Glass Half-Empty – My Rocky Relationship with the LCBO
Last weekend, one month after my craft beer road-trip through Southern Ontario, I found myself driving down the 401 again. The purpose of this trip, sadly, wasn’t beer – but I intended to sneak in as many beer-related pit stops along the way as possible.
My last experience in that neck of the woods had left a good impression on me. There were so many excellent breweries scattered throughout the region and so little time to take them all in and appreciate their creations fully. So this time I made it a priority to not only enjoy as much as possible while there, but also to bring back with me anything that I couldn’t get in Ottawa. That was the plan anyway.
On the road down to London, I made a spur of the moment decision to drive into Guelph in search of a Kolvoord Hopburst – the recently released Double IPA in the Welly One-Off series from Wellington Brewery. I had been pretty impressed by their Terrestrial IBA and figured that a 40 minute detour was a small price to pay for a sample. It was my first time at the brewery and I have to say that there was something about the modest retail store that I liked. It didn’t have much to it; a couple of beer fridges, some glassware and other swag behind the counter – but at the end of the day do you really need anything more than that? Having purchased 0.3% of their total production, and adding a Bike-Ryed Summer Kölsch for good measure, I headed onward to London.
The only reason I was driving into London at all, en route to Grand Bend for the weekend, was to return to Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium; a pub that I had nowhere near enough time to explore the first time around.
It didn’t take long to remember why I was so fond of the place. From an exceptional beer menu (a draught and bottle list that would challenge any top-tier beer establishment), to the delicious food – from the great staff to the very cool atmosphere; I can confidently say that if I lived in London I would be broke.
There, I started off with the Couchsurfer IPA from Indie Alehouse, a brewery I had hoped to try on the first trip, but didn’t get a chance. Overall it was a really nice beer. Surprisingly fruity (could be totally wrong, but I’m guessing Simcoe hops) with a balanced bitterness. Very refreshing. I then accidentally tried the Church Key Black IPA, which to me seemed like more of a Porter; but was quite enjoyable. A good accident. The beer I had been trying to order, however, was Black Oak’s Ten Bitter Years Double IPA. I got it next; apparently everything that comes out of that Etobicoke brewery is fantastic (see Sawdust City).
Black Oak’s Ten Bitter Years is available in Ottawa at the LCBO. I can’t believe that I hadn’t taken a chance on it before, but I’m glad I was finally able to. It is easily one of my favourite beers of that style. Such great flavour; the spice and fruit mixed with earthy pine and a very nice oily mouthfeel from the hop resin. A great drink.
This is something that I love about the LCBO, the only off-site beer retailer in the province, along with The Beer Store. They do carry some excellent beers, and with the sheer number available at any given store, it’s not too difficult to overlook some real gems. Given the variety offered by the LCBO, I rarely leave a store empty-handed. While I may not be surprised or excited by every purchase, there are always some safe bets for wetting one’s whistle.
This is something that I really came to appreciate after spending a year in Bavaria.
When I lived in Freistaat Bayern, in Augsburg to be precise, I was exposed to some of the best beers that I have ever tasted. Among them: Kaltenberg’s König Ludwig, Schneider und Sohn, Franziskaner, Weihenstephaner, Schlenkerla, Spezial, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, and the list goes on and on. A region that perfected their styles and thrived off of the Reinheitsgebot; for a beer-lover Bavaria was a great place to live, no doubt about it. With that said (if you’ve ever spent time there you will understand) in Bavaria there is a certain degree of favouritism towards Bavarian products. Call me crazy, but after a while I started to get bored. You could usually only find those great Bayerische beers along with other German top sellers and a humble sprinkling of big name European beers no matter what store you went to. I used to walk 45 minutes just to get Früh Kölsch.
During that year in Germany, I took a trip to Brussels and my view on beer changed forever.
