Craft breweries are all the rage right now and, at least here in Toronto, it feels as though new indie beer companies are popping up on corners faster than our beloved craft coffee shops. If you’re interested in craft brews, and the craft brewing industry, there’s a good chance your mind has wandered into world of what it might be like to work for a craft brewery, or even start one yourself! As one of Canada’s oldest (they’re 22 years young!) and most established craft breweries, we went to the President of Muskoka Brewery to tell us more about craft brewing, their business and their latest venture into the world of craft spirits with the release of their new Muskoka Spirits Legendary Oddity Gin and brand new Docker.
Name: Todd Lewin
Company & Title: Muskoka Brewery, President
Education: BA University of Guelph
Edit Seven: Tell us about your business, Muskoka Brewery, what do you guys do?
Todd Lewin: Muskoka Brewery was founded in 1996 by Gary McMullen and Kirk Evans and is now owned and operated by my partner, Bob MacDonald and myself. At Muskoka Brewery we’re all about fresh, local, quality beer and spirits. With 22 years under our belts, we’re proud to offer a wide variety of premium beers for everyone discover and enjoy, wherever they are on their beer journey. We recently ventured into craft spirits as well with the release of our Muskoka Legendary Oddity Gin and brand new Docker.
E7: Tell us about your role at the company, what do you do?
TL: As the President, I am lucky to lead a team who is very cohesive and stands strong in our values and vision. With the size of our company, I am involved in all aspects of the operation which really keeps me connected. We have a great culture at the brewery which makes coming to work fun, it really is all about our people.
E7: How did you end up working with Muskoka Brewery and why do you love it?
TL: I was in beer on the macro side for 13 years prior with Molson-Coors and loved the business but didn’t like where the company was going. I was watching the emergence of craft closely and after being downsized met Bob and Gary who brought me to Muskoka as the VP Sales & Marketing. It felt great to again be working on a team and on brands that mattered.
E7: Tell us more about Muskoka Brewery, when did it launch and why?
TL: Muskoka Brewery was founded in 1996 by two childhood friends, our founding partners Gary McMullen and Kirk Evans. They saw an untouched opportunity to bring their passion for great beer to life in the Muskoka area, starting with our flagship beer – Cream Ale. Even though it can be challenging being a brewery north of the city, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Muskoka Brewery is proud to craft all our products locally, right here at our brewery in Bracebridge. We are joined by some great neighbours in craft breweries and are one of the only craft spirit companies producing locally in the cottage country area.
E7: What are your thoughts on the rise of the local brewing company in Canada? Where does Muskoka Brewery fit into this trend?
TL: We’ve been around long enough to have taken part in the great growth we’ve seen in the craft beer industry as well as recently weathering some of the slowing of that growth. For us, what keeps our momentum strong is that we are really rooted in our mission to become Canada’s most trusted and iconic beer brand. Our employees strive towards this mission every day by ensuring we are staying true to our roots in quality and freshness. Our team is adventurous and we like to heed our own advice to venture off the beaten path. We continue to push ourselves in creating innovative new brews each month as part of our Moonlight Kettle Series. We recently expanded and launched the Muskoka Spirits brand, all part of our mission to stay ahead as a leader of the industry.
E7: What are some of the pros and cons of running an indie brewing company?
TL: At Muskoka Brewery, we are lucky to have a lot more pros than cons. As one of the larger craft breweries in Ontario a challenge is continuously balancing between pushing for growth, while staying true to our local, independent roots. Our team is really what sets us apart, alongside our great product offering. As an independent brewery, we are happy to be able to venture off the beaten path and make our own rules. The big macro brands and pseudo contract brewer brands are doing a great job of confusing the market making it more important than ever to stay authentic and true to our Muskoka roots. High taxation continues to be a challenge that we are collectively campaigning against along with our other craft brewery friends.
E7: What are some of the pros and cons of running an indie brewing company in Muskoka and Canada in general?
TL: Being based in Muskoka really sets us apart. With over 260 craft breweries currently operating in Ontario, and new ones opening their doors each week you need a lot more than good beer to set yourself apart. As one of the original craft breweries, we are fortunate to lead the Ontario craft beer scene while striving towards being Canada’s most trusted and iconic beer brand. We look to our neighbours in the south to learn about upcoming trends and our partner brewery in BC, Vancouver Island Brewing to share learnings as well. It costs more to brew, package and distribute beer from Muskoka but we feel this authenticity is worth it and beer drinkers appreciate our transparency.
E7: What makes Muskoka Brewery different from everyone else in terms of your company values and your products?
TL: Resolve, Caring, Authentic, Unique and Thirsty: we say true to our values and lean on them to guide us, not only in the market, but in how our team takes care of one another. We’ve grown a lot in the past few years, now up to 130 employees and it still feels like a family. Muskoka Brewery is a proudly independent innovator based out of beautiful cottage country. We can honestly say that all of our products are produced and packaged right here in Bracebridge, you won’t find that in all products named for a region. Our dedication to freshness is inspired by the lakes and beauty of Muskoka. By putting “freshest by” on every can and bottle off the packaging line, we’re making a promise to our customers that we take very seriously. If we find products on the shelf that are past this date, we actually buy the product back from them. It’s expensive but worth staying true to our values.
