Signal Brewing Company
After many years spent focusing his business operations on Belleville’s downtown core, Richard Courneyea was looking for a different, more thirst-quenching entrepreneurial endeavour to sink his teeth into.
Known for refurbishing and repurposing many of the historic buildings in the city’s downtown, as well as being the former owner of Richard Davis menswear store, Courneyea is now a full-fledged member of the burgeoning Bay of Quinte craft beer scene as he sets to open Signal Brewing Company in Corbyville in 2017. Located on the site of the former distillery at 86 River Road, Signal has taken over three of the remaining half-dozen vintage buildings on the site (at one time there were more than 80!), creating a facility that will not only make beer, but which he also hopes acts as an economic and community building catalyst for the sleepy village.
Courneyea’s approach is different from many of the other craft brewers in the Bay of Quinte Region in that he is an entrepreneur first and a craft brewer second. Looking for a new, challenging, and exciting business opportunity, one that would be a community building exercise as much as it was a revenue generating enterprise, he understood that craft beer was a growing sector, and saw great potential in Signal Brewing.
“Initially we were going to do condominiums along the river but then I remembered that I always thought it would be kind of cool to make something – to manufacture a product. I remember one night I woke up suddenly and said to my wife, who doesn’t drink alcohol at all, that we’re going into the beer business. She thought it was a little bit crazy, but I thought it was an interesting idea. So we started pursuing it and travelled around to look at other people’s breweries and what they were doing,” he said.
“Yes, I would call myself an entrepreneur first, so I am obviously somebody who studies trends, but in terms of being a real craft beer aficionado, I would say no. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol, but I do like the taste of many craft beers and I love the community it aligns with and the energy that’s there.”
Ultimately it was the potential of the property and the incredible historic significance and legacy of the site itself in Corbyville that prompted the decision to hop on to the craft beer bandwagon.
“The reason we decided to go into alcohol was that there is this incredible history tied to Corbyville that was inherent in the property and there is a whole community of people who, for about 150 years, were manufacturing whiskey on this site. So there’s this amazing historic narrative about how alcohol and more specifically whiskey originated off our property and was produced there for generations. And I am repurposing this property in a way that goes back to its original roots, which seems like such a logical thing. As a consequence over the last 24 months of us sharing our story, the momentum from the public and the community is pretty intense right now for us to get started,” Courneyea explained.
“I am a community builder. I think what we’re doing with the brewery is really the formative stage of a new community happening there. I would hope that what we’re doing would inspire more growth and opportunity. What we’re trying to do, besides make good beer, is reach out to the people who were here in the past and celebrate them in a way that helps to drive our future forward in a positive way. We’re going to try and own some of the history and we’re doing that, obviously, by renovating and repurposing these buildings where a lot of people put their blood sweat and tears into.”
Once it’s open in the summer of 2017, Signal Brewing Company will be much more than simply a craft brewery with an on-site retail outlet. Courneyea said the brewery will become a destination tourism location as well as cultural hub for Belleville and surrounding area.
“We’re going to be producing beer in one building, which will be a fairly significant sized operation. In between the brewery and what we call the event space, is a linking area which will have a bottle shop so we will actually have a beer store there and you can buy some product and come in for tastings. That will be open every day. It will be where people come in and orient themselves and there will be beer-related things for sale. We want, in that linking area, to celebrate the Corby history there on one of the walls with memorabilia and stuff celebrating the past,” he explained.
“And then on the other side of our bottle shop we’ll have the events space and it will focus on live music. We want lots of live music and a real celebration of the arts. We’re working on programming that will feature entertainment on a weekly basis and it’s going to be exciting. People are already calling to have corporate events or weddings on the site as well. We will also have what we believe is one of the largest patios in the region along the river. We have about 4,000 square feet there as a way of celebrating the river and the wonderful scenery and lifestyle here in Belleville.”
Like any successful business owner or corporate leader, Courneyea understand the importance of delegating responsibility for key components of the operation to folks who are experts in their field.
“I know what my strengths and weaknesses are and I know that in order to make great beer you have to have a great beer person, so we hired a gentleman who was the head brewer at Railway City out of St. Thomas and he makes excellent, award-winning beer. We have an expert for the events space who is doing our programming; we have someone wonderful in food services spaces and someone who is very strong in the hospitality space and brought in someone who is excellent at marketing. I am basically surrounding myself with as many people I can that I consider having world-class skills to make our brewery successful,” he said, adding that he believes much of the traffic to the site will be from folks travelling along Highway 401.
“We definitely want to be a tourism draw for the region. I just finished my tenure as the chair of the Bay of Quinte Regional Marketing Board over the last couple of years, so I understand the importance of tourism and what it can do for the community. And Belleville hasn’t really been part of that larger tourism narrative, so we believe with our new brewery, in conjunction with the new casino and the new AHL hockey team, there’s a really great opportunity to cross-promote.”
Initially, Signal Brewing well sell its wares from its own store and at a few licensees throughout the region. Perhaps over the longer term getting into the LCBO or the Beer Store will be considered, but for the moment Courneyea is focused on bringing people to the Corbyville property and building the Signal Brewing Company brands throughout the area.
“We’re doing a beer called Radio Tube which is a pilsner and we’re thinking it’s going to be a high-volume seller for us. It’s very drinkable, not too complex or too hoppy, but very delicious. We have a juicy beer we’re going to be selling called Wave that has this amazing fruity fragrance which is very much on trend. We have another tasty, easy drinking beer called Ohm and then we also have a very hoppy IPA called Byte. So we think we have the winning recipes to please any beer drinker’s palate,” he said.
Ultimately, Signal Brewing Company is the realization of a dream and the evolution of one business owner’s vision to something bigger than simply making money.
“I remember showing my plans to some friends early in the process and they said, ‘Rich are you sure?’ I think they thought I was going through a mid-life crisis or something. The challenge has been to get people to see something past the façade and realize the potential, which takes a little bit of vision and imagination. From the very start until now it’s been a construction project with the goal of becoming a brewery. But now the reality is we’ve switched the focus to being a beer making facility. It’s definitely a mind shift and it’s pretty euphoric to now see it. And it gets exciting because all of a sudden other people see it now and think it’s cool. It really is proof that anybody can do anything if you put your mind to it,” he said.
“I have been self-employed since I was 30 and when I first started out I reached out to a friend. I had no resources and money or anything like that, and he said to me ‘never let money be the reason you don’t do something. If it’s a good idea, the money will always follow.’ And that’s pretty much been the case, including with this development. We just jumped into a project and everything has come together as it was meant to be. It’s been very serendipitous and very rewarding.”