COVID-19 Continues to Impact Canadian Craft Beer Industry

By: Briana Doyle

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape the craft beer landscape in Canada. Unlike in the spring, when businesses closed from coast-to-coast, what breweries are experiencing to-day is very different depending on where they are in Canada.

  Breweries in the Maritime provinces — Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador — are almost back to business as usual, thanks to the Atlantic Bubble. Strict mask-wearing and sanitation rules, along with aggressive contact tracing, have left this part of Canada with some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the world.

  Like Australia and New Zealand, the remote Maritime region has benefited from its isolation. This region has almost completely eliminated cases of COVID-19 thanks to strict travel re-strictions that require anyone entering the region — including fellow Canadians — to self-quarantine for 14 days. The only other Canadian region with a similar requirement is the Northwest Territories, which also has a low number of cases.

  Even here, however, festivals and events have been canceled, restaurant and pub seating ca-pacities are reduced and gathering limits have been imposed to reduce the risk of super-spreading events that could lead to a resurgence of COVID-19.

  In Quebec, by contrast, breweries and brewpubs, like bars and restaurants, were forced to close again this fall as partial lockdowns were reimposed to quell the spread of COVID-19. When this column was written, it appeared that other provinces, including Ontario, British Co-lumbia and Alberta, were heading in the same direction.

  For breweries in Canada’s COVID-19 hot spots, the playing field is far from even. Each prov-ince has responded differently to the pandemic. In Ontario, for example, home delivery has emerged as an important sales channel for craft breweries. Taprooms that were focused on servicing their local community are now launching full-fledged e-commerce websites and ship-ping beer anywhere the rules allow.

  The province has relaxed certain rules around alcohol delivery, which has opened up new op-portunities for brewpubs to sell beer from other breweries — something the craft beer industry has been lobbying for over many years. Dominion City in Ottawa, for example, is now offering a “Friends of the Dominion” variety pack featuring a handpicked selection of Ontario beers. The package comes with a bag of chips — the token “food” item to meet the restaurant license re-quirements.

  In areas hit hard by the second wave of the pandemic, many breweries are struggling to stay afloat. To offer some of these producers a little lift, Canadian brewery supplier, Hops Connect, created a pandemic beer called Isolation Nation, a light and refreshing ale with notes of man-darin, lemon and tea. The company provided the hops and malt required to produce it, at no cost, to 45 breweries from coast-to-coast to help them make a little extra cash. The beer is made from Canadian-grown malt and locally produced Sasquatch hops.

  The first brewery to launch its version of Isolation Nation was the New Maritime Beer Company in Miramichi, New Brunswick. The brewery opened in 2020 and brewed its inaugural batch of beer just two days before the first pandemic shutdowns in March. Co-founder Adam Lordon told CBC News that it was hard to think of worse timing for the shutdown. “It was pretty much at the beginning and the worst possible timing. The startup phase is certainly challenging enough and can be stressful enough in the best of times,” he said. To pay it forward, the brew-ery is donating a portion of profits from the sale of this beer to the local food bank.

  New Maritime Beer Company is still in business, for now at least, but many other Canadian craft breweries are closing operations or seriously considering it. After six years in business, Ontario’s Abe Erb Brewing announced in October that it would shut all four of its locations in Waterloo, Kitchener, Ayr Village and Guelph.

  In Alberta, Mill Street Brewery announced in late October that it would close its Calgary brew-pub due to COVID-19. Mill Street’s other brewpubs in Toronto, Ottawa and St. John’s will re-main open.

  In British Columbia, Central City Brewers + Distillers also closed one of its Red Racer Tap-houses in downtown Vancouver after five years.

  In April, a survey of craft breweries conducted by the Canadian Craft Brewers Association found that 44% reported a year-over-year drop in revenue of 50% or more when the pandemic hit in March. 

