Are The Oddest Things In Ontario The Solutions?

 

Update, Thursday: A rousing 17% of Ontarians want beer in grocery stores. Because we can’t handle what Quebeckers, New Yorkers and those of Michigan can. We must suck.

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That’s a video posted in the Toronto Star the other day summarizing where this Province sits in its own internal debate about the retailing of beer in Ontario.Its attached to a story titled “Time to take ownership of the Beer Store: Cohn” The Star is taking a lead in the discourse and doing an excellent job but as the video displays there are some weird aspects to this issue that might seem odd to those from beyond the borders. When we were writing Ontario Beer the tasks got chopped up and I was assigned primary attention to the years 1900 to 1980 which, as you might guess, were not expected to be the most exciting for the development of good beer in the culture. What I found, however, through the review of law and brewer’s public appearance as much as the family trees of families who owned the brewery was that the community, culture and marketplace in Ontario has a number of abiding characteristics which continue to pop up through the decades and centuries of its relationship with beer:

-> Ontario is very comfortable with state ownership. You will notice in the story as retold an unhappiness that The Beer Store, the sole retailer of about 90% of all sales, is not government owned. Many assume it is. Many would say it should be. Many want more beer variety in the existing government LCBO which sells primarily macro six-packs as well as single bottles of craft brews and imports.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with a controlled market. Amongst those who reject the model of the Beer Store a prominent response being heard is that the small brewers of Ontario ought to be able to replicate the model to create boutique craft beer shops. It appears the idea would be sell Ontario made craft beer to Ontario through shops run by Ontario craft brewers. This appears to be adding a small oligopoly to a tiny oligopoly to defeat the evil forces of oligopoly.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly dull macro beer. Nowhere in this discourse is there a great public outrage at the quality of most of the beer consumed in Ontario. The vast bulk of beer consumed in Ontario is frankly bulk beer. Most people I know who buy beer buy slabs of 24 bottles of lighter fairly flavourless stuff that gives them a mild buzz and cuts the crap out of your mouth when you’ve been physically active. It reminds me a lot of ship’s beer in fact, one of the functional classes of everyday beer that fell out of flavour somewhere between the Georgian and Victorian colonial eras. For many, talking about more interesting beer is like talking about more interesting ketchup.

-> Ontario is very comfortable with fairly not inexpensive beer. For a while there was a trend of “buck a beer” discount products but that’s been gone for the best part of a decade now. No one moved forward to fill the market and Ontario’s beer buyers have found themselves buying beers for $1.50 to over $2.00 a bottle at the shops without much quibbling. No one is looking for a better retail experience and no one really is looking for a price cut. Bulk beer in Ontario is comparable or even a bit higher than craft in nearby northern NY.

These are just themes I see. I didn’t want initially to drill into news articles, blog posts or the details of history to create a mess of links mainly for one reason. Even having studied 400 years of beer culture, law and politics in the place it still surprises me and sometimes leaves me shaking my head. But there are reasons it is like this. Ontario was set up as something of a conservative utopia that reaches back to the 1780s with the resettlement of the Loyalists running from the newly created USA. This lasted until the reforms of the 1840s when we were then introduced to the new trend in temperance. After the flop of Ontario’s version of prohibition ended in 1927, we have had the control system of alcohol retail that we have today. Three forms of restraint. Three eras of doing what one is told. Three eras of being concurrently happy and prosperous, too. It might, given all that, be more reasonable to ask why wouldn’t things be as they are in today’s discussions about retailing beer here. Me? I just want beer in grocery stores and gas stations like people in all the nearby provinces and states enjoy. Not likely going to happen.

I may layer more into this but for now this is the best I have to explain the culture I live in to myself. It’s a bit weird, isn’t it. But in a weird way it also works for most people.

“Grain Suffisamment Pour Faire De La Biere”

hebertThe footnote quoting a text from 10 August 1620 actually reads in full:

Nous avon du grain suffisamment pour faire du pain and de la bière

That statement was written by Denis Jamet, Récollet missionary at Quebec in New France. When I wrote the bit about New France in Ontario Beer a year ago, I only thought to state that beer “came to New France at the latest in the 1630’s with Jesuit priests who brewed as part of their daily duties.” Hadn’t thought of the Récollets. The Jesuits come along a little later and, by 1634, they have a full brewery was being planned but in Quebec the Récollets were here first. I’ve been reading about their entry into the extremely sparce European population along the St. Lawrence Valley in the early seventeenth century in Champlain’s Dream by D.H. Fischer. In 1617 when there were 50 or 60 male residents of New France, there were four Récollets, three at Quebec and one further west at Huronia in what is now central Ontario. Denis Jamet was one of them. He came to New France for a second stint on board Champlain’s spring 1617 sailing from France to the new world.

