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Friday, September 12, 2008

Meet John Bowden: Great Lakes Brewery

Meet John Bowden - a man of all trades at Great Lakes Brewery in Etobicoke, ON (second from left in the picture).

Great Lakes is the oldest operating Toronto craft brewery and produces some terrific year round and seasonal brews such as Devil's Pale Ale, Pumpkin Ale, Orange Peel Ale, Red Leaf Lager, Winter Ale and more. They won an astounding 4 medals in the 2007 Canadian Brewing Awards and recently starting exporting to Nova Scotia. Enough from me, let's here from the man behind the scenes - John, take it away.

What is your role with Great Lakes and how long have you been with them?
I was hired a little over two and a half years ago to be our representative/sales guy to the LCBO. Since that time, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of other roles, including licensee sales, marketing, promotions, events, and pitching in for deliveries, bottling or whatever else needs to be done.

Describe the history behind Great Lakes.
The brewery was started in 1987, and was based in Brampton by the original owners. Two beers were brewed at this time; Great Lakes Lager and Unicorn Ale. However, the original owners ran out of money and the brewery closed in 1990. It wasn’t long before current owner Peter Bulut purchased the brewery, and Great Lakes was back up and running soon after, relocating to our current building near Royal York and the Gardiner Expressway by 1992.

We offered our beer on draught only, beginning with our Golden Horseshoe Premium Lager and adding Red Leaf Lager in the mid 90s. We purchased a bottling line in 2000, and began offering our beers (including a new addition, Black Jack Lager) through the LCBO.

We launched Devil’s Pale Ale at the 2006 Toronto Festival of Beer as a one-off, but began selling it year-round in the fall of 2007 in our signature 666 cans. The success of Devil’s Pale Ale encouraged us to brew a line of seasonal beers, including our Orange Peel Ale, Pumpkin Ale, and Winter Ale.


How well is the Devil's Pale Ale selling?
Let’s just put it this way – we are just able to keep up with demand, and looking to purchase a much faster canning line. We’re also starting to get some new licensees into the beer, so we expect to keep growing the draught side of things especially as Halloween approaches.

How successful have the seasonals (Orange Peel Ale, Pumpkin Ale, Winter Ale) been for Great Lakes?
Great! We knew they’d be popular, but we were stunned by the incredible response when we launched each beer. They’ve allowed us to be creative and introduce new styles that have been lacking in the province until now. As a result, we’ve attracted a whole new base of consumers who are looking for something flavourful and unique in their beer. Not to mention the media attention we’ve earned too! From the Globe & Mail to the Toronto Star and beyond, our seasonals have received great reviews.

What's new at the brewery? Events, new beers, milestones?
We’re just about ready to launch this year’s release of Pumpkin Ale, along with a large push for Devil’s Pale Ale. The month of October is shaping up to be a crazy one, as these 2 beers are a natural fit for Halloween. We’re working on a release party for the Pumpkin Ale in early October...details to come!

Why did you get into the brewing industry and describe your passion for it.
Where to begin? I guess my introduction to craft beer was about 3 years ago when I worked and backpacked through the Rockies and the West Coast. I was floored by these aggressively flavourful ales out of Victoria, Vancouver and particularly Seattle. I visited every brewery I could find and tasted more beers than I can remember. When I got back to Ontario in late 2005 I was determined to land a job in craft brewing and help create unique and robust beers that I felt our market to be lacking. I feel the new beers we’ve released in the past two years, combined with those from other OCB members, are showing that both consumers and brewers are starting to catch up to what’s happening in other provinces and states. That said, I’d still like to brew a big, bold and hoppy IPA one of these days!

What is the best aspect of being in sales/marketing for a craft brewery?
The ability to wear multiple hats. I enjoy being able to spend time talking with LCBO staff, knocking on licensee doors, providing my input for new beers and marketing ideas back at the brewery and so on. As we’re a small company, we all have a hand in shaping the direction we want to go.

Describe the relationship between Ontario breweries.
Unbelievable. I never imagined that such a competitive industry would have some of the most helpful, hardworking and friendly people I’ve ever met. I think everyone realizes that we’re all fighting the same fight, so we’re always happy to help one another out when needed, be it sharing knowledge, ingredients, equipment or whatever else to make better beer. There were about a dozen of us from Ontario craft breweries (including us, F&M, Cameron’s, Church Key and St. Andre) that were down in San Diego for the World Beer Cup and we may as well have all been from the same brewery. I remember the president of Stone Brewing giving a speech and telling everyone about his sales techniques, which seems like an odd thing to do. But he said that the more business and awareness other craft breweries generate, the better it is for all craft brewers at the end of the day. It’s a very fraternal relationship.

How many accounts does Great Lakes currently have?
Wow, how many accounts...well we service the GTA, Ottawa, Niagara Falls, London, Collingwood and points in between. It’s over 200 accounts for sure.

What food would you serve Pumpkin Ale with?
This is a great evening beer, so I’d pair it with foods like turkey, roasted chicken, or seasonal desserts (pumpkin pie for sure). It’s also great by itself as an evening drink.

Tell us something about Great Lakes that not a lot of people know about.
Our building won a Vincent Massey Award for Architectural Innovation in the 1950’s. It’s worth a stop by to check out some of the unique retro features, along with our historic brewhouse.

What advantages do smaller breweries have over the big guys?
We can be way more adventurous! The big brewers are too big to experiment with over-the-top beers, so that’s where we have a huge advantage. Although these styles of beer still have a limited appeal, times are quickly changing. As we also have tiny budgets, we’re forced to come up with more unique beers and marketing edges to attract our attention. Our Devil’s Pale Ale is a great example of both.

So there you have it, a little history about John and the brewery he takes great pride in.

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