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The craft beer revolution is in full swig. Meet the new generation of brewers whose daring flavours and surging sales are shaking up the industry

00:00 EST Thursday, December 08, 2011


Edmonton, Alberta

In 2005, as part of an MBA class on entrepreneurship at the University of Alberta's School of Business, Jim Gibbon developed a plan for a new microbrewery. Six years later, he occasionally wishes he hadn't. "I wish I had known more before I went into brewing," the 47-year-old Gibbon says. "It's a long slog."

Gibbon opened Amber's Brewing in December, 2007, off the Whyte Avenue strip in Edmonton's Old Strathcona area. Despite reporting steady growth of 30% a year, he has encountered barriers he considers endemic to the Alberta brewing industry. In 1993, the province privatized and deregulated the retail sale of alcohol. "They allowed in beer from every macro- and microbrewery in Canada, which is wonderful for consumers," says Gibbon. "But as a local producer, it's hard because not only am I fighting giant corporate entities, I'm also fighting all the little guys."

At the same time, Gibbon alleges that craft-beer culture has been slow to evolve in the Alberta capital. "Edmontonians are only starting to realize that if you don't buy from local companies, then in a little while you don't have local companies," he says. Ryan Kaye, sales manager of Calgary's Wild Rose Brewery, Alberta's second-largest craft producer, concurs. "It's a less informed marketplace here than in B.C. But the larger breweries like it that way," Kaye says. "It means they can sell lots of bland, bubbly, yellow beer."

Against this backdrop, Amber's Brewing has nevertheless found success by focusing on making "reasonably good beers," Gibbon says, in particular the popular Australian Mountain Pepper Berry (a light lager) and Sap Vampire (a maple lager). Sales have also been buoyed by large chain liquor stores, including Liquor Depot, which have embraced locally produced beers.

Still, Gibbon remains frustrated by an inability to get Amber's beers into taps at local bars and restaurants, which are often monopolized by the larger beer producers. "We're almost half the price of the big guys. We're made locally. We're green.

But it's a real struggle. There just aren't many taps for local brewers." - Remy Scalza


Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

When Steve Cavan moved to Saskatoon in 1992, he was unable to find craft beer on local shelves. So he decided to brew his own. "I started researching how to make it, and I ended up having to open a store just to get the ingredients shipped here," he says.

Cavan taught philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan and grew his home-brew business on the side, selling kits and ingredients to other enthusiasts, until finally launching Paddock Wood Brewing in 2003. It was the first craft brewery in the entire province. "There wasn't even a licence category for microbrewers back then."

Times are slowly changing. Paddock Wood's beer, including the popular 606 IPA and Czech Mate pilsner, is now available across the province and in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. Since officially installing a bottling line in 2007, Cavan's annual production has rocketed from 350 hectolitres to 3,000 hectolitres - and despite challenges in getting into government-regulated warehouses in other provinces, Cavan now sells roughly half his beer outside Saskatchewan.

Cavan says he hopes to open a new brewery as soon as possible, which will triple production capacity: "I'm convinced that if you sit down and compare regular beer with craft beer, you'll be converted." - R.S.


Victoria, B.C.

The title on Gary Lindsay's business card reads Purveyor of Precious Liquids. "It's poking fun at the whole corporate thing," says the 43-year-old Lindsay. "You know, you're the president, and you're this and you're that." He and partners Jason Meyer (Wizard of Wort) and Kevin Hearsum (Commanding Officer of Gettin' 'R' Done) run Driftwood Brewing, one of at least five craft breweries in Victoria - the unofficial brewing capital of B.C.

"The only secret is to make really good beer," says Lindsay, whose Fat Tug IPA claimed beer-of-the-year honours at the 2011 Canadian Brewing Awards in Toronto. Since first setting up shop in July, 2008 - in a derelict industrial space on Victoria's Rock Bay, using third-hand brewery equipment - Driftwood has grown steadily, expanding annual production from an initial 1,200 hectolitres to an anticipated 6,500 hectolitres in 2011. "We've already ordered more tanks for the spring," Lindsay says. "It's been a challenge to just keep up with demand."

