

If we don’t change the system in the near future we force the small businesses which have the potential to grow over the next twenty years and generate tax revenues and employment to stagnate by forcing them to compete in a business model that was outdated by the mid 1990’s. The large brewers will continue to shrink and as their size dwindles so will their ability to generate tax revenue for the province. Additionally, very large craft breweries from the United States who are not hampered by distribution as restrictive as we have here will be able to buy shelf space in The Beer Store eating away at both ends of the Ontario beer market from the middle. Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Lagunitas, Stone are names that beer drinkers may welcome but which both Ontario’s brewers and government should fear.

If we do change the system in the near future, we have the prospect of the growth of small breweries over the next twenty years. We have the employment that they create and the revenue that they generate. We might have an export manufacturing industry. The American breweries are coming, but with Ontario’s small breweries freed up to compete, they will mostly take share away from the large brewers who are already losing.

Now, if I were a recently elected Premier of Ontario who had made it into office attached to a large scandal and it was being intimated by the Toronto Star (who recently brought Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi down and who do not ever seem to give up) that lobbying is the only reason The Beer Store continues to exist, I would think very seriously about pulling the trigger on The Beer Store’s situation. We are very nearly at the point where it would pay off as both a short term strategy for economic protectionism and as long term investment.

The majority of the public is in favour of getting rid of it and it can actually be spun as a long term economic strategy. What a PR coup it would be to be seen to be investing in the future of Ontario instead of maintaining a status quo which provides dwindling benefit and does not exist to serve consumers! The best part is that there is no reason not to go ahead with Ed Clark’s plan to bleed The Beer Store for a hundred million a year while reforming the system outside The Beer Store. If they complain of unfair treatment, remind them that they had 30 years to change their model and that they spent that time replacing dusty bottles with an iPad.

For the first time since I started writing, I’m actually optimistic that we’re within about 12 months of significant change.

Why Budweiser Lost

(Ed. Note: Periodically, I’m called upon to do an interview on the radio or in print about Craft Beer. The question that comes up most frequently is really two questions: “Why Craft Beer? Why now?” I do not think that I have ever been able to properly answer that question to my satisfaction, but I’ve got an analogy that I feel will explain a lot.)

If you are my age, you will probably have heard from one or other of your parents about seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964. Everybody watched Ed Sullivan. 73 million people in the United States saw that show. This is because there were three national broadcasters that produced content. Sure, you had a regional affiliate station that might have had its own material during the day or just before the test pattern aired, but they carried popular programming. ABC, NBC, CBS.

"Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we'll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World's Biggest Nun."

“Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we’ll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World’s Biggest Nun.”

Watching TV was a passive act. The total extent of your choice was between three content providers.

After Prohibition in the United States there were not a lot of breweries left. You have probably seen the chart from the Brewer’s Association. In fact, here it is.18qfbm2tf864mjpg

The number of breweries dwindled and dwindled, but what was really happening was that you were left with three breweries that counted on a national scale. Oh, sure, there were regional brewers that produced beer, but for the most part people drank the national brands right up until they saw the test pattern and heard the national anthem. Bud, Miller, Coors.

Drinking beer was a passive act. You had a little more choice than you had with TV stations, but probably less in terms of content. It was going to be pretty standard lager.

In 1976, Ted Turner started the first Cable TV channel. Suddenly Americans all over the country could get programming from Atlanta. Jack McAuliffe started one of the first modern era microbreweries in the form of the New Albion Brewery. Both of these events alerted people to the possibilities and alternatives that were available.

By 1982, there had been a small shakeup in the beer industry. 1977 saw the advent of Miller Lite and by 1982 Budweiser had responded with Bud Light. The competition had provided what would be the peak years for alcohol consumption in the United States. In 1981, Americans consumed 2.8 gallons of ethanol per capita. The 1982-83 TV season set a record as well. On February 28th, 1983, 121.6 million people tuned in to watch Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, the final episode of MASH. When that episode aired, better than half of the people in the country watched it.

When you have success like that, you don’t forget it. Both beer and television became obsessed with the high water mark.

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980's, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980’s, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

There was a statistic released the other day in the Atlantic Monthly that states that 44% of people aged between 21 and 27 have never tried Budweiser. If you’re 27, you were born at the peak of Budweiser’s sales. In 1988, between Budweiser and Bud Light, they shipped 61 million barrels of beer. Everyone seems genuinely shocked by the loss of market share for the Budweiser brand, but they shouldn’t be.

The curse of network TV is the fact that it is a top down non participative media. It broadcasts, but it doesn’t involve the audience. Any system of that kind must by default believe the following about the content they produce and about the audience watching at home: “They will watch it because it is on.” Because of the practical cultural monopoly network TV had before the advent of cable, there was a period of time where they were right to think that. It was the reality. The sheer number of eyes watching the screen deluded networks into thinking that they were making a quality product, but prime time was never about quality. Prime time was about number of viewers watching. It was about the medium and not the message.

