London beer’s worst kept secret is now out in the open.
Beerlab!, the small batch brewery owned and operated by Nick Baird and Adil Ahmad, is finally set to open its doors June 7th. Beer drinkers in London are, of course, likely already aware of both the duo and their fledgling brewery given that the location of the soon-to-open small batch venue is adjacent to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium, and both Baird and Ahmad have spent time working (and drinking) at Milos.
For those who haven’t tipped pints, talked local music, or chatted beer with Nick or Adil (or hounded them endlessly about when they were going to open their fucking brewery so you could blog about it), the Coles notes version is this: these guys are super into brewing, have been working on opening their doors for a long time, and next week Londoners are going to get another cool spot to drink great beer made by passionate brewers.
Baird and Ahmad have been brewing together for years, having first met in the early 2000s. They circled or worked at some of the same London watering holes at the time — Chaucers, Chancy Smiths, the Alex P. Keaton — and discovered a shared interest in music and home brewing. Once they started making some good beers together, they were encouraged by one time Chaucers and Chancy Smiths general manager Milos Kral to pursue brewing more seriously and Beerlab! was born. The two of them purchased a 100 litre system together, on which they estimate they brewed roughly 15,000 litres of beer, and then for a short time they brewed beer using Forked River’s system. Throughout that time, virtually all the beer they brewed together was poured at London’s unofficial craft beer headquarters, Pub Milos, owned and operated by Kral, and so it’s rather fitting that when they finally found space to open their own brewery, it was literally right next door to the publican who nudged them along early on.
Fist things first: Beerlab! is small. The vibe is minimal by both design and necessity and the venue boasts a capacity of just 25 people with seating provided by live-edge planks-cum-tables that fold up into the wall so that there is more space for the days when the duo is brewing beer and needs to move equipment or supplies. In the summer, a glass garage door will open up most of the front of the venue and a small patio will provide capacity for 14 more patrons.
A simple bar adorns the centre of the venue while the brewing operation lines the south wall. The small batch brewery is comprised of “unitanks” capable of functioning as both fermenters and brites. Sparse design flourishes brighten the utilitarian space — notably the row of gorgeous blown-glass tap handles; a feature which I admit to having never seen before and which might be unique to Ontario. A large mural of geometric shapes, being painted by Pub Milos’ staffer Nick Farmer, is currently underway over the draft taps and in the short hallway to the washroom and is intended to grow larger and be a work in progress that Farmer can pick up or leave when he feels the urge and for which he was essentially given free reign. It’ll get finished when it gets finished and it’ll look like whatever it looks like.
After ceasing regular brewing nearly two and a half years ago to focus on planning and building the brewery, the duo is anxious to get back at it — and seem as ambitious and excited about beer as when they were pushing out brews on their little 100 litre system.
On tap when I visited a few days ago was an IPA, a saison, two porters, a farmhouse ale, and two beers made with kveik. Kveik, for the uninitiated, is a vigorous yeast strain from Norway, traditionally used by farmhouse brewers and often maintained for years living on things like linen and wood. Because who wouldn’t, after a multi-year hiatus from brewing, testing a new system, and weeks from opening their doors, opt to brew farmhouse ale with a random wild yeast procured from Norway and passed down through generations? It’s a lab, after all.
True to their name, the duo is determined to toil, tweak, and experiment. There will be no flagships, no rhyme, no reason. If they feel like making a bunch of porters, for example, they will. They will also, however, strive to offer up simple approachable versions of styles which they’ll dub “intros.” I sipped an “intro to saison” made with pilsner malt and French and Belgian yeasts and an “intro to porter” that featured a perfect balance of roasted coffee notes and subtle cocoa. The kveiks, as it happens, are excellent. “Clearer than ever” was a beer made with kveik that featured awesome pineapple esters and a little white pepper. I don’t know if they’ll use linen, wood, or even a denim jacket, but here’s hoping they hang on to that Norwegian yeast strain.
I was actually surprised at the approachability of all their beers – my takeaway note for most of the effervescent, meringue-topped beers I tried was probably something along the lines of “delicate.” Nothing beat up my palate and I can’t imagine any beer I tried offending either the seasoned beer snob or the uninitiated. I am already looking forward to returning to sip some of these beers sitting on the patio on Talbot Street. Though the subtle offerings I sampled might just be what they felt like making when I happened to visit. Baird and Ahmad tell me that the crazy and funky sours I was expecting are coming. They have warehouse space elsewhere and are already planning their barrel program.
Food will be available — until it isn’t. Beerlab! will offer an allotment of the beer nuts, duck fat popcorn, and cheese plates prepared in Pub Milos’ shared kitchen and, when the food runs out for the night, the food runs out.
Packaged beer will also be sold on site in crowlers for $11.95 and $12.95 and while Baird and Ahmad were circling some proposed label designs when I visited, I’ll just say that they are opting for patterned designs and they are cool. You’ll have to visit yourself to see their final design choices.
If there’s one element of their plan that gives me pause, it’s that the space, despite its size, will all be serviced via just one POS system, so closing out your tab or ordering crowlers to go will likely mean exercising patience when they’re busy. Thankfully, these are the types of logistical issues that tend to get sorted out once a place opens, and London’s beer enthusiasts have been waiting for Beerlab! to open for some time, so what’s a few more minutes?
And of course, while they are unlikely to sell him beer now, their neighbour Milos is still very supportive of Beerlab!. Recently, in the eleventh hour, the City of London made the duo aware that they would actually need a second bathroom in order to have the 25 person capacity for which they had planned. And so with just a couple weeks until their proposed grand opening, they had to ask Kral if they might co-opt a chunk of space that was currently being used by their one time employer as his office. He readily acquiesced with the only caveat being, “please don’t get dust in my printer.” And so now part of Milos’ old office is a Beerlab! bathroom.
While Beerlab! officially opens June 7th, I wager that if you wander by this weekend you might find that the place has quietly opened its doors for a soft open.
It would be difficult to overstate Joel Manning’s impact on craft beer in Ontario and, indeed, Canada. Manning was the Brewmaster for Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery from 2005 to 2018 and he passed away yesterday after suffering a heart attack.
My own memories of Manning are tied to the Brewmaster’s Dinners he hosted; specifically, those he hosted for Robbie Burns Day.
For a few years in a row, I attended Mill Street’s annual Robbie Burns’ Supper, which Manning always hosted. In 2013 I was lucky enough to actually get seated next to Manning. He hosted the evening as he had in previous years, with a sort of determined reluctance. It is difficult to describe exactly, but in my interactions with him he always seemed infinitely more comfortable brewing beer or talking about brewing beer than he did hosting these sorts of events, yet it was also always abundantly clear to me that he was fully committed to the importance of hosting these things properly.
At that dinner in 2013, I recall Manning mistakenly gave the notes for the beers on hand out of order. While we nosed his caramel-flavoured, mahogany-hued Scotch Ale, he gave us tasting notes for a sweeter, lighter, “Tartan Ale” that was next up in the order. No one in the room aside from me noticed that his notes didn’t actually match what we were tasting. When he returned to his seat beside me, I let him know. He was irritated at himself, but he liked that I told him. I then suggested that people didn’t really seem to be listening and I suggested he next take the mic with a bottle of absinthe in hand and offer tasting notes for Mill Street Organic to see if anyone noticed. He did not like that.
To a person, anyone I’ve heard speak of Manning is likely to note that “he is a good dude.” He was affable, open, steadfastly committed to helping people in his industry, and always willing to talk. He was also, in every sense of the word, a professional brewer. Manning began brewing beer at age 20 when he was hired as a brewing assistant at the original Amsterdam Brewpub in 1986. He worked his way up to Brewmaster there in just three years and held that position until 2004. In 2005 he took over as the Brewmaster at Mill Street Brewery and remained in that role until his retirement last year. He worked in the beer industry for 32 years.
