Credits: Dave Abel / Toronto SUN/QMI AGENCY
TORONTO — There’s nothing Canadians love more than strange brew.
For a long time, options for beer drinkers were relegated to big national labels -- primarily Labatt and Molson.
Now, beer aficionados are turning to smaller, independent breweries in their quest for “hoppiness.”
Even U.S. President Barack Obama has been brewing his own beer in the White House.
In fact, some say craft brewers are becoming the white knight in a beer renaissance that has overtaken the industry.
“A lot of mainstream brewers are taking notice,” said Brad Clifford, the head brewer of Toronto’s Get Well, a bar which recently opened its own on-premises nanobrewery.
“Experimentation would be the first and foremost benefit because we have the freedom to brew anything we want in very small batches on a dime and in a couple weeks, have it on tap.”
That creative experimentation, coupled with natural ingredients and care, are drawing crowds to craft beers. Strictly defined, craft brews are made by operators who produce under 400,000 hectolitres of beer a year -- the equivalent of 2.8 million cases.
According to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), sales of suds made by Ontario craft brewers (OCB) grew 45% in 2011-12. OCB annual sales jumped from $2 million in 2004 to $22 million last year.
“The smaller breweries have been doing much better ... where the larger breweries are seeing much slower growth,” Bank of Montreal economist Alex Koustas told QMI Agency.
“That has a lot again to do with consumer tastes and choices,” which has consequently led larger breweries to buy smaller ones to offer specialty flavours.
It wasn’t too long ago, though, that it seemed like Canadians’ love of beer had waned.
According to a report from Statistics Canada in March, beer sales were challenged by increasing wine sales. Compared to 2000, the market share for beer in 2011 had sunk from 52% to 45%.
Interestingly, wine has been picking up steam with a market share of 23% in 2010 to 30% last year.
Despite those numbers, the Brewers Association of Canada said beer sales are actually up 1.6% from last year and craft breweries are gaining popularity.
“A craft brewer is someone who basically does everything with the best materials they can get, using fresh grains, some Canadian, some European and fresh hops from Washington state and we’re brewing everything in small batches,” explained Ken Woods of Black Oak Brewing Company, a microbrewery based in east Toronto.
The big mainstream brewers, however, continue to represent the lion’s share of the industry.
“You don’t get to be Canada’s second oldest company by not learning to adapt, and our recent moves to expand into new territory has been just that,” said Debra Kavchak-Taylor of Molson Coors.
“The beverage industry as a whole is becoming increasingly competitive. Whereas years ago some people were ‘beer drinkers’ and some people were ‘wine drinkers,’ now we’re seeing people move across categories like never before. It’s caused us to evolve from just focusing on the traditional beer space, which has always been competitive, to thinking about the broader drink-scape.”
Get Well co-owner Jeff Barber said putting a nanobrewery in his bar seemed like a smart business move.
“It’s about educating the consumer, the more that’s out there, the healthier the industry is and it’s very much about good competition,” Barber said. “The more brew-pub and microbreweries out there, the consumer is going to want to know more.”
While Get Well keeps a well-stocked selection of Ontario craft beers as well as mainstream labels out front, their pride and joy pours right from the back of the bar where the nanobrewery is located.
"The Get Well Porter," a traditional English-style stout, chocolate-rich and infused with coffee, debuted at the bar when the brewery launched in October. They've also had a Pinball Wizard American Pale Ale and their Let it Be Bitter English Ale on their homemade list.
The cozy brewing station consists of a 1,208-litre hot liquor tank which is filled with water -- fluid destined to become beer. Next, the water is moved to a 1,246-litre mash/lauter tun, where worts are separated from grains and the brewer waits for it to turn into fermentable sugars.
The worts are then sent to a 1,283-litre boil kettle where, after two hours, hops are added. Finally, three fermentors -- each measuring 1,240 litres -- are employed for the final step of the brewing process. It takes a minimum of two weeks to create the beer.
The bar churns out roughly 180 to 200 litres per batch -- or three full-sized kegs -- every week.
Another big benefit to brewing small batches is if a beer isn't a big seller, Clifford said, it's only three kegs the bar has to offload.
And for brewers trying to break into the beer business without breaking the bank, nano is the way to go.
"If you're really an obsessive brewer like myself ... starting a microbrewery, you're looking at $500,000 to $1 million to start it up," he added. "A small operation of this size, you're looking at thousands instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Nano and slightly larger microbreweries may be fairly new in the Greater Toronto Area, but they've been around since the 1970s in the U.K.
There seems to be more support for craft brewers because people like supporting local businesses and ingredients. There is also a tight community feel among craft brewers. If space and time allows, brewers will help out smaller operators by contracting out their tanks to them.
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said it could be difficult to tell whether nano or microbreweries are on the rise, simply because all breweries apply for the same licences.
Five Toronto businesses have brew-pub endorsement licences. There are 16 in Ontario. There are also 16 craft breweries with manufacturer's licences.
-With files from Maryam Shah