Ontario’s craft beer movement is really about drinking local

A brewery opens somewhere in the province every few days. In places like Thunder Bay, it’s because drinkers are thirsty for beer brewed in their own backyards
By Adam McDowell - Published on December 12, 2017
a six pack of beer
The Northern Ontario Sixer offers a sample of what’s brewing in the upper regions of the province (Adam McDowell)

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If you drop what you’re doing right now and head directly to your nearest LCBO, Beer Store, bar, or perhaps grocery store, there’s a high probability you will discover more brands to choose from than ever before. In terms of quality and variety, there has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Ontario.

For longtime beer writer Jordan St. John, there is “no question at all”: “every day,” he says, “is the best day so far.”

St. John is co-author, along with Robin LeBlanc, of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, now available in its second edition. Because a new brewery opens somewhere in Ontario every few days, the updated version of the guide to the province’s suds is significantly heavier than the first, published just last fall. In order to keep on top of the industry (and rate as many beers as possible), St. John and LeBlanc had to visit nearly 100 new beer-makers the second time around.

Why are breweries sprouting up so fast? Because Ontarians want to slake their thirst with something brewed in their own backyards. As one of the owners of Thunder Bay’s Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, Matt Pearson has seen this phenomenon up close. He has come to believe the sea-change in Ontario’s brewing industry has been, at its heart, “more of a local beer movement than a craft beer movement.”

Craft beer is not an Ontario-only phenomenon by any means. From Bangkok to Brisbane, drinkers are opting for full-flavoured beers, made by entities other than the traditionally dominant national brewers. But perhaps owing to Ontario’s lack of a coherent identity, our beer scene is intensely — arguably to an unusual degree — obsessed with local. That isn’t a recent phenomenon, either: For as long as anyone can remember, Ontario’s beer market has been regionally fractured, with certain brands enjoying special zones of influence for generations.

For example, when Sleeping Giant opened for business in 2012, the established brand in Thunder Bay was Labatt Crystal. Co-owner Matt Pearson says northwestern Ontario wasn’t fertile ground for craft beer at first. “If you went into a restaurant in Thunder Bay five years ago, there would be some craft beers from some breweries in Toronto, and that’s it,” he recalls. As is the case everywhere when indie brewers arrive on the scene, Sleeping Giant had to create customers by persuading bars, restaurateurs, and individual drinkers to venture beyond their established brands.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hiking with his two childrenBut people tried Sleeping Giant with an open mind, and it established a place in the market. Pearson says regional solidarity was the key to opening people’s minds. “People in Thunder Bay — people in northern Ontario — have identified us as one of the local beer options,” he says. For many beer drinkers, supporting breweries close to home is a major decision-making factor.

LeBlanc, the beer writer, says regional solidarity is especially strong outside of big cities. “A good, extreme example of this would be Thunder Bay,” she says, where Sleeping Giant and the newer Dawson Trail Craft Brewery benefit from the dogged fidelity of local beer drinkers.

Among certain snobbish big city-dwellers, LeBlanc says, there’s a notion that people in less populated regions won’t try more adventurous beers. “And that isn’t true. It just has to be made by people who are local to the community, who are from the region,” she says, and it especially helps “if they’re actually contributing to the betterment of their community.” LeBlanc notes that people in Thunder Bay know that by supporting Sleeping Giant they are supporting its charitable efforts. Last year, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was spotted wearing a Sleeping Giant shirt while hiking, and this sparked a sales boom for the brewery’s merchandise. Sleeping Giant donated some of the proceeds to Boys and Girls Clubs of Thunder Bay, deftly converting its moment of national Twitter fame into a story about local involvement.

Meanwhile, LeBlanc says, many local residents are aware that the local breweries are customers of Canada Malting, a significant employer in Thunder Bay. It’s a five-minute drive away from Sleeping Giant.

The bad old days

Before Prohibition, beer drinkers were served by local breweries. Then, starting soon after the re-legalization of beer in 1927, many of these small breweries and their disparate brands were consolidated into larger companies, including Molson, Labatt, and Canadian Breweries Limited. This led to an inescapable monotony in the kinds of suds available across Canada. Beer drinkers mostly consumed mass-produced, easy-drinking lagers (such as Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian) — or mass-produced, easy-drinking golden ales (like Molson Export or the now-extinct O’Keefe Ale). Until microbreweries started to appear around the late 1980s, there wasn’t much else you could buy.

