Bar and restaurant operators had reason to smile in 2013, as sales of beverage alcohol continued on an upward march in Canada, with $21.4 billion in sales in the year-ended March 31, 2013 — up 2.2 per cent from the previous year, according to the most recent Statistics Canada figures. Established favourites still rule the roost, but smart managers are boosting sales by tapping into what’s trending. This year’s leaders are craft beer, brown spirits, fresh-ingredient cocktails and sweeter red-blend wines.
The remarkable growth of craft beer is the bright spot in an otherwise flat beer market. Craft brewers used to be called microbreweries until some of them got very big (think Sleeman in Canada, Samuel Adams in the U.S.), so experts settled on the term “craft.” Such beers are usually presented as more “authentic” than the mass-market variety and are typically more flavourful. In Canada, beer sales are down 0.1 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, yet the still-small craft segment is growing by double digits (See Beer by the Numbers, p. 41). In the U.S., beer sales overall fell 1.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2014, but craft is growing there, too, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based firm, which provides research and consulting services to foodservice clients in the U.S. and Canada. “Beer in the U.S. is a very dynamic category right now and evolving quickly,” explains Donna Hood Crecca, senior director and on-premise beverage consultant for Technomic. Some categories, such as super-premium domestic and imported beers, are seeing increases, but, Hood Crecca says, “Craft’s growth is continuing at a significant pace, and restaurant and bar operators are really capitalizing on [it].”
Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) is an organization of more than 35 breweries with a focus on “simple, natural ingredients.” Its core supporters are loyal and go out of their way to seek craft as opposed to “macro” beer (made by the big breweries). OCB even offers a free GPS-enabled app that tells users where to buy the many brands; the latest version features restaurants and bars.
Despite this effort to make it easier to connect consumers with craft, and the double-digit sales increases reported by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), (category sales are up 35.2 per cent from 2010 to 2011 and another 29.4 per cent from 2011 to 2012) the craft market in Ontario is modest, leaving lots of room for growth. “Even the best markets in Canada, like B.C., are not as developed as those in the U.S. In Ontario, craft beer accounts for only about five per cent of beer sales,” says David Ort, Toronto-based food-and-drink writer and author of The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook. “In Portland, Oregon, craft beer now outsells macro beer, and many U.S. cities are in the 40-per-cent craft beer range.” Ort suggests simple steps managers can take to increase beer sales: “Add knowledge when you serve craft beer. For example, give staff basic information about the brewery and brewing process. Also make sure you’re using proper glasses for certain beers, branded glasses where possible — and not frozen glasses.” Ort pauses, frowns, then adds, “that’s bad.” According to Ort, frozen glasses will have an effect on the taste of the beer.
A compelling reason to consider craft beer is that it offers higher margins, says Ort. But that’s not all. “Customers approach them differently [than big commercial beers] and tend not to be obsessed with certain brands. They’re happy to try whatever looks interesting,” explains the beer expert.
Todd Barile is beverage manager for Burlington, Ont.-based SIR Corp., which operates 58 restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area, including Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill, Canyon Creek Chophouse and The Loose Moose chains. Barile says The Loose Moose, located near Toronto’s financial district, was originally a sports bar with a focus on big brands but was relaunched as a serious beer joint with 57 taps, giving it the best selection of draft in the city. It has been so successful that the company has added more beer lines to its other restaurants. “It helps to have more taps these days,” says Barile. “There’s a lot of loyalty to the national brands, but more people want to try new things.”
Jay Jones is one of the founders of the Vancouver-based Canadian Professional Bartenders Association and is the executive bartender and brand manager for the Donnelly Group, which runs 20 pubs, bars and restaurants in the Vancouver area. Jones is managing the launch of the company’s biggest venue to date, The Blackbird Public House and Oyster Bar. The two-floor bar-and-pub complex opened at the end of 2013 and has 60-plus staff and more than 250 seats. In addition to the oyster bar, there’s a scotch bar and, for some reason, a barbershop. The downtown location means the Blackbird gets business folk for lunch and after work, then a dinner crowd followed by the late-nighters, until 2 a.m.
With its varied clientele, the Blackbird is something of an incubator for trends and ideas, which are then rolled out across other locations as appropriate. “Beer is a big part of what we do,” says Jones. “Vancouver has an incredible craft scene. We participated in the Fourth Annual Vancouver Craft Beer Week at the end of May by holding a beer-focused cocktail competition.” Bartenders concocted cocktails with a beer base, adding bourbon, cocktail mixes or liqueurs. Of the 24 lines of beer at the Blackbird, at any given time only about six are macro beers, and, although many customers ask for Molson Canadian or Kokanee, Blackbird servers promote local brews. “We suggest one of our beers that has a similar taste profile. Light, golden lager is always going to be your leader, so make sure there’s some on tap,” advises Jones.
