There are beer drinkers who, no matter where or when, always order a Bud or a Blue.
And then there are beer drinkers who want a long list, demand local, and are prone to saying things like, “what’s the hoppiest thing you’ve got?”
The move away the mass-produced beer of the Post-Second-World-War era in Canada began in 1984 when Brick Brewery launched in Waterloo. It’s considered to be the first “craft brewery” in Ontario.
After that, in Canada, the number of breweries grew from 32 in 1984 to more than 500 in 2014; from 2009 to 2014, the volume of beer sold in Canada produced by smaller breweries nearly doubled — a “small brewery” being defined as one producing less than 100,000 “hectolitres” a year, one hectolitre equalling 12 cases of 24 bottles.
This trend is continent-wide. In the U.S., craft beer sales from more than 4,000 small breweries across that country climbed 17.5 per cent in 2015 from the previous year, while overall beer sales grew only at .5 per cent.
Taking a page from the wine-serving book, pubs now offer beers in “flights” — several small glasses of craft beer, all different varieties, so you can compare and contrast. The true connoisseurs rattle off the “IBU” ratings for their favourite brews, IBU being the “International Bitterness Unit”, a measure of beer bitterness as contributed by the alpha acid from hops. A mild beer like a Mexican Corona will have an IBU of 19 and a mouth-puckering IPA can go as high as 120. Some breweries will claim IBUs above 120 but one American beer information site, Beer Tutor, points out that “you should also keep in mind that [rankings above 120] are basically gimmicky as the human mouth can only taste up to about 120 IBUs.”
Craft beer doesn’t have regulations to define what exactly is “craft.” About 80 small breweries in Ontario have formed the Ontario Craft Brewers, which set a limit of 400,000 hectolitres of production and pledge “to brew naturally with malt and other grains, not wort extract, as a foundation for their beers, maintaining authenticity to traditional styles, and using only all-natural, pure ingredients. There are no chemical additives, fillers or preservatives in OCB craft beers.”
Beer is a combination of barley, water, hops and yeast, yet the craft variations on that theme seem endless: the Ontario Craft Brewers say their members make “Pilsner, Vienna-style Lager, Munich Dunkel, Weiss Beer, Nut Brown Ale, Bitters, Imperial Stout or the very innovative styles such as Hemp, Cranberry Wheat, Cask-conditioned Lager, Mead, Coffee Porter.”
Because of craft beer’s popularity, small breweries now owned by beer giants don’t advertise the fact their products are now part of Big Beer. These early craft breweries gone corporate are rather like technology start-ups who get the big payout when gobbled up by Google or Apple: Molson-Coors owns Granville Island (B.C.) and Creemore Springs (Ontario) brands while Labatt’s (owned by Belgian-based Anheuser-Busch InBev) has Mill Street (Toronto), Stanley Park (B.C.), Shock Top and Goose Island, the latter two originally American craft beers now mass-produced in Canada. The difference is, the gobbled-up breweries don’t brag about it like a tech start-up would.
The latest trend for small Canadian breweries, regardless of ownership, is to sell take-home “growlers” — jugs, essentially, of draft beer which (and the nuances of this escape me) is apparently loads better than bottled beer. Something to do with freshness, carbonation, and “mouth feel.”
It becomes part of the fun of travel, these days, to try the local beer and perhaps bring some home as a memory.
One recent favourite was Elora Borealis (gotta love the name), from the Elora Brewery, which the brewer describes as “a lightly malted pale ale that is bittered, flavoured, and dry-hopped exclusively with Citra Hops. A bright, floral nose gives way to crisp, light malt flavours and finishes with several citrus notes.” Toronto is chock-a-block with brew pubs and small breweries. Some create a few beers to sell year round and then do small-batch seasonal offerings. In fall 2016 I fell for Henderson Brewery’s “Ides of October”, called an English Strong Ale: my beer-describing adjectives are not as flowery as our pals at Elora Brewery, so let me just tell you it was “dark and yummy.”
Main photo: Chris Moorehead with a Sensitive Man Session Ale at Barley Days Brewery in Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario, by Kelley Teahen