Booze and the pandemic, Part 2: The craft brewer

Toronto’s Great Lakes Brewery is one of Ontario’s oldest craft brewers. TVO.org speaks with communications manager Troy Burtch about disruptions, spiking sales — and keeping the community alive
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 21, 2020
Great Lakes Brewery has been at its current west-end Toronto location since 1991. (iStock/DavidPrahl)

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This is the second instalment in a three-part series looking at how COVID-19 is affecting Ontario alcohol producers. Read Part 1 here; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought rapid change and challenges to Ontario’s thriving alcohol industry. In a new series, TVO.org is speaking with stakeholders to understand how different parts of the sector are reacting to the pandemic. Today: Troy Burtch, communications manager for Toronto’s Great Lakes Brewery.

Matt Gurney: Obviously, we’ll talk about the pandemic — but, first, can you give me a bit of history? Because for all the talk about the craft-beer renaissance in Ontario, and in Toronto, particularly, over the last 10 or 15 years, you guys have been around a lot longer.

Troy Burtch: That’s true. We opened in 1987. We’re family owned. Peter Bulut is our owner and president, and he took over from his father. And we’ve been at our current Etobicoke location since 1991. We employ roughly 55 people, and we’ve won many awards for our beer. We’re a bit unusual in that we aim almost all our production specifically at the Ontario market. “Brewed for you, Ontario” is what we like to say. About 99 per cent of what we make is consumed here. We sell directly to the LCBO and grocery stores but also do a ton of one-time or sessional brews, as well. And we really want to be a fun place. Beer is the most social drink on the planet, and we really want to be a centre for the community where people can come in, try a few new beers, and just meet new, interesting people at our lounge or restaurant onsite. That’s us in a nutshell. Family owned and fun.

Gurney: So you guys have been operating for 33 years. And that puts you decades ahead of what we normally think about when we talk craft brewing in Toronto.

Burtch: We were one of the first, yeah. There was a wave of them that started in the ’80s, and Brick was first — they’re called Waterloo Brewing now. And there were others, like Creemore and Amsterdam. I think Wellington in Guelph is now considered the oldest private brewery still operating in Canada. Many have been bought up by the big companies. But, yeah, we were among that first wave, and we are still family owned and independent.

Gurney: Let’s talk about the process of brewing. I know more about this than is probably healthy, but assume I know nothing and tell me what happens.

Burtch: It starts with Mike Lackey! [laughs] He’s our brewing-operations manager. He started here in 1991, ripping out carpets, cleaning draught lines: he’s done it all. But he developed a love of brewing. Around 2008 or 2009, Peter Bulut, our president, bought a 70-litre pilot-brewing system, and Mike just brewed and brewed and brewed, getting his Malcolm Gladwell-approved 10,000 hours. We were really influenced at the time by what was happening in the U.S. with their craft brewers, a real focus on great India Pale Ales — IPAs — that came with the second wave of craft brewing in the U.S. Mike would travel to Buffalo and Michigan and all over and try the beer and bring some back, and we’d experiment to give that our GLB twist. So we became recognized for our IPAs in Ontario and started winning awards. And Mike would travel everywhere to try out different beers and hops and malts in Washington state, for example, and pick exactly the ones we liked: aromatic, good acid content — all that. And then we’d place orders for years.

So that explains our approach, but the actual process? Malted barley gets combined with hot water, like brewing tea or porridge, for a certain amount of time, and that depends on the beer. That mash is called wort. It gets pumped over to a kettle and boiled. That’s where we throw in the hops — at the beginning for bitterness and the end for aroma. And that’s when you can also add your adjunct, the fifth ingredient. Anything other than water, malt, yeast, and hops is considered an adjunct. Like, if we’re making a pumpkin beer, pumpkin spice would be the adjunct, and that’s when we’d add it to the kettle. It cooks in the kettle, and the wort goes through a whirlpool, where we add some hops — we’re the best at that here. The wort picks up flavours and aroma here. The wort goes through a heat exchange with coils and cold water. The wort is hot but gets cooled down enough so that when it goes into a fermenter, the yeast won’t die. Yeast is in the fermenter, and the wort goes in. That first second of contact is when wort becomes beer. The yeast attacks the sugars, turning them into alcohol. It ferments for however long is required — days for ales and weeks for lagers. Both then age in tanks, different times based on styles.  But then it’s ready, and it’s either off for filtering, canning, bottling, or kegging. 

Gurney: Listening to you describe that, it’s amazing. And it occurs to me that you can probably still do a lot of that. But no one is hopping on a plane to fly across North America to try out some hops anytime soon. Still, a lot of the actual process you’re describing could probably continue, if you could keep stocked up on supplies. How are you finding that so far?

