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Pandemic restrictions a challenge for Ontario and Quebec microbreweries

A glass of beer in front of a wall of different beer cans.
Creative Commons

Business has been a challenge lately for craft breweries in Ontario and Quebec. COVID-19 restrictions in both provinces have put a temporary stop on indoor dining and barrooms, which has greatly reduced sales opportunities for brewers.

“On Wednesday (Jan. 12), I sold 50 bucks (in beer) all day,” said Richard Ménard, who owns Etienne Brûlé Brewery in Embrun Ontario, a village southeast of Ottawa.

Ménard’s situation is complicated by the fact the building where the brewery is located is for sale. It is owned by the local municipality, the Township of Russell, but they want to sell it. The asking price is $925,000 but Ménard cannot afford it, and he has doubts about if he can afford to relocate if the building sells and the brewery cannot remain on the premises.

“If I have to go someplace else and renovate everything, it’s going to cost me another $100,000,” said Menard.

Depending on the time of year, up to 35 part-time and full-time employees work at Etienne Brûlé Brewery.

Toque de Broue Brewery is also located in Embrun. It opened seven years ago and has also faced adjustments in its business due to the pandemic.

“It just seems like it’s going to be a slower January,” said owner Nicolas Malboeuf.

Restaurants and bars are not buying kegs of beer right now because they cannot serve customers. Malboeuf is hoping the situation will improve in the next few weeks, but he recognizes many people are spending less right now.

The present COVID-19 wave has affected business at Cassel Brewery, which also has a bar and restaurant at its site in Casselman Ontario, just off Highway 417 east of Ottawa.

“We easily lost 25% of our production volume due to the restrictions placed on the bar and restaurant which was part of an important sales channel for our business,” said owner Mario Bourgeois.

Will Tomkinson is one of three owners of Cardinal Brewing in Hudson, Quebec, west of Montreal. Cardinal opened in October 2020 during the pandemic and the present wave has meant an end to sales of beer to bars and restaurants. They are relying only on sales of cans.

“It’s disappointing for everybody, but we want to do the right thing,” said Tomkinson.

Cardinal Brewing was open for sales of canned beer to customers until New Year’s Eve and reopened for can sales on January 14. Until January 16, the brewery also had to close Sundays due to a temporary measure implemented in Quebec.

According to Tomkinson, it is a challenge when breweries do not have their bar and restaurant orders because they must compete with every other brewery with cans on store shelves.

“We’re all fighting for the same space,” said Tomkinson.

Cardinal Brewing has two full-time and five part-time employees. The business had to reduce hours due to a downturn in business.

“We definitely had to put some people on furlough,” he said.

Nearby in Rigaud, Microbrasserie Le Castor has also lost orders from bars and restaurants due to the current closures, but unlike most other microbreweries, Le Castor’s own facilities are not open to the public and the products are only available at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other specialty stores.

“We have been fortunate that the pandemic has not affected us like it has other brewers who sell a lot of their beer on-site,” said co-owner Daniel Addey-Jibb.

Some good news for craft brewers in Ontario was announced on Jan. 20 by Premier Doug Ford. Effective Jan. 31, indoor dining at restaurants will again be permitted at 50% capacity.