Muskoka Brewery was probably part of your discovery of Ontario craft beer, even if you don’t think they were.
Since they opened the doors in 1996 with a cream ale and steadily became more adventurous as Ontario beer drinkers’ palates evolved, their growth as a company has essentially mirrored the growth of Ontario’s craft beer scene. It’s almost certain that they’re responsible for bringing people on board with the idea that supporting local beer is rewarding and then, by degrees, that beer can be a little more adventurous than the shit people typically buy at The Beer Store.
This year Muskoka Brewery is celebrating their 20th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, they have a handful of cool things going on.
Muskoka Brewery’s beer fridge: Probably better than your beer fridge.
One of these things is a bunch of collaboration brews they are undertaking, inviting other breweries to their Bracebridge brewhouse along with a writer to tag along to drink beer and ask dumb questions. A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of being that writer while Muskoka Brewery welcomed Squamish BC brewery Howe Sound there to brew a hoppy hefeweizen. When released, the beer will be called Hefe Anniversary owing to the fact that Muskoka Brewery and Howe Sound Brewery were actually both founded in 1996 and are thus both celebrating two decades this year.
I saw a marker, I saw signatures on a wall…
The recipe for the beer was developed by Ryan Hethrington, Muskoka’s Quality Control guy and a Niagara College grad. As with most collaboration brews, the special guests on hand to “brew” didn’t actually do much work and instead, I occasionally got in the way of brewer Brendan Kiefer for photo ops as he did the real work and I mostly toured the brewery, sampled upcoming releases, threw in a handful of hop pellets when told to, and snagged some fresh-off-the line Detour while I chatted with Howe Sound’s brewers, Patrick Moore and Simon Jongsma.
Collaboration brewing is such hard work.
In addition to the free beer *mimes radical guitar solo*, I was happy to be part of the festivities because, I’ll be honest, I’m a Muskoka Brewery fan. I’ve been around Ontario’s beer scene and brewers long enough to know that there are some mixed feelings about the brewery out there and I feel like at least some of the negativity voiced about Muskoka Brewery is related to the fact that they are in a weird spot: They’re still very much a small brewery, fighting the good fight against generic, foreign-run macrobreweries, but they’ve reached a size and level of success that makes it difficult for some craft beer diehards to like them. That is, most of their beers are far enough from the “mainstream” that they’re still a tough sell for people weaned on industrial lager, but they’ve perhaps become too big to still be cool with the beer nerds.
What? You wait for them to put the top on your can?
And that kind of sucks. Because breweries like Muskoka (and Steam Whistle and Beau’s and yes, even Mill Street before they crossed over to the Dark Side) laid a lot of the groundwork that has allowed our province’s craft beer scene to prosper. Ask any craft brewer how difficult, time-consuming and expensive it can be to leap into the business of brewing beer (or read my 2014 blogTO piece How hard is it to open a brewery in Toronto?) and you’ll see that it’s not all beer fests and bitchin’ t-shirts. It can be a downright scary. Now imagine taking the leap 20 fucking years ago when Muskoka Brewery co-founders Gary McMullen and Kirk Evans started the company.
Fact: Brewers like Brendan here love it when bloggers are flitting about their brewhouse, posing for selfies, and getting in the way.
Gary and Kirk (and all the other early adopters) overcame legislative obstacles so that today’s brewers don’t have to and while it might seem like Muskoka Brewery is too big to relate to the “little guy,” believe me, they’ve been there and feel your pain. Furthermore, these “big craft” brewers are still fighting fights on behalf of craft brewers–and their success gives them the clout and resources to do so. Muskoka Brewery, for example, publicly pulled their beers out of Alberta after that province instituted a tax on imported beer and they brought attention to the fact that the move would cost people jobs. Cam Heaps and Greg Taylor of Steam Whistle are using their own resources to actively pursue legal recourse against this decision so that other breweries who want to export their beer to Alberta some day are able to. Yes, these moves are self serving, but they’ll help expanding Ontario breweries who may be looking to send their beer west someday.
Muskoka still utilizes old and inefficient technology to pack their survivor packs. These units are called “humans.”
Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be political but, surprise! I got a little political. The TL;DR version is perhaps this: It’s great to support the small and new brewery in your neighbourhood, obviously, but respect where craft beer came from and take a minute to toast those who helped lead the way. And, hell, why not toast them with a Muskoka Cream Ale? It’s still a damn fine beer.
