Prior to the First World War, Canada boasted 117 independent breweries. But by the early 1980s, just 10 brewing companies remained in Canada — and the three largest, Molson, Labatt and Carling O’Keefe — owned 96 per cent of the market. Most Canadians were drinking lagers, like Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian, made with minimal hops and hefty amounts of corn or rice (up to 50 per cent) to lighten beer’s traditional barley base.
It was out of this monopolized market, dominated by straw-hued, fizzy brews, that Canada’s microbreweries were born.
It all started with a disgruntled publican, John Mitchell, in Horseshoe Bay, Vancouver. When the Carling-controlled taps at his Troller Pub went dry for a few weeks in 1979 after the brewery went on strike, Mitchell got angry. Inspired by the cask ales of his British homeland, Mitchell teamed up with ex-brewer Frank Appleton (who had quit Carling because he detested making their bland lagers) and fashioned Canada’s first “cottage” brewpub out of old dairy equipment. To break even, Mitchell figured he needed to sell one keg of beer at Troller each day. On the first day of business in 1982, he sold seven.
The First Frenzy
Inspired by the burgeoning home-brewing and micro-brewing scene in the United States, Canadian entrepreneurs began installing mash tuns (insulated vessels in which a mixture of grain and water is heated during the process of brewing or distilling) — and the country’s first microbreweries (a new term denoting a small, independent brewery) opened in 1984 with Granville Island in Vancouver, BC, and Brick Brewing, in Waterloo, Ontario. Five years later, 42 new breweries opened, mostly in British Columbia and Ontario. They churned out a variety of beer styles, like stouts, pale ales and Belgian witbiers (wheat beers), that hadn’t been seen in Canada for decades — moreover most microbreweries eschewed corn and rice in favour of barley, which gave the beers more oomph than light-tasting commercial lagers. And these new unpasteurized lagers and ales were designed with flavour, not long shelf life, in mind.
But not all Canadians were primed for bolder brews — and not all of the new breweries were making good beer. In the early 1990s, some of the new entrants went out of business, including Mountain Ales Corp and Bryant’s Brewing in BC, Halton County Brewing, York Brewing and Conners Brewery in Ontario and Highland Breweries on Cape Breton Island. This has led to some beer experts describing a “bust” period. However according to Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer, who has been chronicling the beer scene in Canada since 1990, it was “more the shedding of poorly conceived or performing players, as would happen during the maturing phase of any industry. If you look at the overall brewery numbers, they continued to rise through the late 1990s and early 2000s, which certainly suggests that the micro/craft market was healthy, even robust during that time.”
Eventually however, the craft beer craze that was making “hopheads” out of ex-lager loving Americans hit Canada too, and it was bolstered by the rise of the local food movement, which focuses on small, community-based producers. By 2001, when the second edition of Stephen Beaumont’s Great Canadian Beer Guide was published, 163 breweries and brewpubs were operating in every province and in the Yukon — and a decade later, over 300 craft breweries were in operation, with over 100 more in the planning.
Craft beer has been experiencing year-on-year double-digit growth since 2000. Meanwhile, commercial beer sales are dropping as wine takes hold: in 2000 beer sales accounted for 52 per cent of the market, by 2011 they had dropped to 45 per cent.
This activity has got large commercial brewers anxious over the small brewers. To grab a slice of this growing market, some big breweries have bought microbreweries outright, like Sleeman did with Québec’s Unibroue in 2004 (only to be swallowed up by Sapporo). Others launched their own “craft breweries,” like Moosehead’s Hop City.
Molson got in on the game with its own craft beer division, “Six Pints,” which houses its microbrewery acquisitions — Ontario’s Creemore Brewing Company (acquired 2005) and Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing Company (acquired 2009) and its very own microbrewery, The Beer Academy, in downtown Toronto. Labatt debuted its Alexander Keith’s “Brewmaster Series,” which features a line of single-hopped beers.
Big brewers crafting beer with traditional ingredients, and often marketing them as being made by independent breweries, has sparked an insurgence from truly independent competitors accusing the large companies of disingenuous practices. But without an official definition of “craft beer,” in Canada, for now, drinkers have to let what’s in the glass speak it for itself.
Canada’s Craft Beer Scene from East to West
Craft brewing started gaining traction in the Maritimes in the late 1990s, behind British Columbia and Ontario. But beer has long been the staple drink for many Maritimers and here “session” ales with Celtic or English roots are old favourites, like Irish Reds, ESBs and dry stouts.
