Brewer vs Nature: The tornado edition

Pictured here is the taproom in the wake of the tornado; slightly more al fresco than is typical. Photos courtesy of The Second Wedge Brewing Co.

On Saturday May 21st, 2022, in the middle of the Victoria Day weekend, Dave Smith and his partner Jen set out from Toronto to visit friends and enjoy a day trip to rural Ontario. Visiting a brewery was on the agenda, and the choice was between Port Perry’s Old Flame Brewing and Uxbridge’s The Second Wedge. “We decided on Second Wedge, because we were in the mood for ales,” says Dave, “I probably would have ordered the Monday Night Piper.”

As they drove down the highway towards Uxbridge, darkening clouds made themselves apparent in the rear view window, but there was no indication that it was anything other than a standard storm. The weather alert that came over the phone network was the only hint of what was about to occur. In reality, the volume of the cloud was caused by a freak Derecho. The hot air mass moving along the Windsor-Quebec corridor had met a cold front from the north creating perfect conditions for a tornado.

“Lanie had gone to the bar to order a beer and we had just found a table. The brewery staff were closing the garage door. The rain went from vertical to horizontal, and then all hell broke loose,” says Dave. “I thought, because my brain slowed down, ‘there is roof go!’ and I yelled ‘Duck!’ It was pure chaos for twenty seconds. Then it got bright. And wet.” Soaked with cold rain and covered in insulation, but otherwise unharmed, the guests of The Second Wedge were gathered into a first floor hallway that remained intact. 

A custom birch mash paddle on the brewhouse deck.

The Enhanced Fujita scale (yes, the one from Twister) measures the strength of tornadoes. It places the Uxbridge tornado at the high end of EF2, a category that indicates considerable damage and includes sustained wind speeds of up to 190 kilometers per hour. There is video, courtesy of a Tesla in the parking lot, of the roof coming completely off the structure. 

In just under a minute, The Second Wedge Brewing Company was closed for business indefinitely.

Because of the height of modern fermenters and brewhouses, any recently designed brewery is going to use the roof structure for piping water and glycol through the building. Electrical cabling is frequently attached in the same way. With the roof destroyed, all of the brewing equipment was put out of commission. The grain auger, which fed malt into the brewhouse, was discovered by the side of the road a mile away.

he tornado was not strong enough to lift full steel fermenters off their feet.

Joanne Richter, co-owner of the company, explains the timing, “After two years of COVID lockdowns, 2022 was going to be the comeback summer. Foundry Pi had opened in a container to serve wood-fired pizza in the beer garden. We had our best sales in two years the night before. We were ready to go.”

Mike Lounds, head brewer, had been driving into the brewery to pick up a keg for a friend’s Stag and Doe. The drive to the brewery took longer than usual as he was navigating around downed trees. Upon arriving, staff member Luke Geddes relayed the news, saying “it’s gone, man. It’s gone.”

The quick thinking of the staff ensured that guests of the brewery were safe within the first minute of the event. Laterally, the staff and a number of local volunteers went into what Lounds characterizes as Salvage and Contain mode. Relaying the news to the other members of the brewing team required humour to soften the blow. “How do you feel about open air brewing?” was the way he broke the news. 

With a year’s worth of rebuilding, that’ll buff right out.

“For weeks, every driveway in Uxbridge had stacks of tree limbs and branches 6-8 feet high. There was no electricity for five days. For three weeks, the same three trucks rotated through the town, cutting up downed trees.”

You might wonder how a brewery continues to function without an operating brew house. “We’ve become a logistics company. We live on Slack,” said Richter, “for the first two months, our company operated out of the living room.” For a brief period of time, they weighed their options, talking to companies that typically produce beer for contract breweries, but found that the batch size was much larger than they were used to. 

It was Rob Carefoote, owner of Carefoote Beverage Solutions, who came with the answer to their problems. As he was installing new piping at Market Brewing in Newmarket, he suggested that The Second Wedge’s undamaged fermenters and brite tanks might be temporarily relocated as Market did not yet have tanks to fill the new space that was being prepared. Market had previously offered to allow their neighbours to brew a batch, but this was a step up.

Although Lounds had spent much of his time since taking over from previous head brewer Doug Warren coming up with his own seasonals, the strictures of the situation meant that The Second Wedge would have to pare their offerings back to the four core beers that make up their lineup. “I still have 2021 harvest hops in cold storage for a recipe I was going to brew that week.”

The brewing industry and members of their local community have rallied around. Fundraisers that were organized independently have seen proceeds go to members of the front of house staff for the brewery. Collaboration brews with Sawdust City and Market have kept The Second Wedge in people’s minds. The Uxbridge legion has been letting them use the space on Tuesdays for Trivia Night. 

Pieces of the business that you might take for granted as being straightforward are significantly complicated. “We have to plan four days ahead if we want to clean kegs. We need to get them from our storage in Uxbridge to Newmarket, schedule time to use the keg washer, clean the kegs, and then deliver them back to storage. It’s like that for everything”

“We had a really good insurance agent, Greg Strahl from Palladium, who always reminded us to max out our coverage as the brewery expanded and we got new equipment,” said Richter. “As soon as the roof was on and the year switched to 2023, the business was getting the building ready.” 

The Second Wedge’s new and improved digs include a taller ceiling that will allow for a second floor gallery with additional seating that could be used for events. The tasting room will have an increased number of taps and the brewery will expand to a tied house license that will allow them to pour beers from guest breweries and cideries. The brewery itself is getting a refinished floor, new water, glycol, and Co2 hookups, and a garage door to the tasting room to make the space more versatile.

While construction is ongoing, The Second Wedge will reopen their beer garden, albeit with a few fewer shade trees, on Victoria Day weekend. The taproom is expected to follow in early June. When asked which of their beers they envisioned drinking to celebrate reopening, Joanne Richter opted for their High Grass Saison, which she praises for its refreshment and the way it complements the beer garden. Mike Lounds opted for 3 Rocks IPA, saying, “I’ve fought with it so many times.”

When reached for comment, Dave Smith said, “Probably still Monday Night Piper. I just really like Scotch Ale.”

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