Because of the popularity of craft beer in Ontario, the industry draws business owners from many different walks of life. In some cases, new brewery owners are rank amateurs who have just barely graduated from basic homebrew equipment. However, even with all of the necessary tools and experience, starting a craft brewery from scratch can be a difficult proposition. In a market sector that is supposed to be about the quality of the liquid in the can or bottle, sometimes the X-factor can be the way a brand feels; an identity for beer drinkers to latch on to.
Shawn & Ed Brewing in Dundas is a solid example of how such an identity can develop over time, rather than emerging on day one as a fully formed and polished entity.
For Shawn Till and Ed Madronich, the dream of opening their own brewery began in high school but wasn’t realized until both men had lengthy and fairly successful careers behind them. In Till’s case, a background in engineering and a significant amount of executive experience would help him construct the business he had long wanted. For Madronich, a decade and a half in Ontario’s rapidly growing wine industry provided him with knowledge of beverage alcohol sales and marketing, not to mention production through Flat Rock Cellars winery down the road in Jordan Station.
“It took ten years to build to a new challenge,” he says.
The level of expertise and the amount of funding made possible by those careers afforded a certain amount of luxury to the startup process.
“We started with no timeframe to find a location and a sense that starting as a contract brewer would compromise the brand’s authenticity,” says Madronich.
The location eventually chosen as Shawn & Ed’s home was a former furniture factory in Dundas.
“I believe in beer and terroir,” says Madronich, “but in really leaning on a sense of geography. Place is important to the brand.”
At launch, the packaging focused more on the founders of the company than it gave a sense of place. It referred to the brewery as Shawn & Ed in some spots and in others by the contraction “Shed.” Amongst the crowded shelves where Ontarians buy beer that was confusing. We needed to know more before buying into the idea that terroir matters to beer.
Walking into the brewery, things become more clear. Shawn & Ed’s taproom is something of a living museum for Dundas. Before its incarnation as Valley City Furniture, the building at 65 Hatt Street had lived many lives, mirroring at every step the development of the town. Initially constructed as a foundry, it was reinvented as a curling and skating rink in the 1890s once the citizens of Dundas had become wealthy enough through manufacturing to embrace leisure activities. As automobiles began to replace the horse and buggy, the building became a maintenance depot for local buses, transporting people to the much larger factories that had replaced the original foundry. After the Second World War, a company manufacturing crokinole boards moved in.
All of this legacy is on view under the airy expanse of the wooden beamed roof. In the walls are ports where coal-fired heaters kept the rink at a comfortable temperature for skaters and curlers. Festooned on racks are destination rolls from buses that were housed in the building. A legion of crokinole boards sits on a shelf waiting to be used. In the corner, a heavily rusted hulk of a Studebaker pickup truck is parked amongst Flat Rock wine barrels. In practice, the slick brand seemed too concise to contain all of the experience that the brewery taproom displays; the pieces that make up the brewery are pulled from so many disparate lives.
Brewer Rob Creighton contributes his own lengthy experience to the mix. He started brewing for Labatt in London, Ontario, in the 1970s before he was old enough to legally buy a beer and has been involved with a number of breweries over the years. A tenure at Upper Canada got him started in Ontario’s craft beer scene in the 1980s, and more recently he was the brewer for Grand River in Cambridge. It’s a career that has run parallel to the entire development of craft beer in Ontario and one which continues to find experimentation in its fourth decade.
The standard offerings fall into two categories: LagerShed and BarrelShed. The LagerShed beers have become popular locally, filling an important niche in the Dundas community where people are not yet entirely convinced of the merits of more adventurous styles. With a brewhouse and fermenters designed for multiple batches, the lagers tend to get the aging time they need to ease off the rough edges, guaranteeing conditioning across the entire lineup.
The LagerShed brands are gateway beers. That’s a concept that may seem foreign in a world of increased specialization, but the job is to sell beer locally. Rather than assume any knowledge on the part of the drinker, the LagerShed series is designed to act as a spectrum. Original is a fairly gently hopped European-style pilsner made with Bavarian ingredients and adhering to the standard 5% alcohol range. Lighter does exactly what it says on the tin, weighing in lighter in body, colour, and alcohol. It possesses some differences in that it is made with North American two-row malt and comes closest in character to being a standard North American lager despite its New World hop character. Of the three, Darker is the most compelling; a Munich-style dunkel ranking amongst the best in Ontario with the deep, bready Munich malt bringing to mind a chocolate chip cookie as the beer warms in the glass.
The BarrelShed range is a first cousin to the wine from Madronich’s Flat Rock Cellars, with those beers aged in pinot noir barrels. Usually, if brewers are using a pinot noir barrel to finish their beer, they opt for a Belgian-style farmhouse ale or a big imperial stout that will incorporate the grape as part of its flavour profile. In this case, the choice of base beer is less common: an English-style extra special bitter. The wine barrel finish on the beer is restrained, and the beer only rests in the barrel for six weeks instead of the more typical months-long aging. Those choices mean the fruit character is subtly bolstered, and the oak comes through in the texture, rather than flavour. BarrelShed No. 1 managed to win a World Beer Award, so the esoteric decision has paid off.
The group behind Shawn & Ed comes with a wealth of different experiences and from different walks of life, and they value contributions from all members of the team. For experimental batches, Creighton lets the assistant brewers play with newer styles. After visiting the comfortable taproom in Dundas it’s finally clear how all of these influences coalesce. The result is greater than the sum of its parts, some kind of culmination of myriad different influences coming together to create an interesting lineup of beers.