The building which housed one of Waterloo Region’s first craft breweries will brew beer again. The former Grand River Brewing building in Cambridge will run under a new marquee: Farm League Brewing.
The crew is helmed is by four friends: Collin McKinnon, Mike Mayo, Matt Boismier and Tyler Campbell. They all come from different corners of the Ontario craft beer world, from Collective Arts in Hamilton, to Fixed Gear Brewing in Guelph, to Lake of the Woods Brewing in Kenora.
Since February, the foursome has been renovating the 108-year-old building and preparing the property for its next life in the Cambridge craft beer community.
This has been a dream of McKinnon and his friends for more than a decade. In his younger days, he made a crude version of a brew called “Mooseport” which he sold to friends at parties. He always knew he wanted to open his own brewery, and the pandemic swung that door of opportunity wide open.
“It was something that we talked about since high school, but we never had the opportunity to do it or we couldn’t connect the dots or had enough of a vision to do it,” McKinnon said. “COVID kind of pushed us to do it.”
Their vision was to build a new brewery from the ground-up on McKinnon’s family farm, but because of zoning issues, that plan was going to take much longer to materialize. Despite those plans falling through for a farm-based brewery, they liked the name “Farm League” as an ode to the hard-working up-and-comers in the industry.
After scouting several sites around the region and searching for months, McKinnon and his partners were feeling beaten down by the local real estate market. As fate would have it, an agent connected them with the sellers for the historic building on the south end of Cambridge.
The property wasn’t listed for sale publicly, but within five days of seeing the property, McKinnon and his crew made an offer. As luck would have it, a few weeks prior, the brewing equipment from Abe Erb Brewing in Kitchener became available, which Farm League snatched up in a heartbeat.
“It was kind of like threading a needle from a hundred feet away,” McKinnon said. “We somehow found the equipment and the building very quickly, but also a building that I never thought we’d have the opportunity to get into.”
Grand River Brewing operated from 2007 until 2018, when they were purchased by Magnotta Brewery. Less than two years later, the doors were closed at Grand River and production moved to Magnotta’s facility in Vaughn.
The building has been sitting idle ever since, but Farm League Brewing is hoping to breathe new life into the property which once housed the Galt Knife Company and opened in 1913. There’s still one giant remnant from the building’s former life; a three-tonne drill press which the brewery plans to use as a can crusher.
Farm League is aiming to be open for retail sales by the beginning of June. They’ll launch with six different recipes, including a lager, an IPA, an American farmhouse ale, and a sour. They’ll focus on simplistic approachable beers, as well as experimental brews for the adventurous types.
“Innovation is key when it comes to developing new recipes, but we’re going to focus on a highly sessionable division of our beer too,” McKinnon said. “Our vision is to push the envelope as much as possible, but also simplify some of the recipes to not be a brewery that pushes away the casual beer drinker.”
There’s an unspoken pressure to carry on the legacy as the home of one of the first craft breweries in the region. McKinnon and his team understand there’s an expectation from the community to live up to the name of the former brewery.
“It feels like we’re the child of somebody famous, and somebody’s looking at the kid to live up to expectations,” McKinnon said. “I feel like I’m Wayne Gretzky’s son or something. ‘Well, your dad was really good, your dad did a really good job, I assume you’ll do just as good.’
“Grand River made amazing beers. There’s a leg up that we get. It’s also a torch that we have to make sure not to drop, but we love a good challenge.”
To start, they’re aiming to max out their brewing capacity to get their product into the hands of as many people as possible. With some of the equipment they inherited from Abe Erb, Farm League has a 200-barrel brewing system, which can make 230 hectolitres or 23,000 litres of beer.
McKinnon and his partners recognize the bar has been raised for craft beer, not only in Waterloo Region, but across the province. It’s no longer good enough to “skate by” with a subpar product.
“There’s nobody who’s making bad beer anymore,” McKinnon said. “It doesn’t separate you anymore to make good beer, we find. The standard to own a brewery now is you have to make great beer; you don’t have to be a mediocre brewery anymore.“We think the pie is big enough for everybody and the pie just expands the more these breweries open. I don’t think anybody’s taking slices from anybody. It’s so exciting to be a part of a subset of the Tri-City brewing market.”