E7: You’ve recently just launched the Muskoka Spirits Docker, why have you decided to branch into this new market?
TL: With Docker, we set out to create the perfect summer drink where you don’t have to compromise on taste or worry that it’s loaded with calories and sugar or artificial sweeteners. What makes Docker really unique is that we’ve made it with our small-batch Legendary Oddity Gin, a traditional dry gin with wild juniper berries and orris root. And unlike other ‘cottage country’ coolers, it’s actually made locally right here in Muskoka. Ontarians wait so long to get on the dock and patio, we wanted to make a drink that’s refreshingly simple and delicious.
E7: Ready-to-drink mixed drinks (like your Docker) seem to *finally* be on the rise here in Canada. What took so long for them to catch on?
TL: I think Canadians are gaining an appreciation of having access to conveniently pre-mixed cocktails like Docker. They’re looking for flavour, but it can be hard to find the time to piece together a unique cocktail. Millennials in particular are spending more and more on the tourism of taste, looking to food and beverage as an accessible premium product. They’ve got their finger on the pulse of the innovation of convenience, under the “work smart, not hard” mindset.
E7: Tell us more about how Muskoka Brewery is committed to using natural ingredients and not using artificial sweeteners.
TL: We’re lucky to work in a naturally beautiful part of the world and choose to reflect that in our products. It’s important to us to use products and packaging that is environmentally friendly and use natural, local ingredients wherever we can. Our beer is known for being premium and fresh and we expect our customers will appreciate a cocktail that’s naturally sweetened without the high sugar count. Docker is unique because we use an all-natural tonic sourced from our fellow Canadians at Porter’s Tonic. It’s made with real cinchona bark, giving the drink an effervescent golden hue. All-natural means you may see some sediment in your glass, so best pouring practice is to agitate your can slightly before pouring!
E7: What is it about the new product that you’re most proud of?
TL: Docker is simple, it’s natural, light and refreshing. What we’re most proud of is that it’s the only cocktail that’s truly made right here in cottage country. There are a lot of pre-mixed cocktails that connect to this place, but Docker is the only one truly packaged and produced right here in Muskoka.
E7: Who do you think will love this new product and why?
TL: I think this product will resonate with those looking to balance an active yet social lifestyle. It’s also just a naturally delicious choice for gin lovers, and for anyone who enjoys a light and refreshing beverage this summer. For those looking for a lighter option, Docker is only 160 calories per can with 9.9 grams of sugar, which is about half of most coolers on the shelf. It takes five cans of Docker to reach the sugar count in one flavoured cider, or two for your classic vodka cran. Made with natural ingredients and made right here in Muskoka, you can enjoy while supporting local!
E7: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a brewing company?
TL: Lots over the past 22 years and that is the reason that resolve is one of our most important brewery values. High taxation, local red tape, increased regulation, access to capital in order to expand are some of the big ones. Any roadblock that we have faced has challenged our team to find and way and continue to lead in the market. Not always easy but way more good days than bad!
E7: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced creating and launching the new spirits-focused product?
TL: We purchased our still in 2015 and took our time to launch our first spirit, Legendary Oddity Gin. Although Gin is a white distilled spirit, it’s a natural extension to our lineup due to the similarities in ingredients to our Legendary Oddity beer, which contains juniper, heather tips and orange peel. Our team partnered with Junction 56, a craft distillery out of Stratford, Ontario to help develop and perfect our recipe. Through late 2016 and early 2017, Junction 56 helped us learn about the distillation process and subtleties of distilling gin. After ten iterations of gin, we found our perfect fit: recipe #10, now known as Muskoka Legendary Oddity Gin!
It took us two years, with lots of learning and unique challenges but we came out with a beautifully hand-crafted gin – now used in our Docker Gin & Tonic. We are looking forward to continuing to learn and challenge ourselves to build the Muskoka Spirits portfolio. Unlike beer where we have multiple sales channels, spirits can only be sold in the LCBO so really need to work closely with them to succeed. Lots of carry over from prohibition on spirits compared to beer with being taxed much higher than beer, cider and wine.
E7: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own independent brewery or spirits company?
TL: Do your homework, you’ll need way more capital than you think, be prepared to work seven days/week and quality trumps everything! You need a story that’s real and that people can connect with.
E7: Where are some of your favourite spots to enjoy a Muskoka brew (or spirit!) in Muskoka that others can visit too?
TL: You can often find me right here on our newly renovated patio, Docker in hand, listening to live music and enjoying Sully’s food truck on a Saturday. We are fortunate to have lots of great partners serving Muskoka products but our first customer, Old Station is just down the road from us in Bracebridge, always serving up fresh beer with a welcoming smile.
E7: Where can Muskoka products be purchased and enjoyed?
TL: You can find our Muskoka Spirits Docker available at the LCBO, brewery, online and some of the best bars, restaurants and golf courses across Ontario.
(Story by Editor-in-Chief, Gracie Carroll)