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Paul Brent


What Ontario Beer Drinkers Are Missing -- And How to Find It

Posted: 09/11/2013 10:12 am

A recent Globe and Mail headline concerning a private sector push for convenience store beer sales said it all: "Beer: Not coming to an Ontario corner store near you."

Just like separatist talk spikes in Quebec, every decade or so, there is a half-hearted effort from Progressive Conservatives and those in the corner store industry to push the sale of beer, and gasp, maybe even wine, in corner stores.

Ain't gonna happen.

Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak can talk about corner store sales or selling the LCBO until his face turns a nice shade of Tory blue, but I'll bet him a two-four of overpriced suds that we'll still be driving to depressing beer store outlets -- or LCBO liquor palaces -- a decade from now.

It all comes down to money and um, convenience. The LCBO provides a steady stream of revenue into Queen's Park coffers ($1.65 billion a year) and a growing chunk of that is coming from beer sales, which makes the honchos of the real "Beer Store" kind of pissy.

The convenience aspect comes in when you consider that the no Ontario government (whether red, orange or blue faced) really has the will to change a system that works, even if it doesn't work in the interests of the province's drinkers.

Anytime the privatization efforts get serious a series of ads from the liquor selling establishment imply little Jimmy and Janey will get easy access to booze from the corner store or how the roads will be overrun with drunk drivers. It's a sobering enough scenario to stall whatever weak privatization momentum exists.

The fact that three foreign-owned companies (okay, half-owned in Molson's case) should continue to operate a de-facto monopoly in what may be the most profitable retail environment in the world should also be a topic of discussion. But let's stick to the brouhaha of this week.

The reality is that Ontario needs more booze retailers, particularly in the beer realm, but hundreds or thousands of corner stores selling six-packs of the most popular beer brands addresses the wrong issue. Rather than giving Ontarians more of the same, the province should open competition up to a select group of retailers with a business plan to sell people what they can't get their hands on currently.

The sad truth is that "The Beer Store" does an intentionally lousy job of selling beer. Their stores, even revamped ones, still have an East Bloc feel to them. Big brands are pushed and you have to expend some time an effort buying beyond the Big 10 featured brands.

That's a feature, not a bug.

The Beer Store's owners, namely Molson Coors, Labatt and Sleeman, do not want you feeling comfortable, strolling around and sampling. Instead, shuffle forward in line, eye and dismiss the crappy beer-themed merchandise, order your 24 or 12, and get the heck out. Store design awards be damned.
That's why the LCBO is stealing an increasing share of beer sales. It puts in a tad of effort and its focus is on foreign beers and local micros. The LCBO celebrates beer -- half heartedly -- while The Beer Store celebrates efficiency.

On a recent trip to the Liquor Mart in little Boulder, Colorado, I saw firsthand what we were missing. It almost brought tears to my eyes. The location, in what looks like an old grocery store, sells 2,000 plus beers. (The mighty Ontario Beer Store carries 350, by way of comparison.) I think every single one of those 2,000 brands was on display in their aisles. Foreign beers, specialty beers, Colorado beers and national microbrewery offerings. You can check out their website (liquormart.com/beer). Read it and weep.

I've written on the beer business for a couple decades and have been fortunate enough to go on brewery-sponsored journo jaunts to Europe and the U.S. but I have never before seen a selection like this. I must have spent a good half hour grabbing bottles off the shelves. Nobody bothered me, presumably because that is the default behaviour of most first timers.

Ontario beer drinkers' tastes are changing. We're buying less big brand two-fours and more craft six-packs and singles. That's why Mill St. Brewery is such a hit with its innovative offerings. That's where the market is going.

If a university town of 100,000 souls like Boulder can support a Liquor Mart and its 2,000 beers, why can't Toronto support two or three? Or one apiece for the likes of Hamilton or London or even staid old Ottawa?

We don't need Mac's selling us six-packs of Coors Light and Budweiser. We do need a homegrown version of Liquor Mart selling us Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde or Boulevard Smokestack Series Dark Truth.
Most of us Ontario beer "consumers" don't know what we want, we just know that we aren't getting it now. And I'm willing to try all 2,000-plus varieties to discover what I really want. I bet you are too.


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  • IPA: Red Racer Pale Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Red Racer Pale Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://centralcitybrewing.com" target="_blank">Central City Brewing</a> <strong>City:</strong> Surrey, British Columbia <strong>The Type:</strong> Imperial pale ales are hoppier than regular pale beers, originally thanks to the extra hops added in the United Kingdom to keep the beer fresh on its journey to British soldiers stationed in India. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Central City won Brewery of the Year at the <a href="http://www.canadianbrewingawards.com/winners/years/2012/" target="_blank">2012 Canadian Brewing Awards</a>. The brewery describes the taste as "ruby red grapefruit, with depth of malt backbone."

