There has been much made lately of a talk that was given at the Toronto Festival of Beer by Steve Beauchesne from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company. It was titled “What If Ontario Had A Beer Revolution” and you can find the full text of it over at Steve’s Blog. Now he’s not talking about walking around with a little red book of beer ratings or some kind of guerilla incursion on the Labatt facility. He’s talking about a hypothetical scenario in which half of the beer consumed in Ontario is actually brewed in Ontario by independent brewers. Currently it seems that one of every twenty beers consumed in the province is made by a local independent brewer. According to the figures he has come up with, this would require 315 new breweries to be founded in order to meet the volume necessary to fulfill the criteria that he has set out for the scenario. Steve is quick to point out that it’s not as outlandish as it sounds given that Bavaria has a population roughly the same as Ontario’s and they’ve got 629 breweries.
Look. I don’t mean to be a buzzkill here, but I feel as though I have to point out that some of the math being used is fanciful in the extreme and much of the reasoning is fallacious. Don’t get me wrong. I like the concept of The Ontario Beer Revolution. I consider myself a hatchetman in the fight for better pints of beer. But I’m sitting here thinking to myself things disloyal to our fearless leader. Things like “But surely Bavaria is smack dab in one of the oldest continuous beer cultures in the world and has had hundreds of years to develop?” and “That seems like a lot of breweries for a province with a couple of fairly centralized population hubs” and “What exactly is the timeline for this explosion of industry and where the hell are you going to get 315 brewers on short notice?”
It’s all very well to dream of a future in which Ontario is a world leader in brewing, but there’s a problem: You can’t drink possible beers. You need actual beers. To drop some Rumsfeldian science on you: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Think of it this way: There are about 40 independent brewers in Ontario. The first one was founded in 1984. It would not be entirely disingenuous to point out that in 26 years, we have gained approximately 1.53 breweries per year. (In reality they get founded in fits and starts. I seem to recall 1996-1999 held a larger than average concentration.) At this rate it would take 205 years, 10 months to open 315 breweries. Of course, you could take into account the idea that some of the existing breweries would expand the volume that they produce, which would be more likely. It would take a considerable amount of pressure off of the theoretical brewers who are plonking down their capital in order to start up their own breweries. Let’s assume that the existing breweries expand their production to 120 million litres a year. In that case we would only need 245 new breweries, which would only take 160 years of continuous Maoist style revolution during which time no breweries would fail or be allowed to close or merge.
By the year 2170, we could have quite the selection of beers. Of course, by then Zefram Cochrane will have invented the warp drive, initiating first contact with the Vulcans and Ontario brewers will have to compete against imports from the Romulan Empire.
Let’s talk sensibly and set a reasonable goal: How would it be possible to triple the market share that exists for local independent brewers in Ontario in the next ten years? I think that’s a modest and fairly reasonable goal considering that it might actually be possible within our lifespan. Let’s use the basics of Steve’s math to lay out a scenario: 120 million litres of beer a year produced by the 40 or so brewers that already exist and by new breweries which will begin to crop up with more frequency over the next several years. The Niagara College program is important to factor in here, since brewers don’t just spring fully formed into the world. You have to assume that there will be maybe 10 graduates per year starting two years from now who will stay in Ontario (currently 6/24 students are international and are unlikely to remain in the province after graduation and I think another 8 will probably end up in the states.) So, increase the number of breweries founded per year to say… 2. By 2020 that would give you 120 million litres a year produced by 60 breweries. You’d average 2 million litres of beer per brewery per year, barring closures of breweries or unhealthy local competition between those 60 breweries.
That’s not a completely unreasonable scenario, but you’ll notice that Steve doesn’t discuss exactly how we’re meant to get to that point in Ontario. The thing is this: All we have to work with to increase awareness and market share are the products that already exist. It’s all well and good to talk about a wonderland of tax benefits and charitable giving in a vacuum, but there are concerns that I have about actually getting people to choose craft beer; for instance you’ll notice that nowhere in the manifesto does it mention what percentage of the 1400 brands of beer would be worth drinking. You have to make people actually want to drink the stuff, and this has to be the immediate focus if Ontario brewers want to get to that point. Much of the time, the desire of the public to actually drink craft beer is taken for granted because most of the discussion that takes place about it is done by people who are already loyal to the concept. That’s not something that you can afford to forget if you’re going to engage in this mental experiment.
I can tell you right now that Steve Beauchesne is on the side of the angels. It’s definitely a good thing to have someone thinking about the big picture, but if there’s going to be a revolution, there needs to be an actual strategy. That strategy will require a studied look at a very simple question that consumers need an answer to: “Why should I drink craft beer?”
I don’t know what the answer is, but I can tell you right now that it doesn’t involve a pie chart.