Sawdust City’s situation provides a revealing look at the current beer retailing situation in Ontario. Here we have a brewery riding the crest of the current wave of craft beer’s expansion and they’re handicapped somewhat by the market. I’ll explain what I mean.
At the moment, there is one product from Sawdust City available for retail according to the LCBO’s website. Lone Pine IPA is available at approximately 80 locations. Gateway Kolsch and Ol’ Woody Alt are at Beer Store locations primarily, but only a dozen or so dotting Toronto and cottage country. The difficulty is that there are five products in the core lineup and two of them aren’t on shelves.
That means that the normal system upon which a craft brewery operates doesn’t work in Ontario. Like it has been said before, the LCBO is hurting for shelf space and while they’ve been very good about getting some of the more interesting Sawdust beers on shelves they can only do so much. The Beer Store doesn’t promote product at all and it costs money to list there. It would cost a lot to list all five products and they would be stocked on a shelf towards the back, probably behind an electrified puddle with a yellow slippery when wet sign.
Ideally, what we want is a store where the people who run the store have the ability to decide independent of the pressures of ownership or market saturation what they would like to stock. Cross selling might do it, but so might grocery sales. Convenience store sales would probably mean higher turnover non-craft items, but it would still be a step in the right direction.
I almost never write about the Ontario problem from a critical standpoint and I notice that no one has been writing about it at all for a little while now. It’s all speculation, what might happen.
Look at it this way: Sawdust City has never made a bad beer as far as I’m aware. Some of the beers that they’ve made have been excellent. The Lone Pine IPA is a perpetual favourite of beer nerds around the province (Check out ratebeer! They got love from Kowloon!) and the one offs have been increasingly impressive. They’re doing interesting high quality seasonals and they’re growing. They’re at 3000HL now and they’ve grown 500% every year they’ve been in business. They could make 9000HL easy in the next five years and produce world class beer.
But this is Ontario and simply being excellent won’t cut it. Sawdust City, by the way, is not the only example like this I could name. It’s a widespread problem and the truth is excellence shouldn’t matter. There shouldn’t be the barrier to trade that currently exists even for acetaldehyde laden piss-swilling frat boy chug beer. We can ride the enthusiasm from the US only so long before it swallows up the market and drives local brewers out of business.
Look at what the future could be:
Sawdust sent over some samples of the beer they’ve released to bars this season and before I tell you about that I want to tell you something so you know I’m not blowing smoke up your ass: I walked eight and a half kilometers to the Only Café for a pint of Twin Pines Double IPA the other week. I am an out of shape beer writer with joints that pop with the frequency of a left turn indicator and a currently dormant allergy to cold weather. I actually believe the things I’m saying here.
The Twin Pines Double IPA is incredibly solid. It’s brilliantly citric with this bittersweet quinine-y Tonic Water zap through the middle that just dries out down the palate. That sounds odd, but the grapefruity bitterness comes through at that level and I think it would be difficult to fit more grapefruit in the can. There’s No Way of Knowing is something of a departure as a can conditioned Saison. It smells like a spring day down in Toronto’s ravines. That pervasive aroma that comes with shoots breaking through the earth comes from lemon verbena, the floral Australian Ella hops and the grassy, peppery yeast. That’s entirely apropos as it’s intended as a light, Springy frippery of a beer. One of the things that I appreciate here is the fact that Sawdust isn’t playing silly buggers about the process or ingredients. It’s all listed on the can.
A word about Can Conditioning. This is very much like bottle conditioning and the process will be entirely familiar to you if you’ve done homebrewing. Essentially, the beer is racked off the hop and yeast trub in the fermenter in to the packaging tank and a mixture of priming sugar and fresh yeast is added to it. It is identical to dosing a batch of homebrew for bottling except for the fact that you can’t afford a canning line. The cans sit for 21 days and carbonate and the brewers check periodically to ensure that they’re fermenting properly. This gives the brewers something to do and prevents them from loitering on street corners.
Also can conditioned is The Princess wears Girl Pants. It’s inspired by Belgian Golden Ales. If the Princess wears Girl Pants, she also pirouettes in combat boots because the flavours here will stomp on your tongue. The mixture of hops is interesting with New Zealand Motueka, Australian Galaxy and some Amarillo just to bridge the pacific. This is a good strategy because you get a lot of orchard and tropical fruit notes out of those hops and they’re healthily represented here. There’s passion fruit and citrus but the overwhelming impression because of the beer’s colour is ripe August peaches.
Last year’s version Princess & Girl Pants meet the O.D.B. is both barrel aged and can conditioned. It’s the same basic beer but aged in Gamay and Chardonnay barrels. It gets that oaky, buttery mouthfeel but for my taste is overdone. No one has been bludgeoned by barrels this much since the Donkey Kong murders of 1983. I asked Sam via email whether he might consider taking it down by about twenty percent next time around and he said: “honestly, subtlety is not my best quality. I think I’ve demonstrated that, time and time again. I’m more blunt force trauma than well executed crime of the century.” Sam Corbeil, ladies and gentlemen; The brewer most likely to be blocking traffic on the 400 sans pants.
The important thing is this: With a single wave of reforms these beers will be available in more places. Maybe we get growler fills. Maybe we get cross-selling. Maybe we get the ability to compete with the US craft breweries before they sweep in and buy more shelves. Sawdust City would get the ability to sell their entire core lineup in one store! Mirable Dictu!