Downtown beer halls tap into friendship for pandemic support and growth

In downtown London, a kind of beer-fueled fellowship has seen two pubs partner for support, and growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beerlab!, a new small-batch brewery, and the established Milos Craft Beer Emporium, sit side by side at Talbot and Carling streets, and both are planning an expansion that will see them add patio and indoor space.

That means they can still take advantage of the outdoor season as it winds down, and prepare for what promises to be a tough fall and winter for bars and restaurants, having fewer customers inside.

“We are cautiously optimistic, that is why we are planning an expansion now,” said Adil Ahmad, co-owner of Beerlab! with business partner Nick Baird.

“The most surprising and heartfelt thing has been the community response, and you will hear that from other brewers as well. The support has been tremendous.”

When the Ontario government allowed beers to be sold and delivered from craft brewers — and also delivered as take out with food from restaurants — it was a lifeline for beer makers, he said.

“We are happy with the growth we have seen but we are also nervous as we are about to enter the fall and winter seasons and people are coming indoors.”

Ahmad, 37, from London, is a full-time family doctor who attended medical school at Western University. Baird works at Beerlab! full time.

When what used to be a hair salon came open next to Milos, the owner Milos Kral grabbed it and saw an opportunity for both his business and Beerlab! to expand.

“I don’t need all of that space so, to me, this just made sense,” said Kral.

But it comes at a tough time as Kral has seen sales drop 50 per cent since the pandemic. Still, he wants the space for a larger patio, which he knows he’ll need when business returns.

“The timing is unfortunate. If I passed it up I know I would be banging my head against the wall,” said Kral.

“I don’t like the timing but I like the space. It is a challenge everyday but I am very fortunate we have loyal customers.”

Having Beerlab! share the expansion also helps, and as it grows it may drive Milos’ food sales as Beerlab! customers can order food from Milos’ kitchen.

“We are looking at an expansion of floor space to accommodate more persons. We want to increase brewing capacity but can’t give up floor space used now for seating,” said Baird.

“If we can get even a few extra persons here with larger floor space that would benefit everyone.”

Milos offers 18 lines of beer now, although it does not brew its own. Beerlab! makes only a few batches at a time specializing in IPAs, and ales in the  German and Czech style. It also makes a hard lemon seltzer and now has a key lime seltzer in its tanks.

Ahmad began brewing when he was still in university as a hobby, and he and Baird got more serious about it when they used space at Forked River Brewing.

“Nick and I have brewed together for a long time and we had a small pilot set up at Forked River for a bit, and cut our teeth there. It was a natural next step for us to open a craft brewer,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad worked with Kral at Chancey Smith and Gambrinus before opening Milos in 2012 and when a small space opened up beside his restaurant, Milos told Ahmad and Baird.

“It just made sense. It was logical. We are friends, and that is what friends are for. It was opportune,” said Kral.

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