Wednesday, August 20, 2014

RIP Ed McNally, a true Canadian craft beer pioneer

Big Rock's founder, Ed McNally, died at the age of 89.

Back in 1991, my then girlfriend-now-wife and I moved from Ottawa to Lake Louise, AB. In those days, I was a devoted Molson Export drinker. But due to inter-provincial import/export laws, I couldn't get my beloved "Ex" out west. What was I going to drink?

There was Pilsner or "Pil", Kokanee, and of course Blue, Labatt's Black Ice, Black Label even. If beer wasn't your thing, you could always go for the Long Island Ice Tea or a Vodka Paralizer.

But for the more sophisticated beer drinker, there was Traditional Ale from Big Rock Brewery. Traditional, or "Trad", is an English-style brown ale and is one of their original of three beers. It's still a great beer that pairs well with sharp cheeses, stews, or on it's own.
Grab any one of their beers tonight and hoist one for a great Canadian craft beer pioneer, won't you?

Monday, August 11, 2014

If you're gonna open a craft brewery, should you go 'big' or 'stay safe'?

A new microbrewery opened up last weekend. With great curiosity and anticipation, I went to the opening with some friends.

I came away with the following observations:

While in a dedicated "light-industrial" zoned area, they had decent visibility and accessibility to some new sports venues. Signage was below a visible sight-line and hidden by a big-ass bush. Inside, airy and really nice stainless steel equipment. Awesome looking tasting bar, thanks to Kickstarter. Beer was...average.

Full disclosure - I want every micro in Ottawa to succeed. In fact, I want Ottawa to be the Burlington, VT of the North. That's not going to happen if new micros open up and say they'll push boundaries and not live up to that mantra.

The reason why people (some, not all) choose 'craft beer', is because 1) they want to support local, or 2) they are fed up with the macro offerings or 3) they want something different from the norm or 4) look cool in front of their friends, or 5) want a new drinking experience, or 6) a combination of any of these points.

I would argue that the most successful micro-breweries in the U.S. and in Canada are the ones who have made their mark by brewing unique, original, artistic, uncompromising beer. (Stone/Rogue/Alchemist/Hillstead Farms/DogFish) and I will gladly put Beau's and BTP in the local category.

Did these breweries introduce 'gateway' beers? Some, not all. One could argue that Beyond the Pale used Pink Fuzz as their gateway beer, but I would say it still had that edge. Same with Beaus's with LugTread - but again, many commercial beer drinkers don't normally grab a Kolsch or a grapefruit wheat ale off the shelf. Are all of Beau's or BTP's beers home runs? Certainly not, but hey, that's what makes being a microbrewer so enticing.

My point I guess is this: if you want to make safe, accessible beer, that is your prerogative. In fact, it may even be the safest move you can make to get those initial sales up in your first quarter of business and make your investors happy. But for my money, make a beer that I've never had, and make me wish how I have lived this long without that beer in my life! (okay, a little dramatic, but you get my drift?).

The Alchemist makes a few limited release beers, but they are most known for Heady Topper. Love it or hate it, they sell out and it truly is one of the best DIPA's out there. Have they segregated a large portion of a potential beer buying demographic? Very likely, yes. But their following is loyal and dare I say cult-like. I'd take that any day.

I make beer that I enjoy. Sometimes it's a big double IPA, or a oak/vanilla bean Stout. Maybe it's a SMaSH beer using a little-known hop, or a porter that pushes the boundaries of ingredients that ends up being quite possibly the best tasting beer I've ever drank (and made in collaboration no doubt).

All this to say - if you're gonna make craft beer, please by the gods of the old and the new, stand out from the norm, grow some balls, be adventurous, treat it like an an original oil painting and not a paint-by-numbers, and have it reflect who YOU are, not want you think people want.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Canada's Craft Beer history (updated)

Here's a really interesting article on the history of 'craft' beer in Canada, how it almost disappeared in a giant vat of corn and rice, and the resurgence of the industry.

It also does a nice job of breaking down craft beer by regions in Canada and how 'micro' is growing within provincial borders. It is not a comprehensive list, but it's a good primer.

I'm often asked by people, friends and strangers alike, if perhaps the craft beer movement is becoming too saturated, that there is an ever-growing bubble that will eventually burst.

To this, I often quote the co-owner of Beau's All Natural Brewery, Steve Beauchesne, who once said "There is no bubble. It's the beer industry righting itself."
*furthermore, this article just came to my attention and speaks to the scene in Ottawa.

For years Canadians have been offered very little choice in beer. Sure, there are many brands of beer, but certainly not many styles.

Commercial big brands (macros) are largely lager or lager-hybrids, pilsners, and safe, malty ales. Stouts, porters, wits (wheat), hefeweizens, belgians, and real IPA's rarely graced the shelves of The Beer Store or the LCBO.

Imagine going to one of only three grocery stores, because that is all that was available in your town. You need some tomato soup, bread, and cereal. On the shelves are five different labels, all containing tomato soup. There may be four breads, but two are 'white' and two are 'brown'. Head to the cereal aisle and there may be more choices - at least 10 of them. But of the 10, four are just lighter versions of their originals. Not very exciting. Some would say bland. But that was what you were accustomed to, and without choices, you really didn't know what you were missing.

But then down the street, a new grocery store opens. This one is smaller, and overall their food is a bit more expensive. Not only do you have way more choices (not only tomato soup, but chicken noodle, vegetable, carrot and ginger), but there's a real sense of pride from the grocery store owner from supplying locally sourced food (the wheat from the bread is from a local farmer). You get a sense of community, maybe even ownership. That's what craft beer is. It's having the option of choosing something that was locally made, with passion, real ingredients, full of complexity and flavour!

And now the shelves at The Beer Store and LCBO are being stocked with way more varieties, because consumers have buying power, and they want to get in on the action. Nice to see them taking notice.

Sometimes I tease my macro-beer drinking friends, but I really don't judge, or try not to. Everyone is entitled to make their own choice. It's okay to prefer Kraft Dinner over homemade Mac N' Cheese, or McDonald's over a burger made in a kitchen. I've had both, and know what I like - and that's because I've tried both, I am given options, and I choose what's in my glass. I encourage you to do the same.