New deal with Champions sends strong message, local microbrewers say

While the recent proposed consolidation of big beer companies has sparked concern among craft brewers that it will be even more difficult to get their products on tap at major sporting events, one Ottawa franchise believes fans would rather drink nothing but local suds at the ballpark.


The Ottawa Champions of baseball’s independent Can-Am League this week announced a two-year extension of their agreement with a pair of local microbreweries, Clocktower and Kichesippi.


Under the new deal, which runs through the 2017 season, the two Ottawa companies will be the exclusive suppliers of beer at Champions home games. Coors Light, which was also sold at the stadium in the team’s inaugural season, has been dropped from the roster.

Champions co-owner David Gourlay said the team’s decision to go solely with local firms was a no-brainer.

“Clocktower and Kichesippi are household names in our community,” he said. “For me it was really critical from day one … to have that community connection. We happen to live in a city that has a dynamic craft beer industry. There’s so much selection and choice, and these are two of the best names in the industry locally.”

The Champions’ move sends a strong message, said Kichesippi founder Paul Meek.

“They basically listened to their fans,” said Mr. Meek, who launched his brewery in 2010 and now sells more than half a million litres of beer annually. “The fans told them by their purchasing power that it was a big deal for them. Over 80 per cent of (beer sales at the stadium) was craft beer.”

Global players such as Molson Coors have long used their financial heft to dominate the fields of sponsorship and distribution, making it difficult for small producers to break into the sports and entertainment markets.

“Traditionally, big companies merging to become even bigger companies tends to have a little bit of a chilling effect on innovation and small companies,” Jason Fisher of the Indie Ale House in Toronto told the Canadian Press this week.

“You want to go to a sporting event, they own that venue. You want to go to a concert, they own that venue. You want to buy beer at a store, they own those too.”

SABMiller recently agreed to a US$107-billion takeover by Anheuser-Busch InBev in a merger of the world’s two largest brewers. The deal would see Anheuser-Busch InBev control 31 per cent of the global beer market.

Molson Coors is poised to nearly double its size after agreeing to spend US$12 billion for SABMiller’s share of U.S. joint venture Miller Coors and Miller’s International brands, including those sold in Canada.

The big boys are only getting bigger, more powerful and even more likely to squeeze out the little guys, many observers say. That makes this week’s deal with the Champions even more important, said Clocktower co-owner John Coughlan.

“The idea that you would never even get a foot in the door is a bit daunting,” he said. “As (the multinational brewers) get bigger, more and more control is exercised. It’s very hard for people like us in the craft beer industry because most of us are in business to grow. Success is measured in growth. And now we’re finding we just can’t get in the door when we’re competing against macro guys. But that’s part of the excitement in the (Champions) opportunity.”

As part of their contract, Clocktower and Kichesippi have agreed to work together on a new lower-alcohol beer to replace Coors Light at Champions games. Such a collaboration is a first for both companies, and they say they’re ready for the challenge.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun for us to work on in the spring,” said Mr. Meek. “We’re working … on the concept. We definitely want to tie (the branding) into some Ottawa historical significances, so we’re doing some research and looking into some stuff that we think would be appropriate.”

Any sponsorship deal has elements of risk for both sides, Mr. Coughlan said, adding the partnership with the Champions has been nothing but positive for his company.

“There were no guarantees,” he said. “This was a new (team) in a sport that has struggled in Ottawa, but we believed that this was a good opportunity to expand the craft beer base. This is an audience that we don’t always have a chance to reach. These guys (the Champions) went out on a limb. We’re happy to have the extra exposure. It shows a good degree of faith in us.”

Mr. Meek agreed, noting the Champions were his biggest customer during some weeks last summer.

“It’s a major commitment on our part,” he said. “But it makes sense for us and Clocktower to do that for our brand for sure. You’re looking at 55 home games, 112,000 people. It’s a lot of people.”

Mr. Gourlay said he’s just giving the public what it wants.

“Beer, baseball and hotdogs, right? You can’t mess with that formula. It’s the core DNA of the game.”

– With files from the Canadian Press