  • Gluten Free: Glutenberg Belgian Double

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Glutenberg Belgian Double <strong>Brewery:</strong><a href="http://glutenberg.ca/fr/bieres" target="_blank"> Brasseurs Sans Gluten</a> <strong>City:</strong> Montreal, Quebec <strong>The Type:</strong> Traditional beer is definitely not gluten-free friendly, because it's made with barley (and sometimes wheat). The gluten-free beer offerings are still slim, but growing. <strong>The Brew:</strong> All of Brasseurs' brews are gluten free, made with grains like millet. Love strong, comforting tastes? This warm and spicy beer has notes of molasses, clove, and nutmeg, and 6.5 per cent alcohol.

  • Wheat: Weissbier

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Weissbier <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.denisons.ca/Denisons_Brewing_Company/" target="_blank">Denisons Brewing Company</a> <strong>City:</strong> Toronto, Ontario <strong>The Type</strong>: These beers are light and low on aftertaste, thanks to the use of wheat in brewing. <strong>The Brew:</strong> "Weissbier" is what they call wheat beer in Bavaria, and this beer from Denisons is a traditional Bavarian-style brew made with a special Bavarian yeast. It's been number one in the German Hefeweizen category on <a href="http://www.ratebeer.com" target="_blank">ratebeer.com</a> for more than a decade.

  • Porter: Nutcracker Porter

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Nutcracker Porter <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://blackoakbeer.com/" target="_blank">Black Oak Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Etobicoke, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> Porters are dark like stouts, but generally sweeter and less hoppy. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Save this suggestion for the holiday season, when this dark cinnamon-spiced brew will be perfect with some figgy pudding—which Black Oak says is one of the flavours in this beer.

  • Stout: St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout

    <strong>Beer:</strong> St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout <strong>Brewery: </strong><a href="http://mcauslan.com/" target="_blank">Brasserie McAuslan Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Montreal, Quebec <strong>The Type:</strong> These dark and rich beers often use unmalted roasted barley to give the beer a character kind of like coffee. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This beer is brewed from 40 per cent dark malts and roasted barley, but also has oatmeal to give it body and a mocha-coloured head.

  • Farmhouse Saison: Saison Station 16

    <strong>Beer: </strong>Saison Station 16 <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.hopfenstark.com/" target="_blank">Hopfenstark</a> <strong>City:</strong> L'Assomption, Quebec <strong>The Type:</strong> These highly carbonated beers were originally brewed in the cooler months in Belgium and then stored by farm workers to drink in the summer months. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This spring seasonal brew is Belgian style with citrus and clove aromas.

  • Belgian: La Fin du Monde

    <strong>Beer:</strong> La Fin du Monde <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.unibroue.com/en" target="_blank">Unibroue</a> <strong>City:</strong> Clarington, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> Belgium has a centuries-old beer brewing tradition, and Belgian-style beers can be of several different varieties. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This beer with a floral bouquet has, so far, won more <a href="http://www.unibroue.com/en/beers/15/medals" target="_blank">medals and awards than any other Canadian beer</a>.

  • Mead: Meade

    <strong>Beer: </strong>Meade <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.applewoodfarmwinery.com/" target="_blank">Applewood</a> <strong>City:</strong> Stouffville, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> This ancient beverage is not exactly a beer: rather, it's a fermented honey and wine beverage that sometimes also contains grain mash and/or hops, which can give it a beer-like flavour. <strong>The Brew:</strong> If you're looking for a buzz, you'd get a good start reaching for this beverage, with a 20 per cent alcohol content.

  • Fruit: Blueberry Cream Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Blueberry Cream Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://pumphousebrewery.ca/" target="_blank">Pumphouse Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Moncton, New Brunswick <strong>The Type:</strong> These tend to be ales, but have a different character because of the low bitterness and malt flavour required to let the fruit shine through. <strong>The Brew:</strong> East Coast blueberries are delicious, and this beer ads spicy notes to kick things up a notch.

  • Summer: Dooryard Organic Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Dooryard Organic Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.picaroons.ca/" target="_blank">Picaroons Traditional Ales</a> <strong>City:</strong> Fredericton, New Brunswick <strong>The Type:</strong> When the weather is warm you want a seasonal brew that's clean and refreshing, like the ones in this category. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Picaroon's certified-organic summer ale, with three traditional wheat beer styles in the blend, won bronze at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2009 and 2010.

