Thunder Bay

Craft beer's popularity surges despite reduction in overall consumption in Canada

The sheer variety on offer in today's beer-drinking landscape makes picking a favourite brew a bit more complicated than in years past.

Craft brews shift beer-drinking trends

Beer varieties, including Ontario craft beers, are shown at a grocery store in Ottawa. The variety of craft beer available is contributing to a continuing surge in popularity, even as overall beer sales in Canada have declined, according to Statistics Canada. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The sheer variety on offer in today's beer-drinking landscape is giving Ontario's brew fans a lot more to think about when choosing a new favourite beer.

And while statistics show overall beer sales are declining in Canada, representatives of the industry say craft beer sales continue to surge in Ontario and there's still lots of room for growth. 

Kevin Brewer, who works at a craft brewery in Thunder Bay, says when it comes to the brand loyalties of beer drinkers, over the years, things have changed. 

"When we were younger, right, the Internet wasn't a thing," said Brewer, general manager at Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant Brewing Company. "The only people that could afford commercials on television at the time were the macro companies.

"That's all you knew."

Brewer said that when he turned 19 and began drinking beer, the only real options were brews from "macro" breweries; that is, the large-scale companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev.

But today, Brewer said, people will come to Sleeping Giant for their first beer after they hit drinking age.

"Our demographic's 19 to unlimited," he said. "We have customers that are coming in for the first beer. We have people in our retail store that are 60, 70, 80, 90 ... enjoying their pint a week or a day or whatever the situation might be."

This isn't to say, of course, that those well-known, longstanding beers – the Exports and Canadians and Blues – don't sell. But given the continued growth of Canada's craft beer industry, beer drinkers have many more options, and they're proving themselves willing to try new brews.

"It used to be that the kind of the craft, or the weird, let's call it, beers were just for fringe, like people who maybe that identified themselves as being different," said Christine Comeau, executive director of the Canadian Craft Brewers Association. "But now we're seeing that craft beer, it's appeal has gone beyond just kind of the fringe drinkers way more into the mainstream.

"I think that the brewers themselves are making beer that's really approachable, I think consumers are recognizing they enjoy the variety of tastes and flavours and the experience of it."

Comeau said over 1,100 craft breweries operate in Canada, and that number is continually growing.

Brewer said the variety on offer from craft brewers is a big part of their appeal.

"There might be a little more flavour or there might be a little bit less bitter," he said. "You can get a flight here, you could try four different beers and maybe see what's new."

Scott Simmons, president of Ontario Craft Brewers, said the craft brewing sector was the fastest-growing manufacturing sector in Ontario from 2010 to 2019; there are about 330 craft brewers in the province now.

Large silver beer tanks surrounded by kegs and pallets of beer cases inside Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant Brewing Company is one of more than 300 craft breweries operating in Ontario. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

"Year over year, there has never been a year where volume the following year wasn't higher or market share wasn't higher," he said. "And that's been happening even in an environment where the total beer industry volume in Ontario is contracting slightly for whatever reason, whether it's people are drinking less, or they're actually changing tastes.

"But within that slightly declining overall beer industry environment, craft continues to grow," Simmons said. "Obviously COVID has had a significant impact on our industry as it has many other industries, but it's been quite a success story."

According to a report by Statistics Canada, total beer sales from liquor stores, agencies, and other retail outlets fell 1.4 per cent in the 2020/21 fiscal year, the second year in a row sales have decreased.

In terms of volume, beer sales declined 2.3 per cent to 2,120 million litres, "which is equivalent to 3.9 standard bottles of beer per week, per person of legal drinking age" in that same time period, marking a new all-time low for beer volume sales per person since Statistics Canada started tracking alcohol sales in 1949.

Comeau said societal changes are partly responsible for the decline.

"There are stricter rules and regulations around drinking and driving," she said. "I think that people are very health conscious and health aware.

"So these are some of the societal factors that are having consumers drink less. But what we are finding is that they're drinking smarter. So craft beer is the traditional drink of moderation, typically priced premium."

Comeau also said her association has not seen much impact from the legalization of cannabis on beer sales.

Not at saturation point

In any case, despite the overall reduction, Comeau said that Canada wide, craft beer has not reached a saturation point.

"We see that in B.C., for example, where they have a really well-developed craft beer industry, the craft beer there has roughly 30 per cent market share. So there's a lot of opportunity for growth and expansion within the craft beer segment."

As for how the macro breweries are reacting to the craft beer surge, Comeau said they're starting to make their own versions of craft beer. In some cases, smaller craft breweries have also been acquired by larger companies.

Simmons said there are, however, situations where the larger breweries and craft breweries work together.

"There's a couple of examples at the federal level right now, where our craft industry association is working with the large brewers on some significant federal issues that are coming down the pipe for the industry," he said. "We're all in the beer business together, and a healthy beer category is important to all of us.

"So yes, there are issues where we work together and can get aligned. There's many others where we don't, where our interests and our positions are different from one another.

"But that's just the way life works and the way industry works. There's always going to be competitors."