Patio season is in full swing, and local breweries are capitalizing on the hot summer months to make craft beer an easy ordering choice.
Craft beer is the handmade product of independent breweries, traditionally brewed in smaller batches and championed locally. “It’s a unique, flavourful beer designed for people looking for something different,” explains Joel Manning, head brewmaster at Toronto-based Mill Street Brewery, which operates the Mill Street Brewpub in Toronto, Ottawa and Mississauga, Ont. “I often describe it as ‘beer brewed on a human scale,’” he says, comparing it to its large-scale competitors.
Since its boom in the 1980s, countless brew pubs and microbreweries have popped up across the country, and now, craft beer is returning to its roots. “Canadian brewers are making newer versions of more traditional styles of beer that Canadians embrace,” says Manning.
Innovation is important, as beer sales are on the decline, according to The NPD Group. Craft beer makes up approximately 12 per cent of beer purchases from full-service restaurants, purchased mostly by 25- to 34-year-olds, the key demographic. More specifically, craft beer fell five per cent year over year and domestic beer declined eight per cent year over year.
The key to driving sales is to build on the trends. In the heat of the summer, for example, patrons reach for light, thirst-quenching beers. Wheat beers are popular, and Mill Street is building on interest in fruit-infusion and local sourcing by offering its Mill Street Blueberry Wheat Beer made with blueberries from New Hamburg, Ont. At Big Ridge Brewing Company in Surrey, B.C., the Chimney Hill Wheat Beer is infused with hints of clove, citrus and banana.
Operating smaller breweries means craft brewers have freedom to experiment. Most recently many have introduced hints of oak and wood to their barrels. “We started acquiring Niagara wine barrels, and aging in wine barrels adds a dry oaky flavour to the beer,” says Julian Morana, co-owner of Toronto’s Bar Volo and House Ales, his family’s nanobrewery. Sour beers are also gaining popularity at House Ales where customers are enjoying the nanobrewery’s joint effort with the Toronto-based Amsterdam Brewery called Night Train Funk; it’s made with Stratus Wildass Red, and aged for six months inside a Niagara wine barrel. And, hoppy India Pale Ales (IPAs) — such as, the Little Scrapper IPA from Half Pints Brewing Co. in Winnipeg — are popular, too.
As the market evolves, beer lovers continue to debate — is craft beer the new wine? “The mass market doesn’t perceive beer as an elegant, artisanal beverage,” says Morano. “Why can you buy a bottle of wine at the retail store for $50, but [not] beer? More and more people are realizing the hardships of craft beer, and it’s a culture that is growing immensely.” Manning would rather trumpet the beer’s approachability. “Beer is not the new wine. It can just be good beer — it doesn’t have to be more than that.”