Early New France did not do without strong drink. As part of their provisions, every year “they imported generous quantities of eau-de-vie, wine and cider.” People were arriving, too. Along with Denis Jamet, in 1617 the first permanent colonial family arrived in New France: Louis Hébert and Marie Rollet along with their three children. Hébert takes up planting, serving as apothecary to the settlement and starts over the next few years to create some economic stability and wealth for his small clan. He dreams of being on a stamp one day. He dies in January 1627 but not before he he becomes, as noted, also associated with “une chaudière à brasserie” – a brewing kettle. This document mentions it arriving in 1622. Which means, if Jamet is to be trusted in that first bit I quoted up there, the first colonists were making beer at least two years before the kettle arrive. Makes sense. Raw ale was a thing. And these technologies like kettles took time to all get in place. Apparently the plough Hébert requested showed up a year after he died.

Which leads to a bit of a puzzle for me. When Jamet made that statement, who is the “nous” – the Récollets only or the population of New France as a whole. Perhaps just the priests yet this brewing history of Quebec seems to indicate that both Hébert and the Récollets were brewing in or before 1620. None of this will win the prize as to the first beer brewed in what is now Canada as that was clearly going on in Newfoundland at Cupids in the early 1610s and was likely also being done for a few decades before that by summering West Country English fishermen on the Newfoundland shores who brought along barrels of malt. I do think, however, that Hébert and/or the Récollets may be the first to grow their own grain for beer making, to take control of the whole process. Hébert is understood to be the first wheat farmer in New France.

He was also the apothecary. You will recall that I posted a while back about Richard Whitbourne, who was in Newfoundland around the same time and described how “many of our Nation finding themselues ill, haue brused some of the herbes and strained the iuyce into Beere.” One of the things folk were struggling with was how to survive in North America. Baffin and his crew get hammered by scurvy in the Arctic 1616 and in the years before that Champlain loses many early overwintering explorers to the disease. He thought that it had to do with having access to fresh meat. They are working out new Baroque era medical science on the edge of known world. And likely experimented with the properties of their beer as part of that process.

What is not to like? Exploring farmer scientist educated devout brewing adventurers. What did you do today?

The Eight Years Reign of “Craft” Beer Ends

As with many of the words and ideas hovering around good beer for the last decade, we all knew for a while that “craft” beer has been a bit of a loser. Yesterday on social media, two of the biggest voices in good beer publishing affirmed its relegation. Here is an article John Holl of All About Beer on the status of the word:

As a media company, we rely on using words properly. One year ago this magazine took the first step in limiting the word craft in our coverage. Our feature articles no longer differentiate between craft brewers and not because we don’t have a solid definition. As we’ve always done, we report the news of breweries around the world. All breweries. Of course we know this will not be universally recognized, so you can expect to see the word pop up from time to time in quotes, or when certain groups, like the BA, talk about membership, or in our business coverage, where craft is considered a specific sales segment. It’s our duty to cover that as represented, and we will.

On Facebook, Todd Alstrom of BeerAdvocated commented in this way in Facebook:

I remember this conversation. 😉 BeerAdvocate magazine has also stopped gratuitously using the term. And Jason and I have been saying this for ages: Just because it’s “craft” (or “local”) doesn’t mean it’s good, nor should we blindly support it; especially given the level of mediocrity (at best) coming from far too many brewers these days.

It’s not a new idea. “Craft” as a label on good beer had been dubious for at least half a decade given its twisting for interested purposes including ensuring certain very rich people get very large tax breaks rightfully granted to other small business folk. And think about its actual lineage. It is not really appropriate to consider when the word was first used as that is the “tree falling in the forest” moment. It is only when a word gains both broad acceptance and ascendancy over its competition that it becomes definitive. A far more useful measure is the sort of thing we see when we compare the use of “craft beer” with “microbrewery” in the pages of The New York Times. “Craft beer” takes off only around 2007-08. Less than a decade ago.

If we truly care about meaning, we may want to ask why this happened. It is interesting to note that the popular acceptance of “craft” closely followed the merger of The Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America to form the Brewers Association. One of the key PR goals of the Brewer’s Association has been control of the discourse. They are obsessed with definitions and now hire many professionals including an economist to prop up their PR bulwarks. There was good reason to try to get more professional about these this given the countervailing “whack job approach” to making a case that was prevalent. The trouble is there is a whole pesky bigger separate discussion going on with consumers. Despite the efforts of the breweries, the consumer had an open mind and an independent eye.

