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.
Beer is typically best enjoyed as fresh as possible.
It’s not something most people think about when they roll up to the Beer Store to buy a case of their favourite lager and it’s definitely not something bar-goers scrutinize when a busy bartender snaps the cap off a bottle she just fished out of the fridge behind the bar, but it really should be.
Conscientious shoppers will happily scrutinize the freshness of the almond milk in the fridge at their grocery store and many people will toss meat and half loaves of bread that have passed the seemingly arbitrary “best before” date slapped on their respective labels; yet these same consumers, blissfully unaware, will happily neck a four month old Budweiser from their local.
And that’s a shame, really, because perhaps even more so than your almond milk, hot dogs, or wonder bread, beer really does taste a lot better when it is consumed as close as possible to the day it was put in the bottle or can.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule and a handful of beer styles might actually get better with a little aging – an experiment that I caution you to pursue at your own risk – but for the most part, fresh is best. Ask someone who has had Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň what he or she thinks comparing it to the can procured at the local LCBO. Ask someone who’s bartered for a month-old Heady Topper to try one brewed a couple days ago. Drink a pale ale directly from your local brewery then find a three-month old version at your liquor store. The difference is clear.
That’s why I am a huge proponent of date stamps on beer and why, increasingly, I am frustrated by the lack of consistency in how those date stamps are used by breweries – if at all. Many breweries still don’t bother letting consumers know when the beer was actually made and, increasingly, I’m inclined not to award this practice with my dollars and will almost always opt to purchase beer that has a date stamp that is clear and prominently placed – and, obviously, that date is recent.
Great Lakes Brewery in Etobicoke deserves a nod here because they have, in recent years, taken on the task of ensuring their beer is as fresh as possible with a rather laser-like focus. Their social media often touts the #FreshGLB hashtag to emphasize this focus and they have boasted that 99% of the beer they make stays in Ontario so that they can make sure it is always as fresh as possible. And far from just a clever marketing campaign, they are walking the talk. I frequently find week old Canuck Pale Ale in my local LCBOs here in London.
And while GLB has taken on the task of freshness with rather rabid enthusiasm, they are not the only ones. In recent years, many breweries seem to have started to understand the importance of the date stamp to ensure freshness and the practice has grown in popularity. Shuffling beer out the door to whatever distribution network they happen to use free of dates codes might allow you to sneak some sub-optimal beer past an eagle-eyed consumer or LCBO manager once or twice, but if the product you’re putting on shelves is sub-par, you’re bound to get less repeat customers. And so the date stamp, helping ensure your best possible beer is what hit consumers lips, it simply good practice.
Pete Chasapis is the Owner and Operator of Northern Canning, a mobile canning company based in Toronto. Chasapis says that, for his customers, packaged on dates are becoming standard practice.
“We don’t mandate our clients to date code their cans, it’s up to them if they would like to add that to the mobile canning service,” he says. “Some simply have us print ‘PACKAGED ON XX/XX/XXXX’ while some like to include the batch number or fun messages, but almost all of our clients do elect to print the packaging date on the bottom of the can.”
Unfortunately though, aside from making good sense and increasingly becoming common practice, there isn’t actually a standard that makes beer date codes mandatory or dictates the format for them.
This means that many breweries who are shipping beer through the LCBO or Beer Store still don’t bother to put date codes on their beer and many who do opt for a “best before” date instead of a “packaged on.” The problem with a “best before” of course is that I might not agree with a brewery’s idea of how long a beer is still “best.” I’ve picked up a can of lager made in Ontario, for example, that was stamped with a best before date that was seven months in the future. That brewery might feel their beer is still good seven months from when it leaves their doors, but personally, I’m not drinking a seven month-old lager if I can help it. This practice is increasingly not the norm, but it is still prevalent. Muskoka Brewery, for example, still opts for a “best before” date and leaves the packaging date a mystery.
“Everyone we work with believes in that duty of transparency to their customers,” Chasapis says of Northern Canning customers, “and many have been vocal about being against a Best Before date as that leaves the drinker in the dark as to when the product was packaged.”
