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Competition between Big Beer and craft breweries is a win for thirsty consumers Add to ...

Rose-Aimée Giguère grew up drinking Molson Ex in her hometown of Asbestos, Que. But six months ago, when the 24-year-old started bartending at Bier Markt in downtown Montreal, she discovered craft beers.

“ I was so surprised by all the different flavour profiles – sour, hoppy, floral, malty, sweet,” she says. “ I panicked a bit at first because there were so many new tastes, but I’ve come to really love that diversity.”

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Giguère’s beer journey is emblematic of what has been happening across Canada for a while: Those weaned on macrobrews like Labatt 50 or Bud Light have discovered the flavourful world of specialty beers. As a nation, we’re embracing everything from ultra-hoppy West-Coast-style IPAs to unfiltered and unpasteurized caskconditioned ales. According to the LCBO, sales of Ontario craft beers have grown by 575 per cent over the past eight years. And Big Beer, which still controls more than 90 per cent of sales but has seen its market share slip, is taking strategic steps to address the craft-brew incursion.

Among them, multinationals such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev have started investing heavily in the small-beer boom in two distinct ways: by purchasing microbreweries that have made a name for themselves and by creating faux-craft brands of their own. For example, Blue Moon, which is sold in Canada under the label Rickard’s White, may look like an indie offering, but is, in fact, a MillerCoors beer.

“The big producers are definitely marketing their products as ‘authentic,’” says Mike Harrison, master brewer at the microbrewery Brasseur de Montréal. “They’re playing up the hops and ingredients on the labels, whereas in the past it used to be all about how cold the beers could get.”

The hop series being produced by Alexander Keith’s, meanwhile, emphasizes single ingredients used in the brewing process, introducing craft-beer novices to more hop-forward styles. Matthew Perrin, a home brewer and bartender at the Montreal restaurant Lawrence, points out that an interest in hoppier beers, with their fragrant, bitter and zesty flavours, is one of the key trends driving the craft-beer movement right now, so it’s not surprising that larger brewers are following suit.

“The big companies are posturing to make it look like they’re up on current trends,” he says. “They’re all putting out houblon-style beers overnight to prevent losing business to microbrews that are on the cutting edge.”

On the indie side of the hoppy India Pale Ale explosion are some solid, independent Canadian examples, including Flying Monkeys’ from Barrie, Ont. and Brasseur de Montréal’s Jukebox Distorsion. It’s also the style of beer (alongside unpasteurized lagers) that B. C.’ s Granville Island Brewing is known for, so it was, perhaps, prescient of MolsonCoors subsidiary Creemore Springs to purchase the brand in 2009 and distribute it nationwide.

“The big guys have been hitching their wagons to quality craft products in recent years,” explains Harrison. “They’re having more success with their acquisitions than with their own attempts at craft beers.”

What’s impressive about these mergers is that many of the craft breweries that have been swallowed up by multinationals have managed to maintain quality while extending their reach. Case in point: Quebec’s Fin Du Monde. Now owned by Sapporo, it is still considered an exemplary New World tripel.

Chicago-based Goose Island is also doing well. Its unconventional beers (a sparkling ale called Sofie has hints of white pepper, citrus and vanilla) have been showing up in Canadian supermarkets ever since Anheuser-Busch InBev bought out the company in 2011.

The payoff for consumers is a dizzying amount of choice that will only grow as new styles come to the forefront. Brews to watch include simplified SMASH (the acronym stands for “ single malt and single hop”), sour beers (the next frontier, according to Harrison), Brett beers (made with pungent Brettanomyces yeast) and saisons (farmhouse ales that put an emphasis on freshness and drinkability).

Saisons, in particular, offer the macroturned-micro drinker a more “ sessionable” experience. That beer-industry term refers to being able to pound back more than one or two pints without being totally obliterated, which can easily happen with a few rounds of rich, higher-alcohol microbrews. Stay Classy, by Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery, is a fantastic example of the genre, clocking in at only 2.8 per cent alcohol. According to the company, it’s for people who like “ Fanta, staying hydrated [ and] cat-like reflexes.”

That kind of nuanced description and the rise of beer sommeliers going on about “ biscuit characteristics” and “ malty back ends” highlight the geeky, gimmicky side of craft-beer appreciation and suggest why the humble macrobrew will always have a place in coolers and bar fridges. Sometimes, after all, you just want a dependable two-four of Labatt.

“Even at Bier Markt, with its wealth of options, some people come in and still want a Coors Light,” says Giguère. “They just don’t want to hear about anything else.”

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