The rise, fall, and sale of Side Launch Brewery

*UPDATED 11:40am October 20: Details provided by Equals*

Side Launch Brewery has been sold to Equals Brewing Company.

Nothing has been announced yet, but I have heard from enough sources with enough insight into the company that I feel comfortable posting this. I will of course update this post when it inevitably creates a need for a press release. *UPDATE: Equals brewing has confirmed the purchase of Side Launch. Full statement from Justin McEllar, the President of Equals, has been added to the end of this post.*

Equals, for the uninitiated, is a contract and co-packing business right here in London Ontario. They likely already brew a handful of your favourite contract beers, including Triple Bogey, and they have become a go-to spot for local breweries that need occasional help with capacity. They also offer private label brewing and have a couple of their own brands, including Shake Lager, and the downright excellent Bangarang hard seltzer (Seriously, it’s really good).

Side Launch, as most will know, is a once-great brewery in Collingwood that has continued to make head-scratching decision after head-scratching decision as the board that runs the company tries to maximize profits and, in recent years, clearly position the place for a sale.

The company came out of the gates strong with a winning formula. They built a state of the art brewery on 15 acres of land near Blue Mountain in Collingwood and launched it leveraging the recipes and expertise of veteran brewer, Michael Hancock. They introduced Side Launch Dark Lager (which was previously Denison’s Dunkel under Hancock’s former brewery), Side Launch Wheat (previously Denison’s Weissbier), and Side Launch Pale Ale, because in 2014 it was actually illegal in Ontario to open a brewery without a beer that “marries the best of traditional English and modern American pale ale styles.”

And they launched these beers using distinct and interesting branding: a bold sideways ship emblazoned on each can, with styles differentiated by the colour of said can. To run the place, they appointed Garnet Pratt Siddall as President and CEO. Pratt Sidall brought experience in corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions to Side Launch.

In a short time, Side Launch established itself as a winner.

In 2016 Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John, the co-authors of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, named Side Launch Brewing Company the Top Brewery in Ontario in their first edition of that guide. Later that same year, the company was named Canadian Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. In 2017, Pratt Siddall was was elected by her peers to serve as chair of the board of directors for the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) association, the first woman to hold that position, and she helped champion that organization’s Women in Craft Brewing Education Scholarship.

Not surprisingly, the beers brewed under Hancock’s direction were stellar and enjoyed not only commercial success but plenty of awards recognition and rabid acclaim among the province’s beer critics (i.e. bloggers and nerds loved that shit).

In a 2016 press release about being named 2016 Canadian Brewery of The Year, Chuck Galea, VP of Sales and Marketing for Side Launch, noted: “Winning all of this hardware and being recognized as the top brewery in our province has everything to do with the beer that our Head Brewer, Michael Hancock, makes. In addition, we have an amazing crew and are very proud of what we have accomplished.”

And then it all slowly started getting shitty.

Shortly after being named to the role of OCB president, Pratt Siddall was terminated by Side Launch, over what a source at that time told me were “fundamental disagreements over how to run the business.”

Variations and extensions to the core lineup started showing up with more and more frequency and, with each iteration, the company got a little further from what I always deemed a winning brand strategy. The core lineup and various new offshoots underwent so many brand makeovers that I assume someone on Side Launch’s board of directors had a nephew in graphic design school who needed a real-world case study for his final project.

(I hope nephew Kevin failed his course because now every can of beer from the company looks unrelated to both Side Launch and the other beers in the lineup.)

And then most notably, Michael Hancock, upon whose 40 years of brewing experience the company was arguably built, was unceremoniously squeezed out of the organization, first restructured as “brewer emeritus,” and then parting ways entirely. It is also rumoured that much of the talented brewing team Hancock assembled was shown the door, too. The Head Brewer and “amazing crew” to whom Galea attributed their success in 2016 were gone.

(Hancock talked a little about the situation on a 2020 episode of my podcast, but he stopped short of outright criticism of the company because a) he’s a classy dude, b) he still cares about the place he helped build, and c) I get the sense he has signed an NDA.)

On top of these head-scratching decisions, the company seems in recent years to have taken a rather ADHD approach to their go-to market efforts, chasing trends without seeming to invest in any kind of long-term strategy, presumably trying to find a niche that makes them attractive to some buyer. Any buyer. Please fucking buy us.

And so while this sale won’t come as a shock to even casual observers of Ontario’s craft beer scene, many of whom seem to have already written the company off, it is curious to me that a company that was built presumably to be as profitable as possible appears to have actually made decision after decision to weaken the value of the brand. They essentially dumped all the elements that endeared the brand to consumers, and then ultimately sold the company at a time when valuation for breweries is extremely low–there are many breweries publicly for sale in Ontario and a plethora more privately looking to cash out. This is far from a brewery sellers’ market.

