It is a crisp and blustery weekday afternoon and I am sitting at the Olde Stone Brewing Company bar with resident brewmaster Doug Warren. Mr. Warren has just given me a tour of his small yet sophisticated basement brewery, a set-up which is the birthplace of some of Peterborough’s most distinct and best-loved brews. Despite it being close to three o’clock, the pub is crowded and his craft beer is flowing from the taps.
It is not unusual for Mr. Warren to give tours of his brewery to eager beer aficionados; the tours, he reminds me, are part of his job, and he enjoys meeting beer lovers and talking about his craft. Nowadays, as interest in craft and small batch beer has grown among Ontarians, he is finding that there is more and more interest the brewing process and more attention paid to the quality of the product. “Fifteen years ago, only a tiny portion of consumers were interested in [craft beer],” he explains before laughing. “Here in Ontario we seem to be at the tail end of a lot of trends.”
Indeed when it comes to the craft beer revolution, Ontario does seem to be a late bloomer. Ian Coutts, author of the popular brewing history book Brew North: How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada, explains that in Canada, the current trend towards craft beer can be traced all the way back to the late 1970s when freelance writer and ex-brewer Frank Appleton penned an article in Harrowsmith magazine that became a manifesto for young urban beer drinkers longing for authenticity in their drinking experience. In the piece, Appleton likened mass produced beer to “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger”. Coutts argues that since that time “Canadian beer drinking has been utterly transformed” beginning with the first-wave of successful micro-breweries that opened shortly thereafter on the West-Coast.
In Ontario, however, Mr. Warren says that it wasn’t until six years ago that he started noticing a real change in the tastes of those buying his beer. “It was when I began here at the Olde Stone,” he recalls. “My first seasonal was a cream ale that was fairly inoffensive and I had customers coming to me saying ‘why don’t you make something more bitter? We want hop.’ So I was in a situation where for a long time I was trying to persuade people to try something a little different and now they were wanting something a lot different.”
What was significant was that that such a drastic the change in taste could occur in such a short time. “For most of my brewing career people would say ‘ugh what’s that taste?’ and I would have to explain to them that what they were tasting was the flavour of malt or that they were smelling the aroma of hop.”
Although Ontario may have been slow off the mark, the province has since been taken by a veritable tour-de-force of micro and craft brewing. According to a Government of Ontario website a full 16 new microbreweries have opened in the province since 2005, and in 2011 Ontario craft beer “led LCBO sales in all categories (including wine and spirits) with 45% sales growth.”
Furthermore, Ontario is now home to Canada’s only post-secondary brewing program at Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus. The program, called Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management, is a partnership with the Ontario Craft Brewers, an organization that represents 30 of the province’s microbreweries, and graduated its first class in 2012. This college is also home to Canada’s first and only Commercial Teaching Winery.
When speaking about what caused such a dramatic and sudden spike in interest in craft brewing Mr. Warren is quick to credit the rise of internet technology and social media. “15 years ago I thought the real challenge [for craft brewers] would be getting to that critical mass… but the internet allowed people to have information available on their fingertips and it made people so much more aware.”
In terms of the future of the industry in Ontario, Mr. Warren points to a number of interesting initiatives that are currently making waves, including the emergence of viable commercial nanobreweries, small and large scale brewing estates, as well as an increased emphasis on locally grown ingredients. “It really catches the imagination,” he says.
Given all these developments Ontario’s craft beer revolution seems to have a promising future. Currently, craft beer makes up only 5% of the province’s total beer market, however, sales for craft beer have grown exponentially over the past few years, even while overall beer sales have declined. Furthermore, beer festivals and events are becoming more accepted within the mainstream as bars and clubs across the province begin to host regular beer tastings, events, and brewing competitions.
For the Olde Stone brew-pub, however, Mr. Warren doesn’t see any big expansions or drastic changes in the near future. Instead the brewmaster says that he will concentrate on maintaining the quality of his brews as well as adding some limited edition cask beers and continuing to experiment with new supplies of local ingredients. As a regular patron of the pub and a bona fide craft beer convert, I couldn’t ask for anything more.