Of course, as with any industry, being a pioneer isn’t enough on its own and Muskoka Brewery needs to continue to innovate or risk becoming irrelevant. I personally think they are. They’ve grown from a company with one beer to a brewery that has four different core brands–the Cream Ale, Mad Tom IPA, Detour, and their Craft Lager–all of which lead Muskoka’s sales in different regions of Ontario. They’ve also, importantly, shown a willingness to try new shit with their seasonals and their Moonlight Kettle Series, for example (see below) and they’ve even been savvy enough to discontinue what was essentially one of their core brands when they decided their Dark Ale wasn’t working any more.
I hope they keep it up for another 20 years and am happy to raise a pint to Muskoka Brewery in their 20th anniversary.
[UPDATE: right as I was about to post this, I received a press release about the fact that Muskoka Brewery’s co-owner, Bob MacDonald, has purchased Vancouver Island Brewery. Seems they’re still finding ways to innovate and expand–and maybe gain some serious ground in the west. Here is the letter in which Vancouver Island Brewery’s owner announced the deal.]
If you’re also interested in helping celebrate Muskoka’s 20th, they are throwing a party at the brewery next weekend on June 25th. Shuttle buses will run to the brewery from Bracebridge and Gravenhurst and the event will feature limited edition “Muskoka Brewery inspired brews” by other northern Ontario breweries including Highlander Brewing Company, Lake of Bays Brewing Company, Muskoka Brewery, Sawdust City Brewing Company, and Whitewater Brewing Company. More info here.
Here are some Muskoka Brewery beers to drink to celebrate their birthday…
While I’m pretty excited about Hefe Anniversary given its tantalizing description and all the hard work I clearly put into it, I thought I’d tell you about some of the other interesting stuff Muskoka has coming up this year:
I’m actually not sure if I was supposed to or allowed to share this, but I’m a total fucking badass so I will: I spotted some barrels in the brewery and they appear to contain fun stuff. Muskoka Brewery doesn’t have a huge barrel program, but there are some interesting things happening with some of their seasonal offerings. Here’s a picture of some Summer Weiss being aged in Riesling barrels, for example.
Muskoka is releasing a 5% oak-aged version of their cream ale which they will call The Starting Point . It will be available in 750 ml bottles at LCBOs, grocery stores, and in the Muskoka Brewery Tap Room. I didn’t actually get to try this one yet, so I’m not sure what oak-aging a cream ale is going to taste like, but it’s obviously an interesting tie-in to their anniversary to offer a specialty version of the first beer they made.
The brewery won the recent Session Toronto Collaboration Nation competition wherein breweries pair with celebrities to brew a beer together and event attendees choose their favourite to be awarded a listing at the LCBO. For the competition, Muskoka brewed a beer with the band Born Ruffians to create Ruff Draught which they bill as a “tropical blonde ale,” and which I’ll just call delicious. I may or may not have nicked a six pack of this beverage on my way out the door when I was at the brewery. This will be a very welcome addition to Muskoka’s LCBO offerings, in my opinion.
If you’ve picked up a Muskoka Brewery Survivor Pack already this year, you will have noticed the addition of another new beer, Kirby’s Kölsch. Named in honour of Muskoka Brewery’s late co- founder Kirk Evans, this beer is 4.6% lagered ale, and while it’s billed as a lightly hopped beer with a touch of peach, I found this beer surprisingly bitter for a kölsch and I actually failed to detect any of the advertised peach flavour or aroma. In addition to its inclusion in the survivor packs, Kirby’s Kölsch will soon be available in single tallboys at the LCBO for $3.10. It’s a good beer, just weirdly categorized to my mind and not what I expect from a kölsch.
The brewery will also be continuing their Moonlight Kettle series of beers that sees different members of the brewery’s staff teaming up to brew beer.
Next up in this series will be Longest Day, which is billed as a Grodziskie, a historical style of beer from Poland typically made from oak-smoked wheat malt. I sampled this one at the brewery, too and with its smokey taste and low ABV, I’d call this Ontario’s first session rauchbier. Is that a thing? It is now. Anyway, it’s an enjoyable smoked beer, if you’re into that sort of thing. Your admiration/detestation of smoked beer will definitely determine whether or not this is your cup of campfire.
Future offerings in the moonlight kettle series include a berliner weisse aged in tequila barrels with grapefruit and lime (coming in July), a melon Pilsner (August), a black cream ale (September) and a peanut butter chocolate stout in time for Christmas.