For anyone who has had much involvement with Ontario’s craft beer industry, you get to know fairly quickly that “industry” probably isn’t even the right term for this group.
Yes, they are making and selling a product and running a business, but for the most part, the people making and selling beer at small breweries in this province are much more of a community than they are an “industry.” They all know the same people, they sometimes went to school together, they usually face the same struggles, they are often sharing resources and–increasingly–they even brew their beer in the same parent facility.
And while there can occasionally be some infighting or gossip about petty things like who’s swiping kegs from other brewers, who’s “copying” someone’s latest beer style or label, etc. it is, for the most part, a community that works together, collaborates on ideas, and shares in each other’s achievements as craft beer grows in Ontario.
They also come together as a community when they are faced with tragedy.
Such was the case in August, when Matt Soos, an employee of Muskoka Brewery and a graduate of Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program, passed away at the age of 26.
Matt grew up in West Lorne Ontario and attended school at the University of Guelph before attending Niagara College and and he graduated from the brewing program in 2014. After graduation, Matt started work at Muskoka Brewery this past spring and, while he only worked there for six months before he passed, he clearly left a lasting impression.
“He was a super nice guy,” Gary McMullen, Founder and President of Muskoka Brewery, told me by phone recently. “He fit in really well here and was just a bright, warm, affectionate guy who always took time to chat with people coming through on tours.”
As a testament to the kind of guy Matt was, when he passed, there was a busload of folks from the Muskoka area who opted to take the trip to West Lorne to attend his memorial service. McMullen says it was a chance to get to know Matt’s friends and family and learn his story since the people he made beer with at Muskoka didn’t really get much chance to know him.
While they were there, the concept of brewing a beer for Matt came up. The students at Niagara College had already brewed a small batch beer in Matt’s honour–“Soos’ Juice”–but McMullen says Matt’s parents and some of his friends from the college discussed the idea of doing something on a larger scale with some people from Muskoka Brewery and, as McMullen says, “We were all over that.”
And so in late October, the people at Muskoka brewery invited Matt’s family into the brewery to brew one of Matt’s recipes. The beer they chose to brew was a recipe that Matt developed while at Niagara College. Natterjack Toad is a 7% ABV Belgian Strong brewed with pistachios. Matt’s family and friends showed up at the brewery the night before the brew day and actually helped grind 100kg of pistachios that went into the beer.
They brewed 35 hectolitres of Natterjack Toad and when I last spoke to McMullen he told me that it was scheduled to be packaged for sale today, on November 19th.
The beer will be available from Muskoka’s on-site retail shop–the quantities that is, that have not already been set aside for pre-orders for Matt’s friends and family.
Fittingly, proceed of the sales of the beer will go to establishing the Matt Soos Memorial Project Brew Scholarship at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery and presumably will help inspire the next generation of brewers coming up in the Ontario craft beer community.
I asked Matt’s closed friend, Caleb Gilligan, to contribute to this article so I might get some better sense of what kind of guy Matt was. Caleb is himself a brewer–at Gravenhurst’s Sawdust City Brewery–and was Matt’s classmate at Niagara College. It didn’t seem right to condense Caleb’s thoughts to just a short quote for the sake of my blog post, so instead I’ll leave you with what he sent me by email in its entirety.
“Matt was one of the most unique, multi-dimensional people I have ever met.
Just as you would think you had finally gotten to know him in his entirety, you would discover some previously unseen interest, hobby, expertise, or emotional depth that you previously had never suspected was there. He was so effortlessly interesting and complex, and yet was always warm, approachable, and sincerely down to earth.
I don’t think that I have ever met anybody who’s lust for learning could rival Matt’s. Spending time with Matt and discovering his immense range of talents and hobbies would have been enough to make anybody feel woefully inadequate if it weren’t for his unwavering modesty.
The best word that I can think of to summarize Matt is ‘Craftsman’. Whether it was cooking a giant pot of Gumbo in the middle of a party, making liquor out of discounted bananas, spending hours on a costume and decorations for a themed party that he was hosting (to which everybody who he had ever made eye contact with, or had connected with on Tinder was invited), sharing a jar of pickled vegetables that he would proudly declare he had made with his Mother, or forging more knives than any one man could possibly need, Matt had a way of making you feel as passionate about things as he did.
To me, the thing that I love about Matt the most, is his sincerity and authenticity. He didn’t want to learn how to pickle vegetables or forage for mushrooms because he thought it would impress people or would make an interesting photo on instagram, he did these things because they gave him joy, and never was that joy more apparent, than when he was sharing it with others.
I don’t think it is possible for anybody to be eternally positive, but Matt came closer than anybody I have ever met. As another one of Matt’s classmates, Graeme Nicol put it, “the only time he would have a bad day, was if somebody else was having a bad day.”
It is undeniable that Matt had a distinct impact on everybody who got to know him, and I know that he will continue to inspire us to be as warm and open to others as he was to us, to never shy away from the unknown, and to put crazy shit into beer and see what happens.”