Parsons Brewing Company

All images are courtesy of Eve Harvey
The day we met Chris and Samantha Parsons, it was their son Matthew’s first ever day at school. Chris and Samantha were both excited and nervous to see their youngest start school. Matthew who had been mainly excited began to show signs of hesitation as the big yellow school bus approached, Cal VanCott, the middle of three boys who lives next door, offered his support by taking Matthew’s hand, helped him onto the school bus and offered him a seat next to him. Matthew, who looks up to Cal, was thrilled and ready to start school! “Cal’s kindness, epitomizes The County for me,” says Chris. “We are so glad we moved here.”

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Chris and Samantha own Parsons Brewing Company on County Road 49 just north of Picton. “We’re officially in business as a licensed manufacturing brewery,” says Chris. “We have a newly opened small bottle shop which is open to the public Friday to Sunday 11-7, we are delighted to have 10 bar and restaurant accounts, all here in The County, so we are busy brewing.”

So far they have produced 12 batches of beer, sold about 1,000 litres and stockpiled 7,000 litres to sell at their bottle shop. “We had hoped to open in the Spring, ” says Chris. “the delay has been a blessing in disguise. We could not have kept up with demand, finished restoring the buildings, and offered the kind of service we want to be able to offer if we had opened the bottle shop too soon.” Is he concerned about missing the summer season? “No. Not much concerns me,” he says with a laugh. “Besides, the season seems to go up to Christmas these days.”

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They are restoring two historic buildings they bought and moved to their property. The one that will be the bottle shop has previously been a blacksmith shop, a drive shed and even, and at one time, a parsonage, which fits beautifully with their name. “Phil Ainsworth, a local historian, wrote about it in the latest County Magazine,” says Chris. “And we discovered there’s a lot of history we can mine to name our beers! The blacksmith was William Johnson, we have been considering a Willy Johnson IPA.” Chris and Samantha plan to have both buildings achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the aim is to have an organization that is environmentally responsible and to use resources efficiently. “One aspect is to reuse and recycle, we feel we have a strong case with a 180-year old building. Restoration comes with a premium but we feel it aligns strongly with our personal values and those of our business. We aim to recapture spent grain to use as agricultural byproduct, and are working on other innovative ideas that allow us to recycle energy and product in positive ways.” They’re working hard and dreaming big.

Summer is over and their part-time helpers have returned to school or gone traveling, so Chris and Samantha launched the bottle shop with a skeleton staff. “We need help. We’re looking for people who want to be part of something special, we are less concerned with what is on the resume, instead want to focus on attitude and passion, we can teach new skills and train team members but passion and attitude are not negotiable. For the right people this is a special local opportunity,” says Chris, who is zealous about keeping things local, from construction to ingredients to the hand-made tap handles that he commissioned another neighbor, Peter Josic of The Red Barns, to carve for him.

They don’t have plans to sell outside the County. “That’s a whole different business model. We aimed for five local accounts and we have 10 so far. We are grateful for the support we have received from the community. We want to remain small in scale to ensure we can remain close to the overall experience, our goal is to offer a premium product and premium service. We want to connect with the community. And, honestly, I don’t think our delivery vehicle, a 1972 VW Westfalia van, could go much further than The County border,” says Chris with a laugh. “We take a lot of pride in our product,” Samantha says. “We are staying small to avoid compromising the quality of our product, the connection with our customers, accounts, and with the community. ”

Now that the bottle shop has opened the next milestone is to apply for a Tied House license which will allow for on-site food and pints. “We want to be a daytime, family friendly, everybody welcome kind of place. Our kids have plans to run a Parsons lemonade stand with home-made cookies to go with it. We want to be about family and community. That’s why we moved here, following my parents who have been here for years.” Their vision may be intensely local, but it’s ambitious, too. Their property has a small estate vineyard with Pinot and Chardonnay grapes. They plan to offer some of their wine for those who prefer it over beer.

