Category Archives: beer industry

Opening the File on Toronto’s New Breweries

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to be asked to contribute an article about Toronto’s beer culture to the user-driven news site as part of a series they’re publishing about beer across the country. I was asked to write about one particular aspect of the scene, preferably something unique to Toronto, and the angle I took was to cover the bunch of new breweries that have recently opened in town, or soon will be.

The article was posted yesterday, and while I’m happy with it, word limits and editing meant that only a couple of short quotes from the email Q&As I did with various owners and brewers were able to be used in the published version. So rather than have the material go to waste, I thought I’d post the full quotes here.

I asked each brewery “What is it about the current beer scene in Toronto that has inspired you and others to start this cluster of new breweries?”, as well as another question or two more specific to their project. Here’s what they had to say…

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Does This Make Me a Social Media Guru?

It’s been a while since I last mentioned it here, but I’m still doing a some writing for TAPS Magazine, the quarterly publication that looks at the beer and brewing industry from a Canadian perspective – although since changing the subtitle from “Canada’s Beer Magazine” to “The Beer Magazine” a few issues ago, the scope has expanded to include more content from beyond our borders. It’s a magazine that keeps getting better and better, and even if wasn’t writing for it, I’d be reading every issue from cover to cover.

While my “Beer Styles 101” column is no longer appearing in its pages (since, as I noted last summer, I pretty much ran out of major styles to feature), I’m still on the review panel for the “Tasting Notes” in each edition, and I’m contributing other stuff from time to time. Amongst that other stuff is an article in the Winter 2010-11 issue looking at how Canadian breweries are using Twitter, Facebook and other social media to promote their brands and connect to their customers.

My original intention was to write an editorial-style article with quotes interspersed here and there from some brewery folks that I interviewed via email. But when I started getting fantastic answers back from the interviewees – including Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s All-Natural Brewing, Karen Gaudino of Creemore Springs Brewery, Tina Wolfe of Wild Rose Brewery, and Ferg Devins of Molson Coors Canada – I realized that running the four Q&As pretty much in full along with a short introduction would give a better idea of the whats, hows and whys of beer and social media in Canada than anything I could write myself.

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Cheers, Jim

jimbrickmanThe guy in the photo on the right is named Jim Brickman. Way back in 1984, he founded a brewery in Waterloo, Ontario called Brick. He probably doesn’t know it, but he and his brewery are the main reasons I became a craft beer drinker.

This may sound strange to younger folks who are only familiar with the Brick of today: a brewery known mainly for their “buck-a-beer” Laker brand along with a bland mainstream lager (Red Baron), a bland dark lager (Waterloo Dark), and a bland retro-ale (Red Cap). But as I briefly noted in the first post on this blog, during the couple of years I attended the University of Waterloo in the mid/late-1980s, Brick (along with Sleeman and Wellington in nearby Guelph) was an early pioneer of microbrewing in Ontario.

Brick’s line-up of beers wasn’t extensive at the time – just two, or maybe three brands – and in keeping with the German heritage of the Kitchener-Waterloo area, it concentrated on lagers. But they were lagers that were actual relatively flavourful and distinct from the standard Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe beers that had been the only option for beer drinkers in the previously few decades.

I can’t claim that I didn’t drink my fair share of mass produced suds back then. I recall having a strange fondness for Molson Golden (which was an ale, at least), and like most black-clad punk/goth/alternative club-goers of the time, Carling Black Label became part of my uniform for a couple of years. But early on in my drinking career, I discovered Brick Lager and Red Baron, and they kick-started my interest in trying other microbrews and imports.

Through the 1990s, Brick remained at the forefront of Ontario’s craft brewing scene. Their core line-up expanded to include Waterloo Dark and several other lagers; they rescued the brands of short-lived small breweries such as Algonquin, Formosa and Conners; and they signed deals to contract brew such renowned international brands as Andechs Spezial Hell, Henninger Pils and Celis White, the latter being the first Belgian-style witbier I ever tasted. And let’s not forget Brick Anniversary Bock, an annual offering through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s that remains one of the best beers ever brewed in Ontario.

