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Craft beer is booming in North America and, while the industry is fun and vibrant and its growth is doing much to support local economies, did you know that a recently-released study can be very narrowly interpreted to imply that beer is healthy?

It’s true! According to A Professor at Whatever Fucking University did a study that got picked up by the newswire this time, beer has significant health benefits.

“Sure, beer has healthy things in it,” says Professor, in a severely truncated quote I cherry-picked to support my flimsy thesis and traffic-grabbing headline.

The WFU study is interesting because it (probably) studies a large number of effects beer can have; but I am writing about the study solely for the small section of it that reiterates the fact beer contains vitamin B or antioxidants or I am possibly learning for the first time that small doses of beer contribute to better bone density or can prevent or delay osteoporosis. I really only read the study’s abstract and I have a column to file and so here we are saying beer is health food.

I am, of course, wholly ignoring statistics showing that long term heavy drinking contributes to a number of personal health, social, and societal ills and recent studies that show even small amounts of alcohol consumption can up a person’s risk for certain cancers and, instead, I’ve seized on to a tiny tidbit of this particular study to create a headline that will appeal to my drinking readers’ confirmation bias. Don’t think about your poor health, expanding waistline, and poor sleeping habits, because headline!

This is the bottom part of the article that clearly states that the study was based on “moderate consumption of beer” which is way less than you actually consume but it doesn’t matter because you’ve already shared this article on social media with a joke about you being healthy because your friends know you’re a borderline alcoholic.

*before you get all “Jeez, Ben is so negative all the time,” please note: I love beer. I support beer. I drink a lot of beer and support your choices to consume it responsibly, too. Irresponsibly sometimes as well. Beer is a lot of great things, but let’s stop pretending that it’s health food.

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Craft beer is booming in North America and, while the industry is fun and vibrant and its growth is doing much to support local economies, did you know that a recently-released study can be very narrowly interpreted to imply that beer is healthy?

It’s true! According to A Professor at Whatever Fucking University did a study that got picked up by the newswire this time, beer has significant health benefits.

“Sure, beer has healthy things in it,” says Professor, in a severely truncated quote I cherry-picked to support my flimsy thesis and traffic-grabbing headline.

The WFU study is interesting because it (probably) studies a large number of effects beer can have; but I am writing about the study solely for the small section of it that reiterates the fact beer contains vitamin B or antioxidants or I am possibly learning for the first time that small doses of beer contribute to better bone density or can prevent or delay osteoporosis. I really only read the study’s abstract and I have a column to file and so here we are saying beer is health food.

I am, of course, wholly ignoring statistics showing that long term heavy drinking contributes to a number of personal health, social, and societal ills and recent studies that show even small amounts of alcohol consumption can up a person’s risk for certain cancers and, instead, I’ve seized on to a tiny tidbit of this particular study to create a headline that will appeal to my drinking readers’ confirmation bias. Don’t think about your poor health, expanding waistline, and poor sleeping habits, because headline!

This is the bottom part of the article that clearly states that the study was based on “moderate consumption of beer” which is way less than you actually consume but it doesn’t matter because you’ve already shared this article on social media with a joke about you being healthy because your friends know you’re a borderline alcoholic.

*before you get all “Jeez, Ben is so negative all the time,” please note: I love beer. I support beer. I drink a lot of beer and support your choices to consume it responsibly, too. Irresponsibly sometimes as well. Beer is a lot of great things, but let’s stop pretending that it’s health food.

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There’s something great about an awful bar.

As a beer writer, and one that has—admittedly—adopted tastes and a tone of voice in my over half a decade of semi-professional drinks writing that some folks have interpreted as rather snobby, I am almost as surprised to admit it as you might be to hear it: I sometimes love going to terrible bars.

And make no mistake, I’m not talking about “dive bars;” that subset of drinking establishments that are sometimes (and more often than not, intentionally) a little rough around the edges, but have a redeeming quality like amazing tacos, great draught, cool cocktails, etc.

No.

I mean that much larger swath of establishments that pepper most north american landscapes both suburban and metropolitan and that, from a snobby alcohol-enthusiast’s point of view at least, really have no redeeming qualities.

They are those franchise pubs where we all cut our teeth drinking and where you’re likely still occasionally dragged for a work acquaintance’s birthday or a post-organized-sports pitcher. They’re sporty, named after two disparate nouns or have a vaguely Irish last name  — Pucks, The Rug and Thistle, O’Sullivan’s.

They have cheap wing nights, karaoke, a clock counting down to St. Patrick’s day. Big corporate branding shamelessly adorns every sticky surface; a tacky plastic archive of years of visits from beer reps with expense accounts and a few kegs to unload. They’re the kind of places where the food is almost never what you want and exactly what you expect: big, fried, heavy, and available with inappropriate amounts of sauce for drizzling/dipping/Buffalo-ing. Where they serve Pepsi in heavy, branded 16oz shaker pints and they scoop the ice right out of the well using the glass.

The usual industrial lagers are on tap and often interspersed with the Diageo line-up of imports; Guinness, Kilkenny, Harp, and Smithwicks; and there are way too many porous surfaces— funky cushioned booths and, inexplicably, carpeted floors.

Theses places are of course, most often bastardized versions of an “Irish” pub, or what the rest of the world came to think an Irish pub was supposed to look like in the 1990s when huge American and Canadian restaurant operators started setting up Guinness and nacho purveyors across the continent. And it is perhaps that cookie-cutter sameness that I find endearing.

Because awful bars are at least a known entity. Sure, I know it’s a shitty experience through that door, but at least I know it’s a shitty experience I’ve had a hundred times before. Awful franchise bars are akin to the hospitality industry version of sweat pants and a pair of crocs. They’re not fancy, but they’re not expensive, and sure they’re embarrassing to be seen in, but god damn it, they’re comfortable. There’s something inviting about awful bars for those times when you don’t want to think about anything and, in this sense, I think of them as a sort of monument to the last gasps of restaurant-goers who just don’t want to think too much about their dining decisions. Indeed, they might all have the same slogan; “Ah, fuck it. Fine.”

