555 BREWING CO.

Written by Janet Davies

In June 2015, when Nat and Drew Wollenberg opened the County Canteen on Main Street, Picton, they hit the ground running. They haven’t slowed down since. The response to their little brewpub took them by surprise. They planned to start slow: a couple of beers, a few snacks. Instead they became a hotspot serving 400 covers a day. Customers urged them to increase their menu, and every small batch of beer Drew made sold out in 24 hours.

“We had fermenters tucked in everywhere we could fit them, between tables, out the back, in the kitchen,” says Drew. “In this space, the maximum we could make was 240 litres and it sold out in a day.” They needed more space.

Out walking one day, Drew found a perfect spot to expand his brewery just down the road at 124 Main Street. “It was a vacant property with a courtyard just crying out for a beer garden,” he says. “I peered inside and saw an empty shell that would be perfect for a brewery.”

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The  555 Brewing Company will open March 2017. “The Canteen is still our brew pub,” he says. “This will be our manufacturing brewery. But we thought ahead this time and built in a pizza oven, so this can be a destination, too.” He’s not looking to get into the LCBO. “I just want to make my beer and serve it to people at 555 and at the Canteen,” he says. “If they come here to buy beer and stay for a while, enjoy a beer outdoors, that is good for us, because retail and serving beer is the biggest thing. We won’t be canning or bottling – maybe some special one-off bottle lines – primarily we’ll do growlers. It’ll be a truly local experience, and about as fresh as it can be.” (growler: container or vessel used to transport beer, an air-tight jug typically made of glass, ceramic or stainless steel, enables you to take draft beer from one place to another without a degradation of quality.)

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Natalie adds, “It will be good for other businesses around us, too. We want people to walk along Main Street to get here. We want them to stop along the way and visit places like the UnGallery across the road. Our neighbours at the Canteen say when people drive by and see diners on the patio, they slow down to see what’s going on. They park and get out and browse and spend money. So our patios are good for us and good for surrounding businesses.”

Drew carries on, “We hope the brewery will give a boost to retail down this end of Main Street. Now Falconer House has its pop-up shops going, maybe we can get more people coming this way and the action will stretch down here.” He laughs. “What we really want is for people to start their day with a coffee at Miss Lily’s, have a snack at Gus’s, get a quick tattoo at Artistic Inklings, pick up some art and end up here at 555 Brewing Company for supper!”

Drew talks about the pros and cons of Picton’s Main Street being a Heritage Conservation District. “It was painful for us at first,” he admits. “Everything has to go through the heritage committee. We did three versions of our hanging sign. The sidewalk patio took some negotiating, too, but that’s fair. Everybody has to go through the process, and it makes sense. It can be frustrating but if you don’t have protections in place you end up with a big mess or a nasty strip mall. Especially in Picton, where the buildings are so beautiful, you really hope owners will look after them. When you invest here, you’re kind of investing in the heritage, too.”

THE NEW BEER GARDEN
They laid out 555’s beer garden to accommodate large groups. “There’s all the wine tours and now brewery tours in summer,” he says. “But it can be adapted for the seasons. We can scale it down in winter, but for those two or three months when it’s a total onslaught, it will get busy out there. At the Canteen everybody runs for the front decks! Everybody wants to be outside.”

Natalie, who was born in Australia and met and married Drew there, gives a “no kidding” gesture and says, “That’s because it’s super cold in the winter here! Canadians want to be outdoors, to sit outdoors, eat outdoors, watch people go by. Actually at the Canteen people sit outside right up to December since we put heaters out there.”

Nat’s life has changed enormously, and not just because she moved to Canada. The instant success of the County Canteen ended her plans to carry on nursing. “After our first open house, I worked a full nursing night shift,” she recalls. “Next day I knew I had to give it up.” After 16 years, that was a big change.

“We learned a lot our first year. It happened fast. The building near Books and Company came up so we jumped at it, did all the building work and opened and kind of got punched in the face by Summer! So many tourists! But we listened when regulars told us what they would like to see – and also what they thought was not working. Nobody likes negative feedback but it can be very helpful. It’s not smart to think you know it all.”

Nat and Drew moved to The County primarily for the lifestyle and for their family, including Drews’ grandparents and parents who live here and help tremendously with their two children. “It’s awesome here,” says Drew. “We’ve got this big backyard with the biggest maple tree I’ve ever seen! We work here and we live here so it’s important we do things right. You know everybody and they know you. At a comedy show the other night, we saw guys our son plays hockey with, his friends’ parents, a bunch of regular customers. It’s a real community.”

