Inherent Weisse: A Question of Quality
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Inherent Weisse: A Question of Quality

Photo by Robin LeBlanc

June 12-21: Ontario Craft Beer Week has officially launched! From June 12 to June 21, beer events will be happening all over the province. For Toronto folks, certainly one event that shouldn’t be missed is Session Toronto, featuring a huge number of Ontario beers on tap along with entertainment and “Collaboration Nation”, in which breweries have collaborated with local and international celebrities like Judd Nelson and The Tragically Hip’s Johnny Fay. Get tickets now while you still can and check out the OCB Week site for other events going on.

Now, in the spirit of Ontario Craft Beer Week, this week’s Inherent Weisse is taking a look at an Ontario craft beer problem.

Last week, the beer writer, author, historian, and Certified Cicerone Jordan St. John took to his blog to give a stern message to Ontario brewers, effectively pointing out that the quality of beers from some of Ontario’s newest breweries aren’t cutting it and how, with popular American brands like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Goose Island finding their way into the taps of the province with their excellent international reputations, many brewers should be worried about their jobs.

St. John recalled an instance where he had sampled eight of Ontario’s newest beers. “It rapidly became clear that the new class doesn’t have it. Even brewers I’d had vouched for produced vinegary off notes,” he stated. “I had phenols, soap and people telling me they were brewing in styles they just weren’t.”

His frustration with a rising number of low quality beers from both new and established breweries resonated with the feelings of many of Ontario’s craft beer fans, both in and out of the industry. But why?

In a lot of ways it’s the best time to start a brewery in Ontario. Over the years, misconceptions about flavourful beers have been addressed, public knowledge has been expanded, and popularity has grown remarkably. Small breweries are no longer exclusively pouring their beers at dark, hip, locations downtown, but also at trendy nightclubs and suburban bars. We’re now facing one of those good problems where we have an overabundance of choice when it comes to beers, and it will only get bigger. But that also means that there are people entering the fold who are just looking to jump on the trend, or who think that owning a brewery is simpler than it actually is, attempting to cash in on an ideal with a lack of long-term focus on exactly what it takes to own, operate, and survive as a brewery in today’s climate.

“I think that everywhere it is a combination of wanting to get something out quickly and to start making money plus, in some cases, poorly devised business plans,” says internationally renowned beer writer and co-author of The Pocket Beer Guide, Stephen Beaumont. “It’s a booming sector so this is bound to happen.”

Even if a new brewery owner contracts out their beer – paying a respected brewer to formulate a recipe and then having that beer brewed at an offsite facility – they will find themselves with some initial success, but end up falling short in the long-term because brewing is an evolving process and in order to succeed, you need to constantly learn and refine abilities while also, eventually, having a well-tested portfolio of beers that can stand up against those of established brewers further along.

“It’s not all hop additions, funny names and label art – its a fucking job with serious science,” says Indie Alehouse owner and operator Jason Fisher. “If you have 2 years of schooling and never home-brewed (for years ideally) then there is no way you are going to compete on a quality basis with a brewer who has 15 years experience and home-brews regularly.”

Indeed, any established brewer will tell you that one of the many keys to success is to just keep brewing and refining. No one knows that lesson more than Jeff Manol, brewmaster and founder of Muddy York Brewing Co., who held back the launch of his first offering, Muddy York Porter, from Spring of last year to February simply because the beer did not meet his standards and he wanted it just right. As he tells Torontoist, “Bad beer will sink a brewery faster than anything.”

However, Manol is all too aware of the pressures that many new brewers face in releasing their beers as soon as possible and it all comes down to the many costs involved. “What I see is the biggest pressure for someone who has their intentions in the right place, is the financial need to bring in income,” he explains. “Chances are the brewer has tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the venture, and is likely paying leasing costs every month along with a myriad of other expenses. As a result, the need to generate income becomes more and more pressing with each passing week. In the case of Muddy York, I have been fortunate that my tool and die shop (that Manol operates out of) has allowed me some financial flexibility until Muddy York becomes sustainable. If it weren’t for that, I’d either be out of business, or much more in debt than I already am.”

Even still, Manol insists that he would never release a beer unless it met his high standards. “That’s just my stance, quality comes first, no matter what the cost.”

While it sounds almost rudimentary to say that in the end a well thought-out, good quality product will help set itself apart from the mediocre, it’s a lesson that bears repeating in our current scene, where, like mayflies, more people looking to cash in on a trend and set up shop do so while many like them shrivel and die due to lack of sales from a poorly thought-out business plan and a beer that shouldn’t have left the drawing board.

It should also be something that new brewers willing to make the commitment to do things right should keep in mind as well. As Manol says, “Slow and steady may or may not win the race, if there is even a race to be won. I think slow and steady allows you to build a solid foundation based on quality and integrity that I think is incredibly important, and that is especially true when it comes to craft beer.”

I’ll drink to that.