The pursuit of the new and novel is the hallmark of most craft beer drinkers. We love to find different styles or variations of such and of course, pursue the elusive whales of our dreams. These flights of beer fancy are fun and leave us looking whenever we stop at the Liquor, grocery or Beer stores or the breweries themselves for something we haven't seen before. This is the reason so many of us got into craft beer in the first place, the constant and changing landscape of innovations and ideas drives the need to keep searching for the next thing. While this is what we do most often, we also lean back sometimes to the beers that took us from there to here and enjoy them quietly and in a deep appreciation for what they have brought to our lives. Whether you've been a consumer of craft beer for decades or are just dipping your taste buds in slowly right now, we all have those beers that bring us joy and ones we return to again and again without fanfare but with much love. Some people call these "Go-To" or regular rotation beers but I like to think of them as "Comfort Beers" and with good reason, they give me just that. A Comfort beer is trustworthy, never wavering from the original intent and always reliable. It delivers what you remember and what you enjoy with equal aplomb and even if it's been a while and your palate has changed or improved, it still gets you smiling when you take that first sip. You find yourself buying a few cans of this beer every so often just because and it can surprise you when you haven't had it in a while because it continues to be a consistently beautifully crafted ale. It isn't flashy or trendy and for some of them, even well known, it can seem like they have been missing from your life for far too long. You know them and you love them for exactly what they are.
While each of us has our own version of a Comfort Beer, the hallmarks of consistency, quality, reliability, availability and trust play huge factors as often times new beers can miss the mark or leave us wanting as brewers change and challenge the notion of what a certain style of beer should be. For me, a true Comfort Beer is as close to the style points as possible and delivers them in balance between all flavours and aromas. It also has to be readily available all year long as a one off or seasonal release may not be there when the notion hits you and you crave the familiar. Although having said that, I do count on a few releases every year to join me as I roll along through life like long distance love. What hits the mark for one person will not for another but here are a few pints that you should pick up again or maybe for the first time to enjoy and reflect.
Nickel Brook Brewing Headstock IPA - The OG of West Coast style IPAs for me. Big citrus pith and pine with a toasted malt body that is all about balance. Wellington Brewery Imperial Russian Stout - The only year round Imperial stout in Ontario. As a slow sipper at the beginning of the day or the last pint of the night, it is perfect. Amsterdam Brewing Boneshaker IPA - The beer that taught me citrus pith and pine are good things. It's big brother Fracture is a yearly Comfort beer that never disappoints. Steamwhistle Pilsner - Legendary quality. The original crossover beer for so many of us and a ubiquitous part of our craft beer life that appears again and again, especially in summer. Great Lakes Brewery Canuck Pale Ale - That most Canadian of Pale Ales. Available fresh and with an unmatched consistency of taste. Clifford Porter - One of a handful of beers that sets the benchmark for any that come after it. Collective Arts Ransack the Universe IPA - My first love. A tweak has developed it once again into a must have on a regular basis. Side Launch Wheat - My favourite straight up wheat ale. Perfect in every way. Muskoka Brewery Mad Tom IPA - A cottage take on the classic West Coast IPA. It hits different hop notes than most classic IPAs and that brings me joy. Twice as Mad Tom is delightful too. Sawdust City Brewing Lone Pine IPA - A brilliance of balance. Pine, resin, grapefruit and more citrus check all the boxes. Twin Pines...oh baby.
While I am sure I could list a dozen more and that your own personal list of Comfort Beers may contain a completely different set of beers, the intention is the same. Identifying the beers you trust and know will always deliver what you ask of them, Finding your way back home after an adventure and enveloping yourself in the love and spark of what you know and love is a fabulous feeling. Enjoy your summer and remember it's okay to just drink a beer because you know it and enjoy just drinking it. Life is all about chasing the dream, but sometimes you just need a break and a Comfort beer should be exactly that.
Iconic Ontario beer retailer that has been around for almost 100 years and it seems that time is drawing nigh for its near monopoly (80%) on beer sales in this province. While the politics behind the recent legislation in Ontario do cause me considerable pause, I wanted to talk about the actual beer problem we have here as opposed to getting weighed down by my personal loathing of our current government. Not to ignore their bread and circuses policy announcements but I am intrigued by what happens either now or in the future when the beer market finally opens up and we see what competition can deliver to Ontarians. First off, a little primer for folks who don't know much about The Beer Store and it's ownership profile. Many think it is like our LCBO, owned and operated by the government with the profit returning to taxpayers fully but indeed it is a mostly (99.8%) foreign owned entity, controlled by Molson-Coors (50.9%), AB-InBev (44.9%) and Sapporo (4.2%) with a sprinkling of almost 30 other brewers from Ontario holding minor stakes. Delivery and distribution is a hallmark of The Beer Store as well as a world class recycling program for all alcohol bottles and cans sold here, saving tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue by dealing with the material instead of local municipalities. Well over 7000 people are employed at this (kind of) not-for-profit organization and while it is true many of the positions are part time, the full time union jobs are well paid and with good benefits.