Big brewers, of course, are actually pretty diligent about using date stamps for inventory tracking purposes and have historically been vigilant about freshness. Anheuser Bush executives, for example, were long known to check the dates of Budweiser bottles in bars wherever they travelled and would penalize distributors and bar owners if they found stale-dated product. I don’t know if the Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate that owns ABI is still so fresh obsessed, or if they have time to break from world domination plans to even go to bars, but you can still find a date stamp on every Labatt product in Canada – as well as Molson and Sleeman, though they are typically a little more cryptic than the standard craft brewer’s date code.
Big beer will typically feature a stamp that looks like this: L17L4901210 and the stamp actually denotes the brew date. The first letter of the alphabet denotes the month the beer was brewed, corresponding to the order of the alphabet, i.e. A = 1, B = 2, and so on, though they never use “I” so the last four months are JKL and M. The next two numbers are the date, sometimes they include the year, and the final digits, i.e. 90210 in my example, are the production code.
Still with me?
Some breweries, like Sleeman, will also give the exact time a beer is brewed. For example, if you see C23181503 on your bottle of Sleeman Honey Brown, it means it was brewed on March (C) 23 (23) 2018 (18) at 3:03pm (1503). Sleeman will also occasionally add a letter denoting where a beer was brewed. V = Vernon, BC – Okanagan Spring Brewery. G – Guelph, ON, Sleeman Brewing & Malting Co. Ltd., Q = Chambly, QC – Sleeman Unibroue Inc.
I have found that Molson Coors seems to prefer a simple MMMDDYY format, but it looks like it is a “best before/pull” date. While it’s usually clear and uses a preferred simple format, “best before” of course means the folks at Molson Coors are suggesting how long that can of Coors Light can sit on a shelf and still be optimal and I’m willing to bet you that rocky mountain cold beverage will have pretty rapidly diminishing returns, despite whatever preserving methods they’re employing.
To further complicate matters, some breweries use a Julian Calendar code system (001-365), which employs the year and the day of that year.
The long and short of it is that, if you do find yourself forced to drink some industrial lager from a bottle or can, and you can do a little deciphering, you can at least make sure it was made in the last few months.
And while craft brewers are getting better, it feels like there’s still some work to be done when it comes to date stamps. To my mind it could start with a standard, so that there was consistency from brewery to brewery, and that standard would the day/month/year format of the day the beer was packaged, clearly stamped on every can or bottle that leaves a brewery. Presumably a brewery might also include their “best before” if they want or even some indications of their suggested timeline for consumption (e.g. “this beer is best enjoyed fresh” or “this beer will last up to six months in your fridge.”) This would allow beer nerds to make their own decisions about “freshness” while breweries might still have a way to educate the general public on their own standards.
Until that happens, of course, I’ll likely continue to check the bottom of cans at my LCBO until I find one that is clear. And the safest bet, of course, will always be to walk or drive to your local brewery, grab some bottles or cans from their retail shop and simply ask the person selling it to you when it was brewed.
And unless it’s a barrel-aged or bottle conditioned offering, I’d wager you’ll never hear the brewery employee say “seven months ago.”
Recently, Crystal Luxmore, David Ort, and I decided to make a semi-regular attempt to write something on the same theme, rotating which of us proposes the theme. This concept has no name yet and we’ve only loosely defined the parameters, but here it is. For this first edition, I threw out the idea of ‘The beers I don’t share on instagram.’
As a beer writer, or blogger, or influencer, or beer whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-me, much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I tend to share a lot of myself, and by extension, my beer drinking, on social media.
Given most people’s natural tendencies toward making themselves look better on social media (no one, of course, looks the way they really do in most selfies, no one actually eats such artfully-plated meals at every seating), you might think that the beers I choose to share on my Instagram feed are carefully curated to be impressive or to attract more followers, or maybe even appease the beer companies who occasionally send me beer in hopes that I will share them with my uniquely-targeted following.
But they aren’t.
