Follow beer writer, Troy Burtch, as he explores the wonderful world of craft beer and the pubs that serve it. Great Canadian Beer is a place to come to catch up on beer news, read tasting notes, check out event listings, and for pub previews and reviews.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Meet Jonathon Sherman: Owner Steelback Brewing Co.

This guy has been through a lot in the last year. I mean, he took over a brewery at 25 years of age, and not just any brewery, but one that was in dire shambles with a reputation for inconsistent products and a marketing budget far exceeding incoming sales figures.

Yes, Jonathon Sherman has been through a lot. He has stripped Steelback down to its core and has been slowly and methodically putting the pieces back in place. Gone are the tall tub cans. So are those ridiculous plastic bottles that drove customers mad. The services of the always colourful Frank D'Angelo were no longer needed. Steelback was shedding its past image, looking toward a brighter future. The company recently made a splash in the brewing industry when it was announced that they joined the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), something Sherman had in mind when the re-branding was initiated, even if it meant going through some hurdles.

I recently met up with energetic owner over a pint of their new seasonal Red Maple Lager to discuss his decision to join the OCB, talk about the transformation of the brewery, and see what may be in store.

Meet Jonathon Sherman (now 26 years old):

Steelback was just accepted into the OCB. Why did you want to join?
It was something that I wanted to do since our big re-launch. The old Steelback was rife with inconsistency, bad marketing, and produced way to many beers. I felt like we needed to get back to basics and gain some back some credibility. Joining the OCB shows that we are serious about change, and shows how much was have tried to separate the brewery from the old guard. Also, gaining the OCB Stamp of Approval on our products is a great way for customers to see that a change for the better took place. The OCB does some great things, things like the Discovery Pack, which introduces beer drinkers to beers that may not have been discovered otherwise. This grassroots marketing is something we like and hope that we can contribute to in the future. I also wanted to join the OCB because of the teamwork. Being part of a group of dedicated individuals fighting for market share is something I believe in.

What does Steelback hope to gain from joining - other than credibility?
Well, the number one thing is the OCB Stamp of Approval. This is big. We also hope to gain friendships with the other breweries. We want to be part of that comroderie that the OCB members are known for.

You have to be one of, if not thee youngest brewery owner in Canada. What has it been like?
It's been pretty wild. Pretty exciting. Most young entrepreneur's look to start off on the right foot, I started off with a sinking ship. While it has been fun, it has also been very challenging. The first thing I did was surround myself with experience. I hired Ian MacDonald who is a veteran beer guy to run the daily operation of the brewery. He has been great. As for me, I am a hands-on owner. I like to be out in the field with the sales reps, visiting our accounts and getting to know the individuals who support our vision. I am learning more and more about the industry everyday and I often joke around with friends that my experience comes from my days as a consumer..if you get my drift.

We all know about the re-launch, but can you explain the decision to cut the Steelback line-up from 11 beers to 5?
There were many factors.
1 - We wanted to get back to basics. Brew a handful of beers and give our undivided attention to them.
2 - The old Steelback had so many different brands that they were essentially competing against each other. Some stores only stocked 2 or 3 while some stocked 5 or 6. That made it difficult for people to find our beers. Eliminating all those brands has saved a lot of confusion.
3 - Fewer raw packaging costs. You save a lot of money when you cut back on numerous brands.
4 - I wanted to get away from the tub cans and the plastic bottles too. Putting everything in standard bottles and selling them in six packs, along with the re-branding, has given us a better image.

Your products mainly cater to the everyday beer drinker. Will beer geeks ever write about a Steelback beer?
I certainly hope so...and I think so. Yes, we do have 5 beers that are mainstream, easy drinking beers. We are a brewery built on that. However, as part of our craft beer segment, releasing seasonals or producing one-offs is something we would like to do, and will be exploring. We just produced a Red Maple Lager that is only available on draught and it has been very successful. We also got some new brewing equipment to do test brewing, so hopefully we can start doing some unique stuff soon.

Many OCB members participate in beer events like Volo Cask Days and different tasting sessions. Do you see Steelback engaging in these sort of events now that you've joined the OCB?
Yeah, we're totally into that. We already do some intimate events closer to the brewery, letting people taste the difference of change. We want to be fully involved in the craft market as these different niche events help set smaller breweries apart from the large guys. A lot of people think Steelback is a large brewery. We have a large brewery, be we are craft in size. Pumping out the same five beers only bores people over time and doing special beers for events is something that we are interested in. It will be nice to participate in events with the other OCB members.

Who do you look up to in the brewing industry?
I love the Creemore model and I think we have worked off that model since the re-launch. Do good products at a craft level, focus on draught accounts (that way the beer gets into the hands of people without paying for a whole case), put faith in our quality, and working from our backyard outward. Like Creemore, Steelback packaging has been re-branded with images of local scenery. David Kincade, who runs a branding consulting firm, has been a great help in getting us back on our feet. He's someone I looked up to for professional help.

What is your favourite Steelback beer?
Hands down, no question - the Dark Lager. Dark Lager by a long shot. The new Red Maple is great, but I love the Dark. It's drinkable, flavourful, and complex.

The Dark Lager won a Gold Medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2007, just after the re-launch, and brought with it some criticism.
I don't blame people for their words. They probably tried the beer when it was sold in the plastic bottles, or tried it after it spoiled. I could understand why they didn't like it. The beer the judges tasted was fresh, bottled in glass, and the recipe had been tightened.

Any last words?
I guess I could say that we have come a long way in one year and we are very thrilled to be a member of the OCB. It is a privilege to join forces with all the other great craft breweries and it will be great to work with them. We will continue to grow, continue to improve, and promise to get a lot better. Keep an eye on Steelback.


Anonymous said...

Is the Steelback Dark Lager the same beer that the previous Steelback called "Bear"?

I can't tell, but I remember Bear actually being a very good beer.


Lisa said...

Thank you Troy - The OCB is pleased to have the NEW Steelback in our group.... we look forward to watching the positive trend and momentum behind their brand image in this competitive beer segment!
Cheers John!

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