Microbrew lovers are in heaven as Ottawa’s craft beer biz takes off
By Travis Persaud
“Ottawa will emerge as one of the coolest places in North America to drink craft beer,” says Steve Beauchesne, co-founder of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. How’s that for audacious? A few years ago it was easier to find gas for less than a dollar a litre than it was to grab a pint of craft beer at a bar — much less local craft beer. Today it feels as if every few months, a new brewery opens its doors in the National Capital Region and surrounding area.
Scarcity begets opportunity
So how did Ottawa find itself in this position as a burgeoning city of beer? Well, many attribute the rapid rise in local breweries to the fact that until recently, Ottawa was stuck in the ’90s, hands in its pockets, gazing into Alanis Morissette’s eyes. “Look at a small city like Halifax,” says Paul Meek, co-founder and co-owner of Kichesippi Beer Co. “They have two full-fledged microbreweries, a few brew pubs, Alexander Keith’s, and then a few more on the Dartmouth side. Ottawa is so far behind. It’s just playing the game of catch-up.” And making up for lost time.
The number of brew makers has more than tripled over the past three years. (There are now 10 breweries in the area, with another three or four to open within the next year.) “Ottawa is ready [for growth in the beer scene], and Ontario in general,” says Josh Larocque, head brewer and co-founder of Broadhead Brewing Company. “If you look around North America, craft beer has been taking off, especially in the U.S. Ontario was behind the times, but we’re coming around.”
One newcomer to the capital is Mill St. Brewery, an award-winning Toronto-based microbrewery that has risen over the past decade to become one of the most recognizable Canadian craft beer makers. Steve Abrams, co-founder of the company, remembers how sparse the beer scene in the province was when they opened in 2002. “Craft beer was pretty much nonexistent in Ontario,” he says. “When we launched Tankhouse, it was a novelty at the time. No one had a beer like that. But things have really changed in the last five years. There are more craft breweries, the LCBO is paying more attention to them, and brewers are getting more creative. It’s starting to mirror what’s already happening in the States.” He keyed in on the appetite of Ottawa customers for craft beer, choosing the city for Mill St.’s first expansion. The brew pub opened on LeBreton Flats in January, with a beer menu that includes Ottawa-only beers alongside the pub’s staples. “Ottawa is a very sophisticated, well-educated population,” he says. “They like good food, the people travel, and they know what’s good — they’re definitely connoisseurs.”
Yes, in our backyard, please!
The growing movement for local everything has also contributed to the chorus for more microbrews, giving brewers a strong platform for growth. “The real key is the chef-run restaurants,” Beauchesne explains. “They’re pushing [local beer] like you’d never believe.”
Meek agrees, noting that these leaders in the food industry know what they want — they’re sourcing local food and then demanding that the local beverages pair with their recipes. “Look at a place like Murray Street. The restaurant is only four years old, but they have such a presence in the city. They take such pride in sourcing so many products that are local.”
It’s a trend that avid home brewer JP Fournier recognized, leading him to start the Ottawa Beer TAP Society — a food and beer club that highlights local talent. Environments like these create an ideal atmosphere for people to taste new craft beers, especially consumers who were, until recently, accustomed only to the beer produced by the macrobreweries. “One of the first local beers I tried was Beau’s Lug-Tread Lagered Ale,” says Fournier. “Then I tried a bunch of others. And suddenly I’m brewing at home as well. I realized that beer’s not just sugary water with bubbles in it.”
And it’s not just those within the beer industry who recognize — and are prepared to capitalize on — this shift. What’s good for the locals will also impress visitors to the capital. “Ottawa already has an ingrained pub culture. The local beer culture imparts even more fun and innovation into what has already established itself as a stellar [culinary] community,” says Jantine Van Kregten, director of communications for Ottawa Tourism.
You can do it, so can I!
Why now, though? If Ottawa has lacked for so long the lively beer scene that many cities south of the border have enjoyed, why didn’t the nation’s capital revolt earlier? Well, there was no model to show people how to do it. Breweries had come, but all had gone. Someone had to show that it could be done — and done well. Enter Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co., based in Vankleek Hill, which set up shop in 2006, its eyes firmly set on the Ottawa market. “There was this myth at the time that you couldn’t sell craft beer in Ottawa,” Beauchesne remembers. “It was so bad when we started that we had investors pull out when they found out we’d be focusing on Ottawa. We literally had a bank manager overturn an approved loan because he was so convinced you couldn’t sell beer here. No one believed it could be done because no one tried and succeeded at it.”
It took a couple of years for Beau’s to gain a solid toehold in the city. Colleagues at breweries in Toronto and Montreal equated Beauchesne’s experiment with doing missionary work “out there.” Six years later Beau’s has converted the masses, with some industry insiders pointing to the company as a brave investor that proved it was possible to come to Ottawa and make good beer.
“I see ourselves being like Beau’s in the next five years,” says Michel Racine, co-owner of Cassel Brewery, which opened recently in Casselman. “That’s our vision. And they’re — along with all the craft brewers in the area — like brothers. Everyone is helping each other.” That’s a major distinction in this business. Breweries aren’t looking for ways to cut each other out — the exact opposite, actually.
“The one thing that could kill this industry would be stupid competition between craft breweries,” Beauchesne says. “That would be the worst — all it does is wreck it for everybody. It’s good business to make sure we’re all getting along.” And getting along will only help Beauchesne’s brave statement come true — a statement that appears to be more and more realistic.
“I don’t see the craft beer market here slowing down,” says Fournier, who also founded National Capital Craft Beer Week, which realized its inaugural festival this past August. “The more that’s available, the more becomes available. What may happen is that various breweries will find a niche and focus on it, but the market as a whole is not going to slow down.
Create your own craft beer tour!
The Old Mill at Ashton
Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co.
Big Rig Brewery
Broadhead Brewing Co.
Clocktower Brew Pub
HogsBack Brewing Company
Kichesippi Beer Co.
Les Brasseurs du Temps
Mill St. Brew Pub