The monopoly on full case (12/24) sales outside of the actual breweries is but one way the stranglehold of most beer sales in Ontario has been established. Price breaks on larger package purchases encourages consumers to shop for their 24's here as opposed to the LCBO or grocery stores. The mandate of beer neutrality is supposed to help alleviate concerns of smaller brewers about the macro producers dominant position of ownership and from personal, albeit anecdotal, experience, I have found most Beer Store employees to be a good resource when I had questions about something new. Like any retail setting, including craft beer taprooms and the LCBO, some people are just punching a clock for a paycheque and others are passionate about what they are selling. The potential loss of jobs is certainly a large concern, especially for the people I have come to know as friends who work at The Beer Store. Opening up sales at convenience stores is more likely to impact grocery store 6 packs but if they are allowed to sell 12 and 24 packs or have any control over pricing for sales (now controlled through the LCBO), that could change. Whether legislation forces a minimum craft allocation at each convenience store will be interesting to watch but we can hope that some enterprising owners will seize the opportunity and perhaps some of them will see that carrying a wider assortment of craft is good for business. The more likely scenario is the heavy macro sellers (Coors Light, Bud, Canadian, et all) will continue to dominate as an easy pickup when the fridge runs low or you are on your way to party, late and in a hurry. The potential for Craft Beer focused stores like in Quebec or some of the other provinces that operate much differently than we do here is a big plus for many of the people I know. Access to more craft breweries from around the country and the world is considered the end game of any monopoly break up and while the Ontario Craft Brewers Association supports the legislation itself, it is difficult to see them laying out capital to build or own actual locations. Representing less than 30% of craft brewers in the province diminishes their voice a bit but that could change if they begin to offer more access and continue to lobby the government to create looser rules regarding stores, cross selling between breweries and the like. Being able to get a better selection just from around Ontario would be a huge plus, with more than 300+ brick and mortar breweries to choose from as well as even more doing the contract brewing thing. I'm sure the logistics of setting up such a venture would be mind-boggling and expensive and despite my best hopes, I know not everyone would satisfied. The majority of beer drinkers will continue to drink their macro lagers and purchase their 24s each week or so with no hesitation save a sale or giveaway included with purchase. I know this because only 4 years ago I was that guy who's brand loyalty was to whomever would be cheapest or had the coolest thing inside my case to offset a higher price point. I know as well that most craft beer drinkers tend to look for what's new and buy in smaller quantities outside of their own personal favourites that they like to have on hand all the time. Selection, freshness and a knowledgeable staff would be a seriously amazing thing if we can dream. And while I understand the nervous and not altogether unfounded fears of what will happen next, change is coming and we need to look at what we can do with an eye to creating good jobs, better access to great beer and the end to a system that has it's roots at the end of Prohibition. It's time we grew up and took off the chains of the protestant forefathers that ruled Ontario in the 1920s and beyond, we aren't children anymore.
I have no desire to see anyone lose their job but at the same time, the world is a much different place than when this system was set up. The explosive growth of craft beer, spirits, wine and cider demands a new approach to the distribution and selling of alcohol in Ontario. The old ways must be examined, what worked can be integrated into the new system but in a humane and most Canadian way. Working within the framework of existing contracts with an eye to a modern approach to having greater and more convenient access to our favourite beverages is nothing to be done off the cuff, it behooves us to make sure the protections are in place to ensure minors and people who struggle with addiction are not left out of the equation. Craft beer focused stores may be the end game, how we get their will determine just how successful they can be. Just my 2 cents, my personal habits are unlikely to change unless we see a radical shift in who sells what and where. I am cautiously optimistic but hope this conversation isn't used as cover for what has become a dangerously unprogressive government when it comes to important social issues. Do they have the mandate to break a legal contract 6 years before it expires? Is it really about beer? Those questions will have to wait for another post on another day, I'm pretty sure it's beer time now.
We drink beer to enhance our joy or reduce our pain. We drink beer to celebrate our accomplishments or to drown our sorrows. We drink beer and we know things. We drink beer. Life as a beer drinker changes when you discover craft beer. Whether you submerge yourself into the community or just drink and enjoy the different styles and iterations contained therein, you change. Some still drink to excess and some don't. Some write and celebrate with pictures and videos their finds and some don't. Some think the whole thing is puffery and still others are evangelical in their pursuit of the next great beer. I've been on both sides of these equations in my 30 plus years as a consumer of beer and while it is my distinct pleasure every day to open a beer and talk about it, I wonder what it all means as the industry itself morphs and changes with it's growing size and spread. Every new account online and every new convert to craft beer helps grow and enhance our community but what is the end game for it all? Why do we talk and talk about our beer and leave out the fact that it is still about the drink, at the end of the day. It makes us feel good when we have a beer and it makes us feel even better when we have four. It is the alcohol that brings the buzz, while the flavour, texture and other subtle nuances of even the finest of our beers are but a delivery system for the ABV contained within. Do we want to drink to enjoy the beer or do we still seek the simple pleasure of what that warm feeling gives us as we pour another pint? Would we care who makes our beer if it didn't make us feel part of something different and special? I know as I grow older, I feel less like I belong to what is happening in the world. Things change and it can feel like life passes by quicker every year, but when you enter the world of craft beer, you feel like you belong to something timeless. You enter a community trying to be different and focus on what a small, local business can deliver that a giant corporation cannot. We want to try different things in a life that maybe has too much normalcy and routine. We want to feel an escape when the work and family responsibilities take away our feelings of youth and independence. Finding a voice or a niche and surrounding yourself with other like-minded individuals can be comforting and often empowering. Being with a group that thinks like you do is a hallmark of humanity going back to the beginning and like any religion, we often overlook the darker side of what we have wrought. We drink beer because we like how it makes us feel. Or we cannot stop ourselves despite how it makes us feel. My personal relationship with alcohol is complicated and my journey in life is much my own doing. While I was for many years an almost teetotaller, I found no comfort in not having a pint as I do in having one. Perhaps the balance I sought was delivered when craft beer entered my life or maybe I'm just getting older but I have found myself less inclined to overindulge as I used to be. But still I do find myself pouring another pint when the last one should have been just that. I still seek the release of what a few glasses of a strong slow sipper will deliver even as I think I know exactly how much I can consume to achieve that state before I slip off the edge. Ignoring the effects of alcohol by trying to portray what we drink as being a community or art or any other thing we want to call it is to try to pull a veil down that we all see through. Would you drink beer if it didn't give you something more than the flavours you find? I know it isn't something we talk about often but this can be a real problem and one I am guilty of overlooking myself. We drink beer socially or alone, but we do it and we mostly feel good when we do, but some folks are suffering and we need to find a way to address that too. I don't have the answers, I struggle every day with leaning out and back in on what I do to share my own life through beer and wonder if I could be doing more to lift the conversation to a higher level. I want to make the world a better place and with craft beer I always felt that was possible. I love being part of this thing we have happening, even if I don't always feel like I belong. It is a special place and time but one we must still try to be honest about, at all times and at all points. I drink and I know things. The time to start talking about them is now.
The nexus for the craft beer revolution for many people happens at home or at a friends place when they try something new and different. The spark may happen at a random event like this or when that leap of faith occurs and you take from it a fire that builds slowly and steadily. But for many people what cements their transition from macro to independent craft beer is most likely a visit to a certain taproom that propels them forward into a world they didn't know existed. A few weeks ago, I took my brother in law Cam to a few of my favourite stops in Toronto while our wives went to see Ellen. Starting at Muddy York, a place we frequent on a fairly regular basis, I began to see the taprooms I had come to know and love in a different light. Watching someone else soak in the atmosphere we may have become accustomed to and seeing the wheels spinning on what was happening was inspiring. It made me think of how far we have come in a few short years and what generated that transition. From décor to personalities and of course, the beer, I could start to understand the pull of the taproom and where it was becoming so much more than just a place to pick up new or favourite beers. Most beer drinkers are not craft beer drinkers. Whether from habit, disdain for the new or unknown or just plain indifference, the market we live in, while intense and growing, is mostly unknown to the larger beer drinking public. They have little interest in our squabbles about macro versus craft and even if they are into the craft beer drinking, it is merely as a consumer, not an adherent to some unknown principles of independence and creativity. They just wanna drink some damn good beer and enjoy themselves. We become entrenched in our little world and spending some time with people who enjoy craft beer but are not involved in the ups and downs of the daily movements and social constructs of the industry is eye opening to say the least. Things we think are huge issues do not even begin to resonate with them. They buy new beers all the time and if they like them, buy again. Brand loyalty isn't a real issue as it's a big section of new stuff to try and the occasional stop in a brewery on a Saturday drive out with the family. They are not invested in the "battle" we fight every day of corporate beer versus independent beer and our squabbles about this beer or that being off flavoured or over priced doesn't even reach their ears. The trials and tribulations of our tiny corner of the beer aisle aside, the thing I saw that resonated with me the most was how exposure to one or two really well run taprooms can change peoples perceptions on a dime. Talking on Twitter about this, I was a little surprised by the response I got when I asked people about that particular visit to a brewery that turned them into craft beer drinkers. Everyone had their own reason for falling in love but the driving force behind a lot of the talk was the people who worked at each spot and the beer that grabbed their attention. From small out of the way places like Killanen up towards Owen Sound to craft giants like Amsterdam, Great Lakes and Sawdust City, people were passionate about their first loves. The one that gave you a glimpse behind the curtain to a world where beer wasn't just a 24 and a hangover. It could be a place to hang out, bring the kids and the dog and enjoy a beer while everyone listened to a local band play and a food truck sat out front for snack time. It could be a hub for groups to connect and help spread the word for worthy causes and maybe a home away from home for someone in need of a break from it all. It in time replaces the local pub, never a real kid friendly place to be fair, with one where strollers and talks of favourite hops go hand in hand. Paint nights, comedy, activism and social gatherings all help to convert a casual fan into a long time one and bring forth a new and wonderful feeling of community and ownership that never existed in their beer drinking lives before. The impetus lies with us, the lovers of independent craft beer to help keep open the doors and make room at the table for everyone who wants to sit down. We must continue to strive to be better than what came before us and make it so that whenever someone comes into our favourite brewery, they too can experience what we felt on that day that changed us forever. It only takes one bad experience to turn someone away and it is a real shame when we lose people who could otherwise be a part of growing what we love. Make time to explore your favourite places with a friend or family member who expresses an interest and help make the revolution spread.
Life is never simple and each day I pour a beer and talk about for a little while to help me sort it all out. It has brought me much joy but also something to ponder about where I am headed next. With the rise in people doing the Dry January and now the Canadian Cancer Society's Dry Feb fundraiser (link here) that some of my beer friends are going to be starting today, I felt like I should take a moment and pose some questions to myself as I try to better understand what the last 3+ years of my life have been about. After more than 3500 beer reviews and almost 1000 videos, this blog and the countless tweets, am I ready to step back?
The American beer writer Norman Miller (The Beer Nut) posted his final column (link here) back in late November talking about having to quit writing about and even drinking beer because he knew his consumption was slowly killing him. A wickedly insightful and self aware post that has been sitting with me for almost 3 months as I take a serious look at what I do and why I continue to do so.
Should I take a break? From craft beer? From social media? From it all...?
In his column, Norman talks of drinking 5 or 6 pints every weekend day and then that even became most Thursdays. Like me, he struggled with his weight and although I have yet to end up in the hospital with stomach issues, I feel what he was saying deeply in my heart. While my own largeness has been with me my whole life, the last year and a half saw me go to a number that really scared me...but still I go on and I wonder why.
Because he is not me. I don't go out and drink with people, it is a by product of anxiety and just plain work that gets in my way. But that "Guy's Night" mentality is done for me and that has removed some of what would cause me to pound beer after beer. I don't drink more than two or three beers most nights and to be honest, even that has dropped to one after I switched jobs and felt a little more like myself after walking away from a toxic environment.
But even a beer or 2 every day may be too much and after over 1100 days straight of being the daily beer guy, is it time to stop?
