How Mill Street Brewery Remains A Close Family of Punks in a World of Corporate Beer

In his book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, Andy Greenwald shares the words of Joe Carroll from punk band The Insurgent, when describing what punk means to him.

Punk is the combination of not caring at all and caring a whole lot. It’s like, all right, fuck the system, yeah. But let’s try and create something in opposition to that, more than just singing about it.

In a way, it’s a perfect analogy for the craft beer industry.

As the antithesis to bland “corporate beer” (think Miller, Budweiser, Molson, etc.), craft beer is a [perceived] small movement of brewers dedicated to the craftsmanship of beer as it’s meant to be.

In North America, the craft beer industry has seen a resurgence in recent years, as beer drinkers begin to reflect the approach of wine drinkers, and demand beer brewed with a certain level of quality and ingredients.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited to hang out with Mill Street Brewery, an Ontario-based craft beer brewer who was acquired by the larger, corporate Labatt Brewing Company.

The goal of the inaugural #BeerDays weekend was to invite craft beer lovers from across Ontario (and a little further afield) to meet the team behind Mill Street, and foster an open conversation around the future of craft beer.

Let the festivities begin. #beerdays

A photo posted by Danny Brown (@dannybcanada) on

Additionally, they wanted to address the concerns of what was viewed as another corporate nail in the craft beer coffin when Mill Street was acquired, and what it meant for the future of the company.

As someone who’d watched the backlash happen when the news of the acquisition broke, I was curious to see how the deal had changed Mill Street.

As the weekend progressed, one thing became clear – the words of Joe Carroll could have been spoken by the Mill Street Brewery team.

The Mill Street Story

Sometimes, brands become so ubiquitous that you feel they’ve been around forever. So it is with Mill Street.

I’ve only been in Canada since 2006, but even then Mill Street seemed to be a well-known name, which made me think they were one of Canada’s older brewers.

steve-in-beer-hall-e1418850028252-300x275In fact, they’ve only been open since 2002, when co-founder Steve Abrams opened the first location in the famous and storied Distillery District in downtown Toronto.

One of the things that became clear from the weekend was that, even though Mill Street is now part of something far bigger, the original dream of Steve’s remains – to deliver quality beer to those that want something more than just bland and fizzy options.

That’s carried through by the team and culture at Mill Street – beer lovers and business people who want to deliver the best product for their customers, while loving what they do at the same time.

If there’s one thing that was abundantly clear the whole time I was around anyone from Mill Street, it’s that this is a company that people want to work at, and truly do have the best time while there.

It’s perhaps this family mindset that many – myself included – feared would disappear once the Labatt deal was made.

After all, craft beer is the punk outrage to the corporate beer that Labatt represented. Whether that was deserved or not is arguable – but anyone who’s drank Labatt Blue will probably wince in distaste when the name’s mentioned.

So, would the Labatt deal mean the end of not only great beer but a great culture?

That Deal, and Why Nothing Really Changed

On the Saturday of the Mill Street weekend, the various guests had a chance to discuss the acquisition, and much more, as both Steve and Joel Manning, Mill Street’s Brewmaster, hosted an open Q&A.

Mill Street Beer Days roundtable

From the off, it was clear that many questions would be centred around the Labatt deal. Which, in fairness, is understandable – after all, who likes to see their favourite indie band sell out to the major label, right?

For me, this was probably my favourite part of the weekend, as it really showed how little has changed as far as Mill Street themselves are concerned.

While the acquisition means new owners, Steve advised that Labatt’s stay very much hands-off, and let Mill Street do what they’ve always done – it just means more backing to get their beer into more hands.

It also showed Joel’s tremendous passion for the craft he loves. I asked him the following question:

You’re clearly passionate about your role, and your craft. So, say Labatt suddenly changed their minds and became more hands on, and put restrictions on you that changed how the original deal was agreed, would you ever consider stepping away from Mill Street and starting again?

Perhaps I was expecting Joel to say yes. Perhaps I was thinking the answer would be a simple black and white one. It wasn’t – yet it didn’t disappoint.

Instead of a simple “Yes, and this is why” or “No, and this is why”, Joel responded with a 10-minute answer that summed up everything I came to love about Mill Street from the weekend – honest, upfront, and impassioned.

Joel Manning of Mill Street Brewery

Here’s the paraphrased recap of his answer.

No, I don’t think I would. I can see why I could, but I simply want my beer to reach as many people as possible. The Labatt guys love what we’re doing, and are excited by what we have planned. I’m proud of my beer, and the family here at Mill Street.