My weird occasional fondness for these sorts of places is also, surely, some parts nostalgia. There is rarely a beer on tap I like and I’m certain to feel like garbage after I eat there, but these bars appeal to a baser part of me that remains from a time before I knew better.

Because before we were beer snobs, before our expectations for a night out involved 25 local beers on tap, a late night snack menu that included warm olives and truffle popcorn, and the possibility of a bourbon cocktail nightcap crafted by a mixologist who shaves her own distilled ice, weren’t we all creatures of shitty bars? We all had nights both regrettable and important in regrettable bars that at the time felt important. They were the arenas of our youth in which we were allowed to make the sorts of stupid decisions that later become fond memories. What was her name again? Why were we doing jaeger shots?

If I can help it, sure, I tend to avoid awful bars. And, indeed, it seems to be becoming easier and easier to do so as consumers, and even franchise owners, wise up. In 2012, for example the Firkin chain of pubs underwent a makeover to give its establishments a “Cool Britannia” vibe and essentially covered up the balsamic-vinegar stained carpets with Union Jack-adorned furniture and robbed Torontonians of a handful of some of my favourite awful bars (by making them a different kind of awful). And every other franchise bar and restaurant seems to be tacking craft offerings or some sort of artisanal add-on menu and trying to obfuscate their awfulness.

Obviously, publicans upping their beer game and trying to stay up to date in terms of their menu and decor is a good thing for consumers over-all, but sometimes I still yearn for a no-nonsense, truly awful bar. The world needs those bars with that kethupy, bleachy, beer-fart aroma and the too-loud sounds of a drunk dude ripping Livin’ On a Prayer off-key on karaoke night. We need those places that offer no more and no less than a shaker pint of Keith’s, some potato skins, and maybe a round of Golden Tee.

We need those bars that are awful.

Because they’re great.

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It’s almost Valentine’s Day and whether you’re revelling in your choice to be single, lamenting your fate at being alone, or ironing your dancing pants and putting the finishing touches on your plans with that special someone, we beer lovers all have one thing in common this time of year: We’re being bombarded with clumsy and desperate attempts by marketers and beer writers alike to bring together the idea of beer and valentines in a transparent attempt to create some topical traffic and/or brand engagement. Because romance.

Some of these savvy communicators and influencers will recommend beers with red fruit in them since these beers have a red-tinged appearence appropriate to the heart-themed occasion (fun!) and some might do a round-up of local beers that have love in their name, hearts on their label, or involve a cheeky reference to sex (sexy!).

Of course, as is the case every year, far more of these fellow creative types are likely to produce a litany of phoned-in listicles explaining to us, once again, why this is a great time of year to pair some dark beer with some chocolate.

Ugh.

Aside from the fact that this pairing is lazy and cliched, I have always found it problematic. Mostly because of the fact that dark beers and chocolates don’t actually pair all that well. Yes, I said it. And I’ll add that everyone who attempts to shoehorn “dark beer” into some catchall category as a fitting accompaniment to valentine’s chocolate is either devoid of tastebuds or falls in the aforementioned categories of people required to file a beer-related column this week or people who need to deliver on impressive impressions or click-through rates.

First, yes, I’ll admit, I largely find all “candy and beer” pairings a little gross (a fact I’ve alluded to elsewhere). It seems like an unnecessary attempt to put two things together simply because you like them both. And as a man who is still working on a hot dog Cinnabon prototype, I can tell you this is often an excerise in futility.

But I have a particular disdain for the choclate and stout or even porter marriage. Yes, obviousy rich, complex beers with chocolate notes can be amazing. But when you eat chocolate with them, you tend to knock the chocolatey sweetness out of the beer and an otherwise excellent and balanced beer becomes astringent or overly-bitter. For this reason, I tend to hate the assumption that “like” always pairs with “like.” I don’t eat guava when I’m drinking a guava sour, for god’s sake. So why do lazy people always assume dark, chocolaty beer pairs with chocolate?

So, if you feel the need to pair beer and chocolate this Valentine’s Day, my advice to you is simple: Don’t.

But, if for some fucked up reason you really feel that you must have both beer and choclate at the same god damned time, why not get creative, ignore the newspaper columns and press releases offering unsolicited stout and chocolate pairings and, instead, try to find some interesting contrasts that might highlight the beer and the chocolate rather than fuck up both of them?

Here are three options that will hopefully inspire you to get a little more creative and tame your chocolate and beer cravings next week, regardless of whether or not you have a valentine to share them with.

Fruit lambics and dark chocolate
Because chocolate typically knocks the sweetness out of a beer, why not opt for an exceptionally sweet beer and a subtly sweet, almost bitter chocolate? A kriek or framboise lambic and a chunk of good dark chocolate make a good pairing. It’s not always easy to come by in Ontario, but if you can get your hands on Lindemans Kriek it’ll do nicely. The chocolate won’t overwhelm the sweetness of the flavoured lambic and will highlight the complex acidity of the beer. It’s like chocolate cake with fruit sauce. But with alcohol. Like a page from your degenerate dream journal.

A crisp pilsner and salted caramel chocolates.
Cloyingly sweet chocolates tend to coat the palate and give you that sort of heavy tongue feeling. Why not wash down fistfuls of sweet caramel-y chocolate with a refreshing and palate cleansing pilsner like Vim & Vigor from Tooth and Nail Brewery? If you can find salted caramel chocolates, you’ll also get all the satisfying salty refreshment you usually get when you’re inhaling pretzels with a cold beer. You really don’t easy very well, by the way. Try a fucking vegetable, would you?

