Tag Archives: Beer

Comments on the Missing Female Perspective

NOW Magazine
NOW Magazine, July 10, 2014

Truth be told, I get a little stressed when I publish anywhere but here on the ol’ blog thingy. The comments at the bottom of my other articles – often from single-minded folks that narrow in on one element that goes against their own learning – get colourful, and sometimes get personal. Snarky shits that once read something contradictory feel the need to bleat out their poorly conceived opinions as though they’re gospel.  It’s exhausting just to read. Replying is utterly useless – no one changes their opinions based on flame wars.

My last piece for NOW received zero comments, which is how I like it. If web editors routinely filtered through the more asinine remarks I’d feel differently, but most media would rather expose their writers to public beatings than silence the trolls.

Although the comment box stayed quiet for the Beer Guide, there was a related letter to the editor. It wasn’t published, but it is worth discussion. A reader noted that the Beer Guide was woefully absent of any female perspective. Claiming 16 males were named in boldface and nary a woman consulted, the sender – a male, by the way – also pointed out that “Toronto is home to Mirella Amato, the first Canadian to achieve the level of Master Cicerone (a beer sommelier) and only the second woman in the world. She gets to speak and judge beer competitions all over the world but, as usual, gets no love at home.”

Related: Canadian Female Entrepreneurs Tap Into a New Industry

Despite some inaccuracies (I only counted 12 male perspectives throughout the guide and I did interview / quote Lisa Murray from the LCBO – I don’t control the formatting), it’s a fair point to say that women should have been given a bigger voice in this.

For my part, my editor suggested two interview subjects (Roger Mittag and Michael Hancock) when I was assigned the piece. The other, Kensington’s Brock Shepherd, was my own choice, based on several factors:

  • he’s in the process of going from contract brewer to full-on producer, with the new facility nearing completion
  • Kensington’s award-winning watermelon wheat was recently denied a listing at the LCBO, compelling him to sell at The Beer Store
  • a year ago Brock was on TV defending the province’s current distribution model – I wanted to know if his recent setback changed his opinion
  • he’s chosen not to be a member of Ontario Craft Brewers

Not all of what we talked about ended up in the story – there just wasn’t enough room – but Brock’s viewpoint was crucial and I wasn’t going to sacrifice that for the sake of gender parity. KBCo has a compelling tale. It belonged in my article.

A lot gets made of the Prud’homme / Cicerone rivalry (BTW: the “beer sommelier” reference above, was the letter writer’s, not mine) and I’ve never been shy about telling people I’ve completed two of the three Prud’homme levels, but that doesn’t affect how I choose my subjects. Mirella Amato wasn’t left out of my piece because I don’t value her opinion; one of the very first articles I wrote for the Toronto Standard leaned heavily on her insights.  I didn’t give much thought to not including her in this piece because, again, there’s only so much I can fit in one spread and despite the letter writer’s statement that she “as usual, gets no love at home,” if you’re reading this you probably know how far from the truth that is.

In fairness to NOW, the covers of both the July 10th issue and the glossy Beer Guide insert each featured enormous photos of a female drinking beer. The other two contributors to the beer guide (accounting for about 80% of the content) were Sarah Parniak and Sabrina Maddeaux. The editor who assigned me the piece was Susan Cole.

The subject of the letter to the editor was fair, but please know the issue wasn’t put together by a bunch of indifferent dudes.

Although I’m not upset the comments section didn’t light up the NOW Magazine server, your feedback here is always welcome.


Sharing the love…

Last week I had the opportunity to gather a bunch of friends together to talk about beer and what makes it so special. Over 2.5 hours we covered everything from porters to Prohibition, Pharaohs to phenolics, tasting seven Ontario craft beers as we chatted. It was a very fun night.

If you’re interested in attending something similar, the total cost of the evening is just $35.00, and that includes your beer.

Big thanks to Tequila Bookworm for letting me camp out “Upshtairs,” and to Billie Chiasson for capturing this photo of me being charming.

