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Eat & Drink

Great Lakes Brewery celebrates 25 years in the biz

Posted by Ben Johnson / May 24, 2012

great lakes breweryGiven the recent surge of new, local craft brewers in the city and the accompanying upswing in interest from various Toronto-centric lifestyle publications (ahem), you're probably inclined to think of the existence of craft beer in this city as a fairly recent trend. You might be surprised to learn, however, that this year the city's oldest craft brewery is actually a quarter of a century old.

Great Lakes Brewery, founded in 1987, was purchased by the Bulut family in 1991 and, in a craft beer market that has changed considerably since, they've managed to remain independent and grow the company into one of the largest microbreweries in Ontario.

I asked Peter Bulut, co-owner of Great Lakes, about the way beer drinkers' tastes have changed since his father, Peter Sr., bought the company 21 years ago. "It's dramatic," he told me. "The beers that we're brewing now, we would have never dreamed were possible 20 years ago."

The beers in question have evolved from their flagship Golden Horseshoe Premium Lager to include their Crazy Canuck Pale Ale (silver medal winner at the 2012 Ontario Brewing Awards), their Red Leaf Smooth Red Lager (also a silver medal winner), the Devil's Pale Ale, and a handful of award-winning seasonals.

Great Lakes also recently brewed a limited quantity beer to mark this milestone and released their 25th Anniversary Robust Porter; a rich, thick, smoky brew which, if I may speak scientifically, is super-effing-delicious.

When considering the evolution of the craft beer industry in this province over the years, Bulut says that 2006 stands out as an important year in the rise of the industry's popularity. "That was was probably the big turning point," he says. "Around 2006, a bunch of things happened simultaneously that affected the market. The first was a reduction in the federal tax that small brewers were paying on their beer," he notes, referring to the sweeping tax cuts that were part of the Conservative's 2006 federal budget (yes, Stephen Harper helped get that cold, craft beer into your hand).

According to Bulut, those changes helped brewers like Great Lakes who were, up until that point, essentially manning "break-even" companies. Now, he notes, these brewers were suddenly in a position where they had some cash in their pocket that they could use to invest in some marketing and and to begin experimentation with their brewing and packaging.

great lakes brewery peter bulutThe other 2006 event that aided craft brewing was the formation of the Ontario Craft Brewers. For the first time, says Bulut, "brewers were sitting around the table together, starting to work on some cooperative marketing and some investment in order to bring more consumers to the category."

That cooperative spirit seems to be a common theme when talking with today's craft brewers, and Bulut concurs that the industry is really more about collaboration than it is about competition. "There isn't really competition between small brewers," he says. "What's out there is a massive marketplace and we are really, really small in the field of brewing in terms of volume. Our challenge is to get more consumers into the category, not try to outdo the other little guy."

As for the bigger guys, Bulut says they've started to take notice of the success of Ontario microbrewers like Great Lakes over the years. He looks to the April 2005 acquisition of Creemore by Molson-Coors as one of the first strong signs that macrobrewers were starting to recognize the potential of the craft market.

To be fair, though, it's not exactly safe to say the big guys feel threatened just yet. "They're not scared of us now, but they're scared of us in ten years," Bulut says. "They look long term and it's not really what guys like Mill Street, Steam Whistle, and ourselves are doing now but they see that if we got our stuff together and became big brewers, eventually we might be able to put a dent in their market share. They've got their eye on us."

As for Great Lakes Brewery's future, Bulut says they'll maintain the same priorities that have made the company a success thus far. "We have a priority in our bottom line, sure, but it's not the only bottom line. We also try to engage the public and our staff and have fun."

More experimentation is in the works, too. Encouraged by the robust sales (sorry) of their porter, which sold out in about a week, and the positive response to their Miami Weiss last year, Bulut says Great Lakes is looking to create some larger volume one-offs in traditional styles of beers to complement their core beer line-up and seasonals. "I think the next beer coming up is very likely going to be a saison," he told me.

