On wells and ambition

Hey, I’m back. Before I start kicking the hanging homes of stinging insects, thanks for reading! I know I’ve been off the grid for a while. I just moved, and the lead-up and unpacking totally sapped any time I might have had to write.  It sucks, but it’s mostly over now, so here I am!  Anyway, let’s just dive right in at the deep end:

Do you remember I said I was working on a beer guide for Ontario?  Well, I still am, but the format has changed. It’s going to be a web app now, and the reasoning is simple. The information just changes too quickly to make a printed guide viable. Like, just in the discovery phase like 5 new breweries were announced, a few went from in-planning to operating, and multiple bars opened and closed. That was in a 3 month period. I couldn’t keep up. Aside from leading to the format change, it really highlighted the reality of brewing in Ontario right now. It’s something I have been thinking a lot about, and also been talking with some friends in the industry a lot about.

Here is where we are at:  Well over 100 brewing operations producing beer. Many many more in planning or building or dreaming, etc. Many of these use contract brewing agreements.

So first: A lot of people are down on contract brewing. Indeed, in parts of the USA, it’s generally looked down upon.

I’m not in that camp. I think contract brewing *can* be done well. It can allow a bricks and mortar brewery the financial breathing space to improve themselves. It can allow smaller breweries to produce beer in a different format (think cans of Junction being produced at Welly), or a place like House Ales to make beer for licensees (at Black Oak).  It can also allow great brewers an opportunity to produce their beer for public sale, without having to come up with an enormous amount of start-up capital. I’m thinking the likes of Paul Dickey/Cheshire Valley (Paul has no intention of ever making his beer on a large enough scale to require his own full brewery, as far as I know), or Left Field and Kensington Brewing Co. (who contracted brewed while building their businesses to a point where they could build their own spaces, which they are both now doing). Contract brewing can also provide a way for somebody with an interesting idea to get into the industry.  Two immediate examples that pop to mind are Triple Bogey and Collective Arts.

All of this is very good, in my opinion.

But then there is the flipside to this: the ease of entry into the industry is, well, easy.

Up until a fairly short while ago, if you wanted to open a brewery, there was a basic format: Go volunteer at a brewery you like. Haul grain, clean filters and mash-out while watching closely at what everybody else was doing.  Maybe help out on a few brews.  The next step was either to start getting paid to be a brewing assistant or whatever, or shell out money and go to a brewing program, in the USA, Germany, Scotland, England, etc, or now Niagara. Then back to work, maybe running the brewhouse in a smaller operation, or else as one of the brewers at a bigger one.  Save some coin, build your chops, then one day, with the blessing and support of your boss, strike out into the cold world on your own.

It took years, financial hardship and hard work.

True, there were people who were long-term homebrewers who jumped the queue a little, but they were still the people sweating over hand-made brewhouses in their garage or on the balcony of their apartment or whatever.  They spent years making beers that were entered into contests, eventually starting to win medals.  All while working a day-job. Starting their own brewery was always a huge financial risk. Here I’m thinking of the guys at 5 Paddles, or else Jeff Manol of Muddy York (if you haven’t heard of him, you will).

Now let me introduce you to a fictitious person: William Goldings.  William is 38 years old.  He is married with two kids under the age of 7.  He sells insurance for a major brokerage and owns a home in Ajax.  He loves drinking awesome beers.  For Christmas, his wife got him a Brooklyn Beershop homebrew kit from BYOB.  He made the everyday IPA and didn’t go blind. He had an epiphany.

He could do this every day, for the rest of his life.

Because he reads TorontoBeerBlog.com a lot, he knows all about contract brewing.  He also knows that Everyday IPA would taste *way* better (in his opinion) with more hops.  Maybe a few C hops.  Or else some cool NZ varieties.  Whatever.  That night, over bottles of Oast House Saison, he tells his wife the plan. She’s a graphic designer and immediately has plans for the label. A modern Japanese-influenced layout with Gothic detailing and leveraging mono-colour palettes. It will be called Daily IPA, and they will use an Uncial script for the branding.

William has a hockey buddy who works at RBC, and tells him he’s good to go on a $35k business loan.  With that money, he reaches out to a local medium-sized brewery and arranges to contract brew with them.  He takes his epic recipe (which is just the Everyday IPA with twice as much hops and now they’re all Pacific Gem), and multiplies it by 45 to scale-up to their brewhouse. Because of ordering limitations, the recipe gets “tweaked” so that it’s now mainly just pale 2-row with a bit of munich, and mostly Centennial hops. And it uses an English ale yeast because that’s all the brewery had, not the Cali ale strain he had used at first. But when the brewer wasn’t looking, William dropped the 2 ounces of pacific gem he’d ordered online to test out but never gotten around to doing. And a good thing, because he could totally taste it a few weeks later when they bottled the beer.

He sells some kegs and bottles to a few beer bars, and buys a booth at Session to promote the new venture.  He already has the next brew day booked. People check-in his beer on Untappd, some ratings pop up on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, there’s a thread about it on Bartowel. He’s arrived! Many people say it’s great. So much hops! Killer labels! People at Session seem to respond well; nobody tells him it sucks. Suddenly he’s window-shopping at Mark’s, looking for the perfect pair of rubber boots.