Lindsay says the hardest thing has been to stay true to the beer while satisfying demand. "Our vision is to continue making interesting beers - Belgian styles, sour beers and stuff that really has intrigue and legitimacy - without selling out." - R.S.


St. John's, Newfoundland

While beer is still, by far, the preferred alcoholic beverage of Canadians, its market share is in decline. In 2000, beer accounted for 52% of alcohol sales nationwide, whereas now it's only 46%. Atlantic Canada, however, seems to be going against the flow. Although beer sales here were down between 6% and 8% this summer, many craft and microbreweries are experiencing upward of 20% growth. Most are operating at full capacity and looking to expand production facilities.

If Atlantic Canada is behind the times - beer-wise - then Newfoundland must be the poster child for East Coast slackerdom. One of the first recorded beer deliveries in North America was to Newfoundland: In 1611, a ship carrying 14 pipes (over 7,000 litres) of beer from England arrived at Conception Bay. Today, although beer sales in Newfoundland are up nearly 15% in the last fiscal year, bucking both regional and national trends, the province has long had a reputation for producing second-rate beer. Microbrewers like Quidi Vidi Brewing Co., Storm Brewing and YellowBelly Brewery and Public House are helping the province make up for lost time.

"The craft beer revolution began in Western Canada," explains YellowBelly owner Craig Flynn, "and we're only developing it now in Atlantic Canada, as people's tastes slowly evolve." Although the YellowBelly brew pub has only been open three years, it has practically eclipsed the main section of George Street - which has the most bars and pubs per square foot of any street in North America - as the city's social centre. Visitors clamour to try some of brewmaster Liam McKenna's highly regarded stouts and experimental brews, like Bakeapple Wheat beer.

Like Newfoundlanders themselves, the 19th-century building in which YellowBelly is housed - lovingly renovated by Flynn over five years, three months and eleven days (but who's counting?) - is a survivor. It's a local landmark that dates to the 1840s and is one of the few buildings to have survived the Great Fire of 1892. Flynn must have enjoyed the restoration job, too, since he's planning another expansion - a subterranean one, this time, to build an extra brewing room - but he's no masochist. The addition is in response to the fact that he's operating at 100% capacity, producing 1,000 hectolitres per year.

"I can't market my beer to new customers, 'cause I can't produce enough to keep my current customers happy," says Flynn. "This is a very good problem to have." - Christine Sismondo


Toronto, Ontario

Dimitri van Kampen recalls the day in 2008 that changed his life. He'd been working in England as a corporate lawyer but lost his clients with the credit crunch. He and his colleagues were sitting in an office, "wondering what we should have done instead of going into law. I said, 'I should have started a brewery.' We all laughed, and I went back to my office and thought, 'What's stopping me?' "

The relentlessly enthusiastic van Kampen developed a business plan for selling unfiltered, cloudy beer with uncommon flavours. As he quaffs a pint of Spearhead's beer at Toronto's Rebel House pub, he tells of how, with less than $500,000 in "love money and true-believer money" from friends and family, he persevered. He and Spearhead's chief financial officer, Martin Villeneuve, started the company; van Kampen and Spearhead's business manager, Ari Starr, dreamed up Hawaiian Style Pale Ale in van Kampen's kitchen; finally, they enlisted veteran brewmaster Tomas Schmidt to develop it.

The "virtual brewery" brewed its first 50-hectolitre batch this June at Etobicoke's Cool Brewery; it sold out immediately. After three months, van Kampen's team found it was two years ahead of its projections. Spearhead's ale is selling fast to 80 vendors across Ontario. In the next six months, van Kampen aims to increase production from 90 hectolitres per month to 400. All of this with a draught-only beer that's tricky to serve (the keg needs to sit for 24 hours before it's tapped), is markedly strong (at 6.5% alcohol), and wasn't originally aimed at a mass market.

When van Kampen dreamed up the business, his wife wondered whether losing his job, as well as his father's recent passing, had pushed him over the edge. ("I know you've had it rough," she told him, "but are you completely insane?") Nonetheless, he convinced her, and Spearhead is now winning over a demographic most brewers fail to attract: "Young women really, really like this beer," van Kampen says. "I think the big companies are talking down to them...[women] want a beer that's really flavourful."

