|Gazing deep into my hazy tulip, Jinx ponders what's coming up for 2018|
We spent the last week looking back at 2017 and what was an absolutely amazing year of beer in Ontario. Time now to leave the past behind and look forward to what is coming in 2018. My annual prognostications come from the heart and a little from my mind, I give you my best guess at a few things I see happening. These are the trends I hear and read about that keep me on my toes for a future I can't wait to see.
1. Lager me up with a side of Pilsner
The trend towards hazy juice bomb IPAs will not dissipate in 2018 but there will be a trend toward more accessible and lower ABV dry hopped Lagers and Pilsners. While there are a handful of them on the market, there is room and I believe, a demand for more. People new to the community, others tired of increasing IBU counts and looking for a refreshing, slightly hoppy brew will clamour for these hybrid styles. Giving more punch than your average lager or pilsner, they also serve as gateways to craft for a macro drinker looking to cross over to better beer. The Pale ale is still a little too bitter for most of the people I have encountered in this category and with an ever expanding choice, brewers will look to capture this segment as it could represent one of the fastest growing in the market. Look for more dry hopping and then unfiltered as the year goes on, gotta ease some folks into not having a clear Coors Light-like glass of beer over time. Having a beer that tastes like "beer" but still having more than a macro lager can offer is just what we hear and the breweries will be smart to answer. Cameron's Brewing 12 Mile IPL and Redline's Kollision Lager were excellent examples from 2017 while Clifford Brewing's latest East Hamilton Lager will help open the new brewery with a beer for everyone.
2. Shortie Cans are here to stay. Hooray!
The trend toward shorties picked up steam as 2017 rolled along and the 355 ml. can has begun gaining adherents as brewers big and small find the market growing for this truncated but still tasty format. Whether it is a 6 pack of Muskoka Brewing's Mad Tom to take to the lake or Rainhard or Merit Brewing's special releases so you can try a few different brews, this smaller can has many advantages over the Tall Boy. For a guy like me who wants to try as many as possible, it's a godsend because it gives me beer for reviewing but doesn't get me knackered after 3 of them. It is great for tossing in the cooler for the yard or bringing to a party, the format still good for splitting with people new to the craft at a tasting if it's only a couple of you. There are concerns from a pricing standpoint, often these cans can be more expensive per ml. than their larger format cousins and the LCBO seems partial to the 473 ml. can from a shelving and storage standpoint. I would love to see more mix sixes of this size available at the brewery, a la Tooth and Nail or Godspeed, it makes for a better way to taste all the offerings your brewery has to offer without breaking the bank with $16.00 500 ml bottles.
3. You've got (beer)mail!
In the age of online shopping, this one seems like a no brainer, but the logistics and technical aspects of offering their beer to consumers on the Net still keeps many Ontario brewers out of the home delivery game. According to the industry's leading website Ontario Beverage Network, there are 21 out of 242 operating craft brewers that have online ordering and even some of those are still only local or limited in their offerings and delivery area. While this is less than 10 % of the whole, December saw almost half of those come online as the year closed, pointing towards a trend I predict will approach closer to 30 % by the end of the 2018. Not all brewers will want to get in the game, some too big to bother, others keeping things small and local or just trying to keep up with what goes out the actual front door to even think about filling orders from away. But the ones who are making great beer and shipping it across the province will find themselves rewarded with a marketplace that just can't get enough beer mail and loves to show it off on social media. Look at the rollout of Dominion City Brewing's or Left Field Brewery's online shop and the subsequent explosion of their great beer across all media platforms. They make some of the best beer in Ontario and now even more people will have access to it and help spread the word. I hope they have more fermenters coming because it is going to be a busy year.
Mail order beer of the month clubs had an early head start but people want more control over their craft beer selections and the rising tide of Craft Brewers going online could threaten this niche of the market. Whether they survive will be in large part decided by their ability to get unique offerings from their partner breweries that are only available to them or at the physical brewery. Time will tell on this one but I have no doubt that our thirst for great beer and the ability to order online is just beginning.
4. Small Town Resurgance
Many of our craft breweries in Ontario are located in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and it's immediate surroundings. This is neither news nor surprising as this is also where the majority of the residents live, clustering around the hubs of production and commerce for jobs, homes and shopping. If you spend a little time on the OBN Map however, you will see the outer landscape dotted with more and more craft breweries. Whether it is local homebrewers, returning sons and daughters with a dream or a well placed investment for a smart business minded person, small towns are part of the future of the industry. Local and loving it will be the mantra for a large portion of these small batch brewers, catering to a clientele who's loyalty will be found in honest and simple beers at first but will be open to trying anything once they come to know the quality. Using local ingredients will also be a focus for these breweries, establishing relationships with local farmers and making sure to support causes that still matter in small towns across the province.
Little will be made of trying to get into the LCBO and the main focus will remain local pubs and restaurants with a spotlight on becoming a destination for road trips and special events. I think the trend toward these micro and nano breweries will be part of what drives the growth just as much as the larger or more well known craft brewers we have now. Everyone wants a local brew pub to hang out in and brag about so there is a lot of room for growth. Stoney Creek could use a little good beer love and just happens to be where I live if anyone is looking....
The macro beer behemoths were relatively quiet in Ontario in 2017, the industry too hot for their liking or maybe things just didn't fall into place for in time. I have no inside knowledge, nor do I hope I am right in this one, but I just have a gut feeling that a few of someone's favourite craft brewers may disappear into the wormhole that is the "sellout". We talk all the time about whether it is really just about beer or is it about more than that. The shop local movement is big but for most beer drinkers we stop at just that and still patronize large corporations for everything else from groceries to clothes to cars. The macro companies have been smartly keeping their hands clean and for the most part leaving their purchases to run as separate entities inside the corporate sphere. There will of course be accountability but these guys (and it's almost always guys) who run these multi billion dollar, trans-national companies didn't get there by being stupid. They create brands within brands and it's convoluted nature fits well with the explosion on the shelves and fridges of the LCBO and Beer Store.
Having noted that and trying to remain open minded when it comes to beer from former Craft breweries, a la Mill Street and Unibroue, I must say that I am not alone in feeling slight changes to the beer but it isn't like they just forgot how to make good stuff. Many craft beer drinkers remain loyal more to an ideal than a brand in many cases and it is increasingly rare to see these former craft darlings in all but the most die hard of fans.
The time seems ripe for something to happen. It has been too quiet for too long and with their market share falling, you can bet the boardrooms of the big boys are buzzing with plans, offers are coming and for someone a big payday is coming. Where will you fall when it happens to your favourite brewery? That is a conversation I hope we don't have to have anytime soon.
I could go on about the bretty, funked up beers making a splash this year, the growing destination brewery trend, the one off releases that are beginning to generate U.S. like lineups and the hoarding of beer out of fear or for trades. There are a lot of good things coming as the Craft Beer market gains even more traction and I know I will be visiting those topics, the one's above and many more as 2018 goes on. One thing I have learned is that there is always something for us to talk, rant and rave or gush about as the breweries we love start up their releases for another year and that is a very good thing. The more we talk, the better the buzz and the more people get interested in craft beer. A rising tide raises all boats, just make sure your ship is headed in the right direction once we hit the open water.