But here’s the thing: Daily IPA isn’t very good, though it isn’t “bad”. There are no major flaws, certainly, the beer isn’t infected or suffering from poor packaging.  It’s just not good.  And it’s especially not great.

The recipe lacks balance, and you can tell the execution was mainly done by a person with zero interest in the product. The brewmaster is skilled, maybe even excellent, but they really don’t care about this product. It’s not theirs. If it tanks, it’s nothing to them. Even if William’s original iteration was pretty good (it wasn’t), it hasn’t been scaled up to production well or adapted for the available ingredients.

True, a lot of people — even some trusted reviewers — talk the beer up. All those people at Session can’t be wrong, right?

Well, I suppose there is an argument to made made there. And in fact, it’s the argument I have staked a claim to. Just because I can tell that the beer isn’t very good, doesn’t mean I call the brewer out, or the reviewer, or the random person next to me at the booth at Session. If other people like it, then that’s just fine, right? I mean, I’m fine with the thought that a lot of people genuinely prefer Stella to the beers I enjoy. I might even review the beer, and try to objectively delineate it’s characteristics.  Note that maybe it’s not something I particularly dig but that it tastes of X and Y, and you might like to give it a try.

I have had a long-standing idea of not posting negative reviews of beers.  The reasoning is another post in itself, but suffice to say, I’m not changing that policy.  However I worry about craftbeer in this highly explosive growth period. With so many new products popping up, and so many new people being exposed to new beers, we run the risk of poisoning the well (to quote my dear friend Iain McOustra at Amsterdam).

The corrupted well can poison you in two ways: Firstly, if you are already a craftbeer drinker, you can slowly find yourself accepting beers that are simply not great. This is a problem when there are some truly great, even epic, beers being made in Ontario right now.  Canuck Pale Ale is amazing.  Boneshaker is incredible. Naughty Neighbour is superb. If big hops aren’t your thing Black Oak Nut Brown is divine, Muskoka Cream Ale is spectacular and Left Field Eephus is dynamite. And now I’m running low on positive adjectives, so I’ll just say Bellwoods! Indie! Sawdust! I’m not saying not to try new things, but I’ve heard people discussing “awesome” beers they’ve recently had, and they have listed some truly mediocre (or worse) beers along with some stellar ones. I can only assume they have actually lost track of the differences between “good” and “great”.  It’s as if people who were early adopters still have the view of fiercely supporting a beer or product simply because it’s new, because they still remember the days when every new brewery needed a leg-up. Maybe they never really came to appreciate the difference between okay and epic? I don’t know, but I worry.

I also worry that if half the beers on tap or on the shelf are only “meh”, a would-be new drinker will try them and experience one of two things: either they will think, “this really isn’t great” and will go back to their fairly generic standby beer, or else will get used to drinking mediocre brews, and will identify the truly remarkable specimens as weird outsiders, and avoid them.  Indeed, I’ve heard people criticize Great Lakes Karma Citra, which may well be the best beer made in Ontario. Again, I can only assume they’re used to fairly one-dimensional IPAs and Pale Ales that pale in comparison.

William and his real-life new brewers aren’t bad people. In fact, many of them are wonderful. They mean well. A few are simply trying to turn a quick buck on the hot trend, but many honestly believe that they are making a positive contribution to the scene. Some of them will undoubtedly end up successful, and a few might end up making some actual great beer; many will continue making stuff that is just okay, maybe “not bad”.

Like I said, I’m not going to start publicly slagging breweries for making mediocre beer. However (and take note if you’re a new brewer, or a would-be brewer, or even an old-hat trying something new), if you ask me to try your beer, be ready for a pretty honest answer.  Understand that I’m not having a go at you as a person. I know it’s hard, because you’ve put so much care and effort into whatever you are giving me, but believe me, we can all be better.  Feel free to ignore me (who knows, I could be totally wrong). But up until now, unless something was “wrong” I would rarely enter a dialogue.  To do “my part” for the overall industry, I’m going to change that.

Whether you are a brewer being handed somebody’s homebrew, a writer being given an inside on a new company, or simply a punter at Session or another cool festival, be honest with brewers. Yes, they need your support, so support them by praising when appropriate and challenging them when necessary. It’s not about being mean, or about personally tearing down a brewer, it’s about helping them to be better; to succeed.

If you want to start a brewery, go slow. Learn your craft. Work with pros, and listen to what they tell you. Dial your recipes hard. Go back to school. In fact, we haven’t even addressed the business of running a brewery, from accounting to marketing to health and safety standards. You must learn it all, and along the way isn’t a good plan. If contract brewing is your plan, do it with a brewery you know and trust. And spend months, at least, helping out around the place. Shadowing the brewer, the account, etc. Go slow. Please. It will be better for everybody.


  1. Mom 'n Hops
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Chris – so many excellent points presented!


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