Why smoothie beers are taking over Toronto craft breweries

When Rorschach Brewing opened in the summer of 2017, it launched with a horchata lager. The dessert beer was inspired by a homebrew recipe co-founder Matthew Reiner perfected after a trip to San Diego where he tried the refreshing drink for the first time. It’s admittedly an unconventional drink to turn into a beer, and naming it Systematic Desensitization didn’t do it any favours. 

No one touched it for the first month the Toronto craft brewery was open. The staff assumed it tasted weird and without their co-sign, customers passed. One day Reiner poured pints for everyone at a staff party without telling them what it was. 

“Everyone was asking: ‘What is this? Why haven’t I had this before?’ Once they started recommending it to all the customers the batches flew, and now we have repeat customers that only want the horchata lager,” he says. “It surprises me that it’s some people’s favourite beer.”

It’s that unknown aspect of experimental beers that makes them exhilarating for some and jarring to others. There’s been a recent spate of beers that appeal to diverse palates, and fruit-forward juice and smoothie beers or grape ales are at the forefront of welcoming an entirely new demographic of beer drinkers. 

In the four years Rorschach has been open,  it’s become known for leaning on the more experimental side of brewing. During the first round of pandemic lockdowns the Eastern Avenue spot went all in with a series of tiki cocktail-inspired sours, including the most recent iteration: a bright green brew called Afterglow. But where they’re really veering away from traditional beer territory is with their smoothie beers. 

After a month of lockdown, Reiner thought, “Hey, you know what, it’s a crazy time, who knows what’s gonna be around in the next couple months after this chaos? Why not try something stupid like [smoothie beers] and see if anyone even wants to drink it.” 

Essentially, smoothie beers are high alcohol and very acidic sours that have fruit purée blended in after fermentation, creating a thicker, smoothie-like drinking texture. They tend to go down as easily as the non-alcoholic variety.

Cole Firth, a senior sales associate at Blood Brothers who works directly with customers, is starting to see more diversity in terms of age, gender and cultural background among brewery shoppers than he did even three years ago. 

“Craft beer has historically been marketed to young, predominantly white men both in aesthetic – to the point of outright misogynistic labels – and in assumed taste preferences, like having a ton of hops. I feel like the kind of beers we’re discussing are trying to welcome pretty much anyone else who might be interested into the fold.”

However, traditionalist drinkers and brewers aren’t fully sold that these new concoctions are even beer. 

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario defines beer as “any beverage containing alcohol in excess of the prescribed amount obtained by the fermentation of an infusion or decoction of barley, malt and hops or of any similar products in drinkable water.” 

There’s contention between brewers as to whether these new styles should be classified as beer, mainly because the extra ingredients added in can overpower the flavours of the barley, malt and hops to the point of no recognition. 

Brewers that mainly stick to classics like pilsners, European lagers and British ales – which favour consistency and balanced flavour profiles – aren’t sure what to make of the trend. Some don’t think juice or smoothie beer is beer at all, while others are intrigued by the experimentation but wholly disinterested in doing it. 

In the past year, Jeff Wilson, head of small-batch brewing at Wellington Brewery, has seen a surge in interest in “fruited beers that are way over the top, that have really nothing to do with beer.” He’s heard Wellington customers asking when they’ll add these products to their lineup, and although there is no plan to do so, he definitely sees a market for these newer “beer” styles. 

“When craft beer was first starting out in Canada, say 10 years ago, it was all about what’s the most extreme beer you can find,” he explains. “That’s coming back with the influx of new drinkers, people who maybe don’t know what they want or aren’t sure what’s out there. Also, I think the beer market in Canada, especially Ontario is heavily influenced by what’s going on in the United States, and smoothie or slushy beers and fruited beers – all these crazy concoctions have been popular there for a couple years.”

NOW spoke with brewers and retail staff from Blood Brothers, Godspeed, Muddy York, Rorschach and Wellington to get a sense of where they think the market is headed and whether they’re excited (or not) about this brave new world of fruited and smoothie beers that don’t really taste like beer.

Can sours mixed with guava and strawberry purée, smoothie beers that are 50 per cent juice and sours aged on wineskins stick around as long as centuries-old brews like Czech-style lagers?

Luc Lafontaine, founder of Godspeed Brewery — “They’re lasting longer than I thought, to be honest with you. I assumed eventually people would get sick of them. A lot of brewers come to me and say that although they make something else, Godspeed beers are great because they’re made how they should be. In a way, I make brewers’ beers. I have a feeling that slowly, brewers will want to go back to the roots, making more classic beers, but they have to consider whether that’s a good business choice or not.” 

Matthew Reiner, co-founder of Rorschach Brewing — “A large group of our customer base really wants to have beers that, for lack of a better word, don’t taste like beer. We do have a large segment of our customer base, who like the traditional lagers but as one of the more experimental breweries, we do see more of a skew towards these new beers. There are a lot of people that are interested in craft breweries and in craft beer that maybe wouldn’t either consider themselves traditional beer drinkers or beer drinkers in general.” 