They say the smartest thing they did was surround themselves with people who know more than they do – about The County and about the hospitality business. “Our staff is fantastic. We were pretty wet behind the ears,” says Drew. “I make beer, she’s a nurse, and here we opened a restaurant. Okay a brewpub, but, still, it was a steep learning curve. Now Nat’s a server, I’m a mechanic, I’m a dishwasher, sometimes Nat’s a line cook, you do what you have to do. And everybody pulls together, it’s that community thing again.”

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THE BREWING BROTHER & SISTERHOOD
Asked about the craft beer community in The County, Drew says brewers are tight knit everywhere. “Everybody gets to know each other. They’re bound together by a love of craft beer. It launches friendships and they work together. Brett from Barley Days and Eric who is setting up a brewery, Chris Parsons, they will call and say ‘we’ve got this new brew on, come take a look at it,’ or ‘do you want to do a brew?’ It’s all connections and amazing support.” Drew says if he runs into trouble with a brew, he can give someone a call and they’ll be there in five minutes. “That’s not unique to The County,” he says. “If somebody runs out of hops you just lend them some. It’s natural.”

Nat and Drew lived in Perth, Australia, not far from the wine-growing region Margaret River.  “When I came back for a visit and saw things developing in The County I thought My God, this is what happened 10 years ago in Margaret River.” The area’s economy became driven by wineries and agro-tourism and then micro breweries starting popping up everywhere. “Now there’s a really strong craft brewing scene,” he says. “It’s still small scale, using local ingredients, selling locally and the beer brings people to the area.” They saw Margaret River develop but hang onto its character. Maybe because it’s small and a little remote. “And has that strong community thing like here,” he says. “Tourism is not the be all and end all.”

BREWIN’ IN THE GCA
Drew reels off names of new breweries in Prince Edward County. “There’s Parsons, 555, Lake on the Mountain, Barley Days, Strange Brewing, County Roads, the new Midtown in Wellington, there’s Prince Eddy in the industrial park. Everybody is friends. We try to get together once a month. It’s good to have connections, but it’s also good to just hang out with each other.”

They call their region the GCA – the Greater County Area. “Napanee Brewing Company and the MacKinnon Brothers just north of Bath, they consider us part of their region and vice versa,” he says. Their get togethers are lively but productive, too. “We’ve figured out how to save money on kegs by ordering together. It’s like a brotherhood – actually a brother and sisterhood because some of the really good brewers are women. People think it’s a macho thing, but a lot of the talent is female. I think they have better palates to be honest.”

 

Drew thinks it’s great that each brewer is different. “County Roads in Hillier with their beer garden and retail are getting their product into the LCBO, but their capacity is about ten times ours. It’s more my style to stay small and personally serve my beer to people. I like to see their faces and talk to them about it. Also I don’t want to get into the packaging stuff. We all brew beer and we all offer something different. I’ll have my pizza oven here. Lake on the Mountain has a great taproom. Parsons has that beautiful historic building. I won’t be in the LCBO, but a lot of others are and that will promote all the County beers. I’ll have a guest tap here. One week it can be Parsons, the next week the Mountain’s beer. Give them exposure right at the tap, pour a glass and talk to people about their beer.”

We pay excise to the LCBO but we don’t pay for packaging or handling. We just go from bright tank to tap, the shortest way and the highest margin without canning, packaging, bottling. Mind you the capital outlay is enormous. Stainless steel is expensive. We designed and built our system from the ground up: valves, fittings, conditioning tanks, kegs, taps, CO2 systems. Now Chris Parsons is growing so fast. He’s been buying kegs continuously for about six months and the more he sells the more kegs he has to buy. I’ve got about $700 of his stainless steel in my basement. So when people see brewers selling a lot of product they say Why are you still plumbing your own glycol? But hey you’ve got to save money where you can.”

INGREDIENTS
Drew says brewers would love to buy everything they need locally, but it‘s tough because consistency and repeatability is so important. The supply industry is growing in The County and the interest in local ingredients is huge. “But it’s hard for one area to provide all we need in the quantities we need,” he says. “The MacKinnons just produced their first 100% estate beer with barley grown onsite. Barn Owl Malting makes a great product, they really specialize. They do a lot of Munich malts, a lot of sun-based malts.”

Before After

Drew’s first County Canteen brew used all local hops, grown and picked by a friend of his in his own backyard. “He thinks they were planted 100 years ago in the Barley Days,” says Drew admiringly. “He dropped them in to me on his way to work and half an hour later they were in the kettle. That’s vine to kettle in 30 minutes! Of course it was a big risk, a totally unknown quantity. But it turned out great, a really nice beer. It’s okay for little me to do that, but if you’re doing an eight hectalitre batch you don’t take chances. If it was a really high alpha hop it would just bitter the crap out of your beer and you’d have to dump the lot. I’m excited that local supply is coming on. Guys like Edgar Ramirez, everybody is using his hops and it’s moving forward. It’s  like the wine. You try to have everything VQA but to keep up production you have to go elsewhere as well at the start.