Take a look at this ad from Budweiser in 1995 that ran during the Superbowl. It involves three frogs each mouthing a syllable of the name of the beer. They are performing this unnatural behaviour because they are facing a giant neon sign for Budweiser. People complained because they said the frogs appealed to children. In truth, they should have complained because the advertisement is an exercise in recursion. The subtext here is that we are the frogs and that we will buy Budweiser because we are staring at the giant neon sign. At no point is beer shown. At no point is the quality of the beer mentioned. At no point are we told anything about the product. We are merely told that when faced with advertising for Budweiser, we will become obsessed with it and purchase some Budweiser. It is a complete abstraction. This was considered by many to be the high point for advertising, by the way.

Network TV was selling the idea that on Thursday at 8:00 PM there is a show that everyone will want to see. It will define your life. It will be talked about at the office the next day by the water cooler. You better not miss that show if you want to be perceived as normal by your colleagues. The original shows that you had to see in the 1993 lineup? Wings and Mad About You, for God’s sake. The important thing wasn’t the content. It was that you were watching


They were promoting normalcy as a standard in an era of increasing complexity. It’s one of the reasons that so much of the advertising around beer was done during the Superbowl. It has the largest audience of any annual televised event. Consider this 2000 ad campaign for Budweiser. Within the context of the ad there is an unspoken tautology: If you are watching the game you must be having a Bud. What is a game without a Bud? It is apparently not a Whassupable moment. The role of the beer drinker in the commercial is that of an automaton programmed for consumption.

“What up B?”

“Watching the game, having a Bud.”


It is the jargon of the group, but it’s also a binary evaluation of a statement. It does not matter that the beer is any good. It only matters that there is beer and that the beer is Bud. Normalcy is achieved by the meeting of these criteria.

Craft Beer and Cable TV were busy in the 1980’s. We got Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company out of the microbrewery movement and we got MTV, FOX, UPN, A&E out of Cable TV. In a sense everything done by Craft Beer and Cable TV is alternative programming. Their larger counterparts were able to be dismissive of them.

Consider a major network’s view of MTV. It was started by that guy from the Monkees who wore a toque! We tried Mike Naismith on TV and he didn’t work. We can safely ignore MTV. It’s practically the same with Sierra Nevada. They’re brewing a Pale Ale! We tried Cascade hops in our beer and it didn’t work. We can safely avoid Sierra Nevada.

One of the failings of a major network is that it is locked into the power structure that brought it to the dance. NBC must compete with ABC and CBS. Not only does the network have to fill the programming, but they’ve got to compete against the other networks. If NBC has Friends, you’d better believe ABC and CBS are looking for an equivalent. If CBS has a procedural police drama, NBC and ABC are going to look for something with even more blacklight. At some point in TV history some executive said the following sentences: “What? They’ve got Scott Baio as a babysitter/housekeeper? Get me Billy Connolly!” Eventually, what you end up with a series of television properties that have nothing in common except for the fact that they all somehow involve Richard Belzer as detective Munch.

Here’s a short list of the properties that Budweiser launched between 1982 and 2014. The other brewing companies had equivalent properties or quickly struggled to find them.

1982 Bud Light
1989 Bud Dry
1994 Bud Ice
1994 Bud Ice Light
2004 Bud Extra
2005 Budweiser Select
2008 Bud Chelada
2008 Bud Light Chelada
2008 Bud Light Lime
2008 Budweiser American Ale
2009 Bud Light Golden Wheat
2012 Bud Light Platinum
2012 Bud Light Lime-A-Rita
2013 Budweiser Black Crown
2013 Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Raz-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Mang-O-Rita


If you’re a major network, you’re not allowed to care that Fox has The Simpsons. The Simpsons is the only thing keeping Fox afloat in their early days. They may as well be UHF except for The Simpsons. Remember Herman’s Head? You’re not allowed to compete against the little guys because the portion of the market that they’re going for is so small.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman's Head? They are. It's ridiculous.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman’s Head? They are. It’s ridiculous.

The problem is that the portion of the market that the little guys control tends to grow over time. By the time that Budweiser is broadcasting the Whassup commercials during the Superbowl in 2000, two really important things have happened. First of all, people’s trust in mainstream news is replaced by their trust in Jon Stewart’s daily show. Secondly, HBO has started broadcasting The Sopranos.

The strength of craft beer and also cable TV is the fact that it is not a dictatorial medium. Network TV like Big Beer assumed that you would purchase whatever they put out. It’s a good assumption because there was no competing content. As soon as there is competing content that you have the option to engage with, you’re faced with choice. Choice means that you are engaged in a dialogue with the producer. In order for you to choose alternative content, it has to be either of higher quality or fill some kind of specialty niche. Cable TV and Craft Beer frequently perform both of those tasks. You are still paying for a product, but the product is far more likely to conform to your taste than to attempt to dictate it.

What eventually happened to TV is practically the same as with Beer. Instead of remaining a broadcast medium where one product is available at a time, we’ve reached a point where most of the content that was ever made is now available if you know where to look. In the same way that you can get classic TV shows on Netflix, the back catalogue of beer made in the 20th century is largely available and it exists alongside new products that are being released into the market.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word "Zombie" in the name.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word “Zombie” in the name.

