MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Co.
It’s a business story that is as much a celebration of heritage, of family, of inspiration, innovation and good old fashioned hard work. And, ultimately, it’s a story of success.
Brothers Ivan and Daniel MacKinnon worked to leverage their family’s deep Loyalist roots in the region and combine it with the burgeoning 21st century, ultra-hip, ultra-sustainable craft beer craze that continues to sweep across Ontario, and indeed much of North America. This new business opportunity, and revenue stream for the family farm, is a craft beer brand that appeals to the discriminating beer drinkers palate, but also to the increasing number of consumers who consciously choose to ‘shop local’, especially for food and food-related goods.
Paying Homage to History
Building a brewery on land owned by the family since the time of the American Revolution, the MacKinnons realized they were surrounded by all the raw ingredients they would need.
“We wanted to add something else into the mix mostly from a diversification standpoint. Even on our farm, with a lot of value added stuff, it’s still dependent on commodity prices. Right now we farm about 1,300 acres with an emphasis on certified seed production. So we grow soybeans, wheat, oats and barley – all for certified seed. So if you’re a dairy farmer who wants to put 40 acres of barley in the ground, you go to your local Agromart or Co-op and it would be our name on the bag. And we also grow corn. So that was the genesis of the brewery was to tie it into the farm and the history of the farm, but also to do something a little different,” said Ivan MacKinnon, who said his ancestor Andrew Miller was granted 100 acres in 1784, after fighting for the British in the American Revolution, joining thousands of other loyalists who came to call what is now the Bay of Quinte Region home.
“Celebrating the history is a massive part of our marketing and philosophy. From day one, this wasn’t a brewery; this was a brewery on our historical family farm. And also right from day one we intended to grow the ingredients for the beer right on the farm.”
“That’s something we had been working at even before we started construction on the brewery or even before we started planning. We started planting malting barley and playing with different varieties and planting hops and playing with different varieties. “I really love playing up the history of the farm. Our grandfather, who is a MacKinnon, renamed it the Miller Seed Farm to honour that heritage. It’s always been central to our marketing and I think it’s something that many of our colleagues in the craft beer and cider industry are also doing to different degrees. It’s easy for us to think that we’re the only ones doing a brewery on a 230-year-old family farm, but everyone around here is proud of the heritage of this area. I think it’s a good thing to tap into.”
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Ivan and Daniel were cognizant of the nascent craft beer trend a number of years ago, but also toyed with the idea of developing a distillery on the property as well, but found it to be too cost prohibitive. By 2011 they knew a craft brewery was the way to go, and were also smart enough and patient enough not to rush into it.
“Even then it was really apparent that craft brewing in Ontario was going to be a force to be reckoned with and there was that general recognition that people wanted to know where their food came from. But it took us probably two solid years on the construction before we were up and running and we kind of felt like we were up against the clock a bit. We were cognizant of the fact that the movement was happening out there already and we weren’t there yet. It was tempting to go to the bank for a massive loan or take on investors to get things moving faster, but at the end of the day I am glad we didn’t,” he said.
“Not only does it leave us wholly owned here but it’s not like we really missed the boat. The industry is still developing out there, the market is still growing and it turned out to be a really good time for us to launch back in 2014.”
Mastering the Trade
Ivan earned a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for a large, successful multinational corporation for a number of years. Once they decided to open a brewery, Daniel chose to immerse himself in skills and knowledge that comprise the art of brew making.
“It was actually happenstance on my end. The mechanical engineering degree has come in handy and those five years that I worked at Kellogg’s were huge for me to see the way a high-level food manufacturing facility works – from the focus on microbiology to sanitation to automation to bringing trades in and all that kind of stuff. It was a really good learning experience,” Ivan said.
“It wasn’t like I said, ‘okay I am going to be an engineer and work for a big company so later I can open up a brewery.’ But on Daniel’s end, we are very lucky to have his skills and experience. He’s got his Master’s Degree in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I think there are only three or four programs in the world at that level, and it really is an asset for us because he knows the science behind brewing and he’s got a ton of really good experience. It just helps make really good beer when you know the science behind it.”
A Vision for Good Beer
As for the beer itself, unlike many other craft breweries, the MacKinnon brothers weren’t trying to impress the beer snob crowd with their recipes, instead, they wanted to make high-quality, tasty beer that was still accessible. “We were never really interested in doing a super hoppy IPA or an extremely high alcohol Imperial stout or anything like that. We just wanted to brew beer that we wanted to drink. We weren’t trying to hit a certain niche in the market, we were just trying to make stuff that we liked and hoped that other people liked too. That’s why we started with a Canadian Ale, Cross Cut, which is just a solid, easy-drinking beer. It’s kind of our olive branch to local people who had never really considered craft beer. It’s our gateway brand. Honestly, we’re really focused on the local market. We never said we were trying to appeal to just craft beer drinkers, we wanted to get local people,” he explained, adding that the flagship 8 Man English Pale Ale is a little more malty but still very accessible and has become wildly popular.
Besides these two popular anchor offerings, the brewery has other brands that rotate in and out of the lineup on a seasonal basis. “The next one we did was Origin, which is a German-style wheat bear. And we grow the wheat here, so it was one that made sense to us. We do a Wild Stout which is a traditional Irish dry stout and we add a little bit of wild peppermint into the batch, which is just a cool herbal flavour, not overly minty. We did a Red Fox which is a red ale that uses citric hops so it has a nice grapefruit note to it, and it also has one-per-cent beet juice. The beet flavour doesn’t come through, but it gives the beer this really intense red colour.”
They also did a collaboration with the owners of the two Red House restaurants in Kingston on a special Brothers House Ale, and in 2016 did a fall-oriented blend called Harvest Ale.
Appreciation for the Craft
History, expertise and a customer-first mentality has generated a remarkably loyal following amongst area imbibers.
“It’s a really good cross section of people who seem to enjoy our products. Local, is the best way I can pin it down. I talk to a lot of them and it’s young, old, male, female – everybody. All I know is that 80 per cent of the beer that we sell is sold within 25 kilometres of the brewery, which is a lot bigger percentage than I thought we would be able to hit when we started out three years ago,” he said.
“People love the heritage aspect of it, the local aspect and the fact that sustainability is a priority. We try to take a sustainability approach not just in terms of using ingredients directly from the farm, but also from an energy efficiency standpoint. So we looked back at how things were done way back in the day in England and Europe. We did the same thing with our cold cellar that they did – dig it into the ground. We blasted down 14 feet into the bedrock and excavated it. It’s been great for an energy saving point of view. We do have to throw a little cooling down there in the summer, but other than that, no cooling or heat required.”
MacKinnon said he also continues to be amazed at the unique vibe within the craft beer sector, particularly in the Bay of Quinte region, where other brewers are viewed as colleagues, not competitors.
“Craft brewing is the most open industry I’ve ever heard of. There are no trade secrets. I am still blown away by the fact that everybody is so welcoming and into sharing information; it’s phenomenal. I think the state of the business right now is that there’s room for a ton of growth, and you’re going to see more craft beers coming along and the market is going to keep growing for them,” MacKinnon said.
“And we in this area have a responsibility to continue to share information and continue to help people get started, because there was so much help for us when we got started. I hope that we can play our part and continue that tradition and that spirit.”