Muskoka Brewery was probably part of your discovery of Ontario craft beer, even if you don’t think they were.
Since they opened the doors in 1996 with a cream ale and steadily became more adventurous as Ontario beer drinkers’ palates evolved, their growth as a company has essentially mirrored the growth of Ontario’s craft beer scene. It’s almost certain that they’re responsible for bringing people on board with the idea that supporting local beer is rewarding and then, by degrees, that beer can be a little more adventurous than the shit people typically buy at The Beer Store.
This year Muskoka Brewery is celebrating their 20th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, they have a handful of cool things going on.
One of these things is a bunch of collaboration brews they are undertaking, inviting other breweries to their Bracebridge brewhouse along with a writer to tag along to drink beer and ask dumb questions. A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of being that writer while Muskoka Brewery welcomed Squamish BC brewery Howe Sound there to brew a hoppy hefeweizen. When released, the beer will be called Hefe Anniversary owing to the fact that Muskoka Brewery and Howe Sound Brewery were actually both founded in 1996 and are thus both celebrating two decades this year.
The recipe for the beer was developed by Ryan Hethrington, Muskoka’s Quality Control guy and a Niagara College grad. As with most collaboration brews, the special guests on hand to “brew” didn’t actually do much work and instead, I occasionally got in the way of brewer Brendan Kiefer for photo ops as he did the real work and I mostly toured the brewery, sampled upcoming releases, threw in a handful of hop pellets when told to, and snagged some fresh-off-the line Detour while I chatted with Howe Sound’s brewers, Patrick Moore and Simon Jongsma.
Collaboration brewing is such hard work.
In addition to the free beer *mimes radical guitar solo*, I was happy to be part of the festivities because, I’ll be honest, I’m a Muskoka Brewery fan. I’ve been around Ontario’s beer scene and brewers long enough to know that there are some mixed feelings about the brewery out there and I feel like at least some of the negativity voiced about Muskoka Brewery is related to the fact that they are in a weird spot: They’re still very much a small brewery, fighting the good fight against generic, foreign-run macrobreweries, but they’ve reached a size and level of success that makes it difficult for some craft beer diehards to like them. That is, most of their beers are far enough from the “mainstream” that they’re still a tough sell for people weaned on industrial lager, but they’ve perhaps become too big to still be cool with the beer nerds.
And that kind of sucks. Because breweries like Muskoka (and Steam Whistle and Beau’s and yes, even Mill Street before they crossed over to the Dark Side) laid a lot of the groundwork that has allowed our province’s craft beer scene to prosper. Ask any craft brewer how difficult, time-consuming and expensive it can be to leap into the business of brewing beer (or read my 2014 blogTO piece How hard is it to open a brewery in Toronto?) and you’ll see that it’s not all beer fests and bitchin’ t-shirts. It can be a downright scary. Now imagine taking the leap 20 fucking years ago when Muskoka Brewery co-founders Gary McMullen and Kirk Evans started the company.
Gary and Kirk (and all the other early adopters) overcame legislative obstacles so that today’s brewers don’t have to and while it might seem like Muskoka Brewery is too big to relate to the “little guy,” believe me, they’ve been there and feel your pain. Furthermore, these “big craft” brewers are still fighting fights on behalf of craft brewers–and their success gives them the clout and resources to do so. Muskoka Brewery, for example, publicly pulled their beers out of Alberta after that province instituted a tax on imported beer and they brought attention to the fact that the move would cost people jobs. Cam Heaps and Greg Taylor of Steam Whistle are using their own resources to actively pursue legal recourse against this decision so that other breweries who want to export their beer to Alberta some day are able to. Yes, these moves are self serving, but they’ll help expanding Ontario breweries who may be looking to send their beer west someday.
Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be political but, surprise! I got a little political. The TL;DR version is perhaps this: It’s great to support the small and new brewery in your neighbourhood, obviously, but respect where craft beer came from and take a minute to toast those who helped lead the way. And, hell, why not toast them with a Muskoka Cream Ale? It’s still a damn fine beer.
Of course, as with any industry, being a pioneer isn’t enough on its own and Muskoka Brewery needs to continue to innovate or risk becoming irrelevant. I personally think they are. They’ve grown from a company with one beer to a brewery that has four different core brands–the Cream Ale, Mad Tom IPA, Detour, and their Craft Lager–all of which lead Muskoka’s sales in different regions of Ontario. They’ve also, importantly, shown a willingness to try new shit with their seasonals and their Moonlight Kettle Series, for example (see below) and they’ve even been savvy enough to discontinue what was essentially one of their core brands when they decided their Dark Ale wasn’t working any more.
I hope they keep it up for another 20 years and am happy to raise a pint to Muskoka Brewery in their 20th anniversary.
[UPDATE: right as I was about to post this, I received a press release about the fact that Muskoka Brewery’s co-owner, Bob MacDonald, has purchased Vancouver Island Brewery. Seems they’re still finding ways to innovate and expand–and maybe gain some serious ground in the west. Here is the letter in which Vancouver Island Brewery’s owner announced the deal.]
If you’re also interested in helping celebrate Muskoka’s 20th, they are throwing a party at the brewery next weekend on June 25th. Shuttle buses will run to the brewery from Bracebridge and Gravenhurst and the event will feature limited edition “Muskoka Brewery inspired brews” by other northern Ontario breweries including Highlander Brewing Company, Lake of Bays Brewing Company, Muskoka Brewery, Sawdust City Brewing Company, and Whitewater Brewing Company. More info here.