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Brewing Away the Blues

Fermentations, located at 201 Danforth Avenue.

As Maclean’s reported last week, alcohol sales at large Canadian retailers were up seventeen per cent this past October in comparison to October 2007, while the Globe and Mail reported in December that the sale of high-priced liquors, such as champagne and ice wine, were way down. This isn’t surprising: when times are tough people tend to hit the cheaper bottles a little harder. But sales of inexpensive liquor aren’t just up at retailers—in order to save money, more and more Torontonians are making their own booze or turning towards Toronto’s on-premise beer- and wine-making establishments.

Cellar’s Choice: located at 812 The Queensway.

“We’re significantly busier now,” said Fermentations owner Charles Fajgenbaum. “Everyone enjoys saving money. A lot of people come here at first to save money, but then they enjoy our products so much that it keeps them coming back.” Fajenbaum isn’t the only person in the industry whose business has been positively affected by the recession. “Sales are getting better,” said David Crate of Cellar’s Choice. “Sales are up ten to fifteen per cent. We’re also getting a lot more new customers. I may be a bit biased, but the quality of our product is totally comparable to what you would find at the LCBO—except it costs forty per cent less.”

An amateur vintner at Fermentations.

Homebrew equipment manufacturers have also experienced a surge in sales. “There’s been an uptick [in Ontario],” explained Derek Hamilton of Fermtech, a supplier of equipment for home vintners and brewers. “But there’s been a bigger uptick in the U.S., as they’re in much worse shape than we are. The industry is recession resistant; it may even be recession proof. When things get bad people still want to drink—they just don’t want to pay for it.”
Although many people assume that making your own beer or wine is time consuming, difficult, and expensive, it’s actually pretty simple. We made a fantastic Bohemian Pilsner at Fermentations a few months ago, and we were surprised at just how easy it was. It only took a few minutes to choose the type of beer we wanted and to add the yeast to the other ingredients. (Legally, the customer has to add the yeast.) Then, after two weeks we were able to return to bottle it. Wine making is just as simple, although depending on the grapes, it takes anywhere from four weeks to four months before you can bottle it.
Making your own beer or wine is also a lot cheaper than buying it. Our Bohemian Pilsner—one of the pricier beers available at Fermentations—was only $92 for twenty-four litres. That’s about the equivalent of three cases of twenty-four. The same amount of Pilsner Urquell, a similar tasting beer (yes, we’re well aware that Pilsner Urquell is a Czech beer), would cost $136. That’s a savings of $44, and that’s not too shabby if you ask us.
Photos by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.


  • http://undefined badbhoy

    I managed a winemaking store about 10 years ago when the economy was doing well and times were tough. The industry exploded in the early 90′s and I suspect it will again now.
    As for the quality of the product, it is difficult to make full bodied red but light reds are comparible to the cheaper bottles at the LCBO. You can make some great whites when you use a higher quality juice and age it for a few months. Unless you are paying more than $20 a bottle at the LCBO, most people would not be able to tell the difference from a homemade white.

  • http://null Eric26

    Sounds like work. I think I’ll stick with the LCBO where I can get my beer in a can/glass bottle instead of drinking it out of a 1L plastic Coke bottle.

  • http://undefined badbhoy

    Um, why would you drink it our of a coke bottle? They do sell new wine and beer bottles or you can bring your own that you clean at home. It is zero work other than the bottling which is quite fun.
    When it comes to beer I’ll admit that it doesn’t come close to matching the quality of the premium beers. But if you are drinking swill like Blue or Canadian you are wasting your money.

  • Mark Ostler

    It’s really not that much work and you can use whatever size bottles you want (Fermentations has half-litre plastic, stubby-style bottles). Just add the yeast, wait two weeks, spend a half-hour bottling and you’ve got about 45 pints of delicious beer. I can’t remember if they have a capper, but if they do, you might be able to use glass bottles.
    I’ve made a few of Fermentations beer offerings in the past year and they are so much better than anything you can get at the LCBO for a comparable price. Great staff too.

  • http://undefined Eric26

    How much do these beer bottles cost? I suppose I could always bring my own (69 bottles for the 23L you get at Fermentations, by my calculation) which I would then have to sanitize. Then I guess I would put it in the back of a Zipcar and I’d be ready to go. I may try it…

  • http://undefined Mark Ostler

    I think Fermentations plastic bottles are 50 cents each, but obviously if you hang onto them, it’s a one-time purchase. And they have sanitizing solution there for you.

  • http://undefined Eric26

    I’m sure that drinking beer out of a plastic bottle is exactly the same as drinking it from glass, but I still refuse to do it.

  • http://undefined badbhoy

    It is the same actually becasue you will still need to drink the finished product out of a glass anyway. With home brewing you need to add a small amount of yeast to the bottle to carbonate the beer which leaves a sediment. If you pour it properly into a glass the sediment stays in the bottle. This is unless you use one of those carbonator thingies but I find it tastes unnatural.
    Sometimes a plastic bottle imparts a flavour after a few weeks so glass is better anyway. You can use a capper on a glass bottle but may not get a great seal. I find that the Grolsh pop cap bottles are the best.

  • http://undefined Stephen Michalowicz

    The Bohemian Pilsner we bought was $72, plus $20 for the forty some plastic bottles. I don’t exactly remember how many bottles we used, as we had more than twenty-three litres (closer to twenty-four litres) of beer.