‘Ottawa’ Move Over Craft Beer: This Summer, Prepare to be Engulfed in a Tsunami of Boozy, …
Gooderham and Worts on the Toronto waterfront stood for 77 years as the largest distiller in the British Empire. In 1990, the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, “the grand old distillery was closed down forever.”
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This is no longer true. Mill Street Brewery opened on the distillery’s grounds in 2006 and in 2013 installed a copper pot still, built by Kothe in Germany, to distil its beer into alcohol — for example, it distils Vanilla Porter into vanilla porter bierschnaps.
The still takes up about the space of a kitchen in the average home and production is modest. At its height, Gooderham and Worts produced two million gallons of whisky a year. In contrast, Martha Lowry, Mill Street’s head distiller, produces only about 150 litres of 45-per-cent alcohol in a week.
Canada’s great whisky barons, William Gooderham and James Worts, would probably be happy that for the first time in almost 25 years, distillers are working in the distillery. But they might be rolling in their graves over what came next.
Seizing on a sweet, syrupy U.S. trend, Mill Street earlier this year began combining the bierschnaps it distils here with its house-made root beer to create an “adult” version of the long-time kid favourite. The result of which, Distillery Root Beer, came on the market this week.
Stateside, 2015 was the year of boozy soda: a U.S. market research firm estimated that Americans spent US$111 million on alcoholic root beer. Along with Mill Street, at least four other companies in Canada are betting consumers in this country will follow suit.
This summer, prepare to be engulfed in a tsunami of boozy, sudsy root beer, a drink that didn’t exist in Canada six months ago.
“Hard root beer last summer in the U.S. really took off,” said Kaitlin Vandenbosch, senior technical manager at Mill Street, bought last year by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, the Belgian-based brewing giant. “We started working towards that because we already had our two base products. It’s really exciting to be distilling where there is so much history.”
Sugar-filled alcoholic beverages in what insiders call the “ready-to-drink” category have exploded in the past few years. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s flagship store in midtown Toronto has a vast room it calls “The Party Zone,” filled with cans and bottles containing sweet combinations of fruit and flavoured drinks mixed, typically, with vodka.
For many, this is the best of both worlds: a chance for adults to revert to the sweet tastes of childhood and, at the same time, get a buzz.
The first hard root beer entrant here came from a trio of 20-somethings who, while studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax, dreamed up Iconic Brewing Co. Iconic, based in Oakville, Ont., in December launched Dusty Boots, a 5.9-per-cent alcohol version that is in bottles that resemble beer bottles.
In a classic example of our country’s byzantine inter-provincial trade rules, Iconic contract-brews Dusty Boots in Montreal, but does not sell it in Quebec. You can buy Dusty Boots across the Prairies, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
“Our root beer has that real authentic root beer taste without all the sweetness,” said Daniel Bartek, 27, who came to Canada from the Czech Republic to play hockey, and ended up in the booze business. “We are super excited for all the competition.”
That competition also includes Toronto’s 361 Degrees Inc., which in March launched Crazy Uncle Hard Root Beer, canned in Terrebonne, Que., north of Montreal, and available in Ontario and Saskatchewan. Davide Codispoti, who owns the company with his brother Bruno, said the team has struggled to keep up with demand.
“We knew it was going to be a big summer for root beer, but we didn’t expect the response we’re getting,” he said.
We knew it was going to be a big summer for root beer, but we didn’t expect the response we’re getting
Big players also want a piece of this action. Molson Coors Brewing Co. in March launched Mad Jack Premium Hard Root Beer, an accompaniment to its Mad Jack Apple Lager, while Diageo Canada Inc. offers Captain Morgan Spiked Root Beer in a tall can.
The hard root beer craze has its roots in Wauconda, Ill., about 60 kilometres north of Chicago, where Small Town Brewery launched Not Your Father’s Root Beer in 2012. The company pursued an interesting guerrilla marketing strategy, originally launching the 10.7-per-cent alcohol root beer — which it insists it brews with malted grain, hops and yeast — on tap alongside the other drafts at a local bar.
The root beer took off. In 10 months it became the sixth best-selling craft beer brand in the U.S., grabbing the attention of newspapers, which questioned its small-town origins story. “One brand has soared past the entire portfolio of industry stalwarts,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in an article that critically examined the producers’ assertion that the root beer was, in fact, a beer.
Small town or not, the company certainly connected with Big Beer: the brand is now partnered with Pabst Brewing Co. and sold in all 50 states while Anheuser-Busch launched a competitor, The Best Damned Root Beer, in the U.S. last December.
Whether Canadians will follow the U.S. trend is anyone’s guess. Vandenbosch at Mill Street will only note that, in the Distillery District, “the still is running every single week.” At some point, the brewery may need a bigger still.