So, after a really pleasant afternoon in London, I pushed on to Grand Bend. I spent a few relaxing days there and beer was one of the furthest things from my mind (well as far as it can be). It wasn’t until later in the weekend that my already fading belief in the ‘good that the LCBO brings to the world’ was dealt another blow.
Less than an hour from London, I anticipated having a reasonable selection of local beers to choose from – and as you might expect, the big brands, in particular the lites and lights, were well represented; but there were ridiculously few Ontario beers available. In fact, I had to drive all the way to Stratford before there was even close to a reasonable selection. In Parkhill, ON, in particular, I found what was probably the most disheartening beer fridge that I have ever seen – save for a six-pack or two of Muskoka Summer Weiss.
And it isn’t limited to smaller communities in Ontario. Even in London, you can’t get some of the better Southern Ontario craft beers. Scratch that – you can’t get some of the better Ontario craft beers in Ontario at all, unless you head to the brewery. As I mentioned, I had hoped to bring back beer that you can’t find in Ottawa with me: Silversmith, Forked River and Oast House – but it proved to be a fruitless endeavour. While there is something to be said about the charm of buying brewery-direct, Ontario beers should be able to be enjoyed anywhere in the province!
Late in the Spring of 2008 I finally made the pilgrimage to Brussels. As a beer-nerd, -lover, -appreciator, I was awestruck. Brussels was nothing like what I was used to in Bavaria – and I loved it. Besides being a tremendously beautiful and interesting city, it was a new world of beer for me. I had been exposed to Belgian beer before, even Trappist ales (having frequented Pub Italia in Ottawa quite often in my younger days), but I was in no way prepared for the incredible selection that I found around every corner.
Take the Delirium Cafe, for example. This place was nonchalantly recommended to me by my friend Ansley, when I told him that I was off to his hometown of Brussels. I was blown away! At the time it had a Guinness World Record for the most beers available at one pub, with 2004. There were Canadian beers there that I had never even heard of. It was there that I first tried some of my all time favourites like Rodenbach Grand Cru, Delirium Nocturnum, Bush de Noël, Cantillon Gueuze and Chimary Grand Reserve (2004). Eating Trappist cheese with dry bread and drinking some of the best old world beers you can find, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Beyond that, there were countless other pubs, breweries and beer stores worth visiting. I remember having an omelette and a Gueuze à la Mort Subite on the corner of picturesque Belgian street and wondering if this was the high water mark in my beer loving life.
The beer boutiques in Brussels were not unlike the Pub Milos’ of the world. Owned by people who genuinely love beer and want to share the experience with others, they deliver something that really can’t be replicated by any corporation. It’s personal – it’s not about raking in the dough, it’s just about the beer.
What we need in Ontario is a balance of Bavaria and Brussels. Like Bavaria, we need that element of ‘provincialism’; a slight bias towards the great products that Ontario brewers have to offer. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the renowned international, and even domestic, beers that have inspired so many Ontarians to get interested in beer culture in the first place. Where the LCBO falls short is in delivering a selection that consistently inspires and challenges the beer lover in all of us. While there is usually something tasty available, you often need to wait-out a season before the next batch of truly interesting beer comes in. Beer retail in Ontario should take a page from the book of the Belgians and the craft brew pubs like Pub Milos’ and always strive to offer a dynamic and exciting menu while never neglecting the ‘usual favourites’.
As I sit here writing this post, sipping on one of the Kolvoord Hopbursts that I purchased at that tiny brewery store in Guelph, I can’t help but think of all of the other great beer that I can’t get on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, there is a remarkable amount of good beer within my reach every single day. The selection in Ottawa is the best it’s ever been in my adult life and it appears to be getting better. So maybe I’m just acting a bit spoiled. Still, I wonder how good it could be if we took a note from our neighbours to the East and allowed private off-site beer retailers to operate in Ontario.
I often drive up to Wakefield, QC, to visit Dépanneur Bonne-Heure, a convenience store that stocks over 400 beers, mostly from Quebec, and imagine what the Ontario equivalent would look like.
I imagine it would look pretty darn good.