In this episode of ‘Making it in Ontario’, Nick hands Brendan the mic for a conversation with John Romano, the president and co-owner of the Nickel Brook Brewing Co.

John and Brendan’s passion for Ontario’s craft brewing industry is evident throughout the episode. This passion is reflected in their love of Ontario craft beer and their interest in the industry’s explosive growth over the past two decades (the fastest-growing segment of manufacturing in terms of proportional employment growth!), which is documented in a recent Trillium Network report.

Throughout the episode, we learn more about the craft brewing process, the industry’s evolution, the experience of brewery owners during COVID, and the potential trajectory of the industry over the next five years. Craft brewing is an example of a highly localized segment of Ontario manufacturing that extends into the hospitality, tourism, and agri-food industries. Its growth is also due to specialized and craft-based production, the result of consumer demand for new and innovative products and a closer connection to the people who make their beer.

We also learn more about our friend John throughout the episode. A former aerospace engineer, John brings his problem-solving and relationship-development skills and talents into the brewery every day. He is a brewing industry veteran and led his company through its evolution from a small ‘u-brew’ facility to becoming a fixture in the Burlington community (he’s even been asked to run for mayor.) Recently, he purchased the former Big Rock brewery in Etobicoke (this brewery will be coming online this summer!).

The conversation expands on both the distinct nature of the craft brewing industry and highlights similarities between craft brewing and other segments of Ontario manufacturing. Like other manufacturers in Ontario, we learn that craft brewers exist because of their ability to specialize and innovate. This was one of the primary topics of discussion on a previous episode of ‘Making it Ontario,’ where NGen CEO Jayson Myers notes that the ability to specialize offers Ontario manufacturers a competitive advantage but also limits their ability to scale up their activities.

We discussed the nature of collaboration within the craft brewing industry and how collaboration – even among competitors – can benefit the entire industry. We also discussed how craft brewers, like manufacturers generally, were affected by COVID. Many craft brewers pivoted and produced sanitizer and other essential goods during the pandemic. Most felt the pinch associated with disrupted supply chains and an increase in the cost of materials. Almost all were forced to innovate and evolve in order to maintain production and ensure the health and safety of staff, customers, and suppliers.

We also discussed some of the differences between craft brewing and other segments of Ontario. One of the most striking differences is the perspectives of craft brewers on co-packing and contract manufacturing; practices that are common throughout manufacturing. While these practices are certainly not uncommon in Ontario’s craft brewing industry, the perspectives of craft brewers are…to put it diplomatically…mixed.

Another difference is how craft brewers interface with their customers. Unlike the internationally-owned breweries that serve Ontario, craft breweries and their staff – including the people that brew the beer – interface with their customers in their production facility. During the pandemic, they have also begun to interface with customers through home delivery by brewery staff and virtually through beer tastings. Craft breweries make a great product. They also offer customers an experience that connects them to the brewing process and the people brewing the beer.

So sit back, crack a cold Ontario craft beer (if that’s your thing – if it’s not, try one of their ready-to-drink cocktails, kombucha, or soft drinks), and enjoy this episode of ‘Making it in Ontario’.

00:00-04:05 – Nick’s Intro
04:06-09:36 – Intro to John and his quick fix on a $300,000 bottle capping machine
09-37-11:09 – From landing gear to brewing beer
11:10-17:23 – COVID19, supply chains, and Ontario craft brewing
17:24-22:18 – John has some big news…
22:19-27:11 – Brendan asks about the science of beer
27:12-29:26 – John takes influence for his craft from the music he listens to
29:27-32:31 – Brendan asks about the science of sour beer
32:32-40:27 – The evolution of Ontario craft brewing industry – Labour of Love
40:28-45:32 – The contentious co-packing discussion
45:33-48:21 – Competitors are his friends: the advantages of clustering
48:22-55:51 – The case-of-beer discussion.
55:52-55:43 – Has COVID19 forever changed how we buy beer?
58:52-1:02:22 – Brendan pitches an idea to John and they discuss
1:02:23-1:07:44 – John spins an industry yarn for Brendan
1:07:45-1:11:11 – Where is the industry going in 5 years? John’s concerns about distribution
1:11:12-1:16:16 – Nick the beer novice sees same challenges in brewing as other manufacturers

NGen CEO Jayson Myers Podcast Episode
Good Thing Brewing – Trillium Report
Nickel Brook Brewing Company