I am not so glib as to claim that I don’t give a shit about what I share on Instragram, because of course I do. I angle my face so it looks more flattering for a stupid selfie. I have arranged food to take a dumb picture of it. And while I don’t go out of my way to ensure the beer I’m sharing is “cool,” I have taken ridiculous pains to stage interesting pictures of the beer I’m drinking.
I care. But I care to take pictures of the shitty beers I drink, too. I don’t hide my guilty pleasure beers and, when I’m at softball or a bar that some macro-brewery has bought out, I will dutifully snap a shot of my Miller High Life or my Bud, too. I figure, if you want to claim some sort of authority on beer, it’s only fair to share the ones you’re not so proud of as well. I like to think of it as full disclosure.
The result is that there really aren’t many beers I don’t share on Instagram; but I’m working to change that.
Increasingly, the few beers that I don’t instagram tend to be the really, really good ones. And I don’t say this in some attempt to elicit FOMO, like I have secret awesome beers that you aren’t even allowed to know about. No. I mean that increasingly, when I have an outstanding beer or I’m in a perfect setting enjoying one of my favourite beers, and the moment seems perfectly suited to sharing with the world and tacking on a handful of hashtags; I don’t.
Perhaps it’s a result of over-sharing for the better part of a decade, or maybe it’s a result of following too many “beer media” types on social media myself, but lately it feels to me like a lot of beer is being enthusiastically consumed in front of a smartphone and it is increasingly difficult to discern if people are actually enjoying drinking the beer, or just enjoying letting the world know they are drinking the beer. So I’m trying to stop. Instead, I’ve been working to get back to the best part of enjoying a beer. That is, just…enjoying it.
I’m working hard to put the phone down and just consider the thing in the glass.
And while I still get twinges thinking about all the “likes” I’m missing out on when I’m sipping a barrel-aged beauty and while the word “engagement” might float into my brain when I’m drinking a rare release I’ve been made privy to, I’ve been finding more and more that enjoying a beer without feeling the need to brag about it or even tell anyone I’m drinking is even more rewarding.
And so, while there still aren’t many beers I don’t share on instagram, I’m working hard to make sure there are more.
This piece originally appeared in print and online for the second edition of The Growler, Ontario’s Beer Guide.
When I mention my beer cellar, my wife usually rolls her eyes.
Mainly she does this because she knows when I say something like, “I’ve got some really good stuff in the cellar right now,” I’m actually referring to rows of dusty bottles on the metal shelving that I bought at Home Depot and put in our basement.
And while, of course, it is a tad pretentious to refer to these shelves next to the laundry tub as a “cellar,” it doesn’t take much more to have a functioning beer storage space. Indeed, the ideal conditions for storing beer are essentially just a cool, dark place where you can fit a bunch of big bottles.
Tomas Morana is the co-owner of Birreria Volo, arguably one of Canada’s best beer bars. He’s also a co-founder of Keep6Imports, a company that works to bring rare and funky imports to Ontario. At Birreria Volo in Toronto’s Little Italy, the cellaring program is very much part of the venue’s draw and he takes it seriously.
“Temperature control and no exposure to light are the most important factors to consider when building a cellar,” he says. “Keeping your beers at a consistent cellar temperature of 10-13C is key. Humidity is another important factor to avoid having corks dry out.”
And while my makeshift basement cellar roughly approximates Morana’s specifications, his cellar is a little more aesthetically pleasing. Like the rest of the bar that Morana designed with his brother, Julian, and father, Ralph, the cellar was built to exacting specifications, and it’s clear that thought was put into the wooden-shelved, closet-sized space at the centre of their small venue.
“The cantina,” Morana prefers the Italian for cellar, “is the heart of the bar and is the focal point of our customer experience. The cellar was built with a custom warehouse-style window frame so you can see bottles inside the cellar from the outside. The floor is concrete and built with a drain in case any bottles break on the floor and each beer has a designated spot and is organized in the cellar with a code, so it’s easy to find during service.”
Once you’ve got your own Home Depot shelving or cedar-lined, vintage-factory-windowed cellar constructed, the question becomes which beers will you keep there.
