The 2018 BAR Report

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If you were going to pick a single word to describe what Canadian consumers want to drink this year, it would be “local.” Canadian wines, small-batch spirits, craft beers and local ciders are all in high demand.

“People will sit up at the bar and say ‘What’s the beer that’s made in the closest proximity to where I’m sitting?’” says Julien Lavoie, director of Operations for Toronto-based Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality. The former bar manager of Jump and GM of Leña restaurants in Toronto, Lavoie is currently responsible for the company’s four Calgary establishments — The Guild, Sub Rosa, Hudson and Buffo.

“Overall, a lot of consumers are more savvy and more demanding about what they [order],” he says. “People in Alberta and B.C. are more supportive of the local product and they almost demand it; people are willing to spend the same — if not a little more — and they feel like they’re getting something of value.”

Canadians aren’t just choosier, they’re also ordering fewer alcoholic drinks (except in the 25-to 44-year-old age group, which has slightly increased its consumption since last year). “The overall alcohol consumption within the foodservice channel has been on a five-year decline; the major impact is a softening of traffic to the full-service restaurant segment,” reports Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice Canada with NPD Group. “Even five years ago, the average consumer would have 2.4 drinks; that is now down to one.”

Carter says this is due to Canadians becoming better educated about their health and more observant of the laws about drinking and driving. Also, he points out, “the millennial cohort are hardcore coffee drinkers.” He says the biggest opportunities are presenting themselves in the areas of innovative offerings, such as craft brews and spirits, as well as “more smoothies, more specialty fruit flavours, more unique cocktails such as mojitos and bellinis.”

Luke Harford, president of Beer Canada is also seeing “competition from outside of beverage alcohol — like coffee and tea — and certainly you’ll see interest in the lower-alcohol beers and wines; that area is continuing to grow.”

Asad Amin, vice-president, Canada, Marketing for Ipsos, notes subtle shifts in consumer preferences; for instance, beer is growing in favour of wine at full-service restaurants, while “non-traditional meal occasions [like afternoon and evening snacks] are growing for alcohol consumption,” possibly related to a distinct growth in the popularity of outdoor patios.

Jon Humphrey is the Corporate Beverage manager with Drake Hotel Properties, which operates four properties in Toronto, plus The Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, Ont.. “One of the biggest changes and movements over the past couple of years is creating safe spaces in bars,” he says. In Drake venues, if a guest feels they have been harassed or assaulted, they can approach any staff member and ask for the “Golden Ticket” — a coded way of signaling for assistance.

Sustainability initiatives are also becoming increasingly important, Humphrey says. (Vancouver recently became the first Canadian city to move towards a ban on plastic straws, disposable cups and polystyrene containers). “There’s an interesting couple [Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths] called Trash Tiki; they travel around the world collecting waste products and finding ways to use them in their beverage program, like making lime stock from used limes,” he says. “We’re still not quite there yet, but we’re on our way.”

Wine
The LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) reports $20-million net growth year-over-year for Ontario wines. “There continues to be more evolution of local pride,” says Magdalena Kaiser, director of Public Relations for the Vineland, Ont.-based Wine Marketing Association of Ontario (WMAO)/Wine Country Ontario. “We’re gaining lots of recognition internationally, which helps drive pride at home.”

Even cities far from any vineyard, such as Calgary, are rooting for Canadian labels. “There’s big support for B.C. wines here, to the point it was in the news,” says Julien Lavoie, referring to the temporary ban on B.C. wine imposed by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in retaliation to B.C.’s opposition to the planned expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain pipeline. “There was an uproar in Calgary; people said ‘No, we love our B.C. wines!’” Lavoie recalls.

But Nova Scotia may be the biggest news in local Canadian wine. The industry is growing quickly and some winemakers — including Benjamin Bridge, Devonian Coast Wineries, Blomidon Estate Winery and Lightfoot & Wolfville — are starting to sell their wares in other provinces.

“The Canadian and Nova Scotia wine markets are still growing; that’s an anomaly in the rest of the world,” says Jerry White, executive director of WANS (the Winery Association of Nova Scotia). “There’s an increased interest in local wines; a lot of that is paired with the local-food movement. Wine lovers, as they start to develop their palates, discover local wines tend to pair best with local food and, as people become more educated about wine and more experienced in wine consumption, they tend to go up a little in price point.”

