Great Lakes Brewery celebrates 25 years in the biz
Given 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.
The 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.