Manning was a member of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in the UK, and he served as Vice President, Technical Committee Chair, Chair of the Education Committee, and President of the Master Brewers Association of Canada. He was also once the president of the Ontario Craft Brewers. The last news I heard of Manning was a few months ago, when I heard he had opted to take up home brewing for the very first time.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Joel Manning is personally responsible for introducing many Canadians to craft beer. The beers he made early in his career won myriad awards and Mill Street changed the industry landscape. He most certainly created the recipe for many beers that served as people’s first introduction to beer that could be interesting and flavourful. As the frequent host of tours and tastings at Mill Street’s Brew Pub and as a teacher and consultant, he quite literally put many people’s first pint of craft beer into their hands.
And if you ever took one of these tours — indeed, if you ever spoke to Manning just once — you probably walked away with an understanding that this was a man who wanted to make consistent and well-made beer and that he wanted to get that beer into as many people’s hands as possible. Joel Manning was probably not what anyone would call a beer geek, but he was insanely, single-mindedly dedicated to the work of brewing beer and he was a man who quite simply respected brewing. In an interview from 2014, Manning — after 28 years in the industry — noted that there were a few styles of beer he had yet to try brewing because he didn’t feel he had enough knowledge of the style to do them credit. Without a hint of irony, he noted he hadn’t tried to make certain beers yet because he would never want to “disrespect the style.
Back at that Burns’ supper in 2013, while Manning did not opt to give further incorrect tasting notes in order to test the crowd’s attentiveness, he did take to the mic again, this time to deliver five full pages of his prepared notes. It was late in the evening. The crowd had endured four courses, four beers, the Selkirk Grace, and the Ode to a Haggis, and they were growing visibly less attentive. Manning endured, determined to give the Plowman’s Poet his proper due. When he returned to his seat, it was clear he had noted that interest was waning, but he was resolute. He leaned in and told me privately, “Someone has to explain why the fuck we’re here.”
Manning is remembered by his wife, Lisa, and their two sons. He was just 52 years old.
Your promise of discount beer at the Rogers Centre today was a nice gesture, but it is not going to cut it. It is time to offer Toronto Blue Jays fans locally-made, independently-owned beer at the Rogers Centre.
Today you offered up the idea of $5 beer at the Rogers Centre and, while that sounds great, and is already grabbing you the headlines you probably hoped it would, you don’t need to be a cynical basement-dwelling, impossibly handsome beer blogger to see what this transparent ploy really is. You have in the past given lip service “improving the fan experience” at Jays games and you even seemed to publicly flirt with the idea of bringing in craft beer, as they did in Cleveland when you were there. I fear that you will now use $5 dollar beer to show that “you listened” and will claim the beer has improved. Reports are that the $5 beer will include 355ml cans of Bud and Bud Light so I wanted to clarify to you that selling the same shit at a lower price point in a smaller format is not actually an improvement. Indeed, it seems to me this might be the solution that Rogers and AB InBev came up with together to “improve” the beer situation at games in hopes that the conversation would go away:
FANS: “We want better beer!”
BLUE JAYS: “This small beer is now only five dollars! Isn’t that better?”
FANS: “It’s the same be–”
BLUE JAYS: “FIVE DOLLARS!”
I want to let you know that this conversation isn’t going to go away. (For the record though, I’m loving the dollar hot dog days. Definitely do that shit, please).
And it isn’t just me that wants this, I assure you.
Actual craft beer at Jays’ game would go a long way toward improving the fan experience to a level that is currently experienced literally everywhere else in baseball: The Toronto Blue Jays are the only team in major league baseball who have yet to offer fans a significant, readily available craft beer experience.
When it comes to this part of the overall product for which you are ultimately responsible for, you are literally losing to all 29 of your competitors—but not to worry. This part is an easy fix. Forget for a second the unceasing competition to find the right mix of players on the field, coaches in the clubhouse, salary caps, your pitching woes, scouting, etc. Here is a thing you can do better, right now, that will improve the Blue Jays “product.” Give us better fucking beer.
Fans are increasingly aware that the Blue Jays enjoy a “partnership” with AB InBev, and we are also aware that that company has in recent years acquired formerly craft brands like Chicago’s Goose Island and Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery; however, these “craft” options merely provide us with the illusion of choice and don’t actually allow fans the ability to support local, independent brewers making interesting and full flavoured beers in our own province. And increasingly, that’s what sports fans actually want to drink when they take in a game. There are craft options at Toronto FC games. There’s craft beer at Toronto Rock and Toronto Wolfpack games. Hell, your ninor league affiliate Bisons down the road in Buffalo host craft beer festivals that take place right on their field. You want to stay competitive among local sporting events and improve the fan experience? Five dollar Budweiser hidden in one section per level ain’t gonna cut it these days.
Ontarians drink craft beer. It’s the fastest growing category at the LCBO and craft beer’s market share has grown from 3% just a few years ago to around 10%. We now support something like 270 craft breweries in this province. You still support zero (or…one, technically, if you plan to continue to sell Hockley Valley Dark at one vendor).
Furthermore, there is most certainly a market for craft beer among American fans who travel to Toronto to watch a game and who have come to expect local options at the ball park. It is disappointing for them, and frankly embarrassing to us, when the best we have to offer is the same lineup of industrial lagers that is available virtually everywhere in the world. People who come to this city for a baseball game ought to experience Toronto — and its beer.
Canada’s best-selling independently-owner pilsner is made at Steam Whistle, literally across the street from where your team plays ball. You could build a bridge and pipe the stuff over. There is a baseball-themed brewery, called Left Field Brewery, eight kilometres from Blue Jays’ home plate where many Jays fans already prefer to take in games thanks to the draw of pairing something like a locally made Laser Show Douple IPA with a game. I’d welcome the chance to drink a Canuck Pale Ale from Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery with my dollar hot dog, or maybe have an Amsterdam Brewery Boneshaker with my pretzel (their brewery is 700 metres from your facility, by the way).
Hell why not a Jelly King, a Nutcracker Porter, an Armed N’ Citra, a Mango Fett, or even a Cock Puncher??
In April of last year, speaking about improvements to the fan experience, you noted: “I think it’ll be hopefully by the end of the season we’ll have an announcement of what we’re doing, but I trust and believe that it’s going to happen soon.”
I get that launching extensive changes to the Jays’ fan experience might require flexible timelines, but I’d like to suggest you might show fans you’re serious about theses changes this year, put your money where your mouth is, and put some decent beer – not $5 Budweiser — where our mouths are, please.
On behalf of Blue Jays fans who like good beer,
(For fans that are reading this who feel the same, I’ve started a formal petition in hopes that might get Mr. Shapiro’s attention. Go sign it here.)
Ontario’s beer scene is still very much in its infancy.
Accordingly, it’s a little tough to identify the beers that have been “game changers” here just yet. The game, that is, is still very much changing.
That said, in our still-short evolution toward better beer, there have been a handful of beers that most certainly helped Ontario’s craft beer scene get to where it is today.
Here are my picks for what those beers are. These aren’t the best beers, nor are they my favourites, rather they are the beers that have helped transform Ontario’s getting-closer-to-world-class-every-day beer culture thus far.
Upper Canada Brewing Company’s Rebellion I’m not sure this two-row pale ale made with Cascade and Cluster hops (when the fuck is the last time you heard of someone using cluster hops??) would float anyone’s boat these days, but back in tha day, this was the only Canadian Pale Ale listed in the 1998 World Beer Championships and it scored an 85. So it wasn’t something to sneeze at.
More importantly though, this is THE gateway beer. This beer actually opened the doors for craft beer in the province. For a generation, it was like, oh shit, there’s another kind of beer?
Jason Fisher is the owner of Toronto’s Indie Alehouse and he points to this beer as a gamechanger. “Upper Canada Rebellion (and even their Lager) was the first beer in Ontario made with an eye toward flavour as opposed to filling a place in the market,” he says. “They didn’t give a fuck what any marketing people said. They brewed what they wanted to and, for a time, it was great. They brought in fresh German hops to make beer with which, at the time, was unheard of in Ontario.”