Photo: Billie Chiasson
Photo: Billie Chiasson

For more information, please write to me at brewscribe@gmail.com

How Social Is Your Beer? (Part II)

Before drilling down to the different platforms and how each can be harnessed to complement your online strategy, it’s important to consider what you hope to accomplish. If you’re already brewing at capacity and aren’t focused on expanding your market, then maybe social media just becomes about retention and showing appreciation for the great people that drink your beer. You, my friend, can take a lighter, less involved approach.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to grow, it’s worth spending a bit of time to figure out short- and long-term goals, social media as part of your larger marketing strategy and the right mix of tools to reach your targets efficiently and effectively.

The most important decision is staffing. Can one person run all your social media, or do you share the Twitter and Instagram passwords with your “brand ambassadors” so they can post relevant photos from (and thereby show support for) all your valuable clients? If your crew is large you’ll be changing passwords every time someone moves on and will still require a Social Media Manager (SMM) to handle the replies and messages, ensure consistency and track developments. A smaller staff can probably be trusted to be more selective and share the workload, but won’t drive the same volume of traffic.

The advantage of assigning an SMM is having someone who is responsible, and holds others accountable for their individual contributions. Social media can – and probably should – be shared among staff. The SMM oversees the plan to bring all the pieces together.

At my last job I did everything. For a while a co-worker in Montréal took care of the Instagram account… until she mysteriously stopped one day with no explanation or forewarning. She didn’t last long. Another co-worker, also in Montréal (we didn’t trust the Vancouver office), insisted on helping with Facebook, but I had to stop him because he wouldn’t adhere to the protocols and was costing the company valuable exposure. Because it was my job to be on top of everything, the Instagram account continued seamlessly and the Facebook page was cleaned up with almost no interruption.

Whether you’re looking to hire an SMM, contract it out or assign it to somebody already on the payroll, make sure whomever represents your brand understands your core product. Some of you may remember the flaw-plagued infographic that got tweeted by a local beer importer last summer. A few of the better known Toronto beer cognoscenti ruthlessly, publicly picked it apart, with one very prominent writer offering this to his 3,000+ followers: “It’s actually quite irritating, and @________, you should know better than to propagate this.” Obviously it wasn’t the company owner – a very likable guy, well known in the community – who sent out the tweet, but his name is also the company name, so right or wrong it reflected on him.

Social Media smackdown
What you don’t want to happen

Next, give some thought to who you’re trying to reach. If you covet the 19-year-old drinker, get somebody who starts each tweet with “Guys, …” and hyper-punctuates each message. Want a more mature beer lover? Employ someone that communicates on their level. Whomever leads your social media should be the type of individual your customers would enjoy having a pint with. Your SMM has to be someone that can strike up and carry a conversation with a stranger, at the next bar stool or online. Personality is actually more important than technical ability.

Now consider the whole online / in-person relationship. It’s symbiotic. Social media isn’t meant to replace face-to-face experiences. Done well it should create more of them, just as someone having a positive, personal experience with your beer may inspire them to go online to seek out other opportunities to engage with your brand. When the SMM works in tandem with your sales and event staff to support your accounts and show appreciation for your / their customers, new connections get made at each level. When that happens you’ll start seeing growth occurring organically.

Think of it like your brain. Over your lifetime it continues to build new connections, while unused synapses eventually degenerate. The more active your brain, the more efficiently it builds connections while keeping old ones from dying. You want your brewery to be operating with a well developed, highly functioning brain.

A brainy way to build connections is by kicking your SMM out of the office. Ideally you want a field reporter – a correspondent that can take a laptop and file stories from your client’s bar, your taproom or the festival. Your customers (existing and potential) should drive the content, which again, is why your SMM’s personality is more important than their technical prowess. Social media platforms get more user-friendly all the time, and some third-party applications can make them even easier.

I’ll talk more about that, as well as effective placement of the SMM soon. First I’ll shed more light on the most engaging social media platform among Ontario brewers, Twitter. You can find that piece here.


No! Sleep! ’til Belgium!

I’ve forfeited more cash at Mountain Equipment Co-op this past month than in the three years that preceded. Cycling shirt, shorts, tires, waterproof Panniers, tubes (and emergency tube repair kit), handlebar tape, lock, gel seat, pedal wrench, a tune-up, something called a “multi-tool” and 16 vegan-friendly Clif Bars purchased, I’m as prepared as I’m going to be.

