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NOBA 2021: Lake of the Woods Brewing Company is the Company of the Year (51+ employees)

Bustling Kenora brewery drawing enthusiastic crowds with craft beer and nostalgia

Taras Manzie experienced a serendipitous moment while driving home from work in January 2010.

The hustling Kenora entrepreneur was preparing to switch out of his suit-and-tie day job at the local credit union to don a chef's apron for the evening service at the boutique inn and bistro. He and his wife Audrey were running the Southview Inn in nearby Keewatin when a radio news report caught his attention.

The City of Kenora was listing its main fire hall, a century-old heritage building, as surplus property. A request for proposals (RFP) process would be launched to find viable suitors for its redevelopment.

Only a few weeks before he and Audrey had been relaxing, taking stock of their hectic working lives, and tossing out potential new business ideas or avenues of growth.

The craft brewing industry was booming in North America and Audrey recollected that Kenora once had its own local brewer way back when, Lake of the Woods Brewing.

"It was like a lightning bolt struck," said Manzie, turning the possibilities over in his head of what could be accomplished with an architectural gem in the 1910-built brick, concrete and stone structure, complete with bell tower.

"Wouldn't that be a great idea? A brewery in an old historic fire hall in downtown Kenora."

When the fire hall RFP was released, Manzie phoned his lawyer on how to go about registering the Lake of the Woods (LOW) Brewing Company name. As luck would have it, his lawyer had dealt with the brewery's bankruptcy proceedings in the 1950s. A paperweight adorned with the corporate seal sat on his desk.

After being awarded the fire hall in late 2010, the couple spent another year wrapping negotiations with the town before embarking on two years of inside demolition and refurbishment to fix the structural inadequacies and preserve the building’s original tin ceiling, wooden stairway bannisters, and white subway tiles.

The fire engine bays were converted into a restaurant and tap room with the second floor a lounge and games room for private gatherings and social events.

Opening a craft brewery was about more than installing tanks in a nondescript building in an industrial park to the Manzies.

It was about creating local jobs and restoring the bricks and mortar of a landmark showpiece.

Being in the hospitality business, they married the idea of locally brewed beer in a unique venue that would be a summertime draw for tourists and locals alike in a revitalized downtown core.

"Which is exactly what we did, and it just mushroomed," said Manzie. "The beer, itself, has taken on a life of its own as part of the total lake life experience."

The renovated fire hall venue opened on June 29, 2013 to swelling crowds and a full house. Meanwhile, the often-delayed brewing equipment sat in storage as back-of-the-house construction was still continuing.

"We actually opened without our beer," said Manzie, the surging crowd's thirst quenched with eight guest taps and cans from other breweries.

"There was a lineup out the door and it was really kind of an 'oh shit' moment. The place was packed, there was a lineup down the street, it was like, wow, I'm not even sure I know what I'm doing.

"We had to figure it out, and, in all honesty, we're still kinda figuring it out."

Today, the 65-employee Lake of the Woods Brewing has expanded to include two satellite microbrewing sites in downtown Winnipeg and Warroad, Minnesota. This year, LOW Brewing is expected to produce more than 10,000 hectolitres (one hectolitre equal on litre) and two million cans sold.

To meet growing consumer demand, the company has secured a second location in Kenora as a dedicated production facility capable of brewing 16,000 to 18,000 hectolitres (one hectolitre equals 100 litres). It’s scheduled to start production in the latter half of 2022, with the scalability to achieve 40,000 hectolitres. 

LOW Brewing intends to wade into distilled spirits as part of a greater plan to morph into a beverage company with more ready-to-drink cocktail mixes like hard seltzer, non-alcoholic beers and sodas.

Like many operators in the hospitality industry, COVID-19 has taken its toll.

From the pre-pandemic days of employing 150 full and part-timers during the height of summer, LOW Brewing was forced to make its share of painful staff cuts, a move they struggle with today on the rehiring front as the economy gradually reopens.

"The whole business changed overnight," said Manzie, with no bar or restaurant occupancy for extended periods or at only reduced hours due to staffing issues. Take-home beer sales flourished, but the hospitality side of the business completely crashed.

But the pandemic forced them to take a breather, said Manzie.

"We've been growing so fast and so hard for so long, the pandemic has caused us to take a step back and really look at the organization and figure out how we need to manage our growth."

They’re concentrating on familiar markets in nearby Manitoba, examining the market potential of northeastern Ontario, and steering clear of crowded craft brewing markets in Ottawa and Toronto.

While always focussed on production and financing growth, Manzie said supporting the community has always remained one of LOW Brewing’s most important priorities from the start.

Through their Charity Pints Program, a portion of beer sales is donated toward non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations, the brewery hosts fundraisers for women’s shelters in the markets they serve, and they host other supportive charitable efforts and in-kind contributions for community trails, sports teams, and with their annual tree planting day.

To support regional agriculture, LOW Brewing donates their spent grain – a minimum of 25 tonnes during the shoulder seasons – to farmers for livestock feed, something that was particularly appreciated by beef producers in the Rainy River district during this past drought-stricken summer.

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.