*real talk: I was 17 when Sleeman took over Upper Canada, got rid of this beer, and fired three guys that would go on to build another brewery in Toronto, so I never actually drank this one. But I gotta show love to an OG craft beer.
Since the doors opened in 2000, Steam Whistle Brewery has been among the first brewers to aggressively break down barriers in terms of growth and distribution and show that craft beer could play where the industrial lagers play. I have less insight into the goings-on since the last of the company’s founders, Greg Taylor, Cam Heaps, and Greg Cromwell, left, but I can tell you that Steam Whistle as a company fought many battles with the Beer Store, the LCBO, the big brewers, and the Ontario government that have proven beneficial to the brewers that have followed in their footsteps. An oft-leveled charge is that Steam Whistle is so big that they are no longer craft, and frankly, I’ve always found that idea to be naive and stupid. They are, of course, relevant because they managed to grow so big. They might no longer share much of the same concerns of small brewers, but they are still (for now) providing an example and representing an independent Ontario beer success story. In other words, don’t dismiss Steam Whistle because their branding and marketing and distinctive green bottle seem to be everywhere these days. I’d argue that’s exactly why they’re important.
(A quick note to the haters that always seem to pop up when I mention Steam Whistle: Say what you will about the direction of their business, Steam Whistle still makes an excellent Czech pilsner without any adjuncts, they are still ridiculously committed to ensuring their beer is served at optimal conditions, and they make efforts to ensure it’s delivered through clean lines. It’s a good beer.)
Denison’s Weissbier / Side Launch Wheat
Still fantastic, but now known as Side Launch Wheat, this is a beer with a storied pedigree of which many might not be aware. First brewed by Michael Hancock in 1990, the beer became popular at Growler’s Pub, Crazy Louie’s Brasserie, and Conchy Joe’s–the three restaurants that made up Denison’s Brewpub at 75 Victoria Street in Toronto. A textbook Bavarian Wheat Beer, it was named the best German Hefeweizen by Ratebeer in 2002. Sadly, the quality of this beer wasn’t enough to keep the lights on at Denison’s Brew Pub and it closed in 2003. Fortunately, Hancock was determined to keep this beer alive and, from 2003 – 2010, found brewing facilities in which to contract brew his Weissbier. This beer was actually one of the first beers brewed at Mill Street Brewery in the Distillery District when that company’s founders let Hancock use their facilities, then it was brewed at Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery. In 2008 Hancock commenced brewing his Weissbier at Cool Brewery, then in 2009 he took his operations for some time to the Amsterdam Brewery that used to be at the foot of Bathurst Street. Finally, in 2010, Hancock partnered with some people looking to start a brewery in Collingwood and, after much planning, Side Launch brewery was born. Hancock still serves as “Brewer Emeritus” for that company and this beer is still brewed today (and it’s still world class. Side Launch Wheat is still ranked as the 3rd best Wheat Beer in the world, per Ratebeer ).
This beer was one of the earliest examples of how great independent Ontario beer could be and, whether they knew it or not, likely influenced a generation of local drinkers’ perceptions of what a wheat beer should taste like. It’s also a testament to his ridiculous technical skill that Hancock managed to maintain the quality and consistency of this beer over 28 years while brewing at half a dozen different breweries, something a lot of new brewers have trouble doing from one batch to the next on their own systems.
Mill Street Brewery’s Tankhouse At the voter-chosen Golden Tap Awards in 2004, Mill Street Brewery’s Tankhouse Pale Ale tied Steam Whistle Pilsner as the best beer in the Greater Toronto Area. The beer was less than a year old and for Ontario’s fledgling craft beer scene, it was mind blowing–and there was nothing else like it for years. Tankhouse went on to win Best Beer Made in the GTA honours in 2005, 2006, and 2007 as well.
It seems weird now given the propensity for heavily-hopped ales that started to crest circa 2010 that this malt-heavy, copper coloured beer was once a revolutionary pale ale, but it really was.
“Mill Street’s Tankhouse was a game-changer in Ontario,” says Cass Enright, the owner of the beer forum beertowel and organizer of the Golden Tap Awards. “In the late 90s and early 2000s, beer lovers in Ontario were wanting fuller flavour and hoppy beers, but we had a lot of conservative styles dominating the landscape. When Tankhouse hit the scene it was immediately embraced: a rich pale ale with a strong (by the standards of the day) hoppiness. I would credit it as the beer that begun a “flavour forward” movement in Ontario that encouraged other breweries of the day (and ones that would open) to have richer flavoured beers as anchors of their portfolios.”
County Durham Brewing’s Hop Head
While you can still find County Durham beers on tap sporadically, mostly around Toronto, and while the company is now just one guy, Bruce Halstead, who brews whatever he feels like and on his own schedule, it’s hard to overstate how ubiquitous and groundbreaking the brewery, founded in 1996, once was. Their English styles, cask-conditioned offerings and early hop-forward beers like Hop Head were mainstays at Toronto’s earliest craft beer haunts like C’est What (which is still the best place to find Durham beers).
“Durham helped inspire me and Great Lakes Brewery,” says Mike Lackey, GLB’s brewmaster. “Hop Head was a revelation for me for a couple reasons. Having a pint (or seven) at C’est What? I loved how citrus forward it was with very little crystal malts in the grist bill. Hop-forward Ontario brews at the time tended to be more “balanced” by the caramel malts which always muddied the waters, in my opinion.”
Given that I still think caramel malt muddied pale ales are still something of an issue in Ontario, the beer that first launched the opposition is certainly worth a nod
Great Lakes Brewery’s Devil’s Pale Ale 666 In the early to mid-2000s, Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery was actually on the verge of losing their brewery. They will now admit they were largely “lager floggers” at the time who brewed with extract instead of grain and it…wasn’t great. Then, in 2006 the federal government changed the tax structure for small brewers and the break gave GLB a bit of boost–and some cash to start to try some new stuff. The result was Devil’s Pale Ale 666. It was sort of the the first big American-style craft beer here and one of the first here that came in a 473mL can. Plus it had a fun gimmick (666!! The Devil!!!). They launched the beer at the Toronto Festival of Beer and the gimmick helped them sell out of both the beer and the t-shirts that they brought to promote it. They added a branded hearse to their marketing efforts and, voila, the stage was set for Great Lakes’ second life. And the Ontario beer scene wasn’t the same.
Great Lakes Brewery’s Canuck
It is perhaps not a secret to most craft beer fans in Ontario that, after the Devil’s Pale Ale breakthrough, Great Lakes Brewery’s amazing hop-forward beers did not actually just spring forth from the brain of brewmaster Mike Lackey. I mean, they sort of did. He is, of course, one of this country’s best brewers, but his style was very influenced by trips to the US where he realized that no one was doing west coast style beer here in Ontario. The result is that he borrowed much from that scene and arguably officially introduced West Coast style IPAs and Pale Ales to this province. There is no better or more enduring example of this than Canuck, first brewed for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Today Canuck is still the beer that probably every brewer in Ontario would admit is their go-to beer. It is in this sense quite literally the benchmark against which all other pale ales in this province are brewed and judged. And for good reason. ‘Nuff said.
Black Oak Brewery’s 10 Bitter Years If you consider that the hop-forward pale ale Canuck was first released in 2010, it’s pretty crazy to think that 10 Bitter Years, Black Oak Brewery’s Imperial IPA came out a full year before Canuck did, in 2009.
“The whole idea behind 10 Bitter Years was to present an Imperial IPA to Ontario when most people were still afraid of hops,” says Black Oak brewmaster Ken Woods. “It was to commemorate our 10th anniversary, and we discovered some hop heads did exist at that time. We sold all 25 cases in about two days out of our retail store.”
In this sense, 10 Bitter Years was something like Ontario’s first effort in experimenting with massive amounts of hops — so much so that Black Oak Brewer Ken Woods essentially had to create the dry-hopping process to brew this beer.