Milk chocolate and bright, citrusy IPAs A key to pairing food (and presumably also chocolate) with beer is to always try to match intensities. If the chocolate you’re eating is intense but the beer is mild, you won’t gain anything from the pairing as one element will dominate. So try matching and contrasting sweet milk chocolate with your favourite intense, aromatic, bitter IPA. Something like Sawdust City’s Twin Pines Imperial IPA would pair well with a bar of pure milk chocolate. The creamy chocolate will again coat your palate, but the biting hop bitterness of Twin Pine will cut the sweetness and you’ll find that, with the chocolate dialling back the subtle-sweet malt backbone, the beer’s grassy, citrusy notes get a chance to pop even more. Just resist the urge to dunk the chocolate bar in the beer. Have some restraint.

What are your suggested beer and chocolate pairing ideas? 

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It’s once again that time of year when some among us, having just barely made it through the holidays, like the smoldering wreck of a car crawling over the finish line of an endurance race, attempt to seek some relief by embarking on what is commonly referred to as “Dry January.”

While it is a common occurrence every year, it never gets any easier. And so I thought, even though the month is half finished, it might be a good idea to address the difficulties of dry January with a quick guide. Hopefully, with my suggestions, you will survive the next two weeks and you will never again have to struggle with the annual difficulties of figuring out just how to react to and behave around a friend who has made the unfortunate decision to abstain from alcohol for 30 days.

First, know that you are not alone. Many other people have gone through what you’re going through and you too will get through your friend’s brief flirtation with sobriety.

It helps to recognize the stages you’ll likely go through upon hearing that a friend of yours will no longer be up for afternoon sessions or might miss four Friday night piss ups. These feelings are not dissimilar to the five stages of grief, to wit:

Denial: “You don’t want a beer? You’re joking.”
Anger: “Just have a fucking drink with me!”
Bargaining: “Oh come on, you can have wine with dinner.”
Depression: “I’m just so sad we can’t go out to the pub.”

Together we’ll get to stage five: Pity.

For while your inclination to mock or berate might come from a good place, you need to understand that your friend has made a foolish, foolish decision and will be missing out, voluntarily, for an entire month. As the great Francis Albert Sinatra once said, “I feel sorry for people that don’t drink because when they wake up in the morning, that is the best they’re going to feel all day.” I encourage you to think of these sentiments from Ol’ Blue Eyes when it comes to your suffering friend and also, take heed of these five crucial tips.

1) Avoid asking them if “they miss it.” Depending on how long they have been dry, they are almost certain to tell you that they are surprised to find that don’t miss it at all or, worse, to regale you with tales of how great they feel, how much more energy they have, or how they didn’t realize how much they could accomplish by waking up with a clear head. These sentiments are, of course, bald-faced lies. Your friends don’t really feel all that much better and, instead, they are attempting to trick you so that you will join them in their misery. They face the end of each day in January with nothing more to comfort them than their own insecurities and anxieties. You have the reassurance of a tall pint of lager or an icy tumbler of gin, should you so wish. Of course they fucking miss it. Do them and yourselves a favour and just don’t bring it up.

2) Be considerate when hosting your newly-boring friend. When entertaining a Dry Januarian, in addition to real drinks for normal people, be sure to have interesting non-alcoholic offerings on hand. This is the time to bring up that tetra-pak of juice from your basement, claw the old Clamato bottle out from the back of your fridge, or to dust off that bitters kit you got for Christmas two years ago to add a few dashes of the stuff to club soda. Your sober friend will be so grateful at the effort you’ve made that he or she is likely to pretend the concoction actually tastes decent in order to spare your feelings. Resist the urge to buy non-alcoholic beer. The majority of the stuff on the market in Canada is an attempt to replicate Blue, Budweiser, or Carlsberg and is thus, intolerable. The good stuff, mostly made in Europe where apparently people care enough about teetotalers to market to them, will only remind them that beer is, of course, delicious and will thus likely be seen as an attempt to sabotage their efforts.

3) But don’t be too considerate. Entertaining a friend who is taking a break from drinking can be a dangerous undertaking. Without the effects of alcohol alerting them of the hour, it might be difficult for your friend to know when it is time to leave and you could find them lingering long after the other guests have headed home for spirited, booze-fueled sexual intercourse or a sweet, drunken slumber. Be a little stingy with those non-alcoholic offerings. A guest is much more likely to hit the road if they look down and notice that their glass is empty. And really, what’s the use in filling them up? It is just juice after all. What’s the fucking point? Besides, they probably have to get up pretty early to get a start on feeling holier than thou.

4) Consider meeting at places that don’t revolve around alcohol. Because of the inherent danger of lingering sober friends, it might be a better idea to meet somewhere public. Obviously, the pub won’t do.   Try to think of places to meet where your friend won’t feel left out surrounded by people drinking, and that are normal places to meet during the day. Ideally, the spot you choose will have nice coffee or decent food so that, when you have another friend text you with a made up emergency, you’ll feel alert and refreshed and have something in your stomach to duck out and down a few quick pints.

5) Think of the real value of true friendship. When it comes to talking to your friend who has decided to undertake a dry January, consider how important your friendship with this person is. Your friend has made a personal choice that he or she truly believes will improve his or her health and is looking to you for support. This is your friend. If you take sincere and realistic stock of what it is you value most about the majority of your friendships, I truly believe you will find that your best tactic in supporting your friends’ efforts is to offer them words of encouragement near the beginning of January and then, when they’ve come around, to give them a call in February for a few drinks and see how they fared.

