a peek inside the fishbowl

18 Mar, 2016

The story of a Canadian company that grew, part 2

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

Click here to view the first part of this post.

I had just ordered up a lovely cider and was settling in for a tasting-slash-Q&A session on Saturday with the whole group.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet all of the attendees at this media event. I was there as a lifestyle blogger with an interest in food/beverage but there also appeared to be some beer bloggers there too. During the Q&A there were some serious questions lobbed at Mill Street brewmaster Joel Manning and co-founder Steve Abrams about craft beer associations and how Mill Street fits into those etc etc. But what I wanted to know was this: what changed when Mill Street was bought by Labatt and how have those changes affected the process and most importantly, the final product?

Tasting at Mill Street Brewery

Sidebar: I had no idea that Mill Street co-founder Steve Abrams worked as an English teacher and musician in a past life. As he describes it, 9/11 happened and, like many people, felt that life was too short not to pursue his dreams. His dream was owning a pub and brewing beer that emulated some of his favourite U.S. microbrews. I only mention this because in all of the fallout, some of the most negative commenters on news sites and Twitter seemed to forget that businesses are run by Actual Human Beings, and not robots or evil aliens who are hellbent on destroying our beer supplies.

It was clear to me that the purchase by Labatt means that Mill Street can now access unprecedented sales and distribution. People can now enjoy a Mill Street Brew at a Jays game for example, and other arenas and stadiums across the country.

“The Labatt acquisition makes all kinds of sense to me,” said Joel at our Q&A. One of his personal goals as a brewer (and I bet the same is for every brewer out there), is to get his product in front of as many people as possible.

“I’ve got the biggest pulpit I could have hoped for now…” he said. “From my perspective as a commercial brewer I really see it as a good thing.”

It seems like a dream come true, doesn’t it? Joel now works for a bigger brewery and still gets to play around with new recipes, create innovative and seasonal products and get them into stores and pubs and beyond. A couple of times he mentioned a massive purchase of local blueberries for a batch of beer. It’s clear that part of the deal was that he gets to maintain artistic control… chef’s prerogative, so to speak.

Joel explained that Labatt beers are for wide appeal whereas craft beers are designed to “create a reaction.” In fact – and this surprised me – he said that if you don’t “hate” at least one of his beers (his word, not mine) he considers that to be a failure on his part. (At some point I think he may have invoked an image of a cat retching over the edge of a bathtub.)

Joel again: “They don’t make beers like us. [Labatt] bought us in order to help us make our stuff on a much much bigger scale. They really want to help us go there and do that. We are still managing ourselves. We are owned by them, but we are our own independent operating group. It’s pretty cool.”

I’ve given this whole thing a lot of thought since I’ve been back in Ottawa. At the time of the purchase, there were a lot of comments online about Mill Street selling out. Why is a small tech startup that sells its product and patent to a bigger player considered a success instead of a sellout? Because isn’t that exactly what happened here?

Although they didn’t reveal the nitty-gritty details about the deal, I can say that it sounds like the sale was something between the answer to a prayer and a humongous gift. It is truly a success story about ordinary people who are passionate about their product and worked really hard to build something great.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

p.s. Some of you were wondering about this photo that I shared during my Mill Street weekend:

Axe throwing!

The bunch of us went to an axe-throwing place in Toronto called BATL. I just realized there’s also one in Ottawa now! It was surprisingly cathartic to lob an axe at a target and I would love to try it again. Who’s in? :)


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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark. We have two daughters: Emma (19) and Sarah (17). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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