  Most breweries who responded to the survey reported having cash reserves for only three months or less. Although the federal government has introduced financial support programs for businesses, many craft breweries did not meet the requirements for financial aid. Establish-ments in business for less than a year did not qualify for many programs, for example, while other programs specifically excluded alcohol-based enterprises. 

  With restaurants and bars closed in many parts of the country, more Canadians are eating and drinking at home these days. A poll released in June by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that one in five Canadians who drink alcohol and have been staying home more since the pandemic drink more often than before the onset of the pandemic. About 20% said they have a drink every day.

  “It is reassuring to see that for the majority of Canadians, alcohol use has either decreased or remained stable since the onset of COVID-19,” said Dr. Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at CCSA. “However, from a gender perspective, there is concern. On average, female consumers of alcohol are reporting 2.4 alcoholic drinks per occasion — which is above the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines — and about 12% are reporting they consume alcohol in excess when they drink. By doing so, women are putting themselves at risk for short- and long-term negative health consequences.”

  As awareness grows of the negative health impacts of alcohol, a growing number of millennial beer-lovers are now looking for low- and no-alcohol beer alternatives. Between 2013 and 2018, nonalcoholic beer sales increased more than 50%, and over the past year, the category has grown 12% in total volume.

  In a press release announcing the launch of alcohol-free Budweiser Zero in Canada this fall, the company noted that consumer data reveals the 19-to-34-year-old age group, including mil-lennials and older members of Generation Z, led all demographic groups in consumption vol-ume of nonalcoholic beer.

  These “sober-curious” consumers aren’t necessarily teetotallers but are seeking responsible alternatives when they do not wish to drink booze, whether for health reasons or because they don’t want to drink and drive.

  According to Budweiser’s research, 64% of no- and low-alcohol beer is consumed by those in the 19-to-34 bracket. Women most often choose nonalcoholic beer as an alternative to sugary drinks, and men see it as suitable for a variety of social occasions.

  It isn’t just big breweries that have noticed this consumer trend. This fall, Beau’s Brewing in Ontario joined a growing number of breweries offering lower-alcohol options for customers, with the introduction of Lug Tread 2.5% — a lighter version of its flagship brew.

  Beau’s designed the layered ale to mimic the taste of the company’s most popular beer, Lug Tread, with a blend of barley malts and wheat delivering fresh grain flavor and a satisfying mouthfeel. The brew has mild herbal and orchard fruit notes and a clean finish. 

  “This is no watered down, bland ‘lite’ beer,” company co-founder Steve Beauchesne told Na-tion Valley News. “We’ve put time and care into developing this recipe, and we’re super happy with the results. This is a low alcohol beer that actually tastes like craft beer.”

  The beer is available in single 473mL cans at provincial liquor stores and the brewery, and will also be in the brewery’s six-pack winter sampler.

  In the spring, Toronto-based Rorschach Brewing also launched a nonalcoholic offshoot, Free Spirit Brewing, which debuted with the 0%, low-calorie Adventure IPA. The beer is available in cans and on tap at the brewery.

  Microbrasserie Le BockAle, based in Drummondville, Quebec, has gone even farther. The company has made a name for itself producing nonalcoholic craft beer, which it distributes throughout Quebec and Ontario. In June, the company also launched an e-commerce website offering free shipping across Canada. Le BockAle offers three core beer varieties, Découverte IPA, Berliner Sonne Berliner Weisse and Trou Noir Stout, as well as occasional limited-edition releases.

  Likewise, Toronto-based Partake Brewing has developed a line of five low-calorie, nonalcohol-ic craft beers that have proven popular in Canada: a red, IPA, blonde, pale ale and stout. Now the company is getting set to expand into the U.S. In September, Partake announced that it raised $4 million of Series A capital in a funding round led by San Francisco-based CircleUp Growth Partners.

  The new funds will accelerate the company’s growth, specifically in the U.S. market, by allowing the brand to secure key hires, grow its distribution and retail network and build consumer brand awareness. This growth will support Partake Brewing’s expanding coverage with retailers such as Total Wine & More and Whole Foods Market.

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