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The Morrissey House, on Dundas Street in downtown London, is a decidedly decent place to drink. It’s a cozy, multi-room spot in a one of the classic two-storey yellow brick victorian homes for which this area is known. It has that familiar, mismatched-furniture, just-slightly-dingy vibe of a no-nonsense pub. There’s rib-sticking fare on the menu, they host things like trivia nights—it feels like a lot of other pubs you’ve visited. Except in London, it’s not really like those other pubs. That’s because, in 2014, owner Mark Serré stopped buying any draught from The Beer Store and now deals directly with local brewers. So unlike that place you’re nostalgic for from your time at University, The Mo, as its known to some who frequent it, forgoes the ubiquitous shitty lineup of Stella, Coors, and Rickards and instead boasts 18 draught options from Ontario’s craft breweries.

There is also increasing evidence that, in addition to being a quite decent place to drink, it’s run by decent people. Case in point, the Mo’s new “Mind the Gap” Mondays promotion.

On January 6th, in a blog post on The Moirrssey’s website, Serré announced that Mondays would henceforth be dedicated to bringing awareness to the gender pay equity gap in Canada. His concept is pretty simply: Because women are paid, on average, 13% less than men in this country, any woman visiting The Morrissey House on Mondays will enjoy a 13% discount on her lunch or dinner.

Now clearly this move is a couple of things: First, yes, let’s get my requisite cynicism out for the way, this is marketing. Since Serré introduced the idea on his blog, he’s enjoyed a lot of attention for the business that he owns, and it’s probably not a mistake that this weekly series will fall on a Monday, a typically slow day for hospitality. This will unquestionably improve his bottom line. So, in fact, hey, it’s good marketing.

Second though, and more importantly, it’s actually marketing that’s working to start an important conversation.

I listened to a CBC London segment on the radio Tuesday morning discussing how women might broach the conversation of the pay gap in their own workplace and the segment was a direct result of the Mo’s initiative (an article, it turns out, followed).

When I talked to Serré Tuesday evening, he told me he’s fielded interview inquiries from Toronto and Hamilton radio, has seen the story on BuzzFeed and Grub Street has had messages from Denmark and Australia. I spotted the item today on the BBC.

Hilariously, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a fragile, fragile man has already emailed the Morrissey House to complain about Serré’s promotion and has indicated that he would be submitting a claim to the Ontario Human Rights Commission over what he feels is a discriminatory promotion. Evidently this man, whom I’m speculating has a laughably small penis, is unable to see the irony in crying discrimination over the issue of one gender having different economic expectations and has likewise never heard of the concept of ladies’ nights or seniors’ discounts and must slap his nephew in his entitled little face when he gets a free desert at Jack Astor’s on his birthday. And so I wish that man and his probably minuscule pecker the best of luck in his endeavours.

Serré tells me that last night, the first Mind the Gap Monday, went extremely well. “It was a really good atmosphere,” he says. “Everyone was happy–which is not always the case. A lot of good conversation about it as well. For a snow day, especially after doing eight years of quiz where we turned diners away, I was really pleased.” [Serré made the decision to swap out a long-standing trivia night on Mondays].

In addition to the 13% discount, The Morrissey House is donating a portion of every Monday’s gross sales to local organizations like AnovaMy Sisters Place, Life Spin, the London Abused Women’s Centre, and others. As for a goal, Serré’s decided on $5000 to start, and he’s already tweaked the concept: “We have a new idea that we are going to implement next week: If you do not want to take the discount, we can add the [discounted amount] to the donation.”

As for his almost-certainly shockingly poorly-endowed critic, Serré is mostly just thankful the lil’ snowflake decided to raise a stink. “The great and ironic thing,” he tells me, “is if that first guy had not voiced his displeasure and threatened the OHRC, I am pretty sure the conversation does not get started.”

Mind the Gap Mondays will also feature a rotating tap of $5.25 pints and a $5 corkage fee to bring your own bottle. Yesterday’s discounted pint was Amsterdam’s new “2018” Traditional Pilsner.

See you ladies and fellow secure male allies next Monday!

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In February of 2007 Labatt Brewery, owned by AB InBev, purchased Hamilton’s Lakeport Brewery for $201 million. In March of 2010 they announced that they would be closing the Hamilton facility and shifting production of all Lakeport brands to the London, Ontario Labatt’s facility.

This is, obviously, pretty old news but I had occasion to revisit it recently for a forthcoming article and thought it was worth sharing again for a couple reasons. First, there is probably many a craft beer fan who hasn’t actually been following beer news since 2010 and might not know the tale and second, it’s pretty remarkable to consider that 2010 moment in Hamilton’s beer scene given how far it has come since.

As Hamiltonians will remember, there was some uncertainty about what might happen at the Lakeport facility when its closure was announced, and Labatt did offer some incentives to future lessees of the brewery with one important caveat: Whoever took over the building next could not be a brewer. And so, when companies like Calgary-based Minhas Creek Brewing Company announced interest in the space, Labatt declined, allegedly shooting down a total of three beer company offers, including one from Rochester-based North American Breweries that would have saved all the jobs at the facility and likely even created more. Instead, Labatt opted to shutter the doors on the facility until the lease expired and they fired 143 people.

This part of the story is fairly well known (indeed, I essentially cribbed this summary from a handful of articles that were written at the time), but what most people might not now is just how much effort Labatt put into ensuring no one would brew in the facility once they left it.

In 2014, the facility was of course eventually leased by the Hamilton Port Authority to what was then a partnership between Collective Arts Brewing and Nickel Brook Brewing. When they took over the space, they found conditions less than ideal.

I spoke with Ryan Morrow, Brewmaster for Collective Arts. “It’s debatable to say that InBev directly ‘sabotaged’ the facility,” he says, though he admits that the previous owners “did not leave any equipment or infrastructure in place for another brewer to use.”