But then, a few years ago, things started to change, as Brick seemingly decided that market share was more important than product quality and diversity. The international brands all disappeared, as did most of the smaller brands they had purchased over the years, and the Anniversary Bock was discontinued. The Laker discount brand purchased from Molson in the late 1990s became a bigger part of their portfolio, alongside an array of undistinguished and indistinguishable pale lagers being sold under the Brick banner. Aside from cracking an occasional Red Baron or Waterloo Dark for nostaligic reasons, I pretty much stopped paying attention to Brick at this point, as the beers they were brewing obviously weren’t being made with craft beer drinkers in mind.

It’s probably no coincidence that during this same time period, Brickman’s role at the increasingly corporate brewery seemed to diminish. He was replaced as President and CEO in 2004, and while he retained the title of Executive Chairman and remained the public face of the brewery, it was clear that decisions on what brands to brew and what ones to cull were pretty much out of his hands, with the board being more interested in increasing share value than satisfying adventurous beer drinkers.

brickmanbeersThings took a slight turn for the better a couple of years ago, when most of the Brick brands were killed off and replaced with the J.R. Brickman Founders Series, a trio of beers that seemed to be intended to return Brick to its craft brewing roots. Some claimed that the brews – Pilsner, Amber and Honey Red – were simply rebrandings of the discontinued Brick brands, but to my palate, they seemed to have a fresher and more flavourful character, with the Pilsner being especially impressive. Sadly, though, the quality hasn’t been consistent, with a can of the Pilsner I tried back in July being especially poor, suggesting that corners are now being cut on what was originally intended to be a line-up of premium beers.

And now, as Brick is about to enter it’s 25th year, there comes another blow: Jim Brickman has left the brewery. The announcement came with little fanfare in a press release last week, buried beneath the quarterly financial statements. There was no direct quote from Brickman, just a brief notice that “Jim Brickman has provided his notice of retirement to the Company which the Company has accepted effective immediately”, followed by the typically corporate quote from President & CEO George Croft stating that “The Company appreciates the significant contribution Jim Brickman has made to Brick Brewing since founding it in 1984”.

There has been no subsequent statement from Brickman giving details regarding the reasons or circumstances of his departure, and I don’t want to get wrapped up in any conjecture, aside from noting that “retirements” that are “effective immediately” are rarely amicable ones. But even if this one is, it’s still a sad day. Yeah, Brick will continue making beer, and Jim Brickman may pop up somewhere else, but it’s still the end of an era in Ontario’s – and Canada’s – brewing industry.

Cheers, Jim. And thanks.

Help Save RateBeer

ratebeer[NOTE: Scroll down to the end of this post for more recent updates.]

Just as I hit the “Publish” button for my previous post, a disheartening email arrived in my Inbox from Joe Tucker, the owner of RateBeer, a website that I’m sure most readers of this blog are familiar with.

As you might know, RateBeer as been the target of a series of attacks lately, with hackers installing malicious scripts that have downloaded viruses and other nasties on the computers of people visiting the site. Several attempts have been made to solve the security problems, and it looked like the issues were sorted out a couple of weeks ago. But this past weekend, there was another especially bad attack, and Joe is running out of options to get the site fixed and back online.

Here’s what he has to say:

I’m sorry to say that despite our best efforts and an outstanding group of worldwide volunteers and active raters in countries around the the globe, we’ve come to a point where it’s difficult to resume our service to craft beer community.

Recently we’ve come under a steady attack by hackers to shut us down. I’m very sorry to say that for now that they’ve been successful. And I realize that correcting the issue is beyond my abilities and means.

I’m asking you tonight for help.

If you can recommend a top tier Windows IIS/SQL Server security expert or can donate money to RateBeer for the cause please do. Please send help to either via PayPal or via mail. I’m trying very hard to bring back our service to the community. Please help.

