As he stands in front of a gleaming new bar, with copper brewing kettles behind him, Ian Freedman has a hard time not smiling.
“We’re pretty excited about this,” said Freedman.
“This” would be the new headquarters for Six Pints, the Canadian craft beer division of Molson Coors, created last year after the company’s purchase of Vancouver-based Granville Island Brewing was finalized. Also part of the Six Pints portfolio is venerable Ontario craft brewery Creemore Springs, which Molson purchased in 2005.
The headquarters, on the site of the former Duggan’s brewpub on Victoria street in downtown Toronto, includes standard corporate offices, but also a small brewery, retail space (including tasting bar), and an event space.
Small-scale, craft brew is one of the only growth segments in the beer industry. In 1981, Canadians drank an average of 99.69 litres of beer per year. In 2011, we chugged a whole lot less — 80.3 litres per person. (Meanwhile, wine’s share of the alcohol market has been rising steadily.)
Those trends are mirrored in other “mature” markets such as the U.S. and U.K.
Going against those big-picture trends, however, is craft beer’s rise. At the LCBO, sales of Ontario craft beer have posted double-digit increases in both value and volume for the past decade.
“I think our beer customers are becoming much more adventurous. . . . I think we’re going to see the momentum continue,” said Chris Robertson, the LCBO’s director of spirits and beer. In the last five years alone, sales in the LCBO’s seasonal beer program have gone up 200 per cent. Those listings include craft breweries from around the continent, as well as imported beers that could fairly be called craft.
It’s the same trend in the U.S., where craft beer is on the verge of cracking 10 per cent market share.
“It’s the fastest growing segment in the beer business, and one that the big brewers feel they’ve least participated in,” said Freedman.
While Six Pints may be the most visible example in Canada of a big brewer taking on a craft flavour, it’s not the only one. Guelph-based Sleeman and Quebec’s highly-touted Unibroue are owned by Japan’s Sapporo. In Ontario, Moosehead owns Hop City Brewing, based in Brampton.
“We’re in this for the long haul. This is not a fad,” said Andrew Oland, president and CEO of Moosehead, which originally got into the craft game for broader business reasons.
When Moosehead bought tiny Niagara Falls Brewing in 2004, it was to comply with regulations that make it easier for a company to bring beer into Ontario if they have a brewery here. It took them a few years to realize it could be a lot more than just a regulatory toe-hold. In 2007, Niagara Falls Brewing was moved to Brampton. In 2009, they changed their name to Hop City, and launched a number of new brands, including their flagship Barking Squirrel Lager.
While he wouldn’t say if Moosehead is considering buying other small craft brewers on their own merits, Oland expects more big breweries to snap up smaller independents.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were more, especially in the U.S. Sometimes it’s easier to buy than to build, and some folks are looking to cash out,” said Oland.
Not all the big brewers are getting involved in the craft game in the same way, however. At Labatt, they’ve so far been content to battle the rising craft tide with imports from Anheuser-Busch InBev, the giant conglomerate which owns Labatt.
“We’ve got the biggest portfolio in the world. . . . A lot of beers we have address the demand,” said Arielle Loeb, marketing director of high-end brands at Labatt.
That portfolio now includes Goose Island, a highly-regarded craft brewery in Chicago which AB-InBev bought last year. Some Goose Island brews could be coming to Canada, Loeb said.