I considered a Dry January, or even the Dry Feb with it's charity aspect to end my important only to me streak but I held back...because it isn't the beer at all that I fear. It is who I was before all this began. That guy was not ending up anywhere but in rehab or dead and I still believe to this day that finding craft beer saved my life.
I used to drink a lot. 12 to 16 beers a day was not uncommon. usually late at night when I got home from work and alone. I will not mince words and say I was after anything more than a good, blackout drunk and to be quick about it. After years of chasing that particular ghost, I found craft beer and before I knew it, everything had changed. I found a voice, I rediscovered my love of writing and I began to feel the dynamic shift in my relationship to alcohol. To be sure I still felt the siren call of the blackness, but I was no longer held captive by it.
As the last 3 years will attest, I have had slip ups and bad weeks where I definitely drank too much, like almost anyone who drinks does. The difference now was that I knew it and was active in trying to stop, each time a lasting less than the one before it. Now if I have four beers in one sitting, I'm falling asleep in my chair. I would rather have one beer and talk about it, what's happening in the world or my life than get hammered and that is why I won't be stopping any time soon. It isn't a problem for me, despite my often misplaced jokes about getting drunk or wanting to be wasted all the time. It is a satire on my original persona that inspired the entire Drunk Polkaroo universe that I riff on and enjoy with gusto as my life continues to be redefined every time I write or film a video.
I feel no pressure to review a beer or post every day. I didn't start any of this to just be about beer, it merely grew organically over time into that. I have given some thought to just stopping with social media altogether when I'm having a rough day or getting bombarded with negative comments or sideways slams from people in the digital world. But as an advocate for not just better beer, but mental health, body positivity, inclusivity and just plain being kind to each other, I feel like I am in a good place to keep on keeping on. I recognise not all people are this aware about what they are drinking and there are most assuredly many of us who drink far too much, far too often. I see it and know that many people view me the same way. I get it and do not want to encourage anyone to ignore the signs of trouble in their own lives. It's just beer and if it is causing you to miss work, abuse yourself or those around you or it has stopped being a positive force in your life, then I beg you to seek help. Life should be enhanced by the drinking of beer, not hidden from inside the glass. I am trying to reign in my snarky comments about macro beer and will try to be a more positive force in the world I inhabit by supporting people and initiatives I align with better. I will continue to use these platforms to advocate for the things that matter to me and I will work with those who want to make the world a little better each day. As for Dry February, I love the initiative and it touches all of us as we have all had brushes with Cancer in our lives or those of the people we love. So I will be donating, dollar for dollar, every time I spend money on beer in February to one of my friends campaigns. Check out Mike Burton (link here) or his team Beer Snobs United (link here) and perhaps you too can help out by donating yourself, like me or in your own way. Maybe you're thinking of giving Dry Feb a shot yourself, do what makes you happy I say! Every dollar counts and I know that at least even more good will come from having a beer besides the liquid gold in my glass. Having struggled for years to find my place in this world, I am not going to go gently into that good night but rather I shall continue to try and be a positive beacon of hope and love...and beer! Cheers! Polk
Why poetry? Long ago, I was a rather capable wordsmith. My younger years were filled with awards and citations for my ability to communicate with both the written and spoken word. I was a voracious reader and I enjoyed distilling that information while I was at school to no end. I actually found peace in the pursuit of knowledge until I didn't and then things changed. Part of that life was poems, short stories and other musings but I had long since given up hope of ever rekindling that love of words as the darkness enveloped me and I lost direction with abandon. But of course, you know I found my way back and here we are. The original question remains though, why poetry? It isn't particularly clever and often isn't good, but it is a very large part of how I deal with and process events in my life on a daily basis. I like the way the words make me feel when I can fit them into a pattern and craft a narrative in 280 characters or less, although I often do have to start a three or four tweet thread to accommodate a larger one. The tenor and voice of each poem reflects what is happening to me at that very moment, they do not sit waiting for a particular special time to be published. I don't hoard them and to be honest, they seem to come in bunches and despite the fact that I know they get lost in the void, I would rather they exist that way than in what would feel like a false time to me.
The muse is often beer
Of this I am quite certain
The drunker that I get
The more open the curtain
A world where I can express my inner thoughts with poetry is one where I seem to not be so anxious, so tired and so down. It lifts me in a way that getting drunk used to and when I have gone to long without finding a way to create something from this ordinary life. I sometimes can be crude and other times reflective, but always I seek words that will bring the ravenous beast in my head to heel. It lunges from under my happiness and snaps at my heels as I work to stay one step ahead and above ground. These are not just words and rhyming, they are stanzas that shield me from the worst I have inside me, trying to get out. The flow from line to line and seeking words that work is part of the purity I find when inspired to create. It is never just about what is written, it is the fact that I can write at all that means the most to me.
There are three of us living here. Polk, who lives life through beer. Robert, who works 50+ hours a week to provide for this family and Rob, who is rarely seen and never heard from outside of this house.