More fun events, it seems, are also in the works. For starters, to celebrate their 25th anniversary, Great Lakes is having a charity barbecue this Saturday. The event will run from 12pm-6pm at their brewery at 30 Queen Elizabeth Boulevard in Etobicoke with shuttle service from from Royal York station every 30 minutes. There will be live music, food, games for the kids, and, naturally, plenty of great beer.

For more information, you can check out their website.

Discussion

12 Comments

1 / May 24, 2012 at 10:06 am
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nice! I love Crazy Canuck. I had no idea the brewery was that old.
InstaFlicka / May 24, 2012 at 10:24 am
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Looks delicious.
2 / May 24, 2012 at 11:20 am
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The Ontario Brewing Awards where the American beer Rolling Rock won a silver? I think the brewers aren't concerned that any of these micros will become big, but that the Canadian population of beer drinks will prefer quality. And I'd say we're ten years from that, if ever, seeing as the craft beer drinker is closely associated with the dreaded hipster. I'm afraid Toronto may begin to shun craft beer because it won't be cool anymore. I've seen this occur in Oregon with kids drinking PBR instead of the abundance of quality local brews. The difference being that craft brewing in America is we established.
Rick replying to a comment from 2 / May 24, 2012 at 11:47 am
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Seriously? It will stop being "cool"? What percentage of people do you think actually drink a certain beer just because they think it's cool? Sure, there are probably some people who do, but most people drink beer they like the taste of.

Anyone who gets into craft beer and appreciates good taste isn't going to suddenly stop drinking it because some hipster deems it uncool.

People who don't give a shit about beer drink PBR because it's cheap.
ek / May 24, 2012 at 01:08 pm
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Besides being a crappy product PBR is not that cheap here, what exactly is the appeal?
(In NY you can get pints for $1 and 1 packs for under $3)

Never really likes GLB, pretty boring brews. I hope Ontario Craft Breweries begin to step up their game and bring some better quality and innovation to the stage. How many crappy lagers or 'strong beers' do we really need.
ek / May 24, 2012 at 01:08 pm
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*I meant to type 6 packs, not "1 packs"
Cliff S replying to a comment from ek / May 24, 2012 at 02:44 pm
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Boring? doubtful - have you tried any of them?

They brew some of my favourites, the Miami Weiss last summer was awesome, Crazy Canuck and devil's pale ale are great go to session beers.

I was lucky enough to find two of their anniversary porter's - looking forward to them. Congrats to 25yrs great lakes!
I HEART BEERSZ / May 24, 2012 at 03:18 pm
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Which one is the hoppiest?
Alan / May 24, 2012 at 04:29 pm
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I had to commit beer crime and pour out my Devil's Ale this past weekend... "the devil made me do it."
ek replying to a comment from Cliff S / May 24, 2012 at 06:28 pm
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Yes, I've tried all the ones you mentioned, but compared to breweries like Dogfish, Rogue, Sixpoint, Alchemist, Beaus, Tree in BC, etc or standards like Schneider out of Germany -- GL sort of sucks.
Derek replying to a comment from ek / May 24, 2012 at 09:24 pm
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EK, I think you are missing their one offs. Harry Porter, Pompous Ass, Karma Citra, Lake Effect are some the best brews I have ever had, and I have had a lot of beer worldwide in my life. I live close to the Brewery so I can get these easily and really hope to see them more widely distributed. Robust Porter was a great start and the quick sell out will hopefully see more of them widely distributed.

Some of their earlier stuff is not the best but these one offs are freakin great.

ek / May 25, 2012 at 06:51 pm
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Hey Derek,
Well I will give them another go on your recommendation. I will admit, I find there is some good and even great beer in Ontario, but breweries seem to bottle their worst beers and limit their better ones, not sure why. Hopefully it is a trend that changes, because what is offered on a retail level(LCBO, etc) is quite lame.

Anything else you recommend? I like almost all if the recent stuff Beau's has put out in Kegs.

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