Remembering the closure of Lakeport Brewing

In February of 2007 Labatt Brewery, owned by AB InBev, purchased Hamilton’s Lakeport Brewery for $201 million. In March of 2010 they announced that they would be closing the Hamilton facility and shifting production of all Lakeport brands to the London, Ontario Labatt’s facility.

This is, obviously, pretty old news but I had occasion to revisit it recently for a forthcoming article and thought it was worth sharing again for a couple reasons. First, there is probably many a craft beer fan who hasn’t actually been following beer news since 2010 and might not know the tale and second, it’s pretty remarkable to consider that 2010 moment in Hamilton’s beer scene given how far it has come since.

As Hamiltonians will remember, there was some uncertainty about what might happen at the Lakeport facility when its closure was announced, and Labatt did offer some incentives to future lessees of the brewery with one important caveat: Whoever took over the building next could not be a brewer. And so, when companies like Calgary-based Minhas Creek Brewing Company announced interest in the space, Labatt declined, allegedly shooting down a total of three beer company offers, including one from Rochester-based North American Breweries that would have saved all the jobs at the facility and likely even created more. Instead, Labatt opted to shutter the doors on the facility until the lease expired and they fired 143 people.

This part of the story is fairly well known (indeed, I essentially cribbed this summary from a handful of articles that were written at the time), but what most people might not now is just how much effort Labatt put into ensuring no one would brew in the facility once they left it.

In 2014, the facility was of course eventually leased by the Hamilton Port Authority to what was then a partnership between Collective Arts Brewing and Nickel Brook Brewing. When they took over the space, they found conditions less than ideal.

I spoke with Ryan Morrow, Brewmaster for Collective Arts. “It’s debatable to say that InBev directly ‘sabotaged’ the facility,” he says, though he admits that the previous owners “did not leave any equipment or infrastructure in place for another brewer to use.”

“They left torch marks all over where you could see they removed almost every piece of metal in the place,” he says. And what they couldn’t take with them wasn’t in any condition for use. “They definitely poured concrete into some of the existing drains,” he says, though he again falls short of pointing fingers.  “As for their reason for doing so, I cannot say. It took us many months just to get the building into shape enough to allow us to start moving equipment in.”

And what became of all that equipment they yanked out?

“As the story goes,” Morrow says, “InBev destroyed most of the tanks and equipment, rather than repurpose any of it. We have some current employees who worked at Lakeport at the time they closed it down, who were there to witness it first hand. You can imagine for any long-time person working there how emotional it was to see people come into your workplace and destroy everything about your job that you had for years. A lot of tears were shed that day.”

It should also be noted here that Collective Arts bought much of their current equipment from the Sapporo-owned Sleeman brewery that shut down in Halifax in late 2013, providing an interesting contrast in corporate philosophies.  “Inbev, at least back then, would rather destroy perfectly good equipment than let another brewery use it, whereas Sapporo saw the benefit of selling the equipment to another user. “

And so, as is the gist of my forthcoming column, the fate of the Lakeport facility is yet another reminder (albeit a dated one) that, no, AB InBev is not interested in improving and expanding the beer industry, despite what press releases related to recent acquisitions might say. But it’s also interesting to note just how far Hamilton has come since.  When Labatt closed the Lakeport facility, Hamilton had enjoyed having a local brewer since before confederation. That particular facility had been in use as a brewery since 1947, and so this wasn’t merely significant for the loss of 143 jobs at a time when Hamilton had just experienced thousands of manufacturing industry layoffs, it was also a considerable loss for local beer.

So the fact that Collective Arts is still thriving there and has, in a very real sense, fostered a bad-ass beer scene around it is significant, and awesome.

Since 2014, Collective Arts has of course been joined by Fairweather Brewing, Grain and Grit and MERIT Brewing and there have been a handful of great restaurants and bars added to the Hammer’s already good roster too. It’s the reason that, when I recently spoke with Dan Johnston, Business Development Manager for Collective Arts, he joked “Hamilton is the new Brooklyn. Haven’t you heard?”

And while it is something of a cliche around Hamilton city council, who like the positive comparison of a once-gritty jurisdiction now fostering hip culture, Hamilton, as I’ve note previously, is actually kind of cool. There’s a decent transit system downtown and the city seems to be enjoying renewed interest in arts and culture. And, importantly, it’s attracting businesses who care.

“There’s an energy in our city that’s undeniable,” Tej  Sandhu, co-founder of MERIT, tells me via email. “Creativity has been a driving factor in so much of the city’s small business development over the past decade and adding a growing beer scene to already awesome culinary, cultural, and art scenes has been really exciting. One of the most exciting things to see is how passionate each brewery is about our city and how much care, attention, and dialogue there is around creating a healthy, creative, scene that sets a high bar for itself – not only with what we’re creating and serving, but also with respect to participating in our communities outside of our breweries.”

In other words, in the wake of Labatt pulling up stakes, Hamilton has done more than just move on. Both the city and its beer scene have clearly benefited proportionally in the interim from investment from companies who actually give a shit.

Image source.

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