DRINK LOCAL: HOW OUR CRAFT BREWERIES ARE HELPING US GET THROUGH IT ALL

INTERVIEW & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN

While this pandemic continues to rage and the days keep getting hotter, more folks are looking
to take a load off with a backyard brew or two. If you want to skip the long lines at the LCBO and support local business at the same time, grab your cold ones from any of our incredible regional craft breweries. Most bottle shops are open (some even have designated curb-side pick-up and / or designated take-out windows) and many offer online ordering with free local delivery. 

A bit ago, we caught up with representatives from five of our local breweries to see how they’ve been surviving these past months – and what they’re doing to make customers’ lives easier during these difficult times. So crack one open and take a read: 

How did the arrival of COVID-19 affect your business? 

Jon Laurencic, Managing Partner, Elora Brewing Co: The day the province closed restaurants and bars was really scary and confusing. It felt sudden, and affected us immediately. Most notably, our brewpub was forced to close – which meant that we were compelled to lay off forty staff. On top of this, we lost all of our licensee business. Still, we’ve managed to keep the lights on by selling into the LCBO, and with in-house retail sales and home delivery sales too. All of our brewing volume now goes into cans. 

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
When restaurants and bars closed, we lost a major sales channel for our beer. We also lost the income from our tap room. Having said this, we’ve been fortunate enough to keep the majority of our staff employed, thanks to the support from our loyal customers. 

Mike Oosterveld, Fixed Gear Brewing

Mike Oosterveld, Owner, Fixed Gear BrewingWe were forced to close the doors at our Elmira Road location and to turn the tap room at our Alma Street location into a beer distribution centre. Our keg sales stopped immediately, of course, but fortunately we haven’t laid off any staff. 

How have you had to pivot? How are you getting beer to folks now? 

Brett Croft, Red Circle Brewing Co.

Brett Croft, Co-founder & Brewmaster, Red Circle Brewing Co:Because most of our business was draftsales [at Graffiti Market and at bars and restaurants throughout the region], we’ve pivoted to offer home beer deliveries – and it’s been a tremendous success. What we were selling in a week for canned beer we are now selling in a day. We’re making available in cans one-off beers like our Dry-Hopped Sour and Phillips Brewing collab beer, ‘Little Victory’. And our entire brewery team is helping with deliveries – taking ‘grain to glass’ to a whole new level. 

Joe Freund, Head Brewer, Willibald Farm Distillery & Brewery:As a craft brewery and distillery, our largest pivot was using our distilling facility to manufacture sanitizer. Aside from this, the pandemic essentially forced our hand into moving all of our beer offerings to our online shop, which has proved to be a massive help in moving product. Initially, we were afraid we’d have to dump beer – but the reality has been that we can’t keep up with production. 

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
Since we have not been able to ship to bars and restaurants, we have moved to ramp up our online store by offering free no-contact regional delivery to Guelph, Kitchener- Waterloo, Cambridge, and area. We offer guaranteed same day service seven days a week to everywhere in our delivery zone. We’ve also opened a take-out window we’re calling the ‘Welly Walk-Up Window’ at the brewery which provides super quick, no- contact service for beer pick-up from our brewery. 

Mike Oosterveld, Owner, Fixed Gear BrewingSince the pandemic struck, we’ve looked
for the safest and most efficient ways to
get beers to customers. As a result, we’ve updated our Shopify site, introduced same day delivery service locally, and integrated curbside pick-up and a walk-up window too. 

Are you planning to implement any of these changes permanently? 

Brad McInerney, Wellington Brewery

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
It’s likely that on the other side of this pandemic the craft beer industry will be transformed. Our local home delivery
has been a massive success for us. Many customers are getting used to this service and will likely be looking for it in the future. While we’re facing a lot of challenges in the short term, this could be an opportunity in the long run for us to explore new and creative ways to sell our beer. 

Joe Freund, Head Brewer, Willibald Farm Distillery & Brewery:Right now our business plan is shifting on a week-to-week basis. With the pandemic still very disruptive of what was once the norm, and market conditions changing so quickly, I think it would be foolish on our part to make any firm decisions at this juncture. Once we start to get a grasp on what the new ’norm’ looks like, we will be in a much better position to make those types of calls. 

