Crafty beer makers brewing up something different in Ottawa

Ottawa, this ain’t your grandfather’s beer.

That’s the message the surging craft brewing industry in the capital is sending to beer drinkers as they turn heads and flip taste buds.

The days of automatically ordering traditional beer from big brewers like Molson or Coors are gone as more local choices hit the shelves and fill taps at bars and liquor stores across the city.

“We’re getting to the generations now where people want to experience local, something with more flavour and something that’s different than their father’s and grandfather’s beer,” says Adam Rader, the head brewer at Mill Street Brew Pub in Ottawa.

“The younger generation for the most part is a little bit against big corporations so they’re definitely going to go towards the smaller and more creative brands and don’t just grab a case of Bud or Blue off the shelf,” adds Rader, who has been brewing for Mill Street for more than eight years.

The interest in craft beer has skyrocketed in Ottawa recently and the growing number of breweries in the city shows it. Mill Street and soon-to-be-opened 3 Brewers and Beyond the Pale are set to join the Clocktower brew pub as mainstays in the capital.

It is a chicken and the egg scenario that is causing a spike in the popularity of locally made beer, says Clocktower brew master Patrick Fiori.

“Sales of craft beer in the LCBO were up 53 per cent last year. As more craft breweries open there is more exposure, more people like it, more people become interested and with more demand comes more breweries.”

As Ottawans flock to these craft beer brands, the products are starting to reflect the character of the city. Fiori says the Clocktower has always been the measuring stick for the changing tastes of Ottawa beer drinkers. “You can track what we have done with the colour and flavour and bitterness of beer with the evolving tastes of people in Ottawa,” says Fiori.

“You can use us a barometer for the way people’s tastes have changed and how they are more willing to experience new things.”

Rader says Ottawa’s Mill Street makes three beers that are only brewed and sold in the city, including an amber beer that uses local maple syrup.

“What these beers are saying about the city is that Ottawa was waiting and ready for the craft industry to become a lot bigger, more accessible and more relevant to the people here,” says Rader.

Hintonburg based Beyond the Pale will open its doors in November and Rob McIsaac, director of business operations, says that the new venture shows the changing tide of tastes in the area.

“I think Hintonburg is a community ripe for craft beer. There are a lot of craft beer lovers in the area and we want to provide a high quality option for them,” says McIsaac.

With the explosion of unique craft breweries in Ottawa, space in the market is filling up. But those in the industry say this competition is more than welcome; it’s encouraged.

Even with the tremendous growth of craft beer sales in the past couple years it still accounts for only four per cent of Ontario beer sales, says Rader. With these figures it becomes about power in numbers for the craft brewers.

“The last thing we want to do is compete against other craft brewers in the same place,” says Rader.

“We want to encourage growth among everyone. The only ones we’re competing against is the big guys and even then we’re so different that it’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

McIsaac sees it the same way.

“In a growing market like we have now, increasing the overall size of the pie is more of an aim than competing against other breweries. The more craft breweries we have in the city, the more it exposes people to craft beer which can only help,” says McIsaac.

For Clocktower, a brew pub rooted in certain neighbourhoods like the Glebe, competition draws more people to their doorstep, says Fiori.

“If anything competition brings more awareness and legitimacy to our beer,” says Fiori.

“We can definitely reach the neighbourhoods we’re in, but for someone in Barrhaven who doesn’t have a Clocktower near them, they can go somewhere else, try craft beer and that could motivate them to come to a Clocktower.”

As more players join the craft brewing game, the future of the industry is just like the beer it makes: it can come out so many different ways. But for Rader he sees only growth on the horizon.

“I definitely see more growth, more breweries opening up,” he says.

“We’re trying to expand and explore every variety of beer and look for every option available because for us the possibilities are endless.”