By Andrew Hind
Canoeing the waters of the North Passage and motoring along country roads is a study in brewing when Blair Hagman is holding the paddle or at the wheel. The president of Manitoulin Brewing Company is scanning the landscape for inspiration for his latest beer. Iconic features of the island are immortalized in the names and flavours of beers he brews: Bridal Veil Pale Ale, Swingbridge Blonde Ale, Cup and Saucer English Ale, among others.
Most recently, Hagman found a muse in the village of Killarney, a community.
“Killarney has a great connection to the island going back more than a century, and people boat over to Killarney all the time. It’s sort of a mainland neighbour, and there are few landmarks more iconic to our region than the Killarney lighthouse, the first thing many people see when they arrive by boat and the last they see when they leave,” he explains.
The result of this bolt of inspiration, launched to great acclaim last year, is Killarney Cream Ale.
“The beer pours golden in the glass with a creamy white head. It has a clean finish, meaning there is no aftertaste or bitterness, so it is easy on the palate,” Hagman notes.
A Blind River-born teacher by trade, Hagman has a passion for beer, refining his palate with travelling extensively in Europe and savouring the craftsmanship of beers in Belgium and Germany.
He nurtured a dream of making his own brews, but it wasn’t until he moved to Manitoulin to be closer to family that he decided to take the plunge.
“The craft beer market was on the cusp of booming when I accepted a teaching position here, so it was the right time. I also came to realize how unique the island was and how its iconic features could be used to market really effectively market a brand,” he explains.
Hagman began tentatively by brewing out of his garage in 2014 with the assistance of a young brewmaster who had recently graduated from Niagara College. He also consulted other craft brewery owners in Ontario to gather whatever pearls of wisdom they were willing to impart. Manitoulin Brewing Company was incorporated that year.
“I realized we were brewing some really decent product, so the question became, ‘how do we go from small scale production to entering the market?’ I contracted brewing through another facility the first year to get a sense of the demand and our production requirements, then − with partners Joet Dhatt and Nishin Meawasige − bought our own equipment and opened our brewery in Little Current in 2015.
Swingbridge Blonde Ale was the first beer launched, quickly joined by nine others over the next three years.
While the beer takes its name from the mainland, Hagman ensured it tasted of Manitoulin. The honey aroma and flavor that is Killarney Cream Ale’s calling card? It’s the product of honey produced by Mindemoya-area beekeepers. Each batch uses 31kg of honey so the brewer needed to look for additional local sources.
“We knew there was great potential with the beer because of how popular Killarney is for boaters and vacationers, and with Killarney Provincial Park nearby, but we had no idea it would be this successful.”
In fact, Killarney Cream Ale began as a small batch beer, but strong interest and favourable reviews over the summer convinced Hagman it should go into full production with an eye towards having it shelved in the LCBO.
An important stage in that process was the design of an evocative can that would leap out at customer. Manitoulin Brewing Company turned to Kendra Edwards of Kendra Edwards Design, and her work didn’t disappoint. Featuring the iconic Killarney Lighthouse, the design is beautifully retro, brilliantly colourful, and instantly conjures to mind images of peaceful days spent on the water.
While at the inaugural Killarney Music Festival last summer, Hagman came upon an idea to make the delivery of the beer’s first keg a real event, something to bring attention to the beer and the brand.
“I happened upon Mike Ranta, a celebrated wilderness paddler and adventurer, and someone who I always admired. He lives in Killarney and is building the world’s biggest paddle for Killarney Mountain Lodge. While talking to him I came up with the idea of paddling the first keg across to Killarney in a big Voyageur canoe to launch the beer. He said it was practical, and so I decided to move forward.”
Hagman likely didn’t know what he was getting in for, at the time. The beer wasn’t ready until October, so when the eight-man crew slid into their seats in the 30-foot canoe (hand-built in Manitowaning by Rob Melon and Mark Gibeault) on Oct. 13 the weather was already changing. A cold wind blew in off Lake Huron and ominous clouds roiled overhead, causing Hagman and the rest of the crew to pull up the collars of their coats and shiver involuntarily. During the course of the five hour, 35-kilometre paddle they encountered the gamut of late-season North Shore conditions: rain, snow, three-foot high waves of bitterly cold water, and even the occasional appearance of the sun peeking through grey clouds.
“There were some white knuckle moments but we made it, and the journey made for a great advertising video,” Hagman says. “Later that day, after tapping the first keg of Killarney Cream Ale and relaxing in Killarney Mountain Lodge’s Carousel Lounge, the nerves were gone and it just seemed like a good adventure and an experience perfect for storytelling.”
Hagman thinks back on the chilly, exhausting, exhilarating day for a moment, and then says, “It turned out to be the perfect way to launch Killarney Cream Ale.”