“They left torch marks all over where you could see they removed almost every piece of metal in the place,” he says. And what they couldn’t take with them wasn’t in any condition for use. “They definitely poured concrete into some of the existing drains,” he says, though he again falls short of pointing fingers.  “As for their reason for doing so, I cannot say. It took us many months just to get the building into shape enough to allow us to start moving equipment in.”

And what became of all that equipment they yanked out?

“As the story goes,” Morrow says, “InBev destroyed most of the tanks and equipment, rather than repurpose any of it. We have some current employees who worked at Lakeport at the time they closed it down, who were there to witness it first hand. You can imagine for any long-time person working there how emotional it was to see people come into your workplace and destroy everything about your job that you had for years. A lot of tears were shed that day.”

It should also be noted here that Collective Arts bought much of their current equipment from the Sapporo-owned Sleeman brewery that shut down in Halifax in late 2013, providing an interesting contrast in corporate philosophies.  “Inbev, at least back then, would rather destroy perfectly good equipment than let another brewery use it, whereas Sapporo saw the benefit of selling the equipment to another user. “

And so, as is the gist of my forthcoming column, the fate of the Lakeport facility is yet another reminder (albeit a dated one) that, no, AB InBev is not interested in improving and expanding the beer industry, despite what press releases related to recent acquisitions might say. But it’s also interesting to note just how far Hamilton has come since.  When Labatt closed the Lakeport facility, Hamilton had enjoyed having a local brewer since before confederation. That particular facility had been in use as a brewery since 1947, and so this wasn’t merely significant for the loss of 143 jobs at a time when Hamilton had just experienced thousands of manufacturing industry layoffs, it was also a considerable loss for local beer.

So the fact that Collective Arts is still thriving there and has, in a very real sense, fostered a bad-ass beer scene around it is significant, and awesome.

Since 2014, Collective Arts has of course been joined by Fairweather Brewing, Grain and Grit and MERIT Brewing and there have been a handful of great restaurants and bars added to the Hammer’s already good roster too. It’s the reason that, when I recently spoke with Dan Johnston, Business Development Manager for Collective Arts, he joked “Hamilton is the new Brooklyn. Haven’t you heard?”

And while it is something of a cliche around Hamilton city council, who like the positive comparison of a once-gritty jurisdiction now fostering hip culture, Hamilton, as I’ve note previously, is actually kind of cool. There’s a decent transit system downtown and the city seems to be enjoying renewed interest in arts and culture. And, importantly, it’s attracting businesses who care.

“There’s an energy in our city that’s undeniable,” Tej  Sandhu, co-founder of MERIT, tells me via email. “Creativity has been a driving factor in so much of the city’s small business development over the past decade and adding a growing beer scene to already awesome culinary, cultural, and art scenes has been really exciting. One of the most exciting things to see is how passionate each brewery is about our city and how much care, attention, and dialogue there is around creating a healthy, creative, scene that sets a high bar for itself – not only with what we’re creating and serving, but also with respect to participating in our communities outside of our breweries.”

In other words, in the wake of Labatt pulling up stakes, Hamilton has done more than just move on. Both the city and its beer scene have clearly benefited proportionally in the interim from investment from companies who actually give a shit.

Image source.

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Because it’s that time of year, here are the things that I think are going to shape the conversation as it relates to beer, especially in Ontario, in 2018.

Weed
When it comes to the craft beer industry, it seems kind of crazy to me how little attention is being paid to the legalization of marijuana in Canada. To my mind it is impossible to suggest that the destiny of any meaningful changes to our beverage alcohol sector won’t now be intrinsically tied to all things pot.

Government resources are right now being dedicated to drafting new legislation, debating policies, and creating laws that will govern how each province will handle the prospect of legal weed. And if you’re a pot fan or a policy wonk, these are exciting times, but if you had any hope that you might see meaningful changes to your respective province’s liquor laws anytime soon, I’ve got some bad news for you: Much of the resources and political capital that would be needed for progress in the world of beer are going to be focused squarely on sticky-icky for a while.

Here in Ontario, it’s been with some degree of schadenfreude that I’ve watched my handful of pot-activist friends rage impotently on Facebook as the province has unveiled an increasingly legislated plan for weed that does away with independent companies in favour of heavy regulation. I feel compelled to ask Ontarians who are shocked by this development: Are you fucking new here?

Of course regulating weed and drawing an income off of it is what Ontario was always going to do. It’s…kind of our thing.

Ontario is in fact one of the few provinces that has opted to go fully privatized. BC and Alberta will have private dispensaries (BC notably already has more dispensaries than they do Starbucks) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba appear to be leaning toward private stores too. Weed here will be overseen by the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corp., which will be subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. So if you loved how handcuffed beer is to bureaucracy, lobbying, and union posturing, man, you’re going to love grabbing a bag of weed in Ontario.

On the plus side though, I also think pot will provide interesting new avenues for the craft beer industry. If you’ve met many brewers, you probably already know that many of them share an affinity for weed and while I’m not sure our province will ever legally allow THC-infused beer, the fact that every Ontarian will now be allowed to grow four plants for personal use will, at the very least, provide the legal means for many a blazing brewer to experiment with a new medium (and will almost certainly make home-brewed THC beer a more widespread reality, in my opinion).

Plus, you can definitely expect that many column inches will be filed by substance-enthusiastic writers exploring the new avenues provided by craft beer and weed pairings. This might be a pro or a con, depending on your views on beer writing, but surely someone is in a basement right now writing a craft and cannabis connoisseur’s guide.

Lastly, and to my mind probably most interestingly, the Ontario craft beer scene saw a few eyebrow-raising high-profile departures from the scene this past year. I have a suspicion some of those folks might be interested in once again playing a pioneering role in an exciting new industry. In fact, I’d bet decent money we might see something along the lines of “Three Fried Guys” or “Muskoka Cannabis Co.” in the next year or so.

Gerard Comeau, aka potentially the most important story in beer right now
This one also definitely gets filed under “why the fuck aren’t we all talking about this more,” and I too am guilty of not diving in, but there is literally a fight happening right now that could change the face of retail alcohol sales across all of Canada.

I’m taking of course about Gerard Comeau, a 64 year-old man from Tracadie, New Brunswick, who in 2012 stopped over the border in Quebec on the way to a friend’s house and purchase some booze. 14 cases of beer, two bottles of whisky, and a bottle of liqueur, to be precise. On his way back, Mr. Comeau was stopped as part of a sting operation and was slapped with a $292.50 fine.

This is because the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act sets a personal importation limit of 12 pints of beer or one bottle of wine or spirits, and Mr Comeau violated that rule, as he has done consistently so for about five years, by his own account.

Instead of paying his fine, Mr. Comeau demanded his day in court and he was was first heard in 2015, where he argued that the prohibition against transporting booze across provincial lines violated Section 121 of Canada’s Constitution Act, which promises free trade of goods between the promises. Mr Comeau won his case in provincial court and a Court of Appeal sent his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. And so, while at the heart of the matter is essentially a 64 year-old dude who doesn’t think he should have to pay his $300 fine, there’s actually a lot at stake here.

If the provincial ruling were to be upheld, it would basically mean that years and years of rulings related to interprovincial trade are being reversed and that, ostensibly, Canadians will be free to import, order, and fill their trunks with booze from any province they see fit. In other words, you might be able to order sours from Cascade Brewing and have them delivered to your door in Ontario and/or you might be able to hop in the car or go online and order goodies from your favourite/the cheapest beer retailer in Canada.

Is this actually going to happen? Well, probably not. Each province and a number of organizations that benefit from current trade barriers have already lined up to argue against Mr. Comeau, with provinces noting the important income their respective private liquor stores bring in that is then often spent on schooling, healthcare, and roads and they’ll also argue the always-important local jobs angle when booze retail becomes a national race to the bottom.

On the flip side though is that pesky little thing called “the will of the people.” An Ipsos Reid poll recently found that 89 per cent of respondents think they should be allowed to bring “any legally purchased product from one province to another,” and 78 per cent said “they think they should be able to bring any amount of beer or wine they buy in one province into another.”

This would of course also have serious implications on item (1) here, and a ruling consistent with the New Brunswick courts would presumably allow Canadians to order potentially cheaper BC and Alberta weed from private retailers instead of the forthcoming Ontario government shops. And you can probably imagine how eager most provincial governments are to see that sweet, sweet weed money they’ve been busy legislating to get their hands on go up in smoke (sorry).

Common sense and public sentiment don’t have the greatest track record against greed, decades of bureaucracy, and the will of big business, but a beer fan can hope, right?

Beer on the inter webs
The end of 2017 saw the beginning of an amazing trend wherein a slew of breweries seemed to realize they might do some brisk sales if they could make their products available for order online.

Perhaps encouraged by everyone’s favourite lil’ purveyors of sours, Half Hours on Earth, who were early adaptors of online sales given that they’re in fucking Seaforth, Ontario, it seems like almost everyone is getting on board with the idea of sending their beer in the mail. And it’s actually kind of shocking it’s taken this long, frankly. Faced with the difficulties getting beer onto LCBO or Beer Store shelves or keeping local grocers stocked, why not simply send the stuff directly to consumers?

If there is one thing the history of beer in Ontario has taught us it’s that retail sales will not be contained. Beer breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.

John Hammond: [sardonically] There it is.

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group of downtrodden craft brewers will…open their own stores?

Dr. Ian Malcolm: No. I’m, I’m simply saying that beer, uh… finds a way.

Old Dogs and New Tricks
Here’s where I’ll just make some random and baseless predictions, because that’s fun right?

I think a lot of bigger, older, and established craft breweries are going to try some weird shit this year. Muskoka Brewery, for example, has already quietly gotten into the spirits game and they have a gin on the market now based on the same botanicals that make up their Muskoka Oddity (It’s decent, by the way. They sent me a bottle and I’ve used to make both martinis and negronis over the holidays. It does better in the latter, by the way, with the funky, herbal notes lending themselves better to the Italian aperitif).

I feel like other breweries are going to start to mix it up, too. Whether it be brewery founders who might be a little bored, bigger companies trying to show they’re still innovative or people just trying to avoid market stagnation, I’m predicting new things from old brewers.

We’ll definitely see more brewers try their hand at spirits, likely in very small batches to start. I also feel like this is the year we will see Steam Whistle Brewery unveil a second beer. As for the details of style, I have no idea, but I’d also wager money we’ll see something like “Cam’s Ale” before 2019. I pray it’s not an amber.

If they can find a loophole to make the aforementioned THC beer legal, it will be a race between Amsterdam Brewery and Great Lakes Brewery to see who does it first.

I also think at least one Toronto brewery will partner with Uber or Lyft to provide same day delivery in a sort of “modern dial-a-bottle” extension of the current online ordering trend.

Bellwoods Brewery will open a third location called “BB’s Shake Shack” that will look like a 1950s malt shop and will exclusively sell milkshake IPAs.

OK, probably not that last one. I fucking hope.

As for general trends, I really hope this is the year beer in Ontario gets a little less “precious.”

I was of course joking about the aforementioned shake shack, but a lot of brewers seem to to be capitalizing on the FOMO attraction of small batches and limited releases. I don’t blame breweries like Bellwoods for it (why wouldn’t they keep making stuff you’re lining up for?) but I have a sense that urgency among consumers is going to fade. 2018 will hopefully be the year that people realize their time is maybe worth more than the prestige of being able to instagram one of a few $17-bottles of liquid. Don’t get me wrong, Ontario brewers are making beer worth lusting over, but ultimately, it’s just beer, right? Let’s chill a bit folks. It’s great, but we can order a lot of this shit online (via Lyft, probably) now.

