“We spent months looking for the coolest bottle that we could find. And when we found a ceramic bottle made in Germany we thought 'I could drink beer from that thing for sure.'”
Beer drinkers in the Ottawa valley thought the same thing. “The bottle was so cool people were willing to pay $7.85 just for the bottle, the beer was a bonus.” It quickly became known as ‘That beer in the cool ceramic bottle.’ The majority of people who purchased one of those ceramic bottles kept it.
The more time I spent with Beau’s CEO, Steve Beauchesne over a few pints at the Beau’s Brewery in Vancleek Hill, the more it became apparent that the ceramic bottle wasn’t a one trick pony. The decision would be echoed throughout the fledgling company’s incredible growth to becoming a household name among beer drinkers in the Ottawa Valley.
In 2004, Tim Beauchesne’s textile business was floundering. He confessed to his son, “I have zero customers left. I am going to have to shut the doors.” At the time Steve, the soon-to-be CEO, was working in Toronto for the federal government by day and managing a bar by night. As they chatted about what to do with the textile business the topic of craft beer came up. “There’s not a good craft brewery in eastern Ontario...”
“If you’re serious I’ll quit my job, move back home and start a craft brewery with you.” They slept on it, and when they sobered up the next morning, “It still seemed like a good idea, and from then on there was no looking back.”
A Family Affair.
To get things up and running Steve looked to the people he knew best: friends and family. Co-founding the business with his father made having the rest of the family involved a natural next step. His brother got involved in production and his sister in communications.
Steve’s childhood best friend, Jordan, was the next recruit. He turned out to be one of the most important additions to the team. Beau’s has one of the most memorable design aesthetics of any brewery, local or international and Steve has his best friend to thank for that. “We had a lot of disagreements about design initially, but I grew to trust Jordan's judgement.” Jordan, now lead designer, has a full team who churn out designs for everything from bottle labels, to hats and scarves.
“I hired all my unemployable friends and most of them are still here.” As of now, 36 of the 78 Beau’s employees are family or friends. “You could say that I’ve created a cult, and that probably would be correct. Except we’re not drinking kool-aide.”
“We took a pragmatic approach to brewing,” Steve notes. At the time, organic hadn’t become mainstream and was by no means a simple task. The decision to go organic affected each facet of the brewing process, from beginning to end.
Sourcing organic proved challenging. “We couldn’t find a local supplier who could provide us with enough organic hops, so we import them from Germany.” Which isn’t to say Beau’s doesn’t focus on local. “We’ll pay up to a 15% premium if an ingredient is available locally” and while certified organic ingredients were hard to come by in 2006, “We’re starting to see more options locally and that’s exciting for us. We put an emphasis purchasing local whenever we can.”
The local organic ideology culminated with their Bog Water brew, a “Gruit” which is named after the Alfred Bog, 20 minutes away from the Vancleek Hill brewery. The key ingredient is a rare shrub called Bog Myrtle and a partnership was created with an Algonquin native to source it. “Every year he goes into the woods and harvests bog myrtle for us to make this beer.”
Harvesting bog myrtle naturally created a surprising challenge, “Our harvester wasn’t certified, so we couldn’t label Bog Water as certified organic.” Since every variety of Beau’s is certified organic, this wasn’t an option, it had to be certified. So they followed the Algonquin harvester, along with representatives from the National Certified Organic Association, documenting every step of his harvesting process. In the end the NCOA granted him the certification of Naturally Organic. A focus on local indeed.
Beau’s is known for coming out with seasonal beers. One-offs. A single batch never to be brewed again. It allows them to experiment with new ideas and gives their brews a sense of artistry. “We spend a lot of time trying to make each batch taste to spec. There is a lot of art and science to brewing. When we're up against the wall between the science of making it consistent and the art making it wonderful, we let the art win out.”
“Tom approached us, he was interested in creating a beer.” But Steve wasn’t easily convinced, “We were flattered but we didn’t want to create a generic lager and put Tom’s face on it.” Tom continued to propose the idea and eventually they realized that Tom was actually serious about it, they then got to work. In Beau’s typical style, every angle was covered; “Let's look at your body of work and draw inspiration from what you’ve done.” Milk Stout was the first thing that came to Steve’s mind.
