By Mark McKelvie
The dark orange gold look of the pilsner fills most of the pint when it’s served on tap, finished off by a fluffy white head. First, a clean scent of malt, then it hits the taste buds, a soft but noticeable bitterness accompanies the cold relief the beer brings.
The average beer drinker may not make any of these observations when they drink, but for cicerones, beer aficionados trained in the storage, serving and tasting of beer, the devil is in the details.
“Everything from the storage of the beer to how the beer is served impacts how good the beer will be,” said Gavin Harper, master beer cicerone. “Any part of the process that is done wrong can mess up the beer as a whole.”
A master beer cicerone is the highest level a beer expert can reach. It takes at least six to eight years and thousands of dollars to obtain the certification, and according to the Cicerone Certification Program, there are only 16 people in the world who have.
“I always say finding the best beer really is a matter of personal preference,” he said. “There is no specific ‘best beer’, it all depends on how you’re feeling that day and what you’re eating the beer with.”
In Toronto, dozens of craft beer breweries have popped up since the 2000s, looking for economic prosperity in return for tantalizing the taste buds of beer fans. There are over 30 of them, like Halo, which brew honey beer.
Steamwhistle’s brewery is located in downtown Toronto, right next to the CN Tower. They brew their beer in a converted roundhouse, their brewing equipment built into the old façade of the building. To keep their brew as pure as possible, they only use four ingredients: water, yeast, barley and hops. The shelf life of their beer is only about four months, but they say the lack of longevity is made up for by its unique taste.
“We’re really proud of the fact that we only use four ingredients in our brew,” said Steamwhistle Brewery retail store co-ordinator Shane Dovey. “No matter how big we get, we’re still going to consider ourselves as a company that’s geared to what Canadians want to drink.”
But with companies boasting their non-artificial brewing recipes and locally sourced ingredients, the question remains of whether or not this approach is economically viable. The number of breweries in Ontario increased by 20 per cent in 2016, but companies like Molson and Labatt dominate the domestic beer market, leaving little room for new brewery start-ups. Beer consumption in Ontario has been decreasing since 2012.
“The marketing for a craft brewery is very broad. Everything from the name of the brewery to the design of the bottle matters,” said David Hardisty, consumer trend and marketing expert from the University of British Columbia. “People like going down to the local independent brewer in their neighbourhood and these independent brewers can succeed on a smaller scale, but like any small business, there’s a very high chance that they will fail within the first five years.”
Billy Woolford is a second-year politics student at Ryerson University who enjoys heading to Lou Dawg’s on the corner of Gerrard and Church streets to have drinks after class. His drink of choice is usually a bottle of Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc, a fresh and fruity white beer, brewed in France.
“I like it because it tastes fruity and sweet, a beer that doesn’t taste like beer,” Woolford says. “I know is that it’s cheaper than some higher end beers and it tastes good to me.”
Kronenbourg is owned by the massive beer conglomerate Carlsburg, which employs over 41,000 people around the world. Some beer critics have found fault with shoddy labour practices and the lack of attention to detail that a microbrewery would give to their brew.
Although it is cheap, some beer connoisseurs will only stick to local brews.
“Within the beer culture, sometimes there’s a negative connotation with mass produced beer and large beer companies,” Harper said. “Regardless of the price or the type of beer, the evaluation techniques are always going to be the same, and I always tell people to find something they enjoy over something more expensive.”