I am not suffering a break down or losing my mind, as it were, but rather looking at how compartmentalized my life has become in the last few years. I spent the majority of my adult years wandering through life with little direction, lurching from disaster to disaster and drowning my sorrows nightly in copious amounts of terrible beer and liquor. Things have changed for the better in the last few years but my struggle with alcohol, depression and life in general have only morphed and become more confusing. For most of my life I have been the good time guy, the party dude. I was the one planning and hosting bashes and family events, bringing people together and generally floating through life without much self reflection. My ability to close of parts of my life from others was reflected in my not caring if I was on the slow road to self destruction even as the walls came down around me. I fiddled while my personal Rome burned and it almost consumed me along with it. It wasn't that I didn't care, I am a reasonably intelligent guy and I watched, almost detached, as I careened down a path I didn't want to choose but was drawn to nonetheless. Catching a branch on that hill, craft beer became my hand up, my way out and I scrambled to find my footing as it slowly became more and more who I was. In a positive way, it changed the way I looked at my beer and after a little over 2 years, I have left the darkness behind...I hope. Getting back to the original inspiration for this post, my life has begun to feel even more and more like I am living 3 different lives in 1. When we go to work, we try to put our best self forward. For me it is working with the public and having people I am responsible for that has me putting on that mask every morning and bing the most positive and cheerful fellow you know. I emphasize the bright side in all things and work very hard to make sure that I help bring that kind of energy to my interactions with everyone I meet. I do not allow myself to have a bad day and any negativity must be swept away with humour and a smile. Always the good guy, the day can weigh heavy but when someone is paying you to do a job, that shouldn't matter. Working in an ultra competitive industry with constant pressure to be better, sell more and keep the standards high has it`s pressures but that is Robert`s problem and where we leave them when closing time hits. Coming home leaves me only a few minutes to put everything away in my mind and move into my self for a while. I worry, I vent, I get angry and I let it go. As with the early morning hours before a shift, Rob spends that brief time trying to convince himself that life will be okay, that he can go to work, that the world will not collapse about his ears every single day. He is naturally pessimistic and this is why I spend as little time as possible in this state. It isn't like I switch them on and off but by focusing my energy in a specific direction, I can make that doubting, sad man disappear for a while. Polk is an easy going guy, most of the time. Occasional Twitter rants aside, I maintain a very happy go lucky attitude that looks for the best in people and does it genuinely. I always feel like this is me at my best and strive to put that me out there. Different from work me because there it can be forced and strained to keep my cool, while inside my little world of Polk, I`m actually happy. Craft beer helped me find something inside myself I didn't know existed and while I try to keep that kind of attitude all the time, being that guy can be just as draining as work Robert. Balance in all things is what I seek and while this may be a little tongue in cheek, it feels very real sometimes. But as a way to deal with what life can throw at me and still find some joy after a lifetime of making mistakes, it works and that is what really matters.
10% By itself, not a terrible number. Well, maybe if it was your chances of surviving the year or something like that but saying you spent 10% of your money on something over a full year doesn't sound so bad. Groceries maybe? Sure, that would be a pretty good guess but if you know me you know where all that money went... Craft beer. Yep. I know, right? Wait, you heard I got everything for free and was basically a paid spokesperson or (according to some) a shill? Oh, don't I wish... Numbers Don't Lie Why I thought I should go back through 2018 and see exactly where we spent all of our hard earned cash is beyond me but with the dawn of the new year I guess I hoped it would be beneficial for us to look what we bought and how we could do better when it comes to our finances. But still, the total even shocked me. At that level, we could have enjoyed a vacation somewhere warm a couple times over and still spent less than most people do on beer, with money for Starbuck's coffee every damn day left. How did this happen? To be honest, it kind of crept up on me without me even knowing. We visit a lot of breweries in a month, some for the first time, others because we love returning for the beer and the people but even I was not prepared for just how much money we laid out. So let's break it down and see where we went and how we spent.
we do this often
In 2018 we visited 91 Ontario Craft Breweries, primarily in the first half of the year as the last 6 months were a trying time personally with 2 job changes and some anxiety issues. Of those, their were 22 we went to more than once and 7 we visited more than 10 times. A part of why our number of individual breweries visited was lower last year than the previous one was the 5 Hamilton breweries that I could hit up easily whenever they had a new release available or just wanted some fresh beer made longer trips unnecessary. Collective Arts (25 times), Clifford (23), Fairweather (19), Merit (12) and Grain and Grit (11) make up 90 of the over 220 times we visited a brewery in 2018 or around 40%. Having great beer so close to home made it easy to not go exploring when I wasn't feeling quite like myself.
Collective Arts Ransack the Universe Our most visited brewery in 2018
A lot of numbers and I have no doubt that many people visited more breweries or hit up their locals more than 25 times but it is what it is. To get into what we spent is a little too much but I will use the most extreme example of what this hobby costs us, also taking into account the cost of lodging, food or gas when we travel around Ontario in search of stories to tell and beer to drink.
one of our favourites, Muddy York Brewing on Toronto's East side 10 visits in 2018
Polkapolooza 3 : Rise of Polk 2018
Most of you know we take a week every year, for the last 3 years, to celebrate Ontario Craft Beer with the Polkapolooza tour. This year was the largest and most ambitious as we hit 61 breweries in 7 days from Windsor to Muskoka and all points in between for a total of over 2400 kilometres. We did day trips for most with one overnighter in Windsor mid week. Lodging, food and gas ran us a fairly reasonable $850, not bad when you are travelling from early morning to late at night and need that Timmies to fuel your passion. It was what we spent on beer that caught my eye as I examined our purchases month to month. At just a little over $1060, we perhaps were a little too generous in our support and despite some freebies along the way, we wanted to spread the love and make sure we bought something at each stop. It only averages out to $17 a brewery, but when you're visiting 61 of them, it adds up fast.
a good chunk of Polkapolooza
Now I know a lot of people will be taken aback by spending two grand on a week of driving around visiting breweries but for us it is a passion we have and we enjoy each others company as we travel the long stretches of Ontario's highways. It was a most wonderful vacation filled with new friends, old friends and memories to last a lifetime.
meeting Sam for the first time was amazing
LCBO and Asking my Pals
That one month was a big chunk of what we spent and the 100 plus LCBO visits were perhaps the other. Hitting different ones in the city a couple times a week wasn't uncommon as I sought out new releases and old favourites alike and while I should perhaps stop going in so much, it is still the most convenient way to get beer from further a field and of course a few international gems. My overall average spend was much lower, under $10 for the most part as I usually only bought one or two things.
