From what I’ve been told, time and time again, opening a brewery is one of the most challenging things that a human can do. So, what about the 19 Ontario craft breweries that opened up shop so far during COVID-19? How much more stressful is it trying to operate during the first pandemic since 1918? Could it be any crazier?
To get the answers, I recently sat down for a virtual chat with Sarabeth Holden, co-owner of Red Tape Brewery in Toronto with her husband Sean Holden, slated to open in December 2020, and Jeremy Hansen who co-owns of Flux Brewery with Braden Cronmiller. Flux is just outside the village of Scotland and opened in August.
After some joking about how Jeremy and I both showed up with glasses of water, and only Sarabeth brought a beer to the chat, (a fresh can of GLB Canuck), we got down to business.
GROWLER: So, you decided to open a brewery, what was your original opening date?
HOLDEN: It was February 27, 2020, which was Sean’s birthday. It was a pretty lofty goal seeing as I gave birth to our second child, Jackson, on February 9th! This was pre-pandemic, and it was the first construction project that I took on, so it was a lot of lessons, in terms of permitting.
HANSEN: Our original target was Canada Day, now looking back, I can’t even remember if we had a Canada Day! We were close to being ready to open as far as the brewery and taproom build went, but with government announcing patios could open just the week prior, we didn’t feel like we had our COVID game plan solid enough yet. We decided to hold off and give ourselves more time rather than rush it.
GROWLER: Tell me about your brewery names and what ideas your brewery represents.
HOLDEN: It was actually because Sean used red electrical tape to label everything! The first time he was homebrewing he just labelled everything with that. And he had an interview with Dan Grant, who was writing an article about homebrewing, who asked him, “What’s your brewery name?” and Sean was like, “I always use red tape, so let’s call it Red Tape.”
Our friend Luke designed our logo for me as a gift to Sean. The letters look as if you made them out of tape, and the scissors are cutting through it. If you look at the tips of the scissors, there are little devil’s horns, representing the bureaucracy around craft beer in Ontario.
HANSEN: Flux is about embracing the continuous state of change. That’s one thing that in my past career as a technical manager that I was all about, I was always trying to think of different ways to do things. The biggest shift was quitting my job. It was time for a change, it’s now or never. I really put my life in flux.
Our original name was Pivot, but Tara, our Brand Manager, came up with the idea of the name of Flux, which is also the state of liquid and flow. And funny enough, our logo has a little devil’s tail too.
HOLDEN: I’m going to throw in a little bit of the cultural side on that idea of flux and adaptability. I’m half Inuit, and we’re a survival culture. I’ve been learning a lot about the language and certain words that exist or don’t exist just because of coming from that survival culture, but it’s so important to adapt. Inuit come from a harsh environment. If we didn’t adapt, then we wouldn’t survive. And I feel like especially now in the pandemic world that we’re living in, it’s so important to adapt. In order to survive as a business, we need to be able to change.
GROWLER: What can people expect if they come to visit?
HOLDEN: Red Tape makes fresh beers that feel like home. Our model is different than other breweries in that we are making our own line of beers, but also offering folks the chance to make their own special beer at our brewery, which they can share with family and friends at major life events, from weddings, to a 30th birthday party, to corporate celebrations. We’re a family run brewery with a friendly taproom.
HANSEN: We’re a destination brewery just outside the village of Scotland, Ontario in Brant County. Our taproom has a full view of the brewhouse and is decorated with local artefacts, and we have a stellar 1500-square foot patio facing a tranquil pond and farmland. Our beer lineup has a style for every taste—like light ales, IPAs, fruited sours and stouts.
GROWLER: Worst case scenario, how do you see things going during the remainder of the pandemic?
HOLDEN: Maybe it’s because I have kids, maybe it’s because I’m a terribly optimistic person, I always try to look at the long run. We talked about adaptability and how important it is, and I feel that we’re adapting really well. I tell myself that alcohol is one of the very few industries that can survive anything. It’s not the first time it’s going to survive a pandemic. You know, alcohol survived prohibition! People are really supporting local. It’s really beautiful to see our neighbourhood supporting one another.
HANSEN: That’s definitely been our experience as well. The support from the local community has been incredible. And there is a silver lining in the fact that everyone is itching for something to do and can’t go too far out of their neighbourhood.
As for what happens this winter, it’s really up to the numbers and how good a job we do at getting ourselves out of this pickle. It’s tough to predict and hard to plan for, but we’ll continue to adapt.
GROWLER: Tell me about your personal community, who has been helping you get through 2020?
HANSEN: My family of course, and my amazing staff. Part of our plan from the beginning was to hire a brewer to help me transition from home brewing to commercial brewing. Kelsey Desnoyers, a recent Niagara College grad has hung on with us since March. I couldn’t get her involved full time until July (because of COVID-19 delays). And, of course, our Brand Manager, Tara Barlow, who was working from home designing our labels and building our brand, waiting to be a part of this. It’s been hard but we’re now at the point where we get to celebrate.
HOLDEN: We’re not even open and we’ve felt so much community support. Everyone’s so excited for us. Working with Sean, he’s my business partner, he’s my partner in life, he’s my parenting partner, we do everything together. One of my latest favourite quotes is “teamwork makes the dream work.” I think that probably applies to you too, Jeremy. It’s like we can do this, it’s going to be okay, even when you think to yourself, “What did I get myself into?”