Spearhead's slogan is "beer without boundaries," and he plans to brew "extreme" beers, always upping the element of risk. "I still haven't earned one cent from it," he says of his brewery. "I'm not on salary, but I can hardly wait to go into the office." - M.D.


Montreal, Quebec

In order to operate one of the world's best-loved brew pubs, you need quality in quantity. Since it was founded in 1998, Montreal's Dieu du ciel! has experimented with over 100 recipes, including trial runs with fir needles, sour plums and yuzu (Japanese citrus) that have worked startlingly well.

No surprise, then, that both brewery president Stéphane Ostiguy and brewmaster Jean-François Gravel studied microbiology. Gravel originally used the Dieu du ciel! moniker - which roughly translates as "Oh my God!" - for the home brew he made as an undergrad in the mid-1990s. In 1997, he and Ostiguy rented a restaurant space in Mile End; a year later, they both left university and opened their brew pub.

From the start, Dieu du ciel! dismissed the Quebec brew-pub tendency to simply make a blond beer, a red beer and a stout. Its beers were as inventive and fanciful as the brand's fantasy- and religious-themed art. The owners also refuse to sell themselves short - although bigger breweries can "be very aggressive with their prices," Dieu du ciel! "won't move for anybody," says Ostiguy. "People expect you to give away your pants to get [your beer] into their bars. We don't do that."

The gamble paid off. Nowadays, Mile End is a trendy area with superhigh rents, and the brew pub has flourished. "I think we made people realize at a certain point that quality sells, even if it's a bit more expensive."

In recent years, a number of adventurous microbreweries have opened across Quebec - among them Hopfenstark in L'Assomption, Les Trois Mousquetaires in Brossard and Le Trou du Diable in Shawinigan - all of them drawing on Dieu du ciel!'s philosophy. The brewery, says Ostiguy, "influenced how people were seeing beer. To try new ingredients and styles and just play with beer is always fun."

Their centre of experimentation remains the 500-litre brew pub, whose more popular concoctions are transferred to, and bottled at, the 25-hectolitre facility Dieu du ciel! opened in Saint-Jérôme in 2007. Last year, they sold 5,500 hectolitres, 20% of which was sent to the United States, France, Australia and Alberta, and to Ontario, where they launched on tap in September.

The most popular beer of all is Péché Mortel ("Mortal Sin"): The imperial stout - brewed with espresso beans, yielding a powerfully stealthy combination of caffeine and 9.5% alcohol - is the highest-rated Canadian brew on the respected U.S.-based website "When you drink this beer," says Ostiguy, "anything can happen. It's like alchemy." - M.D.


Gatineau, Quebec

In 1821, the Massachusetts-born Philemon Wright, who founded what's now Gatineau, Quebec, built a brewery that slaked the thirsts of settlers and Irish workers building the Rideau Canal. In 2009, a group of enthusiasts decided to reinstate the tradition. Housed in a century-old stone building on the brewery's original site, Les Brasseurs du Temps hosts a brewing museum (including a copy of Wright's contract to sell hops to John Molson), a 1,600-litre-capacity brewery with a brew pub, cabaret space, and a patio with room for 500 people.

If this sounds like a zythophile's dream, it is: BDT's president, Alain Geoffroy, had founded a beer club, a festival of beer and a beer magazine before being approached by brewer Dominique Gosselin to start an actual brewery. Gosselin aims to combine the old-school with the cheekily contemporary - BDT's flagship beer is the DumDuminator, an 8% banana-scented Weizen Bock, and features a picture of the brewer chomping a cigar on the label.

"Now people are really educated with beer, and they expect a microbrew to taste different," says Geoffroy. "Whatever we brew, people are eager to taste it." Last year, they sold 125,000 litres. Provincial regulations are slowing their efforts to expand into Ontario; instead, armed with a federal government loan of $118,750 for pre-commercialization market research, they're aiming to take their beer to the U.S. east coast, returning Wright's favour. - M.D.


Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec

Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus is a bright-golden, 10% ale whose gentle hops set off honey-sweet maltiness. What with its mystical label copy about "heavenly realms," you would think it had been brewed by Trappist monks, but it's actually produced by Microbrasserie Charlevoix, a small brewery in Baie-Saint-Paul.

