In 2012, the completion of the South River bypass improved Highway 11’s driveability, but rerouted traffic out of the village, which had relied on the business from travellers to stay afloat. Three years later, Highlander Brew Co. is embarking on a multi-million-dollar project that could inject some new life into the town.
Operating in South River since 2012, Highlander has outgrown its existing facility and is undergoing a major expansion that will increase its production capacity and establish a training school for brewery technicians.
“We ran (the brewery) as a kind of pilot project to learn the business, and we soon got to the state where we couldn’t make enough beer,” said president Dwayne Wanner. “We went from 20 LCBO stores to 200, and we were distributing to other areas as well.”
Most of the support for Highlander has come from the local community: residents and their summer guests attend concerts there and continue to buy Highlander’s beer after they return home to the GTA. But the company had to balance the good of the community with a wise business decision.
“We want to have something good for the community, but our primary goal is to sell beer and make money,” Wanner said. “If we can do that in a way that also enhances the life of the community, so much the better.”
Facing a choice to either expand or move to southern Ontario, the provincial and federal governments stepped in with an offer of $2 million toward a new building, which will be owned by the village and include the brewery, an event space and a training school.
Highlander is currently brewing 1,200 cases a month and the expansion will increase its capacity by five times that. But the growth of the company is such that “we already know that will be too small,” Wanner said.
The event space will come equipped with a warming kitchen, and will be available for rent to the public for a nominal fee. Highlander will continue holding regular concerts there, but featured musicians will no longer have to perform while crammed in beside the brewing vats.
“My dream is to have the North Bay Symphony, but we’re working on that one,” Wanner chuckled.
Highlander has been challenged to find skilled workers that can run all areas of the brewery in the town of mostly retired residents, and it’s an issue shared by craft breweries across the province, said Wanner.
To address the challenge, Highlander has signed a memorandum of understanding with Canadore College to set up a technical school for brewing technicians that would host six students at a time. The six-month certificate course would effectively function as an apprenticeship program, with students earning credit by working right in the brewery. Graduates will be able to make the beer, manage the plant, and sell the product. It will be the only program of its kind in Canada.
“That is the real need that we see in the industry right now,” said Wanner, estimating graduates could start at a full-time salary of $40,000 a year.
Construction of the new facility should start this fall.