Napanee Beer Company
Geordan Saunders was hooked on brewing beer from the first time he tried it. It was a burgeoning passion that was encouraged by his wife through a birthday gift. After which he immediately began to immerse himself in the art and craft of beer making, eventually leading to today, where he is the owner of a much lauded, decorated and respected new craft brewing firm – The Napanee Beer Company.
Open for just over a year, The Napanee Beer Company, and its founder, proprietor and brewmaster Saunders, has worked diligently and tirelessly to make the company not only a brand to be reckoned with within the increasingly competitive craft beer sector, but also as a vehicle to allow Saunders to help support his home community of Greater Napanee.
“One of the things that I am keenly aware of is there are people who are proud of us as their hometown brewery and they want to tell people about us and we don’t want to let them down. That goes back to us being a responsible part of the community and putting out a quality product, and focussing on our customers. We want to be a brand that people are proud to be associated with and support in some capacity. I think we have a responsibility to the people who enjoy our beer, and are proud to talk about us,” said Saunders, who moved back to Napanee with his family after a decade of working in Toronto as a marketing professional for a top telecommunications corporation.
“The community is very important to us and I want us to be a positive part of the town. My goal is that the folks want to drink Napanee Beer not just because they’re local but because they look at us and say, ‘hey, these guys are a really positive part of the Napanee community, they want to do good things, they want to help the town grow.’”
The journey began a little over five years ago, when he took up home brewing as a hobby.
“It was a welcome distraction from the monotony of the day to day. I have always been a person who needed a hobby and this was one that I just went crazy with. Shortly after I heard about it, Christmas was coming up and my wife said this would be a great Christmas gift for me. And I was hooked right away on brewing. With that first batch that I did, I was standing over this bubbling pot on my stove and looked up at my wide and saying I am going to do this for the rest of my life. I was like a dog on a bone. I was obsessed with the concept of brewing and making it a career and seeing where it could take me,” he said.
“The science and the art of brewing together is what really gets me going. The idea you can start with nothing and put this recipe together and envision what the final product is going to be and following each step of the process and to end up with this provide that is alive and so sensitive is amazing. You go from this very kind of mechanical production process to nurturing almost this living creature.
“It’s a picky creature and one thing that you discover really early as a brewer is that anyone can make good beer. But to close the gap between good beer and great beer is a significant jump and I became really focused on not just making good beer, because to me good beer was boring. I want to make great beer.”
For a few years he studied and experimented, testing his mettle at numerous amateur beer making competitions. Once he realized there was the possibility of opening his own brewery he talked to as many people within the industry as he could, amazed at how approachable and helpful the members of the craft beer sector are in offering advice and practical assistance.
“I found out that opening my own brewery was not all warm and fuzzy. I spent a lot of time and energy peeling back all the layers and finding out how the sausage is made, so to speak. It meant digging into tax law and how to talk to investors and how to talk to real estate agents and how to navigate the AGCO. There was a lot to know,” Saunders explained.
“I wanted to know all that before I dove in because once you’re in it, you’re in it. And once we decided to move back to Napanee and I worked on finding a location and working on the recipes and the branding and the marketing, the logos and presentation, I created a company around four core tenets. They are the four key pillars of The Napanee Beer Company brand: The first is to never compromise on the quality of the products we distribute. Second, we always put our customers first in everything that we do. Third, to build and create an amazing team of people who are proud to be a part of it. And finally, and most importantly, to be a responsible, engaged part of our community.
“And I believe what separates us as a brand is that we are very focused. Nothing is done by accident, nothing is done on a whim. Everything is put through the lens of who we are as a company and we are laser focused on the quality of our products. If it’s not perfect, it doesn’t go out the door.”
There are four anchor brands currently being produced and sold by The Napanee Beer Company. Saunders gives folks the rundown:
“Deadline is a premium lager and it’s made in the style of a premium American lager but it is brewed with German lager techniques, so it’s a mix of the best of both worlds. It’s very light, easy drinking with a beautiful malt character, with a subtle sweetness in the back and a floral hops presence. It’s very drinkable, very accessible – nice on a hot day,” he said.
