Article in the Financial Post regarding Roger Mittag and the Prud’Homme certification program I’m enrolled in:
Sommeliers are no longer just for wine.
Just as the palettes of Canadian drinkers have matured beyond an appreciation for fine grape-based libations to those based on barley and hops, so, too, has demand for experts in the field of another bubbly beverage.
Craft beer, and those Canadians that brew it, are enjoying an unprecedented boom in their business as a result.
“It has been really interesting watching the craft business grow,” said Roger Mittag, a former Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. executive who started his own Beer Sommelier certification program in 2009 and has been known as the ‘Professor of Beer’ for years before that. “The belief is craft will eventually end up taking about 30% of the market.”
That’s a big jump from the 5% of the market — estimates vary — that craft beer holds now.
Graduates of Mr. Mittag’s program, run fittingly out of Toronto’s historic Distillery District, are not called ‘Sommeliers’. To differentiate the new speciality, Mr. Mittag called it “prud’homme,” which roughly translates to either a trustworthy citizen or an honest workman, and is taken from Louis Prud’homme, who became Canada’s first licensed brewer in 1650. Mr. Mittag has already graduated 250 from the first level of the three-level program and is currently putting his first group through the most advanced training program.
Whatever they are called, there is increasing demand for them. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association places ‘beer sommeliers’ in its most recent Top 5 list of up-and-coming alcoholic beverage professions, and craft has long been the fastest growing beer segment at many of Canada’s largest alcohol retailers.
Sales of craft beer at Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores topped $15-million in 2010, a 53% growth from the previous year and five-times what they were in 2006.
“We’ve hit an inflection point,” said Gary McMullen, founding president of the Muskoka Brewery based in Bracebridge, Ont. and chair of the Ontario Craft Brewers Association.
“Our business has been growing quite rapidly,” he said. “This year we’re pretty much going to double in size.”
On the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the situation is very much the same.
“The only part of the beer market that is growing is craft brewing — the only part,” said Rod Phillips, director of buying for a British Columbia chain of alcohol retailers called Liquor Plus.
“The trend for national brands, the Budweisers and the Labatt Blues, is very, very dismal,” Mr. Phillips said. “I think the speed at which those brands are declining has been pushed by the rise and the importance of craft brewing.”
Statistics from the Brewers Association of Canada, which represents the major beermakers as well as some smaller companies, show the decline is more of a trickle, but a decline nonetheless: Sales of Canadian beer fell 1.9% from 2007 to 19.6 million hectolitres in 2010.
While the trend to craft beer may not be as strong in every part of the country — Jon Stott, author of Beer Quest West, notes there are only a handful of successful craft breweries spread across the three Prairie provinces — it is nonetheless representative of a major generational and cultural shift affecting vast swaths of Canadians, giving them a refined appreciation for premium brews.
“What happened through the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s was that it was really easy to get a hold of a beer drinker early when they were in the 19-to-29 age group and have them basically branded for life,” Mr. Mittag said.
“So these guys were buying Blue and Canadian and Export and Bud and that became their beer, and they associated everything they did with the lifestyle associated with those brands.”
Time was that a beer drinker would proclaim themselves to be ‘a Coors man’ as they might proclaim themselves to be a ‘Ford man,’ referring to their devotion to a certain brand of car or truck.
“But this generation of kids has grown up significantly differently than our generation,” said 43-year-old Mr. McMullen. “They are more into experimentation, to trying new things and they’ve been quite frankly exposed to [craft beer] as they themselves grew up.”
The rise of Canadian craft beer, according to Mr. McMullen, came about in the late 1980s with brands such as Brick and Creemore, attracting many people at the time to their exclusive and innovative taps as the first wave of craft beer enthusiasts.
“A lot of those people have children now who grew up with microbrewery beer or craft beer as we call it now in the fridge,” he said. “That is a significant departure from when we were kids.”
Success for craft may sound like failure for leading national brands such as Molson Coors or Anheuser Busch. Not so, apparently.
“It is actually good news for everybody,” Mr. Mittag said. “It is actually going to make the big brewers think about how they’re going to market and what brands they are going to sit behind.”
Eager to cash in on “a beer renaissance in Canada,” Molson Coors Canada unveiled last month the Six Pints Specialty Beer Co. to consolidate its craft properties, including Creemore Springs in Ontario and Granville Island in B.C.
Indeed, the trend to craft beer is frothing faster than anyone can accurately measure.
“We’re on the cusp of something absolutely tremendous,” said Mr. Phillips of Liquor Plus. “In 10 years time, the craft brewing industry will dominate the beer category.”