One element of the craft beer industry that’s always intrigued me is how hard many breweries work to forge a connection to their local communities. There are yoga and beer classes, tastings, trivia nights, tours as part of corporate events. In most cases, the motivation seems genuine – in other words – it’s not a ploy to sell more beer. That said, I have seen a few websites and social feeds where “community” feels like lip service and an exercise in building brand loyalty. Still, it’s one thing for a successful brewery to give back to the community, quite another to have giving back as part of the reason the company even exists.
Lake of the Woods Brewing Company (LOWBREWCO) in Kenora, Ontario is a highly successful beer maker. It sits in a renovated heritage building – an old fire hall you can’t miss when you drive into Kenora. The facility has a brewery and a taproom – and in the summer season they have upwards of 100 people working to pump out the beer and keep the restaurant and bar running. It’s also branched out into coffee roasting, and soon into the distillery business.
When the partners got together more than 5 years ago to launch a brewery, they were focussed on two things; creating a successful business, and making sure it was deeply embedded in the region of Northwestern Ontario. Rob Dokuchie is one of the 5 partners in LOWBREWCO, and for him community connection was a no brainer. In fact, it wasn’t even optional. The partners all grew up in the area and know what it takes to survive and thrive in a relatively remote part of the province. Simply put, says Rob, you have to depend on each other to make it.
“We were already donating our time in other ways, the spirit to do that has always been there, and we didn’t think twice about making that part of the way we do business. Everyone was on board right from the start”.
Ok, so you’re thinking, “Sure – mom & apple pie, too good to be true, give away some free pints and you’re done”. Your scepticism is understandable, and deeply misplaced. This company is different from every other brewery I’ve come across. To start, every year they pick six charities a for the Charity Pints Program, donating a portion of proceeds from featured beers. Since LOWBREWCO opened in 2013 they’ve contributed $150,000 to community organizations. This includes support for the Lake of the Woods Hospital Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, The Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation, a pet welfare agency, the list goes on. They sponsor a ski race at the annual winter carnival. They support local musicians in their performance space in their brewery and taproom, and that’s just the regularly scheduled giving. There are dozens of “one-off” asks – and they have a specific page on their website where organizations can request either financial or in-kind support for their events.
Denise Lysak works with LOWBREWCO in community development. The focus of her job is to connect the company to the community in as many ways as possible. When someone makes a request, her goal, she says, “…is to figure out a way to say yes”.
Now it’s true – running a brewery is not all kittens and ice cream. It’s a business, and selling beer is highly competitive. So yes, there is an element of brand building and brand loyalty to some of the events they get involved in. The winner of that ski race takes home the Sultana Cup, named after one of LOWBREWCO’s beers. They also make sure they get credit for event sponsorship and they consider their brand a regional one – spanning the distance from Winnipeg in the west to Thunder Bay in the east. But Denise says they do not try to be “strategic” with every single organization they support. In other words, they don’t pick who they give money to based on how good it will make LOW look in the community. Far from it.
There’s another, more practical way, the company gives back, creating steady jobs in a region that is seasonal and highly dependent on summer tourism for economic stability. The brewery came first, then the Broken Paddle coffee brand, they’re planning to create a local distillery and they’re working on an expansion of their brewing capacity. It’s a one-company economic stimulus package!
Rob says the point of the company is to become a kind of connective tissue in the region, and they’ve spent 5 years working on that vision. As Rob says, “You forget how much you’re doing because you just kind of have your hand in everything.” The impressive thing about Rob and Denise is that they don’t think they’ve “arrived” – that they’ve got it nailed and can just coast on their good works and reputation. “There’s lot’s still to do” says Denise.
One of their next goals, she says, is to figure out how they can help improve drinking water conditions on First Nations communities in their region. “We depend on a steady supply of clean water to make our products. We wouldn’t have a business without it.” So the company is committed to find a way to help. “Keep moving the markers down the field” she says. Good advice for all of us.
All Photos Courtesy of LOWBREWCO