If there’s any lessen to be learned here, it is perhaps that running a brewery with the main intention to maximize profits can have precisely the opposite effect. If the passion for beer ain’t there anymore, we can smell that shit a mile away.

This is of course not a great thing for people who work in beer. The long, shitty saga of Side Launch’s demise has meant many good and talented people have been marginalized, squeezed out, and/or lost their jobs in the pursuit of profit. Presumably this sale means more job losses.

*UPDATE from Justin McKellar, President of Equals Brewery 11:40am Oct 20: “There is no plan to close down the Collingwood location. We love the Collingwood community and look to re-establish the connection with the people here. We are already in discussion with the town to increase the capacity in the taproom from 56 to 150 to accommodate larger groups and events.”*

According to my sources, the brewery was sold “for parts” and I have heard there is a plan to bring tanks and brewing equipment here to London to reimagine Side Launch as a brew pub. One account has it there were already trucks on site yesterday dismantling the place.

I don’t yet know the validity of these claims (my email to Equals has thus far gone unanswered) but if any of this is true, the future of the rented space at 200 Mountain Road seems dubious and that is sad for brewery employees and for Collingwood.

But if there is a silver lining, this could ultimately be a good thing for consumers.

Whatever your feelings about contract brewing might be, Equals makes beer well. I know brewers that have used their services to handle volume challenges, and by all accounts the company is attentive to detail and dedicated to quality. If Equals recognizes what made the Side Launch brand work in the first place (read: Hancock’s recipes) and is committed to making them well, consumers will still get, at the very least, world class beer. One has to assume that Equals bought the company at least in part because it comes with five LCBO SKUs and it is not unreasonable to assume they might keep those SKUs by leveraging the world class recipes they also purchased. And hopefully they fire Kevin and get him back to reimagining classic movie posters in an art deco style for his Pinterest page.

Also, perhaps somewhat selfishly, I am excited about the potential for a well-run brew pub in London. Long known as Labatt’s town, this city has a honest-to-goodness craft beer scene now – we have Anderson Craft Ales, Beerlab!, Curley Brewing Company, Dundas and Sons, Forked River Brewing, London Brewing, Powerhouse Brewing, Storm Stayed Brewing, and Toboggan Brewery and we also have a legit contender for the best beer bar in Ontario in Pub Milos — but we don’t really have a brew pub (apologies to Toboggan, but with its massive size, macro beers on tap, and event-space business model, in my opinion, it just doesn’t feel like a proper brew pub).

Time will tell what Equals can do with this purchase, but at the very least, I hope Side Launch Wheat is kept alive and kept true to Hancock’s recipe. It would be an absolute travesty to buy the company and not continue the saga of that wheat beer. First poured at Growler’s Pub, Crazy Louie’s Brasserie, and Conchy Joe’s — the three bars that made up Denison’s Brew Pub, the beer has been around since 1990. It was actually one of the first beers brewed at Mill Street Brewery in the Distillery District when that company’s founders let Hancock use their facilities, then it was brewed at Etobicoke’s Black Oak Brewery. In 2008 Hancock commenced brewing his Weissbier at Cool Brewery, then in 2009 he took his operations for some time to the Amsterdam Brewery that used to be at the foot of Bathurst Street in Toronto.

The beer has staying power, and I hope it can survive this change, too.

If you’re from Equals and still reading this, please consider this personal request: Get Mountain Lager back in the LCBO. It’s an absolute travesty this beer is only available at the brewery now and Northbound Light Lager, the beer that took its place as a “core brand,” is hot garbage. Thank you.

UPDATE from Justin McKellar, President of Equals, 11:40am Oct 20:

I know they haven’t been highly regarded in your past musings, but we believe in the potential of the brand and the potential of the taproom. We had a team event (Equals senior leadership and full Side Launch team) in Collingwood yesterday and after tasting the portfolio again in that fantastic setting and seeing the energy of the team, it only solidified my belief in the value of this acquisition for our organization. 

I had a dinner and beers with Michael Hancock Tuesday night just as the deal was closing, to pay respect to the foundation he laid for the brand, and I can confirm there will be no plans to change the Wheat or Mountain recipes! A lot can be written about the story of Side Launch to now, but we are excited to focus on the next chapter. 