“The first time we made it,” Woods says, “it was dry-hopped into a tank without a standpipe and all the soggy mass of hops managed to clog my bottling machine. I’ve still got a bottle around here with an inch of green hops in it somewhere.”
And so the next time Black Oak attempted the beer, they opted to steep the beer in the tank and had to find something to keep the hops from clogging the tank. “Before the days of standpipes in tanks, we used pantyhose as a hop sock because it was easily sterilized,” Woods says. ‘We did get funny stares in the dollar store when buying 12 pairs at a time dressed in brewing gear.”
These days the beer is made in small batches and Woods says there is a lot of effort put into ensuring the time between packaging and consumption is as short as possible, but the original version, and its pantyhose-steeped predecessors, ushered in a new level of hopping in Ontario.
I don’t usually take to the ol’ blog just to talk about a brewery discontinuing one of their beers, but sometimes a thing will just stick in my craw and I gotta get into it. Plus I’ve had a couple beers tonight. So come with me on a grumpy journey, won’t you friends?
I can now confirm some shitty news that I first heard rumblings about through social media: Collingwood’s Side Launch Brewing Company is discontinuing Mountain Lager, their near-perfect 4.9%, 27 IBU Helles lager.
This will no doubt come as disappointing news to many an Ontario beer fan because, quite simply, Mountain Lager is one this province’s best made lagers. It fairly quickly become a fan favourite after launching and is arguably the beer that ushered in this province’s current “crispy boi” (sorry) obsession. It is a staple in my home and if you too enjoy having a subtly-hopped, impeccably crisp beer in your fridge for in between hop bombs and puckering sours, it is likely a staple in your home, too.
I first heard that this great beer might be going away after posting an image of Side Launch’s new Northbound Light Lager to my Instagram feed, when someone suggested this was a beer that would replace (replace!) Mountain Lager. Shortly thereafter, some LCBO employees forwarded me emails they had received from Side Launch’s inside sales team confirming that yes, Northbound Light Lager will be replacing Mountain Lager and taking over its SKU in the LCBO.
(The emails also noted, incidentally, that Side Launch is releasing a New England Style IPA called “Getaway” and that they are, for some reason, rebranding their Dark Lager as “Midnight Lager.” If you’ll allow me a brief sub-tangent here, this is also weird news. This beer recipe is roughly 30 years old and now getting its…third rebrand? It was once known as Denisson’s Royal Dunkel, because Prince Luitpold of Bavaria was an early investor in Denisson’s, the company Side Launch’s master brewer founded and whose recipes Side Launch uses today. I’m not making this shit up!)
But I digress.
Faced with pretty clear-cut evidence that one of my go-to beers was about to go the way of the dodo, I reached out to the brewery to be 100% sure the unthinkable was true and, today, I heard back from Bianca Santos, Side Launch Brewing Company’s Marketing Manager who confirmed they were no longer offering Mountain Lager.
“The team at Side Launch loves and believes in our legacy brands,” she said in an email, “but due to the ever changing and exploding Ontario Craft Beer world we need the ability to change and grow in our product portfolio.”
Santos also thanked me for my support of Side Launch and noted they “can’t wait to continue to grow and learn with feedback from our consumers.”
So I thought I’d offer some consumer feedback: This fucking sucks.
Sure, some of this is just me being personally annoyed because I really liked Mountain Lager. It is one of those still-rare beers in our youngish local scene that is widely available in Ontario and is consistently fresh and of good quality. But much of the other reasons I think this decision fucking sucks is because I get the sense this could be symptomatic of a downward slide for Side Launch (an up-til-now mostly great brewery).
Here’s why: In overly simple terms, the secret to running a successful brewery is finding a balance between letting a talented brewer make whatever the fuck he or she wants, recognizing and responding to changing industry tastes and trends, and finding a way to make beer that is as profitable as possible. I would suggest that, if you’re scrapping an impeccable-tasting lager made from a recipe one of Canada’s best brewers has been tweaking for about 30 years, and you’re doing so at a time when the industry is trending toward lagers and pilsners in favour of a beer that my first impression of was “this tastes like Budweiser*”, the balance has tipped way too far in the direction of that profit part of the scales.
Mountain Lager is quite simply a great beer and I can see no reason for ceasing its production other than some version of “we can make something else cheaper,” and if that’s what’s calling the shots these days, it’s only a matter of time for the rose to come off the bloom at Side Launch, in my opinion.
I hope I’m wrong. I really do. That wasn’t hyperbole about their brewing pedigree. Michael Hancock is one of this country’s best technical brewers hands down. He has created and subsequently duplicated some this province’s best beers (ever) and has shown he could do so on something like four different systems at this point. I’m pretty sure if you put this dude in a homebrewer’s garage and gave him a couple weeks he’d brew a batch of his Weissbier that’d make you swear you had been transported to fucking Bavaria. I sincerely hope Michael Hancock continues to be able to make great beer as long as he wants to.
But my alarm bells have been ringing about Side Launch for a while.
In August 2017, the company parted ways with Garnett Pratt, who had served as President and CEO since the company was founded and who inarguably helped the brewery rise to its current prominence. Under her watch, the company was named the 2016 Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards, and Pratt was elected by her peers to serve as chair of the board of directors for the Ontario Craft Brewers association. Her departure was a puzzling decision to say the least. But then the brewery handed the job of Interim CEO over to Al Stuart and I really scratched my head. Stuart is a “Managing Partner” of The Pilot, a bar in Toronto, and I don’t think it’s weird to question the logic of putting control of your small, independent brewing company in the hands of someone who still sees fit to offer Molson Canadian, Coors Light, Keith’s, Goose Island, Stella, and more on tap of the bar he manages. No one with even a cursory understanding of how beer sales work in Ontario needs an explanation of how these beers usually end up on beer taps. And when Side Launch ousted Pratt they handed the reins over to…this guy? Oy. (Stuart is still a shareholder, incidentally, but the CEO has been Chris Jordan since last spring).
Anyway, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are perfectly logical non-nefarious reasons for getting rid of Mountain Lager in favour of a slightly lighter beer and Side Launch is still on the up and up. Maybe there were perfectly good reasons to let their on-paper-great CEO go and maybe the guy they let be CEO after her isn’t actually taking kickbacks from the craft beer industry’s biggest competition. But my Spider Sense is officially tingling and I’m officially putting Side Launch on my watch list.
I mean they axed my fucking Mountain Lager, man. Come on!
*It might be worth noting that I have thus far only tried Northbound Light Lager once. I drank it outdoors, in sub-zero temperatures, directly from the can. My first impression was that it was very much like drinking a macro-lager. I’m willing to give the beer a second shot, but I still fail to see the logic of a so-so new 4.7% lager to replace a great 4.9% one. Side Launch has indicated they’d like to send me a sample to revisit the beer. This post might change their opinion about sending me beer.
When Doug Ford challenged Ontario brewers in August with a non-announcement that they could now sell beer for $1 a container, many beer commentators, myself chief among them, opined that no quality beer could be brewed at a profit for that price and that lowering the price floor on beer was nothing more than an invitation to big brewers to see how cheaply they might make beer to take advantage of a weird news cycle.
The announcement was, in essence, the firing of a starter pistol to mark the beginning of a new race in Ontario beer to find rock bottom.
The race has slowed in the interim and a few of the participants dropped out along the way, but it seems clear that the finish line is now clearly in sight because this morning, Loblaw Companies Limited announced the arrival of no name® branded beer.
My friends, welcome to rock bottom.
Packaged in bottles and emblazoned with the distinctive non-logo logo of Loblaw’s discount “simple product” brand, no name beer will launch just in time for Family Day weekend. Because nothing says family like pouring dollar beer into your suckhole.
