There’s an old joke in the wine making business which goes something like:
Q: How do you make a million dollars in the wine business?
A: Start with 2 million.
Thankfully the beer business is a little less dependent on the vagaries of the weather than the wine industry, but in some ways the process of launching a business is no less fraught. That’s especially true when you’re turning a 105-year-old heritage building that needs a lot of renovating into a working craft brewery.
That was the task for Kenora, Ontario based Lake of the Woods Brewing Company (LOWBREWCO) back in 2012. Taras Manzie, Rob Dokuchie and the other partners in the business were looking to start a brewery. They wanted an accessible location in Kenora and you could say, they caught a lucky break. The city had just declared the building surplus and was looking for a new owner who would maintain the character of the building. After all, the turn of the century fire hall was a designated heritage site, right in the heart of the city. You can spot what looks like the bell tower the instant you drive into Kenora. So, after some back and forth with the City’s heritage committee, LOWBREWCO got permission to move in and renovate. That’s when the fun began.
First, it’s a 105-year-old building, second there were “conditions” imposed by the heritage committee (as there always are). They had to preserve the old tin ceiling in part of the fire hall. They had to get permission to change the window openings while still preserving the essential character of the place. The heating, air conditioning, plumbing, wiring all needed to be ripped out and replaced. All this is hard enough when you’re renovating a house – but these guys were trying to build a brewery that also had a restaurant/taproom and a retail bottle shop, not an inexpensive proposition. To be more precise, it was a $1.9 million dollar proposition. You need to sell plenty of pints to make back that kind of investment.
As with every renovation, there are always surprises behind the walls, But Rob says the best surprise was underneath the floorboards of what was the kitchen. “When we were prying up the floor we found 3 bottle caps from the original Lake of the Woods Brewery. That brewery was open from 1898 to 1952, so all those years ago the firemen in that hall were drinking Lake of the Woods beer. That’s pretty neat”.
There were other considerations beyond the technical and financial when they were renovating. Denise Lysak, Community development manager with LOWBREWCO says “We wanted the brewery to be a catalyst for developing a more vibrant street culture in Kenora”. So the design of the brewery is very open, as is the retail bottle shop “…so people on the street can see it all happening.”
The restaurant has a large street patio that’s packed in the summer. So far it seems to be working. According to Denise “ financial institutions and other businesses in the area say they’ve noticed a real increase in foot traffic”. Denise also talks about the building as a “pride of place” feature for the city, a local landmark transformed and improved.
The irony in all of this is that LOWBREWCO has now outgrown the building. The partners in the brewery have launched a locally roasted coffee brand, and they’re in the planning stages for a new distillery venture. But they love their current building, both as a business and community hub, and they expect to be there for a long time. As Denise told me “we feel like we’re part of the fabric of the city now”. It’s an enviable position, but one the company has worked hard to achieve.