Craft brewers have also picked up trends from the United States, creating “extreme” (high alcohol, full flavoured) drinks using local ingredients. In Newfoundland, the YellowBelly Brewery and Public House have used Maritime malts to give its Pale Ale a strawberry nuttiness, while the Pump House in Moncton, New Brunswick, have used local blueberries in its peppery Blueberry Ale.
In Halifax, Garrison Brewery’s Spruce Beer taps into two popular practices in craft brewing: reviving ancient or lost beer styles, and making small batches of specialty beers that garner serious devotees. Garrison’s Spruce Beer is expertly brewed using whole spruce branches and tips then sweetened with molasses, following a recipe by Nova Scotia’s earliest pioneers. Made just once a year, each batch sells out in a few days.
Québec is one of the few Canadian regions with a dominant brewing style; here the best ales are boozy, Belgian-style drinks with flavours derived from spicy, fruity Belgian yeasts that continue to condition these live ales in the bottle. Unibroue popularized Belgian-style ales in Canada when it launched a witbier (a “white beer” with a high wheat content), Blanche de Chambly, in 1992.
These days, top Québécois brewers like Dieu du Ciel!, Le Trou du Diable and MicroBrasserie Charlevoix are fusing Belgian and American ingredients and styles to come up with Belgian India Pale Ales, bittered with citrusy hops from Oregon, or given a funky seasoning by aging them in Sauternes barrels from California.
It’s not known just how many craft breweries there are in Québec but there are probably more than any other region, thanks to tax incentives for microbrewers, which have resulted in explosive growth since 2000.
The best place in Canada to taste Québec’s (and indeed, the world’s) beer offerings is at the country’s largest beer festival, Mondial de la Bière, held every spring in Montréal.
Beer bars are often at the heart of a city’s, or a region’s, craft beer boom — from the Alibi Room in Vancouver, to StillWell Beer Bar in Halifax, the best publicans nurture the scene — making room for more taps, demanding quality beer, encouraging breweries to experiment with new styles, and elevating beer’s place at the table.
Bar Volo, owned by Ralph Morana and his sons, Tomas and Julian, has coaxed southern Ontario brewers to experiment with new styles thanks to the bar’s annual India Pale Ale competition in April, its Funk Night (featuring sour and funky one-offs) in the summer, and Cask Days, a two-day festival in Toronto every October that features cask-conditioned ales shipped from every corner of the country.
Ontario is home to a lively brewing community including 32 new breweries that opened in 2013, and over 150 more listed as either open or in the planning stages. Part of this activity is due to a popular, quick start-up model called “contract brewing,” whereby would-be brewers rent tank space to launch their product without investing in bricks and mortar.
Longtime craft brewers like Great Lakes, Black Oak, Muskoka, and Wellington County are launching inventive seasonal beers, and adding talented staff to ramp up production. A slew of newcomers like Beau’s Brewing Company, Bellwoods Brewery, Sawdust City, and Oast House are hitting the mark with Double IPAs, Imperial Stouts and more session-friendly wheats and pale ales.
In the Prairies, craft beer is slowly breaking through. Due in part to high barriers to entry and nearby Alberta offering much more favourable tax breaks on beer production, Saskatchewan didn’t get its first microbrewery until 2004 — today, Paddock Wood remains the only craft brewer in the province. Manitoba has a handful of brewpubs and microbreweries, notably Winnipeg’s Half Pints, which makes a Stir-Stick Stout that tastes of fresh-roasted coffee and chocolate.
Alberta’s scene has more energy thanks to an early start from Calgary’s Big Rock Brewing in 1985, and a slew of recent beer bar and microbrewery openings.
BC & the North
British Columbia is on the border with Washington State, which produces around 75 per cent of all American hops, and is a short drive to Portland, which boasts more breweries than any other city in the world. The province’s microbrewers are infusing their styles with big American hops, like Central City’s Red Racer IPA, and playing around with “extreme brewing,” (pushing the limits of alcohol, flavour and brewing techniques to create boozy, over-the-top beers) like Howe Sound’s King Heffy, a German style weissbier cranked up to 7.7 per cent alcohol by volume.
Victoria is home to the country’s oldest operating brewpub, Spinnakers, and boasts a thriving craft beer scene that is spilling out onto the mainland.
Besides boasting the first brewpub and microbrewery, BC’s craft beer lovers also got (and stayed) organized first. In 1985, The Campaign for Real Ale Society British Columbia (CAMRA BC) was incorporated. Taking a leaf from the English group, this vocal network of real-ale devotees not only agitates for a strong cask-conditioned beer culture, but for support of high-quality craft beer production as a whole in the province.
In northern Canada, just one craft brewery exists — Yukon Brewing.