Seven years in – how are we doing?

When we established Toronto Beer Week about seven years ago, we wanted to see the beer culture change in the city.  So, how are we doing?  How close is Toronto to becoming a great craft beer city?

Fast forward to today and the yardstick has moved significantly.  We are a much better craft beer city, but we still have a way to go to become a great craft beer city.  We now have a sizeable number craft beer focused bars and restaurants right across the city.  Many other establishments have at least one craft on tap and even chains are carrying local crafts.

We now have over 180 craft breweries operating in Ontario with over 80 in planning.  I have lost count of how many breweries and brewpubs there are operating in the city.  Established crafts have been expanding and upgrading their facilities and are broadening their distribution.  They are also stepping up their game and taking aim at improving beer quality.  Craft beer sales continue to grow at double digit rates and now account for about a 10 per cent market share in Ontario

The craft beer selection at the LCBO has increased dramatically to include local crafts, and a rotating selection of crafts from BC, Quebec, the U.S. and abroad.  Craft beer is LCBO’s largest growing segment with 35 per cent year over year growth.  The Summerhill LCBO has a larger dedicated craft section and even offers growler fills.  Even though provincial alcohol policies seem to change at a glacial pace, craft beer is now available in select supermarkets across the city, and you can even enjoy a craft beer in your seat at theatres and performing arts venues.  Existing craft beer events have expanded and gained larger followings and new events are exploding onto the scene.

The demographics of craft beer drinkers is also changing.  More women are enjoying craft beer and the craft beer audience is becoming more diverse.  Newer beer drinkers are being introduced to craft beer from the outset.  We have also seen that the bigger players have started buying craft breweries, or have set up their own craft-like brands.  Although this has muddied the waters as to what qualifies as craft beer, the seasoned craft beer drinker will still gravitate towards independently owned craft breweries.  If, at the end of the day, the presence of the big players in the craft sphere leads to Toronto beer drinkers having access to an increased selection of better beers, then that’s a good thing.

Despite the progress that we have made on the craft beer front, there is still a dearth of craft beer at many restaurants where their offerings remain stuck in the 1980’s, at some chains that seem to be locked into offering only the usual suspect beers, and at sporting event venues.  Growler sales have not caught on in Toronto like in U.S. cities.

The promising news is that craft beer is a movement, not a fad, and it is not going away anytime soon. It is only going to get better.  But you can do something to help speed up the pace of change.  Go out and share some awesome craft beer with friends, or introduce your non-craft beer drinking friends to craft.  Go visit a couple of craft breweries and take a tour.  Bring back a growler from your local brewpub or craft brewery and enjoy it at home.  Go and sample some beer styles that you have never dared to try before and maybe you will discover that you really enjoy sour beers.  Take a look at our Toronto Beer Guide and check out a few craft beer venues that you haven’t visited before.  Make a point of exploring beyond your local turf, as you may discover something great.

If you don’t see craft beers you like on tap at a local or at your local LCBO, or anywhere else, then make a point of asking them to carry it.  Don’t give up either, as persistence will pay off in the end.  It is only after repeated customer calls for something new that bars and stores will finally get the message and bring it in.  That’s how craft beer will take root, but it is up to you to see this through.

So, what are the hallmarks of a great craft beer city like Portland, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco?  First thing is that the craft local breweries push out awesome beer.  Secondly, there is an extensive selection of craft beer available everywhere you go.  For example, craft beer has about a 40 percent market share in Portland.  Other hallmarks would include the number of independently owned craft breweries, brewpubs or craft brewery operated pubs clustered or scattered across the town, the depth of selection beer styles that are available, that the craft beer bars and brewery locations are busy and vibrant, the mind numbing availability of beers from the best craft breweries around in local bottle shops, the selection of craft beer in local supermarkets is amazing, and there are vibrant growler sales.  The local crafts also actively participate in local events.  Craft beer has become woven into the cultural fabric of these cities.

I would love to see Toronto be identified as one of the great craft beer cities, but that will only happen if craft beer drinkers like you actively make it happen.  Bring it on!

By Craig Simons

(c) 2016 Toronto Beer Week