For as long as fans have enjoyed watching baseball, they’ve enjoyed a cold, frosty beverage to sip on from the stands. Believe it or not, Blue Jays fans didn’t get their first official taste of beer at a game until 1982; five years after the franchise made its debut.
Back then, a beer would set you back $1.75 a glass. Despite being partially owned by the Labatt Brewing company, beer sales at Exhibition Stadium were strictly forbidden until the Ontario government allowed it in July of 1982 as part of a two-year pilot project.
In the 36 years since beer sales came into effect at Blue Jays games, sadly, not much has changed. The Rogers Centre concourse is littered with beer brands readily available at The Beer Store and LCBO. That’s not unlike what fans will find at similar sporting venues, but at the Rogers Centre, there’s a severe lack of local craft beer options.
Anheuser-Busch dominates the selection of beer at the Rogers Centre, with their flagship brews like Budweiser and Bud Light. Of the 27 beers listed on the MLB Ballpark App for the Rogers Centre, 23 are under the Anheuser-Busch umbrella. Sapporo Brewery owns two, which leaves two selections at the Rogers Centre which qualify as “craft”.
If fans are looking for a truly Canadian craft beer at Blue Jays games, there are only two options: Hockley Dark, from Hockley Valley Brewing in Orangeville, and Glutenberg Blonde, from Glutenberg Craft Brewery out of Montreal.
In recent years, the beer choices at Jays games have gradually improved. Back in 2015, the Blue Jays introduced Goose Island beers to the Rogers Centre. In 2016, they added the Blue Jays added Mill Street beer to their lineup. Despite their craft roots, both Goose Island and Mill Street are underneath the Anheuser-Busch umbrella.
For a region that’s booming in craft breweries – with many less than a kilometre away from the Rogers Centre – it seems like an injustice not to feature more local craft beer at Blue Jays games.
Due to a shift in consumer tastes, sporting venues are pivoting towards craft beer because that’s what people are asking for. Meanwhile, at Blue Jays games at the Rogers Centre, the majority of Toronto’s craft brewers are still on the outside looking in.
Troy Burtch of Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto says the Blue Jays are several steps behind other Major League ballparks.
“If you look across the baseball stadiums across North America, the Rogers Centre is sadly lacking local options and local flavour. Go up to any concession and look at their lineup. If they have 10 beers, you’re going to get 8 lagers that are all homogenized and very similar to one another.”
Just how far behind are the Blue Jays when it comes to offering craft beer to their patrons? The Chicago White Sox feature over 75 craft beers in their Craft Kave at Guaranteed Rate Field. The Seattle Mariners showcase over 20 craft beers on tap. The San Francisco Giants sell some brews exclusively at AT&T Park that can’t be found anywhere else.
Burtch keeps a close eye on what professional sports teams offer south of the border and he’s witnessed first-hand what MLB teams are capable of when it comes to craft beer offerings.
“I was at Washington Nationals game last year and I couldn’t believe all the different craft beers. They had Washington-area booths, DC breweries booths. You could drink a beer that was made down the road from the stadium for five dollars. We were in San Francisco a few years ago and Public House is the restaurant brewpub at the base of the stadium.”
Joey Seaman works with Bellwoods Brewery, another wildly successful Toronto craft brewery. In his travels to sporting events in the United States, he’s noticed a vast selection of craft beer.
“I’ve been to other sports venues and it’s definitely something people are mindful of. What I like is when teams have a local beer tent. You’ll probably have to seek it out, you’ll probably have to pay a little bit more for it, but if that’s your flavour, it’s accessible and it’s a nice touch.”
The number of beer stands at the Rogers Centre has never really been an issue, but there’s a huge lack of variety. Many Toronto craft brewers would love to feature their products at the Rogers Centre in front of 50,000 fans, but smaller craft breweries face challenges that multi-national breweries do not.
Left Field Brewery is another Toronto success story, helmed by husband-and-wife duo Mark and Mandie Murphy. Mandie says many Jays fans have developed a taste for craft beer and are seeking out local flavours as opposed to the typical pilsner or lager.
“Craft beer is growing dramatically at a time when overall beer sales are shrinking. A growing number of fans are looking for variety, quality, flavour and independently owned, local products instead of quantity. Mark Shapiro not only made it happen at Progressive field but is on the record expressing those same goals as part of the eventual Rogers Centre concessions renovations.”
The Blue Jays clearly recognize the appetite for craft beer at Blue Jays games. Earlier this year, Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro appeared at a Pitch Talks event and was asked about how the team could improve the food and drink at Blue Jays games.
He oversaw a dramatic overhaul of Cleveland’s Progressive Field which implemented local restaurants and saw the team bring craft beer into the stadium. Shapiro suggests the Blue Jays may implement a similar strategy in the coming years for the Rogers Centre.
