Big Rock Brewery invades Ontario

Bob Sartor


We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery here in Toronto.

News broke this week that not one but two brew pubs would be opening in Liberty Village next year, one of them is The Three Brewers and the other, Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery.

The Three Brewers news isn’t all that ground-breaking—there’s already one in Toronto, banners have been out at their future site for a while and, let’s be honest, their beer has never exactly been mind-blowing—but the Big Rock news, it seems, is pretty significant in terms of Toronto’s beer scene and it’s even a little bit bigger news than what is actually being widely reported.

For some background, the news that Big Rock was opening a brewpub here first broke when they issued a statement. That statement was picked up by the Calgary Herald and then fell under the watchful eye of the omniscient Greg Clow who posted the scoop to Canadian Beer News, and, subsequently, it was picked up by Toronto Life for  “The Dish.”

And so, when it came time to post my own version of the “two brewpubs” story for blogTO , I wanted to see if I could get something that hadn’t been shared publicly yet so I took an unprecedented step: I called the people I was writing about.

My call to Big Rock CEO, Robert Sartor netted me the brief quote I needed to file my brewpub story (sweet!), but also unearthed some other significant beer news. Namely, in addition to the much-talked-about brewpub, Sartor let me know that Big Rock is building a full-scale brewery here in Toronto.

In fact, when I talked to him yesterday, Sartor was actively scouting locations here in the city to build a site for the production of Big Rock beer to distribute to Toronto and the rest of Ontario.

“The Liberty Village site is just a brew pub, or as I call it a ‘house of worship’ for the brand,” he tells me, “but we need a bigger space to produce our product in Ontario because I want my product to be fresh when people buy it there.”

In addition to improving the freshness of his beer by cutting down its current 3000 kilometre journey, Sartor’s move is due at least in part to his frustration with the current retail scene in Ontario and the way he feels it limits his ability to showcase Big Rock’s beers.

“[The current setup] is not economically viable,” he says. “In Ontario, we’re considered a ‘foreign brewer’ so we have a hard time getting those listings in the LCBO. And it doesn’t make sense to go with The Beer Store if I’m only going to do 6000 750ml bottles.”

The solution, apparently, is to just build a 35 barrel brewery here in Toronto (or 40 hectolitres, roughly twice the output of Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery).

As Sartor explains, Big Rock makes considerably more interesting beer than most Ontarians are probably aware, but because Big Rock only does them in small batches, none that stuff ever makes it here. “We put out close to 50 beers in the past two and a half years,” he tells me. “We just brewed a Russian Kvass and the employees baked 150 loaves of rye bread to put into the beer. Last Friday we did a collaboration beer with a Spanish brewer called Mateo and Barnaby. I tried their beer two years ago when I was travelling and they make kick ass beer. Again, we’ll probably only get to produce 20 hectolitres and the beer will disappear in two or three days, but it will disappear here, it won’t get to Ontario. Frankly because of that our beer[‘s reputation] suffers in Ontario.”

With a new brewery here in Toronto, he aims to change that.

The brewpub will serve as Big Rock’s “house of worship” where he’ll be able to showcase the beer his company is capable of making–something he hopes to do with not just draught but an extensive and interesting bottle list—and the brewery will act as essentially Big Rock’s retail outlet, providing beer for restaurants and bars in addition to direct bottle sales.

And while this all sounds very exciting for Toronto’s beer scene (indeed even I found myself getting excited about the news and I’m about as fiercely local and cynical a bastard as you’ll ever find), the success of the entire endeavour to me seems to hinge heavily on whomever Sartor hires to actually make his beer here in Toronto.

As he has with Big Rock’s other non-Albertan endeavour in British Columbia, Sartor says that whomever makes Big Rock’s beer in Ontario won’t be making the already-known Big Rock beers, but instead will have free reign. “My only caveat is on quality, not on the beer types,” he says that as long as the beer is made with 100% natural ingredients, the brewer can make whatever he or she want. “The moment you start telling a brewmaster what to brew–the moment the boss starts telling a brewer what to make–that’s when you go away from being a craft brewer and start going after market share and profit first. I think that if you brew amazing beers–beers that are unique and a different style–I honestly believe that with time profits come.”

So…no pressure future brewmaster, but Big Rock’s entire financial success in Ontario depends on your ability to read the market.

As for when this will all go down, Sartor says there’s still a lot to do before he’ll discuss timelines. He’s got a few neighbourhoods staked out for his future brewery, but it’s too early to share them. Once he finds the right spot, bringing in equipment will probably take a while, too. With so many new breweries cropping up, finding used equipment is exceedingly difficult and the lead time on having new stuff made is about six months.

Here’s hoping he uses that time to look for the right brewmaster.

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3 thoughts on “Big Rock Brewery invades Ontario

  1. I heard ads for Big Rock on Indie88 for the first time this weekend (I’m about 90% sure I wasn’t hearing things). While it’s possible they’ve been playing for a while and having read this last week I only just noticed, if the ads are new it seems like a bit of a strong hand to play for a brewery that’s not ready to discuss timelines yet.

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