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They plan to offer coffee, but not just any coffee. It will be Samantha’s dad’s ‘Grandpa Miguel’s ‘ coffee beans imported direct from Guatemala. “Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, our coffee is shade grown in the Highlands of Guatemala in Lake Atitlan, this area was devastated during the 1980’s Civil War” she says. “I am thrilled to be able to support local communities of growers and pickers with no middlemen. It is important to us to share business opportunities and to create mutually beneficial partnerships. We’ll have the beans roasted locally, here in The County. There is something special when we know the names and faces of our business partners.” They are even buying some local hops from Edgar Ramirez, who manages their vineyard and is nurturing his own hop yard. “Edgar is amazing. He grows hops on a small scale his product and quality are a premium product, we could not be happier to be able to support him in the same way he has supported us.” “Edgar will be an integral part as we embark on growing our own hop yard right on our property” Samantha believes the time is exactly right to be pursuing their dream. “Consumers today are more aware and interested in the source of their food. As a community, we have a deeper appreciation of products that are crafted in small batches, we prefer to support local and value getting back to basics. As a family and as a business, we love this movement and wherever possible support small-scale, hand-made things, whether it’s food, beer, textiles, wine or art.”

This is another reason we moved to The County. Chris had a career in finance, as a bond trader, before walking away from finance in a prelude to the crash of 2008. It seemed obvious that The County had room for more craft breweries so he bought a 50 litre pilot system and gave it a go. “If I found that I enjoyed it and made good beer, I’d see where it could lead”, he thought. It grew organically from there with the first batch attracting a few thirsty mates; culminating in dozens of friends gathering in his “brew garage”, all of whom “brought something to the table” – their own homebrews, pulled pork in a crockpot, a deep fryer for fries and even oysters. It catapulted from there. “I applied for my brewery manufacturers license to take it to the next level with only my 50 litre pilot system and twenty brews under my belt. From there we converted the “brew garage” from a man cave into a proper commercial brewery”.

Starting a brewery is more affordable than starting a winery, but it still takes substantial investment. “Our labour costs may be zero because we do it all ourselves, but we are putting in 80-hour weeks,” says Chris. “But unlike wineries we are not at the mercy of one crop for our year’s output. We don’t have to grow ingredients from scratch. We can order grain from the major suppliers in the prairies where they have millions of tons ready and waiting.”

Is there a distinct terroir to County beer? “I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s more about the brewer than the location. Give the exact same recipe to five brewers and each of their brews will taste a little different. There are so many variables: how the grain is milled, how you mash it, how your brewery is set up. Maybe County breweries will develop a style as a whole but for now the distinction is more down to the taste and skill of the brewer. There are only two main grain malting houses in Canada and the supply of hops is also dominated by a few big players.”

Having said that, as well as hops, people are growing barley again in The County, and sending it to nearby Barn Owl Malt for malting – there’s some local collaboration that could lead to a distinctive character for County beer. “Certain styles of beer are good for fruit additions, too,” says Chris. “We can experiment with that on a keg by keg basis, using County fruit. Growers can bring us raspberries, lingonberries, whatever’s in season and we’ll try it out. We’d love to cross promote with the growers and farmers, and if we can guarantee to buy fruit from them it’s good for them and good for us.” Packaging can be an Achilles heel for small breweries. “Small volume packaging is capital and labour intensive,” says Chris. It’s a labour of love though and with growth comes the ability to improve inefficiencies through economies of scale. “Large breweries use inexpensive industry standard bottles on their costly bottling lines, but we’ll manage. Being small scale also means each batch will be a bit different. That’s what makes it unique – hand-made with quality real ingredients – the way it should be”.

When their daughter Camilla was born, Samantha was on maternity leave from TELUS, Chris was between careers, and it was a natural break in their lives. They decided to make a change. They looked at properties outside the city in Stony Lake, Blue Mountain, Muskoka, all the usual places. But it was The County that ticked all the boxes: culture, history, community, wine, food, natural beauty. “It’s not just seasonal hanging out by a lake here,” says Chris. “It’s much more than recreation, it’s real living. There is year round community, a diversity of people, my parents live here, our eldest son Patrick was attending Albert College, and there’s even pick up hockey happening just down the road!” And very soon, Chris predicts, there will be more than 10 thriving craft breweries in Prince Edward County.

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