Ontario wine has it’s VQA, perhaps it’s time for Craft Brewers to have a BQA
With all the talk of what constitutes “craft beer”, perhaps it’s time Ontario created Brewers Quality Alliance (BQA) standards the same way the wine industry has with its VQA designation? If we look at the VQA Ontario website they state that they are “an independent authority that establishes and monitors the province’s “appellation of origin” system. All countries that produce wine have similar systems, which define their best grape-growing regions and set standards for their wines. ”
Mainly they ensure that wine is made from 100% Ontario grapes and specifically they regulate:
- Grape varieties and ripeness
- Winemaking techniques
- Labelling requirements
- Sensory and chemical criteria for the finished wine
This whole concept isn’t a new idea, the BC Craft Brewers Guild are looking into doing something similar. Their cited reason is mainly so the industry can be standardized and pave the way for it’s members to sell beer in BC grocery stores. Something to consider if we are to convince our Premier, Kathleen Wynne of doing the same in Ontario.
We could start by using these VQA standards as a basic framework and alter them to suit the craft beer sector. In order for it to really effective, a large number of craft brewers in Ontario would have to agree to be part of it and adhere to it’s regulations. This is something the OCB could be doing as it is already part of their stated brewing philosophy. Although there are a couple problems with the OCB in it’s current form; one is that some of their current members (who will remain unnamed) have questionable standards and serious consistency issues. The second problem is there are many new breweries who may question the value of OCB membership. Out of the 150 plus breweries in Ontario right now, less than half are members.
Don’t get me wrong I like the OCB and support what they stand for, but I really think they need to do something like this. If they did create some sort of BQA, membership in the OCB would be a tangible recognition of superior quality craft beer. Until they adopt quality standards, the less than stellar members diminish the validity of the entire organization.
So assuming we could get Ontario Craft Brewers on board with this concept, they’d need to adopt criteria that would set them apart as “Craft Brewers” and ensure a superior quality of product. To do that they’d need consider the following set of rules:
- Brewed in Ontario
- Ingredients used in brewing would be free of chemicals and artificial additives
- Craft Brewing techniques utilized
- Specific mandatory labelling requirements
- Quality and consistency standards for the finished beer
#1 – Brewed in Ontario – This one appears to be a no brainer. If it’s brewed in Ontario that would automatically make it an Ontario beer right? Within that criteria that could apply to some of the brands brewed by the larger brewers Labbatt’s, Molson and Sleeman, because much of their beer is actually brewed in Ontario. But most of the other criteria on this list would eliminate them from being a craft brewery with the possible exception of sub-brands like Creemore and The Beer Academy. Some people may sneer at that exception, but objectively speaking those breweries do make craft beer so we have to seriously consider whether or not being owned by a multinational negates that.
Ontario Hops Growers Association
#2 – Ingredients used in brewing would be free of chemicals and artificial additives – While it would be great if every Ontario beer was produced using only Ontario grown ingredients, this isn’t really possible or realistic. Ontario doesn’t grow nearly enough hops or barley to meet the current demand. But insisting on using quality ingredients with no artificial additives or other chemicals would be the way to go. Also this could be tied into the labelling requirements by stating what exact ingredients are used. Not allowing corn and rice adjuncts, which most craft brewers don’t use anyway, could also set them apart.
A large scale brewing operation
#3 – Craft Brewing techniques utilized – All craft breweries (at least the ones I’m aware of) brew to original gravity. Which means the beer strength they intend to package is the one that they brew; for example a 5% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) beer is brewed as a 5% ABV beer. Industrial brewers often employ high gravity brewing techniques, meaning they’ll brew a 10% ABV beer and then dilute the ABV by half by adding water after fermentation. This allows them to brew double the quantity of beer from a single brew using half the number of fermentation vessels. Some argue it has no impact on the taste of the beer and shouldn’t matter. But the main argument against it is that it is a large scale industrial practice and goes against the entire concept of what “craft” is. In all likelihood to make this regulation stick, limits on the size of brewery would need to be imposed. This can get a little sticky because the definition the size of a craft brewery varies from region to region.
#4 – Specific mandatory labelling requirements – Having labelling requirements would mean that all of the ingredients used in the beer would be clearly listed. This would ensure that no adjuncts or anything artificial was used to make the beer. The label would also state exactly where in Ontario the beer was brewed, clearly showing that it wasn’t made (all or in part) some where else out of province or out of the country.
The Quality Control Testing Lab at Steam Whistle – Photo via Twitter @SteamWhistle
#5 – Quality and consistency standards for the finished beer – This last requirement is probably the one that many brewers would welcome, but might also find challenging to meet the standards of. This is where larger breweries have the advantage. Testing and rigorous quality control standards aren’t cheap, but would ensure consistency and superior quality. If a brewery couldn’t meet basic standards it shouldn’t be able to add a BQA type label. Member breweries would need to agree on what those standards of quality would be and could perhaps pool resources and have a central quality assurance lab facility that they could all send their beer to regularly. This would give smaller operations a better chance to succeed.
It’s clearly not as simple as this, but I think if we put these sorts of rigorous regulations in place, Ontario would put itself on a path to be recognized on a world stage. It would also expose craft pretenders like Shock Top and give the entire craft industry genuine credibility. High level quality and consistency standards would definitely get noticed outside of Ontario and this would be great for the entire craft industry as a whole.