What does local mean?

On this page, I want to start a discussion about what makes a beverage truly local. Too many times, people assume all the nearby breweries 'must be' using my ingredients, when the exact opposite is true. The number of breweries committed to using at least some Ontario ingredients, beyond some hops, can be counted on one, maybe two hands.

Where local started (everything old is new again):

It could be argued that S.W. Ontario was settled by booze!

Advance men like John Galt would identify sites with rivers that could run mills. A corduroy road would be pushed through the bush and rest points would be set up in stages for passengers and horses. Horses got hay. People wanted food, beer, and whiskey.

Typically the first mill set up would be a grist mill to to process ingredients for brewing the necessary refreshments. At the peak of settlement, there were taverns, malteries, brewers and distillers at every town site. Cash crops for farmers, beyond growing food for their families, was grain for malting (and maybe some bread).

Fast forward to the twentieth century, and the taverns are still going strong, but grain production has opened up the Prairies, and local processing is beginning a progression towards today's consolidation of brewing into huge multinationals. Malting companies have followed suit, with the few global malting companies owning operations in at least 3 different countries.

Craft brewing appeared in North America in the 1980s, providing mainly alternatives to imported beers. To brew in traditional British or European styles, most ingredients were imported from the appropriate country. While Canadian malt has gained ground with craft brewers, it is still mostly from the N. American prairies, travelling thousands of kilometres for malting, warehousing and delivery.

Since 2007, Ontario brewers have had increasing access to Ontario grown hops, and since 2014, Ontario grown, micro-malted grain.

So why aren't more brewers and distillers using locally grown malt?

1. Its too expensive:

Ask any craft brewer if they can meet the pricing of the beer multinationals, and you will get an emphatic No!

Economies of scale are orders of magnitude different between the major brewers and the craft brewers. Everything costs more at the smaller scale. Craft malting is similar. My batch size is 0.720 tonnes. A small malting process for the multinationals is 50 tonnes, with many in excess of 100 tonnes per batch. The only saving available to the craft malter is lower transportation costs, if they can find nearby growers and customers. This advantage is offset by the higher costs of production because of the smaller scale.

As a former brewery owner, I know the cost of ingredients is only a proprotion of the final retail price. About half goes to the many taxes imposed federally and provincially. Packaging can cost as much as ingredients, direct and indirect labour is high, energy, water, rent (or mortgage) and the writing down of investments in equipment and property, are significant costs in every litre of beer. And there has to be a few percent profit in there somewhere.

If the brewers can't celebrate the use of of local ingredients, and ask for a small premium to balance the slight increase in ingredient costs, then they are missing the growing local consumption trends in Ontario. People who shop local produce at farmer's markets, or direct to farmgate, are willing to pay more than supermarket prices for the pleasure of supporting their local economy and getting to know the hard working farming families. Local produce is typically fresher, includes heritage varieties,and, in some cases is grown organically.

2. It doesn't perfom like mass-produced malts:

Most mass-produced malts are formulated for their multinational customers, who have strict specifications for their recipes. Different batches may be blended for flavour or colour considerations, and lesser malts can be balanced with better performing malts.

Micro-malters typically work with whatever variety of malting barley the local growers have been able to produce. Very few varieties have proven successful in Ontario's variable climate, all of them originally bred for Prairie conditions. The micro-malter is at the mercy of the barley, challenged to make the best malt possible from a single crop of barley.

My talented brewing customers have artfully crafted unique brews around the characteristics of my malts, taking advantage of the stronger flavours and slight touch of colour in the Pale malt, or the deep red-brown of my Beyond the Pale.  The Wheat and Rye malts similarly taste more like the grain, delivering extra flavour.

3. Brewers are used to the ingredients they trained with:

We all prefer the comfort of the familiar. Working with the same old ingredients assures the same old results. It takes an adventurous spirit to experiment with something different. Existing recipes are hard to change, for fear of customer backlash, but the opportunity to create new, locally sourced brews is being taken up by the creative few. In the increasingly crowded craft beer market, brewers must consider ways to make their beers stand out.

Using locally grown ingredients, telling the stories abut the farmers and malters who provided them, will educate the public to vote with their dollars for truly local beers!