Quintevation

Craft Beer Pioneer

When it comes to brewing, John Graham has always been a little ahead of the curve. As a precocious teenager in the early to mmid-1980s he was making his own home brew – well before home brewing and brew-your-own storefronts became all the rage. 

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Church Key Brewery

Oddly enough, the desire to make his own beer came from more of a political and economic basis than simply a desire to be able to acquire beer before he was legally able to.

“I don’t know if I could have articulated it at the time when I was 15 or 16 years old, but I know it bothered me that back then there were only four breweries for the entire country, and there was also this globalization that was already starting to happen that I was aware of. I guess I was upset by that and the fact that there was such limited choice,”  

“I had done some travelling through Europe and saw that there was this whole wider world of great beer out there, but we weren’t able to enjoy the same variety and choice. And I guess, formatively speaking, it might have been a trip to Newfoundland in 1984 that got the wheels turning for me. There was a beer strike on at the time and I realized that two breweries going on strike could deprive an entire province of the commodity. And it was there that I first heard of home brewing and it was the first home brew I ever tried.”

“I never hid it from my parents; I guess they figured it was better than scoffing a bottle of vodka from the liquor cabinet. What won them over, I think, was when I made Bailey’s for my mom’s card party one night.”

Graham admits that he was unusual for his age to be so interested in current affairs, politics and the socio-economic ramifications of corporatization and the global economy, but he said he was also interested in the entire marketing and design components of the beer industry from an early age. “I collected beer cans and beer caps and bottles since I was 10. My room was absolutely lined with beer bottles. I just loved the colours and logos and everything.”

A Brewery Is Born

Fast forward to the dawn of the new millennium and Graham was once again on the forefront of a new, exciting and tasty trend – craft brewing – or as it was referred to more commonly back then, micro-brewing. In 2000, he opened Church Key Brewery in Campbellford, and since then has been a leading voice for craft brewing across the province as one of the co-founders of the Ontario Craft Brewers Association. Within the Bay of Quinte Region, he has become the elder statesman – the Yoda or Gandalf – of the area’s craft beer scene, imparting his wisdom,

 

 

How It All Began

 

 

In 1985 he began home brewing, by 1989 he was working at a home-brew storefront in his hometown of Aurora, ON, and shortly thereafter got a job working at the Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto to learn more aspects of the trade, particularly the business side of running a brewery, eventually becoming a shift brewer and filter operator.

“It was a big step forward in what I was hoping to do with my life. And I learned a lot there. It was actually a pretty humbling experience. Initially I was like, ‘okay, how do you run a brewery? Let me just go figure this out for six months and then I’ll be off.’ I stayed for several years. It was a stepping stone for sure as, at the time, I wanted a brew pub. It’s what I initially wanted to run. When I first started at Amsterdam, it was still a brew pub,” Graham explained.

“There was very little packaged product craft breweries back then – basically just Brick, Creemore Springs and Upper Canada, who all started in the mid-1980s. When I got to Amsterdam, they were just starting the transition from being a brew pub only to being a package brewery,”

By 1999, he felt he had learned all that he could and it was time to venture out on his own. Knowing he wanted to live in a more sedate, rural setting, Graham purchased a former Methodist Church, built in 1878, in Campbellford, to become the home of what is now Church Key Brewing.

“Campbellford was a whole lot like where I grew up 30 years before. And the catalyst for making the change was all in one week my father-in-law passed away and my son was born. It was that sort of ‘wake up, life is short’ moment. I wanted to live rural and this is how far you had to go to be rural. And business-wise it’s halfway between Toronto and Ottawa, which are the two largest beer markets in the province,” he said.

Local Flavour

Graham also made the connection between local heritage and locally-produced beer, incorporating history into his branding and marketing.

“You’re a brand-new brewery competing with Molson and Labatt’s who have been around for more than 150 years. I bought 125 years of history by brewing in an 1878 church, which adds a story and a legitimacy to the marketing.”

I found very early on, for this type of product, that the story is very important to the customer and I would say it’s not just this area. Borrowing from an area’s history isn’t an original idea. Upper Canada played up the whole heritage aspect with its name, and talking about Rebellion of 1837 and the march down Yonge Street and things like that,” he said.