After ‘local,’ the top two keywords for wine are ‘rosé’ and ‘sparkling.’ Luckily, Canadian output in these categories is increasing as consumer demand accelerates. In Ontario, volume production of VQA rosés has risen by 126 per cent over the past seven years, while rosés represented 10 per cent of Nova Scotia’s 2016 production.

“People are drinking rosé all year,” says Kaiser, thanks to notable Ontario brands such as Malivoire’s Ladybug, Moir and Vivant, and Three of Hearts from Henry of Pelham (whose Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut touches all the hot buttons, being not only local, but pink and bubbly as well).

“Rosé seems to be really hot right now. We pour the Tawse rosé from Ontario and Lola from Pelee Island,” says Lorie O’Sullivan, sommelier at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto. “People are understanding rosé is no longer a sweet wine. I’m also finding more men are drinking it.”

Furthermore, “Aperol spritzes [prosecco, Aperol and soda] are very popular — because of the freshness and because they’re not overly boozy,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s filled with ice; it’s refreshing; people can drink one or two of them without feeling tipsy.” “The other trend we’re seeing is people are making wine an experiential thing,” says White. “They’re visiting the vineyards, finding out how wine is made, tasting the wine near the soils where it’s made.”

Beer
The summer of 2017 was a wet one, clearing patios and lowering expected beer sales across the country, says Harford, whose major preoccupation, however, has been the industry campaign to advocate for a repeal of the two-per-cent escalator excise tax on beer and wine that arrived this spring. It will rise every April 1, which means “the tax component built into the price of beer, wine and spirits is going to increase every year,” he says.

On a positive note, the LCBO reports a tale heard across the country: local craft beer (and cider) continues to grow. Although this segment of the market has started to slow down in the U.S., it shows no signs of doing so here — by the end of 2017, the number of Canadian breweries had more than doubled over five years, to 817, with more than half located in Ontario and Quebec. Overall, the LCBO saw premium domestic beer outpace imports last year, partly due to successful Canada-150 promotions.

As for specific public preferences, “flavour is the thing and trying to keep pace with the consumers’ interest in trying new things,” says Harford. “Radlers have taken the category by storm. It’s a cool, refreshing and low-alcohol product; an old style that’s been around forever.”

A year or two ago, craft brewers seemed to be in competition “to see who could make the hoppiest beer on the planet,” Lavoie quips. “Now they’re making pilsners and lagers.”

“People are a little more adventurous. They’re trying sours, goses, saisons and they’re more well-read,” says Humphrey. “Cider’s been exploding in the market — people are certainly taking it more seriously.”

Spirits
The fascination with local products certainly extends to spirits from Canada’s growing roster of craft distillers. After a recent fad for brown spirits, Carter reports continued growth in vodka and other clear drinks, which suit creative cocktail inventions. “Anything that has a unique specialty position would have a little bit of traction,” he suggests.

Lavoie says one way to attract attention is to offer classic cocktails such as mai tais, mojitos and juleps, “but with a really cool local twist.” This may mean incorporating a whisky or gin that’s made nearby, or simply spicing up the bar program with house-made ingredients.

“At The Guild, we’re making our own syrups,” he says. “We’re not going too crazy, but we have a lavender syrup and a jalapeño syrup — nothing synthetic, it’s all natural ingredients. People are looking for something a little more interesting and it has to be value-driven.” O&B is also creating vegan cocktails using Aquafaba, — a chickpea-based product that substitutes for egg-white froth.

“In general, people are drinking better: sherries, fortified wines and gins have seen a bit of a surge,” says Humphrey. Akvavit and mescal are attracting new fans, while “Canadian whisky still seems to be marching forward.”

And, if guests are opting to drink less alcohol, it makes sense to capitalize on the alternatives. “Non-alcoholic is a really big trend at the moment; that’s something we’ve championed for the last seven years or so,” Humphrey says. The Drake blends inventive house libations with ingredients such as Seedlip — a British non-alcoholic distillation that has recently become available in Ontario in flavours such as the aromatic Spice 94 and the floral Garden 108. “It’s allowed our bartenders to make [virgin] cocktails based on classic recipes with as much love and care as our regular cocktails,” he says.

Lavoie says some cocktail bars are offering a one-price menu to combat the sticker shock that can come with $20 drink tickets. And any establishments running out of new drink ideas could follow The Drake’s lead and invite chefs to informal consultation sessions with bar staff to fine-tune the cocktail offerings. After all, who’s better qualified to help match the drinks to the rest of the menu?

Written by Sarah. B Hood 

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