Has the pandemic summer produced panic among the small breweries dotting Ontario’s West Coast?
The answer surprised me.
Located in small beach towns, where operating in the black depends on the tourist trade and without big sales to the LCBO and other beer retailers, places such as Square Brew in Goderich and Grey Matter Beer Company in Kincardine looked to be in dire straits.
But to pandemic and panic, they added another “p” word: pivot. Along the way, breweries saw the incredible loyalty of small town residents and daytrippers who continued to be drawn to Lake Huron.
“Our summer has been great, all things considered,” said Meag Durkin, Grey Matter’s sales and production development manager. “We’ve done our best to pivot our business model to fit the new guidelines associated with COVID-19. We have yet to bring back any indoor seating, but took this opportunity to build out a small patio in front of our taproom.”
Kincardine’s main street has been closed to traffic on weekends, creating a pedestrian promenade to increase foot traffic. Can sales have been strong through a new online store and the owners personally deliver within the local N2Z postal code.
“With regards to tourism, there has definitely been a shift from previous years,” Durkin said. “Certainly less tourists from the U.S.A., but we’ve still got loads of more ‘local’ Ontario guests taking day trips from a few hours away or spending the weekend.”
The summer’s big hit was Escape to the Stars. The raspberry sour was brewed three times in batches of about 1,200 litres and sold out each time in five to eight days.
This unusual summer also prompted a timely awareness and fundraising campaign. When NPX, a local project management firm, produced lawn signs to support Black Lives Matter, they were sold at the brewery for a suggested donation of $5 or, with a donation of $25 or more, you got a free beer on the patio. Money raised went to Black Women in Motion, a Toronto organization providing mentorship to young African-Carribean women in Toronto.
The fall will force more adjustments, Grey Matter plans to open its taproom as the weather gets colder and patio weather fades.
“We’ve got some more tasty seasonals on the way, including our annual Oktoberfest-style lager,” she said. “We normally throw a big Oktoberfest party the last weekend in September, but unfortunately, we won’t be doing that this year. We’re still going to be releasing the beer along with some fun-inspired merchandise.”
Meanwhile, south on Highway 21 in Goderich, Square Brew survived a slower-than-usual start to the cottage and tourist season with the support of locals and delivery runs to fans in Stratford and Kitchener-Waterloo. Square Brew switched to packaging everything in tall boy cans and only recently reintroduced growler fills, though bringing in your own growler means waiting for it to be cleaned.
“It’s been weird, but good,” brewer Alex Menary said. “Delivery was big early, but now people are happy to get out and pick up at the brewery.”
There’s also a new, non-beer to enjoy on the 55-seat outdoor patio.
Goderich Water is Square Brew’s entry into the flavoured hard seltzer market to push back on such LCBO offerings as White Claw and Black Fly.
To create Goderich Water, Square Brew started with a beer base, removed the colour and flavour, then made two versions flavoured with lime and mango.
“It’s nice to offer something to people who are not beer drinkers,” Menary said.
Sort of shows that, whether it’s the pandemic or satisfying consumer tastes, succeeding is all about the pivot for nimble and clever breweries.
NEW AND NOTED
Forked River in London has channelled its Viking spirit and fondness for 1980s sitcoms with its first beer to use the ancient Kveik yeast. “Kveik is a centuries-old Norwegian farmhouse yeast strain, basically a nearly wild yeast, but has some interesting properties,” partner Dave Reid said. “Brewers like it because it ferments very quickly and tolerates higher fermentation temps without the bad off-flavours typical with using a brewer’s yeast at that temp. It also accentuates juicy fruity notes which is what we were aiming for with the hop schedule on a session five per cent IPA.” The beer’s name, Who’s the Voss?!, is a nod to the old Tony Danza sitcom Who’s the Boss? and to Voss, the strain of Kveik yeast used. Who’s the Voss?! is available on draft or in 473 ml cans ($3.50) at the brewery, 45 Pacific Court. London Brewing and Anderson Craft Ales have a way for football fans to drown their sorrows: a cream ale brewed to support the London Beefeaters football club. First and Ten is in tall boy cans featuring the logos of both Old East Village breweries. For 20 years, Beefeaters have served beer at the Sunfest main stage, a marquee event in London cancelled by the pandemic. Wayne Newton is a freelance journalist based in London.