Friends, family, booze drinkers: we are gathered here today to remember the life of Brickworks Cider, who has now left this realm of craft and has gone up into the great corporation in the sky. Brickworks will be fondly missed by those who were close to it. Amen.
Alright, maybe it’s a bit over-the-top to stage a funeral for a company that, by any reasonable standard, is having the best day of its corporate life. Today, Mill Street announced that it was acquiring Toronto’s Brickworks Ciderhouse for an undisclosed amount. While it’s been rumoured that Mill Street’s interest in acquiring Brickworks goes back much further, Mill Street was recently bought by Labatt, and Labatt is owned by AB-InBev. As for AB-InBev, well… if you ask anyone in the craft beer scene, you’d be left with the impression that they’re basically a beverage company as run by Lex Luthor. And so, like a popular indie band selling out their days of sweaty basement shows for a fat three-record contract with Sony, it’s a bittersweet day to be a fan of Brickworks cider.
Brickworks was only founded as a small local startup in 2013, which makes their rise to the AB-InBev mothership astoundingly fast. After two years of aggressive expansion across Ontario that was partly fueled by great marketing, partly the nationwide cider boom acting as a rising tide lifting all ships, and partly due to the fact that they just make a pretty darn good cider, it’s hard to look back and not see that the writing was on the wall. Brickworks will now have the considerable marketing heft of Labatt and AB-InBev behind their product, as well as what we can assume is a sizable cash injection they can use to ramp up production and go national, and possibly even international.
It’s not so much that Brickworks conquered the Ontario drinking market, as much as the drinking market had been patiently waiting for a Brickworks to come along for years. With the cider market in Canada growing by leaps and bounds every year, it seemed like the industry was slow to catch up, with your standard neighbourhood pub offering nothing but a Russian roulette of the fizzy rotten taste of Strongbow or the ten-teaspoons-of-sugar-sweetness of Somersby. Brickworks came along and created a signature cider that managed to land right in the gaping sweet spot of the young, booming cider market’s tastes – dry but not offputting, sweet but not cloying, premium-priced but not expensive, hip but not hipster – and after two years, managed to become the #1 craft cider in Canada.
Brickworks, in many ways, was in the right place at the right time. And now, Labatt’s massive distribution network is going to do their best to put them in every two-bit Jack Astor’s, hotel lobby, and airport lounge in the country. You might be thinking to yourself – wait, isn’t that good? Well, yes, in the abstract, it’s good that more drinkers will be exposed to better cider. But deals like this always give craft fans an uneasy feeling, like hearing that a novel they love is being adapted into a Michael Bay movie. It’s unquestionably good news that Brickworks will have a bigger budget to experiment with one-off ciders, and to get their product into every podunk liquor store from Kamloops to Corner Brook. But there’s always a hard-to-pinpoint fear among craft beer and craft cider fans that selling out to a major corporation – whether it’s Mill Street, Granville, or Unibroue before them – will suck some intangible element of heart away from the product. The key will be whether or not Labatt decides to mess with the Brickworks recipe (which for the record, Labatt has claimed that they won’t do). If you look at the back of a Brickworks can, you’ll see this refreshing bit of small print: “Ingredients: Apples.” That’s it. Look at the ingredients of some of the macro-brewed ciders on the market, and you’ll see a bunch of added sugars, chemicals and flavouring agents (Somersby has nine ingredients) that, from anecdotal evidence at least, are all bound to make you feel like shit the next morning. The crisp, biting-into-a-Macintosh taste of Brickworks always put it head-and-shoulders above the standard two or three ciders you’re likely to encounter at your neighbourhood sports bar, and instantly makes it the star cider in AB-InBev’s Canadian portfolio. (Other than Keith’s Cider, AB-InBev was relatively late to the cider game, with its only other major cider being Stella Artois Cidre. Meanwhile, Heineken owns Strongbow, Carlsberg owns Somersby, MillerCoors owns Crispin and MadJack, Sam Adams owns Angry Orchard, and Vermont’s Woodchuck cider was recently bought by the Irish conglomerate that also owns Magner’s and Blackthorn.)
Molson and Labatt have each tried to make their own cider to get a slice of the growing cider boom, and each was a bit of a disaster. Labatt’s Keith’s Cider suffered from a truly unpleasant aftertaste and only seems to be consumed by people in bars where AB-InBev stocks all of the shelves (like, say, the AB-InBev-controlled Rogers Centre, where Brickworks will presumably make a welcome debut next season). Meanwhile, the rival Molson Canadian Cider was plagued with issues and recalled after glass fragments were found in bottles – which isn’t an altogether terrible thing, if I’m being honest, since at least the taste of my mouth full of my own blood would hopefully do something to dull the taste of all that Molson Canadian Cider.
So what’s next for Brickworks, other than instantly becoming the most appealing thing to drink at a Jays game? From here it seems like the sky’s the limit, particularly if they ever decide to scale up and go through with their ambitious plans to grow their own apple orchard in the Don Valley (near the titular Evergreen Brick Works environmental project/community centre) to locally source their own apples, rather than importing from Niagara and Georgian Bay. Those orchard plans always seemed a bit overly ambitious (orchards don’t grow overnight), especially as the ciderhouse cut ties with the actual Evergreen Brick Works foundation sometime in the last year. Originally, 5% of all profits from Brickworks cider went back to Evergreen, but after their split from Evergreen, cans of Brickworks now only claim to give some unnamed percentage of their profits to some unnamed charity – which, let’s face it, every company on Earth does. But the association with the Evergreen Brick Works helped establish the company’s bona fides in trendy Toronto circles, and from that little push of coolness, their market share exploded in the past year.
Still, even as it embarks on an exciting future today and has a chance to become more popular than it ever had any chance of becoming, for strict adherents of craft beer and craft cider dogma, today marks the funeral of Brickworks. May its craft life rest in peace.
Friends and family, thank you for joining us in this remembrance of the craft life of Brickworks. Booze be with you.