Typical candidates for cellaring include big, barrel-aged offerings with bold flavours or boozy heat. These can potentially round out or mellow over time as part of the various processes connected to yeast maturity and controlled oxidation. For this reason, my cellar is mostly filled with Belgian strong ales, barley wines, and imperial stouts. Morana, however, tends to stick to wild ales when it comes to his aging program.
“The only beers I tend to age or cellar intentionally are lambic,” he says. “At the bar, we have 32 beer options on tap so anything meant to be consumed fresh should always be a draught option. My rules for cellaring are: Do not age fresh beers. I recommend the only types of beers to cellar are lambics, sours, or brett beers, or, if you want to, strong styles above eight per cent like imperial stouts, porters and barley wines.”
Of course, the real question about cellaring beer is whether or not it makes much of a difference to a particular beer, or if it’s even actually worth the effort. In my own basement-aging experience, it isn’t really. The inherent difficulty of actually storing beer to save for later is that you never actually know when the right time will come to open them. Indeed, the only way to tell if your beer is ready to drink is to drink it.
Iain McOustra is the head of brewing at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery, and he has, over his tenure, produced many an excellent wild ale and a plethora of big, boozy stouts. Even he admits that cellaring beer is something of a crapshoot.
“How do you know when a beer is ready to drink?” he asks. “You don’t. Temperature swings, the packaging process, and batch differences mean you never really know how a bottle that’s been aging will taste. Big imperial stouts and barley wines are a safer bet, but you still never know.”
I didn’t have the foresight to put a drain near my beer shelves like Morana did. I’m reminded of my lack of foresight when I open a wild or bottle-conditioned ale and am met with the familiar and disappointing “gusher,” a beer that essentially explodes when you open it because the live yeast has continued to consume sugar in the beer, resulting in excess carbonation and… kapow!
Memorably, this happened to me with a red-wine-barrel-aged stout I brought home from Italy, and I now have a couch that will never be the same.
The less furniture-destroying but equally disappointing alternative to a gusher is often that I’ve just let the oxidative process carry on for too long and am now left with a flat beer devoid of flavour, save for perhaps a soupcon of wet cardboard. McOustra admits to me he’s had similar results. “My wife and I have a beer cellar, and it’s a good place to see all the beers we’ve let sit too long,” he says. “We have maybe a 50 per cent success rate with anything over a year. It’s easier once you find a few classics that work but generally, beer is better fresh. Everyone has a great story of a decade old lambic or Thomas Hardy but for every one of those there are ten drain pours you don’t hear about.”
Ultimately, most beer cellars are akin to something like an expensive beer purgatory. You put what is surely a reasonably good beer on a shelf, hoping that you’ll remember to open it in time and praying that, when you do, the result is a marginally improved experience. I’ve got probably a few hundred dollars’ worth of excellent beer haphazardly tied up in an experimental process that one of Canada’s best publicans strictly monitors with a spreadsheet and that one of Canada’s best beer makers admits to having a 50 per cent success rate with. My wife is probably right to roll her eyes at my “cellar.”
If you have an urge to cellar a beer, your best bet is to ignore that urge. If you’re buying a beer from a brewery you know to make good beer, it’s probably a safe bet that, unless they say otherwise, that beer will taste pretty good if you crack it and drink it right away. But if you really feel the need to hoard beer in hopes that the yeast in it will continue to do interesting and not terrifying things or that age will mellow the alcohol heat rather than dull the flavour, at least buy two of the beers and drink one right away. And, when you eventually open the other one for comparison and end up drain-pouring it, make sure you have a six-pack of something fresh on hand in the basement to cleanse the disappointment from your palate.
It is illegal for breweries to offer keg deals, cash, or other financial incentives to bars in exchange for selling their products.
Yes, I’ve written about this more than a few times over the last five years (including once again for my upcoming column in the fantastic quarterly publication The Growler. Catch the latest issue on newsstands soon!), but in case you need a refresher, here’s Regulation 720 from Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act:
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.
Well guess what? It is also illegal for bars to ask breweries for keg deals, cash, or other financial incentives in exchange for selling their products. And now you can snitch on them.
