Here’s what’s behind Ontario’s craft beer renaissance

By Sarah Dziedzic - Published on Jul 18, 2016
Beer historian Jordan St. John says that a preference for craft beer is a craving for curating one's own experience.

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Five hundred years ago, under the The Bavarian Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, brewers were restricted to three ingredients to make beer: water, barley and hops. Later yeast was added to the ranks of the beer essentials. Purity, consumer protection and the economy were in the 16th-century law-makers’ best interest, but thankfully today’s craft breweries are inspired and allowed to create brews that push ingredients and consumer tastebuds beyond the limits.

Earlier, TVO.org asked brewing historian Matthew Bellamy five questions about Canada’s brewing past, and its intrinsic connection to Canadian identity, which largely involved big brewers such as Labatt and Molson. But what about the rising popularity of craft beer? Trade association Beer Canada puts the number of licensed brewers in the country at 640 in 2015. Jordan St. John, historian, beer buff and co-author (with Robin LeBlanc) of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, answers five more questions about Ontario’s craft beer history and future.

When was the last craft beer renaissance?

The craft beer renaissance most reflects a 19th-century brewing industry where small local breweries became industrialized and grew larger to supply a growing populace. At that time there weren't really national brands. Imagine large regional breweries that could only sell beer as far as the train would take it. 

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What led to the boom that the craft beer industry is experiencing?

I have a theory that people have a fiercely held irrational and subconscious tendency not to like being told what to do. What craft beer is partially about – although I don't think people necessarily realize it­ – is the ongoing war between two capitalist systems.

First, picture a market without craft beer, when there were 10 breweries or so left in Canada in 1981. How many products did they make? The basic beer and a light beer and some holdover brands. The large brewers began closing, consolidating plants, reducing labour and streamlining their processes. It is the kind of cost-cutting that occurs when you're an enormous, unwieldy corporation that is answerable to shareholders. The logical end result is a single product designed to offend as few people as possible, ultimately, it has to be marketable. Big beer became very much a global corporate machine geared toward profit extraction.

Now, imagine you're the consumer and you live somewhere where there's a beer store. You're never going to meet the CEO of Molson or Labatt. They are not going to take the time to explain to you what's in the beer or why you should drink it. Your buddy up the road who is starting a brewery? He's got time to talk to you. He's got a small business that isn't answerable to shareholders. He employs people locally. Instead of extracting profit from the community, your buddy who owns a brewery is investing in the town. It's a part of creating a robust local economy. 

How does craft brewing change the economy?

If you look at bits of the rust belt in the U.S. there are entire towns being revitalized by craft brewing. If you can employ 20 people you're making a difference. If you can employ 200 people you're a solid citizen. It's not like people are drinking more, but they're making a choice to drink better and drink local and not only does the beer taste better — most of the time — but it actually has the indirect benefit of bolstering the community. Not just economically, but in social ways. People are meeting each other in brewery taprooms and having conversation in ways they didn't sitting at home with a two-four. 

Why do so many craft breweries have this underdog narrative?

Starting a huge brewery is expensive. Starting a small brewery is not really.

Consider the scale you're talking about and the entrenched distribution system: it's not just underdog, it's ant and elephant. For perspective: the largest purely craft brewery in Ontario is Steam Whistle. They are only making a fourth of a percentage point of the total volume of the beer in the country. 

The reason craft brewers are underdogs is because the system is rigged against them. Some would say that's intentional. More realistically, I think it's just a holdover of bad policy that is going to self-correct in the long term. They're not underdogs. They're Lilliputians. Meanwhile, every day a craft brewer wakes up and stares down [billion-dollar profits of big breweries] and they're winning.

How have they overcome what you call bad policy and a rigged system?

The Beer Store was designed in 1927 to be a co-op. The reality is that because of long-term 20th-century mergers and acquisitions, it is actually controlled by three companies that are headquartered overseas. All of the Beer Store's policies reflect the outside ownership. The rules are in favour of large, homogenous brands that never change. Late 20th-century behemoth brands like Budweiser and Coors and Canadian and Blue that survived the corporate streamlining process and have giant advertising campaigns behind them.

Craft breweries make interesting beers on a seasonal basis. The distribution model is not remotely equitable. They have to rely on the LCBO or grocery stores, but more frequently they sell out of their front door. With 440 locations of The Beer Store and advertising budgets larger than some country's GDP stacked against them, they're winning. 

It might just be a societal revolt against [corporate marketing]. Maybe the preference for craft beer is an internet generation thing where people are carefully curating their own experience. Diversity and individualism are strengths. What does it say about you if you have the option to choose from among 500 interesting, disparate products and you choose the same thing your dad drank and never experiment?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Read: Here's how beer ties into the Canadian identity

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