It isn’t a far cry to link Tom Green and milk. Whether he’s sucking a cow’s udder in a police uniform, showering his side-kick Glenn with a bag of it, or presenting it as a gift to talk show hosts, Tom and milk go hand-in-hand. Steve brought in a few samples of milk stout and had a tasting session with Tom. “It’s a rare style of beer, almost impossible to find in Canada.” Tom had never tried one before but after the tasting session he fell in love with the idea of having his face on a bottle of milk stout.
The Tom Green Beer was launched in October at Yuk Yuk’s on Elgin Street. At the time, Tom had been on a world stand up comedy tour and he integrated the launch into an hour long stand-up comedy set. “When people try my beer, they’re always surprised,” Tom says as he takes a sip. “I thought it would taste like shit, but it’s actually really good!”
After having won an award at the Session Craft Beer Festival in Toronto. It was put on a fast track and soon Tom’s face was gracing LCBOs all over Ontario. It was a huge success for Beau’s and gained them international acclaim, all while staying true to their roots. High quality, organic, local (mostly), no compromises.
A B. Corp.
I asked Steve about charity, “As a brewery, we’re Canada’s first certified Benefit Corporation.” What’s a Benefit Corporation? B Corps fall somewhere between a for profit and non-profit business. They are granted the designation by a third party called B Lab. To be designated they must meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
And yes, it does sound an awful lot like a fair trade, not tested on animals, organic, child-labour free Glebe coffee shop kinda thing. The difference is that these ideals are deeply seeded into the way Beau’s is run - it’s genuine, more so than a bullshit sign outside of a coffee shop that proclaims how far down they look upon you from their moral high ground.
Beau’s has passed along much of its success back to the community, which made it so successful. They support over 100 different charities including The United Way, Just Food Ottawa, and Operation Come Home, a youth based charity in Ottawa with a mission to keep homeless youth from becoming homeless adults.
Every October Beau’s hosts their biggest charitable event, Oktoberfest. In its fifth year, over $300 000 was spent on the fundraiser. 66 000 glasses of beer are served to the 12 000 attendees with every cent raised going to charity.
The community has recognized Beau’s charitable spirit. They were presented with the United Way’s Community Builder award and added to the Wall of Inspiration at Ottawa City Hall.
What about Ottawa.
“There was a myth that you couldn't sell craft beer in Ottawa. We had a tough time convincing investors to be foolish enough to part with their money. Getting the brewery off the ground felt like we were moving mountains every single day. I didn’t sleep for 3 years.”
Steve recalls when he told people involved in the Toronto craft beer scene about his idea. “Brewers in Toronto used to laugh at us.” Beau’s is awfully proud of the small town in which they reside. “Our beer speaks to the rural nature of it. We didn’t want to come off as a slick downtown Toronto brewery, because we’re not.”
The timing of Beau’s rise to prominence couldn’t have been better. “The support from the restaurants is insane, the support from customers is through the roof. You don’t get this kind of support in Toronto or Montreal. I think we’re basically up there with Portland Oregon in terms of how ravenous people are for supporting local. This is a good town to sell beer in.”
As the popularity of craft beer across the country has risen, so too have new start-ups. “There are 9 or 10 new breweries in the city. They’re all doing things a little bit differently. They’re all making their own mark. And that’s the most important thing. What we don’t need is 10 Beau’s Lug Treads. What we need is to show off the diversity of craft beer.” New competition is not seen as a threat to Beau’s. “Together we could do more than we could do on our own for the brewing industry.”
One Last Sip.
As we finish our glass Steve surmises, “People buy Beau’s because it’s a great beer. Everything else is there to make you feel good about the choice that you made. It makes you feel good after having a glass.” Beau’s has always been a favorite among beer drinkers in Ottawa but there is so much more that goes into a glass than the yeast, malt, hops and water. “Our customers are fans, they go out to pubs and demand our beer. They show off our beer all around the world. It changes what we’ve done from being just another beer into something special.”
The culture at the brewery is intoxicating. It’s positive, upbeat and people genuinely feel like they’re making a difference. “The purpose of the brewery has to be bigger than making beer. We’re trying to make the world a better place and beer is just the engine for that.”
We asked Steve one final question.
Would he ever consider selling?
“No. I see this brewery as my Dad’s legacy project and my legacy project too. The worst thing I can imagine happening is getting swallowed up by a giant macro brewery. I’m a big fan of small business, I’m not a big fan of large corporations.”