This is the inevitable and predictable end-result of Premier Ford’s “announcement” of beer for “the people.” Slapped into a plain, yellow package, taking store shelves in time for a long weekend, and announced with no information about its ingredients, who brews it or where. We know only that it is a “distinctly Canadian lager” and it will cost $6.60 for a six pack for promotional weekends and $10.45 thereafter. This is where buck-a-beer gets the industry. It has all the prestige and culinary appeal of a fucking can of discount tuna.
The worst part, of course, is that this beer will sell.
There is a large swath of alcohol-consuming Ontarians who most certainly will purchase this beer based entirely its price point. They will wait in line for it on discount weekends. They will stock their garage fridges with it. They will drink it simply because it is in their budget and 5% of its volume is alcohol.
That demographic also increasingly overlaps with a sort of “post-craft” demographic who, either overwhelmed by choice and the growth of a dynamic and interesting subset of the beer industry — or in an irony-dripping effort to be contrarian — have opted to dismiss craft beer as something fussy and effete. They are a sort of proud philistine who say things “I like beer that tastes like beer” and then they put on a designer jacket to ride a $900 bike to go buy Pabst Blue Ribbon. The minimalist branding of no name beer is sure to appeal to this subset and they too will definitely buy this beer. These are are both demographics with which I share very little, but I can’t deny that they have spending money — $6.60 each to be precise — that they will happily trade for this toilet water en masse. I predict this might become one of Ontario’s best-selling beers.
But of course, this isn’t actually end times. All beer isn’t suddenly going to be reduced to lowest-common-denominator fizz purchased from No Frills along with the cat food and a bag of Cheetos. Economies of scale mean that mass-produced cheap beer is simply not a sustainable business model for most brewers, as the failed buck-a-beer attempts of Barley Days Brewing and Cool Brewing show.
So it won’t be every where, but it will be most places, juxtaposed with the real deal. And in that sense, this might actually be a good sign for fans of craft beer in Ontario. No name beer might actually be something like a natural symptom of our awesome beer industry in this province. What I mean is, perhaps we’ve swung so far to the side of good, we need something supremely shitty like this to balance the force. It’s kind of like the movie Twins where a genetics laboratory combined the DNA of six ideal fathers to produce the perfect child. In the movie, the embryo split and twins were born. One Twin, Julius, was the result of all the best genes, and the other twin, Vincent, was formed from all the useless, undesirable genetic material. He was, in essence, the leftovers. No name beer then is surely Ontario beer’s rock bottom, but that’s OK because it is essentially craft beer’s Danny DeVito.
And now that the brewing industry knows where the bottom is, we can all once again focus on reaching the top.
For a few reasons, I’m not really a golfer. First and foremost, I’m not good at it. Secondly, I actually like spending time with my family and so the prospect of eating up multiple hours of a weekend being frustrated on a golf course is far less appealing to me than being with my wife and son on one of the two days a week I get to spend with them. Thirdly, there’s a nagging tree-hugging snowflake part of me that can’t help thinking there are better uses for picturesque wide open spaces than charging people in silly pants to chase a little ball around them.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, while I could probably occasionally overlook all of the above and go golfing simply to enjoy being outdoors with friends drinking good beer, it’s almost never the case that I get to do that. Because the beer at most golf courses, of course, sucks. It is almost always the usual gamut of industrial lagers and, frankly, it doesn’t much matter to many people who are out golfing because it’s hot out and it’s the weekend someone just drove a little car full of beer right up to you and your damn buddies so I’ll take two of whatever you’ve go on ice.
I get it. Beer at golf courses sucks because it doesn’t really have to be good. The owners of golf courses, much like most bar and restaurant owners, are very likely to simply go with the brewing company that offers them the best deal and thus pour whatever lowest-common-denominator cold shit keeps the throngs of sweaty, sunburned linksmen happily whacking away at their balls.
But to my mind, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s 2019 and it should be a given that people in this province like golf. We have a whopping 811 golf courses in this province. It is also an increasingly obvious fact that Ontarians have developed a taste for locally-made craft beer. Depending on who you ask, the market share for craft beer is at about 8% and it is growing every day. Surely between theses two demographics there is some overlap. So who wouldn’t be able to see an obvious opportunity for appealing to both of those markets and supporting local business by opting to provide some craft beer to golfers?
Yes, they are literally auctioning off the right to sell and advertise beer at the lounges, “halfway houses,” and beverage carts at Fanshawe Golf Course, River Road Golf Course, and Thames Valley Golf Course for a period of three years, with a possible extension to five years. Additionally, the REOI document notes that “[t]he preferred supplier will also be asked to sponsor specific initiatives and events at the golf courses to be determined on an annual basis, these events include the annual Men’s and Senior Invitational Golf Tournament and the City of London Club Championships.”
If this all sounds a little sketchy, it’s because it kind of is. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum over the years, offering or soliciting cash or incentives in exchange for exclusivity from a beer-maker is illegal. It says so right here in Regulation 720 of Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act, see?
A manufacturer of liquor or an agent or employee of a manufacturer shall not directly or indirectly offer or give a financial or material inducement to a person who holds a licence or permit under the Act or to an agent or employee of the person for the purpose of increasing the sale or distribution of a brand of liquor.
As recently as October 2018, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) confirmed to me that it is not only illegal for brewers to offer to do this, it is also illegal for licensees to ask breweries for keg deals, cash, or other financial incentives in exchange for selling their products.
For anyone familiar with my writing on the subject, the fact that this is illegal of course stops almost no one (the AGCO has never issued a fine for it) and so this instance is perhaps unsurprising, but to my mind, it is fairly galling to see it written out so explicitly, in a municipal government’s request for expressions of interest no less. It appears that the City of London is openly auctioning off the exclusive right to pour cold ones into the suckholes of London’s golfers.
Of course there are some lazy efforts in the document to appear on the level, as when they’ve added language like “the city will continue to stock and sell other packaged brands at these locations” and “insofar as the AGCO rules and regulations allow,” but the inclusion of sponsorship demands and a note that “proposals will be reviewed for proponent qualifications and best overall value to the City,” to me has a stinky whiff of illegality. How much variance, for instance, can there be in the “value” of the responses when the AGCO has set bare minimum alcohol pricing?
And again, while I hate that bars and restaurants do this, I get it. For six years I’ve screamed about shitty beer in nice bars and restaurants until I rage-vomited blood. But I know licensee margins are razor thin so the brewery with the biggest swag budget often wins the day—and the draught line. But when it is actually the City of London laying bare the “right” to $300,000 in annual business by insisting on sponsorship deals, it’s not only illegal-looking, it’s kind of gross.
London is now home to Anderson Craft Ales, Curley Brewing Company, Dundas and Sons Brewing, Forked River Brewing, London Brewing, Powerhouse Brewing, Storm Stayed, Toboggan Brewing Company, and at least one more brewery in the planning stages, and many a London politician has paid lip service to supporting these local businesses. Many City Councilors are frequent patrons of Pub Milos and their closest local brewery, and I know of at least three occasions where city officials helped local brewers navigate zoning and licensing issues. Yet, when the time comes for the city to seek a beer vendor for the golf courses that they own, apparently the city is OK opening the process to the highest bidder, demanding sponsorships, and effectively pricing out our local brewers and paving the way for the big guys to buy their way onto yet another draught lineup. It is disappointing, to say the least.
I know that not all the breweries I mentioned could meet the demand to supply the beer for all these golf courses, and it’s entirely possible that this REOI process is simply always the way beer vendors have been contracted for London’s golf courses, but to my mind, that doesn’t make it OK. Why not make this process equitable for the small businesses revitalizing neighbourhoods and creating jobs in this city? That’s a question I put forward when I sent this REOI to the AGCO for review tonight and the one I put forward when I reached out to my city councilor tonight as well.
Will anything change? Maybe. I might finally pick up a used set of sticks on Kijiji this year and join my friends on city-owned links, happily tipping back a local brew. But given that the only plan taker listed on this REOI as of this post going live is the area sales manager for Molson-Coors, it seems to me highly unlikely.
