Of the Rise in Craft Brewing

A long time ago, I did an article for this site addressing what I saw as a criminal trend in the brewing industry. Not just any crime mind you, but a crime against nature itself, as far as I was concerned! I was referring to the expansion of major brand names and how it seemed to be leading to an overall dip in quality.

To illustrate, I referred to how some of my favorite craft brewers from over the years had been altering their recipes, mainly so they could achieve mass appeal and expand their sales. Others, also personal favorites of mine, had closed down instead, unable to compete in a mass market dominated by major names and low standards. Not a happy article. But if I’ve realized anything in the past two years, it is that this trend has swung sharply in the other direction.

Yes, craft brewing is becoming more and more popular, and may I say that it’s about bloody time! Whether its an upsurge in the number of micro-breweries or the adoption of a craft beer line by major breweries, the trend seems consistent. Granted this is all based on my own anecdotal experience, but when you notice it happening everywhere, you have to assume you’re onto something!

First, as I said, is the expansion in craft brewing. Of all the micro breweries that I’ve discovered since moving to BC, few seem to have opened their doors before the year 2000. For those that did, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s been in operation since before the late 90’s. This is true of the Driftwood Brewery, the Cannery Brewery, Moon Under Water, Phillips, Old Yale, Hoyne, Dead Frog, Surgenor, Longwood, Swan’s, Spinnakers, and a host of others that I’ve sampled over the years. Back in Ontario, this is similarly true. It was only in the late 90’s and early millennium that the spectacular operations of McAuslan’s, Creemore, Scotch-Irish, Mill St., Heritage, Cameron’s, Muskoka, and a slew of others were established. And their ongoing success is a testament to fact that the popularity of craft brewing is on the rise.

As for the adoption of special, small-batch product lines adopted by larger operations, I am satisfied to say that this trend seems to be catching on, particularly with breweries that I noticed were watering down the wares. In recent years, the Vancouver Island Brewery, Granville Island Brewery, the Lighthouse Brewery have all began releasing signature or limited release beers that are not part of their regular lineups, and take advantage of the small batch production methods that ensure better quality.

This is also true of such giants as Keith’s, which has expanded its lineup by incorporating a white, an amber and a dark ale. This began in recent years, and represents a complete 180 from what they’ve been doing for the generations now – producing a single, watery ale that bears no resemblance to a real IPA. And Sleeman’s, a major operation in its own right, has even expanded its repertoire by introducing an IPA and a Porter to their lineup.

Granted, brewery ownership is still concentrated in the hands of a few major multinationals, and the vast majority of beer consumed today consists of mass produced, flat and flavorless numbers. Still, the trend towards authenticity and flavor seems to be clear. Consumers are demanding beer that is made locally, in small batches, and in accordance with traditional standards. And for beer snobs, who insist on authenticity over accessibility, this can only be seen as great news. Great news indeed!

So when you’re out next weekend, find yourself a local microbrew, a brewpub, and drink up! And be sure to tip your barmaid. Cheers!

Surgenor Brewery, We’ll Miss You!

Just got back from Comox where I was visiting with friends and family, as I periodically do. I was hoping very much to find a sample of Surgenor’s latest beer – In Seine Pale Ale – and instead came away with a dire piece of news. It seems that Surgernor, Comox’s own brewhouse, has closed down! Naturally, I wasn’t too surprised, there were rumors that this upstart brewery – just a few years up and running – was falling on hard times.

After experiencing a setback with their aluminum bottling – which I still think was brilliant and made their beer taste fantastic! – it seemed they had encountered some problems with government regulations and distribution. Naturally, there’s only so many setbacks and frustrations and upstart business can stand, and so its owners decided to close up shop and move on.

However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find the announcement both sad and deplorable! Its always sad when a great microbrew closes down, but when it’s a hometown operation that also makes a damn fine product, you got to take it personally! I tell you, I haven’t been this disappointed since the Hart brewery shut down in Ottawa. The world of craft brewing  is always diminished when one of its own succumbs…

So it seems only fitting that I dedicate this next review to Surgenor’s line of signature beers. Not only were they tasty, creative choices, they were also a truly local operation, making beers that were named in honor of Comox Valley’s history and heritage.

Steam Donkey Lager: This beer takes its name from the steam powered winch which played an important role in Comox Valley’s historic timber industry. Since it was the workhorse of west coast logging operations, its understandable why the folks at Surgenor decided to name their own workhorse in honor of it. Having enjoyed several, I can attest to its authenticity, solid flavor and drinkability. It’s color is a rich, orange-yellow, the taste is malty and has a nice hop finish which lingers nicely on the tongue. 4/5

Red House Ale: Named in honor of the Surgenor brew house, the Red House is my personal favorite of Surgenor’s lineup. Rosy red in hue, this beer combines a strong malt profile with crisp hops and a touch of citrus. The nose is especially nice, sharp, floral, and with a touch of effervescence. 5/5

#8 Shaft Black Lager: I take full credit for this one! No joke, when the brewery was first starting up, they were taking suggestions from the community on what beers people would like to see them make. Given the fact that they were naming their beers in honor of Comox Valley’s heritage, I thought a dark lager or ale named in honor of the Cumberland coal mines was a good idea. A little over a year later, at Nautical Days, what do you think they’ve got on tap at the beer tent?

Okay, I can’t take full credit (or any in all likelihood). After all, it’s kind of obvious when you think about it. Dark Lager, coal mining, it’s just a matter of time! Glad they came up with it though, and enjoyed the flavor even though I only got to taste it once. Light, but tawny and smooth, this black lager is reminiscent of Vancouver Island Hermann’s or Sleeman’s Dark, both fine dark ales in their own right. A little weak for my taste, but still enjoyable. 3.5/5

In Seine Pale Ale:  Another name that is one part Comox history, one part delicious pun, In Seine honors the fishermen of the West Coast. Unfortunately, I have yet to sample this one, and now that the breweries shutting down, I will scowering the island looking for some. Expect to hear about it soon!

Rest In Peace, Surgenor’s. And if you get the chance, get back in business! See what you can do about bringing those aluminum bottles back, that was lighting in a bottle!