Because I have written about this rampant practice a few times and because there aren’t many other avenues to have these conversations, a few years ago I started to receive emails from frustrated breweries across the province. Mostly, brewers would forward me the blatant requests for free shit that they get from bar owners and front of house managers on a virtually daily basis. The tone has always been “Here’s another one!” but the subtext to me was always “What the hell can we do about this?”
The answer seemed to mostly be “Not much, really.” The system of graft for tap lines is so ingrained in the hospitality industry, fighting it sometimes feels futile. I’ve even seen threads in hospitality industry Facebook groups where people are blatantly boasting of the free shit they get or are comparing notes on which breweries will pay the most to help install a draught line.
And so, inspired mostly by all the emails I was getting, I launched a website that allows people to post anonymously and share the emails from bar owners they were previously sending me. It’s called Dirty Lines and it does still get some occasional action. I take no responsibility for the content there, incidentally. I don’t investigate any claims. I don’t vet submissions. It just lives there as a mechanism to vent, essentially.
Recently, having received yet another email, I vented on twitter that in addition to being illegal to provide these inducements to bars, it really should be illegal for bars to ask for them, too. In response to my tweet, the AGCO slid into my DMs to be like, “Uh, that actually is illegal, too.”
Ray Kahnert is a Senior Advisor in the Communications and Corporate Affairs Division of the AGCO and, in a follow-up email, he helpfully reminded me that our legislation actually means that all those emailed requests bars send to brewers are probably breaking the law, too.
“Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act (LLA) not only prohibits manufacturers from offering [incentives],” he says, “it also prohibits licensees from directly or indirectly requesting any financial or material benefit from a manufacturer.”
Kahnert also let me know that the AGCO has launched a new online portal, iAGCO. The idea of iAGCO is to improve and modernize the AGCO’s service delivery by “offering its customers an easy, convenient and digital way of doing business with the Commission.”
And while it’s largely set up so that licensees and manufactures can do business with the AGCO more directly online, there is a “Submit a Complaint” function, and you don’t need to create an account to access it.
“All complaints are reviewed,” Kahnert tells me. “And of course, the more information the AGCO Inspector receives about a complaint, including establishment information, the better.”
He also reminded me that, despite what a lot of brewers might think, the option to send anonymous complaints isn’t actually new. “The ability to complain or object ‘anonymously’ was always available – pre-iAGCO,” he says. “A person could complain by phone, email, mail and request anonymity. The AGCO would honor that request. When iAGCO came around, the same option was included in the design. Perhaps there is more comfort with anonymity through this on line feature.”
Personally, as the recipient of many online “complaints” in the form of email, and having seen the submissions that the Dirty Lines site still gets, I feel like there is definitely more comfort with online reporting, and I feel like if brewers knew about it, they would use it. Thus this blog post.
It is also, of course, probably worth noting that the AGCO has yet to issue any penalties related to inducements. As I noted in July of last year, the Ontario government has never issued a fine related to this regulation and Kahnert confirms this is still accurate. “As we mentioned to you earlier this year,” he says, “the AGCO has not issued any monetary penalties related to inducements.”
But perhaps the launch of iAGCO will change that and, in turn, start to curb the practice.
Earlier today I caught wind of the fact that Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery had called an all-staff town hall meeting for some kind of announcement.
As is occasionally my wont, without any intel available I lazily stipulated on Twitter that I thought the announcement might be about either a sale of the company to a bigger brewery or some kind of venture related to legalized cannabis. As it turns out, the announcement was actually that Cam Heaps, Steam Whistle’s lone remaining co-founder, had announced his retirement from the company.
This evening, Steam Whistle sent me the following statement:
Cam Heaps, CEO and co-founder of Steam Whistle Brewing, has successfully implemented a new strategic framework for the company and with that accomplished has decided to retire effective November 1st. Cam has been integral in helping build Steam Whistle into one of Canada’s leading breweries, and has been a passionate advocate for the Craft Beer industry as a whole. Cam will continue to provide strategic direction for the company as an enthusiastic member of Steam Whistle’s Board of Directors.
