Capital Pint by Travis Persaud is generally published every second Thursday at OttawaMagazine.com. Follow Travis on Twitter @tpersaud.
Kichesippi Beer Co. is turning three! The Ottawa brewery is set to throw a little party on Sunday to celebrate, and you’re invited. Party hats and $4 pints. Not bad. Actually, we’re not sure if there will be party hats. But there should be.
We sit down with Kichesippi owner Paul Meeks to chat about the brewery’s first three years, their Harvey and Vern’s soda line, and their Wuchak one-off series. And we somehow ended up chatting about the LCBO vs. The Beer Store debate, distilling, introducing new bottle formats, and much more.
You’re about to turn three. How does it feel?
It’s crazy. I can’t remember not having Kichesippi beer. It was just three years ago that it wasn’t around.
What’s year three going to look like for Kichesippi?
More growth is definitely going to be with the LCBO. We still just have the one sku there. We’re just waiting on our bottling machine. That’s our biggest purchase ever. Our current bottling line does 1,500 bottles over 6 hours, the new one will do 1,500 in one hour. It will let us bring Kichesippi 1855 into the LCBO, get our sodas bottled, and start our seasonal bottle program this Christmas — Wuchack Black will be our first 500-mL seasonal bottle.
And then you have your Wuchak one-off series…
That’s right. There aren’t a lot of IPAs on tap, as much as people think there are. So for the rest of the year we’re going to do have these one-offs. Right now we have Wuchak Polaris out. It only uses the Polaris hop. This hop is a small hop in terms of how much they grow, so we’re actually the largest buyer in North America. In the summer we’ll do the Wuchak West, a west-coast IPA, then Wuchak U.K., and back to our Wuchak Black [a black IPA].
And Wuchak Black going into the LCBO?
We’re still figuring out the LCBO’s seasonal program. As far as I understand, we need to present seasonals one year out — so we have to present it this fall for next winter. We’ll have the 500-mL bottles this year, but probably only at the brewery.
But 1855 will be going in the LCBO?
Yes! We’re hoping to have it in by June or July. It will be a six-pack.
Is it difficult to deal with the LCBO?
The LCBO gets a bad rap. They’ll tell you, “Here are the 27 things you need to get in.” They’ll give you a shot. But you still have to do them. The LCBO wants the Ontario manufacturing sector to make products, employ people, and generate taxes. From an Ontario perspective they’ll give you a shot.
The bad thing about the LCBO is that they take a chunk — they’re running a business as well. If I sell a six-pack here, I keep most of that. If I sell a six-pack to the LCBO they take a good chunk. But if I don’t take it to the LCBO, I get 100 percent of nothing. If it does go to the LCBO, I get a good chunk of a lot. My biggest cost is labour, rent, and dry goods. My labour and rent aren’t going to go down, so I just need to generate revenue.
Do you feel that perspective is lost on some breweries?
Running a brewery is a balancing act. You need to run a good business, but you need to make sure the marketing and message is there so the demand is there. Sometimes breweries get caught in the middle, where someone is running it too much like a masters project or someone is running it too much like a hobby. From the outside looking in it’s a sexy industry. It looks like fun. But what they don’t see is the provincial tax, the federal tax, the paperwork, the insurance, logistics, getting vans on the road. Those are the unsexy parts of it. But that’s okay because that balances out. The best thing about my job is that I’m never bored.
What has surprised you over the past three years?
The number of brewpubs that showed up blew me away. Three years ago there was just The Clocktower. I thought by now you’d see another full-fledge production facility like us. But we’ve seen some nanos show up and they’re growing, and the brewpubs are here. The growth of brewing within the city hasn’t happened where I expected it to happen.
What about with Kichesippi?