Joe Tucker

If you can help in any way, I strongly encourage you to do so. RateBeer is one of the most important online resources for beer lovers, and its loss would be a huge blow for the international beer scene.

UPDATE (November 22nd, 2008):

Since my stats show that a whole lot of people are hitting this post via Google searches for “RateBeer down” and the like, I thought I should post a bit of follow-up info.

After the original problems noted above, RateBeer was down for two weeks or so and given a complete security overhaul. The saite came back up earlier this week, but then went down again without warning yesterday, this time without even a “we’ll be back soon!” splash page.

A few hours later, Joe posted the following to a “RateBeer refugees” thread on Beer Advocate:

hi gang, the security team saw the threat tonight while they conducting diagnostics. their move was to continue diagnostics in a safe environment by taking the site down and starting tomorrow morning. This operation is a top to bottom approach by the best specialists I could find. They plan on attacking this as a team first thing tomorrow morning.

The plan this time is a prompt relaunch with guaranteed work.

Thank you to everyone in the community for coming together to bring us back. As we approach 2009, people are talking about change. This was the mantra of RateBeer and Beer Advocate many many years ago and things in the beer world were very different. We are now seeing the fruits of our early labors and the many positive changes in the beer industry we’d hoped for so long ago. These changes have only come about because of people like you all, whose passion has made for monumental worldwide change.

I’m grateful many of you — some without even a RateBeer account — have pitched in to help us continue our work. Thank you, Todd, for helping us out. While we’ve had our superficial differences in the past, deep down we’ve known we’re all in this together.

Thanks for showing what a strong family of committed people we are. It’s this kind of spirit that has been instrumental in the success of craft beer and the spirit that keeps me fighting for the cause.

So, yeah, it’s down again, but should (hopefully) be back soon.

UPDATE (December 1st, 2008):

There are lots of people hitting this post again today doing searches for “ratebeer” and “save ratebeer”. Yes, the site is being hacked again, it’s going up and down like a yo-yo, and when it is up, a lot of functionality isn’t working.

Since I don’t have any direct contact with Joe, I really don’t know what the long-term prognosis is, but for today at least, it seems to be rough sailing.

The Return of Unibroue

(Sorta creepy photo borrowed from

The title of this post is a bit misleading, as Unibroue never actually went anywhere. But for the last couple of years, their presence was on the wane in Ontario. Their products were being delisted from retail outlets, and while Blanche de Chambly was still a popular draught choice at various in-the-know establishments, most of their other beers had all but disappeared. Quite simply, it seemed that parent company Sleeman (and their parent company, Sapporo) were more interested in expanding the Unibroue brands in the US market than in Ontario, which is somewhat understandable, given the relative size of that market.

Recently, though, there’s been a definite push to re-establish Unibroue in Ontario. 750 ml bottles of several of their beers are now back on LCBO shelves, and a couple of events have taken place in Toronto recently that show they’re serious about getting back to business.

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Duvel acquires Liefmans

Unlike some of the more popular beer blogs, I don’t report much in the way of industry news here, instead taking a more personal approach and writing about beers I’ve tried or events I’ve attended.

I’m making an exception today, though, because this is some pretty big news (and pretty good news) that’s been in the works for a while, and which none of the bigger blogs seem to have reported yet, so hey, it’s a scoop!

Duvel acquires Liefmans

On 24 June 2008, Duvel Moortgat nv reached an agreement with the receivers of Brouwerij Liefmans nv.

On the basis of this agreement, Duvel Moortgat nv acquires a large portion of the assets of the bankrupt companies, including the complete machinery, all the brands and recipes.

Earlier, Duvel Moortgat nv had already made a binding offer on the real estate of Brouwerij Liefmans nv in Ouderaarde. The receivers have granted Duvel Moortgat nv a right of use until the completion of some procedural aspects of the sale of this site.

In the first phase, Duvel Moortgat nv will concentrate primarily on the brown ales and fruit beers of the brand Liefmans brewed in Ouderaarde. This way, Duvel Moortgat nv can complete its existing product portfolio with a fine, authentic and traditional beer brand, in a market segment in which it was not active until now.