Tomorrow my newly restored 12-speed flies with me to Holland, for the start of a two-week beer vacation.


The last couple of days I’ve been forcing myself out of bed early, pushing my body to pre-acclimatize to Europe. Yesterday was 5:30 a.m. Today was 4:45. It’s now 13 hours and four beers later, and I’m cozied up to a rail, celebrating the first anniversary of the bar that sponsors my softball team, adrenaline soaring in anticipation of the next half-month.

Last week I cycled 63 km in 2.5 hours and still had plenty in the tank.  Yesterday I went for an uninterrupted 17 km jog.

I feel ready. I feel really, really good.

Originally this trip didn’t involve two-wheeled transport.  This whole trek was built around Belgian Beer Weekend (next weekend) and a cheap flight to Amsterdam.  Then I saw a tweet from @BeerCycling and, well, the wheels started turning.

My own bike had quite literally been collecting dust for five years, but I’ve been zipping around downtown daily, since Bixi finally brought their commuter vélos to Trinity Bellwoods earlier this summer.

The expression “it’s like riding a bike” refers to muscle memory, not the high you get when you’re gliding uninterrupted over paved trails with the wind in your face. These last few weeks, venturing into suburbia (“the 905”) has given me back that sense of invigoration; something my body had long forgotten. When I was 21 I felt it, riding south, 200+ km from Calgary to Lethbridge, under a searing, mid-summer, Prairie sun. Seven years later I left Cowtown again, this time trekking west to Banff (climbing, descending, climbing, climbing…), through a rather ferocious storm.  I’ve never felt more energized than screaming myself hoarse into that angry, belligerent, pelting rain.

Now, more than a decade later, I’m once again fully aware of how alive I am standing over my seat, feeling all the muscles in my legs working in concert through each pedal’s rotation, my upper frame subtlety shifting, while maintaining its rigidity, all to get a cleaner, smoother line.  It’s a fucking great feeling.

I love cycling and I love beer, and BeerCycling puts the two together in the countries I’m visiting (more on that in the weeks ahead).

Video camera is packed. Laptop isn’t.  So although I’ll be updating this blog when WiFi makes itself available, the final cut has to wait until I’m back.

A new, solid journal has been purchased and a fantastic pen “acquired” from a recent meeting at the Ritz-Carlton. I’ll appear to be alone with my bike for two weeks, but words will travel with me.


Today I’m at Tallboys, drinking Amsterdam. In two days I’ll be in Amsterdam drinking with tall boys (and tall girls). Then I’ll be in Bruges, Brussels, Dusseldorf and Cologne, before hitting the Fietsroutes and progressing from a Trappist Monastery in South Holland to an acclaimed brewery just West of Amsterdam.

I hope you’ll follow along.

When Wood Meets Beer

Originally published in The Toronto Standard
Dan Grant explores the barrel-aged beer trend at Sawdust City brewery.

When Wood Meets Beer

Nestled in a dimly lit corner of an Etobicoke brewerySawdust City‘s head brewer pulls the bung from one of several stacked barrels. Aaron Spinney then inserts a plastic tube and — using his thumb to seal off the airflow — he lifts out some rarely disturbed liquid.  Releasing the uncarbonated brew into a nearby glass, Spinney drops the hose back in to the barrel, draws more beer and repeats the process until the glass is reasonably full. Then he fills another glass. Then another.

It’s not everyday that Toronto’s Festival of Beer sets you up on a blind date with barrels.  Neatly organized vessels, like something from the set of Donkey Kong, hold cargo very few people have been allowed to sample. For months this beer has seen less action than the Toronto chapter of the Yunel Escobar fan club. On this day, however, with Spinney and fellow beer specialist Sam Gould (@TheBarleyBabe), I’m getting a preview of what’s to come.

The area is meticulously maintained. It might be weakly lit, but it’s violently clean to ensure nothing prevents these brews from writing their intended conclusions. Each recipe needs a bit more time to mature before it will be allowed to enlighten beer drinkers around the GTA.

For an added twist, the good Sawdust folks also tossed 20 kilos of frozen cherries into a couple of these drums (one of which has been dubbed “Dawson’s Kriek,” and has all kinds of fruited goodness built into it).

