MBAC 100th Anniversary Conference: Part 2

The first two parts of the conference had been about cellaring and fermentation. The next part of the conference was brewery history.

Sleeman Brewery (John Sleeman)

Sleeman started as a small brewery on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario, but through clever marketing of clear glass bottles (bad for beer but nice to look at) it rapidly outpaced the other small breweries in the area and became a national player. The founder, John Sleeman, is a very personable guy, very able to sell himself — and that has probably been one of his strengths during the long and sometimes difficult road he has followed while building Sleeman to the size it is today.

He related some of the stories behind the advertising we see on TV — the references to “pirates” and “smugglers”, and how his father was forced to close the family brewery in Guelph when the Sleemans were caught providing beer to American smugglers during Prohibition. How John started a brewery armed with nothing more than his grandfather’s recipe book and the promise of technical expertise from Stroh’s, was a fascinating story.

He had several pieces of advice:

  • Be brutally honest about your own skills, and find people to fill in the gaps you have.
  • Don’t hire friends and family. First, it’s too hard to fire them when they mess up. Secondly, other employees will always believe that friends and family, no matter how skilled, get promoted due to nepotism.
  • Don’t underfund your start-up. More companies die due to lack of cash flow rather than bad product or poor sales.

Mill St. Brewery (Joel Manning)

Mill St. was a “3rd wave” craft brewery that started as a tiny operation in the touristy Distillery District of downtown Toronto  in 2002. Smart marketing to women of a rather bland low alcohol organic beer in a smaller-than-normal 200 mL “pony” bottle caused sensational sales and growth. (During an informal tour of their brewery last summer, one of the brewer showed me their fermenter schedule — “Organic Ale” still makes up over 60% of their production.)

Joel was brought on in 2005 to oversee construction of a brewhouse out in the dreary eastern suburbs of Toronto — an area called Scarborough on the map, but better know as “Scarberia” to locals.

Things were not easy for Joel — the industrial building for which Mill St. had signed a lease proved to have inadequate water, electricity and sewage capacity. However, problems got solved with the application of more money. (As the experts say, “Set a budget and schedule, then double the money and triple the time.”) Mill St. definitely did not build a showcase brewery — it is located in an anonymous industrial building in an anonymous industrial district. Mill St. has never publicized the new brewery location, and many people probably believe their beer is still brewed in the Distillery District.

Once the new brewery was in operation, the original brewery back in the Distillery District was converted into a brewpub.

 

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