A challnger Truck pulling one of the vats

Last night a convoy of trucks backed by police took the six brewing vats from Pier 8, right beside the recently shuttered Lakeport plant at Ferguson and Burlington streets. These six vats, with a combined capacity of nearly nine million bottles of beer, illustrate perfectly the massive scale of industrial, corporate brewing in this region.

The operation itself is claimed to have cost $26 million. Whether the unannounced involvement of Mammoet, the Dutch hoisting giant, will create additional costs is not yet known. The size of the vats required a police-escorted convoy moving at a snail’s pace (last I heard they’re still only now at York and Dundurn, waiting to start again tonight). Because of the height of the vats, power lines had to be taken down and re-attatched in many places, cutting off power and access to many homes. The journey is certain to take a few more days than planned before they reach their destination, Molson-Coors, the world’s fifth-biggest brewer.

Mammoet flags were everywhere

So while Hamilton is clearly a great place to move brewing equipment through, the existence of a local, unused brewery blocks away from the pier, goes unnoticed. While it’s worth spending $26 million to get these vats through and away from Hamilton, the notion of simply brewing locally just isn’t on the table. The massive and unbelievably expensive brewing equipment we’re seeing here is a reflection of the growing need for expanded production as beer giants buy up and shut down local operations.

Cops were everywhere

Lakeport’s demise comes not on the heels of its failure, but as a result of its success. The company was rescued from bankruptcy and was in fact making enormous market inroads with its “buck-a-beer” strategy. Which is precisely why Labatt bought it in 2007. Labatt brewing is owned by InBev, the world’s largest Beer corporation representing around a quarter of our planet’s beer market, under such brands as Budweiser, Stella and Beck’s. Within a few short years Labatt moved production elsewhere and made plans to shut down the Hamilton plant. They also made it clear that the property itself would go up for sale, but not the brewing equipment. No other local brewery would be able to set up in its place.

This practice of stamping out independent breweries has been happening for some time now. Canada has very few significant independent brands left. Despite that, beer industry trends show that Lakeport is far from alone as an upstart brew – consumers are turning away from traditional big brews like Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue in droves, to a whole host of other options that are cheaper, classier, stronger, tastier or less popular in general. Hoping to confine this trend with new corporate beers like Rickard’s Red has failed in the face of budding smaller brands like Amsterdam, Nickelbrook, Mill St,, Brick and of course Lakeport. In response, they’ve pursued an aggressive and monopolistic practice of buying up these plants, cloning the brands and then shutting them down.

There are still many alternatives on the market, such as Moosehead or Brick (Waterloo Dark, Red Cap, Laker). But even then, we’re still hooked on corporate beer, from the Beer Store, which is owned by the big brewers. There’s almost no chance that the wave of buyouts, takeovers and shut-downs will end here. One way or another, when we buy big corporate beer, we are supporting this kind of monopolization. Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo are likely next on the list – Sleeman has already been bought-out by Sapporo.

Centralizing production has massive costs – and Molson-Coors has just organized a parade through North Hamilton costing tens of millions of dollars to demonstrate exactly how much they’re willing to spend not brewing here. Every penny of the massive costs of buying out smaller brewers and equipping massive super-breweries is another cent not spent on quality ingredients, or added to the price of our beer. And so is every cent of the enormous increase in transportation costs which comes along with those super-breweries, as opposed to local ones. The low-quality beer we get from these giant corporations is only one of the many sad reflections of that fact.

Vats rolling down Burlington St

Hamilton’s next big battle with the beer giants will be a guerilla war, fought with stoves, stock-pots and old buckets. It really doesn’t take much practice to turn out a better and cheaper brew than Lakeport, and once you can the possibilities are endless – fruit beers, spiced beers, pumpkin beers, wheat beers, maple beers. Grapes and hops grow wild in even the most developed parts of our city, and we have some very fine wineries nearby, and an extensive winemaking culture in town (just look at all the backyard grapes). Brewing and sharing beer, wine, cider and other booze creates a very different drinking culture than corporate, commodified drinks. It encourages conservation, sharing and appreciation – because if you drink the whole batch in a wild night with your friends it may be two or three weeks before you have more. And by giving us an alternative to expensive purchased beer, it frees that money to be spent on far more productive ends.