Skip to main content

If the Great Toronto Beer Glut is a problem at all, it's a pretty good one to have.

A lot better than the alternative, at least. Some 10 years ago, we lamented the lack of selection here, eyeing La Belle Province and her ample brewpubs with envy. Now, we head to the craft-beer section of any large LCBO store and find the massive, ever-changing selection daunting. We're spoiled for choice. Add to this the retail counters at small Toronto craft breweries such as Burdock on Bloor West or Bellwoods on Ossington, the growing selection at the Beer Store and the taps at craft-beer bars – and some may start to wish for a little help from an expert.

Just this week, Luc "Bim" Lafontaine, the former head brewer of Montreal's celebrated Dieu du Ciel! microbrewery, announced that he's opening a brewpub in the Upper Beaches on Coxwell Avenue. It's expected to open next year.

There are already 200 craft breweries in Ontario – a quarter of them located in the Greater Toronto Area – and with 80 new breweries in development, it's about to become even more confusing. We may be on the cusp of what some observers are referring to as a beer bubble. Others argue that even though conventional wisdom has it that less is more, more is still more.

"Two years ago I thought Toronto had a beer glut," says Jordan St. John, who, along with co-author Robin LeBlanc, is working on the forthcoming Ontario Craft Beer Guide, a book that will help sort through the maze of new offerings. "Now I'm not actually so sure, because, every time I go to a brewery opening, I second-guess the idea of a glut."

Last Canada Day, he visited Muddy York when that East York brewery opened a bottle shop; its beers are not available at the LCBO. "I got there maybe 3-1/2 hours after opening and there were four growlers left," he recalls.

Novelty drives the craft-beer market, however, so a rush on new products is to be expected. This is also one of the defining features of the craft-beer revolution and it has changed consumer habits radically. The pre-craft beer drinker was extremely brand loyal – both at the store and at the bar, where a shortage of "the usual" would have been cause for serious consternation. Nothing could be further from the truth now.

"You never see a craft-beer drinker buying a two-four of Augusta Ale," says Brock Shepherd, founder of Kensington Brewing Company (which, funnily enough, makes Augusta Ale). "They grab two of each, one of those, one of that, and I'm guilty of it, too. When I go to the LCBO, I'm always looking for what I haven't tried."

The same is true at craft-beer bars. Mr. Shepherd says he is often asked, "What's next?" before he's even dropped off the keg.

The quest for new favour profiles and quality aren't always synchronous. Building a solid brewery with a small selection of high-grade beers nets the brewer less attention (and, possibly, sales) than an experimental brewery that's always cranking out something new.

"It can all get a bit twee," says Mr. St. John, who warns that new brewers should start with respect for traditional styles. "Once you get good at that, if you want to play, go ahead. But you can't start at Hibiscus-Flavoured-Munich-Imperial-Session-Whatever. You have to work up to that."

Although it's not a clear divide, "contract brewers" – brands that exist despite not having an actual bricks-and-mortar brewery – take most of the blame for the spate of experimental beers out there, some of which are obviously better than others.

"There's a lot of opportunists coming in," explains Mr. Shepherd, who is himself currently a contract brewer (he hopes to open a permanent location in Toronto's Kensington Market next year). He notes the irony of this influx, since there's remarkably little money to be made from craft beer, unless the requisite amount of hard work has also been put into building a viable business.

"Contract brewers can go to an established brewery, get a recipe made, get it on the market and probably get an LCBO listing in the first year," says Mr. Shepherd. "But to actually really make money, to make a solid business out of it, you have to have a plan to open your own brewery because the margins are so tight." Otherwise, he says, being a contract brewer is simply a hobby business.

As such, Mr. Shepherd believes a little "shakeout" among contract brewers is coming over the next five years. But that will likely be mitigated by the continued growth of the market for craft beer, which should be even more robust with provincial changes to allow beer in grocery stores. Ontario's new legislation specifically mandates that 20 per cent of shelf space be reserved for small brewers.

This should rectify the primary hindrance to the previous growth of craft beer in Ontario. A lack of retail space outside of the LCBO and Beer Store is the main reason the province's craft-beer scene has been a little slower on the uptake than it was in Quebec, British Columbia and most markets in the United States.

"You only need to cross the border to see how far we still have to go," says Robin LeBlanc, a Toronto beer blogger and Mr. St. John's co-author. "I don't even mean a good beer store in Buffalo. Just walk into a Walgreen's in Virginia to see what's there.

"As an industry, it may seem as if there are a lot of brands right now but, compared to the world market, we're just getting started," continues Ms. LeBlanc, "The next couple of years are just going to get more chaotic and more wonderful and we'll definitely be seeing that quality will matter."

And, if you get a dud in the meantime? Well, it's not as big an investment as a pricey bottle of wine or whisky – a can of beer is probably two or three dollars.

Says Mr. St. John: "One of the things I've learned writing this book is that you can pour it out and there is always more beer."

Interact with The Globe