Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Jewelle Schiedel-Webb, who runs Haliburton Highlands Brewing, a cottage-country brewery, with her family in Haliburton, Ont.
What is Haliburton Highlands Brewing?
Haliburton Highlands Brewing is a family-owned production brewery that we started in 2014.
How did the business get started?
My husband, Michael, and I have cottaged in the Haliburton area for many years and have always wanted to live and work up here. We spent many Friday nights in the car talking about what we could do that would let us live and work in the area. We’re both big foodies and very interested in the slow food movement. So, in 2010, when craft brewing was exploding, we were thinking about how Haliburton didn’t have a craft brewery.
We decided to open one because we thought it could add to the area. My husband has a culinary background, and I worked in product marketing and operations, so I explored all the regulatory and business aspects of starting a production brewery. At the same time, Michael did a couple of internships and learned how to brew.
We partnered with Abbey Gardens, a 350-acre site in Haliburton that used to be a gravel pit. Now it’s focused on building the local food community through sustainable energy and wellness. It was a perfect partnership because they were looking for something to add to their tourism appeal. We were looking for a location for the brewery that would allow us to operate sustainably.
We started with a pilot project to validate. I mean, we were making a considerable investment and a huge transition, so we wanted to be sure this was what we wanted to do. Fortunately, we loved it, and Abbey Gardens felt like the perfect location. We planned with Abbey Gardens to build a building for the brewery that enables our sustainable mandate.
What they came up with is amazing. We lease the building from Abbey Gardens, and it’s been our home for the last seven years. Since brewing is very water-intensive, we have a quality source, but we also responsibly manage our wastewater. We divert a bunch of our waste so that it never hits our septic, and our greywater is managed separately. In our equipment selection, we recover the hot water that we generate in our brewing process so that it recovers the heat energy and the water itself. There’s a lot of closed-loop systems.
What inspired the name?
We felt it was important to have the name of the brewery connected to the region. People who live here and people who cottage here feel a strong affinity for the region, so that was essential. It was always our vision to build the brewery in this specific community rather than anywhere else. We want it to be an integrated part of the community.
To ensure that, we incorporate local suppliers and local ingredients and sources as much as we can. The honey used in our beers, we buy from the farmers’ market. On the retail side, our t-shirts are manufactured in Montreal, and we have them printed at Up River in Minden. We have bottle openers made by local artist Mike Townsend from Twisted Twig Designs. If we can find a local source in the county, we will use it.
What are some of your most popular products?
We have a regular line-up, which includes five or six year-round offerings. Our Blue Line Blonde is a straightforward, approachable, easy-drinking blonde ale. It’s called Blue Line because it’s the signature beer for McKecks, a restaurant in Haliburton that former NHL player Walt McKechnie started. We partnered with them from the very beginning, before the brewery was even open. In the spring, we partner with Colour of Wood, a local maple syrup producer in Carnarvon. We use the syrup from them to make a beer that we call Cool Runnings. That beer is made entirely from sap, which we get 100 per cent locally. There’s no water.
We also always have Coffee Porter. It uses locally roasted cold brew from County Coffee. We love our dark beers. There’s always a large selection of dark beers that we cycle through in the wintertime. Otherwise, we do mostly ales. Occasionally, we’ll do a lagered ale. Even though we’re a small brewery, we have a lot of flexibility on the types of beers we make. We have a big system that we use for our year-round beers and our mainstream products, and we use our small system to do all these fun seasonal varieties.
How do you choose which types of beer to brew?
Our son, Keanan, and his fiancée, Sandra, are both certified master brewers. They went to Germany to train. So, while Michael was our original head brewer, Keanan does all of our brewing now, and Sandra manages our front of house. When it comes to deciding what we want to brew, we have the advantage of being in Haliburton and not in the GTA, where there are 20 or 30 craft brewers. We don’t have to differentiate ourselves by doing crazy things, like putting out a pink unicorn sparkle beer. We’re not in that crowded market.
When people come here, they’re looking for classic things, sometimes with a bit of a twist. We want to do classic beers inspired by local ingredients. That’s very aligned with the philosophy of our German-trained brewmasters. They want to do things traditionally.
What kind of events does the brewery host?
While we think of ourselves as a production brewery, we are also a destination brewery enhanced by our partnership with Abbey Gardens. We do live music on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons all of July, August, and September. We have a drive-in screen on the side of the brewery where we show movies. Abbey Gardens runs a program called Little Pit Drive-in. This summer was Wednesdays and Saturdays in August until just after Labour Day.
On Tuesday nights, we host radio bingo. Canoe FM broadcasts radio bingo every Tuesday as a fundraiser for the community. It’s always more fun to play in company, so we broadcast the game and have a regular group that comes to play. Last winter, we did trivia but had to go online because of the pandemic. We also offer guided brewery tours and tasting tours.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We are very fortunate that our bottle shop is considered essential. There was a quote in an early press release from the provincial government that said something like Ontarians have a complicated relationship with alcohol, which is why the LCBO, Beer Store, and bottle shops like ours were allowed to be open throughout the pandemic. We went to curbside and online like everyone else. We had to close our patio, and we couldn’t do any of our in-house stuff.
One other fortunate thing—and this is another reason we chose to operate the brewery in Haliburton—is that the businesses and people here are great about supporting each other. We had a lot of cottage customers who normally would have shut down their cottage and headed back to the city for the winter move up here. They stayed local, locked down, followed the rules, but they spent the pandemic at their cottage rather than in the city. We and a lot of other local businesses benefited from having a larger population over the winter during the worst parts of the lockdown.
What does the future look like for Haliburton Highlands Brewing?
We’re always looking at opportunities to change and grow. Abbey Gardens added a large tent to our patio this summer, which was tremendous. It enabled us to extend our programming and support private events. That’s given us the opportunity to really think about how to improve and expand our offering.
This summer, we changed the license on our patio so that we can offer wine and cider in addition to beer. Now we feature cider from Uxbridge, and our wine comes from a family-owned winery in Niagara. We’re also looking at expanding our food offerings. Right now, we offer locally sourced charcuterie boards with meats, cheeses, and breads. Those are the areas we want to continue to expand so that we can offer a better onsite experience throughout the summer and the winter.
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