In this part of the province, which has become known as the Bay of Quinte Region, the education process for licensees and the public was a much more difficult proposition than it is for brewers who have come along in the last few years. When you’re the first – it means a lot of legwork.

“Nobody here had heard of craft beer, and actually back then we were calling ourselves microbreweries. So part of my sales pitch was no, it’s not bootlegging. No it’s not illegal to buy it from me. I had to educate the buyers and the bar and restaurant owners. It was a very different landscape back then,” Graham said.

“You had to sell it twice: you had to sell the bar owner and talk to him. Then you had to actually go in and educate his staff and customers to get some of them to give it a try. Now, the problem is they always want something new. With many licensees, you give them a beer and they say it’s wonderful and perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing, but what else is there?”

The Product

The first beer created by Church Key, Northumberland Ale, is still its most popular, and set the foundation that underlies Graham’s brewing and business philosophy to this day – local is paramount.

“My thought right from the beginning was that I want to make beer that tastes like it’s from here. My water was my first ingredient and I didn’t us any water additives, which some breweries use to simulate water from other regions. So from day one it was brewed with water that came from Campbellford. Back then I couldn’t get any malt or hops from the area, but as soon as I could, I did,” he said.

“Northumberland Ale is a style of beer that was born here generations ago. Eastern Ontario and Upstate New York had what are called stock ales or cream ales. They are the same, but it just depends on where you are whether they call it a stock or cream ale. And it has to do with the British and German people who immigrated here towards the end of the 19th century who were making ales that tasted like lagers. It was beer that was from this area and the style suited this area and I wanted to bring back that tradition.”

The Church Key regular repertoire also includes the Holy Smoke Scotch Ale, West Coast Pale Ale and Church Key Red, which is an Irish red ale. For fun, and to experiment with new recipes – as well as to draw a little promotion and press – Church Key has also issued some quirky small-batch brands from time to time. These include the likes of Grains of Wrath, Namastale, Brun Au Mars and The Great Pumpkin Ale.

Understanding the Market

A few years back, Graham also opened the Church Key Pub & Grindhouse in Campbellford, where the Church Key repertoire and some other selections are sold to both locals and visitors alike. Attracting tourists has become an important aspect of Graham’s business, and he often partners with the likes of Empire Cider and Empire Cheese to help bring people off Highway 401. 

“We can’t rely on the Beer Store, liquor store or grocery chains to sell our product in an effective way. So for many of us in this region, we have to be tourism driven. My demographic is probably the same as everybody in this business – the 25 to 35 year olds, double-income, many of whom cottage in the area or travel through the area. We get lots of those and we do everything we can to bring them into Campbellford and then encourage them to explore the area.” Graham also agreed that there is an unusual level of collaboration and camaraderie between craft brewers, including those throughout the Bay of Quinte region. “I don’t think I have ever really questioned why brewing is that much of a brotherhood and sisterhood. It just is, and always has been. Maybe it comes from 1000 or so years ago when trades and professions like brewing were all guild based. Back then it was like, ‘we have to teach each other how to brew better beer because we want

“I don’t think I have ever really questioned why brewing is that much of a brotherhood and sisterhood. It just is, and always has been. Maybe it comes from 1000 or so years ago when trades and professions like brewing were all guild based. Back then it was like, ‘we have to teach each other how to brew better beer because we want

Graham also agreed that there is an unusual level of collaboration and camaraderie between craft brewers, including those throughout the Bay of Quinte region. 

“I don’t think I have ever really questioned why brewing is that much of a brotherhood and sisterhood. It just is, and always has been. Maybe it comes from 1000 or so years ago when trades and professions like brewing were all guild based. Back then it was like, ‘we have to teach each other how to brew better beer because we want beer to outperform tea,’” he said.

“And then we also have common enemies: when the tax collectors come around and try to raise it, or the global brewers do something to shift the competitive climate – we are fighting a common goal. Right now there’s a lot of business to go around. And most of all I think it’s just that we all just like to have a beer together. It’s pretty hard to dislike somebody when you do that on a regular basis.”

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