Sawdust City is just one of many breweries going this route. To celebrate its 25th anniversary last year, Great Lakes Brewery released several barrel-aged bottles, including a very popular Audrey Hopburn (a Belgian IPA, aged in a Pinot Noir barrel) and Robust Porter (an American Porter, aged in a Bourbon barrel). From Mill Street‘s Barley Wine, which is aged in Jack Daniels barrels, to the Spanish cedar that flavours Flying Monkey‘s The Matador. Wood and beer are proving to be a popular combo.

Just how popular?  The 2012 edition of the Ontario Brewing Awards gave a bronze to Cameron’sAmerican Whiskey Barrel in the category of Flavoured Beer.  By the time this year’s edition of the OBAs rolled around, Barrel Aged was its own category.  Next year it’s expected to be split into three separate judging planks.

South of the border, the 2011 Great American Beer Festival (Denver, Colorado) boasted 40 barrel-aged entries in 2011.  So successful was that, 2012’s edition had four styles to differentiate. This year, two of those categories have been subdivided further for a total of six sets of awards to be handed out.

The beauty of the barrel is so much more than just its previous occupant. As Spinney – who’s spending an increasing amount of time geeking out on the subject – explained to us, the character of the wood is not just influenced by what it came in contact with, but also the type of tree, its age and even the time of year it’s harvested. To add to the calculation, each time a barrel is re-used, it loses about 25 per cent of its original character. Selecting a container isn’t as simple as picking a shirt for your kid to wear – this is choosing which boarding school will raise your wee tyke.

If you’re muttering to yourself, “This ain’t new, Budweiser has been beechwood-aged since horses pulled wagons of beer,” give yourself half marks.  Bud does come in contact with beechwood slats during the lagering (storage) stage, but that’s done to smooth out the texture – not, God forbid, to excite your palate.

If you’re able to get your hands on some of Sawdust City’s offerings, here’s a guide Sam and I put together to give you an idea of what to expect.

Scotch Barrel: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: honey / auburn colour

Nose: floral nose, peaches, scotch, wood, honey

Look for: a scent similar to corn flakes

Palate: slightly tart, smooth, wood, baked green apple,

Finish: smooth

Bourbon Barrel (the barrel started at Claremont Springs, Kentucky): 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: nutty, auburn colour

Nose: toffee, burnt sugar, wood, red licorice, caramel, apple, Bourbon, strawberries, plum

Look for: slight barnyard aroma

Palate: vanilla, wood, slight apple tartness, burnt orange, some smokiness

Finish: medium bitter

Dawson’s Kriek: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: cherry mahogany colour, slight haze

Nose: huge cherry, barnyard, country time lemonade, cocoa bitterness

Look for: a bit of Pinot

Palate: Amarena cherries, dark cocoa palate, lemon zest

Finish: tart, but sweet

[Still to be named, brewed for WVRST] 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: hazier, slightly darker

Nose: less farmhouse, more tart cherry, lemon, wooden

Look for: vanilla bean (as it breathes)

Palate: sour cherry, slight cocoa, some smokiness

Finish: lingering

The Princess Wears Girl Pants meets ODB (a Tripel) 9.0%

Started as: Sawdust City’s The Princess Wears Girl Pants Belgian Golden Ale

Pours: golden apple / honey

Nose: peach, wood, chardonnay

Look for: grapeseed

Palate: sweet, white grape (big time), boozy

Finish: slightly bitter, with some cashew-like aftertaste

Bringing Ontario Up-To-Date

Despite the LCBO mandate to encourage responsible consumption, it must have crossed someone’s mind to launch a “Drink ‘til you forget” campaign. Forget the narrowly-averted strike that threatened to ruin many a May Two-Four long weekend. Turn your mind off to those massive in-store lineups that happen on the eve of every holiday and big game. While you’re actively not remembering, also try to overlook the fact that the Auditor General called out our Control Board in 2011, for not using its vast bargaining power to get better deals for the population it’s mandated to serve. Mostly though, stop thinking about how your own government suppresses a private sector that would create more jobs, a better retail environment for consumers and a broader tax base.