Brett Croft, Co-founder & Brewmaster, Red Circle Brewing Co:There certainly has been a shift in consumer behaviour because of the pandemic. Convenience and one-stop shopping seems to be emerging as the new norm. We plan on continuing home deliveries for people still looking for that convenience, but also will look to do more pizza and beer combos which have been well received. 

Which of your beers are most popular now? 

Joe Freund, Willibald Farm Distillery & Brewery

Joe Freund, Head Brewer,
Willibald Farm Distillery & BreweryIPAs. People need their hop juice. 

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
People are definitely looking for variety right now, so we’re seeing lots of orders with a mix 

of different beers. Our ‘Vol 8 Mix Pack’ has been super popular as it has a great selection of four beers for spring and summer – including two unique sours, a hazy pale ale, and our award-winning ‘Helles Lager’. 

Jon Laurencic, Managing Partner, Elora Brewing Co:‘Elora Borealis’ [a citra pale ale] has always been our biggest seller – and this hasn’t changed through the pandemic. The other week we sold out a full batch in four days. Insanity. ‘Friends Forever’ [a pale ale – and TOQUE collaboration] and ‘SHINE’ IPA are both flying too. All three are now in the LCBO. 

Brett Croft, Co-founder & Brewmaster, Red Circle Brewing Co:Our award-winning (humble brag) ‘Iron Horse Trail’ IPA has been by far our most popular beer. Since the pandemic, it’s doubled in sales. Our ‘Crystal Park’ pilsner is our runner up, as it’s a beer for people looking for something well-balanced and sessionable. 

Mike Oosterveld, Owner, Fixed Gear BrewingOur most popular beers have been our ‘Breakaway’ IPA and ‘Training Wheels’ cherry sour, followed by our ‘Stonehammer’ dark ale. 

With COVID, are you seeing more collaboration in the industry? 

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
Our industry has always been super close, and this situation has brought us even closer together. We’ve been in regular communication with other brewers across Ontario to share ideas and information about ways to adjust our production and sales to our shared current situation. There have also been early discussions about some collaborative charitable projects to help support the many small businesses and workers in the hospitality industry who are struggling right now. We should have more details to share in the weeks and months ahead. 

Jon Laurencic, Elora Brewing Co

Jon Laurencic, Managing Partner, Elora Brewing Co:I have reached out to friends at different breweries to ask how they are doing. Everyone seems to share the same sense of confusion and uncertainty, but with an underlying drive to get through this crisis.  

At the moment, I’ve been shooting emails back and forth with our buds at Red Circle to coordinate a virtual collab brew. By the time this issue comes out, folks might even have this beer in their hands. 

Brett Croft, Co-founder & Brewmaster, Red Circle Brewing Co:We’ve teamed up with our friends atElora Brewing to do a collab IPA called ‘All Together’. Brewed virtually together, this beer is being crafted by breweries worldwide to support hospitality professionals. We couldn’t be more thrilled to do it with Elora. 

Mike Oosterveld, Owner, Fixed Gear BrewingWe’re pretty tight with the local breweries and I know that if we needed any help they would be there for us – just as we would be there for them. While out delivering outside of Guelph, I see a lot of craft delivery drivers on otherwise empty roads. We wave and give a nod – building a camaraderie along the way. I’m sure at future craft beer conferences we will all share war stories over a few beers. Looking forward to that. 

Other thoughts? 

Brad McInerney, Marketing Manager, Wellington Brewery:
I’d like to emphasize how overwhelmingly grateful we are for the support we’ve seen from our customers during this difficult time. Ordering your beer from a local brewery or getting take-out from your favourite local restaurant makes a world of difference to small businesses right now. 

Joe Freund, Head Brewer,
Willibald Farm Distillery & BreweryTogether, we’re going to beat this virus and come out stronger on the other end. 

Jon Laurencic, Managing Partner, Elora Brewing Co:It never ceases to amaze me how awesome the people of the Wellington and Waterloo Regions are. We can’t thank you enough for your support and we look forward to raising a non- socially-distanced beer with you – whenever that day may come. 

Mike Oosterveld, Owner, Fixed Gear BrewingWe owe a lot to the communities who have supported us through this pandemic. I think that in the end this whole thing has brought everyone in the community a lot closer. 

Brett Croft, Co-founder & Brewmaster, Red Circle Brewing Co:I can’t wait to share stories and pints with everyone when this is all over