When Duvel Moortgat nv acquires the site in Ouderaarde, the company will make the necessary investiments to revalue the production site and give visitors a hearty welcome.

The price of the total transaction, including the real estate in Ouderaarde, amounts to 4.5 million Euro.

The Very Beery Month Of May

Wow, nearly a month since my last post. That’s a long time, even for an irregular and inconsistent blogger like myself. Lotsa things have been keeping me busy – in fact, looking back at my social calendar for the last month, you could say that I’ve just been too busy drinking good beer (+ other things) and eating great food to write about any of it…

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Perry Mason Leaves Heritage/Scotch-Irish

perrymason.jpg(No, not that Perry Mason. I’m talking about the one who makes beer.)

I’ve already been scooped by Troy and myself, but I still wanted to mention here the sort-of-sad but not completely surprising news that Perry Mason, the founder of Scotch-Irish Brewing, has left Heritage Brewing, the brewery that purchased the Scotch-Irish name and brands in 2006.

Here is his full announcement, as posted to the Bar Towel Forum this afternoon:

Hi folks,
Just a note to say that I am no longer with Heritage Brewing. I am now free to persue “other projects”
Although I may not be directly involved in the beer industry at present, I will keep a keen eye on what’s going on and I will pop up at certain venues from time to time. Rest assured, I will be reading this essential resource everyday and I am not done in this business yet.
All the best,

Before the sale to Heritage, most Ontario beer drinkers agreed that Scotch-Irish was one of the best – if not the best – small brewery in Ontario, even despite the fact that Perry never owned his own brewhouse and contract brewed his main brands at Church-Key and other locations, while cooking up various experimental one-offs in his secret laboratory.

Following the buy-out, Perry no longer had any direct hand in brewing the core Scotch-Irish brands such as Sgt. Major IPA and Black Irish Plain Porter, and there have been complaints in some quarters that the quality of the Sgt. Major in particular has been variable since the change in ownership. But the Porter was a hit when released to the LCBO in the fall, and the seasonal John By Imperial Stout – with a recipe by Perry, but brewed by Heritage brewmaster Ancil Hartman – has gotten rave reviews since it was released in December.

A mad brewing scientist at heart, Perry has long dreamed of opening a brewpub where he can experiment to his heart’s content, so here’s hope that he’ll be able to make that dream – or something like it – come true soon.

Ontario: Yours To Discover

discoverypack.jpgWhen the modern craft brewing movement took shape in the United States in the early 1980s, most of the new small breweries wanted to differentiate their products as much as possible from those of the big boys. And since the large breweries specialised in bland lagers, it only made sense that brewing more robust and full-bodied ales was a good way to establish a niche which has continued to grow, especially in the last few years.

Here in Ontario, though, things have gone a little differently. While a few of the province’s first wave of modern micro-breweries went the ale route (most notably Guelph’s Wellington Brewery), most of them stuck with lagers that were a slight step up from what Molson and Labatt were offering, but still fairly pedestrian when compared to what was happening south of the border.

Thankfully, things have improved somewhat in the years since then. Newer breweries like Mill Street, Church Key and Scotch Irish have come along with a variety of beers that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, and veterans like Great Lakes that spent years riding the lager train have suddenly branched out into new and unexpected directions. Still, there are more than a couple of breweries in the ranks of the Ontario Craft Brewers that brew nothing but mainstream-leaning lagers – or if they do make ales, they’re cream or golden ales that appeal to pale lager drinkers.

It’s because of this dichotomy that I’m unsurprised but a bit disappointed with the just-released OCB Discovery Pack. As I noted on Taste T.O. last week, this sampler six-pack contains a half-dozen OCB brews – Mill Street Organic Lager, Great Lakes Red Leaf Lager, Wellington Special Pale Ale, Walkerville Amber Lager, Lakes of Muskoka Cream Ale and Brick J.R. Brickman Pilsner – that run the gamut from light lager to slightly darker lager, with a couple of pleasant but not overly challenging ales thrown in for good measure. As the somewhat volatile discussion thread on The Bar Towel shows, the beer geeks are not amused. Why not include a stout or porter, or an IPA, or even a brown ale?