What follows is perhaps my most cringe-worthy personal beer story. I have told this story to a few people over the years and some have told me that it would make a great entry for my blog. For reasons that I’m sure will become clear when you read this, I have never written this down before.
Tonight I’ve decided that enough time has passed that I feel…not good…but perhaps…OK sharing it. You will almost certainly think of less me when you finish this. But you might laugh. So here goes.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where I was considered something of an “influencer” when it came to drinking and dining in Toronto. For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that I hate the word, idea, and entire concept of unpaid social media “influncers” promoting “brands,” I am now, of course, just marginally influential at best.
But back in the day there was a time when writing regularly for Toronto publications and this blog earned me enough clout (and even klout! #DatedReference) to not only keep me flush with beer samples, but to also get me invited to the occasional restaurant opening and/or culinary event. This story takes place on one of those occasions. This particular occasion was a manufactured event intended to create buzz relating to the opening a new location for an existing seafood-focused restaurant chain in West Toronto. A PR company representing the restaurant’s owner had invited me to attend. The place was still under construction, but the concept for the event was that a handful of influencers, myself among them, would dine at the location, cheekily donning construction hard hats provided by the PR company for selfies, preview the menu, hopefully write something about the experience, and, ideally, use the prescribed hashtag(s) to generate that all important buzz for the new opening that the PR folks were paid to bring in. In turn, of course, we would dine (and, naturally, drink) gratis in exchange for our efforts.
(Hopefully, abhorrent as this concept is, it is not a new one to you. This happens constantly and there are entire companies, industries, and *shudder* online personalities built on it. It is the reason good food and booze criticism is becoming increasingly scarce and our culinary culture as a whole is now essentially beholden to vapid, know-nothing water heads with smart phones and a palate as sophisticated as the last PR company that thrust free fucking kobe beef sliders in their direction. But I digress).
On this particular evening wherein I was playing the part of influencer, I had opted to bring along a photographer. This was actually a pretty standard practice of mine for ensuring I had a plus-one and could thus bring a friend. “I’ll need to bring a photographer,” I would say matter-of-factly when invited to such things, as though I was bound by principle to cover the ingestion of fucking arancini with the utmost diligence. In point of fact of course, I often simply brought friends who were comedians or who worked in the arts and I knew would appreciate a free meal. On more than one occasion my “photographer” showed up without an actual camera. No one cared.
For this event, I had happened to bring my friend Mark, who was actually a good photographer and, while I had invited him as an excuse for us to eat and get drunk together, he took to the task of documenting the event with a fervor unbecoming of a man whose work was set to be hastily-cropped and shared on a sparsely read online publication. In short, Mark was trying way too hard.
Additionally, this particular seafood-focused restaurant enjoyed one of those beer “partnerships” I am so fond of disparaging on this site and the “partner brewery’s” sales rep was part of the festivities. And so, in addition to an eclectic menu of upscale blah blah blah infusion, melding the fun of blah blah blah without the fussiness of blah blah blah, all with a subtle nod to blah blah blah, the menu that evening featured not only barrel-aged cocktails, but also a seemingly endless supply of Samuel Adams beer. And so, with my photographer friend working the room hell-bent on documenting the evening like he worked for National fucking Geographic and me surrounded by dutifully Instagramming and ironically-socially-awkward social media influencers, I heartily partook of the drink, as is my wont in such situations.
The night progressed as these things do. The chef and owner gave a heartfelt speech about his passion for being a restaurateur (all his restaurants are now closed, by the way), talked about the inspiration for his food, and, I’d wager, included details about a quirky but hyper-local tidbit related to the location/menu/signage/cutlery that we all enjoyed and took great satisfaction in tweeting. And then, at some point in the evening, between courses of shellfish and presumably between my many refills, an announcement was made. We had all been entered, the PR team organizers told us, into a draw for a basket full of swag to take home. Thanks to my alcohol consumption, I don’t recall the details but I remember the basket included items related to the restaurant and owner and some “partner products,” like the chef’s favoured brand of fucking pickle, for example. Among the partner products though, and presumably added by a swag-flush Samuel Adams rep, was a bottle of that year’s just-released Utopias.For the uninitiated, Utopias is a rarely-released beer made by Samuel Adams that is much sought after among beer nerds. It is an uncarbonated blend of many batches of Sam Adams beers, some aged as long as two decades in bourbon, sherry, and port casks. It is an exceptionally-strong beer, with an alcohol content that has in some years approached 30 per cent, and it is typically enjoyed in a snifter, doled on special occasions by those who spring for a bottle. The year this story takes place, the LCBO was allotted just 200 bottles of the stuff and it sold for $114.95.
As you might imagine, given my increasingly inebriated state and my young(ish) and naive desire to consume such bucket list beers, I became convinced I was going to win that package. I had to. These people, gathered from assorted media outlets and mostly focused on food writing, would never appreciate Utopias the way I might. I told them as much. It is a safe guess that I was not tactful or subdued in the many ways I suggested that I deserved to win the bottle and they did not.
Despite the fact that I was the “beer guy” present, however, and despite my probably insufferable proclamations that I needed to win the bottle of Utopias, I did not. Instead, the Utopias, the pickles, and the assorted bullshit was awarded to a perfectly nice food writer and photographer whose name I don’t recall and who worked for an outlet I also don’t remember. I was bummed, briefly. I made jokes about he and I splitting the bottle and encouraged him to crack it right then and there. He didn’t, but I got over the whole ordeal — probably as fast as the next beer was thrust into my hand.
Eventually, the meal wound down and, even though people were still eating, Mark needed to leave. He was also my ride and, since I had had my fill of barrel-aged cocktails and Boston Lager, we said our goodbyes and made our way for the door. As we did, we passed the swag basket. Mark went outside and, jokingly, I picked up the bottle of Utopias and turned back to the group. “Maybe I should just take this with me!” I said to them as I raised the bottle.
None of them heard me. They had already said goodbye to me and were back to making awkward conversation, scrolling their social media feeds, and taking pictures of their deserts.
This when I made a bad choice.
I’d like to say, standing in a room full of people with no eyes on me, that there was a small devil on one of my shoulders and an angel on the other offering me conflicting advice on what to do in this rare and weird situation, but in that moment, there was no angel; just a lager-soaked devil. And he said, “Take the fucking bottle.”
With no hesitation, I turned, tucked the bottle in front of me and made my way across the 10 remaining feet to the door. I don’t know if I thought I was being rebellious about the concept of being an influencer, or if it was my way of saying fuck you to Samuel Adams for buying off this restaurateur, if I was simply drunk enough to think I’d get away with it, or if I thought I was being funny and would return the bottle the next day. I literally don’t recall what I was thinking. But I do recall what happened next.
I made my way to the door and opened it, stepping out to the sidewalk where Mark was lighting a cigarette.
And I tripped.
I went down hard and the bottle came with me, instantly shattering on the concrete. $114.95 of 28 per cent barrel-aged blends was suddenly a puddle on Queen West. I smelled syrupy notes of cognac, tobacco, vanilla, and oak as the rare liquid seeped into my clothes and was rapidly absorbed in the cement around me.
Mark looked at me, cigarette dangling, and saw the mess, including the remains of the distinctive bottle scattered around me just steps from the restaurant doors and knew immediately what had just transpired. He said only, “Dude, what the fuck?”
I was instantly stone-cold sober. We bolted.
The conversation that followed in Mark’s car was one of those “Why did you do that?” “I know! Why the fuck did I do that?” postmortems you tend to have with a friend when you do a really dumb thing. With Mark’s windows cracked and us speeding away from the crime scene, the Boston Lager and barrel-aged Manhattans were wearing off and the reality of just how stupid my crime was hit home. I had repeatedly, loudly, told an entire room full of people that I wanted that bottle. And, then, when we were the first ones to leave, the bottle had disappeared. And now, even when (not “if” but when) I was inevitably called out and asked to return the bottle, I couldn’t because I HAD SMASHED IT FOUR FEET FROM THE CRIME SCENE.