1855 is the biggest surprise for us at Kichesippi. We brought it out for our first anniversary, and people really liked it. We found that people were saying there weren’t enough options for a darker beer. And this is part of the educational side. Customers will come in and ask for our lightest beer and we’ll pour them 1855. And they’ll say, “I’m not sure if you heard me, but I want your lightest beer.” Our response is, “Close your eyes, drink it, and let us know.” We’re trying to let customers know that colour isn’t a flavour. Our Natural Blonde has a nice clean bitterness to it, and often that’s what will turn people away if they’re looking for something more refreshing. 1855 is our best selling draught over Natural Blonde. I did not expect that to happen.
You’re getting into the soda business with your Harvey and Vern’s line. How did that come about? We learned that breweries tend to go a few routes — either they make 40-50 types of beer, maybe they do a bit of distilling, or they get into sodas. We have great friends at Propeller Brewery in Halifax and we talked to them about how they go about it. It really isn’t that far from what we do with beer. Beer is an all-natural beverage with no added colour or preservatives. Soda is the exact same thing, just without the alcohol. It’s natural everything. We’re not adding any colours and it will be naturally sweetened with real cane sugar.
When will they be released?
We’re shooting for the middle of May. We’re starting with a cream soda and ginger beer. Then we’ll have a root beer probably sometime in fall, and likely something in the fruit category for number four. But the first two are already pouring at some restaurants, like The Black Tomato and Union 613’s speakeasy in the basement. It gets really interesting with restaurants. Take a place like The Wellington Gastropub who prides themselves on being local — locally sourced food, cheese, beer…but they’re stuck with Big Guy in Red or Big Guy in Blue. They’re excited they have an option that’s local and natural.
After Harvey and Vern’s takes off are you going to start distilling?
I don’t think so! I have a bit of a rum connection. People laugh at this because I’m white as a ghost, but I was born in Jamaica. So I have that love for rum. But I know nothing about distilling. Maybe I would consider it in 10 years…
What do you hope to do in the near future that you aren’t quite ready for right now?
I would like to do more home consumer things, like gift packages. And I would like our crew to be true experts in the industry as a whole. The challenge with the beer industry is that there’s so much concentration on grabbing a piece of the pie, rather than growing the whole pie. If we can band together as craft brewers and brewers to grow that whole pie, rather than wanting a bigger piece of smaller pie, then we all win. You look at the Ontario wineries as an example. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t be caught dead drinking Ontario wine. They banded together and formed the VQA and they kept their message strong as an industry. That’s what beer needs to do. We need to educate people on the health benefits of beer, our environmental policies…all these things beer does well that people don’t know about.
Do you have a vision of how this can happen?
The Ontario Craft Brewers has an increasingly strong presence. They do a great job with Craft Beer Week. The challenge is that there are members who are committed, going to meetings, and paying their dues. But there are other brewers who have nothing to do with it, are not contributing, and are more than happy to ride the wave. We all need to partner together. The more voices help everyone in the end.
And this whole Beer Store vs. LCBO debate won’t go away. It’s not going to change anytime soon. In saying that, with privatization we would get smoked. From the distribution side of things, to attack all of the grocery stores and convenient stores, the big guys would kill us. They can afford to buy shelf space and to distribute. If you want to get into Loblaws, whether you’re ketchup, chips or beer, you’re paying for that shelf space. It’s more convenient for the consumer, but it would hurt Ontario craft brewers.
It’s tough I think because we’re so close to Gatineau and we see these craft beer stores pop up and it gives us a glimpse of what could be. It’s true. But Quebec epitomizes supporting local. To say that model will work in Ontario isn’t necessarily the case. Supporting local is increasing, but it’s not entrenched like it is in Quebec.
You’re making soda, moving 1855 into the LCBO, starting your 500-mL bottles, distilling in 10 years, solving the Ontario craft beer dilemma…anything else? Our Heller Highwater will be our next packaged product after Wuchak Black.
Well…we want to get into canning. If I can pay off the new bottling line and get into canning, I think we’re set for the long term. But that’s a “this would be nice” idea!