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From brewery to hand sanitizer facility, New Ontario doing what they can for community

"Our beers might not be available for a little while, but we are producing hand sanitizer that will go out to not only in North Bay but throughout northern Ontario.”

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

When our normal life was put on hold two months ago it meant everyone was going to have to adapt to doing things differently. For Mike Harrison and New Ontario Brewing Co. it meant not only adapting to new protocols, but completely shifting focus in an effort to better serve the communities current needs.

“When the COVID-19 outbreak happened, we had a full work force that we didn’t really have work for anymore,” says Brew Master Harrison.

“I just thought, well I’m a trained distiller and our people are all qualified to handle ethanol daily. So, we went to the city with our proposal.”

That proposal was to change over their facility from producing craft beer to producing hand sanitizer in an effort to help not only those on the front lines but help everyone to take that extra step in being more socially conscious about the need to consistently decontaminate their hands and the surfaces they touch.

Getting to this point was a journey that started over eight years ago after Harrison retired from military life.

“After my last tour I was thinking of what I should do next and I had been homebrewing for a while. So, I took a couple of courses and my wife supported me one hundred percent, and she was my biggest cheerleader from day one so when we made that decision, we jumped in headfirst and we brought in the proper equipment and training and staff and we were able to open with a relatively modern facility. It wasn’t an easy transition going from military life to making beer, but it's one that I find exceptionally rewarding.”

His military career did have some influence in being able to produce a quality craft beer.

“I got to travel and go to some pretty cool places. They sent me to Alaska for a couple of weeks for a conference and when you’re in Alaska, craft beer is sort of king, which you might not figure. It must have something to do with shipping routes or something. But being in Alaska and trying about a dozen craft breweries they have there, it impacted some of the decisions we were going to make later. As well as travelling through Europe and trying different styles, it definitely weighed in on my ability to recognize different tastes and make them.”

With that background knowledge, the ok from his significant other, and the proper people in place, it was time for Harrison and his crew to test the waters and see if some of North Bay’s local eateries and pubs would be receptive to their product.

“We started planning in 2012-2013 and at that point craft beer wasn’t really popular in North Bay. You would have maybe one or two different craft breweries at each pub. When we finally opened in 2015 and we started knocking on doors, most of them were supportive of a local product and business, but some of the other ones had never had a craft product before.”

Harrison says they had to convince those in charge that New Ontario products would be a good fit for their clientele.

“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the bars and restaurants adapting to what we were doing. To see that culture change has been awesome,” he says.

“We’re still on tap at those places, but now craft beer has sort of taken over their markets with about half their taps or so. For a place to have zero before we knocked on their door to now have six or seven different craft beers, it's been awesome to see the transformation in this city.”

He adds it's not just New Ontario that has been able to set up shop within North Bay’s restaurants. “At most of the local restaurants in town, they will carry ours but they will also carry other northern Ontario breweries as well, so when people come and visit the city, they will get, not only a flavor of this city, but a flavor of the north.”

Harrison says that was a goal of theirs to be able to get their products in the restaurants as well as throughout the province, and that goal of theirs has been realized as you can find New Ontario Brewing Co. products on store shelves throughout Ontario.

“When we first started it was our Bear Runner Blonde Ale that was very popular, and it's still popular,” he says.

“We have it selling in bars and restaurants in town and we have it selling in LCBOs from Windsor to Thunder Bay and pretty much everywhere in between. It’s probably the product from North Bay that’s most widely distributed.”

And it comes with a catchy name. When you own your own business, you can be as creative as you want with the product and Harrison says they have enjoyed coming up with different identities for their beer.

“Most of our beer names have been topical or kind of tongue in cheek. Our Bear Runner Blonde Ale I named after this one time I was out for a jog when I was at Canadore College and a baby bear stumbled across my path and I ran away pretty quickly,” he says with a laugh.

“The Tree Topper pays tribute to the forestry workers who work throughout the north. Friskey Petes was named after a chipmunk....I’ll save that story for another time. And then Clothing Hoptional is based off those summer days where you’re sitting on the deck by the lake and well, you can make the decision for yourself.”

If New Ontario wasn’t available in restaurants around town, who knows how well the business might have done and Harrison is forever grateful that the restaurant owners in the Gateway City were so receptive to what they were doing and he says that’s what makes this such a challenging time for everyone.

He says, “It's really unfortunate that they are shut down right now or take out only. Most of them are local and independent and they are really supportive of local products. I really do feel for them because they are the meeting place and the social centers of our cities.” Harrison added, “Although it is important and we do need that social distancing, these people really are the centre of our social lives. I think it’s really sad and I wish them all the best as we go through this.”

And New Ontario Brewing Co. Is doing what it can to help us get through this, but that would not have been possible if they hadn’t been so successful.

The company was outgrowing their original location on Cassells Street and Harrison says they were able to find a new spot to call home; the former Northern Honda location on Seymour St. Harrison had announced they had purchased the building and were looking forward to the move but that’s when the coronavirus put things on hold.

“We were moving when the pandemic hit,” he says. “We were hoping to have our grand opening there by featuring our beers and all of the rest of that stuff, but we’re opening now with a different mandate. So, our beers might not be available for a little while, but we are producing hand sanitizer that will go out to not only in North Bay but throughout northern Ontario.”

Harrison says the timing of everything just made it make sense to move in this direction.

“We had already moved our brewhouse out when the shutdown happened and so we had to make our next move and we decided that instead of just standing on all of our brewery operations we would focus a little more on the community aspect of it,” he says.

“We worked diligently with the city, and the fire department and with ethanol planning consultants; it's been a bit of a process to ensure that we build not only an efficient and modern production facility, but one that’s been built with safety at the forefront.”

And in every step of the process they have tried to keep things as local as possible. “We’ve had equipment built locally in partnership with iCamp and GNP. We’ve had explosion-proof infrastructure and everything else you need in order to do this safely, put in,” he says.

“Me and the other distillers are of course sad that we can’t make beer right now, but we’re happy we can make a product that the community needs.”

And working with the community is something they have made a priority ever since they first started the company. One of their initiatives was designing a charity focused beer, in partnership with KiSS 100.5 called Tilted Tower and 50 cents from every sale would go towards Cystic Fibrosis North Bay

“Working with KiSS FM was awesome,” says Harrison.

“We’ve done that beer for a few years where we raise money for Cystic Fibrosis and it's just been a great partnership and initiative with them. For us, the biggest thing is that community outreach, if we can be a good business, a profitable business, and also a business that is socially conscious about the impacts we can have on the community, then that for us is the win-win-win scenario.”

When we have people like Mike Harrison and the amazing crew at New Ontario Brewing Co. looking out for our best interests as a community, how can we possibly lose?

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at matthew.sookram@rci.rogers.com