On the hottest April 13th in recorded history in the Ottawa Valley, Hugh Colbert and I took a walk through his family’s property and current residence in Arnprior, Ontario. The old windsock on his grandfather’s air strip blew in the distance, and his feet paced the terrain without second thought as they have a lifelong familiarity with this property.
In conversations with Hugh, it has become clear that he is a person who on one side is reserved, calculated and focused. On the other side he is relaxed, goofy and caring for the people and world around him. These traits seem more akin to a nature-loving ski bum than a veteran brewer. Hugh is part of a new wave of Ontario brewers, having already been through the paces of the growing Ontario brewing industry. He comes from a food science background with a degree in brewing from UC Davis in California. He gained work experience in the operational and quality control side of the brewing process from Sleeman, Beau’s and Calabogie Brewing. He then took the leap into opening a brewery, all before the age of thirty.
As we chat, he speaks highly of his time in California. He expresses that he learned the deep level of focus required to maintain beer quality from professors such as Charlie Bamforth and Michael Lewis. He moves onto how receiving guest lectures from brewery owners such as Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company influence how he approaches using a slow growth method with the brewery. Class trips to breweries such as Lagunitas let him witness a very engaged, fun-loving brewery team. The Lagunitas team was made up of members of the community who had known the owners since the beginning of the brewery. This brought into focus for Hugh how important it is to have an enjoyable work environment that supports the community economically. All of this would become important as Hugh began to get closer to opening his own brewery.
The Journey to Cold Bear Brewing
In 2020, after a long day troubleshooting broken chillers—a common occurrence in craft breweries—and managing one of the largest breweries in the Ottawa Valley, Hugh and his dad started talking about the idea of opening up a brewery in Arnprior, a town in which his family has roots and that was in desperate need of a community-focused craft brewery.
“We had been circling around the idea for a while and one day after both of us had pretty tough days at work, we started chatting and finally started talking about opening up a brewery… At first I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much for how much I’d be involved with the brewery, but now I’m here fixing pumps and delivering kegs.”
Co-Founder Bill Colbert
This is where the journey of Cold Bear Brewing hit its stride. With Hugh, his wife Blair, his father Bill and friend of the family Chris Toner, the brewery started to become a reality. After three years of work and planning, all during a global pandemic, in January 2023, Cold Bear Brewing finally became a reality. This is when it was able to start the process of crafting community—the brewery’s slogan. Their focus is on making high quality beer and using as many local ingredients as possible, following in the footsteps of brewers with similar philosophies, such as Matron Fine Beer and Slake Brewing.
The brewery offers a wide range of beers, with a selection that includes a 2.7% table beer, a 3.2% bitter, a rotating series of New England IPAs, a release schedule of new beers as the brewery grows throughout the year, and a collaboration series that focuses on working with local businesses to create beers that reflect their ethos. An example of this is their Bee Savvy Braggot—a braggot made with local malt and honey from Bee Savvy Fine Foods (a local honey producer and gourmet food supplier in town). To support the local community it was decided that one dollar from each can and pint sold is to be donated to the Prior Chest Nuts, a local dragon boat team that raises awareness for breast cancer survivors.
One recently released beer that exemplifies their brewing ethos is their K7S West Coast Pilsner. The beer is named after the first three digits of the Arnprior postal code and comes from an emerging trend in the west coast of the United States to make German pilsner-style beers but with North American 2-row barley and the addition of a new-world dry hop. For K7S it makes use of local malt from Mississippi Mills Malting, a new maltster in the Ottawa Valley. Then with the addition of Simcoe and Mosaic hops to the whirlpool and dry hops in the fermenter, they are able to make a beer that is crisp and refreshing, while having deep malt character and snappy bitterness, balanced by the lighter resinous fruity notes from the new-age classic American hops.
The beer really does give semblance to the ethos of the maker of the product, using the knowledge from years of study and practice, to deliver a beer based on Pilsner-style brewing, but stepping away from the traditional method by using locally malted barley from the Ottawa Valley and hops from the west coast. All of it together makes a great-tasting beer with depth and complexity but also the backbone to support crushing a few cans while you are out on a hike enjoying the world around you.
Cold Bear’s focus is on increasing the strength of the community. The Ottawa Valley is tough, rough and tumble but close-knit. That’s why beers like their table beer, Homesteaders, play such an integral role to the brewery’s portfolio. Made with all Ontario ingredients, the barley is grown 15 kilometres away and malted by Mississippi Mills Malting, the hops are from Wolfe Island Hopyard near Kingston, and the yeast sourced from Escarpment Labs. This is a beer that celebrates making the best product possible using what is available to you in your area.
Homesteaders uses artwork created by local artist Maria Moldovan depicting Hugh’s family home just off of the Trans Canada highway in Arnprior, Ontario, resting in view of the air strip his grandfather flew planes from until the age of 89. The beer is sessionable, flavourful, well-crafted and representative of a newer approach to beer for one’s locality. It makes me feel great while we sip away as Hugh reminisces about his memories of family in the Ottawa Valley. We get lost in conversation as the stars emerge into the night sky and I cannot help but be inspired by where brewing in Ontario is going.
Cold Bear Brewing is Located at 100 Madawaska Blvd in Arnprior Ontario. Check out their website and socials for more information on what they are serving up next for you and Arnprior.