The New York International Brewing Competition (NYIBC) awarded 4 medals to Niagara’s own beloved Exchange Brewery. See the TNL review here. The annual NYIBC judges more than 400 beers and cider submissions, and is one of the most respected international beer competitions in the world. In case you haven’t been to The Exchange yet, you better get your little tush down there, because there would be no doubt in your mind why the NYIBC bestowed such high praise.
TNL had a chance to spend a little time with Head Brewer, Sam Maxbauer and Founder & CEO, Robin Ridesic. The dynamic duo behind the beer, the brand, and the vibrant energy of this teeny-tiny, downtown NOTL gem, that’s energizing an iconic Niagara neighborhood from blue hairs and pre-theatre dinners to pints at the bar, late-night euchre tournaments, and take-in pizza.
Robin always had a passion for dynamic craft brews. She’s been a home brewer since way back and attended business school in the US, at a time when the Canadian craft brew market left one wanting. She fell in love with the niche styles of beer she encountered across the border, especially the high IPA’s and sour beers. It set in motion a pipe dream that has but recently come to full fruition.
When it came time to choose a location for her craft brewery, she thought the perfect fit would be Niagara-on-the-Lake. She was living in T.O. at the time but owned a cottage that she rented out. So she already knew the area well and loved it for the slower pace, small-town charm, and it’s culinary and wine offerings, oh, and the easy access to local fruit, fruit yeast, and locally grown hops. Robin hired on Sam to be the “driving force of all things brewing”. They sat down and brainstormed everything they would like to create in that first year and came up with a list of over 30 unique brews. Then Sam refined the list in terms of production capabilities and core brews. Sam designs and plans the brews that come to the tap and develops experimental small cask recipes. Always innovative, Sam adds unique ingredients, like chocolate, or Thai basil. Currently, he is working on a Kombucha Culture Series, to launch this summer, which is a fermented tea, blending it with the beers.
Sam’s creations use wild yeast and bacteria culture found in the wine barrels he sources from wineries that use low-intervention, natural processing, and no additives, which impart beautiful character into the finished product. The beers are typically aged for about six months, giving it a light tan, not overly sour, but there are limited releases that can be aged from 3-4 years. The Belgian Golden Ale, easy drinking, accessible beer, aged exclusively in Chardonnay barrels, will convert anyone.
The Exchange Brewery loves to collaborate. They worked with WVRST in T.O. to design and source The Tequila Sunrise Witbier, named C4, is a Belgian-style Wheat beer, with orange, coriander, pomegranate juice, and aged in Tequila barrels. They also partner with some cool food venues in NOTL; The Garrison House helps out with the bar menu, and Pieza’s Pizzeria delivers right to your pint on Wednesday nights.
Robin always loved the way that Belgian Abbey Breweries named their beers after numbers. Like in Rochefort, the #6, #8, #10 beers are numbered to match their alcohol content. “The numbered beer simplifies the branding”, Robin. When she first found that the historic NOTL Telephone Exchange was up for sale, she thought it was fate. So the round tasting boards with the numbers and symbols on them, that you find on the glamorous, Carrara marble countertops at the French-bistro esque bar, are a nod to the building’s original use and to the good ole’ monks making numbered brews.
The building itself was designed by T.O. design firm, Williamson Williamson, which involved a complete restoration and redesign, to make room for a full-scale brewery production facility, tasting room, and loft in just a mere 18-foot wide space. The work included digging a new basement. For anyone familiar with major construction work in NOTL with its city-wide designations for historical and archaeological significance, digging is a huge gamble. Not only are the assessments required prior to the work, but if any historical artifacts are found, it is at the owner’s expense to cover the cost of any archaeological digs. “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this building”, says Robin, “a lot of moments where I thought, I’m not sure if we’ll open in two years.” And then the machines hit an underground aquifer. An aquifer is basically an underground river. It flooded the whole yard. Luckily, the aquifer situation was resolved and no artifacts were found. Luckier for us, by fate and a lot of hard work and determination, The Exchange Brewery opened its doors one year ago, in January 2016.
With over 20 licensees, around Niagara and the GTA, Session Saison, found at Loblaws, and the Belgian Golden Ale, found in the LCBO, The Exchange Brewery is making brews, making waves and making Robin’s wildest dreams come brew. I mean true.
Sam Maxbauer, Head Brewer[/caption]