With microbreweries raising humble suds to new heights of sophistication, aficionados have a cornucopia of choices
-- Tagline from Cameron's Brewing Company, one of 30 craft breweries in Ontario
Like a bead of condensation sliding down a frosty mug ... oh, sorry. Where was I? Oh, right: Small, flavourful craft brews are finding success tapping into our increasingly sophisticated palates.
And it's not your father's beer fridge.
These brands aren't splashed onto the flat screen every 30 seconds during the Stanley Cup playoffs. We don't hum their jingles in the elevator. Sorry, no hot models pretending to idolize beer drinkers.
As you consider the eye-catching variety of options on offer today -- like orange peel ale, pumpkin, strawberry, bumbleberry wheat and brown ale with flavours of dark chocolate and espresso (seriously) -- the question must be asked:
Is beer the new wine?
In particular, craft beer -- a catch-all name for distinctively flavoured beer that is brewed and distributed regionally.
Brew is an appropriate topic for the May 2-4 long weekend, when informal study groups large and small resume their tireless, grassroots research into all things beer.
So the beer brigade is adding a touch of class to the proceedings.
"It's wine without the attitude," jokes Jason Ellsmere of Cameron's Brewing Company in Oakville. "It's definitely moving in that direction.
"Restaurants understand that beer's not just something you drink before a meal, or out on a deck. It's something you match with food, and also cook with.
"The comparison to wine comes up often. But beer can actually be paired with more foods than wine can."
Seems that like wine lovers before them, beer aficionados are also developing a more educated and adventurous palate. They are more open to trying new offerings.
That's good news for Ontario's 30 microbreweries. They are conjuring up a refreshing cornucopia of craft beers -- like the bewitching list mentioned earlier -- and they are beginning to find a growing, appreciative audience.
It's worth toasting because their success ripples through the economy. Craft beer accounts for about 5 per cent of overall sales in Ontario, and is responsible for 20 per cent of jobs in breweries.
So how did this come to a head?
Like a patient brewmaster balancing time and temperature, the confluence of several factors is contributing to the current success of the industry.
Ellsmere describes the change as an "evolution" of people more open to trying new products. In addition, there are more small breweries and they are educating more people on good beer.
"Giving them the opportunity to see beer can have flavour ... different people have different taste buds and enjoy different products."
Also catching on with consumers is the intense "local" nature of the small craft breweries.
"It's been phenomenal. In the past couple of years, we definitely have had more customers coming to the brewery and approaching us at shows stating that they are supporting us because we're local."
Peter Romano says it's a good time to be in the craft beer industry. He and his brother John operate Nickel Brook, a microbrewery and retail beer store in Burlington.
The reality of being a small, grassroots operation is a point of pride for craft beer makers, who see themselves as an agile David next to the Goliaths of the industry.
"It's a lot more personal. As a small brewery you get instant feedback. At the brewery itself, we have the sampling bar and right away people let us know."
"We're producing beers that we enjoy drinking ourselves, not what a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign can sell."
Romano feels consumers are also responding to the fact that craft beers are organically produced, with authentic special recipes, using all natural, pure ingredients, with no additives or preservative.
Variety is also a strength. Nickel Brook will be producing a strawberry organic wheat and a gluten-free beer.
Nickel Brook is also extremely local in nature, turning to area farms for maple syrup and apple juice used in their products.
"I think people are becoming more aware of the micro-breweries," he said following a tour of his bustling facility.
Romano has presided over countless tastings and introductions to the firm's products, and he's noticed a healthy trend.
"I'm finding younger people seem to be a little more open to trying the craft beers. It's getting better for us."
Beer sales are undergoing a transformation in Canada. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario says imported beer has more than doubled its market share in the past decade. In 2009, imported beer had captured 13 per cent of the beer market in Canada, up from 6 per cent in 1999.
A spokesperson said the figures reflect a growing demand for quality and consumers who are becoming more adventurous in their beer. People are moving from larger-selling brands to the premium-style brands. That's adding up to increased sales of imported beers and also in craft beers.
It's the continuation of an upward trend that saw sales of Ontario craft beer in LCBO stores rise 38 per cent in 2008 from the previous year, following healthy increases in the previous three years of 30 per cent.
Baby boomers with money to spend are more willing to invest in exotic beers and wines that may have been beyond their means in their younger days.
Also helping the cause? The small breweries have joined forces as the Ontario Craft Brewers to provide collective marketing muscle, promote regional tourism and expose Ontario's beer drinkers to more than 140 handcrafted premium beers brewed in the province.
LCBO has worked with the Ontario Craft Brewers to make these beers more visible, showcase the many craft beers available and note how the craft brewers "pride themselves on their traditional brewing practices."
The LCBO also developed a six-beer Discovery Pack designed to let beer lovers sample the beers.
The province has been kicking in about $2 million a year to help the brewers market their products.
"Demand for Ontario craft beer has exploded in the past few years, even despite the economic slowdown," says Gary McMullen, chair of Ontario Craft Brewers and president of Muskoka Cottage Brewery. "Ontario Craft Brewers have been working hard to build this industry and create jobs in Ontario."
The industry will mark Ontario Craft Beer week June 20-26 with a festival celebrating Ontario's small and independent breweries.
It will feature events designed to expose consumers to the craft beer experience through tastings, brewery tours, cooking demonstrations, food pairings and beer dinners.
"This is a very exciting opportunity for Ontario's craft beer industry and for our province," says Steve Beauchesne of Beau's Brewery. "It's a groundbreaking moment for craft beer in Ontario and a great way to kick off the summer."
Ellsmere puts things in perspective. He's in charge of day-to-day operations at Cameron's, but doesn't have an official moniker.
"We don't have titles at our brewery. We're not that big yet to feel that important."