A period of silence followed while Mark drove and smoked and I sat in Utopias-damp jeans and considered my life choices. And then, as is also often the case when you do a really dumb thing, you somehow, eventually, darkly, start to see humour in it. Mark was probably the first to laugh. “Man, you are fucking idiot!”
Indeed I was.
“What did I even trip on?” “I went down hard!” “That was so dumb! Hahaha. Oh my god!”
We laughed at how the second they all went to leave the dinner they would know. I literally asked the guy for the bottle and then took it. And somehow, dumbfounded shock at my assholery progressed from gallows humour into something like acceptance. “Fuck it,” I mused. It was a free dinner. The bottle was intended as a giveaway. Were they really going to care all that much? The guy who won didn’t even know what Utopias was. The restaurant was going to get their social media love. Samuel Adams had gotten lots of coveted “exposure” and most of the people there were going to write articles about the restaurant’s opening. The PR company that had set the whole thing up got everything they wanted. Was anyone really going to care about one little bottle of beer?
By the time Mark dropped me off, I still felt stupid, but I was definitely less appalled by my behaviour than when I had first hit the sidewalk. Mark and I laughed and shook our heads one last time and I convinced myself I’d probably never even hear about that bottle of Utopias.
I put my key in my front door and my phone buzzed as I received a text. It was the head of the PR company that had invited me to the dinner.
Because it is again that time of year where we do this sort of thing, here are the topics that I think will shape the conversation as it relates to beer, especially in Ontario, in 2019.
The failure of DME Brewing Solutions
In late November, I wrote here about the receivership status of Diversified Metal Engineering (DME), one of North America’s biggest manufacturers of brewing equipment. In that post, I suggested that there would be many breweries–Canadian and otherwise–effected by this closure. Shortly after I wrote about the issue, Josh Rubin of the Toronto Star wrote about the closure of DME and how it will effect local breweries, specifically the Indie Alehouse, whose owner Jason Fisher told the Star he was waiting for about $800,000 worth of brewing equipment to expand his brewery that he was now unlikely to ever see. Shortly thereafter, Good Beer Hunting picked up the story, expanding on it and chatting with a handful of Canadian brewers. In that story, GBH noted that DME owes “at least $20 million to 370 businesses and banks, and an unknown amount to another 382 individuals and companies.”
This is a story that will continue to have a ripple effect into 2019 and beyond as the brewers who are listed among the entities to which DME owes money will have a very difficult task opening or staying afloat without the equipment they ordered. Publicly available documents related to the receivership show a complete list of the individuals and companies who have money in flux with DME’s receivers and, among the long list, is a handful of Ontario breweries and/or brewery start-ups, including Canvas Brewing in Huntsville, Elora Brewing, Gateway City in North Bay, Avling Brewery on Queen West in Toronto — about whom blogTO has already written, five months ago, noting that “they have some sweet equipment from the BC-based company Newlands Systems, and [owner Max] Meighen says they’ll be getting the rest of their equipment (like tanks from yet another Canadian company, DME from P.E.I.) within the next two months.” Henry Blyth Farms Inc, which is the corporation name for Cowbell Brewery in Blyth is on the list, suggesting that new and sprawling brewery might have also already planning some changes, Prince Eddy’s Craft Brewery in Picton is on the list, as is Paris Brewing and Malting which appears to be the corporate name for a company called “Walking Plow Farm and Brewery” in Paris Ontario. Even Labatt’s is on the list of those DME owes, with an address listed at the location for Oland Brewery in Nova Scotia, suggesting the big brewery was planning updates to that facility.
West Coast brewers are taking a hit, too. Dan Webster, co-cofounder of Container Brewing, slated to open in East Vancouver in 2019, sent me a note after my post lamenting the need to now go off shore for equipment since economically-priced local options were no longer available. “It became clear to us that this whole process [i.e. receivership] would drag on a long time. While the financial hit of potentially losing our deposits is impactful to our startup business,” he told me, “delaying our opening would be more detrimental – waiting would be worse. So we made the decision to push on, move forward and seek alternative solutions to this problem.” So Webster will be importing Chinese equipment, then working with Innovative Stainless in Courtney, BC, a startup that imports equipment and updates it to meet North American standards. Other West Coast brewers effected include Central City Brewers & Distillers, Four Winds Brewing, Old Yale Brewing, and Wildeye Brewing.
It is, of course, tough to say how hard the DME receivership will hit all the brewers listed as creditors. Some of them will presumably be able to absorb the financial hit — I don’t see this shuttering Labatt’s, for instance, and the folks at Cowbell sold off one of Canada’s largest propane companies to start the brewery so I don’t think they’ll be eating cat food anytime soon — but it will certainly register as a dip in the growth of craft beer in Ontario, Canada, and beyone. Big Bend Brewing Co in Alpine Texas, for example, announced their closure via instagram on Decemeber 21 as a direct result of losing $1 million in deposits to DME.
And while I am of course approaching the issue from the perspective of a beer consumer who is friendly with beer industry people that have been hit by this, it’s worth noting that, aside from how this closure will impact the beer that gets to our collective bearded suckholes in 2019, let’s also remember there are 335+ people working for DME who found out a few weeks before Christmas that they are out of a job. In addition to DME out east and NSI in the west, DME owns companies in the US. I received a note from the family member of an employee of Accent Stainless Steel in Loris, South Carolina, a company owned by DME. The employee told me that those who work at Accent Stainless Steel received a final paycheck, but the payment was then reversed, the receiver is allegedly refusing to pay employees, and won’t provide any details on what happens next. This employee expressed anxiety about having lost not only a job, but health insurance, and wages owed.
And while I’m sure breweries will find new ways to order and buy equipment, this closure, in my opinion will have a long-lasting impact on people in and around the beer industry.
Weed (again) Legalized cannabis in Ontario topped my list of probable game changers last year and, frankly, I’m not sure it has impacted the beer industry yet so I’m putting it on here again. Legalized pot has begun to change the craft beer landscape a little, but to my mind, not to the extent that it likely will in 2019. I’ve noticed, for example, a handful of beer writers attempting to transition to also covering cannabis (which to me is sort of ironically ambitious), Steam Whistle brewery president Andy Burgess told Bloomberg in November that the company is in discussions with cannabis companies and those discussions “have included the possibility of producing cannabis-infused beverages and launching a Steam Whistle brand of cannabis.” Molson-Coors has officially teamed with a cannabis producer to develop non-alcoholic cannabis-infused beer, Constellation Brands and Heineken have also signed deals with Canadian cannabis producers. And locally, a company, Province Brands of Canada, seems to be telling every media outlet that will listen that they are developing “the world’s first beers brewed from the cannabis plant.” That claim seems pretty dubious given the lengthy history of both beer and cannabis and the recreational activities of most home brewers I know, but that hasn’t stopped Province from announcing partnership deals with the contract brewing company Lost Craft, , Yukon Brewing, Bell City, and an agreement to brew cannabis beer exclusively for “Ayre Resorts, a new collection of five-star properties opening its first resort in Antigua in 2021,” plus touting a “123,000 square foot production facility in Grismby” that I can’t seem to find an address for.
Frankly, there are still a lot of question marks related to “weed beer” for me, not the least of which being that the company that is trying to lead the conversation in Ontario is setting off almost all my bullshit alarms and might just end up being the Parkdale Brewery of cannabis. There is also the fact that I don’t think any of the weed/beer products I’ve heard about could actually be classified as beer, plus the fact that I’m not even sure people who like to get high are all that interested in drinking their weed. But for me, the biggest question mark is that I have not yet heard of anyone who has successfully cut down the absorption rate for ingested cannabis to make it take effect as quickly as alcohol. I don’t think anyone wants to drink a “beer” then wait 30 to 60 minutes to get high like you might with an edible.