Cole Firth, senior retail associate at Blood Brothers Brewing — “Some of the people who would maybe push back and say, ‘Oh, that’s not beer,’ see those products as a gimmick. But a lot of breweries, especially in Ontario, are proving the opposite. These are really interesting and unique experiments that have staying power and that people who are really close to and casually involved in the beer world are excited about. Maybe there’s a bit of snobbery behind the attitude that this is a fad, but I think it’s pretty undeniable that it’s not.” 

Jeff Manol, brewer and co-owner of Muddy York Brewing — “Traditional styles and experimental ones should definitely exist side by side, there are merits for both. I’ll try some of the experimental stuff but I always go back to a beer that I know is going to be good. Sometimes with these new ones, they might sound really cool and they’ve got tree bark from Peru or something, but those are hit or miss. 

Our perspective [at Muddy York] is definitely that we want to be that beer that you come back to in between those experimental beers to cleanse the palate. There’s a reason these traditional styles are traditional, because they’re tried and true and the flavours work. But experimentation creates new styles. Take for example, New England IPAs, 10 years ago they didn’t exist, but because people were trying and experimenting, we have this amazing new style.”

When is a beer no longer classified as a beer? Does it matter? 

Firth — “There’s a bit of a question of like, is a smoothie beer really a beer? Is a super low-alcohol sour with a ton of fruit even a beer anymore? I don’t know that it really matters that much. There are even places that do a lot of beer-wine hybrid styles and there’s a similar question of what percentage of wine do you need to add to the beer before it stops being a beer? They don’t lack the elements that would make something a beer: hops and barley, but there’s just so much else going on.” 

Jeff Wilson, head of small batch brewing at Wellington Brewery — “I don’t know if Wellington Brewery as a whole shares this opinion but personally I do not think these recent beers should be called beers. When more than 50 per cent of your sugars are coming from fruit purée, I just can’t see that being a beer – that’s now a fermented malt beverage. 

“It’s its own skill set to produce those products, but it also takes away from beer itself. Creating beer is a historic tradition. I wouldn’t say this spits in the face of it, but I just don’t think it should be classified in the same realm. Ontario liquor laws and licensing are so convoluted and confusing. There’s so much fine print as to what you can call something and how much percentage of what ingredients are allowed. So I think just calling it beer is everyone’s solution right now. ” 

Manol — “Maybe it’s not so much beer in the traditional sense. But if it’s an enjoyable, malt-based beverage I don’t really care whether you want to call it beer or not. As long as it’s good.”

Lafontaine — “I’m an old soul, an old-school brewer. I brew a lot of classic styles, I really stick to Europe – especially Germany, Czech Republic and Belgium. These new styles aren’t something that I do. I’m super happy because a lot of my friends do that and their business is doing very well. 

But if you ask me honestly what I think of them, maybe I sound stubborn here, but I don’t know if you can even call that beer. It should be like a fermented product. It’s starting to disconnect a little bit from what beer is all about. Lager is a very naked beer in a way – if you screw up, it’s noticeable. My goal is to brew these beers all the time and be very consistent. I still feel that you need to taste hops, you need to taste malt. Hearing myself I feel like this old guy talking about back in my day, but I do respect [experimental beers], I feel it makes the industry exciting.”

Are these new brewery products reflective of a shift in the demographic of people buying craft beer? 

Reiner — “Historically, at least with macro lager beer in North America, the typical beer drinking demos tended to skew towards the white and male groups. Those are the demos that ad money was generally targeted towards. The craft beer movement has started to help widen the demographic to be more inclusive of women and BIPOC communities, partly due to its local community nature and the varied range of beer styles. 

The expansion of craft beer into flavours that are well beyond the ‘traditional’ scope of beer helps broaden the beer community, further promoting inclusivity. If we are too rigid in what we consider to be ‘real beer’ and then become gatekeepers to those who might not agree, we end up shrinking the beer community rather than growing it to include everyone who wishes to take part.” 

Firth — “It’s an overdue but necessary move towards making products that are approachable for people who might not otherwise gravitate toward really hoppy or intense beers. A lot of the styles that people think of when they hear the word craft beer were marketed in a particular way toward a certain demographic of people. That’s created a reputation for the industry that is pretty entrenched and pretty limiting. There’s a reason why the craft brewery culture is perceived as a white dude bro culture – that reputation was built up over the entire time that the industry has been around. These new beers that appeal to new audiences are part of a shift not only in who is considered a craft beer drinker, but also the industry reckoning with who is a craft brewer.”

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Kelsey Adams holds a craft beer panel with Cole Firth, Jeff Manol and Jeff Wilson on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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