And when it comes to the styles that I think we’ll see trending, I really don’t think we’ll see anything new rising up to surprisingly romance Ontario palates. Instead, I’d wager most Ontario breweries who don’t already have a New England Style IPA will add one to their lineup in 2018, which is cool I guess, and our burgeoning obsession with sours will evolve to include more of the dry-hopped variety and, presumably, more brewers will experiment with spontaneous fermentation and the addition of fresh fruit to their sour offerings.

I’d love it if some of the great breweries who have added capacity in the last couple years see fit to use some of that space for year-round nicely balanced lagers. You’d have to be stupid not to have noticed how quickly the craft beer sect took to Side Launch Mountain Lager once they were offered a new, well-made craft lager and a handful of other brewers made some nice Helles Lagers this year, notably, for me, Wellington, who even saw fit to put it in backyard friendly 355mL cans and Left Field, who’s Cannonball Munich Helles-style Lager is a beer I could literally drink every day. I think I predicted we’d see the pilsner rise in popularity last year, and while that didn’t really happen (Tooth and Nail and Dominion City’s awesome offerings notwithstanding) I’m still holding out for the inevitable rise of the well-balanced craft lawnmower beer.

More writing, please
Lastly, it is perhaps cliche for a blogger to suggest that he or she would like to produce more writing in the coming year, so I won’t do so, but I do promise to be a little more diligent in 2018 churning out the sort of stuff that has made me the darling of the Toronto Craft Beer Reddit forum.

I’d also love to see some new entries or approaches to an Ontario beer writing scene that can, at times, feel a little stale. That’s not to say there aren’t great things happening—Robin and Jordan have, of course, released the second edition of their Ontario Craft Beer Guide this year, Greg Clowe continues to steadfastly aggregate just about every piece of news you might want related to beer, a new print publication, MASH (for which, full disclosure, I am a contributing editor) has provided a glossy new space to read work from Crystal Luxmore, David Ort, Alan MacLeod and more, and, of course, Robert Arsenault, aka Drunk Polkaroo continues to passionately document his craft beer journey with an enthusiasm and consumption rate that is equal parts admirable and alarming.

But I do think there is room for more considered local commentary in Ontario’s scene. Maybe another book or two…We’ve probably got about all the “influencers” we need dutifully instagramming their beers in hopes of a free t-shirt or six pack, so I do hope some more folks will join in the conversation this year. It can be exhausting arguing with the same six people on twitter.

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There’s something great about an awful bar.

As a beer writer, and one that has—admittedly—adopted tastes and a tone of voice in my over half a decade of semi-professional drinks writing that some folks have interpreted as rather snobby, I am almost as surprised to admit it as you might be to hear it: I sometimes love going to terrible bars.

And make no mistake, I’m not talking about “dive bars;” that subset of drinking establishments that are sometimes (and more often than not, intentionally) a little rough around the edges, but have a redeeming quality like amazing tacos, great draught, cool cocktails, etc.

No.

I mean that much larger swath of establishments that pepper most north american landscapes both suburban and metropolitan and that, from a snobby alcohol-enthusiast’s point of view at least, really have no redeeming qualities.

They are those franchise pubs where we all cut our teeth drinking and where you’re likely still occasionally dragged for a work acquaintance’s birthday or a post-organized-sports pitcher. They’re sporty, named after two disparate nouns or have a vaguely Irish last name  — Pucks, The Rug and Thistle, O’Sullivan’s.

They have cheap wing nights, karaoke, a clock counting down to St. Patrick’s day. Big corporate branding shamelessly adorns every sticky surface; a tacky plastic archive of years of visits from beer reps with expense accounts and a few kegs to unload. They’re the kind of places where the food is almost never what you want and exactly what you expect: big, fried, heavy, and available with inappropriate amounts of sauce for drizzling/dipping/Buffalo-ing. Where they serve Pepsi in heavy, branded 16oz shaker pints and they scoop the ice right out of the well using the glass.

The usual industrial lagers are on tap and often interspersed with the Diageo line-up of imports; Guinness, Kilkenny, Harp, and Smithwicks; and there are way too many porous surfaces— funky cushioned booths and, inexplicably, carpeted floors.

Theses places are of course, most often bastardized versions of an “Irish” pub, or what the rest of the world came to think an Irish pub was supposed to look like in the 1990s when huge American and Canadian restaurant operators started setting up Guinness and nacho purveyors across the continent. And it is perhaps that cookie-cutter sameness that I find endearing.

Because awful bars are at least a known entity. Sure, I know it’s a shitty experience through that door, but at least I know it’s a shitty experience I’ve had a hundred times before. Awful franchise bars are akin to the hospitality industry version of sweat pants and a pair of crocs. They’re not fancy, but they’re not expensive, and sure they’re embarrassing to be seen in, but god damn it, they’re comfortable. There’s something inviting about awful bars for those times when you don’t want to think about anything and, in this sense, I think of them as a sort of monument to the last gasps of restaurant-goers who just don’t want to think too much about their dining decisions. Indeed, they might all have the same slogan; “Ah, fuck it. Fine.”

My weird occasional fondness for these sorts of places is also, surely, some parts nostalgia. There is rarely a beer on tap I like and I’m certain to feel like garbage after I eat there, but these bars appeal to a baser part of me that remains from a time before I knew better.

Because before we were beer snobs, before our expectations for a night out involved 25 local beers on tap, a late night snack menu that included warm olives and truffle popcorn, and the possibility of a bourbon cocktail nightcap crafted by a mixologist who shaves her own distilled ice, weren’t we all creatures of shitty bars? We all had nights both regrettable and important in regrettable bars that at the time felt important. They were the arenas of our youth in which we were allowed to make the sorts of stupid decisions that later become fond memories. What was her name again? Why were we doing jaeger shots?

