As the season begins to warm up, many of us are already daydreaming about being off on an island somewhere far away from the nonsense of the world, taking in the view and sipping on an ice-cold beer.
For our two interview subjects, that dream is very much a reality, as both are co-owners of breweries located on islands here in Ontario.
In 2015 Nishin Meawasige, along with friends Blair Hagman and Joet Dhatt, opened Manitoulin Brewing Co. in Little Current with the thought of making beers that connect with island life, even naming their beers after famous Manitoulin landmarks.
Located in Hillier in Prince Edward County, Gillingham Brewing Co. was opened in 2019 by wife and husband team Christine and Andrew Gillingham. Both come from a corporate background and left their lives in Toronto behind to start a brewery on their family’s vineyard, where Andrew brews traditional beers packaged in the iconic stubby bottles.
Growler: What made you want to start a brewery on an island?
Meawasige: I think the island had a certain kind of mystique attached to it. A lot of people know about it, and it’s got a claim to fame as the largest freshwater island in the world. Back in 2015 we saw an opportunity to showcase a brand and develop products under the Manitoulin Island name and we thought that people would enjoy that. We also recognize that there’s an emerging trend of folks wanting to move to rural areas and perhaps get away from busier centres and we thought that the island was only going to grow and be more of a hub for creativity, tourism and ultimately for communities to thrive.
Gillingham: Along with the opportunity we had to open up here, we chose Prince Edward County because it’s an up-and-coming craft beer region. There’s like eight or nine other breweries here all offering something unique, with more on the way. And because it’s also a wine and vacation spot, it seems like the perfect place to start a brewery.
Growler: Tell me a bit about the local community there.
Meawasige: Well here on Manitoulin Island we have a pretty wide swathe of communities. We’ve got a significant Indigenous presence here on the island and it’s very much a kind of interwoven fabric of municipalities and First Nation communities that I think really gives it its unique nature and draw.
Gillingham: It’s a very small local community, but we love that. It’s so fantastic to be able to walk down the road and say hi to people that you know. We’re a very strong tight knit community wanting to support each other, so wherever and whenever we’re able to donate or contribute it’s always to a local cause. There are also all kinds of entrepreneurs here, which is also what inspired us about the county. Within the last five years this county has grown substantially and has continued to do so with fantastic restaurants, artists, and of course the wineries and breweries. It’s small, but has big intentions and big opportunities, and a variety of places to explore in addition to the parks and beaches which bring in a lot of tourists.
Growler: Have the locals influenced you much as a brewery or has it been the tourists?
Meawasige: So from Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury and down to Parry Sound over here to Manitoulin, we kind of consider that our local market. Anything beyond that we look at as off-island folks. What we found was that the off-island market has been able to allow us to branch out more into kind of funky flavours and a little bit more diversity to our product so that we’re still able to be relevant with the times. We know there are beer trends out there, so we’re able to delve into that from time to time. But at the same time our local customers keep us grounded and make sure that we kind of stick to our roots and make good quality, drinkable, sessionable beers that are going to appeal and be enjoyed at any time.
Gillingham: The locals influence us on the type of beer we produce because at the end of the day, we have a huge tourist community down here but our locals are here 365 days and they’re the ones who really help us sustain our business. And we see that especially with our clientele, 80% or higher of which is local and without them we wouldn’t be able to survive.
Growler: Do you have much of a relationship with other breweries in the area?
Meawasige: Yeah! We’ve done a variety of different events and collaborations with other breweries up here and we definitely want to be able to support each other. There are fewer breweries per capita in northern Ontario than southern Ontario so it’s a bit more challenging for us to stand out and be relevant in a southern Ontario market when a lot of that market is what helps drive sales growth in the industry.
Gillingham: Other breweries down here are great. Everybody wants to support one another. We always try to collaborate and promote each other when we can. If there’s someone on our end of the island looking for something specific that I know another brewery would offer, we’re always pushing them there. There’s always that cross promotion because we all benefit.
Growler: What have been some of the challenges of having a brewery that’s fairly remote like that?
Meawasige: There’s that sense of isolation. We do have a fellow brewery here on the island, Split Rail Brewing out of Gore Bay, and we’ve had collaborations, but beyond that our closest brewery would be Stack Brewing out of Sudbury or in the opposite side Northern out of Sault Ste. Marie, so both of them are nearly two plus hours away from us, so it’s a bit of a jaunt.
Other challenges are obviously Manitoulin being pegged as a seasonal destination, but we really want to break that mold and we think we can. We live here 365 days a year and know that Manitoulin Island has just as much to offer in the fall and winter as it does in the summer. Certainly it’s beautiful, but the real gorgeous moments are in the dead of winter when, for instance, the season just showed up and the lake froze over without any snow on it, so it’s literally polished glass. Families are skating on it and because our water is so crystal clear, it’s just amazing.
Growler: What do you folks have on the horizon?
Meawasige: We have a new product called Ten Mile Point Pilsner in the LCBO. It’ll be our sixth listed product. It’s going to be great. We actually launched it last year in a small batch in the brewery to get a feel for it during the season. It’s named after a very significant landmark here on the island with a lot of history behind it and an absolutely beautiful viewscape.
Gillingham: We’re a small brewery and intend to stay small. It allows us to be a little more creative and do more experimental brews. Our whole story is brew traditional but with our own little spin on it. But we started our first year very conservative not really knowing what to expect and we realized that we were probably a little too conservative, so there’s growth on the horizon. We’re looking to expand and build an exclusive taphouse and really focus on the outdoor space in the very scenic family vineyard. This will give us a lot more space in our main building that we’ve needed as the county is becoming busier.
We’re family operated, small batch, and really want to keep that intimacy and maintain that experience.