New forms of a potent drug are springing forth in the most unexpected places. This drug can be found in restaurants, bookstores, laundromats, the middle of the sea, even orbiting earth. Consumption is widely accepted and regarded favourably by the majority of Canadians. No longer seen as a means to enjoy partying or having large amounts, the quality, packaging, and originality of different strains are improving. Toronto has made way for this new scene with the emergence of craft beer.
Alcohol has always resonated in our culture. However craft breweries are challenging prominent industry practices and marketing strategies.
The origin of breweries in Canada dates back to 1668. Jean Talon created the first brewery in Quebec, his purpose twofold. The first was to create an alternative to strong imported French liquors and the second to utilize the amount of available grain in the new world. Independent breweries sprouted, but disappeared due to industry consolidation. By 1981, two national companies Molson and Coors dominated the marketplace. Adversely, today that once large amount of grain has translated into over 40 craft breweries in Ontario with more on the way.
A significant shift in the elevation of beer standards is signified in the success of Roger Mittag. A former sales representative for juggernaut Molson, he broke away to found Canada’s first certification program for beer. “I think for a long time, until the early nineties we focused on beer as used for volume and partying and I think that was wrong.” Mittag cites the wine industry’s focus on product knowledge and education as the reason their brand can be perceived as superior. After all there is a growing trend in the profession of sommeliers, who attain wine accreditation.
Beer on the other hand is viewed throughout history as a common man’s drink. A perception with a negative connotation reinforced by big breweries like Labatt and Molson. But thirst for knowledge is reaching consumers in new ways. The public school created by Mittag aims to educate, share, and grow beer knowledge akin to that of the growing art of the sommelier. “I want this to be an inclusive group not exclusive,” says Mittag referring to the snobbish attitudes that can accompany new trends. The program consists of three phases, Beer Enthusiast for general knowledge, Beer Specialist and Beer Expert are for those who are serious about working in the industry. Mittag teaches his beer program at both Humber and Fanshawe College, and is the only beer certification course in Canada.
Contrasting the rise of craft beers is the potential legislation to label beer, wine and spirits with warning labels. The Ontario Medical Association proposes alcohol labelling should be similar with that of cigarettes. Statistics Canada shows 9.9% of the population exhibit alcohol dependent symptoms. Part of Craft Beers appeal is the attractive labelling. Unique names and bottle design will surely take a hit if warnings are in place.
While legislation may come down the pipe, craft beer is still exploding on the scene. Northern towns like Barrie, Pickering and North Bay are opening breweries in a market many believed would remain untapped.
The growing craft beer scene is further evidenced by its trickling south into the city of Hamilton. Collective Arts is partnering with Nickelbrook brewery investing $10 million into a new brewery on Hamilton’s waterfront. Craft beers still only make up about four per cent of beer sales in Ontario however that is almost double its 2009 levels.
Creativity of craft beer is what excites owner of the bar ‘The Ship’ Tate Graham. The ship opened in 2009 in Hamilton, rotating 122 craft beers over 12 taps during that time. Graham sees a future for the industry that goes beyond a bubble and burst cycle. “I think Mill Street will become a bigger player and buy up some of the contract breweries but as long as people drink beer, craft beer will be around.”
The sustainability of craft beer’s rise is the attitude Steve Hames notices with his guests. A certified sommelier and fine dining server for over 15 years in Oakville, Toronto, and Hamilton. Steve recognizes the shift in guest’s curiosity and willingness to reach for beers they haven’t seen or tried before. “People are a lot more open to suggestions than they were three or four years ago.” says Hames.
Scientists have traced beer back as far as 3,000 BC, brewed by Babylonians and Egyptian cultures who would bury their pharaohs with beer to ensure safe passage into the afterlife. While beer nowadays has cause for anything but safe passage when it comes to road safety. Beer is and will continue to be inextricably linked to our culture. A culture that has decided it is time to change one of its oldest traditions.