In 1998, when Frédérick Tremblay quit his job as an electrical engineer in Montreal and moved back to his native Charlevoix region, his friends told him he'd be "bored to death." He's been amusing himself and delighting drinkers ever since. Tremblay knew that if he made generic beers, his brew pub, Le Saint-Pub, would be merely a tourist trap; instead, he tweaked his recipes in innovative ways and promoted Charlevoix as part of the region's foodie "Flavour Trail." The brewery also began bottling immediately to weather the off-season. Last year, they bottled 75% of 2,000 hectolitres, 150 of which were sold in three other provinces and the U.S.

The large facility they built in 2008 has helped them create even more adventurous beers, such as the Brut, made using the méthode champenoise (traditionally used to make sparkling wine). According to Tremblay, "People sometimes [say], 'Wow, you brew good beer in a small town like that?' Yeah, we do!" Amen to that. - M.D.


Barrie, Ontario

At a meeting in 2008, an American consultant told a group of Ontario craft brewers that its beer was "boring and uninspired." Accordingly, one of them, Peter Chiodo - a former VP of operations at Slotex, a division of Fortune 500 furnishings company Leggett & Platt - had an epiphany. In 2005, Chiodo had founded the Robert Simpson Brewing Co. in Barrie, named after the city's first mayor and brewmaster. But although he was about to break even ahead of schedule, his moment of revelation pushed him to rebrand as Flying Monkeys. He encouraged his wife to design wackily psychedelic packaging and swapped ho-hum brews, such as the amber Confederation Ale, for more daring beer. Chiodo has earned both plaudits and infamy for the aptly named, aggressive Smashbomb Atomic IPA, the tenebrous, roasty Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale and the one-off Alpha-fornication, which he claims is the hoppiest beer in the world. Ever.

"I don't think we lost one customer during the change," says Chiodo. Sales have gone up 43% in the past year - to 7,500 hectolitres, he now has "about 400" licensees, and distributors are calling consistently with requests to list his beer. This year, the company started exporting bottles to Manitoba and New Brunswick. But most importantly, for him, "We put the fun back in the business. It's unbelievable satisfaction." - Mike Doherty


Vankleek Hill, Ontario

Once the owner of a ska-punk record label in Toronto, Steve Beauchesne describes his "watershed" business moment thus: "I had put on a show with some really good bands, and five or six people complained about the $6 cover charge. Then I watched the same people go to the bar and spend $100 on beer." Meanwhile, his father, Tim, had just lost the last customer of his business-to-business textile company in Vankleek Hill (located halfway between Ottawa and Montreal), due to offshore manufacturing.

So in 2006, they built Beau's Brewery from the embers of two dying industries. Beau's is run out of Tim's renovated textile building, and its punk-esque ethos is one of DIY and sustainability. Its ingredients and process are certified organic, and it's selling a subscription series of bourbon-barrel-aged beers to pay for solar panels on the brewery's roof.

The company's flagship beer, Lug Tread, is a Kölsch-style "lagered ale" that filled an empty niche in Ontario; Beau's has produced 2.4 million pints of it since it launched. Currently, Beau's ships 20,000 bottles per week to Ontario liquor stores and struggles to keep up with demand. The Beauchesnes are purchasing equipment that will help them increase production from 1.7 million litres to an eventual 15 million, but they plan to expand carefully. They've been fending off offers of outside investment in order to maintain control over their products and stay true to their local roots. Says Steve: "The further away you get from a craft brewery, the less cool the beer is." - M.D.


Halifax, Nova Scotia

Though it's known as a symbol of New Brunswick, Moosehead Breweries began in Nova Scotia - first in Dartmouth, then Halifax. The company moved its headquarters to Saint John many years ago, and is now Canada's largest domestically owned brewer. But don't count Halifax out of the beer wars just yet. Bottling close to 6,000 hectolitres per year (two million bottles), Garrison Brewing Co. straddles the fence that separates the small- and mid-sized brewery, and it's growing.