  • Smoky: Holy Smoke Scotch Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Holy Smoke Scotch Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.churchkeybrewing.com/" target="_blank">Church-Key Brewing Company</a> <strong>City:</strong> Cambellford, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> These beers are given their smokey flavour through the use of malted barley dried over an open flame. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This peat-smoked Scotch ale is so dark that it's nearly black.

  • Wit: Oranje Weiss

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Oranje Weiss <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://amsterdambeer.com/" target="_blank">Amsterdam Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Toronto, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> This Belgian-style beer is light and crisp that <a href="http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/weissbier.html" target="_blank">narrowly escaped extinction twice in the 20th century</a>. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This seasonal brew is an unfiltered white, flavoured with orange peel, coriander, and anise.

  • Scotch Ale: Wee Heavy Scotch Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Wee Heavy Scotch Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://amsterdambeer.com/" target="_blank">Amsterdam Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Toronto, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> These dark and strong beers are bittersweet and sometimes slightly metallic. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This ruby-red beer is available every winter, with a blend of five different malts to keep your belly warm.

  • Rye: Rye Pale Ale

    <strong>Beer: </strong>Rye Pale Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.cameronsbrewing.com/" target="_blank">Cameron's Brewing</a> <strong>City:</strong> Oakville, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> Rye beers are made when a portion of the barley malt is replaced with rye, which is generally malted. <strong>The Brew: </strong>Part of Cameron's brewmaster series, this bittersweet beer has won several Canadian Brewing Awards, including a bronze in 2013.

  • Pale: Imperial I.P.A

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Imperial I.P.A <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.garrisonbrewing.com/" target="_blank">Garrison Brewing Company</a> <strong>Toronto:</strong> Halifax, Nova Scotia <strong>The Type:</strong> Copper coloured and fruity, these beers are originally from England. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Garrison bills this as "the hoppiest beer in Atlantic Canada." Depending on your taste for hops, that either sounds great or awful. If you're a hophead, this is your brew.

  • Pilsner: Pilsner

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Pilsner <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.kingbrewery.ca/" target="_blank">King Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Nobleton, Ontario <strong>The Type:</strong> These beers have a more distinctive hop taste than other lagers, with a dry and somewhat bitter flavour. <strong>The Brew:</strong> King imports the Bohemian malts used to brew this Czech-style beer, which won a silver medal in 2013 at the Canadian Brewing Awards.

  • Red: Fighting Irish Red

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Fighting Irish Red <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.yellowbellybrewery.com/" target="_blank">Yellow Belly</a> <strong>City:</strong> St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador <strong>The Type:</strong> Thick bodied and amber or red coloured, depending on the particular brew used. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Billed as the brewery's most complex beer, Yellow Belly's red brew has notes like burnt toast and strawberry jam.

  • Brown Ale: Traditional Ale

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Traditional Ale <strong>Brewery:</strong> <a href="http://www.bigrockbeer.com/" target="_blank">Big Rock Brewery</a> <strong>City:</strong> Calgary, Alberta http://www.bigrockbeer.com/sites/default/files/images/beer/main/beer-bottle-traditional.png <strong>The Type: </strong>Look for caramel and chocolate flavours, sometimes with a slight citrus accent. <strong>The Brew:</strong> This beer was first brewed in 1985 with the goal of creating an English-style beer that was markedly different from the typical Canadian bottle.

  • Lager: Black Cat

    <strong>Beer: </strong>Black Cat <strong>Brewery: </strong><a href="http://www.paddockwood.com/" target="_blank">Paddock Wood Brewing Co.</a> <strong>City:</strong> Saskatoon, Saskatchewan <strong>The Type:</strong> Lagers are aged longer, which gives them a smooth finish. These are the world's most popular beers. <strong>The Brew: </strong>This beer with "delicate coffee notes" comes from Saskatchewan's first microbrewery.

  • Kolsch: Lug Tread

    <strong>Beer:</strong> Lug Tread <strong>Brewery: </strong><a href="http://www.beaus.ca/" target="_blank">Beau's All Natural Brewing Company</a> <strong>City:</strong> Vankleek Hill, Ontario <strong>The Type: </strong>This German style of beer has a noticeable hoppiness without being extreme, and is not as bitter as regular German pale lager. <strong>The Brew:</strong> Beau's flagship brew is a tribute to the classic beer of Cologne, Germany. It's top fermented like an ale and then cold aged like a lager.


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