Craft Beer’s Struggles in Suburbia

Rob Symes

Canada’s suburbs and satellite cities and towns are chronically underserved. Despite a few prominent exceptions, huge swathes of dense urban areas are wastelands for craft beer. The recent renaissance of the movement has been heavily focused on big cities and their cores, leading to a proliferation of bars and brewpubs. Easy access to this growing market became paramount for new breweries setting up shop, and it’s far easier for sales reps and delivery drivers to cover more accounts in bar-heavy big cities versus the outskirts and commuter towns. 

All of this has led to a widening gap between the big city haves, and the suburban have-nots. Toronto can now stake its claim as a world-class beer city, but it’s an oasis in a desert. Toronto’s edges are ringed by Mississauga, Brampton, Markham and Vaughan, Canada’s 6th, 9th, 16th and 17th largest municipalities by population. In 2016, these towns housed slightly less than two million people, but are currently only served by six craft breweries. 

Nestled in a Markham plaza, Rouge River Brewing Company is everything that the suburbs have been missing. Jordan Mills and his partners opened with an uncompromising lineup that challenged the palate and may recalibrate what many unsuspecting locals define as beer.

“We take an aggressive approach to the beers we make”, says Mills, “We don’t make a gateway beer. After all, what’s the point in opening a brewery and brewing beers that other people want to drink, but you don’t really care about?” Sours and hop-heavy IPAs seem like a risky starting point in an environment with little exposure to craft, but there are two good reasons why it seemed to make sense: “Firstly, we saw it working everywhere, so why not here? Secondly, we’re good craft beer drinking friends from Markham, and we needed to go downtown to get our fix, so we thought why not just bring that here? There’s got to be other people like us that have to go downtown to get beer!”

Business is slowly picking up at Rouge River, as word of mouth draws in like-minded souls. Plans to add a taproom to the space are in the works as well. That space promises to be a rarity in a city like Markham. 50% of everything Rouge makes hits retail with the remaining 50% destined for draft – tellingly they have four tap accounts in Markham, but are in and out of 40 accounts in nearby Toronto.

“It’s more of a retail culture up here,” explains Mills, “People prefer to go to the store and drink at home which is why having a retail space was such a big part of our plans. Everyone has a car and everyone’s driving around, so there’s not as much of a pub culture. We would really like to be in more places, but there are a lot of chain restaurants, and typically those taps are all set and not necessarily determined by the local manager.”

So familiar pressures are subduing craft for now – a retail culture, the dominance of the car and the prominence of cookie cutter culture, but the demand has to be there. The people who work in the big cities are often the same ones who live outside them, and these worlds are not separated by an impenetrable barrier. The suburbs and commuter towns might just represent craft beer’s next frontier – a brewery or pioneering bar away from bringing great craft beer to the waiting masses. Jordan closes off, “We’re trying to be the catalyst for that change to happen.”