A weird year for beer

Craft breweries had another big year, with Toronto's Spearhead throwing some aloha in our lives...

Craft breweries had another big year, with Toronto's Spearhead throwing some aloha in our lives with its Hawaiian Pale Ale.

JORDAN ST. JOHN, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:01 PM ET

The year 2011 is almost over and it has to be said that it has been a weird year for the beer industry. With the economy performing in a lacklustre manner over the last several years, we’ve ended up in a situation where beer sales are down in volume by nearly two percent in North America. Large brewers are making attempts at innovation in order to stem the tide with what can charitably be called mixed results.

You may well ask yourself, “how can that possibly be good news?”

The answer is found in the increase in diversity in brewing across North America this last year. South of the border, 165 new breweries have cropped up since June 2011. Volume sales of craft beer are up 16.6 percent for the 52-week period ending Nov. 12.

In Canada we’ve seen not only a variety of new startup craft breweries, but a number of changes to the way business is done. Contract brewing has made a significant impact in Ontario, with startup breweries taking advantage of existing facilities in order to produce beer in volume. We’ve seen some relaxation of Ontario’s liquor laws, especially as they pertain to home delivery. Perhaps most impressively, we’re starting to see a freer exchange of beers interprovincially, which is helping to create a truly national beer scene instead of the heavily regionalized provincial markets that had previously been in place.

All of this leads to increased diversity for consumers. At this point there’s something for everyone at just about every price point, whether you want a refreshing glass of lager or a hoppy monster of a beer that will wreak havoc on your palate for a week. There’s a level of engagement with the public that has never existed before, and I see it nearly every time I go to the LCBO: People taking a significant amount of time to decide what they’re going to buy and actually reading labels.

Two of the most significant success stories of 2011 couldn’t have existed without this consumer engagement.

If you’ll think back, you might remember that there was a significant outcry over the fact that Flying Monkeys Smashbomb IPA almost didn’t make it into the LCBO due to the label not meeting the standards of the social responsibility department. Rather than having to scrap the label and design new ones, the amount of consumer interest eventually caused the LCBO to relent and allow it on the shelf. It seems like a minor step forward, but the amount of discussion on the subject was impressive, and public opinion won out.

In terms of engagement with the public, maybe the most successful brewery of the year is Spearhead, a contract brewer out of Toronto. As a new company, it has a single product in its Hawaiian Pale Ale. There are no billboards, having chosen to interact directly with consumers. During the summer, you would have been hard-pressed to find a day where there wasn’t some kind of Spearhead event in Toronto. Brewery reps were out there shaking hands and giving away T-shirts and hats, engaged in a guerilla campaign for consumer attention. Most importantly, staff were available to answer questions about their product. They sold an awful lot of pineapple beer.

For 2011 at least, we’ve seen the success of diversity in the beer world, and it’s a cumulative effect. As more people start to drink craft beer and experiment with the choices out there, they will probably spread the word about what they like. Will we eventually hit a point where an overabundance of choice leads to diminishing returns and too many options? Possibly, but I don’t see it happening in 2012.


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