Twenty years ago, Stephen Beaumont penned the first-ever Great Canadian Beer Guide. Back then there were only 80 or so breweries and brewpubs in the country—today there are over 350 with new ones opening every month.
A veteran beer writer with a seasoned palate, these days Beaumont doesn’t just write about Canadian beer—he writes about beers across the globe, co-authoring the World Atlas of Beer and new editions of the Pocket Beer Guide with British compatriot, Tim Webb. This entails Beaumont traversing the globe (and the country, he writes the entire Canadian section) for three to four months out of the year, and tasting more varieties of beer than many of us will drink in a decade.
Earlier this summer, I sat down with Beaumont to ask him about the State of the Canadian Beer Nation—the biggest changes, most passionate beer province, and his predictions for the next ten years in beer. Here’s our full interview.
What has been the biggest change in the way Canadians drink beer over the last 20 years?
The death of brand loyalty.
In general people are much more flexible in what they are willing to drink. They say, “I’ll have a light beer, Coors Light? Oh, you don’t have Coors Light. OK, Bud light, whatever…” So you see people looking at a category rather than a connection to a specific brand and that is a sea of change from 20 years ago.
On Queen Street, in Toronto, I saw a revival of Red Cap and more recently a revival to a limited degree of Molson Stock Ale (cool to drink your Dad’s beer), but again that is the retro ironic.
Of course, the rise of craft beer has been a big thing. The other day someone told me that the early days of craft brewing were in the mid to late 90s—totally ignoring an entire decade and a half! Quebec has always been ahead of us beer-wise, English Canada has lagged behind; Montreal and Quebec City had craft beer in virtually every bar long before we did in English Canada.
Why is that?
I think it’s because the Quebecois tend to go two ways with their beer drinking, either cheap beer, high alcohol American import malt liquor type-of-thing, or the opposite direction of craft and imports. The Belgian brewery Brasserie d’Achouffe was selling one third of their products in Quebec at one point. The Quebecois have an appreciation of food and beverage, so brands like Boréale and McAuslan were real leaders. In the early nineties these breweries were able to get into bars. Of course as one unidentified brewery owner once told me about the Quebec market, “We do things in a very specific way in Quebec: we write up things in a big book of rules and regulations and then we put that book on the side of the table and say, ‘OK let’s talk.’” And that has a lot to do about what goes on in Quebec
In the U.S. we’re seeing lots of changes in the way beer is served, following some Old World examples like Belgium—so smaller serving sizes, higher-alcohol styles, beer and food pairings—do you see these trends coming into Canada and affecting our relationship with beer?
English-speaking Canadians have been laggards in terms of trends affecting other places in the world. Canadians are very conservative so we tend not to jump with two feet into a new style trend.
The lower mainland of B.C. is like an hour’s drive to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and yet it took a long time for hops to cross the border and for B.C. to embrace hoppy ales. For the longest time Okanagan Pale Ale defined a Pale Ale in British Columbia. So that it took a long time for them to embrace bolder, American-hopped pale ales—and it took Ontario even longer. We were talking earlier about Tree Double Hophead: it’s never been an especially great example of a Double IPA, but the first time it came into Ontario everyone raved about it because people had never had a double IPA. Now that we have more exposure to Double IPAs, people are saying, “It doesn’t strike me as good this time.”
Now we’re beginning to see more and more craft breweries shifting their business model, producing a lot of different styles and one-offs—what’s driving this innovation?
One of the biggest things happening in Canadian brewing in general is that Canadian beer-makers have started to get out and experience other beer cultures. They’re travelling to the Craft Brewers’ conference in the U.S., visiting Belgium and Germany and experiencing the beer styles first hand—that is a major change in Canadian craft brewing since 2000. Prior to then, they were working so hard and had their heads down and weren’t able to get out and do any market research.
And why can brewers afford to go abroad now? Is it because they’re making more money, adding more staff, or are just more determined?
All of the above: the segment overall is more profitable. I’ve seen it with brewery expansion all across the country. Guys who used to run the whole thing by themselves now have their brewers so they can go off and find out about the latest thing first-hand.
And what about everyday Canadians who are going to the beer store or the LCBO, is that globalized outlook of our brewmasters trickling down to what they can choose from on the shelves?
If you go to the Beer Store you’re pretty much screwed because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to make a choice at the Beer Store. But the LCBO used to have 5 percent of the beer market. People didn’t go there to buy beer, now it’s approaching 20 percent of beer sales in Ontario. In Alberta you have a free market; in B.C. you have now what is becoming a free market because beer is going into grocery stores. In Quebec beer is sold in the dépanneurs. So we as a people are drinking differently. It’s not the 24 of OV (Old Vienna) at the cottage—it’s different beers for different occasions.
And this has been going on for a while.
You can drink Budweiser or Coors Light at the softball game on a Sunday, but if you invite people to your home you’re going to have something different, some craft beers, some imports. If you’re going to the pub after work, you’re probably not going to drink mainstream beer. Bars and restaurants are becoming the proving grounds for craft beers—it’s where people try stuff and they say, “Wow I like this I’m going to go out and buy it.”
What would you like to see happen with Canadians’ relationship to beer in the next ten years?
I don’t even have to say how I’d like it to change, because it’s happening. We’re not just drinking beer anymore we’re actually tasting it. And I don’t mean fancy glasses, and sipping, and being all pinkie-out kind of thing. But even when you go to the cottage, you’re not just grabbing a can and not thinking about it, you’re actually drinking something that has flavour, you’re rooting through the ice in the cooler to find something that has some more taste to it.
I think that’s the best thing that’s happening in Canada right now as far as beer goes. We’re redefining our relationship to it.
We’ve always been a beer drinking country but that’s always been self-defining; it’s never the world looking to Canada as a beer-drinking nation or a beer-producing nation. It’s always been Canadians viewing themselves as beer drinkers, and now we’re starting to view ourselves as a beer nation that’s worthy of the name.
And I think the next step is for Canadian brewers to be recognized internationally. It’s happening with brewers from Quebec, and a bit with B.C. but there’s a lot of good beer that never sees the outside of the town and province in which it’s brewed. I think that as the world discovers Canadian beer, Canadians will become more and more proud of what we’re doing.
How would they go about that—winning more competitions?
Competitions are good for putting you into the consciousness, the world takes notice. And to look at export markets—as beer grows in popularity the export markets looms—but if one or two breweries begin exporting it won’t make an impact. Right now, there is no unifying force in Canada for breweries—what's now known as Beer Canada, formerly the Canadian Association of Brewers, is just for brewers, we don’t have the equivalent of the American Brewers Association to help promote smaller Canadian breweries nationally and internationally.
Any other big dreams for the next ten years in Canadian beer?
I’d like to see a central Canadian beer festival—like the Great American Beer Festival—aimed at consumers. And I’d like to see a first Canadian beer style—something to define us; right now we’re interlopers, we grab things from all over the place.
Right like some kind of unique Canadian ingredient? Italians have made chestnut beer their own.
Yeah maybe. But maple syrup, you can get it in Vermont, and actually chestnut beer originated in Northern France. You have to perfect or produce something and call it your own. Maybe reviving the Canadian Ale—it was a golden stock ale, and with golden ales now getting a bit more respect, perhaps its time has come again...