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Where's the craft beer, eh?

By November 2, 2012Beer Travel
A search for Canadian craft beer.
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A search for Canadian craft beer.

You seldom hear about Canadian beer in the US. Sure we know all about the light lager offerings of Molson and Labatte, but have you ever heard anyone rave about a new beer put out by our neighbors to the North? With Canada’s legendary drinking prowess surely their craft beer scene would be developing stronger and more flavorful alternatives to the fizzy yellow water, right?

Our previous experience with Canadian breweries was luke-warm. When Maria and I first hit the road in the RV we ventured into the great wide north via the west coast and were able to seek out several breweries in Vancouver. Unfortunately of the four we visited only one had serviceable brews. They were either watery, poorly carbonated, or had off flavors. Being located in heavily trafficked areas, we just wrote them off as tourist breweries where priority #1 wasn’t making great beers but rather making a quick buck.

Since then we have visited breweries around the US and it has given us some perspective on beer and the communities that imbibe them. I wanted another chance to see what the Canadian beer scene was like. As it happens, we got another shot when headed to the Niagara region of Ontario to meet up with some friends from Kansas. Jen and Mary are good friends of ours from our stationary days and Jen grew up in St. Catherine’s which is just next to Niagara so we had someone who knew the area. The plan was to spend the weekend with them and then tool around for a bit on our own before heading back over the border.

Just some of the beers we have collected on the road.

A recent pic of some of the bombers we have collected.

We encountered the first barrier for Canadian craft brews at the border check. Our main concern was having the right documentation for the dogs. However the guard had no interest in the pups and was more interested in transporting foreign food and beverages into to their country. I thought “oh shit, there’s no way he can confiscate our beer, can he?”. I calmly stated that we had “some beer in the fridge”. When asked “how much?” I shrugged and said “a twelve pack” knowing full well that we probably had a case at least of bombers alone. I mean we have collected bottles from all up and down the east coast and have them stuffed in our closets because the fridge won’t fit them all. Fortunately, my answer was satisfactory for him and he waved us on even as we saw cars pulled over and officers inspecting trunks and storage compartments.

The first stop on our beer tour was Merchant Street Ale House in down town St. Catherine’s. It is a beer staple in the area and the oldest brew house around. The place had a great atmosphere with a really rustic feel and low lighting (not good for picture taking unfortunately). Between the six of us we tried and shared all their beers. While nothing blew me away, the ESB English Bitter and the Drunken Monkey Oatmeal Stout were good in their own right. The food complimented the beer selection very well and the portions were huge.

I asked Jen why she thought there wasn’t a greater beer selection at the bars and restaurants? She seemed to think that while Canadian’s certainly do like to drink they don’t seem to be too picky about what they drink. While they may not necessarily think what they are drinking is great, it is good enough to not seek out other options. The US craft beer boom started in part because the consumers grew tired of the options that were presented and demanded variety. If demand is indeed lacking in the north that would certainly stunt any sort of craft beer growth. Even as we progressed to other bars I did notice more variety in brands but the actual beers were mostly light lagers which pointed towards satisfaction with the status quo.

A late night of drinking Friday led to a day of resting on Saturday. Sunday brought us to Jen’s sister’s for some much needed pool time. Maria and I alternated between some craft brews we had brought over and a case of Canadian’s. They definitely went down easy and emphasized the mindset of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”  It was a good way to enjoy a nice summer afternoon before Fall starts to creep it’s way in.

Test batch bottle of Oast House Brewers saison.

Test batch bottle of Oast House Brewers saison.

On Monday we bit adieu to Jen and Mary, but not before Jen hooked us up with friend of a friend who was in the process of opening a new brewery in Niagara. We arranged to meet the founder’s of Oast House Brewers at the still under construction brewery. Mike Berlis and Cian MacNeill come from a wine background and wanted to take their knowledge into the beer realm. As we sampled a test batch of their signature saison Mike and Cian were able to add some insight on the Canadian craft beer scene and the challenges in opening a craft brewery in Canada.

We quickly found out that one of our problems had been that we were looking for beer in the wrong places. Quebec was mentioned as the country’s best beer province where innovative breweries not only exist but thrive. As these breweries start to educate the local population, the expectations rise and love of craft beer spreads outward stimulating growth and demand. In fact two other breweries were getting ready to open as just Oast House was finishing up it’s construction and preparing to install their brewing system.

However, it is not an easy process to open a brewery in Canada where the paperwork is plentiful and archaic laws are only just starting to be re examined as demand for local craft beer grows. To see how favorable laws can stimulate growth one need only look at the US where Colorado and California thrive and how unfavorable legislation can stunt a whole state as with Mississippi and Alabama. The new wave of breweries are pushing to get these laws tweaked, changed or thrown out and that will lead to a lower barrier of entry.

On top of all that the distribution system in Canada is limited and relies on just a couple of entities. Each province sets it’s own laws which can hinder inter-provincial distribution. In Ontario a brewery is allowed to self distribute to restaurants and bars along with bottles and draft sales on site, but have only two options for retail sales: Brewers Retail is the big carrier and Liquor Control Board of Ontario is more of liquor and wine store that will carry a small beer selection on it’s shelves. These restrictions make it hard and expensive to get products on shelves for your customers to buy. One side effect is that it does promote beer travel as sometimes the only way to get a beer is to visit the source.

Maria and I visit Oast House Brewers in Niagara, ON.

Mike, Maria, Cian, and I at the Oast House Brewers brewery

As Mike and Cian showed us around the building they talked about their plans for the space which included a strong emphasis and beer, food, and education. With their location is in the heart of Niagara win country they can differentiate from the grape fermentors but still capitalize on all the traffic that they generate. With that traffic they have an opportunity to introduce craft beer to those who are more familiar with wine. During the entire conversation I got a great sense of passion from Mike and Cian which is important in any business but will do wonders in craft beer. I can see Oast House being a successful operation and look forward to following them as they progress.

Photo shoot for Free State's Storm Chaser IPAWith just a couple of days left before returning to American soil, Maria and I paid a visit to Niagara Falls. By securing a sweet parking spot a couple blocks from the falls we were able to take a couple visits to view the gushing falls and do a couple of improvised photo shoots. It was really one of cooler natural sights I have seen on our journey so far.

We were set to head back on Wednesday, but I wanted to make one more brewery stop that I thought could shed some light on the progress of the craft beer scene in Canada. As it happened Maria and I had only been 15 miles away from Canada’s one and only teaching brewery during our entire stay. I deemed that it would be ludicrous to be so close and not make a visit.

Niagara Teaching BreweryFirst Draft, as it is branded, has it’s own department at Niagara College which is largely known for it’s Wine Making program. Students learn everything from “grain to growler” as they are expected to serve in every level of brewing during the course of their studies. When we arrived the tasting room was bare other than a student who was working the counter.

We chatted him up and he proved to be very knowledgeable of the program and US craft brewing. He reiterated what Mike and Cian had said about the growing craft beer scene in Canada, not just in Quebec but the other provinces as well. The industry is seeing an infusion of youth in part due to the teaching brewery. The first class of First Draft had recently graduated but even before graduation every student had a job waiting for them. Certainly a good sign that demand is growing.

First Draft's mission statement

First Draft’s mission statement

When the crowd picked  up and customers were cashing out with bombers, growlers and six packs we were quick to notice the beer prices are steep. On average about 70% more than what you would pay for the same on the southern side of the border. I remembered this from our previous trip and this could certainly add another barrier to growth. Paying $40 for a 12 pack of good beer versus $25.00 is a bigger difference than a dollar or two that you see in the US.

After trying several of the beers they had on draft we concluded with their Great Weiss North beer which uses a ingredient from every province.  It was cool to see a beer inspired by national pride and gave the indication that while they look to the US as a model for growth they want to do it their way. It showed that Canada isn’t content to merely tweak their light lagers but are ready to push the boundaries and experiment. The beer was pretty tasty but not quite refined enough yet. Much the Canadian craft beer scene in general, it has potential.

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