Craft Beer

By | June 01, 2013
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mug of craft beer on tap

From the proliferation of indie breweries to a hoppily growing new local crop, it’s a heady industry

Canadians do love their beer. Beginning in 1668 and through Prohibition and beyond, Canadians have shared a long history of beer drinking and brewing. Increasingly, across the province, interest in flavour, variety and craftsmanship is adding yet another layer to an already rich story.

A decade ago we seemed content to drink beer that was, well, just beer: mass-produced brews that didn't challenge the taste buds. But over the past few years beer tastes have changed, resulting in more delicious and complex brews on LCBO shelves and restaurant taps. There is an expanding market for high quality, well-crafted beer.

As demand has grown, so have the number of craft brewers, which is not to say that craft brewing is new to us. Quite the opposite: craft brewing has added to the city's fabric for almost thirty years. Today's micro-brewers owe a lot to Toronto's Amsterdam Brewery (founded in 1986), Great Lakes Brewery (1987) and Black Oak Brewing Co. (1999), to name a few. These breweries have slugged it out through decades of macro-brewing dominance.

Over the past decade a number of things have changed, contributing to increased exposure for the craft beer industry. In 2003, Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) was incorporated. This organization, with a current membership of thirty breweries, provides "collective marketing muscle" and "exposes Ontario's beer drinkers to a world of more than 150 handcrafted premium beers brewed in their home province." The group works to promote the industry through events and festivals like Brewers Plate and Ontario Beer Week. The OCB's Christine Mulkin remarks that it is "amazing how fast this industry has, and is, growing."

Here in Toronto, Iain McOustra, head brewer at Amsterdam Brewery, gives credit to Bar Volo on Yonge Street for its strong role in promoting independent breweries. The restaurant's longstanding dedication to craft beer precipitated its annual Cask Days Festival. "Bar Volo's Cask Days initially gave brewers an opportunity to experiment, and it created a venue to share new beers," McOustra explains. "That festival has done a lot for Toronto's craft beer scene."

Black Oak Brewing owner Ken Wood has also witnessed the changing industry. "When we started in 1999 it was tough," he recalls. He concurs that the pique in interest can be attributed to beer festivals. "There used to be a festival every three or four months. Now," he continues, "there are one to three festivals a month."

Other noteworthy developments have also contributed to industry success. OCB notes that in 2003 the provincial government provided tax and/or fee incentives for small brewers and in 2004 initiated the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy, which included grant opportunities for small breweries. Further, in 2006 the federal government provided tax relief to breweries that were producing no more than 300,000 hectolitres per year. Iain McOustra notes that, "This gave us more money to play with, allowing for more room to experiment." The local food movement "has also done a lot to change attitudes and tastes," he adds. "When the food movement started, people wanted to know where their food came from. That interest naturally filtered over to beer. People want to try new flavours. Quality has become a big deal."

Despite almost a decade of increased exposure, tax incentives, changes in taste, and interest in local production, brewers claim that Ontario is still in the process of catching up. Jason Fisher, owner of Indie Alehouse, attributes some of the increased interest to a booming industry south of the border: "Craft beer has been blossoming in the States for the past ten to fifteen years." And Ken Wood at Black Oak Brewing credits the thriving craft beer industry in British Columbia and Quebec for the growth of the Ontario microbrewery.

If Ontario is just catching up, it's happening fast. In 2012, Toronto alone saw the opening of several new craft brewpubs and breweries. The Indie Alehouse in the Junction and Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington Avenue opened their doors and haven't looked back. Amsterdam Brewery, the veteran local craft-brewer mentioned above was scheduled (as of this writing) to have opened its Amsterdam BrewHouse on Queen's Quay West on Canada Day. Kensington Brewing Company is due to relocate later this year to its namesake Kensington Market neighbourhood. (Kensington Brewing started making Augusta Ale in 2011 at Black Oak Brewing in Etobicoke and is currently brewing under license at Wellington County Brewery in Guelph.) These are just a few of the new microbreweries focusing on quality and independence. They and their fellow craft brewers source the best hops, malts and yeast they can find. They experiment with local ingredients and are brewing the beer that they want to drink.

Although the local food movement has helped to spur interest in craft brewing, it's still not easy to brew beer using only local ingredients; local hops, malts and yeasts are in sparse supply. Brewers agree that in order to consistently brew good quality beer and experiment with flavours, you have to go out of province, and often abroad, to source ingredients. Saskatchewan is a great source for barley and other grains, but hop farming in Ontario is not yet well enough established to consistently provide the quantity of hops required by local brewers.

Despite the scarcity of local ingredients, brewers are nonetheless experimenting and brewing small casks using whatever they can get their hands on. At Amsterdam, McOustra says he'll "go to extreme lengths to use local ingredients." Ken Wood at Black Oak says "there are more and more hop growers in Ontario, and the quality is bang on." It's a natural industry progression. Demand for craft beer has increased, prompting an influx of breweries and brewpubs that offer a variety of beers. This, in turn, is affecting hop farming.

Last year saw the birth of the Ontario Hop Growers Association. A group of twenty-eight conventional and organic growers from across the province are working to promote the fundamentals of hop-growing by way of research, education and marketing, a big step for local growers—and an emerging industry. "There is a market for it. It's a cash crop. I think over the next few years we'll see that industry grow," says Jason Fisher, owner of Indie Alehouse.

While local hop farming, along with production, is growing, brewers are also experimenting by growing their own. Bellwoods Brewery co-owner Luke Pestl notes that, "We grow a small amount of hops in Toronto to play around with. It's nice to show people what they look like." Brock Shepherd at Kensington Brewery elaborates: "Hops are pretty easy to grow. All they need is sun, water and a place to grow. I've grown them on the rooftop." One can envision a potential connection with urban agriculture.

Seasonal local ingredients provide another opportunity for these brewers to experiment. Both Bellwoods Brewery and Indie Alehouse have collaborated with the residential fruit-picking organization Not Far From The Tree, using fruit gleaned in Toronto to flavour brews. Michael Clark, co-owner of Bellwoods, notes that they often use seasonal flavours such as tart cherries. Amsterdam has experimented with local grapes, maple syrup, malts and wild yeasts, and is using used wine barrels from local wineries, as is Bellwoods.

If you aren't one already, now is an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast. Local taps are increasingly featuring craft brews, and brewpubs owned and operated by craft brewers are popping up in neighbourhoods and towns across the province. It's easy to get your hands on really good beer. Although this is an industry that is based on quality and independence, it is naturally imbued with a great deal of collaboration and a sense of community, and is impacting local farmers and hop production in a good way. We can all raise our beer glasses to that.

Ontario Craft Brewers

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