It’s been 23 years since Gary McMullen, co-founder of Muskoka Brewery, stepped away from the brewery he cofounded, and eventually become the first person to ever successfully motorize a floating Muskoka chair and speed around the lakes of Bracebridge and Muskoka, donning an ever-longer beard, and only responding to the name ‘Tom’.
Ontario, once a thriving craft beer destination, has been in decline for years, and nobody is quite sure when the tipping point was. Some say it was the year Jordan Rainhard stopped making Armed N’Citra, or the day Mike Lackey of GLB switched to making exclusively brown ales. However, we at The Bottomless Pint, now a print magazine for aging craft beer fans, point to a single event: During The Great Drought of ’33, when no C hops could be found due to massive water shortage in parts of the US and Europe, contract brewers thought ahead and bought up every single hop contract they could find, in a plea to increase their relevance and sell their hops back to brick-and-mortar breweries at an inflated cost. This was the tipping point for many brewers, with over 350 of Ontario’s 400+ breweries going out of business, due to falling interest, hop shortages, a renewed Sarsaparilla beverage market, and the resurgence of low-carb diets. Those breweries that remain are only the hardiest, those who prioritized quality, as well as progression of their craft. I’ll never forget the day Jason Fisher of Indie Ale House packed up for a life of quiet meditation in the mountains of Tibet. Or when Blake Sugden of Brickwords cut his beard off in frustration. Or when Jordan St.John had to move into one of Cool’s brite tanks just to get by.
The state of the industry has since been that of ruin. Escarpment Labs, once famed for their carefully cultured and unique yeasts, had to sell their patents, and now makes funky yeasts for bread and bakers around Ontario. Some unnamed investors bought up Beau’s, Steamwhistle, and Amsterdam, and then turned the breweries into wholesale sweater-vest outlet stores / graphic design agencies. Bellwoods Dupont remains unopened, for their landlord still hasn’t gotten back to the email they sent in 2016. Mark and Mandie of Left Field Brewery purchased the Blue Jays and finally forced what was what known as the Rogers Centre (now the Norm Kelly Centre For Sports) to bring craft beer to sports fans. In what was supposed to be a shining moment for beer in Ontario, new PM Kellie Lietch then suprisingly outlawed beer from all non-private residences and sporting events, citing “Alcohol is the cause of dissent, and who knows what else. Seriously, who knows? I do not.”
Now truly under a stranglehold of sudsy security, all those still interested in beer must acquire it through The Liquor Store, an amalgamated company run by those who once ran The Beer Store, in an Orwellian system of paper slips, order numbers, and frustrating walled-off coolers. Simply put: the fun and exploration has been taken from craft beer. Combined with economic struggles, dwindling curiosity, and lack of inspiration, beer in Ontario is all but finished.
Could this be the future that craft beer in Ontario is doomed for? I sure hope not.
Wake up, beer fan, it was all a dream! Only one statement of the above is true: Yesterday, Gary McMullen, a cofounder of Muskoka Brewery, announced his departure from the brewery he helped build and eventually open in June 1996. He entrusts the position of president to Todd Lewin, former VP of Sales and Marketing, to continue leading the charge for Muskoka.
Without talking to Gary, I found this to be surprising and shocking: I hadn’t yet heard of this occurring. Someone started a brewery when I was a child, and built it over a lifetime, and has now departed (what McMullen’s plan is now has not been made public). 23 years worth of work – and truly, an empire to be proud of to show for it – got me thinking: Who, in the next 23 years, will we see do the same? Who will be able to say in this period of time how proud they are of the work they and theirs have done, and depart from it? What breweries exist now that will still be around in 2040?
I thought this would be a pertinent time to write about the future of craft beer, but instead, i’ll ask for your help. What makes longevity? What is the formula for success that Gary and the late Kirk Evans figured out that brought them from a small family operation to the massive, 130+ staff company that they are now? I don’t rightly know, and frankly, this writer hasn’t been around long enough to be able to project that kind of assertion.
As they say, “pages intentionally left blank” – for us to answer over time. Those who know much, much more than I about craft beer’s history in this province have written – and will write – about what’s to come, but I am far more focused on our responsibility to these breweries we love. In an age without social media and the ability to sound off to hundreds of people at a time, Muskoka grew itself with a great product and well placed advertising, sure, but it mostly grew itself from clearly passionate leadership. They made a product that they were proud of, and still are. As they should be, I think.
So now, to prevent the Craftocalypse, it’s really up to us, beer fans. Some very easy ways to support your craft brewers are:
- Buy beer from the brewery when you can, but when you can’t, be sure to ask for it at your LCBO.
- Tell your friends.
- Tell the brewery. I can’t stress it enough that while breweries hear how much people love their product, they hear far more negative, in the day-to-day.
- Attend events they throw – there are literally hundreds of events a year you can attend and speak to company reps and even brewers – and beer is often on special or free.
- Support other small businesses in the same way, if you have the means. Small business economy is reciprocal. Small bars and restaurants often carry small brewery beers, and keeping that loop of dollars flowing in from all directions is they key to growth and sustainable business.
- Get a job at one. Easier said than done, but if you find a job that suits your skill set, I know firsthand that working at a craft brewery is an awesome, yet challenging job.
Be vocal, be present, and be honest. It’s our job as fans and advocates to keep craft beer alive. Breweries live on our dollars. Vote with your wallet! Support the local economy, and all the while, enjoy the continually-growing, fun scene that Ontario beer is right now – for it may not always be around. It sounds grim, but it’s a possibility, and if that scares you like it does me – you know what to do!
With that rant, poorly structured article, and beer fanfiction, I bid Mr. McMullen a happy… retirement? Whatever it is you’re up to next, take a bow on your way out, sir. In case you missed it, we’re big fans.
Not goodbye, but so long, Gary, and thanks for all the beer.