This week’s Canadian Craft Beer post comes from our Ontario and Quebec craft beer guy, David Ort. Today David talks to the folks at Ontario's Nickel Brook Brewing Co. about their joint venture with Collective Arts, their commitment to new ideas, and what the future holds for this craft brewery.
After passing the "we're just struggling to brew enough to satisfy early demand" stage, Ontario craft breweries seem to strike out on one of two courses. Either they settle in to be the local brewery for their neighbourhood or small town, or they aggressively invest and focus on being one of the dozen or so breweries with across-Ontario reach. Along with the likes of Great Lakes and Beau's, Nickel Brook has slid comfortably into the latter category.
The investment can create spare capacity that is often contracted out to virtual breweries that don't have their own equipment. In Nickel Brook's case, their client Collective Arts was successful enough that they outgrew contract brewery status. Instead of striking out on their own, Collective Arts formed a joint venture with Nickel Brook, called Arts & Science Brewery.
In 2014, they took over the 50,000 sq. ft. facility in Hamilton's port lands that was once Lakeport's main plant, and installed the brewing equipment from the decommissioned Sleeman brewery. Ryan Morrow, Nickel Brook's longtime head brewer, has been acting in that role for the joint venture that produces the beer that carries both of their labels.
After growing in different directions over the past few years, the partners have decided to go their own way. Following a two-year transition, Collective Arts will keep the Lakeport facility and Nickel Brook will move south.
Geography will be part of the split, I think. Nickel Brook says they are committed to maintaining their home base in Burlington but are also on the hunt for a place, in Niagara, to build a destination brewery. The lofty description from their press release calls it "somewhere you will want to spend the day, learning how your favourite beers are made, enjoying them fresh out of the tanks, walking right up to the barrels and foeders our sours are living in."
"We would be looking to open in the forty to fifty thousand hectolitre range," explains Ryan Morrow.
That would put them at about 7,000,000 pints brewed per year and solidly within the top ten craft breweries in Ontario by size.
He goes on to mention that "a big part of the new facility would be a separate barrel-funk-sour part of it."
"As a facility we're definitely really busy," Morrow says of how Nickel Brook's Funk Lab program has taken off this summer, "and we'd like to play around more and put more barrels down."
They created a Funk 101 mixed pack of their creations this summer. "The beauty of doing this type of beer is pushing the envelope of what beer is to the traditional beer drinker."
Looking forward to the second half of the summer, he notes that "we're getting into the Ontario fruit harvest so we're going to be making a lot of fruited Ontario Berliner Weisses."
That connection to the Niagara region also shines through in their barrel program. Aging beer in wood is not a new idea and Nickel Brook wasn't necessarily breaking new ground when they started making beers like Winey Bastard, Kentucky Bastard, Bolshevik Bastard, and Cuvee, but they committed to the program at scale and are now one of the leaders in Canada.
A methodical, large-scale commitment to new ideas — whether contract brewing, barrel-aging, or sour beers — seems to be the Nickel Brook modus operandi. Stepping back from the Collective Arts partnership is the first reversal of course I can think of.
It helps that all of these more experimental offerings are built on top of a catalogue of award-winning core beers. From Headstock IPA to Equilibrium ESB to Paysan Saison their beer has played a big part in my own rotation. (The Nickel Brook gluten-free option might be the only exception where I wasn't at least curious to try a second.)
Naughty Neighbour, their American pale ale, has attracted some justified criticism for its sexualized branding. Which is too bad, because the product inside the puerile container is one of the two or three best for the style in Ontario.
With ten years of brewing experience at Nickel Brook, Morrow has become entirely familiar with his beers so it's not surprising that he has three answers to my "which one would you drink with friends at home on a hot summer afternoon" question. Naughty Neighbour makes his list along with raspberry Uber and Ceres, their cucumber-lime gose.
Raspberry Uber and Ceres both just picked up gold medals at the U.S. Open Beer Championship. That sort of recognition is, I'm sure, what the owners of Nickel Brook were hoping for as they open a new chapter for one of Ontario's most successful craft breweries.
Check out all our Canada’s Craft Beer articles.
David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.