And the PR spin was more than a bit of a botch. In 2012, the BA rolled out the failed “craft v crafty” campaign which fairly immediately fell flat on its face. It invited consumers to consider closely two things which had not yet been at the forefront of the discourse: (i) holy frig, those big “crafty” brewers can make pretty good beer and (ii) holy frig, those small “craft” brewers aren’t small. Notice what Holl and Alstrom mention up there. They dropped using “craft” a year pervasively or more ago. So, the arc of popular acceptance can, at best, be dated from 2007 to 2015. Eight short years.

This is good. Words come and go. And one reason they come and go is that the general pool of people in any given discourse know how to smell a rat. People recognize that the control of language is one of the first goals of anyone trying to not only promote but affix their interests a few rungs higher up the ladder than they deserve to stand. It is also good because we now live in the world of big craft billionaires and international big craft branch plants. “Craft” will slowly recede from the vocabulary as it should. Time for a new word. Or, better, words. What will they be? Stay tuned. The public will let you know.

Addendum: Have a look at Oliver’s take, an etymological view. And, if one is Swiftian, not a modest proposal at all as there is no hint of acerbic parody.

Looking Out The Window Of A Pub

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It’s one of my favorite things to do, sitting looking out the window of a pub. This was last Monday afternoon. The Bow Bar in Edinburgh. I was just getting used to the time zone and would fly out the next day. Two guys standing at the bar in the small one room space were providing the background track to the seat with a view. Apparently, the Bow Bar is packed on weekends but who sits in bar staring out the window on weekends? It’s something to do when your colleagues are at work. When you could be writing a report. Making plans. Paying bills.

Is It Even Possible To Be A Beer Expert?

monkey4Jeff wrote an article for All About Beer this week called “Why Beer Experts Matter”. I commented by Twitter that it set out a “good argument by @Beervana but expertise is key, not the “experts” – personifying a body of knowledge just limits it.” Discussion ensued. I meant it. Good. It was not snide code. It good – and good can be, you know, good. And it got me thinking about experts, expertise, professionalism, experience and interest… and interests while we are at it. And Lars asked for more detail. So, In this post, I am going to try to explain myself to myself, Jeff, Lars and to you if you care to follow along. It is, however, not mandatory reading, there will not be a test and it is Saturday.

Let’s think about what these words mean: experts, expertise, professionalism, experience, interest and interests. One way or another they are all about being clever. Having amassed a body of information. But then they represent doing different things with that information. It is interesting to separate the threads to discuss each but it is really important to keep in mind how much they overlap. Things like this are not neat and tidy. That being said, let’s have a look:

Professional: A professional is not someone paid to do something. A professional is someone whose opinion you can act upon as presented without interpretation. Lawyers, accountants and doctors are professionals. Engineers, too. They… we… carry errors and omissions insurance in case our opinions are wrong and cause harm to those who relied upon them. It is not to say that that those who are not professionals are highly skilled or deserving of significant pots of money. But every time I hear someone mention professional baseball players, I ask myself where fans can file the claim against the Chicago Cubs for undue emotional reliance. Similarly, I can’t see any brewers getting errors and omissions insurance to protect drinkers against negligent brewing, especially given the amount of that going around. Are there beer professionals? Not that many. Not most of the folk you might hear calling themselves professionals.

Expert: Not all professionals are experts and not all experts are professionals. As a professional lawyer, I hire experts and I challenge experts – both pros and not pros. People don’t like us for that. Lawyers don’t really care. It’s the job. No, it’s the profession. Me, I have done enough work in certain specific areas like history and heritage related matters that I peer review the work of experts myself. I challenge the content of their reports. Even reports by experts who are professionals which I am supposedly not required to go behind. Thankfully, it happens rarely. Mainly because (i) professionals who are not experts in a given field should be aware of their incapacity and do not tread beyond their specialty and (ii) true experts are so focused on the particulars of their particular topic. Because experts are experts in niche topics. Can there be a beer experts? Not in my opinion. Because, for one thing, “beer” is too big a topic and, for another, so much about beer and brewing is so self-evidently shallowly researched. So far. Example. Stan asked where Cicerones fit in. I responded that it was an example of “expert creep – trained as top notch wait staff they take on more status.” I should have written “some” take on more status. The niche training works in the niche. Beyond the niche… well, things get wonky.