The fact that the Blackbird has a scotch bar is also on-trend: scotch, bourbon, rye and Irish whiskies are among the top-performing spirits in Canada. According to the LCBO, American and Irish whiskey sales in Ontario in 2012 were up 13.9 and 18.3 per cent, year over year respectively, and in B.C. the percentages were even greater: up 26.4 and 22.5 per cent, year over year respectively, according to the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB). It’s the same situation in the U.S., according to Technomic’s Hood Crecca. “For the first time in more than 15 years, brown spirits are outpacing white. American whiskey and Irish whiskey have had double-digit growth in the U.S. for several years, and there’s also momentum in single-malt Scotch,” she says.
When it comes to creative cocktailing, it’s hard to top Toronto’s Barchef, run by Frankie Solarik. He’s been making fresh cocktails on Queen St. W. for the last five years. “We take a culinary approach to cocktails and make all our ingredients in-house,” he says. Solarik offers 28 cocktails created at Barchef but says his bartenders are happy to make any of the classics. In terms of trends, Solarik says brown spirits such as bourbon and rum are doing well, but he’s excited about the gins of summer. “It’s my favourite spirit to work with because of the range of flavours,” says the author of The Bar Chef, which includes 80 original recipes and made the shortlist in the World’s Best Cocktail Book category at the Paris-based Gourmand Awards.
Eddy Germain, manager of Le Lab in the trendy Plateau Mont-Royal area of Montreal, has also been in business for five years and, like Barchef, Le Lab offers a unique list. “We feature 40 cocktails, and each month we add new ones,” he says. “Cocktails are still rising in Quebec — we get more and more locals, but we also get a lot of people from the U.S. and Europe.” A current hit is the Jerky Lab Jack with Jack Daniels N7, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, sugar, the house-made bitter’Lab BBQ and a side of beef jerky. Also popular is its gin and tonic. Choose from more than a dozen gins, and the bartenders will mix it with their house-made ‘tonique ancestral.’ Le Lab bottles and sells its house-made syrups both at the bar and at local markets.
In B.C., the Donnelly Group’s Jones says cocktail culture in Vancouver has been growing, especially during the last five years, when bourbon took off and the city’s hosting of the 2010 Olympic Games encouraged higher standards. Ten years ago, Vancouverites were into Tom Collins and Cosmopolitan. Now, says Jones, “Negroni, Sazerac, Manhattan, Margarita and Daquiri are the standards.”
In the more mature U.S. market, Hood Crecca says “Margarita remains the most popular cocktail, while spirits with carbonated soft drinks or juice are also top calls. Spice and heat are trending flavour profiles — shots of Fireball Cinnamon, flavoured whiskies and liqueurs featuring cinnamon or spice.” She also adds that very candied and sweet cocktails are in decline, so hold off on the Cotton Candy Cosmo specials.
The wine market continues to grow more strongly than either spirits or beer in Canada, according to broad category figures from the LCBO and Statistics Canada, and reds are still way ahead of whites.
In the U.S., sales are generally stable, with the biggies such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay still taking the lion’s share. “Moscato popped in recent years but appears to have slowed in terms of consumer call,” says Technomic’s Hood Crecca. “But sparkling wine in general is outpacing table wine. Consumers are really embracing sparkling wines — Champagne, Prosecco, Cava [from Spain] and Spumante [from Italy].”
Jones says Prosecco is big in Vancouver, and he’s been having success with Spanish wines, including rosé, but he says that California and Australia are still dominant. Local B.C. wines are also doing well, but they tend to come in at higher price points.
SIR Corp.’s Barile has seen “big growth” in wines from Spain, including its lesser-known whites. “Prosecco is our go-to sparkler, but sales have remained stable. California red blends have been very strong, especially the ones that are a little bit sweeter.”
In terms of whites, Chardonnay is the number-1 varietal. One surprise has been SIR Corp.’s relaunch of an old house-party favourite. “We’ve had great success with our sangria,” explains Barile. “We bring glasses with fresh fruit pieces, then a flip-top bottle of sangria, which stays on the table for refills. Customers love it.” The SIR Corp.’s sangria is the confluence of two top trends: sweeter red wines and fresh fruit in cocktails: it pays to pay attention to what the people want.