Illustration by Kate Wakely-Mulroney Illustration by Kate Wakely-Mulroney Kate Wakely-Mulroney

The variety of beers on offer at bars, pubs, breweries, and liquor stores in Ontario has been increasing steadily in recent years. Every few weeks, new and rare imports are appearing on LCBO shelves; draft and bottle lists at neighbourhood bars are growing to better appeal to local tastes; and breweries are developing increasingly diverse, seasonal and one-off brands, such as ultra-bitter double IPAs, sweet and strong bocks, and beers flavoured with green tea, orange peel, hibiscus flowers, or coffee beans.

It has been more than 25 years since the first of Ontario’s still-active microbreweries started up, the earliest being Waterloo’s Brick Brewery in 1984, followed by the Wellington County Brewery in Guelph a year later. By 1987, Amsterdam and Great Lakes both opened in Toronto, and the number of microbreweries in the province has been rising continuously since.

Yet craft beers are only now beginning to really pique the public’s interest. The recent jump in the number of new breweries and beer styles has, in turn, created a strong demand for a greater variety of beers.

Michael Hancock, founder of Denison’s Brewing based in Toronto, says “We’ve seen a lot of [new] beers come out to keep up with the demand for new styles and flavours.” Hancock understands why more and more people are craving new and unconventional kinds of beer, but he prefers the old favourites, everyday beers such as the German-style Weißbier and Dunkel brewed by Denison. “Beers that have balance as well as great taste are probably the things that you’ll end up being best known for. It’s wonderful when you can have a beer that many people can enjoy, but that also satisfies the aficionados.”

Although there is a growing demand for microbrews, there are many obstacles facing craft brewers trying to get their product out on to the market. “In Ontario, the government makes it easy to brew beer, but pretty hard to sell it,” says Ron Keefe, owner of Granite Brewery on Mount Pleasant Road. “It’s a tough go for a lot the brewers.”

Getting the Beer Store to carry your beer, Keefe says, entails an up-front cost of over $20,000 per stock unit (i.e. 6-packs, cases, or 2-4s). This fee rises per store that sells your beer. “They offer a great service and you know your beer will be kept cold,” says Keefe, “but it’s expensive to get in there.” The LCBO has a rigourous and lengthy application process, as well as higher mark-ups, so brewers’ profits are smaller there than at the Beer Store. “You pretty much pay one way or another.”

Unlike the LCBO, the Beer Store is privately owned. This dates back to the post-prohibition days, when the provincial government, trying to keep the sale of alcohol under control, but unable to run beer distribution independently, opened a network of stores owned and operated by brewers. With time, as brewers have amalgamated or been bought out, three large, foreign-owned private beer companies have come to control what is now The Beer Store (Labatt-InBev and Molson-Coors each have a 49 percent stake and Sleeman-Sapporo the remaining 2 percent).

Rob Creighton, a brewer at Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, says this ownership structure puts small brewers at a disadvantage. “The Beer Store is an agency designed to sell its owners’ beers in the most efficient manner possible. The movement away from self-serve stores (where microbreweries were selling much more), to the ‘Ice Cold Express’ format discriminates against small brewers.” Creighton says many microbreweries can ill afford to pay the Beer Store to carry their products - although the Beer Store accounts for more than 80% of beer sales in Ontario.

“It’s time to mature as a province,” Creighton says. “We need to open up the distribution system to standard retail outlets, let the free market prevail, and allow original thought.”

Nevertheless, Creighton still thinks craft beers will make head-way (pun intended) as people’s tastes change. “The position of the small brewers as a local, quality based movement makes us popular amongst both politicians and local consumers. The ‘flavour’ movement means that once you go our way, there is no turning back.”

Ron Keefe at Granite Brewery shares Creighton’s optimism. “We used to spend a lot of time trying to convince people to drink smaller market beers, ones with slightly more flavour or uniqueness. Now, because there are so many more breweries out there, they know more about new beers and are interested in trying them out.”

“We spend a lot less time now trying to talk people into trying something new.”

Making craft beer is not a lucrative industry. It usually doesn’t come with a big salary or lead to an early retirement. Brewing is a labour of love, done out of a passion for great-tasting beer and out of a belief that each beer has something new and unique to offer a thirsty public tired of the bland, mainstream domestic brands. Even brewers that manage to attract admirers and dedicated drinkers face an uphill struggle getting their product on the market. This is why beer lovers across Ontario, including yours truly, owe a debt of gratitude to microbrewers - and what better way to thank them than to grab a pint of their newest creation next time we hit a pub. Cheers to that!

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  • Subtitle: Martín Waldman makes a big argument for smaller breweries
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