Signs of the craft brewing boom finally reaching Hamilton are only encouraging to Gary McMullen, patriarch of Muskoka Brewery — one of the first and longest operating craft breweries in Canada.
“The more the merrier,’ McMullen said, while visiting The Ship restaurant and bar on Augusta Street last week for a media beer and food sampling event.
Rather than worry about competition, he pointed out craft breweries currently share less than four per cent of the Ontario beer market.
“We don’t have to fight over it,” he said. “There’s lots of room to take from the big guys.”
McMullen opened Muskoka, in Bracebridge, on June 15, 1996 — early in the craft brewing gestation.
While Hamilton has lagged behind the continuously expanding industry, a small group of fledgling brewers appear to be leading a push that could soon bear fruit.
Ed Madronich of Flat Rock Cellars winery in Jordan is working on opening a brewery in Dundas. Collective Arts Brewing and Nickel Brook Brewing are in the process of moving to the former Lakeport Brewery in north end Hamilton. Meanwhile, two small operations have started making beer in the area — Hamilton Beer Limited and Garden Brewers.
“The threshold for entering the industry has dropped,” McMullen said. “That’s good. There are exciting things happening.”
Back in 1986, McMullen was graduating from high school in Muskoka. The recently released film Top Gun inspired him to be a fighter pilot.
He headed off to Royal Military College in Kingston, then flight training in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba.
But some hard landings during testing — partly due to the stress of a groundhog on the runway — resulted in McMullen working in the aerospace side of the Canadian armed forces in Ottawa.
It was there he discovered the new ‘U-Brew’ craze. McMullen became so interested in the art and science of brewing beer, he bought his own home-brewing equipment and made beer for himself.
At one point, he romanticized about opening his own brewery.
When he was 24-years-old, government cutbacks left him with no job — but a full year’s salary as severance. McMullen felt like he was rich — and saw an opportunity.
He headed home to Muskoka in August, 1994 with the goal of opening a brewery. It took about a month to convince close friend Kirk Evans to join the project.
One year and nine months later, McMullen and Evans opened the doors to Muskoka Brewery.
“Our business plan consisted of ‘what are we doing tomorrow?’” McMullen said.
Their lone product — Muskoka Cream Ale — found a home in a few bars willing to take a chance, including C’est What in downtown Toronto.
Evans would load a couple of kegs into his car on a weekend and drive to Toronto to sell Muskoka beer.
But in January, 1997, Evans died from injuries suffered in a car crash. With the support of friends and family — and others in the fledgling craft brewing industry — McMullen and his small business decided to just keep going. They worked through the tragedy, and survived.
Muskoka started with 200 hectolitres — a couple thousand kegs — of beer a year. This year they will make nearly 40,000 hectolitres.
The brewery opened with three staff members 18 years ago. It grew to five employees by 2008. Now Muskoka has just under 70 employees.
McMullen said every 1,000 hectolitres made by a craft brewery creates about 10 new jobs, while imported beer creates no jobs and Canada’s big breweries create less than one new job with every 1,000 hectolitres.
He said Canada’s craft brewing industry is young — and Ontario is even further behind, but he believes exciting things are happening. It’s easier for new breweries to get started and get their product on the market.
However, it’s our southern neighbours who have been setting the agenda for a while.
“We follow what’s happening in the American craft beer industry, because we’re two to three years behind,” McMullen said.
He pointed to the mistaken perception that Canadian beer is ‘strong’ while American beer is weak. But while Canadian brewers slept, U.S. brewers created the craft beer revolution.
“We’ve playing catch up. But we are catching up,” McMullen said.
McMullen led a sampling event at The Ship last week that paired five Muskoka brews with five different food courses — a type of sampling some would normally associate with wine. But McMullen said it’s even better with craft beer.
“Compared to wine, there’s more flexibility,” he said. “We have a lot more potential ingredient inputs. We’re a lot more flexible in the ingredients than wine.”
It’s the kind of sampling event, and beer-food pairing that is growing in popularity and helping build tourism.
And as he watches the industry slowly start to boom, McMullen notices a change in the type of tourists Muskoka attracts. They are there specifically to learn about the process and sample beer.
“They come to see the brewery, and they buy,” he said.
Travelers often tell McMullen they schedule several brewery tours during a single vacation.
He is excited about the near future of craft brewing in Ontario– and encourages existing brewers to help the upstarts where they can.
“There’s a lot of innovation and invention,” McMullen said. “The word ‘invention’ raises the standard — but we’re excited by that.”