Image: Google street view

20 thoughts on “The rise, fall, and sale of Side Launch Brewery

  1. Thank you Ben. That is a great article and a fair assessment.
    I am sure it took you a while to put it together and I appreciate that.
    I will leave it at that for now.

      1. It’s nice seeing the 2 gentlemen who were responsible for my introduction to craft beer chatting here.

    1. You brew excellent beers sir and I have enjoyed them often. I hope you find your place in the brewing trade.

    2. I love your wheat beer so much! I heard stories the recipe changed over the years and it’s slightly different. Can you confirm?

  2. Running a business is never easy even under the best of circumstances.

    If Collingwood continues a taproom and a brewpub with the core original brands arrives in London, that’s a pretty good outcome imo, taking all with all. Even just the taproom would be, for me.

    My best to all concerned for the next chapter.

  3. This article is pretty clearly written from the view of or information provided by Mr. Hancock. Not saying that it’s not a valid view point, but that it’s not the only view point. Graphic design changes aside, there were a lot of good and needed, changes that came out Side Launch over the recent years. It’s unfortunate that this article doesn’t highlight that or the fact the it has been a very difficult business to be in, especially with the flat to declining industry as of current.

    1. Believe it or not, having written about beer in Ontario for over ten years, I’ve learned to a) find and draw from multiple sources when seeking information and b) formulate my own opinions on breweries based on that information and my own observations.
      And I’d argue that if the company had made so many good and needed changes, it is unlikely you’d be commenting on an article about its sale.

      1. This is sad, but true. Can we fix that and have that beer we’ve been talking about having forever? I imagine we have a lot to talk about 😉
        Buy you a Czechvar at Milos?

      2. Of course, I was just trying to show that we had not been collaborating on a story as such in many weeks.

    2. Wow. You have zero knowledge of Michael. He has been beyond reproach in his handling of the situation – start to finish. And with that lack of knowledge – everything you say is undermined.

    3. The graphic design is naff and not what Side Launch was about. Previously cans were immediately identifiable a Side Launch, it was about the boats and the Collingwood history, and great beer INSIDE the can. At least when Creemore changed their cans, they remained the same shade of blue.

  4. For clarity, I didn’t comment on the sales but about the industry…which is declining daily. People can’t weather the storm so they unfortunately have to sell their companies.
    I don’t doubt that you did your research…but I also can see that your sources are a bit biased to one narrative of the events in the recent years.

    1. Christine, I agree with your comment about how it has been a very difficult last few years especially with Covid. You make a good point there but I think that most readers of Ben’s column already know that and are taking that into account. The fact is that breweries who have fundamentally good beer and solid branding who are also well run and treat their employees with respect have survived well. It is a tough market but good decisions are vital too.

  5. That is a shame. I have a soft spot for breweries in Collingwood and have visited them all. Chuck Galea was at Mill Street, he did a product tasting for me at Toronto Pearson. I came across is business card a few months back having a wallet ‘sort out’.

    As far as Brewpubs go, Northwinds in Collingwood is hard to beat.

    Good article Ben

  6. Sad reading.

    Growlers was not far from where I live in downtown Toronto. I discovered the weissbier early, and followed it as best as I could through its peripatetic suburban brewing journey. I rejoiced when the Collingwood brewery launched and the Denison’s line expanded with other fine beers. For a few years, these were my go-to summer drinking. And then I lost track of them and found others.

    I hope that Michael Hancock has landed well. Should he move on to something worthwhile, I hope that you will devote some blogspace that good news.

    The pandemic – and my particular vulnerability to the consequences of contracting the virus – has isolated me from the local beer scene. Your blog has been a bit of a link to a different time, and I thank you for what you do.

    Ken Dobb ________________________________

  7. Michael Hancock likely won’t remember this, but I was the first person to try his first batch of Weissbier at Growlers on Victoria Street in Toronto. I was a regular there for lunch because the mussels and beer were so good. Our firm had financed the renovation in which the craft brewery operated.
    Michael came over with a glass of cloudy beer and told me try it as it was fresh out of the first tank. He had to explain the essence of wheat beer to me because I was a neophyte. I remember him saying after my first quaff and pronouncing it excellent, “the secret is in the yeast and I acquired an excellent one.” I followed Michael’s Weissbeer ever since. Having been to Bavaria many times since those days, I can say it is as good as anything Germany produces.
    Hopefully the new owners recognize the gem they have acquired.

    1. How great it is to hear this! Tristram, thank you for reminding me of this. That most likely was around May 1990. I am very encouraged by the new owner’s enthusiasm for our original beers and the branding, both of which had suffered due to a lack of appreciation and understanding by latter-day management. (Just as Ben had described.)

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