Indie brewers taking over Toronto say craft beer 'a force to be reckoned with'

A budding industry celebrates success during Ontario Craft Beer Week, an annual province-wide festival to promote independent brewing.

Toronto to host beer runs, pub crawls and tastings for Ontario Craft Beer Week

Ontario Craft Beer Week 2017 spokesperson Kirstin MacDonald drinks a cold one in anticipation of the province-wide celebration. (Julie-Anne Lamoureux/Radio-Canada)

Cream ale. Sour IPA. Raspberry radler. These are just some of the unusual beverages on offer from Ontario's craft brewers, who launched Ontario Craft Beer Week on Saturday at Yonge and Dundas Square.

Across the province, craft breweries—ranging from "nano" brewpubs with just a handful of fermenting tanks, to larger vendors employing multiple brewers—will host pub crawls, patio parties and brewing lessons to promote their craft.

Kristin MacDonald of Muskoka Brewery, who chairs the event—now in its eighth year—says this week means a lot to indie brewers.

 "It's a big celebration for us," she said. "We're growing rapidly."

Ontario microbreweries have grown from around 30 in 2010 to almost 200 today, according to the trade association Ontario Craft Brewers.

MacDonald says another 100 of these independent breweries are slated to open in the next two years.

Craft brewers compete for market share

Craft brewers still only claim a pint-sized portion of the Ontario market despite their rapid growth. So exposure "is always appreciated," Macdonald said. 

"There's always more to be done," said Macdonald. "We're sitting at six per cent market share, which means 94 per cent is going to the big breweries."

Ontario microbreweries have grown from around 30 in 2010 to almost 200 today, according to the trade association Ontario Craft Brewers. (Radio-Canada)

Corporate beermongers like the Molson-Coors Brewing Company and  Anheuser-Busch InBev—who own familiar brands such as Molson Canadian and Budweiser—slurped up 94 percent of beer sales across the province in 2015.

Craft brewers sold $240 million of their artisanal suds to Ontarians that year.

'People are seeking out craft beer'

MacDonald has seen a big change in Ontario's beer landscape since she entered the industry in 2010.

"When I first started it was like trying to convince people, to explain what craft beer was, what the value of it was," she said. "Now people are seeking it out. They're interested in their local breweries."

Ontario only permits sales out of a venue that's physically attached to the brewery itself. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

At least 20 per cent of the shelves in these grocery stores and the Beer Store are now reserved for small brewery products.

"A few years ago, when you walked into the LCBO, it was hard to find some of the craft beers on the shelf," MacDonald said. Now, it's a dizzying array of saisons, citrus pale ales and coffee porters.

Not everyone is so optimistic.

"Without legislative changes, I think you're going to start to see some of these local craft brewers close their doors," said Ben Johnson, a blogger who specializes in beer. "There's only so much self space to go around." 

Ontario only permits sales out of a venue that's physically attached to the brewery itself. Without a designated spot in The Beer Store or LCBO, breweries face a limited customer base, he says.

"I would love to see Ontario craft brewers open their own stores," MacDonald said. 

Ontario only permits sales out of a venue that's physically attached to the brewery itself. Without a designated spot in The Beer Store or LCBO, breweries face a limited customer base. (Supplied by Kaitlin Butt)

But even without the extra help from legislators, MacDonald thinks craft beer has a future in the province. 

"I've never seen an industry with so much camaraderie between breweries. We all just want to grow together," MacDonald said. 

It's because of that attitude, she says, that craft brewers are finding success in an industry dominated by giants like Molson and Labatt.

"We're stronger together. We had to band together," she said. "Craft beer is a force to be reckoned with." 

Here are some of the week's events: