Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A good news/bad news week

Muskoka Brewery founder Gary McMullen was
recently forced to make the tough decision over
whether or not to yank his company's top-notch
products from the western Canada marketplace
"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"

Never mind Hamlet's "To be or not to be?" ponderings that none of us really understood back in high school because, well, getting a date for the prom and how to completely avoid your parents (for days, if possible) were much bigger issues. Those were simpler times. Well, except when the English teacher singled me (Really? Me? Please don't do that) specifically as to what the "to be or not to be?" line meant. Honestly guessing, as I had previously given it zero thought, I sputtered, "Whether or not he should kill himself?" Turns out I was right. Which was my brief shining moment... until the teacher (likely sensing it was a lucky guess) followed up with, "And why would he want to kill himself?" I had no idea. Couldn't even fake a guess. Okay, full disclosure time. I had not read Hamlet. Instead, I bought the Cole's Notes on the book. Which I also hadn't read, probably because some girl said "hello" to me in the hallway and I had spent all morning thinking, "What did she mean?" If it's at all helpful to anyone reading this who's still in high school, decades later, I am still just as clueless about both Hamlet and women. All I can tell you is that from this guy's perspective, women are meant to be loved, not understood. (Whoa... who said that? Way too deep for me.) And Hamlet, in retrospect, is not that important.
Server Lauren fills a growler with Mad Tom IPA at the
tap room in the Bracebridge brewery. Westerners are
gonna become deprived of some of Ontario's best beer
Unless melancholy Danes appeal to you for some reason. I'm not here to judge. (You freak.)

So back to good news/bad news, which is the modern-day "to be or not to be" conundrum. According to psychologists, 75% of us would prefer to hear the bad news first. Why? So the news ends on a high note. Unless we're giving the good news/bad news, in which case, two-thirds of us would prefer to deliver the good news first. Again, why? It all has to do with recipients confusing the message with the messenger. So tell them the good news, wait for a smile, then tell them the bad news... and run like hell. Sort of like "Hey, your name is going to be famous in medical journals world-wide" followed by "...because we're naming this terminal disease after you."

Okay, for the fellow in the back row, yelling, "Get to the friggin' point, dumbass!", here we go. Bad news first. Muskoka Brewing, an Ontario craft beer giant since it was established in Bracebridge by Gary McMullen and Kirk Evans back in June 1996, is about to yank its products off western Canadian shelves.
Muskoka Brewery Mad Tom IPA: Still available on
the patio of Donny's Bar and Grill. Soon, this beer is
not to be available in Saskatchewan. Alberta or BC.
Why would they do that? Well, way back in 2010, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia banded together to create something called the New West Partnership. The idea behind it was somewhat good - reducing trade barriers, thus increasing business between the three provinces. All was peachy-keen for out-of-province craft brewers until the Alberta government released this year's budget and in it was a punitive tax hike for non-New West brewers, such as Muskoka. How much? Try 24 cents a bottle more for the Ontario guy - or a buck and a half more for an Ontario six-pack over an Alberta craft beer. What was meant to be a pro-active partnership for the west quickly became an exclusionary one for our eastern brewers. Indeed, Manitoba was offered a seat in the partnership and said, "Uhhh, look, we are smack-dab in the middle of the country and have to deal with both sides so thank you but pass."

With that news, McMullen had to make an incredibly tough call and decided that his brewery would no longer distribute out west as of the end of 2015. In a company release, he said. “Up until this new legislation was announced, we had no intention of leaving. In fact, we had plans to widen our footprint based on the growing demand for our beers.
Has western Canada seen the end of Steam
Whistle, one of the country's premier Czech
style pilsners? We will find out soon enough
We’re sorry to leave our friends and supporters, but with this new tax increase it's now unsustainable to sell our beer in these provinces.”

While Toronto brewer Steam Whistle and Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn also condemned the tax, there's no word yet on whether they'll follow suit and yank their western stake. But while that Alberta tax was seriously bad news for Ontario brewers, I think it's far worse news for western craft beer drinkers. To me, this was the ultimate "east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet" bad news story. Rudyard Kipling, best known as the Jungle Book guy, penned those words back in 1889, and had likely no idea how prophetic they would be.

So is this goodbye forever? Perhaps more like "au revoir", the French phrase that loosely translates as "until we meet again." McMullen finished the press release on a cautiously-optimistic note, saying, "We'd like to sincerely thank our (western) customers for their support and passion for us and we'll be back when these trade barriers are squashed." So we go from Kipling to a much more Schwarzenegger-like, "Ah'll be bach." So in this case, it's kind of a bad news/maybe good news thing. When one door closes, well, you can always open it the hell back up. Because, duh, that's how doors work.
Well, December 15, 2015 was a day longed for
by many as Ontario finally opened its doors to
beer being sold on the grocery stores' shelves.

Which brings us to the good news as yesterday marked the first day of beer sales in Ontario grocery stores - a day that has long been awaited by the province's beer drinkers. And by long, I mean literally decades. Of course, if you know me, you also know I'm a full-time Beer Store employee so how is this good news for me? Well, lemme tell ya... You see, there's present-day Don, who we'll just call Old Don. But buried deep inside Old Don is 20-year-old Don - or Young Don - who has wanted this for, again, decades. When my buddies and I were much younger, we used to marvel at the wide-open beer sales in both neighbouring Quebec and New York state when we went there to party. And if people think that restricting beer sales to just the Beer Store and LCBO was bad these days. allow me to point out that when we turned legal, the beer and liquor stores closed at 6 pm! Every night of the week, except Sunday when it wasn't open at all. No wonder we smoked so much dope back then. Uhhh, by we, I, of course, mean other people. The evil potheads. (Old Don: "Good save?" Young Don: "You're an idiot.")

While only a smattering of stores (a couple of dozen tops, I'm thinking) across the province had beer yesterday, it was a huge step forward, although it's off to a smaller, slower start than many beer drinkers would have liked.
Being Premier has its perks as Kathleen Wynne made
sure that she was the first person in provincial history
to buy beer at a grocery store. And what was her first
purchase? That would be Collective Arts Rhyme and
Reason Extra Pale Ale. I suspect a cheer loudly rang
around the Hamilton brewery when they saw this pic.
Old Don is thinking, "Phew, at least I have a little breathing room" while Young Don is yelling, "Step on the f***ing gas, Aunt Bea!!!"

So how did I mark this historical day? Well, co-worker Marie found a local media list of the three Oakville grocery stores selling beer and after my shift, I drove to one - the Longo's at 3455 Wyecroft Road, which is essentially on the Oakville-Burlington border. Oh, by the way, NO Burlington grocery stores are on the initial government-sanctioned list. (Young Don: "When I start paying taxes, my MPP is gonna hear about this outrage!" Old Don: "I have no idea who my MPP is." Young Don: "Oh my gawd, I just get more stupid with age, don't I?") So with Young Don firmly manning the wheel, into the Longo's I brazenly went, Beer Store uniform and all. "Where's this beer at?" I asked a clerk. Well, as it turns out, that Longo's and the other Oakville stores won't see any beer on the shelves until February. "Our phone's been ringing all day long," sighed the clearly-harried dude.

So a while longer, it seems. But of course, I have poured over the available imagery of the big day as a whole bunch of Ontario craft brewers have posted pictures on Twitter and Instagram and I noticed a couple of things. While supermarkets were supposed to open at least 20% of their shelves to craft beers, most seem to have gone 50/50 on craft and mainstream beers.
The Province wisely chose to insist there be
designated check-out lines at grocery stores
with cashiers who are Smart-Serve Certified.
(Old Don: "Okay, that's good news! Huge news, even!" Young Don: "What the hell is craft beer?") But while there are no Burlington stores with beer yet, Beer Bro Glenn found one in Oshawa, the Loblaws Superstore in the city's north end. While he confirmed that yes, it was 50/50 craft-to-mainsteam ratio, he added there wasn't much beer - period. "Just two end caps." Those in retail know an end cap to be the separate shelving at the end of an aisle that you pass before turning to go down the next aisle. (Old Don: "That's it? I guess I'm safe for now." Young Don: "Is there Labatt's Blue? I only drink Blue.") For the record, Glenn's first grocery store purchase was a Nickel Brook's Headstock IPA. (Old Don: "Good choice! My favourite!" Young Don: "Headstock? What, like Woodstock? Please tell me I don't turn into an old hippie." Old Don: "Ummm...")