Expertise: This I think is the most important point. The body of knowledge is collectively the “expertise” in that topic. It also means the skill of an expert. I am interested in the first meaning. “Canada’s expertise in coconut production is lacking” is something that can be said. Similarly, we can correctly say that the western worlds collective expertise in all aspects of beer and brewing is not as sophisticated as its collective expertise in public health or the economics of international trade. Beer and brewing is (i) not as complex topic to attract a body of expertise and (ii) where it is complex it is not well researched… yet. There are reasons for this lack of complexity that are obvious. It is only beer. But there are also reasons for the lack of detailed study that are not as obvious. I call these factors “interests” and they are not all alike.

Interests #1: This is where things get truly odd with beer. Dr. Johnson in the 1700s once stated, “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” He was an executor of the brewer Henry Thrale and spoke the truth. There is a lot of money in beer. Micro and craft brewers work incredibly hard to avoid discussing that. In 2007, it was so shocking to point this out that one risked a playground pile on and perhaps a cherry belly, too. Many excellent points were made. Tomme Arthur and other brewers chimed in mainly defending price inflation. I think that time has passed. We are more realistic about brewers as Andy’s recent article about Jim Koch and the reaction showed. We are no longer “all in it together.” Financial interests are exposed and being discussed. Which is good. Many beer fans won’t be taken as suckers any more. AND brewers will be able to describe the well deserved rewards for their efforts… even if a well informed consumer base means the less than realistic brewers out there may end up paying for their own experiments and self-assigned artistic status from their own pocket, not mine. Money is good but we all benefit from real information as much as we want honest beer at an honest price.

Interests #2: There are other sorts of interests at play which put pressure on access to real information about the beer we like. In my 12 years of writing about beer nothing as stupid has ever been written as the article from 2009 “Sober Thoughts On Writing About Beer” in which it was suggested that fewer people ought to be writing about beer. I reacted strongly. I won’t repeat the discussion but point out that while Jeff did not say the same think, he could be taken for being in the same neighbourhood when he argued “[w]hy should you bother seeking out an expert? Because beer experts do some things even 900 laymen together can’t.” What he was not saying, however, is that the 900 lay folk should shut up. He made a different argument. But I still think it was flawed for the reasons about seeing as he based much of the argument on this idea he wrote “[a] good expert opinion will draw on several threads of information—science, process, history and culture—and bring all of that knowledge to the discussion of a beer.” The trouble is not the validity of the idea itself but its applicability. For two reasons: (i) the science, process, history and culture of beer is not yet well studied and (ii) those holding themselves out as experts in beer generally have self-evident disinterest and even disdain for knowledge about “science, process, history and culture of beer” not to mention the economics of it, the health implications of it, public policy related to it etc. These are the people who might tell you all English beer was smoky before the use of coke in beer. They say so because they have not bothered to do two hours of studying. We need to be honest. There is much greater interest in protecting the status of expert in many of those who suggest they or others are experts than there is an interest in gathering and building the collective expertise. Beer is money. And the shallow PR wading pond needs to be fed. But note I said “many”. To be abundantly clear, if I am looking for information about current trends in the global beer retail market, I seek out Mr. Beaumont‘s opinion. If I want to know as much as I can know about hops, I ask Stan. There are others with that sort of focused understanding who have not only earned but absolutely resonate with the necessarily broad, deep and detailed awareness to be respected as experts in their field. And each of these guys would also guide me and you to others of whom they might say are the expert’s experts. I would estimate them to total about 10% of those who have an interest in you thinking they are beer experts. Sorry to break the news.

Interest: we all have an interest in beer. I would not be writing on this keyboard if I did not. I would not be sketching out a number of alternative choices fourth book on beer if I did not. Everyone who wants to experience a greater variety of the deliciousness of beer, the exquisite comfort of pubs or the vast and particular history of brewing through time has an interest. It is lovely. It is worth doing. It’s participating in part of a bigger thing across culture and centuries. But the beer itself is experienced one person and one beer at a time. Beer is experienced only in the theatre of the mouth. With time and practice, anyone can hone their skills and create a deep body of experience which gives them greater and greater pleasure. Along with this they can write reviews of the beers they taste, write blog posts about the themes they see developing and a few can be lucky enough to be asked to write articles and books. Which leads to requests to be quoted. And called an expert. Hmm. It also leads to cherry syrup laced, bourbon barrel aged, sea salt infused gose. Which sucks. But the “expert” told you you should like it… except you just don’t understand. Sadly, you buy it and drink it and feel bad about yourself for (i) being not smart enough and (ii) having that crap in your mouth and (iii) having just dropped ten bucks to affirm you are not smart and to place crap in your mouth. This is a terrible thing for one simple reason. Beer should make you happy.