Garrison's president, Brian Titus, credits today's more educated and adventurous consumers with the success of his brewery. Its flagship bestseller, for instance, is still Irish Red Ale, but Garrison's recent release of its unusual Spruce Beer inspired lineups. As Titus points out, "Last year we brewed 21 separate brands of beer and four craft sodas. As complicated as that makes our lives, that's what makes the business work." Sales grew by close to 25% this past year, easily bucking the overall trend in Atlantic Canada. "Between June and September, we could not possibly have produced another drop," says Titus.

As big and diversified as Garrison already is, there's expansion in the works here, too. Its products are most widely distributed in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and, as of this year, it's now available in every province except Quebec and Newfoundland.

"Beer isn't a necessity; it's a luxury," says Titus. "But even though people's budgets are stretched, they are still willing to splurge on one or two really good beers." - C.S.


Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Most non-Islanders would be surprised to learn that Prince Edward Island - Canada's smallest province by population and land mass - boasts an award-winning craft brewery that's on its way to becoming a household name. For homes populated by beer geeks, it may already be. Gahan House's Sir John A Honey Wheat Beer just won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards, which is a pretty big deal, especially since Gahan only started bottling beer in 2008.

Restaurateur Kevin Murphy launched Gahan (formerly Murphy's Brewing Co., and then Prince Edward Island's only brewery) in 1997; its success prompted them to move to a new location within two years, and expand into a brew pub in 2000. Now the team plans to grow beyond the Charlottetown brew pub and PEI liquor stores, and into new markets off the Island.

"Right now, we produce 190,000 litres per year, but we're in the process of tripling our capacity, says general manager Mike Ross. "By January, 2012, we're going to have a really different operation." - C.S.



East Coast breweries at the Canadian Beer Awards

10 awards in 2010

1 gold, 2 silver, 7 bronze

13 awards in 2011

5 gold, 1 silver, 6 bronze, Brewery of the Year (Picaroon's Traditional Ales, N.B.)

Wacky brews

Iceberg Beer

Quidi Vidi Brewery, Newfoundland (brewed with 25,000-year-old iceberg water)

Spruce Beer

Garrison Brewing Co., N.S. (made from local spruce and fir tips, a home-brewing tradition dating back to the 17th century)

The Schwarz

Hart & Thistle Gastropub and Brewery, N.S

(recent flavours: "Catholic School Girl," a hoppy ale with fresh ginger and oatmeal, and "The Schwarz," a cold-fermented and conditioned porter)


Big-league buyouts

Major brewers have been guzzling small ones, especially in Ontario

Upper Canada Brewing bought in 1998 by Sleeman

Creemore Springs bought in 2005 by Molson

Lakeport bought in 2007 by Labatt

Sleeman bought in 2006 by Sapporo

Brick Brewing Co. sold 19.6% stake to Molson in 1997, but bought it back in 2003




5,131,660 / Major breweries

49,031 / Microbreweries and brew pubs


3,510,200 / Major breweries (32% decline since 1992)

380,032 / Microbreweries and brew pubs (775% increase since 1992)

Quebec's first microbreweries - Golden Lion in Lennoxville and Massawippi in North Hatley - were both founded in 1986. Massawippi (now Unibroue) moved to Chambly, and was sold to Sleeman in 2004


Mystical beer labels

Quebec's microbrewers embrace fantasy-inspired art

Coup de grisou A man recoils from a mine explosion

Élixir Céleste Wizards make excellent beer

Dernière volonté An angel cradles a dying man - fitting for a beer called "last will"



20% Percentage of craft brewers in the Ontario brewing industry

$190 million Sales of craft beer in Ontario in 2010

$57 million Capital investment by craft brewers from 2004 to 2010

52% Increase in sales of Ontario craft beer at Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores last year



Measuring up

A hectolitre, equal to 100 litres, is the standard unit used in the brewing industry


28% / Growth in provincial sales (June, 2010 to June, 2011)of beer from breweries producing fewer than

150,000 / hectolitres (a group that includes most craft breweries)

2,400 / Kegs sold per month by Calgary start-up Big Rock following the 1988 Winter Olympics, which proved to be Alberta craft beer's coming-out party


2,160 / Hourly output in bottles of Paddock Wood's automated bottling line, up from 24 an hour in 2006, when all bottling was done by hand

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