This requires a phenomenal amount of choice on the part of the consumer. If you recall the Budweiser advertisement with the frogs where they were held captive by the giant neon sign, that model is no longer really relevant. Currently, the frogs have abandoned monosyllables and are suggesting content they enjoy to each other. In a very real sense we have become both advertiser and consumer of these products.

I’ll prove it to you. When you watched The Wire, you probably did so because your friends were talking about it. Sure it was on HBO, but it was probably on season three by the time you started watching it. You binge watched it. You probably got the box set or watched it on Netflix. Same with True Detective. And Archer. And Downton Abbey. The result is a landscape of people who are building a referential language and bringing more people to these shows.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

We talk about Craft Beer the same way as we talk about shows on Netflix. “Have you tried” and “Is that any good” and, kind of similar to when an actor is in something else “I liked that other beer they did.” We have actually become a distributed advertising model for craft beer because we have self-selected the content and we want to share things we like.

When Budweiser acts surprised that 44% of people 21-27 have never tried Bud, they’d do well to remember those people were born between 1988 and 1994. The eldest of them might be old enough to remember the frogs. The youngest of them might have been coached by their parents to say “whassup” for comic effect at family gatherings. As adults, they have only been able to drink since 2009 in the United States but they’ve been subject to the internet’s media distribution model since they were in middle school. This is a generation for which unidirectional advertising is more or less moot. They grew up fast forwarding through it on their DVRs.

The result for Network TV is that the ratings are never going to be what they were. The networks sometimes try to capture what they think the audience looks like. The Big Bang Theory, for instance, is a broad caricature of the mainstreaming nerd culture that online media portals might have been viewed as. The shows will always lack something because 30 years on the Networks are still worried about filling the 9:00 slot on Thursday. The focus is still on getting the largest audience rather than creating a quality show.

The result for big beer is that sales and market share are never going to be what they were in North America. People are drinking less overall and their attention is split amongst 3000 US and 450 Canadian breweries. Something like Budweiser Black Crown, for instance, is a broad caricature of what craft brewers are doing and it lacks authenticity because the goal is sales rather than quality. Craft beer has succeeded to the extent that it has because people have got used to curating their own experience out of a practically impossible to navigate landscape of options. In that situation quality products tend to win out.

December Book Reviews: The Handbook of Porters and Stouts

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This does not stop other people from delivering books for him to review even while he signs his own book at Christmas Markets. In order to continue to reduce the stack, he must review. Get some.)handbook-of-porters-stouts-9781604334777_lg

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts is a good sign for the resurgence of local brewing across the world. If we’re to take it that the medium is the message, the fact that there is enough variety in brewing to support such a book is a positive signpost for the future.

Written by Josh Christie and Chad Polenz, the Handbook makes good use of a number of expert contributors including short essays from Stephen Beaumont, Martyn Cornell, Greg Clow and (perhaps in a sign of the times) a Buzzfeed style listicle from Joshua Bernstein about Extreme Beers. While there is a great deal of information about the history of Stout and Porter and the nuanced differences between the styles and various subsets of each style, that’s not what this book is really intended for.

It’s an attractively bound hardcover volume with bright, colourful illustrations on every page. It’s vibrant and entertaining to look at and makes good use of the variety of plumage that each brand displays. Let’s face it, the special edition Imperial Stouts do tend to have some pretty entertaining labels and stories to go with them.

The ideal audience for this book is the drinker who realized just last weekend that they like dark beer. This is shock and awe for someone who didn’t realize beer could do that. It reminds me of leafing through the ads at the back of All About Beer when I was 20 or so and thinking “wait, there’s all that stuff out there?”

The draw for the intermediate beer drinker is the fact that beer writers from across North America have been enlisted to provide a larger context than would have been possible otherwise. Josh Rubin, Julia Burke, Darren Packman, Campbell Gibson and Zach Fowle have all contributed to the book in order to give it the depth of a proper ornithological birdspotter’s reference.

This book will highlight beers worthy of your attention that you might have missed otherwise.

That said, there are a few issues with balance that are understandable in a work of this size and shape. Each of the contributors has a different style and each listing might differ in length from a single paragraph to two pages. Some might give cursory description of what might be considered a classic in a style while others might tell the story of the brewery. Does that give it novelty and vary the pace or does it simply seem uneven?

There is also, despite the recruitment of far flung experts, a tendency to focus on beers from New England and the Great Lakes region. Polenz is based in Albany, New York so it’s easy to see why the context on those entries is somewhat deeper. (I do not know that this is an actual criticism. Some of those beers look pretty good and I’m sure that if I were in charge of a book like this it would probably be Ontario heavy. We all gotta be from somewhere.)

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts would be a good gift for a novice or intermediate craft beer drinker this holiday season. It succeeds admirably at its Pavlovian primary objective: Getting you excited to drink some Stouts and Porters. It made me want a Narragansett.