It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm. They’re a new brewery in Norfolk County. Part of the issue here is that there really aren’t all that many farm breweries kicking around and there’s not really a concrete definition of what that might entail, at least in Ontario. Is it “we grow some of our own ingredients” or “we produce farmhouse style beers” or “this brewery is actually, physically located on a farm” or some or none of the above.
The concept is a little sketchy. To give you an idea, there was a law passed in New York State in 2012 that suggests that it has less to do with whether the brewery grows its own ingredients and more to do with whether they come from that agricultural area. The percentage of material grown in New York State that must be included in a “farm brewery” beer will increase from 20% (currently) to 90% by 2024. The actual beer that is produced seems of comparatively little consequence in terms of designation. In Ontario, there’s no such guideline.
There is, I think, a mental association that people have developed with a few farm producers in the states that created a certain amount of excitement before the products coming out of Ramblin’ Road were announced. I know that I initially thought, “Oh, so what? Like Hill Farmstead? That’ll be great.”
Ramblin’ Road has sidestepped rusticity in their beers, preferring to start with some easily accessible beer styles. There’s a Pale Lager, a Cream Ale and a Pilsner. Of these, I’ve only tried the Pilsner. It’s not quite saazy enough to be a Czech jobbie and it doesn’t quite have the cracker grain character of a northern German Pilsner. By process of elimination, it’s sort of an American Pilsner and therefore a touch less exciting than I was hoping for, although still pleasingly floral in a mild way.
It is certainly well made. I can’t fault the brewers there. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at having it again in the future. I sat there staring at the glass for a while trying to figure out why you would start out with that range of beers if you were in Ontario of all places where there are now similarly named breweries launching with a shot across the bow like Canny Man.
Then I remembered two things:
1) Ramblin’ Road is in La Salette and not Toronto.
2) I’ve seen this work just across the lake in Chautauqua County, NY
I don’t know that if they had started with more interesting beers, people would have gone out of their way to visit Ramblin’ Road. In terms of drawing power, it’s probably better to brew solid popular mainstays and get people to visit from nearby than to bet the brewery farm that people will drive in for barrel aged thingummies. That works in Toronto, but we’ve got semi functioning public transit and something like five million people. La Salette has a post office and a general store and I would bet you that they are both closed on Sunday.
It’s actually a pretty clever idea. Unlike, say, Toronto, where you’ve got a number of craft brewery lagers competing for space on tap with every new thing that comes out, Southwestern Ontario is more or less Lager country and comparatively unchanging. This is kind of clever. If you draw a 150 km radius from the brewery (about two hours of country driving), you’re equidistant to Toronto and the Huron coast. You have the ability to sell all over the place (although making inroads within Labatt heavy London might be a bit of a bear.)
Combine this with the fact that the owner of the brewery, John Picard, has been distributing his fresh roasted, salty nuts all over the province for 30 years, and you probably take a lot of the guesswork out of sales and distribution. I would imagine that also highlights for the brewery the importance of food safety and sanitation, so you don’t get rookie mistakes. Also, consider the overhead on a brewery outside of Delhi. Peanuts.
Now, that’s a wide catchment area; a huge radius. You probably don’t have to go that far afield to sell a lot of well made accessible beer. Southern Tier in Lakewood, NY, makes a beer called Chautauqua Brew that does more or less the same thing: Provides a locally made accessible alternative to macro beers. If I remember the conversation with the brewers correctly, the only thing that outsells it locally is Busch Light.
They are actually growing a wide variety of hops at Ramblin’ Road. According to their representative in a thread on Bartowel, the farm that it’s located on has been growing them for five years. This suggests to me that by the time August rolls around you might start seeing some more esoteric products. Apparently, Norfolk County produces Ginger, Hazelnuts and Lavender. If it were me, I’d take advantage of that in addition to the hops. Plus, by that point, they’ll have had a brisk summer of sales.
The sales will come partly because the beer is solid and accessible, but mostly because they’ve invested wisely in social media and online presence. The logo and design are solid and that, combined with concept that this is a rural Ontario kind of farm thing makes for just a dynamite brand. Plus, whoever is manning their twitter account is doing a bang up job.
I don’t know that their beer will ever catch on with the craft beer wonks in Toronto, but the branding is strong enough that it might actually get on tap in more mainstream environments where tastes aren’t as rarified. I think that they will probably do exceptionally well in smaller Ontario markets because there’s not a brewery that’s more conceptually representative of rural route, concession road Ontario.
Chances are, if you’re reading my blog, it’s probably not going to knock your socks off. That said, if you want a textbook brewery opening strategy, these guys are good. Hopefully, someday they’ll get around to using the hops they’ve been growing.