Please don’t do any digging around or you’ll find a liquor store in Edmonton that has more kinds of beer than this entire province. Don’t go price checking either, or you’ll learn that those stats that show Albertans pay more for booze aren’t supported by shopping around.

Another rumour that doesn’t hold up: the one that says privatization will harm the craft beer market because individual outlets will only buy from the bigger breweries. Step into Québec or Alberta and you’ll quickly learn that in a competitive environment (what Ontario isn’t) entrepreneurs actively seek ways to stand out from the shop down the street. What you get is more selection, more convenience and staff that have incentives to make sure your shopping experience is a positive one.

In my current job I travel a lot within Canada; so much so that I was recently able to talk with my father-in-law in Calgary, about four different Pumphouse beers, not because I’ve tried them here – three of the four aren’t available in the Centre of the Universe – but because I’ve parked myself at the New Brunswick brewpub where those beers were produced.

I know a thing or two about shopping for beer in this country.

I also know about the business of government. In 2005, I packed away my necktie collection and resigned my position as a Business Analyst at the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services. After working with IBM specialists to architect a children’s portal for the province (which was then poorly maintained and ultimately unplugged) and leading a push to get government services delivered on reserves, the day-to-day head bashing got to be too much. I have a lot of respect for the well-intentioned people that stick with it, but after three years fighting through various shades, strengths and tactilities of red tape, enough was enough.

Ontario’s system is outdated and that is the result of a government that is either lazy, incompetent or both. The current leadership doesn’t understand that “leadership” is more than a title. This government, rather than making any meaningful reforms to an unpopular crown corp, took the easy route in its recent labour negotiations and found a loophole in its own policy. Instead of holding the line on public sector raises, Queen’s Park rewarded thousands of cashiers and stockpersons with generous signing bonuses.

Just last month the province’s former Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan (he who so vigorously defended the current model just last year), came clean to reveal even a partial sale of the crown corporation could net the province billions of dollars right away, without diminishing long term revenues. There’s no way the new administration hasn’t seen the same evidence.

This isn’t just about money however. It’s also about serving the population. In December, the Toronto Star’sMartin Regg Cohn offered up an opinion piece that stated Albertans discovered privatization did not lead to better service. Interesting, but not at all accurate. Aside from 18 months in Saskatchewan, I lived in Wild Rose Country from 1985 to 2001. Allow me to tell you how things actually are.

Albertans, who saw the shift away from government controlled liquor stores twenty years ago have since realized related growth in employment, revenue, selection and convenience. Sure there were some sacrifices, like less bureaucracy, but most of the population seems open to fewer jobs on the government books and less strike votes.

Prior to 1993, I had to drive to the nearest government shop, pick from whatever the board deemed saleable, then stand in line for whichever clerk wasn’t on her or his break. Sound familiar? There were 208 Alberta Liquor Control Board Stores prior to privatization. As of April 2013, there were 1,312 retail liquor outlets.

Today, you can go to the Real Canadian Liquor Store if you want a small savings on your beer. It’s competing with the Co-Op liquor store, which has a bit more local selection, and Safeway Wine & Spirits if you want your Air Miles. They’re all within blocks of each other, and between them is a smaller independent that specializes in craft beer and prides itself on customer service and more consumer friendly hours.


Weekly flyers increase competition in Alberta. Source: Sobey’s Liquor (June 18, 2013)

What about all the money liquor sales used to generate for Alberta’s public coffers? Revenue to government actually climbed from $405 million in 1993, to $687 million in 2011. That’s an increase of 69%. In context, the province’s population rose from 2.6 million to 3.6 million, or 37%, in the same period.

Not only does the Alberta government continue to syphon its share from all the alcohol sold in the province, it also collects more in income taxes and more in business taxes by virtue of all the private sector jobs created. Thousands of government salaries at the retail and administration level dropped from the books, along with the upkeep on more than 200 crown properties.

Consider this: the Ontario government, Monday, announced the LCBO brought in $1.71 billion in annual revenue in its most recent fiscal year, for a province of 13.5 million people. The Alberta government draws $687 million in a province of 3.65 million.

While in Montréal, I typically frequent by a rather ordinary looking depanneur in Mile End that stocks more than 250 kinds of beer from Quebec alone. This particular shop – Depanneur A/S, in Mile End – is only a few blocks from another impressively stocked convenience store. If the lineup is too long at one location I can easily walk to the other. Even though A/S usually only has one employee working when I’m in, that person is generally quite happy to help me navigate their vast inventory. Why? It might just be they really like unilingual Anglos in Québec, but I suspect it’s because competition breeds better service.


Depanneur A/S — that’s ALL Québec craft beer.

These past few months I’ve been talking to people (beer people, mostly), about their experience with the LCBO. Some of the better craft brewers in Canada don’t sell their styles in Ontario because they feel the hassle of dealing with our liquor control board isn’t worth the return. So who loses there? The beer drinker.

Nicole Barry co-founded Half Pints in Winnipeg. The brewery she manages does have a presence in this province, but Barry’s assessment of dealing with our board goes like this: “So, Ontario is a pickle to deal with. A pain in the ass. And that is the major reason I stopped shipping beer out to that market a few years ago.” A CGA by training, she says she can deal with the bureaucracy, but her beer is not so patient. That’s why Alberta will enjoy Half Pints’ Weizenheimer (a Hefeweizen) next month, and we won’t. “The whole process of registering the product (in Alberta), shipping it and getting it to stores is about three weeks – with shipping and distribution about ten days total. Perfect. It is much longer when dealing with LCBO, and that’s why I won’t be sending out this beer – it begs to be enjoyed fresh.”

Although Half Pints is shipping other labels to Ontario through Keep Six Imports, nothing from Manitoba is listed on the LCBO website.

Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewery has no plans to ship to Ontario. “From Alberta, the system looks overly bureaucratic and expensive,” says co-owner Neil Herbst.” Getting a listing in The Beer Stores would be exorbitantly expensive, the time frame for getting a listing and selling to the Ontario Liquor Board seems overly long, and selling through an agency listing seems overly vague. As well the Ontario pricing model is not at all transparent, so figuring out if our beer could be sold profitably into Ontario seems indeterminable.”

That last part is because the LCBO sets the prices in Ontario. If you compare beers available at both the LCBO and The Beer Store, you’ll see they retail for exactly the same price.

Not that Alberta’s system is perfect. What Barry calls the “Wild West” approach means that pretty much any company can send beer to cowboy country. Reps are in constant competition with one another to get taps and shelf space. The province, she feels, is flooded with beer, much of which dies on the shelves.

Herbst echoes that sentiment. “It is always a battle for shelf space. Many of the stores are small, so only have room to stock higher demand products.” However… “At this point there are no slotting fees in Alberta such as in the Ontario beer stores, so for the most part, we have decent access to shelf space. Could it be better? Yes. Do the multinationals throw their weight around? Yes.”

When asked if he would prefer a system more like Ontario’s, where a central purchasing body decides what gets in, Herbst says no. “In the current system, we can market and sell our beer to individual stores and to chain store head offices. Sometimes we get into a store, sometimes we don’t. If the system was controlled by the government, depending upon the rules, we might be shut out of stores that we now have the opportunity to be in. In the previous system in Alberta, as I understand it, small breweries were automatically listed in every government liquor store within a certain radius of the brewery. Outside of that area it was up to the manager to decide what to carry. In my experience, they generally didn’t want to take a risk on a product that might not sell. So I’m not sure that we would have fared any better under that system. “

“So, neither the public or private model works perfectly,” says Barry, however “based on my experiences of nearly ten years in this industry, the private model is much easier to deal with.”

Listen, I don’t want to see anyone thrown out of work. This is not about cutting government positions as much as it’s about creating far more private sector jobs, while reducing bureaucracy. Privatizing liquor distribution means more selection for the beer drinker. It means more locations from whence to purchase your beer. It means competition (read: better offers). It means more consumer-friendly hours.


Lining up at the “competition” (Queen West & Markham, June 2013)

In essence, it means a reversal of what we [air quote] enjoy [air quote] now in Ontario. The market will react to what the consumer demands, rather than dictate what the consumer should expect. I’ve seen it, my friend, and it’s a better world where – no matter what your beverage of choice – you can get it either by stopping by a nearby outlet, or asking someone who cares about customer loyalty to order it for you.