“Blacklist is a Black German Lager, and is very much our hero product. German black lagers are historically significant styles of beers that are relatively uncommon in North America, and even more so in Ontario. Blacklist is very traditional in its execution. It’s very dry with a firm bitterness up front that’s due to the German hops, with a beautiful chocolate and coffee note on the back end that’s not overwhelming or harsh. It’s very balanced and very dry. We joke that if Stella Artois and iced coffee had a baby, this would be the baby.”
Two Belgian ales come next.
“Mayday is a Belgian Pale Ale and they are very common over in Europe and they are not like American pale ales which are typically big, hoppy beers. Belgian pales are focused very much on the fruit and spice character that the Belgian yeast creates. So Mayday has a very pronounced pear and orange flavour and at the end there is a really delicate white pepper and clove sense. We often say that anyone who enjoys a wheat beer is going to enjoy the Mayday,” Saunders explained.
“The Extremist is a Belgian IPA and, again, is very different than the American IPAs. Belgian IPAs are beers that have the best of Belgian yeast and American hops working together, so you end up with that same great fruity and spice character from the Mayday, intertwined with a big citrus, pine and spruce flavour that come from the American hops. You end up with a beer that is highly aromatic, very flavourful but still very balanced and drinkable.”
The Napanee Beer Company also has a seasonal program where six different beers will be floated in and out of rotation to fit the season. As well there is a so-called ‘redacted series’ of small batch, single brew releases that come and go throughout the year. The current summer release is Chivalrous, which is a sour, raspberry, woody beer.
“It’s exceptionally dry, very, very tarty with a big raspberry flavour that actually adds absolutely no sweetness to the beer. It’s very refreshing. On a 30C day, it’s the one you want in your hand,” said Saunders.
Seeking industry validation for all his hard work and attention to detail, Saunders chose to pit his beers against the best craft brewers in the province. Entering the most recent Ontario Brewing Awards, Saunders said he had modest expectation of how his beers would do, but he far exceeded even those expectations, coming home with four significant awards.
“We entered a good number of our beers, mostly looking for feedback and to see how we stack up. It was our first competition as a professional brewery although I have lots of experience with amateur brewing competitions. I did not expect us to do particularly well because the competition was exceptionally high this year, and even though we are a truly great brewery, there are a lot of fantastic breweries in Ontario that have popped up in the last year or so,” he said, adding that since Blacklist was his signature beer, he felt that if even just that brand was recognized, the effort of entering the event would have been more than worthwhile.
“I didn’t expect us to do as well as we did. We got a gold medal for Black List in the Dark Lager category, which was a hell of a win. We got a gold medal for our Belgian Quad, which was the first release in our redacted series, which was another important win because it shows that we have diverse skills as a brewer, and we also won a bronze medal for Chivalrous which was especially encouraging because that’s a competitive category, but it was also a relatively new beer for us at the time. I had not even committed to it being our summer seasonal at the time.
“And not in a million years did I think we had a chance of being New Brewery of the Year, but when we were given that award, the people who presented it said there was little doubt as to who deserved the award, which felt really great. All the medals are fantastic, they are very important from the perspective of marketing. For us, to be the new brewery of the year in what might have been the busiest year ever for the Ontario Brewing Awards is a heck of a coup. It feels really great to be recognized for the work we have done. We have busted our butts to make the best beer possible. We hear it from our customers and I don’t want to minimize that because the most important thing in the world is knowing somebody loves our beer, that we have made their day better. But to get these awards was to kind of make it official.”
As for the future, it’s onwards and upwards for the Napanee Beer Company.
“I would like to continue the trajectory we’re on, largely. So that means to really build our brand awareness, especially with customers external to our home area, to really make a name for ourselves in major beer markets and to be a beer that people seek out and they become aware that it is a quality product and an enjoyable product. And also to continue to find new ways to be a positive part of Napanee and participate in community events and support events and causes where we can,” Saunders said.
“What I want is my daughter telling her friends in school 15 years from now about what her dad does and I want her to be super proud of what we have done in our community and the brand we have built. That’s what drives me; that’s my guiding compass.”
For more information, visit www.napaneebeer.ca.