The Steam Whistle Board of Directors has appointed current President, Andy Burgess, as CEO. Andy began his career at McKinsey & Company and, after earning his MBA, joined the Loblaw Companies. Together with a partner, he acquired Somerset Entertainment, grew it to $100 million in sales and took it public on the TSX. Andy has been actively engaged with the company’s senior management as President since March. The board expects Andy’s leadership will preserve the “Good Beer Folks” culture and his business experience will help guide Steam Whistle to increased sales and profits.
The news comes just over a year after Greg Taylor, one of the other co-Founders of Steam Whistle, and Sybil Taylor, the company’s Communications Director (and one of the most helpful and candid communications or marketing professionals I’ve encountered in seven years of beer writing, FYI) retired from Steam Whistle in July 2017. Greg Taylor was later named the President of Nuuvera, a global cannabis company that has been on an acquisition spree in the past year.
Heaps, Taylor, and Greg Cromwell launched Steam Whistle in 1999 and were the famous “Three Fired Guys” who built the company after leaving Upper Canada Brewing (and still get a nod with the “3FG” etched on every bottle). Cromwell left the company long ago, and with Heaps leaving, it means none of the company’s founders remain involved in Steam Whistle’s day to day operations.
While, in my opinion, Steam Whistle remains one of Ontario’s (if not Canada’s) strongest independent beer brands, I have a tough time understanding what this move might mean for the company that used to do “one thing really, really well.” I’ve always been a staunch defender of the company’s Czech-style pilsner, but a recent — and in my opinion ill-advised — side venture to launch Von Bugle Brewing, another single-beer brewery focusing on a just-OK Munich Lager, means they’ve veered from that “one thing” that was for so long their mission statement and one wonders if perhaps they’ve lost their way.
My tweet that started a conversation today predicted today’s Steam Whistle announcement might be about either a buy-out or a cannabis venture. And while that’s not what this announcement was, in light of Heaps’ departure, I actually feel a little more strongly that one of those outcomes might now be possible. Big beer companies tend to have better luck putting a dollar amount to a brewery when the people who built that brewery aren’t around any more and I still think the company, based in the Roundhouse building in Toronto and boasting nationwide distribution, is an attractive option to someone like Molson or Heineken who might be looking to grow their fake craft credentials. Also, given Taylor’s chosen second career, Steam Whistle’s connection to cannabis, just two days before it becomes legal in Canada, is now confirmed.
Will my predictions pan out now that Heaps is gone? Time will tell.
For no reason at all, here are my top picks for Ontario breweries most likely to be purchased by larger breweries sometime soon and my reasons why:
Ace Hill Brewing Company – The Holt-Renfrew model-led company has long been rumoured to be offering their beer to licensees at unsustainable prices, which to me suggests they want to build a large distribution network to at least appear attractive to potential suitors. The company is clearly very, uh…brand-conscious and its hard to believe its contract-brewing founders would turn down a buy out deal on some notion of remaining independent.
Collective Arts – With a great brand, great beers, and grand designs for expansion (that long-rumoured Brooklyn brew pub and some overt flirting with New York, for example), it seems like Collective Arts might also be trying to build something that looks appealing to big beer. They also offer plenty of capacity to would-be investors looking to expand distribution in the Hamilton area.
Amsterdam Brewery – They’re just so big that it always seems possible. It’s a long-established brand with essentially turnkey access to huge distribution. Surely the big guys have come sniffing around before, so who’s to say they might not finally make an offer big enough some day?
Left Field Brewery – This is a prediction bound to piss people off, but if you’ve met Mark and Mandie Murphy, Left Field’s co-founders, you’ll know that, in addition to being really, really nice people, they are super practical. The duo makes logical, fact-based, and economically sound business decisions. I am positive they have at least one exit strategy mapped out. I don’t know if any larger breweries are actually interested in the East Toronto company, but I am confident that Mark and Mandie have a number written down somewhere for which they would walk off (#BaseballReference!)
Barley Days – Because I feel like, at this point, they simply need an out.