GORE BAY—If you are looking for a craft beer brewed here on Manitoulin Island you might want to pop by the Gore Bay waterfront this Friday (July 24) around 5 pm to 7 pm for the official opening (and ribbon cutting) of Manitoulin’s first craft brewery.

Andrea Smith sells the first case of Split Rail brew to Richard of Buoys Restaurant.
Andrea Smith sells the first case of Split Rail brew to Richard of Buoys Restaurant.

Split Rail Brewing Company began as a kernel of an idea buried within a LAMBAC study produced in the year 2000, according to co-founder Eleanor Charlton.

Lifelong friends, Andrea 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, 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.”

Split Rail hangs its official sign at its Gore Bay brewery.
Split Rail hangs its official sign at its Gore Bay brewery.

“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.”

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.

“Glenn is a marvel,” said Ms. Charlton. “When it comes to beer, his eyes just light up.”

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. That odyssey would be familiar to many readers of The Expositor, as the company’s journey to find a home was documented in a number of stories contained in this paper and our sister publication The Manitoulin West Recorder.

“(Township of) Billings was really incredible and supportive,” said Ms. Charlton. “But in the end we were very fortunate to have Manitoulin Transport let us use part of this building in Gore Bay.”

The beer is brewed and bottled locally in 500 millimetre bottles. “We had a lot of people telling us we should just contract with an off-Island brewery to produce the product for us, if only to start up,” said Ms. Smith. “But it was really important to us to be actually making the beer here on the Island.”

Even if they had gone the outsourcing route, there were still a great many regulatory hurdles to go through to even market and sell an off-Island produced beer. The brewers felt that just added to the weight on the scale on whether to stick with an on-Island brewed brew.

“Our research indicated that a locally brewed and produced beer was what people here really wanted,” said Ms. Smith. “We could have produced the product much faster (and in bigger batches) if we had gone that route. But it wasn’t who we are or who we wanted to be.”

That dedication to authenticity means that the company has been going non-stop since obtaining their licence. “We have a very small brewing capacity, 50 litres, so we have to keep brewing non-stop,” laughed Ms. Charlton. “Thank goodness we have the support of friends, family and the community behind us.”

The first beer recipe, and the company’s signature brew at this point, is a copper lager, but they have also created a locally-inspired Hawberry Ale.

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Ms. Smith describes the lager as “tasty, flavourful but accessible. It is not a bitter, hoppy beer, but it is robust enough to please the craft brew crowd.”

There is one other beer recipe in the hopper, as it were, but until they are able to make room on the brewing schedule or expand the facility capacity, Manitoulin beer aficionados will have to remain patient. If the reviews on the current beers are anything to go by, it will be well worth the wait.

In the meantime, Ms. Charlton and Ms. Smith are looking forward to the opportunity afforded by the official opening to thank many of the people who have supported them to date.

“The community has been incredibly supportive,” said Ms. Smith. “We are so very grateful to so many people. Not being independently wealthy, it has been a real struggle to get this off the ground, so there are all of the people who assisted us with our Kickstarter campaign as well.”

The official ribbon cutting is anticipated to take place at around 5:50 pm on Friday, July 24 at the Split Rail Brewing Company brewery located in Gore Bay (across from the Harbour Centre and Marina) at 31 Water Street Gore Bay.