Ontario’s Craft Brewers: Building Communities One Pint at a Time

How about a nice cool glass of local resilience and thriving?

Take a gorgeous Saturday in June. Open up an empty, sun-baked parking lot. Set up a line of eight brewers’ tents, complete with taps, ice chests and kegs, invite a few snack vendors, then add 500 hundred thirsty craft beer fans. The result: the Kawartha Craft Beer Festival.

Kawartha Craft Beer Festival logoOnly 15 years ago, craft breweries were exotic creatures, like rare hummingbirds: tiny in number, miniscule in size and perched on a few very fragile limbs of the economic ecosystem. In 2000, craft breweries could claim less than 1 per cent of the Ontario beer market. Now these breweries are close to 4 per cent in Ontario and are at 15 per cent of the market in British Columbia. The Kawartha Craft Beer Festival in Peterborough on June 20 was a great way to explore the relationships between these breweries and their communities.

As a craft beer enthusiast, while I wanted to sample their products, I also wanted to learn more about their journeys to success in their communities.

I interviewed eight craft brewers: I talked with owners, brew masters and managers. Two of the brewers were from Peterborough. The rest were from Cobourg, Bobcaygeon, Port Perry, Bowmanville, Campbellford and Minden. Right away it was clear that all these people were totally on fire about brewing. They love their work. This ebullience shone through whether they work for a “nano brewery” with three employees that has only been in business for six months, or large brewer with 20 employees and a dozen years in business.

These craft brewers embrace the new, collaborative economy and the triple bottom line of sustainability.

The second thing I noticed was their embrace of the new, collaborative economy as a business model. Without exception, they view each other as collaborators, not competitors. “The craft beer business is like a big family,” one owner said. Craft brewers share recipes, brewing techniques, staff and even equipment, to the point of brewing batches for each other in emergencies. While they all want to grow, none of them want to expand to the point of losing their relationships to their communities. They want to have stable growth and be able provide local employment, but not lose their local roots.

These entrepreneurs embrace the “triple bottom line” of sustainability. In addition to economic success and creating positive workplaces for local people, they practice a strong environmental ethic in their operations. Spent grains are donated to farmers. Dregs from the brewing vats are composted. Due to their chemical and preservative-free production methods, no contaminants are leached into the local sewer systems.

These are community businesses.

These are community businesses. A few of these breweries have renovated old buildings, woven local history into their branding and their decor, and opened their pubs, tasting rooms and in a few cases, their restaurants, to their communities. These breweries, in cases such as Smithworks in Peterborough, or Church-Key in Campbellford, have tasting rooms which they open for retirement parties, business celebrations, birthdays, and even weddings. These breweries know their best publicity is word of mouth. So they build relationships with local service groups (the Publican recently launched a brew of Rotary Ale as part of a fund-raising campaign for the local service club), they network with local politicians, they support local sports teams, and most of all, they support local businesses.

This support is much more than a simple supplier-vendor relationship in a traditional supply chain. These brewers create relationships that generate new business networks.  For example, one brewer gives his spent grains to a local sheep farmer, who in turn takes his sheep to a local butcher who then cooks this organic lamb in the brewer’s premium lager and makes lager-lamb pies, which are in turn sold at the local brewery. Another brewer supplies beer to a local soap maker who makes a beer-based soap which is sold at the brewery. Still another brewer hosts a “Kitchen Jam” session for local musicians at their tasting room every Saturday afternoon.

There is so much more to the craft beer story. In the near future I will go deeper into the unique relationship these breweries have to their local communities, their embrace of the new economy in their communities and how local sustainability is at the core of their operations.

Part 2:
Brewing Up Community Engagement

Part 3
Community is Part of the Blend: How Craft Brewers Do Business

Brewers interviewed (and beers sampled) for this blog series

(Click on any brewer’s logo to visit their website.)

Smithworks Brewing CompanyThe Publican House Brewery Bobcayeon Brewing Company Boshkung Brewing Co.

Church Key BrewingManantler Craft Brewing Co. Old Flame Brewing Co.William Street Beer Co.