Burtch: Well, like I said, we’d order years’ worth of the right hops and malt, so supply has been okay. And agricultural products are still moving across the border. We have good contacts and relationships with suppliers so so far we’ve been fine. What we get from the United States is still arriving, and we get a lot from local suppliers, too, right here in Ontario. So the raw ingredients are okay. But we have experienced other logistics problems. Production of aluminum cans has been disrupted. We are still getting them, but it’s taking longer. Cardboard packaging for our boxes is also disrupted. Our suppliers are having trouble accessing their raw materials. But we’ve been open long enough that we have people here that remember SARS. That was obviously different, but we were having conversations early, and we’ve been able to make adjustments and keep operating.

Gurney: When did the hammer fall for you guys? When did you realize that this was going to be a big deal?

Burtch: We were watching it early. Everyone was, right — on the news? What was happening in China and then in Europe. Normally, we would do a lot of events. We could host them here, or we could cater them somewhere else at a venue. And, in March, we started having a lot more conversations, both internally and with clients, about what we should be doing. I remember on March 12, the news said that the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau, was positive for COVID. My wife is in health-care, so we were talking about that. And that was a real wake-up call for us, personally, too. The next day was a Friday, and we had an event planned that day, and we did continue with it, but we were talking that day, saying, you know what, we need a plan.

And we were going to come up with one over that weekend for the next week, because we are very community based. We have the taproom, the Canuck lounge [event space], a  food truck [Wavy Wall Craft Kitchen], the retail store. And all of those places were always full of people. But that weekend, we decided, we’ve got to start closing down. Get online ordering going, get pick-up purchasing going. We decided we’d have staff at the door to take orders and then bring it to the customers, but they wouldn’t come in. And it was about a week after that that we decided to shut down the retail store entirely and begin home delivery. We already had a website that we used to sell merchandise, and we were like, okay, now it sells beer. While all this was happening, too, there were constantly changing directives and recommendations from the provincial and federal governments. Honestly? The first few weeks are a blur. But we were able to shift and keep going.

Gurney: I think, looking back, this whole period is going to be a blur, if we want to remember it at all. You’ve mentioned your consumables. Agricultural products are good, but cans and packaging are disrupted. How about workflow at your own facility? You told me earlier how beer gets made. Can you make beer during a pandemic?

Burtch: We can, and we are. We’re making more! We are a team here, but beer brewing naturally has shifts anyway, including some guys who start very, very early, so we can get people in and out without crowds. And the stations are separate enough for us to do things at a six-foot remove. We do have enough masks and gloves for everyone who needs them, and we can physically distance while working, so we are okay. It’s not the same, but we are operating.

Gurney: You said operating more, in fact. Has there been a surge in demand?

Burtch: We’d normally be ramping up anyway for the summer season. But, even beyond that, yeah, we are busy. Sales have spiked tremendously. We have been able to be consistent with our pricing and our quality, so people know they can count on us. Also, like I said, we can do a lot of one-offs in our pilot system — and we’re doing a few of those a week, and they are selling out on our website fast. We are getting very creative about staying in touch with our clients. We’re doing Zoom sessions where the clients can talk with our brewers and keeping everyone connected and working very hard. Our clients are supporting us, and it’s great. Our delivery guys get huge smiles when they drop off beer. It’s remarkable how happy and supportive our clients have been, and we’re so grateful. It’s great. But busy!

Gurney: You guys, obviously, are a producer. You make beer; you sell beer. But you’re also a venue. You have a taproom, a food truck, an event lounge. What does losing those mean to your business?

Burtch: Tourism is huge. Craft beer is a huge tourism draw. People come in to visit breweries, and we work hard to make sure we’re a stop on the tour. Canadians and Americans from all over come here. Also, we do events, right? Baseball and hockey games are huge for us. Red Sox are in town? Tons of people from Boston show up. Rangers are playing the Leafs? Here come the New Yorkers. And just community members spending time here. So all our trivia nights were cancelled. We had to cancel our huge charity barbecue — we do that every Father’s Day. So that’s sad for us. And events we’d cater, like wedding receptions, are gone. Big community events and rib fests, also gone. It’s taken a big chunk of business from us, but we’ve been able to move those staff to helping with online orders and home delivery. But tourism is a huge economic driver that we’d worked really hard at and hope to regain once we are able to be open again.

Gurney: When we’re speaking today, I’d say things are cautiously optimistic in Ontario. We are slowly reopening. That might change if the numbers turn against us, but, for now, let’s be optimistic. What are you hoping to see?

Burtch: Well, obviously, we all want this to be over and for everyone to be safe. But, for our industry, we’re talking closely with the Ontario government. We do all the town halls with government officials that we can for economic regulations but also for tourism information. But it’s not just the province — we also have to work with the local regulations Toronto has established for permits. So we are watching both Ontario and Toronto developments closely. Right now, we’re trying to grow in LCBO outlets and in grocery stores, and we’re hoping we can maybe reopen our taproom and patio. Those are the touchpoints for us and the community. Getting that neighbourhood connection back — that’s what craft beer is all about. So, yeah. We want bums in seats and good conversations and to see all our local friends again, and new friends, too, coming from all over. But we know it has to be safe. So we’re waiting, just like everyone.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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