A Compass in the Sea of Choice


So the past month or so has actually been a pretty informative one for me, and, because I’m trying not to just let those thoughts out into bursts on my twitter account, I thought I’d put a few things out on here as well. And while I’ve been talking about this stuff casually for the last month, another influencing factor was the recent Throne Speech by Ontario’s new Premier, Doug Ford, in which he made his goal of allowing the sale of beer and wine in convenience and big box stores clear. While my personal politics has a LOT to say (mostly swear words) on Ford’s policies, if this happens, Ontario’s beer landscape is going to get REALLY interesting, with thousands of new places to buy beer. With that happening, the provincial conversation is going to lean towards, among many things, what’s selling and what people like.

And that’s where I step in, politely clearing my throat and raising my hand.

So what happened was that I was in the fortunate position to be part of a pilot program that was a joint collaboration with Ontario Craft Brewers, Cicerone Certification Program, and Loblaws Grocery Stores. The plan, essentially, was to put beer experts into the beer aisles of six grocery stores and give suggestions based on their wide range of experience to accommodate any tastes, moods, events, or foods that the customer wanted. In all honesty, it’s a great idea and perhaps one of the largest public pushes of promotion that the Ontario Craft Brewers has done in years. It actually put people out on the front lines of consumer relations and helped people navigate the immense selection found in stores, all while turning it into a boutique experience that both removes the stigma of craft beer and promotes customer growth. The pilot is done now, but I sincerely hope it continues.

So what this meant was that for the month of June I spent my weekends (4-8pm on Fridays, 12-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays) at a Loblaws location in suburban Etobicoke wearing a -freelance shiver- uniform and helping people pick out beer with a selection that really had a little bit of everything.

What did I learn? Well, there are a few things that I’m still processing, but here are a few highlights.

Macro being a big seller is no need to be fatalistic.

So hey, honesty time, macro beers did sell really well there and often sold out. But that didn’t mean that no one who picked up their weekly sixer of Coors were uninterested in the idea of a craft beer. In fact, the big thing that seemed to get in most people’s way was that they couldn’t navigate the number of styles to find something that matched what they liked about the macros they bought, often resulting in buying a beer that was wrong for them and creating a bad impression of craft.

So what helped get a craft beer in their hands? Actually looking at why they picked the macros they did and finding alternative options with a similar flavour profile. For that you need to break it down into styles. So while many snobs think that macro lovers mainly drink “piss”, what many actually seem to be drinking are beers like Beck’s, Coors, Rickard’s Red, Guinness, Newcastle Brown, and Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc. Also known as pilsners, pale lagers, Amber Ales, porters, brown ales, and Belgian wit beers. Once it gets broken down into that, it’s easy to provide a similar, more local alternative (Steam Whistle, Amsterdam 3 Speed Lager, Cameron’s Ambear, Clifford Porter, Black Oak Nut Brown, and, despite it not being available year-round, New Limburg Wit) and use that as a jumping off point into other styles (Munich Helles, German Weissbier, and even IPAs). Once that happens, badda-bing-badda-boom, you have yourself a person who is now thinking more about the beer they’re drinking.

Average drinkers have better taste than you think

Just a small addition to the last point, but since we already broke the preferred macros down into styles, I’d also like to point out that other big sellers were flavourful IPAs and sours beers, namely the ones from Collective Arts (The large amount of Mash up the Jam Dry Hop Sour and Life in The Clouds Hazy IPA my store had sold out in two days). I mention this only because there are a lot of folks that truly believe that craft beer has no place outside of the cities and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience and my time working on the Guide, it’s that those folks have absolutely no place in the craft beer world and should honestly just shut the hell up.   

Overnight 100% conversion to craft beer is rare

I know a lot of us have the stories of our “ah-ha!” moment when we first tried craft beer and were changed forever, going down the path of more flavour and variety. And those moments obviously do happen and are wonderful, but I think that as craft lovers we might operate under the assumption that we can make anyone do that.

To which I say “nah”.

In all honesty, to me the more prominent conversion is one borne out of creating additional local options and, at the start anyways, providing customers with a beer that would do “in a pinch” if their favourite macro wasn’t around. An example: Customer picks up a sixer of macro lager. I show him a can of Amsterdam 3 Speed Lager, saying that if he likes his primary choice, he’d really like this beer. “It’s clean, it’s light, it’s crisp, and I really think you’ll like it”, I says. He took it with some skepticism, left and that was that. The next week he comes back to pick up his sixer of macro, but then he goes to the craft fridge and picks up six cans of the 3 Speed, thanking me for finding a perfect beer that he can have in addition to his usual. And now Amsterdam 3 Speed is a beer that is forever compartmentalized in his mind under “beers I know I like” and, with luck, he’ll give his friends a can when he has them over for a BBQ and the process can begin anew.

To me, that’s a victory. It’s not a quick victory and not really one that will result in immediate sales figures at the end of the quarter, but it’s still a victory for me. It’s something that leads to a slow burn in the mind and provides average folks with more choices they honestly didn’t know they had.

It’s also a method that presents craft beer in a less insulting way. Instead of saying someone is wrong for choosing a beer with corporate ownership (Protip: they rarely ever give a shit), you’re excitedly giving them a locally made example of a beer they already like and, perhaps, a bit of courage to explore a bit more beyond the borders of their tastes.

Alright, I think that’s enough for this post, but please know I’ll touch on a few more subjects later. Oh my, yes.

But in the meantime I’m going to have a good look at my experience as a craft beer customer, what I could be doing to help spread the word of better-flavoured local beer, and seeing if there isn’t more that could actually be done.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Lager Bore says:

    It’s interesting that the beers you suggested are from breweries that have been around for some time. Even if the beers are new, the breweries are tried and true. I’m finding a lot of new beers out there are hit and miss in terms of style and odd flavours. Often real faults. It’s difficult to get someone to keep trying “craft” beer at 3+ bucks a can when they keep hitting real duds. No one seems to be addressing this though so maybe it’s not a problem.

  2. Lager Bore says:

    Ha, just read the previous post. A little perspective.

  3. Paul says:

    i completely agree on it being very rare to have an overnight conversion, i know for me personally it was a slow introduction over the course of many months.

  4. podtourz says:

    I work at a couple of beer festivals and it is a lovely moment when you find exactly the right beer for someone and see their eyes light up. Sometimes it’s similar to what they already like, but I also find that sometimes, giving someone a really way out beer – and warning them, this is like nothing you’ve tried before, and okay, if you don’t like it I’ll give you something else – can work too. Lager drinkers who’ve never tried a big IPA or a great stout sometimes love it.

    Okay, we’re mainly draught so it’s easy to do it. But with a few of my favourite beers I will sell bottles with a personal buyback guarantee. I’ve only had to give a refund once. (Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Rochefort 10.)

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