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Natalie agrees. “It will progress. We’ll grow a lot more locally because people are interested in that aspect. Although there’s not a lot available yet, when it is used it is really celebrated. If you do an all-County hop ale or an all Barn Owl malt ale, you make sure you tell people about it! And they truly notice the quality and freshness – the terroir. Every hop is different. Cascade hops grows all over the world, but every single place it comes from it’s different. You celebrate that. It’s become a big component of beer. You say ‘Where did that Cascade come from, because I’m getting this note or that note.’ It’s like a County Merlot versus a Nappa Merlot, and that’s great.”

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WATER USAGE
“At our capacity we have the same water usage and effluence level as a regular restaurant,” says Drew. “But we are ready to grow and we’re ahead of it because it’s important for us to be environmentally sound. In brewing, a ratio of 6 to 1 for water usage is considered good. My goal is 2 to 1. Our energy recapture is phenomenal – solar panels on the roof, jackets on the kettles. If I can get away with not turning something on I do. I treat everything before it goes down the drain and have a holding tank for anything that needs to be treated. Actually with brewing everything you do put down the sewers is good for the treatment plants, because it’s very oxygenated and has bacteria that are good for the systems. But I correct everything that needs it. We are on municipal water – it’s chlorinated, so you can’t brew with it. I put a reverse osmosis system in. We spend a lot on our water treatment, but the beauty is we can build our water. We build the water we want for our lagers and ales. If I want a German Munich kind of profile I can actually build my water. Our system is from EcoWater locally. They did a fantastic job. I can even use waste water for cleaning, so it balances out nicely.

WHY PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
Drew has been visiting his grandparents in The County all his life. His parents retired here and when Nat and Drew came back for a visit in 2012 they thought seriously of moving to Canada. “My family was far away in Australia,” says Nat. “Drew was there for 16 years and he was always a little homesick. I guess now it’s my turn,” she laughs. “Honestly, we wanted to be near family, have some land, live in a small community. Drew wants to be near water. The County ticked all our boxes.” She marvels at having four generations of family in one place. “It’s great for the kids to have grandparents and great grandparents. It’s great for us to have the freedom of a small town. No worries about kids playing outside, we know so many people up and down the street.”

Drew was a brewer in Australia and his own brewpub was his dream.“What we are doing now is bigger than we ever thought,” says Nat. “The Canteen capacity is about 100 including the patio and even in winter we have 16 staff. In summer it goes up to 32 – all local. We try to manage staffing so we can support people through the winter.”

They’ve settled into their popularity and stay open year round, hosting winter events including karaoke and trivia nights and lots of live music. “People should have somewhere to go every night if they want to,” says Drew. “I stay open to 11:30 every night. I don’t mind if there’s just one person in, I’ll sit and have a beer with them. We’re here for the locals and for people rolling into town a bit late.”

555 OPENING SCHEDULE
“We’re so close!” he says. “We’ve done some pilot batches and we’re doing an inaugural Big Brew in January. We will roll it out slowly this time. Do food a couple of days a week but beer and retail all week.” Nat is firmly in favour of kicking off 555 in the winter. “Instead of opening straight into summer we’ll have some quiet time to get everything straight – the staffing, all the processes, where’s the best place for dirty dish racks! Where to put the POS stuff.”

They call it a slow season but Nat and Drew and their staff are keeping busy. “We had a terrific open house, very off-the-cuff, to use up lots of leftover pizza and stuff from two private events,” says Nat. “We figured we could do a fundraiser and call it The When Are You Opening Open House. People were curious about 555 Brewing Co. and wanted to see it. We called it and within  24 hours we had breweries and local wineries donating wine and beer. Three Dog gave us their last 15 pizza bases. We raised $2,000 in three hours for Reaching for Rainbows! All because of the generosity of the community. We did it on a Tuesday and there was standing room only! Beer reps were coming in and asking Do you need more beer?”

“Brett from Barley Days actually tended bar for us,” says Drew laughing. “Chris Parsons brought more growlers late in the evening. We cleaned out everything we had, cleared out the fridge, got rid of everything. Every drop of beer got drank and it all went to charity. It was great.”

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“Actually it was terrifying,” says Nat. “To see how many people showed up on a Tuesday in winter! Once again we thought Why are we doing this? And then we thought Oh yes. Because we’re gluttons for punishment!” And because they love it. And because the community clearly loves them.

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