Geordan Saunders

Brewmaster and Owner, Napanee Brewing Company

Where did you work before? I spent a decade in marketing in the telecom industry. Do you have formal training? None. I home-brewed for about four years before opening the brewery. I was pretty well set on opening a brewery from early on. So I focused really heavily on learning the craft and competing. I competed in all the major home-brew competitions in Canada, and I took home medals, a lot of golds and best in show, etc. How did you get into craft beer? When I lived in a Toronto, I had to give up a lot of my hobbies. I love to work with my hands and make things, which isn’t easy in a 500 square-foot condo. One day, I read an article that mentioned home-brewing. That Christmas, my wife got me a starter kit, and I was off to the races. The science and precision of it really appealed to me. I really fell in love with the art and science of brewing. What was your first batch? It was an American pale ale kit from Toronto Brewing Supplies. I remember opening my very first bottle and thinking, this is the best beer I ever had. Then I opened the second bottle and thought, wait, that’s not so good. I’ve been chasing the dragon ever since. What’s your hallmark style of beer? Most folks know me for my black lager. It’s what I competed with for many years before the brewery. When we opened, it was our flagship beer, then it was our first at the LCBO and at groceries. Today’s it’s called BLACKLIST, it’s a black German lager. It started off being called Shit Show because the first time I made it, everything that could’ve gone wrong at every step of the process, did. It should’ve been a write-off but, instead, it won Best of Show at Toronto Beer Week in 2013. Then I thought, how the hell am I ever going to make this beer again? Today we’re brewing our 150th batch of it, and we’re still making tiny changes. Just so we don’t get stuck in a rut. What is it you love about this craft, this business? I love the business because it’s a really remarkable microcosm of people who are so driven by passion to create an amazing product. It’s this weird mix of casual and super strict. You’re wearing your protective equipment, and you’re measuring stuff very carefully, but there’s a beer on the counter. We’re a weird mix of a factory and a start-up office culture. What is your ambition? Really just to grow the brand on the path we’re on. I’m really passionate about the company we built, the beer we make, and the people on our team. My goal is to continue to make Napanee a great place to work, and to support the team, and make sure we’re known in the industry. We’ve often been called a “sleeper brewery” or “a well-kept secret.” One of my goals is to not be a secret any more. Craft vs. big beer? The implication seems to be that if you work in craft, you have to hate the big guys. But I think we as an industry at this point are so very different from what they do. And as our market share grows, it’s no longer because we’re seen as rebellious or counter-culture. It’s more about being a different offering. Craft beer is now just as far removed from macro lager as spirits or wine are. About distribution at LCBO The process is long and requires a lot of attention to detail, but I wouldn't necessarily say it's difficult. It is getting increasingly competitive though, as shelf space dwindles with massive numbers of beers submitted for consideration. One thing I believe helped us is that our LCBO products are a bit unusual. BLACKLIST is a black lager, and MAYDAY is a Belgian pale ale – so they weren't being compared to thousands of other similar SKUs. Any trends you’re excited about? Craft as a business is maturing, which is great – truly great producers are emerging and brewing unique and high quality products. With the end of the “Craft Gold Rush,” the focus will shift from growth for growth's sake to sustainable, interesting, and market-driven businesses. I'm also really excited about the growing push to diversify the craft community. For too long we've been this conclave of bearded white dudes, and that's equal parts dated and frustrating. Things are changing slowly, but they're definitely changing. Wouldn't it be awesome if the Canadian craft brewers scene was as diverse as Canada itself? Whose work do you admire? One of the people in the industry I admire a lot is Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s, because Steve has worked so tirelessly to make craft in Canada better. When I was starting this brewery, I wanted to get an idea for what owning a brewery was really like. There’s a lot of folks who want to sit down and have a beer and say “yeah, it’s great, you should do it,” but there’s not a lot of folks who want to have a really honest conversation. Steve Beauchesne was the only person who took time more than once to talk mano-a-mano about what it meant, how to succeed, and how to learn from failures. And after a number of days across a couple of months, I asked how I could ever repay him for all his help. And his exact words were “Don’t be shitty when someone comes to you for help. Help them.” And that’s always stuck with me. I’ll always admire Steve for that. Outside of beer, things you love? The most important thing in my life is that I’m a dad. Being a parent is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me, and any spare second that’s not at the brewery is spent being a parent. I wouldn’t change that for anything. I also love to build things. I’m a very hands-on guy.  I renovated my house from top to bottom before we opened the brewery. And there are days I’d give anything to be at home putting baseboard in the guest room rather than standing on the platform. But time will come for that. Anything else? I’d like people to know that Napanee is a great place to visit, and an incredible place to raise a family.

Paul Gilbert