But while everyone in the province over the age of 15 knows what Coors Light and Budweiser are, this grocery store set-up shines a pretty big spotlight on our craft brewers, which could in turn see a marked growth from its present 4% market-share. That is, if the 50/50 representation stays true - or is even the case now, as I'm just going by pictures that I've seen. The end caps thing certainly seems to be the case so far but it just started yesterday so it's far too soon to see how it all plays out.
Amsterdam and Great Lakes Brewing are
releasing the collaborative Life Sentence
Triple IPA this Friday and if you live in
Burlington, Rib Eye Jack's scored a 20-litre
keg of this golden 10%, 100+ IBU goodness
So whether you want to see yesterday's news as a gigantic step or a baby step, hey, it's completely up to you. The important thing is that it's an actual step forward in the right direction. As opposed to the time I told a cop, "How do you know it wasn't you going the wrong way?" That approach worked even more poorly than my previous science-backed one: "If you factor in the speed that the Earth is rotating on its axis, technically, officer, we're all speeding."

Okay, before I "Seacrest out" of here (Young Don: "Who?"), a couple of quick notes and this correction. In my last piece, I sang the praises of the Rainhard Brewing (Toronto) mini-cask of Kapow! IPA at Rib Eye Jack's Ale House a few Thursdays ago, That part stands. It sold out in two hours. New record, nuff said. However, I also suggested that the mini-cask holds about 50 litres, "maybe more." Uhhh, no, not even close. Try 20 litres (676 US ounces). Chuckled general manager Steve, "I was gonna text you but..." Since he kinda tailed off, let's let Young Don finish that sentence - "... but you work at a Beer Store and have dealt with 58-litre and 20-litre kegs for years, you gigantic moron. How could you be that far off?" So, Rainhard Brewing, if you could send a 58L keg of Kapow! IPA to Rib Eye Steve, that might mitigate, if not outright negate, my mistake. Just throwin' it out there, boys...

But here's the really big news. This Friday (December 18), Amsterdam Brewing and Great Lakes Brewing (both Toronto) are unleashing a hop monster among us.
Something else big is happening on December 18
but I can't for the life of me remember what it is.
Ah well, never mind. I'm sure it will come to me
Their collaborative Life Sentence Triple IPA came about after Amsterdam brewmaster Iain McOustra took a trip to Washington state and came across a batch of Chinook hops in Yakima that, well, sent his brain spinning like the Tasmanian Devil. In a press release, McOustra said, "I was blown away by the late harvest Chinook hops (more) than any other hops on the trip." Instantly, he got on the Bat-Phone (which is only accessible to brewmasters and You-Know-Who) and called his pal, Mike Lackey, the head brewer at Great Lakes. Noted Lackey in the release, "Iain is normally such a calm, cool, collected and impressive brewmaster so when he called from Yakima Valley with a tinge of excitement in his voice... it piqued my interest, to say the least." So 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of the hop were added to the 3,000-litre (793 US gallons) batch and this Friday, it's being released at Great Lakes. But Rib Eye Steve has also managed to magically procure a 20-litre keg of it for the restaurant, also being served Friday night. Like that Kapow! IPA, this'll likely set a new in-bar Rib Eye Jack's speed record, surpassing that time I really really had to take a whiz and that old lady was blocking my path. It's 10%, 100-plus IBUs (international bitterness units) of tropical fruit and pine goodness. Be there... and stay out of my path.

But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here! Until next time, I remain, as always...