As I compiled all this data I got curious as to what the beer people around me were spending and I did a Twitter poll and another one on Facebook. The vast majority of beer drinkers who I know tend to fall (they think) into the $100 to $200 dollar a month average when it comes to their beer. Even a decent macro lager consumer is probably at say 2 or 3 cases month and hitting the hundred easily so I am pretty comfortable with that being the average. While I am not comfortable posting the actual total of what we spent because at that point I am pretty sure I would have way too much explaining to do to concerned family members, let's just say I was way above average when it came to monthly expenditures in beer...
Perhaps the only time in my life that I am in the 1%. But what fuelled this mad spending? I have a few thoughts and I know that most of them are about my love of sharing my day with the world. I enjoy the posts I get to make everyday on Instagram and the short videos on YouTube. It is like leaving a part of me that will last long after I have left this earth to say that I was here and I existed. It is my legacy and my way of communicating with a world I often have trouble being a part of. Outside of work and home, I sometimes struggle to go anywhere. Visiting a taproom makes me feel like I am part of something special and it brings me peace to hang out or even stop in for a little bit to just get a few beers for home. I enjoy trying new and unusual beers and while I have gotten better at not buying one of everything when we are at a brewery, I think that is where I could learn a little self control. What I learned and what I hope to do
It would be a lie if I told you I will now totally cut back my beer purchases and pledge to cut back on our trips to breweries. I know myself well enough to know that it doesn't work that way but this exploration of where our money went in 2018 has given me enough pause to see that as part of a new way to approach beer in 2019, I need to add this delectable beverage to the budget and try to stick to it as best I can. I need to learn to just buy the beer that truly interests me and not think I have to one of everything or multiples so I look cool or some other nonsense that pops into my head. I need to drink what's in my fridge and maybe make a little room for new beer. And finally I need to find a way to accept that I am so very lucky to have a good job, an active partner in this and a community that is so much fun to be a part of that I don't have to buy all of the damn beer I come into contact with.
I promise I am looking at myself with a jaded eye after all of my past forays into trying to be moderate but I do have an end game in mind when it comes to saving some beer money for something a little more grand and I hope that goal will help me along the way. Spending a week somewhere with some cold cervezas, warm sun and white sand would be a right proper thing to aspire to and it is just what I am going to do.
The empties most certainly won't pay for that...well, not all of it anyway.
2019 begins and once again we start our year in beer with a look at what we drink while we think. The last 4 years have personally been a tremendous period of exploring and finding exciting, unique craft beers from new and favourite brewers alike, but I was reminded last week of the other part of what we do. Drink those beers that got us here and those we have around almost all the time, or used to. Should we be going back more often to those original and introductory beers? Indeed and we should do it with an eye to seeing just how far we've come as consumers of this wonderful, happy elixir.
Enjoy the Core.
My first craft beer love
We will always persue the new and different, the returning favourites and the one-off collaboration brews but it is the ones we pour week in and week out that we have come to talk about today. While the sheer number of breweries in this province means we are never short of the novel and shiny bright, new beer feel, we have favourites and that is okay too.
1st mad tom, 2014
For me, the word core or flagship can mean a couple of things, especially given that not every beer hits the LCBO and your local craft brewery may have a beer that sticks around most of the time, enough that you have it pretty regularly anyway, and so it is core to you. When talking returning or seasonal beers, these factor into the conversation for the sake of their constantly appearing at a certain time each year to fill in a void in the beer calendar, but For today, let's stick to the beers you can usually count on getting when you want them. The Flagship journey begins with my first favourite beers...
my beer fridge circa 2014
For as long as I can remember I was a Molson guy. My go to beers were almost always a Canadian or (blech) Molson Dry and I was content to sit around, day after day, just pounding back this tasteless, albeit well made and unchanging, macro beer. The odd foray into MGD or Stella when I wanted something fancy was not uncommon, although when a 24 of anything went on sale or had some cool swag, I would have no problem switching allegiance to save a couple bucks or get a new shirt. The market is filled with people like I was, like maybe you were too, buying case after case, unending and uninterested in Craft beer or any other such nonsense. As I started to drink heavily, I drifted to the discount brands to save even more money and increase the stretch of my beer money. Lakeport led to Brava led to Brava Light and that was rock bottom as 6 packs of BL would disappear within minutes and the beer barely registered on it's way down.
Brava Light birthday cake
An actual thing that I used to do
Moving on and up, my trips into craft beer were slow and steady, pushing out the room I once made for the super light and crushable barley pops and I turned to PBR and Old Milwaukee as my own personal core and "cleanser" (what we called the cans we would drink between sharing a new beer) drinks, still loyal to the idea of drinking one thing all the time with little sparks of genius lighting the path far down the line. Slowly the tide turned and despite the Untappd check-ins and badge whoredom, eventually even certain craft beers became regulars amidst the pursuit of the new.
My first loves and pints of much return were toasty and a little bitter as Great Lakes Brewery Pompous Ass and Grand River Curmudgeon gained a foothold in my heart.
I miss this
These were followed by Mill Street vanilla Porter and finally the big and piney Nickel Brook Headstock and Amsterdam Boneshaker before my much beloved Collective Arts Ransack the Universe gave me a hometown option I am still in love with to this day. I am an unabashed west coast loving IPA guy and it all stems from my core fridge beers moving in a slow but steady rise in bitterness. I buy the 1st one and the latter 3 fairly often and indeed in 2018 I talked about core beers over 180 times (out of 976 posts on Instagram) just because they still make me smile when I pour them in my glass. While they are decidedly hoppy in their nature, I love to look at the beers that helped bring to where I am now so I can see how much I've learned and if it is me or they who have changed.
vintage can, beauty beer
Having said all that about my personal trip round the beer world, I was reminded of the core beer and their perceived decline in pursuit of the new when Stephen Beaumont (link here) tweeted about the drop in sales of certain classic American Craft beers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada Pale ale and had the idea of doing a Flagship February, sort of a look back at where we came from and what they meant to us then and now. A fine idea and one I am fully intending to get down with, as it is one I already do on occasion now. But more on that when February gets closer.
all time fave that is always on hand
While I have no doubt market saturation fuels some of that and the sheer rise in options available to beer drinkers at a local level must come into play, I wonder if it is the same here in Canada, specifically Ontario. While I lack the data to say for sure, based on what I see in my extensive feed and the response I get to my own writing about those beers we get all the time, I don't think it is as bad as all that. A world that saw little in the way of choice at the LCBO and no local options would obviously have kept sales of personal staples like Muskoka Mad Tom or GLB's Canuck higher than they are now but that is not only the result of those who pursue what we like to call "Ticking" or checking in on Untappd or any other app for tracking your beer. There are simply more choices and that is excellent for beer drinkers. But still the question remains... Is it a bad thing to want to try and experience new and different beers? Isn't that what attracted us to craft beer in the first place? Innovation and the rise in the number of available options has had to have some impact on core sales but that doesn't mean we don't love them just the same. I seek them out fairly regularly and write about how much I have changed since I first tried them. Often I come to appreciate them far more now that I understand myself and my palate much better after exploring all that has passed through my glass. A look through the many good beer folk I know on social media shows a near constant thread of new beers but an equal number of them enjoying their local or first favourites. We love to share what we enjoy regularly and that is part of what we do on social media. Especially if it is your local craft brewery where you have come to know the people who work there and become a regular at the tap room.
Refilled many times with my favourite beers
So while I will admit I feel like there is a decline in the long standing flagship beers of yore, it is not necessarily that we have turned away from them but rather that we now have close by and local options that have become our new regular beers. The changing landscape of craft beer in Ontario has been ramped up in the last 3 years and with the continued expansion into more towns and even neighbourhoods, we will see new favourite core beers emerge for those who live close by.
constantly one of the best
Life is all about exploring and learning, keep looking for new and wonderful creations but don't forget where you came from and who helped get you here.
With 2018 starting it's fade to black, I return to my tradition and look forward to what the coming year may bring for Ontario Craft beer. I have no inside knowledge, nor am I by any means an expert on anything but my own palate and observations, I am just a guy who really loves the community and of course, the beer. The following thoughts are perhaps best described as hopes, dreams and a little reality as the calendar surges forward and craft beer grows and matures along with us as consumers. Predictions, thoughts and a little look into the mirror as we begin 2019. 1. All beer is Local Well of course it is Polk, everything is local somewhere. While this is facetious but factual, the point I have come to make is that it will become even more hyper localised as we go forward. with the exception of the strong regional breweries (Great Lakes, Muskoka, Amsterdam, et all), the future of the smaller, nano and micro breweries will be in serving their communities and the surrounding environs with both liquid and social refreshment. Not a large economic concern but rather a smaller, more sensitive to the seasons and the ebb and flow of the population around them, these breweries will do well to serve as both touristy beer destinations and hubs of local activity. From hosting their own events to bringing in civic organizations for fundraising nights, these breweries will do well serving the immediate area around them, encompassing small town bars and restaurants with an eye to the bottom line as many will have to stay small to maximize profit but perhaps also provide a nice life for the owners/brewers and a dedicated staff.
2. It's in the Mail While a nice chunk, about 20%, of Ontario Craft brewers offer online sales and home delivery through Canada Post, the majority have yet to seize on this excellent resource for getting their beer into the hands of consumers far away. Part of the problem is the need to build the website to handle the ordering, which without an in-house option could be an expense not worth its creation. packaging and what to offer online are core questions as well as what the market will bear when it comes to the dreaded shipping charges. Minimum orders or even a lack of interest in the product outside of the immediate environs will also be deal breakers for many small brewers. As with the LCBO or Beer Store, the online sales provide a secondary revenue stream which can provide much needed income to an out of the way stop. The larger brewers who have extensive listings at the provincial level stay away from this, with a few exceptions like Sawdust City and my own hometown Collective Arts, simply because I imagine they just can't justify the need to add to an already heavy sales schedule. Perhaps I am reaching but I see a continuing rise of online sales with the most sought after and unique offerings driving those brewers profits higher and leading to an even larger footprint without the traditional sales plan.
3. Your Unique and I want You The rise of the Whale is always part of any expansion of great craft beer. Some magical genius with hops and barley hits the jackpot with their ability to create the next big thing and people all over are clamouring for it. Be it a far away location from the big urban centres, a small production or just the sheer purchasing of a brewery's fans who scoop up every release in copious amounts whenever a new or returning favourite hits the fridge. While the envy will always be there for some, the larger population of craft beer drinkers nod their heads and then go to their local favourite for what they would tell you is great beer no one knows about. These highly regarded and much sought after beers come from all sizes of brewer and will make for special road trips and beer mail but at some point, if people can't get your beer, they will move on to what they can.