“If history shows itself to be the best predictor of the future, you can go to Progressive Field and go out and look at Corner Beer and find real, local craft beer; we turned down a major sponsorship from a major brewery in order to have craft beer.
The concourses now, they way they’re set up – how small they are, how narrow they are – we haven’t found the best way yet to inject enough local concessions, both dining and beer. We’ve waited and said ‘let’s wait until we can re-envision the entire experience’, and then let’s rethink about how we incorporate all the greatest food, beer and treats from Toronto into the fan experience.
We want to do that badly. If we for some reason feel like that’s not going to happen sooner rather than later, then we need to think about doing it creatively.”
This is big business for multi-billion-dollar brewing companies, but the industry is shifting and more people are drinking craft beer than ever before. The Greater Toronto Area alone has exploded with craft breweries. Featuring them at a local sporting event makes all the sense in the world.
Not only is it close by (in the case of Steam Whistle, the brewery is right across the street), but selling craft beer at a Blue Jays game would showcase the very best drinks from the city. Bellwoods Brewery is one of Toronto’s most beloved breweries and Seaman challenges the Blue Jays to offer more local options.
“The entire purpose of sporting venues is to showcase the best the city has to offer, putting the best product on the field. They focus so heavily on experience – you go to a sports event now and it’s as much theatre as it is sports. They’re so conscious of trying to curate an experience and I think food and drink fit into that.”
As a fellow independent brewer in the GTA, Burtch of Great Lakes Brewery encourages the Blue Jays to advocate for the city of Toronto by bringing local craft beer into the fold.
“The craft beer industry is booming because people are voting with their throat. They’re drinking more flavourful, they’re not drinking as much. People come into our retail store and they’re mixing and matching, they’re drinking better, drinking less.
You have a lot of people coming in from outside the city; showcasing the city to them, whether that be craft beer in the stands or even different food options.
Showcase what’s happening around your city, be proud of your city. Showcase the ethnicity of Toronto and all the different flavours we’ve got going on in the city and consumers will win. Let the consumer decide what they’re going to reach for.”
Murphy of Left Field Brewery also believes the team has a huge opportunity to capture out-of-town fans by enticing them with local food and drink.
“The Jays fan base is as diverse as they come – the concessions offerings and fan experience elements of taking in a game would be wise to reflect that. The Jays have something like 53,000 seats to fill for 81+ games per year. I’d imagine that great food, beverage and other quality fan experience elements can play a big role in making that happen.
Also, being in a market in such close proximity to New York, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and others brings-in a huge number of tourists who take in a game. It makes so much sense to enrich those fan’s experiences by showcasing the unique locally made food and beverage that our great city has to offer.”
As of now, it’s incumbent on the consumer to seek out a craft beer like Hockley Valley Dark at Blue Jays games, but it’s not easy at the Rogers Centre. Lagers like Budweiser, Bud Light, Stella and Alexander Keith’s are available at virtually every beer stand.
It’s not impossible for fans to find craft beer at Blue Jays games, but it’s a scavenger hunt to track it down within the Rogers Centre Seaman says it won’t be long before people expect to see craft beer at most stands rather seeking it out.
“I think the way the market of beer drinkers is headed, there’s a limited time before people are just expecting to see local beers on offer. The brand of local is probably stronger than any brand that’s existed. Buying local seems to be a thing that’s been around for long enough now and isn’t losing any momentum. Whether that’s hyper-local, your city, your province of your country.”
The Blue Jays could do more to feature local craft beer at the Rogers Centre. It seems like major stadium renovations are on the back-burner for now, but Seaman suggests a few ways the Blue Jays could easily integrate more craft beer into their beer options.
“Create a couple of well-curated craft beer zones or craft beer gardens. Even if people have to seek it out, I’m sure the results would exceed their expectations. I don’t think it needs to be a complete sweep of the entire stadium, but even areas where you’ve concentrated a local selection of beers.
For the people who are making those decisions, I would encourage them to get out and visit the breweries they’re thinking of doing business with. The leadership team should reach out to these breweries, go for brewery tours, sit down and drink the beers and make the decisions based on that. Not just who’s giving the cheapest beer that fits their criteria.”
When the Skydome was built in 1989, it was an “everything for everyone” multi-purpose stadium. Now in its 29th year, the Blue Jays fan base has evolved and so has their palate. They’re looking for more than just the usual ballpark hot dog, slice of pizza and beer.
In the year 2018, at least give fans the option to drink craft beer at the stadium. The Blue Jays might be pleasantly surprised how quickly craft beer drinkers open up their wallets.
A big thanks to Troy from Great Lakes Brewery, Mandie from Left Field Brewery and Joey from Bellwoods Brewery for their input. Support Toronto’s local craft brewers and pick up a beer from one of these fine breweries.