An Explosion of Suds
People are calling it the Craft Beer Explosion, and despite some concerns among its players that the tolerance of the market will soon reach a critical mass, it shows no signs of slowing down yet. At least 110 Ontario communities now have at least one craft brewery. According to the latest data from the Ontario Craft Brewer’s Association there are roughly 200 craft breweries in Ontario as of the writing of this article. Another 50 craft breweries are listed as being in the planning stages. But whereas other craft beer marketplaces across Ontario have started to become saturated and hyper-competitive, London’s still has room to grow.
These days it seems like there is a new Ontario craft brewery every time you visit your neighbourhood LCBO. But where you would expect latecomers to the scene to be facing an uphill struggle to carve out their niche against more established breweries who already have a narrow marketplace locked down, instead we find a community of small businesses that collaborate and work together to cultivate a lively social scene in London – one neighbourhood at a time.
This is a brewerytown, after all. It’s hard to say how much groundwork has been laid here by the historic Labatt’s Brewery, but surely this legacy has had its influence – as a producer, a local landmark, and a significant local employer. Combined with Budweiser Gardens (formerly the John Labatt Center), big brewery business has combined with the arts and entertainment scene to create a very special kind of local culture – one that appreciates good beer and enjoys forging memorable experiences with friends.
Like any industry, it is prone to ebbs and flows. Competition will drive value, quality, and price, and consumers will change allegiances. This is the crux of the craft brewery industry itself. Whereas big beer plays a highly-ruthless game, the success of each micro-brewery is emblemized in its influence to become a hub of something larger than itself – something that brings people together and becomes the bedrock of lasting memories for friends and families.
Still, while Larry Plummer, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Western University’s Ivey Business School who studies the North American beer market insists that “The data would show that we are actually starting to achieve or reach peak beer, or market saturation.” Not referencing London specifically, he goes on to explain how the number of new breweries in Canada has more than doubled over the past five years to nearly 800 – a figure that takes into account craft breweries, microbreweries and the like.
After all, the growth in craft has come from siphoning off drinkers from mainstream brands – and especially those who don’t mind paying a little extra for a premium pint. Still, mainstream brands still make up the lion’s share of retail beer sales in Ontario, and that market doesn’t seem too badly shaken by the rise in craft brewing.
“If you assume each of those breweries is going to be offering at least 10 to 20 beers — some of them are offering as many as 50 — you’re talking about a really crowded market space for new entrants to be competitive.” In Alberta, the growth in new breweries has been faster than anywhere else – booming from 19 in 2013 to 68 today, with more in development or under construction. Never before had it been so easy for individuals and small groups to take their product to market.
In short, he doesn’t believe that the current growth of the industry is sustainable. But he’s not speaking exclusively about London, either – a unique community of micro-brands united under a common ideal. But these cautionary warnings may be true for other regions in the country, but it’s unclear that there isn’t room in London for new players.
In the end, it’s like any other industry, it’s all about basic supply and demand. If you have too many suppliers and not enough demand, then there are going to be some losers. We can look to the United States – a market that got the craft brew jumpstart on the rest of North America and one that has now significantly cooled for evidence of this very real threshold. Much of this market trend was also due to the buying out of small craft breweries by large multinational conglomerates.
On a national scale competition can be stiff. The brands that come out on top will be the ones who create a product that appeals to the greatest numbers of people, defining their audience and their brand loyalty. But as plenty of Canadian beer drinkers know, this isn’t the only criteria by which new brands of beer can gain a foothold in new markets. Many micro-breweries pay overheads into the hundreds of thousands per month. Margins aren’t huge. Many have faced bankruptcy more than once, but that’s what emerging marketplaces tend to look like for those who want to be their pioneers.
On hallmark obstacle for microbreweries still persists – namely, the difficulty of starting a business, and that’s granted. But the real challenges lie at the bars themselves, who have limited tap space with which to promote new suds. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream brands still dominate the taps in the bars of most Canadian cities. In fact, most bars don’t have more than one or two taps with which to take a chance on showcasing something new and different for their clientele.
Anderson Craft Ales
Anderson Craft Ales has already made a big impact on the local scene, with a loyal audience, and prestigious awards. Anderson is family-owned and while they have only been open to the public for about a year, they already have five types of craft beer available in stores and on local taps. The Andersons are known for working with local ingredient producers and businesses at every opportunity. They manage their own distribution in Ontario and and are set to do big things in the industry.
Gavin Anderson is quoted as underscoring how significant it is that one of the most rewarding aspects of the London scene is that brewers all work really well together to contribute to a unique local culture, and bring awareness to the London and area market.
Forked River has an enormous facility compared to other local breweries. A wide range of beers on tap are available to suit anyone’s palette. Forked River is sold at local LCBOs, but local area independent bars and restaurants owners are the most welcoming to craft beers, and Forked River has found a permanent home in many taps. The Morrisey House, Milo’s and The Bungalow all have great relationships with the brewery and each offer several of their leading brands.