4. Craft Beer Stores The holy grail and be all, end all for enthusiasts is the belief that someday we will get "our own" beer stores filled with every imaginable release from all the best Ontario craft brewers. While someday this may be true and we can all rejoice at the prospect of knowledgeable staff selling beer at the proper temps with glassware and pairing advice, I wouldn't hold my breath. The best bet is a consortium, like the Ontario Craft Brewers association and their members getting a few licences to open boutique stores. These would most likely be located in already busy urban markets and despite a wish from some, the LCBO will continue to administer the sale of beer within the province. Cross selling or regional stores would be a little easier to fathom as most brewers have fairly friendly and close relationships with their close by neighbouring breweries and this could be a much more doable option. But for the near future, it is the Grocery store and LCBO which will continue to be the only outlets outside of the brewers walls where people can physically pick up the product. But still we dream and hope...soon. 5. The Haze Craze Continues or The Chronicles of Dank Every year I say it is going to be a resurgence of lagers and pilsners with low ABV beers coming in hard...and every year I am still surrounded by the love and search for big old juicy, hazy and tropical dank hop bombs. While the mass market still is dominated by Bud Lights and the like, most of the people I know who drink craft beer are either in search of the latest New England style IPA or something of the like. Hazy is a descriptor but it is the soft citrus pithy bitterness to go with that dank pine that brings the most joy to those who love them. The other side of that coin is my dark and slow sipping friends who pursue barley wines, bourbon, rum or cognac barrelled beauties to enjoy and warm the sub cockles of their hearts with. No doubt the market exists for crispy bois and clean pils but make no mistake that the ever growing craft beer world is still deep in the grips of all the hops. The Haze remains the same. 6. How deep is our love? With around 300 brick and mortar breweries operating in Ontario and even more in various stages of planning, this province of 10 million plus people is either under or over saturated depending on who you listen too. Peak Craft beer, to steal a phrase, is perhaps the biggest fear for anyone thinking of getting into the game and wondering if there is room at the tap handle. While I have already talked about the hyper-local focus of a lot of new brewers in Point 1 today, I see trouble for some places as the knowledge and sheer number of consumers rise. We have begun to see people turn from beer that isn't good, not well thought out or rushed to market. There will always be a segment that will never be critical of anything for fear of upsetting their local brewer, but if we are to continue to see expansion on par with what the last 3 years have seen we need to begin thinking and buying with an eye to supporting those who are making it worth our dollars. 7. A Larger Tent While this one probably needs a deeper look and is something I promise to do as the year moves on, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about why it is important for us to make a bigger door and be far more sensitive and inclusive when it comes to craft beer. Just as we wish to be part of drinking something that is different and better than when we drank Coors or Molson Canadian, we must also look at how we welcome those who seek to make the world itself better. While I am not really qualified to talk about diversity or inclusivity, I feel like I have to continue to push the envelope and help or encourage those whose voices are being raised and need to be heard. We want craft beer to be a place where everyone feels like they belong and that begins with standing up for what is right and being an ally to those who seek that truth. I think 2019 will continue to see people try to open doors and make craft beer the truly special place we see it can be. But the work remains and vigilance will be needed to keep those who seek to muffle or silence criticism and serious conversation about change. Arm in arm we go forward and that will be our strength. A good place to start is with my friend Ren over at Beer.Diversity., the good ladies at The Society of Beer Drinking Ladies or even Hamilton's own Iron Beer Maidens. Look for local groups and breweries who are doing things right and support them with your dollars and your voice. 8. Buy-Outs, Sell-Outs For the most part, since Mill Street sold to Ab-Inbev in 2015, the Ontario Craft beer scene has been relatively quiet when it comes to "selling out". Whether it is a lack of options or just people standing firm on sub par offers, it has been a peaceful period when it comes to the mergers and acquisitions of our favourite breweries. With the exception of a few contract LCBO SKU buys made by Lost Craft, the odd purchase of Grand River by Magnotta and All or Nothing taking on Trafalgar, there has been little action. I am sure some sniffing around has been done and who knows, this year may see a shocking purchase but in my heart, I can't see it being anyone but the few "lifestyle" brands who always seem to be looking for a big payday anyway. Ace Hill continues to defy my predictions of being a perfect fit for Molson/Coors and perhaps it is the coming attempts at cannabis related beer that has the big boys focus. The craft beer portion of the market approaches somewhat of 10% and that has to have someone's attention but perhaps I'm still tilting at windmills here... 9. Do you like my #beerselfie? While I know I am often a social media tidal wave and live very much every day out in the open, there is a rising tide of new and more talented photographers, writers and video lovers out there who just need a little encouragement to join our cause. I continue to help push them forward and despite the fact that there are a few who wish they alone could be the "voice" of craft beer, the truth is many voices are needed to help raise the chorus and that in numbers we truly have strength. Every picture or story about craft beer helps to widen our reach and as more people join us, we can help craft the narrative. We can start to control the future and ensure that the vision of a better world with craft beer leading the way happens. Not everything of course is hunky-dory when it somes to social media and craft beer. Some still use sex to sell and achieve followers/likes, some try to court controversy for the sake of controversy and we all need to be aware of beer shaming our friends and family online and in real life. The boobs, butts and muscle crowd will always exist in any form of media, so it is up to each person to decide what they feel is right for them. Being an asshole about beer or anything only goes so far and while I too can fall into the trap of negative vibes, I will do my best to try to be more Beer Positive myself in 2019. And finally, let us do what we can to help reduce beer shaming as the year goes on. Sure we want more of those around us to join us in enjoying the amazing things we are getting, but making fun of or calling them out for making poor choices when it comes to their beer only reduces the likelihood that they will ever feel comfortable trying something new. We all started somewhere and maybe we would do good to remember that. Be a guide and a friend, not a gatekeeper who sneers at those they feel are beneath them. Expand the love and make it easy for folks to feel comfortable joining the community and you will see us grow.
There you go my friends, 9 things I think could happen or that we can work at to make better in the coming 365 days. I'll be doing my best to help spread the Gospel according to Craft and hope you will join me as we delve headlong into what is sure to another year of beautiful beer, new friends and experiences that will help shape the stories we tell when once again we gather to look back.