*Each word taken from names given to craft beers made by Hamilton owned brewers.
Move over Molson — craft beer sales are taking off in Ontario. In Hamilton, the number of bricks-and-mortar craft breweries is about to increase by 100 per cent
Stories by Jon Wells
The Hamilton Spectator
For years it seemed like any “craft” associated with beer wasn’t in the actual, you know, beer.
Consider “cold activation” cans showing when your Coors Light is “as cold as the Rockies.” Or the cold activation beer case the company announced was “yet another packaging innovation.”
There was the wide mouth vented can. Grooved vortex bottle.
Even clear beer bottles are a gimmick: colour and appearance are weak indicators of quality.
If the blossoming of the craft beer industry suggests anything, it’s that the conversation is increasingly focused on what’s inside the package.
While the big brewers still dominate, craft beer in Ontario has grown to four per cent of beer sales, and more than double that on the west coast and in the United States.
And in Hamilton, the number of brick-and-mortar craft breweries is about to increase by 100 per cent.
The new Arts and Sciences brewery will soon open at the harbour on Burlington Street, which will house both Nickel Brook and Collective Arts breweries, and later this summer Shed Brewery opens in a 19th century former curling rink building in Dundas.
Meanwhile, Hamilton-area craft brewers who contract out their beer making are capitalizing on this new golden age of beer packing big and diverse flavours.
All of them are betting that the seismic shift in the beer culture is not just a hiccup.
In the pre-craft world, beer was popular in part because it was inexpensive and went down fast. Taste didn’t vary all that much between big beer names.
The very notion of drinking a lager or ale that promised pepper, chocolate, ginger or pumpkin notes, would have struck the typical beer drinker as blasphemy.
And yet craft brewers are succeeding selling beer that is the most expensive in the market, offering tastebud popping flavours — and sometimes alcohol percentages — that demand being sipped, not quaffed.
As for marketing, craft or micro brewers are too small to do much of it — you won’t see The Hamilton Brewery’s signature Blue Collar Pale Ale on a Super Bowl commercial any time soon — but they do compete over who can dream up the catchiest and kitschiest brand names.
Local brands include Ransack the Universe, Old Kentucky Bastard and Green Thumb.
A beer blogger listed some of the best in the U.S.: Mash of the Titans, Genghis Pecan, Spleen Cleaver, Marketing Ploy, Modus Hoperandi, Apocalypse Cow and Hop Ness Monster.
While market research suggests young drinkers continue to prefer less-expensive domestic beer, the shift to craft beer has been powered by consumers into their late 20s and older with an increased focus on buying local and seeking variety in their food and drink — with more organically-rooted ingredients — even if it costs more.
“The move is toward craftsmanship in general,” says Shed Brewing owner Ed Madronich. “There is a demand for that in wine or farming vegetables or making furniture, and away from mass production. And you see that with beer as well.”
Palates have become more adventurous and prejudicial. Forty years ago you couldn’t buy humus in a mainstream grocery store or find an Indian food restaurant.
Anita Stewart, the founder of Food Day Canada and food laureate at the University of Guelph, has helped organize a gala culinary dinner in New York City on May 21.
Gourmet Canadian dishes will be pared with three Ontario craft beers — Nickel Brook’s Naughty Neighbour, Flying Monkey’s Smashbomb Atomic IPA and Grand River’s Russian Gun Imperial Stout.
Unlike wine, nobody used to think of paring beer with food, apart from wings and nachos.
“It has all changed; there are some cool beers out there,” says Stewart. “And some craft beer is so strong and lusty it’s almost too much on its own.”
The roots of the craft beer revival can be traced back 30 years to the popularity of homebrew kits. Plenty of bad beer was made but entrepreneurs forged ahead, notably the Brick Brewery in Waterloo in the early 1980s.
The major beer makers know a challenge when they see one, which is why Molson bought the Creemore Springs craft brewery in 2005.
And the big hitters continue to introduce craft-sounding brands such as Budweiser’s Shock Top.
While no set definition exists, craft breweries are small operators relative to the giants who brew a maximum 40,000 hectolitres of beer a year.
John Romano, owner of Nickel Brook, says domestic beer contains genetically modified grains and corn syrup, whereas quality craft beer uses the best barley and hops, which gives it extra flavour, and is the reason it requires more delicate storage.
Self-declared craft beer geeks revel in unmasking big brewers claiming to be craft. One blogger lists beer after beer that he has “blacklisted” because they are owned by one of the majors.
And still, while craft beer aficionados are among the most passionate of consumers — some equate craft with a near spiritual experience — there remains a huge untapped market of drinkers where cost remains paramount.
Romano knows the price hurdle as well as anyone.
He started his brewery at an inopportune time, when 24 beers for 24 dollars was the marketing rage.
“It was all price-based then; we lost half our business. But now craft beer has become a cool hipster thing to do. The consumer has changed.”
905-526-3515 | @jonjwells
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