Eric Portelance
  • I used to lead the strategy team at Teehan+Lax, but now I just brew beer at Halo Brewery.

Starting a Brewery, Part 2: Is There Room for Another Craft Brewery?

In part 1 of this series, I talked about taking a crazy leap to change my life and start Halo Brewery in Toronto with my new business partner Callum, but now we needed to figure out what exactly Halo should be.

We know we can make really good beer but, looking at the Ontario market, it seems like there are new breweries opening every week. Is there really room for another craft brewery? Good beer just isn’t enough on its own — we need an angle. More importantly, we’d have to convince ourselves that it was good enough to put everything on the line. Ontario — we’ve come so far, and yet…

Callum is a software engineer and my background is in digital product strategy. As geeks, there’s no better way to start figuring out our direction than pouring over research. In other words, we drank a lot of beer.

Most of Ontario’s breweries loosely follow either the English or German brewing tradition. The LCBO, Beer Store and bars are flooded with German-style lagers and English ales. But these aren’t really the types of beer I like to drink, and there are other brewing traditions which are poorly represented in Ontario.

I grew up in Quebec, where the brewing tradition is more Belgian-inspired. My business partner Callum and I have both lived in different parts of the U.S. and have travelled throughout Europe, where we could immerse ourselves in different beer cultures. These experiences greatly influenced what we like to drink and brew.

When I moved to Toronto from Washington DC five years ago, I was really disappointed by the beer selection. I used to walk three blocks to the closest liquor store and choose from hundreds or thousands of different crazy, interesting, delicious beers. By comparison, Ontario’s tastes seemed sheltered. It’s great that people make a lot of German and English-inspired styles here, but it’s not what I like to drink.

The U.S. stands out because of the sheer audaciousness of brewers who choose to not be held to style boundaries. New types of hoppy, funky, and sour beers have proliferated that are clearly different from what came before them. There is change coming, though. Toronto breweries like Bellwoods Brewery and Indie Alehouse have really led the way in the past few years, and are perhaps the most American-style breweries in Ontario.

Larger, more established, breweries like Great Lakes (Tank Ten series), Amsterdam (Adventure Brews series), and Nickel Brook (barrel-aged beers) have finally started giving their brewers free reign to brew great new things outside of their traditional flagship brands. It’s harder for them to change because they don’t want to cannibalize their own market share. The fault lies mostly in our archaic liquor system which has insulated us from experiencing what’s going on outside our borders. If you want to know what it must have felt like to not hear The Beatles until after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., then you only need to walk into the LCBO.

Ontario has come a long way in the past two or three years, but we really need to hear those Beatles records to truly make huge strides forward.

For an in-depth history of breweries in Ontario, I’d strongly suggest reading Jordan St. John’s blog and books.

Do we really need more breweries?

We know that there is both a spirit and style of brewing which is massively under-represented in Ontario, but there are currently 177 microbreweries, brewpubs and contract breweries open in the Province, and another 68 in planning. Much of that growth has happened in the past three years alone. I know what you’re thinking (I’ve thought it, too) — is there really a need for another brewery in Ontario? Yes, there is.

In North America, we have only recently matched the number of breweries that were open in the 1800s. After a steady decline over a century, a huge U.S.-led resurgence started in the 90s and hasn’t really slowed down — there’s 3,300 more breweries in the U.S. than in the 80s.

The U.S. craft beer scene is easily 10 years ahead of Ontario’s in terms of maturity, scale, consistency and variety. This isn’t a scientific number, but more of a gut feel. Callum and I were recently at Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan where we overheard a group of elderly people discussing barrel-aged and sour beers over lunch. You’ll know we’ve arrived when your grandma and her friends start talking about sours.

San Francisco, for instance, has over twice as many breweries per capita as Toronto — even including the Toronto breweries in planning. Yet San Francisco isn’t anywhere close to Oregon and Vermont, the most saturated markets in the U.S. Compared to the wine industry, beer is still a small player. There are over 8,900 wineries in North America. Canada only has about 400 breweries, and most of those are small community breweries that make up less than 10% of the total volume of beer consumed. There’s tons of room for growth.

There are naysayers who think we’re in a bubble, but with sales of craft beer growing at least 20% per year, and changes coming to Ontario legislation, I’m placing a bet that the industry will keep growing.

Breweries that produce sub-standard beer or are incapable of adapting to changing tastes should be worried.

What does this mean for Halo?

After much discussion, we’ve started to figure out what Halo will and will not be. We believe that beer shouldn’t be defined by traditional style guidelines. Centuries ago, people didn’t decide what to brew according to a beer taxonomy. They brewed what they could based on the ingredients they had on hand, and refined their recipes until they tasted good. What we call styles today exist for practical reasons, but we believe they can be a crutch to the creative process and we avoid them when designing recipes.

Instead, we think about beer in terms of flavours and aromas. So you should expect to see things on our menu like Elder God, an elderberry & elderflower malt cider. I don’t know what bucket to put that in other than “crazy delicious.” Few ideas are too strange or extreme for us, but we never experiment simply for the sake of gimmickery. It has to be drinkable. Both technology and our understanding of the brewing process have also improved significantly in the past decades, and our brewing philosophy at Halo equally marries science and art. Practically, this means that we embrace the use of multiple yeast strains in our brewery, including wild yeast, and the use of bacteria.

Finally, we believe that beer is the most social drink in the world — that’s where you come in. We want our brewery to be welcoming and community-focused. It’s important that we help people less familiar with craft beer understand what to look for in a good beer, and push them to try and learn new things.

Brewers stand on the shoulders of those who were generous enough to openly share their knowledge. Transparency is extremely important to us, and we plan to continue supporting the community of beer enthusiasts, brewers, and homebrewers by publishing a lot of information about our beer on our site. Think of Halo Brewery as one of the world’s first open source breweries.

You should expect a well-made beer every time — that’s a given. Know that we are our pickiest customers and are not afraid to dump anything that is sub-par. We’re receptive and appreciative of constructive criticism because it can only make the beer better, and we’re not afraid to own our mistakes.

When I decided to join Callum with Halo, I believed that there was a need for a brewery like this in Toronto, and we hope you do, too.

The author of this article has licensed it CC BY-SA