All that is to say, I still predict cannabis will have an effect on the beer industry in Ontario in 2019 once edibles become legal — and probably not for very long. When government regulations make edibles (and drinkables) legal, companies like Steam Whistle, Amsterdam, Muskoka, and Great Lakes will have some strategy to take advantage (and likely already do). And a handful of smaller breweries will follow suit. They will all introduce one or two “beers” that get you high. Some will be good, some will be bad. They will be a thing for a while…and then they won’t.
Premier DoFo Entering his seventh month as Premier of Ontario, Douglas Robert Ford is beginning to reveal his election platform to the province and, among the string of deep cuts to services for Ontario’s most vulnerable and scaling back environmental protections, that platform has included a few announcements related to beer.
The first of which, of course, was the infamous “buck-a-beer” announcement wherein the Premier told people Ontario was going to get dollar beer again, when in actuality the province just lowered the allowable price at which brewers could sell. Unsurprisingly, almost no brewers took him up on the challenge to take a loss selling their product and/or brew bargain basement shitty beer to help Ford fulfill an election promise. The three brewers that did opt to stoop a pandering marketing ploy may or may not have had other motives, as I’ve speculated elsewhere. Today, Cool Brewery in Etobicoke, a contract brewing facility that is also trying to get into the cannabis oil extraction business, is the only brewery still offering “buck-a-beer” in Ontario.
Additionally, in December, Premier Ford’s government announced that they would be extending the hours that retail beer would be available in Ontario. “The people’s government” heralded their own efforts to bring retail alcohol to the masses from 9am – 11pm seven days a week. This too is, unfortunately, something of a non-announcement. Before this change, the LCBO, grocery stores, and Beer Stores were already allowed to be open from 9am to 11pm Monday to Saturday, and from 11am to 6pm on Sunday, and it would appear only a fraction of LCBOs are actually extending their hours. Of the 660 LCBO stores serving communities across Ontario, only 50 will have extended hours in 2019 (one LCBO for the 385,000 people of London, Ontario for example), and so that 9am – 11pm for the people is actually something more like, uh, “seven per cent of LCBOs will now be open seven extra hours one day a week.” Hooray?
Of course, this is a list of things that will shape the conversation in 2019, so I have to mention that yes, actually, there is the potential for DoFo to enact a notable change — potentially one of the most sweeping changes possible to Ontario’s beverage alcohol industry. 2019 might be the year Ontario moves to allow for the sale of beer and wine in convenience stores. The province has said it is developin
g a plan to expand the sale of beer and wine to corner stores, grocery stores, and big-box stores, and has invited consumers, businesses, and others to have their say on the rules by completing a survey (which, by the way, you should totally do, please. Go here. Provide your input before February 1st).
I actually have a feeling the Ontario government will find a way to get this done this year. The realities of Ford’s “fiscal conservatism” aren’t exactly shaping up as he’d promised on the campaign trail. In fact,
[t]he budget deficit in Canada’s most populous province is poised to jump almost 50 per cent to $18.7 billion (US$14.3 billion) in 2019-20 from this fiscal year under plans by new Premier Doug Ford, according to a report from Toronto-Dominion Bank.
locations near your local brewery — which would likely hurt brewers’ onsite retail sales– and I think it would almost certainly mean that the big brewers would find a way to use their marketing muscle to dominate yet another retail avenue (I picture Bud Light branded fridges at corner stores, Molson Canadian partnerships with Wal-Mart Canada, etc).
On the plus side, of course, it would mean competition and greater access and, presumably, some beer-loving entrepreneurs would opt to create beer-haven convenience stores like some of the Deps in Montreal. I would imagine the Morana family of Volo/Keep6/Cask Days fame would jump at the chance to open a retail store in Toronto and Cass Enright of Bartowel fame has mused to me over beers about how he might procure a grocery store just to sell great beer. Opening up alcohol sales to corner stores would mean that everyone — from crack-pipe-selling Hasty Market owners to the entrepreneurs who might want to import Belgian goodies — would have the chance to do so.
Given that this is Ontario though, I’m not going to count my retail alcohol chickens before they hatch (Mmmm. Alcohol chicken). It would be foolish, for example, to think that the lobbyists representing the Beer Store would be happy about this push, and more foolish still to think the unions representing Beer Store and LCBO employees would react with anything other than fervent opposition to broadly expanded booze sales. Warren “Smokey” Thomas, the head of OPSEU, the union representing LCBO employees, has already spoken out against retail expansion on multiple occasions. When grocery store sales were first discussed by the Wynne government in 2016, OPSEU released a statement expressing fear that the greater access to alcohol would lead to increased “heart and liver disease, cancer, accidents, traffic fatalities, domestic violence, child abuse, depression and suicide.” Oy.
“We’d like the LCBO to create its own security force. And the training would be specific to the retail experience of the LCBO so that they could preserve that experience, enhance it and hopefully prevent thefts and keep people safe.”
In short, DoFo will probably get beer into corner stores in Ontario this year (probably by simply announcing it is so and letting shit sort itself out) but I predict, much like the DME fallout, the intersection of beer and cannabis, it is going to be very messy.
Earlier tonight, the government of PEI announced that Diversified Metal Engineering (DME) has been thrown into receivership.
DME operates two brewery equipment manufacturers, Newlands Systems (NSI) in Abbotsford, BC, and DME Brewing Solutions in Charlottetown. They represent one of the largest brewing manufacturers in North America and, between them, the companies have built more than 1,600 breweries.
PEI’s Minister of Workforce and Advanced Learning, Sonny Gallant, along with Economic Development and Tourism Minister Chris Palmer issued a written statement tonight, saying they were aware of the company’s receivership.
With the news, the growth of craft beer in the country might be about take a hit, and there is potential that more than a few current craft breweries could face financial problems from which they will not be able to recover.
The merger of DME and Newlands in 2016 was backed by Clearspring Capital Partners, a private equity firm. At the time of that deal, Zac McIsaac, who was then the Senior Vice President of Clearspring Capital Partners, was quoted in a release as saying, ““The merger is transformative. Two storied Canadian businesses, one the market leader in the east, the other the leader in the west, have come together to support the craft movement.”
Now, just two short years later, the merger of these two 25-year-old companies has led to their dissolution. A CBC article from earlier this year detailed how craft beer was helping DME grow and noted “the company doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.” DME even had a booth at the Ontario Craft Brewers conference in Toronto just a few weeks ago marketing their services to local Ontario brewers. To hear that the company, so entrenched in craft beer and actively soliciting business so recently, is closing will come as a shock to many in the industry. The closure is perhaps even more shocking given that it comes so quickly after that 2016 merger and an infusion of cash from a private equity firm. This suggests to me that something profoundly shitty has been going on behind the scenes at DME for some time now and surely there will be more to this story in the days that follow.
The company employs about 165 people in Charlottetown, 150 in Abbotsford, and a couple dozen people in South Carolina as well and presumably these folks, who work with and service craft breweries in Canada, are now out of a job.
This in and of itself is bad news of course, but the receivership of DME also means that many breweries who were working to open or who were planning expansions with DME equipment may find themselves not only unable to proceed with that planned expansion, but also might find themselves over-extended in their investments of said expansions to the point that they might have to close their doors.
At the request of craft breweries I have spoken to who now find themselves in financial jeopardy as a result of this announcement, I won’t name names tonight, but since the news broke I have spoken to multiple brewery owners who have hundreds of thousands and in some cases over a million dollars invested in future brewing equipment from DME that they are now unlikely to ever see and who are now facing the very real prospect of bankruptcy.
It is tough to say how many breweries in Ontario or elsewhere might have been planning expansions with DME equipment and how many might have paid for that equipment in advance, but I predict that Canadian breweries might very well close as a result of tonight’s announcement and I predict that breweries that you may have been watching get built on social media might very well never open now.
There are of course other places Canadian breweries can buy brewing equipment, and the craft brewing industry in our country will no doubt continue to grow, but the news that DME is ostensibly gone today has very real potential to considerably shake up the current Canadian craft beer landscape.