Split Rail Brewing Company celebrates sixth anniversary!

Happy birthday! Split Rail Brewing Company in Gore Bay celebrated its sixth birthday in grand style this past Sunday. In photo, left to right, is Andrea Smith, Barb Erskine, Susan Snelling, Theresa Phiri and Eleanor Charlton. photo by Tom Sasvari

GORE BAY – In its six year history, Split Rail Brewing Company has certainly made a name for itself for producing a high quality product, one that a lot of beer drinking afficionados and reviewers have taken a shine to. And, as the company held a birthday celebration this past Sunday, there has been more to celebrate recently, one being a listing by Toronto Life as one of “Ten Ontario Breweries Worth The Road Trip.” 

“One of our customers sent us the article,” said Barbara Erskine, acting general manager of Split Rail, last week. “It is awesome,” she said, noting “it is quite a compliment to the business.”

“Split Rail launched in 2015 as Manitoulin’s first brewery after a Kickstarter campaign and wild enthusiasm, sell-out crowds at events, and expansions year after year to meet demand,” said Andrea Smith who, along with Andrea Charlton, are the co-owners of the business, “and the only women-founded and owned brewery in Ontario and possible Canada, as far as we know.”

“We are thrilled with where we are at, and are excited with the new development that has taken place recently in town with the opening of Finnia Chocolate in the same building we are and the opening of the New Grain Artisan Bakery and Kitchen,” said Ms. Smith. “And our team is grateful for all the help and support we received getting started and since we opened.”

With Split Rail, everything is made on Manitoulin. Every litre of Split Rail beer, whether purchased at a The Beer Store in Toronto or Little Current, is made and packaged on the Island, by people who live and are raising families on Manitoulin,” Ms. Smith explained.

“We are super excited about being one of the featured breweries in the Toronto Life article,” said Ms. Smith.  She pointed out Split Rail has also been featured in The Brewers National, a national publication, a Toronto Star article and others. 

In an article published on July 13, Kate Dingwall of Toronto Life writes, “Split Rail offers one of the more picturesque patios in the province, situated on the banks of Manitoulin Island. (Boaters can even indulge in dockside pickup.) When  it comes to the beer, there’s something for everyone, from crisp, mildly hoppy pilsners to richer, roasty stouts. Food wise, well, you’ve got beer, beer and more beer, though they often partner with local bread makers to supply pretzels and mustard for those who get peckish.”

Split Rail includes local ingredients in their beverages, like hand-picked hawberries in their signature Hawberry Ale and Hawberry Black Cherry Soda, oats from LoonSong farm in their stout, and grapes and sumac in its Grape Sumac Soda.

Split Rail Brewing Company began as a kernel of an idea buried within a Lacloche-Manitoulin Business Assistance Corporation (LAMBAC) study produced in the year 2000, according to Ms. Charlton. 

Lifelong friends, Ms. Smith and Ms. Charlton first met at Camp Pine Crest in Torrance, Ontario. “Andy was born and raised on Manitoulin Island and we knew each other since we were kids,” said Ms. Charlton. “We both went different places in our lives, but always kept in touch. In 2009 I bought the house next door to her and we worked together in the social work field for years. We found that we were a great fit professionally.” 

The duo looked for a project that would be different than what they had been doing in the social work industry, so they began casting about for something that they could work together on that would fit their personalities.

“We did a lot of research,” said Ms. Smith. “We took a look at the LAMBAC study that was done back in the year 2000. There were a lot of great business ideas in there.”

Andrew Toman of New Grain Artisan Bakery and Kitchen holds up a delicious pizza he made for the sixth birthday celebration of Split Rail Brewing Company. photo by Tom Sasvari

“It was around the year 2010 that we really started to talk about setting up a craft brewery,” said Ms. Charlton. “We knew it would be a great fit for us.”

The craft brewery business hit a lot of the key elements they were looking for. “We enjoy working together and there is a lot of autonomy and creativity involved and, of course, we both like beer,” said Ms. Charlton. 

Coming up with the concept was the easy part, however. Ahead lay a long road of research, discovery and experimentation, which involved a lot of the aforementioned creativity.

“We both went  to Chicago to learn the craft beer industry,” said Ms. Charlton. “We lucked out there when we met up with Ian Stanners, he set us up with an introduction to Glenn Fobes.” Mr. Fobes, who hails from Oakville, has been in the brewing industry for decades and has brewed beer for many of the large labels across the globe.

Mr. Fobes helped guide the neophyte brewmasters through the shoals and reefs of the industry and played a large role in getting the brewery to where it is today.

Those shoals and reefs included finding a home for the brewing facility. “We must have looked at every available building on Manitoulin,” said Ms. Charlton. “In the end we were very fortunate to have Manitoulin Transport let us use part of this building in Gore Bay.”

Ms. Erskine explained, “last year was our fifth birthday as an operating brewery but COVID-19 kind of squashed any celebration. This year we thought we would celebrate our 5 + 1 birthday.”

At Sunday’s well attended birthday celebration, Ms. Erskine welcomed everyone to the event. She noted that Split Rail first opened in 2015, and Ms. Smith and Ms. Charlton became the first women in Ontario (and probably Canada) to open and own a brewery.

Split Rail was opened with tremendous support from the community and support through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. “So this is really a people’s brewery,” said Ms. Erskine. “And it is a brewery that has grown quite significantly over the years.”

“It is our pleasure to be hosting this event today,” continued Ms. Erskine, who shared that an extra special ‘Spruce Tip’ smooth ale beer was produced for the event.

Delicious pizza and pretzels were provided for the event by New Grain Artisan Bakery and Kitchen.

Master of ceremonies for the day was Theresa Phiri of Life Online Radio Station.