I love working with smart people that care as much as I do. How we see the Labatt deal is simple – it gives us a far bigger network to get our beer in front of. Why would I want to go back to limiting that?

There was a lot more to Joel’s answer, but that sums up the main points. And they make sense.

There’s another quote from Joe Carroll of punk band The Insurgent, that resonates with Joel’s mindset.

If anything, punk should be expanded as far as it can. I definitely don’t think that punk should stay on some small level. I think it should always be accessible to anyone at all that’s interested, anytime, anywhere.

In many ways, Mill Street reminds me of Carroll’s belief. Yes, there’s a “big evil empire” of corporate beer brands that [currently] has a monopoly on beer distribution in Ontario.

But as long as craft beers become more visible and more sought-after, that monopoly will continue to be challenged.

If the Mill Street acquisition can help validate the craft beer industry, then it makes sense to take advantage of that and educate as many people as possible about the value and quality of craft beer.

The Family That Plays Together…

Of course, much like Mill Street themselves, the weekend wasn’t all “business”.

While it was great to get insights on where Mill Street has come from, where it is today, and where it’s headed in the future, it was also great just being able to hang with the Mill Street team for a weekend.

Not once did it ever feel like myself and the other invited guests were there as part of some carefully calculated and cynically-driven campaign.

Instead, it felt like friends hanging with each other, which is testament to the culture Steve and his team remain committed to keeping despite Mill Street being part of a much bigger brewing family now.

From Catherine, who handles all things marketing on social, to Owen who is the sponsorship and events co-ordinator, to the bartenders and waiters, to the chefs and beyond – everyone seemed to truly love the company they work for.

That fun came through in the activities arranged for the weekend.

First up was a Segway tour around the Distillery District. Yes, Segways – that much-maligned and, ultimately, failure of a two-wheel contraption. Hosted by Segway of Ontario, this was huge fun and made me want to buy a Segway!

Segways

It was a little weird trying to get used to how they worked – lean forward on your toes to go forward, lean back on your heels to reverse – but once you got to grips with them, Segways are awesome!

In the evening following the Segway tour and the Q&A, we went axe throwing at BATL Axe Throwing. Again, this was huge fun, and a nice way to get some friendly contests going between everyone.

Axe throwing

Finally, the night closed at the Rivoli, on Toronto’s famed Queen Street West district, where Mill Street was kicking off their Lights Out 2016 initiative in support of Earth Day.

It’s this kind of fun and caring culture that Mill Street is determined to ensure all employees not only take part in, but believe in.

As I chatted with various members of the team, no-one came across as having a scripted answer when asked why they love working at Mill Street.

In addition to that, everyone was focused on being fully involved in the local community as well as the wider Ontario one.

From events like the weekend I was attending, to the Lights Out initiative, to the #MillStreetMoment in support of the Daily Bread Food Bank, it’s clear to see how much Mill Street believes in giving back and sharing the love.

The Craft of Good Business

Of course, it’s not only Mill Street that believes that you can be successful while remaining true to your goals.

Indeed, a lot of the craft brewers that I’ve met over the last few years instil the same beliefs and mantras at their brewery. Perhaps it’s something about craft brewers in particular, and their dedication to their trade, that makes being nice and being true such a key mantra.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s refreshing.

As someone from the UK who grew up on football (soccer for those who confuse American football with the real kind), it’s been painful to watch as big companies have taken over that sport and forced the common fan out with exorbitant pricing.

Shareholders have taken precedent over customers, and – while it can be understandable to a degree – it’s sad to see.

Mill Street are the antithesis of that. Yes, they have a large parent company who are seen as the opposite of what craft beer stands for.

But, as Joel Manning pointed out, if you have the opportunity to get your beer into the hands of those who’d never be able to drink it otherwise, why wouldn’t you?

Especially when that beer is so damned good. Their Cobblestone Stout has taken the place of Guinness in my heart, and their Big Leap IPA is a work of art. If you get the chance to try it, do yourself a favour – do.

Where Mill Street truly succeeds, at least for me, is by making sure everyone who comes into contact with them – whether through retail or one of their Mill Street pubs – understands nothing has really changed.

The family may be bigger, but it’s still a bunch of craft beer punks at the heart of it. And that’s just the way they like it.

Mill Street Brewery team

image: Tyler Ennis @MyBlockTyler

Note: This post is a look back at the inaugural #BeerDays event with Mill Street Brewery, where I was their guest for the weekend of March 4-6. No financial compensation was received, though travel and accommodation was provided. The above post is my personal opinion.

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