Even still, 20th-century Ontarians adopted particular beers in regional pockets — often consciously — as markers of regional identity. Even today, these patterns persist: residents of the Toronto-Barrie corridor are managing to keep Molson Stock Ale alive, despite the odds against a product that its own parent company has largely forgotten. Kingstonians continue to order Labatt 50, and southwesterners “just say OV,” for Old Vienna lager, as the old slogan goes.

Some of these allegiances can be puzzling: In northwestern Ontario, Labatt Crystal has been perceived as the traditional local favourite for decades despite the fact that it’s brewed some 1,500 kilometres away in London. Andrew Oosterhuis, director of marketing for Labatt Brewing, confirms that Crystal is at least twice as popular in northern Ontario as it is in the south. (It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but Oosterhuis and others believe it may simply be that a local marketing effort, decades ago, was especially successful.)

In the absence of much of a marketing and advertising budget behind these legacy brands, Oosterhuis believes they persist in their regional pockets because they evoke memories. “A lot of formative experiences are over a beer, so you have these emotional connections to these brands.”

Emotion is a powerful force to try to counteract, and beer experts don’t think the craft movement is really chipping into the market of Crystal and its equivalents. Pearson cheerfully admits Sleeping Giant is not converting many Crystal lovers. “The reality is no one’s putting down a Crystal and picking up a craft beer. If Crystal is the beer you enjoy, that’s a tough customer [for us] to win over.” Oosterhuis confirms that while Crystal is a small niche brand (and always has been), it remains popular enough to stay on the Labatt roster for the foreseeable future.

Compared with lifelong devotees of mainstream beers from Molson, Labatt, and so on, indie lovers tend to be younger. And as consumers, they are far less loyal. Most craft beer drinkers exhibit what the industry calls the “wandering palate” effect: they want to try different flavours all the time. Some will even avoid ordering the same pint twice in a row.

In other words, craft beer and mainstream beer mostly appeal to two entirely different markets. Independent breweries are not supplanting the old regional favourites across the province. Craft beer and mainstream beers are coexisting — and because of this, Ontario’s beer is becoming even more idiosyncratic and regional. Probably to the greatest extent since before the Second World War, the range of beer that’s available to you as a consumer depends on where exactly in the province you are.

From local to regional

Meanwhile in Thunder Bay, most restaurants in town now sell Sleeping Giant, most often its flagship, Northern Logger (which despite the homonym with “lager” is actually a golden ale). The little Giant has even conquered the chain restaurants, which can be harder to win over when you’re a niche brewer in a small city, located far from the restaurant’s head office.  “I would bet if you walked into 10 restaurants in Thunder Bay,” Pearson says, “you would see us at all 10.”

Once a brewery is entrenched on its home turf, it’s time to conquer the world, right? Not so, says Pearson. “We are intensely, intensely invested in Thunder Bay. That is our bread and butter, and what makes Sleeping Giant [what it is].”

Insofar as it markets beer beyond its immediate backyard, Sleeping Giant sticks to the north, where its local aura is strongest. In a perfect world, Pearson would love to sell Sleeping Giant beer without regard for political boundaries, by looking across Lake Superior to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and upper Michigan. “I would love to go right around Lake Superior and have [its shores] be our market, but beer borders don’t work like that.” In the real world, where political borders do matter, Sleeping Giant has mostly made inroads in locations along the north shore of Lake Superior and points eastward — Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, even North Bay.

Despite Sleeping Giant’s reticence over reaching too far away, it’s participating this holiday season in a modest marketing initiative that reaches well into the province’s lower latitudes. The Northern Ontario Brewers Alliance — a co-operative of independent breweries scattered from Kenora to North Bay — has released a six-pack featuring one tall can from each member. Distributed via the LCBO, the Northern Ontario Sixer is available across the province, from Dryden to Windsor to Ottawa. The breweries involved evidently hope that craft beer-loving Ontarians will — at least this one time — put aside their local solidarity and crack open a tallboy that may well have been sealed a couple thousand kilometres away. 

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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