If I can help it, sure, I tend to avoid awful bars. And, indeed, it seems to be becoming easier and easier to do so as consumers, and even franchise owners, wise up. In 2012, for example the Firkin chain of pubs underwent a makeover to give its establishments a “Cool Britannia” vibe and essentially covered up the balsamic-vinegar stained carpets with Union Jack-adorned furniture and robbed Torontonians of a handful of some of my favourite awful bars (by making them a different kind of awful). And every other franchise bar and restaurant seems to be tacking craft offerings or some sort of artisanal add-on menu and trying to obfuscate their awfulness.

Obviously, publicans upping their beer game and trying to stay up to date in terms of their menu and decor is a good thing for consumers over-all, but sometimes I still yearn for a no-nonsense, truly awful bar. The world needs those bars with that kethupy, bleachy, beer-fart aroma and the too-loud sounds of a drunk dude ripping Livin’ On a Prayer off-key on karaoke night. We need those places that offer no more and no less than a shaker pint of Keith’s, some potato skins, and maybe a round of Golden Tee.

We need those bars that are awful.

Because they’re great.

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It’s almost Valentine’s Day and whether you’re revelling in your choice to be single, lamenting your fate at being alone, or ironing your dancing pants and putting the finishing touches on your plans with that special someone, we beer lovers all have one thing in common this time of year: We’re being bombarded with clumsy and desperate attempts by marketers and beer writers alike to bring together the idea of beer and valentines in a transparent attempt to create some topical traffic and/or brand engagement. Because romance.

Some of these savvy communicators and influencers will recommend beers with red fruit in them since these beers have a red-tinged appearence appropriate to the heart-themed occasion (fun!) and some might do a round-up of local beers that have love in their name, hearts on their label, or involve a cheeky reference to sex (sexy!).

Of course, as is the case every year, far more of these fellow creative types are likely to produce a litany of phoned-in listicles explaining to us, once again, why this is a great time of year to pair some dark beer with some chocolate.

Ugh.

Aside from the fact that this pairing is lazy and cliched, I have always found it problematic. Mostly because of the fact that dark beers and chocolates don’t actually pair all that well. Yes, I said it. And I’ll add that everyone who attempts to shoehorn “dark beer” into some catchall category as a fitting accompaniment to valentine’s chocolate is either devoid of tastebuds or falls in the aforementioned categories of people required to file a beer-related column this week or people who need to deliver on impressive impressions or click-through rates.

First, yes, I’ll admit, I largely find all “candy and beer” pairings a little gross (a fact I’ve alluded to elsewhere). It seems like an unnecessary attempt to put two things together simply because you like them both. And as a man who is still working on a hot dog Cinnabon prototype, I can tell you this is often an excerise in futility.

But I have a particular disdain for the choclate and stout or even porter marriage. Yes, obviousy rich, complex beers with chocolate notes can be amazing. But when you eat chocolate with them, you tend to knock the chocolatey sweetness out of the beer and an otherwise excellent and balanced beer becomes astringent or overly-bitter. For this reason, I tend to hate the assumption that “like” always pairs with “like.” I don’t eat guava when I’m drinking a guava sour, for god’s sake. So why do lazy people always assume dark, chocolaty beer pairs with chocolate?

So, if you feel the need to pair beer and chocolate this Valentine’s Day, my advice to you is simple: Don’t.

But, if for some fucked up reason you really feel that you must have both beer and choclate at the same god damned time, why not get creative, ignore the newspaper columns and press releases offering unsolicited stout and chocolate pairings and, instead, try to find some interesting contrasts that might highlight the beer and the chocolate rather than fuck up both of them?

Here are three options that will hopefully inspire you to get a little more creative and tame your chocolate and beer cravings next week, regardless of whether or not you have a valentine to share them with.

Fruit lambics and dark chocolate
Because chocolate typically knocks the sweetness out of a beer, why not opt for an exceptionally sweet beer and a subtly sweet, almost bitter chocolate? A kriek or framboise lambic and a chunk of good dark chocolate make a good pairing. It’s not always easy to come by in Ontario, but if you can get your hands on Lindemans Kriek it’ll do nicely. The chocolate won’t overwhelm the sweetness of the flavoured lambic and will highlight the complex acidity of the beer. It’s like chocolate cake with fruit sauce. But with alcohol. Like a page from your degenerate dream journal.

A crisp pilsner and salted caramel chocolates.
Cloyingly sweet chocolates tend to coat the palate and give you that sort of heavy tongue feeling. Why not wash down fistfuls of sweet caramel-y chocolate with a refreshing and palate cleansing pilsner like Vim & Vigor from Tooth and Nail Brewery? If you can find salted caramel chocolates, you’ll also get all the satisfying salty refreshment you usually get when you’re inhaling pretzels with a cold beer. You really don’t easy very well, by the way. Try a fucking vegetable, would you?

Milk chocolate and bright, citrusy IPAs A key to pairing food (and presumably also chocolate) with beer is to always try to match intensities. If the chocolate you’re eating is intense but the beer is mild, you won’t gain anything from the pairing as one element will dominate. So try matching and contrasting sweet milk chocolate with your favourite intense, aromatic, bitter IPA. Something like Sawdust City’s Twin Pines Imperial IPA would pair well with a bar of pure milk chocolate. The creamy chocolate will again coat your palate, but the biting hop bitterness of Twin Pine will cut the sweetness and you’ll find that, with the chocolate dialling back the subtle-sweet malt backbone, the beer’s grassy, citrusy notes get a chance to pop even more. Just resist the urge to dunk the chocolate bar in the beer. Have some restraint.

What are your suggested beer and chocolate pairing ideas? 

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