But here’s the thing: This package wasn’t created with the beer geeks in mind. For one thing, there are likely too few of us to be a viable target market for what has reportedly been a time consuming and labour intensive project for the OCB and the LCBO. For another, we’re already loyal customers of many OCB products. So, who are they after? Well, if I may borrow a quote from Stephen Beaumont’s post on the pack, most likely “the major label drinker interested in trading up and the import lager consumer seeking to expand their beer horizons”.

And if that truly is the case, this package could prove to be a successful gamble. While the beers may not raise the interest of those of us who regularly singe our palates with hop bombs or the latest barrel-aged barley wine, Joe Sixpack or Jane Eurolager may be impressed by the brews without being intimidated by something that’s “too dark” or “too heavy” or “too weird”. And should they be the adventurous sort, the enclosed OCB Craft Beer Style List and the OCB website will help point them towards something a little more interesting.

It’s also worth noting that at the media event that took place a couple of weeks ago to preview the Discovery Pack, they were also pouring a number of less mainstream beers such as Scotch-Irish Black Irish Porter, Great Lakes Winter Ale and Mill Street Barley Wine in order to build some advance buzz for the seasonal beers promotion that will be starting soon at selected LCBOs. Combined with a presentation of party decor tips and a cooking and food pairing demo, it was obvious that the OCB is serious about reaching customers who may not be aware of the beers being brewed in their own backyards. And whether those customers are looking for something similar to their current macro brand, or something more unique and bold, they should be made aware that there’s an Ontario craft brewed beer for them.

OCB Discovery Pack No. 1 will very likely do a good job reaching the first group. Maybe the planned Pack No. 2 will start attracting the second one.

The Value of Beer

Work and other things have been leaving me little time to keep on top of the beerblogosphere recently, but I’ve been catching up when I can, and tonight I spent some time reading a fascinating string of comments on a post written by Alan over at A Good Beer Blog entitled “Are Craft Beer Prices Too Low? No, They Are Not Too Low.” Inspired by recent musings by other beer writers that the high-and-getting-higher prices being charged for rare/limited/exclusive beers are a-ok, assuming the purchaser feels that the experience is worth the cost, Alan played the contrarian:

Beer is craft, a mass product. It is not art. And, as a craft in the medium of food to boot, a consumable that depends on its destruction. Second, while I admittedly have a very high level of sensitivity to it, this line of discussion could really be taken to smack of snob (not something I associate with the three gents mentioned so please leave that alone) or at least it is an idea that is paying a visit to the Neighbourhood of Snob and, you know, is finding it somewhat attractive. Fergit it.

An absolutely insane number of comments have followed in the 24 hours or so since Alan’s original post, with most of them coming from those who inspired the post in the first place – Messrs. Beaumont, Bryson & Hieronymus – plus a smattering of other bloggers, brewers, and ne’er-do-wells who are all much more eloquent than I. Which is why I’m posting my thoughts here, where a lot less people will see them.

Personally, I disagree with much of Alan’s original line of reasoning, at least when it comes to the odd, weird, “extreme”, one-off, limited-bottling beers that are heading into wine-price territory. Such beers are much more labour- and ingredient-intensive than everyday brews, and are generally intended to be a special treat. And they’re most definitely “art”, IMO.

As Stephen notes in one of his comments, the relative quality of the cheese he buys – and in turn, the amount he pays for it – varies depending on what he’s going to use it for. Similarly, while I stick with “normal” craft beer at “normal” craft beer prices for everyday drinking, I have no problem splurging more on a bottle of something a little (or a lot) different for a special occasion, or for a tasting with friends, or if I just feel like treating myself. In those cases, I’m willing to pay a premium for the experience.

And hell, if the rumours are true, we’re going to be paying more for all beer soon enough, so we might as well get used to it…