Sure, I’m a beer writer, but I’ve also been a lover of Scotch since my first (and to date, only) divorce. In Calgary, I can walk into Kensington Wines & Spirits and pick up bottles that are unique within North America. Willow Park Wines & Spirits competes with Kensington in the same category. Want to see what a Scotch event can look like in a private liquor store? City Style & Living has a good photo reportage.

But if beer is your thing you really need to know about Sherbrooke Liquor Store in Edmonton, which carries 1,400 of ‘em. That’s not 1,400 bottles of beer, according to Director of Marketing & Communications, Anna MacLeod, but 1,400 different labels you can pull from its remarkable, walk-in beer fridge. When I typed “beer” in the LCBO’s search engine just now, it came back with 982 results in its entire database… and many of those are discontinued.

There are other arguments that have been tossed around to try to keep the LCBO solidly in place, like insisting that private retailers can’t be trusted to sell responsibly. Yet when held up to The Beer Store’s and convenience stores’ records for checking ID on age-restricted products, the LCBO appears to be the least responsible. It stands to reason that most small business owners tend to take those issues rather seriously when faced with losing their license and not having a union to prop them up.

Another reason some are sceptical about making beer more widely available is the possibility of increasing impaired driving rates. Fair enough, but again the research doesn’t support it. An independent study by the Center For Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs, at the University of Stockholm, Sweden, examined Canada’s fourth largest province. The resulting report, “An investigation of the effect of privatization of retail sales of alcohol on consumption and traffic accidents in Alberta, Canada,” concluded “There was no significant effect on the number of fatal motor vehicle traffic accidents.”

That was 2005 research. A look at more recent numbers suggests things have actually improved. In 1993, alcohol was a factor in 1,492 casualty collisions (those causing injury or death). That was 12.6% of all collisions in the province that year. By 2010 – the most recent stats available – that number had dropped to 980, or just 7.1%. It’s not surprising. By putting beer closer to where people live, they don’t have to drive (or if they are foolish enough to drive impaired, at least they won’t be travelling as far).

The only, only, downside I can see to privatizing Ontario’s liquor distribution system is displacing some people from jobs into which they’ve grown comfortable. I hate to think of taking away the lifestyle and benefits someone depends on, but in a competitive environment LCBO-trained employees would be among the very few experienced applicants for all the many new jobs created. Some of the more motivated might even be tempted to open their own shops.

But I bet the LCBO would rather you didn’t think about that, either.

A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada

(Originally published in the Toronto Standard)

 Meet Guy McClelland, the guy who drinks for free in Belgium and brings brews like Stiegl to Canada
A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada Belgian Beer Knight, Guy McClelland

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m parked at the end of the bar, sitting next to a Knight.

Our server is bringing the drinks faster than I’m getting through them and the glasses are starting to accumulate. It’s fine, because Jessica – a charming redhead with a well-practised two-stage pour – understands this is a different kind of drinking session.  I’m being walked through a range of beers at the Esplanade Bier Markt, and after the first half dozen there’s no doubting the veracity of the Knight’s next words.

“Why do we need beer from Europe? We need beer from Europe because they’re fucking good at it.”

Guy McClelland was “knighted” in 2007, he tells me, for the work he’s done promoting Belgian beer in this country. He figures he’s one of only four Canadians to have received the honour.

The ceremony itself, as described by the 53-year-old, sounds like something concocted over a few rounds. La Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs (The Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash staff — “these are the dudes in the gowns that honour and knight people”) “bless the stars and the moon and the sun and the keg, and they wind their way down the cobblestone streets into the Grand-Place. They tap you on the shoulder with a mashing fork, swear at you in Flemish and spank you… give you a beer.”

La Chevalerie also rewards each inductee with a medal, which, in the host nation, allows the wearer to drink for free… anywhere… in arguably the best beer country on the planet.

Even if you’re not a beer enthusiast you’ve likely seen at least a couple bottles with McClelland’s fingerprints on them: Delirium Tremens, Affligem, Mort Subite, Fruli, Rodenbach, Erdinger, Floris, Palm, Stiegl. Guy’s the guy that gets them into the country.

