Bay Street Bull Magazine: Luxury Business and Lifestyle

Food & Drink

The Men and Women Behind the Movement: Muskoka Brewery‘s Gary McMullen

As an entrepreneur, what initially sparked your desire to launch Muskoka Brewery and what was the tipping point that really got it off the ground and made that vision come to life?

It was a few things; First, I had started making my own craft beers in the early 90’s and became really passionate about making great tasting beers, and of course enjoying them also. Second, I was watching with great interest the growth of craft beers in the US market and felt pretty strongly that this was a long term trend that was really going to take hold in Canada also. Last, striking out and doing something from scratch was an opportunity for my then partner Kirk Evans and I to do something different and to make a difference –in our community, in the beer industry, and with the consumers who we get to connect with through our beers.

Why was Muskoka the perfect place to launch Muskoka Brewery?

When I think of Muskoka, images of beautiful fresh water lakes, rugged beautiful landscapes, great experiences relaxing with family and friends, all come to the fore for me.  It is natural, clean, and fresh and there is a peacefulness in Muskoka that you just don’t find everywhere.  Seemed to me like a great place for a craft brewery!

When you started the brewery in 1996, did anyone even know what Craft beer was?

When we started in 1996 most people didn’t know what craft beer was. Beer had become a commoditized, yellow fizzy beverage with 5% alcohol. For sure it was an uphill journey working with other great craft breweries to educate people about the rich history of our Canadian beer industry and the breadth of styles that are available.

How has Muskoka Brewery managed to maintain it’s Craft beer appeal while competing toe-to-toe with the giants of the industry?

We continue to focus on making great beers that are unique and flavourful and we spend lots of time educating folks on all that beer historically was and all that it can be in the here and now and the future.  Beer is a part of the social fabric of this country. It is an integral part of the history of this country also.  Craft beer is still less than 5 percent of the Ontario beer market.

As a leader in the Craft beer movement, how have the Muskoka Brewery team continued to promote and develop not only the awareness for the industry itself but also for the local community?

The whole team at Muskoka Brewery continues to work very closely with all the good folks in the Ontario Craft Brewing industry through the Ontario Craft Brewers Association (OCB). We market our beers together under the OCB banner, work on quality programs, we have built a world class Craft Brewers Conference which is held annually in Toronto, the list goes on!

From a community perspective, Muskoka is home base for us of course and we do work hard to support local organizations that are making a difference in our community, and also to promote local talent whenever we can. We have a wonderful young artist named Drew Taylor who we were able to do a collaboration with this past summer for Session Toronto! We all brewed a great beer together and Drew provided the awesome music!  There is also a couple of entrepreneurial young (relative to me) characters from Bracebridge, Curt Dunlop and Jed Corbeil who have been working tirelessly for several years promoting craft beers in their Pub, the Griffon Gastropub but also at craft beer-centric events throughout Ontario.  We help each other out wherever possible and it simply allows us both to do more. You just get more done in community by partnering and working together wherever possible.

You’ve described in other interviews 2008 as the year that things really began to pop for Muskoka Brewery. How has the growth in the team and the talents you’ve been able to bring on board since then carried the growth of the business?

In 2008 I had occasion to meet Bob MacDonald through a mutual friend. At the time I felt very strongly that craft beer was really ready to take off here in Canada but Muskoka Brewery needed much more horsepower to really get into the race.  Over a period of several months Bob and I talked about the industry, about our values and about the opportunity that I saw for craft and for Muskoka Brewery. Along the way we became friends.  As I got to know Bob it became clear that he had a great mind for branding as well as great financial acumen. Equally important I realized that Bob and I shared the same beliefs with respect to how we like to treat people.  This was a really important piece for me; I had lost my good friend and partner Kirk Evans just after we opened the brewery. I needed to know that should anything ever happen to me that the brewery, and all the good folks who work here with us would be okay and well taken care of. Bob also loved our Muskoka Cream Ale! Later in 2008 Bob and I shook hands and he joined the Muskoka Brewery family.  Shortly thereafter that we kicked off a process to envision the potential for Muskoka Brewery and how we wanted to sit in the market.  Since 2009 we have grown from 12 employees to over 100 and have continued to bring new and unique award winning beers to the marketplace.

I have sometimes likened our growth to throwing piles of damp wood onto a smoldering camp fire… sooner or later all that wood dries out and the fire takes off and has a life of its own.  We put a great deal of effort into finding highly talented folks to join our team, but even more important was making sure that we found people that are a good cultural fit for Muskoka Brewery. With the growth rate that we want to achieve we are constantly re-envisioning what our team needs to look like out say two years into the future. By doing this it helps us our talent growth keep pace with our growth aspirations.

It is a good feeling to know that you are surrounded by really talented folks who are equally passionate about sharing great beers with our customers.

What new ideas are you and your team cooking up for the Craft beer industry? Where do you see the future of Craft beer taking us in the next 5-10-20 years?

This year we introduced a program that we have dubbed “Moonlight Kettle”. At it’s core the program is about having fun, developing talent within our team, and creating unique, one-off beers that help to educate beer lovers about the great variety of beer styles and flavours. I also expect that everyone once in a while we will find a real gem that we might want to do something more with! Our most recent Moonlight kettle release is a beer called “Moonlight Kettle – single hop Mosaic”.  We created this beer to showcase the complexity and breadth of flavours that can exist in a single hop. In this case the Mosaic hop.  The Single hop Mosaic is an American Style pale ale with a light crisp malt body that sets up the stage for the Mosaic hop to be the star of the show with mango, lemon, citrus, earthy pine, and stone fruit aromas and flavours. What I really love about this beer is the simplicity of it; two types of malt and just one hop!

For Muskoka Brewery, the beers we make are also a vehicle for making a difference, both in the industry, but also in the communities that we live and work in.  One of the exciting partnerships we are just in the process of launching this year is with Evergreen (Evergreen.ca), whose focus is all about helping to create greener, more sustainable cities.

As for the way forward for the craft beer industry; The beer industry in Canada once had roots in communities large and small. And there were countless styles available. Prohibition took a toll on the industry, and then came the way of processed food and beverage commoditization of the 70s which led many people to believe that beer just a yellow, fizzy beverage with little to no flavor. This is a renaissance for beer. I believe that Craft Brewers have led and will continue to lead the way in awakening, educating, and peaking consumer interests with new-old styles, and even new-new styles of beers.  This is an exciting time to be in the Craft Beer industry.