As dawn breaks this morning there are 237 operating brick and mortar breweries in Ontario and we have been to 107 of them in the last year. According to Ontario Beverage Net's Brewery directory (here), there are a further 112 in various stages of the planning/building and another 71 (We've tried 31 of these) contract brewers operating right now. That's an amazing amount of growth and I hope we are merely at the cusp of an expansion that should continue for quite some time as under served communities begin to see what a driving force a local craft brewery can be when it comes to tourism and neighbourhood revival.
We experienced it first hand when we travelled around last week to a bunch of small and new to the scene craft breweries. From husband and wife operations (Shakespeare Brewing) to full scale Cathedrals of Beer creating hundreds of jobs in a small town (Cowbell Brewing), we saw every variation on the story of how they got started, their plan for the future and the differences in their beer. Part of why we like to go out on the road in search of these newer and out of the way (for us anyway) breweries is my interest in helping to spread the word about what happens outside the big cities in this country. We tend to become myopic when it comes to a lot of things, even beer and if it happens outside of a major city centre, everything is seen through a muted lens.
Leaving behind the road always taken means experiencing different styles and explorations of them by people who maybe don't adhere to the usual way of doing things. Half Hours on Earth in tiny Seaforth, Ontario started right off the bat with online ordering in addition to creating unique farmhouse and mixed fermentation sour ales. They have developed quite the cult following and will be a force to be reckoned with as they continue to grow. There are a lot of small towns who are opening up to the idea of a craft brewery with a tap room as part of their planning to help create jobs and drive that niche tourism only this industry can provide.
There is a pride to having people come and try "your" beer that we see whenever we post about going to these smaller towns on our trips. People want to share the stuff they can get close to home that never seems to make it to the bigger centres. There has always been a chip on some shoulders at what they see as big city navel gazing and after going out and visiting so many of them I have to agree. We tend to follow the crowd when it comes to the next big beer, trend or otherwise and become enamoured with the latest darling of social media. The fear of missing out on that whale everyone is raving about takes over and we lose sight of all the amazing things happening just outside our usual life sphere.
We tried a lot of beer in the last week, splitting samples and talking with the people who man the counters as we visit and can attest to the fact that not every single one was a home run or an amazing success. Some places still don't get customer service and the people can be like any other industry, there for a paycheque and little else. We have also been to places where they can't do enough for anyone who comes in the door, proudly relating their story and pouring the beer they dearly love for you to sample. Many times the beer was underwhelming, perhaps overly ambitious or just not quite there yet. You could see the promise of good things to come and despite the fact that we could have just gone to our usual haunts, our world is better because we took chances and stretched our legs. Conversely we found some absolutely outstanding craft beers of many different styles that we had no idea about until we crossed the threshold of the doors and said hello to our new friends. From big juicy IPAs to Belgian strong ales and Dopplebocks, we were finding hidden gems that deserve to be brought to the light and given their due as good damn beers.
The world of craft beer is expanding at a rapid rate here in Ontario and pretty much everywhere else you look. There are people looking to make a buck, exploiting the latest trend for profit before moving on to the next thing and those can be difficult to spot until time shows the lack of dedication and care in the beer. But for the most part, we saw people who actually are deeply committed to making and selling a part of their life in every bottle or can. They are passionate about the beer you are trying, sharing tips on where to go next and other businesses in their town you should be visiting. They genuinely want to see the industry prosper because a rising tide does indeed raise all boats. Quality people crafting good and consistent beer will only help everyone and those who are in it for a quick buck will hopefully be shunned and left out of the conversation in the coming months and years. But all of this is moot if you don't get out there and make exploring this land part of your life. The trips can be short, long, epic or standard but the key is to go and get outside of your routine. The rut you're in may be filled with great beer already but your next favourite beer could be sitting in a fridge in a tiny town you've never heard of with a new friend saving you a seat at the bar. It has to be more than just beer though, stop in for lunch at the local diner, get some sweets at that bakery beside the brewery or stay overnight at a local B&B. Sit down and have a conversation, ask about the community, the beer or anything else that you think of. People want to share what makes their town special and you just might make a friend you didn't know you had.
See you out there, one day our glasses shall be raised together!