I had a chance to talk with Eric Portelance, one of the cofounders of Halo Brewery.
You might be asking: what the hell is Halo Brewery?
Halo is a brand new brewery here in Toronto that will (hopefully) be opening soon. It will be a full brewery of its own and NOT a contract brewery, which takes guts.
I originally discovered these guys through a series of Medium posts by Eric that covered the entire process of opening a brewery. You can find these here.
Here is what Eric had to say:
To start can you tell us a quick back story of the brewery?
My business partner Callum started Halo Brewery a few years ago. He had been homebrewing for about a year prior to that — primarily to satisfy his desire for Belgian and American-inspired beer styles that weren’t readily available in Ontario. It didn’t take long for him to decide that he wanted to leave his background as a Software Engineer behind and open a brewery in Toronto. He’s been working on Halo full time for a year and a half, perfecting recipes and working on the business plan.
I’ve known Callum for about a year and a half, through the homebrewing community and some mutual friends, and officially joined him last December. We both have similar backgrounds, having lived in the U.S. and coming back to Ontario dismayed at how far behind the beer scene was. I think we really hit it off when we discovered how similar our taste in beer is, and how much we like to geek out about the artistic and scientific aspects of it.
Things really ramped up in January when we finalized the business plan and started looking for real estate and money at the same time.
Why did you decide to build a brewery instead of going the contract route?
We explored contract brewing, among many other potential business models. The biggest issue we faced with contract brewing was that many of the breweries which offer it were less-than-friendly to a startup like us. We also didn’t like that we had to give up so much control in the process to other brewers. Things like water chemistry, yeast, adjuncts, and dry hopping regimes, were simply not up for discussion for various reasons. We felt that, for the type of beer we make, contract brewing would mean we’d have to compromise on quality, and that wouldn’t serve us well in the long run. In many cases, we also encountered some contract brewers who didn’t want us to be around while the brew was happening. We didn’t get into this to have someone else brew our beer, so we looked at other options. Perhaps the scene has changed since we looked at it a few years ago — there are a lot more contract breweries in the Province now.
What are your thoughts on contract breweries such as Longslice?
Contract brewing can be an inexpensive way to get beer in the market and build your brand while you look for a location or secure financing, but it can’t be the end game. It has to be a step in a business plan, because you don’t make any money contract brewing. You’ll never make enough to pay for a brewery. Left Field Brewery have done this the best so far. Contract brewing, for Mark and Mandie, was a very smart and strategic step toward opening their own space.
At the other extreme, there are many contract brewed beers on LCBO shelves that exist for reasons that are unclear to me. Many of them are owned by “business people” who pay a consultant brewer to develop a recipe. My hunch is they don’t really understand the industry or care more about the “cool factor” of showing their friends they have a beer for sale.
When do you think you will be able to open?
We’re currently in negotiations on a lease. Assuming we can come to an agreement — which we’ve learned these past 8 months is not a safe assumption — we’ll be open in Spring/Summer 2016. The lead time on delivery of a brewhouse can be up to 7 months right now depending on the manufacturer, and it’s not a great idea for us to buy a brewhouse until we have secured a location given the state of the real estate market in Toronto. We’re lucky that we won’t have any significant zoning issues as so many other breweries in the city have had to face.
Are there other breweries you believe you may be similar to?
Night Shift Brewing in Boston comes to mind in terms of their experimental focus, attention to recipe technical detail, and lots of variety on a small scale. In Toronto, we’re very inspired by what Bellwoods Brewery has done from a business standpoint, but expect our beers to be quite different. Similar to Bellwoods, we’re not planning to have enough capacity to distribute outside our location. We’ll have beer available on draft and bottles to go.
What makes your brewery different/stand out?
We don’t brew to style. That means that we don’t think about most of our beers in comparison to pre-defined classical style guidelines. We build recipes by thinking about flavours first. So we may have an idea about using a particular fruit in a beer and then explore which yeast or hops may accentuate or complement that flavour. It’s an approach that’s perhaps more familiar in cuisine than brewing. We want our beers to be refreshing and drinkable but surprising.
We play around with a lot of non-traditional beer ingredients, 100% Brettanomyces yeast fermentations, mixed culture fermentations, uncommon hop varieties, kettle souring, barrel aging, etc. Because we’re geeks, we’re also going to publish a crazy amount of data about our beers online as a way of giving back to the homebrewing community who have helped us so much.
Which beer will be your first?
Good question! We have 18 finalized recipes that are pretty “locked in” and have seen dozens of revisions. These will be available more regularly at the brewery. In addition, we have another 5 recipes that are at a more experimental stage — meaning we’ve only brewed the recipe a few times. I don’t think we’ll have a “first” but rather a variety of beers to choose from. People should expect to come in and see at least one new experimental brew every time, along with some of our more staple beers that will be seasonally available.
Why did you start writing about your experiences starting the brewery?
It’s a bit selfish, actually. Starting a business is a very lonely process with many ups-and-downs. Writing for me has been an emotional outlet, and I hope that other people enjoy following along or get something useful out of it. Callum and I are also inspired by Alex Blumberg’s “StartUp” podcast, and we envisioned this as a bit of a written version along those lines.