So you see how this works? It all relates the thoughts of Ivan Illich in fact. And do you see what I just did? I made you feel odd about the whole Ivan Illich thing. I just experted on you. I didn’t mean to. Sorry. This essay is in no way intended to be a sword of Zorro moment, a triumphal flourish in which the topic is summed up so completely you need not think further. That is not my point. I only propose the above. It is just something I have been thinking about. If I took more time, I would weave in more links with illustrations of the points I may be making. I’d add in Andy’s discussion here. But I didn’t. This is not a professional opinion. It’s not the statement of an expert. It’s just something I have an interest in triggered by the excellent thoughts of Jeff and Lars related to one corner of the whole body of knowledge related to beer and brewing.

Back From That Trip To Scotland That I Mentioned…


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I was away for a week on a business trip to Scotland. A whole week? Well, as I am the son of two of those Scots who took to the four corners of the world, I did add a couple of days of vacation but, much to my surprise, it also took 33 hours of travel to get from where I am to where I was going and then, for unknown reasons, well over 20 hours to get back. Evil ocean. Where are the supersonic subs I was promised in comic books as a kid? So while the jet lag isn’t as bad when traveling west, I still need to put things in order. A bit of a photo travelogue, then, tonight. A slide show.

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I had not sought out the Bow Bar in Edinburgh before but if there was a ticking habit in my life I feel my one pint in the corner was one big check mark on page one. image247I was not actually hunting it out and had it in entirely the wrong place in my mind, over at the west end of Rose Street. Probably something else wonderful that I am unaware of is over there. We found ourselves standing next to it when I was hunting out a shop to buy things made of wool. I had a pint of their 3.8% house Bowhemian Ale brewed for them by Alechemy Brewing. It was testimony to the pointlessness of beer over a certain strength. Lots of body. Refreshing in the middle of a march around the town. Interesting with plenty to think about.

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The day before the goal was well understood. We headed directly to the door of the Cafe Royal near Waverley Railway Station where we had stood in the summer only to be told the kids could not come in. The laws on kids and bars in Scotland can get quite frustrating but do allow one to consider leaving them behind on another continent with the in-laws. The place is magnificent. The opposite of the study in plainness that is the Bow Bar.

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That was good, having the night before been at an event at Glasgow City Chambers where I sat down to dinner with – I kid you not – a Sir, a Lord, a Lady, a High Commissioner, two Right Honourables, a Baillee and… a Baroness. Got piped in and everything. image261The Cafe Royal is second only to the rooms in that municipal palace for grandeur. Not a word I use often. Grandeur. Back at the Cafe Royal, I had cullen skink as well as some smoked salmon along with a couple of pints, ROK IPA as well as an Edinburgh Pale Ale. The latter was a gem. Just 3.4% with a black tea malt lingering finish there was plenty of malt in the body. The tiled art on the southern wall of the bar is quite the thing. It appears to be a selection of great moments in science’s benefits to mankind. More on those tiles here.

The Piper Bar off George Square in Glasgow and into a weird flashback into pop metal of the 1980s and ’90s. I had a couple of pints of Bitter and Twisted as we head bobbed along with the crowd to Metallica, Iron Maiden and AC/DC. It was pretty refreshing after an evening at the high table. There were airport beers, too. A 4% Camden Pale Ale at Heathrow on the way home and an 8% Wellington Imperial Stout on the way there at Toronto Pearson. The CPA was more expensive. A lunch at The Beehive Inn on Grassmarket to the south of Edinburgh Castle featured whitebait. I want whitebait all the time now. It’s like smelt. But more like smelt-lettes. French fries made of the whole body of a tiny fish. A cheery 4.2% Crofters’ Pale Ale by An Teallach Ale Company of Camusnagaul, Dundonnell, Little Loch Broom went down with that. Just enough to get me out the door and, about an hour and a half later, into the Bow Bar.

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What to make of all this? Certainly that there is plenty of good beer to be found even when you are not hunting it out if you are in the right sort of community and know what to look for. No sessions. Just one here. Another there. And certainly there is plenty of good beer well under the 5% lower limit that is so common in much of North America. Think I am going to head over to my local brewery and propose a collaboration. Which is code for pushy beer writer who wants a beer he can’t get. That’s it, right? Anyway, home again. Where the houses are larger and warmer. Where the grass is not a lovely shade of green in January. Where you don’t have to tip the help because it’s your teenager.