The London Brewing Co-op
The London Brewing Co-op is unique among local brewers, because they actually offer the public the opportunity to come in and work with them in learning how to execute a finely made beer. Individuals and groups join the Co-op regularly, building their own micro-brands, and participating in local events and selling their wares at conventions and festivals all over town. For anyone who thinks that the life of a brewer might be for them, or anyone looking to start up as a hobby, this is the most likely place to start.
An individual facet of the On The Move Organics and The Root Cellar Café, the Co-op is resolutely, 100% local. Originally operating from The Root Cellar since 2014, the new location is at 521 Burbrook Place. Enjoy indoor and outdoor seating, great live music, and a wide range of ales, all in a brewpub environment, with a warehouse feel, giant steel vats, and convenient patio-side food courtesy of an area taco food truck.
With the help of a $92,600 grant from both the provincial and federal government, the London Brewing Co-op grew from a nano-brewery to a full-scale operation serving the public and a regular community of loyal patrons. The money comes from a $2.1-million investment into agriculture and agri-food projects across southwestern Ontario, announced Friday by London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews and London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos. “In one year, we went from one barrel all the way up to 15 barrels,” said Jeff Pastorius, who describes himself as a worker-owner with the London Brewing Co-op. To break it down, this means that instead of 117 litres of beer per batch, they’re up to making 1,800 litres.
Pastorius gives credit to the success of the local scene to the Growing Forward 2 fund which rewards producers for using local ingredients.” Growing Forward 2 has supported 33 projects in southwestern Ontario including Black Fly Beverage Company who received $250,000 and the Forked River Brewing Corporation who received $108,000. The initiative is particularly important to southwestern Ontario, where more than 800,000 jobs across the province are from the agri-food sector, contributing more than $37 billion to the economy.
“Storm Stayed” is a Maritime term that means to be stranded by stormy weather. And if there indeed are dark clouds on the microbrewery industry’s horizons, as warned by some, this notion is debunked by East Coaster and owner of Storm Stayed Breweries’ Justin Belanger who sees clear skies ahead, and more than enough competitive space in the London area scene to let each brand share the light.
Belanger had his first brew pub experience back home, where he frequently returns on long bicycle tours with friends. “Every time we stop in a new area we try to find a local brew pub. I have always loved watching how these places have the unique ability to help grow communities around their brands” effectively becoming fun and relaxing backdrops for socializing with friends new and old. “As a trained chemist, I’ve always admired the care and precision that goes into crafting the perfect pint, so for me starting Storm Stayed with my business partner made complete sense. I wanted to do what I’d seen others do elsewhere. I wanted to help start a community-building brand like that here.”
Belanger insists that despite its legacy, the London scene is still emerging after five years. Moreso, he rejects this idea that the scene is hyper-competitive everywhere. “I have built really great relationships with other brewmasters here. We all know each other and communicate regularly. Often we’ll go in on bulk buys for ingredients. Even fruit. Everyone wins and everyone benefits.”
Even kids are welcome at Storm Stayed. A tall stack of board games stands inside the door to their large, open, and airy seating area. They serve a number of non-alcoholic beverages including kombucha tea. A rotating, modestly-sized menu consists of artisanal cheese and breads, and a range of snacks and sandwiches for those feeling a little peckish.
While he sees involvement in the London market a more or less equal opportunity, Belanger doesn’t deny that it is still in some ways like every other industry, and not everyone will survive. He goes on to explain how the craft scene is different than the big brands. “We make beer, but its not our purpose. That’s the beauty of this whole thing… As long as there are neighbourhoods with people who like to experiments and try something new, in addition to the growing numbers of people who are making increasing commitments to buy locally, there will be room for newcomers to play in the London market. “The focus is on friends and families and creating a solid product that people want.”
Storm Stayed also hosts a Thursday evening farmers market in their parking lot.
How to Get Involved
For those who want to get involved and see what the area brewpub scene is all about, that’s easy… Each brewery offers guided tours and sampling sessions for groups and individuals. Contact the individual brewers for the most up to date schedules.
Additionally, London’s summertime festivals are a great way to get a sense of what each brewer is all about right in one convenient spot! This year saw the annual London Rib Fest rebranded into the “London Ribfest & Craft Beer Festival” held in Victoria Park, drawing all kinds of beer enthusiasts to the event in new, record numbers. Hot on its heels came the Forest City Beer Fest held in the Budweiser Gardens parking lot, which focuses exclusively on promoting the area’s craft beer producers. Don’t forget… Most of our local craft brewers have relationships with area pubs and restaurants who happily stock their suds on tap, and in greater volumes than found in most Ontario cities.
If you’re not thirsty yet, you may be in the wrong city. London is a social place where people like to get out, try new things, and maybe even take in a little culture. Many may not realize it, but they become contributors to this culture themselves. London has also long been a hotbed of innovation and R&D for new, scientific approaches to creating products that people need and love. The craft brew scene is no different.