His journey towards beer nobility began in Manitoba, where McClelland’s first job after university was with market research firm Angus Reid, and a client list that included McGavin’s Bread, Canada Trust, The Liberal Party, Johnson & Johnson Tampons, and Labatt Breweries.

Not surprisingly, he found the beer customer was the most fun, so when Labatt offered to uproot him for a gig in their national market research division, he didn’t hesitate. “I know Toronto’s no Winnipeg,” he deadpans, “but I get to work in beer full time.”

When research started to get tired he moved into brand management (Carlsberg, Budweiser) and from there a stint in sales. “My background in research and marketing made me a helpful ally to the bar owners.” He tells me he was the brewery’s top performer in Ontario, two of three years.

By the mid 1990s, Labatt was working on a joint venture with Guinness. Then Boddingtons was introduced to Canada.  Then Sol and Dos Equis. “I was the only guy. I was autonomous. Nobody cared what I did.”

“Then, in 1995, we get bought by Interbrew and suddenly I’m very important. No one else in the company had any experience doing what I do. We were turning about a million dollars per year – bottom line – to the company.”

Interbrew, the Belgian brewing giant, wasn’t simply interested in getting Blue, Blue Light, and 50 in its portfolio.  They also had a plan to introduce some exotic-sounding labels to what at the time was a very boring Canadian beerscape.

McClelland launched Stella Artois in Canada, and this time he had some serious head office resources at his disposal. “I more or less had a blank cheque to get this brand (Stella) off the ground.  On a zero volume commitment, I had a $9 million budget in my first year.  That’s a rare opportunity in any corporation.”

“Sooner or later though, someone in the board room was bound to say ‘Why do we have two separate sales forces? Two different Marketing Managers?’ Rather than accept another position within Labatt, McClelland took a generous buyout – and his unique skill set – and went out on his own.

“From the day we launched Boddingtons in 1994, I realized that all it was, was me, a guy from England, the Liquor Board saying ‘yes’ and somebody to sell it. The big company (Labatt) had very little to do with Boddingtons in Canada.

“I had a beer profile – a career path – that was unique.  No one in Molson was doing what I was doing. So I knew no one had a resume like mine, and when I’m 75 I’m probably going to kick myself in the ass really hard if I don’t try.”

A Belgian Beer Knight in Canada

Belgian Beer Knight, Guy McClelland

McClelland Premium Imports incorporated in 2003, and its founder has been working ever since to build a roster of European beers that, with the right messaging, could win over Canadians.  Each year he travels to Belgium with 20 or so customers and salespeople— both a gesture of appreciation and an opportunity to reinforce his branding. McClelland himself navigates the Great White North’s beer festival circuit, competing for affection with sponsored party zones and sentimental hometown favourites. The multi-million dollar marketing budgets are gone now, so it’s unrealistic to expect a new launch could have a significant, immediate impact.  Every sale, every order, every listing is precious.

Imagine walking into most pubs and telling the manager they should set aside a tap for a beer they can’t pronounce, that doesn’t taste like what their customers are used to, and isn’t very visible (maybe absent altogether) in its North American mainstream marketing.  There are no Blue Jays tickets flowing from their sponsorship arrangements. There’s no invite to the local brewers’ festival. Oh, by the way, it costs more.

“I was honoured side-by-side with the U.S. Ambassador,” he declares with pride, again recalling the 2007 ceremony in Brussels.  Sure, Belgian Beer Knight an honorary title, but that doesn’t negate the spirit of it. The man got knighted because he recognized the challenges and met them head on.

After more than three hours of charts, photos, facts and wisdom the point has been driven home. McClelland isn’t pushing his roster of beers because he thinks there’s something wrong with the homegrown craft beer scene.  He’s not launching another discount lager or North American Pale Ale.  It’s about diversity, not competition. He’s about quality brands that we, in Canada, are better off having access to.

Affligem has been around for close to a thousand years. Rodenbach has a couple centuries of its own history, and uses 20 different yeast strains, undergoing three separate fermentations. At the 2013 International Brewing Awards, Mort Subite won Gold and Silver (two different styles) in the category of Best Fruit Beer.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of storied and award-winning North American beers as well, but when a Belgian Beer Knight says we need more European beers “because they’re fucking good at it,” it’s definitely worth hearing him out.